The Fitters Workshop, Canberra Glassworks
May 7, 2015

The Canberra International Festival has hit its stride as it approaches its second weekend, with Artistic Director Roland Peelman’s inaugural programme offering a myriad of musical delights across the nation’s capital. Yesterday evening at the festival’s main performance hub, the Fitters Workshop at the Canberra Glassworks, a twilight concert marked the 181st birthday of the great icon of Romantic music, Johannes Brahms, featuring six musician from the stable of international artists imported for the festival.

Kicking off the birthday celebrations, Daniel de Borah delivered a sensitively considered account of the Three Intermezzi from Brahms’ last substantial volume of keyboard pieces, the Op. 119 Klavierstücke. These three pieces are a sublimely eloquent distillation of Brahms’ harmonic and gestural language; all superfluous rhetoric and arbitrary theatrics are stripped away, and de Borah’s thoughtful, intelligent delivery was perfectly suited to achieving the ideal equilibrium of musical clarity and emotional restraint. This was a display of sophisticated musical artistry, free from overly flashy interpretative arrogance or unnecessary physical hyperbole. Paired with this deeply respectful reverence for the music, de Borah also carefully understood the architecture of Brahms’ composition, and he made some very savvy and enlightened choices in the prominence of each voice within the musical texture. This was excellent Brahms playing that clearly articulated the pervading nostalgia of music while still accentuating the progressive innovation of the harmony.

Joining de Borah on stage, the New Zealand String Quartet’s Gillian Ansell on viola and mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser performed Two Songs Op. 91 for alto, viola and piano. These pair of pearls from Brahms’ vast collection of German art song require some careful handling. The quirkiness of the meaty viola part, which sits in a hinterland between joining the piano in accompanying the voice and sharing the solo spotlight with the vocalist, risks stealing the show, and indeed on a few occasions Ansell’s rich, woody, surprisingly robust playing was a touch too brutish against de Borah and Fraser’s more restrained performance. However, on the whole Fraser’s ripe, warm tone and eloquently rich delivery allowed these songs of loss and repose to hit their emotional mark.

Closing the concert, the New Zealand String Quartet performed Brahms’ third quartet, a light, bright, often celebratory piece that made the perfect birthday salute to the composer. Unquestionably this ensemble boasts some very fine musicians, but some occasionally less-than-perfect intonation and problems with inconsistent balance left this account of Brahms’ quartet a little ragged around the edges. However, while this performance may not have been note perfect, the New Zealand String Quartet expertly captured the spirit of this music. Bristling with charisma and charm, the playful excitement of this piece was deftly communicated, most potently in the gloriously moreish viola solo in the third movement, played with iron-clad confidence by Ansell. Yes, this performance was peppered with the kind of idiosyncrasies innate in live performance, but while it may not have been flawless, it was still captivating nonetheless.

The Canberra Interntaional Music Festival continues until Sunday May 10.

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter