Mulled Wine accompanies Aroha String Quartet concert at Paekakariki

Haydn: String Quartet in B flat, Op 76 No 4 (Sunrise); The White-haired Girt by the Lu Shun Collective; Debussy: Quartet in G minor

Aroha String Quartet (Hai-hong Liu and Blythe Press – violins, Zhongxian Jin – viola, Robert Ibell – cello)

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday 24 June, 2.30pm

I heard the Aroha Quartet’s first concert in 2004 and was pretty impressed and have followed them with great interest ever since. The original quartet comprised four Chinese players, three playing in the NZSO and one, the viola Zhongxian Jin, teaching at Victoria University and free lancing. Hai-hong Liu remains leader; the other two were second violinist Beiyi Xue and cellist Jiaxin Cheng.

Jiaxin Cheng reportedly married Julian Lloyd Webber and was replaced by Robert Ibell in 2009. Anne Loeser replaced second violin Beiyi Xue for a while; young Kapiti violinist Blythe Press has now taken the position.

I wondered whether the earlier homogeneity might have been a bit compromised by the change, since Blythe Press is clearly the least experienced member of the quartet. And those suspicions were aroused in the performance of the Haydn quartet where each instrument sounded quite distinct and I found myself listening to it as a piece for four soloists rather than for a single entity that happens to consist of four players on four instruments.

In some ways the quartet gave what might be felt undue emphasis to certain notes and chords in the first movement, creating greater dynamic contrasts than was perhaps ideal. There was an occasional stray note in the early stages but generally the ensemble was very fine. The point is that the hall is highly responsive and you hear every line of music distinctly which makes the task very challenging: the least smudge can be spotted and seamless ensemble is so much more difficult to achieve.

The quiet of the second movement, Adagio, offered the charming accompaniment of the muffled sound of a high sea breaking on the rocks on Paekakariki’s beach; it’s one of the special charms of the hall, along with the westerly view from the windows, across the sea towards Kapiti. Unfortunately, the bright sun made it necessary to draw the curtains during the performances.

It’s a short movement but time enough to hear the four players in a more subdued and refined mood.

There is marked contrast between the Minuet and its Trio middle section and I enjoyed the vigorous, peasantish character they created. Throughout, the music is about contrast, between emphatic chords and intervening calm phrases, dynamics, styles, and of course, the individual sounds of each instrument, and here the contribution of Blythe Press’s violin seemed to have found the measure of the music and of his companions.

The second item was a curiosity – a piece derived from a 1945 Chinese opera which, following the Communist victory in 1948, was adapted to conform with the ideology.

The White Haired Girl, set in the northern border region, Shanxi, tells the story of a peasant girl who is kidnapped by a landlord because the girl’s father owes him rent; and she is held as a slave and concubine, maltreated; but manages to escape and lives for years in caves until she finds her way home. But her privations have made her hair turn white.

The story commended itself, with modifications, to the Communist authorities and because of its attractive melodic character, it became highly popular during the Mao years.

It was indeed an attractive piece, built on motifs that represented elements of the story: the north wind, the red ribbon, day turning to night, joining the Eighth Route Army (against the Japanese invaders) and so on. It lay very happily for the quartet, with long-bowed chords and lyrical passages, tremolo effects, all of which could be related easily to a story.

It was later arranged as a ballet and for a film. The arranger for string quartet was clearly very conversant with western music and, specifically, with string writing. One could hear hints of 19th century western music; so there was no problem in attuning the ears to alien sounds and the non-Chinese members of the quartet sounded as at home in it as the two original members.

If I had wondered about the quartet’s homogeneity in the Haydn, Debussy’s quartet laid it all to rest. Though it’s an early work (1893, before L’après-midi d’un faune), Debussy succeeded better than many composers of string quartets in making the four instruments sound as one (not that all composers sought to do so), and this was a performance of the utmost refinement and sensitivity in which each player suppressed his own individuality to find a common voice.

Yet the individual voices were often there, as at the beginning of the second movement where the motif is passed from viola to second violin to cello, and where there was marked dynamic contrast between the theme and its accompaniment. Of the beautiful third movement – ‘doucement expressif’ – they made a most entrancing Cézanne-like canvas, a work of intense unity of expression.

They played another Chinese piece as an encore: Saliha, arranged by Ji-cheng Zhang. This was even more reminiscent of 19th century eastern European music, deriving as it did from Xinjiang Uygur, the far-western, Turkic region of China.

Thankfully, the hall was well filled for this splendid concert which is a credit to the promoter of the Mulled Wine Concerts, Mary Gow, and her team of supporters. This series is complementary to the chamber music concerts at the other end of the Kapiti district, run by the Waikanae Music Society, reinforcing evidence of the musical riches of the region.

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