NZSQ and Wollerman reveal beauties in Schoenberg, and others

New Zealand String Quartet and Jenny Wollerman (soprano)

Beethoven: String Quartet in A, Op 18 No 5; Schoenberg: String Quartet No 2 in F sharp minor, Op 10; Smetana: String Quartet No 1 in E minor ‘From my life’

Wellington Town Hall

Tuesday 3 May 7.30pm

I suspect that few musical performances in Wellington have done as much, as quickly, as this to overturn long-held attitudes about a composer. Often without really putting it to the test, many ordinary music lovers have accepted that, apart from Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg’s music was and has remained cacophonous and unlistenable. The composer himself complained quite early that the problem was poor performance: nothing difficult about his music!

All that was needed then was the phantom arrival of a New Zealand String Quartet and a Jenny Wollerman to illuminate what Schoenberg had created; for no one I spoke to at the interval did not exclaim at the transformational performance by both string quartet and soprano.

Even though for perhaps many, this might have been a first hearing, and the splintered character of the lyricism and the unpredictability of the music from minute to minute and still surprise, there was an unmistakable feeling that real music was present, of beauty and natural human impulse.

If this concert had been heard through radio or recording, it might not have had the effect it did, for the impact of watching these players, so profoundly engrossed and so whole-heartedly enraptured in their performance, was a most persuasive aspect. One felt as if each player relished opportunities to sing, to prove that they were playing genuine music, not some intellectual contrivance, even though the shapes of the songs were unusual. The first movement is simply a restless, soulful meditation of great beauty; the mood overall not very different from the nocturnal strangeness of Verklärte Nacht. After moving passages from first violin, then viola, Rolf Gjelsten seemed transported as he played cello phrases that expressed alternating grief and resolve.

The second movement changes the mood entirely, skittering violin over abrupt cello notes, with its use of the German folk song ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’, mocked and tortured. Perhaps it was the only way for the composer to handle the traumatic loss of his wife to his painting teacher, though we must not imagine the music to be any kind of direct account of that. The playing was remarkable in its quixotic, kaleidoscopic impulsiveness, and the notes of the song are broken, dissected. Another frenzied passage closed the movement,

What disconcerted its first Viennese audiences lay in the next two movements – the arrival of a soprano to sing two poems – how outrageous for a voice to invade the sacred world of chamber music! It’s a setting of Stefan George, a poet who is compared to the French Parnassiens and symbolists. (One noticed that the programme notes observed the poet’s Cummings-like capital letters fetish in the German texts: nouns not capitalized).

The first, Litanei, with lines like “… Grant some peace to my faltering steps … extinguish all hope, send out [better perhaps, ‘dispatch’] your light …Kill the longing, close the wounds…”. Jenny Wollerman’s voice proved a quite exquisite vehicle for the poem and its music taxing a voice with its fragments of melody that are determined to give no comfort; projected strongly, accurately, with emotional intensity. Though the score was before her, she appeared to have every word and every note utterly secure.

The last movement used the poem Entrückung (approximately ‘rapture’) and it expressed that, in the uneasy quiet of the opening, depending heavily on the cello, curling and twisting in preparation for the voice’s entry. In the movement’s ten minutes or so, there was time for the listener to begin to find melody in the spectral cirrus, and with the compelling performances by all five, we were left with a sense of music of the greatest beauty.

Though I’ve paid much attention to the Schoenberg, the other pieces were played with no less power, subtlety, and beauty of tone and expression.

The happiest of Beethoven’s first published set of quartets opened with an almost droll, whimsical air, an ethereal dance, set among scintillating flashes from Helene Pohl’s brilliant violin, all brought to its senses with some sombre phrases from the cello. The Menuetto was a particularly sensuous Viennese affair, its swaying rhythm set charmingly against the warm romantic tune of the Trio. The Andante cantabile with its variations and sometimes fugal passages found Beethoven and the players in a jovial mood, smiles flickering across their faces, responding to comic effects. The movement ends with a sudden subsiding to a minor tonality that stilled the audience utterly – apart from a solitary cough – in the pause before the Finale.

The Schoenberg was followed by Smetana’s autobiographical piece: a life that allowed much variety, Gillian Ansell’s viola played a significant role at many points, passionate and rich in the opening movement. She underpinned the dance in the second, along with particular rhythmic energy from Beilman’s violin; they relished the almost saccharine sentiment of the third movement, without embarrassment.

There was a somewhat smaller audience than usual at this very fine concert. Are our chamber music audiences still subject to the blinkered attitudes that Schoenberg faced in Vienna a century ago?

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