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“Vontasia” - Haydn, Chen Yi, Wayan Yudane, Mike Yuen and Mendelssohn: NZTrio (Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano), Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Forum North, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 5.4.2009 (Pse)

Haydn: Piano Trio in Eminor (Hob. XV:12)
Chen Yi: Tibetan Tunes
Wayan Yudane: Entering the Stream
Mike Yuen: Shades
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 1 op.49

“Vontasia”? What’s that? Seeking enlightenment, I checked the blurb. The blurb burbled on about “innovative repertoire”, “dynamic interpretations” and “sheer musical chops” – extending my ignorance beyond “Vontasia” to “musical chops”! Ah, well, never mind. At rock bottom this blurb, which put me in mind of those ubiquitous, fashionable, flowery corporate manifestos, is nothing more than gilding. I was much more interested in the lily itself.

Both at home and abroad, the reputation of NZTrio (formally, the New Zealand Trio) is still growing. For five of its seven years it has been an ensemble in residence at
Auckland University. Many have built parallel reputations in teaching and performing, but NZTrio’s members seem to have made more of it than most; as I soon discovered, they play as though virtuosity is just an incidental. 

The programme combined a musical excursion – from
Europe, through China to Indonesia, then back again – with commemoration of Haydn’s departure in 1809 and celebration of Mendelssohn’s arrival in the same year. Although the sandwiching of modern by ancient, of uncharted waters by safe harbours, smacked of the time-honoured practice of “sugaring the pill”, it turned out that actually there was little or nothing likely to distress members of the fabled “blue rinse set”.

Discreetly exploiting the more exotic sonorities of violin and cello, the three “pills” were, predominantly, pleasantly atmospheric. The mountain air of Chen Yi’s “Tibetan Tunes”, filtered through these alien instruments, was certainly attractive – even if, as I suspect, the tunes were probably presented similarly to Hungarian folk tunes dished up for tourists. The NZ resident Indonesian Wayan Yudane’s mildly pungent “Entering the Stream”, with its intimations of Gamelan, occasionally alluded to both Bach and Bartók. In the slightly more pungent and somewhat serialistic “Shades”, Mike Yuen of
Hong Kong had Sarah poking around – to disappointingly minimal effect – inside her piano. Sadly, none of these works succeeded in knocking me sideways. Instead, that disorientation came courtesy of NZTrio’s playing, which was astonishingly accurate and articulate. 

Did Haydn never have an off-day? Wending from weighty drama through perturbed serenity to animal exuberance, his E minor Piano Trio (Hob. XV:12), which opened the concert, is but one gem from an entire Aladdin’s Cave. In the central Andante, I’d have preferred proper classical coolness to the NZTrio’s somewhat anachronistic smouldering romanticism. However, their outer movements were spot on. The Allegro Moderato was weighted yet crisp, with finely-felt dynamics and drama enhanced by breath-catching, immaculately measured pauses. Bristling with crystalline attack, the final Rondo twinkled joyously, the players bobbing in their seats as they propelled Haydn’s trademark wit on its merry way.

At the other end of the concert, Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 op. 49 first grabbed me by the throat, then stirred up a couple of thoughts. Suddenly, that apparently errant romanticism in the Haydn threw into sharp relief a significant line of descent. Suddenly, the navel contemplation of the “oriental” pieces seemed less a pointless pastime, and more a purposeful prelude. Confronted by music of this intensity – which, frankly, leaves even the Violin Concerto floundering in its wake – how could anyone maintain that Mendelssohn’s music was an insipid, passion-free zone? In his own day many did, and, let’s face it, there are still plenty that do. To such folk, all I can say is, “Listen to this work, especially as played by these people.” 

NZTrio got stuck in with such great gusto that I did feel a momentary twinge of fabulous sympathy for the “blue rinse set”. The only thing that wasn’t rattled was their composure; even with the wick turned up to a dizzy degree, they passed the musical baton through Mendelssohn’s incisive counterpoints with seamless grace. The Andante was wonderfully relaxed yet mobile. Wryly, I noted a sense of classical cool, possibly borrowed from Haydn! Their sizzling Scherzo, striking showers of incandescent sparks, was something of an apotheosis of that the agile athleticism of which Mendelssohn was the master.

Come the finale, the NZTrio’s playing – especially when moulding the nerve-tingling climaxes – bordered on the “symphonic”. I had to keep reminding myself that there were only three of them, because it felt as though they’d unleashed an inferno. Even so, never for a moment did they lose their grip on Mendelssohn’s peerless poise. I came away with renewed respect for this occasionally-maligned composer, and with some regret that this eye-opening performance had not been recorded. I live in hope.

Paul Serotsky

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