The Australian String Quartet’s third and final programme of their national touring schedule has played in Sydney and Adelaide earlier this week. This last programme of their 2017 season contains several paradoxes.

Firstly, it bore the title Beginnings.  Huh? In one form or another, the ASQ has been in existence for over 30 years, and it was good to see two original members, violist Keith Crellin and cellist Janis Laurs in the Adelaide audience on Wednesday evening. If not the quartet itself, perhaps this programme signified ‘beginnings’ from the composers: the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets, the first Bartók and what was perhaps the first work for the genre altogether.

Australian String Quartet – Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Sharon Grigoryan and Stephen King. Photograph © Jacqui  Way

Of these three works, the one that emerged as the freshest and most intriguing was just over 300 years old.  It was also the shortest, and best performed.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) is known for his operas, cantatas and other vocal works. Few would credit him as one of the fathers of the string quartet, a claim usually reserved for Haydn. Yet, sometime before 1715, he appears to have composed a set of four sonate à quattro whose title page lists the instruments which comprise this quartet senza cembalo (without harpsichord, or keyboard continuo): two violins, a violetta (viola), and violoncello (or lute or harp).  Almost 50 years before Haydn composed the first of his 68 string quartets, Scarlatti appears to have arrived at a similar combination.

The fourth of this set, in D minor, is in five short movements. Seven minutes in all, it’s a little gem of a piece and was played with almost loving affection by the ASQ, senza vibrato, yet without the kind of period mannerisms sometimes affected by string players pretending to be playing viols. The ASQ glided effortlessly through a web of chromatic counterpoint that sounded, at times, as though it was some kind of revisitation of Gesualdo by Webern. It was an auspicious beginning and a stunning discovery; thank you, ASQ, and more please!

The first of Bartók’s six quartets of 1908, is hardly the most satisfying introduction to this composer’s folk-inspired style. (In this respect, let’s remember that Bartók and his compatriot Kodaly were not the first to use the gramophone to record folksong; Grainger was among the pioneers here, and Bartók was gracious in acknowledging that.) This first quartet stands with a foot in two eras and styles, and never really decides where it belongs – to the late 19th century Romantic tradition or to the 20th century line of folk-inspired nationalism.

The ASQ seemed to share this ambivalence. For the most part, they could have been playing ramped-up Tchaikovsky. At other times, they were leaping into early Stravinsky, particularly in the third movement (‘poco à poco accelerando all’Allegretto), with its rough-hewn vigour and fragmented folksiness. Perhaps when they have lived with this quartet a little more, a clearer point of view will emerge. For the moment, their approach seemed uncertain and meandering.  It may emerge in the context of a Bartók cycle, when they can look backwards from the path-breaking sixth quartet to this young urchin finding his composer-feet in no-man’s land.

After intermission, the Quartet and their audience could drop into more familiar territory, back a century to the first of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets, his Op.59 No 1 (1805).  The performance was beautiful, even uplifting at times. Even so, it was more respectful than revelationary, begging more questions: What do these players actually bring to this music?  How do they unravel its strange musings and meanderings?  The second movement seems to be searching for material capable of supporting meaningful development (as Gordon Kerry points out in his always perceptive notes).  The third movement, with its quotations of Russian folk-music, seems to be searching for some kind of repose. The finale, some say, seems to have too many ideas: it is a movement in search of an ending.

Again, the ASQ appeared not to know how to address this conundrum. The performance was assured, yes, but timid, even somewhat bland. I yearned to hear sharper contrasts in those moments where Beethoven lurches between aggressive outbursts and placid serenity. Over the course of 40 minutes, energy seemed to flag and concentration wavered.  The verdict could be applied to the entire evening: dutiful, rather than monumental.

One senses that the ASQ presence and performances will grow and flourish as the players become more familiar with not just the sometimes unfamiliar music they play – and thank God for that! – but also with each other. With the relatively recent (in string quartet terms!) recruitment of Dale Barltrop as first violinist, a more secure and sustained identity and sonority is beginning to emerge.

The stars of this quartet are not (yet) the players but their instruments. The distinct sound of the ASQ is largely conveyed through a matched set of 18th century instruments, handcrafted between c.1743 and 1784 by the Italian master Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.  There is only one word to describe the sound of these instruments heard in their natural family setting: glorious. Listen to the cello entries in the Bartók and melt.

From the gossamer fabric of Scarlatti to the devlish abandon of Bartók, this programme showcased the instruments at both ends of the expressive spectrum. Now, it would be good to hear them play music in other intonations (e.g. Ben Johnston or Lou Harrison) and the more recent ‘spectralists’.

Since 2010, the UKARIA foundation, through Ulrike Klein and her family foundation as well as other generous donors, have been raising funds ($6.1m) to acquire this unique set of instruments that can be loaned to the ASQ ‘in perpetuity’. There is still another $70,000 needed to secure this truly remarkable legacy. Onwards, ASQ and UKARIA, and upwards!

The ASQ performs Beginnings at the Government House Ballroom in Perth tonight, then Melbourne Recital Centre on November 20,  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra on November 26, and Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane on November 27


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