New Zealand String Quartet continues Beethoven cycle with magnificent pair from Op 59

‘Beethoven Revolution’: The second phase of a complete cycle of the string quartets

Op 59 Nos 2 & 1 (of the Razumovsky Quartets)

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 3 May, 7.30pm

The programme listed the pieces to be played in this first of two concerts devoted to the ‘middle’ period of the quartets, from the three Razumovsky quartets, the ‘Harp’ (Op 74) and Op 95, showing the two at this concert as Op 59 Nos 1 and 2 in that order. Gillian Ansell spoke at the beginning and evidently told us that they would be played in reverse order, but the sound system (or my sound system?) was not good enough for me to hear that.

(By the way, though the common English spelling is ‘Rasumovsky’, the name in Russian is spelled with a ‘z’ in the first syllable – Разумовский; it’s transliterated in German with ‘s’ since ‘s’ is pronounced ‘z’ when between two vowels. Thus, since he was not a German, it should be represented in English by the equivalent letter – ‘z’).

I had not looked at the programme and when, in the second half, I opened it to check on the markings of the movements that I realised that the programme had the two quartets in the wrong order.

It made excellent sense, for the E minor quartet (No 2) is more powerful, sombre and dramatic than No 1, and thus made an arresting start. And incidentally, I noticed that my old set of LPs by the Gabrieli String Quartet also arranges them 2, 1 and 3.

The first two movements of No 2 in E minor are the longest of any of the Razumovsky set, and their placing at the concert’s start made a resolute and arresting opening to the concert

But the players did not allow those moments of particular force to dominate, and for the most part there was an airy, open feeling in the music, varied with the most tender pianissimo that grew entrancingly in slow crescendi.

The second movement, Molto adagio, with the added injunction to play it ‘con molto di sentimento’, is a remarkable piece of music which sounds prescient of the quartets of 15 years later, so unusual in its otherworldliness even though it breaks into the tonic major key, from the E minor of the quartet as a whole. The performance, particularly Helene Pohl’s high-soaring violin, was deeply affecting; and one cannot help but think of the interest Beethoven is said to have taken in Kant’s early Theory of the Heavens written half a century before.

The third movement was captured by it spirit as a haunting, disembodied dance, with important contributions by Gillian Ansell’s viola soon echoed in an uncanny stillness from Doug Beilman’s violin. The entire movement reflected a masterly distillation of feeling.

The F major quartet is not of the transcendental character of the preceding one. F major, which is heard by Beethoven, and others as a sanguine and human scale key, is the key of two other major works of the middle period: the Pastoral Symphony and the Op 54 piano sonata,. Yet it still sets a new benchmark; in contrast to the Op 18 set each of which lasts less than half an hour, both these are around 40 minutes in length and speak in a different language, that is spacious, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes soul-searching, routinely profound.

Here it was Rolf Gjelsten’s cello that made the first statement over a staccato accompaniment with a tremolo quality. Startling phantom chords lead to a rather grand melody, all making plain the distance the composer has come in just a few years.

The Scherzo – or scherzando in this case – second movement was wittily handled with a droll tune in a mocking dance rhythm, each instrument taking its turn in a staccato passage, then a very contrasted second subject that soon emerges as a surprising fit with what has gone before.

The slow movement was played for all its poignant, elegiac feeling, each instrument making the most of every individual phrase, emotional but never cloying. That runs straight into the finale – Allegro which is famously built on a Russian folk tune, a gesture to Count Razumovsky.  Though the music follows sonata form, the strength of the tune which has the feel of a rhetorical ending, repeated many times, seems to me like a study in ‘coda-as-substantive movement’, a series of admittedly quite elaborate and fugally-rich perorations that resume after a moment’s pause. The quartet might well have exhausted Beethoven’s disposition ever to write a rhetorical coda again.

The quartet is at present at the very top of their game – well, they’ve been there for quite a while – and I look forward to the next concert, containing the third of the Op 59 as well as Opus 74 and 95, which, oddly, will not be performed in Wellington – but at Upper Hutt on 11 June  and Waikanae on 17 June.

Especially, the profound insight, the maturity and the ability to illuminate the infinite variety of Beethoven’s invention that the players have displayed so far makes the performances of the late quartets in September a more than ordinarily exciting prospect.



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