Enso String Quartet highly impressive in all eras particularly 20th century France

Enso String Quartet: Maureen Nelson and Ken Hamao (violins), Melissa Reardon (viola), Richard Belcher (cello)

Beethoven: Quartet in E flat, Op 74 ‘Harp’
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
Alex Taylor: a coincidence of surfaces (CMNZ Commission)
Ravel: String Quartet in F

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 May, 7:30 pm

One of the first things that many people would have asked about this concert, was ‘what’s the name mean or is an acronym for?’ Nowhere in the programme could I find the answer.

However, their website does ‘sort-of’ explain:

“The ensemble’s name is derived from the Japanese Zen painting of the circle, which represents many things: perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”

But it doesn’t explain why it has the name; a four letter word ‘s connection to a Japanese painting of the circle doesn’t really help, except in a misty impressionist way.
Perhaps they meant to add, “Enso is Japanese for a circle, or ‘a painting of a circle’”.
The second violinist, Ken Hamao is of Japanese descent; is that a connection?
One of the leader’s, Maureen Nelson, teachers was Yumi Ninomiya Scott: another connection?

But the concert.

Familiar classics opened and closed the concert; first, one of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ quartets called the ‘Harp’ on account of a lot of pizzicato particularly in the first movement.

It began secretively, as if to allay any discomfort about what probably sounded rather radical, though hardly alienating, to audiences of the first decade of the 19th century. I was immediately won over by the scrupulous attention to every marking and, one felt, dynamic and bowing refinements that Beethoven might have hardly conceived. There were moments of frenzy, with general pizzicato and touches, like the surprise-like fortissimo single chords, that awoke an awareness of the Beethoven-to-come more emphatically a decade later – the ‘Late’ period.

Perhaps, I wondered after a while, there are a few listeners of acute, self-acknowledged sensibility who feel there was just too much particularity, too much fussiness in articulation and subtle rubato and dynamic delicacy; not I.

The second movement’s unobtrusive opening melody points more towards the future, as if careful to avoid a full-blooded tune, but then it arrived – the really gorgeous melody, emerging perhaps from the earlier hesitant theme, and its treatment was almost too voluptuous as the second violin took charge of it while the first played a rocking accompaniment.

The quartet tackled the scherzo movement, Presto, with all the ferocity needed. To make an impact, what might be called the Trio is a forthright section that departs from the triple time of the main part, to common, 4/4 time; though it’s in quaver triplets which turns ghostly again to simply peter out, leaving just a moment before the Finale begins. The Finale, a theme and variations, was again treated in a spirit that exploited its surprises. It too contains moments of pianissimo that become startling and the players handled it all with wonderful variety, a seeming utter inevitability.

Dutilleux’s only string quartet is not entirely untypical of his other, rather small quantity of music, considering he almost reached 100. The two symphonies, the cello concerto (Tout un monde lointain), and the piano sonata are reasonably approachable, warmer, more comfortable.

In 2012 the Amici Ensemble played the quartet at a Wellington Chamber Music concert; I did not hear it. (See Middle C’s review of 12 August 2012).

The demands of a string quartet prompted Dutilleux to refine his voice and devote himself to cultivating all the subtleties of colour, to chisel the most detailed contrapuntal contours, seeking a composing equilibrium through an act of dizzying balancing. The structure of the music, designed uniquely by the composer, as is not uncommon in this age, does at the start present an intellectual hurdle, if the listener is of a mind to follow the music’s argument as the composer has presumably intended.

There are two alternatives:
i) either you give over, without paying much attention to the composer’s notes, to whatever impressions the music makes, hoping it will prove rewarding;
ii) or you study the notes beforehand, preferably listening to a recording (I would even add, ‘and reading the score’, if that was not likely to be quite useless in a work of such phantasmagorical capriciousness), and attempt to relate the descriptions to what you hear. For a great many quite serious listeners this course would probably create a pre-ordained sense of defeat. I chose the former course this evening, though I had listened to a recording a couple of times, the explanatory notes to hand.

The first five of the seven movements are linked by what Dutilleux calls ‘Parentheses’, recognition of which in the withering density of the music is hard if not impossible at first hearing. In a French commentary: “the parentheses – often quite short – which link the parts one to another are important for the organic role which devolves on them. The allusions to what is to follow – or what has preceded it – take their place like points of reference.”

It’s the sort of work, by a highly regarded composer, that many would not want to be judged for confessing to mystification; showing they lack sensibility or taste or discernment or insight into contemporary music. There are almost constant tremolos, pizzicato, muted passages, false harmonics, spiccato; one hears fragmentary themes emerging, and returning later, and much atmospheric evocation, occasional calm passages in which the four players have a chance to communicate more calmly with one another

In other words, many would have found it hard to ‘follow’, though to gain a sense of its generally brittle emotional character is not so hard, and a performance such as we heard, from a highly talented, youngish ensemble for whom Dutilleux’s language is probably as familiar as Haydn, could not help being highly persuasive.

The CMNZ commission from young Auckland composer Alex Taylor presented a soundscape that was not all that remote from Dutilleux. A short piece of about six minutes, it had time to make an impression from the hands of these musicians who were apparently in sympathy with the music’s character and inventiveness, and towards the end seemed to drift into a narrative that sustained its last page. Though the first few minutes offered little opportunity to gain a familiarity with its musical ideas so that one could follow its structure (a feat that some claim to achieve at once though others tell the truth). One of the advantages of a short piece is the opportunity for it to be played again.

And so it was, but even better. At the end of the concert the audience was invited to remain while the Aroha came to the stage to join Enso in a performance of the octet version.

The Aroha Quartet had been involved in Elizabeth Kerr’s pre-concert talk (which I didn’t hear) where they played another version of Taylor’s piece, rather slower, more lyrical, less hectic. The two versions had been written so they could be played together. Each quartet sat in a separate semi-circle. The two accounts could thus be quite easily distinguished and for me, perhaps with the benefit of hearing the music, in a rather different guise, a second time, it became distinctly more coherent and, well, musical.

Ravel’s String Quartet ended the programme. Seventy-four years older than the Dutilleux, 113 years older than Taylor’s.

Enso launched into it with energy and affection, finding all its expressiveness and subtlety. Ravel’s failure to win the Prix de Rome, with this work on the desks of the adjudicators, is one of the great mysteries of musical history, since it’s so rich in vitality, not to mention melody. One can perhaps understand Dubois’s failure to get it, but hardly Fauré’s, even acknowledging that the Assez vif second movement is a bit spiky, and studiedly un-romantic; Enso handled it commandingly. The strange, ghostly episodes in the third movement were among the most arresting points, returning slowly to the real world at the end, as a lovely viola passage caught my ear, in a breathless, exquisite spirit.

The finale, Vif et agité, was just that, bringing a memorable performance to an end; and I wondered whether, in another thirty years or so, the Dutilleux will sound as scintillating and varied and memorable as the Ravel does now.