17 September 2014

Review: NZTrio Loft Series 2: Ritual Triptych

NZTrio: Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano

Sunday 14 September, Q Theatre Loft

Review by Alex Taylor

NZTrio describes itself as “versatile and genre-busting.” Certainly its commitment to both the traditional classical canon of trio repertoire and to new commissions by New Zealand composers enables striking juxtaposition and variety. However one avenue not so much explored has been the Avant Garde of the 20th and 21st centuries, from which New Zealand composers draw much of their inspiration. This is partly due no doubt to the relative neglect of the traditional violin-cello-piano trio during this period. Many of the pioneering composers passed over the piano trio in favour of other combinations: Schoenberg and Webern favoured the more homogeneous and fragile string trio, while Ligeti took the Brahms horn trio as his model for something  quite different.

What was special about Sunday’s concert was that it included not only a new NZTrio commission in the form of John Elmsly’s Ritual Triptych, but also a meaty nod to the European Avant Garde with Salvatore Sciarrino’s Piano Trio no. 2. The prosaic title belies the ingenuity of Sciarrino’s composition – this might be the most ambitious work NZTrio have attempted to date. A slippery tangle of string harmonics is coerced into action by high-tensile piano entries, the fragile texture eventually shredded by the piano’s pinball-machine glissandi. There’s a real sense of alchemy, of elemental conflict and synthesis, as the players navigate bursts of activity and lulls of tentative pulsation. Sarah Watkins attacked the keyboard with mercurial ferocity, and Justine Cormack’s and Ashley Brown’s stratospheric duets were highly nuanced. However at times I felt the group’s natural tendency towards clipped articulation and playfulness went against the character of the more spectral episodes, and the clarity of cello and violin was not always balanced. Nevertheless this was a thrilling performance, and I look forward to more adventures in modernism from the trio.

Following a sustained bout of applause from an enthusiastic full house, Ashley Brown began rubbing his bow across the cello strings, creating an abrasive sort of white noise. He explained that he was recharging his bow, collecting the rosin deposited in Sciarrino’s more aggressive bouts of scraping and shuffling. Brown went on to say that “in order to make some nice noises [i.e. those about to come in the Mendelssohn trio] we have to make some ugly ones.”  Although this could be viewed as extraneous to the performance itself, I thought it was fascinating both as sound, and as a window into the mindset of the performer. What I extrapolated from his comment, rightly or wrongly, was that he believes a performance is made up of nice sounds; “ugly” sounds have no place in performance. For the performer, performance is a struggle for perfection.

How a listener experiences performance is rather different: a mixture of engagement and inattention, conflicting sources of information, the transformation of memory. There are many reasons that we enjoy a performance. For me it is often a tiny moment or interaction; it might even be something transitional or peripheral, or the overwhelming excess of a sound world. For every listener it is different. So it bothers me a little when a performance experience gets packaged and crafted into a singular sound bite, ostensibly to make it easier to digest for the layperson. NZTrio’s “listening notes” were such a packaging, forcing pictorial simplifications onto the music before it even had a chance to express itself. I don’t doubt that these notes were conceived with the best of intentions, as a window into specific soundworlds, but these were windows that had been painted over with childish landscapes. Some of them invoked quite beautiful metaphors – in particular the description of the Sciarrino as “ancient whale song” and “cascading crystal meteors” – but no matter how striking the image, they still remove the listener’s imagination from the equation.

While Sciarrino was somewhat uncharted territory for the group, Mendelssohn’s C minor trio is well ingrained in the canon, hailed as a masterwork by Watkins. The music is demanding, but all three players displayed an elegant ease with the material. They clearly enjoyed the bustling toccata of the scherzo and the grand scope of the finale, seamlessly blending together the diverse characters of Mendelssohn: the daintily balletic and the gleamingly pastoral. This is where the trio are at their best – inhabiting well defined characters, where they can show off their impressively tight ensemble playing and shiny virtuosity.

At the other end of the programme was the relatively unfamiliar Beethoven trio (op. 1 no. 2) – altogether more transparent and exposed than the Mendelssohn. The ungainly writing of the first movement was not always successfully navigated, but after the rather torpid second movement, the work seemed to take on new life in the scherzo with a dose of swing and the trio’s characteristic lightness of touch.

The most arresting moment of the concert was the opening of John Elmsly’s Ritual Triptych, a jagged, disorientating gesture coloured by the rapid stroking of piano strings. This explosion left in its wake a mesmerising, Feldmanesque stasis that gradually formed into haloed, pentatonic gongs. Every so often the meditative atmosphere was broken by the startling intrusion of the opening gesture. There was a palpable sense of ritual, although for me this was an alien ritual I was observing from outside, transfixed and perplexed.

Such a jolt was that initial gesture that the central movement Con Fuoco felt almost pale by comparison. Intensity was sacrificed for groove, phrasing for verticality, and the aggressively shifting harmony was treated too monochromatically. I found myself longing for the stretched-out phrases of the first movement, the soft-hued echoes of South East Asia. We were duly rewarded in the final stretch of the work as the music returned to subtle inflection and wandering introspection.  

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