Triumph tempered by sadness – Hutt Valley Chamber Music faces dissolution despite a sensational 40th anniversary season capped off by the remarkable Diedre Irons

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
HVCM’s final 40th anniversary concert with Diedre Irons (piano)

Music by JS Bach, Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann

JS BACH – Concerto in the Italian Style BWV 971
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”
LISZT – Piano Sonata in B Minor S.178

Diedre Irons (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Thursday 31st October 2019

The evening was earmarked as a celebration, a culmination of the 40th year of presenting chamber music in Lower Hutt by the Hutt Valley Chamber Music Society. And the choice of pianist Diedre Irons to give the concert this evening couldn’t have been more appropriate, as back in October 1980 she and the then-concertmaster of the NZSO, Peter Schaeffer performed a recital as one of the Society’s concerts during that opening season. However, by contrast with the joy and optimism of that inaugural year of music-making, this latest occasion gave cause for great sadness, being the Society’s swan-song of concert-giving, until further notice – for a number of reasons, there are no plans for a 2020 Hutt Valley Chamber Music series.

Diedre herself reminded her audience of that long-standing connection she had with the Society’s concerts after she was invited to cut the “Celebration cake” at the concert’s end, expressing the hope in doing so that the Society would rise again, “like a phoenix from the ashes”. The Society’s problem is similar to that of a decade ago, when it seemed that there were not enough volunteers to form a committee with sufficient numbers to run the concerts in 2010 – on that occasion help was forthcoming – but now, ten years on, after retirements at the end of this year, only four committee-members will be left, with no immediate prospect of new and interested people available to offer their services. This has been in spite of frequent verbal pleas to audiences at concerts and statements made in newsletters, as well as through general networking.

We at Middle C have already expressed our alarm at the prospect, my colleague, Lindis Taylor having reflected at the “catchment” of the HVCM Society being approximately 35% of Greater Wellington’s population, and describing the loss as “a very regrettable hole in the region’s musical scene”. Considering the quality and richness of the 2019 concerts, the removal of the series is nothing less than a tragedy for music-lovers in the region, and must surely be similarly viewed by those authorities concerned with maintaining the range and scope of Hutt Valley’s overall pool of cultural activities.

This particular concert, by dint of its outstanding quality, served to further underline the tragedy of any such impending loss. It also reinforced the fact of our having been so fortunate that Diedre Irons chose all those years ago to make New Zealand her home,  bringing with her, as she has done, such an all-encompassing range of skills relating to her piano-playing, to the delight and enrichment of thousands of people throughout her adopted country. For here was a kind of apogee of the pianist’s art laid out for our gratification and pleasure, via her playing of three of the greatest works for the keyboard ever composed.

Though written for performance on a two-manual harpsichord, and designed to employ the contrast in the music between “solo” and “orchestral” writing for the player between the hands, JS Bach’s “Italian Concerto” has become a favourite of pianists everywhere, all relishing the challenge of realising these contrasting passages on a single keyboard. The work’s three movements provide the fast-slow-fast framework of a concerto, while different voicings inflect both the single lines and the contrasting two-handed, “orchestral” aspects of the music.

From the beginning, Irons’ playing had strength and vigour, the opening paragraph a veritable  irruption of joyful energies, everything having a “schwung” kind of quality that seemed to give the music all the elbow-room it needed. Further into the movement I found myself beguiled by the waxing and waning of so many hues and colours from out of the pianist’s different  phrasings, Bach refracting and reimagining his material before our very ears, until the opening flourish returned almost laughingly, bringing us to a full, deliciously burgeoning circle!

My view of Bach’s slow movements has never been the same since listening to ‘cellist Raeul Pierard’s “masterclass” performances of the ‘Cello Suites about a year ago, a saga whose guided journey “opened up” the composer’s emotional world for me to a hitherto unrealised extent – Here in the Concerto’s middle movement murmured depths of emotion, out of which, under Irons’ fingers, both the stoically-repeated accompaniment and the exposed melodic line created arabesques of feeling through which we drifted in wonderment, a deeper, richer accompaniment intensifying the sequence’s repetition, its sighing conclusion framed by two deeply-felt trills.

Irons’ touch throughout the work’s finale seemed to me to enable us to leave the world of keys and hammers behind, the instrument transformed into something magical admitting to no age or era, merely a “transport of delight” whose tones sing, chatter, whisper and chuckle in all registers, maintaining that sense of captivation by the music which the pianist seems to me to bring to whatever she plays – a joyous experience for all!

I last heard Irons play the mighty “Appassionata” Sonata of Beethoven’s at Wellington Cathedral, of all places, something of a surreal sonic experience in that fearsome reverberation. Partly to her credit and partly due to our sitting as close to the pianist as we could, she seemed to me to make as much musical sense as was possible of the work amid the haloed ambiences of resonance that threatened to swamp much of the fine detail. It was a truly “enhanced” musical event, the sound-picture akin to, in sonic terms, “a mighty Polypheme”, at once fascinating and grotesque to experience.

By comparison, here in the relatively modest confines of Woburn’s St.Mark’s Church, one could appreciate in an almost completely untrammelled way the pianist’s mastery of the music, the portentous opening gestures disturbingly reaching upwards and into the light, before conflagrating and, avalanche-like, rolling thunderously down into the music’s brooding folds, glint-eyed gestures of defiance having their say before giving way to an opening-up of rich, warmly-laden utterances, the defiant opening theme turned on its head and transformed here into something almost Prospero-like in its wisdom. Irons took us into the heart of each episode, relishing each of the work’s tumultuous arpeggiated episodes leading firstly to the appearance of the ominous Fifth-Symphony-like four-note motif, and then the latter’s even more portentous reappearance just before the movement’s tempestuous coda, the playing encompassing a climax and a dying fall whose force and focus left us stunned!

The middle movement’s theme-and-variations here unfolded simply and directly, with Irons giving the second-half of each of the sequences a crescendo-like flowering of warmth and strength, grown beautifully from the first half’s simplicity. She galvanised us with her rapier-like repetition of the questioning upward gesture at the movement‘s end, and the finale was upon us like the surge of a rapidly-burgeoning river in flood. Irons’ command of the music’s trajectories was total, conjuring up as many ghostly half-lights as there were full-blooded onrushings, the onslaught less a question of tempo and more of focused energy and momentum, the music here controlled, there unleashed, and everything balanced within the vistas of a tumultuous overview – to the point that, when Irons DIDN’T plunge into the movement’s (admittedly controversial) second-half repeat, and went straight on into the work’s coda, I found myself for the very first time in my experience not objecting, so taken-up was I with what she WAS doing instead with it all, to resoundingly satisfying effect! – an amazing performance!

In the wake of such an onslaught of focused musical impulse the Liszt B Minor Sonata held its head up proudly, the work’s unities and diversities finely-judged by the pianist, her playing underlining the shape and intent of the structure, while bringing out the music’s poetry and nobility. Liszt hides nothing in this work by artifice or false emotion – every gesture is whole-hearted and part of an overall integration of thought and feeling, as is the almost alchemic synthesis of the work’s different motifs – a remarkable achievement by the composer, and one which Irons enhanced with her acute instinct for proportion and varied emphasis throughout.

Right from the beginning of the work a kind of urgency informed the proceedings, of the kind which sought out essences rather than glossed over them, and honed them to their sharpest extent – the first few pages of the Sonata give the listener nearly all the material the composer is going to use throughout the whole, single-movement work,  Irons here displaying an almost alchemic flair with each fragment in its delineation and later development. At every turn I felt her playing triumphantly balanced the work’s virtuoso elements with the more inward, poetic content, in a way that left one in no doubt as to the logic of the composer’s thinking and the creative mastery of it all.

Faced with such a recreative achievement one hesitates to dwell on any single aspect of Irons’  performance – but I couldn’t help but be particularly moved on this occasion by the delicate poetry of the “Consolations-like” theme at the piece’s very heart, which all but held the music’s pulsings still for a few precious moments, just before the fugue’s darker purpose grew out of the still-to-be-negotiated journeyings – here, its evocation felt to me almost Dante-ish, life-journeying stuff, like a glimpse through a window into a pilgrim’s soul, and as such, a precious and profound moment.

Very great acclaim at the piece’s conclusion from us all for Diedre Irons, who then treated us to an encore in the form of Schumann’s well-known “Träumerei”, a performance which, to my surprise, I must confess to finding somewhat enigmatic from this pianist in its most uncharacteristic “matter-of-factness”, the notes to my ears expertly but somewhat plainly sounded – I reasoned that, at the conclusion of such a recital, a performer’s instinct may well be to return us to our lives, rather than weave further ongoing spells of enchantment. Whatever the case, and however unexpected, it still didn’t lessen the impact of a remarkable recital, one whose resonances will surely fuel our hopes for some kind of as-yet-unspecified “revival” of chamber music performance in the Hutt Valley for the future.