Too important to let go – Ashley Brown with a “new” NZTrio for Braid, a Suffrage Year concert

The NZTrio presents:
BRAID – Celebrating the Feminine in all of us……Braid

RACHEL CLEMENT – Shifting States
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Trio in G Minor Op.17
ELENA KATS-CHERNIN – Spirit and the Maiden
FANNY MENDELSSOHN – Piano Trio in D minor Op.11

NZTrio – Benjamin Baker (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Stephen de Pledge (piano)

City Gallery, Civic Square, Wellington

Wednesday, 26th September, 2018

This is the second concert with overt connections to the recent 125th suffrage anniversary that I’ve recently reviewed, very different to the earlier one (Cantoris Choir, Wellington), though packing a similarly powerhouse punch on behalf of women’s musical creativity. It was titled Braid, and is one of three concert series given by the trio this year featuring the work of women composers, the other two being called Weave and Twine. As with Cantoris Choir’s presentation, I very soon forgot the “idea”of these sounds I was hearing having been composed by women, so caught up was I in the process of listening – reacting to creative sensibilities expressing the kind of individuality and focus which put any idea of “gender” in a proper existential context. To use less convoluted language the sounds were soon coming to me as a listener “on their own terms”.

The NZTrio has of late reconstituted in an altogether startling way, losing both its violinist (Justine Cormack) and its pianist (Sarah Watkins) in relatively quick succession, due entirely to attrition. Surviving member, ‘cellist Ashley Brown has joined forces with various other musicians in order to present the group’s 2018 series of concerts, given the titles Weave, Braid and Twine. This was the second in the series, Braid, and brought into the picture the talents of violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Stephen de Pledge, an all-male lineup which found itself addressing the entirely female-composer essence of Braid. One article I saw concerning the concert was subtitled “The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers”, which certainly conveyed the ironies of the situations in no uncertain terms!

Perhaps it’s a “sign of the times” that both the Trio and Cantoris, mentioned above, featured works by nineteenth-century as well as contemporary female composers, allowing a comparison of contexts in which women worked to create music. Cantoris featured an 1892 Festival Cantata by the American composer Amy Beach, as well as including pieces by Dame Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod, while the NZ Trio gave us chamber works by two different nineteenth-century women, both connected with illustrious male composers by blood or marriage – firstly Clara Schumann, and then Fanny Mendelssohn. Along with these we heard pieces by Australian Elena Kats-Chernin (b.1957), as well as contemporary NZers, Rachel Clement and Victoria Kelly.

To open the concert the Trio chose an attention-grabbing piece by Rachel Clement, one called Sabbia (sand) from a larger work whose title “Shifting States” referred to the process of artistic glass-making in its numerous forms. The opening sounds were flung at us by the composer, the playing positively suggesting flint-like substances with hard, sharp edges, able to change shape and form at a moment’s notice, evoking by turns long, sinuous lines, scintillations and colourings. These sound-impulses developed a certain breadth, suggesting either dreams of a substance morphing into something else, or in the hands of a glassmaker interacting with her or his artistic imagination! A certain “exotic” element in colour, texture and rhythm also evoked something of sand’s natural environment, desert vistas, long lines of unbroken space, something of a wonderous contradiction with the piece’s actual brevity. Austere and yet beautiful and startling!

In the programme Fanny Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio was next scheduled, but Ashley Brown told us that the group had done a rethink, and swopped the pieces’ order around, which meant we got Clara Schumann’s Trio first. Had the music been unannounced and simply played, then away from any programme listing, I would have hazarded a guess that Robert Schumann was the composer, right from the flowing tune that opened the work – though some of the following piano figurations seemed to push the music slightly more Mendelssohn’s way. I did like the generosity of both melody and interchange throughout, the flowing theme of the opening tempered in its seriousness by the more quixotic second subject.

I enjoyed the charming quirkiness of the Scherzo’s opening, and the “different-worldliness” of the Trio, so circumspect in its poise, equivocal in its rhythmic trajectories, and yet so passionate in its string unisons, played here with the kind of focus that made every note mean something. The third-movement Andante begins as a veritable “song without words”, with a piano solo whose “drawing-room” melody give way to vigorous dotted-rhythm exchanges in the movement’s middle section, the players digging into the forthright statements with a will. The ‘cello leads the music out of this mood and back into its opening lyricism most tenderly, with melting acquiescence from both violinist and pianist.

Again I thought the finale’s opening Schumannesque in its anxieties and suggestions of flight, the melody having a “haunted” quality, which the violinist’s chromatic descents seemed at first to take further, though the rather chirpy second subject was more of a children’s “hide-and-seek” game than anything deeper and more sinister. I liked the chromatic figuration of the fugue-like development, the players giving their various entries a trenchant quality that again took the music away from the drawing-room and into more fairy-tale realms. In the work’s coda the players found both qualities , the anxiety given more energy and punctuated with vigorous phrases that resolved as many doubts as showed their faces.

It seemed quite a quantum leap to go from these gracious drawing-room gestures to Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s Spirit and the Maiden – very much an “in your face” work right from the beginning, with driving rhythms and deeply-etched melodic lines creating a strongly “filmic” kind of atmosphere, the trajectories covering a lot of ground, dancing along, wildly and abandonedly, with occasional folkish touches that eventually steer the sounds into wonderment at the first movement’s enigmatic conclusion. The story involves an affair between a young girl and a water-spirit, which ends, as these things seem always to do in folk-lore, tragically – and much of the music’s course over the first two movements was wild and vigorous, as if emotion on all sides was hper-driven by both exhilaration and fear. The second movement’s dance-like course again concluded mysteriously, with added menace and unease suggested by a string tremolando whose sound seemed to dissolve into spectral-like regions.

Unlike the first two movements this concluding piece began lugubriously, with heavy sighing, gradually becoming more animated and florid, everything seemingly trapped in a great trough of despair, the ‘cello upwardly sighing with great glissandi, and joined by the violin, continuing a series of increasingly-despairing moments. The piano then ”upped” the rhythm to a march that became more and more savage until the textures suddenly started to dissolve, as it were, right in front of our ears! All momentum ceased and the sounds drifted into nothingness.

Victoria Kelly’s Sono is, literally, the stuff of dreams, in this case, it seems, a rude awakening from a dream. Not unlike Rachel Clement’s Sabbia in its initial impact, this was more obsessive an experience, long-term, the music trying to both enter into and escape a world from which the sensibilities have been, according to the composer, “untimely ripp’d”. Here, it was a superbly-sustained dreamscape, one half-lit but made altogether tremulous with possibility. As the piano picked its way through its own sound-world, the strings more and more insistently beamed their tones upon the wanderer, half-encouraging, half-mocking the figure’s progress. Depending on one’s mood one could have been wandering lost after being cast adrift, or, more passively, immersed in some kind of meditation amid an extended jazz-piano solo, the strings present either as fellow-musicians or representing a totality of listener-responses, a “did we dream you or did you dream us” scenario. Whatever the case, the music was superbly focused on states of consciousness and their waxing and waning, setting up a state of trance-like wonderment, seeming to me to be in the process of fusing outward and inward states of being.

Awakening us from such reveries was the programme’s final work, a Piano Trio by Fanny Mendelssohn, in fact her last published piece (of almost 500 separate works found posthumously only eleven found their way into print!), and one which was completed only a short time before her death. By all accounts she was as talented a performer as her more famous brother, Felix, and on the strength of her surviving compositions, possessed gifts as a composer that matched his own. In fact Felix occasionally published her songs under his own name to give them a public life otherwise denied most of her work at the time. Pianist Stephen de Pledge introduced the work to us, calling it “remarkable”, and drawing our attention in particular to the finale, in which the writing, he remarked “goes mad”, perhaps partly reflecting the composer’s urgent desire to complete the music in time to present it to her sister as a birthday gift!

I thought on the strength of this evening’s hearing, it overshadowed Clara Schumann’s work in content if not in form, its intensities reflecting what seemed an “inner life” of enormous depths of artistic feeling and imagination. That Fanny desired recognition as a composer was indicated by her decision to publish some of her works, initially without her brother’s approval, but then, in 1846, on being approached by no less than two publishers, six opus numbers of works, with his (probably reluctant) blessing! Hearing this Op.11 Piano Trio with its compelling outer movements, one gets the feeling that this was music which desperately NEEDED to be written!

The opening Allegro vivace began with a remarkably Schumannesque melody sounded by the strings over an agitated piano accompaniment, the players bringing out the music’s restlessness, which was then partly relieved by a wide-leaping melody shared by all three instruments in turn, with variants of the melodic line then tossed about among the individual players. At the development it seemed as though the music’s underlying mood had merely been waiting its chance – with the piano once again in agitated mode, the players built the music towards some wonderfully full-blooded romantic gesturings, with even the wide-leaping melody being subjected to the composer’s “sturm und drang” manner, removing all hints of drawing-room sensibility with splendidly assertive gesturings (I was going to use the word “virile”, but thought better of it!). After what appeared to be a somewhat desolate little coda, the music suddenly re-ignited and flung the last few bars at us most unapologetically!

A piano solo began the slow movement, andante expressivo, joined by the strings, the instruments in turn given ample chances to sing, not only with the opening, but a more flowing minor-key melody in the music’s middle sequence, one which is heard again later as a piquant counterpoint to the opening tune – everything is “voiced” by the players with great poetry and sensitivity. Instead of a third movement scherzo, we got a “Lied”, a brief but beautiful “Song Without Words” kind of movement requiring little comment. Not so the finale – beginning with a heroic recitative-like flourish, the piano took charge from the outset, launching into a swaggering dance-like processional, not unlike a Czardas in rhythm, and one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies in mood. The strings entered soon enough, joining in with the dance, and helping to build up the tensions, adding weight and pace to the textures, including a forthright “strut” to the dance-rhythms – very sexy in places, with the piano contributing great flourishes. Finally, the coda galvanised the energies further, paused for a brief reminiscence of the slow movement theme, then despatched the rest with a tremendous burst!

All credit to the NZTrio for their scintillating and thoroughly engaging traversal of music which ought to be heard more often.



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