Jennifer Stumm and Te Koki Trio share honours at Wellington’s MFC

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Music by Michael Williams, György Kurtág, Schumann, and Brahms

MICHAEL WILLIAMS – Spirit flies Sun Rises
GYÖRGY KURTÁG – Three Pieces for Viola Solo (from “Signs, Games and Messages”)
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Scherzo in C Minor from FAE Sonata  / Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor Op.60 “Werther”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 8th August, 2019

What an excellent idea it was of Chamber Music New Zealand’s to invite viola virtuoso Jennifer Stumm here to perform with Wellington’s Te Koki Trio! – her presence enabled a richly varied programme to be performed with a unique distinction in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, a programme that’s currently on tour throughout the country.

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Stumm currently holds Professorships of viola studies in institutions both in Vienna and London, and teaches and gives concerts about the globe, with a particular interest in supporting young musicians from developing countries, being the founder and co-director of Ilumina, a São-Paulo-based chamber music collective and social initiative whose activities foster rising talent from Latin America at the Iuumina Festival and on tour around the world.

She’s been an advocate for her instrument ever since taking up the viola at the age of eight, calling it “the imperfect instrument” in the sense of having something uniquely expressive to offer to music listeners and performers, winning “firsts” in performance prizes for the viola in various international competitions, making acclaimed recordings, and working with some of the world’s most prestigious and legendary musicians , such as the Beaux Arts Trio and the Alban Berg Quartet.

In this concert she was heard as a soloist (all too briefly) in György Kurtág’s Three pieces for Viola Solo, and then as a duettist with pianist Jian Liu in Schuman’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures) and Brahms’ Scherzo from the “F-A-E” Sonata. Finally, she joined Te Koki Trio in a heartfelt performance of Brahms’ Third Piano Trio in C Minor, to which the subtitle  “Werther” is often added, due to the composer’s own insistence that the music is about the fate of the character in Goethe’s eponymous novel. Throughout her performances the printed programme’s “Washington Post” quotation – “an opal-like beauty” – from a review of Stumm’s playing, repeatedly came to my mind.

Before Stumm made her appearance in the concert it was Te Koki Trio’s task to open the concert with a CMNZ-commissioned work from Hamilton composer Michael Williams for a Piano Trio, one titled Spirit Flies Sun Rises. In an eloquent programme note the composer indicated that his initial motivation for the work was an image in his mind of the scattering of the ashes of an uncle by the wind at Raglan, imparting a sense of something like “a bird in flight or perhaps a leaping deer”, a spirit becoming part of “the great all”, while for those living the world still turns and the sun rises.

The unexpected death of the composer’s younger brother just as the work was being freshly addressed after a break gave rise to an “enormously cathartic and unforgettable” experience of re-evaluation of what Williams wanted the work to say, further intensifying the idea of a spirit leaving the earth and being freed. The end result as heard in the Michael Fowler Centre on Thursday evening was something as ethereal and “liberated” in sound as were the spirits of the departed in substance – the work set long-breathed, soulful tones, perhaps of quiet mourning or remembrance, against scintillations of gossamer-like freedom.

It seemed like a kind of nature-ritual, with earthly things both letting go and reclaiming impulses of energy whose time had come to move elsewhere, or perhaps to “return”. What the musicians did seemed to transcend normal manifestations of feeling and energy – Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello intoned what felt like uplifted, trance-like responses to the happenings, while Jian Liu‘s piano created endless and enduring shafts of illumination and whole ambiences of warmth. I thought the understating of it all was ultimately the most powerful and moving aspect of the work and its performance.

It was appropriate, I felt, that the sounds we heard next were those of a single instrument, marked by the appearance of Jennifer Stumm, the illustrious violist here accorded a warm welcome.I had not heard these pieces by Hungarian composer György Kurtág previously  – all three come from a sequence of 24 such pieces for solo viola, “Signs, Games and Messages”, and represent a compositional form and  method characteristic of the composer. His music has been described as “reducing his material to the level of the fragment, or the moment….”, with the individual pieces in this collection ranging in length from three or four minutes to mere handfuls of seconds.

The first piece sounded folksy, a recitative-like piece whose near-claustrophobic “seconds” were piquantly resolved, Stumm producing an amazingly rich and “earthy” sound. The second sounded like a wailing, weeping lament, very “Jewish-sounding” in character, creating the extraordinary effect of a stringed instrument actually “sounding” like a human voice, the notes having a curiously “over-the-top” vibrato, suggesting raw emotion! – Lastly was a kind of dance (the composer inspired, Stumm told us, by an English girl), with both timbres and colours of the sounds changing constantly and the rhythms varying from measure to measure.

Stumm then demonstrated her art in partnership with pianist Jian Liu, beginning with Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder  (Fairytale Pictures), written in 1851. The composer described them as “childish pranks” to the work’s first performer of the viola part (they were written for either violin or viola, Schumann preferring the latter), and he didn’t specify any sources for his inspiration, leaving performers and listeners alike to “create” their own scenarios.  The violist introduced each of the pieces most charmingly, the first having a gentle, flowing opening with both instruments in perfect accord and dove-tailing the melodic lines most exquisitely, Stumm’s wonderful elasticity of tone enabling her to”load” the expression of every bar with variation and flexible nuance.

The march which followed featured viola fanfares at its beginning, the figures turning to song as the music developed, Jian Liu’s nimble playing seeming to entice the viola from the path and into the woods, the sounds playing canonic games amongst the trees, until the wistful strains of the opening theme call the instruments back to their more heroic initial purpose. A dark urgency gripped the music of the third piece, the figurations agitated, viola and piano nimbly alternating the triplet rhythms, before allowing the appearance of a contrasting, more languishing and nostalgic sequence which seemed to yearn for somebody’s return. The music returns abruptly to the insistence of the triplets until what sounded like a cry of despair from the viola brought the piece to an abrupt conclusion.

The final movement’s  “Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck” (Slowly and with a melancholy expression) sounded like a love song, Stumm’s viola with the melody and Liu’s piano soaring overhead protectively, so “intertwined” a feeling (obviously a “Clara-inspired” sequence! – Clara, of course, being Schumann’s wife), so wholly a union! The piano took the lead for some moments, intensifying the ardour with triplet figurations, while the viola momentarily took flight, before the two returned to the opening, and made something characteristically rich and romantic of the ending.

Violist and pianist extended their accord with the audience via an unusual composition, a Scherzo movement written by Johannes Brahms for a piece called the F.A.E. Sonata, a collaborative piece by three composers – besides Brahms, there was Schumann and Albert Dietrich, who was one of Schumann’s pupils. The work was intended as a gift for the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had met in Hanover earlier in the year, and who had introduced Brahms to Robert and Clara Schumann – the F.A.E. of the title stood for a phrase that Joachim had taken for a motto – “Frei aber einsam” (Free but alone). All three composers completed their work and Joachim gratefully accepted the gift and played the work! Just before his death, in 1906, he allowed Brahms’ Scherzo to be published. (I’ve not been able to find out whose transcription for viola Jennifer Stumm used).

Never before have I been so aware of Beethoven’s influence on the younger composer in this movement, as in this performance, right from the four-note motive reminiscent of “you-know-what” at the start! Using the viola, Stumm seemed to get the best of two worlds, the extra weight and gravitas of the lower instrument combining with the rich lyrical warmth of her playing of the second theme. And she can “take on” silvery violin-like tones whenever she chooses, it seems, the instruments highest notes having a glistening quality not normally associated with a viola. As for the playing of Jian Liu, her keyboard partner, it scintillated during the vigorous passages and captured the romantic glow of the piano writing in the work’s poetic central section.

Remaining was the evening’s grandest utterance, Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet Op. 60, a work conveniently ignored, it seems to me, by those people who aligned themselves with the musical conservatives of that time, people filled with self-righteous horror at the idea, espoused by Liszt and Wagner, that music was actually “about” something – the doyen of conservative critics Eduard Hanslick led the charge, laying about him with a will at the “progressives” who dared to attach ideas or even “programmes” to the music they wrote. Yet the “darling” of the conservatives, Johannes Brahms, the “upholder of classical traditions and ideals” here produced a work which he himself aligned with a “programme”, going as far as suggesting to his publisher that he print the work accompanied by certain images which would further convey the music’s “meaning”! The silence from the conservatives was deafening!

Brahms, of course was known in his later years for his mordant wit, especially regarding his own music – calling his massive B-flat Piano Concerto “my little concerto with a teeny wisp of a scherzo”, for instance – but in the case of aligning his Op. 60 Piano Quintet with a set of images and a programme, there’s nothing to suggest that he wasn’t serious. Of course, in any such conflict the contradictions abound – and today most music-lovers have little difficulty with appreciation and enjoyment of works from both sides of the historic “divide”!

Stumm and Te Koki Trio gave a strong, “interlocked  ensemble” sound to the first movement of the work, the music’s contrasts characterised so very heartwarmingly, with frequent instances of tender, wistful music-making gradually building towards stormier interactions – the coda seemed to collapse, exhausted, at the movement’s end. A call-to-arms from the piano at the Scherzo’s beginning set in play some partly playful, partly trenchant energies, mischief mixed here with desperation – a rollicking ride with plenty of “glint”.

Inbal Meggido’s ‘cello sang its cantilena-like opening  of the slow movement with much poetry, matched by Martin Riseley’s violin, the music singing and surging throughout, the solos usually “supported” by lines from one or two others, the piano having its turn with both arco and pizz. accompaniments – I was reminded of Dvorak’s “structuring” of his late chamber work melodies, here, with self-conscious building-blocks here seeming more like living tree-trunks advancing the music’s cause.

But what a finale to follow! – agitated at the outset, with the piano anxious and restless, driving the strings onwards and upwards! – a brief moment of calm, and the music surged forward once again, towards a questioning, almost confused “development” section, here “laid bare” for us by the players, before the music’s “flight” aspect again took hold. The ensemble playing all-encompassing in its desperately energised excitement, until the piano’s majestically-sounded chordal utterances rang out like a hymn of defiance! One’s first reaction was to regret the two sharpish concluding chords at the end as an unnecessary convention, until one remembered the composer’s “head with a pistol to it” illustration-directive to his publisher!

After these exertions, it was fitting that we heard some music from Brahms’ great mentor Schumann, the slow movement from his single Piano Quartet, in a performance that kept on reminding me of Borodin, in its limpid, delicately-voiced way……









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