Review / A ‘theatric’ performance of live music

music / Australian String Quartet, James O Fairfax Theatre, NGA, July 1. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD.

Australian String Quartet

THE dry acoustic of James O Fairfax Theatre in the in the National Gallery makes it quite a pleasant venue to enjoy live music.

However, at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, the noise bleed from the crowds queuing to get into the Cartier exhibition was a slight, but irritating distraction from some very fine playing.

The concert consisted of the first and last composed Beethoven string quartets, which bookended a much more modern work from young German composer Jorg Widmann. Thought has been given to the staging of the quartet. They sit in the normal quartet arrangement, but on a circular black carpet of some kind with the only lighting, a single spotlight above and to the left of the violins. This makes crisp and dramatic shadows across the stage with the violinists faces in shadow. The staging was augmented by a slightly fluttering white backdrop, used to effect in the Widmann work.

The later Beethoven quartet, Op.135 in F major, opened the concert with impressive cohesion and tightness. A delightfully galloping second movement was followed by a crisp ensemble of work in the slow third movement as a series of long block chords was sharply delineated.

The Widmann String Quartet No 3 “The Hunting Quartet”, was introduced as a “confronting” work. It starts with a melodic theme, a 6/8 jig, adapted from a work by Schumann. This rather charming melodic line gradually falls apart and the second half of the work is little more than squeaks and squeals as the group attacked the strings with cheap bows (“to save damaging their good ones”). All rather silly and it was a work where sound effects triumphed over musicality. The theatricality was enhanced by six footlights in front of the group which spun a fractured series of shadows on the white backdrop. The audience reaction was muted.

The final work was Beethoven first string quartet, Op 18 No 3 in D major, written when the composer was 27. Again delightfully played, tight and balanced across the four movements. The Australian String Quartet must be commended for their efforts to add a little theatre to their concerts in the staging and lighting, as well as being willing to take some risks in presenting unusual modern repertoire. It may not work every time, but it is much preferable to just being safe.

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