Beethoven 250th anniversary: first concert from New Zealand String Quartet

Beethoven: First concert of the complete string quartets

String Quartets:  Opus 18, No. 3 in D; Opus 18, No. 1 in F; Opus 59 ‘Razumovsky’, No. 1 in F

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 11 September, 7:30 pm

This was the first of six concerts this month of all 17 of Beethoven’s string quartets (17 includes the Grosse Fuge, the original last movement of Op 130). They are being played in largely chronological order of publication, modified a bit to help in the appreciation of Beethoven’s developing genius: for example, here were the first two quartets alongside the first of the Op 59 (Razumovsky) group. While in the fourth concert, we will hear representatives from all three periods.

It would have been interesting for the programme notes to have mentioned the quartet’s earlier explorations of Beethoven’s quartets. My memory is of a complete series round about 2000. More easy to identify (in Middle C’s archive) have been performances of some of them in 2012, including all three of the Razumovsky quartets. But surely NZSQ have played the Op 59 quartets since then? Remarkably, I heard this one, Op 59 no 1, in a fine performance by the Aroha Quartet at Lower Hutt a few days ago!

I find it curious that the sort of rather obscure scholarship regarding the order, not merely of publication, but when Beethoven is believed to have simply ‘completed it to his satisfaction’ is such common knowledge. The equivalent knowledge of the chronology and revisions and printings in quarto format of Shakespeare’s plays, might be familiar to graduate students of English literature, but hardly to the great majority of theatre-goers.

Op 18 No 3 
So we began with Op 18 No 3, at once announcing the kind of psychological subtleties that our quartet had familiarised themselves with and were delivering the famous rising seventh at the beginning, expressing such sensitivity, delicacy and expectancy for the secrets to be uncovered over the next half hour. Fluctuating tempi and dynamics prepare you for the arrival of the true Allegro; the fleeting motifs might seemed to be tossed off but their playing remained always clearly purposeful and deliberate.  The second movement shifts from D to the key of B flat major, a somewhat remote key, almost hinting at the arrival of the minor mode. And there was an exploratory feeling in the quartet’s playing, every phrase carefully enunciated, quite deeply felt and purposed.

Further departures from the normal come with the third movement: not a conventional Minuet though in triple time, and with contrasting sections that fell back from D major to D minor. Their playing of the third movement seemed careful not to undermine the emotional character of either the preceding Andante, or the following optimistic, almost joyous Presto that followed. It was almost frenzied in this performance, but it never suffered from blurring or lack of precision. It was relentless with only brief rallentandi or perhaps more accurately ritardandi,

To play the first quartet straight after the end of the third, had the effect of drawing attention to the emotional difference between the two keys, a minor third apart (and, not having perfect pitch I don’t mean any intrinsic character that those claiming perfect pitch recognise in different keys: it’s just the pitch difference that has an emotional impact). This particular contrast made the F major piece, moving up by a minor third, seem more sombre, perhaps even with a touch of tentativeness.

Op 18 No 1
So the character of No 1 seems more serious and dramatic, though the first movement is marked Allegro con brio which did in fact characterise it. But I felt it was a ‘brio’ of a distinctly serious kind. That might have led to my hearing contrasts between the roles and the playing of each instrument that seemed more evident in No 3; for some reason I found myself paying more attention to those aspects in the second work. As often, the differences in tone and mood between the two violins, part no doubt, the instrument, part the personality differences between players, are always interesting to contemplate and to enjoy.

If the first movement is quite long, the second movement is even more protracted (nearly ten minutes) graced with a more deliberate title than usual: Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. Such details always tilt one’s expectation to read particular qualities into a performance. It’s in a rather slow triple time, 9/8, meaning nine quavers to the bar. The programme note records thoughts allegedly exchanged between Beethoven and a tutor, one Karl Amenda, who was employed by Beethoven’s patron at the time and dedicatee of the set of quartets, Prince Franz Josef Maximilian von Lobkowitz. Beethoven is recorded saying that he thought of the second movement as in the burial vault scene of Romeo and Juliet. Such an observation tends to colour what one hears.

The third movement is a normal Scherzo, sprightly through its repeated dotted rhythms and staccato octave leaps. Only about three minutes long, it is enough dramatically to change the listener’s view of the whole quartet that is reinforced by the scampering finale, a plain Allegro in 2/4 time dominated by semi-quavers in triplets. Though Beethoven gives very balanced roles to all four instruments in his quartets, viola and cello often seemed more prominent and the vivid playing by Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten continued to command attention.

Op 59 (Razumovsky), No 1
A link with Beethoven’s next ‘period’ came with the first of the three quartets of Op 59, written for Count Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Austria (by the way, it’s Разумовский in the Cyrillic alphabet: ‘з’ is ‘z’, not ‘s’). Its contrast with the two Op 18 quartets lies not so much in their melodic character as in the adventurousness of harmonies that quite soon seem to lose sight of the original key as they explore expanding tonalities quietly, secretively. And the cello again seemed to have a conspicuous role in this.

The second movement, which might seem a substitute for a Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando, finds its emotional contrast through its move to the subdominant key of B flat, which seems to calm the vivace and scherzo-ish character. The playing seemed to emphasise the ritual thematic development process, though the persistent treatment of the themes was a constant delight, as if Beethoven was teasing us into recognising that he was obeying the rules.

The slow movement, Adagio molto e mesto, is in F minor, which created a more serious, even sorrowful (‘mesto’ means sad) tone and is indeed at the heart of the quartet. It offered all players opportunities for some profoundly felt elegiac passages; it lasts around 12 minutes. It felt to me, as I’m sure Beethoven intended, to hold its audience transfixed, through non-ostentatious but ever-changing musical patterns and modulations. Even though there are no conspicuously flamboyant passages, here it was the seriousness and poignancy of the playing by each of the four musicians that impressed so deeply. The movement’s conclusion is a remarkable demonstration of Beethoven’s ability to shift the mood, subtly, teasingly, and at astonishing length, to introduce us without a break to the very different character of the last movement. In this movement, named Thème Russe: Allegro, Beethoven obliged Razumovsky by including a Russian tune. The players had illustrated it at the beginning: a quite slow, unremarkable theme. But Beethoven felt free to play fast and loose with it, turning it into a vivacious tune which gave him sufficient material for a joyous seven or eight minute finale which gave the players plenty of scope for their virtuosity and mastery of Beethoven’s intentions, to toy endlessly with his material particularly one of his deliciously prolonged codas. The NZSQ proved itself again completely in command of this wonderful composition.

Four-handed piano delights from Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke at the NZSM’s Adam Concert Room in Wellington

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke – Piano Duo

MOZART – Fugue for Piano, four hands K.401
DAVID HAMILTON – Five New Zealand Characters
SCHUBERT – Grand Rondo in A Major D.951
POULENC – Sonata for Four Hands
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro brilliant Op.92

Lunchtime Concert
Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 11th September 2020

I didn’t leave home early enough to find a park, or be able to walk to the concert venue in time for the first item’s beginning – so I came in with the first item still in midstream, actually waiting outside the door, so as not to disturb the music’s flow or the listeners’ concentration. I could hear it all reasonably clearly, and was soon caught up in the intricacies of what was left of the music. This fugue was originally composed and played by Mozart as a solo piece, a commentator at the time noting that  the composer “played this piece with no help, while others could manage it only via a four-hand execution”. There’s been a suggestion that the work was devised for a “modified keyboard instrument with pedals like an organ” – Mozart’s father made reference to Wolfgang owning one of these instruments in a letter to his daughter Nannerl – “he has had a big pedal-fortepiano made which stands under the grand piano, is three spans longer, and surprisingly heavy!”

Having settled myself in after the Mozart had finished, I was ready for David Hamilton’s “Five New Zealand Characters”, which was next on the programme – they turned out to be pieces the composer had written for two children of friends he had stayed with in the UK some years ago – Hamilton comments in a note accompanying the music that the pieces “are written with an easier primo part, but both parts contain some challenge especially in the rhythms”. The pieces’ titles refer to various birds and animals “which have a special place in the biosphere of New Zealand”.

Because of the intricacies of trying to find a seat I missed hearing clearly the spoken announcement introducing the five sections of the work, and so wasn’t sure of the order the pianists had adopted – I discovered later from the SOUNZ website that opening the set was “The Sleepy Tuatara”, the music consisting of a lyrical, repeating figure sounded over a chordal, hymn-like melody, with ear-catching dynamic variations, and a swopping to the treble of the melody over a bass ostinato for the second part. The piece’s title seemed to fit the music, but I was worried regarding the second piece’s title in view of its music –  a chirpy staccato mood with angular hopping set against running figures, quirky harmonies and textural changes – were these really “Pekapeka – long-tailed bats”? And “The Little Spotted Kiwi” was a wistful figure seeming to inhabit vistas reminding one of Monet’s water-lilies, an all-pervading 3-note figure sounding over a murmuring, watery bass.

The two remaining were less problematical – I loved the music for “The Fantail (Piwakawaka)”, a playful romp of a piece, with running figures answered with a cheeky chirp! – and the swaggering cake-walk-like rhythms of the last piece fitted the picture of  “The Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Hoiho)” like a glove!

Worshipping the Schubert four-handed pieces for piano as I do, I confess to being slightly disappointed with Cheng’s and Zuelicke’s performance of the Grand Rondo in A Major D 951  I thought their pacing of the work was nicely judged, but found much of it too dynamically unvaried  – I wondered whether a bright-sounding instrument and a forward, lively acoustic in the Adam Concert Room was something players new to the venue perhaps needed to be wary of. But, right from the very beginning, where I wanted the music to “steal in” more winningly, I felt the tones seemed too forward, too “beefy” in places, and, of course, left the more forthright episodes little room in which to really expand and make their point via contrast. Just occasionally the players did drop their tonal levels, but not for long enough – the music didn’t maintain the more inward character the playing all-too-briefly suggested. The change of accompanying figuration to triplet figures would have been an appropriate place to intensify the tones and build to an “opening up” of the dynamics, but by then my ear had been over-sated and I was wanting some relief – it was as if the composer had been talking to me in a somewhat mezza-forte voice the whole time, and I was craving something different. They played as if performing in a much larger hall, and for some reason feeling a need to reach out to its extremities – a manner of presentation not needed in this venue!

Fortunately, both the Poulenc and the Mendelssohn items that remained gave a lot of pleasure by dint of the players’ responsiveness to the music’s “character”. I enjoyed the motoric “charge” of the Poulenc Sonata ’s opening, a mood that changed to wistful wandering for a while before the opening “clattered” back again, only to be abruptly “kicked downstairs” for its pains!

The second movement’s ostinato-like figurations alternated charming sequences with acerbic gestures, the playing’s tonal variation of a range that the Schubert item should have had; while the last movement playfully tossed figures between the hands, before building up a growling, insistent bass to near orchestral splendour – Poulenc’s melodies had such insouciance, such a simple, casual manner, with a ‘kind of “nudge-wink” ending proclaiming “That’s all, folks!” Most engaging!

I thought the Mendelssohn work “Andante and Allegro Brilliant” got the concert’s best playing from the pair, the playing romantically full-throated at the work’s beginning, with plenty of light and shade and rhythmic pliancy of phrasing, all of which gave the onset of the Allegro a sparkling energy which conveyed rippling fun and enjoyment, including some great swirling bass figurations! A more lyrical, gently swaying episode mid-movement captured a trio-like contrasting relaxation, the minor-key moments conveying a real sense of the music’s melancholy – some additional swirling arpeggiations  brought back the lyrical “trio” section in a heart-easing way, Cheng and Zuelicke pulling out the pianistic throttle with a Lisztian deluge of running figures that together brought the music home – a whirlwind triplet-driven coda left us breathless and satisfied at the end – great stuff!