Day 7 of this year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music and after a day celebrating the cerebral genius of Bach, you couldn’t get a more refreshing contrast than a world-class line up of artists in an evening of Romantic Russian melancholy, passion and the occasional burst of sardonic humour.

One of the finest musical miracles of any composer’s youth has to be the remarkably mature trio that the 19-year-old Rachmaninov produced in 1892. A fine work, the notoriously insecure and self-critical composer buried his Trio Élégiaque, which only resurfaced in 1947, four years after his death. It enjoys a bold start – barely-heard oscillating cello is joined by violin, creating an oozy bed upon which the pianist lays down one of those infinitely wistful themes for which Rachmaninov would become so famous – and incoming Festival AD Kathryn Stott loaded it with just the right degree of emotional tug.

Czech cellist Jiří Bárta, a real aristocrat of his instrument, responded with passion and flair, his tone rich and full. The leaner, silvery tone of Italian violinist Francesca Dego made a welcome contrast, the three artists moving sensitively and seamlessly as one over the full span of this single-movement work. Stott found room for some beautifully meditative moments in the gentler, ruminative central section, her playing featuring some ravishing pianissimos despite Rachmaninov’s additional demand for his typical brand of manual dexterity. Her companions raged and sighed on cue in a really distinguished performance, capped by Stott’s leaden tolling of the funeral bells that ring out in the sombre finale.

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The Allegro from Boris Tchaikovsky’s Sextet for Wind Quintet and Harp proved a suitable antidote to all that Russian doom and gloom, its debt rather to the tangy French vinegar of composers like Poulenc and Françaix. Prudence Davis on flute, Jeffrey Crellin on oboe, Philip Arkinstall on clarinet, Jack Schiller on bassoon and Alice Giles on harp gave it a fine outing, with Martin Owens’ rock-solid horn a special pleasure. A substantial work in its own right, this was the first movement of a piece that made you instantly crave to hear the rest.

Back to Mother Russia, and Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet opens with a rocking hymn-like melody – just the thing to test an ensemble from the start. The Orava Quartet – currently the most exciting young quartet on the block – really do breathe as one, an intense togetherness allowing them to indulge a winning delicacy of touch with each player given his moment to sparkle in the sunlight. The Orava sound is rather special. Daniel Kowalik’s lean, clean first violin shimmers away on top, gently complemented by David Dalseno’s discreetly supportive second violin. Underneath sits Thomas Chawner – a violist of much flair and warm tone – and Karol Kowalik, whose impassioned cello is a pleasure to watch as well as a joy to hear.

The pulse-quickened end to the first movement led into the gorgeously melodic Andante cantabile that so moved Tolstoy at its first performance. Quintessentially Russian, yet looking back to the Classical models of Beethoven and Schubert, the Oravas gave it a thoughful reading, resisting the temptation to topple over into sentiment or schmaltz. Kowalik’s first violin was especially fine in the central ‘pop song’. By way of contrast, the Scherzo had a real Cossack stamp to it and there was fire aplenty in the mercurial finale with its echoes of Viennese gypsy music and Russian folk. A very special performance indeed.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Quintet for Flute Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Piano is one of the least played, most charming works in the chamber repertoire. Apparently the first performance was a disaster – why, God only knows – so it was a treat to hear it live in a performance of enormous heart and spirit. Full of wit and elegance, the Rolls Royce wind quartet of Davis, Arkinstall, Owen and Schiller were steered through the motoric first movement by Piers Lane on the piano. With the wind in his musical hair, so to speak, like Mr Toad on the great highway you could almost imagine the frequently beaming pianist was going to cry “Parp! Parp!” at any moment.

If the opening was all joie de vivre, the mellow Andante featured warmly individual solo contributions from all four wind players with a central section that could have come straight out of Mussorgsky where Lane was given his considerable emotional head. A wonderfully amiable reading was capped by a perky Scherzo finale that bounded along like a rabbit on Viagra – ’nuff said…

Shostakovich’s Octet (in just the two parts) is another neglected masterwork that deserves a more regular place on concert programmes. A remarkably democratic piece, it requires pinpoint accuracy of ensemble, yet insists on solo skills in abundance from all eight players. Watching the combination of the Goldner String Quartet and the Orava Quartet, one was immediately conscious of a single platform featuring the finest quartets of their respective generations coming together for a demonstration of just what fine string players this country has produced – and is still producing – over the past 40 years.

Penetrating in the emotional complexities of the multifaceted opening Adagio, the musicians were, if possible, even finer in the astringencies of the quicksilver Scherzo with its grotesqueries, its phantasmagorica and its demanding technical effects. This remarkable display topped off one of those brilliantly programmed concerts of chamber music, delivered in pitch-perfect performances, that Piers Lane’s tenure at AFCM has been so rich in over the past 11 years.

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