Kathryn Selby welcomes audiences back to her Selby & Friends concert series for 2021 with a mish-mash program of piano trios. Named after the strudels of Selby’s childhood with various unnameable but delicious ingredients, Exotic Strudel takes an eclectic approach to the early 20th century.
Selby described the program’s structure like three short stories preceding a rambling novel and in this way the three opening pieces can be seen as evolutions of the piano trio structure as imagined by Franz Schubert 100 years earlier.
The opening piece “Circulo”, Op. 91 was composed by Joaquin Turina and was written to mimic the passing of the day while drawing on Turina’s Spanish roots. Julian Smiles’s cello opened the piece with a resonate moaning quality that rose into something more romantic with the piano’s encouragement. In the second movement, the brief moment of strumming from Smiles and Susie Park on the violin evoked the Spanish guitar while the piercing violin throughout the rest of the movement captured some of the drama of flamenco. What stood out in the closing of the piece was the harmony between the violin and cello as the strings swept through the air above Selby’s irregular piano footsteps. This distance between the instruments filled out the piece, allowing for depth in both the sound and the story.
For the second piece the trio transported from Spain to the United States for Ernest Bloch’s piece “Three Nocturnes”. Again Smiles’s cello opened low but with a mysterious tension that quickly broke with an ethereal riff from the piano. The mystery of this opening movement foreshadowed the final movement which could have easily formed the soundtrack for a spy movie with its suspenseful and intriguing rhythm. Selby remarked in her introduction about the influence of old Hollywood on Bloch’s composing while he lived in the US and this certainly came through in the narrative quality of this piece with heightened emotions and unpredictable turns.
Speaking of Hollywood, the third short piece came from Dmitri Shostakovich and played with the composer’s interest in cinematic and circus music. “Piano Trio Op. 8 No. 1” opened slow and creeping before jumping into a frenetic sequence that mimicked the buzzing of a circling fly, drawing closer before drifting away to drive up tension. At times the piece was bold and brash and then at others it climbed to dizzy heights as though Shostakovich was trying to fit as many techniques into the piece as he could. In this way the piece was discernible as distinct sections perhaps like movie scenes or samplings of genres that the players flipped through in associative order.
For the final piece, the “novel” of the program, the trio took the audience back a century to Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 99 D. 898” from 1827-28. The piece came from later in Schubert’s life and was published posthumously. After the Shostakovich, this piece felt quite conventional, exploring themes of hope and joy across four movements. The opening was plucky and upbeat, making plenty of room for Park’s clean, elegant violin as she trades a swinging melody with Smiles. The third movement was equally upbeat with chirpy short notes that grew with gravitas before a dancing rhythm came through. This movement was particularly repetitive with climbing scale motif providing a lot of the forward momentum. As the trio worked through rapid changes in volume and weight in the final movement, Park’s violin peeked through with a thin clarity. The movement, in particular, demonstrated the piece’s suitability for a closing number as the three instruments came together with a playful and uplifting tone to end the concert.
In a program named after a delicious dessert, Exotic Strudel and its framing as an exploration of the narrative quality of the piano trio provided a varied and interesting selection of pieces from the early 20th century. From Spain to the US to Russia and with influences from cinema to fading light, the conversation between the short stories and the heritage novel demonstrated the possibilities of this form to tell stories across time and place.
Exotic Strudel was played at Turramurra Uniting Church on March 14th
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.