New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons at Waikanae

String Quartet in G minor, Op 74, No 3 ‘Rider’ (Haydn); Song of the Ch’in (Zhou Long); Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 84 (Elgar) 

New Zealand String Quartet and Diedre Irons (piano)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 11 April 2010

Waikanae’s chamber music concerts take place in a large hall which is equipped for indoor sports and so it has a high roof and is much longer and wider than needed for music other than on the scale of a symphony orchestra.

The size is mitigated somewhat by the players being in a recessed stage at one end; that helps focus the sound. The result nevertheless, is a sound that, while not unduly small, seems light and lacking in bass resonance.

This was the first in their splendid, nine-concert 2010 series.

The impact of the playing of Haydn’s ‘Rider’ quartet was discreet and perhaps unintentionally fastidious. The music’s minor key offers a somewhat sober gloss on the potentially boisterous character in the riding rhythms of first and last movements, and this acoustic refinement added further gentility.

My memory of the quartet’s earlier performances of this piece, which I recall as one of their early favourites, is of a much more robust approach, and of a piece that they interpreted with more abandon and gusto. At the end of the first movement I felt as if a promised adventure had been somewhat uneventful.

Similarly, the Largo assai seemed to skirt round any temptation to utter profound thoughts, though by its end I had become more impressed by the wonderful refinement of the playing, here absolutely in place.

The last movement revealed the players’ ready response to Haydn’s delight in little teasings and surprises, all delivered with the most disingenuous straight face.

Zhou Long is an important Chinese composer, based in the United States, now aged 56; his Song of the Ch’in is a most effective amalgam of Chinese music as played on the ancient seven-stringed instrument, heard through the filter of western contemporary conventions. The result, a remarkably subtle piece, could hardly have found more sympathetic players, at ease with the variety of pizzicato, trembling bow strokes and delicate glissandi, decorated with idiomatic ornaments. In several sections, in contrasting tempi and moods, and an interestingly cyclical shape, it reached a discreet climax before subsiding into its earlier meditative state.

The first half ended with the unadvertised addition of a droll duo by Beethoven called Duet With Two Obbligato Eyeglasses for viola and cello (WoO 32).  An example of the kind of satirical piece, popular at the time, that mocked clumsy composers who used stock phrases and clichés but were incapable of finding ways to develop or integrate their musical ideas in coherent forms. At least the players here, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten, gave it a performance that exhibited all its mocking strengths and weaknesses convincingly.

The second half was devoted to Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Diedre Irons and the quartet approached it with an affection and sympathy that gave it a softness and charm that perhaps robbed it of a certain strength. Nevertheless, the first movement, with a couple of quite enchanting melodies, has a charm that is all its own and the players, in evident accord, made no attempt to dress them in anything other than the sweetest tones.

Though the programme note recorded a common view that the slow movement is its highlight, this performance didn’t convince me. There is melody, meandering and elegiac, but its ideal expression demands a very special balance between sentimentality and Brahmsian pensiveness, which I have heard captured; perhaps chamber musicians do not have a great deal of scope for the cultivation of that peculiar kind of English idiom.

I did not miss a scherzo movement, which is a convention that I often find surplus to the needs of a sonata composition.  For the Brahmsian (again) energy that drives the varied last movement serves a scherzo function excellently and it rekindled my attention to the rather unique loveliness of this quintet, and the regret that Elgar was not among the English composers of around the 1920s who cultivated chamber music more seriously.

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