Changes with benefits

NATSUKO YASHIMOTO, UMBERTO CELRICI & DANIEL DE BORAH

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Friday June 11

Natsuko Yoshimoto

Here was yet another needs-must event where the originally scheduled ensemble was not able to get to Brisbane for the Musica Viva event scheduled last Friday night. We were to have heard a piano trio comprising violinist Emily Sun, French horn performer Nicholas Fleury, and pianist Amir Farid performing the Brahms Trio Op. 49, a new violin sonata by Gordon Kerry, and Ernst Naumann’s arrangement of Mozart’s E flat Major Horn Quintet which would have been more than interesting because I’ve only seen Naumann’s work on the Andante and Allegro of this last-named construct for horn, violin, two violas and cello; the transcribed opening Allegro remains a closed book.

And so it will stay until this recital is broadcast from the Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm on June 27. As a sudden substitute, the organization put together another trio – a perfectly rounded chamber group – and we heard three works, but all of them duos. Violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto, well versed in chamber music from her years with the Australian String Quartet, is currently co-concertmaster of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and is a member of the Ensemble Q chamber group. Keyboard virtuoso and jack-of-all-formats Daniel de Borah has recently made his base in Brisbane as Head of Chamber Music at the Queensland Conservatorium. Until I took a closer look, I thought cellist Umberto Clerici occupied the lead principal desk with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but he decamped from that body last year; his chamber music credentials are also substantial, not least for his appearances in Selby & Friends recitals over recent years.

And what was on offer? Yoshimoto and de Borah exerted themselves on Mozart’s two-movement E minor Violin Sonata K. 304; Yoshimoto and Clerici combined for Kodaly’s sweeping Duet Op. 7; finally, we could relish an engrossing reading of Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58. As is often the practice these days, all three works were performed consecutively – no interval – which experience made for a particularly focused evening’s listening, lasting a bit over an hour but leaving you quite content with the experience. Of course, this sense of satiety might have had much to do with the quality of the program itself, but equally as relevant was the performance standard, which was exceptionally high.

Mozart’s E minor sonata enjoyed a forward-looking handling, the violin overpowered by de Borah at times because he had his lid open on the big stick. Alongside this unforced volume benefit, the pianist treated us to some Beethoven-like dynamic power and abrupt changes of output, as well as a tendency to highlight entries by means of slight pauses – the one-note ritenuto, in particular. But Yoshimoto held her own, reminding us of her trademark strength of line, so welcome in the otherwise all-male personnel of the ASQ during her time with that body. Still, both players mined a vein of nostalgia close to regret with the simple but eloquently placed coda at bar 194, once again revealing Mozart’s unparalleled melodic skill with the simplest of materials.

De Borah found a calm lyricism in the opening statement of the second movement, giving the melody lots of space to make its melancholy point. Yoshimoto mirrored this placidity with an excellent repeat of the line, intensely caressed with a careful application of articulative shadings. In fact, both musicians enjoyed a companionable partnership throughout this movement, a cross between a minuet and a landler in their hands. Yet the chief memory is of Yoshimoto’s melting entry in the major-key trio at bar 102: a repeated-note phrase of Schubertian simplicity and assurance, just as touching in its second-half repetition at bar 121. You realized at the work’s completion that the interpretation moved across a wide range of parameters, the most telling of them being a determined ardour that moved past the score’s surface impression of a light sonatina.

I’ve come late to the Kodaly work, as was also the case with the Sonata for Solo Cello, its companion piece, which I first heard in Melba Hall from a young Liwei Qin. The Hungarian master’s early Duet is something of a vast canon, packed with imitations and intersections, and these executants entered fearlessly into its broad statements and oscillating modes of attack. Clerici made a tensile creature of his sinking solo across the 12/13 bars before Number 7 in the Universal Edition score, but you could point to just as powerful Yoshimoto exposures, and the Duet is nothing if not a dialogue of equals, striking in its few bursts of unison at one or two octaves’ distance and finally in the final 9 bars of rallentando where two dissimilar voices find resolution in a D Major third.

Kodaly’s second movement Adagio enjoyed a free-wheeling, ruminative handling which offered a contrast to the disciplined outbursts over the preceding pages. Clerici in particular sounded in impromptu mode across the opening gambits of changing bar lengths, triplets and passing 4:3 hiccups, all seasoned by tension-generating dynamic directions. Then came a scrubbing tremolo that brought grinding dissonances into play, both players hurtling against each other at instrumental compass extremes. At the heart of these pages is a linear balance, both sharing in the sharp-edged melodic arcs and in the driving, intrusive underpinning. The searing forward movement reaches a highpoint at the allargando octave unison descent 3 bars before Number 4, then sinks away to what sounds like an almost improvised ending, Clerici well-exercised by harmonics and flautando demands.

Bartok looms large over the finale Maestoso-Presto, although the slightly older composer would probably not have written the mirror phrases (and accompaniment) that dominate the Presto opening and the let’s-all-settle-down 2/2 time-signature. Yoshimoto showed a skittishness, even a willfulness in her less frenetic moments, as at that Poco meno mosso where the key changes to A Major/F sharp minor; further along, she displayed a cauterising burn in her lowest register, as at 4 bars after Number 7 where Kodaly directs that the melody be played on the G string. But, as a sign of the emotional continuity of this reading, both performers exercised the same charity with each other at either end of the score, especially through the handling of the recurrent folk-style melody that brings to mind the opening to Bartok’s Contrasts at the final Meno mosso before the exhilarating rush home and a superbly co-ordinated flurry from both musicians in the last Piu presto gallop.

I’m not sure that all of the Musica Viva patrons enjoyed this work. Three people coughed themselves out of the hall at various points, an elderly couple sought refuge in the consonance of the foyer during the second movement, and a pair of girls tip-toed out in mutual support at the start of the finale’s bracing call to arms. Which struck me as odd, given that this Duet dates from 1914 and is a striking, powerful construct that should not alarm people inured to the Bartok string quartets, works that Musica Viva has sponsored since its inception in this country.

No such problems arose during the Mendelssohn sonata which revealed another instance of inter-player fluency. De Borah kept his action-rich part under control, more so than many other pianists who have considered an over-supply of notes to represent an interpretative ascendancy; in this version, the rush of arpeggios that support the cello from Letter E to Letter F in my old Peters edition were sublimated with tact, and the pianist held back the potential force of the composer’s repeated chords from the first bar onward. Indeed, if you wanted an instance of how to accompany a Romantic era chamber work, you could hardly do better than watch this artist at work. Further, both musicians showed an easy adeptness at holding our attention, as well as toying with the smallest of rallentandi to indulge their individualistic touches.

As the whimsical Allegretto scherzando bobbed past, you could see that a good deal of attention was being exercised on giving full weight to each line; not just the cello-piano partnership, but in the piano chording as well. Clerici’s frequent pizzicato passages carried successfully to my seat near the back of the theatre, while each player made a lush meal of the two interludes in D Major and B Major, keeping the main episode dynamically lean and formally neat. As for the Bach-influenced Adagio, Clerici generated an ardent line for his pseudo-recitative interludes, a rich energy that intensified with de Borah’s chorale recapitulation from the Tempo I point.

Mendelssohn asks for a sudden attack on his Molto allegro e vivace, and got a solid one this night. Here was the composer in full flight, the voice we love to hear, loaded with fetching forays and mellifluous modulations, the whole orderly Victorian maelstrom raising lots of froth but not a black storm cloud in sight. Just as well Clerici and de Borah made use of the inbuilt ritardandi – and inserted a few of their own – to work against the sense of a seamless and tedious run of patterns and repetitions. But then, the pianist made sophisticated sense of those many passages where his right hand comes in off the beat or holds a tied note against the prevailing metre.

As with the Kodaly, so here: the performance proved to be exhilarating without self-advertisement or any emphasis on the music’s difficulty of negotiation. It made an optimistic conclusion to a night that bore all the signs of a make-do exercise, but I believe that we – those of us who showed up! – were more than happy with the replacement musicians and their works. But then, it makes a huge difference if you are faced with players who know what they’re about and are agreed on their shared path. In this time of multiple crises and perturbing interruptions, music-making of this calibre is to be cherished.

Cramped and cramping

CAMERATA RE-MASTERED

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 5

Orava Quartet

A few days before this concert took place, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall came on board to televise it live. A very kind offer but an odd one – after all, how many Victorian (or for that matter, extra-Brisbane) music-lovers customarily leave their homes and travel to QPAC for a Camerata night? Naturally, the orchestra’s viewing population would (should) have been expanded, especially by those (like myself) who were tempted to stay home rather than go to the hassle of hour-long train trips, Queensland Government identification codes, the slowest-moving foyer crowds in the nation, and an irrationally long program given in one hit.

But there we were, the faithful followers of live performance, giving Brendan Joyce’s young players large dollops of encouragement as they laboured through a nine-part program of works that ranged from the sublime and challenging to the trivial and instantly forgettable. Joyce and his organizing team set the bar impossibly high for themselves by starting their operations with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op. 133. That’s the sort of bravura that Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra can handle, and even then with no subs in the ranks.; but it was a very demanding ask for the Camerata first violins, even allowing for the confidence of Joyce and his 2IC Daniel Kowalik. Some of those top B flats in the first fugue were both thin (understandable) and not universally assured in pitch; I know that the top line’s exposure is total in the most difficult stretches of this segment but those slight deviations were hard to ignore.

Camerata’s violas made an excellent showing throughout the multiple changes in this still-taxing score and the single double bass was ever-welcome in this arrangement whenever she entered to reinforce the cello line. But the ensemble often had their hands full negotiating pitch and rhythm, especially in those pages where the counterpoint is hard-worked,, and so the final effect was of musicians surmounting a struggle rather than outlining an object of interpretation.

Every time I hear Turina’s La oracion del torero, I find myself asking what kind of prayer did the composer have in mind. Even considering the usual vision of the matador genuflecting before a small statue of the Madonna and Child, you have to question the thought processes that led the composer to this lush outpouring of local colour, several salons away from a death-in-the-afternoon scenario. But setting one’s Hispano-Catholic perceptions aside, you can simply luxuriate in the piece’s fabric, and this was an excellent reading of Turina’s small jewel. The thirds and sixths exuded lushness beyond the dreams of Aztec-sacking avarice, while the players enjoyed more comfort in these pages, a welcome refuge from Beethoven’s intransigence, the ensemble showing to better advantage in the Spanish composer’s high tessitura writing towards the end in that Mantovani-suggestive Lento.

John Rotar, a highly active young Queensland composer, enjoyed hearing two of his pieces on this program; the first a Brisbane premiere of his Beyond the Front Door, referencing the emotional and physical release that comes at the end of a pandemic lockdown – in which aim, the work enjoyed a definite success in narrative terms. Strong on 2nds and 7ths at the start, the score proved active, as if the physical activity of breaking through state-imposed domestic barriers held both pleasure and pain. Not that Rotar maintained this nervous activity throughout, pausing for an attractively swelling melodic swathe from the violas that was taken over by each section. Indeed, the composition built to a full-bodied peroration until a conclusion that melded strong bass chords under the violins returning to the opening nervous mobility. This is a distinctive creative voice, informed by a sure hand at orchestration and an attractive harmonic vocabulary, albeit a diatonic one laced with brusqueness.

Next came another vault into another country with Steve Reich’s Duet for two solo violins, four violas, three cellos and a double-bass. Joyce and his principal second violin, Jonny Ng, gave an appropriately driving account of the upper lines’ canons, playing in-phase sequences that didn’t outstay their welcome – which is not always the case with he American composer’s creations. Still, Reich was kind enough not to have his supporting lines simply play sustained notes throughout but gave them some rhythmic variety, even if fitful in nature.

Continuing with the American flavour, Joyce and his colleagues followed this happy Reich flourish with Barber’s Adagio for Strings: one of the cornerstones of American music and a reliable aesthetic resource in time of travail – President Kennedy’s assassination, the Twin Towers catastrophe, Meghan’s interview with Oprah. Here was a laudable reading, without the elongated bathos that too many ensembles inflict on these spare pages; rather, simply letting the interweaving arches make their own points as the composer intended with precise dynamic markings but no demands for rallentandi, ritenuti, or supernumerary general pauses. Not that the Camerata avoided imposing some extraneous hiatus points, but the performance proved respectably uncluttered and truthful.

Before the final work – Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings – Joyce & Co. presented three Australian works of differing characters, all by Queensland writers. First, Puppet Play in Java by Betty Beath dates from 2009 and is a mildly colourful soundscape based on F Major but pentatonic for all of its duration, as far as I could tell. The senior composer keeps her texture light, the atmosphere consistent, demands on its interpreters not that great, and the duration just long enough. I don’t know Indonesia at all, its music very superficially, and Beath’s vision is of a much milder disposition than expected. And that’s fair enough, even if the results tend towards blandness.

Little Corellas: Allora 1987 by Cameron Patrick suggests a phenomenon from the composer’s youth when he played at the home of the original Camerata founder, Elizabeth Morgan. A flock of corellas in flight stayed in the composer’s mind from those years, revisited in this work from recent months and, with a craftsman’s touch, he has created a mini-tone poem, beginning with whirring suggestions of aerial action and displaying a suggestive freedom in its interplay of lines. This language is also, at base, traditional with enough dissonance to remove any banality yet, after its completion, it reminded me of a finely achieved documentary film score; considering the writer’s background and career, that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Rotar’s second offering – Plains Baked Golden in the Morning Light (on Winton) – was also composed earlier this year and turned out to be the most substantial of this Brisbane trilogy. It read, to my mind, like a series of scenes, dominated in its first part by solos for Joyce and principal cellist Karol Kowalik, the latter’s melodic line punctuated by percussive string work. But this work presented as more conscious than its companions of contemporary string production techniques, through some saltando-like passages, free-wheeling arpeggio patterns, individual high glissandi, grinding dissonances et al. It brought to mind, Sculthorpe’s Sun Music, particularly No. IV, in certain textures, specifically the suggestion of birdsong. Towards the end, the cellos revisited their broad melody with lashings of vibrato and the work concluded with more suggestions of Sculthorpe at his slow-moving best and – perhaps because of the cello’s prominence – an intimation of Schelomo, and even Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Nevertheless, this construct impressed for its ambitious scale and the honesty of its emotional scenario, no matter that I kept on hearing older voices flashing out from Rotar’s multi-coloured fabric.

I’ve got little to report about the Elgar work, the evening’s most satisfying achievement for its pliant attack and security of ensemble. Of course, it makes a big difference if you take the four powerful Orava musicians out of the Camerata ensemble to fulfil the duties of the composer’s solo quartet; the orchestral segments sounded underdone in their absence. But Joyce had ensured that the magnificent characteristic segments – like the opening strophe and its repetition at Rehearsal Number 5, the nobilmente downward striding at Number 12, the resolving Come prima and its melting two-bar quartet breaks, and the dynamic energy of the work’s final 14 bars – all came across with precision and eloquence of timbre.

I made a habit over the years of avoiding encores, if possible; it wasn’t on Saturday, so I sat through the group’s reading of Mancini’s The Pink Panther title theme. Yes, it’s a bit of fun and the group snapped fingers and whistled neatly enough, but the defining small glissandi at phrases’ endings doesn’t transfer well from sax to violin. And, even to this tolerant palate, the exercise seemed self-consciously flippant. Needless to say, the Camerata faithful loved it.

Of more importance was the length of this concert which ran without interval for over 90 minutes. I can’t answer for other backsides but mine was numb to a painful level at the end, the ache rising to a peak during the Mancini. It’s great to give value for money but I could have cut this program by three numbers and their absence would not have detracted much from the players’ demonstrations of skill.

A crown of thorns between the roses

AUSTRALIAN WORLD ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

City Recital Hall, Angel Place

Thursday June 3

Alexander Briger

Any attempt to restore a sense of the normal is welcome, particularly a mammoth exercise like the Australian World Orchestra’s re-appearance. In the good old days, conductor Alexander Briger could draw on resources from all over the world, inviting back home many willing expatriate musicians to take part in a small number of concerts played only in Sydney and Melbourne over a couple of nights, picking up players from across the nation to flesh out the desks. Also, Briger and his board could attract top-notch conductors who were up to the exhausting trip from Europe or America.

The last time I can recall coming across the AWO was in 2017 when the seasoned professionals combined with some musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music to work through Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie under Simone Young. A large-frame score, this was representative of the organization’s ambition and, if the results on that night in Melbourne proved more satisfying for the attempt than the achievement, you could hardly say that the enterprise was simply marking time, just giving its actual and potential patrons a continuation of that diet which the state symphony orchestras provide in full, year after year.

With the pandemic frustrating any hopes of visitors, Briger put together a smaller-than-usual corps and tailored an entertainment-experience that followed a conservative path for two-thirds of the night. To open, the players worked through Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and they closed with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. Where an old-style program would have inserted a concerto, the AWO gave the premiere of Paul Deans Symphony, commissioned by Briger for this orchestra and which turned out to be a stern sermon on the subject of despoliation, if not destruction, with only fleeting signs of light. It could be taken as a commentary on the climate catastrophe or it might be a grim perspective on humanity’s lack of regard for oncoming disaster. Whatever the case, the work had to be tailored for the resources of the Schumann score, even though Briger feels that the work needs a broader gamut of orchestral possibilities and weight.

Without a list provided of the players and their provenance, the telecast occasionally turned into a game of Spot the Musician as you suddenly realised that some of these AWO performers were very familiar faces, while others featured as half-remembrances of things past. For example, the timpanist who made his mark quickly through the Coriolan introduction – single strokes of penetrating power in bars 3, 7, 1 ,12 and 13 – seemed to me to come from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but a check of the organization’s home page disproved that impression. In fact, this timpani prominence began a more significant process: accustoming yourself to the Angel Place space’s acoustic properties which sounded pretty dry through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall system, benevolently brought into place when the AWO’s scheduled Melbourne visit turned out to be impossible.

Briger led a brisk reading of the overture which held some unexpected points of interest. For instance, the conductor let the cellos and basses set the running between bars 118 and 140, so that the upper strings and woodwind, carrying the main motive burden, were cast into second place. But the orchestra had no difficulty handling this score, most of the explosive chords that punctuate its progress coming off with minimal scatter-gun effect, the texture pierced by some excellent, if brief, solo exposures, like the second bassoon’s chain of minims at bar 234. The last bars also proved effective and moving as Beethoven prefigures his hero’s doom with that dwindling cello line: the only sign of motion across this bleak conclusion to a work packed with fierce tragedy.

Briger directed an eloquent interpretation of the Schumann work which gave all three choirs multiple opportunities to demonstrate their eloquence in ensemble work. For instance, you had to be moved by the splendidly voiced chorale from the woodwind at bar 15, which lasts for an all-too-brief four bars before the rest of the orchestra returns, but which startled for its unforced vigour and timbral purity. Then, the burst into action at Schumann’s (eventual) Allegro ma non troppo showed the players’ communal verve while the benefit of having first-class musicians shone out in the seamless jockeying between both sets of violins in the movement’s central development, and again in the later stage of the recapitulation pages with that requirement for syncopated block woodwind chords, which to my ear came across with thrilling precision. In fact, the only problem I had with this first movement came with the rallentando in its last seven bars which sounded to me like the conclusion to the Sibelius E flat Symphony, except that there the pauses are inbuilt.

But, at several times during the performance, I was faced with enough detail discrepancies to generate the belief that Briger’s score was more up-to-musicological-date than my venerable Breitkopf & Hartel.

The strings distinguished themselves yet again at the onset of the Scherzo second movement because of their pliant address in a skittering set of pages. You got so comfortable with their brilliant and continuous edge that their block dialogue with the woodwind in Schumann’s first Trio impressed as a dynamic coup de theatre. While the first maintained its crispness, the second Trio provided the perfect contrast through its (eventual) lush texture when the groups coalesce at Rehearsal Letter M in my score, about 17 measures before the composer starts harking back to his principal theme. Another unexpected move came with an accelerando at the start of the Coda which, when you think about it, makes complete sense because its effect is to refresh some familiar material.

With the plangent Adagio espressivo, Briger and his forces spaced themselves across its soundscape, using plenty of rubato as well as following the brief crescendo-diminuendo directions with tact alongside none-too-disruptive sforzandi. This mobility came within a whisker of self-satire only once, but the style of attack gave considerable breadth to a movement that can sound like whining, probably not helped by the application at odd moments of a slight portamento in the violins. On the other hand, the woodwind continued along their blameless path with some brilliantly flavoured duets above the violins’ high chromatic descending trills just before Letter O.

Not everybody kept precisely on the beat in the Allegro molto vivace finale when Schumann introduces crotchet triplets across the bar, although the middle strings made a rapid recovery. But for a music that is optimistic and inherently brassy, the orchestra en masse responded with sterling energy through pages that recalled the seemingly endless exercises and patterns of the last movement to Schubert’s 9th. The whole march moved deftly to a finely judged set of soft brass calls leading into a L’istesso tempo conclusion of high excitement, carried off with a panache that made you think that this confected orchestra might actually be capable of achieving a world-class standard of performance.

Preceding the Schumann symphony, the AWO presented its youthful branch, an orchestra of young players with a few senior players scattered around the strings and prominent in the brass. Under conductor Patrick Brennan, the group played the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6. From the start, the body’s violins sounded hesitant, nowhere near as loud as they should be leading up to the vivo in bar 13. But then, this group had troubles with the frequent changes of pace across this piece. A reasonable performance, but an odd interpolation, no matter how high-minded its intentions.

Dean’s Symphony, in its bald title, brought to mind Webern’s Op. 21. That’s where any correspondences stop. The Australian work is substantial, passing through four movements and giving full vent and playing-time to its matter. Dean opens with some woodwind scattered around the auditorium (the film crew had access to only one – a flautist up in the gallery) playing bird calls above sustained and soft string chords: a pastoral opening, then, to bring to mind our world at its quiescent best. An Allegro opened out with chugging basses and the tone changed to an acerbic sound, strong on dissonances although the language seemed to me about as complex as that of Tippett. Any listener could discern specific patterns and an elliptical melodic framework for the violins, but the movement is mainly aggressive, strong on texture if not on development. Also, at this stage, I think I saw David Berlin from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in there with the cellos.

Dean’s second movement began for me with the discovery of Wilma Smith, one-time MSO concertmaster, in the first violin ranks. Not that she had much to do at the start here, bars that were populated by melancholy-sounding woodwind weaving a threnody by themselves. I was distracted again on detecting Justin Williams at the front desk of the violas. Continuing the air of gloom, if not despair, Dean employs muted trumpets and a trombone trio with pizzicati double bass notes to construct yet another landscape of hopelessness. At which stage I believe I found Kirsty McCahon in the bass quartet. In any case, the strings continued with the threnody (and I may be mistaken, but it might have been the MSO’s former regular Michelle Wood leading the cellos) leading to an increase in intensity and breadth of output that led to a large-scale highpoint, reminiscent of Mahler.

Despite its dour temperament, this movement held some momentary pleasures, like an intervallic interplay passage for horns and a sombre oboe solo cutting through the low-pitched textures before the other woodwind joined in a slowly weaving counterpoint. At which point I think I found the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Julian Thompson in the cellos. A faster pace (I think) turned a surging violin escalation, punctuated by dramatic timpani strokes, to yet another climactic point, as dissonant and perturbing as its predecessor. Then, a de-escalation until the piccolo returned us to a mid-way emotional point with a bird-imitating solo above a layer of sustained string chords, reminiscent of the symphony’s opening pages.

The following scherzo gave hefty work to the low strings, with motivic interplay the name of the game. This movement quickly showed itself to be of a piece with its predecessors although the harmonic bite sounded more insistent, the dissonances more pronounced and clearly etched. Snatches of melody were instantly squashed, the metre was relaxed from regularity and then came an intense return to the bitterness of the movement’s start, as though we had been following a classic ternary form pattern.

The finale opened with whispering basses and cellos under low trombone chords and rumbling timpani. The composer was not going to provide a ray of redeeming light in this atmosphere of foreboding. As we had heard several times before, patterns built to a highpoint that died out before oboe and clarinet rise out of the subterranean murmur. Another large-scale outburst emerged from strings and timpani; it wove back down to silence apart from a sustained viola note from which clarinet and piccolo emerged in a duet. The strings took back their primacy, moving to a loud shudder that cut off to leave the basses muttering. But then, the work moved to a rhetorical, almost Straussian declaration, timpani cutting across the maelstrom of brass and string chords, the work coming to the time-honoured big finish but not one that left you elated; rather, if truth be told, grimly appreciative of a score that impresses in the end for its devotion to its task and the intransigence of its statements.

As a composite, this Symphony made both a firm statement of scouring intention from the composer as well as a remarkable and testing piece for the willing participants. Mind you, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear it again; perhaps it’s better kept for a return visit when there’s more light glowing on our various horizons

The way we were/are

FLUTE PERSPECTIVES 2

Derek Jone3s, Cameron RFoberts

Move4 Records MD 3449

You’ll find something here to stir the embers of recognition, as well as music that is yet to withstand the rigours of memory. On this collection, five works embrace a fair gamut of contemporary music written in this country. Jones and Roberts conclude their survey with Richard Meale’s Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1960, one of the pivotal moments in Australian composition – not so much for its content as for its language which informed the composer’s Australian colleagues that British bucolicism was no longer reliable as a reputable trail to follow; in fact, European composers had indicated a startling number of paths for the open-minded Australian artist, and had been doing so for at least half a century.

Next, historically speaking, comes Anne Boyd’s Cloudy Mountain for Flute and Piano from 1981, a product of the writer’s fascination with Asian sounds – which focus she may have inherited from her teacher, Peter Sculthorpe, who visited this region in a handful of pieces, like Sun Music III. Rohan Phillips’ Fragment III for Flute and Piano dates from 2001-2 and derives from a larger construct, 7 Fragments after Paul Celan; I know very little of this Bendigo-centric composer, having heard live only his Meditations on der Krieg from the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in 2018. A close contemporary work, Mark Pollard’s Three miniatures dates from 2004; and the most up-to-date in time, if not in adventurousness, is the Sonata for Flute and Piano of 2015 by Stuart Greenbaum, Pollard’s staff colleague at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music,

As well, Greenbaum’s four-movement work is the most substantial on the CD, coming in at close to 20 minutes. Meale’s sonata lasts pretty much on a quarter of an hour, Pollard and Boyd each a little more than half that length, while Phillips is almost minimal: his Fragment requires less than 4 minutes. So you have a cross of expanded canvases and smaller scenes to consider and, as you might have guessed, some capture attention while others fly past without making much impact on their own terms or on those of their listeners.

Greenbaum takes stellar inspiration for his work – well, three-quarters of it. Three of its movements are specifically connected with Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and the projected discovery of an underground ocean on that satellite; an event that preoccupied the world’s astronomical scene in March 2015 although, as far as I can detect, the hidden sea’s existence is still postulated, not a firm scientific fact. Greenbaum’s finale detours in an odd way with its For those in peril on the sea title – which the composer views as a ‘secular benediction’ while others among us are reminded irresistibly of Eternal Father, Strong to Save and that hymn’s association with the US and British navies.

For the first movement, the composer meditates on the distance to Ganymede: 628, 300, 000 km but you don’t find any indications here of immense parameters; in fact, the movement is a contrast between busy groups of four semiquavers and wide-arching lyrical stretches at the movement’s centre with only the slightest trace of the heroic but – for those who go looking – occasional echoes of Holst’s Neptune in a determinedly diatonic harmonic language. Jones and Roberts are well occupied, the former asked for a series of sustained notes towards the movement’s end, and the busy semiquavers of the opening reduced to slower note values in the final page(s).

Next, Greenbaum centres on depicting the moon’s ice crust: 150 km thick, The music is initially slow, solemnly paced and packed with low notes on the flute, silences, small glissandi with the odd quarter-tone. More agile measures emerge at the movement’s core but the motion remains sporadic, regular motion giving way to the opening’s sustained notes and pointillist breaks in the silence. This isn’t as brooding as this description suggests; Greenbaum’s moonscape remains placid and far from threatening. When we move seamlessly to saltwater ocean underground, Greenbaum gives us a meditative flute solo before Roberts joins in with a sort of ever-expanding cantus firmus which eventually moves to the right hand partnering the flute’s triplet fluency. Here, more than anywhere else in the work, you are firmly rooted in a specific tonality and the impression remains one of benignity – a fluent body of water but optimism-generating, not like that which faced Dumbledore and Harry when searching for the locket horcrux but more in line with the interior sea of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The brief final movement is a sort of antiphon/response dialogue between the instruments, its main motif a short figure of a perfect fifth interval played rapidly twice; it’s something like a bugle call and the piano mainly sticks to it while the flute has more liberty to wander. Still, the wind instrument has the last word, which is a definite exposition of the last line to each verse of the Whiting/Dykes hymn. This produces an unexpected sense of fulfilment to the work, the music’s action a reflection of the preceding two movements in some ways. But the reference also brings the inter-stellar ambience back to something more Earth-bound: a benediction on all humanity, it seems, not just cosmonauts and astronomers.

I’m a Celan virgin, never coming across the poet’s works. My loss, of course. This Fragment III by Rohan Phillips has a prefatory text: In den/verflussigten Namen/schnellen die Tummler. You can hear the darting dolphins, I suppose, in the highly mobile flute line; Roberts’ part is a gloss on the original’s two percussion and cello parts. Here is a definite contemporary sound with solo passages of rhythmic complexity and lyrical leaps alongside Morse-like repetitions, the whole sounding as if centred on F. In the end, you are impressed by Jones’ rapid-fire delivery and rapid recovery, even if the work’s intellectual context remains obscure.

With Anne Boyd’s Cloudy Mountain, we are moved to a world completely alien to the sophisticated modernism of Phillips. Boyd confines herself to a pentatonic scale for structural material, giving the piano some arresting arpeggiated clusters which later move into a sound sphere approximating a gamelan in effect – but not for long. As you’d expect, the flute has most of the focus and the shakuhachi timbre is never far from your thoughts, although Jones’ output lacks the Japanese instrument’s breathiness. But the wind line is a suggestive one with a wealth of acciaccaturas and rapid incidental notes to decorate the cursive melody. Of all five works on this CD, this is the most atmospherically pictorial with a keen delineation of Oriental sounds that could have worked as aural supplement for many a Crouching Tiger-style film.

As rubric measures for his composition, Mark Pollard set up two restrictions: the first sketch of each miniature had to be completed by the time he had made the tram journey from East Brighton to Melbourne’s CBD, and each had to relate to a St. Kilda Road building. Which really limits his endeavours because there’s a fair distance between Brighton and the city’s splendid avenue. So, if we take the compositional commandments at face value, Pollard couldn’t really start sketching until he hit some point a fair way along the journey. Whatever, he picked out his three locations: Sheridan Close, which backs on to Fawkner Park; a little closer to the city, the Amber Room in the Royce Hotel which is between Toorak Road and Melbourne Boys’ Grammar; and Illoura House, now demolished, which stood almost on the Toorak Road/ St. Kilda Road intersection. In other words, the three sites are clustered pretty close to each other.

The composer uses three different flutes for his collection: Sheridan Close calls for a piccolo (or flute); the Amber Room uses either an alto flute or a concert flute; Illoura asks for a flute with no alternative. The first miniature moves placidly past, its opening intervals expanded slightly as a developmental mode. I suppose the aim is to reflect the restrained grandeur of the building which has a splendid facade of almost Georgian regularity with a semi-circular drive sweeping into what looks like a porte cochere. An art deco ambience characterises the Amber Room and Pollard celebrates it with a breathy alto flute address, pretty close to the previous movement in character if a lot more smokey in suggestiveness.

Illoura House was demolished in the mid 1960s and Pollard was born in 1957. The place must have had a great impact on him, as it did on many of us who knew the grand old building in the years of its decay. Pollard’s piece relating to this declining mansion is meditative at its opening but gains in rhetorical flourishes, proving the most dynamic of the three pieces with moments of relative excitement, although the bookend mood is placid. All three of Pollard’s constructs are excellent show-pieces for the instrument, asking for assurance of output rather than virtuosity, and free from effects for their own sake, with only brief touches of flutter-tongue to disturb a surface of pleasant equanimity.

In retrospect, I find it easy to understand why so much attention was given to Meale’s sonata of 1960. In that time’s cultural landscape, the work made a striking impression as it broke away from the English pastoral mould, if not as distant in its language from that country’s more striking voices. But the spirit that hovers over the work is that of Messiaen, if truncated and with less emphasis on the ecstatic line. To give it due credit, the sonata resonated as a new voice in a pretty bland neighbourhood, but from a distance of over 60 years, its bluntness and insistence are irksome, the piece’s finale particularly grating as a sample of trying too hard, too concerned with astonishing the bourgeois.

Other commentators have made much of further influences on Meale, including Boulez. But that particular one strikes me as so much special pleading when you consider that the French composer’s Sonatine was written 14 years before 1960 and set a benchmark for flute/piano composition in rhythmic complexity and dynamic differentiations, not to mention instrumental potentialities and simple virtuosity. Even allowing for the Messiaen influence, Meale’s work every so often breaks into something that sounds very like plodding. Jones gives a careful outline of the opening movement but there’s no disguising the hard work involved in making repeated patterns interesting. As well, Meale’s preference for short bursts of action interspersed with elongated stretches, where the keyboard fixes inexorably on a cluster pattern while the flute enjoys some plain sailing melodic arches, doesn’t so much keep you on the qui vive but wears away at your interest level. Throughout, you feel the lack of the French composers’ sparkle; instead, the movement seems ham-fisted.

It’s brief, Meale’s second movement, in which the piano sustains a bass-heavy gruffness below the flute’s piercing arabesques. Here also, you sense a statement-and-response mode of operations in play, the interlude ending on a major chord, like that breaking through the turmoil in Act 2, Scene 1 bar 116 of Wozzeck. The substantial third movement begins with some bird suggestions in the flute line and a reassuring tendency to have the piano play a melodic line in octaves. But for much of its length, the work is restrained and very fluent for the wind instrument; in fact, it seems threatening, as near the 4 5 minute stretch where both instruments work themselves up to a series of strident climactic points, only to fall back onto the familiar meandering, before Jones takes on the final hushed last words.

Much of the work’s succes d’estime came from its final movement which opens with a Messiaen-suggestive piano solo where the Visions de l’Amen, the Vingt regards and Canteyodjaya spring to mind in turn, with a dash of Oiseaux exotiques thrown in. The flute is given to high bursts of energy, suggestive of the two upper instruments in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. And the work concludes with a series of gestures, each repeated four times, including the well-known high E yowls for flute. The music’s shape presents as primitive, the content momentarily arresting but . . . from this distance, naive. You can find much to admire in the performers’ address and confidence in negotiating this score which still holds plenty of problems even if the technical ones have been eclipsed by other more outrageous demands in the decades following the 1960s.

For all my reservations regarding the Meale work, it’s obvious that this CD is essential listening for anybody with a commitment to serious Australian music. The five works could not be more varied – a multiple perspective – and their interpretations are informed and make the most of the scores involved.

Working well if underpowered

BACH TO BOWMAN

Melbourne Bach Choir

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton

Saturday May 22

Conductor/founder Rick Prakhoff directed an underpowered collection of his Bach Choir on Saturday in a program that had to be altered, apparently due to the number of choristers who were out sick. In essence, the change was a simple swap: we didn’t hear Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos motet but were treated to organist Calvin Bowman’s reading of the Bach chorale-prelude Ich ruf zu dir. And that’s an experience worth the price of entry, coupled as it was with Bowman’s earlier airing of more Bach in the Christ ist erstanden chorale-prelude. Not that we lacked Bruckner completely: the choir worked through the composer’s Locus iste, Christus factus est and Ave Maria for openers, and a brass trio gave us the Aequale No. 1 later in the night.

For the rest, we were offered more trombone work in the three Beethoven Aequale WoO 30, the Geistliches Lied by Brahms for choir and organ, Bach’s three-verse setting of Christ ist erstanden by way of prelude to Bowman’s chorale-prelude account, and three Bowman works, all of them sacred settings: Regina caeli, Ave Maria and a large-scale Pater noster for almost the same forces as the relegated Bruckner Ecce sacerdos, which, I assume, it was meant to complement.

A varied entertainment, with 11 segments, played/sung to what looked like a full church with a splendid organ, although one in need of repairs, it seems; Bowman has recently been appointed music director of St. Andrew’s Brighton and his craft will be put to work regularly on this refurbished instrument if/when the money is raised.

The choristers began by easing themselves into the night, the Locus iste gaining some interest at the chromatic slides at the irreprehensible est passage at bar 22. This apart, the motet is plain-speaking, in this reading keeping to a narrow path with not much give-and-take in the metre until a ritardando from bar 44 to the end. In the following Christus factus est, Prakhoff took an amiable pace for his Moderato, misterioso and it suited his forces, although range was another matter; I couldn’t hear the low F at bar 15 when the basses introduced the word crucis into the mix. For the most part, the texture proved smoothly fluent, although the tenors sounded constrained at their quod est entry in bar 44. I know it’s hard to differentiate, but the pp entries starting at bar 65 were pretty much the same level as at the triple piano called for in my edition beginning at bar 71. Also four-square in outline was the Ave Maria in which altos, tenors and basses are split in two, but the climactic gathering of the clans at the Jesus of bars 19-20 would have benefitted from some less eager altos. Nevertheless, despite is seven lines, this work is pretty plain sailing for a choir as competent as this one.

For the Bach chorale, Prakhoff reinforced his singers with trombones to produce a firm, cogent mass of timbres, most moving at each repetition of Kyrieleis where each verse comes to a quietly jubilant conclusion. Bowman’s reading of the Orgelbuchlein‘s chorale-prelude impressed for its fluidity, especially its realization of the inbuilt bounce of verses 1 and 2 before the invention blazes out in the final setting where the double-quaver underpinning dilates to three, here with a powerful bank of reeds in full cry.

From the ordering in my edition of the Beethoven Aequale, the brass ensemble played the three works in the order 1-3-2. The first in D minor sounded rushed, although the players’ production could not be faulted. No. 3 – all 16 bars of it – presented confidently if sharing the choir’s tendency to set a rhythm and stick to it without the slightest chance of marginally elongating a rest. My only problem was not being able to discern the Trombone 4’s low B flat in the last chord.

The Bruckner brass trio followed and again showed acceptably accurate intonation except at two sustained semibreves in bars 8 and 24; both G major triads and not hard to pitch. The only other flaw came in the penultimate bar where the alto seemed to run out of breath/sustaining power on the rather important B natural..

In what I thought was the best music-making of the night, the choir gave a well-prepared reading of Brahms’ yearning sacred song, the canonic entries firmly enunciated and pitched across the three verses, Bowman a subtle accompanist offering plenty of support. As Prakhoff promised, the concluding Amen impressed for its sweet benevolence and a carefully restrained climactic point across bars 59 and 60, the only problem area a rough octave leap from the basses at bar 58.

Apart from Bowman’s interpolation of the Ich ruf zu dir chorale-prelude to replace the Bruckner with its high As and B flats for sopranos (and plenty of testing high stretches for tenors as well), the remainder of the program comprised the organist’s three new compositions, all of them enjoying their first performances here. The Ave Maria setting impressed immediately for its attractive main melody; if there’s one thing you can expect from Bowman’s compositions, it is lyrical fluency and a formal shape – nothing too complex but a use of sequencing and mirrors, as where the Dominus tecum mirrored the opening. Further, the composer shows a textual sensitivity, as in his restricting the texture to female voices alone at the start to et benedictus fructus ventris tui – which is mirrored later at et in hora mortis. In sum, this piece makes a welcome entry into a pretty well-stocked field and it’s distinguished for its ease and grace.

What took me by surprise in the Regina caeli setting was Bowman’s decision to use a Slavonic scansion for the text’s plentiful use of Alleluia, which here becomes a five-syllable All-e-lu-ee-a. The text is otherwise treated as expected, with a degree of repetition that can’t be avoided, because the text is so sparse and because each of its four lines ends with the aforesaid Alleluia, even if Bowman does overdo the word at his conclusion . . . which can be excused as a reaching towards the intended ecstasy of delight in a Marian hymn that focuses so much on Christ’s mission accomplished.

Prakhoff and his forces saved their most ambitious undertaking till last with the new Pater noster. Each phrase of the prayer is repeated; none of your Gregorian get-it-over-with rapidity here. As in much serious liturgical work for instruments and voices, the work is packed with doubling, first becoming obvious in the repetitions at sicut in caelo. I liked the abrupt change straight after this congestion to voices alone at Panem nostrum, even if this second half to the prayer – when the praise is finished and the demands come piling out – sounds more tentative and worked-at than the opening strophes. But the work’s involvement level leaps up some notches with the re-entry of the instrumental forces.

Bowman goes in for another extensive musical expansion on the sed libera nos a malo segment; understandable, since this is the most important demand that the pleader makes of his creator, but such insistence causes you to wonder if the penitent is feeling sure of success or is simply hoping that repetition bolsters the chances of the requested delivery coming through. The musical content is more thick in the prayer’s second part, and this final clause lives in the memory as a prime example of this solidity. Bowman provides an emphatic and hefty Amen, confident and fortified in its language – in the best Anglican style and different from his other works on this program which, as the composer admits, reveal his affiliation with similar Marian music by Poulenc.

We hope for better days in musical performance, just as most of us are optimistic about a more relaxed life in the coming era of universal Covid vaccination. As well, I’m sure that the Melbourne Bach Choir looks for a return to normal when its members re-group at full strength; after all, there’s not only safety in numbers.

Free for all

PIANO SONATA NO. 5 ‘GRETA’

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3452

This CD offers the same work twice. First, Harvey performs his Piano Sonata No. 5 on your common or garden-variety piano . Then he offers a second performance given on different forms of keyboard. The first movement, 100 bpm, uses an electric organ; the following Misterioso, a Fender Rhodes piano; Retorico, an electric harpsichord; Ritmico, electric bass; and the final, shortest section – Maestoso stoico, con rubato – employs an electric piano. The work is in five parts, dictated by the letters in the first name of activist Greta Thunberg. R? and T? I hear you cry? Well, make allowances: for Harvey, R transmutes to D, and T becomes F. So the fundamental notes run G-D-E-F-A – which tends to be forgotten in a work that, as only Harvey can, takes you by the throat and carries you along on yet another brilliant virtuosic ride.

Actually, I’m not sure that this particular work needs much coverage. If you want to hear its content, you can find it on YouTube where you can also find the long poem REGRET by Harvey’s long-time collaborator, Arjun von Caemmerer, which documents the number of Australian species, animal and botanical, that is at risk or has disappeared. It hardly needs saying that the sonata and poem are tributes to Thunberg’s environment-defending passion, an atonement for Harvey who has dedicated the work to his own children – which is probably both an apology and a promise to do better on behalf of us all.

The work starts in an ambience somewhere between a formal sonata with a prodigious wealth of ideas and a hefty toccata. Is there a preponderance of the note G? Not so you’d notice but the movement hurtles past in a welter of athleticism. Sure, you come across passages of tamped-down action. Open octaves alternate with syncopated block-chords that dominate the opening pages, but the work’s progress is chameleonic; you hear scraps that seem semi-familiar – revisitings for example, of the cadenza-like flights that punctuate the opening firm assertions. Textural transparency in two parts gives way to intense and thick writing, the whole typical of Harvey’s often overwhelming fluency, climaxing in a series of frenetic right-hand glissandi.

No break before we are in the Misterioso; in fact, there is a deliberate blurring before the opening high D repetitions take control, sounding like a kind of musical Morse code. It might be mysterious in ambition, but the activity level is hardly pulled back and before long Harvey is back with his intense and loud pointillism: another toccata with some astonishing repeated note demonstrations, followed later by brilliant, even trills. And the riches keep on coming when the player’s two hands operate on different levels, apparently independent of each other in rhythm, dynamic and what I can only describe as digital content and attack. Suddenly a rapid-fire canon between the hands begins and keeps you guessing about its shape, before the Morse note returns and the movement halts on a soft chord.

Which is immediately followed in attacca mode by the middle Retorico which opens with a rash of flourishes and dramatic pauses, these gestures punctuated by multi-layered trills. You are aware that, despite the occasional, outburst of first-movement vehemence, these pages are fundamentally intent on hard-edged melodic lines, to the point where repetitions become apparent even in the middle of the movement’s latter-part welters. At the end, Harvey comes back to his opening with its crisp flights between anchor points and trills, leading without pause into the Ritmico.

Which brings us again into Harvey’s stunning virtuosic field that carries you forward on an irresistible tide, here comprising a constant underpinning of semiquavers, sometimes at the octave and at others in parallel or contrary motion, with a five note figure sporadically emerging in both hands. The actual rhythmic continuum is a sequence of surprises; you think you have a handle on things moving in fast groups of three, but suddenly you’re in duple (or quadruple?) territory with irregular emphases to make an irrelevance of counting before the 5/16 gruppetti enter. And, abruptly, the onrush is halted at about 4’15” for a series of slow, portentous chords that recall Rachmaninov 2 in a strange manner. before a final brilliant set of coruscations leads to a definite ending.

The last movement is separated from the preceding four by a track break. It starts on an unequivocal A minor chord and is the most polemical of the five with a wide-ranging compass in both hands and makes its statements with a Brahmsian stoicism – it’s far from relevant but the opening chords with the intervening sets of triplets suggest (to this cluttered mind) the opening to Brahms’ B flat Concerto, even if the harmonic language is centuries distant. As you might predict, the temperature warms up considerably and the work moves through a series of segments that suggest fragments from previous movements, although most of these are fleeting apart from a brilliant chain of repeated notes. The last word is energetic in the extreme, the sonata concluding with an upward, optimistic inflexion.

When you come to the alternative version for electronic instruments, the work’s character necessarily changes. Movement 1 for electronic organ is memorable for the sustained chords and some brilliant pointillist high note sequences that recall early studio experiments by Kagel and Stockhausen. I think Harvey is using a two-manual instrument – or perhaps he’s lightning fast between registration changes. Here, and elsewhere, the bucket-loads of chords take on a more muted effect because the percussive attack is absent. Oddly enough, you have a more informed view of the movement’s content, its form and its recapitulations more obvious.

There is a break before the next track; naturally, as Harvey changes instruments to a Fender Rhodes piano with a lavishly employed sustaining pedal, Mind you, it seems that there’s an inbuilt quality that the executant is anxious to explore, moving between non-reverberant staccato runs in the centre of this Misterioso and summoning up washes of sound. Here again, the uses of fabrics and material seem more easy to pick out. Not all the time, of course, but shapes take on distinct form in particular parts of the Fender’s compass. By contrast, the harpsichord timbre in the following track aids Harvey in adding bite to the opening rapid flurries of ornamentation. As well, the unusual ability to sustain notes gives an extra dimension to this clear-speaking set of pages, and the multiple-trills sections towards the end have a ferocity that recalls Puyana playing Scarlatti.

You can hear little break between the Fender Rhodes and the harpsichord, and the fourth movement’s shift to electric bass is seamless. Once more, the textural variety available on this instrument aids in observing the movement’s rhythmic activity and its ever-moving layers, each with its own timbral qualities. I wasn’t sure much was being gained by using an electric piano for the final Moderato stoico – until Harvey inserted a section of organ sound, then went in for some electronic pointillism, before coming back to the piano sound spectrum with an even more shattering final crescendo than that in Track 5.

As I reported above, you don’t need to buy this CD; Move has made it available online for anyone to hear. At the end, I was full of admiration for Harvey’s tribute to Thunberg; not that you should read anything into this sonata that the composer subtitles ‘Concerto in no need of an orchestra’ – quite understandably as the performance in both forms is an inspired solo torrent, for which any accompaniment would be a distraction. If you like, you can draw some parallel between the music’s energy, its urgent purpose and the career to date of the Swedish environmentalist who stands as a beacon in a landscape populated by time-wasters and political lick-spittles. It’s a remarkable musical work, certainly assisted on its vehement trajectory by association with Thunberg, a character whose single-mindedness and unflinching vigour for change here enjoy a high-powered salute.

ANAM scores again

KONSTANTIN SHAMRAY & ANAM ORCHESTRA

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday May 11

Konstantin Shamray

This program – the latest in Musica Viva’s year of promoting local talent, seeing that the other kind is as house-bound as we are – had plenty of preparation behind it. By the time the Australian National Academy of Music and guest Shamray hit Brisbane, they had already played in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and twice in Sydney; finishing the tour will be a visit to Adelaide and a return to Melbourne. So we Tuesday night observers enjoyed the benefits of a thorough rehearsal-plus-live-performance experience that informed the outcome of this enterprise.

To urge on the musicians, including six Queensland players in a 19-strong ensemble of strings, the Conservatorium Theatre looked pretty full, especially for a program that only veered toward the popular in its last component: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Preceding this came a mixed bag with little common ground, apart from a general air of grimness, if not downright gloom. Shamray took the piano part in Mahler’s one-movement A minor Piano Quartet, the original three string lines expanded to give work to all ANAM players present. This conversion came from the institution’s own Harry Ward, leading the second violins for the greater part of this night. Schnittke’s 1979 Concerto for Piano and Strings gave Shamray a broader platform on which to display his fearless talents. And Ward appeared in more exposed guise for Mihkel Kerm’s Lamento, here arranged by the composer for solo violin, which replaced the original score’s cello.

We were some way into the Mahler arrangement before the strings made much of an impact because Shamray took the dynamic initiative from the start: the piano has first dibs on the material, ergo the piano dominates. In fact, the keyboard part was liable to take over even in moments where you might have expected a modicum of self-diminution. For instance, the abrupt turn at bar 42 (Letter B) where the violins and violas burst into action, entschlossen, the piano rumbled powerfully for four bars before taking over the action, Speaking of the violas, you’d go far to come across a quartet that worked with this brand of ideal ensemble: a very welcome entity when they emerged from the maelstrom, as at bar 72, and in the slanging match with the violins some 14 bars later. But their exposure was infrequent, probably due to the arranger’s re-allocation of material.

When the counterpoint reaches its apex, you’re reminded of the lushness to come in Verklaerte Nacht, but the workings here impress as less urgent, as much formally necessary as emotionally driven. Further, the initial theme is employed to the detriment of other material, like the second subject descending scale pattern which seems just pretty alongside the aspirational 6th leap falling back to the fifth that dominates in the memory, even if Mahler gives his subsidiary theme all the running in the score’s final pages. All of which is somewhat secondary to the standard of execution which proved excellent, as you’d expect from an ANAM body controlled by Sophie Rowell. But then, the work itself is far from difficult, possibly even less so when you have a pianist determined to take on the leading role, even when his contributions are secondary.

After hearing a particularly perplexing work by Schnittke, I once confessed to John Sinclair, long-time critic for the Melbourne Herald, that I doubted the composer’s existence. Because of the score’s abrupt changes of style and progress, I thought the result might have been the work of a committee, like the 1970 Yellow River Piano Concerto, and that Schnittke was a fabrication. Mind you, that was in the days before the composer wound up in Germany and the unpleasant history of his career in the USSR was made clear. You could hardly have the same concerns about the concerto on this program. Shamray opened the one-movement construct with a long solo that suggested both a trudge towards the concentration camp and a post-Shostakovich stretch of depression.

You were faced with consonant output from the strings while Shamray cut across it with powerful outbursts of ferocious discord. In fact, this juxtaposition proved to be the main point of interest throughout the score where a kind of schizoid character persists – the rough and the smooth, the dreamy and the Prokofiev-type percussive. As for the form of the piece, Schnittke seems to follow the precept of when in doubt, give the piano a cadenza. Not that you could complain too much: Shamray’s mastery made a chastening display of pianistic machismo that beat back any opposition.

Mind you, much of this took up the main body of the movement; at the outer limits, Schnittke played the Mary Queen of Scots/T.S. Eliot game of ‘In my end is my beginning’ (or the other way around) with a welcome recall of the opening sombre strophes. Further, the dual activity levels worked persuasively; no longer could you entertain thoughts of many hands making light work since this concerto followed an individually designed scheme and its overall temperament remained consistently identifiable. Again, the ANAM group worked through its bountifully moulded elements with fine precision and impressive responsiveness, while Shamray impressed with a fierce virtuosity, sweeping you along with the music’s rough fervour.

Estonian-born musician Mihkel Kerem, assistant concertmaster with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, breaks no new ground with his meditative soliloquy. Ward enjoyed all the attention in outlining the main theme of this Lamento, while his fellow strings gave a backdrop of oscillating 2nds and drones. The work has no development but toys with scraps of the eventually all-too-familiar chief melody/motif. Its main interest lay in following the soloist’s finely arched arabesques across a sepulchral landscape, the whole ending in aspirational harmonics to relieve the deeply-felt but plangent emotional content – some light pointing a way out of what threatened to become a musical huis-clos.

As expected, the Tchaikovsky Serenade pleased mightily, coming after three works that emphasized minor scales and harmonies. Here was an opportunity to evaluate fully the quality of this ANAM body and it proved more than equal to the task of working through a repertoire chestnut. It seemed that Rowell had chosen a particularly slow pace for the first movement’s initial Andante non troppo but such steadiness worked well at the transfer into the main movement at bar 37, where the forte enjoyed proper treatment relative to its very soft precedents. It was a pleasure to sit back and revel in the security of all concerned and the attention given to dynamic shadings, thereby avoiding the bull-at-a-gate procedure of giving in to the violins at every turn.

That’s not consistently true: Tchaikovsky gives everyone fair dibs, but you could be pleased in this instance to hear certain groups clearly and playing more than small note groups, like the seconds and violas in tandem at bar 99. But the ensemble generated an excellent series of passages of play across this movement, nowhere better than at the crossover from divisi to unison starting at bar 257 before the affirmative bursting into sunlight and the tonic at bar 265. Even the straightforward Waltz produced some telling moments, like the delectable handling of a counter-figure from the violas between bars 114 and 134 – groups of two quavers each that give both tension and support to the composer’s splendidly fluid melody – and a deft Boskovsky-style hesitation before the seconds and cellos take over the principal melody – well, re-present it – at bar 166. Finally, the ensemble nearly pulled off the penultimate pizzicato chord, despite the scatter-gun challenge to both sets of violins.

At the conclusion to the Elegy, I was in no doubt that this string group is among the best I’ve heard from the National Academy since the organization took off in 1994. The timbral quality came over with laudable depth and polish, in part due to Rowell’s encouragement of full bowing at the movement’s rich cadences and a general responsiveness in ensemble work during the more hectic passages, e. g. beginning at bar 31 when violas and cellos have the floor; also, the lower strings maintained their purpose in spill-over passages like the violas’ largamente at bar 65 and the first violins’ produced an ardent, controlled account of the Piu mosso group cadenza leading into the last recapitulation with its moving excursion to disturbance before that benevolent final 11-bar stretch.

In line with the interpretation’s basis in musical reality, rather than aiming for Mantovani sweetness and mittel-European swooning, Rowell and her charges worked for purity of articulation and restrained dynamic power in the Finale which began with a moving delineation of the opening 42 bars where the composer achieves his once-upon-a-time ambience through the simplest means, without an accidental to mar this benign C Major landscape. Later, the ANAM cellos gave an expert burnish to the second main melody that comes with the key change to E flat – an excellent stretch deftly concluded with a clever transition at bar 101 where the violins regain control. Even at the more hectic moments, like the pages preceding the firm statement of bar 264, the texture remained clear to the ear while the pressure level increased without approaching the frenzy of a Russian kermesse, as Hanslick described the Violin Concerto’s finale with customary insight.

All right:, the ensemble wasn’t working at the level of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, but the young players impressed by their obvious awareness of what it means to work as an entity and how to respond fully to direction, even a control as lightly exercised as Rowell’s. I find it hard to enter into the back-slapping proclamations that see an assured future for this country’s music in these musicians; it may be that some of them will survive into the Australian professional world, while others will probably leave and animate the musical scenes of other countries. It’s best to eschew predictions in these uncertain times, I think: take what you receive and be grateful that you can still have the chance to enjoy nights as richly textured as this one turned out to be.

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.