A rare four-course degustation evening whose every bite was to be savoured.
Sydney Conservatorium of Music | Reviewed on April 27, 2019
by Shirley Zhu on April 29, 2019
The Musica Viva Festival’s fourth concert, named Essence — and rightly so — was like a four-course degustation with two packed mains. It was an evening bursting with colours and playful sensations and by the end, left the mouth hanging open for more.
As if prophesying the density of the night ahead the two ladies behind me exclaimed at the start “I love Julian’s socks!” Indeed, Julian Smiles, the cellist of the Goldner String Quartet was clad in black, with coloured, vertically striped socks. And so the entrée: a one bite taster packed with an array of colours, textures and richness, yet all the while retaining the light-heartedness of a Mozart work. The Flute Quartet in D Major was a perfect precursor to the rest of the night, and an excellent synthesis of wind and strings between Adam Walker and the Goldner String Quartet. All three movements saw the flute soar above the quartet with runs that utilised the full length of its register whilst the quartet provided a warmly balanced accompaniment throughout, which was particularly well rounded in the lower registers. A homogenous pleasantry was created both literally and musically. There were minuscule moments where scalic runs in the flute were not so cleanly tapered off, however, that detail did not detract from a delightful opening.
The first main, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, presented itself like a treasure chest waiting to be explored. Ravel constantly sought and explored new culinary endeavours utilising new harmonies, flavours and textures in his creations as a chef on a mission. The Sonata has a cyclical structure, reminiscent of his earlier Piano Trio, with a theme that would resurface in many different forms throughout the work presented at the outset. Violinist Tessa Lark and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve were the technicians who carried out the chef’s desires. They projected with grace Ravel’s technical challenges without forsaking the plethora of colours, tones and harmonies present. In the third movement in particular – where the music plays out like mathematical fractals, spiralling in a cyclical manner – Valve and Lark managed to stay tight in ensemble, clear in phrasing and intention and their clarity of tone never wavered. A mathematically structured and a mathematically executed performance, it was a great sequenceas it did a 180 turn around to the second main dish of the night – Matthew Hindson’s String Quartet No 2, Starburst.
Hindson himself provided a brief background of his creation, where he revealed the nickname “Starburst”which was sadly absent from the program. He described his work as “scientists discussing ideas and postulating what forms the universe” and “the thrill of discovery.” With that explanation, Smile’s choice of socks was made clear as the Goldner String Quartet returned to the stage once again. The work began with the sound of a meteorite falling, rapid glissandos and descending runs, straight away setting the space atmosphere. Throughout its four movements it explored tonally but in a more technical manner, the stereotypical space sounds found predominantly in television and films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek. Melodies were passed from viola through to cello and then the two violins. There were also mixes of harmonics and extended techniques some which seemed improvisatory in nature. And the Goldner String Quartet answered all of these with the poise of a veteran quartet.
The dessert is usually the highlight of a degustation, serving to wrap up a fine creative meal. With the presentation of everything before the intermission, a nitrogen spiked dessert was expected. But unfortunately it was transformed last minute into a soup-based confection with chunks of unevenly cut fruit, creating an overall imbalance in texture and tone throughout the work. The Trout Quintet was certainly worthy repertoire, representing a pinnacle of Schubert’s short career, composed at the tender age of 22. But its execution, mainly due to balance problems, fell sub-par to expectations. The balance of the lower registers, particularly Dover Quartet’s cello, Camden Shaw, was heavily muted and underwhelming, particularly when contrasted with the bright and youthful energy of the violin and piano. Many of Schubert’s standard bass counter-melodies were simply inaudible and lacked density. Despite being distracted by these uneven chunks, the taste of these individual elements were still mouth-watering overall. It also did not detract from the experience of the audience, who greeted the performance with three rounds of applause (a first for the night), a few standing ovations and “bravos” all around.