Schubert’s Chamber Music Swan-Song at St.Andrew’s

Concert Four – The Aroha String Quartet

String Quartet in E-flat major D.87 (Op.125 No.1)
String Quintet in C major D.956 (Op.Posth.No.163)
(with Ken Ichinose, ‘cello)

The Aroha String Quartet
Haihong Liu, Simeon Broom (violins)
Zhongxian Jin (viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 5th June, 2016

It’s almost inconceivable that a “Schubertiade” of the kind organized here at St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace would not include the composer’s last and greatest chamber music work. This, of course, is the String Quintet in C Major D.958, which was completed just two months before Schubert’s death, a work he never heard performed. In fact it had to wait until 1850 for its first public performance, and another three years before it was actually published.

Despite his having completed fifteen string quartets, and numerous other chamber works besides the String Quintet, Schubert was never taken seriously by his contemporaries as a chamber music composer. He was probably inspired by Mozart’s and Beethoven’s work (both also wrote string quintets in C Major), except that Schubert chose to use a second ‘cello instead of the additional viola employed by the older composers.

Schubert’s work is therefore richer- and darker-sounding that those of his models, in a sense befitting the composer’s desperate personal circumstances at the time of the work’s writing. Of his other chamber works only his last String Quartet in G Major D.887 can compare with the Quintet in its range and scope of tragic expression – like the Quintet it was not performed in the composer’s lifetime and not published until 1851.

For this concert the Aroha String Quartet enlisted the services of NZSO ‘cellist Ken Ichinose to join with the group to play the Quintet. I had previously heard the Quartet perform the work with another NZSO ‘cellist, Andrew Joyce, and was interested as to what the ensemble’s response to the work would be like this time round with different personnel (as well as a different ‘cellist, the Quartet’s second violin had changed, Simeon Broom having taken over from Blythe Press).

I also liked the Quartet’s choice of an earlier chamber work by the composer as part of the concert, highlighting the extent of Schubert’s incredible creative advancement throughout his short life. We heard String Quartet No.10 in E-flat major D.87, written in 1813, when the composer was sixteen. Though the work lacks tonal variety (all movements being in the same key), there’s a good deal of assurance in the writing expressing itself in humourful gesture and characteristic lyricism – a perfect foil, in fact, for the later work.

In the case of each work on the programme, the Aroha Quartet’s approach took a direct, “take no prisoners” manner, which I found exciting and exhilarating in the quicker music, and incredibly intense in the slower, more lyrical and inward sequences. Right from the beginning of the earlier work, the players’ receptivity to the music’s light-and-shade was evident, mellow and relaxed for the opening exchanges, then dynamic and volatile when dealing with the development section’s agitations.

I enjoyed the palpable “squawkings” of the scherzo’s opening phrase, noting the mischievous, but also wraith-like echo of the ascending figure, sounded each time just before the players plunged back into the opening’s reprise. The Adagio brought out a different kind of earthiness to the sound, a grainy, sappy beauty at the beginning, which was transformed into something hushed and delicate when the sweet and lullabic second theme was floated on the air. After this, the finale’s tumbling energies was a kind of “hold on tight” ride in places, relaxing for the songful second melody, but plunging into the brief development section and the reprise of the opening with invigorating exuberance.

After the interval came “le déluge”, of course, in the form of the String Quintet, the players (this time with ‘cellist Ken Ichinose) losing no time in coming to grips with the work’s intentions, digging into the second brow-furrowed chord, and then relishing the fanfare-like cascadings counterpointed by the second cello’s sombre opening-theme musings. Then, the second subject sequence fell upon our ears like a lullaby, given firstly by the two cellos, and then by the two violins, both parings so very graceful and reassuring in effect, making the energies that bubbled up seem like exuberant pleasantries. The first-movement repeat brought out a sharper-focused response with a touch more theatricality, so that one seemed to notice more readily things like the second violin’s chattering volubility beneath the first’s melodic line, or the viola’s counterpoint to both of them at the same time.

A new realm came into view with the magical modulation into the middle section of the movement, giving rise to rougher, more physical textures cheek-by-jowl with the loveliness of the viola’s and ‘cello’s duetting, followed by a return to confrontation, the separate lines seeming to “square up” to one another and almost come to blows just before the recapitulation of the opening music. Only a brief lapse of poise in the upper strings resulting in a strained handful of notes distracted our sensibilities from the surety of the ensemble’s “putting things back together” and bringing the movement to a tremulous close.

The second movement (for which descriptive words seem inadequate) brought out playing which transcended time and space over those opening measures – long, flowing lines and beautifully-mirrored pulsations, the strings both bowed and plucked. Even more other-worldly were those sequences when the pared-back textures admitted only the pizzicati notes echoing across the charged sostenuto spaces, the players building the intensities with unerring purpose. In the agitated central section I admit I found myself craving more trenchant, less CIVILISED ‘cello-playing, the upper strings seeming to me to lack a deeply-disturbed enough foil for their lament. But in what seemed no time at all we found ourselves back in those opened-up sostenuto spaces, marveling all over again at the music’s strength and eloquence, the bitterness and anguished overlaid by the first violin’s sweetness of determined resignation.

What a contrast with the Scherzo’s opening, the ensemble’s performance almost frightening in its ferocity and abandonment – the intonation might not have been impeccable in places, but the music’s gutsiness and desperation was palpable – and here, the ‘cello’s counterweighted outbursts galvanized the ensemble’s energies splendidly. Just as profound was the group’s response to theTrio, those richly-upholstered downward plungings into darker regions giving us a sense of the composer’s extremities of despair and limits of privation – after the music delved as deeply as it could go, the Scherzo abruptly returned, whirling us along like some kind of juggernaut to its unequivocal conclusion.

The finale doesn’t explore the extremities of expression as viscerally as do its companions, but makes as great an overall impact through cumulative expression of a gritty determination, devoid of any self-pity. From the beginning the playing’s gait proclaimed strength and purpose, leavened by the beauty of the contrasting lyrical episodes – beautiful work here from the pair of ‘cellos, amply supported by the first violin’s lovely “thistledown” texturings and the ever-responsive ambient beauties of the middle-voices strings. In other places, the full-bloodedness of the playing brought out an occasional stridency, as if the upper strings weren’t always completely at one regarding intonation – but this mattered far less when set against the players’ whole-heartedness and sense of commitment to the composer and his coruscating vision of the fragilities of being.

Somewhere earlier I made mention of the last occasion on which I heard the Aroha Quartet perform this work, with a different second ‘cellist – having now re-read my review of that concert, I’m all the more buoyed up by this music’s renewable aspect, a sense of being “wowed” all over again by the same piece and (mostly) the same performers, but in a way that belongs entirely to “this time round”. There was nothing second-hand or reworked about the music-making, here – it all came to us with startling and invigorating immediacy, on its own terms truly memorable.




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