Martinborough Music Festival (first three concerts). Martinborough Town Hall, September 23-24. Reviewed by Max Rashbrooke.
The Martinborough Music Festival, now in its fifth year, has become an increasingly important part of the Wellington-area classical music scene. and its reputation looks set to grow, based on the first three of five concerts at this year’s festival.
The event benefits from the privacy of its venue, Martinborough Town Hall, and a talented line-up which on the first night included pianists Michael Houston and Dierdre Irons, playing a range of works for two pianos. The warm and good-humored respect between the two musicians was evident in the opening piece, Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor. This was followed by Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants, a series of pieces alternating between fast and slow “children’s games” that culminated in a bravura, hazy rendition of Le Bal (“The Ball”).
The concert also featured Rachmaninoff’s Barcarolle, a delightful piece of liquid sound painting, and the exhibition piece Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Undoubtedly, the highlight was Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. The unstoppable flow of melodies in the first movement was followed by a second movement in which Houston’s playing, in particular, had a time-stopping quality. The audience was even rewarded for their extra-vigorous applause with an encore: Debussy’s arrangement of his famous Prélude à L’Après-Midi d’un Faune.
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The second concert, on Saturday afternoon, was just as good, starting with a trio of pianist Benjamin Carter, festival artistic director Wilma Smith and cellist Matthias Balzat. A brief technical malfunction a few minutes later was no great difficulty, as it meant we had a rehearsal of the extraordinary overture to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 and its moving evocation of Siberian trash. The acting was superb throughout, right down to the last movement’s Tim Burton-esque macabre carnival dance.
Less successful was the premiere of Behind the Stars, a Dark Sky by young New Zealand composer Tabea Squire. The quintet’s starting point – with the piano, representing the stars, against the strings of the dark sky – tended to clump together the latter and leave little room for interaction, normally one of the most enjoyable features of a quintet with piano. Although the last section, where the string parts seemed to emerge organically from the piano lines, worked better, overall the connections weren’t strong and it was hard to imagine one’s way inside the sonic world that Squire was trying to describe.
After the intermission, however, we were treated to a wonderful rendition of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2. Here the quintet seemed completely at home, their playing characterized by sincere and seemingly organic (but no doubt hard-won) understanding, and decorated by Carter’s surprisingly assured playing, a rising star still in high school.
Saturday night’s third gig featured New Zealand-born but US-based bass-baritone Paul Whelan replacing Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Somehow this concert was slightly less engaging than the others, perhaps due to the composition of the pieces, each lovely in their own way but not obviously linked or in harmony with the others. Frequent personnel changes and stage changes didn’t help, though a supporting crowd generously rewarded even the stagehands with their own round of applause.
Whelan, meanwhile, has a beautiful voice, as commanding as his physical presence and technically confident throughout its range, but perhaps not the warmest or most expressive. The crowd of musicians – their augmented numbers of Michael Austin on oboe, Douglas Mews on harpsichord and Phoebe Russell on double bass, among others – were also not as cohesive as the quintet had been earlier in the day.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to hear Bach’s church cantata “Ich Habe Genug” and – with a smaller group of performers – Imogen Holst’s Phantasy Quartet (an enchanting slice of English pastoral), not to mention Schubert’s famous An die Musik, with Irons providing skillful accompaniment.
After the intermission, Strauss’ String Sextet from Capriccio was a mixed blessing, the textures initially fading but improving as the piece progressed, as the cooking flavors marinated over time. . Fortunately, the concert ended on a triumphant note with a rare rendition of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs. In this meditation on life, death and hope, Whelan sang beautifully, his power and stentorian quality fitting naturally with the solemnity of Brahms’s musical writing.