Wineing the ghosts of yester-year


Kreutzer Quartet

Move Records MD 3371

Kreutzer Quartet

This CD consists of four string quartets composed between 1964 and 1975 – the heyday of contemporary Australian composition – coming from four once-important names: the Melbourne music critic Felix Werder, Sydney visionary Nigel Butterley, leader-of-the-pack Richard Meale, and returned expatriate Don Banks.  The performers are an ensemble new to me; British in origin, it would seem, and with a respectable discography of modern British and American music, although this particular CD seems like a well-meant stretch from their usual field of operations.

The performances are vehement and splendidly sharp in detail, nowhere more so than in the earliest work, Werder’s String Quartet No. 8 – Consort Music; one of the composer’s 12.  To my shame,  I’m struggling to remember a live performance of any of them.   Immensely fecund, Werder did not get much of his large output recorded, so this reading comes as a chance to fill in at least one gap in our knowledge.   I used to own a World Record Club LP which contained  No. 6 in the composer’s catalogue,  performed by the Austral String Quartet; unfortunately, one of its companion pieces was Butterley’s Laudes, which  took my attention away from its companions –  both the Werder work and Dorian Le Gallienne’s worthy four Donne settings.

This Consort Music begins with arresting discords, scrapes, glissandi – incidents, really – and proceeds to follow an inscrutable path of hot and cold action that at times is static and remote, then rorts through passages of disjunct violence; at times, you suspect that the organizational field is 12-tone, but the usage of glissandi and a few patches of clear repetition make you suspect that possibility.   Whatever the case, the work is often repellently active: ideas piled on top of each other, varied modes of articulation superimposed, a few wisps of motive-melody treated with ironic wistfulness before being hurled aside for the next eclat.   I’ve listened to it on and off for about a fortnight and it retains its secrets – although it is emphatically a product of its time, one where local writers were keen to embrace the brave new world of post-Webernian composition, fusing the sound-production trickery with Schoenberg’s assertiveness of voice.  As far as I can tell without a score, the Kreutzers do this one-movement piece good service.

Butterley’s 1965 quartet, the first of his four, is in two movements and the first is perceptibly 12-tone in its initial material and, for the most part, slow-moving and meditative with most of its dynamic coming not from decibel strength but from contrapuntal interplay – waiting for a line to enter as a complement or following a strand in a field of Nebenstimme backdrop.  The second part opens with a fortissimo free-for-all without bar-lines, although the cello is the organizational fulcrum.  Here, Butterley attempts to embody the opening of Henry Vaughan’s The Revival:

‘Unfold, unfold!’ Take in his light

Who makes thy cares more short than night.

In fact, in its later stages, this movement suggests a spiritual awakening or epiphany through slow-moving homophony/chorale motion, jagged bursts of solo flight as striking as affirmations of belief, and a near-cessation of action at the work’s end where the top line is still left inquiring despite the accomplishment of an emotional peace. This work is, despite its central eruption, more orthodox than its predecessor on the CD, but its intellectual trajectory is much more accessible, the composer’s language harnessed to a discernible course.

Richard Meale begins his String Quartet No. 1 with aggressive sustained, clashing chords that lead to a sequence of variations.  As with the Werder work on this CD, the emphasis falls on the event for its own sake as timbres and attack modes alternate to signify new material, or new treatment.  The environment is unrelentingly contemporary, with passages that move slowly in a dream-world alongside spiky angularity, broad swathes of sustained discordant work for all lines.  It’s an alternation of worlds that both interests and irritates; you sense that the instrumental discourse is controlled and directed but the matter is so diffuse in its presentation that assimilation is difficult.   Meale’s second movement, far away, has the players seated with their backs to the audience, distant from each other at the back of the performing space or stage; a debt to Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2 which has the intention, by physically separating the executants, of making it seem as though we are hearing four different pieces.  Meale’s second movement soundscape is slow, loaded with harmonics and long single notes underneath this upper scintillation.   The first movement’s studied activity has disappeared, replaced by a placid landscape of pointillism: a remarkably effective farewell to modernism because, after this piece, the composer moved to tonality with results that disconcerted a good many of his admirers.   The Kreutzers negotiate both halves of this work with equanimity, giving vent to the opening segment’s oscillating brutalism and close argument, then taking pains to give space to the second part’s calm juncture of pinpricks and stasis.

The String Quartet by Banks is the composer’s only work in the form, written during his time at the Canberra School of Music and a strictly controlled work in its first five minutes where the writing is acerbic, almost to the point of gratingly doctrinaire.   Luckily, the composer’s whimsy emerges, the academic stringency loosens and, when he quotes his opening strophes near the 10-minute mark, the effect is to show how genial the work’s atmosphere has become.   Now there is room for hints at lyricism, even sentiment, interspersed by the odd abrupt wriggle, as in the section where the first violin follows a melodic line in harmonics while the cello bubbles with slight menace below it.  The basic material doesn’t appear to have changed; its manipulation certainly has and, one outburst reminiscent of the opening pages apart, Banks stays in nocturne mood to the end with its haunting F-Fsharp-F cello repetitions fading to black.  Of all four quartets, this one is the least difficult to follow as an organic construct and the performers are comfortable with its clear-cut requirements which, even if it is the most ‘modern’ work here, are comparatively conservative.

No, string quartets don’t tell the whole story of the renaissance in Australian music that came with the 1960s but this representative sample offers an intriguing study in approaches to the form; how tradition was adopted, discarded, mutated by these composers whose voices – apart from Butterley, who is still living – have been largely forgotten. Thanks to the Kreutzers, we can hear resonances of some decades that were full of vigour and enterprise, when the music world in this country was smaller and new work was greeted with unusual readiness and an almost compulsory approbation.