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Five Lines: Subtlety and Flair (Wellington)

This article was originally published by Five Lines on 16 November 2021. Click here to view the original article.

Elizabeth Kerr, Five Lines | 16 November 2021

Dodging around pandemic disruptions, the New Zealand String Quartet is on the road with two well-crafted programmes for their National Tour 2021. Last week I joined them in the Public Trust Hall in Wellington for Programme 1.

The New Zealand String Quartet - interpretative subtleties and impeccable ensemble cohesion

This programme of four apparently very different works for string quartet by Haydn, Gareth Farr, György Ligeti and Dvořák did not have an overt theme but created a deeply satisfying concert. Perhaps the contrasts within and between the works were themselves the theme?

Certainly the four musicians revelled in many changes of mood and style during the evening, sharing with delight the variety of characters a string quartet, that most perfect of ensembles, can assume.

Beginning with Haydn was of course an unsurprising choice. From the first movement of his “Sunrise” Quartet, Opus 76 No 4, the players enjoyed a lovely conversational approach to the counterpoint. They switched to sombre intensity for the Adagio, joyous freedom for the Minuet and then exaggerated witty humour in Haydn’s Finale, where the composer cheekily tosses his themes amongst the musicians.

Apparent from the outset were the thoughtful interpretative care, attention to detail and impeccable ensemble cohesion that remained consistent throughout the evening.

Gareth Farr’s Te Kõanga is a tribute to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons, who often cared for the Quartet’s instruments before his sudden death in 2015. Farr has written “not a lament” but an appealingly eccentric work celebrating the luthier’s love of the natural world. The title refers to the joys of the spring planting season and the work opens with the beautiful fluting song of the tūī for violin, interrupted by humorous weka creaks from the viola. Good humoured birdsong is juxtaposed with a wide range of string techniques including snapping pizzicato as the Quartet becomes a percussion ensemble of bush sounds. These are set against another contrast, arco (bowed) melodious sections, beautifully hymn-like in effect. The audience was captured by the ensemble’s flamboyant performance.

Next came perhaps the most challenging programme choice, Hungarian composer Ligeti’s String Quartet No 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes. Written in mid-20th century Stalinist Hungary, this music of uncompromising European modernism waited till the 1970’s for its premiere. “It is not tonal music,” the composer said of it, “but it is not radically atonal either. The piece still belongs strongly to the Bartók tradition.” The eight contrasting linked movements were, the composer suggested, more “metamorphoses” than “variations”.