Thursday, 27 October 2011

Australian String Quartet with Albert Tiu and Qin Li-Wei / Review

with Albert Tiu and Qin Li-Wei
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Tuesday (25 October 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 October 2011 with the title "Great strings played for free".

Some of the best things in life are free. If sceptical, why not travel westward and spend an evening at the Conservatory, where most of its concerts are free of charge? A well-filled house was present to witness one of the best chamber concerts this year, all for the cost of a pleasurable two hours.

The draw was the excellent Australian String Quartet, based in Adelaide, staffed by four young and passionate musicians. The fact that all were ladies seemed incidental, their chemistry was palpable, almost infectious. The way they inhabited, rather than merely played, iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Eighth Quartet was typical.

Rachel Johnston’s cello opened with an agonised sigh, fully cognizant of the description Con dolore (with pain), literally a state of mind that alternated with the glissandi and ethereal harmonics from the violins. In this brief but haunting work, where pentatonic themes and resonant pizzicatos recalled Bartok’s more exotic pages, the voice and soul of the Red Continent were poignantly laid bare.

Cohesion and tightness of ensemble characterised the performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, where the quartet was joined by pianist Albert Tiu (left). The German composer was a young “old soul”, one whose impetuousness was matched by an autumnal calm in its tension-filled 40 minutes.

This reading had everything; sprightliness in the serious opening movement, repose coloured with edginess in the slow movement, and ominous goose-stepping in the powerful scherzo. The finale represented a release but one which had a sense of inevitability. Its apparent joy was tinged with unease, which made this music endlessly fascinating.

More congenial was the rarely-heard String Quintet by the Russian Alexander Glazunov, with Qin Li-Wei (left) guesting as the second cellist. The music conveyed the sunshine of an eternal summer, the idiom as sumptuous as Borodin’s popular quartets, and mood as gay as Tchaikovsky but without the underlying neuroses.

Again, there was nothing to separate the unity of the five, even if Qin appeared slightly odd in the company of the fairer sex. Sally Boud’s sonorous viola set the tone, and Sophie Rowell’s violin sang unabated in the emotional core of the slow movement. Even the academic in Glazunov could not resist attempting a short fugue in the vigourous and earthy finale. Little matter, as it was smiles from beginning to end, and the audience lapped it up without apology.

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