Over motoring strings, pianist Kathryn Selby hammered out an anxious, climbing melody, setting the scene for the haunting tale that underpins Elena Kats-Chernin’s programmatic The Spirit and the Maiden for piano trio. Inspired by Russian music, folk tales and the female protagonists of works like Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Erlkönig and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ice Maiden, Kats-Chernin’s Maiden was written for Selby’s former Macquarie Trio in 2004, though the piece has undergone some revisions since then.
Violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles joined Selby on stage for the musical story-telling, Chee bringing a rich, brooding sound to the story of a young girl who meets a beautiful spirit in a well, her energetic dance-like motifs in the second movement given a kind of desperate gravitas. Smiles carved intense, keen-edged cello lines through the third movement, his low pizzicato offset by Chee’s shimmering in the upper registers. The trio gave Kats-Chernin’s work a surging momentum that made the ghostly harmonics of the tragic ending all the more effective.
Selby and friends rounded out the first half of the concert with Dvořák’s Piano Trio No 1, Op. 21. Written when Dvořák was in his 30s, his first piano trio came eight years before the composer would make a name for himself on the international scene (thanks in part to the support of Brahms and his publishing connections). Selby, Chee and Smiles brought out the wistful lightness of the first movement, which wandered through a series of moods, from quiet moments to folky interjections and heroic, Bohemian passion. The players brought a reverent subtlety to the second movement, splashes of piano in the high register reflecting off understated string lines, while the gentle polka of the third movement quickly leant into something faster and more intense before the exciting final movement.
While Dvořák’s first trio doesn’t quite have the sense of elegant architecture we see in his later works, Selby and friends deftly navigated the shifting moods with an organic ease – Chee and Smiles perfectly matching each other’s intensity against the piano.
Written in haste before the composer rushed off to join the war effort, Ravel’s Piano Trio of 1914 opens with a lilting movement inspired by the zortziko, a Basque dance. The shorter figures in the Dvořák highlighted the feel of much longer string lines in Ravel’s Trio, painted in vivid colours. The second movement, whose name Pantoum refers to form of Malaysian poetry, had a pixie-like playfulness that soon became an eager pushing, while the Passacaille was given a spacious rendering that brought out the gradual accumulation of sound and intensity. A haze of glittering violin harmonics conjured the final movement into being, a swirl of colours belying the small forces employed, with Selby’s piano resounding powerfully beneath string trills in a wonderfully textural finale.
This was a beautiful, neatly packaged concert – three fine, distinctive players bringing to life the works of three distinctive compositional voices.
Selby & Friends perform Proud Folk at Elder Hall, University of Adelaide July 16.