Musically satisfying concert of three disparate works, from New Zealand String Quartet

New Zealand String Quartet – “Turning Points”
Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Psathas: Abhisheka
Beethoven: String Quartet No 14 in C sharp minor, Op 131
Smetana: String Quartet No 1 in E minor (‘From my life’)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University (Kelburn campus)

Saturday 25 August, 7:30 pm

The New Zealand String Quartet is in the middle of its big annual tour of the country, taking it from Howick and Waiheke Island to Invercargill (though there are curious omissions, inevitably, with a 12-concert tour – absent are Hamilton, Napier, Christchurch, Dunedin…). However, the two in Wellington evidence the high level of musical discernment found in this city.

The Hunter Council Chamber (the university’s beautiful library in earlier times) is a good venue, just the right size, around 120 seats, for such a recital; it was near full. (But parking is a problem, and there’s a very poor bus service).

John Psathas’s Abhisheka is a formidable piece that employs the string quartet in an unusually imaginative way that yet seems perfectly idiomatic; it emerges from silence, with at first a multi-tone wash of sound, till Helene Pohl’s violin comes into focus. Played by musicians for whom Psathas and contemporary New Zealand music is instinctive, it generates a strongly mystical, spiritual atmosphere, moving minimally around a narrow span of notes, with occasional decorative touches that are really intrinsic rather than ornamental. It slowly grows in animation with accelerating, dynamically expanding, almost excitable passages, then stops. Then it resumes in the original, ethereal spirit, that apart from its purely musical character, seems to evoke a remote region of the cosmos. A fine, sympathetic performance of a piece that is not cast in the typical Psathas style or spirit, but that makes one who does not always seek what Psathas describes a caffeinated spirit, rather wish for more in this spirit.

The spiritual shift from Psathas to one of Beethoven’s late quartets demanded some sort of hearing replacement; both utterly different in style, in handling of the medium, and in the expectations of a generation of listeners almost 200 years later. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten introduced Op 131 by dwelling on the fourth movement, Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which is a set of variations like nothing Beethoven’s contemporaries would have heard before.

The first two movements, where the quartet found connection, sympathy between the heavenly spirit of the Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo, and the lively, tripping metre of the Allegro molto vivace that sound like perfectly complementary conceptions.

Then comes the centre-piece, actually two parts. Movement 3, the very brief Allegro moderato that falls away to Andante, an introduction to the centre-piece proper. Movement 4, the Andante ma non troppo, the Variations themselves, begins at a steady walking pace which accelerates, Piu mosso, and continues on through the seven variations that redefine the character of the classical sense of the term. Then the last three movements, fast, slow, fast, roughly speaking, but continuing, no matter how superficially normal or tuneful certain moments were, to create a feeling that still seems radical. And the performance itself reflected a deep seriousness mixed with a delight in life.

Smetana’s first string quartet, inspired by his attempt to create an autobiographical account of his life, was an interesting companion for the Beethoven, and perhaps even the Psathas, each exploring aspects of human difficulty and defeat. Though it opens in a lively manner, full of youthful aspiration, and there are dance motifs in the second movement, and a deeper feeling of optimism flows through the last, the brutal arrival of his deafness motif and its frightening impact on him never fails to shock. The entire piece achieves a feeling of unity, as if each mood or narrative inevitably followed what went before. The foreboding of catastrophe might be restricted to small episodes, but the way the quartet approached it was to sustain the feeling of inevitable tragedy and distress, almost from the very beginning.

Unified by the choice of three superficially disparate works, this was a most thought-provoking and musically satisfying concert.


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