Played to order


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday March 14


                                                                     Grace Clifford

Kathryn Selby appears to have made the change from Federation Square’s Deakin Edge to this MLC venue in Kew/Hawthorn very successfully.  I wasn’t present at the final series recital last year, the first in the Tatoulis Auditorium, but this all-Beethoven night looked close to having sold out all 360-odd seats; clearly, a large group of her patrons have followed Selby east of the city.  Let’s hope these numbers stay high.

Of course, the impresaria/pianist was catering to her followers shamefully with this first program for 2018.   Last year, she polled her audiences in each state, asking what Beethoven they would all like to hear, and the results were unremarkable.   For the piano trio format, patrons wanted the Archduke – surprise, surprise.  From the cellist, the popular pick was the A Major Sonata, as opposed to the more interesting Op. 102 double; the violinist had to take up the Spring Sonata No 5, rather tan the dazzling Kreutzer No. 9 or the gripping C minor No. 7.

Selby inserted her own curtain-opener with the Allegretto in B flat WoO.39 which gets listed in the inventory of Beethoven’s piano trios but only just, as a work without a catalogue number.  An amiable single movement with unexpected subtleties, it’s yet another one where the piano sets the pace, having first dibs at all the material while the two strings spend most of their time repeating the subjects or providing sustained chords and ephemeral passage-work.  Still, this short fragment enjoyed carefully shaped treatment from Selby and her guests, violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, both of whom have appeared previously in this series back in its city-based days.

In fact, Clifford made a serious impression on Melbourne when she performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 under Benjamin Northey with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra two years ago.  Since then, her production has become even more refined, displayed in its best light during her reading of the Beethoven sonata on this night.  It shouldn’t be hard to credit by those who have encountered her before, but the opening Allegro last Wednesday night was remarkably pure in projection, Clifford filling each corner of this decently-sized space with an individual timbre; not overdoing the vibrato or taking any distracting dynamic or rhythmic liberties – just a calm, luminous account of very familiar pages.

Both collaborators found an even easier working relationship in the work’s Adagio, sustaining the music’s pulse through some ornate figuration, then skittering past the insubstantial Scherzo.  Yet Clifford shone at her best in the rondo-finale with a splendid sonorous arch at the start that delighted for its clarity and self-possessed ardour, qualities that remained evident throughout the movement’s piano-flattering progress.

Newman’s view of the A Major Cello Sonata is a highly theatrical one, emphatically so in both outer movements.  Each dynamic shift was given full weight, starting with the first A minor passage after the string instrument’s first ad libitum interlude at bar 23.  Then the forte launch into E major at bar 64 punched us between the ears, as it did on its recurrence at bar 201 when I thought the cellist’s pizzicati were turning into percussive Bartokian snaps.  It kept you involved, for sure, but the movement’s unfolding came about punctuated by a sequence of shocks that interrupted the score’s usually even deliberation.

Later in the Allegro vivace conclusion to the sonata, Newman relished his stretches in the tenor and treble clefs to give Selby a good deal of competition throughout a pretty rapid treatment of these toccata-suggestive pages.  For all his driving energy, this cellist is near-faultless in his pitching of notes and has that vital necessity for any player attempting this work: he can be heard all the time, whether sustaining semibreve bass notes or striving against the keyboard’s fortissimo passage-work as at bars 209-212.

The players re-grouped for the Archduke and handled its pages with an easy familiarity.  In fact, Newman seemed to have a lot of it by heart and kept both eyes on Clifford’s bowing arm for much of the opening three movements, an observance that resulted in some fine close collaboration in the work’s Andante cantabile, like the second duet-strophe for both strings that rivalled the best readings I’ve heard, and their later collaboration after the piano stops faffing about and settles into the final re-statement and coda – pages that crown the preceding variations with consoling beneficence.

As a small observation, have you heard another pianist who can handle this work’s scherzo with as much calm authority as Selby?  I don’t just mean the eruption into a D flat Major waltz at bar 160, although that is briskly treated with exactitude always, but just simple statements like the piano entry at bar 16 which in her hands comes over with a sort of pert diffidence, trippingly on the tongue.

All the more remarkable because I had my doubts about the instrument that Selby used. While investigating the facilities at MLC last year, she found an old Bosendorfer grand in the music school’s storage  space and thought how appropriate such an instrument would be for a program of this character.   Quite right, even if these pianos-with-a-pedigree make you work harder than a modern-day Steinway or Yamaha.  The venerable German giant brought a powerful bloom to all four pieces but it struck me that Selby was tiring halfway through the Archduke finale, by about the point where the keyboard gets the sextuple shakes at bar 152 and keeps them going till arriving at bar 184.  For all that, you couldn’t fault the vivacity of the Presto conclusion, even if the victory impressed as hard-won.




The guitar. Fits in everywhere


Meredith Connie

Move Records MCD 567



Connie’s latest CD is divided, unlike Gaul, into five parts, two of them having to do with children’s music.

She begins with a collection of 14 pieces for guitar and speaker that are animal pieces offering illustrative character pieces of no particular weight to poems by David Elliott that the guitarist recites with a convincing Playschool clarity and theatricality.  The verses are not too twee, even if the rhymes are predictable.  Similarly, Connie’s guitar is rarely stretched, although her illustrations are often spry and not simple-minded pap.

Her lion is a languid prowler, one of the longer-lasting members (tracks) of this menagerie; a habanera rhythm dominates the elephant-vision’s opening and closing; not surprisingly, the giraffe is depicted in a slow-moving melody pretty much confined to the instrument’s top strings; for the zebra, Connie uses a jig format, a catchy single-note pattern obtaining throughout.  The intention of the rhinoceros’ musical image is to offer – in 28 seconds – a battery of not-too-offensive sounds to represent the creature’s monstrous physical properties.  Oddly enough, the sloth – a natural do-nothing –  has the longest music attached to it: a slow pavane of sorts that quite properly doesn’t move anywhere harmonically.

The jaguar is comparable to the zebra in its rapid-fire content but suggests a scrap by Torroba.  As with the sloth, Connie/Elliott’s panda is going nowhere, with two-bar phrases repeated over and over, although not as tedious as a minimalist exercise – here is one more animal that the composer is in no hurry to abandon.  Another great cat, this tiger is packed with harmonics and muted notes as the poet offers a starlit picture with concluding Blakean inferences.  Again, the habanera rhythm provides an initial basis for the orangutan – and a conclusion as well;  and it’s another, more lop-sided jig for the kangaroo on one of the album’s shortest tracks.

I find it hard to follow what is being done with the buffalo which sadly occupies a climatic binary state – hot and cold; the tone is eventually elegiac as poet and musician mourn the creature’s passing.  There’s something much stronger about the wolf music which almost offers a narrative from howling to loping and back again.  As you’d expect, the polar bear moves slowly if regularly, eventually fading from sight.

After dealing with her wild animals, Connie moves back quite some distance to the works of Johann Kaspar Mertz, specifically pieces from Books 2 and 5 of his Bardenklange.  She begins with Fingals-Hohle, which I take to be this composer’s take on his contemporary Mendelssohn’s somewhat more famous overture.  It turns out to be a clever exercise in arpeggios of increasing speed and range, showing as much enthusiasm for regular patterns as Mendelssohn himself.  The following Abendlied could have sat quite comfortably in the pages of the Lieder ohne worte; beginning with a chorale, then moving into a more fussy pattern rich in sextuplets which Connie treats with plenty of pliancy.

Unruhe begins with a 9-bar introduction that sets the unsettled scene, then opts for an sonorously intimate, wide-ranging development of simple material, rich in unusual spacings – not of the notes as a series but as they are placed for the instrument.  It’s given supple handling which helps justify the intended restlessness, no matter how Biedermeier its underlying character.  Finally, Elfenreigen starts firmly enough with not much of a tune to speak of but an amiable rustle of triplets; then, on its second page, the matter moves into descending patterns that simply burst the initial placid magic for the sake of a technical exercise.  It’s smoothly handled but even Connie’s elegant delivery can’t disguise Mertz’s sudden lapse in inspiration.

Australian composer Phillip Houghton’s Gothica – Book of Spooks and Spectres originally had ten parts; here, we are offered six of them, starting with The Old Spanish Castle is Full of Vampires, Sleeping which has Spanish tropes but you have to supply your own spectres before a poke-your-tongue-out ending.  The Gates That Hold King Kong are represented by a series of upward-sweeping arpeggiated chords that fade to silence; I assume these stand for the massive structure that kept the great ape imprisoned in the 1933 film but, as with much of this suggestive music, they could just as easily have set the scene for a menacing night on Flinders St. Station.

Juju seems to me too complex to stand for a fetish, but perhaps I’ve missed the point.  I much preferred Spell which, for all its stop-start opening, presented a simple post-Bartok example of rhythmic disjunction.  Houghton uses a number of instrumental effects in Headhunter, in particular the suspenseful pause; you can also admire the metallic scrapes he inserts, probably to remind you of the title-character’s life vocation.  They of the Half Light are represented by a miniature that is quite a mobile construct but Houghton keeps his harmony ambiguous with a plethora of added notes so that you don’t see much en clair – it’s the most sophisticated of these six tracks.

Stepan Rak, a senior Rusyn guitarist/composer, has compiled a suite of Czech Fairy Tales which also require a narrator, here supplied by Connie, although her oral duties seem confined to information concerning what’s coming up.  The pieces begin with a fortune-teller in a market place telling tales to children, whom he leads into a forest where they play before the advent of the inevitable witch in menacing, discordant minor mode.  Unaware, you assume, the children continue playing although there is a minatory undercurrent.  To flesh out the fairy nature of the suite, enter a dragon who, rather abruptly and without any musical warning, dies quietly.

To brighten the funereal mood, Rak introduces goblins – all rough slapping chords and scrapes –  then fairies who are a susurrus – and a reassuring  photo-shoot of the children who are all over the place  –  hopping running, jumping.   Lost in the story of a fortune-teller returns to the opening theme and you’re in Pied Piper territory, I suppose: the children gone for good inside the fairy tales.   Rak sustains the central-European/Slavic folk suggestiveness with a plethora of motifs that sound authentic, despite the dressing-up in biting, crisp harmonizations and a willingness to alter everything abruptly just for the sake of a change.  You’re grateful for Connie’s commentary but, as it stands, the information is pretty lean in content and direction.

Finally, we are offered four tracks of a composition by Californian guitar guru, Jim Ferguson.  This is Four Monsters, beginning with the most famous of all in Frankenstein Meets the Jazzman, which might be suggesting the mechanical rigidity that is so unreliable in the old Boris Karloff film, and you’d guess that the eponymous jazzman emerges in the  unremarkable chords that provide the piece with so much of its forgettability.  We are almost definitely in Poe country for The Raven Vanishes, but this bird is in no hurry to leave the scene as its laid-back funereal theme-motive makes its presence felt with some weight in this amiable ternary-format piece.

Mad Love is a waltz of a quietly manic insistence, the scenario for which one commentator traces to a Peter Lorre horror film of 1935.  It’s splendidly played by Connie with a calculated uncertainty of pulse carefully adopted to suggest a kind of musical – and by extension, mental – imbalance.  Lastly, The Fly succeeds in irritating through a wealth of five-finger-exercise buzzing, but the piece is brief and leaves you longing only slightly for the insertion of a satisfying swat sound.

This recording seems to have been processed largely by Connie both here, in Coffs Harbour, and in the United States.  I was very impressed by the quality of the final Jim Ferguson tracks which were excellent in balance and fidelity with every detail clarion-clear.  The content, as you can gather from the above, is a mixture that makes little sense to me; yes, the pieces are flights of fancy in most cases but they vary vastly in quality and what I can only call aesthetic provenance.  Nevertheless, the whole compendium is a tribute to Connie’s artistry and widely spread sympathies.






And sometimes everything goes right


Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College, Melbourne

Tuesday March 6

                                                                   James Bakirtzis

Opening her series of recitals for this year, one-time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Wilma Smith didn’t bother with trivia.  Tuesday night’s content comprised only three works but each was a notable challenge for most of the personnel involved.  If the evening had a star, it was horn player James Bakirtzis, an Old Scotch boy although not that old, who helped bracket the evening with Mozart’s Horn Quintet K 407 and an epitome of Romantic chamber music in the broad-bellied Horn Trio of Brahms.

Another of the notable entrants in these particular lists was pianist Tian Tian Lan who is either in his final year at the College or has only just finished his time there.

                                                                       Tian Tian Lan

This musician was put to as much work as Bakirtzis by not only handling the keyboard role in Brahms’ trio but also taking on the powerful piano part in the Shostakovich G minor Piano Quintet, giving a brilliant and enthusiastic account of the score’s rhetoric and poetry with a fearlessness that demonstrated his conscientious preparation for the task and a confidence that was only slightly shaken in the more urging pages of the Allegretto finale.

As her string guest-friends for the night, Smith welcomed violinist Miki Tsunoda, violist Lisa Grosman and cellist Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck.  All of these collaborated in the Mozart and Shostakovich, Smith playing the ideal host by seconding Grosman as the extra viola required for the former, then providing a second violin in the Russian epic, if understandably pulling rank to take on the string line for the program’s concluding trio.

I’m probably not alone in admiring French horn performers for their sheer nerve.  It strikes me as being the most unreliable and untrustworthy instrument in the Western orchestra and, while you can cavil at all-too-evident blunders in Tchaikovsky and Mahler and have your teeth set on edge by mishaps in the Eroica or Brahms C minor Symphony, there is still a tolerant side to the complaints; once you’ve tried it, you know what physical and mental demands are required to get even a half-way decent sound out of the instrument.

Bakirtzis is the real thing, a prince among his tribe and advanced enough of a player to leave you – after a few nervous moments – with confidence in his ability to perform with immaculate eloquence and discrimination.  For the Mozart work, his production was pretty close to faultless in the opening Allegro; I heard only one slight slip in the exposition’s repeat and another in the recapitulation.  Even in the horn-exposing Andante, it was hard to fault the player’s breath control and phrase-shaping and he almost got through the movement without a hitch apart from a hesitation at bar 115. Later, in the semiquaver-happy Allegro/Rondo, this musician’s product came across as buoyant, unstudied and yet ensuring that everything was given its proper weight.

Bakirtzis’ support was headed by Tsunoda, the lower-voiced players not over-stretched in their roles.  For the first pages of the work, the violinist sounded a touch off-colour, as though forcing her tone to compensate for the horn which, in this hall, was offered little dynamic opposition.  But the ensemble settled to its labours happily enough, relishing a few moments in the sun with fluent and finely etched tuttis.

Lan opened the Shostakovich with appropriate gravity and, as required, set the running at certain points along the whole work’s path.  Like Bakirtzis, he’s a forward player, certain in the task and diligent in delivery.  Still, the point where this interpretation came alive for me was at the end of the Lento/Prelude, three bars before Rehearsal Number 15 in my score where all the strings play in unison for about 8 bars while the piano answers with its Baroque slow toccata semiquavers.  This was immaculate playing and a firm apologia for the beleaguered composer; it was only equalled by the players’ account of the following Adagio/Fugue where the linear integrity remained constant throughout – phrasing  mirror-sharp, each entry definite, the contrapuntal mesh ebbing and flowing without clotting.

In the Allegretto/Scherzo, the tempo was sensible without being as staid as some ensembles have opted for, with only a short exposed viola passage sounding off-point, probably at Rehearsal Number 54.  As an added bonus, Lan clearly revelled in his work here, staying just the right side of strident at the top register of his instrument.

Even better followed in the Lento/Intermezzo with a finely contrived duet for Tsunoda and Sakakushev where what looks all too simple on paper became a moving threnody, progressing sombrely to the entire work’s high-point at the appassionato canon between both violins and viola/cello: bars where many another group dips into hysteria but negotiated with a fierce determination by these interpreters.   In the Allegretto/Finale, once again I was brought up short by the fidelity of the strings’ octave work at Rehearsal Number 101 where you could not have asked for more finely graduated dynamic balance.

This quintet is a popular work, although not heard as often as it once was.  Possibly, musicians aspiring to its mysteries are brought up short by a difficult taut expressiveness and stringent demands in delineation.  Still, unlike so many other ad hoc groups who have essayed its terrors, these players got a whole lot right.

For an admirer of the Brahms Horn Trio, the night’s final offering proved a particularly full pleasure. beginning with a flawless Andante with Bakirtzis dominating the dynamic complex.  But what else could you expect?  Suffice it to say that Smith mounted a resonant counterweight in the soaring chain of canons and duets that gives this music its substance, if not its depth.  All three musicians made an enjoyment of the no-reason-to-stop Scherzo, one of those happy-minded Brahms creations that seem to multiply in number the older one gets.   Even in rapid-fire passages, Bakirtzis maintained his aplomb and Lan brought a bubbling energy to the mix.

By the time the Adagio had finished, you could be left in no doubt why this young horn player has gained so much attention in a short time.  The tone colour is malleable if still inclined to over-dominate, although Smith and Lan kept him honest during the brief stringendo beginning at bar 32 and also during the movement’s powerful climax at bar 69. As with everything so far, it was near-impossible to cavil at anything in the bounding finale, apart from one error from Lan on the second-last page; not surprising as he’d put in a solid night and this active set of pages is a pretty big ask in the score’s context.

But, for all these small pinpricks, this night’s recital was memorable; certainly for the technical address and security of all concerned and their fidelity to what we know of the composer’s aims.  But, more importantly, the three works offered a generous musical landscape, elucidated by these interpretations which gave us plentiful insights into the composers’ aesthetic reaches.  Which is why some of us go out at night.



So much talent and promise


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 24 and Sunday February 25

                                                                           Max Riebl

For some of the time, this concert did give us an idea of the musical world during the time of Thomas Tallis; it contained some works by Tallis himself – three of them – and one motet by his much younger friend and business associate, William Byrd.  But then the chronology went off the anticipated schedule.  Paul Dyer and his orchestra-plus-choir sang and played a bracket of madrigals and motets by Orlando Gibbons; nothing wrong with that and some of it proved pleasurable – but this isn’t much to do with Tallis.

Things hardly improved with the interpolation of a few scraps by Purcell, born over 75 years after the death of Tallis.  A similar bracket followed by Handel,  born a full century after Tallis had shuffled off his mortal coil.  A strange byway came with a piece from Matthew Locke, giving a sort of temporal link between Byrd and Purcell but written in a language some streets removed from the program’s nominated focus.  Oddest of all, the concert’s conclusion came in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis which is a fine sample of the composer’s art but belongs pretty firmly to the Edwardian era of pre-World War I rustic polyphonic placidity and, despite its use of a Tallis tune, is in no way representative of the Tudor master’s England.

In other words, the content presented on this night was a hodgepodge, compiled with little sense of congruity of content and, whichever way you looked at it, remarkably bitty and insubstantial, as though the organizers were in a hurry to move from one thing to another, not sure of the audience’s attention span.  This trust in pace as a spur to involvement reached its apogee in the Vaughan Williams score where the direction Poco a poco animando brought about a driving urgency that barely slowed down for the climactic Largamente which misfired because of the preceding frenzied build-up.  It delighted the Brandenburgers’ Melbourne fans with its rhetorical passion but it left me unhappy because of its violence, the familiar rolling periods of euphony absent or distorted under this pummeling address.

Not that the ABO strings – expanded for this finale – were working under ideal conditions.  The acoustic properties of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall are not flattering for this meditative  –  or, better, ruminative –  construct and the prevailing mode of delivery without vibrato from most of the players I could see meant that the composition was deficient in weight of timbre, so the musicians compensated for an absence of depth and full-bodied richness of texture with an attack style that eventually bordered on hysteria.  A shame as the opening statements, central quartet fantasy pages and concluding violin/viola duet could not be faulted as well-honed interpretative oases, mobile but measured and valid responses to the composer’s intentions.

Mind you, Dyer had warned us of what was in store: probably the first performance (ever? in Australia?) of this work on period instruments.  And each member of the enlarged orchestra was identified as ‘period violin’, ‘period cello’, and so on.  Was it worth the attempt?  I would say no, apart from the exceptional passages noted above.

Countertenor Max Riebl sang two arias – Purcell’s Song of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, appropriated from the original bass register for unknown reasons – and one of the hero’s arias from Handel’s Orlando, Fammi combattere.  Both have become showpieces for this voice type over the past decade or two and Riebl has them under control, although he gave a more convincing interpretation of the English song, the Italian aria’s lower register passages sometimes swamped by an ever-enthusiastic Brandenburg corps, although the two episodically reinforcing oboes in the score were mercifully absent.

More pertinent matter came earlier in the alto solo for Gibbons’ Great Lord of Lords, a work that expresses celebration in steady, sombre strophes for which Riebl fronted the ABO Choir in an impressive interpretation, appealing for its underlying power and universally exercised control.  For once, the chief soloist was supported by a highly able alto partner, Timothy Chung, and a character-filled bass voice which I think belonged to Craig Everingham.  Like quite a few solos from this body over the past few seasons, these are not temps of the shrinking-violet quality, place-fillers promoted beyond their capabilities, but fully-produced and trained voices making solid contributions to the complex.

As for the ABO in its own Renaissance/Baroque right, it began with an octet doing its best to imitate a chest of viols in Drop, drop slow tears by Gibbons and the same composer’s The silver swan.  For the Abdelazer extracts – Overture and predictable Rondeau  –  the whole body dug into their lines with loads of vim and a cutting attack, moderated a few minutes later for the first two movements of the Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 whereas that particular work’s Hornpipe ending might have been more suitably brisk – or perhaps not, as its syncopated bonhomie would have uncomfortably overshadowed yet another boastful and fraught knightly vaunt or six.

Even though out of historical congruity with Tallis, the Curtain Tune from Locke’s The Tempest incidental music came as a welcome intruder with a robust sound across all four lines, the players and their conductor revelling in the sudden flashes from aggressive scale passages, the repeat giving more time to relish the calm discipline of these two staid and compact pages.

Through the ABO Choir, Byrd made an early appearance, represented solely by his Ave verum corpus which experienced reverent treatment although the pauses were so marked that you might have been forgiven for thinking that the interpretation was based on practices promulgated by the latter-day Scandinavian mystical crowd.  Before and after vere passum, after immolatum and after sanguine, the simple one-beat rests dragged out so long that forward momentum was sacrificed to attention-grabbing and performance-debilitating uncertainty.

I think The silver swan was given three times: first by the viol consort substitutes, then by the singers, and again by the strings, after which the Choir gave its version of Drop, drop slow tears; well negotiated and affecting, but then it’s nothing more taxing than a pretty simply harmonised chorale.  Following the rewarding Great Lord of Lords, the Gibbons bracket concluded with the notorious anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David.   This is a staple for any Anglican church choir with ambition, but musically valid performances are rare; the only one I’ve found totally convincing was at an Ely Cathedral evensong some time in July 1976.  The tendency is to allow the bar-line (so to speak) too much importance, whereas the music should be a piling-up of phrases where, for example,  emphasis on ‘to’ in the first clause should be avoided.

Following the positive impression gained from Drop, drop slow tears, the wrenching If ye love me that began the Tallis sequence gave us one of the night’s shortest works but one of its most affecting.  A gentle spread of harmonic movement and care with the textual emphases made this modest gem one of the more compelling stretches of work we heard from these singers, produced with a lulling smoothness that almost made you ignore the lack of body from the four-strong soprano line.  According to the program, five of these singers were to appear; I could only see a quartet.  Perhaps the missing voice was the body’s muscle soprano; whatever the case, here and in the final choral item, the mix would have gained from extra carrying power in the treble line.

Before the Vaughan Williams, we heard the Tallis theme for the Fantasia, Why fumeth in fight.  To make sure we got the tune fixed in our heads, the singers worked through all four verses of Archbishop Parker’s wordy translation of Psalm 2, Why do the nations.  Again, the tune itself in the sopranos tended to be overpowered by the harmonisation contributions from this body’s enthusiastic male altos and strong tenors.

You left this concert in some confusion; well, I did.  The large string band was hard to fault in responsiveness, discipline of ensemble and articulation, particularly when you consider the lack of leeway given by the body’s spartan mode of address and absence of vibrato-providing screening.  In similar vein, you could find few quibbles with the technical apparatus of the ABO Choir.  Yet the interpretations often underwhelmed when they should have swept us away.  Yes, for ‘us’, read ‘me’ because, despite my reservations, the orchestra was treated to a solid wall of applause at the Fantasia‘s conclusion.

But even that point in proceedings seemed a stagey miscalculation.  As Shaun Lee-Chen’s solo violin soared up that slow F minor arpeggio to a top A flat, the lights started going down, so that the final blazing G Major chord that folds into silence was given through a fade-to-blackout ambience when the whole point of the music’s propulsion has been towards a blazing Hildegardean epiphany rather than a John-of-the-Cross dark night.

So much to hear



Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

Chairman of the 3MBS Board Chris Howlett has taken his station’s annual marathon –  a one day series of concerts and recitals focusing on a great name in Western music  –   from the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall/Boroondara Arts Centre to the all-things-to-all-men Melbourne Recital Centre where a formidable and varied group of musicians played six programs by J. S. Bach and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, as well as a transcription of the D minor Violin Chaconne by Busoni, Liszt’s Variations on a theme of Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and one of Mozart’s semi-original/semi-transcriptions of Bach fugues from the K 404a set of 6.

I was surprised to find the Murdoch Hall almost full for the first event, before waking up to the fact that this program featured the largest work – in time and numbers – of the day: C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Well, one of them: during his time in Hamburg, he wrote/compiled 21 settings from the four Evangelists, six of the St. Matthew version.  This one dating from 1777 is not as substantial as that by the composer’s father, from whom he borrowed material (as well as from other contemporaries); fewer arias that commented on the action and much of the choral work was confined to chorales except for the essential turba segments.

Being without a program, I’ve compiled most of the following observations from scribbled notes and various processes of near-recognition allied to an unreliable sense of deja-vu.   But I was startled at the quality of soloists that preceded conductor Rick Prakhoff onto the stage; well, some of them did – three of the character singers, all male, were delayed by some backstage organizational hold-up.

As the Evangelist, Andrew Goodwin set a high standard, enunciating the text with his trademark clarity so that a listener all-too-familiar with Sebastian Bach’s setting of this part of the Gospel could follow the narrative closely.  The Emanuel Bach Evangelist gets few occasions for bravura, the son not being as deliberate in, or as tempted by, word-painting as his father, but the part runs as much more of a continuum because the interpolations are not as common.   In other words, Goodwin sang a lot of solid uninterrupted stretches and, as far as I could tell, made no palpable errors, sharply supported by Calvin Bowman’s chamber organ and showing unflagging awareness of Prakhoff’s direction at those stages where the Evangelist’s text melds into choral action.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Dinopoulos sang Christus with an assurance that recalled Warwick Fyfe’s exertions in the same role during earlier Melbourne Bach Choir Passions.  Just as pliant as Goodwin, this bass made the Gethsemane section a powerful, unsentimental experience and negotiated his line with a no-nonsense gravity during the exchanges with the High Priest and Pilate.

Michael Leighton Jones sang the roles of Judas and Pilate with his usual bluff amplitude, only an audible discomfort with the latter part’s top notes giving cause for disquiet.  But the dialogue for both characters is not substantial and Jones observed the pervading rule of this performance in negotiating his work without self-indulgence or emotive attention-grabbing; not that you can find much of that in a cold administrative fish like the Roman procurator.

Of the other soloists, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman impressed mightily right from the first principal aria.  Here was a fully-rounded production without any weak spots, kept pretty forward in the prevailing texture as the singer had to contend with an almost constant doubling, either from violins or bassoon, as though the composer didn’t quite trust his interpreter’s security of pitch; unnecessary in this instance and a bit of on-the-spot editing might have made the singer’s task easier.

Kleeman was also given a second, quick-moving aria, notable for the addition of a pair of flutes (the first time they were used in the score?) which also served a doubling function for much of the time.

Both soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and mezzo Shakira Tsindos took on the minute parts of the servant-girls questioning Peter outside the High Priest’s house.  Both were enlisted for meditative ariosos/arias after Peter’s denial and after Christ’s interchange with Pilate, pages that asked for and received a good deal of plangency but calculated for comfortable singing – nothing like the terrifically exposed female solo lines that the elder Bach wrote.

Timothy Reynolds – another light tenor possessing remarkable agility –  had the more taxing part of Peter and (I could easily be wrong) the lines attached to Caiaphas.  More significantly, this singer enjoyed the work’s final piece of meditative commentary in an arioso+aria after the death of Christ.  This turned out to be the most sustained work  (apart from Goodwin’s marathon) in the entire score and, on first impression, the most technically taxing of the lot.

Along with an appealing timbre, notable for its even spread across the required compass, Reynolds had a tendency to drag the chain; not exactly getting out of time with Prakhoff but needing to be hurried along when the lengthy aria’s vocal curvetting verged on the prolix.

As for the Bach Choir, it got off to a flying start with a splendid opening chorale; vigorous, full-bodied with a clear presence in all parts, functioning as an arresting curtain-opener.  In fact, you were hard pressed to fault the chain of chorales, especially the several appearances of Herzliebster Jesu.  The body was not solely used for these or taking the role of high priests/Pharisees or bloodthirsty population, although I can’t recall much along the lines of Komm, ihr Tochter or Sind Blitzen, sind Donner although one chorus after the High Priest’s condemnation proved memorable for the reinforcement of two horns, probably their first use in the score.

Carl Bach was quite happy – more so than his father – to have his chorus sing passages in unison or at the octave, which is a practice both easy and hard to negotiate happily, but these singers betrayed few signs of stress, least of all at recycled moments like the Lass ihn kreuzigen! and the Ich bin Gottes Sohn outbursts from the crowd, although the sopranos were showing fatigue at the Crucifixion pages.

The Bach Orchestra met Prakhoff’s direction with an excellent response, both individually and collegially, numbering a 21-strong string corps, a flawless brace of oboes as well as the afore-mentioned flute and horn pairs, supplemented by a single bassoon and the omnipresent organ.  Actually, the composer gives few opportunities for obbligato work – if any – but the general texture remained supple and well-etched, its various strata betraying few signs of thinness.

This Passion stops at the death – no space given to the veil of the Temple, earthquakes, centurion, women taking charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea, chief priests, Pharisees or Pilate.  The choir simply gives one last version of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and the work ends on a chastely simple note when compared to the monumental chorus Wir setzen uns  that finishes the elder Bach’s setting.  While you never had the sense that this work erred on the side of conciseness, the conclusion made a profound impression, a sensible and sensitive round-out of the narrative that – and this is a real compliment to all concerned – made you more than a little interested in the other 20 settings in the younger Bach’s catalogue.

After this, the second program startled for its variety.  Violinist Grace Wu partnered with pianist Laurence Matheson in J. S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, the one that starts with a siciliano-suggesting Largo.  The string sound came up to the top of the hall with a satisfyingly easy production; no straining after effects or disruption of the pulse from either musician. This was a modern-day interpretation with no lack of vibrato but a generous fluency displayed by a well-matched and mutually sensitive duo.

Matheson demonstrated a gallant sympathy by keeping his bass line – in fact, all the work’s left-hand action – restrained, moderating his upper work to just the right side of staccato when needed in the first Allegro, a well-argued passage of play from both executants.  A highly effective moment came at the end of the Adagio with some excellent congruent interweaving from bar 57 onward.   Even in the finale, Matheson ceded just enough of the ground to Wu without effacing himself, each player working through its bubbling counterpoint with precision and a delicacy that never seemed effete.

One of the left-field works of the marathon came in Tristan Lee’s presentation of the Liszt variations.  The work is a virtuosic compendium with all kinds of tests, mainly concerned with clarity in sustaining the simple falling motive that Liszt appropriated.  The sole problem in this interpretation was its segmented nature and, looking at the score again, you can see that, often, the cracks are not well-papered; in fact, the more demanding the variations, the more isolated they are in character.

You could not fault Lee’s reading of the opening pages, up to the end of the variations in triplets; when the semiquavers took over, the work’s cumulative tension abated up to the L’istesso tempo marking with its upward-rushing chromatic scales and double-octaves which moved the work into unabashed bravura display and the theme itself became a cipher.  Later, after the recitative, interest returned, specifically at where my edition is marked Quasi Allegro moderato and the theme’s treatment becomes more compressed until the ferment peters out into a bravely optimistic chorale where all the weeping, plaints, sorrows and fears are assuaged.  This transition made for a reassuring sense of completion, excellently realised by Lee even when Liszt decorates the simple harmonization of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan with rolling arpeggios.

Elyane Laussade brought us back to the mainstream with the popular French Suite No. 5 in G.  Here was a straight reading without affectation or the employment of over-prominent ornamentation; just a soupcon in the repeats.  Speaking of which, Laussade set this listener slightly off-balance by repeating the first half of each movement, but not the second; a quite deliberate choice but an odd one, leaving you feeling formally lopsided. Nevertheless, she maintained a steadiness of focus that gave any listener ample room to taken in the simple exuberance of each part, including the lyrically charming sarabande and loure.

This concert ended with the D minor Double Violin Concerto where the Australian National Academy of Music’s Robin Wilson was partnered by his very young student Christian Li, all of 10 years old and performing with unflappable panache.  You might have thought Li would have been overpowered but he held his own for the most part and contributed to a memorable passage from about bar 123 of the middle Largo where the two soloists intertwine their lines in one of the concerto’s most moving moments.

A justifiably confident attack paid even greater dividends in the final Allegro, taken at a bracing speed but with only a few notes obviously played but not sounding from the younger soloist.  Wilson performed with a no-holds-barred assurance that was well-placed, Li bringing to the work more than a little personality with a few mini-glissandi that spiced up the work’s innate stolidity.

Among the orchestral personnel, I think I saw Merewyn Bramble playing viola, Peter de Jager on harpsichord, with Howard Penny and chairman Howlett the dual cellos.  Throughout, their support mirrored the soloists’ sharp attack and impetus – one of your better scratch orchestras.

Concert 3 found Kathryn Selby in unaccustomed solo mode  –  without friends.  She performed one of the terrors of my student days, the Italian Concerto with its simple-looking but rhythmically confounding counterpoint meshes.  This approach used the piano fully, without flourishes or dynamic juxtapositions but also without mimicking the detached harpsichord-ish effect that some pianists attempt.  The first Allegro proved to be an enviable example of unfussy precision, even at the treacherous bars 135-138 section where, despite the obvious direction and placement of the notes, most players cannot persuade you that the two lines in operation fit together.

Selby’s approach to the D minor Andante erred on the side of emotional control, the movement treated as a sarabande of grave character rather than an angst-laden elegy.  What marked this interpretation out from others was the lack of thunder in the bass: the repeated low Cs from bars 19 to 25 and the mirroring low As from bar 37 to 43 enjoyed a muffled handling rather than a tolling emphasis.

Selby endured some pressure in her Presto finale which, as far as I could tell, was technically exact and enjoyable for its ebullience.  First a spotlight wandered across the back wall of the stage, then the lights dimmed, came back to life, then went out completely for a few seconds before flashing back on again.  The pianist didn’t miss a beat, whether she could see the keyboard or not.

Unfortunately, at this point I felt a distinct lack of interest in the odds and sods that were coming up, including a Christian Bach quartet and the Mozart semi-Bach exercise.  Of course, performances were scheduled for later in the afternoon/evening that would have fleshed out the day’s experience considerably, like the Australian Boys Choir accounting for the Jesu, meine Freude motet, Timo-Veikko Valve playing the last of the cello suites, Stephen McIntyre and his students taking turns at the Goldberg Variations.  But, unlike other more hardy souls in attendance, I’d had sufficient.  It’s a fine exercise, this marathon, but I think you need to prepare – just as for its Olympic-suggestive counterpart – with plenty of training, if you want to last the distance.






March Diary

Thursday March 1


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Two soloists feature in this season-opener for the MCO.   The major contributor is pianist Konstantin Shamray, who, you may recall, won the Sydney International Piano Competition ten years ago; he’s on board to play the Schumann concerto. The other guest is Markiyan Melnychenko, a top-notch violinist  whom we are lucky to have working here; his contribution is Dvorak’s Romance, which is a stranger to me.  Book-ending the night is the Overture to Act III of La Traviata where Verdi urges out a large amount of tubercular angst in a couple of minutes, and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony in A: that infectious and totally delightful sequence that depicts a country that might have presented to the composer’s non-jaundiced eye but which sits uncomfortably alongside the modern-day reality that stretches from Turin to Bari.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 4 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Saturday March 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew Davis is using his two guest artists to fine effect in this standard-unfurling event.  Nelson Freire has returned quickly for an appearance in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and the MSO has taken the opportunity to have him appear in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto; still a great challenge, especially keeping your head in the modulations of the first movement’s development.  Also on the bill will be tenor Stuart Skelton who complements Freire’s Beethoven with the opening to Act 2 of Fidelio: Florestan’s Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! He then moves to Wagner, specifically Siegmund’s outpouring, Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond – one of the few light moments in Die Walkure.  Balancing this will be the final aria from Verdi’s Otello, the Nium mi tema where everything becomes clear to the noble, misguided hero.  As for purely orchestral matter, Davis conducts Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 1, Microsymphony (Vine is the MSO Composer in Residence for 2018); some bleeding Gotterdammerung chunks – Morgendammerung and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; and Verdi’s Ballabile from Otello, an interpolated Oriental ballet that even the composer realised was a waste of space and time.

Wednesday March 7


Evergreen Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This group has swum under or over my radar.  It comprises a wealth of musicians, some of them well-known from other ensembles – violinist Ben Dollman, cellists Rosanne Hunt, Josephine Vains and Rachel Johnston, baroque guitarist/theorboist Samantha Cohen, bassoonist Simon Rickard;  others are half-recalled, like gamba expert Jennifer Eriksson, violinist/violist Anna Webb, oboist Jessica Foot and double bassist Miranda Hill.  Then there are some I don’t recognize: the group’s artistic director and violinist Shane Lestideau, Celtic harpist and vocalist Claire Patti, and Uillean piper and percussionist Matthew Horsley.  The obvious playing field is folk and art musics, exemplified by this entertainment containing a Purcell trio sonata in G minor, and Scottish composer James Oswald’s 96 Airs for the Seasons – well, extracts from them.  As chamber composer to George III, Oswald was very productive, more so than his attributed catalogue attests, it seems.  The pieces in his two sets of Airs are all named after different flowers or shrubs, divided into their annual times of florescence.  As both listed program elements are negotiated by a trio, it would seem obvious that not all the Evergreens will be involved.

Thursday March 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s another masterwork that Sir Andrew is bringing back into the light.  As his soloists, the MSO’s chief conductor has tenor Stuart Skelton as Gerontius, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as his escorting angel, and bass Nathan Berg doubling as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony.  Once popular in England and select colonies, as well as parts of Europe, Gerontius has slipped into choral backwater territory; in these piping times of short attention spans, it doesn’t have much going for it.  But Newman’s overwrought poem and Elgar’s seamless and challenging score make a splendid combination to create something that comes as close as music can to depicting a bearable afterlife, if such a thing exists, particularly as shown in the cardinal’s poem which so exercised that sad segment of the Anglican clergy who insisted on bowdlerizing its text to bring it into line with British cathedral-close orthodoxy.

This program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday March 9 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday March 10 at 2 pm.

Saturday March 10


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This first concert for the year at ANAM features music by three composers from the Czech Kingdom, as it was once called: Janacek, Smetana and Suk.  The night begins with the Fanfare that kicks off Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a bracing brevity involving 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 euphoniums supported by an active timpanist.  Smetana’s Sonata and Rondo for 2 pianos, 8-hands is a piece you won’t hear on a regular basis but it’s brilliantly written for its forces.  Suk’s popular Serenade for Strings ends the event but before that comes an arrangement for wind octet of The Bartered Bride – bits of, you’d hope, otherwise it could be a long night.  Speaking of which, it’s been a fair while between performances of the Smetana opera; the last I can recall from the national company must have been well over 40 years ago.  A pity as it’s loaded with superb melodies and highly appealing vocal writing.  The cast list for this operation features many of the ANAM instructors: Nick Deutsch, David Thomas, Saul Lewis, Tristram Williams, Timothy Young, Sophie Rowell, Robin Wilson, Caroline Henbest, Howard Penny and Damian Eckersley as well as a slew of young ANAM Musicians – the raison d’etre for this excellent finishing school.

Tuesday March 13


Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Oravas – violinists Daniel Kowalik and David Dalseno, violist Thomas Chawner, cellist Karol Kowalik – are here playing content from their first CD for Deutsche Grammophon.  We hear the Tchaikovsky D Major Quartet with its memorable, lilting Andante cantabile;  Shostakovich No. 8, the original of the popular Chamber Symphony arranged by Barshai; and the Rachmaninov String Quartet No. 1, all two movements of it.  The bonus track from the CD is an arrangement by Richard Mills for double string quartet and soprano of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise; Greta Bradman recorded it with the Oravas and sings the piece tonight although how they’ll arrange for another string quartet to participate remains to be seen . . . you’d have to anticipate some pre-recorded magic, wouldn’t you?  As a novelty, the ensemble opens with Haydn Op. 33 No. 2, known as the Joke, with its side-splitting stop-start finale.

Wednesday March 14


Domenico Nordio and Massimo Scattolin

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Violinist Paganini and guitarist Giuliani did meet in Rossini’s house and set up a sort of partnership-rivalry that resulted in several fine works for both instruments as a duo. Giuliani’s Grand Duo Concertant is a regular in recitals of this make-up, as is the Paganini Sonata No. 1 from the 18 sonatinas that make up his Centone di sonate.  As well, the players will present the Paganini Cantabile duo and Sonata Concertata.  Which is enough to be getting on with as the composer wrote an incredible amount for the combination, much of which is ringing slight changes on amiable material, but a little goes a long way.  Guitarist Scattolin I know from the Ballarat Organs Festival; Nordio is a new name to me but he is well-known enough to violin aficionados as a virtuoso with a wide repertoire.

Wednesday March 14


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at 7:30 pm

To begin her 2018 season, Kathryn Selby is working her piano trio magic with violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, who is a regular contributor to this series.  I don’t know who voted in this Beethoven poll but most of the results are predictable.  Newman works with Selby through the most popular of the cello sonatas, that in A Major;  Clifford has the chance to radiate benignity in the Spring Violin Sonata; the trio eventually assembles for the Archduke.  By way of a preface, the group plays another B flat Major trio, WoO 39, a one-movement Allegretto where the keyboard rarely surrenders primacy for its five-minute length.  A well-contrived exercise with well-spaced samples across the composer’s career, this will be given in Selby & Friends’ new venue in Hawthorn/Kew.

Thursday March 15


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This recital contains some Debussy – selections from the first book of Preludes, performed by Eidit Golder – and works by four young Australian composers, written as responses to either Debussy or these Debussys.  It’s unclear what form these homages will follow but something of an indication comes through in that Lotte Betts-Dean is not billed as a soprano but as ‘voice’.  The specific preludes are Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans  l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, and La cathedrale engloutie.  The contemporary variants are Matan Franco’s This story wants to be told in bed . . . ,  Lisa Illean’s Women love a project . . . , Charlie Sdraulig’s Rushing sounds like blood . . . ,  and Jack M. Symonds’ Tomorrow I shut down.  Of these four, Sdraulig is the only one whose work I’ve heard. probably through the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program.  Bringing up the rear, Dean will sing Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, three songs to poems of Pierre Louys that were originally credited to a contemporary of Sappho who turned out to be an erotic figment of the poet’s imagination.

Thursday March 15


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne at 6:30 pm

This one-act opera, based on Norman Lindsay’s children’s book, with music by Calvin Bowman and libretto by Anna Goldsworthy, enjoyed its premiere in October 2013 at the hands of this company and is now being resuscitated for the pleasure of those among us who missed it the first time around.  Fabian Russell conducts and Cameron Menzies returns to direct.  Nathan Lay reprises the role of Bunyip Bluegum, Timothy Reynolds returns as Bill Barnacle, Brenton Spiteri takes on Sam Sawnoff, Jeremy Kleeman persists as the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas again plays the Judge.  The VO chorus will contribute and I suppose certain roles – like Watkin Wombat and Rooster, Possum, Henderson Hedgehog and the Constable, and Benjamin Brandysnap, not to mention the Narrator – will be allocated from their ranks.

The opera will be re-presented on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

Friday March 16


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

And then there were two.  Getting a tad out of sequence, Sir Andrew Davis nears the end of his Mahler symphonic cycle and takes the MSO through the large-framed No. 9, although he’ll probably have a go at the completed-by-several-hands No. 10.  Still, we’re all waiting for No. 8, and will go on doing so: we won’t be getting it this year.  There’s been no attempt to couple this Symphony No. 9 with a filler, which is just as well as most performances of a traditional nature last about 1 and a 1/2 hours, even if some more recent ones have clipped the score back by about 10-15 minutes.  The last time I heard this Ninth was in Costa Hall, Geelong, where the MSO played under Markus Stenz; not the best space for such an experience whereas Hamer Hall gives the symphony room to flower, particularly that long final Adagio.  This score is possibly the most extended passage of focused play from the orchestra all year, something to anticipate for its tremendous concentration of emotional gravity.

The symphony will be performed again on Saturday March 17 at 7:30 pm and on Monday March 19 at 6:30 pm.

Saturday March 17


Hoang Pham

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

The title of this recital from one of our more enterprising (in a business sense) pianists comes from the Strauss/Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube, to give the famous waltz its proper title.  A magnificent display piece of five waltzes and a coda, this is the last word in extended encores and Pham is giving it to as a built-in component.  Before it will come Beethoven  –  the Polonaise, Pathetique C minor Sonata and some of the six Op. 126 Bagatelles – alongside Schubert’s C minor Sonata, one of the formidable final three.  Here’s a big program that takes the young musician on a long odyssey across the Beethoven repertoire, cutting to the Schubert chase with a Beethovenian challenge – and the real technical fireworks to finish.

Sunday March 18


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Guest director and solo violinist Ibragimova is presiding over a notably dark collection of works, reaching its apogee (or nadir)  in the great Schubert quartet as arranged for string orchestra.  The afternoon begins with Barber’s Adagio: that sinuous score that is always brought out for broadcast at moments of national tragedy in the United States.  Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue continues the muscular depression mode before Ibragimova fronts the Concerto funebre by Hartmann, a work that she recorded with the Britten Sinfonia 11 years ago.  And the comatose cat among these pigeons is Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song, as atmospherically stagey and static as you’d expect, based around a religious text by Father Silouan, a Russian mystic who died in 1938; still, the good news is that it lasts only about six minutes.

The program will be repeated on Monday March 26 at 7:30 pm.

Monday March 19


Inveni Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Boulanger seems to have educated most of the 20th century composers whom we’d have to class as creditable place-getters in the ranks; some of them on this program are surprising, most of them well-known, none of them (in my book) enough to get you out on a cold autumn night – with the honourable exception of Elliott Carter.  The Inventis begin with a Nocturne for flute and piano by Lili, Nadia’s younger sister and sometime student; this is probably to be played by Melissa Doecke and an unknown pianist.  Then, one of the ensemble – probably Ben Opie – gives an airing to Carter’s Inner Song for solo oboe, an in memoriam for Stefan Wolpe.  Thea Musgrave’s works are recital rarities; good on the Inventis for programming her Narcissus for solo flute (Doecke again?) and digital delay  –  a relatively substantial composition, it lasts about 17/18 minutes.  The compositional standard dips with Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes for solo flute (the hard-worked Doecke); there are six of them and they take about 25 minutes to get through.  Suddenly, the recital’s one hour length could be a close-run thing, if you consider that the Boulanger lasts 3 minutes, Carter’s piece 6 minutes and we still have Berkeley’s Oboe/Piano Sonatina to go (about 14 minutes) and Bacharach’s Alfie theme (in an Inventi arrangement) which could stretch out beyond 3 minutes.  It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast but still a creditable exercise.

Tuesday March 20


Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

This richly-coloured period music ensemble heads for waters that most of us have never plumbed by means of a night of music by female composers.  Only one of the three names programmed so far is a familiar one: Barbara Strozzi, daughter of Giulio and a solid presence in Baroque-era Venice.  The others are Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio and the first woman to write an opera, and the Ursuline nun Isabella Leonarda, a musically fecund contemporary of Strozzi.   But all three women wrote a great deal, so the Band has a wealth of material to work with.  The publicity material promises a ‘selection of songs’; the sole singer listed is soprano Helen Thomson, who has sung with this ensemble previously.

Wednesday March 21

Measha Brueggergosman

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Soprano Brueggergosman has a big reputation in her home country, but I can find little about any extra-Canadian work she has done.  Her surname combines her maiden name and that of her husband, which is an equality-in-marriage gesture, if – in this case – an awkward one.  Tonight, she opens with the Five Popular Greek Melodies by Ravel, followed by some Poulenc – Violon, C’est ainsi que tu es, Voyage a Paris, Hotel – and then back to Ravel for Sheherazade, that sumptuous three-part song cycle which will suffer greatly from the lack of an orchestra.   Brueggergosman opens what I surmise will be her post-interval efforts with four of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs – Rheinlegendchen, Verlorne Muh, Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? – and balances the opening Ravel with Montsalvatge’s  Cinco canciones negras, then finishes with a selection from the 24 cabaret songs by William Bolcom, which will make a welcome change to the all-too-readily trotted out equivalent songs by Britten.  This is the second recital in the MRC’s own Great Performers series.

Thursday March 22


Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I’ve not heard this band so can’t give any indication as to its quality.  Certainly, the list of players is most impressive with a few well-known musicians from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, the CAMERATA Queensland Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney’s Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra alongside ex- and present-day players with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   Directed by Richard Gill, the ARCO is not exactly carving out new territory with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6.   But more interest comes in the Brahms Five Songs, Op. 104 where the instrumentalists fall silent and make way for the Polyphonic Voices ensemble for an a cappella set, while both forces collaborate in Mozart’s so-called Spaur-Messe in C K. 258; at about 18 minutes, short and sweet, like every Mass should be, featuring an unknown set of soloists.

Friday March 23


Goldner String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It sounds like a perversion of the theological virtues but the Goldners’ program follows this title’s path, more or less, if it’s highly dependent on your willingness to accept at least one of the intended musical applications.  You can’t argue with the relevance of the night’s major work: Schubert’s D minor Death and the Maiden, the composer’s idea of mortality covering a world of emotions from the vehement and tempestuous to drear acceptance.  For the Faith part, we are directed to Arvo Part’s Fratres, a three-part work expanded to quartet form in 1989 but heard in all sorts of other arrangements; one of the Estonian composer’s most popular pieces, I can’t be alone in wondering what is has to do with this specific virtue.  As for Hope, that comes through Latvian writer Peters Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3.  Vasks has taken optimism for his country’s future as one of the fundamentals of his work and has been quite specific about the (eventual) upbeat nature of this particular score.

Saturday March 24


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The day before the centenary of Debussy’s death, ANAM is presenting this tombeau,  a celebratory compendium that arose when Henri Prunieres assembled pieces (mainly for piano solo) by ten composers to memorialise the master’s passing.  Dukas is represented by La plainte, au loin, du faune;  Roussel found a more celebratory note or two in L’acceuil des muses; Florent Schmitt worked common ground with  Dukas in Tristesse de Pan, one of his Op. 70 Mirages; Malipiero contributed A Claude Debussy, Eugene Goossens a Hommage a Debussy.  Bartok dedicated No. 7 of his Improvisations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, Op. 20; Falla moved to the guitar for his well-known Homenaje.  Ravel dedicated his Sonata for violin and cello to the composer and the duo written for the Tombeau became that sonata’s first movement.  Stravinsky contributed the Chorale from his Symphonies for Wind Instruments to Prunieres, later dedicating the completed work to Debussy.  Satie set a poem by Lamartine as the first of his Quatre Petites Melodies and sent that in as his one-page contribution.  Timothy Young is the night’s pianist; ANAM director Nick Deutsch will play his oboe, presumably in the Stravinsky Chorale because I can’t see room for it anywhere else. Richard Mills will conduct the Stravinsky, you’d expect as, like Deutsch, there’s nowhere else  to exercise his talent.

Sunday March 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard not to be a tad indifferent to this celebration that Sir Andrew has brought to the Antipodes in recent times.  The British get obvious delight in the written-in-stone second half of these Royal Albert Hall events, complete with Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Parry’s Jerusalem.  If I had my druthers on these last nights, I’d go home at interval.  This year, Sir Andrew opens with Elgar’s In London Town or Cockaigne Overture, has violinist Tamsin Little sparkle through Ravel’s Tzigane, gives space for David Jones to premiere Joe Chindamo’s Drum Kit Concerto, interpolates Carl Vine’s V fanfare lasting, as you’d expect, five minutes, and gains from the presence in Melbourne of Measha Brueggergosman for the MRC’s Great Performers Series (see March 21 above) to have her sing some orchestral songs by Duparc.  There are 8 to choose from but it’s almost certain that the bracket will contain that once-heard-never-forgotten Baudelaire setting, L’invitation au voyage, and the Leconte de Lisle setting, Phidyle.

Friday March 30


Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

For Good Friday this year, Rick Prakhoff and his Bach forces are deviating from their usual fare and presenting the Brahms Requiem that avoids any religious references as well as Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which may turn out to be sung in Polish.  The Brahms score asks for a soprano and baritone soloist, while Szymanowski wants a contralto soloist as well.  Both forces have roughly the same orchestral forces – no low brass in the Stabat Mater but a pretty large percussion force, a piccolo in the Requiem  – but the composers’ language offers a wide contrast.   As well, the hymn lasts less than 30 minutes while the Requiem canters on for well over an hour.   Lorina Gore is the soprano in both works, Warwick Fyfe the baritone and mezzo Belinda Paterson gets to share honours in three of the Szymanowski score’s movements.   It’s a well-devised pairing in that the Brahms is a humanist expression of the inevitability of death and the composer’s preference for a stoic acceptance of it while the Polish composer is more interested in his folk music characteristics than in observing and catering to the Catholic cast of the Marian sequence.

Chiff power


Monash University Flute Ensemble

MD 3421

Most of the content in this collection is light, either by intention or happenstance.  Of the 15 tracks, several were commissioned by or arranged for the Monash University Flute Ensemble: David Henderson’s three-movement Consortium, Tony Gould’s A New Spring DayPortrait de l’homme de commun by James Mustafa, Evening Prayer by Houston Dunleavy, and Carolyn Morris’ Oceana.

The ensemble’s director, Peter Sheridan, commissioned one of the other works heard here: Visions of Grace by Adrienne Albert, and two works enjoy their premiere recording:  Gould’s substantial piece – the longest on the disc – and Daniel Dorff’s Fireworks.  Filling out the edges comfortably is a group of works from all over the place: Arlen’s Over the Rainbow,  a Danse fantastique by Shostakovich, James Horner’s My Heart Will Go On, and the album’s bracing opener: Valsette by Danish 19th century all-rounder Joachim Anderson; this was originally a (italics) flute/piano Scherzino  but is heard here in an arrangement for flute quartet (I think, although it sounds as though more than that number are involved).

An agreeable if derivative stand-alone work is Rika Ishage’s Brindavan which is played by a sextet comprising piccolo, three C instruments, an alto and a bass.

The whole thing makes for a noteworthy essay in an arcane field, in as much as you will rarely hear so many flutes together outside of a university’s encouraging environment.  The combinations vary as the tracks fly past on a moderately sized 58 minutes of recording.  Along with the multiple flute personnel, Gould plays piano for his own piece while Move’s own Rhys Boak fleshes out the Titanic melody.

The Valsette gets matters off to a flying start with excellent ensemble work, setting up the prevailing sound ambience with some certainty.  This massed flute flavour suggests an organ, if an unusually uniform one, in the sound’s delivery: a touch of the chiff plosion before each note.  But the ambience is more individual in colour than you get on the keyboard instrument.  Still, there’s nothing here to keep you guessing; just a simple ternary format with a bouncy vivacity in the outer sections.

The next flute-specific composition is Henderson’s construct comprising Prelude, Processional and Romance.  This score involves piccolo, C, alto, bass and contrabass flutes with the lower instruments getting little exposure melodically in the agreeable opening movement which has an interesting opening gesture even if the consequent development sounds laboured.  The central movement is suitably measured, rising to a skirling climax, having got there by a gradual crescendo which, because of the plentiful unisons involved, shows some cracks in the ensemble’s tuning.  Henderson’s final piece strikes me as the least original of the three with an unprepossessing strolling main theme and a touch of awkwardness just before the last reprise.

American writer Albert scored her Visions of Grace for pairs of altos and basses with a contrabass bringing up the rear.  The work begins with a pleasant harmonically eliding setting of Amazing Grace which strolls into something remarkably like Loch Lomond, then Shenandoah and Red River Valley  .  .  .  there may be a couple more in there but I got confused with the bridge passages.  It’s a smoothly compiled miscellany that contrives to sound atmospherically coherent and the rendition also impresses for its fluency.

For some unfathomable reason, I was expecting something brazen from Mustafa’s work, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3 fanfare – possibly because of the title’s last three words – but this work is heavy on the timbre of low flutes, although written for what the composer calls a ‘modern classical flute orchestra’.   A certain amount of chordal shape-shifting, possibly the product of the composer’s wide experience in leading, performing in and conducting jazz ensembles,  precedes a simple flute melody in what I believe is a D flat Major modality;  the selection of which key might go some way to explaining the salty, slightly off-pitch  sound of the ensemble in the work’s brief second half, particularly a high-flying piccolo.

Young Japanese composer Ishige writes that her work takes its title from a harem in India and she attempts in her two movements to suggest a lush garden and fountains.  Piccolo Grace Wiedemann, C flutes Thomas Thorpe, Catherine King and Isobel McManus, alto Steph Leslie and bass Jazmine Morris perform this score which would have impressed more if people had paid stricter attention to tuning; during the languorous stretches of the first movement, your teeth are set on edge by some un-centred passages – and yet the post-Debussyan text is not that taxing.  The more lively second movement also features some moments that might have gained from re-recording, including a segment that juxtaposes piccolo and bass although it’s hard to pick out the latter as the middle-range accompaniment is over-hefty.  Still, the composer’s aim is lightly accomplished and these four-square flourishes and curvettes represent a congenial if unadventurous take on the impressionism of Jets d’eaux.

Dunleavy’s piece is a slow meander for an unspecified body, something like a four-square hymn although its harmonic language is ear-stretching, more sophisticated than most of the other tracks on this CD.   In fact, because of its measured, regular pace, the piece’s main interest comes from its polyphony and yet you are reminded all too often of old-time B. Mus. exercises in counterpoint.  For all that, the performance is sure-footed and a reassuring return to form from the Monash players.

Morris originally wrote her Oceana for chamber orchestra; this transcription employs a pair of piccolos, 4 C flutes, 3 altos, 2 bass and a contrabass.  The opening sees a return to the slightly off-pitch product that has bedevilled former tracks, most notable in moments where piccolo and C flutes are working in unison or at the octave.  The work is a pleasant and calm seascape where the sun is continually out and the waves are all benign and negotiated with major-key tillers.   Even when you expect a change at about the 4-minute mark when a hiatus is reached and the prevailing texture moves for a moment to the bass instruments, the atmosphere is still all calm-sea-and-prosperous-voyage and moves only for a second or two outside its happy F Major framework.

Senior American composer Dorff wrote Fireworks for a 2016 flute convention sponsored by the Flute Society of Washington.   It features lots of rushing upward scales, very exposed piccolo lines and a wealth of syncopation that is not quite deftly realised by this group.  Certainly, the composer’s intention was to set up a brilliant sound scape for experts to toss off, yet the impression given here is often of a prodding at the piece rather than a hurtling through its pages with sure-footed certainty.

Mel Orriss’ treatment of the Judy Garland show-stopper from The Wizard of Oz has a long preamble before hitting the main melody but the flute ensemble is given plenty of amplitude and – as in all the best treatments – everyone gets a guernsey.  The temptation to embellish is hardly resisted but never gets in the way of a great tune – once it gets started.

Horner’s lyric opens with an Irish whistle solo, before the massed ensemble enters and works through a full-bellied arrangement under the direction of Jazmine Morris.  The tune’s progress is strong on polemic before the whistle returns and brings the Hollywood sentiment under control and reminds you of the premise behind the film: a class-crossing love story, not a bloated disaster extravaganza.

The Shostakovich Danse fantastique comes from the early four-movement Suite for Two Pianos of 1922.  It’s not saying anything new to observe that most of the original’s percussive bite is gone in this arrangement by Melbourne educator/flautist Carolyn Grace. The piece opens with plenty of sprightly verve but the more instruments that join in – and there are quite a few – the less assurance in the chording and rhythmic synchronicity.  As with several other tracks on this CD, the middle section lapses into hard labour and the final page is lacking in the expected brittle buoyancy that two pianists bring to this section.

Gould begins his piece with a slow-moving hymn-like prelude which melds into a sequence for low flutes, elaborating and exploring the piano’s opening motives.  The motion accelerates with the arrival of a piccolo before the initial restraint takes over again with Gould’s return for another solo meditation.  The flute choir follows with a brisk optimistic passage of play which could have been honed into more crisp delivery as some of the harmonic changes seem scatter-gun, and the articulation from alto flutes down is not as exact as it should be.

In fact, the finest moments of Gould’s work come in the last piano solo that concludes the work, a pillow of restful chords under a nomadic melody line that suggests the work’s title with more efficacy than the wind interludes.  As a sound picture, the work is non-specific; like Beethoven’s Pastoral, ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.  Yet, along with the composer-pianist’s elegance of delivery, the piece is infused with a consistent and quiet sense of satisfaction, a placid delight.

So this CD is a real miscellany, a showcase in some ways for Peter Sheridan’s players who, when they’re on song, make a satisfying contribution to a rarely-heard corner of Australian musical practice.  If you’re prepared to forgive the occasional awkwardness in delivery, this disc holds sufficiently worthy accomplished tracks.



February Diary

Thursday February 1


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s the first of the blockbusters in the sterling first trilogy from George Lucas, complete with everything we grew to love over the years since 1977  –  from the looming spaceship taking over the screen at the start to the Saturday afternoon matinee heroics of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, all seeming so much younger than their actual years, but practically amoebas when compared with their craggy re-appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  This set of screenings more or less kicks off the MSO’s year and you can see from the number of sittings how popular these live soundtrack performances have been/are/will be.  Benjamin Northey, who had an active year with the orchestra in 2017 as Associate Conductor, continues to shine in his role as the organisation’s go-to leader.

This program will be repeated on Friday February 2 and Saturday February 3 at 7:30 pm, as well as at a matinee on Saturday February 3 at 1 pm


Friday February 2


Melbourne Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 6:30 pm

Back to this dated large shack by the bay with all its time-honoured problems associated with parking and pest-dodging.   I think the last time I was in the Palais was for another Wagner: Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman  –  an enterprise that had considerable merit.   This time, MO has left behind the frivolities of Rienzi, Tannhauser and Lohengrin and heads for the Wagner fulcrum: a score of such power and complexity that it remains the high-water mark of opera, inspired from first bar to last and incomparably crafted.  Lee Abrahmsen sings Isolde, tenor Neal Cooper takes on his fifth Tristan, Sarah Sweeting has the Wagner gift-of-a-role in Brangaene,  baritone Michel Lampard mirrors Sweeting as Kurwenal, bass Steven Gallop broods as King Mark and Jason Wasley does his worst as Melot.  Anthony Negus, a Reginald Goodall graduate, conducts and we can approach the night with an earnest hope that the MO Orchestra will be up to the mark with this exhausting, superlative score.

The opera will be repeated at 6:30 pm on Monday February 5 and Wednesday February 7, and moves to the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Saturday February 10 at 6:30 pm.


Sunday February 4


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

To set an underlying context for the year, Richard Tognetti and his band offer a contrast between the sublime and the also-ran.   For serious music-making, the country’s premier string orchestra will play (yet again) the Tchaikovsky Serenade.  And we’ll have yet another important chamber work in an arrangement for the ACO resources; this time round, it’s Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 in G Major as seen through the vivisectional prism of Kurt Atterberg, I suspect, although Tognetti has never been one to content himself with other people’s organisational talents.  To start, we’ll hear British composer Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds from 2012 for two violins (Ike See and Glenn Christensen from the orchestra’s ranks) and string orchestra.  As well, American composer Missy Mazzoli confronts some of us for the first time with her newly-composed Dark with Excessive Bright, a semi-line from Paradise Lost.  The work has been written specifically for the talents of the ACO and its double bassist, Maxime Bibeau.

This program will be repeated on Monday February 5 at 7:30 pm.


Wednesday February 7 


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

No rush to originality in the first of three very popular Myer free concerts from the MSO.   Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell takes centre-stage for the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto No. 1; you’ll never hear the composer’s other two at this venue, but there’s surely a case for dusting off that jolly, satisfying Scottish Fantasy.   The night ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, one of your great psychological summative works with loads of lyricism and an exciting finale to send everyone home happy.  The only novelty comes at the start in Dutch composer Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, the only work by the composer/organist that you ever hear and probably included here as a repertoire specialty of the night’s conductor, Antony Hermus who has positions with the North Netherlands Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands.  Seems like a sort of justifiable payback for all those Australian conductors who took Sculthorpe scores to Finland and Britain.


Saturday February 10


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 p,m

This second and solitary weekend concert in the MSO’s free series can attract a spill-over crowd if the atmospheric conditions reflect this program’s title.  For some reason, the music is almost all Spanish or Iberian/Latin-inflected, beginning with Ravel’s ambiguous Alborada del gracioso –  a morning serenade with a difference.  Conductor Antony Hermus moves to Falla’s El amor brujo but I can’t imagine that he’ll be working through the whole ballet.  Still, you can’t be sure; he has Chilean-Swedish mezzo Luciana Mancini at his disposal as the night’s soloist and she’d be ideal for the score’s three songs.  Danzon No. 2 by Mexican writer Arturo Marquez is packed with colour, something of a thematically concise dance suite.  Mancini then sings the program’s odd-man-out: Berio’s Folk Songs, all eleven of them and a surprisingly euphonious collection from this 20th century master but I suspect a bit of a puzzler for this audience.  By the way, these Folk Songs have not a Spanish text in sight.  Finally, to wipe away all suggestions of the eclectic, Hermus gives the snare-drum(s) right of way for Ravel’s Bolero, that mindless symphonic wheeze.


Wednesday February 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Ending three free Myer concerts, the MSO goes Puccini-mad, bringing to the fore Australian opera regulars soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Rosario La Spina.  They begin with Mario! Mario! Mario!, where Tosca bursts in on Cavaradossi’s nonchalant attempts at painting.  They end the night with the Act 1 finale to La Boheme, probably from Che gelida manina up to the spellbinding O soave fanciulla duet conclusion off-stage.  Benjamin Northey conducts Strauss’s Don Juan to give Bowl patrons another aspect of love, and three pieces with tenuous links, at best, to the night’s intended amatory motif:  Martucci’s 1891 miniature Notturno, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien for no other reason than the nationality of everything else on the program, and Puccini’s 1882 student work, Preludio sinfonico, which reveals Wagner’s influence; a predictable presence in an aspiring composer’s aesthetic life during those formative years.


Friday February 16


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

No smart title here: what you read is what you’ll get.  The ASQ begins its MRC series with Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet, subtitled Mishima because the music comprises part of the sound-track that the composer supplied for Paul Schrader’s film which is based on the Japanese novelist’s last bloody day.  The middle work, Brett Dean’s Eclipse String Quartet No. 1, is underpinned by the Tampa outrage of 2001 that displayed with searing clarity the contemptible ethical degeneracy of the Howard government, its leader lying and lying and being a villain.  To end, the players  –  violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King, cellist Sharon Grigoryan  –  play Mendelssohn in D, first of the 1838 Op. 41 set of three, although the last written.  This ensemble has settled remarkably well after its years of personnel disruptions and the behavioural immaturity of former members; now it has a distinctive personality and rarely disappoints.


Sunday February 18


Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra et al

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 am, 12 pm, 2: 15 pm, 4: 15 pm, 6: 30 pm and 8: 15 pm

Going for the big-time, the Abbotsford-based classical radio station has booked a day at the MRC.   The first concert begins with the opening two preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 – no idea who’s playing but quite a few pianists appear during the day – then abruptly progresses to C.P.E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the one written in 1777 for the composer’s duties in Hamburg.  This will involve the Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra with some fine soloists: bass/baritones Michael Leighton-Jones and Nicholas Dinopoulos, tenors Andrew Goodwin and Timothy Reynolds, and soprano Kathryn Radcliffe.

The mid-day recital features the E flat minor Prelude and D sharp Major Fugue from Book 1, partnered with the Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Grace Wu outlining the string part.  Then somebody will surge through Liszt’s voluble Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen; another pianist will present the happy and difficult French Suite in G; the program ends with the Double Violin Concerto in D minor featuring – I think – Robert Wilson and his student Christian Li.

At 2:15 pm, a pianist leads off with the G Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 1, followed by the G minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II, all capped by the great Italian Concerto solo.   J. C. Bach enters the scene with a piano quartet in G and a gamba sonata in the same key.  Somewhere in these works the Sutherland Trio and early music specialists  Latitude 37 will appear. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue K 404a/3 for violin, viola and cello is a piece of real arcana where Mozart supplied the first work and then arranged a Bach fugue – in this case, the F sharp Major from Book II.  To end, the Violin/Oboe Concerto in C minor appears to be bringing Nick Deutsch and Kristian Winther to the crease as soloists.

3MBS’s next recital opens with the B flat Major and minor Preludes and Fugues from Book I, coupled with the motet Jesu, meine Freude from the Australian Boys Choir.   W. F. Bach’s Dissonant Sinfonia for strings highlights yet another of the talented sons, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra doing the honours.   Seven of the Inventions – presumably in two-parts – come next and the program ends with Timo-Veikko Valve outlining the last of the Cello Suites.

At twilight, the Book II D Major Prelude and Fugue begins proceedings, followed by the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden, another Fantasia super Jesu, meine Freude and the chorale prelude on Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein; the first two are manuals only, but the second seems to need a pedal-board – that’s assuming Calvin Bowman will play them on a specially imported organ rather than all three pieces being given as piano transcriptions.   A definite arrangement comes through Busoni’s transcription of the D minor violin Chaconne, probably played by Gintaute Gataveckaite, and matters end with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 from a combination of the Flinders and Melba Quartets with double bass Emma Sullivan as well as viola Merewyn Bramble somewhere in the mix for the third viola line, I guess.  Oh, and inserted just before this concerto comes the aria Schlummert ein from the Ich habe genug Cantata BWV 82 but no bass soloist is specified.

Finally, the 8:15 pm program kicks off with the F minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II before Stephen McIntyre and a swag of his ex-students  –  Caroline Almonte,  Stefan Cassomenos, Kristian Chong, Lachlan Tan and Peter de Jager  –  all contribute their particles to a run-through of the Goldberg Variations.


Wednesday February 21


Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI & Tembembe Ensemble Continuo

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A fellow critic found little to like last time Savall and his Hesperions were here as he disapproved of the fusion that the Spanish violist constructed between the medieval/Renaissance and the folky/contemporary.   Just shows that you can’t trust us: I found the mix irresistible.   The only descriptor to be found concerning this particular program is: ‘The cosmopolitan music of Spain and Latin America from the 16th to the 18th centuries.’   Hesperion we know from previous visits although its membership can vary considerably.  Tembembe specializes in the Spanish Baroque and Mexican-plus-Latin American music, finding links with African and American sources.  Part of a tour, Savall and his forces will appear at the Perth International Arts Festival, then Melbourne before Sydney and Brisbane; useful to know if you plan on being interstate in the second half of the month.

The performers will present another program – Folias y Romanescas: The Golden Age of the Viol on Thursday February 22 at 7:30 pm.


Saturday February 24


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The title is sort of true if you’re flexible.  One of the pillars of this program will be Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis from 1910, which is some distance away from the Tudor musician who died in 1585.  And I’m not sure where Purcell fits into this landscape – or Handel, for that matter  .  .  .  both coming into existence a century or so after Tallis’ death.  Paul Dyer and his ABO are on firmer ground with music by Byrd and Gibbons.  Soloist is countertenor Maximilian Riebl and the Brandenburgers come in two forms: Orchestra and Choir.   So far, details of what the groups are attempting remain elusive, apart from the Vaughan Williams work for strings which has brought to grief many another body more attuned to the Edwardian era’s bucolic suggestions and more tolerant of facile English transcendentalism.

This program will be repeated on Sunday February 25 at 5 pm.


Saturday February 24


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The Occidental is represented by Schumann’s Spring Symphony No. 1; how this will help celebrate the Chinese Year of the Dog’s arrival boggles the mind but doubtless Lu Jia, Chief Conductor of the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra,  will elucidate all.   A notable collaboration of composers from 1959, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chen Gang and He Zanhao will be fronted by Lu Siqing and the program includes two other Chinese works: Chinese Sights and Sounds: Dialogue on Flowers by Bao Yuankai, which is a ternary form piece of pentatonic frou-frouism and the last of the composer’s four Heibei Folk Songs Suite; and Shepherd Girl in the Tianshan Mountains by pianist/composer/pedagogue Yang Liqing.  Somewhere in the latter work, erhu player Ma Xiaohui will emerge to generate one of the country’s trademark sounds.


Monday February 26

Nelson Freire

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I thought the well-known Brazilian pianist was here only a few months ago.  And he was, fronting the Schumann A minor Concerto for an MSO series in September/October.  He pops up again for this solo recital which takes in a lot of ground.  For your Classical, Freire plays Mozart’s Ten Variations on a Theme by Gluck K. 455, a nice four-square tune put through some increasingly entertaining paces.   Then straight to the deep Romantic by way of Schumann’s turbulent Fantasie in C and a couple of the less frivolous Chopins: the F sharp Impromptu and A flat Ballade.   Freire will work through a selection from the Debussy Preludes Book II and winds up with an Albeniz brace: the Evocacion from Iberia, and Navarra, which I’ve not come across before in live performance but which serves as a none-too-subtle invitation to solicit encores.


Tuesday February 27

Sabine Meyer & Alliage Quintet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

One of the great clarinet players of our time is touring for Musica Viva and brings with her a saxophone quartet plus pianist.   As you could easily predict, the program content is all arrangements with a complementary emphasis on light classics.  The ensemble begins with Bernstein’s Candide Overture before moving into Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Across the evening, Meyer and her Alliages play a double Shostakovich bracket – the Prelude and Gavotte from Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano originally arranged by Lev Atovmian, and then the other three of the suite’s five scraps – Waltz, Elegy and Polka.  Alongside these sharp-edged nebulosities come Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Holst’s Venus and Stravinsky’s Firebird (the suite, I’m hoping).  Not a night for the sober-sided chamber music lover.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 3 at 7 pm.


Wednesday February 28


Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Obviously, this recital involves a bit of Mendelssohn.  Exactly how much?   The Flinders have commissioned young Bundaberg-born writer John Rotar to arrange four of the composer’s lieder: Op. 57 No. 5, Venetian Gondola Song; Op. 34 No. 2, On Wings of Song (well, that’s a relief); Op. 8 No 8, Witches’s Song; and the 24-bar Beethoven-reflecting Op. 9 No 1, Question.  An original Rotar work also appears: V Vecernih about which I can find out nothing except that it’s short, it had a popular success at the Flinders’  inaugural composer workshop in 2016, and its title seems to be a Slovenian phrase for ‘In the evening’.  At either end of the night come Mozart’s internally compact yet lengthy No. 18 in A, and Beethoven in F Op. 135 – his last and the one with that Muss es sein? questioning in the finale that Mendelssohn took up in his Ist es wahr? phrase-shape that opens Op. 9 No. 1.





2017 in review

It seems most unlikely now that the paper for which I am an (increasingly) occasional contributor will be asking for a piece of reportage on what happened throughout last year on Melbourne’s serious music scene.

Rather than leave some extraordinary efforts unremarked, I offer these random observations as a well-intentioned diary of events, supplementing the accounts in this blog of 37 concerts/recitals and 11 operas across 2017.


Because of an administrative snafu and an insistence that January was packed with action (rock festivals and reprints of articles from the UK and USA), I got to hear little at the start to 2017;  nothing from the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, for example, and only one concert from the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.

It can be a dry month for Melbourne’s musicians, in particular those who specialize in period performances.  But Ballarat’s annual January festival, under the joint aegis of Sergio di Pieri and Judy Houston, offers some relief from drought, no more so than this concluding program at St. Patrick’s Cathedral called The Agony of Hell and the Peace of Soul which celebrated the genius of Schutz, with two diversions into Monteverdi and Schein. Wherever you looked, you could see authorities at work, both in the choral forces and in the Unholy Rackett and Ensemble 642 instrumental combination, all under Stephen Grant’s direction.   It cohered into a joyful song unto the Lord, one of those experiences that you seek in vain elsewhere.  This year’s finale promises to further this pursuit of the monumental in Biber’s 53-line Missa Salisburgensis.


The Australian Chamber Orchestra began its national series with Pekka Kuusisto taking the reins for a program based around Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet in string orchestra arrangement.   In another of the ACO’s experimental melding exercises, folk-singer Sam Amidon provided interpolations with some Appalachian melodies that were melodically attractive if textually incomprehensible.  But the afternoon wasn’t wasted, thanks to a sterling performance of John Adams’ Shaker Loops which cut through the obfuscating commentary to the score’s innate clarity of utterance.

As expected, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its three Myer Music Bowl concerts to large crowds, some of whom actually listened.  It was a Russian week with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and, to begin, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2  –  the stuff of a thousand Hollywood and Ealing Studios  wartime dramas – while conductor Benjamin Northey finished off the night with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – the barnstormer that keeps on giving.

                                                                  Benjamin Northey

Also in this month, the MSO kicked off what used to be called its Town Hall Proms which can’t be named that anymore, particularly as chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis has brought actual Proms concerts to Hamer Hall.  Sponsoring young Australian conductors (well, some of them) to the hilt, the organization presented Nicholas Carter directing Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony with plenty of stop-start energy, balanced by a sober Prokofiev Classical Symphony.

                                                                Nicholas Carter

On the month’s last night, the MSO offered a season opening gala – which meant that everything up till now had been just a tease.   Maxim Vengerov played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with unflappable assurance, plain sailing all the way with Benjamin Northey directing, then Vengerov conducted Rimsky’s Scheherazade as though  accompanying a troupe of elderly dancers.


Continuing its almost-unfailingly popular series of soundtrack concerts, the MSO took on the original Jurassic Park with laudable enthusiasm, even if stretches of critical dialogue were swamped under the considerable weight produced by the players under Benjamin Northey.  A week or so later, the disciplining hand of Sir Andrew Davis, took over the reins for a continuation of his Mahler Cycle, this time with No. 7 which is a movement too far as far as I’m concerned, burdened with the most coitus interruptus-suggestive finale in the composer’s symphonic canon.

Young prodigy Daniel Trifonov gave his solitary recital here on March 14 and it turned out to be one of the year’s high points.  His review of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Toccata and Kreisleriana was remarkable for its continuous rigour, especially the last-named, and he kept his technical brilliance for a sharply-etched selection from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, and an overpowering version of Stravinsky’s arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein of Petrushka.

Trifonov also graced an MSO concert a week later with the neglected Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1: again, he played with impeccable fluency, bringing passion and polish to a work that most pianists neglect – either from choice or from management constraints.  Davis continued his residency with an effective Tchaikovsky Pathetique, for once treated as a whole rather than four marvellous units, and fleshed out the month with a Last Night of the Proms that went even more all-British than usual with Piers Lane resuscitating John Ireland’s Piano Concerto for us – the only time most of us will ever hear this one-time acclaimed construct.

                                                                    Daniel Trifonov

At the MSO’s Recital Centre concerts, program control often seems be handed over to either of the body’s concertmasters, Eoin Andersen or Dale Barltrop.  For this end-of-month sojourn, Barltrop directed and also brought on-board the Australian String Quartet (of which he is first violin) for Australian writer Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale.  Taking its inspiration from Schubert’s last quartet, the work was sadly placed alongside a string orchestra transcription of the Death and the Maiden Quartet in D minor which showed the MSO strings to excellent effect.  Try as I might. I still find it hard to warm to much music coming out of Sydney, my home town.  But this piece, attempting a fusion/development of well-known pages, served little other purpose than to show what a brilliant mind this country owns in Brett Dean.


Almost 30 years since its last visit, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields came to Melbourne with new director Joshua Bell. who repeated his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto interpretation last heard here with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 2013.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but hardly venturesome programming, the orchestra’s ensemble not satisfactory in the Recital Centre where its strings (too few) were swamped by their wind and timpani colleagues.

The MSO ended its April with Orff’s Carmina Burana, to which the most successful contributor was Warwick Fyfe whose bass-baritone reflected the verses he was singing with excellent interpretative skill; a very welcome factor as the MSO Chorus underwhelmed in the more explosive strophes of the outer movements.

                                                                       Warwick Fyfe


Nicholas Carter enjoyed his day in the sun at the February Town Hall concert.  This month, it was Benjamin Northey’s turn, capitalising on his educational background in conducting with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and generating a blazoning power throughout, well-complemented by Stefan Cassomenos’ driving encounter with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

British pianist/conductor/raconteur Bramwell Tovey paid a fleeting visit to the MSO to premiere a new piece by composer-in-residence Elena Kats-Chernin and to escort Alexander Gavrylyuk through the Tchaikovsky B flat Piano Concerto, a reading packed with brilliance but nowhere more so than the final double-octave cadenza.

Many of us are happy to turn out for a recital from Nikolai Demidenko who has, in the past, enriched our knowledge of both piano concertos and solo piano works, no matter how well-known.  Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the master played an all-Scarlatti first half which proved to be a few sonatas too long, even given the player’s individual approach.  Schubert’s C minor Sonata D 958 moved the goalposts and we were treated to a fulfilling and clearly articulated reading of a neglected monument in the literature.


Back in Melbourne for his second annual stint as the MSO’s chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis headed Haydn’s The Creation.  An up-and-down affair for the MSO Chorus, soprano Siobhan Stagg gave the roles of Gabriel and Eve a welcome burnish, lending elegance to this oratorio with a cosmic theme and an often mundane level of utterance.  Later in the month,  Davis conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral with more oomph than Disney pastel, while cellist Daniel Muller-Schott soared through the Don Quixote variations of Richard Strauss.

                                                                      Siobahn Stagg

The Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted one of its intimate recitals with some overworked Schumann surrounding Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 with Kristian Bezuidenhout escorted by a bare-bones string quartet.

A few of us latter-day Nathanaels are prone to asking, Can any good come out of Trumpian America?  To our delight, a resounding ‘Yes’ followed the Musica Viva tour by the Pacifica Quartet who gave a sympathetic airing to Westlake’s 2005 String Quartet No. 2, found a solid foundation for the last of Beethoven’s awkward essays in the form, and offered a captivating account of Shostakovich No. 3.

Next in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Behzod Abduraimov built on the excellent impression he made five years previously.  A controlled reading of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as arranged by Busoni, some Schubert Moments musicaux and a spacious Beethoven Appassionata were capped by Abduraimov’s memorable insights into Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 6.


Sir Andrew Davis took a detour from his Mahler symphonies cycle to take in Das Lied von der Erde, working productively with tenor Stuart Skelton and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers.  You can’t help but be moved by the composer’s compelling embrace and abnegation of existence but the MSO’s efforts might have been more carefully harnessed in vehemently scored passages where the soloists were swamped.

For no apparent reason, the MSO mounted a mini-Mozart Festival of three concerts, some recitals, and Milos Forman’s Amadeus film.   What I heard of the symphonic events under Richard Egarr proved generally delightful, ranging from the first catalogued keyboard music played by Egarr himself up to the tensile muscularity of the Symphony No. 40, with Jacqueline Porter’s soprano a lucid delight in the Exsultate, jubilate motet and the MSO strings generating a near-faultless account of the Paris Symphony No. 31.

                                                                     Jacqueline Porter

The live soundtrack underpinning to Amadeus had the orchestra and chorus in laudable synchronicity with the screen, conductor Benjamin Northey pleating the media together with scarcely a seam showing.   But the final orchestral concert woke you up –  if you needed to be  –  to the peerless genius who produced the Clarinet Concerto and the D minor Requiem – well, a good deal of it – in his last, crowded months.  Here was a concert where the spirits looked kindly on Egarr and his forces so that their realizations made for an engrossing, moving experience.

I felt unbridled enthusiasm for the Sitkovetsky Trio after their 2014 tour for Musica Viva.  This time, their cellist, Leonard Elsenbroich, was replaced by Bartholomew LaFollette at short notice.   Nevertheless, the ensemble made exemplary work of Rachmaninov’s Trio elegiaque No. 1, the Shostakovich in E minor and swept us away with that hoary repertoire cornerstone, Mendelssohn in D minor.

A benevolent amalgam, the Australian World Orchestra stretched out to the young musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music for a collaboration in a July 29 one-night, one-work program under Simone Young.  Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie asks for a good deal from its executants, none more than its pianist and Ondes Martenot player; on this night, Timothy Young and Jacob Abela gave the symphony’s sprawling canvas both brilliance and emotional heft.


Each Takacs Quartet night offers an object lesson in chamber music performance.  This year’s Musica Viva tour opened with the last Haydn in F Major, MV artistic director Carl Vine’s No. 6, Child’s Play, and a penetrating reading of Beethoven’s Op. 127 with an adagio that you didn’t want to end, despite its complexities of construction.

                                                                     Takacs Quartet

Li-Wei Qin offered yet again his interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with the MSO under Johannes Fritzsch backing his efforts with balancing zest.  It’s a work you find has an immediate appeal, no matter how often it’s performed, and this soloist impresses for the forceful drive of his sound and his soaring richness of line in the concerto’s many lyrical flights.

Sir Andrew Davis clearly has a soft spot for Massenet’s opera Thais.  He made this work his mid-season gala and it largely succeeded for the quality of his soloists: soprano Erin Wall (Thais), baritone Quin Kelsey (Athanael), bass Daniel Sumegi (Palemon), tenor Diego Silva (Nicias), and mezzo Liane Keegan (Abbess Albine).  Having heard it once, I’d like to thank all concerned but can’t see any need for staging it, despite the opportunities for a set designer/choreographer’s pseudo-Oriental excess.

On the month’s last night, Davis made another side-trip from the Mahler path into Bruckner territory with the Symphony No. 7, preceding the performance with an illustrated lecture.  The MSO’s account found the strings and woodwind in excellent temper, the brass not so much, but the conductor embraced the outer movements’ long paragraphs with gusto.


Paul Dyer and his Australian Brandenbuurg Orchestra focused on friends Mozart and Haydn, with Cannabich a handy filler/acquaintance during this visit to composing contemporaries.  A wind octet played parts of the Harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio that Mozart probably arranged himself; the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey, faced projection difficulties in the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto, but not as many problems as Bart Aerbeydt confronted with his natural instrument in Mozart’s last horn concerto.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar atrocity, the Zelman Symphony essayed the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 which uses Yevtushenko’s poems as a fulcrum. Mark Shiell conducted his orchestra, a bass choir and bass soloist; the singing element sustained the composer’s gravity of expression and the instrumental corps, often deliberate and aware, could have been improved by more assertiveness from the strings.

Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made a fine pairing with the Mozart Symphony No. 34 at this month’s concluding MSO concerts, both light and buoyant even in their slow movements.  Conductor Andre de Ridder moved to the dark side with Ravel’s La Valse and Unsuk Chin’s kaleidoscopic Mannequin – one of the year’s more adventurous program choices.

More French material emerged at the month’s end when Otto Tausk conducted the MSO in Debussy’s La mer, the body’s brass section in powerful, accurate voice, before a complete shift in temper when pianist Saleem Ashkar fronted the Brahms D minor Concerto, giving this rumbling rort of a  score its full complement of roaming sensitivity and pounding majesty.

                                                                  Saleem Ashkar

For once not clashing with Fathers’ Day, the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent site was held on September 24 and brought some stirring music-making into play.  I was lucky enough to hear the Arcadia Winds quintet in Barber’s Summer Music and the eloquent Nielsen Wind Quintet; later, violinist William Hennessy, violist Stefanie Farrands, and cellist Michael Dahlenburg – Melbourne Chamber Orchestra core personnel – laboured with pianist Louisa Breen  across the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with excellent results; and pianist Stefan Cassomenos thundered through Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony.


Suffering from a publicist’s hyperbole by appearing under the title of ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, Emmanuel Pahud was guest for this month’s Australian Chamber Orchestra program, a compendium of great variety in which the guest performed most effectively in unaccompanied solos: Bach’s A minor Sonata and Debussy’s Syrinx.  An arrangement for the ACO strings and Pahud of Franck’s Violin Sonata removed most of the original’s chromatic bite and the finale’s sweep from placidity to generous clamour.

Later, Richard Tognetti  brought the full ACO ensemble to the Recital Centre for a singular achievement climaxing in Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence as you would like to hear it all the time: light textures oscillating with driving blasts, each movement a finely-honed, concentrated vein of gleaming ore.

This year’s Melbourne Festival brought some enriching music to the public ear, starting with A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol which fused Western and Eastern genres into a moving lament for those millions murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s ascendancy.  Local pianist Peter de Jager staggered me with his all-Xenakis program which contained most of the Greek/French composer’s keyboard music for both piano and harpsichord: a stimulating grapple with very difficult material, some of it unplayable.  The British choir Tenebrae brought Jody Talbot’s Path of Miracles to town, a four-part musical tracing of the pilgrim’s trail from Roncesvalles to the shrine of St. James of Compostella.


A Festival finish of high distinction came with the two recitals by Emanuele Archiuli which focused on American modern works, in particular highlighting Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.  Despite the pianist covering too much territory and revealing a tolerance for some pretty lightweight matter, he enriched our awareness of near-contemporary pianistic craft with George Crumb’s far-foraging variations on the Monk tune, then performed part of his own vast enterprise which involved 20 composers writing individual takes on ‘Round Midnight.

British conductor Andrew Manze took the MSO through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, the first time I can remember hearing this masterpiece live since Gelmetti conducted it at Robert Blackwood Hall many years ago, my review of that occasion eliciting a letter from one of the first violins that indicated how I’d undervalued the stamina required from the strings to get through this score.  Manze pointed to the inescapable influence of Beethoven on Schubert, but also the impact of Rossini’s jauntiness, and that information gave extra colour to what can be a trying experience, especially in the verbose tarantella finale.


The MSO has given plenty of exposure to its associate conductor, Benjamin Northey, this year, coming to a head with his being given charge of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  The young conductor gave his exuberant best to the experience, met with full-throated responsiveness from both orchestra and the MSO Choir and well-served by his all-Australian principal line-up: Jacqueline Porter, Liane Keegan, Henry Choo, Shane Lowrencev.

A tad down-river, the MSO under Nicholas Buc did their live soundtrack thing with the first two Harry Potter films, playing to packed audiences at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Plenary.  The music itself is warmingly familiar, yet another sparkling amethyst in composer John William’s chain of memorable film scores, but both nights were exemplary public occasions: for The Philosopher’s Stone, by the audience’s participation in greeting and groaning at various characters – all encouraged by Buc – to the final explosion of delight when Dumbledore changed the house points at film’s end; for The Chamber of Secrets, you had to be impressed by the audience’s applause at each discrete passage of play, patrons quite happy to drown out the film’s action with approbation of the MSO’s efforts.

                                                                        Nicholas Buc 

Back at Hamer Hall, Stanislav Kochanovsky directed a sonorous but unsatisfying reading of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, one of the MSO’s more memorable successes under Hiroyuki Iwaki.  Possibly the conductor and his band were too focused on exerting a powerful drive throughout; even more probable, the interpretation proved self-conscious, the weight of both outer movements approached with an excessive consideration for inner bulk.


My concert of the year for 2013 was the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s revelation of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Quite a bit of its success came from the orchestra’s talent at walking a line between opulent modern warmth and period instrument piquancy.  Even more was due to the brilliant Choir of London, a body of about 18 singers, all soloists in their own right who combined for the most lustrous and full choruses and chorales you may ever encounter.  Much the same occurred this time around with many of the same participants back at work, headed by that paragon of Evangelist tenors, Nicholas Mulroy.

                                                                    Nicholas Mulroy

Finishing the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, British pianist Paul Lewis confronted us with another of his demanding programs, this one comprising late-in-life works by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, the last represented by the Six Piano Pieces Op. 118 in which Lewis found a subtle continuity of emotional language to produce one of the year’s most significant and revelatory interpretations.

The MSO’s annual Messiah proved disappointing, in part due to the lack of ginger from conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini.  About two touches of originality aside, this struck me as a pretty pedestrian effort, the MSO Chorus imbalanced by a shy tenor group, the orchestra reduced to an emotionally faceless stratum, and only two of the soloists leavening the drabness, soprano Sara Macliver and tenor Ed Lyon casting light across a dour landscape.

                                                                        Sara Macliver

                                                                            Ed Lyon

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – some of them – and Choir began their Noel! Noel! concerts in the Recital Centre, moving ever closer to a Carols by Candelight format with young musicals singer Joel Parnis making a hash of Adam’s O Holy Night, set too low for his voice, but coming into his own with Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.  But Paul Dyer followed his customary path of having something for everyone, moving from Palestrina motets to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, supplementing his string quintet with a trio of sackbuts.

The Australian Boys Choir finished my year with their A Mighty Wonder program.  Director Noel Ancell took as his program’s basis the O sacrum convivium antiphon, beginning with the familiar Gregorian chant, then moving into  settings by Gallus, Poulenc, Ivo Antognini and Ola Gjeilo.  And, aware of the enthusiasm of his choirs’ parents, Ancell also inserted plenty of audience-participation with carols unfamiliar – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, albeit in an English translation – and others that are part of our DNA – O come, all ye faithful and Hark! The herald angels sing.







The viol da gamba lives


Jenny Eriksson, the Marais Project

Move Records MCD 564

Many would find it hard what to make of some connections drawn throughout this CD’s content.  You’d expect, given the ensemble’s title and the repute of Jenny Eriksson, that the music would owe a large debt to the Baroque French violist Marin Marais, best known through the Alain Corneau 1991 film Tous les matins du monde which investigated the composer’s relationship with his eminent predecessor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.  And you do find a Marais track listed, but it’s more of a play on Marais than the original; hence, you can glean something of an explanation in the participating group’s name which suggests that its enterprises will not be devoted to a straight reproduction of the past.

In fact, the only other period music to be found is a suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, one of Marais’ pupils.  But even this work has been gussied up to some extent with the addition of an extra gamba line; I’m not sure what this alteration accomplishes even though the results prove unexceptionable.

But the CD’s chief content is contemporary, or near-so.  A musician who appears in nearly everything on this recording, theorbo master Tommie Andersson, supplied an arrangement of Hjort Anders Olsson’s Min levnads afton, a walking tune that the Swedish fiddler performed and so resuscitated.  The title work by Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan offers  another suite, a take on the form with a prelude, sarabande and gigue of sorts and a cross-bred bouree.  Fleshing out the tracks are two scraps of Anglo-Australiana: The Cheshire Rounds, a tune dating back to Playford’s Dancing Master, and the Streets of Forbes memorializing the career and death of bush-ranger Ben Hall.

Because of the ‘project’ sobriquet, it seems to me that anything goes with everything here. Both constructors and composers/arrangers have a great time finding links in their notes.  For example, Llew Kiek comments on similarities between  the Swedish tune Lat till Far (recorded in a previous Marais Project album) and the Ben Hall lyric; Cutlan embraces the notion of fortspinnung as exemplified in the close-knit use of material found in Bach (a Baroque tie-in).  Andersson differs from this connection-conscious thrust in not linking his Olsson tune adaptation to anything; it’s just there, fleshing out the CD’s 44 minutes’ length.

Eriksson, Andersson and supplementary gambist Catherine Upex perform the Caix d”Hervelois Suite in D minor from the composer’s first book of Pieces de viole.  In line with the genre’s plastic layout, some of the seven movements are self-explanatory – prelude, menuet, gigue – while others are personal and impenetrable, like l’Henriette, La Luthee (gift of God?), and, less obscurely, La Villageoise.   In the only manuscript I could find of this piece, the player is offered three preludes; Eriksson takes the central one.  A few pieces appear to go missing: an allemande and La Coquette.  For this opening, Ypex plays a simple continuo reinforcement of Andersson’s theorbo, then occasionally underpins Eriksson’s line in l’Henriette with some parallel motion in thirds.  A rondeau goes missing before the calculated rusticity of La Villageoise, where Ypex plays her support with a bit more independence.  For the following La Bagatelle, the second gamba supplies the continuo support, which amounts to a running line, most of the time in support of Eriksson.  La Luthee sees the second viol almost effaced; in fact, I’m unsure whether its contributions are more than a few subordinate notes throughout this slow gavotte. The concluding gigue and menuet show an amiable jauntiness that has prevailed throughout the suite, notably in some rhythmic jerks during the last piece.  A piece called Paisane in my manuscript is not performed, possibly because it adds no change of mood or colour to its predecessors.

The Marais work is a Tombeau for John Dowland, originally the composer’s Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet: a memorial piece, then, for Marais’ own son.   Scored for viol and continuo, Eriksson has added another viol line and adapted the original in ways that I can’t fathom.  Certainly the extra viol gives the work a smooth edge and fluency that you miss when only one instrument has to supply the chord work.  But the only other version of this piece I’ve heard already uses two viols, although the second one is continuo-based.  But that reading also uses a harpsichord as well as an archlute to create a rich sound fabric, as does the Marais group here with a fluid, moving deploration.

Olsson’s walking tune brings baroque violinist Matthew Bruce into play; like Andersson, Bruce is a regular member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  Also adding to the mix comes flautist Mikaela Oberg, another ABO musician, but the opening is all Andersson and Eriksson until the upper instruments creep into the mix.  Not that there’s much to give anyone pause: the tune is attractive and folksy and the musicians play its two halves in various combinations, sharing linear primacy with tact and somehow contriving to suggest – as so much of this Nordic folk-music does – both Scottish and Irish lilts.

Cutlan’s suite involves Eriksson and harpsichordist Raymond Harvey, who begin with the Prelude that has the keyboard spinning out a single line which eventually accretes another while the string complements and moves sideways into different note-values, having the last word at the movement’s brusque conclusion.  With Rustic Energy has its fair share of pedal-figures and patterns but Cutlan’s minimalist gestures are mutable creatures and,  a third of the way through, he deserts the clod-thumping country-dance effects for a touch of bird-song.  The later stretches of this movement interest through the composer’s ability to offer both imitation between his players and independence of movement, all within an insistent framework.

Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande opens with a viol solo, followed by a harpsichord solo on the lute stop.  This is true note-spinning where the initial elements lead into imaginative quarters, particularly when Cutlan sets up a statement-response dialogue between Harvey and Eriksson in what can only be described as a kind of harnessed improvisatory melange.  The Quasi Gigue starts with fitful propositions from both players that eventually coalesce, but into what sound like two independent parts that settle into a partnership when both decide on common points of emphasis.  It is, indeed, like a gigue, in that the metrical inevitability of a similar movement from the English or French Suites is missing here.  The composer’s emotional language is a kind of sophisticated bucolicism where you are not far from orthodox harmonic structures but the landscape is spiced with deliberately placed dissonances and contrapuntal accidents.

Brown and Oberg open the Cheshire Rounds with a duet, Andersson enters with chords, and the tune is played several times  before it moves into an answering strophe.  The arrangement offered here is a Balkan variant on the original Old Lancashire Hornpipe in that the rhythm has been displaced into a Bulgarian 2+2+3+2+2 which would have dispirited those colonists who apparently frolicked through the original 3/2 setting during the first ball at the New South Wales Government House.

The hornpipe merges into the CD’s final track, the memorial to Ben Hall sung by tenor Koen van Stade.  It is a pretty familiar ballad, if melodically unremarkable, and makes an odd conclusion to the whole Marais exercise; nationalistically pleasing, to be sure, but how it fits into the general baroque-and-beyond format escapes me.  I suspect that, as with so many other projects, the point of this addition to the amalgam is to underline the relationship between different schools, forms and nationalities in music.  Having listened to the tune Lat till Far that this Streets of Forbes is said to resemble., I fear that the Swedish tune is much the superior construct; as a result, the Australian ballad rounds things off in a pretty mundane manner.