Liebestod – Australia Piano Quartet

David Barmby

Finding greatness in small things.
Liebestod – Australia Piano Quartet

 Australia Piano Quartet (APQ) perform works by Wagner, Gyger and Fauré in Liebestod. Photograph courtesy of Melbourne Recital Centre.


A discriminating Melbourne audience welcomed the elegantly attired Australia Piano Quartet on Thursday evening for its final 2016 performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre.  Ensemble in Residence at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) since 2012, the APQ has developed a vividly intelligent, highly expressive and mature ‘voice’.  Its musicians appear to be perfectly matched, each with an impressive technique and sharing a resolved aesthetic rapport.  The APQ has established a rich commissioning program with many of its recitals featuring a brand new Australian work.  Its balance of voices improved on this occasion with cellist Thomas Rann now seated at the centre and facing the room.


As the mammoth 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle comes to a close in the adjacent State Theatre, this recital of considerably fewer musicians in the comparatively tiny Salon provided a nonetheless powerful Wagnerian resonance through a program of three works: a skilful arrangement for piano quartet by young Australian composer Bernard Rofe of the famed Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (1857-59) (the Prelude also advertised was omitted without explanation), Australian composer Elliott Gyger’s most recent work Shell Chambers (2015-16) the first four movements receiving their first performance in Melbourne, and French Romantic Gabriel Fauré’s sumptuous and velvety first Piano Quartet, continuing the Tristan und Isolde theme of longing for unattainable mortal love though using a different musical language.

The Liebestod or ‘Love death’ is of course the dramatic climax to Wagner’s opera when Isolde ecstatically sings over the deceased Tristan of their love that will only reach consummation in death.  There have been numerous arrangements of this famous operatic excerpt, particularly versions designed to appeal to those who prefer Wagner’s music without singers.  Not being one of this cohort, initially I found it odd to hear this gloriously rapturous music without the words and the thrill of a great soprano voice soaring above.  This fine arrangement, however, was outstandingly crafted, effortlessly carrying the great sweep and sustained emotional fervour of this excerpt with tremolo strings and piano, and some artful pianistic solutions ensuring that the climaxes of Heller schallend, mich umwallend (Sounding more clearly, wafting around me) and in des Welt-Atems wehendem All (in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath) packed a powerful emotional punch.

Elliott Gyger is now one of Australia’s most outstanding composers.  Drawn to the work of Nigel Butterley, his compositional style is marked by refined virtuosity in colour and texture, a sharply focused and expressive narrative with a priority for clearly laid out form.  Shell Chambers for violin, viola, cello and piano (2015-16) was first performed in Sydney last month and is a fine addition to the body of Australian chamber music.  On this occasion we only heard half the work, but having had the opportunity to study the score over the last week I can say that its startling finesse and general compositional excellence has impressed.  In its entirety it spans eight movements (though some are quite brief).  The composer, present at this performance, stated that he was inspired by Classical form when writing the work, particularly the diverse, seven-movement structure of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op 131.  The work concerns the development of marine animals such as the nautilus whose exoskeleton is a spiral shell of separate chambers (like independent movements) increasing in size and in accordance with the mathematical ratios of the Fibonacci series.  Something new to me at least for Gyger’s output is that in this work he explores elaborated and embellished monody like strands of DNA: out of unison comes a feathered extension leading to further trails of elaboration.  The initial Interlude 1 marked ‘Exquisite, poised, intimate’ was an example as was the freezing and thrilling Interlude 2 marked ‘Wispy, fragile’.  The two major movements Scherzo – Allegro marked ‘Elusive, glittering’ and Adagio – Scherzo marked ‘Expansive, warm’ explored transformation of familiar formal narrative with a chilling precision, specificity and eloquence.

The final work, the first of two works written in the genre, was completed with some difficulty, the composer having survived an unsuccessful engagement to Marianne Viardot after a prolonged courtship.  The work was revised and completed the year Richard Wagner died and although set in a minor key which might lead to the judgment that the work is a sombre meditation on a failed relationship, it is mostly hopeful and optimistic in temperament.  The opening Allegro molto moderato broadly sailed forward in Sonata form with accompanying, perfectly phrased unison strings.  The movement is unquestionably Brahmsian in style though it reveals hints of attractive bucolic Impressionism.  Its gently arpeggiated ending delighted.  The sparkling and fleet-footed second movement Scherzo, Allegro vivo presents the piano in a filigree obbligato over pizzicato strings.  The dark Adagio is the work’s emotional core.  It opens with a brooding hymn before deeply touching material that could only be interpreted as a profound love poem, albeit with a noticeable frostiness in the air.  The Finale marked Allegro molto positively bustled with energy and exuberance.

Watch out for the Australia Piano Quartet’s concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2017.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


Australia Piano Quartet
Rebecca Chan, violin
James Wannan, viola,
Thomas Rann, cello
Daniel de Borah, piano

Presented by the Melbourne Recital Centre and Australia Piano Quartet
Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
Thursday, 8 December, 2016

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.