Musical Offering - Limelight Review

★★★★☆ Clarity, cohesion and exuberance make for a beguiling afternoon of chamber music.

Elder Hall, The University of Adelaide
June 12, 2016

Review by Dylan Henderson

The third tour in the 2016 series of Selby & Friends kicked off in Adelaide on Sunday afternoon, adopting the usual format of two sonatas bookended by works for piano trio. This tour sees pianist Kathryn Selby unite with Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi and ACO cellist Timo-Veikko Valve to perform works by Julian Yu, Schumann, Brahms and Schubert. Opening with Julian Yu’s Prelude and Not-a-Fugue for Piano Trio, all three musicians captivated right from the beginning, setting a standard that was to define the entire concert. Nikki Chooi immediately impressed from the opening motif in the violin, producing a rich, exquisite tone that enveloped the hall. Tense, dynamic exchanges in the cello and piano proved equal as a conversational dialogue ensued. A work commissioned by Musica Viva in 1999 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Yu’s work is suffused with that characteristic motoric rhythm of Bach’s Preludes, and to hear this come to life in a piano trio setting from three musicians of this calibre was a revelation. Diverging from Bach’s tradition and ending unresolved, Prelude and Not-a-Fugue provoked a question which the rest of the concert would ultimately attempt to answer.

With fervent and arresting zeal, Nikki Chooi and Kathryn Selby brought formidable authority to Schumann’s Violin Sonata No 1 in A Minor, Op. 105. In the opening Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck, Chooi soared through scalic ascents with an apparent ease, while Selby provided an impeccable supportive balance throughout, never once overpowering the melodic line. There were moments of scalding vehemence that frequently threatened to become unhinged, but both musicians were able to remain in control throughout, providing an exhilarating listening experience right up to the final decisive A Minor arpeggio.

Equally convincing was Timo-Veikko Valve’s account of the Brahms' Cello Sonata No 1 in E Minor, Op. 38. Despite a conspicuous lack of eye contact, these two musicians were remarkably attentive to the subtle timbres of each other’s instrument. While Valve brought a dark and muscular presence to the opening theme, Selby remained shrewdly perceptive to the acoustics of the hall, offering superb control of pianissimos and rippling arpeggios that sparkled with clarity and grace. In the more animated passages, Selby’s dense chords were never harsh, but rich and sumptuous thanks to the judicious application of arm weight. Likewise, her pedalling was particularly refined, offering that all too rare equilibrium of harmonic richness and tonal clarity.

After a brief interval, all three musicians returned to the stage for one of the staples of the piano trio repertoire: Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1 in B Flat, D898. It was abundantly evident that each musician was intimately familiar with each other’s lines, for this was a masterclass in the art of conversation. Each musician wrestled for control, with neither able to assert total supremacy over the other. Nikki Chooi was occasionally a little harsh here, his ardent exuberance perhaps more suited to the Schumann. Nevertheless, this was first-class chamber music from all involved, with scarcely a moment of insecurity or incoherence. It is to Selby’s credit that she is able to employ an ever-changing ensemble of musicians, whilst maintaining a symbiosis that most established piano trios would kill for. There are few musicians in the country who could achieve this so consistently.

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