Hobart audiences love the New Zealand String Quartet, and this evening’s concert did not disappoint. The quartet has been together for 35 years and this showed in the unified interpretations and immaculate ensemble. The Hobart Town Hall is renowned for its resonant acoustic which can lead to a lack of clarity and difficulties with projection for the inner voices, but there were no such issues this evening. The quartet produced a richly blended sound that nonetheless contained an exceptional clarity of voice – a truly exceptional achievement.
Haydn’s Op. 20, No 4 Quartet is the fourth of his set of six ‘Sun’ Quartets. The opening two movements are serious in intent, and were performed with understated simplicity, allowing the music to speak for itself without performer interference. Beautiful, elegantly-shaped phrases were punctuated with occasional characteristic quirkiness, but I was left feeling a little emotionally disengaged. The more extroverted Allegretto alla zingarese and Presto scherzando were performed with verve, virtuosity and humour.
Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet was the highlight of the evening for me. The composer’s characteristic sardonic, chilling subversiveness is subdued in this work, allowing his lyricism to shine alongside passages of driving rhythmic strength. The quartet was written towards the end of WWII and this, together with Shostakovich’s music that challenged a repressive regime, made its performance especially poignant in light of current events. This performance had everything: passion, virtuosity, energy, a wonderful array of colours and a heartwarming sense of communication between the players. I loved the haunting, improvisatory quality of the first violin in the second movement, although the magic of the underlying chords was occasionally disturbed by slight intonation and ensemble issues (which could perhaps be attributed to the cold in the hall). The viola has a lot to say in this quartet, and Gillian Ansell offered a unique quality of tone and nuance that will stay with me for a long time to come.
Gareth Farr’s short quartet, Te Kōanga, was an unexpected delight. The work was written in memory of Ian Lyons, the Wellington luthier who took care of the players’ instruments until his sudden death in 2015, and so its performance had an emotional significance over and above the music itself. A veritable dawn chorus sits alongside lyrical representations of long walks in nature, and the piece is a celebration of the rebirth that comes with the spring. This work was, to my mind, contemporary music at its best – it stirred my soul.
Smetana’s Second String Quartet was written at the end of his life, when deafness and declining mental health infused his music with turbulence, nostalgia and intense sadness. The absence of a slow movement is perhaps an indication of Smetana’s disturbance of mind, although it in no way detracts from the music’s emotional content. Performed with commitment and energy it was a wonderful and disturbing end to the evening.
Apart from the Haydn, which really spoke for itself, the quartet members introduced each piece. These short glimpses into the music were among the best I have heard. They offered insights that truly informed my listening, as well as establishing a welcome rapport with the audience.
‘Enjoyable’ is not really the right word to describe this concert – the music spoke of existential griefs and joys that are heartbreakingly relevant to listeners today. I came away with the sense that some of what I am feeling about the state of my world had just been expressed.