Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Janacek (Quartet No 2 – The Kreutzer Sonata), Martinu (Quartet No 7), Dvorak (String Quintet, Op 97)

Prazak Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Wednesday 28 January

On the sixth day of the festival came the concert that many of the committed chamber music passionnées had most looked forward to. The superb Prazak Quartet had their own concert, and played music entirely from their homeland. It followed the pattern of all good concerts, with one very familiar, ravishingly beautiful work, one slightly less known but one which has attained masterpiece stature more recently, and a more modern but very accessible piece that scarcely anyone would know.

In the Cathedral again (this festival used the Cathedral more than previous festivals have), the quartet opened with Janacek’s first quartet, named The Kreutzer Sonata, because Janacek was moved by the fate of the heroine in Tolstoi’s novella. Many in Wellington will recall the intriguing theatrical adaptation of the story, presented at Bats Theatre early last year with the Nevine Quartet playing Janacek’s music,. There is a tendency to allow the character of the work to translate into somewhat harsh expression, with bows tugging violently on the strings.

These players approached it as if it was Beethoven or perhaps Dvorak, with tone that was rich and sensuous, not even allowing the anguished little motif that appears first on the cello to sound other than beautiful. They seemed to be telling the audience to find the emotion in the music itself and not by having it driven into their ears by the players’ insistent interpretations. It struck me as a lesson that composers who exploit the ugly extremes of instrumental sounds to depict anger, nastiness or tragedy might do well to think about.

The result was a performance that went to the heart, yet missed nothing of the complex emotions by which Janacek responded to the tragic tale with which he could so well identify. Martinu’s 7th String Quartet was composed just after the Second World War when he harboured the hope that he might be able to return from the United States to his country; it uses Czech-flavoured themes and reflects optimism.

That it is not a great work cannot be ascribed to the fact that it shuns the avant-garde styles of the time. There is vitality and melodic charm, especially in the second movement, but Martinu’s distinctive fingerprints are not as marked as usual. Its spirit flowed from his hopeful mood after the war and seems to have more in common with the early 19th century than with a century later. Regardless of its character, I cannot imagine a performance more persuasive than what we heard from the Prazak Quartet.

The Cathedral had fallen into darkness during the first half so that by the time Dvorak’s String Quintet, Op 97, began, the players were silhouetted in front of the back wall of the sanctuary, beautifully lit in deep blue. This is one of the two or three best-loved of Dvorak’s chamber music works, overflowing with rich melodies that evolve, interweave and relate to each other in the most engrossing way.

It is scored for two violas, like Mozart’s string quintets, and the violist of the New Zealand String Quartet, Gillian Ansell, took the other viola part. It meant that she played the striking opening phrase of the first movement and also that of the third movement. In fact, this piece gives unusually prominent and beautiful music to the two violas and cello, allowing those players especially to shine and to delight in the special richness afforded by an extra low instrument.

As far as one could tell from the point of view of a mere onlooker, Gillian’s rapport with her colleagues was warm and musically intimate and her contribution was beautifully integrated with that of the Czech players. It was a performance of unequalled splendour and intensity of an especially inspired work from one of the richest eras of music-making in history.

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