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Continuum - Australian String Quartet


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From Boccherini on gut strings to singing wine glasses, the Australian String Quartet took its Adelaide audience on quite a journey last night.

The quartet – Kristian Winther (first violin), Ioana Tache (second violin), Stephen King (viola) and Sharon Draper (cello) – chose a program of extraordinary scope for its national tour, of which the Adelaide performance was its penultimate.

The first piece of the night was composed contemporaneously with the quartet’s matched Guadagnini instruments – strung with gut, rather than metal – in the traditional style. Boccherini’s String Quartet in G minor op 32 no 5 is a graceful affair, opening up only in the final movement when Winther had the chance to show off some lightning bow work. Overall, a very elegant, restrained performance.

Next was the Brahms’ String Quartet no.1 in C minor, op 51, no 1, and it was here that – to this reviewer – the warmth of the gut strings (compared to modern steel strings) added a new dimension. Rather than aural fireworks, it was more a blazing sunrise, as the quartet moved through the Romantic interplay of themes with an expansive richness.

The second half began with Adelaide composer Stephen Whittington’s Windmill (and he was present to take warm accolades at the end). It’s a short piece, his first for string quartet, which, as he wrote in the program, was a bold move as it aimed to cause a string quartet “to sound like a piece of rusty machinery”.

This may sound like a trial but the quartet, swapping the Guadagninis for electric Yamaha instruments, made it a fascinating few minutes.

The soundscape did give the audience the sense of slowly twirling metal, but it was evocative, gentle even. You could feel the wind ebbing and flowing.

The final piece was another contrast. George Crumb’s Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land was written in 1970 in the midst of the Vietnam War. It was, as the composer noted, designed to be “a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world”.

The players turned their instruments sideways, even upside down, plucking and bowing and – at one point – tapping the strings with thimbles on their fingers. There was the sounding of gongs, the chanting of numbers in different languages and, in one beautifully evocative moment, three of the players bowing wine glasses, creating a sonorous “choir”, while Draper’s cello sang out in the highest of the instrument’s registers, sounding for all the world like a soprano at the Chinese opera.

At moments, it seemed as though we were witness to a Satanic rite; at others, a plaintive folk tune could just be perceived, as though we were hearing it played by instruments submerged in the sea. The whole thing displayed crazy virtuosity, and was an excellent end to a challenging and rewarding night.

Continuum was a one-off performance at the Adelaide Town Hall as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Click here for InDaily’s stories and reviews from the 2014 Adelaide Festival, including WOMADelaide and Adelaide Writers’ Week.


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