We were privileged to be guests of the Enigma Quartet at Chatswood on a balmy Spring evening. The Quartet took shape under the Musica Viva “Rising Stars” program in 2012 and has gone ahead in leaps and bounds since. First violinist Marianne Edwards graduated with a PhD from Sydney University and is Associate Principal Second Violinist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. She also has played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and has performed as soloist with the Queensland and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. She plays a Pressenda violin manufactured in Turin in 1845. Away from the stage, she indulges her love of dogs and flea markets.
Pardon the pun, but Mozart’s Prussian String Quartets are an enigma in themselves. He is supposed to have had a commission from the King of Prussia for three string quartets and a set of Sonatas, but he only got paid for the latter. The King was a cellist and in theString Quartet no. 22 in B flat major, K 589, there is certainly unusual emphasis on that instrument. It is interesting that although written at least five years after his “Haydn” Quartets, they are simpler in form and one wonders if he had his sponsor in mind. This aside, K 589 is a beautiful work with typical Mozartian tunefulness. The Allegro opening starts with the upper strings but the cello soon takes over and asserts itself. A typical minor key development is followed by a forceful version of the main theme. The second Larghetto movement could have been an Aria in one of his operas as the first violin takes over the song from the cellist’s opening. The Menuetto is very unusual in that a simply-stated subject gives way to a much longer Trio which has a very catchy framework of repeated notes over a ground bass. The Allegro Assai has an openly expressed main theme developed in Rondo form with a sudden but quiet ending.
I feel sure that Rowena Macneish enjoyed her prominent role in this work. She trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and played at many of the Southbank venues and Covent Garden. Back home, she has played with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Chamber Orchestra and has a Bachelor of Music from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She plays a cello by Peter Elias, a contemporary Canadian now living in Switzerland. She also likes even more extreme challenges than Mozart and has taken part in several Ultra Marathons.
Mendelssohn must have been very discerning as he stated that his String Quartet no. 2 in A minor op. 13 was influenced by Beethoven’s late quartets which at the time had been dismissed as the product of a deaf madman! Indeed, he started to write it in the same year as Ludwig’s death – he was 18 and there is no doubt that he was a child prodigy having already penned his overture to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and his String Octet with its famous final movement. Indeed, Robert Schumann defined him as the nineteenth century Mozart, not to be taken lightly from such a sharp-minded critic. Despite this, Felix became popular for his symphonies and liturgical works and little attention was paid to his quartets until recent times. The first movement opens with a three-note motif which the composer stated to represent “ist es wahr” – is it true – as a contrast to “muss es sein” in Beethoven’s last quartet and also as a reference to his unrequited love for his sister’s friend Betty. From there, the music gathers pace with contrapuntal development. In the Adagio, a chromatic fugue, a homage to his favourite Bach is interrupted by a sprightly dance-like episode reminiscent of the Molto Adagio of Beethoven’s op. 132 quartet. The third movement is labelled “intermezzo” and one can detect his “Midsummer” style in the Allegro section. In the Presto finale, the violin’s free arpeggios at the start appear to be based on the Baritone part at the entry to the final movement of the “Choral Symphony”. At the end, a Rallentando marks a return to the “ist es wahr” theme.
Second violinist Kerry Martin plays a Delano violin, made in Venice in 1889. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music from Christchurch University, and won the 2001 New Zealand National Concerto competition. She has played in numerous orchestras and supervised the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s education programme in the Western Suburbs for three years. She loves hiking, relying on her favourite dark chocolate for extra energy.
Bedřich Smetana was born in 1824 and was also an early starter, playing in a Haydn quartet in 1829 and playing the piano in public a year later. In 1861, He studied music in Prague but after fighting shook the city in 1848, he moved to Sweden and didn’t return until 1861. This seemed to strengthen his devotion to his country encouraged by a new wave of nationalism. His best-known works, the opera “The Bartered Bride” and the suite “Má Vlast” were composed in this period. In 1874, he began to suffer from Meniere’s Disease which led to severe tinnitus and increasing deafness.
This string quartet “From my life” was written two years later and was intentionally autobiographical. The first Allegro represents the vitality, romanticism and ambition of Smetana’s youth. It starts with a dramatic and profound viola passage, which was played at the first performance by none other than Antonin Dvořák. The second is a polka representing his passion for dancing. The serene Largo which follows describes the composer’s love for the girl who became his wife. The Vivace Finale is a sign of Smetana’s enthusiasm and patriotism until it is interrupted by a prolonged high E minor chord which is a reminder of his illness. Even so, the work ends on an optimistic note.
Elizabeth Woolnough probably relished her bravura part in the opening of the quartet. She graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium under the tutelage of Roger Benedict. She has played with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Australian Chamber Orchestra among other orchestras. She was a member of the Hillel Quartet which won the Westheimer Scholarship and played at the Biennale in Paris. She plays a Pierre Audinot viola sculpted in Paris in 1962. She loves horse riding and dressage and also her pet dog.
The recital was uplifting – the quartet’s playing was accurate, sensitive and evocative clearly benefitting from their length of time together. The audience was enthralled and there was many an SMS saying “SMS -You’ve done it again!”