And it’s goodbye from him

BARTOK MENDELSSOHN FISCHER

Australian String Quartet

Edge Auditorium, State Library of Queensland

Friday June 18, 2021

Stephen King, Michael Dahlenburg, Francesca Hiew, Dale Barltrop

Back in Brisbane after a year’s absence, the ASQ has a new member and, on this night, was losing an old one. Fresh-faced cellist Michael Dahlenburg has been a familiar face to Melbourne audiences through his time at the Australian National Academy of Music and his appearances as chief cello and supplementary conductor with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. In his new slim-line form, he has managed to slot into the national quartet with impressive facility, showing to fine advantage in this night’s music-making which moved from the sublime, through the comfortable, to the over-hyped derivative.

Leaving the ensemble after a 10-year stint, violist Stephen King has operated on a wider scale, more chamber-music savvy than many of his colleagues thanks to his years with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Putting his instrument to one side, King is staying with the organization in a new role – Director of Learning and Engagement – and I hope he finds much fulfilment in a post that merges education with . . . well, more education. It’s always a positive sign that an ensemble can trust its tenor line to stay true to the task in all senses, and King has been a reliably confident voice in the ASQ, even through its problem years when certain members came close to shutting the enterprise down.

As King’s farewell, the ASQ administration opted for a set of three works, the last of which gave a fair dose of viola exposure. This was Pavel Fischer’s String Quartet No. 3, Mad Piper, based on the exploits of Bill Millin, who piped his regiment ashore through the D-Day landing at the behest of an infantile commanding officer with a penchant for national colour. First violin Dale Barltrop proposed traces of Scottish flavouring in the score, but I heard only middle-European folk-music influences – a poor man’s Bartok. Mind you, the performers were enthusiastic interpreters of this work, which was heavy-hitting in its percussiveness and almost involving through its employment of driving melodic scraps. From what I can recall, King fulfilled the main role in Movement III with almost all the limelight, while his colleagues gave a backdrop of uninflected, vibrato-less chords to his slow lyrical arches.

In fact, I found this segment the most convincing part of the work. A large-scale opening movement was intended to outline the activity of Millin on June 6, 1944 and the canvas drawn for us by Fischer, co-founder of the Skampa Quartet, showed a wild and hectic aural landscape but one that would have sufficed just as well for a particularly rough Moldavian rural engagement party. Even now, I’m unsure as to the point where the first two movements were separated but doubtless repeated performances will make the score’s parameters more clear. As its final Ursari movement shows, Fischer is adept at bringing out unusual sounds from his interpreters, at the same time rooting the composition in a solid folk tradition – in this case, judging by the title, Romanian.

As a wake-them-up demonstration of technical ability, Mad Piper has a decided impact, even if you tire of the hefty scraping involved and a chain of rhythmic vaults and turns that don’t surprise or disturb. At the end, the approbation was long and loud – a reaction that in my view fell somewhere between relief and approval. Despite the composer’s full-blooded relish of dissonances, his language is essentially tonal, based on the normal with lashings of distractions. In the end, you had to be happy to hear King’s swansong played with intense eloquence, yet you could also experience a fretting worry that the emotional content of this work sounded over-done, at its happiest when all four players were constructing walls of confrontational fabric that simply merged into each other without much intent beyond the activity itself.

In medias res, the ASQ aired Mendelssohn No. 1 in E flat Major, written in the composer’s 20th year and notable for its second movement Canzonetta which used to be an encore piece for quartets who found few rewards in the other three segments of the score. A different state of affairs on this night when the ensemble gave a warm-bodied and eloquent reading of the opening Adagio/Allegro, its middle and bass registers dominant while Barltrop attempted a counter-argument with a line that rises to a sustained high G twice but keeps below an E flat two octaves-and-a-bit above Middle C for the rest of the movement, for some of the time pursuing a close-current conversation with the rest of the group although the last 34 bars are a typical one-sided coda in the top violin’s favour.

Displaying fine taste, the players kept the second movement to Mendelssohn’s specified allegretto pace, undrelining the piece’s delectable spikiness within inbuilt limitations. Possibly the highpoint of the whole work comes in the Piu mosso G Major central Trio where shades of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream come dropping fast, excellently outlined by the upper and lower pairs in turn. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the following Andante, mainly because all the emphasis falls on the first violin, particularly the two sections that sound like recitatives starting at bar 19 and a more expanded version 17 bars from the movement’s end. Barltrop might have been feeling the need to hold back in these pages because the impression was of a restrained approach outside tutti passages.

The group gave the composer his required attacca into the finale which gives plenty of action to everyone but to these jaded ears presents as one L’istesso tempo too many. You couldn’t find fault with the executants’ determination and bounding energy but it’s a hard slog of a piece with very little harmonic interest, and the capitulation to E flat in the final bars is a disappointment after the preceding minor-coloured argument. Still, the packed audience welcomed with relieved enthusiasm this sometimes stodgy sample of the composer as a young man playing the part of a veteran, particularly after their exposure to the night’s initial offering.

This was Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3 and, to be fair, the score is still a confrontation for its harmonic bloody-mindedness, terse format and determination to follow its own path with no concern for anything extraneous. Each time I hear it, that startling story resurfaces in my memory about the first American performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in its orchestral format. Bartok partnered his wife Ditta, supported by the New York Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner. It’s a hard enough work to negotiate under ideal conditions but at one point in a rehearsal Bartok went his own way and showed perplexity amounting to annoyance when the rest of the musicians faltered. This was his last public performance and it’s not hard to understand why.

But the same confrontational dedication to formal ideals and an acerbic delineation of counterpoint informs this quartet more than any other similar composition that I know from this time (1927), apart from compositions by the Second Viennese School.. The ASQ interpretation had much to recommend it, although the opening bars cluster built on Dahlenburg’s C sharp+contiguous D harmonic failed to convince until Barltrop was well into his first long melodic arc. To my mind, the group impressed most in the slashing chords that punctuated the Prima parte‘s development, as in the vivid stretch from Rehearsal Number 7 to four bars past Number 8 (in the Boosey & Hawkes edition) which impressed for its dark deliberation. Nevertheless, the reading had settled into coherence by the time we reached the doubled scraps before the end three bars after Number 11.

Second violin Francesca Hiew‘s 39-bar-long D/E flat trill (with upper additions) gave a generously applied support for the opening to Bartok’s Seconda parte where Dahlenburg and King announced in pizzicato chords the simple folk-tune that provides a baics reference point for this movement before Barltrop span out the main feature with welcome refinement at Number 3. No group can avoid showing the near-disturbing intensity of effort required to handle the composer’s technical demands: sound-production devices that once seemed so revolutionary, for instance, as well as keeping a communal head in the fugal flurries that erupt in a hurtlingly rapid tempo that, apart from one brief rallentando, seems to increase in bite and headlong motion with each Piu mosso.

It’s still an alarmingly difficult Allegro to handle but I couldn’t detect any obvious faults in the ASQ’s interpretation which impressed for its precision and spirit of confrontation without relaxation. While the succeeding Recapitulazione della prima parte offered some relief from the dynamic and rhythmic tension, the linear interplay remained taut, particularly subsequent to Number 3 when the main content of the movement begins. And the players rose to meet the draining Coda with unflagging energy, Hiew and Dahlenburg contriving to cut across the violin and viola partnership at Number 5 with incisive delivery. This is exhausting music to experience: an Allegro molto that doesn’t let up once it hits the Meno vivo (but not much less) mark at Number 3 . Bartok is somehow able to convince you of a successful outcome in his last insistent chords – all 12 of them – but you are left both exhilarated and drained by the experience. Well, you should be, especially when the performance was delivered with this group’s level of insight and exacting delivery.

But the audience reaction struck me as lethargic, nowhere near as enthusiastic as that for the following Mendelssohn and Fischer. What can you do? Bartok’s score is nearly a century old and still has the potential to disturb and alienate, just as it did when I first heard it in Sydney some time during the late 1950s. For the majority of Brisbane’s ASQ patrons, it seems that sounds heard must be sweet; even century-old chamber music milestones can be discounted in this communally accepted triumph of diatonicism. Still, a tepid reaction didn’t upset me as much as the clown in seat F8 or 9 behind me, who coughed at regular intervals across the night; even his partner occasionally got in on the act. The rules are unwritten but clear, and I’ve seen them observed at orchestral concerts here; if you’ve got a cough, you get up and go out to put yourself in order, rather than sitting in the middle of a hall spreading COVID germs. I know Brisbane’s attitude to health is relaxed but there is such a thing as the public good.

So it’s a welcome to Dahlenburg and clear evidence on this night that he’ll make a welcome presence in this group that has almost settled into a regular pattern since Barltrop came to the first violin desk. But, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a replacement for King in the wings – or is there? Whatever he outcome, he will be missed for his reliability and individuality of output, his mastery across the repertoire and, as we have seen in the 2015 Highly Strung documentary, an admirable grace under abnormal circumstances and an impressively even temper; this last quality a must-have for any musical administrator.