A fine piano trio at St Mark’s, Lower Hutt, for lunch

Anna van der Zee (violin), Paul Mitchell (cello) and Richard Mapp (piano)

Kodály: Duo for violin and cello, Op 7 – first movement; Dvořák: Piano Trio No 4 in E minor, Op 90 (‘Dumky’ )

St Mark’s Uniting Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 25 July, 12.15pm

A common perception of a free lunchtime concert might be of amateurs of moderate skills and talents playing in a cold church.

None of the aforesaid is remotely true, and in the present case, such a perception borders on the ridiculous, if not libellous. The church was reasonably warm and enjoys a congenial acoustic that is kind to musicians both amateur and professional. Its only flaw is in the church’s design: the entrance, at the east end, alongside of the sanctuary means that the audience is very aware of people entering late or leaving early.

Kodály wrote a solo cello sonata and this duo, at the beginning of World War I.  Neither is  particularly easy to penetrate on first hearing (I have been rather slow to begin hearing its beauties, after a number of exposures), as the composer drew his inspiration from the genuine, somewhat savage folk music of the Hungarian people, rather than the gypsy music that was more easily assimilated and had been taken to the hearts of music lovers of the 19th century.  As with Bartók, Kodály had priorities other than writing beguiling tunes in the West European mould.

Nor did the players here make any attempt to sugar the pill. The cellist in particular dug into his strings with a bite and determination that rather dominated the Duo, though the violin, more lyrical, lacked nothing in comparable intensity. One has however heard performances on record that are more persuasive in terms of warmth and emotional appeal.  They played only the first movement (Allegro serioso, non troppo), which was presumably seen by Van der Zee and Mitchell as an interesting filler, which indeed it was, to provide a sharp contrast with the gorgeous trio that followed.

It was no doubt the second work that had attracted this much larger than usual audience on this wet, cold day. Dvořák’s Trio Op 90, is called the Dumky (plural of ‘dumka’), meaning meditation or lament, though it is punctuated by brighter, quite rapturous episodes; the word is related to the Russian word, Duma – thought, council – which is the name of the Russian parliament.

Dvořák used the Dumka in several other works such as the second Slavonic Dance and the Piano Quintet, Op 81.

The difference in nature from the Kodály was most conspicuous in the sound of the cello, now warm and lyrical. In fact, the writing for both violin and cello is among the most rewarding in all the composer’s chamber music. And as the earlier piece had been without the piano, its sparkling presence here contributed greatly in civilising the music. The second movement, Poco adagio, expressed the essential ‘Dumka’ spirit, achingly elegiac, beautifully sustained by all three instruments, the muted violin contributing importantly to its emotional character.

The third section, Andante, begins with slow, airy piano chords which were quickly taken up by the violin; Richard Mapp’s playing was not only in full command of the many swift extrovert passages, but such moments as his picking out, in the Andante, a spare, single line theme was quite moving.

The fifth movement, Allegro, opens with a big rhetorical theme from the cello, and it moves towards a spirited end. In the final Lento maestoso last movement the trio moved carefully from the dark opening to its exciting climax.

Here was a performance of great accomplishment by three professional musicians that one would rather have expected at a professional concert in a conventional chamber music venue. It seems sad that so relatively few of Lower Hutt’s 100,000 humans are sufficiently interested in or aware of the excellence of these lunchtime concerts; a line from Gray’s great poem: ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air’.