Passion and circumspection from the wonderful Faust Quartet

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

(Simone Roggen, Annina Woehrle, vioiins
Ada Meinich, viola / Birgit Böhme, ‘cello)

JOHN PSATHAS – Abhisheka

LEOŠ JANÁČEK  – String Quartet no.2 “Intimate Letters”

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN  – String Quartet in A Minor Op.132

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Tuesday, 2nd September, 2014

Named after German literature’s archetypal questing figure, the Swiss-based Faust Quartet currently on tour in New Zealand, gave us an appropriately far-reaching programme for their Chamber Music Hutt Valley Concert at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre. Led since 2012 by New Zealander Simone Roggen, the group also has German, Norwegian and Swiss members, its cosmopolitan “face” also reflecting the range and origins of the music presented on this occasion.

As with the group’s previous Wellington concert (reviewed by Rosemary Collier for Middle C), the programme featured two “classics” of the quartet repertoire with a contemporary piece. New Zealander John Psathas’ work Abhisheka began the concert, the focused intensities of the work nicely sharpening our sensibilities and preparing us for what was to follow. Moravian composer Leoš Janáĉek wrote two String Quartets, the second of which, subtitled “Intimate Letters”, was nothing short of a sharply-focused outpouring of almost pure emotion relating to the composer’s love affair with a much younger married woman. The evening was “rounded off” by Beethoven’s renowned Op.132 String Quartet in A Minor, itself a work of great intensity, containing the well-known “Holy Song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode” as its slow movement – no rest, it seemed, for either players or listeners!

John Psathas’s single-movement work 1996 work Abhisheka has become something of a classic quartet repertoire piece in this country, one whose qualities seem somehow freshly-minted with each performance one hears. Its exotic, meditative sound-world suggests a kind of ritual, as befits its name, derived from a Sanskrit word for “anoint”. The work’s themes have a definitive Eastern flavour, underscored by occasional pitch-bending on certain notes in the solo lines. There’s drama, too, in the way that some chords (such as at the work’s very opening) seem to come into being from a void of silence, a kind of metaphor for the birth of consciousness, or of awareness of a special state of being,  the “anointing” perhaps associated with the conferring of a state of grace upon the individual’s soul.

Whatever the case, Psathas has, with this work, contrived a unique sound-world, whose utterances draw us deeply into what seem at first like normal divisions of music and silence. However, with each note-clustered crescendo we’re taken further and more strongly into a kind of timeless state of being, where every gesture and its accompanying impulse and associated resonant effect seem to adopt a Wagnerian “time and space are one” quality, freed from movement towards and away from certain points, and having instead a ‘”centre of all things” fullness. The Faust Quartet’s concentrated, transcendent playing enabled us to give ourselves entirely over to the world into which the music had so readily transported us.

In retrospect the intense focus of Psathas’s work had the effect of activating and priming our sensibilities in “controlled conditions” by way of preparation for the scorching blasts of Leos Janáĉek’s fierily passionate String Quartet “Intimate Letters”. This was the second of two quartets written by the Moravian composer, both towards the end of his compositional life. They were inspired directly by his unrequited passion for a younger, already married woman, Kamilla Stösslová, the first quartet, subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata”, appearing in 1923, and the second written in 1928, the year of the composer’s death. Though Kamilla was the inspiration for both quartets, it’s in the second work that Janáĉek explicitly and directly expresses his feelings for her – incidentally, the subtitle “Intimate Letters” was given the work by its composer.

What a work, and what a performance! The players delivered this jagged, volatile, highly emotional, and in places seemingly unstable music at what seemed “full stretch”, employing the widest possible dynamic range and the greatest possible diversity of tones, timbres and colours. I’m sure I sat open-mouthed for much of the time, marveling at the gutsiness of it all, at the group’s readiness to meet the music at its expressive extremes, conveying without hesitation or reserve the unbridled, part-exhilarating, part-disturbing force of the composer’s hot-house bestowment. On this cheek-by-jowl showing, Janáĉek’s music puts even the Cesar Franck Piano Quintet in the shade as regards erotic suggestiveness.

Janáĉek’s penchant for extremes of  showed its hand right at the work’s beginning, with full-blooded declamations followed by whispered pianissimi, after which introduction followed sequences of such tangible physicality paralleled with moments of breathtaking tenderness – the playing of the violist Ada Meinich, in particular, seemed to suddenly underline the incongruity of concert-dress for such abandoned and unconfined utterances. The second movement’s romantic, rhapsodic-like beginning gave our sensibilities some respite, Janáĉek getting his players to bend, stretch, twist, coil and unwind the same melodic fragment  through countless treatments, before too long galvanizing the rhapsodic feeling with some savage, biting accents and manic presto-like scamperings.

Whatever the music did the players were there, pouring out sounds from their instruments that one couldn’t imagine wrought with greater intensity of physical and emotional commitment. The wild, winsome third movement, with its forceful dotted rhythmic trajectory, and the equally fraught finale both were put across to us with what seemed like anarchic force, to the point in the finale where one felt the music was expressing something near to emotional disintegration. Those episodes of vicious tremolandi during the work’s last few minutes sounded so raw, so animal-like, as if all human reason had been lost, and only primordial impulse remained – even more frightening was to encounter these savage gestures in tandem with moments of folkish gaiety and lyrical tenderness!

We certainly needed an interval after these outpourings, and especially in view of the music that was to take up the concert’s second half – Beethoven’s mighty Op.132 A Minor Quartet, known as the “Heiliger Dankgesang” Quartet by dint of its remarkable slow movement. Perhaps it was partly my expectation in the wake of the Faust’s remarkable performance of the Janáĉek work that I felt, increasingly so in retrospect, some disappointment in the players’ delivery of this very part of the work. It could also have been that the group’s concentration had been unsettled by the unfortunate circumstance of Simone Roggen’s instrument breaking a string at the beginning of the movement’s first dance episode, and that the music’s organic flow had been fatally checked – but however it was, the succeeding variants of the opening molto adagio seemed to me not to build in intensity and radiance as I would have expected – falling short of that “life infused with divinity” description, commented on by the program note.

I wondered, too, whether the experience for all of us of hearing the Janáĉek work earlier in the evening put extra onus on the performance of the Beethoven to “atone” in a way for the Moravian composer’s emotional excesses – here were the very different outpourings of two powerful creative spirits responding to tribulations of contrasting kinds. What Janáĉek’s music was depicting was its composer’s wrestling with the unrequited nature of his love for a younger woman – hence the music’s desperate, in places almost deranged aspect. Beethoven’s music had a corresponding kind of power, but of fierce determination and intense triumph over tragedy, and the intensity stemmed from both determination and triumph. I thought the quartet’s playing of Beethoven’s molto adagio sequences needed more of that fierce, intense sense of “being there” thru determination and tragedy, in a sense completing a process that Janáĉek, for all his greatness as a composer, wasn’t by dint of circumstance able to do.

The interesting thing was that the remaining three of the Beethoven work’s movements were given by the quartet one of the finest performances I’ve ever heard, nowhere more so than with the last movement. I’ve waited for many years to hear a reading of the latter that matched in feeling that of the old pre-war recording made by the Busch Quartet, to the extent that this present one did. Here, the players caught the “strut” of the music at the beginning, the theatricality (gothic-gestured in places) of the mad, melodramatic recitative-like section, and the darkness and unease of the subsequent allegro appassionato, the playing superbly conveying its swaying, vertiginous rhythm and haunted thematic material, as the music traverses the “dark wood” of human experience with all its enigmatic and expressionist gestures of dogged progression and determined resolve to “get through”.

How wonderfully the players caught that frisson of energy and thrust at the movement’s end, the accelerando both thrilling and hair-raising, for fear of where it might end, but bringing the music at last out into the sunlight, where there’s relief and circumspection rather than joy and celebration – the end is certain and emphatic without being aggrandized in any way – here it was what Sir Edward Elgar would have called a triumph for “the man of stern reality”, as he described the conclusion of his “Falstaff”. But for the curious want of real thrust and intensity in places in the slow movement, as well as occasional edginess of intonation on single notes in passage work, I would want to call this performance of Op.132 a truly great one. It was certainly, in the context of the whole concert, a memorable listening experience.

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