Saturday evening’s concert from the Enso String Quartet was the final in a marathon tour, as these four lauded players from the New York-based quartet performed an 11th Australian concert to a modest audience at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Their star is on the rise after having taken first prize in the Banff International String Quartet Competition and also securing a coveted Grammy nomination for a recent disc of Ginastera Quartets. They also include work with people with autism in their busy teaching schedule and are intent on forging new links between classical musicians and the wider public.
Now on their second visit to Australia after an “exhilarating” initial visit at Huntington Festival, one felt this group was a little tired this time around.
Opening the concert was a splendid new work, Safe Haven from Melbourne-based composer Brenton Broadstock. Yes, it was accessible on a first hearing, however there was enough material there to pique and keep one’s interest with the fascinating background story of a Hungarian refugee family making their way in Australia. A simple opening tune, based on the dedicatee’s childhood nickname and nursery song “Boci Boci Tarka” was met by harmonics in the key of C, a hint of the Aeolian mode and rude yet convincing accented interruptions. Continuous descending lines and very quick glissandi featured in some excellent ensemble work and the perpetual movement was unnerving yet on the edge of beauty. In the emotional second movement “Through a Child’s Eyes” we hear the tune in its purest form as barely reinterpreted melody. A sense of sliding and dripping harmonics all combined beautifully in the resonant space, and I think I heard one player singing at one point to haunting effect.
Following this impressive opening, the interpretation for Beethoven’s Harp Quartet was notable for a clear sense of voicing and refined communal intonation, and yet curiously lacking a solid sense of rhetorical impact. Alongside Beethoven’s late E flat piano trio, the op.74 ‘Harp’ Quartet (nicknamed for the plucked arpeggio accompaniment) is notable harmonically for the three very different key groups Beethoven employs. The colour and emotional character of keys was intrinsic in the 18th – 19th century tradition, and in a rhetorical sense helps to paint a desired affect or emotion in the listener. Somehow these harmonic centres seemed smoothed over in the Enso’s reading. First violinist Maureen Nelson dominates the intensity in the group and I wished the other three would meet her in spontaneity and energy.
After interval the multi-talented first violinist proved her mettle as an arranger with some delightfully pure settings of Renaissance Melodies. These were more than just concert-filler, and I would have enjoyed their refined statements a second time.
Ravel’s String Quartet again highlighted the Enso’s attractive collegiality, especially the voice passing which they do very well, and an impressive breadth of dynamic range. Cellist Richard Belcher’s pizzicato was ringing and generous. Not that one could call this a quintessentially French sound without opening a can of worms; however the interpretation was nevertheless well-oiled.
Some balance issues borne out of mismatched intensity rather than projecting power were obvious in the outer movements, yet there were still genuinely euphoric moments.
The second movement had ample nervous energy and the third movement gave violist Melissa Reardon a chance to parade her dark alto sound. Here, moments of stillness were welcome. The third movement wove a rich tapestry, even at times with some too-greasy slides reminiscent of Kreisler, followed by a convincing and sunny rendition of the lively fourth movement.