There were a few landmarks when the Australian String Quartet performed an engrossing and well-balanced program in the intimate Utzon Room. It marked their first national tour of the year and a return to live performance away from their Adelaide base.

It was also the audience’s chance to meet new cellist Michael Dahlenburg, and the last to see and hear violist Stephen King who is taking up a new educational role with the ASQ after 10 years in the limelight.

Australian String Quartet, Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, 2021. Photograph © Sam Jozeps

The quartet had performed in Sydney earlier in the year in Impermanence, a co-production with Sydney Dance Company featuring the music of The National’s Bryce Dessner, but on that occasion they were tucked away at the back of the stage behind the dancers.

Dahlenburg introduced himself to the audience, adding that he had the privilege of choosing two of the works to be performed – Bartók’s third quartet and Mendelssohn’s first. His first experience of the Bartók work was as a child hearing it performed and wondering how so much music could be got out of just four instruments. The Mendelssohn was a “labour of love” from his student days when he had his own string quartet.

From its opening hazy dissonance, the Bartók was riveting. This is music at its most intense, it takes no prisoners and demands much from both performer and listener. I learned long ago that these quartets were not for easy listening in your living room – you have to see them played live to experience their full impact. I haven’t heard Bartók played as well as this since I was lucky enough to see the Takacs Quartet perform the complete cycle at the 2011 Musica Viva Festival.

The Utzon Room is the perfect setting with the listener so close to the players that you see them sweat and hear them breathe. Leader Darl Barltrop leans forward like a hound straining at the leash while King, the picture of concentration, watches the other players’ bows for that perfect synchronicity. Meanwhile Francesca Hiew’s second violin complements, sometimes leads, seamlessly. She and Barltrop seem to breathe as one.

And Dahlenburg, obviously immediately at home with his new colleagues, runs the gamut of technique – strumming a pizzicato frenetic bass line here, a shivering ponticello there, or a passionate full-blooded noble melody as in the canzonetta from Mendelssohn’s Op. 13.

The ensemble playing was tight and flawless – the shifting dynamics of the Bartók, the jaunty spring in the step they gave to the opening of Mendelssohn’s third movement and the foot-tapping final movement of the same work.,

To close the evening the ASQ came up with a show-stopper in Pavel Fischer’s “Mad Piper” quartet, a work inspired by the true story of Bill Millin who played the bagpipes as he and his comrades went into battle in the Normandy D-Day landings.

Fischer, a Czech composer and violinist, for many years a member of the respected Skampa Quartet, played the work at a festival in Townsville a couple of years ago and when Barltrop heard it he decided that “this rambunctious” piece must become part of the ASQ’s repertoire.

Fittingly the third movement comprises a beautiful lament played on the viola – a fine farewell tribute to King. But that gives way to a hoe-down in the final movement with the quartet playing crazily like a gipsy band on their gorgeous Guadagnini instruments, capping off a top shelf return to live music.

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