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String Quartet in G minor
Maurice RAVEL
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 place.

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 fortissimo pizzicati.

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 them.

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.


Simon Foster



In case of difficulty available from Atoll ltd, PO Box 99039, Newmarket, Auckland, New Zealand.  - 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.

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