Melbourne Recital Centre’s tenth anniversary has provided a fortuitous opportunity for collaboration between the Centre and one of its major presenter partners, Musica Viva Australia. The two organisations are part of an international consortium that commissioned composer, Brett Dean’s third string quartet, Hidden Agendas which is receiving its first performances on this national tour by the Doric String Quartet. Back in 2007 the Dorics performed Dean’s first quartet, Eclipse while competing at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. Their performance so impressed the composer that a close bond has now developed between them.

Doric String QuartetThe Doric String Quartet. Photo © George Garnier

The Dorics’ many impressive qualities were certainly on display in this generous and varied program. Haydn’s E Flat Major Quartet, Op. 33, No 2, nicknamed “The Joke” was a perfect introduction to the group’s clear tone, careful blending and unanimous ensemble on the one hand, and its empathetic mood-setting on the other. With the occasional sly violin portamento hinting at what was to come, the first movement was played with a straight face. Leader, Alex Redington and second violin, Ying Xue clearly enjoyed a more rustic approach in the ensuing Scherzo, while violist Hélène Clément and cellist John Myerscough delighted in duetting through the Andante. The cat-and-mouse game in the finale that gives the quartet its name was a masterclass in comic timing.

In introducing his quartet, Dean noted the work had been conceived against the background of Brexit. His program note also alludes to the noise and mutterings that express the “hidden agendas” of politics. Cast in five movements, the quartet is further grouped into two parts: the first three movements run together before a break that precedes the last two movements which are also linked. Defined by energetic, muscular rhythms the opening movement, Hubris presents the musical substance of the work which is then “fractured” in Response with bright sul ponticello writing, which in turn gives way to a more pensive mood in Retreat.

Wiping down their instruments and picking up unrosined bows, the players embark on the very quiet pages of Self-Censorship, alternating with regular rosined bows in increasing intensity to reach the frenetic finale, On-Message in which the listener is left pondering whether or not the group is actually presenting a unanimous front or whether dissension lurks beneath the surface of the music.

Dean’s personal and profound grasp of string technique has enabled him to write an aurally arresting piece that requires enormous skill and energy from his interpreters. In this he could have no better advocate than the Dorics, who played with unflagging zeal throughout, giving the 25-minute score great cogency.

A further test of endurance came in the form of Schubert’s great, and last quartet – the G major, D. 887. This long (45-minute) work was delivered with enormous intensity; with the players intent on bringing out the music’s romantic fervour by contrasting extremes of dynamics and mood. While preserving the broad architectural lines of the score, passages marked piano or pianissimo were often taken down to a barely audible level as if to test the now widely praised acoustics of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. At the other end of the spectrum there was no suggestion that the Dorics could not deliver a sonic punch when required – take the outbursts in the second movement as a prime example. Perhaps the most effective control of dynamics came in the Trio of the third-movement Scherzo where their rise and fall was made with striking effect.

Allied to these dynamic extremes was a strong desire to throw the work’s emotional contrasts into sharp relief, whether it be the quick succession of the opening’s confident gestures with ominous tremolandi, or the serenity of the Andante’s cello melody alternating with intimations of foreboding or nostalgic remembrances. The somewhat more irenic Scherzo was also buoyed up by the group’s great energy, which only showed slight signs of fatigue towards the final pages of the tarantella-like finale, which still produced a euphoric and well deserved ovation.

Such fine advocacy of Australian music in the wider, international chamber music scene augurs well for the future.

The Doric String Quartet is on tour nationally for Musica Viva Australia until June 26


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