27 May 2014

Review: Jade Quartet at the Pah

Jade String Quartet
Miranda Adams, violin; William Hanfling, violin; Robert Ashworth, viola; David Garner, cello

Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, op. 33, no. 6
Watson: String Quartet no. 3
Beethoven: String Quartet no. 12 in E-flat major, op. 127

25 May 2014, Pah Homestead
Review by Alex Taylor

I arrived at the Pah to a stunning exhibition of double portraits by New Zealand artists. Mary McIntyre’s unnervingly direct After the Op; Tony Fomison’s haunting tribute to Philip Clairmont; Shirley Grace’s extraordinary photograph of Tony Fomison as artist, model, perhaps prophet too. This was an exhibition of penetrating psychology and resonant personalities of both artists and subjects. I imagined myself in a Roman villa, surrounded by statues of the household gods, the Lares, or a European concert hall, busts of the great composers staring out from the walls. But this was a New Zealand villa, its Lares our own pioneering visual artists, temporarily sharing their turf with a quartet and its audience. The gallery-as-concert-space is something that really appeals to me – the visual art adds another layer to our experience of the event, and in this case the cross-references between art and music were particularly striking.

Beginning with the ancestral father of the string quartet – Franz Joseph Haydn – the Jade Quartet were in their element. The group brought stylistic sensitivity and a full range of expression to this rather light and whimsical work; laboured Viennese upbeats, clipped phrase endings, a wonderful humour. The aliveness of this music played off the large-scale paintings in the ballroom, life-size bodies jarring out of scratched steel and painted canvas, and live musicians on their feet, full of movement and vigour. First violin Miranda Adams in particular showed off an impressive breadth of colour, from silkiest pianissimo to full-bodied lyricism. Haydn’s ingenious extensions and developments were handled with control and care, although I felt occasionally the quartet’s tone teetered on the brink of cloying sweetness. David Garner’s cello seemed to have some of its brilliance dulled by the room, though the upper strings cut through nicely in the intimate concert venue. The “whiff of syncopation” described in the programme notes brought the finale to a close with a great sense of play and balance.

The clarity and vision of the Jade String Quartet’s 2014 programming is to be commended – four concerts, each featuring a substantial New Zealand work alongside a significant Haydn quartet and another classic from the repertoire.  Here they took on Anthony Watson’s challenging Third Quartet. The double portrait exhibition seemed particularly apt – Watson might be described as a musical equivalent to Philip Clairmont’s vivid expressionism – and the spirits of Watson and Clairmont mingled here. The third quartet is an exhilarating work that demands intense focus, precision, and above all an awareness of the overall structure, how it spikes and curves and breathes. Unfortunately the Jade Quartet came across as rather rushed and unfocused. We were asked to adjust our ears to the beauty of Watson’s tonal language, but when the emotional heart of the work is passed over at more than double tempo and whole sections are bristling with ensemble mistakes, the beauty remains hidden in the score.  There’s tenderness hidden here, brilliance too – but this was a stilted, uncertain performance. The core repertoire throughout the concert was assured and tastefully done, but the unfamiliar often requires its own approach, to be understood, performed, communicated on its own terms – and for my money the Jade have yet to fully integrate Watson’s terms, his language, his emotional landscape.  

The second half of the concert opened with a muscular Maestoso, William Hanfling taking over the first violin duties for Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 12. This was a work rich with theatre and gesture, full of unexpected twists. The quartet managed these twists adroitly; though the musical demands occasionally told, particularly with some strained intonation in the stratosphere, the drama was always palpable. There were nods to Haydn in the suspended upbeats and shaping of phrases, however I felt there were some missed opportunities to build longer structures, to really get at the cumulative power, the obsessive insistence of Beethoven. Nevertheless this was an assured performance, and it was a pleasure to watch such an egalitarian, dynamic quartet, all four members engaged and responsive, taking turns to lead and respond.

No matter the unevenness in performance between the Watson and the two Germanic works, it is clear to me that the Jade Quartet are doing something vital. One only needs to overhear another concertgoer, in a derogatory tone, “that piece was just like those abstract paintings.” As if to say, QED, why bother. Most of the audience would not have heard of Watson, let alone have heard his music, and yet he is to music what Clairmont or Fomison is to painting, a cultural marker that deserves to become familiar and iconic. Despite the discomfort, even the hostility, of an audience, we must continue to preserve and enliven our own Lares, the icons of our own cultural traditions.

The Jade Quartet’s next concert is August 24 at the Pah, featuring a new commission by Auckland composer John Elmsly.

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