Review: Varied Virtues (Selby & Friends)
★★★★☆ Themes and variations with Selby’s friends makes for a pleasant evening indeed.
City Recital Hall, Sydney
February 25, 2016
Now in its 10th year, Selby & Friends begins its 2016 series with Varied Virtues, a concert centred on works by Beethoven, Busoni, Schubert and Arensky that use theme and variations form. If only we all had friends like Kathryn Selby! The popular Australian pianist is joined by the Concertmaster of the SSO Andrew Haveron and the ACO’s Principal Cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, two superb instrumentalists who combine with Selby for a pleasant evening of music-making.
As is the case with other concerts in this series, Selby asks the instrumentalists to introduce the works, a nice touch that allows the audience to get a feel for what the performers are thinking when they perform and programme the works. The first item, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E Flat. Op. 44 No 10, was written when the composer was just twenty-two. Though it shares that most heroic of keys with giant works like the Third Symphony and the Fifth Piano Concerto, this piece is small and intimate. As always with Beethoven, much is made of a work from the barest of musical means. These “Variations on an Original Theme” build on nothing more than a few arpeggios, but the three instrumentalists were able to combine precision with delicacy and poise. One jazzy variation, almost ragtime in sensibility, was particularly alluring. Often the strings would float dreamily above characteristically steadfast accompaniment from Selby.
Busoni’s 10 Variations for Cello and Piano on a Finnish Folksong, Kultaselle, was introduced by the Finnish “Tipi” Valve. This was a piece of raw emotion, animated and impassioned throughout with virtuosic flourishes by Selby complementing the rich tone that Valve produced. The Schubert that followed, Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C Major, is a rarely performed piece but a delight nonetheless that presages Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. Haveron described it in his introduction as “the hardest piece for piano in the violin repertoire”. If it is technically challenging, Selby hid it well. The charming C Major opening recalls Ave Maria by the same composer, and the quivering piano passages beneath the unpretentious and sonorous tone of Haveron was a highlight. Rubato was also kept economical, while Haveron’s musicianship and virtuosity were breathtaking at times, easily accounting for tremolo octaves, awkward string crossings and up-bow staccato. He combines all the best aspects of the cleanliness of the young generation of violinists like Hilary Hahn whose playing has been honed for the recorded art with the old-school romanticism of the Russian school of violin playing.
After interval, the three combined for Arensky’s Piano Trio No 1 in D Minor, Op. 32. Arensky taught many of the great Russian composers and was much admired by, amongst others, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. If he lacks the imagination of the former, the similarities are quite clear. This is a work of high Romanticism, with Valve’s opening sombre cello solo a treat. The professionalism and versatility of the group was evident in the contrast between the funereal nature of the third movement Elegia and the ecstatic finale.