Intensity, conflict, and resolve from the Aroha Quartet and oboist Robert Orr at Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
The Aroha String Quartet and Robert Orr (oboe)

Aroha String Quartet: Haihong Liu, Konstanze Artmann (violins)
Zhongxian Jin (viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

BRITTEN – Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet in F Major Op.59 No. 1 “Rasumovsky”
ALEX TAYLOR – Refrain for String Quartet
BLISS – Quintet for oboe and string quartet Op.21

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Tuesday 8th September 2020

I thought this concert featured a most enterprising programme, a combination of familiar and relatively unfamiliar music, with works for oboe and strings framing two strings-only pieces, providing continual interest and variety for listeners. With each of the concert’s “halves” featuring a shorter, followed by a longer piece, the presentation had an unforced ease of both delivery and reception, the ensemble’s efforts warmly acclaimed at the concert’s end.

Beginning the evening’s music was a remarkably precocious work by the nineteen year-old Benjamin Britten , a Phantasy Quartet for oboe and string trio, the title referring to a genre dating back to Elizabethan and Jacobean times of instrumental music whose single-movement form was “free”, varied and spontaneous in effect. One analysis of the music I read was that which described the piece as “a sonata movement with a slow section inserted between the development and recapitulation sections”. Britten’s very individual way with his compositions seemed to have confused rather than impressed his Royal College professors, and only one of his pieces was given a performance by the College during his three years as a student there, with a number of his works (this Quartet included) getting performances in London independent of the College’s influence.

The Phantasy Quartet was first performed by Leon Goossens, the leading English oboist of the period, in 1933 with members of the grandly-named International String Quartet in a BBC broadcast, the work then being repeated in concert in London by the same players later in the year. Its symmetrical construction features marching sections beginning and ending the piece, the oboe singing over the marching rhythms. The work’s themes are then given quicker treatment similar to a development before a central, lyrical section for strings alone arrives. After the oboe re-enters, the music “mirrors” the opening, with a return to the quicker exposition, and then to the opening slow march.

I enjoyed the freedom and exuberance brought to the work by the Aroha players and oboist Robert Orr, here, the march rhythms by turns strongly and variedly etched by the strings, and  the oboe intoning its song with the freedom of a bird’s flight; and the quicker expositions becoming more argumentative and combatative. The slower strings-only section slowly transforms a gently-swaying manner into surgings of strongly-expressed feeling, one which the oboe again floats over at first as before, then helps to crank up the energies briefly. The return of the marching rhythms of the opening delights the oboe even more, soaring like a bird rising up to meet its mate mid-flight, then becoming as one in song, one whose resonances gradually recede as the march-rhythms of the strings stutter into a richly-wrought silence!

Next was the well-known Op.59 No.1 “Rasumovsky” Quartet of Beethoven’s, here, to my ears, given an almost disembodied kind of texture by the Quartet players at the outset, whose effect I found hauntingly attractive  – I admit I was sitting towards the back of the auditorium, and not in my accustomed listening-place nearer to the players, which would account for some of the more “distanced” kind of ambience. But it was more than that – I thought the playing had a “liquidity” which tended to smooth over the usually-encountered angularities of some of the writing – it made for some exquisite sounds, and extraordinarily deft pairings of voices, as in the antiphonal exchanges near the exposition’s end, those “refracted” chords which I imagine are the aural equivalent of a revolving mirror, bringing images into unexpected proximity and letting them go just as easily. The quartet also got a lovely ‘layered” effect during the development in letting the motive “descend” through the textures, with detail sometimes merely “brushed “ in, all very spontaneous in its realisation, which was a hallmark of the performance as a whole.

The “drum-tapping” beginning of the Allegretto drew our attentions into the musical argument, the phrases deftly tossed between the instruments at first before excitingly progressing towards a full-blooded announcement of the melody – it all made a colourful contrast with the poignancy of the minor-key melody that followed, a melody that the composer wove back into the opening rhythms of the movement, creating incredible expectations and wonderments as to where the music was next going to go, playing with both harmonies and trajectories in masterly fashion. The recapitulation of the opening melody’s most engagingly “grunty” form was a great moment here, as was the continued integration of the yearning melody in the music’s flowing sweep – the players seemed to have tapped into some kind of inexhaustible energy-source, giving the music all that it needed up to the drollery of the movement’s ending.

Such noble, dignified sadness was expressed by the slow movement’s opening paragraph, the cello’s first traversal of the theme capturing for me the very soul of the music, but matched in reply by the violin’s comparable eloquence with the second subject. I thought all the players responded wholeheartedly to the music’s “nowhere to hide” quality of candour, with voicings that readily conveyed the deep emotion of the composer’s well of sorrow – out of it all suddenly bubbled the first violin’s mini-cadenza leading to the cello’s forthright, striding into a new world of “taking arms against a sea of troubles”, and bidding all follow the lead, alike through jaggedly syncopated thickets and rolling, tumbling terrain, the mellifluous liquidity of the work’s opening left far behind by the players as they tackled what seemed like “the real stuff” here, a white-heat of intensity, as much spirit as substance dancing about the instruments and pushing the players to their limits at the end – inspiring work from all concerned!

A break, and the music was run again, this time with a New Zealand work I had heard before (and reviewed), in 2015, coincidentally, also played then by the Aroha Quartet, though with a different second violinist,  Alex Taylor’s Refrain for String Quartet – –   ‘Cellist Robert Ibell introduced the piece, getting the quartet players to play the “refrain” for us (a beautiful choral-like piece), and then talking about the composer’s used of a compositional technique called “shadowing” (the players demonstrating this as well), a line followed by another in close succession, almost like a echo effect, or a visual shadow. The actual piece itself began violently, in “tantrum” mode at first, before the first “refrain” or a chorale-like passage interrupted the agitations, the music’s extremes delineating the states of mind wrought by what the composer described as “social paralysis”, a chaos of confusion reverberating between action and inaction. The “shadowing” demonstrated by the players seemed to represent efforts at articulation, the result being an impulse-filled soundscape, in places chaotic, in others strangely haunting and vibrant in effect. The beauty of the “refrains” to my mind served to underline the dysfunctional ambience in which they existed and/or grew into or from, moments of lucidity marked by stillness and loneliness in which one could hear one’s own voice coming back at one, the shadowings underlining the futility of attempts at communication, everything Imagined rather than real and by extrapolation leaving us all in the same boat! Those equivocal feelings at the piece’s end which I commented on in my previous review here came back as confused as before regarding the “imprecise” nature of human interaction.

Finally we heard a work by Sir Arthur Bliss – I don’t believe in depriving musicians thus decorated of their honours, as seems to be the current custom – as WS Gilbert remarked: “If everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody!”. His music I’ve never seriously “gotten into” – so it was a rare treat to encounter a work by the composer via such a committed performance as this one. Bliss’s Oboe Quintet, written in 1927, was commissioned by the American philanthropist and patron of the arts, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for a festival of music in Venice, where it was premiered by the same player, Leon Goossens, as was Britten’s work which we heard earlier in this concert. Though English, and influenced by the folk-song revival which gave English music such increased impetus in the early part of the twentieth Century, Bliss’s early work was thought of as avant garde by the critics – there were pastoral influences, but frequently unconventional, and at times experimental and exotic touches, the fruit of early dalliances with Stravinsky and the music of Les Six. Later his music moved towards a more richly conventional idiom, found in works like his Colour Symphony and choral work Morning Heroes.

The Oboe Quintet has become one of Bliss’s most-played and recorded works, written at a time when the composer was reconciling his contemporary interests with the sheer depth of his English heritage. I thought the mix brought out a certain restless quality, as if a number of creative elements were bent on “holding their own” in the music’s sonicscape. The work’s “sighing” opening, beautifully essayed by the violins plaintively invited the other strings to join in, the oboe songfully opening up the vistas further – a gentle dance ensued, the oboe maintaining its song while the strings gradually and deftly energised the accompaniment with nimble bow-bouncings and more trenchant accentings, their lines ascending, and delivering Holst-like astringencies – a “hurt” quality emerged from it all most effectively, the quietly melancholic song left to the oboe to resound at the end, like a bird crying out.

What a rich and sonorous melody from the oboe at the start of the Andante con moto slow movement! -so much so that the violins have to repeat some of it, reluctant to let it go! Throughout the movement’s first part there’s such a “lonely” quality of utterance,  sometimes led by the oboe and then the textures sometimes strings-only and (in one particular place) Borodin-like. Then, suddenly, a folkish irruption of energy enlivens the music so gorgeously, the music very physically propelled by the strings beneath the oboe’s melody – blood-pumping stuff! But soon, the lonely, melancholic mood returns with the oboe’s “solitary shepherd’s” song, and only dreams for company.

And as for  the finale’s throwing down the gauntlet, with those uncompromisingly fraught chromatic fanfares right at the start, well, something obviously needed to be said and got out quick (“and not remembered, even in sleep!”), so steadfastedly did the music “play its way through” whatever anxieties the composer had conjured from out of his subconscious. The players here demonstrated tons of energy and spirit in doing so, though, and everybody made a splendid fist of the appearance of the Irish folk-tune Connolly’s Jig, which certainly did its best to clear the air! – and a right royal battle its cheerfulness waged with the music’s darker elements, too! I thought the playing was fantastic in its focused energies, and the brilliance of Robert Orr’s florid figurations at the piece’s end was jaw-dropping! What a great companion-piece this was for the Britten work at the concert’s beginning, and how resounding a success the concert was in its entirety!