Chamber series Selby & Friends’ second tour for 2019 – Love & Devotion – celebrates the much tittered about but extremely musically fertile relationship between Clara Schumann, her husband Robert Schumann, and the young rising star Johannes Brahms. This year is the 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s death –celebrated with far less pomp than 2020’s Beethoven anniversary is already promising – and the concert opened with her Three Romances of 1853. It was one of three works on the program spanning a period of about seven years near the end of Robert Schumann’s life during which his mental health was deteriorating – and the Romances, written for the violinist Joseph Joachim (with whom Clara would tour the work), interweave with Joachim’s introduction of Brahms to the Schumanns.
Grace Clifford, Kathryn Selby and Timo-Veikko Valve. Photo supplied
Pianist Kathryn Selby was joined by two Friends who are by now familiar faces to fans of the series, violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. Clifford’s sound has a warmth and depth to it that has captivated audiences since she won the Australian Young Performer of the Year Award in 2014 (and no doubt, before) and she brought it to bear on the sentimental opening of the first Romance, matching the passionate swells of Selby’s piano with stirring double-stops. Clifford and Selby brought out the melancholy edge that colours the tenderness of the second movement – though not without a sense of play in the music’s gentle lilting and the final pizzicatos. If Clifford’s opening note of the finale didn’t quite speak immediately, her sound soon blossomed over Selby’s rippling piano.
Valve joined the pair on stage for the darker hues of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No 1, Op. 63, Selby driving the work’s thicker textures from the piano, the trio evenly balanced – with just enough tension between the voices to keep the suspense up. While there were occasional moments when the tension slackened slightly, the drawn-out final bars of the slow movement were heartrending before a smouldering finale.
The drama cranked up another notch with Brahms’ First Piano Trio, Op. 8, Selby finding a deep, weighty sound in compelling contrast to the more glittering tone of the Schumanns’ music. Brahms published the Trio (his first published piece of chamber music) shortly after he met Clara and Robert, and the work apparently lured Clara back to the piano after Robert admitted himself into the sanatorium in Endenich, where he was isolated from his wife (though financial need was a driving force behind her return to the life of a touring concert pianist, including her tours with Joachim).
Valve’s cello scurried brilliantly in the opening of the second movement, the energetic figure soon taken up by Selby, while Clifford’s duetting with the cellist in the lullaby-like melody later in the movement was touching. The Adagio non troppo had a simple beauty, while the restless cello and piano opening of the fourth movement launched a finale of sustained, Brahmsian passion that the players held right to the final chords – a satisfying conclusion to an intimate exploration of three voices whose musical history was inextricably interwoven.
Selby & Friends’ Love & Devotion is at Turramurra Uniting Church, Sydney, on May 12