Concert Review: Mendelssohn String Quartets/ Nomad String Quartet

Mendelssohn String Quartets Op.44 No 3 and 4

Nomad String Quartet

Zenith Theatre , Chatswood

11 June 2023

By Victoria Watson



The Nomad Quartet was formed in 2021 and has already developed a keen following among a wide range of music lovers. Their highly eclectic programming ranges from film music arrangements to recording the luminous folk song adaptations of the Danish String Quartet. The concert at Chatswood’s Zenith Theatre was more traditional fare but no less engaging.

Long considered somewhat conservative, Mendelssohn’s work has been unjustly underrated in comparison to his contemporaries from Beethoven’s late works through those of Schubert and Schumann to Berlioz and Liszt. Mendelssohn was a champion of the great German composers of the Baroque and Classical eras predating his own short and precocious life (he died tragically at 38 of a brain condition). He straddled the Classical and Romantic ages but also owed much to the Baroque works of J.S. Bach and his sons which he revived.

The quartet, comprising violinists Ben Adler and Tim Yu, Beth Condon playing viola, and cellist James Larsen, presented two string quartets, composed in 1837, the year of Mendelssohn’s marriage when he was 28. Having composed serious works as a child prodigy, these are fully mature works full of lively invention and a mastery of form and technique.

Always ready to engage directly with his audience, founding artistic director and first violinist Ben Adler, introduced the works with a charisma and good-humoured banter that had a serious core intention, which was to revive interest and excitement in these works as Mendelssohn himself had for other past composers fallen into obscurity.

Dressed in casual blacks with the violins and viola standing, Nomad launched energetically into the Quartet no. 4, Op 44 in E minor. At first the dry acoustic did no favours. Having heard them last in the cavernous St Stephens Macquarie Street, where reverberation can create some blurred textures, the Zenith Theatre, a modern theatrical space instead revealed every woody tone, whispered pianissimo, and emotional nuance leaving nowhere to hide.

Nomad soon boldly rose to this challenge, unfolding the alternating manic throbbing and undulating lyricism of the opening Allegro with intensity and focus. The tempi chosen for all movements were ideal to convey the emotions and virtuosity of the ensemble. The wildly cheeky Scherzo with its integrated trio made the most of the shimmering tremolo figures in the theme bouncing the motive playfully from one instrument to another.

Equally at home in the slower movement, Nomad avoided Romantic indulgence and kept the momentum moving forward. This movement most captures the sweet joys of love that Mendelssohn may well have been enjoying during his honeymoon whilst composing. A warmer tone developed in the ensemble, with a richer use of vibrato serving the emotional sub-text well. The exuberant last movement brought out the quartet’s theatrical flair and Adler led the others on a breathless dance to the finish.

How this could be equalled or bettered in the second quartet in the line- up, the No. 3 in D major? The opening seemed to recall the Classical world of Haydn with its trills, mordents and arpeggiated melody. The second subject was the more surprising with its sombre “but what if all was lost….” atmosphere. This theme just as suddenly moved into elaborate Baroque counterpoint, and we were reminded of the genius of a man who not only wrote for his own time but revered the great composers of the past.

The third movement had more surprises as it invoked the timeless world of folk music for which Nomad has already made its mark. The haunting melancholic theme accompanied for the first time by pizzicato cello seemed gloriously of no time and all time simultaneously.

As the second quartet drew to a close, the mastery this ensemble display for creating rhetorical conversations came to its peak. Using boldly extreme dynamic contrasts, the unique personalities of each player came to the fore. Like witnessing a lively debate among spirited minds, this quartet uses musical means to hold fascinating interchanges that revel in emotion and intellectual rigor.

Nomad Quartet generously rounded off a fine concert with Danish Folk Song No. 6, which was simply sublimely beautiful. 

A graduate of Melbourne university and VCA, Victoria appeared regularly as a soprano with the Victoria State Opera and has toured and served as artistic director of many chamber ensembles. For ten years, she directed a major opera education project with Opera Australia. Since 2015 she has moved into directing opera including Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte at the Independent Theatre. Victoria has lectured in voice at the major universities in Melbourne, and is currently a tutor at UNSW. Having taught at major Sydney secondary colleges, she now runs a busy private singing studio. She is a published author on opera and a popular freelance music and theatre lecturer and advocate for Australian artists around the world.


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