String Quartet in G minor
String Quartet in F
New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl - violin Douglas Beilman - violin
Gillian Ansell - viola Rolf Gjelsten - cello
ATOLL ACD 399 [54.22]
Classical music-making in the southern hemisphere has for far too long been
given short shrift by the supposedly wiser and more knowledgeable cognoscenti
from the north. 'After all' one almost hears them saying 'it's our music
they're playing and we do it better'. Australia has many fine orchestras
as well as the Sydney Opera House (to give just one special example), yet
how many of its classical CDs are taken truly seriously overseas? Sadly this
has had the increasingly disturbing effect of dampening the enthusiasm of
many Australian musicians to enter the international recorded music market
It is therefore most encouraging that the New Zealand based label, Atoll,
is not daunted by such false perceptions and is actively releasing recordings
of varying types of music. Fortunately it is successfully finding distribution
outlets in Europe and North America.
On the evidence of this recording, The New Zealand String Quartet is not
given to copycat renditions of European masterpieces. From the photograph
in the booklet it is clear that its members are still relatively young, although
they came together as a quartet as long ago as 1987. Both the Debussy and
the Ravel are played for all their worth and the New Zealanders must have
honed their interpretations for a considerable time before entering the studio.
The Quartet plays with considerable fluidity, yet the basic line and shape
of the music is never lost. At 0.42 in the second movement it is unusual
to hear the second violin's pizzicati given the full weight demanded in the
score. The leader floats her solo at 1.01 with particular poise and in the
finale the more advanced nature of Debussy's impressionistic sound world
(only to be found in this movement) is well handled by the ensemble, particularly
between 4.00 and 4.15 where the unusual sliding harmonies are well achieved.
The more rhapsodic style of the Ravel work suits the New Zealanders even
better. Indeed the finale (the very last track on the CD) is magnificently
played with every detail of the complex writing well balanced and clearly
audible. The 'scurrying' nature of much of the music demands a light touch
which the Quartet handsomely provides, without ever under-playing the contrasting
So, one firmly wishes to encourage such enterprise from New Zealand. It may
appear churlish, therefore, to have to report that there are many snags to
the enjoyment of this CD, the majority of which have to be addressed by the
label, Atoll, if future productions are to meet an international standard.
The recording is close and occasionally harsh. The room used was the Adam
Concert Room at the Victoria University of Wellington. The sound engineer
clearly had to contend with too much natural reverberation and made the mistake
of trying to reduce its impact by moving the microphones very close to the
players. Unfortunately an immediate side effect of doing this was to capture
every intake of breath of all four players to an alarming degree. Indeed
so prominent are the gasps and exhalations that this aspect alone will put
the CD completely out of court for many potential purchasers.
One also senses that inadequate care was taken to record enough error free
takes or re-takes to prevent the finished master containing some pretty obvious
slip-ups in the performances. These are to be found throughout the disc,
notable examples being the taxing passage in the finale of the Debussy at
4.50 which I strongly suspect the Quartet could have played much more accurately,
similarly, in the Ravel, at 4.49 in the first movement and at 0.27 in the
second movement, where an important pizzicato note from the violin is missing.
Such problems always occur (even with the finest ensembles) in the recording
studio, but careful production and scrupulous editing nearly always resolve
The New Zealand String Quartet is, nevertheless, a fine group and I look
forward to hearing more from them. In the meantime I would encourage Atoll
to expand its catalogue whilst keeping a firm eye on its production values.
In case of difficulty available from Atoll ltd, PO Box 99039, Newmarket,
Auckland, New Zealand.
firstname.lastname@example.org - fax +64
9 529 9207
Could I draw your attention to the splendid recording of
Fanfares for a new Millennium also on this label
about which there are no reservations.