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New Zealand String Quartet’s second Beethoven 250th Anniversary concert

By Peter Mechen, Middle C | 13 September 2020

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:

BEETHOVEN 2020 – NZSQ National Tour Programme Two –  INNOVATOR

String Quartets – Op.18 No. 2, in G Major (1801) Op. 74 in E-flat Major “Harp” (1809) Op.59 No.2, in E Minor “Razumovsky” (1808)

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

Seatoun Village Hall and St.Christopher’s Church, Wellington

Sunday, 13th September, 2020

Though it doesn’t seem to me all that long ago that the NZSQ (well, THREE of the members of the present quartet!) were previously “wowing” us with their brilliant, uniquely engaging interpretations of Beethoven’s most significant and searching set of works, I suddenly felt, amidst the frisson of excitement and intoxication which rippled through the audience at Seatoun’s St.Christopher’s Church during Sunday’s concert, as if we had all actually been covertly harbouring a desperate need for a fresh “Beethoven update” from these players! – and, of course, what better occasion than a 250th birthday year for the composer in question in which to undertake (and celebrate!) such a renewal?

These works are, of course, iconic representations of a whole genre of music, and as such well-known to audiences everywhere – but as with the NZSQ’s previous traversal of the same music (far longer ago, incidentally, than I’d remembered), it seemed as if we were here being invited by the players to “reimagine” these sound-worlds as pertaining to the “here and now”, just as one would respond to an old friend whose by-now familiar aspects, expressions and attitudes had vigorously and healthily moved with the times! So the immediacy of contact established at the concert’s outset allowed these familiarities to lead us directly towards a freshly-minted process of rediscovery, one of the ensemble’s by-now established trademarks,.

The quartet’s strategy in grouping certain individual works together over the concert series seems to be one of thoughtfully illustrating stages in the composer’s creative process which suggest awareness, discovery and fruition. While I’m not one for being drawn to music events on the strength of their often adopting as pulicity glib (and in some cases ridiculously banal) “titles” – the recent labelling of conductor Gemma New’s NZSO concert as “Passion” I thought a particularly vacuous example of “event-speak”, for instance! – I could easily cope with the Quartet’s somewhat more apposite use of the title “Innovator” for this particular trio of works, given that, in most cases with Beethoven, his works were almost constantly breaking new ground, with even his “throwback” works such as the Eighth Symphony, the Op.110 Piano Sonata and the Op.135 String Quartet pouring new life into older forms.

Fortunately, with this group any such business is soon relegated to relative insignificance when set against the actual concert experience – one of the joys of encountering these musicians thus is listening to their freshly-conceived and invariably thoughtful remarks concerning the music they’re about to play – in this case, Helene Pohl, Rolf Gjelsten and Monique Lapins in turn gave us a number of at once spontaneous-sounding and penetrating insights into the music and its context in the composer’s life at the time of each separate work’s creation – I liked also their “personalising” in each case of the effect of actually performing the works, giving us a somewhat more visceral account of what coming to grips with this music actually meant for the performer – it couldn’t help but enhance our own involvement no end in the music-making!

First up was Beethoven’s Op.18 No.2 in G Major, one of a set of six quartets  published in 1801, but whose composition dates are at variance with the opus numberings – so this G major work was actually the third to be composed. The set was commissioned by the Bohemian Prince Lobkowitz, who became the dedicatee (it was at Lobkowitz’s palace that the “Eroica” Symphony, also dedicated to him, received its first performance, the Prince subsequently becoming a patron of the composer in the form of a pension paid up to Beethoven’s death). Helene Pohl in her introduction emphasised the composer’s awareness of his hearing’s deterioration at the time of writing these works, and of the devastation it would have caused him (as reflected in letters to his friend, Karl Amenda, such as one dated July 1st – “….For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people “I am deaf!”…..if I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state…..”

No such angst seemed to trouble the music at first, the quartet’s playing of the work’s opening rather like an involuntary sigh, leading to an awakening and a sequence of fully fledged stretches in the impulse’s direction. It was a “now, the day can begin” kind of ritual, leading to a poised, almost courtly second subject whose barely contained sense of fun bubbled up and over with the first violin’s mischievously off-the -beat repeated note-soundings, rounded off by a “well, that’s that!” D major phrase – except that, after the opening’s repeat, that same rounding-off phrase was then reiterated in the minor, and we soon found ourselves in the company of what seemed like a ghostly conglomeration, a world of eerily floated thoughts wondering how it was that everything had gotten so gloomy! And then, what a splendidly assertive arousal it was, from “cello and viola, urging a whole-hearted return to the opening theme, the “sigh” now a full-blooded statement of resolve, and the stirring commitment to the cause unassailable, the occasional minor-key hesitation aside – came the movement’s coda, however, and to our surprise ‘cello and viola were suddenly sounding a sober note of circumspection, hearkening back to those earlier spectral lines, the movement thus concluding “not with a bang, but with a whimper”…..

Had one but world enough and time, of course, one could relive the variegated pleasures of the entire concert thus, except that this is a mere review, not a performance! But such was the focus and concentration of these players, their music-making readily gave rise to thoughts and feelings which one found oneself throwing down on note-paper in frenzied, scarcely intelligible form, carried away with the up-front engagement of it all! The above account I hope gives some idea of the degree to which the musicians were able to make Beethoven’s music speak throughout the entire concert, their words being a mere adjunct to the business of investing the notes with life. The slow movement’s hymn-like opening allowed the first violin to decorate its line over sonorous supporting voicings, the phrasings beautifully terraced, as if preparing for the most soulful of dissertations – how disconcerting to suddenly have a kind of “party” breaking out, a garrulous affair with all voices having their say! Just as peremptorily the solemn mood was returned, the violin’s decorations this time echoed (almost “ghosted”) by the ‘cello, to richly-wrought effect. The sprightly Haydnesque Menuetto cast no shadows, either with its leaping opening figure (tossed about with great abandonment by the players) or its deceptively artless-sounding Trio, whose rising four-note motif gave rise to all kinds of adornments  from all the instruments; while the finale, set in motion by the ‘cello, allowed only one or two brief moments, by turns introspective and dark-browed, to cloud the music’s high spirits, the players carrying all before them with truly infectious energies.

Of course, both of the quartets remaining in the concert were conceived very much under the “cloud” of Beethoven’s by then obviously failing hearing, though Rolf Gjelsten in his spoken introduction to the first-played of these, the “Harp” Quartet No.10 in E-flat Major, Op.74, outlined for us some of the outside events, favourable and otherwise, which also played their part in “colouring” the composer’s world at the time. He invited us to imagine for ourselves the potential effect of these happenings  – to name but two highly-contrasted ones, the granting of an annuity to the composer for life by a group of Viennese nobles, and the war between France and Austria (Beethoven’s well-known “Les Adieux” Piano Sonata, also in A-flat, dated from the same time as his “Harp” Quartet, and shared some of the same characteristics).

Nicknamed “Harp” (by Beethoven’s publisher) because of the quartet’s frequent use of pizzicato in the first movement, the work with its opening “yearning” quality was beautifully articulated from the outset by the players, riding the top of a crescendo into the confidently stated three-note motif which the famous pizzicato notes replicated with great vigour, both here, and more elaborately in the later development sequence. I loved how the exhilarating “tow” of the first violin’s incredibly gutsy running figurations carried us irresistibly along to the “motto” theme’s statement which so dominated this movement. The Serenade-like second movement generated plenty of rapt concentration, with the violin at one point rivalling the viola in deep-throated expressiveness, though reclaiming its lighter voice before the movement’s end. But, after this, what an almost frightening contrast the scherzo’s opening made! And with what relentless drive did the musicians plunge into both the repeat of the opening and the “whirling dervish “ Trio! Such vertiginous energy! But then, I was riveted by those scalp-prickling, spectral tones the players took on over the final stretches of the ride, holding us in thrall! – at the end of it by rights the abyss should have been waiting to receive us all! – simply astonishing!

Of course, the said abyss was an illusion,  the spectral aspect gradually receding into the strains of a deceptively innocuous-sounding set of variations,  among them a lovely solo from the viola played cheek-by jowl with rumbustious “jolly hockey-sticks” enthusiasm by the ensemble, the music continuing to alternate similarly contrasting moods to the point where a precipitous slide became a mini-stampede of tumbling old-fashioned excitement, with its satisfied honour upheld by two quietly concluding chords!

We “used well the Interval”, digesting what we had heard, and discussing our thoughts with our “distanced” neighbours, by way of preparing for the concert’s final work, the Op.59 No. 2 Quartet in E Minor, here introduced by Monique Lapins, who re-emphasised the on-going impact upon Beethoven’s life and work of his hearing loss, and his determination (expressed by the earlier Heiligenstadt Testament, written to his brothers but discovered only after the composer’s death in 1828) to fulfil all that he felt called upon to produce. She drew parallels between the music for the “Eroica” Symphony (with its famous opening chords) and similar gestures (minor-key versions) in the quartet, and then got her fellow-players to illustrate the “Russian theme” given to Beethoven by Count Razumovsky and used by the composer in the work’s Allegretto movement (a theme which also occurs in Musorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov”).

Thus primed, we were plunged into the maelstrom of trenchant attack, fiery exchange and brooding resonance of the E Minor Quartet’s first movement, the drama of confrontation and conflict all too palpable, the music driven excitingly, almost scarily fiercely by the players, the occasional repetitions of the searing opening chords holding us in thrall, and the dynamic vortex-like passages  drawing us into what seemed like the clamour of creation amidst burgeoning fire and tumult! The second movement’s long-breathed utterances, long-equated with Carl Czerny’s assertion  that Beethoven was evoking “the music of the spheres” in this music, felt to me in this performance to speak of ageless things, akin to a child’s feelings towards people and places that seemed “forever”, punctuated by specific fascinations whose essence was “felt” rather than comprehended – the violin’s ascending sequences, for example, or the ensemble’s two extraordinary chordal utterances, both breathcatching moments…..

But what can one say about the two final acts of the drama that the music itself doesn’t render superfluous? – and especially when delivered  in performance as “organically” as here, by these players! – after the almost Schumannesque insistence of the Allegretto’s determined “dancing with a crutch” aspect, I found the playful festivity of the “Russian” tune a welcome infusion of colour and variety, if almost tipping over into clangour In places! And (we were warned beforehand, but didn’t care!) the tensions built up by the finale’s driving dotted rhythms didn’t let up for a moment, the musicians’ surge of energy at the coda bringing our hearts into our mouths at the abandonment of it all! If music-making was about anything, we felt we understood and relished something of what it was, at that moment! Bravo, NZSQ!

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