It is a rare pleasure to hear the chamber music of Webern and Zemlinsky. The micro intensity of Webern’s Six Bagatelle, Opus 9 (1910/1913) was essayed with fearless precision by the Alma Moodie Quartet, in their Utzon Room debut recital. The architecture of each piece was bedded within its aphoristic time scale. The intensity of Webern’s inspiration and its playing was spotlight – each piece registering some deep emotional moment, cut short, its spit-second power lingering into a forced recollection. In this performance the pattern of each piece was glimpsed and registered as a pure yet complex moment. The mystery of piece IV – ‘Sehr langsam’ – was particularly affecting, while ‘Fliessend’ concluded the set with a haunting mood carried on its extreme and expressive piano markings.
Zemlinksy’s final Quartet - String Quartet No. 4, Op. 25 (1936) - is a memorial to his younger colleague – Alban Berg – whose sudden death prompted its composition. It erupts with white hot inspiration and startling intensity, somewhat like the trios that Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky wrote remembering their own beloved colleagues.
Its six movements mirror, perhaps, the six sections of Berg’s own Lyric Suite, for string quartet (1925-1926) which quotes a theme by Zemlinksy. It contains some deeply affecting writing: daring, challenging, mournful, resigned. Like Dvorak’s Dumky trio (1891), it alternatives fast and slow. Its first performance was in 1967, long after the composer’s death.
The first movement, ‘Praeludium’, has intimations of Bartok and his night music ethos, but it speaks of a deeply personal music, that registers its own way of engaging the listener, within its wearisome tread, seemingly in dialogue with death.
The second movement ‘Burlesca’ was particularly piquant in this performance, ensuring its layers of technique and innovative sound were delivered with startling clarity – the players embracing its carefully staged grotesqueries.
The syncopations of the Intermezzo were well judged. This is emotionally complex music that segues between slashing anger and lyrical episodes.
The opening of the fifth movement was given with awesome declamation by the cellist, almost suggesting Bloch and Schelomo (1917). The theme and variation structure drew passionate playing from the quartet. But again – within the consolation - a pulsing anger seems to lurk beneath the surface.
The thrilling double fugue that ends the work, suggested a twentieth century take on the combustible energy of Beethoven. It was thrilling. This is both playful and ferocious music with a deeply contrasting lyrical section that appears like a distant oasis, reminding us that mourning also involves remembering the beautiful aspects of living.
This was a committed performance that made a strong case for the inclusion of this work in the regular repertoire.
The Beethoven String Quartet No. 10, opus 74 (‘The Harp’, 1809), which commenced the program, allowed us to see the deep tendrils that stretch across German music making.
In this performance, the deep musical riffs that Beethoven unleashed were navigated with wit and technical excellence by these young players.
The suspensions that Beethoven is fond of were magically held, summoning a deep yet solemn unpredictability. The broken chords at the end of the first movement were finely judged, while the pizzicato interventions of the first movement were anchored to the purposeful musical gait. Likewise, the pizzicato that highlight the tender modulation of the ‘Adagio’ were gracefully enacted. The musicians were neatly classical in the fourth movement’s theme and variations. The stretta of the final movement was truly breathtaking - heroic and intense.
This quartet has a powerful sound – they take risks with attack and contrasts. Their style is well attuned to their repertoire.
Their namesake, Australian born Alma Moodie, was once famous in Europe, but now only spasmodically known. Like Zemlinsky, she was an expatriate who died during the Second world war. She was a renowned violinist, friend of Rilke, colleague of Stravinsky, lover of the composer Krenek (Johnny Spielt Auf). She was feted across Europe, but not the United Kingdom, thus relatively unknown in post-colonial Australia, which received all its news and cultural rankings from the Empire. Kay Dreyfus has written a biography (2016) and has edited her letters (published in 2021). Alma died during the death throes of the Nazi regime. She was married to a high-ranking Nazi Lawyer and was a member of the party, but was not an antisemite. She lived through the rise of Hitler and witnessed the hubris of the twentieth century firsthand, experiencing aerial bombing in both the First and Second world wars. Her namesake ensemble did her proud, with a program that would have sat well with her classical training (Fleisch) and her interest in modern music.
I look forward to hearing more from this new ensemble.
Utzon Music – Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, 23 September 2023