★★★★½ Crack British outfit launches Sydney Opera House’s chamber music series.

The Studio, Sydney Opera House
March 20, 2016

Sydney’s popular Utzon series launched into 2016 with a move round the corner from the usual venue and a substitute on second violin. None of this mattered as the Navarra Quartet is one of Britain’s finest younger ensembles and what the Opera House’s Studio lacks in Harbour views compared with its near neighbour the Utzon Room, it more than makes up for in excellent acoustics. The music didn’t suffer either with the absence on maternity leave of Marije Johnston. Donald Grant, from the Elias Quartet, filled in admirably, a natural fit alongside leader Magnus Johnston, violist Simone van der Giessen and cellist Brian Kane in a programme which ranged from some teenage Mozart to the disturbingly beautiful sound world of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, culminating in a vibrant performance of Ravel’s Quartet.

The Navarras have been lauded for their poetic interpretations since they formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2002, picking up a swag of awards on the way. They worked closely with such mentors as the Alban Berg Quartet and ProQuartet in Paris and had residencies at the Britten-Peter Pears School in Aldeburgh and at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. The concert got under way with the sun-filled elegance of Mozart’s youthful G Major Quartet K80, written when he was 15 and on an extended tour of Italy with his father Leopold. He called it a divertimento and it is far removed from the quartets he struggled with when he moved to Vienna. Though lighter and thoroughly charming, the four movements are nevertheless quite substantial and there are plenty of challenging runs for the violins as well as an energetic rondo to finish off.

The group worked closely with Vasks when they recorded his three string quartets a few years ago (sadly the album is out of print but you can download it). The 70-year-old Latvian was the son of a clergyman and he suffered as a result under the harsh Soviet regime. His Third Quartet is, the composer says, an illustration of how the artist can “find a way out of the crisis of his time, towards affirmation, towards faith”. As Johnston said, introducing a work which no one in the audience had heard before, Vasks brings to us a world of great beauty one moment and shocking dissonance the next. “In it we hear gunfire and chorales,” he said. Those spacious chorales, sometimes accompanied by Messiaen-like bird sounds, gradually build in intensity from a serene beginning. In the second movement there are echoes of Bartók with some folk themes, before the bleak and anguished slow movement leads into a finale with its stabbing dissonances (guns going off) tapering off into a distant reprise of the chorale. Like Schnittke, Vasks takes the listener on a harrowing but ultimately uplifting journey in which shards of beauty pierce the darkness, and it is hard to imagine this work being played better. 

Very little darkness but plenty of colour in the final work, Ravel’s ever-popular Quartet. Here the Navarras gave us a gorgeous performance with astute attention to every detail.

Next up in the series is violinist Michael Barenboim at the Utzon Room on Sunday, April 17, at 3pm.