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MOORE BEETHOVEN BRAHMS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 27

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                                                         Australian String Quartet

So we’re all back together again.  Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, and violist Stephen King have reunited with their regular cellist, Sharon Grigoryan, who has returned to the ASQ ranks after parental leave; more than ready, by the sound of it, to take up duties in this program and put to an end the (admittedly small) round of guest musicians who have filled in for her over the past year.   She hit the ground running with a night’s work here that included Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4, the only minor one in the composer’s bracket of six quartets; and, later, the weltering passion of Brahms No. 1  –  like the Beethoven, in C minor and bearing all the trademark weight that the tonality implies.

But this solid material was preceded by a new Australian work, commissioned by the ASQ to honour a long-time patron.   Kate Moore’s String Quartet No. 3, subtitled Cicadidae, is a sample of atmosphere music about 15 minutes long and it makes its point or draws its aural pictures quickly; you’ve plumbed its depths well before the composer decides to call time.   As you can pick up easily enough, the one-movement score aims at an Australian atmosphere through the stridulous sounds of cicadas.  I don’t mean to be picky but you can hear cicadas, particularly representatives of the Cicadidae family, pretty much everywhere in the world bar Antarctica.  Still, we have made a case over the years for the sound being a national characteristic or aural determinant so there’s little point arguing with Moore’s choice.

The composer goes in for lots of tremolo, most of it regular in pulse.  The three upper strings set things in motion and it isn’t long before you realise that the actual melodic and harmonic content comprises major and minor triads in root position or inversion.  In fact, the whole work consists of ringing the changes on a series of triads, eventually widening out into chords; these cicadas are remarkably harmonious creatures.  Tension comes from sudden accents and abrasiveness of attack, and I think further aural interest arises when individual instruments switch strings but play the same note, although I could be indulging in wishful thinking here.

The pace eases from semiquaver to quaver, although one member of the ensemble seems to be occupied with the faster tempo at all stages.   As the work moves forward, you become aware of the allocation of rest time to each player, although Hiew seemed to enjoy an inordinate break about half-way through t proceedings.  Moore also has recourse to an abrupt burst or two of very loud address, suggestions of cross-rhythms, a patch of sul ponticello and/or sul tasto.  But, as the work moves towards its end, the material presents as more disciplined and regular in essence than you first thought, with flashes of individual colour and shifting internal perspectives.  Yet the juxtaposition of triads is not particularly subtle, albeit not as predictable as you find in early minimalist compositions.   Some shuddering full-bodied chord work leads to a climactic surge which ends in mid-stream  –  just as when the cicada chorus itself cuts off to beneficent effect.

The main complaint I have about this new piece is its limited range.  All you need to imbibe is presented in the first few minutes and the rest of the time is hammering home simplicities, ringing the changes in a micro-musical manner.  In the end, you feel more than a bit tetchy about the complex’s circularity and repetition; in which sense, Moore has achieved her intention of presenting cicadas in all their croaking tedium.  It looks invigorating for the players and the audience on Monday evening received it amiably enough.

Moving to their Beethoven, the ASQ produced a satisfying interpretation, repeating the first movement’s exposition and keeping the tempo fairly strait-laced, except for a little rubato at about bar 50 and a hesitation before the section’s conclusion.  The group took to the sforzando chords at the core of the development with great gusto.  Grigoryan made the most of her role in the following scherzo, leading the group in a fulsome rusticity, although some delectable, elegantly balanced work emerged in the more complex pages from about bar 146 where the tub-thumping bucolicism is reined back.

Hiew’s rich line came out in the third movement’s Trio; this is not a soaring lyric but a calm sequence of descending arpeggios, a gentle easing of tension in this active score. She again powered through the finale’s first episode, carving an independent strand through her none-too-intrusive surrounds.  But the group displayed its cohesiveness at the Prestissimo coda where the action not only speeds up but the dynamic alternations and rapid-fire crescendos and their opposites ask for everybody to be on the ball; there’s no room for faltering and the ASQ bolted to the major key ending with exemplary assurance.

But the Brahms score brought us the performance of the evening, its surging initial movement accomplished with engrossing ardour, the composer’s close-knit argument embraced with dedication in long paragraphs of powerful contours.  Nowhere could you find this better exemplified than in the stretches that followed the grand polemic of bars 37 to 40, the concentration of material and close imitation an illustration of why the composer waited so long before publishing this first essay.   Even as the syncopations and melding of rhythmic complexities waxed and waned, the group kept the essential building blocks in place, the whole structure finely balanced and clear.

Grigoryan relished her windows of exposure during the Romanze, enriching these brief pages with a firm eloquence, notably in that simple but heartwarming rise and fall just before the rhythm moves into triplets.  You could hardly find fault with the ASQ’s unalloyed embrace of the melting sweetness to be found across the final bars, a velvet-smooth resolution in which even the pizzicati sound like sonorous caresses.  We could have done with more assertiveness from Barltrop at the opening to the third movement Allegretto; as it was, King’s viola took much of the attention with its counter-melody. But later, both violins gave poised accounts of their brief duet flights – bars 43-45, bars 51-54.  Later, the F Major landler was handled by the first violinist with an expressive muscularity instead of the usual vagueness of definition.

It was all hands to the dramatic wheel for the Allegro finale but the group held itself in check dynamically, building the tension up to the peroration at bar 215 and the symphonic ebullience that brings the C minor Symphony’s first movement to mind so clearly in those slashing response-and-answer chords that precede the final, exhilarating stringendo.

Full credit to these players in their treatment of this work that often winds up battered and helpless in over-enthusiastic hands.  This interpretation – in its outer reaches, where it counts  –  fused the composer’s emotional components with remarkable agility: the ideal response to those who find turgidity in Brahms’ more intense chamber works.  Now, having their usual personnel stabilised once again, and having shown their ability at handling this great score, the ASQ should be encouraged to investigate the limited material that Brahms left for a string quartet’s exploration, in particular the Quartet No. 3 in B flat which I can’t remember ever hearing in live performance.