Hobart Town Hall, 6 February
Virtuosi Tasmania’s 2020 season opened with this delightful concert featuring former Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Wilma Smith with young players Matthias Balzat (cello) and Laurence Matheson (piano). Wilma introduced her two colleagues who then performed works for cello and piano in the first part of the program.
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata D.821 was originally composed for a string instrument that never gained lasting favour. It was akin to a large bowed guitar and somewhat similar to a viola da gamba. However Schubert’s piece is superbly melodious and lyrical, usually presented in the cello transcription. These youthful musicians exhibited amazing maturity and musicality in a near ideal rendition marked by spontaneous sounding controlled momentum and warmly eloquent phrasing. Schumann’s Adagio and allegro in A flat, Op 70, also sympathetically done, is perhaps better known in the version for horn and piano. Both performers were ideally matched in their obvious empathy with each other and Schumann’s unique style.
The duo followed this with the 5th movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Praise to the eternity of Jesus. Békés spoke beautifully and profoundly about what it might mean to be writing music from a concentration camp, and as I listened I marvelled at the resilience of the human spirit, that can produce such beauty and religious devotion amidst such adversity. The movement was, in fact, a sort of extended prayer, moving from the intimacy of a whisper to outpourings of heartfelt passion. Both players had an extraordinarily beautiful array of tonal colours at their disposal that seemed to encompass every possible expression of the human condition. Soaring cello phrases underpinned by heavy piano chords added a solemnity that gave a sense of the magnitude of the wartime experience. This was a performance that spoke to my soul.
The attractive Arensky Piano Trio No 1 in D minor, Op 32 would have been familiar to many listeners from performances in Tasmania last year. Wilma Smith’s violin supplied burnished tone throughout, along with lightness and wit in the Scherzo. Cellist Matthias Balzat strikingly conveyed the Tchaikovskian melancholy of the Elegia movement while Matheson displayed consistent flair and virtuosity.
Hobart Town Hall, 6 February
I love everything that Wilma Smith does, and this concert was no exception. It was a program of romantic, heart-tugging gorgeousness that promised to both move and delight. It did not disappoint.
The program opened with Schubert’s Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano. As the arpeggione is virtually extinct now, this beautiful work is usually heard for viola or cello and piano. It is a work of profound intimacy – particularly the slow movement – and requires the performers to dig deep for their emotional responses. Balzat and Matheson rose to the challenge. Although their interpretation was fairly classical in conception, with no extravagant rubato or overly dramatic dynamic contrasts, it was nonetheless deeply felt in an understated way that truly spoke to the audience.
The highlight for me was the slow movement, breathtaking in its simplicity, that demonstrated the rapport between the two musicians. The final movement, with its contrasting characters, allowed them to explore their versatility. The tonal quality of Balzat’s cello was remarkable throughout the concert, and in this last movement he drew an array of colours from his instrument that took the audience through a whole gamut of emotion and understanding.
Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro is a wonderful miniature that contains many of the characteristics of Schumann’s more substantial chamber works. The opening Adagio begins with an introspective statement of tenderness that grows briefly to the heights of passion before returning to the quiet reflectiveness of the opening. Balzat and Matheson displayed a patience and maturity impressive in so youthful a duo. They allowed us to savour every moment of this expressive arc without any hurry or feeling of forward-looking. The Allegro is a wonderful blend of virtuosity, energy and romance that alternately thrills and moves the listener. Balzat and Matheson lost no expressive opportunity in a performance that was deeply satisfying.
The young duo was joined by violinist Wilma Smith for the final work in the program – Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32. A towering work full of Russian melancholy and humour, it was brought to life by these outstanding musicians with inspired understanding. Smith and her Guadagnini violin make a sound that is almost unbelievable in its beauty, but Balzat matched it, resulting in a conversational intimacy that was chamber music at its finest. But it wasn’t just a two-way conversation; Matheson was an integral part of the ensemble — the lynchpin that gave the ensemble its cohesion.
I loved this concert and wished it could have continued all night. I hope there will be many further collaborations between these three. They provided Hobart with an unforgettable musical experience on a Thursday evening.
Jo St Leon
CutCommon 13 February 2020