The Entertaining Auckland Trio

28/07/2016

Beethoven, Reger and various composers: Auckland Trio – Clare Penny (flute), Elena Abramova (violin), Greg McGarity (viola, guitar), St. John’s Church, Whangarei, New Zealand. 15.7.2016. (PSe)

Beethoven – Serenade Op. 25

Reger – Serenade Op. 141a

and a “Fusion of Gypsy, Irish, and World-Music Flavours”

If the Auckland Trio (AT) ever adopted a watchword, the odds are that it’d be “flexible”. As professional musicians, they seem to offer what amounts to an “anything goes” range of performing services, from straightforward classical recitals to “incidental”, dance and even background music for social and business events (I hesitate to call them “rent-a-fiddle”, but they really do seem prepared to take on anything!). For these they can adapt music of (pretty well) any style you care to choose. I also get the impression that AT, nominally a standard string trio, is able to vary its constitution as the occasion demands.

The notice I received bore the somewhat perplexing legend, “Pop-up Concert”. By a process of inspired guesswork, I tentatively divined that it must imply a somewhat “off the cuff” affair. That tallied, more or less, with the explanatory “blurb”: a Northland tour – comprising performances on successive days in Whangarei, Kaitaia and Kerikeri – instigated by Northland flautist Clare Penny’s desire to say a musical “farewell” before starting postgraduate studies in Auckland.

The opening recital in Whangarei started a wee bit late. The cold (well, cold by Northland standards!), windy, sopping wet weather delayed the arrival of two-thirds of AT and, for that matter, probably explained the half-empty house. Mind you, I don’t doubt that the full half of the house, clearly made of sterner stuff, shared my feeling that the very toil of surmounting such uncomfortable inconveniences to get to a concert actually makes the music all the more enjoyable.

In addition to Clare, AT comprised Elena Abramova (violin) and Greg McGarity (viola, guitar). Their programme effectively offered two separate recitals for the price of one. The only obvious link between the disparate halves was “entertainment”, which might seem a bit flimsy in view of Charles Ives’s famous postulation: “The primary purpose of music is neither instruction nor culture, but pleasure; and this is an all-sufficient purpose. Hmm. I wonder – does it help if I define “entertainment” as “pleasure without profundity”?

Appositely enough, the first half consisted of two serenades, works that are expressly intended simply to charm – to entertain – their audiences. However, it was turned into a really neat bit of programming by the choice of works. As we all know (or are about to discover), in spite of what the opus numbers would have us believe, Beethoven actually wrote his Serenade Op. 25 just before his Septet Op. 8, which (so the experts tell us) is comprehensively confirmed by the strong “kinship” between the two works; and it was precisely this that inspired the two works in Reger’s Op. 141.

My previous exposure to Beethoven’s youthful Op. 25 has led me to regard it as a somewhat strait-laced son of the Classical era, so you can imagine my delight here, to have my impression turned on its head, and rediscover it as one of his most purely entertaining works. AT’s clean, zestful, rhythmically alert playing teased out a wealth of expressive detail that vivified the whimsical, dancing spirit inherent in the music.

Much of this was down to their putative watchword, not just in the choice of tempi, but in the natural elasticity they brought to transitions from one tempo to another, and in their scrupulous attention to dynamics. Then again, characterisation played a large part, “accentuating the positives” that distinguish the movements or even sections within movements. Finally, AT made me more aware of the way Beethoven often made a feature of the violin blending with the flute up top, and with the viola down below. In short, this was a joy to behold.

I hadn’t previously come across Reger’s Serenade Op. 141a. This compact work struck me as wholly delectable, having a vitality similar to the Beethoven, but sounding so different, possessed of what I’d call a rather “French” tang that clearly anticipated such as Poulenc. Informed by the same skills and considerations that they brought to bear on the Beethoven, AT sort of “extended their elastic limit”, their luscious performance seamlessly negotiating the music’s capricious kaleidoscope of moods and tempi, which veered, often vertiginously, between extremes of breezy good humour and pensive languor.

I’ll admit that I approached the second half’s “fusion of Gypsy, Irish, and world-music flavours” with some misgivings. Why? Well, to my mind it’s bad enough that “globalisation” has effectively ironed out the distinctive characters of different orchestras, smudging them into bland corporate uniformity; but I regard with abject horror the current fad – rife amongst a more than a few classical musicians who are trying hard to be “with it” – for doing the same to Music itself. If you’ll pardon my French, “Vive la [explétif supprimé] différence,” I say! What set me off, of course, was the appearance of that dread word, “fusion”. But, as it turned out, I needn’t have worked myself into such a lather – what we had here were, at worst, simply “arrangements” of folk music and such-like, on the lines of what Brahms did in his Hungarian Dances, for example.

And, what really matters here is that, in anybody’s book, this was gob-smackingly consummate music-making. Granted, the “Gypsy” pieces reminded me of the stuff that had fooled Brahms, Liszt and (before he discovered the real Gypsy music) Bartók, but, as played by AT, that made them no less thrilling.

Greg soon swapped his viola for a guitar, which he handled deftly, whether as a stringed or a percussion instrument, supplemented – in Dusty Diamantina (Australian) and Songmother (Irish) – by his fluent, rich brown voice, occasionally in duet with Clare’s featherlight, silken tones.

Clare treated us (too sparingly!) to the sultry sounds of the alto flute, and in the encore, Si Bheag Si Mhor (Irish), to the agile pipings of a very cute tin (“penny”?) whistle – not to mention some truly juicy flute slurs in Street Melody (Gypsy, Romanian) and some stunning prestissimo unisons with the violin in a breathtaking rendition of Monti’s ubiquitous Czardas.

Surfeited as I was with the superlative playing of all three musicians, I feel a bit chary about singling out any one performer. Nevertheless, I must bite the bullet, and award a “rosette imaginaire” – to Elena, for her astonishing violin playing, notably in the last-mentioned two items, along with Gypsy Medley and Cumparsita (that South American tango that everybody knows). Over the years, many great violinists have set my spine tingling with those inimitably rosin-laden, earthy, husky, throbbingly impassioned tones, but – hand on heart – none more so than Elena.

In the nine years since I came to Whangarei, this is my first experience of AT. I have to say, on the strength of this evening’s feast of “entertainment”, I do wish that they’d “pop up” more often.

Paul Serotsky

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