Power from four likely lads

AN EVENING WITH ORAVA QUARTET

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Saturday October 17

 

Orava Quartet

Using the resources of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music which is being celebrated, as usual, in Townsville, Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett inserted this popular Queensland ensemble into their strong Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series, yet again showing that lockdown means nothing to administrators with a will. Mind you, the program was a brief one, with only two scheduled works: Haydn’s Sunrise Op. 76 No. 4, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 of 1924. Lucky I hung around at the end because the group came back to play a filler in the third movement, Tres lent, of the Ravel String Quartet.

It turned into a bit of a lop-sided hour with the Schulhoff score gaining most from the Oravas’ attentions. As expected, the young men made much of the vehemence to be found in the odd-numbered movements, but they were able to present an attractively dawdling version of the problematic second movement Allegretto and surprised with a non-indulgent treatment of the final affecting Andante – not flawless but assuredly insightful, living up to the composer’s emotional addresses (and distresses, for that matter).

The quartet’s score begins with a forte sempre dynamic direction across the board; the Oravas were quite happy to intensify the one term and obey the other. You could not want for any enthusiasm here in a Presto that owes much to Bartok and a little less to Stravinsky, and the pace was pretty inflexible up to two bars after Number 11 in the Philharmonia/Universal Edition score when the pizzicati, au talon and arco melange halts and the four lines come together in a four-octave-wide unison stringendo before a ferocious reversion to taws.

It sounds like an onslaught and in some ways it was, but the players found room for a bit of tempo flexibility along with the pressing motor-rhythms, so much so that the effect was far from freneticism for its own sake. The ensemble was crisp and exact as the players set out the ordered clash between modal and dissonant writing that started in D and ended in C. The result was pacy and entertaining to hear as the machismo level in the Townsville theatre took an upward turn.

Violist Thomas Chawner dominated the following Allegretto, his partners giving him an unobstructed field for his Number 1 solo. And he did not disappoint, generating a malleable and accurate line that exemplified the malincolia grotesca that Schulhoff required. Not to be outdone, cellist Marek Kowalik took up the reins after the the Tempo I marking: a 17-bar lyric of remarkable variety. All players made the sudden sul ponticello Nachtmusik a startling motion-packed melange before Chawner returned for a brief, acerbic cadenza leading to the last lingering and opening-recollecting violin solo; the texture quietly restless until the fade to darkness with a final squiggle from the top line.

It’s an unusual set of pages, organized but whimsical, and packed with effects that, for the most part, don’t get in the way. What I carried away was an awareness of the executants’ respect for every note and its placement, especially in the passagework of communal demi-semiquavers in pianissimo parallel motion. A turn back to the muscular broke in with the Allegro giocoso, a highpoint emerging at Number 2 with some gripping duets in fourths and a burst of unison work – the kind of fierce action that suits this group to a T. Nevertheless, five bars after Number 4 where the dynamic of the potentially Slovak melody is blazoned out, the composer’s forte enjoyed an upgrade to fortissimo. No wonder: this jaunty, affirmative and tautly written genre of composition presents an irresistible temptation to overload on testosterone.

In late Mahler mode, Schulhoff reserves his slow movement for the quartet’s finale: an Andante molto sostenuto of grave introspection, doubly telling after the hefty folksiness of its precedent. The cello has all the running to begin with, the bar-3 high A sharp not enjoying the most secure of treatments. But the landscape of dejection enjoyed some expertly accomplished interventions, like the viola and cello harmonics punctuations following Daniel Kowalik’s brief cadenza straight after Number 2, even if these sounded over-emphatic under the first violin’s sweet, atonal solo line.

The players completed their task with a moving account of the death-watch beetle mutterings in the final segment after Number 4, although the strictissimo sempre in tempo of the preceding violin two-bar cadenza proved to be something of a moveable feast. But the group made telling work of the quartet’s final, twitching bars in which several commentators have found intimations of Schulhoff’s concentration camp death 18 years later; stretching their levels of prescience, I think, since the writer’s state of mind at the time of this composition was more likely shadowed by his in-the-field experiences of World War I. Whatever your opinion, this haunting passage concluded an interpretation that successfully balanced brio and placidity, often on consecutive pages.

Opening their debut MDCH appearance, the Oravas ran through their chosen Haydn with its inane title. First violin Daniel Kowalik surprised with his rubato approach to the first aspiring theme, and you were unable to pick out a steady pulse until the semiquavers kicked off in bar 22. Still, the ensemble showed its teeth at places like bar 54 with a few bars of upper-level orderly scurrying. And, to their credit, the group stayed consistent in their schizoid interpretation, changing to ambling pace whenever the ‘sunrise’ theme emerged.

Along with the interrupted impetus approach, you could be surprised by individual touches as well, like the ringing top A flat from Daniel Kowalik at bar 85, the well-judged prefatory ritenuto at bar 108, cellist Marek Kowalik’s attention-grabbing slight delay at bar 166, and the clarity at work in the players’ output during polyphonic interchanges like those beginning at bar 130. Not that the balance remained perfect throughout. In the second movement Adagio, a sudden rush of blood meant that the first violin’s G across bar 2 disappeared in the forceful subsidiary E flats from second violin David Dalseno and Karel Kowalik. Urgency wasn’t actually in play here but the pace chosen seemed to me to be on the quick side.

Countering the steady-pace regularity came odd spots like the pause before starting bar 27, the reason for which was hard to fathom unless the group considered that the first violin’s leap from a staff-top G to a low E pointed to a need for opening a new sentence. A slow-down move at bar 35 heralded a pace that sounded more like an adagio. Later, progress came to an arresting halt at bar 51 for the first violin’s quaver rest, possibly to highlight the main theme’s resuscitation en clair. Dalseno took his time over his exposed semiquavers in bar 60, but then I would have liked more time expended on the C minor fermata chord in bar 65.

I liked the hesitant start to the Menuetto‘s main theme, as it made a point of the determination invested in the following measures, but it might have been varied with profit further down the track; you didn’t have to utilise that tic all the time. Haydn’s enigmatic Trio enjoyed a welcome equivalence of speed, rather than being slowed down for its minor/chromatic suggestions; the result gave a fine drive to the whole section, although – again – I thought the fermata at bar 97 could have been sustained a tad longer.

Another idiosyncrasy appeared early in the Allegro finale where both violins inserted a slight comma after their last note in bar 3 – and repeated this quirk every time the pattern was repeated. Nevertheless, these pages passed along with plenty of sustained fluent action, the only question mark coming through at the Piu allegro of bar 110, after which the dovetailing of lines could/should have been smoother. Yet you had to admire without question the full-bodied unison octave work at bar 161, these musicians relishing a final welter and carrying it off with refreshing panache.

To cheer us up after the Schulhoff, the Oravas decided to play the Ravel movement, but I’m not sure if you could say they lightened the mood overmuch. Possibly the players see this piece as a benign nocturne, which is fair enough as a general view of its main body, with some superb interludes based on the first movement’s initial theme. More memorable than worrying about this choice of program extra, the reading included some splendid moments, like the viola’s richly pointed contribution at the key change at Number 1, and again at Number 2; and like the subtle pause at six bars after Number 2.

I missed out on the cello’s pedal E three bars after Number 5 – surprising, since the lowest line is marked piano while the other three parts are pitched at pianissimo; but then, perhaps it was my equipment at fault. Later, I missed the distinction in diminished dynamics in bars 6 and 7 after Number 8. But Chawner made a welcome, direct and expressively balanced reappearance at Number 9, taking his colleagues into a fine conclusion, especially a carefully calculated interpretation of the last seven bars. It made for a reassuringly ‘sweet’ ending to the night but a better result might have been achieved by outing Ravel’s second movement Assez vif, which melds rhythmic excitement with this some of this slow movement’s subtle shadings.

It was a well worthwhile exercise, in the end. These young musicians have been successful in forming a musical alliance that works exceptionally well, four voices distinguished from several other high-profile Australian ensembles for a practically flawless purity of intonation, and an equally reliable balance of output that is so good that you notice immediately those few places where it falters. And, of course, their program gave us a welcome reminder of what ‘normal’ life looks like in a state that is coming closer than most to cultural resurrection.