American string quartet plus German pianist deliver eclectic programme of great accomplishment

ENSO String Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcos – violins, Stephanie Fang – viola, Richard Belcher – cello) with Michael Endres (piano)

Boccherini: String quartet in G minor, Op 32 No 5; Ginastera: Quartet No 1, Op 20; Gillian Whitehead: No stars, not even clouds; Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A, Op 81

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 25 October, 7.30pm

Though there was no written mention of it in the programme, the photo on the cover and that inside revealed a change of violist. On the cover the figure was, one assumed, of Melissa Reardon, named in the season brochure, while inside it was one who had to be identified as Stephanie Fong, named in the programme. A change had clearly happened between the time of the initial contract and the quartet’s arrival in New Zealand. While the cellist comes from Christchurch and may be assumed to be one of the reasons for their coming to New Zealand, the rest of the quartet are Americans whom the season brochure called an ‘exciting young ensemble’.

One doesn’t hear a lot of Boccherini’s music; is it because there’s still a tendency to think that audiences will not tolerate anything but the Quintet, often played in the arrangement for guitar, which features the Ritirata di Madrid, or the E major quartet with the famous Minuet? Yet musicologists assure us that the other hundreds of quartets, quintets and sonatas as well as scores of concertos and symphonies, are being unfairly concealed from us.

At last the famine was broken here with a very attractive string quartet, leaving only around a hundred others to be discovered. A quartet in G minor from Opus 32, written around 1780, it proved very much worth the journey, opening with a gentle insouciance, seeming to promise twenty minutes of charm and musical inventiveness.

As was normal with quartets of the period, the first violin boldly took the top line of the tunes, though it was not hard to hear rather interesting things happening in the other parts. In particular, the cello part was given attention (Boccherini was a distinguished cellist), and both second violin and viola took the melody or echoes of it from time to time.

If one expected to hear a replica of the famous, enchanting minuet, not this one; it was marked ‘con moto’ and it was that. Dotted rhythms, vigour: hardly the music that would have engendered the sneering soubriquet ‘Haydn’s Wife’, which was coined to describe the character of Boccherini’s music. The Trio section, in contrast, enjoyed a swaying, melodiousness, not the least sentimental; each instrument could be heard making quite striking contributions. The viola’s role (how quickly she has acquired the spirit of the ensemble!) particularly caught my ear in the Finale, though it was the first violin that relished the sparkling cadenza, perhaps not a usual feature in chamber music, but where are the rules defining what you can put in your own composition?

The quartet asserted its identity which might be elusive if you were presented with the task of identifying it blindfold, but it was clearly distinct from the recognisable finger-prints of Haydn or Mozart, and in which the players demonstrated total assurance.

Big contrast with the following piece: Ginastera, none of whose quartets I’d heard. My first problem in the first movement was defining the rhythm. One of the exercises one engages in with recent (any?) music that is cast in complicated rhythms is to identify patterns, but here I repeatedly lost count; a look at the score might help…. Ginastera might have made use of the folk music of his country but he has subjected it to heavy disguise and, like Bartók, has tended to strip it of anything that might be heard as sentimental or heart-warming; it was no less absorbing however.

The second movement, though fast, was quite subdued, embellished with a lot of edgy techniques, pizzicato and spiccato; the third movement opened with drone-like sounds from viola and cello followed by the first violin playing high, widely-spaced notes somewhat ghostly in character. It ended with an uneasy pianissimo passage from all four players. The last movement suggested the Balkans as much as the Pampas, lively peasant dances in hard-to-define rhythm, pizzicato that might have mimicked the guitar, all demanding playing of considerable virtuosity, which the players met with room to spare.

The players had agreed to tackle a newly commissioned New Zealand piece written for them by Gillian Whitehead. The composer’s note describes its elegiac origin, its name coming from a short story by Juanita Katchel who died during its composition. It opened in a spirit of self-confidence, the first violin singing over a murmuring accompaniment by the others; a series of new ideas flowed till the viola took charge in a quietly assertive manner, laying down a beautiful landscape (or mind-scape), that became agitated, almost frenzied before a sudden change of mood. I had the feeling that roles were attached to the various instruments and that the programme note might have been made more specific; but such specifics might have been a loss for the listener who was otherwise free to speculate, to dream.

However, the players seemed to have penetrated its spirit very successfully, finding a vein of music throughout its course that created a satisfying musical structure.

Michael Endres joined the quartet for the Dvořák piano quintet, a masterpiece and one of the all-time favourites of the chamber music repertory.

I was moved by the rapport that seemed to exist between pianist and quartet, at this, their first public performance together. The piano and then the cello opened in the most gorgeous pianissimo introduction creating a warm romantic spirit; and as the Allegro itself took off the viola played the big main theme and the movement continued, revealing translucent strings that matched the delicacy of the piano.  The Dumka, second movement, filled me, as usual, with delight at Dvořák’s melodic fecundity, elegiac in tone, which was illuminated by the ease and fluency of the playing; it also caught the surprising energy of the middle section.

Throughout, the performance was fast and accurate, limpid and varied in colour and rhythm, the sudden changes of tempo and mood handled as if the players were improvising them as they went along.

When faced with beautiful music being played with a certain conviction, with great spirit, I tend to be oblivious to minor flaws. I do not mean to suggest that there were things here that I failed to hear but which deserved to be reprimanded; only to record that both the music and the playing were so heartfelt and of one mind, that I was simply in no mood to look out for shortcomings.

That applied to the entire concert in which these players succeeded altogether in penetrating to the heart of all four works in the programme.

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