While it is with a lone cello – in this case the Australian String Quartet’s Sharon Grigoryan – that Charles Ives opens the leisurely fugue of his String Quartet No 1, From the Salvation Army, it is a work that evokes multitudes. The composer wrote the work in 1896 at the age of 21, and it draws on his childhood immersed in New England hymnody. The ASQ, kicking off its Ives Westlake Debussy tour at City Recital Hall, captured something of the joyous communal music-making that so inspired Ives. They revelled in the layers of hymn fragments that make up the work, giving the Prelude a light-footed chirpiness and the Offertory third movement a flowing tempo, before capping it all off with a boisterous – though by no means rushed – Postlude.

Australian String QuartetThe Australian String Quartet in Ives Westlake Debussy. Photo © Sam Jozeps

The spiritual essence of the work tied into the world premiere at the heart of this program, a new string quartet by Nigel Westlake, Sacred Sky. A “shrine in music”, as the composer describes it, it is dedicated to his late sister Kate, who died of cancer in early 2018. Musically and emotionally the new work is a far cry from his rhythmic first string quartet, High Tension Wires, of 1994 or even the darker energy and mystery of his String Quartet No 2, written in 2005. “Inevitably the fingerprints of grief and sadness permeate the musical narrative at times, but there is also an overarching sense of joy and optimism,” Westlake writes of this latest quartet. Those fingerprints are evident right from the gentle dissonance of the opening movement, Sacred Sky – named, like each of the movements, for a seascape painting by his sister – above which a lonely melody from Dale Barltrop’s violin moved, edged with sadness. Barltrop’s spiralling lines in Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea brought energy and optimism however, with darker-hued moments giving way to ecstatic dancing figures, the movement culminating in a final shimmering ascent. The Turning Tide was atmospheric and otherworldly – music of trembling beauty, with a velvet viola solo from Stephen King – before the restless final movement, The Journey Begins, brought this deeply affecting work to its conclusion with heroic energy, limned still – at times punctuated – with lingering pain.

The ASQ launched into the vibrant opening of Debussy’s String Quartet after interval with a lush sound – more fulsome than biting here – in a performance more elegant and restrained than the Orava Quartet’s sparks-flying performance last year in Canberra. The ASQ highlighted instead the movement’s softer textures – undulating strings, increasingly insistent cello lines – before King made the most of the gritty viola lines, riding excited pizzicati in the Assez vif et bien rythmé. Francesca Hiew matched his timbre brilliantly in the expressive third movement, Barltrop delivering some hushed violin lines of his own. Grigoryan crept forward in the work’s final acceleration, before the Quartet dispatched a bright finale. Fine performances all round, but it was the Westlake that lingered in the mind when the musicians fell silent.

The Australian String Quartet tours Ives Westlake Debussy to Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne until September 20


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