Selby & Friends
Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College
Wednesday October 17
For her final Melbourne recital this year, Kathryn Selby chose two volatile friends as her partners in a program of high energy, giving as good as she got in fierce address and consistent drive. Violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline began operations with an ardent reading of Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Paul Kochanski’s arrangement of the Siete canciones populares espagnoles – well, most of them: the arranger, with Falla’s approval, left out the original’s Seguidilla.
After a brooding account of the opening El Pano moruno, Da Costa-Graveline stopped the music to give us an account of each movement’s context. Normally, this sort of intervention leaves me cold but the explanations were brief, gave the remaining pieces some individuality and – as I thought (wrongly) at the time – served as a sort of delaying tactic so that the string player could gird his loins for the fray.
To me, this music is pretty much all show; you look in vain for any emotional or developmental depths in folk music or its imitation. There’s no doubt that the melodies can be well-shaped and appealing, but, without the transformative power of a Bartok, they are best heard without adornment, or even insulting simplification. As somebody said about the birch tree song that Tchaikovsky used in the finale of his Symphony No. 4, after you outline the tune, what is left for you to do but play it again, only louder?
Which is actually unfair to Falla whose suite certainly repeats melodies but not mindlessly. Da Costa-Graveline found a willing partner in Selby who matched him point for point in the quieter excerpts like Asturiana and Nana, elegantly shaped by the dominant violin line but with a commanding bowing arm. This performance proved memorable for the impressive power of both the Polo and Jota dances which set aside all conceptions of the suite itself as a benign collection of bagatelles with lashings of local colour loaded on. These were emphatic almost to the point of violence, giving a different slant to the composer’s usual characterization through the dreamy Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a post-impressionist or a master of Hispanic applique, as in The Three-Cornered Hat or even El amor brujo.
The night’s cellist, Umberto Clerici, is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal and plays a powerful Goffriller instrument, a fine dynamic match for his violin partner’s steely Stradivarius. For his duet spot, Clerici, Head of Strings at Edith Cowan University, opted for the Debussy Sonata of 1915, a work that delights at every turn. It was impossible not to respond to the affirmative polemic that this cellist gave to the opening Prologue that brings to my mind echoes of the great French gamba composers, thanks to its affirmative statements alternating with ornate mini-cadenzas.
In his preliminary talk, Clerici covered a confusingly broad stretch of historical references but much more usefully demonstrated the pizzicato effects that Debussy wanted in this work’s second movement Serenade: the first time in my experience that this variety of requirements has been made clear. Here was a virtuoso reading, loaded with changes of speed, abrupt decelerations and mirroring forward rushes, handled with assurance by both players. But then, Clerici, like Da Costa-Graveline, had the score by heart and Selby is the most aware and obliging of partners.
Still, the substantial Finale to this sonata is the work’s high-point, loaded with incident and sudden moments of stunning beauty, as in the ascending cello motive from bar 7 to bar 14, hinted at just before Rehearsal Number 8, and recapitulated with moving effect 6 bars after Number 10. Following the movement’s flurries and almost continuous concerted action for both players, the penultimate cello solo flourish that calls to mind the sonata’s braggadocio opening takes your breath away, particularly in this very direct, strikingly forward interpretation that did for Debussy what Da Costa-Graveline and Selby had done for Falla; taking away all that Clair de lune drowsiness and showing how precise, finely tuned and assertive was this great composer’s sensibility in the last painful years of his life, pointing up yet again his primacy among important 20th century musical figures.
The three musicians came together for the evening’s signature work, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires which several local piano trios and other chamber combinations have performed in recent years. I seem to be in a minority, especially when faced with the advocacy of significant musicians in this country like Richard Tognetti who is a fan, but the Argentine writer’s tangos, despite being ‘new’ and far removed from the early 20th century’s emasculation of the dance, leave me browned out. But then, you could simply sit back and appreciate the emphatic address of these players, particularly Selby’s unfailing definition of metre and security in chords and the two string players dynamism even in unison/octave passages during the Autumn and Spring movements.
But, as with so much other Piazzolla, you felt that you were being pummelled. In which respect, the trio lived up to the composer’s expectations, intentions and transferred life experience – well, part of it. Put simply, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the movements – certainly not in format or harmonic language – and the Pizzolla tango’s natural state is somehow one of musical violence. Selby and her colleagues realised this work’s broad underpinning of machismo with determined gusto.
From the rear of the Tatoulis space, the post-interval reading of Mendelssohn in D minor came across as sharply defined, crisp, and not as thunderous as I had anticipated following the Latin-heavy first half to the night. Very few errors crept into Selby’s piano part which is where the score’s chief interest falls, the pianist/composer unable to hold back from his own command of digital legerdemain. Da Costa-Graveline and Clerici made a moving creature of the repeated first melody to the meltingly fine central Andante where the composer manifests his emotional maturity by avoiding any trace of sentimentality simply though the calm serenity of his lyrical gift which in these pages never fails to weave its involving spell.
It seemed to me that the final Allegro was over-anxious, an emphasis on urgent mobility even in those moments where the strings have prominence as in the broad B flat Major burst of eloquence at bar 141 where the piano tones down its semiquaver prominence. At the end, the trio brought the exercise to a satisfying conclusion, Selby courteously tamping down her volume for the string-rich duet from bar 297 up to bar 311, at which point the piano explodes into D Major virtuosity. An uplifting way to end a solid year’s work.