Tormented Souls

25th August, 2018 | Concert Reviews

Steve Moffatt, Wentworth Courier
August 24, 2018 4:16pm

EVEN if you knew nothing about the composers or their works on the latest Selby & Friends tour, Edvard Munch’s ubiquitous picture The Scream on the program cover would have been a good clue.

Three composers and three career-threatening barriers — deafness, mental illness and incarceration in a prisoner of war camp — were the linking thread on a program branded “Tormented Souls”.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s onset of deafness started quite early in his composing career and when it became intolerable he contemplated suicide. As it was he had to give up performing concerts at the piano and concentrate on writing works that he never heard played.

It’s not his fault that the rather silly tune he chose for his Kakadu Variations should remind this listener of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song. After all his work predated it by at least 150 years. But once the connection is made it’s hard to shake off images of Michael Palin in his plaid shirt surrounded by his Mountie mates.

In fact the jaunty theme, from an opera by Wenzel Muller which has nothing to do with the national park in the Northern Territory, doesn’t arrive until a few minutes into thus 20-minute work which starts darkly and majestically with long drawn out chords and sustained strings.


Beethoven is like a dog on a bone with his variations, gnawing away until he gets to the marrow and leaving just a few indigestible splinters.

Kathryn Selby at the piano led a measured and polished performance with violinist Natalie Chee, concertmaster of Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Australian World Orchestra, and cellist Julian Smiles of the Goldner String Quartet and it made an excellent start to the program.

Robert Schumann’s bane was his mental illness. He tried committing suicide three times before being confined to an asylum.

Yet he was sustained by his love for his wife Clara and his appreciation of beauty, which is apparent in the seldom performed third piano trio which came next.

Although there is plenty of tuneful agitation in the first and second movements, the final movement is, as Chee described it, full of humour as if it’s “a group of friends sitting down in a German beer garden”.


He managed to scrape together a clarinet, piano, violin and a cello with three strings and it was played to a literally captive audience


The highlight of the concert is one of the finest chamber works composed in the 20th century, French composer Olivier Messiaen’s remarkable Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed after he was captured by the Germans in World War II and incarcerated in a miserable Stalag.

He managed to scrape together a clarinet, upright piano, violin and a cello with three strings and his eight-movement piece was played to a literally captive audience of about 300 prisoners and guards.

Melbourne clarinetist Lloyd Van’t Hoff joined the trio and his handling of the enormous solo Abyss of the Birds — where birdcalls echo back from the distant rock faces — was wonderful. Using circular breathing and great control, the note would start almost inaudibly and swell to a full crescendo, only to die away to a whisper again.

Smiles and Chee were both superb in their big moments — the moving and uplifting slow sections dedicated to Jesus. Smiles’s eulogy built beautifully over the warm simple piano chords and Chee ended up in the stratosphere in her unforgiving slow solo where intonation has to be spot-on.

A small technical hitch with an iPad score in the middle of one of the faster movements failed to derail a magnificent performance.

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