Homage to Britten from the Aroha Quartet


with CATHERINE McKAY (piano)

BEETHOVEN – String Quartet in B-flat Op.18 No.6

BRITTEN – String Quartet No.3 Op.94

SCHUMANN – Piano Quintet in E-flat Op.44

Aroha Quartet: – Haihong Liu, Blythe Press (violins), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (‘cello)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 21st April, 2013

For some reason I hadn’t really registered before this concert just how big a space at St.Andrew’s Church a small ensemble has to fill with sound, both behind the musicians and above them. It seemed to my ears when the Aroha Quartet began their Beethoven which opened the concert that everything was set back, as opposed to “being in one’s face”, and that the instrumental timbres were more than usually “terraced’. Once my ears got used to this, I enjoyed the extra spaciousness of it all, even if some of the solo lines sounded a bit removed, and some of the ambiences in the more rapid concerted passages were as rushing winds, having a slightly disembodied effect.

Probably the reason my ears were receiving these sounds in this way was that I had been listening to some chamber-music recordings that morning which had been given the “full-blooded” treatment, the instruments closely recorded, and with what sounded like plenty of reverberation – all a little too much, in my opinion, as if the ensemble (the Amadeus Quartet, recorded by Decca) had swelled into chamber-orchestra proportions in certain places.

Once my listening-palette had been re-aligned, I was able to appreciate the lean, lithe and joyously physical energies of the performance of the Beethoven work. These players always generate plenty of  élan in such music, and this quartet’s first movement positively bristled in places. Though intonation wasn’t absolutely perfect, the spirit of the composer leapt at us from the notes. In the second movement I loved the different voicing from first and second violins, the first silvery, the other golden-toned, both displaying heart-warming teamwork. What beautifully-tailored dynamics throughout the hushed central part of the movement – those awed, withdrawn tones! – and what light-as-feather playing throughout the lead back to the opening’s reprise!

I enjoyed the players’ joie de vivre in the scherzo, the syncopations encouraging wonderful stresses and parallel energies. The trio carried the momentums onwards, with the violin skipping among the notes out at a great rate and galvanizing the ensemble’s return to the mainstream. The finale’s introduction, “La malinconia” brought down upon the sound-world a properly sobering and despondent air before swinging into an elegant round-dance, the quartet rounding off the music’s curves with relish. We got the merest foretaste of the “Muss es Sein” of Op.135 with an exploratory interlude, before the players adroitly steered the lines back to the rounds, slowing things romantically and wistfully, before exploding with exuberance and drive over the last few bars – great stuff!

How often does one get to enjoy a Britten String Quartet live? – and if not this year, will there ever be more chances? We’re in debt to the Quartet for not only playing the work at all (à la Dr.Johnson and his “dog on its hind legs” analogy) but for giving it such a cracking performance. Here, it was nicely prepared before a note was played, with ‘cellist Robert Ibell telling us about, among other things, the links between the work and the composer’s opera “Death in Venice”. The work, cast in five movements, opened with a sequence called “Duets” reflecting the writing in pairs of instruments throughout, often haunting, ambient-toned writing creating plenty of “atmosphere” through resonating, overlapping tones, and undulating lines.

The second “Ostinato” movement had a more abrupt, machine-like character, derived from definite, energetic movements – at one point an evocative “road music” sequence forwarded the argument through unfamiliar territories, until skittering cross-rhythms from the violins contrived to bring things to a stuttering stop. Then, the succeeding movement “Solo” featured a gently-singing violin counterpointed delicately by the other instruments. Beautiful soaring lines suggested in places the violin itself in ecstasy, underpinned by atmospheric pizzicato and glissandi from the other instruments, giving a haunting kind of Aeolian Harp effect. After this, what a contrast with the earthy, vigorous “Burlesque”! – its angular effect was readily captured and confidently delivered by the players, the music in places reminiscent of the more quirky parts of the ballet “The Prince of the Pagodas”.

Britten concluded the work with a Recitative and Passacaglia, the instruments in the introductory measures quoting themes from “Death in Venice”. We heard spare, stepwise pizzicati and oscillating violin lines leading to an eloquent ‘cello solo, and thence to strangely compelling twilight-world explorations culminating in the instrumental unison “I love you” cry of the opera’s central character Aschenbach. The players then took us strongly and surely on the passacaglia’s journey, during which the ensemble seemed to me to glow increasingly with lyrical fire, as the music developed thematic material from the Recitative over a ground bass. I felt we were being presented with a world of creative sensibility which here seemed to gradually drain away with the sounds, as if it was all part of the natural order of things.

Still more treasure came with the performance of Schumann’s well-known Piano Quintet after the interval, for which the Quartet was joined by pianist Catherine McKay. I had previously heard her perform both a concerto and some chamber music with other ensembles, finding her always a positive and responsive player. Here, I wondered whether the piano was too recessed in relation to the quartet, whose members seemed “bunched together” right in front – irrespective of the sound quality, the visual effect was of a supporting instrument rather than an equal player, the latter needing to be the case in this work.

Pianos can certainly be awkward things to set among ensembles, and the situation varies from venue to venue – I would have thought a slightly more antiphonal arrangement feasible, either with the piano to the left and turned slightly backward, which would have instigated a kind of half-circle that the quartet-members could have completed, or with the quartet slightly “parted’ in the middle and the piano brought slightly forward, and “into the loop”. Further forward on the St.Andrew’s platform, such an arrangement would have been possible.

Either layout would, I think, have better integrated the sound, and possibly the performance. My ears occasionally imagined a kind of “delayed” interaction between piano and strings in some of the exchanges – this was especially noticeable in both middle movements in places. During the second movement’s central agitations, when the gothic mystery and drama of the ambience is suddenly hurled to one side, and the piano takes the lead with a number of accented entries to which the strings respond, I wanted more incisiveness from the piano, and more “schwung” in the cross-talk between the players. The same went for the roller-coaster flourishes in the third movement (Mendelssohn could have written the piano part in places!) – they were excitingly played as such, but I wanted more piano, more presence and bite given to the syncopations!

With more even balances, the performance would have, I though, really taken wing, as there were so many felicities in any case – though the first movement was more tightly-conceived in general than my excessive romantic sensibilities usually crave, I thought the players still gave plenty of heartfelt voice to the composer’s uniquely poetic outpourings. There was sensitive duetting between violin and ‘cello and some lovely, yielding, liquid tones from the piano, contrasting nicely with those swirling undercurrents of the more agitated sections. And the slow movement’s somewhat sinister footfalls made both the lyrical yearnings and the irruptions of the middle section all the more telling.

Both muscularity and delicacy were made ours to relish throughout the finale, the strings digging into the part-writing with gusto, and the piano incapable of giving us a mechanical or unfeeling phrase – in fact, such were the mid-movement excitements generated that a fire-engine turned up in the street outside to see what was going on! I especially liked how the ensemble’s full-blooded playing made the composer’s rather engagingly gauche way of reintroducing the opening theme of the Quintet work so well at the end. Despite my few reservations regarding the balances, full credit to the musicians for giving us an experience which for me underlined what live music-making is all about.














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