Or what’s a heaven for?

THROUGH NATURE TO ETERNITY

Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday May 4

Tinalley String Quartet

                Tinalley String Quartet

Doing the right thing by its patrons, this amiable ensemble opened  the first of its skeletal Melbourne series (two recitals?!) with an ever-welcome  standard: Ravel in F.   First violin Adam Chalabi invested the deceptively open-ended first theme with just enough sweetness while second violin Lerida Delbridge Adam Chalabi mirrored his approach when the time came to share the melodic statement’s second strophe.   But violist Justin Williams’ first point of exposure at bar 28 sounded roughly delivered in this context, a moment of discomfort in the work’s steady progress.   Not that this persisted as Williams gave a moving account of the D minor duet at a few octaves’ distance with Chalabi a bar after Letter 4 : one of the most memorable passages in the quartet, both here and when it recurs in the rather reactionary recapitulation.

For the following Assez vif, cellist Michelle Wood made fine work of a solid underpinning in the oscillation between 3/4 and 6/8 that makes these pages a challenge in preserving clarity of metre.   Even better came in the harmonic shifts of the quartet’s Tres lent central movement, here handled with appreciable sensitivity, especially given the complexity of Ravel’s scoring with demi-semiquavers and semiquavers bandied about across all lines in the central pages.   More to the point, the Tinalley musicians took a firm grip on the composer’s slow ascent to a fierce climax in the passionate fortissimo at the Letter 8 shift to a Modere change of pace: a tellingly balanced passage of play.

Following the Ravel work’s half-hour length,  interval signified a point of demarcation. What followed signified an abrupt change of pace, both musically and emotionally.  With guest artist Lior Attar, the quartet worked through a compendium intended to illustrate the recital’s title, those last lines of Gertrude’s self-justifying first speech to her sardonic son.   A collaboration between Ade Vincent and Lior sets both Thomas’s Do not go gentle and American poet Hazel Hall’s Hours as a matched pair.  For the Welsh writer’s vehement elegy, the composers have opted for a largely diatonic language, the quartet offering chords that slip and slide with some Sculthorpe-type rapid glissando swipes as colour-points.   The vocal line is a simple lyric with suggestions of Celtic folk-music, the only aggression coming in the fourth Wild men verse when the violins  make substitutes for guitars, the cello indulges in a slap-bass underpinning while the viola intones the melody line.   At the end, the singer is left unaccompanied to repeat the poem’s last line with fading strength – which bears comparison with Thomas’s own hypnotic reading of his poem.

The Hall setting begins with an instrumental hoe-down, changes for the second verse into sustained chords for the Hours eternal in their pain before reverting to the heftier movement, violins and cello rapping their instruments alongside pizzicato chords from the viola.   Again, the poem’s final line enjoys a repetition, but the matter that Lior sings again falls into the folk-song genre.   As companion pieces, the songs offer a mildly different atmosphere and, while nobody is over-stretched, both instrumentalists and singer gave the work every care.

Three of Dvorak’s Cypresses moved us into the land of the love-lorn, Chalabi bearing responsibility for pretty much all the vocal line from the original songs, Williams’ viola putting in a momentary helping hand for O nasi lasci, the last of the three extracts performed.   These sat uneasily beside the preceding songs, mainly because the Czech master’s melodies impressed as more sophisticated and expressive, evoking both desire and melancholy without self-indulgence and also having the unteachable gift (one that Dvorak did not always exercise) of being just long enough.

Lior sang his well-known My Grandfather to his own guitar accompaniment; again, the melody is Celtic-suggestive but also has an undercurrent of bush balladry.  Even after several performances, it still makes a direct emotional impact and earned its place in this program’s Seven Ages of Man musical symposium by bringing several significant strands together – feckless youth, old age sans everything, the cares of maturity.

Answering this, the Tinalleys played Barber’s Adagio in its original setting, a piece that has become a sort of American national elegy since its association with the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy; a lesser source of grief was its performance on the day that Trump won his way through to the Republican nomination.  In their carefully-paced interpretation, the players reminded us of how voluble this set of pages can be without that corner-rounding smoothness you hear in the commonly-heard string orchestra arrangement, and how finely Barber contrives his  slow progress  to the work’s massive climactic chords.

Lior returned for the recital’s finale: Sim Shalom from the Compassion cycle, which he wrote for voice and orchestra with Nigel Westlake who transcribed it for this program.   Here, the vocal inflections are Judaic and Arabic, the modes employed suggesting both heritages in an affecting prayer for peace.    Again, this is not challenging music, making its points with a simple sincerity but bringing into play Lior’s extraordinary alto register, strikingly clean and penetrating   –   just the right vehicle for this final review of life’s span in a program that, throughout its latter half, made an ambitious grasp at illustrating the ineffable.