The first programme of Nicolas Altstaedt and Aleksandar Madžar for their tour around Australia offered an insightful selection of 20th-century chamber music masterpieces: two essential French works from 1914-1915, followed by the only cello sonatas written by two young composers from the extremes of the political spectrum, the United States and the Soviet Union, written some twenty years later. Except for the new work, commissioned for Musica Viva for this tour, the concert thus presented an astute assortment of some of the worthiest cello-piano repertoire from the 1910s and 1930s.

The opening item immediately reminded me of the famous line from John 2:10, "a host always serves the best wine first". With a deliciously whimsical approach and through never-ceasing capricious fluctuations of tempos, characters, dynamics, balances and sonorities (and I could continue), this performance of Claude Debussy’s Cello Sonata in D minor set a stunning standard for the evening. In this interpretation, excess of emotions became the norm; for exaggerated rhetorical gestures alternated without notice with the deeply intimate, taking the listener on a musical rollercoaster between the self-doubting pizzicato beginning of the second movement through the smoky-jazzy atmosphere of the last, all the way to the untamed, near-hysterical ending of the sonata.

Nadia Boulanger’s name and fame is mostly associated with her vastly influential teaching, as many a significant composer, conductor and performer of the 20th-century studied with her. She was, however, also a renowned conductor and composer. Her Three pieces for cello and piano maintained the Gallic spirit of the Debussy sonata, albeit in a more subdued way. These are a seldom performed, lovely set of short character pieces, caringly composed and, here, tenderly played. The cellist challenged both his pianist partner and the audience with barely audible pianissimos; Madžar was up to the task and responded in kind, and the audience loved it. The intimacy of their shared music-making was so compelling that witnessing it, exhilarating as it was, felt almost akin to eavesdropping.  

The hushed, delicate sounds of the first two pieces did not have the same effect in Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata in C minor Op.6. In this ground-breaking American composition, Barber’s bold musical ideas and often angular lines are expressed with a surprisingly conventional harmonic language. Some of the fast passages lacked clarity in Altstaedt’s playing and even the golden glow of his beautiful instrument occasionally lost some of its shine. These were momentary and minor occurrences, though; to be expected in most live performances. Over all, it was a solid rendition of the Barber sonata, even if it did not quite stand up to the standard of the earlier items.

Aspects of Return by young Adelaide composer, Jakub Jankowski, followed after the interval; a work composed in line with Musica Viva’s policy to generate and introduce new Australian compositions. This is an ambitious and technically extremely demanding piece in three movements, lasting almost twenty minutes. Its performance, as if going through a carefully prepared list, requires the cellist to use most of the interesting sound effects possible on the instrument, such as sul ponticello (playing very close to the bridge), glissando (gliding on one string) or battuto (hitting the string with the wooden part of the bow). Extensive sections required both musicians to play natural and artificial harmonics and use extra-musical effects, like whistling or employing percussive techniques. Despite the devoted professionalism of the performers, while these sounds were consistently attractive in their variation, the means sounded often more interesting than their combined contribution to the work.

A refined performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor finished the concert; however, ‘refined’ may not necessarily be the best adjective to describe this sonata’s characteristics. Even the passionate first movement becomes quiet and very slow towards its ending and the rest of the sonata bears no resemblance to any romantic sentiments. Rather, the contorted wild laughter of the Scherzo or the disillusioned hopelessness of the slow movement are familiar from all the mature works of Shostakovich. The cellist’s control over his instrument was admirable; in his right hand, the constantly varied choice of slow and fast bow-speeds was most impressive, whereas in his left, the liberally applied extremes between intensely vibrated or completely unvibrated notes changed the characters at his will. His partnership with Madžar was as good as it gets. The Serbian pianist empathically followed Altstaedt’s every move with impeccable technique, lightweight touch on the keyboard and never failing musicianship.

A splendid night.