Flinders Quartet and Genevieve LaceyFrom the second row in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the new Melbourne Recital Centre, the acoustics are so clear and distinct that one can almost hear the performers thinking, and one can most certainly hear them breathing. It is an unforgiving performance environment for musicians who are not quite up to scratch. However, for a polished ensemble such as the Flinders Quartet or a virtuoso such as Genevieve Lacey, the hall is a wonderful opportunity for audiences to hear the detail and precision required in a top quality chamber music concert.

Recorded by 3MBS FM as a direct broadcast to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the station’s first direct broadcast, this concert was part of Musica Viva’s series of Tuesday morning Coffee Concerts.

The origin of the unusual program, and the only piece where all five musicians played together was Elena Kats-Chernin’s Re-Inventions. Based on six of J S Bach’s Inventions, it allows Lacey the opportunity to use the sopranino, descant, tenor and bass recorders in the space of six short movements which take motives from the Inventions and transform them into appealing pieces for recorder and string quartet. The first and last movements hinted at suggestions of Philip Glass for me: insistent, perpetual movement and constant repetition of short rhythms and melodic motives. When I thought about it later, I realised that this kind of unrelenting forward motion is also very present in Bach and other Baroque music. Kats-Chernin had picked up on this and made it her own. The ghostly fluttering of strings and recorder in the second movement, the mournful grace of the tenor recorder in the fourth, and the haunting tones of the bass recorder in the fifth, transported Bach into a totally different sound world which was sensitively realised by Lacey and the quartet (comprised of violinists Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins, viola player Helen Ireland and cellist Zoë Knighton).

Australian composer, arranger and organist Calvin Bowman played an important role in the rest of the program. As well as including two Bowman arrangements of Bach for string quartet (a tenor aria from Cantata no. 85 and a chorale prelude from the ‘Little Organ Book’), the concert opened with his Homage to Mozart. Although Bowman is apparently not particularly fond of Mozart, this work was a beautiful introduction to the concert, played with reverence and warmth by the Flinders Quartet. The stillness and sweet intimacy of the first movement could have descended into indulgent emotionalism, but the players held firmly to the simple beauty of the music.

Mozart’s Flute Quartet no. 1, played by Lacey on recorder and three members of the quartet, was probably the least successful of the works in the program, simply because Lacey’s recorder was not able to project over the strings. Even with the trio visibly holding back, the recorder was often overpowered and much of the delightful solo part was lost. The balance was better when the string players plucked their instruments in the lyrical second movement, where the recorder part soared above the strings.

Reinventions and reinterpretations of music by much-loved composers can be disastrous, or simply uninteresting and pointless. Even Kats-Chernin admitted that she was daunted by the prospect because ‘Bach is Bach, and is sacred ground for all composers.’ But both Bowman and Kats-Chernin have managed a sensitive approach that treats famous composers as inspiration and then moves in a completely different direction without destroying the original. Lacey and the Flinders Quartet should be commended for presenting such an unusual program in the Coffee Concert series and I hope that this is a sign of more to come in the exciting new Recital Centre.

Musica Viva Australia presents
Flinders Quartet and Genevieve Lacey

Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Date/Time: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 11:00 a.m.
Box Office: 03 9699 3333

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