Quartet coming into their own

10 April 2019

Review: Brandenburg Quartet ⋅
Government House Ballroom, April 9 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

It is two years since the Brandenburg Quartet formed with a mission to perform classical quartet repertoire on period instruments. The quartet comprises the principal string players of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and is the only quartet in the country performing exclusively on gut strings.

The ensemble’s period of focus – the late 18th and early 19th century – is the golden age of string quartet writing, dominated by the output of the well-known figures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Yet for their first tour for 2019 the quartet included on the program two works you have probably never heard before: quartets by the French composer Hyacinthe Jadin and Italian-born Gaetano Brunetti. Sitting alongside Boccherini’s Quartet in D G165 and Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor No 4, it was an intriguing line up.

First violinist Shaun Lee-Chen is well-known to Perth audiences as a member of the WA Symphony Orchestra, a position he now juggles with his role as concertmaster of the ABO. He has spent two years working in quartet format with Ben Dollman (Adelaide) on second violin, Monique O’Dea (Sydney) viola and Jamie Hey (Melbourne) cello, and the quartet is beginning to take on its own identity.

On Tuesday night, in the radiant acoustic of the Government House Ballroom, the sparing vibrato and the lighter sound of period instruments gave the ensemble litheness and a well-knit blend. The performers clearly relished the classical era’s penchant for contrasting delicacy with explosive energy, particularly evident in Jadin’s sophisticated and highly romantic Quartet No 1, a welcome new discovery.

Lee-Chen’s inspired phrasing brought pained eloquence to the phrases of slow movements, in particular the exquisite Adagio in Boccherini’s Quartet in D.

The well-balanced program placed the vibrant vignettes that comprise Brunetti’s Quartet No 4 alongside the brooding darkness of Beethoven’s C minor Quartet No 4. Beethoven’s adventurous changes of tonality had an almost shocking aural impact thanks to the colours of the gut strings, tuned slightly lower at 430 Hz.

It was an engrossing performance. But I have quibbles too. The opening work of the program (Boccherini) was unsettled with slapdash starts to phrases. Lee-Chen’s assertive musical ideas sometimes came at the expense of unity within the ensemble. And the program didn’t list the movements of each work which created an unnecessary stumbling block for the uninitiated (who were left wondering when to clap) and was a missed opportunity in terms of audience engagement. Dollman’s insightful introduction from the stage was all too brief; chamber music has the potential for much richer transactions with an audience already attracted to the intimacy and intellectual richness of this musical genre. More could be done here if the quartet intends to grow a loyal, informed audience.

The Brandenburg Quartet national tour continues to Brisbane on April 12 and Adelaide on April 13.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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