I knew from the very first notes that I was going to enjoy this chamber recital in the grand backdrop of The Albert Hall in Canberra. Even though it was built in the 1920s, its architecture recalls many of the European traditions of the 19th century, especially with its magnificent arched windows, giving a lovely view of the equally lovely warm, summer day outside.
The configuration for the recital was perfectly matched to the occasion, too, with the players on the main floor to the side, in front of the windows, and the capacity audience (suitably spaced) in a horseshoe around them. The Albert Hall’s acoustic is not the most brilliant in the world, but this layout allowed the sound to develop and carry very nicely.
CSO Chamber Players in Canberra’s Albert Hall. Photograph © Martin Ollman
The final, most important ingredient, of course, was the music itself. Opening the program was the Op. 22 No 1 of Clara Schumann, her Romance for Violin and Piano (the first of three), composed in 1853. Short as it is, this is a work over which to swoon – to lose oneself in its charm and beauty. It is quintessentially of music’s Romantic period, simply dripping with lyricism, sweeping melodies and luscious harmonies. The Hanoverian king of the time took “marvellous, heavenly pleasure” from them.
Both instruments share the limelight equally in this short work. After the piano’s brief introduction, orchestra concertmaster, Kirsten Williams, and pianist, Susanne Powell, gave truth to the Aristotle-attributed adage, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.
They complemented each other brilliantly, each giving way to the other when required, but always in perfect balance, delivering a cohesive sound, and enveloping the audience in rich, sonorous beauty. At the end of the piece the audience was almost taken by surprise, such was their state of swoon; a delayed, tentative applause seemed to be, perhaps, just as might be given at the end of a movement in a multi-movement work.
It all made me wonder why even the mid-19th century gender prejudices were so strong and stuffy as to stand in the way of proper recognition for much of Clara Schumann’s compositional output. Clara herself said, no doubt with a sigh of resignation, “Women are not born to compose”. Few artists, other than husband Robert and herself, ever performed her works, and that remained so even up to the 1970s. What injustice! How many millions went through life without ever hearing the glorious results of Clara Schumann’s creative mind?
Then it was on to Franz Schubert and his much-loved Quintet for Piano and Strings in A, D.667, The Trout. Joining Williams and Powell were the CSO’s strings principals – violist, Tor Frømyhr, cellist, Patrick Suthers, and double bassist, Max McBride.
Schubert was 22 when he wrote The Trout in 1819. So, there’s a lot of youthful exuberance in the work, including plenty of syncopation. But, after its premiere, which featured Schubert’s commissioning cellist friend, Sylvester Paumgartner, it fell into neglect for a decade. was not published until 1829, a year after Schubert’s untimely death. It was only then that The Trout topped the charts. Nearly two centuries on and it still is one of the top favourites in the classical chamber music canon.
The ensemble made a very promising start to the five-movement work. Superb balance, nicely-paced tempi, and clarity in seamless lead-passing were all accented by expressive and confident playing. The Q&As were exquisitely handled. At the piano, Powell had clearly practised her scales, for there was uncommon fluidity and evenness in all her many runs up and down the keyboard.
The second movement, marked Andante, seemed a tad slow – more a stroll than a walk – and the ensemble cohesion suffered a little from it, especially towards the end of the first section.
The famous and lively third – the Scherzo and Trio – saw a return to the confidence of the first, with a solid start, exuding the brightness and happiness – that youthful exuberance – inherent across the work. The Trio began a little tentatively, and overall, a little slow, but the ensemble cohesion stayed very much together as it returned to the Scherzo at the end.
The fourth movement is a (quite short) theme and variations, introduced by the strings alone. The players achieved a lovely softness and gentleness here, and, when the piano joined in, the full playfulness of the theme was realised. Then, through the variations, there were many wonderful moments – a lyrical lead of romance from the cello, an engaging conversation between the violin and cello, and myriad light and airy passages from the piano.
The final movement, Allegro Giusto, was just that. It was played with vigour and vibrant colour. Williams’ violin was light and airy – perhaps a little too much so, for it occasionally was lost in the ensemble sound, making the balance tip to the bass end. But there was no denying that these artists were in their element; they were enjoying themselves!
The audience certainly did too, twice recalling these fine musicians to the front. How nice it was to enjoy the musicianship of some of the best in the business, in a chamber music setting.