Klara Kollektiv musicians vary the musical fare to resounding effect

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
Anna McGregor (clarinet)
Manu Berkeljon (violin)
Taru Kurki (piano)

ANTHONY RITCHIE – Three Scenes (for solo clarinet – 2016)
CÉSAR FRANCK – Sonata for violin and piano  (1886)
DOUGLAS LILBURN – Sonatina for clarinet and piano (1948)
JEAN SIBELIUS – Romance for violin and piano Op.78 No.2
BÉLA BARTÓK – Contrasts, for clarinet, violin and piano  (1938)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday 26th July 2018

I wondered on first sighting whether the name “Klara Kollektiv” indicated the first names of the group’s three musicians – could this be “a bevy of Klaras”, a “Klaras kollektiva”, so to speak? And then I saw Anna McGregor’s name in the publicity, which in the nicest possible way put paid to my brief whimsy, as subsequently did the ensemble’s playing throughout the concert, demonstrating part of the title’s true purpose, ”klara” being Swedish for ”clarify”. Each of the pieces presented had either a simplicity or a startling vividness of utterance in performance, nicely balancing the content with its exposition, and bringing us closer to the music as a result.

As for the ”kollektiv” part of the title, it referred to the group’s collaborative aspect, the two New Zealanders, Anna McGregor and Manu Berkeljon, joining musical forces with Finnish pianist Taru Kurki for this current Chamber Music New Zealand tour. Both McGregor and Berkeljon have previously toured here with other musicians – see Middle C reviews from 2014, https://middle-c.org/2014/07/dalecarlia-clarinet-quintet-getting-the-music-through/ and https://middle-c.org/2014/07/scandinavian-and-new-zealand-players-unite-wonderfully-for-the-two-greatest-clarinet-quintets/ – and will presumably continue to do so on future occasions for our much-anticipated pleasure.

As the above linked reviews suggest, the venture seems to bring out the very best from the players, the music-making to my ears having a special kind of eloquence, perhaps born of both commitment to the cause and a delight in partnership, between performers and with composers as well.  The concert’s opening item featured a work for solo clarinet by Anthony Ritchie, written for Anna McGregor in 2016 – in three movements, or ”Scenes”, the music took us on a journey of exploration, firstly, in an opening movement subtitled Stealth, of the clarinet’s capacity for contrast and colour, in setting cheek-by-jowl passages of cat-like tread against sudden raucous squawks of alarm. The music allowed for plenty of theatricality, both in the instrument’s startling variations of sound-character and the player’s capacity for physically choreographing the music – one (eventually) thought beyond one’s childhood memories of Sylvester-the-cat and Tweety-bird cartoons to more enigmatic scenarios or narratives as the music unfolded.

The second part, Bush scene, presented tranquil and ruminative resonances at the start, McGregor’s long-breathed phrases generating eons of endless time and stillness with each impulse (beautifully-controlled playing!), before moving into a livelier, more rhythmic sequence with a chatterbox-like aspect becoming more and more eloquently ”passionate” (excuse the word) of utterance, and then subsiding and returning to the stillness of the opening. Finally, Play danced with infectious fun and energy, McGregor relishing the contrasts between sequences, setting ”cool” against ”full-on”, and ”impish” against ”soulful”,  her intonations unfailingly true across a brilliantly varied dynamic range of expression.

What followed couldn’t have been a greater contrast, with Manu Berkeljon (violin) and Taru Kurki (piano) setting in motion the limpid opening tones of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, the music most beguilingly “awakened” by the players, pianist Taru Kurki’s beautiful colourings preparing the way for violinist Manu Berkeljon’s rapt purity of line, both musicians giving us the notes as if freshly discovered throughout the opening exchanges. Once or twice a hesitancy in the violinist’s phrasing ruffled the music’s surface momentarily – the final ascent seemed a tad off-balance, which hurried the concluding string phrase – but generally, the sense of rapturous awakening to delight was shaped most winningly throughout.

Happily, the pianist seemed less interested in the second movement’s ”virtuoso roar” than in finding a matching voice to intertwine with the violin’s, Franck’s own brilliance as a performer reflected in the piano part’s occasional near-Lisztian demands. What commanded special attention was the dialogue between the instruments in the movement’s central section, the exchanges by turns thoughtful and impassioned, with Taru Kurki seeming to me to give more attention than usual to the middle voices in her keyboard outpourings. Despite a couple of awkwardly sounded figures amongst the agitations, both players captured the growing excitements and burgeoning momentums of the music’s accelerando-like conclusion.

More heartfelt dialogues followed, in a slow movement which moved from the ”stand-and-deliver” mode on both sides to gestures of accord between the two instruments, as from out of the tremulous explorations and recollections of times past grew a long-breathed theme which seemed to unite the gestures and impulses in one accord. Franck’s canonic finale continued this ”entente cordiale”, with both Berkeljon and Kurki giving us the tenderest and most delicate treatment of the opening I’ve ever heard, saving the blood-racing moments for the music’s bigger climaxes towards the end, and instead fully engaged in realising some of the composer’s typically sinuous modulatory byways amongst the music’s ebb and flow.

After the interval we were treated to another home-grown piece of music, this time for clarinet and piano – Douglas Lilburn’s lovely Sonatina for clarinet and piano, written in 1948.  In three movements, the music began with a distinctive Lilburn rhythmic fingerprint in the piano part, over which the clarinet sang long-breathed, out-of-door phrases, the loveliness of McGregor’s playing enhanced by Kurki’s resonant way with the piano rhythms in a way that opened up the landscapes for us.

The Andantino second movement began with sombre, chant-like piano tones, and long-breathed responses from the clarinet, with McGregor simply making the music her own by dint of the generosity of her tones and the expansiveness of her phrases. Kurki played the ensuing flurries rather more delicately than did Margaret Nielsen on her recording with Peter Scholes, bringing out, I thought, a birdsong-like character more readily, the clarinet murmuring its assent in reply. What mastery in the writing, here! – so much ground seemed to be covered in such a brief space of time, with the clarinet’s musings suddenly given thrilling amplitude, McGregor and Kurki allowing the composer’s burst of emotion full rein to the music’s end.

The two musicicans took what seemed to me a sturdy, unhurried view of the final movement, making it almost sound like ”road music”, with the composer’s characteristic rhythmic kicks keeping everything sufficiently on the move. Again I marvelled at McGregor’s naturalness of phrasing, heightening the sense I often feel with Lilburn’s sound-world of something ”caught from the air”, and here, with some invigorating support from Kurki, taking us out-of-doors on a bracing and rewarding adventure.

Somewhat surprisingly when considering the music’s composer, we found ourselves back in the drawing-room for the Sibelius piece for violin and piano which followed. Though it may sound heretical to say so, I thought it a mildly charming but otherwise flavourless work, much less interesting, for instance, than Elgar’s ”Salut d’Amour” – and I count myself as a reasonably paid-up Sibelian, violently in love with those tone-poems and the great symphonies! I’m obviously an insufferable snob, but I would have vastly preferred the musicians to have chosen something a bit more characterful – and if something Finnish was wanted, why not go for broke salon-wise with an arrangement of the same composer’s ”Valse Triste”? – at least it’s music which has a bit of characteristic brooding atmosphere!

Nobody could ever accuse Béla Bartók’s music of being bland or unatmospheric, which was what the Kollektiv concluded the scheduled part of the programme with, by way of compensation! – this was a work called ”Contrasts”, written for and dedicated to violinist Josef Szigeti and clarinettist Benny Goodman in 1938 and given the title ”Rhapsody”. It was originally intended (by Goodman and Szigeti) that the work be a two-movement piece which could be recorded on a single 78rpm disc, but the composer had other ideas – not only were each of these movements Bartók wrote too long for such a scheme, but he also had in mind a middle movement which he produced AFTER the original pair of movements were premiered! Bartók himself, with Szigeti and Goodman, subsequently performed and recorded the whole work, now renamed ”Contrasts”, in a justly-famous 1940 recording.

First up was the Verbunkos or ”Recruiting-dance” movement, which began with a lovely, swaggering rhythm generated by the strumming violin and warbling clarinet, at first keeping in step with the piano’s marking time, and then breaking out and exchanging phrases in vigorous virtuoso mode. The piano valiantly persisted with the dance-rhythms, in the face of both violin and clarinet awaiting their chance to forcefully declaim their points of view, their phrases building up into a series of strident exchanges. After some curmudgeonly rhythmic by-play amidst all three instruments a brief but agitated clarinet cadenza concluded with the violin and piano sneaking the music to a close!

The ensuing Pihenö (Relaxation) featured long, slow-moving lines from clarinet and violin, with the piano occasionally playing tremolandi or slow ostinati. The music’s mood seemed in places to derive from the composer’s ”night music” mode in other works, except for a brief frisson of excitement between violin and clarinet, after which the charged nocturnal stillness drifted slowly backwards through the music’s last few moments, everything beautifully breathed and floated by the players.

With Manu Berkeljon laying down her violin and picking up another prior to the last movement we knew something was afoot – and so it proved!  Suddenly we were plunged into a kind of ”danse macabre” by the violinist’s opening chords as the Sebes movement began, the hair-raisingly madcap molto perpetuo in which everybody joined not unlike the sounds of a klezmer band playing as if possessed! Gradually the pace fragmented and changed to a wistful, gently syncopated gait, with some eerie chromaticisms thrown unexpectedly into the mix! All of this was swept away by the return of the frenetically-paced opening, leading to a wild cadenza from Berkeljon’s violin, skin and hair flying, before the others rejoined the fun-and-games, with wild, exuberant cries emanating from all the instruments as the players drove the music to its exhilarating conclusion!

We’d been promised an encore by the players provided our applause at the concert’s end was enthusiastic enough (a foregone state of things in the wake of such engaging music-making!), and so the musicians duly reappeared on the stage ready to give us a little more. Then, to everybody’s surprise and delight, Anna McGregor forewent her clarinet and, to the accompaniment of folksy violin figurations from Manu Berkeljon and hypnotically-voiced piano chords from Taru Kurki (the overall instrumental effect being somewhat like a hurdy-gurdy), she sang a plaintively beautiful rendition of a song called ”Worldes Bliss”. It made for a haunting and memorable ending to an interestingly varied and thoroughly engaging concert.

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