Ring in the half-new


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 3, 2016

In its current format, this ensemble shows loads of skill.  Alongside the two survivors from its previous formation – viola Stephen King and cello Sharon Draper – the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, has taken on first violin duties, with another MSO musician,  Francesca Hiew, playing second violin.  On first showing, the combination makes a fine collective sound, particularly in the central elements of Wednesday’s program.  The solitary problem comes with the bass line which, in the new context, can sound muffled.  Which could come from the nature of Draper’s peers – Barltrop’s sound colour is precise and fine, Hiew his timbral complement with an output of solid determination,  King maintaining his full-bodied and accurate projection, a continual pleasure from this leading light in the country’s chamber music tenor ranks.

Australian String Quartet
                                    Australian String Quartet 

Or it could arise from the nature of the instrument.  The ASQ is using a chest of Guadagnini instruments, the cello the earliest made.   Time – and usage – will tell if the instruments are well-matched in more than name or provenance.  And it has to be said that the under-demonstrative character of the bass layer was not uniform throughout the program; in fact, the more contemporary the music, the more it entered into the mix as a full partner.

The players began with Beethoven, the last of the Op. 18 set and  an amiable introduction to the group’s standard. Barltrop  initiated a firm and clear-speaking interpretation, the opening imitation-work with Draper jaunty and clear although the group’s inter-dependence showed at its most remarkable in the Scherzo/Trio third movement where the rapid speed made the violins’ syncopations as efficiently discombobulating as the composer would have wished.  As well, you could find much to admire in the balance of levels during the final movement’s famous La Malincolia first page adagio and the group made a determined fist of the disappointing Allegretto that follows, pages where the effort always seems more gripping than the material.

Balancing this conservative-with-a-difference first gambit, the ASQ finished their night in Schumann’s  A minor, a score that is heard rarely enough, in my experience mainly at chamber music competitions when a young ensemble tries to break away from the expected Romantic-period offering and generally does itself no good.  Luckily, the work enjoyed a fine run-through this time around, King partnering Hiew in a passionate give-and-take dialogue during the formally simple but voluble central Adagio.

The night’s guest, percussionist Claire Edwardes, contributed a vibraphone part to the Melbourne premiere of Matthew Hindson‘s String Quartet No. 4.  In two movements, the work sets up a contrast between animation and quiescence, although the freneticism of its first half was of a milder order than Barltrop’s introductory remarks had indicated; for sure, it lived up to its promise of action, packed with vaulting leaps of scales and arpeggio passages, the vibraphone adding a Bergian cast to the texture, if the experience yielded not much more interest than that of watching five performers beavering away enthusiastically at patterns.  The following movement almost falls into sustained melody but interests more as an exercise in dexterity treating uncomplicated, diatonic intervallic sequences – a placid cantilena for the most part, again with no pretensions to striking out in new directions, apart from the percussion overlay.

Later, Edwardes provided her own soundscape for three movements taken from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the off-centre amalgam by John Adams that manages to achieve that welcome rarity in American music: wry humour.  In place of the prepared-piano percussion tape loops set off by a quartet member, Edwardes utilised a set of everyday implements as a live-performer substitute; quite satisfactorily, as matters turned out. The clattering tram ride of Judah to Ocean was a triumph for the percussionist-arranger, the clanks and non-resonance of the piano’s stopped strings imitated with high success, while the following Habanera and Rag the Bone came across to the back of the hall without rousing much disappointment in their new sonic format, which actually added some spice to Adams’ tendency to labour his own atmosphere.

As a new start, this recital ticked many buttons.  It established the group’s authority in its handling of received repertoire; not simply by reviewing over-exposed quartets but by taking on a quirky, young Beethoven and the most original of Schumann’s three essays. The ASQ actually commissioned Hindson’s new work – admittedly with the help of several partners –  but the move  made clear that the players look for challenges, wish to stimulate local writers, and are quite prepared to take on unexpected partnerships in order to add to their recital experience.

On July 4, the group plays Webern’s brusque/wispy Five Pieces, one of Haydn’s Op. 20 in which  the composer dragged the string quartet into shape, Joe Chindamo’s two-year-old Tempesta, and Mendelssohn’s No. 6, his last.   On October 24, the ensemble’s third series program begins with Mozart’s final essay, K. 590, moves to Ligeti’s Metamorphoses nocturnes, and ends with Ravel.