New Zealand String Quartet at Lower Hutt – three views of Beethoven

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets for the Ages

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No.4
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Op.131

The New Zealand String Quartet –
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 3rd June, 2021

I remember reading an interview many years ago with one of the great Beethoven interpreters of recent tines, Alfred Brendel, and warming to him all the more when he responded to a question regarding his “hobbies” by listing one of them as “collecting unintentional humour”. Brendel would doubtless have relished the unexpected “cyber-glitches” experienced by violinist Helene Pohl and ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relating to their respective electronic page-turners’ charmingly (and perhaps appropriately connubial) interaction, just before the music got under way, Helene remarking of Rolf’s device at one point, “His machine keeps turning MY pages!”

Of course there was no ice needing to be broken, no frigid formality here –  the NZSQ’s characteristic “instant engagement” with whatever music the group performs invariably does the trick with audiences in a flash – nevertheless the momentary malfunctionings and the ensuing banter meant that we were this time even more-than-usually “primed” for enjoyment and wide-eared appreciation of what we were about to hear. And, such was the music’s expressive capacity and the players’ involvement with the sounds and their interaction, we were able to truly savour Rolf Gjelsten’s post-performance comments regarding Op.18 No. 4 as a satisfying retrospective of the music, the players having borne out to a tee his references to things such as Josef Haydn’s influence, and the younger composer’s avowed determination to match, if not outdo his great mentor’s achievement in this form.

Being in C minor, a key marking a significantly expressive world of feeling for Beethoven, the Op.18 No.4’s dark opening demeanour made its mark, while being cross-currented with mellowness in places, some especially lovely duetting between first and second violins a delight, and a graceful return to the opening throwing the darker-browed moments into bolder relief. I loved the expectation engendered by the playing of the development, the emotions unerringly terraced with crescendos of feeling, the ‘cello enjoying the same thematic material as the two violins in the exposition, the violin responding with a minor-key version of the same (“Anything you can do, etc…”), before a stepwise progression of the themes brought us to the recapitulation with great theatricality and presence, whose drama of “working out” the material left us humming at the end.

Unusually for the time, a scherzo-like allegretto followed, the daintiness of the fugato entries countenanced by the gruffness of the cello’s entries, the two “modes” playfully snapping at one another’s heels during the exposition. How intently the players made us listen to the development with its hushed, tongue-in-cheek gestures, pinning our ears back with the occasional sforzando and delighting us with moments of rustic gallantry augmenting the delicacies, the interactions having a quality here of such spontaneous enjoyment as giving an almost improvisatory feeling to the working-out.

There followed an amazing third movement! – a Menuetto almost to be “imagined” rather than realised, the chromatic writing enabling the music to appear to change from darkness to light and back to darkness almost within the space of a phrase, Beethoven drawing from Haydn’s example with fanciful exploratory impulses. The players wafted the Trio’s roulade-like figures skywards like flights of ecstasy, making the Menuetto’s return all the more “spooked”-sounding for its urgencies. The finale impishly suggested a minor-key version of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio at the outset, but what most tickled the ear was the “give-and-take” treatment of the flowing contrasting theme’s voicing, and then the rapid-fire repeated-note versions of the opening, with first and second violins “juggling” the same theme to delightful effect. And the prestissimo ending here set high spirits against insouciant humour with real aplomb – splendid!

It was a pleasure to listen to Rolf (and, later in the concert, to Helene Pohl), talk about music the players obviously know so well and convey so much affinity with, Rolf placing the Op.18 work we had just listened to in the context of Beethoven’s three “periods” as a composer, and suggesting that here, in effect, would be three different people represented by the evening’s music – firstly the young, thrusting Beethoven, conscious of his influences and wanting to match and even surpass them in his own music, followed by a period during which he  grappled with debilitating deafness, striving to counter and overcome fate, hence the “heroic” aspect of works like the Fifth Symphony and the “Emperor” Concerto, one of which was the Op.74 “Harp” Quartet. Rolf indicated that Helene would later introduce the great Op.131 Quartet, one of those handful of works in which Beethoven seemed almost to transcend human existence in the creative sphere.

Innovative though certain aspects of the Op.18 quartets were, Beethoven’s “usual” quartet of string players (led by the wondrously-named Ignaz Schuppanzigh) seemed by all accounts equal to any technical difficulty in performance, though it was a different story with the later quartets, Schuppanzigh telling the composer that Op.59 (Razumovsky) and Op.74 (Harp) were “too unusual and challenging” to be accepted by the public. And, of course, Schuppanzigh was to dismiss the late quartets as impossible to play at first, eliciting the composer’s famously scathing remark concerning the former’s “miserable violin” (Schuppanzigh and his quartet subsequently “knuckled down” and played them anyway, revolutionising chamber music performing practice in the process, his quartet’s subscription concerts the first to be devoted entirely to instrumental music, and to focus on a single genre in a concert series).

Even to today’s sensibilities, the Poco Adagio  beginning of the Op.74 quartet seems to have an extraordinary and unpredictable expressive reach, the material inhabiting territories whose vistas keep their mystery intact through two sudden separate sforzando chords, as if saying to us “Are you listening?”. Then, with the allegro, the fully-formed composer comes into the light like a force of nature! – here, some remarkably flexible playing took us to the distinctive repeated-note motif that closed the exposition (the repeat eagerly plunging us back to the allegro’s beginning), before entering into new and unnerving realms – where were we going? Those seemingly-spontaneously-wrought modulations, stretching the allegro theme almost to breaking-point brought about a pizzicato-to-arco crescendo in which the players wrought expectations almost to fever-pitch – so exciting! The recapitulation seemed here to give us a kind of looking-glass view of the way we’d come, taking us back to the repeated-note motif, but then, amazingly, drifting into a hitherto unexplored state of consciousness, the players timing it all so deliciously, allowing the impulses to swell and grow before igniting as scurrying violin figures, excitable pizzicati and echoing figurations, eventually bursting out with the properly-conclusive repeated-note motif proclaiming the music’s true destination in (dare one say) almost orgasmic fashion, interactive and exhilarating!

Some beautiful violin-playing began the Adagio ma non troppo, with similarly-voiced support from the others, a hymn-like outpouring whose heartfelt warmth seemed to suddenly fall away and expose a loneliness within, a mood-shift Beethoven seemed to consider deeply, then turn into some kind of ritual, with each instrument adding its warmth and resonance, until, again, the depths were uncovered and we were made to feel the extent of the darkness – enthralling, sotto voce playing, here, then beautiful duetting between the violins, rich tones leavened by birdsong, and a return to the tragic theme, as if the composer was audibly “wrestling” with it all – such a “layered” outpouring of emotion, here so movingly felt and enacted.

From deep feeling to blood-pulsating activity! – the scherzo’s Presto burst out of the blocks, racing at what seemed like top speed, the sounds incredibly energised and varied in dynamic range! And what an explosive Trio section! – a jumble of conflicting emotions caught up in a vortex of ceaseless movement! The repeat asked for more and got it, as wildly and frenetically as before! I loved the fantastical, Berlioz-like arrivals at the sustained open-string-sounding note just before the scherzo’s returnings, the final reprise a ghostly, and fantastical experience, the muted tones as unnerving as the previously impetuous trajectories of the music had been.  From the mutterings grew up a carefree-sounding three-note figure strung together in a step-wise way, the seemingly-innocent chant-like theme giving rise to worlds of kaleidoscopic delight in the variations which made up the work’s finale, the ensemble bringing it all to life – a canonic-like echo-game, a viola-led serenade (the instrument most beautifully allowed to sing in its upper register) and a burst of running activity punctuated with angular off-beats, leading to a soulful, almost hymn-like  a section which gave way to a jolly jot-trot, one during which one could see and feel the players’ involvement with the fun of the accompaniments as much as with the rallying-call of the melody!

But then, what a feat of imagination was the composer’s fusion of varied impulse which led to the work’s conclusion – the repeated cello notes pulsating the music’s life-lines beneath the sotto voce voices of the other instruments, the blood-flow maintained by other voices as the excitement intensified, the opening three-note figure energised and the pulsations swelling (we were all on the edges of our mind-seats by this time!), until the “running” variation burst upon us once again, carrying all before it in triumph, and concluding with a droll “that’s that!” gesture at the end!

What it was about this particular quartet and its performance that has given rise to my writing all of the above, I don’t fully understand! – except that I had heard the NZSQ  players “unlock” the music with such heartfelt commitment as to freshly awaken for me the delight of unlooked-for rediscovery, a realisation that this work wasn’t merely a “prelude” to greater achievements in the genre by its composer, but a universe in itself, a “world in a grain of sand”. I briefly and unexpectedly spoke with Rolf Gjelsten in the foyer during the interval, but wouldn’t have made much sense to him in my somewhat dazed state following such a performance! And still we had, waiting for us in the concert’s second half, Op. 131!

Having fallen under the spell of Op.74, I simply couldn’t escape similar immersion in this later work,  reputedly the composer’s favourite of all of his string quartets. Helene Pohl talked with us not only about the uniqueness of the world inhabited by these late works, but also about Beethoven’s fascination with and study of Jewish themes at this time, illustrating the influences on this particular quartet with some examples from Kol Nidrei (a traditional Jewish declaration of “cleansing” before prayer), citing and illustrating their use by Beethoven in the Quartet, particularly in the sixth movement. What struck me anew at the music’s beginning was the indescribable sadness of the opening theme, played on the solo violin and continued in fugal form by all of the voices, taking the listener into realms of wonderment, everything further intensified by the instruments’ different timbres, each crescendo of intensity exquisitely realised. I was put in mind in places, also, of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most “stricken”, the players adding breadth of expression to the music’s depth, “leaning” almost pathetically into each chord at the end and allowing the resonances their full countenance….

Out of the gloom a number of impulses lit up, gently dancing, the 6/8 rhythm as spontaneously playful and angular as those similarly-wrought gestures in the composer’s Op.111 Piano Sonata’s Arietta – the brief allegro moderato movement, filled with improvisatory musings and flourishes seemed to proclaim something new and unchartered was afoot, the theme’s serenity and full-throatedness attesting to Beethoven’s unswerving focus and determination to put across “what the spirit told him”, the gentle march-like rhythms engaging violin and cello, then viola and cello, and finally all the instruments in a swinging unison, the “improvisatory” nature of it all captured both compositionally and interpretatively by the players, to enchanting effect. Here were the duetting lower strings daring one another to continue, the violins in ecstasy together, with their flights of fancy, and we in the audience spellbound throughout it all!

Too rich to fully document, though too significant to let pass, the remaining variations seemed to generate themselves from what had gone before in wholly alchemic ways, the rapt textures (again to my ears anticipating Tchaikovsky’s, and Borodin’s sound-worlds) giving way to a ritualised, chant-like treatment energised by the cello with a brusque figure that increasingly impinged, goading the first violin into a reply, while the volatile Allegretto stretched the material every which way, before withdrawing into enigmatic, though momentary, silence….

Immediately, the Presto was upon us, a repeated two-note figure tumbling through the ensemble and tossed backwards and forwards like a slippery ball – the ensemble had great fun with the pizzicato exchanges, which intensified with each repetition, the players’ control allowing them a real sense of abandonment, creating a kind of illusion of a capricious spirit directing the music to speak, exuberance jumbled up with mystery, the ponticello playing near the end properly sending the shivers up one’s spine! What a dramatic switch, then, to the Adagio quasi un poco andante, brief, but abyss-like in its potential for grief and despair! – and how unequivocally the succeeding  Allegro turned the focus around, away from despair to determination, the music “taking arms against a sea of troubles” with the utmost vehemence, the players here viscerally conveying the music’s conflict, courting the occasional tenderly-consoling sequence, but then building up further heads of steam. And the ending (a scalp-tingling “tierce de picardie”, or major-key ending to a piece in a minor key) featured emphatic C#MAJOR chords! – the perfect rebuff to the “sea of troubles!”

I walked out in a daze, afterwards – fortunately, my car seemed to know the way home that evening!














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