Donizetti Trio Works Wonders In Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Vivaldi, Donizetti, Jennings, Fauré, Koechlin, Hoadley, Mozart: Donizetti Trio (Luca Manghi, [flute], Ben Hoadley [bassoon], David Kelly [piano]), Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 30.6.2019. (PSe)

Vivaldi – Trio Sonata in A Minor, RV 86
Donizetti – Trio in F Major
Janet JenningsPrelude, Fugue, Variations and Chaconne
Fauré (arr. Hoadley) Pavan
Koechlin – Three Pieces for Flute, Bassoon and Piano, Op. 34 bis
Ben HoadleyIntroduction and Allegro
Mozart (arr. Renaud de Vilbac)Fantasia on Themes from ‘The Magic Flute’

I have a complaint – or maybe I haven’t; it depends on which cap I am wearing. These recitals arranged by Whangarei Music Society in association with Chamber Music New Zealand (responsible for ‘Music up Close’) never – and I mean never – turn up anything remotely resembling a dud. Wearing my ‘member of audience’ cap I am of course entirely happy about this, but wearing my ‘reviewer’ cap I am a bit ‘miffed’, because my reviews inevitably end up sounding more like fan mail. To be fair, in my heart of hearts, even wearing my reviewer cap I would really rather be the bearer of good news.

I hardly need to say that WMS’s latest offering is well up to the established standard. The Donizetti Trio (DT) is a bit unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is a piano trio without any stringed instruments; and secondly the two wind instruments are not quite a matched pair – the obvious pairing for a bassoon would be the oboe, whereas DT pairs its bassoon with a flute. It is an intriguing alternative, because it lends a pleasantly ‘exotic’ tang to the sound as well as enhancing the clarity of contrapuntal passages. The disadvantage, if we can call it that, is the paucity of available repertoire for this combination; however, supplementing what there is in terms of extant original works and arrangements by acquiring new arrangements and pieces, they seem to get by well enough.

Having looked, and found practically nothing on the internet about DT, I think some background culled from the programme notes would be in order (I didn’t think to search for the individuals, so if you want more you should try that avenue). Flautist Luca Manghi, Italian by birth, has excelled in numerous competitions and been principal flute in several European orchestras; currently he is a freelancer, appearing with Auckland Philharmonia and NZSO, and teaches at Auckland, Otago and Waikato Universities.

Apparently, bassoonist Ben Hoadley graduated at three institutions: Sydney Conservatorium, New England Conservatory and Waikato University; currently, he teaches at the first-mentioned and Auckland University. He has played in several orchestras including Sydney Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic and Halle. He is also active as both a soloist and a composer, as well as teasing new music for bassoon (and, I dare say, for DT) from NZ’s leading composers.

Pianist David Kelly, who studied under Deidre Irons and Maurice Till, is NZ Opera’s principal repetiteur, accompanist and coach at NZ Opera School, and a regular performer with Auckland Philharmonia and Chamber Orchestras. For a number of years he and Luca have performed as the Duo Manghi-Kelly, playing at venues in Europe and Asia.

DT was founded ten years ago and first did a CMNZ tour five years ago. This appearance in Whangarei marks the end of their long and arduous 2019 CMNZ tour – a total of eight recitals around NZ in 23 days, including breaks to check in at their day-jobs; not surprisingly, the players admitted to being in a bit of a festive mood!

DT’s opening item, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in A Minor, RV 86, being written for recorder, bassoon and continuo, translated rather conveniently onto DT’s complement. Yet, I have to wonder, did Vivaldi conceive the work in terms of violin and cello? He seems to leave precious little breathing space in his often long lines. Not that this at all seemed to trouble DT’s wind players, who seemed possessed of the knack of breathing out far more than they breathed in. Their interpretation was fluent, lively and expressive, rendering all the contrapuntal cataracts with crystal clarity – and with bags of bounce in the finale.

Giving a clue to the group’s raison d’être, Donizetti wrote his youthful Trio in F Major for this exact instrumental combination. Whereas in the Vivaldi the piano continuo was appropriately self-effacing, there could be none of that here – Donizetti kicked off with big, bold piano chords that were, like the rest of the work, unmistakable portents of the operatic master to come. DT’s playing beautifully captured the feeling of a Romantic spirit budding (and occasionally bursting) out of the Classical style. I was very taken by DT’s pinpoint precision of articulation, especially when being so freely expressive; so many phrases had ‘smiles on their faces’.

The Hamilton-based Janet Jennings wrote Prelude, Fugue, Variations and Chaconne specially for DT. It failed utterly to fulfil the promise of its forbiddingly formal title, being an unashamedly melodious mix of Romanticism and Impressionism laced with a delicious dash of ‘modern jazz’. Jennings took advantage of the piano’s colouristic abilities; particularly in using its top end to crown the woodwind with glittering haloes. This skilfully crafted and wholly charming work was given an equally skilful performance that vivified all its varied and endlessly fascinating moods.

DT were not slow in pointing out a major merit of Ben Hoadley’s version of Fauré’s Pavan, namely the prominence of flute and bassoon in the composer’s own orchestration of his piano piece. DT captured the essence of the piece wonderfully well.

After the interval, we moved on to the Three Pieces for Flute, Bassoon and Piano by Koechlin, a student and one-time assistant of Fauré’s. These pieces occupy a distinctly pastoral sound-world, through which you can easily imagine the shade of the teacher smiling on the pupil. After the first’s coiling and twining, the second began with a fabulous flute solo, joined in duet by an admirably eloquent bassoon over a rippling piano. In the third, they forsook the cosy meadow for a decidedly lonely hillside, the ‘shepherd’s piping’ of the flute passing to a singing bassoon, thence to a contrapuntal duet.

For this tour Ben Hoadley spruced up one of his earliest compositions, Introduction and Allegro. It is an attractive and eventful work with, in parts, a mildly ‘Sibelian’ feel – although Ben says it reflects the ‘twisting shapes of the flowering pohutukawa trees along the spectacular cliffs [of Ohope Beach]’. The introduction progressed from long, slow, arching phrases, through brightly lit tinklings and wind duetting, to a sort of twiddly cadenza. A more agitated piano-pulsing thrust the music into urgent action – short phrases tossed between the winds over a running piano, punctuated by sudden dramatic bursts and building to an intoxicating Big Finish. In DT’s hands this was a headlong, thrilling ride – that day, I guess, the surf was high.

DT specialises in adaptations of those operatic fantasies so popular back in the Romantic. Here we heard Renaud de Vilbac’s Fantasia on Themes from ‘The Magic Flute’ which, inconveniently for me, skilfully avoided all the tunes with which I am familiar. Beautifully balancing Mozart’s classical purity with the overtly romantic treatment of the arrangement, they characterised the episodes with great wit and elegance, tossing off with consummate aplomb tunes that had gone in as arias and come out as duets.

Was there an encore? Oh, yes – nothing less than an arrangement of the Danse Bohème from Bizet’s Carmen! The three players shared the load ingeniously, executing some breathtaking ritardandi as they whirled the dance along with ever-increasing verve – a truly rip-roaring party-piece to finish their tour in grand style.

Paul Serotsky

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