The Aroha Quartet at an evening at St Andrew’s

Haydn: String Quartet in G, Op 54 No 1; Szymanowski: String Quartet No 2, Op 56; Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, Op 74 (Harp)

The Aroha Quartet: Haihong Liu and Beiyi Xue – violins, Zhongxian Jin – viola, Robert Ibell – cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Saturday 5 September 2009

The Aroha Quartet, comprising four Chinese players, three of them in the NZSO, has been around since 2004. I heard what I think was their first public performance, at Old St Paul’s in Wellington, and was very impressed; I have heard them since then and have enjoyed their programmes and their performances. But the group has not really achieved what it might have if the players had been able to devote more time to playing together. They have now suffered a slight set-back with the loss of their cellist Jiaxin Cheng, after she married Julian Lloyd Webber; she has been replaced by NZSO cellist Robert Ibell, an experienced chamber musician, formerly cellist in the Nevine Quartet which has disbanded.

Once again, the quartet put together an excellent programme, of one of Haydn’s less often heard quartets, Beethoven’s splendid Harp Quartet (not for the harp), and Szymanowski’s second; that was the best thing in the concert.

The programme notes comment that Haydn’s Op 54 quartets are ground-breaking and that No 1 is among his most popular. If that is so, I have been neglectful, not having heard it played live before. But it is indeed an adventurous piece: lively, witty, varied, entertaining. I had mistaken the start time – 7pm – and missed the first and some of the second movement; the minuet was highly diverting, never mind an occasional slip, and the players made the finale a thing of teasing boisterousness.

The best known work was Beethoven’s Op 74. Here it was possible, in spite of the absence of the kind of polished ensemble and virtuosity that we are used to hearing on recordings by great quartets, simply to enjoy the frank and disarming enthusiasm that’s so infectious in players like these. If the somewhat startling dynamic outbursts in the open phase of the first movement sounded a bit unconvincing and there was some smudgy ensemble in the Scherzo, all it did was do highlight a musicianship and technical skill that was generally irreproachable; their grasp of the style and intellectual character of the music was of a high order.

It was in the Szymanowski quartet that these talents could best be enjoyed; most of us did not have the sounds of some famous recording in our ears and were therefore more ready to hear what the Aroha Quartet did as definitive. Its shape is unusual, the first and last movements, using folk-like tunes, quieter and more lyrical than the second movement which is marked Vivace, scherzando. The haunting effect of the opening passage, with its muted strings played at the octave, and tremolando violin and viola, caught the mysticism that had entered the composer’s imagination through his involvement with eastern philosophy. All changed in the second movement with a big extrovert melody that suddenly turns assertive, even violent.

Though the repertoire of the string quartet is probably even larger than that of the symphony, so there is no urgency for new works, the Aroha Quartet made a good case for the more frequent dusting off of Szymanowski’s two quartets.

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