Review: Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson - the first days

Lindis Taylor, Middle C    /    Nelson Grand Opening Concert Mozart: Horn Quintet in E flat, K 407    Sam Jacobs – horn, Helene Pohl – violin, Gillian Ansell – viola, Monique Lapins – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello Brahms: Three Intermezzi from Op 118 (Nos 1, 2, 6)    Dénes Várjon Prokofiev: Sonata for two violins, Op 58    Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi – violins Brahms: String Quintet No 2 in G, Op 111    Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler – violins, Ori Kam – viola, Kyril Zlotnikov – cello), with Gillian Ansell – second viola Nelson Centre of Musical Arts (Nelson School of Music)

Friday 1 February 2019, 7:30 pm This was the first festival for five years that has been able to move back to the now magnificently enhanced Nelson School of Music (now called the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts). That, as well as the line-up of many top international musicians, saw the early sell-out of all but one of the nine superb evening concerts. That’s attributable also to the festival’s international reputation, attracting many people from around New Zealand and increasing numbers from overseas. My frequent comment that for the past 20 years, it’s been the finest classical music festival in New Zealand bears reiterating: its only earlier competitor was the three weeks duration New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington which has long ceased to be one of the richest classical music festivals in the world.

The first concert on Friday 1 February happened to be the birthday of the festival’s most important and longest standing sponsor, Denis Adam, who died last October. In their opening remarks former minister for the arts, Chris Finlayson, as well as festival chair Colleen Marshall, paid deeply-felt tributes to his 25 years of support.

The opening concert was an opportunity to show-case most of the artists scheduled in the early days of the festival. So the New Zealand String Quartet plus NZSO principal horn Samuel Jacobs opened this first concert with Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat, one of several challenging pieces that Mozart wrote for his horn-playing friend Joseph Leutgeb; it’s an unusual work, made more curious by employing two violas instead of two violins. The quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins, switched to the viola. It enriched the sound beautifully, even though in the beginning there was some imbalance between horn and strings in this very clear acoustic; the players soon settled to a performance of great delight. Returning Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon then played three of the Six Pieces, Op 118, some of the many small piano pieces that Brahms wrote near the end of his life. Intermezzi nos 1, 2, and 6 of the set are sharply different in spirit and style, and they whetted the appetite to hear Várjon playing Beethoven and other music during the week.

Brahms’s 2nd string quintet and three intermezzi There was a connection between the three intermezzi and the Jerusalem Quartet’s performance in the second half of Brahms’s second String Quintet (this time, the second violist being Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet). Though he intended that the quintet would be his last composition, as his health was failing, its great success encouraged him to write a lot more chamber music in his last years, specifically the 20 pieces of opp 116 to 119. They were three well-contrasted pieces in which Várjon found subtle and interesting characteristics, No 6 traversing a sad, reflective mood that grew suddenly more exciting, even overwhelming by the end. I rather wished he’d played more of them.

The quintet is not one of Brahms most familiar pieces, but this performance made it easy to understand the warm reception its premiere in Vienna in 1890 received; somewhere described as ‘a sensation’. And this performance, celebratory and confident, with all five players producing a rapturous first movement with warm, heart-felt, sometimes boisterous playing promised a similar response. The second movement may be rather more enigmatic, but there was no lack of unanimity in their playing, particularly in the uniform warmth and richness of tone that they drew from their instruments. Although the last movement might not have seemed as spirited and moving as the first, at the end the audience responded with a sort of hushed awe.

The 20th century was represented by a not-well-known piece by Prokofiev, his Sonata for two violins, Op 58. Its four movements, vividly contrasted, and ferociously challenging were played by Canadian Nikki Chooi and British Anthony Marwood. Though alternating in musical sense and mood from phrase to phrase, seeming to speak different languages, ultimately an astonishing integrity and a shared purpose was revealed both in the music itself and its performance. Saturday: Meeting the artists and discussing the music The Jerusalem Quartet, talking with Gillian Ansell Bartók’s music in the Festival: members of the Jerusalem Quartet, Dénes Várjon with Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins Nelson Centre of Musical Arts Saturday 2 February, 10 am and 2 pm

Talking with the Jerusalem Quartet  The day had started with a morning appointment in which NZSQ violist Gillian Ansell talked with the four members of the Jerusalem Quartet. It was one of those occasions when the public gets to glimpse the sort of relationship that exists between those musicians who appear to the audience as rather super-human beings. The light shone not just on the four Israelis, but also on the normality of their rapport with at least one other musician of comparable gifts and insight: here, Gillian Ansell.

Their lives: the two violinists born in Kiev in Ukraine, the cellist from Minsk in Belarus, and violist Ori Kam who was born of Ukrainian parentage in California. While the other three were original members, he joined t