Penny Quartet

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Published: 8th August, 2016

It takes a great deal besides talent for a string quartet to flourish. If the Penny Quartet’s latest concert of works by Haydn, Sculthorpe and Britten is any indication, then this quartet of Australian National Academy of Music alumni is well on its way to a successful career.

Beginning confidently with Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, opus 33 No. 1, Madeleine Jevons immediately impressed with her warm, attractive tone. As first violin, she drove the melodic line with pliant buoyancy. It was soon apparent that the members of this quartet were uncommonly well matched: a feature of their ensemble playing that became increasingly satisfying during the course of their three chosen works.

Along with fellow violinist Amy Brookman, Jevons (pictured) has been a primary motivating force behind the quartet; they remained while the search continued to find a violist and cellist who were compatible both in terms of musical values and career aspirations. In Anthony Chataway and Jack Ward it would appear that they have found exactly the right ingredients for a dynamic, finely integrated musical entity.

Another aspect of this concert that bodes well for their future was the selection of repertoire. Their choice of Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet 8 and Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 reflected a concern with more modern repertoire, including works by Australian composers. These contrasting works were accessible for an audience and afforded each member of the quartet an opportunity to display their talents as solo players as well as responsive ensemble members. The practice of interchangeable first and second violins is not always fruitful, but having Brookman on first violin for the second two items appeared to draw on the individual strengths of both violinists and suit the requirements of these works.

The first and last of the five movements of Sculthorpe’s 1969 quartet are almost entirely for solo cello. Jack Ward played these and the third “Con dolore” movements with rich sonorous tone, giving full expression to the emotional impact of Sculthorpe’s composition. The influence of Balinese music is more obvious in the second and third movements as strings are plucked and percussive effects come to the fore. Jevons played the short solo melody with haunting lyricism, while Brookman persuaded with a clear, plaintive tone of compelling intensity. The rhythmic challenges of the two contrasting faster movements were met confidently and securely.

Compensating for a lack of information on the program itself, as well as lending a more personal note to this recital, Jevons spoke about the Penny Quartet and the Sculthorpe whilst Anthony Chataway introduced Britten’s final quartet and the ailing composer’s final completed major work. It was a particularly valuable means of enhancing the audience’s appreciation of Britten’s musical intention and its connections with Venice, where the final fifth movement was written. In the first “Duets” movement, Britten explores the possible relationships between the four instruments. Brookman’s pure sweet upper notes and the interweaving of second violin and viola began a journey that displayed all four players in coordinated sympathy with each other and the music. The appealing short viola solo that concluded the second movement was followed by some extraordinarily effective playing by Brookman for the “Solo” movement. Above a sparse accompaniment she wove a quiet meditative spell of celestial purity. Squeaky clean and piercing without ever losing its beauty, her playing created an ethereal otherworldly dimension. After an energetic “Burlesque” the final “Recitative and Passacaglia” was a moving leave-taking as the cello pulse finally faded into silence.

It is always a special joy when music is revealed in new and unexpected ways. Enthusiastic applause reflected just how much this audience valued the insight and skill that these young musicians brought to these works. They have earned every iota of support that they can be given; so, do yourself a favour (as someone once said) and make sure you catch them next time they’re in town.

Heather Leviston reviewed Penny Quartet’s concert at the Australian National Academy of Music on August 2.