New Zealand String Quartet count TEN

Schubert: Quartet no. 1 in G minor/B flat major, D.18; Berg: String Quartet Op.3; Ross Harris: The Abiding Tides; Beethoven: String Quartet no.,11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 7 March 2010, 4pm 

The concert was part of a splendid weekend of music.  It was a pity that the riches of a couple of days and an evening were not also to be found throughout the Festival.  I was shocked to discover that the Michael Fowler Centre was only in use four times.  Past Festivals have shown that this large venue can be filled for opera on numerous nights, for several symphonic concerts and for other shows as well.

The New Zealand String Quartet is known for innovative programming; Sunday’s concert was another example of this.  It was true Festival fare, with both old and new works.

The programme opened with an early Schubert quartet, which was new to me.  The programme notes say that it was probably composed when young Franz was 13.  It was given an affectionate performance which fully exposed its beauties, particularly in the two dance movements –  menuetto and andante.  Though a relatively uncomplicated work, it had complexities too.  The composer had plenty to say, in the competent hands of the New Zealand String Quartet.

Its sombre opening had a profound effect, followed by an animated yet warm presto vivace.

The lyrical minuet was Schubert at his most charming, while the courtly andante dance which followed must have been appreciated in the early nineteenth century Schubert drawing room in which it was first played.

Alban Berg’s was also an early quartet, written 100 years after Schubert’s (the significance of the title of the concert was that the works were written in 1810, 1910, 2010 and 1810).

The work featured 12-tone technique, with resulting clashes.  It used a variety of bowing techniques, especially in the first of the two movements.  Contrasted with these, there were delicacy, declamation, and moments of great beauty, particularly in the much busier second movement.  Other techniques that characterised this movement were the use of harmonics, pizzicato, and mutes.

The NZSQ played this often difficult music with great command and assurance.  After 100 years, the work still impresses as adventurous and avant-garde.  The total effect is somewhat bleak and hard.  At times it is plaintive; at others, calm.  What it has to say, it says with asperity.

The commissioned composition by Ross Harris to poems especially written by Vincent O’Sullivan proved to be a passionate piece of work, with a brilliant ending.

Copies of the words of the poems were distributed; the fact that they are in English does not guarantee that the audience can hear all of them.  The copies were eminently readable, unlike the palely inked typeface of the programme.

However, from where I sat, almost all of Jenny Wollerman’s words came over clearly and beautifully.  The imaginative, lyrical poems and musical settings were quite delightful.  This work certainly deserves more hearings.  It was very effective if a rather depressing series of visions of the sea.  It was versatile in both poetic and musical languages.

Variously describing the journey and sinking of the Titanic, the doomed voyages of ‘Boat People’ and the coming of a tsunami, the poems and music were constantly interesting.  The word-setting was first-rate, as was the writing for string quartet.

The fourth song, ‘Remember’, had an enchanting accompaniment which featured pizzicato, and delicious solo violin.  In the short seventh poem, ‘Light’, the music seeped out slowly, to the words ‘Light seeps its grey/Composure on the mild day’.

Jenny Wollerman’s singing was perfect for this work.  The clarity of her notes and words served poet and composer extremely well, as did the quartet’s performance of the apt writing for the strings.

Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ quartet looks towards the profundity of the late quartets, yet has brief moments reminiscent of some of his quartets in lighter mood.  However, solemnity quickly returns, only to be overcome briefly at the end by a major key affirmation that seems to say ‘and yet there is hope’.

It was played with vigour and commitment by the New Zealand String Quartet.  Not a nuance passed unnoticed; indeed there were colours aplenty to enhance this magnificent music, the most familiar of the works in this superb programme.

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