Fitters’ Workshop, Canberra
May 3, 2018

There was an undeniable buzz about the Orava Quartet in the lead up to their concert at the Canberra International Music Festival. The audience had a taste during Souvenir de Florence on the Sunday evening of the festival’s opening weekend, but the 14th concert of the festival put the foursome – who are riding the success of their recent album release on Deutsche Grammophon – in the spotlight with a program of Haydn, Rachmaninov and Debussy.

Orava Quartet, CIMF, Canberra International Music FestivalThe Orava Quartet at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop

As much-hyped as the ensemble has been, they didn’t disappoint. It’s not just that their playing is as immaculate as their matching uniforms, this is quartet playing that’s vibrant, exciting and that demonstrates an impressive commitment to a unified concept of sound and musical expression.

All this and more was on display in the Oravas’ slick rendition of Haydn’s String Quartet No 30 – dubbed The Joke and the second of his Opus 33 quartets. The players opened with a clean, lively sound, the vibrato pared back and First Violin Daniel Kowalik singing over the top. Cellist Karol Kowalik kept the momentum pumping in the Scherzo, his brother sliding insouciantly up and down the violin in the B section. Karol Kowalik’s duet with violist Thomas Chawner was a highlight of the Largo while the ‘joke’ pauses of the finale were stretched with beautiful comic timing, the audience eager by this point to be led wherever the Quartet would take them.

The musicians shifted gears for the two movements of Rachmaninov’s never completed first string quartet, their vibrato lush and romantic in the first movement (which dates back to the composer’s Tchaikovsky-influenced student days), with an almost jazzy lilt in the Scherzo, the cello sonorous in its wistful melody.

The highlight of the concert, however, was a stunning performance of Debussy’s 1893 String Quartet, the Oravas delivering crisp opening chords before settling into the hazier impressionistic colours. Here the ensemble’s careful attention to the architecture of the music was most apparent – each voice and phrase was dispatched with an intention and intelligence that by no means hampered the sparks-flying vitality of the performance. Daniel Kowalik showed himself unafraid to push the limits of his violin tone to great effect in the buzzing Assez vif et bien rythmé while David Dalseno’s dark violin sound was a perfect match for the viola picking up his phrase in the opening of the third movement.

If the Orava Quartet didn’t already have every audience member eating out of their hands with the snowballing vibrancy of Debussy’s finale, their encore – a barnstorming account of the folky third movement from Schullhoff’s First String Quartet – sealed the deal.

Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra until May 6