New Zealand String Quartet in challenging music including pieces by Ross Harris

Wellington Chamber Music Trust in association with Chamber Music New Zealand

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988, Aria and Variations nos. 1, 2, 13
Ross Harris: Variation 25 (String Quartet no. 4)
Mozart: String Quartet no.22 in B flat, K.589
Ross Harris: Piano Quintet (2013)
Shostakovich: String Quartet no.9 in D flat Op.117

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello), Stephen de Pledge (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 26 April 2015, 3.00pm

The pre-concert talk from Ross Harris made it clear that this concert was something a little different: he was invited by Chamber Music New Zealand’s former Chief Executive, Euan Murdoch, to curate the concert.  That is, he got to choose the works, to include his own, and to give the pre-concert talk and introduce each item – and write some of the notes in the printed programme.  He has written a number of works now specifically for the New Zealand String Quartet (NZSQ); it is gratifying to see New Zealand composers writing in this genre.

He began by saying that he was not promoting Schoenberg and Stockhausen, as he fancied might be expected of him, but Mozart and Shostakovich, even though theirs were tonal compositions and his own were not.

The full church (though the gallery was not open) heard him explain that in 2007 he had heard the New Zealand String Quartet play a new quartet version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, originally written for keyboard, and that inspired him to write his own variation on Variation 25, regarded as the heart of the entire work.

First, we heard the Aria and three of the variations played on piano.  The Aria was played in a very understated way – so much so that some notes almost disappeared.  However, it was an appropriate way to begin the performance.  The presence of a carpet square under the piano was gratefully observed; thus the sometimes over-loud and clattering sound of this piano on the varnished floor was absent, and there was no problem at any point with balance when later it was played with the strings.

Variation 1 sparkled, while the limpid, pastoral quality of Variation 2 made a gorgeous contrast.  Variation 13 was sublimely calm and peaceful.  A little judicious use of the sustaining pedal was observed, but it never obtruded.

The quartet came onto the platform quietly and without applause, to perform Ross Harris’s Variation.  It was good to see Douglas Beilman back in action; he had damaged a finger, and was replaced by Donald Armstrong at last Sunday’s chamber music concert in Waikanae.  The Harris work began with a wonderful evocation of Bach, the music being almost mesmerising, and containing striking counterpoint – but different from Bach’s.   Following this, the music worked up to a more agitated mood.  That ended, there was a return to the languid mood, but under it, the cello played pizzicato.  The music became less tonal, and the instruments appeared to go their own way.

Regarding the Mozart quartet, Ross Harris said that he had got to know this (and the Shostakovich quartet) through hearing the NZSQ playing them.  He stressed the complexity in Mozart’s writing and its modernity despite being written in the eighteenth century.  He urged the audience to ‘Listen as though you haven’t heard it before”.  It was a quartet with which I was largely unfamiliar, so it was not difficult to do that.

The allegro first movement had serene episodes, but also plenty of variety, while the larghetto that followed featured a very beautiful cello theme.  The first violin took it up, sounding absolutely sumptuous, but the cello continued to have much of interest to do; as the programme note explained, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, who had commissioned the work, was a competent cellist.  The soulful slow movement was full of lovely melodies, harmonies and cadences.

The Minuet and Trio began in bright, even jolly fashion.  I was particularly aware of complex interweaving of the parts, all played with flair and unanimity.  The New Zealand String Quartet really is a national treasure.  The lively and energetic allegro assai last movement had the players putting over the spirited message clearly, as the cheerful themes were tossed from one instrument to another, giving a thoroughly enjoyable, integrated performance.  In this venue, or at least from my seat near the front, every note could be heard.

After the interval there was the première of Ross Harris’s Piano Quintet.  In his preliminary remarks, the composer told us that the opening was characterised by “Japanese opaqueness” followed by “bite” and then “gradual energy”.  He exhorted us to “listen to it as though it were written 200 years ago”!

The moods developed as he had said.  Since this was a piano quintet, the string players sat rather than standing as they do normally, so that they were on the same level as the pianist, Rolf Gjelsten eschewing his usual platform to raise his stool up.

There were some interesting passages from the piano, while at other times it seemed almost superfluous to the argument.  The strings made use of harmonics, which added to the Japanese flavour.  I found it hard to get into the appropriate listening mood; after the Mozart, the piece seemed inchoate.  The music became bleak for a long spell, then an energetic rhythm picked up, becoming briefly wild, with outbursts from the piano.  A soulful passage followed, then a high cello melody before the work ended in indecision.

Shostakovich’s ninth string quartet was prefaced by more remarks; Ross Harris said that it was the transformation of the Russian composer’s themes that he found interesting, and that it was this composer, along with Mozart, who had inspired him.

The five movements were played continuously, but had their own characters. The first, moderato con moto, had clear-cut motifs and strong harmonies.  The adagio was sombre, yet colours came to mind through its moving parts.  The use of mutes was part of this effect.  Next was an allegretto polka.  Despite the jollity, shifting tonalities gave an ominous tinge to the dance.

Although the quartet was written in 1962, I couldn’t help thinking, while listening to the solemn music of the second adagio, that the Second World War was still raging – and in a sense it still was in the Soviet Union, with its state totalitarianism in the name of communism.  The removal of mutes and the
introduction of pizzicato explosions in the second violin part and then on the viola led to agonising cries from the first violin, against a drone from violin two and viola.  Then there was total excitement for the fifth movement – or was it chaos?  This was followed by a slow dance, prior to a return to frenzy, with much vehemence from the cello.

These fine musicians put over as good account of this quartet as one could wish for – but I find the work dour and depressing despite the brilliance of both writing and execution.

It was satisfying to have such  varied programme, incorporating piano, quartet and piano quartet.


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