Musica Viva. Adelaide Town Hall. 12 Oct 2023
On occasion you know that what you are hearing in the concert hall is rare and extraordinary. Tonight’s concert given by the Vision String Quartet is one of those moments. In a fleeting seventy minutes, our understanding of what constitutes ‘significance’ in string quartet playing was challenged, and new benchmarks were created.
The Vision String Quartet is indeed a revelation.
This is high praise indeed, but this reviewer has never before experienced a string quartet that is able to present challenging repertoire with such transparency that it feels like a familiar ‘old friend’. Ernest Bloch’s Prelude for String Quartet, B.63, and especially Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No.4 in C minor, Sz.91 are not walks in the park by any stretch of the imagination, and in lesser hands they can sound inaccessible. However, the members of the Vision String Quartet fully appreciate what makes these compositions come to life and stay alive, and their playing tapped into this life blood and was a revelation. There’s that word again.
So, what makes this particular ensemble special? Like many other ensembles, their technical skill and musicality is of the highest order. Like some other ensembles, they stand rather than sit while performing (with the exception of the cellist). Like very few (any?) other highest calibre ensembles, they play a full program totally from memory – there’s not a music stand nor a sheet of music nor an iPad in sight. The excellent Musica Viva program notes accompanying the concert provide us with the reasons why the Vision String Quartet choose to play without music, which do not need to be replicated here, but suffice to say that it is a significant choice. Arguably, memorising a piece of music gives a musician a more profound understanding of the score, and playing it from memory may liberate them to give a more heartfelt performance. But then again, there are many elite musicians who almost always have the music in front of them and still give bravura performances.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but with the Vision String Quartet it does seem to have an impact. It is fascinating to watch them perform as they intensely concentrate on each other and watch (as well as hear) precisely what each other is doing. Every muscle twitch, every sideways glance or fleeting smile is sharply observed. The progression of the music calls for allegiances between the players shift and change. Leonard Disselhorst on cello and Sander Stuart on viola concentrate intensely on each other in the opening bars of the Bloch. When it’s time for the violins to enter, Daniel Stoll and Florian Willeitner on violins hold each other’s gaze and Disselhorst and Stuart check on them. Disselhorst encouragingly leans towards the violins and checks that his dialogue with them is what they are calling for. They constantly adjust and trade-off, but faithfully stick at Bloch’s intentions. What they are doing is incredibly believable. They are not reading the music; they are feeling it.
The Bartók is performed with crystal clarity, and the mathematical symmetry of the piece is laid bare. The prestissimo second movement ends with a final up-bow, which is almost nonchalant, and fleeting knowing smiles all round. The bows are all placed on Disselhorst’s lap for the allegretto pizzicato fourth movement, and with the final plucked note there’s that nonchalance again, but it’s not really that. It’s more an expression of calmness that comes with being supremely comfortable with the task at hand. The Bartók ends with an almost standard reading of the allegro molto final movement: it’s lively, well-articulated and the technical difficulty is made to look easy.
Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G major, Op.106 rounded out the concert. Unlike the previous pieces by Bloch and Bartók, it is suffused with rich lyrical melodies that more easily appeal to a Western ear, but that does not diminish the exceptional clarity with which the earlier pieces were played. Indeed, the clarity exposed the melodic material more convincingly: the forest did not obscure the trees, as it were. As beautiful as the Dvořák was, for this reviewer the magic of the concert was in the revealing and astonishing performances of the Bloch and the Bartók, and in the encore, which was a Latin-infused dance piece from their recent album Spectrum. As in the pizzicato movement of the Bartók, they dispensed with their bows and played the instruments as if they were guitars (except the cello!). It seemed very much like a jam session. They played to and for each other; they competed; they strutted their stuff; they had fun. And the audience just loved it.
Again, the Vision String Quartet is a revelation.
When: 12 Oct
Where: Adelaide Town Hall