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Returning for Musica Viva Australia following its inaugural tour in 2014, the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio, comprising on this occasion violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, guest cellist Bartholomew LaFollette and pianist Wu Qian, are all graduates of the Yehudi Menuhin School, a conservatoire for elite young classical musicians in Surrey, England.
The ensemble was formed in 2007, but currently does not have a permanent cellist. Originally Leonard Elschenbroich filled this role between 2007 and 2014, while more recently Richard Harwood, Danjulo Ishizaka and Bartholomew LaFollette have served as guests. The genre of the Piano Trio may weather such changes better than, say, a string quartet in that often Piano Trios are made up of three soloists.
LaFollette, head teacher of cello at the Yehudi Menuhin School, was excellent on this occasion. Expressive and articulate, he performed largely from memory; clearly enjoying the acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall his music-making was notably free, imaginative and intelligent.
For this 10-concert tour, the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio presents just one programme: an all-Russian first half comprising two elegies by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, an Australian work by Lachlan Skipworth commissioned for Musica Viva Australia by Julian Burnside and finally Mendelssohn’s justifiably popular first Trio.
Rachmaninov wrote his Trio élégiaque No 1 at the age of 19 in just four days for an upcoming important performance. The work is thought to be a homage to the great Tchaikovsky who died a year after the work was written, particularly as it references Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in material along with its final funeral march. Weeping throughout in G minor, this was in many ways the highlight of the programme, with perfectly formed rapport and intimately understood nuance of gesture.
Dmitri Shostakovitch’s Piano Trio No 2, Op. 67 aches with the memory of the prolonged siege of Leningrad in World War II. The composer was both moved by the death of colleague and teacher Ivan Sollertinsky, artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic to whom the work is dedicated, as well as the horrific discoveries of concentration camps as German occupying forces retreated westward. How to play the work and what it ‘means’ is still argued amongst experts. This performance largely avoided emotional extremity but there was sufficient pathos and subtlety to compensate. I did, however, feel that the pianist could have provided a more forthright and vivid contribution throughout.
Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Piano Trio composed in 2015 clearly demonstrates careful crafting and attention to detail. It’s not easy to write a piano trio. There are very few excellent works in the contemporary repertory; composing a successful work is even more challenging if the composer is not a pianist. A student of veteran composer Anne Boyd, Skipworth’s aesthetic stems from his study of the traditional shakuhachi in Japan. It is the marrying of this refined, specific and exquisite aesthetic into the Western chamber music genre of the piano trio that left me unconvinced. The work is structured in three movements with the second connected to the third. It is based on a traditional work written for shakuhachi called Daha (pounding wave), the ocean seen as “a symbol of both unwavering strength and calm quietude”. It presents a peculiar fusion of European Romantic piano and strings rhetoric with Asian asceticism. Though expertly performed, I did not feel that its musical language was sufficiently interesting to sustain its quarter-hour length.
Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 1, Op. 49 is an early Romantic conception with finely delineated Classical bones. The ensemble glided into its opening bars like sliding into a warm bath. A beautifully crafted work, the Trio gave a performance filled with lyricism with plenty of light and shade. The fleet-footed Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace particularly delighted. This was a generous and gratefully received performance.
It would be good if the rules and procedures of page-turning on stage could be dusted off by Musica Viva. The encore (the Andante espressivo from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 2 in C Minor, Op. 66) was anticipated by the page-turner alone on stage applauding and waiting for the musicians to return.
The Sitkovetsky Trio tour Australia for Musica Viva until July 24. For the review of the Brisbane performance click here.