This Sun-breathing Earth

David Barmby

Another distinguished performance by the APQ to a disappointingly small audience.
This Sun-breathing Earth

Image: The Australia Piano Quartet photograph courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre.

This first-rate, home-grown chamber ensemble performed the second concert in its 2016 Series at the Melbourne Recital Centre to a disappointingly small audience.  A cold and wet Friday evening in Melbourne may have kept some away and I wondered if the unusual program (in the main Richard Strauss’s infrequently performed Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 13 matched with a newly composed song cycle, Generations by Paul Dean) might have also been a contributing factor.  More is the pity, for the performance was excellent and repertoire richly rewarding.                                                              


Ensemble in Residence at the University of Technology Sydney, this group of four dynamic young musicians maintains a series at the Sydney Opera House (Utzon Room) and also here in Melbourne at the MRC.  The APQ is soon to embark on a tour to China (Shanghai University), France and several important venues in the UK, including perhaps the world headquarters of chamber music performance, London’s Wigmore Hall.  Next year, the group will release its first CD, Mozart’s complete works for piano quartet.

Paul Dean’s Generations for piano quartet and tenor was given its first performance in March this year.  Written in partnership with the UTS Institute of Sustainable Futures the work is a response to humanity’s current precarious relationship with the natural environment.  It comprises three parts: the first is a frenetically anxious and chromatic setting of Donne’s penitential Holy Sonnet, At the round earth’s imagined corners.  Here much of the writing is a whirling maelstrom of despair before energy gradually wanes, finally reaching a point of exhaustion where a dark meditation on penitence ensues by instruments alone.  The second part sets poetry by Rodney Hall.  This compassionate and sophisticated setting seeks, through the passing ticking of time, resolve from the faults of our human condition, be that via more painful inner conflict, through love, wisdom and beauty.  The final movement Northern River sets poetry by Judith Wright and finds stillness and peace amongst natural beauty and the cool music of bell birds and flowing water.  The cycle is an excellent achievement; fluent in language and highly sensitive to the three texts set.  It was sung with virtuosity and compassion by Andrew Goodwin whose agile, fresh, appealing and deeply musical tenor voice was apt for the work.  Goodwin’s artistry fully satisfied the cycle’s wide range of emotions from fury and bluster through to movingly tender introspection.

Richard Strauss’s Piano Quartet in C minor is the composer’s respectful nod to the late-Nineteenth Century’s master of chamber music for piano and strings, Johannes Brahms.  This large-scale essay in four movements packs a punch in its hefty first movement (Allegro) and was given a richly mature reading with plenty of brawn by the ensemble.  Honours on this occasion go to Rebecca Chan’s expressive playing as well as the depth and breadth of Daniel de Borah’s fine pianism.  By contrast, the fiendish, elfin-like Scherzo carried on thin gossamer seemed effortlessly conveyed, the romantic sweep and lyricism of the Molto meno mosso section richly ‘sung’ by the quartet.  The Andante gives us dreamy, autumnal hints of Ariadne auf Naxos and Rosenkavalier written decades later while the Finale (Vivace) was carried with sanguine ebullience.  Frustratingly, the work needed the air and acoustic of the larger Hall along with the voice of one of the Centre’s Steinway Ds.

A sensitive piano quartet arrangement by young Bernard Rofe of the same composer’s magical Lied, Morgen! completed the recital with a sense of blissful and loving expectancy.  Rarely have I heard the work better sung than by Andrew Goodwin on this occasion.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Australia Piano Quartet

Presented by the Australia Piano Quartet and Melbourne Recital Centre
Rebecca Chan, violin
James Wannan, viola
Thomas Rann, cello
Daniel de Borah, piano
with Andrew Goodwin, tenor

Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon
Friday 17 June 2016​


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.