Monumental recital, a gift from the Puertas String Quartet

Puertas Quartet: Tom Norris (violin), Ellie Fagg (violin), Julia Joyce (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)

Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor K 546; Ravel: String Quartet in F; Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No 1 in D

St Mary of the Angels church

Friday 23 March, 7.30pm

Because the concert by this quartet at Waikanae had been reviewed a few weeks earlier by my colleague Rosemary Collier, I had wondered whether I needed to offer a fresh view.

On reflection however, the fact that at this concert one piece in the programme had changed made it seem a good idea to write about them again. The Haydn string quartet at Waikanae was replaced here by Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor K 546.

Furthermore, this was a special, free concert, presented, I understand, by the players themselves.

Based in Britain, the quartet’s connection with New Zealand is the presence of New Zealander Julia Joyce (nee McCarthy) who went to study in London as a violinist and now plays as principal viola in the NZSO. She met cellist Andrew Joyce in London, where the quartet was formed with two violinists who play in leading London orchestras. (Andrew is now principal cellist in the NZSO). They visited New Zealand last May and have been able to make another visit this year.

The Mozart was a very rewarding substitution (not that it is ever a mistake to play Haydn), but this quartet piece, which is sometimes played by string orchestra, is rarely played in live concerts, at least in my experience. The Fugue was written in 1783 for two pianos (K 426), and in that form is perhaps even more arresting than as a string quartet. It is commonly ranked a masterpiece, which perhaps accounted for its dominating my mind for many days after.

Later, in 1788, Mozart wrote the Adagio and the authorities seem to accord it alone the Köchel number 546, so that the conjunction of the Adagio with the Fugue should perhaps be properly identified as KK 426 and 546. The Adagio too is a most arresting piece, offering an unusually sombre prelude to the fugue. Its almost tragic energy gives it anything but the usual air of an adagio, and that serious spirit was underscored by the way the quartet’s impressive playing remained suspended in the church’s generous acoustic.

The fugue was perhaps well chosen as it gave prominence to Andrew Joyce’s splendid cello in the powerful opening statement of the fugue theme. But after that, as each instrument had its share of the action, there was no ignoring the superb musicianship of all four players.

There followed a short piece from a recently released CD by the quartet of music by an English composer colleague, Keith Statham. It was a Pastorale of serious demeanour, neo-romantic in character, creating its own momentum to suggest a creation that had emerged fully-formed in the composer’s head.  After the interval they played another of Statham’s pieces – this time a Romance, which at first sounded merely easy to listen to, unadventurous, though never really predictable; but it developed and evolved as a longer, more varied and interesting work than its early stages had suggested; and the players did it proud.

Then followed the two major pieces that they had played at Waikanae. We heard a profoundly lyrical account of the first movement of Ravel’s quartet, played with great warmth and sweetness, followed by a quick (‘Assez vif’) movement, pizzicato outer sections framing a pensive middle, coloured by tremolo passages. An exquisite feeling of suspense sustained the slow movement (‘Très lente’), richly unhurried, meandering without sounding relaxed, and the players further revealed their admirably controlled yet fluid ensemble in their handling of the 5/4 rhythm of the last fast movement.

In Tchaikovsky’s first quartet, the violins changed places: Ellie Fagg took over from Tom Norris. Here too the quartet demonstrated its ease and its complete command of structure and emotional character. The ease was felt in the naturalness of the rubato and unostentatious rhythmic changes, the unity of tone and style that bound the players together; they were never afraid to offer little surprises in the shape of slightly prolonged pauses and conveying the feeling of spontaneity that seemed unstudied but was of course the product of long-cultivated collaboration.

Though the presence of a movement that has taken on a life of its own can be a problem for listeners at first, I cannot imagine a performance that drew you in to the entire work so strongly, and whose playing argued more persuasive for the musical inventiveness, the formal strength and the lyrical beauties of this first string quartet.

This represented the end of the quartet’s tour of a number of smaller centres in New Zealand. Considering it was offered as a free concert, it was rather surprising that a very large audience did not fill the church. Though we have several very fine resident string quartets, principally the New Zealand String Quartet, it is always illuminating and gratifying to hear players who have developed a different manner and exhibit such superb musicianship as these players have.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *