Behn Quartet Breathes New Life Into Old Favourites

New ZealandNew Zealand Dvořák, Jack Body, Ravel: Behn Quartet (Kate Oswin &  Alicia Berense [violins], Lydia Abell [viola], Ghislaine McMullin [cello]). The Old Library Music Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 15.4.2018. (PSe)

Dvořák – String Quartet No.12 in F Op.96, ‘American’
Jack BodyThree Transcriptions
Ravel – String Quartet in F (1904)

In early March the Northland summer, which this year hasn’t been a very good one, started to fizzle out. Mid-month, it decided to give it another go, and has lingered on, mostly quite pleasantly, well into autumn. Suddenly, on 15 April arrived the first real harbinger of the coming ‘winter’ – the opening recital of Whangarei Music Society’s 2018 season (need I remind northern hemisphere readers that, ‘down under’, the traditional winter concert seasons run from about April to October?).

WMS has plucked yet another plum from Chamber Music NZ’s seemingly inexhaustible pie of top-class acts. Over nigh-on ten years, I haven’t encountered anything even remotely approaching a ‘dud’. Maybe, looking at the wider picture, that’s not remarkable, but still it impresses me. On this occasion, summer was further extended by a visit from the Behn Quartet, so-named in honour of Aphra Behn, a 17th century poet and playwright (and reputedly the first Englishwoman to make a living entirely out of writing).

Thus, it may come as no surprise that this is an ‘all-girl band’. To me it matters not one whit whether an ensemble’s all-girl, all-boy or six of one and half a dozen of the other, so long as they make sweet music together. The only qualification might be the inherent difference between feminine and masculine, which may subtly flavour their performances.

Anyway, in the mere three years since it was formed, the Behn Quartet, comprising players from four countries (NZ, England, Wales and the Netherlands), has flourished remarkably. It has garnered a clutch of honours (competition, fellowship and residency), toured extensively and, most interestingly, this quartet gave the first performance of Maxwell Davies’s final (albeit uncompleted) work.

If the programme could be said to have a theme, it would be something like ‘cross-fertilisation’. Each of the three works in one way or another reflects a composer belonging to one culture drawing on aspects of another. To my mind, this is not the same as ‘crossover’ or ‘fusion’ (or whatever’s the latest buzz-word), which seem intent on ironing out differences, presumably with the ultimate aim of reducing the entire world’s music to the same shade of grey; it is more to do with pointing up the differences, actually increasing the palette. On the other hand, I suppose that you could regard it simply as three excellent and involving pieces of music.

First up was Dvořák’s ever-popular String Quartet No.12. Over the years, I’ve heard perhaps a dozen different interpretations, all of them good, all of them vividly projecting Dvořák’s ‘New World’ excitement. This is hardly surprising, given the subtitle, ‘American’. Rather fewer latched onto the implacable homesickness that also informs the work, as of course it does the Ninth Symphony.

Throughout, the Behn Quartet evinced a perspicacious blend of lyricism and vital rhythm, possibly the key ingredients for performances of any Dvořák. These performers, though, were unequivocally aware of Dvořák’s emotional predicament – their programme note said as much. Having advertised that awareness, it rather behoved them to act on it, which they duly did. In passing, I might add that this possibly proves that good hearts can be a fair substitute for long experience.

The opening movement’s first subject, announced by a notably luscious viola (to me that’s always a good sign), was spirited yet almost imperceptibly reserved. However, the second entered not just quietly but in a true dolce, lifted by tender lilting accents. In the recapitulation, they put a splendid spring in the step of the first subject and subsequently filled the second’s cup full of yearning. This is just one example of them conveying Dvořák’s intimations of his mixed feelings to the audience’s ears. With consummate continuity they traversed the musical landscape, giving each of the many fleeting moods, whether sunny or clouded, its just measure. It may not have been the most visceral playing, but it was exceedingly involving. And really, this summarises their approach to the entire work.

The second movement’s lento was indeed slow but, with an underlying purposeful pulse, treated much as a song (it was about here that I noticed that these young ladies move as expressively as they play). Allied to a perceptively judged emotional flow, this touched the toes as well as the heart. Talking of judgement, the third movement’s molto vivace was quite rightly not interpreted as ‘fast’. It was lively but not hard-driven, allowing in some ‘air’ between the notes to freshen the sound, yielding a very playful effect that neatly contrasted with the trio section’s darker mood.

They launched the finale with an exhilarating burst of rhythm, shot through with forceful stresses (I wonder, is it humanly possible, after the preceding molto vivace, to obey entirely the finale’s apparently contrary vivace ma non troppo marking?). The Behn Quartet swung wonderfully between thrusting and introspective, the chorale-like episode in particular sounding very sombre and restrained amid the cheeky skitterings (surely another intimation of the pull of ‘home’?). The coda fairly romped along, working up a fair head of transatlantic steam. Yet, right on the line, the Behn Quartet applied the brakes for the closing chords, signalling a victory of homesickness over ‘New World’ excitement similar in effect and import to that of the symphony. Overall, I’d put this perspicacious performance pretty close to the top of my list.

We heard an intriguing bit of Jack Body last year (review), and I was mildly surprised to find his name cropping up again quite so soon; but I shouldn’t have been, because it’s pure coincidence, and that’s the nature of coincidences. Body’s formal and sober title, Three Transcriptions, fails utterly to provide a prefatory ‘content warning’ for this work. Not that it matters, because it turned out to hold no terrors whatsoever for the fainter-hearted listener. Body was well-travelled (come to think of it, setting out from NZ you can’t be anything else, can you?), largely on account of his ‘Bartókian’ bent for collecting folk materials. These transcriptions are, to use the fashionable term, ‘re-imaginings’ of actual folk-instrumental performances in terms of the string quartet.

The first is Long-ge, a piece originally played on the Chinese equivalent of a Jew’s harp. It rolled along, presumably pentatonically, with its very light bass and bright harmonic ‘sparks’ (and advertising itself as a possible source of minimalism). The Behn Quartet crafted their performance so cutely that it had me ‘re-imagining’ the mushroom mandarins of Disney’s Fantasia – and I do believe that it suited the scene even better than did Tchaikovsky’s music.

The second, Ramandriana, translates the playing of a Madagascan valiha – a sort of zither made by stretching strings along the outside of a bamboo tube – into a mixture of pizzicato continuo, held notes (including harmonics) and rapid figurations. The Behn Quartet soon got folks’ toes tapping, although, because the fragmentary, rudimentary tune is laced with kinky rhythms and accents, I doubt that anyone managed to stay with the ‘beat’.

Body recorded the third, Ratschenita, as played by the Varna Folk Dance Group of Bulgaria. The four ladies metaphorically rolled up their sleeves and (literally) proved that they could cut up rough as well as anyone. With the occasional emphatic shout, the odd bit of guitar-strumming from Alicia then Lydia, and much blood-curdlingly energetic playing, they rammed home the hugely repetitive driving rhythm to hypnotic effect. They do say that ‘men sweat, women perspire, but ladies merely glow’. Well, when they’d finished they looked cool, whereas I was ‘glowing’ enough for the four of them.

The one work after the timely interval was Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is quite literally the ‘jewel’ in the crown of the string quartet repertoire. It’s also a nice foil for the Dvořák. Whereas the latter is concerned primarily with the expression of mixed emotions, it seems to me that Ravel’s focus is on the magic and mystery of the manifestation of sound itself, if anything much more so here than in any of his orchestral works. To anyone who asks me, ‘But what about the thematic development, the “innovative” tonality, the formal subtlety (et cetera)?’ I have a – probably unfortunate – tendency to reply, ‘Pooh – if that was all I was after, I’d go elsewhere; but these sounds I can find only here!’

From the very first leisurely phrase, the Behn Quartet’s account was enthralling. They were tinglingly alive to every nuance of Ravel’s extraordinary palette, painting every colour, shade and highlight of Ravel’s exquisite canvases with sure and steady hands – and, OK, they also did a pretty good job of all the other stuff, too; after all, Ravel does paint a satisfyingly complete picture.

‘Doux’ has rather a lot of meanings, merely the most popular being ‘sweet’, ‘gentle’, ‘mild’ and ‘soft’. Ravel, bless him, manages to fit them all into his first movement. The soft, curvaceous melody is sweetly balanced by gently fluttering accents, its sudden shifts but mildly contrasted. The Behn Quartet finely blended the elements into music translucent, shimmering and occasionally rich.

In the second movement some folk see shades of the gamelan, others don’t. I’m one of the latter, largely because all the gamelan I’ve heard has a multiplicatively layered pulse (e.g. the ‘bass’ one in a bar, the ‘tenor’ two in a bar, the ‘alto’ four in a bar), of which there’s no trace here. Be that as it may (or may not), the Behn Quartet produced some lovely textures with their finely executed pizzicato, arco, tremolando, and sul ponticello. In an exceedingly poignant trio section, laced with almost crystalline “rustling” textures, their slight hesitancies tugged at the heart-strings.

In the third movement, which sounded so sad, the players’ tremolandi ran like a chill through one’s veins, yielding to warmth, remoteness, becoming whispered, hushed, with something of a ‘threadbare’ feel. Yet there was also ‘singing’, agitation, weird trills and passion – all exquisitely articulated. Neither did they take any prisoners in the finale’s slashing start, their instruments all a-shiver. They ripped into the storm of drive and disruption with no holds barred, attacking the huge climax with blistering energy. This was a veritable tour de force, both of music and performance.

It would also have been the end of the programme, if it hadn’t been for the encore. Apparently, the Behn Quartet was involved in the celebration of the 40th. anniversary of Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddy Mercury, Queen and all that), playing Charlie Piper’s ‘re-imagination’ of the – should I call it ‘work’? This caused a great stir, plus plaudits from Rolling Stone magazine, which thought it ‘a sweeping performance as grand as the original.’ This was our encore. Well, I did hear Bohemian Rhapsody once (which was more than enough); thus I can reliably confirm that it’s much better the way the Behn Quartet does it. And, I reckon, that could apply equally to the rest of this recital.

Paul Serotsky

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