It was a cool, gloomy and rainy night in Canberra for these two concerts in the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Isolation Series, so viewing them at home via live streaming was something of a bonus. The usual protocols, such as mobile phones being on silent, were followed, but some local cheddar and a nice glass of red were on hand.

Kristian ChongKristian Chong. Photo © John Tsiavis

Pianist Kristian Chong, was first up, performing in an empty Athenaeum Theatre, in Melbourne. His was a program of Bach (arranged by Siloti), Rachmaninov and Schubert.

One of the big plusses of streaming is that the audience can enjoy their view from several camera angles, with close-ups of the performer’s facial expressions (Chong had many) and, most importantly, their playing technique.

The notable thing about Chong’s technique was that his hands, while producing an extraordinary range of dynamics and emotions in the music, stayed very close to the keys, barely rising even above the piano’s brand name, in this case a very nice Kawai, on the keyboard cover. His is a very gentle touch, caressing the keys in the adagio passages, but with energetic agility in the allegros.

Bach wrote his Prelude in E minor, along with the accompanying Fugue, (No 10 in the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier) in the early 1720s. But the Russian pianist and composer, Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) transcribed the Prelude into B minor, the “tender key”, according to Chris Howlett, who, along with Adele Schonhardt, directs the series. Chong’s gentle touch brought great beauty to this most celebrated arrangement.

Staying in the same key, Chong’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in B minor Op.32 No 10 perhaps was not quite so successful, marred a little by overuse of the sustain pedal, causing a loss of clarity. Nonetheless he again drew great expression from the piece which began quietly and reflectively, with a brighter middle section lulling the listener into a false security, only to give way to a reprise of the opening and quietly fading away almost to nothing.

Chong’s affection though, for Schubert’s quite long Sonata in B flat major D960, was palpable from the start. He gave a very fine performance, full of emotion and a wonderful affinity with the work. In the second movement, Molto moderato, Chong drew out, in no small measure, the sadness of Schubert’s realisation that the end of his mere 31 years of life was drawing near. In the third, a scurrying Scherzo, Chong’s dexterity was not so much boisterous as delicate, just as was called for in the tempo marking, Allegro vivace con delicatezza.

Zoe KnightonZoe Knighton. Photo © Pia Johnson

The second concert was by cellist Zoe Knighton, playing Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello Numbers 2, 4 and 6. She had performed the other three less than a week earlier, so, between her two concerts, had taken on one of the most demanding programs faced by any performing artist.

A quite unique feature of Bach’s writing is that there is very little in the way of directions as to tempi, dynamics, articulations or ornaments. Pretty much nothing at all except key and time signatures. So, it is left to the artist to interpret (guess?) what Bach might have had in mind as to how to play them. Considering Bach likely was the greatest improviser of his time – and perhaps even right up to today – it is little wonder that he left the way open.  And what a wealth of interpretations there have been.

Knighton’s performance was no different. There were subtle pauses, little embellishments of trills and turns, lots of rubato, and even some vibrato, which probably wasn’t used much in Bach’s time.

In effect then, Knighton’s interpretation, like for every cellist, is unique to any other, which keeps these well-known pieces fresh for every performance. Despite some harmonic squeaks and a lack of clarity in some of her multiple-stopping, Knighton’s performance of these diabolically difficult works was enjoyable, interesting and, well, fresh.

It was in the Sixth Suite that she really shone. The Allemande, the two Gavottes, and the final movement, Gigue, especially showed her virtuosity. And camera close-ups of her face suggested she was enjoying herself. She took a well-deserved bow. And we clapped.

From a reviewing viewpoint, it was quite strange to see no audience reaction to the performance; it is an important part of any concert and gives the artists energy. It would be infinitely stranger for a musician to sit and play to an empty hall; it must be quite difficult to separate the feeling of rehearsal from the feeling of performance. These two artists obviously felt a bit awkward, but gave the whole experience a good shot. I bet a lot of other people were clapping enthusiastically in their lounge rooms, too.

Congratulations are due, too, to the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall for an initiative that not only showcases some of the finest talent in this country, but gives our beleaguered musicians some hope that there really will be life after COVID and, in the meantime, help them, as Knighton said, “pay the rent”.

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall