Wellington Chamber Music series – Jade Quartet
JOSEF HAYDN – ‘Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross’ Op. 51 (extracts)
DAVID HAMILTON – String Quartet No 3, Quartetto Piccolo (2021)
PETER ADAMS – ‘Proclamations, Canons and Dances’ (2018)
FRANZ SCHUBERT – String Quartet No 14 in D min ‘Death and the Maiden’, D810
St Andrews on the Terrace,
Sunday 18th July, 2021
This was an unlucky concert from the first. It was originally scheduled for 27 June,
but had to be rescheduled when Wellington went into Level 2 lockdown a few days
prior. At some point the second violin (William Hanfling) and cello (Edith Salzmann)
became unavailable: the first due to illness and the second being caught in a
COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne. When the Jade Quartet finally arrived to present
this concert, Hanfling had been replaced by Charmian Keay, a first violinist in
Orchestra Wellington (and daughter of Miranda Adams, the quartet’s founder, who
has been Assistant Concertmaster of the APO since 1994). The new cellist,
replacing Salzmann, was James Yoo, who teaches cello and chamber music at the
University of Auckland and is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium and the
Musikhochschule of Cologne.
This made for a patchy concert, the weakest in the current Wellington Chamber
Music Season so far, which began with a bang with Trio Elan in April.
Haydn’s Op. 51 was originally an orchestral work, commissioned in 1786 by the
Canon of the Cathedral of Cadiz as a work for Good Friday. The Cathedral was in
the habit of commissioning new music for the solemn mass on Good Friday. The
church would be draped in black, and the windows shrouded. The Bishop would
speak each of the last words in turn, provide an exegesis, and prostrate himself
before the altar, while the orchestra played the relevant movement, each movement
about ten minutes long. The effect must have been arresting.
Haydn wrote nine sections, starting with an introduction and finishing with an
earthquake in C minor (‘Il terremoto’) with the marking Presto e con tutta la forza.
Although Haydn complained about the commission (‘it was no easy task to compose
seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without
fatiguing the listeners’), the work was immediately popular. Haydn produced a
reduced version for string quartet the following year, and also a piano version. In
1794, on his way to London, he heard a choral version in Passau, with the choir
singing a German text rather than the Gospel texts in Latin that the Bishop of Cadiz
had spoken. Haydn rather liked the effect, and wrote his own version with the
German text improved by van Swieten, which premiered in Vienna for Easter 1796.
He and van Swieten went on to work together on The Creation and The Seasons.
The Jade Quartet played only extracts from the quartet version of the work: the
Introduction; Sonata V (‘Sitio’ – I thirst); Sonata VI (‘Consummatum est’ – It is
finished), and Sonata VI (‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum’ – In
thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’), plus the earthquake mentioned in Matthew
27: 51. The result was unsatisfactory, to say the least. This is a solemn work, written
for the most solemn ceremony of the most solemn day in the Church year.
Wrenched out of the liturgical context, it becomes an interesting example of Haydn’s
tonal exploration, but little more.
The Jade Quartet may have done their best, but their performance lacked profundity
or, indeed, conviction of any kind. There are a lot of notes, and although they were
all there, the tragedy and pathos were completely lacking. At times the music
sounded insouciant, even jaunty. The only movement that the players seemed to
believe in was the last one, the earthquake, in which the earth trembled and we were
Next in the programme was David Hamilton’s brand-new String Quartet No 3,
nicknamed ‘piccolo’ because there are only three movements, labelled ‘A little night
music’, ‘Helter Skelter’, and ‘Song without Words’. The Quartet commissioned this work, and they enjoyed playing it. The first movement starts with sustained slow
glissandi creating starry effects, before each voice enters in turn. There is a beautiful
cantabile passage from the cello with glittery sounds from the higher instruments,
before the cello’s tune is passed to the viola, sad and regretful.
The middle movement is fast and jazzy, with lovely textures (pizzicato cello under
the upper voices, and then a swapping around). And the ‘Song without Words’
began with the song in the viola, followed by the second violin, again with pizzicato
cello, then passed to the first violin, and eventually back to the cello, with silvery
harmonies again from the higher voices.
By this time, I was becoming aware that James Yoo is a superb cellist, with a
glorious sound, by turns commanding and incisive, then investing Hamilton’s rather
filmic writing with moments of beauty.
The last work in the first half of the concert was by Peter Adams, though the piece
was originally billed by Wellington Chamber Music as being by the exciting and
prolific young Chris Adams. Peter Adams was not known to me, but he is an
Associate Professor in Music at Otago, and Miranda Adams’ brother. He graduated
from Kings College London with an MMus in music theory, but he is perhaps better
known as a conductor than a composer. working with brass bands, Dunedin
Symphony Orchestra, and St Kilda Brass.
His second string quartet was written for Jade Quartet in 2018, and its title, ‘Proclamations, Canons, and Dances’ gives a sense of the work. The opening proclamation was big and imposing, as though announcing a portent. Already the emotional content was weightier than for the
entire Haydn item. This was followed by a dance led by the first violin, anxious and
restless. And so it continued.
The individual sections are short, and there’s a lot of anxious running around within
sub-sections, so it’s hard to know where the work is going as one idea is followed by
another and another. Adams describes his writing as incorporating ‘poly-stylism’ and
‘a mixed-modal language’. My notes say things like ‘another melancholy song’,
‘ghost music’, ‘a frenzied dance’, indicating that I was barely keeping up. A second
listening would clarify matters, I think.
After the interval came Schubert’s famous quartet No 14, known as ‘Death and the
Maiden’, because of the riff on his lied of the same name. It began well, and there
was some incisive playing in the first movement, but there were signs throughout of
being under rehearsed – a tempo change that almost fell apart, and a lot of choppy
playing, as though no one quite knew what to expect of the others. Often the tempi
felt rushed, which meant that the work lost some of its emotional intensity. The second
movement was under better control, except that the tragedy was often missing –
except from the cello, which held the emotional centre. The Scherzo was exciting,
and the Presto was positively hectic. The chorale section was under-powered and a
bit garbled, and there was another meno mosso that wasn’t quite together, before
the final prestissimo, which was.
And there was an encore – a syrupy arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’
by Russ Garcia, who wrote an orchestral version at the age of 11. You may be
familiar with the John Coltrane version. If so, you’d have wondered where the tune