Potent playing in New Zealand from the cosmopolitan Meler chamber ensemble

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Turina, Antony Verner, Dvořak: MELER Ensemble (Josef Špaček, violin; Amanda Verner, viola; Aleisha Verner, cello; Andrew Tyson, piano), The Old Library, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 18.8.2011  (PSe)

Mozart Piano Quartet No. 1 KV478
Turina Piano Quartet Op. 67
Verner The Hill where the Wind Dances
Dvořak Piano Quartet, Op. 87

What’s the difference between a “critic” and a “reviewer”? Strictly speaking, there is none, although these days common usage tends increasingly to distinguish critics as those primarily – or even exclusively – concerned with finding fault, whilst reviewers are much nicer people, as fair and honest as the day is long.

By those definitions this recital, given under the auspices of Whangarei Music Society, would have had critics tearing out their hair in frustration. Regarding myself, with my customary modesty, as a reviewer, I can safely hang on to what little hair I have left – and cheerfully praise the recital’s all-but-flawless performances to the skies.

The MELER Ensemble is the latest in a seemingly unending stream of “class acts” coming from the stables of Chamber Music New Zealand (website here). When forming their quartet in 2009, Josef Špaček (violin), Amanda Verner (viola), Aleisha Verner (cello) and Andrew Tyson (piano) took their cue for a title from the fact that they hail from three different continents. Hence “MELER”, which is adapted from the French verb “to mix”.

What they actually mixed, though, was not so much cultural backgrounds as four outstanding talents, blending them into a note-perfect, seamless ensemble that rivalled both NZTrio in power and potency, and the Aroha Quartet in sonic succulence.

Part of the reason for this, and the glory of the Piano Quartet (and of course the String Trio), is that there’s only the one violin – which means that the traditionally but unjustly downtrodden viola, with its uniquely mellow and modest timbre, is effectively elevated into the rôle of “second violin”. Of itself, this makes a big difference. The MELER take “big” and make it breathtaking.

Yet, no matter how impeccably they operate, mere mechanics do not great music make; it also requires that ineffable, essentially human ability – for the sake or argument, let’s call it “insight” – to breathe life into those dust-dry black dots. Whatever it is, the members of the MELER seem to have been weaned on it.

Mozart’s classical “cool” demands uncommon insight – if you undercook it by the tiniest amount it’ll end up wooden; if you overcook it by the merest smidgen it’ll burn to a cinder. The MELER’s performance of the Piano Quartet No. 1 KV478 was done to a turn. With every tempo and variation of tempo nailed dead centre, with elegant expression reined in just nicely on the right side of “romanticism”, charm and geniality emerged smiling from every burnished facet.

Although it probably wasn’t deliberate, I could imagine the second item being chosen to underline just how “right” they’d made the Mozart feel, since Turina’s Piano Quartet Op. 67 simmers with the sizzling, sultry, volcanic passions of the Iberian Peninsula. In this, the MELER were electrifying, immersing their audience in this colourful music’s ominous brooding, sensual dancing and steamy surging.

Yet more contrast came in the form of a brief but beautiful tone-poem by Antony Verner. Written only this year, the gentle contours and subtle colours of his neo-impressionistic The Hill where the Wind Dances was inspired by and intended to evoke the natural “music” made by the winds of his native Wellington. I’d only one quibble. Kiwis, not entirely jokingly, call their capital city “Windy Wellington” (having been there last year, I can vouch for the veracity of that). As I listened to the music, I couldn’t help thinking – isn’t Wellington generally rather windier than this?

By now it was clear that the MELER have a lot to offer. Right on cue, they gave their all in Dvořak’s intensely dramatic Piano Quartet, Op. 87. Fabulous as were the exhilarating eruptions, zestful Czech dance-rhythms, enchanting lyrics and episodes of diaphanous dreaming, still more striking was their unerring traversal of the music’s cumulatively involving logical “landscape”. It was a curious feeling: succumbing to the music’s mesmerism, yet increasingly aware of Dvořak’s indebtedness to Brahms.

An encore? Yes, please! The MELER duly obliged, but not with any mere “lollipop”. As if conscious of what had just passed, they regaled us with a substantial slice of Brahms! This was nothing less than the “gypsy” finale of the First Piano Quartet, which, in their hands was a veritable tornado, bespeckled with epicentres of almost preternatural calm – a brilliant bonus to cap what had been a brilliant recital.

Paul Serotsky