Two beloved piano quartet masterpieces in glorious performances from NZSO principals plus Diedre Irons

Wellington Chamber Music
Piano Quartet: Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)and Diedre Irons (piano)

Dvořák: Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat, Op 87
Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 19 August, 3 pm

Though Wellington Chamber Music, before it ‘corporatised’ from ‘Society’ to ‘Trust’ and operated in the Ilott Concert Chamber (later, ‘Theatre’), used to come close to filling that 300 seat space, no longer has the pulling power that it once had. However, this recital from three NZSO principals and pianist Diedre Irons drew a somewhat better than average audience, though nowhere near what it deserved.

Perhaps this gives me an excuse to recall my introduction to the society in the 1960s when their concerts were in the admirable Concert Chamber on the first floor of the (pre-earthquake-strengthening, Mark I, in the 1990s) Town Hall. It had some 500-seats and concerts were performed twice, such was their appeal in a city less than half its present size.

Sadly, perhaps, the nature of the venue and the amenities like interval drinks, do contribute to audience appeal, and the Wellington City Council’s dilatoriness in getting the more important cultural facilities like the Town Hall and the St James Theatre in order, fast, is leaving the vaunted ‘Creative Capital’ way behind its bigger rival Auckland; population size need not be the determinant in such things.

These two piano quartets are among the most loved pieces of chamber music: period!

Dvořák Opus 87
Dvořák is a leading composer in the main-stream classical world, yet in much of his music there is a strong folk music element, and from the start the players allowed a peasantish colour to emerge, not to be gentrified by excessive delicacy or finesse. The heart-felt melodies that Dvořák found for the first movement almost play themselves, though a certain seriousness emerges quite soon, a spirit of unease which changes the feeling of unalloyed happiness to something more like the actual human condition.

I felt I was listening to a group of individuals who knew each other extremely well, and indeed they generally sounded as if they had been playing nothing but chamber music together, for years; yet their distinct personalities seemed generally just as important as their aim at perfect ensemble. Diedre Irons’s piano part certainly did not aim at self-effacing restraint, and the music benefitted. One of the nice elements was the way the players allowed phrase ends to fade unobtrusively rather than remaining brightly lit.

The second movement opens with cello and piano, and Andrew Joyce’s cello was almost too beautiful, though Irons’s piano was almost its equal; but then the viola and violin emerged with pretty much the same beauty of tone and deep affection for the music. Again, the music soon took on a slightly more sombre tone, even agitated but just as gorgeous, making me listen to it more attentively than I have before.

The third movement, in gentle triple time, like a Scherzo, was a drowsy comfortable affair that started so unobtrusively but slowly gave way to the boisterous, Dumky-like middle section which made one remember where Dvořák was raised. It was a particularly delightful consortium between all four players.

One could be forgiven for feeling that the last movement, Allegro con moto, began in a slightly more exuberant spirit, a mood that might have delighted me more, 50 years ago, than now. But there remained so much deeply felt music, played with such finesse and splendidly balanced ensemble that to reflect on my teenage tastes is a bit irrelevant. More interesting to note that in my forties I became infatuated with all Dvořák’s chamber music, and I still rejoice in most of it: as well as this quartet, the piano quintet, Op 81, the piano trios and the string quartets Op 96 (of course), 105 and 106….

Brahms Opus 25
It was hard to believe that in the same concert we were then to hear Brahms’s equally wonderful quartet in G minor, Op 25. It started with Diedre Irons piano, almost apologetically: ‘don’t let me interrupt your conversation…’. But once it had our attention (in about 4 seconds) there was a wonderful sense of having persuaded us that the composer knew that he had something important, or at least very beautiful, to say. Leppänen’s violin played its part in a matter-of-fact way, without any fancy finessing of phrases. By the arrival of the arrestingly lovely second theme, with its sort-of rotating quavers, the movement had gripped the attention with its variety of interrelated episodes, one rapturous melody after another and coming peacefully to an end.

In the Intermezzo (or more fully, Intermezzo and Trio) after the tremulous introduction by strings alone, Diedre Irons entered on the piano, giving off a feeling of having waited longingly for her moment to take part in the restrained, exquisite music that Brahms created, thought to reflect his feelings for Clara Schumann.

The contrasting Trio, quicker, less agitated, sounded a shade more optimistic but cautiously so. I’m not sure what its time signature is – it sounds 9/8, triplet quavers within triplet crotchets, and the quartet played with genuine understanding. I loved the way it ended, with its piano-led fluttering into the sky.

Then came the slow movement that grew steadily in growing intensity, again in distinctly varied sections, the second part expressing a sort of march-like, extravert confidence – but never too much, mind! And the Andante con moto too seemed to vaporise into a silence that was intrinsic to the movement’s over-arching character.

Then comes the movement that everyone knows, and that, wrongly, characterises the quartet, Rondo alla zingarese. Like the other movements, it’s divided into very different parts, not all in the carefree Gypsy mood; much as he loved that music, and much as one might think, towards the end, that Brahms was giving into the spirit of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, that will never happen; and the quartet handled the sober or cautious interludes with its unlikely mixture of care as well as a sort of recklessness. Brahms never gives himself over to a simple emotion or an unalloyed cheerfulness; that’s what one expects and wants, and so did these splendid players.

It was a simply wonderful recital. The two performances were the kind that should recall Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech to his army before Agincourt, and those absent should “think themselves accursed they were not here”.

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