New Zealand String Quartet at Chamberfest ’08 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, July 28, 2008, First Baptist, Ottawa.

The “Quartet in G minor, Op. 10,” a seminal work of the “gay 90’s” by Debussy, is free in its form and structure, varied in tonalities that grow through flexible melodies and intricate rhythms. At times plaintive and diffuse, at times passionate and assertive, like a theatrical procession on parade, all these effects are nicely controlled by the New Zealand String Quartet. I particularly appreciated their ability to soften the edges of modulations allowing them to flow into an impressionistic texture.

The second movement alternated charmingly bouncy pizzicatos with lyrical passages in which Gillian Ansell’s viola produced an interestingly juicy sound. The third had a duet between Ansell and Douglas Beilman’s second violin that fell slowly as the syllables in Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy” (‘No, no, go not to Lethe’ etc), suspending the audience in a tranquil reverence. The final movement, based on the first’s germinal motif, develops through an animated fugue carried by Rolf Gjeltsen’s cello towards an exciting conclusion.

The NZQ is renowned for its support of native talent. They offered a short piece by John Psathas. Entitled “From Kartsigar”, it recollects Psathas’ childhood impressions of Greek folk music played by his parents. These he transforms from the original forms for voice and clarino that employ quartertones into an arrangement for string quartet that bends notes in a bluesy way, strings share the job of sounding like talking drums. This was a very refreshing experience.

Schubert’s 15th and last quartet, the “G Major, Op.161, D 887”, was the afternoon’s highlight. The NZQ playing showed the gentle, subtle, intimate Schubert, dying of syphilis and working at a fever pitch characteristic of phases of the disease. The composer’s loving, poetic side is juxtaposed with ferocious moods that fuel incredible orchestral textures that vye for space with dances, songs both rapturous and intimate, and wildly comic theatrical passages. If the playing in the second movement seemed a bit overly laid-back, the third was rightly sprightly with just the lightest touch to sustain buoyancy, while the ensemble’s characteristic laid-back style worked perfectly to control the impetuous shifts of the final rondo.

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