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Reviews/Music

Australian String Quartet’s intense musical magic

23 March 2022

The latest incarnation of the Australian String Quartet earn a standing ovation in their Perth debut, says Penny Shaw.

‘Ravel Tchaikovsky’, Australian String Quartet ·
WA Museum Boola Bardip, 22 March 2022 ·

Hackett Hall is an impressive venue and, as the latest incarnation of the legendary Australian String Quartet enters the stage with just the right amount of rockstar swagger, a tangible ripple of anticipation spreads through the audience. 

The ASQ’s new line up of Dale Barltrop (violin), Francesca Hiew (violin), Christopher Cartlidge (viola) and Michael Dahlenburg (cello) look relaxed and – after a charming introduction from Barltrop speculating that the blue whale suspended over the stage may have been a contemporary of Tchaikovsky’s – we are straight into Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major.

The first movement of the Ravel is filled in equal measure by haunting melody, pizzicato and tremolo phrases. Intensely beautiful, its shimmering phrases wash over the audience as the violins scamper across the scales. 

The ‘Scherzo’ opens with yet more pizzicato and some sensational dynamic contrasts; shocking climaxes taper away to almost nothing and subtle close harmonies weave between the instruments. The mood swings from tranquil to unsettling as the tremolo scales descend into darkness only to end on a triumphant pluck and a flourish, inspiring an audible smile from behind our masks. 

The third movement feels like a glorious movie sound-track after all that plucking; at one point Dahlenburg’s cello sustains a single note whilst the other instruments rise like mist over a river. Despite its claim to be a slow movement it nevertheless boasts many tempo shifts, almost as many as the fast and furious fourth movement, the ‘Vif et Agite’, which is indeed ‘lively and agitated’ and is brilliantly executed by the quartet.

The program continues with a jump back in time of almost 30 years to Tchaikovsky’s emotionally dramatic and lyrical String Quartet No 1. The dichotomy of this early work of Tchaikovsky’s is brought out brilliantly by the quartet. The ‘Moderato e semplice’ opens with the grace and restraint of the classical era with bursts of romanticism breaking through, as if the music was making a sudden dash for the 20th century. Polite scales morph into cascades and a full symphonic sound fills the room, building up to one final frenzied break for freedom. How we wanted to clap! But this was only the beginning. 

The second movement, ‘Andante cantabile’, which famously moved Leo Tolstoy to tears, is beautiful in its simplicity. The folk song melody, which Tchaikovsky is said to have overheard when visiting his sister in the Ukraine, is cleanly executed by Barltrop, leading with style and class. The final ascending phrase reminds me of the ‘Ave Maria’ from Verdi’s Otello, high praise indeed.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Scherzo’ is arguably less fun than Ravel’s French version. It is heavy with unison playing, sharp rhythmic accents and a slightly severe sounding minor key.

Interestingly, it is not until the finale that I get the sense that this quartet, beautiful as it is, is composed by Tchaikovsky. The composer’s distinctive Russian voice sounds instead very cosmopolitan. In the current climate perhaps this is a blessing? But in the final movement, with its flowing cello solo and very Russian second theme introduced by Cartlidge’s honeyed viola, we get a glimpse of what is to come from Russia’s preeminent romantic composer. 

All in all a dramatic program sensationally delivered by these consummate professionals. This, combined with the incredible timbre of the ensembles’ mid-18th century instruments reverberating through the delicious acoustics of the hall sees the ASQ brought on for a second curtain call and standing ovation as we give our appreciation for an hour of intense musical magic.

Pictured top: The new line up of the ASQ are L-R: Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Christopher Cartlidge and Michael Dahlenburg. Photo supplied

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Author —
Penny Shaw

Penny is an opera singer/cabaret artist/MC/podcaster/writer/director, in fact a self-confessed 'slashie' with a degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University. As a child she loved the the heady terror of a fast roundabout, as a mother of four children she hates swings.

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