On Tour Down Under, British String Quartet Meets The Didgeridoo

Composer and didgeridoo player William Barton performed one of his works with the Brodsky Quartet at the Canberra International Music Festival. (Photos by Peter Hislop)

CANBERRA, Australia — With 50 years of music making to their credit, Britain’s Brodsky Quartet might have just earned the right to call themselves a living national treasure for their country. Their performance at the Canberra International Music Festival (April 28-May 7) as part of an Australian tour was a pageant of their achievements. For their program “Bach Barton Brodsky,” the quartet offered a quintessential Brodsky experience.

The Brodskys ­— as they are affectionately known — have crossed paths with singers ranging from Elvis Costello and Björk to Dawn Upshaw, composers from Bach to Golijov, and venues from Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht to Carnegie Hall. So it is no surprise that, for this program, two premieres by local Australian composers were book-ended by Bach and Schubert. 

The most admirable playing arrived surprisingly in the opening offer: an arrangement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001. Recontextualizing solo works for an ensemble can be a hit-or-miss affair. But the quartet’s arrangement, together with their subtle caressing of Bach’s plaintive minor melodies and judicious use of vibrato, created a warm, invitational feeling that was stylistically complementary to the period. The quartet’s less-is-more approach in the sonata was imprinted best in their understated rendition of the fugue and in the gentle swaying of the twining melodies of the Siciliana. You could argue that the relatively same-same tempi choice of the four movements — especially the rather allegro-paced final presto — was a safe one, but this option added to the calming, balm-like feeling. No drama here. Above all these traits, it was the unanimity of purpose that cemented success.

William Barton is critically acclaimed across the world as an incomparable didgeridoo virtuoso who has earned the honor of performing with prestigious orchestras that include the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. But Barton’s arsenal of musical skills extends to composition, singing, and guitar. For his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, Barton composed Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand in 2016. This single-movement work has a deeply spiritual feeling that whisks you away to an otherworldly sense of earthy sands and expansive horizons.

The work begins with a free-flowing vocal antiphon from Barton before proceeding to a didgeridoo solo in which he uses the instrument both as a melody maker and as a percussion instrument. Barton’s sometimes frenetic, agitated, and melancholic string writing is placed in a high tessitura, creating a shimmering foil for the earthy tones of the traditional instrument. His compositional style is singular. In these days of referential isms from minimalism et al., his developing compositional voice stands alone.

The Brodsky Quartet also performed works by Bach, Schubert, and British-born Australian composer Andrew Ford.

British-born Australian composer Andrew Ford’s String Quartet No 7: Eden Ablaze is a masterfully crafted evocation of the bush landscapes of the Australian town of Eden that suffered during recent summer bush fires. The single-movement work opens with the memorable falling theme the aria “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes. Ford proceeds to dissolve and disintegrate Handel’s melody with finesse and elegance. He cleverly captures the crackling of leaves and branches with a distinct haunting and halting sensibility that is signatured by unfailing beauty and regard for textural possibilities. The piece captures our emotions throughout.

The Brodsky’s rendering of Schubert’s Quartet in G major, D. 887, was not as consummate as one might have hoped. Somehow, the ensemble failed to find exactly what they wanted to express and seemed to be side-tracked by the score’s demands. It’s well acknowledged that Schubert’s last quartet demands a high level of technical prowess. Schubert asks the musicians to negotiate swift major-minor shifts, dramatic accents, and dynamics. But somewhere among the fury of notes, there lies the throughline of the piece. On this occasion, the Brodskys seemed to be still searching for it.