Finishing their year on a high


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday October 24, 2016


                                                                                     Gyorgy Ligeti

Now that the underwhelming serious music content of the Melbourne Festival has passed into a well-deserved oblivion, we are watching most local ensembles and organizations close down for the Christmas/New Year (and beyond) break.   Monday saw the ASQ performing its final subscription series recital for 2016 but the group’s assurance and insight left you hopeful of even better things to come when the musicians re-assemble next May – with guest Slava Grigoryan –  for the first of the usual three inter-capital tours.

Like the Beilman & Tyson duo a few days before, the ASQ opened with Mozart, which always strikes me as either a foolhardy or a supremely confident gambit; the instrumental web for most of the composer’s chamber music is not so much fine as exactingly precise – no time to feel your way in or sloven around with the back-of-the-conscious reassurance that the exposition repeat will signal the group’s ‘real’ start on the matter in hand.   Even more ambitious, this kick-starter was the  K. 590 in F Major, last of the ‘Prussian’ trio – indeed, the last work by Mozart in this form.

In its opening statements, the players went for drama, extending the third and sixth bars’ rests into what came close to a general pause; understandable, given the music’s momentarily brusque nature, but presenting as something like overkill in this essentially urbane compositional ambience.   Most of the striking initial Allegro fared well, with occasional question marks over the mediant’s tuning in cellist Sharon Draper‘s upward-rising common chords; part of that famously outstanding bass line intended to showcase the capabilities of Friedrich Wilhelm II, the alleged dedicatee of the work.

What one carried away from this interpretation was a reinforced admiration for first violin Dale Barltrop‘s subtlety of output.   He was in the thick of things when the going got rough and raspy, as in the Menuetto‘s Trio and across the rapid-fire finale; but the lacework moments, like the decorative line above the first melody’s iteration at the Andante‘s opening, the throwaway interpolations topping the first movement’s gossamer coda, or the burden of activity at the work’s end, all delighted for their release of tension in a reading where Draper and viola Stephen King showed no hesitation at hurtling into the action with a vigour just this side of confrontation.

Draper spoke to us before the group launched into the night’s semi-title work, Ligeti‘s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes, giving the 60-plus-year-old construct a sort of context, including the warning that it could be ‘scary’.   Possibly, if you were a newcomer to chamber music.   But this score stands more as a young composer’s dealing with his heritage and what he thought was the prevailing musical environment of the mid-1950s.   It jumps from one activity to the next with enormous agility; as there are 17 sections in all spread across 20 minutes, the chances of following the work’s four-note nerve-cell are not great.   Still, the debt to Bartok’s night music escapades (what did you expect with a subtitle like that?) remains apparent and constant, with lots of bridge and fingerboard bowing bursts, some effective harmonics, glissandi for that scare factor – all carried off here with excellent crispness, the players’ weaving in with each other without faltering.   Ligeti springs a continual series of surprises, none of them electrifying these days but a clever canvas of contrasts prefiguring the greater, larger scale works to come.

To finish, the ASQ headed to Ravel, and justifiably so.   Here was an eloquent interpretation which showed how the allocation of weight means everything in this light-filled masterwork.    As the movements slipped past all too rapidly, you were struck afresh by how much the work’s development comes from the first violin-viola interplay, often almost antiphonal in its structure; this time, Barltrop complemented King with a steely determination in the outer movements.  All members worked towards a well-rounded version of each movement, vitally percussive in the pizzicato-heavy Assez vif and then unfolding the muted languor of the Tres lent with its Proustian hothouse suggestions.

Particularly in this endearing work, the quartet members showed a brand of synchronous individuality that marks them off from other ensembles.  This quality doesn’t just come from Barltrop’s quiet authority and linear purity, nor from the firm deliberation of King’s tenor, nor the evenly generated warmth across the full range of Draper’s resonant Guadagnini, not even Francesca Hiew‘s vitality in imitative or support passages with her leader.   I think the group’s appeal comes from an innate assertiveness that survives the demands of ensemble-work, where a musician is expected to subsume natural inclinations when faced with the general good.

Each of these contributors preserves his or her voice and they come through clearly, no more so than in a work like the Ravel with its continuous opportunities for each of the four participants to exercise  –  often pretty discreetly  –  a personality.   Yes: roll on 2017, with more of the same.