MFC proves fine venue for superb string quartet plus clarinet concert

Chamber Music New Zealand

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

Weber: Clarinet Quintet in B flat, Op. 34
Brahms: String Quartet no.3 in B flat, Op. 67
Tabea Squire: ‘Jet lag’ for string quartet
Mozart: Quintet in A for clarinet and strings, K. 581

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday, 6 May 2014, 7:30 pm

The gorgeous opening of the Weber quintet told the audience that we were in for a treat of mellifluous tonalities and contrasting sonorities.  Here was a wonderful programme of music by clarinet-loving composers.

Any concerns I had about chamber music in the Michael Fowler Centre were quickly dissipated.  Admittedly, I was seated only seven rows from the front; a colleague seated elsewhere did not find the acoustic as satisfactory.  The use of a lower platform in front of the stage assisted considerably in projecting the sound.  Upstairs and the extreme sides of the downstairs were closed off, concentrating the good-sized audience in the remaining areas, providing a more intimate ‘chamber’ than would otherwise be the case.  However, others told me that they, like me, find the seats too low, the arm-rests too high and hard, and the low backs to the seats frustrating to the wish to stretch one’s legs out in front.

The sparkling allegro that followed the slow opening of the Weber work had each instrument showing what it could do, but especially the athletic clarinet of James Campbell.  Weber certainly demonstrates the range of the instrument.  The normally utterly reliable New Zealand String Quartet lapsed a little in intonation early on but this was most unusual.

The second movement, Fantasia: adagio, revealed the subtlety of tone that Campbell could obtain from his instrument; his pianissimo playing was quite remarkable.  I don’t believe I have ever heard such quiet, yet warm tones from the clarinet.

The Menuetto that followed was by turns gracious and lively, and gave plenty of opportunity for the clarinet to shine in a variety of delightful melodies, supported by rich harmonies from the strings.  Rapid passage work from the clarinet was replete with excitement.

The final movement, Rondo: allegro gave Campbell the chance for virtuosic display as he traversed the wide range of his instrument. In an interview on radio earlier in the week he had described the Weber work as being operatic.  It is music he has played with the New Zealand String Quartet off and on over quite a long period.  It was a thoroughly masterful and enjoyable performance.

Brahms followed: not the clarinet quintet described in the notes I had been sent by email (they were the notes for concerts in some other centres; Weber was not included either), but his third string quartet.  It was introduced by Gillian Ansell, who remarked on how unusual it was for them to play two succeeding works in the same key, and told us that this had been Brahms’s own favourite of his chamber works.

The superb balance between the instruments was very apparent in the first movement, especially.  This had not been so much the case in the Weber, which was more like a mini-concerto for clarinet and strings much of the time.  Yet the Brahms was full of melody.  After the vivace came the sombre yet calm andante, at first featuring opulent harmonies underpinning a felicitous violin solo, and later a sublime ending.

There followed a third movement agitato (allegretto non troppo) and trio, that began with strong, warm-toned viola playing.  There were many musical ideas; the trio was lyrical and slightly bittersweet.  The poco allegretto con variazioni finale was based on a folksy theme.  The variations’ intricacies made a wonderful tapestry of delicate threads interweaving.  Their inventive qualities ran through a gamut of moods.

A surprise short item before the Mozart quintet brought us a piece commissioned by the New Zealand String Quartet that might have been topical for the visiting clarinettist: Jet lag by talented young violinist and composer Tabea Squire.  It began quite percussively, and moved through passages using much pizzicato and harmonics.  Much of the writing seemed dislocated – as you would feel when jetlagged.   The effect was quite amusing, and showed considerable skill and confidence.

Now to the pièce de resistance.  In introducing the Mozart, James Campbell said it was one of the greatest works for clarinet.  He told us that Stadler, for whom it was written, liked playing in the lower register, and was not an egotist like Baermann, for whom Weber wrote his work.  The programme note informed us that Weber was the cousin of Constanza, Mozart’s wife, and that he was inspired by this work.

The phrasing of the opening theme on the strings was varied in the repetition of the passage; an enchanting feature.  The wonderful melody that follows, first on violin and then on clarinet, creates a tug at the heart-strings.  The harmonies from the other instruments are equally delicious.  There is something intensely satisfying about this music.  Campbell’s control of timbre and dynamics is most impressive, and produces a thoroughly musical result.  Here is a musician who gets to the core of the music.  His playing reveals wonderful nuances, not only of his technique, but more importantly of the character of the composers’ writing.

The calm beauty of the apparently simple Larghetto second movement is nevertheless quite overwhelming.  Words, after all, cannot describe music adequately.  The long phrases are akin to perfection.  The muted violins acted as a foil for the beautifully controlled clarinet.  The strings were played with a minimum of vibrato; they sounded just right for the mood as well as for the period.  Despite the sotto voce nature of the movement, it was full of character.

The Menuetto introduced a livelier element, though it was still a gracious eighteenth century dance.  The allegretto con variazioni finale was sprightly, and classically proportioned, but certainly not formulaic.  Lovely legato passages continued until the clarinet jumped in with some gymnastic jollifications.  Again, all was controlled and exquisitely phrased.  The clarinet was never shrill, and blended supremely well with the other instruments.  The joyous ending completed a concert that was a fulfilling musical highlight.


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