From Russia with Love

Performed at City Recital Hall July 9, 2019
Reviewed by Peter McCallum for Sydney Morning Herald

This program by pianist Kathryn Selby, Lucerne-based Australian violinist Daniel Dodds and Australian-based Finnish cellist Timo-Veikko Valve pivoted around two rarely-heard piano trios by precocious young geniuses who went on to very different manifestations of greatness, Debussy and Rachmaninov. That the latter was written in Russia is unsurprising. His Piano Trio No. 2 in D minor, Opus 9 was the twenty-year old Rachmaninov’s deeply-felt response to the unexpected death of his older ally and supporter Tchaikovsky in 1893. Except for some affinities with Mussorgsky, Debussy’s Russian connection tends to be forgotten because his music developed into a style that became emblematic of French sensibility. However, in 1880, the eighteen-year old took a summer job as tutor and pianist with Nadezhda von Meck, the famous and wealthy patron of Tchaikovsky, and produced this Piano Trio in G major, lost for a century until reconstructed in the 1980s. It would be a mistake to dismiss the work’s charm as demonstrating no ambition beyond salon pleasantry for in fact it was the intimate refinement cultivated in fashionable fin-de-ciecle salons that provided the fertile ground on which his later style was built. The first movement begins with a theme of insouciant ease leading to an expressive second theme on the cello, while the scherzo uses string pizzicato in a way later exploited in the string quartets of both Debussy and Ravel. The last two movements are full of inventive originality and the performance here was captivating, sensitive and fresh.

In his Piano Trio No 2, Rachmaninov wrote a work which gave his own instrument the piano the dominant part and Kathryn Selby dispatched its virtuosic difficulties with brilliant nonchalance and professionalism. Although the work itself can be criticized for being unbalanced, both in its underuse of the strings and the length of the first two movements, this performance brought it vividly to life with expressive intensity, power and polish.

At the start, Valve and Selby set the tone of discreet sentiment with an arrangement by cellist Steven Isserlis of the Romance for Horn and Piano by the eighteen-year old Scriabin, and Beethoven’s Variations on Mozart’s ‘Bei Mannern, welche Libe Fuhlen’ from The Magic Flute. Selby and Dodds followed with a sentimental Meditation from Souvenir d’un lieu cher by the person who was the invisible link between two trios, Tchaikovsky.

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