Alchemy | Australian String QuartetPhoto - Jacqui Way

The Australian String Quartet collaborated with Australian violist and composer Brett Dean for their final subscription concert for 2009, with a program that included a Beethoven quartet, Bruckner’s Viola Quintet, and Dean’s quartet Eclipse, written in 2003 in response to the ‘Tampa crisis’. It was an impressively polished performance from a world-class ensemble, and it attracted a large and very appreciative audience.

Beethoven’s String Quartet op.18 no.2 is an almost excessively polite and graceful work that lacks the shades of darkness and drama heard in much of the later quartet music. But the ASQ, with very strong leadership from first violinist Sophie Rowell, played this work with just a hint of ferocity, which injected strength and vigour into the music. As an ensemble, the quartet’s precision and their sensitive and balanced blending of timbres are outstanding, but each musician also managed her soloistic moments with well-shaped phrases and a beautiful depth of expression; in particular, Rachel Johnston’s resonant cello was a joy to listen to.

Dean’s quartet followed the Beethoven and took the musicians and the audience on quite a different journey: one of disquiet, agitation, pain and then hopeful but ambivalent acceptance. Eclipse is not a programmatic piece, and Dean describes it as ‘first and foremost a piece of chamber music’ rather than a political work. Yet it does follow some kind of emotional pathway through the (imagined) experience of the desperate refugees on board the Palapa, and the ASQ embodied this with great musical and emotional commitment. From the nocturnal opening cries and shudders, through to the furious, sawing climax, and then to the quiet, yearning pain of the ending, the quartet played with an excellent sense of ensemble that was enhanced by an evident shared vision of the music.

Anton Bruckner’s dense and involved Viola Quintet filled the second half of the concert, with Dean joining the quartet, this time wearing his violist hat rather than that of composer. The quintet is less well-known than Bruckner’s symphonic music, but in many ways it follows a similar structure and exhibits many of the same characteristics as the symphonies. The opening movement was taken at a rather slow speed and at times I felt it was too slow to express the driven nature of the music. But the performance of the third movement (Adagio) was sublime – the rich sonorities were fully exploited and drawn out with heartfelt expressivity, with all the emotional indulgence that Bruckner requires! A brief viola solo from Dean emerged from the depths of the ensemble sound to sing above it, straining with feeling. And Johnston’s mellow, resonant tone shone once again as the cello momentarily came to the foreground before melting back into the group.

The Australian String Quartet is group of extremely talented musicians whose ensemble playing is exceptional; it is a treat to hear them perform and I would recommend their concert series to anyone who is interested in hearing chamber music that is both technically and expressively impressive.

Australian String Quartet in association with Melbourne International Arts Festival present
With Brett Dean

Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall | Melbourne Recital Centre, Cnr Southbank Boulevard & Sturt Street, Southbank
Date/Time: 22 Oct @ 7:00pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166

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