Music review: ASQ in Concert – Britten, Tchaikovsky

As if the present times were not hard enough, the Australian String Quartet has faced the extra challenge of introducing a new musician into its fold. But it has managed the transition from one viola player to the next with seamless elegance.

Feb 02, 2022, updated Feb 02, 2022
ASQ in Concert at Elder Hall. Photo: Kane Moroney

ASQ in Concert at Elder Hall. Photo: Kane Moroney

Slotting into the role Stephen King held for 10 years, Christopher Cartlidge does not look or sound like a newcomer. This tall musician, previous associate principal viola in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, immediately exudes an air of experienced, confident chamber music savvy as the group starts playing.

In Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti, Cartlidge slotted in with aplomb. This first foray into quartet writing, which the 23 year-old composer intended as a set of character portraits of his school friends, seemed an appropriate launching pad for the occasion.

All four players came quickly and effortlessly to the heart of this amiable music. Their exquisitely fluent, polished playing was just right for these witty little caricatures. Britten was evidently fascinated by people, their peculiarities and their internal contradictions. The ASQ conveyed this with a sense of exploratory fun that showed all their musicianship. The last movement, a “Burlesque” dedicated to Francis Barton, asks the viola player to slide upwards in pitch at the very end, which Cartlidge did to a perfection that reminded one of the famous clarinet glissando in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

Cartlidge has, in fact, performed with the ASQ before, in Kim Williams’ Chamber Landscapes series for the Adelaide Festival last year, but this concert marked his first official appearance as a member of the quartet. It would have happened months ago but for the cancellation of their concert plans with didgeridoo player William Barton as part of the Illuminate Adelaide festival last July.

But clearly the extra time has only helped consolidate the ASQ in its new formation, which includes the still relatively new cellist Michael Dahlenburg, who joined last year. What one can say about the ASQ now is that it is already very cohesive in purpose and sound. Judging by the way they respond and combine with easy precision, all four players seem to share similar ears and ideas. Frequently in their playing one cannot tell who is leading and who is following – and that, of course, is a good sign in any chamber group.

One the ASQ’s more valuable projects during its long periods of COVID-induced recess has been commissioning new works from Australian composers, and three were aired in this concert.

Holly Harrison’s Swoop is a terrifically high-spirited excursion into rock and roll, with guitar-like melodies wrapping themselves around bare fifths and ostinato rhythms. More outright punch was needed, as the effect was rather more dainty than dynamic; and here maybe was a case of ASQ going electric, as they did in George Crumb’s Black Angels for the 2014 Adelaide Festival (when Kristian Winther was in the group), although this inevitably turns a string quartet concert into a wholly different experience.

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The two other new pieces were Harry Sdraulig’s well-constructed and more texturally varied Swirl, and Alice Chance’s Irish-folk-styled Nose-scrunch Reel. In both, one noticed how well Cartlidge and Dahlenburg partner together in the quartet’s lower register: these two musicians seem to encourage the best out of each other. Meanwhile, first violinist Dale Barltrop’s folk fiddling was gorgeously in style – there really is no limit to this musician’s abilities.

Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 is a long, somewhat rambling work, albeit one with a treasure chest of beauties. Its opening is surely unique in quartet music in the way it replicates the sound of an accordion before moving off into almost symphonic realms. In these accordion passages and all that followed, the players were so beautifully together that the effect was magical.

All four musicians have a way of melding into the texture and never being apart from it, which really is the cornerstone of fine quartet playing.

It can be nervous times when a quartet changes its personnel, but the ASQ looks set to maintain its premiere place in Australia’s chamber music scene. Audiences can look forward to discovering and enjoying a wealth of music in the years ahead.

ASQ in Concert: Britten, Tchaikovsky was performed at Elder Hall on February 1.

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