NZ String Quartet – Britten alongside his heroes

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BRAVO! BRITTEN (Programme One)

STRAVINSKY – Concertino for String Quartet (1920)
BRITTEN – String Quartet No.1 in D Op.25
BRIDGE – Idyll No.1 / Pieces Nos 2 and 3
MOZART – String Quartet in B-flat K.589 “Prussian No.2”

The New Zealand String Quartet:
Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 13th September 2013

The New Zealand String Quartet concluded their epic New Zealand Bravo! Britten tour with two Wellington concerts on the weekend, featuring separate programs, of which I was privileged to hear the first one on Friday evening. I feel almost abashed to admit that I would have gone to both concerts had I not been scheduled to attend the opening of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman’ the following evening!

Of course both Britten and Wagner are linked by birth centenaries this present year, give or take a hundred years’ difference. Britten was naturally aware of Wagner as a composer, but drew little from the latter’s work in his own music. Far more influential upon Britten and his creativity were the composers whose music the NZSQ chose to represent in each of their Bravo! Britten concerts this year.

In the first concert, which I heard, the quartet featured music by Stravinsky, Frank Bridge and Mozart, to partner Britten’s First String Quartet. The choices were largely predictable for anybody with an interest in Britten’s music – for example, the accompanying composers for Concert No.2 featured Purcell, Schubert and Ravel. I would have thought either or both Mahler and Shostakovich might have gotten a look in as well, and certainly had there been a third program.

The effect of juxtaposing these influences, at any rate during the first concert, was quite extraordinary – the other composers’ music suggested worlds that were both separate from and linked to Britten’s, and had a cumulative effect on what we heard of his own music. It was a kind of “Show me a person’s world and I will show you that person” kind of phenomenon – and as can happen in real life, some of the similarities were quite uncanny when things were brought together.

The concert began with Stravinsky’s shortish but characterful Concertino for String Quartet. Leader Helene Pohl introduced the work and talked about Britten’s youthful fascination with Stravinsky’s music, quoting the instance when the young Britten arrived on his first day at school to be greeted by the music master with the words, “Ah, this is the boy who likes Stravinsky!” More telling was the playing by the group of two musical exerpts, one from the Stravinsky and the other from the Britten Quartet, demonstrating the uncanny rhythmic similarities of the two fragments.

The Stravinsky piece itself was one of the composer’s relatively spare, neoclassical works, written in 1920 for the Flonzaley Quartet, who wanted to add a piece of contemporary music to their repertoire. The music is, by turns, terse, angular and tightly worked, then whimsical and lyrical – the quartet chose a phrase or two from the driving rhythmic sections that frame the music’s brief lyrical interlude for their composer-comparison. The title Concertino comes from the use of the first violin as a “solo” instrument throughout this lyrical sequence. There’s a brief Andante coda, which the composer directs the performers to play “like a sigh”.

After this came Britten’s First String Quartet, introduced by Douglas Beilman.  This work was written in 1941 in the United States, at the request of a prominent patroness of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and first performed there by the Coolidge Quartet. The quartet actually won Britten an award at that time, a Library of Congress Medal for services to Chamber Music.

Having gotten to know this work only from recordings I was anxious to hear what it sounded like “live”, and I was astonished at how much more varied and detailed the NZSQ’s playing was, compared to the rather more austere performance on record that I had gotten used to.

The opening consisted of lovely, haunting, ethereal lines played Andante sostenuto by the two violins and viola, a theme punctuated by recitative-like arpeggiated pizzicati notes from the ‘cello, and strongly contrasted with an explosive driving allegro vivo sequence, before the ethereal ambiences of the opening return, again with the violins and viola underpinned by ‘cello pizzicati.

A more subdued version of the allegro vivo included some attractive “folkish” figurations rising and falling, before the ethereal mood settles once again on the music, the instruments amazingly playing a couple of phrases an octave higher, heightening the other-worldliness of it all. There’s a brief flurry of the allegro and then a few spectral gestures of closure before the sounds disappear.

The NZSQ’s playing of the following con slancio movement again seemed much less “beefy” than what I’d gotten used to on record – with much more light and shade and variation of colour and texture, though still with plenty of “attitude” in the strutting rhythms, cheeky triplet sequences and running figures. The players relished the Peter Grimes-like “Moonlight” atmosphere which grew the third movement magically from out of the silences, the solo violin taking up the line from the opening ensemble, and joining with the second violin. I loved the fanfare figures begun by the ‘cello and then brought forth from each solo instrument, with the ambient echoes of these resonating beautifully. More hymn-like solo lines and more fanfare-like passages took the music to gentler, more ruminative realms and nicely-built cadence-points – from which the music sank to a crepuscular conclusion.

After this, what fun the finale was in these players’ hands! The cheeky opening figure was tossed around the group with a will, a two note motif played ducks and drakes with a repetitive rhythmic motif, and the music raced through the various twists and turns to its invention-strewn conclusion. For me this was again a performance of great enhancement of my perception of the music, one that demonstrated its enormous capacity for surprise, delight and fresh appraisal.

Gillian Ansell then told us a little about English conductor, chamber musician and  composer  Frank Bridge’s tutelage of the young Britten, repeating the story concerning Bridge’s encouraging of his pupil to “make every note count” in his composing. Britten certainly took Bridge’s advice to heart, judging by the fastidious “weighting” of his harmonic and colouristic textures at all times.

We then had an opportunity to hear some of Bridge’s own, seldom-played music, in a bracket of three items called “Idylls and Pieces”. The first, an Idyll by both name and by nature, oozed dark melancholy, but offered a consoling viola tune at the end. The second piece, a waltz with a lovely sighing melody, and the third, a brisk-rhythmed marching song with a beautifully sentimental trio section restored our equanimities. Throughout, Bridge’s music certainly seemed to know exactly what it was doing, and presented itself to us simply and concisely.

It fell finally to the Quartet’s playing of the music of Mozart to appropriately complete the evening’s commemorative picture of our composer. This was one of the three great “Prussian” Quartets, the second in B flat Major K.589. The Quartet’s ‘cellist, Rolf Gjelstan, enjoyed informing us that the King of Prussia, for whom Mozart wrote these works, was himself a ‘cellist, hence the profligacy of wonderful solo lines for the instrument.

By popular legend, Mozart was also a composer for whom not a note was wasted, though we have a more reliably-documented quote from this amazing genius regarding performance-style – namely, the words “It should flow like oil”. That’s what it did here, the players responding to the music’s uncanny quality of satisfying at many different levels of appreciation. Mozart himself was aware of this, writing to his father regarding a newly-composed set of piano concerti that “there are passages that will give pleasure to all, but only the connoisseurs will understand why”.

Though somewhat more gently and circumspectly configured as works of art than Beethoven’s comparable quartets, Mozart’s are as richly- and characterfully-wrought in their own way. These players had the knack of engaging and satisfying the gamut of our emotional responses to the music, coursing over a vast range of aesthetic impulses and spiritual responses. As with the Britten work earlier in the programme, I had never heard the music of this quartet projected in quite so detailed a way as with the NZSQ, and was grateful for such “enlargement” of a work’s range and scope through such an insightful performance.

If pressed to name a playing highlight from the latter work, I would here choose the Minuet and Trio movement, music filled with challenging incident for performers to surmount and listeners to take in. Not the least of this is a “Trio within a trio” kind of structure, complete with a few bars that actually reminded me of the music for that long-defunct television series “Doctor Finlay’s Casebook”!

Less self-indulgent and more pertinent an observation is that the composer’s mastery ensured that every detail which contributes to the complexities of the music literally “flowed like oil”, and that the NZSQ met the composer on common ground here and throughout the rest of the work, to give us a richly-wrought experience – one that enhanced my own appreciation of both Mozart and his devoted Benjamin Britten.


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