A most valuable friend: Torleif Thedéen guests for the Selby & Friends concert series | For Bachtrack By Zoltán Szab

The chances to hear two recitals on consecutive nights, featuring exceptional artists of international renown in the friendly environment and outstanding acoustics of the City Recital Hall are akin to winning a (musical) lottery in Sydney, for professionally organised solo or chamber music concerts are still in scarce supply there. Yet this is exactly what happened following Monday night’s recital of Stephen Hough when on Tuesday I was able to witness Torleif Thedéen (cello) and Kathryn Selby (piano) performing together.

Their programme presented four composers from four different countries – an intelligent amalgamation of old and new. Paul Dean’s Three Intimate Interludes, that began the concert, were in fact commissioned by and written this year for the Selby & Friends concert series. And with movements named Conflict, Dissection, Isolation, there was no doubt about the depth and sincerity of the composer’s inspiration. To reveal the details of a “recent personal crisis” – as it was referred to in Selby’s introduction – in music is a courageous, if intimate artistic decision. Paul Dean (brother of another composer, Brett Dean) was eminently successful in achieving something few composers of our era can: he managed to convey personal, human feelings through a translucent structure with the help of traditional compositional tools, such as recurring recognisable motifs, unison between parts and such like – yet maintaining his idiomatic, 21st century musical language throughout. The cello seemed to carry a slightly more dominant role than the piano (whether that imbalance carried a hint to the nature of the original “conflict”, may never be known), most obviously in the third movement’s soliloquy which was almost entirely entrusted to the cellist. Thedéen and Selby clearly felt committed about the composition as evidenced from their sophisticated, convincing performance.

The newest work was followed by the oldest, a delightful if rarely played representation of the young Beethoven’s exuberant brilliance, his Sonata in G minor Op.5 no. 2. This Sonata does not speak the elaborate musical language of the late Beethoven works, yet its boundless invention is irresistible in a good performance – as was the case on this occasion. Thedéen‘s impeccable intonation blended comfortably with Selby’s delicate articulation on the keyboard. This is not an easy task as the cello in Beethoven’s age, while equipped with gut rather than steel strings (amongst other technical differences), did not sound significantly softer from its modern version. The same cannot be said about the piano: the beautiful, highly polished, black Steinways in our concert halls can produce a far more voluminous sound than any keyboard instrument 200 years ago. This obviously poses a problem for the sensitive pianist: his/her fortes and fortissimos have to be tamed somewhat in order to maintain the desirable balance between the instruments. Selby excelled (with very few exceptions, such as the slightly overpowering accented left hand octaves towards the end of the first movement) in fine-tuning her sound to that of the cello’s sonorities. The agreement between the performers regarding tempos, the phrasing of melodies or applying rubato was reassuringly consistent. Neither of the artists seemed to feel tempted by any quirks of the HIP (historically informed performance) movement and I had no difficulties accepting that on account of their crystal-clear interpretation.

Right from the beginning, they initiated and unfailingly employed a broad range of dynamics, commonly heard on recordings (where technology’s discreet assistance is often called for with problems of volume and balance), but not without inherent risks in public performances. Be it on cello or piano, playing softly…, then softer… and then even softer while maintaining the quality of the sound throughout, is a challenging task. The exploration of the soft, sometimes even ominous ranges of the two instruments went even further in Debussy’s Sonata in D minor. Some minor ensemble problems in the first movement notwithstanding, this was a superb performance of one of the briefest sonatas ever written for cello and piano. As already heard in the Beethoven Sonata, the Swedish cellist excelled in using his vibrato in a far more versatile way than commonly heard. Under his well-controlled fingers, vibrato was elevated from a “condition” to an evocative artistic tool, not unlike volume or rubato, able to colour the melodic line with its calmness or intensity, sheer presence or even its absence.

The depth of the sound became even more noticeable in the final item, Grieg’s Sonata in A minor. In this always popular work, layer after layer of softness contrasted the powerful outbursts of emotions; as if the players wanted to challenge their audience: can you hear me? Can you still hear me?