New Zealand String Quartet – soirée in a salon

New Zealand String Quartet presents:

Programme No.1
JS BACH – “Air” from Orchestral Suite No.3 / MOZART – String Quartet in C K.157
TCHAIKOVSKY – Andante Cantabile (from String Quartet No.1)
SHOSTAKOVICH – Polka (from “The Golden Age”) /CHOPIN (arr.Balakirev) – Etude Op.25 No.7
GARETH FARR – Mambo Rambo (from String Quartet “Mondo Rondo”)
PUCCINI – Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) / SCHUBERT – String Quartet in E-flat D.87
BARBER – Adagio, for String Quartet / DVORAK – Waltz Op.54 No.2
bonus item: NATALIE HUNT- Data Entry Groove

New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Prefab Hall Cafe, Jessie St., Wellington

Sunday, 21st September, 2014

I’ve reproduced above the entire programme played by the New Zealand String Quartet at its second Wellington “Salon Series” concert, to give readers who weren’t there an idea of the range and scope of the music performed – there was, literally, something for everybody, as the group’s intention was to put together a presentation that would charm the ear of the newcomer to chamber music as well as intrigue and delight the devotee with some out-of-the-ordinary arrangements for string quartet of repertoire from other genres.

I thought that, on all counts – content, style, ambience, setting and (not least of all) performance – the occasion was a great success. The venue – the Prefab Hall Cafe, in Wellington’s Jessie St. – helped give the venture the informality which the musicians wanted (Helene Pohl compared the occasion to the soirées which regularly featured at the salons of the early nineteenth-century). Things were further enlivened by the presence of significant numbers of young children accompanying parents and caregivers. The youngsters wriggled a bit during the more abstracted pieces, but their attentions were captured and delightfully ignited in places by the Quartet’s engaging delivery of a number of roisterous, ear-tickling items.

In overall terms the “bill of fare” had a pleasing lightness of touch, countered only by the seriousness of Samuel Barber’s well-known Adagio (as Douglas Beilman pointed out in his introduction to the piece, here played in its original form for string quartet!). Elsewhere, there was dignity (Bach’s G Major Air), charm (Dvorak’s Waltz Op.54 No.2) and romance (Balakirev’s arrangement of Chopin’s Etude Op.25 No.7, Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile” and Puccini’s “Crisantemi”), with some gorgeous high-jinks by way of contrast, from Shostakovich, Gareth Farr, and a late addition to the programme, a piece by up-and-coming New Zealand composer Natalie Hunt.

Two extended works completed the picture, both extremely happy choices, in each case the product of youthful exuberance and flourishing creative powers. In the first half, from 1772 came the third (K.157 in C Major) from a set of six string quartets by the seventeen year-old Mozart, called the “Milanese” Quartets through the young composer being in that city at the time, and simultaneously working on his opera Lucia Silla. After the interval we heard another complete quartet (which, to my surprise, I knew well) by the sixteen year-old Franz Schubert, dating from 1813 but published posthumously – it’s known as No.10 in E-flat, and by the Deutsch catalogue as D.87.

So, from the moment the players descended the stairway of the cafe’s mezzanine-floor, 1930s motion-picture style, we were enveloped in a veritable glow of contentment, and then, after quartet leader Helene Pohl had warmly welcomed us to the “salon”, held in thrall to the music-making. What better way to begin than with JS Bach at his most beguiling, the famous “Air” from the Third Orchestra Suite responding beautifully to the ministrations bestowed by four solo instruments? – the expressions of delight and wonderment upon the faces of some of the children sitting close to the musicians amply mirrored the enchantment of the sounds.

Being by this stage some way from childhood, the seventeen year-old “Wolfie” obviously knew what he was about – his C Major Quartet which followed featured a spirited and energetic set of first-movement exchanges, followed by an Andante whose deeply-felt beauties hinted at greater things which would follow in later works. It was here I noticed, especially in the work’s slow movement, that all the “bloom” of tone came more from the instruments themselves and not from the room – though not impossibly so, the ambience was dry-ish, and underlined by a “roomful of bodies” soaking up the sounds as gratefully and greedily as they could manage.

Once our ears got the “pitch of the hall” we could work and interact with the instruments at where they were and what it was possible for them to do. We were actually sitting so close to the musicians that such considerations mattered less that they mighty have in more “normal” concert surroundings. Thus the fun and gaiety of the Mozart quartet’s finale completely took us over, no small thanks to the playing’s infectious energies, conveying almost medicinal doses of enjoyment.

Tchaikovsky’s “Cantabile” is, like Samuel Barber’s aforementioned “Adagio”, also part of a complete string Quartet, in this case the first of the Russian composer’s three completed works in this genre. As with Barber’s work, this single “Andante Cantabile” movement has taken on a life of its own, most often in a string orchestra arrangement. Gillian Ansell, when introducing the work, told us how the great novellist Tolstoy was reputedly moved to tears by this music, disarmed by the composer’s clever alternation of a Russian folk-song with one of his own original melodies.

The same Tolstoy was to later famously rebuke the youthful Sergei Rachmaninov for writing music that was “not needed by anybody” – goodness only knows what the musically cranky author of War and Peace would have made of Shostakovich’s work! The Quartet’s inspired rendition of an arrangement for strings of the “Polka” from the ballet “The Golden Age” was a kind of show-stopper, instruments (and instrumentalists) taking up the composer’s invitation to “let their hair down”! To choose one instance – I’ve never heard a viola make the kinds of guttural utterances that at one point came from Gillian Ansell’s instrument! Younger audience members especially were agog throughout, relishing every outlandish squawk, crash, rustle and roar!

Still more surprise came with Mily Balakirev’s setting of a Chopin Etude (Op.25 No.7), Rolf Gjelsten’s ‘cello greatly relishing being given the piece’s original left-hand melody, and the other three instruments the right-handed figurations – all very Baroque-ish in spirit, if more Romantic in character. After this came a return to “original” string-quartet material, with Gareth Farr’s wonderful “Mambo Rambo”. The last movement of a String Quartet titled “Mondo Rondo”, the music has a definite exotic flavour – the composer has described the music as “like a drunk at a dinner party”, ie, continually falling over itself. Given the marked Middle-Eastern ambiences of the piece, the music certainly sounded if not drunk, at least high on hashish!

An interval allowed us some pleasant breathing-space before we were summonsed back to listen to Puccini’s lovely “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums). Written in 1890, the writing readily evoked the world of operatic duetting between soprano and tenor – in fact Puccini reused some of the material in his opera Manon Lescaut, written three years afterwards. More cheerful and lively was Schubert’s youthful String Quartet D.87, a work that I happened to know well, with its lovely opening echo-like phrase-endings and lyrical sequences which followed. The Scherzo featured a po-faced opening octave-plunge, and a cheeky, single, vagrant Haydnesque note, a kind of “ready now?” gesture, just before the beginning of each new paragraph, as well as a gorgeous “gondola-song” trio, filled with feeling.

I thought the “father of the string quartet” had a hand in the gorgeously played slow movement as well – here, elegance combined with song over the opening paragraphs, while repeated-note sequences tightened the piece’s tensions over the central sequences. But the finale capped off the pleasure for me –  a wonderful “cross-country chase”, with all kinds of terrain, gentle and angular, making its mark on the music’s rhythmic trajectories – in this performance the repeated-note sequences had real “point”, a physicality that readily suggested the character of that rhythmic progress, its territory and attendant delights and surprises.

Came the Barber “Adagio”, with the Quartet’s playing bringing forward as much angst as sorrow and reflectiveness – here, I felt the solo-part individual voices somehow had more tension and focus than in the more “cushioned” string orchestra version that I’ve gotten used to. Only with those searing near-stratospheric lines at the climax did I remember the sound produced by a string orchestra having anything like the intensity of a performance such as this. At a concert it was the kind of thing which required something else to come to our immediate emotional rescue (as Helene Pohl said immediately afterwards – “Well we can’t leave you feeling like that!”) – and Dvorak’s music was just the job.

This was a Waltz, listed as Op.54 No.2, a rousing, declamatory violin solo at the beginning getting the dance under way with an energetic whirl and a flourish! – what charm, what gaiety! – “an expression of joy close to tears” wrote one commentator of the Bohemian composer’s music, and this waltz was no exception, one to which the players gave their all, and roused our spirits to a state of joyous exhilaration. But that wasn’t all! – what Helene Pohl called a “bonus track” was thereupon served up to us for our “outward bound” delight, a piece by Natalie Hunt called “Data Entry Groove”, music which required the players to undertake certain stretching exercises while waiting for their turn to play, just as computer programmers would periodically do to avoid stress, fatigue and repetitive strain injury!

The piece was quirky, jazzy and entirely therapeutic, and a gift for Rolf Gjelsten, whose “star turn” on the ‘cello was acknowledged, jazz-solo style, by Helene Pohl, and by appropriate and responsive  applause. It left all of us in an excellent and energized frame of mind, perhaps putting back a lot of what the previous day’s General Election would have drained away, one way or another. Thank goodness for music in times of national crisis – but more to the point, thank goodness for the New Zealand String Quartet! – we were truly appreciative of the various skills and communicative warmth of the players, bestowing on us what seemed like a string of exquisite gifts, entirely for our pleasure.


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