Colour and excitement aplenty – Monique Lapins and Jian Liu play Bartók for Rattle

Rattle Records presents:
BARTÓK – Violin Sonata No. 1 Sz 75
Violin Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
Rumanian Folk-Dances Sz 56 (arr. for Violin and Piano by Zoltan Székely)
Sonatina for Piano Sz 55 (arr. For Violin and Piano by Andre Gertler)

Monique Lapins (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)
Producer: Kenneth Young
Recorded: Graham Kennedy
Mastering: Steve Garden
Cover and Booklet Art: Night Music II by  Ernestine Tahedl

RATTLE RAT-D130 2022

Both violinist Monique Lapins and pianist Jian Liu are well-known to me via various recent live concert experiences, though I’ve yet to see them perform together (my Middle C colleague Steven Sedley reviewed a St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert at which the pair performed Béla Bartók’s First Violin Sonata – https://middle-c.org/2021/05/monique-lapins-and-jian-liu-give-consummate-performances-of-bartok-and-debussy-at-st-andrews-of/). Rattle’s new CD devoted to Bartók’s works for violin and piano certainly whets the appetite for more from the pair! Backed by stunning visual presentation (the fantastical Bartók-inspired work of Austrian-born Canadian domiciled artist Ernestine Tahedl adorns the front cover and the booklet pages), everything about the production is so  attractively wrought and sonorously captured one can’t help but be drawn willingly into the music’s colour and excitement.

Bartók’s extensive researches in to and collecting of Hungarian folksongs strongly permeate both of the major works on this recording,  given that, at the time of their writing (1921-22) he was also expressing  interest in the Second Viennese School’s modernity and atonal explorations, along with the works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The folk-song element is evident at the opening of the First Sonata when the impressionistic whirlwind of piano tones introduces a folkish lament-like song from the violin.  An ebb and flow of exchange between the instruments dominates the first section, now forceful now rhapsodical, with the piano often set a-dancing by the violin’s roller-coasterings! The “great calm” that settles over the music’s central sequences is beautifully caught by the recording, the piano’s crystalline patternings augmented by the violin’s delicately-sculptured lines – all so haunting and magical, and gorgeously realised by both Lapins and Liu. Though interspersed with further trenchant violin lines and monumental piano tones, a sense of contained calm (with echoes of a “Dies Irae” chant!)  returns at the movement’s end.

The slow movement is begun raptly and wistfully by Lapins’ violin,  a gorgeous outpouring of tone, eventually joined by Liu’s piano – the plaintive and heartfelt exchanges bring to my mind the Debussy of Canope,, from his Book II Preludes,  the sounds suggestive of a deep yearning, so tender and inward. Distant gongs which sound mid-movement then build in weight and focus,  the rhapsodic mood gradually made excitable as the violin pours forth folk-like declamations, though the piano grounds the music once more, planting footprints in the music’s snow – we hear some ethereal high violin notes and responses of limpid beauty from the piano, before the enchantment of it all regretfully draws to an end.

The third movement is a foil to all of this, something of a madcap house,  not unlike the contrast between the second and third movements of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto – though Bartók’s differing moods in his finale are even more quixotic than Ravel’s! Wild, combatative chords from the piano issue a call to arms, a challenge taken up by the violin, its wild dance hotly pursued by the piano (lovely smoky, pesante-like tones from Lapins’ violin) resulting in a right old set-to between the instruments – extraordinary declamations, each blaming the other for the ruckus! – the instruments plunge into the “friss” again and again, but come to grief each time with different issues, one of them marked by almost grotesquely clumsy figurations from the piano, to which the violin cocquettishly responds, and another a sudden salon-like gesture of genteel insouciance – but both are whirled away once again by almost (at this stage) “silent-movie-galloping” sequences, with Lapins and Liu both on fire, the piano dancing and the violin rocketing up and down! – when, perhaps at the brink of exhaustion’s point,  a couple of mutually wrought, no-nonsense gestures conclude the mayhem!

The composer described the violin parts of both his two Violin Sonatas in a 1924 letter as “extraordinarily difficult…..it is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them” – though violinists “of the top class” may proliferate today, the difficulties of this music remain formidable, both technically and interpretatively. The Second Sonata has two movements, replicating the traditional “verbunkos” (translated as a “recruiting dance”), a sequence featuring a slow lassu introduction and a concluding friss. Lapins and Liu launch the work with expressive, long-breathed gestures right from the beginning, the opening folkish phrases beautifully sung by the violin and resonated by the piano, creating atmospheric and gorgeously-modulated sequences burgeoning with intent.  They “grow” the composer’s slow-motion intensities patiently, the playing by turns suggestive and full-throated, keeping the music’s exploratory musings and the folk-like figurations poised and expectant throughout as the movement comes to its tremulous conclusion.

As for the second movement, Lapins and Liu keep the listener virtually on the edge of the seat throughout the music’s brilliantly kaleidoscopic energies, beginning with portentous piano rhythms, brash string pizzicatos and impetuous running sequences, the exchanges growing wilder as the music develops. Along with an improvisatory kind of feeling – the music lurches from quiet and brooding to raucous and energetic almost without warning throughout – there’s a strong sense of striving towards somewhere the music might call home, expressed most convincingly in the folk-like themes that recurs on each instrument by turns throughout, a lyrical fragment of which eventually calls the work to rest. But along the way one relishes some familiar Bartókian gestures, such as the “tipsy” sequences mid-movement, during which one can almost smell the wine on the music’s breath; and the suggestions of “night-music” in places, though more hinted at than actual in such capricious music as here.  Elsewhere, the quicksilver volatility of these players’  exchanges and responses to the music are remarkable, from the brooding expectancies to the more trenchant, full-on engagements, the music seeming to reach out and summon the questing, exhausted spirit home at the end….

I enjoyed comparing Lapins’ and Lui’s playing with that on another New-Zealand-made recording of the same sonata, that by violinist Justine Cormack and pianist Sarah Watkins on the Atoll label (ACD 101) coupled with sonatas by Debussy and Janacek. I thought Cormack and Watkins found more light and shade in the work’s various sequences, their lighter touch enabling a quicker tempo for the first movement and lighter textures in places in the second. Having said that one couldn’t possibly nominate a preference for one performance or the other based on anything except raw feeling – suffice to say that I felt the Bartók performance by each duo was engagingly of a piece in style and intent with their presentations of the other music on their recordings.

It was a good idea for Lapins and Liu to present each Sonata with a kind of “makeweight” top provide some “breathing-space” for the listener in the wake of such intensities! – thus after the First Sonata we hear a set of “Romanian Folk Dances” which first appeared as a piano solo, but has since been arranged for various instruments as well as in an orchestral version by the composer – Bartók’s friend Zoltan Szekely made this particular arrangement. I first heard this music in its solo piano form on my very first Bartók LP featuring the pianist Gyorgy Sandor – on the sleeve of that disc the LP’s contents were described as  “A timid soul’s approach to….” (in small lettering) “BARTÓK” (in big print)! With works like the “Out of Doors” Suite and the ”Allegro Barbaro” on the disc, it was all an exhilarating experience,  here replicated for me by Monique Lapins and Jian Liu but without a trace of timidity!

After the Second Sonata the disc concludes with another arrangement, that of a Sonatina for solo piano SZ55, originally titled Sonatina on Romanian Folk Tunes when written in 1915 by Bartok, and subsequently reset for violin and piano by violinist Andre Gertler, who frequently performed with the composer. Lapins and Liu give these pieces all the fun and directness one imagines first attracted the composer to the “original” melodies. I felt sorry for the poor captive bear, in the middle “Medvetanc” (Bear Dance), but the concluding Allegro vivace restored my jolly listening mood. Throughout, as with the rest of the disc, I was lost in admiration at the players’ ability to adapt their style to the material, these dance-like items for me as warmly spontaneous and fun-loving to listen to as the performances of the two Sonatas were gripping and profound.

Yuka and Kemp – a concert of popular violin music

Wellington Chamber Music Society presents:

Yuka and Kemp – violin and piano

Elgar – Salut- d’Amour
Beethoven – Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Maria Theresia von Paradis – Sicilienne
Anthony Ritchie – Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Massenet – “Méditation” from Thaïs
William Kroll – Banjo and Fiddle
Handel – Sonata in D Major HWV371
Paganini (arr. R. Schumann) – Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Kreisler – Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
–   Liebesleid  / La Gitana
John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Monti – Csárdás

Yuka Eguchi (violin) and Kemp English (piano/organ)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 10th July 2022

Yuka Eguchi is the Assistant Concert Master of the NZSO; Kemp English is a solo organist, a specialist in playing the fortepiano, and a collaborative pianist. The two put together a programme of violin music that most people know from such collections as the ‘best loved violin pieces’, but which are seldom featured in concert programmes. They are light, and lack substance that form the backbone of serious classical recitals, but  they are all immediately appealing.

Edward Elgar Salut d’Amour
The first item in the concert was Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, a popular salon piece that was Elgar’s engagement present to his future wife. It is lovely, personal, and melodious. The performance was not only notable for Yuka’s impeccable violin playing, but also for Kemp’s sensitive piano accompaniment.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Yuka and Kemp gave this much – loved Beethoven Sonata a straight forward reading. There is much to this piece, questions and answers, humour, and whimsy. The lyrical, gentle, extended song like slow movement, which is the heart of the work, is followed by a limping cheeky third movement. The final movement sums up the whole Sonata; this is what life is all about. Because the playing was so clear, there were details which came through which might have been glossed over in a less precise reading.

Maria Theresia von Paradis Sicilienne
Paradis was a pianist, blind, with a prodigious memory that she needed with no eyesight. She was a contemporary of Mozart whose concertos she played. She was a prolific composer and a teacher, but Sicilienne  that she is best remembered for was, not, in fact written by her. It is a musical hoax, composed by Samuel Dushkin,  –  a Polish American violinist, who worked with Stravinsky and William Schumann on their violin concertos. He also composed pieces under the names of largely forgotten composers such as Paradis and Benda. His Sicilienne is a charming, sentimental piece harking back to another era.

Anthony Ritchie Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Anthony Ritchie, a contemporary New Zealand composer and, Professor of Music at Otago University, is  best known for his symphonic works. Song for Minstrel, however, is a short work for violin. It starts with a violin solo of sheer beauty, followed by a jazzy development. Minstrel was a dog, not a person: the dog of the poet, Sam Hunt.

Jules Massenet Méditation from “Thaïs”
This popular work is the embodiment of a sentimental romantic age. Suspense awaits each note.

William Kroll Banjo and Fiddle
William Kroll was the leader of the Kroll Quartet, one of the great American string quartets of the 1950s and 1960s. He was an eminent teacher and chamber music player, but is perhaps best known for this short popular fiddle piece, capturing an American folksy idiom with something of a gypsy feel. It has a touch of Hollywood sentimentality. It is both showy and technically difficult.

George Frederick Handel Sonata in D Major HWV371
This sonata is Handel’s last piece of chamber music. It is rich music, evoking Handel’s operatic music, elegant, gallant. Kemp English sat down at the organ instead of the piano and played the keyboard part on the organ, which added a special effect to the piece. The organ made it sound grander, and the violin part more operatic. Like everything in this concert, it was different and illuminating.

Niccolò Paganini (arr. Robert Schumann) Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Paganini’s 24 Caprices for the violin are landmarks in the violin literature, and No. 24 is the best known of them all. It is such a compelling piece that Brahms, Rachmaninov, Boris Blacher, Chopin, Liszt, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Witold Lutoslawski, Karol Szymanowski, Eugéne Ysaÿe, Benny Goodman and many other composers have incorporated it in their work. Robert Schumann decided that a piano accompaniment would enhance the work – who are we, mortals in a later age, to argue with him? Yuka’s was certainly a virtuoso dazzling performance with Kemp quietly in the background on the piano.

Fritz Kreisler Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
Liebesleid / La Gitana
Fritz Kreisler was among the foremost violinists of his time, a generation before Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz rewrote people’s expectations of a violin virtuoso. After Heifetz Kreisler might have been considered old school. Much of his music is charming and gemütlich  evoking old-time Vienna as  in Liebesleid and La Gitana, (The Gypsy). The latter is full of exotic colours and flamenco-type rhythms. Both pieces are from a collection Kreisler published under the title of ‘Classical Manuscripts’. Some  pieces were attributed to Baroque composers, though all were his own compositions. Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice is something else, a truly challenging virtuoso piece in the tradition of Paganini, or for that matter, Ysaÿe, to whom the piece was dedicated. Yuka was undaunted by these challenges. Jaw-dropping stuff!

John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is a sorrowful Holocaust film and the music captures its deep unrequited sadness with its beautiful haunting melody.

Before she played the piece, Yuka said, that she dedicated it to Peter Barber, long time, colourful and much-loved member of the NZSO who passed away recently, and to Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated the day before this concert.

She also talked about her violin, made by Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi in 1766. one of the great luthiers of the golden age of violin making. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a wonderful tone. It was appropriate for Yuka to acknowledge her instrument in this violin recital for violinists.

Vittorio Monti Csárdás
With the final item in the concert we are back in the jubilant mood of the earlier part of the programme. Vittorio Monti was a Neapolitan composer. This is by far his best known work. It is a rhapsodical concert piece, written in 1904, and is based on the Csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. It is invigorating music, a showpiece for violinists.

The artists received a standing ovation, quite unusual for the sedate, elderly audience of Sunday afternoon concerts. The audience was rewarded with an encore of another lovable Fritz Kreisler piece, Rondino on a theme by Beethoven – and we all left happier for this afternoon of enchanting solo violin music music. Yuka and Kemp are wonderfully accomplished musicians. One wonders why we haven’t heard them before in Wellington.

 

An Eastern European smorgasbord at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

Music for Cello & Piano from Eastern Europe

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano  (1898)

Witold Lutoslawski Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano (1981)

Bohuslav Martinů Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano.  (1941)

Robert Ibell (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew on the Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

We are very fortunate in Wellington to have artists of the calibre of Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson. They are both very versatile musicians. Ibell is the cellist of the Aroha Quartet, a past member of the NZSO, and now he plays with a number of different ensembles. Rachel Thomson is an accompanist, associated with many local artists. They presented a program of largely unfamiliar works from Eastern Europe. I am giving here a brief account of this, their recent cello-and-piano recital  for the historical record.

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano

This is an early work of Suk. Ibell and Thomson gave the opening sombre Ballade plenty of emotion and intensity, following this with a playful Serenade. Both movements required soulful playing by cellist and pianist alike. They brought out the melodious, approachable character of the work most successfully.

Witold Lutoslawski:i Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano

This was written more than eighty years after the previous piece. A lot had happened to the world and music in those intervening years – two world wars, and the disintegration of the received ideas of what music should sound like. Lutoslawski uses the first four notes of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande which then becomes the metamorphoses, the transformation, the breakup of the notes into different rhythmic configurations. At the end of the piece the four-note configuration from Pelléas returns.  Ibell’s and Thomson’s playing rose splendidly to meet both the technical and musical challenges posed by this work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano

It’s good to hear Martinu’s music being played more frequently in concerts. This substantial sonata was written in 1941. The war was at its most brutal early stages, and Martinů’s Czechoslovakia was no more, causing him to seek refuge in the United States. He wrote this major work, which is essentially in the traditional three movements. The first movement is vigorous and energetic, the second is full of passionate longing with a gorgeous lyrical cello line, and the finale makes use of strong rhythms suggesting Bohemian peasant dances.

This, in tandem with the other works, made for a stimulating concert, and brought to us seldom performed music that was well worth hearing. I thought there was a real sense of fine partnership between Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson throughout. Their playing was thoroughly convincing demonstrating what sounded like real affinity with this repertoire. For their committed efforts these two musicians deserve our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

The long way to Bohemia

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.

Late afternoon sunlight

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Aroha String Quartet with Rachel Vernon (clarinet)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 1 May 2022

This was the first concert of a new season for Wellington Chamber Music, and the organisers must have been anxious. The pandemic has changed audiences and the business of giving concerts. Would they come?

They needn’t have worried. St Andrew’s was pleasantly full for this delightful concert, featuring Rachel Vernon on clarinet.

The Aroha Quartet have been regular performers here over the years – they were founded in 2004 – and they have their own following. But the pandemic has worked some changes on the Quartet, too.  Concerts were cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, and cellist Robert Ibell had to take time off after an injury last year. Today Anne Loeser was guesting as second violin, although you would never have suspected, such was the rapport between the players.

Two of the works in today’s programme were familiar: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, and Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Opus 115. Sandwiched in between these chamber classics was a mysterious little work by Astor Piazzolla, called Oblivion. What could it be?

Mozart’s Quintet of 1789 is a delightful work. Mozart took the clarinet seriously, and helped to establish the instrument as a member of the orchestral woodwind section. He wrote this quintet for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and subsequently referred to it as the ‘Stadler Quartet’. Stadler played it on the bassett clarinet, which has four additional low notes compared with a standard clarinet. These days the work is usually performed on the clarinet in A flat (and no one is quite sure where those low notes were used, as Mozart’s original manuscripts have never been found).

From the opening phrase of the first movement, the group established their characteristically warm sound, incorporating the deep sonority of the clarinet’s first entry. The balance was beautiful and the phrasing graceful. The cello’s pizzicato passage with the lyrical first violin above set the style for the work: refined, stylistic, beautiful.  The second Larghetto movement unfurls long, long phrases from the clarinet over muted strings. The clarinet is always moving over the more static string passages. There was lyrical playing from first violinist Haihong Liu.

The third movement, Menuetto, is rhythmic and dance-like, with a lovely aria from the clarinet. The middle section, two trios, features some thrilling clarinet playing, first very low, then high, as though to show off what the instrument is capable of. (After all, it wasn’t invented until 1788, the year before Mozart wrote this quintet.) The fourth movement is a theme and variations, which sometimes buried the clarinet in the string texture. There are some fast passages in which the strings chase each other, with the clarinet maintaining a calm presence over the top.

Next came the Piazzolla work. This was fantastic. It began life as film music, written for a film called Enrico IV, which was itself based on the play by Pirandello. But such is the beauty of the writing that the work is often performed as a concert piece, either for bandoneon (as in the film) or adapted for other instruments, including the clarinet, as here. There’s a famous version for string orchestra with Gidon Kremer on violin, another for solo guitar, and even one for two cellos and ice-skater. For me, knowing nothing of these, the string quartet and clarinet version was completely perfect, with loss, longing, and resignation balanced between the voices.

The film is described as a tragicomedy, but tragedy is to the fore in Oblivion. It opens with a weighty and complex sadness, with the clarinet shimmering in and up the scale, first lyrical, then grave. The string writing is passionate, the clarinet calming, a clear true voice. Finally, the cello somehow turns into a bandoneon, with low throbbing from the clarinet before it disappears into a trill. It is a short work. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again.

If you want to get a sense of this small perfect work, by all means listen to it on YouTube, but you will not experience the beauty of Rachel Vernon’s playing, or the sympathetic accompaniment of the Aroha Quartet.

The last work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Like Mozart, Brahms was moved to write a quintet because of the playing of a virtuoso clarinettist. In 1890, no sooner had he announced that he had retired from composing than he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, and promptly de-retired.

This is another well-known and beloved work. For me it shimmers with late afternoon sunlight. That is not to say it lacks drama. There is a moment of passionate agitation in the first movement, yet the darkness is followed by golden light. The second movement is slow and sad, as though the performers are walking, carrying a great weight. The clarinet sings of loss, but also beauty. The third pastorale movement, with its rushing, scurrying strings, allows the clarinet to sing. The fourth movement is a set of variations. It finishes by using the material from the first movement, returning to us the golden shafts of sunlight, falling between the trees. A short duet between clarinet and viola over pizzicato cello, and then a gentle falling into silence.

There are three more performances of this programme. The ones in Rangiora and Thames are probably too far, but if you get a chance to go to Wanganui for their concert on 13 September, take it. A gorgeous first concert to open Wellington Chamber Music’s 2022 season.

Music of our time – Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ, at St.Andrew’s

Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ

Music of our time

Monique Lapins, violin, Beth Chen and Nicole Chao, piano, Naoto Segawa, percussion
St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 20th  April 2022

This was a varied concert of mainly short works by contemporary composers, two New Zealanders, Ross Harris and John Psathas, one Turkish, Fazil Say, and two American, Paul Schoenfeld and Glenn Stallcop. They are hardly household names, but this short concert of about 60 minutes gave us a glimpse of what composers of the present time are writing, although each of the five pieces on the programme were quite different.

String and Wood  (Ross Harris)

Monique Lapins and Naoto Segawa

This short work for Marimba and Violin reminder me of Gamelan music, once popular at the NZ School of Music. The violin was plucked echoing the marimba. It was a duet of the melodic violin used mainly with plucking like a percussive instrument and the rich vibrant gong like sound of the marimba

Five days of the life of a manic-depressive’  (Paul Schoenfeld)

Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

Paul Schoenfeld is an American composer known for combining popularfolk, and classical musical forms. ‘From Bintel Brief‘ and ‘Boogie‘ are the last two movements of a group of short pieces for Piano Duet. From Bintel Brief‘ has echoes of Jewish melodies, but in particular, the feel of popular Broadway musicals. Boogie‘ is a very energetic work endeavoring to capture the youthful frenzy of popular swing or rock dance. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen threw their all into this fiery work.

Sonata No. 1  (Fazil Say)

Monique Lapins and Beth Chen

Fazil Say is a Turkish pianist and composer. This sonata for violin and piano was the major work of the programme. It is in five short movements, with the first movement, ‘Melancholy’ repeated as the final movement. It is an approachable work, but it has its challenges for the performers, the manic second movement, ‘Grotesque’ and the fiercely fast ‘Perpetuum, mobile’ of the third movement. It gave Monique Lapins a chance to shine and show what a fine, sensitive violinist she is.

Matre’s Dance  (John Psathas)

Naoto Segawa and Nicole Chan

Maitre’s Dance is a dance performed by a group of fanatics in Frank Hebert’s science fiction classic, Dune. John Psathas’ piece depicting this dance, became part of the standard repertoire of concerts by percussionists. It is a conversation, or perhaps more appropriately, a duel between piano and a range of percussion instruments, in this performance only a modest range of drums with no tympani. It is entirely based on strong rhythms, though occasionally something resembling a melody was trying to emerge from the keyboard. It is a virtuoso piece for percussionist and pianist alike. It is not for the fainthearted traditionalist, but it is an interesting challenge for those who are prepared to explore new varieties of sounds.

Tarantella from Midsummer Night  (Glenn Stallcop)

Monique Lapins, Naoto Segawa Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

For the final item of the concert we had the whole complement of instruments on stage, violin, marimba, piano with two pianists. Glenn Stallcop is an American composer. The Tarantella is the third movement of a three movement work. It is a colorful piece with an interesting array of sounds, the gypsy sound of the violin, the bell like resonant timbre of the marimba, all underpinned by the strong rhythmic piano part.

This was an important concert, adding a new dimension to the Wellington concert experience introducing unfamiliar compositions and composers. The performance was absolutely convincing, the pieces were superbly played. A great credit to all the four performers who put so much effort into presenting this colorful variety pieces. A larger than usual audience showed their appreciation.

 

 

Taioro – words and music of Aotearoa New Zealand at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2022 presents:

TAIORO – A new ensemble (2021)  presents New Zealand Chamber Music with Poetry,
for speaker, viola, cello and piano

(“TAI, the tide. Representing the ebbs and flows of tangaroa and the energy that we ourselves hold.
ORO, to resound or resonate, and the word used for a musical note.”)

Music by Antony Ritchie, Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn and David Hamilton

Sharn Maree Cassady – poet and speaker
Donald Maurice  – viola / viola d’amore
Inbal Megiddo – ‘cello
Sherry Grant – poet and piano

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Wednesday 16th February, 2022

This lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace furthered what’s become a refreshing change of late for ears inundated in the past with “standard” repertoire and presentations – a recital of words and music from a recently-formed group, Taioro, presenting works whose origins and inspirations stemmed from our own place, Aotearoa New Zealand.  Of course, there’s an impressively-growing body of work already emanating from our own composers, with names too numerous to mention; and with contemporary performance groups such as Stroma occasionally emerging in concert with some stimulatingly ear-prickling sounds. The challenge for these composers and musicians is to keep up the momentums, fostering continued interest in “our” sounds and our singular ways of doing things.

While some of the works presented today could be almost deemed “historic”, with music by Alfred Hill (1870-1960) and Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), along with poetry by ARD Fairburn (1904-57) and James K.Baxter (1926-72), we heard also music by living composers Anthony Ritchie and David Hamilton (the latter present at the concert), in tandem with poetry written by both the concert’s presenter, Sharn Maree Cassady, and pianist Sherry Grant, along with another poem “Stone Woman” written by Christchurch poet Bernadette Hall and set to music by Anthony Ritchie – it was, all-in-all, a judicious mix of past and present creative endeavour!

We began our listening with Anthony Ritchie’s wonderfully storm-tossed Allegro tempestuoso for viola and piano, taken at a real lick by Donald Maurice and Sherry Grant. Amid the sparks generated by the playing I heard an exotic flavouring or two in the piece’s harmonies and the folksy rhythmic drive, emphasised also by the viola’s “eastern” kind of melodic line in a slower, expressive middle section. The performers adroitly brought out the numerous different characters in the music’s widely-ranging explorations, bluesy one moment and then whirling and vertiginous the next – after all the sound and fury, the performers brought the piece to its somewhat amiably halting conclusion.

A second piece by Anthony Ritchie was titled In Memoriam, the music dedicated to the life and passing of a woman called “Angela”, whose AGEA motive the piece featured was demonstrated on Donald Maurice’s viola beforehand. This was a beautiful-sounding work, the violist playing variants of the “Angela” theme over a kind of threnody from the ‘cello (a gorgeous tonal outpouring from both string-players, here, the music brief but extremely moving). We heard also a piece Ritchie had named after a poem by Bernadette Hall, entitled “Song – Stone Woman”, the music seeming almost anecdotal in effect, rhythms “jamming” in an improvisatory way and accompaniments wry and loose-limbed. The poem was read simply and almost conversationally by Sharn Maree Cassady, Hall’s style as a poet seeming to lend itself to such treatment.

Thanks, it seems, to some vagary of the venue’s particular acoustic, I had to strain to hear much of this spoken content of the presentation at the concert, though I was sitting almost right at the front, albeit on the opposite side from where the speaker, Sharn Maree, was placed. After the concert I checked with the person sitting next to me, and she said she also had difficulty hearing the words accompanying firstly the Alfred Hill tribute piece, and then both of Douglas Lilburn’s tribute pieces to ARD Fairburn and James K.Baxter (the latter two including the poets’ own poetry). The music, by contrast, seemed to present no problem – about which circumstance I thereupon wrote a “draft review” of what I had heard, and contacted the performers outlining the  difficulties I’d experienced.

I would, of course, have far preferred to have heard more clearly Sharn Maree Cassady’s comments in situ (all delivered seemingly in similar poetic style) regarding all three of the “past” personalities, belonging as they did to eras which had different attitudes, values and modes to our present PC-dominated world.  At the time, the music provided ample compensation, but I was still aware I was missing an integral part of things. Project co-ordinator Donald Maurice thereby arranged most kindly for me to view and hear the entire concert as it was videoed, something which I have just finished watching. To my delight speaker Sharn Maree’s words in the recording came over perfectly clearly, enabling me to truly take in each of her poetically-expressed responses to the texts associated with the chosen pieces that made up the concert.

Though Alfred Hill’s piece that was presented had no accompanying text, his numerous interactions with Maori during his time in New Zealand were well-documented, giving Cassady sufficient material to craft a response to Hill’s work, words and philosophies. The poetry of ARD Fairburn (1904-57) by turns swashbuckling, wry and romantic, and definitely from an age which more contemporary attitudes would almost certainly find in places at best old-fashioned, and at worst with racist and sexist overtones – so it was no surprise to find in her reply to James K.Baxter (1926-72)  a far more sympathetic and shared acceptance of certain values in both the poetry and regarding the ethos of the man in popular legend, than in her reaction to Fairburn’s verses.  This was underlined via a nicely-flowing and readily-nuanced reading of Baxter’s poem Sisters at Jerusalem, followed by a response begun with a whimsical “May I call you James?” from Cassedy, prefacing her reply.

The  music of Alfred Hill’s chosen was simply  called Andantino, one which I later discovered was a transcription for viola and piano of the slow movement of the composer’s Viola Concerto. Like everything I’ve heard of Hill’s, the work had a distinction and a surety of touch which Donald Maurice’s and Sherry Grant’s playing enriched and ennobled with their rich, heartfelt tones. The piece’s ending had its own singularity – an exquisitely-voiced modulation Into “other realms” before the voices found their way back to the home key at the end.

Douglas Lilburn’s “salute” to Fairburn began with a lovely mantra-like piano figure whose sound for me exerted considerable emotional pull, like a seabird’s song calling a traveller home, one whose response in the hands of ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo matched such feelings with beautifully-projected tones, the feelings truly “grounded” by the piano’s deep-sounding pedal-points and the cello’s joyous life-dance, one that eventually brought forth ringing bell-like resonances at the piece’s conclusion. Just as resonant in its own way was Lilburn’s tribute to James K.Baxter, beginning with a ritualised exchange of bugle-like calls between viola and piano that put one in mind of a walking song, one that engagingly broke into a 5/4 dance, replete with energy and humour – at the revelry’s height the dance cried off with the piano’s deep-throated call to attention, bringing the viola back to the by-now nostalgic bugle-like calls from the beginning, the energies having come full circle and brought us home once more.

With the work of David Hamilton our concert returned to the here-and-now with a world premiere of a work for narrator, viola d’amore and piano “Avec amour” (With love). This was Hamilton’s setting for those instruments of the words to a poem by Sherry Grant, the concert’s pianist. Unfortunately the programme I picked up at the concert’s beginning was missing its inner section with the poet’s text printed in full, so that I struggled throughout to pick up “shreds and patches” in tandem with the ongoing musical discourse, the instruments often masking the words.

I thought the music both soulful and  piquant at first, then more declamatory and bardic as the way was prepared for the narrator. The poem’s words seemed to describe some kind of conceit, idealistically describing something perhaps as imagined as real, which the sounds of the viola d’amore and the piano reflected – all framed by the  phrase “a true rarity in this age”. The setting gave the discourse and their sounds a somewhat detached air in places, a feeling that the music’s epilogue reinforced for me, leaving a “do I wake or sleep” kind of impression at the end. It was a piece that I wanted to hear again immediately afterwards, as there was a dreamlike air about it all that seemed to defy direct engagement – one could “drift” rather than properly engage (and I wasn’t helped by not having the words available to read and follow in situ.) The voice’s diffused sound gave its timbre an almost instrument-like quality, another strand to the argument, another layer to the textures…

Having (a) procured a copy of the poem’s words, and (b) been kindly sent by Donald Maurice both a full script and a copy of the finished video, I was able to more justly “relive” the concert’s experience and, hopefully make proper recourse at last to the efforts of all of the performances, in particular this, the concert’s final item. Described by narrator Sharn Maree Cassady as “a tribute to the viola d’amore”, the work began with a recitative-like passage for the viola d’amore before being joined quixotically by the piano, the speaker then adding to the narrative strands as if the words were threads weaving their way through a sound-tapestry. At the verse’s end the music reflected on the meeting of hitherto free spirits and the tremulous attraction of unchartered emotional waters. Sharn Maree Cassady’s delivery weighed every word patiently, precisely, almost dispassionately, letting the music delineate the impulses, and the “ancient brilliance so unexpected, yet familiar in every turn, in each corner”.

Winsomely, the piano responded to the viola’s quizzical utterances, opening a vein of longing,  towards the igniting of the “infinitely burning desire” to the point of conflagration, the voice again the serene, objective observer, letting the heat of the “feverish pair of flaming swords” pass as if sunlight had suddenly broken through clouds, and then been again obscured…. the moment was here celebrated with incisive piano chords and then, prompted by the speaker’s words, “together we sing in joy”, moved on by the viola into an exchange of here-and-now fulfilment from both instruments…….the “song” became both rapturous and exploratory, the sudden upward modulation at the speaker’s words “Avec Amour” taking the listener to “different realms” beyond experience, transcending the usual “order” of things, even to the point of calling Cupid, the God of Love, to question with the “true rarity” of emotion beyond reason. Sharn Maree Cassady’s tones here evoked “time-standing still” ambiences, as the poem’s words, the viola, and the piano all appeared to take up the “feel” of the music’s opening once more, as if we had journeyed right around the sun – but, (as TS Eliot observed) “never the same time returns”, which was attested by the coda, with its different, more valedictory feeling.

We were asked at the concert’s beginning not to applaud between numbers, as the proceedings were being recorded. Aside from my frustrations at the time, I loved the concert and its sounds and the care and commitment with which the performers obviously brought these things to us for our enjoyment, and am so grateful to Donald Maurice, and to Antony Donovan, the recording engineer, for allowing me access to  the video recording in order to get the “full picture” of what the performers were able to achieve.

“Rockin’ On” with the Lockdown Quartet at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace

Family Lockdown Quartet

Lucy Maurice and Rupa Maitra, violins: Donald Maurice, viola; and Gemma Maurice, cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 20 October 2021

From 26 March to 27 May 2020, when New Zealand was locked down in Alert Level 4 and many of us were watching Netflix in our pyjamas until it was time for the 1 pm press briefing, the Maurice-Maitra family were putting in some useful quartet practice. Soon they were giving concerts on Zoom ‘to audiences all over the world’. In this charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s, they performed some of their lockdown repertoire.

To say the programme was eclectic doesn’t quite cover it. The pieces in the concert ranged across 200 years, from Mozart to Guns N’ Roses. The concert was in two parts: three short works from more standard repertoire, plus five interesting arrangements of great rock n’ roll songs.

Parents Rupa Maitra (violin) and Donald Maurice (viola) have had the good sense to produce two daughters, cellist Gemma and violinist Lucy. But still, a successful quartet is more than a matter of having the requisite instruments. Chamber music requires technical skill and communication. These they demonstrated – along with a sense of fun.

The first piece was an arrangement for string quartet of a famous tango song by Carlos Gardel, ‘Por Una Cabeza’, stylishly played. The adults’ more polished and powerful playing could have taken over, but with Lucy on first violin the girls held their own and the balance was surprisingly good. In the Presto from Mozart’s Divertimento in D major Lucy showed herself to be an able leader and a good communicator.  Then the parents left the stage while the girls played a charming Air and Variations by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, a contemporary of Mozart. A cellist, Bréval wrote mostly for his own instrument, but this piece gave both cello and violin plenty to do. So far a well-chosen programme, presented with confidence and polish.

When the parents returned to the stage, they had changed their appearance. Rupa was barefoot and wearing a spiky black and white wig, while Donald wore a hippy headband. No one was going to take themselves too seriously.

Donald told us that when he first heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the car radio one day, he had to pull over. That’s when he found out that he had missed out on ‘about 30 years of rock music’. ‘I had no idea what came after the Beatles.’  It was good, he observed, to be introduced to it now by his children, and to play it together.

Introducing ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC, Rupa commented that screamed lyrics were hard to reproduce by a quartet but a guitar riff was probably manageable.  And so it turned out. Violin 1 took the lead guitar part, with percussion from violin 2. There was some gutsy playing from viola and cello standing in for bass guitar.

I thought the most successful arrangement was Rupa’s own of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’. Gemma helpfully explained the colour imagery in the lyrics, and played a plangent cello introduction. Her mother took up the tune in the style of a lead guitar, and then passed it on to the viola. If the piece ended a bit abruptly, it’s because that’s what the song does.

I had no expectations of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’, but it worked particularly well for quartet, with an improvisatory quality, wisps of melody floating from voice to voice.

Surprisingly I found the arrangement of Queen’s prog rock classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the least successful of the bunch. The arrangement for quartet was by UK violinist and arranger Mark Lansom, who has arranged Iron Maiden and Cold Play for string quartet, as well several other Queen songs. The remarkable harmonic shifts of the original were there, but the operatic effects had lost their edge when transferred to strings. Roger Taylor’s falsetto ‘Galileo’s were markedly less thrilling when played on the violin, where they are well within the instrument’s range. But it was undeniably interesting.

All in all, an unexpectedly off-beat concert, delivered with confidence and a shared delight.

 

Individual and ensembled tributes to JS Bach from Pohl-Gjelsten and Friends at an inspired St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
Helene Pohl, violin

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Peter Gjelsten, violin

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
Rolf Gjelsten, cello, Nicole Chan, piano

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2021

Thursday 14th October

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
A well planned concert has an underlying narrative. In this case it was twofold, Bach, and the scope of a solo violin. Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin are landmarks in the violin repertoire and indeed in the development of the violin as a solo instrument. The Chaconne is the final movement of the second Partita. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, describes it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”  (Menuhin, Yehudi. 2001. Unfinished Journey,) It involves a set of variations based on a simple phrase repeated in harmonic progression in the bass line, but for the present day listener it evokes a whole world of emotions, and for the performer a whole array of technical challenges. Although by Bach’s time works for solo violins were well established, with Biber and Telemann among others writing pieces for solo violin, there was nothing comparable to this monumental work. Bach develops 64 variations from the simple basic theme of four measures. These become increasingly complex of increasing emotional intensity. It may, or may not have been written in memory of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died during a time while Bach was away, but there is no historical evidence for this apart from the date of composition. Helen Pohl’s performance was absolutely convincing. Her playing was clear and unforced as she did justice to the contrasts within the piece and played with a beautiful rich tone. It was a moving performance.

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Although Ysaye was quite a prolific composer, he is now mainly remembered for his six solos sonatas for violin, each dedicated to an eminent violinist, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, second violin of the Ysaye Quartet for a time. Ysaye himself was one of the great violinists of his era, an exponent of the French- Belgian school of violin playing of the tradition of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. He was a friend of Debussy and César Franck. Ysaye’s solos sonatas are fiendishly difficult. No.5 is in two sections ,L’Aurore, atmospheric, evoking the mood of the dawn, and Danse Rustique, with its strong rhythms, that of a peasant dance. The piece has a whole bag of tricks, double stop chords, harmonics, fast passages on top of held notes, plucked pizzicatos marking the melodic line of double stops, demonstrating what is possible to play on a violin. It is a great challenge for a young violinist on threshold of his career. Peter Gjelsten coped with these difficulties amazingly well. He gave a convincing reading to this seldom-heard piece .

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
This is a passionate and lyrical work, written when Brahms was 30 and had just arrived in Vienna. It is one of the few memorable cello sonatas of the nineteenth century. Brahms thought of it as a homage to Bach, and indeed he quotes from the Art of Fugue in the fugal passage of the third movement, but Brahms’ world is very different from that of Bach. This a world in which the emotional world of the artist is paramount. Although the form of the piece is strictly that of classical sonata, it is far from the restrained expression of Bach’s age. It is a very captivating work that calls for a deeply felt response from performer and listener alike. Rolf Gjelsten and Nicole Chao played it as a like minded partnership. Gjelsten played with a lyrical singing tone beautifully balanced by the piano. Emanuel Ax, the great American pianist, wrote in his notes for his recording of this work with Yo-Yo Ma that “The cello is often the bass support of the entire harmonic structure, and the piano is often in the soprano in both hands. This constant shifting of registers, with the cello now above, now below, now in between the hands of the pianist, creates an intimate fusing of the two instruments, so that there is no feeling of a more important voice that is continuous – the lead is constantly shifting.”

We have heard Nicole Chao as half of the delightful Duo Enharmonics, a piano duo with Beth Chen, Peter Gjelsten was the soloist with the Wellington Youth Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto last week, while Helen Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten are half of the the NZ String Quartet. Like many of the St. Andrews concerts, this lunchtime concert celebrated the vast pool of musical talent in Wellington.

 

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.