Te Kōkī Trio Warms a Winter’s Night

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Psathas, Ravel: Te Kōkī Trio (Martin Riseley, violin; Inbal Megiddo, cello; Jian Liu, piano), Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 1.7.2015 (Pse)

Beethoven – Piano Trio in E flat, Op. 1 No. 1
Psathas – Three Island Songs
Ravel – Piano Trio in A minor

It’s weird how some preconceptions seem to stick like everlasting glue. When I was a young and innocent schoolboy (not yet a “student”, mark you!), an admission that you liked classical orchestral music would earn you hoots of derision from the majority of your peers. But, as I discovered when rashly I let it slip that I owned a recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, there are much worse catcalls than “highbrow” and “snob”. There was a widespread belief that chamber music was strictly for namby-pamby wimps who daintily cock their little pinkies when taking afternoon tea. These days, this latter prejudice (which has somehow slipped under the RADAR of discrimination legislators) is still rife. So, quite honestly, if I had my way recitals like the one here under consideration would be compulsory listening for anyone who labours under that long-lived misapprehension. Seriously.

At Whangarei Music Society’s third offering of 2015, would-be arsonists almost set the Old Library ablaze. If that sounds rather dramatic, perhaps I should add that the culprits were not hardened criminals, but apparently responsible members of society – to whit, three staff of Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music’s Classical Performance programme.

These, the members of Te Kōkī Trio, are also performers of international standing. Pianist Jian Liu has performed at numerous venues in the Far East, Europe and the USA, a list to which cellist Inbal Megiddo can add the Middle East. Violinist Martin Riseley, a native New Zealander with even more imposing credentials, has previously caused quite a stir in Whangarei. Four years ago, having been put on the spot by the eleventh-hour indisposition of Deidre Irons, Martin gave us an all-but-impromptu and utterly unforgettable solo recital of Bach and Paganini (see review).

I’m not stating categorically that this fully explained the packed house, but it’s not unlikely that such a sensational event would have had something to do with it. Either way, I think that everyone came away more than satisfied with the evening’s entertainment, for Te Kōkī Trio is an impressive instrument in its own right.

Refreshingly, Te Kōkī’s programme was based on purely musical considerations, particularly of variety, colour and excitement. For openers, they chose Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 1 which, as is glaringly obvious from its opus number, is a very early work – not the first thing he wrote, but simply the first he considered worthy of publication. In Beethoven’s case, his youthful works are doubly fascinating. Firstly, his formative influences – particularly those of Haydn and Mozart – are still well in evidence; and secondly, all the hallmarks of the mature Beethoven are already flourishing! Almost paradoxically, it’s in the remarkably few works such as this, where elements of the “old” and the “new” co-exist, that the true extent of Beethoven’s originality hits you hardest.

Te Kōkī Trio made sure of that, but not – as I’ve often heard – by stressing the “new” elements at the expense of the “old”, nor – as I’ve occasionally heard – by touching up the “old” bits in Beethoven’s canvas with some of his “new” paint. Instead, they sought the just balance between the two, which of itself created a palpable tension, so much so that it took no great leap of imagination to feel that Beethoven was declaring, consciously or otherwise, “This is how they did it – and this is how I’m going to do it.”

Thus, as presumably Beethoven intended, Mozartian phrases – notably on piano in the first movement – were presented “straight”, creating an urbane atmosphere (I tempted to say “lulling me into a false sense of security”), which then, with startling suddenness, under an onslaught of jolting accents and jagged tempo-shifts splintered into something altogether more “urban”.

The Adagio Cantabile also started out “straight”, sounding for all the world like a typical Haydn slow movement. Yet, gradually, the passions were piled up, until the music burst with an emotional intensity that looks only forward. On the other hand, as befits the inventor of the form, the Scherzo has “Beethoven” written right through it. With exhilarating enthusiasm, Te Kōkī Trio brought out all its inherent light-footed athleticism, rapid-fire articulation, and emphatic exclamation.

Although clearly based on a “Haydn” model, this superbly coordinated performance of the finale was given plenty of weight as well as momentum, and wittily expressed off-beat phrases. This was not only fast but also furious, Te Kōkī Trio building up a hair-raising head of steam in a race for the line that left listeners breathless.

John Psathas, NZSM’s Composition Professor, was born of Greek parents in New Zealand. His name is probably best-known through his fanfares and other “incidental music” for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. John describes his Three Island Songs not as Greek dances but as “reflections of” Greek dance styles, although, in respect of the first two, maybe “meditations on” might have been nearer the mark.

In the first, extended rapid ostinati were overlaid, firstly by irregular fragmentary motives, and secondly by phrases of long-held notes. At the centre, these sounds coalesced into a single, brief, coherent violin melody, like a bubble breaking surface. The “arch” layout also featured in the second, where arpeggiated cello pizzicati, sounding somewhat like a brooding bouzouki, were coloured by piano then arco violin, this time coalescing into a distinct but brief dance.

The third, though, was a very different animal. Te Kōkī Trio whipped off their kid gloves for a no-holds-barred firecracker, a whirling, skirling, vaguely “bagpipe-y” dance (albeit one reserved for folk with exceedingly virtuosic feet!). Sounding unequivocally “Greek”, it fair rattled along, leaving even Zorba’s exhilarating dance gasping in its wake – and setting the auditorium alight!

There are those who consider Ravel’s music to be somewhat detached and “impersonal”. If they’d been here, they’d have had their balloons well and truly pricked. In Te Kōkī Trio’s precise yet sympathetic, even loving hands, his Piano Trio was not only exquisitely turned and tinted, but also profoundly emotional, occasionally even wearing its heart on its sleeve. Indeed, from the very outset Te Kōkī Trio had the full measure of Ravel’s unique sound and highly prehensile tempi. From whispered sweet nothings to soaring melody, sizzling agitato to icy harmonics (et cetera!), every corner of the astonishingly varied Modéré was a veritable vale of enchantment.

In the intricate interplays of the spiky, slide-y and twitchy Pantoum, even the piano played “pizzicato”, and in contrast to all this fun there were fabulously passionate climaxes. Te Kōkī Trio’s Passacaille was exceptional. It began very solemnly, the dull, dry melody wearily dragging its feet. As this theme passed round the instruments, it gradually accumulated expressive warmth and power, and in parallel slowly acquired an atmosphere of immense tragedy. It might be a cliché to call this “ineffably moving”, but it would also be accurate.

Come the final Animé (as markings go, that’s something of an understatement), a pattern clicked into place, a clear progression in terms of adrenalin level, which was all the more remarkable for Beethoven being in only third place! Te Kōkī Trio moved from glassy shimmering through warmly lyrical, to gorgeously balanced sonorities, and powerful piano under thrilling string trills. Steamy passions arose, punctuated by frenzied eruptions. The coda was stupendous, a riot of exultant outbursts generating a spectacularly pyrotechnical conclusion.

Hopefully, my references to “head of steam”, “firecracker”, “setting alight”, “pyrotechnical” will explain the meaning behind my possibly cryptic comment about arsonists. After what had amounted to a red-hot recital, Te Kōkī Trio kindly cooled us all down, their soothing encore being a simple but effective Piano Trio movement with a charming melody, courtesy of Fanny Mendelssohn.


Paul Serotsky

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