The Sitkovetsky Trio is the latest in a series of exciting young ensembles brought to Australia by Musica Viva. The three musicians, Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and Chinese pianist Wu Qian, were all students at the exclusive Yehudi Menuhin School, although it was only some time later in 2007 that they began performing together, and they still have busy careers as soloists. While their musical personalities are clearly as different as their costumes were on Monday evening, a deep mutual understanding pervades their music making. Each was comfortable taking the lead, and in yielding to another with a more interesting line. As is right and proper, the needs of the music trumped the demands of the ego, and the result was music-making that was more than satisfying.

Sitkovetsky Trio © Ivy Artists
Sitkovetsky Trio
© Ivy Artists

As is not uncommon for a group of young musicians, the group focused on overtly emotional 19th century works, paired with the commissioned composition by Carl Vine. Their first Sydney concert featured elegiac trios by Smetana and Tchaikovsky, both of which were delivered with relish. Smetana’s G minor trio, written in the aftermath of the loss of his daughter, begins with a rhapsodic passage for solo violin, delivered stylishly by Sitkovetsky. The cellist had an equally lovely sound in the warmer second theme. Wu exhibited virtuosity where it was called for, and brought a pearly Chopinesque quality to her brief solo passage before the return of the opening theme. The three captured the troubled opening of the second movement, and the declamatory major-mode episode in the middle had the right quality of inexorability. The thrilling opening to the finale showcased the pianist’s repeated notes to particular effect, and after each calm oasis (which included a funeral march) this drive was re-captured.

The last time Carl Vine addressed patrons of Musica Viva in this same hall, he had the unpleasant task of informing his listeners of an injury to one of the performers, and the consequent alteration of the program. It was no doubt as much to his relief as ours that he appeared only to provide a short introduction to his new work, The Village. As he explained it, the work stemmed from the technical problem of how to ensure coherence without relying on existing formal structures (such as the presentation-development-reprise paradigm that underlies sonata form). His solution was to deploy a set of ideas which come into varying associations with each other as composition progresses. In his written notes, he explained this more metaphorically: “a central character is reshaped through a continuous series of musical encounters”, an idea which sounds similar in the abstract to that used in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.

Even on a first hearing, one could identify several of these cells through the twelve episodes: grace-note figures, rocking chordal patterns, and a frequent preoccupation with shimmer and liquidity (the opening sounded like Szymanowski to me, and there were other moments that gave me a fleeting impression of Debussy). Mingled with this were some more abrasive moments: the piano had a menacing ostinato at one stage, and the piece finished in frenzy of excitement with an abrupt final plunge à la Ravel’s La valse. Here, as in the rest of the programme, the Sitkovetskys playing exuded commitment, and the string players luxuriated in their cantilena passages. The pianist showed off her dexterity in some delectable shimmering runs towards the end.

The second half was given over entirely to Tchaikovsky’s enormous Piano Trio in A minor, written in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, the “great artist” mentioned in the subtitle. The cellist Elschenbroich provided a thoughtful introduction in which he described the first movement as exuding a feeling of loss, whereas the second deals with “the life remembered”. The restless opening gained in energy through the transition before the false hope of the triumphant E major theme, which was followed by a more lyrical theme from the piano, swathed in arpeggios. The violinist entered into the spirit of the 19th century to the extent of making audible slides when shifting position (never other than tasteful), something I didn’t hear so much from the cellist.

A lovely sense of stillness was created in the coda of this work. Throughout the lengthy series of variations in the second movement, one had a strong sense of emotional commitment as well as technical excellence from the musicians. Highlights were the dance-like (almost Gounod-esque) variation 6, and the mazurka for solo piano that was variation 10. Despite the programme note informing us otherwise, the fugal variation 8 was played. By the time we had reached the funereal bell-tolling at the end of hugely extended variation 12 (almost another movement), there was a distinct sense of catharsis among players and listeners.