Australian String Quartet. City Recital Hall. March 6
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Vietnam war work resonates 44 years later

George Crumb's 1970 work, Black Angels; Thirteen Images from the Dark Land is one of those rare works in which the dissonant sound world of the modernist avant-garde struck a resonance with the imagination of audiences who ordinarily found it alienating.

Inscribed with Haydn's phrase "in tempore belli" ("in time of war"), the work was written at the height of the Vietnam war.

Crumb takes Beethoven's movement titles from a different war (his Lebewohl Sonata, Opus 81a written during the Napoleonic invasion of Vienna of 1809) to name three sections– Departure, Absence, Return –signifying, in his words, "a fall from grace, spiritual annihilation and redemption".

In the spirit of the time, Crumb explored new sounds – rasping dissonances, eerie slides, mechanical clicks, fingerboards played with thimbles and the ethereal sound of bowed wine glasses.

Forty-four years later the imaginative exuberance and expressive directness of these simple telling textures retain their communicative appeal and the Australian String Quartet played them with concentrated focus, to create an engaging sonic narrative.

As though to illustrate Crumb's influence, they preceeded this with the short piece by South Australian composer Stephen Whittington, Windmill, a meditative work of sound patterns evocative of rusty metal moving in and out of phase and introducing a new squeak every now and then to vary the pattern.


Hearing Crumb's work immediately after suggested Whittington might do well to extend the work (Variations on a Rusty Gate, perhaps).

The first half began with Boccherini's String Quartet in G minor, Opus 32 No.5, in which the quartet adopted a subdued sweet sound with gut strings and without vibrato modelled on 18th century sound.

This was only partially successful since the players seemed not yet to have yet arrived at a shared view of tone and style.

Yet the sound quality itself was well blended and attractive, a characteristic also carried over to Brahms's String Quartet No.1 in C minor, Opus 51 No.1.

It was surprising yet beguiling to hear robust full-blooded Brahmsian tone replaced by the homogeneous classical blend that Brahms himself had yearned to go back to.