New Zealand String Quartet, minus 2nd violin, avoids any string quartets in different combinations with pianist Jian Liu

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello) with Jian Liu (piano)

Schubert: String trio in B flat, D.471
Beethoven: Cello sonata no.4 in C, Op.102/1
Fauré: Piano quartet no.1 in C minor, Op.15

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday, 20 April 2016, 7.30pm

This time, there was a different disposition of the quartet and the audience in the room; the players had their backs to one of the sections of raised seating and the audience sat either in the other section or at floor level, the latter with their backs to the raised seating, rather than being between the two upper levels.  The musicians usually have their backs to the large memorial window in the Council Chamber.  Initially, I thought this arrangement made for a little more echo in the sound, but this impression soon wore off.

After a spoken introduction from Gillian Ansell, Schubert presented us with a most mellifluous opening, full of rising cadences.  The trio, written when the composer was 19, was never completed, and consists of an allegro movement, plus fragments of an andante – the latter were not played.  The allegro is playful, and proved to be a splendid vehicle for demonstrating the unanimity of the players, who for their next concert in Wellington will return to being a complete quartet, with the commencement of their new second violinist.

I believe the players’ practice of standing to perform (with the cellist on a low platform, bringing him to a height equivalent to that of the standing players) projects the music better to the audience, especially in a room like the Council Chamber, which has a carpeted floor.

Soon, the warm sounds of the viola struck me, and the not-so-deep but gutsy, supporting tone of the cello.  Above was the light, airy and tuneful violin.  This was a beautiful, lyrical short trio.

Beethoven’s cello sonata was quite experimental, Rolf Gjelsten said in his introduction.  It was a late work by the composer, and not easy for his contemporaries to comprehend, but one later said that Beethoven was preparing his listeners for the great works to come.

Wikipedia says: “This short, almost enigmatic work demonstrates in concentrated form how Beethoven was becoming ready to challenge and even subvert the sonata structures he inherited from composers such as Haydn and Mozart.”  It consists of two movements, but with much variety within them: 1. Andante – Allegro vivace; 2. Adagio – Tempo d’andante – Allegro vivace.

Its opening was mellow and benign, with the piano echoing the cello’s phrases, as well having gorgeous ripples of its own.  Then came the more excited allegro vivace, and the swift, quixotic moves from soft to loud and apparently sudden changes of direction.  A certain amount of nasal accompaniment from the cellist was distracting at times, given the closeness of the instrumentalists to the audience.  A movement that was lively overall was followed by the calm, slow commencement of the second.  Here, the piano initially had more of the interesting material, but the cello soon took over, and in no time the conversation was going back and forth. The music became more excited and complex in the interchange between the instruments.

A short section with sforzandi at the ends of phrases underlined what Rolf Gjelsten had said about the work being experimental.  There were great flourishes from both instruments at the end.

The other musicians returned for Fauré’s piano quartet; they were seated, to be on the same level as the pianist.  Helene Pohl introduced the piece, and described the music as swirling, and noted that two of the movements were unusually in three beats in the bar.  She said that the work demanding virtuoso playing, especially from the piano; we had this amply demonstrated in the sensitivity and beauty of Jian Liu’s playing. The sound seemed to me to be more mellow when all players were sitting, but in this space it is not swallowed up, because of the high, wooden ceiling.

A grand but very satisfying beginning to the work led to impassioned expression, and motifs passed around from instrument to instrument.  There was, as we have come to expect over many years, highly skilled playing from all four musicians.

This urbane, sophisticated yet passionate work was engaging, enlightening and life-enhancing.  It is full of delicacy but also strength.  The first movement ended in a glowing calm.  The second movement’s pizzicato opening was echoed in the sprightly piano part, where there were also lots of running passages.  Mutes were then employed; Jian Liu produced a similarly muted tone on the piano. A kind of perpetuum mobile followed, with constant activity from all instruments.

The funereal music of the third movement was sombre and slow, with interesting harmonies and clashes.  There were emotional peaks and troughs, and cascades from the piano, while the strings returned to the sombre.

The final movement was quick, even skittish on all instruments.  A momentum built up which seemed unstoppable, but there was a sequence of solo phrases from each instruments, leading to renewed excitement for all.  A section of resigned hopefulness reminded me of passages in Schumann’s piano quintet.

Virtuosity was certainly required, and supplied, by all the players here, but especially the pianist.  What a master Fauré was!  And so are these players, demonstrated by their playing the second movement again as an encore.


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