★★★★☆ American foursome proves opposites attract from Broadstock to Ginastera.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
May 30, 2016

If anyone proves the old adage that opposites attract it has to be the Ensō Quartet. The American foursome have roots spreading from New Zealand to Japan, from the Philippines to Korea, and so it’s perhaps appropriate that they chose the Zen word representing the endless circle for their moniker. Equally inclusive is this, the programme for their debut Australian tour. It takes in two centuries from 1809 to the present day and ranges from Germany (Beethoven), through Spain (Turina), Argentina (Ginastera), and all the way Down Under with a MVA commission from Brenton Broadstock.

The Broadstock started proceedings, a surprise birthday gift from a loving husband for Marianne, a woman whose parents brought her to Australia from Hungary. The work, Safe Haven, duly uses the Hungarian nursery song Boci Boci Tarka (a bit like Baa Baa Black Sheep, but about a kind of Eastern European cow) at various points to suggest a child’s journey from a place of danger to one of safety. It’s an accessible work in three sections employing an acerbic tonality and a wide range of string effects. As such, it provided the Ensōs with an ideal vehicle to display their boldness of attack, impeccable tone, immaculate blend and single-minded commitment to dramatic storytelling.

The first sections, full of slips and slides and scurrying strings, transported us instantly to the dangerous world of war-torn Europe. The more melodic second movement, which pulled back to look at things from a child’s-eye viewpoint, was sweet, but felt a trifle overlong – like Twinkle, Twinkle, Boci Boci can wear out its welcome. Fortunately, the radiant viola solo leading into the third part pulled us into the safety of a warm tonality and brought the work to a charming conclusion. Marianne should have been delighted.

Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, his first standalone in the genre that wasn’t a part of a set, again revealed the Ensō’s impressive listening skills, as they explored the composer’s experimentation with string tone and harmonics. In a sometimes unconventional, often risk-taking performance, they sailed perilously close to the intonational wind at times, but always stayed the right side of ‘in-tune’ while displaying a questing intelligence throughout this generally amiable work. The Adagio was especially warm, the four players embracing and shaping the long melodic lines while allowing discreet portamenti to spice their exquisite blend. If the adrenalin-fuelled Presto had its hairier moments on the higher strings, the Finale played to the quartet’s strength of ensemble in a witty race to the finish.

The second half revealed two sides to 20th-century ‘Hispanic’ music. Joaquín Turina at last seems to be emerging from out of the shadow of Falla, Albéniz and Granados to take his place at the top table of Spanish composers. His Serenata for String Quartet is a late work, but shows his endless resourcefulness and gift for melody in a Ravelian orgy of sunny optimism with songful lines on first violin soaring over buzzing tremolos and hip swinging pizzicati on cello. The quartet’s reading of this absolute gem was passionate and full-blooded, shading down to a breathless whisper when required.

Ginastera’s Second String Quartet couldn’t be more different (most of the time). A middle period work, it claims to be atonal but is far from the realms of desiccated serialism. In five movements, if I had to describe a flavour it would be a Latin American Bartók, but there is a unique quality to it that deserves to be thoroughly sampled and savoured by the musically curious. The Ensōs have recorded the work (on Naxos 8570569) and clearly it means a lot to them. I can’t imagine a better, more deeply-felt interpretation, full of a rhythmic, stamping energy, contrasting with lyrical, darkly-brooding Bergian interludes. The absolute highlight – and this I would say was worth the cost of a ticket alone – was the Presto Magico third movement. Influenced by Ginastera’s interest in the occult, its skeletal skitterings drew forth repeated miracles of technique from the four players, often pushed to the jaw-dropping brink of audibility. Utterly spine-tingling!

The Ensō Quartet are touring with Musica Viva Australia until June 18.

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