How Beethoven and Korngold could co-exist on the same program was the immediate intrigue of this concert. It seemed anathema to be partnering one of the late string quartets from the acknowledged godhead of the repertoire with the efforts of a film composer.

But in its first national tour for 2024 entitled Vanguard, the ASQ obviously had their reasons – hence the intrigue. Korngold, it will be well remembered, was Vienna’s export to Hollywood and became forever known for scores like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood ahead of his glorious Violin Concerto and other concert music.

What to make of the second string quartet by this unique composer, whom Mahler described as a genius and Strauss praised to the hilt, was a question that had to wait; and the same went for a new work in this concert by Australian composer Harry Sdraulig. First to come was Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat, Op. 127.

Ideally, one wants to warm into such hallowed music later in the day, preferably in the evening – not first thing on a cold winter’s day. But a bright, chilly morning at UKARIA was transformed into instant heat as the ASQ seized on its opening chords. Double-stopped, Beethoven’s scoring in the beginning ‘Maestoso’ generates the weightiest, most resonant sound imaginable from a string quartet, and right now there could have been twice the number of players present.

So much depends on how this monumental series of chords is played, and even more on the sweet tunefulness of the almost guileless melody that follows. Strength and gentleness exist side by side, and the ASQ understood implicitly how the whole first movement wrestles with these opposites.

Many a string quartet can apply brute force and accentuate the contrasts, but all that does is bring superficiality. These four players rise above such traps to create a true ‘drama of the mind’ that is this music’s essence. One admired particularly how first violinist Dale Barltrop softens into a lyrical vein. His playing is clear, instinctively vocal and sensitive to every flux and flow.

There are moments in this first movement where the four players pair off, dance-like, amid all the turbulence. The ASQ’s finesse in these was a joy.

Deservedly, it was the Adagio second movement which felt the centre of this performance. Here things felt truly settled. Barltrop’s playing was even more wistfully and thoughtfully song-like. One could hear how Schubert must have loved this music: it prefigures his own final quartet. Where the tempo pulls back, the heavens come into view.

Clean and accurate playing propelled a torrent of complexity in the last two movements. Precision in the Scherzando’s incessantly tough rhythms brought immediate understandability, and flowing coherence was the ASQ’s hallmark throughout. No violent jolts, nothing over-emphasised or obsessively driven – just rightful honesty.

Harry Sdraulig’s String Quartet No. 2 has been premiering in this tour, and it was ear-opening to discover more of this young Australian composer about whom a lot is being said. There’s no question that his music is superbly crafted; but more than that, there was an uncanny feeling in this new work that he connects intimately with his forebears – Shostakovich, Bartók, and even in places Beethoven – while projecting voice of his own. In a single movement, it is a seriously good work. It surveys all the inherited language of the string quartet genre, and does so with impressive mastery while offering a modern harmonic palette.

Again, the ASQ’s playing was finely wrought and cohesive. All this attractive piece’s elements fell into place. Sdraulig is a composer with lots to say.

Korngold always looked to be the exception in this concert. The reek of anything resembling film music could have spoilt it all. But the point about his String Quartet No. 2 in E flat, Op. 26, is that his second career in Hollywood was yet to happen: he composed it before he’d written a bar of film music or had set foot in America. No overblown cinematic themes at all: rather, it’s a work of exquisite finery but unmistakeable emotional directness that underpins Korngold’s style.

The ASQ’s elan felt absolutely right. The work does outgrow its confines in the later movements, however. Progressively, it sounds like a squished-down arrangement of music conceived for chamber orchestra. Simpering turns of melody in the second movement bring a smile. The final movement is a hilariously vamped-up Viennese waltz – banal yes, tasteless maybe, but it’s enormous fun when played with the full-on expression the ASQ gave it.

Korngold does extraordinary things along the way. Glassy, widely spaced textures in the Larghetto sound incredibly modern for the date it was written. This was 1933, the year when the Nazis banned his music and precipitated his move to America.

With their exemplary playing, the ASQ were a wonderful window into all this music.

This is a review of the ASQ’s Vanguard concert at UKARIA Cultural Centre on July 4.  They will perform a second Vanguard concert tonight (July 5) at Elder Hall. Other upcoming concerts by the quartet include a performance with pianist Paavali Jumpannen and violinist Jakub Jakowicz at UKARIA on August 12, and the Barossa Weekend of Music on August 30-31.

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