Puertas String Quartet in Hunter Council room recital

Haydn: Quartet in G, Op.77 no.2
Zemlinsky: Quartet no.4, Op.25
Keith Statham: Romance no.1
Beethoven: Quartet in E flat, Op.127

Puertas Quartet (Tom Norris and Ellie Fagg, violins; Julia McCarthy, viola; Andrew Joyce, cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Thursday 5 May, 7.30pm

Despite the clash with the Hutt Valley Chamber Music Society concert and the fact that the concert was not advertised in that day’s Dominion Post Arts Supplement, a good-sized audience greeted this English-New Zealand string quartet. The audience was seated facing the east window in the Council chamber rather than north or west, as I have experienced before, so no-one was seated in the east gallery. Whether this had any acoustic effect I do not know, but certainly the sound was first-class.

The four young musicians served up a meaty programme; perhaps the dessert was the delightful Romance.

The Puertas players have not been together for very long (I think ‘worked together in different guises over the past 15 years’ in the printed programme must be a mistake for ‘past five years’).

Tom Norris is co-principal second violin with the London Symphony Orchestra, with which his wife Ellie Fagg is trialling as a violinist. Andrew Joyce was recently appointed principal cello with the NZSO and his wife Julia McCarthy is on trial for that orchestra’s principal viola position.  They are graduates of the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and have regularly performed with London orchestras. They formed their quartet in 2009. As a result of reaching the semi-finals of the international Bordeaux String Quartet Competition in 2009, they have performed on board a luxury cruise ship, and around the United Kingdom.

One commentator has said that Haydn ‘packed all his experience and skill into this, his last complete string quartet’. Certainly it is full of charm as well as skill. The first movement begins slowly, then becomes a bright and vigorous allegro. They were very much in accord with each other – blended tone, absolute accuracy of timing and nuances, understanding of a mutual approach to the music.

A presto minuet followed, with a slower, even romantic chorale-like trio, where the first violin melody was accompanied by the others. Ellie Fagg, who was first violinist for this work, exhibited a beautiful warm tone here.

The third movement andante began with first violin and cello only, playing a stately dance. This was very resonant, but delicacy was there when required. The first variation had the second violin playing the melody, with the first violin adding decoration, the viola and cello adding the harmony, then following up with the melody carried sonorously below. Further variations followed. The fourth movement was a delightful fast and light-hearted piece, revealing Haydn’s humour.

It was played with verve, unanimity and commitment. The constant fast passage work was always together and bang in tune. Through the whole concert I noticed perhaps two bung notes.

Prior to the Zemlinsky quartet, cellist Andrew Joyce spoke to the audience, explaining a little about the composer and the work. He remarked that it was amazing to think that Zemlinsky was composing at the same time as Brahms (initially), and Mahler, since his musical language was so different from both. He prefigured Schoenberg, whom he taught (and Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister). Joyce said that the composer’s best music was in his quartets.

This quartet was written in 1936; the composers dates are 1871-1942. So it is not surprising that there are hints of Schoenberg here. Joyce explained the structure of the work: a suite of three pairs of movements, rather than the standard quartet structure.

The adagio first section, Praeludium, opened with a chorale which turned into a funeral oration. This was followed by Burleske (vivace) which featured impressive, rapid pizzicato on first violin, this time played by Tom Norris (the previous movement gave the cello plenty of pizzicato). Later, the second violin took it up, echoing the first violin. Spicato followed.

The next pair (second movement) started with an Adagietto, at first in unison. This had a sombre feel, morphing into wistful, tender longing. The second part, an allegretto Intermezzo was a theme and variations, that ended with rapid phrases. Its partner, a slow Barcarole, featured unusual harmonies and a Hungarian feel to the melodies. The first violin part was dominant. A lovely tone was created in a section with muted viola. A beautiful cello solo was rich and reverberant, full of expressive timbres, that reached anguish. Here, at times, all the instruments were muted except the cello, which served to deepen the anguish. Disturbing emotions were expressed. The last few pages were of this extensive and expressive section were fast and furious. The finale was frantic, vigorous and dissonant.

Zemlinsky is little heard of today; perhaps the fact that I found his music didn’t move me as does that of Mahler or Brahms has something to do with it. Nevertheless, this difficult music was not merely competently played, but inspiringly performed. A commentator has said that Zemlinsky did not compromise truth for the sake of beauty.

After the interval, a short Romance by Keith Statham an English-born New Zealand resident and friend of the quartet members was played, introduced with remarks from Andrew Joyce. Ellie Fagg led the quartet again. There were whiffs of Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and especially Elgar and the English composers. This was a simple romantic piece, but with rich harmonies. It was played smoothly, with plenty of subtlety; a charming work.

Beethoven was represented by his late quartet, Op.127. The allegro started strongly, and continued with much rhythmic emphasis. The players made a big sound, more so than in the other works. The sombre adagio featured a fine violin solo from leader Tom Norris; in effect, a decorated chorale. Then we were into bouncy rhythms with intertwining parts between the two violins and accompaniment from the lower instruments. This was all done with grace, warm tone and faultless rhythm and intonation. More solo work allowed the first violinist to shine. This was a beautiful movement.

The scherzo began with a lilting opening, but soon livened up. The sheer variety and inventiveness of Beethoven (who by this time was stone deaf) is at its most astonishing in these late quartets. The movement juxtaposes passion with dance-like passages, but always there is energy and forward drive.

The finale consists of impassioned fervour interspersed with anxious restlessness. There are so many different episodes in this movement; it is innovative and brilliant.

This was ‘one out of the box’ as a chamber music concert. All the players executed their work with great attention to detail and dynamics. They are exceedingly proficient, considering the comparatively short time that they have been a quartet. The audience showed its warm appreciation for this ambitious programme and its performance.

I did think that the beauty of the female players’ full-length, sleeveless turquoise dresses was not echoed in the men’s attire; despite their having turquoise handkerchiefs poking out of their top pockets, the open-necked business shirts were too informal in contrast with the ladies’ look. Maybe turquoise bow-ties would have been more appropriate, or a different style of shirt, or jacket. One of the men had smart cuff-links – hardly designed to go with an open-necked shirt!

The only disappointment with this evening of music was the printed programme. There were no programme notes, which mattered particularly for the Zemlinsky work; no listing of the movements, and even the dates when the composers flourished were not printed.

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