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Alchemy: Australian String Quartet

by Suzanne Yanko

The Melbourne International Arts Festival lent a celebratory air to the ASQ’s final subscription concert for the year, as did the presence of composer Brett Dean. His work, Eclipse, was positioned between one by the young Beethoven and Bruckner’s Viola Quintet in F major. The names of members of the quartet – Sophie Rowell and Anne Horton, violins, Sally Boud, viola and Rachel Johnston, cello – give away the fact that, contrary to long tradition in this classical genre, they were not four gentlemen in suits. Their performance style was equally remarkable, characterised by a lot of physical movement and changing facial expressions which were marked, even when viewed from our seats in the back row of the auditorium (incidentally, an unusual vantage point for a reviewer!). In fact, as the ensemble began playing Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 18 No.2 with a gentle but assured entry, for the first time in this acoustically perfect hall I wondered if the sound might be fuller if heard from the front rows. However, it soon became apparent that the lightness of sound was in the nature of the composition itself. The 22-year-old Beethoven was evidently still very much influenced by the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart. The ASQ was correct in its lightness of touch, including in the cantabile, the musicians dealing smoothly with the inexplicably fast section in this second movement. Only the ending of the final movement seemed a little too emphatic in contrast. Oddly enough, the final work – Bruckner’s Viola Quintet in F major – sounded more like Beethoven than the composer’s own Opus 18 No.2. It was romantic, accessible music with a distinctive energy that kept it from being sentimental. The extra viola added considerably to the texture, a welcome contrast to the Beethoven whose score at times created a hiatus between the cello and other instruments. The Adagio brought out this “Beethoven-like” quality, with the beautiful and completely engrossing performance treated generously by the space. Towards the end a period of introspection was replaced by a smooth progression towards an almost symphonic ending. The Bruckner was the final work in the program but, far from wanting to pass over Brett Dean’s Eclipse I would like to acknowledge that the night began to the composer. He had started the evening with a talk introducing his composition which, in the program notes, is revealed as a response to the Tampa crisis in 2001. The first movement – marked “slow and spacious, secretive” – began with barely audible violins in unison (a feat that would have tested the mettle of lesser ensembles than the ASQ!) , while the cello’s extraordinary sound suggested the didjeridu. “Unlikely flight” called for intensive bowing and an extended pizzicato to suggest chaos, although the players’ extraordinary communication saved this section from being chaotic. The composer intended the audience to experience the “danger and desperation” of the refugees, with the Epilogue gentler and questioning – but allowing no easy answers. This is music to be proud of: both in its concept and (on this occasion) its execution. Not only is the subject matter regrettable timely yet again, the composer has been through his own trials as artistic director of the beleaguered Australian National Academy of Music. The large audience gave Dean and his music an enthusiastic response, which had as much to do with the man himself as his music, and the fine playing of the ASQ. Alchemy: Australian String Quartet Melbourne Recital Centre Touring nationally until 30 October, 2009

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