Compelling music celebrates Beethoven’s birth

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Australian String Quartet… Impeccable tuning, excellent balance and fine dynamic contrast and control featured throughout with complete understanding between the players

Music / “Beethoven/Dessner”, Australian String Quartet, at Gandel Hall, National Gallery of Australia, Sunday, February 9. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN. 

AMIDST this sad and unsettling summer it was sort of odd, but also comforting and reassuring, to be sitting quietly on a gloomy autumn-like afternoon watching wild breezes buffeting the gum leaves in the NGA garden whilst listening to beautiful, calming chamber music.

This year the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) is presenting a year-long series of concerts celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. By an interesting irony all members of the ASQ play Guadagnini instruments handcrafted between 1743 and 1784, neatly slotting into the Beethoven era.

It was Beethoven’s “String Quartet in A Major”, Opus 18, No 5, which opened this delightful program. Violinist Dale Barltrop set the scene for a relaxed afternoon with an informative introduction to this early Beethoven work which provided indications of an impending new direction for western classical music. Impeccable tuning, excellent balance and fine dynamic contrast and control featured throughout with complete understanding between the players, which was obvious both aurally and visually. The slow third movement, a theme and variations on a German folk song, was both playful and joyful and a perfect lead in to the rhythmically demanding and exciting finale.

Canberra-bred violist Stephen King introduced the 2009 composition “Aheym” by Bruce Dessner. Born in 1976, Dessner, the guitarist with rock band The National, studied with Philip Glass and his influence was evident in the throbbing rhythmic patterns which set up this music of flight and passage to tell the story of so many Jewish immigrants who fled from European oppression to the US. Playing was precise and exact and, whilst the physical demands on the players were obvious, the ASQ maintained appropriate intensity and passion throughout.

After interval the other Beethoven quartet, this work numbered 1 in the Opus 18 series was actually the third work completed. As violonist Francesca Hiew explained, this perhaps confusing numbering relates somewhat to an album release of today – the big hit should be first cab off the rank! The slow second movement was a highlight. It was haunting and most compelling, understandably so as it was Beethoven’s musical response to the sad burial scene in Romeo and Juliet. It contrasted perfectly with the rousing short dance third movement then a demanding finale which again showcased the clean and tight playing of the ASQ.

The people of Canberra have endured an uneasy past few months but, thanks to the beauty of Beethoven’s music and its interpretation by the ASQ, tensions eased considerably during this concert.

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