Avi Avital & Giocoso String Quartet; Musica Viva, Llewellyn Hall, Thursday April 19, 2018, 7pm.
This was a concert of richly varied textures – a refresher for ears accustomed to the traditional classical nuances of the chamber music sound. In a well-paced program, the Vienna-based Giacoso String Quartet opened the concert with Schumann's String Quartet in A minor, Op 41, No.1. Beginning with exquisite entries, the ensemble introduced the complex, introspective thought processes of Schumann's incomparable compositional style. Sebastian Casleanu's leadership was reflected in the nicely synchronised rhythmic ensemble passages. In the adagio, the welcome modulation to the major key was supported by Bas Jongen's cello and a ravishing cascade of viola from Martha Windhagauer. A splendid raw hurdy-gurdy tonal effect created by the unison strings grounded the brisk march of the final presto movement.
Avi Avital joined the ensemble for Orfeo – Elena Kats-Chernin's new work commissioned for Musica Viva by Kim Williams. In five movements, the tragic story of Orfeo and Eurydice unfolded: first the joyous jig celebrating the couple's marriage, then the music, with a questing theme on the viola, plunged deep into the melancholy funeral march embodying the death of Eurydice. Sprightly pizzicato opened the third movement, a dance evoking mischievous surveillance by the giant Argus as Orfeo sets out to find his beloved in the Underworld. A symbolic violin duet reverentially playing with Monteverdi's original theme created the reflective mood of In the Sun and in the Stars segueing into the fast and furious finale – Don't Look Back. Kats-Chernin used the high upper register of the mandolin to create the voice of the despairing lover as he disobeyed and looked behind – thus destroying Eurydice.
Bach's Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor for solo mandolin was challenging listening at first. The stark singularity of the notes on the mandolin are surprising in comparison with the elision of the bowed version. However, Avital's intimate understanding of the musical form; his skilful manipulation of dynamics and judicious rubato overcame my misgivings and made me listen to the performance as a legitimate new interpretation.
For me the highlight of the evening was David Bruce's Cymbeline for mandolin and string quartet, composed in 2013. His cleverly constructed first movement, Sunrise, established the separation of instrument registers and created spacious sonorities. Bruce's music tells us immediately that he understands the value of every instrumental voice for whom he is writing. He is a master of rhythmic patterning and builds dramatic tension by throwing rhythmic hooks to catch our imagination and snare our expectations. The central, frenzied movement was weakest, sacrificing structural integrity for speed, but the final movement rebalanced the work, creating a sense of inexorable time ticking past.
Kats-Chernin's arrangement of the Russian folksong Why have I met you my lover? Was an exhilarating encore to complete the concert.