“If it’s Wednesday, it must be Bach.” You can almost hear the musicians’ brains holding fast to the mantra as they headed into Day 5 of this year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music. And true, the two concerts at 5pm and 7:30pm consisted of Bach, Bach, and nothing but Bach, but in typical Piers Lane programming style, there were plenty of surprises in store. As Scotty of the USSS Enterprise might have said: “It’s Bach, Jim, but not as we know it.”

The most interesting experiment topped the 5pm bill – an intriguing re-interpretation of Rheinberger’s 19th-century two piano arrangement of the Goldberg Variations, but this time for the unique combination of harpsichord, piano and accordion. The substantial bouche amuse to this mini marathon was Jayson Gillham with a weighty, strongly dramatised account of the C Minor Toccata, BWV911. Offering a significant – but never excessive – degree of rubato in the dynamic opening, his reading displayed great intent throughout the quieter passages and a beautifully shaped reading of the fugal theme: clean and determined with a spirited ending.

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With three instruments on the stage but only two players on the menu for the Goldbergs, curiosity was intense as to how harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and accordionist James Crabb would divvy up the spoils. With the opening Aria divided into chunks – first harpsichord, then accordion – it seemed that the variations would be shared similarly, but the reality was far more interesting. From the first variation onwards the music was shared evenly between the two players, now Esfahani on top with Crabb’s gentle bass line counterpointing below, then roles reversed with Crabb decorating the accompanying chordal treatment from the harpsichord.

Perhaps the most remarkable revelation was the way the two instruments complimented each other, and even more remarkably seemed to blend despite being fundamental timbral opposites. Bach’s writing often ensures the harpsichord fills the emptiness between each plucked note with decorations, while the accordion essentially fills those silences with its continuous flow of air. The crispness of the harpsichord sound was thus permanently contrasted with the sustained sound of the accordion, and yet each could be heard to equal advantage throughout – something that was never quite attained when the piano, which tended to overpower the accordion, came in later.

It’s fair to say, that you’d be unlikely to find finer exponents of their individual instruments than Esfahani and Crabb. The former’s touch is quite extraordinary, every note considered and placed with malice aforethought as it were. Crabb’s virtuosity shone in the rapid-fire passages, his accordion lending a folkish quality that gave certain of the livelier variations the feel of 18th-century sea shanties.

Less successful was the use of the piano. Although Esfahani shifted his bottom decorously from one instrument to the other, the frequent need to do so became a little tiresome – sometimes only settling for a single variation before he was up and off again. That he managed to keep a clear sense of the inner flow of the music was minor miracle number three. At the end of the day, I preferred the piquancy of the harpsichord set against the smooth flow of the accordion and could have happily dispensed with the less interesting sound of the piano. An interesting experiment, then, with Bach’s infinite variety leant even more so, and held together by a pair of musicians at the top of their game working in close communion.

Mahan Esfahani and ensemble. Photo © Andrew Rankin

The second concert was a more hit and miss affair. The hits included the engaging adaptations of the E Minor Lute Suite for harp and the E Major Violin Partita for marimba. Alice Giles gave her Allemande some exquisite dynamic shadings and made much of the delicate grace notes and decorations in the Courante. The silences of the great Sarabande were invested with an intense profundity. Timothy Constable, by contrast, was all bravura, his barnstorming account of the Partita a dazzling display of hand-eye coordination. From the ‘ping’ of his top notes to the delicious ‘pong’ of the marimba’s lower register this was a real ear-tickler. With two sticks per hand to mimic double stopping, he resembled some kind of graceful alien, drawing applause mid-Partita for the famous Gavotte.

Elsewhere, the Triple Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord fared pretty well, MSO flautist Prudence Davis, Italian violinist Francesca Dego and Esfahani again ably supported by Dimity Hall and Daniel Kowalik on violins, Christopher Moore on viola, Francis Gouton on cello and Kirsty McCahon on bass. The graceful central Adagio for the soloists was the highlight, but the Alla breve finale had plenty of fire in its belly as well.

Sadly the cantata Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen – despite fine accompaniment by the Orava Quartet, the MSO’s Jeffrey Crellin on oboe, Esfahani and McCahon – was marred by unlovely vocals. Soprano Natalie Peluso seemed uncomfortable at both extremes, while Henk Neven’s attractive timbre occasionally sat just below the note. The Second Brandenburg Concerto also went off the rails, the trumpet line – admittedly one of the most fiendish ever written – proving beyond the usually reliable Tristram Williams. There were some fine solos from Genevieve Lacey on recorder, Crellin again on oboe and Jack Liebeck on violin, and with the Goldner String Quartet giving it power and purpose it motored along well but, hampered at the very top it never really stood a chance.

This could be described as a fairly typical festival experience – fine players, warm-hearted collaborations and experiments worth the trying whether they all come off or not. But for me, it was the sound of the accordion and the harpsichord that lingered longest, and of course the genius of the infinitely malleable music of Bach.

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