As Artistic Director Kathryn Stott pointed out, the first of the Sunset Series concerts, Czech it out! (her “best title” in the program) presented a concert exactly as the title implied: heavy Czech music. Two major works were highlighted, the not-so-frequently performed Janáček Concertino and Dvořák’s American string quartet. Between these were celebrated cellist and composer David Popper’s Requiem and Copland’s Three Old American Songs.

Lotte Betts-DeanLotte Betts-Dean in the opening concert of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Photo © Andrew Rankin

The Concertino was a rather difficult piece to make out and interpret on first listening, perhaps explaining its infrequent programming, but nevertheless it is a work that grows on the listener like a wave, ebbing and flowing, unsettled and uncertain. In keeping with Stott’s description of Janáček’s original intention for the work to be a Piano Concerto – before it evolved instead into a chamber concerto scored for three wind instruments and three strings (performed here with piano in the centre and winds and strings on either side) – the music began with a bold piano introduction, the motif introduced twice by pianist Charles Owen, before he was joined by the horn. After a period (which spanned almost two full movements) of essentially solo piano plus wind accompaniment, the strings finally made an extended entrance, only to lead into a cadenza-like section for solo piano. Piano heavy, this unique and eccentric work, whose direction seemed aimless and challenging to pin down as a listener, was an inquisitive start to the Sunset Series. Perhaps, the essence of uncertainty in the music was deliberately showcased by the musicians, in which case, it was fantastically executed.

Popper’s glorious (glorious!) Requiem for three cellos and piano was a complete turn-around. Performed by pianist Aura Go, and, as my wonderful companion described it, “The Holy Trinity” of cellists presently in Australia – German-Canadian Johannes Moser, Finnish-Australian Timo-Veikko Valve, and the Goldner String Quartet’s Julian Smiles – only the raw, the visceral, and the welling up of primal instincts experienced live could come remotely close to describing the conflicting feelings of love and pain induced by this piece. It was a performance to be felt – gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and utterly heart-warming simultaneously. A short work, under seven minutes, and not the most technically difficult, it is one that uses harmony and the potential of the cello range whilst keeping the melodic line clean and simple, passed amongst each instrument in the most accessible and pleasant way. The occasional dissonant harmonies that resolved with delicate intensity between the three cellists, and their build-up towards the climax, had all three players moving their bodies in unison, arching their heads back as their vibrato moved in sync, expressing physically a musical peak normally invisible to the eye. Despite possessing three vastly different cellos spanning over three centuries, their melded tone colours created a single unit full of richness. Moser dedicated their performance to the recently deceased cellist Anner Bylsma, increasing its poignance and emotional intensity.

Another 180-degree turn from Popper to Aaron Copland – with Copland’s three Old American Songs serving as a precursor to Dvořák’s American String Quartet – saw the return of mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. This performance confirmed Betts-Dean as a multi-faceted singer malleable to a range of genres. In a completely different style of song to the opening night’s concert, Betts-Dean captured Copland’s folk and country inspired tunes – set in “the great acceleration” during the second wave of the industrial revolution in America – projecting a fun and happy-go-lucky vibe after the melancholy Popper. All songs began with a short, but lively piano introduction, instantly setting the 1950s atmosphere. At times Betts-Dean’s diction was lost in the velocity of the songs, but regardless, a selling performance.

Dvořák’s Op. 96 American String Quartet, performed by the Goldner String Quartet, concluded the concert. Although magnificently executed, with a commanding first movement and an astonishingly consistent homophonic second that allowed the more mournful, melodic line to sing – particularly when the cellist entered with an unreasonably high melodic line – the timbre of the first violin broke away from this unified front in the third and fourth movements. Olding’s tone sounded thinner than the rest of the ensemble, and throughout the work, despite a fine performance, the sound in general felt subdued (owing partially, no doubt, to the dry acoustics of the Civic Theatre), as though one were viewing the performance from the outside of a glass cabinet.

Overall, an interesting program, convincingly executed.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music runs in Townsville until August 4. Read Limelight’s full coverage here.