Tom McDonald Barrel Room, Church Road Winery, Taradale, Sunday 1 September, 2013.
Benjamin Britten is widely regarded as the greatest 20th century British composer – creating a distinctive voice for the music of his country and leaving behind a series of master works, such as The War Requiem, which have been acclaimed world-wide.
In this programme the NZSQ – violinists Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violist Gillian Ansell and cellist Rolf Gjelsten – presented an innovative programme built around Britten’s String Quartet No 3, with other works by composers significant in Britten’s life. The Quartet, written shortly before Britten’s death, seems to sum up many of the unique qualities inherent in his music.
The five movements are disparate in style – intertwining pairing of instruments in the first, the angular driving sequences of the second, the soaring central theme of the third with its surrounding voices, the quirky attitudes of the fourth, and the summation in the fifth with its long thread-like texture of the recitative and deep sonorities – all fitting together in a remarkable musical statement. This was a technically committed performance where each of the musicians, and the quartet as a whole, searched out and successfully projected the intent of the composer and the meaning of the music, to a rapt audience.
The other three items were by composers whose music significantly influenced Britten in his life-long journey as a composer. Surprisingly, despite the superb acoustic properties of the venue, the two Fantasias by 17th century composer Henry Purcell were the least successful items on the programme, with the lineal structure of the music not always easy to follow.
The essential lyricism of the music was always evident in the performance of the Quartet Movement in C Minor D703 by Schubert, contrasted vividly with moments of tension, leading to a dramatic ending.
The performance of the famous String Quartet in F by Maurice Ravel made a stunning conclusion to the programme. Here again the playing was completely in sync with the spirit and style of the music, with crystal clear articulation of every note, particularly in the pizzicato Assez Vif movement, while the Trés Lent third movement was projected with a captivating eloquence.
Each of the items was enhanced by an informative spoken introduction by one of the musicians. A different programme was played in the concert in the same venue the previous evening.