Marian Poole, Piano Teacher and Music Critic.

NZ String Quartet at St Paul's Monday 6th Oct. 2008

A capacity audience heard an excellent performance by the NZ String quartet which encompassed the very serious Shostakovich 13th quartet as well as some "lollipops". Mendelssohn's "Capriccio", Massenet's "Meditations" from Thais, Elgar's "Salut d'amour", Joplin's "Pineapple Rag" and Debussy's "Girl with the Flaxen Hair" were received with equal enthusiasm, belying the performers need to use the Romantic works to sweeten the Modern and effectively underestimate the audience. The highlight has to be the Shostakovich which the Quartet gave great depth. Essentially a vehicle for the viola, the work creates a vivid depiction of the composer's artistic dilemmas and mortal fears during the political upheavals of his lifetime, and is a stunningly fragmented voyage through many musical idioms. Tunes that might have become either birdsong or a folk song heard in the distance become sniped slashes across the strings. Bows tapping on wood become single gunshots. A last single harmonic from the viola grows from its purity to become a siren. Snatches of hope are subsumed by an eternal sorrow. The work demands much from its audience and its performers. The audience was spellbound: the performance excellent.

Massenet was also beautifully performed with Romantic depth and honest sweetness, a reminder that the dilemmas it raises are perhaps no less important than those of Shostakovich. The Elgar faded by comparison, being played with less conviction and commitment. Debussy's "Girl with a Flaxen Hair" is indeed a light work, popular for good reasons. However, it was a mistake to steal an essentially honky-tonk Joplin and think it was going to fair well under the homogenizing influence of a string quartet. While the performers did their best to get into the groove, the medium does not allow the rip-off of white gentility to succeed. Returning white gentility to the black punch does not work. Give the honky-tonk piano the credence it deserves.

All in all, this was an extraordinary performance of works, some more extraordinary than others.