Digestible lunchtime concerts: whole and parts of lovely music from Aroha String Quartet

International Music Academy 2017 Tutors’ Concert
Members of the Aroha Quartet (Haihong Liu – violin, Zhongxian Jin – viola, Robert Ibell – cello) and guest tutors Diedre Irons (piano), Joan Perarnau Garriga (double bass)

Rossini: String Sonata No 1 in G;
Beethoven: String Trio No 3 in G, Op 9 No 1, 1st movement
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, Op 114, D 667, ‘The Trout’, 1st movement
Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor Op 25 4th movement

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 2 August 2017, 12:15 pm

This week, from 1 to 6 August, the Aroha String Quartet International Music Academy, supported by Trinity College in London, is being held at St Andrew’s. This concert was a sampler employing just five of the tutors at the Academy. The others, not involved with today’s concert, are Ursula Evans – second violin in the Quartet; Donald Armstrong – violin and string ensemble director, Ken Ichinose – cello), Robin Perks, Michael Cuncannon and Manshan Yang (chamber music).

The occasion offered the chance, with a pianist and double bass player on hand, to hear a couple of chamber pieces that are less often played, though one is of course very well-known.

Rossini wrote six ‘sonatas’ for two violins, a cello and a double bass, at the age of twelve. And remarks about them and their performances by him and his friends reflect what we know of the attractive and witty Rossini who lived on for a further 55 or so years. They’ve been recorded several times but I’ve never heard them in live performance. The first one takes ten to twelve minutes and so was an ideal item for a ¾ hour lunchtime concert.

Naturally, the presence of double bass makes an immediate difference to the character of the music. As one who relishes the lower pitched instruments, it’s surprising that the pattern of the Haydn string quartet has remained the almost exclusive form for small string ensembles. If its contribution was not too overtly humorous, in the way the bassoon’s sounds are often exploited. In the second movement it relished some droll, pensive rhythms.

In addition to the bass, the cello enjoyed some long, rich, melodic lines, always seeming to verge on a smile if not laughter. At the beginning, not being able to see very clearly, I imagined that the second violin (Rossini’s instrument in the first performances) was a viola, since it was played by the Aroha’s violist, Zhongxian Jin, but my ears soon corrected the mistake; it was by no means relegated to a subservient place, and it enjoyed some passages that were as showy as that of the splendid first violin.

Already, the gift for delightful melody was conspicuous: Rossini’s genius in the realm of comic opera was already clear. Let’s hope that Marjan van Waardenberg can persuade these players to programme them one by one over the next year.

Beethoven’s string trios are even less familiar I would guess, though I have heard them played in Wellington (by whom I cannot remember). They were written about five or six years before Rossini’s, and when Beethoven was twice Rossini’s age, and they inhabit a similar spirited space. The first of the three begins in a strangely hesitant manner, as if to presage something of more than passing significance. And the main body of the movement leaves no doubt that Beethoven took these pieces seriously, resolute arpeggios and a main theme of wide-ranging pitches, fairly distributed among all three instruments. An excellent taster, that any string quartet, or a piano quartet whose pianist wanted a rest, should look at to lend variety to a recital.

The role of the first movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet was obviously different here: to employ Joan Perarnau Garriga’s double bass. If lack of familiarity with the Beethoven would have caused little sense of unfulfillment, that was a slight problem with Schubert’s wonderful piece. The first movement was graceful and steady, with all five instruments in perfect accord, including the piano, which can be hard, surrounded by the reflective surfaces of St Andrew’s, to keep in balance: Diedre Irons contribution was limpid and beautiful. Again, the double bass contributed a subtly humorous flavour, on its lower strings. And yes, it did seem a bit mean to leave us hanging at the end, with the next movement in our mind…

Then came the last movement of Brahms first piano quartet, the well-known Gypsy Rondo. Again, even with the piano lid on its long stick and the floor which remained hard, the ensemble was superb, especially in the grandiose middle section; the character of the music changes constantly, reflecting what Brahms knew about Gypsy music – its aim of giving delight: a gently swaying section, flamboyant exclamations, a Lento, a playful  episode before returning to the ferocious Molto Presto.

I wouldn’t want to endorse too unconditionally the habit, rather excessively followed by RadioNZ Concert, of playing only one movement of major works, but this was a delightful recital: how did it go with the week’s political events?

(The ASQ Academy 2017 Final Concert, supported by Trinity College London, at St is at Andrew’s on Sunday 6 August, 4 pm; see our Coming Events).

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