Beethoven: the late string quartets from the New Zealand String Quartet
String Quartets: No 13 in B flat, Op 130 (with the Grosse Fuge as its finale); and No 14 in C Sharp minor, Op 131
Church of St Mary of the Angels
Saturday 8 September, 6.30pm
This concert brought to an end what might well be considered a pinnacle in the career of the New Zealand String Quartet. The quartet’s earlier achievements have been distinguished enough, with their complete cycle of Bartók’s quartets and the Naxos recordings of the complete quartets of Mendelssohn. And it has had an important role in enhancing New Zealand’s reputation as a country that places high value on the arts and music through tours every year in North America and very widely in Europe, not to mention the important contribution to music in New Zealand, for example through the biennial Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, guided by quartet members.
Beethoven’s late quartets fall into two groups. Prince Galitzin had first asked for ‘at least’ three quartets and Beethoven delivered the first three (Opp 127, 130 and 132; Op 132 came before Op 130 in its completion) in 1825 and early 1826. He then continued to complete the two further quartets: Opp 131 and 135, and then in response to his publisher’s urging, he wrote the alternative finale for Op 130, and left the replaced Great Fugue as Op 133.
The New Zealand String Quartet decided here to follow a growing trend worldwide, to put the Great Fugue back in its place as the last movement of the wonderful B flat quartet, Op 130.
I should first remark on the visual beauties of the church, many candelabra and the massive columns supporting the arches around the sanctuary lit from below; the players in spotlights with just enough light for the audience to look at the names of movements. The two men wore standard black while the two women wore most elegant floor-length skirts of shimmery black and grey.
Now the music.
This quartet does not produce a sound that became familiar in the earlier part of last century; dark and burnished, evoking a religious feeling that might have been appropriate in this setting. Their sound is warm enough, particularly Douglas Beilman’s violin and Gillian Ansell’s viola, but what this quartet’s instincts veer towards are the sounds that have given them such authenticity in Bartók and Ravel and, I think, Mendelssohn.
The last quartets, at least the three that depart markedly from the conventional four-movement shape, continue to be quoted by today’s avant-garde composers to support a defence of very general non-acceptance by claiming that Beethoven in these works had far outrun his audiences and that they were not understood for many decades. That is not true: apart from some formal misgivings and the sort of discussion that still takes place about the way the bits relate to each other, they were played at once and widely appreciated. The famous French commentator, Joseph de Marliave, for example, writes: “Certainly there was recognised here extraordinary beauty but marred by blemishes and passages of inexplicable obscurity. One gains the impression of admiration mixed with an uneasy, even awestruck astonishment.”
Accessibility certainly poses no problem in this, Op 130 (nor of course in any of them), and its six distinct movements make the relationships between and within movements easy enough to follow; the mood generally is sanguine and even touched with gaiety, though infusing its melodiousness with a sort of luminous spirituality. I smiled at the remark about the banality of the Presto, second movement, in Rolf Gjelsten’s programme note (I wonder how he feels about the Presto in Op 131); I can see how this might arise, but it’s a mistake to hear a moment – and it’s very short – of esprit, a flash of self-mockery, as a flawed passage. Happily, its role was perfectly captured by the quartet’s performance, as it follows the multitudinous emotional experience of the first movement, offering us a uncomplicated pause to prepare for the beauty of the not-so-slow, Andante movement which seems to hesitate occasionally between contentment and grief.
There was a charming curve to the rhythmic shape of the beguiling, barcarolle-like melody of the Alla danza tedesca that lent special appeal.
Listening to the Cavatina never fails to touch the emotions strangely, more with its sheer beauty than through the expression of the composer’s pain, and this performance conveyed it in the form of acceptance and peace.
I have become more used to this movement being followed by the Great Fugue in certain recordings, and its size, weight and determination now seem indispensable in providing emotional balance to a work that might otherwise be heard as being somewhat dominated by a lightness of spirit. And this was a superb, unrelenting, though wonderfully varied, performance, making the quartet’s entire three-quarter hour length not a minute too long.
The C sharp minor quartet is considered by many the greatest of them all; Beethoven himself apparently did. It presents a more obscure form to a new listener because its seven movements are played without a break, so it is useful to follow it with a score on first hearing.
If profundity is rather the same as an expression of deep feeling, rapture, grief, playfulness, here is the quartet that qualifies. The fugue that opens the first movement has a very different character from that which ended Op 130. Its tonality never seems to settle and fresh, evolving ideas arise. The programme note here, and most that one reads are of little real help in the absence of the score. Failing that, only careful repeated listenings will lead to enlightenment, of committing its main features to memory.
The impression of the quartet is rather that of a fantasia whose shape is determined by impulse, but which has no less or weaker artistic integrity for that.
The heart of the quartet is movement 4, Andante, an extended set of variations, based on a melody of melting beauty, and containing passages that often drew attention to individual episodes such as the rapturous dialogue between Helene Pohl’s violin and Rolf Gjelsten’s cello in the Piu mosso variation. Its very length, about 15 minutes, is itself a marvel in terms of its overwhelming hypnotic force.
The task of investing the movement with musical coherence, as well as creating an emotional landscape that will take hold of the emotions, even of the spirit, is the greatest challenge of a performance. Did the New Zealand String Quartet quite succeed in sustaining me, you, through this journey? I’m not sure; even with the help of the atmosphere of the church, the lighting, the sense of occasion, my attention drifted occasionally, yet their playing was of a very high order in expressiveness, richness of tone, of subtle dynamic and rhythmic variety.
But responses to music are very personal, and it is usually much more useful to admire the outward characteristics of a performance which here comprised unity and balance, the beautiful individual performances that often reveal striking personal insights, and the sustained feeling for the architecture of each quartet.
Much of the series, under three different promoters has been heard in the main centres as well as certain provincial cities; the Beethoven cycle was the most fitting way for the quartet to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and will have been one of the year’s absolute highlights wherever it was heard.