Sunday, 5 July 2015

The two pianos/four hands quartet, Estrella are four immensely accomplished musicians who bring us impressive works by six contemporary New Zealand composers on a terrific new release from Atoll

Estrella  is a quartet with a difference – two pianos/four hands. Estrella was formed in 2010 by Somi Kim, Judy Lee, Lorelle McNaughton and Cindy Tsao whilst students at the University of Auckland. The quartet has given performances throughout New Zealand and premiered numerous works by local and overseas composers. In 2011, Estrella was awarded the Pettman/Royal Overseas League International Scholarship, which enabled them to travel to the United Kingdom to give a six week concert tour. Highlights included performing at St Martin-in-the-Fields, St. James’s Piccadilly and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

Estrella is the recipient of the University of Auckland Carl and Alberta Rosenfeldt Prize in Chamber Music, the Auckland Chamber Music Society Scholarship, the Bernhardt and Anne Harrison Memorial Scholarship and the Llewelyn Jones Prize in Music for Piano. Their performances have been recorded and broadcast on radio and TV.

Their debut album Tui has been released by Atoll to considerable acclaim reaching number one in the New Zealand classical charts.

ACD 313
On this new disc Estrella feature works by contemporary New Zealand composers David Hamilton, Gareth Farr, Leonie Holmes, Eve de Castro-Robinson, John Rimmer and Sarah Ballard

David Hamilton’s (b.1955) takes the name of a native New Zealand bird the Tui for his work. Natural sounds including birdsong open before the pianos of Somi Kim, Lorelle McNaughton Cindy Tsao and Judy Lee gently role in with a gently shifting melody. The sound of two pianos/eight hands gives an attractive depth and texture, these four young pianists bringing an impressive ensemble. The music moves through some lovely, gentle harmonies.  

Gareth Farr (b.1968) wrote Into the Chasm in 1988. Dissonant flourishes open before a strident, insistent theme leads ahead. Here we have a complex overlaying of individual piano parts played with supreme virtuosity by this quartet. There are passages of florid, flowing writing against steely chords before a quiet, withdrawn section with little ideas appearing over a repetitive single note. Soon the music increases in tempo, moving through some impressive passages from these players before the intoxicating, complex music returns.

This is an impressive achievement all round.

Gareth Farr’s Bintang was commissioned by Estrella and takes its name from the Indonesian version of the Quartet’s name meaning Star. Indonesian gamelan music was the inspiration for this work which brings a gentler sound, a slowly laid out theme with lovely limpid, dissonant textures. Slowly the harmonies are increased bringing a sumptuous sound, all the while keeping its slow, limpid character. It builds to a climax as these 40 fingers sound out wonderfully before a series of simple, quiet chords conclude.

Leonie Holmes (b.1962) originally wrote Bottom's Dance for a mixed chamber group of nine players. It was arranged for Estrella in 2011. As it begins, a repetitive motif is soon overlaid as the music is developed, gaining in excitement and rhythmic energy with varying moods and tempi as the music progresses. Again this quartet of pianists brings terrific accuracy and ensemble to this fiendishly difficult piece as the various musical lines are overlaid. Bringing many varying textures, the lovely light touch of these artists is impressive.

Eve de Castro-Robinson (b.1956) wrote efflux for piano duet in 1985 when she was a student, inspired by Reich and Ligeti. This arrangement for two pianos/eight hands has a repeated theme to which the pianists slowly add textures, creating a very fine dissonant, attractive sound. The music drops back before new layers are added. There are moments of massive restrained piano power as well as some lovely textures.

John Rimmer’s (b.1939) Hammerheads was written in 2008. In five sections it opens with a gentle descending theme that is ruminated on before slowly gathering its thoughts and leading forward. Moments of agitation begin to appear before the music arrives at a faster forward driving rhythmic section. Eventually there is a sudden stop before a slower, languid section commences. The music builds through some exceptionally fine pianistic moments with spiky rhythms and exceptionally fine playing from this quartet. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is rhythmically evoked before the music tumbles towards a more reserved coda.

This is an impressive work, brilliantly played.

Sarah Ballard’s (b.1989) Two Pieces evoke two geological spaces. I Beneath the Antarctic opens with tinkling piano phrases that move around freely, bringing sudden little motifs. These fine players capture the icy sparkle and sudden surprises of this music which soon runs into a florid flow of shifting sounds pointed up by hard hit chords before skittish notes sound the coda. II La Cueva de los Cristales is a cave in Mexico with giant gypsum crystals. Low, quiet insistent chords opens before developing slowly, adding layers of insistent repeated motifs, grows increasingly dramatic before suddenly stopping.

Estrella return to the music of David Hamilton with his Three Rags arrangements of music written by him earlier. Those Ragtime-Caravan Blues, originally written for three violins and horns, immediately opens with a flowing ragtime theme. These terrific players provide a fine blend of sound as they make their way through some terrific passages in this really entertaining little piece.

Mister Bones’ Rag began life as incidental music for a play and very much brings the essence of Scott Joplin in the introductory bars before developing a harmonically rather unusual style of ragtime. The Estrella Rag another harmonically free piece, was, as its title suggests, written to provide a third rag for this quartet to perform. It is a terrific piece that speeds towards the end.

David Hamilton’s Ghost Dance was also written for Estrella and builds insistently from a repeated theme which is interrupted by moments of quieter thoughtfulness. There are flowing, delicate passages that provide this team with moments to show their exquisitely sensitive touch. Towards the end there is clapping from the players though frankly this does not add anything useful to the music. The music builds again to a sudden end on a held note.

What stands out particularly on this new disc is how effectively the featured composers take advantage of 40 fingers. Estrella are four immensely accomplished musicians. The recording is excellent and there are informative booklet notes.

Piano enthusiasts will surely wish to investigate this fine disc. 

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