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6 March 2008

Music That Speaks for Itself

Perth International Festival: Goldner String Quartet // WA // 26.02.08

Richard Mills Image: Richard Mills  

The Goldner String Quartet and pianist Steven Osborne's recent concert tour, presented by Musica Viva, offered a combination of pieces by Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann, Dimitri Shostakovich and Richard Mills. It was fascinating to experience these works in the same program and contemplate their relationship, irrespective of the date of their composition. Each of the works offered up something beautiful, something to ponder, and something of their own.

The selection of Claude Debussy’s Preludes (No. 6 – 10 from Book 1) after interval was, without a doubt, the highlight. Steven Osborne’s performance reminded me of why I come to live music concerts; a performance of this calibre can transform one’s experience of a work and transcend reality for those few valuable minutes. This ephemerality of music is often lost in the downloadable world. The last of the preludes, La Cathédrale engloutie, left Osborne’s Steinway singing, resonating with the deep, rich chords and engulfing the audience in Debussy’s magical, floating sound world. Osborne executed these pieces with a real freshness, delicacy and attention to contrapuntal detail of each individual Prelude. There was veracity in Osborne’s approach that revealed elements of Debussy’s works in the most remarkable, refreshing light. Timbres, articulations and harmonies seemed to be intensified by his indepth reading of these often-misconstrued pieces.

Dissonance for Mills emerges only briefly so as to resolve or embellish, used more as a fleeting colour than as a focus or emotional device...I often wonder why new music works in classical music concerts are frequently at the start of the program. Is the idea to get the audience when they are fresh, because new works are ‘difficult’? This concert, however, began with Australian composer Richard Mills’s String Quartet No.1 (1990), which is in no way difficult. In fact, I left the concert wishing it could have been more so. Mills’s music, like that of his peers, is rigorous in its devotion to tonality, offering positivism to his music. The Goldner Quartet performed this work in a rather earnest fashion, as if approaching an atonal piece from the 1950s. They did however give the quartet a shape and lyricism that brought out the melodic highlights with a light touch. Dissonance for Mills emerges only briefly so as to resolve or embellish, used more as a fleeting colour than as a focus or emotional device – not unlike the way Alban Berg applied it in his early works, such as the Lyric Suite (1926). The program notes go as far as to suggest that the work ‘engages in multiple dialogues with music of the past and present, situating itself within rather than putting itself against tradition’. I did not hear any of the excitement of the present here, as I might in a composition by Helmut Lechanmann or Anthony Pateras. And music of the past? It was better represented in other works during the program. Nevertheless, Mills created a work that was approachable by performers and listeners alike; sympathetic and elegant.

The Goldners (as they are affectingly known) appeared to enjoy the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, op. 57 much more. Not one of Shostakovich’s more adventurous pieces, the work sparkled through Osborne and the Goldners’ interpretation as they carefully considered the attribution of emphasis within the textures of the work. The excellent sense of ensemble that infused the entire program was highlighted here; not just rhythmically; but in the phrasing, instrumental colour and touch. Attention was given to the small details inherent in the composer’s style, and Osborne’s subtle approach to the trademark Shostakovich ascending bass parts was delightful. The solos were performed with a crystalline texture, and the fine performance of the first violinist Dean Olding – who literally gestures to the audience, as if to invite them in – was refreshing. Both this work and the ensemble's interpretation of it were more exciting and unique than anything else on the program. This work wore its homages on its sleeve, and the players knew what to do with them.

Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Major op. 44 was another work played with an exquisite attention to detail, featuring delightful shimmering melodies and a complete understanding of Schumann’s developmental techniques, leading to a precise and enjoyable performance. This was a crowd pleaser for the large audience, who relished upbeat tempos and the classic, symmetrical melodies that Schumann’s work is remembered for.

This was an evening of world-class performances welcomed and appreciated by the audience. Osbourne introduced the Debussy with perfunctory comments about how music should speak for itself; Well said: live performances of music continue because of it.

Performance Details

Related Articles

REVIEW: 2008 Perth International Festival, Chamber Duo 3: featuring Craig Ogden (guitar), Paul Tanner (percussion) (www.resonatemagazine.com.au/article.php?id=146)

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Cat Hope is a composer and performance/video artist. She currently lectures in composition at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University.


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