Transfigured | Selby & Friends

For the third instalment of the Selby & Friends program, the group performed in ascending order a piano trio, quartet, and quintet from a selection of composers. Beginning with something sweet and ending with a complex tang, the concert provided a variety of compositional flavours for savouring at home.

Kathryn Selby opened the concert by acknowledging that their planned 2020 programming has been delayed even further by the continued interruption of the pandemic so this third concert will once again be available to stream online with the purchase of a ticket. The group began Transfigured with Mozart’s “Piano Trio in G major, K.564”, the last work of the genre written by him. Selby and violinist Grace Clifford explain the context of this piece as a time when Mozart was struggling financially, unable to procure work, and yet its late composition in 1788 is at odds with its simple and restrained manner. Clifford remarks that, while there are moments that show glimpses of more depth and complexity, overall the piece feels like a playful composition for performance in house concerts.

This description makes sense for the jolliness of the first movement and the hiccup or stumble in the middle that introduced a more sophisticated tone. In the second movement, the gentle opening gives the piano’s rhythm the sense of a nursery rhythm as it flitted up and down the scale. There was a naive quality to this movement that didn’t quite go away even as the violin pitched up to a tone more mournful before the third movement returned to lightness with a simple repeated skipping rhythm.

For the second piece the trio were joined by viola player Stefanie Farrands to play “Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60” by Johannes Brahms. Like Mozart, this was the last piano quartet Brahms composed in his lifetime, though he began writing it in his 20s. Selby summarises the piece as largely believed to be a close biographical portrait of the composer’s relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann. Connections drawn between the piece and The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe support speculation that the quartet expresses Brahms’s story of unrequited love with Clara Schumann.

The composition certainly began dramatically with slow and sombre strings broken by a cracking piano entrance in the first movement. Throughout the movement, even as the rhythm seemed to shed its sorrowful start, the groan of the cello (Julian Smiles) remained as a constant reminder of sadder things to come. Then, in the second movement, the piano entered almost suspiciously with a delicacy that played hide and seek with the strings as they weaved in and out. For the closing movement, the piece developed a fuller sound that then fractured like an emotional outburst. The cacophonous fever pitch dwindled reluctantly towards the ending.

With the last selection the group grew by one again with double bassist Maxime Bibeau rounding out the quintet for Franz Schubert’s “Piano Quintet in A major, D.667 Op. 114 Die Forelle” also known as “The Trout”. The tone of this piece was markedly different from the previous, building on the frivolity of the earlier Mozart. The first movement featured a lot of quick movement from the strings with racing trills and lovely group swells that emphasised the sense of camaraderie amongst the players. Each instrument brought the appropriate energy for the lively impact of the up-beats. The third movement was the first real example of a rousing atmosphere from the program before a bit of toing and froing between the strings and the piano in a playful game. The simple final movement brought the concert gently to a close, but not without a little flourish!

Across the three pieces in Transfigured there was a feeling of simplicity, or a desire for the simple things, that resonated in this time. Not every composition or concert need be grand and demanding; there is an elegance to a small group playing a piece well. Once again Selby has gathered a group of exceptional players with enviable dynamics for a pleasant at-home program.

Transfigured is available for streaming from August 29th. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Selby & Friends website.

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