The pleasures of intensity – chamber music liberated by distinctive voices, superbly delivered

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Amici Ensemble

LISZT – Piano Trio “Carnival de Pest”
MOZART – String Quintet in G Minor K.516
CHAUSSON – Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet


Sunday, 3rd October

Violinist Donald Armstrong is always an interesting programmer. I loved his
innovative programming for the NZ Chamber Orchestra. But this concert had me
fooled: Liszt, Mozart, Chausson. I was looking forward to hearing the Chausson, but
not sure about the rest. How wrong I was!

The audience was restricted to 100, under Alert Level 2 conditions, and everyone
showed up for the last concert of the Wellington Chamber Music season. This has
been a mostly excellent season, with surprises and delights along the way.
Highlights for me were the revelatory Liam Wooding (piano) and the sheer energy
and fun of the first concert, in which Donald Armstrong, Sarah Watkins (piano), and
Simon Brew (saxophone) played Debussy, Piazzolla, and Farr (amongst others) with
verve and fire.

The Amici Ensemble comprises some of Armstrong’s colleagues from the string
sections of the NZSO plus the protean Professor Jian Liu from NZSM, in various
combinations as the music demanded.

The work by Liszt was an arrangement of his Hungarian Rhapsody No 9 in E major,
known as the ‘Carneval de Pest’, because it evokes the gipsy music of the old town
of Pest (now joined with neighbouring Buda on the other side of the Danube, but still
separate when Liszt wrote the Rhapsody). The arrangement of a solo piano piece for
piano trio was done by Liszt himself, and he used the possibilities offered by violin
and cello to create the distinctive gipsy sound that the piano version could only
gesture towards. Donald Armstrong and Andrew Joyce were gloriously idiomatic.
They played like Hungarian gipsies improvising from folk material, with one bright
idea following another, while Jian Liu sometimes used the piano to imitate the sound
of a cembalom, as Liszt required, or provided glittery cadenzas or scalic passages in
Hungarian rhythms with dazzling elaborations.

The cembalom is a Hungarian hammered dulcimer. It has steel strings (a mixture of
steel treble strings and wound bass strings, like a piano) and a damping pedal, and
looks rather like a harpsichord without the lid. The sound is produced by hitting the
strings with wooden sticks. Jian Liu is a master of producing colours and textures,
and on Sunday his playing rose to Liszt’s bravura heights.

The string textures were varied: pizzicato cello with arco violin to introduce a new
dance idea, or a drone from the cello with busy rhythms from the violin and piano.
Chordal punctuation, as though they were waiting for someone to suggest a new
idea – and then off they swung. It was like time travel: to Pest in the mid nineteenth-

century. Jian Liu finally brought the music back to a Romantic climax. The hectic
accelerando race to the end was sheer delight.

I would have been perfectly content to go home at this point, but there were two
more works to come. The Mozart work was a string quintet in G minor, K516, the
fourth of Mozart’s six string quintets (string quartet plus an extra viola). The
programme notes described the habit of late eighteenth-century composers getting
together with each other to play their own compositions, as well as chamber music
performances of Mozart’s string quintets with Haydn and Mozart taking the two viola
parts. In this case, the viola parts were taken by Nicholas Hancox and Andrew
Thomson, with Malavika Gopal playing second violin, Armstrong on first violin, and
Joyce on cello.

The viola has an undeserved reputation these days, as a dull plodder filling out the
harmony in the middle of the chord. Sheer prejudice. Mozart clearly loved the
instrument, and this quintet exploits its dark sonority and melancholy personality to
the full. The second viola part, played by Andrew Thomson, sometimes had a
woodwind quality, like a bassoon emerging from the string texture. As the quintet
unfolded, I wondered why there are not more viola quintets along Mozartian lines.
Armstrong’s first violin playing was virtuosic, with beautiful clarity of tone and
phrasing over the rich dark sound of the lower strings.

The work itself reveals Mozart in his prime, from the tremulous quavers of the
opening movement in sonata form, the agitated second movement with chordal
punctuation and heavy third beats, the slow movement that moved Tchaikovsky to
tears (‘the feeling of resigned and inconsolable sorrow’), to the rollicking final G
major allegro in rondo form, just to show that all is well after all. (Wipe your tears,
Piotr.) The third movement was glorious, starting with a stately hymn-like unfolding of
deep regret, and the second viola speaking to us directly from its wounded heart.
Aside from the rondo, which I thought could perhaps have done with one less repeat,
the whole work is a stunner. I felt as though a door in the palace of Mozart had
suddenly opened to reveal a whole new wing.

Which left us, after a short interval, with Chausson. Poor Chausson. He died in 1899
at the age of 44 when his bicycle hit a brick wall at the bottom of a hill. People have
wondered about suicide, but mechanical failure strikes me as being much more
likely. This work, Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21,
shows what a major composer he would have become, but for the bike. It was
written between 1888 and 1891 (Chausson did not write quickly), when the
composer was at the centre of French cultural life. He had studied under Massenet
and César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire. He was a chum of Vincent d’Indy; in
fact, they went to Bayreuth together for the première of Parsifal. He was friends with
Duparc, Fauré, Debussy, and Albeniz, not to mention the poet Mallarmé and the
Russian novelist Turgenev. From time to time I heard something of Debussy’s sound
world; better ears than mine would likely have added Massenet, Franck, and Fauré
as well.

Chausson wanted to show that chamber music could have the intensity of opera.
This concert proved his point. The solo violin and piano are sometimes treated as
virtuosic soloists and sometimes as members of a sextet. The first movement
(Décidé – Animé) begins with a simple three-note motif in the piano and then a
passionate violin solo over a liquid piano line. The three-note motif is handed around,
followed by many events and disclosures, complete with commentary and private
conversations. There is such a wealth of thematic material, it is like living through a
nineteenth-century novel written in music. Finally, the solo violin picks up the motif
and takes it higher, and then higher still.

The second movement is a Sicilienne in a slow 6/8, with a lovely dance-like lilt. The
third movement, Grave, is solemn, with grieving solo violin and sympathetic piano.
The quartet players are silent. When they finally enter pianissimo with sombre
chords, it is as though they are expressing sympathy. And so it progresses, the
piano first serene, then searching, walking steadily onward; the strings broken-
hearted. It is an extraordinary piece of writing.

In the Finale, the piano bursts into life in a jaunty ¾, with pizzicato accents from the
strings. And then it’s all on. Themes reappear from earlier, but transformed. Rhythms
come back; new ideas are tossed about, as though there are plenty to spare. I heard
Debussy’s distinctive tone colours most strongly in this movement. But mostly I was
amazed by the variety of Chausson’s ideas. The final climax was huge, rich, and
exciting. What will a standard string quartet sound like after this?

Thanks to Wellington Chamber Music, for a great season under tricky
circumstances. Bravo Donald Armstrong and friends, for such superb playing!

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