It was Thursday March 20th, 2014, just past the weekly hump of Wednesday. There are university assignments to be completed. There is house cleaning to do. There are groceries to buy. There is a dinner to be made. On a day of such turbulent stress and anxiety, it would be quite piteous if the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio weren’t playing at the Harold Lobb Concert Hall at Newcastle Conservatorium that evening (amirite??). However, fortunately for me, they were. The Sitkovetsky Piano Trio presented a litany of works by Bedřich Smetana, Carl Vine and Ludwig van Beethoven. It was an evening of remorseful sentiment, intellectual stimulation and acoustic enchantment, all ignited by a reflective musical conversation of the performers.
The first piece to be performed was Piano Trio in G minor op 15 by 19th century Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Once the audience was engrossed with anticipation in conjunction with the silence that filled the room, a shrilling violin solo sings with an unsettling ambiance of despondency, supported by a vivacious vibrato and a gracefully fierce attack of the bow. As this violin solo partially subsides, the piano and cello wake with melodic and harmonic reciprocation of ideas, developing the pre-established angst insinuated the acoustic space of the concert hall. A subsequent reversion then takes place, with a sense of innocence and sanctity induced by a warm interaction of the cello melody and piano accompaniment, followed by the violin taking over the melody. From this contained phrase of refuge grows an animated outburst of bright tone colours, rich harmonies and a dazzling display of virtuosity, which slowly carries back into the overshadowing ominous narrative of the piece. There are contrasts woven from condensed textures, rhythmic dissonance and deceptive cadences creating intense confusion to a thin and bright piano accompaniment with a soft tremolo of the strings, suggesting a feeling of simplicity and innocence foregrounded against a lingering ominous backdrop.
Smenata’s artistry in his music was predicated upon emotional torment that occurred in his lifetime, including the untimely death of his four-year old daughter to scarlet fever as well as the death of his wife who suffered from tuberculosis. In this piece, the sensitivity of the long and contemplative melodic lines represent inner anguish, coupled with the contrasting sections of major tonalities suggesting glimpses of relief and perhaps even euphoria represent the volatility of various psychological faculties associated with such an emotionally heavy subject matter. The seemingly unbridled flow of sentiments filling the concert hall was also curtsey of the heavily concentrated and active engagement occurring between the members of the trio, with the musical dialogue consisting of conspicuous facial expression, head nod gestures and weaving the valiant contribution of each player to create a holistic insight into the human condition as executed through an awing spectacle of emotional tumult.
The Smetana G minor piano trio exhibited how a musical composition can emulate the complexities of a capricious emotional temperament in a highly engaging manner as well the extremely demanding and therein highly impressive performance which is results from such a musical composition.
The second piece performed by the Sitkovetsky Trio was ‘The Village’ by contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine. This piece inaugurates with an eerie whistling violin solo supported by an ominous piano bass accompaniment. Infused within this piece are distinct themes based on chromaticism, whole-tone scales and frequent use of diminished harmonies. There are moments where a rhythmic motif in the piano’s upper register resembled a dilapidated church bell with subdued sections of insidious pianissimo string harmonies, arousing a cold and uneasy setting. When the music climaxed, both rhythmic and harmonic dissonance was deployed, with frequent returns to fragments of dynamics.
Before this piece was performed, Vine gave a preamble to his work. He was stating that this work is a homogenization of varying reshaped versions of a focal musical character that align themselves within the performance in distinct sections, which Vine himself envisions as a community of ideas, hence the title “The Village”. This reshaping of a focal musical character leads into an organic growth of fluctuating rhythmic motifs, harmonies and melodies that all share their roots in an original idea. Vine also stated that the basis of this composition was the idea that humans have evolved to function socially at their optimum within groups of no more than 150 people, and using this notion to consider how his own life transforms with the limited number of people he stays in contact with. In this sense, each variation on the focal musical idea in this piece can be a touchstone for how certain social interactions surface different aspects of one’s persona, transporting us through the malleability of the human disposition. The piano trio ensemble worked well for this piece in the sense that the piano accompaniment acted as the contextualizing backdrop to the leading melodies provided by the violin and cello.
“The Village” opened up the workings of the changing disposition encompassed within the human condition, allowing the audience to witness, through musical performance, the abstract workings of the human mind that would typically otherwise operate on a subconscious plain of attention.
The final piece performed concert was Beethoven’s Piano Trio no 7 in B flat major, op 97, more commonly known as ‘The Archduke”. This piece opens with gentle chord progressions at a moderato pianissimo dynamic, with a medium tempo, and smooth string melody/countermelody and steady rhythmic momentum. The melody then carries the piece into a minor tonality, which quickly reverts back to the tranquil major tonality. The serenity diffused within this piece is occasionally inverted with a radical surge of dynamics, thickening texture, accelerating tempo and rapid rhythmic passages, which almost seems to banter the steady equanimity firstly established in the piece. There is also use of deceptive cadences towards the end of the piece, challenging what may be anticipated for a harmonic resolution; in a moment of harmonic tension, the piece flies off from a peaceful phrase of thin texture and gentle harmonies to another up-rise of tempo, texture and dynamics, leading to a wholesome and satisfying coda.
Beethoven composed this piece in the year of his involvement with his ‘immortal beloved’, 1811, in which this was his only major composition. It is documented that at this time, Beethoven’s only piano student was the Archduke Rudolph, and although Beethoven was suffering from intense headaches at this time, his musical diligence was owed to the piano trio he was writing as well as his student, hence the name of the piece. At a time of emotional turmoil in Beethoven’s life, a predicament that was worsened by his physical condition caused by headaches, his compositional work seemed to function as a means of optimistic escape from his otherwise largely troublesome life circumstances. It is certainly evident in the piece that there is a sense of peace and calm, with the occasional facetious alternation of radically intense musical climax. Indeed, the audience was certainly witnessed to a highly enjoyable and jovial musical journey with this performance.
Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ concluded the program with a gentle and therapeutic listening experience to leave the audience calm minded and satisfied.
In this concert, the main theme that seemed to remain conspicuously consistent across the three performances was an insight into the various discourses of the human condition from three different personal contexts. Smetana’s Piano trio in G minor consumed the audience into it’s grievous, raw and highly variable subject matter as based on a mind affected by heavy bereavement. Carl Vine’s ‘The Village’ manifested the changing nature of the human character in different social interactions through abstract musical representation, and Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ was a peaceful, at times tense but overall jolly interplay of a lighthearted state of being. The extent of the repertoire performed by The Sitkovetsky Trio demonstrated the dynamic versatility, technical virtuosity, intense engagement of the players and deliverance to the audience, all of which this ensemble was proved to be very capable of.
This concert was an emotionally challenging, thought-provoking and cathartic experience, leaving the audience with a heightened appreciation for the ensemble of Piano Trio and it’s capabilities. The Sitkovetsky Trio’s musicality showed the sheer power and manipulation music can have on our emotions, ensuing that, as an art-form, musical performance continues to thrill and amaze.