Outstanding programme by New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Mozart: String quartet no.20 in D, K.499 “Hoffmeister”
Shostakovich: String quartet no.3 in F, Op. 73
Dvořák: String quartet no.14 in A flat, Op.105

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Donald Armstrong, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 19 April 2015, 2.30pm

Since Gillian, Helene and now Douglas have all suffered hand injuries, is Rolf Gjelsten next – or does it simply prove that the cello is much the safest instrument to play?   The audience at Waikanae was fortunate that the substitute for Douglas Beilman was such a fine chamber musician as Donald

Gillian Ansell introduced the first work as being both sublime and light-hearted, and so it proved.  The superb balance of the team was apparent right from the outset.  Their strong, confident playing was yet subject to great variation of dynamics.  The quick allegretto first movement showered over one in a rain of beautiful notes and cadences.  To mix the meteorological metaphor: the mood was uplifting and sunny, like the day.

The minuet and trio contained delightful phrases, almost seeming to be impulsive in their gaiety, while the adagio third movement epitomised peace – surely an appropriate theme for this week.  Its solemnity betrayed the fact that it was full of fresh ideas; mellowness and serenity typified the mood.  Apart from a few unison notes that were not utterly united, one could not fault the beautiful playing.

The allegro finale’s surprise opening led to a jolly outpouring of delicious phrases, harmonies and running passages.  To see the smiles of the performers as they took their bows to the audience gave the strong impression that they enjoyed themselves too.

Shostakovich’s quartet no.3 was not one with which I was familiar.  Helene Pohl introduced it, making a contrast between the composer’s necessary recitation, as a student, of the happiness brought by Joseph Stalin and her own required recitation of allegiance to the US flag, when she was young. The exemplary
programme notes stated that the quartet was written in 1946 as a ‘war quartet’ and gave the descriptions that the composer had original given to the movements.  All this made it an appropriate work for the week leading up to Anzac Day, and contributed hugely to the audience’s understanding of the music.

The first movement (allegretto) opens with a dance of apparent innocence and joy.  It was tuneful, with interesting harmonic twists (‘Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm’).  There followed passages in a high tessitura, that became frenetic, perhaps as a precursor of what was to come.  They were followed by a cheeky ending.

The moderato con moto second movement was very different (‘Rumblings of unrest and anticipation’), being ominous and even excruciating in tone.  Repetitive passages could be depicting troops marching.  Some phrases made me think of dead flowers, which amplified the sombre mood of foreboding.

Movement three (allegro non troppo; ‘The forces of war unleashed’) was indeed as described.  There was relentless pursuit and counter-attack.  A sombre yet frenetic viola solo accompanied by the other strings playing pizzicato was remarkable.  Such skilled quartet writing!  It soon led to an abrupt ending.

The adagio (‘Homage to the dead’) fourth movement was written during a visit by Shostakovich to his home city of Leningrad, the scene of so much devastation and death so recently before.  A desolate
opening led to intense and emotional feelings of despondency and hopelessness.  Its outpourings at so much grieving, so much that the people had to cope with were tremendously powerful.

The final movement (moderato, ‘The eternal question: Why?  And for what?’) incorporated, Helene told us, Jewish music, with its characteristic ‘laughter through tears’.  Thus the jaunty section at the beginning (though the programme notes described it as ‘a wry, spectral melody’.  It was hardly jollity that was being described, and the mood soon reverted to one of bitterness and mourning, only to have the jaunty melody and rhythm return. Again, it does not last, and a quite tragic passage ends the movement and the quartet.

This was a remarkable performance; ‘searing’ as someone said to me.  It completely enveloped the audience; it was a singular triumph.

After the interval – some Dvořák to cheer us up!  The opening was a quiet adagio ma non troppo, in a mood of repose, and even sadness,  but we were soon into a delightful allegro appassionata, the melodies, harmonies and their accompaniment reminiscent of some of the composer’s other chamber music.  Energy drove all forward to a brisk ending.

The lyrical second movement (molto vivace) was like a quick dance, followed by a slower, more heart-felt melody.  It ended with a soon-to-be-unison note.

Lento e molto cantabile was soulful, with gorgeous inter-weaving harmonies, to be followed by quite a spooky theme.  A return to more passionate tones led to quite a calm close.  The allegro non tanto finale was a fast dance.  The vigorous playing led to a few wonky notes from the musicians, who must have surely been tired by now, with such a challenging programme behind them.

The large audience was privileged to hear fine performances in an outstanding programme of contrasts, and all showed their warm appreciation.



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