Mulled Wine Concerts
Jian Liu (piano) and Martin Riseley (violin)
Bach: Solo Sonata for Violin, BWV 1001
Lilburn: Sea Changes and Violin Sonata
Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor, Op 119 No 1
Grieg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 3, Op 45
Paekakariki Memorial Hall
Sunday 27 May, 2:30 pm
We’ve sadly missed a couple of earlier Mulled Wine concerts from Paekakariki: the Rodger Fox Jazz Ensemble in January and Toru (the Wellington trio of flute, viola and harp) in March, though we caught up with them at Lower Hutt recently.
This concert was perhaps more than merely a compensation, from two of the distinguished classical performance lecturers at the school of music of Victoria University.
There were three solo pieces: Bach’s solo violin sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes and one of Brahms’s last compositions, an Intermezzo, the first of the four pieces from Op 119.
Bach: Solo violin
The Bach piece famously taxes a violinist, both on account of its technical challenges and its musical substance. Riseley’s playing was not of the sort that makes it look easy, nor was its intellectual character diminished through smoothing out its angularities which are rather audible in the longest movement, the Fuga.
The opening Adagio invites the most profoundly passionate interpretation, making its evolution a uniform process but Riseley almost seemed to allow the creative process behind every phrase to be heard distinctly, as each phrase seemed to be exposed to our examination. The Fuga (‘Fugue’) movement moves more quickly and its pulse carried the performance along in a more flowing and deceptively easy manner. The Siciliana is caste in a complex triple time with a slower pulse, and the violinist here found the opportunity to demonstrate a more lyrical and easy-flowing quality, sometimes almost too disarmingly.
A return to the ‘exercise’ character of the first movement comes with the last movement, simply marked Presto. Incessant semi-quaver triplets offer no relaxation and though obvious hard work lay behind the performance, its relentless pulse demonstrated Riseley’s talent and musical insight clearly.
Lilburn for piano and violin
Jian Liu followed with the first of Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes. One is used to Margaret Nielsen’s playing of these and it was a small revelation to hear something different, invested with the sensibility of pianist of a different ethnic and musical background. It was both polished and invested with a musical spirit that was European – perhaps of a Debussy-derived character. I must get to hear his playing of all three, and I hope Jian Liu is encouraged to lay down his own performances of Lilburn’s large piano oeuvre.
Liu’s other solo piece was the first Intermezzo of Brahms’s set of four piano pieces, Op 119 (there are around 20 intermezzi, most of them written in his last years, after overturning his earlier decision to retire completely). Affection for them, as with most of Brahms, simply increases with age (so there’s no need to worry!). The programme note took the trouble to reproduce Brahms’s sweet remarks to Clara Schumann about this particular one. It went so: “The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances!” It didn’t strike me like that, apart from the tendency to ritardando, and this beautiful performance certainly didn’t induce dangerous melancholy.
Martin Riseley returned to play Lilburn’s 1950 Violin Sonata (and what a pity Lilburn wasn’t surrounded by audiences calling for more chamber music; instead he was encouraged to pursue musique concrète).
I might remark here on the violin that he used. It was a 19th century German instrument on loan from Kapiti resident Bill McKeich (He was the leader of the orchestra at Wellington College in which I played the cello; we were in the same form in the upper 6th). It produced a comforting, warm sound, and here it created music that seemed more quintessentially Lilburn than one sometimes hears. The notion had not occurred to me before that there was a Schumannesque character in this music, or at least in this performance; once such an idea arises, it’s easy to hear it confirmed as the music goes on. So, as a particularly irrational Schumann lover, I found more delight in Riseley’s playing in this piece than I have before.
Grieg’s third violin sonata
Finally, the major work in the concert, Grieg’s third violin sonata, an old favourite. I recall first hearing it at a chamber music concert in Taumarunui in …(long ago), where I was posted ‘on section’ while at Auckland Teachers’ College. (Taumarunui High School was a sought-after school because of the Whakapapa ski field; as a self-indulgent aside, poking about the music department I came across 78 rpm recordings of Roy Harris’s famous Third Symphony which struck me as remarkable in a secondary school; I suspect scarcely anyone has even heard of it today).
Anyway, the best known of Grieg’s sonatas is not much heard these days, even in towns 50 times the size of Taumarunui. So to hear it with the sound of the sea close by was a delight, not to mention the excellence of the performance, which was quite passionate, interspersed with gentle and sometimes quite prolonged lyrical passages. The partnership itself was a thing to delight in as one’s attention shifted from one to the other, the music seeming to breathe in response to its own pulse and mood from bar to bar.
Jian Liu’s playing was both elegant and deeply attuned to the spirit and poetic quality of the music, while Martin Riseley’s playing often felt as if he was observing the music from the outside yet was able to capture the whole-heartedness and complex lyricism of Grieg’s composition. The slow movement speaks so clearly in Grieg’s language, that blend of sentiment and a northern reserve; so that the music has a changeable atmosphere, alternating between E major and minor, refusing to commit to either. And the duo captured the qualities of the last movement, Allegro animato, mixing freshness and thoughtfulness that always demanded admiration, for both the complementary elements of their styles and the fluency of their playing.
And after rather protracted applause, the duo returned and uncovered another score on their music stands; it was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancholique, Op 26, demonstrating their ability to give genuinely pathetic utterance to the sort of sadness that Tchaikovsky created so movingly.
There was a predictably full house in the hall by the sea. The inducement consists in more than just the free mulled wine in the interval; it’s definitely worth more than merely a detour.