In a game of two halves, spanning two centuries and using eight instruments, it was the Crumb that won.

City Recital Hall, Sydney

March 6, 2014

The Australian String Quartet, the ensemble with more regenerations than Dr Who, is on the road again with a sparkling new line up and plenty to say for itself. Last night at Angel Place we were treated to whistle stop tour of over two centuries of music on eight instruments (four of them even played upside down), two gongs and a barroom full of wine glasses.

The first half showcased the group’s famous set of Guadagninis, playing on gut strings as appropriate to the instruments’ period of manufacture. A quartet by Boccherini, rather dismissed in his day as “Haydn’s wife” I was intrigued to learn, started the program. The economically written Op 32, G Minor quartet starts off with a dollop of melancholy before cheering up a fair bit, though the musical barometer tends to hover part way between rain and shine.

The ASQ gave it an elegant, undemonstrative performance with a nod perhaps to the more advanced gloom to come (the Brahms C Minor was work next on offer). The andantino chirped away, the minimal vibrato lending the longer phrases the same kind of heat haze that Vivaldi explores in his Four Seasons ‘summer’ concerto. The minuet was similarly mist-enshrouded, a surprisingly unsunny affair for a work written in the heat of a Spanish court. The finale, with its unexpected continuo ad libitum diversion allowing violinist Kristian Winther to go off-piste for a moment, showed the work to be both unusual and experimental, both qualities brought out in the ASQ’s thoughtful interpretation.

The Brahms which followed is a different beast in many ways, yet the quartet chose to tackle it in a similar style, making reference both to Brahms’ passion for the past – Beethoven and Bach in particular – and to the fact that his quartets, like Boccherini’s, would have first been played on gut. Using a leaner tone than is usual in late Romantic fare took some getting used to but fortunately the group’s secure intonation provided a handy aural cushion.

They explored Brahms’ sonorities in the opening allegro with an attractive delicacy before daringly understating the romance of the Romanze, getting close to the heart of what Brahms has to say without recourse to Viennese nostalgia. The allegretto had a grace, although again the players chose to explore the texture sooner than drive home the emotional content – at times it felt as if Pierre Boulez had decided to give us his thoughts on Brahms. The finale began with a beefier tone before thinning down for some almost skeletal passages by way of maximum contrast. All in all, this was a demonstration of what Brahms actually wrote, rather than what we are more often used to hearing. Fascinating, but I couldn’t help feeling like a big slice of strudel afterwards.

The second half was about as different as you could get and here the Guadaginis were traded in for a shiny set of electric instruments for half an hour of (relatively) contemporary music for string quartet.

Adelaide-based Australian composer Stepehen Whittington’s Windmill (1991) was his first work written for this medium and was intended to evoke that particular piece of rusty machinery as is to be found throughout rural Australia. Rather ominously the program note promised creakings and squeakings, but what we actually got was a haunting, soughing sound picture, surprisingly evocative of the lonely farmlands of the outback. Without much sense of development, at five minutes it didn’t outstay its welcome.

George Crumb’s Vietnam War inspired Black Angels, however, was what I suspect most of the audience had come for and, with the ASQ called upon to add chanting, whistling, gongs, maracas and musical glasses to its skillset, it didn’t disappoint.

The work began with a terrifying series of dissonant tremolos – appropriately called Night of the Electric Insects – before relaxing into a section with some Sculthorpe-like birdcalls. The ASQ’s tonal palette here was remarkable and if the playing wasn’t impressive enough, every now and then we caught a glimpse of the fiendish looking score as they turned the pages.

The Lost Bells section added mutterings and yowls (I wasn’t sure in what language – possibly Orcish) with bowing and bashing of gongs and rattling of maracas before some fearsome scrapings took us through a Danse Macabre. An eerie take on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden that deliberately threatened to slip out of key went by the title Pavana Lachrymae before the Black Angels section itself called on the quartet to make a mighty racket like Vaughan Williams’ Wasps on acid.

The ominously named Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura famously required the players to perform ‘upside down’ – not standing on their heads, but holding their instruments like Renaissance viols and bowing on the fret board while fingering down below (not at all easy if you think about it).

The pièce de resistance however came with the God Music section where Sharon Draper on cello played a haunting lament, heavy on the reverb, while her fellow musicians shimmied behind a pair of adjacent tables to bow a set of variously topped up wine glasses – surely one of the most extraordinary sonic effects in all contemporary music.

Ancient Voices were represented by whacky pizzicati and glissandi followed by some insect-like skitterings made applying metal thimbles to the electric strings. A final brief ‘ting’ or two on a wine glass and it was all over – an impressive performance balancing intellect, emotion and virtuosity.

The danger of this kind of ‘mixed program’ is that the Brahms lovers decide to skip the Crumb and vice-versa. Continuum is touring Australia at the moment and, if you are hesitating, I’d suggest that neither traditionalists nor modernists have too much to fear in an evening that offers considerable food for thought.

The Australian String Quartet play Continuum in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne until March 13.

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