Wilma Smith and Friends play fine programme for Wellington Chamber Music

Wilma Smith (violin), Caroline Henbest (viola), Alexandra Partridge (cello), Andrew Leathwick (piano)

Piano quartets: William Walton’s in D minor; Andrew Leathwick’s No 1 and Brahms’s No 3 in C minor, Op 60

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 15 October, 3 pm

We reviewed Wilma Smith and Friends at their Waikanae concert on 24 September. There they had played Beethoven’s not-much-played Op 16 piano quartet, Dvořák’s greatly loved Op 87 as well as the piano quartet by the group’s pianist, Leathwick.  I suppose I can wait till next August when I see that Wellington Chamber Music’s just announced 2018 Sunday series will hear the Dvořák played by the Leppänen, Thomson, Joyce, Irons quartet.

Wilma’s three colleagues, two of whom are New Zealanders, all have an association with the Australian National Academy of Music, in Canberra, while Wilma herself teaches at the two principal Melbourne universities.

This Wellington programme avoided playing anything too well-known: Brahms’s 3rd piano quartet is the least familiar of the three. Played here with such finesse and musicality that its relative neglect became hard to understand.

Walton’s 16-year-old creation
However, the concert began with a, to me, totally unknown quartet, by a 16-year-old William Walton. Though it might not display the brilliance and musical delights that Mendelssohn or Mozart were producing at that age, this was a very impressive achievement, even allowing for its getting revised much later in the composer’s life (when he was 72).

It was written in the last year of WWI and so might have reflected the Englishness of Bax or Ireland or Vaughan Williams, even Elgar. All I could say is that the music had a generalised English, as distinct from a Continental feel, and Herbert Howells’s own piano quartet has been offered as a possible influence. Would Walton have heard Bartók in 1918? something at the start of the last movement suggested it. It was too soon for the iconoclastic Walton of the Bloomsbury years to be audible anywhere, but there could have been touches of Ravel, for there was much in it of a surprising sophistication.

It began with a clear conception of certain melodic ideas that seemed authentic rather than arbitrary, and an understanding of the art of building music in a formal shape. It was indeed formal in having four movements –  a bright, positive opening, a scherzo that seemed singularly assured, then a calm Adagio in a nocturnal mood, with muted strings, and finally an energetic Allegro that might have attempted to emulate the radical composers of the Continent, even certain rhythmic elements from Eastern Europe (do I mean Bartók?though what was known of him in England in the First World War?).

Writing for the quartet as a whole was quite mature, and it was clear that the young composer had a refined appreciation of the characteristics of each instrument – a solo viola passage caught the ear. Music from the first movement returned in a natural-sounding was to bring it to an end.

Andrew Leathwick’s quartet
A quartet by the group’s pianist Andrew Leathwick, followed. He introduced it, but in rather too casual a way, without sufficient care for enunciation and for the rhythms of his speech to be easily followed. The music largely explained itself – an opening that was almost secretive, improvisatory, slowly awakening with long phrases carried high on the violin strings. The second movement, entitled ‘Freely’, began with muted violin and cautious piano notes and signs that the composer became aware of the need to retain the listener’s attention with an almost Dvořákian melody. The composer seemed sensitive to the particular character of each instrument, subtly varying colours and dynamics; the viola carried a vaguely familiar elegiac tune which I couldn’t attribute. The composer recorded that ‘the great Romantic composers’ had inspired the last movement – Con moto. Those influences were clear enough. The whole piece, written in an idiom (idioms?) of earlier music made me aware of the styles of music that music students now feel free to write, far removed from the strenuously avant-garde, ‘original-at-all-costs’, audience-alienating music that I used to subject myself to in my early years reviewing for The Evening Post in the late 80s and 90s.

The style adopted in this piece is now accepted in a more open and tolerant musical environment in music schools, though one naturally hopes that it will not discourage a freedom to explore more adventurous approaches that make judicious use of influences from the music of the recent past.

Rosemary Collier’s review of this piece will be found in the review of 24 September.

Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 3
The last piece was Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 3, Op 60.  As I noted above it’s not as well-known as the Op 25 quartet, or perhaps even as the second one. But here was a performance that did it credit. It launches itself in a distinctly C minor manner, commanding, weighty and serious minded, rather than seductive, first in the Adagio opening and then the Allegro non troppo main part. But it’s exactly what a paid-up Brahms-lover looks for; not what the censorious Schoenberg who orchestrated the Op 25 piece because he thought it too dense for chamber music, would have enjoyed at all.

For it is indeed almost symphonic in its textures although the quartet produced all the clarity that I needed. Though the second movement is more animated, it dwells in a similar  sound world, darkly impassioned, with energetic piano writing that Leathwick handled, though the piano lid was on the long stick, in excellent accord with the strings.

The third movement, Andante, opens with a soulful, though sanguine duet between piano and cello which offered Alexandra Partridge (and again the pianist) an admirable opportunity to be enjoyed. And the finale too confirmed that impression left from all that had gone before of a carefully studied approach in which the essence of Brahms had become thoroughly embedded. Rapport between strings and piano was always perfectly integrated in terms of balance and interpretive view.

It ended a very satisfying chamber music recital, offering a sound reason to take comfort in a cultural relationship with Australia.



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