New Zealand String Quartet revelatory with second group of Beethoven’s Opus 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op 18 Nos 4, 5 and 6

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten)

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 26 February, 7.30pm

In her brief introductory comments at the first of these two concerts Gillian Ansell had observed how interesting it was to play the quartets in chronological order rather than to mix works from different periods: it highlighted the essential features of these works of the 30-year-old Beethoven, their originality, their imaginativeness, the clear mood contrasts between each.

And so it was.

Many listeners will have heard these quartets in sequence as a result of the availability of several complete recorded sets, but such remarkable live performance in such a beautiful setting is something else.

The New Zealand String Quartet is one of the musical groups that know the importance of lighting and of ambience generally that is necessary to create the best emotional environment for listening to music (which varies of course with different kinds of music). Here the church was dimly lit with evocative under-lighting in the sanctuary that made the most of the deep blue of the back wall.

The programme contained useful and illuminating notes from Nancy November as well as from two of the players – Douglas Beilman and Helene Pohl.

I always enjoy reading the perceptions of others about the spiritual character of music and Helene’s pithy snapshots drew particular attention to certain movements and to the general character of each quartet as a whole.

The fourth quartet, Helene suggests, is ‘dramatic, passionate, with overall orchestral textures’. It’s the only one of the set in a minor key. But that by no means implies any lack of energy, and so its first movement seemed to be leaning into a brisk wind, moving forward energetically, going just a little faster than one’s breath could accommodate. It was a wonderful way to launch the evening! The dynamics undulated like a ship moving on a gentle swell. The players knew precisely how much weight to allow individuals at every stage – sometimes the first violin, sometimes the cello – to give proper voice to the melody.

The second movement – unusually, a scherzo – light, dancing in triple time, in a spirit that seems unBeethovenish, quite singular in its flavour, perhaps offers homage to Haydn. The slow movement comes third; it was played darkly and urgently, in marked contrast to the Scherzo, and in its turn it is in sharp contrast to the finale, where the four players seemed intent on obliterating individual voices in the tangle of almost frenzied activity.

I don’t know whether the fifth quartet is the most played – I seem to have heard it more often – but it is perhaps the most lovable. Helene remarks, ‘“Hommage à Mozart”, buoyant, though not without an edge’; and the programme note suggests ‘a sardonic skit on genteel elegance’. I don’t know about the sardonicity, but it was played in high spirits, the quavers in triple time generating a real delight.

Again, Beethoven breaks with tradition to place his dance-like movement (reverting to a minuet from his more normal scherzo) second, gorgeously lyrical with a Trio sounding like a peasant Ländler, that the players invested with even more gentle though artful simplicity.

One of the most beautiful movements in all six quartets follows with the Andante Cantabile. While Beethoven was, in certain of his other compositions, a man aware of the politics and troubles of his times, I reflected here, as the enchanting and endlessly inventive variations unfolded, on the presence of Napoleon’s armies criss-crossing Europe during 1797–1800, capturing Austrian territory in north Italy, causing social and economic distress for France and other countries. Yet, for Beethoven it was never a reason to compose music that was ugly or violent.

On the contrary, it may be that his sympathy with Napoleon’s overthrow of the oppressive and corrupt absolute monarchies that still ruled much of Europe, obscured the destructive consequences of the wars, and that it was his optimism about political and social advancement that Napoleon sought that allowed him to compose much spiritually joyful and positive music.

And so the performance of this Andante, an elaborate and beautiful set of variations suggesting Beethoven’s contentment with this best of all possible worlds, formed the concert’s centrepiece, giving generous and carefully exploited space to each individual instrument in turn.  All that could follow was the brilliant, contrapuntally complex last movement.

The last of the six quartets was revealed as yet another original and different masterpiece. The famous and percipient writer on the quartets Joseph De Marliave suggested that ‘the ease and breadth of the finale of the preceding quartet flows on to the first movement of this’; support or otherwise for such remarks is one of insights possible through their playing all together, in the order in which they were written.

Writing on the same quartet, De Marliave, also commented on the repetitions of the first theme, and I had found the same: a little surprising in works that otherwise exhibit such profound sensitivity to form and motivic development. Nevertheless, the players responded wonderfully to the energy of this Allegro con brio first movement, finding entertainment in the step-wise motifs and the unusual excursions, for example the grumbling gambits by the cello.

Even in the superficially most uncomplicated movements, Beethoven provides surprise and amusement. The decorative Adagio second movement mocks the cello in a short sequence of false starts, and later there is an unexpected, somewhat mysterious deviation into a minor key.

The contrast between the Adagio and the following Scherzo and Trio was drawn for all it was worth, with syncopated rhythms and an ebullience spirit.

The last movement opens with a slow introduction labelled Malinconia: another singular contrast of mood. A lot of attention has been accorded to it; that its plan pre-figures the last quartets, its remarkable modulations, whether the eventual arrival of the Allegretto really succeeds in creating a satisfactory finale… They played that Adagio as if weighed down by the sorrows of the world, and perhaps by the composer’s own awareness of his solitary life and the first signs of deafness. The requisite Allegro that follows seemed rather a matter of formal necessity yet it was played as if its level of inspiration was just as high as all that had gone before.

It brought to an end what many might come to feel as the most rewarding concerts of the festival, a testament to the maturity and the peak of artistic accomplishment that has been reached by the New Zealand String Quartet.

These two concerts are the first of three series in which the entire oeu vre will be played: the second, mid-year, under Chamber Music New Zealand and the last under the quartet’s own management.