Musica Viva Australia has kicked off its first concert for 2019 with a beguiling, wide-ranging concert by British cellist Natalie Clein and London-based Russian pianist Katya Apekisheva. Clein – who rose to fame when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year at 16 – came to Sydney in 2017, but this is her first national tour, as it is for Apekisheva, who made her Australian debut at last year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Clein has a compelling, earthy sound, with a smouldering edge to it, which perfectly suited this program, deeply rooted in folk music. Combined with Apekisheva’s precise, gleaming piano, this was a concert of rich textures, finely spun melodies and a refined, understated beauty.

Natalie Clein, Musica VivaNatalie Clein. Photo © Neda Navaee

The duo whetted the audience’s appetite with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1926 suite, Six Studies in English Folk-Song, which – along with the Rebecca Clarke Sonata later in the program – Clein recently recorded with pianist Christian Ihle Hadland for Hyperion. With an easy musical camaraderie, Clein and Apekisheva imbued the miniatures with a dream-like quality, teasing out the wistful simplicity of the second study and the taut energy of the final movement, based on the ballad Spare Me the Life of Georgie.

The music of Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch, particularly earlier in his career, draws on the composer’s Jewish heritage, exploring the characters and flavours of Eastern European Jewish folk music (without quoting directly). While these elements are particularly explicit in his From Jewish Life for cello and piano, his Suite No 1 for Solo Cello – written for the cellist Zara Nelsova – owes as much to the Cello Suites of JS Bach, and Clein highlighted the contrasts between the two works on this program. She leaned into her instrument’s low register in the opening of the Suite, the Prelude first movement growing up out of the depths and spiralling into athletic finery. She pressed forward between the movements, barrelling into the Allegro with fierce virtuosity – though still finding moments of pristine lyricism in the high register – while the Canzona had a glimmering sweetness, before the boisterous finale.

Katya Apekisheva, Musica VivaKatya Apekisheva. Photo © Giorgia Bertazzi 

Between the two works by Bloch, Clein and Apekisheva rounded out the concert’s first half with Rebecca Clarke’s 1919 Sonata for Viola (or Cello) and Piano. Clarke’s Sonata came within one vote of winning a competition at the Berkshire Festival sponsored by American arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (and ruffling the feathers of the judges when the composer’s gender was revealed). While the Sonata lost to Bloch’s 1919 Suite for Viola and Piano, it was nonetheless performed at the festival, and has gone on to become a beloved fixture of the viola repertoire. Clein is a persuasive advocate for the work’s performance by cellists, attacking the fanfare-like opening figure with plenty of bite, and giving the first movement a fiery intensity, relishing the elemental drone of the instrument’s open C string, her exquisite high register on display at the other end of the spectrum. Apekisheva’s piano was crisp and precise in the Vivace, the dancing figures almost pixie-like in the duo’s hands, while the fourth movement’s lean, chant-like opening gave way to a passionate Allegro.

Bloch’s From Jewish Life opened the concert’s second half, Clein’s cello taking on a vocal quality, its singing lines inflected with anguished quarter-tone slides in the opening Prayer movement, with the improvisatory figures of the finale, Jewish Song, a particular pleasure.

Natalie Williams describes her new work for Musica Viva, The Dreaming Landas a “sonic journey across a fictional landscape”. The sonata, which opened with Clein’s gentle, hazy harmonics, alludes to “the vast terrain of the Australian continent”, but while the title suggests The Dreaming of Indigenous Australians, Williams does not make any such connection explicit in her note on the work, instead offering a more abstract depiction of a musical journey undertaken by the narrator cello and pianist companion. Clein’s harmonics soon became distant cries in the first movement, Voices of the Ancients, blooming into lyrical melodies over Apekisheva’s rippling piano. The Chanting Walker… was more desolate, with deep, growling dissonances climbing to transcendent heights, while the final movement, Ethereal Furies, was a lively, frenzied dance. Exploring ideas of both musical story-telling and the time-honoured sonata form, Williams’ work is a colourful, atmospheric contribution to the cello repertoire.

Capping off the official concert program was the first Sonata from Beethoven’s Opus 102 pair, which Beethoven originally conceived as a “free sonata”. The musicians brought cleaner lines to this short, two-movement work, before unleashing a wilder energy in the first movement’s Allegro vivace, and plenty of humour in the second movement.

The sound world shifted yet again for the encore, the slow movement from Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, which – like the second sonata of Beethoven’s Op. 102 – can be heard in full on Clein and Apekisheva’s alternate program for this tour. The audience left with the Russian composer’s lush piano and singing cello ringing in their ears.

Natalie Clein and Katya Apekisheva tour nationally for Musica Viva Australia until March 2