City Recital Hall, Monday 6 May

Reviewed by Michael Morton-Evans

The Esmé Quartet’s fourth concert in Australia for Musica Viva was altogether a young affair. Not only were the four players under 35, but the four composers they chose to perform were also under that age when they composed the works played.

The concert opened with Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz, followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no 2 in A minor (actually his first); then Australian Jack Frerer’s Spiral Sequences, and ending with Claude Debussy’s one and only String Quartet in G minor.

Cellist Yeeun Heo
Photo: Musica Viva, Tony McDonough

The quartet was formed in 2016, made up of four young Korean women who all studied together in Germany. In 2023 the original violist was replaced with the Belgian-American Dimitri Murrath, a solid rock around which the three women sway back and forth, up and down, like ocean waves. The result forces a mesmerising attention to the music, though one concert goer was heard to say that he wished the two violinists had been given seat belts!

The four works chosen all have one thing in common – they veer from the very quiet to the very wild and just about every mood in between – and the quartet handle all these moods with amazing ability. So often pianissimo comes across as a sort of muted mezzo forte, but the quartet handles those passages with wonderful delicacy; in particular, Webern’s Langsamer Satz, which he wrote as a love poem to his 16-year old cousin who later became his wife, came across with incredible tenderness.

The Mendelssohn string quartet, though numbered two, was the first that he wrote when he was just 18, and many musicologists believe that it was written at a time when the young man was in the throes of a youthful love affair. The music certainly points that way, and the Esmé Quartet handled it with the sprightliness it deserved. Interestingly, the shadow of Beethoven hangs heavily over both this and the Debussy. Claude Debussy only ever wrote one string quartet, and in terms of structure it can only be described as flexible. Just when you think you know where it’s going, it quickly changes course and veers off in a different direction. It certainly keeps the audience on its toes.

All in all, a very satisfying concert from a group which is certain to do well on CD and the streaming services worldwide.