Your correspondent might be excused for his admiration for pianist Brenda Jones. She is, without doubt, a fine performer, alone or as a chamber musician. She has, however, had some setbacks in getting together with a chamber ensemble with which to display her talents. First there was the Whitely trio with Sun Yi, a very fine violinist, and the redoubtable Patrick Murphy on cello. Their star shone briefly, when some health problems limited the commitment of Sun Yi. So, in a wise shift to a less well represented genre Ms Jones found herself with the Nexus Piano Quartet. This quartet was developing a sound following when the cellist, Patrick Murphy headed north to a job in Queensland and the violist, Jeremy Williams headed south to Tasmania. Cellist Tim Nankervis played with Nexus for a while but the group eventually folded.
Now, out of the blue, the Sonus Piano Quartet is born, with Aiko Goto playing violin, Jacqui Cronin, viola, Tim Nankervis, cello and the ubiquitous Brenda Jones on piano. The ensemble presented their debut performance at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney on Sunday last. For a Piano Quartet, the program was, um, interesting. The players actually presented two piano trios from the standard repertoire (Haydn Hob 15, 25 and Ravel) plus a relatively new work from Paul Stanhope (Agnus Dei – After the Fire). The only quartet work was the early Mahler movement from his never completed A Minor piano quartet.
Now, your correspondent could understand this programming conundrum: violist Jacqui Cronin had recently given birth and no doubt had a few issues with too hectic a rehearsal schedule. But the later programmed concerts do not feature a true emphasis on piano quartet repertoire until the third concert, when two works, Andrew Ford’s “Scattering of Light” and the mighty Brahms G Minor Quartet share the program with a string trio of Schubert. So, is this really Brenda Jones and Friends or a true, new Piano Quartet? Time alone will tell whether they are just a group who get together from time to time to play stuff. Ms Goto is of course busy with ACO and Nankervis holds down a job with the Sydney Symphony as well as playing with long established Seraphim Trio (with Anna Goldsworthy and Helen Ayres).
What, then, of the performance? Sunday’s opener, the wonderful Haydn “Gypsy Rondo” trio was carefully paced. Brenda Jones avoided the temptation to play the final movement at a breakneck speed, which so many of her virtuosic compatriots deliver. The result was a delightful and precise presentation in the way that Haydn trios should be played. Lightness, clarity and precision were the order. Brenda Jones played with all the subtlety and precision which Haydn requires. It was, therefore, a slight disappointment for your correspondent to find Ms Goto’s tone, particularly in the higher registers, to be rather over-bright, almost shrill. This detracted from any sense of true ensemble. The Gypsy Rondo was, however, played with panache in a true Hungarian spirit, with Aiko Goto displaying an ability to rouse the audience with gypsy spirit and movement. In the earlier movements, however, the trio worked a little less harmoniously than was ideal, suggesting insufficient time together, notwithstanding Ms Jones intense efforts to hold it all together.
Paul Stanhope’s “Agnus Dei” was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. Alone with piano, Ms Goto’s tone did not, in this combination, detract from her performance. The work, opening with ethereal sounds, and glissandi on the piano strings, moves to a more intense period of catharsis before returning to an introspective mood. It evoked a true hymn to redemptions and hope, appropriate to the aftermath of devastation which had prompted its creation.
The Mahler quartet movement was a fun rendition of deep romanticism. Music for the body rather than the soul, but nonetheless most enjoyable.
To finish, the viola was again spared and the Ravel Piano Trio was presented. Your correspondent may be alone in believing this to be one of the most overworked masterpieces of the piano trio repertoire. Whether true or not, there is an absolute requirement that, if played, it should be impeccable, ethereal and pure in delivery. Regrettably, the light and sensitive touch of Brenda Jones was not matched by her colleagues. Again the obtrusive tone produced by Ms Goto detracted from the airy effects and the overall impression was one of insufficient time spent together to get the ensemble right. French composers are notoriously difficult to deliver.
All in all, your correspondent thinks Brenda Jones deserves better. All this group can offer is the potential to improve with her. Hopefully they will, indeed, grow with her. Otherwise she may be wise to seek yet another ensemble with whom to play. Players who can contribute more to the musical wonders her capabilities deserve.