Album review: Asian Music for String Quartet

By William Dart

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Asian Music for String Quartet Photo / Supplied
Asian Music for String Quartet Photo / Supplied

The New Zealand String Quartet has celebrated its silver anniversary both in concert and on CD. Some of us caught the group's cycle of Beethoven concerts that toured the country earlier in the year; many more would have enjoyed Radio New Zealand Concert's broadcasts of the series, which finished just last night.

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

Ironically, this engrossing programme is exactly the same as a concert the musicians gave at last year's Auckland Festival - a memorable evening marred only by the fact that it drew one of the smallest audiences I have ever experienced in the Town Hall Concert Chamber.

Zhou Long's Song of the Ch'in is a sonority-soaked opener. Evoking a Chinese zither, the composer comes up with an ingenious parade of pizzicato; yet in among the multifarious pluckings, each player weaves wonderfully tinted strands of melody.

Cambodian composer Chinary Ung was present at the Auckland concert when the NZSQ played his Spiral III, and extremely happy with the performance. On disc, his clever cultural blendings that embrace harmonies on the bluesy side are even more inviting.

Works by Christchurch-based Gao Ping and the Japanese master Toru Takemitsu sit well together, mid-album.

Gao Ping's Bright Light and Cloud Shadows, which has been in the group's repertoire since it was commissioned for them in 2007, is more reflective, expertly gauged by the players so that murmurs of Bartokian urgency never quite ruffle the essential calm.

Takemitsu's A Way a Lone, with a title from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, sounds as if lush Straussian harmonies have been strained through a Monet painting in a grand moment of synesthesia. One marvels at the way in which the players (and the recording) allow individual voices to emerge subtly from the wash.

Tan Dun's Eight Colours is an old NZSQ favourite. Checking out two earlier performances against this Naxos recording, magnificently captured in Toronto's St Anne's Church, one hears a new assurance in bringing these visions of traditional Peking Opera to vivid theatrical life.

New Zealand String Quartet: Asian Music for String Quartet (Naxos)
Verdict: "A brilliant and exotic journey with our country's foremost musical foursome."
5/5 stars

- NZ Herald

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