Flinders Quartet: Pure Quartet Bliss

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Published: 16th May, 2014

As part of its current tour, Flinders Quartet gave a concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre on May 12. Perhaps excited about introducing a new violinist, Flinders named this concert Pure Quartet Bliss. Classic Melbourne went along to judge whether the title was justified.

It seemed serendipitous that as I settled into writing this review Classic FM presenter Christopher Lawrence had a recording of the Flinders Quartet playing the music of Calvin Bowman. Interesting too as this was the “old” Flinders Quartet, which has lost and gained two members since the Bowman recording was made.

The original members of the Flinders Quartet, violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton, may have wanted to assure their loyal audiences that things were as good as ever after changes in recent years saw them welcome new violinists Helen Ayres and, most recently, Shane Chen. Knighton has gone on the record as saying: “The chances were rather slim in finding that winning combination and we still can’t quite believe our luck.” This performance bore out her faith in the “new” Flinders Quartet in a program that may have been traditional but showed the players’ prowess in three contrasting pieces.

The Quartet has a proud history of championing Australian music and stretching audience awareness of worthy new music, but tonight’s program was simply designed to please all comers. It comprised:

Haydn String Quartet Op. 77, No. 1 in G major
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Op. 108
Dvorak String Quartet Op. 96 in F major (American)

First was the Haydn, perhaps in deference to this being the earliest of the three works. From the assured opening attack, sprightly and in perfect sync, we were reassured this was the Flinders Quartet we knew and respected. Rather than the “plodding policeman” of its occasional nickname, the work was notable for the sweetness of its melody, first violinist Helen Ayres taking the opportunity to let her instrument sing. Chen, with Ireland and Knighton, not only showed the importance of the work’s harmonic structure, but also impressed with an easy transition to the minor key, and some furious arpeggios.

The Adagio brought unison playing to establish its strong subject, the first violin having an almost balletic staccato in parts of the development. The rich harmony was complemented by a range of dynamics, and sparkling runs for the first violin were grounded by repeated notes on the cello. The Minuetto that followed appeared to anticipate the Presto of the final movement, which made the unison, fugal passages all the more impressive. Haydn’s development of this movement made it so much more than a pretty dance, having with a strong, insistent sound. The Presto, led by the two violins, then set quite a pace with a cohesion that carried the music through to a very polished ending.

Shostakovich’s dedication of his String Quartet No.7 in F sharp minor, Op.108 to his much-loved but long-suffering wife is a strong hint as to why the music is at times torrid, even pained. Knighton suggests that the work can be regarded as “a vehicle for grief”. The first movement may be Allegretto, but the minor key works against any idea of joy, as does the drone-like cello that soon takes over the melody. There is pleasure, however, in the fine playing as all strings keep a well-judged balance at tempo.

The Lento movement had Chen’s violin keeping the flow of sound as Ayres articulated a theme of great sorrow, picked up by the cello, then viola. A slow, mournful melody moved between instruments with the others offering an introspective questioning sound. The final, faster movement was not always easy to listen to, but skilful pizzicato was just one reason to describe the Quartet’s performance as virtuosic.

Dvorak’s String Quartet Op. 96 in F major (known as the American) owes more to the Czech composer’s country of origin, being tuneful from the outset, when the viola articulates the well-known theme. Violins and cello provide a light, dance-inspired accompaniment that intensifies with the development of the first movement.

Whether playing a measured dance or at a more frenzied pace, the Flinders Quartet is notable for the empathy between players that goes beyond perfect timing to synchronicity in the changing dynamics, often at quite a pace. This was most in evidence at the last part of the first movement that had a hint of Appalachian folk music in the sweetness of the sound.

Sweetness was also found in the slow movement, with the lower strings preparing the way for Ayres’ violin “solo”. The cello added depth to the sound and the movement developed into a harmonic exposition, in which each instrument was an equal player until the last, well-realised diminuendo.

There was impressive synchronicity in the two final movements, with the added challenge of pace. The first violin again had a chance to soar, the cello to provide a resonant solo – but all four quartet members joined in a return to the paciness of the first movement, and it was a joyous sound that brought the work to a close.

As for the title of the concert: Pure Quartet Bliss. It was.

Editor’s note: The picture of the “new” Flinders Quartet was by Nicholas Purcell

For details of future concerts go to http://www.flindersquartet.com/calendar.html