Wellington’s Ghost Trio’s flair and brilliance concludes an eventful 2021 for Chamber Music Hutt Valley

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
The Ghost Trio in concert

Joseph HAYDN – Piano Trio in G Major, Hob.XV:45
Josiah CARR (NZ) – time and glue 2017
Gabriel FAURE – Piano Trio in D Minor Op.120
Antonin DVOŘÁK – Piano Trio  No. 3 in F Minor Op.65

The Ghost Trio :
Monique Lapins (violin). Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Gabriela Glapska (piano)

St. Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 13th October, 2021

What a year for Chamber Music Hutt Valley! – a glance at my season ticket brings back ripples of musical pleasure as memories crowd in of concert following extraordinary concert, with only one pang of disappointment clouding the glow of satisfaction generated by the Society’s 2021 series. This was the cancellation of August’s “Sweet Chance” Vocal Duo presentation – Morag Aitchison (soprano), and Catrin Johnsson (mezzo), with Rachel Fuller (piano) and Serenity Thurlow (viola)  – due to Covid-19 restrictions. One can only hope that audiences get a “Sweet SECOND Chance” in the not-too-distant future to experience what had promised to be an intriguing and unashamedly entertaining evening’s music-making.

Though the shadow of the pandemic took its effect on this, the final concert in the series (masks, social distancing, audience numbers reduced, and the cancellation of post-concert supper), those who attended revelled in an evening’s music-making which fully reinforced the high-watermark standards of achievement set by these 2021 performers. I’d actually reviewed an earlier concert this year by the same performers at the NZ School of Music, and did try to arrange for one of my Middle C colleagues to take this concert – but came the time and nobody else was available (to my secret delight, I freely admit – though, I did wonder what the musicians’ reaction might be to having the same reviewer’s opinions regarding their playing and interpretations “served up” for two concerts running!……)

Fortunately the repertoire in each occasion’s case was “chalk-and-cheese” different, which helped my reviewer’s cause a great deal! – this latest concert was a veritable “showcase” of the art of the Piano Trio, beginning with a work from Joseph Haydn, the composer who had virtually “invented” the present-day version of the genre, before contrasting this with a contemporary work by a New Zealand composer, Josiah Carr, and continuing with two vastly different pieces from more-or-less contemporary figures written at different times in their careers, Gabriel Faure and Antonin Dvořák, each contributing his own individual stamp to the form and creating something uniquely characteristic in doing so.

I felt a tad perplexed when, before writing this review, “looking up” the concert’s opening Haydn item, as listed per the programme note – I was surprised at finding the Hob. Number of the work played not aligning to what I heard the Ghost Trio perform for us – so I remain mightily confused as to just where the work is “placed” in the composer’s oeuvre (in my list of Haydn’s Piano Trios there is no “Hob.XV 45” mentioned, for example, and “Piano Trio No.45”  is actually “Hob: XV 29 in E-flat major”, again, according to my source). Somebody reading this will know, and sort out the correct numbering and key so that I can actually track down a recording……

Monique Lapins introduced the concert for us, her choice of descriptive imagery relating particularly to, and illuminating aspects of both the Josiah Carr and the Faure works for us – I particularly enjoyed her equating the Faure Trio’s sounds to “a warm bath of colour”, a quality that the subsequent performance realised most gorgeously, reinforcing her point about the composer’s instinctive use of harmonic variation determining the music’s character more significantly than did its structure.

First up was the Haydn, however, a work in which the piano dominated, though the strings invariably brought their colours and textures, as well as a sense of interplay, to the music. The work’s development section climbs into different tonal regions, the violin occasionally giving an exuberant “whoop” via accented single notes, while the ‘cello keeps the contrapuntal textures simmering away in tandem with the keyboard. I’d heard it said that the ‘cello part in many of the early examples of Haydn’s Piano Trios is reduced to a kind of “filler” function – but seemingly not here, in most places, and even more not-so with a ‘cellist of Ken Ichinose’s elegance.

The work’s Menuet has a fetching minor-key sequence. Lapins’ violin giving this great poignancy, and Gabriela Lapska’s playing allowing her plenty of ambient space, highlighting  the ensemble’s marked quality of “listening” to one another, something which the following Adagio also readily brought to the fore throughout the music’s journey of enchantment, every note made significant. The finale, too, exudes character, with a rustic “thwang” on the violin’s note-attack, Lapins seeming to “pizzicato” one of these ejaculations at one point, whether by accident or design! – whether bowed or plucked, it all worked just as engagingly!

New Zealand composer Josiah Carr’s “time and glue” employed, through the poetry of Aucklander Emma Harris, a fascinating analogy with the creative process in presenting fragments of sound that become “associated” through interaction. The work provides a time-frame, and the piano the “glue” (the composer helpfully provided a programme-note!), into which scenario the strings contribute ideas and impulses that struggle to “mend” as required along the lines of the piano’s framework. I enjoyed this process, especially the trenchant episodes during which the instruments appeared to “confront” one another, perhaps out of sheer frustration at meeting resistance rather than co-operation! I fancied the idea the sounds then suggested of the piano next “stalking” the strings, which had taken stratospheric “refuge in the treetops”, and gradually enticing them down once more, the violin prevaricating with lurching slides (spanning sevenths?- ninths?) before slowly capitulating, the ‘cello more circumspectedly keeping a pizzicati eye-out for trouble, but eventually making its own connections. A stimulating, thought-provoking piece!

From this we were then taken into the very different world of Gabriel Faure, whose D Minor Piano Trio Op. 120 was written during his final years (he produced only one other work, his single String Quartet, before his death in 1924) and allowed us to savour a unique musical aesthetic, characterised by a quiet strength and truly original attitude towards form and structure. We heard in the first movement of his Piano Trio the mature composer’s obvious delight in daring harmonic modulation, his invention seemingly unconstrained by any “tyranny of key-signature”, and his imaginative fancy transforming convention into something almost child-like in its spontaneity, the results exciting and absorbing!

The Andantino brought us more of these “impulses of delight, the players etching out the composer’s tender dialogues between piano and strings, and violin and cello in turn, the themes allowed to resonate and echo, with the piano sometimes the accomplice, sometimes the leader in the process. There’s a breathtakingly beautiful piano solo from Glapska mid-movement which the strings briefly “touch” with comments, adding their intensities of feeling to the already burgeoning contents of the phrases; and subsequent sequences which once again begin climbing and festooning the music through key-changes into what Robert Schumann used to call “other realms” when sounds seemed to magically transform themselves – did someone mention a “warm bath of colour” at one point?……..

The strings and piano squared off at the finale’s beginning, the piano sparking with excitement in reply to the strings’ dotted-rhythm challenges, until the music disconcertingly skipped away, the players again floating their harmonies freely upwards as the dance energised our listening-pulses! A couple of unison shouts from the strings were peremptorily dismissed by keyboard flourishes, and the dancing continued, the players at first delighting in the music’s hide-and-seek-like harmonic shifts, but gradually “toughening up” on the folk-like ambiences, so that as the music modulated upwards the excitement grew accordingly!

So we came to the concert’s second half, whose music generated its own distinctive energies and tensions, Antonin Dvořák’s first widely-recognised “great” chamber work, the Op.65 F Minor Piano Trio. It’s often described as the composer’s most “Brahmsian” work, referring to  the older composer’s friendship with and frequent advice and encouragement to the younger man at the time this work was written – as with the D Minor Symphony, also composed at around this time, Op.65 seems more-than-usually “European” in its formal and thematic expression, as if Dvořák was emphasising “mainstream” modes ahead of his native “Czech” instincts. Fortunately, his native gifts as a composer were exceptional and distinctive to the point where any such “models” or “influences” didn’t diminish his own achievement – though Brahms’s influence is apparent in this work, it’s still “Czech” enough to be judged on its own merits and enjoyed as such.

The Ghost Trio readily took up the work’s challenges, recreating at the outset the music’s dark, serious purpose via the sombre themes and the terse gestures, though with the occasional touches of Slavonic harmony in places suggesting that this piece has roots in a specific kind of soil. And the second subject, played firstly on the cello and then the violin (Ken Ichinose and Monique Lapins respectively) had a freshness and ardour to the melody that for me proclaimed its Dvořákian provenance in the lilt of its last few bars – and the quasi-martial aspect of the episode immediately following straight away brought to mind a similar sequence in the composer’s later ’Cello Concerto…..

A similar “haunted” quality hung about the Allegretto grazioso second movement, the triplet accompaniments to the melody having to my ears a suggestion of unease amid the thrusting orchestral-like writing, as did the piano’s haunting oscillations a little later – the trio section is more flowing and atmospheric, like “music from another room”, the violin’s and piano’s tender figurations beautifully augmented by the ‘cello’s contributions. And I loved the frisson created by the opening’s return, the cross-rhythms at first hinted at, then suddenly released, the ensemble building the excitement with trenchant rhythmic interjections from all the instruments. The contrasting Poco Adagio slow movement felt like a tranquil woodland recollection in places, before the piano delved into the music’s darker, more troubled side, the strings taking refuge with gorgeous interchanges, the violin soaring, the cello musing and the piano simpatico. The composer’s rich re-imaginings of his material seemed to release a spontaneity of fancy to the journey, the performance here reaching a point of rapture, with the piano’s breathcatching modulations prompting the tenderest response from the strings that one could wish for.

After this the finale puts on dancing shoes, the players making the most of the somewhat angular “falling octave” figure at the beginning, before relaxing into a second minor-key melody with great charm and point, Dvořák imbuing this episode with an inimitably nostalgic, almost “homesick” quality. Vigour and tenderness continue their interplay, the music twice seeming to grow towards a kind of peroration before breaking off for some further reflection – the sounds then become almost confessional in these interludes, the composer unable to resist revealing to us a further precious glimpse of his heart-felt longing – be it mere convention, or a deeply-felt burst of resolve, the work ends with a triumphant flourish, one that on this occasion sparked rapturous acclaim from an appreciative audience.


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