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Review: The New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae – Emperors, dictators and husbands in music

Updated: Jan 15

Peter Mechen, Middle C | 8 October, 2023

This article was originally published by Middle C. Click here to view the original article.



Waikanae Music Society presents: The New Zealand String Quartet with Diedre Irons (piano)

JOSEF HAYDN – String Quartet in C Major Op. 76 No.3 “Emperor” DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major Op. 92 AMY BEACH – Piano Quintet in F-sharp Minor Op.67 (1907)

The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall


Sunday 8th October

Straightaway one felt something out of the ordinary as soon as the NZ String Quartet players took the Waikanae Memorial Hall stage and put their bows upon the strings to begin their concert – there was resonance in the voices, spring in the rhythm, and fluency arm-in-arm with an ease of variety and contrast – and to think I had thought beforehand, to my shame, “Oh, not another “Emperor! – with almost seventy other Haydns to choose from!”, when as it turned out, this was one which the playing made me really want to hear!


All of the above was part of the build-up to the great moment in the first movement that cellist Rolf Gjelsten had gotten his fellow-players to demonstrate for us in his introduction to the work – that plunge into the full-blooded rusticity of the dance, with strings suddenly becoming pipes and drones and stamping feet – outlandish, even gawky at first hearing, but so organic in the playing’s wider context that it placed the composer entirely at home in the scenario – It’s in this almost incomparable fusion of aristocratic and peasant-like that Haydn’s genius shines as brightly as anywhere else in his oeuvre!


Magic of a different kind was wrought by the Quartet’s hushed intensities with the slow movement’s beginning, lifting the much-vaunted melody far above cliché and commonplace utterance, and proceeding to ennoble it further with different voices for each repetition, the players in the final variation “centring” their tones as to produce a kind of extra-terrestrial expressive world reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Borodin almost a century later.


The players danced the Menuetto through the music’s wry asymmetries, allowing a droll pesante touch with the slurred-note cascading passage that answered the opening set of phrases. How beautifully we were eased into the minor key Trio, with its briefly nonchalant shift to the major and back again to the minor, a “did we dream you or did you dream us?” moment! Far more volatile was the finale, with its three opening whiplash chords and scurrying minor-key presto figures making a helter-skelter impression, the players demonstrating spectacular fingerwork, in places excitingly tossing impulses from instrument to instrument, and bringing honour and acclaim to the music’s arrival at its eventual major-key conclusion!


On paper it seemed like something of a quantum leap from Haydn to Shostakovich, but the players seemed at the outset of the latter composer’s Fifth String Quartet of 1952 to straightaway forge links between the clarity and focus of the sounds created by each of these two masters of the genre. Shostakovich’s work and its predecessor, the Fourth String Quartet each had their genesis from a time in Russia (immediately post-Second World War) when, along with fellow-composers Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, he had been castigated by the authorities for not creatively responding as whole-heartedly as was expected to marking the thirtieth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. Shostakovich was unnerved by these attacks to the point where he held back publication of several of his major works of that time until after Stalin’s death in 1953.


The Quartet’s music grows out of a five-note motif which the composer developed in imitation of JS Bach, who featured his own name in his music via the notes representing B-A-C-H, Shostakovich using the notes C-D-Eflat-B-Csharp derived from his own D-S-C-H motif. He also quotes from another source in this work, a Clarinet Trio written by a student of his, Galina Ustvolskaya, whose friendship Shostakovich valued and whose work he admired. At the outset his Quartet intersperses the five notes of the motif with obsessively-driving rhythmic figures before quoting Ustvolskaya’s contrasting waltz-like theme, and then exploring various permutations of the latter interacting with his own five-note motif, all the while intensifying the trajectories and accretions of the music’s forward movement.


The NZSQ players, to whom these kinds of musical intensities always seem meat and drink, held all of this together superbly, setting the beleaguered lyricism against the savageries with unfailing focus as we ran the emotional gauntlet towards the movement’s sudden de-escalation and eerie transition, via purposeful pizzicato passages and a spectral solo violin line, and found ourselves taken to mysterious places wrought by the second movement’s wraith-like fugal musings. These growing intensities with their “time standing still” aspect were steadily and patiently transporting us to “different realms” when the lines were strangely augmented by “wailing” sounds, at which point the quartet stopped playing to listen to the intrusion with evident bemusement! (The locals, however, were not perturbed – these were the Waikanae volunteer fire brigade’s summonsing calls, a delicious irony being that a wartime photograph of the composer as an actual volunteer fireman does apparently exist somewhere – giving rise to the thought that this interjection was meant as some kind of token of kinship!)


With the air of a group steadfastedly maintaining its own shared vision, the players picked up their journeyings through the music’s ambient wastes and continued their peregrinations – a “return to life” set of impulses became a kind of “way through” and took us far from the initial conviviality of the finale’s opening jogtrot rhythms and into places where the five-note motif’s appearance and insistent repetitions reawakened tensions aplenty, the players running the music’s energies ragged, and spectacularly bolstering some of the more assertive figures with forthright pizzicati echoes of “belonging”, which, when done with led to some of the epilogue’s most heartfelt utterances – how piquant were those final pages, with the cello’s and solo violin’s laments comforted by the middle voices’ sustained life-lines.


Footnote: I decided, simply out of interest at first, take the opportunity to find out more concerning the background to the composer’s relationship with the aforementioned Galina Ustvolskaya, whose music Shostakovich quotes several times in the first movement of this quartet. I was greatly surprised to find a fierce controversy had arisen after Shostakovich’s death from various published interviews and dismissive statements made by the younger composer about her supposed “mentor”, giving rise to some of Ustvolskaya’s supporters adding to what amounted to a “denigration” of Shostakovich, both as a man and as a composer. All I can say in response is that, whatever reasons people might have had to cast aspersions upon the idea of a composer’s greatness, in this instance their comments and viewpoints ran counter in no uncertain terms to my own previous experience of Shostakovich’s music and, not least to what I’d just come from here regarding the NZSQ’s staunch, unswerving journeyings through an “inferno” of angst-ridden outpourings from a truly creative soul.


So to the concert’s second half, the subject of which was the incredible American-born Amy Beach (1867-1944), a quintessential nineteenth-century woman composer who eventually overcame societal obstacles and made a career for herself as a performer and composer. One wonders what she might have achieved had her circumstances allowed her talents to flourish at a much younger age! – though it’s arguable, however, whether Beach’s situation led to musical deprivation or fulfilment on her part, as her husband’s insistence that she restrict her performance activities did lead to an intensification of her composing abilities, which itself has left an important legacy.


Dating from 1907, Beach’s Piano Quintet owed a lot to Brahms’s Piano Quintet, which she herself had performed with the Kneisel Quartet in 1900. Hearing its dramatic opening straight away reminded me as much of the sound-world of Cesar Franck as that of Brahms – the romanticism of the work’s dark, mysterious beginning has a kind of charged quality expressed in chromatic terms that’s similar to Franck’s, further expressed by the rippling piano part, though the excitingly assertive piano octaves that followed, full and rich under Diedre Irons’ fingers immediately brought Brahms back to mind, as did the swaying second subject presented by turns by the strings and on the piano (the tolling bell a feature of the keyboard writing). I thought the players relished the stormily dramatic string unison that began the development section, matched by the piano’s equally commanding reply (amazing piano playing!), all of which morphed into a reprise of the lovely second subject with bell-like piano sonorities, and a quiet, brooding end to the movement.


Firstly the strings, then the piano ravished our senses with the slow movement’s opening melody, the strings musing for a while afterwards, then the violins repeating the melody, Monique Lapins whole-heartedly with the theme and Helene Pohl tenderly descanting overhead – a series of intense interchanges culminates with a virtuosic outburst from the piano, and a deep, rich rendering of the melody from the cello, Rolf Gjelsten giving the lines full play and stimulating the other voices to full-throatedly take the melody to the heights of expression.


The finale’s vivace opening waltzed in to great effect, with an impish agitato character stalking the dancers every which way and all very chromatic, Gillian Ansell’s gorgeous viola solo providing much-appreciated if temporary respite! The agitato impulses returned, the strings exhausting their lyrical capacities over the next little while, and nervously taking refuge in tremolandi, then playing hide and seek with an agitated fugal passage kept most excitingly kept on the rails right through to the last flourish!! The players then gingerly picked their way through the myriads of spent intensities, the piano leading the way and the strings rhapsodising – then the music surges again, the players giving the composer’s unquenchable romantic spirit here full rein. And the work’s coda is spectacular, by turns, headlong and unrepentantly rhapsodic – and finishes with a flourish! – cor, blimey! I’m still feeling exhausted by it all as I write this! The NZSQ musicians (and the indefatigable Diedre Irons) certainly gave Amy Beach her dues, and we loved them and her for it!

 

This article first appeared on Middle C on 8 October 2023. Click here to view the original article.

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