One of the more stimulating aspects of Festivals is the way they can stretch ensembles and stimulate audiences with pieces outside the standard repertoire, and this fourth instalment of the 2017 Musica Viva Festival did just that with three contemporary works wrapped around a Romantic masterpiece.

For me, the best came first with the Goldner String Quartet’s intense and controlled performance of Pēteris Vasks’ third essay in the form. The Latvian composer, now 71, has written two more since this work from 1995, but its warmly tonal idiom allied with a quest for peace, both inner and outer, typifies the work of a master who manages to marry a notational complexity with a direct emotional simplicity and deliver sophisticated works able touch more than just the musical aesthete. In its sparer moments – the first and third movements especially – this is music that offers nowhere to hide, and frankly, the Goldners triumphed, their technical mastery making this tricky piece seem deceptively straightforward.

Goldner String Quartet. All photos © Thijs Rozeboom

Opening with Dene Olding’s stratospheric pianissimo, Vasks’ musical imagination proceeds by way of pizzicati, spiccati and the occasional glissando to explore the boundaries of string playing without ever resorting to gimmickry. The Goldners handled the combination of religiosity – there’s a Latvian carol at the heart of the first movement – and socio-political comment with applaudable dispassion, while getting under the skin of this music through discipline and an intensely communicated sense of ensemble. The almost ‘poppy’ folkier sections saw them summon a thrilling attack, by contrast, the barren Adagio was profoundly sad. The finale brought fond memories of the Goldners playing of Ligeti, a composer whose First Quartet is not a million miles distant here. The hushed conclusion was mesmerising – the audience not daring to break the silence for what seemed an age.

Following that with Brahms’ Third Violin Sonata was a bit of a lurch, especially as it found Pinchas Zukerman at his most overtly Romantic. Beautifully supported by Angela Cheng, this was a big-boned reading full of sumptuous tone and at its strongest when on the attack. Having said that, the Adagio received a magisterially lyrical performance, though it was the Presto finale that set the pulses racing fastest, Cheng and Zukerman’s dramatic partnership holding its own against those pesky Carmen on the Harbour fireworks.

A pair of Australian works made up the second half, which kicked off with Brenton Broadstock’s appealing, easy-going My Feet Want To Dance, But My Eyes Want To Sleep. Inspired the middle-aged composer’s failure to make it to the end of an extended club-crawl, it’s an attractive 11-minute septet for flute, clarinet, piano and string quartet, here played by Kiran Phatak, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, Amir Farid, Marianne Broadfoot, Kerry Martin, Jacqui Cronin and Rowena Macneish. Beginning more like an early 20th-century aubade, the work gradually gathers steam to become a swirling dance, its bluesy overtones betraying its 21st-century provenance. The seven young players were thoroughly inside Broadstock’s crowd-pleasing sound world.

A world premiere – Ross Edwards’ Bright Birds and Sorrows – provided the evening’s finale, a new work for saxophone and string quartet, and here receiving unbeatable advocacy by the London-based Amy Dickson and the Elias Quartet (an eclectic foursome who met up at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music). Described as “a collection of [eight] individual pieces allowing insight into the composer’s individual vision, as well as his outlook on the external world”, the various movements explored Edwards’ musical exploration of the ecosphere and his increasing sense of despair in mankind’s ability to pull back from the ecological brink. If the overall work doesn’t entirely cohere, that may be due to the sheer enormity of its mission. It does however possess individual moments of considerable interest, especially in the profundity of its slow movements.

As evidenced by their outstanding Britten Third at the Festival’s opening concert, the Elias Quartet are supreme technicians, and they brought that tightness of ensemble and their flawless intonation to bear throughout. Dickson has premiered three Edwards’ works to date, and displays a great rapport with his idiom, not just in the technically hurdles of his trademark, rhythmic dances where her dexterous fingering and toe-tapping expansiveness come to the fore, but also in her ability to work her way inside the mental challenge and communicate Edwards’ more esoteric messages of hope, despair and concern for the environment. As such, the highlights, for me at least, were the sombre Chorale with its serene meditation for Dickson’s saxophone and Sara Bitlloch – quite brilliant throughout – on solo violin, and the Sanctus (complete with atmospheric tubular bell) where the sax soared over a bed of reflective strings underpinned by an Edwards’ trademark drone.

Amy Dickson & Elias Quartet. All photos © Thijs Rozeboom

Elsewhere, Dickson gurgled away winningly in the Laughing Dance while the Elias got down and folkish in the stamping Songbird numbers. As always, its great to explore the new, and this concert was an ideal way to enjoy three contrasting yet equally approachable works from the last 20 years or so.


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