Wondrously unified piano trio gives two of the greatest works for Chamber Music New Zealand

Chamber Music New Zealand 
Viktoria Mullova Trio (Mullova – violin, Matthew Barley – cello, Stephen de Pledge – piano)

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2 in E flat D 929
Salina Fisher: Mono no aware
Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 September 7:30 pm

Musicians of the stature of Viktoria Mullova are much rarer visitors to New Zealand now than they were 30, 50 years ago. Then the entire season of chamber music concerts arranged by the then Federation of Chamber Music Societies consisted of pretty distinguished international players. Something of a commentary on the relative decline of New Zealand’s economic standing, as well, I suspect, as a trend away from classical music towards varieties of more popular music, in the main-stream .

This tour was no doubt initiated by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with which she played the Sibelius Violin Concerto last Thursday: a most enraptured listen.* Much more collaboration of this kind needs to take place. Barley and De Pledge also gave very interesting recitals for CMNZ in Napier, New Plymouth and Palmerston North, featuring, for example, cello sonatas by Debussy, Beethoven (the A major) and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel.

Mullova sprang to international attention in 1983 when she and her then lover, Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania, fled from Finland to Sweden. Only the bare musical story is ever permitted in the musician CVs printed in programmes today. Other personal snippets about her are interesting of course, including her relationship with the late Claudio Abbado.

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2
All of this, as well, naturally, as her justified musical stature, made this one of the most rewarding concerts of the year. And to have chosen these two piano trios was an impeccable decision. For me, the Schubert trio always recalls the use of the Andante con moto movement in the famous 1975 Kubrick film Barry Lyndon (which the programme note alludes to), alongside quotations from Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and one of Schubert’s beguiling German Dances and much else.

I was in no mood to attempt any spotting of flaws or interpretational shortcomings: anyway, I’m sure there were none. And so I simply succumbed to the players’ immaculate ensemble, with no sign at all of any one of them seeking more than a third of our attention. That was interesting in the first movement where, in fact, the piano does sometimes seem to take the lead melodically, certainly in busyness, while violin and cello dwell rather on the pensive figures. More important is the sheer genius of the composition, it melodic variety and complexity, all of which was expressed so vividly and perceptively.

Kubrick’s choice of the second movement was singular, spoke highly of his musical sensibility in making use of an underlying lamenting tone (not that I can recall exactly what kind of scene it illustrated). I have always felt that it delivers a far deeper emotional message than the equivalent movement in the B flat trio; it has always seemed to me that the E flat trio, in entirety, was more interesting, both musically and emotionally. The piece is also notable for the richness of the last movement: no light-weight exercise here with an ordinary rondo treatment of cheerful tunes; instead, it’s caste in quite elaborate sonata form that lasts almost a quarter hour. At the end there was not a moment’s feeling that you’d heard any of the tunes or their wondrous transformations too often. There only remained a regret that the whole work had to end so soon, after a full three-quarters of an hour. Its utterly committed performance did it full justice.

Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’ 
The little piece by Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’, that opened the second half was well positioned. For just cello and piano (it had been in the cello and piano recitals by Barley and De Pledge mentioned above), could not have been less connected to what had gone before or would follow. However, it held the attention, not through any sort of histrionics, but through an impression of something indefinable, fleeting, evanescent…  And that’s what the Japanese words ‘mono no aware’ mean, and so it’s pronounced ‘mono no awáray’ (no diphthonged vowels please!). It refers to the transience of things, awareness of the impermanence of beauty, particularly symbolised by cherry blossom. You can read a more detailed explanation in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono_no_aware; inter alia, “a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life”.

And so, it would have been a mistake to seek any specific emotion or tale in the understated composition that Barley and De Pledge played with sensitivity and sympathy.

Ravel’s Piano Trio
The emotional shift to Ravel’s piano trio was considerable. It’s commonly regarded as the finest piano trio written since 1900, and among the most successful works in the entire field of chamber music. The very first bars were magical and clear-headed, utterly remote from any sense of pending war; it was written in early 1914 but not finished till after the war began and Ravel was desperate to enlist. They captured the meandering feeling of the Modéré first movement; both Ravel and Debussy made a point in this period of employing French instead of foreign names for musical terms. The opening exposed each instrument in turn, vividly, yet the main impression was of three very individual musicians creating a marvellously integrated, meandering and harmonious piece.

Incidentally, there’s a significant film connection with the Ravel trio too: Un cœur en hiver (‘A heart in winter’, 1992) directed by Claude Sautet. Bits of Ravel’s chamber music are played, and I recall the scene where part of the trio is played; Paris-based New Zealand pianist Jeffrey Grice acted the pianist, but strangely, the piano part itself was played by Howard Shelley. An interesting, not a great, film, made memorable through music.

The second movement is entitled ‘Pantoum’; it’s the equivalent of a scherzo in spirit and shape, another stage in the evolution from the original lively, dance-like Minuet. Its name signifies a connection with a Malayan poetic form, though Ravel didn’t explain. There was a certain lack of clarity towards its end, though its determined animation shone through.

The third movement, which is modelled on the Baroque passacaglia (Passacaille) began with mysterious piano murmurings, soon echoed by strings whose hushed quality was enhanced with mutes. Though it’s sometimes remarked, as the programme note does, that Ravel was influenced by aspects of Asian music and that the third movement suggests a circular character, it is of little significance for the listener. The players captured the movement’s disquieting, deeply thoughtful mood.

Nor is the last movement, Animé, anything less than a wonderful culmination at the level of creative inspiration, and one could clearly hear a certain impatience, either to get the piece finished or in order to enlist in the army that battled the German invasion. The trio succeeded in conveying the sense of confusion through the tumbling harmonies as each instrument seems at times to assert itself above the others.

A bigger than average audience heard and applauded this wonderful recital.

* Footnote

Contrary to my surmise, it was Chamber Music New Zealand that prompted Viktoria Mullova’s tour to New Zealand, through the initiative of Stephen De Pledge.