Innovative and balanced programme from Aroha Quartet at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Mozart: String Quartet no.1 in G, K.80
Sam Piper: Dance of the Sidhe
Zhou Long: Eight Chinese Folk Songs
Schubert: String Quartet no.15 in G, D.887

Aroha String Quartet (Haihong Liu and Blythe Press, violins; Zhongxian Jin, viola; Robert Ibell, cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

18 May 2014, 2.30 pm

What immediately struck me was not that Mozart should have written such a quartet at the age of 14, remarkable as that is, but rather the beauty of the playing by the Aroha Quartet.  Their tone, subtle gradation of dynamics, their blend and balance were utterly disarming.  Unafraid of playing real pianissimos, these musicians brought much light and shade, and delicacy, to this, the first of Mozart’s string quartets.

The allegro second movement provided a considerable contrast, its fast tempi and lively expression taken together made it utterly unlike the almost dreamy first movement.  Juvenile high spirits were disciplined, however.

A precise minuet was full of graceful poetry, while its trio was a charmer, constrasting with the slightly more robust minuet.  Rondeau was quite a rollicking movement. Naturally, compared with Mozart’s later compositions, there was not the range of musical ideas here. Nevertheless it was well worth hearing, especially at the hands of these accomplished players.

I have heard works by young New Zealand composer Sam Piper before, but I rather think they were all choral.  Dance of the Sidhe (Irish ‘little people’) was made up of three short pieces.  The first, marked ‘furioso’ was sparkling and tuneful, mainly for violin with innovative accompaniment for the other instrumentalists, including clapping, finger-snapping, and tapping the instruments.  The second, “Dance of the Elder: largo con molto rubato’ began with a melody for cello, beautifully played, followed by the same on viola, while the others shimmered on repeated two note motifs.  There were lovely modal harmonies. The third piece, a presto, was more folksy in manner.  A spirited violin melody was accompanied by staccato from the other players.  This was fine playing of entertaining music.

It was very appropriate to have some Chinese music, with two Chinese musicians in the Quartet’s make-up.  The settings of eight folk songs, for which the titles were given in the programme were delightful, and as a description in the programme notes stated the composer’s music was ‘embedding elements of two cultures in a consistent, seamless, and original musical language’.  This was certainly true of the first one – a fine fusion.

The pieces were played without breaks.  The second, ‘Driving the mule team’ was very pictorial, the second violin creating the sound of the animal’s hooves by playing pizzicato on two strings together, while the others played legato melodies.

The third, ‘ The flowing stream’ was very descriptive of flowing water, and wistful longing.  ‘Jasmine flower’ was quite a spiky piece, in which the use of the pentatonic scale was very prominent. ‘A horseherd’s mountain song’ was a very rhythmic work song, in which the workmen uttered vocalisations.  Uncertainty or even querulousness entered into ‘When will the acacia bloom?’ about the young woman embarrassed at being caught waiting for her lover; the musicians treated it with sensitivity.  There were interesting cross-rhythms in the pizzicato parts.

Number 7, ‘A single bamboo can easily bend’ featured very sonorous cello, while the final ‘Leaving home’ was a busy piece that seemed to be more about travelling and work than any sadness at parting. This was a well-constructed sequence of pieces which the audience patently enjoyed.

Schubert’s long quartet is so full of change and variety that sustaining interest was not a problem.  Excellent programme notes aided the listening.

The power of expression that Schubert had, and the poetry of his utterance in chamber music and song is peerless.  In the first movement, the dark opening, full of dram, gives way to a sprightly melody, almost like folksong, on viola.  It is followed in turn by a beautiful first violin and viola duet on a  brief, ethereal theme.  The cello then takes the place of the viola.  The change of key that follows sounds almost brutal.  One marvels at the creativity that brought forth a work of such diversity.

The second movement’s opening melody on cello is full of nuances and warmth.  Schubert’s sudden fortissimos, characteristic not only here but in much of his music other than chamber music, serve to command attention.  Much beauty resided in this movement, and the music was always moving somewhere; the players had a good idea of the shape and structure of the movement.

The third movement scherzo was pleasantly busy, like birds chattering, while the melodious trio featured cello followed by first violin in exposing the tuneful and animated melody.  The finale was described in the programme note as ‘full of sudden dynamic contrasts, and rhythmic complexities.  This harmonic and rhythmic tension carries the movement in an exhilarating ride to the finish’.  I could hardly believe through the lively opening section that the same composer wrote the opening lines of the quartet.  Yet soon, we were plunged into minor harmonies again.  Towards the end, song-like themes emerged once more.

The innovative programming and skilled playing made for a thoroughly enjoyable concert.  Not every note was perfectly in place, but the musicality of the playing, the sense of unified approach and tone, and the delight of the music performed completely overcame any thought of aberrations.  It was a marvelous experience to hear such great music so well played.

A familiar, brief Shostakovich piece, mainly pizzicato, was played as a humorous encore, to send the audience away with smiles on their faces.


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