Vivante Ensemble’s Vaughan Williams and Mendelssohn set St.Andrew’s buzzing

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series presents:


Violins: Yuka Eguchi, Malavika Gopal, Martin Jaenecke, Anna van der Zee
Violas: Victoria Jaenecke, Christiaan van der Zee
‘Cellos: Robert Ibell, Ken Ichinose

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Phantasy Quintet (1912)


St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 29th November 2017

The St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series here in Wellington has over the years produced some memorable musical experiences, but surely none more exhilarating that what we heard given by the talented Vivante Ensemble on this occasion. To be variously entranced, mesmerized, captivated, energized and thoroughly intoxicated as a listener at a concert performance is to experience a “spirit of delight” which, as the poet laments, “rarely comest” to the extent that we in the audience were here able to enjoy at first hand.

What came across to us so directly was the players’ own enjoyment of the music-making, a quality which reached almost orgiastic levels of delight as the concert neared its conclusion with the finale of Felix Mendelssohn’s remarkable Octet for Strings. Earlier the players had explored and brought to fruition a different kind of rapture with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet, a work epitomizing the fruits of the English musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. In all it was a splendidly “charged” affair, with two pieces of music literally set alight in their different ways by the musicians’ whole-hearted and transported playing.

In a sense the programme encapsulated in reverse order a process by which English music “came of age” over a period of imitation of Germanic models and influences to that point where composers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams seemed to find what they were looking for in the heritage of English folksong. Though Mendelssohn never actually lived in England his influence was enormous among members of the British “establishment”, akin to that of Handel’s a century earlier, and certainly inspiring a home-grown compositional school searching for something uniquely “British”.

With works like the “Octet”, the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, the symphonies and the momentous oratorio “Elijah”, Mendelssohn surely set his contemporaries and subsequent imitators in England a near-impossible task, one which only Edward Elgar’s genius was able to counter on a European playing-field. But it was the rediscovery of British folk-song by Holst, Vaughan Williams and the researcher Cecil Sharp which gave other native composers a new, home-grown direction; here, it was richly manifest in the Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet, opening Vivante Ensemble’s concert.

Right from the opening viola phrases, what playing we heard! – full, rich tones, evoking a magnificent melancholy, which other instruments gorgeously enhanced, the effect like a group of folksingers with stringed instruments for voices. A vigorous 7/4 dance on the ‘cello opened the second movement, the additional voices adding stringent harmonies to the rumbustious energies, the instruments again singing out, the players’ focused sonorities creating almost visceral emotional intensities, involving and satisfying for the listener.

Surprisingly Vaughan Williams kept the ‘cello silent throughout the brief third movement, the music’s opening having a sweetness, almost North American in feeling, with hymn-like touches – the ‘cello returned for the finale with a lovely, angular striding theme, one augmented by the other instruments, before adroitly turning its rhythm into firstly a jot-trot, and then a gallop, the players keeping their energies precariously and palpably on the leash. Unpredictably, the movement intensifies, becalms, gallops again, and then concludes in wistful, melancholic fashion.

I’m aware of some commentators penchant for describing music such as this as belonging to the “English Cowpat School” – but I love it! – and, especially when, as here, it’s given with such full-blooded gusto, a kind of earthiness that “feels” authentic, stressing the kinship to Bartok’s identification with Hungarian and Roumanian folk melodies and their influence on his art-music. And, of course VW’s love for those Thomas Tallis-like modes and harmonies adds to the Englishness of it all so resonantly.

So to the Mendelssohn, for which three additional players (two violinists and a cellist) appeared, including a new leader, violinist Yuka Eguchi, the NZSO’s assistant concertmaster – another NZSO violinist, Anna van der Zee had led the quintet of players in the Vaughan Williams work. Straight away there seemed more of a bustling spirit to the venture, with the camaraderie of setting-up extra chairs and music-stands and the deployment of the additional players, even before a note of the music had sounded!

The beginning stole in beguilingly, despite the music’s urgency – the repeated notes of the accompaniment, light and gossamer-like, supported a melody which arched upwards and then subsided just as winsomely. The “thrill” of feeling the additional weight of the extra instruments in this work immediately marked it out from what we’d heard before, with a sense of additional power held in check, but ready for whatever no-holds-barred gestures were required.

Throughout the first movement the playing’s expressive range gave the music’s dynamic qualities full voice, by turns full-blooded and delicately featherweight in places, at times excitingly, almost alarmingly orchestral. The players deftly etched in the occasional touches of tragedy in the minor-key treatments of the material, while the return to the opening was beautifully poised, the group “growing” the running figurations from out of the music’s entanglements and into the full sunlight once again.

The second movement’s opening beautifully caught the vein of the music’s melancholy – the players gave the incessant throbbing triplet rhythm great power, making the contrasting lyrical sections all the more effective in their “balm for the senses” aspect. As for the famous scherzo, our pleasure at the ensemble’s knife-edged precision was breath-taking stuff, the music weaving its gossamer magic at speed, and the leader during the “trio” section performing remarkable fleet-fingered violinistic feats.

But the climax of the performance came with the finale, beginning “attacca”, the ‘cellists literally charging at the music’s opening passages and the lighter-voiced instruments following suit in a kind of fugato ferment, the lines clicking over the points with great elan. The players plunged into attenuated crescendi leading to tremendously-voiced statements of concerted intent, their enjoyment and exhilaration overwhelmingly communicated to their listeners, so that we were all swept away in the torrent of it all.

A woman whom I’d been sitting next to in the church was, like me, stunned by the brilliance and overwhelming physicality of the performances, to the extent that she said she just wanted to sit for a while afterwards and let it all wash over her. And a friend I saw on the way out had tears in her eyes at the joyous energy and commitment of the playing, and the expressive power and beauty of the music which was thus generated. I can find no previous review of the ensemble’s work on Middle C, so this is a debut of sorts for us and for these musicians – it’s a precursor, I sincerely hope, of many more splendidly committed and inspirational concerts from Vivante.


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