Musica Viva Festival: Four days in musical heaven – Cumberland Papers

Steve Moffatt
Cumberland Papers, 4 May 2011

With 88 musicians playing in 30 events, including seven major concerts, Musica Viva’s four-day festival of chamber music at the Sydney Conservatorium inevitably produced several highlights.

Takacs Quartet

But the one that music lovers will be talking about for years to come has to be Bartok’s complete cycle of six quartets performed by the magnificent Takacs Quartet.

No strangers to Sydney, they are based in Boulder at the University of Colorado and were originally formed in the mid-1970s in Budapest. They are now considered one of the top string quartets in the world.

The Bartok quartets are never easy listening and require intense concentration from player and listener alike. These readings, over two concerts, were landmark performances. The works cover 30 years of Bartok’s life, spanning one World War and the start of another, expressing the agony of unrequited love in one quartet, and with the composer always pushing musical boundaries.

The wit, intelligence and consummate technique and artistry of the players shone through. Only two of the founding members remain – second violinist Karoly Schranz and cellist Andras Fejer. Leader Englishman Edward Dusinberre joined in 1993 and American violist Geraldine Walther was recruited in 2005.

The Takacs also played in the festival’s final concert, being joined by cellist Florian Eggner, from the Austrian Eggner Trio, for a glorious performance of Schubert’s String Quintet.

Pekka Kuusisto

Another international star at the festival was Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who masterminded two vastly different pieces, Schubert’s Octet and George Crumb’s confronting Black Angels. This extraordinary work, inspired by the Vietnam war, called on some novel effects from its quartet of performers, including vocalisations, playing maracas, glasses of water and gongs, and bowing their instruments at the “wrong” end, creating an ethereal chorale effect.

The piece, recorded originally by Kronos and performed here by Kuusisto with Sophie Rowell, violin, and ACO stalwarts violist Christopher Moore and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, still startles and delights in equal measures 40 years after it was written.

Iiro Rantala

Kuusisto, an engaging showman as well as a virtuoso, showed his versatility by playing Beethoven’s Spring sonata at one concert with exciting young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, and joining his compatriot, jazz pianist-composer Iiro Rantala, for a hilarious set at a late-night “miscellany”.

The Eggners, coming off a triumphant Australian tour last month, endeared themselves even more with the Sydney audiences for their energetic and warm-hearted performances, which included Anton Arensky’s sweepingly romantic first piano trio and a memorable collaboration with Rowell and SSO violist Yvette Goodchild in the Schumann Piano Quintet.

Khatia Buniatishvili

Australia’s finest were also on display throughout the four days. The Goldner String Quartet – featuring Dene Olding and Dimity Hall, violins, Irina Morozova, viola and cellist Julian Smiles – were joined by Buniatishvili for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet.

And in another highlight, they accompanied a beautiful world premiere performance by clarinettist Philip Arkinstall of Graeme Koehne’s moving memorial to his mother, Time Is A River.

Arkinstall featured in two other excellent performances – Bartok’s Contrasts, written for jazz band leader Benny Goodman, and Schubert’s Octet.

These set-piece concerts, superb as they all were, were not the only peaks in this musical extravaganza. Musicians from the Australian Youth Orchestra were selected for the Rising Stars program, forming six string quartets and three piano trios. Both their performances, and the master classes conducted by the visiting musicians, were so popular with festival-goers that they were often filled to overflowing.

Sydney Conservatorium

Another highlight was the chance to see some of the Con students and teachers in their lunchtime recitals, particularly a performance of Paul Stanhope’s saxophone quartet Ockham’s Razor.

Musica Viva should be congratulated on staging such a high-quality four days of music. Scaled down from the initial pre-global financial crisis festival of 2008, this was nevertheless a remarkable achievement, made possible by a private donation.

The Con proved the perfect venue for the various activities, though it must be said that its catering facilities were stretched. One would hope that if Musica Viva is able to stage another festival soon, some of our leading restaurateurs might get on board as they do for other major Sydney events.


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