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Review: Disarming Ease - The New Zealand String Quartet impresses Howard Smith

Springtime's Salon Series 2014 has brought the superlative New Zealand String Quartet (NZSQ) to eight nationwide centres as unalike as Geraldine, population 2,301 and Auckland, population 1.5 million. In doing so it had devised Salon 2, a programme cemented with solo J S Bach movements interleaved by complete works of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and Pulitzer-prize-winning Chinese/American composer Zhou Long (born Beijing, 1953).

By turns the NZSQ personnel presented items with disarming ease.

Bach items (in order) were presented by Gillian Ansell (viola) — Suite No 1 in G major BWV 1007, Prelude; Helene Pohl (violin 1) — Partita No 3 in E major, BWV 1006, Gavotte en rondeau; Douglas Beilman (violin 2) — Sonata No 1 in G minor, BWV 1001, Presto; and Rolf Gjelsten (cello) — Suite No 6 in D major, BWV 1012, Allemande.

New Zealand's 'flagship' quartet, currently in its twenty-seventh season, tours widely in Britain, Europe, North America, China, East Asia and Australia, while at home it has an enterprising, ongoing schedule.

Over the years the quartet has cultivated a rich repertoire including widely varied New Zealand music and composers' cycles from Beethoven to Bartók, Mozart to Berg, in addition to theatrical presentations on musical topics ranging from Haydn to Janáček's Kreutzer Sonata.

Music lovers congregated below the high vaulted ceiling at Hunter Council Chamber on Victoria University (Wellington) Campus [Friday 19 September 2014], largely in red brick Gothic-revival style, it seats one hundred-and-fifty with tiered fixed seating to either side and chairs on the flat. Hunter Building, completed in 1906, once housed the entire university, though other buildings were added when staff and student numbers grew. Installed after World War I, a stained-glass memorial commemorates staff and students who died.

To start, Gillian Ansell's evocative opening bars of the Bach arpeggiated Prelude BWV 1007 were heard from behind the elevated seating, bringing a hushed atmosphere, almost palpable in its effect.

The NZSQ ensemble began with music of the baroque 'master' from some seven decades later; Haydn's Op 54 No 2 (1788), a poised and bracing work with characteristic vibrancy throughout its rhapsodic Adagio; the distressed Menuetto and an Adagio finale in which a Presto section intervenes prior to the conclusion. This work bears the name of Johann Tost, leader of second violins in Haydn's orchestra at Esterháza (1783-1788).

Helene Pohl's solo arrival brought her stepping jauntily through the mid aisle to a level stage area with Bach's lilting eighteenth century 'Gavotte and Rondeau' after which the ensemble gathered for Zhou Long's beautiful Song of the Ch'in (1982), a work employing harmonics, pizzicato, stringendo, slurred glizzandi, spiccato, double stopping, and effects very near to col legno.

The Chinese ch'in (or qin), among the most expressive of instruments, has survived without significant modifications for over three thousand years. Its longevity is a testament to an inherent musical beauty and acoustic integrity. Zhou Long, a prolific Pulitzer-prize-winning Chinese American composer, has a growing professional profile attracting impressive international commissions.

Violinist Douglas Beilman tossed off the unstoppable BWV 1007 Presto to the manner born: a preface to Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade for string quartet (1887) and string orchestra (1892). Wolf's rare non-lieder work, lasting about seven minutes, has a nimble, varied theme, played over a pizzicato figure. Its primary motif is said to be based on an old Italian lyric played on an obsolete form of oboe called the piffero, a double reed instrument with a conical bore found in the tradition of mountains and valleys of the north-west Italian Apennines.

With the interval over, cellist Gjelsten emerged behind the left tier, bringing a compelling account of the Allemande from Bach's Suite No 6 in D major BWV 1012, widely believed composed specifically for a fivestringed violoncello piccolo with a fifth upper string tuned to E.

To conclude Salon 2 2014, the Quartet brought near-orchestral breadth to Grieg's lengthy, unaccountably neglected Quartet No 2 in G minor (1878), an inspired choice conveyed with inspirational gravitas and melodic warmth, marvelously linking the work's vividly contrasting elements. The Norwegian's cyclic first surviving string quartet calls for convincing intensity and dynamic passion — qualities found here in abundance.

Memorable stuff — no late Schubert, no Bartók or Shostakovich, no Janáček, Messiaen or Golijov — but supreme music unforgettably performed.

Copyright © 27 September 2014 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand

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