Concourse Theatre, Chatswood
Tuesday August 23, 2022
A program of familiarities offering no surprises: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms – and played straight through without an interval. Which would have been testing for the concentration powers of any intellectually frolicsome members in the Sydney Mozart Society, which organization sponsored the event, bringing one of Melbourne’s favourite chamber ensembles to the North Shore, then allying them with one of the Harbour City’s bright-spark pianists. We heard the last of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, that in A Major; then an a quattro version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 414, the earlier of the A Major couple; and the String Quartet No. 1 by Brahms in C minor (for a change of key). A most satisfying entertainment for the true musical conservatives among us – well, on paper.
But the reality was pretty rough and ready in its delivery style. Actually, that’s a bit too polite: a more proper estimation would be ‘scruffy’, with a cavalier regard for detail even as early as bars 8 to 10 in the first Allegro where Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba‘s first violin semiquavers were smothered under some low-lying chord support. And it wasn’t much better the second time around, although by then both violins had roused discontent with some ragged intonational pairing further into the exposition. Throughout, the emphasis rested on a sort of rusticity with little polish or finesse applied, as in the aggressive opening to the recapitulation. For all that, I was disappointed that the movement’s larger second part wasn’t repeated.
It seems unfair to single out the first violin line but it is dominant in this work; so, when it falters, the performance’s ambience is weakened, as at the uncertain repeated E crotchets between bars 19 and 20 of the Adagio, and a poor assault on bar 21’s top F sharp. By about half way through, the reading’s aggressive style had taken over, become the norm and you reconciled with the Concourse’s lively acoustic. Second violin Wilma Smith‘s descending thirds starting at bar 65 proved uneasy in execution but Helen Ireland‘s viola striding arpeggios at bar 55 and onwards gave the work’s progress some welcome solidity. Something went awry with the first violin’s B sharp in the third last bar, marring an otherwise amiable resolution.
Once again, both violins were not sufficiently synchronised at a pivotal bar 8 of the Menuetto, although the repeat showed an improvement. In fact, this part of the work worked better than others because it could take some brisk handling, although I found the Trio‘s second half clumsily treated – a case of bucolic overkill. Fortunately, the final Fuga held some cerebral pleasure, mainly for its internal workings (even if these aren’t that strenuous), and for the moveable feast whereby the first subject’s four-semiquaver group enjoyed both regular and clipped handling.
When Jambazian joined in for the Mozart, errors still occurred, if not so prominently. The violin lines at the octave in bars 13 to 15 of the first movement sounded disjunct in tuning but the opening tutti as a whole showed improvement as the score moved forward. The pianist matched his quartet-orchestra in determination although he could pull out the lapidary stops as well, e.g. the 8 bar solo at bar 152, and the delicate figuration later beginning at bar 224.. Still, mistakes arose for no apparent reason with the B notes at bar 14 of the cadenza, and a mis-step further on at bar 32. Just as in the Haydn, the Allegro‘s closing bars came over as willing but ragged.
You could say that matters improved during the Andante; certainly, the violin duo worked to bracing effect in the unison bars 15 to 18, a passage that shone out for its singular eloquence, even if a repeat at bars 51 to 55 was less unified in pitching Jambazian observed a disciplined attack but the movement’s fluency was disturbed by a transmission blackout which had to be compensated for in a later viewing (the ADCH ticket purchase means you can review the whole performance for 72 hours after the initial transmission). I didn’t see what was gained by the arpeggiation of the E minor chord in bar 76: the melody restatement post-mini cadenza was proceeding amiably when this idiosyncrasy came up: slight but uncalled-for, I would have thought. Still, the post-major cadenza finishing-off was fairly clean.
Jambazian took a hearty approach to the Rondeau when he entered at bar 21, rising to hyper-metallic by bar 81. An odd error blunted the player’s output, e.g. bar 91, and the thistledown-light syncopations at bars 122-3 were over-emphatic. Mind you, the player sustained this style into his reading of Cadenza B which here prefigured Beethoven, although an inexplicable arpeggio flaw at bar 17 made the near-truculent flame flicker. Mozart’s light-stepping finale would have gained from less heavily-applied power from all participants; at the end, you wondered where the expected light and grace had gone.
A more suitable fit for the Flinders’ energy came with the Brahms C minor Quartet where flexing took over pretty early in the opening Allegro; luckily, the exposition repeat gave a better indication of the ensemble’s talents although that middle B in Smith’s bar 7 triple stop didn’t sit comfortably in the mesh. But, for all of the enthusiasm shown, the dynamic became overwhelmingly heavy, as at bar 52 and in the urgency of Brahms’ development which often bordered on hysterical. When the temperature cooled, strange things happened like a palpably wrong note in the violin 1/viola octave unison at bar 162. And moments that you anticipate with relish, like the wrenching violins’ duet between bars 178 and 181, misfired because of an absence of lyricism. Occasionally, Pavlovic-Hobba inserted a portamento that recalled a delivery style from a bygone age (he was alone, it seemed, in exercising this individuality), but he gave a splendid account of himself in the final burst of high-octane fervour across bars 231 to 239.
Not that you hadn’t noticed her until now, but Zoe Knighton‘s cello solo at bar 7 of the Poco adagio made for a welcome burst of moderately applied lushness. But the whole group came pretty close to fulfilling expectations right from the start of this romanze, notably in detailed work, like the alternating arpeggios across bars 61-63. Ireland’s viola emerged in fine voice during the following Allegretto molto; unusually effective in this busy, if not cluttered, environment. I admired the carefully shared switches between Pavlovic-Hobba and Ireland from bar 38, even if you might have asked for more vibrato on the sustained notes.
A firm and bold account of the finale’s opening statement – all two bars of it – prefaced the ensemble’s double-faceted interpretation which held some fine passages of play juxtaposed with others that were unsatisfactory because of faulty articulation and dynamics that held little common currency as the lines hurtled forwards. Still, that underlying impulse was maintained and a carefully outlined sweep from bar 219 to the concluding cadence made for a more impressive demonstration than might otherwise have been expected, given the push-through impetus that obtained for this movement’s more thickly-textured moments.
I’ve heard the Flinders at work for many years now – right from the start, in fact, when Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins began the group in partnership with survivors Ireland and Knighton. Other changes to the violin personnel have come about over the years, although nothing nearly as drastic has taken place as it has with the Australian String Quartet where, in comparison, Nothing beside remains. We know that COVID has brought discontinuity to musicians on all sides and in all lands, but ample rehearsal preparation time has returned as a concomitant of public performance. Judging by this night’s display, the Flinders have quite a way to go before they reach the level of homogeneity that obtained in the group’s earlier years. This will be particularly important when the possibility/probability of programming transparencies like Haydn and Mozart arises, although it appears that the rest of the ensemble’s year is headed for a more meat-and-three-veg diet.