Whangarei right royally entertained by Vernon and Aroha’s class act

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Piazzolla, Brahms: Rachel Vernon (clarinet), Aroha String Quartet (Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser [violin], Zhongxian Jin [viola], Robert Ibell [cello]). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 21.4.2022. (PSe)

(l to r) Robert Ibell, Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser, Rachel Vernon, and Zhongxian Jin

Mozart – Quintet in A major for Clarinet and String Quartet, K581
Piazzolla – ‘Oblivion’, arranged for Clarinet & String Quartet
Brahms – Quintet in B minor for Clarinet and String Quartet, Op.115

This was the second of Whangarei Music Society’s 2022 season of five recitals (unfortunately I missed the first one). I think that a five-recital season may be a record – it was certainly born of a desire to compensate a little for the impact of Covid-19 on the last two seasons.

I last heard the Aroha String Quartet (ASQ) in September 2010, when I gave them a glowing S&H review. I’ll reiterate the first paragraph of that review because, a touch uncannily, what it said about then applies pretty well to now: ‘Silence descended. With utter unanimity, their bows touched the strings – and I was astonished. For one thing, rarely have I heard a string quartet produce such breathtakingly gorgeous, mellow, velvety sound. For another, given that sound, never in a thousand millennia would I have guessed that only three-quarters of the Aroha String Quartet – Haihong Liu, Zhongxian Jin and Robert Ibell – were present! Beiyi Xue, their second violinist, was indisposed and somehow, through skill or serendipity – or both – Anne Loeser, a relative stranger, had been blended in seamlessly – at least, I couldn’t ‘see the join’.’

The main difference between then and now is that the ASQ was here joined by Rachel Vernon, principal bass clarinettist of the NZSO since 1995 – and we were right royally entertained by performances of two of the finest (and arguably the two finest) clarinet quintets ever written. And how apt to start with the ‘benchmark’ set down in such masterly fashion by the pioneering Mozart. I was about 13 when I first discovered this remarkable work.

The sound of the ASQ strings, exactly as described in the second paragraph above, was of course soon augmented by Vernon’s clarinet, sounding eager to join the fray yet completely complementing those silken strings with its clear, creamy tones. Upon the arrival of the second subject, I was gratified to realise that they appeared to be adopting an approach similar to that of (say) Otto Klemperer in his famous Mozart symphony recordings: decide the true tempo, stick closely to it, and indulge in flexibility of phrasing only within that tempo. This movement generally is so relaxed and genial that Mozart’s dark and strenuous development section comes as a real surprise. Or it should do. In days of old it was typically under-cooked to preserve its (then sacrosanct) ‘grace and refinement’. In these more enlightened days, it is perhaps too often, well, over-cooked. ASQ hit the bullseye, giving full weight and urgency to the turmoil, whilst preserving a measure of ‘grace and refinement’ through the apparently simple expedient of refusing to compromise their tone.

Their Larghetto started in serene stillness, a breathless intimacy which significantly deepened the music’s momentary ‘minor key’ shadows; a stillness that was unruffled by the entry of the clarinet, singing its ‘aria’ nigh-on sotto voce. This was a little bit of Heaven on Earth – and Heaven knows, these days we could do with some of that. They took the Menuetto at a tempo that was mobile but not hasty, accenting the movement’s slight syncopations and furnishing a further complement by pointing up its ruddy robustness against the former stillness. Likewise, they gave the two Trios a jaunty, ‘angular’ feel; in particular, the clarinet runs in the second had a delicious skip in their step.

And, what a finale! So cheekily did they render the playful theme, it seemed positively to wink at us; each of the various variations was likewise immaculately characterised. The first brimmed with athleticism; the next skittered along; the next, with the clarinet blended into the texture, was so, so lugubrious; then things bustled merrily, helped by pinpoint clarinet articulation; suddenly all was hesitant, reticent, almost bashful. This was as good as it gets – a wonderful, insightful performance.

Most ‘heavyweight’ programmes end with a ‘lollipop’. Not this one; ASQ put it in the middle! ‘It’ was Piazzolla’s Oblivion. This is a piece that has been played here before, by NZTrio (May 2017). Then I described it briefly as ‘lonesome and remote-sounding, faintly redolent (if you’re of a fanciful frame of mind) of an alcohol-induced stupor.’ Half of that would apply here, possibly because a work originally scored for bandoneon and strings is going to ‘sit’ much better on a woodwind instrument and string quartet than a piano, violin and cello. ASQ created a nape-tingling atmosphere, with some finely judged, wide and (I must say it) suitably sleazy portamenti. All five players intertwined in intimate counterpoint, rendering what ‘tango’ there was in a manner redolent in substance of the ‘pavane for ghosts’ of Bartók’s Dance Suite. The concluding chill tremolandi of the strings were the icing on the eerie cake.

After the interval came the Brahms Op.115, a work that I have heard maybe once or twice and thus at the opposite extreme of my experience to the Mozart. Having heard it (possibly) again, in what I would rate, by weighing it against their Mozart, as an admirably accomplished performance, I really feel that from now on I should pay this Brahms a lot more attention.

It is important to note that, throughout this recital as well as here, there was never the least suspicion that the quartet was ‘accompanist’ to the clarinet’s ‘soloist’. They projected the music with immense vitality and warmth, yet without any blurring of its highly active lines; this is music on a grand scale, as architectural as it is impassioned, and there was about their performance an epic sweep and some mightily impressive climax-building. A small voice whispered in my ear the magic word ‘symphonic’, which is right up their street because, as I was already aware, in moments of repose their tone is soft and mellow; in full flood it is mellow and rich; and when filled with ferocity it is rich and loud (and of course ferocious!) – as witness their attack in the barn-storming climax that precedes the first movement’s exhausted expiry.

The Adagio opened in an autumnal mood, refined, reserved and very delicately played. The almost stealthy emergence of a ‘dancing’ feel reminded me of Mahler. At the other extreme, hackles were raised by the movement’s tortured climax, filled with forceful string tremolandi and howling clarinet. The movement’s nostalgic close led nicely to the amiably bucolic opening of the Andantino. A pregnant pause resolved onto lots of chittering pizzicati, splendidly evoking the shade of some Mendelssohnian ‘fairy dell’. This movement tried a third style of ending: left hanging ‘up in the air’.

They buttoned the finale’s simple Con Moto marking, mobile but leisurely, admitting plenty of air. How telling was their graduation of the growing agitation of the unfolding variations, until (at about the fourth) there was a fair bit of angst spilling out – at which point the temperature cooled suddenly, right down to downright dainty, cue for the clarinet to come out with what amounted to a Bavarian lederhosen-slapper! Neither did they overlook the meteorological implication of the sudden gathering of clouds for the dramatic return of the work’s opening material – a lyric lacerated by pangs of, well, was it pain – or regret?

Did I find any cause for complaint? Yes, actually, I did – they didn’t encore the Brahms. But isn’t that the sign of an exceptional recital, that you send your audience away wishing they could have heard it all again?

Paul Serotsky

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