Home » Melbourne Digital Concert Hall: From My Salon to Yours – Part 1

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall: From My Salon to Yours – Part 1

by Julie McErlain

Welcoming us to this recital, Chris Howlett described this program as an “emotional, evocative and reflective portrayal of my personal epic journey through the last seven months”. We share this universal experience of seeking and finding refuge and spiritual calm in music, and enjoy connecting with professional musicians as they share their most significant works with us. One challenge for performers isolated at home is maintaining technique, match fitness Howlett calls it, and another is the shaping of new performing possibilities.

Armed with a splendid cello, built in 1820 by English luthier Thomas Kennedy, and partnered with effortless rapport by pianist Rosie Riebl, Howlett began his alluring program with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14. With much beauty and heartfelt lyricism, Howlett expressively shaped long legato lines, building the tension, guiding the release of energy, allowing a pause, a thought or a breath, and creating almost understated poignancy. Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale Op 51 No 6 is a most interesting miniature, a relatively simple and structured piece whose rising affirmative opening F minor melody is repeated frequently, allowing the performer to exploit its appeal with many interpretations and presentations. Howlett expressed much rubato and colour in every phrase, as bowing angles were chosen purposefully to enrich these elongated phrases with much personal intent.

All colours of the rainbow were felt in the well-loved Elégie by Fauré. Who could not be deeply moved by those sensitive, soft, lyrical opening bars and funereal rhythms, and feel anguish and the human search for comfort in those passionate and stormy triplets and arpeggios in the virtuosic free-wheeling rhapsody, and sigh as the final unaccompanied notes descend back to earth?

From Brahms’ Opus 86 Lieder for Low Voice, No 2 – Feldeinsamkeit (Alone In The Fields) is known for its evocative beauty and final phrases that are known to tear at the heartstrings. Howlett kept a gentle forward tempo, kindly expressing hope and affection, ease and calm, befitting the spirit of the original vocal setting: “I rest at peace in tall green grass”.

There was a very fine and elegant partnership between Howlett and Riebl. Always, the piano accompaniment was fluid and sensitive, always empathetic, always just right. Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror(s) in the Mirror) is recognised as a powerful minimal work, a fascinating journey into reflection and infinity. Howlett’s tone and technical control with expressive vibrato was perfectly balanced with the celestial bell tones and hypnotic sonorities of Riebl’s piano accompaniment. However, I question the value of making a segue directly into the final work: Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. While the final rising three chordal notes of Pärt’s work link with the consequential descending pattern of Bruch’s work, I felt in this case that the magical reflections from the first work were almost lost without the reverential silence of a space. While technically a segue can be made, does it add to both works? Had we absorbed Pärt’s unique composition fully before the arrival of the more dramatic Adagio for Cello and Orchestra? Possibly.

Howlett described Kol NidreiAdagio on two Hebrew melodies as “grave, fervent, meditative and sorrowful”. His full-bodied sustained notes were admirable, truly revealing the character of the two main themes of Jewish origin, and the cello’s imitation of the voice of the cantor in the synagogue gave both a dramatic and beautiful effect to the principle theme. Most expressive and meaningful were the darker lower pitches of Howlett’s beautiful stringed instrument.

This was an immensely satisfying program, a further demonstration of the excellence of the Australian musicians who have been programmed by Howlett in the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series. Sharing their musical and spiritual world with us, giving us the highest level of musicianship and instrumental skill, Howlett and Riebl gave us a highly rewarding performance of heartfelt cello repertoire.

From our home salons it was delightful to hear a small but hugely appreciative audience in the Athenaeum Theatre adding the almost forgotten sound of live applause.

Photo of Rosie Riebl and Chris Howlett supplied

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Julie McErlain reviewed the recital “From My Salon to Yours – Part 1”, performed by Chris Howlett, cello, and Rosie Riebl, piano, presented on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on November 12, 2020.

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