Ensemble Liaison lived up to its reputation as a musical force to be treasured in the opening program of their ninth season. With its intriguing title, Fairy Tales and Gumbootsthe three core members and musician friends blended standard repertoire by old masters with a 2008 piece by acclaimed American English composer, David Bruce.
Ever the genial host, David Griffiths welcomed the audience as if they too were old friends. In many respects they might well have been, considering that Ensemble Liaison has a devoted following, which increases with the years as more lovers of fine chamber music playing and imaginative programming come to appreciate the virtues of this ensemble and its choice of guest musicians.
For this occasion, the guests were more numerous than originally programmed; in a quirk of synchronicity, pianist Timothy Young had just become a father and was therefore only available to rehearse the first item on the program: Schumann’s Marchenzahlungen (Fairy Tales). Although the cello part was originally written for viola, Griffiths assured the audience that it sounds better on the cello and Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s playing did much to support his claim. He also encouraged the audience to listen out for the third movement, the one that draws him personally to the piece. Indeed, the tender melancholy of this movement was given full expression with beautifully shaped phrasing and the voices of the clarinet, cello and piano interweaving harmoniously while retaining clarity.
Schumann’s piece is no saccharine lullaby, but encompasses more of a Brothers Grimm brand of darkness and drama, which was particularly well captured in an animated final movement of almost breathless excitement.
What was to follow was even more exciting. Composed for clarinetist Todd Palmer and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Gumboots has its origins in the appalling labour conditions of flooded South African gold mines where black miners were chained together in silence and could only communicate via slapping their gumboots and chains. This later developed into a form of dance that is generally lively, energetic and highly rhythmic. As David Bruce has noted, a paradox of human creativity is “the fact that life-enriching art has been produced, even inspired, by conditions of tragedy, brutality, and oppression.”
In roughly two equal parts, the first begins with haunting slow moving chords from the bass clarinet and viola and is joined by the other instruments in a plaintive melody interspersed with melismatic figures with a suggestion of the Middle East. After the pianissimo conclusion of this quietly introspective movement the second part is in startling contrast with its joyful “gumboot dances”. In a late change of personnel, violist Christopher Cartlidge replaced Cameron Hill to join Paul Wright, Elizabeth Sellars, Svetlana Bogosavljevic and David Griffiths in a splendidly controlled, atmospheric and increasingly exhilarating performance. From the sonorous dark notes of his bass clarinet in the first part Griffiths turned to the clarinet for the profusion of energy and momentum that infused the five dances. It was an absolute treat to be introduced to what the composer called “an abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance” by such an accomplished reading.
To add to the pleasures of this program, the substitute pianist for Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor was Caroline Almonte. She is not only the quintessentially sympathetic chamber musician; she also has the expressive range of tone and colour that make her a superb exponent of Brahms’ music. In a welcome return to the Melbourne concert platform, Paul Wright’s leadership was dynamic and finely judged throughout. Elizabeth Sellars’ warm, generous tone and her experience as first violin in various ensembles provided an excellent match for Wright and for Brahms; in particular, her playing of the featured wistful melody for second violin in the Andante was deeply expressive.
The high degree of musical understanding between these five players was apparent right from the quite uncanny bell-like unison of the opening notes. The effective blending of sound and the rhythmic pacing that ratcheted up the tension at the end of first movement were among the many rewards of the evening.
In his introduction to the second half of the concert, David Griffiths complained that the one downfall of Brahms’ Piano Quintet is the absence of a clarinet part. It was easy to see why he would have wanted to participate in this particular performance. The audience certainly gave it their whole-hearted approval.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on April 29.