Beethoven and the New Zealand String Quartet – shifting the paradigm

New Zealand String Quartet: 25th Anniversary Concerts

Beethoven Quartets Op.127, Op.135 and Op.132

Helene Pohl / Douglas Beilman (violins)

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

St Mary of the Angels, Wellington

Friday 7 September, 2012

Guest reviewer: Antony Brewer

I have been attending New Zealand String Quartet concerts since the early days and while I am suspicious of saying such things, just now it feels as if this may have been the most wonderful of all. I have heard these superb musicians playing the most technically demanding works with style, fire and finesse. This evening, however, was as befits the music, on another plane altogether.

As Beethoven’s deafness isolated him, it seems he listened more and more to his inner voices and paid correspondingly less attention to the expectations of the outside world. One will never know whether his internal processes were uniquely original in terms of form, harmony and texture and he beat them into some acceptable form, or if the deafness simply accelerated an already maturing originality.

Beethoven was known to have said to the violinist Shuppanzigh, “What do I care about your violin?” when the hapless musician begged the composer to simplify some of the parts for his instrument. Certainly, the technical demands upon the players are enormous. One has only to observe the sheer effort of concentration, the split-second timing required and the sheer mechanical skill required playing this music. And this is before the interpretive issues are addressed and they must surely be among the thorniest in the repertoire. This is a mysterious factor in play: how do four musicians assimilate the vast spiritual and emotional forces at work here?

The great pianist Artur Schnabel is known to have said that “I am only attracted to music which is greater than it can be played”. One thinks of these quartets instantly as fulfilling this requirement. No matter how wonderfully traversed, the map, as Alfred Korzybski once observed, is not the territory.

A short note about introductions. I thoroughly enjoy them. They bring me into the music and the musicians’ passion and respect for it. I find the informality adding greatly to my pleasure and hope the quartet will continue this approach in the future.

And the maturity of the quartet is quite startling. Do they feel any real nervousness? As it seems, they come onto the platform as if striding into an adventure, a profound journey which they are about to take with us, the audience.

A further mystery is for this group to have such familiarity which each other, to sense the others’ direction and subtle inflections of tempo and phrasing while seeming to lose no aspect of their individual musicianship. I find their standing to play brings forward the full expressiveness of body language and while Rolf Gjelsten sits, he is almost dancing forward on his tiptoes to join the others, shaping the music with every part of his body. I particularly enjoyed watching his smiling joy in the music.

Gillian Ansell, that nonpareil among violists, always brought out the singing and speaking voices in Beethoven’s writing, relishing every one of the numerous gifts traced into these scores

Doug Beilman is also a highly expressive artist and a perfect complement to Helene Pohl, the first violin. He addressed his violin as though it were a sentient being somehow organically connected to him and  is a powerhouse of technique and passion for the music with the ability of the truly gifted to anchor and participate at the same time, allowing his violin partner to soar into the ether as her spirit takes her.

Helene Pohl’s sense of “innigkeit” and subtle beauty of phrasing was deeply moving for me. She is an intensely musical artist able to provide the most delicate shadings of tone and shaping to the music. Dynamics and transitions between sections within movements were managed as if the works were growing before our very ears.

As a programme this worked extremely well: Op.127 is a massive work as is the Op.132. Placing the somewhat lighter, almost divertimento-like Op.135 in between acted as a slightly astringent sorbet, exciting as well as cleansing the palate. The “Heilger Dankgesang”of Op.132 was among the profound musical experiences of my life. The final five minutes of this had me feeling as if I were on another planet. Exquisite.

After many years of knowing this music I found that my understanding of it underwent a paradigm-shift under the influence of these musicians’ profound insights. One can remain sure that these interpretations will not be cast in stone and will continue to develop, fine as they are already.