Ringing the changes
February 23, 2016
Deakin Edge, Federation Square
Monday February 22
Living up to its title, this latest foray by Kathryn Selby and two associate artists centred on variation form, although last night’s main work kept to the normal sonata-ternary-rondo framework with not a variation in sight. In fact, by the time the players arrived at the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1, the solitary constituent of the program’s second half, the impact of a good old-fashioned exposition+development structure proved very welcome.
Not that you had much to complain of with the Beethoven Piano Trio in E flat, which comprises 14 variations on a theme of the composer’s own creation. Selby had a mini-work-out with the keyboard part but cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and violinist Andrew Haveron, concertmaster with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, enjoyed a sweet-speaking partnership in their function as support for the piano. The theme’s announcement has all players in unison, from which point on Beethoven-the-pianist shows his colours; violin and cello only break into prominence in the final hunting-horn 6/8 Allegro variant. A neat performance all round, Selby in excellent form without unduly dominating the constitutionally imbalanced mix.
Schubert’s C Major Fantasy D. 934 has enjoyed a poor press, as Haveron pointed out before playing it; in fact, much of the criticism hinges around the lack of comparisons that can be drawn between it and the final masterpieces that the composer was hurling out in his last months of life. Admittedly, its sectional divisions creak but the central four variations on Schubert’s own song Sei mir gegrusst have striking interest in their brilliance of writing for both instruments, as does the extended march-finale with its Davidsbundler premonitions. Apart from which, few elements can transform a piece’s flaws more than the work of two fine artists and the Haveron/Selby combination was impressively effective: two strong-armed performers, both finding in turn the vehemence and the poetry throughout this rambling, moving amalgam.
Busoni’s Kultaselle, ten variations on a Finnish folksong, presents just as many challenges as the Schubert, particularly when its elaborations become more dramatic and technically challenging. Valve enjoyed much of the melodic burden in this construct, a rather orthodox one in shape and harmonic structure, although the composer was only in his early twenties when he spent time in Helsinki and found this tune, among others. The contour of the melody remains perceptible throughout and the cello line is wide-ranging and virtuosic, exercising Valve’s powers of projection in certain passages where the keyboard contribution is more than a touch emphatic. It’s a curiosity, of a piece with many another display-work for the mature professional and, despite the extraordinary creative mind behind it, once heard, easily forgotten.
Not so with the Arensky work, as fresh and uncomplicated now as when I first heard Selby perform it many years ago in Melba Hall. Although in D minor, its initial impulse is to move to major tonalities and this tendency to look towards optimistic language remains one of the piece’s most enjoyable characteristics. Dramatic in its flourishes, the first movement projects a brand of benign restlessness that these performers captured with enthusiastic drive, Haveron’s eloquent, tensile line a fine match for the broad cello strokes and the piano’s continuous energetic pulses and exclamation points.
The scherzo is a test of agility for the piano, its recurring main paragraph a minefield of irregular scale work and flamboyant arpeggios. Somewhere near the end of the middle section, the texture thinned out unsettlingly, although the recovery was swift. A following Elegia displayed once again the high quality of the string duo, their interweaving and alternating passages intense and passionate without over-kill. As for the finale, these musicians coped well with its difficulties, the main one being that there is not much going on underneath a welter of surface activity. Fast and furious, it has an impressive impetus and a sense of potential drama but the melodic material, after three movements of richness, fails to impress, least of all when the composer introduces reminiscences of material from earlier in the trio’s all-too-brief progress. Still, Selby urged her colleagues to a rousing coda, the whole carried off with the requisite panache and dynamic definition.