Closing in on ideal


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday September 20, 2017

                                                                                     Daniel Dodds

These all-Beethoven recitals from Kathryn Selby and her mobile band of associate-friends have proved popular in recent years, the only problem being the thin repertoire available; it doesn’t take long before you start repeating yourself.   The composer left 13-and-a-bit works for the piano trio combination and, for this program, Selby brought into play two of the ‘fringe’ scores:  the composer’s own arrangement of his Symphony No. 2 in D, and the Gassenhauer Trio which offers the violin line as an alternative to a clarinet, the original treble instrument.

Filling out the night, Selby and her guests  –  violinist Daniel Dodds from the Festival Strings Lucerne, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve of the Australian Chamber Orchestra  –  chose that ground-breaking work, the C minor Op. 1 No. 3.   In the normal run of performances, you can half-understand the legend that Haydn thought this ought not be published as it was a step too far for the Viennese public of the time; a stern and outspoken musical drama.   The general practice is to emphasize its brusqueness, particularly in the outer movements which make the most lasting impression.

In this ensemble’s hands, the trio itself preserved its inbuilt tension and tempestuous bursts of power, yet you were given the inestimable gift of seeing it in context  –  not just in relation to its opus number companions but also as a development in the form, Beethoven taking it several steps forward in dramatic potential and expressive intensity.   It helped immeasurably that this particular set of musicians worked with unfailing cohesion so that moments of ferment like the explosion at Letter C (in my score) of the opening Allegro con brio were punched out with compelling drive and well-husbanded dynamic control.   Later, these performers made an enriching odyssey of this movement’s development, sustaining tension but not by the fits-and-starts methodology of many another group.

Selby gave a spiky edge to the Andante variations, but then the pianist has most to say here.   Despite the composer’s best efforts to share the load, his piano intrudes at every turn, even when the two strings have the melodic burden and the keyboard is relegated to peripheral duties, as in the fifth variation.   Matters don’t improve in the scherzo, either, as the piano has those distracting arpeggio runs in the second half, not to mention a set of light-as-Mendelssohn scale punctuation points in the pendant trio.

The reading reached its highpoint where it should: in the stormy finale where Dodds’ firm line cut through the surrounding thunder to fine effect nine bars after Letter R when the relative major rears its welcome head.   Later, when Beethoven’s counterpoint is exercised more fully, both Dodds and Valve made clean-cut work of their flashing duets in thirds, octaves and in canon – all transparent and comprehensible rather than a meaty maelstrom-dive.   Finally, the players brought this urgent movement to an effective conclusion, the last two pages an object lesson in how to play a diminuendo without losing tension.

This trio was preceded by a light-stepping version of the Gassenhauer Trio No. 4 in B flat Major.   Here, the approach was measured, even deliberate, but the score’s inbuilt good humour bubbled continuously, particularly in the finale where even the advent of some B flat minor variations sounded tongue-in-cheek, surrounded as they were by forthright, athletic boisterousness.   The players made sparkling, deft work of the concluding Allegro with its jaunty syncopations, the strings in an ideal tandem partnership across these happy pages.

Apart from this bracing energy, other sections of the interpretation showed a painstaking degree of preparation; details like Selby’s hesitation before her eloquent D Major entry 8 bars before Letter B in the first Allegro; the calm eloquence of the Adagio‘s first theme’s restatement from bar 8 onwards; an expertly calculated evenness of delivery in the interplay 8 bars from the movement’s conclusion.   It might be a second-runner to the composer’s Archduke and Ghost masterpieces but this work, in the right hands, can make for an experiential delight; so it proved to be here in a display that came very close to ideal.

As for the symphony transcription, interest there focused on how hard Selby would have to work.   In effect, she was pressed very strongly across the breadth of the score.   Dodds and Valve contributed, generally with lines simply extracted from the orchestral score, but the pianist took on the primary responsibility load, having to handle all sorts of material that originally fell to the violins, woodwind and brass.   By the time the finale began, it was clear that Beethoven had given all his confidence to the keyboard musician.   That’s fine, but at times you wondered why he hadn’t gone the full Liszt and just written a solo piano transcription.   It was an interesting experience, if one where you admired Selby’s stamina more than the arrangement’s skill.