Kiwa Quartet takes enjoyable, interesting journey through 125 years of quartet repertoire for Wellington Chamber Music

Kiwa Quartet: Malavika Gopal and Alan Molina (violins), Sophia Anderson (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music: Sunday series)

Haydn: String Quartet Op. 76 No. 2 ‘Fifths’
Webern: Langsamer Satz
Janáček: String Quartet No.1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 26 May 2019, 3 pm

Listening to string quartet music is a delightful way of spending a Sunday afternoon. We have had the privilege of hearing three excellent string quartets over the last three weeks, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Aroha Quartet, and now the Kiwa Quartet.  It is fortunate for Wellington to have such an abundance of talent around.

The Kiwa Quartet was formed in 2015 as part of a project supported by the NZSO Professional Development Grant. What a great investment that Professional Development Grant was!  Investing in the four musicians who formed the Kiwa Quartet certainly paid handsome dividends. First violin, Malavika Gopal, member of the NZSO, studied with the Alban Berg Quartet and was part of a prize winning quartet; Alan Molina, came from America to the NZSO with a wealth of orchestral experience; violist, Sophia Anderson is the Principal Viola of Orchestra Wellington; the cellist, Ken Ichinose had unfortunately injured his finger and was replaced by the very seasoned cellist of the New Zealand String Quartet, Rolf Gjelsten. The four make up a confident, balanced ensemble playing with a rich, beautifully and blended sound.

The concert began with the second of Haydn‘s ‘Erdödy’ quartets, Op. 76, No. 2. This is late, mature Haydn. He was 65 and had developed the art of the string quartet from light background music into substantial music with a wide scope for drama and emotion that leads to the later quartets of Beethoven. This quartet got its nickname ‘Fifths’ from the descending fifth of the first movement, which gives the movement an air of gravitas. The second movement is a charming Andantino, which was played with just the right amount of lightness. The Menuetto had a stomping of peasants’ dance quality typical of late Haydn, and the last movement, Vivace ended the work on a cheerful rollicking note. These Haydn quartets are a challenge for musicians, both technically and musically. There are a lot of rapid notes that have to be articulated clearly and the Kiwa players did this admirably.

For me the surprise of the programme was Webern‘s Langsamer Satz. This is no Second Viennese School of dissonant music that Webern is associated with. This is a lush romantic piece. ‘Langsamer Satz’ means Slow Movement. It was the first composition exercise assigned to Webern by his teacher Schoenberg. The work is in one movement built on three lyric themes combined in different ways and taken to a conclusion of great intensity. It provided solo opportunities for each of the members of the quartet and in particular, the viola. You could wallow in their beautiful sound. The impetus for the work, Webern wrote, was his walk in the Austrian woods with his cousin, Wilhelmine Mortl, with whom he was in love. It is a recollection of a happy time. The music was lost and only discovered many years after Webern’s death. This was probably no accident. Although the music is beautiful, it was not what Webern wanted to be remembered by.

By contrast, the Janáček String Quartet is a tempestuous affair. It depicts psychological drama that  contains moments of conflict and emotional outbursts. Janáček wrote that he was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata. The work is in four movements. They are all con moto driven, disturbed. The musical language is typical of Janáček, which almost abandons traditional harmony, homophony and counterpoint and makes use of contrasting textures. It may be a reflection of the insecure world of Europe after the First World War. It is a unique string quartet with none other like it.

After the Janáček, the Mendelssohn Quartet returned to the string quartet tradition. In 1827, when Beethoven died Mendelssohn was eighteen years old. His second string quartet was modelled on Beethoven’s late quartets, and is influenced by them. Chuzpah, you might think, an eighteen year old trying to take on Beethoven’s mantle, but Mendelssohn was an amazing prodigy and produced a major work that could stand alongside the great masterpieces. Despite its official number, this was Mendelssohn’s first mature string quartet, although he had written a number of quartets before as well as his Octet.

The String Quartet No. 2 in A minor borrowed the structure of the late Beethoven quartets, and in particular, Op 132, and even some of the Beethoven motifs appear in Mendelssohn’s piece, but the language is distinctively Mendelssohn’s. The first movement starts with a dramatic, slow introduction that quotes the tender love song ‘Frage’, Op. 9/1 which he wrote for a young woman he might have taken a fancy to, a theme that keeps recurring, and this is followed by a spirited passage. The slow movement opens with an extended melody, which devolves into a fugal section echoing Beethoven. The Intermezzo has the lilting melody that is like his Midsummer’s Night music, but also like a simple song he might have overheard in a fair ground. The final movement starts with dramatic chords, again reminiscent of Beethoven and then develops into light filigree music that often characterises Mendelssohn’s, interrupted with sudden contrasting themes as they do in Beethoven, among them even a theme that resembles one from the Ninth Symphony. It is an enchanting work. It is a pity that Mendelssohn’s quartets are not heard more often.

The Kiwa Quartet took us on a long and interesting journey from Haydn in 1797 through Webern in 1905, Janáček in 1923 and back to Mendelssohn in 1827. It was a thoroughly enjoyable voyage. The Kiwa is a fine quartet that can stand alongside the best of New Zealand’s chamber music groups.


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