Tutors at the ASQ Academy confirm their stature in rare Shostakovich quartet, plus other masterpieces

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts
Aroha String Quartet: concert by tutors from the 2018 ASQ International Music Academy

Mozart: Piano Quartet in G minor, K 478 – 1st movement
Shostakovich: String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 122
Dvořák: String Quintet in E flat, Op 97 – 1st movement

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 26 July, 12:15 pm

Rosemary Collier’s review of Wednesday’s concert by participants in the 2018 Aroha String Quartet International Music Academy, offered a view of the level of performance skill that emerged from the week-long participation in the Academy, the fourth in what has become an annual event. Middle C appears to have overlooked them in the past. Further recitals by participants are taking place in the evenings and notably on Saturday evening, 28 July.

This however, was an opportunity to hear performances by the tutors themselves: the four quartet members, plus others who contributed to the tutoring demands of the participants.

The main event at this recital was Shostakovich’s eleventh string quartet. But I will leave comments on it till last.

The concert began and ended with first movements of a couple of major pieces (it struck me that this might be an infection spread by the misguided behaviour of RNZ Concert which is now broadcasting, through most of the day, just single movements of works that composers had taken great pains to compose as complete, balanced works of art).

Mozart’s two great piano quartets do deserve to be heard in their integrity. However, it can be forgiven in circumstances like this, in a brief lunchtime concert that’s a sort of testimonial presentation. Here, in the second quartet, we had the rare chance to hear the fine pianist Emma Sayers along with violinist Donald Armstrong, and viola and cello from the Aroha Quartet itself. It was a remarkably vivid performance, driven by buoyant energy, each instrument exhibiting its individuality, almost to the point of sacrificing perfect ensemble; but I hasten to say, that was never affected.

It was equally delightful to hear the first movement of Dvořák’s string quintet, Op 97. It may have been programmed to complement the performance of his string quintet, Op 77 (which uses double bass instead of a second viola or cello) by Academy participants the day before. It’s not a well-known piece; Dvořák is a somewhat unfortunate composer who’s known to the average music lover for just one piece in each class of music – the New World Symphony, the Cello Concerto, the American Quartet, the Piano Quintet, Op 81, perhaps the Dumky Piano Trio, the Carnival Overture and some of the Slavonic Dances. In each genre, there are many other delightful works.

This is one of them and it’s first movement got a performance that revealed its beauties and character admirably. The players were Aroha’s first violin, Haihong Liu, violist Zhongxian Jin and cellist Robert Ibell, plus Donald Armstrong on second violin and Brian Shillito, the second (or was he technically, first?) viola. A viola (I couldn’t see which) opens the piece with a typically ruminative, Slavic theme, a minor third, quickly joined by other players who soon assured the major key’s dominance. Though the programme note remarks on the presence of Algonquin drumming patterns, I can only take their word for it. Even though, the movement ends with a typically climactic peroration which could well be heard as the end of the Finale, it should have given listeners a strong inducement to hear the rest.

Shostakovich No 11
Few of Shostakovich’s quartets other than No 8 are much played, though I think over recent years we’ve heard Nos 4, 5, 9, 11… and certainly one or two others.

It is a unique piece, unorthodox in form, written in 1966 as a memorial for the death of his close friend Vasily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous Beethoven String Quartet. It’s in seven movements, of varying lengths and character. Though it is not uniformly tragic in mood, in its entirety it emerges as a remarkable, deeply felt creation. The first violin opens alone with a feeling of unease, a motif of cold beauty before being joined by the others to create a bleak though very human landscape.

The second movement also opens in a sort of pretend brightness, with the violin alone and it continues in a sort of fugal fashion, the staccato motif punctuated by ironical swoops by different instruments. It expresses a feeling of reluctance to give voice to much lyricism; nevertheless there are melodic thoughts, though presented sparingly, offering no reason for unalloyed delight.

The third part, enigmatically entitled Recitative entered with shocking violence, with harsh bowing by the cello. While each movement presents a very different musical character, there is no let-up from the pervasive feeling of anguish or anxiety, even in the bizarrely entitled Humoresque which seems to be the composer in typical disguise, with wild endlessly throbbing thirds on the violin.

As the notes pointed out, the sixth movement, Elegy, is the heart of the work, the longest movement at about four minutes, and the quartet drew from it a profound sense of terror and pathos. In the Finale, Shostakovich allows the first violin to offer a tiny hint of comfort, but in spite of the return of the slightly droll, upwards violin scoop, over pizzicato, he seems to deny the listener much hope.

In spite of the utterly different depictions of life by Mozart and Dvořák played before and after it, the Shostakovich was the music, played uncompromisingly, with utter sincerity, that stuck in the mind.

Though I have come to think I’d heard all Shostakovich’s quartets, I think this must have escaped me, but it will remain embedded for the rest of my life. (But one can say that about so much of his music: would we have such a store of awful, soul-searing music if he had not lived through such distressing times?).

As I hinted at the beginning, it is surely time for one of our resident quartets to stage a mini-Shostakovich festival at which all 15 quartets are played. Since I heard most of them in a revelatory series of late-night (10.30 to midnight) concerts by a gifted Israeli quartet at the Verbier Festival ten years ago, I have the feeling that Night suits their character, and that such an atmospheric presentation, in the right place, could capture the imagination of a few hundred Wellington music lovers.

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