New Zealand Bach, Britten, Lilburn, Mendelssohn: Turnovsky Jubilee Ensemble (Wilma Smith, violin/director; Justine Cormack, violin/viola; Lara Hall, violin; Natalie Lin, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Bryony Gibson-Cornish, viola; Ashley Brown, cello; Victoria Simonsen, cello; Matthias Balzat, cello; Victoria Jones, double-bass); Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand, 2.06.2015 [Pse]
Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G
Britten – Simple Symphony, Op. 4
Lilburn – Allegro for Strings
Mendelssohn – Octet in E flat, Op. 20
As those who know me know full well, I’m not usually disposed to understatement. Hence, in saying that Bedrich (Frederick) Turnovsky was a remarkable man, I strongly suspect that I’m bucking my indisposition. Fred was one of those talented, enthusiastic, determined and apparently indefatigable souls who succeed (usually spectacularly) at whatever they set their minds on. You can read a good potted biography of him here. For now, suffice it to say that, when he arrived in New Zealand in 1940, Fred was somewhat appalled to discover a dearth of the music he loved, and had taken for granted in his native Prague. With characteristic zeal, he set about putting that to rights, eventually becoming a founding father of Chamber Music New Zealand and subsequently the New Zealand Community Trust’s Secondary Schools Chamber Music Contest.
These have, over the years, propelled multitudes of talented Kiwis into musical careers. In celebration of Fred’s considerable contribution to New Zealand’s musical culture and of the competition’s golden jubilee, a dozen former competitors – at widely varying stages of successful musical careers – have congregated under the apposite appellation of Turnovsky Jubilee Ensemble (TJE for short). At the tender age of just four days, the ensemble inaugurated its celebratory nationwide tour right here in Whangarei, at the Music Society’s second 2015 recital. They must have put the first three days to very good use; sounding as though they’d been together more like four years, they did Fred proud – I really couldn’t imagine a finer commendation for his inestimable legacy.
Someone once berated me for daring to mention – in an otherwise fulsome review, would you believe? – a fault in a performance. Well, here was I, “waiting with pencil licked in case there is a tiny slip-up”, and what happened? According to my well-licked pencil: if, during the course of this recital, even a single finger slipped, it eluded my notice. Happily, much less elusive was the quality of the music-making, largely because it was second-to-none, equally gratifying to minds, hearts and (ahem!) viscera. It goes without saying that there was technical virtuosity in abundance, and yet . . . and yet, in a world replete with technical virtuosi, TJE went further, above all communicating a wealth of warmth, understanding, enjoyment and humanity.
I’ve heard the opening item, Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, played ponderously by solemn and reverential “old-schoolers”, and I’ve heard it driven, apparently without mercy, by hard-line “authenticists”. Less often – far too “less often” – than either of these, I’ve heard it made to bounce merrily along, haloed in happiness. Need I say which option TJE chose? They augmented Bach’s trios of violins, violas and cellos with a double-bass. This wasn’t at all a bad idea, because it subtly mellowed the sound, adding warmth without the least detriment to crystal clarity. TJE, not at all shy about letting their own enjoyment of the music shine forth, took their audience on a vital and invigorating roller-coaster ride.
If Britten’s youthful Simple Symphony seemed a bit less simple than usual, it was probably because TJE left no stone unturned in the detail department. Did the Sentimental Sarabande get a bit too impassioned? Maybe it did, but then they did wring it for every last drop of sentiment. And, by golly, the other three movements positively twinkled with good humour! The Bourrée was indeed Boisterous, its themes good-naturedly tossed around; the Playful Pizzicato was pin-sharp, its trio section being given a hefty, rustic “swing”; and the nigh-on ferociously explosive start of the Frolicsome Finale served only to underline the levity of the subsequent high-jinks.
Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001) was represented, not only because he’s still the pre-eminent Kiwi Komposer (sorry, “composer”), but also, as you might have noted from his dates, to mark his centenary. TJE chose to play his Allegro for Strings, an almost “stream of consciousness” tone-poem of ever-shifting moods, inspired (Lilburn said) by the Central Otago landscape. Not surprisingly, in “folksier” moments I could feel the influence of his one-time teacher, Vaughan Williams. But there was another influence at work: in its running figurations and jagged outcroppings, the music betrayed more than a hint of Sibelius. And why not? A composer could – and some have – chosen far worse influences!
Apparently, Mendelssohn expected his Octet, Op. 20 to be played in the grand, “symphonic” manner. He’d have been well pleased here. TJE includes two-thirds of NZTrio and a quarter of the New Zealand String Quartet – both of which ensembles are well-known for their ability to punch above their weight – and presumably these musicians furnished the foundation of this particular punch-packing octet. By this I do (of course) mean only that the top of their dynamic range was sky-high, and not that they made the music an excuse for a non-stop heavyweight slugging-match.
In particular, the Andante was marked by the most gorgeous playing of its tender, lullaby-like melody, whose serene progress was punctuated by some startlingly forceful interjections. Then again, in more than one sense the Scherzo was an absolute “dream”. Fleet-footed, its featherlight phrases skittering from player to player, the music fizzed along delectably.
However, in the outer movements TJE removed their kid gloves. They significantly heightened the tensions by pushing at, but never quite breaking, the bounds of Mendelssohn’s innate refinement and elegance. The effect was electrifying. The first movement started out florid and fluent, its second subject relaxed, even leaning towards dance. The performance bristled with details and telling accents, focussing on the constant contrasts between stuttering phrases and legato lines, and gradually accumulating a tremendous “sweep”.
The finale, on the other hand, began fiercely and felt fairly aggressively driven, yet it was all done “in the best possible taste”. The second subject expanded generously, yet in the developmental fugati every strand was delightfully distinct. All was unfailingly vivacious, and culminated in a coda awash with torrents of unbridled joy. As they say in my native Yorkshire, “’T were a’ reyt, tha knaws!”
As befits the occasion, this was really something very special. The only cause for regret is that, since it was assembled specifically for this present purpose, once its 25-recital national tour is over TJE will, in all probability, just quietly evaporate like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this impressive ensemble was instead planning an “ambassadorial” tour to give the international profile of NZ musicianship an almighty boost?