Aroha Quartet: one of the year’s most wonderful lunchtime concerts

The Aroha Quartet: Haihong Liu and Ursula Evans (violins), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (cello)

Haydn: Quartet in C, Op 76/3, ‘Emperor’
Dvořák: Quartet in F, Op 96, ‘American’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 December 2017, 12:15 pm

Though St Andrew’s free lunchtime concerts usually populate the church very respectably, a professional group like the Aroha Quartet (though I assume they play, like all performers in these concerts, without payment) tends to draw a larger crowd and that was the case this week. Both the reputation of the quartet and the choice of music accounted for the responsive audience today; it enjoyed quite long applause, and several of the more discerning listeners stood at the end to show their delight.

The ‘Emperor’ Quartet, named for Haydn’s tune that had become Imperial Austria’s national anthem, is one of the composer’s most felicitous and popular, and it was clear from the start that we were to enjoy a performance that, rather than energetic and full-blooded, was emotionally warm and entertaining as well as insightful and alert to Haydn’s varied dynamics, articulation and ever-present humour. The players’ sensitivity to subtle changes in bowing, between legato and phrases that approached staccato, and the understated rhythmic changes that suggest diffidence or hesitation. Every repeat of a phrase displayed a studied individuality.

The famous tune in the second movement, Poco adagio, can sound hackneyed, but its performance here was seriously thoughtful, a classic example of an orthodox set of variations, handled with unpretentious skill and imagination.  And the Menuet with an almost swinging triple rhythm, elegant and polished, and the sharply contrasting Trio in the middle, beautifully poised.

Presto means different things to different players. The Aroha adopted a speed that was probably above average and did it with such commitment and skill that it was totally vindicated.

Dvořák’s most famous string quartet, like the Haydn, is not long – each is around 25 minutes – and thus ended at only a few minutes after 1pm. While its familiarity might be a reason to come to the concert for those averse to ‘music they don’t know’, there are no doubt others who feel they know it so well that it’s a bore; their folly could hardly be sustained here. The proliferation of alternative kinds of so-called entertainment has probably reduced the numbers in both categories. But judging by the reception to this performance there was a wonderful confluence of both classes; and tyros would have been startled into a state of ecstasy by the performance of both works.

There are just so many delicious and heart-warming aspects to this piece, as in much of Dvořák’s music (and I’m delighted that Orchestra Wellington are performing his symphonies in next year’s series – even the little-known fifth!).

It’s interesting that the viola (Zhongxian Jin) opens the piece and seems to emerge from the texture with more than commonly prominence – Dvořák was of course a viola player (like Mozart and many composer-violinists) and clearly enjoyed the subtle emotional warmth of the instrument. But the melodic delights are soon scattered around in a profligate manner.

Dvořák never allows his music to remain in the same rhythmic or melodic mode for long and for the beginner, no doubt, it can be hard to know what movement is being played, if one hasn’t been paying attention; but that variety is a major source of delight. When it dips into a meditative passage however, it’s never maudlin or sentimental, but constantly inventive and surprising. The slow movement, a sort of modified Largo of the Ninth Symphony, might come close to the sentimental, with its characteristic falling minor third, but its sheer melodic beauty prevents any falling away from complete integrity.

The third movement can hardly substantiate the legitimacy of the ‘America’ tag, as its affinity with the Slavonic Dances is so obvious; and the same rhythm persists through the Trio-like middle section. It was played with a wonderful lightness of spirit. Sometimes, the simply astonishing level of melodic inspiration causes me to jot down remarks like: ‘How come no composer had thought of such a gorgeous tune before this?’. It happens more with Dvořák than almost any other composer.

In the last movement, it’s the first violin that stands out with its enchanting, dance-like tune, which gives over to a related tune that simply intensifies the energy or, occasionally, allows for a slower passage that offers a respite from the vitality that drives the movement as a whole.

While I have noted aspects of the playing of leader Haihong Liu and violist Zhongxian Jin (both founding members), the conspicuous beauties in the playing of the newest member, second violinist Ursula Evans, and cellist Robert Ibell were just as striking, and their sustained excellence in ensemble and balance and their emotional subtlety and warmth places the quartet among the finest chamber groups in the country.

This was one of the year’s most wonderful lunchtime concerts; and perhaps not even to be modified by the word ‘lunchtime’.

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