NZSM students give insightful performances of New Zealand music and pieces by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and Barber

Lunchtime concert at Old St Paul’s

Piano students and a violinist from the New Zealand School of Music
Amanda Bunting, Matthew Oliver, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (also, violin) and Sophie Tarrant-Matthews

Music by Beethoven, Barber, Psathas, Haydn, Brahms, Lilburn

Old St Paul’s

Tuesday 12 September 12:15 pm

We’ve been neglecting Old St Paul’s lunchtime concerts this year, and so I was glad to find a good audience for this varied exhibition of NZSM piano talent.

It began with Amanda Bunting who played two pieces: the first movement of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata (Op 31 No 2) and Samuel Barber’s Excursions, first movement. Though the Tempest is obviously still a work in progress, with quite a lot of slips, there remained an underlying understanding of its vigorous, shall we say, masculine character, both in its expostulatory and its equally masculine quality of sensitivity.

Then her playing of the first movement, Un poco allegro, of Samuel Barber’s Excursions, one of his best known piano pieces. It’s in four movements and might well be called a suite or even a sonata. Here was a better prepared and executed performance, dealing carefully with the sharp dynamic shifts and capturing the mid-century mood and moderate modernism of composers who had not succumbed to the pressures of serialism.  Its character reminds me, curiously, of one of John Psathas’s early pieces, Waiting for the Aeroplane which of course is quite irrelevant to one’s impressions of this performance.

The next pianist was Matthew Oliver who did, in fact play a couple of pieces by Psathas; the first and third movements from his Songs for Simon for piano and tape. There were problems with the tape, with both the apparent source and quality of the sound, and its intended relationship with the piano. I could detect little connection between what the piano was doing and what seemed to be unrelated sounds from the tape. The tape was hardly audible in the first section, His Second Time; but it was clearly intended to be more dominant in Demonic Thesis. Right at its beginning, the tape problem was again obvious and simply became a distraction; Oliver might better have settled for the piano part alone which was attractive, energetic and repetitive, in a jazz-influenced sense; and he played with energy, intelligence and insight.

While its accompaniment occasionally gave hints of what Psathas had intended, a process of mentally isolating of the piano part yielded music that was inventive and enjoyable. As one does these days, I listened to a YouTube recording by Donald Nicolson in order to get a proper impression of the piece that I regret that I hadn’t heard before: particularly the way the taped percussion sounds were integrated as intended with the piano. It deserves to be better known, and I look forward to a more technically successful performance.

Two sisters, Claudia and Sophie Tarrant-Matthews completed the recital. Claudia played first, the Presto, first movement of Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob XVI/34. Her handling of the sonata was most accomplished, its tempo swift and fluent, the dynamic variety and subtleties understood and vividly expressed; the quiet wit that lies within most of Haydn’s music was conspicuous.

Then she played the first two of Brahms’s four Ballades Op 10. I have always found these strangely enigmatic in terms of their rhythmic and melodic intentions, and it’s never a good idea to attempt to give such characteristics certainty; she didn’t, and it was a satisfying performance. The second Ballade is more sunny and limpid in tone, and the performance again suggested that Claudia wasn’t seeking to solve its problems, to produce a definitive performance; as with so much Brahms, this is the way his music makes its impact and holds the attention. Technically, her playing was highly competent.

Lilburn’s third sonata for violin and piano
I have followed the careers of the two sisters with interest over the years: both have achieved distinction in both piano and violin. Sophie Tarrant-Matthews then introduced Lilburn’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor, composed in 1950. I was sitting a few rows back and could not hear much of what she said, which might have included some of the following background.

This Lilburn violin sonata in B minor was actually his third, and so should be listed either as No 3, or defined by its key. Though the two sonatas, in E flat and C, of 1943 are relatively youthful works (well, he was 27 or 28), they are not insignificant; in fact, they are both around ten minutes longer than the B minor one. The ‘date’ test doesn’t consign to ‘insignificance’, other much played pieces such as the Drysdale, Aotearoa and Festival overtures, Landfall in Unknown Seas and the Canzonetta for violin and viola, all written before 1943.

There have been many recordings of the B minor sonata, perhaps most recently, together with the two 1943 sonatas, by Justine Cormack and Michael Houstoun. (see the list of earlier recordings in Peter Mechen’s review of 14 September 2011, of the recording by Elizabeth Holowell and Dean Sky-Lucas). The 1943 sonatas were first performed, respectively, by, Vivien Dixon (violin) and Anthea Harley Slack (piano), and Maurice Clare (violin) and Noel Newson (piano). The B minor sonata was written in 1950 for Frederick Page (pianist and head of the music department of Victoria University College) and violinist Ruth Pearl, after Lilburn had become a lecturer at the university; they premiered it at the university and then played it again three months later in Wigmore Hall in London.

As Sophie spoke, Claudia dispensed with her piano hands and reached for her violin, and her sister sat at the piano, which of course contributes much more than mere accompaniment to the work. To hear playing of such a finely integrated work by two sisters with years of experience playing together, was very interesting. The affinity between two who obviously enjoy a close musical rapport has developed over many years, to the point where they almost think and feel as one: with an intimately shared view of the character and shape of the music, and grasp of its melodic characteristics.

It’s in one movement, consisting of several contrasting phases, which are not distinct enough to be considered ‘movements’. For the record, the sections are marked: Molto moderato; Allegro; Tempo primo, largamente; Allegro; Allargando and Tempo I, tranquillamente; which returns the music to the home key of B minor.  The parts are conspicuous enough on the page, but the shifts in both tempo and tonality are so organically natural, and handled with such finesse that they clearly form parts of a carefully composed whole. Not only were the slow parts invested with a mature contemplative quality, but the Allegro sections were executed with strength and real conviction. The typical Lilburn spirit lies in the way the energetic B flat Allegro section subsides towards the end to return to the calm of the opening Molto moderato.


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