Troubadours Work Wonders in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Haydn, Shostakovich, Schubert: Troubadour Quartet (Arna Morton, violin; Rebecca Wang, violin; Elyse Dalabakis, viola; Anna-Marie Alloway, cello); The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 16.7.2017. (PSe)

Haydn – String Quartet in G Op.77 No 1
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.11 in F minor,Op. 122
Schubert – String Quartet No.13 in A minor D804 (‘Rosamunde’)

This programme, the third of Whangarei Music Society’s 2017 season, was entitled “Dedications”. Merely a moment’s contemplation of the vast array of works that qualify for consideration would lead you to conclude that the title is, as near as dammit, pointless. To be fair, though, the Troubadour Quartet by no means made a Big Thing of it. Their programme notes merely mentioned in passing the dedicatee of each work; and their mouth-watering programme definitely needed no such feeble garnish.

Particularly but not necessarily if you dwell remotely from NZ (which, let’s face it, most people do!), you may be wondering, “The Troubadour Quartet? Who the [insert your preferred expletive] are they?” Well, if I’ve read it right, this quartet was “born” only recently at the Adam Chamber Music Festival, held biennially in Nelson, NZ. If I can push the analogy just a tad further, the “midwife” was the Festival’s Troubadour Internship and Outreach programme (the “Troubadour” is thus entirely apt), which is dovetailed between Festivals.

Being now only 18 months old it is, as these things go, yet but a fledgling, so you could hardly expect it to already be a “household name”. However this, the third quartet to emerge from the scheme, turned out to be such an extraordinarily class act that Chamber Music NZ promptly invited them to tour the country. So, provided that the quartet persists beyond the internship’s term, I’m sure that you can expect to hear a lot more of them ere long.

The Troubadour Quartet is, as they say in certain other disciplines, an “all-girl band”, although, as the founder membership included a “boy”, this is entirely accidental. They describe themselves as emerging professionals. In addition to pursuing postgraduate studies, first violinist Arna Morton is an academic assistant, second violinist Rebecca Wang is a violin teacher, and violist Elyse Dalabakis plays in Orchestra Wellington and is (I quote) “congress manager of the 2017 International Viola Congress”. Now free of learning commitments, cellist Anna-Marie Alloway is founder of “The Little Cello Box”, a mobile music studio “delivering” cello lessons to youngsters in central North Island.

On top of not having been around for long, the Troubadours have spent precious little time together. Yet, in spite of the odd moment where they seemed to tread carefully, it doesn’t sound like it. They may lack the mighty “symphonic” heft of such as NZSQ or NZTrio, but they have oodles of character, soul and musical insight, and an impressive unanimity, both of purpose and execution.

Haydn’s String Quartet in G Op.77 No.1 (confusingly listed in the programme as String Quartet No.1 in G Op.77) set off not so much sprightly as positively strutting, further enlivened by some telling stresses. Dramatic emphasis marked a development not short of excitement, following which the recapitulation was (or seemed to be) delivered with subtly heightened urgency. They caught well the Adagio’s opening air of unusually deep dejection and brought expressive warmth to its emergent lyric – and, I’m glad to say, were well aware that “leisurely” does not mean “bone idle”! Moments of breathless pianissimo made an almost ghostly foil for the sumptuously impassioned climaxes.

I’d defy anyone to dance to the third movement’s purported minuet! The Troubadours underlined the music’s brisk angularity, tweaking the upward flips cheekily, and finding in the off-beat accents a hint of mazurka. I was particularly pleased by their willingness (eagerness?) to coarsen their generally velvety sound to punch home Haydn’s alarmingly “avant-garde” Trio section. Their finale was bright and breezy, an absolute whirl of notes given bags of bounce, whilst keeping the wealth of witty contrapuntal detail well in view. This performance, brimming with feminine charm yet pulling no punches, led me to believe that in this work I could feel the influence of Beethoven!

An altogether different proposition was Shostakovich’s glowering, gloomy String Quartet No.11 in F minor Op.122, which the Troubadours dispatched with (if this isn’t too up-beat a phrase) flying colours. This performance gripped me for one unrelentingly. The Introduction, creeping and crawling, blank then intense, yielded to a twitchy Scherzo replete with puppet-like chittering and whippy upward slides. That in turn was shockingly interrupted by the Recitative’s slashing, savage dissonance, angry yet constrained, its haunted ending leading to the Étude, whose scurrying (perhaps lacking a little in sheer panic) was studded with blocks of defiance.

The maddening oscillations and darkly screaming phrases of the ironically-titled Humoresque paved the way for the Elegy, which in the Troubadours’ hands sorrowed exceedingly, the music seeming all but “flayed to the bone”. Fatefully, the finale’s initial nervousness subsided into forlorn resignation. I adore all of Shostakovich’s symphonies (even the “bad” ones); yet, for some inexplicable reason, even the Borodin Quartet’s celebrated recordings have thus far failed to enslave me similarly to the string quartets (excepting, of course, the universally popular No.8!). Hopefully, the Troubadours’ intensely moving performance of the Eleventh may prove to be my key to the door. Afterwards, rather modestly, Arna suggested, “Maybe you need to hear them ‘live’?” Hmm. Maybe – but, sadly, she didn’t offer to arrange an opportunity for me to do so!

After such splendid Haydn and Shostakovich, surely the Troubadours wouldn’t make a mess of Schubert’s String Quartet No.13 in A minor D804 (‘Rosamunde’)? The short answer is “no” – the reasons for which will become clear as I plough through the long answer. The start of the work was gorgeously moulded, pliantly phrased, with subsidiary parts commendably well-balanced and distinct in spite of being closely woven around the melody line. All this was expressive of a close affinity with the music’s poetic nature. The hills and valleys of the argument were finely sculpted. The valleys were characterised by the gentlest of touches, with lyrical passages acquiring a “sylph-like”, dancing feel, whilst the hilltops teemed with turbulence.

The second movement’s famous theme was allowed to flow freely, pointed by some sweetly judged “pauses for breath”. The brisker episode bristled with urgent tension, and melted away like a summer shower, the music thereafter gradually easing to a concluding reflective mood. Schubert’s Minuet sounded no more “minuettish” than Haydn’s, having perhaps the sense of a lightweight ländler, very easy-going and pleasant on the ear. The Troubadours’ careful attention to dynamics and emphases enlivened the music’s elegant charm. The Trio definitely had ländler undertones, a sort of refined bucolicism that got Rebecca for one swaying in sympathy.

The finale was perhaps a bit on the slow side (compared to the “general run”). However, by taking its tempo marking’s moderato at face value, the Troubadours made it all sound gratifyingly relaxed and carefree. Each episode was characterised thoughtfully, yet all sounded so spontaneous, ebbing and flowing naturally, with nothing exaggerated for “effect” and every moment seeming divinely right. Consequently, even without the aforementioned “symphonic” heft, Schubert’s sudden injection of violence was all the more startling.

Was there a common factor to these three performances? Well, yes; it struck me that, for a young ensemble with precious little practice time under their belts, their performances were all remarkably mature. But – more to the point – the Troubadour Quartet already has a very distinctive “voice”. Watch out for them, for they’ve got something special.

Paul Serotsky

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