Selby & Friends
Deakin Edge, Federation Square
I’ve not seen or heard a Selby & Friends recital for some time; renewing acquaintance, the most obvious change has been in audience size. From the years when numbers were thin at Melba Hall, patronage has swollen to the point where seats are at a premium because the Edge space last night was sold out. Maybe people were attracted by an all-Beethoven program; perhaps the combination of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Dale Barltrop, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve and Selby’s brave, polished pianism made an exceptionally attractive proposition. Those music-lovers who managed to hear this recital were treated to a bracing tour of achievement peaks from the composer’s middle period.
Putting her guests to best use, Selby programmed a sonata for each, framed by two piano trios – one that’s almost not there, the other a trail-blazing masterwork. In terms of substance, the No. 12 Trio offers little: one movement, an Allegretto that consists of a simple minuet, soon over and leaving not much impact. A curtain-raiser, then, but one with a muted vivacity, particularly the piano part which holds the lion’s share of the (admittedly brief) action.
Beethoven’s final violin sonata, No. 10 in G Major, comes as a relaxation of tension after its famous predecessor, the A minor Kreutzer and follows that irregular oscillating pattern of power and placidity in the composer’s output – the jocund B flat Symphony between the Eroica and No. 5 in C minor, the rollicking alla tedesca Piano Sonata No. 25 sitting between the deeply-felt A Therese and Les Adieux pieces, that amiable Op. 74 Harp String Quartet sitting between the voluble final Rasoumovsky and the terse, unsettling F minor. For all its approachability, the last violin sonata has not appeared regularly in chamber music programs, not as often as the Spring or C minor favourites.
Commentators have found a sort of farewell to arms in this work which comes from the centre of Beethoven’s middle period but which was, as a form, ignored by the composer from then on. Selby and Barltrop performed it with an unfussy relish, both well-matched in the question-and-response opening strophes and maintaining a calm path through even those pages that tempt most to declamation. As with all three major works on this night, the players had searched out a mode of operating that sprang from the score’s possibilities; rather than the usual smash-and-grab display of temperament, this was a considered, mutually respectful interpretation, riveting in passages like Selby’s negotiation of the low-lying chords and octaves that support the Adagio‘s opening statements, and later in the interlocking cadenzas of the finishing Allegretto where the usual flashiness was avoided and the work’s sinewy power spoke for itself.
The most familiar of the cello sonatas, the middle No. 3 in A Major, proclaimed its intentions from the start as well. Timo-Veikko Valve outlined the unaccompanied first melody with restraint and the two brief cadenzas that tail each sentence were made to count as integral to the preliminary statement, rather than being tossed off as flourishes. When the movement proper began, both performers set a steady pace – Allegro, but not too much, as the direction requires – and at every turn you heard something new; not necessarily unexpected, but a shift in focus like a paragraph-ending rallentando, a hitherto-unknown doubling of the bass line, weight applied sparingly and not the often-encountered mindless pounding. More than this, the work held an unusual fluency, best heard in the last movement where Selby in particular negotiated the octave runs with asotto voce grace and provided Valve with a true partnership like the miraculous moment at the centre of the movement where the cello has the main theme and the piano’s accompaniment of a rolling A Major triad supports it with a balalaika-style rustling – the effect here and the detail of accomplishment at many other stages achieved through innate musicality and a fine depth of preparation by both executants.
As you’d expect after this groundwork, the Archduke realization proved exceptionally fine: determined in attack, meticulous in dynamic balance, both strings ideal in their close ensemble work, most evident in the chain of sixths and thirds at the start to the Andante cantabile and the interleaving sustained notes at the movement’s end. But the performance was loaded with extraordinary moments, like Selby’s strong Weber-reminiscent chord/arpeggio upward bounds punctuating the Scherzo‘s trio, the precision of her rapid trills in the finale and the amiable sharing of sound-space between the musicians with every contributor audible throughout. We may wait some time before coming across a reading as enriching, informative and spirit-lifting as this one.