Musica Viva -present Esmé Quartet. Above: (l-r) violinists Wonhee Bae and Yuna Ha. Featured image: Esmé Quartet from the start of their Musica Viva Tour in the Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia. Images: Tony McDonough/Raw Image.

There is a prodigious string quartet voice on the global scene currently touring the country for the first time thanks to Musica Viva Australia. They journey with an impressive swag of works by young and prodigious composers, from the start of those celebrated composers’ careers.

As well as early works by Mendelssohn, Debussy and Webern, the group champions a recent work by emerging and globally busy plus popular Australian composer Jack Frerer.

The timeline for this concert started in 1905, with the later serialist Anton Webern in Romantic/post Romantic period mode. As soon as Esmé Quartet began speaking to us in its expertly blended voice we were struck by a welcoming warmth.

As well as a beautiful poise and this instant warmth during Webern’s gorgeous Langsamer Satz there was a precision and flexibility, an emergence of inner voices especially and a prodigious control by the individuals and the quartet as a whole.

These consistent qualities in the quartet’s approach enabled Esmé Quartet to speak so well in the four programmed contrasting voices of the emerging composers from 1827 to now, with technically and emotionally demanding elements so securely and endearingly delivered.

Moving back in time to music by the teenage Mendelssohn, his sprawling String Quartet in A minor Op 13 was presented with finely wrought gesture, stamina and smooth realisation of exciting contrasts both within his movements’ structure and between them. This was great Mendelssohn playing, with a depth of sentiment with ponderous conversation and complex filigree in firework-like virtuosic moments both handled equally well.

From the Webern slow movement, through to the calm opening of the Mendelssohn work, we were treated to attractively long, smooth lines, exquisitely drawn by the individual quartet players . The well-shaped contracting, expansion, layering and alternating of these lines made this ensemble a continually colourful and exciting one to follow throughout the programme.

The demanding early Mendelssohn work’s various energies reached us cleanly packaged and employing an eloquence and controlled exuberance that was impressive and easy to hold this group of players in ‘esteem’ as their name suggests, especially given the youthful reality of both Mendelssohn’s work and Esmé Quartet’s performers themselves.

Above: (l-r) Violist Dimitri Murrath and Yeeun Heo. Images: Tony McDonough/Raw Image.

Following interval, this quartet’s versatility and interpretative skill was even more impressively extended. The atmosphres created in their delivery of Spiral Sequence (2018) by Jack Frerer were sheer and steely, measured and comfortable within the modern torque of this work. The nuanced group ‘talk’ created here in the quartet’s blend was extremely skilful.

It was an interesting audience experience to hear the iconic expression of this composer-not yet thirty but making waves globally, and working in the USA. For those in the audience discovering this composer’s vibe for the first time, Musica Viva and Esmé Quartet at their Sydney debut were a fine vehicle with which to bring his music to life.

This event concluded with another progressive treatment of the string quartet sound and structure, here ably negotiated by the touring players. Ensemble communication, symmetry and more angular developments of melody as well as textures emerged from Esmé Quartet’s intelligent reading of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in Gminor Op 10.

The Esmé musicians in solo and group manipulation were exciting to treasure and watch here. Debussy’s early but revolutionary approach to the traditional quartet form, his catalogue of intricacies and beautifully different hues and harmonic voice were well exploited here. This was a measured, commanding reading, full of spontaneity and successful restraint from start to finish. There was a svelte transition across the shades of sound, tempi fluctuations and moods throughout.

An encore consisted of an introduction to sounds of traditional Korean instruments, cleverly imitated and blended here. It sent us home with yet more diversity of sound and incredible voicing within the string quartet model than the well structured quartet of works on the programme had already done. Esmé Quartet will no doubt continue to be ‘esteemed’ and ‘beloved’ when the remainder of Australia hears their performances of  such an endearing programme.

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