2 May 2018

Review: Behn Quartet

From Upbeat, 1:00 pm on 2 May 2018

Well this was another example of a Chamber Music NZ regional tour being brought to Christchurch by Christopher’s Classics, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was in last night’s near capacity audience at The Piano, who is very grateful to Chris Marshall for bringing this group here.

And they gave us such a great programme! Not only was everything played brilliantly, but the choice of works was simply mouth-watering.

Behn Quartet

Behn Quartet Photo: Ben Russell

Dvořák – String Quartet No. 12 in F Major – American (1893)

The concert started with Dvořák’s best-known String Quartet – probably his best-known chamber work – the American Quartet. This is such a frequently played piece that there’s always a danger of it sounding like a bit of a tired old warhorse, but there was no danger of that in this performance which was played with such energy and commitment that it made me hear things as if for the first time.

The familiar opening tremolando was already full of promise and anticipation and then, when the viola played the first statement of the theme, the freedom and sort of natural inevitability of the phrasing was almost startling in its sheer freshness. And this feeling of spontaneity proved to be a real characteristic of the whole work – and, indeed, of the whole concert.

The yearning second movement was as heart-melting as I’ve ever heard it and I couldn’t help hearing the composer’s longing for his homeland. Because, of course, this was one of several extraordinary masterpieces that he wrote in the 1890s while he was living and working in the United States. 

Dvořák is known to have developed a strong interest in the spirituals of black Americans, and although there might be no trace of any specific reference or even any stylistic elements of those spirituals, that same yearning for their homeland, sometimes referred to in a sort of code as “the promised land” is there in this movement.

And just when you think that Dvořák has squeezed every last emotional drop from his themes, the cello makes one last plea, and last night Ghislaine McMullin’s playing here was simply heart-rending in its pathos.

None of the Behn Quartet’s consistently expressive communication or technically brilliant and assured playing was missing in the molto vivace third movement, but when they started the final movement, the momentum and vitality were exceptionally exciting.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the opening taken quite so fast.

The movement is marked Vivace ma non troppo (Lively, but not too lively), but, hey, who cares? Because even at this speed, the unity, freedom and effortlessness of the phrasing was remarkable. And the final race to the finish line never faltered in the players’ consistently balanced and unified ensemble.

And when they finished with all four bows flung high in the air, you could hear the audience’s collective held breath being released before the storm of applause.

Interestingly, last night’s concert was on the exact anniversary of Dvořák’s death in 1904. It’s also just two weeks short of two years since the death of next work’s composer.

Jack BodyThree Transcriptions for String Quartet (1988)

Without leaving the stage they continued with the second work on the programme, which was Jack Body’s Three Transcriptions for String Quartet.

Much as I always enjoy Jack Body’s work, I’d never heard these pieces before. It was great to have them included by this London-based group (although their 1st Violin, Kate Oswin, is originally from Christchurch).

I think Jack Body was doing himself a disservice to call these three movements ‘transcriptions’ because their creativity and originality of style, content and imagination is extraordinary. And the extreme technical demands of the music held no fears for this ensemble; they seemed to relish the free-flowing changes of articulation as if they were enjoying a wild party.

Changes from bows to pizzicato, to harmonics, to strummed chords and even some left-hand plucking was all taken in stride so that the music made its fullest effect. You just knew that nothing could go wrong.

The first and last movements also had some vocal contributions from the cellist and I couldn’t help wondering what that would sound like with a male cellist.

The work was originally written for the famous Kronos Quartet in 1988 and, at that time, their cellist was female. But I know that the New Zealand String Quartet has also championed these pieces, so that would be interesting to compare.

The final movement also involved a bit of foot stamping, totally in unison, as the music raced by and I have to say that the interval came as a welcome relief so that we could catch our breaths before the next work.

Ravel String Quartet in F Major (1904)

Like Dvořák’s American Quartet, Ravel’s String Quartet is also in F Major, but, although it was written just ten years after Dvořák’s piece, it inhabits a totally different sound-world.

Ravel’s is a colourful and original work, full of contrasts and surprises. And, although it divided opinions when it was new, it’s now not only a recognised masterpiece, but one of the most popular works in the String Quartet repertoire.

It was a great choice for the Behn Quartet, because playing of colour, contrast, vitality and atmosphere seems to be their calling card. And they made the most of every one of Ravel’s kaleidoscopic demands.

Both here and in the Dvořák, the slow movements were full of expressive detail and atmosphere but I think it’s the faster movements that really convey the essence of the spirit of this group’s strengths.

The word ‘spirit’ reminds me that they gave us an encore in response to our unbridled enthusiasm, and this was Shostakovich’s Polka which he arranged from his ballet score The Age of Gold in 1931.

It’s full of sort of ‘wrong note’ humour and blatantly irreverent clichés, and the performance really summed up the Behn Quartet’s ability to project that humour as well as every expressive detail, not to mention the notably refined balance, and individuality of contribution, as well as a consummate sense of internal rapport.