Pruden Proven by Antipodes String Trio and De Pledge

New ZealandNew Zealand Pruden, Penderecki, R. Strauss, Brahms: Antipodes String Trio (Amalia Hall, violin; Nicholas Hancox, viola; Sarah Rommel, cello), Stephen De Pledge (piano); The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 14.8.2013 (PSe)

Larry Pruden: Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello
Penderecki: String Trio
R. Strauss: Variations on a Bavarian Folk Song
Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3, in C minor

 Whilst waiting for the start, having exhausted my more mundane musings on the apparently endless string of class acts served up by  Whangarei Music Society through the good offices of Chamber Music NZ, I found myself struggling to disentangle the logical inconsistencies inherent in the use of the word “antipodes” in “Antipodes String Trio” (try it yourself! – the definitions are in the dictionary, the violinist and violist are native New Zealanders, and the cellist hails from the USA). But, the moment the music began, guess what? Spot on – these cerebral gymnastics went right out of the window! The reasons are threefold:

Firstly, the individual players were all technically excellent, each also having qualities which, although not unique, were nevertheless distinctive. Amalia Hall’s incisive violin could not only soar like a lark on the wing, but also growl gruffly with the best of them. Nicholas Hancox’s mellow yet crisp viola belied the instrument’s reputation for reticence. And cellist Sarah Rommel, it seems to me, might easily have given Rostropovich a run for his money.

Secondly came something not generally compatible with individual distinctiveness – the ensemble. The underlying blend was rich in tone yet crystal-clear and, most significantly, exceptionally egalitarian. Being so much more brilliant and penetrating that its bigger brothers, the violin can, wilfully or otherwise, be something of a despot. AST, however, were clearly having none of that. These qualities they could maintain with admirable uniformity, from the most intimate whisper to the fiercest fortissimo. Lovely as it sounded, there was nevertheless nothing soppy about this chamber group.

Thirdly, there was the programme of music. Smartly sidestepping the old routine, and thereby taking a bit of a risk in respect of the notorious conservatism of general audiences, AST came up trumps, with three trios that really probed the potential of the medium.

This was epitomised by the opening work. Before this recital, I’d never even heard of Larry Pruden (1925-82), never mind heard any of his music. A New Zealander born and bred, he was a man of many talents. His Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello (1953) was, quite simply, the most striking Kiwi composition I’ve come across to date, and great music by any standard.

We’re all aware (aren’t we?) that there are basically two ways of enlarging the corpus of music – either you build on what’s gone before, or you come up with “something completely different”. Strange though it may seem at first, the former can be the more difficult to do well; fall a mere millimetre short, and you’ll be condemned as a craven copy-cat. Astutely Pruden built on the example of Bartók – “astutely” because Bartók’s was not only a decidedly uncluttered path, but also – though at the time many may not have thought so – an eminently admirable and challenging model.

Pruden adapted and absorbed many elements of Bartók’s style and techniques, but not his materials – demonstrating that these are the main source of Bartók’s astringency. I’m thus tempted to suggest that Pruden’s music was softer-grained because he’d substituted “Kiwi” for “Magyar”; however, as I haven’t yet identified any distinctive musical quality I could call “Kiwi-ness”, that temptation I’ll have to resist.

Nonetheless, Pruden forged a string trio that is at once palpably personal, ambivalent, intensely atmospheric and thoroughly gripping. Judging, for the most part, by a satisfying feeling of being pinned to my seat, I’d say it was ardently advocated by AST. The key to their interpretation was a fine sense of balance; Pruden’s “pudding” was neither over- nor under-egged with those spicy Bartókian timbres and harmonies.

Even the very name of Krzyzstof Penderecki, once notorious for his bloodcurdling Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (as it happens, a work to which I’m inordinately partial!), can make the faint-hearted weak-kneed. Those who on this account were represented by empty seats may now roundly berate themselves – because Penderecki’s String Trio (1991) is entirely approachable, a captivating confrontation between “ancient” and “modern”. As in the Pruden, AST’s fabulous articulation, attack, dynamics and spine-tingling realisations of sonic “special effects” brought this, what turned out to be very humane music, vividly to life.

The first half was rounded off with a degree of “leavening”. Richard Strauss’s compact Variations on a Bavarian Folk Song, an exceptionally accomplished student work, remained “buried” until as recently as 1996. After nodding politely towards Brahms, Strauss unveils his own, then embryonic “florid” character through a wide-ranging series of engagingly affectionate and occasionally humorous variations. And, basically, that’s exactly how AST played it.

Stephen De Pledge (who performed brilliantly with cellist Martin Rummel last October, see here) blended seamlessly with AST in Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor. For as long as I can remember, Brahms seems to have been lumbered with a reputation for “stodginess”. In recent years, though, some performers – possibly prompted by the “authentic” movement – have started asking, “Is this supposed stodginess inherent in Brahms’s music, or is it due to the accumulated ‘fat’ of performance practice?”

Consider two performances of the same work, both faithfully following every last jot and tittle of the annotations in Brahms’s score: is it possible for one to sound “stodgy” and the other not? On the face of it, the answer should be no. But, we all (apart, that is, from Stravinsky) know that scores leave far more unsaid than they actually say – the only indications that are anything like absolute are the pitches and lengths of notes; indications of tempo, dynamics, accents (and so forth) are no more inflexible than knicker elastic.

So, since Brahms wrote music both richly-harmonised and tightly-integrated, it’s odds-on that successive generations of performers, keen to “do it better” than before, would push those qualities further and further, quickly approaching that state of stodginess. Yet, this does not mean that Brahms intended this, does it?

It was soon clear that AST and De Pledge certainly didn’t think so. From a brooding but unusually edgy introduction, the first movement literally exploded into vigorous, virile, 99% fat-free action. The same intense energy brought an admittedly weighty, but also ferocious “bounce” to the Scherzo, which fairly rattled along. Then again, by playing with the sort of affecting, extremely feather-light delicacy that few, in all honesty, would associate with Brahms, they discovered an uncommonly breathtaking beauty in the Andante’s melody. The similar treatment given to quiet oases elsewhere also, by heightening the contrast, further intensified succeeding climaxes.

This was somewhat more than simply pushing things further towards their extremes; for example, there’s a distinction between greater amplitude of tone and more power. The former thickens (or “stodgifies”) textures, but the latter doesn’t – giving, for instance, a margin of articulative clarity that in turn liberates the tempo from the fetters imposed by over-ripeness.

De Pledge seemed (let me stress: this is only my guess!) to do this by rethinking his treble/bass balance, AST by applying a bit less horsehair but coming down harder on the strings. Maybe this would explain why AST’s otherwise pure sound sometimes coarsened. In fact, bearing in mind my introductory remark regarding ensemble, I suspect it might even have been deliberate, a right and proper refusal to compromise the storming of barns – at such moments where the music itself is rugged, insisting on tonal purity is surely a major mistake!

This clean-limbed approach reached its momentous peak in the finale, where the ensemble took Brahms’s salvoes of “three-against-two” cross-rhythms by the scruff of the neck, and gave them one heck of a shaking down. De Pledge and AST played a blinder, not only creating a sound for sore ears but also giving listeners plenty of food for thought: has Brahms here been exposed for what he really is – no trace of flab and fighting fit? I for one would be happy to believe that.

Paul Serotsky