Revolutionary Beethoven from the NZSQ


BEETHOVEN – “Revolution” – The Middle Quartets

String Quartets Op.59 No.3 in C Major “Razumovsky”

Op.74 in E-flat “Harp” / Op.95 in F Minor “Serioso”

New Zealand String Quartet :  Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins)

Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Genesis Energy Theatre, Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt

Monday, 11th June 2012

This was the second in a two-concert presentation by the New Zealand String Quartet of what are popularly thought of as Beethoven’s “middle period” string quartets. The first concert had featured the opening two of the set of three “Razumovsky” Quartets Op.59, which the group had taken to various venues around the country – as they had done earlier in the year with the Op.18 “Early” Quartets. This time round we got the third “Razumovsky”, followed by Op.74 “the Harp”, and Op.95, the “Serioso” quartets – riches indeed!

The printed program for the concert didn’t on this occasion carry the NZSQ’s own defining subtitle “Revolution” for their “middle quartets” traversal, which was surprising – the name certainly suited aspects of each of the works we heard, and especially so throughout these rigorously-conceived, and utterly absorbing readings. True to form, the NZSQ seemed to leave none of Beethoven’s compositional stones unturned throughout its search for the essence of this music’s greatness.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the quartet has played these works, though it’s been over ten years since their previous Beethoven “project” in which they played the whole cycle – they recorded just two of the “Razumovsky” Quartets shortly afterwards, but unfortunately there have been no more. Perhaps this current undertaking, again featuring all of the Beethovens, will inspire a further round of recordings (at the very least Op.130, please, with both of its finales!) – one would imagine concertgoers in the wake of these performances up and down the land wanting to relive the excitements and pleasures of such vital and inspired music-making!

So, my task in the course of this review is to try and come to grips with just what is it that made this quartet’s playing for me so distinctive and compelling in these works. By what alchemic means could these players, over the space of three very different Beethoven quartets, so readily take themselves and their listeners into what seemed like the pulsing heart of both the music and its composer?

In the first place, nothing got in the way of those sounds for us – at the outset, the clarity and corresponding lack of resonance in the theatre might have disconcerted at first, but then increasingly delighted one’s sensibilities as the music proceeded.. And the stage’s empty, though evocatively-lit spaces reminded one of photographs of 1950s and 60s Bayreuth productions by Wieland Wagner – creating a similarly timeless and open backdrop against which music and performance could speak their own truths without distraction.

The opening sounds of the “Harp” Quartet Op.74 provided another clue – the hymn-like harmonies were voiced by the players with attractively grainy tones, drawing attention to the separate voices as much as to to their blended sound. Here, and throughout the slow movement, the melodic lines had a “throaty” quality, the players’ sounds never bland or expressing beauty for its own sakes’, but always characterful. I liked how, in the second movement, the melodic lines were “sung’ by everyone in a democratic spirit, the differently-voiced impulses, as before, both blending and maintaining their individuality.

Beethoven’s well-known dictum of the idea counting more than its execution often came into play, with the players spiralling their whirling individual and concerted lines in the first movement with tremendous verve, their articulation appropriately vertiginous, more dangerous- than clean-sounding in two or three places.

Then again in the scherzo, the chunkiness of the players’ rhythm contrasted tellingly with the furious pace in the trio sections, the effect properly exhilarating, and giving the music a driven, possessed quality. By contrast, the final variation movement brought from the players both good-humoured interactions (jog-trot and cantering sequences) and solo singing (some duskily attractive viola tones), and a growing physical excitement which overflowed from the bubbling textures and raced the music to a nicely abrupt ending.

Op. 95 in F Minor, the “Serioso” followed, a work regarded by its composer as “one for connoisseurs…..never to be performed in public”. Though Beethoven presumably meant what he said at the time, modern listeners can readily enjoy the composer’s “experiment” as a precursor of the quartets that were to follow – still, the work remains a tough nut to crack in performance, packing a great deal into a condensed framework.

The NZSQ engaged with the work’s terse, energetic opening on a thrillingly visceral level, without ever suggesting mere virtuosic display – pin-point concerted attack, great explosions of energised tones, trenchant growlings from the lower instruments – all served to throw into relief the discourse’s somewhat anxious and unsettled lyrical episodes. Just as focused, here, and satisfyingly contrasted, was the group’s playing of the slow movement, with its spacious, exploratory fugal episodes, and solemn ‘cello-led processionals to and from sequences of great beauty.

All was peremptorily cast aside by the scherzo’s impatient calls for attention, the composer allowing no let-up of intensity, and the players complying with interest. And my notes record as well the group’s wonderfully organic lurching into the somewhat stricken waltz-theme of the finale, and the feel of those bows biting into the strings throughout those storm-beset scrubbings which erupted from the music’s textures.

Of course, Beethoven trumps all of these things with an almost maniacally-conceived coda, whose on-the-face-of-things incongruity has exercised many a critical mind and pen over the years, and which had here a properly quixotic effect on many listeners. I wondered whether the composer was, consciously or otherwise, simply following the dictum of life being a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect – whatever the case, the NZSQ presented the music’s volte-face with all the gusto and energy that it required.

After a welcome luftpause we all awaited the third of the Op.59 Razumovsky Quartets, with those wonderfully unresolved chordings at the beginning, which the group here recreated as a kind of frozen sound-world of unfulfilled impulses – the stillness made the sudden spark of momentum all the more telling, again, like tragedy turned to comedy, or stasis suddenly galvanised as pure energy, underlined by the players’ full-bodied but sharp-edged responses to the music.

The sheer exuberance of the Allegro Vivace of this movement fully vindicated another aspect of the Quartet’s performances which I’ve appreciated so much over the years, the physical choreography of having three of the quartet players standing while playing (except, of course, the ‘cellist, though he rarely sits perfectly still, having to cover a good deal of physical instrumental “ground”). Being able to express the music with one’s whole body (in a sense, “making the Word Flesh”, so to speak) must have some effect upon the sound that body produces. And, for me, the visual effect is that the music is choreographed in an abstracted but still meaningful and relevant way, almost another form of reading music, if you like (perhaps that’s why, being a non-scorereader, I like it so much).

Lovely pizzicato notes from the ‘cello began the slow movement, helping project the sombre mood, one which the composer so engagingly drew back to allow the sunlight in for those few measures of major-key relief. And though the ‘cello took us by the hand and gently returned us to those darker realms once again, the memory of the sunlight kept returning, one which the solo violin stretched towards so eloquently – and oh! – those encircling pizzicato notes from the ‘cello, which kept the music on its orbit, despite the occasional irruption, so soft and inwardly resonant!

An “old-fashioned” Minuet charmed us with its grace and elegance, though the players then seemed to relish all the more the Trio’s angular fanfares with their off-the-beat accents. With the dance ended, the ‘cello took the lead in the direction of what appeared at first to be a twilight zone, but whose unsmiling mask couldn’t hold in check for more than a few measures such a joyous eruption of energy and movement as to sweep away all previous darkness and trouble.

It was a finale in which we heard “laughter holding both his sides” as a manifestation of creative heroism, the players lining up with the composer in pushing themselves to the edges of abandonment with the proverbial skin-and-hair flying, and we in the audience right on the edges of our seats. And that was, finally, the pudding’s proof – that we were all bundled up and transported by the same energy-source as were these musicians into realms of delight and awareness of the importance of certain things.

So – something special and memorable, here, its essence worth trying to convey in words, however much this writer is conscious of falling short of doing. But as much as I can imagine any composer’s spirit being caught in performance, this was a concert of music-making which, in its potent mix of skilful execution and vivid characterisation, for me did just that.









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