Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

The long way to Bohemia

By , 19/06/2022

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts series  presents:
Czech Mates

Martinů – Piano Trio No 2 in D minor
Janáček – Violin Sonata
Bowater – Fekete Folyó (Black River)|
Dvořák – Piano Trio No 3 in F minor (Op. 65)

New Zealand Chamber Soloists
Lara Hall (violin), James Tennant (‘cello), Katherine Austin (piano)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace

Sunday 19 June 2022

A cold grey afternoon in the middle of winter. But the programme looked interesting: a Czech club sandwich with a slice of Bowater. The New Zealand Chamber Soloists have a history of commissioning new works. The work by Helen Bowater was commissioned in 2020 as part of their ‘Seven by Seven’ project: seven works by seven New Zealand women composers, lasting seven minutes, with support from Creative New Zealand. But how would the Bowater fare, I wondered, surrounded by works written by three of the great Czech composers of the past 150 years?

The programme notes were succinct, but the performers provided excellent introductions to each work.  Cellist James Tennant told us that Martinů grew up in a bell-tower (the tower of St Jakub Church in the small town of Polička), where his father was both a bell-ringer and fire watcher. We should expect lots of bell sounds in this energetic work, especially in the piano part, he said. ‘Bong! Bing! Bang!’

Having been expelled from the Prague Conservatory at the age of 20 for ‘incorrigible negligence’, Martinů managed to get himself to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Roussel and listened to jazz. Back in Prague, Martinů had been keen on the French Impressionists. Now he was living amongst them. But in the late 1930s, he was forced to leave Paris. He had written a work celebrating the Czech resistance and was wanted by the Nazis. He made it to the US by 1941. This Piano Trio was written during a very productive period, 1948-56, when Martinů taught at the Mannes College of Music in New York. (Burt Bacharach was one of his students.)

The Piano Trio, written in just a few weeks in 1950, has all the emotional complexity of the position in which Martinů found himself. On the one hand, he was productive and happy. His symphonies were being performed by the big American orchestras. On the other, his marriage was in difficulties. His wife wanted to return to France; he wanted to go home to Bohemia. But after the coup of 1948, when the Communists came to power, he couldn’t go back to Czechoslovakia.

The trio expresses all of this. There is delight and even fun (James Tennant imagined the young Martinů hopping down the steps of the bell-tower), with sprightly string rhythms and glittering flows of notes from the piano, and a fast scramble to the end of the first movement. But the second movement opens with sombre chords from the violin. The piano is sympathetic, but positive; the cello is supportive and understanding. Where? Why? Eventually all three voices reach a kind of agreement. The third movement starts with a terrifying energy (like Schubert’s Erlkönig) that morphs quickly into energy minus terror. The piano part is busy, lyrical, and positive, but it becomes drawn in by the violin’s insistent rhythms. The bell sounds in the piano part are not soothing. The violin is agitated; the cello supportive. There is much more agitation before the final chords come down.

This is an interesting work, not often performed. I was struck by the expressive beauty of the piano writing, and by Katherine Austin’s gorgeous technique. The voices are pretty evenly balanced, but it is the violin that seems to speak for the composer, directly and frankly, from the heart.

Next was the Janáček Violin Sonata. Katherine Austin explained that, while other Czech composers assiduously researched Czech folk music traditions, Janáček sat in cafés listening to conversations, and notated Czech speech rhythms.  He tried to write a violin sonata when he was a student, studying in Leipzig, and again in Vienna, but his early sonatas have been lost. This work was written in 1914, when he was 60. Janáček said that, in this sonata, ‘I could just about hear the sound of steel clashing in my troubled head.’ The sonata was premièred in Brno in 1922, and the following year it was performed in Frankfurt, with Paul Hindemith playing the violin.

The con moto first movement ‘sounds like a row, really’, as Katherine Austin put it, with the voices continually interrupting and contradicting each other. It opens with a big statement by the violin, with the piano strumming broken chords. The piano part is fast and ranges all over the keyboard, the violin interjects, or comments, and finally has the last word. The second movement, Ballada, Katherine Austin described as being like a lullaby, with ‘quiet breathing’. It opens with a lyrical tune from the violin and a restless piano part underneath. Anxiety turns into a sad but resigned song, full of dark energy, with a rippling motif from the piano. The third movement began with a nursery tune in the piano and ‘something flying overhead’. The fourth movement was pastoral, lyrical, ‘like watching dawn break’, with brusque interruptions from the violin.

And next, the Helen Bowater piece, Fekete Folyó. The Danube is the ‘Black River’ of the title, and the work recalls terrible events happening to the Jewish Hungarian and Romanyi people of Budapest. The cello is given a solo that tells of heartbreak and tragedy, and the violin sings a melancholic song. But its seven minutes also capture the wild rhythms of gypsy music, with plenty of pizzicato and strumming, and some Jewish harmonies. It finishes with a kind of threnody for the violin and cello together, then just the violin. And then silence.

This is an interesting and affecting work that sounded well alongside the Czech composers. It was evocative and sympathetic, with plenty to tell us.

And finally, the Dvořák Piano Trio No 3, written in 1883, the earliest work on the programme. This trio is not as famous as his fourth, the Dumky (1891), and it is not written in his cheerful Slavonic style. It is a big work, nearly 40 minutes long, with a lengthy first movement that Lara Hall described as ‘a great journey, long and deep’. At the time of writing, Dvořák was facing a tricky problem. He had been approached to write a second opera, but on a German subject and with a German libretto. Dvořák longed for recognition as an operatic composer, but he wanted it on his own terms. (He had already suffered from anti-Czech prejudice.) And his mother had just died…

From the first bars, we are back in Bohemia, as though the concert has been a long journey home. After the trio’s first performance, in which Dvořák played the piano part, the contemporary critic Edward Hanslick wrote that ‘the composer finds himself at the pinnacle of his career’. (He was not to know that the best was yet to come.)

In the third movement, the violin introduces the ‘dead mother’ theme, with sympathetic support from cello and piano. It is all so sad. But the piano is more optimistic – perhaps there is a way through. The violin repeats the theme, but higher and sweeter. Perhaps there is.

The fourth movement (allegro con brio) features a furiant, that Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time with strong accents. Dvořák used it memorably in the eighth Slavonic Dance. Finally, all tensions resolved, they dance off, presto, to a joyful resolution.

This trio brought out the very best from the players. The NZ Soloists have been playing together since 2006, and it shows. They are well balanced and make a beautiful sound.  James Tennant’s cello was especially warm and beautiful, supported by Lara Hall’s lyrical violin playing and Katherine Austin’s gorgeous support from the piano. The whole concert was conceived as a complete experience, with its moments of emotional intensity and resolution well placed.

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