Exhilarating first of two concerts of Beethoven’s Quartets Op 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String quartets Op.18, nos. 3, 2, 1

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Saturday, 25 February 2012, 6pm

The New Zealand String Quartet will play all Beethoven’s string quartets this year, in chronological order – a major undertaking in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the quartet.  As Helene Pohl observes in one of several excellent programme notes, hearing them this way ‘we discover how full of personality these “early” quartets are!’

The Quartet’s fondness for St. Mary of the Angels as a venue was understandable straight away: the first notes demonstrated the warm sound.  However, the lively acoustic does allow every sound to be heard clearly, including a little too much metallic tone from the first violin, at times.

The first quartet played was the third in the set.  Beethoven’s harmonic invention was there in abundance.  In the first movement, allegro, the first violin has most of the interesting work.  The second demonstrated lovely rhythmic variety; the smooth  legato second theme was played superbly, with the sonority of Gjelsten’s cello particularly marvellous.  A few slightly misplaced notes did not detract from a sensitive and fine performance.  The movement came gently to a beautiful conclusion.

The third movement was energy alternating with calmness, followed by increasing complexity, while the fourth, marked presto, was certainly fast.  It was a joyful movement with unanticipated touches of reflection; little turns cause the music to pause in its rush towards the end, which is unexpectedly quiet, almost humorous.

The attentive audience in a full church demonstrated how much people enjoy hearing Beethoven played well.  Where are these people (assuming most of them were Wellingtonians) when the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s winter Sunday afternoon series is on?

The second quartet is quite different.  Its opening allegro features plangent crescendos.  The next movement, adagio cantabile, has a rich-toned opening.  A ‘false scherzo’ intervenes – fast, yet light and frothy.  The slow tempo returns, and sounded all the more sombre by contrast.  The movement ends with delicate figures in the minor key.

The real scherzo that was the third movement, described in the programme note as ‘brilliantly unpredictable’ reminded me of a dragonfly’s dance (having seen a large native one in my garden just recently).  It was too fast and frisky for human feet.  A solemn little set with the dancers bowing to each other was followed by variations, with copious interplay of the instruments.

The final movement was a delightful piece of counterpoint.   Here, the players were equal partners in a jaunty and good-humoured mood, in a movement more democratic  than the others (to use the language of programme note writer Dr Robert Simpson). A strong and vibrant passage is followed by a quiet section, then bang!  Suddenly the music is loud again; a typical gesture of Beethoven’s.

Now to the beginning of Beethoven’s quartet-writing career: Op.18 no.1.  This quartet was the most familiar of the three, to me.  Its lyrical opening was in a cheerful, mellifluous mood.  It presented a great range of dynamics – as indeed did the other two quartets.  It sounded to be a more mature work than the others, and this would be due to the fact that the composer comprehensively revised it two years after its first composition.  This allegro con brio opening movement was very satisfying.

The adagio affettuoso ed appassionato second movement began in sombre fashion, reminding me of Mozart’s Requiem.  Later, the music became passionate.  Its constantly altering moods make for an intensely interesting listening experience.  Slight rubatos added to the effect.  It was magnificently played.

The playful scherzo that followed required plenty of fast finger-work.  The finale was a surprise.  “Where is this going?” was my thought.  This was another democratic movement; all the players were engaged in the many twists and turns, and changes of key.  The constantly altering faces and qualities of the music sustained the attention.  Some of the strongest and most emphatic playing of the evening was in this movement.  It was fast, with an energetic ending.

The New Zealand String Quartet provided an appreciative audience with a thoroughly satisfying, even exhilarating concert.



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