One sentence in the program neatly sums up Australia’s flagship string quartet: “Since 1985, the Australian String Quartet has created unforgettable string quartet performances for audiences around the world”. With violist Christopher Cartlidge and cellist Michael Dahlenburg joining Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, a new ASQ line-up made its Melbourne debut, giving us a near perfect experience of the finest colours and intimate musical details of a unique string quartet sound, made more fascinating on their set of 18th Century hand-crafted Guadagnini instruments and by premiering a new Australian composition. The news that following their national and regional tour, ASQ is bound for London’s Royal Albert Hall in September ’22, representing Australia at ANAM’s Quartetthaus festival, is a further reason to celebrate music by Australia’s best ensembles and composers.
First performed in 1936 in Wigmore Hall, a young Benjamin Britten wrote in his diary that his Three Divertimenti for string quartet “received sniggers and cold silence from the audience”. With energy, joy and passion emanating from these four outstanding ASQ players, Britten’s small character pieces were given a fresh and colourful hearing. Vibrant chords opened the March, with immediate quirky solo glissandos and fractured conversational snatches immediately followed by picturesque marching sections displaying showy military bravado and youthful playfulness. Britten’s taste for modernism surprised us with his creative structure as this Allegro Maestoso changed rapidly from frantic and forceful statements to a surprising final questioning solo glissando fragment. Contrasting legato violins over pizzicato cello support led the way into a light and airy French Waltz until a richly toned, full bodied cello melody filled the outstanding acoustic space of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall with leading questions and colourful influence. Every detail in changes of tempo, feeling and dynamics in the ensemble texture was intuitively balanced and portrayed. A final Burlesque – Presto took us into a new rhythmic world of vibrant worrying, scurrying urgency, with driving pulses, an intense mix of tone colour and playful staccato effects. A middle section of percussive chords created a restless, bristling energy; upper glissando tones soared like shooting stars, at times exaggerated and tonally on the edge, bringing the piece to an abrupt ending. Unlike the reception given to Britten in 1936, this audience did not remain silent, with maximum applause welcoming ASQ’s detailed and refined performance.
Next, ASQ took us to a new tonal world of string playing in the Melbourne premiere performance of David Paterson’s String Quartet No 1, the third work by this Melbourne composer to be commissioned by the ASQ. Its opening Allegro drew us into the realm of a vivacious style of English dance, with strings dancing helter-skelter in blended unison playing. Joyful moments of Spanish dance rhythms and tonal, balanced melodies led us to a breathless close. It was the second movement Adagio Tranquillo that was an outstanding source of musical magic. Mutes and harmonics created an eerie, celestial, glassy sound. Using bowed harmonics, musicians created a series of floating chords with glistening, spacious melodies. They were required to play lightly on the fingerboard, creating an airy and transparent sound. Quite remarkable was the resolution of tension, the creation of mystery, with a repeated pulse underpinning a high, quasi-religious chord, like a ghostly distant church organ in a distant heaven. This was quite intriguing and sensitive music.
The third movement Toccata and Fugue opened with soft notes and little creatures hurrying and scurrying among a myriad of gossamer threads; fascinating new tone colours were achieved as the ensemble refrained from playing with vibrato. A final chapter Fugue & Finale explored repeated rhythms with touches of experimental quirkiness and mimicry, bringing in themes from the first movement. An enthusiastic audience welcomed Paterson to the stage to join the ASQ in sharing the success of this premiere performance.
Beethoven’s String Quartet No 9 in C, Op 59 No 3, Razumovsky, is a work held in highest regard by string players and is a pinnacle of triumph and inspiration in the classical repertoire. Passionate introductory chords and suspenseful silences consumed our attention, and new timbral colours, highly concentrated technical virtuosity and Beethoven’s power held us. Most admirable was the ASQ’s precise and refined teamwork, passionate timbres and split-second adjustments of balance between solo and ensemble accompaniment. The third movement, Menuetto Grazioso was given a highly expressive shaping, with subtle rubatos and pristine softness. There is no better way to end one of Beethoven’s inspiring masterpieces, than with an enormous crescendo, which closed the perpetuum mobile of the Allegro Molto. Brilliant string playing and classy teamwork impressed us during the relentless pace of this challenging finale.
With a stellar 37-year legacy, ASQ’s fresh look is exciting to hear and see. Praise-worthy too is the quartet’s new and fashionable concert attire, complementing the individuality and vibrant artistry of these performers. We wouldn’t be surprised if many other quartets follow their lead!
Julie McErlain reviewed “Britten Paterson Beethoven – ASQ in Concert” performed by the Australian Sting Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 26, 2022.