The turnstiles are moving again at the Australian String Quartet. It is sad to see the oldest member of the group, the viola Stephen King, bid farewell. We’ll have to wait and see who replaces him, but his decision to retire from the game follows Sharon Grigoryan’s departure in November 2020 and the signing of replacement Michael Dahlenburg.
Times are sure to change for the band, and their first concert of the year, titled “Bartók, Mendelssohn, Fischer” was momentous for several reasons.
As well as being Dahlenburg’s debut album and King’s Swan Song, it was the quartet’s comeback gig after a 12-month absence from the stage due to COVID.
From the silent opening of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3, one could see how the ASQ emerged from this long interval as a changed ensemble. Dahlenburg naturally brings with him a distinct musical personality: intense and inner-minded, he is a discreet musician whose carefully molded sound blends with responsiveness and hand-in-hand intimacy into what his colleagues do.
But this Bartók was special on every level. It’s as if the whole group had decided, because of their new young player, to refrain from any overt ostentatiousness, to contain their momentum and to look more inwardly at the music. In what amounted to a true reassessment of this quartet as opposed to a simple interpretation, they found layers of texture and energy in its close counterpoint that did not sound so much like four separate players as a single voice asserting the life.
It was exciting to hear Bartók play this way.
In Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No.1, they also held a lot of reserve and presented a finely sharp and organic fusion of vocals. A product of Felix’s childish world, this work – like all of the composer’s six quartets – may seem trivial if performed sentimentally, but ASQ immediately decided to move away from it. Here is yet another attempt at modernism, not of nostalgia, but executed with love.
In the second movement, there is a delightfully simple “canzonetta” that can feel heavy if forced and overdone. Instead, they gave it an ineffable lightness. Mendelssohn brings players together in lightning-fast bursts of action, and hearing Dahlenburg do it with King was just wonderful. Its deft and silky half-arch stroke signals a new sound angle for ASQ that we can probably expect to hear more of in the future.
It’s not often that a new work competes for attention in a classical staple program, but with Czech composer Pavel Fischer’s String Quartet No.3. Mad piper, this clearly became the case. It is named after a Scottish bagpiper named Bill Millin who led a company of soldiers into combat in Normandy. Millin is said to have escaped the fire because the Germans thought he was crazy. Fischer draws inspiration from this legend while incorporating elements of Balkan folk violin.
It’s a very enjoyable work and the ASQ clearly adores this new classic of the quartet genre. In the bagpipe sounds of the first movement, their playing was edgy and sonorous and their ensuing gypsy violin was sheer rapacious pleasure and simply brilliant.
King’s beautifully inflected and moving solo in the third movement was deeply moving and one of his most beautiful moments.
This articulate and highly intelligent musician will be truly missed by audiences, but it’s good to know that he will remain the new director of learning and engagement with the quartet later in the year.
Thanks Stephen King.
Meanwhile, with violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, and now with Dahlenburg on board, the group’s future couldn’t seem stronger.
This concert took place at Adelaide Town Hall on May 24.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.