ENSO STRING QUARTET
Melbourne Recital Centre
Tuesday June 7 & Saturday June 18
Enso String Quartet
The latest visitors appearing under the Musica Viva banner have made it to Melbourne; their only previous appearance, as far as I can tell, has been at the Huntington Estate Music Festival. For this first intra-capital (and Newcastle) tour, the ensemble is presenting two programs; well, one-and-a-half, actually as two works remain constant across the board.
The Ensos are an expert group, well versed in their craft since their foundation at Yale in 1999, although the actual personnel has changed since the ensemble’s well-received recordings of the complete Pleyel quartets. Since those days, second violin Tereza Stanislav has been replaced, first by John Marcus, then by Ken Hamao; at the viola desk, Melissa Reardon has taken over from Robert Brophy. But the current formation has a homogeneity and balance you’d expect from a body with that temporal pedigree and history of accomplishment.
One of the constants throughout the Ensos’ Australian sojourn is a freshly composed work by Brenton Broadstock, commissioned (like so many other pieces) by Musica Viva. Safe Haven celebrates the escape from and survival of the 1956 Hungarian uprising of a young child, Marianne. In three movements, the work delineates the situation from which Marianne and her family fled, the first inklings of freedom, and the reassurance offered by their coming to rest in Australia. Broadstock uses a nursery song, Boci, boci tarka, as the basis for a set of variations. In the first, the melody is discernible under some intimations of unrest represented by rapid gruppetti and plenty of loud outbursts, but the task of expressing in musical terms the national tragedy that was taking place is a daunting, probably impossible one.
With the resources of four strings only, any composer would blanch at the idea of conveying the distressing images that remain in the memory of those days – a year when the term ‘Molotov cocktail’ came to mean something to my generation. The rebellion’s brutal repression eventually resulted in the sequestration of Cardinal Mindszenty in Budapest’s American Embassy and later the infamous execution of Premier Imre Nagy. Closer to home, the year 1956 still reverberates in this city for the infamous Hungary/Russia water-polo match during the Melbourne Olympics. Broadstock takes a sensible path and hints at tragedy rather than attempting a full-blown tragic musical panorama.
In the second movement, the theme emerges en clair and the expressive language turns more congenial; the third lullaby variation is a long stretch of placidity which is determined to hammer home the message of harmonious security at extraordinary length. Safe Haven wears its emotions openly and is quite accessible; pleasant enough but its interest is limited by a perplexing veneer of simplicity.
The other fixed touring repertoire component is the earlier Beethoven in E flat Major, the Harp, with its mildly suggestive first movement pizzicati. Here was a satisfying performance, full of energy and a powerful impulse from opening Poco adagio to the finale’s set of variations. You could have asked for more subtlety in the third movement where the players’ emphasis fell on the dramatic potential of the central declamatory Piu presto rather than the surrounding pages’ dour legerdemain. But, at the work’s conclusion came the question that presents itself with a worrying regularity these days: what differentiated this reading from any other in terms of insight? While admiring the players’ dedication, the answer had to be: not much. Like most of their peers, the Ensos perform standards like this with technical security and a communication of the work’s developmental progress. But I found it hard to recall any section that impressed for its intellectual incisiveness, or even a detail that offered some new aspect to these familiar movements.
The night’s second part offered two related pieces in Turina’s Serenata and Ginastera’s Quartet No. 2. The first, a one-movement construct, lays on the Iberian colour with a will at the start before its substantial central Andante where the instrumental interplay takes more prominence. The spirit of Falla rises every so often but the composer’s individuality is continuously asserted with a deft manipulation of the framing segments’ 3/8 rhythmic pulse and a masterful control of the string fabric’s possibilities.
With the Ginastera, the Ensos are playing to a particular strength, as they have recorded the Argentinian composer’s complete output in this genre. Much has been made of the twelve-tone elements in this piece but, while Ginastera clearly uses Schoenbergian rows, he does so with a freedom from any doctrinaire application; repetitions abound, the immediate repetition of fragments is just as common, and no attempt is made to avoid consonances. The score gave the performers plenty of individual exposure; first, in the second movement Adagio angoscioso with some brief shining moments for Melissa Reardon’s well-projected viola and Richard Belcher’s eloquent cello; later, in the fourth movement Tema libero e rapsodico where each instrument enjoyed a cadenza, first violin Maureen Nelson having the opening and closing words, with second violin Ken Hamao making a stentorian meal of his Allegro variation.
For all its dodecaphonic referents, this work gave Tuesday’s Musica Viva patrons few problems, its 1958 progressiveness a modest challenge alongside other contemporaneous works like Boulez’s Improvisations sur Mallarme, Stockhausen’s Zyklus, or Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. But it showed these visiting players at their best on this occasion, their performance definite, full-blooded and persuasive.
The Enso program on June 18 replaces the Turina and Ginastera with Ravel in F and a Renaissance medley, compiled and arranged by first violin Nelson.