A French Celebration with Susan Graham & the Australian Chamber Orchestra saw a constellation of musical artistry in a dazzling recital as megastar mezzo Susan Graham (pictured) joined brilliant violinist Karen Gomyo, rising star pianist Christian Ihle Hadland and luminaries of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Christopher Moore, Ike See and Timo-Veikko Valve.
Instrumental works bookended this program of chamber music by Ravel, Respighi and Franck, beginning with Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor. Popular and familiar, particularly after having received such a thorough workout during the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition the previous week, it was given the masterly performance that such a masterpiece deserves.
With technical virtuosity, intense musicality and a tone that ranged from a floating thread of sound to finely textured throaty passion, Gomyo exploited the timbre of her splendid Stradivarius in response to Ravel’s impressionistic colourings. Hadland proved to be equally responsive. From the tranquil beginning to the increasing drama of the first movement, he moved between crystalline purity and full percussive weight.
The gentle give and take between Gomyo and Valve’s cello at the end of this movement revealed a fine matching of tone and musical intention. Although Valve’s warm, sonorous cello was occasionally submerged by the piano, the balance between the instruments was generally finely judged. The swirling passion of the Pantoum, the quiet intensity of the Passacaille and the celebratory final movement were given enormous expressive drive by all three players. Some of those who had come expressly to hear the sublime Susan Graham may have been surprised to encounter such an unexpectedly rewarding experience.
This was also true of the final work where violinist Ike See and viola player Christopher Moore joined Gomyo, Valve and Hadland for Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor. It is an emotionally charged composition that calls upon each member of the quintet to play both a solo and ensemble role. As with the Ravel Piano Trio, virtuosity, intensity and sensitive musicality informed every note of a tightly knit ensemble.
It came as no surprise to those who had heard Susan Graham in an illuminating recital as part of the 2012 Great Performers series that she would have chosen her works for this program with great care. Honoured for her services to French vocal music with the French government’s Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, Ravel’s Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme was the ideal companion piece to his Piano Trio. In these evocative symbolist poems, which conjure up a series of dream-like images, the sound of the French language is a vital component of musical expressiveness. Two flutes and clarinets joined the string quartet and Graham as she enveloped the hall with luminous beauty of tone, caressing the phrases of a languid Soupir (Sigh).
Graham luxuriated in the sensuous musical poetry as the nuanced subtlety of voice and instruments wove a spell where sound seemed to hang in the air and time stood still. The strange imagery of the poems gives more an impression of meaning rather than coherent narrative, but the singer imbued the snatches of story with a persuasive conviction that took the listener on an exotic journey.
Diverging from the title of the program, the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s 1914 work, Il tramonto (The Sunset) was performed by Graham and string quartet after interval. It is a setting of a translation into Italian of what Respighi called “a little lyric poem” by Shelley. It is much more operatic in style than Ravel’s Mallarme settings and a wonderfully dramatic vehicle for Graham. The full glory of her voice was employed to relate this haunting tale of ecstasy followed by mysterious loss and grief. In the penultimate line, “Oh, that like thine, mine epitaph were – Peace!”, her ravishing, soft high “Pace!” was simply spell-binding.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra continues to provide imaginative programs with outstanding artists. This was a program of consummate artistry by both singer and instrumentalists, affording a valuable opportunity to hear international soloists in combination with first-rate local musicians as members of a chamber ensemble. Melbourne audiences were able to hear Karen Gomyo play Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3 earlier this year with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, but hearing her with these ACO players provided an opportunity to form a deeper appreciation of her gifts. Similarly, Sarah Chang’s involvement in a program of chamber music with Caroline Almonte and principal string players from the MSO in a program of chamber music was a much appreciated complement to her performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto with the MSO in April.
It is these collaborations that enrich the musical life of local musicians and music lovers, especially when they can be heard in the intimacy and splendid acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.