Chamber Made

University of W.A.Music Society
Octagon Theatre


reviewed by Neville Cohn



Beethoven grew to detest his Septet in E flat. Its huge popularity during his lifetime greatly irked the crotchety composer who felt that the insatiable public demand for the piece tended to sideline what Beethoven felt were worthier works of his. How similarly Rachmaninov would feel years later about his Prelude in C sharp minor from his opus 3; his idea of heaven, he once said bitterly, was anywhere where his Prelude was NOT played.

Nowadays, Beethoven’s Septet is rarely heard but it certainly deserves an occasional airing. And even if performing standards by some of the senior members of UWA’s School of Music as well as the W.A.Symphony Orchestra wavered at times, at its best, the presentation went a long way to revealing the inherently sunny nature of the score.

This was most apparent in the Theme and Variations and the following Scherzo where sparkling, nimble violin playing from Paul Wright and quality contributions from Darryl Poulsen (horn), Noeleen Wright (cello) and Peter Moore (bassoon) conveyed the seemingly endless melodic, occasionally quirky, nature of the writing. And I dare say that most pianists in the audience would have recognised the Septet’s minuet movement that also found its way into Beethoven’s engaging piano sonata in G from opus 49.

Mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell was one of the evening’s stars, her account of Benjamin Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies given magical treatment. With Roger Smalley an unfailingly adept, stylish partner at the piano, an audience that filled the Octagon almost to capacity was able to savour how gloriously the early potential of Ms Campbell’s voice is being realised.

Whether gently lulling listeners in A Cradle Song, expressing more than a little maternal exasperation in A Charm or caressing the ear with a faultlessly essayed unaccompanied closing phrase in The Nurse’s Song, this mezzo soprano turned everything she sang into musical gold.

And of a bracket of lieder by Mozart, it is Abendempfindung that lingers in the memory, not least for the skill with which both singer and pianist evoked its introspective beauty. Here, Campbell’s ability to shape a legato phrase and clothe it in sumptuous, velvet-smooth tone was stunning.

Ms Campbell included a linking commentary which, one felt, was gilding the lily. This remarkable singer’s performances are so meaningful and her stage presence so congenial that the addition of spoken commentary is superfluous and detracts from the overall impact of the presentation.

Earlier, we heard the first performance of Roger Smalley’s Three Studies in Black and White played on the piano by Emily Green-Armytage who, in recent years, has made a specialty of new-music performances which have revealed her, whether as soloist or ensemble player, as a pianist with a rare flair for contemporary music.

She presented Smalley’s triple decker with immense authority, especially Gamelan for the left hand. This is a powerful essay, much of it evocative of the Indonesian percussion instruments from which it draws its title. A good deal of it is couched in darkly strident, booming terms, with skilled use of the damper pedal creating clouds of tone that floated into the auditorium.

Moto Perpetuo is an interesting addition to the pitifully small repertoire for the right hand. Here, Green-Armytage sounded in her element, with abrupt little arabesques and sustained trills to hold the interest. This is an acid test for any pianist wishing to demonstrate the prowess of his or her right hand. The third study – Dialogue – is for both hands, music that oscillates between toughness and lyricism.

© 2005

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