Artist/s: Australia Piano Quartet - Kristian Winther (violin), James Wannan (viola), Thomas Rann (cello), Daniel de Borah (piano)
Category: Classical, New Music
Label: Navona Records NV6235
Reviewed by Hugh Robertson
“A superb recording of works by a composer that deserves to be better known, and an ensemble deserving of greater profile.”
Melbourne-based composer Andrew Anderson (b. 1971) is hardly a household name, though on the strength of this recording one must wonder why.
These two quartets, completed in 2010 and 2018 respectively, are full of exactly the sort of tuneful, melodic, rich writing that so many people like to complain – wrongly, of course, but no less loudly for that – has been abandoned by modern composers. This is very impressive work, demonstrating Anderson’s knack for writing chamber music that wears its influences on its sleeve, but builds on the sum of its parts to create something new and incredibly engaging.
Anderson studied composition in Melbourne with Rodney Ford, violin with Barbara O’Reilly, and piano with Arvon McFadden, and a glance through his recorded oeuvre and commissions shows collaborations with The Consort of Melbourne, Omega Ensemble, Syzygy Ensemble, and the Streeton Trio – all terrific performers, and all with a strong track record of commissioning works demanding repeat performances.
These two quartets sound like pieces you already know and love, but their magic is that they never come across as derivative. The promotional copy for the album suggests that the first quartet “is profoundly reminiscent of the virtuoso chamber works of Dussek and Hummel, with a dash of Dvořák for good measure”, while the second name-checks Sacchini, Schubert, Franck, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. This might suggest a jumbled mess, but Anderson balances all these influences and more to create two works that sound familiar but explore new areas.
The first quartet in C minor opens beautifully, the piano entering softly before the strings join in, everyone swirling around each other like guests at a lush dinner party. After a minute or so the conversation begins in earnest, Anderson picking up the pace, and the theme passing between all four instruments in lively dialogue. It is so tuneful and engaging that you barely realise how tense things have become until, two-thirds of the way through the movement the mood shifts, the tempo slows, and the ensemble takes on a decided edge. The main theme returns, but the unease remains, and although Anderson ends on a triumphant note the tension isn’t fully resolved.
This is reinforced by the opening of the second movement; quiet, individually fingered notes on the piano that seem searching, tentative, off-kilter. The strings enter, also seeming uneasy, but gradually everyone works things out.
We get just that in the third movement, a scherzo that comes racing out of the blocks from the opening bar, bouncing along playfully and energetically, the shackles thrown off after the tension of the preceding movement. A dramatic chord crashes down to spoil the fun, but instead signals the shift to a gorgeous, almost lullaby-like section, where the theme from earlier in the movement is softly, gently unfurled. And then we are up and running again, merrily frolicking in a way that recalls the denouement of a historical romance film, where they all lived happily ever after. There are definite echoes of the late Romantic era here: Dvorak, certainly, and even Brahms at his most playful.
The fourth and final movement opens with the same soft piano introduction, and the strings joining in to pick up the theme. But instead of the eerie, uncertain air of the first movement, here Anderson launches into a lively, energetic middle section with long, flowing bowed notes for the strings, and a cohesion to the ensemble that is really sophisticated. The movement grows to a dramatic conclusion, with thunderous piano chords building and building while the strings wail and lament – surely some revelation is at hand! But then the jaunty theme returns briefly before a race to the finale, wrapping everything up in a beautifully-constructed package.
The second quartet is rather different in structure – two long movements instead of four medium-length ones – and is certainly a leap forward in compositional style as well as in the historical period from which it draws its musical influences. As the promotional material suggests, we are firmly mid-twentieth century now, though Anderson never strays from melody and harmony. There are occasional moments of harmonic tension, and even one or two that toy with dissonance, but never for long, and these occasionally grating moments merely serve to make you appreciate the moments of harmony and resolution even more.
The piano is the star in the first movement, providing the catalyst to which the strings respond. Daniel de Borah does marvellous work here, traversing the demands of a number of different styles from water-like cascades of notes to stronger, more dominant chords with ease. The second movement opens with a gentle, contemplative melody that recalls the French Impressionists, especially in the top notes of Kristian Winther’s violin playing. The climax towards the end of the second movement gives everyone a chance to shine, in another example of Anderson allowing each instrument its voice while still working together as a unit.
Overall the second quartet demonstrates a marked shift from the first in the writing for ensemble. Whereas the first quartet was nearly all written for the full quartet all at once, the second quartet is much more restrained, and sees each individual instrument navigating its own way through the material. It’s certainly a different listening experience, and one that forces you to work a little harder than the bountiful, bursting ensemble writing of the first. But one does become rather invested in each instrument’s journey, and the moments where Anderson brings the four voices together become that much richer and more enjoyable for their scarcity. One section towards the middle of the second movement is especially effective, as all four instruments come together in arresting fashion.
And in the Australia Piano Quartet, these works have their ideal champions. The first quartet was premiered by the APQ, and the second is dedicated to the ensemble – and it isn’t hard to understand why. These musicians are perfectly suited to music, and the performance captured on record suggests an ensemble who have lived and breathed these pieces and are attuned to every nuance.
The APQ has had a somewhat fluid membership since its inception in 2011, with Thomas Rann and James Wannan the only founding members still involved, and a number of other fine musicians passing through without ever lingering long. Which is a great shame, because their performances have been of an exceptionally high standard over many years, and they deserve to be better known and more widely heard. The quartet as it existed for these recordings – Kristian Winther (violin), James Wannan (viola), Thomas Rann (cello) and Daniel de Borah (piano) – display a tremendous unity of purpose and cohesion, and a sensitivity to each other’s playing that some ensembles struggle to achieve even after decades playing together. It is a testament to the performance – and to the terrific work of recording engineer and sound editor Jonathan Palmer, and sound editor Bob Scott – that this recording captures all the thrill and intensity of a live performance but also lives up to the precise standards demanded by a studio recording. If you told me this was completely live, I would believe you; if you told me it was painstakingly recorded over three weeks, with each bar recorded again and again until it was perfect, I would believe you. That is a rare achievement indeed.
One only hopes that this recording, these compositions, and this ensemble get many more outings, and receive the recognition that all three so richly deserve. Remember the names – Andrew Anderson, and the Australia Piano Quartet. I expect we shall be hearing a lot more from both of them before long.