Vanguard ASQ 2024Adelaide String Quartet. Elder Hall. 5 Jul 2024


Vanguard is the current six-city, seven-concert touring program of the Australian String Quartet, and tonight’s concert sees the conclusion of the tour and the ASQ returning home.

These days programmers always seem to ‘name’ their concerts and then wax eloquent in program notes about how the name perfectly describes the connections between the various musical choices. Sometimes the rationale behind the chosen program name is blindingly obvious, and apt, and at other times it’s a contrivance. In the case of Vanguard, the name is very appropriate: the three composers, and indeed the three featured compositions, are ‘out in front’. They are exceptional, and they draw attention to themselves for all the right reasons.


The program features Beethoven’s String Quartet No.12 in E-flat major, Op. 127, contemporary Australian composer Harry Sdraulig’s String Quartet No.2, and Erich Korngold’s String Quartet No.2 in E-flat major, Op.26. What an interesting musical sandwich it proved to be. The Beethoven outer layer anticipates post-romanticism, arguably, and the Korngold layer is firmly entrenched in post-romanticism, although one might expect it to be more modern. The very modern Sdraulig filling occasionally gives a clear nod to the traditions that have informed it, and it is comforted by those traditions but stands separate to them – indeed a vanguard.


The Beethoven string quartets are icons of the genre, and the String Quartet No.12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127, was composed at the front end of Beethoven’s ‘late period’. It reflects a time in his life of great introspection and acceptance of his mortality. It starts with a comforting and avuncular musical statement in E-flat. Almost ordinary, but that soon changes – Beethoven is rarely conventional. The work is underscored by an almost perfect dynamic schema chosen by the ASQ. It’s a longish work, coming in at around thirty-five minutes, and so it is easy to to overplay loud sections and underplay quieter sections, but Dale Barltrop (violin), Francesca Hiew (violin), Chris Cartlidge (viola) and Michael Dahlenburg (cello) have scrutinised the work within an inch of its life and sustain a finely balanced dynamic palette throughout. Indeed, Hiew commented that the ASQ has been working on this piece for eighteen months and that it is under their skin! Especially in the fourth and final variation in the second movement, the quietest moments are produced by exquisite tones on the four instruments, and the contrasts with the more robust phrases are, in retrospect, contrasted impeccably with similar moments at other places in the composition. A well laid plan perfectly executed. There is so much in this composition. Mahler once opined that the whole world is a symphony. Beethoven must have felt the same about a string quartet.


Harry Sdraulig’s String Quartet No.2 was was commissioned by ASQ sponsor John Griffiths for his wife Beth to celebrate their wedding anniversary. As such, it is motivated by an expression of the love of one person for another, pure and simple, and it was written for the ASQ to première. It is not an overly long composition – there are often constraints imposed on new commissions – but it seems much longer than it is. Again, a string quartet can contain the world! Although it is scored as a single continuous movement, it has four discernible sections that traverse different musical (and performance) styles, moods and traditions. The transitions between sections are vexing; you sense a change coming, but you want its arrival to be delayed as long as possible so that the current musical ideas are developed further, and further. Your mind rapidly fills in what might have been, as Sdraulig drags you kicking and screaming (not quite!) to the next. It’s an exhilarating ride, and the ASQ have surely given an authoritative account of this new work that has been introduced to the world for the first time on this Vanguard tour!


Harry Sdraulig was in the audience and gratefully acknowledged the thunderous applause at the end of the performance. Sdraulig is a rare gem, and his music deserves to be frequently programmed. He is a leader in contemporary Australian art music composition.


Erich Korngold’s String Quartet No.2 in E-flat major, Op.26. was written in 1933 just before he left Europe for America (where he came much better known for his film music than anything else). The first movement is beguiling: instruments are playing together, and within themselves, and one has a sense that we are being prepared for something to happen. The second movement is fun, lively and spry – Chris Cartlidge describes it as jaunty – and brimful of songlike tunes. The third movement is romantic and… almost cinematic! (It had to happen!) It starts in quite a foreboding way and arguably evokes the finest in Eastern European trio and quartet writing. The final movement evokes the sounds of Vienna and Johann Strauss, but on steroids, as Cartlidge quipped! This string quartet is an absolute eye opener, and it is not a stretch to suggest that many in the large Elder Hall audience had their minds changed about Korngold, for the better.


Many thought the highlight of the program was the Korngold, but for this reviewer nothing was better than the sublime adagio second movement of the Beethoven. It is now under my skin as well.


The Australian String Quartet is one of Adelaide’s treasures and richly deserves our support. They never disappoint. Indeed, they are an important musical force that keeps the art of composing and performing string quartets very much alive. Their next ‘gig’ is in late July, where they can be seen supporting the next generation of quartet performers at the “Elder Conservatorium String Quartet Course”. Details are available online.


Kym Clayton


When: 5 Jul

Where: Elder Hall

Bookings: Closed