Australian String Quartet: Turning Point

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Published: 10th October, 2017


One of the delights of a good festival is the opportunity to delve into the unknown, in whatever form it may take. Woodworking Room 101, a large space in E block of the Collingwood Arts Precinct (35 Johnston Street, Collingwood) had been stripped of its work benches, though the outlines of tools could be seen on the walls where once they were stored. A small platform in the corner, with a chair on an extra riser, and four music stands complete with iPads stood ready. About 70 chairs were arranged on the diagonal, giving all patrons a good view, and a feeling of being in a contemporary version of a “chamber”, complete with exposed pipes, metal and concrete, and a large black curtain containing what would otherwise have been a very large space.

The Australian String Quartet took their places, only cellist Sharon Grigoryan seated, with the two violinists Dale Bartrop and Francesca Hiew standing to her right, and violist Stephen King to her left. What was to follow was an hour of spell-binding chamber music, performed at its very best.

With each of the players taking a turn at clear and informative introductions to the pieces on the program, we were taken on a journey from the earliest example of the string quartet (Scarlatti) through to Beethoven, Glass and Bartok, each demonstrating unique creative takes on the iconic form, and highlighting the outstanding ensemble skills of the Australian String Quartet.

Unlike the trio sonatas of the Baroque period, Scarlatti’s Sonate a Quattro are specifically scored for the four instruments, without a harpsichord. Acknowledged as one of the earliest examples of such writing, it has led some scholars to attribute the string quartet origins to Scarlatti. In this concert we were treated to the fourth sonata, in five short movements. Beginning with a bold, slow fugue, the second even slower movement was full of adventurous harmonies, the third was in a fast and lively triple time, and the last two were dance movements. The ASQ delighted with their clarity, delicacy, stylish bowing and articulations, and a superb straight baroque tone.

Taking us on a big leap forward in time, we landed with Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet, Opus 59 No 1, first movement. Written after the first four symphonies, and as the pianoforte became a more substantial instrument capable of a wider range of sounds, Beethoven was expanding his own sound palette in all his works with bigger, grander sounds, and longer movements. This wonderful quartet is very richly chordal at times, with a huge tessitura, from the lowest the cello has to offer, to very high violin pitches, and the main themes and fragments of themes are shared around all four instruments giving each their moments of prominence. Again, the ASQ delivered with wonderful soloistic bursts where appropriate, and fabulous energetic ensemble playing.

Leaping over the next 120 years, we were experiencing a different approach to the string quartet, this time with a complete work. Philip Glass’s Quartet No. 3 “Mishima” is taken from his soundtrack for the film about Yukio Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters. The string quartet is used to illustrate recollections from Mishima’s life. The six-movement concert version of the quartet uses Glass’s minimalist approach, with repeated harmonic progressions and shifts of metre between duple and triple, aggressive articulation, irregular rhythms, pulsating chords contrasted with rich polyphony, and finally chord progressions in rhythmic bursts, outlined by very rapid arpeggio figures. Again requiring intense attention to detail, these excellent players delivered a very satisfying performance.

To round off the program, we were treated to yet another take on the form of the string quartet with the last movement of Bartok’s Quartet No 1, written in 1909. Meticulously scored, with constant tempo changes, and a variety of differently accented chords, notes or fragments, phrase lengths and articulations, violinist Francesca Hiew described it as “fiendishly difficult but fun”. The quartet excelled here. This was music-making at its most satisfying for the audience, with the ASQ living every moment of it, in sound and gesture.

The audience response felt spontaneous and genuinely appreciative of this hour of musical adventure in a most unlikely and yet highly successful performance space. As we all drifted back through the old Technical School to Johnston Street, the conversation all around was enthusiastically wishing that every Sunday afternoon could end like this.

The Australian String Quartet will perform the complete Razumovsky Quartet in their November concert, and the Glass Mishima Quartet features in their February program.



Margaret Arnold reviewed this performance which was part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival.

Quartet members are Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King and Sharon Grigoryan.