A String Quartet with a difference – the NZGQ


St.Andrew’s on The Terrace Season of Concerts 2011

ANDREW YORK – Lotus Eaters

PETER WARLOCK (arr.Owen Moriarty) – Capriol Suite


GEORGES BIZET (arr. Bill Kanengiser) – Carmen Suite


JS BACH (arr.James Smith) – Brandenburg Concerto No.6

NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (arr.Bill Kanengiser) – Capriccio Espagnol

The New Zealand Guitar Quartet

Jane Curry, Cheryl Grice-Watterson, Owen Moriarty, Christopher Hill

St.Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 16th March 2011

As one can see from the NZGQ’s program, the evening consisted mainly of transcriptions, with a few original compositions. Given that two of these reworkings were of music originally for strings (JS Bach and Warlock) and the other two drew heavily for their original inspiration on music for Spanish guitar, the presentations seemed entirely apposite, and (with one reservation, humbly proffered by this non-guitarist!) were delivered with what seemed plenty of energy, sensitivity and stylistic integrity.

I’ve previously remarked in these pages on the uncanny ability of the guitar to bring its own characterful distinction to music written for other instruments; and the quartet of players certainly brought their skills to the fore, conjuring up and delivering a wide range of colour and dynamics to works whose textures responded well to the presentations. For me the only thing I found problematical (and only in one item, throughout the evening) was the circumstance in the final work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, of frequent interruptions to the music for re-tuning – these hiatuses seemed to me to damage the atmosphere and sweep of the whole, and I was left thinking how “out-of-tune” the instruments would actually come to sound if left to their own performance devices for the sake of preserving musical continuity. I wondered whether a group of, say, flamenco guitarists delivering a larger-scale work which generated plenty of atmosphere, coloristic excitement and rhythmic impetus would similarly “sectionalize” the music to re-tune. I know that Rimsky wrote what seemed like “natural breaks” into his original score, but they’ve never seemed to me to be like those between symphonic movements, where there’s the usual concert-hall coughing and shuffling – one wants the music to press on, emphasizing the contrasts of the change of colour and impetus, and so on.

Interestingly enough, this was also the only work on the program in which I felt the performance lacked a bit of grunt in places. I found myself wanting to be more “transported” by it all (perhaps those “tuning breaks” were to blame) – I thought there needed to be more “schwung” to the rhythms during the final Fandango Asturiano, and simply a greater sense towards the end of of risk-taking and red-blooded abandonment (perhaps out-of-tune strings might have actually helped at that point!)…

Still, this is to risk nit-picking in the face of my overall enjoyment of an enterprising program! Delights there were aplenty – Andrew York’s attractive Lotus Eaters could have come out of a film similar to “Zorba the Greek” – I thought of the term “Mediterranean Road Music”, with, as Owen Moriarty reminded us in his spoken postscript, a very “LA” perspective. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite was sheer delight, the opening Basse-Danse exploiting the antiphonal effects of change and exchange among the ensemble, and the jig-like Tordion featuring beautifully “covered” pizzicato tones, everything dying away to a whisper at the end. The players dug into the final Mattachins, with bristling flourishes of (in places) spiky harmonies, leading up to a satisfying “ole!” at the final chord.

A heart-stopping moment came for a young Wellington composer, Kaisa Beech, whose work The Storm was presented by the quartet, a vividly-presented picture of a passing thunderstorm, encompassing both calm and turmoil with telling impact. Another original work, from presumably a more seasoned composer, Scott Tennant (actually dedicated to guitarist Owen Moriarty’s parents) was Celtic Fare, a work which actually grew out of an arrangement the composer made of another composer’s work, and which formed the inspiration for two further original movements. Irish folk-melodies belled and echoed throughout the first piece, to be contrasted with hoe-down energies in the final movement. Pleasant, somewhat eclectic stuff, nicely turned by the ensemble.

In general, I thought the group gave the Carmen transcription a bit more edge than they did the Rimsky-Korsakov. Each section seemed to go with a swing, the opportunities for “layering” the texture with four instruments beautifully realized and nicely detailed in performance. Occasionally I wondered why the arranger chose to set the melody of a piece an octave lower that I would have expected (with the original orchestration in my mind’s ear), making for a less brilliant and clearly-etched effect than with the original. This happened with the Habanera, and the effect was of the tune being sung by a baritone at the outset – the change to a major key brought the melody up to its accustomed level – but it did seem strange at first, as with the Seguidilla, where the melodic lines sometimes got submerged in the surrounding textures – not the performers’ fault, assuredly! Throughout, the group’s rhythmic pointing caught the snap and lift of the music’s movement so beautifully, a slight rhythmic hiccup at the end of the introduction in the Gypsy Dance mattering not a whit, as the growing physicality of the dance caught up performers and listeners alike in ever-growing excitement.

But I couldn’t praise too highly the group’s realization of the sixth of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti. In true Baroque fashion, the music translated into the new instrumental medium as if fitting a perfectly-tailored glove – and the ensemble’s rendition of the individual lines brought so many deliciously-phrased strands of delight together with impeccable balance and osmotic teamwork.  The best performances of Bach have a certain feel of a living organism simply doing its thing, expressing its existence in its own unique, multifaceted way – and such was the case with the playing of the ensemble throughout the concerto – a performance that gave the very deepest of pleasure. Especially (and surprisingly) good was the slow movement, where the songful lines expressed an even more poignant quality than usual, perhaps through the notes being plucked instead of bowed, and therefore more subject to decay, as with all things to do with this worlds joye…….

The group gave an encore, occasioning a bit of “musical malapropism” on my part, thinking as I did that I’d heard it introduced as “Surrey Overnight” – however,  I found out later that its correct name was “Sarajevo Nights”. I fear my resulting abashment inhibited my critical faculties somewhat regarding this piece, as I can’t seem to remember much about it, except that it had an attractive calypso-like feeling, like a sort of jazzy chaconne. I’ve added my slip of hearing to my own private list of musical howlers……..

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