The New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae – Emperors, dictators and husbands in music

Waikanae Music Society presents:
The New Zealand String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

JOSEF HAYDN – String Quartet in C Major Op. 76 No.3 “Emperor”
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major Op. 92
AMY BEACH – Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor Op.67 (1907)

The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall,

Sunday 8th October

Straightaway one felt something out of the ordinary as soon as the NZ String Quartet players took the Waikanae Memorial Hall stage and put their bows upon the strings to begin their concert – there was resonance in the voices, spring in the rhythm, and fluency arm-in-arm with an ease of variety and contrast – and to think I had thought beforehand, to my shame, “Oh, not another “Emperor! – with almost seventy other Haydns to choose from!” , when as it turned out, this was one which the playing made me really want to hear!

All of the above was part of the build-up to the great moment in the first movement that cellist Rolf Gjelsten had gotten his fellow-players to demonstrate for us in his introduction to the work – that plunge into the full-blooded rusticity of the dance, with strings suddenly becoming pipes and drones and stamping feet – outlandish, even gawky at first hearing, but so organic in the playing’s wider context that it placed the composer entirely at home in the scenario – It’s in this almost incomparable fusion of aristocratic and peasant-like that Haydn’s genius shines as brightly as anywhere else in his oeuvre!

Magic of a different kind was wrought by the Quartet’s hushed intensities with the slow movement’s beginning, lifting the much-vaunted melody far above cliché and commonplace utterance, and proceeding to ennoble it further with different voices for each repetition, the players in the final variation “centring” their tones as to produce a kind of extra-terrestrial expressive world reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Borodin almost a century later.

The players danced the Menuetto through the music’s wry asymmetries, allowing a droll pesante touch with the slurred-note cascading passage that answered the opening set of phrases. How beautifully we were eased into the minor key Trio, with its briefly nonchalant shift to the major and back again to the minor, a “did we dream you or did you dream us?” moment! Far more volatile was the finale, with its three opening whiplash chords and scurrying minor-key presto figures making a helter-skelter impression, the players demonstrating spectacular fingerwork, in places excitingly tossing impulses from instrument to instrument, and bringing honour and acclaim to the music’s arrival at its eventual major-key conclusion!

On paper it seemed like something of a quantum leap from Haydn to Shostakovich, but the players seemed at the outset of the latter composer’s Fifth String Quartet of 1952 to straightaway forge links between the clarity and focus of the sounds created by each of these two masters of the genre. Shostakovich’s work and its predecessor, the Fourth String Quartet each had their genesis from a time in Russia (immediately post-Second World War) when, along with fellow-composers Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, he had been castigated by the authorities for not creatively responding as whole-heartedly as was expected to marking the thirtieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Shostakovich was unnerved by these attacks to the point where he held back publication of several of his major works of that time until after Stalin’s death in 1953.

The Quartet’s music grows out of a five-note motif which the composer developed in imitation of JS Bach, who featured his own name in his music via the notes representing B-A-C-H, Shostakovich using the notes C-D-Eflat-B-Csharp derived from his own D-S-C-H motif. He also quotes from another source in this work, a Clarinet Trio written by a student of his, Galina Ustvolskaya, whose friendship Shostakovich valued and whose work he admired. At the outset his Quartet intersperses the five notes of the motif with obsessively-driving rhythmic figures before quoting Ustvolskaya’s contrasting waltz-like theme, and then exploring various permutations of the latter interacting with his own five-note motif, all the while intensifying the trajectories and accretions of the music’s forward movement.

The NZSQ players, to whom these kinds of musical intensities always seem meat and drink, held all of this together superbly, setting the beleaguered lyricism against the savageries with unfailing focus as we ran the emotional gauntlet towards the movement’s sudden de-escalation and eerie transition, via purposeful pizzicato passages and a spectral solo violin line, and found ourselves taken to mysterious places wrought by the second movement’s wraith-like fugal musings. These growing intensities with their “time standing still” aspect were steadily and patiently transporting us to “different realms” when the lines were strangely augmented by “wailing” sounds, at which point  the quartet stopped playing to listen to the intrusion with evident bemusement! (The locals, however, were not perturbed – these were the Waikanae volunteer fire brigade’s summonsing calls, a delicious irony being that a wartime photograph of the composer as an actual volunteer fireman does apparently exist somewhere  – giving rise to the thought that this interjection was meant as some kind of token of kinship!)

With the air of a group steadfastedly maintaining its own shared vision, the players picked up their journeyings through the music’s ambient wastes and continued their peregrinations – a “return to life” set of impulses became a kind of  “way through” and took us far from the initial conviviality of the finale’s opening jogtrot rhythms and into places where the five-note motif’s appearance and insistent repetitions reawakened tensions aplenty, the players running the music’s energies ragged, and spectacularly bolstering some of the more assertive figures with forthright pizzicati echoes of “belonging”, which, when done with led to some of the epilogue’s most heartfelt utterances – how piquant were those final pages, with the cello’s and solo violin’s laments comforted by the middle voices’ sustained life-lines.

Footnote: I decided, simply out of interest at first, take the opportunity to find out more concerning the background to the composer’s relationship with the aforementioned Galina Ustvolskaya, whose music Shostakovich quotes several times in the first movement of this quartet. I was greatly surprised to find a fierce controversy had arisen after Shostakovich’s death from various published interviews and dismissive statements made by the younger composer about her supposed “mentor”, giving rise to some of Ustvolskaya’s supporters adding to what amounted to a “denigration” of Shostakovich, both as a man and as a composer. All I can say in response is that, whatever reasons people might have had to cast aspersions upon the idea of a composer’s greatness, in this instance their comments and viewpoints ran counter in no uncertain terms to my own previous experience of Shostakovich’s music and, not least to what I’d just come from here regarding the NZSQ’s staunch, unswerving  journeyings through an “inferno” of angst-ridden outpourings from a truly creative soul.

So to the concert’s second half, the subject of which was the incredible American-born Amy Beach (1867-1944), a quintessential nineteenth-century woman composer who eventually overcame societal obstacles and made a career for herself as a performer and composer. One wonders what she might have achieved had her circumstances allowed her talents to flourish at a much younger age! – though it’s arguable, however, whether Beach’s situation led to musical deprivation or fulfilment on her part, as her husband’s insistence that she restrict her performance activities did lead to an intensification of her composing abilities, which itself has left an important legacy.

Dating from 1907, Beach’s Piano Quintet owed a lot to Brahms’s Piano Quintet, which she herself had performed with the Kneisel Quartet in 1900. Hearing its dramatic opening straight away reminded me as much of the sound-world of Cesar Franck as that of Brahms – the romanticism of the work’s dark, mysterious beginning has a kind of charged quality expressed in chromatic terms that’s similar to Franck’s, further expressed by the rippling piano part, though the excitingly assertive piano octaves that followed, full and rich under Diedre Irons’ fingers immediately brought Brahms back to mind, as did the swaying second subject presented by turns by the strings and on the piano (the tolling bell a feature of the keyboard writing). I thought the players relished the stormily dramatic string unison that began the development section, matched by the piano’s equally commanding reply (amazing piano playing!), all of which morphed into a reprise of the lovely second subject with bell-like piano sonorities, and a quiet, brooding end to the movement.

Firstly the strings, then the piano ravished our senses with the slow movement’s opening melody, the strings musing for a while afterwards, then the violins repeating the melody, Monique Lapins whole-heartedly with the theme and Helene Pohl tenderly descanting overhead – a series of intense interchanges culminates with a virtuosic outburst from the piano, and a deep, rich rendering of the melody from the cello, Rolf Gjelsten giving the lines full play and stimulating the other voices to full-throatedly take the melody to the heights of expression.

The finale’s vivace opening waltzed in to great effect, with an impish agitato character stalking the dancers every which way and all very chromatic, Gillian Ansell’s gorgeous viola solo providing much-appreciated if temporary respite! The agitato impulses returned, the strings exhausting their lyrical capacities over the next little while, and nervously taking refuge in tremolandi, then playing hide and seek with an agitated fugal passage kept most excitingly kept on the rails right through to the last flourish!! The players then gingerly picked their way through the myriads of spent intensities, the piano leading the way and the strings rhapsodising – then the music surges again, the players giving the composer’s unquenchable romantic spirit here full rein. And the work’s coda is spectacular, by turns, headlong and unrepentantly rhapsodic – and finishes with a flourish! – cor, blimey! I’m still feeling exhausted by it all as I write this! The NZSQ musicians (and the indefatigable  Diedre Irons) certainly gave Amy Beach her dues, and we loved them and her for it!

Haydn, Brahms and Brigid Bisley in superb recital from Diedre Irons and the Aroha Quartet

Aroha String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op 33 No 3 ‘The Bird’
Brigid Ursula Bisley: Unbound
Brahms: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op 34

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 1 December, 3 pm

Haydn’s The Bird
The last 2019 concert from the Aroha Quartet opened with Haydn’s quartet, The Bird, creating sounds that were quite stunning: not in the normal sense of fortissimo, exciting or cacophonous, but with sounds that were hardly of a string quartet at all. They were of such refinement and purity that they really did evoke the subtlest of bird calls that were pure and secretive, unearthly. The marking allegro moderato meant little as speed seemed quite irrelevant given that the music’s character was determined by the rare sound and unique spiritual quality the players generated.

Whether or not Haydn was seeking the greatest possible tonal contrasts between each of the instruments, that is what they produced; and the differences between the instruments so beautifully evoked, not just ‘a bird’, but a wonderful variety of birds.

And the second movement marked, unusually, Scherzo, as all six of the Op 33 are (the brisk middle movement was not generally called Scherzo till Beethoven took it up); indeed, it is a curious, sombre Scherzo, till the brighter middle section. The only bird-like character here was the continued refinement of sound, with exquisitely subtle dynamics. In the third movement the players continued delicacy found its most pensive aspect, again with the individual voices lending a rare quality; and the finale returned to summarise the bird-like character of the first movement with a cautious brightness, ending with a typically Haydnesque surprise.

Brigid Bisley’s Unbound
The central work in the programme was the nine-year-old Unbound by Brigid Ursula Bisley, though this was a revision; how extensive that was, I wondered. I heard its premiere at the 2011 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson.

It opened with a strange dissonance from the two violins, dealing with a calm musical idea; there followed a fluttering episode with trilling second violin and/or viola. The programme note described its division into three parts, structure around two melodic ideas, that were elaborated, in particular, quoting a phrase from Bach’s Musical Offering . Her note refers to a melody in Part II which grounded the music in tradition, at the same time as offering a spring-board for a return to more unorthodox idioms. And she refers to an atonal three-part fugue in Part III, but I hardly registered it as an atonal element since the absence of ‘tonal’ thematic ideas need not be alienating, or even recognisable, and nothing here was that.

As the music emerged from that episode, offering interesting motifs for each instrument, each prominent in turn, a feeling of integrity grew and my notes included the passing from a grieving cello to evolve into a genuinely imaginative, unpretentious and coherent work.

I refrained from looking at the review I wrote of its premiere at the 2011 Nelson Chamber Music Festival till I’d written the above, and was pleased to find that my feelings eight years ago were pretty much the same as now.

“It opened quietly, each instrument contributing intriguingly to a pattern of disharmony till a melody emerged and after a while viola and cello laid down some bass support. Influences? Yes, Bartók quite distinctly, but more important was an impression of music that was beholden to no school or musical ideology, but simply sounded alive to today’s environment, whatever that means, and aimed at engaging with the listener. Lots happened; there was a beguiling, dreamy phase, a yearning spirit as Doug Beilman’s second violin cried while Helene Pohl’s first violin sang a high descant over the cello’s pedal support. There were so many elements that appeared distinct but ultimately created a coherent musical story; and it ended without flourish or rhetoric.”)

Now I would not mention Bartók as a particular influence. Its character was its own and I felt that the composer would rather be heard as writing in an idiom that simply reflected our era, in its general, heterogeneous nature with nothing other than familiarity with a wide range of contemporary and earlier musical impulses: above all, a compulsion to create music that was not in an idiom that left listeners perplexed or annoyed, but was interesting and engaging. That it was.

Brahms: Piano Quintet
Brahms wonderful Piano Quintet may well have been the main attraction for the quite large audience; particularly since it involved Diedre Irons, along with the Aroha Quartet! The acoustic of St Andrew’s can be a problem, not just for orchestras and large ensembles, but sometimes for groups as small as a piano quintet. These players acute sensitivity and sensibility eliminated any chance of that.

In the first movement they were in perfect control, with Diedre Irons’s piano, which has been known to be fairly forthright, in comfortable balance, and more surprisingly, matching some of the strings’ exquisite subtlety. They produced sounds that were not only remarkably unified but also as if each was in a solo spotlight, contributing to a thoughtful drama of near orchestral intensity.

The piano leads for a while in the second movement, warm and gentle in spirit, a marked contrast to the first movement. Musicologists note the interesting shifts of key from movement to movement and within movements, but most of the audience, not burdened with perfect pitch, merely senses mood shifts, and things that enliven and maintain involvement with the music.

The Scherzo movement is orthodox, an ABA form, but in the minor key, though the Trio is in C major; it is a serious and weighty structure that in these hands acquired an almost symphonic character which was striking and arresting.

Some of this colour is probably attributed to the curious provenance of the piece, starting as a string quintet, then a sonata for two pianos before being published in its present form; and it’s recently been arranged for both full orchestra and for piano and orchestra: I can imagine both being successful.

It’s something of a surprise for the weighty Scherzo to be followed by the mysterious opening of the Finale, very subdued, till a few heavy piano chords hint at something more – I used the word ‘masculine’ in my notes, probably unlawfully.

The Finale becomes ever more powerful and emphatic, moving from Poco sostenuto through Allegro non troppo to Presto, non troppo in the Hungarian flavoured peroration. In some hands the Finale could be found a bit protracted, but in the hands of the Aroha and Irons that would have been unimaginable: this was a wonderful performance that maintained its serious and dramatic character to the end, flawlessly, passionately and with enormous conviction.


Delectable Dvořák, palatable Puccini and delicious Dohnányi at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society
Emona Piano Quintet (Michael Houstoun, piano; Wilma Smith, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Monique Lapins, violin; Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck, cello)

Dvořák: Piano Quintet no.2 in A, Op.81
Puccini: Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums)
Dohnányi: Piano Quintet in C minor, Op.1

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 24 June 2018, 2.30pm

The delectable Dvořák quintet was a joy to hear; the Puccini was highly palatable, and the Dohnányi delicious, from an outstanding group of musicians.  Two are present New Zealand String Quartet members, one a former member, plus two highly regarded players.  A large audience heard them play.  Such is the musical activity in Wellington, there were five classical concerts in the Wellington region listed on Middle-C’s Current Events page for Sunday.

The first movement (allegro ma non tanto) opens on piano, then a beautiful melody on the cello proceeds.  The reverie it creates passes, as the other instruments enter with a lively theme.  A slight lack of cohesion at the beginning soon disappeared.  The developments of the theme were all euphonious.  Playing of verve and sensitivity and the fact that every instrument had important passages of their own held the interest.  This was an extended movement full of variety and energy, ending with a great flourish.

The second movement is a Dumka (andante con moto), a form that Dvořák used elsewhere in his chamber music.  This started gently with a solemn passage, that gave way to dance-rhythms and light-hearted phrases of melody, followed by a melancholy sequence with piano delivering the theme.  The strings followed, in music that seemed to denote an acceptance of life’s sorrows, before breaking into a sprightly dance.  A section of pizzicato on cello was most effective.  The movement came to a gentle conclusion.

The Scherzo (Furiant: molto vivace) third movement lived up to its name, being rapid and lively. The piano had some marvellous themes, and strong cello was heard.

The finale (allegro animato – allegro) was a busy movement.  After a fugue, there is a thoughtful chorale section before a bright and triumphant ending.

Puccini’s short Crisantemi was composed for string quartet, in memory of a friend.  Chrysanthemums are the traditional flowers of mourning in Italy.  Puccini later used both the plaintive melodies in his opera Manon Lescaut.  A brief spoken introduction by the cellist told us that this music is used at funerals in Italy, as Barber’s Adagio for Strings is used in the USA.  The music received a very touching performance, with plenty of light and shade.  The four players were absolutely in accord.

Dohnányi’s quartet was published as his Opus 1, although he had written quite a lot of music prior to it.  Von Bismarck, in his remarks, said some of the music was reminiscent of Richard Strauss.  There was fine playing from all the  members in this well-balanced quintet.

Grand themes featured in the first movement (allegro).  Unusually, there was a passage for strings in unison.  The Scherzo (allegro vivace) second movement had a fidgety opening, followed by calmer, more solemn music.  It had a link to the opening work of today’s concert, in the use of the Bohemian Furiant which was the lively part of the Scherzo.  The players performed it with verve and absolute unanimity.

The third movement (adagio, quasi andante) was in 5/4 rhythm, and began with a wonderful romantic melody on cello.  Viola soon had its turn, and the other instruments joined in.  The romantic mood persisted, and the music became quite excited.  Quiet episodes were interspersed with animated ones.

The Finale (allegro animato – allegro) was a dance.  A fast-flowing fugue developed.  The music worked up to an animated climax and an emotional conclusion.

Altogether, this was a memorable concert from top musicians, and was much appreciated by the audience.