Admirable Waikanae chamber music from friends of a non-existant Wilma Smith

Waikanae Music Society
Wilma’s Friends: Martin Riseley (violin), Jian Liu (piano), Nicholas Hancox (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor (the single movement)
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 87

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Monday 26 October, 2:30 pm

This concert was to have been given by ‘Wilma and Friends’ – that is Wilma Smith, the former concertmaster of the New Zealand and Melbourne symphony orchestras; she lives in Victoria and was prevented from travelling; Martin Riseley, head of violin at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University stepped in, as did cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Nicholas Hancox from the NZSO.

‘Wilma and Friends’ has not been a consistent ensemble in the past: earlier, different groups have appeared at a previous Waikanae concert in September 2017 and there was a different programme at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in October 2017; a piano trio was at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February 2019, and the next month in Wellington; with none of the players heard at the present concert.

These players formed at remarkably congenial ensemble, with admirable balance between piano and strings.

The opening piano passages of Mahler’s 16-year-old single movement certainly hint at its orchestral aspirations with its triplet crochets, though it leads to the prominent emergence of Riseley’s meditative violin, though Hancox’s viola often has an equal part to play. Jian Liu’s piano was the perfect accompaniment, moving between the conspicuous and the discreet while Andrew Joyce’s cello always seemed a singular balance between subtlety and the essential of fulfilment.

It’s a sophisticated and imaginative piece that doesn’t outlast its ten or so minutes.

Interestingly, I came across a YouTube comment on the Schnittke elaboration of Mahler’s sketches for the second movement, to the effect that Mahler had left his manuscripts in the archives in Dresden which were destroyed by the terrible Allied bombing at the end of the war. In other words, they’d remained unstudied in Dresden for 35 years. Perhaps copies will eventually turn up in Vienna.

Schumann (not a single one of whose works found a place in Concert FM’s Settling the Score 100, in spite of surprising, quite frequent broadcasts of the symphonies on Concert FM recently) wrote only a few chamber pieces, and the piano quartet and piano quintet are among the best.

This was likewise a lovely performance; the three strings were again in remarkable accord right from the sombre opening in which the piano planted the most discreet remarks. The repeated, contrasting episodes spoke of typical Schumann discretion and genius, and the players knew how to express it, not preparing the audience for Schumann’s unceremonious ending.

The secretive Scherzo too was carried off with a sense of novelty, avoiding any expectation of what a Scherzo usually expresses, just a lot of interesting ppp piano passages leading to the two Trios that are decorated by the fleeting piano-driven insertions of the triple quavers of the Scherzo itself. They again enlightened any non-Schumannesque listener expecting more conventional developments.

Cello and viola take prominent, moving roles again in the Andante and both rewarded attention, and the shift from E flat to G flat minor – not a close relation – might have carried a subtle warning about flawed audience expectations.

It pays to recall Schumann’s literary references to the mythical creations, Eusebius and Florestan, whom he employs in his compositions, and these might illuminate the varied spirits that emerge in each of the movements, particularly in the mostly-Vivace finale.

One of the interesting effects of this performance was to question my normal feeling that Schumann’s piano quintet was more delightful than the quartet.

I had slightly the reverse experience with Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No 2, also in E flat. (Dvořák too wrote a very popular piano quintet – Op 81 which does rather remain a couple of degrees more delightful. Nevertheless, given the fairly limited number of great piano quartets, this one is still among the top five).

The piano is immediately prominent, even emphatic; here, calling for no needless restraint or subtlety. So I refrain from noting that my scribbles might suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the first movement has frequent, typical Dvořák’s characteristics such as delightfully decorated instrumental parts, countless varied themes; these players exhibited both a singular affinity with the music and a mastery of its playing.  The unusual modulation from E flat to G major might have had, no doubt as intended, the injection of seriousness, of unpreparedness, creating a rewarding listening experience.

In the course of this, something brought to mind a common musicological opinion that pianos and string instruments are in fundamental conflict; Dvořák did not think so, nor do I; after all, he was primarily a string player though also a fine pianist.

Cellist Andrew Joyce created a beautiful atmosphere at the start of the long, Lento second movement, which again evoked a meditative feeling, even a disquiet at times. It is not till after about five minutes that it’s possible to agree with the programme notes remark about seriousness and intensity, but the performance complied then, movingly. I was interested to note that, as with Schumann’s third movement (and this obviously comes from reading the score), there’s a modulation from E flat minor to G flat major, which seems to draw warmth from the music, and one wonders how much attention Dvořák had paid to Schumann’s key shifts.

The third movement, which doesn’t follow the tradition of a Scherzo, though it is in triple time, hinting at the Austrian Ländler, opens with a touch of seriousness, not quite an Allegro moderato, serioso perhaps. Nor is the last movement unalloyed joyousness, with substantial subdued passages, that drew attention to Hancox’s’ viola for example, that gently advance towards energetic episodes; occasionally I felt there was too playful a touch, almost flippancy. But there was still a uniform spirit in the playing that did superb justice to this hugely popular piece (again, commenting on Settling the Score, there was indeed a serious scarcity of great chamber music like this; no Beethoven or Haydn or Bartók string quartets – and no Haydn or Bartók at all).

However, this concert and its splendidly attuned musicians was fine consolation for the shortcomings of Monday’s exposure to the limitations of popular knowledge of and affection for such vast quantities of great music.


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