A fine Sydney day out for Melbourne’s liveliest string quartet.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
May 25, 2015

Melbourne’s Tinalley String Quartet (Adam Chalabi, Lerida Delbridge, violins, Justin Williams, viola and Michelle Wood, cello) is 12 years old now and with a busy national and international schedule and a recent CD that has garnered some significant plaudits – not least in this magazine. This concert of Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven may not have been quite as new frontier-y as it said in the marketing blurb, but it was an excellent opportunity to catch an ensemble flying high right now on a relatively rare Sydney outing.

When Goethe made is oft-quoted remark about string quartets being “four rational people conversing” he was supposedly acknowledging the novelty of the Haydn of the Opus 20 quartets. But what Purcell’s Fantasias of 100 years earlier show is that nothing is ever as new as some people assume, for here, in music originally for four viols one finds all of those ingredients –four equal voices speaking both individually and as one. The Tinalley quartet approached a series of movements from these works as an opener with serious intent, perhaps a little light on the joyous spirit of adventure that these contrasting movements offer. The technique on display was excellent with ensemble, intonation and choice of tempi all spot on. They handled Purcell’s daring dissonances and madcap flights with thought and a degree of care, though they might have benefitted from throwing a little of that caution to the wind at times.

Haydn’s Opus 20 quartets are a Tinalley speciality (and the subject of that fine CD) and the works were considered ground-breakers in the day, the genre having been been dominated up until then by virtuoso leaders looking for three other instruments to essentially back them up. In the Opus 20s Haydn moved firmly in the direction of four equal partners, but despite this originality, the quartets are also notable for the composer’s facility, a wealth of memorable ideas and his ability to know a good tune when it came his way.

From the first bar we were in a different, more confidant world – the quartet deep inside the music. Every phrase was considered, understood, and offered up to us for our delectation. The first movement Allegro di moto was elegantly worked through, the players taking care and evident satisfaction from both the singing lines and the nifty counterpoint. Sunny music, sunnily dispatched.

The Adagio theme and variations were beautifully judged, light and airy when required, dark and searching at other times. This is the movement where each instrument has its thematic moment in the spotlight and each of the players proved their worth with their turn at Haydn’s musical game of pass the parcel. In contrast, the ‘gypsy’ Minuet sparkled and danced along with its lopsided gait and a distinguished cello solo. The Presto finale came on with an exhilarating rush, buoyant, energetic and just a bit cheeky!

Beethoven’s third Razumovsky Quartet is one of his most lively middle-period utterances – perhaps not as daring as its immediate predecessor, but still pushing the boundaries of the form to date as Beethoven saw it. Being in C Major, it’s a work full of high spirits, if not exactly sunny. The Tinalley gave it a thoroughly homogenous performance – not quite as flawless as the Haydn, but still pretty good by any standard.

The first movement fizzed and bounced along full of bonhomie and was finely judged in terms of tonal warmth and just the right level of vibrato. Building in confidence as it progressed, it culminated in some particularly impressive cadenzas on first violin. The second movement Andante was perfectly executed at a proper Classical walking pace, propelled on its melancholy way by spunky cello pizzicato and pensive, soughing figures on violins and viola. This was playing of great intensity, laden with nuance and packing an emotional punch.

The surprisingly formal Minuet that follows was given a good working over in its rumbustious inner sections before the helter-skelter rush of the Allegro molto finale. By this last movement, what had seemed merely a good performance was smacking of downright excellence, the sense of communication and joie de vivre palpable. The jocular final few bars ramped up the excitement to fever pitch and earned the quartet – and of course the genius that is Beethoven – a well deserved ovation.

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