Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents Ensemble LTJJI
Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Andrew Thomson (violins)
Julia Joyce (viola) / Andrew Joyce (‘cello) / Diedre Irons (piano)
MOZART – Piano Concerto No.12 in A Major K.414
(arranged by Mozart for string quartet and piano)
DVOŘÁK – Piano Quintet in A Major Op.81
Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
Monday, 15th October
Undoubtedly a mouth-watering prospect on paper, this concert nevertheless had some surprises in store, almost entirely in the realm of the transcription of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K.414 for piano and string quartet, made by the composer himself to increase the music’s likelihood of being played in whatever form. He obviously had very little faith in the extent of his audiences’ musical sensibilities, describing in a letter of December 1782 to his father the difficulties of pleasing audiences of the time : – “…in order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no reasonable man can understand it…”
In this same letter, quoted by the writer of this present concert’s excellent programme notes, Mozart talks about this work being one of a group of three concerti (K.413-415) “from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction”, but which those listeners less knowledgeable could still enjoy “without knowing why….”, a gentle sideswipe at the conservative Viennese tastes of the time. The original concerto was scored for oboes, horns and strings, though Mozart himself sanctioned the work’s performance without winds, and obviously went from there to recasting the work as a piano quintet.
Transcriptions of any work involving an orchestra for smaller forces are often revelatory, as anybody who’s familiar with Franz Liszt’s recasting of all the Beethoven symphonies for solo piano will know (and, frustrated with the limitations of a single keyboard when dealing with the “Choral” Symphony, Liszt reworked that particular transcription and produced an additional version – for two pianos!). For some people such activities remain anathema – to entertain or consider anything but the original is regarded as a misguided effort, a corruption and even a betrayal! Others, including myself, prefer to think of transcriptions (skilled ones, of course!) as a kind of “added value”, even when “reduced” forces are used!
Such people of the former persuasion ought to thank their lucky stars they weren’t born in the Baroque era! – there, (and afterwards for a good while) transcriptions abounded, as musicians lived and worked in a far less self-conscious and more pragmatic performing environment than today’s. In fact our era’s obsessiveness with “urtexts” is a relatively recent phenomenon, as witness the rise (and fall) of once-common performances of things like Hamilton Harty’s arrangements of both Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and “Water Music” – what it means is that symphony orchestras don’t get to play this music in any form except the original version(s), any more – which they’re too big and wrongly constituted instrumentally to attempt without criticism – talk about cutting off noses to spite faces!
Back to Mozart, and to the performance of the “Quintet” version of the Piano Concerto in A Major K.414 – the missing wind parts were responsible, in the original version, primarily for “colour” rather than thematic content, and thus able to be practically dispensed with on that score, though to enjoy what one remembered of the music’s full flavour one had to have recourse to one’s imagination at times! Still, I found this transcription a fascinating curiosity, however much I might have missed those colours and timbres – and with musicians of calibre the playing offers delights over and above such considerations, as was certainly the case here!
From the work’s beginning one registered the care and responsiveness of the players to the different dynamics and nuances of the lines, the writing here so sensitively and subtly detailed, one felt treated like a guest at a delicious supper, the piano adding to the repast its own special flavour under Diedre Irons’ sensitive fingers. To the strings’ lovingly-caressed lines during the development the piano contributed a discourse which in itself was a miracle of declamation, Irons’ playing (as I’ve often noted) unfailingly articulate, her every touch a delight, every trill, every ornament a unique experience for the listener.
The strings’ rich cantabile at the slow movement’s beginning was raptly taken up by the piano, the ensemble producing a typically Mozartean amalgam of rarefied loveliness expressed with both tenderness and strength. And we were made aware of a darker side to existence, as the strings’ heartfelt answer to the piano’s lyrical musings was immediately succeeded by a brief but telling sea-change towards anxiously-shadowed realms, before the opening calm was restored.
The players relished the fanfare-like whoops of glee shortly after the finale’s jog-trot beginning, before worrying a repeated three-note descending figure almost to death, pursuing it in its various incarnations right throughout the music’s course! Eventually, the strings cranked up some concerted excitement and “surrounded it with their wagons”, leaving the piano to explain it further in a cadenza, one which became amusingly interactive, the to-ings and fro-ings between piano and strings allowing the tiny tune to escape and scoot to safety, amid some “oh well, what a great adventure!” concluding statements from the ensemble!
As it turned out, the evening’s fun was just beginning, the Dvořák Quintet being given what I would describe as “the works” by this gifted ensemble. Right from the deceptive, gently-rocking introduction, the music was projected with enormous volatility involving both eloquence and energy, the lyrical phrases spaciously articulated, and the contrasting rhythmic thrustings startling in their dynamic force! I loved the sweetly-laden quality of the players’ lyrical lines, as well as the players’ focused attack and sustained energy during the more agitated sequences.
Along the way the individual contributions to the music’s ebb-and-flow were delivered with distinction, Andrew Joyce’s eloquent cello solo at the movement’s beginning matched by Julia Joyce’s similarly sonorous viola solo which introduced the second subject. The violins’ work in thirds – a characteristic Dvořákian fingerprint – perfectly demonstrated the qualities brought to tone, line and ensemble by leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen and second violin Andrew Thomson, as Dvořák put his themes through their various paces, the whole melded together by Diedre Irons’ strong, flexible playing at the piano.
The second movement was a Dumka, originally a kind of epic Ukranian ballad of a melancholic nature, but appropriated by Slavic composers to characterise music that typically changes its mood abruptly, alternating between melancholy and gaiety. Dvořák certainly made this form his own in many instances throughout his music, most profoundly in his famous “Dumky” Trio, where each of the movements is a “dumka” in its own right. Here, it was the music’s melancholy which straightaway set the mood, the piano’s extraordinary poignant lament answered by a deep-voiced viola solo, the playing from both musicians straightaway touching the heart! True to its penchant for volatility, the dumka then set the sounds bustling along energetically, pizzicato strings and piano relishing their rhythmic criss-crossings! The ‘cello, soon afterwards joined by the viola, then returned to the opening theme, a sequence of great beauty, though again the discourse was interrupted by a more vigorous section, a physical and exhilarating scherzo-like episode! And so on….interestingly, a reviewer writing in London’s “Athanaeum” magazine in 1888 found this movement all too much: – “ It is difficult to regard the form of the “Dumka,” or elegy, as satisfactory. Two themes are presented several times, each with various modifications, but without any regular development. The movement, therefore, gives the impression of patchiness, despite the beauty of the melodies.” Chacun à son goût!
Described as a “furiant” (though nothing to do with “furious” or “fury”, as the Czech word means “loudmouth” or “unrestrained person”) the third movement lightly skipped its devil-may-care way through the world, the performance here dancing between moments of feathery brilliance and rollickingly good humour. The players pulled back for the heart-easing trio section, the viola giving voice to a lullabic version of the main theme, one which lulled our senses before suddenly accelerating back into the high-spirits of the opening dance.
And so to the final movement, beginning with a call to attention and a summons to the dance, a joyful rustic-sounding celebration of a delight in living! I remember reading a commentator’s words many years ago, written in regard to the same composer’s Fifth Symphony (which we heard Orchestra Wellington play, earlier this year) – “…an expression of joy so intense that it brings tears…” – a thought that could have applied just as well to these players’ exuberance and delight in bringing us such joyous music. What visceral engagement with the allegro’s rhythms! – what charm, and insouciance they brought to the folkish second subject, with its touches of melancholy – and how deftly they launched the fugato’s mischievous excitement, tightening the interactions almost to combatative point before winding the music down, allowing the viola to steer things back to the music’s second subject, and the piano to grandly give the signal that the threads must be gathered up and set in order!
So it was that the music becalmed in order that heads be counted and everything else put right with the world – the strings repeated the piano’s signaling gesture in agreement, and everybody turned for home, with the meandering steps through the gloaming gradually quickening and turning to a playful race, carrying all before it in a last frisson of playful excitement. And when we had finished acknowledging these splendid musicians’ efforts with our applause, it seemed to all of us that there would have been no better way than what we had heard to finish Hutt Valley Chamber Music’s 2018 concert season!