Playing with fire – music that sears and burns, from the New Zealand String Quartet

The NZSQ’s Dangerous Liasions Tour 2017 – programme 2 (Wellington)
JANACEK – String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”
JACK BODY – Saetas
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No.2 in A Minor Op.13

Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 10th September, 2017

The NZSQ’s 30th anniversary “Dangerous Liasons” national tour featured two programmes of works which encapsulated so much of what the ensemble has already achieved throughout its existence, including world-class presentations of some of the core string quartet repertoire, both in concert and on recordings, and an on-going committment to New Zealand music. Works by Beethoven, Bartok, Schumann and Mendelssohn have been given much-acclaimed performances in all parts of the country, and recordings of complete cycles of quartets by Bartok and Mendelssohn have internationally enhanced the group’s reputation. I would truly welcome a completed recorded cycle by the group of the Beethoven Quartets, to parallel Michael Houstoun’s already-completed recordings of the composer’s piano sonatas, for the sake of directly preserving the sheer quality of an achievement we’ve similarly acclaimed.

I thought that I’d previously encountered the first of Leos Janacek’s two string quartets as performed by the NZSQ at some stage – but a search of Middle C failed to turn up a review. Though I couldn’t specifically recall a previous hearing of either of the quartets I knew what to expect from the composer, having been variously excited and bewildered by my first encounters with his music (the Sinfonietta, plus a rhapsodic and volatile orchestral work called Taras Bulba), and sufficiently engaged by it all to explore further – piano pieces (Along an Overgrown Path, In the Mist), chamber works (Capriccio, Concertino) and opera (The Cunning Little Vixen).

Janacek (1854-1928), a native of Moravia, was one of music’s most remarkable “late bloomers”, producing in his 60s and 70s most of the works that would carry his name throughout the twentieth century and into the present day as one of the most original and innovative composers of his time. At an age when most people had long since sowed their wild oats and settled down to enjoy what has endured in their lives and would “see them out”, Janacek was experiencing a remarkable renaissance of activity and emotion normally associated with people in their twenties, through meeting a married woman, Kamila Stösslová, 37 years his junior, and falling deeply in love with her.

Both Janacek’s wife and Kamila’s husband “tolerated” the affair, largely because Kamila, though flattered by Janacek’s attentions, seemed outwardly unresponsive, as well as showing little interest in his music. But the composer was undeterred, writing hundreds of letters to her of a passionate and at times intimate nature. Kamila was obviously the driving force for his rejuvenated creativity, even if Janacek was to specifically enshrine his affair with her in just one particular work, his Second String Quartet “Intimate Letters”, writing to her and telling her that the music represented “all the dear things that we’ve experienced together”, and adding, “You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving”.

The NZSQ’s ‘cellist, Rolf Gjelsten introduced the work for us at this afternoon’s concert, quoting another passage from Janacek’s writings to Stösslová, which referred to the Quartet’s music as having been “carved out of human flesh”. The words seemed to make for the composer the ultimate claim on the woman that he loved, to thus write her into his music.

Surely the music that followed was a portrait not of Stösslová per se, but of Janacek himself, and his projected emotions towards his paramour – everything that came after the striving, heartfelt opening declamation was sounded impulse, here whispered intensity, and there obsessive ostinati-like passages, the fulsomeness of the gestures heightened by extremities of dynamics and “unvarnished” string timbres. Lyrical sequences found themselves suddenly grappling with heightened, overbearing figurations, or with gradually sharpening focus, an extended solo for Monique Lapins’ violin arching at one point into intensely passionate exchanges which threatened to become orgasmic in places – a beautiful viola solo from Gillian Ansell similarly succumbed to the pull of the cataclysmic surges, swallowed and digested by the music’s ongoing default-setting intensities.

These descriptions, of course, stem directly from the NZSQ’s fiercely-committed playing as much as from the composer’s music – having heard and seen the ensemble perform many times over the years I’ve come to expect a kind of base-line intensity brought to whatever they play, which invariably makes for thrilling results – here, it seemed to me that Janacek’s creative spirit had been spontaneously re-ignited in performance, engulfing us in a veritable tide of raw emotion , which was surely what the composer intended! To similarly anatomise the way the NZSQ delivered the remaining movements of the Janacek would be to go overboard in terms of review space and reader time – enough to say that the second movement took us on a rhapsodically obsessive roller-coaster ride, Janacek subjecting the opening viola melody to all kinds of expressive extremes, rather like a manic lover reiterating the same words in endlessly inventive ways. The third movement, too, opened with melancholic declamations and easeful rhythmic trajectories which soon found themselves under siege from extremes of rhythm and timbral projection, Helene Pohl’s violin emoting almost to stratospheric breaking-point over several anguished sequences!

The finale’s near-manic folk-dance opening had an almost nightmarish gaiety, the atmosphere to all and intents and purposes “spooked” by what had gone before and its still-to-come possibilities. What incredible energy and focus these players seemed to draw on, to put across what seemed like a barrage of unsolicited chunks of reconstituted emotion! Whatever dancings that were left were punctuated with feral, animal-like scamperings and frighteningly vicious tremolandi – T.S.Eliot wrote somewhere that “human kind cannot bear very much reality”, and it seemed to me that these musicians had taken us perilously near to something like those realms of disturbance and disintegration via this extraordinary music.

After cheek-by-jowling with these full frontal intensities one wanted something removed from such hot-house emotions – Jack Body’s Saetas, while no less focused and involved with its subject matter, seemed to signal a throwing open of windows to let in air and light, following on as it did from Janacek’s somewhat claustrophobic series of confessional outpourings.

Gillian Ansell introduced us to Body’s work, which was commissioned by the Quartet as long ago as 2002, and which had come from the composer’s explorations of music associated with the Spanish flamenco tradition. Body had been researching material for a work, Carmen Dances, whose central character was the then iconic Wellington-based figure of Carmen Rupe, a transexual strip-club owner, who had also run as a mayoral candidate. Saetas (a word meaning “arrow” or “dart”) was composed as a separate project, with Body focusing particularly on music associated with religious feasts held in Spain during Holy Week – saeta are semi-improvised, highly ornamented flamenco songs, many of which were transcribed from different sources by the composer for his material.

Gillian Ansell talked about the quejío, or lament, aspect of these songs, sung by penitents as statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are carried through the streets in the processionals. The first and last pieces featured the musicians exclaiming such a cry of lament at the very beginning. As well, in the opening bars of the first piece the composer quoted excerpts from both Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony, and a Hugo Wolf song from his work “The Spanish Songbook”, which, together with the quejío constituted a kind of effervescing “cocktail mix” of diverse but still intensely-focused emotion in line with the fervour normally generated by the occasion.

Body’s transcriptions also featured strong drum pulses, which were here represented by additional instruments in the performance, a drum and an accordion, played by Rolf Gjelsten, who demonstrated to us aspects of what these instruments would sound like before the group began the work. After playing the ‘cello during the first piece, he swopped instruments, taking up the accordion for the remaining three pieces.

The upward-rushing figurations at the music’s beginning actually made me think of Wagner as much as Tchaikovsky! The lyrical declamations were played “folkishly”, the instruments readily exploring timbres associated with raw, direct emotion, characterful and unvarnished. Most of the music moved slowly and processionally, a dirge of tightly-knit intensities (the violins directed to play as if their notes were “searing beams of light”), both focused and atmospheric!

Rolf Gjelsten having swapped his instruments, the second saeta began, with single jabbed staccato notes to which the viola replied with a sombre melodic line, the accordion adding its harmonium-like tones besides contributing a rhythmic “crunching” accompaniment, viola and violins repeating the mournful thematic material in different registers. The third movement’s source material is not strictly a saeta (rather, a fourteenth century song “O sad life of the flesh!”) but the subject and general mood of the piece certainly accorded with the rest, and began with a quejio which linked it to the tradition. We heard dense clusters of accordion notes at the outset vying with flurrying string rhythms, which begin to alternate gypsy-like running figures and searing single held notes – gradually the piece’s agitations and divergent threads were bound together, the strings playing in unison at the end over a long-breathed accordion figure.

The fourth and last Saeta opened with another vocalisation (marked “with anguished fervour”) from the quartet players, reinforced by drum-and footbeats in a great “Bolero-like” crescendo to the final thunderous thump immediately after the strings finished their lines and reached their cadence. Leading up to this cataclysm were swirling maelstroms of sound from the instruments, creating an overwhelming effect of a specific, yet universally human kind of life-force.

In my mind arose the question – was Mendelssohn’s music going to make any impression upon us in cheek-by-jowl company with such raw extrusions of attention-grabbing emotion? Ought his contribution to the evening’s music have been put in a less assailable comparative position in relation to the rest? Well, in a concert of surprises this music’s ability to hold its ground and create its own culture of intense feeling was among my afternoon’s most noteworthy discoveries.

The NZSQ has, of course not long since completed a recording project for Naxos involving the composer’s complete works in this genre, a venture I’ve yet to catch up with – but on the basis of what I heard the players do with this particular quartet (No.2 in A Minor, Op.13), I would be very keen to seek their recordings out, and get to know the music better, especially so when, as here at this concert, it’s presented in what seems to me the best possible light. Having encountered such playing and interpretation of this order “live”, I would want to encourage as many people as possible to explore more of Mendelssohn via the efforts of the NZSQ on their recordings.

Monique Lapins, the ensemble’s second violinist, introduced the work, which was actually Mendelssohn’s first “mature” string quartet (composed in 1827) despite its later Opus number than the so-called String Quartet No.1 in E-flat Major, Op.12 (written two years AFTER No.2! – classical music would, of course, be the poorer without such mind-tickling anomalies!). She quoted the words of a song “Frage”, written and composed by the precocious 18-year-old during the same year as the “second” quartet, a song whose opening words “Is it true?” appear throughout the quartet as a three-note motif (incidentally, both Liszt and Brahms used a similar 3-note phrase, each in a solo piano work).

A slow, richly-voiced introduction began the Quartet’s performance of the work, the three-note motif derived from the song occurring at the end of the opening paragraph, just prior to the players’ precipitous plunge into the movement’s allegro, during which I readily took in the playing’s strength and gutsiness, imbuing the music with a greater and more satisfying degree of those qualities than I would have expected. After some intense duetting between the first and second violins in the development, the reprise brought back those first urgencies, engaging our sensibilites at a white-heat rate which again I found exhilarating.

The slow movement’s rich, hymn-like melody, so very characteristic of the composer, came with surety and strength in performance. The mid-movement fugue, modelled after Beethoven’s example in the latter’s Op.95 (despite his father’s disapproval, the young Felix idolised Beethoven’s quartets), was put through its somewhat volatile, though always characterful, paces by the players before the lovely return of the hymn-like opening music, at the movement’s end.

I loved the limpid poise and gossamer grace of the third-movement Intermezzo, a dance that was a kind of antique gavotte at the outset, replete with lovely instrumental interchanges and dovetailed melodic figures. A scherzo-like change which came over the music brought deft, rhythmically ambiguous gossamer scamperings in a kind of “hide-and-seek” scenario, almost Schumannesque in its “merry pranks” aspect, before the music returned to the opening solemnities – a coda glanced fleetingly and mischievously back at the “merry pranks” episode before smiling, and disappearing!

Not unlike what Schubert does at the beginning of his Octet’s finale, Mendelssohn presented us with chaos and disorder in a tempestuous opening, the first violin beating its breast over agitations wrought by the tremolo accompaniments . However, Mendelssohn’s ensuing allegro wasn’t as genial as Schubert’s, the NZSQ players here pushing expectantly towards points of intensity with exciting unisons and horse-galloping sequences. Gillian Ansell’s viola called for clear-headedness by revoicing the fugato of the second movement, but soon became caught up with the ensemble’s rebuilding of the lines towards a return of the allegro and thence to the movement’s tremulous opening. Keeping us on the seat’s edge, the composer fetched up a disconsolate solo, sung with oceans of feeling by Helene Pohl’s volin, quoting the fugato before taking final refuge with the others in the quartet’s opening – and the requoting of Mendelsson’s three-note figure was like balm for the soul! – it was caressed and embraced by the players, to the point where we in the audience were made to feel as if we ourselves were young lovers all over again! – a treasurable experience!

Pleasure of a “return to our lives” kind was then afforded by the players doing a “swop-around of instruments for a klezmer encore, written, I think, by Ross Harris, Rolf Gjelsten back on the accordion, and Helene Pohl in the ‘cellist’s seat for a change, while Gillian Ansell and Monique Lapins also did an exchange – wot larks! No more madcap scenario was evoked, and no enjoyment was more relished than by these talented musicians sharing their fun and games with us, and afterwards, sending us home replete!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *