MOZART MENDELSSOHN BEETHOVEN
Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood
Thursday November 3, 2022
(L to R) Adam Chalabi, Lerida Delbridge, Justin Williams, Patrick Murphy
I’ll never understand audiences, even after a lifetime of sitting among them through all kinds of musical events. My current prime instance of incomprehension was to do with this recital from the Tinalleys, given for the Sydney Mozart Society which runs a worthwhile series each year. Put simply, these experienced musicians presented a program to satisfy conservative tastes and carried out their task to a fine standard: three perceptive interpretations with remarkably few quibbling points. Yet the responses from this pack of patrons proved to be half-hearted. Are they used to better? I’d suggest not, given what I’ve heard from Sydney’s chamber music scene. But there you go; I just hope that the group wasn’t too let down by the lack of enthusiasm that met their dealings with Mozart K. 421 in D minor, Mendelssohn’s Op.80 written as the composer neared his end, and Beethoven’s Harp Op. 74.
I’ve been reviewing the Tinalley players since their beginning – or close to it. Second violin Lerida Delbridge and viola Justin Williams are surviving founders from the ensemble’s establishment in 2003; cello Michelle Wood, also a founder, only left in 2017 which, to me, is yesterday. I barely remember former first violins Kristian Winther and Ayano Ninomiya but neither was in the position for very long; a year or two each, possibly. And foundation member Emma Skillington’s occupation of the second violin chair till 2006 while Delridge was on first has completely receded into the ever-encroaching mists. Current cello Patrick Murphy I’ve encountered in his previous life as a member of the Tankstream Quartet, while the most intense exposure I’ve had with Adam Chalabi has come through his pit work leading Orchestra Victoria. To put the current state of play into some contemporary perspective, Chalabi, Delbridge and Williams have been Tinalley collaborators for well over a decade, with Murphy the Johnny-come-lately in 2018.
More surprising is the group’s association with Queensland at which state’s university it has been Quartet in Residence since 2018. Chalabi is Associate Professor of Violin at UQ; Murphy is Cello Performance Fellow at the same institution. Further south, Williams holds the post of assistant principal with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where Delbridge is assistant concertmaster. Since moving here, I’ve heard very few samples of music-making from the University of Queensland; its competition, Griffith University’s Conservatorium, is much better placed in terms of access – well, for those of us who travel a fair way for our music. So, nothing from the Tinalley for some time before I left Melbourne at the end of 2019 – just before everyone pulled in their aesthetic horns. A true pleasure, then, to find the group undiminished despite personnel vagaries (slight) and performance opportunities (also light-on).
In this full-bodied program, the players aimed high. Their Mozart came across with a welcome brisk coherence, evident in a clipped reading of bars 15 to 16 where togetherness is all. But then the entire exposition to this initial Allegro moderato maintained involvement on both sides, in no small measure due to the Australian Digital Concert Hall‘s exemplary miking of the players in this half-empty, resonant space. Each player emerged from the mixture with character, like Williams during the development in an urgent, edgy line. Indeed, this section passed all too rapidly (Mozart’s fault) before the last pages, Chalabi in excellent form across his triplets beginning at bar 98. Sadly, the group eschewed the temptation to repeat the ‘second half’, as they might have done, if my Barenreiter edition speaks truly.
Similarly, the group didn’t observe the Andante‘s repeat possibilities but, by the time we arrived at bar 66, the prevailing synchronization level was high (where better? The movement is here at its final reprise) and the only flaw I found was in missing the low G of Delbridge’s bar 83. You could appreciate the Concourse Theatre’s echo in the following Allegretto, alongside Chalabi’s care with the Trio, that section’s resonant second-half duet with Williams delighting even more the second time around, as did the dynamic relief at the chromatic slips from bar 23 during the Menuetto‘s reprise. Just when you got used to the abstention from repetitions in the finale variations, the players offered one in the second half of Variation 4! Yet again, the approach proved attractively crisp with respect shown for the score’s inbuilt balance, so that Chalabi didn’t feel the need to saw out his semiquavers in Variation 1 and his duet-of-sorts with Delbridge across Variation 2 where their cross-hatched fortepiano accents proved an illustration of cohesion in action. Across these pages, the only defect I heard came somewhere in Williams’ chromatic ascent in bar 91, almost forgotten by the enunciative consonance between both violins in their octave work during Variation 4.
A deftly ambiguous Piu allegro brought this work home, that brilliant fade to grey over the last 9 bars carried out with restraint underlining the composer’s remarkable lack of flamboyance – or rather, his maintaining of the melody’s quiet desperation up to its final flickers. I found this to be splendid music-making but the Society greeted the end of play with tepid applause.
Then, the Tinalleys made the jump of 64 years to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet in which the dark canvas has been alleged to represent the composer’s grief on the death of his sister Fanny. As an elegy, the work isn’t right because you don’t find many traces of resignation or emotional distance (except insofar as Mendelssohn was unable to move into deep tragedy with conviction), but it does convey agitation and a well-mannered despair. To be honest, I don’t understand Felix’s devotion to Fanny – or any such intense devoted-sibling relationship – especially as both brother and sister had families of their own and his emotional collapse on learning of her passing belongs to a sensibility that strikes me as over-ripe. Nevertheless, this Op. 80 is his last major work and a considerable creation, regardless of its gestational sources.
Right from the opening flurries, this interpretation showed determination, the musicians disciplined in their scrubbing semiquavers and vaulting triplets. Chalabi’s high B flats at the Allegro vivace assai‘s climax proved true and gripping while Murphy’s minim-rich line under his colleague’s subsiding antics before the key change to F Major came across with persuasive richness. As well, the Presto final pages showed a boldness and mutual confidence that did fine service to a passage in which the composer comes close to non-straitened anger. Not much wrong with the Allegro assai although the sforzando markings that, in my edition, are peppered across this scherzo were not remarkably different from their surroundings which stayed at a forte level most of the time. More high-quality duet work came from Williams and Murphy in octave duet for the Trio but, yet again, the group impressed most with their quietly lugubrious recall of that Trio in this movement’s concluding 38 bars.
Every so often, Williams’ viola tended to overpower Delbridge in dialogue passages across the Adagio to this work but my main problem with this section was a reticence in Chalabi’s line at the mid-movement change of key, particularly at the top line’s exposed moments. Against that, set the tenderness brought into play during the final passage following Murphy’s descending scale solo: a moment where the emotional wrench is reined in but intensely moving. To finish, Mendelssohn uses brief motives for an Allegro molto, here given as much fluency as practical, these musicians wresting full power from the rhythmically conjunct duets and trios that occupy much of the action. Indeed, the movement maintained its excitement, the circumscribed energy close to emotionally moving for its straining against Mendelssohn’s innate self-control. Yet again, the Society enjoyed a worthy rendition that brought out the score’s best features with fine skill; and, once more, the response proved lukewarm.
And so to the big-boned Beethoven work which came into being about half-way between the composition of this program’s other two elements. No second-half falling-away here: the Tinalleys preserved their discipline, well exemplified by the rhythmic precision of the Poco adagio‘s 7-bar sentence leading into the first movement’s main body. The complex sounded a tad unsettled in the violins’ first alternating pizzicati dialogue but the ensemble work proved remarkably lucid; for example, in the duet of extremes between first violin and cello that starts at bar 96 and continues almost until the recapitulation. But all credit to Chalabi for his handling of the Bach-reminiscent semiquaver spinning that occupies central position in the movement’s buoyant coda: as accurate as I’ve heard and avoiding all suggestion of patterns for their own sake.
Sweetness without over-sugaring typified the Adagio which was finely paced and exact, down to the soft chords that conclude the first episode of this rondo. Delbridge distinguished herself with a careful density of texture at her bar 94 entry, taking over an accompanying figure from Williams who sounded over-demonstrative by comparison. Despite that, the group treated this lyric with consideration and achieving over its length a placid eloquence. By contrast, the following Presto impressed as urgent, scouring the ear with its brusqueries. Even more insistent were the two Trio outbursts which gave you the sense that they would tip into an uncontrollable sprawl at any second – just what you want when handling a quasi prestissimo.
Chalabi announced the Allegretto‘s theme very carefully; too much so for me as some notes disappeared because the first note of each phrase was over-pronounced. But the six variations were deftly treated as Beethoven shared the limelight in this movement: every player gets a guernsey. Only one bar left an uneasy impression: the first violin’s concluding flourish to the first half of Variation V. But, one brief transmission disruption aside, this quartet concluded with convincing freshness, notable in the last allegro unison rush of semiquaver exuberance.
And you realized at night’s end why the group had been judicious in its choices of what to repeat and what to leave with one run-through. This was a solid night’s work, just fitting into the usual two-hour program length that used to be normal practice but is rare in our current era of the short-change. It doesn’t need to be hammered again, but I will: this eloquent reading was met with slightly more applause than had greeted its programmatic predecessors, but not nearly enough to show sufficient acknowledgement of the Tinalley players’ level of professionalism and insight. I’ve got uncomfortable memories of Bernard Heinze scolding a Sydney Town Hall audience for its inertia after he’d conducted the first Australian performance (I think) of Walton’s Symphony No. 2. But that was in part the result of a mediocre run-through of a tiring score, while this Beethoven interpretation was undeniably excellent. If for nothing else, we need to reinforce our musicians’ self-esteem, particularly when they are functioning at a high standard in their craft.