The NZSQ concluded their national tour in Wellington with a three-part programme, the triumphant final installment of which was entitled ‘Release.’ It included three pieces representing radical musical innovation - Mozart’s ‘Quartet in B Flat Major,’ William Walton’s ‘String Quartet in A minor,’ and David Flynn’s ‘Slip.’ The technical dexterity on display was matched only by the sympathetic interaction between players, sometimes quietly downplayed, sometimes exuberantly effervescent.
Their performance of Mozart’s ‘Quartet in B Flat Major,’ perfectly illustrated that his music is not one voice, but a shifting array of voices. Much of Mozart’s consenting appeal comes from never knowing what the character of the next moment will be - serious or light or high or low or pitched somewhere in-between. Perhaps the often over-worked adjective “mercurial” comes closest to encapsulating his great gift to audiences throughout the centuries.
Nicknamed "The Hunt", the fourth of Mozart’s Quartets dedicated to Haydn was completed in 1784. Although Mozart himself never used the term, for his contemporaries the first movement evidently evoked the chasse topic, the main components of which were a 6/8 time signature (sometimes featuring a strong upbeat) and triadic melodies based largely around tonic and dominant chords (doubtless stemming from the physical limitations of the actual hunting horns to notes of the harmonic series). Its continuing popularity is reflected in its use in various Hollywood movies, such as ‘The Adventures of Huck Finn,’ ‘Mystery Date,’ ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘Star Trek: Insurrection.’
American pianist Jeremy Denk sums up Mozart’s lasting appeal very well in his recent ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons.’ He was twelve years old when he bought a cassette of Mozart’s ‘Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra’ and remembers his first reaction - “Ah, yes, Mozart. The music was lovely, fine, elegant: just what I expected … A couple of minutes in, something odd happened: a few buzzing trills. Possibly, nothing, a side idea branching off the piece’s tree, climbing a few notes. But then there were a few more. I was sure they must be done now - but, then, again, there were more, louder, higher. Had Mozart lost his mind?”
Thirty years later, Denk listens to the same cassette and again he’s knocked sideways trying to analyse how Mozart achieved his effects - “And it hit me. The passage was the perfect metaphor for the very thing I was writing, the story of piano lessons: obsessive repetition, climbing toward an unknown goal that rewrites itself, once achieved. The truest realisations aren’t at the peak, but are discovered almost by surprise, and through release, by passing back down the old, same steps …”
Strange as it may seem, William Walton was considered as radically modern as Mozart in his day. In 1923, in collaboration with his patron Edith Sitwell, Walton had his first great success, though at first it was a succès de scandale. ‘Facade’ consisted of Sitwell's verses, which she recited through a megaphone from behind a screen, while Walton conducted an ensemble of six players in his accompanying music. Among the audience were Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, and Noël Coward, who was so outraged by the avant-garde nature of Sitwell's verses and the staging, that he ostentatiously marched out. The press was generally condemnatory, with headlines such as "Drivel That They Paid to Hear" and “Relentless Cacophony.” Nevertheless, the work soon became accepted and within a decade Walton's music was used for the popular ‘Facade’ ballet, choreographed by Frederick Ashton.
Apart from an early experiment in atonalism in his String Quartet which he later described as "full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg,” Walton's major essays in chamber music are his ‘String Quartet in A Minor’ and the ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano.’ The former was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1939, but it was not until the end of WWII that Walton set to work. The premiere took place in 1947 as part of BBC broadcast by the Blech String Quartet, followed the next day by a concert performance. It’s tightly structured form and often rapturous model of expression marked it as Walton's most substantial work of the 1940s, while also raising the status of the modern British string quartet to new heights. His biographer Michael Kennedy describe the piece as "a sure sign that he had thrown off the trammels of his cinema style and rediscovered his true voice.” In the opinion of Adams in Grove's Dictionary, it is one of Walton's supreme achievements.
David Flynn is an Irish composer and musician with a number of major awards and commissions to his name who divides his time between Ireland and New Zealand.Many of his works music merge the influence of traditional Irish music with contemporary classical music and jazz. He is also a multi-instrumentalist who works across many genres including classical, jazz, rock, and traditional Irish music, with guitar being his main instrument.
’Slip’ won the Composer’s Award at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2005, which then offered him a commission to write a string quartet around it. It later became the first movement of his second String Quartet. Corinna Connor’s informative programme notes are worth quoting at length - “‘Slip’ exemplifies Flynn’s approach to synthesising the classical ensemble with ‘techniques, modes, rhythms, and feelings common to traditional Irish music’ but avoids the quotation of traditional melodies, or any elements of pastiche. The distinctive techniques used by Donegal fiddlers, especially the vehement, almost aggressive, bowing style, is apparent throughout … repeated figurations and frequent metre changes suggest the influencer of late-twentieth-century musical minimalism but infused with warmth and wit.”
Such adventurous programming, performed with such proficiency and verve, is precisely what we have come to expect from the NZSQ, now celebrating its 35h season. Helen Pohl and Monique Lapins on violins, Gillian Ansell on viola and Rolf Gjelsten on cello have steadily developed an international reputation for their insightful interpretation, compelling communication, and dynamic performing style. The Quartet has cultivated a rich repertoire and discography, including a variety of New Zealand music and composers’ cycles from Beethoven to Bartok, as well as theatrical presentations encompassing spoken word and dance, from Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’ to Schoenberg’s ‘Transfigured Night.’ All members of the Quartet teach at the New Zealand School of Music and run the Adam Chamber Music School Nelson.
Held in the beautifully restored Hunter Council Chamber on the Victoria University campus, the handsome surroundings complemented their performance perfectly. The concert was not visually appealing, however, but also displayed plenty of musical passion and harmonic consistency, as well as a high degree of dynamic interaction between both the players and the music. This fresh, virtuoso, and engaging approach admirably displayed the Quartet’s deep sense of synchronicity and harmony and produced a considered excitement about playing together that left their audience yearning for more.