Mischa Maisky is the aristocratic icing on this opening night musical cake.

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium
April 9, 2015

One of the very best things about chamber music festivals is the opportunity to whip up a programme full of variety, both in terms of repertoire, but more uniquely by offering a line up that wouldn’t normally find its way simultaneously onto the same concert stage. With last night’s opening concert in the 2015 Musica Viva four-day festival, the powers that be did just that with two of the world’s finest string quartets, an up-and-coming clarinettist, two excellent pianists and one living legend: the Latvian-born Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky.

In this review, the first shall be last, so let me begin with the string ensembles. The British Doric String Quartet and the Pavel Haas Quartet from Prague are two contrasting outfits exemplifying all that is most intriguingly diverse about modern quartet playing. Both were invited to open on their home turf so to speak, the former offering Thomas Adès’ scintillating, brittle Piano Quintet, and the latter Dvořák’s warmly effusive ‘Slavonic’ Quartet No 10. The differences couldn’t have been more marked.

The Adès is one of those modern works that surprisingly manages to ‘land’ with a wider public than might be expected thanks to an engaging intricacy, a sense of its place in musical history and some sheer, good old-fashioned hi-jinks. Opening with bravura flourishes on first violin, it plays all sorts of harmonic and stylistic tricks. It’s actually rather tightly structured, although you might easily miss that, with Adès’ sure compositional hand firmly on the tiller and the parts full of memorable and telling effects.

If there is a sense of Ives meets Bach about it all, the Dorics (very much the ‘young Turks’ of British chamber music) were beautifully on top of every nuance under the cool, benign musical eye of Serbian pianist Aleksandar Madžar. For all of its nods from Mendelssohn (a sentimental little tune that keeps coming back on piano) to Ligeti, it remains thoroughly Adès with its Bartókian grooves, madcap pizzicati and wandering waltzes. With impassioned advocacy from the likes of the Dorics and Madžar, who managed to combine discipline and technical genius with outbursts of considerable passion, the composer’s work was in superb hands.

The Dvořák, by way of complete contrast, was warm, rapt and sensuous with a hint of nostalgia. The Pavel Haas Quartet demonstrated a remarkable organic unity from bar one, their sense of ensemble tight and profoundly searching. The sunny opening was caught to a tee and, despite the occasional lapse in intonation on first violin, there was a compelling forward momentum that carried all before it.

The folk-flecked Dumka movement was laced with that unique Eastern European wistfulness, its outer ballad beautifully done, the central and concluding waltzes full of infectious Slavonic bounce. The Romanza was radiant, the four instruments pairing off with enormous delicacy and a rapt sense of innigkeit, culminating in moments of tremendous ecstasy. Phrasing, as it was by all players throughout, was exemplary here. The easy-going finale was all sunny smiles. A few years back I might have described the Pavel Haas as ‘young Turks’, their early reputation being for spiky interpretations of 20th-century rep. Perhaps now I should switch metaphors and liken them to a good pinot, smooth, satisfying and just a little bit romantic.

I was a little bit underwhelmed by the Brahms Second Clarinet Sonata. This is Brahms at his most autumnal, and dare I say at his most Victorian and it really takes personality to lift it off the page. The Armenian clarinettist Narek Arutyunian has a really lovely legato, and used it to good effect, but too often contrasts failed to deliver that certain something extra. His partner, Australian pianist Daniel de Borah, delivered plenty of impassioned emotion in the opportunities he had to shine between accompaniment passages, and he certainly made the most of Brahms’ glorious late piano writing, his exquisite technique coming to the fore in some dazzling passagework. A pity, then, that despite some fine moments, the solo playing felt a trifle safe and samey.

That, however, could never be said of the opening act, which occupies the end of this review. To call Mischa Maisky a force of nature is an understatement. He remains one of the few players about whom one can use the word ‘legend’ and not be accused of platitudinous exaggeration. Striding to his seat in electric blue hero-shirt and tossing back his trademark silver locks, he launched into the first movement of Bach’s C Major Cello Suite with reckless abandon and proceeded to demonstrate what it is to be as one with an instrument. His other superpower is his ability to explore a work with which he must have 50 years acquaintance as if he’d come to it fresh that morning.

Yes, this was big-boned Bach, from Maisky’s beefy fortes digging deep into the lower strings to his generous sense of rubato, especially in the less metrically prescriptive movements such as the opening Prelude and the magical Sarabande. From the warm double-stopping in the bass through the playfulness of the Allemande there was little in terms of range that he wasn’t prepared to exploit in his efforts to communicate with us. And it truly was a communication. Seldom can I recall a musician who so clearly turns each phrase into a part of a conversation that he appears to be having with his instrument. Lucky us, then, privileged to eavesdrop upon this intimate exchange.

To enumerate every memorable moment would take up an essay, but I’ll just point to the contrast between the almost cheeky Courante and the deeply felt monologue that was the Sarabande with Maisky demonstrating total control over a five-minute unbroken span of musical thought. His Bourées and final Gigue with their folksy sense of the dance were a delightful conclusion to a staggeringly involving performance. He’s playing more Bach tonight and tomorrow – or better still, I expect, will be the masterclass he’s taking this afternoon. Whatever – go see!