Flinders Quartet: Quartet Friends

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Published: 5th March, 2019

Retreating from an inside-a-hairdryer hot Melbourne day into the white honeycomb of the Melbourne Recital Centre to hear the Flinders Quartet’s opening program for 2019 brought welcome relief.

A near-capacity loyal following had assembled in the beautiful hoop-pine timber Primrose Potter Salon for “Quartet Friends”. The program comprised three works carefully chosen by the composer of the second work, Matthew Laing, with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 64, No. 3 and Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A major, Op. 41 bookending the premiere of Laing’s Out of Hibernation.

Stan Getz was right. “A good quartet is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas.” Joseph Haydn’s quartet glistened from the outset. The first movement was exciting and effervescent, and had the audience sitting up in their seats paying close attention to the impeccable intonation, rhythmic unity and open communication of the four players: Nicholas Waters and Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba playing violin; Helen Ireland, viola; and Zoe Knighton, cello. The release and calm of the second movement had us all bathing in the resonant acoustics produced by these fine players in their purpose-built surroundings. The scherzo-like third movement contained jokes aplenty with trills and double-stops played effortlessly and flavoured with subtle vibrato and carried off elegantly. The fourth movement had exactly the energetic spirit you would expect from an allegro con spirito. The only minor draw-back (that perhaps disturbed cellist Zoe Knighton more than the audience) was the non-cooperative technology, necessitating a reboot of the on/off switch variety between first and second movement. I suppose Haydn may have had candle issues. The quartet remained on stage and Zoe Knighton introduced the composer of the next commissioned work.

A violist by training, Matthew Laing had always been on the quartet’s radar but more for his performing career than composition. When they blind-auditioned works for their 2017 Composer Development Program, they were surprised to find the author of their preferred work was a colleague. They were keen to seek more from him, and the resulting work was Out of Hibernation. Matthew was present and gave some background to the work, the largest he has written so far and workshopped with composer, violist and conductor, Brett Dean, in Berlin and London with the support of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust.

The results of working with such an experienced mentor were clearly on show – maintaining a middle ground of intent, not getting lost down ever-diminishing rabbit-holes of dynamic or extended technique; instead, weaving one continuous four-part work that almost imperceptibly moves between the sections, dabbling in only the right amount of technical challenge to convey the underlying theme and desired atmosphere.

The first part, titled Out of Hibernation, painted the picture of an animal waking from its winter-sleep with the use of held, gentle, perhaps frozen notes accompanying the “behind the bridge” pizzicato of droplets of snow-melt. The viola seemed to be pivotal, on one hand off-setting increasingly rapid artificial harmonics interplayed with the cellist’s or providing a moving part juxtaposed with legato playing in the other parts. The dialogue, so well introduced in the Haydn, between the first and second violin was replicated in this part also before a frenzied, yet united rhythmic pattern signaled the onslaught of reality once the creature had “woken up”.

Nocturne for creepy crawlies followed seamlessly but with new ideas: high-pitched notes in the violins above long, sustained notes by the cello. The full palate of techniques was used effectively to provide dynamic contrast when players used left hands exclusively to play their melodies tamping the string onto the fingerboard – both percussive yet very subtle. And sounds of crickets set the clock conclusively to night-time.

The transition to the third part was lost to me, however more new techniques such as bowing on the black tailpiece behind the bridge perhaps signalled we had arrived at Spray your life with insecticide. Its aim was to throw light on the impulse of fear, likening it to spraying chemicals to eliminate the very foundations of our existence.

Time can take things away from you also appeared rather like a photo appearing in chemical solution in a darkroom, gradually. Rhythmically unified it was light and ethereal then solid, resonant and atonal. Photographs were indeed the theme; their ability to be reminders but at the same time replacements of the people, times and places in our lives. The full resonance of the lyrical cello line soared above viola accompaniment. Not everything was as it seemed, though, as the beauty of this was interrupted by microtonal notation bending the truth perhaps. The viola again featured with a walking rhythm perhaps reminding us of the person in the flesh rather than in the photo.

Nearing the end of this work, I was reminded that we would hear Schumann after the interval, and was impressed by the way Matthew Laing had skillfully mirrored the other works, both paying respect to these great masters of the genre and extending it into the 21st century.

Winding back the clock to the Romantic era with Schumann’s quartet, the contrast between it, the Haydn, and Laing’s work was stark. The players’ faces reflected the seriousness of the work. Long melodic lines replaced the shorter phrases of Haydn, and the full resonance and intensity reminded us what the era was all about: more complexity, more emotion, more vibrato – just more is more. The quartet skillfully negotiated the shifting rhythms, purposely unclear tempos of the aptly-named Andante espressivo-Allegro molto moderato featuring sighing descending fifths or the “Clara theme”. The agitato of the Assai agitato movement was achieved through a series of variations, creating the mood of a relentless Baroque passacaglia or chaconne. The quartet captured the mood perfectly. The cello triplets moving the Adagio molto along gave the movement balance, which was continued in the arc of the quartet with the concluding Finale. Allegro molto vivace Quasi Trio.

In this demanding work, the quartet maintained poise at all times, achieving a peak to their resonance – hitting that breathtaking sweet spot of perfect pitch. Even in the rustic, almost folky ending to the work they communicated their great love of and tremendous facility for this genre.

Jeffrey Tate said, “The most perfect experience of human behaviour is a string quartet.” I would go further and say the most perfect experience of a string quartet was to be found at Primrose Potter Salon with the Flinders Quartet. Numerous calls of “bravo” from the audience at the conclusion of the concert seem to support this.

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Classic Melbourne welcomes this inaugural contribution from Bronwen Whyatt, who reviewed the performance of “Quartet Friends” given by the Flinders Quartet in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on February 28, 2019.