Excellent Kiwa String Quartet (NZSO players) in programme of quartet masterpieces and a couple of fun pieces

Kiwa Quartet: Malavika Gopal and Alan Molina (violins), Sophia Acheson (viola) and Ken Ichinose (cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat, Op 18/6
John Adams: ‘John’s Book of Alleged Dances’
Gareth Farr: Mondo Rondo
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No 1 in D, Op 11

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 9 July, 3 pm

We have reached the mid-point in Wellington Chamber Music’s seven-concert 2017 series of Sunday afternoon concerts. A string quartet of players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with an intelligently balanced programme that might well have attracted a much bigger audience.

It opened with the last of the set of six quartets, Beethoven’s Opus 18 No 6.
It begins with a movement marked Allegro con brio, and so the players approached it, energetically, even brusquely, taking pains with the distinct contrasts between the violins and the viola/cello, and to give emphasis to particular beats, and moving between certain notes with a distinct ‘scoop’ or glissando, which till recently has been frowned upon, but such rigidity is declining. In the second movement, the second violin’s subdued handling of the second theme, was interesting, sounding muted though it wasn’t; it was later taken up by the cello and passed around, but violin 2 struck me as having a special voice here. It’s a movement with a curious hushed, secretive quality that they captured very nicely.

The entire set contains music that no one other than Beethoven could have written and the Scherzo is no exception, with a strongly contrasting Trio that doesn’t lead to a repeat of the Scherzo itself. The most original part of the work is the Finale with its Malinconia opening that continues for nearly four minutes, with abrupt, strong interjections, before the conventional spirit of a Finale breaks through, with the leader’s violin dominating for a long time before others pick up elements of the themes. The Malinconia returns briefly and it was handled again with a fine sense of its strangeness.

John Adams’s sense of humour – of the droll perhaps – is marked, and the quartet handled four of the pieces from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, playing out his penchant for the unorthodox, in the right spirit. I was not certain about the order of the pieces played as the notes had them in a different order from the way they were listed in the heading. They were intended, one assumes, as pieces that a string quartet could use to punctuate a programme, and the players had no difficulty in capturing the wit in its many aspects, especially in the task of keeping in step with the sounds from the pre-recorded tape accompanying each, making a curious, surprising commentary on what the live players were doing.

A step back to the serious business in hand came after the interval with Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo which gets played fairly often. Three parts, or movements, if that’s not technical a term; the first with tumbling passages indulging in a range of playful violin techniques. The second part, Mumbo Jumbo, alternates soft pizzicato, hard bowing, and then prickly pizzicato and a long-breathed melody from the second violin; while Mambo Rambo goes fast, offering a mock melody of rich emotional substance. The quartet again displayed a lively versatility in which elegant, polished playing wasn’t relevant, but which revealed many other qualities.

Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet was an excellent way to end the recital, handling the hesitations of the first theme with rather moving simplicity; though it’s symphonic in tone, individual instruments have turns in the spotlight, particularly the cello which, somewhat to my surprise, seemed to occupy the emotional centre at times.

Such a hugely popular movement as the Andante cantabile might invite knowing reactions from audiences intent on finding blemishes; every performance is slightly different and here it was low key, modest, not given to excessive sobbing or tragic colouring, even with in the viola’s particularly moving episode later. It was a beautiful performance.

There is something very symphonic, again, about the scoring of the Scherzo which really responds to energetic playing with rich ensemble, ending so enigmatically. The last movement has a dense contrapuntal character that rewards attention, and I loved the way the cello led the way toward the rallentando, near stopping, before the brilliant little Coda.

I’m not sure that I’ve heard this quartet before, though the note said they formed in 2015. Middle C’s first (and only) review of them was in November last year when they played the same Beethoven quartet and a couple of the John Adams’s pieces.

We should be delighted at the chance to hear four gifted professional musicians from the best orchestra in the country, playing programmes that combine entertaining curiosities with truly great masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire. They deserved a full house.



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