Affine Territories

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Published: 28th May, 2017

It takes a determined spirit of enterprise to become established in the increasingly crowded landscape of small chamber groups, and Affinity Collective certainly has that. St Kilda’s George Hotel, the venue for Wednesday night’s concert, initially appeared to present some insurmountable obstacles for even those intrepid musicians. Upon entering, even the building’s historic charms couldn’t prevent unease regarding the steady disco beat issuing from the front bar; it seemed unlikely to be silenced by the glass door of the performance space a few steps away. As it turned out, a heavy curtain across the door worked wonders so that any ambient noise was really no more audible than in many of Melbourne’s concert venues.

The whole setup of One Space Two, with its modernised recital room adjoining a softly lit back room complete with bar and chandelier hanging from the ceiling rose, promoted a convivial atmosphere in keeping with the group’s more personal style of presentation. A dynamic leader of the Collective, cellist Mee Na Lojewski not only spoke about the pieces they were about to play, but also mingled with members of the audience both before and after the concert even though she was the only member of the ensemble to play in all three items on the program.

Beginning with Purcell’s Fantasias Nos. 4, 5, 7, and 11 from his Fantasias and In Nomines, guest violinist Kristian Winther joined violinist Nicholas Waters, violist William Clarke and Lojewski in what one audience member described as “a nod to Empire Day” (May 24). They gave a stylish performance of these wonderfully varied pieces by England’s greatest claim to musical fame of the 17th century. The mood within each Fantasia shifted regularly between sprightly animation and melancholy. Minimal use of vibrato made the delicate dissonance of No.7 all the more effective while the conversational interchange between the two violins and the expressiveness of the final Fantasia, in which instruments chased each other in seamlessly flowing cannon, were a particular delight. The enthusiastic cheers and applause that followed were to be repeated for all items.

For all the unexpected pleasures of the Purcell, the most revelatory moments came with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. This is a work that Winther has recorded with another cellist and had performed with Lojewski on a previous occasion – and their experience showed. But it was not just an intimate knowledge of the work that made this performance so transfixing; Winther’s temperament seemed peculiarly attuned to Ravel’s musical imagination – affinity indeed! Written after the trauma of World War I and dedicated to the memory of Debussy, he described this sonata as “music stripped to the bone… harmony is renounced, and there is an increasing return of emphasis on melody”. Winther began with a whisper of sound that soon became a passionate force juxtaposed with a more restrained cello. The second movement fluctuated between plucked cello and violin, anguished outbursts, wispy melody and mocking snarls of dissonance. Such was the intensity and conviction of the playing that the listener was compelled to hang on every note. Equally mesmerising was the slow third movement. Beginning with a simple, lullaby of melodic line from a warm-voiced cello, it culminated in a long final note of lament from the violin.

Although Ravel intended violin and cello as equal partners, from my position in the back row the cello sound was somewhat reduced in presence by the wall of bodies when compared with the well-projected sound coming from the standing violinist. Even so, when the cello played in its higher register it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two instruments. Amid the folk tune verve and eloquent cello playing of the final movement a violent element soon asserted itself yet again. The command of a virtuosic array of string technique, tonal colour and attack displayed by both performers were major contributors to the enthralling nature of this performance. Enthusiastic comments from the audience about the work itself indicated that Winther’s extraordinarily impassioned (at times almost savage) reading had served Ravel’s intentions admirably rather than upstaging them.

Originally planned as the second item on the program, Dohnányi’ s 1904 Serenade for String Trio in C Major was a more optimistic conclusion to the concert. Full of variety and life it also revealed Dohnányi’s playfulness. Waters, Clark and Lojewski injected great vitality into the Sherzo movement; it was very much a three-way conversation that sounded like a bunch of tongue-wagging gossips. Although Dohnányi seemed to favour the viola, all three instruments, were given an opportunity to shine and each produced some beautifully lyrical moments. Dohnányi also knew how to please an audience by using the Finale to whip up some fast-paced excitement that ended with a flourish.

 

Heather Leviston reviewed Affinity Collective at One Space Two on May 24, 2017.