Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

Sabine Meyer and the Modigliani String Quartet Play Music by Mozart, Schumann and Ian Munro

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Sabine Meyer. Photo: Thomas Rabsch.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney: 12 November 2011
The ensemble will play this program in Newcastle on 17 November and Melbourne on 19 November

Ian Munro
Clarinet Quintet, Songs from the Bush
 I Country Dance
 II Campfire and Night Sky
 III Drover’s Lament

Robert Schumann
String Quartet in A major, opus 41 no. 3

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581

Sabine Meyer – clarinet

Modigliani String Quartet
Philippe Bernhard – violin
Loïc Rio – violin
Laurent Marfaing – viola
François Kieffer – cello

The Modigliani String Quartet has quite a definite personality as a musical ensemble and so has Sabine Meyer in her playing. This is perhaps part of the reason they get along so well together in performance. The differences in style and color of each member of the quartet, though not great, are enough to create a consistent pellucid ensemble sound — one can hear straight through to the bottom of the music like a pristine glacial lake. Sabine Meyer’s tone slipped in without a splash, though caused interesting ripples, without any sense of the strings merely ‘setting off’ a soloist, rather her clarinet combined when the music so called for to shade the sum color of the ensemble or conversed with the quartet on equal terms, and the musicians were always looking, glancing, listening closely to one another. The group did sound perhaps as if they would prefer a somewhat brighter acoustic, but they made the best use of the City Recital Hall (which was certainly adequate either way). Their tempo changes were always well judged to let the sound rebound — however dim on its return —, catch up, and shade in the sound and their pauses and silences were perfectly judged to satisfy the local drama and drift of the melodic structure of the music while allowing as best one could hope for for the fast-fading ring of the hall.

Sabine Meyer’s fine and sensitive control over the shape of her notes, that is the attack or otherwise of the initial entrance of the note, and its length, steadiness and finish or liaison to the next note (there being an infinite gradation possible between staccato and legato) showed a very well-perfected tonguing technique put to sensitive artistic use. The Quartet had similar capacity and cooperated well in these effects, bringing the music bell-like notes or gently singing legato or a quality so fitting to the music as to disappear into the experience. It is remarkable this Australian tour is Sabine Meyer and the Modigliani’s first collaboration.

Ian Munro’s new piece is a clarinet quintet composed last year, commissioned by Musica Viva, to take full advantage of the visiting ensemble. The composer uses Australian ‘folk music’, both aboriginal song as handed down and recorded by John Meredith and colleagues in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the songs of immigrants, here from the British tradition but invented in Australia. Munro says he heard a similarity between the melodies of a song sung by a Walmajarri child (as recorded by ethnomusicologists) and an immigrant song called Sixteen thousand miles from home and clearly the possibility of a connection as well as the greater cultural interaction stoked his curiosity and his composing imagination. The aboriginal song, which Munro has adapted freely to his own style, begins the piece on the clarinet and the movement then progresses as all the instruments coming in. An early section of counterpoint is fugal in that each instrument opens with the same figure which then develops into something else as the others come in, with little repetition, though the parts fit together in a loose-sounding way, sounding a bit like Lutosławski’s aleatory counterpoint where each part plays ad libitum rather than counting out precisely. The total effect is not chaos but more like different birds singing over one another, if not listening to what the other birds sing then not stepping on their toes either. The total effect is a clear, dry, constantly changing and shimmering, intricate sound. The piece continues with this rather restrained, not washed out but perhaps pastel color from the group, then leading into a straightly played jig on the first fiddle which the others subsequently join into.

The second Campfire and Night Sky movement is more impressionistic though still somewhat down to earth by virtue of Munro’s style. The final movement brings back the aboriginal song, but altered, at least in a different context, to end the piece. The piece as a whole hangs together well, its ‘argument’ though wide ranging speaks and it is quite moving. Munro, as in his other chamber pieces, uses extremely varied timbres, in one section bringing in percussion: the first violin bounces the bow on the strings, the second violin taps the back of the instrument’s neck, the cello pats the body of his — to create an interesting but very natural and woody sound. The bowing the music calls for varies from scratchy to very smooth, pure legato in other sections. There were wonderful tremolos from the cello in one section, underlying chromatic dissonance in the other instruments to create fluttering beats. All did well to pick up a new piece by an until recently unfamiliar composer, Sabine Meyer in particular showed great thoughtfulness and care to phrase the melodies which aren’t easy to get to know so fittingly.

The Mozart quintet, though no doubt much more familiar to the group, they played with as much care. The variety of imaginative melodies which speak so strongly to any sensitive human being is remarkable even if it’s expected of a Mozart piece, but indivorceable from the qualities of the individual melodies is their wonderful fitness in their place in the piece so that the whole is made from this huge and beautiful variegated yarn of melodies and harmonies and patterns of notes in between whose carriage across the piece could only unfold in that way and no other. The ensemble showed great understanding of this in their very natural speech-like articulation. They would linger like a Wordsworth poem, all of one mind, on a special turn or kink in the melodies, especially in the slow movement. The listener felt the more wrenching chords with them and they accented the tense unstables ones just enough for the softer resolution. The variations in the last movement joined together in a sensible way, even if a well-judged pause saw the previous variation’s notes sing out for only an instant before fading away.

They adapted their color too in a way which fit the piece and still allowed them, in fact it accentuated their clear quality of one. Sabine Meyer changed to a period clarinet, slightly deeper and more colorful than the modern one she played in the Munro piece. The strings adapted their timbre accordingly. The clear, open result, a shining tone, brought out the talkative conversational nature of the musicians’ articulation.

The Modigliani String Quartet. Photo:

The Modigliani Quartet showed their own capacity for very fine quartet playing in the Robert Schumann piece. A remarkable concentration gave the piece unity and flow despite being quite a large, long one. The players’ concentrated attention on detail and subtle changes in mood or feeling demanded close listening and rapt attention especially between movements where one felt eagerness to hear how they would play next. There is sometimes perhaps a tendency to overlook Schumann and not give him his due in favor of proximate romantics like Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and Chopin. He is worthy of close attention beyond but including the emotion of his music. This quartet has a certain solidity lent it by its integrity and seriousness, until the final movement whose Allegro molto vivace has an almost galloping and effervescent movement and somehow doesn’t easily walk with the rest of the piece. The Modigliani Quartet’s expansive manner and lucid tone quality seemed to suit the piece very well. The players’ close rapport gave the music an easy precision, sounding unstudied and natural.

First violin Philippe Bernhard showed his capacity for great gentleness while leading with his voice’s melody. Loïc Rio very gently filling the middle with Laurent Marfaing played with care and their varied styles brought out their voices without needing resort to undue volume. The viola leads one passage, in the third movement I believe (and also in the Mozart Quintet) and Marfaing’s playing had liveliness under his mellow, sonorous tone; he took full advantage of his instrument’s different timbre to give clarity to the lower and middle registers of the music. François Kieffer added much to the ensemble color without making too abrupt or heavy its bass end, especially in the high range of his instrument which had a calling, even plaintive quality and joined the conversation on equal terms.

This is the last program Musica Viva has organized for the year. The organization seems to be unique in featuring a single less-well-promoted composer in several concerts through the whole season rather than the usual ad hoc commissions from the same pool of Australian composers which most chamber groups and orchestras seem to do to get new music. We otherwise wouldn’t have heard nearly so much Ian Munro’s music who created for the Musica Viva concerts this year a piano trio Tales of Old Russia, a string quartet From an Exhibition of Australian Woodcuts, a Piano Quintet and this clarinet quintet. I hope we get many more opportunities to hear his music in the future, as well as others.

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