Artemis Quartet Perth

Artemis Quartet

 

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Insofar as Australian composer Brett Dean’s Eclipse for string quartet is concerned, it was a case of information overload.

In the printed program, there was a perfectly satisfactory explanatory note about the work, the writing of which had been triggered by Dean’s outrage at government treatment of the Tampa refugees. Then Chris Sears dealt with the work at some length in his pre-concert talk in the foyer of the Concert Hall.

So, when Volker Jacobsen, violist of the visiting Artemis Quartet, took to the microphone just before the performance of Eclipse, to tell us about the work all over again, covering much the same ground as before, it must have tested the restraint of many members of the audience, including some concert anarchists who, here and throughout the evening, clapped loudly at inappropriate moments.

For all the talk about the genesis of, and the background to, Dean’s Eclipse (not, incidentally, to be confused with another new work – Ellipse – which is being performed currently by the W.A.Ballet Company at His Majesty’s Theatre), the acid test for the piece is whether its musical merits can stand up to close scrutiny in their own right – whether those coming to Eclipse without knowing WHY it was written, will still find it a satisfying listening experience. And after giving it the closest attention at its first performance in Perth, I would have to say that it leaves a most positive impression as a stand-alone work. It’s written by a composer who clearly has a very real understanding of the potential of string instruments. (Dean, incidentally, was for some time a violist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.)

With its plethora of memorable ideas and moods that veer from the elegiac to a barely contained hysteria, Eclipse irresistibly calls Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night to mind.

The Artemis Quartet is the last word in ensemble excellence; the sonorities it generates are, at their most substantial, reminiscent of those of a fine chamber organ. Its essaying of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, that most lofty of contrapuntal Everests, was staggeringly fine.

Lesser ensembles cope as best they can, endeavour to play the notes correctly and leave it at that. These efforts are usually as unsatisfying for players as listeners. But when – and this is happens only very rarely – the work is tackled by four musicians who not only have the physical skill to steer an accurate way through the notes but also the ability to break through its intellectual barriers and pierce to the heart of the music, the result can be overwhelming – and this was very much the case here in a reading that, at climaxes, bordered on the ecstatic.

Not the least of the pleasures of this performance was the quality of corporate tone which, at its most substantial and glowing, seemed almost palpable. It would have been worth attending this Musica Viva performance if only to hear this stunning account of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge for which one was, in the best sense, prepared by the Artemis musicians’ quite splendid reading of opus 130.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


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