Straight down the middle


Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College

Saturday November 12, 2016


                                                                                     Wilma Smith

Concluding her three-recital season under the Wilma & Friends banner in the opulent  main auditorium of Scotch College’s music school, Wilma Smith hosted two guests in a night that featured three very well-known works.   Cellist Yelian He is a Scotch old boy who has studied in the UK and is back home with his performing partner, British pianist Yasmin Rowe, who was this night’s third voice.   As ad hoc ensembles go, the Smith-He-Rowe combination showed a high degree of competence in coping with Haydn’s C Major Hob XV:27, Mendelssohn in C minor and Brahms No. 1 in B Major: all fare that chamber music enthusiasts in this city have become very familiar with through the international and Asia-Pacific competitions held since 1989.

The chief problem with Saturday evening’s work was a question of balance.   The Roach space is excellent for chamber music: plenty of wood, a fan-shaped auditorium, a not-too-large airspace to fill.   But a piano on its long stick enjoys resonant pre-eminence and neither Smith nor He was able to mount a challenge to Rowe’s domination of the happy Haydn work.   Yes, its emphasis does fall heavily on the keyboard and the cello, for the most part, spends its time reinforcing the piano’s bass notes, but this interpretation proved dynamically lop-sided.

Smith’s line remained clear, coming into its own during the ornate passages of the middle Andante, but Rowe’s attack took over the work’s progress, in part because of her emphatic definition in delivery, but also because, in unison passages, she continued to maintain her position of primus inter pares.   Of course, she had the work under control and distinguished herself with excellent dexterity in the perky concluding Presto, but, for the most part, He’s timbre featured very faintly in the sound mix.

Matters improved significantly in the Mendelssohn work – but then, the cello has a more adventurous, independent part to deliver.   Most pianists find it hard to resist the temptation to turn this work into a concerto, the writing is so rich and flattering.   Rowe gave space to her colleagues, especially in the melting string-duet work of the second movement.   Both outer Allegro segments might have gained in clarity by less use of the sustaining pedal at moments like the quickly descending arpeggios from bar 142 onwards (and later from bar 307).

Still, while the work’s central pages worked well enough, particularly Rowe’s lightly chattering output in the Scherzo, the finale underlined a lack of presence from He’s cello.   The notes were all there and eloquently phrased but you had to strain to hear them, except in exposed moments like the opening sentence.    Further, at a fortissimo burst, as in bar 49 where everyone breaks into a broad theme in an elliptical E flat Major, He’s contribution sounded recessed.   Still, the musicians gave a fine account of the two places where Mendelssohn inserts his version of the Vor deinen Thron chorale: moments that I still can’t fathom in terms of structural relevance but which always rouse responsive shivers.

After interval, for the Brahms, He re-positioned himself so that, instead of facing across-stage to Smith, he sat full frontal to the audience in the piano’s curve.   The result improved the integrity of the performance markedly; just as well, as the cello takes over the noble first subject from bar 4 and sets the interpretative standard for the rest of a substantial movement, made even more so on this occasion where the expansive exposition was repeated.   To happy effect, the eloquent string writing in sixths came across with satisfying depth and balance.

Rowe  coped very well with this score’s multiple difficulties, particularly the composer’s use of syncopations in accompaniment and constant variation in rhythmic patterns, much of which seems to fall to the piano part with wearying frequency.   The player’s dynamic output was still, for my taste, over-heavy, but she sprang quite a few surprises along the way, like the evenness of her septuplets in the Scherzo‘s second half repeat, and the pointed delicacy of her delivery of that sparkling Mendelssohnian tracery-work starting at bar 145.

Later, the Adagio proved to be a continuous pleasure which showed how well-matched Wilma and He were in sound-colour and phrasing during their exposed duet passages and at dangerous moments like those sustained, scouringly clear F sharps in the last bars.   By contrast, the finale showed signs of fatigue, mainly at stages where both strings were operating pretty high in their ranges, like the declamation from bar 171 to 187.   Still, the players made a gripping experience of the last 50 bars or so as the trio surges to its determined firm final cadence: a convincing finish to a reading of welcome dynamic uniformity.