ASQ: Beethoven Sollima Cawrse
The Australian String Quartet have initiated a return to live music in spectacular fashion. Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Grigoryan treated the concertgoers in Elder Hall to an evening of impressive virtuosity, sublime musicality and remarkable synergy, only very slightly tainted by a singularly jarring programming choice. And it's probably the one you least expect.
Opening the program was the World Premiere of Adelaide-based Australian composer Anne Cawrse's A Room of Her Own. In the composer's own words:
"A Room of Her Own is my essay and personal reflection upon the requirements for prosperous creativity. In it, I explore the delicate balance between the realm of the creator and the work being created, taking inspiration from quotes gathered from Virginia Woolf's seminal text 'A Room of One's Own."
Cawrse's stunning piece was the highlight of the concert and may well be her best work to date. Written in four through-composed movements and lasting around thirty minutes, it was a transfixing experience to behold, not only musically but also by way of an unexpected use of instruments and staging. As the piece began, all but Grigoryan walked away from the traditional string quartet formation to a collection of shiny objects at the rear of the space. It soon became clear that the first movement is scored for solo cello and bowed crotales, and the musical effect was utterly mesmerising. The song of the cello evoked fond recollections for me of the works of Tan Dun, but at the same time felt distinctly fresh due to the addition of the impeccably balanced crotales. Initially barely audible, they gradually became more insistent in sympathy with the cello's dynamic contours; Grigoryan's nuanced playing was exquisite here. Elder Hall's cavernous stage was the perfect acoustic cauldron for this bold instrumentation and the result was astoundingly good.
A short, transitory second movement saw the remaining ASQ members return to their rightful places, initially with a gorgeous violin solo played effortlessly by Barltrop, before a wild and furious third movement kicked into gear. This was the section of the piece that showcased the ASQ's intimidating synchronisation; percussive articulations, irregular syncopations and extended techniques of this frequency would have been the undoing of a lesser ensemble, but in their capable hands it was a thrilling ride. The work concludes with the fourth movement, "a hymn to self-awareness, acceptance, and vulnerability," heralded by a simple yet stunning viola solo, sensitively performed by King. Overall, it is the most Cawrsean movement and also features a series of harmonics that cleverly book-end the piece with echoes of the bowed crotales from the opening. A Room of Her Own is a confident, assured and incandescent string quartet that boldly sounds the call for better representation of women composers in classical music programming. The next time you see it programmed, make your attendance a priority.
Their next piece, Beethoven's String Quartet in E flat major, op. 74, likely made a great deal of sense on paper (particularly for marketing purposes) but unfortunately was a slight misstep in a musical sense, feeling quite incongruous with the works on either side. The piece itself has obviously more than stood the test of time (aside from a second movement that I think overstays its welcome) but I was left with the feeling that there must have been a better piece to sustain the spirit established by Cawrse's work. Notwithstanding, the ASQ gave a textbook performance of the piece and demolished its technical demands with typical ease, particularly in the devilish Presto.
Finally, the ASQ dazzled with Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima's Sonnets et Rondeaux. An alternating slow-fast collection of six miniatures, this was a brilliant and fitting conclusion to the proceedings. With clear Irish influences, the 2008 work gave the players perhaps the most opportunity to flex their virtuosic muscles. With astoundingly precise unison passages between Barltrop and Hiew and flurries of tutti semiquavers hurtling towards immensely satisfying resolutions that lingered in the air for seconds, this piece left no doubt in the audience's mind that they had just witnessed the ASQ at the top of their game. I was not previously familiar with Sollima's work, but this performance will certainly prompt me to seek it out.
After six months of restrictions and isolation, Beethoven Sollima Cawrse was a wonderful balm for artistically-starved souls and was received wholeheartedly by an appreciative (and socially-distanced) audience. The subtle yet effective lighting states complemented the atmosphere beautifully. Barltrop, Hiew, King and Grigoryan epitomise the concept of a synergistic ensemble, breathing and moving as a solitary entity. In addition to their breathtaking musicianship, however, the ASQ is to be commended on their advocacy of new works; what a privilege it is to have a world-class quartet of their calibre based in Adelaide.
In the words of the effusive elderly patron seated behind me, "I liked that. I liked that a lot."
Beethoven Sollima Cawrse was performed in Elder Hall, Adelaide on Saturday 17 October, 2020 at 7pm.
For more information on upcoming ASQ performances, visit asq.com.au.
For more information on composer Anne Cawrse, visit annecawrse.com.