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