If you were looking to recruit a dream team for a piano quartet you need search no further than the Skride sisters Baiba and Lauma from Latvia and French violist Lise Berthaud and German cellist Julian Steckel, as a late substitute.

Skride Piano QuartetThe Skride Piano Quartet. Photo © Musica Viva Australia

In just two seasons since they formed, the group has taken Europe by storm and earned themselves the soubriquet “super group” from music critics and audiences.
The Skride sisters Baiba, violin, and Lauma, piano, come from a musical family and toured their homeland as kids performing in concerts and festivals. All four musicians have exceptional careers as soloists but as a quartet that is all put aside as they become one, alive to the nuances and moods of the work in hand and above all honest – a quality that Baiba values highly in music-making.

This is not four brilliant individuals we are hearing but a magnificent unit. The music pours from their fingertips with a mixture of naturalness and inspiration, which is extraordinary considering Steckel only joined them just before they set out on this debut Australian tour. The repertoire for the combination of instruments is less than 70 currently, dwarfed by its cousins the string quartet and piano trio.

Beethoven, whose first quartet they perform in their second program, wrote three quartets at the age of 15. Mozart, on the other hand, came to them only a few years before the end of his short life. It’s a shame Viennese audiences of the 1780s were so taken with sachertorte and salon music that they found his First Piano Quartet in G Minor too gamey for their taste, otherwise we might have had several more gems of this new genre from the master’s pen rather than a paltry pair. The stormy opening movement which so alarmed them was given free rein by the Skride foursome, Lauma’s wild and leaping arpeggios complemented by some equally reckless passages from her sister. There was a lilting delicacy about the Andante that followed and a happy abandon in the finale, which is Mozart at his catchiest.

The ensemble is also keen to expand the repertoire with new works and both programs they are performing feature a world premiere in Australian composer Graeme Koehne’s Socrates Garden, commissioned for Musica Viva by Tom Breen and Rachel Kohn and inspired by the couple’s 40-hectare garden estate Breenhold in Mt Wilson in the Blue Mountains.

Koehne told the audience that he aimed for simplicity – “perhaps disgracefully so” – in the 11-minute single movement that evokes the sense of tranquility and reconnection with nature that he experienced in the gardens. The “nature” element comes in the form of a distant three-note birdcall he heard amid the peace, and this is a recurring motif throughout the work. Koehne’s music is accessible and tuneful and this was a lovely piece. A lulling tune first stated by the violin over an almost post-classical piano accompaniment is taken up with graceful embellishments by the cello before a middle section swells and soars, subsiding to the plucked birdcall in the strings and a tranquil ending.

There was little tranquility in the last piece, Richard Strauss’s C Minor Quartet which, like all his chamber works, he wrote as a young man before he abandoned the intimacy for large-scale orchestral tone poems and operas. Despite the obvious influence of Brahms on the quartet – not a bad thing in itself – there are nevertheless strong glimpses of the colourful glories to come throughout the four movements.

After two quick opening movements and a mellow Andante, it all ends in high romantic passion with singing unison lines in the strings against a tempestuous piano.
For an encore Baiba gave a single word introduction – “Beethoven” – and a foretaste of what’s to come in the second program, as well as the 250th anniversary year ahead.

The Skride Piano Quartet tours nationally for Musica Viva Australia until November 20