The 23rd Canberra International Music Festival is now mid-way through the 22 concerts of its 2017 season. This year’s theme of Revolution continues to grow in intensity with each event.

As my Limelight colleague Angus McPherson has already reported, CIMF’s Artistic Director Roland Peelman has hinged this year’s programme around the centenary of the Russian Revolution. At the same time, he has also looked outwards to music that was either inspired by or written in revolutionary times, or music that was, in its own way, revolutionary.

At first glance, the inclusion of Mozart – so welcome at any time! – may appear a little odd in this revolutionary roll-call until we remember that he was composing many of his masterworks as the anciens regimes of Europe were toppling from their foundations. In that context, the inclusion of three major works – the Dissonance quartet, the clarinet quintet and the G major string quintet – affords some insight into Mozart’s thinking and evolving technical language as the guillotines were being prepared for the French Revolution of 1789.

Canberra International Music FestivalThe Van Kuijk Quartet and Florian Peelman. Photos © Peter Hislop

Appropriate, then, that CIMF should introduce a young French quartet to this country. The Van Kuijk Quartet was formed in 2012 and has been amassing credits in the European competition circuits for several years. They’re a young quartet, a very good but not yet great ensemble. Like wine, string quartets improve with age. Or disband. It was good to hear them early in their ensemble careers and all praise to the CIMF for preparing us for their growth and maturity in the decades ahead.

On their first appearance with Mozart on Monday evening, by international standards, their ensemble sound and style seemed erratic and unfocussed. At times, they sounded like four disparate string players thrown together – in true festival fashion – to play chamber music for the occasion. It was apparent they were adjusting to the unfamiliar and unforgivingly acute acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop, the epicentre of CIMF’s major concerts. Despite quibbles over technical imperfections, they clearly communicated the very essence of Mozart’s spirit to the enthusiastic near-capacity audience.

One night later, they sounded much more integrated and secure, joined by their colleague Florian Peelman (son of the CIMF director) as second viola player in Mozart’s String Quintet No 4 in G, K.516. Still, there were some dodgy moments: slippery triplets and intonation issues with scale passages, some over-romanticised dialogues, and so on. But all could be forgiven with the seraphic reading of that sublime slow movement (Adagio ma no troppo). There, all five played con sordine with a minimum of vibrato, producing a tone that resembled that of a consort of viols. The ovation from the audience was rewarded with a repetition of section of the finale. Memo to CIMF performers: inevitably, the hugely partisan audience will adore and cheer you. Have a brace of encores at the ready!

Throughout the 36 minutes of the quintet, I found myself drawn into the silences in this highly unusual work. The ‘revolutionary’ dimension of this very Francophile music, played by musicians steeped in the French idiom, may have been its sense of fragmentation, a metaphor, perhaps, for the disintegration of the Old World order surrounding the composer and his musicians at the time.

Canberra International Music FestivalThe Velvet Revolution at the Canberra International Music Festival

That same sense of fragmentation animated the two other works on this programme.

Fragmentation was certainly to the fore in Janáček’s Concertino (1925), one of the more intriguing revelations of his final abundant decade. In essence a mini-concerto (pace Stravinsky) for piano and ensemble of six musicians, its 15 minutes are jam-packed with conversations, dialogues and disputes, all derived from the inflections and rhythms of everyday Czech-Moravian speech.

Janáček has long been a favourite composer of Lisa Moore, whose 1995 release on Tall Poppies remains the high-water mark for recordings of Janáček’s piano music. In that odd opening movement, Moore punched out those isolated pitches, in an assertive and possibly even acrimonious domestic ‘dispute’ with the French horn, in the form of the magisterial playing of Darryl Poulsen. In the three following movements, the clarinet playing of Orit Orbach added prosecutorial shrillness to proceedings, with the string trio punctuating with jabs of a judge’s gavel in a divorce court.

Surprisingly, from Janáček in the turbulent 1920s, it was only a short distance to Elena Kats-Chernin, a perennial favourite of CIMF audiences. Her horn trio The Velvet Revolution takes its title from events in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. More specifically, it recalls the ‘revolutionary’ spirit of another Czech artist, the dissident playwright Václav Havel, who later became the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). Like another Australian composer, Brett Dean, Kats-Chernin found herself in Berlin at this time, and something of the insecurity and fragmentation of that tumultuous moment hovers over her horn trio, composed a decade later, in 1999.

Also hovering over this music is the ironic uncertainty of Shostakovich, who is emerging as a kind of absent ‘composer-in-residence’ of this CIMF. Even more absent though is Beethoven, often invoked as the Exemplary Embodiment of World Unity, etc, etc. Yet, it was those thundering opening chords of the Waldstein Sonata which seemed to propel Kats-Chernin into her 16-minute trio. Then, in the fifth movement, Jump, we witnessed the first evocation of those events in Berlin, with a fusillade of furioso violin double-stops, delivered with stone-faced authority by James Wannan. The peculiar last movement, with the symbolic title Anarchy, seemed at odds with the rest of the work; it emerged as a compendium of the arbitrary vocabulary of European modernism, distant from the witty and winning music Kats-Chernin has been writing for some years now.

Indeed, The Velvet Revolution sounds today like middle-period Kats-Chernin, slowly divesting itself of its Darmstadt roots and dabbing on the sunscreen of New World post-Modernism.

Underlying the spirit of this concert was the sense of a world déjà vu. Almost three decades ago, a malevolent wall fragmented and fell in Europe. Today, the bricks of another are being prepared along a border across the Atlantic.

Will we ever learn from history?

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


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