An excellent lunchtime concert from university string students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert
Performances by string students of the New Zealand School of Music

Zephyr Wills (viola), Rebecca Warnes (cello), Hayden Nickel (violin), Ellen Murfitt (violin), Emily Paterson (cello), Tamina Beveridge (piano)

Music by Bach, Hindemith, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 8 May, 12:15 pm

Though I had thought not to write a review of this lunchtime concert, but simply to have a pleasant hour listening, I found my mind changing however, a couple of minutes in to the first item: the Allemande from Bach’s fourth Cello Suite, in E flat, played on the viola by Zephyr Wills. Sometimes such transpositions don’t work, but this one did, beautifully. Wills, only a second-year student, has acquired a warm flawless technique on his instrument. The Allemande is a relatively sedate, moderately paced dance and it flourished in his flowing, note-perfect playing. I’m not always happy about other instruments playing music the composer carefully crafted for one in particular. Here, it sounded as if the viola was what Bach really had in mind.

Hindemith’s viola 
More challenging in a sense was the first two movements (Breit and Sehr Frisch und straff) of Hindemith’s sonata for solo viola, Op 25 No 1 (it has five movements). Though opening with an arresting dissonance, it quickly settled into the sort of piece one expects from the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.

The viola was Hindemith’s own instrument and he wrote several sonatas for solo viola as well for viola and piano. I came across a good quote in Gramophone magazine:

“Throughout these works … there is an almost overwhelming competence. The sheer mastery with which he was able to go about making one instrument express the creativity of his extraordinarily fertile mind is quite breathtaking. … There is a strong feeling that it emanates from an era of unrest: the constant moving-on from one idea to another and the rapid harmonic shifts are symptomatic of this. The role of the viola is somewhat solitary.
“Alfred Einstein encapsulated Hindemith’s relationship to his audience thus: ‘’He is unwilling to exploit his feelings publicly and he keeps his two feet on the ground. He merely writes music, the best that he can produce.’ … it is in the four sonatas for solo viola that one is closest to his essence, an essence that is rather bleak and certainly highly cerebral.”

I felt that, for a young student (yet only about four years younger than Hindemith at the time), this sample of the sonata also showed a surprising grasp of the essence of Hindemith.

Saint-Saëns: the whole concerto
The next piece was advertised as the first movement of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A minor (No 1). Rebecca Warnes is a fifth year student at the School of Music (which perhaps means she’s studying for her Masters’, or even a PhD). No high degree of musical discernment was needed to hear a highly accomplished performance from her and her pianist Tamina Beveridge who was a more than adequate orchestra substitute. If it wasn’t for the conspicuously concerto-flavoured cello part, it wouldn’t have been hard to hear it as a cello sonata.  Because I’d forgotten how short the first movement is (about 5 to 6 minutes), I thought the more charming and lyrical second movement was an episode of the first, but realised by the time the third movement began that I was listening to the whole concerto which usually runs a bit over 20 minutes. The excellence of the playing never diminished, and the many virtuosic sections were dealt with, by both players, with undiminished competence and that sense of delight that a mid-30s composer and an early-20s cellist can deliver.

Mendelssohn was still to come (and it was already about 12.50). Hayden Nickel played the first movement of his violin concerto as Tamina Beveridge stayed at the piano. His violin had a bright tone well suited to the spirit of the first movement (this time it was only the first); though it might have exposed both instruments in the more taxing passages. But that accelerating cadenza that leads excitingly into the second movement came off excellently.

And to end, the first movement of Mendelssohn’s last string quartet, Op 80. The players were Haydn Nickel and Zephyr Wills again, plus second violinist Ellen Murfitt and cellist Emily Paterson. They captured the anguished urgency of the Allegro vivace assai (which might as well have been named the ‘appassionata’) music that creates, for me, one of Mendelssohn’s rare, thoughtful, deeply felt utterances.

‘Twas an excellent lunchtime concert!


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