Wiping the floor


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday July 4


Australian String Quartet

                                                                Australian String Quartet

And then there are the nights when everything pans out   –   the playing is as close as live performance gets to flawless, the works programmed combine (despite appearances) to offer a solid display of prowess and musical intelligence, any defects are swamped by the context in which they momentarily rear up.  The latest subscription series recital from this ensemble was exemplary: four performances that should have had the Murdoch Hall audience roaring for more.

Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew again impressed for the unusual nature of their upper-layer combination.  Both seem to read each other like performers with an inbuilt agility resulting from decades passed in shared experience, their partnership generating lines rich in fine synchronicity and balance.  At the same time, each has a distinctive colour: where Barltrop produces a finely spun, athletic line, Hiew offers a sturdier heft to the combination with a vitally pronounced lower register.  Further to this, violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper collaborate in similar style, King’s trenchant output a fine match for one of the fiercest bass lines at play on the local chamber music scene.

Not that this harnessed aggression came to the fore straight away; the group opened with Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, that ground-breaking suite of atonal wisps and blurts that somehow manages to make a set of individual statements that cohere to present its listeners with a coherent sound-world, despite those sound-production techniques that still have the power to startle, especially the lavish use of sul ponticello directions and the application of mutes.  What took you aback about this reading was a tenderness  given to the disjunct strands of sound that permeate each page; in the ASQ’s hands, Webern’s pp markings were barely audible and the expressionist suggestions of the opening movement and later the restless ostinati and unison eruption of the third came over with a veiled drama that satisfied much more than the galvanic spasms of action that other ensembles favour.

A rigorous respect again emerged in the following Haydn,  Op. 20 No. 2 in C Major. Draper’s cello set the scene with an impressive firmness as the composer begins jockeying with his force’s contrapuntal interplay, and the group’s determination was sustained up to the jaunty fugue/finale.  What you noticed was a lack of over-simplification, so that the Menuet came across with an unexpected grittiness; not that the reading lacked bounce, but the chromatic fall of the movement’s second half impressed for its dourness after the high-flying skittishness of Barltrop’s G major ascent to a high B immediately beforehand. And the unison opening to Haydn’s Adagio, in its purity of articulation, brought back memories of the Webern’s more dramatic bars.

Joe Chindamo’s 2013 String Quartet No. 1 is cast in the traditional four movements: Tempesta, Lament/Seduction, Frenzy and Flight.  An amiable work, its emotional statements avoid extreme expression; the promised storm is a pretty well-controlled outpouring and the frenetic pages later on show up surprisingly balanced and well-proportioned.  For all its moderate temper, the piece enjoyed a deft, enthusiastic exposition from these players who ensured that the composer’s expression markings and tempo shifts were given full measure, from the oscillations between storm and momentary calm in the opening movement, through the pizzicato-heavy vibrancy of the Frenzyscherzo, to the psychologically ambivalent finale.  Chindamo employs lucid melodic and harmonic structures, looking back on the quartet’s accepted heritage rather than employing the lingua franca of the post-Webern school; a blast definitely back to the past, but none the less attractive for that.

Just in the right program position, the ASQ came to Mendelssohn’s last in F minor which is inextricably linked with the death of his sister Fanny.  The score is a moving revelation of the composer’s profound reaction to this loss, an essay in a quality that rises above gentlemanly despair, where the composer’s craft is subsumed in an atypical and sustained tragedy.   Here the performers gave another sterling interpretation, maintaining the tension from the first Allegro‘s urgent rustlings onward.   Despite the intensity of attack, each musician maintained a consistent dynamic level in the ensemble, the work reaching its climax at the change in key signature in the core of the Adagio where the  delivery of Mendelssohn’s fortissimo outburst with Barltrop riding the blast was both emphatic and dangerously intense, the sort of risky straining at the bit that you rarely hear from more temperamentally circumscribed ensembles.

In this powerful piece, the ASQ capped off a generous and redoubtable stretch of playing where memorable passages remain in the memory long after, like the insistent syncopations disrupting the even pulse during the first part of the Allegro assai, and the beneficence of those two melting passages where the quavers and triplets stop for the first movement’s placid interludes.

In  fact, the only complaint you could make about this night would have to do with the audience.  It amazes me that some concert-going individuals will insist on giving full vent to their adenoidal or catarrhal problems at inopportune moments mid-performance.  Even more startling is the dual practice by such recital hall offal of continuing to inflict their medical drawbacks at large for extended periods, at the same time making no effort to muffle their all-too-audible mucous movements.  You can sit in the Recital Centre’s Salon for a solid hour and not experience any of this unpleasantness; up in the Hall, it seems, anything goes.  An experienced usher once told me that elderly people are often unaware that they are acting offensively; maybe, but more than a few of these clowns look suspiciously middle-aged.   Some old adages make good sense – like, if you’re sick, stay home.






Ring in the half-new


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 3

In its current format, this ensemble shows loads of skill.  Alongside the two survivors from its previous formation – viola Stephen King and cello Sharon Draper – the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, has taken on first violin duties, with another MSO musician,  Francesca Hiew, playing second violin.  On first showing, the combination makes a fine collective sound, particularly in the central elements of Wednesday’s program.  The solitary problem comes with the bass line which, in the new context, can sound muffled.  Which could come from the nature of Draper’s peers – Barltrop’s sound colour is precise and fine, Hiew his timbral complement with an output of solid determination,  King maintaining his full-bodied and accurate projection, a continual pleasure from this leading light in the country’s chamber music tenor ranks.

Australian String Quartet
Australian String Quartet

Or it could arise from the nature of the instrument.  The ASQ is using a chest of Guadagnini instruments, the cello the earliest made.   Time – and usage – will tell if the instruments are well-matched in more than name or provenance.  And it has to be said that the under-demonstrative character of the bass layer was not uniform throughout the program; in fact, the more contemporary the music, the more it entered into the mix as a full partner.

The players began with Beethoven, the last of the Op. 18 set and  an amiable introduction to the group’s standard.  Barltrop  initiated a firm and clear-speaking interpretation, the opening imitation-work with Draper jaunty and clear although the group’s inter-dependence showed at its most remarkable in the Scherzo/Trio third movement where the rapid speed made the violins’ syncopations as efficiently discombobulating as the composer would have wished.  As well, you could find much to admire in the balance of levels during the final movement’s famous La Malincolia first page adagio and the group made a determined fist of the disappointing Allegretto that follows, pages where the effort always seems more gripping than the material.

Balancing this conservative-with-a-difference first gambit, the ASQ finished their night in Schumann’s  A minor, a score that is heard rarely enough, in my experience mainly at chamber music competitions whn a young ensemble tries to break away from the expected Romantic-period offering and generally does itself no good.  Luckily, the work enjoyed a fine run-through this time around, King partnering Hiew in a passionate give-and-take dialogue during the formally simple but voluble central Adagio.

The night’s guest, percussionist Claire Edwardes, contributed a vibraphone part to the Melbourne premiere of Matthew Hindson’s String Quartet No. 4.  In two movements, the work sets up a contrast between animation and quiescence, although the freneticism of its first half was of a milder order than Barltrop’s introductory remarks had indicated; for sure, it lived up to its promise of action, packed with vaulting leaps of scales and arpeggio passages, the vibraphone adding a Bergian cast to the texture, if the experience yielded not much more interest than that of watching five performers beavering away enthusiastically at patterns.  The following movement almost falls into sustained melody but interests more as an exercise in dexterity treating uncomplicated, diatonic intervallic sequences – a placid cantilena for the most part, again with no pretensions to striking out in new directions, apart from the percussion overlay.

Later, Edwardes provided her own soundscape for three movements taken from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the off-centre amalgam by John Adams that manages to achieve that welcome rarity in American music: wry humour.  In place of the prepared-piano percussion tape loops set off by a quartet member, Edwardes utilised a set of everyday implements as a live-performer substitute; quite satisfactorily, as matters turned out. The clattering tram ride of Judah to Ocean was a triumph for the percussionist-arranger, the clanks and non-resonance of the piano’s stopped strings imitated with high success, while the following Habanera and Rag the Bone came across to the back of the hall without rousing much disappointment in their new sonic format, which actually added some spice to Adams’ tendency to labour his own atmosphere.

As a new start, this recital ticked many buttons.  It established the group’s authority in its handling of received repertoire; not simply by reviewing over-exposed quartets but by taking on a quirky, young Beethoven and the most original of Schumann’s three essays. The ASQ actually commissioned Hindson’s new work – admittedly with the help of several partners –  but the move  made clear that the players look for challenges, wish to stimulate local writers, and are quite prepared to take on unexpected partnerships in order to add to their recital experience.

On July 4, the group plays Webern’s brusque/wispy Five Pieces, one of Haydn’s Op. 20 in which  the composer dragged the string quartet into shape, Joe Chindamo’s two-year-old Tempesta, and Mendelssohn’s No. 6, his last.   On October 24, the ensemble’s third series program begins with Mozart’s final essay, K. 590, moves to Ligeti’s Metamorphoses nocturnes, and ends with Ravel.


A generous collection of masterpieces


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

November 25

I’ve not seen or heard a Selby & Friends recital for some time; renewing acquaintance, the most obvious change has been in audience size.  From the years when numbers were thin at Melba Hall, patronage has swollen to the point where seats are at a premium because the Edge space last night was sold out.  Maybe people were attracted by an all-Beethoven program; perhaps the combination of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Dale Barltrop, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve and Selby’s brave, polished pianism made an exceptionally attractive proposition.  Those music-lovers who managed to hear this recital were treated to a bracing tour of achievement peaks from the composer’s middle period.

Kathryn Selby, Timo-Veikko Valve, Dale Barltrop (image: fedsquare.com)
Kathryn Selby, Timo-Veikko Valve, Dale Barltrop (image: fedsquare.com)

Putting her guests to best use, Selby programmed a sonata for each, framed by two piano trios – one that’s almost not there, the other a trail-blazing masterwork.   In terms of substance, the No. 12 Trio offers little: one movement, an Allegretto that consists of a simple minuet, soon over and leaving not much impact.  A curtain-raiser, then, but one with a muted vivacity, particularly the piano part which holds the lion’s share of the (admittedly brief) action.

Beethoven’s final violin sonata, No. 10 in G Major, comes as a relaxation of tension after its famous predecessor, the A minor Kreutzer and follows that irregular oscillating pattern of power and placidity in the composer’s output – the jocund B flat Symphony between the Eroica and No. 5 in C minor, the rollicking alla tedesca Piano Sonata No. 25 sitting between the deeply-felt A Therese and Les Adieux pieces, that amiable Op. 74 Harp String Quartet sitting between the voluble final Rasoumovsky and the terse, unsettling F minor.  For all its approachability, the last violin sonata has not appeared regularly in chamber music programs, not as often as the Spring or C minor favourites.

Commentators have found a sort of farewell to arms in this work which comes from the centre of Beethoven’s middle period but which was, as a form, ignored by the composer from then on.  Selby and Barltrop performed it with an unfussy relish, both well-matched in the question-and-response opening strophes and maintaining a calm path through even those pages that tempt most to declamation.  As with all three major works on this night, the players had searched out a mode of operating that sprang from the score’s possibilities; rather than the usual smash-and-grab display of temperament, this was a considered, mutually respectful interpretation, riveting in passages like Selby’s negotiation of the low-lying chords and octaves that support the Adagio‘s opening statements, and later in the interlocking cadenzas of the finishing Allegretto where the usual flashiness was avoided and the work’s sinewy power spoke for itself.

The most familiar of the cello sonatas, the middle No. 3 in A Major, proclaimed its intentions from the start as well.  Timo-Veikko Valve outlined the unaccompanied first melody with restraint and the two brief cadenzas that tail each sentence were made to count as integral to the preliminary statement, rather than being tossed off as flourishes. When the movement proper began, both performers set a steady pace – Allegro, but not too much, as the direction requires – and at every turn you heard something new; not necessarily unexpected, but a shift in focus like a paragraph-ending rallentando, a hitherto-unknown doubling of the bass line, weight applied sparingly and not the often-encountered mindless pounding.  More than this, the work held an unusual fluency,  best heard in the last movement where Selby in particular negotiated the octave runs with a sotto voce grace and provided Valve with a true partnership like the miraculous moment at the centre of the movement where the cello has the main theme and the piano’s accompaniment of a rolling A Major triad supports it with a balalaika-style rustling – the effect here and the detail of accomplishment at many other stages achieved through innate musicality and a fine depth of preparation by both executants.

As you’d expect after this groundwork, the Archduke realization proved exceptionally fine: determined in attack, meticulous in dynamic balance, both strings ideal in their close ensemble work, most evident in the chain of sixths and thirds at the start to the Andante cantabile and the interleaving sustained notes at the movement’s end.  But the performance was loaded with extraordinary moments, like Selby’s strong Weber-reminiscent chord/arpeggio upward bounds punctuating the Scherzo‘s trio, the precision of her rapid trills in the finale and the amiable sharing of sound-space between the musicians with every contributor audible throughout.  We may wait some time before coming across a reading as enriching, informative and spirit-lifting as this one.