Selby and friends is a flexible chamber ensemble centred on Kathryn Selby, one of Australia’s most highly acclaimed pianists. The group’s performances have met with rave reviews from press and audiences alike. For this concert she returned to Canberra with Andrew Haveron, concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony, and Timo-Veikko Valve, the principal cellist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra to present four works with some link to the Czech region. The star-studded line-up and equally galactic reputation made for exceedingly high expectations.
By and large, they did not disappoint. The performance began with Schubert’sNotturno in E flat major, D.897. A robust work, if a little prosaic, the Nocturne is an odd choice to open a programme, particularly given that it ends not with an energising bang but rather a whimpering decrescendo to pianissimo. However, its mixture of languid triumph and quiet introspection was handled expertly by the group. It was taken a little faster than is usual which added a pleasing vigour, and besides small quibbles with cello balance and the togetherness and abruptness of the pizzicati in the opening, it was very well played.
The programme order was changed at short notice, and the Schubert was followed by Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor. This trio is magnificent – combining graceful, interwoven lines, complex emotions, and intoxicatingly relentless forward motion. Selby, Haveron and Valve gave an entirely entrancing performance. The first movement showcased Selby’s sureness of touch, each note placed with crystalline clarity, as a diamond cascade. The precision of her playing may have even grown a little too intense toward the end of the movement, as the left hand was a little too percussive from about twenty bars before the assai animato. There was also a lingering balance problem – the cello needed to come up to counter the bass of the piano, which was particularly electric in the space. However, in his exposed moments, Valve’s cello was delightfully playful. The dynamic contrasts were also worthy of note, and the power at the end of the movement was heady.
The second movement was slightly too fast. It would have benefited from a little more tranquillo and a little less con moto. Some rubato in the solo piano would have brought out the emotion more effectively, too. However, the playing was largely faultless and the unconventional phrasing at the end of the movement in the interlocking string lines was illuminating.
The third movement trips hither and thither, full of cheek and charm. Haveron’s considered portamento and Selby’s light touch left me smiling. The creative risks they took were rewarded, and left the audience with a scherzo just as frisky as it should have been. The fourth movement was equally thrilling, though could have done with a touch more rubato. The powerful ending was the perfect finale to a captivating performance.
The trio left the stage, and only Haveron and Valve returned, to perform Martinů’s Duo no. 1 for Violin and Cello. This is a wonderful work. The first movement blends bleak melancholy and simmering rage with harmonies redolent of the solo works of Eugene Ysaÿe, whom Martinů knew. Here Valve let loose, and played with a power and directness that he lacked in the preceding trios. Haveron too performed with distinction.
The second movement is largely comic and has a similar pastoral feeling to Kodály’s violin and cello duo. Here Haveron shone, with a grace and comic timing that was particularly evident in the balletic section following the cello cadenza. The only issue with the duo was the ending. The difficulty of the preceding scalic passages led to just a little timidity in the final few notes. Yet this did not sully a surpassing performance.
After the interval, Selby rejoined her compatriots to perform Dvor̆ák’s Piano Trio no. 3 in F minor. The piece is romantic melodrama of the worst kind; a big, stolid, plodding ox of a work, in which there are a few moments of great beauty, but which is ultimately unengaging. The players did their best, and brought some luminescence.
Selby and her current group of friends have an obvious musical connection and astonishing technical facility. They command respect and attention. This performance fell only slightly short of great musical distinction, lacking only an element of musical risk, particularly with metrical flexibility.