From the Bush to the Ballroom: the NZSQ Plays Music from Aotearoa and Central Europe

The New Zealand String Quartet

2021 National Tour –  Programme 1

HAYDN – String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”
FARR –  Te Kōanga
LIGETI –  String Quartet No. 1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
DVORAK –  String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51

The Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Friday, 12 November 2021

This concert was billed as a “Premium Concert Experience,” the kind of language that sets the teeth of a crusty old pedant like me somewhat on edge. It refers in this instance to a format involving tables instead of serried rows of chairs, with drinks and canapés served at the interval, a concept that also struck me initially as rather naff.  However, I ended up enjoying it thoroughly, partly because it was well done (the hall did not smell like a restaurant, the drinks and canapés were modest and discreetly served, and I didn’t hear anyone slurping during the music!), and partly because the elegant interior of the Public Trust Hall lends itself quite nicely to this atmosphere of discreet bourgeois luxury. The Haydn quartet that opened the programme completed the illusion of being, perhaps, a relatively anonymous guest at the Esterházy court enjoying the fruits of their musical patronage.  (In actual fact we were enjoying the fruits of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust’s patronage — the Trust has supported the Quartet for two decades as of this year — and the strong Austro-Hungarian orientation of the music programmed for this national tour of the NZSQ pays homage to Frederick Turnovsky’s Central European roots, with Czech composers especially featured.)  To my surprise, it was also easier to focus on the music while sitting comfortably at a table rather than in a row of seats; the sightlines were better, and one felt less like a sardine and more like a patron of the arts.  In short: five stars, would attend a “premium concert experience” again.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the music itself was exquisite. It is always a huge pleasure to watch the NZSQ perform; they are so attentive to one another, communicating through their body language both the mood of the music and the relationships within it.  The Haydn “Sunrise” quartet comes by its name honestly, opening with a warm, sustained B-flat major chord in the three lower voices from which the first violin takes off on a series of upward runs that immediately evoke the rising sun. The motif returns throughout the movement (occasionally inverted, sometimes in a minor key suggesting clouds over the sun) and gets passed around from instrument to instrument, while in between the four lines chase each other around in semiquavers that variously evoke running water, scurrying animals, chattering birds, etc. Much opportunity here to enjoy both the individual voices of the Quartet’s four excellent members and the various dialogues forming and dissolving between players, a texture the NZSQ performs brilliantly.  

This “Allegro con spirito” nature study was succeeded by a chorale-like Adagio that largely tethered the lower voices together in a chordal texture while the first violin again soared above in rippling arabesques — the Hungarian Count von Erdődy to whom the Op. 76 quartets are dedicated must have had a first violinist he enjoyed listening to.  The rising semitones from the first movement carried through the second and into the third, a robust and jolly Menuetto that transported the hearer straight to an Eastern European tavern and the very thick of a peasant dance. Strongly rhythmic, as if to evoke stomping feet, the Menuetto also features octave unisons in the violins over a bass drone in the cello that conjured bagpipes in our midst.  One often hears the expression “not a dry eye in the house,” but in this case I think there was not a wet eye in the house; the mirth and jollity of this movement was too contagious. A somewhat more aristocratic-feeling folk dance — say, a ballroom adaptation — formed the atmosphere of the Finale, with the four instruments again passing around fragments of the main theme, coalescing into brief and various alliances without sticking out from the collective.  An accelerating and intensifying coda brought things to a satisfying conclusion and left the audience in no doubt about when to applaud.

If the Haydn quartet transported us by turns to a meadow, a church, a tavern, and a ballroom, Gareth Farr’s 2017 work Te Kōanga took us to the Marlborough Sounds of the composer’s holidays as a teenager, when — according to the Quartet’s programme notes — he heard, and noted down, the song of a particular tui whose voice is immortalised in the piece’s opening bars. Rather than a stylized Classical impression of avian dawn choruses, then, Te Kōanga (“spring” or “planting season” in te reo Māori) offered direct transcriptions of native birdsong — specifically, two tuis and a weka — which gradually gathered into a rich, rhythmic texture in the top three voices while the cello provided a jazzy pizzicato bass line underneath.  The piece, commissioned as a memorial to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons by his family, is written to evoke, and celebrate, Lyons’ passion for the natural world, and specifically the wild outdoor spaces around Wellington. It was built around three main textures: a hushed, tremulous evocation of the native bush filled with birdsong; angular, airy percussive sections with (what the program called) “powerful plucks and snaps on the strings”; and more solid arco sections that often featured unisons diverging into Shostakovich-like dissonant harmonies. We visited each of these terrains several times, in various permutations, before vanishing once again into hushed space as the bird songs quieted.

It was back to Hungary for the last piece before the interval: György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “Métamorphoses nocturnes.”  Helene Pohl, in her introductory comments, said the Quartet hear strong echoes of late Beethoven in the work, as well as the obvious influence of Bartók (whose works, however, Ligeti knew only insofar as they were approved for performance by the Stalinist government still in place when he was writing his first quartet; the works of other, more frankly avant-garde composers, such as Alban Berg, could not be heard at all, though Ligeti owned a score of Berg’s Lyric Suite and professed it as an influence on this work).  

If images of the natural world had provided the link from Haydn to Farr, the opening of the Ligeti hearkened back to Haydn via the motif of rising semitones. Here, however, far from the warmth of Haydn’s sunrise, chromatic scales — rising from a low C, beginning in the viola and gradually trickling into the cello and second violin — sounded spooky and, well, more Transylvanian (the composer was born in Transylvania in 1923) than plain old sylvanian. I found myself feeling glad that the scales were at least going up rather than down. From here, the first violin introduces the motif that Ligeti identified as the “concept” which “metamorphoses” rather than receiving conventional variations over the course of the piece, which is written as a single movement although distinct “sub-movements” are marked within it.  The texture ranged from delicate tremolo sections over melancholy harmonies to hyperactive fortissimo outbursts.  Though the overall effect was unconventional, formal conventions were not disregarded; the opening “Allegro grazioso” (with its unsettling rising scales) performed the traditional function of introducing the material to be developed; other sections recognizably included standard exercises such as a march, a waltz, a mournful adagio, etc. — but all knocked slightly askew.  


I thought the NZSQ played this superbly, with considerable humor, as well as energy and passion.  Both solo and ensemble playing were flawless. The music seemed to grow out of them more organically than the preceding two pieces (although I had no complaints about the preceding two pieces). From where I was sitting I happened to have a better-than-usual view of the inner voices, Monique Lapins on second violin and Gillian Ansell on viola; it was such a pleasure to watch them knit their lines together, as they were frequently called upon to do. All four players were fully involved in the music and obviously hearing and communicating with all three of their respective colleagues (at least, I am extrapolating in regard to Rolf Gjelsten, whose cello sounded terrific but of whom, from my vantage point, only a tidy haircut could be seen). Sometimes their playing and body language communicated deep empathy; sometimes, mutual hilarity (my notes single out “the bits where everyone is playing glissando and making each other laugh”: glissando was much to the fore, appearing in pizzicato and harmonic as well as arco sections). The “Tempo di Valse” section sounded irresistibly like a couple of Chaplinesque drunks trying to walk home (but was followed immediately by a ringing, urgent “subito prestissimo” lest we get too comfortable in our amusement). Perhaps under the influence of the “nature study” theme introduced by Haydn and Farr, I heard the alternations between prestissimo and allegro “giovale” in the last quarter of the piece as a tale revolving around angry bees; perhaps, those unsuccessfully hunted by Winnie-the-Pooh (who, under the name Micimackó, had been a beloved part of Hungarian children’s culture since 1935, so why not?).  My irreverence was, however, again stopped short by the sorrowful concluding Lento, tapering into silence (another aspect of performance at which the NZSQ excels: holding a silence for a decent length of time before relaxing for applause.)

This was a high note on which to adjourn for the interval (during which I was amused to be served hors d’oeuvres by shining lights of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, whose last concert I had recently reviewed).  On the programme for the second half was just one work, Dvořák’s  Tenth Quartet. This began tentatively but soon warmed up into the luscious and catchy folk-derived melodies for which Dvořák is known. Here as in the fourth movement of the opening Haydn, the folk dances felt less earthy than stylized; not so much an invitation to dance as an invitation to think about dancing. The opening polka is followed up in the second movement by a darker, more melancholic Andante (the “dumka” or folk lament, which is in turn contrasted by a lively Vivace section.  The third movement, labelled “Romanza,” is lyrical, yearning, and optimistic. Finally, the fourth movement returns to the stylized evocation of the dance hall with an exceptionally catchy and upbeat “skočná,” the fast-paced folk dance also used extensively by the composer in his Slavonic Dances. A meno mosso restatement of the main theme followed by a tiny, fast coda provided a final flourish to, as the programme notes suggested “send the listener on his merry way.” 

After such a programme, however, the listener proved not so eager to be sent. Applause continued until the Quartet returned to their designated performance spot in front of the windows to serve us “one more bonbon”: Rolf Gjelsten’s arrangement for string quartet of Janáček’s Znělka (“Sonnet”) in A Major, JW VII/1 (originally composed for four violins). The choice of a Czech composer for the encore was made in deference to Frederick Turnovsky’s original nationality, but also served as a fitting coda to a programme so firmly grounded in the Austro-Hungarian region (with even the deeply local Gareth Farr piece audibly connected by theme and technique to the “Hungarian” works placed before and after it). In all, I would have to say that not only the playing but the programme composition was superb; coherent, surprising, logical yet unexpected. The Haydn and Dvořák “standards” were meaningfully illuminated by juxtaposition with the less-known Farr and Ligeti works (and vice versa). While I may remain dubious about the terminology “Premium Concert Experience,” there is no doubt that this was, absolutely, a “premium” musical experience, and one I’m profoundly glad I had the opportunity to hear.

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