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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 t