Music review: Contra Schubert

Expertly played by some fine musicians, this chamber music program needed some refinements in presentation.

Following its inaugural four-concert program in 2021 featuring chamber music works by Bach, Debussy, Beethoven and Piazzolla, the 2022 Contra Concerts season presented two programs with works by Mozart and Schubert. In addition to Brisbane concerts in the intimate, heritage-listed Holy Trinity Hall, the chamber music series has been extended to regional centres that include Toowoomba and Stanthorpe.

Flautist and Curator of Contra Concerts, Jonathan Henderson, is also a member of established chamber music ensemble Southern Cross Soloists, who have partnered with Contra Concerts to present this concert series.  

In keeping with their initial format of a major work by the named composer, Contra Schubert opened with Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’ for flute and piano in E minor d.802 op. posth.160.  While Schubert is famous for his 600 plus output of lieder (songs), this work, written in the last months of his life, surprised with a freshness and compositional vigour that might be associated with a more youthful Schubert.

The Introduction and Variations, based on the ‘Dried Flowers’ lied, is part of Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle, a poignant story of unrequited love. Fitting into the concert theme of crisis and raw emotion, with relevance to the natural world, it was a good opening choice.   

Written as a virtuosic piece for flute and played superbly by Jonathan Henderson as the voice of the tragic hero, this interpretation was strongly supported by first-rate piano accompaniment from Vatche Jambazian. Commencing quietly with gentle, light touches on piano and delicate phrasing on the flute, there was excellent articulation by both musicians. The diversity of the variations led us into some andante and allegro sections with increasing brisk, lively playing while one variation offered a splendid marching theme.

Some fine arpeggios and trills from Henderson were underpinned by a bright and ferocious piano as the variations became ever more heated. 

The variations themselves ran through a whole gamut of emotions, assisted by a dynamic intensity weaving a strong musical narrative. The players were able to bounce back and forth off each other in ever increasing vibrancy towards a fiery and speedy finale. Terrific performances by both musicians.    

Composer Peter Sculthorpe based much of his work on the melodic and evocative sounds of the Australian bush and landscape, with three pieces chosen to show different facets of our natural world. 

Mountains for solo piano evoked a mountain range in Sculthorpe’s home state of Tasmania, starting as a dark, foreboding piece, in awe of the mountains that inspired him. Jambazian injected sombre atmospherics into the piece, pacing the work with careful, slow tempi to allow the composer’s deliberate silences to evoke a haunting quality. 

Written for voice, cello and piano, the melodic folk tune used in The Stars Turn demonstrated nature at its most impressive, with colourful imagery of stars, sea, wind, and sun. Starting with a mournful and haunting cello from Hyung Suk Bae, the powerful mezzo of Shikara Ringdahl soon gave us a lush and richly poetic legato.

While her interpretation and vocal prowess were intelligently applied, aurally one could have hoped for a clearer English diction, with many word endings swallowed. There was an exceptionally well-played cello and piano duet after the second verse.  

Another work for solo piano, Sculthorpe’s Japanese influenced Night Pieces suggested distinctively different seasons, alongside a metamorphosis into the night sky. Jambazian’s attention to detail imbued the imagery of a cold, quiet snowy winter, through a dreamy quality of the autumn moon to the light and flowery colours of spring. It was expressively played.       

The works chosen from Ravel’s oeuvre included Deux Mélodies Hébraïques (Two Hebrew Songs) and Chansons Madécasses (Madagascan Songs). For voice and piano, the Hebrew song, Kaddish, is a liturgical piece that was beautifully sung in an exotic middle-eastern style by Ringdahl.

Possessing a first-rate instrument, her clear, well-placed mezzo with its large vocal range allowed the bottom notes to sit comfortably, while having the added advantage of soaring top notes. However, in the much lighter second song, L’énigme éternelle, based on a Yiddish folk song, Ringdahl offered little differentiation from the Kaddish in either style or dynamics. This was disappointing, as was her poor French pronunciation and articulation and what appeared to be a lack of understanding of this sung language.     

The concert finished with the Madagascan Songs, a delightful song cycle of three art-songs inspired by the poetic prose of Evariste-Desire de Parny. Composed for piano, voice, cello and flute, Nahandove commenced with a finely played, delicate cello solo from Bae, anticipating the erotic encounter to come. Ringdahl sang with passion and commitment, her voice rising strongly above the stave, and was well-paced.  

Auoa! Is a completely different work, with its fierce violent opening expressing the despair of the writer in his warnings to beware of white men. It is an extraordinary and probably quite contemporary piece about colonisation containing much musical menace and anger. Intelligently played with great dynamics, the importance of the lyrics, with an overly-wordy text, created difficulty for Ringdahl in managing the sung French text. 

The final piece, Il Est Doux, a charming languorous poem set in the heat of a summer’s day, had a sultry quality that was sensitively delivered by flute and cello. A gentle opening piano set the mood as did Ringdahl’s finely-crafted legato.                

Musically, Contra Schubert was an interesting and varied program, though the timing and presentation had some problems. Advertised as a 60-minute concert that offered exactly 60 minutes of music, the event ran over by close to 30 minutes. This was due to the addition of spoken introductions to the works. Given that the audience received a printed program with song and text translations, much of the additional explanation seemed extraneous or could have been more focused. Or one could also advertise that the program is 90 minutes.   

Read: Theatre review: The Normal Heart

Additionally, the order of performed pieces changed from the printed program. Interspersing Sculthorpe’s unique Australian voice around the two Ravel sung pieces seemed to make little sense musically and was confusing. It certainly did not assist the audience with understanding a logical progressive theme to the concert or hearing the distinct voices of the three composers. Consideration with regard to these elements in future concerts would be helpful.  

Contra Schubert

Presented by Contra Concerts in association with Southern Cross Soloists

Musicians: Shikara Ringdahl, Jonathan Henderson, Hyung Suk Bae, Vatche Jambazian  
Holy Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane 

Contra Schubert was performed on 7 October 2022.


Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.