Ravel and Bartók make companionable and stimulating piano-and-percussion bedfellows in stunning NZSM Adam Concert Room performances

Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music presents:
RAVEL – Rapsodie Espagnole (arr. 2 pianos and percussion)
BARTÓK – Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion SZ110

Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu (pianos)
Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa (percussion)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 23rd July 2021

While waiting in the foyer for the Adam Concert Room to be opened for the NZSM concert, and pricking up my ears to flute snippets from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and trumpet phrases from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade being practised by students in an adjoining studio, I couldn’t help but reflect on the charm and delight of experiencing such a “music-in-the-air” ambience about where I was and what was about to happen – a free concert of great music given by some of New Zealand’s finest musicians, at this particular time balm for the soul in the midst of a sea of troubles.

With its various series of lunchtime concerts, and a more-or-less constant flow of music and theatre presentations on all sides, Wellington still remains a wellspring of artistic endeavour, and particularly in music, despite the privations of ongoing earthquake strengthening operations at much-loved and -missed venues such as the Town Hall, St.James’ Theatre and the Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St.

For various reasons the Adam Concert Room has been a godsend over the years, enabling Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music to showcase the talents of both its students and their tutors, the latter highly-esteemed performers in their own right, and apparently inexhaustible in their efforts to advance music’s cause in diverse contexts around the capital.

This latest concert provided a mouth-watering opportunity to hear “live” one of the most renowned of twentieth-century chamber music classics, Bartók’s Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion, together with another earlier “classic”, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, here served up in a relatively unfamiliar guise via an arrangement presumably made by German percussionist Peter Sadlo.  The four “star performers” on this occasion were pianists Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu, with percussionists Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa.

As it turned out, I enjoyed the Ravel at least as much as I did the Bartok, partly, I think, because I was prepared for something of a disappointment with the former – I’d read a lukewarm review of a performance of the Rapsodie in this form given by fairly illustrious names, with the implication being that the results didn’t justify the efforts made by the artists due to the material. I was, however, instantly held in thrall with the intensities generated by the two pianists in their delineations of the opening Prélude à la Nuit’s “heavily-scented pianissimi”, its occasional surges exquisitely coloured by percussion, the players giving the music all the space and sensousness it required – a totally absorbing “sleeping before the awakening” beginning!

Malagueña, too, captivated with its combination of rhythmic verve and sultriness, the pianos dancers and the percussionists guitarists, moving and playing with edge and physicality, leading the music fluently between substance and suggestiveness towards one of Ravel’s enigmatic endings. Even more beguiling was the Habanera which followed (and which particularly captured Manuel de Falla’s admiration for its “Spanish character”), the piece’s languid melancholy here superbly wrought by the musicians, bringing utmost delicacy cheek-by jowl with deep-seated resonance, the gentle tolling of accompanying figures bringing to mind another evocative Ravelian soundscape, that of “Le Gibet” from Gaspard de la Nuit. It all somehow awoke in this listener a nostalgia for the sounds of a distant (and unknown) land where melodies and rhythms mingled with splashes and slivers of evocation along with deeper, darker imaginings.

Though I thought the “piping” opening theme of the concluding Feria (Fiesta) could have been more incisively delivered by whichever pianist (they both had their backs to me!), it was my only quibble regarding a tour-de force of positively orchestral realisation by the players! We got energetic, detailed, and incisive playing punctuated with great upward flourishes, the dovetailed piano figurations pulsating with energy and the percussion ringing and roaring with uninhibited exhilaration before the music seemed midstream to spectacularly collapse in a smouldering heap!

Amidst the sonic wreckage stirred a plaintive, languorous theme, here played by Liu, and a “sighing” rejoiner, delivered by Glapska, both exuding that characteristic brooding Iberian torpor, holding us in a spell underpinned by the return of the melancholy ostinato figure from the opening of the work, the whole further charged by atmospheric “night noises” from the percussion. Soon, the festive sounds  reawakened the slumbering rhythms, with first the timpani and then side-drum rapping out its insistent figures, and castanets unashamedly joining in with the dance! Such tremendous exuberance from everybody over the last few pages, with even the brief hiatus before the end halting only momentarily the surges of released energy emanating from all sides – a triumph!

So, here was a how-de-do! – would the players be able to “recapture that first fine careless rapture” for the Bartók work after such an energy-sapping display? As it proved all those present were obviously “fired up” for what was about to happen – both Glapska and Liu talked a little with us about the oncoming work , Liu in particular stressing that performing it was for him an exhilarating, if also “frightening” experience!

Bartók’s work was written in 1937, and first performed early the following year by the composer and his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, at an  International Society for Contemporary Music anniversary concert in Basel, Switzerland. Besides two pianos and pianists, the work employs two percussionists who play seven instruments between them – timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare-drum, tam-tam and xylophone. Bartók as well gave the percussionists numerous detailed playing instructions, besides stipulating the layout of the instruments.

The longest of the three movements began the work, with dark, portentous timpani rolls introducing low, overlapping piano notes from both instruments,  the sombre scenario suddenly set alight by the first of two violent irruptions, each generating a sense of something waiting in the ambient darkness to strike. Gradually the players led the way out of the gloom with a firm grip, judging the acceleration to a nicety, the percussion forward and “present”, each strand properly telling, and playing its part in the delineation of each section’s character.

Trilling piano lines and scampering figurations led from a dotted-rhythm toccata-like sequence to a rollicking, angular section, each player contributing to a kind of juggernaut of sound, tumultuous in effect with energetic piano dovetailings between the players driving a series of great crescendi that burst out brilliantly in fanfare-like figures. What was notable from this performance were the sharply-etched contrasts the musicians brought out from the different episodes, the music falling back from the enormous climax into almost folksongish figurations, underpinned by bell-like percussion sonorities, the piano exchanges wandering for a while in what seemed like ambient wastelands. A side drum roll then led into the Bartókian equivalent of “a devil of a fugue”, hair-raising in its effect, with the heavy percussion excitingly prominent! I thought the forceful angularities of the exchanges at the movement’s end could have been rammed home even more lustfully and with an even greater rhetorical sense of finality, here – (but the “sensationalist within” often gets me over-excited at tumultuous times such as these, so I cautioned him to keep his composure and not over-project)!

Bartók’s “night music” movements are proverbial, and this one was no exception – the players breathtakingly caught both the stillness and the depths of the music’s world. The various rhythmic  impulses that punctuated the soundscape became almost a “processional” of their own, accompanied by chord clusters that morphed into swirling chromatic figures before becoming eerie glissandi, uncovering an element of unease and disquiet at the feral nature of forces in play, before the impulses dissolved into three hushed, beautifully-poised chords at the end.

The attacca which brought the last movement into play burst the sounds about our senses like a firecracker, the xylophone playing especially incisive and almost festive in impact! – I thought the initial theme almost Shostakovich-like in its folkish appeal. The pianists varied their trajectories in places, here  direct and almost business-like, and there, droll and loping, the whole time turbo-charged by the percussive  elements, most satisfyingly “present!” I loved the pianists’ “cake-walk” treatment of the theme, almost a parody, as in the folksy treatment of the music in  the “Concerto for Orchestra” finale,  a sequence which alternated tongue-in-cheek insouciance with rumbustiousness, before exploding into a final, exciting accelerando! That done, Bartok’s little waltz-tune at the end brought smiles of pleasure, as did the unexpected courtliness of the final piano chords and the muttered percussion codicil ending the work!

What a piece, and what a performance! Come to think of it, what a concert! Very great credit and honour to those concerned – Gabriela Glapska, Jian Liu, Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa!