Martinborough Music Festival – an overview of a delightful feast of chamber music

Martinborough Music Festival
An overview

For Friday 27 September see Lindis Taylor’s review

Saturday 28 September 2019, 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano; Wilma Smith – violin; Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello
Brahms: Viola Sonata No 2 in Eb, Op 120
Brahms: Piano Trio No 3 in C Minor, Op 101
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C Minor, Op 15

Saturday 28 September 2019, 7:30 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Songs: Between Darkness and Light (see review from Charlotte Wilson)
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D 956
(See review of this concert by Charlotte Wilson)

Sunday 29 September 2019 2 pm
Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Yuka Eguchi – violin, Amy Brookman – violin, Alan Molina – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Wilma Smith – viola, Matthias Balzat – cello, Ken Ichinose – cello
Brahms: Theme & Variations for Piano in D Minor, Op 18
Brahms: String Sextet No 1 in Bb Major, Op 18
Mendelssohn: Octet in Eb Major, Op 20

Martinborough Town Hall

Martinborough is a charming, tastefully preserved and restored little country town 65 km from Wellington. Running a Music Festival there, featuring some of  New Zealand’s finest musicians is an incredibly ambitious project. The festival, held this year over three days, 27-29 September, was their third. It featured Michael Houstoun, piano, Jenny Wollerman, soprano, Wilma Smith, violin and viola, Vesa-Matti Leppanen, Yuka Egochi, Amy Bookman and Alan Molina, violins, Christopher Moore, viola,  Mathias Balzat and Ken Ichinose, cellos. The 4 concerts offered a broad range of music, from piano solo and a selection of songs, to a large string ensemble of a sextet and an octet. It is impossible to single out a highlight, for some it was the moving Schubert Quintet, for others the heartfelt romantic Brahms Sextet No. 1 in Bb  Op. 18 stood out. This work is by a young Brahms deeply in love with Clara Schumann. Others appreciated the variety of songs by Britten, Debussy Fauré, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Barber, sung by Jenny Wollerman, noted for her expressive interpretation of new and less familiar works.

The wealth of music included familiar works, Scarlatti Sonatas, played by Michael Houstoun, Chopin’s Cello Sonata, played by Matthias Balzat, and to crown the opening night, Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Wilma Smith.

The next concert featured two late Brahms works, the second of his viola sonatas, in Eb Major Op. 120, one of his last compositions, originally written for the clarinet, played by Christopher Moore, with a gorgeous rich sound. Then came the Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, one of a group of compositions Brahms completed after his last symphony, works that are more concentrated, less expansive than his earlier chamber music compositions. The final work on the programme was Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, one of the great masterpieces of the French romantic chamber music repertoire, a work of overwhelming beauty.

The final concert was music by the youthful Brahms and the even younger Mendelssohn. Michael Houstoun played Brahms’ piano arrangement of the Theme and Variations of his String Sextet No 1, which Brahms had arranged for Clara Schumann. This was a foretaste of the Sextet No. 1 in Bb Op. 18, played with restrained passion and good taste by Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Yuka Eguchi, violins, Christopher Moore and this time Wilma Smith on the viola, and Matthias Balzat and Ken Ichinose cello.

To end the festival on a happy cheerful rousing note, these musicians were joined by Amy Brookman and Alan Molina, in Mendelssohn’s Octet in Eb Major, Op. 20. Mendelssohn wrote this when he was only sixteen, yet it remained one of his most popular and enduring compositions. It evokes an enchanted ethereal world of fairies and other benevolent spirits derived from the young Mendelssohn’s reading of Shakespeare and Goethe.

The Martinborough Music Festival was a feast of good music. Ed Allen and his organising committee are to be commended on their vision, their courage to take risks, and on  flawless management to ensure that everything went smoothly. They were rewarded by full houses in the beautifully restored Town Hall and a large appreciative audience.

Enterprising first concert in Martinborough’s splendid little music festival

Martinborough Music Festival
First concert

Michael Houstoun – piano, Wilma Smith – violin, Matthias Balzat – cello

Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas: in A, K 24; F Minor, K 481; E, K 380; A Minor, K 175
Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65
Beethoven: Piano Trio in Bb, Op 97 (“Archduke”)

Martinborough Town Hall

Friday 27 September 2019, 7:30 pm

Here was a festival of chamber music made in heaven. I think that if you’d asked most chamber music regulars to create four programmes of the most beautiful music for a festival, they would have looked very much like what was programmed for Martinborough. I regretted missing the two earlier festivals, 2017 and 2018.

The opening pieces of the first concert were perhaps unexpected in this context. Though Michael Houstoun had a prominent role in the festival, he appeared as a solo pianist only at the beginning, with these four Scarlatti sonatas. Only one of the four (K 380) is well-known; the other three were interestingly chosen, and as always, illuminating, especially in Houstoun’s hands, making no especial gestures towards their origin as sonatas for harpsichord (a few are thought to be possibly for the fortepiano). With discreet dynamic colouring, he created perfectly idiomatic piano pieces.

The first, K 24, marked Presto, made a striking impression: full of flourishes and wild scales that risked occasional slips, which escaped my notice if they happened. The second sonata, K 481 in F minor was in dramatic contrast: fairly slow, (Andante e cantabile), employing gentle syncopation, slightly quirky tunes, with careful ornaments. With its repeats it was probably the longest of the four. It worked particularly well on the piano.

K 380 brought the always welcome touch of the familiar to the recital. It’s well-known for the excellent reason that its tunes are a bit more memorable than many others. And so it withstands the prescribed repeats; and the second part introduces a variant on the tune that’s elegant and free of any flashy element that’s fun but can eventually weary. Houstoun succeeded in interpreting it very convincingly as an authentic piano piece.

Finally K 175 in A minor proved the happy medium, between the impetuosity of K 24 and the comfort of K 380. It seemed given to more interesting thematic variety and hints of counterpoint in the thicker chords in the left hand, in fact in both hands. Scarlatti live seems to have become a rare thing, so this little group of excellent performances of well-contrasted pieces was very welcome.

Chopin’s cello sonata
One of Chopin’s very few ‘chamber music’ works is his cello sonata. Though I’ve heard it several times and even looked speculatively at it long ago, as a very average cello student, it had never seemed a very rewarding example of Chopin’s gifts. Till now, which could well be my first live hearing.

Over the years one has read learned views doubting its value, as if a composer who was so utterly devoted to the piano was incapable of constructing a formal composition that handled the intellectual demands of four movement sonata architecture with any success. It’s the same prejudice that has tended to denigrate Chopin’s piano sonatas, as if anything that’s not a carbon copy of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s sonatas is not ‘First Division’.

In the long first movement there are elegant flourishes from the piano, and there are recognisable melodies; both players were busy almost all the time; though Matthias Balzat’s warm and fluent cello has few solo opportunities, the piano part is a great deal more than mere accompaniment. Over its course, a conviction that it is a neglected masterpiece steadily grows, especially from such musicians.

There’s more recognisable melody in the Scherzo, and both players handled Chopin’s inventiveness with conviction. The Largo third movement was what I’d been waiting for, melodies that here seemed meant for the cello, creating a world of peace and contemplation.

Perhaps the first few minutes of the finale tend to be monotone in spirit, but it generates its own emotional space and Chopin’s own Rondo form and his idiomatic writing for the cello – not merely for piano – leaves any unprejudiced listener impressed and moved.

The ‘Archduke’
The second half was Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’. A brave undertaking , but with greatly experienced players like Houstoun and Wilma Smith, and a gifted young cellist, there was every chance of a fine, moving performance. It’s often likened to a symphony on account of its form and density, as well as its majesty, sonority and buoyancy.  This performance met those expectations, with a violinist of huge experience in both chamber music (she was a founder member of the New Zealand String Quartet) and orchestral music (concertmaster of both the NZSO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), a cellist, Balzat, whose qualifications are the very opposite: simply a highly promising young cellist at present studying in Germany at the Robert Schumann Hochschule für Musik in Düsseldorf. His playing displayed accuracy, dynamic sensitivity and remarkable feeling for the character of the music and his place in the trio.

Michael Houstoun, New Zealand’s leading solo pianist, was generally prominent in music that easily allows itself to be played in a grand and larger-than-life manner. And so, in many ways the piano makes its own rules and gauges its sounds simply for their own sake, leaving other players to find their ways through. The relationship can sound unfair, but such experiences here were uncommon. Nevertheless, the two string instruments are often given the lead, as at the beginning of the Scherzo; though this most joyous of movements seemed to not quite capture that spirit. But the rapturous Andante cantabile from its measured introduction from Houstoun alone, generated an opulence and peace that quite fulfilled its conception. And the Finale, Allegro moderato, was handled with all the joyousness and energy that Beethoven expressed so perfectly.

This first concert presaged great rewards from the other three concerts in this splendid little festival.