Back, in great shape

IN THE SHADOW OF WAR

Selby & Friends

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Elder Conservatorium, Adelaide

Wednesday September 7, 2022

Sophie Rowell, Timo-Veikko Valve, Kathryn Selby

Back on internet viewing in these post-COVID days (ho ho), the Selby & Friends franchise re-boarded the Australian Digital Concert Hall armada for this broadcast from Adelaide’s Elder Hall – one of the regular venues on the organization’s interstate touring schedule. Violinist Grace Clifford was scheduled to appear in this round but was injured, so her place was taken very ably by co-concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sophie Rowell, revisiting her chamber music days when she led the Tankstream/Australian String Quartet. Valve has been an S&F regular cellist guest for some years now; just as reliable and informative here as he is at the principal desk of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Two of the programmed works had direct reference to war. The Shostakovich E minor Piano Trio is a searing document decrying the evils of World War Two, with all the insight of a musician who partly lived through them by way of the siege of Leningrad. His use of Jewish-inflected melodies in the finale bore witness to the composer’s awareness of the Nazi obscenities revealed in the Allied armies’ march on Berlin. Matthew Hindson’s 1915 was written for the Benaud Trio in 2015 and refers to the state of mind of a young man who has enlisted, as well as depicting the loss and devastation that the Great War caused to so many. A different take, then, to the opening strophes in Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film where Mel Gibson and Mark Lee represented the popular vision that we have of this conflict by joining up with something approaching glee.

The program’s most lengthy work, Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio, was explained into bellicose context by several means. Two that stuck in my mind were the reminder that the composer lived in Napoleonic times. Yes, he did but it would seem that the conflict registered little on him; he was 12 when hostilities stopped and Austria partnered Napoleon during the invasion of Russia; after which, Francis I/II’s Empire was neutral until the French emperor was defeated and exiled. I’m not getting the picture of a young musician dodging rifle fire and/or conscription – or even having much consciousness of international or local conflict. The second proposition involved finding military suggestions in the trio’s Andante con moto. You might find a march there – a pretty slow one – but the suggestions to me across these pages are more aligned with the depressing trudge of the Winterreise narrator.

You can detect an earnest grief in Hindson’s short piece which commemorates the Gallipoli campaign from one aspect, one which has been adopted by this country as near-compulsory. The loss of close to 9,000 Australians in that Churchillian folly was – and is – a national disaster but one that should rouse more aggressive passions than sorrow, even viewed from this temporal distance. It may be that Hindson is speaking for the survivors, like Wacka in Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year, that character’s central soliloquy in turn speaking for those who fought on the Turkish peninsula through those soul-destroying days.

1915 is an elegy in C minor, not that distant in emotional colour from many other deplorations – neither as flashy as Britten, nor as depressing as Bloch. The composer has a fondness for using violin and cello in unison/at the octave and has constructed a well-shaped threnody that has a fullness of timbre alongside several relieving effects, like some quietly piercing violin harmonics, and the suggestion near the end of a bugle call hovering over the gloom. The piece occupies a clear-cut emotional territory, carrying out its mission of communicating the sorrow felt by families and any young man who blithely signed up only to face death and mutilation on all sides. In the end, as the historians tell us, it was a trade war in which Australia became senselessly if dutifully involved. Oh, well; now that the English Queen has died, any links with her fading royal house must surely dissipate, particularly when we’re faced with the absurdity of what will replace her.

Speaking of depression, the Russian composer’s trio is very well-known, particularly to those of us exposed to chamber music competitions where the work exercises a huge attraction to competitors, if not their audiences. Valve handled the opening harmonics solo well enough, although I wasn’t convinced by his octave leap in bar 5. Rowell displayed a fine firmness of attack at her high-pitched melodic outline 16 bars after the Moderato‘s opening. But the players all gave this section a fierce handling which proved most persuasive, thanks to its unanimity of purpose: the sense that the timbral fabric was of a piece, urged on by three consistent voices.

More ferocity blazed out across the Allegro con brio, Rowell setting a pace that proved exemplary; you were impressed by the prevailing level of energy but not swamped by a pell-mell rush. Selby followed a steady path, her note-chains positioned with care in a reading of feisty aggression – just as it should be, even given the trio-like relieving moments. In the following Largo, Selby gave the 8 dotted semibreves a considerable space in which to resonate, coming close to disconnectedness rather than portentousness. Rowell’s entry proved a relief for her warmth of colour in a lugubrious situation, excellently mirrored by Valve with both instruments close to a synchronised vibrato in the movement’s wrenching duets. The ensemble worked very hard to give full vent to the passion underpinning these pages, loosening intensity with fine discernment when realizing their two G Major bars leading into the finale.

I found the group’s handling of the Allegretto to be enthralling, particularly with those savage pizzicati before the piano’s arrival at bar 30 where the temperament changes from cute klezmer to vehement anger. Rowell’s use of rubato was consistent with Selby’s application of the same technique, offering variety to the regularity of pulse that typifies this segment’s opening. During these pages you became more aware of the excellent recording work carried out by ADCH technicians, each line clear and individual, even when Selby shifted into powerful top gear, throwing caution out the door and rarely faltering in her bravado. For once, we heard the conclusion in a proper context – without sentimentality or exemplifying frailty but loaded with strong despair and resignation. The effect was to bring the composer’s internal torment to the fore as he chafed against state restrictions and came to realize that his own country’s regime was of the same type which gave the world Treblinka and Majdanek.

There’s little to say of the big Schubert score’s treatment. It tired the performers, as you’d expect, but their balance and stamina carried them through, even across the work’s disappointing and lengthy final Allegro moderato. Fortunately, the players repeated the first movement’s exposition so that we could relish the delicacy of treatment given to the stretch from bar 48 to bar 90. Another telling extended passage came with Selby’s triplets and their sustained equanimity throughout the development. Later, Valve generated the shock of the performance at bar 298 with a remarkably gruff sustained G sharp. Slight section-interleaving pauses were employed, the emphasis on the work’s malleability (at least in this movement) with a suggestion of the composer’s Moments musicaux between bars 584 and 621, just before the main theme’s last statement.

As for the militarily suggestive Andante con moto, the players set up a stately march pace, the piece’s progress dotted with pleasures like a tender change to E flat Major in bar 41 and a further eloquent move to C Major proper at bar 129 with an ideally paced ritardando in operation across the last seven bars. The only flaw I encountered came at Rowell’s unhappy high E concluding bar 161, although the leap up to it is awkward. As for the canons at work in the Allegro moderato, you could not ask for a more mellifluous handling; later, you could superimpose a military flavour to the Trio‘s A flat waltz movement which broke through the gentle veneer of its surrounds with refined brutality.

Again, you heard moments of excellent craftsmanship in the finale. That trademark transference at the L’istesso tempo of bar 73 came across with illuminating lightness of attack; Selby’s repeated chords from bar 191 to bar 205 enjoyed a restrained resonance, yielding space to the strings’ octave melody; all executants contributed to a joyful Romantic surge across bars 264 to 273. But it was hard to maintain interest beyond bar 762 (!) when the main theme’s treatment smacked of filling in time; mind you, that’s just how that moment strikes me and there are plenty of others who see no fault in Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’.

Those of us unable to encounter Selby & Friends in live performance (the country’s north, west and extreme south) would have welcomed this broadcast, most importantly to hear that the body’s high achievement standards have not fallen off across the long interruption that has interfered with normal music transmission. Further, it is one of this ensemble’s splendid attractions that the Friends all fit so easily into Selby’s administrative and artistic frameworks.