NZ String Quartet and bassist Ikematsu in Sunday concert

String Quartet No 1 The Kreutzer Sonata (Janáček); Exitus for string quartet (Michael Norris); String Quintet, Op 77 (Dvořák)

The New Zealand String Quartet and Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass)

Wellington Chamber Music Society

Ilott Theatre, Sunday 21 May 2009

I believe the audience for this concert in the Ilott Theatre was a little larger than had been expected, perhaps due to the presence of another contributor, NZSO principal double bass player, Hiroshi Ikematsu. Many will have heard him in concert with chamber groups and word could have got out that he was a player of remarkable accomplishment and talent.

My initial thought, looking at the programme, was that this piece by Dvořák may not have been a very clever choice to display his skill and musicality. At the end of the concert, this feeling was still lurking.

However, the concert began with Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata quartet, a nice choice for those who had seen the interesting theatrical performance last year that told Tolstoy’s story in which the Beethoven violin sonata is the catalyst for a deadly extra-martial affair, intimately tied to the playing of the quartet by the Nevine Quartet.

Though I do not place importance on the non-musical sources of compositions, their programmes or aspects of the composer’s experiences, what is common knowledge can crop up; sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it might provide a rewarding context.

In the case of such a deliberately named piece, the story can hardly be avoided. Ever since re-reading the novella a few years ago, the constant background of the railway journey in the narrative, the clicking of wheels on rail joints, has seemed to me present in the cello’s spiky notes that punctuate the first theme that recurs, passed from player to player.

Commentators differ on the nature of the Janáček’s message, some arguing that it is possible to hear aspects of the novella in great detail, others pointing to a great difference between Tolstoy’s and Janáček’s views of love and marriage.

Some quartets see the music more romantically than others. In the hands of the New Zealand String Quartet there was little ominous in it, though they gave voice to an agitation that’s present in parts of it; however, the very deliberate theme that first violin Helene Pohl announced, warm against the second violin’s tremolo, suggested no more than expectancy.

There was more unease in the second movement especially from the tremolo violin passages, chillingly sul ponticello, and similar effects recur in the third movement. Gillian Ansell’s viola contribution was striking throughout, seeming to find more angst and soulfulness than one hears in some performances. 

By the end, we had been in the grip of a tale of pity and of something irreconcilable in human nature, not simply tragedy.

I heard Michael Norris’s Exitus at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in January and it was interesting to hear it again: I confess, it was the composer who told me that he had shortened it in certain ways for these later performances; I did not pick it.

There is a common stylistic thread running through all four sections, with predominant use of high harmonics and tremolo, high tensile bowing, so lightly touching the strings that the pitch becomes indistinct.

The subject is the rituals surrounding death in four different cultures: interestingly, neither the Greek underworld, nor Maori/Polynesian myths about the passage to the afterlife, with which we are probably most familiar, were treated. It was Inuit, Mayan, Nordic and the Choctaw tribe of American Indians and their Black Water River experience that were explored. Each part evoked something of the environment and, with very limited expressive means, suggested the experience of the soul passing through whatever screening system each people believed led to the other world.

For example, the Mayan piece, Xibalba, created a rather frightening underworld scene through short upward bow strokes, long held notes interrupted by spiccato and emphatic thrusts by all four instruments, effects that are far from routine but which the players handled as if they were mere warm-up exercises.

In Nelson I had felt that the end could have followed the third piece, Niflheim, the equivalent of the Adagio movement, since it ended after a passage of very high shimmering harmonics from the cello, dying so perfectly. 

In the end I still felt that the problem of the piece was a too unvarying stylistic character; in spite of the subtle differences from one to another, the very subject matter that imposed a too uniform tone on the whole piece when one’s instinctive need was for something in the sun, among the living. But I have no suggestions….

Finally, the showpiece for the double bass. As I hinted, the bottom line of this piece by Dvořák hardly offered this brilliant player scope for the range of lyrical, legato, melodic, not to mention the amazing virtuosic skills of which he and his instrument are capable. It was confined, in fact, to music considerably less interesting than the cello enjoyed (and the cello collected bits of melody quite often), yet even within these limitations, the pizzicato and the fairly unadorned bowing of the bass line was uncommonly musical and provided a deep and rich underpinning for each movement.  

But the work as a whole falls into the class of the serenade or divertimento rather than of the string quartet. Happy tunes, some recurring too often, folk rhythms, all very skillfully written; and all the players gave it an affectionate and lively performance. But surely Dvořák would have come across the Paganini of the double bass, Bottesini, who was 20 years his senior, and would have known what the lovely instrument could do.


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