On this hot summer night, a large and excited audience came to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, not only to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Centre, but to finally experience a program which was postponed twice since 2020 and was at last opening the 2022 Great Performers Series. Rarely is there such a wide age-range of attendees for a Tuesday night performance in Melbourne, with families, many very young music students, professional musicians and colleagues adding a lively buzz of anticipation and a lot of love for these two popular musicians in this marvellous venue. In his emotional welcoming address, Euan Murdoch highlighted the huge success of the Centre’s Local Artist Appeal, an ambitious fund-raising campaign that has raised a million dollars to support local artists.
So with many reasons to celebrate being at the MRC, a very enthusiastic audience was impatient to see the unique and magnificent 1780 Guadagnini cello alongside the magnificent Steinway grand piano, tonight in the hands of two prestigious and highly popular artists, in a world class concert hall.
Written in 1932, Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C minor, Op 6 reveals the influence of Brahms with its serious tone, emotional intensity and rich, low keyboard notes. Barber is one of the few composers who was a trained classical singer, and this explains the natural Romantic lyricism and passion in this work. But the opening bars of the first movement showed us the essential tonality of Barber’s resilient 20th Century elements which reflect the vitality and animation of Stravinsky, particularly in the many challenging cross rhythms and lightning fast changes of tempo. We were rewarded with an immensely strong and individual cello sound and a profound depth in low notes in the work’s opening tempestuous series of surging melodic leaps on both instruments, which then melted suddenly into tender and questioning lyrical fragments. At the end of the first movement the audience was hushed and motionless, holding on to the impressive power and authority of these musicians.
A more sombre heartfelt Adagio second movement developed into an unexpected frolic, its rapid activity allowing Chong to draw a new sparkling tone from the piano. The third movement – Allegro appassionata – provided a more complex structure, with fabulous surging upper tones developing in alternating solo themes, all delivered with much vibrancy and passion in this refreshing and distinctive repertoire.
Both musicians have such a large vocabulary of tone and emotional expression, a warm connection and a refined musical relationship. In his solos Qin demonstrates a charming showmanship. He enjoys the stage, the theatre, the connection with the audience, and demonstrates both animated facial expressions and robust physical movement when playing his cello in an expressive and engaging way.
The three-movement Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano by Schubert brought us the joy of the composer’s lyricism in a charming playoff of cello phrases echoed by the piano with gorgeous punctuation and delightful cadences. Dedicated tonight to the memory and legacy of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, the second movement Adagio gave us sweet timbres, charming gentle vocal lines, some beautifully understated piano accompaniment with sensitive pianissimos, and contrasting verses of dark, profound low pitches.
Schubert’s third movement Allegretto had all the elegance, charm, and pleasure one could hope for. Showing perfectly synchronised musical colourations and phrasing, only the best musicians make difficult passages look so easy, impressing us with technical brilliance on their instruments while giving the audience an abundance of expression and emotion.
The final major work by Robert Schumann, Adagio and Allegro, Op 70, was described by Clara Schumann as “Just the sort of piece that I like – brilliant, fresh and passionate”. A prophetic call. This was a grand and moving piece featuring inspiring long tones on the cello with Chong’s perfectly synchronized buoyant and vibrant piano accompaniment. The many students in the MRC would have been inspired by Qin’s expert bowing techniques, the many shades of colour achieved in his vibrato playing, and the intensity of passionate and flowing phrasing.
The audience would not let these performers finish there. Qin spoke warmly of the difficulties of being a musician with cancelled events, and his gratitude and hope to continue sharing live music. The essential encore of both free verse and chorus of the gentle classic ballad Somewhere Over the Rainbow was a most touching addition. The long applause brought the two musicians back for a second encore, Elgar’s charming and idyllic Salut d’Amour.
Photo courtesy Melbourne Recital Centre.
Julie McErlain reviewed Great Performers: Li-Wei Qin & Kristian Chong in Recital, presented at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on February 8, 2022.