Janacek and Beethoven String Quartets from the amazing NZSQ at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

The New Zealand String Quartet
JANÁČEK– String Quartet No. 1
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet No.16 Op.135
NATALIE HUNT – Data Entry Groove (2014)

New Zealand String Quartet –

Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Adam Concert Room,
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington
Friday, 15 March 2019

(Reviewer’s note: I’ve deliberately left off publishing this review until now to allow a week or so’s worth of air and space to blow into and around things concerned with the horrific events that took place in Christchurch on the same day of the concert. It’s a small gesture set against happenings in a vast and unpredictable world, but I’d nevertheless like to dedicate these words to those whose lives were so tragically ended by what took place in those Christchurch mosques that day, and to all those people who responded, both immediately and over the days that followed, to the needs of fellow-New Zealanders of all persuasions with kindness and understanding that helped restore some hope and faith in a future whose bright dream had been suddenly darkened……)

Monday 25th March 2019

It all seemed too good to be true – here we were at a FREE CONCERT at the Adam Concert Room up at the University, about to be enthralled by the country’s most prestigious string quartet in two major works from the genre’s repertoire, one from the nineteenth and the other from the twentieth century, plus an additional piece from someone who’s proving to be a most interesting member of a stimulating “new  wave” of young New Zealand composers – as close to a “something for everybody” scenario as one could perhaps get at an hour-long concert by a single group!

Beginning the concert was the first of two string quartets by Moravian composer Leoš Janáček, one bearing the sub-title “Kreutzer Sonata”. In a letter, written by the composer to a much younger married woman, Kamilla Stösslová, whom Janáček regarded as his “muse”, writing her over 700 letters, he revealed his music’s purpose: “What I had in mind was the suffering of a woman, beaten and tortured to death, about whom the Russian author Tolstoy writes in his Kreutzer Sonata”. Of course, Tolstoy (who ironically didn’t much care for music!) used the title of one of Beethoven’s most famous chamber works to intensify his story’s emotional “charge”, that of a woman in a loveless marriage caught up in the passions of the music when playing the work with a handsome violinist, and as a result being beaten to death by her jealous husband.

Violist Gillian Ansell nicely anatomised the music’s terrain beforehand, introducing musical examples played by the group that resembled incredibly burgeoning slices of raw emotion. It was obvious straightway how the group possessed the temperament, confidence and technical skill to be able to enter wholly into this tortured world, one marked by the composer’s penchant for extremes of both expression and technical address, and with the players aware of how such music worked best via a suitably no-holds-barred approach.

Here the ensemble infused these extremities and razor-sharp contrasts with the utmost concentration, making it all sound as if each member was “living” the frenzied outbursts and tortured trajectories of the music’s narrative – as one commentator’s description succinctly puts it, expressed in writing that’s “less melody than compelling, emotionally-charged talking”. Like Mussorgsky before him in Russia, so Janáček wished to catch the realism of his countrymen’s speech patterns in his writing with all their angularities and astringencies, and, in this context heightened by extremes of feeling.

The second movement’s sharp contrasts between the dancelike motifs and the searing coruscations of emotion here simply conflagrated the textures, having a simultaneous “stunning” and “drawing-in” effect on the listener, the playing remarkable in its candid impact. By contrast, the third movement began with a melancholic duet-like passage from first violin and ‘cello (a quotation from Beethoven’s work, used to highlight the “illicit” rapport between the two players in the story), nastily punctuated on a number of occasions with scintillating shards of sound, here all remarkably coherent in an overall expressive sense while disturbing in their own realm of impulsiveness. Still, the performers had, one sensed at all times, a “grip” on the overall design that allowed the stridencies free rein to shock and unnerve without straying from the whole.

A brooding calm hovered over the finale’s opening, the lyricism heart-rending and bleak-sounding (shades of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony)! until the viola began pulling the violins along agitated stretches of territory, the music building and sharpening its tensions as an incredibly intense dotted rhythm sequence piled “Pelion upon Ossa” in its anger, fright and menace – the “moment of murder” then suddenly seemed to dissolve the music’s substance, leaving little more than crumpled, exhausted shadows – so very enigmatic! – and here, so heart-stopping in its searing execution by these intrepid players…….

I’d always regarded Beethoven’s last quartet as a kind of roller-coaster-ride as well, actually, but of a different kind to what we had just heard, alternating the visceral with the playful and enigmatic, as opposed to Janacek’s relentless assault. Here were Olympian forces at play, with whatever moments of stress and angst suggested (in the work’s finale) defused as systematically as they’d been developed, like the inevitable movements of cosmic bodies through the heavens, leaving we earthbound listeners gaping in bemused astonishment!

‘Cellist Rolf Gjelsten here emulated Gillian Ansell’s penetrative introductory remarks regarding the Janacek, entertaining us greatly with his theories regarding Beethoven’s famous “question-and-answer” passages at the finale’s beginning, and provoking amusing responses from the other quartet members. Thus enlightened and emboldened, we began our listening, with the lower strings right at the start posing a question or remark answered by a pithy, increasingly insistent exclamation from the violins – “Pardon?” – or perhaps “You’re joking!” Straightaway, this fusing of the portentous and the commonplace – the fabulous with the ordinary – set the tone for the rest of the work. Not a note was wasted, the effect an amazing sense of freedom in simplicity.

By contrast, the scherzo had us on the edges of our seats, the players alternating jovial muscularities with spectral mutterings, punctuating the proceedings with off-centre sforzandi, and grim-humoured rebeginnings, building up to the notorious “madcap trio”, three whirling dervishes trying to catch the lone violin mid-flight – a fearful symmetry gone berserk! The occasional “wildness” of intonation to my ears sounded appropriate – what would a perfect, “squeaky-clean” rendition of this music do except reduce the untamed, out-of-control exhilaration of the whole, anyway?

Gorgeously rich and deep-toned at the slow movement’s beginning, the melody was “sung from within” at first, before being lifted aloft for us by the first violin – we then were left to “reimagine” its contourings, prompted, it seemed, by the harmonies alone, as if the music had almost lost its way in the dark, as if bereaved. Rapturously, the music then reinvented itself, the ensemble heart-warmingly playing into and out of one another’s figurations, leading to the first violin’s “taking wing”, supported by upward arpeggios from the others, allowing the long-breathed statements to drift naturally into a grateful communion of silence at the end.

Came the enigma of the finale’s opening, with cello and viola “asking the question”, leaving the violins to muse over a response to begin with, then burst impassionedly forth as if hanging by a thread waiting for assistance or illumination – a terse three-note response to the opening three-note question, the well-known “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) phrase which the composer inscribed in the score.

How exhilarating, then, that sudden onrush of joyful energy accompanying the reply, again inscribed by Beethoven in the score – “Es muss sein!” (It must be!) – the release of tension here brought out most tellingly an inevitability, a mark of greatness to do with force of personality, with depth of acceptance and with single-mindedness of purpose! Beethoven’s intoning of a Rasumovsky Quartet-like second melody then threw the vistas open, including the world at large in this paean of acceptance of life! How vigorously the players gave themselves over to this energetic release – and how terrifyingly they then mirrored its sudden reversion to a nightmare of doubt and anxiety with the return of the “Muss es Sein” motif! – the violins sounded particularly “spooked” at the reappearance of “the question”!

Almost defiantly, the allegro reasserted itself, pulling all the music’s strands out of their state of transfiguration and thrusting forth once again. Part of the rehabilitation of surety came with the “Rasumovsky-like” tune, its open-hearted aspect here seeming to include all of us in a kind of anthem-like circle of strength and resolve. Throughout, the musicians remained strong and steadfast, bring forth playing whose confidence uplifted our spirits further, culminating in the enchanting pizzicati that led to the final, emphatic gesture of belief in simply being. Fantastic!

Though I would have happily regarded what we’d experienced as “cup runneth over” stuff, I couldn’t begrudge a young composer’s music the chance of a hearing – and so it was that we heard Natalie Hunt’s 2014 work “Data Entry Groove”, a delicious piece of music-theatre depicting the workings and interactions of computers and operators. A jazzy, nicely off-beat set of opening trajectories involved various cyber-rhythms (Rolf Gjelsten and his ‘cello) and personalised responses to the machine-like routines from the other three players, involving sliding notes and inventive textures and timbres, including a “time for a break” section (violinist Monique Lapins did what looked to my untutored eyes to be some Pilates!)…..returning to their work-routines the players busied themselves with various engagingly off-beat energies, all of which led to a surprise ending of droll and insouciant finality. Definitely a work to enjoy in the “seeing” and “hearing” rather than in the “describing”!


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