Four perfectly balanced musicians, three incredibly diverse pieces of music, and one captive audience. It all adds up to a stunning night in musical utopia, writes Bourby Webster.
Utopias, Australian String Quartet
Hackett Hall, WA Museum Boorla Bardip, 10 May 2023
A string quartet is a wonderful thing – four voices from the same family of instruments blended to create a sound that is both achingly expressive and stunningly evocative. The Australian String Quartet (ASQ) performing three powerful works on matched instruments made in the mid-1700s by Italian craftsman Guadagnini, however, is next level.
“I think that might be one of the best concerts I have ever been to,” notes one patron as we wait at the end to greet the players. And it’s not hard to agree.
The selection of pieces — Arcadiana by Thomas Adès, String Quartet No.15 in D Minor by Mozart and String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Major by Shostakovich — is both brazen and inspired. Three utterly different composers, from different periods and employing different styles, all performed by the same group. It’s as if a band were to play three songs in a row, one written by the Beatles, one by the Stones and one by Dolly Parton.
It is my first time watching a concert in Hackett Hall and wow! This is a stunning recital room, with the skeleton of a whale illuminated and suspended above the musicians creating an other-worldly feel befitting utopia. Acoustically, it is wonderful, while soft lighting along the back wall changes colour with each piece, adding theatre and ambience.
But the playing from the ASQ is in another stratosphere. Here are four humans who bow together, articulate together, breathe together. So synchronised are the two violins, they become one voice. Francesca Hiew must be one of the world’s best second violin players, stepping out and blending as required to complement Dale Barltrop’s impeccable first violin. Christopher Cartlidge’s viola playing keeps you on the edge of the seat, while Michael Dahlenburg’s cello generates rarely paralleled intonation, tone and warmth. Their connection solidifies the sublimity of the quartet; it’s no wonder so many composers have used the ensemble as a vehicle for their music.
Each piece is introduced by a player to provide context but, for the first time, I also feel the pieces would also have been appreciated simply as works of art, open to audience interpretation. The Adès is a degustation of textural and atmospheric movements, demonstrating every technique available on string instruments. It’s a series of musical paintings, each using different mediums, treading a fine line between impressionism and avant-garde.
The Mozart is one of his darkest, most personal, most musical. The music never stops, notes flow and weave and cascade in spinetingling moments throughout. I’ve listened to a lot of Mozart, and regularly have his quartets on in the background, but this performance is the most extraordinarily musical and meaningful I’ve heard. I wish it had been recorded.
The Shostakovich is the release we need to conclude the evening. The usual insane, galloping, thrashing passages (as close to classical shredding as you can get), offset by some of the most exquisitely controlled, ultra-quiet (pianississimo) sections, create mood swings that are as wild and exhilarating as you can get from four musicians.
The Australian String Quartet’s promo describing a concert of “fantastical visions, intimate revelation, and quiet hope” meant nothing to me. It might have been better put simply as: “Come and experience an incredible night out of extraordinary music brilliantly played by four musicians at the top of their game.” It is as close to musical utopia as you can get.
Pictured top: The Australian String Quartet play as one in a mesmerising display of musicianship. Photo: Kane Moroney
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