The Orava Quartet’s Hobart concert last night represented a brave piece of programming, with none of the works presented written before 1920. The Luke Howard work was a world premiere, and three of the four composers featured are relatively little-known. Nevertheless, Hobart audiences showed their adventurous spirit, and the quartet played to an almost COVID-capacity crowd.

Orava QuartetThe Orava Quartet: Daniel Kowalik, Thomas Chawner, Karol Kowalik and David Dalseno. Photo © Dylan Evans Photography, courtesy of Universal Music Australia

In his program notes, cellist Karol Kowalik stated that the quartet have a particular affinity with two of the works they performed. On last night’s showing they would seem to have extended this affinity to all five works on the program. They offered a depth of understanding and a respect for the composers that rendered this unfamiliar music accessible and, for most, enjoyable.

The new work by Luke Howard, ‘You are not lost, you are here.’, was short with a beautifully shaped arc reminiscent of the famous lines from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” The Oravas gave each harmony a different colour, so the harmonic changes became meaningful and profound. They are a quartet who excel at extremes, and this was particularly advantageous in this work. The quiet stillness of the opening, with just the harmonic changes gently emphasised, was atmospheric and beautiful. The full richness they achieved at the work’s centre was all-encompassing, carrying us with them on their journey from lost to found. My only regret was that they didn’t allow the time and silence the work called for at the end. They were on their feet and moving on before I had fully assimilated what I’d heard. It felt undeservedly perfunctory, but was a small thing in an otherwise beautiful performance.

Shostakovich bookended the concert. His Sixth Quartet is not quintessential Shostakovich. Written at a brief joyful period in the composer’s life it is missing the acerbic wit that is so characteristic of his music, and so profoundly disturbing to listeners. It offers a lighter view of his world, although there are moments of reflection and dark questioning — perhaps an acknowledgment that this is only a temporary peace. All this was apparent in the Oravas’ performance. Remarkably, they achieved a great clarity of voices, which is no mean feat in the Hobart Town Hall. The acoustic mitigates against individual sounds, with the viola usually at the greatest disadvantage. Thomas Chawner showed himself more than equal to the challenge, and his gorgeous viola sound shone throughout the concert. The encore polka was far more like the Shostakovich we have come to expect, with his satirical wit once more apparent in a parody of Viennese style.

Kilar’s ‘Orawa’ was perhaps the least melodic work of the evening. Its power came from a driving rhythmic momentum that moved from a quiet introverted intensity to a glorious shout of triumph.

For me, the jewel in the evening came from the two Schulhoff works, his Five Pieces for String Quartet and String Quartet No 1. The historical positioning of the pieces, in between the two World Wars and Schulhoff’s eventual death in a concentration camp, gave the music a great poignancy. The wonderful array of colours produced by the performers gave full credit to the emotional depth of the music. This is a composer I want to hear more of.

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