Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Ian Munro and the Goldner String Quartet Play Munro, Szymanowski and Brahms

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Ian Munro, Australian composer and pianist. Photo Musica Viva.
Ian Munro, Australian composer and pianist. Photo Musica Viva.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: matinée 27 August 2011
Tours to Coffs Harbour 1 September, Melbourne 3 September, Adelaide 6 September, Perth 8 September

Karol Szymanowski
String Quartet no. 1 in C, Opus 37

Ian Munro
Piano Quintet no. 2
I Dreams
II Drought and Night Rain

Johannes Brahms
Piano Quintet in F minor, opus 34

Ian Munro – piano
The Goldner String Quartet
Dene Olding – violin
Dimity Hall – violin
Irina Morozova – viola
Julian Smiles – cello

The series of concerts of chamber music organized by Musica Viva this year continue with an exploration of, and this time a new commission by, Australian pianist and composer Ian Munro. He has created his second piano quintet (the first composed in 2006 was called Divertissement sur le nom d’Erik Satie) from two earlier works: Dreams, his winning contribution to the 2003 Queen Elisabeth International Competition for Composers, originally meant to be a first movement to a full piano concerto and Drought and Night Rain, originally written in 2005 for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and originally meant to be a beginning to a full symphony. Though it would be nice to hear these symphonic works complete in their own right, Munro has sewn them together skillfully into a chamber music piece. Really this is no different from what Prokofiev did to compose the Romeo and Juliet ballet music, which has a life of its own, so reuse of already composed ideas should not necessarily raise negative thoughts. Munro himself joins with the Goldner String Quartet which is lead by Dene Olding, who often plays first violin in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, also conducting the SSO earlier in the year, to play his new piece, but we also get the opportunity to hear the Quartet on its own.

The Szymanowski quartet begins quite gently, with familiar dissonances and a loosely defined melody which drops through abrupt changes in key. As important as the harmony are the slowly changing textures of tone and the Quartet’s ensemble playing, very integrated, locked-in, well controlled and finely balanced, sounded faithful to, even very careful of, the composer’s score. Dene Olding played very fine, steady, soft high tones without vibrato which sounded marvelous and lent the music a preternatural quality. His first violin clearly lead most of the piece, the other instruments blended in in this controlled way under him, leaving his notes separately audible, but not prominent, and in no way piercing, more as if he were touching off vibrations already existing in the air. For example, the effect used on several occasions throughout the afternoon, of Dene Olding’s vibrato-less tone combined with Dimity Hall’s slight vibrato made an interesting texture. They were assisted too by the clean and present acoustics of the City Recital Hall. For another example, one might ask why a composer, as is especially frequent in 20th Century music, would use the extreme upper register of the cello rather than the viola. It is for this infinite range of tone colors available to just four instruments of the same family, an especially deep spring when the subtle changes are listened for closely.

The second movement is a sort of collage of 18th century dance tunes. We hear more of each instrument solo in a more conversational manner and in fact each member of the Goldner Quartet has quite a different style. In the first movement there was a hint of this: as one can adduce the character of a meek person from the manner of their meekness, so the character of a musician can be drawn from their ensemble playing even when following the lead violin, especially clearly in the woven contrapuntal sections when the ear is not exclusively locking onto the harmony. This middle movement could have been played with irony but the Goldner Quartet let it stand on its own  without so much expression of feeling as to make the music wet, but not so little as to make it overly dry — which of course can sound like an ironic interpretation in its own right. In this way, though the music in this second movement allows looser playing than the more serious, textural music of the first movement, it fit all of a piece with the rest of the work in a satisfying way. In the third movement, the music reaches its most prickly. The chords sound hollow and their progressions circular and ambiguous. The behavior of the music though slippery to try to grasp must be accepted as it is so the integrated style of the ensemble worked very well and left much for the listener to do.

Ian Munro played piano himself for his new Second Piano Quintet. We previously heard his Piano Trio, inspired by Russian folk-tale (with Christoph Eggner on piano) and his String Quartet, inspired by an exhibit of Australian 20th century prints. This new piano quintet has a similar spunky quality as the others and is also inspired by other art, in this case the poems of Judith Wright, but it works just as well, perhaps better to my ears, without the program implied by the poems. Of these pieces, it is Munro’s least tonal, least traditional and most shadowy, perhaps the most difficult to interpret because of its ambiguity and disturbing sounds in the first movement, entitled Dreams. But it is a positive kind of disturbing. Quite unpredictable in a way which gives the piece scope, the notes leap quickly from one end of the keyboard to the other, using the extremities of the Yamaha to good effect, and the odd jazz chord sidles in. Likewise the tones of the strings of the quartet change unpredictable, nightmarishly even. A little four note rhythmic motif — à la Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but here more strongly syncopated and arch  — repeats obsessively, reminiscent of Stravinsky, but it is not as drum-like or percussive as Le Sacre du Printemps. It is animal rather than tribal. The tension between the rhythmic repetition and the wild throws of tone, pitch and harmony builds across the movement and though the whole piece is brief (timed at 15 minutes in the program) it seems very much longer. This dilation of time removes the piece even further from the material plane.

Interestingly, Munro’s style of playing tended to bring something organic and human to all this which may not necessarily follow from the score. In the unslurred forte phrases, his playing was bell-like and seemed very naturally to suit itself to the music as if we were hearing his original inspiration before he wrote it down. The low, forte, pedaled notes came out unmuddied and very rich in the way they combined with the cello. His soft playing was clear and mellifluous but also rather plucky, with a little bit of bounce which again suits the style of his own pieces, his figures seeming to dance out of the piano in Dreams, but also lent the Brahms’s piece a certain quality of energy. The violins of Dene Olding and Dimity Hall were bright, their pizzicato lifting and not at all plunking. The Goldner Quartet with the composer alongside seemed more daring and more willing to take risks than the Eggner Trio’s and the Bretano Quartet’s performances of Munro’s works early in the year, as successful as those performances were; the Goldners seemed a bit more free here.

The second movement, called Drought and Night Rain, is the dawn if the first movement was the night. It is still rather dark but has the sense of moving toward the light. The first movement certainly had a sense of moving somewhere energetically, but kept the destination a mystery close to its heart, pacing and developing in this style, which is so hard to compose in, without any pre-ordained structure offered by the harmony or melody, until it couldn’t propagate itself in this way any longer. The second movement continues with the organic qualities of the first, now free of any unsettled psychology, growing by degrees more and more alive in a gentler manner perhaps. Munro has the cellist and second violinist use percussion instruments (as well as pizzicato on their habitual instruments elsewhere) — bongo drum and small wooden rasps with wooden mallets, whose hollow, rain-forest sounds go well with the conventional string instruments, and they seem to be something of a signature in Munro’s music. The music opens up now with more freedom of movement through rhythmic variety, and it is somewhat more melodic though there is clearly an arc to the whole piece. It is the little wooden rasp that gets the last word in the end, after the music gently attenuates, returning to its original, silent, state.

The Brahms Quintet is quite a big piece and sounded highly dramatic, almost Wagnerian, in the way Munro and the Goldner Quartet played it without reserve. Compared to the Szymanowski piece, the Quartet seemed to take more freedom and give up a little bit of their control for this piece, perhaps because the Brahms is more familiar but moreover because the music seemed to ask this of them to finish the concert after the less capacious 20th and 21st century pieces. The lead is passed among the instruments more in this piece than the other two in the program which were, especially in Szymanowski’s case, generally more concerned with the texture of the whole sound than the conversation between the players. The Brahms Quintet is also more symphonic in its thematic structure. The musicians came out more individually and consciously: Munro’s energetic, elastic dancing fingers; Dene Olding’s pure tone on even the strongest notes and very even full-bow sustained notes, as one would wish for from a Prima Donna; Dimity Hall’s expressive, unassuming but strongly-felt style; Julian Smiles’s rich and clear vocal cello and Irina Morozova’s very innocent and human viola. Though the transition to a piece all about the relationships between the musicians from ones, where the sum total sound from the group instrument is paramount, is difficult, the players still showed remarkably clean technique and agility in the fast sections which sounded very tight in the revealing acoustics of the hall. The very full final notes held a silence after the end of the piece before the highly appreciative applause.

4 thoughts on “Ian Munro and the Goldner String Quartet Play Munro, Szymanowski and Brahms

  1. This is exactly the kind of thoughtful, attentive, informed, non-showing-off review one wishes for after a concert. It makes you think about your own responses and takes you back to the music and the occasion.

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