If Festivals are all about variety with a dollop of mix and match, this year’s annual Musica Viva Festival in Sydney looks set to be a positive smorgasbord of chamber delights. The opening concert offered works and players old and new, with plenty to engage head and heart plus some of the best chamber music playing I’ve heard all year thanks to a pair of outstanding quartets: the Goldner String Quartet – the home team, as it were – and the Elias Quartet – a British group on a real roll right now.

But first, the concert opened with a rarity: Florent Schmitt’s Légende for saxophone and piano. Schmitt was a bit of a bastard – a leading Parisian critic, he once shouted “Vive Hitler!” at a Kurt Weill concert – but his arabesque-laden Légende is reminiscent of Debussy at his yummiest and well worth an outing. Amir Farid leant a sensitive touch in a finely paced account, coping well with the numeous hand-crossings, while Amy Dickson’s warm tone really soared, her instrument flickering brightly around and about Schmitt’s melismatic writing. This was genuinely thoughtful playing and a delightful surprise.

Moving on to Schumann, and the Goldner String Quartet were joined by distinguished American pianist Lambert Orkis, probably best known here as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s regular chamber partner. What a superb work Schumann’s Piano Quintet is – quintessentially Romantic and bursting with memorable ideas. I can’t imagine a better performance than this, pianist and quartet in complete harmony but also five fine soloists in their own right. Subtle of tone, and sensitive with the rubato, Orkis beamed benignly over matters from the rear of the stage, while the Goldners ensured a perfect blend and balance as the finessed Schumann’s demanding and imaginative writing.

Never overly rushed, there was plenty of room for individual contributions – Julian Smiles magical in the first movement’s lyrical second subject, just one example – but here ensemble was everything and never better than negotiating the silences in the exposed Funeral March. You could have heard a pin drop. The Scherzo was so exciting, it drew spontaneous applause, but to be honest every movement exhibited prototypical chamber playing par excellence.

Britten’s Third String Quartet inhabits an entirely different universe, so thank heavens for an interval to clean the musical slate. Written when the composer must have surely known his days were numbered, there’s a half in this world and half out of it quality to this demanding and perilously exposed work, and I can’t imagine it being more poignantly espoused than the Elias Quartet’s performance here. Technically they are extraordinarily gifted, capable of feats of great daring and blessed with faultless intonation.

Beginning with a rapt duet for second violin and viola, the atmosphere was haunted from the outset, everything intimate and glacial, the ensemble immaculate. The skeletal caprice that followed was breathtaking, the cello and first violin duet in the long central Solo was frequently heartbreaking. The Burlesque had plenty of Mahlerian gallows humour about it, but the real miracle was the way the Elias imbued the final Passacaglia – one of Britten’s favourite forms – with something akin to the final breaths of a dying man. This was very, very special indeed.

Rounding off the evening was the Zukerman Trio playing Dvořák’s Dumky Trio, an ideal work for the husband and wife team of Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth with its focus on violin and cello duos over piano (a sensitive Angela Cheng). This was full-toned Romanticism at its most golden, Forsyth especially sparkling with her rich sound capable of mournful refection one moment and a jaunty passion the next. If her violin partner seemed a little out of sorts – he barely cracked a smile – it didn’t seem to affect his playing, which had plenty of fire in its belly as Dvořák switches from melancholy to madness at the drop of a hat. The playing here had a great sense of the music’s roots in the Czech folk tradition, moving from an easy lyricism one moment to music deep as a forest pool the next.

With plenty of artists and some fascinating rep yet to come, this was a brilliant start to what looks like a vintage Festival.

The Musica Viva Festival 2017 continues until Sunday April 23


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