Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

What I would take through death’s dark door

By , 15/11/2021

New Zealand String Quartet National Tour
Programme 2:  MOZART – String Quartet No 21 in D, K. 575
LOUISE WEBSTER – this memory of earth
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op. 122
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 13

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington

Sunday, 14 November 2021

This concert, like its predecessor on Friday 12 November, was delayed by the Covid-19 Level 4/3 restrictions in August and September, and was also displaced from the Hunter Council Chamber to St Peter’s Church. The change of venue was positive. Although the NZSQ has never performed in the church before, it is an excellent venue for chamber music, with its warm and rather dry acoustic contributing to a clear and intimate sound.

The first work on the programme was the well-known String Quartet No 21, K. 575 of Mozart, written as the first of a set of six commissioned by King Frederick William II, a keen cellist. It’s a delightful work, and was played with great style and charm. Because the quartet was written for a cellist, it is impossible to ignore how Mozart made sure to give the cello-playing King plenty to do, occasionally popping out of the texture with an attractive short solo, or in duet with one of the other voices. The allegretto final movement features lovely cello solos beneath an agitated theme that is passed around the upper voices, before the first theme reappears like a burst of brilliant sunshine.

The Louise Webster work did not suffer by being sandwiched in between Mozart and Shostakovich. It was commissioned by the NZSQ, and was first performed in May 2020. Its title, ‘this memory of earth’, was taken from a poem called ‘Fields in Midsummer’ by the New Zealand poet Ruth Dallas (1919-2008), a nature poet who often struck an elegiac tone. The composer (who is also, we were told, a paediatrician and child psychologist) writes: ‘Our earliest memories of the land shape who we are, who we become. …At a time when our world is under such threat, these threads of memory nudge us, reminding us of what we must hold, treasure,reclaim, rebuild…’

The piece is built up of tiny pieces of melody and rhythmic fragments tossed from part to part, evoking memories of the natural world – bird song, often in Violin 1, sometimes over a weird metallic drone created by the inner parts, with sad chords and fast rising glissandi, and the occasional strident outburst. Often the cello part creates an undertow of sadness, reminding us insistently of loss. The complete line from Dallas’s poem is relevant: ‘This memory of earth I would take through death’s dark door’.

This was a beautiful work, insisting upon the memories we carry within us, and on the vulnerability of the natural world. My notes say towards the end: ‘A melody, finally, but almost admonitory: “Do you not see this?” Emphatic sombre cello. Human voice, low and lyrical. Tutti now – but grey harmonies.’

I could have done with hearing the Webster played twice, because there is so much material to understand, and it is hard to make sense of as a whole on first hearing. There is a constant on-rush of new ideas, and many extraordinary brief effects. The Dallas title was well chosen. The composer’s close observation of nature imbued with a strong sense of loss was perfectly suited to Dallas (and perhaps too to the COP26 Summit being held in Glasgow over the past fortnight).

The Shostakovich quartet (No 11 in F minor, Op. 122, written in 1966) would, I thought, have been sufficient to make a complete concert on its own. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, it contains enough music for an entire symphony. The quartet was written not long after Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which is based on the ‘Babi Yar’ poems of the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was phenomenally popular in the sixties, sufficiently so to get away with publishing the poems, which are about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, by the Nazis in 1941. The Soviets were covertly anti-Semitic, and Yevtushenko’s poem both memorialises the atrocity and exposes the complicity of the Soviet authorities, who had not so much as marked the site of the massacre.

The seven short movements of the quartet, played without pausing, evoke the poems, the massacre, and the cynical brutality of the Soviet state. This is angry music, in which the composer seems to conform to the will of the Soviet authorities but provides the most severe and withering critique of their actions. It was written with great courage. For years Shostakovich kept a suitcase packed ready by the door of his flat, so that if he was dragged off to prison in the middle of the night by the KGB, his family would not be disturbed.

The sixth movement, Elegy, was intensely personal. It was written to commemorate the death of Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous and long-running Beethoven Quartet, which premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets (and whose mantle was passed to the Borodin Quartet). Shostakovich, Rolf Gjelsten told us in his introduction to the work, ‘felt as though he had lost the ground from underneath him’ when his friend died. The first violin has much to tell us about Shirinsky, but the insistent bom-bom-bom rhythm from the cello tells us that nothing can be done. We are standing around a grave. The second violin has stopped playing, just as Shirinsky has.

This was a stupendous performance, bleak and deeply moving. The concert seemed complete. But there was more. After a short interval, we were treated to an early Mendelssohn work, String Quartet No 2 in A minor (Op. 13). It was written when Mendelssohn was only 18 (but with the musical maturity of a 36-year-old) and had just fallen in love with a girl. It is as sunny and lyrical a work as you can imagine, returning us to a world in which beauty, love, and possibility are all around us. This provided a lovely pairing for the Mozart Quartet that opened the concert, as though we needed to be de-gaussed before returning to our lives.

And finally, the Quartet presented an uncharacteristic encore. In this case it was a thank-you to the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, which has supported the NZSQ in its annual National Tour for 20 years. Fred and Lotti Turnovsky’s daughter Helen was present for the acknowledgement, which came in the form of a very Czech polka from the Second String Quartet by the Turnovskys’ compatriot Bedrich Smetana. The idiomatic rhythms gestured to the Shostakovich, but the polka was an innocent and merry dance of joy, a celebration of the Czech national style, not a satirical commentary on totalitarianism.

In all, it felt more like two concerts worth of music, gloriously played. Fred Turnovsky’s vision for bringing the music of great European composers to New Zealand audiences, and his support for the NZSQ, were truly honoured.

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