Old and new, far and near, from the New Zealand String Quartet

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Brahms: String quartet in A minor Op.51 no.2 (allegro non troppo; andante moderato; quasi minuetto, moderato – allegretto vivace; finale – allegro non assai – piu vivace)

Ross Harris: String quartet no.5 (Songs from Childhood)

Dvořák: String quartet no.12 in F, Op.96 ‘The American’ (allegro ma non troppo; lento; molto vivace; vivace ma non troppo)

New Zealand String Quartet

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 23 June 2013

It was good to see ‘our own’ quartet back in the Sunday afternoon series, after an absence of several years.  Particularly, it was pleasing to see that Helene Pohl was able to play with all the fingers of her left hand, having now fully recovered from her accident in February.

As usual, members of the Quartet introduced the items in an informative manner, illustrating themes and passages on their instruments, especially prior to the opening work.  The thought emerged that perhaps Brahms’s self-criticism that caused the destruction of many of his works may not be something to be deplored; the sublime music of this quartet (one of the NZSQ’s favourites, said Rolf Gjelsten) is beyond compare, and something to be treasured.

Although Romantic, this quartet is not pure romanticism.  There is much attention to form and structure.  The long first movement is full of various shades of emotion and thought, sunny and serious by turns.

The slow movement is rich and sombre, with a wistful lilt.  As the programme note had it, it is like “a quiet conversation between the four instruments.”  This was particularly the case in its third section.  The third movement is very lyrical as well as dance-like, featuring both slow and fast dances.  Its long lines kept the music moving forward.

The finale was in great contrast to the earlier movements.  Despite its energy, it didn’t have as much to say as the earlier ones.  The entire work was played with flair and sensitivity.

Again, some explanation before the next item, this time from its composer, Ross Harris.  He questioned whether we remember childhood, or is it something we make up as memory?

He warned us that the players were not playing out of tune – the work commenced with some playing micro-tuned notes, against harmonics.  Later, a tui melody emerged, that developed into a canon.  Sometimes each instrument was doing different things from its fellows.  There was considerable use of the ponticello technique (bowing close to, or on the bridge; pont=bridge).  The music became somewhat frantic towards the end, and while much of the time it was true that ‘The use of continually shifting metre and micro-tuning imbue the work with a dreamlike floating quality, both fragile and illusive [elusive?]” as the composer’s programme note had it, it was not all like this – some passages were chunky, although others were ghostly, with little fragments of harmonics interspersed with pizzicato.

It was an intriguing work, one I would wish to hear again, to fully appreciate.  I heard generally appreciative comments afterwards.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet is one of my favourite works.  As the programme note said, “There is a sense of joy…”; I find this with all this composer’s music.  Even where, in the second movement, there is a sense of yearning for his home country, it is not an anxious or angry yearning.

The interweaving of the parts, especially in the passages of the first movement using the pentatonic scale – beginning with the beautiful opening on viola – was wonderful to hear.  The movement was played with fervour and empathy, and more dynamic contrast than I have sometimes heard in this work.

The slow movement was magically lovely, while the third, employing bird song (vide the Ross Harris work) was most enjoyable.  The finale also made use of the pentatonic scale.  It was thoughtful and melodic, but spirited to the end.

A new work, and two of the most brilliant from the late Romantic era made up a gorgeous programme, played with the intelligence, sublime finesse, perfect balance, and the musicality that we have come to expect from Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.


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