Musica Viva Australia. Adelaide Town Hall. 22 Sep 2021
At the start of the second half of the program before the ensemble launched into the mighty Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34 by Brahms, pianist Konstantin Shamray addressed the audience – as is customary in Musica Viva concerts – and gave us an insight into Brahms himself rather than the music. “Brahms”, Shamray quips, “was politically incorrect”, and to the great delight of the audience related the following example of Brahms’ gruff humour: Brahms and his colleague Josef Gänsbacher, a cellist, were privately playing one of his sonatas for cello and piano when Gänsbacher complained that he couldn’t hear himself over the piano; Brahms replied: ‘You’re a lucky man!’
It may have been that Gänsbacher wasn’t worth listening to, but what an absolute joy it is to hear this fabulous quintet of players. They don’t regularly play as an ensemble, and hence they have no name. On this occasion they have joined forces to replace the celebrated Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane who have been locked down in COVID-ravaged Sydney and unable to meet, rehearse or tour! The program they present here is almost the same as what the Goldners and Lane were planning to tour for Musica Viva, except that the planned world première of Jakub Jankowski’s quartet, Kairos, commissioned by the Adelaide Commissioning Circle, was postponed to a future time and replaced by Peter Sculthorpe’s evocative String Quartet No. 15.
Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 15 is an evocative composition, and according to Sculthorpe is his response to the vocal tradition of the Simori mountain people of New Guinea. Comprising five eclectic short pieces of about three minutes each, the composition traverses a range of melodic and rhythmic structures that clearly have a non-western ‘feel’ about them. The ensemble play with extraordinary clarity and expose the essence of the work. The droning and stridency evident in the first movement becomes beautiful and playful; the menace and foreboding of the second movement evokes Bernard Herrmann’s score to the famous shower scene in the Hitchcock thriller Psycho, but the ensemble imbues it with a respectful awe; the third movement features a sublime panoramic partnership between King on viola and Cobcroft on cello, and the fourth movement allows Hill and Ayres on violin to usher in a feeling of optimism and arriving at a new destination. The final movement, entitled a cry of joy brings a hush over the audience: were we actually listening to birdsong? The superb technique of the ensemble is laid bare.
Dvořák’s ever-popular String Quartet No.12 in F, Op.96 – the so-called ‘American’ – is a veritable cornucopia of lyrical melodies that once heard remains on humming lips for hours to come. Various musicologists have suggested a programme to the composition, but as pure music it stands by itself and requires no ‘imposed explanation’ to enhance one’s enjoyment of it. Articulation and clarity is again the dominant feature of the ensemble’s performance. In the allegro first movement, Hill and Ayres play with careful and welcome restraint to allow the viola and cello lines to have dominance when needed. In the lento second movement, Cobcroft plays the languid and sad melody with much sensitivity. The heartfelt humour and friskiness inherent in the third movement is evident, and this gives way to joyful playfulness in the finale.
And then to the engine house of the program. The Brahms quintet is a major undertaking for any band, and the performance by tonight’s ‘occasional’ ensemble is as good as any, one has ever heard. Shamray’s performance at the piano, particularly with the right hand, provides a robust and well defined backbone that sustains the endeavours of the strings. The dynamical balance between each of the five instrumentalists is intelligently thought-out, expertly executed, and results in a performance that exudes both lucidity and passion. The forté sections are exhilarating yet pleasingly controlled with ever-present momentum - nothing mawkish.
The most pleasing thing about this concert is that Cameron Hill, Helen Ayres, Stephen King, Simon Cobcroft and Konstantin Shamray all call Adelaide ‘home’. As the old saying goes, every cloud has silver lining, and the COVID-cloud has forced us to rely on our local musical talent to provide our fix of quality art music, and what a fix this performance has been. Here we have an ensemble of musicians at the peak of their craft performing an immensely challenging program and producing an exceptional result. Let’s have more of it, and once the pandemic is done, let’s continue to enjoy and support local talent. It’s world class.
Where: Adelaide Town Hall