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City Recital Hall, Sydney
March 18, 2014
Chamber music presenters take note: if you want to put your audience in a good mood before you start, stuff ‘em to the gills with fine food and wine. The Goldner String Quartet are currently engaged in a celebration of Sydney’s sister cities and someone came up with the splendid idea of inviting the audience to sample the cuisine of seven nations as a precursor to hearing some representative music of each of them.
Comfortably replete with duck pancakes (China), sushi (Japan) and some remarkable creations based around the humble Yorkshire pudding (UK), washed down with some fine Huntington Estate wines the Goldners proceeded to entertain us with a whistle stop tour around the world in 80 minutes.
We set off from home with an immaculately performed movement from Peter Sculthorpe’s Jabiru Dreaming String Quartet (No 11) – the jabiru, by the way, is a stork that looks like it’s walking backwards when really it’s moving forwards (!) With cello imitating the didgeridoo, violins representing bird calls and the humble Aussie fly, and an ecstatic melody on viola this was the perfect farewell to country. And no one knows this music as well as the Goldners who have recorded Sculthorpe’s complete oeuvre.
Next stop England and a movement from Elgar’s noble yet oddly resigned String Quartet in E Minor – a Goldner speciality if you know their superb Hyperion recording. Again, utterly distinguished playing, thoroughly inside the music.
China was represented by a beautifully engaging work by Zhou Long. Song of the Ch’in (a ch’in being an ancient zither) is a meditative miniature masterpiece full of gentle plucked strings, glissandi, ephemeral tremolandi and snatches of a charming folk-like melody. At times it reminded me of Janáček (but utterly Chinese if that makes sense).
Gareth Farr’s Te Tai-o-Rehua was the New Zealand entry, perhaps the least distinctive work here, but it was followed by something very special – a perfect, wrapt account of the adagio from Samuel Barber’s String Quartet (what was to become the ubiquitous Adagio for Strings). This was playing of intense simplicity, deeply moving and with a heart-stopping climax.
Takemitsu’s bleak, isolated A Way a Lone was next – not the most Japanese sounding of the composer’s works (it could have come straight out of Berg’s Lyric Suite) but an effective piece taking its lead from Finnegan’s Wake we were told. To wash all this down, like a good chianti, was the opening movement of Verdi’s String Quartet – his only chamber work – in a lively, light-footed account.
It’s easy to take playing like this for granted. The thing about the Goldner String Quartet, you see, is the sheer no-nonsense, unfussy excellence of the playing. There’s no unnecessary histrionics, no having to retune in the middle of the programme – just watertight ensemble work, immaculate solos and good old-fashioned, polite, musicianship.
In his speech at the start of proceedings, Dene Olding put in a bid for the GSQ to become the resident quartet of the United Nations. On this showing, and given the number of consuls in the Angel Place audience, I would say they were in with a very good chance.