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Review: Russian Icons tour attracts audience acclaim

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Outstanding performance & impeccable style

New Zealand String Quartet: Russian Icons

Nikolai Kapustin: ‘Fuga’ from String Quartet no.1 Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet Shostakovich: String Quartet no.4 in D (allegretto, andantino, allegretto, attacca – allegretto) Borodin: String Quartet no.2 in D (allegro moderato, scherzo, nocturne: andante, finale: andante – vivace)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

Rosemary Collier, Middle C

This was the last concert in a tour of 11 towns and cities (there were two concerts in Wellington) in which the quartet performed four separate programmes, incorporating seven different Russian works for string quartet.

The second Wellington concert drew a large audience to the Hunter Council Chamber.  Here was a real chamber – not a church or a concert hall, but a room ideal for chamber music.  Audience members could be close to the players, but the room’s double height meant a favourable acoustic, revealing the full resonance and tone of the instruments and of the music they played.

The short works in the first half were unfamiliar to me, but were interesting. Nikolai Kapustin is a contemporary composer, born in 1937.  His work is heavily influenced by jazz.  The music began with the cello playing a jazzy melody while the other players tapped on their instruments with the wood of their bows.  This was followed by the second violin, then the viola and finally the first violin playing the melody, with the cello now playing pizzicato.

The interweaving melodies became quite romantic, utilising variable rhythms over an underlying pulse.  Driving intensity built up, followed by more jocund phrases.  There were rapid episodes where the sounds made it seem as though each instrument was playing a separate piece of music.  Relatively calmer passages intervened between the frenetic ones.  There was a sudden, amusing ending.

Helene Pohl spoke to the audience about the Kapustin and Stravinsky works before the latter was played.  The composer later arranged the Three Pieces, which were very short, for his Four Studies for Orchestra, where the three were given apt titles ‘Dance’, ‘Eccentric’ and ‘Canticle.  It was explained that the subject of the second was a clown with a limp.

The pieces started with a difficult, hectic, pulsating dance for three instruments, while the viola maintained a steady stream of notes played sul ponticello (almost on the instrument’s bridge).  Then the limping clown showed up, in off-the-beat rhythm.  There was strong pizzicato followed by a charming little violin solo while the others continued the pizzicato.  ‘Canticle’ consisted largely of long, slow, unusual chords with interesting shifts in harmony.  To end there was a short but beautiful section of the instruments employing harmonics (the high notes obtained by touching the strings lightly rather than pressing them down).

Doug Beilman, playing probably his last public concert in Wellington as a member of the quartet (for 26 years), gave a longer introduction to the major work on the programme, the Shostakovich quartet.  He noted that the composer admired Stravinsky, though was forced to have a speech delivered on his behalf in New York that denounced the older composer.  Beilman noted  Shostakovich’s circumstances at the time of writing the quartet, and pointed to the placement of a dance on a Jewish theme as the third movement, at a time when anti-semitism was still rife in official Soviet circles.

The quartet’s opening was quite balmy and cheerful, with full-bodied sound from the instruments, and slow, rich and mellow chords.  The second movement began with a melancholic violin solo, underpinned with dour couplets from second violin and viola.  The cello joined in with deep, sonorous notes, the whole building to a higher pitch of almost excruciating tension.  Closely-spaced intervals spoke of sorrow and distress.  Suddenly the heaviness wore off, as if exhausted, and the three upper instruments seemed to be quietly recovering from the effort.   Rich chords returned briefly, with plaintive plangency.

The third movement opened in bouncy style, with the Jewish folk-influenced melody.  The mood was piquant, not entirely extraverted. Melodies began to soar; added mutes changed the quality and timbre of the sound, yet the music became more frenetic. The folk melody became somewhat insistent before a new melody on viola intervened, with intermittent pizzicato from the other players.  Harsh pizzicato chords took over with the fourth movement, accompanying equally harsh melodies on the violins, then there were very exciting, even disturbing passages.

The instruments were played for all they were worth, demanding much energy from the performers.  Mutes were remounted, and a more peaceful, calming down section ensued.  A considerable emotional journey had been travelled.  This was an outstanding performance.

The work following the interval could not have been more different.  Borodin’s lovely second quartet was introduced by Gillian Ansell.  As she said, it is one of the best-loved string quartets, with famous melodies in the second and third movements.

The composer wrote it for his wife on their 20th wedding anniversary; Gillian informed us that Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten had very recently celebrated the same anniversary (applause).  The sublime, romantic melodies were eminently appropriate for such occasions – and they were composed by someone who was not a full-time composer, but were written when time was available from his scientific job.  The cello part epitomised Borodin, and the first violin, his wife Ekaterina.

The airy, exalted feeling of the first movement certainly elevated my mood.  The interplay between instruments was quite delightful; after the stresses of Shostakovich, this was so relaxing!

The scherzo second movement was sunny and bright, yet whimsical also.  The gorgeous opening melody of the well-known nocturne, was first played on cello, and soon taken up by the first violin, while the others supplied beautiful lower parts.  The romantic nature of the music suggests yearning.  Then the dance-like riposte got into its stride with clarity and cheerfulness.  Phrases from the melody returned at a variety of pitches.  The movement ended with a languorous repeat of the theme.

The finale opens in declamatory style, then there is a high-speed, animated development.  Many enchanting variations on the opening theme follow, with much dynamic variation.

These accomplished players gave us the lot without reserve throughout the concert;  the audience’s enthusiasm was genuine and unanimous.  Four of the most beautiful bouquets could not have been more well-deserved – and another for Helen Philpott, who represented the tour’s sponsors, the Turnovsky Endowment Trust.

This was one of the most satisfying chamber music concerts I have attended in a considerable time.  All the hallmarks of NZSQ – splendid tone, impeccable style, intonation and dynamics and playing with absolute unanimity were there, plus outstanding performance of difficult work.

Copyright © 20 September 2015 Rosemary Collier, Middle C, Wellington, New Zealand.

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