New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae deliver major works with assurance, passion, delicacy

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

Schubert: String Quartet in C minor, “Quartettsatz”
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, Op.127

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 25 March 2018, 2.30pm

How fortunate we are to have such a fine quartet performing to us frequently!  They are national treasures – worth their weight in gold.  And that is how they appeared at this concert: in new, gold encrusted outfits.  In Rolf Gjelsten’s case it was restricted to his tie, but the women’s tops were much more flashy – but not so much as to be a distraction from the wonderful music performed.

The order of the works was changed from that printed in the programme, and began, rather than with the Beethoven, with the shortest item: Schubert’s lovely single movement quartet.  As always with Schubert, this was a highly melodic work.  The extent of his invention leaves one astonished.  The players also astonished, with the delicacy but clarity of their pianissimo playing.  Every delicious detail was brought out by these highly accomplished musicians.  The lyrical music was mainly in a joyous mood, but tinged with melancholy.  The short, lovely quartet is a great introduction for people not familiar with chamber music.

The Debussy quartet was in quite a different language.  Use of modes and of gamelan influences are among his innovations.  The latter (gamelan) music he would have heard at the great Paris Exhibition of 1889, four years before the quartet’s composition.  This was quite a distance from the German music which had dominated European music for most of the century.

This year is the centenary of the composer’s death, so a lot of his music is being programmed and broadcast.  The first movement of his only quartet, marked animé et très décidé, is based on a single melody; indeed, it is used throughout the work.  After an emphatic, concerted opening, many refined elements appeared on individual instruments, varying from delicacy to firm and strong, to excited.

The second movement, assez vif et bien rythmé, begins strikingly with a repetitive melody on the viola and a pizzicato accompaniment from the other instruments.  The first violin then took over the melody, followed by the cello.  A mysterious quality came over the music, which had been quite emphatic, sliding chromatically.  Bold statements intersected a shimmering accompaniment, then the pizzicato returned for all players.  The movement was enchanting in its effect.

The slow movement is marked andantino, doucement expressif.  A slow, thoughtful movement, it featured the use of mutes early on, and again towards the end.  There were frequent viola solos based on the quartet’s main theme.  Use of the deepest cello notes was significant.

The finale is marked très modéré.  It illustrated again how different are the musical colours, rhythms and textures in this work from those in the compositions of Schubert and Beethoven.  The movement had a level of gaiety not apparent in the earlier movements; in fact, it became frenetic at times, despite the tempo marking.

These musicians all play with assurance and deep familiarity with the music.  The playing is in no way pedestrian; all is pointed, intense and significant.  The lovely final chords completed this stunning performance.

Beethoven’s late quartets are pinnacles in music history; their profundity, moods, melodies and unflinching confrontation of despair and infirmity are without precedent – or successors.  This, the first of these late quartets, like its fellows, larger in scale than previous compositions in this form.

As with the other works, the brief spoken introduction by a member of the quartet (this time, Rolf Gjelsten) was informative and illuminating, without being too long.

As a portent of its scale and solemnity, the first movement is marked maestoso – allegro.  The majesty of the opening soon gives way to an allegro of interweaving parts; the opening passages return several times.  This was playing on a grand scale, with splendid tone.  It had great impetus, constantly driving forward, yet with subtle variation of dynamics and tone.

The slow movement, adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, is a set of variations, but not in an obvious way – these were subtle and indirect in their manner; shifting harmonies accompanied beautiful, contemplative melodies.  While mainly restrained and elegant, the music was passionate at times, including a contrasting short, jolly, highly rhythmic dance-like middle section..

This was a long movement, with its variations on the main themes.  The return to the sombre mood came with the melody initially on the first violin and staccato accompaniment.  Then the viola takes it up, followed by a return to the violin.  It is intense yet eager music, full of twists and turns.

At last the scherzando vivace third movement arrives, to relieve our dark mood.  Its playful dance is quick; its rhythm creates a liveliness that makes the music less profound than that in the other movements.  It is still complex in places, however.

The finale is fast, with a positive and emphatic mood.  It makes its way through different keys and tempi, and grand statements, to proclamations of great confidence, a virtuoso ending and jubilant final chords.


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