Album review: Asian music for string quartet

The New Zealand String Quartet celebrated their Silver Anniversary both in concert and on CD. Some of us attended the Beethoven concert cycle of the group that toured the country earlier this year; many others would have enjoyed the Radio New Zealand Concert broadcasts of the series, which ended last night.

On CD, the group’s latest release, Asian Music for String Quartet, is an illustrious addition to the NZSQ’s impressive catalog.

Ironically, this captivating program is exactly the same as a concert the musicians gave at last year’s Auckland Festival – a memorable night only marred by the fact that it attracted one of the smaller audiences that I have never seen it in the town hall concert hall.

Zhou Long’s Chant du Ch’in is an opener imbued with sonority. Evoking a Chinese zither, the composer offers an ingenious pizzicato parade; yet, among the multiple pinches, each player weaves wonderfully tinted strands of melody.

Cambodian composer Chinary Ung was present at the Auckland concert when the NZSQ played their Spiral III, and extremely pleased with the performance. On record, his clever cultural mixtures which embrace harmonies on the blues side are even more inviting.

The works of Christchurch-based Gao Ping and Japanese master Toru Takemitsu pair well mid-album.

Bright Light and Cloud Shadows by Gao Ping, who has been in the group’s repertoire since it was commissioned for them in 2007, is more thoughtful, expertly calibrated by the musicians so that Bartokian whispers of urgency never quite shake the essential calm. .

Takemitsu’s A Way a Lone, with a title taken from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, sounds as if lush Straussian harmonies have been strained through a painting by Monet in a great moment of synesthesia. We marvel at the way the musicians (and the recording) subtly let individual voices emerge from the wash.

The Eight Colors of Tan Dun is an old favorite of the NZSQ. Watching two previous performances on this recording of Naxos, beautifully captured in Toronto’s St Anne’s Church, one hears a new assurance in bringing these visions of traditional Peking Opera to a vivid theatrical life.

New Zealand String Quartet: Asian music for string quartet (Naxos)
Verdict: “A brilliant and exotic journey with the greatest musical quartet of our country.”
5/5 stars

Lyle L. Maltby

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