Where in the world could you present a chamber music recital where the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the artists would open up endless views of the sea, the mild winter (yes!) afternoon sunset with the colourful cavalcade of sea kayaks, sailing boats and water taxis passing by? Why, in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House, of course; a hall housing a popular chamber music series, also named after the Danish architect of the Opera House, Jørn Utzon.

Elizabeth Wallfisch © Benjamin Ealovega
Elizabeth Wallfisch
© Benjamin Ealovega

The recently established series of Sunday afternoon concerts, performed without an interval (thus not overly long), where the already relaxed members of the audience are even offered a gratis pre-concert drink is a great initiative. Hopefully it will grow into a tradition and become part of the Sydney cultural tapestry. Eminent artists have accepted the invitation to participate – on this occasion, the violinist-cellist couple, Elizabeth and Raphael Wallfisch, and the pianist Benjamin Martin - and the million-dollar views give the impression, as Elizabeth Wallfisch suggested in her introductory talk, that we are on board a majestic cruise ship.

The concept is excellent; the fine details however still leave room for improvement. The poorly adjusted lighting left deep shadows on the music stands. The stage panels covered (mostly) by black material would have been perfectly appropriate for a high-school musical production – less so for a here-to-stay boutique series of concerts, presenting world-class artists, selling for premium prices. The Utzon Room and its guests deserve better. I also found the description on the concert ticket completely inaccurate: ‘Elizabeth and Raphael Wallfisch’ – whatever happened to the third artist? 

Great concerts frequently have an underlying thread, creating structure and connecting the various elements. This usually relates to the programme itself; on this occasion however it was the evident and publicly announced relationship between the artists, dead and alive. Though it is common knowledge that Mr and Mrs Wallfisch are husband and wife, few in the audience knew that Benjamin Martin’s father was Elizabeth Wallfisch’s violin teacher many years ago. Raphael Wallfisch on the other hand had been a student of Gregor Piatigorsky, who in turn assisted Stravinsky to transcribe several movements from the ballet Pulcinella for cello and piano. This arrangement, now known as Suite Italienne, was part of the programme, right before the three musicians performed Miniature no. 8, composed by none other than the son of Elizabeth and Raphael, Benjamin Wallfisch.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, the composer of the first item on the programme, was not a relation, only professionally very close to Elizabeth Wallfisch’s musical being. His Passacaglia in G minor is one of the outstanding Baroque works for solo violin. It was written nearly 50 years before Bach composed his Chaconne, following a very similar structure, as the last movement of the Violin Partita in D minor. Wallfisch divides her time between playing modern violin and teaching as well as performing in a historically informed style on baroque violin. In the Passacaglia (played probably for practical reasons on her modern violin but with a Baroque bow) she not only introduced a far too seldom played masterpiece to the audience but also demonstrated her fine technique and unfailing sense of phrasing as she guided the listeners through the astonishing journey of sixty-five variations on the simple descending four-note figure.

Her husband contributed to the solo pieces with Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne. His velvety, clearly articulated cello sound beautifully blended with Benjamin Martin’s never overstated, well-controlled piano playing.

The three musicians appeared together, apart from Benjamin Wallfisch’s short trio, in two 19th century works. The hauntingly beautiful atmosphere of Schubert’s Notturno in E flat major never misses its target with the audience. The humble serenity of the main theme in parallel thirds is heart-warming; the melody is alternatively given to the piano or to the two strings. The unanimity of this intimate duet between violin and cello was only occasionally broken by their somewhat different sounding types of vibrato. A pity, as on their own, either of them would have been perfectly agreeable; his: lush, extensive and seductively romantic or hers: starting out mostly as a straight sound before mellowing into a gentle ‘shake’, as it was called in old English parlance.

The same issue was far less noticeable in the final item on the programme, the mighty Piano Trio in B major Op.8 by Brahms. In such a small hall some of the soft dynamics, such as the secretive beginning sections of the scherzo or the last movement could conceivably have been more exaggerated (before Brahms, without any warning, bursts into a violent fortissimo in both cases). Yet the poignantly quiet dialogue of the slow movement between strings and the piano was superb, with Benjamin Martin splendidly matching his partners’ solemn tone and eloquent articulation. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

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