Wiping the floor


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday July 4, 2016

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, 2016

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 when 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.