Jade String Quartet convinces Whangarei audience in New Zealand that variety is the spice of life

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart, Jennings, R. Schumann: Jade String Quartet (Miranda Adams and Charmian Keay [violins], Robert Ashworth [viola], James Yoo [cello[), Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand. 5.5.2024. (PSe)

Jade String Quartet

Mozart – String Quartet in B-flat major, K589
Janet JenningsThe Lost Birds of Aotearoa (2024, premiere)
R. Schumann – String Quartet in A minor, Op.41 No.1

Having, at the start of my last Whangarei Music Society review, uncovered one ‘fluke’, may I be forgiven for thinking it is a fluke to find another fluke in this, my very next such review, since – by some fluke – indisposition robbed me of the intervening first recital of the 2024 season?

The fluke is that the earlier recital featured the newly-formed Ākarana Piano Quartet, whose violist is Robert Ashworth, and the current recital features the relatively venerable (21-years-old) Jade String Quartet – whose violist is Robert Ashworth. And, let me add: Robert is the husband of violinist Miranda Adams, whose daughter is violinist Charmian Keay. I understand that cellist James Yoo is no relation, but judging by the way they play together you might believe otherwise!

And that last is not altogether flippant. If the Jade Quartet had a hallmark, it would probably be ‘togetherness’, unless it were ‘moderation’, in the sense more of a rare, almost telepathic unanimity of ensemble, allied to preferring – over today’s ‘barnstorming’ approach – a more traditional, less strenuous interpretative style. And why not? Different approaches evidently bring different dividends. Interestingly, like the members of the New Zealand String Quartet, Jade’s violinists and violist play standing up (for my thoughts on this practice, see this review); also, for the first item Charmian was first violin, whilst for the remainder Miranda led.

Like numerous other NZ ensembles, Jade’s aim is to present the finest and newest of New Zealand’s home-grown music in the context of the world’s masterpieces. True to that aim, here we heard classic quartets by Mozart and Robert Schumann sandwiching a work by Kiwi composer Janet Jennings, on which the ink is barely dry. This neatly followed up the Ākarana Piano Quartet’s performance of Jennings’s Twelve Colours, because each work was composed for the respective ensemble’s national tour – both being certainly ‘newest’, and both arguably among the ‘finest’.

First up was the Mozart K589, the second of his three so-called Prussian Quartets. Jade’s finely crafted programme note proved to be an admirable adjunct to the performance, focussing as it did on Mozart’s main motivations and how they influenced his composition. However, what commanded our attention was Jade’s aforementioned style. If they did not ‘re-imagine’ Mozart as a proto-Beethoven, neither did they smother him with traditional reverence.

Although their note used ‘blithe’ to characterise the first movement’s general tenor, it could be applied equally to the entire work. Jade were always clear and immaculately balanced; expressive yet never wilfully so, applied dynamics and stresses proportionately, judiciously related stormier episodes to the calmer. Brimming with charm, freshness and vitality, this was thoroughly civilised playing, the players wearing their hearts not on, but tucked modestly in, their sleeves. That is how the first movement went – and the same applied to the other three, modulated only by the differing musical moods.

Thus, there were the lyrical Larghetto’s stately gravitas, its more stressful moments never tipping into stridency; the sense of nobility of the Menuet crossed with gently ‘catty’ humour – and some truly splendid sforzati; and the playful finale’s happy skipping, enlivened by quite forceful climaxes and delectable counterpoints. Wonderful stuff!

Sounding a million miles from Mozart, Janet Jennings’s The Lost Birds of Aotearoa (2024) was prompted by the extinctions, due to Man’s interventions, of at least 53 NZ bird species over the past five centuries or so, and concern for the 70 that are currently at risk of the same fate. The music is as thoroughly approachable as it is thoroughly ‘modern’. The amalgamation of the melody of the thirteenth-century plainchant, Pange Lingua, with music of the here and now seems to span – to unify – the period in question.

Opening warmly, expansively yet dolorously, the music is suffused with brief, poignant phrases – a tendency to disjunction that is countered by the sense of an unbroken logical thread. Moreover, the music calls on the entire repertoire of latter-day string attacks and timbres, both singly and in dizzying combinations, with Jade exercising immense control over the heaving, surging interchanges, to the entire benefit of the music. It was so evocative, involving and, ultimately, profoundly moving that I felt I could hear the – to us unknown – cries of those ‘lost birds’. This is definitely a new entrant to my ‘hear it again if you can’ shortlist.

Finally (well, nearly so), we were brought almost a million miles back, to be regaled with Schumann’s Op.41 No.1. Intriguingly, it is one of three that, after much close study of the quartets of his great predecessors, Schumann rattled off in a mere fortnight; whilst that same fortnight represented his entire career as a string-quartet writer. Judging by this one, that was a real pity. The introduction sounded remarkably like a traditional ‘round dance’, developing some sense of yearning, but the bulk of the first movement was characterised by more elaborate rhythmic freedom. Jade were right on the button with, inter alia, their hairpins, often off-beat, lending a sort of unease to the flow, which lurched between pensive and jagged.

They beautifully balanced driving martial rhythm of the Scherzo, vigorous and thrusting, against a relaxed and harmonious Trio. The start of the Adagio struck me something that Mahler might have written if he had been born 25 years sooner (then again, maybe it breathed an air similar to late Beethoven, the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony, perhaps?). Jade conveyed convincingly the welling tides of emotion, neatly blending in the little, lilting ‘asides’.

They launched the closing Presto with bold, valiant staccato gestures, contrasting the music’s furious mobility with the occasional sidesteps into bucolic byways – and all very sonorously, too! This was excitable stuff, developing into a mighty fugato that yielded abruptly to the coda, whose apparent snatching of decision from the jaws of perplexity Jade expressed with eyebrows metaphorically elevated.

An encore? Oh, yes; and again something completely different. Claire Cowan had obligingly arranged, from her ballet score Hansel and Gretel, the King and Queen of the Fairies’ Tango. Exceedingly jazzy, jolly and ever-so-slightly saucy – this was a real ‘lollipop’ to round off a fabulous recital.

Paul Serotsky

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