Reincarnated NZTrio drenches drought of live chamber music in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Hatzis, Fisher, Wijeratne, Ravel: NZTrio (Amalia Hall [violin], Ashley Brown [cello], Somi Kim [piano]), Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand. 10.10.2020. (PSe)


Beethoven – Piano Trio No.3 in C minor, Op.1 No.3
Christos Hatzis (b. 1953) – Constantinople: Old Photographs (2000)
Salina Fisher (b. 1993) – Kintsugi (2020, new commission)
Dinuk Wijeratne (b.1978) – Love Triangle (2013)
Ravel – Piano Trio in A minor

The times, they are a-changing! That may sound to you like I am talking about the effects of Covid-19 on live music. I must admit that, although New Zealand (so far) has managed to fend off the worst of it, the pandemic penetrated NZ’s shores just nicely in time to pull the rug out from under our 2020 concert season. Thus, Whangarei Music Society’s bill of fare has shrunk from four evenly spaced recitals to just two squeezed into October – and this recital, arranged (more than once) through the ever-dependable Chamber Music NZ, is the first live classical music performance in Whangarei since last October.

However, what I really had in mind was something else entirely: since NZTrio last visited Whangarei, in May 2017 (review), it has been through a two-year transitional period, during which firstly violinist Justine Cormack and later on pianist Sarah Watkins departed for pastures new. This interregnum ended earlier this year, when cellist and founder Ashley Brown unveiled his reincarnated NZTrio, comprising himself, violinist Amalia Hall and pianist Somi Kim. Newly constituted the trio may be, but it retains all its distinctive aims and aspirations (for full details click here).

Of course, we’re all agog to know, ‘Is the new NZTrio as good as the old?’. I reckoned that, if Ashley was even the least bit less than 100% sure of this, the trio wouldn’t have been here before us; and anyway, don’t we all know that the best way to prove a musical pudding is not to ask the question, but sit and listen to the answer. Certainly the programme, entitled ‘InterFusions’, was classic NZTrio fare: five pieces, the latter four each being redolent of the diversity of its composer’s cultural background. I am not sure what the ‘Inter” has to do with it, and neither do I believe that this ‘Fusion’ is what’s generally understood by the term. Anyway, going purely by the description, wouldn’t “IntraFusions” maybe have been nearer the mark?

Whatever it is, it didn’t apply to the opening item, which has by now become a fairly belated salute to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. The choice of his Op.1 No.3 is very apt, being one of the first compositions Beethoven felt worthy of presentation to the public – and how obliging of him it was, to start with a set of piano trios! No.3 is of course the one that brought Haydn up short, although the casual modern ear tends to find it increasingly hard to understand why. It helps enormously if you first listen to one of Haydn’s Piano Trios Nos. 34-37, Hob. XV:20-23 which were all written in the same year as Beethoven’s.

NZTrio brought the same sort of insight to this Beethoven as they (or, rather, their predecessors) did here in 2009’s Mendelssohn (review) and 2017’s Schubert (review). The opening is indeed remarkable: the then generally customary slow introduction prefacing a genial first subject which is hurried alone, compressed into a preparatory scowl prefacing an explosively flaring sunrise. That was already enough to raise ‘Papa’ Haydn’s eyebrows, which must have been thoroughly singed by what follows – a confusing complexity of apparently impulsive emotional extremes peppered with startling syncopated accents. Whilst rigorously avoiding any suspicion of understatement, the intensely articulate NZTrio traced the logical line of the expanded sonata-form underlying the music’s eruptive fury.

The Andante cantabile’s simple song was, literally, simply sung, its very simplicity subtly suggestive of soil suitable for a fertile imagination. NZTrio adopted a finely graded approach to the increasingly elaborate variations, affectionately expressing their varied characters; the piano variation with pizzicato strings being particularly piquant. In the Menuetto. Quasi allegro, Beethoven surely had his tongue in his cheek. NZTrio rendered it spry and fresh, with neatly judged pauses and sharply etched accents, sometimes bordering on robotic jerkiness and, naturally, not without its surprises. The finale got off to a storming start, racing away pell-mell (as per the prestissimo marking). NZTrio’s dynamics, unanimity and attack in the torrential climaxes were nothing short of spectacular – maximising the shock of Beethoven’s startlingly original finish: a finely realised drifting, groping ‘fade to black’.

By way of contrast, up next was the penultimate movement of a “multi-media” work, Constantinople, by the Grecian-born Canadian, Christos Hatzis, whose influences range from Byzantine and Inuit to jazz and tango. According to the programme note, Constantinople ‘took the world by storm’ – if so, this was one bit of bad weather that completely passed me by. Old Photographs begins with a reflective, even gloomy ‘chorale’ that apparently generates all the materials. Evolving a song-like feel, studded with moments of passionate nostalgia, the music eventually twists into a singularly sleazy tango, replete with erotic slurs and wiggles. Gradually it works itself into a right old lather, whirling wildly to a wholly hysterical climax. Then, suddenly, silence – the over-evocative photograph has been shoved out of sight, gloomy browsing resumes. Graphic music indeed; I cannot imagine it getting a more graphic performance.

Salina Fisher’s Kintsugi is representative of a non-musical foreign influence: in this case the eponymous Japanese art of breaking a piece of pottery and rebuilding it using gold-dusted lacquer, highlighting the fracture-lines to produce an object regarded as being ‘even more beautiful for having been broken’. Purely as music, Kintsugi is a piece over whose astonishingly kaleidoscopic colours (emanating, I might add, from all three instruments) I could well imagine a young Penderecki smiling approvingly.

Yet, contrary to my expectations, which were possibly encouraged by the preceding item, whilst Kintsugi’s title is more explicit, its substance seems to hover around the border of absolute music. Never mind; to some extent confounded expectations are the lifeblood of music. Kintsugi, especially given such refined advocacy as the NZTrio’s, remains an imaginative, skilfully crafted, thought-provoking and mesmerising work – feeling (like some of Webern) a fair bit longer than its five-minute duration, this was one that I think they really should have played twice.

The third of this trio of modern works was by Dinuk Wijeratne who, being Sri Lankan born, Dubai-bred, England/USA educated and now a Toronto resident, must have a head stuffed with fused influences. With no indication given of the meaning of his piece’s title, Love Triangle, I am assuming that it refers to the work’s three basic elements, which were stated: a Middle-Eastern-style melody, an ostinato rhythmic pattern like an Indian Classical ‘time cycle’, and a Western Classical ‘sense of structure’. Well, the opening is certainly ‘full of Eastern promise’, somewhat akin to the cinematic pastiche accompanying a snake charmer (or belly dancer) – which I say simply to convey an idea of the flavour; rather less frivolously, this melody also has something about it, of a muezzin atop a minaret calling the faithful to prayer.

The path of love (true or otherwise) does not always run smoothly. Early on, the music evolves quite playfully, weaving the melody in varied arabesques, with some neat slurs, spiky spiccati, and the odd deliciously lush moment. After a reflective episode tensions start to rise. Although punctuated by further moments of calm, the music becomes increasingly wild and driving – the first thunderous climax replete with savagely smashed tone-clusters, the final one utterly (if I may coin the term) furiosissimo. This was thoroughly gripping – not to mention enjoyable – stuff.

Enfin, we turned to Ravel’s celebrated Piano Trio. The programme note started with a quote: ‘They say I’m dry at heart. That’s wrong. I am Basque! Basques feel things violently but they say little about it and only to a few.’ In respect of this work, Ravel’s influences included not only his Basque heritage, which draws in elements both French and Spanish, but also the imminence of the Great War, whilst the second movement even inherits something Malayan (admittedly, only inasmuch as Ravel adapts a dovetailed poetic verse-form as a musical structure). That quote, which was unfamiliar, intrigued me; I have always loved how Ravel keeps the lid on mounting passions until the pressure is too great, and they erupt briefly and explosively. I guessed that it must just be a technical ruse, though this hardly seemed satisfactory. Discovering that it is a manifestation of an inherited racial trait has brought me some long overdue satisfaction.

I was taken aback, firstly, as the music started, by the trio’s outstanding purity of tone and phrase, the sheer refinement of the playing, a sound so utterly different from anything we’d heard earlier; and secondly, as the music progressed, by the almost pervasive presence of the aforementioned ‘Basque trait’. NZTrio’s first movement was notable for its expressive range, its fluidity of tempo, contrasts of ethereal and earthy textures, elegantly curving phrases, furious storms and, finally, a fabulous laid-back serenity – and still more notable for the way they bound these disparate elements within the formal logic.

NZTrio gave Pantoum its full measure of assez vif: spiky and sudden, redolent of Alborada del gracioso, the instruments weaving around like wills o’ the wisp now dancing with volcanoes, now bedecked with beautifully-pointed filigree – a delightful divertissement. In the third movement (Passacaille), NZTrio elicited all the solemnity of a Sarabande, displaying on the one hand enormous power and tonal richness and on the other extreme finesse in whispering the same materials and caressing every contour.

They played the finale with an implicit très prefacing the marked animé. Setting the tone, the initial shimmering was truly dazzling; the theme was announced with both warmth and athletic agility. In the fugato passage, instruments were brilliantly terraced, whilst the subsequent climax was literally awe-inspiring, the piano thundering massively and the strings – well – doing whatever strings do to produce a comparable effect! Somehow, NZTrio topped even that, with a final climax masterfully built and mountainously capped.

If NZTrio ever turn up in your neck of the woods, go hear them! Ashley Brown deserves a gold medal for his magnificent restoration of one of NZ’s finest cultural assets.

Paul Serotsky

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