Chamber music past and present as noteworthy for its historical breadth as its polished performance.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
May 10, 2015

The Australia Piano Quartet is a young and enthusiastic group of chamber musicians with a flair for the classics and a finger on the pulse of contemporary Australian music. This concert of chamber music past and present was as noteworthy for its historical breadth as it was for the polished performance that the quartet brought to bear.

The title of the concert was Remembering Gallipoli, though the connection to that most important of Australian historical moments was somewhat tenuous: the link was the post-interval performance of Frederick Septimus Kelly’s 1913 work String Trio in B Minor. Kelly was an astounding (though today basically unknown) Australian jack of all trades (and master of many), with a resume that would garner the approval of any mother-in-law: Sydney Grammar, Eton and Oxford graduate; Olympic rowing gold medalist; pianist for Pablo Casals; composer; and war hero, having been twice wounded at Gallipoli and then dying valiantly at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. If his String Trio didn’t quite live up to his battlefield heroics, the Australia Piano Quartet (sans piano for this item) certainly gave a heartfelt rendition of Kelly’s one movement composition. Virtually a violin concerto with viola and cello accompaniment, Rebecca Chan’s virtuosity was the highlight of a piece that at times felt like a Kreutzer study. The fact that the cellist went AWOL for part of the work’s length due to an unfortunate page-turning mishap didn’t help the trio’s cause.

The opening item on the program, Beethoven’s String Trio in G, Op. 9 No 1, played to the strengths of the quartet’s strings. Adorno famously partitioned Beethoven’s oeuvre into three parts; while it can be tempting to turn one’s nose up at the first, most classical chapter of Beethoven’s output, within this seemingly innocuous trio can be heard the seeds of the late string quartets. Of note in the rendition was the precision in the first movement’s semiquaver passages from violist James Wannan, executed with no shortage of brio, while the tonally discursive peregrinations in the second movement and the almost cosmically swirling passages in the development could have been plucked out of the Diabelli Variations. The Presto finale was a real treat, with the hypnotic syncopations in the viola and cello providing the perfect foil for Chan’s panache. The two-octave scale that rounded out the work was characteristically facetious Beethoven, saying so much via the barest of musical means.

The second piece of the first half was an APQ commission of a work by the Sydney composer Jack Symonds. Entitled Responsorium, the work reflects on the architectural innovation displayed by UTS’s new Frank Gehry building (where the APQ has established residence). This is an intensely spatial piece, designed to give a sense of the construction process of Gehry’s architectural feat. As such, the first half begins with the strings triangulating the room, standing at opposing corners, while the piano represents the foundation of the building, steadfastly positioned to the fore. As the building is musically erected with ascending glissandi and tremoli providing the cement, the second half sees the performers moving back to their positions at the front of the room, the piece ending in a frenzy of structural editions, providing the finishing touches to the building’s (and work’s) edifice. While the conceptual underpinning of the work was extremely provoking and the ending quite riveting, the music itself felt a little incongruous with the thematic inspiration, reminding this reviewer of the old quip: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” though here the composer was composing directly about architecture.

The final work on the program was Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47. This was chamber playing of the highest order, with the quartet’s fluency and clarity of expression front and centre. The second movement’s perpetuum mobile was rock solid, with Thomas Rann on cello effusing a mesmeric wall of sound, while the Andante cantabile of the third movement highlighted heartening exchanges between the four instrumentalists. Perhaps the strings here could have had a slightly sweeter tone, but pianist Daniel de Borah’s dolce line was more than compensatory. The final movement’s contrapuntal Vivace was notable for the rollicking piano finger work, while Chan was her vintage dazzling self, the violinist’s virtuosity crackling through the various countermelodies. The concert ended with the four players coalescing around an invigorating apotheosis, a hearty final chord, and richly deserved applause.

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