By Clive O’Connell
LET’S GET PERSONAL
Selby & Friends
Online performance selbyandfriends.com.au
Saturday May 2 – Tuesday May 12
One of the major losses I experienced when leaving Melbourne after 60 years’ residence was that of Selby & Friends recitals. The ensemble’s venues had moved around like its personnel – from Melba Hall during the Macquarie Trio days, to the BMW/Deakin Edge, to the Tatoulis Auditorium at Methodist Ladies College in Kew. Now, there is no fixed abode for this Bunte Blätter ensemble, just like the rest of the country’s/world’s chamber ensembles finding themselves adrift musically, if domestically tethered on an individual basis. Besides, Queensland was never on the S&F touring agenda
Along the lines of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall started by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt, Kathryn Selby has taken to the internet, presenting her 2020 season – or however much of it she needs to – through the web. This latest program – all piano trios – veers towards the tried and true, comprising Mozart in B flat K 502, Beethoven Op. 1 No. 1, and Dvorak’s Dumky. Where the Melbourne recitals come from the Athenaeum Theatre in Collins Street, Selby & Friends work from a well-appointed rehearsal room in Sydney Grammar School (Girls? Boys?) that sounds and looks tailor-made for chamber music, even if the prevailing acoustic properties favour the piano.
Anyway, it’s a real pleasure to have practised chamber musicians back on display, players who are experienced in the nuances of the format and who have some experience in collaboration from previous seasons. The Melbourne Digitals have been well and good, in my experience, although more attractive in solo formats than in ad hoc collaborations. But the mutual experience and the easy relationship between pianist Selby, violinist Andrew Haveron and cellist Umberto Clerici are shown in a trailer provided on the website as a substitute for program notes; even better, as these performers don’t have to stick to talking about the pieces that they are going to perform but can discuss the problems and delights of interpretation for every musician dealing with any work at all. In this substantial preface (over 45 minutes), Selby acts as chairperson, asking her colleagues for their insights on specific questions, and Clerici shows himself irrepressibly voluble, even if sometimes he doesn’t finish his thoughts when his information outruns his vocabulary. I don’t think Haveron opens his mouth until about the 12th minute. But the material is well worth hearing – as it should be, coming from Sydney Symphony Orchestra principals and Selby with her impressively long-running career in chamber music.
A carefully shaped reading of the Mozart’s first movement is distinguished for its quiet assertiveness, reaching a delightful high-point at the short stretch between bars 45 and 48 where the strings play the second subject in tenths while the piano interrupts with piquant punctuation: the sort of moment that is brilliantly simple and here articulated without affectation – just another in the chain of brilliant throwaways that crop up across this score. The truncated development ends with the smoothest of bridge passages from Selby whose melting from semiquavers to triplets just before the recapitulation gives us all a lesson in how to treat subsidiary matter with the proper respect.
Haveron’s timbre – sweet, light on vibrato, not attention-grabbing – emerges clearly in the Larghetto‘s re-statement of the ornate first melody. Another instance of valuing Mozart’s prodigality comes in the move to A flat Major at bar 57 where all three executants relish the innate eloquence of statement up to the return to E flat at bar 85 and another marvellously filled-out gift for the piano until the final bar. As for the concluding Allegretto, here again is deliciously bright articulation, notably in the modulations at the movement’s core with barely a falter from anyone despite the rapid pace. Sparkling clear in nature, the whole movement.
I’ve heard Selby powering through the first Beethoven E flat Piano Trio on several occasions in varied venues. Her approach has become more sprightly, less determinedly full-frontal over the years and the result has been a honing of the score’s impressive continuity of action and thought so that the final impression is of assured deftness. You notice her delivery subtleties more easily, like a momentary hesitation in the keyboard during the bar 146 syncopations. To its high credit, this reading is devoid of silly games like unnecessarily inserted hiatus points; here, the complete consort dances together, Haveron a discreet presence, the two strings pretty much consistent with Selby’s definite downbeats.
Although the piano announces the Adagio cantabile‘s melting first theme, the action really gets under way when violin and cello embark on an affecting series of duets – well, a long duet with a few interruptions – that stick to their emotional last, giving delight on every page with Haveron’s eloquent phrase-shaping and Clerici breaking through the sonorous web with unflustered assertiveness. Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo‘s delivery; right from the start, the players demonstrate their mutual fidelity with those unisons/octaves from bars 8 to 16. Here, you’re struck by Haveron’s precision and bounce as an incidental character across the second half of this segment. Sensibly, the ensemble maintains the same tempo for the Trio rather than signposting the change of key as a mood swing, like other groups with less trust in Beethoven’s unshakable doggedness.
Most impressive about this Presto finale is its buoyant perkiness, largely due to Selby’s interrogative right-hand 10th leaps: the movement’s signature gesture. And all three players keep up the humour without pounding or lumbering, best exemplified in the passage from bar 76 to the end of the first half during which the action hots up while the note values shrink.
Dvorak’s Trio No. 4 finds these musicians in full Romantic flow with an ardent. knock-’em-down assault on the scene-setting Lento maestoso, Clerici in particular happy to play front-of-house. Selby drowns out her partners in the chromatic chord movement that concludes the first section of the second movement Poco adagio, even if you find no deficiencies in the faster Vivace parts of these opening parts to this colour-rich score. A rare moment of disunity emerges in the strings’ response to the opening phrase of the following Andante; balancing this, the Poco meno mosso and its consequents sees violin and cello in excellent empathy, their output both mutually supportive and expressively empathetic. In fact, the return to A Major just before the final Andante gifts us with the most moving moment in this interpretation: deeply-felt music played with admirable sympathy and insight.
Selby moves into supporting, almost self-effacing mode for the fourth dumky Andante moderato, emerging quite politely from retirement for the scherzando breaks to administer a fitting skittish tone to proceedings, then falling back to support the cello’s calm melody outline. For the ensuing Allegro and its idiosyncratic oscillation between 6/8 and 3/4, the three musicians make a full-bodied shift into Dvorak’s skald-like narrative, the lines intensely strong at the violin/cello canons when the upper string begins playing arco. Again, in the final Lento maestoso, we are offered another dark story with Haveron producing a powerful vibrato during the mid-movement slow interlude on the G string. Still, the canvas here is a taxing one, difficult to negotiate without bathos or overkill and an ordeal for the pianist; Selby handles its leaps and twists with admirable security, only an occasional missing left-hand note disturbing the movement’s vital scenario. You have to admire the remarkable fluency of the C Major prefaces to the final two Vivace stretches and the players’ escapes into vivid action.
No, it’s not the same as being there and watching a live performance. But, in these non-piping times of enforced peace, close-to-current recorded readings on film are the closest we’re going to get to hearing our professionals at work. And this is not a doctored CD set of interpretations. What you hear on this site (and at least one other) and can enjoy over and over until May 12 (not so on that other one) has to work as a momentary (!) substitute for the real thing. I, for one, am delighted to have these on-line recitals available and will take them in good part until we get back to normal – a putative date for which seems to matter less to the government than the return of professional rugby matches and the opening of that vitally important indicator of a vibrant, socially undistanced society: tattoo parlours.