New Zealand String Quartet’s Mind-Blowing Shostakovich

New ZealandNew Zealand Beethoven, Jack Body, Shostakovich, Brahms: New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins [violins], Gillian Ansell [viola], Rolf Gjelsten [cello]). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand. 28.4.2019. (PSe)

Beethoven – String Quartet in A Major, Op.18, No.5

Jack BodyBai Sanxian

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.10 in A-flat Major

Brahms – String Quartet in A Minor, Op.51, No.2

As our summer yields – this year with commendable reluctance – to the onset of autumn, in my neck of the woods we find consolation in the start of a new concert season, which is all the more welcome because we live somewhere that’s not exactly awash with music (well, not of the classical variety, anyway). So, yet again I offer up thanks for the good offices of Chamber Music New Zealand (who provide the performers) and Whangarei Music Society (who organise the events), both doing their bit towards keeping me – and, I suspect, a fair few others – from quietly going bonkers!

And as good a way as any to kick off the season is a visit from the New Zealand String Quartet. The membership of the 32-year-old NZSQ spans the globe: Helene Pohl hails from New York and Rolf Gjelsten is a Canadian, whilst Monique Lapins comes from Australia (which isn’t quite as close to NZ as you might imagine, although admittedly there’s nowhere closer!) and the one surviving founder member, Gillian Ansell, is an Aucklander. With just three years’ service under her belt, Monique is the newest member – not that it shows, not one little bit.

I was very pleased to see that NZSQ still play standing up. Nowadays this practice is not all that common, which is curious when you consider that it has much to recommend it (see my review of their previous visit to Whangarei). Their programme offered an intriguing contrast: on the one hand two well-established masterpieces by Beethoven and Brahms, on the other the much more recent, still-unsettling innermost thoughts of Shostakovich. A piece by NZ composer Jack Body, although very short, served a very particular purpose.

It’s as well to bear in mind that during 1798-1800 Beethoven’s approaching deafness was at most a minor niggle: he was still very much an ‘angry young man’, an active, passionate performer, a composer whose penchant for ‘upsetting apple-carts’ was still in its infancy. His six Op.18 Quartets were born in the shadow of two imposing mountains – the string quartets of Mozart and Haydn, the latter range still being tectonically active when Beethoven produced his first batch. Although they were sufficiently avant-garde to alarm musical conservatives, they were also deeply respectful of his mighty models.

If I wasn’t bearing that in mind at the start of this recital, NZSQ certainly reminded me of it. The beginning was almost dainty – its cleanly-etched phrases delicate and lilting, as nice a nod in Mozart’s direction as you could wish. Apart from a few well-groomed subito fortes and inflections that we’d now call ‘a bit jazzy’, this inordinately sunny first movement came across as Beethoven on his Sunday-best behaviour. Mozart also hovered over the Menuetto’s initial prim formality; NZSQ very subtly loosened the leash, letting Beethoven’s character (as I presume he intended) leak through gradually, via the polyphonic, almost fugato fragmentation of the line, the Trio’s spicy syncopated accents, and the conclusive, growling, decapitated crescendo.

The trend continued into the Andante Cantabile, whose theme also felt ‘classical’, but whose variations became increasingly mischievous, culminating in NZSQ’s uproarious rendition of the final variation’s boozy knees-up (complete with wonderfully vulgar ‘oom-pahs’) – which left the serene coda sounding suspiciously like an (insincere) apology. Lovely stuff. NZSQ bestowed some sizzling stretto exchanges on the opening of the finale, which bustled along playfully, until Beethoven turned up the gas – at which point NZSQ injected a climactic degree of aggressive urgency to cap a performance which had hovered deliciously between tipping his hat at his masters and doing his own thing anyway.

It seemed to me that Jack Body’s Bai Sanxian formed a bridge between the Beethoven and the Shostakovich. Apparently, it is not an original composition, but a transcription of a tune of the Bai people of southwest China, as played on the sanxian, a three-stringed plectral instrument. NZSQ were quick to point out that it takes four fiddles to imitate the sound of just one sanxian. And what a yummy sound it is! The toe-tapping tune rolled and turned merrily, coloured by the close interweaving of tight bowed slurs and pizzicati, its bright-eyed ingenuousness cleansing the listeners’ palates of Beethoven’s heady white wine, ready to taste Shostakovich’s blood-curdling red.

At this point, perhaps we should ponder upon a few angles regarding Shostakovich’s quartets. Firstly, in the aftermath of the salutary experiences of Lady Macbeth and his Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich staked everything on his Fifth Symphony. Fortunately, his gamble came up trumps and saved his bacon – and only then did Shostakovich turn to the rather less ‘public’ medium of the string quartet. Secondly, the two quartets written after the infamous Zhdanov Purge of 1947 were both strictly ‘bottom drawer’, presented to the public only after Stalin was safely six feet under. And thirdly, after 43 years of firmly resisting the ‘temptation’, in 1960 he accepted the Soviet’s ‘invitation’ to join the Communist Party. If his immediate reaction to this ‘honour’ is enshrined in the Eighth Quartet, then the String Quartet No.10 could be seen as a more considered reflection on his changed circumstances.

I mention these things with good reason: the NZSQ’s performance brought them home to me with unprecedented force. Certainly, NZSQ made my impressions of the music suddenly more graphic. In the first movement Shostakovich portrayed himself as a flayed ghost hovering between living and dying but denied both – trapped in something of a ‘purgatorio’, further chilled by the exhalations of sul ponticello tremolandi. In its turn, the ensuing Allegretto furioso suggested the cause of his predicament: brutal bludgeoning to soften him up and swarming vindictive wasps to reduce him to screaming submission. To describe this as a virtuosic tour de force by no means denies NZSQ’s extraordinary expressive subtlety.

The third movement is a passacaglia – significantly, just like the frigid fourth movement of the Eighth Symphony. Taking it slightly on the andante side of the marked adagio, and allying that to some exquisitely expressive dynamics, released an intense, almost religious sense of sorrow, not only (I imagined) for Shostakovich’s own wounded soul, but also an elegy for the lost souls of a (or yet another) generation. Happily, at least relatively speaking, in the last movement something of a dance turned up – however, it wasn’t one of Shostakovich’s ebullient excursions born of less troubled times, but one of his ironic ‘puppet dances’ (again, cf. Eighth Symphony). In its lengthy build-up, NZSQ exercised a superb control of tension, quite properly keeping the crescendo remorseless and peaking only at the very point where the climax should have been – but wasn’t.

Thereafter it dissolved, dissipating into the ghostliness of the opening theme and mood, coming full circle, closing the sequence ‘apprehension – coercion – depression – helplessness – apprehension’ – or, as the famous saying goes, ‘Life is just one damned thing after another’. But, how many of us think that we could cope with the succession of ‘damned things’ that beleaguered Shostakovich? This was decidedly uncomfortable but nonetheless stunning music, stunningly interpreted.

The interval served as a much-needed ‘bridge’ to the final item, Brahms’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op.51, No.2. A brief introduction offered some insights into how Brahms obtained his characteristic sound. I was particularly taken by his (usually climactic) use of double-stopping, temporarily transforming his quartet – at no extra cost – into anything up to an octet. Once you know, it sounds so obvious, yet I’d be the first to admit that it’d never before crossed my mind!

Even armed as I was with this new knowledge, I found this performance fell short of being ‘edge of the seat’ stuff. Why, I’m not sure. I love Brahms, and these are top-notch performers with an enviable track-record. I can only think that it must have been the fault of Shostakovich, or possibly too short an interval – for, I was listening to the Brahms with that revelatory performance of the Shostakovich still ringing in my ears (or, more to the point, through my mind). And, to be fair, my notes do indeed tell a better story than my remembered feelings – so I’ll go along with what my notes said.

There was about the first movement a palpably symphonic scope and thrust, emerging from perhaps surprisingly modest beginnings – a first subject that undulated around its short phrases, and a delightfully lilting second. Taking infinite care over tempo and tempo variations, and the relaxing and tightening of tensions, the insightful NZSQ traced the argument with unwavering vision. In the second movement, they brought great warmth and gravity to the theme – and attacked with real passion the shuddering tremolandi, growling bass and piercing first violin of the violent central outburst. Deftly, they ‘crossfaded’ to the opening mood (I thought that I detected a momentary tang of Shostakovich, but maybe that originated in my own mind?), the four-part writing beautifully balanced, clear and finely graded.

Brahms’s somewhat angular Minuet – a strange, but strangely attractive movement – did not sound particularly ‘minuettish’, although formality rightfully reigned. The contrasting Trio skittered and skimmed, dreamlike in all but amplitude, and the cloistered chords that led back into the Minuet were a wonder to behold. The finale, in spite of its ‘czardas’ rhythm, did not strike me as in any way ‘Hungarian’, but it was generously bold and forthright, with a gratifying relaxation for the waltzing theme. NZSQ really got their teeth into the strenuous middle, with its sharp contrapuntal carryings-on vying with some stern chordal declamations; and yet they by no means overlooked the fair amount of delicate tracery adorning the music. Emerging from a breathless hiatus, the brief coda took off like a rocket – with a ‘starburst’ ending.

A very good recital, then, and well up to the NZSQ’s accustomed standards; but to my mind it was elevated into the musical stratosphere by that Shostakovich performance, which shall long resonate in my memory.

Paul Serotsky

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