Wilma and Friends Make Sweet Music

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Andrew Leathwick, Dvořák: Wilma and Friends (Wilma Smith, violin; Caroline Henbest, viola; Alexandra Partridge, cello; Andrew Leathwick, piano), The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 1.10.2017 (PSe)

Beethoven – Piano Quartet in E flat Op.16
Andrew Leathwick – Piano Quartet No.1 (new commission)
Dvořák – Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat Op.87

A rather special piano quartet called Wilma and Friends brought Whangarei Music Society’s 2017 season to a conclusion that was both thrilling and edifying. Hang about (I hear you mutter), Wilma and Friends? Surely (you add), there’s nothing special about that – after all, chamber music being a very intimate business, the players in any ensemble would have to be friends, wouldn’t they?

Well, maybe so, but there’s rather more to this ‘and Friends’ than meets the eye. Let me explain. In 1987, Fiji-born New Zealander Wilma Smith (something of a legend in her own lifetime) founded, and for five years led the New Zealand String Quartet. In 2015, she formed the ad hoc Turnovsky Jubilee Ensemble (see review). It just so happens that these high-profile ‘creations’ are actually the tip of a surprisingly substantial iceberg.

This iceberg stretches back to 2011. Each year Wilma gathers together not just one but three chamber ensembles, each consisting of a – we might say ‘combustible’ – mixture of experienced performers and emergent talent. Under the umbrella of Wilma and Friends, these ensembles – which are presumably as ephemeral as the Turnovsky – give performances in and around Victoria, and occasionally tour NZ. For good measure, they also run masterclasses and ensemble coaching sessions in the localities visited.

In this context the present ensemble, being but one incarnation of Wilma and Friends, is indeed ‘special’. I should say that, with the extra, magic ingredient of the aforementioned combustible mix, what I said recently about the Troubador Quartet (see review) effectively goes for all of these ensembles – and as a matter of routine! Considering that Wilma, on top of her ‘day jobs’, not only organises but also plays in these ensembles, it’s a fair bet that this lady doesn’t have time to be lazy.

On this occasion, Wilma’s Friends were: in the ‘experienced’ corner, violist Caroline Henbest (b. England) and, in the ‘emergent’ corner, cellist Alexandra Partridge and pianist/composer Andrew Leathwick (both b. NZ). Caroline teaches at the Australian National Academy and performs with such as Australian Chamber Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Philharmonia and Glyndebourne on Tour, as well as in numerous chamber ensembles.

Although still studying her craft, Alexandra, formerly a principal cellist of the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, is already a seasoned performer, in such as Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Southern Sinfonia – and has recently toured with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Andrew has just become a piano teaching fellow at Waikato University. Whilst a student, he gathered a whole hatful of awards and competition wins, including one for the second string to his bow, composition. This recital happily gave us the opportunity to sample both his bow-strings.

W&F kicked off with the Piano Quartet in E flat Op.16, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his ‘real’ Op.16, the Quintet for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Piano. Received wisdom has it that Beethoven made the arrangement hot on the heels of the original, not because of any ‘artistic imperative’, but simply to maximise his income. Thankfully, this was nonetheless a skilfully-crafted re-composition – so, we could cheerfully conclude that our old friend Artistic Imperative still had some say.

W&F were clearly in tune with the composer’s relatively untroubled, youthful spirit; their view of the Grave introduction bordered on jaunty. The music was splendidly enunciated, full-bodied yet – even in this introduction – rhythmically aware. Following a nigh-on seamless transition W&F’s Allegro veered, with equal fluidity, between commanding robustness and dance-like swaying. All was clean-limbed and airy, suffused with a spontaneity that lent a keen edge to Beethoven’s many ‘plot twists’.

Their mobile, purposeful yet far from rigid tempo imbued the Andante with a real cantabile quality, almost vocal in the music’s several ‘duets’ and ‘trios’, and not at all shy in the moments of impassioned exclamation. Firmly stamped with its ma non troppo qualification, W&F’s take on the final Rondo: Allegro at first sounded a bit sedate. However, the rapidity of the piano runs and ripples soon put paid to that impression! They had a whale of a time with Beethoven’s infinitely inventive music, relishing its delicious moments of repose yielding to jollity, its jollity breeding drama, and its neatly-sprung surprises. Overall, this performance was characterised by cool judgement and expressive warmth.

A common feature of these recitals (and, I guess, plenty of others) is ‘sugaring the pill’ – embedding a new work in a programme of tried and tested works, by which I’m implying that the new work is in some measure an effusion of ‘squeaky gate’ impressionism, the language of which is incomprehensibly foreign to your average audience member. If he’s lucky, he comes away with a vague feeling that, “It didn’t sound all that bad” (I’ll leave you to infer how the unlucky ones react). Andrew is, for this day and age, a rare exception, because he keeps his gate well oiled.

To the audience’s immense surprise – and pleasure – his Piano Quartet No.1, which was commissioned by Wilma following “a chance encounter … at a Melbourne tram-stop in 2015”, turned out to be much more ‘sugar’ than ‘pill’. Admittedly, it’s not great or ground-breaking music (in the senses that we apply to Beethoven’s and Dvořák’s), but it speaks directly and comprehensibly in a voice that’s distinctive, characterful and pleasurably stimulating. Interestingly, Andrew admits that “as many of the melodies are from whistling a tune while toast is on its way as are from sitting at the piano [working at them].” Imagine (say) Pierre Boulez doing that!

Nor is Andrew shy about influences, which he wears quite properly on his sleeve (along with his heart). In the Piano Quartet, we have on the one hand the style of Greek folk melody, and on the other “the expansive sounds of the Russian pianist-composers: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev”. One final comment: although the melodies were tangy and attractive, after a mere few days I find that I cannot remember even a single one – which to my mind puts this music a cut and a half above average!

The first movement, Lento – Larghetto, opens in sweet but ghostly meandering, garnished by discreet upward portamenti (throughout, the use of string ‘special effects’ is kept on a tight rein). The viola takes up a cute, twiddly ‘folk tune’ which develops into a grand climax, powerful yet easy on the ear, and evidently moved by the spirits of Rachmaninov & Co. That spent, the music slowly dissipates in song and tasty string-sounds.

The second movement, Freely, presents a tender, eminently likeable folk tune, and features numerous song-like solos, all most affectingly played. The piano ups the tempo for a dance with a richly impassioned climax, relaxing into a Mediterranean mood, glowing and sparkling, and seguing (fashionable word!) into a further rhapsodic episode which has a hint of Kodály about it. The finale, Con Moto, is filled with fireworks and culminates in a huge, romantic climax (replete with chordal piano tremolandi!), a glorious sonic surge that fair sets the nape tingling – which, to be fair, was a fairly common occurrence throughout.

After an interval all a-buzz with reactions to the new piece, we heard Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat Op.87, which, unlike the Leathwick, needs no introduction. W&F, who soon showed that they understood Dvořák, set the ball rolling with considerable zest and hair-raising sforzandi, projecting the first subject voluptuously and the second with a melting sweetness that trod just nicely this side of cloying. They broadened out the tense quiet parts without any sensible slackness, and resumed con fuoco equally naturally, irresistibly sweeping their listeners along.

The Lento was very slow, but clearly going places and palpably concentrated. W&F very effectively co-ordinated the dramatic alternation of solemn or wistful sunset meditation with ecstatic or red-eyed outbursts. Dvořák’s fabulous Allegro Moderato was supremely well-rendered, the outer sections brimming with ‘Olde Worlde’ rustic charm, the stuttering accompanying phrases being tossed around with gymnastic accuracy. The central section was vim and vigour run riot, the rhythms sharp enough to cut your finger on – sizzling stuff!

Come the finale, I couldn’t help but notice that Dvořák had quietly omitted any mention of a qualifying ma molto con brio! W&F gave this a brilliant shake-down, strongly contrasting the main subject’s fizzing energy with the counter-subject’s whimsy, all at the same basic tempo. Moments of relaxation were wonderfully stage-managed. This was Dvořák at his dancing best: lots of macho muscle jostling with lots of feminine grace, bringing a joyous end to a thoroughly joyous programme. The only sad thing about it is that, in a few shakes of a lamb’s tail, this ensemble will be history – but then, I suppose, like a No. 9 ‘bus, there’ll be another one along soon, won’t there?

Paul Serotsky

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