Nigel Keay (b.1955)
String Quartet No 2 (1995)
Performers: The Nevine String Quartet: Liz Patchett & Janet Armstrong (violins), Peter Barber (viola), Robert Ibell (cello)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Ilott Theatre, Wellington
22 September 2002
Introduction by Kenneth Young
Nigel Keay was born in Palmerston North and until his move to Paris in 1998 worked as a freelance composer, violist and violin teacher throughout the country. He’s been Composer-in-Residence with both the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Nelson School of Music, and he also held the Mozart Fellowship at the University of Otago for two years. Since moving to France he's been commissioned by Radio France and various ensembles and receives regular performances in that country.
The String Quartet No 2 was written in Devonport, Auckland and it was completed in February of 1995. Denys Trussell, in a review of the work stated, "Keay is moving away from a music of sustained dissonance ... towards a music where consonance and dissonance interact."
Trussell was perhaps referring to Keay’s First String Quartet from twelve years earlier which was suffused with the aura of the Second Viennese School. The Second Quartet is not as derivative of that particular style.
Much of what Trussell refers to can be heard in the slow and introspective second movement. The pleading nature of the high register writing for both cello and viola in this movement betrays a certain anguish, while the outer movements are full of agitation. Unlike other commentators on this work, I don't feel that it’s an entirely abstract piece – there's a great deal of emotional expression in there.
Another factor that gives this work tonal awareness is the use of pedal tones, particularly in the cello, around which he builds his harmonic textures. The curious thing is that many of these pedals are at the pitch of F, especially in the second movement, and yet one could not say that this represented a tonal centre to the work. These passages are more often than not driven by insistent and syncopated rhythms.
Nigel is a frequent performer of his own music and plays regularly in his own string quartet in Paris, the Quartet of the Orchestra 2021. It can't be said enough how influential and informative it is for a composer to both play in and compose for string quartets. His structures are tight and his sense of texture intuitive. It is a fine work and a notable member of the local string quartet canon.