It’s not often that Beethoven is the froth on the cappuccino, but such was the case when Selby & Friends launched their 2019 season with an imaginative and consummately performed program.

Selby & Friends, Root PositionNatalie Chee, Umberto Clerici and Kathryn Selby. Photo © Penny Vozniak

To be fair this was Ludwig as a 20-year-old fresh from the German sticks, intent on making his mark in Vienna and perhaps scoring some lessons from Papa Haydn with an audition piece – one of 200 works that fall into the WoO category (Werke ohne Opuszahl or ‘works without opus number’), written either before Opus 1 or not considered by their composer to be worthy of a number.

The E-Flat Piano Trio WoO 38 was a charming if occasionally gauche opener to an evening which Kathryn Selby branded Root Position, a title she spent some time explaining to her Sydney audience, the Adelaide one having proved “slightly iffy” about her point that it referred to musical keys and nothing more salacious.

This work was a showcase for Selby, with her ‘friends’ violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Umberto Clerici along for the ride, even though they managed a fair amount of wit and panache in the pauses and short string flourishes of the middle movement, the first Scherzo that Beethoven ever penned.

The ‘root’ theme of the evening also referred to influences and tradition – in Beethoven’s case the Classical period of CPE Bach, Haydn and Mozart and his attempts to break out of the mould, albeit in this early example with a minor flexing of his developing muscles. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, while paying homage to the Baroque and the great works of Johann Sebastian Bach, was nevertheless firmly rooted in Romanticism.

His Piano Trio No 2, written in 1845 during a brief respite from the hectic creative whirl that would kill him two years later, is less popular than his first trio which, as Clerici explained, was a shame.

Although it is not blessed with ‘songs you can sing under the shower’, it does have Mendelssohn’s most perfect sonata movement in the opening Allegro, as well as a glorious ‘song without words’ second movement, one of his incomparable feather-light Scherzos and a noble and magnificent finale, harking back to his hero Bach and the great Lutheran chorales of the Passions.

The three musicians played and breathed as one throughout this performance with Selby pulling back at just the right moments and Chee and Clerici carrying the melody.

The positive power of the closing bars left a strong impression on one’s mind at interval and served to prepare the audience for the final work on the program, Smetana’s Piano Trio, written as a reaction to the death of his eldest and favourite daughter at the age of five. This is, as Selby aptly described it, a “portrait in pain with all the anger, suffering and rage” of a father who has lost a beloved child.

The opening movement, with its threnodic violin solo introduction in the meaty register of the instrument taken up by the cello before the piano’s agitated entrance, is one of the most emotionally powerful moments in chamber music and it was realised to perfection here.

Selby returns in May with young violinist Grace Clifford and Australian Chamber Orchestra principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve with a program of Clara and Robert Schumann and Brahms.

Selby & Friends tour Root Position to Melbourne, Canberra, Burradoo and Turramurra until to March 3


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