The New Zealand String Quartet – a “new look” ensemble….

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
Heartland Classics In Wellington

HAYDN – String Quartet in D Op.71 No.2
FARR – Quartet “Te Tai-O-Rehua” (The Tasman Sea)
SCHUBERT – String Quartet in C Minor D.703 “Quartettsatz”
DVORAK – String Quartet in F Op.96 “American”

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, 5th August, 2016

Having gotten so used to the familiar line-up of faces, performing aspects and collaborative interactions which for such a long time “were” the New Zealand String Quartet, one found oneself, to one’s surprise, initially unnerved by the prospect of experiencing a change in the order of things – especially in view of the long-term and all-round excellence of the ensemble. Of course, it stood to reason that the group, having determinedly wrought such standards of achievement, would choose a replacement for second violinist Douglas Beilman worthy of maintaining and enhancing those same standards. The thought was reassuring – one did, after all, TRUST the artistic judgements of these people!

Nevertheless, I could still feel a certain tension amid my expectations, while awaiting the appearance of the players in the Hunter Chamber Auditorium at Wellington’s Victoria University, concerning the change in ensemble which had brought Australian violinist Monique Lapins into the picture. Receptivity to individual styles of music-making is a funny thing – I’ve sometimes found myself at odds with opinions expressed by others regarding what musicians are seen and heard to do, recognising that such an individualisation is part-and-parcel of a real and personal connection with things. One can, of course, admire what a player does without feeling very much engagement or empathy with what is produced. I’d gotten so very used to being so very “engaged” with the NZSQ’s music-making, I found myself feeling anxious that such feelings would continue.

It sounds like a cliché to say that I needn’t have worried, but from the outset of the concert there seemed an uncanny “business as usual” aspect to the playing, which I suppose could partly be attributed to Monique Lapins’ undoubted abilities as an ensemble player – every concerted gesture and individual interaction between her and her colleagues had a confident, and nicely “involved“ aspect that suggested sympathy, accord, rapport – whatever one would like to call it! Naturally, I was giving her contributions more-than-usual attention, and, given that there was probably a fair degree of relief in my observations, was not being particularly dispassionate at that point in time!

So, having gotten those “concerns” off my chest, I feel now as though I can make appropriately delighted noises of welcome regarding Monique Lapins – and, as a Wellingtonian myself, wishing for her not only the enjoyment of many “great cups of Wellington coffee” whenever she gets the chance to spend time in this part of the world, but also for her and the ensemble a fruitful collaboration of many performance successes and satisfactions to come.

To the actual concert, now – and as ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten made clear in his spoken introduction to the first item on the programme, there was simply no better way to begin an evening of music for string quartet than with a work by the composer “to whom we owe everything – Josef Haydn!”. We heard the second Quartet from the Op. 71 set, written for the composer’s second visit to England after his first had proved such a great success. With these quartets Haydn took care to write more “orchestrally” than previously, as the public performance venues outside Esterhazy (where he had worked for so long) were larger, and required bigger and bolder gestures than in his previous works in the genre – hence the spacious opening chords of this work, played here with a rich, warm sound. And how richly-voiced were the interchanges between all four instruments in the allegro which followed, the music’s high spirits as much generated by the flow between the players as by the themes and rhythms themselves.

The prayerful opening to the Adagio was buoyed along by a dotted rhythm, then floated beguilingly throughout murmuring sequences, with everything shaded so subtly and beautifully, the textures almost orchestral in places as the players dug into their phrases – here, I was particularly enjoying the partnership between first and second violins, Helene Pohl’s bright, eager sounds at once matched by and contrasted with Monique Lapins’ poised, more burnished tones. Then, what delicious fun was conveyed by the players with the brief Minuet, and how much sheer delight made by Helene Pohl of the arpeggiated twist at each phrase-end, something amusingly “thrown off” by all the players at the end of the dance.

Haydn seemed to almost “leg-rope” his players at the finale’s beginning, giving the music a curious “limping” quality, which after due extended consideration suddenly animated into a “proper” allegro, the music energising players and listeners alike as all four instruments were made to scurry into and through a divertingly dovetailed latticework of lines (pardon the alliteration!), here, piling on the textures and pushing out the ambiences as they did so! It was great and engaging music-making from all concerned.

Next on the programme was Gareth Farr’s string quartet Te Tai-o-Rehua (the Tasman Sea). I liked the quote from the composer concerning the quartet – “a really interesting dinner party for four people” – though I can’t remember whether or not Monique Lapins repeated that quote for us in her introduction to the work or whether I read or heard it elsewhere. Still, it seemed entirely appropriate that the Quartet’s new member air her thoughts about the music, given its trans-Tasman associations – Farr had originally written the work for Australia’s Goldner Quartet to play as part of a co-commission between the musicians and Chamber Music New Zealand, to mark the 21st anniversary of the Wellington/Sydney sister-city association in 2013.

At the beginning we heard chant-like patterns from the second violin in tandem with more exotic-sounding elements sounded by the other instruments, mysterious tremolandi and counter-harmonics, with a wide, folksy vibrato coming from the first violin. The viola took over the rhythmic trajectories allowing the others to interact, using angular pizzicati and eerie harmonics. I thought the sonorities conjured up by these configurations and unreservedly delivered to us by the players produced a sometimes startling aural and deeply-felt experience, with the sounds ranging in effect from utmost delight of delicacy to grim and purposeful vehemence. Gareth Farr’s work has always been rhythmically driven, sometimes to the point of obsessiveness – here, in so many places I was struck by the music’s balance between rhythm and colour, and for the composer’s inventive, unpredictable deployment of those sounds, making for whole sequences of incident that lost no time in moving between the pictorial and the emotional. It all made for a darker, more volatile work that I perhaps expected to hear something which excitingly stretched one’s sensibilities.

Having remarked so frequently in the past on the NZSQ’s capacities for bringing a whole-heartedness to whatever it performs, enabling its listeners to really get to grips with the music, I was grateful to once again be transported by the experience, in particular with a work such as this, after all, conceived and written about relatively familiar territories – it was, as Douglas Lilburn once said “music about ourselves”, with as much variety and range of expression as such a quality might bring forth. I thought that, especially in a programme devoted largely to European music, the work served notice that universalities of human emotion can often be expressed just as meaningfully in local accents as in the tones of more standardised and established figures.

Gillian Ansell introduced Schubert’s Quartettsatz (literally, “Quartet-Movement”) written in 1820, after the interval. This music was intended to be part of a larger work, and would have been the first of the composer’s complete “mature” works in this genre – but for some reason – we don’t know why – Schubert abandoned the work after completing just one movement and the first few bars of a slow movement. The music was just too good to be ignored as a “failed attempt” at a complete work and so the Quartettsatz has become an often-played item at string quartet concerts. Schubert did go on to complete three further quartets, including the famous “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Perhaps the agitated nature of the writing of this quartet movement is a clue to what might have been happening in Schubert’s life at this time. It all seemed to me to be a kind of study depicting the interaction between light and dark, with the light in this case seeming so frail and tentative, vested with a kind of vulnerability in the face of the dark’s onslaught. The tones are spectral, almost “spooked”, as if waiting for the next debilitating outburst.

Need I say more than that the Quartet in characteristic fashion threw themselves at the music, making it an intensely visceral happening. The players unhesitatingly brought out the music’s fierce and brutal contrasts, giving the entire sequence of exchanges an intensely fatalistic character, almost Tchaikovskian in places. The intensities reached such levels that one was left with the feeling at the end that it seemed somewhat voyeuristic to have “enjoyed”music which conveyed so much suffering! Still, perhaps music enables a kind of understanding of such extremes, while recognising that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”.

I was surprised when Helene Pohl told us, by way of introducing the concert’s final item, that, at a Canadian chamber music festival she had recently attended, an “audience-poll” had on that occasion identified none other than Dvorak’s “American” String Quartet as the gathering’s out-and-out favourite piece of chamber music. Having tantalised us with this piece of information, the Quartet proceeded to demonstrate why this was perfectly possible, with a performance that conveyed in the music such love of life and intensity of feeling as to enable us to feel we were hugely enjoying the company of somebody energetic, gregarious and unfailingly warmhearted.

I remember reading, long ago, a remark made by some commentator or other, to the effect that Dvorak’s music was frequently “an expression of joy that brings one close to tears” – given that human responses to art are individual, and of course subjective, I do find myself returning to that remark whenever I hear certain passages in certain works by the composer. The quartet brought out this quality both in their soft playing of the first movement’s second subject, and in some of the beautifully-poised duetting passages of the slow movement, between first and second violins. And what a beautiful sequence shortly after the Scherzo’s beginning, with the two violins in melancholy duet and Rolf Gjelsten’s ‘cello singing in reply, the viola adding a gorgeous “snap” to its rounding-off comment by way of completing the circle.

After all of this, what exhilaration there was to be had from the finale’s opening rhythms! – especially from violist Gillian Ansell’s engaging sense of “schwung” throughout the opening, one taken up readily by the other players, the music’s sense of forward movement seeming to spring from a deep-seated desire to express “this worlde’s joye”. And with what ease and spontaneity the players modulated between completely different territories, taking those measures of veiled retrospection in single, deep-seated breaths before reactivating the opening’s energies and driving the music brilliantly and vigorously onwards to its joyously beckoning conclusion!

After these outpourings of physicality, the composer’s beautiful Cypress No.3 (“When thy sweet glances on me fall”) was like the proverbial balm in places, operatic and passionate in a brief middle section, then rapt and achingly lovely at the end. It was a haunting and dream-like way to finish the concert, leaving us with a kind of fully-engaged contentment with what we’d heard throughout the evening, and, in a troubled world, some reassurance in the continuance of things that are necessary for us to go on living in it.











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