CONCERT 3: MIMIR CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL
Melba Hall, Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne,
Sunday September 4
Winding up the Mimir operations for this year, the quartet/quintet in residence played a program that began with the folklorically simple and ended in a pillar of the string quartet repertoire. Not that it made much difference to the performance standard which remained at a top-flight level punctuated by moments of inspired and insight-rich accomplishment, to the point where it will be hard to avoid drawing invidious comparisons for the coming months with what we have heard during this past week.
Turina’s La Oracion del Torero paints lavishly coloured pictures of a rather well-behaved corrida before actually getting round to the stage where the bull-fighter gets down to his first prayer for survival. The piece is impressionistic, opening with shadings and flutterings, before delving into some Falla-style dance pages – a rather idealized scenario for what is a truly bloody business. Curt Thompson took first chair, with Jun Iwasaki his second; Joan DerHovsepian and Brant Taylor continuing as viola and cello respectively. This performance preserved the composer’s contrast between the popular and the personal as the arena’s display breaks in on the torero’s musings concerning his fate; for all the possibilities, the prayer is rarely clouded with doubt and ends in a sweet high-pitched passage of religiosity. What the ensemble had to do with this deft piece of program music, it did with definition and an avoidance of too much vibrato.
Moving back 32 years in time, the Debussy String Quartet saw Thompson and Iwasaki change seats to launch into an emphatically well-etched first movement where the rhythmic underpinning was set down without any of the rubbery pliancy that bedevils other interpreters trying to come to terms with this formally firm construct in the oeuvre of one of music’s great tempo-twisters. The clear definition remained a constant in the succeeding scherzo; excellently carried out with split-second accuracy through its flighty bounds from abruptness to florid melodic bursts, but finished off with as elegant a final 10 bars as I’ve heard: the triple piano G major susurrus and final three pizzicato chords as welcome as icing on a light sponge.
The players gave a certain weight to that muted sweetness that bookends the Andantino, although the gloves came off for the middle section where the key signature changes and, in this instance, Brant Taylor gave a finely consistent account of the surging mini-melody that begins seven bars before Figure 13 and which found completion in Iwasaki’s poignant re-statement before the mutes come on again. As for the final Tres modere, the most impressive moments came from DerHovsepian’s viola, surging out with menace at the Tres mouvemente change, then leading the way into new territory at Figure 17 and maintaining a firm voice in later proceedings.
And the series concluded with Schubert in D minor, Death and the Maiden. Stephen Rose returned to the first violin seat and the work began with a gritty flourish. The exposition repeat was ignored but you could detect few signs of flagging stamina in this first movement with its fiercely argued statements and oscillations between triumphant blazonings and delicate murmurs. The final 16 bars of the Tempo 1 coda came close to ideal, showing the core of steel under the surrender of the descending four-note motif that brings about a desolate conclusion. Taylor’s contribution to the second movement Andante proved exemplary, for his unforced articulation in Variation 2 and his powerful presence in the second part of the fifth variation where his line remained dominant despite the ferment above. I was again taken with the close-to-sul tasto passages in the scurrying last Presto and the subtle use of instrumental breath-breaks in a movement where the usual rule is that the devil takes the hindmost.
Yes, there were some signs of discomfort in this Schubert – mainly a few left-hand problems that marred the mix – but the performance encapsulated the point of Mimir. This is what chamber music-making is about: an endless capacity for taking pains, a complete familiarity with the material; a continual state of awareness of what others are engaged in and where you fit into the mesh, a consciousness of what the music should sound like and how best to achieve the composer’s aims. Of course, the same applies to other forms of musical performance but most of these qualities seem to loom larger in a context like string quartet playing. It’s a great pleasure to see experts of this calibre leading the way and sharing their talents with young Australian aspirants to their seats.