The modern came first in NZTrio’s Old World: New World concert. The Auckland Town Hall seemed stadium-like for those of us accustomed to this group in more intimate surroundings; sometimes one craned forward to catch the hushed sonorities of Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio. The three players responded sensitively to Sheng’s exotic world, especially in the third movement, when Ashley Brown’s cello, perfectly replicating a Chinese flute, was subsumed in a toccata of unabated fury.
Claire Cowan’s new commission, Subtle Dances, is a work of admirable lightness and humour, well caught in performance. After some witty “false starts”, the first movement set up a Latin groove, cleverly caught on strings and providing a rustling backdrop for Sarah Watkins’ piquant piano lines. The jazz-tinged slow movement needed a smaller hall, but was a stepping-stone to another toccata.
I have yet to be convinced by the eclectic voice of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and NZTrio’s engaged and purposeful account of the American composer’s Piano Trio did not convert me. But the musicians were as persuasive as one could wish in a sinewy score, too ostentatious in its motivic play and revealing a heart only in the dark tones of its slow movement.
After interval, Watkins introduced Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio as one of the ultimate challenges in their repertoire. This score is dominated by the piano, and it was even more so in this setting. Not enough string detail came through against Watkins’ magnificent chords. The highlight came in the variations of the second movement, based on a theme that has always reminded me of the Maori lullaby Hine e Hine. Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative and vivid writing received its full dues, twisting the tune from pizzicato scherzo, fugue and mazurka to a waltz that could have floated into Swan Lake.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 10 May 2013