New Zealand String Quartet plays Britten along with kindred spirits

Bravo! Britten

Purcell: Fantasias nos. 8 and 11;
Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D.703
Britten: String Quartet no.3 Op.94
Ravel: String Quartet in F

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Saturday, 14 September 2013, 7pm

In a recent review I commented on the effect of concerts starting at 7pm on those of us who live out of town.  While I can see a justification, if an early start on a weekday persuades patrons to stay in town after work and go to the concert, I can’t see that justification applying to a Saturday.

This concert was the second in a series of two, transferred from St. Mary of the Angels due to earthquake strengthening work going on there.  Certainly the Hunter Council Chamber is both a more comfortable and a more chamber-like venue, but
while well-filled, it was not full.  Was the hour anything to do with this?

While I’m on gripes, I have to comment on the printed programme.  The excellent programme notes by Joy Aberdein were almost impossible to read in the low lighting provided even before the concert and in the interval, let alone the pseudo-candlelight illumination during the playing.  I appreciate the atmosphere the quartet were trying to create; the blame is on the designer of the programme.  There seems to be an idea around that serifs on letters are old-fashioned, unnecessary decorations.  This is not the case.  Tests, and experienced desk-top publishers, have found that the serifs carry the eye forward to read whole words, whereas sans-serif tends to cut the words up into individual letters.  Here was a sans-serif typeface and very pale printing, which could not be read in the lighting provided.  It was interspersed with quotations from the players, in bold, which could be read. Designers need to bear in mind that the majority of the members of the audience for this type of concert are over 55, and simply need more light, and more ink, to read what someone has put time and thought into preparing.  Practicality before design, please!

Gripes done with, I have to say it was delightful to be again at a concert from our own string quartet.  Their intelligent, thoughtful spoken introductions are a fine way to preface each work (especially when you can’t read the programme notes!), and their playing is always sensitive, lively, and passionate as required.

The Purcell Fantasias reflected Britten’s love and admiration for the 17th century composer, and his feeling that the earlier composer was a kindred spirit. The instruments were played without vibrato, in the style of the period.  The music contained scrumptious dissonances and suspensions.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz represented another composer loved by Benjamin Britten.  In her introductory remarks Gillian Ansell pointed to the melancholy that lay behind the Viennese gaiety of this and many of Schubert’s compositions.

Its two movements (allegro assai and an incomplete andante) are full of melody, but there are also stormy passages.  This was delicious playing, with fine phrasing.  The music was performed sensitively, and was full of nuances; the lilting loveliness was exploited to the full, as were the ‘Moments of sudden rage, lightning strikes, resignation and bittersweet pathos’, to quote Gillian Ansell’s printed words.

Britten’s third string quartet was his last work in the genre, and he was ill when he wrote it.  He was in Venice when completing it, and had two years previously produced his last opera, based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; the quartet quotes from that work.  His feeling of kinship with Aschenbach, the hero of the novel, makes the work autobiographical.  The preface from Rolf Gjelsten gave us examples of the extraordinary textures the composer employed.

A Shostakovich-like opening of the first movement, Duets: with moderate movement, was melancholy and solemn, with discords, much rhythmic variety, and an inconclusive ending, while the Ostinato: very fast second was driving and angular, and made telling use of pizzicato.  The Solo: very calm – lively third movement incorporated contemplation and questioning, with slow phrases for the lower strings behind a sombre, even desolate high-pitched solo from Helene Pohl.

There were interesting technical effects from the other parts: glissandi, pizzicato, harmonics, playing across the bridge (on the viola) in the rapid, and perhaps ironic,  fourth movement: Burlesque: fast.  These effects were not gratuitous, but fitted
into the aesthetic of the movement perfectly, contrasting with grand chords.  The whole movement was delirious and robust, and included an excited fugue.

The final movement, the longest, was entitled Recitative and passacaglia [La serenissima]: slow.  It began with harmonics on the second violin and tremolo notes, with a melody from the cello.  The dirge-like passacaglia was set against an
feeling of continuing life, yet also of finality; here was sombre profundity.  The low repeated notes apparently represented the bells of Venice.

The whole movement was a slow, serene and at times mournful transformation compared with the movement that preceded it.  A difficult movement, it did expose a few notes out of place.  However, throughout the work there was great clarity of textures.  The work ended on a despondent note.  Britten said “I want the work to end with a question.”

Ravel’s only quartet is quite often played, but it was wonderful to hear it in this relatively intimate space, which provides clear yet rich sound (despite the carpet).  The Quartet committed this work to disk a number of years ago (Atoll ACD 399).  I have the recording and know it quite well, but this performance brought the music alive, literally and figuratively.

Its first movement (allegro moderato – très doux) opens with a beautiful tune, vaguely pastoral in character, the writing beautifully spare The second subject played in unison, octaves apart, gave an other-worldly feel.  The section before the later repeat of the theme during the development features a gorgeous viola passage.

The second movement, assez vif – très rhythmé, brings pizzicato to the fore, and over it, haunting melodies weave in and out. Pizzicato triumphs in the end, with a loud exclamation mark.

The third movement, très lent, has a spooky opening leading to calm, gentle and languid passages.  This movement also features haunting, even doleful phrases, and much of it is played using mutes.  Lyrical, with pastoral themes, it is full of
surprises, including echoes of themes from previous movements. The vif et agité finale is something completely different.  It begins in energetic, even angry mood, but repeats the theme from the opening movement, and plays with it lightly in new ways, until a robust, almost Shostakovian ending.

It was a thoroughly satisfying and accomplished performance, as indeed was the entire concert.


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