String Gems From New Zealand

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Writing a string quartet is one of the hardest things there is (you know if you’ve tried it), and after the defining works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven only a handful of composers have succeeded in producing works of equivalent profundity and originality in the genre. New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn is certainly no Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven (nor Bartók or Shostakovich), but that doesn’t mean his String Quartet in E minor is anything less than a finely crafted work, full of engaging ideas and adroit string writing, worthy of serious attention by anyone who enjoys tonal, tuneful, alternately gritty, lyrical, warmly ingratiating, and dramatically assertive chamber string music. If you need a comparison, it’s Dvorák, definitely not Bartók, but it also reflects a sort of English resonance owing to Lilburn’s study in England with Vaughan Williams at London’s Royal College of Music.

Most of the program consists of works for string duo or trio. The Duos for 2 Violins are only nominally in the tradition of Bartók’s well-known creations; Lilburn’s are far more substantial, credible recital works rather than crafty, clever student exercises. Likewise, the String Trio and Canzonettas for Violin and Viola are sophisticated and consistently engrossing–the first two of the violin and viola pieces were written as incidental music for productions of Shakespeare plays; the string trio is a remarkable effort whose sound and texture and expressive scope makes an impact much larger than its actual physical forces would suggest. And as for the concluding world-premiere recording of the Phantasy for String Quartet–forget the fact that this is a student work: it’s a real gem, a happy, optimistic piece whose Englishness–including fleshy harmonies and smart, soulful melodies–is agreeably out-front, its 10-plus minutes a delightful joining of traditional quartet style and a more personal, Lilburn-esque lyrical freedom.

The New Zealand String Quartet has distinquished itself over many years with performances and recordings not only of the traditional quartet repertoire–including an acclaimed set of Bartók quartets as well as works by Berg and Mendelssohn–but also of works by New Zealand composers, and this superbly performed and sensitively recorded effort is another feather in the cap of this ensemble, which never fails to impress whether in concert (if you ever get the chance to hear them live, don’t hesitate) or on disc (check out the quartet’s excellent recording of Asian music, on Naxos–see reviews). Highly recommended, for all lovers of the string quartet.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

    String Quartet in E minor (1946); Duos for 2 Violins (1954); String Trio (1945); Canzonettas for Violin & Viola (1942/1943/1958); Phantasy for String Quartet (1939)

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