Billed as “representing the next generation of Australia’s chamber music stars”, the explosive energy and virtuosity of Affinity Quartet’s performance in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon on Thursday evening provided ample support for this bold assertion.
As founding members of Affinity Quartet, cellist Mee Na Lojewski and violinist Nicholas Waters have, since 2015, been joined by a number of outstanding Australian musicians, who now feature in Australia’s leading ensembles. This has provided extensive valuable experience and informs their approach to chamber music making as it continues to develop with the highly successful inclusion of violinist Josephine Chung and violist Ruby Shirres, both exceptionally talented musicians. Already this combination of players has met with significant international success, including winning third prize at the 2022 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, which many of us saw streamed online. They are also the only all-Australian chamber group selected to compete in the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition next July.
High octane is not a description usually associated with Haydn’s string quartets, but that was a feature of this performance of his String Quartet Op.33 No.1 in B minor. The full-bodied vigour of the opening movement had my companion wondering whether amplification was being used. It wasn’t, and forthright attack soon gave way to graceful refinement. Contrasting dynamics and elastic transitions between light and shade featured throughout the quartet. The second movement saw sturdy dance rhythms alternate with elegant minuets. A warm cello led the way for the following Andante, which featured an attractively coloured virtuosic violin obbligato line from the first violin. Again, variations in colour and power illuminated the Finale: Presto, with the cello describing melodious arcs against a pulsing background. It was a performance replete with character and energy while maintaining the elegant discourse that Haydn brings to his quartets.
Instead of remarks prior to the concert, Lojewski welcomed us when introducing Matt Laing’s work, In Perpetuum for String Quartet (2022), generously commissioned by Affinity Quartet donor, Kingsley Gee. It was a special occasion with both composer and donor in the audience. A 22-minute work in one movement, Laing has written that it was inspired by “David Whyte’s contemplation on the concept of maturity; that maturity is a choice of recognising past, present and future as indistinguishable, that maturity is each state serving the other so seamlessly that one is imperceptible from the other; and implicitly (as it serves in this work specifically) a continuous act of self-actualising recognition”. This may well seem very abstract and remote from a recognisable musical realisation, and I must admit to finding the work fragmented and difficult to grasp at first. It was only as the work evolved and certain utterances became repeated, transformed and viewed in different contexts that I could begin to distinguish the shape and emotional trajectory of the piece. As with a great deal of contemporary music incorporating much that is atonal, repeated listening is necessary to fully appreciate its complexity and beauty. Nevertheless, there were many melodic moments and it was easy to see that Matt Laing is a violist as well as composer given the passages of repose for viola that Ruby Shirres played with such warmth and feeling. A richly voiced repeated cello solo – to my mind, reminiscent of the final Firebird theme – also featured. These melodic moments contrasted with the whispering fragments from the violins against drones from the lower instruments that began the work and recurred. Violent pizzicatos, high insistent slashes of sound, urgent tremolando passages surging and retreating suddenly, and occasionally wailing violins led to what sounded like an aggressive protest from viola and cello. Fading violins and a final soft pizzicato note drew the piece to a close. It was totally fascinating – a powerful work that drew in the listener, and demanded intense concentration from the players as they conveyed Laing’s “abstract still life in perpetual motion”.
The recital concluded with another strenuous, emotional work: Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80. His final string quartet, it is a 30-minute work, subtitled Requiem for Fanny – a response to the sudden death of his only sister and closest confidante. Affinity Quartet played with great passion throughout, almost abrasive at times in their portrayal of the anguish felt by the composer. A poignant, weeping first violin in the third movement and clanging distress in the final movement were part of their command of a wide dynamic range and supple transitions in mood and tone.
There is no doubt that the musicality and sense of ensemble displayed by the members of Affinity Quartet will continue to attract notable success as repertoire is extended, understanding deepened and skills even further refined.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Perpetual Motion”, performed by Affinity Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on November 17, 2022.