Polished viola student performances of Bach suites plus some unfamiliar music at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

NZSM Viola Students: Zephyr Wills, Deborah King, Grant Baker; accompanied by Catherine Norton

Music by Schubert, Britten, Bach, Enescu, Kreisler and Walton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 October, 12:15 pm

One rarely goes to a recital by students from Victoria University’s school of music (also known as the New Zealand School of Music and Te Koki), without being surprised to be exposed to interesting, often unfamiliar music played admirably by gifted players.

Zephyr Wills began with the first two movements of Schubert’s sonata for Arpeggione, the odd and short-lived hybrid guitar-cello (D 821). No one today plays the weird instrument for which Schubert was invited to compose (though you’ll find an example on a modern replica on YouTube), and it’s usually played on the cello (I wonder how it sounds on a guitar). So the viola struck me as a very engaging, persuasive choice, bridging the gap between cello and violin in a way that seemed to find the best of both worlds. Though I can’t claim to find it an especially beguiling piece of Schubert, Wills and Catherine Norton exploited its pleasant, melodic character charmingly, especially the second movement, Adagio, which was calm and played with particular sympathy.

He followed with Britten’s Elegy for solo viola, a youthful work, of 1929, when he was only 16, yet it illustrates Britten’s early readiness to explore some of the more radical tendencies of the early 20th century. Elegiac in tone, though the young composer can hardly have had much reason to adopt funereal demeanour. There were eloquent double-stopping dissonances, and evocative use of the mute, as a feeling of grief took hold. It drew attention to a very promising first-year student.

Deborah King played two pieces: the first, the Prelude from Bach’s second cello suite, in D minor. In the minor key, it is mildly sombre; she was careful in the formation of each note, excellent intonation, and the her confident bowing spoke of resilience and strength.

George Enescu is getting more and more exposure these days, and his music, while still with certain Romanian folk elements, sounds to me much more mainstream, of its early decades of the 20th century. This fairly early piece, Konzertstück  – he was 25 – seems to have been composed for the viola; and Deborah King created a pretty persuasive case for it, as it moved between sunny and passing overcast moods; each instrument presented it in perfectly idiomatic fashion. The piano played a distinctive, enquiring part, not a mere accompaniment, and later it seemed to aspire to the character of a concerto. In truth however, I didn’t feel driven  to hear it again.

Grant Baker played the Prelude from Bach’s 4th cello suite, in E flat, one of those that Johannes Moser played on Sunday afternoon in this same venue. Series of variegated arpeggios, drawing attention to the implicit, shifting harmonies. Though his playing’s persuasive praeludial style seemed to call pleadingly for the following allemande movement.

Baker followed with another solo piece, the Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice which Kreisler wrote to play, himself; though it exists in a viola arrangement (not clear whether by Kreisler). The Recitativo creates a tone that seems unusual for Kreisler, with a good deal of mild dissonance through double-stopping and fluttering trills. But the Scherzo-Caprice is in striking contrast, the mood more arresting and optimistic than the emotionally dark Recitativo. Rhythms, intonation and general spirit sounded thoroughly authentic.

Perhaps the most significant music in the concert was the second and third movements, Vivo, con molto preciso and Allegro moderato,  of Walton’s viola concerto. Baker’s performance provided a very persuasive reminder of the stature of the work, distinctively of its period, though not following the style of most English music of the 1920s. So it was lively and interesting; and though the third movement seems to be rather too careful to avoid melody that might stick in the memory (a jotting during the performance remarked that ‘”melodic” might be to stretch the meaning of the word’). However, Baker played the decorative lyrical parts with aplomb, and I was happy to remain listening to the two players as the recital went 15 minutes over time.

It struck me that the Victoria University school of music may be the best place in the country for aspiring viola students, under the dedicated, sympathetic tutelage of New Zealand String Quartet violist, Gillian Ansell.


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