Food, wine, good music and then more food and wine. What’s not to like at Huntington 2013?

For those who haven’t been paying attention for the past 24 years, Huntington Estate is a winery just a few clicks outside of Mudgee in rural NSW, where an annual music festival is held in the capacious barrel room. For the past few years, it’s been a home away from home for chamber music organisation Musica Viva.
British pianist Freddy Kempf opened the festival with a warhorse of the piano repertoire, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Kempf tore into the opening promenade at breakneck speed, as though the viewer has leapt out of his troika, snow clinging to his fur lapels, and rushes toward painting No 1, Gnomus. Pictures is often approached as a suite with independent movements, but Kempf conceived of it as one gradually escalating dramatic episode. It was an unusually serious, intense, and very idiosyncratic, reading of the work, which would surprise those used to more variety. Not even the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks deserved a moment of levity. Nonetheless, one got a sense Kempf was delving deeper here towards the heart of the piece as an essay on aesthetic experience – about how each painting changes the viewer, reflected in the promenade theme. The finale, often a bit of a finger-bashing onslaught, was delivered with convincing gravitas and a total, but never showy, mastery of the keyboard.
The growing synergy between tenor Andrew Goodwin and pianist Daniel De Borah has been one of the most exciting developments on the Australian performance scene in recent years. They performed An die ferne Geliebte, Beethoven’s unusually Schubertian-lyrical and romantic dedication to a faraway lover. Goodwin’s voice was a perfect fit for the barrel room, as the grateful acoustic allowed him to descend to the softest pianissimo, displaying the almost unbearable sweetness of his timbre. The recurring line “mochte ich sein” of Wo die Berge so Blau was delivered as a prayer, on the very edge of audibility. Exquisitely sensitive to the nuances of text and melody, Goodwin must be one of the finest Lieder singers performing on the festival circuit today. The affinity with De Borah was evident in every phrase – dynamics and rubato always tasteful, all delivered with unity of musical expression. An extra few songs – almost programmed encores – including Schumann’s Widmung, and only added to the delight of the performance.
After the interval, the Doric String Quartet, a British ensemble with a string of competition wins and acclaimed recordings behind them, took on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. It is very difficult to imagine a more honed and polished quartet than the Doric. Their ensemble-playing was transcendentally cohesive, their effortlessness of their playing belying what must have been interminable hours of hard yakka. Their addiction to sonic balance between instruments occasionally worked against them in the theme-and-variations second movement, where the solos could have been dispatched with more volume and exuberance. However, the final tarantella, in which death carries off the maiden, was a thrilling ride, and the most brilliant reading of that movement I’ve heard.
All of which bodes well for the four remaining days of music in Huntington. If the opening concert is a plastic-cup-sized taster of what’s to come, then bring me the whole bottle!
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