Aroha String Quartet’s tenth anniversary concert offers excellent, varied, exquisite programme

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

Tenth Anniversary Concert

String Quartets:
Beethoven: in A, Op 18 No 5
Shostakovich: No 1 in C, Op 49
Ravel: in F major
Chinese pieces:
Hua Yan-Jun: Er Quan Ying Yue
Traditional: Fan Shen Dao Qing

Old Saint Paul’s

Sunday 7 December, 3 pm

The first performance by Wellington’s Aroha String Quartet took place in this venue at this time on 5 December, just 10 years ago. I wrote a review of it in The Dominion Post, ending “This is one of the finest ensembles to emerge from the NZSO ranks. I hope they can find the time to give many more concerts”. I’ve always felt pleased to have been there. This time, too, their concert clashed with another, the same, by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, which again had the result of smaller audiences at both.

Membership has changed from that at the first concert, then entirely of Chinese-born players. The original second violinist, Beiyi Xue, and cellist, Jiaxin Cheng, have departed and their places taken by several others: Robert Ibell now as permanent cellist and Blythe Press as interim (before heading overseas) second violin. This afternoon there was no hint of any absence of homogeneity in their ensemble, lack of stylistic command in their approach to the music’s character.

Old Saint Paul’s is a lovely venue for chamber music, though sight-lines can be a bit obscured by posts. But the players are now on a new platform making them generally visible.

The fifth of Beethoven’s Op 18 quartets is in A major and the happiest and most extravert of the six. It began with some slight diffidence. But its energising speed, driven by the fast, darting lines of the first violin quickly generated assurance in all the players, and the first movement became a simple delight. And, come to think of it, so did the other three.

There was charming swing in the minuet (what a huge range of tempi, rhythms and moods seem to be encompassed in the old dance called the ‘minuet’). The Trio in its middle was in marked contrast, a bit blowsy perhaps, a strong triple beat with emphasis on the third note.

The another facet of the happy A major spirit (though this starts in D major) came with the almost swooning opening of the Andante Cantabile, though each of the following variations was expressed with delightful individuality (the programme note called them ‘variants’ – a form of the word that I’m only familiar with in Vaughan Williams). There’s the bustling third variation and the dreamy beauty of the fourth and then the extended fifth variation that recovers the determination and spirit, as well as the calm of the other movements.

The last movement also shifts moods quixotically, carrying us along with a strong current: all so compelling even to the teasing final bars.

What a change to be offered other than No 8 out of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets! No 1, written just before the second world war, and in the shadow of Stalin’s devastating attack on Shostakovich and others, opens in a somewhat secretive manner, with no big tunes or distinct mood till Ibell’s sunny, peaceful cello pronouncement arrives. Jin’s viola soon picks it up and the viola also opens the second movement with a tune that grows on you, with a certain unease as the cello weighs in heavily. Lots of fast scales characterise the Allegro Molto, with little decorative flourishes that don’t actually decorate anything other than themselves. It seems to avoid certainties, mutes giving a feeling of indirection.

But the last movement, violin-led, turns on the light and pushes up the speed, and this splendid revelatory performance leads me to hope that this could be the group to pursue a complete Shostakovich series over the next year or so (one of the most memorable highlights at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland a few years ago was a complete late-night series of them all from the Aviv Quartet from Israel).

After the interval came a couple of engaging Chinese pieces: one by an early 19th century composer, Er Quan Ying Yue by Hua Yan-Jun, for the erhu (which you will hear being played by a singularly musical player in the subway to the Wellington Railway Station every Friday). It lay very high on the violin with the other instruments playing tremolo before the others took turns with the tune.

The following piece was an arrangement of a traditional folk tune called Fan Shen Dao Qing; from the early communist period in the 40s, it energetically reflected the optimism, hopes of the dawning of the new age, then a slow, more pensive middle section and finally a virtuosic fast-fingered finish with a short bluesy episode before the return of the upbeat character.

The two pieces were an ideal return from the pause: an introduction to the highly individual sound of Ravel’s string quartet. The quartet approached it in a spirit of huge familiarity and musical intimacy, smooth and suffused with magic light: the performance was bewitching. The second movement is much dominated by pizzicato not written to be played by beginners and the ensemble and general execution suggested high talent and scrupulous, detailed rehearsal of Ravel’s demand: Assez vif, très rythmé; the muted middle section is languorous, allowing the players a short respite (though no less demanding) from the brittle outer parts.

The breathtaking changeability continues through the Très lent third and Vif et agité last movement. The third emerged pensive though not sad, opening with the viola; then a creepy, growling cello in the middle. Though it’s slow and outwardly uneventful, the exquisite playing sustained rapt attention, saying rather beautiful things quietly.

The energetic rhythm of the last movement, with tremolo and pizzicato and little exclamations, continued to throw up hints of earlier phrases in new ways and in new contexts. The entire performance was beautifully executed, warm-hearted, perfectly attuned to Ravel’s intentions. How sad that Ravel left us so little music, particularly chamber music!

Though there was not a huge audience – a few more than 100? – the enthusiasm of the applause might have suggested several hundred.


9 thoughts on “Aroha String Quartet’s tenth anniversary concert offers excellent, varied, exquisite programme

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