Selby and Friends: In memory of a great artist
by Roger Donbavand

City Recital Halll, Tuesday July 1

    ▪    Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Trio in G major, Op.121a ‘Kakadu Variations’
    ▪    Gabriel Fauré Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120
    ▪    Pyotr Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 ‘In Memory of a Great Artist’

This was a great chamber concert.
Why? Two key ingredients:
    ▪    A nicely balanced programme
    ▪    Chamber musicians who really knew the music

Let’s begin with the musicians.
Daniel Dodds who plays on a fine Stradivarius violin and who has led the Australian World Orchestra, as well as being invited personally by none other than the late Claudio Abbado to play in his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Julian Smiles on cello, a member of the Goldner Quartet and, of course, Kathy Selby on piano.

Chamber musicians who really knew the music
The Sydney concert was the fourth performance of this programme and it showed. Some might have argued that the musicians may have been bored with the music by now, but not a bit of it. It was in their blood – you could tell – often they didn’t even read from their scores but where far more interested in listening to each other and importantly being interested in what each colleague was playing. Julian Smiles facial expression also gave great insight into how he phrased a line. They also enjoyed what they were playing which often isn’t the case these days of over hyped performers who are technically brilliant but don’t invest in being musicians.

The programme was well planned and paced.
What of the Beethoven – what’s this, the ‘Kakadu Variations? Did he visit Australia’s famous Kakadu region and see plenty of crocs? Er, well not really. Apparently they are called this because ‘Kakadu Variations’ is the nickname given to this piece for piano trio as they are variations on the theme “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu” by a guy called Wenzel Müller. Kakadu is the German word for Cockatoo – so maybe there is some Aussie link? The variations were published in 1824. The work is notable for the contrast between its solemn introduction and the lightweight variations that follow. And what variations they are! Some critics have said they are too lightweight but they are marvellously so – light and frothy as a glass of sparking champagne – and what’s wrong with that? They are marvellously inventive with the main tune being twisted and turned in lots of different ways. The trio played it splendidly and to open with what is a deceptively hard piece to play showed their musicianship from the start.
Next came a trio by Faure who wrote it when he was deaf and aged 78. After the almost Viennese lilt of the Beethoven this piece was so French in sound texture – it was almost like an impressionist painting with lots of darkish atmosphere it being in D minor. Faure’s gift for melody was evident throughout the trio, but especially charming in the gentle repose of the central Andantino. A particularly French character pervaded this tender, singing duet for violin and cello with piano as eavesdropper and there was almost a wistful nostalgia or sad joy about the piece.
After the interval came a Tchaikovsky bloc bluster his Piano Trio ‘In Memory of a Great Artist’. It was written in Rome between December 1881 and late January 1882. Its subtitle ‘In memory of a great artist’, is in reference to Nikolai Rubinstein, his close friend and mentor, who had died on 23 March 1881.

Julian Smiles wittily introduced this work.
Apparently Tchaikovsky hated the combination of violin, cello and piano. He only reluctantly composed it. His benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, had asked for such a piece, but he refused, saying in his letter to her of 5th November 1880:

You ask why I have never written a trio. Forgive me, dear friend; I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me … I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend … it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, i.e., the background of a picture.

Strong words indeed. And yet, only a little over a year later, he composed this piano trio without being asked to do so. In a letter to von Meck of 27 December 1881, he again referred to his “antipathy for this combination of instruments”. He wrote:

… in spite of this antipathy, I am thinking of experimenting with this sort of music, which so far I have not touched. I have already written the start of a trio. Whether I shall finish it and whether it will come out successfully I do not know, but I would like very much to bring what I have begun to a successful conclusion … I won’t hide from you the great effort of will required to set down my musical ideas in this new and unusual form. But I should like to overcome all these difficulties….

Well what a fantastic piece – as Julian Smiles said, it could well have been the composer’s 3rd piano concerto. Certainly Kathy Selby had her work cut out in the very demanding writing – especially the 40 minute long second movement. Again the musicianship of the trio showed itself – all knew the music and all looked pretty exhausted, but elated afterwards and the richly deserved applause was all due to their fine playing.

This was certainly a chamber concert for any one not really knowing what chamber music is about. It was also heartening to see some teenagers in the audience and Selby and Friends are to be commended for their policy of free admission to those under 14 when accompanied by an adult. A great way to hear chamber music and by superlative musicians!

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