Beethoven: String Quartet in C minor, Op.18 no.4
John Psathas: A Cool Wind
Beethoven: String Quartet in F, Op.59 no.1
Waikanae Music Society: Felix the Quartet: Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Rebecca Struthers (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)
Waikanae Memorial Hall
24 July 2011, 2.30pm
The usual substantial audience defied the weather, and came to hear Felix the Quartet, made up of prominent members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. There was a change to the programme: the music for the work by Esa-Pekka Salonen is somehow lost in transit, Leppänen explained, and so John Psathas’s piece was substituted. It and the Beethoven Op 59 no.1 Quartet were played recently by the Felix players in Wellington Chamber Music’s Sunday afternoon series; I refer you to Lindis Taylor’s review of that concert of 26 June, on this website.
Right from the dark opening of the Op.18 quartet, it was striking how beautifully balanced the Felix players were. No one instrument dominated; all were in perfect ensemble. However, it was interesting to note the difference in tone between the first and second violins. Every nicety of dynamics and ornamentation was observed, but this was lively playing that was constantly forward-moving.
The purposeful and optimistic first movement was followed by a scherzo which consisted of plenty of conversation between the instruments, as did the next movement. Though using a classical form, Beethoven’s minuet and trio are unlike anything Haydn or Mozart would have written; besides the chromaticism (which Mozart might well have employed) there is frequent use of syncopation.
‘A Cool Wind’ was inspired, the composer says, by the Armenian instrument: the duduk. Described as nasal (among other features), it appealed to Psathas as a voice-like instrument. This quality was present, although there was not a particularly nasal sound in the quartet. There was, however, much close harmony – and disharmony. Considerable use is made of modal tonalities. The piece included effective solos for all the instruments, the others providing a drone, or to harmonise – often with piquant effect.
The piece has an elegiac sound, but is not deeply mournful. It maintains tension, due to the harmonies and intervals used. The piece ends on a sad little melody on the second violin.
There is no doubt that the pièce de resistance in the concert was the Beethoven Op. 59 no.1 quartet – and I heard numbers of people around me expressing the same opinion. It seems streets ahead of the Op. 18 quartets in its themes, depth of feeling, musical language, and variety of expression.
Its opening with a lovely cello solo is innovative, to be followed by the first violin’s repetition of the theme. The contemplative mood is sustained through much of the spacious grandeur of the movement. As it develops, melodies are woven and twisted, exchanged and multiplied.
The scherzo second movement, unlike any preceding scherzo, involves much conversation between the instruments. It is tuneful, enormously varied, stimulating, exciting and innovative.
The third movement opens with a great chorale, played with sweetness, subtlety and perfect ensemble. This adagio movement has considerable intensity, contrast, and emotional impact.
The lively and varied finale on a Russian theme, carries on from the previous movement without a break, and ends with a very extended coda; typically, Beethoven seems to be about to bring things to a conclusion when another idea occurs, and off we go again.
The playing of this magnificent work was wonderfully vibrant, yet mellow. Perhaps it was sometimes a little restrained, not plumbing the emotional heights or depths, but this may have been due, at least in part, to the acoustics of the hall.
This was an inspiring and satisfying concert, appreciated by an enthusiastic audience.