Aroha String Quartet
Tuesday 7 May 2019, St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No 17 in Bb K458 ‘The Hunt’ 
György Ligeti: String Quartet No 1 ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ [1953-54]
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No 13 in Bb Op 130 
Haihong Liu, Konstanze Artmann : violin
Zhongxian Jin : viola
Robert Ibell : cello
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
tldr – the short story:
The balance and blend between the quartet’s instruments was exemplary. It was a satisfying performance, filled with excellent characterisations of the music – but the highlight was the Ligeti. They ‘nailed’ it!
The long story:
It was a sandwich of a concert: the upper and lower crusts were two of the most original and innovative compositions in the Classical/early-Romantic repertoire, and the body between was an original and innovative early piece by Transylvanian composer Ligeti – before it was exposed to the rest of the Western Art Stream contemporary artists. The balance and blend between the quartet’s instruments was exemplary. It was a satisfying performance, filled with excellent characterisations of the music – but the highlight was the Ligeti.
The Mozart had a jocular, optimistic beginning and the quartet used the contrast of dynamics splendidly. Usually, Mozart is dependable – he starts phrases off and you KNOW where is it going, but it is perfect anyway. It can’t be anything else! But in this ‘Hunt’ quartet, there were surprises: odd harmonies after the repeated exposition; unbalanced phrases and odd syncopations in the second movement; changeable characteristics in the pattern of the melody; an extended melody, almost romantic, in the third movement; and non-apologetic final cadences in the first, third and fourth movements. The fourth movement was delightful. The main phrase was a hop, skip and sprint, and then it developed a contrapuntal, polyphonic nature. It was mature Mozart. The programme notes said this movement ‘is full of laughter’, and the quartet achieved that.
The second half was taken by the monumental Beethoven‘s String Quartet No 13. It was a challenging work and the quartet acquitted themselves well. Beethoven was breaking out of the Classical straitjacket. The first movement had alternating Adagio and Allegro sections with brief hiatuses. The dynamics were explored fully (bursts of exuberance or frustration?) and the range, the tessitura of the instruments was very broad that led to a musical spaciousness. The Presto went at a breakneck speed and was quite indelicate, vulgar, and very brief. The Scherzo with chattering cello and dolce melody from the violins was wandering –lighthearted but labouring. The Cavatina had a tender melody: the second violin began the motif and the first violin, rising up caught the melody and extended to the upper register. It should have been a high point, but there was a bumpy lack of flow to the movement. The Finale was enthusiastic and balanced the architecture of the first movement. The quartet marvellously controlled the dynamics. The melody was almost ‘Schubertian’ – an anachronistic idea! Or maybe Schubert borrowed some ideas from Beethoven!
I thought that the resonance in the church was too live. Some of the runs were unclear in their rhythmic clarity – not absolutely together. And some of the high register notes were just under pitch. That was true for the precise Mozart and potent Beethoven– but it was not apparent in the Ligeti.
Ligeti‘s String Quartet No 1 ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ was stupendous – and I really mean that. Rather than discrete movements, it was a piece constructed in six or seven moods. It had a four tone cell, a gem of an idea, that developed into a fantastic compact creation. At first, the first violin announced the cell and the others, sotto voce, inched their way into the the foreground. Compelling double and triple chords – almost tonal blocks of sound – rhythmic syncopations and metric shifts interrupted the mood. The second violin changed the mood to a melancholic melody, followed by the cello and first violin while the viola had a foundation of a pedal note drone. The third mood was introduced by a sudden agitato tempo. The instruments were paired in octaves that gave a shimmering effect like a gamelan orchestra. A sudden diminuendo with repeated chords closed this section off. Again, the instruments were paired – the violins, and the viola and cello – with a slow section: trills and tremolos with breathtaking dynamics. An um-pah-pah melody, like a inebriated folk song, led to an aggressive mood and a Shostakovichian melody with snap pizzicato, particularly from the cello. A sul ponticello section and a glissading harmonic from the accompanying strings, reminiscent of a swarm of buzzy bees, let the first violin and viola sang a mournful melody. The piece would down with steady and subtle diminuendo – a niente.
It was a triumph and the Aroha Quartet ‘nailed’ it.