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String quartet brings drama to the music

Australian String Quartet… “At times their physicality was so dramatic as to risk distracting us from the actual music being performed”. Photo: Dalice Trost

Music / Vanguard, Australian String Quartet. At Gandel Hall, NGA, June 23. Reviewed by SARAH BYRNE.

The theme of the Australian String Quartet’s current touring program is “Vanguard” – that is, pioneering pieces for string quartet, setting new parameters for future composers. 

The Beethoven String Quartet No 12 in E-flat Major was, by that metric, a no-brainer for inclusion. It’s challenging, beefy and offers much food for thought – and the ASQ flung themselves into it with mind, body and spirit. 

At times their physicality was so dramatic as to risk distracting us from the actual music being performed, with cello Michael Dahlenburg often lifting from his seat. They practically ravished the maestoso, before bringing remarkable dynamic light and shade to the adagio. I most enjoyed the scherzo (though that’s often the case for me), performed with gusto and brio, and the finale was a masterclass in suspense and resolution. 

After an interval for recovery by quartet and audience alike (I’m sure we would have seen ladies fanning themselves had the day not been so chilly), we returned for the second-ever performance of a new work, Sydney composer Harry Sdraulig’s String Quartet No 2, according to the program “commissioned by John Griffiths for his wife Beth”. 

At 13 minutes, the piece consists of a single movement, assertive and complex. As performed by the ASQ it demands attention and contains some lovely phrases – and others, occasionally, a tad more reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann. 

The commission was to celebrate the Griffiths’ 40th wedding anniversary and, in good humour, viola Chris Cartlidge wondered aloud what such a fierce cadenza might imply for the relationship.

Finally, we were delighted by Korngold’s String Quartet No 2 in E-flat Major, unashamedly lush and sentimental, and pure indulgence. Here the ASQ brought more delicacy to its execution. Violinist Francesca Hiew introduced the piece with reference to the homage paid to both Strausses (Johann being the most obvious in the final movement, an archetypal Viennese Waltz), but I was also reminded of Gershwin and Debussy. 

After the demands of the first two pieces in the program, this was an unalloyed pleasure, and performed with deftness and depth. A most satisfying conclusion to the afternoon.

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