Quartz: The Sunset

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Published: 17th March, 2017

Although the focus of Quartz’s first of two Melbourne Recital Centre programs was Edvard Grieg, a substantial part was devoted to two other composers of enormous appeal.

Henry Purcell and Ottorino Respighi almost seem to be “flavour of the month”, what with L’Arpeggiata’s astonishing interpretation of some of his vocal music the previous evening in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and Victorian Opera’s current acclaimed production of Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty in the Arts Centre Playhouse.

Dido’s Lament featured in L’Arpeggiata’s program and made a theatrical opening to Quartz’s recital. As the stricken queen, Sally-Anne Russell made her slow entry after the string quartet had settled. It might have been an unusually gloomy way to begin a recital, but Russell’s portrayal was certainly gripping. From the very first soft, drawn out phrase she displayed the admirable control and evenness of tone that are hallmarks of her lyric coloratura mezzo-soprano. A more operatic approach gave dramatic force to the climaxes as Dido confronted her fate and begged to be remembered. In keeping with the emotional intensity and unwavering focus of her performance Russell’s exit was almost a dazed stagger.

Respighi’s music is a great deal more than Roman pines and fountains; the success of Victorian Opera’s production is not simply due to exhilarating staging and fine singing; the quality of the music itself seemed to surprise audiences and reviewers alike. His Il tramonto (The Sunset) was the perfect choice for Quartz and Sally-Anne Russell. Not only did Respighi study composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, he was principal violist with the Russian Imperial Theatre and first violinist in the Mugellini Quintet. His inside knowledge of string playing was plainly evident as Kathryn Taylor, Rachael Beesley, Merewyn Bramble and Zoe Wallace expressed the changing moods of the composer’s lyrical imagination with glowing assurance.

Using an Italian rendering of Shelley’s poem, The Sunset, Respighi dedicated the work to mezzo-soprano, Chiarino Fino Savio, who sang the solo part in the first 1918 performance. Despite Shelley’s sometimes complicated syntax, Chris Ryan’s measured and clearly enunciated reading of the English original before the performance made it much easier to grasp the essentials of this gothic tale of love and loss. Russell’s interpretation was highly expressive as the mood shifted between finely nuanced passages of tender delicacy and passionate climaxes of despair. Instrumentalists and singers were in total accord as the work unfolded, with warm flowing tone from all performers and some particularly fine work from Taylor in a rippling violin obbligato. Il tramonto is a marvellous work that deserves to be heard more often. Thanks to Quartz we didn’t have to settle for just the electronic versions.

When violist Merewyn Bramble introduced Grieg’s 1878 String Quartet No.1 we were alerted that it has posed some difficulties for the listener. Praised by Liszt and Debussy but questioned by others for its unorthodoxy and use of fortissimo double stops in several instruments simultaneously, this substantial work of more than 30 minutes duration encompasses a wide dynamic range and diversity of colour and textures. Quartz made full use of the rhythmic vitality of Nordic folk dances that enliven the work and were truly impressive in passages that relied on unison sounds in perfect accord, breathing as one. Grieg wrote: “It aims at breadth, vigor, flight of imagination and, above all, fullness of tone for the instruments for which it is written.” And that is exactly what Quartz gave it, with all four instruments having important roles as featured voices as well as in combination.

With this recital Quartz fulfilled its aim of presenting dynamic and innovative programs. As somebody remarked after the recital, what these five terrific musicians created together is a shining example of “girl power”. The reaction of the large audience signaled hearty agreement.