It’s fitting that Melbourne’s Sutherland Trio is named for distinguished Australian composer Margaret Sutherland. Over half her compositions are works for chamber ensembles, and she too was a committed champion of emerging composers. Since forming in 2011, the Sutherland Trio has been a regular fixture on the Melbourne Recital Centre’s ‘Local Heroes’ concert calendar, and tonight’s is the first of two performances that constitute the Trio’s own Transcendence series.

The Sutherland TrioThe Sutherland Trio: Pianist Caroline Almonte, cellist Molly Kadarauch and violinist Elizabeth Sellars

Kurt Weill’s Tango Habanera opened the programme. This instrumental interlude is from Marie Galente, a stage play written shortly after Weill fled Nazi Germany for Paris in 1933 and began concentrating on works for commercial theatres. It was followed by a new arrangement of Melbourne-based composer and composition lecturer Katy Abbott’s Making Angels (2001), originally written for flute, B flat clarinet, and piano, but reconfigured here for piano trio. This work was inspired by Michelangelo’s series of ‘Prisoners’ sculptures (1521-3) in the Accademia Gallery in Florence – in Abbott’s words, “the raw power these prisoners trying to escape the marble block.” Tense and dramatic, sinewy violin and cello lines climb over each other as they struggle toward freedom, anchored by rippling and at times thunderous piano that concludes with stunning ringing chords that echo church bells – perhaps, as pianist Caroline Almonte suggested, the bells of Florence.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for string sextet was written in 1899, and is an early work (Opus 4) significant for its harmonic experimentation. It was received with some outrage at its premiere in 1902, in part due to Schoenberg’s employment of an inverted ninth chord, which, according to the Vienna Music Society, did not exist. Transfigured Night was inspired by the poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, in which a young woman confesses with horror to her new lover that she is carrying another man’s child. The couple, encouraged by a voice instructing them to take in the awe-inspiring beauty of the forest around them and the universe, transcend their situation by suffusing each other and the unborn child in love and warmth.

Schoenberg made an arrangement for string orchestra in 1917, which he revised in 1943, and his composition student Eduard Steuermann, a renowned pianist and later composer in his own right, made the arrangement for piano, violin and cello performed by the Sutherland Trio. This immersive late-Romantic work, lush and passionate, is full of glistening chromatic strings that resolve earlier turbulence into a transcendent upper register shimmer. Beautifully performed and utterly captivating, it’s a triumph for the Sutherland Trio and received with lengthy applause, cheers, and great enthusiasm.