One day into the competition and your correspondent feels inclined to eschew the delights of Melbourne’s wine bars and put finger to iPad instead. That’s dedication to the cause.
The competition feels a bit different this year. Only four quartets and four piano trios; a new venue, the ABC’s Iwaki rehearsal venue, and a, so far, rather smaller audience than remembered from two years ago. Well, the audience facilities at Iwaki are second rate, which is a pity (although the hall itself has good acoustics). And not a wine bar in sight. Perhaps times are tough financially. At least the music has been great.
The competition opener, a recital by the T’ang Quartet from Singapore, was at once musically stimulating and drab. It was an opening, guys! At least set up a cash bar and let the fans enjoy themselves doubly. They’ve come out on a cold night and deserve a small libation with their program notes. At least the programming was fascinating. Apart from Sculthorpe’s Eighth Quartet, the rest of the program was by contemporary, living Asian composers. This was an aural treat since the three works, all different in style and substance told much of what is going on in the Asian art music world, a world we hear little about. This is strange because we do hear a lot about Asian visual art and artists and much work is on display in Australia. Performances of Asian contemporary music are however rare.
T’ang gave us three insights: the opening work being a quartet in two parts by Bright Sheng, dedicated to the Takacs Quartet and inspired by Tibetan folk music. It’s rhythmic patterns virtually exploded and sonorities challenged before morphing to an elegiac second part which seemed to put everything into context. The Sculthorpe followed in a sound, if sometimes constrained, reading which suggested mutual understanding by both the composer and the quartet of where we mutually stand in a geographic sense. The third work , Mo Xi for String Quartet by Hu Xiao-Ou, inspired by an ancient Chinese minority culture, resonated in the Australian context.
The final work, by Azerbeijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh was a stand out.. It’s inspiration was again ancient and reflected secret Azeri traditions which allowed expressions of illicit emotions of love. It began with a lone cellist on stage playing mournful, longing notes. The violist then answers from the back of the hall, followed by the violins, who all, slowly join the cellist on stage, all the while having an intense musical conversation, as if seeking acceptance. When the collaboration resolves the players introduce a gong, a triangle and then a tabla to enrich the exchange which gradually fades as the three outsiders leave. Eventually the cellist is left alone, still playing mournfully as the triangle has the last quiet word off stage. Brilliant.
So how much Asian music will the competitors play? You will not be surprised to hear that the three works programmed will be from the Japanese and two Chinese ensembles. Good on them.
In your correspondent’s view the quality of performance by the first four competitors has been excellent. The compulsory Haydn/Mozart works are often the most telling, and that was true today. Haydn bouquet so far is bestowed on the Viazza Trio for a light and sensitive Hob. XV:25. It was beautifully nuanced, the slow movement particularly beautiful, and a well controlled Gypsy Rondo to finish. The young Auric Quartet also played a fine Haydn Op 20 No 4. It was stylish, warm and precise. Chinese contenders the Amber Quartet selected Mozart’s Hunt Quartet. They played with admirable skill and beautiful articulation – a well drilled quartet. They failed to communicate their message to your correspondent, however, whether because of rather over brisk tempi to show off their technical skill, a lack of empathy or whatever is hard to say. Perhaps technical excellence is not all that it is about. Again, their Schubert Rosamunde was accomplished, but lacked a certain overall vision, notwithstanding a very beautifully played slow movement. The Japanese ARC Trio also demonstrated great skill in their Haydn Hob XV:28 with pianist Kae Ozawa playing with delightful skill and musicality. (She is your correspondent’s favourite pianist so far.) Unfortunately the ensemble’s balance suffered in louder passages, this from a very strong violinist. This applied also to their otherwise excellent Brahms Trio No 2, where quiet passages were well balanced and nicely phrased, but, in spite of a well controlled, articulate pianist, louder passages became less unified.
The Viazza Trio performed the Ravel Trio. They caught its French flavour extremely well, with waves of sound and emotion swelling and dying. Their expression of the mystery of the work was also quite masterful. Overall the performance was an unexpected joy.
Surprise of the evening was the Auric Quartet’s inclusion of Benjamin Britten’s 2nd Quartet, not a work on your correspondent’s radar, notwithstanding a love for much of Britten’s other work. Britten is not easy to carry off. Was the Auric recommended this work? Perhaps, yes, by their sometime mentor Bill Hennessy. Hennessy is known to suggest works out of left field to groups in which he has confidence. We should be grateful in this instance he did not suggest Wieland whose quartets your correspondent has not yet come to love. Be that as it may, the Auric did an excellent job of delivering a tough work in a manner that displayed its introspection and its intensity. They are a good ensemble. Perhaps too young to come out on top this time, but definitely worth following. (Indulgence please. It is clearly far to early to make predications with only half the ensembles having shown their wares. But it is competition. Why not stick the neck out or go out on a limb. We only live once.
And so to the morrow. Lots more Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Smetana and Shostakovich. And no double ups so far. That’s got to be a first!