★★★★★ Ravel’s Trio the crowning glory of a thrilling and memorable French concert.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
July 14, 2015

Bastille Day proved to be the perfect time to attend this celebration of (mostly) French chamber music, played by members of the ACO. Guests were the Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland, the Japanese-American violinist Karen Gomyo, and the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

The concert opened with Ravel’s three tantalisingly cool settings of Mallarmé, and from the first bars the musicians achieved a wonderfully subtle blend. Graham lightened her voice effectively, producing a seamless legato despite the tricky intervallic leaps of the melodic line, and floating some exquisite high notes. And, befitting a recipient of the Legion d’honneur, her French was faultless: not always the case, even in some of the greatest recordings of this exquisite cycle. Opening the second half of the concert, she performed Respighi’s Il tramonto (The sunset: an Italian translation of Shelley’s poem) for mezzo and string quartet. Here, she showed us the warmth and the commitment to drama that continue to serve her so well on the operatic stage.

Two substantial chamber works were in the program. The largest was César Franck’s Piano Quintet (1879). A well-known music lover told me afterwards that he didn’t care for it – the piece, not the performance – because of the composer’s long-windedness. Franck’s quintet is structurally looser than his later Variations symphoniques or Violin Sonata, but these musicians played it from the heart, fashioning the restless chromatic sequences and thematic repetitions into a gripping musical journey. Hadland easily mastered the difficult piano writing. (Franck had large hands and could play chords within the interval of a 12th with no trouble.)

My favourite work of the evening (and also the audience’s, to judge from their applause) was the Ravel Piano Trio. Hadland, Gomyo and the ACO’s Principal Cellist Timo-Viekko Valve displayed exceptionally tight ensemble and rapport – you would swear this trio had been playing together for ages – and teased out an impressively wide range of colour from the score. Hearing the more conventional string voicings of Respighi and Franck only served to emphasise Ravel’s unique quality as a colourist. This magnificent performance was the crowning glory in a thrilling and memorable concert.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra tours A French Celebration until July 22

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