The Tasmanian String Quartet (Emma McGrath and Jennifer Owen on violin, Douglas Coghill on viola, and Jonathan Békés on cello) is, in a sense, COVID-19’s gift to Tasmanian culture. The ensemble of TSO musicians came together during those grim months when live music was effectively silenced. Their reduced schedules allowed for intensive rehearsals, and the Quartet came to public notice first on the TSO’s Daily Dose, and subsequently on the orchestra’s Friday Night Live series. Chamber ensembles have come and gone in Tasmania over the last couple of decades. On the evidence of this performance, this one would appear to be here to stay. I certainly hope so.

Tasmanian String Quartet. Photograph supplied

The concert opened with Bartók’s String Quartet No 5 – an unusual choice of program order, but one which made perfect sense given its relationship to the new Jabra Latham piece, commissioned by the TSQ. In her opening words, Owen invited us to feel, rather than attempt to understand, Bartók’s music, and to accompany them on a journey. I took her at her word, and as I listened to the closing notes of the quartet I really did feel as if I had journeyed into Bartók’s multi-faceted interior.

Bartók was an introverted, enigmatic, and often tortured soul. His passion for the folk music of Eastern Europe (evident in all his music) and his often troubled soul-searching were represented magnificently in this performance. In both the slow movements, the quartet created some truly other-worldly colours and magical pianissimo moments, while the drama of the outer movements, played with heartfelt conviction, startled and disturbed. The discombobulating rhythmic characteristics of the Bulgarian scherzo had an earthy inner drive that filled the hall with the energy of Eastern European celebration and dance.

Jabra Latham’s work, The Sweetest People, was commissioned by the quartet with support from the TSO, and premiered in the north of the state earlier this month. In his opening preamble, Latham told us that the first 30 seconds of music were a direct quote from the second movement of the Bartók quartet, and that the beauty of Bartók’s harmonies inspired his piece. The chords were certainly heartrendingly beautiful, and heard as the main attraction they had a wonderful warmth that escaped the listener when heard underneath the apparently unrelated musings of the 1st violin, as they were in the Bartók. The players infused the piece with warmth, colour and a profound understanding of the work’s harmonic underpinnings.

The final work on the program, Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, was beautifully played. There was a lovely relationship between the inner voices, wonderful tonal variety, and some well-executed rhythmic nuances. For me, the quartet slightly over-used these rhythmic quirks. Once would have been effective, but the repetition slightly disturbed the classical, Mozartian elegance of the work. It was, nevertheless, a fine performance: a fitting end to a great evening of chamber music.

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