Comfortable beans

FIKA

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 603



The least I can say about this CD is that it’s uncommon; you won’t find much to compare it with on the folk or jazz or serious music scenes. Or is that untrue? Perhaps there are a whole lot of similar ensembles out there, all straddling stools and producing albums like this one, being published for a group of admirers willing to offer support of a definite nature. Elysian Fields is an ensemble with a catholic taste, headed by Jenny Eriksson on electric viol da gamba. She is accompanied on this heavily Swedish CD by Susie Bishop (voice and violin), Matt Keegan (saxophones), Matt McMahon (piano), Siebe Pogson (bass guitar) and Dave Goodman (drums).

Of the nine tracks, six are vocal and cover a wide range. Three have Swedish texts, two are English, one is Greek/Latin using parts of the Common of the Mass. Two of the Swedish texts use folk tunes, while one, Frid na Jord, was written by folk-singer Sofia Karlsson.

As for the instrumental titles, they begin with Living, a work by Jan Gunnar Hoff which is here arranged by Eriksson. The tune itself is amiably folksy and almost pentatonic. It is treated at the opening and at the end with a side-line into something more jazz-inflected in the middle after Keegan’s saxophone takes solo spot. It is probably as well to point out that composer Hoff is Norwegian and his work as outlined here is a smaller version of an original, larger piece for jazz trio. Nothing here will disturb anyone’s equanimity; just a simple ternary construct in which the main tune is played several times without elaboration.

Next comes Karlsson’s Peace on Earth, a Christmas song with some sombre suggestions that make a counterpoint to the text’s celebratory theme. Alongside this ambiguous set of lines, the melody is slow-moving and, in an arrangement by pianist McMahon, attractively modal and, after not too long, almost predictable. The second stanza offers a timbre change, the voice accompanied only by piano for the first quatrain before the sax and percussion (very soft) flesh out the supporting ambience. Here also, we have a jazz excursion for piano which is relaxed and not that inventive; to my ears, it seems unconnected to its precedents. For good measure, Bishop sings the second stanza again, her exceptionally lucid colour and security a significant contributor to the performance’s success, especially considering the song’s slow pace.

For me, the pick of the disc comes now with an early 19th century courting (on both sides) round dance, Vi ska stalla till en rolger dans. The melody is catchy and asymmetrical and Bishop’s delivery is crystal-clear and vital without effort, her choruses beginning with a repeated Hei hopp (Heigh ho) particularly infectious and spot on pitch. Here again, there are interludes after the two verses; then the first is repeated. Keegan uses a soprano, I think, and he with Bishop on violin and McMahon provide an 8-bar introduction notable for violin tremolo and two-note intervallic leaps on sax – I can’t tell what it has to do with the following skipping tune but that’s my fault, I’m sure.

(Parenthetically, I must apologise here for not being able to put in accents any more, such as the missing diaeresis on the first a in stalla above, or the small circle above the a in Frid pa Jord.. WordPress changed its operating format some months ago and I can no longer get access to the list of accented letters that used to be available. As well, I can’t manage these days to set up links to organizations and individuals. Progress: you gotta love it.)

Lat till Far constitutes a bit of recycling. Composed by Pers Erik Olsson. it appeared on a 2013 Marais Project disc in an arrangement by Sydney theorboist Tommie Andersson, and that version formed the basis of this version for Bishop’s violin, Eriksson’s gamba and new arranger McMahon’s piano. Olsson’s melody is fine folksy fodder, its second phrase interesting for an unexpected momentary modulation. But again, the old problem arises: what do you do with a folk-song-like melody except repeat it over and over in different guises? Vide Copland’s Appalachian Spring, God help us. The trio gives the tune slightly different guises, principally in the piano’s supporting chords, but both strings end up playing this melody at the octave. Not exactly tedious, but not engaging after the first few runs-through.

What came irresistibly to mind in the next track was the Irish folk-song She moved through the fair, which has the same disappointed-in-love matter at its core. Nar som jag var pa mitt adertonde ar has no ghost appearing at its end but it might as well have gone the full sprite hog. An 18-year-old girl falls in love, but the lad is embraced by another girl. Our narrator is left looking for a unification with her distant beloved after death. The Swedish folk song is, like the Irish one, bar-less and the support offered to Bishop’s typically clear delivery comprises drones from piano and gamba, Keegan offering a quasi-improvisatory interlude at the half-way point. Particularly effective is the conclusion where the voice is left alone with the softest subterranean support, so that the final aspiration/threat takes on a vivid clarity.

Track 1’s composer, Gunnar Hoff, returns with Meditatus, a version of Kyrie I from the composer’s Mass for jazz ensemble and choir. Eriksson has used the original version as well as an arrangement for voice and piano, inserting some improvisatory sections into this construct which uses the Kyrie eleison and last three words of the Agnus Dei. Here is pretty simple – no, very simple – material where the voice is supported by piano chords in a few melodic strains that might have escaped from Vatican II at its most elementary. Bishop sings the Greek and Latin without problems and also has a bit of vocalising, if nothing too adventurous. Keegan presents a solo that almost suggests improvisation but seems pretty strait-laced.

By about this stage, even to this mean intelligence, the penny drops: any jazz involved here lies in inflexions and interludes, not sustained passages of free-wheeling fabrication. This factor becomes pretty obvious in this neo-liturgical piece where the demarcation between the text setting (and associated whee-ooh-hees) and instrumental solos is so sharp. Still, if that’s a distinction that the Elysians are happy with, we have little recourse except to listen . . . and possibly learn.

The last of the instrumental tracks – Cold Soul by saxophonist Keegan – puts the piano at it centre, the viola/violin/sax following a formal, fully-scored path with washes and snare-drum backing from Goodman, whose contributions throughout are polished and unobtrusive, but at their most noticeable here. You can’t be sure but there’s a sense that the piano goes off on a tangent in the centre of the work, the before and after sections having a smooth, cool quality with a nice waltz-like sway that eventually dissipates at the end in a wash of hemiolas. Keegan was commissioned to produce the piece as part of an Eriksson project that resulted in this CD; he took his inspiration from a year-long sojourn in Sweden. You may find Scandinavian suggestions here; they were not apparent to me, as I thought the projected emotional ambience could have fitted in at Rosebud or Byron on a Hemsworth-less sunny morning.

Siebe Pogson – like Goodman, a quiet presence for the most part – enjoyed another Eriksson commission: a three-movement work from which we are offered the first, which is called The Tragedy. This is the second-longest track on Fika (7’20”), after Frid pa Jord (8’48”), and it has a solid jazz flavour, if a laid-back sentimental tang. The first of two verses has a wide-ranging diatonic melodic line which is doubled by the gamba, I think, while the piano does some soulful doodling. The setting is strophic, with no melismata to interrupt the step-like motion. A short sax solo leads to a second verse in which the sax works in concert with the voice, note for note, but not the same notes, thank God.

In fact, the line covers a wide vocal range, well beyond the capacities of most singers of popular music. An exposed piano solo follows the end of the singing, rather like the opening in effect and a nice sample of gentle meandering, before the player recapitulates his opening and sax-plus-gamba work in unison through a reprise, after which the work ends in the minor. Pogson also wrote the lyrics, which are loaded with existential angst; sadly, this is not reflected in the music itself, which, in the end, presents as attractively smooth in its instrumental content, and pleasantly angular in its vocal shape.

Last of all comes Believe Beleft Below by Esbjorn Svensson; well, the music is from the Swedish jazz pianist/composer but a text has been provided by Josh Haden whose own version can be found on YouTube and which seems to bear no relation to Svensson’s product. This is a calm, gently paced ballad in Eriksson’s arrangement, with Bishop caressing the vocal line and, as you’d expect, an instrumental interlude divided between gamba and sax; a reprise begun by piano has Bishop joining back in on proceedings at the third line. It has to be noted that the singer is not stretched at all by this soft-stepping if trite melody and – as we’ve come to anticipate by this stage – the texture might owe a lot to jazz but the overall atmosphere occupies a ground half-way between the Kingston Trio and the mildest of torch songs.

There you have it: a miscellany of charm and warmth on its best tracks. The CD’s title apparently means a coffee break, but even more the inter-personal warmth that comes from such an interlude. Take that into consideration, and you have an excellent musical accompaniment to this sort of cosy pastime: calm and casual, any crises dissipated by comfort, a continuous emphasis (for a short while) on the laid-back. And Fika certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, the total playing time coming in between 50 and 51 minutes.

The hues of youth

THE FIREBIRD

Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Friday April 23

Samuel Choi

One of the great critic’s put-downs I can remember was applied to a prize-winner at the International Chopin Piano Competition. The reviewer wrote, ‘At least most of the notes were there.’ I think this might have been applied to Ashkenazy in 1955, but it could have been anybody in that rarefied, self-regarding world where musicologists rather than performers worry a potential flattened third to death. Still, as opposed to regarding such a comment as negative, it seems to me that the writer was offering praise: it is something when a pianist can get nearly all the notes out, even in a well-worn field like Chopin’s oeuvre.

All of which is a preamble to considering Samuel Choi’s efforts with the the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 last Friday in a well-attended program from the Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra. In fact, as far as I could tell, Choi managed to get out nearly all the notes and held his own in this work which, in its first half, resembles a series of lightly-accompanied solos and straight-out cadenzas with memorable orchestral links. While the soloist encountered some perilous moments, mainly in the Allegro con fuoco finale, he enjoyed considerable success with the highly exposed Allegro con spirito part of the opening movement. In fact, his only obvious difficulty throughout this long sequence of emotional ups and downs came at about bar 261 when the ante-penultimate and penultimate arpeggiated chords came to inaccurate conclusions.

But for small slips like that, the major part of this movement showed a fine technique at work allied to loads of preparation as in the accuracy of the massive double octave passages that preceded the above-mentioned arpeggios from bar 251 to 259, and later in the thrilling build-up after the main cadenza at bar 611 where the onward drive is irresistible but a nightmare for the soloist, particularly when the triplets arrive in bar 620. And you could find a good deal to admire in Choi’s avoidance of dynamic excess, those mighty opening chords pronounced with confidence, not braggadoccio, and he showed a willingness to take part in segments rather than dominating the output at every point as at the flute doubling at bar 218 and which lasts with other woodwind up to bar 234.

Mind you, the process might have been more successful if the first flute had been more assertive, but only clarinets and bassoons mounted a challenge in this movement, while the brass made their combined mark with as much self-confidence as this corps in most other orchestras does, even if the horns were unexpectedly accurate (which back-handed praise comes from one all too used to student ensembles in Melbourne and Sydney, and hence inclined to be fretful in advance).

Along with Choi’s fine, often well-nuanced reading, the other arresting factor in this concerto’s duration was the quality of the Conservatorium strings. Here was fine ensemble work from a body that responded to conductor Peter Luff with precision and, as far as I could tell, commitment from first desk to the rear echelons. No scraping, no imprudent isolated entries (well, maybe one), no self-regard from anybody but a professional approach from each group – and all carried off without soupy vibrato but a keen responsiveness that ensured exactitude in block chord explosions, like the hammer-blows that interrupted Choi’s double octaves between bars 251 and bar 257.

We heard the first flute en clair announcing the Andantino‘s first melody, before Choi took up the tune over a mild string susurrus, a passage that was probably too restrained from the soloist. Later, his delicacy in the central Allegro vivace showed an insight beyond his years, and he handled pretty cleanly the exposed jerky angularity of the occasional 8-bar solo as well as making a restrained helter-skelter charm in one of the concerto’s most genial passages, from bar 99 to bar 114.

To my mind, Luff’s pace for the finale seemed a touch stolid but it proved comfortable for Choi, which is the only criterion worth considering, after all. You could have asked for more definition in certain odd sections, like the accidentals/acciaccature between bars 29 and 36, but you balance against that the splendid meld from action to lyricism that heralds the movement’s D flat Major second subject. In treating this noble theme after its string statement, Choi arrived at one of his interpretative highlights with an excellent mastery of sustaining a line surrounded by arpeggiated distractions. As expected, the violin entry at 234, rising out of the twitchy, skipping preface, proved an increasingly impressive fabric, an ideal combination of pliant and solid. Choi’s double-octaves solo sounded flawless to me, a show-stopping ‘filled’ fermata before the relieving climax of Tchaikovsky’s Molto meno mosso and the compelling last four bars that I suddenly realised prefigure the same point in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3; wonderful how these obvious comparisons become clear after about 60 years.

To follow, in this interval-less concert, Luff and his forces gave an eminently respectable airing of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. For this work, woodwind and brass forces changed personnel, except for the bass trombone who stayed in situ, alongside an un-named tuba performer; the timpanist also changed. Here, you were more able to appreciate the disciplined input of this band’s five double basses, all low strings making an arresting demonstration of pianissimo playing in the opening six bars. Bassoons and clarinets sounded unusually prominent in the following strophes of Stravinsky’s Introduction, given the feathery light opening with the faintest of bass drum rolls, the whole disturbed only by the clacking of an unfortunately incontinent woman in front of me who decided to take a toilet break between the two programmed works and – of course – came back in late

Even the sforzandi from second violins and violas that introduce the title character came over as crisp as you could wish, while the Variation de l’oiseau de fer, packed with instrumental tachisme, found few faults in this group’s rhythmic balance and that vital ability to attack and retreat on a pinpoint, punctuated by some eloquent outbursts as at Number 17 in my old Boosey and Hawkes score. The Ronde showed us a more forthright flautist and oboist in play, although the whole woodwind group and first horn gave this dance a particularly straight-speaking character, even the small one-bar contributions handled sensibly and without elongating languor.

In the Danse infernale, there’s something of a release for the players who have been doodling impressionistically up till now. The sound was brilliant and velvet-thick in turns (for the latter, Number 15 at the D flat Major key signature change), and the musicians responded with excellent agility to Stravinsky’s sudden piano cut-back at Number 21. Despite the usual brass leisureliness when negotiating the block chord work starting at Number 22, the orchestra kept on track for the gripping accelerando and Piu mosso pages that surge and ebb dynamically until the difficult triplet-rich last bars. It’s not that the work is rhythmically taxing – much worse was to follow in 1911 and 1913 – but the pace is hectic; to the performers’ credit, I couldn’t detect any hesitations or missing threads in the fabric, least of all from the first trombone and his glissandi either side of Number 13( which, to be honest, I would prefer to do without).

Once again, the strings surprised by their polish in the divisi passage at Number 4 of the Berceuse, the players generating a persuasively lush timbre despite the use of mutes (nearly) all round. But it’s hard to miscalculate in this soothing nocturne during which the brass are given a rest from their labours, in preparation for the excesses of the Final where the composer does a Tchaikovsky and dresses his one theme in multiple guises. This last movement enjoyed full bowing, a powerful trumpet/trombone combination in its central pages, a reliable first horn for the first 8 bars (which came off with minimal stress), but I would have preferred the slashing detached string chords that the composer later employed at the Doppio valore page.

Still, this performance and that of the concerto were of an impressive standard, particularly for an observer steeped in the frailties of student orchestras. In spite of Luff’s imperturbable direction, or more probably because of it, the Conservatorium musicians looked and sounded keenly involved throughout the evening’s work, thoroughly prepared and showing evidence of relishing their encounters with these two repertoire warhorses, written when Tchaikovsky was 34 and Stravinsky 28; harbingers in both cases of the chains of masterpieces to come.

Large written small

SIEGFRIED’S STORY

Mark Papworth, Per Forsberg, Rosa Scaffidi

Move Records MCD 597

Does anyone in the current generation – X, Y, Z squared – remember Leopold Stokowski? Not the talk-down-to-the-audience posturing figure in DIsney’s first Fantasia of 1940, but the important force in American music-making (and music) who suffered vilification from less-endowed colleagues and underlings, but who stayed the course and remained active almost until his death aged 95 in 1977. He comes irresistibly to mind when considering this idiosyncratic CD which reduces some of Wagner’s most powerful outpourings in the Ring cycle to a mixed trio’s compass: horn, tuba and piano. In doing so, the content covers a bit more ground than just that trodden by Siegfried, who only appears in the last two of the four operas. But, as everyone will tell you, the big tetralogy is nothing less than a monster family show, albeit one starting in primordial ooze and ending in an apocalypse.

Stokowski put his own mark on well-known chunks like the Liebstod, Magic Fire Music and Ride of the Valkyries. In fact, it was some years before I realized that this last-named had singing interpolated. He also put together what he labelled syntheses. Quite a few of both these formats introduced many of my peers and myself to Wagner, mainly because our chances of seeing any parts of the Ring cycle were next to none in this country. Lohengrin or Tannhauser, perhaps; Tristan, less likely; Mastersingers, on the outer rim of feasibility; Parsifal, an impossible dream. These orchestrations were, for their time, very impressive-sounding, especially the three extracts from Tristan: the Prelude, Liebesnacht and Liebstod. Stokowski also gave us more than a nodding acquaintance with the last act of Parsifal, including the Good Friday Spell, as it was known in less religiously correct times.

This Scaffidi/Papworth/Forsberg trio seem to have been driven to their enterprise by little more than Wagner love. Well, that’s certainly true of Papworth who constructed all twelve arrangements and persuaded his colleagues to enter the lists with him. Great to have a musician follow his ambitious path, following the Stokowski trail but scaling down rather than revelling in sumptuousness. Further, it’s admirable to have a player behind the exercise, rather than a well-meaning amateur who responds to the Ring for questionable reasons. For one thing, if you remove most of the tracks on this CD from the original corpus, you are left with hours of tedium in theatrical or dramatic terms. The same can’t be said of the music where many of us look for salvation, but Wotan’s (and others’) lengthy recapitulations can daze many a music-lover. regardless of any singer’s quality.

So, here we are at the opening to Das Rheingold, Wagner’s exercise in E flat Major if mainly its tonic triad. Both wind players have little to do here but sustain the tonic drone while also sounding out the endless chain of E flats, Gs and B flats that are the lot of the brass while Scaffidi copes with the semiquaver arpeggios that turn up in the bass (eventually) and then the woodwind, roaming around both dominant and tonic triads. The group plays a straight version of this famous opening before the first of he composer’s Kardashian precursors, Woglinde, opens her mouth and introduces us to Wagner’s mellifluous vocal line and onomatopoeiac rhyme patterns. No problems here, and the performance is fluid enough.

A more difficult excerpt to carry off follows. After the ‘Get up, you lazy sod’ colloquy between Fricka and Wotan, Fasolt and Fafner, having built Valhalla, show up for their payment. The extract starts at the giants’ entry – Sanft schloss Schlaf dein Aug’ – and their trio with Wotan is followed right up to the D Major cadence just before Donner threatens the giants with his hammer. Forsberg carries the vocal line brunt, Papworth taking over when the movement becomes more chromatic, while the piano is prominent in the galumphing leitmotif that brings to ear the brothers’ heftiness. The players do their best to cover all harmonic bases and, for the most part, the extract doesn’t sound threadbare, although I must confess to losing the vocal line when Freia starts carrying on about being carried off.

This set of three extracts ends with the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla and it’s an impossible task to give even an inkling of the grandiose effect of these pages in a small-scale version. The trio begins at the spot where Donner tells everyone to come on up at Weise der Brucke den Weg!, omits the brooding of Wotan, his uneasy triumphalism countered with the distant Rhinemaidens bemoaning their loss, and takes up when the singing stops and the stately three-in-a-bar march takes over as the gods move into their new quarters. No way on earth can Scaffidi hope to cope with the divisi string work that goes on for page after page and the brass can only hint at the colossal grandeur of the massive brass choir. Still, the extract does show you how brilliant Wagner could be at fleshing out his bare-bones material through a mighty orchestral onslaught.

We are given four excerpts from Die Walkure: two from Act 1 and the concluding act’s Ride of the Valkyrie and Magic Fire Music, with nothing from the much-maligned middle act. The opera’s Prelude is handled well enough, lasting just up until curtain up and a bar before Siegmund comes into the hut. Both brass take on the minor scale motif while the piano keeps up a sustained chord pattern which doesn’t attempt to replicate the sextuplets in violins and violas; even so, the brass cannot hope to replicate the rushed quintuplets that feature so often on the first crotchet in the cellos’ and basses’ pattern work. Still, the dual impressions of storm and urgency come across efficiently enough and with very few errors, considering the pell-mell music and the considerable troubles with giving string music to low brass.

Towards the end of the first act comes Siegmund’s Wintersturme wichend dem Wonnemond aria. sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of this menacing act. Our trio begins 8 bars before the singer and cuts out on the same bar as the aria’s final Lenz! Papworth takes the tune, Scaffidi gives us the mobile arpeggio-rich support, but Forsberg roves across the score with remarkable liberty, here following a bass clarinet part, there a horn, sometimes a violin or cello scrap. It all makes for a genial experience, in large part due to the horn’s smooth agility, especially when the aria moves out of its B flat comfort zone.

The hackneyed Ride of the Valkyries is played straight, without gimmicks, and proves to be a real workout for Scaffidi who has to handle all the athletic work that falls to strings and woodwind. Both brass players tend to reinforce each other, playing at the octave as the piece reaches its highpoint. It’s a bit heavy-handed, as Rides go, and you certainly miss the blazing energy when the brass go into canon with themselves. Scaffidi brings things to a halt at the spot just before Ortlinde sets the girls off on their dead hero body-count, suggestive of AFLW post-match locker room banter – enjoy it while you can, girls: Coach Wotan’s on his way. Then we hear part of Wotan’s Farewell, starting four bars before he summons Loge to install the fire hurdle, and moving to the end of the opera with some omissions to the god’s moving ruminations before he leaves his daughter to her doom. Again, the piano had all the flickering labour while the brass hefted out the pompous descending scales and that unforgettably moving Innocent Sleep motif.

I started to lose the plot with the first extract from Act 2 of Siegfried. I followed the real Forest Murmurs – obvious in the score, beginning at the Wachsendes Waldweben notification and the key change to E Major – but the preceding introduction seemed a Stokowski-style mashing of melodies and motifs from the preceding scene. After a while, of course, Siegfried starts singing and the brass outlined his part, but the process was fragmented and the extract ended in mid-flight, the piano giving us the clarinet solo that accompanies the hero’s picking up his horn prior to blasting at Fafner. This fragment of the opera came off very well, handled with an agreable fluidity, even if most of the effectiveness came from Scaffidi’s non-glutinous string substitution. Papworth gave an excellent reading of Siegfried’s Horn Call, one of Wagner’s rare solo passages – completely exposed, I mean, not just rising above the ruck. You’d go some way to find an equal to this player’s accelerando: immer schnell und schmetternder indeed.

The final extract from Siegfried was the Prelude and first scene of Act 3 where Wotan/Wanderer is loitering at the base of Brunnhilde’s rock. This is pretty dour Wagner with little to recommend it except as an informative harbinger of impending doom and a marvellous contrast with the splendid final duet to the opera. Or perhaps I just miss the orchestral ferment here more than in several other excerpts.

And finally, the trio reaches Gotterdammerung and two solid pieces of work, the longest on the CD: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and his Funeral March. Everybody puts themselves to employment in the musical picture that shows Siegfried leaving the rock, Brunnhilde’s last glimpses of him, and the jaunty journey that our hero has on his luxury-less Scenic tour before the music sinks to depression. The players follow the score right through till the ambiguous chord that signifies the curtain going up on the Gibichung Hall. Much of this is horn-heavy in the original but the keyboard provides much of the movement’s thrust, doubling the brass’s handling of the main melody line for substantial lengths of time. Here, as in previous tracks, details have been omitted; admittedly, most of these are rapid and hard to incorporate into an arrangement, but it might have been worth leaving the brass to jockey with the melodic Hauptstimmen and given Scaffadi the opportunity to fill in the supporting gaps.

And we come at last to the opera’s penultimate dramatic highpoint. Auden once said, ‘When my time is up, I’ll want Siegfried’s Funeral Music and not a dry eye in the house.’ Wishes are all very well, but the poet had a quieter send-off at the churchyard of Kirchstetten in 1973. It’s hard to think of anything to rival Wagner’s pages for shattering, sombre power and these musicians give a convincing musical depiction of this imposing scene, picking up in the bar where Siegfried dies and coming to a neat C Major conclusion (the original’s C sharp down to C) at the point where Gutrune comes on stage to reap the rewards of her household’s duplicity. This is a very hard ask without a conductor and you can hear some slightly discrepant entries, moments when the ensemble is just a tad imperfect. But the interpretation has a reduced grandeur and punch at those stirring moments of C and G Major repeated chords that, even on a small scale as here, take you into the tragedy of this saga’s final moments.

In the end, this CD is something of a curiosity, reducing the irreducible and clarifying where the original intent was often a fabric of rich agglomeration. What you must do is respect the exercise as a labour of love, fed by Papworth’s familiarity with and attachment to Wagner’s music. No, of course it’s no substitute for the original bleeding chunks that Stokowski carved out for us. It’s more like a digest of a digest: improbably diminished canvases, yet bearing enough distinctive lineaments to satisfy the sympathizer, if not the Bayreuth purist.

Penitentials for all

MUSIC FOR HOLY WEEK

Canticum Chamber Choir

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Rosalie

Friday April 2

Canticum Chamber Choir

One of the few opportunities to hear some traditional Good Friday music arose from this event from one of Brisbane’s leading choral bodies. Given the state premier’s penchant for lockdowns, the planned initial presentation on March 31 had to be postponed for a week; luckily, conductor/director Emily Cox and her forces were able to get themselves together for this performance on the heels of the snap-lockdown’s lifting. The experience thereby gained an added frisson, as though events of this kind were lacunae in the normal life of this city – like early Christians getting a partial reprieve when a theologically indifferent Caesar came to power.

Emerging from our live-performance catacombs, Canticum gave us a mixed program, its material widespread in ambit but nearly all of it appropriate for the dour day itself. That familiar setting of Psalm 51 from the 1630s by Allegri with its exposed high Cs for solo soprano was written for Tenebrae services in Holy Week; O vos omnes is a responsory for Holy Saturday, here in the setting by Pablo Casals; presenting a Good Friday scene, although not written for that day’s observances, the Stabat mater dolorosa sequence has attracted many composers, including Domenico Scarlatti whose treatment I was hearing for the first time live.

O nata lux has its foundation in the Feast of the Transfiguration and, if not there, then Christmas, but I was happy to hear Canticum put their voices to another Lauridsen composition. Lotti’s 8-part Crucifixus deals with part of the Creed, but the part most pertinent to this day. And the Xhosa song Indodana is centred around the Son’s self-sacrifice which is the fundamental matter of Good Friday.

It’s a brave choir that opens its account with the Allegri score. For one thing, your force is split into three: the Gregorian set, the small group in the distance, and the main body. On the plus side, it’s repetitive and the change in timbre gives a necessary variety. Still, I must admit to a certain relief when the Benigne fac, Domine verse comes around and we’re on the home stretch.

Cox sent three male singers to stand under the church’s dome, from which they articulated the mono-linear chant, a line that got progressively slower as the work proceeded. But the trio stayed in tune, as did the main body Choir I who showed themselves well-prepared and expressively capable. With the four-line Choir II, matters got off to an unfortunate start, the soprano seemingly left high and dry in the first Amplius lava me intercession, the tenor and bass vanishing from view around the time of the top note on munda. Luckily, the group showed increased security in their next excursion and the negotiation of mihi proved much more secure.

As a whole, this performance was reverent, lacking in dynamic drama, although that’s understandable in a psalm that, more than most, rambles across a wide range of guilt. What it lacked more than anything, though, was a sense of urgency; these sinners were in no placatory hurry but admitted their iniquities at a measured pace. More trepidation would have helped the setting to carry more weight than this reading’s pleasure in its comfortable resonance.

As intra-choral interludes, cellist Louise King offered us two solo improvisations with a loop supporting her live performance. The first, Lament, opened with a long pizzicato passage before a solid bowed melody emerged. The language was diatonic, highly suggestive of Jewish music with what sounded like reminiscences of Bruch’s Kol Nidre setting along with a handful of Hasidic sobs. Nothing particularly startling here but an intriguing mix of sonorities and a richly expressive lyrical fluency.

The Casals motet began in the same key as the conclusion to King’s Lament – a nice piece of continuity. This O vos omnes is popular in Holy Week ceremonies, not least for its adoption by British choirs which find a reflection of their conservatism in its simple, concordant pages that reveal the cellist/composer’s happiness in a harmonic landscape that has barely progressed beyond Schumann but sets the text with impressive ardour for all that, particularly at the arresting climax on attendite. This showed a clarity of texture from the Canticums, especially across the sections where Casals almost divides his forces into 8 parts; the interpretation gave us a good taste of a choral body momentarily not under much pressure.

As with the Allegri, this evening’s performance of Scarlatti’s solid Stabat mater impressed more for its steady workmanship than for any suggestions of transcendence. For all that, the Canticums (or should that be Cantica?) enjoyed a continuo support throughout from Phillip Gearing’s chamber organ with King lending a subtle, welcome hand. In the first movement, the delivery proved reliable, apart from one of the soprano lines being happier at her work than the other in the brief canon at bars 5-6. The succeeding Cuius animam followed the same emotional bandwidth, although here you find some more intriguing harmonic structures as in the treatment of Et dolentem. Cox gave her forces some solo work at various stages across he score; fine as a change in surface tension although the ones employed in the centre of this movement tended to lag behind the pulse.

With Quis non posset, Scarlatti gives his interpreters a bit more chromatic creeping and a more lively pace at the Pro peccatis text. Even so, I think these pages could have been negotiated at a brisker pace because the sopranos and first tenors struggled with the downward motion between bars 69 to 72. A much more comfortable time they had of it in the balmy 2nds of Eia Mater, King’s surging colour prominent here for the first time. Also, the mix of soloists proved texturally intriguing and individual, while the movement came to a moving efflorescence in the closing bars with a finely judged tierce de Picardie. In this last respect, ditto for the Sancta Maria verses, moving from major to minor throughout before a concluding raised B flat. At this point, the soloists’ contribution, accurate in intonation though it was, lacked plosive bite, consonants disappearing with that freedom shown by Sutherland in her prime.

I’m fascinated by the setting styles of various writers in the Fac me tecum interlude. Scarlatti doesn’t disappoint with his major-key determination while the poet keeps giving the Mother of God more orders. The singers made a bold start on these pages but I sensed a slackening of determination at about bars 18 and 24 where the top sopranos have a short break. Some more surprises emerged in the Juxta crucem sequence. Every so often in this score, a note emerges that doesn’t exactly jar but rather points in a new harmonic direction, the composer here moving between D and D flat; not making a Gesualdo chromatic strike but sapping away at your expectations. Yet again, in these pages the soloists showed a tendency to pull against the conductor’s admittedly fluent metre, and the only unhealthy contribution heard across this score came in the soprano soloist’s last note.

A florid tenor/soprano solo alternation opened the Inflammatus, well carried off even if it might have gained from more exuberance and less self-consciousness. When they entered, the main body also played by the book and tamped down the potential for vigour, possible because of Scarlatti’s sudden plethora of minims. To their credit, the soloists’ second exposure proved more persuasive, almost exhilarating. I expect (not having counted the bars) that the Fac ut animae segment is the longest of this score and hard work for its interpreters as Scarlatti channels his inner Handel. Sadly, the melodic material stays unremarkable at a point where we need novelty but instead get blocks of vocal fabric that offer little variety. Full marks to the singers for soldiering through it.

The 3/8 Amen (even though we’d enjoyed an Amen during the previous movement) restored some vitality, even if the basses failed to make much of an impact at their first bar 11 entry. But the performance ended in fine style thanks to an excellent integration of solo lines into the full corps, completing the task with some welcome panache.

Canticum has recorded some Lauridsen and has clear sympathy with the American master’s style, including an ease with those added 2nds and 7ths. The singers treated O nata lux with devotion, putting their vocal backs (?!) into the task and carrying off a fine realization of the brief work’s recapitulation/coda at bar 35. To Cox’s credit, she kept her charges at a steady pace, without wallowing in the wash of choral colours and the occasional passage of very ripe chordal texture.

King’s Dawn Light solo moved to the major and impressed for its felicitous character, enriched by some excellent integration of live and taped material. Were there some Sculthorpe-type bird imitations in the mix, or was that a serendipitous intrusion from outside the building? Whatever the case, this was a welcome instance of affirmative action, giving vent even more to the player’s appealing and resonant production abilities.

All of Canticum moved to stand under the Sacred Heart dome for Lotti’s Crucifixus. It’s unusual to clump your lines together like this in a work for 8 parts but the results were excellent, the mesh a glowing texture of impressive movement at sub Pontio Pilato.

If you’ve seen the University of Pretoria Camerata sing Indodana under arranger Michael Barrett (available on YouTube), you’ve heard this simple construct at its best. Which is no reason for not essaying such an atmospheric piece yourself. I liked the Canticum version, although it was necessarily more elegant than anticipated. Still, the linear complex proved faultless with some well-balanced sustained chords from tenors and basses, the latter an explosive force at the work’s Jehova! climax across bars 46-48. An uplifting conclusion to this event that, for me at least, put the day into its proper perspective.

Uncomplicated but odd

ENOCH ARDEN

Brisbane Music Festival & Victorian Theatre Company

Bowen Studio, Bowen Hills

Sunday March 28

Matthew Connell

Richard Strauss’s setting of the well-known Tennyson poem is an uncomfortable fit for classification. The composer was quite sparing in his score, framing the work – sort of – but writing only a few extended passages for the piano alone. At the conclusion, you realize that attention has focused on the speaker/reciter throughout, even when the work moves into a duo format. So the star of this night was actor Matthew Connell, given the task of reading the Poet Laureate’s somewhat Victorian (to state the bleeding obvious) effusion on the nature of self-sacrifice ,a virtue that does no favours for the character who exercises it. By contrast, pianist Alex Raineri, the Brisbane Musical Festival’s director and factotum, had moments of activity but huge hiatuses as well. As for the Melbourne visual contribution/complement, that consisted of atmospheric slides of landscapes and clips of the sea in motion; none of this interfered with the performance and was not original enough to distract you.

Strauss already had a large amount of material under his 32/3-year-old belt by the time that he composed Enoch Arden: two symphonies, the Burleske, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Macbeth, Aus Italien, Death and Transfiguration, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote on the near horizon, and a wealth of lieder and chamber music. In this company, the duo melodrama looks and sounds a slight product: 24 pages of piano score that feature several leitmotifs, left hand G minor scales (the sea) being the most memorable. One of the most sustained and active segments for piano involves Annie’s dream of self-justification, the determination to accept Enoch’s death and marry long-suffering Philip. That has its second part counterpart in Enoch’s visit to the house of his one-time wife and best friend, an experience that prostrates him.

As far as I could hear, Strauss’s piano part presented Raineri with few challenges. For every surging billow suggestion, the score presented simple progressions, sustained chords, repeated patterns if the speaker needed time to catch up. As opposed to other works like the Sinfonia domestica or An Alpine Symphony, the composer kept his word- or scene-painting simple, eschewing opportunities to lay colour on thickly, as in the lush descriptions of Arden’s island. For all the freedom allowed, Raineri played correctly and precisely, keeping control of the arpeggiated chords and matching his speaker’s delivery with a responsive dynamic range.

As for Connell, he is a young artist and so was able to avoid the tone of sententiousness in certain moralizing passages, while entering completely into the histrionics embedded in the text during the early debate between Annie and Enoch, the over-ripe marriage declaration that ends Part 1, and the returned Arden’s despair. Not as important as his insightful delivery but most surprising as a matter of mechanics was Connell’s fidelity to the text which most reciters arrange to have cut substantially; I could find only a few places where some lines had been left out, For instance, in the description of Philip’s careful wooing, some lines disappeared after ‘By this the lazy gossips of the port’; and, further on, some more strophes disappeared during Enoch’s night-time walk to Annie’s old house (near the parenthetic ‘A bill of sale gleam’d thro’ the drizzle’).

In their combined passages, both speaker and pianist were able to keep pretty much in proper relation to each other. Were they at work in the same space? Or was Connell operating in Melbourne while Raineri performed from his own Bowen Street lair? Whatever the case, the partnership between text and music was noticeably out of synch at the end of that moving scene where Philip sees he has lost his chance at happiness, ‘and rose and past Bearing a lifelong hunger in his heart.’ But that was really the only severely discrepant point. Another unexpected twist came after Philip’s solicitous ‘Tired, Annie?’ when more of Tennyson’s lines than sit in the score were superimposed on this segment’s concluding 13 bars.

These minor points did little to disrupt the reading’s energy which persevered up to the final strangely prosaic line. Both artists seized those opportunities for emotional zeal that at some stages comes close to bathos and managed to display the work’s probity of character as its three protagonists find satisfaction and/or redemption after suffering. I doubt if many more performances of Enoch Arden will come my way. There was an old LP recording that used to be available in the Melbourne Conservatorium library, which is how I first came across it. And Ensemble Liaison presented an odd version of it almost seven years ago to the day in the Melbourne Recital Centre, with extra parts added in from the original score for clarinet and cello.

And the form itself is a cover-term for such a variety of compositions; a case has been made that opera is really melodrama. But Strauss’s effort comes from an era when the melodrama was a more circumscribed object, certainly more so in terms of subject matter which tended to the moralistic. Apart from Berlioz’s extravagant Lelio – which he calls a melologue – I don’t know any other melodramas apart from this one. That is, of course, to ignore the greatest melodrama of them all – Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire – which stands alone, unassailable and inimitable, thank God. But both the VTC and BMF can be satisfied with their interpretation of this Strauss/Tennyson composite, even if I’m not really sure that the visual stimulation added much to the experience.

Youth breaks through

INTO THE NEW WORLD

Melbourne Youth Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday March 21

Brett Kelly

Over the past year, it’s been hard to ferret out live orchestral performances. Not that they haven’t been going on in some form or other but most organizations have wanted you to revel in recordings and tapes of past triumphs. Well, you can hardly blame them: pandemic restrictions have militated against large groups banding together as was their wont to work through the repertoire. To be honest, looking back in this way hasn’t appealed to me, even if the only chance to hear live music means that you have to be content with chamber groups or solo programs where contiguity is manageable or irrelevant. I’ve seen the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a concert under the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall banner – in fact, I believe several programs were broadcast from Hobart – but Sunday afternoon’s transmission from Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium impressed me as the clearest indication yet of orchestral life returning to normal.

Mind you, I wasn’t anticipating a youth orchestra. In years well gone, I’ve listened to – and reviewed – the Australian Youth Orchestra, and even a few chamber ensembles populated partly by secondary school students, but childish things were put away after I stopped secondary school teaching in 1997. So this New World program brought up a sense of deja entendu, not least for its mixture of ease and ambition. Director/conductor Brett Kelly opened with some sectional samples – Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, then Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a freshly-written percussion trio by an MYO member, the woodwind-and-brass Scherzo alla marcia from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8, another brass/woodwind (now with percussion) extravaganza in J. Cook’s reduction of the first Pomp and Circumstance – before everybody knuckled down to the big last Dvorak symphony.

It’s a young person’s product, the Strauss Serenade: written when the composer was 17, but packed with hurdles concerning production and dynamic control This tredectet opened benignly enough with an oboes/clarinets/bassoons combination of fine weighting, and this characteristic continued across most of the brief score’s duration. The bugbear of intonation problems soon reared up, however: from the horns in octaves at bar 25, somewhere among the 4 players negotiating F sharp in bar 46, the horn/clarinet downward scale in bar 60, the horn quartet at bar 71. Not that anybody was off-pitch for a notable length of time, but these blips stuck out from an otherwise satisfying sonorous mesh. And specific members made excellent contributions, like the supple oboe solo at bar 81’s Tempo I, and the restrained second clarinet and first bassoon duet from bar 167 to bar170.

Dur4ing the initial bars, Elgar’s Serenade impressed for its push/pull phrasing – a real piacevole from everybody. In these pages, the first violins impressed for their confidence in attack, still going strong at the Letter F/bar 92 recapitulation, with only a touch of looseness about the bars 109-110 change-over to blot an otherwise amiable surface. Elgar’s Larghetto was handled with a straighter bat, the second violins unsubtle in their bars 10-11 exposure, and some points made little sense like the hefty attack on bar 34’s first note. Still, these details were counter-weighted by a passionate first violin- and-violas duet starting at bar 54, while the last 12 bars came across with impressive restrained eloquence. Later, in the Allegretto, both violas and cellos matched each other very successfully; a disappointment, then, to have the pace pushed too hard after the key change at bar 42, such doggedness also detracting from the upward motion at bar 68 that should lead towards a placid conclusion to the score.

Substituting for the Fanfare pour preceder La Peri for brass by Dukas, a burnished showpiece that was dropped from the original program, MYO percussionist Joseph Fiddes wrote a short trio, Percussion 2021, for himself and colleagues Madeleine Ng and Felix Gilmour. This involved marimba, timpani, and (I think) glockenspiel with wood-block as a side-dish. A brief interlude, possibly in E minor, the piece proved active and packed with syncopations, winding up in an impressive accelerando plus presto (or the other way round?) finish.

Also a surprise replacement for the Dukas, Vaughan Williams’ scherzo asks for crisp delivery, here well illustrated by a deft first trumpet solo of 8 bars (repeated) at Number 3. For a work that doesn’t ask much in terms of rhythmic complexity, the simple suspensions two bars after Number 8 came over as slovenly. Things picked up noticeably in the latter part (last 7 bars) of the movement’s trio but the final unison woodwind demi-semiquavers failed to register, and not just because of their pianissimo marking.

J(eff?). Cook’s arrangement of the first Pomp and Circumstance march served to show how much of the work relies on non-string forces. Naturally, you miss the warmth of timbre in the big theme, but the bustling elements don’t suffer from the abstraction of string forces. This reading emphasized the pomp and came across with few signs of refinement in delivery, as witnessed by a fair dose of clutter accompanying the jump into Letter G (and later at Letter P), and an unorganized belting of the chords that accompany the Land of Hope and Glory tune at Letter K. The piccolo that spikes out over all at the Molto maestoso 5 bars after R seemed just slightly off-true, which put a sealant on an inescapable sense of musicians operating outside their potential, the results blunt and blowsy.

Then we arrived at the big canvas of Dvorak’s E minor Symphony: a gift to its interpreters and their audiences alike. After a long interruption, any orchestra would have needed time to feel out an interpretation of this familiar score, let alone a set of young musicians who put this program together after a rush of full rehearsals conducted across a short space of time. So Sunday’s performance necessarily moved between various levels of achievement. Across the four movements, certain stretches made a positive impression, mostly in ensemble passages. The greater part of the introductory Adagio worked positively, despite an over-eager violin anxious to hit the Allegro molto proper. A fine flute and oboe duet emerged at bar 91, setting out that G minor melody thrown off by Dvorak with his habitual prodigality. Later, when the same tune is given in the major beginning at bar 129, the ebb and flow in ensemble phrasing proved exemplary; just what you’d expect from a professional body.

After the first movement’s development pages began, the horns came under more exposure – not just with the occasional solo, but more with the need to administer plenty of stentorian chords which, in some cases, proved flawed. As well, the upper strings would have profited from more definition and prominence, even in restrained passages like the repetitions beginning at bar 269, as well as observing the conductor’s wish to disallow any racing ahead. I also noticed a lack of upper string power at bar 408 where everyone else has abrupt chords, leaving the violins to slash out some exhilarating upward arpeggios that should cut through the surrounding full orchestra blasts. Speaking of which, what comes with regular rehearsal is reliability in chording – the complete consort belting together – rather than some of the splayed results we heard in his movement’s final pages.

Another highly congenial ground was established for the Largo by the brass/wind/timpani combination chords across the first four bars. The MYO cor anglais would have enjoyed greater success with one of music’s most recognizable melodies if she had enjoyed stronger lung power, ensuring that the minims at the end of each two-bar phrase lasted their full length. Yet again, the strings were urging forward at bar 27 through a passage that calls out for indulgence. At the key change to C sharp minor, Un poco piu mosso, another flawless first flute/first oboe doubling brightened the atmosphere by its purity of ensemble; further along, some momentary carelessness marred the loaded final violin quavers in bar 82. Another pacing problem arrived at the staccato flute solo in bar 90 which was taken very rapidly, making matters hard for all involved before the sudden brass outburst at bar 96 which finishes all shenanigans before the cor anglais tune returns. Finally, the whole string corps might have made more of a point at their final forte point finishing bar 112 before the moving collapse to the concluding bass chords (another detail that would have gained from a good deal more Molto adagio).

The orchestra fared better the second time around with the Molto vivace‘s initial 59 bars. Further into this movement, the strings were showing signs of fatigue at the Tempo I resumption but showed more dedication with the poised leaps from bar 193 onward. With their arpeggio bursts during the coda, the MYO horns had mixed success, faring better with the consequent loud block chords that thinned out efficiently from bar 285 to bar 291. A few pages further on, at the Allegro con fuoco, trumpets and horns made a fair showing in the movement’s main theme, the sound solid and aggressive. While the violins scrawled unhappily through their exposed line at bar 120, the violas emerged from the ruck with distinction in a substantial patch of passage work from bar 154 through to bar 171, keeping a firm collegiality of attack and phrasing.

While the brass held their fire at the bar 190 tutti, they more than made up for it later, at the mighty dominant-based declamation of bars 208-213, I’m not sure what happened in the all-horn stringendo at bar 271 but the effect was not as exhilarating as expected and the subsequent pages proved to be something of a trial as Dvorak urges towards an apotheosis that eventually ends in an ever-welcome final bar of transfigured woodwind and brass, giving us a soft landing after all the rhetoric.

Taken as a whole, this performance let itself down on details, points where the score is demanding and others where you would not expect to find difficulties. Kelly kept his young musicians on the move, every so often making a distinctive point but usually determined to forge ahead. In the end, the MYO made a valiant effort at a too-well-known masterpiece, keeping their communal head with very few serious lapses and presenting us with an honest reading, even if the final pages proved to be something of a relief.

Ecology meets the digital

THE GREEN BRAIN CYCLE

Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3434

A double CD, this contribution to the Michael Harvey Collection is getting on in years; I received it in 2018, I believe, and was daunted by the scale of the undertaking. To begin, you need to have some awareness of Frank Herbert’s 1966 novel, The Green Brain, which treats of a world where humankind has wiped out – or thinks it has wiped out – all insects. I can’t get a copy anywhere: Dune and its sequels, no problem, but the more arcane Herbert remains an unknown quantity. Not to worry: the creators here would rather you concerned yourself with their own production which comes in the shape of 20 compositions by Harvey and almost the same number of poems by von Caemmerer which have a strong link to the music in that their source material comprises the letters that make up the names of Harvey’s chosen insects – a pretty strict form of concrete poetry.

Having said that, further caveats and modifications have to be noted. All the poems are printed in the CD booklet. Unlike Harvey’s movements, there are 21 poems, von Caemmerer being sufficiently enamoured of butterflies to give the species two treatments; for all I know, he could be celebrating the semi-Rorschach effect of the insect’s wings. In the first performance at Mona Foma in January 2018, these poems were projected onto the performance space’s walls. Although it’s informative to have them supplied, they can form no part of the recorded experience. Nor can Brigita Ozolins’ set (in which Harvey and von Caemmerer operated at the premiere) be appreciated, apart from a pair of photos in the booklet.

What you do have to help you in comprehending facets of the 90 minutes of music is a pair of interviews by Ben Ross with the composer and the poet. Where von Caemerrer sticks to his brief and responds with admirable focus to the journalist’s questions and prompts, Harvey sets off opportunities for detours throughout his colloquy, some familiar from past addresses and statements, others unexpected and unsettling to those who regard music as essentially a form of aural pleasure. You can find soothing oases in the various tracks, but the whole composition is hardly framed to be treatable as illustrative or background music: that’s not Harvey’s way and he makes no bones about presenting his music-making as an adventure on which passivity from performer and audience is impossible.

In its printed form, The Green Brain is a piano solo. In this performance, Harvey uses various keyboards: a Kawai MP8 stage piano, a Kawai ES7 digital piano, a Korg Chrome synthesizer, and a Baldwin concert grand. This assemblage allows him a rich range with which to operate but, as well as the ability to achieve a sonic palette of infinite variety, the fabric, at various points, also has a vocal overlay as van Caemmerer reads extracts from Herbert’s novel. As he’s contending with amplified instruments, the reader operates a Mininova Novation synthesizer’s Vocorder function, which gives his output a disembodied electronic timbre and one I sometimes find hard to decipher in the general mix – although that could well be a problem with my sound system.

As a source for his structures, Havey prefaces each movement of the printed score with physical information about each insect. For example, cockroaches have 6 legs, 2 winds, 4 antennae and 3 sections, and the composer uses these numbers as a part-basis for shaping his movements. To my mind, it could be similar to the post-serial approach to creating scores where all parameters – rhythm, pitch, timbre, harmony et al – are organized by the book – after you’ve constructed your book, of course. But the process is not the same because Harvey’s creative process is so packed with energy and surprises that the constructional steps and formats become backgrounded, intellectually satisfying as they may be.

From the start, Harvey’s melange of sounds is close to overwhelming. A wash of middle-pitch white noise sets off this Ants movement before the original piano score begins. Under a series of Ives-like chords, the composer lays out a twelve-tone series in bass octaves, all helpfully numbered, but soon the piece moves into a less New England-angular landscape with a drum-kit underpinning (on a loop, I guess) that suggests both jazz and Zappa-like rock. I think an auxiliary repeated melodic loop is also superimposed while Harvey works through his original piano pages. Whatever the sources, there’s a lot of sound manipulation going on in this, the third-longest track of the album. The more imaginative listener could probably summon up suggestions of an anthill’s ceaseless activity; the less gifted can exercise their ears trying to follow the work’s layers which merge into the following Cockroaches – an electronic keyboard tour de force which employs several facilities for sustaining notes/bands, producing impossibly regular chains of single-note staccato, flashing across the keyboard with that agility you can achieve when downward pressure is unnecessary. Again, you can easily superimpose mental impressions of scuttling throughout these rapid-fire pages.

Grasshoppers involves an extraordinary amount of percussive overlay. I have no idea how this is achieved while Harvey is working through his piano original; the whole panoply of superimpositions present as sewn into the piano part with split-second precision. And, not surprisingly, the aural effect is of angularity set inside a powerful frame of unpitched explosions. In the Mantises pages, the piano sounds are set against another spectrum incorporating both percussive strikes and the variety of noises you can extract from inside the piano. The action is startlingly rapid although a series of pedal notes towards the end suggest the row from Movement 1. And, above all, there is an occasional striking effect resembling stridulation, like the guiro that cuts through Stravinsky’s ferment in The Rite of Spring.

It sounds as though Harvey is using two keyboards simultaneously in parts of Scorpions, which comes closest so far to an old-fashioned synthesizer sound. Yet again, more seems to be happening than two hands can accomplish, although you’d be a fool to underestimate this player’s legerdemain. The texture is multi-layered and multi-faceted, even if the whole thing begins with a simplicity that brings to mind Webern’s Variations for piano opening. By contrast, the all-electronic Beetles takes us into a more stringent landscape, reminiscent of a Bach invention for its two-part linear character – even if one of the parts has chord chains punctuating its forward thrust. This time, the percussive bite comes frequently from a snare-type clip that you think might have been keyed in to coincide with a particular pitch/note; as the piece moves on, the snap becomes more of a whip or cymbal and finally the dominant treble sound suggests a Mothers of Invention energetic rough-house.

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In his interview with Ross, Harvey speaks of confronting certain problems in his career, one of them concerning the cultural character of the piano – his instrument. ‘The piano is like a real symbol of the Establishment – now.’ Which may be a partial explanation of why he employs other sound sources – albeit keyboards – to amplify and animate this score of movements. But he’s right, of course: the piano has been an indicator of gentrification for two centuries and its potential as a source for exploration has become as unpromising as the electric guitar – once a symbol of liberation, now a suburban lifestyle trope. As Harvey observes, every Government House has its grand – ferociously unused, if my experiences are any guide – and he is probably correct in questioning what the Establishment is doing with them – apart from positioning them as handsome pieces of fenced-off furniture

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I think Flies uses the Baldwin for much of its length, with occasional electronic implants, especially a set of drone pitches in the second part that inevitably throw you back to the title and the insect’s talent for annoyance. It also features von Caemmerer reciting plenty of Green Brain text extracts, most of them discernible but handicapped by one feature: the voice sounds like a Dalek so that any minute you expect to hear ‘Exterminate!’ commands. Here, the philosophical/ecological messages take over, the final moments given to the voice alone. Onomatopoeia comes to mind in Bees where the workers are hard at it, Harvey negotiating a rapid two-part invention etude, taken at dazzling speed, with what I suppose are pre-recorded lines both supporting and interfering.

Without a pause, we are linked into Wasps. At its start and conclusion, the sound fabric is reminiscent of exploratory rock, even if that term seems improbable, the overwhelming washes bring to mind what that branch of music could have achieved if its practitioners had not become enslaved to the most prosaic and repetitious of formulae. It’s hard to believe, in the main part of the movement, that human hands are performing because the Presto marking is an understatement; here’s technical wizardry of a high order and – like Bees – unavoidably descriptive. Matters are a little less frantic in Butterflies, even if the shifts in timbre are carried out with remarkable swiftness. The only distraction from the keyboard lines remains a rising siren sound, kept at a subsidiary volume level with some white noise delicately applied before the concluding cadence.

Sub-titled Nocturne, Moths is the longest movement in the cycle. Opening with an intervallic meditation, the original score begins after input from von Caemmerer and you can hear that this night-piece is full of action with a steady pulse in operation for much of its length. Throughout, the underpinning comes from this pulse that weaves in and out of prominence with some strident action at about the 6’30” mark where the pace increases and the work takes on a momentary fervour. Three or four vocal interpolations emerge; indeed, von Caemmerer has the last word in this piece which sticks in my memory for its implementation of the (synthetic) sound of a West Indian steel drum. As an essay in electronic pointillism, Spiders gives you a remarkably vivid experience; every note slots into place with finely-executed synchronicity as Harvey moves across his keyboard range; these pages sparkle with spiky brilliance and a remarkable economy of material.

*

Further into his interview, Harvey observes that ‘A virtuoso is now an interpreter that lives off other people’s ideas and, in classical music, that is what is regarded as an artist.’ That’s how it is; unlike Liszt, the paradigm of the virtuoso/creator, the modern-day pianist is committed to interpreting the products of other musicians. For every creator like Chopin or Rachmaninov, you have an astonishing number of latter-day interpreters, all struggling to make a living out of nights of nocturnes and etudes-tableaux. Mind you, it’s hard to deny the title of artist to musicians as revelatory as Demidenko, Ohlssohn or Hamelin but Harvey’s point is still valid: worthy of applause as the finest virtuosi are, their efforts are not creative in the strictest sense, but reproductive. In which respect, Harvey has given us some memorable nights with his interpretations of other people’s ideas.

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Another tone row is announced in the treble of the opening bars to Fleas; which is fine information except that the movement is rhythmically complex and multi-layered. Von Caemmerer’s output has been altered; here, he sounds like a countertenor Dalek as Harvey gives dynamic precedence to the text, although not always going into a holding pattern while the sentences last. Again, the impression is of flickering activity interwoven with an impressive set of harp imitations. Another attacca takes us to Ticks where a sustained chord sits underneath pizzicati that function like sonic prickles, restless and relentless. Suggesting in miniature form the famous post-murder orchestral link in Act 3 of Berg’s Wozzeck, Harvey begins Lice with a bar comprising four levels of the note B, then launches into a bewildering series of episodes where the rough and smooth are juxtaposed and jazz suggestions lead to passages where rhythmic irregularities flatten out and linear dollops give way to sound-bands.

Again, straight ahead to Silverfish that opens with a snare-drum compilation before pitched notes start in a piece that is packed with fits and starts of activity, including a plethora of decorative work. For the most part, this is a frenetic enterprise, its general tenor a kind of rough tachisme with short interludes of celesta delicacy. In Earwigs, you can hear several instances of Harvey’s facility in close-order pianism, one hand following swiftly on the patterns set up by the other. Here is another piece that melds a sort of heavy-handedness with improbably rapid bravura performance as its counterpoint waxes and wanes. Another contrast comes in Slaters where sustained notes interweave in a timbral scenario that is sometimes reminiscent of an organ like that in Ligeti’s Volumina, a kind of slowly shifting kaleidoscope punctuated by buzzing and loud bourdon passages in the bass while on top weave shifting string chords.

*

Further to his comments regarding the modern-day practice of virtuosity, Harvey says, ‘You’re exposed to a process much like an exam every time you present this music where other people pass judgement on that piece of music to see if it’s correct or not, as if there is some sort of benchmark for that’ – a process that he finds ‘appalling’. Which reminds me of an occasion many years ago when a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music spoke of regarding a composer’s manuscript as a ‘palimpsest’; confronted with it, the performer sees as through a glass darkly and is required to scrape away any surface scum and uncover what lies beneath. Yes, you can do that – if you’re insightful and lucky. But most audiences are conditioned to position themselves as arbiters in Harvey’s exam process, a lot of these listeners happy to have their benchmarks set for them by others, like . . . Harvey is right yet again, the unfortunate truth being that our current musical professional life is structured this way, with performers required to offer themselves up to judgement by working through works of mind-boggling familiarity in which the chances of deviating from the accepted path are all but non-existent.

*

Marimba sounds dominate the opening to Aphids, gently meandering before the Baldwin breaks into the aural scene for a moment or two. But between von Caemmerer’s readings come a series of electronic variants that suggest an amiable doodling that brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet at its coolest. Last of all, Mosquitos is yet another brilliant demonstration of Harvey’s unmistakable dexterity, a presto that never lets up, climaxing in a unison/octave flight that leaves you breathless through its sheer velocity. It’s a modern-day toccata in the truest sense of that term where the composer/performer takes you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you keep up with his mental and physical athleticism. It makes a celebratory end to this vital compendium which celebrates the smallest among us with a wide-ranging humanity.

But soft!

DIANA DOHERTY & STREETON TRIO

Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Southbank

Thursday March 4

Diana Doherty

We’re starting the Musica Viva 2021 with an all-Australian affair – which is the way it’s going to continue into the foreseeable future. Doherty and the Streetons bracketed Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor with a brace of works for the oboe+piano trio combination; not just two works, but the only two ones to employ this instrumental format. Martinu’s Quartet dates from 1947 and Lachlan Skipworth’s from 2020, the latter commissioned for Musica Viva and this round of recitals. The musicians worked straight through without an interval – what else can you do in these straitened months when the bars can’t be opened, not even to supply water? – and, while all performed to a high standard, something sounded wrong with the sound diffusion.

If memory serves me properly (still), Musica Viva’s opening recital for 2020 featured Garrick Ohlsson who gave his Brisbane recital in this Conservatorium hall. After that night, the great live silence. At that time, I had no problem with the space’s acoustic, and it’s a big area to fill; not the most comfortable for subtle chamber music because of the high ceiling and significant length. Still, Ohlsson resonated quite adequately, I suspect because his piano was situated favourably. On this Doherty/Streeton night, Benjamin Kopp played with the lid on the long stick and was a fainter presence. For all I know, this could be an ensemble peculiarity in which Emma Jardine’s violin and Umberto Clerici’s cello take joint pre-eminence while their pianist self-effaces; a far cry from nearly every other piano trio I’ve encountered, especially given the exposure we’ve enjoyed with Selby & Friends over many years.

Whether the piano was situated too far back or the instrument itself wasn’t big enough, it’s hard to make a definitive statement. But the mix was not convincing for Martinu’s amiable quartet where the two strings enjoyed an unusual degree of attention, Doherty a fine interpreter with a winningly shaped line. Right from the first bars of the opening Moderato, it was clear that this reading would not emphasize the sharp bounce that permeates recordings of this score; here was an evenness of dynamic and a levelling out of piquancy in attack that changed your expectations. Oddly enough, despite the strings’ dynamic dominance, they enjoy very little solo action – a bar here and there, but generally acting in partnership underneath or punctuating the oboe and piano.

We heard Kopp clearly enough in the second movement’s introductory 5-bar Adagio – a chord-rich piano solo. But in the following siciliano-like Andante, even his forte interruptions and punctuations lacked carrying power while Jardine and Clerici gave vent to passages of exceptionally rich timbre. However, the dynamic climax to this section starting at Number 4 in the Max Eschig edition of 1961 came over with fine conviction and a rewardingly (for us) rich spread of colours.

The Allegro conclusion to this second-of-two movements, like the opening Moderato, did not present as perky in character as expected; most of your attention fell on Martinu’s modulations, especially the more brusque ones, rather than any deft instrumental sparkle. Indeed, the working-out of these pages turned into a bit of a trial as there’s little relief in its forward movement and, despite the composer’s gleeful pointing-up of detail, you get a sense of cerebral activity when the counterpoint moves up a gear or two. Because of an absence of pointillistic brilliance, the final flurrying 16 bars sounded hefty, the conclusion something of a relief.

Once again, I would have been pleased with more bite from Kopp’s instrument for the Smetana masterpiece, particularly as Jardine and Clerici powered into their bar 8 duet in the first movement Moderato assai. In fact, Jardine maintained a strong voice throughout this trio while Clerici could be discerned even in loud chordal passages supplied by Kopp. A fine sense of theatrical contrast came with the second subject at bar 43, cello and violin delivering it with full responsiveness, the former heavy on vibrato. What turned out to be the most involving stretch of playing in the recital came during this first movement’s development, the Tempo rubato at its conclusion a welcome opportunity to hear untrammeled Kopp and his sensitive freedom across the three cadenza bars. Later, the polonaise-rhythm segment of the recapitulation proved splendidly effective in the lead-up to the fortissimo bars and the reduction in dynamic to the coda page.

Little marred the second movement Allegro except some disappearing, soft piano notes; at various points you could just make them out while at others you wondered if they’d been announced at all. Nevertheless, all players observed the composer’s juxtaposition of light and dark, wispy and hefty. Smetana’s Alternativo I seemed slower than usual, but I liked Clerici’s slight use of portamento when he entered the section’s action in the latter part. The second Alternativo impressed in its most dramatic moments, as at the opening strophes and later between bars 187 and 191, all followed by a suitably delicate rounding-out.

If you were familiar with your Smetana, you knew what was going on in the final Presto‘s piano part but that simple two-against-three mesh sounded as if it was coming from a fair distance while the competing strings from bar 26 on enjoyed too much of one’s attention with pretty subsidiary matter. When the group resumed their treatment of the opening theme at bar 215, you were struck by the restraint shown from all sides, a polite re-acquaintance, until Jardine’s triple stops at bar 255 jolted us back into the movement’s vehement urgency. That sudden break into a semi-funeral march at bar 467 over an unsettling dominant pedal is fine fare for those who want to read a program into the work and detect grief for his recently-dead daughter written large across Smetana’s score, but it doesn’t quite satisfy; the 28 bars make for a hiatus in the emotional acceleration under way from the Piu mosso marking, but it’s an unnecessary one, in my opinion. Not that this distracted from the Streetons’ ensemble work, reliable and passionate right up to the concluding, emphatic double punch.

Skipworth’s new quartet sounds at its outset like a work infused with an Australian flavour: a benign melody and not too far-reaching or angular, with a touch of British bucolicism – even if this initial lyrical arch is a remarkably long one with plenty of sustained single notes at large. The second thought that struck me was a sense of operating in a post-Impressionist world, but Sisley rather than Monet. I’m not at all aware of the formal structure of this movement, beyond the welcome and informative program notes from the composer, but his rhythmic manipulations promised to be more complex than they turned out to be in performance. Certainly, the activity is fluent and brisk, while one of the new score’s great strengths lies in its insights into the potential of all participants – at least, in this Allegro moderato, with an accent on the adjective.

Starting the second movement, a Misterioso, molto rubato (joy-inducing words for any player), Skipworth seemed to be entering Sculthorpe’s ‘isolation’ landscape with an oboe/cello duet over low chords in the piano, Clerici eventually taking the forefront. A brief duet with Jardine preceded the violin articulating what sounded like a threnody. The composer mentions Messiaen as an inspirational source but I missed any obvious signs, apart from a kind of slow-moving gravity. To end, Doherty sets off on a buoyant offensive, a folk-dance in its suggestions before Skipworth enters a series of episodes. It was at about this point that I noticed how little exposure was being given to Kopp, the composition here favouring the strings’ and wind’s agility. But the attraction here lies in the chameleonic nature of the narrative in play, coupled with more readable rhythmic games than I found in the first movement.

A particularly attractive feature of this work came with its clarity of intent, an impetus at work in each of its segments, and the definition that informed the performance. Still, as Doherty pointed out, the ensemble has had plenty of time to get their interpretation organized. So, this recent creation by Skipworth not only occupies a singular position in the catalogue of scores for this grouping, but it also pleases by speaking in an optimistic voice; very welcome at the start of this particular year and a suitable indicator of the Musica Viva organization’s hopes.

An ambitious and moving project

JOHANNES BRAHMS: MUSIC FOR CLARINET AND PIANO

Lloyd Van’t Hoff & Peter de Jager

Thomas Grubb and Mano Musica 194660806222

Here is an initiative from two of the country’s more enterprising young musicians. With the help of some sponsors, Van’t Hoff and de Jager have produced this CD off their own bat. It was recorded well away from the beaten track, in the Four Winds Windsong Pavilion, pride of the seaside resort of Bermagui and centrepoint of an increasingly well-known festival. From pictures, the Pavilion is an open-air construct, which doesn’t present problems if the nearest wild-life are mute or murdered; I can’t make out any extraneous noise, but a good deal of this music is full-bore material. Another online photo shows an indoor space with a glass wall which is more probably where the CD was recorded.

Mind you, the Brahms output for clarinet and piano is limited: only two works – but what delights they are. The pair of Op. 120 Sonatas are the composer’s last chamber works and stand as one of the foundations of this reed instrument’s repertoire, showing what can be accomplished if a composer falls in love with a particular timbre, especially late in life when all the battles have been won or lost and knowledge is as profound as it’s going to get. While we’re blessed to have these sonatas, they don’t take much time to get through – between 45 and 46 minutes.

To flesh out their CD, Van’t Hoff and de Jager move into the sphere of arrangements. I’ve not been able to trace where the seven that appear on this recording come from, but that doesn’t detract from their effectiveness. The duo work through three of the Hungarian Dances: No. 2 in D minor, No. 6 in B flat Major (transposed from the original D flat Major) and No. 7 in A Major (moved up a tad from F Major). Four songs also appear in arrangement shape: the transcendent Feldeinsamkeit, second of the 6 Lieder Op. 86; Wie Melodien zieht es mir that leads of the Op. 105 Funf Lieder; Es traumte mir which crops up in third position of the 8 Lieder und Gesange Op. 57; and the Wiegenlied that sticks out like a beacon at No. 4 in another set of Funf Lieder, the Op. 49.

You can take as a given that both musicians are masters of the written score when it comes to the CD’s major works. The F minor Sonata’s opening Allegro appassionato lives up to the composer’s descriptor and de Jager leads the way through the small-frame (relative to the last two symphonies and both piano concertos) shifts in scene, like the subsidence at bar 38, the subterranean murmurs at bar 52, and the full-blooded chords that burst in at bar 61. As it should, the whole of the exposition sounds like a narrative, and a cohesive one because of the performers’ ability to underline the movement’s progress through the composer’s fluctuations in density, dynamic and drive. At this early stage, you are aware of some idiosyncrasies, like de Jager’s penchant for arpeggiating chords in part to point up a focal clarinet note, and Van’t Hoff’s slight rhythimc plasticity – not just garden variety rallentandi but what you can only call a metrical ease; mind you, this latter has been calculated brilliantly by both artists throughout their offerings.

You come across small subtleties all over the second movement Andante – some through de Jager’s pointing-up of upper notes and Van’t Hoff maintaining his line with some excellent breath control (you can hear a lot on this recording, especially the quick breath,s and some key thumps) and due diligence in observing the score’s fluency, as in the lack of a ritenuto or pause at the end of bar 48 where the point is to bring in the clarinet without any ‘Here I am!’ nonsense. It’s hard to find fault with the last page (in my edition, anyway: bars 61 to 81) which opens with an admirably soft clarinet restatement of the initial melody; the dying fall starting at bar 69 makes for an especially moving passage thanks to its calm, restrained delivery and the strength of bass notes from both instruments.

One of the most amiable of Brahms’ landlers enjoys fine handling, Van’t Hoff’s phrasing a particular pleasure, as is his emergence back into the light for the Trio‘s second half. Also impressive is the lilt of this performance where the pace is just rapid enough and the melody, with its repetitions/elaborations at the end of each line, is handled with empathy and a keen eye for quirkiness. But the Vivace rondo finale is the most outstanding example of duo work in this sonata with an almost flawless level of articulation from both (I could only pick out one almost-not-there clarinet quaver at the start to bar 28), notable for a ringing clarion timbre from Van’t Hoff at declamatory entries like bars 32, 62, 174, and most vitally from bar 207 to 210, and the concerto-like majesty of de Jager’s passage-work, as in the modulations from bar 100 to bar 104, and the rampaging solo exposures later in the movement . Further, when Brahms starts his long triplets-across-the-bar episodes, these performers demonstrate an ease of delivery and consciousness of shape that would be hard to better. In all, the performance is spacious, packed with character and a delight in the composer’s joyful alarums and excursions.

There’s something bordering on sentimental about the opening to the Sonata No. 2’s Allegro amabile; it probably has to do with the clarinet’s melodic curve and its leaving you up in the air after the fourth strophe, or part of it might come from the piano’s arpeggio-rich accompaniment. Whatever the case, the lolling around is short-lived, lasting only until the piano’s first three-bars of explosion, after which the plot thickens with satisfying surprises on every page including the closest of instrumental canons and the dovetailing of melodic lines between clarinet and piano. Here again, de Jager lays on the arpeggiated chords, yet he refrains from making an inevitable fetish of them. Throughout, you find reassurance in broad purple patches, as that starting from bar 40, and in the abrupt bursts into fresh activity after a substantial diminuendo. The entire changing fabric enjoys high exposure from these interpreters, who again give us a finely formed Tranquillo coda, climaxing in a carefully judged pair of mirroring triplet bars.

Probably the best known movement of this E flat sonata – or of both of them, really – is the middle Allegro appassionato. This segment, in the tonic minor with a noble Trio couched in B Major, is distinguished for its main theme that doesn’t resolve for 79 bars, moving towards cadences but never clinching the deal until the Trio arrives with a complete change of argument and territory. Once more, Van’t Hoff and de Jager melded into each other’s ground with forceful grace, the piano holding nothing back in abrupt fortissimo bolts of energy and a firm timbre from the clarinet in both statements of the Trio’s principal melody – at bar 95 and later in full chalumeau register at bar 121. These familiar pages came across with just the right balance of fire and agility.

Finishing this sonata, an Andante con moto theme and variations comes close to functioning as a virtuosic test-piece, particularly with regard to rhythmic displacements that in many hands come across as over-emphatic. Much of the score here is generously flattering to both players right from the first page where the long theme (another one) enjoys both joint and individual attention before its surprising if justifiable conclusion. For the first variation, de Jager kept his syncopations mobile and quiet under Van’t Hoff’s finely arched top strand. Dynamic restraint typified the second variation, rich in triplets and a low clarinet register here articulated with precision and kept on an even dynamic plane.

The next variant has both instruments following each other before coalescing in moments of fusion, the whole employing demi-semiquaver patterns and as light-footed as a Mendelssohn miniature, if thicker around the middle. The 14 bars of Variation 4 are an exercise in disjunction from both players; the only truth is to be found in the piano’s octave bass line – when it appears. Nevertheless, in this reading the section passed with something approaching clarity and a laudable absence of unhelpful accents. The concluding Allegro, with a Piu tranquillo interlude, makes an excellent coping stone for this reading, the brilliant rhythmic displacement beginning at bar 135 a tour de force in particular for de Jager with Van’t Hoff making a brave final power-grab from bar 147 to the concluding bounce-filled chords.

Again, you’re tempted to single out this finale movement as the most impressive of the sonata’s three, as far as this performance goes. That would be to undervalue the skill and insight to be found throughout its companions. Rather, it puts a seal on this vivid and personable outline of a masterwork. I don’t want to get over-finicky about details but in this sonata, more than in the F minor, it sounded as if one piano note at least was off-pitch, somewhere about E5. Not that the sound came over as glaringly off-centre, but it did distract from de Jager’s contribution, in the E flat Major’s first movement more than anywhere else.

As for the three Hungarian Dances, these are clarinet-favouring constructs where de Jager takes on the function of the original’s secondo; with one exception, the three pieces leave the melody work to Van’t Hoff. One of the more characteristic features of No. 2 is the clarinet beginning specific key phrases with a rapid arpeggio, which gives an added bite to the melody And you come across some time-honoured interpretative peculiarities, like the slow pace taken between bars 8 and 16. A good deal more stop-start business comes with No. 6 where Van’t Hoff gets in almost all of the acciaccaturas in the second half of the opening A part of this A-B-A construct. De Jager’s hefty solo comes between bars 43 and 50, starting the middle section. A little bit of re-scoring comes about in No. 7 during the connecting bars 41 to 43, but this dance suits the clarinet best of the three essayed here, probably because of its bouncing playfulness, even skittishness.

Finally, the four songs are straight-speaking entities, the clarinet taking Brahms’ vocal lines without introducing any elaborations or deviations. Feldeinsamkeit begins softly under normal circumstances; even more so in this interpretation. Van’t Hoff weaves coherent melodic arches and shows restraint at the unexpected shift at the word Blau in bar 21. And he differs from the norm in eschewing the usual crescendo/diminuendo across bars 31 to 33, simply treating the word selig with as much tenderness as you hear in A German Requiem. By contrast, Wie Melodien zieht es mir comes across as straightforward, effortlessly dispatched and distinguished by a splendid accompaniment from de Jager. Suiting the wind instrument best in this group, Es traumte mir proved to be a gift for both musicians with its eloquent unhurried nature, a fine fusion of languor and ardour.

No objections to the Lullaby. It winds up operations gently, Van’t Hoff playing the first verses in his lower reaches, then taking the second stanza an octave higher; it’s sweet, sincere and gives room at the end of this CD to a fine melody. For all that, you tend to wish that the composer had written another clarinet sonata to provide balance to this recording which moves from the formidable to the short-winded. In any case, the sonata interpretations live in the memory for their verve and deep musicianship; the participants’ enthusiasm and commitment are evident in every bar of them.

Not too thick; more of a lemon tang

LA CREME DE LA CREMA

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday February 18

It’s a vague photo, isn’t it? Not the best transfer from no-news-bearing Facebook but it probably looks fine in its original internet placement. Also, I’m not sure if the personnel shown are current ensemble members. In any event, six of the MBO musicians took part in this recital from the Athenaeum Theatre that was actually taped, as I understand, towards the end of last year.. For the six-part program, this night’s MBO comprised violins Natalia Harvey and Cameron Jamieson, violist Katie Yap, cellists Rosanne Hunt and Josephine Vains, supported by the theorbo of Nick Pollock. As matters turned out, this grouping impressed for a breadth of timbre with a pair of well-matched violins taking centre-stage across much of the program’s tutti work (stating the bleeding obvious) with Pollock’s continuo a full-bodied presence rather than that background tinkling you get from a harpsichord.

We heard the program’s only solo from Pollock in an arrangement of Couperin’s Les Barricades Misterieuses: one of the composer’s most recycled and re-formatted works. This piece suited the instrument, thanks to its double-bass clef register and Pollock was insightful enough to keep the part-writing clean in delivery, if not spartan; even so, a few rough spots butted into the easy flow, like the top note in bar 26 – surprising, as the same note’s repeated presence in the third couplet was almost unfailingly clear and buzz-less. In fact, this 22-bar segment with its well-stretched pulse and responsive phrasing impressed even more than the always-welcome returns of the bracketing rondeau.

Matching this solo, the ensemble offered a duet for cello and bass: the Allegro from Boccherini’s Sonata in C G.6. Vains took the top line of this 41-bar first movement, showing a reassuringly aggressive hand in the triple-stop chords that punctuate the work’s elegant flow. Mind you, sweetness of colour did not feature in the production values of Vains or Hunt, who made boisterous work of these few pages. In spite of a deliberate gruffness, both instruments seemed comfortable in their work with only a few near-discrepant moments, and an uncomfortable upward C Major scale in the solo instrument at bar 10.

Onwards and upwards, a few more players entered the lists for a Trio Sonata in G (‘in imitation of Corelli’) by William McGibbon, that 18th century hero of Scottish music, both in serious and folk spheres. Yap and Vains stayed silent for this brief gem involving two violins and a continuo bass line. The group gave out a satisfying and full amplitude of production as early as bars 6 to 9 of the opening Adagio; the content does not show a lot of invention but the Corelli echoes come across with excellent authority. Further, the group’s attention to phrasing gave these stately pages even more interest.

As the work moved forward, the interplay between Harvey and Jamieson grew more intense, both the imitations/suspensions and easier work in thirds performed with precision and authority. Probably the only question mark in a highly forward demonstration came at bar 42 of the closing Allegro where Jamieson’s semiquavers came across as mechanical, particularly in a phrase that looks like note-spinning on paper already. Still, the piece is an unabashedly amiable tribute to a master from a musician about whom so little is known, although it’s intriguing that what few encounters I’ve had with McGibbon’s work have come from Australian musicians.

This program began with one of the Baroque’s more tasteful free-for-alls in Rebel’s Les caracteres de la danse: that compendium of what was being trotted out – literally – at Versailles in the age of Louis XIV. As early as the Courante, you had to be impressed – even taken aback – by the busy crispness of all involved: from the energy of Pollock’s bottom line to the biting sprightliness of the violin pair. These characteristics returned time and again – in this case, as quickly as the Bouree. Signs of colour organization emerged throughout the suite, like the absence of a strong bass line in the Chaconne until a forte explosion at bar 75. In fact, cellos and theorbo proved capable of holding – or attracting – your interest in harmonically ambiguous passages like the short-lived Rigaudon.

Then, a lot of Rebel’s score is brief, as though he is just touching on some forms but is unsure if they’re worth his – or his audience’s – time. Not so the Sonata, which brackets the Loure and Musette pair. I’m not certain why the Sonata is there, although it does hold the most action-filled pages of the whole set. But you might well ask what is the function of the initial Prelude, except to give the band some warm-up time. Such quibbles disappear when you have the chance of re-acquaintance with the Loure‘s strange format; God knows how you dance to it and Jean-Fery doesn’t give you much time – 7 bars! – to get involved in its coils. No matter how quickly we had to digest some of these dances, the MBO outlined them all with impressive authority, particularly the continuo department who held nothing back in the rapid pages.

Hitting the popular Baroque vein, the players gave a direct-speaking version of Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid string quintet: one of your more refined examples of program music. It’s always a pleasure to see cellos being played as guitars in the Minuetto, holding their own against the concise unison violins. And the interpretation followed the usual pattern of using the written score with a mild irreverence, as in Harvey’s shortening of note values at ornamentally twitchy points. A solitary unsteadiness in the top cello near the end of the Largo assai‘s second appearance proved to be one of the few flaws in proceedings. A no-nonsense brusque attack informed the Passa Calle, during which the solo cello produced an eerie, ‘white’ melody line with no vibrato. And the noble Ritirata – what we all wait for – strode past to excellent effect, the viola and second cello rapid triplet work clear and eloquently percussive, with a deft diminuendo to polish off this small tone poem.

To end, the full group played Georg Muffat’s Passacaglia from the Sonata No. 5 in G of 1682, a score I hear mainly on keyboards. In this strings-plus-theorbo version, the ensemble generated a powerfully sonorous creation, lavish with a sort of strict opulence. As with the better parts to this program, phrasing had been organised with fine results, allowing for as much individuality as possible in a score full of chances for individual exposure, no matter how short. At Variation 5. along with the upper parts’ excellent duet work, the theorbo made a generous, resonant contribution. Variation 7 gave us some tender melting moments, thanks to Muffat’s cleverly-placed triplets. In fact, this reading gave you more opportunities than usual to appreciate the composer’s talent at catching his listeners off-guard with unanticipated extra bars and accents.

The later changes had their high points, as in the sterling violin duets that constitute Variations 20 and 23 and the broad, almost glutinous richness of the final 13 bars. Not that the composer’s inspiration remains on a high level throughout, yet even the more worked-over passages proved worthwhile as a spectacle, seeing the musicians work their various ways into and through the mesh. This Passacaglia made an assured, not-too-taxing display piece for all involved and it brought to the fore this particular ensemble’s abilities to work cohesively, with polish and certainty of intonation, generating a satisfying fabric that combined steeliness with underpinning warmth.