Taking its name from Stravinsky’s revered ballet suite, the Firebird Trio has for twelve years consistently performed passionate musical programs modelling their delivery on the qualities of the phoenix, the mythical bird illustrated with golden feathers and crystal eyes, which glows with bright red-orange plumage. How perfect was the setting for chamber music in the autumn colours of Beleura’s house and garden. How perfect was the passionate and brightly coloured performance by three outstanding musicians.
In a world where introductory speeches at concerts seem to be increasing greatly, how perfect were the brief, candid, and humoured words of violinist Curt Thompson, describing a personal “connection” with Beleura’s unique musical heritage through its owner John Tallis, musician and pianist whose name is embedded in the Melbourne Conservatorium’s Tallis Wing, where Thompson is Head of Strings. Dorcas McLean, a fine musician and generous benefactor also shared the history of Beleura, performing there, and also setting up a highly prized legacy through the Conservatorium, with the Dorcas McLean Competition for Strings. We felt too that we were sharing the musical history.
A varied program of music thoughtfully connected us with composers of Viennese association. Opening the program was Kreisler’s popular Liebeslied, a piece associated with the Romantic waltz, but today given a vigorous, expressive and richly timbred delivery. Thompson created fresh, passionate and lusty statements, rather than show a nostalgic sense or a pastiche of the lighter circular waltz. Pianist Berta Brozgul today replaced Trio resident Ben Martin, perfectly showing us exemplary musicianship and finely tuned accompanying skills. Today, Liebeslied was a showcase of three classy performers playing superb instruments, bringing a wide range of orchestral colours to the composer’s notation with personality, technical precision and tonal variations. Our hearts, minds and senses were fully enveloped.
Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G, K301 allowed Brozgul to fully reveal her intelligent and masterly piano playing, always sparkling and crystal clear, invigorating and detailed, her demeanour always relaxed and composed. I wonder what Mozart would have made of the Stuart & Sons concert grand piano with its heftier possibilities, as the upper extra octave can become metallic and percussive in fortissimo sections, but Brozgul was able to add the flavour of low orchestral colour in fine fashion. There was perfect cohesion in pauses, entries after silences, and thoughtful melodic conversation. In the second movement, Thompson showed strong robust playing, contrasting the colour of a new timbre beautifully for the minor key section, his extreme softness and sweetness being a challenge for any Stuart and Sons concert grand piano to match.
Josie Vains joined them for Schubert’s Notturno, D897, revealing her true firebird colours in a passionate and highly expressive performance. The Trio painted a richly nuanced portrait of the work, described by one member of the audience as being so wonderful to hear, live, for the first time ever, as she had only ever heard it on the radio. Emotional, rich in luxuriant and romantic timbres, this music touched every listener.
Our familiarity with Webern has usually come from his place alongside Berg and Schoenberg in the development of atonal and 12-tone music in the early 20th century, so it was a surprise to hear one of his very early works. Composed in 1899, Webern’s Pieces for Cello and Piano allowed Vains to demonstrate her cello’s great depth of sound, in tonal melodies that took long wide steps through romantic statements that showed an earthy expression without any sentimentality. In a similar manner, seeing Percy Grainger’s arrangement of My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone on the program, we were expecting a robust folk dance setting, but were nicely surprised by a stately and dignified arrangement of a slow, popular English Renaissance tune. In a sarabande-like setting, there were touches of nostalgia, a pastoral air, grace and elegance, but Grainger’s distinctive quirkiness and contemporary chords and colours were in there, leading to a very surprising coda with soft fragments, a mixture of silences and low, soft and spaced staccato chords adding a curious touch.
Another surprising colourful instrumental was added to this autumn program – Ben Martin’s arrangement of Girl of My Dreams, a 1927 popular song by Sunny Clapp, given new life recently by vocalist Etta James. Fresh and colourful, the instrumental setting today was like a slow rag feel, almost a stylized swing feel, gently designed not to ruffle the Firebird’s feathers.
Haydn’s Piano Trio in G, the well-known Gypsy Rondo, was another textbook performance, with detailed technical execution and flair. Again, Brozgul showed clearly defined timbres in her precise and colourful piano accompaniment. Against rippling triplets in the piano accompaniment, Thompson showed extra-beautiful expression in the Andante second movement, showing why this melody was one of Pablo Casals’ favourites. While the third movement was not quite Presto, and Hungarian gypsy elements more classical and smooth, there was plenty of fire and razzle dazzle to complete a very rewarding musical program.
Photo courtesy Beleura House.
Julie McErlain reviewed the performance given by Firebird Trio at Beleura House on May 5, 2022.