The long line-up outside the Independent Theatre well before opening time augured well for the afternoon’s events, indicating that the regulars know the quality of the lavish afternoon tea provided as part of the afternoon’s entertainment. The ‘Prelude in Tea’ series has clearly become an indispensable part of many music-lovers’ cultural calendar.
This month’s stars were the Streeton Trio, making a welcome return to the Independent in the first of two appearances in the 2017 series. Violinist Emma Jardine kicked off proceedings by outlining the reasons for the title Vienna Congress, the unifying theme for the concert. This was doubly appreciated as there were no printed program notes. She explained that the Vienna Congress of 1814/15 was convened by the four powers that had defeated Napoleon, in an effort to prevent future imperialism in Europe. She suggested some possible correlations with contemporary politics, and pointed out that Beethoven, Schubert and Rossini were all working in Vienna at the time and each was influenced by the others.
The trio in B flat major, known as the Archduke, is a well-loved staple of the repertoire and it never fails to impress for the richness of its ideas. Beethoven’s work is by turn serene, questing, restless, commanding and urgent. The ensemble work underpins everything, but the opening movement sets up a series of conversations between the different pairings of instruments, which highlights the strengths of each player. Particularly effective for this listener were the pizzicato passages from the strings, to the background dancing trills from the piano.
The second movement demonstrates an attractive buoyancy, interrupted for a time by a darker section, before returning to the light. It was a joy to hear the deft handling of transitions between light and dark, searching and commanding, heavy and delicate. The piano takes the floor in the opening of the andante, with the measured pace of the variations giving full weight to the beauty of the theme. A highlight of this movement was the depth and attractive tone of Meta Weiss’s cello, a superb instrument from around 1690 provided by an anonymous supporter. The final movement opens with a skipping sort of dance, before settling into many chances for the individual instrumentalists to shine, leading to a characteristically vibrant big finish.
Fun and tunefulness are always high on Rossini’s agenda, as illustrated by the arrangement of the overture to The Barber of Seville. Played as a ‘palate cleanser’ between the two major pieces on the program, it was a most enjoyable romp for players and audience alike.
The concept that the Congress provided a hundred years of relative peace in Europe was taken up by pianist Benjamin Kopp in his introduction to the Schubert Piano Trio, also in B flat major. His story of that particular trio being his introduction to chamber music as a young person drew in the audience, giving a warm personal dimension to the piece. In stating that the good-naturedness of the trio fits well with the Congress’s aim of peace, he prepared us for the sunny feel of the work.
There is a balance of light-heartedness and profundity throughout that makes this trio soar and sing. I found the andante especially moving, with the magnificent slow theme from the piano and cello plumbing the depths of so many emotions, before the violin introduces lightness and hope. The cello was showcased perfectly in one poignant and heartfelt section, while other passages gave the impression almost of searching out ideas to suggest to the other players, in almost improvisatory fashion. The scherzo is simply a celebration of life, summed up in six or seven joyous minutes. In the final movement I was most reminded of Beethoven, as time and again Schubert wound us up, bringing us close to a final passage, only to pull back and explore further, before an exuberant scamper to the end.
This was a program to lift the heart and gladden the soul, played by instrumentalists at the top of their game and in complete accord, and enjoyed to the full by the large, appreciative audience.
Streeton Trio ‘Vienna Congress’ | Sunday 26 February 2017 | Independent Theatre, North Sydney