Superb Aroha Quartet in the Sunday Series

Beethoven: String Quartet Op 18 No 1; Tan Dun: Eight Colours for String Quartet; Britten: String Quartet No 3, Op 94

The Aroha Quartet (Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser, Zhongxian Jin, Robert Ibell).

Sunday afternoon, 1 August

Since its formation about six years ago the Aroha Quartet has gained a place close to the New Zealand String Quartet for its intuitive musicality and virtuosity.  Their previous performances in this series and for Chamber Music New Zealand around the country have left no doubt about their quality and so it was a little surprising to find the 300-seat Ilott Theatre little more than half full: the weather; the Film Festival; too much other music?

The quartet has adopted a new second violinist temporarily replacing Beiyi Xue; she seems to have slipped gracefully into the sound world that distinguishes the quartet.

Beethoven’s first set of string quartets, written aged about 28, show him mature and confident, disposed to make big demands of players, though not departing significantly from the form and musical style of his time.

In some music, played by some quartets one struggles to pay attention to the work of individual players, but the striking individuality of these players sometimes distracted me from attention to the bigger picture. That did not mean any lack of a unified view of the music, of homogeneity, for the integrity of the whole persisted through the perfect command of rhythms and the sense of flow and the meaning of whole paragraphs. Here it was the viola that captured my ear first and at many later stages, but the cello’s alert and lively contributions also stood out. The slow second movement is a remarkable creation and the quartet played it with a rare fastidiousness, with its singular pauses extended to create an uncanny feeling of anticipation, utterly unhurried.

Every movement in fact carried delights and surprises that are not routinely to be found with such familiar music.

Tan Dun’s Eight Colours brought us face to face with modernity; not a particularly abrasive kind, though the first section, Peking Opera, took the instruments’ capacities to extremes, with some use of ‘extended’ techniques like heavy bowing to produce harsh sounds. In the second section, Shadows, the cello and viola brought more comfort with their more lyrical, bowed passages.
The piece was written when the composer was about 28, his first after reaching New York and it reflects both Chinese and Western forms.

The titles seemed arbitrary; I paid no attention to them during the performance and afterwards was surprised that the music had suggested so little of what they hinted at, though the glissandi in Pink Actress might have been diverting. Black Dance did indeed feature a nice little dancing idea, leading to descending glissandi and hard, rapid pizzicato from the viola. Black as in evil or in nocturnal?

Perhaps the most visible, for the literally-minded, might have been the low-set cello opening of Cloudiness, and the later descending cello phrases that might have described an aircraft descending through cloud.

The second half was devoted to an important work that I had not heard live before. It was written in Britten’s last year, 1975. Robert Ibell who talked a little about it before playing had led me to expect a more tragic or despairing quality, but in spite of references in the last movement to motives from Death in Venice, it emerged as strong and life-affirming, if elegiac and profoundly thoughtful.

In particular, it again offered proof of the striking gifts of the first violinist, Haihong Liu, whose every solo passage illuminated the music so vividly. Though she has not quite the strong musical personality of her leader, Anne Loeser’s contributions matched the ensemble with her acute feeling for style and musical shape.

Certainly there were a few angry moments, as towards the end of the first movement, but much more music that was seriously absorbing and pretty sanguine. Of influences, Britten offers few hints, such is his strength and originality. But the opening of the third movement, Solo, in many ways the heart of the piece, Shostakovich was present, in a sense of disconnection and loss; again, the viola was prominent in carrying a long melodic idea and then an accompanying passage where its powerful cross-string motif actually dominates the scene.

The form was interesting: the scherzo divided to frame the middle movement, so disguising its basic four movements. So the last movement, Recitative and Passacaglia, like the third, is substantial, with important utterances, that again expose the strengths of each individual player. The combination of tonal expression, rich musical content and some kind of reminiscence of string quartet origins suggested nothing less than the world of Beethoven. 

It may have contained two works from the last quarter century but the whole was a concert of very great interest and satisfaction. I only hope one of the reasons for the small attendance was not the programme.

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