Waikanae Music Society
Wilma and Friends (Wilma Smith, violin; Caroline Herbert, viola; Alexandra Partridge, cello; Andrew Leathwick, piano)
Beethoven: Piano Quartet in Eb, Op.16
Andrew Leathwick: Piano Quartet no.1
Dvořák: Piano Quartet no.2 in Eb, Op.87
Waikanae Memorial Hall
Sunday 24 September 2017, 2.30pm
This was the first concert in an eleven-centre tour by Wilma and Friends – two of the friends are New Zealanders: Alexandra Partridge from the Kapiti Coast and Andrew Leathwick who studied at the University of Waikato, both of whom have since studied at the Australian Academy of Music in Melbourne. It is always a great pleasure to welcome home violinist Wilma Smith, and to hear her winsome tones again. Caroline Herbert studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music in England. She is now Principal Viola with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
The two younger members of the ensemble chose to use electronic iPads rather than paper sheet music for their scores. This had consequences: Alexandra Partridge had difficulty several times with her music stand partially collapsing under the weight of the device – not the first time I have seen problems in concerts through the use of these devices.
It took a few minutes into the first work for the players to ‘jell’ as an ensemble (this was the first concert on their tour), but once it happened their cohesion was permanent.
The early Beethoven piano quartet was an ebullient work, featuring lovely interplay between the instruments in the first movement, after its grave beginning. The allegro ma non troppo was followed be an andante cantabile slow movement. It was mellifluous and smooth, with a touch of melancholy. The players were in complete accord with each other; I was particularly aware of Andrew Leathwick’s pianism – sensitive, robust when required, with am excellent but undemonstrative technique. A gorgeous viola solo was a feature of this movement, as was the quiet, dreamy conclusion.
The Rondo finale (allegro ma non troppo) had plenty of fast finger work for the pianist. The whole was an uncomplicated three-movement work, mainly in jubilant mood, revealing the excellent balance between the players.
First Wilma and then Andrew gave brief introductions to the latter’s composition, which came about from a more-or-less chance meeting between the two. Leathwick was modest about his composition, commissioned by Wilma Smith. This performance was its première.
The first movement was marked lento – larghetto. A sotto voce, rather spooky beginning on strings led to a more spirited, even agitated louder section. Each of the strings got its own attractive solo. Then mutes were used, to end the movement softly.
The second movement, marked ‘freely’, started with a beautiful folk-like violin solo, followed by cello, again with a folksy melody, but different in character. The other instruments joined in, with embellished repetition of the themes. Then the piano played a skittish dance, accompanied by pizzicato and bowed strings. A muted section followed, with decorations on the piano of the themes that the strings played.
The con moto third movement had a busy opening with piano leading against repeated motifs from the strings. It demonstrated what a very fine pianist Leathwick is. A muted violin solo followed a splendid utterance from the cello. The piano then played bravura passages in the style of a late Romantic-era piano concerto (the programme note referred to ‘links with Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev). Then there was a romantic theme from the strings, before a grand ending.
Everyone I spoke to in the interval had enjoyed Leathwick’s composition. How often has one heard that after a first performance of a contemporary composition? I could not help thinking ‘This was not minimalist, it was maximalist!’ Its composer deserves congratulations for his fluent, interesting and musically attractive work.
Dvořák’s chamber music is almost universally delightfully cheerful and pleasing. This quartet was first performed in 1890, in Frankfurt. The programme note said that the composer ‘…weaves together wit, power, sweetness, and passion with inimitable sincerity’. The quartet opened boldly, the allegro con fuoco becoming mellow as it proceeded. It turned to strife, and agitated, angular passages; however the previous theme returned and was accompanied by staccato gasps. Next to return was the calm and mellow theme. Modulating through a bunch of keys, the music moves to a passage of gentle flourishes, only to end with a bold statement of the main theme.
The lento movement introduced one of the composer’s splendid cello themes, sonorously played by Alexandra Partridge against pizzicato strings and gentle piano. Then things got more heated, with rapid passages on the piano and dynamic displays on the strings. Calmness resumed once more with the cello leading melodically. Agitation again, led by the piano, prefaced a meditative close.
The third movement (allegro moderato, grazioso) was a dance, led by Bohemian folk-dancers – joyous and thoughtful by turns. A second dance followed, in dotted rhythm, and became more spirited than the first one. There were some brilliant passages for piano, leading to a slower dance.
The finale (allegro ma non troppo) commenced in exciting, rapid manner. Jolly melodies alternated with insouciant passages, ingratiating with their blend of humour and wistfulness. A helter-skelter of motifs was interrupted by graceful short solos for each instrument. The movement was bouncy and jovial to the end.
This was great playing. All members of the ensemble played with the required degrees of finesse and boldness. From the piano I never once detected the sustaining pedal; this was accomplished pianism. We were all grateful to Wilma Smith for bringing such an outstanding group of young players, and wish them well for their future careers – and of course to her for bringing her own special qualities.