New Zealand String Quartet: Schumann put in the shade by Shostakovich……


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

SCHUMANN – String Quartet in A Major Op.41 No.3

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major Op.92 / String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major Op.117

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Saturday 28th August, 2010

Poor old Schumann! Of course he had no way of seeing Shostakovich coming when he wrote his quartets, and therefore didn’t feel the need to overtly externalise the flamboyant, turbulent side of his nature in much of his music, especially in a medium which was generally regarded as a vehicle for expression of a reasonably circumspect provenance. True, he had Beethoven’s magnificently virile example as a writer of quartets to refer to as exemplars of a more cosmic and elemental style and effect – but Schumann was no Beethoven, being a split personality far more seriously troubled by the demands of his muse and the disorders and conflicts of his inner being. His quartets are therefore imbued with quixotic contrasts between exuberance and poetic feeling, marvellously inventive, yet touchingly fallible – music very much at the mercy of performance sensibility, and thus needing from performers a sympathetic and sensitive attitude to interpretation for it to blossom and reveal its particular strengths and beauties.

These were the thoughts that coursed through my mind immediately after the concert given by the New Zealand String Quartet at which we heard Schumann’s Third String Quartet in A Minor Op.41, followed by two searing, dynamically-presented twentieth-century quartet masterpieces by Dmitri Shostakovich. On a certain level it was a case between the composers of “vive la difference!” (and the Schumann is, I admit, gradually “coming back” for me as a remembered concert listening experience), but at the time the Shostakovich works seemed to literally blow the Schumann Quartet out of the water. The group of people among which I sat were stunned at the end of the concert, by both the music and its realisation, our applause fitful to a fault, not because we didn’t appreciate the performances, but because we were more-or-less flattened by them, and wanted to sit in silence for a bit and let our sensibilities recover. Perhaps people who had heard ensembles like the Borodin Quartet play these works might have been more used to this feeling of being overwhelmed; but these were first-time concert hearings of these works for me, and I couldn’t imagine them being done more brilliantly than by this ensemble.

Some more information regarding the concert: this was one of two presentations designed to play homage to Robert Schumann during his two hundredth birth anniversary year, at which all three of the Op.41 Quartets would be presented. This being Programme One, our portion tonight was the third, and perhaps most elusive of the three, in A Major. Shostakovich was chosen by the NZSQ as a “foil” for Schumann as a quartet-writer, as there were several parallels between the two composers, which quartet-leader Helene Pohl talked eloquently about in between the two works presented in the concert’s first half. Pohl equated Schumann’s psychological duality as a personality with Shostakovich’s politically-enforced double-life, pointing out that both composers strove to reconcile these opposites in their music, while clearly and unequivocally acknowledging and characterising the differences, and the divide between them. I was intrigued at the choice of venue for this concert, wondering whether the ample acoustic of a sizeable church would tell against the characteristic intimacies of the string quartet medium, regardless of the beauty of the surroundings and the atmosphere engendered by the numerous candles placed around and about the sanctuary (this was advertised as a “quartets by candlelight” concert). I need not have worried unduly – after registering a certain “halo of warmth” around and about the sound when the performance started, I found I could discern the lines of the individual instruments quite clearly; and, in fact, I thought the Schumann quartet benefitted immeasurably from its textures being suffused with more glowing warmth than is usual.

Of Schumann’s three quartets, the Third has until now been a kind of “Cinderella” for me, one which seemed more than usually imbued by the composer’s rhythmic obsessiveness, to the work’s overall detriment. This being a judgement I made a good many years previously, I hadn’t sought out this particular work for listening to for some time; and was therefore charmed by my reacquaintance in this performance with the work’s ready lyricism and freely inventive juxtaposing of themes, skilfully realised by the players. They were able to balance most beautifully the tender lyricism of the themes’ expositions with their more forthright working-out, bringing considerable intensity and physicality to the development, but leavening the mood with their flexible and sensitive phrasings. I loved the “sigh” with which the group brought back the opening motto theme – a near-perfect encapsulation of a romantic composer’s world.

This time round I coped better with the scherzo rhythms, which were as obsessive as I remembered, but without being dry (the acoustic probably helping, here). I loved the triplets that came to the rescue of the music’s opening trajectories, and the frenetic contrapuntal energisings which threw more wistful and melancholic moments into relief. Altogether, the two middle movements I found surprisingly compelling, the slow movement quite gorgeously passionate at the outset, the viola leading the opening statements towards even more intense utterances of poetic feeling. The ghostly pulsatings that followed led to darkly-expressed agitations, so richly-coloured by the players, the acoustic imparting an almost “orchestral” ambience to the music argument, though perspectives such as the ‘cello’s wonderfully varied rhythmic pizzicati beneath the soaring lyrical lines remained in an overall “chamber” context. Perhaps the finale’s repetitive opening rhythmic motto runs the risk of becoming too much of a good thing, though Schumann contrasts the mood with tripping figures and a ritualistic round-dance, energetically characterised by the players here, who revelled in the alternations before dashing into a “last hurrah” with the motto rhythm, cranking up both its detailing and its energies for an exhilarating finish to the work.

What can one say about the performance of the Shostakovich works? – except that they were as committed and wholehearted performances of anything I’ve ever seen and heard the NZSQ do. The Fifth Quartet, completed in 1952, was one of a number of works written by Shostakovich over a number of years that had not been offered for performance until after the death of Stalin in 1953, due to the savagery of a previous attack on the composer’s music by the Soviet authorities. The Tenth Symphony was written at around the same time as the quartet, and the two works share a similar breadth and orchestral way of thinking, Shostakovich’s writing in the quartet in places creating a massive, orchestrally-conceived sound. Another link between symphony and quartet is the composer’s use of his motto, the notes DSCH (D/E-flat/C/B) which the viola plays repeatedly in the quartet’s first 12 bars.

At the outset, the NZSQ caught the droll, march-like sense of a long-breathed story about to be told. Episodes of furious activity which followed had an almost visceral, full-blooded quality, matched by the growing sense of unease and rising anxiety, like an approaching firestorm or imminent terror, relieved only by the lyrical waltz-like second subject. The conflicts and intermittent episodes of bleak calm were stunningly delineated by the players, whose focused concentration exerted a kind of surreal hypnotic trance over the auditorium’s listening body, a spell maintained without a discernable break throughout the work’s three continuous movements. Of particular note was the middle Andante movement, whose intensities were coloured by Shostakovich’s use of a melody by a student and fellow-composer, Galina Ustvolskya, with whom it was said he was “emotionally involved” – the NZSQ players demonstrated enormous physical and emotional resources energising these long-breathed intensities before hurling themselves into the final movement’s maelstrom of thematic interaction, and finally sustaining the violin-and-viola-led exhalations of bitter-sweet release that floated uneasily through and around the becalmed vistas.

The Ninth Quartet, has its own peculiar engimatic character, not least because the composer had actually written an earlier version of the work, which he destroyed in what he called “an attack of healthy self-criticism” three years earlier. Where the Fifth Quartet had come across as a brooding work punctuated with powerful, uncompromising outbursts, the Ninth sounded rather more exotic throughout many of its episodes, and certainly in the opening movement. The players gave themselves wholly to a parallel sense of ritual and unease, with sinuous melodies and oscillations at the very beginning criss-crossing over the top of spacious pedal-points. That same intense concentration carried the music unswervingly through the somewhat charged pizzicato jogtrot rhythms, and into the long-breathed elegiac utterances of the second movement than followed. The composer’s penchant for near-manic energies was given full rein by the players in the polka-like dance that sprang from the music’s hesitant pulsings, before some superbly-projected pizzicati declamations (startlingly and effectively repeated at certain cadence-points) redirected our sensibilities into the strange and somewhat grotesque territories of the final movement. The NZSQ players seemed to take us into the heart of each phrase, each succeeding episode, each abrupt change of mood, colour and pace, before throwing everything into the wild concluding dance, with its abruptly sardonic concluding gesture.

The resulting audience acclamations were as much release of pent-up feeling as deep appreciation concerning the music and its performance. It seemed to me hard on Schumann at the time, but such was the visceral and emotional impact of the Shostakovich performances that it took this listener some time to work backwards through the whole worlds of intense feeling wrought by the Russian composer’s  sharply-focused and deeply-weighted evocations towards retrieving the erstwhile beauties of the Schumann quartet’s performance. One could, fatuously at this stage, suggest that Britten’s quartets might have provided a different, and more equally-weighted set of twentieth-century parallels with those of Schumann – but such metaphysical speculation shouldn’t get in the way of acknowledging the NZSQ’s stellar achievement in realising all the music in this concert so very completely and compellingly.

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