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MARTIN RUMMEL (cello) and STEPHEN de PLEDGE (piano) in highly successful programme for Wellington Chamber Music – 10 June 2012.

It sounded as if De Pledge and Rummel had decided to keep the best till last – the best rehearsed, that is. The second, third and fourth items were excellent.

Beethoven’s C major sonata is unusually short (about 15 minutes) and has an unusual shape; the cello opens alone, presenting a sad, descending motif that, as the piano joined, became a sharing of intimacies between the two; it had real charm. But as that passage drew to a close and the much more forthright Allegro vivace took over, there was an uncomfortable disconnect between cello and piano, the latter seeming unaware of the imbalance that resulted from its impact. Often the two instruments echo each other, at other times the two are almost at odds and care has to be taken to assure a unity of feeling, rather than what I felt to be the piano tending to assert its primacy.

Perhaps the lid should be down, but in the later pieces where the balance was perfectly measured, De Pledge showed that he could get quiet and sympathetic sounds with the lid on the long stick.

Added to that was an occasional smudge or missed note in the piano.

The second movement, particularly the final section, another Allegro vivace, was affected in the same way, with the piano dominating, making too much, for example, of the sudden fortissimo chords that recur. Though, in a spirit of fairness, I wondered whether the cellist should be sharing the blame, I concluded eventually that the cello was following the composer’s intentions scrupulously.

Having gone on at undue length about the first quarter hour, I must now exclaim about the excellence of the rest of the afternoon. I have not been completely won over to Schnittke’s poly-stylistic vein, but the first cello sonata suggests the styles of different eras in a coherent, integral way. Again, the cello makes its entry alone, somewhat anguished, which the piano soon picks up. The two instruments seemed in warm accord, hearing each other with complete understanding; I enjoyed the rhapsodic cello passage with discreet punctuations by the piano.

The stark dynamic contrasts between cello and piano in the second, Presto, movement were splendidly pronounced; the piano often had a more commanding role here, too, but the sense of a carefully prepared approach was always evident. So it was with the cello’s upward, singing line in the concluding Largo and the piano’s exquisite pianissimo phrases. In their hands, the last movement was a most interesting, engaging experience.

Martin Rummel entertained the audience with some piquant anecdotes about Stravinsky, making comparisons with between the written language employed by him and Prokofiev; I forget the pretext, but the matter was interesting, even amusing: Prokofiev abbreviated to the point of eliminating all vowels while Stravinsky’s language was always meticulous.

The Stravinsky suite, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella, could have been originally written for these players and indeed, one could feel that the music of Pergolesi’s contemporaries which was then thought to be by the latter, was Stravinsky’s natural idiom. Here again, balance between the two instruments was admirable, and they conveyed in a fluent, warm manner, the dancing spirit that imbued most of the pieces, even through the unruly rhythms of the Tarantella. Stravinsky was never a composer to follow tradition slavishly and in the Minuet the players stretched normal expectations in a way that was both cavalier and sentimental.

Shostakovich’s cello sonata, from the early 1930s, is one of his best known chamber works, well-furnished with melody as well as with its constantly interesting developments and the opportunities that Rummel and De Pledge grasped to make the most of the great variety of articulation and expressive devices that Shostakovich provides. The vivid and lively scherzo-style second movement came off particularly well, enriched by the combination of a traditional framework in an idiom that could not have existed before the advent of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. It rather overshadowed the following Largo. In the finale, both instruments had their moments of supremacy but the running was pretty evenly balanced, with marcato cello passages giving way to careering scales in the piano.

So ended a splendid programme in which the only 19th century piece emerged as rather less successful and memorable than the three works from the 20th century.

Lindis Taylor (www.middle-c.org), Sunday 10 June

KUGELTOV KLEZMER QUARTET with PHILIP GREEN – 24 June 2012.

I felt in a bit of a quandary regarding this concert, torn as I was between feelings of unease through wanting someone else to do this review, and curiosity at experiencing some of this “klezmer” music for myself. I did do a little bit of exploratory research – not too much – so that I’d have a notion, however vague, of what I was about to hear. So, I found out that Klezmer music grew from the desire of Jewish communities to provide music at celebratory events, particularly at weddings (I read one droll remark from a commentator that there wasn’t much difference between a Jewish wedding and a burial except that at the former musicians (klezmorin) were present!). This music drew from a wide variety of sources, and (as time went on) assimilated elements from different cultures and diverse musical styles.
Interestingly, these “klezmorim”, itinerant Jewish troubadours, were at first regarded as little more than vagrants on the social ladder – in fact, the term “klezmer” was used for a long time as an insult, almost akin to being a criminal – though their usefulness on occasions that seemed to call for music became more and more valued. If one was a klezmer, one was an untrained musician, unable to read music but able to play by ear. As with jazz musicians in the West, the status of the klezmorim has considerably advanced to the extent of their being regarded as true artists, especially with a recent revival worldwide of the genre.
A glance through the programme notes for each of the items gave one a sense of the ease and fluidity with which the music has taken on aspects of different influences from various places, both East and West. Implied as well is the improvisatory element in performance, one which I imagine would enable performers of klezmer music to give personalized expression to their views of and concerns with things in their world.
Here, I didn’t pick up on any such threads of focus in the concert, other than the desire by the performers to present a number of attractive and enjoyable examples of the world of this music. What did come across throughout the afternoon were evocations of ritual, of gatherings of people, and of symbolic gestures. At the concert’s beginning Rebecca Struthers entered strumming the strings of her violin, followed by clarinettists Tui Clark and Phil Green, simulating a kind of processional whose mode was suggested repeatedly by various pieces in the concert. The program notes spoke of wedding ritual, which a number of pieces evoked , three of which were similarly entitled Kale Bazetsn (Seating the Bride), as did Firn di mekhutonim aheym (no translation, but the title suggesting the entry of the bridal couple’s parents).
In a number of instances the emotion of the music was palpable, such as Rebecca Struthers’ violinistic depiction of a near-hysterical bride in the first Kale Bazetsn, with Tui Clark’s clarinet chiming in for good measure, the grotesquerie of it all underlined by Ross Harris’s somewhat manic piece Narish (translated as “Silly”) being played as a kind of add-on (virtuoso playing from all concerned). Rather more dignified, though just as deeply-felt, was the sequence beginning with Vuhin gaitzu? ("Where are you going?) the flattened fifth at the piece’s beginning commented on by Ross Harris as being particularly mournful in effect, and compounded by the unison of violin and clarinet, whose timbres then by turns gave the upper reaches of the melody almost unbearable anguish, the rhythm weighted and infinitely patient in effect.
In the second “Seating of the Bride” item, Bazetsn di Kale, consisting of two transcriptions of traditional tunes by Jale Strom, the music was again a vehicle for displays of bridal weeping, the first, on Rebecca Struthers’ violin sweet and comely, the second on two clarinets raw and raucous – a more animated section toward the end featured skillful work by both clarinetists.
As with “normal” chamber music, as well as jazz, the sense of the musicians enjoying their collaboration was nicely unequivocal – in Sun, a piece adapted by a Polish Klezmer group and borrowed for this occasion, the asymmetrical 7/4 rhythm produced an interaction which had the feel of a “jam session”, the spontaneity of it all underlined by a sudden counting-call of “one-two-three-four!”, and the piece jumped forwards excitedly, keeping the rhythmic angularity but at a faster pace. Phil Green used, I think, an alto saxophone in this piece, the timbre and colour contributing to the music’s distinctiveness.
At halftime I found myself musing about what I’d heard thus far, amongst other things in regard to the playing of Phil Green and Rebecca and Malcolm Struthers (the latter playing a double-bass), all right into the idiom of this music. It struck me that these musicians were displaying executant skills they would rarely, if ever, be called upon to employ in their “other” musical lives involving membership of the NZSO (and, of course, Tui Clark, the other clarinetist, was no stranger to orchestral work as well). I couldn’t help reflecting how ironic it was that these musicians’ energies and impulses of vital and colorful music-making seemed so overlaid in a normal orchestral setting. It didn’t seem altogether right that these elements should be allowed to sink more-or-less below the closely-monitored oceanic surface of corporate music-making.
But these somewhat contentious thoughts were short-lived, as they were peripheral to the real business in hand – and the concert’s second half gave as much delight as did the first – beginning with the ‘serious fun" of Ross Harris’s own Vaygeshray, an adaptation of a movement from his Four Laments for Solo Clarinet, which I had heard premiered in 2010, and was here played in a two-clarinet version by Phil Green and Tui Clark. This was music coursing through veins as life-blood, and meeting all kinds of stimuli, bringing about both adulteration and purification – focused, and concentrated, and to the point.
It was an interesting foil for the dance that followed – Makonovetski’s Zhok, a traditional Roumanian dance (a “zhok” is a 3/4 dance, similar, we were told, to the Yiddish hora). Compared with the quiet circumspection of Ross Harris’s piece, this throbbed with a kind of dignified emotion, the dance coloured by a kind of “sobbing” sound, with a cadenza-like episode for the first clarinet and some recitative-like interaction between the second clarinet and solo violin, before th return of the processional – again, a sense of ritual was predominant.
To mention all the pieces would be to write tiresomely for pages and pages, though there were things that couldn’t be passed over completely – the almost schizophrenic contrast between the madap Voglenish (Wandering) and the following Melancolia, for example. Both were written by Ross Harris, the first delightfully Keystone-Cops-like, with lovely “curdling” and “bending” of tones from both clarinet and violin, and finishing unexpectedly with a lovely snipped-off ascending phrase from the violin at the end; and the second a kind of “sad clown” portrait, the music and playing filled with bemusement and pathetic gesturing.
The final bracket of pieces featured some virtuso playing from all concerned, the rapid-fire Breaza ca pe Arges (the names of two towns in Roumania) demanding energy and agility from both clarinets, a short, sharp and exciting Hora-Staccato-like Rukhelleh, and a full-on, closely-meshed piece Loz’n Gang (translated as “To set off”) requiring great precision and poise, and finishing with a quiet disappearing phrase. The audience was, however, merciless in its appreciation, and demanded an encore, which was forthcoming. Its title I didn’t get, but it certainly turned out to be a whirling dervish of a dance, driven by modulatory swerves from the accordion in places, and winding up with a satisfyingly concerted flourish at the end.

Peter Mechen, www.middle-c.org, Sunday 24 June

JIAN LIU – 29 July 2012.

At the interval, after pianist Jian Liu’s blistering traversal of the Liszt Dante Sonata, I was approached by a piano-fancier friend, whose aspect was one of great excitement and agitation: transfixing me with an intense, fire-flashing gaze, he exclaimed, “I hope you’re going to write up this recital as the greatest Wellington has heard for years!”. Being in a somewhat euphoric state myself, after the Liszt, I nevertheless managed to remember the farmer in one of Carl Sandburg’s dialogue poems, who, in response to the question, “Lived here all your life?” replied with a laconic “Not yit!”. But I still added my two cents’ worth regarding what I’d heard so far to the paeans of praise from others who joined us, to my friend’s momentary, if not complete, satisfaction.

Certainly, Jian Liu’s performance of Liszt’s visionary exploration of the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy seemed like an all-encompassing display of both technical brilliance and poetic identification with the music. I had heard Liu relatively recently in recital, playing the same composer’s B Minor Sonata, and thought at the time that his Lisztian credentials were pretty impressive (the review of that concert is also on Middle C). However, in terms of overall effect, Liu’s playing here for me surpassed that earlier performance in almost every aspect. And while my allegiance to Diedre Irons’ Liszt-playing remains unshaken in terms of her incomparable variety of touch and poetry of phrasing, Liu’s more austere way with the pianistic textures was allied to a tremendous intellectual grip of the music’s overall shape and form which at the time swept all before it. It was no wonder my friend was thus transported by it all.

The overall idea of the recital – that of exploring difference composers’ treatment of the idea of “fantasia” – brought forth fascinating results, especially in the first half. In a sense, what threw the Liszt work into bold relief was the relative emptiness of the piece that preceded it, a work by Beethoven, no less, though not one of the master’s greatest compositional efforts. In fact, this Fantasia in G Minor has never seemed to me to bear out the contention that Beethoven was one of the greatest improvisers of his age, one capable of putting every other virtuoso of the time to flight in those “contests” that pianists of the early Romantic era (and before, remembering Mozart and Clementi) seemed to occasionally take part in. It’s pretty thin stuff, really, with occasional flashes of the “Ludwig Van” of the great sonatas, placed cheek-by-jowl with handfuls of somewhat tiresome show-off stock pianistic figurations.

My feeling is that the “real” Beethoven would have improvised with much greater freedom and contrast than this piece exhibits – perhaps the “writing down” of what was meant, after all, to be a spontaneous recreation of musical thought has spoiled it. One thinks of Lady Bracknell’s description of natural ignorance in “The Importance of Being Earnest” – “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” I thought also that the contrast with Mozart’s famous D MInor Fantasia K.397, which Liu played to open the recital’s second half was instructive regarding the compositional methods of each of the composers – Mozart, we are told, tended to “compose in his head” and then write down what he’d worked out, whereas Beethoven’s processes were far more visible in the form of scraps of motifs, figurations and sequences which filled his sketch-books, like a sculptor hewing at an ever-present shape or form, and bringing it into being. In this respect, Mozart’s work seemed finished, whereas Beethoven’s had the feel of a work very much in progress.

The recital opened with a Fantasia by another stormy petrel, CPE Bach, whose music I particularly love for its volatility and its juxtaposition of beauty with angularity. Jian Liu brough out this Fantasia’s capricious spirit with a will – here was a sense of fun at work expressed in delightfully unpredictable ways, even if the composer somewhat over-milked the repeated two-note figure which served as an omni-present watcher on all the other goings-on. Liu showed excellent “evocation” instincts in his playing of this piece, characterizing the different moods strongly and bringing to bear an enviable command of dynamic and keyboard colours. What CPE’s father, the great Johann Sebastien, would have thought of it all, I couldn’t begin to think, though, of course one remembers he was no mean fantasia-writer himself.

So, after these two somewhat frivolous explorations of keyboard capriciousness, the Liszt work hit us like a thunderbolt, and especially in Jian Liu’s hands. While I couldn’t, in the wake of hearing those two Russian women pianists, Sofia Gulyak and Halida Dinova, earlier in the year, award the palm for “the greatest recital in years” to Jian, his playing of the Liszt placed his pianism fully on their level, if from a vastly different tradition. It would be outside the scope of this review to analyze just why Liu’s playing made the impression on me that it did. But in one important respect it had what I felt was slightly lacking in the same pianist’s earlier recital also featuring Liszt’s music – an all-pervading resonance, a sustenance of tone which here opened up whole vistas of expression, ranging from the blackest oblivion to the most shimmering and scintillating light. In terms of energy and impulse it was playing I’ve rarely heard surpassed by anybody in recital, in places. It was art which largely concealed art, to Jian Liu’s credit – throughout, one felt the presence of both Liszt and of Dante, ahead of that of a pianist making these evocations possible.

Having gotten our sensibilities properly calmed down during the interval, we felt able to return to our seats for some more music – first up was the delicious D Minor Fantasia by Mozart. I was interested in what Jian Liu would do with this work, as Mozart never finished it, and posthumous editions have “rounded off” the allegro section with a concluding flourish and cadence which I’m afraid sounds worthy but somewhat glib. A recording of this work by the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida adopted what to my ears seemed like a wonderful solution – i.e. to return to the opening arpeggios of the work, modulate in the same way, and then conclude with a final major-key archway which ends quietly in the bass. However, Jian Liu preferred to follow the Breitkopf Gesamtausgabe’s aforementioned “completion” – and his dignified, sensitive playing made the conclusion sound of a piece with the rest. But what a charming and beautiful work it is, the ideas given plenty of “air” by Liu, preserving something of the piece’s spontaneity despite its finished aspect.

The afternoon’s concluding “fantasia” was the renowned “Wanderer Fantasy” by Schubert. Pianists themselves seem divided regarding the legendary technical difficulties accompanying this work – Schubert himself was reputed to have said, upon leaping from the piano after an abortive attempt to play the work in public, “The devil may play it, for I cannot!”. As regards Schubert’s oeuvre for solo piano, it is clearly the most technically demanding, though whether it challenges the executant difficulties of some of the other virtuoso pieces of the Romantic repertoire seems to be a matter of opinion. Called the “Wanderer” Fantasy because of the work’s direct quotation from the theme of Schubert’s own Lied “Der Wanderer” of 1816, the piece has four distinct sections, though is played without a break. It was a favorite of Liszt’s who made a transcription of the piece for piano and orchestra, and who was also inspired by Schubert’s technique of “thematic transformation” to produce works like his own B Minor Sonata.

Straightaway, Jian Liu engaged us physically with the music, making wonderful use of dynamic terracings to give the sounds plenty of organically-conceived variation – thanks to Liu’s unfailing sense of the music’s direction, the argument always seems to be going somewhere, and never put in a rhythmic or colouristic straitjacket. Though the physical effort of engaging with those notes was made apparent, and one or two of the arpeggiated figurations sounded a bit blurred around the edges, the playing’s essential energy and liveliness carried us joyfully along, eventually bringing us to the edges of a deep, richly-layered region of dark stillness and mystery. Here, the music became all of a sudden hymn-like and entranced, almost religious in feeling (no wonder Liszt couldn’t keep his hands off it!), the initial simplicity of the lied-melody then fragmenting into a hundred eager voices, creating a ferment of activity growing from the textures of the music. Here Liu’s ear for detail meant that the dappled strands of sound impulse were kept flowing and undulating – marvellous playing.

The presto episode again had that sense of boundless energy, some elemental life-force expressing a kind of cosmic joy and high spirits, one whose voltage increased and crackled as the concluding fugue hove into view. So, the pianist might have dropped a few notes here and there! – what was far more important was that the music’s momentum was gloriously maintained, everybody, pianist and listeners caught up in a kind of trajectoried trance whose culminating wave of energy occasioned great scenes of appreciation from an excited audience. Wisely, Jian Liu brought us all back from fever pitch with a transcription of a Richard Strauss song, very Schubert-like, rapt and beautiful, a fitting conclusion to a memorable afternoon of music.

Peter Mechen, www.middle-c.org, Sunday 29 July

AMICI ENSEMBLE with DIEDRE IRONS (12 August 2012).

Blame Captain Haddock of the “Tintin” books for my “Blistering Brahms” heading – the other descriptions are more conventional, but no less heartfelt on my part. For this was a magnificent concert, a memorable marriage of great music and music-making, very much a “gentlemen of England now abed.…” scenario if ever there was one, for we lucky people in the audience.
With Mozart in his “G Minor mood” there was drama and dark purpose right from the concert’s beginning, with the composer’s K.478 Piano Quartet. The expression on Diedre Irons’ face, ready to plunge into the opening bars with her ensemble colleagues spoke volumes, really. The musicians relished it all, the major/minor mirrorings of the opening phrases, the piquant asymmetries of the lyrical contrasts and the richly unexpected modulations of the development – all contributed tellingly to a powerful, all-pervading ambivalence of mood throughout the opening movement.
Violinist Donald Armstrong led the ensemble with a will, his tone perhaps a little raw in places, but the sound indicative of the intensity of feeling he was investing with the notes. Mozart’s usual dictum “It should flow like oil” was here augmented with episodes of intense, knife-edged focus. Diedre Irons’ piano took the lead with the development, as always with her playing the tones coloured and inflected with what seemed like a Shakespearean kind of eloquence. In reply, the strings’ long-breathed lines were gorgeous, filled with intense feeling.
The operatic Andante sang out here, melody and counter melody drawing forth lines and accompaniments of great strength, the music never sentimentalized (a beautiful contribution from Julia Joyce’s viola at one point). The finale’s opening seemed a long way from the tragedy of the opening movement’s utterances. We heard such supple, beautifully-placed dovetailing at quite a cracking pace, everything made to “bubble” and generate high spirits, though with some lurches into a darker minor mood in places – the composer obviously saying, “Just to let you know that….” with these sequences.
After these antiquarian tragicomedies, the following work, a String Quartet from 1976 by Henri Dutilleux subtitled Ainsi la nuit (Thus the night) brought a new earth to view. Donald Amstrong spoke before the work’s performance about its “organized disorganization”, a statement which seemed to characterize most aptly the sonorities and figurations that we encountered throughout. The opening sequences certainly suggested the Nocturne of the title, with haunting repetitions, punctuated by what might be characterized as owl-cries or distant ship-horns at sea. The ambiences seemed layered, so that as skins of texture were discarded others seemed firmly fixed in place underneath. After this, the Miroir d’espace that was Movement Two irrupted with sharp impulses, before the sounds widened spectrally between a haunting violin line and a near-subterranean cello, creating a yawning vista between, flecked with instrumental incident.
Each of two sections that follow were subtitled Litanies, the first closely-worked and claustrophobic, concerted passages interspersed with instrumental “adventures”, while the second sounded a kind of siren’s song, with elements of a lament, a sort of chromatic welling up from the depths and gathering strands of sharp focus together. I thought the players’ characterizations of these many and widely-contrasted sound-impulses vivid and compelling. Just as focused was the playing in Constellations, rhythmic, spiky and volatile, as if part of the cosmos was in ferment, the music expressing that “disorganized organization” Donald Armstrong talked about.
Such were the mesmeric qualities of the sounds, I found myself drifting into the music quite non-analytically at some points, losing my overview of things in impulses of delight, and then having to regretfully resist further blandishments. Even so, the last two sections of the work remain indissoluble in my mind, the music’s ambient world establishing such a sense of organic flow at this stage in the piece, the divisions were subsumed and everything became as one, a veritable “memory footprint” established by those sounds, one which haunts me even as I write this.
As if these whole-world-entities weren’t enough, after the interval we were given the full high-romantic gamut of emotion, refracted through the Brahmsian end of things. The composer’s great Piano Quintet had to claw its way through two separate gestations – firstly for strings alone, then for two pianos – before emerging in its finished form. I found the comments made by friends of the composer regarding each of these “tryouts” interesting – violinist Joseph Joachim found that the strings-alone version “lacked charm”, and the great conductor Hermann Levi told Brahms that he had turned “a monotonous work for two pianos” into a masterpiece of chamber music. Brahms destroyed the strings-only work, but the two-piano version still exists as the Sonata Op.34b.
What the Piano Quintet version of the music gives us is the work’s structural strength expressed in a “best-of-both-worlds” garb – and these were the musicians to do the music’s strength, colour and lyricism justice. The sombre opening was played in a way that hinted at the turbulence to come – a big, quasi-orchestral sound that reflected the word of the piano concertos, with Diedre Irons’ playing underpinning the grandeur of the music’s range and scope. The give-and-take between instruments had a satisfyingly full-blooded quality – only once did I find the playing of the strings too insistent, a repeated-note sequence towards the end of the development which dominated rather than accompanied the piano’s material. Conversely, I found the ‘cello occasionally not forthright enough in such company, though Rowan Prior’s counterpointing was invariably beautifully voiced and phrased.
Throughout the work the musicians never let the intensity flag, the slow movement enshrining the most passionate lyricism (a beautiful unison from violinist Cristina Vaszilcsin and Julia Joyce shining out at one point, and a plumbing of the depths from Rowan Prior’s ‘cello at another), with everybody else similarly “playing out” and realizing the emotional potentialities of the music. And, what could have been merely high spirits in the scherzo had a supercharged, “possessed” quality – no half-measures! I loved the players’ engagement with it all, the fugal sections swirling up into the festive, swaggering theme, making a great dramatic contrast with the reprise of the opening, after the trio.
What mattered more than the less-than-ideally-pure string intonations at the finale’s beginning was the mood the players evoked, portents of impending tragedy, to which the ‘cello and piano then moved swiftly and hauntedly. With Brahms moving from light to darkness through different sequences the music’s roller-coaster ride was exhilarating, rhythmic poise turning almost without warning to pursuit on occasions. The playing simply kept up its extraordinarily vivid and physical effect right to the end, where the 6/8 Presto whirled our sensibilities away, flinging the music’s last few notes out into oblivion. It was, I thought, afterwards, the kind of music-making that makes life worth living.

Peter Mechen, www.middle-c.org, Sunday 12 August

PONEKE TRIO – 30 September 2012.

Review of two concerts: Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall (Sunday 30 September); and Genesis Energy Theatre, Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt (Monday 8 October)

All three members of the newly formed Poneke Trio have become familiar around Wellington: Richard Mapp over the course of many years; Anna van der Zee and Paul Mitchell more recently. It sounds like a group that has been waiting to happen, an event such as might tempt a believer to ascribe to the Almighty’s having a good day.

That was one reason for getting myself to both their concerts in Greater Wellington; the other was in order to hear both the Brahms and the Shostakovich trios, and because I had not been able to make the Wellington concert till part-way through the Dumky Trio.

One of the happiest pieces in all music opened the programme; the Dvořák trio is one of those pieces that seem to have sprung fully formed into the mind of the composer, the sort of creation that scarcely any composer in the century since has been inspired to write or perhaps been capable of writing.
So, I knew at once that I was in the best of hands, as the players began with a resolute tone from the cello and a gentler expression from the violin; then heartfelt chords from all three. The work consists of six movements, all between four and five minutes and in sharply varying tempi, in which Dvořák resists a temptation to elaborate too much his beguiling material, at least in a conspicuously sophisticated way; that induces the players to draw as much as possible from the music’s spirit while they have the chance.

This compression emphasises the music’s relatively informal character, that of a suite of dance-inspired pieces such as composers of the Baroque age used in their suites. Though each movement is cast in an A-B-A pattern the reprise of A is no mere repeat; and the programme note draws attention to further evidence of art concealing art in the pattern of keys from movement to movement, some clearly related while others a bit remote, such as that from D minor/major to E flat.
The well-conceived and idiomatic performance was rich in the Romantic spirit of the late 19th century.

Though written only 30 years later, the Kodály Duo for violin and cello seemed to come from an entirely different world and age. At first hearing many years ago I found it pretty alien, but it has slowly taken shape and its ‘melodies’ have become, at least, slightly familiar; though I would hardly echo the programme note’s description; after admitting that its slow acceptance was because of ‘Kodály’s idea of a tune’, it then asserts that ‘the work is rich in glorious melody’. For me, words like ‘harsh’ and ‘angular’ still come to mind, yet there is undeniably an absorbing character both in the music and certainly in this compulsive performance.

If one’s pleasure is the finding of flaws in a performance, one can almost always satisfy it, and it’s not hard with such a demanding piece that calls for such persuasive advocacy, and such an exhibition of affectionate conviction by the two players. More important than perfection is that evidence of sincerity and conviction: for the most part it was there.

At the Sunday concert at the Ilott Theatre, Shostakovich’s Trio, Op 67, filled the second half. Perversely, an early thought was: why could Shostakovich write a piece like this piano trio, set in a time even more horrendous than that which Kodály lived through 30 years earlier, yet clothe it in sounds that touch the emotions so powerfully and involve the listener through an understandable language.

The trio played its famous opening with all the skill needed to create the foreboding atmosphere that lightens surprisingly quite soon, then continues sometimes animated, sometimes static. The second movement really showed what the trio was made of, switching from flashing energy with suppressed excitement while a sense of unease was always present, somehow at odds with the surface brilliance of the playing. I have heard the portentous piano chords that open the third movement played with just too much force, more than is needed to presage the plain dominant to tonic entry by the violin; here, Richard Mapp’s attack was just right and these players found an excellent balance. And in the clockwork rhythms that rule the last movement, the stiff-legged march theme alternating with pizzicato strings could have left its Soviet listeners in no doubt as to an underlying meaning; the strings bowed heavily, simulating shouting protest till things subsided into a more measured argument. All these nuances were captured expressively but not too emphatically to end a highly satisfying performance of a great work.

Brahms’s second piano trio was played at Upper Hutt. The opening phrase came with a warmth and unanimity of tone, at a pace that might be called languid; while I felt that Mapp was straining a little to lift the tempo at the start, I soon decided that the three were very much of one mind, not just about speeds but about the emotional colours of the piece as a whole. They were totally at home in the essentially Brahmsian, muscular and slightly sentimental first theme.

The steady pace of the Andante movement, with the almost heroic double octaves in the piano, made a memorable impression, punctuating the melody heard first on the violin; it’s a variations movement that forms the emotional heart of the whole work, and though there are always minor matters where one wonders about a balance or a phrasing detail, it was beautifully played. More taxing in a technical sense is the Scherzo, particularly for the piano and this was sparkling and pretty flawless; one of Brahms’s loveliest tunes adorns the Trio section and it was given careful, succulent exposure. Through the finale, Giocoso, the sense of jollity seems clouded and the performers did nothing to conceal that it is foolish to expect happiness to last, and it is the movement’s nobility and seriousness that left the strongest impression from this performance.

Lindis Taylor, Sunday 30 September

Xiang ZOU (Ligeti) and Jian LIU (Debussy) – piano

György LIGETI – Etudes for solo piano Bks 1-3 (complete)
Claude DEBUSSY – Etudes for solo piano Bks 1-2 (complete)

Time was when many people would look at the kind of fare offered by a concert such as this and suddenly discover all kinds of other things that they simply HAD to get done, instead, such as mowing the lawns. Although the Ilott Theatre wasn’t packed to the extent that it was for Michael Houstoun’s recent Beethoven concerts, I thought the attendance was a “good average” for what seemed, on paper a fairly “studied”, and perhaps slightly daunting affair.

Thirty or so years ago most people’s consciousness of the name of Ligeti wouldn’t have gone past encountering the wonderful music of his used in the film 2001- A Space Odyssey; and one might imagine little more of Debussy’s music than things like the Children’s Corner, Suite Bergamasque, and random selections from the composer’s books of Preludes and sets of Images being given here in recitals.

Now, thanks in part to local musicians such as the New Zealand String Quartet fearlessly tackling works of the order of difficulty of Ligeti’s First String Quartet, the composer’s music has begun to shape something of a local performance profile – and though Debussy’s Etudes would, for most people, inhabit the more esoteric realms of his output, complete performances of other works such as the two books of Preludes for solo piano have been given within these shores over living memory by people like Tamas Vesmas and David Guerin. So a way of sorts had been prepared – and now, here we were, pushing the frontiers back even further.

Two pianists had been pressed into service for this concert, the quality of their credentials suggesting that we were being treated to luxury casting. First up, playing Ligeti, was Xiang Zou, of Chinese birth, and a product of both the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in China and the Juilliard Music School in New York. He’s won various prizes for his piano-playing in various international venues over the years (he’s now thirty years old), and currently he teaches at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. He recently gave the Chinese premiere of all three books of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Etudes, so the music one would reasonably assume, would have already been well-and-truly explored, and “taken-on-board” for the purposes of this concert.

Though Ligeti lamented his own lack of pianistic skill, his creative imagination was able to transcend any physical limitations, to produce in these pieces what could well be regarded as the twentieth century’s most Lisztian keyboard explorations (ironic that both composers were Hungarian). Despite the protean technical difficulties of keyboard works I’ve encountered by people such as Busoni, Godowsky and Sorabji, I would feel that perhaps only the piano music of Messiaen can claim to have comparable levels of both technical exploration and poetic creativity to Ligeti’s Etudes.

These are a few comments regarding the range and scope of the first of the books. Xiang Zou’s playing of the opening study, Désordre (Disorder), gripped our sensibilities with pincer-like force from the outset. These were sounds which instantaneously conveyed a sense of incredible force and energy, the music setting the keyboard’s white keys across the hands against the black via inexorably rapid, vortex-like movements. The effect was strangely exhilarating, at one and the same time vertiginous and claustrophobic.

Contrasted with this was the Berg-like austerity, the sparse romanticism of Cordes à vide (Hollow Chords), the second of the Etudes. Where the first piece was tightly-worked, to the point of being oppressive, here were opened-out spaces, with calm, delicate detail, impulses nudged and rippled (beautiful let-hand legato figures) rather than things muscled or thrusted. As for the third, the Touches bloquées (Blocked Touches), this highlighted a visual aspect to the studies, as towards the end of the piece the player was required to press keys already held down, the hands therefore mixing ghostly resonance with a kind of “dumb-show” aspect. At the start the music created an uncanny stuttering ambience, with voices seeming to cancel out each other’s tones, with the dialogue then breaking off for a trebly-voiced “trio” section, a kind of “noises off” musical mise-en-scène.

Fanfares, the fourth in the set, had the player alternating and entangling brass and wind calls with roulades of connecting tones, pianist Xiang Zou breathtakingly dovetailing the separate rhythms between the hands, and nicely shaping both the music’s winding down, and the feathery flourishes at the end. Then, with Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), a free, airy and floating ambience at the start contrasted with richer, more substantial tones that grew with the piece, as if the composer was detailing first the sky and then the earth below. Xiang Zou’s marvellous control of texture and colour enabled the music to dissolve at the end into what seemed like thin air. After such pantheistic delicacy the concluding Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw) cruelly brought human emotion into play with the elements, as the music’s tragic, obsessive descending figure seemed to spread like inexorable darkness over everything and everybody, Xiang Zou’s playing piling on an ever-increasing weight of gloom and despair towards a crushing conclusion at the bottom of the keyboard.

In retrospect, placing the four completed Etudes from Ligeti’s Third Book immediately afterwards was, I felt, too much of a good thing, especially as Xiang Zou’s playing of the first Book was so “of a piece”, bringing out the contrasts so unerringly placed by the composer. The Four Book 3 pieces had for me, their own ambient world, but their presence, in view what else was to follow in the recital, overtaxed the balances, in my opinion. When Jian Liu, currently Head of Piano Studies at Te Koki New Zealand School of Music, finally walked out on the stage to begin his traversal of the Debussy Etudes, we were more than ready for him.

Xiang Zou ‘s playing had excitingly met Ligeti’s demands for a kind of up-front, confrontational virtuosity head-on. Now, we were treated to a marked contrast of both style and content, with the older pianist’s rather more relaxed, less “coiled spring” approach to music that, to be fair, seemed also more inclined to persuade rather than coerce its listeners to accept a point of view. Straightaway, one registered a tonal richness and depth in Debussy’s music largely eschewed by Ligeti, writing almost three-quarters of a century onward.

Unlike with Xiang Zou, I had previously heard Jian Liu play, and his qualities were all that I remembered from my previous encounters with him – first and foremost an ease of tonal production with almost nothing unduly forced, except those strokes by composers which are all the more telling when sparingly employed; and second, a clarity and balance of tone, colour and articulation, which I thought here ideal for the composer of these particular pieces. Since the time of their composition, Debussy’s Etudes have been regarded with as much awe (one writer called the Doux Etudes “an ultimate in perfection, an end of conquest”) as have Ligeti’s, though for different reasons – the former create their own unique impression on the listener, for much of the time fulfilling the composer’s oft-quoted remark,“Let us forget that the piano has hammers…”, an attitude to which the performance we got from Jian Liu certainly paid its dues.

Space precludes an exhaustive discussion of every individual item’s performance by each pianist – so, as with Xiang Zou’s Ligeti, I’ll record a few specific impressions of Jian Liu’s playing of the first Debussy group. To begin, the composer’s affectionate tribute to “the five-finger exercise” courtesy of pedagogue Carl Czerny was given appropriate ambivalent treatment, nostalgia tempered by gentle mockery, as befitted a parody-piece, the swirling main idea “put up” to all kinds of antics, impulsive, absent-minded and reflective. Pour les tierces (For the thirds), which followed, placed the “exercise” at the service of the music’s poetry and visceral movement, Liu’s beautifully modulated undulations capturing a readily-evoked “play of waves” effect.

The following Pour les quartes (For the fourths) had a properly volatile character, the march-rhythm capturing the piece, exciting the figurations and carrying our sensibilities triumphantly along, before running out of steam. I like the way Liu’s beautifully brushed-in upward arpeggios at the end restored the music’s equanimities. The pianist’s elegantly-realised tones underlined Debussy’s affinities with Chopin in Pour les sixtes (For the sixths), setting down a beautiful carpet of sound whose resonances supported both feathery brilliance and tones of great stillness. The big-boned Pour les octaves (For the octaves) also demonstrated the pianist’s command of contrast between bravura and delicacy, while the rippling, scampering flat-handed finger-whirling Pour les huit doigts (For the eight fingers) set our senses spinning, glissandi and all, right up to the delightful throwaway ending.

And to think that, at the interval, there were still plenty of worlds within the worlds of these works that we hadn’t yet explored! To reproduce all my notes regarding what we heard afterwards would be to expose my poverty of description – suffice to say that each composer’s music in the second half seemed to be as excellently served by its respective interpreter as before, the two strands again creating an even wider angle of divergence from one another throughout. Jian Liu’s Debussy playing further delighted in the music’s evocations of poetic sonority, while Xiang Zou’s Ligeti continued to rage, melt, burn and whisper, refurbishing our perceptions of pianistic possibility – if the concert was a shade elongated and balanced slightly off-centre, it nevertheless packed plenty of meaningful punches, both iron-fisted and velvet-gloved – a truly memorable occasion.

Peter Mechen, Sunday 05 May

Poinsett Piano Trio
(David Gross, piano; Deirdre Hutton, violin; Christopher Hutton, cello)

Sunday, 19 May 2013, 3.00pm

Reviewer’s note: It is now known that Deirdre Hutton’s violin had, before the concert on Sunday 19 May at the Ilott Theatre, developed quite a long seam opening. This led to major problems with sound production. The matter could not be fixed prior to the concert.

Apparently they tried to get hold of an Auckland violin maker prior to the concert, who was visiting Wellington, but didn’t succeed, as she had already left. She’s now repaired the instrument. – R.C. 25th May.

Review:

It is always good to welcome back Wellington musicians studying or working overseas. This is the case with cellist Christopher Hutton.

However, overall I found this concert disappointing, given the very high standard always demonstrated in the Wellington Chamber Music Trust series. At the beginning of the Mozart sonata the violin was a little off pitch; this recurred at various times throughout the concert. The beautiful piano part was for the most part beautifully played with commendable delicacy of touch, but it rather over-awed the strings. Yes, the piano had the principal part in Mozart’s early chamber works, but this was not an early work. Maybe it was the dry acoustic, but I found the violin tone harsh; the cello I could not hear much from through most of the work. I liked the instrument’s sound when I could hear it.

In the Brahms trio, the balance was more equitable between the piano and the strings. It opened with a typical Brahms melody, after a lively introduction. Better tone and intonation emerged from the violin.

The second movement was unusual for the use of mutes throughout by the strings – even when pizzicato was being played. The movement was fast, soft, and had a gentle, rollicking character, due to the rhythm, and the muted pizzicato.

The lovely opening string duet of the slow third movement was echoed in the piano solo that followed; this was the pattern throughout the movement. This back and forth character gave interest and clarity to the writing and the performance. Again, there was some harshness of tone from the violin. The most extended of the piano solos had rather the features of a salon piece for piano.

The finale was agitated, but mellifluous melodies were passed from the strings to the piano and back again. However, there were too many flaws in this performance to allow the music to carry me away, although the ensemble was more cohesive in this work.

The Fauré trio was heard in last year’s Sunday afternoon series, just over one year ago, with a trio of young New Zealanders studying overseas. Its character demands subtlety, and the Poinsetts demonstrated it, and some élan showed through, despite occasional waywardness of the violin’s intonation.

The charming song-like opening melody of the andantino was most pleasing. However, the pianist did not vary his dynamics as much as did the string players. An impassioned duet for cello and violin was very pleasing. Ensemble and tone were improved.

The fast finale found once again that tuning was not always on the spot. The movement featured a lively and ingratiating piano part. As the programme note said, ‘the music is restrained, finely crafted, and entirely charming.’

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music was exactly that, and didn’t ‘grab’ me as a component of a chamber music concert, being full of jazz rhythmic clichés, though written as recently as 1986; for example, the second movement’s off-beat ‘swing’ (in the traditional slow middle movement of chamber trios, despite the programme notes saying ‘traditional slow-fast-slow’). The final presto was a dizzy, discordant dance taken at a cracking pace, and was a bit more adventurous. It was rhythmically lively, but that rhythm did not contain much variety.

The violinist played the jazz style very well, as did the pianist. All in all, this was a skilled performance – even if somewhat lightweight, nevertheless skill was required in its playing.

As an encore, the trio played the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, which was a component of the other programme they were presenting in their 13 concerts around New Zealand. The delightful work was given a crisp introduction and a good rendering of the jolly, fast main theme that alternates with elements from the introduction. There was plenty of emphasis on important notes, and a build up to each entry of the theme, making it a truly dance-like performance to end the concert.

Rosemary Collier, Sunday 19 May

New Zealand String Quartet

(Helene Pohl, violin; Douglas Beilman, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)
Sunday, 23 June 2013, 3.00pm

Review:

It was good to see ‘our own’ quartet back in the Sunday afternoon series, after an absence of several years. Particularly, it was pleasing to see that Helene Pohl was able to play with all the fingers of her left hand, having now fully recovered from her accident in February.

As usual, members of the Quartet introduced the items in an informative manner, illustrating themes and passages on their instruments, especially prior to the opening work. The thought emerged that perhaps Brahms’s self-criticism that caused the destruction of many of his works may not be something to be deplored; the sublime music of this quartet (one of the NZSQ’s favourites, said Rolf Gjelsten) is beyond compare, and something to be treasured.

Although Romantic, this quartet is not pure romanticism. There is much attention to form and structure. The long first movement is full of various shades of emotion and thought, sunny and serious by turns.

The slow movement is rich and sombre, with a wistful lilt. As the programme note had it, it is like “a quiet conversation between the four instruments.” This was particularly the case in its third section. The third movement is very lyrical as well as dance-like, featuring both slow and fast dances. Its long lines kept the music moving forward.

The finale was in great contrast to the earlier movements. Despite its energy, it didn’t have as much to say as the earlier ones. The entire work was played with flair and sensitivity.

Again, some explanation before the next item, this time from its composer, Ross Harris. He questioned whether we remember childhood, or is it something we make up as memory?

He warned us that the players were not playing out of tune – the work commenced with some playing micro-tuned notes, against harmonics. Later, a tui melody emerged, that developed into a canon. Sometimes each instrument was doing different things from its fellows. There was considerable use of the ponticello technique (bowing close to, or on the bridge; pont = bridge). The music became somewhat frantic towards the end, and while much of the time it was true that ‘The use of continually shifting metre and micro-tuning imbue the work with a dreamlike floating quality, both fragile and illusive [elusive?]” as the composer’s programme note had it, it was not all like this – some passages were chunky, although others were ghostly, with little fragments of harmonics interspersed with pizzicato.

It was an intriguing work, one I would wish to hear again, to fully appreciate. I heard generally appreciative comments afterwards.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet is one of my favourite works. As the programme note said, “There is a sense of joy…”; I find this with all this composer’s music. Even where, in the second movement, there is a sense of yearning for his home country, it is not an anxious or angry yearning.

The interweaving of the parts, especially in the passages of the first movement using the pentatonic scale – beginning with the beautiful opening on viola – was wonderful to hear. The movement was played with fervour and empathy, and more dynamic contrast than I have sometimes heard in this work.
The slow movement was magically lovely, while the third, employing bird song (vide the Ross Harris work) was most enjoyable. The finale also made use of the pentatonic scale. It was thoughtful and melodic, but spirited to the end.

A new work, and two of the most brilliant from the late Romantic era made up a gorgeous programme, played with the intelligence, sublime finesse, perfect balance, and the musicality that we have come to expect from Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.

Rosemary Collier, Sunday 23 June

Te Kōkī Trio

(Martin Riseley, violin; Inbal Meggido, cello; Jian Liu, piano)

- Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op.97 ‘Archduke’
- Tchaikovsky: Trio in A minor, Op.50

Sunday, 21 July 2013, Ilott Theatre

Review:

Music hath charms, but this was a bit more powerful than mere charm. The last Wellington Chamber Music concert to be held in the Ilott Theatre for at least two-and-a-half years, while the Wellington Town Hall undergoes earthquake strengthening, ended with an earthquake, just as patrons were leaving the building. There was a sizeable audience to hear this programme. I’m sure that they felt a little sad to have to leave this lovely auditorium with its comfortable, raked seating and good acoustics.

It was a strenuous programme. In my view the Archduke is the most wonderful music in the entire piano trio repertoire. Beethoven’s endless invention, changes of mood and of key, leave one breathless. Mozart, with all his genius, could not have dreamt of music like this in his wildest dreams.

I always enjoy hearing Jian Liu play; he is a consummate pianist, and knows the difference between mp, mf, and f – as indeed do his esteemed colleagues; there were great dynamic contrasts. I loved his phrasing, too, in the solo piano opening. The nostalgic feelings in the first movement were well conveyed.

The second movement started with a duet between the strings. It was a very spirited scherzo, and featured gorgeous sonority from the cello. The strange solo cello notes, followed by those on the violin, that come in several times in the latter part of the movement were not made sufficiently mysterious for me.

Jian Liu’s opening of the slow movement was perfect. His subtlety in the variation that followed the opening was exquisite. The next variation, for strings, is more of a light-hearted affair, and does not call for the same degree of emotional delicacy; thus appropriate vigour was the prescription. However, this led to a soulful variation, beautifully played, with much tenderness of tone from all three instruments.

A melancholy, simple variation had all three instruments in a perfect pianissimo, the cello tone particularly being heart-rendingly direct and gentle. Just as everything seems to die away, we are into a glorious last variation, then the rumbunctious finale with its explosive good humour ends the work in triumph. A few slips and a little patch where the players were not quite together, could not mar a fine performance.

The Tchaikovsky work had me wondering if chronological order was the best for this concert, and whether it would have been better to end with the stronger work. However, by the end I was persuaded that Tchaikovsky’s Trio made a worthy finish.

The elegiac first movement of the next work was emotion-laden, as Tchaikovsky mourned the untimely death of his friend and mentor Nikolay Rubinstein. Following the elegy, the music was full-on. After the energy calmed down, a slow lyricism and a return to the opening themes had both strings playing very eloquently, with splendid tone.

After this, I noticed that a hum had started up in the theatre, whether from the air-conditioning system, I do not know. While it was not very loud, it was more than just audible, and thus was annoying.

The piano statement at the beginning of the second movement reminded one of the similar pattern to the slow movement of the Beethoven work. There was plenty in the variations to delight, for example, a piano solo with pizzicato accompaniment. This was followed by a fugal section that soon went off the rails – very seductively. Both Martin Riseley and Inbal Meggido exhibited strong playing.

A charming frisky variation opened by cello and piano was dance-like. It could be a symphonic movement, or even a movement in a ballet. The next variation was very emphatic, especially from the piano, before becoming more technically difficult, with fugal passages that this time were more strict, and very vigorous.

The third movement opened quietly, with a contemplative theme. Each player had interesting individual parts to contribute. A jolly passage from the piano was again dance-like. A modicum of rubato from Jian Liu added to the interest and the musicality of the performance; the strings joined in the jollity.

A lovely violin restatement of the theme from the first movement preceded a piano variation that ended the finale proper. The coda then took off, the theme being familiar to those who listen to St. Paul Sunday on Radio New Zealand Concert. This extended coda was full of bravura passages for all instruments.

It was a difficult programme, with not much let-up for any of the players, and was greatly appreciated by the audience – there was even a well-deserved bravo or two.

Rosemary Collier, Sunday 21 July

Lazarus String Quartet

Emma Yoon, Julianne Song (violins); Lindsay McLay (viola): Alice Gott (cello)

- Haydn – Quartet in C, Opus 20 no.2
- Beethoven – Quartet in G, Opus 18 No.2
- Brahms – Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No.1

Sunday 22 September 2013, St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Review:
This talented ensemble was formed in 2009 and comprises graduates of the University of Canterbury. They currently hold the Yehudi Menuhin ‘Live Music Now’ Scholarship in Hannover, Germany, where they are all studying at the Hochschule for Musik.

They offered an attractive programme of works by three giants of the string quartet repertoire – Haydn, being known as “the father of the string quartet”; his former pupil Beethoven; and Brahms. And this group presented it with rich musicianship, passion, and impressive technical mastery. Unfortunately, however, they had not come to grips with the acoustics at St.Andrews, which are now so much brighter and less sympathetic to chamber music since the recent alterations. The forte dynamics were consistently “overplayed” to the point of harshness, particularly in the upper register of the lead violin, and the tempi adopted for fast movements were often so hectic as to obscure the melodic brilliance of the composers’ lines. The technical tour de force unfortunately backfired to the detriment of all three works.

The Haydn work launched into a very polished opening which immediately announced that this student ensemble is clearly set on the road to professional status. Haydn’s marking is Moderato for this movement, but when played Allegro by the group, the clarity of the decorative passagework was smudged by the lively acoustic of the space. Likewise the Allegro fugue of the finale, a gem of its type, suffered for being played Presto. That said, the Capriccio and Menuetto central movements offered some beautiful and sensitive passages that revealed the players’ true musicianship, expressed in a wide dynamic range. The expressive pianissimi were quite breathtaking in their contrast with the strong octave passages that characterize the writing.

The Beethoven is an early work, but none the less challenging for its apparently straightforward style. The opening Allegro was again played Presto, so that the beautiful decorative elements in the opening theme lost the clear enunciation they need. The Allegro finale was beautifully introduced by the cellist, but the bright melodic writing that builds with such excitement to the close became increasingly scrambled by the speed and acoustics the space. This group needed to find the balance between expressing the vitality and exhilaration of this work, and stepping across the line into a hectic mode that actually robbed it of its youthful brilliance. In a nutshell, it is not “late Beethoven” and does not deserve to sound like it. The beautifully delicate reading of the Adagio cantabile showed the ensemble at its very best – they let the music speak with its own voice to wonderfully musical effect, and that is all they needed to do in the fast movements too.

The style of the Brahms’ quartet is somewhat better accommodated to St. Andrew’s acoustics. The opening Allegro features piano sections which were beautifully realized, interspersed amongst fortissimo episodes where the dynamic was still seriously overplayed. The following Romanze benefitted from a much more sensitive interpretation, as did the Allegretto where there was a good dynamic range, yet one which sat very comfortably within Brahms’ comodo marking. The turbulent mood of the final Allegro was attacked with great ferocity, but this was exaggerated to a point that threatened its commanding majesty.

This hugely talented ensemble simply needs to have sufficient confidence in their obvious technical and musical abilities to let the music of these great composers speak for itself. When they were able to do so, most obviously in the slow movements, the effect was profound. The cellist played a key role at these times, where her soaring silken tone and melodic grace set her apart. The members of Lazarus Quartet showed passion, commitment and great technical prowess, as well an obvious delight in their craft. This they projected to the good-sized audience at St.Andrew’s, whose enthusiastic applause amply showed how appreciative they were. I believe the ensemble has a great future ahead of it, and I hope they continue to return to New Zealand and share their gifts with us.

This was the six of seven Sunday Concerts presented this year by Wellington Chamber Music. They offer an impressive lineup of ensembles including pianists and string players, in various combinations. Despite the concert series banner which depicts a horn, there is sadly no wind or brass ensemble nor any vocal element in the series. Given New Zealand’s enormous talent in all these areas this is a strange and unfortunate omission, but hopefully one which will be remedied in future programmes of this series.

Frances Robinson, Sunday 22 September

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Andrew Joyce (’cello), Diedre Irons (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in E-flat Op.70 No.2
DEBUSSY – Violin Sonata
DEBUSSY – ’Cello Sonata
SCHUBERT – Piano Trio in E-flat D.929

Sunday 6th October, 2013, St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace

REVIEW:

I’m sure that one of the most effective advertisements for a symphony orchestra is when its principal players appear in other spheres as soloists or chamber musicians and nobly aquit themselves. A week before at St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace concertgoers had the good fortune to experience the wonderful playing of Hiroshi Ikematsu, section leader of the NZSO double basses, performing a Bottesini concerto . Now, here in the same venue were not one but two more principals from the orchestra joining forces with one of the country’s finest pianists to present a programme featuring both instrumental sonatas and piano trios.
Even though the term “luxury casting” normally refers to the phenomenon of gifted artists taking supporting rather than leading roles in performances, it was the phrase that came to my mind most readily when considering who was playing in this concert – none other than Vesa-Matti Leppänen, the NZSO Concertmaster, and Andrew Joyce, the orchestra’s principal ’cello, along with the highly-regarded Diedre Irons at the piano.

There’s a feeling that an “ad hoc” group of musicians joining forces to play chamber music might not have the innate teamwork and long-established understanding of each other’s playing needed to fully explore whatever repertoire is presented. Countering this is the idea that one-off partnerships such as these create “sparks” by dint of the creative spontaneity of it all, and bring a newly-minted sense of discovery to the music and its interpretation.

It seemed to my ears that this combination had the best of both worlds – the give-and-take between the players in both the Beethoven and Schubert piano trios was such which one might expect from a well-established combination. On the other hand there was nothing of the routine, nothing glib or mechanical about the playing – instead, a sense of wonderful spontaneity, everything sounded by the musicians as if being heard and sounded out for the very first time.

As one might have expected, St Andrew’s Church was well-filled, with no seats to speak of near the front (my preferred place for reviewing). Boldly and resolutely I decided to go up to the choir-loft for a change, as I’d previously heard fellow-reviewer Lindis Taylor speak favourably of the acoustics from that vantage-point. His judgement was proved correct, as, to my surprise, the sounds of the instruments had plenty of clarity, amplitude and tonal warmth. At first I found myself missing something of the visceral contact with the music-making one gets from sitting somewhere in the first few rows – but in its place was a kind of all-encompassing sense of the music, more of an overview, if you like, of the proceedings.

The ear being the infinitely adaptable mechanism that it is, I was soon as involved with the sounds as I’d ever been at a concert – first to be performed was Beethoven’s second and lesser-known of the two Op.70 Piano Trios (the more famous one being the “Ghost”). This music was a rather more amiable affair than its darker, more intense companion, though its E-flat key gave the music an appropriately romantic ambience throughout.

We got a treasurable moment right at the start – ‘cello, violin and then piano serenely brought the music into being, creating a kind of “the gods at rest” scenario at the outset, then rousing themselves with what seemed like playful Olympian energy through the movement’s amalgam of warmth, spaciousness and vigour. I thought the three players seemed like a kind of musical “Trinity” each distinctively individual, but essentially at one with the musical flow – in what seemed like no time at all we were at the movement’s “reprise”, the instruments entering in reverse order to the opening, glowing with the joy of their interchanges and poised for a final flourish and calm closure to the movement.

The Allegretto’s teasing dance at the opening threw into exciting relief the group’s playing of the stormier minor-key episodes – in a “Russian” or “Hungarian” mode. At the movement’s somewhat questioning end (a tentative restatement of the opening dance measures) the players took up the composer’s enjoiner to grab those same measures by the scruff of the neck and give them a good shake! I loved the more flowing movement (another Allegretto) that followed – a Schubertian theme (yes, it’s the wrong way round to put such things, I realise) with an oscillating accompaniment and a linking refrain with haunting “flattened” harmonies – here the playing brought out the gentle romance of the music and its reflective, “letting go” of the moment at the end.

After this the finale restored something of the first movement’s sense of energetic fun to the work, the players relishing both the music’s invigorating forward thrust and the startling sideways modulations at various points, all encompassed within a trajectory of wonderful natural ebullience, and here brought by the trio to a pitch of effervescent excitement, to which we all responded instantly and whole-heartedly.

Two Debussy sonatas gave the concert variety in both voice and manner, firstly for violin and then for the ‘cello, both with piano. Debussy had intended to write six of these instrumental sonatas, but sickness and premature death overtook the composer after only three were finished – the Violin Sonata was in fact his last completed work.

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Diedre Irons were the players – the work began with evocative piano chords, joined by the violin and standing time on its head for a few moments (as certain passages in the composer’s music are wont to do) before leaning forwards and into the allegro vivo. There were passionate utterances alternated with more veiled sequences, and some magical changes of harmony – both musicians handled the composer’s many variations of rhythm and dynamic emphasis with completely natural voices. Debussy’s violin played a haunting, chromatic phrase at one point, echoed by the piano as well, and sounding like something heard at an Arabian bazaar – later, a fuller-throated variant of this phrase abruptly ended the movement.

Violinist and pianist brought to life the spontaneous, improvisatory irruptions of the second movement’s opening, and then enjoyed the piquant and impish “Minstrels’-like” mood of the succeeding sequences – the piano danced while the violin mused, then both rhapsodised and harmonised – such lovely, free-fall playing! The finale’s few “lost in the wilderness” opening bars were dispersed as mists by the violin’s energetic flourishes, though the music’s “anything goes” spirit then plunged our sensibilities into a sea of languidity – such suffused richness of tones, here! And then, what elfin dexterities both violinist and pianist summoned up throughout the final pages as the sounds were roused from their torpor and flung to the four winds as liberated energies – an amazing utterance from a terminally sick composer!

Now it was ‘cellist Andrew Joyce’s turn with the ‘Cello Sonata – in response to Diedre Irons’ opening declamations at the sonata’s beginning, the ‘cello replied in kind at first, then more wistfully – in fact, from both players there came some beautifully-voiced withdrawn sounds. By contrast, darker, more agitated passages revealed another side to the music, the players switching to and from irruptions of mischief to more melancholy utterances. The pizzicati-dominated opening to the second movement gave a brittle, pointilistic quality to the music, haunted in places by eerie harmonics. The finale maintained the same enigmatic face until bursting into energetic life with a near manic-dance theme, whose pentatonic character immediately brings to mind Fritz Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinoise”! Debussy wanted to call the sonata at one stage “Pierrot angry at the Moon” – and certainly the playing of Andrew Joyce and Diedre Irons had that detailed, pictorial storytelling quality which gave the music a strong theatrical dimension, parallel to its essentially abstract quality – how one hears the work depends upon what the listener is actually LISTENING for…..

Where Debussy’s music was concentrated, volatile and elusive, that of Schubert’s which concluded the concert was expansive, consistent in mood and warm-hearted. This was the second of his two full-scale piano trios, the one which listeners of my generation would refer to by way of differentiation as the “Barry Lyndon” trio, the Andante of the work having been used extensively in the 1970s Stanley Kubrick film of the same name – and extremely effectively, as I remember.

Having dwelt at length on the concert’s other items, I’m not going to unduly anatomise this well-known work or its performance, except to say that the musicians played each and every note as though they loved them all dearly – each turn of phrase, every gradation of dynamics, and each and every tone and colour expressed both individually and together all had the kind of meaningful purpose given by gifted speakers or actors to great poetry or to Shakespearean prose.

And yet nothing was over-laden or emphasised out of context or proportion – both of the middle movements were, for example, rather more dry-eyed at their outset than I wanted them to sound, but in each case convinced through a gradual accumulation of intensities as the music unfolded – the concluding major-to-minor statement of the “Barry Lyndon” theme (excuse my “period” association!) had as much tragic weight and dark portent as that of any performance I’d previously heard, for example.

As for the finale, the music represents Schubert in an ebullient mood, in most places, with episodes of extreme abandonment given to the hapless pianist in particular, who has whirls of notes to contend with in places towards the end, as do the rushing strings at times as well. The return of the aforementioned slow movement theme in the finale allowed the composer to change the expressive outcomes of the music by adroitly reversing previous arrangements and giving the melody a minor-to-major course – a great moment, and a display of optimism and faith in existence wholly characteristic of its composer.

I was going to say it helped “bring the house down” at the work’s tumultuous end, but in fact the house did the reverse, and rose to give the musicians a standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion. Time was when we would have had to look to visiting artists to give us live performances of such calibre – but here were three local musicians delivering the goods for our delight in no uncertain terms. The response would have gladdened the heart of David Carew, chairperson of Wellington Chamber Music, who had earlier welcomed us to the concert and announced his decision to step down as chair at the end of this year – a most successful concert with which to bow out! This was indeed, for all concerned, a truly memorable occasion.

Peter Mechen, Sunday 06 October

Antipodes String Trio

Amalia Hall (violin); Nicholas Hancox (viola); Sarah Rommel (’cello)

- Larry Pruden – String Trio (1953-55)
- Penderecki – Trio for Strings (1991)
- Mozart – Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat major, K.563

Sunday 18th August, 2013, St.Andrew’s on The Terrace

Review:

This was a concert that looked interesting enough on paper, but then really caught fire in performance. Its disparate parts came together simply and directly to produce the kind of combustion whose glow remained long after the last notes had been played.

The Antipodes String Trio has changed its personnel over the last couple of years – the 2011 line up which toured New Zealand included Christabel Lin (violin) and David Requiro (cello), along with the present violist, Nicholas Hancox. The group was originally formed as a result of connections between students who were attending different various music conservatories and institutes in New Zealand and the United States.

The present group has a different violinist, Amalia Hall, and cellist, Sarah Rommel, who met while attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where both are currently doing postgraduate studies. Previously, Amalia Hall and Nicholas Hancox had played together in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra. Nicholas Hancox is presently based in Germany, as principal viola of the Lubeck Philharmonic Orchestra.

For a group whose members spend much of their time pursuing individual career pathways, their playing demonstrated a remarkable unity throughout. Undoubtedly a good deal of this “esprit de corps” comes from an avowed commitment to help promote what the group calls ‘‘the under-utilised repertoire of the string trio, which many great composers throughout music history have contributed to’’.

To my ears they realised much of the essential character of each of the works they performed – the breezy, out-of-doors angularity of Larry Pruden’s work, the contrasting ferocity and ghostliness of Penderecki’s piece, and the noble energies and fluid graces of Mozart’s Divertimento.

The programme note for the Pruden work cited Bartok as one of the chief influences, though I kept on hearing Tippett-like impulses in places. Not that the composer borrowed consciously from other music, as it’s entirely natural that resonances of past encounters with various works from other sources would crop up in anybody’s music.

Here, I enjoyed the first movement’s restless energies, with the few moments of repose allowing the shades of a marching song to peep around the corners in places, and bringing forth a lovely alternating interplay between violin and viola. The second-movement Serenade (separately transcribed by the composer for string orchestra, as “Night Song”) featured beguiling open-air harmonies and delicate, watery pizzicato sequences, including a full-throated, superbly-focused mid-movement “tutti”, filled with feeling.

The third movement’s delightful interchanges again brought the Tippett of the Double String Orchestra Concerto to mind, high spirits giving way to beautifully inward-sounding ambiences, almost Aeolian in effect in places, thanks to the rapt, concentrated instrumental soundings from these players. I also liked the Trio, with its viola-sounded echoes of the opening Vivace, poised here to perfection.

Continuing the mood-contrasts, the finale’s Lento tranquillo brought austere beauties from each instrument, the slow, fugal character of the music allowing the intensities to build systematically and inexorably – perhaps more “tragico” than “tranquillo” in places, though the purer, more “ritualised” tones of the strings after the full-throated lines had run their course did suggest a kind of “home is where the heart is” aspect at the end. I thought these players gave of themselves so wholeheartedly throughout – so much so that we in the audience felt the “wrench” at the end when the sounds were broken off and all spells ceased.

What a contrast with the ferocity of Krzysztof Penderecki’s slashing chords at the very beginning of his String Trio! These brutal, hammered-out episodes alternated with lyrical and whimsical sequences for each solo instrument making for an ambience harsh, volatile and surreal in effect, after the Pruden work. The players threw themselves and their instruments into these sequences with playing of great verve, relishing the contrasts of colour, tone and emphasis, and creating as powerful and telling an atmosphere with their muted, spectral realisations as during the more forceful moments.

Viola, then violin by turns introduced the fugue-like second movement, the intensities leading back into the ferocious chords of the work’s opening, the music motoric and insistent, like some of Shostakovich’s, expressed most excitingly with some trenchant playing.

When it was over, I thought of the worlds of difference between the two works we had just heard. I found myself thinking of Douglas Lilburn’s telling descriptions of Penderecki’s music in his landmark “A Search for a Language” talk, prompted by thoughts regarding the relationship of musical language to experience. And Lilburn goes on to point out that other creative minds have stressed the importance of finding universal truths in our own lives’ framework. The result? – a telling contrast here between the respective worlds of two composers.

A kind of synthesis of universal truth, life-experience and innate genius can readily be found in the music of Mozart, whose Divertimento for String Trio in E-flat K.563, which took up the programme’s remainder, seemed to somehow enrich the contexts suggested by both of those first-half works. Written in 1788, in the wake of financial difficulties for the composer, and from the same period as his last three symphonies, it’s a more serious and profound work than the title “Divertimento” suggests.

I thought the Trio’s playing had real “girth” throughout the first movement, bringing out the music’s nobility – for me, only Beethoven, in works such as the “Eroica”, approaches Mozart in his wondrous “E-flat” mode. The group took us on a true voyage of exploration with the music’s development – from the golden, sun-drenched strains of the opening we were suddenly plunged into realms of mystery and unpredictability, the figurations containing such a variegated set of emphases – beautiful work, especially, from viola and ’cello in thirds in places.

A dignified, heartfelt Adagio was followed by a “kicking-up-its-heels” Minuet, with each instrument given the chance to bend its back to the dance, then engage in expressive, even volatile exchanges with a partner in the Trio, before returning to the dance. The players enjoyed the Theme-and-Variations Andante, as well as the rather more rustic second Minuet, one with a delicious waltz-like first Trio – its “ready-steady-go” beginning was here pointed most engagingly – and a pretty, very feminine second Trio, again delightfully characterized.

Apart from a surprising single mis-hit from the violist at one point, the group’s delivery of the Allegro Finale was excitingly spot-on in terms of accuracy, flow, expression and interchange. It was playing that brought out the quote from musicologist Alfred Einstein, reproduced in the program – “Every note is significant – every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound”….the Antipodeans’ performance here embodied that comment, playing into each other’s and into our hands, so that we in the audience were able to partake fully in the musical feast.

I do hope we shall hear much more from this talented and engaging trio of musicians.

Peter Mechen, Sunday 18 August

Piano trios in sparkling performances by Waikato-based ensemble

New Zealand Chamber Soloists
(Katherine Austin – piano, Amalia Hall – violin, James Tennant – cello)

Sunday 27 April, 3 pm, St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Presented by Wellington Chamber Music

Programme:

Martinů – Piano Trio in D minor, H 327
John Psathas – Corybas and Aegean
Dvořák – Piano Trio in F minor, Op 65

Review:

I was surprised to discover how long it seems to be since I heard either Katherine Austin or James Tennant in concert. In fact, a search of Middle C back to October 2008 throws up neither name. However, we’ve reviewed three or four recitals involving Amalia Hall.

Most of my experience of Austin and Tennant in earlier years has been in the chamber music series in Wellington or Lower Hutt and at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, though I don’t think they have performed there in the last two or three festivals, at least. So this recital was a pleasure; additionally spiced by Katherine Austin’s ebullient remarks about the music.

I have come to enjoy Martinů’s music over the years and so I found myself feeling much more receptive to this piano trio than I think some of the audience was. His music is idiosyncratic and I can envisage performances that fail to grasp his spirit. Here however, the trio did not try to make too much of the opening passages: there was a discreet reticence in their approach, though the insistent rhythm, in the shape of motifs of two quavers and a crotchet and the opposite, and the energy that is always present was there, but waiting in the wings, as it were.

Though the melodic ideas are not as strong as in some of Martinů’s music, by the end of the first movement – less than five minutes, it had planted itself very satisfactorily in my head. The second movement starts secretively, on violin and piano though the cello later to enjoy some lovely duetting with the violin. The players didn’t allow the drifting mood of the Adagio to lose its way, though it did seem to take its time to find the exit. The finale found the more characteristic Martinů voice, with its typical ostinato-like motifs and motoric rhythms. But I await a performance of Martinů’s Nonet from an enterprising ensemble; not to mention one of our orchestras programming one of his six symphonies.

A colleague has observed that the acoustic in St Andrew’s has become a little harder for chamber music since the refurbishment; I’m not sure, as each of the instruments spoke clearly and were always well balanced, even though the piano’s lid was on the long stick and the writing could have tempted the pianist to a more dominant role. (My colleague, Rosemary Collier, told me later that it was probably a rug under the piano that had tempered its sound).

The trio had commissioned Corybas from John Psathas, and he had been inspired to add a short additional piece called Aegean, as an envoi (in the sense of a concluding strophe to, usually, an Elizabethan poem; Psathas called it a postlude).

The pair of pieces had been premiered in Crete in 2011; Corybas had several interlinked references, but was based on a Macedonian dance in complex rhythm; Aegean was in part inspired by the view of the Aegean from his parents’ house high above the sea on the coast of below Mount Olympus. But Katherine told us that they had decided to play in first, and that seemed very fitting. A complex pattern seemed to lie beneath it but that did not create a barrier for the listener. Its impact was of calm though not, for me, of a seascape. There were long-drawn lines for violin and cello over a busier piano part, and it proved a happy prelude for Corybas. Strangely, there seemed to be a real affinity between it and the Martinů trio.

The piano opened Corybas with a deliberate exposition of the rhythm, as a serialist might do with a tone-row. But this was no serial or any other kind of avant-garde composition. Though the rhythm was complex, there were quite long passages with a strong and insistent beat; the piece sounded very danceable, at least for someone born in Greece. I enjoyed the way the energy slowly dissipated as the end approached, though without any loss of spirit. Teasingly, it just got slower and more engaging. The trio has played it a number of times, and their familiarity and affinity added hugely to its acceptance and enjoyment.

Finally, Dvořák’s piano trio: No 3, but the first to make a real mark. Though the programme note linked its character with the recent death of the composer’s mother, there was little, for my ears, that suggested sadness, let alone grief. In a minor key, to be sure, but written with such maturity and confidence (after all he’d written his sixth symphony by this time, 1883; he was 42) that it is the melodic richness, life-affirming vigour and its compositional skill that animates it and gives it stature.

The first movement is the most important, almost a quarter hour and a tour de force given to sudden dynamic changes, a variety of tone and metre and dealing fluently with its fertile thematic material. These players took every chance to exploit all these opportunities, producing a mood of profound contentment. I noted earlier the happy balance maintained between the three instruments; here, perhaps more than before, I was conscious of more than just a feeling of restraint with the cello part, but a view of it as secondary; it may have been where I was sitting, on the left side. Nevertheless, when I turned my attention to the cello, Tennant’s playing was always deeply expressive. And that quality became particularly evident in the slow movement which opens, elegiacally indeed, with a lovely cello melody.
But before that, the scherzo-like second movement, Allegretto grazioso, arrested the ear through the teasing rhythm that seemed to suggest various time signatures, broken by a trio section of quite different and more pensive character.

Both the third and fourth movements, each of round ten minutes, seem to maintain the level of melodic inspiration, as the cello’s melody at the beginning of the Poco adagio is followed by a mirroring melody on the violin that was comparably engaging. And the last movement returned to the serious energy of the first movement where the Katherine Austin’s extrovert piano often led the way in dramatizing the abrupt tempo changes, the accelerandos, the little emphatic outbursts that held the attention even when one, secretly, felt that the composer was prolonging the end somewhat unduly.

So this was a splendid concert, giving a fine exposure to one of Dvořák’s chamber music masterpieces as well as rewarding and successful works of the past half century.

Lindis Taylor, Middle_C, Sunday 27 April

Brilliant and vibrant exuberance from John Chen

JOHN CHEN (piano)

Presented by Wellington Chamber Music

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 18th May 2014

Programme:

BARBER – Piano Sonata in E-flat Op 26
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C MInor Op.111
MENDELSSOHN – 7 Character Pieces Op.7 – Nos 3 and 5
HINDEMITH – Piano Sonata No.3 in B-flat Major (1936)

Review:

This was in many respects a masterly recital, a most interesting and, indeed, challenging programme, delivered by John Chen with piano-playing whose seismic performance energies in places would have given the foundations of St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace a particularly singular workout. It was music that seemed to bristle with challenges for the pianist, though a different kind of challenge for both player and audience was due, I thought to the running order of the music that was chosen. I did know beforehand, for example, that both Beethoven’s Op.111 Sonata and Samuel Barber’s 1949 Piano Sonata were being performed, but not that they would be put right next to one another.

At the point when John Chen finished his blistering traversal of the Barber, which opened the program, I was ready for strong coffee, or something of an even more restorative nature! This was by way of my feeling somewhat drained of listening energy through close proximity to such supercharged music-making. What I really didn’t want to happen at that particular moment in time was to then be confronted with the alarming incongruity of encountering nothing less than Beethoven’s Op.111.

But here was this young pianist, having thrown off one of the great keyboard masterworks of the twentieth century with huge aplomb and complete commitment to the cause, ready to climb a different kind of Everest, with what seemed scarcely a pause for breath. It seemed a fraction – well, excessive……Perhaps if someone had appeared and said something like, “There will be a short break before the programme’s next item….” we would have been able to better realign our sensibilities for what was to follow.

Once Chen began the Beethoven, certain things about his playing of the music compounded the incongruity. With the Barber work he seemed to have both understood and fully entered into the music’s free-wheeling spirit of fearless creative ferment. However, his playing throughout the opening of the Beethoven work seemed somewhat constrained, the rough-hewn, elemental piano-writing I thought a shade too moderated in effect, to convey a sense of the music’s composer hurling his message outwards and upwards towards the heavens.

So much about his reading was to be admired – its pacing, timing, clarity of fingerwork and overall structuring all seemed clearly thought-out, and skilfully brought into play – and perhaps, in a different context it would all have convey more of the music’s intrinsic character. But after that performance of the Barber work it seemed to me as though Chen had with the Beethoven become too intent on conveying the music’s different “style”, instead of trying to directly get to grips with the work’s physical, emotional and spiritual content.

Symptomatic of this approach to the music was Chen’s omission of the first-movement repeat, as if for the pianist some structural logic was best served by its excision. I find its inclusion a significant intensification of the music’s character, a fleshing-out of the composer’s own dictum that “the idea counts more than its execution”. Removing the passage might serve some abstracted formal symmetry, but surely detracts from the range and scope of Beethoven’s emotional and spiritual architecture. It’s not quite a stylistic matter, but again it raises the question of priorities, this time regarding form and content and their relative importance. Of course, as with so many things musical, opinions will vary.

Going back to the issue of which piece should have followed which, my preference would have been for the pianist to have re-aligned the program, beginning with either the Hindemith Sonata or the Mendelssohn Character Pieces instead of the Barber Sonata, and playing the latter as a barnstorming finale – after which, of course, the coffee would go down REALLY well! But one day, I hope Chen will choose another alternative solution when programming Op.111, which will be to bring more of his own particular kind of creative abandonment to his playing and interpreting of the work. I don’t mean he should be riding roughshod over the music’s stylistic elements, but nor should they inhibit or be treated as ends in themselves – they’re a starting-point, a springboard from which to express Beethoven’s idea as the player sees fit and feels the music.

The remainder of the program seemed admirably suited to John Chen’s skills and sensibilities. Mendelssohn’s two Character Pieces (Op.7 Nos. 3 and 5) in places literally bubbled with enjoyment in the pianist’s hands. These were both fugal, and were from a set of seven, which the composer called “Character Pieces”, in line with how fugues were regarded by the Romantics, responding to the moods and intensities created by the interplay of different voices. In No.3 I enjoyed both the “ring” of the pianist’s right-hand work and the lovely singing quality he brought out from the lines, while the following, more devotional-sounding opening of No.5 gradually grew in warmth and momentum here, towards a wonderful and celebratory conclusion.

Pau Hindemith’s music is often a puzzlement for listeners mindful of reputation and prevailing attitudes. Contrary to the “dry and academic” labels which my early encounters with descriptions of his music seemed to repeatedly turn up, his music seems to me often deeply-felt, and in some instances great fun to listen to. There is a certain rigour at times – but while I wouldn’t characterize the composer’s Third and last Piano Sonata as a barrel of laughs, it’s as readily approachable as any of the composer’s trio of works in this genre. Central to this accessibility is the first movement which uses a beautiful, slightly folksy melody that for me recalled a tune in Gustav Holst’s Brook Green Suite. Here Chen confidently and whole-heartedly brought out all the composer’s variants and developments of the theme in various “adventures” culminating in a kind of “laying-to-rest” ritual amid chordal progressions whose delicacies of dynamics were unerringly shaped, before the melody’s final winsome statement.

Then came a garrulous scherzo whose bumptious angular manner contrasted beautifully with a skitterish and sometimes gossamer-sounding trio (beautiful pianism, here), followed by a third movement March, grand and stately at the outset, but replete with lovely, mock-serious touches, Chen’s colourful playing by turns excitingly orchestral and atmospherically withdrawn. The fugal finale was a glorious undertaking, strong and assertive in places, more circumspect and playful in others – shades of the composer’s glorious Weber Symphonic Metamorphosis breaking though – Chen’s performance doing rich and whole-hearted justice to Hindemith’s rigorously-organised but fascinatingly-varied world of sound.

At the recital’s end I couldn’t help recalling the words of Sir John Barbirolli in an interview I once heard, during which the conductor talked about ‘cellist Jacqueline de Pre’s wholehearted approach to music and performance, and the reaction from various commentators to her allegedly over-fulsome style – “I love it!” grunted the maestro – “When you’re young you should have an excess of everything – otherwise, what are you going to pare off as you mature and refine your approach?” Which is not to characterize John Chen’s playing as excessive and fulsome – but that “excess of everything” referred to by Barbirolli is, I think, part of the essence of being a young performer, and wanting to encompass the full range of what music has to offer.

John Chen certainly exuded that essential quality in places throughout this recital – and we can count ourselves as fortunate that we’re able to share those moments, those transportings of delight when music combines with performance to produce something unique and memorable.

Peter Mechen, Middle-C, Sunday 18 May

 
     

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