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New Zealand String Quartet with Kathryn Stott (piano).
Music by Whitehead, Dutilleux and Dvorak.
The Piano, May 9.
Let me borrow a familiar rugby cliché to observe that this week's Christchurch performance by The New Zealand String Quartet was definitely a game of two halves.
The choice of works for this Chamber Music New Zealand concert was, to say the least, unconventional. But in some strange way it worked. Within the space of barely two hours we were confronted by a blend of contemporary New Zealand, 20th Century French and a 19th Century piano quintet, which injected the necessary "warm and cuddly" into what could have been a highly cerebral evening . The NZSQ (Helene Pohl, first violin; Monique Lapins, second violin; Gillian Ansell, viola and Rolf Gjelsten, cello) have always had the gift of establishing an intimate rapport with their audiences. This programme tested this ability to the fullest.
On this occasion, they were joined by the visiting British pianist, Kathryn Stott, whose own warmth, virtuosity and glittering technique added an exciting dimension to the performance.
The evening opened with Gillian Whitehead's still, echoing, an impressionistic work inspired by Gregory O'Brian's poem Te Whanga Lagoon. The NZSQ and Stott responded to the work's rippling tonalities, watery surges of sound and moments of limpid introspection with a highly charged interpretation which revealed every subtle nuance.
It was followed by Henri Dutilleux's massive Piano Sonata. Composed between 1947 and 1948, this daunting work takes no prisoners. But it met its match in Kathryn Stott, who tackled the brutal dynamics and symphonic character with a mixture of sensitivity and complete control. Dutilleux is relatively unknown to New Zealand audiences, but Stott's performance was a revelation. She tamed the beast with inspiring technique and power. She also revealed the subtle gleams of light and quiet humanity which underpin its musical monoliths. In Stott's hands, this was a truly extraordinary and utterly memorable experience.
In sharp, almost jarring contrast, the concert's second-half was filled by the sunny geniality of Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A Major.
After all the complexities and demands of the preceding works, this was culture shock at its happiest, especially when performed with gusto and obvious enjoyment by an ensemble of such consummate musicians.