Review: Janacek & Beethoven String Quartets from the amazing NZSQ

It all seemed too good to be true – here we were at a FREE CONCERT at the Adam Concert Room up at the University, about to be enthralled by the country’s most prestigious string quartet in two major works from the genre’s repertoire, one from the nineteenth and the other from the twentieth century, plus an additional piece from someone who’s proving to be a most interesting member of a stimulating “new  wave” of young New Zealand composers – as close to a “something for everybody” scenario as one could perhaps get at an hour-long concert by a single group!

Beginning the concert was the first of two string quartets by Moravian composer Leoš Janáček, one bearing the sub-title “Kreutzer Sonata”. In a letter, written by the composer to a much younger married woman, Kamilla Stösslová, whom Janáček regarded as his “muse”, writing her over 700 letters, he revealed his music’s purpose: “What I had in mind was the suffering of a woman, beaten and tortured to death, about whom the Russian author Tolstoy writes in his Kreutzer Sonata”. Of course, Tolstoy (who ironically didn’t much care for music!) used the title of one of Beethoven’s most famous chamber works to intensify his story’s emotional “charge”, that of a woman in a loveless marriage caught up in the passions of the music when playing the work with a handsome violinist, and as a result being beaten to death by her jealous husband.

Violist Gillian Ansell nicely anatomised the music’s terrain beforehand, introducing musical examples played by the group that resembled incredibly burgeoning slices of raw emotion. It was obvious straightway how the group possessed the temperament, confidence and technical skill to be able to enter wholly into this tortured world, one marked by the composer’s penchant for extremes of both expression and technical address, and with the players aware of how such music worked best via a suitably no-holds-barred approach.

Here the ensemble infused these extremities and razor-sharp contrasts with the utmost concentration, making it all sound as if each member was “living” the frenzied outbursts and tortured trajectories of the music’s narrative – as one commentator’s description succinctly puts it, expressed in writing that’s “less melody than compelling, emotionally-charged talking”. Like Mussorgsky before him in Russia, so Janáček wished to catch the realism of his countrymen’s speech patterns in his writing with all their angularities and astringencies, and, in this context heightened by extremes of feeling.

The second movement’s sharp contrasts between the dancelike motifs and the searing coruscations of emotion here simply conflagrated the textures, having a simultaneous “stunning” and “drawing-in” effect on the listener, the playing remarkable in its candid impact. By contrast, the third movement began with a melancholic duet-like passage from first violin and ‘cello (a quotation from Beethoven’s work, used to highlight the “illicit” rapport between the two players in the story), nastily punctuated on a number of occasions with scintillating shards of sound, here all remarkably coherent in an overall expressive sense while disturbing in their own realm of impulsiveness. Still, the performers had, one sensed at all times, a “grip” on the overall design that allowed the stridencies free rein to shock and unnerve without straying from the whole.

A brooding calm hovered over the finale’s opening, the lyricism heart-rending and bleak-sounding (shades of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony)! until the viola began pulling the violins along agitated stretches of territory, the music building and sharpening its tensions as an incredibly intense dotted rhythm sequence piled “Pelion upon Ossa” in its anger, fright and menace – the “moment of murder” then suddenly seemed to dissolve the music’s substance, leaving little more than crumpled, exhausted shadows – so very enigmatic! – and here, so heart-stopping in its searing execution by these intrepid players…….

I’d always regarded Beethoven’s last quartet as a kind of roller-coaster-ride as well, actually, but of a different kind to what we had just heard, alternating the visceral with the playful and enigmatic, as opposed to Janacek’s relentless assault. Here were Olympian forces at play, with whatever moments of stress and angst suggested (in the work’s finale) defused as systematically as they’d been developed, like the inevitable movements of cosmic bodies through the heavens, leaving we earthbound listeners gaping in bemused astonishment!