The concert began before there were even any players onstage with Brendan Woithe’s chirping, buzzing soundscape Prelude, intended as a warmup for the ASQ’s newly commissioned work by Kate Moore, the String Quartet No 3, Cicadidae

The Australian String Quartet

Moore’s music is inspired by nature and its links to sound. As her website says, “her works are directly inspired by the organic shapes and sounds found in nature and lost objects of the natural biosphere, both sonic and visual”. This inspiration was definitely in evidence in her third string quartet Cicadidae, which is, of course, referring to the scientific classification for the cicada family. Moore spoke to Limelight recently, and describes the piece by saying “as a result of human-induced climate change many insect species are facing trouble – and possible extinction – and this is very worrying. I imagine cicadas’ evening song…to be a chorus singing praise for being alive. It’s almost hymnal”. She also talks about the effects of slowing down cicada song, and how this inspired the piece’s “beautiful, very simple, gradually changing harmony.” This is a lovely piece, with Glass-ian repetitions criss-crossing the quartet. There were some magical shades of timbre between the instruments, and I can imagine some fabulous results if this new quartet was performed antiphonally.

First violinist Dale Barltrop talked through Moore’s ideas after the piece, and re-introduced cellist Sharon Grigoryan, back from maternity leave. Here, Barltrop mentioned the common threads running between the Beethoven and Brahms, and the “foray into C Minor for the rest of the evening”. I’m not sure that this programming was a good idea, but more on that later.

Beethoven’s Op. 18 set of string quartets were his first published quartets, from the turn of the nineteenth century. There’s a sense that these were a declaration of what he could do, and there’s inventive writing present in each and every bar. It’s the first quartet in F Major that gets played a lot, so it’s nice to see others from the set getting the spotlight as well. It’s a work that gives the quartet a lot to play with (lots of drama with Beethoven’s favourite key of C Minor, for starters), and it’s certainly a lot of fun for the audience – there’s not really a slow movement at all, so the energy stays high the entire time. The last movement, for instance, is a Hungarian-ish dance, and the ASQ tackled this with some serious intensity. The final prestissimo return to the theme was genuinely thrilling, and left the audience eager for the Brahms after the interval.

Brahms took his time in getting to the string quartet, perhaps because of the inevitable associations with Beethoven (think of the infamous “footsteps of a giant” quote). Published in 1873, his Op. 51 set of two quartets were lauded by none other than Arnold Schoenberg. In fact, it’s this very quartet that Schoenberg praises in his article “Brahms the Progressive” as an example of intense thematic development. This is Brahms in a dark and ominous mood, although the inner two movements are less stormy than the outer two. Again, this was a terrific performance, and the slow movement’s Romance was finely judged.

So, a word on programming – regular readers may have noticed that this is one of my pet peeves. Let’s be honest here – you can’t just jam good pieces together and have them work as a cohesive whole. Here, as mentioned earlier, both the Beethoven and Brahms are in C Minor. Yes, all right, maybe there’s a link with the idea that Brahms’ use of C Minor is paying homage to Beethoven’s extensive use of the same key… but it also has the result of feeling like the audience gets a big serving of similar sounds. Likewise, conjoining the Beethoven and Brahms has the effect of excluding Moore’s work.

This was an excellent performance, as is to be expected by musicians of this calibre, but by the end of the night I’d have given my kingdom for something not in C Minor. ASQ’s next tour seems like it balances this more, with music by Ives, Debussy, and Westlake. I’m keen to see how those works fit together, as well.

The Australian String Quartet’s Moore Beethoven Brahms tours Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide until June 11