Saturday 15 July 2017, 7:30pm, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand
String Quartet No. 18 in A Major, K. 464 – W A Mozart (1756-1791)
String Quartet No. 30 in E-flat Major,
op. 33, no. 2, Hob. III:38 (‘The Joke’) – J Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 (‘Prussian No. 1’) – W A Mozart (1756-1791)
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
The short story (tldr):
A sniglet for this concert: Anticippointment.
There was moments of brilliance and their codas were faultless. But intonation, balance, dynamic weakness, deformed tones, lack of personality – it was not good enough for a international touring group.
The long story:
There is an apt sniglet* for my experience of this concert: Anticippointment.
I read the articles about the Kuijken Quartet and their choice of period (or copied) instruments for performance of Haydn’s and Mozart’s works. I understand that the gut strings are flexible and susceptible to temperature and humidity. I understand the bow cannot deliver the modern bow’s dynamic power. My interest of ‘period performance techniques’ captivated me almost 25 years ago in Hawke’s Bay, with conductor Bruce Cash. I experimented with these techniques for my Baroque cello playing. I have heard all sorts of people expounding the ‘period-practice’ message, and I was convinced by the brilliant Dr Erin Helyard at Te Kōkī New School of Music, Victoria University. [He termed is ‘historical performance practice’. It was a sad day when we farewelled him from Wellington’s and New Zealand’s shores!]
I experienced the excitement of ‘historical performance practice’ – the energy, the vivacity in the fast movements; the piquancy, eloquence, tragedy qualities in the slow movements.
I was anticipating that this concert were be a pinnacle of my experience of Classical period performance – but it was a disappointment.
There were moments of brilliance. The first violinist bowing was impressively agile, the cello was always solid and stable, and when the second violin had some solos she was quite robust and forceful. When the quartet ended the movements – the codas in the last few bars – they were faultless. But the first violin tone was completely undernourished and, quite frankly, out of tune. Violin II and the viola had some moments when intonation was a problem. The cello escaped that issue and particularly, in the second Mozart quartet, he was the star.
Many musicians (and commentators) speak about ‘the middle of the note’ – when the tone is absolutely in tune. In this concert, often when the first violin reached for a note it was a bit under-pitched – not so much and an eighth-tone – but flat. Some of the notes were ‘deformed’ with a longer bow stroke, and some ‘screeches’ for accented down bows. Given that they were all ‘period’ instruments, compared with the first violin the rest of the players were much louder and more defined. They were in the foreground – he was in the background.
Intonation, balance, dynamic weakness, deformed tones: from my experience, I know that is not the case with ‘historical performance practice’ per se. Even this year, CMNZ had toured L’Arpeggiata and Masaaki Suzuki and Juilliard415 with their period instruments and the audience know it is not true.
As for the pieces, my ‘highlights’ were:
String Quartet No. 18 in A Major, K. 464 by Mozart.
The second movement had impressively precise rhythms for the all the players. The third movement – the Variations: the second violin ‘moto perpetuo’ was very good – running quavers or semiquavers weaving the other lines together; and the cello had a dancing figure – almost like a Spanish fandango – which passed to the viola, violin II and violin I and returned to the cello in the coda.
String Quartet No. 30 in E-flat Major, op. 33, no. 2, Hob. III:38 (‘The Joke’) by Haydn.
It was much better, particularly the Largo third movement. Their fortissimo chords were very good – so I was nonplussed about the lack of dynamics before then? The ‘joke’ at the end of the piece (hence the nickname for the quartet) was brilliantly played by the whole ensemble – as I said, the codas were faultless.
String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 (‘Prussian No. 1’) by Mozart.
The four voices were much more equal in this quartet – they all had a say. The cello had solos in each movement, often pitching above the viola.
Encore: a Mozart slow movement – belatedly, the best performance on the night.
In a past life, I have been a music teacher for 25 years and I have coached many students about Chamber Music playing. We – all of the music teachers in my experience – emphasise the need of good ensemble communication. We make sure that the players look at each other, broadcast their intentions, advertise their musical meaning. That is vital to the music, and it brings personality to the live performance – a stage presence. The school chamber music groups in every NZCT Chamber Music Contest, particularly in the finals, attest to that fact.
In this concert – three substantial quartets – twelve movements – an advertised 74 minutes of music – I saw the first violinist player look twice at his players.
Despite their professionalism and their flashes of pure brilliance, if I was assessing this group as a music teacher – the intonation problems, the lack of personality, the balance issues – I would mark them a ‘B-‘ . That is not good enough for a international touring group.
[* A ‘sniglet’ is a word that should be in the dictionary but isn’t. Sniglets are made-up words that combine two, three or more syllables of other words. They define things or concepts that have no ‘official’ definitions. You can see more about sniglets from this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sniglet ]