Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Aroha Quartet at St.Andrew’s

By , 09/10/2010

MOZART – String Quartet in D Major K.499 “Hoffmeister”

ZHU JIAN-ER & SHI YONGKANG – Bai-Mao-Nu (White haired Girl)

TCHAIKOVSKY  – String Quartet No.3 in E-flat Minor Op.30

Aroha String Quartet: Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser, violins / Zhongxian Jin, viola / Robert Ibell, ‘cello

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 9th October 2010

Like New Yorkers have done with their numbered streets and avenues, one does get used to numberings in classical music, however bewildering and daunting it may seem for a beginner listener to register titles like Symphony No.97, String Quartet No.79, Piano Concerto No.27, or Piano Sonata No. 32. It’s probably one of the reasons that descriptive names, often nothing to do with the composer, have been so freely appended to pieces of music. These nicknames work invariably to the music’s advantage, however much the purist may scoff at the superficiality of the exercise. And especially if a composer has a reasonably sizeable body of work, such names can help people readily identify specific pieces otherwise buried anonymously in catalogues of numbers – for example, many of Haydn’s 100-plus symphonies owe their popularity to either individual titles or to names given to sets of works, such as the “Paris” or “London” Symphonies. One wonders at times whether these numbers really do register in peoples’ minds – as with the lovely story of the music student who was asked how many Beethoven symphonies there were, and who replied, “Three – the “Eroica”, the “Pastoral” – and the Ninth!”

Lest readers begin thinking that this reviewer has REALLY lost the plot on this occasion, I hasten to point out that the above remarks were prompted by my profound enjoyment of the Aroha Quartet’s playing of Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” String Quartet at St.Andrew’s Church on Saturday evening. I hadn’t heard this work for some time, but after experiencing this group’s warm, mellow playing and beautifully natural sense of ensembled give-and-take throughout, I’m certain that I’ll associate this “named” quartet for a long time to come with what was here an extremely pleasurable listening experience. It’s true that Haydn is regarded as the “father” of the string quartet, but on the evidence of works such as this one Mozart brought to the genre his own sublimity and distinction. From the outset, the Aroha Quartet brought a mellow warmth to the music, with a beautiful blend of distinctive tones, at once characterful and responsive in the interests of a larger expression, the players readily able to vary their dynamics as one with with plenty of energy and volatility, throughout the first movement.  A full-bodied, colourful and exuberant minuet followed, the players digging into the music and in places almost bursting the dance at its seams – the minor-key triplet variants of the theme, tossed around among the instruments, provided a more circumspect contrast.

I liked also the tender, eloquent opening of the adagio, the playing very “giving” and interactive, almost theatrical in its thematic and instrumental exchanges. And the finale also engaged for different reasons, the players generating a lot of excitement with spectacular runs from violin and ‘cello over stuttering accompanying figures, with energy levels dancing near the tops of their gauges, and elements of surprise and contrast very much to the fore. One imagines Herr Hoffmeister listening to the work’s first performance and beaming with delight at the thought of his name being carried forward in musical history by this marvellous piece.

The leader of the quartet, Haihong Liu, welcomed the modestly-sized audience to the concert before introducing the next piece, from China, an arrangement for string quartet of a ballet Baimao Nu (in English, White-Haired Girl) by the composers Zhu Jian-er and Shi Yongkang. The story is based on the documented life-histories of half-a-dozen women from different periods of Chinese history, from the late Qing Dynasty to the 1930s, and existed and was performed as an opera before the Communist takeover in China in 1949, which resulted in later adaptations for ballet and film having some political propaganda input, changing some aspects of the story, and becoming a “modern Chinese classic”. A strong unison statement, like the opening of a curtain, began the work, whose lyrical, flowing manner, flecked with little folk-touches of portamento, created an attractive, if somewhat filmic impression. The narrative style was emphasised by frequent changes of metre and contrasting episodes, alternating wistful single-instrument lines with concerted, orchestral-like crescendi culminating in dramatic minor-key plunges – attractive, colourful music, obviously intended to entertain and uplift rather than ponder any fundamental tenet of existence that could be called to question. The Aroha Quartet players delivered it all with the sort of commitment and level of skill one would expect the players to bring to much greater music, but without ever over-inflating the range and scope of the piece.

A work that certainly required full-blooded treatment was Tchaikovsky’s Third String Quartet from 1876, a work for too long overshadowed (like the Second Quartet) by the first of the composer’s essays in this medium five years previously, with its celebrated Andante Cantabile movement. I thought this deeply-felt performance took us right to the heart of the music, the first movement, after a beautifully-breathed opening and a deep, rocking melancholy underpinned by pizzicati, fixing on a working-out of the themes with energetic and persistent drive and focus – tense, tortured stuff. It was possible to think that, in places, the mood of the playing might perhaps have been even a little too dogged and unyielding, with no hint of pathos or rhetoric at cadence-points – but it was indeniably involving and exciting. The second movement’s elfin and energetic brilliance had a surety of touch that encompassed both the music’s playful aspect and the more explosive accents and emphases, also making the most of the trio section’s droll, droning bass, with snatches of the allegro re-energising the music – lovely playing!

Tchaikovsky wrote the quartet as a tribute to a violinist friend who had died the previous year, and the grief of his loss was made manifest with the slow movement’s andante funebre marking. Here, the Aroha’s compelling focus brought us right to the edge of the music’s well of deep emotion, giving those opening discords and dolorous chanting figurations plenty of weight and emphasis, before allowing the more rhapsodic second subject group some remembrance of happier times. However, darkness soon overtook the music once again, a sombre processional becoming trenchant and threatening, before the chanting sequences beautifully and hauntingly returned at the end. After this, the finale plunged into an energetic “life goes on” dance, the spirit of it all reminiscent of the composer’s Fourth Symphony, the quartet enjoying the music’s physicality as well as registering the more delicate, elfin-like aspects of the discourse. A brief reminiscence of the previous movement’s solemnities became the prelude to a dancing coda, thrown off here with plenty of excitement.

Our enthusiasm for and appreciation of the music-making was rewarded by the Quartet’s playing of an encore – a piece that, for all the world sounded Central European, with soulful folk-themes, czardas-like dance-rituals at the beginning and brilliant accelerandi to finish. But it was, according to Quartet leader Haihong Liu, a Saliha, from the Silk Road region of China, which might well account for what sounded like gypsy-like tunes, rhythms and structures. It made a rousing conclusion to a most enjoyable concert.

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