Love was the theme of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s eighth day, with Love Letters the final concert of the evening, following earlier concerts Relative Love and Love Stories (which featured a wonderful performance of Sally Beamish’s Four Songs from Hafez by baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Daniel de Borah).

Berlin-based Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg – who has a run of gigs here following the festival, including engagements with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and singing Melisande in Victorian Opera’s upcoming Pelleas and Melisande – sent off the first love letters, with an exquisite performance of Fauré’s La bonne chanson in the composer’s arrangement for chamber ensemble.

The chamber version – which saw violinists Harry Bennetts and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violist Lars Anders Tomter, cellist István Várdai, double bassist Kees Boersma and De Borah join Stagg on stage – offers lusher textures than the piano version, with Stagg’s sound ensconced in the larger ensemble.

Fauré wrote the work for his mistress Emma Bardac, cherry-picking poems from Verlaine’s La bonne chanson and reordering them to create a structure that follows a narrative of blossoming love. Stagg’s sound was sweet and ethereal in the opening Une Sainte en son aureole – the viola mimicking a far off horn – before her sound unfurled as the songs became more passionate. Her voice took on a darker, full timbre in N’est-ce pas? (reflecting the “dark wood” of the text) before a radient finale in L’hiver a cessé – “Winter is over”.

Argentinian bandoneón virtuoso JP Jofre led a tango jam-session performance of three movements from Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations, written originally for the Kronos Quartet, with Kathryn Stott on piano, Karen Gomyo and Sitkovetsky on violin, Tobias Breider on viola and Guy Johnston on cello. Jofre drew out the long phrases with his bandoneón in Love before the tension ratcheted up a notch with the more jagged Anxiety, cello pulsing insistently and Gomyo finding a raw, impassioned sound on the violin. Brittle scratching, tapping and flicking slides drove the rhythmic finale, Fear.

Another Australian returning for a series of engagements back home, violinist Grace Clifford capped off the first half, performing two Fritz Kreisler encores (which, ever the prankster, he had originally attributed to waltz composer Joesph Lanner). Clifford brought polished warmth to the Liebeslied before dispatching the Liebesfreud with crisp panache.

An ensemble described by Mairi Nicolson (hosting the evening for ABC Classic FM) as the festival’s “erotic, exotic cello octet” – an group consisting of Howard Penny, Guy Johnston, Julian Smiles, Istváan Várdai and ANAM students Eliza Sdraulig, Caleb Wong, Vicky Zhang and Liam Meany – opened the second half with Richard Birchall’s eight-cello arrangement the Prelude to Act I from Tristan und Isolde. You lose, of course, the orchestral colour in an arrangement like this, but from the hushed opening, with its distinctive ‘Tristan chord’, the octet gave us a more intimate Prelude that compellingly charted the ever-shifting, rising tension of the music, distilled down to its essence.

Bringing to an end a nicely balanced program was the AFCM’s Quartet-in-Residence, the Goldner String Quartet, with Janáček’s Second String Quartet, Intimate Letters. The quartet is part of an extensive body of work the composer created out of his fixation with Kamila Stösslová, who – despite her lack of interest (and husband) – inspired several of his opera heroines, not to mention 700 letters, which in turn inspired this string quartet.

The Goldner strings smouldered in the first movement, which Janáček described as “written in fire”, the urgency maintained through the second movement’s Adagio and the lilting third movement, Dene Olding’s finely spun violin lines returned by Irina Morozova on viola before the passionate outpouring reached it’s rather violent conclusion and the dances of the finale kicked off.


The Australian Festival of Chamber Music is in Townsville until August 5

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine