Schubert at St Andrews
Friday 3 June 2016, St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Arpeggione Sonata in a minor, D.821 – Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Octet in F Major, D.803 – Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Yuka Eguchi, Anna van der See, violins
Belinda Veitch, viola
Ken Ichinose, cello
Oleksandr Gunchenko, double bass
Rachel Vernon, clarinet
Leni Mäckle, bassoon
Heather Thompson, french horn
Kirsten Robertson, piano
The first piece in the programme was an oddity. The arpeggione was a six-stringed musical instrument, fretted and tuned like a guitar, but bowed like a cello – similar to the bass viola da gamba. This sonata was only published in 1871 and the arpeggione was obsolete then, so it was published for violin, cello and viola. Now, it is a standard repertoire for Double Bass.
Oleksandr Gunchenko, a member of the NZSO’s double section, displayed a remarkable agility: on – and off – the fingerboard,with his left hand zipping around like a fantail and with his right arm and hand delivering precise directions with the bow. I had never seen a double bass demonstrate a repeated rapid up-bow martelé spiccato strokes before!
The piece was in three movements – the first movement had a melancholy air, and the dynamic control was a feature in the second movement. The piano was relegated to an accompaniment role, but Kirsten had more to do in the third movement – a Gypsy dance. It was a quirky choice.
The audience demanded more, and Oleksandr had an encore: Schubert’s Ave Maria (actually “Ellens Gesang III“, D. 839, Op. 52, No. 6). It was much more successful musically. The melody required a singing tone from the double bass, free of the constrictions of the demanding technical nature of the sonata, and Kirsten was absolved in the accompaniment expressive nature.
The main piece in the programme was the Octet in F, D.803. All of the players are members (or casual members) of the NZSO. And it showed.
The piece has six movements and throughout the performance the players were spectacular: the upper string clarity, the singing nature of the cello, the grounded double bass, the fluid clarinet, the robust bassoon and the ever-present horn.
The first movement began with a juxtaposition of a melody from the strings and the winds. It progressed rapidly to pairs of instruments: bassoon and viola, violin and cello, with the horn having the last say. The beginning of the second was reminiscent to the Mozart quintet for clarinet. The first violin had the first theme and the clarinet joined with a countermelody – with throbbing pedal notes from the other accompanying instruments.
The third – basically a minuet and trio – was a galloping, jazzy number – the hopping triple metre was dangerously close to be swung time (in a good way!) The cello and bass had a moto perpetuo – basically a ‘walking bass’.
The fourth movement was a Theme and seven Variations – 1st violin, clarinet, horn, cello etc…
[This is a personal opinion, so I confess that I hate ‘Theme and Variations‘ movements. Well, ‘hate’ is a strong word – maybe ‘detest’ or ‘as much as I can I avoid listening to them’. So often the theme is a trite and jingly number and the composer is basically showing off . It is the musical equivalent of a vivisection. Ah well.]
Thankfully, the players were so excellent – virtuoso-like – I confess that the movement grew on me by the 5, 6 and 7 variation. The fifth variation had the theme from the viola and cello (beautifully played by Belinda and Ken) and the clarinet and bassoon were in octaves – very effective. The sixth was a serene aria with all the ensemble taking turns with the theme. The seventh was jolly and exuberant. The coda was basically a ‘winding down’ with the rumblings from the horn and double bass .
The menuetto and trio of the fifth movement was a slow triple metre dance and was most like a Schubertian song – obviously! A pleasant interlude.
The sixth movement had a dramatic start: the cello and bass tremolo earthquake with chordal accompaniment in the rest of the instruments. It was almost symphonic. The string quartet began, with a cello walking bass, and then everyone joined in. It was like Schubert was exploring his own compositional biography – the Classic model, transforming to the Romantic freedom with chords in the ensemble, with the 1st violin sailing up in arpeggios and clarinet exploring its clarino register. The piece ended with a up-beat version and a enthusiastic, exuberant end. Brilliant.
I applaud the efforts by Marjan van Waardenburg and Richard Greager for bringing this weekend of music: assembling five concerts of the incomparable music by Franz Schubert, performed by some of the finest soloists and chamber musicians in the capital. The weekend was sublime. They had weekends in 2010 and 2011 too – I hope they will be encouraged to mount some more in future years.