It was a delight to spend a weekend by the Murray to attend three of the seven concerts in the third annual Albury Chamber Music Festival. Involving several of our top ensembles as well as talented local musicians, the festival was organised and curated by its Director, the Venerable Father Peter MacLeod-Miller, and Artistic Director, pianist Helena Kernaghan. Festival Patron Nance Grant was present, as were His Excellency General the Hon. David Hurley, Governor of NSW, and Mrs Hurley.
The opening concert took the form of a sampler (or ‘tasting plate’, as the Archdeacon described it) for upcoming concerts. The Flinders Quartet, whose excellent recording of Sibelius String Quartets I reviewed in Limelight, played two short pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, the Scherzo Op. 81, No 2 in A Minor. and Capriccio, Op. 81, No 3. Rarely performed, these pieces display all the composer’s fingerprints: the Scherzo bears a strong rhythmic resemblance to the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the brisk counterpoint in the longer Capriccio reminds us of the composer’s debt to Bach. The Flinders plunged in with panache, a tantalising preview of what was to come.
Pianist Ashley Hribar and soprano Ayşe Göknur Shanal at the 2018 Albury Chamber Music Festival. Photo: supplied
Next up was the Orpheus Piano Trio with an arrangement of the five movements of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose suite. Originally composed for piano duet, the work was later orchestrated by the composer and expanded into a ballet score. This effective trio arrangement was by Benjamin Martin. Ravel’s bewitching harmonies were beautifully rendered by the Orpheus Trio. The only time I missed the full orchestra was in the expansive final moments of The Fairy Garden. The five movements were introduced by a collection of prose-poems by Australian writer Peter Goldsworthy, titled Playing Fast and Loose with Mother Goose – read with spirit by local ABC Radio identity Gaye Pattison. Goldsworthy’s riffs on fairy tale characters were complementary to Ravel’s musical pictures, rather than providing description or scene-setting, and very witty (for example, referring to Beauty and the Beast as a story of Stockholm Syndrome). Their worldly tone tended to fight the sublime timelessness of Ravel’s music; still, it was a stimulating juxtaposition.
Lastly, Brisbane-born soprano Ayşe Göknur Shanal sang three crowd-pleasing favourites: Puccini’s O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi and Dvořák’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka (accompanied by Helena Kernaghan), and the Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos (accompanied by the Flinders Quartet). Her expressive vocalising and rich middle register were considerable assets, particularly in the Villa-Lobos, while her engaging stage presence revealed the skill of a born recitalist. During Puccini’s aria she pulled the Governor to his feet for an impromptu waltz!
The Flinders Quartet returned for the Friday night concert in St. Matthew’s Church, giving a brilliant rendition of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 2 (written at the age of 18). With impressive unanimity of attack and expression, the quartet conveyed the many moods of this substantial work, ranging from solemn chorales, through classical elegance in the Intermezzo, featherlight Mendelssohnian ‘fairy music’ in the third movement, and vigorous fugal passages, in which the balance between the four instruments was perfectly delineated. Typically, Mendelssohn treats the first violinist as a soloist; Nicholas Waters rose to the occasion with flair. Other members of the current Flinders Quartet are second violinist Wilma Smith (who was Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for over ten years), violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton, both founding members.
The Mendelssohn was preceded by a curtain-raiser by acclaimed, locally based Australian composer Gordon Kerry: his charming setting of sections of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John, Let Your Light Shine, for children’s chorus and strings. A lovely piece, flowing and pastoral in mood, it is cannily written for young singers so as not to require too wide a vocal range, although they still need their wits about them. It was performed with mellifluous confidence by The Scots School Choir ‘Cantabile’, directed by Alison Mitchell: a fine example of the local involvement that makes each regional music festival unique.
Limelight described Melbourne-based Ensemble Liaison as a national treasure; I am not inclined to argue. The trio consists of clarinettist David Griffiths, cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic and pianist Timothy Young: three outstanding virtuosos who perform together as one remarkable, single-minded entity. Much of their repertoire consists of their own arrangements of music originally conceived for other combinations, and two were played: The Four Seasons of the Porteñas by Astor Piazzolla, and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. With the arrangement of Piazzolla’s work featuring piano-lid whacking and foot stamping, these energetic musicians literally caught the earthiness of the composer’s tango-infused world. Griffiths’ physicality and extraordinary range of instrumental colour made me long to hear him in a testing piece like David del Tredici’s Magyar Madness. Young came into his own in the Rhapsody, as the group’s collective arrangement was based on Gershwin’s demanding solo piano version. This level of musicianship moves beyond mastering technical challenges to convey fiery passion, tenderness, and every nuance in between. Coincidentally, as Griffiths put it, the ensemble’s Piazzolla and Gershwin performances have just been released on a new CD (which your correspondent picked up on the way out – not without paying for it, I hasten to add).
Unfortunately I missed the Saturday concerts, which included an organ recital by Daniel Dries, the Rector of Christ Church St. Lawrence in Sydney, but I heard the final Sunday afternoon session, held at the Albury Club in a room with perfect chamber acoustics. This recital featured the Firebird Trio: violinist Curt Thompson, cellist Josephine Vains and the versatile pianist Benjamin Martin. In the first half, they gave us a poised Haydn Piano Trio, Hob. XV:31 (Jacob’s Dream), and two selections from Martin’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. In the latter, the trio squeezed every drop of honey from the touching Russian melodies of The Princesses’ Round, and found tremendous power for Kashchei’s Infernal Dance.
The main attraction of this part of the concert was the world premiere of a work commissioned by the Albury Festival, the Piano Trio No 3 by Gordon Kerry. This ten-minute trio in a single movement, described by the composer as having “a wintry feel”, was written at his home in Sandy Creek, Victoria, clearly in contemplation of the natural surroundings. String tremolos and piano “flurries” conjured up morning mist and sharp, cold winds, with musical themes jutting out from these evocative textures. Later in the piece, gentle passages for the violin and cello in counterpoint allowed Thompson and Vains to display their winning richness of tone. The Trio finishes quietly, fading away rather like the winter sun. Finally, the concert and Festival were capped by Firebird’s large-scale, soulful and, at times, dazzling performance of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio: a marvelous musical summing up.
While only in its third year, the standard of performance and enthusiasm of the crowd in 2018 should ensure the Albury Chamber Music Festival continues for a long time to come. Interstate music-lovers will find it well worth a visit in future, particularly as there are excellent restaurants here too.