Monday’s recital by the Enso Quartet, visiting from America, offered a program that was mostly made up of less familiar items, including one brand new piece. Musica Viva customarily commissions a new work for the ensembles that tour under its auspices, compositions typically funded by private donors. In this case, Brenton Broadstock produced a three-movement piece entitled Safe Haven. The work was more intimately connected to the (unnamed) patron than is typically the case: in a brief introduction the composer explained that he took as his starting point the background of patron’s wife, to whom it was dedicated.

Enso String Quartet © Juergen Frank
Enso String Quartet
© Juergen Frank

Her childhood escape from Hungary to Australia was allegorised through the use of a Hungarian folk tune, which to this outsider’s ear resembled the similarly triadic start of the famous Prayer from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. This was heard unadorned at the start, and variants returned throughout the three movements. One could easily infer connections between the musical surface and the movement titles (Escape, Through a Child’s Eyes, Safe Haven); for instance, the first of these movements contained a section of frenetic activity, while the last movement was more of a lullaby. A wide range of extended string techniques were employed, from the glassy sound of sul ponticello (bowing near the bridge) to the so-called Bartok pizzicati (the plucked string rebounds off the fingerboard), the latter particularly appropriate in a Hungarian-influenced work.

We were briefly back on more familiar territory with Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, which was given a consummate performance. The mellifluous tone of the ensemble was showcased in the first movement, with the pizzicato passages (from which the Quartet gets its name) nicely audible. Everything was orderly and nothing sounded out of place in what was an intelligent and finely honed interpretation. The balance between the instruments could hardly have been bettered in the slow second movement, and the ending was particularly magical. In comparison to other performances I’ve heard, this one emphasised expressivity over muscularity, and the third movement risked perhaps coming over as a little too ‘nice’ where it might have been rambunctious. Then again, a performance needs to be evaluated not only against the spectrum of possible interpretations of the work (and this is not one of Beethoven’s more extrovert works), but also against the backdrop of its position within the program as a whole, and there were plenty of outlets for vigour to come. Not that the performance of the Harp was emotionally straitjacketed – at times, the players did let their hair down a bit more: the last reprise of the scherzo theme was taken at a quicker lick, for instance.

The two works after the interval were linked not just by their having originated in the middle third of the 20th century, but through the Hispanic/Latin roots of their composers. The 1935 Serenata by the little-known Joaquín Turina began with a pizzicato bass part beneath shimmering chords, the whole utterly redolent of musical representations of Spain. As the single-movement piece progressed these familiar elements receded, and a more expressionist palette came to the fore, perhaps with hints of Debussy as well. The performance captured both the catchiness of the first part and the tenser central portion well. 

The Enso Quartet has recorded all Ginastera’s quartets, and so are practised ambassadors for this composer’s works. Perhaps wisely, in view of the somewhat forbidding post-tonal idiom of the Argentine’s Second Quartet, violist Melissa Reardon took a few moments to describe what the audience would hear across the five movements. The performance demonstrated that the Ensos do have plenty of bite to their playing: the first and last movement has enormous rhythmic energy, with commendable precision of attacks and dynamics. The second and fourth movements showcased, respectively, duets between pairs of instruments and significant solos for all four players. It was pleasing to hear the huge tone of second violinist Ken Hamao when he was given free rein, and this served as a reminder of the discipline needed if one is to be a successful chamber musician. The central movement, marked Presto magico [Fast and magical] was a fugitive exploration of string effects, including glissando pizzicato and many others found in Broadstock’s opus.

As encore, we were treated to Bagel on the Malecon by Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, a catchy number whose title suggests a marriage of aspects of Klezmer music to a Cuban musical style. Audience and performers revelled in what was both figuratively and literally finger-tapping music (the players were required to knock lightly on the wooden body of their instruments at the start). After the tense musical idiom of the Ginastera, this felt like a slightly guilty pleasure – but pleasure it undoubtedly was.

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