BWW Reviews: BOUNDLESS: AUSTRALIAN STRING QUARTET Reinvigorated the Classics

Reviewed Friday 15th August 2014

The Australian String Quartet have chosen three sensational pieces for their Boundless Australian national tour, stepping away from their more usual fare of Australian contemporary works in favour of three masterpieces by some of the greatest composers of string quartets, one each from the Classical and the Romantic periods, and the last from the 20th Century: Haydn, Beethoven, and Bartók.

The members of the Australian String Quartet, Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache, violins, Stephen King, viola, and Sharon Draper, violoncello, are based at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide, and have the great good fortune to play on a matched set of wonderful instruments made by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini between 1743 and 1784 in Turin and Piacenza, Italy. There was a feeling of excitement and a buzz of anticipation as the audience waited to hear this marvellous group of musicians bringing these instruments to life with some of the best music ever written for them.

Joseph Haydn is often referred to as the father of the string quartet, and his String Quartet in G Major Op. 77 No. 1, is one of his last few compositions, written in 1799, representing his ultimate achievements in the form. Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz had commissioned six quartets but, sadly, we only have two.

From the beginning of the allegro moderato first movement, which was given a very lively approach, the ASQ put their mark firmly on this piece, with clarity a precision beyond the norm. The second, adagio, movement is beautifully controlled and the third movement shows how important well-judged pauses can be while also exploring the constantly varying textures. The presto final movement is simply full of the joy of music as the lines intertwine to a end dramatically.

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Op. 95 Serioso in 1810, and what a long way he had developed the form in that decade. Haydn had taken the Classical quartet to great heights and it was time for new ideas, which Beethoven certainly had. Structurally, the similarities are far greater than the differences, but the content is markedly changed, introducing emotional writing that moves the listener.

Wide dynamic range, sudden key and tempo changes, swift changes between brusque and flowing melodies, and an expectation of more virtuosic playing, which is exactly what this quartet is renowned for. In this, as the previous work, the ASQ show that there are still new and exciting things to be done with works two centuries old if you are willing to push yourself hard and take risks. In both of these pieces, it paid off.

Jumping forward over a century, Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 5, from 1935, is considered one of the most challenging works for string quartet. Naturally, the ASQ could not resist it. The five movements contain such a wealth of ideas, and a huge range of challenges to go with them. The first movement begins in B flat and the keys then ascend on a whole tone scale, while the melodies from the exposition are played in reverse order and are inverted in the recapitulation. The fourth movement draws on Bulgarian folk music and has very complex time signatures that change constantly. Each movement has its own challenges and one can only wonder how many hundreds of hours went into rehearsing this work to achieve the sensational performance we were privileged to hear in this concert.

A work with such deeply emotional content demands a passionate performance, and such complex writing demands great skill and intense concentration. The ASQ can provide all this and more, adding their own individuality to lift the piece to even greater heights. This was a magnificent closing work to an uplifting and highly memorable concert that had everybody talking animatedly during the interval and, no doubt, long after the evening had ended.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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