Selby and Friends
James O. Fairfax Theatre. NGA. 20th August 2018
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
A packed house greeted Selby and Friends for its penultimate concert in the James O. Fairfax Theatre at the National Gallery of Australia. The James O. Fairfax Theatre has been home to the ensemble for some years, and such has been the popularity of the Selby and Friends Canberra concerts that its concerts are generally sold out on subscription.
But, as Selby explained in a short talk before the concert, impending renovations at the National Gallery of Australia has forced the ensemble to seek a new home for its Canberra concerts and so the 2019 series will be presented in Llewellyn Hall reconfigured in ‘chamber music mode’. So while some patrons may mourn the loss of the intimacy of the James O.Fairfax Theatre and its rather dry acoustic, the move to the larger venue will allow almost twice as many patrons the opportunity to experience this excellent series.
The “Tormented Souls” concert consisted of works by Beethoven, Schumann and Messiaen, all of whom produced memorable compositions despite daunting personal obstacles. The ensemble for this concert consisted of Kathryn Selby (Piano), Natalie Chee (Violin), Julian Smiles (Cello) and clarinetist Lloyd Van’t Hoff who joined the trio for the Messiaen.
The program commenced with Beethoven’s “Ten Variations on Muller’s Song “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”, popularly known as the “Kakadu Variations”. This work, with its a solemn adagio beginning giving way to increasingly ornate variations on Muller’s theme, provided a pleasing introduction to the virtuosity of the trio.
A surprisingly rarely heard trio by Robert Schumann followed. Surprising, because this gloriously romantic “Piano Trio No. 3 in G. minor, Op.110” with its swirling, dark opening and exquisite central duet for violin and cello, contains all the hallmarks that have made Schumann compositions so popular. The impeccable phrasing and articulation of the trio, allowed the listener to discover and appreciate the many musical highlights contained in this lovely work.
The major work for the evening was Messiaen’s “Quatuor pur la fin du temps” (Quartet for the end of Time). Written in 1941, when Messiaen was a prisoner of war, the work received its premiere performance in a German prison camp, in pouring rain before an audience of 400 prisoners.
Written in eight sections, at a time when Messiaen had discarded the idea of rhythm, the work is complex and demanding both for the musicians and the audience. In one section, “Furious Dance for Seven Trumpets” the four instruments played in unison to represent sounds like gongs and trumpets. A section for solo clarinet, “Abyss of the Birds” was marvelously interpreted by Lloyd Van’t Hoff who held the audience spellbound as he negotiated a series a complex variations. But it was perhaps the final violin solo that will remain in the minds of those who experienced it when the audience held its collective breath as the final notes faded to the point where Natalie Chee appeared to be bowing silently as the sound disappeared. It formed a dramatic and memorable ending to a remarkable concert.
The final concert in the 2018 series by Selby and Friends, entitled, “Four Seasons”, will be presented in the James O. Fairfax Theatre on October 15th.