★★★★½ Unbridled Gyger sandwiched between the twin pillars of Bach and Brahms.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
December 14, 2015

The Australia Piano Quartet continues to do a great service to classical music by combining exceptional musicianship with interesting programming. There is a consistent theme amongst classical music followers worldwide, which can be loosely stated thus: how do we incorporate music of contemporary composers into mainstream programmes? If one is looking for the answer, they need look no further than the APQ’s concerts. The APQ has commissioned half a dozen new works this year, but by bookending these new works with mainstays of the Western canon, they produce provocative but successful concerts. Here, a newly commissioned work by Australian composer Elliott Gyger was sandwiched between the twin pillars of Bach and Brahms.

The first piece featured excerpts from an arrangement by Dmitry Sitkovetsky for String Trio of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV988. One of the themes of the APQ’s concerts this year has been architecture, since the ensemble has taken up residence at UTS where Frank Gehry has designed a new building. Indeed, earlier in the year, the group performed a work by Jack Symonds called Responsorium which aimed to capture the actual construction process. As far as musical architecture goes, no composer laid sturdier foundations than Bach, and it is a tribute to the APQ’s innovation and thoughtfulness that they chose to perform this seldom played arrangement of the Goldberg Variations. Originally written for harpsichord, this work is an incredible feat of musical engineering, not just in the complexity of the music, but also in its self-conscious use of numbers (for instance, the work has 32 movements, while the opening and closings arias have 32 bars as well). The APQ are typically at their best in more Romantic showpieces, but this was a sensitive portrayal of an intimate and nuanced work. The way the different musical lines were emphasised and drawn-out by each instrument was expert, while the interchanges in the canons were thrilling.

The work by Gyger was entitled Shell Chambers, an as yet unfinished work in four movements, designed to convey the inner architecture of sea shells. The work consisted of a prelude, followed by a Scherzo-Allegro, a waltz-like interlude, and a final Adagio that transmogrifies into another Scherzo. While the scherzi were engrossing and had some interesting ideas, the work felt a little unbridled at times and directionless at others, such as in the first movement which consisted almost entirely of harmonics in the high ranges of the strings. That the composer announced to the audience before the performance that the score got away from him while he was composing it was an inauspicious start. Perhaps the final product will be a little more coherent.

The final work on the programme was Brahms’ C Minor Piano Quartet, Op. 60. This juggernaut of Sturm und Drang played to the quartet’s strengths. The work is monumentally emotional, written while Brahms’ good friend Schumann was in a mental asylum following an unsuccessful suicide attempt. To make matters more complex, Brahms was living with Schumann’s wife Clara, and it is contended that the “sighing theme” of the opening movement references Clara. The first movement was imbued with great drama, with Rebecca Chan on violin and James Wannan on viola playing with perfect synchronicity. The second movement’s scherzo was edge-of-your-seat stuff, with the precision of Daniel de Borah’s playing engrossing, while cellist Thomas Rann’s solo to begin the third movement Andante deserves special mention: his tone was round and rich without becoming mawkish. The finale was exhilarating from start to end, with de Borah’s virtuosity a real highlight, while Chan’s playing particularly high up on the E string was precise and in conjunction with the other strings conveyed all the pent-up emotions of an emotionally riven Brahms. By the time of the two final accented C Major chords, the audience was left wanting more. It is with bated breath that we wait for what this group has in store in 2016.