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Penny Quartet: Thin Places

by Heather Leviston

Last year, Penny Quartet launched the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes program with a high octane recital that brought a cheering audience to its feet and attracted the February to June 2018 Contemporary Masters Award for their winning interpretation of Widmann’s String Quartet No.4. The award, supported by pianist Stephen McIntyre AM and friends, enables Melbourne Recital Centre to recognise the finest performances of repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries – a prestigious addition to the many feathers in the quartet’s collective cap.

This year, Amy Brookman, Madeleine Jevons, Anthony Chataway and Jack Ward gave the final Local Heroes recital in the Primrose Potter Salon, again including a quartet by composer/clarinettist/conductor Jörg Widmann – this time String Quartet No. 2, Chorale Quartet. Thanks to Penny Quartet, and to the Australian String Quartet playing his Quartet No. 3, Hunting Quartet, we have heard three of his quartets at the MRC over the last two years. Hopefully, both quartets (and others) will enable us to hear more soon – perhaps his Quartet No. 6, Study on Beethoven, commissioned by Anne Sophie Mutter, to be premiered in Japan early next year. A central feature of Widmann’s works is its relationship to the work of other composers; in the case of his second string quartet Widmann has said that he would not have been able to write it without knowing Haydn’s Seven Last Words as his piece starts at the final stage of the important experience of the crucifixion’s “last walk” – an experience that “contains a number of lost sounds, phrases of futility which come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. The horrifying rubbing and sanding of skin and wood become the ‘theme’ of the piece which is combined with tonal, choral-like melodies”.

During her short talk about the theme of the concert after the first item, Erkki-Sven TüürString Quartet No.1, Jevons introduced the Widmann quartet with some pertinent remarks regarding how terrifying silences can be in the concert hall yet allow the listener to hear more, and invited us to note our emotional reactions. In the event, watching the players physically, but unobtrusively, maintain the pulse, provided a link between the audible episodes, thereby sustaining musical coherence. There was always a forward momentum that transcended a sequence of “strange sound, strange sound” (as Widmann has put it) to make music. Much of the power of the piece stems from the ability of the players to breathe as one, which they managed admirably. Contrasting passages that shifted from whispered utterances to aggressive crescendos led to the final arc entailing ferocious dramatic power. It was clear from their committed playing that they had enjoyed exploring the piece, just as Jevons had said.

Their exploration of the short string quartet by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür“In memoriam Urmas Kibuspuu” also yielded satisfying results. Contrasting sections of a repetitive, minimalist folkdance-like sections with chipping attack set against lighter ones of dynamic changes, like wind soughing and surging, led to a final assertive crescendo. Listeners were left to imagine how all this might relate to the personality of the dedicatee actor.

Ravel’s String Quarter No. 2 might have seemed a less than obvious choice as the main item on the program, but Jevons helpfully explained the connection and the reason for the concert’s title. A concept coined by the ancient Celts “Thin Places” can be defined as “the spaces between the holy and the human, heaven and Earth, air and soil”. According to the concert’s publicity notes “Penny Quartet explores this indefinable feeling, this element of humanity, from the sublime to the uncomfortable. Thin places are not necessarily sacred or peaceful, though they can be both – they are places of dissonance, beauty and conflict.”. That covers a multitude of choices and these four young, dynamic players can hardly be criticised for including one of the most popular and engaging examples of 20th century quartet repertoire. With Jevons shifting between silvery delicacy and energetic attack on first violin, Brookman gorgeously rich on second, Chataway lending a beautifully textured, full tone to the prominent viola part, and Ward providing a rhythmically supple, warm underpinning on cello, it was an engaging and most enjoyable performance. There were some exceptionally beautiful, tender moments in the second movement and a burst of sunshine in the third. There was generally well-judged balance between instruments and a high level of awareness between players.

For some listeners there were times when tempi could have been just a little more relaxed in order to unearth all that these works have to offer, but that is a small quibble in view of the excellence and exciting dynamism of so much of their playing. Two concerts by Penny Quartet are scheduled to virtually bookend the Local Heroes Series in 2020: two more opportunities to enjoy some emotionally engaging and extremely rewarding music making.

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Heather Leviston attended Penny Quartet’s recital “Thin Places” given at Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on December 11, 2019.

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