Townsville Civic Theatre
August 5, 2016

The concept for the Evening Series concert on the ninth day of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music began with two works: Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok and the first of Beethoven’s late quartets, the String Quartet No 12 – both works their composer’s 127th opus. From this core, the idea was expanded to include opus 127s by Schubert and Schumann, whose Last Waltzes and Fünf Lieder und Gesänge respectively formed a lighter introduction to the concert.

Schubert’s 20 Waltzes – titled Last Waltzes by publishers following the composer’s death – were performed by five pianists (Finghin Collins, Andrew West, Sa Chen, Timothy Young, and the festival’s Artistic Director Piers Lane). Four pianists sat flanking the stage, swapping every few waltzes in a Schubertian game of musical chairs. Collins attacked his waltzes with boisterous weight, while West’s dramatic left-hand runs tore up the piano. Chen found smooth, subtle shapes, while Young executed crisp turns and Lane capped off the performances with a cheeky lightness.

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Roderick Williams brought his burnished tone and stunning clarity to Schumann’s Fünf Lieder, gliding over the top of West’s sensitive accompaniment. He gave the fourth song, Mein Altes Roß (My old horse), in which a soldier speaks to his horse of love and loss, a sense of humorous dignity without losing the sense of pathos that culminates in the final tolling of piano chords. Roderick sung the final piece – text taken from the fool’s song that concludes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – with a delightful quirkiness.

A sinuous cello line from Trey Lee opened Song of Ophelia, the first song of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on the Russian symbolist Blok’s poems, before Valda Wilson added her full, sonorous soprano to the sparse texture. Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman once wrote that this cycle “reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy.” Following a devastating heart attack, Shostakovich wrote this song for Mstislav Rostropovich to perform with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya and soon set six more songs, adding piano and violin, played here by Chen and Adam Chalabi. After the beauty of the first movement, Bird of Prophecy showed Wilson capable of a far more powerful sound; an apocalyptic vision in which she declaimed against a relentless march of piano before retreating into a quieter coda underpinned by shards of bass from Chen. By contrast, We Were Together (That Troubled Night) is a sweet, almost naive, love song, though Chalabi’s running violin figures still conveyed a sense of lingering anxiety. Lee’s double-stopping, sliding around the fingerboard, joined Chen in accompanying Wilson in the more tranquil The City Sleeps. The Storm saw Wilson rise up like a terrifying wind, her voice a refined shriek over thundering piano, before cello and violin twisted around the soprano in Secret Signs. The final poem, Music, saw all three instruments join together with the voice for the first time. The text is a hymn of thanks for music and beauty, but while there are moments of tranquillity – if not quite happiness – the sense of menace never disappears completely and the work ended in suspended shafts of light from Lee and Chalabi, over quiet, troubled interjections from Chen.

The Goldner Quartet – the AFCM’s Quartet-in-Residence – brought a rich, polished sound to Beethoven’s String Quartet No 12, Dene Olding spinning delicate threads in the violin’s high register in the first movement and trading melodies back and forth with Dimity Hall in the second. It was the scherzo that stood out as the high point in this performance, however, the ensemble brilliantly navigating Beethoven’s jolting shifts, sudden mood swings and dramatic pauses, provoked a burst of pre-finale applause from the audience. The energetic final movement – with its eccentric false ending – was executed with vigorous panache.

The cute idea of presenting a concert of works with the same opus number was, for the most part, remarkably effective, the Shostakovich and Beethoven a wonderful pairing. The shift from the lightness of the Schubert waltzes – performed here with a kind of dance-hall flippancy – to the magnificent power of the Shostakovich, however, was a stretch and in the end it was the two centrepiece works that made this such a satisfying concert.

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