Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson: the first days

Grand Opening Concert

Mozart: Horn Quintet in E flat, K 407    Sam Jacobs – horn, Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Monique Lapins – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello
Brahms: Three Intermezzi from Op 118 (Nos 1, 2, 6)    Dénes Várjon
Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins, Op 58    Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi – violins
Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 111    Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler – violins, Ori Kam – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello), with Gillian Ansell – second viola

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts (Nelson School of Music)

Friday 1 February 2019, 7:30 pm

This was the first festival for five years that has been able to move back to the now magnificently enhanced Nelson School of Music (now called the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts). That, as well as the line-up of many top international musicians, saw the early sell-out of all but one of the nine superb evening concerts. That’s attributable also to the festival’s international reputation, attracting many people from around New Zealand and increasing numbers from overseas. My frequent comment that for the past 20 years, it’s been the finest classical music festival in New Zealand bears reiterating: its only earlier competitor was the three weeks duration New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington which has long ceased to be one of the richest classical music festivals in the world.

The first concert on Friday 1 February happened to be the birthday of the festival’s most important and longest standing sponsor, Denis Adam, who died last October. In their opening remarks former minister for the arts, Chris Finlayson, as well as festival chair Colleen Marshall, paid deeply-felt tributes to his 25 years of support.

The opening concert was an opportunity to show-case most of the artists scheduled in the early days of the festival. So the New Zealand String Quartet plus NZSO principal horn Samuel Jacobs opened this first concert with Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat, one of several challenging pieces that Mozart wrote for his horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb; it’s an unusual work, made more curious by employing two violas instead of two violins. The quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins, switched to the viola. It enriched the sound beautifully, even though in the beginning there was some imbalance between horn and strings in this very clear acoustic; the players soon settled to a performance of great delight.

Returning Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon then played three of the Six Pieces, Op 118, some of the many small piano pieces that Brahms wrote near the end of his life. Intermezzi nos 1, 2, and 6 of the set are sharply different in spirit and style, and they whetted the appetite to hear Várjon playing Beethoven and other music during the week.

Brahms’s 2nd string quintet and three intermezzi
There was a connection between the three intermezzi and the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance in the second half of Brahms’s second String Quintet (this time, the second violist being Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet). Though he intended that the quintet would be his last composition, as his health was failing, its great success encouraged him to write a lot more chamber music in his last years, specifically the 20 pieces of opp 116 to 119. They were three well-contrasted pieces in which Várjon found subtle and interesting characteristics, No 6 traversing a sad, reflective mood that grew suddenly more exciting, even overwhelming by the end. I rather wished he’d played more of them.

The quintet is not one of Brahms most familiar pieces, but this performance made it easy to understand the warm reception its premiere in Vienna in 1890 received; somewhere described as ‘a sensation’. And this performance, celebratory and confident, with all five players producing a rapturous first movement with warm, heart-felt, sometimes boisterous playing promised a similar response. The second movement may be rather more enigmatic, but there was no lack of unanimity in their playing, particularly in the uniform warmth and richness of tone that they drew from their instruments. Although the last movement might not have seemed as spirited and moving as the first, at the end the audience responded with a sort of hushed awe.

The 20th century was represented by a not-well-known piece by Prokofiev, his Sonata for two violins, Op 58. Its four movements, vividly contrasted, and ferociously challenging were played by Canadian Nikki Chooi and British Anthony Marwood. Though alternating in musical sense and mood from phrase to phrase, seeming to speak different languages, ultimately an astonishing integrity and a shared purpose was revealed both in the music itself and its performance.


Saturday: Meeting the artists and discussing the music

The Jerusalem Quartet, talking with Gillian Ansell

Bartók’s music in the Festival: members of the Jerusalem Quartet, Dénes Várjon with Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 10 am and 2 pm

Talking with the Jerusalem Quartet 
The day had started with a morning appointment in which NZSQ violist Gillian Ansell talked with the four members of the Jerusalem Quartet. It was one of those occasions when the public gets to glimpse the sort of relationship that exists between those musicians who appear to the audience as rather super-human beings. The light shone not just on the four Israelis, but also on the normality of their rapport with at least one other musician of comparable gifts and insight: here, Gillian Ansell.

Their lives: the two violinists born in Kiev in Ukraine, the cellist from Minsk in Belarus, and violist Ori Kam who was born of Ukrainian parentage in California. While the other three were original members, he joined the quartet in 2009. Their various backgrounds have naturally become of special interest through the political and military activities that have forced on the rest of the world, some understanding of cynical post-Soviet adventurism and the unwise behaviour of the Ukrainian and Belarusian regimes. Each revealed careers that existed before and continued after the formation of the Jerusalem Quartet, when the players were about 17. And their careers have been troubled by reactions to their evident nature of their relationship with the Israeli Government.

No doubt because of his fluency in English, Ori Kam tended to lead entertainingly, with interesting detail about his own and the quartet’s background.

In the afternoon, Dénes Várjon, members of the Jerusalem Quartet, and Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins, talked about the three Bartók pieces to be played in the following days. The relevant works discussed and illustrated were the Suite for piano, Op 14, written in 1916, on Sunday evening, the second violin sonata, written in 1922 on Tuesday evening, and the 5th String quartet played after I’d left Nelson. Várjon spoke in some detail about the Suite and the influence of his early exploration and recording of folk music in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Algeria. He mentioned Bartók’s own comments in the recordings which had a singular impact.

Monique Lapins was given space to play excerpts from, and talk about Bartók’s violin sonata; I found her presentation rarely illuminating, especially through her near-seductive movements that created an almost balletic interpretation of the music. The excerpts chosen from several movements of each work were a revelation, preparing the ground so illuminatingly for all three. I heard the full performances of only the first two works, neither of which I was familiar with.   Like many others, I find Bartók a gritty composer, his music not especially engaging, though it richly repays perseverance and close attention.

The members of the Jerusalem Quartet then discussed Bartók’s fifth string quartet to which all contributed, though it was violist Ori Kam who tended to lead the way, guiding the quartet’s playing of significant passages, pointing to bits that reflected the folk music of this or that Balkan people, even Turkish, and he remarked on the readiness of the Balkan Christian population, even when faced with imminent Turkish invasion, to enjoy Turkish music. He contributed encouraging remarks like, “Cool, isn’t it!”.

Saturday evening: Schubert, Dorati, Schumann and Brahms

Schubert: Violin Sonata No 3 in G minor, D 408    Alexander Pavlovsky – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano
Antal Dorati: Three pieces for oboe solo – La cigale et la fourmi, Lettre d’amour, Legerdemain    Thomas Hutchinson – oboe
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47    Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano
Brahms: Horn Trio in E flat, Op 40    Sam Jacobs – horn, Anthony Marwood – violin, Dénes Várjon – piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Saturday 2 February, 7:30 pm

The Saturday evening concert opened with the first of one of the festival themes: the four Schubert sonatas, three of them called sonatinas in their first publication, after his death. Indeed, they are not heavy-weight in length or tone. Each was played by a different violinist: the first, No 3, D 408, played here by Alexander Pavkovsky and Várjon. There might have been a lingering trace of Bartókian urgency under the warmth and delight that the first movement produces, and one might have thought about the very short distance between Vienna and Budapest, or towns in which Bartók lived as a child, such as Pozsony (now Bratislava in Slovakia). The violin produced a sound that had the burnished glow of Rimu.

Prize-winning New Zealand oboist Thomas Hutchinson chose an unusual solo piece for his offering in this recital of huge variety: a set of three pieces by composer Antal Dorati, who was also a conductor of considerable distinction: a Hungarian (to keep Bartók company).  Bartók taught him at the Franz Liszt Academy and he conducted the world premiere of Bartók’s viola concerto. To modern audiences his fame rests substantially on his complete recordings of Haydn’s 104 symphonies with the Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra created from refugee musicians who fled Communist Hungary after Soviet troops invaded to put down the 1956 revolutionary attempt.

Hutchinson’s oboe was rich and virtuosic in the performance of the three sharply contrasted pieces, ending with beautifully articulated playing of the fast, highly imaginative last piece, Legerdemain.

Schumann’s piano quartet
Two major chamber works followed: Brahms’s Horn Trio and Schumann’s Piano Quartet. The latter was played by the NZSQ’s Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell with cellist Kyril Zlotnikov from the Jerusalem Quartet. Várjon emerged the hero however; though the balance between piano and strings was admirable and all the most remarkable aspects of Schumann’s genius were there to delight us. It is not an everyday experience to hear such an impassioned performance; and one’s attention kept shifting from individual string players to the ensemble sounds and then realising that I was not listening attentively enough to Várjon at the piano, playing with the sort of passion that’s more characteristic of eastern European musicians than to those of the western countries; after all, Schumann was brought up in Saxony (in Zwickau), very close to the Czech border.

Brahms’s Horn Trio brought back Samuel Jacobs and Anthony Marwood, again with Várjon. I found Marwood’s demeanour a little distracting, weaving about excessively, in contrast to his perfectly restrained performance with Nikki Chooi in the Prokofiev sonata for two violins on Friday. However, it detracted not at all from the sense of delight that his omnipresent violin produced. There was perfect accord between the three musicians, with the result that impressions from my earlier hearings of the trio when I had never been wholly persuaded that Brahms had succeeded in creating an intimate threesome, had to be revised. In fact, Brahms here seemed to have absorbed entirely the character of the horn and the way it could most naturally be blended with two other very distinct instruments. The energy of the first and last movements was remarkable. Though the piano might have been visually in the background, and risked being heard merely as providing accompaniment, I’ve never been so engrossed by the work, particularly in heartfelt passages in the gorgeous, elegiac third movement.

Sunday: Várjon in Beethoven and Bartók

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No 29 in B flat, Op 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ and No 32 in C minor, Op 111
Bartók: Suite for Piano, Op 14

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Sunday 3 February, 7:30 pm

I did not go to the Sunday afternoon concert, even though I would certainly have loved to hear Monique Lapins play the third violin Sonata of Schubert, with Izabella Simon at the piano, and probably the pieces by Lohei Mukai and New Zealanders John Rimmer and Simon Eastwood.

Perhaps I felt that I needed to conserve my listening energies for the extraordinary Beethoven project in the evening. The mere thought of playing the Hammerklavier in the same programme as the Op 111 seemed to demand physical and spiritual preparation and calm.

The Hammerklavier
There were no preliminaries to prepare for the big one: Várjon opened as he clearly intended to carry on, with an attack of unbridled power that gave no room at all for gentility or decorum. In fact, it spoke at once to prompt the first scribble in my notebook about ‘the rough and tumble’ opening in which he attacked the keyboard with abandon, with no apparent concern about the inevitable fluff that listeners bothered by such trivia might have spotted. But any of that was utterly unimportant in the overwhelming strength and compulsion that drove Várjon’s playing.

It recalled a comment that I’d come across in a YouTube recording I’d listened to a few days before: “weird, titanic, gnarled, joyous, grief-stricken monster that is the Hammerklavier”. Though the recording in question was courteous and disciplined in comparison to what I heard from Várjon. Confirmation of the wild character of the performance came right at the start, with the sudden modulation, mid-measure, from B flat to D within the first minute, which seemed a far more rebellious act than one had ever encountered before.

At the beginning of the development section, following an unresolved cadence, there are several pauses which Várjon held for what seemed unusual length and which further sustained the sense of ferocity and recklessness. And unusually long pauses continued to characterise the development section, and particularly the recapitulation, always with extraordinary dramatic effect.

The contrast with the brief Scherzo was perhaps more than usually striking: bright and clear, yet with these more restrained rhythmic and tonal shifts Várjon maintained the dramatic mood of the first movement. Then the Adagio sostenuto offered an extended, painstaking retreat to a peaceful, contemplative quarter hour, certain passages feeling as if the pervasive 6/8 tempo has turned it into a Ländler, though Várjon seemed to treat it as if Beethoven was struggling, painfully to find some sort of equilibrium.  Throughout the last movement which starts in deathly quiet, he continued to illuminate the composer’s determination to exploit every possible disturbing and dramatic element that could be found in it.

The last movement is no ordinary fast and sunny affair. It opens in deathly quiet, and gradually accelerates to regain the spirit of fierce determination that had dominated the first movement. Many performances seem to recover a feeling of peace and acceptance, but by the end that spirit was scarce; I simply knew that I’d never heard such a tumultuous, wildly Romantic performance of this masterpiece. And I loved it.

Bartók’s Suite for piano  
The programme notes point out that although Bartók was a fine pianist, he wrote little for the piano; this Suite, Op 14, written in 1916, and a later sonata are his only significant piano pieces. It is in four shortish movements: Allegretto, Scherzo, Allegro Molto and Sostenuto. The first sounds like a folk dance, though none of the themes in the suite are said to be taken from his collection of folk tunes. It’s spiky, unmistakably Bartók, as are the other movements; both the second and third are also fast and only the fourth, Sostenuto, relaxes to allow a feeling of calm to descend, though Várjon never allowed us to relax, persuading us that the work deserved to be much better known.

Opus 111 
The recital ended with Beethoven’s last sonata, Op 111 and although separated by the Bartók from the Hammerklavier, it felt very much from the same source, providing just a rather more metaphysical, less ferocious version of the earlier work, though in the Op 111 Várjon sought to find comparable unease and power. Its long second movement, Arietta, which Beethoven carefully describes as Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, all hardly departing from C major throughout the 20-odd minutes of its five variations, builds the most profound musical creation starting with several slow, repeated passages, then minutes of rolling triplets, before breaking out with a sort of ecstatic episode with rising and falling arpeggios in dotted rhythms (you don’t often find time signatures like 9/16). Várjon built this marvellous movement steadily, creating a near-hypnotic state, ecstatic and profoundly spiritual. His playing seemed never really to return to earth as feathery phrases went on and on, long sequences of trills, all elaborating a profoundly moving melody that is spun endlessly, coming to a simple ending that called for and got a long held silence before an immediate standing ovation.


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