Capping off the seventh day of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Viennese Classics at the Townsville Civic Centre was accompanied by a coolness that cleared away the narcotising effect of Townsville’s humidity. Equally refreshing was the programme, a collection of unusual works and configurations combined with well-loved repertoire – a far cry from the bland offerings one often hears under the title ‘classics’.
Trey Lee presented the opening notes of Beethoven’s variations on Handel’s See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes from Judas Maccabeus (well-known also as a hymn tune) with simple elegance and a honeyed tone, his cello resonant in the low register. The variations are very much a duet for piano and cello, and Andrew West proved an amiable partner, tripping lightly through the first solo piano variation. Lee and West played off each other through the variations – sometimes impassioned sometimes playfully animated – the light-hearted ending bring smiles to their lips.
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The second quartet in Haydn’s Op. 2 set was arranged with a lute part during his lifetime, but it is unclear whether the composer approved of the arrangement or was even aware of it. Presented here by Karin Schaupp as a ‘Guitar Quartet’ the guitar added a contrasting colour to the string ensemble, but even with gentle amplification the more powerful acoustic instruments threatened to swamp the quieter moments and running figures. Schaupp’s lines were delicate and neatly phrased, the trio (Adam Chalabi on violin, Caroline Henbest on viola and Wolfgang-Emanuel Schmidt on cello) lightly colouring their sound with vibrato. The guitar added an exotic flavour to Haydn’s music, expressive appoggiaturas becoming light, almost Spanish-inflected, snaps.
The first half of the concert was brought to a close with Mahler’s beautiful Rückert-Lieder – five musical settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, sung by baritone Roderick Williams and accompanied by violinist Elizabeth Sellars and Ensemble Liaison (David Griffiths on clarinet, Svetlana Bogosavljevic on cello and Timothy Young on piano). The arrangement by Griffiths and Young – a pared-down, chamber version of Mahler’s orchestration – opened with a bell-like figure from clarinet and violin in Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) before Williams entered, his rich, complex baritone tracing smooth lines and his diction crystal clear.
The thinner texture of this arrangement meant the lushness and subtlety of Mahler’s orchestration was lost in Um Mitternacht (At midnight) – the most substantial of the songs – but the sparser texture enhanced the sense of nocturnal loneliness and Williams and the ensemble blazed with fervent ecstasy in the final stanza.
This collection of songs isn’t strictly speaking a cycle, so performers tend to take liberties with the order of presentation. Williams and co. finished with the plaintive Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) leaving the audience hushed in awe long after the final note.
Franz Schreker achieved success as a composer of opera before Nazi persecution and death by stroke in 1934 plunged him into obscurity for most of the 20th century. Glistening piano opens his quintet Der Wind, a work that began as a collaboration with dancers Elsa and Grete Wiesenthal. Splashes of clarinet from Griffiths and tight, shimmering violin from Indira Koch prefaced a rocking melody. Passionate dance motifs were buffeted by gusts of Hervé Joulain’s French Horn, as the work traversed whirling waltzes and moments of magical, pixie-like fantasy.
The highlight of the concert, however, was the finale: Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25. Pianist Sa Chen brought a weighty gravitas to the piano lines while still sparkling brilliantly in the high register. Schmidt’s cello cut through the hall with a resounding vibrancy as he drove the motoring accompaniment in the second movement and flung pizzicatos into the crowd. Koch’s gold-hued violin tone soared in the soulful melodies of the third movement, while the finale – a wild gypsy dance – saw Chen flitting across the keyboard against a charged, plucked accompaniment before her fiery, final flourish brought the audience to their feet.
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