Following hard on the heels of exhilarating performances of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Hamer Hall, Sarah Chang joined pianist Caroline Almonte and five members of the MSO for a no less exhilarating concert of chamber music in the decidedly more intimate surroundings of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
With walls bare of any acoustic blinds, Chang and Almonte launched into Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances with enough verve and swagger to quicken the most lethargic pulse. Chang’s full, throaty lower notes and Almonte’s resonantly crashing opening chords were at one end of a spectrum; at the other were the most delicate renderings of Bartok’s folk melodies, encompassing flawless harmonics and crisp pianissimos of the utmost clarity. It was plain from the outset that these two outstanding musicians were at one in their musical intention. Apart from their formidable technical skills, dramatic flair was very much in evidence throughout their collaboration.
Sarah Chang’s physicality and theatrical presence is an intrinsic part of her allure. The spacious rearrangement of the orchestra before her performance of the Bruch was a reminder of her mobile style when playing Barber’s Violin Concerto in 2013. In addition to her need for plenty of room to move, her reputation as a star performer with a passion for fashion completed the picture. Utterly glamorous in a beautifully cut gown with just the perfect degree of bling, she was able to wield her bow like an elegant riding crop to mark the end of the more dramatic phrases of the Bruch without endangering Sir Andrew Davis or the Concertmaster. In a similarly splendid gown, she was only slightly more restrained with the bow for the Bartok, but we were favoured with a back-bend and a flouncing of the skirt with her foot to emphasise a musical point. All of this might sound like distracting histrionics, but it was not. The clothes and the movement were tasteful rather than extravagant and were used to enrich an audience’s experience of the music. They were definitely not a vehicle for some kind of inflated showmanship or display of ego.
Although Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 does not have the same gypsy quality of Bartok’s Romanian Dances, there is plenty of fire and drama in this superb piece. Chang and Almonte revelled in these qualities along with the gloriously expansive, rolling melodies and wonderful lyricism. The technical assurance and ease with which they combined to shape phrases with elasticity and rhythmic drive did ample justice to Brahms’ passionate outpourings. Chang’s sound has substance and intensity, with an upper E string sound from her famous Guarneri del Gesu that can pierce the listener to the core. Almonte’s pianism had warmth and weight alongside a lightness and evenness of touch that was reminiscent of Louis Lortie’s rippling cascades of the previous evening. It was a tribute to their high degree of musical and personal sensitivity that their performance was so satisfyingly integrated, especially given the limited rehearsal time.
After interval and a change of dress (of course), Sarah Chang joined Matthew Tomkins on violin, Christopher Cartlidge and Lauren Brigden on viola, and David Berlin and Rachael Tobin on cello for Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. This was not only a welcome opportunity to hear a consummate violinist in a more expanded chamber music collaboration, but a chance to hear some of the MSO’s Principal players in a work that gave them featured roles. In particular, David Berlin’s important cello contributions were beautifully played and Christopher Cartlidge impressed in various prominent viola passages.
Tchaikovsky’s sextet is very much an ensemble piece even though the first violin is generally the dominant voice. It was indicative of Sarah Chang’s sense of this aspect that her choice of dress was a black top with a full skirt of broad black and white stripes, echoing the black pants and white tops of the viola players. Her playing was equally finely judged, restrained or assertive as required. Again, for the most part, there was an unexpectedly high degree of unanimity of purpose and integration of texture from all players.
The concept of Soloist in the Spotlight is to be applauded on many levels. Apart from providing greater variety and affording opportunities for a collaboration between visiting stars and local artists, in this case it served to attract what was obviously a new audience to chamber music. Enthusiastic applause was heard at the end of every movement and even during a slight pause in the middle of a movement of the Tchaikovsky. And who could blame such fervent appreciation? Sarah Chang’s sweet acknowledgement of the audience response and her unaffected delight as she shared a masterful performance of a program of accessible mainstream works certainly merited the ovation she received.