I’ve been to a marvellous concert …
When I quit spending half my year in less-than-welcoming Germany and Europe, with their lavishly-available supply of (state subsidised) opera and concert performances, and returned to dwell in the southern hemisphere, I had perforce to give up the rich musical life I had been leading. But each year, for the last three, I have allowed myself one treat. A visit to lovely Stradbroke Island, off the Queensland coast, for their three-day chamber music festival.
‘Straddie’ might be a small island, a small country community, but there is nothing ‘small’ about the festival. Over the ten years of its existence, under the aegis of violinist Rachel Smith, it has developed into a full-sized event with half a dozen concerts featuring an outstanding team of international soloists – almost, now, precisely the same ones each year, for everyone wants to come back to Straddie!
Sophie Rowell and Rachel Smith (violins), Caroline Henbest (viola), Eric de Wit and Louise King (cellos), Paul Hankinson (piano) were joined this year by two further pianists (Louisa Breen, Stephen Emmerson), guitarist Karin Schaupp and the young clarinettist, William Stafford. Each and every one impeccable. On the evidence of today’s concert number one, this could be the best festival yet! For not only does this event score by its participants, but also by its planning. Without going into the wilds, the programmes – eschewing the over-familiar -- feature music which … well, let’s just say, I’m moderately well musically educated, but the five pieces which made up tonight’s programme were all new to me.
We started off with Haydn’s trio no 41 in E flat minor. (Smith, de Wit, Hankinson). I do love music that is made to delight and please rather than to amaze. And this is of that genre. Melody not fireworks. Beauty not skills. Scarcely an ornament in sight. Just music. I could fondly imagine myself relaxing opulently in an C18th salon listening to this. The piece is almost a sonata for piano and violin, the cello just giving depth and emphasis, but the instruments here blended so beautifully that, at times, I couldn’t tell whether the full, warm lower notes were coming from the cello or the keyboard. Lovely stuff. Just purely lovely stuff.
The cello (de Wit) was no ‘second fiddle’ in the next piece: three movements of Janacek’s Pohádka. I had read the programme of the piece (the programme notes here are superb) and it sounded rather glum, but no such thing! The first movement is as lively as all get out, the second equally as vibrant … Janacek really has guts and fire … it is a shame the piece sort of fades away latterly. But I really enjoyed this, mulling, as I listened, how de Wit’s cello reminded me of a baritone singer without a break in his voice: the high notes produced in the same ‘chest’ voice as the middle and lower. I liked that. I’m a sucker for a beautiful cello.
The third piece was four Schumann Märchenerzählungen. Fairy stories. A sweet selection of tunes after the Sturm und Drang of the cello piece. And, oh joy, written for piano (Emmerson), viola (Henbest) and clarinet (Stafford).Why, oh why, didn’t/don’t more folk write for this combination? The first two pieces were a melodious dancing joy, but I don’t know which fairytale no 4 was illustrating: the Jolly Green Giant in his ten league boots! Ah well, contrast is the salt and pepper of existence! And the pieces were lively and enjoyable.
After an interval, under the stars, and a glass of chardonnay to the sound of the softly breaking waves, we returned for part two.
A little (93 bars) introductory quintet from Mozart … pretty, frilly, characteristic, dance music … and then we launched into the Big Number of the night. Szymanowski’s violin (Rowell) and piano (Breen) piece entitled Mythes. Szymanowski seems to have been following me around for a few years, and it’s probably lèse-majesté to admit that while the Gorecki I listened to in Jersey is engraved on my eardrums, I remember nothing of his compatriot’s music. I guess it’s personal preference. For this piece is the utter antithesis of the Haydn. As in the days of Paganini, de Beriot, Wieniawski et al, it is written almost entirely to show off the technique of the player(s). Which it duly does. Miss Rowell took on the dragon and slayed him with a thousand strokes of her bow. And the audience (and I) were spellbound. She and Miss Breen got the biggest applause of the night. But I say that, advisedly, the applause was, in my book, for the performance rather than the music.
The evening came to an end with more chardonnay and a huge Festival Tenth Birthday Cake under more stars, by more waves, before we all toddled home to get a good sleep before the early start tomorrow …de Falla, Albéniz, Poulenc and Boccherini with breakfast, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms after lunch … before the ambulant Mr Piano gets into his chariot to head to Dunwich for the last day’s concerts …