The musicians of this performance elected to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the New Zealand Community Trust Chamber Music Contest (New Zealand's longest-running youth music competition) by forming the Turnovsky Jubilee Ensemble, a group comprised of Chamber Music Contest winners from the last 25 years. This contest has a long record of identifying supremely gifted young musicians and this idea was reflected in the youthfulness of the two longest pieces on the programme, Mendelssohn's evergreen Octet (written when the composer was merely 16) and Britten's Simple Symphony (arranged from piano works Britten penned as a young teenager). Given their varied ages and types and places of experience, in addition to the fact they played conductor-less, the overall similarity of musical approach of the Ensemble was remarkable.

Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Ashley Brown and Natalie Lin © Matt Grace
Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Ashley Brown and Natalie Lin
© Matt Grace

A great performance of Bach should make one forget about its technical difficulties but alas this rendition of his Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 did not quite do that. The outer movements were both taken at quite the clip with the particularly supersonic pace of the third causing some problems of ensemble. Ensemble leader Wilma Smith sailed through the tricky figurations in her solo violin part with demonstrable ease, but other members of the group expended audible effort to do the same at the speed chosen. Luckily, however, there was more to appreciate than criticise here, the Turnovskys' having stylistic awareness of historical performance practice, with individual parts clearly delineated. The whole thing moved forward with vivacity and swing, the odd loss of focus or insecure bit of intonation marring the performance only slightly. Between the two outer movements, Bach marked only two cadential chords and here harpsichordist Rachael Griffiths-Hughes interpolated a cascade of arpeggios and passagework that dazzled the ear.

Given its Baroque influences, Britten's Simple Symphony made for a natural follow-on from the Bach. Featuring some of the cutest movement titles in music ("Boisterous Bourée" is the title of the first), this is nevertheless a very accomplished work with strong use of strings. Here the Turnovskys were unfailingly high-spirited and buoyant in their phrasing, treating Britten's youthful melodies with strong conviction, bringing audible jubilation from the audience at the delightfully springy pizzicato movement. The "Sentimental Sarabande" was gorgeous in its burnished string tones and tenderly shaped, sounding like a successor to Elgar's glorious string music with the violas in particular making the most of their long melodies.

The Turnovskys also threw in a centenary celebration for New Zealand's most notable composer, Douglas Lilburn, through his Allegro for Strings. Lilburn channeled the spirit of his mentor Vaughan Williams into accessible, tonal orchestral works with their own unique New Zealand flavour. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to say, as the programme notes suggest, that the Allegro for Strings summons strongly images of the landscapes of the South Island. Perhaps a tad long for its inspiration, it was nevertheless given a loving performance by this ensemble, summoning an almost orchestral depth of sound.

The second half consisted of Mendelssohn's effervescent Octet, surely one of the greatest pieces to be written by a teenager. The audience was treated to a real sense of ensemble playing here and as with the Bach, it was a pleasure to experience visually little fragments of counterpoint being passed among the instrumentalists. Less agreeable was the confusing decrease in clarity from the Bach – the more vigorous parts of the last movement fugato became a little mushy at times. The occasional moment of virtuosity got away from its player but other than this the individual playing was mostly fine, with Smith again the standout in the leaping opening figures of the work. It was an agreeably energetic performance with just the right soulful second movement to create appropriate contrast. The slow movement lacked the sense of momentum (not necessarily meaning speed) that can make the piece into a convincing journey.

Despite some reservations in some of the pieces, it is important to remember the valuable service Chamber Music New Zealand provides with these concerts. The Turnovsky Jubilee Ensemble are midway through a fifteen-stop tour of New Zealand's regional centres, many of which would otherwise have few chances to hear classical music performed by musicians of this calibre. And in this performance took this outreach further by offering audio description, offering headsets through which a narration service describes the visual aspects of the concert for blind patrons as well as a pre-concert touch tour to help visualise the stage settings and the instruments themselves. Furthermore, to give the rest of the audience perspective on the experience of these blind patrons, the performers introduced the second half of the concert with a performance of Bach's Air on a G String performed in complete darkness. Somehow immaculately in step with one another even unable to see, the Ensemble brought life to this often hackneyed piece with poise and ravishing tone, the most moving part of a charming, if uneven, concert.