Notes from a Journey
John PSATHAS (b.1966)
Abhisheka (1996) [10:00]
Ross HARRIS (b.1945)
Variation 25 (2008) [10:40]
Jack BODY (b.1944)
Three Transcriptions (1994) [10:30]
Michael NORRIS (b.1973)
Exitus (2009) [20:50]
Gareth FARR (b.1968) and Richard NUNNS (b.1945)
He Poroporoaki - A Farewell, for string quartet & Māori instruments (2008) [6:00]
Richard Nunns (Māori folk instruments)
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl (violin); Douglas Beilman (violin); Gillian Ansell (viola); Rolf Gjelsten (cello))
rec. No details given. DDD
ATOLL ACD118 [58:48]
Winner of 'Classical CD of the Year 2011' at the New Zealand Music Awards, this all-Kiwi disc is fully deserving of that title. It serves as an inspirational emblem of the high quality of musicianship in 21st century New Zealand.
John Psathas's Abhisheka was inspired by a Buddhist book, and is his "first-ever attempt at writing music with space in it. Until this piece, practically everything I had written was ultra-caffeinated, fast, full of notes and murder on performers." It is indeed a ruminative, deeply atmospheric work, with hints at times of Psathas's Greek origins. The music imparts a sense of the numinous in writing as evocative and potent as that of John Tavener. Following the composer's instructions, the instruments are closely miked, allowing for noticeable but artful artificial reverberation.
Ross Harris's thoughtful, almost melancholic Variation 25 takes its title from Bach's famous 'Goldberg' Variations, Harris having been inspired by a performance of the whole work in transcription by the NZSQ. The work is however only fleetingly reminiscent of Bach's original variation. Harris prefers to take it outwards into heavily chromatic late- and post-Romantic territory.
Jack Body wrote his characterful Three Transcriptions for the Kronos Quartet. The diversely jaunty pieces from China, Madagascar and Bulgaria yield an audience-pleasing ten minutes' worth of energetic virtuosity and memorable tunes and rhythms, not to mention the occasional vocalisation and foot-stamping from the Quartet.
With Michael Norris's four-movement Exitus, the programme for the first time takes a plunge into modernism: this sonic/graphic depiction of the afterworlds of four distinct mythologies - Inuit, Mayan, Norse and Choctaw - does not have the ease of access of the other works on the CD. Even so, there are many interesting ideas swirling around in places so bleak and creepy that it is no wonder humans evolved a fear of death.
The final piece is a joint effort: He Poroporoaki was composed by Gareth Farr with the help of Richard Nunns, a renowned authority on traditional Māori instruments, some of which he plays on this recording alongside the NZSQ. It is a lingering, valedictory-sounding work and it comes as no surprise to learn that it was written in memory of those who lost their lives in the Gallipoli campaign in World War I. The native conch, gong and, later on, flute all add an exotic touch of mystery and timelessness to Farr's poignant string writing. This brings the disc to a very satisfying end.
The NZSQ are probably best known to many from their recent three volumes of Mendelssohn's String Quartets for Naxos - see reviews of vol.1, vol.2 and vol.3. Here they are once more on top form, exuding confidence, perspicacity, elegance and empathy. The notes at the end of the third movement of Exitus are breathtakingly - or should that be ear-splittingly - stratospheric and almost supernaturally controlled.
Sound quality is excellent. The CD comes in a digipak. There is no booklet, however: a few paragraphs on the works, track-listing and technical details are printed straight onto the card. Alas, no biographical information is provided on any of the composers or the NZSQ. Surely Atoll might have at least supplied some weblinks?  
Collected reviews and contact at
On top form, exuding confidence, perspicacity, elegance and empathy.