We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

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                                       (L to R) Kathryn Selby, Susie Park, Julian Smiles

In this penultimate recital of her 2019 season,  Kathryn Selby brought into play two well-known faces from previous years – violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   As is frequently the modus operandi, we heard two framing piano trios, embracing sonatas from each of the Friends.   This arrangement has a good deal to offer, although it can make the occasion a draining one for Selby who gets no release from engagement and – as on this night – can be more than fully exercised by her partners’ choices of repertoire.

No problem with the first of our Game Changers:  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence in the 2012 trio version.   The composer wrote it for her son, who suffers from schizophrenia; it’s an aid to help him and other sufferers attain a meditative, serene state.   In this aim, the work is a success, its germ motif mutating slowly – placid motion, not logical development.   To my ears, the emotional content divides in half as the composer progresses from cellular work to a full-blown lyricism before following the Debussyan dictum: say what you have to stay, then stop.

There is little in the score that tests its interpreters beyond asking for care with dove-tailing lines, particularly the strings.  Park and Smiles outlined some carefully placed intersections in the first half, followed by stretches of lush consonances later on.  It’s a small-framed work of simple construction, so it was interesting to watch the interpreters reining in their dynamic level to observe Kats-Chernin’s quest for placid meditativeness.

At night’s end, Dvorak in F minor asked for a much more sustained interpretative effort; the results could hardly be faulted.   The only problem you could find in the opening Allegro was an overshadowing of Park’s line in passages where the piano has bar after bar of sweeping strophes, and later in the first moves of the development.   Smiles projected a firm line, sustaining a prominent voice in proceedings.   But when Park’s voice became the dominant one, this movement became different in character – sweeter, less hectoring.

Much better followed in the Allegretto grazioso, a movement loaded with Central European breeziness but here articulated with an impressive sense of united purpose, both in the outer dance sections and the central interlude.  This was excellent trio playing, all three executants involved in working towards a common goal.   Much the same came across in a fine Poco adagio where Smiles maintained dynamic control over his announcement of the principal matter.  But what impressed most came later when Dvorak’s working-out takes a turn for the academic and a long genuflection at the altar of his mentor Brahms; once more, the players kept their focus on the score’s progress and how they had to work as a coherent force to keep their audience involved.   Here was another example of chamber music performance at its finest, alternately sweet and strong.

In the trio’s Allegro finale, the two strings presented another lesson in noteworthy duet work, mainly through an attractive combination of timbres – Park’s output all tensile elegant deliberation, Smiles assertive, vibrato-rich, pressure-packed.  This sonata/rondo fusion, like the second movement, showed the folk-tune influence racing alongside a Brahms-influenced gravity of intent and these players powered through its considerable length with ample gusto, capping a most satisfying interpretation.

For his moment in the sun, Smiles performed Britten’s C Major Cello Sonata, the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Rostropovich.  The initial Dialogo came across with fluency and idiomatic precision – but the piece seemed lacking in personality.  I can only put this down to the inimitability of the composer’s own performance with the Russian master which has shaped my perceptions of this sonata’s character, a position that hasn’t changed across many live and recorded versions of the score.  It’s unfair, of course, but sadly inescapable.  While constructing this invidious comparison, I was elated to hear Smiles and Selby, near the movement’s ending, come to a passage of eloquent if quiet restraint that came off ideally.

Britten’s all-pizzicato second movement is brief, or just long enough for some.  Deftly carried off here, its chief message serves to show that Bartok did not live in vain.  The central Elegia has an inbuilt power, a drive that carries you along, if only so far.  It’s always struck me that the two instruments are very-inter-dependent in these pages; one can’t make a move without the other sitting in support, in particular rhythmically where for long stretches piano and cello work in sync, note-for-chord.  Then, the Marcia presents as an interlude; clever in its linear ambiguity but leading towards . . .what?  Further, the final Moto perpetuo shows us Britten the Brilliant in a display of harmonic sleight-of-hand and rhythmic excitement with continuously glittering exposure points for each player.  The texture remained clear but here again you were reminded of the roar-inducing virtuosity of the original interpreters who transformed something smart into remarkable craft.

Park chose Ravel No. 2 for her showpiece, making sure we appreciated the weight of the opening Allegretto in its close melodic content and in the breadth that Ravel allowed himself to explore it.   Both players displayed a firm grasp of the expressive subtleties to be found in this movement which is often treated as a set of episodes rather than a composite.  You could find few traces of humour in the Blues which brought out a clamorous punch from Selby to match an unnerving ferocity of attack from Park in the climactic pizzicato quadruple slashes between Rehearsal Numbers 10 and 12 in the Durand edition.  As for the Perpetuum mobile, it seemed to me that the final pages made sense for the first time: a massive build-up of power driven across the last 18 bars and splendidly disciplined across an exhilarating crescendo.

You wouldn’t class it among the sweetest-voiced interpretations of this work that you’ve heard but Park and Selby removed a good deal of the saccharine and trivialising that this sonata endures pretty often.   The deceptive bucolicism of the first movement’s opening sentences was quickly subsumed in a focus on the interweaving patterns and subtle expressiveness of these pages.   No sign of introduced cleverness marred a straightforward, no-nonsense account of the Blues, and the finale made a brilliantly honed rounding-off to the piece.   Not an effete image of the composer, but one showing a massive, controlled energy.   If not for the Dvorak, this sonata would have taken Wednesday night’s performance honours.