Mostly youthful music presented with aplomb by the NZ Trio

Triptych 1: Unquiet Dream

Benjamin Britten: Introduction and allegro for piano trio
Chris Cree-Brown: The Second Triumvirate
Lera Auerbach: Trio No 2 Triptych – this mirror has three faces
Felix Mendelssohn: Trio in D min, Op. 49

 NZ Trio (with guest Sarah Watkins)

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 23 May 2024

 This was a distinctly youthful concert. Not because it was packed with music students (although there were a few there amongst the grey heads, chins thoughtfully propped on knees, listening intently), but because most of the music was written by the young. Britten’s work was composed when he was 18, in his second year at the Royal College of Music, being taught composition by Frank Bridge, who had taken the boy under his wing. The piece was premiered at a party at the Bridge house and then lost. Eventually, a decade after Britten’s death, it was found again and received its public premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 1986.

Lera Auerbach’s piece, the intellectual heart of the concert, was written when she was 38. Auerbach was only 17 and on a concert tour of the US when she defected from the Soviet Union. She is a remarkable talent: a poet, pianist, conductor, and sculptor as well as a composer. She was at the Juilliard with Sarah Watkins, Amalia Hall told us when introducing the work.

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio was written, like his best works, when young. He was only 20, and when it was premiered in September 1839, Schumann described it as ‘the master trio of the age’.

So Chris Cree Brown (b. 1953) was the senior composer represented, although his work, a commission by the Trio, is bang up to date, receiving its premiere on this tour.

First to the Britten. It is a terrific work, and I can only imagine Frank Bridge’s excitement when he first saw it. It opens with a beautiful cello solo, but immediately the tonality is unsettled. There is beautiful piano writing, very reminiscent of Ravel, with rippling liquid passages. But the string writing sounds like no one else: questing, unsettled, exploratory – not like the mature Britten, except in flashes. Ashley Brown described it to us as ‘quirky’ and said, ‘It took a while to grow on us.’  It finishes with the strings playing long, very high, pianissimo chords, with the piano continuing to ask questions underneath. I would have very much liked to hear it again.

The Chris Cree Brown followed. It is a follow-up to the first ‘Triumvirate’, written for the Trio in the early 2000s, and conceived as an imagining of the different voices of a trio at work (discussing, disputing, agreeing). But the second Triumvirate posed some difficulties. According to Ashley Brown, the trio found it helpful to discuss it with the composer while they worked on it. His comments were ‘eye-opening’ and ‘transformed the piece’. Being told that the programme of the work is three personalities in discourse, sometimes breaking into argument was certainly helpful to the audience. The rhythms are complex, imitating speech rhythms, and the work might have been impenetrable without that information.

Next to the Lera Auerbach. Immediately I felt as though we were in the hands of a very interesting musical personality. Like the Cree Brown work, this one also evokes three individuals in harmony and conflict. It is a work in five shortish movements. The middle movement is a kind of Schostakovian waltz, very slow and sardonic. Around it the outer movements explore ‘individuality and ensemble, harmony and conflict’. The first movement began with long, sustained, melancholy phrases; the second featured a passionate, romantic rush of sound from the strings, with amazing piano writing that took Sarah Watkins up and down the length of the keyboard. At the end of the third movement, the sardonic waltz returned. It sounded as though a beautiful doll puppet was being forced to dance to an unpleasant commentary. The fourth movement was very fast, a crazy pursuit at breakneck speed.

The last movement had moments of pure nostalgia (the marking is ‘Adagio nostalgico’), beginning with slow beautiful fragments of melody from the strings while the piano marches towards something.  At one point, the tremulous violin sounded like a sad bird; later, after some general agitation, the violin sang over the cello accompaniment like a bird in a ruin. Finally, the violin sang like a theremin.

We can always rely on the NZ Trio to present interesting music with aplomb, but the Auerbach was a triumph.  More, please!

And after the interval, the Mendelssohn Trio. What can I say? Schumann was right. It’s a lovely work, full of the best Mendelssohnian melodies, beautifully played by the NZ Trio. My notes say ‘a perfect example of chamber writing’, with ’lovely clarity and balance between the strings and piano’.

A note on personnel: founding member Sarah Watkins returned to the Trio because Somi Kim is off on maternity leave. It was as though Sarah had never been away.

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.

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.


NZ Trio with accessible and illuminating music for Wellington Chamber Music

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

NZ Trio: Amalia Hall (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Somi Kim (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3
Christos Hatzis: ‘Old Photographs’ from Constantinople (2000)
Salina Fisher: Kintsugi (NZ Trio commission, 2020)
Dinuk Wijeratne: Love Triangle
Ravel: Piano Trio

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 27 September, 3 pm

Perhaps because of Auckland’s continued restrictions, and limits on audience size, Wellington, and no doubt other cities, seem to benefit from more concerts. This was the first of three concerts by the NZ Trio, the others at Lower Hutt and Waikanae, with the same programme.

It began with Beethoven’s third piano trio in C minor: sombre, restrained with the violin sounding cautious, but a crescendo slowly prevailed, subtly enough: the cello played with a light bow; the piano gave itself to sensitive rhythmic patterns in the second movement, Andante cantabile; in fact throughout the performance. The third movement might not have been a Scherzo, which was the kind of spirited third movement that Beethoven wrote increasingly; but it’s a brisk Menuetto quasi allegro, which had scherzo-like aspects in which the piano has a leading role; in fact the piano was rather prominent throughout the whole work.

It was a highly rewarding, early example of one of Beethoven’s compositions that showed marked individuality; that Haydn famously had misgivings about, as the programme notes remark. The performance exploited that originality and energy most successfully.

Three recent compositions occupied the central part of the programme.

Christos Hatzis is a Greek/Canadian composer : ‘Old Photographs’ is the seventh movement of Constantinople, an eight movement work, most of which involves a mezzo soprano part; ‘Old Photographs’ is one of only three purely instrumental movements. It is described as the most exuberant piece, “mixing solemn parlour music with the raunchiest of tangos”.

It opened slowly and meditatively, its style and era difficult to identify. It presented no alienating avant-garde characteristics, nor does it claim stylistic originality. Its only recognisable image was pronounced tango rhythms, Piazzolla style rather than the popular Argentinian character, with piano in the lead.

Salina Fisher 
Then a rather delightful piece by young New Zealand composer Salina Fisher who seems to have become one of the most accessible young composers as well as winning important composition awards in New Zealand and a major post-graduate award in New York. She is composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University.

Salina describes the sense of the title Kintsugi: “musical fragmentation, fragility, mending and finding beauty in cracks…  the embracing of ‘brokenness’ and imperfection as a source of strength.” Its musical substance rests in flighty trills, meditative crescendos, fluttering violin and piano phrases, a lazy string of notes that are gently melodic. I wasn’t sure that I captured the specific evocation of brokenness and imperfection… finding beauty in cracks; but the experience was engaging and surprisingly comfortable in musical terms.

Dinuk Wijeratne’s Love Triangle began as if the instruments were hesitantly tuning up, which added to the curiosity that was inspired by conspicuous changes of clothes by the three musicians in the interval. The music slowly took shape, emerging as a comfortable example of non-European music: eastern Mediterranean, Arabic, Indian, it was not easy to identify; it became increasingly vigorous, with just occasional dissonance. Curiously, that offered some kind of recognisable musical source. It was longer than the two previous works, which I persuaded myself was justified by its lively sense of originality.

Ravel’s Piano Trio 
The last piece was a return to familiarity; one of the finest piano trios of the 20th century: Ravel’s.  Though I could catch little of Amalia Hall’s comments about it, little persuasion was needed to hold the attention; and the varied tempi and dynamics highlighted the first movement’s mood changes, from the disturbing to the excitable.   It’s easy to mention the Malay origin of the rhythm of the second movement, but more difficult actually to understand how Ravel deals with it: the key changes, and the energy and exuberance.

The third movement, Passacaille: Très large, invites attention to the ancient passacaglia rhythm which steadies the movement, with long passages for violin and cello, and the cello and piano in succession, alone. as bass passages are prominent.  The Finale, animé, acknowledges the traditional classical form of a four-movement work, but its unorthodox rhythms and musical invention offered distinction even though they didn’t arouse any sense of the avant-garde. The players fulfilled the unusual characteristics and the taxing demands of its interpretation admirably.

The worthwhile combination of two major trios, two centuries apart, together with three varied but perfectly accessible pieces of the past 20 years, all splendidly performed, created a highly enjoyable recital.


Young musicians of Poneke Trio deliver singularly revelatory concert

Lunchtime Concert at St Paul’s Cathedral

Trio Pōneke
Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (violin); Sofia Tarrant-Matthews (piano); Bethany Angus (cello)

Haydn: Piano Trio No 26 in C minor, Hob.XV:13
Shostakovich: Trio no.2 in E minor, Op 67

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 28 August, 12:45 pm

This was a promising recital by three young women who have lived around Worser Bay in Wellington: two are sisters, the cellist a long-time friend. Both Tarrant-Matthews are violinists who have played in Orchestra Wellington and the NZSO, but are also proficient pianists; both graduated in music from Victoria University. Claudia who is violinist in the trio, has been studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London while pianist Sofia plans to study in Germany.

The Haydn trio* is a two-movement work which I didn’t know; from the first charming phrases I was disconcerted to realise that I had not heard it before. However, I wondered how well the players would cope with the famously challenging acoustics of the cathedral. But I was immediately surprised and reassured, and wondered just how much of their handling of the sound was careful calculation of the acoustic or was simply their instinctive response to what they could hear; it was hard to know.

The main melody in the Andante, first movement, is a delight. It asks to be played calmly, rejoicing in its beauty which was revealed in playing of considerable subtlety, with a calm, piano sound volume. In achieving that, all three responded, in the Andante, with what I could only describe as extraordinary delicacy and sensitivity. The sound that seemed to emerge secretively as if from distant parts of the nave, was magical, with balanced dynamics from each instrument. Though violin and piano tended to be the most audible, the cello could be heard in the role of a sort of basso continuo, or in careful harmony with the violin.

The second movement, Allegro spiritoso, might have invited more forthright playing but the players again resisted any attempt to exaggerate the ’spiritoso’ marking. Instead, there was a fairy-like lightness here, through most of the movement, though the score certainly offered chances to sound mezzo forte; but they were resisted.

Guessing that this trio is typical of Haydn’s trios generally, I am inspired to explore more of them, which seem (to me anyway) to be seriously neglected, overshadowed by and in comparison with the string quartets.

The Shostakovich piano trio is well known, a singularly memorable work that I got to know well many years ago, not least as it was played by the sadly short-lived Turnovsky Trio which flourished in the 1990s.

Here again, the cello’s opening by playing scarcely audible harmonics, certainly demonstrated Bethany Angus’s talents, even if they’d not been so conspicuous in the Haydn. The violin soon joins and both complied fully with what their mutes were designed to do. The hard part is for the piano to match its partners in a comparably secretive spirit: Sophia Tarrant-Matthews did. The dynamism of the central part of the first movement slowly emerged, and revealed for the first time, the impressive technical abilities of the three players.

While the ‘con brio’ second movement invites a display of energy, their restraint paid dividends, and its frenzy seemed to be moderated by a slightly sinister character. The third movement, Largo, can be heard as some kind of return to the mystery of the first movement. Claudia Tarrant-Matthews ’s violin seemed to emerge from a darkened cavern, while Bethany Angus’ cello complemented that disturbing atmosphere. The sombre, uneasy atmosphere seemed to find its perfect partner in the acoustic, though I doubt that reading a sinister message in a cathedral would meet with widespread approval.

The Largo merges seamlessly into the last movement, whose marking ‘Allegretto’ cannot be read as suggesting anything light-spirited, with its incessant pulse, driven by emphatically strong down-bows from the stringed instruments as well as the striking piano part that underpinned the rhythm; at moments the piano’s tone suggested the sounds of the small bells of a carillon.

In the end it seemed to me that, far from being any kind of handicap, the cathedral acoustic had proved a perfect vehicle and environment for this extraordinary music.

This was a singularly successful recital; I hope that Trio Poneke can find time, or that concert promoters will find ways for them, to perform again in Wellington before the two Tarrant-Matthews head again for Europe.


* Appendix

As an aside, from one who has an unhealthy fascination with lists, schedules and catalogues, the identification of Haydn’s works offers particular interest.

That the programme note takes care to employ the accepted scholarly classification, referring to both the authoritative Haydn catalogues (Anthony van Hoboken and H C Robbins Landon), is evidence of the players’ proper attention to such matters.

Hoboken’s catalogue was the earlier, dividing the works into genre groups, employing Roman numerals: thus symphonies are I, string quartets III, piano sonatas XVI and piano trios, XV. Hoboken lists 41 piano trios, paying less attention than Robbins Landon to dates of actual composition. His numbering for this trio is misleadingly early, at XV:13.

Robbins Landon’s massive catalogue was published later, between 1976 and 1980. It lists the works in strictly chronological order of composition rather than publication date, and in this case his number for the C minor trio is 26 of the list of 45 trios. Many of Robbins Landon’s ‘early’ trios have late Hoboken numbers because they were actually composed long before they were published.  

So this piano trio is one of Haydn’s later works, 1789 (not conspicuously influenced by the French Revolution), the year before Haydn went to London and composed the 12 great Salomon symphonies. One notes that Haydn composed twenty more piano trios after this one, most after the age of 60; there are plenty of riches to explore!   



The phenomenon of Beethoven – celebrated here by Wellington Chamber Music with Te Kōkī Trio

Wellington Chamber Music presents:

BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30 No. 2
Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano in A Op.69
Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello WoO 27
Piano Trio in E-flat Major Op.70 No.2

Te Kōkī Trio – Martin Riseley (violin) / Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) / Jian Liu (piano)

St.Andrew’s -on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 9th August 2020

It’s a bit of a truism to say that Beethoven and his music represent a kind of apex of enduring creative expression for modern-day humankind; and while such pronouncements can be literally questioned in terms of world-wide demographics and cultural bias, they still carry weight in a kind of “perceived-by-many” fashion – it would be difficult to think of another composer whose music has penetrated such widespread spheres of human awareness, however deep or superficial. Certainly, there’s a ready and ongoing perception of Beethoven’s “everyman” quality, which, aided and abetted by popular legend regarding many aspects of his life with all of its struggles, and setbacks, has resulted in widespread “identification” with what’s regarded as his essential character, one of wholehearted and unquenchable energy and purpose, and emergence from it all as a figure of the utmost inspiration. His music triumphantly supports  this “wholeness”, its many-faceted characters having, it seems, something to say to all peoples engaged in the business of simply being human.

At this point I could exclaim “Goodness! – I don’t know what came over me!” – or even whisper as an aside, “Sorry! – that just slipped out!”, having stepped down from my self-proclaimed orator’s dais and realised what pompous utterances I’d just finished making. But the concert I attended on Sunday at St.Andrew’s of Beethoven’s music was so very replete with human personality and engagement I could straightaway concur with those words that I had read in the afternoon’s printed programme by none other than Igor Stravinsky (expressed much more simply and effectively than my high-flown observations!) – and felt “inspired” on re-reading them at this point, unaccountably enough to add my above two cents’ worth!

One of the intentions of the musicians in presenting this concert was to, as per programme, “demonstrate many facets of Beethoven’s craft”, which aim they succeeded brilliantly in doing. Most democratically the items chosen featured three appearances by each of the afternoon’s performers, and even included a work I wasn’t familiar with – the first of Three Duets for Violin and ‘Cello, WoO 27, a work whose actual authorship is still being contested in some circles, but whose energy, wit and grace certainly resulted in some “Beethoven-like” sounds! I thought the “creative contrast at the outset between Martin Riseley’s violin’s bright, silvery tones and Inbal Megiddo’s  ‘cello’s warmer, richer resonances created a fascinating kind of process throughout these three movements of the sounds from both players gradually “connecting” – whether that process of frequency-sharing was unique to my peculiar “listening sensibility” I’m not certain, but by the time the pair had plunged into the opening piece’s “second episode” I felt their different sounds had begun to resonate more surely together – and the dovetailing of detail was certainly exciting!

The work’s Larghetto second movement featured a dialogue between violin (so very graceful) and ‘cello (sonorous and romantic) which together developed into a kind of “communion” in the quieter exchanges, again demonstrating  a kind of “opposites attract” concourse of sensibilities from both players – but in no time at all, the sounds had energised into the Rondo-finale, the ‘cello breaking off from the lively opening exchanges to sing an “out-of-doors” theme with the violin continuing to dance in attendance, with some minor-key wistfulness along the way creating some distinctly Beethovenish moments, a forthright unison episode notably among them!

Having jumped precipitately into a description of the music that began the concert’s second half, I feel I owe it to the reader to introduce a semblance of order and backtrack to the first half’s beginning, which featured Martin Riseley and pianist Jian Liu in one of Beethoven’s characteristically up-front C Minor works, the Op.30 No, 2 Violin Sonata. How directly this music speaks! – the terse opening piano figure descending into darkness, the violin’s reply intensified by keyboard agitations, and a brief confrontation between the two instruments suddenly transforming into playfulness! – as Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote in a poem about the flight of a kestrel, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing…” – meaning that here, exposition and development are made to the composer’s own specifications, the “playfulness” evident in the music, for example, drawing on darker, more serious elements which extended the emotional capacities of the sounds beyond where we might have expected. Riseley and Liu generate terrific tension in places, their sharply-honed teamwork focusing on the music’s volatility of invention in a way that left us disconcertingly breathless after only the first movement!

The piano’s troubadour-like song which began the slow movement was here echoed almost privately by the violin, the players musing their way through the melody’s second half, the instruments then taking turns to “augment’ their partner’s reprises of the theme, the violin contributing decorative birdsong counterpoints, to which the piano replied with swirling counterpoints above and below the music’s surface. A couple of disruptive outbursts apart, the music enchanted in this performance, Liu’s gossamer fingerwork the perfect foil for Riseley’s silvery tones. The Scherzo galvanised these realms of poetic utterance into places of action, playfully at first, but with sudden intent to sting, the piano in response effecting to try and  “swot’ the offending violin! – again such surety of contrast on the composer’s part! Without being too pronounced a contrast, the Trio’s rumbustion was delightfully enabled, Liu’s nimble reflexes and Riseley’s silvery lines carrying the day.

The finale’s brief but characterful repeated opening crescendo here made me think of a train bursting out of a tunnel and into the open, the biting accents having their moment before exchanging  grimaces for grins as the players launched into the dancing measures that followed, even though the minor key sequences furrowed the brows once again. With the train’s every re-emergence came a different mood, a sunny rondo whose performance brought smiles to listeners’ faces, a darker, more purposeful venture into the light in search of a resting-place, and, finally, a wistful remembrance of times past, until a burst of no-holds-barred energy seized both performers and their instruments and drove the music home!

It was then Inbal Megiddo’s ‘cello’s turn to take us on a different creative strand’s exploration, in the composer’s Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano No. 3 in A Major – here, the exposition began lyrically instead of tersely, the ‘cello singing its opening phrase, and the piano replying as would a sweetheart, with equally fond sentiments, and a show of gallantry, before each “exchanged” blandishments with comparable gestures. After some shared minor-key complainings, Mediggo’s ‘cello began the first of those wondrous ascending phrases that seemed to lift our sensibilities to a higher plane of feeling, Liu’s piano following suit before joining in with the ‘cello in a heartwarming affirmation of shared purpose. The turn towards the darker regions of the development brought out, by turns, plaintive and passionate playing, Beethoven presenting us with impulsive, but organically-flowing contrasts of light and energy,  Megiddo and Liu then beautifully returning us from the depths of one of these exchanges us to the recapitulation’s reaffirming light. A jumpy scherzo, filled with syncopation, followed – Liu’s piano was away first, vaulting over hedges and other obstacles, the ‘cello drawing level in time for both to board the contrasting Trio’s droll roundabout, each instrument lending a hand to the music’s droning momentums and self-satisfied ditties.

A punchy “tutti” and a mysterious, sotto voce conclusion to this brought us to the final movement, one containing an Andante Cantabile introduction – what a melody! – and here, made into such a beautiful moment by these musicians! –  Megiddo’s ‘cello so lovingly preparing the way for the piano’s delightful energisings, Liu’s nimble-fingered tattoo of repeated notes buoying the ‘cello’s lyrical pronouncements along and giving rise to exhilarating exchanges, major key effervescence alternating with darker insinuations – again one marvelled at the music’s sheer articulateness of interchange, generating such momentums while maintaining a play of light and dark, strength and lyricism in the ebb and flow of it all.

Following the aforementioned Duos it was “all on stage” for the concert’s finale, The Op.70 No.2 Piano Trio in E-flat Major, a work somewhat in the shadow of its “Ghost” companion, but nevertheless having a definite character of its own. The programme-note writer particularly mentioned Schubert in connection with this work, a kinship which particularly resonated for me in the piano writing throughout the Minuet and Trio, but which was evident in the freedom of the work’s treatment of contrasting moods. At the work’s beginning, Megiddo’s cello led the way into exquisitely-shaped portals of melody, the outpourings unexpectedly galvanised by a sudden irruption of energy which served notice that anything could happen during the work’s course! The players brought out the Allegro ma non tanto’s attractive swaying motion, making the rhythm’s sweep central to the argument, fitting the motifs (including the dreamy second subject) into the music’s rounded corners with grace and ease, but also with plenty of forthright energy as those same motifs in other places jostled for position – I would have thought Brahms’s sturdy treatment of his themes in his chamber music owed something to this work as well.

The courtly grace of the second movement’s opening proved deceptive as the music served up variation after differently-characterised variation, hugely enjoyed by the players, and ranging from impish scamperings to vigorous Cossack like stampings! Eventually, the music’s inventive energies dissipating as quickly and po-facedly at the end as surely as the final forthright payoff suddenly slammed the last word home! The third movement’s gentle lyricism maintained the work’s varied character, Beethoven (somewhat surprisingly on first hearing) opting for a kind of old-world grace as a contrast to what had gone before, instead of giving us one of his physically trenchant scherzi – but in view of the finale’s unbridled exuberance and the players’ astonishing “give-it-all-you’ve-got”, response to the writing, things couldn’t have gotten much more involved or exciting as here! Those incredibly “orchestral” upward rushes repeatedly essayed by the piano crackled with firework-like energy in Jian Liu’s hands, inspiring his companions to generate their own versions of brilliant, coruscated response, leaving us at the work’s end both exhilarated and exhausted, though at the very end we greedily implored them for more, and were rewarded for our acclamations by a repeat of the graceful Minuet and Trio – a judicious “return to our lives” epilogue to an exhilarating concert experience !

Wondrously unified piano trio gives two of the greatest works for Chamber Music New Zealand

Chamber Music New Zealand 
Viktoria Mullova Trio (Mullova – violin, Matthew Barley – cello, Stephen de Pledge – piano)

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2 in E flat D 929
Salina Fisher: Mono no aware
Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 September 7:30 pm

Musicians of the stature of Viktoria Mullova are much rarer visitors to New Zealand now than they were 30, 50 years ago. Then the entire season of chamber music concerts arranged by the then Federation of Chamber Music Societies consisted of pretty distinguished international players. Something of a commentary on the relative decline of New Zealand’s economic standing, as well, I suspect, as a trend away from classical music towards varieties of more popular music, in the main-stream .

This tour was no doubt initiated by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with which she played the Sibelius Violin Concerto last Thursday: a most enraptured listen.* Much more collaboration of this kind needs to take place. Barley and De Pledge also gave very interesting recitals for CMNZ in Napier, New Plymouth and Palmerston North, featuring, for example, cello sonatas by Debussy, Beethoven (the A major) and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel.

Mullova sprang to international attention in 1983 when she and her then lover, Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania, fled from Finland to Sweden. Only the bare musical story is ever permitted in the musician CVs printed in programmes today. Other personal snippets about her are interesting of course, including her relationship with the late Claudio Abbado.

Schubert: Piano Trio No 2
All of this, as well, naturally, as her justified musical stature, made this one of the most rewarding concerts of the year. And to have chosen these two piano trios was an impeccable decision. For me, the Schubert trio always recalls the use of the Andante con moto movement in the famous 1975 Kubrick film Barry Lyndon (which the programme note alludes to), alongside quotations from Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and one of Schubert’s beguiling German Dances and much else.

I was in no mood to attempt any spotting of flaws or interpretational shortcomings: anyway, I’m sure there were none. And so I simply succumbed to the players’ immaculate ensemble, with no sign at all of any one of them seeking more than a third of our attention. That was interesting in the first movement where, in fact, the piano does sometimes seem to take the lead melodically, certainly in busyness, while violin and cello dwell rather on the pensive figures. More important is the sheer genius of the composition, it melodic variety and complexity, all of which was expressed so vividly and perceptively.

Kubrick’s choice of the second movement was singular, spoke highly of his musical sensibility in making use of an underlying lamenting tone (not that I can recall exactly what kind of scene it illustrated). I have always felt that it delivers a far deeper emotional message than the equivalent movement in the B flat trio; it has always seemed to me that the E flat trio, in entirety, was more interesting, both musically and emotionally. The piece is also notable for the richness of the last movement: no light-weight exercise here with an ordinary rondo treatment of cheerful tunes; instead, it’s caste in quite elaborate sonata form that lasts almost a quarter hour. At the end there was not a moment’s feeling that you’d heard any of the tunes or their wondrous transformations too often. There only remained a regret that the whole work had to end so soon, after a full three-quarters of an hour. Its utterly committed performance did it full justice.

Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’ 
The little piece by Salina Fisher, ‘mono no aware’, that opened the second half was well positioned. For just cello and piano (it had been in the cello and piano recitals by Barley and De Pledge mentioned above), could not have been less connected to what had gone before or would follow. However, it held the attention, not through any sort of histrionics, but through an impression of something indefinable, fleeting, evanescent…  And that’s what the Japanese words ‘mono no aware’ mean, and so it’s pronounced ‘mono no awáray’ (no diphthonged vowels please!). It refers to the transience of things, awareness of the impermanence of beauty, particularly symbolised by cherry blossom. You can read a more detailed explanation in; inter alia, “a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life”.

And so, it would have been a mistake to seek any specific emotion or tale in the understated composition that Barley and De Pledge played with sensitivity and sympathy.

Ravel’s Piano Trio
The emotional shift to Ravel’s piano trio was considerable. It’s commonly regarded as the finest piano trio written since 1900, and among the most successful works in the entire field of chamber music. The very first bars were magical and clear-headed, utterly remote from any sense of pending war; it was written in early 1914 but not finished till after the war began and Ravel was desperate to enlist. They captured the meandering feeling of the Modéré first movement; both Ravel and Debussy made a point in this period of employing French instead of foreign names for musical terms. The opening exposed each instrument in turn, vividly, yet the main impression was of three very individual musicians creating a marvellously integrated, meandering and harmonious piece.

Incidentally, there’s a significant film connection with the Ravel trio too: Un cœur en hiver (‘A heart in winter’, 1992) directed by Claude Sautet. Bits of Ravel’s chamber music are played, and I recall the scene where part of the trio is played; Paris-based New Zealand pianist Jeffrey Grice acted the pianist, but strangely, the piano part itself was played by Howard Shelley. An interesting, not a great, film, made memorable through music.

The second movement is entitled ‘Pantoum’; it’s the equivalent of a scherzo in spirit and shape, another stage in the evolution from the original lively, dance-like Minuet. Its name signifies a connection with a Malayan poetic form, though Ravel didn’t explain. There was a certain lack of clarity towards its end, though its determined animation shone through.

The third movement, which is modelled on the Baroque passacaglia (Passacaille) began with mysterious piano murmurings, soon echoed by strings whose hushed quality was enhanced with mutes. Though it’s sometimes remarked, as the programme note does, that Ravel was influenced by aspects of Asian music and that the third movement suggests a circular character, it is of little significance for the listener. The players captured the movement’s disquieting, deeply thoughtful mood.

Nor is the last movement, Animé, anything less than a wonderful culmination at the level of creative inspiration, and one could clearly hear a certain impatience, either to get the piece finished or in order to enlist in the army that battled the German invasion. The trio succeeded in conveying the sense of confusion through the tumbling harmonies as each instrument seems at times to assert itself above the others.

A bigger than average audience heard and applauded this wonderful recital.

* Footnote

Contrary to my surmise, it was Chamber Music New Zealand that prompted Viktoria Mullova’s tour to New Zealand, through the initiative of Stephen De Pledge.

Visiting Russian cellist inspires a fine, short-lived piano trio and an interesting recital

Levansa Trio (Andrew Beer – violin, Lev Sivkov – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano)

Debussy: Sonata for violin and piano (1917)
Grieg: Andante con moto for piano trio
Myaskovsky: Cello sonata No 2 in A minor, Op 81
Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op 97; ’Archduke’

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 August 2019, 2:30 pm

It might be unusual to give a common name to a group of three musicians who are clearly going to have only a few weeks together because one of its members lives in another country. The owner of the first three letters of the name ‘Levansa’ is the Russian cellist whose residence looks peripatetic at the present time, though his appointment in 2017 as principal cello of the Zurich opera orchestra suggests that he is currently a Swiss resident.

For a group that has only been together for a week or so, the first impression was of remarkable homogeneity, with all three playing with restraint, collectively creating refined and balanced performances.

Grieg’s Andante for piano trio
The first opportunity to hear the cellist was in the single movement of a piano trio by Grieg that was never finished. Here one could admire his rhythmic sensitivity and flawless intonation; simply, his most sophisticated playing.

Though the programme note characterised the Andante as sombre and solemn, that wasn’t the prevailing mood: the sturdy two-quaver piano motif supplied a firm, confident foundation, and its general character struck me as calm and contented, with no suggestion of discomfort with traditional musical forms. Grieg also wrote a cello sonata, a string quartet and three violin sonatas that are by no means contemptible. One of my earliest live experiences of Grieg was hearing his third violin sonata at a (then) NZ Chamber Music Federation concert in Taumarunui where I spent a three-week ‘section’ at the High School as a secondary teacher trainee in the late 1950s. (A cultural-geographic feature that suggests more wide-spread musical activity than one might find in small towns today).

Debussy: violin sonata
But the first piece was Debussy’s last composition – his violin sonata written in 1917 a few months before his death. His reversion to classical forms in his last years was accompanied by his adoption of a style that paid more attention to the traditions of the music of two centuries before, as his planned six sonatas were intended as homage to the music of Couperin and Rameau and their contemporaries.

And so I enjoyed the deliberateness and confidence with which violinist Beer and pianist Watkins brought to the sonata, with a good deal of attention to the richness and polish of the violin’s lower register. There is little in the names of either the second or third movements, Intermède: fantastique et léger and Très animé, to reflect the terrible suffering of the French in the First World War and the deaths of many of Debussy’s friends. Nor did their playing depart from ‘lightness’ and ‘animation’.

Myaskovsky’s second cello sonata was substituted for the advertised sonata by Duparc. All I really knew of the composer was his proclivity for symphonies – he wrote 27 of them as well as concertos, string quartets and much else – and his survival with little harassment by the Soviet cultural commissars.

As usual, there’s an interesting, reasonably comprehensive article about him in Wikipedia. I find it hard to desist from miscellaneous asides: Wikipedia writes that Russian conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov described Myaskovsky as ‘the founder of Soviet symphonism, the creator of the Soviet school of composition, the composer whose work has become the bridge between Russian classics and Soviet music … Myaskovsky entered the history of music as a great toiler like Haydn, Mozart and Schubert … He invented his own style, his own intonations and manner while enriching and developing the glorious tradition of Russian music’.

The sonata sounds mainstream in the sense of Russian composers born before 1900, who adjusted to Soviet demands and in his case led a reasonably undisturbed life as teacher at the Moscow Conservatorium. It’s eclectic in that it’s not easy to spot marked influences from either his Russian or other contemporaries, though I might venture Glazunov, Arensky or Scriabin. He was a close friend of Prokofiev, though their music has little in common.

I enjoyed the melodiousness of the piece and the warmth and expressiveness of both musicians’ playing. It’s far from being a showcase for either instrument and gains high marks accordingly. I was a little intrigued to notice that Sivkov took the mute off at the beginning of the second movement – a swaying, triple-time Andante cantabile – theoretically more lyrical and calm than the first movement; but the difference was not very marked. The third movement remained in a charming lyrical vein, now merely quicker and more animated with a good deal of pizzicato and staccato. As the end approached it seemed to gather speed, though that was rather more imagined than real.  Though not a piece that would have been much admired in avant-garde circles in the West in 1948, its plain musical qualities, its easy lyricism, can now be enjoyed without undue embarrassment. Certainly by me.

The ‘Archduke’ Trio
Finally, the piece that would have been the major attraction, though I was a little surprised that it had not drawn a bigger audience. Here was a further example of the balance and harmoniousness of the three players. Though the piano was always very audible Sarah Watkins clearly feels comfortable with the way the Fazioli projects its opulent, genteel sounds into the big space.  (Afterwards I was speaking to a friend about the piano and we tried to recall the north Italian town where the Fazioli factory is: my copy of the charming book by T E Cathcart, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank [in Paris], solved it: Sacile, about 120 km north of Venice).

I found myself noticing how much prominence was given to each instrument through each movement. The piano leads the way through the early parts of the first movement, but it was interesting to hear, as if I hadn’t been paying attention in a dozen earlier hearings, what a lot of routine passagework is given to the piano. This was surely just the effect of such a warmly delightful performance of one of the greatest masterpieces, not just in the chamber music sphere, but in the whole range of classical music. Not a moment passes that does not enchant and transport one to a sort of musical wonderland. Almost any sort of performance will move you in that direction, but one as enrapturing as this discovers delights and musical miracles at every turn. Especially delightful is the arrangement of the movements, where we await the sublime Andante cantabile till after the Scherzo, where its arrival after nearly half an hour seems like a deliciously delayed gift; and the seamless gliding into the finale was like the fulfilment of a long-delayed promise.

This was a remarkable concert, that ended with a beautiful performance of this greatest of all piano trios, all the more so considering that this little ensemble was a mere temporary association of three gifted musicians.

Worlds within worlds brought to us by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, with The Tasman Trio and Kenneth Young

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Overture to “Don Giovanni”
BEETHOVEN – Triple Concerto for Violin, ‘Cello and Piano Op.56
DELIUS – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
SCHUBERT – Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished” D.759

The Tasman Trio:
Laura Barton (violin) / Daniel Smith (cello) / Liam Wooding (piano)

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church,

Sunday 30th June, 2019

On paper, a programme for the prospective listener to savour – and this was an expectation I would guess was largely fulfilled, judging from the reception accorded the musicians’ efforts by the audience, and the feelings of satisfaction gleaned from the performers’ general aspect at the end! There was certainly a variety of colour, texture, mood and emotion to be had, with the pieces offering sufficient challenges to ensure the playing  maintained an ‘edge-of seat” quality, often something that can give amateur performance a “head-start” in terms of excitement and surprise for listeners’ edification. While too much tension can of course mar the ambience of some music, here only the Delius work seemed “vulnerable” in that respect – and it was in this music that the players created sounds of a beauty and sensitivity that for me captured the piece’s essence in a way that I’d not heard previously surpassed by this orchestra in any repertoire.

First things first, however; and this was Mozart’s Overture to his “dramma giocoso” Don Giovanni (“dramma giocoso” means, literally, “drama with jokes”). This was perfectly expressed by the music we heard, the opening taken from the work’s final act, featuring the entrance of the famous and unearthly “Stone Guest”, come to dinner ostensibly at the Don’s own invitation, but determined to secure Giovanni’s repentance for his iniquitous behaviour. The music’s “nightmarish” aspect at the Overture’s outset must have galvanised the sensibilities of those first audiences, who were plunged without warning into a “preview” of the events leading to the hero’s downfall and removal to the infernal regions, but were then whisked suddenly into the world of the work’s more comic sequences and situations. While no actual melodies from the opera itself were used, the dramatic opening chords, and eerie scale passages do recur in the final scene, accompanying the “Stone Guest’s” entrance.

Ken Young got a splendidly incisive opening to the work from his players, including some portentously “held” lower notes, supported by baleful brass – a few tuning discrepancies amongst the winds at the outset were properly sorted by the time the “infernal scales” of the opening were sounded. Then, the allegro mischievously activated the rhythms, the strings stirred, and the winds and timpani properly banished the gloom-laden textures with their sparking, forthright replies. Mozart kept hinting at the underlying darkness with the leading note of each phrase of the allegro – a heavily accented chord – but with each of these followed by impish, fleet-footed downward scamperings, and light-as-feather string phrases (a bit “squishy” at first, until the string players’ fingers warmed up!). Basically, there was great work from all concerned, throughout, even with the “cobbled-on” concert ending to the piece – in the theatre, the music slows down and goes straight into the stage action, but here, it was the conventional bang, crash and wallop, so as to make the music seem “rounded off”! (I prefer the music to just stop where the opera’s action begins, the imagination doing the rest……..)

It was then time to welcome the Tasman Trio, an Australasian ensemble formed just last year by two New Zealanders (Laura Barton and Liam Wooding) and an Australian (Daniel Smith), all of whom had been studying at ANAM (the Australian National Academy of Music) in Melbourne. Having heard, in living memory, a performance of this delicious work in St.Andrew’s from Te Koki Trio and the NZSM Orchestra (also with Kenneth Young conducting), I was anxious to re-enjoy the work at similarly close quarters, and interested in hearing a different group playing it – the soloists entered, there was a bit of “folkish-sounding” tuning, and then we were off!

The first low orchestral sounds filled us with expectation, the strings and horns doing well in their first sforzando-like entry, Young keeping the tempi steady, and allowing the triplet rhythms plenty of room. The first solo ‘cello entry was lyrical, poetic and inviting, joined by the other soloists just as sweetly, the piano adding a perkiness to the rhythm, taken up by the others in reply. The work’s frequent “running” passages were excitingly managed by all the players, and the orchestra responded with equal dexterity – the only problems (just one-or-two instances) were soloist-and-orchestra ensemble ones, the occasional rhythm either too hastily or too slowly ‘taken up” – but within a few bars all had come together again. As an ensemble the soloists dovetailed their passages perfectly, the occasional single-line moment of strain made up for with a correspondingly beautiful piece of phrasing from the same player. And I loved the beautiful “turn” by the players towards that moment of lyricism just before the first movement’s coda.

Songful rapture at the slow movement’s beginning! – lovely soft playing from ‘cello and then violin, though with the piano just a tad too heavy in response at first, I thought. Some nice support came from the horns as the soloists began their expectant arpeggiated figures leading to the finale. Having so well created a “mood”, the soloists then seemed to take a while to comfortably “settle” into the finale’s polonaise rhythm, but they grasped their concerted scampering lines firmly (tremendous triplet- playing by the trio) and set the scene for the orchestral tutti, which conductor and players seemed to relish wholeheartedly. Again the running canonic triplet passages were thrown off most excitingly – a real, visceral thrill to experience!

The characterful minor-key “dance” passages that followed wanted, I thought, just a shade more “schwung”, more naughtiness and suggestiveness from all concerned, here sounding to my ears expertly played, but a bit too regimented (I love it when in performances of this people seem to let their hair down, and really “savour” those polonaise rhythms) – still the players brought our beautifully that subsequent “Appassionata” moment (begun by the piano with portentous trills over which the others “reassembled” the main theme with growing excitement), and “dissolved” the subsequent canonic triplet rushings so teasingly, that all was forgiven in the ensuing excitements – the “running water” flow of the coda’s beginning, the more ritualised triplet lines, and the final “stately dance” of the music’s last paragraph. So – while perhaps not as majestically realised as with last year’s Te Koki Trio/NZSM performance of the work, the performance here put its own, equally spontaneous mark on the presentation, giving much pleasure and receiving well-deserved acclaim.

After the interval came a work I desperately wanted to hear “live” – Delius’s orchestral interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from his opera “A Village Romeo and Juliet”, one I’d previously only heard on record. And at the outset I should say that, even given my pleasure at being “treated” to Beethoven’s adorable Triple Concerto so expertly during the first half, this item was the concert’s highlight for me, with conducting and playing from Young and the orchestra members that utterly captivated me with its beauty and sensitivity. Every phrase, every solo, every surge of emotion, every hushed realisation of beauty was given its due, if not perhaps with quite the tonal splendour and individual  sheen commanded by professional players, certainly with sufficient loveliness of tone, confidence of phrasing and surety of ensemble so as to make Delius’s evocation of beauty laced with tragedy a truly heart-rending concert experience.

From the opening phrases, shared by bassoons, horns and cor anglais, we were immediately taken to a sound-word of enchantment, furthered by oboe, clarinet, flute and tenderly-phrased strings, each sound, whether solo or concerted, imbued with a real sense of the music’s power of evocation, a lovely overall sense of “drifting stillness” informing the quieter reflective moments, and a thrilling pulsation of feeling given full rein at the music’s climactic moments of bitter-sweet irruption. I thought it very, very powerful conducting by Ken Young and suitably no-holds-barred responses from his players, whether full-throated or finely-honed, the harp adding its singularly romantic voice to the plethora of instrumental response, everything superbly shaped and graded in aid of the music’s dying fall at the end. Delius’s first real champion, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, once remarked on the need for the performer to interpret music such as this with “the maximum virility allied to the maximum sensitivity” – which is what sounded like was happening here (local syntax!).

No let-up in intensity was allowed us at this juncture, with what was to follow – Schubert’s much-loved “Unfinished” Symphony, two movements’ worth of pure drama and poetry, whether by accident or design wrought within two perfectly-tailored and -complementary episodes by its composer! Many have been the attempts to “finish” the work, ignoring the fact that Schubert himself completed a further symphony instead of going back and “dealing to it” himself. Might something have told him that what he’d done was enough?

The contrast with Delius’s music was profound in effect, those exquisitely-tailored lines and subtle textures of the former here replaced by sinister bass mutterings, fraught woodwind strains, and weighty, oppressive blocks of string or brass sounds. It was music which seemed haunted by its own substance; and the performance certainly conveyed a threatening, baleful quality in the first of the two movements, almost to the point of rawness from the brass in places, Young encouraging his forces, it seemed, to pull no punches! The exposition repeat sounded a shade less raw, and more rounded in those same territories, as if the players were hearing more acutely the “pitch of the hall” (as comedian Michael Flanders used to say in his and Donald Swann’s “At the Drop of a Hat” revue).

Whatever solace the music had managed to give its listeners thus far seemed then to be put to the sword by the development and its black-as-night scenarios, haunted by wraith-like figures, consoling winds beaten back by shattering brass chords, not dissimilar in effect to those in a similar place in Tchaikovsky’s ”Pathetique” Symphony– remorseless and unforgiving! The return to the opening brought some relief, but the movement’s coda again provided little consolation! Throughout this performance we got from Young and his brave players the full force of this music’s astounding emotional journey!

The second movement was, thankfully, less harrowing, its tones sunnier, and its melodic shapes more song-like, the players beautifully-dovetailing the exchanges between the strings’ striding steps and the winds’ lyrical replies. We heard some lovely wind solos, clarinet, oboe, and flute, contrasted with some sterling, black-browed sounds from trombones and timpani, but then a heart-easing “playing-out” of the tensions towards the end, lullabic phrases from strings and winds alike (including the horns) assuring us that the sounds had brought us, finally, to a safe haven…..


Accomplished though unusual Donizetti Trio assembles a mixed bag programme: some very successful

Chamber Music Hutt Valley
Donizetti Trio (Luca Manghi – flute, Ben Hoadley – bassoon, David Kelly – piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Donizetti, Chris Adams, Respighi, Ben Hoadley, Bellini (via Eugene Jancourt) and Bizet (via Peter Simpson)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 19 June, 7:30 pm

The Donizetti Trio is a fairly rare beast; it rather looks as if three musician friends had the idea of playing as an ensemble, but were faced with the problem that hardly any music existed for their combination, and so they set about forcing other material to fit their needs.

That can work well, and to a degree, it did.

To start with, Vivaldi looks a good idea as he wrote hundreds of concertos including many for flute and orchestra; and this one, which exists in two versions. The first version, RV 104, is the more richly scored, for flute or violin and chamber orchestra, including bassoon as a bass component of the continuo. That’s the one we heard. Later he re-scored it to include (RV 439) in his Opus 10, stripping the orchestration, including the bassoon part.

The playing by both flute and bassoon was very convincing, quite virtuosic here and there, particularly in the Largo movement; though at times the bassoon was confined to its more elementary, accompanying function. Given that this version rather relied on its chamber ensemble backing, it left the piano with a burden that it could scarcely discharge. Nevertheless, the pianist revealed a sensitivity to music that was written neither for harpsichord (as it might have been in Vivaldi’s day) nor for piano.

Then came the piece that inspired the trio’s name, a Trio in F (for these instruments), one of Donizetti’s quite numerous chamber pieces which included a number of string quartets and many pieces for various other combinations. As one might expect, the writing is rather conventional, yet attractive and very listenable. And the affectionate performance could well have been felt to endow it with a significance that the even composer had not imagined.

Visual inspiration for Chris Adams and Ben Hoadley 
Chris Adams is an Auckland musician and composer. His Contemporary Triptych employs these three instruments in a singularly original and vivid way. The first, ‘Melancholic Aggression’, beginning with repeated chords (rooted I’d guess, about bottom C), that was eventually joined by the bassoon at the bottom and then flute at the top, moved slowly, without changing tonality, gradually becoming more varied and intense. The second, ‘Beautiful Machine’ was musically more lyrical (by now we get the idea of pictures embodying fundamentally contradictory emotions; in fact, though inspired by the art in Sir James Wallace’s collection). Though if the idea was to create something visual, it didn’t; nor did I need it. ‘Integrated Disconnect’: flute and bassoon duetting, as we’re told, in a disconnected way, while the piano drifted about, seemingly unconcerned. The limitations of the three disparate instruments were somehow exploited successfully to create a piece of music that succeeded in its intentions.

The leap from a triptych based on a non-existent visual source to Ben Hoadley’s arrangement of the Adoration of the Magi, the second of Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych, proved to be rather to the advantage of Adam’s piece. Hoadley was attracted to it as Respighi’s scoring of the medieval hymn ‘Veni, veni Emanuel’, quoted in it, is conspicuously for flute and bassoon. In spite of that, the task of compressing Respighi’s largescale orchestration into a piano part was a bit too hard.

The first piece in the second half was by Hoadley himself: Three poems by Gregory O’Brien, for alto flute and piano, but without a singer (and of course, without the composer’s bassoon), but the voice was hinted at by hard breathing sounds. There was a cool jazz interlude, a series of rolling figures at the bottom of the piano and some beguiling, soft lyrical passages from the flute. Only with the last poem, ‘Winter I was’, did a human voice appear as Hoadley emerged to speak the poem. It was one of those occasions in which more questions and not-understood sequences arose than clarifications.

Opera arrangements 
Finally, two fantasies, potpourris, from opera. Inevitably they got the biggest response from a fairly large audience. One of many arrangements of tunes from Bellini’s Norma: this one was by 19th century Paris Conservatoire bassoon professor, Eugene Jancourt, and suited the trio admirably; it suited the audience too, with the string of familiar arias from ‘Casta Diva’ onwards. The settings were attractive and they were played evocatively, almost as if real singers had materialised.  (It’s sad that the opera has hardly been seen in New Zealand in modern times apart from a Canterbury Opera production in 2002. That was the first professional production in New Zealand since the 1928 tour by the Fuller-Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Company. Yet Norma was one of the operas brought by the very first touring company in 1864/65 and it was among the productions by many of the touring companies through the 1870s and 80s).

Even more familiar for today’s audiences is Carmen. One Peter Simpson (about whom I can find nothing on the Internet) arranged four pieces most effectively for these instruments. The combination here seemed to energise the three players to create sounds that evoked the character of the opera and its music remarkably.

The audience response at the end proved that my feelings were not isolated.