Pattern-making Joyce and Liu give resplendent recital in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Various: Andrew Joyce (cello), Jian Liu (piano). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 16.6.2024. (PSe)

Andrew Joyce and Jian Liu

J S Bach – Sonata in G minor, for Cello and Piano
Vaughan Williams – Six Studies in English Folk Song
Dorothy Buchanan – Soliloquy for Two
Fang Dongqing – ‘Lin Chong’
HindemithPhantasiestück in B major, Op.8 No.2
Brahms – Sonata No.2 in F major, Op.99

‘Some programmes’ works huddle round a theme, whilst others are twains that’ll never meet; most programmes to one or the other lean; to mingle is rarer, yet much more sweet.’

As poems go, that is fairly terrible, but it does draw out the point of the rather populous programme of this recital, presented by Whangarei Music Society in association with Chamber Music New Zealand.

England-born cellist Andrew Joyce gathered a wealth of experience working with many English orchestras before moving to NZ and joining the NZSO in 2010. When away from his orchestra, he is a chamber music enthusiast. The Chinese pianist Jian Liu has been all over the world, gathering performing accolades a-plenty as well as adjudicating competitions, and giving premiere performances of many works by NZ composers. He is also an educator (with NZSM) and dedicated chamber musician, a founding member of the Te Kōkī Trio.

According to the ‘blurb’, this tour is their first outing specifically as a duo, and their programme ‘celebrates their musical and cultural heritages’. That last was true enough but, as was borne out by listening, it was not the whole truth. Although the interval divided the six works into four plus two, an underlying pattern emerged if you regarded them as two sets of three. The second and third works of each set ‘huddled’, each round a different ‘theme’; whilst the first formed ‘twains that’ll never meet’, both with the remainders of their sets and with each other – which all adds up to about as ‘mingle’ as anyone can reasonably make it. Whether this pattern was chosen deliberately is not for me to say; but it was palpable.

The duo started with the last of Bach’s three Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Neither the instruments nor Joyce’s vibrato were HIP, but the performance nevertheless bubbled with a captivating HIP-style freshness and vivacity. Moreover, Joyce and Liu had the happy knack of subtly sustaining a soft ‘spotlight’ on the leading line as it hopped from one player to the other – especially useful in the characteristic ‘stream of consciousness’ mode of Bach’s era, before form was invented!

Representing the ‘English’ heritage, Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folk Song were realised with admirable delicacy, the players considerate of these being, not straight arrangements, but contrapuntal evocations of the unique atmosphere and timeless enchantment of these old melodies. That said, it struck me as curious that the concluding study on As I walked over London Bridge was brisk to the point of sprinting. Was VW’s tongue ever so slightly in his cheek?

Kiwi composer Dorothy Buchanan’s Soliloquy for Two, written in 2017, sounds remarkably like a continuation of the VW. It is based on a Robert Frost poem describing a traveller confronted by a fork in his path, wrestling with the problem of which to take. The music thus is emotionally more pointed, more tense; yet, there is the same basic sense of elaborating the atmosphere and enchantment of a simple folk melody.

Standing for the ‘Chinese’ heritage was composer, Fang Dongqing (b.1981), who is famously skilled at weaving together elements of traditional Chinese and Western Classical music. His Lin Chong draws on the character of that name – basically a ‘knight errant on a quest’ in ancient China – in the classic novel, ‘Water Margin’. Suddenly, we were in a very different soundworld. Walking in the Snow is replete with ominous rumblings and dissonances, contrasted with a passage tentatively expressive in a Western way. The central movement, unapologetically titled Slaughter, is extremely harsh, savagely syncopated and alarmingly vicious music – not at all what you would expect of a cello and piano duo, but brilliantly played with a great deal of venom. It culminated in a huge, crashing tone-cluster, generated by the impact of Liu’s entire forearm on the bass end of the piano keyboard. Finally came Night Journey, initiated by the piano rippling under a somewhat passionate cello lyric. This was wonderfully evocative, yet (to me) did not sound particularly ‘Chinese’. I must be missing something.

There is a popular impression that Hindemith’s music (his Symphonic Metamorphoses apart!) is rather dry and dusty. I tend to go along with that, although my belief was decidedly dented by Joyce and Liu’s playing of his Phantasiestück, Op.8 No.2. I was quite bowled over by the vertiginous sweep of the fervent theme, negotiated with hair-raisingly pinpoint accuracy by Joyce and further lifted by Liu’s intensely active accompaniment. The music reluctantly admitted some effective points of repose, but its passion was all-consuming – until it was all spent.

Brahms is another oft-regarded as somewhat stuffy and heavy-handed, in his case in spite of an impressive array of works that are anything but. When the duo plunged into his Sonata No.2, I was flabbergasted: this was Brahms at his vaulting best, the music positively teeming – and distinctly pre-echoing (‘huddling’) the Hindemith we had just heard. Joyce and Lin were keenly sensitive to the dynamics, which they marked sharply, engendering the music highly emotive, with quieter passages darker and restless.

In the Adagio affettuoso, the recurring pizzicato figure was positively punched, contrasting starkly with the soul-searching lyric and its attendant rich sonorities. Bringing out the brittleness of its flurrying staccati lent the third movement a feeling of Mendelssohn; playful, yes, but (unlike Mendelssohn) very much the rugged rough-and-tumble of ‘big boys’ games’! Starting broadly in the manner of the St. Anthony Variations, warm yet eager, the finale soon acquired a spiky energy; and again the duo applied the dynamics craftily, carving the music’s hills and dales with nigh-on tectonic force. This was truly impressive, and well deserved its rousing ovation.

The encore was no ‘lollipop’ but the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, Op.19. This slotted into the pattern rather well, because formally it seemed much like the Hindemith and Brahms. However, the simply gorgeous piano opening, when joined by the cello’s expansive lyric, came over us as a ‘breath of the air of another planet’ – so different was the sound, the very atmosphere exuded by the music. On its own, this was almost worth the admission price, a fabulous finish to a resplendent recital.

Paul Serotsky

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