NZSQ and Richard Mapp – Wellington Chamber Music

MOZART – String Quartet in D Major K.575 “Prussian”

CHINARY UNG – Spiral III for String Quartet

SCHUMANN – Piano Quintet in E-flat Op.44

The New Zealand String Quartet : Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

– with Richard Mapp (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 20th June 2010

The very opening of the Mozart quartet fooled me into thinking the NZSQ was for some reason playing the music in E-flat. I sadly fear that part of my confusion was due to my ever-declining ability to precisely recognise note-pitch; but in my defence I ought to state that the quartet’s playing of the opening paragraph of Mozart’s wonderful K.575 in (wait for it!) D Major was so warmly and richly expressed, the music SOUNDED momentarily as though it was in the higher, mellower key. I thought the players’ combination of warmth and focus quite captivating, with both the ensemble and the solo instruments drawing on a full range of tones that took Mozart’s music out of the drawing-room of taste and decorum and into the world of pulsating human interaction. Even if intonation wasn’t absolutely perfect at all times (more in the softer, throw-away phrasings than in any of the leading lines), the group’s interplayings of different strands, and ready command of colour and texture, ever led the ear onwards through a fascinating amalgam of narrative and interaction.

The players darkened the textures beautifully with the lead-in to the development, whose dynamic, almost confrontational mode was achieved by great attack, especially from the ‘cellist – playing which gave the music all of its emotional range and expressive force. All the more joie de vivre was generated, then, with the return to the opening, the quartet’s energy and brio culminating in final flourishes of great elan at the end. The slow movement’s full-throated tones fragment beautifully into individual voices, here characterised by each player with piquant expression, drawing the listener into the world of both sounds and gesturings, whose combination makes live music-making such a pleasure, as was the case this time round. The daintily tripping Minuet enjoyed its occasional angularities, the players again not hesitating to get “physical” with the music, their bodily movements frequently choreographing the sounds in a way that suggested their total involvement in the ebb and flow of things. The quartet made an adventure out of the finale as well, the viola-and-‘cello exchanges decorous and ritualistic at the beginning, but with poise occasionally giving way to high spirits, a dancing triplet theme dominating the middle section, and archways of dotted rhythm figurations and melismatic impulses adding to the festivities – the players here emphasised the energies of the music more, I think, than the moments of circumspection which every now and then glanced furtively outwards at the world.

In between two more-or-less “standard” classics the NZSQ presented a contemporary piece which they discovered through Jack Body. The composer, Chinary Ung, born in 1942, in Cambodia, went to the United States in 1964 to study at the Manhatten School of Music, winning a number of prizes and honours for his music, and teaching at various institutions – he’s currently the Professor of Composition at the University of California in San Diego. His music combines the worlds of South-east Asian music and western art-music, resulting in works such as Spiral III (as the name suggests, the third of a series), the one programmed for this concert.

Helpfully, the players, prompted by Quartet leader Helene Pohl, demonstrated some of the work’s most prominent features, a couple of distinctive themes (one sounding as though it could have been written by Gershwin), and a few examples of the music’s wide variety of texture (plenty of ponticello, or playing close to the bridge – and its antithesis, bowing at the other extreme, over the fingerboard). The work itself made a remarkable impression – a forthright opening, with the “traditional music” ambience quickly evident through those exotic sounds created by the ponticello technique, the bluesy pitch-slides and colours seamlessly fusing with the South-East Asian folk-sounds, the melodies lovely and the accompaniments spidery. More rhythmically volatile and rhapsodic episodes reminded me in places of Janacek’s music, the language in places almost disjointed and whimsical, but whose overall effect is something strong, vital and deeply-rooted. And as well as this ground-based folkish feeling, there’s also an other-worldliness whose beauties can curdle without warning – one is taken away and then suddenly re-confronted with more immediate and pressing realities as part of a continual process discovery and rediscovery. I look forward to the Quartet’s projected CD of this work, as part of a project featuring works by Asian composers, the others being by Toru Takemitsu,Tan Dun, Gao Ping, and Zhou Long, in a recording to be undertaken over the coming month.

After the interval Richard Mapp joined the quartet for a performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet, a timely act of homage to a composer born, like his great contemporary Frederic Chopin, two hundred years ago this year. Right from the beginning the players caught the work’s “stride” with a resounding flourish, then moving easefully into those soulful lyrical utterances that could be by no other composer – ‘cello and viola introduced a beautifully-weighted second subject, as beautifully answered by the piano, the whole episode then “swung” back to the beginning with great relish for the repeat. The piano’s introduction to the ensemble showed up the distinctly unglamorous Ilott Theatre sound, very precise and focused, but with little warmth and resonance – thus the rather “Gothic” descent into the world of the development lacked the ultimate in romantic atmosphere, but through no fault of the performers. This also affected the opening of the slow movement, the sound having a curiously “dead” quality in between each muffled drumbeat, though the contrasting flow of the major-key sequence worked better, with lyrical, song-like playing from all concerned. The Sphinx-like transition to the agitato passages created a frisson of tension, from which burst forth terrific energies, before subsiding into a more troubled lyricism, Gillian Ansell’s viola tones conveying the retreating march theme’s sombre character in tones of grey and purple. A pity, then, that the quiet concluding chord’s treble voice sounded, to my ears, slightly under-the-note.

The Mendelssohnian energy of the scherzo danced and fizzed with plenty of spirit, the players capturing the darker-browed drive of the contrasting trio, piano and string pizzicati properly angular and prickly; while the finale, beginning gruffly, drives the argument forward with resolute purpose. One senses the composer looking for ways of resolving inner conflicts through music, those characteristically sombre themes being fought with and eventually conquered, here with great rhetorical gesturings by use of the work’s very opening theme, introduced by the piano, and developed fugally by all the instruments, against the counterpoint of the finale’s opening theme – as with the Fourth Symphony’s finale, a heart-warming “working out” is driven by tremendously buoyant rhythmic energies, the musicians here bringing out that sense of resolution and homecoming in the music that makes the work’s journey such an invigorating experience.

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