Firebird Trio: London Calling – Classic Melbourne

Firebird Trio shines with musical brightness, exuberant personality and instrumental finesse. Tonight, colourful longstanding Firebird members – Curt Thompson (violin) and Josephine Vains (cello) expanded the ensemble with equally ebullient guest artists Rhodri Clarke (piano), Simon Oswell (viola) and Stuart Riley (double bass) to present chamber music by Haydn, Purcell and Vaughan Williams as a representation of the most popular composers who wowed London’s audiences across the centuries.

Always delightful, charming, and offering us tastes of the “humour” we expect from Haydn, a Piano Trio (No 32 in A) always sets a cheerful mood, and this performance brought smiles to the faces in the audience. Following three opening assertive chords, Haydn made the piano the chief protagonist in the Allegro Moderato, surprising us suddenly with lightly running scales, skipping solo passages and playful patterns leading the way, inviting violin and cello to imitate, echo phrases, or reinforce ensemble depth. I felt, however, that Clarke had perhaps chosen to imitate the weaker tone (una corda?) of the fortepiano of Haydn’s time, with pianissimos becoming almost fragile, almost vanishing, shadowing in sections of sparse texture. I was misled into believing the strong and passionate strings were leading the conversation against an understated keyboard.  The Andante movement certainly allowed Thompson to elicit passionate and broad tone colours in challenging high themes. But it was in the third movement Allegro that the trio excelled with forthright balance in tone and character, producing fine detail of expression in both individual lines and blended unison sections. Clarke was most attentive to producing a new keyboard dynamic, with a broader, fuller bodied and rounder tone, embracing leading piano themes with conviction, perhaps showing Haydn the potential of his music with the stops pulled out for the run home.

In 1680, Purcell was just 21 years of age when he wrote 15 Fantasias for 3-7 viols, short pieces that remained in manuscript form until their printing in 1927. Firebird Trio resident pianist and composer Benjamin Martin arranged Chorale settings for Fantasia in Bb (Z736) producing an engrossing and fresh instrumental setting for this London Calling program. Almost sombre and dark in texture, Purcell’s concentrated contrapuntal textures were originally composed four 4 viols, but Martin gave them a surprisingly modern makeover, performed with a well-balanced dynamic, and intense warmth and energy. This was a surprising, but thoughtful contrast to the opening Haydn trio.

Simon Oswell (viola) and Stuart Riley (double bass) were welcomed as guest artists for Vaughan Williams’ Piano Quintet in C minor, a work with an astonishing story. Completed in 1903, Vaughan Williams was clearly not happy with it, and after revision and only rare performances, the last possibly in 1918, the manuscript rested in the British Library. An embargo placed on public performance was only lifted in the 1990s, allowing the three-movement piece to be brought back into circulation.

The first movement Allegro con fuoco demanded a big orchestral sound and we had a sense of Brahms’ rich timbres and thought-provoking rhapsodic flow. Andante brought us romantic melody and flowing themes, with all instruments aiming for glorious heights in bold rising phrases and staying sensitively united in diminishing dynamics on the descent. Firebird musicians are colourful and energetic as they share much physical communication and emotional expression during a performance. Described as Allegro in our program, the final movement is entitled Fantasia (quasi Variazioni), intriguing with its design and unexpected contrasting sections. Unison strings opened the movement with a calm folk-like melody, a five-bar section with each bar varying the time signature. The piano repeated the phrase with simple modal harmony. Developing Molto Allegro and Allegro Appassionato sections showcased the individual technical artistry of each musician, with staccato piano chords and extremely high violin flourishes adding a sense of acceleration and drama. The many intricate and overlapping imitative patterns were played with distinction, clarity, precise teamwork and much passion.

Surprisingly, the piano took us to a quiet close.

Enticing. Challenging.

Once again, Firebird Trio and guests rewarded an enthusiastic audience with exciting and imaginative settings of highly contrasting repertoire. Vaughan Williams’ “new” Piano Quintet is indeed an exciting find.

Photo supplied.


Julie McErlain reviewed “London Calling”, performed by Firebird Trio at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on November 9, 2022.

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