Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

The phenomenon of Beethoven – celebrated here by Wellington Chamber Music with Te Kōkī Trio

By , 09/08/2020

Wellington Chamber Music presents:

BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30 No. 2
Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in A Op.69
Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello WoO 27
Piano Trio in E-flat Major Op.70 No.2

Te Kōkī Trio – Martin Riseley (violin) / Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) / Jian Liu (piano)

St.Andrew’s -on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 9th August 2020

It’s a bit of a truism to say that Beethoven and his music represent a kind of apex of enduring creative expression for modern-day humankind; and while such pronouncements can be literally questioned in terms of world-wide demographics and cultural bias, they still carry weight in a kind of “perceived-by-many” fashion – it would be difficult to think of another composer whose music has penetrated such widespread spheres of human awareness, however deep or superficial. Certainly, there’s a ready and ongoing perception of Beethoven’s “everyman” quality, which, aided and abetted by popular legend regarding many aspects of his life with all of its struggles, and setbacks, has resulted in widespread “identification” with what’s regarded as his essential character, one of wholehearted and unquenchable energy and purpose, and emergence from it all as a figure of the utmost inspiration. His music triumphantly supports  this “wholeness”, its many-faceted characters having, it seems, something to say to all peoples engaged in the business of simply being human.

At this point I could exclaim “Goodness! – I don’t know what came over me!” – or even whisper as an aside, “Sorry! – that just slipped out!”, having stepped down from my self-proclaimed orator’s dais and realised what pompous utterances I’d just finished making. But the concert I attended on Sunday at St.Andrew’s of Beethoven’s music was so very replete with human personality and engagement I could straightaway concur with those words that I had read in the afternoon’s printed programme by none other than Igor Stravinsky (expressed much more simply and effectively than my high-flown observations!) – and felt “inspired” on re-reading them at this point, unaccountably enough to add my above two cents’ worth!

One of the intentions of the musicians in presenting this concert was to, as per programme, “demonstrate many facets of Beethoven’s craft”, which aim they succeeded brilliantly in doing. Most democratically the items chosen featured three appearances by each of the afternoon’s performers, and even included a work I wasn’t familiar with – the first of Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello, WoO 27, a work whose actual authorship is still being contested in some circles, but whose energy, wit and grace certainly resulted in some “Beethoven-like” sounds! I thought the “creative contrast at the outset between Martin Riseley’s violin’s bright, silvery tones and Inbal Megiddo’s  ‘cello’s warmer, richer resonances created a fascinating kind of process throughout these three movements of the sounds from both players gradually “connecting” – whether that process of frequency-sharing was unique to my peculiar “listening sensibility” I’m not certain, but by the time the pair had plunged into the opening piece’s “second episode” I felt their different sounds had begun to resonate more surely together – and the dovetailing of detail was certainly exciting!

The work’s Larghetto second movement featured a dialogue between violin (so very graceful) and ‘cello (sonorous and romantic) which together developed into a kind of “communion” in the quieter exchanges, again demonstrating  a kind of “opposites attract” concourse of sensibilities from both players – but in no time at all, the sounds had energised into the Rondo-finale, the ‘cello breaking off from the lively opening exchanges to sing an “out-of-doors” theme with the violin continuing to dance in attendance, with some minor-key wistfulness along the way creating some distinctly Beethovenish moments, a forthright unison episode notably among them!

Having jumped precipitately into a description of the music that began the concert’s second half, I feel I owe it to the reader to introduce a semblance of order and backtrack to the first half’s beginning, which featured Martin Riseley and pianist Jian Liu in one of Beethoven’s characteristically up-front C Minor works, the Op.30 No, 2 Violin Sonata. How directly this music speaks! – the terse opening piano figure descending into darkness, the violin’s reply intensified by keyboard agitations, and a brief confrontation between the two instruments suddenly transforming into playfulness! – as Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote in a poem about the flight of a kestrel, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing…” – meaning that here, exposition and development are made to the composer’s own specifications, the “playfulness” evident in the music, for example, drawing on darker, more serious elements which extended the emotional capacities of the sounds beyond where we might have expected. Riseley and Liu generate terrific tension in places, their sharply-honed teamwork focusing on the music’s volatility of invention in a way that left us disconcertingly breathless after only the first movement!

The piano’s troubadour-like song which began the slow movement was here echoed almost privately by the violin, the players musing their way through the melody’s second half, the instruments then taking turns to “augment’ their partner’s reprises of the theme, the violin contributing decorative birdsong counterpoints, to which the piano replied with swirling counterpoints above and below the music’s surface. A couple of disruptive outbursts apart, the music enchanted in this performance, Liu’s gossamer fingerwork the perfect foil for Riseley’s silvery tones. The Scherzo galvanised these realms of poetic utterance into places of action, playfully at first, but with sudden intent to sting, the piano in response effecting to try and  “swot’ the offending violin! – again such surety of contrast on the composer’s part! Without being too pronounced a contrast, the Trio’s rumbustion was delightfully enabled, Liu’s nimble reflexes and Riseley’s silvery lines carrying the day.

The finale’s brief but characterful repeated opening crescendo here made me think of a train bursting out of a tunnel and into the open, the biting accents having their moment before exchanging  grimaces for grins as the players launched into the dancing measures that followed, even though the minor key sequences furrowed the brows once again. With the train’s every re-emergence came a different mood, a sunny rondo whose performance brought smiles to listeners’ faces, a darker, more purposeful venture into the light in search of a resting-place, and, finally, a wistful remembrance of times past, until a burst of no-holds-barred energy seized both performers and their instruments and drove the music home!

It was then Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello’s turn to take us on a different creative strand’s exploration, in the composer’s Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano No. 3 in A Major – here, the exposition began lyrically instead of tersely, the ‘cello singing its opening phrase, and the piano replying as would a sweetheart, with equally fond sentiments, and a show of gallantry, before each “exchanged” blandishments with comparable gestures. After some shared minor-key complainings, Mediggo’s ‘cello began the first of those wondrous ascending phrases that seemed to lift our sensibilities to a higher plane of feeling, Liu’s piano following suit before joining in with the ‘cello in a heartwarming affirmation of shared purpose. The turn towards the darker regions of the development brought out, by turns, plaintive and passionate playing, Beethoven presenting us with impulsive, but organically-flowing contrasts of light and energy,  Megiddo and Liu then beautifully returning us from the depths of one of these exchanges us to the recapitulation’s reaffirming light. A jumpy scherzo, filled with syncopation, followed – Liu’s piano was away first, vaulting over hedges and other obstacles, the ‘cello drawing level in time for both to board the contrasting Trio’s droll roundabout, each instrument lending a hand to the music’s droning momentums and self-satisfied ditties.

A punchy “tutti” and a mysterious, sotto voce conclusion to this brought us to the final movement, one containing an Andante Cantabile introduction – what a melody! – and here, made into such a beautiful moment by these musicians! –  Megiddo’s ‘cello so lovingly preparing the way for the piano’s delightful energisings, Liu’s nimble-fingered tattoo of repeated notes buoying the ‘cello’s lyrical pronouncements along and giving rise to exhilarating exchanges, major key effervescence alternating with darker insinuations – again one marvelled at the music’s sheer articulateness of interchange, generating such momentums while maintaining a play of light and dark, strength and lyricism in the ebb and flow of it all.

Following the aforementioned Duos it was “all on stage” for the concert’s finale, The Op.70 No.2 Piano Trio in E-flat Major, a work somewhat in the shadow of its “Ghost” companion, but nevertheless having a definite character of its own. The programme-note writer particularly mentioned Schubert in connection with this work, a kinship which particularly resonated for me in the piano writing throughout the Minuet and Trio, but which was evident in the freedom of the work’s treatment of contrasting moods. At the work’s beginning, Megiddo’s cello led the way into exquisitely-shaped portals of melody, the outpourings unexpectedly galvanised by a sudden irruption of energy which served notice that anything could happen during the work’s course! The players brought out the Allegro ma non tanto’s attractive swaying motion, making the rhythm’s sweep central to the argument, fitting the motifs (including the dreamy second subject) into the music’s rounded corners with grace and ease, but also with plenty of forthright energy as those same motifs in other places jostled for position – I would have thought Brahms’s sturdy treatment of his themes in his chamber music owed something to this work as well.

The courtly grace of the second movement’s opening proved deceptive as the music served up variation after differently-characterised variation, hugely enjoyed by the players, and ranging from impish scamperings to vigorous Cossack like stampings! Eventually, the music’s inventive energies dissipating as quickly and po-facedly at the end as surely as the final forthright payoff suddenly slammed the last word home! The third movement’s gentle lyricism maintained the work’s varied character, Beethoven (somewhat surprisingly on first hearing) opting for a kind of old-world grace as a contrast to what had gone before, instead of giving us one of his physically trenchant scherzi – but in view of the finale’s unbridled exuberance and the players’ astonishing “give-it-all-you’ve-got”, response to the writing, things couldn’t have gotten much more involved or exciting as here! Those incredibly “orchestral” upward rushes repeatedly essayed by the piano crackled with firework-like energy in Jian Liu’s hands, inspiring his companions to generate their own versions of brilliant, coruscated response, leaving us at the work’s end both exhilarated and exhausted, though at the very end we greedily implored them for more, and were rewarded for our acclamations by a repeat of the graceful Minuet and Trio – a judicious “return to our lives” epilogue to an exhilarating concert experience !

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