Seven Strings by Candlelight: New Zealand String Quartet plus 3 at St Mary of the Angels

John Psathas: Kartsigar (2004); Dvořák: String Quintet in G, Op 77; Strauss: Metamorphosen for string septet

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten) plus Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello), Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass).

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Friday 30 September, 6.30pm

Imaginative programming can often bring surprising results.

Candlelight in a beautiful church is a certain winner through producing a spiritual atmosphere, especially if timed so that the evanescent sunlight through the stained glass fades in the course of the first half hour. As for the programme, all three pieces had been played before by the quartet; Metamorphosen at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson in February this year, and Kartsigar at a 2005 Sunday concert from the Wellington Chamber Music Society (who had commissioned the work). The Dvořák String Quintet was played in a Sunday afternoon concert in May 2009.

Together they were an interesting collection of out-of-the-way chamber music, either on account of the instrumentation or the composer.

Psathas’s two-part piece has an unusual provenance – by origin a transcription of recorded performances by two Greek musicians, Manos Achalinotopoulos and Vangelis Karipis. (Psathas’s own programme note refers to the first surname which can be translated as ‘he who cannot be bridled’ – I find the adjective ‘achalinotos’,  in my Modern Greek dictionary, meaning unbridled or uncontrolled). That quality could hardly apply to this piece which is a very finely crafted composition with nothing outlandish or out of control.

Those, like myself, who have had a long love affair with the popular music of Greece, which I think pinnacled in the 1960s, would not have recognized those characteristics in this piece which has its roots, I imagine, in sources that may be much older, more primitive and at the same time more sophisticated than the music of Theodorakis, Hajidakis or Xacharchos.

It starts with deliberate cello pizzicato, quickly joined by second violin and viola playing a distinctly Anatolian, modal melody, in unison or at the octave. All four instruments soon become involved, each with a distinct role, and these distinctions were sharply delineated by the quartet, Gillian’s viola often throaty, suggesting a Greek folk instrument perhaps, Douglas Beilman’s second violin luxuriating in seductively warm sounds, each contributing a strand of the hypnotic, meandering chant that continued underpinned by Gjelsten’s cello throughout.

Psathas’s note points to an ostinato motif that opens the second movement, which in the hands of the violins floats higher and more freely than the first movement, free of the cello’s grip that had anchored the first movement.

Since my first hearing, the piece, through its performance, has gained a focus and conviction that I do not recall sensing before; the acoustic, too, offered a gorgeous background which did the music so harm at all and made it an altogether more enveloping experience than I get from the (excellent) CD of Psathas’s music, Helix, for Rattle Records.

Dvořák’s String Quintet – the only one that employs the double bass – is an attractive piece, but not one of his masterpieces. Its engaging handling of the five instruments, its quasi folk-song character, particularly in the first movement, forgives any lack of gravity.

That doesn’t altogether overcome the feeling that for all its lighthearted charm, the tripping tune of the Scherzo doesn’t return once too often. But the slow movement avoided that problem, and the performance captured its pensiveness. One might suppose that the double bass part, being unusual, might have led the composer to have highlighted its sonic capacities and whatever virtuoso skills might have been at the disposal of the first performer, that seems not the case. Its presence was always conspicuous however, and Hiroshi Ikematsu’s intensely musical contributions were always arresting and beguiling.

Strauss was moved to write Metamorphosen after Allied bombing destroyed the Bavarian National Opera in Munich in 1943 and so much else in the following years. Strauss’s first draft was discovered in 1990; it was found to have been scored at first for string septet. It was Paul Sacher, the famous Swiss musician and patron, who commissioned Strauss in 1945 to produce the version for 23 solo strings.  After the septet’s discovery Rudolf Leopold used the 23-string work as the basis for a re-creation of a version for string septet. Even for one who is very familiar with the big version, the impact of this, which I heard at the Nelson performance in February, was extremely persuasive; it expanded richly and opulently in response to the church’s acoustic which once again contributed very powerfully to the effect of this profoundly felt music.

Oddly, I do not hear this music as expressing unmitigated grief, and I find it extraordinary that the composer, in the face of such wanton and needless destruction, could have written music that is first of all so beautiful. But its character aligns very much with my own belief that tragedy, violence, cruelty, evil are most convincingly handled, not in music that is violent, abrasive, aurally disagreeable, employing distorting articulations, but through sounds that express pain or grief or even anger by using voices and instruments in orthodox ways that are above all beautiful.

Strauss does this by building a powerful climax which is easily heard as a sort of ecstasy of grief and which has a more profound impact because it envelops the listener in sounds that are moving and beautiful.

Often I’m uncomfortable drawing attention to individual performances in an ensemble, because like so much else in the arts, it draws attention away from the important thing – the music – and towards personalities; but the voice I heard most strongly and musically was that of cellist Andrew Joyce. All others emerged with distinction, either alone or in ensemble that was simply transcendent, and in which there could be no mistaking the anguish Strauss felt as he contemplated the destruction of a civilization that had been so remarkable.







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