Loss and lament in World War I music

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THE 2014 Canberra International Music Festival moved  into top gear today with a performance of music by Frederick Septimus Kelly and Willie Braithwaite Manson, both composers who were cut short by World War I after enlisting in the British Armed Forces.

Tamara-Anna Cislowska  takes a bow
Tamara-Anna Cislowska takes a bow
Kelly enjoyed a longer musical career than Braithwaite, who died at the Somme aged exactly 20, but with brilliant achievements behind them, there is little doubt that they have would have been major musical figures had they lived into maturity.

With two world premieres and one Australian premiere in the program, this concert was a labour of love for the festival director, Christopher Latham who had personally sourced, printed and reworked compositions, especially by Kelly, from original notebooks.

With relatively little talk prefacing the concert, pianists Timothy Young and Daniel de Borah jumped in with the pre-war work for four hands (duo pianos), “Theme, variations and fugue” by Kelly. This composition saw the work at the keyboard very evenly shared out, as the two musicians created a continuous flow to suggest a passionate outpouring of feeling from the composer. Although there were delicate moments, for the larger part the work was powerful and commanding.

Tenor Christopher Saunders, supported by pianist Calvin  Bowman, performed two delicate and melancholy songs by Kelly, one unaccompanied.

Saunders and Bowman moved straight in to songs by New Zealand-born composer Willie Braithwaite Manson, whose father incidentally went on to found HMV in Australia and who contributed financially in his son’s name to the Royal Academy of Music, where Willie had been a ‘blue ribbon’ student before enlisting.

Set to lyrical poems by AE Housman, one of the songs, “When I last came to Ludlow,” is full of angst  and regret at the death of honest young men and the second, the second, “The loveliest of trees” expresses loss and grief, arguably about young men going away to war and not coming home.

These were the only two compositions by Braithwaite in the concert and suggested that his was a talent never fully realised. All of the songs were rendered with unaffected feeling and little embellishment by Saunders.

Pianist Adam Cork then performed “Lament” and “Idyll” from Kelly’s “A Cycle of Lyrics for Piano Solo, Op 4.” Written in 1908, much of it is in a lower register, full of melancholy and lament. Although there are no musical surprises in this composition, it was given a sympathetic rendition by Cook, who warmed to the extravagant emotion of the piece.

Reconstructed from notebooks by Latham, Kelly’s short Piano Quartet provided a unique moment. This tiny piece, short and delicate, was given its world premiere rendition by David Pereira on cello, James Wannan on viola, Tamara-Anna Cislowska on piano and the ACO’s Rebecca Chan.

Equally short was  Kelly’s elegiac and  thoughtful  last composition,  “Theme for Variations: Lento et Lamentoso,” delivered in measured tones by Tamara-Anna Cislowska.

The real fireworks were Reserved for the Australian premiere of Kelly’s  “String Trio,” Written from 1913 to 1914. Viola player Wannan told the audience that unlike the preceding two pieces, this work was “no little ditty but a massive piece,” and so it proved to be.

Latham jumped in to tell us that cellist Pablo Casals had played in the world premiere.  But we weren’t worried, we had David Pereira performing the evocative cello part of a work  complex enough to suggest what Kelly might have been had he survived the war. There was enormous variety in this work – violence in the conclusion to the second movement, soft  moments with quiet pizzicato support and soaring melodies by Chan and Wannan, darkly underscored by Pereira. You could hear a pin drop at the solemn ending.

This unusual concert concluded with the adagio from  an unfinished 1916 work, “F Minor piano sonata,”  performed by Cislowska, who told us how the last two notes of the work which “kind of trails off” had made an extraordinary impact on her.

The  subtlety and feeling in the music performed this afternoon made such an impact on us.

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Helen Musa
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