Elizabeth Kerr, Five Lines | 22 September, 2023
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When Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana composed a musical autobiography in his 50’s, it was no accident that he chose a string quartet for expression of his most personal thoughts and feelings. He had experienced intense loss, with three of his daughters dying in childhood. Two years before he composed his String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, Opus 16 (‘From my life’), Smetana became completely deaf, after experiencing severe tinnitus and other symptoms. The almost private work, he wrote, was “deliberately written for four instruments conversing amongst themselves” about the joys, romantic yearnings, sadness and regrets of his life.
Now one of the most beloved works in the string quartet repertoire, ‘From my Life’ was chosen by the New Zealand String Quartet to end the third of four programmes they have recently toured throughout New Zealand. For their ‘Woven Pathways’ national tour, their curatorial approach demonstrated what Smetana understood, the power of a string quartet to explore emotions and experiences. As British conductor the late Sir Jeffrey Tate once put it: ‘A string quartet is the most perfect expression of human behaviour.’
The four programmes were titled ‘Devotion’, ‘Introspection’, ‘Celebration’ and ‘Connection’, and Wellington audiences were able to enjoy the first three in very different city venues at the end of their 15-concert tour to ten towns and cities. I’ll come back to those venues later.
‘Devotion’, performed in Webb’s Auction House and Gallery, opened with a personal farewell, Poroporoaki, by Dame Gillian Whitehead. Her tribute to her colleague Richard Nunns transcribes the sounds of taonga puoro, of which he had been a tireless champion. The four string instruments imitate different traditional instruments, many evoking the bird calls of Aotearoa, and the atmospheric, beautifully shaped work held the audience’s rapt attention.
The fiercely independent modernism and dissonant counterpoint of American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger was in marked contrast to Whitehead’s gentle explorations. Seeger’s String Quartet 1931 was enterprising programming, a work from a lesser-known composer devoted to her craft, engagingly introduced by cellist Rolf Gjelsten. The NZSQ played it with virtuosic fervour.
The highlight and centrepiece of the programme was Shostakovich’s 5th Quartet in B-flat Major Opus 92. Over the years, the NZSQ has played many of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, and they handle the intensity of this music marvellously well. Here the composer runs the emotional gamut through three linked movements – powerful feelings, acidic humour, rage, passion, sweetness and despair. This was some of the most brilliant playing I’ve heard from these versatile musicians, who gave themselves wholeheartedly to the music.
The audience had much to talk about in the interval, and came back to a light-hearted send-off with Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ String Quartet Opus 76, No. 3. “Father of the string quartet” Haydn at his most amiable provided a jolly quasi-encore to the programme, sending the audience home in a cheerful mood.
A few days later, St Peter’s Church was the setting for ‘Introspection’, the most thoughtful of the three programmes. Tabea Squire’s I Danced, Unseen was premiered in 2020 in a collaboration with choreographer Loughlan Prior and the Ballet Collective Aotearoa. It worked well here as a stand-alone concert work, the musicians acknowledging its earlier incarnation by entering one at a time from different locations. It has a simple texture, based on Celtic-sounding melodic lines.
Bartók’s 6th Quartet expresses a darker introspection, full of the composer’s grief at his mother’s death and his departure from Hungary as Nazism and the 2nd World War rolled over Europe. Each movement begins with a section marked “Mesto”– “sadly” or “mournfully” - in an ultimately bleak statement about the darkness in the composer’s world. But this is Bartók, nonetheless, and he and the musicians found many character changes. The tragic chromaticism of the opening viola line moves to the ironic harmonies of the 2nd movement, with sliding glissandi and a wonky dance-like march. Great ensemble work revealed the rather drunken burlesque of the third movement, with a biting pizzicato section as Bartók pushes the tonal envelope, and then all is “mesto” in the finale, a beautiful expression of pain and heartbreak.
While Bartók found a fierce quality in his grief, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor (‘Rosamunde’) D804, written in a time of sadness and mental illness, is full of lovely melodies and an almost peaceful nostalgia. The Quartet conveyed these qualities from the outset in a work closely linked to Schubert’s lieder. Theirs was a carefully judged and loving performance of beautiful music, lovely singing lines from 1st violinist Helene Pohl, the graceful minuet and trio played with a touch of breathless mystery and the final movement introspective but dancing lightly, ending in a playful spirit.
The ‘Celebration’ programme was the final concert of the national tour and there was indeed an effervescent atmosphere for the occasion in the Public Trust Hall.
Prokofiev was living and touring in the US when he wrote his 1st String Quartet, free of the demands of state-approved socialist realism that later tinged his 2nd. I’ll confess I struggle to love Prokofiev’s oddly dissonant modernist tonality, but the NZSQ offered nice introductory context with an illustrated link to Beethoven’s quartets, and found the wild drama and melodious quality in this almost-romantic music, playing with character, contrast and plenty of deft ensemble technique to handle the speedy moments.
With music by New Zealand composers in every programme, this concert included the 9th String Quartet of Ross Harris. The artistry of the NZSQ has inspired all nine Harris quartets since his first in 1990, and this short, single-movement work was premiered at the Adam Summer Celebration in Nelson in 2021. Harris was present to introduce the piece, and, commenting on the Quartet’s technical abilities, explained he had deliberately challenged them by asking them to hum and play simultaneously. Blurred, magical and reverent “humming” chorales alternate with fleet, elusive contrapuntal episodes. The imaginative and gentle work was beautifully played, delighting audience and composer.
And so, we came to Smetana’s ‘From my Life’ as a conclusion to the concert. Dvořák himself played the viola part in the work’s private premiere, and Gillian Ansell’s lovely warm tone was a feature of the texture. There was an almost rough, rustic quality in the humorous 2nd movement polka, evoking Smetana’s youth as a passionate dancer, and the romanticism of the third, Largo sostenuto, evoked his blissful happiness with his first wife. The final nationalist Vivace was taken at a good clip, first joyful and then shockingly painful as a high-pitched tone imitated the tinnitus that heralded the disaster of his deafness. The audience was drawn into this poignant and wonderfully personal music.
The work and indeed the whole concert would undoubtedly have had an even greater impact in a more grateful acoustic than the Public Trust Hall. Sadly, this elegantly restored historic venue has severe acoustic limitations and for a string quartet, even playing on the side wall and with curtains open, there is simply not enough resonance to add the bloom to the sound the musicians deserve. Throughout this concert, the thinness of the string sound that reached our ears detracted from the fine performances. The acoustic in St Peter’s Church is better, but in some of the works in the Introspection programme the inner voices of a contrapuntal texture lacked clarity and subtleties were lost.
The first Wellington concert in the small room of the Webb’s Auction House showed us how a bright, reflective acoustic enhances everyone’s experience. Shostakovich’s 5th Quartet there had the impact of a packet of firecrackers. It’s a venue new
to the Quartet, but I hope to enjoy more of their concerts there in future. It accommodates a smaller audience, but the intimacy and immediacy of the experience were outstanding. Let’s hope when the Old Town Hall reopens that the smaller concert chamber there can deliver a chamber music experience of this quality.
New Zealand String Quartet ‘Woven Pathways’ National Tour 2023, 18 August – 10 September 2023
Five Lines is a collection of writings about music in Aotearoa New Zealand by Elizabeth Kerr. It features short articles, artist profiles and reviews of concerts, operas and albums. You can subscribe here to receive updates about new posts - it’s free.
This article was originally published on Five Lines on 22 September 2023. Click here to view the original article.