★★★★ Surprisingly homogeneous excellence from quartet in transition.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
September 2, 2015

The Australian String Quartet has had a rough year by any standards and the sparse audience of 150 or so at the City Recital Hall might just have represented a lack of confidence in an ensemble in transition, half made up of ring-ins. If so, that’s both disappointing and unfair as guest players Susie Park (a terrific Australian violinist resident for many years now in New York) and Brendan Joyce (the multi-talented leader of Queensland’s Camerata of St John’s) are underestimated at your peril. Alongside violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper – the current 50% of the ASQ before two new players join next year – they put in a performance that deserved to be seen by a full house. And if the programme’s title seemed a bit fuzzy around the edges, the playing was sharply focussed throughout.

Mozart’s String Quartet No 15 may have been sporadically penned while the composer popped in and out to say hello to a wife in labour, but it has none of the joys of imminent fatherhood. Instead it’s a moody, sometimes turbulent work, swinging from hushed and slightly troubled passages to moments of sunnier lyricism. It was perhaps not the music that new friends might choose for wild risk taking, but although the ASQ chose a steady pace, they certainly never played safe. There was a pleasing homogeneity of sound, especially in the elegant Andante, and the delicate control of vibrato brought dark, romantic life to the minuet and its charming Viennese trio.

I’ve been in Australia for eight years now, and I’d have to say I’ve never heard anything by Matthew Hindson I didn’t like. This ASQ tour boasts the world premiere performances of his Third String Quartet, subtitled “Ngeringa” after the new concert hall built by arts philanthropist Ulrike Klein in the Adelaide Hills. It’s a high-octane work (like many of his recent pieces), packed with memorable and dramatically satisfying ideas, and featuring string writing of enormous skill. There’s a lyrical element to offset the rhythmic intensity that reminded me of Janáček’s ability to combine catchy motivic cells with a dynamic forward momentum. 

The work has a programmatic element, celebrating the physical domain in which the new hall is located. With superbly disciplined playing, the ASQ launched into the energetic opening – no wishy-washy Namatjira landscapes here, this is a hard, hot, dry sort of a place – and proceeded to show us what four sharp-as-a-tack players with a decent rehearsal period are capable of. The third section, in which Hindson explores the ‘Idea’ (or the creative thought) behind the Ngeringa Cultural Centre, creates a mood of magical stillness over which the viola spins a radiant melody before the work concludes in a spirit of warm optimism and joyous abandon. A significant addition to the Australian string quartet repertoire, then, and one that deserves a recording. 

Who’s afraid of Anton Webern? If what’s on offer is his early, romantic Langsamer Satz, I’d suggest that no one should be. Close your eyes and it’s Brahms. The high priest of serialism clearly thought insufficient of the work to have it published in his lifetime, but like its stable mate, the lush orchestral Im Sommerwind, it’s a gorgeous bit of lyricism, the influence of Verklärte Nacht writ large. Suffice it to say the ASQ were fully inside its nocturnal intoxication.

Finally, Smetatna’s First String Quartet (From My Life) – the ultimate autobiographical chamber work – and a chance for the players to let down a bit of hair. From the romantic rambles of the opening movement, through the beery, leery, drunken polka of the second with a whiff of The Bartered Bride and the sway of the dance hall, the ASQ gave it their all with spirit and flair. The lovely Brahmsian cello solo that heralded the Largo was resonantly delivered before the four players piled into the furiant of the Finale. This highly unusual movement looks like it’s going to be all Bohemian fun and games and then comes a grinding halt and a high E signifying the composer’s recurring tinnitus as he succumbed to deafness. The musicians captured all of this, and the final fade into silence, with aplomb setting the seal on a thoroughly engaging evening’s music making.

ASQ performs Abundance until September 8


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