Wilma and Friends win all hearts at Wellington Chamber Music’s first 2019 concert

Wellington Chamber Music presents
WILMA AND FRIENDS – The Opening Concert of 2019

Wilma Smith (violin) / Anna Pokorny (‘cello) / Ian Munro (piano)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN – 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” Op121a
Ian MUNRO – Piano Trio “Tales from Old Russia” (2008)
Gareth FARR – Mondo Rondo, for Piano Trio (1997)
Jean FRANCAIX – Piano Trio in D Major (1986)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Church, Wellington

Sunday 10th March 2019

Beginning the year with the musical equivalent of a hiss and a roar is always a good sign for what might follow – and Wellington Chamber Music organisers can feel well-pleased with their opening offering for 2019, regarding both repertoire and the performances. In fact I sat there throughout this concert imagining, for some reason, how much “better” it all possibly might be were one in London, Berlin or New York listening to a similar kind of programme at some prestigious venue or other, and then finding myself again and again beguiled by some felicitous individual turn of phrase or arresting surge of augmented tones from these players which totally disarmed any thoughts of wanting to be anywhere else! What better feeling to take away from a concert experience?

“Wilma and Friends”, a performing concept devised by violinist Wilma Smith, features the now Melbourne-based former New Zealand String Quartet leader and concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a yearly series of chamber music concerts with different colleagues, performed throughout Australia and New Zealand The idea’s in its eighth year, now, and shows no sign of letting up, if the present concert’s ready excitement, focus, variety and colour are any true measures of continued life and success  – for me, the programming had a tantalising “something for everybody” flavour, covering a wide range of eras and a stimulating variety of places of origin.

Wilma’s partners in this latest venture represented what seemed like a well-nigh irresistible pair, with their combination of youth and experience – ‘cellist Anna Pokorny from Western Australia, a graduate of the Australian National Academy of Music and the International Menuhin Music Academy in Switzerland; and Australian pianist Ian Munro, a composer, writer and music educator, with numerous international awards as a performer to his credit, most notably a second prize at the 1987 Leeds International Piano Competition.

Whatever conventional wisdom suggests regarding outcomes of performances by musicians who join together for “limited tenure” periods, we listeners seemed on this occasion to reap all the benefits of the arrangement’s inherent spontaneity, newly-wrought discovery and sense of adventure in the music-making, with no apparent disadvantages or limitations. I’m not sure how many concerts the trio gave before this Wellington appearance, but they appeared to have already and handsomely “played themselves in” regarding a unanimity of purpose, of feeling and on-the-spot impulse to a most delightful degree.

First up was the exotically-named “Kakadu” Variations for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven, a work I had never before encountered in concert, and scarcely knew via recordings – I was, I admit, predisposed in the work’s favour through the title, intrigued by the quotation “Ich bin der Schneider, Kakadu”, and attracted by the prospect of another Diabelli-like transformation of a simple theme by the composer. Of course it didn’t turn out exactly like the latter, but I was nevertheless fascinated by the music’s sombre opening, Beethoven obviously taking a lot of trouble with his mood-setting and the musicians registering the elaborations of the mood with great sensitivity.

Then the cheeky march rhythm presenting  composer Wenzel Müller’s led the way to the other variations, all of which, as played here, by turns beguiled and tweaked the ear most pleasantly. Among others, I particularly enjoyed the “dialogue” variation between violin and ‘cello with its sweet playing, and the succeeding “running” variation, leading to the minor-key gravitas of the ninth episode, the piano phrases answered beautifully by the harmonising strings; and I also responded to the playfulness of the succeeding variation, with its working of a canon-like tune into the skipping rhythms and working up quite a head of steam! – most entertaining stuff!

Ian Munro’s credentials as a composer were cemented in 2003 by his winning First Prize for his Piano Concerto “Dreams” in the Queen Elisabeth International Composers’ Competition in Brussels that year. Here, we were treated to a performance of his 2008 Piano Trio “Tales from Old Russia”, a work that had been premiered in New Zealand as a result of a commission from Christchurch concert organiser Christopher Marshall, and reflected Munro’s interest in folk- and fairy-tale as part of a wider desire to write music for children. Each movement of the work is inspired by a particular tale, the first that of the Cinderella-like Vassilisa, a story complete with cruel stepmother and spiteful stepsisters. The second, titled “The Snow Maiden” is more quintessentially “Russian”, though the third, “Death and the Soldier” also has counterparts in other cultures.

Beautiful, eerie, crystalline sounds began the work, with the “Beautiful Vassilisa” in the story seemingly brought straightaway to the fore, and then set against the starkly contrasting sounds of the witch Baba Yaga. The writing exploited the strings’ ability to evoke dark, sinister ambiences contrasting those with purer, freer sounds. In other places the sounds startled with their intensely physical bite and pounding ostinato-like rhythms, reminiscent in places of Shostakovich’s writing. Both piano and strings forced the pace towards a climax and a becalming, returning us to the eeriness of a diametrically-opposed sound-world of breathtaking beauty, the atmospheres stark and awe-struck.

A second movement, which I assumed was an evocation of the Snow Maiden, began with dialogues between violin and ‘cello, the violin’s harmonics readily evoking ice-clear scintillation and cool beauty, with the piano conjuring up the play of light upon the Maiden’s person – perhaps the ‘cello’s darker, more sobering sound suggested the Maiden’s eventual fate as the fire melted her into the form of a cloud, the transformation accompanied by receding piano chords.

Munro’s timbral inventiveness as a composer made the third movement “Death and the Soldier” even more of an adventure, the music accompanied in places by various skeletal “knockings” wrought by fingers and knuckles tapping and knocking the wood on the instruments, the story’s central conflict between the soldier and the ghostly spirits building up to a wonderfully macabre free-for-all, everybody playing full out! The march morphed into a swirling dance before the footsteps portentously return, throwing the dancers out of step and enforcing an abrupt, spectacularly sudden conclusion!

High-jinks of a vastly different kind were in evidence straight after the interval, with a welcome performance of the Piano Trio version (which I’d never before heard) of Gareth Farr’s String Quartet “Mondo Rondo”. Here, a restlessly playful spirit was at large, quixotically throughout the first movement, a recurring motif doing its job in driving us almost to distraction, the sequences all being part of the music’s persona as a garrulous but nevertheless highly entertaining guest. A second movement employed pizzicato and finger-tapping techniques to emulate the sound of the m’bira (African thumb piano), generating an intriguingly minimalist-like discourse broken by the music suddenly “crying out” and “jazzing up” in a no-holds-barred way, before subsiding into a cantabile violin solo over the pizzicato-fingertapping movement beginnings.

The third movement kick-started with high-energy gesturings, over which exotic-sounding lines were floated, these being soon “compressed”, shortened, what you will – their tensile energies thereby heightened and “sprung”. Of a sudden the violin introduced a sinuously “sliding” theme, sounding for all the world as thought the player made it up on the spot! The performance treated the themes with exhilarating “pliancy” amid the driving  rhythmic energies, bringing things up to an exhilarating full-throttled burst before the music’s quixotic and enigmatic withdrawal. All-in-all, full marks to the Piano Trio version!

I’ve loved Jean Francaix’s music ever since hearing my first recording, the Melos Ensemble playing two of the composer’s Divertissiments, one for winds, the other for Bassoon and String Quartet, on a famous HMV LP of the late 1960s featuring a triumvirate (Ravel, Poulenc and Francaix) of French composers’ music. The composer’s been criticised in some quarters for what some people consider a certain vapidity in his writing, but I love its unfailingly droll humour, and its refusal to take itself too seriously in most instances. The Piano Trio was a late work, written in 1986 when the composer was 74 years old, but it possesses the youthful energy of a creative mind in its prime, right from the very opening – a restless, exploratory 5/4 rhythm  keeping a light touch amid all the energies! The playing was superb in its amalgam of strength, delicacy and wit.

A charming, insouciant waltz danced its way throughout the ensemble, the music even-handedly sharing its charms with each of the instruments – a beautiful Trio allowed the strings to soar above angular piano figurations, generating a wonderful “singing in the rain” aspect in the music. As for the Andante, its delicately romantic, bitter-sweet modulations seemed directly derived from nostalgically-charged memories, both full-blown and diaphanously delicate! – such a gorgeously-woven web of fine feeling from these players!

The finale seemed to me straightaway to proclaim a sense of life and living – pizzicato exchanges were joined by the piano’s driving energies, the strings going from pizz. to arco almost, it seemed, at will. Francaix seemed to be able to characterise the minutae of living with sounds of variety and colour simply by opening his heart to his surroundings, finding what he needed within the arc of a few physical gestures and driven by a lively imagination. A few seconds of magical string harmonics and a peremptory gesture of finality – and the sounds were deftly released to forevermore resonate in the silences. We loved every note of it, and said so via our applause, thrilled to be able to express appreciation for such stellar performances



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