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Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
December 2, 2014
Chamber music was traditionally conceived to be heard in small, intimate spaces, but in the intervening centuries we have been spolied by hearing live performances of chamber music in the generously flattering acoustic of the concert hall.
The Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House, despite its beautiful aquatic backdrop, is a rather arid and unforgiving space acoustically, and while there is a thrill in being so close to the performers that you can almost smell the rosin, it can expose any inconsistency in tone and balance. This was the challenge being tackled by the Australia Piano Quartet last night at their sell-out recital. This is a relatively young ensemble, formed just three years ago, but in that time they have quickly forged a reputation as one of the country’s most exciting and talented chamber groups.
The first piece offered by the quartet at this latest performance in their 2014 Utzon Room series, was Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor - an apt selection as this piece represents the first major work in the canon of Piano Quartet repertoire. It was commissioned by the composer and publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister as part of a series of works for the same line up, intended to be played by amateur musicians on their newly purchased Piano Fortes. However after receiving the work it became apparent that the technical demands of the music would be beyond all except the most skilled performers, and Hoffmeister quickly withdrew his requests for more quartets.
The Australia String Quartet’s rendition started with a beautiful elegance that suited this archetypal Classical work. This was accompanied by an intense communication between the members of the ensemble that allowed a flexibility and agility that emphasised the unmistakably Mozartian playfulness of the score. If there’s any criticism to offer it is that this opening was a little overly polite, the attacks while precisely articulated sounded slightly self-conscious. However once this initial hesitation subsided the personality of Mozart’s chatty counterpoint began to really communicate.
Despite the Utzon Room’s acoustic handicap the balance achieved by the quartet was superb – clearly the product of the affectionate communication between the four players. This palpably infused the fluency and sensitivity of the performance, particularly in the 2nd movement with its rich, earthy tuttis.
Hoffmeister’s reservations about the challenges of Mozart’s music were especially evident in the joyously fleet and nimble final movement. This was deftly mastered by the APQ who maintained a ferocious tempo throughout without exchanging clarity or nuance for velocity.
Next in the program was the world premiere of a new work by Sydney based composer, and bright light in the Australian new music scene Alex Pozniak. One of the major challenges facing a piano quartet is the dearth of repertoire available for this ensemble, so it’s no wonder that the Australia Piano Quartet have made commissioning new work an important part of their programming.
However while building a greater catalouge of works for this line-up is a necessity, inserting music of such a radically different aesthetic alongside the work of more familiar composers can be a dangerous gambit. In trying to introduce the uninitiated to new music you risk forcing a captive audience to be challenged in a way they are unwilling to accept. However this kind of gamble is one that’s essential to the development of a fertile and vibrant culture, and so I applaud the Australia Piano Quartet for taking this risk.
Pozniak’s In search of Asylum tackles a gritty subject matter: an exploration of the harrowing realities of refugees. Preceding the performance were a few minutes of explanation that were somewhat useful, but bordered on sounding like an apology. Violinist Rebecca Chan described the music as “challenging boundaries”, and while this was obviously offered as a disclaimer for any audience members put off by such an avant-garde score, it was an appropriate description not only of Pozniak’s sound-world but of the technical challenges this extraordinary piece requires of the musicians.
Pozniak extracts a kaleidoscopic range of sonorities from the ensemble, laminating sounds using a range of extended techniques to create a series of highly innovative textures. This kind of writing relies on a precision of balance that if lacking can fundamentally undermine the power of the music. In lesser-hands In search of Asylum might fail to connect with the powerfully emotive topic that inspired it, however the Australia Piano Quartet delivered a sensitive and convincing rendering that vividly communicated an anxious energy. Moments of taut, driving aggression gave way to brittle, expansive, almost hypnotic passages that I found to be astonishingly moving.
While I can understand why it seemed necessary to manage the audience’s expectations ahead of hearing this piece, there was no need to apologise for this music. Pozniak has examined this poignant and topical subject matter in a highly compelling way. In search of Asylum is not just an accomplished achievement by a talented and unique compositional voice, but also a valuable addition to piano quartet repertoire that I hope will receive more than just a second performance.
The final piece of the evening saw the quartet returning to safer musical territory, with Saint-Saens’ Piano Quartet No 2 in B flat. Although this piece afforded more opportunities for each of the ensemble’s players to show off (particular credit should go to James Wannan on viola who produced a wonderfully muscular tone), at times it suffered from the intimacy of the Utzon Room. Such a flamboyant piece craves a slightly damper acoustic, but overall the ensemble's impeccable balance held the audience’s attention. As a piece it is charming and inoffensive, but lagged behind the rest of the evening’s program, lacking the precocious eloquence of the Mozart or the raw authenticity of the Pozniak. There are however occasional moments of inspired invention, particularly in the high-octane second and third movements, that the Australia Piano Quartet executed with break-neck tempi and fearless playing.
Whatever Saint-Seans’ compositional failings may be in this piece, it is important to remember it’s a privilege to hear this piano quartet repertoire at all. While the combination of instruments is far from exotic, for whatever reason it is a line-up that has failed to attract a significant number of high calibre champions.
Australians should therefore count themselves very fortunate. Not only do we have the opportunity to hear some rarely performed music but with the Australia Piano Quartet we can hear it performed to the highest standard. I was certainly left wanting more.