★★★☆☆ Maybe not marvellous but certainly strong playing from the Benauds.

Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon
July 18, 2015

The warm, wooden interiors of the Recital Centre offer a welcome escape on cold Melbourne nights. That and the promise of music provided by some seriously high-calibre performers. Last Saturday, it was the Benaud Trio, named for late Aussie icon and cricket-commentator Richie Benaud, who took to stage of the intimate Salon. The Trio’s members are of seriously respectable station: brothers Lachlan and Ewen Bramble (violin and cello respectively) hold Associate Principal chairs in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Amir Farid is one of Australia’s most highly regarded associate artists and soloists. For this, their second set of Melbourne concert for 2015, the trio came together to perform music that was both forward thinking, and retrospective.

The evening kicked off with Arnold Schoenberg’s early masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), in an arrangement of the original 1899 string sextet by Schoenberg’s former pupil Eduard Steurmann. The Benauds gave a mostly solid performance of this innovative work, delivering long, luscious melody with some powerful swells in emotion. The reading was rich and full, though at times the violin didn’t come off as strong as its colleagues, and the result was probably not as convincing as the other two works on the program.

Complete contrast came in the second piece, a gradually evolving study of musical and natural geography titled Plainscapes (2002), by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. The slowly changing landscape of haunting, minor key melodies was nicely captured, with transient episodes of super-subtle, insect-like fluttering making for a fascinating colour change. Farid came out the hero at the work’s apotheosis, breaking the meditative atmosphere with an arresting display of earth-shattering chords and gestures. The Brambles worked together perfectly at the conclusion, engaging the Salon’s bare acoustic to effect the final evaporation from scurrying insect sounds into stillness.

For something a little different, poetry was read before each musical offering, all  by actor, director and television personality Roland Rocchiccioli. The effect was particularly strong with Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s 1915, which was matched to the powerful words of Alfred Bryan’s Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier, an attack on the terrible waste of war. Composed for the Benaud Trio this year, Hindson’s work looked back exactly 100 years ago to explore the reality for young men leaving to serve as soldiers. This mournful musical contemplation called for each member of the Benaud trio to render the most poignant of melodies with a profound sensitivity, which mostly they did. Hats off to Ewen Bramble, whose opening solo was just exquisite.

All in all, this might not have been a miraculous performance like the program promised, but some sturdy performances made for an enjoyable evening. It’s fantastic also to hear an all-modern program (even if the Schoenberg is over 100 years old).