Classy performances of excellent programme of string quartets at Waikanae

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op.20 no.2
Ravel: String Quartet in F
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no.1 in D, Op.11

Waikanae Music Society: The Puertas Quartet: Tom Norris and Ellie Fagg (violins), Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 11 March 2012, 2.30pm

Having heard the Puertas Quartet play before, I was anticipating a good concert, and was not disappointed.  I hope word will quickly get around Waikanae about the quality of this ensemble; there were not as many present as is sometimes the case.

The Haydn work began with a fine, bright sound, and great clarity.  The Capriccio second movement of the work is particularly strong; after a sombre opening, it continues with ‘almost vocal pathos’, as the programme note described it.  The care with which these players had prepared was noticeable in a number of ways: the convincing playing of the unison phrases, the emphasis on important notes; the variety of expression.  This was a most delicious movement.   A note slightly out of tune struck my ear, and one or two elsewhere in the concert – otherwise, the playing was immaculate.

A lovely, light Minuet followed, featuring some chromaticism unusual in Haydn’s music, then the fugal Finale gave plenty of interest, with a sudden burst into forte to announce the end – another of Haydn’s jokes as in the ‘Surprise’ symphony, for those who might be nodding off?

The performance of the Ravel quartet saw the leadership of the quartet swap from Tom Norris to Ellie Fagg.  The music’s wonderfully ethereal unison passage for the violins near the beginning, and another later for violin and cello, were among the many delights.  In unison, the sound was like that of one instrument playing; the playing generally had great unanimity.  All parts could be heard, but balance was superb.  Julia Joyce’s viola was never overwhelmed, and her splendid tone came through well, while her husband’s warm and rich sound on the cello gave a superb basis to the music, even when he was merely bowing or playing pizzicato on repeated notes.

The second movement started with all playing pizzicato, with the sparkling and rhythmic effects that go with that, followed by a muted slow section that displayed mellow tone.  Again there was unison between first and second violins summoning that unearthly feeling.  More lively pizzicato passages brought the movement to a satisfying conclusion.

The slow third movement featured mutes, again.  This made for very gentle, warm and expressive tone.  It was followed by a faster ‘Vif et agité’ finale that was notable for thicker textures, but still returned to familiar themes from earlier movements.  It was a very fine rendition of Ravel’s masterwork.

After the interval, a short Romance by Keith Statham was played.  He is an English-born New Zealand resident and friend of the quartet members; the piece was introduced by remarks from Andrew Joyce.   Ellie Fagg led the quartet now.  As I said in my review of the quartet’s concert in the Hunter Council Chamber at Victoria University last May, when this piece was also played, there were whiffs of Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and especially Elgar and the English composers.  This time I would add Ravel and Debussy to the list – and a friend felt that Delius was present.  It is a simple romantic piece, but with rich harmonies.

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet no.1 is not nearly as well known as a whole as is its famous ‘Andante cantabile’ second movement.  It is a great work in totality, even if the slow movement does rather stand out.

The first movement was played smoothly, with plenty of subtlety; a charming, romantic work, mild of mood and mellow of tone.  Here again, there was always great ensemble, and the several of first movement passages for solo first violin with the others accompanying had the right balance.  There were splendid crescendi, and a grand ending.

The lovely andante was muted, and its sound delicate but never wispy or spineless.  The first violin against the pizzicato accompaniment is so exhilarating in its quiet way, it is no wonder the movement is so popular – it is justly famous.  Here, the playing was full of feeling.

The third movement scherzo is much more matter-of-fact.  It was played in a lively yet insistent fashion.  The playing again had great accord and mutual understanding.

The opening of the finale was very classical, until the second subject was announced on the viola.  This was a more Russian music, and the development of that theme was bright and bouncy, as was the conclusion of the movement.  The co-ordination of the parts following rests was near perfection.

This was a classy performance string of a quartet not heard sufficiently often.

I trust that the showing of the Puertas Quartet in this concert, and in the rest of their current tour, will enable Chamber Music New Zealand to schedule concerts in the main centres on the next tour they make here.  We are very fortunate that the quartet is able to visit together across the globe in this way; Andrew Joyce paid tribute to Keith Statham for his contribution to making this possible.



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