New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)
Mozart: String Quartet no.16 in E flat, K.428
Gillian Whitehead: Poroporoaki
Dvořák: Cypresses, nos.3 and 11
Mendelssohn: String Quartet no.3 in D, Op.44 no.1
Pataka Art + Museum, Porirua
Wednesday, 3 August 2016, 7.30pm
In the Quartet’s Heartland Classics tour, a number of smaller venues are being visited. This was the second on the 11-centre tour. It attracted an audience of approximately 100; the outstanding programme and playing received generous applause from those present. It was good to see some children there.
The programme began with one of Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ Quartets. In her remarks, Gillian Ansell informed us that the first performance was played by four composers: Haydn, Mozart, Dittersdorf and Vanhal (also spelt Wanhal). The first movement (molto allegro vivace) had sombre opening chords that soon gave way to euphonious jollity. There was both expression and dynamic variety in the playing. The subtlety of utterance was quite breathtaking.
The opening of the andante second movement was gorgeous: smooth, lyrical, blended, idyllic. Listening to this was like being in another world. The modulation into a minor key affected the mood, but it was still blissful music. It was so good to hear it in a smaller venue than is often the case.
The third movement was a sprightly minuet. A staccato section was quite amusing in its lightness and playfulness; the trio was almost doleful by comparison. The return to the minuet was marked by great precision. The final movement, allegro vivace, had a similar jolly character to the first movement, bravura passages and all. Its motifs were uncomplicated, but their treatment gave plenty of scope for intriguing variations.
We moved now to an unusual work, introduced by Helene Pohl in some detail. The musicians demonstrated Gillian Whitehead’s skilful incorporation of the sounds of a number of taonga puoro, played on their stringed instruments. It was amazing how much like the originals, made variously of wood, gourd, stone and shell, the sounds could be, using a variety of techniques. They showed photos, some considerable enlargements, of the original instruments. This work was written for the Quartet to play at a conference in China honouring the composer Jack Body, last December. It was a brilliant piece of work, superbly rendered. The interweaving of the various instruments was achieved in a thoroughly musical way, each of the stringed instruments having its moments of prominence, but all as part of a cohesive and striking whole.
Two short pieces by Dvořák followed. These were two of the 12 pieces entitled Cypresses, inspired by poems by Gustav Pfleger Moravsky, that Dvořák arranged for string quartet from the larger number of songs he had written much earlier. The quartet pieces were published in 1887, and the two we heard were entitled ‘When thy sweet glances on me fall’ and ‘Nature lies peaceful in slumber and dreaming’. Monique Lapins read out the poems, which were, like their fellows, about unrequited love.
The first certainly expressed a sort of exquisite pain, while the second, in contrast, had a more positive tone, contemplating the joys of nature, though still being about unrequited love. That love of melody and of rhythmic felicity typical of Dvořák was much in evidence in this attractive music.
The New Zealand String Quartet has recorded all of Mendelssohn’s string quartets, including some shorter pieces written for four string players. The quartet no.3 was introduced by Rolf Gjelsten, whose lively remarks stressed the excellence of the counterpoint to be found throughout the work, making it very interesting for each part to play. Its setting in the happy, cheerful key of D major helped to make this one of NZSQ’s favourite works to play.
The exuberant first movement (molto allegro vivace) had contrasting quiet passages – but these were almost obliterated by the sound of heavy rain outside. Nevertheless, the movement was full of zest and enthusiasm, as was the playing. A repeated passage that was almost spooky followed, yet it also had delicious harmonies and intricate counterpoint. Indeed, no moment lacked interest.
The second movement (menuetto: un poco allegretto) began in a pastoral, languid mood, yet it also had intensity, and strong melodies. The third movement (andante espressivo ma con moto) was lilting, but with drive. The principal melody on the other strings was accompanied by pizzicato from the cello. This was a delightful movement. The finale (presto con brio) was spirited and dance-like. Mendelssohn knew how to capture the audience’s attention from the first notes or chords. The fugato in this movement, with which the composer was apparently very pleased (according to the programme note) was indeed thoroughly satisfying, as was the entire programme.
The Quartet play again, a different programme, on Friday 5 August at 7:30pm, at the Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington.