Chamber Music New Zealand had numerous delights lined up on Monday night for its last concert of the season. As well as a new Gillian Whitehead commission and another opportunity to hear the fine pianist Michael Endres, we were introduced to a young ensemble making its name on the international circuit.

The New York-based Enso String Quartet came with a Kiwi calling card - cellist Richard Belcher is a New Zealander - and won us over with impassioned performances.

One could sense the musicians were acclimatising themselves in the opening Haydn, the second of the composer's Opus 20; and perhaps blame should be laid on the air-conditioning hum. Nevertheless, there was a real primal thrust to Haydn's earthy Minuet and the fugal finale dealt out whispered subtleties.

Debussy's sole Quartet had tonal finesse and fluidity, encompassing an almost Hispanic volatility in the opening movement and a sinewy grace in the second, with pizzicatos bordering on Bartokian snap.


After interval, Gillian Whitehead's No stars, not even clouds was exquisite. This score is saturated with bellbird song. We were enchanted with undulating waves of tremolo and intriguing rhythmic weaves; eloquent solos also made their mark and, in the closing bars, a magical coda took us back to the fabled land of major and minor.

While Shostakovich's Piano Trios are reasonably familiar on our concert stages, his 1940 Piano Quintet is less frequently encountered. Michael Endres introduced the piece with a stoic majesty; the string players joined in, their vibrant contribution presaging a rendition to remember.

The Russian composer likes stark and often violent contrasts. After the eerie calm that opens the second movement, the scherzo of the third was a riotous dance. Endres encircled his colleagues with rippling passagework until he had to provide the chords for their dance.

The highlight was the expressive fourth movement. Maureen Nelson's violin floated over Belcher's walking bass, invoking Bach, jazz and the plaintive beauty of Jewish music. The very soul of a composer had been captured, to perfection.

What: Enso String Quartet

Where: Auckland Town Hall