Consistent, satisfying playing of a fresh and unconventional program.

Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane

May 21, 2014

The Australian String Quartet invariably selects fresh and innovative pieces for their concert programs, sourced from their eclectic repertoire. Speechless is the Adelaide-based group’s second national tour of the capital cities for 2014, and while the program is slightly less bold than that of their first tour (which included avant-garde US composer George Crumb’s Black Angels), it is nevertheless fresh and unconventional.

The program is united by a “Songs Without Words” theme: Schubert’s unfinished Quartettsatz quartet, Berg’s Lyric Suite and Mozart’s Requiem, arranged for quartet by doctor, composer and musicologist Peter Lichtenthal, a former pupil of Mozart.

The first offering, Schubert’s brief, unfinished C Minor Quartet, was perhaps the least satisfying part of the evening. I personally found that the passion that Schubert’s music calls for was held in check by technical restraint: Such raw and heart-rending expression would be better conveyed with a little more vibrato, without which I found that the performance seemed too fastidious and overly concerned with Classical performance practice. [edit: the previous sentence has been slightly altered to make clear that this is a personal opinion.] Getting every note and dynamic right is important – and the Australian String Quartet did this admirably – but Schubert’s larger intentions must also be communicated, and the natural, stopped “straight” tone of string instruments does not always communicate the agitation of the composer’s mature period.

The group well and truly found their footing by the second piece of the evening, Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, affirming their ability to deliver nuanced and arresting performances of contemporary music. The Lyric Suite dramatizes an intense extramarital love affair, from its joyous inception to hopeless conclusion, and consequently calls for a diverse range of techniques and expressions.

The group was at home with the atonality of the piece, and moved in and out of the pizzicato sections in the third Allegro misterioso movement seamlessly. Indeed, the third movement was a highlight: the paradoxically muted but loud strings create a suspense-filled and otherworldly atmosphere. The Australian String Quartet’s superbly blended timbre and pure intonation were well demonstrated in this movement.

The fourth movement, the Adagio appassionato, was perhaps a little rushed, and at the ending of the movement the group did not take full advantage of the softer, gentler moment. The final Largo desolato was handled better; the broad, yearning violin passages capture the mournfulness of the piece, and the unrelenting viola line, which continues alone after the other instruments are silent, communicates the bleakness of perpetual loneliness (some lovely work here from viola player, Stephen King).

The final work of the evening was Peter Lichtenthal’s arrangement of Mozart’s Requiem. Lichtenthal lived in various Italian cities and arranged several works by Mozart for small ensembles as a means of introducing the music to people in the absence of the resources required to perform large works in their full setting. The dynamic range of a string quartet is inevitably limited when compared with that of two basset horns, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, vocal soloists and an SATB mixed choir, and yet the arrangement is surprisingly satisfying. It effectively captures the essence of the original ideas, sounds and harmonies.

The Australian String Quartet gave a deft and elegant performance. The first four movements in particular were wonderfully played: the inspiration Mozart drew from the Baroque era was made exceedingly clear, and the radiant, pure sound of the strings was perfectly equipped to substitute the vocal lines. This was less so later, in the Lacrimosa movement, when the sound of the violin did not quite achieve the full warmth of the vocal setting. The Lacrimosa would have benefited from being played slightly slower, to give the strings more of a chance to luxuriate in the beautiful melody and harmonies.

This was a somewhat understated program. There was no big, flashy, crowd-drawer here, and I’m not sure the performance had any identifiable “highlight” moment. It was rather a night of consistent, satisfying playing of interesting music by a wonderful group. If not exhilarated, you will surely leave content.

The ASQ Speechless Tour continues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney until May 30.