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New Zealand String Quartet

New Zealand String Quartet

The New Zealand String Quartet return in their first appearance for Wellington Chamber Music since 2010. The programme straddles the late Romantic era of the repertoire, starting with the second of Brahms’ pair of quartets of Opus 51, in A minor, a blend of lyricism with a propulsive, Hungarian dance-like finale. Composed 20 years later (1893) is the best-loved of Dvořák’s string quartets, the F major, Op 96, known as the ‘American’: his masterpiece. Ross Harris, now retired from teaching at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, is one of New Zealand’s most imaginative and arresting composers. His fifth string quartet, entitled ‘Songs from Childhood’, was premiered at the 2013 Adam Chamber Music Festival in February.

Past Concerts

Sunday 20 June 2010 - Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 23 June 2013 - Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall


Season 2013, Sunday 23 June - New Zealand String Quartet

New Zealand String Quartet

(Helene Pohl, violin; Douglas Beilman, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello) Sunday, 23 June 2013, 3.00pm


It was good to see ‘our own’ quartet back in the Sunday afternoon series, after an absence of several years. Particularly, it was pleasing to see that Helene Pohl was able to play with all the fingers of her left hand, having now fully recovered from her accident in February.

As usual, members of the Quartet introduced the items in an informative manner, illustrating themes and passages on their instruments, especially prior to the opening work. The thought emerged that perhaps Brahms’s self-criticism that caused the destruction of many of his works may not be something to be deplored; the sublime music of this quartet (one of the NZSQ’s favourites, said Rolf Gjelsten) is beyond compare, and something to be treasured.

Although Romantic, this quartet is not pure romanticism. There is much attention to form and structure. The long first movement is full of various shades of emotion and thought, sunny and serious by turns.

The slow movement is rich and sombre, with a wistful lilt. As the programme note had it, it is like “a quiet conversation between the four instruments.” This was particularly the case in its third section. The third movement is very lyrical as well as dance-like, featuring both slow and fast dances. Its long lines kept the music moving forward.

The finale was in great contrast to the earlier movements. Despite its energy, it didn’t have as much to say as the earlier ones. The entire work was played with flair and sensitivity.

Again, some explanation before the next item, this time from its composer, Ross Harris. He questioned whether we remember childhood, or is it something we make up as memory?

He warned us that the players were not playing out of tune – the work commenced with some playing micro-tuned notes, against harmonics. Later, a tui melody emerged, that developed into a canon. Sometimes each instrument was doing different things from its fellows. There was considerable use of the ponticello technique (bowing close to, or on the bridge; pont = bridge). The music became somewhat frantic towards the end, and while much of the time it was true that ‘The use of continually shifting metre and micro-tuning imbue the work with a dreamlike floating quality, both fragile and illusive [elusive?]” as the composer’s programme note had it, it was not all like this – some passages were chunky, although others were ghostly, with little fragments of harmonics interspersed with pizzicato.

It was an intriguing work, one I would wish to hear again, to fully appreciate. I heard generally appreciative comments afterwards.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet is one of my favourite works. As the programme note said, “There is a sense of joy…”; I find this with all this composer’s music. Even where, in the second movement, there is a sense of yearning for his home country, it is not an anxious or angry yearning.

The interweaving of the parts, especially in the passages of the first movement using the pentatonic scale – beginning with the beautiful opening on viola – was wonderful to hear. The movement was played with fervour and empathy, and more dynamic contrast than I have sometimes heard in this work. The slow movement was magically lovely, while the third, employing bird song (vide the Ross Harris work) was most enjoyable. The finale also made use of the pentatonic scale. It was thoughtful and melodic, but spirited to the end.

A new work, and two of the most brilliant from the late Romantic era made up a gorgeous programme, played with the intelligence, sublime finesse, perfect balance, and the musicality that we have come to expect from Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.

Rosemary Collier, Sunday 23 June


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