In an evening of chamber music treasures and musical accomplishments, Maisky reigns supreme.
Another evening, another concert packed bumper-to-bumper with chamber music treasure, courtesy of the Musica Viva Festival. As the flagship event in the great Australian institution’s 70th anniversary celebrations this year, it’s unsurprising that a legion of internationally in-demand, draw-card artists have been assembled. But Artistic Director Carl Vine should also be applauded for pairing this with an unselfconscious programme that is heavily laden with obscure, underrated masterworks and contemporary music.
Concert No 2 of the Festival was a fine example of this winning approach, with just a single piece on the billing that could claim any significant ubiquity. Take heed programmers of the world: as the sold-out audience at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (despite the inclement autumn weather) was testament to, brave and bold programming is a risk well worth taking.
Despite the downpour lashing central Sydney, inside the Verbrugghen Hall we were treated to a glorious ray of Mediterranean sunshine in the form of Boccherini’s Fandango, Guitar Quartet No 4 in D Major. As a highly sought-after composer and cellist during the late 18th century, Boccherini travelled extensively and consequently had a surprisingly cosmopolitan range of international influences manifest in his music. This piece, composed in 1798, is the product of the composer’s time spent marinating in the local culture in Spain. Performed by the Australian Orava Quartet joined by guitarist Karin Schaupp, this reading bubbled with a youthful, affable energy that was particularly persuasive in the opening movement’s joyous peasant dance. Boccherini flexes his compositional muscles in a range of unexpected ways, heaping exotic techniques on the cellist (unsurprising considering Boccherini probably composed this line for himself) including stratospherically high and unforgivingly exposed harmonics, horse whinny-esque glissandi and rattling col legno attacks using the wood of the bow. This piece oozes with Latin allure, and particularly so in the blazing Fandango finale. The fiery, flamenco-infused guitar line engages in a seductive duet with the athletically passionate cello, climaxing with a rambunctious, wine-soaked castanet solo, delivered with unrestrained fervour by cellist Karol Kowalik. Truly a fiesta worthy of Musica Viva’s 70th birthday.
Next Bella Hristova delivered a masterclass in virtuoso technique in a performance of American composer Kevin Puts’ violin solo, Arches, written in 2000. Fluidic melodies undulate across the instrument, picking up break-neck speed until the music becomes a furious roller-coaster of sound. This gives way to a beautifully soaring lyricism, full of passion and sorrow, before the tempo ratchets up again into an irrepressibly uplifting conclusion. Puts leaves very few technical stones unturned, and the demands this piece makes on its performer are ruthless. However Hristova meets these challenges head on, offering a faultless and emotionally sophisticated performance that crackled with violin pyrotechnics. Often a major challenge to the success of modern music is how easily the audience can assimilate the musical information being presented in a single hearing. It is therefore a huge credit to both Hristover and Pats that this music spoke with effortless and immediately fluent poignancy.
Closing the first half, a moment of more sombre reflection, with German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and Serbian pianist Aleksander Madžar performing another work that will have been largely unfamiliar to the audience: Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major. This piece offers many rewards for music geeks and less academic listeners alike, pairing vividly inventive, accessible writing with a number of clever musical in-jokes, such as the piece’s mostly minor tonality despite the title, with the only c major chord in the entire piece appearing in the final cadence. Britten’s Sonata makes equal demands of both the cellist and the accompanist and Altstaedt and Madžar share a compelling partnership. Both hold nothing back, attacking this music with an irreverent physicality that delivered some truly edge-of-your-seat playing. Altstaedt is a jaw-droppingly committed musician who is mercilessly brutal with his instrument in service of this piece, although his involuntary stamping did at times intrude on the performance.
After the interval, Jean Françaix in the hands of the Orava Quartet, this time joined by Armenian clarinettist Narek Arutyunian, was on hand to once again lighten the mood. This Clarinet Quintet from 1977 is cheeky, charming, perhaps a touch on the cheesy side, but nonetheless dripping with charisma that can’t help but leave you smiling. Just as they had in the concert’s opening piece, the Orava Quartet shared a keen communication, however in an evening featuring so many artists with huge on-stage presence, any performer lacking in readable personality is bound to stand out, and sadly Arutyunian’s introverted performance left him on the outside looking in, more of a spare wheel than a featured soloist. Partly some of the blame must be laid at the door of the quartet, who were so evidently welcoming when performing Boccherini with Schaupp, but who unfortunately seemed to lack the same generosity in this piece.
To close this second evening at the festival, the next instalment in a series of Bach Cello Suites peppered throughout the weekend, performed by the indefatigable Mischa Maisky. Striding confidently onto the stage to perform Cello Suite No 2 in D minor, his purposeful swagger and shear masculinity made it clear why the Latvian cellist is one of the most thrilling performers in the world. His interpretations of these pieces may be a little elaborate for some purists, but in the hands of this monumentally skilled musician Bach’s delicately nuanced lines are powerfully emotive. With a rich, woody, resonant tone, Maisky paints a vivid emotional narrative, shaping the ebb and flow of the music to wring-out every ounce of pathos. In an evening jam-packed with musical accomplishments, the best was very definitely saved for last.
The Musica Viva Festival 2015 continues until Sunday Arpil 12.