Back in the saddle again


Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday October 2, 2016


                                                                                         William Hennessy

This Melba group is actually the original Australian String Quartet – well, almost: the second violin chair, first occupied by Douglas Weiland, was later taken up by Elinor Lea who appeared on this night with first violin William Hennessy, viola Keith Crellin, and cello Janis Laurs.  The players kept their load manageable, working through Schubert’s early E flat Quartet D. 87, then the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A with one-time regular collaborator Lucinda Collins.

It’s been twenty years since the group handed over the ensemble to younger hands, and the subsequent years have been rich in personnel changes, some on a grand scale.   The current inheritors are forging a steady individual voice and we can only hope that, after a period of some ferment, they can build on their current success.

In fact, individuality proved a key factor in the Melba ensemble’s performances (I heard the first of two last Sunday). Each member established a style of attack pretty quickly, remarkably so in the tenor and bass lines where Crellin and Laurs took no backward steps, making their contributions with a generally justifiable authority.   Still, the articulation wavered every so often – not enough to disturb Schubert’s composite structure but putting the teeth slightly on-edge.

More immediately interesting was the score itself which is rarely played, what with Death and the Maiden, Rosamunde, the last G Major and the Quartettsatz featuring in relentless sequence on recital programs.  In  its opening Allegro, the composer’s E flat insistence is striking, as is the modulational husbandry at work throughout.  But the only eyebrow-raising moment  –  even in the exposition repeat  –  came at bar 90 where the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern in the three lower strings veered towards triplets.  Apart from an occasional and fractional pitching discrepancy between Hennessy and Lea, the perky Scherzo enjoyed a fluent run-through, while the Adagio suited these performers pretty seamlessly.  You could have asked for more pianissimo in the viola/cello interplay after the half-way point of the finale; this came across as more aggressive than necessary.

Yet the interpretation cleared the bar comfortably for its impulse, the performers giving satisfaction with a powerful, exertion-rich attack that brought to the fore the quartet’s clarity of shape and ebullient nature; the ventures into minor-key territory prove transient, very much so in that benign and brief slow movement.

I’ve heard the Dvorak quintet recently but can’t pinpoint where.  With the addition of Collins, any intonational discrepancies became more obvious, although less frequent than anticipated.  She is not a pianist to occupy a secondary role, particularly not when gifted with a driving note-packed part such as this score provides.  After the melodic richness of the first pages, the ensemble made a remarkably urgent business from Letter D to the end of the exposition, the repeat as compelling as the first time around with every player participating fully in the continual fortissimo markings over these pages.

Some enthusiasts enjoy this work’s Dumka; I’d probably be among them if the repeats were not there.   I think that the Melbas played them all which showed exemplary obedience to the letter of the law but, each time the opening querulous piano motive came round, my interest waned – and that’s despite the presence of plenty of contrasting episodes.   By contrast with the Schubert, the group’s lower voices here tended to take a back-seat when faced with Hennessy and Lea in lyrical duet, Collins a voluble presence.  The pianist showed her mastery in a fine Scherzo/Furiant, informed with sparkling lightness of attack when her part moved to the upper range of the instrument.  You might have asked for less stridency in the last Allegro which was hard-fought without much dynamic relief – either very loud or moderately soft but not much in between or in reserve . . . and this is generally a busy, tightly-written movement.

For those of us with even vague memories of these musicians in their ASQ days, it was a pleasure to hear them again, playing with a full-throttle diligence and certainty in each other after a long time-gap.  Of course, they are all still active  –  working at the University of Adelaide (Collins, Laurs), the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (Lea), the Adelaide Youth Orchestras (Crellin) and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra/Octet (Hennessy).  It makes a welcome change to see and hear our home-grown old masters, especially when they haven’t lost their cunning and craft.  Here’s hoping this wasn’t just a celebratory one-off.