Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
January 14, 2018

Backed by floor-length curtains, the little stage nestles below ranks of seating designed for an audience of perhaps only 200. The Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre works well for chamber music, especially when the audience sits in darkness, warm colours spotlighting the musicians who seem only a few feet away. Here, as part of the Adelaide French Festival, Seraphim Trio played Ravel.

Violinist Helen Ayres introduced the concert as a celebration of the Paris Conservatoire’s ‘bad boy’, Maurice Ravel, who never could win any of the conventional composition prizes, yet became a dazzling success in spite of the establishment’s disapproval. First up was his Sonata for Violin and Cello, dedicated to the memory of Debussy, its spare lineaments emulating the pared-down, stripped-back economy of Debussy’s own later styles.

Together, Ayres and cellist Timothy Nankervis started out with soft and personable sounds, befitting both the cosy performance space and the comfortable chatter of the opening melodies. More outgoing were the second movement’s pizzicato romp and the slow, drawn-out chorale of the third movement, where the cello, innocent of vibrato, introduced the theme with absorbing simplicity of tone. But with only two instrumental lines, there is nowhere to hide in this sonata. At times there was a subtle lack of integration between the instruments, which talked over rather than to each other. Some ambiguity of intention sparked a bit of premature clapping on the part of the audience; but when the end did come, it was with a confident and well-applauded flourish.

Pianist Anna Goldsworthy joined Ayres and Nankervis, Seraphim Trio coming together for Ravel’s only Piano Trio, altogether the high point of the evening. Here, balance and ensemble made the three musicians into a single musical entity. The irregular, Basque-influenced rhythms of the first movement danced and floated and Seraphim Trio brought a nicety of dynamic shape to the composer’s rhythms – a buoyancy in the phrasing, which never let the music lag or settle.

The third movement is an open-textured passacaglia, with long, chant-like lines that could have presented challenges to blending and shaping. But it was gracefully handled, with some tender moments of duet between violin and cello, and a hypnotic intensity to the last soft notes of the piano. Placing the electrifying finale so closely on the heels of the passacaglia emphasised the contrast it formed, and made the change of pace all the more refreshing.

Another nice touch was programming Ravel’s rippling piano solo Jeux d’eau as a “kind of sorbet or palate-cleanser,” as Goldsworthy put it, between the two larger works. Ravel modelled this on Franz Liszt’s famous Fountains of the Villa d’Este, and reportedly wanted it performed with similar inflections; but in Goldsworthy’s hands this was no cut-glass Lisztian glitter, but a warm, bell-toned liquid laugh. It had clarity without dryness, sonorous deeps and exuberant glissandi; but it was the voicing which made this performance, bringing limpid melodies out from between intricate chords and layered ripples of notes.

In this concert of only a little over an hour, Seraphim Trio presented Ravel’s chamber music in a way which was intimate, inviting, and charmingly crafted.

The Seraphim Trio will be playing Mozart and Schumann as part of the Twenty Third Annual Festival of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on January 19.