Root Position – classical legends

2nd March, 2019 | Concert Reviews

By Jennifer Gall

March 1, 2019 — 3.01pm

Selby and Friends, Tour One, Thursday, February 28, Llewellyn Hall, 7.30pm. Natalie Chee – Violin, Umberto Clerici – Cello, Kathryn Selby –Piano

Root Position, the unintentionally provocative title for the first Selby and Friends season for 2019, was intended by Kathryn Selby to reference the inter-connected threads in the three trios performed. As Umberto Clerici explained, the concert offered the audience repertoire in which to muse on the relative nature of time, age and creativity. While Beethoven was very young at 20 when he wrote his Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Mendelssohn was intellectually old at 36 when he composed the Piano Trio in C minor just two years before he died. Smetana, writing his Piano Trio in G minor at the age of 29 with 31 more years ahead of him, conceived his music in the crucible of painful grief as he faced a succession of family tragedies and wrote with deep maturity. In comparison with our own age of extended life expectancies, these composers lived fast in terms of their creative output.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the concert was revisiting the uncompromising joy and froth of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E flat major, with its bow to Mozart’s bubbling scales and nod to Haydn’s rhythmic motifs. It’s carefully balanced construction was the foundation for Beethoven’s innovation: in the Trio he masters all the rules before setting out to break through convention and create his unique style in future compositions.

A fine complexity of writing is instantly audible in Mendelssohn’s Trio Op.66. Composed during a sabbatical from the Gewandhaus, Mendelssohn had found time to expand musically and nurture the ideas that had been waiting for expression. It was a hallowed space. The piano assumes the role of narrator, introducing and interacting with the violin and cello in conversations developing through the Allegro ernergico con fuoco; Andante espressivo; Scherzo molto allegro quasi presto and Finale Allegro appassionato. As Clerici reminded us in his introduction, the Finale uses a Gigue, a very out-of-date dance form, to state its themes; perhaps the composer was looking back as a reassurance that all music ages but can become relevant in new settings, and the past can become a future legacy.

Smetana’s Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15 is an indisputably great work, played masterfully on this occasion. There is no slow, brooding movement in the work, but the composer’s grief at the death of his eldest daughter, aged four, which underpins the trio, shapes the sorrowful opening theme and informs the interplay of light and shadow throughout the performance. Chee’s emphatic violin entry established the powerful emotional core for the ensemble’s interpretation.

I enjoyed the change of venue for this concert and prefer the response of the Steinway to Kathryn Selby’s touch in comparison with the piano at the Fairfax Theatre. There will be more to enjoy in May with the second tour of the Season – Love and Devotion.

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