Duo Sol & Li-Wei Perth Concert Hall

Duo Sol & Li-Wei


Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

As we have seen in saturation coverage of the Olympic Games, teamwork is (almost) everything. And that applies to music as well. Certainly insofar as cellist Li-Wei and the musicians of Duo Sol – pianist Caroline Almonte and violinist Miki Tsunoda – are concerned, their ability to work as a team deserves gold medals and laurel crowns. In fact, what these youthful, dazzlingly gifted three do NOT know about teamwork – and a good deal besides in music terms – would not cover the tiniest laurel leaf.

Li-Wei was born in Shanghai and came to Australia when he was thirteen years old. Since his sensational win as 1993 ABC Young Performer of the Year, he has gone on to an international career. And since the earliest of Duo Sol’s recordings came on the market, it was clear that these two players had way-above-average rapport in performance.

This was the first time I have heard these musicians as a trio. I have no idea whether they intend to continue working as an ensemble. I sincerely hope they do because, on the evidence of an astonishingly fine account of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, it is clear that their musical chemistry borders on the exceptional.

Even the most casual follower of chamber music is likely to be familiar with the Dumky work; there are dozens of recordings of it on the market and it is one of the most commonly broadcast of chamber works. But if there were any oh-not-again thoughts as the three launched into the work, they would have evaporated almost immediately as the opening measures were played with a heart-stopping beauty. And as violinist and cellist, their bows dipped deep in the stuff of high inspiration – and Almonte at her winning best at the keyboard – soared through to a medal-winning finale, it proved to be one of the most satisfying accounts of the work I’ve listened to in ages.

On the way, each of Dvorak’s six exquisite takes on the Dumky, a type of Ukrainian folk music that became widely adopted in Slavonic countries and raised to sublime level by Dvorak, was presented with an artistry that was extraordinary, not least for rhythmic ebb and flow of the subtlest sort as the music oscillated between passion and a deep melancholy. Not even ear-grating outbursts of coughing and throat clearing from the audience inbetween its many movements could lessen the pleasure that this splendid offering provided.

Li-Wei plays a 1721 filius Andreae Guarneri cello (on loan from the Australia Council) as if it was an extension of his musical persona. He is entirely worthy of this magnificent instrument which, in his hands, sang with a singularly seductive sonority. It – and Li-Wei’s musicianship – were heard to stunning effect in a work new to me – Brett Dean’s Huntington Elegy, an opus in three movements , one of which is a threnody for Jason Brodie, a young winemaker taken by cancer.

Some of music’s most profound moments have been triggered by the passing of a friend – as here – or the death of a group as in Dennis Eberhard’s Shadow of the Swan, written in memory of the doomed crew of the Russian submarine Kursk. Dean’s touching music memorial found exponents of exceptional merit in Li-Wei and pianist Almonte who drew from a deep well of expressiveness to convey musical ideas that sounded the quintessence of bereavement.

Its impact was all the greater, coming as it did after a curious episode called Swarming, an evocation of a gathering of bees for which a cello happens to be ideal with Li-Wei drawing from it a range of murmurings and buzzings that uncannily resembled those of the tiny pollen gatherers; it provided one of the evening’s more unusual moments.

The Nightsky movement was less persuasive with rather tired compositional devices such as requiring the pianist to pluck piano strings with her fingers or tap them with a soft-headed mallet, effects which, in the event, sounded so tonally self-effacing (when listened to from a seat in the 17th row) as to be all but inaudible.

There was also a rare airing of Richard Strauss’ massive Sonata for violin and piano. It’s fun to play Spot the Composer here. Strauss liked to borow bits and pieces from other people’s music and those with keen ears might have noticed thudding repeated notes in the middle of the slow movements which are a sly crib of Schubert’s famous Erl King lied – and there’s a snatch of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, too, as well as a hint of Wagner’s Tristan. More importantly, this youthful work is a trailer for the magic that was to pour from the mature Strass’ pen. Throughout, the duo seemed to relish coming to grips with music that is often cruelly demanding. Much of it needs to be played at white hot intensity – and that is exactly what Tsunoda (in a stunning crimson gown) and Almonte gave us.

This was one of Music Viva’s most fascinating presentations this year.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004

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