The Troubadour String Quartet (Arna Morton and Rebecca Wang – violins, Elyse Dalabakis – viola, Anna-Marie Alloway – cello)
Haydn: String Quartet in G, Op 77 No 1
Alfred Hill: String Quartet No 3 in A minor (The Carnival)
Britten: String Quartet No 2 in C, Op 36
Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
Monday 24 July, 7:30 pm
At the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson this year, the Troubadour Quartet gave two free concerts, one giving the same Britten quartet that they played here, the second, Schubert’s A minor quartet (Rosamunde). I was there for a few days and really regret not hearing them.
For it took only a few bars of the Haydn quartet (one of his very last) to show me that these were players of real talent and insight. Its first movement came as a revelation of care, sensitivity, delicately springing rhythms, subtle humour; an interesting range of instrumental colour, in part at least through the contrast between the bright first violin and the warmer, almost viola-like second. In particular, I delighted in the quartet’s agility, tossing the parts from one to another.
In the second movement, cellist Alloway had a few bars of prominence, enriching its meditative character, and she also supplied a throbbing undercurrent. After about three minutes all movement seems to cease and the players held us breathlessly awaiting the return of the main theme and its slow pulse.
There was a seriousness and emotional depth in the Adagio that reminded me that it was written, 1799, around the time of Haydn’s last, beautiful masses; no more symphonies, concertos, operas or piano trios. And after this came just two more string quartets, one unfinished.
The Menuetto took us back to the more familiar Haydn, energetic, overflowing melody and rhythm; and then the rather astonishing trio section, hard down-bowing, no longer any semblance of aristocratic minuet; as the programme remarks, it approaches the Beethovenish Scherzo which replaced the minuet and trio of the earlier, Classical period. Then in the last movement, Haydn reminds us that he was to become most famous for his 104 symphonies, as both in the denser scoring, playfulness and rhythmic energy; it sounds like a symphony trying to break out. It all emerged in a performance that was clearly thoroughly rehearsed and thought out. The applause rather suggested that the audience was pretty surprised at such an accomplished and committed performance.
The quartet by Alfred Hill probably aroused more uncertainty in many listeners, as till very recently, it has been fashionable to dismiss him as an inconsequential imitator who was unable to measure up to the great figures of his generation (born 1869, close to Sibelius, Reger, Busoni, Roussel, Vaughan Williams, Scriabin, Rachmaninov… and Schoenberg!).
The Wellington-based Dominion String Quartet has recorded all 17 of Hill’s quartets and have been sturdy advocates for his music; however, some of his 13 symphonies, mostly derived by Hill from his quartets, have been championed by Australia (recorded by the Melbourne and Queensland symphony orchestras). Australia likes to claim him as one of theirs as he was born in Melbourne, but his family came to New Zealand two years later and Hill spent most of his first 30 years in New Zealand, in Wellington, with a period at the Leipzig Conservatorium. He spent most of his latter 60 years in Australia because he was offered better opportunities, being co-founder of the NSW Conservatorium and was an important figure in Australian music. His 90th birthday was celebrated by a special concert of his music played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henry Krips.
No comparable attention has been paid to him here, and as far as I know none of his symphonies have been played by a New Zealand orchestra.
Listening to this quartet is to feel its place in the Hill’s era, if in the company of the rather less famous and ground-breaking. The first movement intrigued me with a feeling of its rhythmic uncertainty, as if there were permitted alternative ways of handling the metre. Unadventurous perhaps, but not to be dismissed. The dreamy Andantino, second movement verged on the sentimental until a modulation made me pay attention, and indeed, it became more interesting, with a genuine emotional feeling. And Dalabakis’s viola became prominent in its last phase. The third movement was marked with a distinctive character, even if not radical or especially original; yet the players exploited its individuality with commitment.
The last movement was another matter: was there a certain Maori quality in its rhythm and melodic feel? Or was it more akin to Balkan, Gypsyish sounds; and still looking for resonances, there seemed melodic hints of Viennese operetta. There was even an episode in which stamping called up eastern European folk dance, even though the notes drew attention to the piece’s original title The Carnival or The Student in Italy. It was a very lively and committed performance of a piece that should encourage more exploration and performance of Hill’s music.
Benjamin Britten wrote three string quartets; this one was written to mark the 250th anniversary in 1945, of Purcell’s death. And it was the third movement, a chaconne, that offered references, though probably not especially conspicuous for most listeners, to the earlier composer.
The performance opened dramatically, not simply in the somewhat mysterious, even anguished, wide-spaced themes that introduce it, but with leader, Arna Morton, breaking a string. A repeat of the opening measures was rewarding, as it had been so immediately arresting, and the emotional impact was simply duplicated; and after a little while it gathers both speed and emotional force.
Even though written in a tonic vocabulary, it sounds of its time, the end of World War II, through its generally sombre feeling rather than any particular lamenting. As for its context, Morton, who has studied Britten for her PhD, drew attention to his feeling of isolation, as a homosexual, a pacifist, a committed left-winger (did she also say, his aversion to the prevailing ‘pastoral’ character of English music of the period?), all of which might account for the mood of the music.
Without a score it’s not easy to describe the structure of the first movement, and I’m limited to remarking the episodes (‘variations’ in essence) of markedly different speed, motifs that are chased, canon-like by each player in turn, the throbbing beat of four-note quavers, the biting commentary by the cello here and there. There are surprises such as the series of glissandi around the middle, and a meditative, viola-led diminuendo as the end approaches.
Nothing was more striking, perhaps chilling, than the slow subsidence to a high, lonely, ppp note from Morton’s violin, followed by a motivic scrap from the central section, on the cello. One anonymous remark from the Internet: “Britten’s number 2 is an isolated masterpiece of a genius. This is as powerful, astonishing and emotionally draining as any work for the genre ever written.” I admire such definitive, risky assertions like this, instead of the more usual cautious, ambivalent judgements that most of us shelter behind.
The second movement, Scherzo, seems to be a reworking of the more spirited parts of the first – on the cello, much more agitated, with ferocious down-bowings, driven by fast triplet quavers, referred to in the programme note as a ‘Danse macabre’: to me, not really….
The third movement, Chacony: Sostenuto, honouring Purcell, quarter-hour long, seems an extraordinary creation by a youngster of 32. The first section is a chorale-like lament with almost incessant dotted semi-quavers: calm, edgy, verging dissonance, in which all contribute till Alloway’s cello plays a long, plaintive meditation leading to an agitated section that becomes increasingly impatient. If a set of variations in the slow triple time that’s characteristic of the chaconne is what you expect, it wasn’t the main focus for this listener, even after the pulse rate drops in the meandering, polyphonic writing around the middle of the movement.
Rebecca Wang’s second violin had a long, grieving solo passage, soon passed to others, importantly the cello again, then viola. Some parts – variations, though the individual sections are profoundly evocative, yet elusive – might seem rhapsodic, though the sense of its imposing structure was always clearly felt, and impressively so in this performance that seemed so thoroughly studied, ingested and technically mastered.
In spite of hints of a wide range of musical eras and genres, try as I might to spot influences, I couldn’t mistake such prevailing unity of mood and sense that left no one but Britten as a candidate composer. In all, it was a concert that emerged with far greater variety and richness than I’d expected: revelatory, fascinating and compelling.