Faust Quartet with a different view of Schubert and a perplexing study of mythological horses

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Schubert: String quartet no.12 in C minor, D.703 ‘Quartettsatz’
Helena Winkelman: Quadriga for string quartet (2011)
Schubert: String quartet in D minor, D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’

Faust Quartet (Simone Roggen and Annina Woehrle, violins; Ada Meinich, viola; Birgit Böhme, cello)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 31 August 2014, 3.00pm

Yet another European ensemble (the other was the Dalecarlia Quartet in July) with a New Zealand member – Simone Roggen, the first violinist.  This group, too, had a change of membership from that originally advertised.  There were several striking things about this ensemble; their handsome appearance on stage, their intense concentration and the performers’ remarkable techniques among them.

Another striking thing was the extremely pianissimo entry to the first item on the programme.  The playing was delicate and subtle, with an astonishing range of dynamics.  Thoroughly musical sounds conveyed the bitter-sweet nature of Schubert’s sublime music.  Was the range of dynamics too extreme?  It was certainly more so than in other performances I have heard of this wonderful single-movement quartet, yet the playing revealed the Romantic nature of the work to the fullest degree possible.  It was beautifully balanced and blended, making for a blissful experience.

Helena Winkelman (spelt with only one ‘n’ by Wikipedia; Helen Winkelmann is a New Zealand judge who was prominently in the news recently) was born in 1974.  Like the players she is Swiss, and well known to the Faust Quartet (yes, Roggen’s origins are Swiss too, and she now lives in Switzerland).  Roggen gave a spoken introduction to the work, and musical examples from the various movements were played, to illustrate the points being made.  These employed a variety of string techniques.

The narrative of the work dealt with horses: the first movement was named ‘Kelpie’, a Celtic water-demon which in this case was a horse.  The second, a scherzo, was entitled ‘Alwakr and Alsvidr; two horses who pulled the sun-chariot in Norse mythology.  The third employed seven fragments from the poet Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh notebooks.  While the opening line of the first fragment as printed in translation in the programme speaks of ‘leading a storm cloud by the bridle’, the subject matter is nature, flight and escape rather than horses.  The final movement is titled for an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, Odin’s horse of Norse myth.

This horse has the power of flight, and epitomises the last of the four elements, air.  The first movement employs one voice, though not purely unison playing, and symbolises the water in which Kelpie lives; the two horses (and two voices) of the second movement represent fire, being captives of Sol, the sun-god.  The third movement speaks of the earth (the third element).

The opening movement incorporated numerous extended techniques for the players; watery sounds could certainly be heard.  The scherzo was very angular in musical character, and obviously difficult to play.  I found the sharp contrast with Schubert’s music not easy on the ear at times.

Despite my admiration for the skill of the performers, I did not find the composition at this stage stimulating. In this movement there were very intense, insistent sonorities, which worked up to furious interplay, which died away towards the end.  The horses fought each other, but they seemed to come to a mutual understanding and respect.

The Mandelstam movement featured exceptional playing, and employed a great variety of rhythms and complexity; the young women exhibited astonishing energy and skill.  Here, there was high-pitched interplay and excitement, but much was harsh and discordant.

The final movement began with angry turbulence. The horse was wilful and did not succumb happily to discipline – whereas these players do!  There were extended passages of double-stopping, making for thick textures. In this movement, passages incorporating vocalisation from the players gave a pleasing change of sonority before they returned to the gut-wrenching (in both senses of the term) timbres.

I have to say I found some of the timbres and sounds excruciating in the very lively acoustic of St. Andrew’s, especially in the final movement, and I was not the only one to feel this way.  The work was challenging for the players – and for the audience, but not a challenge I enjoyed rising to.  At times I envied those in the audience who found it possible to fall asleep.  Others had more positive attitudes to what they had heard, I discovered during the interval.

Schubert’s wonderful ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet is familiar, yet there is always something new to find in it, especially in the hands of the Faust Quartet.  I have these two Schubert works on the same LP (yes, I still play them).  Again, that great dynamic range these performers have was something new.  The little subtleties in their treatment of the rhythms and figurations were delightful to hear, as was their beauty of tone.  Nothing was skirted around – it was all there, in glorious technicolor.

The opening allegro was somewhat faster than is usually heard, but the melody was treated with gorgeous tone and expression.  The Faust finesse ensured that Schubert’s profundity was all there.

The andante con moto second movement contains the well-known Schubert song of the quartet’s title; the melody and exquisite harmony pull at the heart-strings.  Is there anything more sad in music than this?  The solo lines were deliciously played, principally, but not only, by Simone Roggen.  The tragic mood was sustained throughout the movement’s variations on the theme.  The seductive beauty of this movement is beyond compare, in my opinion, not least the cry of despair that ends it.

The Scherzo (allegro molto) is boisterous but unsettling at the beginning, then it becomes wistful and perhaps regretful, ending emphatically.  The playing of the Faust’s members conveyed all of this very directly.  Their technical expertise was such that they as individuals never got in the way of the music, and their cohesion and unanimity were astonishing.

The presto finale was almost feverish, rushing whence?  The music was ethereal and mysterious then frightening by turns, and the false endings added to the effect.  What enormous facility these players have!  We can only thank Chamber Music New Zealand and Chamber Music Wellington for enabling us to hear fine ensembles like this.  This was a stand-out performance in a year of excellent music-making.


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