Australian String Quartet
Perth Concert Hall
reviewed by Neville Cohn
The Australian String Quartet often leavens its programs with works well off the beaten track – and its first offering for 2004 included two compositions which only very rarely make an appearance on the bill as well as the Perth premiere of Roger Smalley’s Piano Quintet with the composer at the keyboard.
The centenary of Dvorak’s death in 1904 is being marked worldwide by performances of his music. Throughout 2004, the ASQ will be programming a number of his works. Cypresses was originally conceived as a set of love songs, and the ASQ gave us a re-working for string quartet of four of the eighteen songs. Unsurprisingly, they are strong on melody, tenderness and ardour and, despite the youth of the composer, they already provide incontrovertible evidence of Dvorak’s instantly recognisable style; his musical fingerprints are all over it. This set of four miniatures was presented with trade-mark beauty of tone and precise intonation.
As well, we heard Stravinsky’s Three Pieces of which Canticle was especially memorable not least for its evocation of mysterious, creepy, mist-shrouded vistas. And Eccentric, inspired by famed clown “Little Tich” was, at times, reduced to almost Webernian proportions.
Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartet, opus 59 no 2 is one of the glories of the chamber music repertoire and the ASQ rose magnificently to its challenges. Adapting chameleon-like to its every nuance, they breathed life and meaning into this masterpiece.
For sheer expressive range and depth, smoothness of corporate tonal sheen and fidelity to the notes,the ASQ are clearly frontrunners in international terms. For lengthy stretches of its performance, the playing was of such lofty standard that it was beyond criticism in conventional terms and needing little more than an acknowledgement of highest interpretative – and technical – excellence. Offerings at this level explain the golden opinions garnered by the ensemble during its tours across China, Hong Kong, Germany and Britain last year.
The program presented at the Concert Hall has been toured through Australia in the company of Roger Smalley who played the keyboard part in his recently completed Piano Quintet,
given its Perth premiere on Tuesday. In common with some of his earlier work, Smalley has taken inspiration from a Chopin mazurka, in this case opus 68 no 4 in F minor, fragments of which appear, phantom-like, in the scherzo. Much of the latter is informed by a sense of urgency; the mood is rather dark, even threatening, with its peremptory knockings as if demanding entry at a door that remains firmly closed.
The overture movement, on first encounter, comes across as an essay in musical turmoil, with note streams that rush this way and that with strongly emphatic statements from the strings. And in the finale, the players presented a series of variations that include a charming, Viennese-type waltz, a scherzo with rapid, high-treble tinklings, a little barcarolle with an intriguing rhythmic lurch and a rather jolly polonaise. But, on first hearing, some of the variations seemed rather too brief, and not allowed sufficient time for their individual characters to register as satisfyingly as might otherwise have been the case.
Copyright Neville Cohn 2004