Two works embracing the evolutionary journey of musical and emotional transfiguration.

Nolan Gallery, MONA
June 14, 2015

“This is a MONA gallery music experience, not a concert hall experience.” Spoken into the vast void of the Nolan Gallery at Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), these words set the standard for a spectacular evening of music. Comprising violinists Peter Tanfield and Lucy Carrig-Jones, violists Anna Roach and Douglas Coghill, and cellists Ivan James and Martin Penicka, The Discovery 6Tet performed two works that embrace the evolutionary journey of musical and emotional transfiguration.

Given the contemporary nature of the works in this program, it was exciting to see music taken to a new space. One of MONA’s exhibits, an intriguing wall adorned with loops of rope on meat hooks, provided a backdrop to the shadowy stage.

The concert opened with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Sextet in D, Op. 10, a work described at its premiere in 1917 as “the finest since Brahms”. Featuring complex interplay between the six voices, this work demands a high standard of technical mastery and musicality. Ably led by Peter Tanfield, these professional musicians achieved a beautiful balance.

From the lyrical opening notes of the first movement, care was taken to ensure none of the intricate detail was lost to the resonant acoustic. Lighter solos emerged from the rich ensemble texture in the Adagio second movement, and the bi-tonal harmony was perfectly executed. The blending of complementary tonal centres highlighted the power of more modern tonal systems without resulting in clashing dissonance.

A spirited contrast to the preceding Adagio, the lilting phrases of the Intermezzo were reminiscent of 19th-century Vienna’s Golden Age. The musicians paid particular emphasis to the interval of the rising fourth, an element that Korngold worked into each of his pieces.

The lively final movement was a showcase of dynamic and virtuosic talent. The rapid passages were delivered with precise vitality, whilst the drawn-out slower section was savoured, creating an almost mountain-like wall of sound. Cellist Martin Penicka and violist Douglas Coghill gave flawless performances of rapid passages.

Schoenberg’s renowned Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (Transfigured Night) followed after a short interval. At the work’s premiere in 1902, the public were shocked by the rich depth of Post-Romantic harmonies. In contrast, the audience at MONA were eager to embrace Schoenberg’s most popular work.

Based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, Transfigured Night tells the story of a woman and her lover in the cold woods. She confesses to him that she carries the child of another man she never loved. Her lover reassures her that their love for each other is powerful enough to make the child their own. The sombre wood is transfigured into an ethereal space of devotion and hope. This progression is mirrored in the harmonic arch of the piece, which begins in a dismal D Minor and resolves to a brighter D Major.

Anna Roach (viola) and Martin Penicka (cello) drew a sorrowful and haunting sound from the whispering first notes. The emotional intensity increased steadily as the striking harmonies of heavy minor chords weighed down the gallery’s spacious atmosphere. Expressive swells of tonal quality and contrasting dynamics produced a sound that was a mix of Wagner’s emotional sensitivity and the formal harmonies of Brahms. The pairing of these prominent 19th-century aesthetics was given new life in this performance.

Schoenberg himself had mastered the violin, the viola and the cello, and in this work he wrote equally challenging solos for each instrument. Cellist Ivan James and violinist Lucy Carrig-Jones delivered expressive melodies and shimmering string crossings.

The Discovery 6Tet maintained an even ensemble dynamic at all times whilst allowing emotive solos to rise above the dense cloud of sound. The work ended on a glorious major chord with a touch of fragile beauty lingering in the air. This was soon followed by thunderous applause from the full-house audience.

Schoenberg observed that masterworks were often misunderstood in their own time. He stated that frequent expert presentations of contemporary work are necessary to inspire a genuine appreciation of modern music. The exceptional performance given by The Discovery 6Tet did just that, and will hopefully be the first of many more to come.