It would be hard to imagine a more pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Adelaide than at a chamber music concert in the genteel charm of Elder Hall. Like its gracious sister auditorium, the Town Hall, barely a kilometre away, its bright but subtle acoustics and elegant demeanour are a joy to the eye and ear.
For several years now, Kathryn Selby has opened her series of Selby & Friends concerts in Adelaide. She has a devoted, even adoring audience here, mostly seniors who seem to live for chamber music. Selby rewards them with interesting, if conservative programs and superlative performances by her extensive international network of very fine players. Many of them are Australian expatriates returning home for a week of performances in most capitals.
This past weekend saw the first appearance of the third of five national programs from Selby & Friends. Its title, From Russia with Love, was cheeky and a bit deceptive, as it not only included those dour Russian stalwarts, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, but also two ring-ins, Beethoven and Debussy. Underneath the surface, Selby constantly traces connections which illuminate the music itself.
The program opened with Scriabin’s Romance of 1890, an exquisite three-minute gem arranged by Steven Isserlis for cello and piano. In the elegant hands of Timo-Veikko Valve, since 2006 the principal cellist in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, it had a velvet, ultra-romantic quality that went straight to the heart-strings. ‘Tipi’, as he is universally known, elevated it from being merely a precious miniature to a finely crafted, beautifully burnished art-work. He drew long, evenly sustained sonorities from his cello, a glorious 1616 instrument from the brothers Amati. At the keyboard, Selby relished the wash of Scriabin’s signature harmonies and fluid, almost melting passage-work.
By comparison, Beethoven’s seven variations for cello and piano on a theme from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro seemed slight, almost trite. Tipi and Selby tossed them off efficiently and occasionally even evocatively, suggesting a merry game of tag between the pair of coquettish lovers from Mozart’s opera.
The wattage was lowered again to a Russian setting for the Meditation on a beloved place, a ten-minute essay in nostalgia by the 38-year-old Tchaikovsky. At times, it sounded like a sketch for the slow movement of his Violin Concerto and harboured occasional bravura flashes for the violin, but hardly enough to send me to the record store.
In the playing of Daniel Dodds, returning home from his post as Artistic Director of the Festival Strings Lucerne, this morsel contained the essence of the great concerto-in-the-wings. With his 1717 Stradivarius, Dodds produced a powerful, soaring tone, recalling the qualities of his mentor, the great American violinist Nathan Milstein. Here was a thoughtful musicianship at work, but still not enough to persuade me of the merit of the piece itself.
With their respective Strads, violinist and cellist were evenly cast in the two piano trios that framed the rest of the program. At times, closing my eyes, I could imagine some kind of composite instrument, creating a sonority that approached, but stepped back from a cloying sweetness.
“The primary aim of French music,” Debussy had declared in 1904, “is to give pleasure.” That statement was borne out in his early Piano Trio in G Major, written when the 18-year-old was still a student at the Paris Conservatory.
Again, the performers did not try to pretend this was an important masterwork, even though it did foreshadow things to come. Here, Selby’s distinctive, elegant finger-work animated a piece whose 20 minutes passed without having achieved anything really remarkable. Again, there were suggestions of the Preludes and even composers like Dukas, but little more.
The pieces in the first half of this abundantly pleasant program served as entrées to the second half. It was devoted entirely to the second piano trio, the Elégiaque by the 20-year-old Rachmaninov. Again, like the Tchaikovsky, a relatively early piece; again, another work in D Minor (what would Russian composers do without this key, one has to wonder); again, another work pointing to the future, in this case, the much-loved Second Piano Concerto in C Minor, composed several years later.
For me, this elegy was a very long haul through the depths of a Russian winter. For the rest of the audience, it was sheer heaven, and the players delivered to order. Ghosts of Russian Orthodox hymns, composers like Mussorgsky and Balakirev, even shades of Rachmaninov’s own opera Aleko floated over its tedious 50 minutes. The strings played like Oistrakhs, big and bold and almost bulging at the seams. Fundamentally though, it was a Selby performance, tossing off those mini-cadenzas with insouciance and flair. The central movement, a set of eight variations, annoyed me for its 20-minutes of long-windedness, despite Selby’s attempts to inject life into a tedious journey of false endings. The finale, Allegro risoluto, reinvigorated us. It had players and audience on the edge of their seats; it was, in all, quite thrilling.
Selby’s Adelaide audience, as I have said, are rusted-on devotees. They adore her programs, and rightly so. Even so, programs such as these, created with such intelligence and charm, could afford the opportunity to lead them – ever so gently – into unfamiliar territory. Could there not have been a place for a contemporary Russian (Rodion Shchedron) or even an Australian with Russian heritage (Larry Sitsky or the ubiquitous Elena Kats-Chernin, whose music figures in a later Selby program)?
For all my churlishness, this is a program that audiences elsewhere will enjoy over the coming week. Bravi to Selby and her two splendid string-playing friends for delivering such virtuosic playing and thought-provoking performances.
Selby & Friends’ From Russia with Love tours to Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, City Recital Hall, Sydney, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew, in Melbourne, Chevalier College in Bowral and Turramurra Uniting Church in Sydney until July 14