Pianist Kathryn Selby’s guests for the first Selby & Friends tour of 2020 are violinist Emily Sun, who among her many honours took out the grand prize at the ABC Young Performers Awards in 2018, clarinettist Benjamin Mellefont, who took the top clarinet job at the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019, and cellist Clancy Newman, whose gongs include a gold medal at the Dandenong Festival in Australia at age 12 and first prize – shared with none other than Chinese virtuoso Li-Wei Qin – at the prestigious International Naumburg Competition in 2001. An impressive line-up, therefore, and no surprise that the musicians should deliver refined performances in this program of Mozart, Brahms, Stravinsky and Arensky.

Selby & FriendsEmily Sun, Kathryn Selby and Clancy Newman in rehearsal. Photo supplied

The concert opened with Mozart’s Piano Trio No 5, K.548, completed towards the end of the composer’s life, in the summer of 1788. The optimistic ascending figure which opens the first movement – and returns dramatically in the minor during the development – got the performance off to a bright start, Selby’s piano glimmering against the rich timbres of Sun’s violin and Newman’s cello. Sun gave her running passages in the central Andante cantabile a sense of wistful longing, more thoughtful than virtuosic, before the sparkling finale.

Newman’s fine-grained cello sound opened Brahms’ Opus 114 Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. Brahms was lured out of retirement after hearing clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, so this –and the other chamber works he wrote with clarinet in mind –was written with a lifetime of experience under his belt. Mellefont, Newman and Selby drew out the reflective qualities of the work, producing a beautiful depth of sound, in dark whorls of colour and restrained drama. While the intonation was slightly unsettled at times, Mellefont produced wonderfully long-breathed phrases in the Adagio, the musicians finding a gentle lyricism in the third movement and drama in the final Allegro.

While some more spark in the Mozart might have more effectively offset the broader introspection of the Brahms, the second half of the concert – which opened with Stravinsky’s Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat – was abuzz with energy and colour from the piano’s taut march in the first movement, against flurries of violin and spatters of clarinet, to the fiendish virtuosity of the Devil’s Dance. In a score telling the story of a soldier who makes a deal with the devil, the musicians relished Stravinsky’s illustrative writing – Sun dispatching crisp, folky double-stops in the second movement and fierce, smouldering melodies in the Tango of the fourth, Mellefont’s clarinet slinky in the Ragtime before the lively Devil’s Dance brought the work to an exciting finish.

Sun’s violin was particularly sonorous in the Arensky Trio, Op. 32 No 1, which brought the concert to a close, matched closely by Newman on cello in the passionate melodies of the first movement. Arensky composed the trio in memory of the cellist Karl Davidoff, and it is part of a tradition of Russian memorial piano trios begun with Tchaikovsky’s dedication to Rubinstein. In this performance the Scherzo had a frisky joy to it, before an exquisitely beautiful Elegia third movement, the string lines wistful and haunting, with a sunnier piano section at the centre. The dramatic sweep of the finale made for a powerful end to this concert.

A Tale of Two Cities tours to Methodist Ladies College, Sydney, on March 4, Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, on March 5, Chevalier College Performing Arts Centre in the Southern Highlands on March 7 and Turramurra Uniting Church, Sydney, on March 8

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.