Chamber Music Hutt Valley celebrates 40 years – no more appropriately than with the Amici Ensemble

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
The AMICI Ensemble

Music by Rossini, Piazzolla, Mozart and Spohr

ROSSINI – Sonate a Quattro No.1 in F Major (arr. for wind quartet)
PIAZZOLLA – Three Tangos (arr. for violin and double-bass)
MOZART – Oboe Quartet in F Major K.370
SPOHR – Grand Nonetto in F Major Op.31

The AMICI Ensemble
Patrick Barry (clarinet) / Robert Weeks (bassoon) / Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Robert Orr (oboe) / Samuel Jacobs (horn) / Bridget Douglas (flute)
Gwendolyn Fisher (viola) / Donald Armstrong (violin) / Oleksandr Gunchenko (d-bass)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt,

Monday, 27th May, 2019

What a surprise to discover that Rossini’s youthful Sonate a Quattro No.1 in F Major was here masquerading as a wind quartet! – in fact, I was going to add, “in true Rossinian fashion” before I discovered that the arranger was one Frederic Berr, a clarinettist who similarly refurbished for wind quartet no less than five of Rossini’s youthful “String Sonatas” , and provided a sixth from an “Andante and Variations” by the composer to complete the set. I had long known this music in a version for string ensemble of the original quartet (double-bass instead of ‘cello!) from a famous LP recording by the renowned Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields directed by Neville Marriner  – so when flutist Bridget Douglas began the enticing and gracefully-descending opening figure of the sonata, I pricked up my ears in utter delight at the well-remembered beguilement of this music’s figure and movement.

The string quartet original had sprung from the fertile mind of the twelve year-old Rossini in 1804, on holiday at a friend’s country estate, the host, Agostino Triossi, a double bass -player, for whom the boy composed these works (Rossini in later life called them “Six dreadful sonatas” elaborating with the words “composed by me……when I was at a most infantile age….”), Rossini himself taking the second violin part in the first performances at Triossi’s house, recalling that his own playing “was not the least doggish, by God!”

Whether in string or wind form the music is, in fact, a joy, thanks to the precocity of the composer and the skill and experience of Frederic Berr in making his arrangement –  the latter had, of course an advantage of variation over the original in the differentiation between flute and clarinet tones as against the two violin parts! The whole performance breathed an air of utterly relaxed music-making, to the point of incorporating a luftpause for a page-turn during the course of the Andante – very civilised! The carefree, “down by the river” melody which began the finale was delivered with plenty of “schwung”, never rushed, and allowing some deliciously bubbly playing to emanate from the horn in its contrasting sequence.

Astor Piazzolla’s music will forever be associated with the tango, but as a revolutionary, rather than a traditionalist. Becoming a virtuoso bandoneon player, he worked with traditional groups before the pianist Artur Rubinstein, sensing his talent, advised him to go and study with the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. This developed his interest in modern classical music and encouraged him to seek further tuition as a composer with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who advised him to continue exploring the music of his roots, and fuse the forms with his knowledge of other musical styles to create something new. Despite criticism from traditionalists he went on to develop Tango Nuevo, which incorporated elements of jazz and classical music; and in which he constantly evolved adventurous and experimental methods of expressing his ideas.

Three of his Tangos were presented here by violinist Donald Armstrong and double bassist Oleksandr Gunchenko, all arrangements by another double-bassist German-born Andreas Wiebecke-Gottstein. What struck me was the aplomb with which both musicians performed this repertoire, bringing out the inherent physicality and gesturing associated with the sounds, making it “all of a piece” in a way that enabled the music to express its character – thus we caught and savoured the first Tango’s sultriness in both sight and sound – its title, J’attends (an allusion, perhaps, to the dance’s origins as incidental music played by musicians in bordellos) reflected in the pent-up tensions generated by the piece’s ready receptiveness to stimuli, the music impulsively moving here and there, but ultimately held to ransom by the need to await some kind of “arrival” or “happening”, physical, emotional or spiritual. The second, and at the outset, more sombre setting, proved more volatile in its growing physicality, the dance pulsating more and more strongly, before turning inwards, but then growing again, the ending defusing the seriousness with some cheeky pizzicati.

The third Tango was a livelier affair, the bass-player’s rapid alternations between arco and pizzicato, with occasional percussive touches, sounding more conventionally “jazzy” than the other two pieces, both musicians putting across a “to the manner born” air with the suppleness of their gestures and the fluency of the music’ trajectories, winding the rhythm down at the end most beguilingly. An enthusiastic audience response possibly encouraged the players to “treat us” to another piece, a fantastic, play-as-you-go pizzicato sequence by the bassist, leading to a mesmeric “pick-up-the-bow” sequence involving eerie harmonies and almost sleazy movements, the players transforming our surroundings into a world rich, strange and flecked with impulses of danger….the reaction from the auditorium was rapturous!

Returning to relative conventionality (but WHAT conventionality!), we were then given Mozart’s sublime Oboe Quartet, allowing Robert Orr the chance to shine as the sole wind player amid a clutch of strings! I liked the bright, perky oboe sound, characterful but never overbearing – the dialogues between various lines are so fluent and detailed throughout the exposition (repeated), making the more fluid, dreamy development section seem like another world, just for a few moments…..the Adagio gave the oboe the chance to really “sing”, which Orr enabled beautifully, the line filled with inflected detailing and delight. Finally, the Rondeau, with its sprightly gait, and lovely “vertiginous” central section for the oboe, allowed the soloist to spin and loop-the-loop as if in unfettered and exuberant flight for a few precious moments, before returning to the formation! A simple stepwise ascent to a top F, and the music’s delight came to a graceful end.

The evening’s final work was the Nonet, or, more properly, the “Grand Nonetto in F Major Op.31” by Louis Spohr.  Donald Armstrong outlined for us some of Spohr’s distinctions as a musician, including certain innovations he pioneered and helped establish, one being the invention of the chinrest on the violin, another his pioneering of the conductor’s baton. He was an exact contemporary of Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s pupil, and was himself on friendly terms with Beethoven. He produced symphonies, operas, concertos and various works for small ensemble, including this Nonetto, one of the fruits of a long-term contract between the composer and an impresario by the name of Johann Tost, who purchased from Spohr the exclusive performing rights to the latter’s chamber music – Spohr (unlike certain other prominent composers of the time) being of an amenable nature, the deal proved mutually beneficial!

The work couldn’t have better “set off” either the individual instruments or their groups against one another throughout the four movements, the composer employing an opening “motto” theme at the outset with great skill and invention, to what seemed like both the players’ and the listeners’ delight! Each succeeding movement had its own particular flavour, the scherzo seeming at first to leave behind the mellifluous atmosphere of the work’s opening, with deliciously dark string tones pursuing a romantic adventure, though the winds soon brightened things up! The players brought out the fun of the major/minor key alterations, before Donald Armstrong’s violin charmed us with a birdsong-like Trio whose sweetness all but banished the thought of the journey still to come, as almost did a second “interlude” introduced by the clarinet, a gently-insinuating chromatic figure augmented most winningly by the other winds.

The  slow movement, marked Adagio was begun raptly by strings, and continued radiantly by the winds, the contrasting timbres conjuring appropriately “inwardly-sounded” resonances with the strings and more “al fresco” ambiences through the winds, the two groups interchanging their timbral characteristics most attractively throughout, repeating a slower version of the four-note motto introduced at the work’s beginning. The finale took us from contemplation to comedy, beginning with a running figure resembling a silent movie sequence, whose drollery was further enhanced by the introduction of a syncopated rhythmic pause at the end of each phrase, one whose “chink” simply cried out repeatedly to be filled, the winds duly obliging before the end! It was all part of an overall agglomeration of delight shared in both playing and listening, reaching its apex at the work’s engaging and fully-occupying conclusion! Bravo, Amici!!




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