Martinborough Music Festival; Saturday evening of songs and Schubert String Quintet

Martinborough Music Festival
Between Darkness and Light

Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Ken Ichinose – cello, Matthias Balzat – cello

BRITTEN: ‘Not even summer yet’
DEBUSSY: Two songs from Ariettes Oubliées
RACHMANINOV: Lilacs Op 21/5
FAURÉ: Mandoline Op 58/1
PROKOFIEV: Two songs from Op 27 on poems by Anna Akhmatova
PROKOFIEV: Prelude Op 12/7
BARBER: ‘O Boundless, Boundless Evening’ Op 45/3
FAURÉ: ‘Clair de Lune’ Op 46/2
DEBUSSY: ‘Recueillement’
FAURÉ: ‘En Sourdine’
RACHMANINOV: ‘In my Garden at Night’ op 38/1
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C major

Martinborough Town Hall

Saturday 28 September, 7:30 pm

(This review from Charlotte Wilson arose as a result of my being unable to attend the third and fourth concerts: Festival chairman Ed Allen told me that he’d mentioned the matter to Charlotte; she offered to help and I welcomed her readiness to fill the gap between my review of the Friday concert and Steven Sedley’s covering the two afternoon concerts: Middle C is delighted to publish her sparkling review. L.T.)  

This is my first encounter with the Martinborough Music Festival. I leapt in my car up from Wellington to catch the last available seat for the Saturday evening concert and I’m so glad I did. People were there from all over: Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland. Note: I am not a music critic. I just talk on the radio. But I do love music. They give me a pen to make notes and I sit down.

The first thing you notice is how lovely the hall and the acoustic is: after three years, their first year in this beautiful, brand new renovated town hall, which has been strengthened and polished and expanded (lovely new library) to a point. Three cheers for the council. The mayor was there and spoke at the after-party.

They set the stage side-ways for this occasion; makes sense I suppose: wide point of view, everyone in the audience is close. And what a lucky audience we were! Even disregarding the songs which were of themselves exquisite, and I’m sure it’s Michael Houstoun’s appearance here (his last concert in Martinborough, and since he announced his retirement one of his last concerts ever) that contributed to the full house. But more – this is the greatest Schubert C major quintet I have ever heard, and one that I am going to remember for the rest of my life.

Jenny Wollerman: French and Russian songs 
The first half of the programme consisted of Jenny Wollerman and Michael Houstoun performing excerpts, for spring, of their celebrated disc of songs Between Darkness and Light (Rattle) – mainly French and Russian art song, settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, which they augmented for this concert with some Britten and Barber, Rachmaninov, more Fauré and Debussy – a sensual, impressionistic little cycle traversing the course of an early summer day.

Britten’s ’Not even summer yet’ opened. You’re immediately aware of the lovely acoustic, and Jenny’s spectacular power and control. Other highlights:  Prokofiev’s sunlit settings of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27, those wonderful Russian dance accents that crop up, thrilling: the gorgeous harmonies of Debussy’s ‘Recueillement’ and famous ‘Ariettes Oubliées’ (Verlaine), the singer and pianist so totally inhabiting the words and the music, Jenny’s perfect French. How beautiful Verlaine is, you forget. Lovely to have the song texts printed out. And why do we not hear Fauré’s songs more often? ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘En Sourdine’, both so exquisitely muted in this lovely acoustic, ‘Mandoline’ which conjures up a painting by Watteau, classical figures dancing. It was all like being transported to a fin-de-siècle gallery in Paris, or to a picnic on a river-bank with poplars rustling in the spring. Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Lilacs’ was so shimmering, you think of those little paintings by Vuillard.

Jenny’s in fabulous voice. Dramatic and powerful when needed, expressive and pianissimo when needed, she’s such a wonderful lieder singer with superb control and this lovely depth, even in the high notes. And need I mention the accompaniment? Perfection. Michael’s a master accompanist and a master impressionist, exquisite at this repertoire. We got Prokofiev’s ‘Harp’ prelude in the middle, too, as a treat. I hadn’t heard them perform these live, and they were all that the recording is and so much more: shimmering and splendid, sensual, ravishing songs from a duo that understood and inhabited them completely.

String Quintet in C Major
And then the highlight of the evening. One of the musical events of my life! Schubert’s C major quintet has always been everybody’s favourite. That slow movement. And the whole thing of it being his last work; completed only two months before he died; he tried to get it published but his block-head publishers had already written him off as just as song composer and besides, wanted pretty salon piano pieces, not anything near so important or sublime, the most profound work of the nineteenth century.

Michael and Jenny have exited, are now sitting in the audience, and we have on stage four string (or former string) principals – Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Wilma Smith, Christopher Moore from the Melbourne SO (astonishing viola) and Ken Ichinose Associate principal NZSO. Plus Matthias Balzat, back from the middle of his master’s study in Germany, playing first cello. They’re all brilliant soloists in their own right. Never heard such perfect intonation. But also they’re all dead keen chamber musicians – there’s Matthias watching Vesa-Matti like a hawk – and that meant perfect attacks, perfect Schubertian unisons, gorgeous duets like the one between the violin and cello in the second movement, perfect arpeggios tossed up and down from violin to cello the way that Schubert loves doing, changes totally imperceptible to the ear. Dynamics, perfectly judged. Utterly sense-making tempos, dancing where it dances, with a lovely Viennese lilt. Quite fast in the slow movement. And above all – because of course there was all the beauty and pathos of Schubert: the divine melodies, the exquisite textures (that pizzicato!), the extraordinary wandering as he does (sleepwalking as Brendel puts it) up and down through the keys. There was the urgent seat-of-your-pants-ness of a live performance which nothing can match. But there was also something else – the grit that is Schubert, the muscularity, the little surprises. I loved hearing this. Through the whole performance you just had this sense of one overarching conception underpinning everything and I would not have been so very totally surprised to see him sitting there with us in the room.

Can’t wait for next year now. What a performance, what a programme! New Zealand has a new, top-notch chamber music festival! Massive kudos to Ed Allen, the chair, and the whole of the organising committee. Martinborough, celebrate.