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Review: Youthful and visionary Schubert from Helene Pohl and Jian Liu

Within a fortnight of the NZ String Quartet’s inspirational presentation at the NZ School of Music’s Adam Concert Room of two major works from the string quartet repertoire, we were, at another lunchtime concert, able to enjoy for a second time, on this occasion, the artistry of one of the Quartet’s players – the group’s

leader, Helene Pohl, performing in tandem with the much-acclaimed Jian Liu, who’s currently the Head of Piano Studies at the School. Of course, the NZSQ has been the quartet-in-residence at the School of Music in Wellington since 1991 – so we’ve lately been relishing the fruits of some of the performing talents among the School’s remarkable line-up of current tutors.

The programme chosen by this concert’s performers captured something I thought both rare and vital – consisting of two works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), it managed to highlight aspects of the best of both the youthful and mature composer’s efforts, beginning with a Sonata in G Minor D.408, which, along with two other works, was written between March 1816 and August 1817. The three weren’t published until 1836, eight years after the composer’s death, and were styled as “Sonatinas”, despite Schubert’s autograph scores referring to them as “Sonatas”.

They’re works which have been largely regarded as “apprentice” efforts by posterity, as the diminutive “Sonatina” title implies, coming down to us with judgements such as “(they) breathe an intimate atmosphere, requiring no virtuoso bravura from their performers”, and “these are violin sonatas of the older, Mozartian type, with the violin playing a subordinate role to that of the pianoforte”. However, in Pohl’s and Liu’s hands, the G Minor work came across as rather more interesting than either of those descriptions might have suggested.

Nothing like an angular unison to grab the attention at the start! – the piano made something poetic from the utterance, the violin then continuing the line, the music’s mood almost naively changing to one of cheerful insouciance, Pohl’s violin somewhat garrulously “running” with the piano’s strolling gait before Liu deliciously “leaned” into a more march-like sequence, inspiring a wayfarer’s song-like response from the violin.

A minor-key lament by the violin began the central development, but the mood seemed delightfully ambivalent as major, then minor sequences unceremoniously pushed one another out of the way throughout, the invention here sharply-etched and tautly-woven by both players. What gave the discourse increased strength and gravitas was the decision by the musicians to play all the repeats, with the resulting amalgam of absorbing reinforcement and variation that such a course enables – even at this stage of proceedings I thought it considerably enhanced the work’s potential for depth of feeling and detailing, and especially when delivered with such committed focus as here.

A sweet, beguiling melody on the violin, gorgeous in effect, opened the slow movement, the piano answering with a chirpier phrase, which was then reinforced by deeper, viola-like tones from the stringed instrument, husky and characterful. I loved the touches of “misterioso” in the development, freely modulating, and here being “breathed” so enthrallingly by the duo. With the repeat came the recapitulation’s “second’ return, here brought sweetly to mind by the players like an old friend or fond memory.