Civic Theatre, Townsville
August 1, 2015

He may be the AFCM headliner, but last night Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski chose to debut in true self-effacing chamber music fashion as one among equals. And what a night, as a host of musicians came together to present Haydn, Mozart, Sculthorpe and Tippett, in what the announcer’s voiceover unintentionally referred to as the “Governor’s Gallah”. Anderszewski was joined by cellist Li-Wei Qin, saxophonist Amy Dickson, a distinguished string trio and the Camerata of St. John’s for an unusual programme of essentially four concertos in what has to be one of the most enthralling concerts in Australia this year.

Qin started proceedings with Haydn’s First Concerto, the Classical elegance of its polite opening suiting the period sensibilities of the Camerata. I’ve marvelled at his terrific recent Elgar and Walton release on ABC Classics, but his was my first time hearing the Chinese/Australian cellist live, and what a pleasure to discover he’s even better in the flesh. Blessed with something of the aristocratic manner of Tortellier, Qin has a full, rich, burnished tone that verges on the meaty but is never overblown. His phasing of the gallant first movement was perfectly judged to convey the songfulness of Haydn’s lyrical writing, while his dynamic control was, if anything, even more impressive, revelling in opportunities to tease out a telling piano or to dig deep for a full-fat forte. It was a magnetic performance, his face and physicality conveying as wide an emotional range as his musicality.

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QinThe cellist’s opulent sound in the Adagio made a fine contrast to the Camerata’s leaner-toned underpinning. Line here was everything, and the sense of concentrated inner feeling was palpable. Taking the Allegro Finale pretty damn molto might have proved tricky for some, but Li-Wei Qin overcame all hurdles (as did the superb Camerata) to deliver a bravura display of music making and manual dexterity. The exciting and inspired performance drew a well-deserved standing ovation.

For his Townsville opener, Piotr Anderszewski (perhaps typically) chose one of Mozart’s least flashy mature concertos, the No 12 in A Major, K414, a perfect complement to the preceding Haydn, and a work imbued with the same spirit of Classical poise. This was a remarkable performance, refreshingly unconventional at times but utterly gripping in its power to reveal the sometimes hidden potentialities of both music and instrument. Andersewski is an intense presence at the keyboard, every note considered, placed and thought through in relation to its neighbours – and if that sounds obvious (don’t all musicians do that?), it’s not. He makes every line speak and sing with effortless grace and a jaw-dropping sense of the poetry inherent in the writing.

The opening Allegro was beautifully finessed, the pianist’s face an index to his mind in what was an endlessly watchable display of pianism. The cadenzas in all three movements were extraordinary, Andersewski effectively commanding time to stand still for us all. Every gesture, every emotion counted, and his pianissimos were breath-taking. Going into the Andante face-first (meaning that he visibly lived every note of the introduction), the solo entry was sublime. Timing was extraordinary – never a note out of place or that didn’t have something to say – in a penetratingly spiritual reading. And again, in the cadenza you could have heard a pin drop.

The Allegretto Finale shimmered and shook with pre-echoes of Beethoven and Anderszewski responded with a jaunty, yet never frivolous reading, clearly enjoying the sense of play and communication available to him with the Camerata players craning in to observe and meld with the soloist. This was a master class in ensemble playing and brought the first half to a triumphant close with another ovation.

The second half saw the Classical give way to the 20th century and Vienna give way to Australia and England. Peter Sculthorpe’s Island Songs was one of his final pieces, combining his late lyricism with a sense of calm inner-peace and a focus on the environment. The work was written for Amy Dickson who arrived on the platform brandishing a pair of gleaming instruments, and uncannily resembling the incarnation of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. Her commanding performance, ably supported by the Camerata and a multi-tasking Eugene Ughetti on solo percussion, was as near to being in the presence of the composer as you are likely to get these days.

The first movement (Song of Home) on soprano sax explores melodies passed on the Sculthorpe by tribal elders in Australia’s Far North as well as a tune that comforted Thursday Islanders during World War II. Dickson’s mellow, gentle tone caressed the line in the manner of a mother consoling a child  while the orchestra and percussion seemed to represent the inescapable sounds of nature on the outside – the sea, the breeze, the birds. In the second movement (Lament), Dickson’s plangent keening emerged over low strings in a moving song that could have come from any conflict of the last century, her playing imbuing the line with the kind of respect a bugler must give to The Last Post. As Sculthorpe’s signature bird sounds drew us into final (Yearning) section, Dickson switched to tenor sax for a warmer, nostalgic mood, offering up a valedictory song of reconciliation all the way to the movement’s radiantly hushed conclusion.

Finally, and perhaps continuing the pacifist theme, a performance by the Camerata of Tippett’s marvellous Fantasia on a Theme of Corelli. Essentially a concertante work, they were joined by Dene Olding and Dimity Hall on violins and Louise Hopkins on cello for a set of complex variations on a catchy phrase from Corelli’s second Concerto Grosso. Trading clarinet for baton, conductor Michael Collins gave it a pacier reading than some I can recall, and in many ways it was all the better for it, Olding and Hall were particularly impressive on the Baroque-inspired solos that start off Corelli but always end up pure Tippett. The melismatic, high-flying string lines are typical of the composer at this time (the period of, for example, the Ritual Dances from his opera The Midsummer Marriage), and in these hands landed with full force. The exquisite final section where, over a cushion of orchestral strings, the solo violins pass a meltingly ecstatic tune back and forth while the cello responds in kind (Hopkins thrillingly impassioned here) was memorable and magical.

A quite exceptional evening of music, then, and a tribute to both musicians and programmers. I often considerer myself blessed to attend so many first class musical events. This concert, which reminded me of just how lucky I am, was an absolute privilege and will stay with me for a long time.

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music continues until August 8.

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