Strong, exemplary student performances of string orchestra masterpieces

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts 
New Zealand School of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Martin Riseley

Handel: Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 19 September, 12:15 pm

I confess I was unprepared for the actual nature of this concert, entitled string students of the NZSM. Naively I’d thought of a string(?) of solos, duets and threesomes, perhaps a string quartet. I was a bit late, arriving as Martin Riseley finished his introduction to the recital, and launched into Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5, inspiring playing that sounded as if it was a prelude to a highly dramatic opera, perhaps not even by Handel.

I’d missed hearing Riseley’s comment about Handel’s borrowing tunes from a contemporary, Gottlieb Muffat, in this and others of his works, a practice that was common and evidently acceptable at that time. Muffat was Handel’s contemporary whose career was at the Austrian court. It explained the impression I got that Handel’s fingerprints were not very conspicuous, certainly in some parts of the work. The Introduction was marked by vivid dotted rhythms, boisterous rather than elegant, while a different energy infused the fugal Allegro that drew vigorous playing from the very distinct concertino and ripieno sections: the concertino parts were taken cleanly and strongly by Nick Majic on first violin, and Sarang Roberts and Ellen Murfitt on second violin; Rebecca Warnes played the concertino cello part.

The Presto was an even more dynamic movement, with the concertino handling the triplet quavers while the ripieno maintained the strong pulse, with its very emphatic first note of each animated and light-spirited triplet. The Largo was a long time coming, but it seemed to speak in a more familiar Handelian language, the last note leaving it unresolved, awaiting the arrival of another Allegro, and further demonstration of the players’ energy that Riseley succeeded in maintaining splendidly. And the Menuett, rather than any kind of Presto Finale, was a calmly played, pensive movement that ended in an elegant, civilised manner.

So I was thoroughly impressed by the ensemble’s competence (only minor flaws of no importance), and looked forward with confidence to the different challenges of the Tchaikovsky. It’s symphonic in length, and so, the Handel having taken about 20 minutes, the concert ended around 1.15pm; and such was their enjoyment of a splendid hearing, right to the end, that scarcely anyone left, convinced as I was that it’s one of the composer’s real masterpieces.

They captured the varied phases of the first movement with distinction, often sounding more like a professional ensemble than a group of students.

Riseley again set the tone and the spirit with big gestures that emphasised rhythm, as if the notes were written in BOLD. I approved. Though there are distinct virtues in taking some parts pretty slowly, such as the Introduction – Andante non troppo, and particularly, the end of the Elegy and the rapturous, almost silent start of the Finale; and these were carried off well.

The Waltz used to be much played on its own, and I’m surprised not to hear it occasionally, removed from its family, on RadioNZ Concert, which now specialises in dismembering substantial pieces of music, for fear of frightening listeners with a 2-minute attention span.

This was no Karajan performance, and no one would have expected to hear a specially subtle or immaculate performance. But it was a very fine student effort, captured the essentials, and dealt with them with confidence, sensitivity and accuracy. In truth, it was probably their level of gusto and energy that masked very successfully what blemishes there were in ensemble and intonation.

It’s a long time since I heard the Serenade in live performance, and I was deeply grateful; reminded me what a great work it really is.

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