Emma Black and Caroline Almonte

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Published: 15th May, 2017

Music Viva’s series of Coffee Concerts have found increasing favour with lovers of classical music who prefer to remain at home rather than venture out into the cold wintry dark. An 11am concert by some of Australia’s finest musicians in the superb acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, preceded by delicious treats to accompany the eponymous coffee (or tea), is an enticing prospect – even more so when internationally acclaimed oboist, Emma Black, and pianist extraordinaire, Caroline Almonte, are performing together.

In a program of 20th century French music for oboe and piano by Saint-Saëns, Dutilleux, Jolivet and Poulenc, Black and Almonte revealed the allure of the three sonatas and Jolivet’s Serenade. It was a program that Black described in her brief talks between the works as her “favourite pieces”. It was no mean feat to deliver nearly 90 minutes of solid oboe playing virtually without a break. Only an oboist of the calibre of Emma Black would have the skill and plain stamina to render every note with such expressive beauty and technical skill.

The final programmed work was played with particular flair and sensitivity. Poulenc composed this sonata during the last year of his life and the final movement could be regarded as his obituary since it was apparently the last the last piece he wrote before he died. He dedicated it to the memory of his friend Prokofiev, whose influence could be heard in the Scherzo where Black captured the vitality of passages resembling the street swordfight and the languorous celebration of love found in his Romeo and Juliet. The first movement, Élégie, is bookended by a short lyrical solo passage for oboe and the final movement, Déploration, is a slow lament where simple melody is sustained in both the high and lowest registers and employs dynamic extremes. Despite the huge technical demands, Black’s consummate playing was truly eloquent, so much so that there was a long silence after the final note before the enthusiastic applause.

Perhaps the emotional depth in this performance could in part be attributed to the coincidental death of Emma Black’s former violin teacher, Brian Blake, a few days previously. The violin led her to the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary (then Technical) School where she subsequently moved to the oboe, which almost instantly became the ideal vehicle for her compelling artistry.

The murmurs of approval that followed the Poulenc sonata were also rippled around the auditorium after her playing of the opening work by Saint-Saëns. Again, this popular sonata was composed in the last year of the composer’s life and calls upon considerable virtuosity on the part of the performers. In the second movement the pastoral theme of the ad libitum showed Black at her pliable best – an enticing call of Nature, and the final energized Molto Allegro demonstrated her astonishing facility.

Composed two years apart, both the Dutilleux sonata (1947) and the Jolivet serenade (1945) were written for the annual competition of the Paris Conservatory and as such would have provided a searching diagnostic tool for judging the contestants as well as enriching the repertoire for oboe and piano.

Obedient to Dutilleux’s wishes, they played only the first two movements of his sonata. The contrasting moments of drama and conversational exchange between oboe and piano of the first movement and a vibrant second movement, that incorporated a busily energetic piano beneath a lyrical oboe, provided much to admire and demonstrated why this is such a popular piece. The Jolivet too provided moments of contrast from the haunting lyricism of the third movement against jerky rhythms of the piano. According to Black, Almonte had described the final movement as somebody who had forgotten something at the supermarket and went rushing round and round the aisles in search of it. Judging from the winding down and final long oboe note, it seemed that the missing item had been found.

Although André Jolivet’s connection with the theatre, specifically the Comédie-Française, may have inspired the theatrical nature of his music, all the works on this program were full of contrast and drama, which both artists conveyed with telling effect. Always a totally sympathetic pianist, Almonte was an equal partner in all respects, either by matching or providing a counterpoint to the oboe part or by providing dramatic emphasis.

After the grief-laden emotion of the Poulenc sonata, the duo ended this excellent recital on a lighter but technically impressive note with a selection of brilliant variations by Marais on the La Folia theme.

Heather Leviston reviewed this concert at Melbourne Recital Centre on May 9, 2017.