Fairly rare but totally delightful music from the Koru Trio at St Andrew’s

Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Koru Trio (Anne Loeser – violin, Sally Pollard – cello, Rachel Thomson – piano)

Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello
Dvořák: Piano Trio No 4 in E minor, Op 90 ‘Dumky’

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 18 September, 12:15 pm

One of the delights of the lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s is the quite sharp contrasts from week to week between students, semi-professional and fully professional musicians. Last Wednesday we heard a group of vocal students from Hawkes Bay: a group of young singers, several very promising, who’d studied with the Napier-based Project Prima Volta.

This Wednesday, three full-time musicians with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performed a surprising and delightful programme of major but very different classical works.

Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello is rarely played, though I’d heard it before, once played, I think, by members of the New Zealand String Quartet; nor is Dvořák’s trio in E minor (the ‘Dumky’) often played, though well enough known and Middle C has heard and reviewed it at least twice before.

Written about 30 years apart, the two pieces exemplified the huge stylistic differences that had emerged over that time. Ravel wrote that this sonata was stripped of the usual elements that enrich music: while there are tunes, they are plain rather than voluptuous, its textures are sparse, harmony is a dirty word, and the usual kinds of embellishment, with variations and ordinary counterpoint are not of the usual kind. The immediate sound strikes one as spare yet it still seems determined to appeal to an audience. There’s no suggestion of atonality, let alone 12-note ritual. The Ravel of the string quartet or La Valse is invisible. It’s one sort of ‘neo-classicism’.

I‘m not sure whether what Ravel does is strictly described as bi-tonality – performing in two distinct keys – but it was often suggested in my ears. The second movement, labelled Vif, opens with pizzicato on both instruments, and it returns often on the violin. Its lively rhythm makes clear its scherzo origin which the players handled with apparent ease. The third movement, Lent, is carefully constructed; it’s the longest movement and its continued use of elements of the tunes in the first movement treats them so differently that they seem fresh, creating a genuinely pensive atmosphere.

The cello seems to dominate the last movement, Vif, avec entrain, music that, were it not for the shapes of the tunes, the modulations and the equality between the two instruments, its ancestry in Handel or Mozart keyboard music might not be too remote.

My memory of the last hearing is of music that really didn’t engage me; this time, either I was simply more open now to Ravel’s musical intentions, or these two players created a totally coherent piece that stood on its own feet, actually making sense of it, emphasising its plain musical inventiveness and attractiveness. They simply won me over and left me with the kind of impression that I expect Ravel sought.

The Dumky Trio presented no difficulties with its idiom, its musical material or the way in which that material was handled. However, what we experienced at this concert might have been the kind of contrast that Dvořák was hoping to avoid: the juxtaposition of his deliberately popular, accessible, recognisable music, and whatever less tuneful, more academically admired music it might have been compared with in the 1890s.

Dvořák said: “my Dumky trio is very tricky to perform”, and it’s been noted that the cello has an important role in the exposition of the ‘Dumka’ themes, evident from the very first notes.

It’s in six movements, but the composer asks the first three to be played without pause, making a sort of ‘first movement’ of around 12 minutes long. I can remember previously trying to keep track of the movements, and failing, as each is in the rondo shape: ABA(BA), with quick and slow episodes within each ‘movement’, sometimes repeating the B section a second time.

“What alarming contrasts!”, I scribbled during its opening bars. There is only one theme in the first movement, though it changes its nature constantly, between the opening melancholy to optimism and delight. It begins Lento maestoso (though by no means pompous), suddenly breaks out in an animated moment of dance which is entitled Allegro quasi doppio movimento. And that returns again to enliven the end of the movement.

The start of second movement, Poco adagio, is recognisable, opening with slow chords at the piano, and makes sense of the title, Dumky (dumky is the plural of dumka). Basically, a slow dance, Ukrainian in origin, the word cognate with the Russian word to think or consider. The lower house of the Russian parliament, post 1905, was the Duma which mean ‘deliberation’. Dvořák used Dumky in a number of works, including three of the Slavonic Dances and the Piano Quintet, Op 81.

The second movement, Poco adagio, follows the same pattern as the first, deeply meditative for a couple of minutes before bursting into a Vivace non troppo that ends in a short cadenza for the cello to prepare for the return of the Poco adagio.

Though the aural picture you carry away might be light-hearted and contented, more of it is accurately described by ‘dumka’, being contemplative even sad, and that’s how the fourth movement Andante moderato begins,, with a just occasional brighter patch, labelled Allegretto scherzando. The next movement, Allegro, initially fails that test, starting in a distinctly pensive way.

Though it’s a delight from beginning to end, there are plenty of subtle details that need to be scrupulously handled: constant mood changes, sharply contrasted dynamics within a bar, switches from staccato to legato, not to mention key changes that keep the music interesting, even though the average listener is probably unable to identify exactly what is happening.

The three musicians dealt admirably, enchantingly with all these testing aspects of the composition; and even though it ran well beyond the normal 1pm finish time, I was aware of no one leaving. Most might have enjoyed a total replay.


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