How lucky we are in Auckland this September, as superstar violinist Viktoria Mullova made her second appearance within a week, following up her riveting Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra by applying her talents to a programme of chamber music joined by her cellist husband Matthew Barley and New Zealand pianist Stephen De Pledge.

Viktoria Mullova © Heike Fischer Fotografie
Viktoria Mullova
© Heike Fischer Fotografie

Schubert's late Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major was written when he was already riddled with the illness that would claim his life and although extremely fecund melodically, there are moments of rage and ardour existing alongside the elegance and attractiveness of the melodies. The interpretation here leaned towards the severe, bringing rewards in its strong concentration to detail without shortchanging the music's beauty. They keenly maintained the tension of the first movement's enormous length, subtly emphasising the slight differences in harmony or texture as the major themes repeat, with particular beautiful moments when violin and cello ascended together over the piano. Only a few unfortunate finger slips from De Pledge distracted. 

Barley's oaken cello tone delineated the second movement's initial melody with a telling degree of restrained grief with the descending octave intervals materialising as almost a feeling of severe resignation. As Mullova joined the other two, her melody was wistful, a remembrance of past joys. The movement built to an astonishing outpouring of concentrated passion from all three players before retreating back to its initial uncompromising mood. Here and elsewhere, they showed a subtle control of intensifying and tapering dynamics that intensified the emotional voyage. The Scherzo sparkled with mischievous wit, particularly from the impish playing of De Pledge but it was the Finale that stunned. Here again, the same thematic material recurs almost as if on a loop but the trio created a coherent musical journey of these recurrences, each one rendered slightly different from those preceding. They dug into the heavy accents with an undercurrent of anger that was soon banished by positive feelings and finished with a march theme that was blazingly triumphant.

New Zealand School of Music Composer-in-Residence, Salina Fisher has a promising compositional career with a number of performances by high-profile ensembles to her name. Scored for a duo of cello and piano, Mono no aware refers to a Japanese concept describing an awareness of the transience of impermanence of things. Barley gave the example of how cherry blossoms bloom for only a short time before falling to the ground and it is the awareness of this kind of phenomenon, and by extension the transience of life itself, that this piece is supposed to represent. One certainly felt this impermanence, as ephemeral musical ideas emerged like droplets on the piano keys or as evocative slides along the cello strings before disappearing again. These spare textures alternated with more aggressive outbursts but these too soon vanished into the ether. Both De Pledge and Barley played sensitively, making for an intriguing palate cleanser between the two warhorses.

This was followed by a vividly expressive take on Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor, completed in 1914. The first movement, influenced by Basque folksong, was less relaxed than I've heard elsewhere, as the trio played up the irregular rhythmic features to riveting effect. Given the seriousness of purposes shown by the players elsewhere, the Pantoum movement emerged as surprisingly playful given the seriousness of purpose elsewhere, characterised by a wondrous grasp of contrapuntal interplay and rhythmic animation. A completely different mood dominated the frankly gorgeous Passacaille slow movement, taken at a fairly measured tempo. Unsurprisingly, there was little sentimentality in this interpretation, though Barley's warm and dark cello tone communicated restrained suffering through his shaping of the melody. As he combined with Mullova's similarly restrained tone, it was a miracle of plaintiveness and simplicity. This also meant that when the theme broke down in sudden pain during the movement's last moments (which some have suggested as a premonition of the First World War soon to begin in Europe), it felt even more ominous than usual. Light and happiness suffused the majority of the Finale but it built to a surprisingly explosive and terrifying climax. As in the preceding pieces, all three players performed brilliantly, although the balance sometimes went awry, with the higher register of the piano in particular threatening to drown out the other players. Overall, it was a case of musical minds being in particularly close interpretative sync, revealing the music not through showy display but through restrained but intense concentration.

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