There is a delightful symmetry to the Adelaide Cello Festival. A sort of alpha and omega: Luthier Frank Ravatin and his team working their special surgery on selected pieces of Spruce and Poplar, while on display at last night’s second Cellissimo concert an enraptured audience saw and heard a collection of the finest instruments you are likely to find in an Australian concert hall at any one time. The instruments played by Nicolas Altstaedt, Li-Wei Qin and the Ng twins span the seventeenth to nineteenth century. The program notes did not divulge the maker of David Geringas’ cello, but it was clearly a beautiful antique as well. The names Giovanni Antonio Marchi, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, Francesco Ruggieri and Filius Andreas Guarnerius resonate with anticipation before the first note is played, and then, in the hand of masters resolve all the listeners anticipation in a mighty field of sound. Labour on Team Ravatin, you are maintaining a fine tradition.
Again, last night, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Arvo Volmer proved itself worthy of its star soloists. It is not clear which of the ASO principal horns played the two Shostakovich works, but whoever, she did a fine job of a difficult part. Sure, she split a note or two, but horn players (even the females) are human. Arvo Volmer, in a touch of appreciation and chivalry, presented his flower bouquet to the Prinipal Horn at the night’s conclusion. Such little gestures can mean so much, even to the casual audience member.
But what of the cello playing you say? Your correspondent is still in awe. Nicolas Altstaedt gave an intense and masterful performance of the Shostakovich 1st concerto. He is a remarkable performer who displays the precision of his preparation in the refinement of his performances. Always audible, he displayed some pianissimos of great beauty. By way of aside, the care with which each phrase was presented had been flagged, tacitly, at the morning masterclass where Altstaedt carefully analysed, bar by bar, the interpretations of a couple of up and coming students. This was clearly a man who had spent many hours perfecting the detail. There is a God in small things.
It was an inspired piece of programming to follow the Shastakovich with Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Part liturgy, part secular Bruch, this performance was something all cellists should have heard. A grand master playing one of the beauties of the repertoire. David Geringas displayed why he is one of the standouts in the older generation of cellists. Again the orchestra played a fine accompaniment: beatiful harp interventions and a lovely moment, as the work moved into the Major, when the orchestra sounded like a mighty, yet modulated, organ opening the way for Geringas to sail into Bruch’s tuneful secular world.
Graeme Koehne’s “Sleep of Reason” followed. Commissioned and played by Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian Ng, Adelaide’s celebrity twin brothers, was an interlude of a different sort. Presumably a reference to Goya’s Los Caprichos most famous element, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Koehne’s work produces more benign forms. It is an elegiac symphonic poem with two cello obligato which opens with what could be a Cuckoo call, proceeds into a morning chorus and then passes to a field of dreams eliciting thoughts of the natural world. It was the right work to release the tensions as the audience relaxed into the interval spirit. The Ng twins played their part elegantly and with enjoyment.
After interval came the work that could, perhaps, have better been named with reference to monsters, though Communist rather than Catholic and the Inquisition. Arvo Paert’s Pro et Contra is a wrenching work, moving suddenly from a traditional chord to sudden chaos, then to a percussive element with soloist Li-Wei drumming with bow and hand on everything from cello pin to tailpiece. Later there is again a short reference to the traditional before more agonised elements appear. The final Baroque reference is perhaps a sneer at those who would mould musical thought with an iron political will. If you have not heard this work, but love the Fratres in all their forms, perhaps it is best you ignore it. Paert was clearly in an extremely distraught state when creating it. Li-Wei displayed his considerable talents with confidence and aplomb. He is undoubtedly one of the best.
Finally, Pei-Jee Ng had his moments to shine. The second Shostakovich concerto is a much more introspective work than its predecessor. It presents different challenges to the soloist, and Pei-Jee handled them with maturity and care. He is clearly a different personality from his twin brother, and displays this in his style and musicianship. Like his brother, he has matured greatly since the last Adelaide Cello Festival. This concerto was a fitting work for him to display his considerable talents.
The Cello Festival now moves to a heightened focus on the recital repertoire. The opening Cellissimo events have set a remarkable standard. The names and repertoire to come offer a veritable feast. Not cello fest, but cello feast. The Occasional Correspondent salutes the Masterchef, Artistic Director Janis Laurs.