Australian String Quartet @ Adelaide Town Hall
7:00pm,Wed 10 Mar 2010
Now – you know I love me some strings. Sure, I prefer the deeper, sadder tones of the cello and viola, but if I’m flipping through the Festival Guide and I see “String Quartet”, then I’m there.
The fact that the ASQ are – frankly – pretty hot doesn’t hurt, either.
But first, there was an opportunity for a pre-show talk with the composer of one of the pieces the ASQ was to play. Paul Stanhope (who, curiously, doesn’t actually play any string instruments) talked about his String Quartet no.1, a revised version of which formed the centrepiece of Flight. It certainly was interesting listening to the Australian composer speak of a piece of music that I hadn’t heard yet; written after the last Federal election, his intention was to demonstrate the conflict of rhetoric with the opening, before quickening the pace for a blues-infected optimistic ending… with a description like that, my appetite was well-and-truly whet.
There was a short break between the pre-gig talk and the ASQ’s arrival; the forty of us who turned up for the chat had to evacuate before returning to long queues. Annoying, but understandable. And as I took my allocated seat waaaaay back in Row P, it appeared that the only two empty seats I could see were either side of me… which was nice.
The first movement of the Haydn opening bracket was… well, delightful. Sweet and lush. The girls swayed as they played; a lovely sight. The rest of Haydn’s The Bird, unfortunately, was a snoozefest… literally. I drop off to sleep, waking up with one of those disorienting, dizzying nods. In fact, it may have been the mobile phone that rang at the end of the piece amidst the applause that woke me up – a bad start by the audience.
Moving onto Stanhope’s String Quartet no.1, however… well, this was The Bomb, as the kids used to say. I loved this. There’s lots of percussive plucking throughout, but particularly the first and last movements, and the word that springs to mind is “angular”. Sonata, at times, appeared to be an atonal mess, but the momentary confusion was paid off with ordered sequences rising out of the chaos to bring a smile to the face; the way those sequences appeared made it almost appear phasic in nature. Lullaby feels a little more “traditional” for a string quartet, slower paced with mellow tones. The punchy Dance rounds out the piece, and it’s fantastic – there’s periods of intense hacking, fits where the quartet are all plucking at the same time, and it’s just a full-blooded delight. I live for stuff like this – it’s distinctive and challenging and awesome, and they sign off Stanhope’s work with a flourish.
After an interval, the Quartet are joined by Lucinda Collins on piano for a bit of Brahms – Piano Quintet in f minor op.34 – which was lovely and all… but, being perfectly honest, after the surge to the end of Stanhope’s Dance I was spent. After that, the Brahms – perhaps undeservedly – felt like filler.
The sounds and visuals of live experience were fantastic; Anne Horton watching fellow violinist Sophie Rowell with laser-like intensity, with the great strings of Sally Boud and Rachel Johnston (on viola and cello, respectively) blissing me out as only the deeper strings can. But I somehow wish that I could have just experienced that first pre-interval slab by itself; that’s not to say that the Brahms piece was bad, it’s just that it was a let-down after the Stanhope’s glorious suite.