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Kathryn Stott & the New Zealand String Quartet


Review by Howard Davis

Kathryn Stott

Known mainly for her interpretations of the French piano repertoire, pianist Kathryn Stott treated her audience to a virtuoso performance tinted with evanescent colours and a shimmering, elusive luminosity at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre. Accompanied by the New Zealand String Quartet, she deployed an intensely singing tone, formidable fluidity and spaciousness, and exquisite voicing in an eclectic programme of which the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson would undoubtedly have approved, contrasting Anton Dvořák’s folk-inspired Piano Quintet with Gillian Whitehead's post-modern still, echoing, and Henri Dutilleux' modernist mid-century Piano Sonata. “I have a hugely diverse interest, curiosity, and wish to play music from all centuries, countries and genres, and these programmes reflect that." says Stott. "Music from New Zealand is still relatively new to me … It’s not until that first rehearsal together that you think 'Ah, that’s how it sounds!’”

[Note: The New Zealand tour is part of Chamber Music New Zealand’s Kaleidoscopes season. Somewhat confusingly, the Hamilton, Nelson, and Christchurch performances follow the same programme as in Wellington, while the Auckland, Dunedin, and Invercargill recitals substitute Gabriel Fauré Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Ravel's Sonatine, John Psathas' Piano Quintet, and César Franck's Piano Quintet in F Minor. A somewhat scandalous composition when it was premiered, the latter's "unctuous narcissism" has been criticized by the nasty, unctuous narcissist Roger Scruton - reason enough, perhaps, to check it out …]

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New Zealand String Quartet

Born in Nelson, Lancashire in 1958 to a mother who taught piano, Stott began learning the instrument at the age of five. She attended the Yehudi Menuhin School (where her teachers included Nadia Boulanger, Marcel Ciampi, Barbara Kerslake and Ravel specialist Vlado Perlemuter), then studied at the Royal College of Music with Kendall Taylor. She has performed as a concerto soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician, specializing in the English and French classical repertoire, and contemporary classical music. She has also organized several music festivals and concert series and currently teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and Chetham's School of Music. In September last year, she joined the Piano Faculty of the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.

Since the mid-1990s, Stott has also been interested in tango and other Latin dance music, which she describes as "primitive music, hard to place, both abrasive and tender". She first met her long-time collaborator, American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in 1978, when she "discovered a Chinese man in his underpants playing the cello" in her flat after returning from holiday. Ma had rented the apartment from Stott's flat-mate, violinist Nigel Kennedy, without realising that it was shared. Stott and Ma have frequently toured and made several recordings together, including Soul of the Tango and Obrigado Brazil, which received Grammy Awards in 1999 and 2004. Grove Music Online describes her playing as "marked by a vivid sense of immediacy and personal communication" and a Times review of her fiftieth birthday gala concert described her as "one of the most versatile pianists on the circuit," both qualities being clearly in evidence at her Wellington performance.

Stott was impressively supported by the The New Zealand String Quartet, established in 1987 and the country's only full-time strong quartet. Now consisting of Helene Pohl (1st violin), Monique Lapins (2nd violin), Gillian Ansell (viola) and Rolf Gjelsten (cello), it performs more than eighty concerts a year, including many international festivals, and has been Quartet-in-Residence at Victoria University's School of Music since 1991. Like Stott, the NZSQ have an extensive discography, including a 3-CD series of Mendelssohn’s string quartets, chamber works by Douglas Lilburn, and the first disc in a planned three-CD set of Brahms (all on Naxos Records), as well as works by a number of New Zealand composers and Bela Bartok's complete string quartets for Atoll Records.

* * *

Gillian Whitehead

Acclaimed as one of the most important composers in Australasia, Gillian Whitehead was born in Hamilton in 1941 and studied at the University of Auckland and Victoria University, from which she graduated with Honours in 1964. Since then, she has written solo, chamber, choral, orchestral, and operatic works, as well as pieces involving taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments) and improvisational compositions, most of them direct commissions from performers and funding organizations.

After studying composition at the University of Sydney with Peter Sculthorpe, Whitehead attended a composition course given by Peter Maxwell Davies in Adelaide. She continued studying with him in the UK, where she lived for the next ten years, becoming Composer in Residence at Newcastle University from 1978-80. In 1981, she returned to her Maori and southern hemisphere roots, joining the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where she was Head of Composition for four years. She is quite capable of writing full orchestral scores like Resurgencies (1989), but has largely relinquished her cerebral approach of the 1960s and 1970s in favour of more open, spontaneous methods that call on the improvisatory methods and skills. Richard Nunns’ taonga puoro feature prominently in many of her works, such as the poignant Hineraukatauri (1999).

Whitehead's opera Outrageous Fortune won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award and she was awarded the NZ Order of Merit in 1999. She was Composer in Residence at the Auckland Philharmonia from 2000-1, when her orchestral work the improbable ordered dance won the 2001 SOUNZ Contemporary Award, and she won the same award for the third time with Alice, a major work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, also written for the Auckland Philharmonia. She was President of the Composers' Association of New Zealand from 1998-2003. Many of her works have been recorded, including Alice, Outrageous Fortune, and a CD of her chamber works. Whitehead now divides her time as a freelance composer between Sydney and Dunedin.

still, echoing takes its title from Gergory O'Brien's poem Te Whanga Lagoon, which collects the water from most of the Chatham Islands' rivers before draining into the Pacific at Hanson Bay. The piece is based on an earlier quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano, but Whitehead's transformation of the score into an arrangement for piano and strings imbues it with new harmonic sonorities and timbrel possibilities, including bowed and pizzicato notes, and double and triple stopped chords played simultaneously on mow than one string. The piece consists of a single movement, within which shorter structures emerge as miniature musical realms, unified by the set of six notes that form the composition's core. still, echoing also explores the possibilities of different combinations of instruments - sometimes the piano remains silent, allowing the violins and viola to articulate themselves both individually and together in dialogue. When all the strings play in rhythmic unison they evoke the ebb and flow of wave and tide, contrasting the stillness of the Lagoon with the tumult of the Pacific. Whitehead pays careful attention to the properties of silence and the stilling of sound throughout the piece, which concludes with a gentle fragmentation of melody and rhythm, suggesting a sense of immersion in the infinity of the ocean.

* * *

The music of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) is notoriously difficult to categorize. Its diversity of forms and opulence of invention embrace both the past and present of French musicology, drawing on the rich legacies of Debussy, Ravel, Faure, and Messiaen, as well as Bartok and Stravinksy. The Piano Sonata was composed between 1947-48, when France was recovering from the devastation of WWII and the German Occupation, and provided Dutilleux with an opportunity to experiment with an ambitious, large-scale project, something his previously commissioned works had not allowed. It was dedicated to and premièred by the pianist Genevieve Joy, whom he married in 1946, and has since become one of the most acclaimed post-WWII works in the genre, championed by major pianists such as John Ogdon, Robert Levin, and Claire-Marie Le Guay. Although Dutilleux had been active as a composer for ten years before he wrote his Piano Sonata, he viewed it as his Opus 1, the first work that he considered up to his mature standards.

Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and Prokofiev have all been cited as specific influences on the piece, although critics have also stressed that its language is original and distinctive, a personal synthesis of French Impressionism and Soviet music. In the composer's own words: "I wanted to move gradually towards working in larger forms, and not to be satisfied with short pieces - to get away, if you like, from a way of writing that was ‘typically French’." The piece combines two concerns typical of Dutilleux' mature works: formal rigour and harmonic research. Its themes remain ambiguous, however, neither completely modal nor tonal. In CD Review, Gary Higginson described it as a "brilliant, multi-layered piece with echoes of Bartok and Prokofiev," and a "sonata that Debussy might have written ... sensuous and classical."

The opening Allegro con moto starts in 2/32 time, but often changes meter. It is bi-thematic and classical in structure, with an ample first theme, with the second deriving from the former. From the opening bars, it displays an F-sharp Major-Minor ambiguity. Tritones feature prominently, as do extremes of register that give the piece an almost symphonic character. Although the aesthetic is modernist, suggesting both Debussy and Bartok, the audible links between the themes provide a sense of overall cohesion.

Structured in ternary A-B-A form, the Lied is the shortest movement, sparser and more pensive than the other two. Its basic tonality is D-flat Major, although some degree of modal-tonal ambiguity is again noticeable, and begins in 4/8 time, with some meter changes later on. By entitling it Lied, Dutilleux alluded to the intimacy of the German art-song tradition. In contrast to the grand architecture of the Allegro con moto, its subtle gradations of pianissimo and pianississimo dynamics allowed Stott to display great finesse and nuance.

The final movement starts with an imposing Choral in 3/2 that suggests ancient sacred music and medieval four-voice polyphony. It is characterized by carillon-like sonorities created by the overlapping of low and high sustained notes, followed by four variations (Vivace; Un poco più vivo; Calmo; Prestissimo), with the second featuring an early example of the fan-shaped phrases that Dutilleux used frequently in his later works. The movement concludes with a varied recapitulation of the Choral. Several passages throughout the movement have a toccata-like character and the variations are structured in a miniature sonata form, creating almost a sonata-within-a-sonata.

* * *

Anton Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major was written in 1887 and premiered in Prague the following year. It is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces in the form and was composed as the result of Dvořák's attempt to revise his earlier Piano Quintet in A Major with which he was dissatisfied, destroying the manuscript shortly after its premiere. Fifteen years later, he reconsidered and retrieved a copy of the score from a friend and started making revisions. Rather than submitting the revised work for publication, he decided to compose something entirely new. The result is a mixture of original melodies, Dvořák's inimitable sense of expressive lyricism, and elements of Czech folk music. Characteristically, those elements include styles and forms of song and dance, but not actual folk tunes.

The piece has four movements (Allegro, ma non tant; Dumka: andante con motto; Scherzo (Furiant): molto vivace; Finale: allegro), opening quietly with a lyrical cello theme over a discrete piano accompaniment, followed by a series of elaborate transformations. The viola introduces the second subject - another lyrical melody, but much busier than the cello's stately line. Both themes are developed extensively by the first and second violins and the movement closes with a free recapitulation and an exuberant coda.

The second movement is structured around a form that Dvořák also employed in his Dumky piano trio, featuring a melancholy piano theme separated by fast, happy interludes. It follows the pattern A-B-A-C-A-B-A where A, in F-sharp Minor, is the slow elegiac refrain on piano with variations, B is a bright D Major section on violins and C is a quick and vigorous section derived from the opening refrain. Each time the Dumka section returns its texture is enriched. In the seventh of his 1883 Love Songs (The Sweet Power of Your Eyes, a cycle based partially on the early song-cycle Cypřiše), Dvořák used the A theme from the quintet's slow movement liberally in the piano accompaniment. In this case, the song is a revised version of the second song of the original cycle.

The third movement is a fast Bohemian folk dance, marked Furiant. The cello and viola alternate a rhythmic pizzicato underneath the main tune of the first violin. The slower trio section of the Scherzo is also derived from the Furiant theme, with piano and violin alternating between the main melodies. The fast Bohemian folk dance returns and the movement finishes aggressively, setting up for the polka in the last movement, a light-hearted and spirited Finale, with the second violin leading the theme into a fugue in the development section. The tranquil, chorale-like coda features the theme of the movement, but this time in augmentation and played pianissimo, before the pace quickens again with an accelerando as the quintet rushes across the finish line.

Taken together, these three pieces may be seen to constitute an overview of evolving musical forms over the past hundred years - from Dvorak's intuitive grasp of long, melancholy Romantic lines interspersed with spasmodic outbursts of folk melodies, through the fissiparious and muscular angularity of Dutilleux' idiosyncratic modernism, to Whitehead's plangently eloquent post-modernist lyricism.

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