Musica Viva: Esmé Quartet

Esmé Quartet Wonhee Bae Yuna Ha Dimitri Murrath and Yeeun Heo photo by Tony McDonoughA particularly fascinating feature of this recital was that each composer was under 35 years of age when they composed the work featured. The ages of all four virtuosi who make up the Esme’ Quartet falls within this age range.

The three original female members of the Esme’ Quartet met and became friends when they were studying at the Hochschule fur Musik in Cologne, Germany. They formed the quartet in 2016, naming it the Esme’ from the old French word for ‘beloved’.

The four South Korean musicians immediately began to attract attention as a young, all-Asian female ensemble. But it was their First Prize win, along with swag of special prizes, at the 2018 International String Quartet Competition at London’s Wigmore Hall that provided their sensational launch into an international string quartet career.

They immediately embarked on a whirlwind year of concerts in North America, Hong Kong and Japan, and have since maintained a busy schedule of performances and recording engagements prior to this inaugural Australian tour for Musica Viva.

The metaphoric ugly duckling of the quartet, Belgian-American violist Dimitri Murrah, joined the Esme’ Quartet in April 2023, confiding at the “Meet the Artists” talk after the concert that having been asked to suggest a possible replacement for one of the original members, decided to recommend himself, and “from the first note playing together, it felt as if I had been playing with this group for many years.”

This is exactly as it sounded because from the very first notes of the only movement Webern wrote for Langsamer Satz, with which the quartet commenced its recital, the audience could sense that it was in for something special.

Apparently written by Webern at age 22,  while on a hiking trip, as a love song to the woman he would later marry, Langsamer Satz, as offered by the Esme’ Quartet, was 9 minutes of exquisite romantic bliss, perfectly balanced and phrased, and a perfect entree to Mendelssohn’s more demanding String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.13.

Mendelssohn was just 18 when he wrote this quartet and still developing his compositional repertoire. The quartet contains those busy effervescent passages recognisable in many of Mendelssohn’s later compositions, offset by darker passages reflecting the young composer’s fascination with the compositions of Beethoven, all played with such attention to detail and balance that it was often difficult to define which instrument was producing which sound.

The most unusual, and therefore, perhaps the most interesting inclusion, was a composition by Australian composer, Jack Frerer who composed Spiral Sequences when he was just 23.

Determinedly abstract, the beginning required bowing so vigorous that Wonhee Bae was often bounced out of her chair. The captivating hypnotic slow section which finished the composition was played so quietly, with the bows barely touching the strings that the audience was reluctant to breathe.

The final work in the program was Debussy’s only string quartet, his String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. Written when he was 31 years old, this demanding work requires a number of bowing and plucking techniques; challenges which this quartet appeared to relish and execute with considerable flair as they communicated nuances between each other with quiet smiles and glances of encouragement.

Whether it was the relative youthfulness of the musicians, or of the composers, the confident, stylish joie de vivre with which this concert was executed certainly inspired a rapturous reception from its audience. It’s reward was a encore offering of Korean classical music.

Esmé Quartet
Llewellyn Hall, Canberra
Performance: Friday 10 May 2024

Musica Viva will present the Esmé Quartet at the QLD Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane on Monday 13 May and the Melbourne Recital Centre on Tuesday 14 May 2024. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Esmé Quartet: Wonhee Bae, Yuna Ha, Dimitri Murrath and Yeeun Heo – photo by Tony McDonough

Review: Bill Stephens OAM