New Zealanders show intense passion
Colleen Johnston, The Record, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada - November 22nd, 1999
Because the New Zealand String Quartet play standing up, they can brandish their bows at the ends of phrases like triumphant swords.
The youngish players of the NZSQ are in many ways flamboyant.
Standing up, violinists Helene Pohl, Doug Beilman, and violist Gillian Ansell (even necessarily earth bound cellist Rolf Gjelsten performs seated on an elevated podium), are allowed extra physicality.
And on Friday, at the Music Room of the Kitchener Waterloo Chamber Music Society, these four daring musicians demonstrated energy, supberb ensemble cohesion, dazzling musicality, and fresh, insightful readings of Dvorak’s Quartet in E-Flat, Op.5, Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op.18, No. 1, Debussy’s Quartet in G, and Abhisheka (a new work by fellow New Zealander John Psathas).
Quartet-in-residence at Victoria University in Wellington, the NZSQ was organized by Ansell, the only native New Zealander, in 1987. Currently on a hectic North American tour, the NZSQ members play with a combination of intense passion and startling clarity. Much of their appeal has to do with the infinite talents of Ansell. A violist par excellence, who can turn a simple phrase from Beethoven’s final Allegro movement into a turbulent running brook, Ansell has the range of voices and powerful technique and unusual lyricism to redefine the role of the tenor voice in a string quartet.
Also pivotal to the NZSQ sound is second violinist Beilman (the Canadian representative of the ensemble; Pohl and Gjelsten are Americans). Beilman is a musician with the ear and technique and rare musical empathy to give himself totally to what Pohl and the others have in mind. As he matched Pohl’s focused, silent movie-star emotive eye contact, he was exemplary. Twinning sonority, rhythmic pull and push and philosophy on a grand scale. Beilman and Ansell anchored the inner voices with the assertive musical poise of the outer violin and cello.
Gjelsten is a wonderful musician, with the facility and sonority of his mates. Pohl, given the lyrical role much of the time, proved consistently vibrant – as pretty as can be in Dvorak’s dances; elegant of curtsy and trill in Beethoven’s mannered phrases. She’s a born leader, no question, yet you get the idea that her assertiveness is just another aspect of this group’s communal decision making.
The NZSQ approach is most of the time risky. That’s essential to their appeal. Who else can bring out such tender seduction in Debussy’s Andantino movement, only to turn a caress into a lullaby? And how they kept the Dvorak in tune despite major challenges; how they came to agree on the cat and mouse playfulness of the Beethoven first movement, and how they infused Debussy’s quartet with teutonic intellectualism (Debussy was an admirer of Wagner), stands as a testament to their musical credibility.
The NZSQ’s interpretation of Debussy’s quartet was certainly the most secure performance of the evening. They have recorded this, along with Ravel, and that’s good news.
For many decades, Debussy has been soft-pedalled as a so-called impressionist, like the pastel painters of his time.
What the NZSQ reminded us, however, is that there was a strong pan European thrust to Debussy, who could be more tough minded and eloquent, with his Wagnerian-Gallic-Celtic endless phrases, than most historians of this century.
The musicians’ control of Psathas taxing raga-inspired work was impressive.
Playing extremely softly (at times under the bridge), the effect was cleansing, calming, soothing.
The NZSQ worked long and hard on Friday. Emotionally and physically, their program was demanding and in addition to the superb music, watching the graceful choreography of an ensemble dancing together with such physical and musical expertise was spellbinding.