By Peter Mechen, Middle C | 19 September 2020
The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
UNIVERSAL – Beethoven 250th Anniversary BEETHOVEN – String Quartets :
Op. 18 No. 6 in B-flat Major(1801) Op.95 in F Minor “Serioso” (1814) Op.127 in E-flat Major (1825)
The New Zealand String Quartet Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)
St.John’s in the City Presbyterian Church Willis St., Wellington
Saturday 19th September 2020
Continuing its “tour” of Wellington venues by way of bringing to us all of Beethoven’s String Quartets during his 250th anniversary year, the New Zealand String Quartet gave the latest instalment of its traversal in the austerely beautiful Willis St. Church of St.John’s in the City. Something about the venue suited the music on this occasion even more than usual, to my mind, the refinement and directness of certain of Beethoven’s sequences mirroring the church’s relatively undecorated aspect, and other, more warm and humanly discursive episodes seeming in accord with the magnificent stained-glass biblical triptych on the rear wall of the nave facing the altar. It was a stimulating and atmospheric space in which to experience this deeply-felt and richly-wrought music, all the more so in performances by the Quartet whose commitment and execution seemed to almost intuitively penetrate to its real substance.
Today’s musical journey began with the composer having reached a kind of apex with the last of his six Op.18 quartets (though there seems to be disagreement as to whether this is in fact the sixth of the set in order of composition, some accounts claiming it to be the fifth), in B-flat Major, completed in 1800 and published the following year. Having accepted the challenge of writing quartets and thus “competing” with his idols Mozart and Haydn, the young Beethoven in the course of writing these works seemed to “re-invent himself” as a composer, having already made his mark as a performer. And in the process of doing so he sought to escape from those same influences that had at first inspired him to achieve something new – of all the Op.18 quartets this is the one that most clearly indicates a “new way forward”. Driven partly by the desperation of knowing that he was going deaf and that his days as a performer were numbered, and partly by his desire to overcome these difficulties and “conquer through music”, he produced a work which both saluted and farewelled each of his great exemplars, and strode forth into an age he was to make his own.
A jaunty country walk began the opening movement, Haydn-like in its al fresco, bucolic quality, texturally varied in its sharing of the thematic material, and dynamic in its combination of middle-voice trajectories and dovetailed linear thrusts from all the instruments. I was swept along by the performance’s initial brio, and found myself enjoying the digging-in with the players’ efforts by way of relishing the development’s major-minor alternations and lovely duetting sequences, and the occasionally madcapped moment in the otherwise “straightforward” (as the programme note commented) recapitulation – I did enjoy the players’ revisiting of the opening “laughter holding both his sides” gesture just before the movement’s end. The slow movement trod a graceful Mozartean measure at the outset, the mood of the music then abruptly sombre and Shakespearean, denoting a change in thinking, in fortune, in awareness. However, the opening’s return found the violin’s melody richly and engagingly decorated by the others, and even a brief return of the “Ghost” music was but a “blip” on the horizons, the concluding phrases farewelled with graceful pizzicati.
What a tour de force here was the syncopated scherzo, something of a great-uncle to the yet-unborn Op.135 Scherzo, the players tossing off the phrases with the utmost nonchalance, the first violin even finding all the time in the world to comment on the “chaos of delight” with an extended trill! Just as vertiginous was the Trio, the rapid scamperings interrupted by a droll minor-key version of the previous roller-coaster ride, before starting off again! – a fabulous performance! And then the players made the most of the finale, the beginning’s serene chordings torpedoed by strident harmonies, again reminiscent of the Op.135 Quartet’s finale, the composer’s marking of the score “La Malinconia” given resonance – when suddenly there was a babbling brook of a tune gaily and garrulously skipping ahead of us and leading us on, beautifully energised, making the return to the “La Malinconia” mood all the more unexpected, and its eventual dismissal all the more hair-raising when the players at the end turned the babbling brook into a torrent, one carrying off everything in its wake!
Beethoven himself regarded the next work on today’s programme (Op.95 in F Minor) as “special”, and was even somewhat protective towards it, stating in a letter to a friend that the quartet was “for connoisseurs, and not to be played in public”. His own name for the work, “Serioso”, appears in the tempo markings for the third movement, but it could equally apply to the whole quartet – it sounds rigorous, direct, concentrated and challenging, and the NZSQ delivered its four movements as such. The work’s famous opening, not unlike the Fifth Symphony’s in effect, began a kind of “chain reaction” of outbursts, followed by considerations, and then more outbursts, a tightly-knit mini-drama with an abruptly-muted ending. The ‘cello began the second movement in stepwise fashion, the other instruments sighing over the music’s halting progress. I was drawn into the players’ realisation of a ghostly, phantom-like fugue, one which seemed to endlessly descend in MC Escher-like fashion, and continue the process until rescued and led back into the light by the violin, the players rhapsodising on the movement’s theme most beguilingly.
Out of an unresolved cadence burst the scherzo – again, a terse figure at the outset, its dotted rhythm dominating the trajectories, here given enormous thrust by the players, most engaging and involving! The instruments delivered the all-pervading figure in pairs, the violins alternating with the pair of lower strings, hurling their voices across the spaces for dramatic effect – I loved the accelerating oompah-effect whenever all four instruments drove each sequence downwards and “bounced” upwards again! In the midst of the tumult was a lullaby, the players tossing their phrases gently from one to another, the brief dream scattered by the scherzo’s reappearance! How warily the players then began the finale, feeling their way at the outset, and sighing with mortification in a manner that suggested a full-scale lament was brewing – when suddenly the music “felt” its true purpose and drove forwards, the musicians imbuing us with a similar surge of expectation! Somewhat like a highly-charged cradle-song, the lines raced forwards, pausing for breath, only to redouble their energies with headlong scamperings that suggested an amalgam of relief and exhilaration – or was that just US feeling like that?
Rolf Gjelsten and Monique Lapins having respectively “opened up” for us something of the world of each of the first-half’s quartets earlier, Helene Pohl then similarly talked about the context of the Op.127 quartet which was to follow – a world of inward sound and light unlike anything we had heard previously. It was a work in the “heroic” key of E-flat but the “triumph” of such a gesture was interlaced with questions posed by the composer regarding the beyond and its mysteries. With this in mind we settled into the sounds from those first richly-wrought chords, as ready as we could ever be for whatever realms awaited.
We felt immediately drawn in, the sounds having a “shared” quality, emphasised by the chords’ more brightly-lit repetition, the music taking its time through sequenced passages, the players bringing out various individual lines and exchanges (I particularly enjoyed violist Gillian Ansell’s “smoky” tones in some lyrical passagework towards the movement’s end). The Adagio’s opening was scarcely breathed (compared by the writer of the excellent programme notes to the serene aspect of the Benedictus from the Missa Solemnis written a few years earlier), the playing as tender and “charged” as one could wish for, the first variation elaborating the lines as naturally as the opening-up of a sprinking of flowers in the sunlight, and the ensuing jog-trot sequence animating the impulses to delicious choreographic effect on the part of the musicians (with violinist Monique Lapins, whom I was sitting directly opposite to, particularly terpsichordean in her movements!), and not unlike Schoenberg’s cabaret-like “Die eiserne Brigade” music! – from this, the mood returned to the opening, the players’ voicings then suddenly to die for, imbuing the sounds with pure emotion! The variations continued their ebb and flow between pairs of instruments, until reaching a point where the music seems to denote the movement of time itself, or else a human heartbeat, something proclaiming the essence of our existence.
A few pizzicato “plucks” and the players were off astride the Scherzo, holding onto the music’s obsessively dotted rhythms on their discursive journeyings, light-as-feather manoeuverings alternating with robust “bouncings” – the Trio seemed here to suddenly fall out of the sky, pick itself up and join hands with all of us for a “Round Dance”, then disappear as quickly as it arrived (though making a brief reappearance at the movement’s end). A “call to arms” brought the finale’s flowing gait into play, a busy, chatty tune that contrasted markedly with the second theme, strong and abrupt and brooking no nonsense! The “working out” used all of these elements, a coming-together which quartet leader Helene Pohl had earlier characterised as a kind of “party”! – but what a gorgeous effect the musicians created with their deliciously “swooning” lead-in to this, the work’s “epilogue”, a grand, almost ceremonial, summation of what had gone before, concluded with suitably majestic chordings!
Berlioz wrote in 1830 on hearing a rehearsal of this quartet in Paris, “God willed that there should be a man as great as Beethoven, and that we should be allowed to contemplate him” – to which sentiments one here today could add that of gratitude to the New Zealand String Quartet for bringing to us such vibrant performances of his works!