Aroha Plus gives wonderful programmme of string sextets

Dvořák: String Sextet in A, Op.48
Erwin Schulhoff: String Sextet
Brahms: String Sextet no.2 in G, Op.36 (Agathe)

Aroha String Quartet: Haihong Liu (violin), Beiyi Xue (violin), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (cello), with Lyndon Johnston Taylor (viola) and Rowan Prior (cello)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday 28 August 2011, 3pm

It was wonderful to have a programme of string sextets, something I haven’t heard for years. To have six superb string players to perform them was a delight, and the good-sized audience was proof others thought so too.

However, at the beginning of the Dvořák sextet I thought the violin tone rather harsh and shrill. It soon settled down, and the genial quality of Dvořák’s music shone through. Dvořák’s combination of good humour and nostalgia is a joy to hear. His interweaving of the instrumental parts is sublime.

Rhythmic emphases in the Dumka second movement, coupled with the contrast in moods that it contained made it interesting, as it was too, to have a movement with so much bass in it. The third movement, Furiant also had alternating moods and tempi, but there was rough tone at times, and some vagaries of intonation in various places.

The finale featured a lovely warm sound and expressive playing from Zhongxian Jin in the viola theme that opens the movement, with the lower instruments accompanying. Later, there was a fine cello variation from Robert Ibell, with quiet chords as accompaniment. This was followed by repeated notes from the other cellist, with a shroud of long threads produced by the other instruments. Then there were dream-like sustained lines on the upper instruments and one cello while the others played pizzicato. A fast, lively ending completed a satisfying performance.

Erwin (Ervin, in Grove) Schulhoff (1894-1942) died prematurely of tuberculosis, in a Nazi concentration camp. The sextet was written while he was in his twenties. The programme note said that this work was in contrast to his earlier music, “…reflecting his experiences of fighting in the Great War.”

The apt description of his music in the note: “…the music is muscular and resolute but never predictable” was certainly borne out. The opening allegro is angular and harsh, followed by an interlude of tremolo against pizzicato and slow chords. Sul ponticello (on the bridge) playing featured here and elsewhere in the work, giving its other-worldly effect. For this item, the two cellists, and two violists, swapped places from the positions they had sat in for the Dvořák.

The Tranquillo second movement was indeed that – dream-like, with ethereal notes played on the upper strings against repeated notes from the lower instruments. Featured were tremolo notes on two instruments. As the programme note said, “…the ghostly episodes with chilling tremolo accompaniment towards the conclusion are also memorable.”

The short third movement Burlesca was a complete contrast: a very active and exciting movement which had one thinking “What is coming next?” It had Rowan Prior hitting the strings with her bow – much more severely than in mere spiccato playing.

The molto adagio Finale returned to the discordant mode of the opening movement, with a gloomy then muted opening section. An appealing but tense violin solo was followed by a passage of playing without vibrato, and then another section which today would be called minimalist. The music faded away in a mournful ending. The variety of techniques employed in this work made me wonder if it was perhaps more interesting to play than to listen to. That is not to say that it wasn’t well worth being given an airing.

For the final item, the Brahms Sextet, the players resumed their configuration used for the Dvořák work. The gorgeous opening on violin set the tone for the work, followed by another beautiful passage, this time on the cello, and then on the other instruments, but minor intonation lapses near the beginning spoilt the smooth flow. All the thematic material was developed thoroughly in typical Brahmsian style. The movement built up to a very thick texture, before a lilting ending.

The Scherzo started in a jolly frame of mind, with the lower instruments playing pizzicato. Then it conveyed what the programme note called “…a wistful, slightly mysterious character”, following which was a bouncy, jolly section and a sprightly ending.

The third movement, poco adagio, starts with a trio of two violins and viola, then another viola is added, and later the cellos. This lighter texture gave a pleasing contrast to other parts of the work, as did the extensive use of pizzicato. Despite the adagio marking, there was plenty of liveliness throughout the movement, before its gentle close.

The opening of the finale was reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. (Why don’t we hear more Mendelssohn from the NZSO and other performers? The New Zealand String Quartet have shown us what wonderful music there is by this composer.) This was followed by passages of deep, dark tones. The players brought these contrasts out well, especially in the fugal passages. The “…hearty, exuberant coda” as Berys Cuncannon’s excellent programme note described it, brought the concert to an upbeat conclusion.

A small point that detracted a little from my enjoyment of this concert was the fact that the violinists wore sparkly items of clothing. I found this off-putting, since the sparkles constantly flash with the players’ movements.

Nevertheless, it was a treat to hear delightful, and thought-provoking, music for string sextet.

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