The prize-winning London–based Sitkovetsky Piano Trio, currently touring for Music Viva presented what was an engaging recital of repertoire staples to a sizeable and appreciative audience at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Husband and wife duo Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin) and Wu Qian (Piano) joined forces with cellist Bartholomew LaFollette to present trios by Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn, as well as a new work by young Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth.
Opening with Rachmaninoff’s youthful single-movement Trio élégiaque No 1 (1892), the Sitkovetskys gave a suitably passionate reading, one that ably revealed the lyrical influence of the composer’s mentor, Tchaikovsky. Wu’s richly nuanced piano chords opened proceedings. Thereafter, whether in close imitation, or in soaring unison, the strings, rarely looking at their scores, gave expressive accounts of the large melodic arches that permeate the Romantically-infused textures. This was an assured, soulful reading that immediately established this youthful ensemble’s interpretative credentials.
Then followed the masterwork that is Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 (1944), a desolate four-movement lament that recalls not only the devastating Siege of Leningrad, but also the more personal despair that the composer experienced at the recent loss of his great friend Ivan Sollertinsky. Having already impressed with their persuasive reading of the Rachmaninoff, the Sitkovetskys continued to convince with a relentless, emotionally charged reading of the Shostakovich, one that never failed to sustain interest. Cellist LaFollette opened with a pitch-perfect, compellingly eerie series of high-tessitura harmonics. Then, in a reversal of the normal roles, violinist Sitkovetsky answered spaciously in his lowest register, while pianist Wu responded in the lowest murky depths of the piano’s register. Thus the musical scene was set. The trio then perfectly captured the more demonic elements of the moto perpetuo second movement before settling into the more spacious tranquility of the third movement Largo. Here expansive cantabile lines unfolded with subtly inflected rubato, heightening the movement’s mournful disposition. This launched immediately into a finale that featured a wide variety of string attacks – aggressive double-stops, delicate pizzicato, and swooping portamenti. Wu’s rich-toned double octaves, perfectly balanced, never threatened to drown out her musical partners, while LaFollette’s intensity was visibly evident in his bow that by movement’s end, resembled a large comb with its numerous broken, dangling, horse-hairs. By movement’s end the audience felt thoroughly enervated – this is not happy music – and the interval came as a welcome relief to the intensity of this brutal masterpiece.
Australian music has much to thank Julian Burnside for. The well-known QC has commissioned numerous new works, from a wide variety of composers, many of which having now entered the repertoire. One of his latest commissions is Lachlan Skipworth’s three-movement Piano Trio (2015). Inspired by music for the Japanese shakuhachi flute, it is a multi-hued work in a distinctly individual style that for much of the time is a quietly meditative evocation of water. The piano largely sits in the uppermost extreme of its register, while the strings are often heard playing in synchronized sevenths, yet in a melodic style that eschews any hint of jarring dissonance. This is an engaging work that merits further hearing.
The Piano Trio No 1 in D minor (1839) is one of Mendelssohn’s most popular chamber works and is bread and butter fare for professional trios, allowing as it does each member not only to shine individually, but also to contribute to a cohesive, well-crafted whole. This was certainly the case on this occasion as Wu established her multi-faceted virtuosity in the work’s opening movement with fleet finger-work that was discreet enough to allow the soulful string melodies to emerge effortlessly. However the emotional heart of the trio comes in the second movement Andante, where a poignant lyricism emerges in textures that resemble the composer’s celebrated Songs Without Words for piano solo. Here the Sitkovetsky strings were perfectly matched in their sinuous phrasing, complemented by a supportive yet equally expressive piano line. The boisterous finale was full of rhythmic energy and ardent lyricism. This was emotionally charged playing, tautly controlled and deftly balanced, and brought the scheduled program to a most satisfying conclusion.
The slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Second Piano trio served as an eloquently persuasive encore. That we might have heard more!