A modern music sandwich, with Baroque and Classical bread, offers something for all tastes.

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium
April 11, 2015

As I’m sure your mother told you, it is important to try new things, but eating one’s vegetables is usually more palatable if there is something more appealing on the plate as well. And so it was with Concert No 4 of this weekend’s smorgasbord of chamber music at the Musica Viva Festival. On the menu was a modern music sandwich with baroque/classical bread, offering something to please all tastes.

Opening the concert was Latvian cello legend Misha Maisky, who has been delighting audiences throughout the Festival with a series of Bach’s Cello Suites. For this third afternoon of the Festival Masiky delivered perhaps Bach’s most well-known work, Suite No 1 in G Major. With his colossal stage-presence and an insight into this music no doubt developed over decades, Maisky’s performance is bright and nimble, but with a great deal of emotive sensitivity and elasticity. The nuanced inflection of his delivery gives this very familiar piece an elating sense of spontaneity. Barely pausing between movements, the Suite flows fluently from Maisky, a study in perpetual motion, as he luxuriates in the slow movements and effervesces in the sprightly dances. Yet again, the combination of Bach and Maisky makes for an exhilarating experience.

Bookending the concert in the same sunny key, a favourite from the Classical repertoire closed the afternoon’s performance: Haydn’s String Quartet No 60 in G Major. In the hands of one of the world’s most celebrated exponents of this music, the Doric String Quartet, the pivotal historical significance of this piece in the development of the string quartet shines brightly. After a lifetime of perfecting the craft of composing for this musical line-up, Haydn’s Quartet No 60 was among the first of a new breed of quartet. Created to be more than merely background music or something for the amateur musician, this expertly honed piece is a bold, rhetorical statement to grab a listener and hold their attention.

Faultless, charming and richly detailed, the Doric’s account made the most of every musical witticism and innovation woven by Haydn into the fabric of this piece. Traversing the extremities of dynamic and dramatic possibility, the quartet dare to go so soft that the audience crane to hear each delicate tone, before lighting the fuse on a musical explosion of intense and joyous playing. This was most evident in the final movement, taken at a fearless tempo (very light on the prescribed non troppo) that radiated excitement and unrestrained delight.

While no doubt at least some of the audience had come specifically for the Bach and Haydn, there was also a chance to make the acquaintance of some more obscure and unheard works. Musica Viva have an excellent pedigree of commissioning new Australian compositions and two of these additions to the canon of Aussie music concluded the first half of the concert. Firstly, the Sydney premiere of String Quartet No 3 Summer Dances, by seasoned composer Ross Edwards, commissioned by Musica Viva in 2013.

Described by the composer as having an “ecological bias,” this piece takes its inspiration from the natural world, drawing on Edwards’ memories of walking a fire trail along a remote stretch of the NSW coast. Apt therefore that an Australian ensemble, the Orava Quartet, should be tasked with realising this work, delivering a performance of a truly world-class calibre. Edwards evokes an arid, brittle landscape, often exploring the Phrygian modality more often associated with Middle Eastern music, as well as using bucolic, earthy drones. A short, plaintive introduction yields to a driving, restless, insectoid dance. Edwards’ asymmetrical use of repetition, mixed with a sophisticated exploration of the myriad of available sonorities, produces some kaleidoscopic and thrilling moments, while remaining persuasively conservative for any listeners uninitiated into modern music. It is accessible, but without being overly simple or inelegant.

The level of precision, commitment and palpable enthusiasm for this music displayed by the Orava Quartet is tremendously impressive from such a young group. We are blessed with some excellent quartets Down Under – the Goldner Quartet; the Acacia Quartet; the Australian String Quartet to name just a few – but we should feel extremely fortunate to now have a group with such indisputable talent to add to that roster. The consistently impressive displays the Oravas have given this weekend for Musica Viva will surely cement a reputation for this ensemble as one of the finest in the country.

A world premiere is always an auspicious event, but the first performance of Lachlan Skipworth’s new Piano Trio, Daha, commissioned by Musica Viva for this year’s Festival, featured a line-up of performers that would be the envy of any composer. Engaged by Musica Viva as accomplished soloists, pianist Aleksander Madžar, violinist Bella Hristova and cellist Umberto Clerici, have been brought together to perform Skipworth’s trio as an all-star scratch band: could there be any more poetic display of why festivals like this are a such a potent crucible for monumental music making?

Skipworth is a composer on the rise, with a number of notable commissions in recent years. Like much of his previous output, he has turned to Japanese culture as his muse, and this piece explores various depictions of the ocean using Japanese musical quotes as its frame-work. His equally developed gifts for bold, innovative textures, and compelling melody are put to good use in Daha, conjuring up a watery world of crashing waves and subtle swells. Madžar, Hristova and Clerici, three artists at the height of their powers, give a faithful and musically astute performance, ensuring Skipworth’s complex musical ideas have clarity and meaning.

For my money, however, (and in a concert of such a high standard this was far from an easy choice) the finest display of the afternoon came courtesy of Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello. Hristova and Clerici, brought together once again by Musica Viva to collaborate for this performance, are able to effortlessly flit between grubby, folky, Hungarian fiddling and refined, technically spectacular playing that perfectly encapsulate the dual influences at work in this piece. Breath-taking simply doesn’t cover it.

Musica Viva Festival continues until Sunday 12 April.