It’s not so often that a double bass player gets headline billing on a festival, so when you’ve got one of the calibre of American bassist Edgar Meyer, why not put him front and centre? That’s exactly what Artistic Director Carl Vine did in the opening concert of his final Musica Viva Festival, Meyer kicking off the four-day event with an astonishing performance of JS Bach’s First Cello Suite.

Musica Viva FestivalEdgar Meyer at the 2019 Musica Viva Festival. Photo © MONDE Photo

Meyer launched into the flowing semiquavers of the famous opening Prélude with an extraordinary lightness, his instrument’s high notes almost indistinguishable from the sound of a cello, but for a greater resonance, before a drop into the muscular low register made no bones that this was a double bass. There was an occasional moment – an awkward stretch, some strained intonation – that gave away the dangers inherent in translating the Suite to the larger instrument, but Meyer’s technique was deft and nimble, and the resonant sustain of the bass notes gave the music organ-like grandeur, while the folky double stops of the final Gigue had an earthy strength. Purists might decry the party trick showmanship of such a performance, but there’s no denying Meyer’s formidable technique.

Musica Viva FestivalAndrew Tyson at the 2019 Musica Viva Festival. Photo © MONDE Photo

This opening night concert was a chance to showcase several of the international guest artists who will take the stage in various configurations over the course of the weekend. Meyer was followed by British pianist Andrew Tyson, who gave a performance of Alban Berg’s Opus 1 Piano Sonata so romantic it verged on erotic. From an opening of crystalline stillness, Tyson allowed the work – which Berg wrote while studying with Schoenberg in the first decade of the 20th century – to unfold with a sensual lyricism, Berg’s fragments of melody and glittering chromaticism teased out in perfectly judged arcs. The ffff climax may not have been as explosive as the fortissississimo marking might imply, but Tyson built the tension and release with compelling, organic logic, until the final note in the piano’s low register left the audience in awed silence. It was an exquisite performance to which Poulenc’s Napoli suite (replacing the originally billed Chopin) was a pleasing addendum, Tyson showing off his skills as a colourist in the pastel Barcarolle, the dark beauty of the Nocturne and bright, visceral energy of the final Caprice italien.

Musica Viva FestivalTessa Lark at the 2019 Musica Viva Festival. Photo © MONDE Photo

As a counterweight to Meyer’s performance in the first half, American violinist Tessa Lark opened the second with Bach’s third Partita for solo violin, dispatching the opening Preludio with refulgent tone and white-hot technique. If the breakneck speed at which she took the movement gave it an anxious edge, her double-stopping in the Loure was sublime and her precision and grace throughout the dance movements was engaging throughout, capped off with a cracking rendition of the Gigue.

Musica Viva FestivalThe Dover Quartet at the 2019 Musica Viva Festival. Photo © MONDE Photo

The Dover Quartet burst onto the international scene after blitzing the Banff International String Quartet Competition in Canada in 2013, and the young American group gave us a taste of what all the fuss is about in an exciting performance of the third quartet from Schumann’s Opus 41 set. From first violinist Joel Link’s passionate opening melody to the nervous advances of the second movement – before the motoring Assai agitato begins in earnest – the quartet gave a taut, fiery performance of meticulous ensemble work and fiery spirit. Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt’s viola practically roared in the Adagio while sparks flew in the finale. An exciting start to the festival.

The Musica Viva Festival is at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music until April 28


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