Classical Tuesdays: Aroha String QuartetReviewed by Erica Challis
National Bank Festival Club
Tuesday, February 28, 12:10pm
Haihong Liu, Violin I
Beiyi Xue, Violin II
Zhongxian Jin, Viola
Jiaxin Cheng, Cello
Joseph Haydn: String Quartet No. 3 in C, Op. 76,
Gareth Farr: Mondo Rondo
Arr. A Kejian and Zheng Dereng: Fan Shen Dao Qing
Ludwig Van Beethoven: String Quartet in C minor, Op 18 No. 4
The Festival’s first lunchtime concert at the National Bank Festival Club proved popular, with the venue filled by a relaxed, chatting crowd enjoying wine and coffee before the music began. The club is a whimsical construction, with a red tent roofing a stylish pavilion of stained glass, polished wood and mirrors. However it was not an ideal acoustic for a string quartet. Discreet amplification lifted them above the sounds of the waterfront, but could not make up for a space that favoured the bass sounds while robbing the violins of sweetness.
This may have contributed to a slightly unsettled, occasionally rushed feeling to the first movement of the Haydn quartet, as the musicians adapted to the sound of the space they were playing in. However there were still many lovely moments, such as cellist Jiaxin Cheng’s effortlessly sustained playing of the famous melody in the second movement. The menuet and trio contrasted a poised sense of hesitation in the trio with joyful certainty in the menuet.
It was all frowns and concentration for Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo, as the players tapped and plucked out alternate notes of a catchy rhythm. The overall effect at times was uncannily like an African thumb piano. At other times the players challenged their instruments to produce the tiniest whispers of sound. The second movement began with a relentless, motor-like ostinato over a lurching rhythm, accompanying wailing violin lines that Liu played with great relish. Liu and Xue were impressive as they took over the racing motor of semiquavers and drove it in unison at high speed, perfectly synchronised.
The quartet relaxed with Fan Shen Dao Qing, an arrangement of a folktune from West-Northern China. It was a celebratory pentatonic piece, and the players smiled as they played what was clearly very familiar to them.
Their sense of confidence and complete accord carried over into the Beethoven. At last the Aroha quartet really gave a sense of what they were capable of, as they took the pulse of the opening theme and drove it forward with complete unity. Each cadence bloomed with perfect intonation and each player locked into the rhythms as though glued there. During the canonic games of the Scherzo, Jin showed how much power his viola really had. It would have been nice to hear that rich sound more often. The Menuetto was intense and urgent but never violent. The last movement was exciting, with Liu leading the quartet in repeated rushing phrases that sounded as though the music was trying to charge past a barrier. Each contrasting theme was like an escape route Beethoven offered, and the quartet followed Liu’s every movement as she paused and darted, almost dancing, to the next section.
Overall it was very refined, thoughtful playing and if the Aroha String Quartet continue to play at the level they showed during the Beethoven especially they will be a quartet to watch.