Polished Australian string quartet at St Mary of the Angels Festival series

New Zealand Festival

‘Romance and Revolution’
Orava Quartet (Daniel Kowalik, violin; David Dalseno, violin; Thomas Chawner, viola; Karol Kowalik, cello)

Haydn: String Quartet no.2 in E flat, Op.33, ‘The Joke’
Shostakovich: String Quartet no.8 in C minor, Op.10
Mendelssohn: String Quartet no.2 in A minor, Op.13

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Thursday, 1 March 2018, 6pm

The series of chamber music concerts in the Festival are all being held at St. Mary of the Angels Church.  They are all listed in one programme booklet – which means not much detail is provided for each; for example brief programme notes, no enumeration or tempi markings for the movements.  Brief introductions were given by one of the players.  The concert was being recorded by RNZ Concert.  It was pleasing to see the church almost packed, with a very attentive audience for this Australian ensemble on their first visit to New Zealand.  However, it couldn’t e said to be the most comfortable venue in Wellington, especially if one has forgotten to take a cushion!

The Haydn Quartet immediately demonstrated what a good sound is created in this church.  The playing was spacious, yet incisive.  As with most of this composer’s creations, the music was mellifluous and cheerful.  The first movement is marked allegro moderato, the second scherzo: allegro, the third largo, and the fourth rondo: presto.  The keys are interestingly varied, as are the time signatures.

The second movement was full of contrasts; it was Haydn’s first foray into replacing a minuet with a scherzo.  There were some quirky little surprise phrases that presaged the joke at the end of the work, and changes of tempo.  The third movement was more serious; a feature was the rich tone from the cello.  Throughout, the quartet players were spot-on with timing and ensemble.  All sat to play, in contrast to the New Zealand String Quartet.

The final movement was light and bright.  The audience did not succumb to Haydn’s joke by clapping in the wrong places, but delighted in his series of joyful ‘endings’.

Shostakovich used his initials DSCH as the motif for much of his 8th Quartet: D, E flat, C, H (the latter the German name for the note B; the name B is reserved for B flat).  He had already used this motto in the 7th symphony.  There are elements taken from other earlier works.  The movements are continuous, but the five comprise: largo, allegro molto, allegretto, largo and a final largo.  It was written ‘in memory of the victims of fascism and war’, following his visit to the devastated city of Dresden, home of much German culture.  The autobiographical nature of the music was said to be because he didn’t expect anyone to write his biography.

The doleful opening was followed by mournful tones, performed with much subtlety and feeling.  Then the rushing allegro takes over.  The viola was flat out, playing nevertheless with strong, rich tone.  There followed the elaboration of several short themes, insistent in nature.  The slower movements that followed brought out all the variety in the work – pathos, mourning, anger, resignation.  The two largo movements were solemn in their lamentation and surrender.   Rich, sombre harmonies and changes of key embellished the complex, soulful writing.

In his ravishing second Quartet, written when he was only 18 years old Mendelssohn quotes from Beethoven. It is dedicated to his great predecessor.  This is a particular favourite of mine, right from its heartfelt adagio opening theme with its rich, romantic harmony.  After this slow, thoughtful mood the music came alive,  changing to a spirited, animated allegro vivace.  The blend of the players’ sound was superb.  Then there was a return to more contemplative passages.  The adagio theme returns throughout the work.

The adagio non lento second movement opens slowly and beautifully; gorgeous harmonies are embellished with suspensions.  A calm and peaceful mood pervades, although it is interrupted by a passionate interlude before the Quartet’s adagio theme returns in all its sincerity.  All is beautifully played.

The Intermezzo third movement is marked allegretto con moto – allegro di molto.  The jaunty yet nostalgic first melody is played by the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment from the other instruments.  The following section is fast and frolicsome, reminiscent of his Midsummer Night’s Dream music – though that was written a few years later.  The music was scampering and light-spirited.  Then a return to the opening of he movement before a gracious and grave coda, with short elements from what had gone before.

The finale opened in stormy fashion, with rapid passages following reminiscences of earlier music, much changed in mood, to one of urgency and even portentousness, all at a fast tempo (presto).   Some recollections are slower, and in a minor key; others are fugal, while others are grand, interspersed with a quiet sequence recalling  earlier moods, and the opening theme of the Quartet.

It completed a most rewarding and satisfying early evening of chamber music from a highly polished and accomplished group of performers.


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