Haydn, Brahms and Brigid Bisley in superb recital from Diedre Irons and the Aroha Quartet

Aroha String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op 33 No 3 ‘The Bird’
Brigid Ursula Bisley: Unbound
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 1 December, 3 pm

Haydn’s The Bird
The last 2019 concert from the Aroha Quartet opened with Haydn’s quartet, The Bird, creating sounds that were quite stunning: not in the normal sense of fortissimo, exciting or cacophonous, but with sounds that were hardly of a string quartet at all. They were of such refinement and purity that they really did evoke the subtlest of bird calls that were pure and secretive, unearthly. The marking allegro moderato meant little as speed seemed quite irrelevant given that the music’s character was determined by the rare sound and unique spiritual quality the players generated.

Whether or not Haydn was seeking the greatest possible tonal contrasts between each of the instruments, that is what they produced; and the differences between the instruments so beautifully evoked, not just ‘a bird’, but a wonderful variety of birds.

And the second movement marked, unusually, Scherzo, as all six of the Op 33 are (the brisk middle movement was not generally called Scherzo till Beethoven took it up); indeed, it is a curious, sombre Scherzo, till the brighter middle section. The only bird-like character here was the continued refinement of sound, with exquisitely subtle dynamics. In the third movement the players continued delicacy found its most pensive aspect, again with the individual voices lending a rare quality; and the finale returned to summarise the bird-like character of the first movement with a cautious brightness, ending with a typically Haydnesque surprise.

Brigid Bisley’s Unbound
The central work in the programme was the nine-year-old Unbound by Brigid Ursula Bisley, though this was a revision; how extensive that was, I wondered. I heard its premiere at the 2011 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson.

It opened with a strange dissonance from the two violins, dealing with a calm musical idea; there followed a fluttering episode with trilling second violin and/or viola. The programme note described its division into three parts, structure around two melodic ideas, that were elaborated, in particular, quoting a phrase from Bach’s Musical Offering . Her note refers to a melody in Part II which grounded the music in tradition, at the same time as offering a spring-board for a return to more unorthodox idioms. And she refers to an atonal three-part fugue in Part III, but I hardly registered it as an atonal element since the absence of ‘tonal’ thematic ideas need not be alienating, or even recognisable, and nothing here was that.

As the music emerged from that episode, offering interesting motifs for each instrument, each prominent in turn, a feeling of integrity grew and my notes included the passing from a grieving cello to evolve into a genuinely imaginative, unpretentious and coherent work.

I refrained from looking at the review I wrote of its premiere at the 2011 Nelson Chamber Music Festival till I’d written the above, and was pleased to find that my feelings eight years ago were pretty much the same as now.

“It opened quietly, each instrument contributing intriguingly to a pattern of disharmony till a melody emerged and after a while viola and cello laid down some bass support. Influences? Yes, Bartók quite distinctly, but more important was an impression of music that was beholden to no school or musical ideology, but simply sounded alive to today’s environment, whatever that means, and aimed at engaging with the listener. Lots happened; there was a beguiling, dreamy phase, a yearning spirit as Doug Beilman’s second violin cried while Helene Pohl’s first violin sang a high descant over the cello’s pedal support. There were so many elements that appeared distinct but ultimately created a coherent musical story; and it ended without flourish or rhetoric.”)

Now I would not mention Bartók as a particular influence. Its character was its own and I felt that the composer would rather be heard as writing in an idiom that simply reflected our era, in its general, heterogeneous nature with nothing other than familiarity with a wide range of contemporary and earlier musical impulses: above all, a compulsion to create music that was not in an idiom that left listeners perplexed or annoyed, but was interesting and engaging. That it was.

Brahms: Piano Quintet
Brahms wonderful Piano Quintet may well have been the main attraction for the quite large audience; particularly since it involved Diedre Irons, along with the Aroha Quartet! The acoustic of St Andrew’s can be a problem, not just for orchestras and large ensembles, but sometimes for groups as small as a piano quintet. These players acute sensitivity and sensibility eliminated any chance of that.

In the first movement they were in perfect control, with Diedre Irons’s piano, which has been known to be fairly forthright, in comfortable balance, and more surprisingly, matching some of the strings’ exquisite subtlety. They produced sounds that were not only remarkably unified but also as if each was in a solo spotlight, contributing to a thoughtful drama of near orchestral intensity.

The piano leads for a while in the second movement, warm and gentle in spirit, a marked contrast to the first movement. Musicologists note the interesting shifts of key from movement to movement and within movements, but most of the audience, not burdened with perfect pitch, merely senses mood shifts, and things that enliven and maintain involvement with the music.

The Scherzo movement is orthodox, an ABA form, but in the minor key, though the Trio is in C major; it is a serious and weighty structure that in these hands acquired an almost symphonic character which was striking and arresting.

Some of this colour is probably attributed to the curious provenance of the piece, starting as a string quintet, then a sonata for two pianos before being published in its present form; and it’s recently been arranged for both full orchestra and for piano and orchestra: I can imagine both being successful.

It’s something of a surprise for the weighty Scherzo to be followed by the mysterious opening of the Finale, very subdued, till a few heavy piano chords hint at something more – I used the word ‘masculine’ in my notes, probably unlawfully.

The Finale becomes ever more powerful and emphatic, moving from Poco sostenuto through Allegro non troppo to Presto, non troppo in the Hungarian flavoured peroration. In some hands the Finale could be found a bit protracted, but in the hands of the Aroha and Irons that would have been unimaginable: this was a wonderful performance that maintained its serious and dramatic character to the end, flawlessly, passionately and with enormous conviction.


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