Lazarus String Quartet tackles the classics

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts
Lazarus String Quartet

Violins :  Emma Yoon / Julianne Song
Viola :  Lindsay McLay / Cello :  Alice Gott

Haydn Quartet in C, Opus 20 no.2
Beethoven Quartet in G, Opus 18 No.2
Brahms Quartet in C minor, Opus 51, No.1

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 22 September 2013.

This talented ensemble was formed in 2009 and comprises graduates of the University of Canterbury. They currently hold the Yehudi Menuhin ‘Live Music Now’ Scholarship in Hannover, Germany, where they are all studying at the Hochschule for Musik.

They offered an attractive programme of works by three giants of the string quartet repertoire – Haydn, being known as “the father of the string quartet”; his former pupil Beethoven; and Brahms. And this group presented it with rich musicianship, passion, and impressive technical mastery. Unfortunately, however, they had not come to grips with the acoustics at St.Andrews, which are now so much brighter and less sympathetic to chamber music since the recent alterations. The forte dynamics were consistently “overplayed” to the point of harshness, particularly in the upper register of the lead violin, and the tempi adopted for fast movements were often so hectic as to obscure the melodic brilliance of the composers’ lines. The technical tour de force unfortunately backfired to the detriment of all three works.

The Haydn work launched into a very polished opening which immediately announced that this student ensemble is clearly set on the road to professional status. Haydn’s marking is Moderato for this movement, but when played Allegro by the group, the clarity of the decorative passagework was smudged by the lively acoustic of the space. Likewise the Allegro fugue of the finale, a gem of its type, suffered for being played Presto. That said, the Capriccio and Menuetto central movements offered some beautiful and sensitive passages that revealed the players’ true musicianship, expressed in a wide dynamic range. The expressive pianissimi were quite breathtaking in their contrast with the strong octave passages that characterize the writing.

The Beethoven is an early work, but none the less challenging for its apparently straightforward style. The opening Allegro was again played Presto, so that the beautiful decorative elements in the opening theme lost the clear enunciation they need. The Allegro finale was beautifully introduced by the cellist, but the bright melodic writing that builds with such excitement to the close became increasingly scrambled by the speed and acoustics the space. This group needed to find the balance between expressing the vitality and exhilaration of this work, and stepping across the line into a hectic mode that actually robbed it of its youthful brilliance. In a nutshell, it is not “late Beethoven” and does not deserve to sound like it. The beautifully delicate reading of the Adagio cantabile showed the ensemble at its very best – they let the music speak with its own voice to wonderfully musical effect, and that is all they needed to do in the fast movements too.

The style of the Brahms’ quartet is somewhat better accommodated to St. Andrew’s acoustics. The opening Allegro features piano sections which were beautifully realized, interspersed amongst fortissimo episodes where the dynamic was still seriously overplayed. The following Romanze benefitted from a much more sensitive interpretation, as did the Allegretto where there was a good dynamic range, yet one which sat very comfortably within Brahms’ comodo marking. The turbulent mood of the final Allegro was attacked with great ferocity, but this was exaggerated to a point that threatened its commanding majesty.

This hugely talented ensemble simply needs to have sufficient confidence in their obvious technical and musical abilities to let the music of these great composers speak for itself. When they were able to do so, most obviously in the slow movements, the effect was profound. The cellist played a key role at these times, where her soaring silken tone and melodic grace set her apart. The members of Lazarus Quartet showed passion, commitment and great technical prowess, as well an obvious delight in their craft. This they projected to the good sized audience at St.Andrew’s, whose enthusiastic applause amply showed how appreciative they were. I believe the ensemble has a great future ahead of it, and I hope they continue to return to New Zealand and share their gifts with us.

This was the fifth of six Sunday Concerts presented this year by Wellington Chamber Music. They offer an impressive lineup of ensembles including pianists and string players, in various combinations. Despite the concert series banner which depicts a horn, there is sadly no wind or brass ensemble nor any vocal element in the series. Given New Zealand’s enormous talent in all these areas this is a strange and unfortunate omission, but hopefully one which will be remedied in future programmes of this series.

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