13 June 2016

Review: NZTrio at Q Loft


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

Q Theatre Loft, Sunday 12 June 2016

John Musto, Piano Trio
Chris Watson, Schemata – Three Views of an Imaginary Object
Elliott Carter, Epigrams
Alexander Zemlinsky, Piano Trio in D Minor op. 3

Review by Alex Taylor

NZTrio has been able to attract and sustain a substantial and committed audience over its lifetime as an ensemble. It’s my view that that has a lot to do with the trio’s programming: there is always a huge (sometimes bewildering) variety of styles, and always something to suit any tastes. Sunday night was no exception: the late Romantic Alexander Zemlinsky, the jazz borrowings of John Musto, and the post-Webernian modernism of Elliott Carter and Chris Watson.

For me the potpourri approach to programming succeeds on paper: it gets people interested and builds an audience from different corners of taste and experience. But I think it’s less successful in practice; personally I find it more satisfying to be able to draw connections across a whole concert. So it’s pleasing to see that the second and third concerts in NZTrio’s Loft series, GLOW and FLARE, have a more tangible sense of focus.


John Musto’s Piano Trio showcased NZTrio’s characteristic precision and skill as an ensemble, the strings gliding elegantly over a piano-driven groove. Works built on ostinati and rhythmic patterning can often become rather earnest and wearing, but Musto’s trio mostly swung seamlessly from section to section, never jarring or forced. Nevertheless it was a relief when pulse-laden material gave way to spacious harmonic play in the second movement; this was Musto at his most sophisticated, with hints of Schoenberg and Thelonious Monk. Sarah Watkins gave us a dazzling opening to the finale with coruscating ascending scales, heralding a return to clean and compact showpiece.

NZTrio are generally masters of the pointed attack, and conversely of the more delicate feathery textures, but for me, this kind of jazz-heavy work needs a weightier, more grounded groove to lift it beyond merely a collection of stylish rhythm changes. Championing as they do the works of composers that draw on jazz and popular musics, the trio could polish further their impeccable technique with a deeper understanding of phrasing and articulation in those genres.

Having been written more than a hundred years before anything else on the programme, Zemlinsky’s youthful D Minor trio felt a mite out of place here, its closest cousin the neo-Romantic Musto. Pushing against the already fraying edges of Romantic tonality, Zemlinsky invoked Strauss in his relentless harmonic oscillations and lyrical intensity. In the intimate loft acoustic, the opening strains were rather strident, but the work itself is already unavoidably lush and dense, and the trio did well to sustain the line and drama through all Zemlinsky’s harmonic tangents. By the end of the three substantial movements I was in need of a palette cleanser.

Earlier, Chris Watson packed all the tension and surprise of a full-length work into three minutes of shudders and scurries with Schemata, guiding the ear through the corridors and crevices of an imaginary object. Here Cormack, Brown and especially Watkins were flexible but articulate, all the detail of phrasing in the score conveyed with impressive conviction.

On paper Watson’s Schemata and Elliott Carter’s Epigrams seem like a natural fit side by side in the programme, but in performance they revealed their differences in tone and temperament. If Watson’s Schemata had all the tactile finesse and shade of architectural sketches, Carter’s Epigrams were craggy, cryptic hieroglyphs.

At the age of 103 Carter neither wasted nor repeated a single idea; Epigrams is an unapologetic series of statements without ornament. That’s not to say that this is insensitive music; the hard edges – and stoic resistance to groove – threw into relief the more lyrical and fragile elements. Duets of glassy harmonics and tight scrambles of pizzicato were interwoven with raw blocks and dots of sound. Where Watson followed the tiniest inflections and curves, the instruments hanging and sliding off one another, in Carter’s work they felt brutally at odds, irretrievably perpendicular or parallel.