St Andrew’s series features splendid Aroha Quartet

String Quartets by Haydn (in F, Op 77 No 2); Shostakovich (No 7 in F sharp, Op 108); Szymanowksi (No 2, Op 56); and Moon, Tides and Shoreline (Gillian Whitehead)

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

St Andrew’s on The Terrace 

Saturday 13 March 2010

Wellington is particularly well endowed with excellent string quartets; this one, consisting of permanent or occasional NZSO players and now in its sixth year, has achieved a polish and energy that deserves to be given full attention by Wellington’s musical community. Why so few there?

The last concert I heard from them, last September, also included quartets by Haydn (a different one) and Szymanowski (the same one). I was pleased to hear the latter again and another hearing increases my admiration for this enigmatic composer whose music I have pursued for many years, though I must say its somber character and the absence of memorable themes tend to prevent its taking root in my head.

It may not gain its strength through melodic richness, just as Bartok’s music, for example, does not, but in the avoidance of conventional sonorities Szymanowski goes even further than Bartok without actually rejecting tonality outright. He too uses, rather obliquely, folk tunes, this time from southern Poland – the Tatra Mountain region. In addition, there is a hypnotic feel that might be ascribed to the composer’s deep interest in Middle Eastern philosophy and spiritualism.

All this mystical, evanescent quality was brilliantly caught by the Aroha Quartet: the shimmering, muted sounds in the opening Moderato, that undulate with strange intensity. All the energy and passion is in the second movement, Vivace – scherzando, where a sort of tune emerges on the viola, alternating with pizzicato passages and bursts of high energy. The players were deeply impressive in their command of all the techniques demanded, and in their grasp of the musical and extra-musical elements that invest it.

The other fairly difficult piece was Gillian Whitehead’s Moon, Tides and Shoreline, dating from 1989.

There were interesting similarities in the sound worlds evoked by Szymanowski and Whitehead, with their combining strong spiritual as well as landscape elements.

Though the idiom Whitehead employs is not serial or particularly atonal, it is complex, not rich in recognizable melody, and not readily grasped or, I have to say, enjoyed at once. One hesitates to use a word like ‘jagged’ as it’s too often used as a gentle synonym for ugly or wildly dissonant. Such was far from the composer’s intention or, indeed, could credibly have been inspired by the Paekakariki shore, sky and seascape. Yet strangely, no visual images were conjured in my mind, though there was a variety of sounds that suggested the sea, ranging from violence to calm, and it was such a shimmering phase that drew the piece to a close; a performance that undoubtedly delved deeply into its spiritual world and had full command of the considerable technical demands.

The first work in the programme was Haydn’s last completed string quartet, Op 77 No 2. It’s not a much played piece, though that can’t be on account of any lack of melody. Its melody is not as beguiling as in his most popular works, but there is considerable rhythmic strength, vigorous dotted rhythms in the first movement and, in the second movement, a motif that recalls the famous theme in the Rider Quartet. There is a sudden, surprising modulation to the trio section and it ends in typical Haydn fashion, on the mediant. The players seemed to rejoice in the humour.

The second half of the concert began with a ‘different’ Shostakovich quartet: No 7. It’s fairly short, though in four movements, and of course not as dramatic or memorable as No 8, but any group is to be applauded for allowing us to hear something else. This one, written in 1960, was dedicated to the memory of his wife Nina who had died in 1954. It was here that I specially noticed individual players: the beautiful expressiveness of the second violin in the Lento and the strange, hollow tone of the viola as it lead the way into the frenzy of the third, Allegro, movement; and the cello which entered with its own version of the first theme of the first movement. They were unified by their common energy and discipline, and a singular understanding of Shostakovich’s music.  

It is about time we heard the entire cycle of Shostakovich quartets. What about a mini-festival? I heard them all at the Verbier Festival a couple of years ago, in a series of late night concerts, 11pm, in a tiny church where there were struggles for entry.