Li Wei Qin is a performer who can change a potentially fine performance into a great one. He is undoubtedly one of the finest cellists performing today. Music lovers in Australia are lucky his family lives in Adelaide, giving him many reasons to visit and play in this country. His contribution to last night’s concert by Tinalley String Quartet was manifold and stretched far beyond the addition of his impeccable technique and ample musicianship. This is not to downplay in any sense the participation of another fine musician, Roger Benedict, Sydney Symphony’s Principal Viola, who also brought much to the evening. Nor should it in any way detract from the performance of the other four, regular members of Tinalley, all of whom are excellent proponents of the string quartet form.
The concert was not about quartets, however, but rather the less common forms of string quintet and sextet. The major works of the program were two gems of the genre: Mozart’s G Minor quintet (two violas) and that equal masterpiece of early Schoenberg, the sextet Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night).
The opening work, a two cello quintet by Boccerini, “La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid”, is not one to raise the status of the much neglected Boccherini in the eyes of the public. It is, to say the least, a strange collection of seven miniatures, all based on the night-time street sounds of an eighteenth century Madrid. Boccherini’s readiness to unsettle gentle baroque harmonies with sudden, unexpected, dissonant pizzicato, suggests ideas more contemporary than of his time. But listen to the night sounds of any big city and it is clear. Dissonance is what it is all about. Nowadays the view would be more like Anna Meredith’s “Songs for the M8”, depicting, via string quartet, a current view of a motorway’s aural influences. Boccherini would have had less to work with in a musical sense, but he was clearly in advance of his time in his translation of what his ears heard at a time when streets were probably even more chaotic than now. If you happen to know little of Boccherini, this work is not the one to choose for enlightenment. Rather, seek out his String Quintet No 6 in C Major. The Australian String Quartet played this lovely work with Li Wei earlier this year. It is a beauty.
The beauty last night came in the form of the Mozart G Minor Viola Quintet. An exquisite work, one of a collection of six written, or, in one case, arranged by Mozart for the combination. The work was written at a time when Mozart’s father was very ill, just prior to his death. Tin Alley and their friend Roger Benedict brought out the sombre elements with skill. That said, the quintet has so many fresh ideas and melodies it is hard to think of it as in any way reflecting forthcoming loss. The performance worked well in the main, although to your correspondent’s mind some of the basic accompaniments involving the two violas and second fiddle were a little heavy. That could certainly not be said, however, of cellist Michelle Wood who has a particular skill in producing warmth and beautiful structures from the most basic of bass figures. First violinist Adam Chalabi, the quartet’s newest member played with warmth and skill, in no way overdoing his role even when the music suggested more violin sonata than quintet. The only quibble here was a clear difference of opinion between Chalabi and Benedict about how a particular descending figure in the Adagio should be played. Benedict (and perhaps conventional wisdom) sees every second note slightly clipped, while Chalabi played the notes evenly. This resulted in an interplay suggesting difference rather than harmonious agreement.
After interval Li Wei returned, with Roger Benedict, for a wonderful reading of Verklaerte Nacht. This turn of the 20th century work by a 25 year-old Arnold Schoenberg is surely one of the great masterpieces of the chamber music genre. The poem by Richard Dehmel, which the work depicts, is a story of love and redemption, the circumstances of which would surely, in most cases then, and even today have had less hopeful outcomes. But Dehmel and the young Schoenberg clearly felt the power of redemptive love in creating this most moving of works. Schoenberg, at least, was under the spell of an important love of his life, his teacher’s sister whom he would later marry.
The sextet played the work with admirable skill and intensity. All the emotional elements were carefully built to create a fine structure of sound, only broken by an unfortunate string failure just as things were working up to a climax at the end of the first section. It took a little time for the atmosphere to return after this unplanned delay, but when it did, it reached moments of performance greatness. Undoubtedly Li Wei helped this along, for there is wonderful writing for the first cello and he played his part with passion. Adam Chalabi, relaxed from his Mozartian care, allowed his tone to soar, on occasions, above the intense group sound to excellent effect. Overall it was a memorable performance.
For encore the ensemble played a little bit of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence”. It was almost overkill to follow Veklaerte Nacht with a bit of romantic saccharine. In the event, however, the extract was delivered with such beauty, much of which came from Li Wei’s exquisite playing, the encore did indeed add to the audiences pleasure.
This concert was the first opportunity your correspondent has had to hear the Tinalley Quartet in its current make up. The quartet has had mixed experience with the first violin chair: originally Lerida Delbridge, with whom the quartet won the Melbourne National Chamber Music Competition in 2005, and who now feels more comfortable playing second. Kristian Winther played first for a time, with whom the quartet had success in Banff, but not at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2007. Winther left to concentrate on a composing career, something he must now have put on hold given his recent appointment to the Australian String Quartet. Tinalley then took on a USA based violinist, which was obviously not a success for whatever reason. They worked for a while with a temporary replacement in Elizabeth Sellars, before eventually appointing Adam Chalabi to the position. It is difficult to evaluate the quartet on the basis of a concert of quintets and sextets, but the overall impression was good. His feel for balance and ensemble bodes well for the quartet’s future. Check out their recently announced 2012 season. It includes, amongst much standard repertoire, John Adam’s Second String Quartet, a work that will provide an excellent test.