New Zealand String Quartet Stands and Delivers

New ZealandNew Zealand  Beethoven: New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello), The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 10.5.2012. [PSe]

String Quartets, Op. 59 : Nos. 1 and 2 “Razumovsky”

This year, one of our most venerable chamber ensembles, the world-class New Zealand String Quartet, is celebrating its silver jubilee. However, the NZSQ’s members have little or no time for basking in bucketsful of bouquets and banquets, as they are undertaking an intensive programme of recital tours, both at home and abroad. Neither are they resting on their musical laurels, as they are marking this anniversary by pulling focus on arguably one of the most challenging and influential series of musical works ever written.

In spite of the brilliant promise of his early works, the young Beethoven clearly regarded composing as a “second string”, concentrating on building a reputation primarily as a performer. Sadly (for him), it all fell apart. By 1802 he’d been driven to the very brink of suicide, not merely through dread of his encroaching deafness, but more through fear of its career consequences – inevitable and utter shame, ridicule and professional ruin. As he declared in his Heiligenstadt Testament: “I would have put an end to my life; only art it was that held me back.”

In his mind, the door had closed irrevocably on the music without – but then, it seems, another door had opened on the true potential of the music within. Was this redeeming vision a miracle? It would appear so. From the pit of despair the erstwhile brilliant performer emerged, transfigured into a creative genius who sublimated his resentful rage (mixed, I’d guess, with sundry feelings of relief) into a host of ground-breaking compositions.

Why am I telling – or, as is more likely, reminding – you of this? Well, it’s because Beethoven’s transformation is nowhere more marked than in his string quartets – the very works that presently hold NZSQ’s attention. Beethoven completed his six Op. 18 Quartets in 1798, the same year that he learnt the appalling truth about his aggravating hearing problem.

Postdating the suicidal crisis that precipitated his “middle period”, the remainder of his sixteen string quartets are “something completely different”. In itself, their unprecedented musical complexity is bewildering enough, but it’s also compounded by an equally unprecedented emotional range, expressed with a disconcertingly red-raw candour, bristling with eruptive mood-swings, acrid dissonances and startling interjections, and exploring realms that even today remain privileged to a precious few.

The three “Razumovsky” Quartets Op. 59 are amongst the first fruits of this “new, improved” Beethoven.  For Whangarei’s almost full, but fully enraptured house, NZSQ performed Nos. 1 and 2. By way of introduction violist Gillian Ansell announced, “We’ve been touring these for three weeks, perfecting them just for you.” As it turned out, this remark was not entirely tongue-in-cheek – by the time they’d done, I was feeling distinctly disenchanted with my CDs of these works.

This is partly because NZSQ – obviously excepting the cellist – play standing up, like concerto soloists. Why, I wondered, is this evidently eminently advantageous practice so unusual nowadays? Corporeal expressiveness is second nature to, for instance, your average rock band and, for that matter, can anyone honestly say that he or she has never felt the urge to nod, sway, tap or “conduct” in response to the sound of music? I’m sure that contemporary classical audiences sit so deathly still only because they are, in effect, conditioned by etiquette (at concerts, I for one generally have to sit on my hands!).

At rock bottom, music and movement are intimately related, both facets of the same innate urge – hence, particularly for performers, corporeal expressiveness is severely constrained by being seated, and entirely emancipated by standing up. Even – or especially – technically accomplished musicians find that they play significantly better and communicate far more effectively, with both one another and their audience.

You might be wondering how cellist Rolf Gjelsten compensated for his fetters. Firstly, his seat was raised, making his playing posture more that of a double-bassist than a “normal” cellist, and elevating his head to the same level as those of his upstanding colleagues. Secondly, he’d perfected an astonishing range of vivid facial expressions – though, I hasten to add, nothing like the grotesque exaggerations of certain “anguished” instrumental prima donnas.

Surely, to a significant degree, this corporeality underpinned both the unwavering, intense concentration with which NZSQ guided us through Beethoven’s vast musical minefields, and the equally intense attention of the audience. I didn’t use the term “fully enraptured” lightly; there really was something mesmeric about these performances. Suddenly, with no apparent effort on my part, music that I normally had to “work at” was rolling into and across my mind on well-oiled and superbly engineered castors.

At one extreme, this drew, in our minds’ eyes, the aural architecture, the musical logic that makes sense of the otherwise dizzying procession of seemingly disparate incidents. At the other, it helped to elucidate the myriad details clamouring for attention, simply because these could be seen as well as heard. The visual clues conveyed by the often almost balletic bodily movements – which, incidentally, were in themselves a pleasure to behold – make a much bigger difference to your perceptions of complex passages than you might expect.

The downside of “enraptured” is that it plays havoc with one’s critical faculties! However, I managed to retain enough of my critical wits to observe that this corporeal expression joined hands with the NZSQ’s tremendous technique to serve and support two extremely intelligent and idiomatic interpretations.

Their playing and ensemble were breathtaking, commanding a seemingly symphonic dynamic range, and immaculately balancing their resonant instruments one against another. This lent immense solidity to chords, and crystal-clarity to counterpoints. Thus, the few fluffs – and there were some! – in and amongst were not so much “mistakes” as testament to a commendably high risk factor. Then again, sometimes they didn’t sound “nice” – but this was only when the music itself wasn’t “nice”, in particular when the players (quite rightly!) rendered Beethoven’s more excruciating dissonances – to quote the words of the legendary Mr. T. E. Bean – “exactly as advertised”.

A quick flip through the music will suffice to convey the flavour. In No. 2 (played first), their terrific energy and spine-tingling control of dynamic gradations immediately grabbed the listener by the throat. Contrastingly, the second movement ranged from melting tenderness, with important “inner” parts finely delineated, to vehemence; whilst the third was now nervy, twitchy, now suddenly flowing with vigour. The finale set off distinctly in the genial spirit of the “galloping major”, but, in the flurries of counterpoint, the players, as alert as crouching cats, slashed with the claws of Beethoven’s knife-edged accents.

NZSQ pulled no punches in the opening movement of No. 1, punctuating the disarming melody with alarming interjections, like bitter spikes penetrating sweet syrup. The second movement found them making great play with the “simple” tune and its stuttering rhythmic accompaniment, whereas the infinitely regretful third preserved an evolutionary sense of continuity in its passage through impassioned outburst and ineffable whisper. The finale, jumping with a jollity sustained through ferocious onslaughts, ultimately developed an appropriate sense of celebration, over which hovered Haydn’s witty spirit, approving his pupil’s genius – which, I presume, is just what Beethoven intended?

The only fault worth mentioning about this concert was the omission of the third – and shortest – quartet of the set, but perhaps that’s just me being greedy for more. This was a veritable feast of Beethoven’s best, equally thrilling to those who know (or thought they knew) this music inside-out and to those lucky souls who were hearing it for the first time – it made a truly unforgettable start to Whangarei Music Society’s 2012 season.

Paul Serotsky