The Utzon series is fast becoming a favourite for those who love high quality chamber music as a matinée. You can either do lunch and stroll down to the Opera House for the concert or head out for cocktails and dinner afterwards. Hey, why not do both? Sunday afternoon on the pier can be a little crowded but the Opera House itself is easy to navigate at that time of day. There was only a mild disappointment amongst audience members that the coffee shop and coat check were not open so winter coats were shifted from laps to the back of seats or under the seat in front.

One nice little surprise was a delightful glass of wine on offer at the entry for those with the inclination. A very classy start to the afternoon. A couple of glasses took a tumble from their long stems during the performance and, surprisingly, a few audience members decided to just get up and go get another drink in the middle of the performance which was not always convenient to those around them.

Why on earth would you get up and walk away? This was an astounding performance that had everyone else riveted to their seats. 

Helena Rathbone, has been Principal violin with the Australian Chamber Orchestra since 1994 – a lifetime for some in the audience. Through many performances we have watched her work tirelessly with Artistic Director Tognetti almost always in the spotlight. He’s a big name and casts a big shadow which gives her plenty of room to move around albeit within his interpretation. Though we don’t hear her complain, one always wonders what might happen if she were given the chance to stand more frequently in the spotlight herself. This concert was the perfect opportunity. 

The program was reordered to begin with three perfectly romantic Romances for violin and piano by Clara Schumann. It is necessary to point out their romantic nature because, so often, a work is called a “Romance” and yet, is far from it. These three smaller pieces were romantic to the core and completely feminine, appropriate to both the composer and to our violin star soloist. From the very first notes it was easy to hear this was going to be outstanding in every way. A superb performer on an extraordinary violin. It was only a month or so back, the ACO acquired the “Ex-Dollfus” Stradivarius built in 1732 from an anonymous benefactor. Named after the French industrialist and amateur violinist Jean Dollfus (1800-1887) it is the third Stradivari instrument to be played within an Australian orchestra. The often breathy, muted sound most violins offer during quiet moments was absent with this instrumental treasure. From the very beginning, the notes were crystal clear with a ringing tone, responding to the master violinist. A match made in heaven. (And, in case you’re not familiar with the demand for Stradivarius instruments, another one sold last month for US$ 15million.)

The opening to the Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op 22 were given with surety and subtlety. Pianist Stefan Cassomenos accompanied with a refined musicality, living every note, completely tuned in to Rathbone’s nuances and interpretation. The two musicians aligned like a breath in and a breath out.

The remaining two performers joined them for Brahms Piano Quartet in C minor Op 60.  Principal Viola of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Christopher Moore was also equipped with a world class instrument. His viola is attributed to Giovanni Paolo Maggini dating from around the year 1600, loaned anonymously to the Melbourne Symphony. It featured a softer, more mellow tone with an impeccably clear quality. There were no details on the instrument of Principal Cello for the ACO, Timo-Veikko Valve. None were required though, his playing was outstanding. 

The four movements of Brahms’ Piano Quartet took us on a journey from a vivacious, dramatic opening, an exciting, pushy scherzo, a relaxed and expressive Andante, then back to the dramatic for a bold finale. Valve’s cello was featured predominantly in the third movement working with Cassomenos. There was a lovely moment where the piano took the lead supported by impeccably timed pizzicato alternating between Moore and Valve.

Moore was able to bend and shape the sounds from the viola to fit the instrument he accompanied, be it rich and deep with Valve’s cello or light and melodic with Rathbone’s violin. We were clearly witnessing 4 masters of technique and musicality. Having them in an intimate setting was a precious treat.

The final work was Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 15. Markedly different from Brahms and very suitably placed last to finish the concert was pure joy. It is a fascinating work. The opening is incredibly fluid and lyrical with each musician featured on their own in turn. The second movement has a lilting, mischievous rhythm that makes you smile – lots of fun. There are some really interesting harmonies in here. The Adagio third movement has each instrument join the piano one at a time until all three strings are playing the very same melody – quite unusual. The final Allegro molto skips along on its toes challenging the violin and piano with very difficult passages and building to a great crescendo. It’s that feeling like a horse race where the final turn is reached and the home run is in sight. Here, all the artists let loose and flew in full expression like there’s no tomorrow.

It was such a magnificent finale the crowd let out a roar and burst into huge applause. We were so very lucky to be up close and personal with such amazing musicians and their extraordinary instruments. The experience cannot be better than this anywhere in the world. 

Bravi! Bravissimi! for an exceptional performance. We hope to see Rathbone bring her friends back to the Utzon Room soon and are excited to see what other lovely items she will choose to program.

The performance HELENA RATHBONE AND FRIENDS concert took place in the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday 24th July, 2022 

You’ll find more chamber music concerts at the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room here: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on.html?genres=event-type:classical-music 


SCHUMANN – Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22

BRAHMS – Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60

FAURÉ – Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 15


Helena Rathbone Violin

Christopher Moore Viola

Timo-Veikko Valve Cello

Stefan Cassomenos Piano

All photos by Jaimi Joy

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