Lazarus String Quartet, with one New Zealander remaining, at end of adventurous tour with highly interesting programme

Wellington Chamber Music
Lazarus String Quartet (Mayumi Kanagawa and Jos Jonker – violins; Albin Uusijärvi – viola; Alice Gott – cello)

Mozart: Quartet No 16 in E flat, K 428
Bartók: Quartet No 2 in A minor
Beethoven: Quartet in B flat, Op 18 no 6

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 1 September 2019, 3 pm

Here was an interesting ensemble that formed in 2007 when four University of Canterbury students got together, winning a ROSL Arts/Pettman Scholarship in 2010 which took them to study at the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. That led to concerts that have included St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, the Salle Gaveau in Paris, Poland and elsewhere, and at music festivals (the Edinburgh Fringe and Heidelberg Spring festivals).

The original members, all Canterbury graduates, were: Emma Yoon and Julianne Song (violins), Lindsay McLay (viola), Alice Gott (cello).

This New Zealand tour was organised by the one remaining New Zealand member, Alice Gott, and has taken them to eleven towns in New Zealand, from the famous Mussel Inn in Golden Bay, Wanaka, Otago University, Waiheke island, All Saints Church in Howick, to Gisborne and finally Wellington.

Their 2013 tour through New Zealand included a Wellington concert, also promoted by Wellington Chamber Music, that was reviewed on this website on 22 September 2013.

Mozart in E flat
This concert began with one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, having been inspired by Haydn’s Op 33 set (though the E flat sonata is said to reflect Haydn’s Op 20 set). It opens with a few unison octaves played with warmth and simplicity that doesn’t seem to suggest any particular mood or clear musical character; the essence of the piece seems to be in the detailed and elaborate handling of the themes. The second movement presents a more serious tone and one is very aware of the extremely careful writing and treatment of the evolving pattern of Mozart’s material. One feels that the music is conspicuously important to the composer, and one is constantly aware of the painstaking care Mozart is taking with its every turn. These players understood the task they faced – not particularly difficult technically, but certainly spiritually and in the characterisation of the music. The mere fact of its great length, around 15 minutes, attests to that.

The Menuetto is superficially more straightforward; the players only need to find a course through a movement that normally offers a more light-hearted moment, but here displays a notably thoughtful character; they did that. Nor is the last movement, though Allegro vivace and fairly lively rhythmically, unduly buoyant and carefree; it remains a serious composition. The players’ close attention to its dynamic shifts and emotional variety kept it very much alive and filled with interest.

Bartók’s No 2
Bartók’s quartets are widely regarded as the most important since those of Beethoven, charting a course that’s radically new as well as musically rich. No 2 was written during the First World War and it shows, for the composer was deeply distressed by the privations Hungary was subjected to. It can fairly be regarded as not strongly unified as each movement presents such a distinct character. It opens in a secretive way, hinting at atonality, an impression derived mainly from its unorthodox melodic shape. I’m sure genuine tonal roots can be demonstrated.

The players had clearly absorbed Bartók’s aesthetic pretty thoroughly, reaching a level at which their playing created a sense of naturalness and inevitability in the music, especially in the meditative passages, and the underlying emotion was often quite apparent. I don’t claim to find Bartók’s music particularly congenial or easy to find delight in, but here, and especially in the second movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, the energy and the melodies, alien as they were, registered. The music was clearly expressing excitement in its own way and even when that’s in a ‘foreign language’, a receptive mood and open ears can make it interesting, even arresting. It transcended the small matter of being in a strange, unfamiliar idiom; a feeling that should surely be a thing of the past.

The third movement was rather harder to reach: remote, secretive, their playing was extremely careful, sensitive, and they drew out alien emotions so that the dissonances and unfamiliar sounds were never disagreeable. Bartók himself confessed to finding a formal template ‘difficult to define’. It goes without saying that the performers’ challenges are formidable, yet they played in a lively and persuasive way, even suggesting that they gained considerable emotional comfort in its performance.*

Beethoven’s Op 18 No 6
After the Interval, it was Beethoven’s Op 18 No 6. If my attention in the first two works seems to have been dominated by the ensemble playing rather than by individual characteristics, they were more conspicuous here. The cello on the one hand, warm and rhythmic, and the violin, quite penetrating it its prominence, particularly, leading the way in the second movement. That is particularly charming, with a memorable step-wise first theme, and though its beauty creates a hope for repeats and simply for more, it’s far shorter than the equivalent movement in the Mozart quartet. The final notes were singularly touching.

The third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, is a study in quick dynamic contrasts and very light, brisk gestures. Short as it is, there’s space for a quickly despatched trio section, all of which the quartet handled with a feeling of genuine authenticity. It’s the last movement that departs significantly from the usual shape of a string quartet. The first section is entitled Malinconia – Adagio, and the composer wrote that it must be treated with the utmost delicacy; the players obeyed scrupulously: and it emerged secretive and arresting. But even at its now Allegro pace, there remained a lightness or tentativeness, at nothing much more than mezzo-forte dynamic level. There’s a momentary return to the melancholy theme before the final dash.

The programme was structured most thoughtfully: stimulating, mainstream pieces that had very distinctly unusual features, and a major piece of relative modernity, if it’s still possible to employ that word more than a century after its composition.

* Addendum

A Bartók perspective
As an uncalled for footnote to the comments on Bartók, I came across a particularly interesting 2007 lecture on the second quartet by Professor Roger Parker of Gresham College, London, that ended with this comforting perspective on Bartók’s six quartets.

Famously, these quartets explore, and make demands on, their four instrumentalists in ways unknown (indeed, unimaginable) in previous times. You’ll hear plenty of that in a moment or two. It is interesting, though, that while in the 1950s and 1960s the Bartók quartets were regarded as among the most austere and demanding imaginable, these days they have begun to seem more mainstream and approachable. Of course, this was always supposed to happen to modernist music: when I was a music student forty years ago, we were endlessly assured that contemporary music which seemed to us incomprehensible would, with repeated listening and industrial-strength doses of aural training, sound as limpid and predictable as Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Well, I’m here to tell you that we tried, even tried hard, and it didn’t. A work like Webern’s Op. 27 sounds just as strange now as it did forty or, for that matter, eighty years ago, and my guess is that it will sound strange forever. But Bartók, even the relatively austere Bartók of the string quartets, is different. Younger players such as those we will hear today come to the music without preconceptions, without thinking that it must be impenetrable and harsh; and as a result they make more sense of it, or at least a different kind of sense: while not ignoring its challenges, and while remaining respectful of its demands, they connect it more easily to its nineteenth-century roots, and so (I think) help us understand it more clearly.

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