Government House Ballroom

Review: Sandra Bowdler

The Australian String Quartet chose to kick off its latest concert tour in Perth on Wednesday night with an old favourite, a world premiere, and a nail-biting finale.  Of somewhat variable composition these days, the ASQ’s line-up for this program featured regulars Dale Bartrop (violin), Francesca Hiew (violin), Stephen King (viola) and guest cellist Blair Harris plus another guest, electronic sound engineer Adele Conlin.

Australian String Quartet Government House
The Australian String Quartet performing at the Government House Ballroom.

Schubert’s String Quartet No 13 in A minor (Rosamunde) D804 is a cherished member of the repertoire if somewhat in the shadow of Death and the Maiden. The quartet was composed in the shadow of the author’s anticipation of his demise and Hiew’s verbal introduction emphasised its sadness. The ASQ’s performance was far less melancholy than many renditions, however, bringing to the fore the sweetness of the composition. The initial allegro was played with the requisite transparency and delicacy, although not quite bringing out the crystalline structure of Schubert’s work at this point. The composer’s classical clarity was made more evident in the Menuetto. The final allegro was almost bouncy, hinting at later romanticism. Harris’s characterful cello playing was much in evidence.

James Ledger was commissioned by the ASQ to produce his String Quartet No 2 entitled The Distortion Mirror, a work arranged in four unconventional movements with their own titles. This involved the collaboration with Conlin to produce (in Bartrop’s words) a ‘kaleidoscope of sounds and textures which a string quartet would never be able to achieve’, involving in particular feedback loops of phrases played initially by the strings.  The mirroring effect worked at several levels, aural and conceptual, each movement being in two sections, exploring ‘opposites or a duality’.

The first movement Dusk to Dawn invoked every vampire film ever, with the emergence of ‘creatures’ at dusk followed by a supposedly calming dawn. The deployment of the high strings alone with a late cello entrance created its own duality then echoed by the looping back of the sounds in digital form. On the one hand the work required extremely virtuosic playing and on the other the system produced a few odd squeaks and squarks which may or may not have been intentional.  This was evident in the second movement How to Defy Gravity with its sense of defying gravity, while the third To Fly then Fall reflected back on that with much pizzicato. The feedback here became much boomier, acting something like a basso continuo. The electronic sound continued past the strings, travelling off like a disappearing satellite.  The final movement Science and Religion, in which the composer ‘imagined a scientist examining atoms under a microscope’, utilised a lot of different sounds both from strings and electronica: bird calls, creaking doors and a screaming siren at one point. Calmer string playing intensified then became calmer again, concluding with cuckoo like sounds.  The work was very warmly received. Whether a piece like this can become a repertory favourite of the future probably depends on the extent to which such sound engineering becomes a part of regular programming.

Shostakovich is well entrenched as standard concert fare but still manages to disconcert with his intense modernity.  The String Quartet no 10 in A flat (op 118) was written at a relatively happy point in his life (1964) not long after his third and reportedly happy marriage;  it still sounds like someone in the grip of existential dread.  The Andante sounds serene – up to a point – with some velvety viola playing from King, but with the Allegro furioso the peace is shattered by a sort of screaming intensity, played here with real attack, suspended somewhere between pain and ecstasy, leaving the audience on the edge of its seat.  The following adagio comprises an exhausted tranquillity segueing into the allegretto-andante via a long violin line joined by a lively cello, whose quirkiness heads towards the psychotic world again, trailing off into entropy.  The close attentive playing of the ASQ carried all before it.

The Australian String Quartet tour this program around the nation until Oct 2nd.