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Felix the Quartet opens the Sunday series emphatically

By , 26/06/2011

Psathas: A Cool Wind; Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor, ‘Voces intimae’; Beethoven: String Quartet in F, Op 59 No 1

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Rebecca Struthers (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 26 June, 3pm

Felix the Quartet, which is drawn from string players of the NZSO, has been going for more than a decade. Former concertmaster Wilma Smith was a founding member and her place was taken by incoming concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen. If players of this calibre had been playing together as a full-time quartet over that time, I suspect the impact of their performances would be a little more uniformly well integrated and arresting then it sometimes is.

The first half of the concert, comprising Psathas’s A Cool Wind and Sibelius’s only mature quartet was somewhat unexciting, due partly to the music itself. Psathas’s piece is a subdued piece, inspired by the player of an Armenian wind instrument, the duduk. It inspired a meditative strain which persisted throughout both its sections, apart from a modest call to attention at the end of an introductory passage.

A modal character coloured a good deal of the writing, though the nasal quality of the duduk, mentioned by the composer, was scarcely audible. Hints of a Balkan melodic flavour, which may well be characteristic of the Caucasus region too, lent it an air of serious melancholy. A melody of sorts that first appeared on the first violin, passed from one instrument to another, over a pervasive rocking, two note motif; it found its most distinctive expression briefly on the viola. After the ‘call to attention’, the textures became more complex in an imperceptible, unobtrusive way, and led the listener onward without effort. I half expected the second movement to introduce a new tone, but the mood and the motifs and their accompanying devices recurred in substantially similar character, perhaps with certain modifications to the melodic ideas. Nevertheless, it provides cheering evidence of a Psathas other than a master of percussion-strong orchestral scores.

The shifting of the Sibelius quartet to the first half meant, as I remarked above, a too unrelieved melancholy quality throughout. Only the end of the last movement really raises the temperature from its series of varied but dispiriting and not very memorable melodies. That is in spite of the expectation in the scherzo-like second movement and the fourth movement, Allegretto, of greater liveliness, through their more emphatic rhythms. But the austerity of the music itself makes that difficult to achieve in spite of playing that was often on the verge of introducing more emotionally involving episodes. The heart-warming experiences of evolving, modulating ostinati that bring excitement and drama to most of the symphonies are sometimes hinted at but never realized.

The Allegro finale does inject a rather splendid stretto-style accelerando which perhaps leaves listeners with a happy impression, but for me it is too little, too late. However, I heard some appreciative remarks about the piece, and particularly about its performance, which was indeed a thoughtful and well-studied interpretation of this product of one of the more somber periods in Sibelius’s life.

The first of the three Razumovsky quartets filled the second half and seemed to me, at least, fully to have justified the whole concert. The opening bars from first violin and eventually more important cello set the tone of the entire performance, driven by high spirits, optimism, energy, and played with singular attention to detail, to dynamic nuances. The viola managed to secure some of the focus with the second subject, but that was only a passing phase as the principal theme again dominated the coda.

Though Rowan Prior’s lovely cello also opened the second movement, a more equitable distribution of responsibility followed as the first theme passes to second violin, then the viola to first violin: this is a most intriguing movement which Felix brought splendidly to life. The slow movement, in F minor, though essentially desolate in tone, the players never allowed to become less than deeply moving; at its end the first violin surreptitiously leads in to the finale. To me, the entire last movement seems to be a coda to the Adagio, never quite insisting on its own independence in spite of its sonata-form structure; it’s like a series of perorations that the composer cannot bear to allow to wind up.

For all the revelations and subtleties that the players brought to the two works in the first half, it was the Beethoven that, inevitably I guess, was the most persuasive, both as a musical masterpiece and in its performance, and it left the audience with a sense of complete fulfillment.

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