To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 3MBS Marathon, Wilma Smith was asked to design something different. Some listeners might have missed the opportunity to become immersed in a single major composer, but there is no doubt that the musical smorgasbord on offer for the 2023 Marathon was immensely appetising. Each of the seven concerts comprised at least one major work from past Marathons and smaller works from the past and present. The most significant departure from past programming was the inclusion of works by composers whose music is deeply rooted in cultural heritage, played on traditional instruments from China, Greece, India and Serbia.
The opening concert, “Sublime”, typified what was to come. Kerry-Anne Hoad, a 3MBS Daybreak presenter (how appropriate!), welcomed audiences in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and those participating via Australian Digital Concert Hall. It is debatable whether the comparatively small numbers in the Hall had been reduced by access to streaming access, but there is no doubt that ADCH provides a valuable opportunity for people unable to be present in person due to health, geographical or other reasons. It was a way of affirming the title of this year’s Marathon: TOGETHER.
When introducing the works and artists, Hoad described the concert as being in “three sublime segments”. The first segment saw Collide, the first three of nine excellent musicians, perform works by two composers with French connections. Collide comprises Joseph Lallo (saxophone), Yelian He (cello) and Jasmin Rowe (piano). In an arrangement by Mary Osborne, the trio gave an animated performance of Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (1917). Although originally composed as a duet for violin and piano, the work was adapted for violin, cello and piano, and for flute and piano that same year. Repeated piano notes set a sprightly pace before the saxophone joined in with a perky melody, followed by the cello. Debussy’s influence can be heard clearly in this dialogue between saxophone and cello, and between all three instruments. That Lallo’s formidable technique enabled him to scale with ease heights much more comfortable on violin and flute increased the excitement of this arrangement. A final piano glissando brought, what had been an occasionally slightly atonal, sometimes meditatively searching, and always engaging work to an energetic conclusion.
Terra Australis Incognita, is the first work for saxophone trio by award-winning Australian-French composer and saxophonist Katia Beaugeais. How wonderful to begin this Marathon with two outstanding female composers – and one a young very-much-alive Australian at that! A fascinating work, it explores the many possibilities of the instruments. Although it appeared to be in three substantial movements, unfortunately, the printed program was woefully short on details regarding the composers and their works. This resulted in some important details being unclear, including which Boulanger sister had been featured. Insistently repeated piano notes began this work too, with Lallo standing and leaning into the strings of the piano to play a crescendo that developed into a repeated wail. As a saxophonist, Beaugeais was ideally equipped to explore the musical possibilities of the instrument, and for this listener the result was a revelation. Slow explorations, soulful melodies with lyrical duets for saxophone and cello, and perky tunes were all configured with recurring musical effects that gave overall coherence to the work. The second section was chiefly characterized by the whistling harmonics of cello glissandi, and what began with a quiet piano solo for the final section quickly gathered speed and volume as syncopated rhythms finally led to a whirlwind trio before the final fading echo created by a sustained piano pedal brought this remarkable sound world to a close.
Sometimes referred to as the Chinese zither or Chinese harp, the guzheng was the solo instrument for an arrangement of Fisherman Singing in the Sunset by Wei Ziyou, and Waterfall composed and performed Chinese-Australian Mindy Meng Wang, who is also the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 2023 Artists in Residence. Dressed in formal, almost monastic black, Meng sat serenely behind the guzheng to deliver an astonishing display of the instruments capabilities, aided by amplification. Two slow introductory plucked notes led to a tranquil melodic line embellished with little flourishes. As the piece gained in speed and intensity, harp-like roulades seemed to stream from her hands until the music subsided into the more contemplative pace of the beginning. The slow opening notes of Waterfall introduced a series of glissandi followed by what sounded like the verses of a story. An impressive climax of sweeping harp-like cascades, reflecting the title of the work, finally faded into sonic droplets.
Perhaps the best way to summarise the final work is to say that this performance encapsulated the concert’s title: “Sublime”. Schubert’s String Quintet in C is one of, if not the, pinnacle of chamber music. For some, it perhaps gains even greater poignancy by being completed just two months before the composer’s death in 1828, but it stands as being a work of the most profound emotional intensity without any biographical considerations. In the hands of Tair Khisambeev (violin), Kyla Matsuura-Miller (violin), Katie Yap (viola), Elina Faskhi (cello) and Richard Narroway (cello) it was a deeply moving experience, which to my mind equates to unqualified success. The work is sometimes called the “Cello Quintet” because it is scored for a second cello rather than the more customary second viola for string quintets. The depth and richness of this scoring was striking from outset with Narroway a full-bodied supremely eloquent voice throughout. He and Faski played as one at key points and provided a resonant foundation for the other voices. The famous second movement Adagio was indeed “sublime”. Khisambeev is a virtuoso technician but can sound a little steely on the E string, but in this movement he was delicate perfection as he imbued the violin’s plaintive utterances with sensitive musicality against the slow, surging movement and heartbeat pizzicato of the other instruments. The hunt-like calls of the Scherzo and the energetic Hungarian dance character of the Allegretto were stylishly rendered.
This was a performance to remember, almost orchestral its richness of sound and beautifully shaped throughout. It was a superb way to end the first leg of the 2023 Marathon.
Heather Leviston reviewed Concert 1: Sublime of the 3MBS 2023 Marathon: Together, performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on February 11, 2023.