The Tinalley String Quartet’s Unique Voice: Bach, Haydn, Shostakovich and Beethoven

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Dmitri Shostakovich.

Dmitri Shostakovich.

Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room: 16 April 2012
Tinalley plays this program in Adelaide on 22 April

J. S. Bach – Contrapunctus I, IV and IX from Art of Fugue
Shostakovich – String Quartet No. 7
Joseph Haydn – String Quartet in f minor Op. 20 No. 5
Beethoven – String Quartet in e minor Op. 59 No. 2

Tinalley String Quartet
Adam Chalabi – violin
Lerida Delbridge – violin
Justin Williams – viola
Michelle Wood – cello

The chamber music fairy can touch any group anywhere, it seems, whether or not they have masses of recordings with prestigious labels, or a ‘high profile’ (in fact I don’t think she even reads the newspaper or listens to recordings). Even so, the Tinalley String Quartet knows their music backward and forward, as if there were no phrase or note they hadn’t rehearsed, discussed or thought about, or just intuitively understood on the moment. They are a very tight group, the sum total of their sound shows care and understanding, as if their feel for and ideas of the music span it vertically, horizontally and diagonally on any diagonal the composer cares to involve, particularly so in the Bach Art of Fugue pieces and the fugal last movement of the Haydn quartet. The close acoustic of the room only reveals the nuanced detail in their ensemble sound and the unique colors and textures of their group’s voice, very sonorous and woody, rounded and well seasoned, rich, but one where all the instruments are clear and yet combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. The favorable acoustic of the smallish room helps, and I suspect chamber music, especially the string quartet, often comes across more strident in tone than the ideal intentions of the artists when played in a larger concert hall shared with orchestras, but a small room like the Utzon Room would only reveal flaws or empty spaces in an inferior group or a less thoughtful and personal interpretation. Here the room was merely complementary, as if just subtly lifting something already there. It was a remarkable mature performance for any group, let alone one so young (founded in 2003 at the University of Melbourne) with musicians as young as they are (all in their late 20s or 30s), but one isn’t really aware of such mundane temporal qualities when they play.

They have chosen a very beautiful classical (mostly) program. The selected three parts of Bach’s Art of Fugue made a satisfying self-contained (in a classical sense) three movements in themselves and the lucidity of their playing, the time they take to express each idea in the music helps bind the music together. To pick out names seems useless in light of such concentrated ensemble playing with such close relationships between the different combinations of instruments, and with four such compatible musical personalities — they do have remarkably individual voices which gives them their clarity — none’s playing shows the least bit of egotism. The viola, though in some quartets can sound over-stretched in trying to fill the gap between the cello and second violin, here was particularly characteristic in timbre and style in Justin Williams’ hands, and in the other pieces, even when ‘simply’ joining to enrich a chord, it never felt as if it were coloring-in space, but took a certain degree of freedom of expression as its part allowed. Yet when all four join together on a particularly rich, fascinating chord, or, as one so often hears in Beethoven, a moment where the parts join together into a surprising sound, a strange dissonant harmony or a surprising turn of phrase, their sonorous, full sound seemed to plummet the depths of the harmony and made the moment much fuller than time would seem to allow. Never very loud and very often, especially in the “molto adagio” slow movement of the Beethoven, very soft, their sound always seems all encompassing and enveloping from a listener’s point of view, and when they do build a loud climax, it is never harsh, even in the small space, or even very loud, nonetheless it is overwhelming, perhaps because of the detail within the climatic chord or their sparing use of their ‘top’ volume, which isn’t to say that is the loudest they could physically play, or maybe it is their fitting sense of the dynamics of the piece as a whole. It is very important to leave space for the climaxes in music and let the soft details speak for themselves. So the tone of their loudest climaxes was all of a piece with that of the softest sottovoce sections, all consistent with that general tone and sensibility which gives them their unique style, as if the climaxes grew continuously from the earlier parts.

Shostakovich with his unique use of the instruments, rather percussive pizzicato and more wild colors to suit the harmonies and structure of his music, the group brought across in their sonorous way with a similar keen emotional honesty and generosity, for it is not easy to play at such a level of intensity and concentration and feeling for so long. The close and quick conversation between the instruments here sounded very natural, as it was in the other pieces, even though here the language and the rhythm of the conversation is less familiar as there is still something acute and slavic in it even though Shostakovich may be one of those great pan European composers who can happily and easily speak to an infinite diversity of people, at least in this piece.

Their interpretation of the Haydn quartet had everything one could want of Haydn —which is very much. The had an understanding of Haydn’s peculiar style of expressive grace, and the performance was sublime and moving, with a ruminative depth amongst the other minor key pieces, and it stood with its separate voice next to, while sympathetic with, the other works, even the large Beethoven quartet. For Beethoven, they generously took their time over it, not letting a phrase go without emotional and intellectual understanding, though it was almost understated in a way, one isn’t consciously aware of their vibrato, for example, and their acute sense of the phrasing, which complemented Adam Chalabi’s on the topmost melodic lines, walked perfectly with their clean, generous tone.

It is refreshing to see a group who seems to let their music speak for itself without off-putting individual self-promotion, or slick advertising — they even left their biography and even their names out of the program rather than squeeze their notes on the pieces or add several unnecessary pages, very sensibly (even if it inspired one person in the audience to google “tinalley string quartet” on their phone while the musicians were retuning between pieces).

This is their first program for the year, with more to follow, including an interesting one of Romantic piano quintets and an early Webern quartet, and one of ‘American’ music including Stravinsky, Barber and John Adams’ recent String Quartet, perhaps more adventurous, if one can really say Haydn doesn’t have a sense of adventure.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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