New Zealand String Quartet: Lower Hutt

Schubert: String Quartet no 1 in G minor/B flat major, D.18; Helen Fisher: String Quartet; Tan Dun: Eight Colours; Beethoven: Duet for viola & cello, WoO 32; Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op 74 no 3 “The Rider”

St. James’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 14 April, 8pm

As the excellent programme note for the opening work said, “there is enough musical meat here for us to enjoy the work on its own terms” despite the lack of subtlety employed by its composer in his extreme youth: he was only thirteen when he wrote it.

It was played with the usual NZSQ care, commitment and attention to detail. The players illuminated all the felicities in this delightful quartet.

The opening andante was followed by presto vivace, yet the movement remained largely sombre. The second movement minuet was ländler-like; quite enchanting. The andante third movement was like a slow waltz: most attractive. As the note said, the drama was particularly in the two outer movements. The presto finale featured more modulation than in the earlier movements, and thus more drama.

Helen Fisher’s quartet was premiered by NZSQ in this very venue, 15½ years ago. It opens with the members of the quartet vocalising the Maori word “Aue!” Gradually the instruments enter, with glissandi at the end of notes and phrases similar to those employed in traditional style at the end of the word “Aue”.

Helen Fisher addressed the audience, and told of her inspiration from the karanga sung by women on the marae. There were indeed many inspiring moments on this 15-minute journey from grief and pain to hope (as described by Fisher), along with discordant phrases depicting pain. It all made sense in the sensitive hands of the New Zealand String Quartet, though the pain and grief threatened to overwhelm at times.

Even the dance section seemed subdued, despite its complexity of cross-rhythms and intersecting tonalities. An underlying agitated accompaniment gave coherence to the song sequence that concluded the work, which ended with a hopeful upwards glissando.

Eight Colours, by Tan Dun, was as colourful as the name suggests. Written as a sort of drama derived from Peking Opera (as described by the composer), the sections are titled: Peking Opera; Shadows; Pink Actress; Black Dance; Zen; Drum and Gong (in which the players rhythmically slap the hands onto the strings and finger-board); Cloudiness; Red Sona.

The alternating slow and fast movements use a variety of string techniques (including some that are a ‘no-no’ in Western music). The work is extremely demanding technically and rhythmically. The New Zealand String Quartet has played it before, and it’s New Zealand premier was in Wellington in 1998 (by other New Zealanders).

Tan Dun has written ‘I found a danger in later atonal writing to be that it is too easy to leave yourself out of the music. We can therefore assume that this is expressive of himself and his approach to life.

The very percussive music employs numbers of intriguing sounds, including those of birds. The music is not totally unemotive, but full of effects for the listener to interpret. Some of the effects are not easy on the Western ear. It is a tribute to the players that they could coax such a variety of timbres from their instruments and use so many different techniques.

The work ends abruptly and amusingly.

The amusement continued after the interval, with Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten playing a short duo by Beethoven, written for himself and his friend Baron Nicolaus Zmeskall von Domanowecz, a talented amateur cellist, to play. Its subtitle ‘with obbligato eyeglasses’ was obeyed literally by the performers: both sported spectacles, and not a little ‘hamming up’ was employed here and there.

A jolly piece, it is nevertheless virtuosic in places, and as Rolf Gjelsten said in his introduction, used some techniques that were advanced for the time of the work’s composition (though paling beside those used by Tan Dun). This was a delightful cameo to throw into a concert programme.

Haydn’s “Rider” quartet, probably named for the galloping, high-spirited finale, gave rich enjoyment as always with a Haydn chamber word, revealing the cheerful character and inexhaustible invention of the composer. While at times the structure seems classically formal, at others, apparent spontaneity and exuberance take over, the more so in the lively yet nuanced playing of the New Zealand String Quartet.

The sublime rising intervals of the largo assai movement, following the interesting opening allegro, give an almost Romantic cast to the movement, as well as epitomising the positive nature of Haydn’s musical mind. It was richly and warmly played.

The minuet was certainly no predictable classical movement; it had a lively character in both musical language and rhythm.

The finale featured great animation and a fine singing quality.

This was a concert of a range of music that demonstrated the sheer accomplishment of this, New Zealand’s premier chamber ensemble. The players’ consummate skill and artistry never came between the music and the listener.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *