Faust Quartet Works Wonders in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Schubert, Helena Winkelmann: Faust Quartet (Simone Roggen, violin; Annina Woehrle, violin; Ada Meinich, viola; Birgit Böhme, cello); The Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 14.9.2014 [PSe]

Schubert – Quartettsatz
Helena Winkelmann – Quadriga, for String Quartet (2011)
Schubert – String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”


Whangarei’s Music Society (with a little help from Chamber Music NZ) certainly manages to keep the class acts coming. On this particular occasion – though nobody seems entirely sure just how the word got around – the prospect of the Faust Quartet filled the Old Library to overflowing with local music-lovers. And well it might, for in the 18 years since its foundation this quartet has acquired an enviable reputation.

 That said, whilst Birgit Böhme (cello) is the a founder member and Ada Meinich (viola) has been a member for a good six years, Kiwi Simone Roggen (first violin) joined the quartet just two years ago and Annina Woehrle (second violin) only this year. This is intriguing, because they play with an uncanny unanimity, of the sort that usually betokens an entire lifetime of intimate association. Such unanimity of ensemble generally comes at the cost of some individual freedom. Confronted with the fact that, in this case, clearly it didn’t, could I be blamed for suffering a pang of suspicion about the true provenance of the quartet’s name?

 In Schubert’s Quartettsatz, these qualities weren’t just evident, they grabbed you by the throat. Precisely articulated, with startlingly explosive dynamics, this performance alternately pulsated with nervous energy and flowed with ardent lyricism to a rare degree. It was also a craftily chosen “overture” to the centrepiece of their programme – Quadriga, written in 2011 by the Swiss composer, Helena Winkelmann.

 A “quadriga” was a Roman chariot drawn by four horses abreast – as used in the famous chariot-race scene in the film of Ben-Hur. Literally, the title alludes to the four mythological horses “represented” in three of the movements, and figuratively (to my mind, at least) to the array of four instrumentalists. For the third of the four movements Winkelmann took her cue from poems by Osip Mandelstam, which are obliquely related to the horses by a common quality, namely the tension between “freedom and flight” and “captivity”. Incidentally, having just written that down, it strikes me that this self-same tension may be what I was driving at (or groping towards) in my second  paragraph! Anyway, to continue – so far, so good.

 The composer readily admits that her half-hour-long quartet is something of a technical Everest for players; she suggests that it’s “unbelievably demanding”. I for one would add that it’s equally a tough nut for listeners! It is highly complex music, full of motivic polyphony, a predominantly rhythmic – as opposed to melodic – “soundscape”, whose admirable coherence comes at some cost, in movements that are rather indistinctly characterised, and an overall lack of significant “signposts”. In short, it is very difficult for a listener to grasp, certainly at first hearing.

Moreover, not since Penderecki’s infamous Threnody have I heard anything so saturated with violin-family “special effects” – Quadriga seemed to have everything bar bowing behind the bridge (unless, that is, I missed that one in the heat of the chase). I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with that (far from it!), but it did give me pause to wonder: these multitudes of distinctive, potent effects seemed to be deployed at whim; surely, they could have – and should have – been more gainfully “orchestrated”, to help illuminate the musical structure rather than just dazzle the onlooker?

 Nevertheless, I found Quadriga as mesmerising as it was bewildering; it really should be recorded, soon. For this we must thank the “Fabulous Faust”. This is powerful music, powerfully projected by players fully on top of the score’s often outrageous demands, even when they were required to supplement the already teeming notes with vocalisations (I wonder, will that passage sound as eerie with an all-male quartet?). Their exemplary advocacy, pressing technical prowess firmly into the service of communication, ensured that – whether or not comprehended – the musical logic was always at least palpable.

 The climax of the recital was Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”. I can remember when even Schubert’s greatest music was considered “nice”, i.e. incapable of causing offence, even to the most genteel of polite society. I shall never forget an edition of Face the Music (BBC TV, late 1970s), in which the guest was a curly-haired young whippersnapper by the name of Simon Rattle. To Joseph Cooper’s question regarding what had fired his love of music, Simon innocently suggested works like The Rite of Spring and The Miraculous Mandarin. Along with the panel members, who gasped audibly, Mr. Cooper was plainly shocked to the core of his being, murmuring (as I recall), “Oh, nooo! When we were young, we were brought up on Mozart – and Schubert!”

 It seems to me that this attitude resulted partly from the impressions engendered by his “salon-oriented” piano pieces which, while they were hardly typical of Schubert at his best, had long been a common component of music teaching, but mostly from traditional performance practice, which had for many years increasingly favoured – and lovingly upholstered – Schubert’s charmingly lyrical side. Latterly, in common with numerous others, the Faust Quartet has been busy scraping off the accumulated plush to expose the real Schubert – every bit as raw-knuckled, virile and impassioned as any Beethoven.

 The Faust Quartet, though, expose “the real Schubert” uncommonly well. It wasn’t until the Quartet No. 14 had got going that I realised something significant: their unanimity of articulation  isn’t, as is generally the case, limited to attack (getting the starts of the notes together), but seems to be extended to release. Of course, I can’t be absolutely sure that’s the cause, but it would explain the perceived effect, which is of some vital, extra bit of “focus”, clarifying the detail, especially (but by no means exclusively) in rapid successions of notes.

 It would also explain why music I’ve known and loved for decades should suddenly raise my eyebrows, sounding so much more “alive”, yet not a whit less “deep”. Thrillingly realised, the inherent dramatic drive of the fast music fairly bristled with hackle-lifting energy, subito fortes in particular as startling as whip-cracks. Yet, if anything, even more impressive were the quieter moments. In the first movement’s second subject they found a momentary pre-echo of the dancing Dvořák, whilst the Faust Quartet’s way with the Andante’s opening statement was breathtaking. Quite literally so, since they reduced the lonely lyric to a blood-curdlingly emaciated whisper, which contrasting shockingly with both the tumult of the preceding movement and the subsequent, heartrendingly expansive variation.

 In the finale, the Faust’s uncanny unanimity, allied to a sizzling tempo, brought the work to a timely white-heat. It was a “sizzling” tempo indeed, but there was nothing reckless about it – they had reserved elbow-room to accelerate into the coda, tinging the white with blue.

 Whether accidentally or deliberately, their choice of encore – a Dvořák “love song”! – proved to be eminently apposite.

 Some readers may wonder whether I’m exaggerating. Was it really such a revelation? Well, even though I am getting a bit long in the tooth, for me it really was – and, calling as witness the  extent of the applause, which was quite exceptional for a WMS recital, a fair few others seemed to have shared my impression.

Paul Serotsky

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