There were many joys to be celebrated with this Melbourne Digital Concert Hall program. The highly welcomed return of the much-appreciated Michael Aquilina sponsorship, the scheduling of two great masterpieces of chamber music, and the total joy of hearing the superlative solo instrumental skills of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra members outside of their normal – as in pre-COVID – orchestral gigs. Assistant MSO concertmaster Tair Khisambeev (1st violin) joined with Principal players Matthew Tomkins (2nd violin) Chris Moore (viola) Rachael Tobin (cello) and brilliant pianist Kristian Chong to deliver an exciting and stimulating special performance which did leave us full of joy and admiration as we absorbed the very essence of these quintessential works.
Schumann’s Piano Quintet Eb Op 44 was highly regarded by his contemporaries, signalling a more highly developed genre as chamber music was moving out of the private salon and into the public concert hall, and the technical development of the sustaining pedal and range of the piano increasing its power and potential. The opening theme of Allegro Brillante was delivered with boldness and authority, with the musicians showing a spontaneous and relaxed physical movement as they delivered the luxurious textures of the romantic and lyrical contrasting themes, highly immersed in the emotional and virtuosic demands of this extraordinary music. Gorgeous cello statements with sparkling and detailed piano accompaniment glowed. As each member of the ensemble showed solo virtuosic expression or was united in perfectly balanced partnerships, we were absorbed into an emotional momentum building into the triumphant final bars.
Pleasantly, the famous “Funeral March” theme opening the 2nd movement In Modo D’una Marcia avoided sadness or pathos as the ensemble maintained a gentle forward flowing tempo, maintaining breath, life and full body in the alternating lyrical statements. Mendelssohn’s influence and spirit were felt nicely in the flowing piano theme while the ensemble continued to engage our emotions with passionate string accompaniment, united accelerandos and growing agitation, with the viola adding some very special dark, insistent funereal material from the opening theme. The 3rd movement Scherzo is a whirlwind of dynamic and brisk ascending and descending scale passages, where this ensemble produced much excitement with an impressively big sound. Most admirable were the dazzling technically demanding passages and sustained energy driving us toward a heavily accented perpetual motion and explosive conclusion. Schumann’s brilliant contrapuntal writing in the 4th movement Allegro ma non troppo was a joy to experience as each musician colourfully shaped solo melodies in rapid conversations with each other, the viola leading some profound and finely intimate and expressive moments before the ensemble swept us to an exultant and thrilling coda.
An interval gave us all time to absorb the immense satisfaction and emotional substance from such an opening, and also provided a convivial opportunity for MDCH co-directors and hosts Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett to share lighter moments with guest Greg Hocking, remarking on the success of the project, the venue and fund-raising, thanking sponsors as MDCH approaches its 200th concert.
Kristian Chong welcomed us amiably to the ensemble’s second grand journey with Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor Op 34.Only the very best instrumentalists could master this quasi symphonic work, with its broad and inspiring orchestral themes, inventive and dense harmonic texture and added rhythmic complexity of cross-rhythms and driving rhythmic pulses. The 1st movement fully showed a work ahead of its time, exploring the extremes of anguish, restlessness in an expansive panorama. A final cadence with powerful piano chords closed this huge movement, leaving us in awe but then welcoming a soothing lyricism and gentle rhythmic flow in the contrasting 2nd movement, calm as a lullaby. In this Andante un poco Adagio individual instruments celebrated exposed, gorgeous solo moments and joined in finely balanced teamwork as Brahms’ melodramatic crescendos transformed the soundscape. An electrifying and exciting Scherzo Allegro further displayed the virtuosic skills and fearlessness of each musician. Much vigour and intensity was felt in the galloping aura, march-like dotted rhythms, impulsive fugal section and a powerful grand chorale.
In this epic journey of many and varied contrasts, a searching, and at times, darker story was suggested with the rising semi-tones and tension of the opening themes of the Finale. In the developing waves of tone colour, from the deceptive sweetness and softness which began the lengthy coda, we were held in awe as this ensemble delivered a masterfully agitated but decisive journey to its conclusive wildly syncopated final chords.
The musicians took us to great emotional depths but left us with high admiration and much joy.
In a further amiable and welcomed post-concert discussion with violist Chris Moore, Greg Hocking remarked that this piece was “too big for a chamber ensemble.” But not too big for this outstanding ensemble from our MSO.
Photo of Chris Moore supplied.
Julie McErlain reviewed Great Piano Quintets: Schumann and Brahms, presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall as part of the Michael Aquilina Gala at the Athenaeum Theatre on November 7, 2020.