NZTrio Gives Another Five-Star Performance

New ZealandNew Zealand Piazzolla, Hamilton, Musto, Schubert: NZTrio (Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano); The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 7.5.2017. (PSe)

PiazzollaTwo Tangos (Primavera Porteña, Oblivion)
David HamiltonFaraday Cage
John Musto – Piano Trio
Schubert – Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat Op.99

I was elated – then dismayed. I was elated to learn that our matchless NZTrio was, at long last, paying Whangarei Music Society another visit. When they last came, in 2009 (see review), they created quite a stir – especially in the wide-open space between my ears. I was then dismayed to learn that after this tour Justine Cormack would be leaving NZTrio.

However, after the recital Ashley Brown smoothed my anxiety somewhat, by informing me that he and Sarah Watkins were busy looking for a suitable replacement. The “somewhat” was on account of that “suitable” – will they be able to find another as good as Justine? It’s in the lap of the gods, of course, but they’ve smiled on such situations often enough before, so we can but hope.

Unlike their previous Whangarei recital, which bore the mystifying title “Vontasia”, and which threw up a web of intriguing connections, this one had no title (unless it’s visible as a mystifying blank line in the programme header), and no intrigue – unless you can winkle anything out knowing that the first half contains three spicy entrées and the second a substantial serving of good, red meat.

OK, so that’s the menu; what about the food – and the service? Happily (for me, who’s not an Egon Ronay critic out for blood), I can confirm that both were five-star. So, I suppose I could stop right there (you can if you want) – but I won’t, because my sense of duty insists that I try to justify myself.

It seems to me that Astor Piazzolla is one of those names that has gone from obscurity to prominence with all the alacrity – and impact – of a bullet from a gun; one day I’d never heard of him, the next his name was on everybody’s lips. Should I put it down to one of those occasional flukes of probability? I also recall, at that time, wondering at how much mileage you could get out of one simple dance-form. Well, it would now seem, quite a lot.

NZTrio performed arrangements of two tangos, Primavera Porteña and Oblivion. The former is the Spring movement from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, highly excitable, syncopated and contrapuntal music with a yearning slow middle section replete with juicy, swooning slides. The latter is lonesome and remote-sounding, faintly redolent (if you’re of a fanciful frame of mind) of an alcohol-induced stupor. Quite simply, NZTrio captured the tang of the tango to a “T”.

Having all but brought the house down with their “overture”, NZTrio proceeded to more substantial fare. I heard a fair number of Kiwi composer David Hamilton’s choral songs last year, at a Whangarei Choral Society concert – which the composer, who’d been very helpful to WCS when they were preparing their concert, insisted on attending (and gave a very entertaining off-the-cuff speech). These songs were amusing, but a bit like eating sweets (candies, lollies?) – nice while they’re in your mouth but, once finished, instantly forgotten.

Commissioned by NZTrio in 2015, Hamilton’s Faraday Cage is a different matter entirely (incidentally, when did this device’s name stop being “Faraday’s Cage”? Will the likes of “Boyle’s Law”, “Maxwell’s Equations” and “Planck’s Constant” soon be following suit?). The following brief description of the music can happily do double-duty as comments on NZTrio’s terrifically dynamic rendition. The first movement (Outside the Cage) is a sonic riot, employing propulsive rhythms, fragmentary motives, and a whole hornet’s nest of zesty instrumental special effects (including plucked piano strings) to create an atmosphere crackling and sparking with “electricity”. In the second (Inside the Cage), that “riot” is subdued, veiled by a shield of relatively restful melody. Finally, Inside Out and Outside In, which feels like further development of the same materials, which at last become playful, dancing – and comparatively harmless!

NZTrio concluded the first half with the Piano Trio (1998) by the American John Musto, whose widely ranging output often utilises elements of jazz and blues. In the busy first movement, NZTrio drew out a distinct feeling of a “jam session”, where an idea thrown up by one “jam” is seized on to generate a further “jam”, culminating in a huge climax. Musto claims that the second movement alternates a “night-time in the city” blues with frenetic bop. To me, it sounded more like a “Berg plays the” blues alternating with a twitchy tune over savage, motoric vamping – if that’s “bop”, then maybe I hit the right end of the nail, d’you think? However, no-one will convince me that the concluding torrent was anything other than “Bartók on a bender”!

The first half was thus music of mood and effect, which NZTrio, deploying their customary “incidental” virtuosity, played with oodles of energy and such sheer winning style that even the fabled “blue rinse set” would have been obliged to put their affronted sensibilities on the back burner. The one work in the second half posed a challenge of a completely different order.

Schubert’s Piano Trio No.1 in B Flat, Op.99 (D898), one of only two such works, both written during the last year or so of his life (though, at just 30 years old, I doubt he’d have seen it that way), is bigger by some margin than the Mendelssohn they played in 2009. Their approach to Schubert had much in common with the way they dealt with Mendelssohn, and that’s saying something!

A bold, purposefully thrusting first subject was seamlessly succeeded by a soulful second, handed by the cello to the violin, the piano babbling like a brook. This set the tone for the whole work, NZTrio responding readily to every nuance, flexible of tempo, veering deliciously between limpid counterpoint and sumptuous tutti. The sense of logical flow was truly marvellous (I nearly said “truly scrumptious”!); the “symphonic” approach that so impressed me last time was, if anything, even more effective; NZTrio, with masterly control of Schubert’s long crescendi, worked up tremendous heads of steam, soaring majestically through mountainous climaxes and relaxing gracefully into serene valleys.

I might quibble that their Andante was a bit on the Adagio side, but it wasn’t dawdling, the violin and cello, quite literally, singing their lines – a feeling enhanced by some telling dynamic accents. The central lift in tempo was barely perceptible, subtly accelerating, likewise edging back to tempo primo. After such perfectly poised emotional ambivalence, the arrival of the Scherzo struck like the sun bursting through parting clouds! NZTrio had lots of fun with Schubert’s abrupt, “clipped” phrases, all three pecking away like a bunch of pan-dimensional mega-chickens prone to sudden fits of ecstasy. In appropriate contrast, they most politely observed the formality of the Trio, before recalling the main section, tossing tight phrases from one to another with almost balletic co-ordination.

Now playful and teasing (the raillery of the coda an especial delight), now fiery and forceful, in NZTrio’s more than capable hands Schubert’s Rondo Vivace finale bounced along briskly, bubbling with energy – it had everything your heart could desire. They imparted a superb sweep to the progression of rondo sections; it was almost like being guided expertly through a series of enthralling exhibits (now, where have I come across that before?). Come to think of it, there was something missing, and that was boredom. I reckon I can live with that.

So, the end of an era for NZTrio. Will the next be as good? For I doubt that it could be better.

Paul Serotsky

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