A Tale of Two Cities

6th March, 2020 | Concert Reviews

By Clinton White

Review Canberra City News

March 6, 2020

IT’S quite remarkable, really. When Kathryn Selby gets a couple of friends together to play a concert, it’s as though they’ve been playing together forever, such is their unity in music-making. 

With Selby and three friends playing in different trio combinations, this concert was even more remarkable than usual.

The program featured music written in two cities – Vienna and St Petersburg – and spanning about 130 years, so it was interesting to hear the musical developments over that time.

There also was an eerie connection to the current Covid-19 problems; one of the pieces was written just after World War I, when the Spanish Flu pandemic was causing global havoc, including in Australia. Selby said “travelling” to Vienna and St Petersburg through music probably was the safest option right now.

From the very first notes of Mozart’s “Piano Trio No 5 in C major”, K548, it was clear we were in for an evening of splendid, first-class music. Selby, at the piano, was with crack violinist, Emily Sun, and cellist/composer, Clancy Newman. Very attuned to each other, these three were perfection in their ensemble timing, with beautifully blended sounds that subtly weaved in and out as the lead passed from one to the other.

They gave life to Mozart’s compositional design, wanting all three instruments to have turns in the limelight. It was fascinating to hear this design in action, the sound almost becoming visual as it moved from one instrument to the next.

Just over 100 years later, Johannes Brahms was nearing the end of his life, but at the height of his powers. Even so, he had stopped composing until a friend arranged for a virtuoso clarinettist to play for him. Brahms was enlivened and inspired immediately and sat down to write four works for clarinet.

Joining Selby and Newman was Sydney-born, principal clarinet with the London Philharmonic, Benjamin Mellefont.

Brahms’ “Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano”, Op 114, is a wide-ranging and achingly beautiful work and these three gave it a magnificent performance.

Mellefont’s lyrical playing and the warmth of the clarinet’s timbre were matched brilliantly to the style of Brahms’ writing. The second movement, especially, was simply gorgeous.

Then came Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite from ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’ for violin, clarinet and piano”. Written in 1918, the six movements tell the bizarre story of the soldier, Joseph, who has various encounters with the devil, gaining and losing wealth, losing and gaining his violin, curing a girl with his violin playing, falling in love, defeating the devil with his music and, finally, succumbing to the “rhythms of hell”.

It’s full of jazzy, off-beat rhythms, even a crazy out-of-step tango and a bit of American hoedown, all the while seemingly driven by an unexplained jolting urgency. A demanding piece musically, Selby and her two friends created tension, thrills and multiple climaxes in this sit-up-and-take-notice relentlessly driven piece. Timing, blending and teamwork were all at play to deliver a truly exciting performance.

Closing the program was a step back to 1893, and the “Piano Trio in D minor”, Op 32 No 1, of Anton Arensky. Arensky looked up to Tchaikovsky, and Tchaikovsky’s influence comes through in his writing. Some, like Rimsky Korsakov, who taught Arensky, didn’t like Arensky channelling Tchaikovsky so closely and said: “He will quickly be forgotten”. Stravinsky said this criticism was “unjustifiably harsh and unkind”.

Nonetheless, Arensky’s writing is fair and square in the Romantic idiom and Selby, Sun and Newman gave a performance that had everything, and more, that the Romantic music period demands.

The second movement, a scherzo, was every bit as playful and light-hearted as a scherzo should be, while the third movement, an elegy to the work’s dedicatee, the Russian cellist Karl Davidov, is full of lyricism, expression and emotion. What a pity someone in the audience thoughtlessly destroyed that emotion when they barked a single, unnecessary, loud cough at the last note!

Thank goodness we had the last movement to come, which finished this wonderful concert triumphantly.

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