Criticism Now

The Morning After - Quartets at Sunset

Reviving Melbourne Festival’s tradition of sunset chamber music, this series sees acclaimed local and international quartets performing in the acoustically delightful surrounds of the Collins Street Baptist Church. In this series some of Australia’s and the world’s preeminent string quartets play the master’s revered works, along with compositions inspired by them.

The performance series features Attacca Quartet, Shanghai Quartet, Flinders Quartet, Ironwood and Australian String Quartet. We’ll be focussing on performances by Shanghai Quartet.

The Morning After: Quartets at Sunset. Our post-mortem discussion panel featuring writers Chloe Hooper and Malcolm Knox, with host Michael Williams.


‘Haydn is for Everyone’: The Shanghai Quartet

By Malcolm Knox

‘Haydn for Everyone’ begs a question. Friendly, joyful little Haydns are familiar to any child in early-grade piano. Along with Mozart and Bach, Haydn was certainly a staple of my short, inept and recalcitrant piano career. Can the most accessible of composers, the bridge-builder between baroque and classical, be any more ‘everyone’s than he already is?

Perhaps I was looking from the wrong angle, at the wrong ‘everyone’. Perhaps the program, running over several years at the Melbourne Festival, is a twist on conventional Haydn string quartet presentation, and the ‘everyone’ of the title is not just those new to his work but also those who are well familiar with it, and the object is not to make his pieces easy but to make them strange and fresh again, a kind of double-facing accessibility.

The Collins Street Baptist Church is both a perfect and an odd venue for chamber music. Its spaciousness offers the string quartet room to breathe, while it is small enough to contain the music and stop it from getting lost. The rooms and chapels for which Haydn’s early string quartets were commissioned were probably a little smaller than this, but were otherwise very different settings. Heavily adorned Esterhazy palace rooms and eighteenth-century Roman Catholic chapels were rich in imagery and furnishings — statements of wealth, power and patronage, of which the composer himself was an instrument. A Baptist Church, on the other hand, is a statement of excision: bare white walls, unstained glass, a hard semi-circle of pews, a plain wooden cross, iconography and trimmings cut away to let the word of God take precedence. The 41 silent pipes of the organ lour over the musicians like henchmen. In a way, this theological spareness amplifies the music. A Baptist church is a place designed for the ear more than the eye.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Leaves of an Unwritten Diary’ was commissioned for the Shanghai Quartet five years ago on the occasion of his 75th birthday and the quartet’s 25th. Jumpy and enervating, the scherzo and waltz feel more like a chase than a conversation. It is exciting music, enlivened by the energy and obvious relish with which Weigang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang, Hongang Li and Nicholas Tzavaras attack it, playing themselves not just out of their skins but almost off their chairs.

After so much activity, the nocturne brings forgiveness. Birds twitter outside the windows, giving their own response. The piece slowly unravels and fades; a perfect beginning.

Andrew Ford’s ‘Once upon a time there were two brothers…’, in its world premiere, disperses the four string players to the corners of the church, leaving the stage to Sally Walker with her flute and her voice. Walker performs a disaggregated song: the spoken words alternating with music. Aesop’s tale of fratricide and revenge is a big stretch for one flute. Where it is illustrating episodes of dance, drink and celebration, the instrument brings the story to life; where it is illustrating a kill or an ambush, it is pressed into service right at the limits of its lightness. I do like the postmodern tweak, where the singing pipe fashioned from the dead brother’s shinbone, which musically accuses and condemns the murderer at his wedding, becomes Walker’s flute itself. Music one, murder nil.

Ford’s four-minute ‘Cradle Song’, written in dedication to the young violinist Richard Pollett, who died two years ago in a road accident, is all the more powerful for its brevity. Played by the Shanghai Quartet, it is a dark slice of mourning, a short piece for a short life ended in a blink.

Haydn’s string quartet No. 27 in D major has heads nodding and the room slipping into a warm bath. It was written during a burst of productivity for the composer, who, after impoverished beginnings and a hard early professional life as a chorister and freelancer, had obtained his longest patronage position, running the musical establishment of the Esterhazy family south of Vienna. His works during this time were owned by the Esterhazys and were performed for them in their palaces. The need to please a crowd would have been paramount. It’s amazing that works conceived with that end in the Habsburg empire 240 years ago would have the same emollient effect on an audience in a Baptist Church in Melbourne now.

The simplicity of Haydn’s quartet has, in the context of this program, a number of pay-offs. One is that it acts as a map legend to what we have already heard, explaining in simple outlines what it is that a string quartet does. It increases my appetite to go back and hear the Penderecki again, with this clarity still fresh in my mind. Which makes me wonder why it is that the programming template, whether for chamber music or symphony orchestras or even a rock band, is so standard. The more challenging stuff comes first, with the crowd-pleaser at the end. It can feel as if the audience is being asked to finish their vegetables, and then they will be given dessert. It can also feel as if the contract between musicians and listeners is a trade: let us do what we want, and then we will give you what you want. I understand why this is the norm, and know that audiences will sometimes only be introduced to new and unfamiliar and perhaps challenging music when it is packaged inside the beloved and known. But I wonder what would be the effect of reversing the program, so that, in this case, we are warmed up by the Haydn and given the Penderecki and Fords as a climax. It’s a speculation rather than a criticism.

But the journey is backwards, not forwards, into the past. The interchange between violins, viola and cello in the Haydn quartet drills down into the roots of the form and the depths of my body. At the end of the night, Haydn is for everyone. Many must have left this church having been berated or elated by fire and brimstone; I leave it with a feeling of lightness, attuned to a D major exuberance, and the sense that some of the mysteries are a little clearer than before.

‘Something Happens’: Listening to the Shanghai Quartet

By Melissa Lucashenko

I arrive with a handful of other writers at the Melbourne Baptist Church to hear a string quartet play Haydn for Everyone. Earlier, in a nearby bar, there has been a competition between us to claim the vastest ignorance of the classical music we have been asked to write about. Now, seated inside on the long padded pews, I find that Shane Maloney has cheated outrageously by bringing along his daughter, a musician. He will have the inside running. The rest of us settle anxiously among the middle-aged crowd, and await our fate.

The Shanghai Quartet files onto stage. Three of them, Chinese men, clasp violins. The viola player, a bearded Caucasian, explains in an American accent what we are about to hear. With a formal bow, the four sit, and ‘Leaves of an Unwritten Diary’ by Penderecki begins.

I immediately realise that nearly all my exposure to classical music has been through film soundtracks. For a moment it feels as though I am in a cinema, not in this beautiful church with its high Larkinesque stained glass windows. A thickset man a few seats away has his eyes closed, his head trembling in ecstatic appreciation of the pure sound. Looking around, about a quarter of the audience also have their eyes shut, expert witnesses, as opposed to my amateur gaping and gawping. One moment the music feels raucous and jangled, the men’s bows sawing violently at their instruments. The next it shifts to soft, swelling tones, and then back again to cacophony, over and over. Their discipline is awesome. The four players are one organism, tight and taut, and bound together here in Melbourne by what has flowed through the mind of someone on the other side of the world.

The piece ends, and the quartet is replaced by a dark-haired flautist in a flowing white dress, Sally Walker. A few trilled notes, and then, surprisingly, she speaks. ‘Once upon a time …’ The audience shifts in its seats, and glances at each other. This is not what we expected. Her entire performance turns out to be a mixture of flute and voice.

Between bursts of notes, the flautist tells us a terrific fable of fratricide, a princess promised in marriage, and an enchanted flute made from a human shin bone. An evil older brother gets his comeuppance. At the end of the story he is buried alive, and the wedding guests dance joyously on his grave. It is ultimately irritating, though – the ripping yarn has been disjointed by this odd format. Everybody’s eyes have remained open throughout. I reflect that the flute performance is the polar opposite of a didgeridoo player’s circular breathing: both the story and the music have been deliberately interrupted by the other here, to the detriment of both. The quartet returns to give us a very short memorial piece for an Australian musician killed in an accident. Cradle Song is simply lovely. Unlike the viola player, the three violinists have the luxury of movement, and bending forwards and back, they sway, seated, around the still centre of the larger inanimate instrument like an anemone. The music melds and builds until the final note — a bittersweet whisper of life lost, hangs, exquisite, in the stillness. I am captivated, and it is hard to believe that both the second piece and this are by the same Australian composer, Richard Ford.

And so on to Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Op 20 No 4. This music was composed in Europe before the British knew of Melbourne, at a time when the Wurundjeri lived here sovereign and loved here inviolate; when the continent knew only Indigenous tongues and sounds. The audience is respectful, the musicians once again seem highly accomplished, the melodies soar and dip. It doesn’t move me very much, however, not like the memorial piece. Not until sixty seconds from the end, that is, when suddenly violins and viola and the movement of the tallest violinist and the light through the stained glass and the attention of the men and women around me coalesce, and something happens. For a brief second or two, everything just … fits. I feel it physically, in my chest. The piece slows, and finally ends. The musicians don’t move. Nor do we. The place where movement or chatter might be is filled instead with reverence. Grateful for this unexpected gift, I close my eyes.

‘What Genius is About’: The Shanghai Quartet and Haydn for Everyone

By Amanda Lohrey

The Melbourne Festival’s Haydn For Everyone series, scheduled over three years, this year offered a mix of works by the master alongside a number of modern composers, including John Adams, Kryzysztof Penderecki, Carl Vine, Zhou Long and Peter Sculthorpe. Among the performers were the Shanghai Quartet, and the Attacca, Flinders, Ironwood and Australian String Quartets as well as soloists Sally Walker (flute) and Bernadette Harvey (piano).

On the night that I attended, the Shanghai Quartet performed in the Collins Street Baptist Church, an ideal venue that is both elegant and intimate.

The quartet seemed most at one with the music in their playing of the Penderecki. In this work I thought I could hear the full force of European Sturm und Drang, a not unexpected quality in a Polish composer, given Poland’s historical location at the vortex of European wars. But my companion thought it conjured the frenzied dislocations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Was he imagining this, I wondered, because three members of the Shanghai Quartet are from the People’s Republic of China and because he knows they commissioned the composer to write this work for them? At which point I have to confess that for me this has always been a distinctive feature of watching and listening to a quartet: the degree to which it provokes an impulse to construct a narrative around the players. The orchestra is too large and amorphous to inspire narrative, the duo or trio too small and genteel, but the quartet is a robust ensemble of characters who might conduct an intrigue in a novel. This, I know, is a writerly point of view, and a programmatic one of the kind disdained by musical purists. I first became aware of it when I attended a performance at the Adelaide Festival of the Shostakovich Quartet, who almost immediately took me into Dostoyevsky territory. Though middle-aged and in respectable concert attire, they might have been an ensemble out of The Possessed, or the brothers Karamazov forced by their tyrannical father to tour the Antipodes. (But I digress, and in a way that will be of no interest to music lovers, who I assume do not share my interest in the string quartet as a form of austere theatre.)

Taking all that into account, the Penderecki was the highlight of the night, a multi-layered conversation that rose at times to argumentative heights while gliding at others into a collective swoon. (And when I listen to a string quartet, it’s always a conversation of some kind that I hear).

Andrew Ford’s flute piece was a novel attempt to fuse spoken narrative and musical accompaniment. Soloist Sally Walker broke off at regular intervals to tell a story of two brothers, a folk narrative from Grimms’ fairy tales. Despite my predilection for narrative I thought the words detracted from the spell of the music and placed the musician in a position of some awkwardness. In dramatic terms it might have worked better had the spoken text been recited by an actor, although the many cues would have been difficult to manage.

The second Ford piece was a four-minute excerpt from a string quartet, an elegiac piece written to commemorate the death of a young musician. As a stand-alone piece it sounded somehow stranded within the rest of the programme and made me want to hear the rest of the quartet.

The final item, the Haydn, was a surprise. I hadn’t listened to Haydn since my youth and I remembered him as cheerful chamber music. This quartet was so much more complex than that, or maybe I am now old enough to recognise and engage with its complexity, a bittersweet urgency that the Shanghai Quartet performed with ferocious attack, although not with as much soulfulness as the Penderecki. Another surprise: alongside the more modern works, the Haydn sounded unexpectedly fresh. Which, I suppose, is what genius is about.


@FlindersQtet congratulations on a marvelous performance. A delirious, uplifting experience of Haydn and Ravel- they work so well together!

The following night’s Haydn, Op. 55 in F minor nicknamed The Razor, began well with a firm treatment of its finely sprung sequence of variations, but the lower strings - viola Luke Fleming and cello Andrew Yee - developed too much heft in the work’s second half, Fleming’s melody line in the Minuet over-anxious to make its mark.

@MelbFestival #QuartetsAtSunset Shanghai Quartet Superlative Britten 2.Transcendent.Listen again Recommended! @ABCClassic 21.30 AEST

Just come from the beauties of Aust String Quartet sunset concert @MelbFestival. Now for Free Theatre of Belarus Minsk 2011. Contrasts.

The Shanghai Quartet showed itself to have a lovely balance, with the first violin heard to advantage and all parts graceful to the end of the movement.

heaps o' haydn & other live excellence from @AttaccaQuartet

Yet the Shanghai ensemble showed at its best with Britten’s Quartet No. 2 in C, possibly the most eloquent music-making of the whole fortnight. From first violin Weigang Li’s spirited outline of the first wide-leaping theme to the cadenza for Nicholas Tzavaras' cello in the final movement, the musicians constructed highly intense blocks of material.

@ASQuartet @MelbFestival Thanks for an absolutely brilliant concert.Ligeti & Haydn rock

From the spiky ‘march’, employing the kind of attack that one would expect from a quartet with the name Attacca, to the gentle, humorous ‘waltz’ and the final dazzling ‘burlesque’, unflagging energy and supreme coordination marked their playing.

The ensemble has recently recorded all string quartet music by John Adams and here performed his 2008 two-movement work, treating its rhythmic changes and compulsive drive with admirable authority, the solid first section making a fine platform for the Attacca players' showmanship and ensemble.

Friday’s program had violinists Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache in a flourishing partnership, bouncing off each other in the final allegro of Haydn’s Rider quartet, ably supported by Stephen King’s experienced viola, even if cellist Sharon Draper’s playing angle meant the most reticent bass line heard over the fortnight’s span.

The smaller Haydn enjoyed the group’s full-frontal approach. Its ferocity ramped up for the Bartok, notably in the two central movements where block chords were thwacked into place and the dynamic level – on a smaller stage than that usually erected in previous years, close to an effectively sound-reflecting wooden panel – was as confronting as anything else in the Attaccas’ recitals.

While last week’s recitals gave acoustic prominence to the lower instruments, these concerts were more balanced in dynamic weight, particularly in a successful encounter with Haydn’s Lark Quartet: plain-speaking and unencumbered by overworked personality, an intelligent and warm demonstration of fine chamber music making.

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