The Australian String Quartet launched their Homeward national tour in Perth on Wednesday night. The quartet is 18 months into their new configuration (their line-up seems to change as often as the prime minister!) and the players seem relaxed and settled. Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew (violins), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Grigoryan (cello) are unashamedly young and hip, performing standing with their iPad scores, designer clothes and bundles of energy. The enormous sound they muster from their exquisite set of Guadagnini instruments is velveteen, crisp and well-integrated under the egalitarian leadership style of Barltrop.
Britten’s String Quartet No 1 was a fascinating exploration of sounds and textures by the then-young English composer brimming with ideas. The first movement’s cluster chords and shrouded melody were given an eerie chill while the second movement had thrilling gear changes between angular chunks, bright pizzicato and racing scale passages. The doleful solo violin melody in the third movement gave way to a chorale played with organ-like richness. The quartet’s assertive, clean finale revealed an unguarded joy that was a delight to watch.
Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet No 2 was premiered by the Pavel Haas Quartet in 2009 and was well worth revisiting. It continued where the Britten left off with an intriguing mix of musical ideas. Motifs from Eastern Europe and the Middle East coloured the work, making reference to the Czech composer Pavel Haas who died in Auschwitz. Melodies were inflected with trembling bowing, pitch sliding and trills, while energetic syncopations and percussive effects lent a folk feel. The weary melody in the third movement Dirge was hauntingly played by cello and violin while the lurching dance of the finale, with its chugging accompaniment and off-beat rhythms was given almost rock ‘n’ roll swagger.
Following on from the explosive creativity of the first half, the Dvořák’s String Quartet No 13 was quite simply uninteresting. Perhaps it was the lack of musical direction from the ensemble – the famed Adagio was numbing and the fiery finale lacked ebullience – or perhaps it was simply an anticlimax after the more adventurous repertoire? If the programmers were looking for a safe romantic contrast they should’ve looked further; the work lacks lyrical moments and is rhythmically quite square. Either way it was an uninspired performance and a disappointing end to what was otherwise an exciting concert.
The Australian String Quartet tour Homeward to Canberra, Ballarat, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide until August 15.