New Zealand String Quartet produce joyousness and profundity for Wellington Chamber Music

Wellington Chamber Music
New Zealand String Quartet

Beethoven: String Quartet in A Op. 18 No 5
Jack Body: Bai sanxian (2009)
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A flat  
Brahms: String Quartet in A minor Op. 51

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 5 May, 3 pm

A concert by the NZ String Quartet is always an event to look forward to. This is the quartet’s 32nd season, and over the years they have gained an international reputation. In this concert they covered a broad period of the musical development of the string quartet.

In 1798 Beethoven was a budding piano virtuoso, who had moved to Vienna and was gradually making a name for himself as a composer. He lived in the shadow Haydn. Like Haydn, he published his first set of quartets, Op. 18, as a set of a half dozen. No. 5, in A major, is playful, with a touch of humour and Haydn-like surprises, a graceful dance movement and an extended set of variations that explore the potential of a simple theme. This piece received an energetic sparkling reading, but for this listener at least, some of the charm, the light touch was missing.

Jack Body’s Bai sanxian was something entirely different. The music of Asian cultures is a recurring theme of Jack Body’s work. He deliberately and provocatively stepped outside the main stream of Western music. This short piece comes from a collection of transcriptions and arrangements of music from some of the Chinese minority nationalities of Yunnan province in South-West China. The string quartet imitates the Chinese traditional instruments, the first violin and cello plucking their instruments while the second violin and the viola carry the melodic line. The music challenges the listener to explore unfamiliar musical traditions, to listen carefully and perhaps ask questions about the universal nature of music.

Shostakovich is a controversial composer. William Walton described him as the ‘greatest composer of the 20th century’, while Pierre Boulez dismissed him as ‘the second or even third pressing of Mahler’. There is certainly a special Shostakovich sound and a Shostakovich perception of what music is about. He is the Holy Fool, who witnesses all the terrible as well as all the joyous things around him. The overall character of the 10th String Quartet is dark, in some places sinister and fearful. It opens with a four note motive played by the solo violin, then the other instruments join in one at a time. An unanswered question hangs over the movement. This is followed by a furious second movement played fortissimo. At one moment the viola and plays on the bridge of her instrument to create the effect of a sinister Mephistophelean laughter. The Adagio is a mournful passacaglia that gradually turns darker. The final movement breaks away from the mournful character of the earlier movements and is jaunty and carefree at the beginning, but then returns to the melancholic air of the whole piece. Life was tough in Shostakovich’s Russia, but he implies that there is light amidst the gloom, life must carry on.

The final work in the programme was Brahms’s Second String Quartet, Op. 51, No. 2. Beethoven’s colossal final quartets weighed heavily on Brahms. How could one write a string quartet that could follow up these works. He had a number of attempts at writing a string quartet and destroyed all of these, until at the age of 40 he published, after numerous revisions, two works with which he was satisfied. Brahms worked in the idiom he inherited and used the language of German folk music, but he deconstructed these haunting themes, broke them up, turned them into deep, meaningful conversations between the four instruments. There is light and joyousness in the second movement and grace in the third, Minuetto, but Brahms never abandons himself to a rollicking good time. In the last movement he revisits the Hungarian czardas that provided many happy themes for his music, but notwithstanding all the jollity, the music is subdued. This was a profound performance.

It was a very satisfying afternoon of music, enjoyed by a large and knowledgeable audience. The quartet’s many years of playing together was reflected in their seamless, smooth playing. May they keep this up for many more years and enrich Wellington’s musical life.


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