While hardly the last concert of the Festival, ‘Last Statement’ on Wednesday night at the Canberra International Music Festival was still an evening of farewells. The first goodbye took place before the audience even arrived – the soprano for the opening performance was originally to be award-winning Australian-Chinese artist, Shu-Cheen Yu. But as the Festival’s Artistic Director, Roland Peelman, put it ruefully to the audience, these crisp Canberra nights take their toll. For a professional singer with a full schedule, it is better not to risk straining an indisposed throat, and so Yu regretfully chose not to make an appearance. Fortunately for all, Susannah Lawergren, at the Festival with The Song Company, boldly stepped up at the last moment to fill this gap. Schubert’s last statement would still be made.

Well, perhaps not his very last. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) was, however, composed in the final months of Schubert’s life. A stunning and virtuosic lied for clarinet and soprano, it presents the song of a lonely shepherd as he thinks about his distant lover. Peelman extracted a gently pulsing introduction from the piano as Israeli clarinettist Orit Orbach inhaled for her first, long, sweet note.

What followed could probably be excused by that last-minute change to the running sheet, which must have played who-knows-what kind of havoc with the rehearsal time. Even so, such excessive amounts of rubato were an odd choice in interpreting a composer who has at least as much reference to Classical as to Romantic music, and the fact that piano and clarinet were stretching their tempos at different times and in different directions meant that the first phrases were sadly out of sync. When the soprano line entered, Lawergren took a more evenly-paced approach and the rhythm was easier to follow; even so, ensemble and balance issues persisted throughout the first section.

In the central, minor part, much of this was forgotten as the music calmed, softened and slightly slowed, and Lawergren’s supple, expressive vibrato evoked the shepherd’s sorrow at being so far from his beloved. While in the first section clarinet and voice would call back and forth, like echoes ringing off Alpine rocks, the second features a long, introspective passage without the clarinet at all – the shepherd is alone with his thoughts. The melodic line was then gently taken over by the clarinet in a mournfully subdued solo, before it raced off in cheery scales at the thought of Spring. By now, all three musicians were united, giving the work a more polished close. Lawergren, though recruited at the last minute, sang gamely and created some truly beautiful moments.

This proved the first and the last musical wrinkle. Well-prepared offerings of Shostakovich and Mozart filled out the rest of the evening – they have likewise been filling out a healthy portion of the Festival programme, to all-discernible audience approval. The Van Kuijk Quartet made their last appearance at the Festival for another of Mozart’s string quintets, No 3 in C Major, again joined by violist Florian Peelman. This is the companion work to the quintet they played for Tuesday night’s Velvet Revolution concert, and is as radiant as the other was harrowing.

It began in an atmosphere already lightened by laughter, as the cellist first forgot his score and then sat down without his instrument. This was quite apt, as the first theme begins with a blaring joke told by the cello: slightly reminiscent of a toy foghorn, with a rising cascade of chuckling notes afterwards. The violins answer with a cheery comment of their own, and the opening Allegro is underway. The Van Kuijk sound remained as clear as it has been from their first performance, with that shift towards bassier resonance caused by the slightly more prominent cello element. Yet this time, the clarity was braced by a touch more mellowness, perhaps owing to the run-on effect of having come through a powerful Shostakovich string quartet just before the interval. There seemed to be a little more vibrato than usual hanging on to the edges of audibility.

This worked, though, especially with the golden overtones added by the extra viola. It was a particularly noticeable blend in the Menuet and Trio movement, which, in accordance with Mozart’s published ordering, but contrary to every convention of Mozart’s time, was played second. The pacing was also well-conceived, giving an easy charm to the theme of the Trio, which was not permitted to drag!

Throughout the Andante’s summer idyll and the delightful game of the final Allegro, the certainty grew that each member of the ensemble knew exactly what the other ones were about to play – and with what attack, colour and dynamic level they were going to play it. With very few exceptions, perhaps one or two, their entries after pauses came in perfectly together and flawlessly blended. Whether their pristine approach to Mozart is your preference, or whether you’d rather go for a gutsier effect, you can’t deny that the Van Kuijk Quartet know exactly what they want from their sound – and with that level of self-assurance, they play Mozart very convincingly.

Of course, Shostakovich is a very different kettle of fish. His 15th and final quartet, in E-flat minor, is one of his deepest, most haunting, and consequently most difficult, works. Like Schubert’s earlier lied, this was written mere months before the composer’s death; and as so many of Shostakovich’s later compositions do, it obsesses over themes of loss and mortality. The quartets were always Shostakovich’s most personal creations, making this the deeply intimate ‘last statement’ of a man who by now was slowly dying of cancer.

The setting was becomingly sombre. All light in the hall was extinguished save the stage lights, and these were dimmed to a shadowy blue-blackness. On stage, little reading lights affixed above each score gave the impression of a miniature constellation, mesmerising all attention. With the softness of a breath, second violinist Sylvain Favre-Bulle entered alone upon the slow, elegiac fugue. Again, the transparent mix was transformed with the cello’s entry, a miracle of tender throatiness above which floated ethereal, meandering violins. There was a hypnotic simplicity to this movement, which Shostakovich directed should be played ‘so that the audience leaves the room out of sheer boredom.’ The viola’s slightly flawed intonation merely humanized the otherwise changeless perfection of the harmonies.

Ghastly shrieks broke the spell – a series of single strokes which, starting faintly, swelled to a fierce sforzando with a biting cut-off. With the Quartet’s signature clarity, they were penetrating but not agonizing; the ghoulish waltz which followed was spare and skeletal. First violinist Nicholas Van Kuijk attacked the ferocious Intermezzo with the most energy yet, and the eerie Nocturne, played throughout with mutes, drew the audience into its world. A richer vibrato prevailed in the funeral march, and as echoes of the previous themes returned for the fevered epilogue, even the cello was revealing hitherto unheard intensities.

While the Van Kuijk Quartet’s dominant effect remains clarity, and their Shostakovich still has room to mature, this interpretation was already emotional and thoughtful. The interval allowed the audience to process the solemnity of what they had just heard, before returning for a more light-hearted conclusion to their evening in the Mozart. And once the last notes had faded, the Quartet allowed the cheers of the audience to convince them into an encore – which, they announced as they took their seats again, was dedicated to Anna Davies from the production team.

As the eternal strains of Happy Birthday filled the hall, the audience broke into delighted laughter for the second time that night. Like all their performances at the Festival so far, this concert was a potent blend of professional, artistic refinement, and simple good fun – an appropriate Festival farewell for the Van Kuijk Quartet, who will leave behind Australian audiences eagerly awaiting their return.


The Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra, until May 7. 

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