Admirable Waikanae chamber music from friends of a non-existant Wilma Smith

Waikanae Music Society
Wilma’s Friends: Martin Riseley (violin), Jian Liu (piano), Nicholas Hancox (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Mahler: Piano Quartet in A minor (the single movement)
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 87

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Monday 26 October, 2:30 pm

This concert was to have been given by ‘Wilma and Friends’ – that is Wilma Smith, the former concertmaster of the New Zealand and Melbourne symphony orchestras; she lives in Victoria and was prevented from travelling; Martin Riseley, head of violin at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University stepped in, as did cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Nicholas Hancox from the NZSO.

‘Wilma and Friends’ has not been a consistent ensemble in the past: earlier, different groups have appeared at a previous Waikanae concert in September 2017 and there was a different programme at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in October 2017; a piano trio was at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February 2019, and the next month in Wellington; with none of the players heard at the present concert.

These players formed at remarkably congenial ensemble, with admirable balance between piano and strings.

The opening piano passages of Mahler’s 16-year-old single movement certainly hint at its orchestral aspirations with its triplet crochets, though it leads to the prominent emergence of Riseley’s meditative violin, though Hancox’s viola often has an equal part to play. Jian Liu’s piano was the perfect accompaniment, moving between the conspicuous and the discreet while Andrew Joyce’s cello always seemed a singular balance between subtlety and the essential of fulfilment.

It’s a sophisticated and imaginative piece that doesn’t outlast its ten or so minutes.

Interestingly, I came across a YouTube comment on the Schnittke elaboration of Mahler’s sketches for the second movement, to the effect that Mahler had left his manuscripts in the archives in Dresden which were destroyed by the terrible Allied bombing at the end of the war. In other words, they’d remained unstudied in Dresden for 35 years. Perhaps copies will eventually turn up in Vienna.

Schumann (not a single one of whose works found a place in Concert FM’s Settling the Score 100, in spite of surprising, quite frequent broadcasts of the symphonies on Concert FM recently) wrote only a few chamber pieces, and the piano quartet and piano quintet are among the best.

This was likewise a lovely performance; the three strings were again in remarkable accord right from the sombre opening in which the piano planted the most discreet remarks. The repeated, contrasting episodes spoke of typical Schumann discretion and genius, and the players knew how to express it, not preparing the audience for Schumann’s unceremonious ending.

The secretive Scherzo too was carried off with a sense of novelty, avoiding any expectation of what a Scherzo usually expresses, just a lot of interesting ppp piano passages leading to the two Trios that are decorated by the fleeting piano-driven insertions of the triple quavers of the Scherzo itself. They again enlightened any non-Schumannesque listener expecting more conventional developments.

Cello and viola take prominent, moving roles again in the Andante and both rewarded attention, and the shift from E flat to G flat minor – not a close relation – might have carried a subtle warning about flawed audience expectations.

It pays to recall Schumann’s literary references to the mythical creations, Eusebius and Florestan, whom he employs in his compositions, and these might illuminate the varied spirits that emerge in each of the movements, particularly in the mostly-Vivace finale.

One of the interesting effects of this performance was to question my normal feeling that Schumann’s piano quintet was more delightful than the quartet.

I had slightly the reverse experience with Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No 2, also in E flat. (Dvořák too wrote a very popular piano quintet – Op 81 which does rather remain a couple of degrees more delightful. Nevertheless, given the fairly limited number of great piano quartets, this one is still among the top five).

The piano is immediately prominent, even emphatic; here, calling for no needless restraint or subtlety. So I refrain from noting that my scribbles might suggest otherwise. Nevertheless, the first movement has frequent, typical Dvořák’s characteristics such as delightfully decorated instrumental parts, countless varied themes; these players exhibited both a singular affinity with the music and a mastery of its playing.  The unusual modulation from E flat to G major might have had, no doubt as intended, the injection of seriousness, of unpreparedness, creating a rewarding listening experience.

In the course of this, something brought to mind a common musicological opinion that pianos and string instruments are in fundamental conflict; Dvořák did not think so, nor do I; after all, he was primarily a string player though also a fine pianist.

Cellist Andrew Joyce created a beautiful atmosphere at the start of the long, Lento second movement, which again evoked a meditative feeling, even a disquiet at times. It is not till after about five minutes that it’s possible to agree with the programme notes remark about seriousness and intensity, but the performance complied then, movingly. I was interested to note that, as with Schumann’s third movement (and this obviously comes from reading the score), there’s a modulation from E flat minor to G flat major, which seems to draw warmth from the music, and one wonders how much attention Dvořák had paid to Schumann’s key shifts.

The third movement, which doesn’t follow the tradition of a Scherzo, though it is in triple time, hinting at the Austrian Ländler, opens with a touch of seriousness, not quite an Allegro moderato, serioso perhaps. Nor is the last movement unalloyed joyousness, with substantial subdued passages, that drew attention to Hancox’s’ viola for example, that gently advance towards energetic episodes; occasionally I felt there was too playful a touch, almost flippancy. But there was still a uniform spirit in the playing that did superb justice to this hugely popular piece (again, commenting on Settling the Score, there was indeed a serious scarcity of great chamber music like this; no Beethoven or Haydn or Bartók string quartets – and no Haydn or Bartók at all).

However, this concert and its splendidly attuned musicians was fine consolation for the shortcomings of Monday’s exposure to the limitations of popular knowledge of and affection for such vast quantities of great music.


Memorable, Houstoun-led recital of gorgeous piano quartets at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Michael Houstoun and friends (Martin Riseley – violin, Gwendolyn Fisher – viola, Andrew Joyce – cello)

Brahms: Piano Quartet No 2 in A, Op 26
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 15

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 19 May, 2:30 pm

Concerts featuring Michael Houstoun, alone, or with others, have usually attracted big audiences at Waikanae. This Sunday afternoon concert, which attracted, I’d guess, around 400, couldn’t have been accommodated in any of the usual chamber music venues in Wellington other than the too-large Michael Fowler Centre or perhaps St Mary of the Angels. The advertised line-up for this concert had included Andrew Thomson on the viola; he was replaced on account of a shoulder injury by distinguished Chicago-born, UK resident violist, Gwendolyn Fisher, here as guest associate principal viola in the NZSO.

Brahms’s second piano quartet 
What impressed me at once was the delicacy, intimacy of the playing, which is what the notes themselves as well as the markings call for; apart from the occasional more arresting moments, the beauty of this favourite piano quartet derives from its melodic subtlety and charm and Brahms’s instinctive gift for exploiting the musical potential of the piano quartet which had not been much employed by the great composers: really only Mozart and Schumann (those by Beethoven and Mendelssohn were youthful works). Though it’s in A major, usually a buoyant, happy key, its spirit is restrained, and that characterised most of the first movement, perhaps to the point where it risked affecting something of the music’s energy. Was there a bit more ‘non troppo’ about the playing than ‘Allegro’? Nevertheless, the singular virtues of the playing – clarity, flawless ensemble, lyricism, the flowing, triple rhythm, unity of feeling – eventually came to be of far greater importance, doing full justice to this inspired masterpiece.

The slow movement, Poco Adagio is a remarkable creation, particularly in Brahms’s boldness with prolonged, near-silences, that alternate with rhapsodic episodes that seemed so suited to the collective temperament of the players. Perhaps as a result of the first movement’s refinement, it sometimes seemed emotionally rather close to the feeling of the previous quarter hour. Occasionally, it was possible to feel that the piano was in charge of the sound world; but though I don’t much like singling out individuals in chamber music, there’s that almost uncanny episode early on where Andrew Joyce’s beautiful cello sounds duet with Houstoun’s rhapsodic arpeggios.

Though I love it all, the Adagio haunts me and that’s what this performance did.

Though the Scherzo, third movement, cannot be regarded as jocular (it’s oddly marked Poco allegro) it certainly doesn’t avoid some discreet animation. But that’s an emotion that Brahms leaves mainly to the Trio section whose dynamic moments struck with a sudden burst of energy. With the return of the Poco allegro, I found, somewhat to my surprise, the character of the piano rhythmically a bit brusque, not quite as febrile as the sounds in my head were expecting.

Whatever has gone before, convention expects the last movement to be energetic and probably full of optimism. Up to a point, it was: though still scrupulously sensitive and in lovely accord. But there was a feeling of caution and a calm that lay just below the level of the notes and hardly ever burst forth even with the sort of abandon that Brahms could allow himself. If one might have felt there was a shade too little joie-de-vivre, I think what these musicians played was profoundly in accord with what Brahms composed, and was reproduced here in uniformly beautiful playing. The spirited acceleration of the last few bars did create a fleeting spirit of real delight.

Fauré’s Op 15
Fauré’s first piano trio is probably the best loved of his chamber works. And I found this warm-hearted performance true to this fairly early example of his complex, somewhat enigmatic nature. It began with what I felt just the right amount of energy and charm; any moments when the music strayed or seemed to be distracted seemed to enhance rather than detract from the essence of Fauré’s art.

The second movement came alive with interesting dancing rhythms that shifted evasively and the central, muted section created a gorgeous tapestry of sound. In the third movement, Adagio, I probably expose an odd reaction by sensing a pre-Elgarian quality (30 years too early). It was one of the many occasions when the score sounded like a piano solo along with a separate string trio, most elegantly played.

And the playing of the last movement, Allegro molto, happily confirmed the sound that was in my head from the many hearings of this charming piece, where the solo moments fitted happily with each other and with the warmth of the entire movement.

Where does Fauré’s music come from? 

Chamber music in France till about the time he wrote this, in the late 1870s, hardly existed. In chamber music I can think only of Franck’s four early piano trios and a few works by Lalo composed before this Fauré work (a couple of piano trios, a string quartet and a piano quintet, none of which I’ve heard). Saint-Saëns wrote a piano quartet and a piano quintet in his teens and another quartet in the 1870s but they seem to be ignored. French music was dominated by opera, and few composers even attempted to buck its popularity. So the mainly opera/ballet composers till around the 1870s (Boiëldieu, Auber, Hérold, Halévy, Adam, Thomas, Gounod, Offenbach, Hervé, Lecocq, Delibes) neglected chamber music as well as, for the most part, orchestral music (apart of course from Berlioz). Outside of France, Schumann is regarded as an influence on Fauré, but Schumann’s chamber music doesn’t strike me as having much in common with Fauré’s.

If you’re curious about that era of French music (as I am), an interesting place to start is the website of the Foundation/Palazetto Bru-Zane, based in Venice, but which has made a big impact by funding co-productions of neglected ‘Romantic’ and late 18th century French opera, with numerous French opera houses. In his bicentenary year, Offenbach’s huge output has benefitted greatly; even more than did Gounod in his bicentenary last year.

Farewell Michael Houstoun
This was a gorgeously delivered recital, and a fitting way for Michael Houstoun (probably) to bring his association with the Waikanae Music Society to an end (he has announced his retirement at the end of this year). The society is just one of many musical presenters that has been rather heavily dependent on his name on their concert bill-boards for performances that have meant the difference between breaking even and operating on an eventually fatal deficit. He has been one of a mere handful of New Zealand pianists who gained an international reputation; and he was one, perhaps the only one, to have come back home to enrich the musical life of New Zealand. He has been an important contributor over the many years of the Waikanae society’s concert series and this was certainly the occasion for the many long-standing audience members to reflect on the numerous memorable performances that he has given.


Sending it up on the double bass and sparkling at the piano, plus other strings

Chamber Music New Zealand
Piers Lane (piano) and Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass) and members of the New Zealand String Quartet: Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Schubert: Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, D. 487
Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (“Trout”)
Rossini: Duo for Cello and Double bass in D Major
Ross Harris: Orowaru (CMNZ Commission for the Quintet]

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 11 October, 7:30 pm

This concert in Chamber Music New Zealand’s subscription series had an unusual character.

It featured two international-class musicians alongside three of the members of the New Zealand String Quartet. Piers Lane has made several visits to New Zealand, including at least a couple of times to the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson. As in the present concert, both pianist and bassist have often been in combination with chamber music ensembles. This was such a concert, made especially diverting through the involvement of bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu.

Schubert: mock ‘piano quartet’
They began with a piano quartet by Schubert which I’d never come across. It was written in 1816, when he was 19 or 20, his only piece for piano and string trio, and one of the first pieces for that combination. (Mozart had written two that are well known, in 1785-6; Beethoven wrote three (WoO 36) in his mid teens, in the same year as Mozart’s; Weber wrote one in 1809; Mendelssohn’s first three opus numbers are piano quartets, written typically, in his early teens, 1823–1825 aged about 15).

But Schubert’s is not formally a piano quartet for it has only two movements and presents itself as something of a showpiece, with a piano part that doesn’t sound designed for himself to play, at least not in the Rondo Allegro (he didn’t consider himself a concert pianist). However, the first movement, Adagio, offered genial, lyrical tunes that weren’t very sophisticated and one rather looked forward to perhaps a more mature, interesting Allegro movement. The second movement certainly lent itself to a more vivid and showy performance; its phrases were generally short-winded, and avoided any suggestion that Schubert’s intention was to compete with the pieces by Mozart which he might have known. Beethoven’s were not published till after his death. Piers Lane’s approach to the piano part was flamboyant in its fluency and dynamism, building towards the end with an extended Coda which gave the piece a stature that might have evaded other players.

But it hardly created a feeling that Schubert might have flourished as a composer of concertante music, such as a piano concerto.

Rossini’s Duo for cello and double bass
Hiroshi Ikematsu’s presence was explained by the Duo for cello and double bass by Rossini, written during a lucrative London visit in 1823 for a distinguished Italian bass player working in London, Dominico Dragonetti.

Rossini and Ikematsu were a perfect fit; both delighted in exploiting the potential of music to raise a smile, sometimes almost to give in to laughter. The bassist is one of those beings with the talent for exploiting the funny aspect, even sometimes not intended, of musical gestures, through a facial expression, his stance, and obviously what he does with his arms and hands. The kind of thing that in less intelligent and gifted musicians could seem crass and crude. But much of the wit was there in the music itself, but only if the player(s) can exploit it, and Gjelsten perfectly matched his companion in a slightly less riotous wit. If you need proof that it’s possible to play the piece straight – beautifully certainly – but without the jokes and japes, look at one of the YouTube recordings like

Ikematsu, without disrespect to Rossini, sometimes seemed to mock his own or the cello part, suggested that as the cello sounds were actually disappearing off the top of the A string, a quick scratch of the nose… He toys with the audience’s expectations that this is the end of the first movement… he fails, tries again, misses again, and so on.

They subtly send up the slow movement (and Rolf Gjelsten played his part immaculately, with his own subtle humour), making the combination of cello bowing and bass pizzicato hilariously absurd; one is hard pressed to understand just how they do it. And towards the end Ikematsu secretively creates ethereal sul ponticello sounds with a weird posture; it leads to another protracted Rossini-style finale send-up.

Harris: Orowaru
Then the scene changed dramatically; all five players assembled for Ross Harris’s newly-commissioned work, Orowaru (the rippling sound of water). There’s no scope here for mockery or visual or musical jokes.

Harris has created a delicate tapestry of sound that suggests very evocatively not just the literal sounds of running water, specifically in three trout-fishing rivers round Lake Taupo: Hineaiaia, Waipehi and Tongariro. It also picks up rather more metaphysical or religious aspects of the sacred art of trout fishing; for here was the crux of the concert. Ikematsu, in addition to his bass talents, is a gifted trout fisherman, and legends about his preternatural skills which are evidently attaining the status of miracles in the mysterious world of fishing, even though it involves a non-indigenous fish. Obviously, it connects with the last piece in the concert, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, and Orowaru employs the same instruments.

The piece rather successfully creates, not just specific watery sounds that may or may not be music, but the play of and between the five instruments, the appearance of recognisable musical motifs, and a sense of shape and change in the way a normally constructed piece of music does, held the attention through musical processes rather than mere imitation of the sounds of water.

And no, I didn’t pick just when we moved from the Hineaiaia to the Waipehi river, but did feel that the scene had changed after a little while. But the bell-bird (?) at the end was audible enough.

Then the Trout Quintet. After the careful and discreet performances by all five players in Orowaru, this was a performance that, perhaps significantly influenced by the very conspicuous musical personality of the pianist, was boisterous, extravert, not the least reflective; and it was again the opportunity for Ikematsu’s bass to express it’s player’s love of surprise and the slightly unorthodox.

Nevertheless, in spite of the occasional feeling that there was a distinct difference in the spirit of the performance between the full quintet and strings alone, without piano, it was easy to recognise a very conspicuous rapport among all five.

I put it down to the fact that Schubert wrote more naturally for the piano than for strings, though the character of his last quartets and the two piano trios make that a doubtful remark.

The spirit of the playing and at times the unexpected brevity of movements made me wonder whether a repeat had been passed over; though I had intended to check that with a score, my own miniature score is missing, and so… In the light of Schubert’s tendency to extend his material, in his later works, almost excessively, nothing here outstayed its welcome; the Scherzo was a singularly exhilarating case.

The Trout itself, in the fourth movement, was varied and colourful, perhaps not giving much opportunity to lament the eventual fate of the fish (does Ikematsu have ambivalent feelings here?). It was here in particular that in contrast to Helene Pohl’s luminous tone, Monique Lapins’ presence as violinist was less arresting, but warmer.

The finale was a splendid, piano-led romp, that tempts applause before its time but ended quite unscathed. A delightful concert.


Two beloved piano quartet masterpieces in glorious performances from NZSO principals plus Diedre Irons

Wellington Chamber Music
Piano Quartet: Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)and Diedre Irons (piano)

Dvořák: Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat, Op 87
Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 19 August, 3 pm

Though Wellington Chamber Music, before it ‘corporatised’ from ‘Society’ to ‘Trust’ and operated in the Ilott Concert Chamber (later, ‘Theatre’), used to come close to filling that 300 seat space, no longer has the pulling power that it once had. However, this recital from three NZSO principals and pianist Diedre Irons drew a somewhat better than average audience, though nowhere near what it deserved.

Perhaps this gives me an excuse to recall my introduction to the society in the 1960s when their concerts were in the admirable Concert Chamber on the first floor of the (pre-earthquake-strengthening, Mark I, in the 1990s) Town Hall. It had some 500-seats and concerts were performed twice, such was their appeal in a city less than half its present size.

Sadly, perhaps, the nature of the venue and the amenities like interval drinks, do contribute to audience appeal, and the Wellington City Council’s dilatoriness in getting the more important cultural facilities like the Town Hall and the St James Theatre in order, fast, is leaving the vaunted ‘Creative Capital’ way behind its bigger rival Auckland; population size need not be the determinant in such things.

These two piano quartets are among the most loved pieces of chamber music: period!

Dvořák Opus 87
Dvořák is a leading composer in the main-stream classical world, yet in much of his music there is a strong folk music element, and from the start the players allowed a peasantish colour to emerge, not to be gentrified by excessive delicacy or finesse. The heart-felt melodies that Dvořák found for the first movement almost play themselves, though a certain seriousness emerges quite soon, a spirit of unease which changes the feeling of unalloyed happiness to something more like the actual human condition.

I felt I was listening to a group of individuals who knew each other extremely well, and indeed they generally sounded as if they had been playing nothing but chamber music together, for years; yet their distinct personalities seemed generally just as important as their aim at perfect ensemble. Diedre Irons’s piano part certainly did not aim at self-effacing restraint, and the music benefitted. One of the nice elements was the way the players allowed phrase ends to fade unobtrusively rather than remaining brightly lit.

The second movement opens with cello and piano, and Andrew Joyce’s cello was almost too beautiful, though Irons’s piano was almost its equal; but then the viola and violin emerged with pretty much the same beauty of tone and deep affection for the music. Again, the music soon took on a slightly more sombre tone, even agitated but just as gorgeous, making me listen to it more attentively than I have before.

The third movement, in gentle triple time, like a Scherzo, was a drowsy comfortable affair that started so unobtrusively but slowly gave way to the boisterous, Dumky-like middle section which made one remember where Dvořák was raised. It was a particularly delightful consortium between all four players.

One could be forgiven for feeling that the last movement, Allegro con moto, began in a slightly more exuberant spirit, a mood that might have delighted me more, 50 years ago, than now. But there remained so much deeply felt music, played with such finesse and splendidly balanced ensemble that to reflect on my teenage tastes is a bit irrelevant. More interesting to note that in my forties I became infatuated with all Dvořák’s chamber music, and I still rejoice in most of it: as well as this quartet, the piano quintet, Op 81, the piano trios and the string quartets Op 96 (of course), 105 and 106….

Brahms Opus 25
It was hard to believe that in the same concert we were then to hear Brahms’s equally wonderful quartet in G minor, Op 25. It started with Diedre Irons piano, almost apologetically: ‘don’t let me interrupt your conversation…’. But once it had our attention (in about 4 seconds) there was a wonderful sense of having persuaded us that the composer knew that he had something important, or at least very beautiful, to say. Leppänen’s violin played its part in a matter-of-fact way, without any fancy finessing of phrases. By the arrival of the arrestingly lovely second theme, with its sort-of rotating quavers, the movement had gripped the attention with its variety of interrelated episodes, one rapturous melody after another and coming peacefully to an end.

In the Intermezzo (or more fully, Intermezzo and Trio) after the tremulous introduction by strings alone, Diedre Irons entered on the piano, giving off a feeling of having waited longingly for her moment to take part in the restrained, exquisite music that Brahms created, thought to reflect his feelings for Clara Schumann.

The contrasting Trio, quicker, less agitated, sounded a shade more optimistic but cautiously so. I’m not sure what its time signature is – it sounds 9/8, triplet quavers within triplet crotchets, and the quartet played with genuine understanding. I loved the way it ended, with its piano-led fluttering into the sky.

Then came the slow movement that grew steadily in growing intensity, again in distinctly varied sections, the second part expressing a sort of march-like, extravert confidence – but never too much, mind! And the Andante con moto too seemed to vaporise into a silence that was intrinsic to the movement’s over-arching character.

Then comes the movement that everyone knows, and that, wrongly, characterises the quartet, Rondo alla zingarese. Like the other movements, it’s divided into very different parts, not all in the carefree Gypsy mood; much as he loved that music, and much as one might think, towards the end, that Brahms was giving into the spirit of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, that will never happen; and the quartet handled the sober or cautious interludes with its unlikely mixture of care as well as a sort of recklessness. Brahms never gives himself over to a simple emotion or an unalloyed cheerfulness; that’s what one expects and wants, and so did these splendid players.

It was a simply wonderful recital. The two performances were the kind that should recall Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech to his army before Agincourt, and those absent should “think themselves accursed they were not here”.