ALCHEMY – Venerable Bodies, fresh clothes
Selby & Friends, Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew
Wednesday May 2, Clive O’Connell
In the current serious music habitat, nothing succeeds like the expected. A case in point is this latest recital from Kathryn Selby and her kaleidoscopic family of Friends. One of the more intriguing programs of this year’s five, the event began and closed with arrangements by Theodor Kirchner, friend of Schumann and Brahms (among others) and a master of his particular craft.
Now, at the S&F initial recital back in March, the musicians worked through an all-Beethoven diet, most of its elements chosen by a patrons’ poll. As a consequence, the Tatoulis Auditorium was close to packed as clients heard yet again the Spring Violin Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata and the Archduke Trio: all scores familiar right through to the last note and justifiably well-loved.
Attendance numbers were only respectable for last Wednesday’s recital which had Selby back in operation at a firmly projecting Kawai instrument, well-honed guest cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and a new face to me in Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Those of us who went along enjoyed Kirchner’s transcription of the Six Pieces in Canonic Form by Schumann, the Brahms String Sextet No. 1 in a piano trio version by Kirchner, and Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 2 – a carefully constructed work yet nowhere near as well-known (i.e., as popular) as the composer’s first Trio in D minor.
Schumann wrote his Six Pieces for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano; this means that you rarely come across the score being played in its original format. This arrangement is a splendid example of Kirchner’s flexibility, even if the material he had to deal with wasn’t exactly spartan in its formality. The first Bachian piece offers a canon at the octave with a functional pedal-bass line, and the arrangement shuttles the semiquaver-filled interweaving canonic lines between all three instruments. The disposition of material gets more complex in the second exercise, as does the supporting harmonic matter yet the arrangement serves as a textural clarification as Kirchner employs contrasting timbres to emphasize the polyphonic interplay which, on a piano, can easily become muddy.
The third piece begins and ends with a pianistic flourish that would be hard to replace but the subsequent canon at the fifth with a mobile nervous supporting figuration is a gem that passes all too quickly. Next comes a song without words in ternary form where the return of the initial material is carried off with a skill that impresses and touches. The fifth invites pizzicato but the arranger sustains the subject’s primacy while the final essay – like its predecessor, a canon at the 5th – is a striking B Major adagio with the pedal line entering more fully into the complex than at any previous stage.
In this performance, Selby walked a fine line between over-prominence and self-effacement, particularly when her colleagues controlled the focal material. Valve and Leppanen make a fine complementary pairing, the cellist a firmly projected presence in contrast with Leppanen’s clear and unforced line, a mobile delight in the more rapid canons and informed by a graceful benevolence in the second and sixth movements. As Selby indicated, the original takes on a new personality in the trio format; if anything, the effect is more immediately appealing, so much so that, if you wish, the canons can be ignored after their first statement. In this instance, the pieces gained from the timbral interplay, of course, but also from the performers’ individuality in performance.
The Russian work offers more cohesion than its better-known D minor companion but the composer’s individual voice emerges with strikingly comparable determination. Both string players have to cope with long stretches of playing at the octave in the first movement and, while most of the time this can be the cause of gritted teeth for a listener, here the uniformity sounded true, close to faultless. When the lines diverged for the Romance/Andante, the contrast in attack showed up strongly, Valve more immediately ardent but the violinist saving his powder for the high tessitura bars that open the movement’s coda.
Selby proved the dominant voice in this particular trio, nowhere more than in the Scherzo/Presto where the keyboard leaps across its range, attracting attention even when the action ostensibly falls to the strings. For the concluding set of variations, the honours are shared more evenly in the central segments but the piano carries all before it – well-Selby certainly did – in the jubilant sixth variation with its exuberant keyboard reinforcement of everything that is happening. At the end, you were glad to have heard the trio – in my case, for the first time in live performance – but you would need to experience it with players of this calibre to make it worth hearing again.
For quite a few of us, I believe, the Brahms sextet arrangement came as a mixed blessing. The work is a buoyant affirming joy in its outer movements where the melodic fluency impresses further on each encounter, yet it took a while to adjust to this new setting where the capacity for different allocations of responsibility is greater than in the Schumann Six Pieces. In fact, it wasn’t until the re-statement of the opening subject at bar 43 that a sort of reconciliation with the new order came into play.
As things turned out, interest fell less on who had been entrusted with what but more on the details that emerged from this new sound scape, particularly from the piano in the first two movements when you were suddenly struck by many note groups that are subsumed into the comfortable string mesh of the original.
A double-stop that seemed to lead nowhere was the only unsettling moment I heard in Leppanen’s first movement work, soon offset by his civilized stentorian approach to the Andante‘s variations. Mind you, this section of the work came close to ideal in terms of emotional congruence between all players. You were also hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo, a stolid gem that bridges Schubert and Mahler.
But the final Rondo made a fine capstone to this surprising, novelty-rich night, including a moving dying fall for the strings from about bar 266 onward. No, you can’t improve on Brahms’ score for sonorous warmth and wide emotional breadth but this performance conveyed a fine facsimile of the sextet, performed with a consistent burnished virtuosity.