Celebrating the 200th anniversary: Haydn and the New Zealand String Quartet

Haydn String Quartets: Op 64 No 5 (The Lark), Op 74 No 3 (The Rider), Op 20 No 5, Op 77 No 1 (Compliments)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello)

St Mary of the Angels, Saturday 29 August 2009

Peter Mechen has written a review of the first of the two concerts by the New Zealand String Quartet on Tuesday 25 August, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn. That concert contained, not only 21 excerpts from the quartets, from Op 1 to Op 103, but also recitations by the four quartet members from letters and memoirs recorded by a number of biographers and commentators. (Admirably, the programme listed the references so that the audience could seek out some of the books the next morning at library or on internet).

That tour de force of musical adventure and theatrical entertainment was not repeated in the second concert which I heard on Saturday (it had been played first on Thursday 27 August in the Hunter Council Chamber).

This repeat of the second programme was held at 6pm, in part, presumably, to enjoy the evanescent light of day as it dimmed through the stained glass, allowing the church soon to be lit only by prolific candelabra (in the singular it’s ‘candelabrum’, by the way).

For this they chose four of their favourite quartets, and played them with profound affection, brilliance and insight.

Many of the popular quartets have acquired nick-names; three of the four were The Lark, The Rider and Compliments. The earliest was from Op 20, published in 1772, a group that was nick-named The Sun, presumably on account of the publisher’s engraving on the cover. Just as the earlier concert had been a revelation in terms of the growing maturity and the increasing complexity and sophistication of Haydn’s writing, so the comparison between the two quartets in the second half, Op 20 No 5 and the Op 77 No 1, 30 years apart was very striking.

The former is a serious work, in F minor, and the themes of the first movement lend themselves to imaginative development that evidences the compositional learning Haydn already commanded. Though it was the Op 33 set, ten years later, that inspired Mozart’s set that he dedicated to Haydn, it is easy to understand how the style, shape and melodic evolution of this earlier quartet would have impressed the younger composer.

The first movement impresses with a convoluting, ever-expanding theme, and the quartet managed to portray its unusual character without excessive minor-key sombreness; on the other hand the thoughtful, quite elaborate Minuet does not present the normal unbuttoned peasant dance; and the unusual Adagio, a Siciliano in triple time ends with typically Haydnesque flippancy. All of these unconventionalities the players handled with calm understatement. And then there’s the fugal, though quite short, last movement; just to show that he wasn’t simply a tunesmith.

The rapport and compatibility of the string quartet members and their marvellous command of the notes justified the performance of this relatively early quartet.

Op 77 No 1 (Compliments) has a far more varied and confident character, each instrument offered a great deal more individuality, all manner of original, vacillating rhythmic and melodic touches in the first movement ending with enchanting scales from Rolf Gjelsten’s cello. It was written, indeed, after the publication of Beethoven’s Op 18 set and in many ways it demonstrates an intellectual and artistic breadth that Ludwig would have embraced. I have rarely heard the quartet playing with greater accomplishment and in an accord so completely engaged.

The first half contained the more diverting works – familiar, brilliant, melodic: The Lark, clearly justifying its name, with Helene Pohl’s violin soaring beautifully in the first, too short, movement; with one of the loveliest of Haydn’s slow movements in a ravishing performance; and a vivace finale which they turned into a scintillating prestissimo.

The Rider was one of the quartet’s earliest Haydn quartets and for me, their handling remains unexcelled. They tackled the opening Allegro with such a carefree, open air spirit, in spite of its minor key (the common classification of major and minor modes as happy and sad really is nonsense). The slow movement, somewhat reminiscent of the great slow movement of the Emperor quartet, highly ornamented, so different in tone from the adjacent movements, was laid out exquisitely. The infectious galloping rhythms in both first and last movements faltered at none of the hurdles and the lower strings supported the sure-footed gallop: so fast, so ‘con brio’ in the final Allegro, that its excited breathlessness hinted at the mood of which Mozart was master in The Marriage of Figaro.

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