The second Blackheath Chamber Music Festival was held in Blackheath in the upper Blue Mountains, over the full four days of the Anzac Day weekend, when the autumn colours are at their most splendid. The 12 concerts comprising this year's Festival were held in Phillips Hall, a spacious community hall just opposite Blackheath station with a surprisingly good acoustic. This year's line-up, a cross section of some of the finest chamber ensembles in the country, would have graced any of Australia’s more well established festivals, and it is a massive endorsement of Festival Director Catherine Harker’s entrepreneurial skill that she was able to secure these wonderful musicians for a festival that too few people have yet heard of.
The opening concert was given by the Naxos Quartet, a group of 4 saxophonists, joined for Rhapsody in Blue by the venerable pianist Gerard Willems, who had played the piece 20 years ago at Naxos Quartet’s very first concert. The program was entirely devoted to music by Gershwin, including a reduction from the original orchestral version of An American in Paris and an expansion of Three Preludes for piano, all of which the quartet performed with great panache. Although the saxophonists played with great sensitivity to the acoustic of the hall, for expressive reasons they could not remain in the low end of the dynamic spectrum indefinitely, and when they rose above mf their sound, though always well balanced, was uncomfortably loud. The piano had to be amplified in order to be able to compete! While there was a definite pizzazz about their performance, I questioned whether it quite worked as an opening concert. All the subsequent programs fell within the description of chamber music, and the acoustic of Phillips Hall worked perfectly for the string quartets and (unamplified) piano. But the Naxos Quartet, marvellous musicians as they are, challenged the audience's dynamic tolerance in this setting.
The next concert, a solo piano recital, was most unusual. In between the 4 movements of Schubert's second-last piano sonata, Andrea Lam played three pieces chosen by the audience from a list of about 8 suggestions. I'm sure Matthew Hindson will have been chuffed that his Sad Piano was preferred to all the other offerings, which included Claire de Lune and the aria by Anna Magdalena Bach on which the Goldberg variations were written. This piece, and an etude by Philip Glass, and Brahms' A major intermezzo, all provided beautiful interludes, but, tellingly, all of them served to highlight the towering invention of the Schubert A major sonata, D 959. Andrea Lam treats performances as storytelling (she obviously likes surprises in her stories!) and her rendering of this masterpiece was riveting, every return of themes changed irrevocably by what had happened in between. Her phrasing, her rhetoric, and her deep powers of expression perfectly suited this music.
On the first evening we heard that doyen of Australian string quartets, the Goldner. Dean Olding, their leader, gave discursive, urbane and amusing introductions to each piece, but even he couldn't rouse my enthusiasm for the Herbert Howells Fantasy Quartet, a piece of bland English pastoralism. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Rose was characteristically entertaining, but I was left a little cold by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga,which exhausted my interest well before it finished. Of course they played everything gorgeously, and when they came to the "meat" of the program, Ravel’s Quartet (wasn't Ravel a vegetarian though?) they were totally in their element, the silky, sensuous sound for which the Goldner are well known inhabiting this genre-defining work magically.
Day 2 ... ah! The Streeton Trio! What gems violinist Emma Jardine, pianist Bernadette Harvey and cellist Rachel Siu are! They treat the music as a conversation between passionate aficionados, expert music-lovers always eager to show each other the felicities of passages they play. Beethoven's "Ghost" trio was a showcase for their vast repertoire of expressive variety, Harvey in particular not allowing a single detail of the score to escape her notice. And then the Brahms B major trio! I have played this myself, and heard the Beaux Arts trio play it, but I can say I have never understood it before hearing the Streeton’s performance. The work, composed in the shadow of his friend and mentor Schumann’s syphillis and attempted suicide, is about the corruption of beauty. The radiance of the B major themes is continually questioned by the constant shifts to B minor which, movement by movement, shadow, undermine, and finally dominate the music. The Streeton's performance was the best I have ever heard, and to listen to it was a truly transformative experience.
Ensemble Offspring was represented by their director, the great percussionist Claire Edwardes (vibraphone and other percussion), Lamorna Nightingale (flute), and Jason Noble (clarinet). In between the vast canvasses of Beethoven and Brahms in the morning, and Mendelssohn and more Brahms in the evening, Ensemble Offspring's program was a delicious sorbet. Grouped together under the title Songbirds at Dusk, it was series of delightful miniatures based on the soundscape of the Australian bush, written by Australians mostly in the last 10 years, and all except the final piece by women. The program began with Fiona Loader’s amusing Lorikeet Corroboree, and one of the highlights was Edwardes’ playing of Ella Macens’ vibraphone solo, Falling Embers. Jason Noble produced extraordinary multiphonics in Felicity Wilcox’s solo People of this Place, a piece in which the bass clarinet drew upon the sound world of the didgeridu. And, although the device of vibraphone keys being bowed by a double-bass bow was somewhat over-used by the the only male composer featured in this program, Gerard Brophy, I had forgotten how eerie and other-worldly this sound could be.
On the second evening of the Festival we heard another string quartet, The Tinalley, from Brisbane. Their programming was odd – the frantic F minor string quartet of Mendelssohn, followed by a frantic performance of Brahms’ F minor piano quintet that sounded anything but a contrast. I don’t know the Mendelssohn well, and their rendering of it was convincing to me, but I do know the Brahms very well, and I have to say I didn’t like some aspects of their performance. The quintet is, as I mentioned, a vast canvas; Donald Tovey remarked that it was the first great truly tragic work in Western musical history. In my opinion it needs space and breadth (I can hear Brahms’ famous remark when asked how a certain piece should be played, saying “Meine name heisst BRAHMS”) and I thought the first violinist, Adam Chelabi, drove the music too relentlessly to allow for this. At times the pianist, Benjamin Kopp, seemed to want just a little expansion, only to be brought into line by Chelabi. Although the audience loved their performance, I found it too fast, too loud, not lyrical enough, and too metronomic, and I sheet that home to the violin leader.
As I have written elsewhere, if the Goldner are Australia's Amadeus quartet, the Orava are our Takacs. It was an incredible coup by the festival director, Catherine Harker, to have both of these string quartets in the same festival. I have followed the development of the Orava Quartet since 2015, and have seen them grow from an exciting and talented outfit to an ensemble of great finesse and majesty, worthy of comparison with the world’s best. They have made a particular speciality of Shostakovich’s enormous oeuvre for string quartet, and the most substantial work in their program was Shostakovich’s 6th quartet. To those of us familiar with this composer’s strident condemnation of war, this work, almost pastoral in nature, comes as a surprise. It was the Russians in their dachas, not on the battlefield.
The final work on their program was a work called Orawa, by Wojciech Kilar, and I assumed it was a work commissioned by the Orava themselves. But no. The work is about the Orawa (pronounced Orava) region in south-east Poland, and Daniel and Karol Kowalik, the 1st violin and cello in the ensemble, grew up listening to and loving it. They played this piece with great tenderness and passion, just as we all imagine that famous Polish exile, Chopin, playing the mazurkas of his homeland. After this piece the audience demanded an encore (the only occasion in the performances that I attended at the festival that an encore was demanded), and Karol Kowalik asked the audience, did they want fast or slow? I wasn’t quick enough to shout “slow”, and they played a demonic piece that somewhat overshadowed the much more sophisticated joy of Kilar’s piece. A slow piece would have enabled the resonance of the Polish landscape to settle round me.
For the evening of the third day The Streeton Trio was joined by Lerida Delbridge, the second violinist from the Tinalley quartet, and by Tobias Breider (viola) and the double bass player Kees Boersma. Although the program was incorrectly introduced by Bernadette Harvey as the final one in the festival (there were three further concerts on the Monday which I could not attend) it was in fact my final concert, and it was a delightful send-off. The program was in a way the opposite of the Tinalley’s program of the previous evening. Here were two works vying with each other for the title of the most light-hearted pieces of 19th century chamber music – a quartet by Rossini followed by Schubert’s Trout quintet. It was, however, carefully planned – not only does the Rossini string quartet, unusually, include a double bass, as does the Trout, but Rossini was one of the composers most influential on Schubert, particularly in lighthearted vein. Rossini, unlike quite a few composers represented in this festival, has the signal virtue of knowing exactly when to stop, exactly when the audience has had enough. Schubert himself has of course been accused of just the opposite, but the repetitions in the Trout quintet are a source of pure delight, and Emma Jardine led the ensemble with an energy and a lightness of spirit that entranced us all.
The concerts I was unable to attend which completed the festival included a concert for harp, flute and bassoon, all players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; a fourth string quartet, the Kanimbla, with one of Australia’s most celebrated French Horn players, Robert Johnson; the didgeridu player William Barton with violinist Véronique Serret; and the singer song-writer Lior with the Tinalley quartet. I’ll say it again – it was an unbelievable feat of both good taste and entrepreneurial skill on the part of Catherine Harker to assemble this amazing pool of Australian talent for her festival. The festival currently receives no government funding, at state or federal level, and I would make a strong plea for this to change. It is, like the Bangalow Festival which I know well, an artistic jewel which brings people remote from the major cities in contact with the best that this country has to offer, and as such richly deserving of financial support from government bodies. All such endeavours need support, especially in such a huge, sprawling country as Australia.
Mountain Productions presents
Blackheath Chamber Music Festival 2022
Venue: Phillips Hall | 41 Gardiner Crescent, Blackheath NSW
Dates: 22 – 25 April 2022