Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Morton Trio shines in a concert of variety and splendour at Lower Hutt

By , 07/08/2019

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
MORTON TRIO – Music by Kenneth Young, Szymanowski and Brahms

Arna Morton (violin) / Alex Morton (horn) / Liam Wooding (piano)

KENNETH YOUNG – Trio for horn, violin and piano (2007)
KAROL SZYMANOWSKI – Mythes for violin and piano Op.30
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Trio for horn, violin and piano Op.40

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 7th August, 2019

I’m sure that gruff old conservative Johannes Brahms would have been delighted had he known that the music for his Horn Trio would leap over both a whole century and continental and oceanic distances to figure, however fleetingly, as a delightful string of vigorous reminiscences in an Antipodean composer’s work for the same forces! Upon hearing the finale of Kenneth Young’s work at this concert I wondered whether he’d composed the piece especially for the Morton Trio to play in tandem with Brahms’ work on this occasion, though a glance at the programme indicated that the music was written as long ago as 2007. Still, it came up as freshly as new paint in the hands of this group, two of whose members, incidentally (Arna and Alex Morton), had been Young’s students while at the NZ School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.

On the face of it a horn might seem an impossibly heroic, out-of-doors instrument for chamber music, inextricably associated with vigorous adventure rather than refined, intimate discourse – the sheer scale of the instrument’s potential for strength and power would pose an absorbing set of challenges for any composer wanting to set it alongside any chamber-like forces. Young’s writing didn’t shirk the instrument’s propensity for strength and vigour, while allowing the instrument another of its properties – a “spacious”, open-ended quality, further enhanced by “stopped” or muted notes, Tennyson’s “the horns of elfland faintly blowing”. In fact instruments such as horns
enable chamber music to break those “refined, intimate discourse” stereotypes, and accord the genre its full-blown stature and potential for expression.

Which is what Young’s work did so engagingly, the dialogues animating as the music progressed, the horn rasping in places, the violin responding trenchantly and the piano deciding to “wade in” – the toccata-like exchanges that ensued featuring each instrument at full stretch, expressing the sailent features of the ensemble’s character, before the music turned towards each instrument in turn. So, the violin commanded the stage with a cadenza-like sequence, featuring lovely double-stopped intervals, followed by the piano, its notes spacious and ambient, its mood relaxed and dreamy, inviting both its companions to respond in duet, the horn’s ear-catching stopped notes echoed by the violin, the piano scintillating impulses somewhere in between.

In its single movement, the music readily explored the contrasting moods and ambiences of the instrumental combinations, the music’s “character” swinging between attitudes in what seemed entirely “organic” rather than contrived ways, deliciously “jogtrotting” at one point,  working up enthusiasm to the point of abandonment at another (the horn sounding the alarm at the violin’s gypsy-like antics), then subsiding into further dreams, with the horn noble and distantly heroic once more, the violin responding with gentle, fragrant tones. Suddenly, there it was (Brahms himself might have snorted, “Ha! Any jackass can see that!” all over again!) – I shall, however, risk stating the obvious by registering the “there it was” as the music’s “reminiscing” of the German composer’s main theme in the finale of HIS Horn Trio, the eponymous instrument leading the way! The horn’s encouraging both violin and piano to rumbusticate freely helped vary the pace and mood with some more reflective material, before returning to the Brahmsian fragment, tossing it about with great glee and tremendous elan! What a life-enhancing work it proclaimed itself to be, and especially in these youthful hands!

One of the twentieth century’s chamber masterpieces, Karol Szymanowski’s three-movement work Mythes for violin and piano was played next by Arna Morton and Liam Wooding. IN three movements, the piece draws from its subject matter on Greek mythology, the writing for both instruments replete with complicated harmonies, complex articulations and light, delicate textures, shimmering and vibrant. Szymanowski himself said he had, along with the violinist Paweł Kochański, created with “Mythes” “a new style, new expression of violin-playing, a truly epoch-making thing”, everything “a complex musical expression of the inspiring beauty of the myth”. In the first myth ”The fountain of Arethusa”, we heard flowing waters as the music’s main lines of expression, a spring formed by the goddess Artemis out of the fleeing form of the nymph Arethusa, rescuing her from the advances of the river-god Alpheus.

Rippling textures from the piano activated the stream waters, the violin’s sinuous and silken lines disturbed by the water’s agitations, both instruments so “focused” on their own sound-worlds, yet alchemically ‘entwined” – haunting harmonics from the violin, floating over the piano’s rippling explorations, the delicacies from both instruments building into agitations, the playing here so very visceral and involving! We sensed the effect of the nymph’s transformation, as the spring waters seemed to melt into the impulsive flowing of the whole, the violinist’s extraordinary range of textures and colours breathing more freely over the watery ambiences at the end.

The second myth depicted the unfortunate Narcissus, a full-throated opening from both players, the piano almost Ravelian and bluesy-sounding, the violin radiant, wonderful, long-breathed lines! The double-stopped passages suggested watery reflection as the unfortunate youth caught sight of his own image, the excitement and interest growing, the ecstasy here palpable, the violin surging, buoyed up by the piano’s weight and tone! The double-stopping returned, somewhat eerily, like a “fixed” state holding us in thrall, the music’s ending poised, beautiful and disturbingly static.

Angular and vigorous exchanges marked the opening of the third piece, a sense at once of urgency and abandonment, in the composer’s depiction of the god Pan chasing the nymph-like Dryads about the woodland – agitated figurations from the violinist, fleet-fingered scamperings from the pianist, building up to a tremendous, swirling climax – terrific playing! And what a change overtook the scenario with the evocation of Pan’s flute, here so dreamily conjured up by violin harmonics and gentle, limpid piano sounds, everything mesmerised by the god’s playing. Then, what amazingly quixotic changes of mood and colour in the music, over the final section! – at the very end Pan’s pipes again hold everybody in thrall, until with almost conjurer-like guile, the god and his playmates vanish! A stunning achievement, I thought,  from these two performers!

Back came all three players for Brahms’ Horn Trio, a work written by the composer to commemorate the death of his mother in 1865. Brahms had actually played the horn in his youth, so was well-versed in the instrument’s poetic, “woodland-evocation” qualities, much in evidence in this work’s opening movement. The opening idea, begin by the violin is echoed most evocatively by the horn, a more agitated section “driven” by the piano providing a telling contrast to the lyricism of the work’s opening – these two different sections dominate the movement, strongly underlining the music’s elegiac quality, as much by the poetry of the playing here, as by the characterisation of the quicker, more troubled music.  In the Scherzo which followed we enjoyed the players’ energies, the rhythmic angularities brought out for all they were worth, the teamwork between the three players most exhilarating to watch and listen to – the Trio gave us a tender, nostalgic contrast, rhapsodic in feeling and warm-hearted in effect, throwing into relief the elan and buoyancy of the playing in the scherzo’s return.

Sombre, mournfully-sounded piano chordings began the deeply-felt strains of the Adagio movement, the instruments sounding a gently-voiced lament, the horn then beginning a ritualised contrapuntal passage which the other instruments joined – as the music gradually intensified, the music’s pace quickened and agitated the music’s surfaces before subsiding almost as quickly, leading  us back to calmer, more tranquil realms. Straightaway, the finale gathered us up irresistibly and danced us along its exhilarating, sometimes madcap course – the group’s rhythmic zest and tremendous thrust carried the day right into and through the various sequences, the horn having its moments of unfettered “whoopery”, while playing its part in the music’s overall “give and take”, and helping to give this young ensemble the distinction of being a force to be reckoned with.

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