To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its formation, Sydney’s Goldner String Quartet compiled quite an extraordinary programme. Its first half consisted of two works written in post-World War II times, followed by one of the late Beethoven quartets after interval. No crowd-pleasers here; audience members with a disinterest towards intellectual challenges need not turn up. Indeed, to plan, prepare and present such a programme assumes exceptional physical and mental groundwork and commendable artistic valour.

Goldner String Quartet © Keith Saunders
Goldner String Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The status of György Ligeti’s String Quartet no. 1Métamorphoses nocturnes” changed considerably since its composition in 1953-54. Such a work would have been regarded as dangerously avant-garde and thus against the ideological principles of Communist Hungary in the darkest years of Soviet oppression. Ligeti had absolutely no chance to have it performed, let alone published, while he lived in his home country (the First Quartet was premiered in 1958 in Vienna). Yet from the illuminating perspective of listening to it 60 years later, this composition sounds perfectly approachable in its musical language and almost classically clear in its structure. Ligeti’s respectful acknowledgement of past masters can be recognised in his expert polyphonic technique reminiscent of masters of the Baroque, in the recklessly fast scherzo becoming faster and then even faster (a compositional tool Schumann often used), in the seemingly traditional valse which is nonetheless spiced with smithereens of sarcasm and, most importantly, in its fluently spoken musical idiom, following on the footsteps of his great predecessor Béla Bartók. The Quartet no. 1 is a masterpiece and a fiendishly difficult work that was performed by the Goldner Quartet admirably, if perhaps a tad too seriously, with some underestimation of the significance of Ligeti’s frequent expressive instructions, such as dolente (painfully) or dolcissimo (very sweetly).

Focusing on the delicate details of this work wasn’t always easy. On stage, there was a uniquely shaped screen behind the players onto which various images were projected, the result of a collaboration with video artist Sean Bacon. This type of alliance usually works better in theatre than in a concert of classical music. Quite independently from the suitability and artistic merit of such images, they present a problem: if they fulfil their purpose and look either striking or intriguing, they can easily divert our attention (however briefly) from the flow of the music. If they do not, their presence seems to be superfluous. It did not help matters that in order to assist the visibility of the projections, the concert was performed in a darkened hall with minimal lighting on stage. However, the spotlights from the ceiling pointing down left deep shadows on the musicians’ faces and there was no lighting at all from the sides to offset this eerie effect.

The video images changed to projected photos and felt less distracting in the next item, Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet no. 3. This work was inspired by and paid respect to the Australian landscape and the land’s traditional owners, the Aboriginal people, muses to which Australian composers often turn. As the three movements of this well-crafted composition directly reflect the harsh beauty of the Kimberley region in Western Australia, the accompanying photos of that scenery created a visual connection with the music.

It was an appropriate (if somewhat uninspired) decision to provide one single image for the last item of the concert, the String Quartet in A minor, Op.132 by Ludwig van Beethoven. This monolithic summit of the string quartet repertoire, lasting close to 50 minutes on this occasion, remains for ever challenging for its performers and audience alike and is best enjoyed with undisrupted concentration. This concentration was evident on stage and resulted in technically excellent playing by the four members of the quartet. Such polished performances do carry one inherent risk though: solving all (or most of) the riddles of a great composition can dampen its surprises. The ability to maintain a childlike wonder for the marvels of repertoire that has already been performed many times is one of the hardest challenges a professional quartet has to overcome. For an ensemble of this calibre, livewire energy and raw emotions have the potential to make the wild changes of character, the bewildering accents and the harrowingly beautiful chorale in the Heiliger Dankgesang (the extensive central movement of the work) really effective – yet this was not always evident in this performance. If the unexpected recitative introducing the last movement is performed in an accomplished way, but does not explode with rapturous vigour, if the apotheosis of the same movement – that famous and feverish unison, written by the composer ingeniously and utterly uncomfortably in the highest registers of the first violin and the cello – is controlled rather than screaming with unapologetic passion, the promise of the cathartic experience may ultimately remain unfulfilled.