Retrospective thorn amid two roses

BEETHOVEN WIDMANN BEETHOVEN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 3

                                                                        Jorg Widmann

Coping with a temporary personnel change, the ASQ played host to cellist Michael Dahlenburg, principal with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra who has also been occupied in recent years with a parallel career as a budding conductor.   The ensemble’s regular bass line, Sharon Grigoryan, is on maternity leave.   Still, this somewhat under-sized program fared pretty well in her absence and the house was respectable, if probably not as well-patronised in a week when the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition has engaged the undivided attention of a sizeable if not fanatical core of enthusiasts.

In a chronological twist, the players inverted the historical clock by starting with Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major Op. 135, then finished with the first-written of the Op. 18 set, No. 3 in D.   For comic relief to these benign book-ends, Widmann’s Quartet No. 3, Hunting, took up approximately ten minutes of our time – to my mind, half as long as it needed to be – but the score and its dramatic execution left no scars.  But, in this context, despite its minor debt to a Beethoven rhythmic pattern (the main subject of the A Major Symphony’s first movement, after the Poco sostenuto), the 15-year-old score didn’t make many intellectual waves, dependent as it is on gesture to sustain interest.

While the competition lasts and music-lovers are saturated in performances that are often prepared to the nth degree, your receptivity levels are heightened to an uncharitable pitch.   For example, the Mosa Trio opened MICMC with a blinder: three works from a broad repertory spectrum that took the still-not-operating interpretative standard to a remarkably demanding level.   These young musicians gave a burnish to Haydn in E Major Hob XV 28 No. 44 that even Musica Viva guest artists would envy, then invested contemporary Dutch writer Sam Wamper’s Portrait of Light with an emotional variety that was barely excelled by the following riveting interpretation of Shostakovich’s E minor Trio No. 2.

What was most exciting about this Mosa Round 1 appearance was the group’s discipline in not leaving anything to chance.  You were aware that their music had been pored over, every phrase shaped into the instrumental mesh, the dynamics agreed on but with such finesse that each participant produced just the right output to complement his/her peers.

More than anything else I heard in the Competition’s first days, this impressed mightily – and probably soured any perceptions of the ASQ’s Beethoven.  For sure, the Op. 135 enjoyed a stalwart rendition, its first movement presented with an admirable fluency.  Yet the overall interpretation failed to capture attention because the work’s progress lacked subtlety.   You could admire the homogeneity of attack and texture in a unison hiatus between bars 109-113, but a more aggressive example at bars 176-7 came across as less disciplined.   The recessiveness of Dahlenburg’s staccato bass at the Scherzo‘s opening meant that you had to wait for a fair while to make any rhythmic sense out of the upper lines’ suspensions and syncopations – right up to bar 33, to be exact.

The work’s last movement – now that the Muss es sein? Es muss sein! sub-text has proved more banal than life-affirming – gave these musicians no problems because, for most of its length, the counterpoint is clearly structured and the opportunities for dynamic ducks-and-drakes deviations are not that many.   But the preceding Lento appeared to miss out on innate opportunities, like toning down the crescendo/pp juxtapositions in the C sharp minor interlude, or sharing the labours more democratically from bar 43 onward rather than leaving Dale Barltrop’s first violin to carry all before it.

Much more pleasure could be found in the Op. 18 G Major score where the ASQ captured the first movement’s eloquent optimism, with details like the circumscribed C Major subject at bar 68 came across with reassuring balance.  As in the Op. 135, the fortissimo outbursts sounded unharnessed, so that bars 154-5, just before the recapitulation, seemed unharnessed, too emphatic for their context.   But, as compensation, the statement-response segment between Barltrop and viola Stephen King at bars 80 and 85 came across with satisfying clarity.

I’m always surprised at the stately pace that string quartets usually adopt for this work’s scherzo – whether they’re guided by their editions, or chastened by the number of fermata points, specific or implied.  This version proved unexceptionable if consequently unremarkable, even in the minor key Trio.  All the finale’s focus falls on the first violin and Barltrop skittered across its length with skill.  But the lack of a consistent game-plan meant that this Allegro wore out its welcome so that, by the time both violins collaborated in the final main theme part-restatement at bar 348, the movement had moved dangerously close to tedium.

Widmann’s piece brought about a small bit of theatre to the Recital Centre.   Adelaide director Andy Packer gave the players a white-sheet backdrop and used  the Hall’s lighting grid to cast the musicians'[ shadows onto it.  Did this add to the work’s impact?  Not much, but it didn’t distract overmuch.  Using the Beethoven rhythm as on ostinato and the hunting-horn opening to the last of Schumann’s Papillons as melodic material, Widmann opens with gestures – the players swishing their bows and giving the first of several shouts – before starting the music proper.  His developmental process is rapid and the source material soon becomes indecipherable in pages of thick working-out; further, the composer’s intention of using the four participants as a constantly changing series of alliances is sometimes clear, at other times apparently forgotten.

At all events, the sound-production techniques are a credit to the composer’s schooling in contemporary instrumental practice of the 1950s/60s, the cellist-guest Dahlenberg  eventually having the other players use their bows to symbolically stab him, whereupon he screamed/groaned and played a glissando, falling on his instrument.  Tableau.

Thanks to the ASQ for airing this piece.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll sound like an old Tory in letting this work pass with faint praise for its content.   But it’s not that the Hunting was really intellectually repellent or emotionally disturbing.   If only.   To the regret of many of us with an awareness of musical history and development,  Widmann has not ventured into new, let alone disturbing,  territory.   We have experienced this kind of happening plenty of times across my life-span and, almost universally, the effect has been to amuse rather than impress or astonish.   As a contemporary bagatelle paying homage to the inventors of 60-plus years ago, this Hunting Quartet is perfectly satisfactory.  But, once it’s played, that’s it; there is no more, with nothing of substance to intrigue, let alone engross.