Last sonatas but not the last word

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME 7

James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1471

Carrying us onward towards the conclusion of his complete Beethoven piano sonatas cycle, James Brawn has grouped the final three works in the series under one roof. It’s a bold move, presenting the major intellectual challenges before taking on an imposing technical mammoth: the Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Hammerklavier. While this last-mentioned is the preserve of master-pianists (although I’ve heard a few readings that disappointed greatly, including one where the performer simply left the stage mid-slow movement), each of the final three sonatas features commonly in recital programs these days – much more than half a century ago when they were avoided in favour of more agreeable works with appealing nicknames.

The favourites linger, of course, Pathetiqueing, Moonlighting and Waldsteining their ways across recital programs until their appearance induces frissons of ennui: you know that nothing informative will be achieved across the duration of yet another Tempest or Appassionata but, like Christians the world over, you wait in hope (usually disappointed). With the last three sonatas, you can expect more fine gradations of interpretation. It’s not that they are more difficult to get around than their predecessors, although certain movements are risky – the Prestissimo from No. 30 in E Major, the I’ve-been-everywhere fugue that concludes the A flat Op.110, and the multi-layered Allegro of Sonata No. 32’s first movement.

Brawn’s reading of Op. 109, the E Major Sonata, is blessed with a well-matched pair of opening movements before the disproportionately long theme-and-variations conclusion. For the opening Vivace/Adagio, he finds an appealing give-and-take set of speeds which don’t over-egg the changes from the initial two-note motif-chains to mini-cadenzas (bars 9 and 58), passages that often enjoy a piacevole treatment rather than the disciplined observation of underlying pulses that obtains here; why the hell would Beethoven have bothered with those explicit groupings of demi-semiquavers and hemi-demi-semiquavers unless he wanted pianists to exercise a relative tempo ratio? Brawn’s care for detail shows out in minutiae like his handling of the last crotchet’s worth of bar 12’s right hand, and the elision of those wafer-thin joins between segments (bars 9, 15, 57 and 65).

The following very fast movement also shines for its sensible treatment, the pauses slight and used to mark a differentiation of attack rather than employed for the usual excuse of repositioning a hand. Brawn makes full use of the expression markings (well, those in Wallner’s edition for Henle), with a few clever dynamic pulling-back instants that serve to keep the onward rush buoyant. And here was one of the more fluent transfers of attention from right hand to left at bar 112; it only lasts a few seconds but it’s become one of my discriminant points for determining a player’s dynamic balance and care in avoiding bluster.

For the sonata’s largest span, the third movement theme and six variations, Brawn shows the requisite alternation between ultra-sensitivity, as in the hiatus breaths he employs during the melody’s first articulation’s phrases, and helter-skelter jollity (Variation 3) alongside an Handelian determined simplicity during Variation 5’s fugal mesh. The executant shows commendable care with the second variation’s juxtaposition of detached semiquaver two-note motives and the broad chordal thematic treatments (bars 41 and 57). A more relaxed approach typified Brawn’s handling of the Etwas langsamer variation which enjoyed a quietly splayed outlining; not enough to undercut the prevailing metre but sufficient to suggest a surging barcarolle.

For all that, you have to relish this pianist’s bringing the sonata home in the final variation where the sustained trills on B (with a brief excursion to home-key E) generate an underpinning that threatens to overpower the material being outlined both above (mainly) and below. With a further example of that insight shown across this odyssey, Brawn observes a dynamic level that doesn’t distract from the composer’s strands of operation; you find no heavy pounding of those arpeggio/broken chord chains that reveal a simple, devastating musical deconstruction before the theme returns en clair, bringing us round to full term.

I’m not so taken with the first movement of Op. 110 in A flat Major. Admittedly, Beethoven’s writing is fitful, putting a sonata-form shape through several odd wriggles and engineering sudden changes in tonality. Brawn underlines these oddities and abrupt shifts by pointing them up (or out) with brief pauses, so that the movement advances as a set of episodes rather than as wholly-woven fabric. I suppose it’s a fundamental problem of interpretation – how do you treat a chameleonic canvas? – but my view comes down on the side of playing the pages without any tangential commentary on the not-so-subtle shifts in register alongside the traditional modulatory brusqueries.

Not much to find fault with in the ensuing Allegro molto. Brawn keeps a cool head, especially when faced with the invitation to belt out the forte and sforzando chords. Further he gives the central D flat Major trio some lucidity by not accelerating or moving into a slushy over-use of the sustaining pedal. Still, this page-and-a-bit is hard to integrate in any sense; you can’t call it aimless because it has direction (mainly down, from a fair height) but any congruence with the surroundings escapes me. Of course, I could go to that bank of scholars and hanger-on pedants who make theses and careers out of explaining these ‘problem’ sonatas but life’s too short; well, it’s getting that way in this quarter, what with the endless struggle against infections both physical and mental, particularly now that we have returned to normal after the Australian Open has limped to its flaccid conclusion.

You can find more justification for Brawn’s pointing-up character in the tragic-heroic last movement of this work where arioso, recitative and fugue are assembled in a carefully staged scenario of lament and ebullience. The pianist is very painstaking with his left-hand chords and their shadings into one another right across the Adagio ma non troppo when it really starts (half-way through bar 7). Further, his outline of the Klagender Gesang itself proves to be irreproachably clear and poised, With the fuga‘s first part, this reading preserves a contrapuntal clarity and control that obtains up to and throughout the reinforced bass explosions at bars 45, 72 and especially 101. Brawn also manages to suggest the rests between those enigmatic semiquaver chords from bar 131 to 134 while still following the sustained pedal direction.

For the fuga‘s inversion and complexities, this interpretation takes the high road by treating the score with respect, ensuring clarity even as the argument becomes more determined at the change of key in bar 153. Further, in the final pages where the material is reduced to an alternating bipolarity and Beethoven stretches further and further outward to the topmost and most bass-ic limits of his instrument, Brawn observes the decencies, articulating with weight but without bombast or hysterics. Which gives us a reading informed by warmth and integrity, one where I can’t find any note or gesture out of place.

Last of all comes the C minor Op. 111: a minefield, they say. It’s not technically over-remarkable but its first movement offers too many opportunities for pontification before and after bar 19 where the Allegro kicks off properly. Brawn is awake to the inbuilt drama of the scene-setting seventh chords at the opening and the unsettling hiatus chords between bars 6 and 10 where expectations of regularity are roused and left unsatisfied. He is quite happy to indulge in a considerable hold-back whenever he comes across a poco ritenente in the main dramatic chapter, while some hard-pressing passages come within cooee of dragging, e.g. bars 37 to 42. Then there emerge some fine sweeps of impassioned confidence; for example, the crescendo at bar 96 leading to a marvellously contrived piece of contrapuntal display, rich in octaves from both hands until the escorting semiquavers take over at the end of bar 108.

Another effective interpretative illustration comes in the final bars. After a chain of eight sforzandi and a vehement tonic affirmation, the subsequent chords become epuise, until the menacing semiquaver runs emerge in the bass while the right hand consoles with three resolutions into a tierce de Picardie – a passage that brings to most minds the penultimate relaxation (8 bars from the end) in Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

Yet again, I’m impressed by Brawn’s intellectual control, specifically in the second movement Arietta with variations. His initial pace is spacious, and you can hear every element of the chord work, no matter how raw the texture. Each variation is welded into a framework that relies on its foundation rivets, no matter how discursive or florid the embellishments. I’ve listened to these pages several times, making sure that Brawn gives exact measure in the syncopations and displacements of the later variations when tied chords or notes ask for intense concentration from an executant; or further on when both hands operate in the bass clef (bars 65 to 71, 81 to 88) and those left-hand groups of nine demi-semiquavers hare murmur clearly; or closer to the end when Beethoven brings in his trills, which are delivered in this context with unstudied regularity.

The CD is an excellent sample of Brawn’s powers in Beethoven performance. The three works are treated with a respect and firmness that reveal an intimate awareness of the composer’s demands and a fidelity to the works’ aesthetic compass – true to the drama, the gravity, the incredibly powerful impetus underpinning what can look on paper like ambling. This isn’t Brawn’s final odyssey leg – there are two more discs to come – but it’s a considerable and bracing contribution to the journey.

February 2023 Diary

VIVALDI FOUR SEASONS

Eclective Strings

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann Street

Friday February 3 at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm

Beginning the year with absolutely no style at all comes this run-through of Vivaldi’s greatest hit. Not the whole thing, mind you, but ‘selections’. I suppose the excuse will be that such an abridgement, a digest helps bring in punters who don’t usually listen to serious music, or who want to graduate from enterprises like the Tamworth mud bath. So, as a benefit to the intentionally stupid, let’s give voice to those movements from these four violin concertos that have become most recognizable through TV advertisements. Tonight is one of the more presentable efforts in a program of candlelight concerts, most of which are homages to various pop singers and groups; this program sticks out in its context like a diamond in a sewer. Still, I’m rather wary of the main performing structure; we’re not offered a soloist but a string quartet – which is not enough of a resource to carry even this lightweight music. As far as I can see, the Eclective haven’t operated much outside Victoria but they specialize in tribute concerts – ABBA, Adele, Beatles, Coldplay, AC/DC – when they’re not indulging in cut-down Baroque. On its website, the ensemble claims to be respectable by day, up-to-the-mark rockers by night; I would have been impressed if the roles/times were reversed. Anyway, they’re giving their selections twice on this evening, depending on your eating arrangements, I suppose; tickets start at $29. To be honest, I’d need a lot of persuading to sit through even a filleted version of these works, particularly when there’s so much more Vivaldi to hear.

JOY AND SORROW

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday February 10 at 7:30 pm

Chief conductor Umberto Clerici takes a small set of forces through this three-component program schedule to last 75 minutes without interval. He begins with Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, written in the dying days of World War II and probably intended as a threnody for German culture which was at that time being pounded into dust. Not the most interesting of the composer’s works but it has relevance to the current world situation, given the war being inflicted on us by the latest in a series of Russian megalomaniacs. It’s hard to tell how this will come across in the Studio’s close quarters; you’ll certainly know if anyone wavers. Then comes a new work by the QSO’s long-time principal percussionist, David Montgomery – a suite for brass and percussion that, at time of writing, has no name. I know of Montgomery as a performer and educator – not as a composer, which could make part of this night revelatory. Finally, we hear Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, eight movements from the original ballet: Sinfonia (Ouverture), Serenata, Scherzino, Tarantella, Toccata, Gavotta, Vivo, and Minuetto+Finale. The instrumentation asks for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, with a trumpet and trombone for ballast and a string quintet alongside a string orchestra. The composer’s transformation of Pergolesi pieces, the full ballet is rarely heard (or seen) but this suite is packed with piquancies: a rare sight of Stravinsky the Funster. Tickets are $75, unless you have a concession or are very young; children get in for $30, but will they put up with the Strauss willingly?

DANCE AROUND THE WORLD

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday, February 12 at 11:30 am

Another special with QSO chief conductor Umberto Clerici holding the leading strings. I’m not sure how far around the world this dancing extends; what we know of what is to be played leaves me feeling more than a little Eurocentric. The problem is that, after listing a number of highlights, the promoters promise ‘. . . and more’, which always makes me wonder if that more has been decided or will it be decided between lunchtime tomorrow and Australia Day. We know that we’re getting the Can-can from Offenbach’s comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld, an energetic terpsichorean remnant of the belle epoque and forever associated with impossibly frilled petticoats and startlingly unrevealing knickers. Further along the morning promenade, Clerici & Co. will perform Strauss’s Voices of Spring, presumably without the optional soprano; like the Offenbach, a musical portrait of a world of outward brilliance but rotten to the core. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F sharp minor/G minor puts in an appearance, doing its best to live up to proud Zigeuner pretensions in orchestral garb supplied by Schmeling, Parlow, or Ivan Fischer. The tone moves upwards with the Act 1 Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which is a splendidly balanced product in every sense. As a Me Too genuflection, the program includes the third of American black composer Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes: the cakewalk Silk Hat and Walking Cane, probably in the orchestration by William Grant Still. But there’s more, and good luck with that. Tickets range from $75 to $105 for a scheduled 80 minutes playing time without interval; good value, if there’s no irritatingly amiable chats involved.

ILYA GRINGOLTS PLAYS BRUCH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 13 at 7 pm

Five years ago, ACO habitues heard this Russian violinist play Paganini brilliantly. The popular appeal item this time (and it’s the only one on the program) is the first of the three Bruch concertos in an arrangement for the string ensemble by the organization’s librarian, Bernard Rofe. What we will miss out on hearing are the pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, the horn quartet, but the original score’s timpani part is spared any editorial cut. Will you feel the lack? Probably, if you know the work well, and I’d say most of us do. Still, it saves on employing an extra 14 musicians and transporting them round the country for a series of one-night stands. Gringolts also contributes his solo skills to Frank Martin’s Polyptyque of 1973, written to a Menuhin commission and calling for two small string orchestras underpinning the solo violin. These six images de la Passion de Christ make a substantial work, slightly longer than the Bruch concerto, and most of us will be hearing them for the first time. As well, the ACO performs Mendelssohn’s one-movement String Symphony No. 13, a new score – Slanted – from Melbourne-born Harry Sdraulig, and Bacewicz’s 1948 Concerto for String Orchestra, a major composition from the Polish composer and one which carries its neo-classicism with an impressive pnache. Prices range from $49 to $115 with concessions available for qualified patrons.

ODE TO JOY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday February 17 at 7:30 pm

Always a crowd-pleaser – except for those pesky three movements before the choral finale – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can be a shattering experience. The trouble is that you have to take it as a job lot, instrumental predecessors and all before you get to the furious heaven-storming of the choir’s massive explosions. Umberto Clerici conducts his orchestra and the Brisbane Chamber Choir with a clutch of four soloists, three of whom I know well from their concert/recital/opera work: soprano Eleanor Lyons (I’ve not come across this artist), mezzo Deborah Humble, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Michael Honeyman. We’ve all got a perfect Ninth in our heads, and some of us have had poor experiences (one of mine was an appalling realization of the males’ Seid umschlungen entry from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic under Tzipine, and a recent one was a painfully lacklustre reading from Bendigo this past December), but the omens are propitious for this reading. With monstrous over-reach, the publicists have claimed that Peter Sculthorpe is Australia’s Beethoven because he is the founding father of this country’s music. Well, he was a lovely fellow but he wasn’t the founder of anything except his own sound world. We get a well-worn sample of that in his Earth Cry of 1986 which has an optional part for didgeridoo; no options about if because tonight we enjoy the services of William Barton. Following this theme of finding a place for Aboriginal-inspired music, the concert begins with a collaboration between Barton and violinist Veronique Serret: Kalkani, which was a 2020 commission by the ABC. Here, it has been transmuted from a duet into orchestral dress and enjoys its Queensland premiere. Does the whole set of proceedings sound like a mess? That’s because it is one, no matter which way you try to dress it up. Admission ranges from $90 to $130 and the program includes an interval; the two didgeridoo-inclusive pieces last about 20 minutes while the symphony has an average length of about an hour plus five minutes.

This program will be repeated on Saturday February 18 at 1:30 pm and again on Sunday February 19 at 1:30 pm

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE IN CONCERT

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, South Brisbane

Saturday February 25 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm

Ah, this brings back happy memories of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra opening its year’s practice at the Plenary space near the Convention and Exhibition Centre with Dr. Who or Wallace and Gromit extravaganzas, as well as some films for the masses. Then, throughout the year, we would enjoy more film screenings in Hamer Hall with the MSO providing a live soundtrack – which usually meant the films had to be supplied with subtitles. Starting the academic year with a dollop of infantile necromancy, the QSO under Nicholas Buc will support David Yates’ adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s sixth novel in the Harry Potter series, which is one of the darkest of the lot – well, it’s the darkest (novel and film) so far because it (the film) begins with the suborning of Snape and climaxes in the death of Dumbledore – after which fun times at Hogwarts definitely come to an end. Nicholas Hooper’s score uses elements of the John Williams music that we have imbibed into our very souls but his instrumentation is an interesting, carefully placed element in the narrative. Has the Potter fever been sustained? Will audience members come dressed in their house colours or swathed in cloaks and besoming their ways into the auditorium? You’d have to be there to find out, I suppose. Tickets range from $59 to $120 and I couldn’t find any concessions. Bookings attract that meaningless Service Fee, which is an accounting swindle both universal and unavoidable (believe me, I’ve tried).

CITY OF LIGHTS: FROM PARIS, WITH LOVE

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 26 at 3 pm

Here we go once more, perpetuating the legend about Paris being the artistic centre of the world. Yes, it was: not anymore, The last time I visited (pre-COVID), the population was in a sour mood with strikes galore and consequently a fair few sites shut. Very little music-making and no opera. Still, the Soloists are determined to celebrate its palmy days, beginning with some selections from Gluck’s Orfeo ed EuridiceBlessed Spirits, anyone? Actually, yes: Portuguese flautist David Silva will be exposed in this bracket. The composer was German, the libretto was Italian, but Gluck did revamp his work in 1764 for Parisian audiences; something of a link, then. Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, was apparently written about the time of his mother’s death – in Paris; this will be performed by the Soloists’ artist-in-residence, Konstantin Shamray. A firmer connection comes with selections from Debussy’s books of Preludes (Flaxen? Sunken? Fireworks?), which will also involve Shamray. And another Debussy appears in the art song Beau soir, which features one of the night’s guests, cellist Guillaume Wang, the programmers possibly deciding on using Julian Lloyd Webber’s arrangement. Wang also leads the way through Georgette by Rumanian violinist Georges Boulanger. This is a piece of salon music named after the composer’s daughter; despite his (adopted) name, Boulanger had no connection to Paris – perhaps his daughter did. As far as I can tell, Prokofiev wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4, the one for left-hand alone, in Paris during 1931. Commissioned by that unpleasant personality Paul Wittgenstein, the work was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. I don’t know if the Soloists will play the score as written or (more probably) an arrangement; regardless, you’ll be hearing Shamray at work again. Finally, Ravel’s Tzigane will exhibit the talents of guest violinist Courtenay Cleary. By the time he wrote this, the composer was living outside Paris but let’s not be too pedantic at this late stage of the program. The program lasts for 90 minutes (interval? maybe) and the cost is a flat $85.

Fiat lux

THREADING THE LIGHT

Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MCD 636

I don’t know how to catalogue this four-part exercise. According to the notes available on the Move Records site, the score formed the basis of Wilcox’s Ph.D. submission and was written between 2008 and 2012. The composer provides a good deal of technical detail on how she contrived the background/supporting musical stream that runs throughout the work. As you probably know if you’ve dabbled in academia, very little impresses a supervisor/examiner more than graphs, tables and photos of mechanisms; the trouble lies in interpreting the numbers which few people (except those paid to do so, viz. supervisors and examiners) can be bothered attempting. I had a few tries and got some way in – but then you listen to the CD and have to wonder at the need to explain technical details when the whole product presents more puzzles than the technical tooling around with frequencies extracted from or supplied by Sydney percussionist Michael Askill’s singing bowls.

Wilcox’s four soundscapes go by elemental titles: Light, Water, Blood, Fire. The overall emotional tenor of the work is meditative and ritualistic, with a heavy accent on Near and Far Eastern practices. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of this from the composer’s instrumental fabric, but it helps that she uses singers who beaver away at various texts that might give some reinforcement or illustration of the work’s four generic titles. Soprano Alison Morgan, contralto Jenny Duck-Chong and baritone Mark Donnelly are the nominated vocalists, the last-named moving very close to a tenor range in the score’s latter pages – a tribute to Donnelly’s versatility.

It’s a mixed ensemble that provides the bulk of Wilcox’s output, all led by Sada Muramutsu. Top of the town sits a string trio: violin Anna McMichael, viola Luke Spicer, cello Anthea Cottee, with a prominent part allocated to Alison Pratt and her multiform percussion. As a central body, we hear a string quintet: violins Ben Adler and Victor Wu, viola Tara Hashambhoy, cello Anthony Albrecht, bass Muhamed Mehmedbasic, while Ben Burton supervises the composer’s electronic instrument. Once again, according to the online booklet, the recording’s mixing and mastering (Daniel Brown at Trackdown) was carried out in March 2012 – which means this disc has been a long time coming.

One of the more intriguing compositional bases that Wilcox employs is a contrast between just intonation and equal temperament, the first sourced from the bowls and manipulation of their output while the second is the regular tuning of the string-rich ensemble. Any disjunction between the two tuning systems is not apparent at the start of Light, Track 1, but the aim is to refine the difference into obviousness by the time we reach Track 4, Fire, so that eventually a palpable disjunction obtains. God knows the difference ought to be clear as the work moves at a ceremonial pace for the most part and the progress is rarely interrupted by technical conundrums of a significant order – apart from the electronics which seem happy for much of the time to bathe us in a soothing infinity pool of familiar warmth layers..

So we begin with Light and plenty of bowl sounds, some of them sounding real-time, others pre-recorded. The atmosphere is hushed, reverent and inescapably oriental. A female voice (Duck-Chong?) begins singing a three-note Vedic mantra about sacred light illuminating us. A continuation of the subtly pulsing backdrop brings forward a male voice (Donnelly) celebrating the light of Allah (as outlined in a Quran verse) in a melodic arc that seems to be farther-ranging than the first solo but is limited to the same three notes (plus some octaves). At all events, simple percussive tinklings emerge in the struck-bowl main timbre-world and take on some prominence here as punctuation points. I believe it’s Morgan who gives us the final textual content with a Buddhist lama’s prayer of thanksgiving (for light, of course); again, her material follows the same trail as blazed by her peers. What follows is an instrumental slab where the three base notes are elaborated and twisted into all sorts of predictable shapes by McMichael with two essays in melisma, eventually followed by Spicer and Cottee rising out of a sonorous band supplied by the string ensemble with some occasional high bells and an underpinning current of bowl sounds operating as a support.

The language is deliberately limited but the dynamic level moves from meditative calm to fierce percussiveness. At its opening, Water sets a suitably limpid atmosphere with sustained bowl sound-bands, the strings entering gently in high/harmonics strata, with an occasional dollop of a Wilcox gesture where a soft string passage or crescendo ends in a chordal thump. The composer’s textures now have become less transparent, her string ensemble producing a sustained mid-range sound-band that could have escaped from Penderecki’s Threnody. Suddenly, we have moved into a new and completely unexpected segment where the bass is a five-note cantus firmus above which Cottee pours out a sad if mobile lament. It’s the sort of music that struck me as being useful for indicating a transcontinental trudge of the Burke & Wills genre, but no: such an interpretation is overturned by all three singers breaking out in an (eventually) unison setting of the opening lines to Psalm 23 (22) with a strikingly non-impressionist vision of the still waters. It’s hard to penetrate the vocalists’ Hebrew, given the strident accompaniment, but with a few hearings under the belt I’m not sure whether they reach the final phrases set out in the online booklet about being guided along straight paths for his name’s sake.

We are again grounded by two more settings which appear in reverse order to their printing in the booklet. First come a few lines about the Lord pouring out blessings, written by the composer’s brother, Rev. Dr. Gavin Wilcox who died in 2008 from cancer aged 46, and to whom Threading the Light is dedicated; this setting is a wide-ranging one with a welcome addition of vocal and instrumental glissandi that relax the three- or four-note limitations exercised so far. Duck-Chong and Donnelly outline an anonymous Buddhist prayer (well, most of it) about rains filling streams and oceans being reflected in the exercise of human goodness in healing all things. Here. we’re back in limited ground, Duck-Chong’s line at least mobile while the baritone sings a single note. Then the movement ends in similar condition to its predecessor: in a lengthy interstellar hum punctuated by a single note.

Comparatively brief in this context, Blood lasts for 6 1/2 minutes and uses one text; well, actually two, but the second comprises just two Latin words for blood. The main one is a Vedic mantra in which the aim is complete identity between the chanter and whomever/whatever he is addressing; not so much blood will out as much as blood is blood, as we say in Calabria. The movement opens with a Bloch-reminiscent cello solo couched in a more adventurous vocabulary than that used by the Jewish master. Donnelly sings through the Sanskrit quatrain with similar adventurousness before being joined by the female voices who generally finish off his lines for him. I think the mantra is repeated three times, the latter two a pulsing monotone in Donnelly’s case; underneath come sinuous strings arcing and glissading above an insistent timpani. Here, the ceremonial achieves its hypnosis through forceful insistence, rather than quiet repetition.

The movement’s second half comprises mainly an interweaving of the three voices, sticking to a limited number of notes for each and treating the two words sanguis and cruor with increasing intensity that involves aggressive string linear interplay and a vehement undercurrent iof percussion, including a prominent side-drum. Without a score, I can’t make much insightful headway into the work’s interstices but, once again, it appears that Wilcox is deliberately confining herself in her material while expending more adventurousness on drama; this piece ends with an explosion, not the suggestion of an all-embracing, eternal continuum. The final strokes have the singers returning to the Veda’s final words, ‘Light of all lights’.

Last comes Fire, about double the length of Blood. We’re back with the singing bowls straight away and on the lookout (listenout) for a change in temperament and pretty quickly there’s a scale that announces the new – the changed, rather – followed by the cello playing an imitation, possibly to illustrate the technical differentiation. The string group focuses on a single chord, alternately soft and loud, sustained and agitated before the bowl music returns and integrates itself with a single string line. So far (about a quarter of the way through), there’s little to grab on to, even if you’re prepared to find fiery flickers in the alternating timbres. Then comes another of those bowl scales which is definitely filling in your usual well-tempered cracks; the ensuing cello solo (Cottee, I assume) now seems to be doing the same thing with another odd scale/arpeggio upward motion/gesture before a substantial solo that features some welcome technical flourishes. This merges into a chord and some isolated ejaculations for all three vocalists which dissipate into a sort of tutti for strings and bowls.

The voices enter; first Donnelly, with another verse-prayer from Gavin Wilcox, speaking of the individual’s helplessness and a complete frailty that depends on the Lord’s support to survive. Meshing in with this comes yet another excerpt from Psalm 23 (22) – the bit about walking through the valley of the shadow of death but enjoying divine support from both rod and staff. As before, the Old Testament extract is sung in Hebrew and I think has been entrusted to Duck-Chong because it sounds as if it’s Morgan who immediately breaks in with yet another text: an anonymous saeta to Our Lady of Sorrows which bears a close resemblance to the Stabat Mater‘s first stanza. In all three vocal lines, we have returned to the tonal chastity of the work’s opening, Wilcox using few notes and maintaining a regular pulse of one note repeated twice underneath the singers; nothing like a constant unvaried pulse to suggest the hieratic.

This slow, lurching pace continues through the final sung fragment which is for all three voices and is an evening prayer ascribed to Muhammad, a salutation that again records the worshipper’s total dependence on God. The vocalists rise to a vehement climax that involves the interjections of slapping-sticks, the episode culminating in an instrumentally reinforced open-chord Amen – very Muslim in its decisiveness. And immediately we are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, back into the outer reaches of the universe with a final sample of sustained humming and soft high strings. I’m not sure what part fire plays in all this; I suspect that where I expect the vivid and the passionate (the ardent), Wilcox is more concerned with the (divine) spiration that ignites us all. Sad to report that, at about the halfway mark of this finale, I’d forgotten completely about listening for the disjunction between Wilcox’s two tuning systems; it’s certainly there – he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Congratulations to Wilcox and her collaborators for getting this CD into the light of day. It strikes me that its content deserves attention, principally because of its rarity in celebrating the numinous with individuality and doing so by using in part a novel language of sound sources. A kind of catholicity pervades the work, the textual sources highly varied in their origins, and the musical content falling into a strange land. Somehow, the orthodox sits alongside the novel – and not just alongside but the two intertwine. Indeed, it is these moments of fusion that interest me, more than the singing bowls as an isolated creation. Most listeners, I believe, will find something admirable in the course of hearing Wilcox’s substantial musical essay, not least her vaulting ambition.

January 2023 Diary

There is nothing.

I’ve looked assiduously in every potential corner, wherever information could be assimilated, assessed, obscured.

But in January, no musical activity worth the name is being presented in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast.

It makes me long for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields that has shrunk from its previous impressive substance to a few days’ shadow of its former self. And the Mornington Peninsula Summer Festival is spreading itself even more thinly these days. But at least both these events promise something.

Not north of the Tweed.

For your cultural input, perhaps Sydney may offer something with its Festival. From what I can see, a couple of contemporary operas and a chamber concert would seem to be the main (only?) offerings.

The nation is on holiday, but nowhere more seriously inactive than in the land of the Where-The-Bloody-Hell-Are-You?

Better luck for us all next month.

No surprises here

MESSIAH

Christ Church St. Laurence

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday December 21, 2021

Sam Allchurch

This performance of Messiah comes from December last year. Which is a tad disappointing – that the Australian Digital Concert Hall is projecting a year-old concert when you might have expected something fresh, like an interpretation from this year; there must have been some around the traps, especially of a score so inexplicably linked to Christmas time. Added to which, the Christ Church St. Laurence occasion itself was distinguished from others by only a few factors like the participation of the church’s ensemble in residence, the Muffat Collective, and the presence of guest tenor soloist Andrew Goodwin. Several other elements did not work to similar fine effect in this reading of a very familiar masterpiece.

I was tempted to attend a local Messiah last Sunday, given in the Brisbane Town Hall; after all, nothing is quite as effective as a live performance. What put me off was the invitation to interested members of the public to participate in the afternoon as members of the Queensland Choir. Of course, such postulants had to attend rehearsals but I don’t know if I want to pay good money to enjoy this sort of pro-am experience, embittered in my old age by memories of execrable Handel informed principally by good intentions rather than skill. But what do I know? Plenty of people were prepared to put their cash towards this public-involving exercise, if the online box-office seating map was any guide.

Under Sam Allchurch, the Sydney onslaught began well enough, an expanded Collective taking to the Sinfony with bracing vigour and exemplary purity of enunciation (making a good argument for repeating this number’s allegro – but then, nobody ever does). The group’s core – violinist Matthew Greco (this occasion’s concertmaster), violinist/violist Rafael Font-Viera, cellist Anton Baba, keyboard Anthony Abouhamad (handling the harpsichord continuo here) – was supplemented by a clutch of string accomplices, with a trumpet duo and timpani lolling around for most of the night before their big moments at the end of Part the Second and Part the Third. We missed the pair of oboes and bassoon that are required for the chorus Their sound is gone out. Not that this made too much difference because I couldn’t find any details about any supernumeraries; whatever program was originally available (was there one?) was not supplied for this broadcast.

Obviously, I know Goodwin and value his work highly. Bass David Greco has crossed my path (thanks to the ADCH) on a few occasions. Neither soprano Anna Fraser nor alto Hannah Fraser has fronted any ensemble I’ve come across. As the night wore on, both female singers showed themselvcs to be capable if uninspiring Handel interpreters, with a shared penchant for shortness of breath and a resultant unhappy habit of interrupting their lines at unsettling or downright inappropriate places. Greco took up his challenges with relish and some dash, even if his bravura passages didn’t quite come off despite clear efforts to work hard at getting his notes out on pitch and in time.

Goodwin started us off with a best-of-British Comfort ye/Ev’ry valley bracket, showing a slight lagging in the recitative, then a smooth pair of heels at the awkward leaps on exalted (bars 56 to 58), and eschewing the temptation of a cadenza in his second-last bar – thereby displaying a taste and a musicianship that would (should!) shame many another inferior executant.

Next came the first chance to hear the choir through And the glory of the Lord. On first impressions, the six tenors and six basses were dynamically light in comparison with the well-populated soprano and alto forces, the latter quite a presence in this chorus. Yet you waited for something individual about the composite body and, by the end of this amiable set of pages, the overwhelming sense was of a competent Anglican ensemble carrying out their work honestly but without any fire in the belly. So we settled down for a staid night.

Greco worked with force through Thus saith the Lord, notable for a poorly disciplined string entry in bar 7 – completely unexpected and one of the night’s few instrumental anomalies – and a finely regulated 2 1/2 bars of semiquavers (19-21) from the bass himself. Allchurch did not present his alto soloist for But who may abide, taking the alternative – and very rarely heard – bass recitative, thereby reducing the expected 158 bars to 6.

And he shall purify began easily enough with the sopranos clear and consistent; the following bass entry was not as definite in its outline of the 32 semiquavers that occupy the centre of their initial sentence. As is all too common, the chorus settled into a bit of a jog-trot without much concern for phrasing. You could find some powerful, driving phrases in the later stages but these singers were happy enough to get the notes out and in place.

Hannah Fraser stepped out for the Behold, a virgin/O thou that tellest sequence and soon revealed that odd interpolation of breathing stops, notably across bars 29 to 35 on the third repetition of get thee up into the high mountains, and later across bars 90 to 98 at the treatment of is risen upon thee. This voice is mild in delivery, not convincing as far as conveying dramatic import goes, and I wasn’t impressed by the decision to move the concluding D up an octave just before the chorus entered; there’s no need, because the accompaniment is a simple bass line at this point.

Greco returned for the bass accompagnato and song For behold, darkness/The people that walked which flowed past easily enough, apart from some sparked-up rhythmic irregularities when he reached but the Lord shall arise. This singer also avoided the low G and F in bar 8 of the aria and took the final notes of his line an octave above the normal position – apparently not sure of his carrying power in a low register.

Everybody’s second-favourite chorus For unto us a child is born passed by without much fuss – or much drive; the combined forces didn’t make any effort to point up the pages’ magnificent coup de theatre at the first Wonderful exclamation in bar 33. Despite a lack of competition, the altos’ semiquaver run proved indecipherable from bar bar 57 onward, but throughout the expanded Muffats provided a vital and punchy underpinning that attracted more than its usual share of attention.

We heard the short 12-bar version of the Pifa interlude before Anna Fraser gave us the recitative/accompagnato Nativity quartet that prefaces the Glory to God chorus. The soprano soloist showed some spirit in this brief exposure, giving the choir a finely purposeful and saying lead-in. Sadly, you listened in vain for much jubilation in the angels’ acclamation, even if the choral output was accurate in timing and pitch. I convinced myself that trumpets were added to the mix, but they were remarkably faint in volume.

It was hard to tell whether Anna Fraser was taking Rejoice greatly too fast or too slow for comfort. Things were proceeding smoothly enough but a whole group of four semiquavers disappeared at bar 22, and an unsettling twitch was the singer’s occasional portamento elision between closely adjacent notes. Probably the only other notable factor in this bouncy reading came in a rare violin error at bar 104 where someone played a B for the requisite B flat.

Hannah Fraser returned for the Then shall the eyes recitative and led the way into He shall feed his flock, with Anna Fraser doing the usual and taking over the second half at bar 25/26; I was pleased by the sudden piano at the repeat of take his yoke upon you, although it isn’t an original stroke. Again, the chorus ambled through His yoke is easy, the sopranos showing best reactions to Allchurch’s pace and producing a satisfying final top B flat seven bars from the chorus’s (and Part the First’s) end.

Behold the Lamb enjoyed a typically lugubrious outing, and I thought for a moment that matters were coming close to a dead halt at bar 18 where taking away the sins of the world grew into a seriously weighty undertaking. But the chorus wasn’t quite on point, their dotted quaver-semiquaver rhythmic cells coming close to triplet pulses. Handel lays on the tragedy with He was despised, which is a superb alto vehicle. Hannah Fraser gave a muted account of this song, during which her odd vocal line interruptions for breaths had me puzzled, particularly in a piece where Handel gives his interpreter plenty of congenial rests; a rushed intake before grief in bar 31 seemed highly intrusive. The central He gave His back to the smiters would have gained considerably from a general elevation – in dynamic, in attack, in consonantial ferocity – but the Muffats compensated with plenty of bowing bite here.

Then the focus shifted to the chorus and something might have been made of the start to Surely He hath borne if only the ensemble hadn’t smoothed out the composer’s crisp setting of the piece’s first word; but the whole segment was sanded back into blandness. And with his stripes is admittedly uninspiring, a fugato with little to capture the imagination, and the St. Laurence group realised its dour character appropriately. But the atmosphere improved at All we like sheep which showed some humour in all that straying, climaxing in a moment of magic with an a cappella reading of the last phrase: the iniquity of us all. I believe I’ve experienced this same choral isolation in previous performances but none as breath-catching as here.

Goodwin returned for a striking All they that see Him, prefacing yet another chorus, He trusted in God, which is yet a further set of pages where the rhetoric becomes prosaic and the temptation to work through it at full throttle is hard to resist – as proved to be the case here where solidity outweighed complexity of phrasing. Goodwin returned for the Thy rebuke hath broken/Behold and see double, both carried off with impeccable serenity and security. Anna Fraser provided the compliment with He was cut off/ But thou didst not leave; her enunciation not as lucid as the tenor’s, she seemed rough and ready in some passages, the whole spoiled by her mangling of the song’s final word into kerruption.

With Lift up your heads, the chorus’s sopranos are split into two parts for 30 bars; the effect is a loss of impetus in most choirs and the Laurentians fell into the general mould. Still, when the usual SATB was re-established, the top line made a brave crescendo showing from their exposed the Lord of Hosts in bar 55 up to the resumption of homophony in bar 62. Then we lost a chunk of the score: Unto which of the angels tenor recitative, Let all the angels chorus, the alto’s Thou art gone up, another chorus in The Lord gave the word, and the How beautiful are the feet song were all omitted. After a brief alto recitative, we heard a solid and respectable Their sound is gone out chorus, although the male lines seemed occasionally under-represented.

There followed an attacca on bass Greco’s Why do the nations song where his vocal rhythmic ducks and drakes gave a peculiar uncertainty to this stern rage aria. Nonetheless, this mildly truncated version (without the recitative insert) held attention for its energy. I couldn’t work out why the singer avoided the four note rise across bars 91 and 92; possibly confusion, perhaps fatigue. Whatever the case, another attacca led us into Let us break their bonds which action the chorus threatened to do with initial inertia. Goodwin returned for He that dwelleth in heaven/Thou shalt break them, the latter resonant and splendidly controlled from a singer who knows when and where to take breaths that make sense of the vocal line.

Ending Part the Second is the chorus Hallelujah, in which the soloists joined for some reason; it was (you may say) satisfactory if a tad overblown. Anna Fraser tended to slow down the pace of I know that my Redeemer liveth but Allchurch restored power quickly enough. More of those odd stops for breath came up during her at the latter day upon the earth passage. We also had an unexpected (and rare for this performance) cadenza on the last setting of fruits in bar 151; what that added to this stately piece is beyond me.

The most effective segments of Since by man came when the chorus worked without accompaniment, in the Grave phrases; by this stage, however, the top line was fading while the men found renewed oomph. Then Greco gave us the final solo in Behold, I tell you a mystery/The trumpet shall sound in the latter of which the aforementioned instrument enjoyed two palpable errors during the initial ritornello. A breadth of mobile vocal line quavers was interrupted for the sake of a breath between bars 60 and 65 and the singer moved the low B up an octave at bar 138 for no apparent reasons of either audibility or taste. The middle For this corruptible segment of the aria was omitted.

So were the alto recitative Then shall be brought to pass, the alto/tenor duet O death, where is thy sting?, the But thanks be to God chorus, and the soprano solo If God be for us. We moved straight to the final choruses (soloists also taking part) with Worthy is the Lamb which gratified in its imposing largo sections and the clarity of Blessing and honour even if the singers didn’t complement the timpani’s pounding; and the final Amen which was surprisingly clear in texture. But you waited in vain for that spine-tingling moment in bar 80 (151) when the sopranos cut through the turmoil with their top A; it was there, of course, but not hurled out with sufficient conviction.

So a reasonable Messiah, but not a memorable one. It confused me for most of the night because of the dichotomy between a period chamber orchestra of considerable skill and a choir of conservative bent; I’m not sure that the results of that fusion were calculated to satisfy anyone except either the charitable or the undiscerning. Anybody would like to give approbation for the effort involved; yet that’s impossible to confer honestly. If you’re going to put yourself in the public eye, you have to have a reason for doing so; you could have something original to offer by way of interpretation, or you might have a high level of expertise in the Baroque. Too often, I felt that this reading was marking time, constrained by an unresolved interpretative vision.

Cut your cloth

BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 9 – SYMPHONIA CHORALIS (VIC)

Bendigo Symphony Orchestra and The Gisborne Singers

Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo

Sunday December 11, 2022

Merlyn Quaife

We’ve imbibed all the old saws throughout our lives; warnings about Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, or injunctions along the lines of Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp . . . and very encouraging/discouraging they can be. But surely you have to take these up on a personal basis, judging how they apply to you. It’s a different matter when you involve others in your aspirations: then, the ambition is a shared one, the grasp becomes common property. Also, if you exert yourself to carry off an individual accomplishment, it’s OK if success or failure belongs to you and you alone.

Concerning this concert broadcast under the Australian Digital Concert Hall auspices, Browning’s line came to mind many times during the performance. This mighty score tested the grasp of the assembled musicians – Bendigo Symphony and Gisborne Singers – and the results were unhappy, for the most part. Uncertainty ran through the instrumental forces from the opening bars in Beethoven’s Allegro ma non troppo where the sotto voce 5ths and 4ths for the first violins sounded unhappy and uncertain. As with much of what followed, certainty arrived only when everybody was involved, as at the bars 16-to-17 explosion of the movement’s first theme. Biting away at this sudden assurance, the two trumpets dominated this stretch, the theme itself disappearing under the brass’s octave Ds and As. I thought this imbalance might have been due to the ADCH microphone placements, but the problem really lay with the small number of unassertive high strings in the ensemble.

Why the Choral Symphony, of all works? It’s been with us for nearly 200 years and its finale has turned into a celebratory cliche but the complexities involved in getting through the thing still tax even expert musicians who don’t rely on sailing along on the grounds of professional competence and/or regular familiarity. Conductor of the Bendigo and Gisborne forces, Luke Severn was hard pressed to keep his orchestra in time, let alone in tune or taking proper care with articulation and tuning. In the end, this performance struggled up to the last movement and that’s a long stretch of purely orchestral fabric to generate successfully – and to sit through when the output fails to deliver.

As for an actual cause for this concert, it came about through a choral festival held in Bendigo last weekend. On Saturday evening, participating choirs showed their wares to each other (and the public, one assumes), while the combined forces came together on Sunday for the Beethoven Ode – even though the only listed choir in the program was Severn’s Gisborne Singers. In fact, 55 singers were listed as his Gisborners – which is a respectable number but insufficient to carry off this score, particularly as these vocalists were rarely able to produce a sufficiently robust sound.

So Severn was labouring under all kinds of disadvantages, the main one being his players’ pussy-footing round a masterpiece that demands absolute confidence, particularly in its first two movements. All manner of details were muffed, like the violins and violas downward demi-semiquaver scales at bars 34 and 35 and the fatigued upper string sound at bar 71. Every so often the bland texture was disturbed by a misreading, as among the unison strings during bar 116, or by an absence like the missing woodwind at bar 138, or by a simple mistake like the first violin’s falling 5th at bar 177, or by the lack of woodwind coherence in the simple chords of bar 197. Then you’d suddenly come across a patch of competent work as in the flute/bassoon dialogue starting at bar 253 which shone for its unexpected clarity. But matters had become laboured, bogged down in hard slog by bar 333. Horns 1 and 2 had their exposure almost precise at bars 469 to 477 but the trumpet pair revisited their original hard-man brashness from bar 531 on, drowning everything else that was being generated at fortissimo level.

I’m afraid the scherzo fared little better. Right at the start, the trumpets made a mess of their D octave leap in bar 5 and, from then on, we were on tenterhooks as this naturally biting movement progressed. Wisely, Severn did not undertake most of the repeats in either the main body of this vivace or its Trio but you encountered some unexpected pleasures, like the bassoon work kicking off the Ritmo di tre battute pages, counterbalanced by the first oboe unable to make sense of a simple exposed melody line at bar 468. What you really missed in this movement was an efficient contrast between its initial ferocity and its complementary fleet-footed warmth.

It might be a slow movement but Beethoven’s Adagio offers many challenges, most obviously through the exposure of all its executants; the first violins and all four horns enjoy some torridly testing stretches of play. Again, it seemed to be a case of simply getting through these pages without much attempt to shape individual phrases; suppleness was at a premium, exemplified in bar 42 and the rushed lead-up to the violins’ E flat pause (which didn’t happen), as well as the fourth horn’s unhappy arpeggio encounter finishing bar 55. The Andante moderato change in pace went unmarked, but horn 4 gave an almost precise account of the stand-alone bar 96. This near-success was almost immediately followed by the first violins’ rhythmic malfunction at the bar 99 change of key back to B flat and the time signature splaying out to 12/8. One of the simple brass chords across bar 122 proved defective but then this section reached another apogee of strained performance at about bar 141 before a messy account from the first violins of bar 151’s semiquaver triplets.

Cellos and double-basses gave a persuasive account of the finale’s six recitatives but they were set a fast pace through Beethoven’s famous D Major melody starting at bar 92, their tuning occasionally off-centre. When the first violins got their crack at the tune in bar 149, you would have expected that the ensemble would have acquired some fluency in its treatment but their enunciation sounded stilted, although the least impressive part of this celebratory all-in came with a trumpet fluff across the theme’s last phrase at bar 184.

Bass soloist Teddy Tahu Rhodes delineated his O Freunde recitative with a vibrato as wide as the Calder Freeway but his delivery mode proved welcome for its assurance. Which only served to emphasize the lack of projection from the Gisborne altos, tenors and basses at their bar 21 entry of the Allegro assai. Soprano soloist Merlyn Quaife attempted to bring the whole operation back to a more measured, less runaway pace from her Wer ein holdes Weib entry at bar 37. Severn’s forces began the Alla marcia quite well, giving a congenial setting for tenor soloist Michael Petruccelli‘s bravely buoyant Froh investing these pages with much-needed vivacity, although I would have liked his concluding high B flats at bars 101-2 to have been hurled out with more ardour.

The consequent orchestral double fugue proved to be a testing set of pages that simply lacked consistency of output with valuable lines lost in a general melange, climaxing in a pair of disappearing horns at bar 210, their repeated octave F sharp inaudible. While the male choristers gave a good account (if not quite loud enough) of the Seid umschlungen maestoso, their Bruder in bar 17 came over as faint, given the context; but later, the full choral Welt? exclamation in bar 44 made for an unanticipated aural bolt.

The Gisborne sopranos handled the top As that pepper the Allegro energico with laudable vim; speaking of which, it was gratifying to hear the small band of tenors handling the same note with force at bar 65. And it was reassuring to come across mezzo soprano Kristen Leich‘s line emerging clearly during the soloists’ Alle menschen melismatic stroll starting at bar 70. But the performance’s underlying tentativeness endured to the end with an unsatisfying prod at the last stringendo‘s kick-off in bar 81, the concluding bars an unsatisfying series of soft punches.

Obviously, I didn’t enjoy this concert, finding it full of specific flaws and a lack of coherent interpretation. A school of thought that prevails these days believes that any effort is to be praised; you can see this mind-set at work in every classroom across our country where accomplishment comes second to the Morrisonian trope of ‘having a go’. Well, it didn’t work for the self-aggrandizing Australian football team in blood-drenched Qatar; it doesn’t work for the petulant brats who represent us in the world’s tennis stadia; much more importantly, it doesn’t do anything for the thousands of underpaid workers in our hospitals and nursing homes.

You have to be capable of more than good intentions when putting your grappling skills into operation for any Beethoven symphony; this D minor masterwork, one of Western music’s cornerstones, is not a construct for which it’s sufficient to ‘do your best.’\

Why not take all of me

LIGHT IN DARK

Jennifer Enchelmaier

Move Records MD 3465

One of the oddest anthologies I’ve come across, this CD features all the (till-now) known piano solo music by Tom Henry, a Melbourne-based composer who began his career path as a flautist before changing to the more idealistic, top-of-the-class transcendental role of a composer.   He has an ideal interpreter in Enchelmaier who lavishes her skills on rich and poor alike – or perhaps it would be better to distinguish between the junior and the elder, the tyro and the proficient, the smooth and the rough.  What is apparent is that Henry travelled through a not-uncommon creative trajectory that began with imitations of the masters, then switched overnight to a cracker-jack contemporary style which takes the wind out of your sails through its stark contrast.

But then, this vault between light and dark (you choose) is not at all clear-cut.   Enchelmaier begins with 14 pieces stretching from 2003 to 2006.   They come in various groups: three Songs without words (2003-2006), three Studies for modern times (2005) and three Ecstatic preludes from that same year, a slightly puzzling brace from the composer’s 2006 Pieces for children (originally three in number, but A Funny Game has been omitted  –  hence the descriptor here of From ‘Pieces for children’).   Then there are the Three short pieces for piano of 2005 which take on the function of a midriff punch after what we’ve heard so far because they sound like Webern of the Variations for Piano alternating with Schoenberg of the Drei Klavierstucke.   And these lead into the Piano Sonata No. 1, written for Michael Kieran Harvey and an excellent vehicle for that pianist/composer’s scintillating skills.  This is followed by the forward-leaning Three pieces for piano of 2010, and the one-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 written four years ago and less elliptical than its predecessor in the form from 2006.

We start with the Ecstatic preludes No. 1 – Like an omen.   Well it’s ominous enough, taking its opening cell – a clipped, falling interval – and putting it through some unremarkable, post-Rachmaninov harmonic changes.   No, not so much ominous; more, a prophecy emanating from a Tarot reading.   Sensual and languid depends for its mood-setting on surging scales that aren’t allowed to take over the message which is a carefully circumscribed melody that suggests the eroticism of Saint-Saens.   Finally, Calm and flowing presents as something of a study for the right hand which reserves its melodic interest for the middle two notes of every quaver group of four; as I’ve mentioned before, this is written in a style that suggests Rachmaninov but without the surprises, harmonic or lyrically transporting.

Pop song is the first of the Studies for modern times; not too modern, I’d suggest, as its language is lush and harmonically too subtle for anything I’ve heard from the gutter-mouthed rappers that captured the imaginations of my students and too frisky in its instrumental range to compete with the musical debris that spews from my gym’s sound-system.   Not to mention that the vocal range required to sing this piece would be beyond the abilities of anyone currently performing on any ‘pop’ stage.   The death of Pope John Paul II prompted April 2005 which manages to sound optimistic and elegiac at the same time.   Henry imposes a fair amount of bell-ringing on us with a running scale figure doing the peals while a few chorale-suggestive figures range across the keyboard; it’s not La cathedrale engloutie (the pace is too rapid for Debussy’s lush washes) but the liturgical suggestions are there for those unkind enough to find them.    And the composer’s forging along an harmonically conservative path seems right in line with the heritage (such as it remains) of Karol Wojtyla.    Last in this set, Film theme suggested all sorts of possibilities.   It’s got a rolling undercurrent of left-hand arpeggiations and a ‘noble’ tune in block chords that proposes all sorts of visual equivalents – the Australian bush but not too far west of the Great Dividing Range, a Mary Tyler Moore family drama, Avatar 3 in its pictorial obviousness, perhaps even a Big Sur Buddhism scenario in a cleaned-up Kerouac setting.

From ‘Pieces for Children’ involves A sad story and Barcarolle.  You might find signs of Schumann here, although Mendelssohn is more the go despite some harmonic slips and slides.   The story has a melancholy fluency to it but it could be played at sight by a reasonably competent pianist; Enchelmaier spices the outline with clever phrasing and sympathetic dynamics.   As for the Venetian scene, you look in vain for any complexities; the pulse is regular and the right hand melodic outline is not distinctive enough to distract from the piece’s lack of adventure or colour, despite some sudden swerves into a new tonality – for a moment.

Henry admits to a collegiality with Mendelssohn in introducing his Songs without words and the three small-frame works share a certain picturesque reflectiveness with the German composer’s miniatures.   Remembrance is upper-level lounge music with a wealth of added 7th chords and a definite lyrical shape; I was distracted by an odd resemblance in the work’s emotional character to Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves  –  not that there’s anything wrong with that.   More blues-inflected chord work emerges in Nocturne, a simple ternary shape with a very long central section (in relation to its surrounds) but the initial flourish is attractive enough to tolerate repetitions.   New York comes over as a sort of ambling promenade not that far removed from Loved Walked In but bedevilled by its unchanging movement of block chords, occasionally spiced up with some arpeggiations; it’s certainly a very benign view of a city that I found menacing and unpleasant, by day and by night.

Now we come to the split where Henry’s compositional language turns into the second half of the 20th century.   Following his studies with Lawrence Whiffin (or probably during that time), Henry produced Three short pieces for piano which are aphoristic in terms of length (in particular the last Molto allegro) and unpredictable in terms of rhythm and harmony which is emphatically atonal and probably 12-tone although you can hear repeated notes and motifs that would disrupt strict application of the rules.   All of a sudden, the listener has to cope with an abstract set of soundscapes, starting with an Andante of tight-lipped stringency, followed by a Piu agitato that is my pick of the three for its expressive range and technical dexterity.   Aficionados of the Second Viennese School will find plenty of reminiscences in these all-too-brief essays.

Henry wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 in 2006 and revised it in 2011; a fascinating fact although it’s difficult to know what to do with it.   As it comes across on this CD, the composer’s style-world has moved on from brief bursts of a 1920s vintage to short explosions of a 1950s/60s Boulez/Stockhausen variety – at least for the sonata’s scene-setting Theme which looks on paper like one of the Klavierstucken: ultra-refined dynamic markings, glancing shots before a sustained crotchet or minim, subdivisions of rhythm like a quintuplet that’s as much rests as it is notes, leaps of 7ths and 9ths: the whole panoply of serialized physical jerks, although, as I say, I don’t think the principles are being applied in too doctrinaire a fashion.

The following Variations movement is probably divided into six sections, their material emanating from the thematic material of Movement 1.    You can find common intervallic vaults, I suppose, but the music is chameleonic and, despite the divisions, its progress is continuous.    Also, Henry is fond of the direction recitativo; that gives his interpreter all the leeway necessary to handle whimsical creative flights as she pleases.    In fact, most of these sectional indicators aren’t that helpful to the ear: what Henry calls Molto calmo e ritmato requires a large amount of creative listening, as does quasi una Habanera and, later, Violente.  However, you can take pleasure in the pockets of high-pitched pointillism across this variations sequence, as well as Henry’s ear for the dramatic gesture and the pointed repetition.

The finale , Molto perpetuo, presents in two versions: one where the linear rhythmic values are prescribed, the other a sort of breakdown into consecutive quavers.   Whichever one you pick, the results follow a different vocabulary to that obtaining in the preceding two movements.    It winds up being diatonic in character towards the end after a  moderately athletic main body.    At times, I was reminded of an old-time passacaglia where the bass is emphatic and definitely placed while quavers follow their predictable path on top.    In fact, about half-way through, the texture is satisfyingly complex with three layers in full operation.  But this is not your usual perpetual motion rush as Enchelmaier exercises plenty of rubato and dramatic emphases, especially in the last minute where the work seeks the security of a tonal resolution,   This you can receive as a haven or a restoration of the natural order; or you can wonder why, after showing mastery of a contemporary compositional style, the work peters out in a kind of surrender to the tonic.

Which is why the interest arises in the direction of Henry’s revision of 2011.   In this form, the work is lopsided and I wonder whether the Moto perpetuo is part of the original or an addition (or transformation?).   Or take it the other way: that the last movement is a survivor and the Theme and Variations attest to the composer’s adoption of advanced techniques in his compositional address.

Another surprise comes with the Three Pieces for Piano which seem to be homages in their different ways.   Henry acknowledges the influence of earlier writers in his Intermezzo: an attractive expressionist soundscape with some lush writing of considerable warmth interrupted by piercing outbursts of temperament and a quiet tonal ending with a faint echo of the last chord in Berg’s Sonata – a bit fanciful as a comparison but not impossible.    The CD’s title track is a series of episodes that opens with two factors in operation – a chorale, and surrounding decorations both high and low; this disintegrates in several ways, the main ones being an assumption of importance by the colourful material at either end of the keyboard, and an incorporation of the chords into a faster-moving stage of activity.    It’s an odd combination of restlessness and steady progress, but it eventually finds a quiet subterranean resting-place.    Last, Henry’s Toccata also acknowledges the past, specifically Prokofiev whose hefty 1912 gem is echoed here, and I think you can also detect a smidgen of Khatchaturian although Henry sticks with a regular pulse of quadruple-time semiquavers without any relieving triplets such as the Armenian introduced into his flashy pseudo-virtuosity.   Again, Enchelmaier avoids martellato continuity and leavens the movement forward with a pliant ritenuto or four.

The latest of Henry’s piano solo endeavours, his Piano Sonata No. 2 was commissioned for a 50th birthday and is based on the name (most of it), represented in musical notes, of the celebrater.   This piece follows the composer’s studying with Stuart Greenbaum, Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.   Certainly, you can hear a change in approach here, more in line with the harmonic smoothness in the Moto perpetuo ending the Piano Sonata No. 1 but, despite the homogeneity acquired by using the name-motif as fundamental, the work still impresses as episodic.   So it’s not really your old-time sonata form at play here but more like a rondo.   And that doesn’t really get to the heart of the business because the apparent wholescale reversions are few in number.

For instance, the sonata opens with a stately theme set out a an octave or two, this sentence moving with an effective stateliness, even grace.   That rhythmic movement then changes abruptly to a gambolling bucolic episode, somewhere between Vaughan Williams and Bartok at his least acerbic.   Here Henry sets up a pattern of rising and falling scales in both hands that takes over his forward thrust; these are especially noticeable in pages where the right hand carries out its ups and downs while the left hand generates chords that follow a scale progression, albeit more slowly.   Mind you, the derivation of this developmental matter from that opening cell is clear as day.    Not sure about what follows when an arresting trill leads into Ondine land with some voluptuous colour washes giving way to a return of the bucolic skipping toned down and the scales are replaced by ‘open’ arpeggios in the right hand that reach a highpoint about half-way through the sonata.   Another bucolic trace element and a richly Romantic meditation with a spectral recurrence of the opening noble striding in arpeggiated format before we enter the last lap with Henry employing a falling interval as his calm farewell to arms.  

It’s here that Enchelmaier comes further into the picture by singing this two-note phrase to the ejaculation He-ya in a concordance with her piano part.    This vocal line involves both a rising and falling minor third in alternation, then rising and falling perfect 5ths.   According to Henry, the  intention is to accentuate an intended atmosphere of meditative stasis, and it kind of achieves that end in a coda that even revisits the countryside, albeit in slow motion, before the movement slows to a definite ending, despite its ephemeral dynamic.   You  might have expected, after pages that exercise a kind of impressionism in their harmonic ambiguity, that Henry might leave us with an added-note chord, reinforcing the unfinished nature of spiritual experiences.   But no: when Enchelmaier breathes her last rising murmur in a space where words have no substance, the sonata resolves onto a minor chord with no interrogatory accretions.

You have to take your hat off to Henry who reveals every part of his achievements on this disc; it’s not a Greatest Hits selection but the entire oeuvre that he has written (so far) for solo piano.    He shows us his beginnings with a late (and sometimes middle) 19th century bent, using the conventions of that time (in fact, there’s rather a lot of these pieces, as they take over half-an hour of the CD’s 72 minutes’ length); then comes the abrupt shift to a world of technique-shaking demands familiar to us survivors of the challenges promulgated by Bussotti, Berio and Kagel (not to mention the apparent insanities committed to manuscript by Pousseur and Ferneyhough); finally, it’s an arrival at the ‘new lyricism’ where ev’ry compositional mountain and hill is made low.   All of this makes for a refreshing, wholesome hejira, one that is probably not completed.   Along his path, Henry has been gifted with a sympathetic and conscientious interpreter who exerts her considerable interpretative craft across each of these 21 tracks.

 

Experts, but best in Bernstein

SIGNUM SAXOPHONE QUARTET & KRISTIAN WINTHER

Musica Viva

Griffith University Conservatorium of Music Theatre

Thursday November 24, 2022

(L to R) Guerino Bellarosa, Alan Luzar, Jacopo Taddei, Blaz Kemperle

Last visitors for the year from Musica Viva, this quartet of saxophones gave us a program totally made up of transcriptions. Just what you’d expect: the amount of music written for such an ensemble must be pretty small. Also what you might have anticipated was that some of these transplantations worked well enough while with others you had to wonder why someone had gone to the bother of doing such reframing. As a general observation, the evening’s second half satisfied a good deal more than the two works that we heard before interval but, regardless of the music performed, you couldn’t doubt the versatility and professionalism of these musicians.

Which is saying something, given that one of the Signum members wasn’t on this tour: Hayrapet Arakelyan, the usual alto player, was absent, his place taken by Jacopo Taddei. But then, the group isn’t (and won’t be) what it was; Arakelyan himself only joined up in 2018 and, according to his Facebook site, he has recently resigned from the Signum body.. Founded in 2006 while its members were all studying in Cologne, its original cast probably included Luzar (tenor) and Kemperle (soprano); but Bellarosa (baritone) joined the group in 2016. Before that, (according to Google and YouTube), in 2013 on a visit to India and at a recital in Turin, the alto was being played by Eric Nestler (the North Texas University academic?), the baritone by David Brand (untraceable). So the inferred idea that the group has been a consistent entity for 16 years, ever since their student days, doesn’t hold much water.

As I’ve said, such a varied background made it more impressive that their offerings on this night turned out to be so balanced and polished. Still, their introductory gambit, Bach’s Italian Concerto (as re-organized by Katsuki Tochio), depended over-much on Kemperle who yielded the top line only in the second half of the work’s Andante – for a while. And even the soprano was hard pressed on some thickly textured moments (if you can call anything in this piece anything less than pellucid) as in bars 53 to 64 of the Presto where I found it difficult to pick out who was playing what; and also earlier in the opening Allegro during a few whirling build-up moments as at bar 124. Nevertheless, the whole score proved to be an amiable romp, packed with buoyant good spirits and an ideal introduction to the sonorously homogeneous world of such a group.

Mind you, this was the final recital in the Signum’s Australian adventure (their first, apparently; well, certainly in this personnel format): Number Nine of nine, and that speaks of a goodly number of public performances to get themselves into fully operational mode.

Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto of 1924 followed, as arranged by our own Jessica Wells for the available instruments. So what did we miss, in terms of timbres? An awful lot, as it turns out: pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons as well as an oboe; two horns and a trumpet; double-basses, at least two of them; and a substantial battery of timpani, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, side drum and bass drum. At that time of his life, Weill wasn’t accommodating anyone and this concerto is a fierce declaration, the solo line extremely challenging and putting the score on a level with subsequent and greater achievements in the form; e.g. by Berg (1935), Schoenberg (1936), and Bartok 2 (1937/8).

The result was to blunt the original’s dynamism as all the necessary bite came from soloist Kristian Winther. His explosions of activity in the opening Andante con moto, like the merciless chain of semiquavers from bar 45 to bar 68 were accompanied by a bland support with a uniform sound-colour, even from the baritone’s bass-substitute. Later, the fiery explosion at bar 104 that climaxes at bar 112 after a striking four measures (almost) of double-stops impressed as dampened, lacking in vitality from wind choir and side-drum punctuation. But you could go on like this for a long time, regretting the necessary absence of the composer’s ‘sound’ and spiky instrumental complexity. What we were given was a version and, like Rimsky’s modifications of Boris, you can rail but eventually have to put up with the transformations, mainly for the sake of hearing this neglected work live.

Of course, certain parts worked very well, like the trumpet and soloist duets in the second movement’s Cadenza with Taddei (I think) taking up the brass line. As for Winther’s unaccompanied bursts, these were splendidly achieved with exemplary control and minimal attention-grabbing for the effort involved. And the deftness of ensemble from all in the Serenata section, particularly the woodwind and horn choir counter-weighting the soloist in the segment’s first half, pleased for its lightness of attack. I’d like to say the same about the last Allegro molto movement but here again the saxophones’ weight and timbral uniformity came across loud and clear when the score (original) asks for bounces rather than the punches we got. Winther was put through a grinding battery of technical tests, as were the Signum players and the interpretation preserved its unexpectedly bracing atonal energy to the final timpani strokes from Bellarosa.

We were then treated to an unexpected encore – Bloch’s Prayer, the first of his From Jewish Life trilogy for cello. Nice and throbbingly heartfelt, I’m sure, but . . . why? To show a more accessible Jewish music of 1924 than Weill’s strident concerto? Of all the oddities on this program, this insertion struck me as the big one, but the Conservatorium theatre audience (what there was of it) greeted its modal keening with something approaching relief.

The Signums (Signa?) greeted us after interval with their own arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano of 1926. As with the Bach, you found much here to admire: energy, familiarity with the idiom, a delineation of most of the rhythmic subtleties, and a reliance on Kemperle’s uppermost line (as well as his occasional over-blowing that amounted to flutter-tonguing). Some details in the first Allegro ben ritmico were flubbery round the edges, like the semiquaver triplets in bars 20 and 29, and you might have expected mor vehemence at the prelude’s bar 50 climax.

As for the bluesy Andante con moto, it was no such thing but more a slow adagio; however, it shared around the honours and you could relish each member’s vibrato in music that suited the instruments. As anticipated, the concluding Allegro worked least well of the set; put simply, there’s no replacing the piano’s percussiveness in places like the martellato demi-semiquavers at bar 49, or the spry arpeggiated chords at bar 20, or the (sometimes) penetrating brilliance of the final 8 bars. Not that any of this did Gershwin any serious damage but you missed the original’s sparks and coiled-spring ambience in the outer movements, the last in particular.

If for nothing else, we can thank the Signum ensemble for its delivery of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Once again, these weren’t the original excerpts-with-modifications as arranged by the composer: in this version by Sylvain Dedenon, some pieces survived, others were omitted and replaced by numbers from the musical. The relicts were the Prologue, Cool (but not the fugue), Mambo and Somewhere; the omissions were the Scherzo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Rumble and Finale; in their place appeared Something’s Coming, Tonight, America and I Feel Pretty. Even so, what the players put out succeeded without question, more than anything else heard on this occasion.

This might have been because of Bernstein’s own score – its nature and its detail – which uses saxophones and their sound colours to fine effect. But the French composer’s instrumentation also brought out the best in what was available, beginning with excellent layering work in the Prologue (complete with finger-snapping) and ending with a satisfying version of the frenetic to round out the celebration, not ending in curtain-fall depression as does the musical itself (and Bernstein’s dances). Indeed, the only problem with this last-mentioned was the inability to mimic the composer’s screeching trumpet top line in its upper register at the most vehement stage. I think most of us welcomed the introduction of Tonight, which is a feast for saxophone players at all levels of register, but I wasn’t that happy about I Feel Pretty which sticks out from the original score as contrived and dependent on strings to underpin its full mawkishness, so reminiscent of The Sound of Music. Further, without the fugue, Cool impresses as rather ordinary jazz, dated even by 1957 standards.

Michel Camilo’s Caribe was originally scheduled to end this occasion; instead, we heard Correa’s hackneyed Spain, arranged by Slovenian jazz master-musician Izidor Leitinger. After the worrying theft – sorry, reconstruction – of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez slow movement – the Signum players entered into the main (original) body of the piece with an excellent demonstration of syncopated block chords and a confident, thrusting impetus. I don’t think much of the piece itself but that’s obviously my loss because plenty of players and audiences can’t get enough of it.

One of the performers – Kemperle or Luzar – addressed us near the end and sort of promised an encore: their last work before flying home the next morning. But having already lived through my Bloch, I didn’t stick around to hear this addition. Yes, it was something like suffering from a case of surfeit – of the Signum sound, which is certainly agreable for a while but over-rich over two hours.

Nobody hangs around too long

RHYTHMS OF GREEN & GOLD

John Martin

Move Records MCD 622

I’ve been ambivalent about jazz and all its offshoots for many years. After the initial rush to the head during young adulthood when Monk, Mingus, Davis and Coleman set impossibly high levels of accomplishment and virtuosity, an inevitable reaction set in, similar to the disillusionment that comes to us all through an excess of Wagner or Mahler – when you realize the importance of emotional brakes, if nothing else. Just as with low culture’s implementation of serious music – who can forget the drum-kit added to Mozart’s No. 40, or the smoothing out of dissonance in Copland’s Fanfare? – just so do you have to acknowledge the bowdlerization of jazz’s limitless potential in melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Many of my contemporaries would remember still the adoption of jazz in the 1950s and early 1960s as entertainment for the pretentious young habitues of Melbourne’s clubs, the brief flash that marked the advent of Brubeck and the MJQ (mainly in recordings, although I heard the former play at Rushcutter’s Bay sometime in 1960), not to mention a few out-of-left-field experiences like the 1965 appearance of Thelonious Monk in the Melbourne Town Hall, playing to an audience of about a hundred of us. But today? The well-worn furrows have been ploughed to base rock and you look fruitlessly for anything original outside the realms of fusion – which is to say, compromise.

This disc offers 19 tracks of solo piano, compositions old and new by Australian composers (hence the CD’s title reference to our national colours – which aren’t any such thing, of course, as this country is still marching in a vexillatory two-step with its colonial master) some of whom offer refined takes on jazz rhythms, if not much else. About half of the writers are well-known, like Elena Kats-Chernin, Ann Carr-Boyd, Stuart Greenbaum, Ross Edwards and the performer himself. A few names rouse tremors in a waning memory bank, viz. Rod Heard and Matthew Dennett, while others have escaped my attention – Amanda Handel, Tom Anderson and May Howlett. The most senior writer represented is Howlett while Dennett is the youngest of them. As for temporal substantiality, Kats-Chernin takes the prize with her Nonchalance that almost lasts 7 minutes; at the other end of the scale sits Greenbaum’s Taurus, coming in at 1’30”. Quite a few of the remaining 17 tracks are brief, seven coming in at under 3 minutes.

Sydney composer Handel is represented by three compositions: Dreamboat Blues, Bootleg Blues and Blue Laze, the last-named being the most substantial. Martin’s reading of Dreamboat is laid-back, to the point where its underlying pulse is relaxed at two obvious spots; the structure is simple, 7th chords abound and no ripples are raised. A jaunty syncopated bass line prefaces the Bootleg drama which features a more adventurous harmonic palette, even if the format is little more sophisticated than its predecessor; again, Martin allows himself a rhythmic flexibility – although that might be written in. Blue Laze is a pleasant post-Gershwin laze which too often sounds like an exercise in peregrinatory chords, its deliberately lolloping bass a genial support for upper meanderings that are amiable if aimless. All these pieces are of an unobtrusive genre of jazz with nothing depressing or ‘dirty’ about them; another way of saying that they’re lacking any decided personality.

Tom Anderson has published a collection of rags – won prizes for them, no less. His A Walk Down Ragtime Lane is a fair representative of the genre with various clear-cut segments jammed alongside each other in the best Joplin tradition. Again, Martin puts in the odd hesitation, almost as though he’s finding a bit of trouble handling what sounds like a pretty easy-fitting modulation. As with a good deal of her work, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Nonchalance exists in several forms but the piano version here is something like a slow toccata or a piano study; there are a few jazz traces, mainly in some syncopated spots like bars 13 to 19 but the piece is probably included because of its original genesis as referring to suave characters in old black-and-white movies (George Raft? Or George Sanders?) but its continual middle ground of Alberti-bass type quavers in sets of four is more reminiscent of Hanon than Hampton. It was probably more effective in its original shape for cello and piano. At about a third the length of its companion, Kats-Chernin’s Reflections derives from an earlier suite written for a piece of theatre. Again, there is a binding sequence of Alberti quavers but the piece is appealing for its melodic sentiment: the sort of thing a very competent tea-lounge pianist would present with the merest suggestion of harmonic liberation.

Canberra-based musician Matthew Dennett proposes a nicely meandering melodic upper line in Round Midday but his piece is cursed with a repetitive bass line comprising steady block chords that seem to work against the free-and-easy meanderings in Martin’s agile right hand. I take it as a tribute/offshoot of Monk’s Around Midnight classic and there are plenty of homage points; like the American’s original, it might have worked better (probably does, in fact) with a mixed ensemble dealing with its bare bones.

Three Australian waltzes by Ross Edwards come from 1988 and you won’t find in them any sign of Maninyas-type ecstasy; rather, you can detect Chopin and Brahms, even a touch of Satie in the third. The Sassafras Gully Waltz is dedicated to musician/educator Nicholas Routley; Sandy Stone’s Waltz inevitably goes to Barry Humphries; and the Annandale Waltz was written for the composer’s wife Helen. All three are undeniably in 3/4 time and any twist of jazz goes a-begging. Yet the mood, tempo and enunciative changes across the trilogy exemplify the personalities of the dedicatees: determined and bouncy, old-fashioned and sentimental; quirky and ruminative. As you’d expect, Martin has little difficulty in delineating these short, medium-range-difficulty works with a care that invests them with merit, maintaining a fine balance of charm and caricature.

Another New South Wales writer, Rod Heard is represented by four works, the largest grouping on the CD. First comes Take 7, a tribute to Paul Desmond (of course) but not as seductive as the Brubeck classic; we can keep track of five (see Tchaikovsky) but any larger odd number (until 9, to state the bleeding obvious) is beyond most of us (despite Bartok). Heard keeps pretty close to his home key and avoids rhythmic games by maintaining his original allocation of accents; taken as a whole, this optimistic gambol reminds me of Grainger who also showed a penchant for the tonic in a good deal of his piano music. Summer Arrives presents as a sort of two-part invention at either of its ends with more substantial episodes intervening; the odd thing is that its rhythmic element seems to be the least interesting part of its structure.

A more obviously jazz-inflected piece arrives with Barbera Blues, which refers to a variety of Italian grape; mind you, it might just as well have been called Montepulciano and achieved the same result. It’s a 12-bar blues in essence with a middle section in the major that leads to a nicely contrived high-point, but the framing pages display a quiet sinuousness that shows a familiarity with and ease at handling chord progressions endemic in jazz practice. Finally, Rags to Riches boasts a clever title and is a straight rag in the Joplin vein with plenty of discrete sections and some repetitions to give us the reassurance of familiarity. It seems to me that Martin takes this too quickly and employs too many pauses to mark transitions between segments; as well, some of the writing is awkward across its essays in momentary counterpoint and the interpreter’s uneasy execution of them.

Probably the most Romantic music on the CD comes from Martin himself in his The Everglades at Dawn, which has nothing to do with Florida but refers to a National Trust property in Leura through which the pianist/composer takes us on a walk. You can appreciate Martin’s piece as a placid amble at first, although it leads to something more intense later on but the initial impression – at least for the first third of the score – is of an English pastoral, something like Cyril Scott but with less purposeful modulations. As far as green-and-gold rhythm is concerned, the composer is more concerned with a kind of fluent rumbling than any metrical nips and tucks, the interest mainly lying in a slightly elliptical melody line.

A slight syncopation distinguishes the placid elegy Taurus by Stuart Greenbaum, written as a remembrance of Australian composer James Wade who died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 38. The piece is both emotionally charged and restrained, a ternary-shaped deploration that makes its statement without elaborations, and then stops. Martin treats it with calm consideration, realising just the right amount of Greenbaum’s simplicity of utterance. A sort of companion piece comes in Looking to the Future which Greenbaum originally wrote for a play dealing with the Newcastle Workers Club disaster of 1989. It is slightly more optimistic than Taurus with an aggressive counterweight that follows the opening quiet cellular statement; however, a similar melancholy pervades both short pieces, each coming in well under 2 minutes long.

Western Australian-born May Howlett has contributed The Baroqua Rag: a combination term that covers J. S. Bach and Berocca. The first is easy to detect as Howlett uses the opening subject of the C minor Fugue in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, stated en clair towards the end. How she gets the effervescent tablet into the mix remains a mystery; I can’t remember the jingle that mentioned how you get back your b-b-bounce but I sense it might be in there, somewhere along the way during this rather awkward piece with an over-repetitious bass; well, over-anchored might be a better way of putting it. Last of all comes Ann Carr-Boyd – not quite as much a veteran as Howlett but of the same generation. Her The Solitary rag comes from 2020 and is a kind of comment on the arrival and isolation of COVID with minor key (A?) bookends around a melancholy major-key middle, which presumably recalls the good times when we could socialize without penalties, personal or state-imposed.

But it’s an odd piece with which to end. Martin seems to be doodling around with it, taking his time over the end of sentences and blurring the piece’s outlines – but then that may be the way Carr-Boyd wants it outlined, so as to emphasize its nostalgia, a longing for the way we were. Such an epilogue does remind us of the current state of public safety (here comes the revolution), the uneasy condition of our world, and so is a worthy musical image of the green and gold national cosmos (!) that we have to negotiate. An interesting CD, then, if not a particularly challenging collection of Australian produce.

December 2022 Diary

To say that the Brisbane music scene dies across the Christmas season is probably a trifle exaggerated. But, if you’re after some solid holiday fare, you might look in vain; I can’t recall ever living in (or near) a capital city so bereft of activity in the later summer period. It’s as though all the local musicians have decided en masse to take a two-month break from all action. Of course, a good reason for this famine is obvious: people would rather enjoy the Queensland sunshine than sit indoors. Further, ticket sales for serious music have obviously fallen off in direct proportion to the desperation shown by online publicity communiques. The times have changed – in a negative way – for most organizations in these allegedly post-COVID months; why risk putting on events for which any financial return is doubtful?

If not for Alex Raineri‘s music festival, the list below would be ludicrously small.

CHAUSSON’S CONCERTO

Natsuko Yoshimoto, Alex Raineri, Ensemble Q Quartet, Courtenay Cleary

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Monday December 5 at 7:30 pm

In the catalogue, Chausson’s large-scale work to be played tonight is not a concerto but a concert for piano, violin and string quartet; in simpler and less confusing terms, it’s a sextet. Can we writhe around linguistically for some time wondering why the composer styled his score a concert? Well, probably, but the best explanation I’ve found is that the work does not subscribe to the Classical/Romantic definition of a concerto but harks back to the Baroque, setting Yoshimoto’s violin and Raineri’s piano as soloists against the Ensemble Q group’s accompaniment/ripieno. I can’t definitively identify the quartet personnel, by the way; Yoshimoto has played first violin with the Ensemble for some time, and Trish Dean seems to be the resident cellist. As for the rest, anybody could show up. The only other work on offer here is Elizabeth Maconchy’s brief String Quartet No. 3 from 1938; an early contribution to the composer’s output of 13 works in the form, it gives an opportunity for us to encounter a voice that British historians and critics regard as a significant one. Yes, we’ve heard that one many times before but nationalistic special pleading may be justified this time. It’s possible that the other named artist – violinist Cleary – will be taking part in the short quartet; as with many of these Brisbane Music Festival recitals, the final reveal can be an intriguing part of the experience.

AN EVENING WITH AMY

Amy Lehpamer, Luke Carbon, Alex Raineri

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann St., Brisbane

Friday December 9 at 6:30 pm

You look across the relevant websites fruitlessly for much by way of nitty-gritty biographical information about musical theatre performer Lehpamer. All her appearances on stage are documented; not so much detail about her career as a violinist. But she’s an attractive and photogenic artiste; as well, the press have been complimentary/kind. For this Brisbane Music Festival night, she’s supported by the inevitable Alex Raineri, our pianist for all seasons, and Luke Carbon who is billed to play ‘woodwinds’ – and that’s exactly what he can provide: all four of the standard orchestral instruments, as well as the saxophone of many colours. How does this evening go? It seems to comprise excerpts from the top-drawer of music theatre writers as well as some oddities: Sondheim, Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bacharach (a bit dodgy as far as musicals go, but many brilliant individual songs), Lizzo (the hip-hop artist? Good luck with that), Cohen (Leonard? Or George M.?) and King (even worse – Carole? B.B.? Paul? Marcus? Tony? And other possibilities that stretch out into the middle distance). More surprising than finding out which composer is which in these last-named, consider the venue inside which these musicians will do their best; Eliot has nothing on this.

BETWEEN US

Thea Rossen, Courtenay Cleary, Jeremy Stafford, Alex Raineri, Luke Carbon, Miriam Niessl, Daniel Shearer

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann St., Brisbane

Friday December 9 at 8:30 pm

Possibly part of the Brisbane Music Festival’s Up Late Series, this recital involves seven musicians including two violinists in Cleary and Niessl, Carbon restricting himself to clarinet, Raineri the essential pianist, percussionist Rossen, guitarist Stafford and a cellist in Daniel Shearer. As a focal point, the program gives us the world premiere of Corrina Bonshek’s The Space Between Us, about which I can find no information – not even its instrumentation or its length. Two things I can report: you are encouraged to walk around the cathedral while listening, and its forces are ‘spatialized’ – by which I believe that they will be spread out, not operating at one focal point. As well as this piece by the Brisbane composer, we are offered a potpourri of Bach, Saariaho, Messiaen, Taylor/Rose (is that Taylor Rose, the Ugandan gospel singer? Or a composite of James and Axl?), and Greenfell (presumably the Hobart-based musician Maria). Whatever the sonic logistics, this performance is scheduled to last for 90 minutes – which is fine when you have permission to wander; think how many vast late Romantic symphonies would benefit from being played to ambulant audiences, especially if the doors are left open.

SYMPHONIC SANTA 2022

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Saturday December 10 at 9:30 pm

Not to carry on too much, but is this the best that the QSO can do at Christmas? One concert in the whole month and that an entertainment for children? It wouldn’t afflict me so much were it not for the sell-out involved to the ghastly reductiveness of a commercial festive season. No, I’m not hankering for the Ensemble Gombert’s arcane resuscitation of Renaissance motets; not even the Melbourne Symphony’s dry combination of popular and less popular Yuletide classics; not even the Australian Brandenburgers’ principle of playing anything remotely Xmas-related that isn’t nailed down. But for this Santa celebration, only one musician is listed by name: James Shaw playing Sneezy the Reindeer, which is something of a crazy character transmigration since Sneezy is surely one of Disney’s Seven Dwarves. Izzy the Elf and the Claus couple also appear in this inter-active entertainment that mixes the familiar with the deservedly unknown. As the aim is to introduce the young to orchestral players and their instruments, great trust is being placed in the persuasive talents of the orchestra’s players. Good luck to everyone; the running time is 50 minutes and the appropriate age stretch is babies (you’ve got to be joking) to 10 years.

This event will be repeated at 11: 30 am and on Sunday December 11 at 9: 30 am and at 11:30 am.

CROSSING

Jane Sheldon, Jeremy Stafford, Thea Rossen

Merthyr Rd. Uniting Church, New Farm

Thursday December 15 at 8:30 pm

Soprano Sheldon is collaborating with guitarist Stafford and percussionist Rossen in an hour of contemporary music. Pride of place goes to a world premiere of Jodie Rottle’s it has no end; this is a work written for Rossen and features her alone, as far as I can tell. The only misgiving comes inevitably from the title; with the composer’s penchant for events and a kind of musical pantheism, this recital’s 60 minutes could be stretched. Then there’s Phillip Houghton’s Ophelia (A Haunted Sonata), a work for solo guitar which has been espoused by Karin Schaupp; its five movements add up to about 10 minutes’ worth of playing from Stafford. Finally, Sheldon appears in her own collaboration with Julian Curwin: a sequence of eleven songs that gives this Brisbane Music Festival event its title. Essentially, this is an album recorded four years ago and enjoying a live-performance revival. In the original, Curwin played guitar, harmonium and melodica; Sheldon sang and also performed on a zither in the last song, L’Amour triste; and a viola contributed to three of the tracks, including Crossing. There’ll be a certain freshness as Sheldon works with two new musicians at this exercise, although it strikes me as rather lazy programming, particularly as it makes up the major component of the night’s music-making: the recording comes in at a tad less than 37 minutes. Still, perhaps it’s worth it, even if the publicised descriptor of ‘Medieval minstrel band meets Radiohead’ makes my gut uneasy.

BOAT ON THE OCEAN

Alex Raineri & Thea Rossen

Merthyr Rd. Uniting Church, New Farm

Thursday December 15 at 6:30 pm

As far as I can see, Brisbane Music Festival director Raineri bears most of this recital’s heavy work, particularly as the night ends with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit: a mighty challenge for many pianists, a lot of them skidding out of contention in the first Ondine round. Of course, it’s not hard to build up atmospheric presence in all three parts, thanks to the composer’s genius in acoustic painting. But, if Le Gibet is a lay down misere for any moderately gifted interpreter, the outer poemes are more taxing: in the first, a temptation to blur too much, especially across the near-conclusion scintillations; in Scarbo, the chance to let loose with a Bartokian percussive exercise. I don’t think I’ve heard a satisfactory Ondine for years; probably since Carl Vine played it at the North Melbourne Town Hall as part of a catch-all program in which nothing else came close to this display of interpretative brilliance. But I digress. Raineri also has charge of the premiere of John Rotar’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which the publicity calls ‘Ravelian’; phew, you can be lucky. This work is listed in the composer’s catalogue with the subtitle Gongs and Bells from the Black Bamboo Cathedral (Thailand or Trinidad?). And both Raineri and percussionist Rossen collaborate to spark things off with arrangements by Rotar of two parts from Ravel’s five-part Miroirs: the middle piece, Une barque sur l’ocean and the concluding La vallee des cloches which I can easily see suited to Rossen’s resources. About the marine soundscape, I’d be interested to see how the arrangement copes with page after page of arpeggios; give them all to the pianist, or share them out? Which rather makes you wonder: why pick this highly pianistic piece for re-fashioning? Because it’s there?

PHOENIX TRIO

Lina Andonovska, Alexina Hawkins, Harold Gretton

Mrghyr Rd. Uniting Church, New Farm

Friday December 16 at 6:30 pm

The Brisbane Music Festival here presents a rum trio. Andonovska is a flautist, Hawkins a violist, Gretton a guitarist. I haven’t come across any music written for this instrumental format but I believe that, after this night, that ephemeral knowledge gap will be filled to fine effect. Fortunately, this ensemble is an established one, not just created for the occasion, or yesterday. They will play Melbourne-based Samuel Smith’s Sun Opener, which remains a mystery but will probably include guitar as that is Smith’s instrument; the ensemble performed this work some years ago. Then comes Leo Brouwer’s Pasajes, Retratos y Mujeres (Landscapes, Portraits and Women), a 1997 three-movement suite that was actually written for flute, viola and guitar. As was Francesco Molino’s Op. 45 Grand Trio Concertant: an allegroromanzerondo construct in a happy D Major (the top line can also be played by violin, and some authorities think it’s best performed that way); or are we to hear the composer’s earlier Op. 30 which comprises a larghetto, theme and variations, minuet and rondo? Anyway, then comes veteran flautist/mathematician and Wagga resident Fran Griffin’s Snow Gum which is a trio involving guitar but presents something of a conundrum as it requires two flutes; the first plays alto and C, the second supplies bass and C – a test of Hawkins more than anyone else, although the piece is not over-taxing. Last of all is an Australian premiere: one half of the Assad brothers, Sergio’s Mangabeira which is another true flute/viola/guitar trio, if rather short and salonesque.

ORPHEUS

Eljo Agenbach, Alex Raineri, Ben Hughes

Merthyr Rd. Uniting Church, New Farm

Friday December 16 at 8:30 pm

Not Monteverdi, not Gluck, probably not Offenbach, this event is presenting as an Up Late Series piano recital by Brisbane Music Festival director Raineri. Agenbach is credited as the night’s visual artist, Hughes its lighting designer. So you’d assume that the performer (if not his audience) is getting a sensurround envelope in which to unveil his wares. The only overt intimation concerning content is a quote from Rilke: the last tercet of the first of the poet’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The composers concerned are Natalie Nicholas, Samantha Wolf and Jane Sheldon. The last-named we know mainly as a soprano, but her compositional credits are observable at the Festival’s Crossing recital on the day before this. In her current catalogue, I can’t find anything directly Orphic but her latest album I am a tree, I am a mouth uses texts by Rilke, although these come from the poet’s earlier Book of Hours. Nicholas is based in Sydney and has enjoyed an active career in terms of commissions; on her confusing website, I can’t find anything documented as aimed towards this night, so I’m assuming her contribution will come from her existing catalogue. In piano works, this comprises five very short pieces and a Rhapsodie L’Insanite which might have some connection to Orpheus before his final encounter with the Thracian maenads. Wolf’s work is called Life on Earth and Raineri will be giving its first performance tonight. Does it have a connection to the bard’s post-Underworld existence? Maybe; it’s probably best to tamp down such suggestions; just because the recital has a suggestive title doesn’t mean that everything has to connect with it. Although . . .

SATURDAY SONATAS

Lina Andonovska, Luke Carbon, Alexina Hawkins, Alex Raineri

Merthyr Road Uniting Church, New Farm

Saturday December 17 at 10:30 am

Last of the Brisbane Music Festival’s Morning series, this 90-minute program features three works. First up, Hawkins and Raineri perform Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1919, one of the American/British composer’s most well-known works; which is not saying that much as Clarke’s music is notoriously hard to come by. Then Carbon and Raineri come together for Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, a two-movement construct from 1941/2 and the American master’s first published work. These musicians have recorded the sonata on a Move Records disc released at the end of 2021. After interval, flautist Andonovska presents her arrangement for her own instrument of Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E flat Major Op. 18. All glory, laud and honour, of course, but I can’t see why you’d bother. The first movement has the violin occupied pretty high; it’s quite a while until the part moves outside the flute’s range to an A sharp and an A below Middle C and pretty soon after that we encounter a quadruple stop chord and a couple of triple-stop punctuations. At four points in the Andante cantabile, the violin line moves below the flute’s reach and there are some multiple-stop chords and a few bars of double-stopping to negotiate. Later, these two problem areas are exacerbated in the Andante/Allegro movement where a key theme is required to launch itself time after time into an upward-rushing scale-type vault that starts on an impractical low note. Further, you have to wonder how a flute will carry off the biting vitality of these pages.

VORTEX

Lina Andonovska, Luke Carbon, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Alexina Hawkins, Katherine Philp, Alex Raineri

Merthyr Road Uniting Church, New Farm

Saturday December 17 at 6:30 pm

And so we say farewell to this year’s Brisbane Music Festival with a mixed sextet playing two works written for their particular combination, one of them by a young Australian writer specifically for this occasion. Taking up the lion’s share (two-thirds) of this hour-long event is Gerard Grisey’s Vortex temporum, one of the French composer’s last works and – to his probable irritation – a sterling example of the Spectralist movement. Which sounds ghostly but has nothing to do with the supernatural – rather, it is concerned with musical spectra – the which phrase, as far as I can determine, refers to frequency and timbre. I know precious little about this artistic movement or school because the spread of its music is non-existent, as far as Australian performances go, but it strikes me that the above mini-descriptor is akin to your good old-fashioned Klangfarbenmelodie. Or is that over-simplifying, trying to find an anchor in the past for a near-contemporary branch of activity? The Spectralist composers – even those unwillingly included in that grouping, like Grisey – have roused a low level of controversy, juiced up by those who want their music to be beautiful and enjoyable; yes, I too thought we’d moved beyond that sort of thinking but the lazy you will always have with you. No details are available about Bragg’s piece, except that the program and the composer himself call it new work and it fits into the Grisey operating instrumentation of flute (Andonovska), clarinet (Carbon), violin (Yoshimoto), viola (Hawkins), cello (Philp) and piano (Raineri). You’ll be exercised by this music, sent off a week before the big day of grace and gorging with a wealth of aesthetic knots to consider – or leave untouched.

BRISBANE SINGS MESSIAH

The Queensland Choir

Brisbane City Hall

Sunday December 18 at 2:45 pm

Reassuring to see that colonial habits have not all fallen totally by the wayside. Handel’s great oratorio – a chain of popular recitatives, arias and choruses – spells Christmas for very little reason except tradition. This performance doesn’t look like one of those original versions where the strings are all gut and non-vibrato, the organ a chamber one, the singers number about 16 (including the soloists), the oboes operate off-key in best historical practice, and the conductor leads from a harpsichord. No, I get the impression that this afternoon will be a solid 19th century reading, especially since members of the public have been encouraged to rehearse with The Queensland Choir and participate in the performance. All four soloists are new to me: soprano Leanne Kenneally-Warnock, mezzo Hayley Sugars, tenor Sebastian Maclaine, and baritone Leon Warnock. The orchestra is the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, whose home is the Ann St. Uniting Church and which regularly works with this choir. As for the conductor, none is specified but you’d have to think that long-time Choir eminence Kevin Power will do the honours in this final celebration of the Choir’s 150 years of operation, December 18 being the date of the organization’s first concert in 1872. This performance is scheduled to end at 5 pm – which it may, if nobody troubles with breaks and/or a certain amount of Part the Third (as usual) is excised.