Beleura House has continued its regular sellout concerts for performances by our finest Australian musicians, thanks to a team of curators – Wilma Smith (classical), Tony Gould (jazz) and Richard Vaudry (new music), with the Australian National Academy of Music and Melba Opera Trust continuing their long-established association and regular concerts. It couldn’t have been better timing for Affinity Quartet – Josephine Chung and Nicholas Waters (violins), Ruby Shirres (viola), Mee Na Lojewski (cello) – to perform just a few days after winning the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. The atmosphere was full of great expectations, absolutely welcoming the musicians with open arms and admiration.
Lojewski welcomed the audience with a brief introduction to Mozart’s String Quartet No 17 in B-flat K458, the first of the two highly exciting works on the program. So often the first movement Allegro Vivace Assai is played in a regulated tempo, often less than Vivace, keeping elegance and details within classical expectations, showing respect perhaps for Mozart’s dedication of the work to his friend Haydn. Not so with these fine young string players, who gave us a fresh approach to this quartet, presenting an energetic and engaging physical presence on stage, and presenting Mozart in a style that looked to a more passionate (Romantic?) future with an immensely coloured and active delivery. It was a bold and freshly coloured interpretation, with a luxurious change of tone colour for the second section of the work. Chung led the way in the Menuetto & Trio with very sweet and expressive violin melodies, hinting at the spirited and lyrical upper strength of Mozart’s operatic style. A nice tonal contrast was felt between the warm Menuetto with weightier accents on the upbeats, and a Trio with a lighter and flowing texture. In slow movements we truly feel the unique personality of a string quartet – the true independence of each instrument with understanding of the others’ lines, and a perfection needed in full ensemble balance and blend. We were captivated by the beauty of vibrato and tender expression in Chung’s very soft descending phrases, echoed sympathetically by Lojewski on cello. Excellent balance was achieved in the extreme pianissimos required by all players, accompanying these alternating solos or blended as one. The fourth movement Allegro Assai moved to another emotional dimension showing strength and energy, with a sense of joyfulness between the players that overflowed to the audience. We could see why Affinity Quartet wins awards – the answer is in the attention to detail and emotional breadth.
There was much more agitation of bows on strings with serious tremolo activity with darker tones in a passionate rendition of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 6 in F minor. Affinity Quartet gave us first class string playing with exciting and explosive fiery assertiveness. This first movement, also marked Allegro Vivace Assai, held the audience in full concentrated wonder with its stormy symphonic style, extremely dramatic thematic contrasts and a timely grand Romantic cello melody. But the audience couldn’t hold back their applause following an acceleration of tempo and rousing fortissimo punctuation under a final virtuosic violin led charge to the end. This same robust energy continued through the Allegro Assai, with even more pronounced sudden and dramatic changes of dynamics and contrasting legato and staccato articulations. Viola and cello were prominent with a dual earthy role, giving unison ensemble sections full orchestral drive. An intriguing coda softened and resolved the storm, with its surprising fade to nothing but sparse staccato notes, as if the work were not finished, just pausing for the emotional change to the third movement Adagio. Now Affinity’s four voices wove their individual lines with the precision and poise required from more complex rhythmic contrapuntal patterns and unity in phrasing. Surging dotted rhythms in the score added to the wide range of emotion and detail in this most expressive and touching section. The last movement, Finale: Allegro Molto, fully summed up the drama and storm of earlier movements, long sections of cello tremolos and devilish bowed accents and syncopation surged forwards releasing Chung’s violin to most impressive heights with rising cadenzas of freewheeling triplets up to extreme pitches. The fortissimo cadence closing this fiery and dramatic conclusion brought the audience to its feet with great applause and murmurs of “wow”, and people strangely remained in the concert room, as if not knowing where to go next, astonished by such a passionate performance from four impressive young players.
Julie McErlain reviewed the recital performed by Affinity Quartet at Beleura House, as part of the Beleura House & Garden 2023 Concert series, on July 14, 2023.