THE 20th Anniversary Gala of the Canberra International Music Festival was presented last night to a packed Albert Hall.
Without musicological notes, it was difficult to find any unifying thread to this bizarre and lengthy program, spanning works from the Renaissance to the present.
Beginning with populist new works by Australians Elena Kats-Chernin, Nigel Westlake and Glenda Cloughley, the concert moved to stronger ground in the second half. An early shining light was the Song Company’s amusing performance of “La guerre,” an unaccompanied Renaissance piece by Clément Janequin. Tobias Cole, Richard Black, Mark Donnelly and Clive Birch skilfully navigated arrays of surprisingly modern textures including consonants and plosives used for percussive effect. An interesting feature of this concert was the inclusion of very early repertoire that sounded noticeably more modern than the recent works.
Post interval, the Gala metamorphosed into a real tour de force with the final scene of Enrique Granados’s “Goyescas.” Pianist Tamara-Anne Cislowska gave a dramatic performance of the ominous piano part, while lyric soprano Simone Riksman shimmered in a floating and effortless top register. Mark Donnelly lent sombre chocolate tones to this fine example of opera seria.
The Wallfisch band, led by violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, gave an excellent performance of Heinrich Biber’s “Battalia” on period instruments. Kaleidoscopic timbres and dissonances were brought to life with snap pizzicato and percussive bows. Supported by an always flawless timpanist, Wallfisch revealed admirable intonation and dexterity. For a bit of flair, she performed in sparkly lycra tights and a micro mini.
Young pianists Adam Cook, Timothy Young and Daniel de Borah produced a hauntingly beautiful version of Jean Cras’s “Âmes d’enfants pour piano six petites mains.” Three pianists on a single instrument is always a recipe for disaster, but the textures evoked by Cook, Young and de Borah were always rich but never cluttered.
The pièce de résistance was undoubtedly J. S. Bach’s “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” performed by the Song Company and Wallfisch band. Rarely does a conductor upstage the other performers but last night Roland Peelman was definitely the star. With every musical nuance reflected in body and wrist, Peelman was like a young Adrian Boult – part musician, part dancer. His performance was utterly captivating.
Weaker moments in the brass parts and a largely unsurmounted balance challenge went unnoticed by a spellbound audience. Tobias Cole’s woody countertenor voice was stunning as he navigated passages of elegant ornamentation. Also noteworthy was Richard Butler’s victory over impossibly long mellismatic phrases, in which Bach left almost no spaces for breathing.
The concert concluded with an uplifting tutti and thunderous applause.
All photos by Judith Crispin.