Quintessential chamber music – the Aroha Quartet and Andrew Joyce

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:


and ANDREW JOYCE (‘cello)

Aroha Quartet:

Haihong Liu / Blythe Press (violins)

Zhongxian Jin (viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

with Andrew Joyce (‘cello)

HAYDN – String Quartet in B-flat Op.76 No.4 (“Sunrise”)

TORNYAI – Streichquintett (2010)

SCHUBERT – String Quintet in C, D.956

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Sunday 30th September 2012

I like to think I’ve long gone past the days when I would regard work x, y or z as my “favorite” symphony, concerto, sonata or whatever. Now,  whenever I’m asked about my “favorite” whatever-it-is, I go into a “gripped by bewilderment” state, born largely of the sheer range and scope of the repertoire. I admit I take refuge sometimes behind the rather glib reply that it’s either the last work I heard performed, or else the next one I’m GOING to hear.

But if I was honest I would confess that, secretly, there’s a list of “desert island” works stashed away in my recesses, which I’d have recourse to at crisis-points. And, ever since I first encountered the music on a recording (made half-a-century ago by the Amadeus Quartet and ‘cellist William Pleeth) I’ve not been able to imagine life without being able to hear at regular intervals Schubert’s astounding String Quintet, written in the last year of his life (1828), and expressing worlds of deep emotion in the face of death.

To be present at a live performance – any decently-played live performance – of such a work as the Schubert could be counted as a privilege of human existence. But to have the music recreated and projected into our listening-spaces with such an irresistible amalgam of verve and deep feeling as the Aroha Quartet and Andrew Joyce so brilliantly did at St.Mark’s in Woburn recently was to be given a treasurable gift which won’t easily be forgotten.

It wasn’t merely the Quintet which gave pleasure in these players’ capable hands – earlier in the concert we had the Aroha Quartet alone playing a work by the acknowledged “father” of the string quartet, Josef Haydn, followed by an intriguing and ear-catching item written for the Quartet in 2010 by a Hungarian composer Péter Tornyai, actually a Quintet written with reference to Schubert’s work for the same instrumental combination (featuring two ‘cellos).

So with a programme that promised a good deal of interest and enjoyment, the players took their places and set off with the Haydn “Sunrise” Quartet (Op.76 No.4), a work named for its very opening, featuring a long-breathed melody from the first violin ascending over a gently-sustained chord played by the other instruments. The opening’s richly mellow tones underlined the poetry of the “sunrise” evocation (evidently a publisher’s, rather than the composer’s, nickname for the work), pointing the contrast with the more earthy energies of the allegro con spirito that followed (and the presence of the repeat was a further joy!).

The performance brought out the development’s minor-key “spookiness” beautifully – some of the agitated figures resulted in an edgy phrase or two from the first violin, struggling to maintain intonation, not altogether inappropriate in such a context. But what a homecoming the players made of the recapitulation, each contributing vibrant solo lines to the argument and relishing the composer’s sometimes playful, sometimes wistful variations of his material.

The group’s wonderfully rapt playing of the Adagio I found uplifting, in contrast to the programme-note’s association of the movement with lack of solace and corresponding despair – the few minor-key phrases at the movements end were for me but momentary shadows cast over a largely peaceful soundscape, in this performance. The sprightly, if somewhat droll-faced Menuetto featured a lovely “drone” from the ‘cello carried over from the dance and into the Trio, the players  beautifully nudging those gently-syncopated rhythms taking time-out from the movement’s more vigorous opening.

The finale features one of those tunes that sounds, throughout the first couple of measures, as though it could equally be by Mozart, though Haydn, as ever, brings his own distinctive quirkiness to the proceedings with lurching grace-notes in places, a more “Hungarian-sounding” minor-key variation, and some wonderfully outlandish acccelerandi towards the end of the movement – the Arohas made the most of it all, to our great delight and tantalizing, edge-of-seat excitement.

Péter Tornyai’s Quintet, brief in duration but concentrated and profound in effect, required players to retune their instruments (a technique called “scordatura”, literally “mis-tuning”, but used by composers to make some fingerings of notation possible or create unconventional timbres). Here the strings were re-tuned harmonically and the players required to use open strings to realize the work. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell spoke beforehand about the work’s affinities with the Schubert Quintet, and the group played a number of exerpts which both introduced us to the composer’s particular sound-world and made motivic connections with the Schubert.

The result in performance was decidedly eerie – I could imagine ambient sounds coming from giant machinery slowly turning, or an “Aeolian” process of wind activating different kinds of structures. The emotional effect for me was one of solitude and near-muted attempts at “connection”, via either speech or musical figuration – both sounds and gestures seemed to inhabit a profoundly refracted, if fascinating world, whose language implied rather than specified things – I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” whose final words always impart some comfort when understanding is hindered  – ” That I could think there trembled through / his happy goodnight air / Some Blessed Hope whereof he knew / and I was unaware….”

After the interval, Andrew Joyce introduced the Schubert, drawing our attention to the unconventional instrumentation – unlike most string quintets which add a second viola to a normal quartet, Schubert instead uses a second ‘cello, darkening and deepening the textures and resonances. Whether it was that Tornyai’s work had sharpened our listening sensibilities, or that these players would have captured our attentions in any context, or both, the sounds had a sharply-honed, arresting quality from the very first note, the harmonic “lurch” near the top of the crescendo almost orchestral in effect. Thereafter, the players kept their accents and phrasings focused and buoyant throughout the exposition (and the repeat!), relying on clean attack and intensity of tone, bringing out the music’s lyricism rather than its disquiet, at this stage.

More trenchant playing came with the development, the violins digging into their dotted figures, while being stalked by the lower strings, the sequence followed by beautiful duetting in thirds from viola and ‘cello, and an equally captivating singing line from the violin. A later reprise of the “stalking” passage for the lower strings here had a “creepiness” about it, perhaps heightened by the violin triplets above, “in flight” as it were, the playing immediate and visceral in effect. Then came the downward plunge at the end of the sequence, relieving us of some anxiety for the moment by returning us, with bated breath, to the exposition, and to “known’ territories.

As with places in the first movement, the great Adagio wasn’t over-milked for emotion at the outset – the players kept things moving, the tones intense but not over-laden or bowed down with grief, giving us the softest pizzicati exchanges imaginable at first, and gradually focusing their “sting” before allowing the hurt to retreat once again. The sudden, shockingly nightmarish irruption mid-movement of agonized agitation had a ragged initial moment which mattered not a whit in context, the raw intensities taking over and raging throughout the middle section. Amid some ebb-and-flow towards the end an uneasy peace was restored, the music looking for solace and comfort, the pizzicati once again making every note, be it gentle or rapier-like, really tell, sweetness mixed with sorrow and resignation – a great achievement by the players.

With the scherzo came terrific attack, the ensemble not always perfect, but,more importantly, the energy and desperation of the opening simply staggering! Those off-beat szforzandi bit hard, and the chromatic slurrings at the end of the sequence made a properly vertiginous effect, as did the sudden lurch into the repeat. All of which the players held fast with the onset of the trio, a veritable “well of the world’s deep sorrow”, its realization here so heartfelt and concentrated as to draw the listener into its essential stillness. No let-up with the reprise of the opening – if anything, the notes flew off the ends of the bows with even more desperation than before.

I loved the great stride of the finale’s opening, here, emphatic gesturing finely judged, and moments of relative repose given their due. There was lovely, skillful work from the first violin, here, plenty of skitterish figuration to integrate into the texture, cheel-by-jowl with the tenderest expression. The ‘cellos duetted songfully, counterpointed by haunting wind-blown figurations from both violins, while the mid-movement canonic passages were delivered with great gusto, by contrast. Only in the brief hiatus before the final gathering of energies did there seem a moment’s uncertainty among the ensemble, an equivocal impulse whose danger was grasped as one by the players and tossed into the desperate exhilaration of the final stampede towards impending destiny, the composer shaking his fist at fate right to the last bar.

A landmark performance? – I think so. I couldn’t really hope to hear a more engaging, more deeply touching, and more understanding reading of this incredible music. Very great honour to the Aroha Quartet and to Andrew Joyce for giving us such a memorable experience.














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