Strength, delicacy and deep feeling – the New Zealand String Quartet with Jonathan Lemalu

POWER AND PASSION – New Zealand International Festival of the Arts

The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello) – with Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

ROSS HARRIS – Variation 25 for String Quartet

GAO PING – Three Poems by Mu Xin

SAMUEL BARBER – String Quartet Op.11 / Dover Beach Op.3

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Op.117

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 4th March 2012

Despite the fact that there really ought to be a moratorium declared on the use of the words “power” and “passion” anywhere and at any time, this Festival Concert featured the New Zealand String Quartet and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu in performances that defined the best sense of those very words.

In fact this concert was the latest to somewhat bend the righteous pitch of my on-going complaint regarding the Festival’s paucity of music events – during this and recent previous years. Though they’re relatively thin on the ground this time round, compared with the glory Festival days of, say, the 1990s, I have to say, in all fairness, that the 2012 concerts I’ve attended so far have certainly compensated in sheer quality for their lack of numbers. This one was no exception.

Again, the New Zealand String Quartet was there, at the forefront of a cutting-edge musical experience (following on in like manner from their Beethoven concerts) – I thought this program classic and meaty “Festival” fare, its content and delivery transcending the brain-dead hype of its title, and giving us a treasurable variety of memorable intensities (that description isn’t particularly flash, either, but I think it’s better than you-know-what!).

On the face of things the combination of string quartet and bass-baritone would, I think, pose for the average concertgoer more the immediate prospect of a challenge than out-and-out delight. The moderate attendance seemed to reflect something of this attitude, the organizers optimistically using the Wellington Town Hall for a concert of music  whose ethos seemed to suggest more intimate surroundings. Still, the performers in this case were renowned communicators, able to reach out and fill the vistas of most venues with their personalities and musical skills.

As it turned out, the performances seemed to easily draw in all those who were there – and there’s a certain vicarious excitement to be had from experiencing a “large” silence as opposed to a smaller one, which we were all able to enjoy and repeatedly savour, throughout the evening. Our enthusiastic appreciation at the concert’s end for the performers’ efforts belied our actual numbers, I’m sure.

Beginning the concert was local composer Ross Harris’ music, his meditation on one of JS Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, called simply “Variation 25 for String Quartet”. The Quartet’s Second Violin Douglas Beilman announced before the music began that the group would first play a transcription for string quartet of the original “Goldberg” variation. Presumably the quartet had the approval of the composer to do this – one wonders whether any composer who’d written something inspired by one of the world’s great music masterworks would necessarily want an audience reminded of the original, as it were, cheek-by-jowl! However, in this case, the “putting-together” of the two gave the opening of Ross Harris’s work such a telling ambient context, one fancied one could almost “sense” the direct lines of inspiration and observe something of the creative process of gradually making one’s ideas one’s own.

So, to my way of thinking, hearing the Bach original at the beginning (albeit in a string transcription) was an enrichment regarding what followed – very much in line with what the composer wrote in his accompanying notes about wanting “to pay my respects to the beauty and richness of the music…” It seemed to me at the outset something like a “hall of mirrors” effect, the canonic agglomerations producing a magical overlapping, coloring, intensifying and resounding texture – rather like how one might imagine a note, phrase or theme would be creatively acted upon.

One could sense the composer’s imagination getting into full stride, firstly with a paragraph of intense, stratospherically arched extremities, and then through various scherzo-like passages, the arguments frenetic and the energies ecstatic. After these exertions came a graceful, limpid dance which restored listeners’ equilibriums, the sounds transforming the former intensities of light into rather more dappled and fitful modes. And in much the same way the piece’s linear tensions seemed to melt into floating echoes of their former selves, the first violin then making a somewhat torturous ascent through the textures to conclude the piece, leaving in its wake a stricken viola mid-phrase.

I did think the Quartet’s performance a shade over-wrought at the outset, with some on-the-edge intonations, to my ears, throughout both the theme and the opening measures of the Harris piece – the price one perhaps pays in places for intensity? As the work progressed, the tones centered more readily – and throughout the other works on the program the playing sounded poised and true. The soft playing, in particular, throughout the works featuring a singer, had our sensibilities in thrall with the magic of it all; and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu was able to match the instrumentalists’ rapt murmurings throughout such moments with equally haunting tones.

The first of Gao Ping’s settings of three poems of Mu Xin (a writer and artist who died last year in China, aged 84) perfectly illustrated the performers’ skills in evoking the beauty of great stillness – strings and voice together, floating sounds that seemed not of this world. This was a world premiere, an occasion which the programme notes didn’t emphasize, apart from Festival Director Lissa Twomey’s introductory welcome message. The poems were, I believe, sung in Mandarin, the translations suggesting a poet’s finely-wrought sensibility, with occasional erotic overtones (as in the first of the three settings, “My Bountiful Desire”, in which figured lines such as “lips eddy, breast piers, thigh ravine….”).The second settting, equating a bird’s life with happiness, is all pointillistic texturing and evocative calling, while the third, “A HIstory of Love”, begins with a saga-like sense of momentum and movement, rather like a river telling its story in passing. The two previous settings had magical interactions between voice and solo instruments at their conclusions (with violin and ‘cello, respectively) – but this one concluded with some equally haunting falsetto-like singing from Jonathan Lemalu, the words chronicling the passing of time, of youth, of love.

American Samuel Barber’s best-known work is his Adagio for Strings, often played as a commemorative piece, and used in various films (“I couldn’t help it – I kept on imagining helicopters” said my concert-hall neighbour at the end, alluding to the Award-winning film “Platoon”). Usually heard as a work for orchestral strings, here we heard it in its original guise, as part of a String Quartet, the second of three movements (officially there are only two, but to my way of thinking, the return to the material of the opening after the Adagio constitutes a movement of its own, however brief). The performance vividly characterized the volatile nature of the first movement, with its jagged opening and its hymn-like chorale intertwined throughout; while the Adagio’s songful lines here had a spell-binding vibrancy, the climax “built” with inexorable purpose and intensity – amazing stuff from the Quartet, no matter how many times previously one might have heard the piece.

Not heard as often, but a piece whose beauties undoubtedly deserve more attention is “Dover Beach”, Barber’s setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s poem (I thought there might be a version for voice and string orchestra, which could increase the work’s performance frequency – but there doesn’t seem to be). Again, Jonathan Lemalu’s beautifully-focused soft singing made for pure poetry of sound in tandem with the strings – it struck me how Barber used the voice as a “fifth string” in many places, the vocal line often sharing the phrasings and figurations of the quartet’s. Particularly beautiful was the line “and bring the eternal note of sadness in”, at the conclusion of the music’s first section.

The bass-baritone’s tones sounded less mellifluous under pressure, though the artistry of the singer’s phrasing was evident at “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” – a fantastic outpouring of emotion, especially telling against the setting’s more hushed moments, the controlled anguish of the final “Where ignorant armies clash by night” an ecstasy of intensity approaching pain. Altogether, I thought it a wonderful performance.

Completing what might be regarded as a line-up of varying intensities, the Quartet addressed the Ninth String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich with all of the group’s customary energy and focus. Having heard some of its Shostakovich-playing before, I expected and got a veritable roller-coaster ride of full-on incident and raw emotion, all of the music’s spiked energy, droll humor and bleak melancholy given plenty of amplitude. By the sound of such things, these quartets are surely a body of work that these musicians were born to play – and what we heard confirmed my feelings on the subject.

With a “moments-per-minute” performance such as this one, singling out individual moments can seem to do a violence to the whole – but from the very beginning of the work the Quartet caught the music’s character, intense and claustrophobic, with impulses attempting to energize and lighten the mood leading inevitably to a “screwing-up” of tension and anxiety. Right across the work’s five movements (played without a break) the players readily conveyed that echt-feeling of fatalism regarding humanity’s lot, that “to live is to suffer, and to feel is to invite pain” attitude which continuously informs the pages of this music.

I’m sure the unexpectedness of encountering such richly- and readily-wrought listening experiences played its part in making the occasion for me so truly memorable – a truly “surprised by joy” outcome, a festival concert worthy of the name.














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