Dangerous liaisons investigated by New Zealand String Quartet in restored St Mary’s

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

Beethoven: String Quartet no.1 in F, Op.18 no.1
Bartók: String Quartet no.1 in A minor, Sz.40
Schumann: String Quartet in A, Op.41 no.3

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Thursday, 7 September 2017, 7.30pm

This year, the Quartet’s tour was entitled ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, and introductory remarks explained how this epithet applied to each of the three composers whose early compositions in the genre the items were.

It was a robust and demanding programme heard by a rather modest audience.  Two little deficiencies for me: the lights were switched off entirely, save for the spotlights on the players (more of that later), and thus one could not refer to the programme during the concert; secondly, the printed programme did not carry the tempo designations of the movements.  The latter are always useful to know.  However, the spoken introductions were valuable, especially the longer one, with many musical examples, given by Helene Pohl for the Bartók..

The acoustic of the beautifully refurbished St. Mary of the Angels church is eminently suitable for chamber music, and it was good to hear all the subtleties; these can be lost in a bigger venue.  Every nuance was present in the Beethoven quartet; there was nothing mechanical about this playing.  The grand gestures of the first movement (allegro con brio) were interrupted by gentler passages.

The second movement adagio affetuoso ed appassionato, was influenced, the composer said, by the final, tragic scene in Romeo and Juliet – the ‘dangerous liaison’.  The solemn opening set the scene; towards the end the music had hints of yearning.  The beautifully expressive playing could be heard so well in the church,  Gorgeous lilting passages were followed by highly dramatic ones.

The scherzo third movement was a great contrast, being quite jolly in nature, driving ever onward.  The allegro final movement began in similar mood to the third, though it was a little more serious.  Counterpoint abounded.  Despite this quartet being one of the composer’s first, it was very assured.  Its close was flourishing and satisfying.

From early Beethoven (despite his quartet being numbered as no.1, apparently it was not the first, the numbering not being strictly chronological) to Bartók’s first composition in this genre.   The quartet is in three movements, played without breaks between.

A doleful introduction to the lento first movement evolved into more dramatic music, reflecting the composer’s unrequited love for the violinist Stefi Geyer, who broke off their relationship (another ‘dangerous liaison’).  Many different elements are present, but all the music was played in the same committed, unified way.  There are numerous passages where the violins play together, then the lower strings follow.  Concerted episodes abound also, including impassioned ones.

The second movement is marked allegretto (sometimes referred to as poco a poco accelerando all’allegretto). The quickening tempo between the three movements made its mark despite no more than the slightest breaks.  The third was allegro vivace.  Hungarian folk music features particularly in the latter two movements.  The music was often tense and highly strung and towards the end became frenetic.

It was a brilliant performance, and made me think how fortunate we are to have a resident quartet of such a high standard.

Monique Lapins introduced the final work, the Schumann.  Again, it was an early work, written in his ‘year of chamber music’, 1842, and composed in just three days.  Because of the enormous opposition from Clara Wieck’s father to her marrying Robert Schumann, and their recourse to the courts to gain permission, this too was a ‘dangerous liaison’.

Perhaps partly because Robert had by this time married Clara, the quartet is not as impassioned as the two quartets heard in the first half, and is considerably more lyrical than they.  However, it is not without passion, and the work’s many ascending sequences engender a positive mood.
(The movements are: 1. Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato, 2. Assai agitato, 3. Adagio molto, 4. Finale: Allegro molto vivace.)

Compared with the two works played earlier, this work was relatively straightforward; it was certainly more  Romantic, particularly the second movement, though the mood became gradually more disturbed, before the busy movement drew to a peaceful close.

Another disturbance intervened: the spotlights shining on the musicians went off, and there they were, playing just by the light of approximately 40 candles behind them.  As true professionals, not a note or a beat was missed, and they carried on.  The priest was able to go into an adjacent room and turn on the house lights, but the lighting for the players’ scores was not as good as the five spotlights had been.  It was easier for the reviewer to write notes, though!

The third movement was slow yet passionate in its opening phrases.  The music modulated and became more sombre.  The underpinning of the upper parts by pizzicato cello was most effective.  The melody here could be that of a song, something that Schumann excelled at, of course.

The final movement was quite jovial, like a lively dance, and brought the concert to a pleasing close.

There were some down-sides to this concert: the church was cold; the pews are very hard for sitting on for a concert-length period of time.  Then there was the lighting; at first, none for the audience, and then the failure.  As we exited the church, the priest remarked that the street lights were out.  All the CBD was without street lights, but traffic lights were working, as were lights in shop windows and some floors of office buildings.  This was noted in Friday’s news; it affected some suburbs as well as the central city.  Driving home, I was without street lights until coming to Molesworth Street.  But why should the temporary lights inside the church be affected??


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