Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

The St Lawrence String Quartet and Diana Doherty on Oboe, Play Music by Haydn, Dvořák and Mozart and Contemporary Music by Matthew Hindson and Gordon Kerry

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Australian composer Gordon Kerry. Photo from
Australian composer Gordon Kerry. Photo from

City  Recital Hall, Sydney: 21 April 2012
The St Lawrence Quartet and Diana Doherty play in Melbourne on 24 April, Perth on 26 April, and Melbourne again on 28 April.

Joseph Haydn – String Quartet in F minor, op 20 no 5
Gordon Kerry – Elegy for String Quartet
Mozart – Oboe Quartet in F major, K370
Dvořák – String Quartet no. 14 in A flat major, op 105
Matthew HindsonRush for oboe and string quartet

The St Lawrence String Quartet
Geoff Nuttall – violin
Scott St John – violin
Lesley Robertson – viola
Christopher Costanza – cello

Diana Doherty – oboe

Such a broad range of small detail, an infinite diversity of subtle variations in tone, attack, dynamics etc., more than is practical even for a composer to write into a score, is possible, even common on the string instruments, especially the violin, and it seems to be much easier to find violinists capable of nuanced playing than any other instrument, flute, horn, oboe, for example, though maybe not piano, though these instruments are not directly comparable. The string quartet then presents so many musical possibilities not to mention possible combinations of musical personalities, for both the performer and composer, and such opportunities for experimentation with the genre’s huge density of detail, relative speed of composition, and fantastic possibilities at the frontiers of musical sound. It is easy too to compare a symphonist’s writing string quartets to a painter’s drawing of finished studies, and this tradition continues, even if new symphonies and operas are relatively rare, as we see here in this program which includes the newish work by Gordon Kerry whose pieces, like Ian Munro’s last year, will feature in most of this year’s chamber music concert tours organized by Musica Viva.

The St Lawrence String Quartet is on the extroverted side of the chamber music spectrum. Their playing of the f minor Haydn quartet, which in itself is a varied piece even for a string quartet, allows something of a direct comparison to the Tinalley String Quartet, who performed the same piece earlier in the week, and they could not have been much more different. The St Lawrence Quartet in general is more outgoing than enveloping in pushing their interpretation forward to the audience in its characteristic sound, and partly to fill the largish hall perhaps, though mostly by nature. Geoff Nuttall who played first violin for this piece, playing with a sharp tone, standing very upright, quite strident, tending to extend the dotted notes a tad too, stood out very strongly over the other three who were more subdued, more shaded, creating and softish, self-effacing tone supporting him where he took quite a free rein. In the double fugue last movement, the first violin still stood out almost always, but the others of course here can’t help but be heard separately, and it was interesting after the first three movements to hear the softer members’ individual tones. And they do have quite different individual styles. Scott St John is perhaps a bit more subtle in his phrasing, and a little less biting in tone, Lesley Robertson’s soft spoken viola more readily lingers on the darker, richer sounds in the music than the piquant ones, and tends to blend into the total ensemble sound; Christopher Costanza seems to relish the bottom line and supplements a soft richness with Robertson. The last movement was very satisfying in these contrasts, more so perhaps than the early movements. I preferred the Tinalley Quartet’s performance overall for its depth and detail, but from here on the programs diverge strongly.

Gordon Kerry’s piece Elegy seemed to suit better the Quartet’s style; it gave them more to converse about. A very textured piece with nearly equally significant parts for all musicians it has a wonderful fluttering, light quality, the different parts carried off in different directions and movements from the opening dark, drawn-out chords, some playing legato, some staccato or even in clacking pizzicato, — in fact a wide variety of bowing techniques is called or —, some rising, some falling in short notes, others’ lines flatter in profile, more or less melodic, or more randomized and unsettling. The voices come together at times into chords which skip off in a leaping progression in a lightly accented rhythm. The entire piece is quite mesmerizing, absorbing even as it goes on in a single mood, even in the end when the loose fluttering raveled ends finally tie together.

The Dvořák quartet, one of his last two quartets composed in 1895, again showed more clarity of texture and structure and lush variety in the group. Here the cello, for example, with its important leading-in role at the beginning, never really sinks back to the bottom, and this group’s members’ variety of individualism suits the sort of ensemble playing Dvořák calls for. Scott St John took first violin here and the music was very emotive and passionate, never sounding exaggerated, nor unnatural, nor unreasonable in its turbulent moods. The dynamic range was quite broad, but favored loudness in general which, along with their at times sprightly rhythms, sometimes even bouncing with the cello pizzicato, made for a very turned-out interpretation. The traditional Bohemian dancing rhythms were earthy and bucolic, while still sounding serious and enthusiastic, and never sounding at all like a gypsy fiddle. Their fast playing can be very exciting and impressive and they manage to maintain a high level of intensity in a remarkable way. One felt even a bit emotionally exhausted by the end of it, and that is a kind of catharsis.

Diana Doherty, principal oboe of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, joined the group for two pieces. First the Mozart Oboe Quartet in F major, a middling Mozart piece. Geoff Nuttall stepped out for this this piece, and while the group had a good understanding with their guest oboist, it was quite a gentle, calm playing for Mozart. They attained a certain serenity by virtue of Diana Doherty’s sensitive playing of the dynamic changes, especially her remarkably even and very long crescendos, her great breath control, and her merry phrasing of the melodies in the first and last movements. There was a good blending of strings and oboe when necessary, and a capacity for strong contrast, when called for, with Diana Doherty’s more rounded windy, and more biting, tones, even next to some quite colorful violin tones. The slow middle movement, mostly minor key, gave more time to savor some of these fine qualities of the grouping. There could have, perhaps, been a bit more depth in some sections, a bit more tenderness to bring across Mozart’s sensitive dramatic sense, to intensify his merriment too, for an interpretation more sublime in its entirety.

Matthew Hindson’s  (another contemporary Australian composer) “Rushes” was originally written for guitar and string quartet, here he has adapted to the oboe specially for Dana Doherty. It is a bit of a joke as a piece of music, not a scherzo in the traditional sense, which is either a serious, refined sort of wit or a light musical analogy to wit, but literally a joke. It is light but horrendously difficult to play, though Hindson says that Diana Doherty thought his first draft of her part too easy. The oboe is more like a harmonica here with some very fast rolls of short notes and many bent notes, even some glissandos, many restless crescendos and diminuendos over the string parts which shift quickly and constantly themselves, though the first violin part, now Geoff Nuttall again, is possibly more difficult, with incredibly virtuosic playing albeit with a lot of repetition. Relentless syncopated rhythms, restless, even itchy, repeated motifs (and very catchy ones which will go around your head if you’re not careful) going back and forth and round about, it is one of those classical-jazz fusion attempts which make both styles feel awkward and out of their depth. Perhaps only Gershwin could do it naturally. The musicians threw their whole selves into it and played with great enthusiasm and precision nonetheless, but perhaps Mozart and Haydn could have had a little more attention.

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