Penny Quartet: RESPIRE

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Published: 14th February, 2018

With inspired programming, Penny Quartet launched the 2018 Local Heroes series, Melbourne Recital Centre’s seventh year-long festival of chamber music that has continued to attract enthusiastic audiences. It took place in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon on February 12.

Of all the many concerts in this series that I have attended, I cannot remember a more wildly enthusiastic response after a first item than the one greeting the quartet’s performance of Bryce Dessner’s Aheym. A work of super-charged excitement, it was played with fierce commitment by these young players, who came together in 2014 while at the Australian National Academy of Music. It was an ideal way to begin a concert and a series. Aheym (meaning “homeward” in Yiddish) was one of three quartets commissioned by the Kronos Quartet from Dessner, an American composer and guitarist based in Paris. According to Dessner, Kronos’ founding leader, David Harrington, had wanted something “not too subtle or quiet” for an outdoor concert series. What he calls a “ferocious” piece of music was doubly so in the intimate venue of the MRC’s Salon. It begins with all four players digging into the strings to produce aggressive sforzandos before subsiding to an agitated murmur. Often minimalist in style, the ten-minute work encompasses a gamut of contrasting musical effects, and depends on precise coordination for maximum impact. By the time the work had built to its furious climax you could feel the mounting tension in an audience just about ready to explode with excitement.

It was a hard act to follow, but a work by another of New Music’s stars, the highly sought after German clarinetist, conductor and composer Jörg Widmann, seemed the perfect choice. Considered one of the most versatile and intriguing artists of his generation (he was born in 1973, just three years before Dessner) Widmann’s String Quartet No. 3 will be the modern centerpiece of the Australian String Quartet’s Beethoven program this year. Penny Quartet is to be applauded for presenting the Australian premiere of his String Quartet No. 4. Changing the lighting from an energising red for the Dessner to a shadowy blue for the Widmann, an almost imperceptible nocturnal whisper of bow hair on wood began the aural frame for the piece. Quiet puffs of respirations from the players acted as an accompaniment to the breathing instruments. The music encompassed seemingly amorphous, fragmented outbursts of sound, that explored the acoustic possibilities of the instruments, and a gentle steady passacaglia. Within the rasping, popping and sometimes violent pizzicato the rhythmic pulse propelled the momentum. It is a fascinating piece that was played with assurance.

Although for the most part sounding almost conservative in this context, Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 from 1941 presents its challenges, especially in the soft opening phrases of inquiring tonality. That bane of the concert hall, the mobile phone, decided to join in almost immediately. But the positive, congenial atmosphere established by first violin Madeleine Jevons, soon saw the quartet (and audience) back on track with a renewed beginning. The contrasting movements were negotiated with considerable sensitivity and maturity, with some splendidly full-bodied, rich sonority in the third Andante calmo movement; there was a satisfying depth of tone that had the listener wondering how four players could sound like so many more.

At the end of the concert many members of a sizeable audience stood to cheer and applaud the Penny Quartet’s four young artists: Madeleine Jevons, Amy Brookman (violins), Anthony Chataway (viola) and Jack Ward (cello). It is reassuring to see the future of chamber music in such capable and musically adventurous young hands.