Interview: the New Zealand String Quartet

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
The NZSQ tackle the Everest of the chamber music repertoire for their 25th anniversary.

Beethoven’s string quartets are “absolutely the centrepiece of the repertoire”, says Gillian Ansell, violist of the New Zealand String Quartet. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten describes them as “the pinnacle – the ultimate technical and musical challenge … the sense of fulfilment that a quartet gets from them is immeasurable”.

So when the NZSQ wanted to mark their 25 years of existence this year, how better to do it than with a complete survey of Beethoven’s quartets? It’s a grand, perhaps daunting, undertaking, but for both players and their audiences it’s musically life-enhancing. The quartets are the Everest of the chamber music repertoire, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their depth, significance and quiet humanity. In them, there is joy and sadness, confidence and questioning, organisation of ideas balanced against moments of seeming chaos, great spirituality and humble peasant humour. All this from just four instruments; all that is missing is shallow display or the tinsel glitter of showy orchestration.

“Just real live communication,” says first violinist Helene Pohl. “Pop and folk musicians can’t believe we don’t amplify. Less sound, more meaningful subtlety.”

Mahler said that all life was in his symphonies, but in a more intimate way that is also true of Beethoven’s quartets and it is significant that the finale of Mahler’s life-embracing Third Symphony is so closely – and knowingly – modelled on the slow movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135.

There is, however, a danger that this emphasis on the monumental greatness of the music might frighten some listeners away. There’s no need to be intimidated, says Ansell. “There’s so much just to revel in; the surface is almost always tonal, beautiful, accessible.” She talks of the “easy-going, folky music” alongside the “music from a soul cut off [by deafness] from regular contact with the world, searching ever deeper, creating sublime, timeless utterances to pass on to humanity”.

This is not the first time the NZSQ have played the complete series of Beethoven quartets. They toured the country with them in 2000 and 2001, so I asked about the experience of revisiting them. “They’re wonderful to come back to,” says Pohl. “Individually, it’s like seeing an old friend after an absence; you see new aspects to their personality, you see how you’ve changed and how that makes you see them differently.”

“New revelations and perspectives continually arise, old problems dissipate and new ones appear,” says Gjelsten. “There is a certain way each of the pieces breathes and unfolds. I feel that over the last decade we are closer to finding a way to make each quartet come to life in its own way – and indeed our own way.”

In the intervening decade, the NZSQ have added to their repertoire, looking back to Bach as well as playing new music from both the 20th and 21st centuries, including many New Zealand scores. Inevitably, Ansell believes, this affects the way they approach Beethoven. “Every time you learn a new work or return to an old one, the sum of all the previous musical experiences is sitting inside you and either consciously or subconsciously affecting everything that you do. We’ve spent quite a lot of time since those last cycles on Beethoven’s forerunners Haydn and Mozart, and also on composers inspired by Beethoven, such as Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Shostakovich. This puts Beethoven more and more into perspective for us.”

Beethoven’s quartets are conveniently divided into the three periods of his life. As part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, the NZSQ will be playing the six early Opus 18 quartets in two concerts appropriately titled “The Age of Enlightenment”. The influence of Mozart, whom Beethoven respected deeply, and Haydn, with whom he briefly studied, is clearly present. One of Beethoven’s patrons, Count Waldstein, summed it up by saying, “You receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.” It seems, though, that Beethoven didn’t put much value on his lessons with Haydn. “Cocky, opinionated, brash, young Beethoven with witty, charming, gentle, older Haydn,” says Ansell.

Would they ever have discussed sonata form, I wonder. “No one knows exactly what went wrong in those lessons with Haydn – we would all love to have been flies on the wall,” says Ansell. In fact, although sonata form was certainly not a textbook form in those days, it perfectly served the Age of Enlightenment spirit; an interest in discussion of ideas and the belief that after discussion one hears (perhaps unconsciously) those ideas in a new light.

“That is the success of sonata form,” says Gjelsten. “When we arrive home from our perilous journey abroad through so many keys and fragmented ideas, we are able to appreciate where we have been and the beauty of home.”

I imagine for a string quartet that sense of discussion, the sense of handing on an idea to another player and then commenting on it, may be particularly strong. “The interplay or discourse between the parts in Beethoven quartets is exhilarating,” says Gjelsten, “especially in the late quartets. There is the sense that we each have a substantial role, whether it be as a support for a melody or to continue a melody or deflect an idea. Each player must simply be in the flow together – just like a good rugby team!”

Starting in late April, the NZSQ will tour the middle-period quartets. There had been a gap in Beethoven’s life of five years since the early quartets. He had written his opera Fidelio, sonatas, concertos and his first three symphonies, and he was facing the trauma of deafness. “And the world had changed,” says Ansell. “Beethoven admired the ideals of the French Revolution, believing in the brotherhood of man, declaring all men equal and free. He was originally a great supporter of Napoleon but was disgusted when he declared himself emperor. His works became epic in length and content. The three quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, his Opus 59, are huge pieces, each one a significant journey, incredibly satisfying to play and to hear.”

The late quartets will be toured from late August. Gjelsten says this period in Beethoven’s life sees him “taking the medium to a new place after another decade of not writing a string quartet. His ideals for the ‘brotherhood of man’, as expressed in the Ninth Symphony, now take on ironic twists with secular and sacred, peasant and aristocratic, personal and communal, song and dance all mixed together yet miraculously held together compositionally. It’s as if Beethoven is finally resigning himself to his mortal struggles, to fate and will, and expressing an overarching idea that all the diversity and paradox that exist in society and life are all operating under a unifying force. I would go as far as to say that each late quartet contains a profound message about our purpose in this world.”

BEETHOVEN! THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, New Zealand String Quartet, St Mary of the Angels,
Wellington, February 25 and 26, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival; followed by tours of the middle-period quartets, April-June, and late quartets, August and September. For details see
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