Thanks to a brave decision on the part of the artistic directors of the Adelaide Festival, Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield, the Festival this year returned to the format which established it decades ago as one of the great classical music festivals on the world stage. Based loosely on the Edinburgh Festival, this involves cutting edge performances of music and theatre, including an opera at its centre. Their courage has been rewarded in spades – many shows, including the opera Saul, sold out weeks before it opened, and something like 40% of the audience came from interstate.
Embedded within the Festival was a weekend of chamber music held in a new and gorgeous venue, the Ukaria Cultural Centre in Mount Barker, half an hour from the city centre in the Adelaide Hills. It was called Chamber Landscapes, and consisted of six concerts devoted to chamber music by Australian composers and Franz Schubert, plus two informal panel discussions. The small concert hall, both beautiful and with a perfect acoustic for chamber music, includes an enormous window through which the audience looks out over the hills and vineyards of the district, and which encouraged the connection between music and landscape. Chamber Landscapes was engagingly curated by Anna Goldsworthy, the wonderful pianist in the Seraphim Trio and also a writer.
The connection between music and landscape was embodied quite literally in the Australian compositions we heard. No musical discourse on the Australian landscape is complete without its great poet, Peter Sculthorpe, and we heard two of his early, ground-breaking engagements with it: Irkanda I, played with great insight by violinist Niki Vasilakis, and Irkanda III, played by the Seraphim Trio. Both performances treated these works with the respect due to these pieces as truly part of the Australian canon, and the view through the big window completed the picture. We also heard Calvin Bowman’s new song cycle, commissioned for the Festival, about which I have written elsewhere on this site, and part of a powerful new work by Deborah Cheetham, for soprano, piano, and string quartet. This composer describes her piece, entitled, Eumeralla, as a war requiem for the fallen on both sides of the colonial wars that took place in the decades following the invasion of Australia by the British, and as a plea for peace. Deborah Cheetham sang with great passion, in her own indigenous language, her voice soaring over the bleak textures of the string quartet. William Barton, that iconic ambassador for the integration of indigenous and non-indigenous music, sang and also played a Yidaki, which looks and sounds like a small didgeridoo, with the Australian String Quartet, in his own piece, Square circles beneath the sand.
Both Deborah Cheetham and William Barton sing in full open, plangent voices which, devoid of artifice, go straight to the heart. Barton’s performance especially reminded me of the closing lament in the performance of Secret River which I had watched two days previously. This theatre piece, adapted from Kate Grenfell’s famous novel, deals directly and confrontingly with the colonial wars, in this case a massacre committed by ex-convicts, and, while not a part of Chamber Landscapes, provided its audience a context in which the terrible impact of first contact upon indigenous Australians was inescapable. This sort of synergy and connection pervaded the Adelaide Festival, and increased the impact of already powerful musical and theatrical experiences.
In all but the last concert of Chamber Landscapes one of the Australian works was paired with a piece by Schubert. With this music we moved from external to inner landscapes, from the South Australian summer to the Austrian winter, from the turmoil of nations to the turmoil of the soul. The first concert gave us two of the three last sonatas, in performances as different from each other as could be imagined. First, Anthony Romaniuk played the C minor sonata, in what to me was a totally new way of playing Schubert – responsive to every detail, reflecting fluctuations of mood with fluctuating tempi, opening up those questions with which Schubert’s late music is full, questions about life and death, which Romaniuk, faithful to Schubert, left unresolved. Then Steven McIntyre gave us the Bb sonata, in a performance straight out of the central 20th century tradition (if there is such a thing); long, singing lines which seldom paused for breath but were subservient to a grand design which relied on fairly consistent tempi for each movement.
In the panel discussion on Schubert that followed their performance Steven McIntyre raised the question of how to balance detail and design in performance. As the weekend continued with its journey through Schubert’s masterpieces, I came to a personal conclusion about all this which was close to a comment Anna Goldsworthy made in that discussion; that whereas in for example Beethoven one is always conscious of a teleology, a sense of the future, of going somewhere, of exploration, Schubert’s music, more and more as his short life went on, focusses us on the present, on the moment – the future is unknown, whether ignored or terrifying. And so of these two performances, much as I felt at home in McIntyre’s, it was Romaniuk’s which I found revelatory.
The second concert included Die Winterreise. I missed this (that’s when I went to Secret River), but I had heard the same concert a few nights before, and have written about this in my last review here. Then the next day Anna Goldsworthy’s piano trio, Seraphim, gave us the Eb trio. As she reminded us, Schumann had characterised this work as “masculine” in contrast to the “feminine” trio in Bb. Their performance was a kaleidoscope of Schubert’s colours and textures, but for me the revelation came in the first movement. There is a little tender, questioning, wistful phrase that concludes the otherwise “masculine” exposition, and which gives rise to the entire development section. The Seraphim Trio invited us into a soft inner world for this entire section, as if to say – oh, haven’t we lost something in this over-male world of ours? Yet for me the contrast was not so much between man and woman, but between man and child, and I was transported back to my teens, when I first heard the piece just as my own childhood was being lost in the blur of adolesence. And I knew, somehow, as violinist Helen Ayres and cellist Timothy Nankervis were weaving their lyrical magic over Anna Goldsworthy’s gossamer, spider-web-with-tears-of-dew arpeggios – I knew that Schubert had felt the same.
In the afternoon the Australian String Quartet tackled one of the most difficult and experimental of Schubert’s late works, the string quartet in G major. This music, constantly oscillating between major and minor, whose themes, whether lyrical or rhythmic, all return to their first few notes again and again, seems to me to be above all about obsession. The ASQ, which has repeatedly re-formed itself in recent years (only the viola player, Stephen King, survives from its first incarnation), entered this territory fully aware of its not-audience-friendly, deeply introverted nature. I particularly liked the third movement, in which the beer-hall music of the Trio was played with enormous verve, pointing up the fleeting, fearful scherzo very clearly.
Then the following morning they were joined by Simon Cobcroft, first cellist in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, for the C major string quintet. This was introduced by Anna Goldsworthy as “for many people, not just their favourite piece of music, but one of the greatest works of art there is”. I am among those many people; I remember in my twenties falling in love with a woman at the precise moment she said it was hers too. I have heard very many performances, starting with the Amadeus quartet with William Pleeth, and I can safely say that none have been better than the ASQ’s performance. The understated intensity of the cellist Sharon Draper’s lyricism, the passion of Dale Barltrop, the first violin, the unrestrained ardour of Simon Cobcroft, the wonderful control of Francesca Hiew, the second violin, and the sense that we were all in a magical place conveyed by Stephen King – these all combined to produce a committed, beautiful, coherent performance that I think no-one present will ever forget. The trio in the third movement was a glance into the deepest abyss. The valedictory cello duet in the finale was infinitely touching in its simplicity and restraint. After the slow movement there wasn’t a sound in the audience except for the occasional tear dropping on the floor.
In the last concert of the weekend we heard the Italian chamber ensemble La Gaia Scienza, famous for their work with period instruments. They played two early, brief Schubert trios, and then were joined by the double bass player Kirsty McCahon for the Trout quintet. The pianist, Frederika Valli, playing on a copy of Schubert’s Graf piano loaned by the Elder Conservatorium, was a little unconvincing at times, but all the string players were a delight from start to finish. Kirsty McCahon’s exuberance gradually infected them all until their enjoyment of what they were playing affected them physically, so they seemed almost to dance their way through this unusually lighthearted, carefree divertimento-like piece.
It was a perfect finish to an amazingly wonderful weekend of chamber music. What is better than listening to Schubert in the Australian landscape? It was a jewel in the Festival’s crown.
2017 Adelaide Festival
Venue: Ukaria Cultural Centre, Barker’s Hill
Dates: 9 – 14 March 2017
Read Chamber Landscapes part I»