Aroha Quartet (Haihong Liu and Blythe Press – violins, Zhongxian Jin – viola, Robert Ibell – cello)
Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Quartet
The White Haired Girl by Yan Jinxuan, arranged for string quartet by Zhu Jian’er and Shi Yongkang
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor
Futuna Chapel, Friend Street, Karori
Sunday 3 November, 2pm
Prefatory note: The Aroha Quartet leave in December for their second tour to China where they will play in the spectacular new Xinghai Concert Hall in Guangzhou, and to Zhongshan. They will have with them works from six countries including China and New Zealand.
This initiative, the Sunday concert series at the Futuna Chapel, to make good use of an architectural gem that was saved from the attentions of developer/vandals a decade ago, began last year and shows every sign of survival and even flourishing. The disposition of seating is perhaps not ideal, and one’s normal expectation of the shape of a church needs a little adjustment: which part is the nave and which a transept or alcove? Seats/pews are placed at right-angles with the ‘sanctuary’ at the place of convergence. A slab-like ‘altar’ occupies most of the raised sanctuary which means musicians sit at floor level with impaired visibility from back rows.
But the sounds, which are actually the main thing in music after all, are clear and full.
The players had set us a little test. We all listened sympathetically to the first piece in the programme: the Chinese string quartet arrangement, presumably. My notes commented on the fact that even in the period of the Second World War as the Japanese were steadily devastating and slaughtering both soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilian people, there was little outward sign of a distinctive Chinese flavour, let alone anguish, in the rather gentle music; and the first episode ended with a long warm note on the viola.
But then a second part continued with spiky, pizzicato, satirical sounding, like a polka. Ah!!! I know this – it’s Shostakovich; they are playing his Two Pieces for String Quartet first. The first piece is the elegy that Katerina was to sing in the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, lamenting her boring life; it came to the stage in 1934 with an infamous sequel. Though I’ve seen the opera three times over the years, I didn’t recognize it. The second piece, a Polka from the 1930 ballet, The Age of Gold, composed before the evils of Stalinism had reveled themselves; it is a satire of the decadence of capitalism and Western politics. Shostakovich made the arrangement in 1931 for the Vuillaume Quartet (Vuillaume was a most famous, 19th century French luthier); long before Shostakovich had written his first string quartet.
So we came to The White Haired Girl. Haihong Liu introduced it and Robert Ibell took us through the musical motifs that mark the various episodes: a tale of a poor young girl, persecuted by the cruel landlord but eventually rescued by the Red Army which was fighting the Japanese invaders.
The White-Haired Girl (Bái Máo Nǚ) is a Chinese opera and ballet, the music by Yan Jinxuan; later it was adapted to ‘Beijing Opera’ and for a film. The first opera performance was in 1945; the film was made in 1950; the first Beijing Opera performance was in 1958 and the first ballet performance by Shanghai Dance Academy, in 1965.
I should really not have mistaken the first piece in the concert. We have reviewed it previously. Peter Mechen wrote a review of a performance at St Andrew’s in October 2010 and I reviewed one in June 2012 at Paekakariki. Accordingly, it was no surprise that the quartet handled it confidently, making no apology for its distinct European musical characteristics, while weaving the Chinese elements colourfully and idiomatically. The musical narrative is based on motifs representing episodes of the story: the north wind, the red ribbon, day turning to night, joining the Eighth Route Army (against the Japanese invaders) and so on. Unlike the typical western classical string quartet, the individual instruments seemed to be expected to draw attention to themselves without ostentation, and it allowed viola and cello, especially, to shine. Certain effects lent themselves predictably to a film sound-track: marked dynamic contrasts, tremolo effects for moments of alarm or terror, sudden fortissimo chords depicting violence.
Though it might sound a bit unsophisticated to some western ears, its success within the idiom and musical culture of China was clear, as was the comfortable manner of its performance.
At their Mulled Wine concert at Paekakariki last year the Aroha Quartet also played the Debussy quartet. I would be less than honest if I pretended to claim that their performance here was better or worse than last year’s: I don’t remember as well as that. This was simply extremely comfortable and idiomatic, sounding at once spontaneous and thoroughly ingested.
Their dextrous dynamics always reflected the sense of the music; in the second movement long-breathed, summery violin strokes alternated with the lively rhythms generated by pizzicato. They players understood what Debussy meant by Andantino, doucement: it was almost breathless, quite still, with a beguiling melody launched on the viola and passed on to the others in turn, and became a kind of recitative, flowing absent-mindedly, without bar lines.
The fourth movement began very quietly, rather more modéré than that word might suggest, but it simply increased the delight as the mood livened a couple of minutes later, becoming warm and opulent.