Fresh from the Melbourne Recital Centre Contemporary Masters award for their first 2016 program there, Tinalley String Quartet returned with the year’s second and final program, Speak Less Than You Know. With the addition of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor, Opus 13, to open proceedings, the concert was a reprise of the quartet’s contribution to the MSO’s 2011 Beethoven Festival: readings from the composer’s personal documents interspersed with selected movements from seven of his string quartets.
Mendelssohn’s first quartet was an apt starting point for the evening. Composed in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death, it reveals the 18-year-old’s admiration of the fallen giant, as well as his own youthful passion. Apart from a couple of slurred notes, and an occasionally murky tone, the quartet ably expressed the work’s swooping emotional fervour and moments of tender contemplation. First violin Adam Chalabi’s melodic lead was very fine, particularly in the lilting, exquisitely simple theme that opens the third movement.
Following interval, veteran thespian John Bell (pictured) joined the quartet on stage to give voice to Beethoven’s words (the role taken by actor John Stanton for the 2011 concert). Bell’s clear diction and capacity to express emotion brought numerous excerpts from the composer’s writing to life: the 13-year-old’s bold optimism; the young man’s frustration as deafness set in; the wild, disjointed letters to his Immortal Beloved; his anger, whether toward a careless copyist or those concerned in the care of his nephew Karl, for whom he was the reluctant guardian. Such was the impact of Bell’s delivery that some of the notorious curmudgeon’s expressions moved the audience to laughter.
He read from Beethoven’s letters for most of the program, until it concluded with the codicil to his will, written days before the composer’s death, and the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which the 32-year-old, anticipating his demise, explained how deafness and depression cast a deep shadow on his personality.
These readings conveyed a great deal about Beethoven’s life and thoughts; when presented with his music, the man’s soul was revealed. Equal to the technical and interpretive excellence with which Bell delivered the text, Tinalley played with assurance and a profound capacity to convey the emotions that Beethoven could only barely express with words.
In this longer second part of the program, Chalabi, second violin Lerida Delbridge, violist Justin Williams and cellist Michelle Wood played as one, never more so than during the finale, from the String Quartet Opus 132 in A minor. Overlapping each other through the third movement’s increasingly complex rhythm, they played almost as four soloists while maintaining an exquisite unity.
The profound poignancy of this late Beethoven work, composed as his health failed, was also apparent on Delbridge’s expressive face. (Although visuals are of limited importance in this context, I must note that Chalabi’s uninspired shirt and trousers became mildly irksome after more than two hours of concert time, particularly as his colleagues were cocktail-hour ready!
While the texts were presented chronologically, the quartet selections were a little more loosely ordered, as the emphasis was on matching textual and musical mood. Generally presented discretely, words and music sometimes merged briefly – which may have offended musical purists, but it worked extremely well dramatically.
Overall, this concert was musically gratifying, but it also offered rich rewards to those lured into the concert hall by Tinalley’s guest artist; Beethoven’s string quartets, especially when played so well, should tempt some to return. The unusual nature of the program’s second half, with text and music overlapping, and selected movements rather than complete works, meant that applause was uncertain – until the concert’s conclusion, when the audience warmly expressed their satisfaction. Speak Less Than You Know was a wonderful window onto Romantic music generally, and Beethoven – the composer and the man – in particular.