Wilma & Friends
Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College, Melbourne
Tuesday March 6, 2018
Opening her series of recitals for this year, one-time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Wilma Smith didn’t bother with trivia. Tuesday night’s content comprised only three works but each was a notable challenge for most of the personnel involved. If the evening had a star, it was horn player James Bakirtzis, an Old Scotch boy although not that old, who helped bracket the evening with Mozart’s Horn Quintet K 407 and an epitome of Romantic chamber music in the broad-bellied Horn Trio of Brahms.
Another of the notable entrants in these particular lists was pianist Tian Tian Lan who is either in his final year at the College or has only just finished his time there. This musician was put to as much work as Bakirtzis by not only handling the keyboard role in Brahms’ trio but also taking on the powerful piano part in the Shostakovich G minor Piano Quintet, giving a brilliant and enthusiastic account of the score’s rhetoric and poetry with a fearlessness that demonstrated his conscientious preparation for the task and a confidence that was only slightly shaken in the more urging pages of the Allegretto finale.
As her string guest-friends for the night, Smith welcomed violinist Miki Tsunoda, violist Lisa Grosman and cellist Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck. All of these collaborated in the Mozart and Shostakovich, Smith playing the ideal host by seconding Grosman as the extra viola required for the former, then providing a second violin in the Russian epic, if understandably pulling rank to take on the string line for the program’s concluding trio.
I’m probably not alone in admiring French horn performers for their sheer nerve. It strikes me as being the most unreliable and untrustworthy instrument in the Western orchestra and, while you can cavil at all-too-evident blunders in Tchaikovsky and Mahler and have your teeth set on edge by mishaps in the Eroica or Brahms C minor Symphony, there is still a tolerant side to the complaints; once you’ve tried it, you know what physical and mental demands are required to get even a half-way decent sound out of the instrument.
Bakirtzis is the real thing, a prince among his tribe and advanced enough of a player to leave you – after a few nervous moments – with confidence in his ability to perform with immaculate eloquence and discrimination. For the Mozart work, his production was pretty close to faultless in the opening Allegro; I heard only one slight slip in the exposition’s repeat and another in the recapitulation. Even in the horn-exposing Andante, it was hard to fault the player’s breath control and phrase-shaping and he almost got through the movement without a hitch apart from a hesitation at bar 115. Later, in the semiquaver-happy Allegro/Rondo, this musician’s product came across as buoyant, unstudied and yet ensuring that everything was given its proper weight.
Bakirtzis’ support was headed by Tsunoda, the lower-voiced players not over-stretched in their roles. For the first pages of the work, the violinist sounded a touch off-colour, as though forcing her tone to compensate for the horn which, in this hall, was offered little dynamic opposition. But the ensemble settled to its labours happily enough, relishing a few moments in the sun with fluent and finely etched tuttis.
Lan opened the Shostakovich with appropriate gravity and, as required, set the running at certain points along the whole work’s path. Like Bakirtzis, he’s a forward player, certain in the task and diligent in delivery. Still, the point where this interpretation came alive for me was at the end of the Lento/Prelude, three bars before Rehearsal Number 15 in my score where all the strings play in unison for about 8 bars while the piano answers with its Baroque slow toccata semiquavers. This was immaculate playing and a firm apologia for the beleaguered composer; it was only equalled by the players’ account of the following Adagio/Fugue where the linear integrity remained constant throughout – phrasing mirror-sharp, each entry definite, the contrapuntal mesh ebbing and flowing without clotting.
In the Allegretto/Scherzo, the tempo was sensible without being as staid as some ensembles have opted for, with only a short exposed viola passage sounding off-point, probably at Rehearsal Number 54. As an added bonus, Lan clearly revelled in his work here, staying just the right side of strident at the top register of his instrument.
Even better followed in the Lento/Intermezzo with a finely contrived duet for Tsunoda and Sakakushev where what looks all too simple on paper became a moving threnody, progressing sombrely to the entire work’s high-point at the appassionato canon between both violins and viola/cello: bars where many another group dips into hysteria but negotiated with a fierce determination by these interpreters. In the Allegretto/Finale, once again I was brought up short by the fidelity of the strings’ octave work at Rehearsal Number 101 where you could not have asked for more finely graduated dynamic balance.
This quintet is a popular work, although not heard as often as it once was. Possibly, musicians aspiring to its mysteries are brought up short by a difficult taut expressiveness and stringent demands in delineation. Still, unlike so many other ad hoc groups who have essayed its terrors, these players got a whole lot right.
For an admirer of the Brahms Horn Trio, the night’s final offering proved a particularly full pleasure. beginning with a flawless Andante with Bakirtzis dominating the dynamic complex. But what else could you expect? Suffice it to say that Smith mounted a resonant counterweight in the soaring chain of canons and duets that gives this music its substance, if not its depth. All three musicians made an enjoyment of the no-reason-to-stop Scherzo, one of those happy-minded Brahms creations that seem to multiply in number the older one gets. Even in rapid-fire passages, Bakirtzis maintained his aplomb and Lan brought a bubbling energy to the mix.
By the time the Adagio had finished, you could be left in no doubt why this young horn player has gained so much attention in a short time. The tone colour is malleable if still inclined to over-dominate, although Smith and Lan kept him honest during the brief stringendo beginning at bar 32 and also during the movement’s powerful climax at bar 69. As with everything so far, it was near-impossible to cavil at anything in the bounding finale, apart from one error from Lan on the second-last page; not surprising as he’d put in a solid night and this active set of pages is a pretty big ask in the score’s context.
But, for all these small pinpricks, this night’s recital was memorable; certainly for the technical address and security of all concerned and their fidelity to what we know of the composer’s aims. But, more importantly, the three works offered a generous musical landscape, elucidated by these interpretations which gave us plentiful insights into the composers’ aesthetic reaches. Which is why some of us go out at night.