Selby & Friends: Swedish Delight

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by Jennifer Foong

Turramurra Uniting Church, Sunday September 21

On a pleasant spring afternoon in the upper North Shore of Sydney, the latest concert of the Selby & Friends Tour 4 (out of 5 for 2014) showcased renowned Swedish cellist Torleif Thedeen with pianist Kathy Selby.

The concert commenced with Australian composer Paul Dean’s new work titled Three Intimate Interludes. It was the second of two world premieres presented by Selby & Friends this year, the first being Clancy Newman’s work in the first tour. The work was sponsored by the Selby & Friends “Audience Commission”.

New chamber music
Kathy spoke to the audience before the start of the first half. She emphasised the importance of adding new chamber works to the genre and how the timing of the commission came at a most unpleasant time in Dean’s life resulting in a “personal portrait of the breakdown of a relationship”.
The names of the three movements certainly reflected the state of the composer’s distress: Conflict, Dissection and Isolation. Conflict had a dramatic opening involving both cello and piano, becoming quieter and reflective in the latter part, painting a musical picture of disagreements and quarrels, particularly through its dissonance, followed by an expected sense of resignation. The second movement, Dissection, starting quietly with the piano alone, joined by the cello shortly after, was characterised by short sharp phrases and a loud left hand in the piano part, reflecting the consequences of the initial arguments. Isolation reflected just that with its eerie high-pitched solo cello line at the beginning, then pizzicato later, and the occasional low foreboding notes on the piano, all creating a sense of starkness.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2
This mood was carried into the long expressive Adagio opening of the next work on the program, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2. It was “gripped by silences and fragmented gestures” and led into the Allegro section of the first movement which was full of contrasting dynamics and brilliant rhythms. The second movement, Rondo: Allegro began with the theme introduced by the piano which was reinforced and developed by the cello, very much highlighting Thedeen’s effortless style. The famous cellist, Steven Isserlis, once commented that the cello seems to accompany the piano in this work, not the other way round!

Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D minor L135
To complete the first half, Debussy’s relatively short Cello Sonata in D minor L135 was an evocative piece rather like Dean’s work. Where Dean’s conflict may have been a personal relationship, Debussy’s was the outbreak of WWII. Neo-Baroque in style, it’s three movements, Prologue, Serenade and Finale enabled both performers to show off their vast capabilities, as per the composer’s markings in both French and Italian “to be played freely and flexibly with softness and tenderness”, particularly in the last movement where the rippling harmonies on the piano accompanied the cello’s melodious lines.

Sculthorpe’s Requiem for solo cello
Thedeen addressed the audience after interval and surprised us all by announcing his tribute to Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who recently passed away. He played the first movement of Sculthorpe’s Requiem for solo cello, a piece originally commissioned by Musica Viva for the composer’s fiftieth birthday in 1979 and dedicated to Australian cellist Nathan Waks. It was most appropriate as the cello was apparently one of Sculthorpe’s favourite instruments … a truly touching moment to honour the memory of the man and his many achievements. It also highlighted the lovely mellow sound of Thedeen’s cello which was made in 1711 and formerly played by another great cellist, Lynn Harrell.

Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 36
The next work was Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 36, a work Thedeen stated he felt “close to”, even though he is Swedish and not Norwegian(!!), and one “befitting his Scandinavian heritage”. It was dedicated to the composer’s long lost brother John, an amateur cellist, but unfortunately it did not result in a reconciliation. The romantic nature of the work was shown by its many emotions from brooding to agitation to tenderness to passion while the composer’s lyricism and folk melodies were a highlight. This was most evident in the third and final movement that was full of dynamic, rhythmic and technical contrasts. No wonder Grieg was reported to have fallen off his piano stool in excitement when playing the piece!

The audience was treated to an encore, Brahms’ song “Einsamkeit” or “Loneliness” arranged for cello and piano. It was a most soothing and polished finish to a most interesting program.

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