By Clive O’Connell
LOVE & DEVOTION
Selby & Friends
Tatoulis Auditorium, Kew
Wednesday May 8
The cold has arrived and, as a consequence, some of us find that we need a good reason to go out at night, particularly as the enthusiasm that once spurred us ever onward now wanes because the sere, the yellow leaf is just as much a thing of the body as of the season. Fortunate those of us who ventured out to the latest southern foray by Kathryn Selby and her collaborators in this latest recital series: violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. Both string players are veterans of Selby’s annual series and made a finely-matched pair for this cleverly focused program.
Three composers who shared much intimacy, devotion and love featured on this occasion. Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22 is the best-known of the formidable pianist’s compositions. Written in 1853, it postdates her husband’s Piano Trio in D minor by seven years and anticipates by a year the B Major Piano Trio of Brahms, although this last was revised significantly 35 years later. Together, the three works comprise something of a creative time capsule, although the Brahms towered above its companions on this night, certainly because of its intellectual depth and variety of instrumental textures, but also because of the major changes that followed the composer’s second appraisal.
With the Three Romances, Clifford and Selby produced a particularly clear-speaking, lucid account of a score that is often over-gelled. Throughout the first in D flat, Selby arpeggiated with suppleness, leaving the speaking role to Clifford’s unerringly true and controlled line, the small complex nowhere more finely graduated than in the mordent and its reflection in bars 63 and 64. A similar simplicity informed the second G minor piece, a strange four-page sequence that presents as folk-like in temperament but which the composer is content to leave free from identifiable tropes. Even in its central G major segment, the initial melodic identifiers of an octave leap upwards and an immediate falling step of four consecutive notes permeate the rustic discussion, the narrative outlined without dynamic complications in this interpretation.
The last Romance in B flat is more rhapsodic in presentation than its predecessors, Selby at first reverting to complete accompaniment status with patterns that could have been lifted from Widmung. In fact, the piano has to wait until the violin moves to pizzicato before there is a chance of sharing in the melodic riches. Schumann reverts to type in the return-to-home-key segment before repenting of the keyboard’s subsidiary status and allowing a 7-bar prominence before the final flourishes. Here again, you could relish the performers’ avoidance of magniloquence, taking the ardent melodic flow and rippling support at face value and delivering its apparently symmetrical sentences with a muted eloquence and telling flexibility of phrasing.
Valve came on for the D minor Trio and immediately settled into a rich duet with Clifford, despite his line being seconded for most of the time by Selby’s left hand. All three performers entered without reserve into the movement’s dark, mobile world and outlined its elements and progress with unflinching clarity, surging through a lengthy development which is relieved momentarily by that ethereal interlude in F where the strings play am Steg. It’s quite a task sustaining interest through these modulation-heavy pages where the basic material is examined from many aspects, but the result was engrossing, Selby leading into and out of Schumann’s polyphonic melange with understated authority.
Luckily, these performers observed the composer’s rider – nicht zu rasch – for the second movement Scherzo, piano and strings set against each other in the outer sections’ galloping rising-scale motive that amounts to a melody. The exercise was packed with energy, but you’d be looking hard to find any of the pounding that these pages bring out in many interpreters, especially in the undue emphasis regularly given to the many sforzando markings. During the following Langsam, Valve again enjoyed the intermittent reinforcement of Selby’s bass notes but the pianist kept her delivery muted; not that the movement has claims to being one of Schumann’s finer constructs but its pleasure (for me) lies in the contrast between its surrounding gloom and the interpolated Bewegter where the texture and emotional content lighten in one of those marvellous Eusebius/Florestan juxtapositions.
It’s difficult for any piano trio to bring off this work’s Mit Feuer finale, I think; but then, I’m not happy with the Piano Quintet’s concluding movement, either. Melodic amplitude is there in spades, even though Schumann beavers away at its four-square phrases with frenetic energy. eventually reaching that climactic point where piano and strings pound out an eight-bar series of minim chords in close canon; by which stage, you scent the conclusion’s proximity with something close to relief. It’s hard work, and not just for the players but Selby and her colleagues made the most of its potential with a constant regard for the piece’s linear interplay and responsibilities so that the experience wasn’t an unremitting hard slog – something that it can be when essayed by many other ensembles.
With the Brahms Trio No. 1, you move into a world that is similar to that of the Schumanns but more substantial in form, the composer’s voice more assured and broader in its accent. You have to look hard to find any other work of this period that envelops listeners and performers in all four of its movements, even if the direction that Brahms takes us is in opposition to the Beethovenian norm; in this case, from noble declamation to minor key storms. It’s easy to typecast the work as a young man’s creation, powerful in its sweep and ardour, and this perception goes some way towards explaining its popularity with young musicians at competition time. But it is a far more mature and concise product in this second version.
Several of us have heard Selby & Co. play this score many times, since Macquarie Trio days back in the early 1990s; it might not come around every year on the organization’s schedule, but we hear it regularly enough. Sometimes it sweeps you up when the stars are aligned – Selby in warmth-splaying mode, the string combination consonant in delivery characteristics, sensible decisions reached on tempo and dynamics. At others, the results can be patchy: an exemplary opening sonata movement followed by an over-brusque scherzo. or a vibrato rich adagio sitting alongside a finale where the rhythmic kicks and scuffles are treated with something approaching fury by the pianist.
Luckily, Wednesday night’s interpretation turned into a fine coping-stone for the program, each movement consistent in itself and with the composer’s over-arching framework. Its success had a lot to do with the sheer musicianship of all concerned, Selby responding to these particular colleagues with a splendidly controlled delivery in which the exclamation points proved hefty rather than brazen. At the same time, Clifford and Valve showed themselves intensely committed to the exercise, the cello’s liquid elasticity evident from the entire work’s initial bars.
But the memorable joy of this reading came in Clifford’s flawless top line. Of course, her actual product shone with added eloquence in those matchless duets that emerge at high points along the score’s progress: at the violin’s first entry in the opening Allegro, the unison sturm und drang that lasts from bar 95 to bar 109, the subdued and shadowy resuscitation process that leads into the movement’s magnificent recapitulation; the responses to the piano chorales that begin and end the all-too-brief Adagio; those impulsive major key passages where both strings get to handle the finale’s second theme, and the hurtling syncopations at, for instance, bars 171-2. Through concerted moments like these, let alone obvious stretches of solo exposure, this violinist generated a firmly etched and elegant line, fitting in to the sonic tapestry with admirable skill and perceptiveness.
Having missed out on several of last year’s final recitals and the first in the 2019 sequence, I found out later than most that Selby has installed a reflective shell to frame the trio, just as she had done at the BMW/Deakin Edge in Federation Square, and as the ANAM administration has had in operation at the South Melbourne Town Hall for many years. To my ears, the difference is significant in that the group’s detail work is more clear, particularly from the cello. As well, Selby is a more comfortable dynamic entity, not having to labour over her production level, like making audible her Mendelssohnian decoration work in the Scherzo – for example, that high right-hand work just prior to the Trio, or those delicate octuple (8 quavers in the time of 6) downward arpeggios that close off some sentences. In sum, an excellent move to enhance audience comfort in a pleasant, accessible space; another reason for bracing chilly Melbourne weather to experience this invigorating and intelligent music-making.