Secrets of Sea and Space – a New Zealand Festival concert
Arnold Schönberg – String Quartet No. 2 (1908)
Alban Berg – Lyric Suite (1926)
Ross Harris – The Abiding Tides (2010)
The New Zealand String Quartet with soprano Jenny Wollerman
Saint Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street, Wellington
Tuesday 10th March 2020
On Tuesday evening a very large congregation of music-followers assembled in the church of Saint Mary of the Angels to ascend into the stars and probe the depths of the sea. Saint Mary herself – in her capacity as Stella Maris (star of the sea) – seemed a well-suited hostess and patron for such an endeavour. Many young people were also present (noted here for the benefit of Radio New Zealand’s senior management). The concert, a highlight of the New Zealand Festival, offered us an opportunity to expand our listening horizons and engage with some rarely performed works that all combine, in some way, a vocal line with the established genre of the string quartet. The New Zealand String Quartet, together with soprano Jenny Wollerman, presented this concert with great energy, strength, and concentration, leading the listener through the intricate musical design of the works and contouring the musical gestures that make up their striking originality and expressiveness. The group’s approach to performance succeeded in drawing out the dark sonorities and sensuality of works that otherwise have a reputation for their cerebral rigour and association with prickly theoretical terms such as “dodecaphonic”, “atonal”, or “serialism”. Sometimes, however, in louder and intense passages, the performers’ efforts to make the music’s complex interwoven lines more transparent were compromised by the resonant acoustics of the church.
Arnold Schönberg’s ground-breaking second string quartet was first performed in Vienna in December 1908, provoking a riot that was even reported in New York newspapers as “an uproar such as no concert hall in the Austrian capital ever before had known”. The poems Litany (Litanei) and Rapture (Entrückung) that feature in the quartet’s third and fourth movements are taken from a cycle of poems by Stefan George who at the time was a distinctly contemporary voice in German poetry, thought of by his contemporaries as a kind of prophet and priest for whom poetry was a disciplined, performing art with a particular incantatory power. The quartet’s opening two instrumental movements were presented with great command and attention to detail, the players as a group clearly articulating Schönberg’s extended harmonic language, bold rhythmic gestures and making the most of the second movement’s reference to the old and sarcastic Viennese folksong “My dear Augustin, all is lost!” Jenny Wollerman then joined the quartet for the third and fourth movements. George’s poem Litany replicates the church liturgy consisting of a line of nine or ten syllables with a break between the fifth and the sixth (for example: Sacta Maria / ora pro nobis; Tief ist die Trauer / die mich umdüstert). The church setting for the concert contributed to the effect too: what better place to hear a litany than in a Catholic church! The climax of the movement occurs in the Litany’s last imploring phrase “ease me of passion!” (“nimm mir die Liebe!”) which is portrayed very strikingly in the music by a precipitously scary downward leap in the vocal part of over two octaves. Jenny Wollerman performed this leap with great athletic prowess. The ‘secrets of space’, from which the concert took its title, then became apparent as the fourth movement began with its very quiet, weightless rising figures in the violins that eerily adumbrate a new atmosphere. Lift off occurred gently with the entry of the soprano voice: “I sense the air of another planet”, she sings, announcing the quartet’s entry into an ‘extraterrestrial’ tonality-free soundscape. The visions of Stefan George’s poem Rapture correspond to the way the music liberates itself from the gravitational pull of any tonal centre. Jenny Wollerman sang George’s verses with marvellously ecstatic intensity: “I am dissolving into sound” (ich löse mich in tönen) she exclaimed, triggering a collective frisson in the audience. Perhaps in this moment, we were no longer concert-goers, but a grouping of devotees, converts, and disciples, sitting there mesmerised as she described her ascension, higher and higher into new ethereal realms into which she was then completely and rapturously absorbed as “a spark of the holy fire” and as “a resonance of the holy voice.” After lifting poetry and music to new heights of “rapture”, Schönberg concludes the movement and the quartet (somewhat bizarrely) with a prosaic F-sharp major chord. Despite this offending major chord, the applause was, as to be expected, wild and as rapturous as ever.
Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite has been described as a “latent opera” in six acts, arranged in a fan-like formation that unfolds in a dramatic crescendo. Before playing the work, members of the quartet introduced the latent opera’s cast of characters and the general gist of its story (typical operatic themes of an impossible romance, unstilled longing, obsession, torment and despair). In the 1970s an American musicologist discovered a hidden vocal line in the composer’s draft of the work’s final movement – Largo desolato, finding it to be a setting of Stefan George’s German translation of Charles Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi, the poet’s own dark version of Psalm 130. The six movements outline a psychographic curve of singularly powerful and contrasting emotional states. The New Zealand String Quartet masterfully showed how the Lyric Suite captures and expresses Berg’s intensification of moods in so many different ways: by the lasciviously descending harmonic progressions in the Andante amoroso for example; the grotesque scuffling in the Allegro misterioso; and the frenzied angular gestures of the Presto delirando. Jenny Wollerman joined the quartet for the Largo desolato to sing the secret libretto of the latent opera’s final act. Here the voice and the quartet convincingly conveyed the opera’s main protagonist’s (that is, the composer’s) sense of hopelessness, renunciation and desolation.
Ross Harris’s work The Abiding Tides is comprised of eight settings of poems by Vincent O’Sullivan mainly about ships sinking at sea. Although the work was introduced to the audience as relating specifically to the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the Northern Atlantic in 1912, the themes of sea voyage and shipwreck resonate very strongly much closer to home: 2,300 vessels have met their demise in New Zealand waters since the 1790s. Our forebears too all risked long voyages across vast oceans in canoes and sailing ships and burials at sea were frequent. O’Sullivan’s poems do not share the emphasis of Stefan George’s verses on form and metre, drawing more on qualities of prose poetry and the use of metaphors and imagery. The music is programmatic, following and reflecting the sentiments, images and (often very bleak) narratives of the poems. The quartet, with Jenny Wollerman at the helm, navigated the settings excellently, again capturing and conveying the mood of each. With the instrumental interludes between each setting the overall effect of the work was one of an extended rhapsody, floating, sinking, looking up at the moon and the sky (sometimes from beneath the water), watching the way light glitters on the ocean’s surface, or gazing at the ever present horizon. Harris covers a range of idioms in these settings from free canonic forms, waltz and Webernesque textures. It was very helpful as a listener to have the printed words: the acoustic of the church made it difficult at times to hear the sung words clearly. The work’s final text setting “Nox perpetua”, echoing Schönberg’s Litanei and Berg’s De profundis, was almost like a liturgical chant about the impenetrable darkness at the ocean floor. It reminded me of the final images in Jane Campion’s celebrated 1993 New Zealand film The Piano where she cites the lines of Scottish poet Thomas Hood: “There is a silence where hath been no sound, / There is a silence where no sound may be, / In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea.”
The silence at the end was banished by continuous, loud and enthusiastic applause from an enraptured audience. On leaving the church, some audience members commented on the church’s bare wooden pews and how dreadfully uncomfortable they are. Uncomfortable pews are usually a specialist feature of Protestant churches, I thought, but even they often have upholstery nowadays: Beata Virgo Maria, audi verba mea.