The Quartets: Peter Sculthorpe with the Goldner Quartet

Peter Sculthorpe, Goldner String Quartet
Classical, New Music
DVD ABC Classics 076 2914
Reviewed by , May 1st, 2015

I was lucky enough to recently hear the Goldner Quartet at The Recital Centre in Melbourne as part of their twentieth anniversary celebrations. In the fragile world of string quartets that’s almost worthy of a letter from Her Maj! I know Beethoven is a favourite of theirs, but it was the Ligeti that was awesome. They performed with such exactitude, second-nature exactitude, and fervency, ah, such masterful composing and interpreting. Riveting stuff! I admit my bias; Ludwig is always found wanting for me when compared with those who bookended him, particularly Mozart and Brahms. But the String Quartet No. 15 from Dene Olding’s introduction has obviously seen ensemble members through some tricky life experiences and so I humbly acknowledge its value in the pantheon of musical feats and feasts.

There is something intoxicating about knowledge of a composer – how they compose, why they compose – and the relationship that is then established with interpreters. Dene Olding talked about the slow movement of this piece being written after Beethoven had been very ill and some had written him off. People say music is non-referential and in terms of ‘things’, ‘pragma’, it often is. But in regard to connecting humans in the process of being, it embodies reference. The Goldner Quartet’s obvious kinship with Beethoven exuded passion and finesse in their performance. I understood the pull of the man for so many.

The Goldner Quartet with Sculthorpe, front row, right.

The Goldner Quartet with Sculthorpe, front row, right.

But it is even better, as one who enjoys prying into the composer’s mind and method, to have the composer on ‘stage’, narrating that process to an audience as the interpreters interpret, and to watch the soulful gaze of the creator as his works are realised by them. This is a major delight in the DVD of excerpts from Peter Sculthorpe’s string quartets performed by this ensemble, a number of these pieces written specifically for them. The occasion marked Sculthorpe’s eighty-third birthday. Music is different in this way to anything else one can think of – this transference of an artist’s ideas to another for it to actually live requires such trust, such connection and such respect from all involved. Here one both sees and hears this relationship.

Peter Sculthorpe was a most genuine man. He came down to Melbourne at the invitation of the music educators’ association, aMuse and sat in on one of my classroom composing workshops (such embarrassment!). But he mucked in with a group of teachers with their rainsticks and double-headed tone blocks. I don’t even remember the task! But he was up for it. He said later that he didn’t think you could teach people how to compose and there’s an element of truth in that, though I do think you can act as a rudder. One only has to listen to the works of those he has mentored to appreciate this. He also said in a speech at that event that he intended to compose only beautiful music from then on. I related this to my father who said, ‘When did he not?’

So there are many beautiful and musically intimate moments on the DVD because it’s like a family gathering. He regales with witticisms as though the audience needs more than his stunning musical offerings. They don’t. But it is wonderful to hear of the genesis of his works and the use of turns of phrase he came to hold as his signature. We are taken from his bucolic piece The Meadows along his journey to a voice distinctly his own and, for many, uniquely Australian. We see his scores. The visual was very important to Sculthorpe too. It is evident in the layout of his work: the repetitive motifs, the shapes of extended passages. Perhaps this is most obvious in his quartet set in Mexico where the first ‘stepped’ building is found, and he recreates this musically and also visually in his scoring.

His String Quartet No. 11 based on three Aboriginal themes, is evocative with its use of cyclic patterns and his gorgeous plaintive melodies performed so masterfully by Julian Smiles on cello and Dimity Hall on violin. It feels like home. Where it shows a reverence and awe for the Australian landscape, essentially benign, what follows for Sculthorpe is a desire to explore humanitarian issues. His twelfth and fourteenth quartets are incredibly intense and display the sense of loss and mourning he so adeptly captures in much of his work. Irina Morozova performs some beautiful melodic passages here. Sculthorpe worked irony into his music most effectively. Here, the hypocritical piety of a church hymn is meaningfully placed as the attempted search for redemption for the atrocities enacted upon Indigenous Australians. Will we never learn?

There are many Bach references in Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 18. He speaks of always ending even his most pessimistic pieces on a high note, literally. Bach always ended on a major chord when writing for the church as this was an expectation. In this, his quartet exploring the impact of climate change, Sculthorpe references the hymn ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’ also used by Bach in one of his most stunning organ fugues. And Sculthorpe refers to Bach himself with the inclusion of ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ as the second hymn featured in this quartet. His treasured bird evocations soar to the skies at the end. Again the quartet is so adept at creating a unified sound with the textural changes in Sculthorpe’s work. One also sees the devotion of Sculthorpe to the ensemble in his writing which individually and at other times collectively highlights its extraordinary musicianship. He was an egalitarian, thoughtful writer in this regard.

Like Beethoven and Ligeti, Sculthorpe’s music is Him, his life journey and whether mortally here or not, his music continues to feed us, especially in the deft and nurturing embrace of the Goldner Quartet who knew him so well. In a harsh old world where an ancient art work can swiftly become a looter’s hidden trinket, that’s pretty special.


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