Australian String Quartet. City Recital Hall. September 4. Three and a half stars.
Musica Viva. Emerson String Quartet. City Recital September 8. Four and a half stars
Reviewed by Peter McCallum
In reference to a complete change of personnel by the Australian String Quartet a couple of decades ago, my late colleague Fred Blanks quipped it was like a woodcutter saying it is the same old axe, it just has a new head and handle.
For each of their previous four Australian tours, the magnificent Emerson String Quartet kept the same head and handle they have had since the 1970s.
On this trip, Paul Watkins, a cellist of strong but sympathetic musical personality, replaced long-serving Emerson player David Finckel but the beautifully controlled tonal balance, transparency of texture and focused musical thought, remained.
Cogent musical dialogue lies at the heart of the string quartet idiom and their performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Opus 71, No. 2 laid out the composer’s witty play on the simple main motive – a leap down of an octave on the cello – with genial lucidity.
As described by violinist Eugene Drucker, who led for the first half, Bartok’s String Quartet No 5 draws on this tradition of musical logic and their performance of this richly structured arch-shaped work in five-movements was marked by deep insight and awareness with nothing ephemeral to its musical purpose. In Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, Opus 59, No. 2 (the second of the three Razumovsky quartets) Philips Setzer led and the sound and sense of accent subtly adjusted to a different sense of dynamism to superb effect.
Although subject to more frequent part replacement during its 35-year history, the Australian String Quartet’s Wednesday concert confirmed the benefits of stability under current leader Dale Barltrop and featured the premiere of a skilfully written, texturally imaginative new score, the String Quartet No. 3 Sacred Sky by Nigel Westlake. Drawing on visual images by his sister, the first movement evoked distant quiet loneliness followed by an energised and edgy second movement driven by light energy in an ambient style. The third movement was nocturnal and the fourth animated by inventive and highly virtuosic configurations, scrupulously prepared and executed by the ASQ.
The quartet also tamed the demanding challenges of Charles Ives String Quartet No. 1 From the Salvation Army, indeed some of the more raucous passages in the finale could have tolerated slightly more exuberant roughness. Debussy’s String Quartet Opus 10 after the interval had moments of admirable control as heard, for example, in the beautifully pitched final chord of the third movement and the buoyant momentum of the last.
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