Exotically-flavoured delights from the NZSQ and Péter Nagy


The New Zealand String Quartet

with Péter Nagy (piano)

BARTÓK – String Quartet No.2 Sz.67

LIGETI – String Quartet No.1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes)

LISZT – Mephisto Waltz No. 4 (Bagatelle sans tonalité) / Csárdás in F-sharp minor / Csárdás obstinée

DOHNÁNYI – Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat Minor Op.26

Hunter Council Chamber,

Victoria University, Wellington

Sunday 4th September 2011

The publicity accompanying the New Zealand String Quartet’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies” set of concerts made a great thing of the “rhapsodies” designation, bringing into play synonyms such as ecstasy, rapture, bliss, enthusiasm and great joy – but upon hearing the first of the two programs I would have just as enthusiastically endorsed the “Hungarian” part of the description, especially in the context of the Quartet’s characterful and atmospheric playing. Particularly during the first half, we were, at any point, taken to worlds whose sounds, for me, were borne on a different kind of air to that which I normally breathed and listened to, something more tremulous and laden, creating expectancy and a degree of tension at the thought of whatever feelings, emotional and visceral, might be conjured up. What the group was doing, of course, was realizing some of the most interesting and absorbing chamber-music sounds ever to have been written, and bringing us as listeners into the world of those sounds.

And with the sounds came flavours and colours, those of the Bartok Second Quartet’s three movements strongly earthy and dark-hued, but here, keeping the music’s inherent lyricism close at hand. From the Quartet players came a warm, natural growth of sounds, beautifully-focused singing and shaping of the music’s contours, tones and silences alike, expressing the “soul” of the music and the earth from which it rose. Thus the folk-like singing lines over the ‘cello’s “strummed” accompaniment towards the end of the first movement made for a magical opening up of what we had already heard in “songs and snatches”, revealing the music as a kind of extended lullaby, rich and varied, both rustic and ghostly.

If song dominated the first movement, a fierce percussive energy inspired the quartet’s playing throughout  the second, marked allegro molto capriccioso. The composer’s recent travels in North Africa may have accounted for the exotic-sounding motifs, their slurrings and drummings fuelled by over-brimming peasant energies. The players nicely pointed the contrast of an angular gavotte-like trio section, before returning to the motoric energies of the opening.  We heard an almost “East-meets-West” blending of exotic patternings and relentless drive, before being taken on that spookily spectral abyss’s edge gallop towards what I thought came across as strangely reassuring folkish unisons at the movement’s end. The Lento finale resembled for me a huge slow-motion wave at the finale’s beginning, the performance creating impulsive swells that broke and arched up from the music’s undulating surfaces, before exhausting themselves and falling back into the prevailing contours via a couple of telling pizzicato notes.

Violinist Helene Pohl talked briefly about the Hungarian aspect of the program, and, helpfully, about Bartok in particular at the concert’s opening – and ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten in turn spoke about Ligeti’s First String Quartet. He provided a brief but insightful overview of the music with the help of his colleagues, who demonstrated with great relish things like the composer’s “mocking” of his own themes in places, from instrument to instrument. The work was composed in 1953/54, from a time the composer was to later call “Prehistoric Ligeti”, those years before he fled Hungary as a result of the 1956 Uprising. The Bartok of the third and fourth Quartets was Ligeti’s model, here, the music at the outset colored by a lyricism, ingratiating tones set against spikiness, and delicacy against muscularity.

The composer’s four-note motto, which Rolf Gjelsten asked the players to demonstrate at the beginning, could be heard subjected to a bewildering variety of transformations, hence the “metamorphoses” of the work’s title. Memorable episodes abounded – a gig-like dotted-rhythm episode contrasted with sequences of haunted whisperings and harmonics, the dark, insidious-sounding Waltz, with its stricken pizzicati “curdling out” as arco phrasings (the poco capriccioso marking living up to its name), and the spectacularly hushed ostinati towards the work’s end set alongside the “mocking” repetitions of the motto theme. A totally engaging listening experience! – of the sort, it must be emphasized, that we’ve come to eagerly anticipate every time, from this ensemble.

Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy presented us with an all-too-brief glimpse into the world of Liszt’s late works for solo piano – I had to restrain myself from leaping to my feet when he’d finished, and proclaiming that it wasn’t enough – demanding that he play things like the Csárdás Macabre and Nuages Gris also, so that we could get a real sense of the composer as a visionary, “throwing a lance into the future”. What we heard barely scratched the surface of this somewhat bleak, atonal world of the composer’s, a true rejection of previous lives, activities, impulses and creations, in favour of what most of Liszt’s contemporaries would have certainly regarded as terra incognito. Still,in keeping with the concert’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies” title, we had to be content with those pieces linked to folk-dance, though the aforementioned Csárdás Macabre would have fitted the bill nicely, as well. The extremely chromatic Mephisto Waltz No.4 (subtitled “Bagatelle sans tonalité”) and the two Csárdás certainly gave notice of a creative sensibility looking to new worlds to explore.

Péter Nagy featured also in the concert’s final work, Ernő Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet No.2 in E-flat minor. Though it came across as much more of a drawing-room piece cheek-by-jowl with the Bartok and Ligeti Quartets, with an almost Borodin-like exoticism in places, the music still generated great sweepings of activity whose textures definitely sounded “gypsy” rather than Germanic. There was something very “fin de siécle” about those dying-fall sevenths and swooning harmonies – a touch, even, of Cesar Franck, perhaps, in some of the more fragrant harmonic modulations? Not quite what I expected – at this stage of the piece, anyway – though the playing gave the piece every chance to impress on its own terms.

The Intermezzo featured constant changes of mood between salon music, flashes of gypsy energy and formalized structuring, the players characterizing the music’s different courses with relish. Just as it was the viola’s turn to shine at this movement’s beginning, so the ‘cello took the lead in the finale, leading the other voices into a fugal working-out, which the piano further ritualized with solemn chords. However, rhapsodic feeling became paramount once again, the playing “digging in”, building the movement’s energies towards an inevitable intensification of feeling, the string lines wrapping themselves more and more tightly together, and stimulating from the piano massive sonorities. Then, at a slower tempo, the musicians regrouped their resources and brought off a fine climactic archway of romantic feeling, whose hushed coda’s strains brought a comparable sigh of audience pleasure at the very end.

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