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Beethoven’s creative “quartet-journey” superbly delineated by the NZSQ at St.John’s in the City

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 pl