Hefty times in Hawthorn


Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre

Tuesday June 20, 2017

                                           (L to R) Helen Ireland, Shane Chen, Zoe Knighton, Nicholas Waters

Moving out momentarily from the city, this long-lived ensemble lighted on the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall as a possible future performing space, adding another option to the Recital Centre’s Salon, Collins St. Baptist Church and Montsalvat where the group currently presents programs across the year.   Not that the Boroondara Council’s refurbished centre is unknown to the city’s music-lovers as it was the site for Brett Kelly’s fine Academy of Melbourne concerts when that estimable organization was in play.   And the hall has been the venue for 3MBS’s marathon days dedicated to specific composers, so it has seen its fair share of recent chamber music action.

For reasons best known to sound engineers, this hall presents a notably clean acoustic framework, possibly because the players are positioned on or slightly in front of the proscenium; there’s no reflecting panel bank or screen, such as you find at ANAM recitals or Selby & Friends presentations at the Deakin Edge in Federation Square.   And the space is free of fabric, apart from some tightly-drawn and -anchored stage curtains.

At all events, we heard the Flinders voices at most points of their three-part program on Tuesday, even the glancing bird-imitation effects in the opening work: Peter Sculthorpe‘s String Quartet No. 18  –  his last and most emotionally pointed in the form.   This work is balm to an environmentalist’s ears as the composer follows a sort of thesis that begins with a celebration of a pristine Australia, followed by sound images of a wrecked landscape, ending with a sort of veiled optimism – there must be better days to come.   Sculthorpe always seemed to see the best in people but, in the seven years since this quartet’s creation, we’ve had little cause to share his hopes.

The score was commissioned jointly for the Tokyo String Quartet and the Flinders players, so these musicians have history with it – well, two of them do: violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton.  In recent times, the Flinders format has changed somewhat and the two violins today are Shane Chen and Nicholas Waters; I was hearing the latter for the first time in a string quartet format.   But when I first heard this piece in the Montsalvat Gallery in mid-2010, the violinists were Matthew Tomkins and Erica Kennedy.

Tuesday’s reading gave us a welcome re-acquaintance with this appealing piece that works best in its optimistic early stretches while the vividness later in the score of Earth’s degradation sounds less jagged and aggressive than you might have expected.   But the composer is not attempting to show the process of nature’s disintegration, more’s the pity.   Rather, he gives a sonic tableau of  barren land; the sedge is withered from every lake, and the singing bird noises from the start are tellingly silent.   As struck me at the first performance, the use of O God, our help in ages past jars in its context, which is heavily reliant on Aboriginal chants and songs; you can appreciate the sentiment, in that the Isaac Watts tune regularly appears at Aboriginal community days of mourning, yet its appearance here  seems like an after-thought – following the indigenous melodies’ freedom of direction and rhythm, a four-square hymn doesn’t make the best of end-points.

All the same, this performance proved to be a moving experience; the players sustained the requisite atmospheres across all five movements and made Sculthorpe’s novel production techniques merge into the work’s fabric and impulsive progress.

Two quintets followed, fleshed out by cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   The D Major String Quintet by Boccherini, nicknamed Fandango, could have been a piece that the Flinders have played before; I can recall a work of similar nature being played by them, also at Montsalvat, but I thought that afternoon involved guitarist Karin Schaupp.    In fact, the quartet recorded a guitar quintet by Boccherini with Schaupp in 2010, also with the same suggestive sobriquet; the movements are identical with those we heard on Tuesday, with the first two reversed on the CD.    But, having no real memory of the piece played in Eltham and no longer owning the CD, I can’t make any further connections or identifications.   Nevertheless, it’s clear from Tuesday night’s showing that Boccherini, being a notable cellist himself, loved his instrument and this piece  –  like quite a few in his oeuvre  –   asks for two.

The opening Pastorale fared well enough: a congenial amble before a more assertive Allegro maestoso which lived up to its name, nowhere more so than in Valve’s contribution which surged into consideration pretty quickly.   Knighton matched him in forwardness and the players shared the prominent labours that fell to them.   As at Montsalvat, Knighton downed her cello in the final Fandango for a pair of castanets, expertly wielded and underlining the Hispanic flourishes in the score.   It’s an attractive movement, the most striking in the quartet even if, like so many writers determined to maintain a specific colour, Boccherini does go on about a minute too long.

Valve’s prominence in this work went even further in the night’s finale: Schubert’s C Major String Quintet.   He took the second cello line and was positioned mid-group facing front-on to the audience, so we got the full force of his projection.   These ad hoc ensembles are near-inescapable when performing this work, professional string quintets being pretty thin on the ground.   But it seemed as though Valve was unaware of his own dynamic level for a good deal of this Schubert’s length.

It didn’t help that Chen is a performer with an elegant line, not really inclined to push hard to make himself heard; or, for all I know, not accustomed to having to exert himself in the normal Flinders environment.   Judging by the final Allegretto and, to a lesser extent, the Scherzo, perhaps he should because notes kept disappearing at certain spots where the top line alone has the melody.   When Chen played at unison or at an octave with Walters or Ireland, the problem essentially disappeared but, without reinforcement in this performing context, Chen’s output travelled uncertainly.

All performers made a laudable effort with the luminous Adagio, Valve tamping down his attack mode and the three inner voices forming an exemplary blend for the first 27 1/2 bars.   Later, the finale came off well enough, the collegial approach to tempo changes satisfying to observe.   But you were left puzzled as to why somebody hadn’t picked up on the disparity of weighting at play – one of the executants, an observer, a coach – because it distracted markedly from the interpretation.   That didn’t stop the Flinders’ enthusiastic supporters from showing their pleasure at what they’d been hearing but, for me, it was a case of better luck next time.