By Clive O’Connell, Melbourne
Selby & Friends
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Saturday July 4
For the second of her season recitals in this frustrating year, pianist Kathryn Selby works through an all-Beethoven program with violinist Harry Ward and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve; the latter a well-known musical entity in the Selby & Friends world, the former a newcomer to the organization’s ranks, it seems. I’ve heard Valve in several trios with Selby but can recall them working together in only one of the two established repertory works from this occasion: the Ghost Trio Op. 70 No. 1 in D Major. The other, Op. 1 No. 3 in C minor, has been part of Selby’s repertoire for many years. As for the other work on this program – Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano trio of his Symphony No. 2 – the musical textures proved unexpectedly familiar and I glean from the introductory comments during this telecast that Selby and Valve have played it in a previous season. So I’ve probably heard it but any memories have faded – an all-too-familiar problem in these latter years.
Without any intention to downplay the contributions of pianist or cellist, I found a good deal of the interest in this recital sprang from finding how well Ward slotted into a pre-fabricated comfort zone. It’s true that Selby has a clear-eyed view of who would make an appropriate member of her chameleonic gallery of performers; in fact, it’s hard to recall any musician/Friend who stuck out as being unsuitable for a role in the Selby complex, although most of us who have followed the organization for some years have our favourites. But among the younger aspirants, Ward stands out for his sensitivity and a style of projection that sits well with the full-frontal approach of Selby and Valve.
I say ‘younger’, but Ward has been an inveterate musical traveller for some years, studying and playing and competing with perseverance over the last decade; he’s currently involved with the Australian National Academy of Music. Such a wealth of experience shows in his playing style, which is well in line with Selby’s rarely disturbed certainty and Valve’s talent for producing a clear voice, no matter how much C string work is involved. Ward also has something of an edge on his peers by way of a command of phrasing and a stylistic responsiveness allied to an eye for subtleties like miniscule Boskovsky-style hesitations.
Pretty close to the start of the C minor Trio, Ward displayed his crisp attack style, right on the money in those arresting staccato chords at bar 91, doubly appreciated thanks to the observance of the exposition repeat. In fact, the movement was notable for some glowing passages like the early violin/piano canon at bar 21 which came across as if freshly minted; then, an ideally well-tuned cello/violin duet in octaves at bar 53; a subtle hesitation from the cello at his bar 183 entry; and a welcome reinforcement of your pleasure in bar 91’s chords with their reappearance in bar 294 – just as brisk and pointed as before, and exemplifying the underlying character of this work’s progress: crispness.
The following theme-and-variations movement gives the keyboard a good deal to do, starting with the first variation which proved neat and fetching, especially in its second half. The strings got their own back in Variation 2 with its balanced canon/duet content notable for Ward’s supple line taking prominence and yielding it tactfully. The minore Variation 4 found Valve generating a controlled plangent line during his solitary solo between bars 81 and 84. As for the final variation, this is a pianist’s gift with a bright staccato figuration dominating the texture above recessive string support; Ward seemed uncomfortable with the metre, possibly because of the half-bar start, possibly not. But all three musicians made a consoling final 8-bar stretch to the coda.
Another fine instance of accomplished combination work came in the second half of the Menuetto with its elegant right-hand piano interruptions. And a fine evenness of output emerged in the Trio‘s irregularly disposed first half while Selby’s second-part scales showed just how telling precision and restraint can be. The finale’s first part was not repeated but you didn’t feel the lack overmuch because it’s a solid block of 146 bars that hammers home its message heavily, even in the E flat Major pages where the melodic quality is some way below the best that the whole trio has on offer. For all that, the onslaught was relieved by details like a delectable violin/cello duet between bars 197 and 212 where the mirroring of each other and Selby’s initiatives lifted the instrumental dialogue to a very high level. A not-quite-together microsecond marred the pianissimo entry at bar 238 but other details outweighed such a slight flaw, with Ward’s occasional slight hesitations breaking up the movement’s metrical inevitability.
There is not much to report about the symphony transcription performance which was most entertaining and assertive. Beethoven took the task on most probably as a means of propagating his music but his realization is more than just letting the violin play its normal part, ditto the cello while the piano does all the work. Yes, the keyboard covers a lot of the score’s content but the other instruments get to move outside what you’d think would be natural circumscriptions. During the opening Adagio-Allegro, Beethoven has the strings perform a good deal of semiquaver scrubbing while the piano takes the high road. Ward enjoyed a good deal of flute and oboe writing rather than just being confined to the top violin line and Valve had his share of the lower wind lines. In all, this was an excellent demonstration of congruency and harnessed power with the violin producing bucketloads of elan and sheer drive.
At the Larghetto‘s opening, both strings took on woodwind lines before the violin returned to its normal role. Here, with a slower tempo in play, you could see how Beethoven varied his now-limited textural possibilities which I’m afraid took my interest more than the actual playing although sudden moments broke through, like Selby’s firm address at bar 115 and the executants’ melting, delicate devolution between bars 154 and 158. Adding to one’s obsession with the composer’s reduction process was the whip-smart interaction between all three performers who read each other with fine insight as in the hushed string work at bars 261-2. Again, in the Scherzo, the musicians punched through the score with plenty of spirited enthusiasm, even if my attention fell heavily on what Beethoven did with his disposal of forces, particularly in the placid Trio. Rationality returned in the Allegro molto finale where Selby infused procedures with an agility that you could not fault until a slight miscalculation about bar 158 before winding us up for a bristling conclusion after the composer’s brusque alarums and excursions in the final pages of this boisterously good-humoured symphony.
As with the C minor opening work, so with the Ghost: much interest fell on Ward because Selby and Valve are known quantities across its pages. The opening Allegro vivace was notable for a firm volubility, packed with hold-and-release tension. You could relish smaller matters apart from the power-packed urgency across the movement, like Selby’s poised, pianissimo arpeggios across bars 67 to 69 and the flaming power urging us across the development section, particularly the fugue-suggestive stretch from bar 124 to bar 144. A pity that the group avoided repeating the development/recapitulation but it’s pretty long – about 180 bars, which makes a very demanding ask for any ensemble.
These performers made a suspenseful narrative of the spectral Largo, all the detail work intact and with no shrinking away from the composer’s deliberate roughness or emotional aggression. Both strings confronted their lines’ stark statements and passages of vulnerability, as in the central passage where Selby is committed to endless hemi-demi-semiquavers until her break-out in bar 76 while the violin and cello commune in an interleaving duet that becomes increasingly fraught, before drawing back from the brink through a rapid diminuendo.
Finally, the happy Presto that dismisses all preceding gloom was appropriately jubilant, Ward revealing a challenging and steely timbre in the rising subject that starts in bar 35, then mimicking Valve’s punchy attack right up to the fermata at bar 87. A momentary uneasiness arose after the piano’s solo at bar 109 where the strings seemed to be taken by surprise, compensated for by an infectious exuberance at the vehement main theme return at bar 211. And one splendid surprise came out in the stretch from bar 388 to bar 397 where you were hard pressed to tell cello from violin because of their masterful inter-meshing.
Here was a top-notch recital in which the two senior players were traversing ground that they knew very well. Ward is already an accomplished chamber musician, conscientious and conscious of his place and responsibilities in Beethoven’s three grand schemes. And he is right on the note all the time – which is something I can’t say about all other young(ish) violinists.
What a difference it makes to hear a group operating on such a high level of insight and generating readings of sustained polish. Over the pandemic months so far, we’ve been treated to a good many recitals from the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony Orchestras’ websites, the Queensland Music Festival and some other odd men out. Many of them have shown professionals at work, sometimes on very difficult work; other programs have opted to entertain with fripperies or a plethora of small-frame pieces. Selby & Friends is maintaining its high aspirations, showing us all how it should be done: a welcome and reassuring presence in unhappy times.