Musical Offering in Melbourne

Clarity and elegance

Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Wednesday June 15

By Clive O'Connell

For this month’s subscription series recital, Kathryn Selby welcomed back to her piano trio the principal cellist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Timo-Veikko Valve.  As for a violin, a newcomer made a positive first impression; Canadian artist Nikki Chooi took the night’s opening, Julian Yu’s Prelude and Not-a-Fugue trio, and contributed substantially to an assertive reading of the Australian composer’s Bach tribute.  In fact, Chooi set the pace by stressing the vigour in the Prelude’s initial rising chromatic arpeggio flourish, setting up a rougher communal texture than expected.

Not that the piece makes too many challenges in terms of dealing with a wealth of material; this Prelude follows a Bachian pattern in its motoric repetition.  With the non-fugue second part, Yu makes use of the main theme from the Bach work that gives this program its title.  While the strict rules of fugal establishment and sequencing are not followed, the contrapuntal intetweavings in these pages impose a sort of order that suggests fugue.  As a homage, both parts are appealing, updating a format that can stand up to imitation, both satirical and flattering.   As an initial gambit, this piece proved amiable, not too taxing for the executants, and just long enough.

Chooi and Selby collaborated in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, a work that you can go for years without coming across in chamber music programs; the only other time I’ve heard it live, I believe, was at an Australian National Academy of Music program several years ago.   These performers made an effective case for the work, which is not that substantial in terms of developmental length.  But it did give Chooi room for his powerful projection, right from the opening G-string statement.  This is not a violinist who holds back and this Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck movement gave him scope to construct some drivingly urgent melodic chains, alternating with resonant octaves and passionate semiquaver sequences, particularly nearing the final bars.  His ability to articulate rapidly and with some humour informed the succeeding Allegretto and the concluding Lebhaft was taken at a reasonable pace, adding to the pleasure of the  E and A Major interludes that brighten up a rather dour landscape, Selby giving the violinist plenty of space but not holding back with her double-hand full chords.

Valve was apparently indisposed but still managed to give a sterling reading of the Brahms E minor Sonata.  Both he and Selby took the first movement’s Allegro non troppo at face value and erred on the stately side for its initial pages.  Right on top of the piece’s challenges, both musicians gave each paragraph full weight, notably in the first movement’s shift to (nominally) F Major where Brahms soars into magnificent polemic. Selby made light work of the testing figuration in the Trio of the Allegretto, Valve keeping the circuitous melody line of this segment fluent and placid.  The pianist’s control of touch in the finale showed as securely as ever, both performers keeping the texture lucid, refraining from dynamic over-kill even in the helter-skelter of the last page’s Piu presto.

The three musicians came together again for the night’s concluding gem, Schubert in B flat.  For once, this well-worn masterpiece came over with few signs of Biedermeier cosiness or self-satisfaction, Chooi making a firm and generously voiced statement from the outset, in fine collaboration with Valve during the second movement’s imitative duet that stretches the cello to the treble clef for most of its length.   Later, the Trio to the third movement substantiated this reading’s lack of sentimentality with an unexaggerated vibrato from the strings while Selby’s keyboard chords on the off-beats remained recessed.  In sum, the trio came across with its clarity intact, if also having a touch of the scouring cloth with the dynamic levels a tad strident in places like the finale’s octave/unisons preceding Letter A, this feature balanced by a spotless delivery of the movement’s first 3/2 interlude in D flat –  an inspired sideways shift on paper and realized with agility and sustained elegance by these executants.

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