Tasman String Quartet


Wellington Chamber Music:

Bartok – String Quartet No.3

Thomas Ades – Arcadia for String Quartet Op.12

Beethoven – String Quartet in F Op.59 No.1 “Rasumovsky”

Tasman String Quartet: Anna van der Zee, Jennifer Banks (violins), Christiaan van der Zee (viola), Miranda Wilson (‘cello)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington, Sunday, 31st May, 2009

Bartok was originally to have been Mozart, in this concert, a change obliquely referred to by the violist, leaning conspiratorially towards the audience just before the music began, and warning us not to think their Mozart horribly out of tune, or words to that effect! As it turned out, the Quartet’s playing of Bartok’s Third String Quartet was beautifully-nuanced throughout, poised and lyrical, the “special effects” such as playing on the bridge and with the wood of the bow never unduly emphasized for their own sakes, but incorporated into a kind of lyrical folkish manner. It really was playing of an order that seemed beyond the group’s years, except that the intensity of their involvement with the music could be as easily attributed to youthful ardour – but even more impressive was their osmotic way with the music, the different episodes seeming to flow with a naturalness in keeping with the players’ interactive aspect, a constantly flowing process that the group, like their distinguished colleagues, the New Zealand String Quartet, seemed to be able to express with physical movement, almost in choreographic terms, adding a further dimension of appreciation for the audience.

Their sound as a group I thought not especially “moulded” whether by choice or otherwise, but it resulted in a tangy, flavoursome set of timbres whose combination made for ear-catching results. There was so much to savour about their playing of the Bartok – the terrific rhythmic point of the folk-dance episode against the second violin’s sustained trillings, the exciting interplay of their pinpoint pizzicato note-attack leading into an on-the-toes fugato, and the eerie skeletal timbres heralding the “air-raid siren” glissandi from the lower instruments as the rest run for cover; but overall the impression was of a deeply thought-about interpretation, whose salient points – fluidity, colour and rhythmic interplay – took place within an overall shape whose moulding allowed every significant detail to make a telling contribution.

New to me was the Thomas Ades work, Arcadiana for String Quartet, a name suggesting a kind of earthly Paradise, a Greek version of Shangri-La, the music in seven short movements suggesting various aspect of this state of earthly perfection. From the opening Lullaby, whose sounds refracted through a “do I wake or sleep?” kind of sensibility, with things drifting, changing, advancing and receding, the Quartet thoroughly immersed itself in the music’s sound-world. A ‘cello solo sings operatically against bright, chirruping strings in No.2, while the third, taking its cue from Schubert’s watery song invitation seems to glide downwards into as well as along the surface of aqueous depths. Pizzicati spark off arco variants of a heavy-footed dance, folk-fiddles digging in and adding an exotic element, music whose dance-rhythms were inspired by the words “Et in Arcadia ergo”, music in which the “here and now” gradually becomes a kind of swinging gate, as the playground empties, and the golden girls and boys make their way outwards to glory. Delicate, sighing harmonies characterize the opening of the fifth section, leading to an Elgarian reminiscence of an England whose past glories have an autumnal glow, an ambience that extends via the ‘cello solo into the last section, whose name, Lethe, appropriately characterizes the oblivion into which the music disappears at the end.

After the interval the Tasman Quartet tore into the first Beethoven “Rasumovsky” work (Op.59 No.1) as though their lives depended on the outcome, the playing urgent, thrusting and directional, though with enough flexibility to register the music’s mood-changes. The players kept things very tight and tense throughout, the music’s ebb and flow geared to a strongly-maintained pulse, though they didn’t ever make a meal of any of the movement’s “big moments”, such as the great chordal statement of the theme just before the movement’s end, keeping such utterances urgent and dynamically terraced. The second movement’s opening was nicely poised and sharply-etched – perhaps a bit too earnest (youthful intensities to the fore), though the second theme had great ‘schwung”! Trenchant playing in the movement’s middle kept the voltage high and pushed the intensity needle consistently into the red, though the players did relax a little for the cantabile moments, and the “theme-exchange” passages between the instruments.

This quartet has one of the many great slow movements found in Beethoven’s music – at the beginning the players found what felt like a natural-sounding expression, with nothing forced or strained, the lively-sounding Italianate thirds expressed by the violins perfectly in scale. I would expect these players to gradually find over subsequent performances of this music even more stillness in some of the less driven parts of the middle movements. Though exciting and engaging, the intensities of this performance I felt imparted a somewhat dogged feel occasionally to rhythms whose gait could have been less “pushed”, and whose unrelenting focus made true intonation difficult in places for the violins. But having said that, it was all part of a superbly-delivered musical conception which, if occasionally wanting a touch of humour, crackled and sparked with wonderful intensity throughout.

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