In a mixture of first and last words from writers and composers, the splendid Seraphim Trio began the first concert of their “Words and Music” season in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre. In this they had enlisted the support of sublime New York-based soprano Jane Sheldon who joined the Trio for Andrew Ford’s pivotal new song cycle, Last Words.
Between glorious masterpieces of standard repertoire: Beethoven’s very first published opus, his Piano Trio in G, and Brahms’ first Piano Trio in B (a work that combines the best of both early and late Brahms), Seraphim Trio showcased Ford’s absorbing new work.
Using the final poems, letters and diary entries and even purported deathbed utterances of people as early as Sappho and recent as Dorothy Porter, Andrew Ford has strung together 17 very diverse items to form an integrated and arresting song cycle. Varying in length and mood, this is far from being a morbid catalogue of woe. Ziegfeld’s final “The show looks good!”, Maurice Chevalier’s “Il y a de la joie!” and Dorothy Porter’s gentle words of acceptance and gratitude: “… despite everything/can’t believe my luck” broaden context and accentuate an appreciation of the good in life.
Initiated by soprano Jane Sheldon, the writing is tailor-made for the beauty and focused clarity of her voice. She also has the dramatic wherewithal to characterise very different styles, both vocally and physically. Whether in short outbursts as in the initial urgency of Goethe’s “Mehr licht, mehr licht” (the only recurring phrase in the cycle) or the concentrated stillness of Virginia Woolf’s incredibly moving farewell, each piece was given thoughtful attention.
The only selection to come from the realms of fiction is the final passage from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. In the program notes, Ford writes, “But in order to write fast music, I had to turn to fiction.” And he certainly makes the most of Winton’s highly musical prose, as well as giving Sheldon the opportunity for a dramatic scream at the end after Fish Lamb becomes himself in the water’s embrace.
As a group of highly accomplished musicians renowned for their spirit of adventure, Seraphim Trio was an obvious choice for collaboration on this project. The portraits of imminent mortality were threaded together by sustained notes of varying duration from all three instruments, enhancing a unity of musical language and providing an emotional connection between the fragments of text. Even though the Woolf passage was virtually unaccompanied, there was an eerie hushed suspension of not hearing yet almost hearing a breathing thread of sound. The controlled beauty of the trio’s playing was central to creating this effect.
Similar sensitivity to nuance and drama was evident in their playing of the works by Beethoven and Brahms. These works are full of the expansive generosity that has made them so popular. Anna Goldsworthy’s piano was occasionally a trifle too dominant for the space and horizontal setup, but the rolling power of these works calls for a fairly robust approach in order to do justice to the emotional intensity which makes them so compelling.
Some exceptionally fleet finger work and a spirit of playfulness from Goldsworthy marked the Allegro Vivace of the opening movement and the final Presto movement of the Beethoven. The second movement of this work saw some very lovely cello playing, especially in the soulful melodic line.
The interplay between the three instruments became an intimate conversation between three close friends, with Helen Ayres’ violin matching Tim Nankervis’ cello to great effect and Goldsworthy an involved participant.
The sense of joy in music making is a hallmark of Seraphim Trio’s playing and it was plain that they relished every note of their accomplished reading of the Brahms’ trio.
It was a pity that some members of the audience attending the Ensemble Liaison concert missed out. As a subscriber to Ensemble Liaison’s series for a number of years, I for one was torn between two concerts starting at the same time at the Melbourne Recital Centre. It is to be hoped that the MRC management will find a way of avoiding this kind of clash in the future, given the overlap in audience for these two excellent ensembles.
As it was, I was keen to hear such an interesting new work by Andrew Ford with Jane Sheldon and Seraphim Trio. For those who missed out, it is to be hoped that a CD of at least the words with music part of the “Words and Music” series will be issued. I will certainly be in line for a copy.
LAST WORDS – Seraphim Trio
Melbourne Recital Centre, March 27