Karori’s “Colours of Futuna” plays host to string quartet classics from the Orion Quartet

COLOURS OF FUTUNA Concert Series presents:
The Orion Quartet

Joseph HAYDN – String Quartet Op.33 No.2 in E-flat Major “The Joke”
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART – String Quartet KV.465 No.6 in C major “Dissonance”

Orion Quartet: Anne Loeser, Rebecca Struthers (violins)
Sophia Acheson (viola) / Jane Young (‘cello)

Futuna Chapel,
Friend St., Karori, Wellington

Sunday, 24th March, 2019

Futuna Chapel was the venue for a sweet hour of marvellous music and music-making on the previous Sunday afternoon – here was the Orion Quartet, one whose work I hadn’t yet encountered “live”, presenting two of the classical repertoire’s “cornerstone” chamber works, in itself something of an irresistible prospect for any music-lover. With players from both the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, informed by an interest in historical period practice performance, the group seemed an ideal advocate for this music.

Putting my listener’s cards on the table first up, my ears had to take time to “adjust” to the near vibrato-less tones of the players, an aspect of “historically-informed” practice I’ve always struggled with to some extent. I found, some years ago, when the “new wave” of practitioners of this kind of playing flooded the scene with what seemed at the time almost like “born again” zealousness, the sound of their playing alienating – pinched and drained of colour, and liable (to my ears) to a horrid “note-burgeoning” habit (which sometimes put me in mind of the “Doppler effect”, except that the fire-engines never seemed to go away!) – surely, I thought, it didn’t originally sound this nasty? What are they trying to achieve?

Here, despite the occasional almost-astringent effect in this or that phrase, it was nearly all relative sweetness and light – for me, historically credible in terms of the playing’s overall ingratiating quality. It’s risky, intonation-wise (vibrato-laden playing can cover a multitude of off-the-note sins!), and there was an occasional edge to the music’s line in exposed passages – but the purity and clarity of the sounds in general soon won my ears over, and “centred” my responses to what was actually being achieved, here. I’m bound to say, also, that the work of “period instrument” groups these days seems to me somewhat less purist and “evangelical” – and it’s definitely having a general effect on overall attitudes towards appropriate styles being adopted for different eras of music, be the instruments ever so “authentic” or modern!

What WAS I saying before? – ah, yes! – the Orion Quartet! The group most happily began the concert with one of Josef Haydn’s “Russian” quartets (the name originating from the composer’s dedication of the Op.33 set to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia), being the second of  the set, known as “The Joke”, largely due to the composer’s “toying” with the ending of the last movement, inserting unexpected pauses, repeating sequences in a disjointed way, and finishing the work with an obviously “unfinished” phrase! The players entered into the wry humour of all of this with obvious relish, bringing us “on board” with the whimsy of it all.

Before this we had already been “swung on board” by the quartet’s playing of the opening movement, a droll, loping tempo which seemed to me to take us right to the music’s essential earthiness and the players’ engagement with the same.  The development section “played” with the material, giving rise to all kinds of fancies and whimsies, the performance “going” with the various impulses and leading back to the opening with plenty of “grunt”, before allowing the music the first of its surprises, an almost sotto voce conclusion which simply “happens”, almost without warning. The Scherzo, a heavy-footed Austrian dance, alternated a pesante manner with a more sophisticated chromatic figuration – again the tempo seemed perfect for the music’s required “kick-room”, everything unhurried in a quintessential rural way. And how deliciously impish was the good-natured “lampooning” of the village fiddler in the Trio, the almost ungainly slidings between the notes capturing the original “star-turn” efforts of the player to the full!

A beautifully-voiced duet between viola and ‘cello opened the Largo, the mood reminiscent of the Austrian National Anthem at the beginning, though some smartish second subject accents soon put paid to that mood! Later the violin most sensitively decorated a heartfelt duetting sequence between second violin and viola, which produced a rapt effect, after which a lovely series of two-chord phrases brought the movement to an end.

Gaily buoyant, by turns tip-toe and full-blooded in effect, the finale danced its way along, its energies seemingly inexhaustible, with the brunt of the busy passagework falling on the leader, Anne Loeser, whose poise and control never faltered. Haydn then decided he would “play” with his audience, introducing pauses, solemn chords and cadences, before finally asking the players to deliver the movement’s opening phrase yet again! – and then break off – all excellently and amusingly delivered.

So we proceeded to the Mozart Quartet, as intriguingly “nicknamed” as was its companion – in a spoken introduction to the work, Anne Loeser told us that even Haydn was astonished at the dissonances which sound throughout the work’s opening, but qualified his remarks with the statement, “Well, if Mozart wrote it he must have meant it!”. And the work’s opening is, indeed, extraordinary-sounding, the sounds seeming to wander, looking for a tonal centre, rising and falling chromatically in places, before finally alighting on C Major and  dancing into the sunlight!

The players treated their lines with extraordinary subtlety and lightnes in places, the strands sounding at times like the sighings of a breeze, while elsewhere the figurations were properly, tightly “worked” into that characteristically “flowing like oil” Mozartean ethos of charm and candour. Occasionally I found the largely vibrato-less sounds put the players’ intonations to the test, but at the same time imparted the music-making with a clarity amid the chapel’s ambient resonances, all the while giving me a sense of the tones being “wrought from the air” and performed for our pleasure………

An andante cantabile slow movement began with rich harmonisations from the three lighter instruments solidly reinforced by the ‘cello – I was struck throughout by the way the composer’s writing here gave an impression of more than four voices, with closely-knit figurations and strongly-wrought rhythmic buildups having an almost orchestral quality in places. The players brought out these intensities by “digging in” splendidly and making the most of the sforzando-like contrasts. Despite the somewhat “bald” quality of the tones in places I loved the intensity of involvement generated by the performance.

The Menuetto’s rapid tempo kept the dancers in a whirl of activity, alternating between rigorous steps and vertiginous “turns” marked by chromatic swerves in the music. By contrast, the Trio’s music sounded almost “frightened”, as if in “flight” from some pursuing shade or demon, real or imagined – here furtive and shadowy,  there exclaiming in almost palpable fright, the feeling relieved only by the Menuetto’s return, as rigorous and purposeful as before.

As for the finale, it started off chirpily enough, though the darkly-bowed unisons that occasionally rend the textures gave the impression of a darker spirit in concealment. There was brilliant work in places from leader Anne Loeser, her rapid figurations splendidly thrown off, with only the occasional exposed “held” note having a slight rawness. The ensemble dug into the vigorous passages with gusto, while bringing out the occasionally “sighing” line most affectingly. Parts of this same allegro molto were propelled into more diffuse regions, the players relishing the hesitancies and angularities which varied the  rhythms of the journey, before bringing the music “home” with energetic gestures, and many a nicely touched-in detail, before “pouncing” on the concluding phrase with glee, cheekily-placed “final” note and all.

Very great honour to the musicians for such insightful, involved performances of these two “classics”, the pleasure enhanced by the Futuna Chapel’s distinctive features of light and sound ambience, each medium contributing to our musical experience in a satisfying way.