WCM: Behn Quartet

Behn Quartet

Sunday 22 April 2018, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Kate Oswin, Alicia Berendse: violins
Lydia Abell
: viola
Ghislaine McMullin: cello

Wellington Chamber Music
This concert presented in association with Chamber Music New Zealand


Claude Debussy (1862-1918) – String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10
Jack Body (1944-2015)Three Transcriptions
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) – String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op. 73


A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs


The short story (tldr):

This youthful professional quartet gave a muscular, gutsy, no-holds-barred performance of three completely different and challenging items from the quartet repertoire.


The long story:

The Behn Quartet – they take their name from Aphra Behn, the seventeenth century playwright and poet, philanthropist of the arts, feminist, spy and political activist – was formed when they were students of the Royal Academy of Music in London.

From the first phrase – in fact, from the first two chords – I was ‘hooked’ on this performance. This youthful professional quartet gave a muscular, gutsy, no-holds-barred performance of three completely different and challenging items from the quartet repertoire.

The bold beginning of the Debussy String Quartet in G minor was matched by the subtle and nuanced way that the players left room for the melodies and counter melodies to be heard. Their choreographed communication was excellent and their intense concentration and commitment was palpable. The first movement went from confidence to passionate, from close harmony to expanded tessiture according to Debussy’s extended harmonic language. The anticipation of the return of the first theme was perfect. The second movement made use of pizzicato and hocketting as a tonal and melodic effect – an almost jazzy movement. The third, Andantino, doucement, had the instrument con sordino, muted. The second violin and viola underpinned the poignant theme from the first violin, and then a duo for the cellist. The viola had an extended solo and the rest entered – tenderly. At the close, the first violin rose stratospherically, soaring above the rest of the rest of the quartet. Magic. The fourth movement began with a sombre theme but it grew into a torrid, stormy section. The first theme returned and the quartet ended, presto, with an exultant, joyous chord.


Jack Body’s Three Transciptions are a recreation on a string quartet of three musical moments from diverse cultures and instruments: a Chinese mouth harp, a Madagascan zither, and a Bulgarian village band. The three movements were rhythmically, vibrantly and joyfully played with great aplomb and enthusiasm: hocketting, pizzicatoing, sul ponticelling, flautando bowing, plectrum strumming, stamping and whooping.
I think – I KNOW – Jack would have been inordinately pleased!


Shostakovich’s only composition in 1946 was the String Quartet No. 3 in F major. From the stage, cellist Ghislaine McMullin said that the five movements could be themed as: 1 – Blithe ignorance; 2 – Unrest, unease; 3 – War unleashed; 4 – Memory of those who died; 5 – Why? What was the point? Her explanation certainly focused our attention for what was a remarkable and stunning performance.

The first movement was almost a ‘ditty’ (in ‘Shostakovich’ terms) – a light, jazzy number led from the first violin. A contrapuntal, fugal section had the other players involved with it and the character was more intense, frantic, almost panicky (but the last two notes belied the mood.)
The viola began the second movement with a three note chord. The rest of the players had unsettling, pianissimo up-bows, just touching the strings.
Strident, vicious down-bows marked the beginning of the third movement. Every note was accented with intense, frightening cross rhythms. The end was abrupt and shocking.
The fourth movement was bass heavy – second violin, viola and cello in octaves – with an elegiac, keening first violin melody. The quartet ended with the three lower strings with an extended chord and the a transcendent first violin soaring above, and soft pizzicato chords – al niente.

This was an excellent performance from a burgeoning quartet. Any blemishes will be cancelled by more performance experience and extended repertoire. The performers were supremely accomplished but – I could be biased – Kate Oswin was outstanding.

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