Kristian Chong is not only one of Australia’s busiest and most versatile pianists, he is also one of its finest, so it was no surprise that he was able to assemble a stellar cast of friends and colleagues to present the latest recital in his popular chamber music series held at the Melbourne Recital Centre. On this occasion it was a packed Salon on November 20, 2017, a balmy Monday night to hear works by Mozart and Brahms. This compact space, known appropriately as the Salon, provides the perfect environs to experience the intimacy of chamber music, and on this occasion no one left disappointed.
For the opening work, Chong was joined by The (London) Philharmonia’s Assistant Concertmaster Rebecca Chan. Mozart’s unusually structured two-movement Sonata in G major for Piano and Violin K 379 was, according to reports, composed in just under an hour. The first movement opens with a broad, majestic Adagio in G major, which segues unexpectedly into a more virile G minor Allegro. This is followed by the second and final movement – a delicate, light-hearted set of variations. Unlike many of the earlier sonatas where the violin has almost an incidental role, the violin is very much an equal partner in the musical discourse of the G major Sonata and Chan’s warm tone and tastefully restrained vibrato was perfectly suited to the opening Adagio. Her nuanced lyricism was matched by Chong, who provided eloquent support throughout. Chong’s rippling scales and perfectly judged articulation were a highlight of the ensuing Allegro. Chan and Chong then proved to be well-matched duettists in the variations, each respectfully taking their turn in the musical dialog, leading and answering as the music dictated, in what was a dynamically well-proportioned, lyrical finale. Variation 1, with its tacet violin, and Variation 5, where the violin accompanies pizzicato, revealed Chong’s effortless gift for understated cantabile.
Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor was premiered by the composer’s great friend and putative muse, Clara Schumann in 1861. Here Chong was joined by violinist Chan, MSO violist Christopher Moore and MSO cellist Rachael Tobin. Much of the writing pits the piano against the strings but the musical protagonists were well matched as they euphoniously explored the turbulent passion of the opening movement. The welcome prominence of Moore’s viola lent a vivid richness to the texture. Throughout, phrases dovetailed seamlessly, and where the strings played in rhythmic unison, as was often the case, dynamic gradations were as one. But it was perhaps in the Rondo alla Zingarese finale that the four players best revealed their chamber chops. The densely textured finale that so often seems to strive for symphonic dimensions was masterfully handled, perfectly capturing the Hungarian Czardas style in what was a well-paced Presto. Exciting, yet never in danger of losing control, (as is too often the case in live performances of this movement), this was chamber music making at its finest, four distinctive musical voices coming together, seemingly relishing their new roles, and the urgency of the unfolding musical argument. It brought the concert to a stirring conclusion.
“Celebrity soloist and friends” concerts often have a certain frisson as individual players, notwithstanding their respective talents and collegial goodwill, may or may not be accustomed to playing with each other in a chamber context. Moreover, they are often brought together with limited rehearsal time in an effort to develop a unified voice. On this occasion however, this quartet of friends and colleagues played as though they were a seasoned ensemble, minus the ennui, and indeed appeared to enjoy the experience as much as their appreciative audience did.
Kristian Chong and Friends continues at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2018.