Similar, but not the same

GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN: SIX CONCERTI

Hans-Dieter Michatz, Monika Kornel

Move Records MCD 576

 

Once upon a time, you could hardly go to any period music affair in Melbourne without coming across one of two expert flautists: Greg Dikmans or Hans-Dieter Michatz.   The former you can still find  playing in large-scale events; the last time I saw him was at one of the major concerts for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival a couple of years ago.  But Michatz has been absent for a while.  I thought this lack of appearances might have been caused by a move to Europe or America or Japan – any place where his talents would be valued.  But it appears not: he has been ill.

He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, which Dr. Google informs me is a neurological problem with your muscles that makes them contract or distort.  So Michatz has had to give up his work on the transverse flute and, along with that, his long-range plan to record these Telemann concerti as the composer originally specified.  For a substitute, he offers these works on two recorders: a tenor in C and a voice-flute in D.  While he’s not entering the lists and claiming these works for the recorder repertoire, he finds that they are unexpectedly congenial in transplanted mode.

Further, Michatz is accompanied by harpsichordist Monika Kornel, artistic director of the Sydney Consort and a stalwart supporter of the musician throughout the painful process of re-shaping his career.  Not surprisingly, the pair make a sterling partnership in what are called concerti but are, in more ways than one, duo sonatas; not that you need to worry about discrimination between specific terms in a period as non-doctrinaire as the Baroque where even the colossal figure of Bach was often enough highly flexible with some of his descriptors.

The age-old question with these six Telemann works is: are they all the same?  I don’t know why but, since my youth, the accusation/observation has persisted that you will always find it hard to differentiate between this composer’s works, a) because he wrote so many, and b) because his vocabulary is free of the distinctive polyphonic grandeur or contrapuntal mesh-work of his two great contemporaries.  A facile temptation is always there, especially among non-musicians, to group Vivaldi and Telemann as a successful duopoly notable for prolific output but mechanical achievement.

Well, these concerti do have similarities, but you’d expect that.  The format follows an unchanging sequence of four movements; although the performing headings can change (are they Telemann’s own? The oldest manuscript that my limited resources can find suggests that they are), the pattern is a consistent slow-fast-slow-fast, inherited from the church sonata.  As you’d expect, the actual keys vary but, once Telemann settles on a tonality, you rarely move far away from it, although there are some surprises in the later scores.

The first concerto in D Major opens with a piacevole, that easeful injunction that proposes, as one of my teachers once put it, that you ‘can do what you like’ as long as it’s agreable – which in music can mean anything.   Michatz and Kornel adopt a gentle strolling pace.  About the only disruption to its progress comes with a passage in triplets that is over almost before it makes any impression.  The following Allegro shows the composer’s delight in sharing the material equally between his executants and his nimble handling of close imitation and modulations, the pages given with unfussed, mobile aplomb. The following B minor Largo is a delicately accomplished duet where the triplets give way to sextuplets and, as in previous movements, the players have many passages in duet at a third or a sixth.

The concluding Vivace is filled with ornamentation, for once not sounding over-cramped in its handling.  Admittedly, some of the bar-sequences are terrifically predictable, but the unexpected emerges when a couple of bars emerge that sound as though they had strayed in from a Rossini overture.  This is the only part of the concerto with repeats of both halves; no sign of fatigue from the musicians but. leaving aside the demands of proportion and balance, the regularity and pattern-building is a tad wearisome.

Concerto No. 2 in G minor opens in a 12/8 siciliano-suggestive Largo, with an initial sharing of the melodic statement, one instrument after another before the centre of the movement moves into a true simultaneous sharing of the labour.  It shouldn’t, but this whole concerto brings to mind the questionable Bach (probably C.P.E.) G minor Flute Sonata, although this part of it serves to show how happy Telemann could be with formulae and regularity of structure.  A crisp Vivace both illustrates this sense of order and occasionally disrupts it when, for example, a four-bar sequence is suddenly curtailed, missing a bar as the composer breaks back into his initial subject’s restatement.

A Handelian Soave in B flat Major follows, a short interlude that gives a splendid exhibition of this duo’s fluency and sensitive mimicry of each other in bending melodic lines and selecting notes for emphasis: the sort of detail you expect from players who know their period and know each other.  More unassuming examples of asymmetry emerge in the final Vivace with its 14-bar first half and second portion of 37 bars, along with its economical material that avoids sounding four-square through the unexpected nature of the harpsichord’s activity; not that it veers off into sudden flights of imagination, but the passage work and accompaniment figures offer mild surprises.

Tempo giusto is the heading for the Concerto No. 3 in A Major which opens with another amiable walking tune; so the executants take the direction as less ‘strict’ and more ‘appropriate’.  The movement’s second half is repeated, allowing Kornel’s keyboard some exposure, before a brief coda.  In the following Vivace, the interest seems to fall on the harpsichord,although Michatz has pride of place for the opening 8 bars.  A busy movement, it suddenly breaks into Scarlatti territory a little over half-way through when a sudden burst of repeated notes interrupts the normal chain of arpeggio and scale-based activity.  I’ve listened to this movement several times and can’t avoid the feeling that the prevailing rate of speed changes or slightly accelerates once the instruments are in real duet mode.

As expected, the concerto’s Adagio is in the relative minor and, in the prevailing context, sounds exceptionally meditative and not in a hurry to finish.  Michatz and Kornel maintain a stately pace, giving themselves ample room to negotiate the elaborations that are part-and-parcel of the two soprano lines – demi-semiquaver groups and galant-style duplet snaps.  The Presto that rounds off this concerto is simplicity itself – nothing taxing for these players – but it also has its own off-centre charm where four-bar sequences are finished off with a short two-bar scrap of filler.  The delight comes in realizing that there is really no inflexible, mathematical balance at work; just like Bach, Telemann can opt for the unexpected, even if he is not ostentatious about achieving it.

The next work, Concerto No. 4 in E minor, opens with a Largo that, for a while, raises the possibilities of a French ouverture but is not that ambitious, oscillating between the stately dotted note rhythm and fluid triplets; quite rhetorical in its language but within the bounds of decorum   –  the Dean of Windsor as opposed to Bishop Curry.   Surprises abound in the Vivace where the harpsichord announces a ten-bar theme before the recorder enters and, from there on, the forward movement makes a series of elongations and abridgements that are treated all-of-a-piece by these players, making sure we are aware of the re-appearances of the initial and rather stolid theme but making much of the busy activity that comes between.

While the G Major Dolce opens with a kind of pastoral motif in thirds, the movement proper only starts in bar 15 with a syncopated tune of little distinction. What does have interest is the recurrence towards the end of this movement of a left-hand harpsichord figure from the second bar, as though the composer decided on a spot of recycling.  This calm placidity is counterbalanced by a sort of gigue-finale, a Vivace in 12/8 which is given aggressive handling, especially by Kornel who revels in its abrupt stops and starts, her part punctuated by demi-semiquaver groups of four simultaneously in both hands.  It’s an unexpectedly violent set of pages, almost impatient in its rush to completion, and the only movement on the entire disc where I caught a wrong note in the keyboard part.

There’s a sort of break in the tonality alternations that have obtained so far in these concertos with No. 5 which is a B minor work, the only one that opens with an Adagio; a slow-stepping processional which features plenty of elegant linear dovetailing and interception work from both executants.  The succeeding Vivace in 3/2 keeps the harpsichord in figured bass mode for about 14 bars before permitting it any melodic contribution but, from then on, the instruments enjoy some rapid-fire contrasts and duplications, although the pace does slacken at two points – bars 32-33 and at bar 49 – although it’s hard to see why, unless the players feel they are in danger of becoming too rhythmically mechanical.

An E minor Grazioso intervenes – its title aptly chosen for the movement’s calm ambience punctuated by disciplined ornamentation.  The only problem here came in the final low-lying bars where an unsteady B from the recorder mars the assured, measured atmosphere.  Kornel has the focus for the start to the Presto finale with about 16 bars’ worth of solo.  This is one of the more aggressive fast movements in the whole collection with plenty of close-order fugato writing and some gestures that are, in this context, unexpectedly flamboyant.  The key might be minor but the temperament is optimistic, almost victorious.

Telemann ends his collection with an A minor construct, starting with an Andante that holds off on committing itself with some restless modulations and a tendency to highlight the dominant.   But, after the novelties exposed in the preceding work, this seems to be business back to normal as far as instrumental counterpoint practice goes.   After this comes a splendid Allegro, exemplifying how the composer can compress his material, while reverting back to the first concerto’s penchant for interpolated triplet passages.  As with so much you hear on this disc, things seem to verge on complexity but never quite get there – neither a good thing nor a bad thing, unless your penchant for the difficult can’t be satisfied by anything less than the Bach B minor Flute Sonata.

During the Largo, Telemann takes some time before pitching onto a definite C Major root, enjoying himself by wandering across other possibilities, including some meandering chromatic descents in the movement’s centre, all the while maintaining his predilection for triplets to soften the onward march of crotchets and quavers.   Here, Michatz and Kornel enter into the pages’ spirit with an approach that suggests the improvisatory and emotionally diffident; as we used to say on the acropolis, Nothing in excess.  But then the Allegro assai that finishes the whole opus is remarkably lavish with different themes for the participants to elaborate, while also doing the Bachian trick of introducing a passing theme (and it is as transient as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) before working back to the initial interweaving topics for discussion.   In other words, there’s yet another slight and subtle surprise in the tail of this collection.

As a labour of love on Michatz’s part, this is a welcome addition to the Move disc catalogue.   Yes, the whole thing is a transcription in essence, but what you lose in the flute’s carrying power, you gain in the supple suggestiveness of the recorder – or, in this case, two of them (the tenor instrument is used for the Concerto No. 2 in G minor).  To the performer’s credit, apart from this product representing the culmination of an ambition for Michatz and Kornel, his talented supporter/friend, the CD opens yet another window on the rich resource that is available if you bother to delve into the vast wealth of Telemann’s compositions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June Diary

Thursday June 7

THOMAS HAMPSON SINGS MAHLER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Well, he’s here at last if not exactly in what you could call the heyday of his career.  Still, other singers have managed to keep going well into their 60s, so the best thing is to wait and see.  Hampson, the famous American baritone, is fronting Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer; not exhausting himself, then, with about 15 minutes’ worth of not-too-demanding work in a cycle that he has recorded twice.  Probably of more interest is a rare outing for Mahler’s stand-alone symphonic movement, Totenfeier.  Another rarity is Messiaen’s Le tombeau resplendissant, an assuredly idiosyncratic score from the composer’s early 20s, while conductor Andrea Molino  – to whom we owe thanks for a splendid King Roger last year – takes us all a bit further into the transfigured death stratum of musical experience through Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung.

This program will be repeated on Friday June 8 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 9

HANSEL AND GRETEL

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre at 11 an, 2 pm and 5 pm

First thing to note is that this is not a complete performance of Humperdinck’s opera; it comes in at about 55 minutes, so expect highlights only.  This version, previously presented by the company in 2014, is sung in German and may feature translations on side-screens.   Elizabeth Hill returns to direct, and Simon Bruckard, assistant to Fabian Russell four years ago, stands at the podium this time.  As far as I can tell, the cast is a completely new one: Shakira Dugan (Hansel), Cleo Lee-McGowan (Gretel), Tomas Dalton (Witch), Kirilie Blythman (Mother/Angel/Child), Stephen Marsh (Fairy/Angel/Child), Michelle McCarthy (Dew Fairy), Matthew Thomas (Angel/Child), and Douglas Kelly (Sandman).  Ross Hall’s set and costumes return, as does Peter Darby’s lighting set-up.  When you think of the voluminous breadth of the original, a less-than-an-hour experience sounds pretty attractive.

This performance will be re-presented on Tuesday June 12 at 1 pm.

 

Wednesday June 13

LISZT AT THE OPERA

LESLIE HOWARD

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The Australian expatriate pianist has been a Liszt authority for many years and, in recording everything that the composer wrote, he has unearthed many a long-forgotten score.  Despite most people’s experiences, Liszt didn’t stop with Rigoletto and Tristan but took liberties with a whole range of other operas.  On this program, Howard brings to life forgotten corners from the large treasury of transcriptions and arrangements that Liszt wrote and put beyond the scope of most pianists.  There’s a sarabande and chaconne based on themes from Handel’s Almira; the final act of Aida is handled with remarkable thrift; a double-whammy emerges with a fantasia on themes from both Don Giovanni and Figaro; Howard performs one of the three arrangements that Liszt produced on Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the generous Reminiscences; further recollections come from Bellini’s Norma; and the composer takes a motif or six from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette for his Les adieux – Reverie.

 

Friday June 15

L”ENFANCE DU CHRIST

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Anyone who has sung in a half-decent church choir will know the Shepherds’ Farewell from this oratorio, but the rest of the score is generally unfamiliar territory.  Thanks to Sir Andrew Davis and his concern to fill in certain gaps in our musical experience, this state of affairs will be changed, just as he did for us with Massenet’s Thais.  Sasha Cooke, an American mezzo who appeared here in Davis’ 2015 review of the Mahler No. 3,  sings Mary; British tenor Andrew Staples, also here three years ago for a Davis performance of The Damnation of Faust,  will be the Narrator; Roderick Williams, a British baritone who has collaborated with Davis on two CDs of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, takes on Joseph; local boy Andrew Goodwin scores the role of the Centurion, lucky fellow with his eight bars of recitative; Melbourne-born Shane Lowrencev enjoys the role of Polydore, commander of the patrol in Jerusalem and embarrassed with the riches of two sets of recitative; and we go back to Britain for the plum part of Herod, to be taken by baritone Matthew Brook whom I last heard in a 2013 MSO Messiah. The MSO Chorus gets to sing the afore-mentioned shepherds’ near-lullaby and a lot more besides: angels, soothsayers and a moving final set of pages supporting Staples.  Not to be missed because you’ll probably never get another opportunity to enjoy this gentler Berlioz live.

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 16 at 7:30 pm and on Monday June 18 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 16

LAWRENCE POWER: SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Making his debut appearance at ANAM as a resident teacher, Power was last heard here, almost two years ago to the day, playing Bartok’s Viola Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.    Tonight, he takes his ANAM string charges through Biber’s Battalia a 10, although the work rarely uses that many lines; at least, not in my score.  Mozart’s String Quintet No. 1 follows, the one with a bass line rather than a specific cello one and a treat for those of us who revel in the composer’s unexplored catalogue.  The promised Shostakovich is the Chamber Symphony, that arrangement by Rudolf Barshai (a violist, among other things) of the composer’s largo-rich String Quartet No. 8.  Before we get there, Power and his forces present British writer John Woolrich’s 1989 Ulysses Awakes, a meditation of sorts for solo viola and string decet that revolves around the hero’s initial aria, Dormo ancora, from the criminally under-performed Monteverdi opera.

 

Thursday June 21

MOZART & THE CLASSICAL AGE

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Pianist Anna Goldsworthy is soloist at this event which comprises mainly Mozart and Haydn, with an unexpected oddity at the night’s start.  William Hennessy directs/leads his orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 30 to round out the program, possibly with the missing timpani part inserted – or an attempt at what it might have sounded like.  The other Mozart components are an arrangement of the String Quartet No. 7 for the MCO players; I assume this is the E Flat K. 160, fairly close in time to the D Major Symphony. Goldsworthy takes up the cudgels for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat, which has somehow escaped my notice – remarkable, considering the score’s substance.  This program’s genuflection to Haydn comes with his popular D Major Piano Concerto which dates from some years after the Mozart we are hearing.   The overture that German-born, Swedish-resident and almost-exact Mozart contemporary Joseph Martin Kraus supplied to precede a performance of Voltaire’s Olympie in 1792 begins the MCO’s endeavours.

This program will be repeated on Sunday June 24 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 23

MID-SEASON GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

For one night only, Anne-Sophie Mutter appears in this MSO mid-season celebratory concert, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  Sir Andrew Davis conducts the program, opening with Stravinsky’s homage to his great compatriot, Le baiser de la fee; not the complete ballet, but the 25-minute Divertimento of extracts from the original.  Davis closes out his celebrations with Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia espansiva and most striking of the composer’s six essays in the form.  Mutter is also playing host for Markings, a work for solo violin, strings and harp by the popular and active film-score composer John Williams that was premiered last year at Tanglewood, at which concert this gifted musician also worked her way through the Tchaikovsky concerto – as she will have done at three concerts, a week prior to this, in the Sydney Opera House.

 

Sunday June 24

STEVEN ISSERLIS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

As usual, nothing if not varied fare from the ACO.  At the core of the program sits the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat Major, one of the most famous in the repertoire, and a taxing piece to negotiate – at least, for the soloist.  The other pillar of orthodoxy comes at the end with Richard Tognetti taking his orchestra through the last Haydn symphony, No. 104, the London; thereby adding to our limited exposure to any of the last twenty or so in the composer’s output.  Alongside these come two world premieres.  Elena Kats-Chernin wrote A Knock One Night as a commission by Mirek Generowicz to commemorate his family’s fraught migration path to Australia.  Movements (for us and them) was composed by Samuel Adams, son of the American composer John Adams, to a commission from the ACO and Stanford Live; so far, I can’t find out anything about the rationale behind the work, which retains the mystery behind its enigmatic title.

This program will be repeated on Monday June 25 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday June 24

BREATH-TAKING AND FOUR HANDS

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Well, the performers may be puffed by the time they reach the end of this very varied night’s work.  Veteran oboist Anne Gilby  is partnered by one of the Team’s senior partners, Darryl Coote. as they wander all over the place.  Their tour takes in the Poulenc Oboe Sonata, one of the last pieces that the composer completed; Arnold’s Sonatina of 1951; Gabriel’s Theme from Morricone’s score for that spirit-numbing 1986 Roland Joffe film, The Mission; Schumann’s solitary composition for oboe, the Three Romances; Margaret Sutherland’s 1958 Sonatina; cellist/composer Caerwen Martin’s brief The Native Garden; and Carolyn Morris’s A Day in the Brindabellas.  As a leavening for this fare, Coote and Max Cooke play a couple of four-hand piano works: Mozart’s B flat Sonata and the Andante and Variations K.501.

 

Wednesday June 27

A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE ROMANTIC

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at 7:30 pm

For this reversion to the normal after the organization’s previous excursion into transcriptions/arrangements, Kathryn Selby is joined by violinist Andrew Haveron, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, and that orchestra’s co-principal cello, Umberto Clerici.  Both of these guests have appeared in previous years, so they would be well-informed about what Selby requires in her collaborators.   Each of them gets a duo showcase: Haveron plays the Mendelssohn F Major Sonata of 1838, the mature one; Clerici has the joy of taking us through Brahms’ F Major Sonata No. 2.  When the players combine after interval, they aim for the heights with the Schubert Piano Trio in E flat: one of the last of the composer’s completed works and an ever-welcome, ever-moving experience.

 

Thursday June 28

KOLJA BLACHER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

These events have been taken over in previous years by the MSO’s concertmasters, but this time round, regular guest Blacher has taken on the task of curating and leading this particular MRC program.   He will play the solo violin line for Beethoven’s G Major Romance No. 1 of 1802, then directs a reading of the same composer’s Symphony No. 1, published in the preceding year.  Blacher begins with what I hope is the overture only to Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; as the publicity stands, there is no specificity about what piece(s) will be performed from that rich score which conditioned reactions to the play for generations.  Blacher really hits his front-of-band straps for the Bernstein Serenade, which the composer built on Plato’s Symposium, that personality-rich celebration of love; the composer’s five movements take their inspiration from dialogues and monologues spoken by seven of the characters who attended Agathon’s famous 4th century B.C. celebratory party.

 

 

 

 

 

To begin, the usual kerfuffle

THE HARPIST: XAVIER DE MAISTRE

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 12

                                                                             Xavier de Maistre

In one of the most publicized ABO events for some time, French harpist de Maistre gave lavishly of his talents in Boieldieu’s C Major (ostensibly) Concerto, following this with two transcriptions of well-known Spanish pieces and one of his signature offerings in an arrangement (I presume, his own) of Smetana’s Vltava – well, a good deal of it, although the Country Wedding  polka from bars 122 to 177 disappeared completely and certain parts of the river’s progress to Prague disappeared for the sake of some flashy cadenzas.

At the evening’s start, the players came onstage and for once, I thought, we would be spared the customary address from artistic director Paul Dyer.   Sadly, no; we were yet again subjected to a plethora of laudatory adjectives: two ‘spectaculars’, a ‘marvellous’, three ‘wonderfuls’, two ‘most beautifuls’ plus a ‘really beautiful’, a ‘most spectacular’, a ‘really incredible’, a ‘real treat’, a ‘gorgeous’ and a ‘most moving’.  It was hard to keep up with the flow and so I might have missed a few stray self-encomiums.

It was obviously going to be a night of superlatives  –  but then, it always is.  As for actual information as opposed to hyperbole, it was thin on the ground.  The soloist lives in Monaco with his wife and young daughter; he gets to see them for only a few months of his professionally active year.  Also, we would be hearing Ravel’s Pavane  pour une infante defunte on period instruments, ‘probably for the first time’ – and this was a notable experience because . . . ?  At all events, we were promised a sort of historical tour.  And we got one, although little of the changes were rung by the ABO itself.  Mozart’s Symphony No. 20 in D dated from 1772; C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony No. 1 was written in 1775-6; the harp concerto comes from 1800.  Granted, the Ravel scrap was composed in 1889 but its introduction to this program, given the ABO’s specified operational territory, was aberrational.

Unless my note-taking was a fault, Dyer had referred to Mozart in his opening address as ‘this little protege’, although of whom I am still in doubt.  Anyway, the performance featured Dyer accompanying his orchestra on the harpsichord which, for much of the time, was inaudible.  He might have expended his energies better in restraining the horns’ volume which drowned out the violin action for far too much of the energetic first Allegro.  Certainly, the work was played first-up but you might have expected better tuning from the oboes in a hall that was by no means cold.

The same problem arose in the Andante where the solo flute, doubling the first violins an octave higher, was marginally off-pitch.  Despite the verve in the string attack at its opening, the finale was weighed down by the emergence of the wind in bar 5, so much so that the presto speed that set up expectations was dragged back into more of a jog-trot.  Here again, the brass were over-encouraged;  God knows, their parts are simple enough, so there’s not much point in drawing attention to them by braying.

We also enjoyed a harpsichord continuo in the Boieldieu concerto; none of the four performances to which I have access use a keyboard, but let that pass.  De Maistre has great talent and a fine fluency, yet his outline of the first movement Allegro brillante impressed as wayward; on occasions, small passing notes didn’t sound in his instrument’s upper register, and both he and Dyer played around with the music’s metre, on occasions suggesting a practice of Chopinesque rubato that came into play a couple of decades down the chronological track.  This proved even more noticeable in the short Andante lento where the strings stuck to their last by employing no vibrato.  Both this middle segment and the attacca-linked Rondo finale were in C minor, the latter a fine sample of excellent interplay between soloist and orchestra with very few discrepancies at post-cadenza entries.

Matters hadn’t improved much for the oboes in the post-interval C.P.E. Bach work, a balancing compensation coming from a splendid crispness in the string attack on the work’s stop-start mode of address.  In fact, both groups of violins enjoyed the curt flamboyance of this work’s first movement which played itself along with minimal direction, although Dyer leaped up for an attention-grabbing gesture about 9 bars before the brief (26 bars) middle Largo began.  This hiatus gave fine exposure to the matched timbres of first flute Melissa Farrow doubling Monique O’Dea’s lead viola, and second flute Mikaela Oberg in partnership with principal cellist Jamie Hey.

The concluding Presto also almost plays itself, with only two fermata points to stem the flow, both controlled with fair success by concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen.  As with the concerto, this finale impressed as the work’s most convincing segment – for its innate energy, yes, but also for the interest generated by the performers’ approach to dynamics and the score’s appealing restlessness.

The Ravel Pavane begins with a horn solo – not hard to negotiate but uneven when performed on a period instrument using crooks.  Apart from this oddity, the reading sounded very much like that you might hear from any other chamber orchestra, although I can’t recall any clarinets.  You could have welcomed some more strings to give this placid piece some contrasting vitality in the middle G minor pages.  The fade-to-black at the end struck me as gauche, an unnecessary pictorialization of the dead infanta’s state of being (or non-being).

Enter de Maistre with his solo bracket.  He began with the Spanish Dance from Falla’s La vida breve (1904-5) which was brightened up with a clutch of passing glissandi and generally managed to transfer the infectious rhythmic contrasts of the orchestral original.  A guitar classic, Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (1896), produced the most intriguing music of the night from this artist with some feather-light tremolo work and a dangerously soft dynamic in some passages that had you holding your breath in admiration.

You could find much pleasure in sections of the Smetana tone poem (composed in 1874); in fact, the opening trickling up to the main theme’s initial exhaustion was very deftly handled.  De Maistre spiced up the score with some cadenza-like flurries and gave us a fine line in harmonics in the A flat nocturne at the work’s centre.  Still, you missed the excitement of the St. John’s Rapids section where the orchestra frets and fumes with gusto, while the glorious Vysehrad appearance near the work’s end was necessarily under-powered.  For all that, this was an impressive demonstration of technical skill and informed responsiveness to a marvellous sequence of musical depictions of landscape, made all the more remarkable when you have a look at the original’s wafer-thin harp part.

 

 

 

 

Sensitive, sincere but not for everybody

SPIRIT WIND

Derek Jones

Move Records MD 3423

I don’t know what to make of this disc.  It consists of 7 tracks, improvisations for flute, synthesiser, high-pitched bells with Peter Neville contributing the occasional gong-induced sound.   Obviously, it is a labour of love for Jones, who has recorded another CD along these lines: Sun Down Moon Up which dates from 2008.  In broad terms, this is ambient music, not made for analysis but for an uncritical mind to indulge in its soporific progress.  What seems to be happening is that Jones uses the synthesiser as a mood-setting with the percussion employed to vary the backdrop while the flute (concert and alto on one track) plays its calm meditations on top.

The player/composer aims ‘to bring particular ‘experiences and thoughts into sound and to express inner feelings through the form of musical sound scapes’.  And that’s fine, as long as you are prepared to accept that music can do that.  Some of us are incapable of accepting that Jones can realise these aspirations.  ‘For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.’  Thus spake Stravinsky in 1936, before he enjoyed the inestimable gift of being intellectually and linguistically filtered by Robert Craft.   But he was right then and, to my mind, remains so.

Of course, you can go along with any composer and swallow entirely what (s)he says (s)he is telling you, although words are the only sure method by which you can be sure of the relevance of what you are hearing to the composer’s stated intentions; you don’t believe in Till’s execution unless you know that Strauss wants you to picture the scene; but you’d be ready to believe in Cavaradossi’s despair because he tells you about it.  Without verbal or written direction, we all flounder to attach specific emotional interpretations to music.

Jones begins his spiritual odyssey with Journey to Serenity – an attempt ‘to show the place of arrival where one experiences a great sense of unity and tranquillity.’ The flute enters over a soft synthesizer background centred around B flat Major; the chords change slowly, so the solo line has space to curvet and meander around a pretty limited set of notes although Jones uses a pretty full instrumental compass.  It’s somehow reminiscent of The Lark Ascending but without the broad, open spaciousness of that tone-poem’s development.  It also serves as a kind of Occidental take on Eastern meditation music; nothing is happening to engage the musical intellect but your aural sense is bathed in an amiable sonorous sequence that is devoid of events. After not too long a time you can almost predict the harmonic shifts – which, I’m afraid, lowered my interest/involvement level even further.

Jones pairs Journey to Serenity with the CD’s last track, Blue Star, which is presented as ‘lighting up our path towards the final goal and destination’.  The melodic path shows a more adventurous edge here and the synthesizer suggests a subdued choral texture  rather than strings.  Also adding some textural interest is what sounds like Peter Neville stroking a gong around its edge with a stick, although the effect is subject to some modification so it’s hard to discern the true nature of this complementary colour.  At all events, the musical path wanders across quite a few concordant sequences before concluding in a quiet B minor.

The second track, Violet Rays, starts out with a synthesizer version of the Gregorian chant, Pange lingua gloriosi, stated fairly plainly.  When Jones’ flute enters, it takes off on a path that I can’t reconcile with the chant which emerges again on the synthesizer just before the 3 minute mark.  The ambition here is cosmic; an  ‘observation of the human condition.’  The chant emerges once more en clair on the synthesizer but the flute’s slow-moving melismata add little to my differentiation between ‘the good and dark qualities being played out in the world’.  The Pange returns for the last time while the flute concludes with a C sharp minor triad.   It’s hard to draw a link between Aquinas’ hymn celebrating the Eucharist with the piece’s philosophical intent, but that’s not to say there isn’t one.

Meditation and Distant Bells, the third and sixth improvisations,  share a common platform: the visualization of musicians ‘improvising in an ethereal space’ – an image that is quite attractively presented, even if the flute is the only real line that does much.  In Meditation, the synthesizer provides a B drone and some intermittent sounds suggestive of a sitar add another element of a rising or falling 2nd to the mix.  Distant Bells opens with more of the sitar-like sounds (which by now are sounding like plucked piano strings) before the flute enters. Some bells add a fetching colour to the familiar drone backdrop.  In fact, this piece is more definitely ordered in its shape, along the lines of a short-versicle long-response pattern.  Sadly, my attention was wandering into irrelevant regions by the end, which bore an unfortunate similarity to the five-note motif that dominates the climax of Spielberg’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

To Bliss commemorates the flautist/composer’s experience of his father’s death nine years ago and fuses an alto flute line with the concert flute, signifying a conversation between father and son.  Distant high bells give a piquant edge to the dialogue.  The disc’s shortest track, it is easily the most effective and affecting: an eloquent in memoriam that leads to a consolatory F Major optimistic ending.

Finally, Night Sky comes with more lofty aims – ‘to show the tendency to feel the sense of separation in our human condition, and our need and yearning to find our true place in this world.’   Jones writes that this piece is based on the hymn tune Forty Days and Forty Nights and you can perceive its elements off and on in the flute line, while fragments emerge in the soft choral-reminiscent synthesizer backing.  This is demonstrably nocturnal music, in terms of its projected mood – but you could say much the same about most of the album’s content.

While I find it hard to come to terms with the propositions that underpin Jones’ improvisations, the player’s command of register and articulation is admirable.  His transitions from middle to high ranges cannot be faulted and, if the music itself follows a conservative, if not diatonic path for much of the time, the actual sound of flute and synthesizer in partnership is vivid and sensitively recorded.   It’s not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

 

 

 

Time for a change?

JAZZ & BLUES

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 7

                                                    Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

One of the finest talents in Melbourne’s violin world, Markiyan Melnychenko is a delight to hear whenever he takes to the stage, whether in chamber works, as a soloist, or presenting a straight recital, as on this night when, once again, he worked with his mother Oksana through an hour’s music rich in variety: 14 movements with only one work expressly written for the violin/piano format.

I can imagine that, in his work at the Faculty of Music in the University of Melbourne (or the Conservatorium of Music .  .  .  or whatever seasonal change in nomenclature is being applied this week to that amalgam of the white building next to the Grainger Museum in Royal Parade and the brick building next to the white building in St. Kilda Road), Markiyan would be an outstanding teacher.  He has youth and enthusiasm on his side, and it doesn’t hurt that his technical ability shows no flaws, regardless of whatever the repertoire he engages.

But I’m not sure about the success of this partnership, simply in terms of the product achieved.  Oksana plays with security and an obvious awareness of what her responsibilities entail, yet the collaboration impresses as uneasy; not exactly lop-sided but not far from it.  On Monday’s program of incidental music by Korngold for Much Ado About Nothing, then four of Heifetz’s selections from Porgy and Bess, followed by the Ravel Violin Sonata, winding up with more  Gershwin/Heifetz in the Three Preludes, the instrumental balance waxed and waned uncomfortably, to most obvious effect in the brilliant sonata.

The work began well enough, with a restrained dynamic on both sides, although the piano’s first left hand passage erred on the side of insistence rather than titillation.  But climaxes like the build-up and arrival at Rehearsal Number 9 in the Durand score were keyboard-dominated, to the point where the violin’s 20 bars of tremolo were hard to discern for quite a while.  Now, it’s well-known that Ravel didn’t go out of his way to give expression markings; hence, performances of famous works like this sonata, the G Major Piano Concerto and the Piano Trio contain whole pages where the interpreters have to work out their phrasing and attack style in mind-numbing detail and hold many moderation sessions concerning dynamics.  It’s a matter of finding what works best for you and your partner(s).  With this performance, it struck me that more needed to be done inside these parameters.

The following Blues promised well, Markiyan a deft hand with the pizzicato ten-bar introduction, and Oksana began sensibly enough, imitating the previous string chords, but the texture turned over-weighty a bar after Number 3 where the piano has the lead – for a while – and the subtle syncopations at Number 6 where the piano makes a virtue out of a silent first beat in pivotal bars came across as studied, not throwaway rhythmic flicks. The fortissimo marking at Number 9 which carries through for 25 bars before a triple forte mini-explosion proved wearing, a barrage where even the harmonic shifts failed to provide relief.

The Perpetuum mobile finale also opened effectively, Markiyan getting off to an engrossing start on his semi-quaver packed progress towards the final quadruple-stop chord.  Throughout the movement’s main body, Oksana took the lead, mainly I suppose because the violin is busy following its relentless but increasingly exciting path while the keyboard has the motivic/thematic content.  Yet the movement turned into a slog, the dynamic temperature at its peak fare too early and any sense of elation leached because of the prevailing inexorable dynamic.  The occasional piano inaccuracy didn’t help.

In contrast, the Heifetz arrangements were much more successful.  The great violinist played fair and gave his accompanist something approaching equal status, although he exercised his anticipated dominance with attention-grabbing octaves and harmonics.  The Porgy and Bess excerpts began with Summertime – the most magical opening to an opera that I know.  Oksana relished the moody chain of chords that underpin the solo soprano/violin, Heifetz taking delight in sharing the labour of Gershwin’s moving harmonic shifts across the last six bars or so.

A few octaves seem to be slightly ‘off’ during the episodic passages of My Man’s Gone Now, at about bars 15 to 18 but the reading held plenty of power.  You might have wanted a less hefty approach at the centre of Bess, You Is My Woman where, in the opera, both singers come into duet but the final bars made up for any shortcomings with their splendid lyrical resolution.  Most of the interest for It Ain’t Necessarily So fell on Markiyan’s faultless pitching even when ‘bending’ his notes in the best Cab Calloway fashion.  It would have been a kind gesture to us Gershwin enthusiasts to perform the complete set of Heifetz arrangements with A Woman Is A Sometime Thing but we should be grateful that the Melnychenkos resurrected these four pieces that seem to have disappeared from recitals, even as encore materiel.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes, as Markiyan observed, have more Latin-American dance rhythms in their outer segments than jazz, but the central Andante is a great blues, one of the composer’s most simple and moving set of pages.  These also, thanks to Heifetz, share the labour and these performers rollicked through them with enthusiasm.  Oksana got the final bass note of the middle prelude wrong, quietly correcting it, but hit further trouble in the final Allegro‘s middle section where the insistent E flat minor tonality gives way to some fast chromatic creeping upwards which to these ears sounded uncertain in delivery.

As Markiyan admitted at the event’s opening, of the four works programmed, the Korngold pieces had least relevance to this recital’s title: you could find no jazz in them, and blues were out of the question.  The composer’s neatly structured lyric Maiden in the Bridal Chamber made a mild start to the recital, although Markiyan’s finely curved melody line made its customary favourable impression. The March of the Watch (Dogberry and Verges) is meant to be musical mock-heroic comedy but gave the evening’s first inkling that, while one player was aware of the fun attached to the play’s base mechanicals, the other had a more aggressive take on the scene.

The Garden Scene was a specialty of Miki Tsunoda and Caroline Almonte in their Duo Sol days and is a finely-spun instrumental song with a ravishing passage in harmonics and an avoidance of sentimentality as witnessed by the aggressive mood before the final transformation of the main theme.; its old-fashioned Romantic heart-on-sleeve attractiveness made for one of this recital’s high points.  As for the final Hornpipe, this was a bounding, athletic construct that could have come from a young Grainger with its happily exuberant echoes of British folk-music.  Both players had no problems with these boisterous pages which they accomplished with generous breadth and accurate synchronicity.

 

 

Seek and ye may find

THE CALLING

Afrolankan Drumming System and Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Sunday May 6

                                           Adam Simmons backed by Vikram Iyengar

Continuing his five-part hegira in search of a utilitarian justification for writing/making/listening to music, Adam Simmons fronted his own ensemble of twelve and brought in a brace of drummers – Ray Pereira and Kanchana Karunaratna – to give us an odd travelogue; partly psychological, partly geographical, fully emotional.  In The Calling, Simmons is documenting a trip he made to Sri Lanka two years ago, a visit to that troubled nation which came about from a wish to explore his own heritage, emanating from his mother who is Sri Lankan-born.

As usual, the hour-long odyssey was divided into parts; in this case, eight of them.  Probably the longest came first: The Calling which opened with a drum duet from the guests that exemplified the split  personality of their work as exemplified in their name.  Pereira stuck to the African percussion – djembe, dundun and, by way of Cuba, the conga – while Karunaratna played Sri Lankan drums – the ubiquitous gata bera and the thammattama two-part cluster.  Nearly every one else involved processed on while playing – Simmons and two saxophones, a pair of trumpets with trombone, two double basses and four percussionists with Peter Lawler playing a space drum although I didn’t see him at work on it, possibly because of my seat’s line of vision.

Matters moved, as they do in these concerts, to a determined climax or six, the various segments fooling you into believing that you had missed the cut-off points between movements.   But no: the performers oscillated between what looked like free improvisation over a percussive lynch pin and near-unison chorus passages where the melodic material could have been Sri Lankan or original.  This was energising to witness, even if the Afrolankan drumming brought back memories of a long-ago visit by Les Ballets Africains which remains the non-pareil in my experience of cross-rhythmic percussion brilliance.

The second movement  –  got the ticket? get the ticket?  –   consisted of all musicians repeating that particular couplet in unison while rubbing or lightly smacking their hands together.   Explanation? Well, it provided a textural change of scene even if the context remained elliptical.  It could have been an injunction to us all to get on board because the journey proper then began with another instrumental movement, Place: The Pearl which, from memory, appeared to represent the feel-good chaos of life anywhere on the sub-continent, not just on the streets of Colombo or Kandy.

A film dominated the fourth segment – Train: Nurawa Eliya to Ella – which showed some of the sights between those two towns in the highlands as shot from a train.  While the visual content was black and white, the accompaniment was strong on mimicry of train sounds, brass and reeds combining for some deafening train whistles while the percussion ran through a small gamut of accelerations and decelerations.

Living: The dance of Kattu Rati passed me by without leaving a mark; not as remarkable, the name of the postulated dancer has eluded my researches.  Another film – Train: Ambalangoda to Galle –  documented another trip, about half the distance of the previous one and along the nation’s south-western coast.  You’d be hard pressed to distinguish this from its predecessor in musical terms.

Connection: The Tooth of Buddha took us back to the mountains, to Kandy where the relic is held and venerated.  The film material here proved confusing, resembling an op-art cartoon/construct from the 1960s.  The music resolved into an extended, frenetic solo by Simmons where the accent was on his instrument’s physicality and the multiplicity of sounds it could generate when the player uses over-blowing as a primary mode of sound manipulation.  This, the high-point of the journey, was acoustically scouring stuff, delivered straight into the audience’s communal face like a call to arms; so powerful, in fact, that the lady sitting in front of me had to cover her ears.

While this vehement soliloquy was in train, dancer Vikram Iyengar shadowed Simmons, holding him by the waist, then by the legs, finally resting on the bent-over player, then returning the compliment.  Here, I think, The Calling was answered and the composer/performer came closest to articulating the intensity of his reaction to an unexplored facet of his heredity.  It seemed like a fusion of the ecstatic headiness that mystical/religious experiences can cause (and the Buddha’s Tooth is, above all, housed in a most holy site) and the expressive powers that a dedicated musician can find in carrying out his work, particularly in the field of jazz and/or high-flying improvisation.

Simmons’ Epilogue: Ice-cream, tuk-tuks and cricket offered a sort of descent from the mountain with all performers settling in to a celebratory dance; infectious and exciting to hear at these close quarters but challenging   –  the sort of thing where you’d be scared to get up unless you knew the requisite gestures and motions.

At the end, you were left wondering about what the experience was meant to achieve.  Simmons is sharing ‘some of my searchings’ – about his identity, his family, his home ground – and this process would have been of great significance and worth for him.  But, apart from The Tooth of Buddha section, a good deal of The Calling presented as over-excited, as though the listener had to be bludgeoned into entering into the world that Simmons was showing us.  This is not to infer that the temperature was white-hot from go to whoa, although the moments of placidity were very welcome when they came, in particular, a gentle susurrus from Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on keyed percussion, and a moment or two of quiet interchange between the basses of Howard Cairns and Miranda Hill.

So, in the end, The Calling was of use principally to Simmons, although he does hope ‘to prompt others to consider their own connections.’   Mind you, patches of the music-making made for powerful sonorous fabrics even if it becomes hard to determine how much of the eventual effect of the group’s output en masse is contrived – that is, conceived to sound pretty much the same each time –  and how much is the product of individual input. Still, what I like about Simmons’ events is the passion and conviction that he transmits through his work; not so much through his spoken introductions and post-performance addresses which sometimes threaten to fade into an unsettling silence.

 

Venerable bodies, fresh clothes

ALCHEMY

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew

Wednesday May 2

                                                                 Vesa-Matti Leppanen

In the current serious music habitat, nothing succeeds like the expected.  A case in point is this latest recital from Kathryn Selby and her kaleidoscopic family of Friends.  One of the more intriguing programs of this year’s five, the event began and closed with arrangements by Theodor Kirchner, friend of Schumann and Brahms (among others) and a master of his particular craft.

Now, at the S&F initial recital back in March, the musicians worked through an all-Beethoven diet, most of its elements chosen by a patrons’ poll.  As a consequence, the Tatoulis Auditorium was close to packed as clients heard yet again the Spring Violin Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata and the Archduke Trio: all scores familiar right through to the last note and justifiably well-loved.

Attendance numbers were only respectable for last Wednesday’s recital which had Selby back in operation at a firmly projecting Kawai instrument, well-honed guest cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and a new face to me in Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  Those of us who went along enjoyed Kirchner’s transcription of the Six Pieces in Canonic Form by Schumann, the Brahms String Sextet No. 1 in a piano trio version by Kirchner, and Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 2 – a carefully constructed work yet nowhere near as well-known (i.e., as popular) as the composer’s first Trio in D minor.

Schumann wrote his Six Pieces for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano; this means that you rarely come across the score being played in its original format.  This arrangement is a splendid example of Kirchner’s flexibility, even if the material he had to deal with wasn’t exactly spartan in its formality.  The first Bachian piece offers a canon at the octave with a functional pedal-bass line, and the arrangement shuttles the semiquaver-filled interweaving canonic lines between all three instruments.  The disposition of material gets more complex in the second exercise, as does the supporting harmonic matter yet the arrangement serves as a textural clarification as Kirchner employs contrasting timbres to emphasize the polyphonic interplay which, on a piano, can easily become muddy.

The third piece begins and ends with a pianistic flourish that would be hard to replace but the subsequent canon at the fifth with a mobile nervous supporting figuration is a gem that passes all too quickly.  Next comes a song without words in ternary form where the return of the initial material is carried off with a skill that impresses and touches.  The fifth invites pizzicato but the arranger sustains the subject’s primacy while the final essay – like its predecessor, a canon at the 5th – is a striking B Major adagio with the pedal line entering more fully into the complex than at any previous stage.

In this performance, Selby walked a fine line between over-prominence and self-effacement, particularly when her colleagues controlled the focal material.  Valve and Leppanen make a fine complementary pairing, the cellist a firmly projected presence in contrast with Leppanen’s clear and unforced line, a mobile delight in the more rapid canons and informed by a graceful benevolence in the second and sixth movements.  As Selby indicated, the original takes on a new personality in the trio format; if anything, the effect is more immediately appealing, so much so that, if you wish, the canons can be ignored after their first statement.  In this instance, the pieces gained from the timbral interplay, of course, but also from the performers’ individuality in performance.

The Russian work offers more cohesion than its better-known D minor companion but the composer’s individual voice emerges with strikingly comparable determination.  Both string players have to cope with long stretches of playing at the octave in the first movement and, while most of the time this can be the cause of gritted teeth for a listener, here the uniformity sounded true, close to faultless.  When the lines diverged for the Romance/Andante, the contrast in attack showed up strongly, Valve more immediately ardent but the violinist saving his powder for the high tessitura bars that open the movement’s coda.

Selby proved the dominant voice in this particular trio, nowhere more than in the Scherzo/Presto where the keyboard leaps across its range, attracting attention even when the action ostensibly falls to the strings.  For the concluding set of variations, the honours are shared more evenly in the central segments but the piano carries all before it – well-Selby certainly did – in the jubilant sixth variation with its exuberant keyboard reinforcement of everything that is happening.  At the end, you were glad to have heard the trio – in my case, for the first time in live performance – but you would need to experience it with players of this calibre to make it worth hearing again.

For quite a few of us, I believe, the Brahms sextet arrangement came as a mixed blessing. The work is a buoyant affirming joy in its outer movements where the melodic fluency impresses further on each encounter, yet it took a while to adjust to this new setting where the capacity for different allocations of responsibility is greater than in the Schumann Six Pieces.  In fact, it wasn’t until the re-statement of the opening subject at bar 43 that a sort of reconciliation with the new order came into play.

As things turned out, interest fell less on who had been entrusted with what but more on the details that emerged from this new sound scape, particularly from the piano in the first two movements when you were suddenly struck by many note groups that are subsumed into the comfortable string mesh of the original.

A double-stop that seemed to lead nowhere was the only unsettling moment I heard in Leppanen’s first movement work, soon offset by his civilized stentorian approach to the Andante‘s variations.   Mind you, this section of the work came close to ideal in terms of emotional congruence between all players.  You were also hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo, a stolid gem that bridges Schubert and Mahler.

But the final Rondo made a fine capstone to this surprising, novelty-rich night, including a moving dying fall for the strings from about bar 266 onward.  No, you can’t improve on Brahms’ score for sonorous warmth and wide emotional breadth but this performance conveyed a fine facsimile of the sextet, performed with a consistent burnished virtuosity.

 

 

An individual voice having fun

CUTETUDES

Ke Lin

Move MD 3419

This CD contains works by Australian writer Julian Yu and features pianist Ke Lin, a friend of the composer and a devoted, eventually dogged interpreter.  The first 20 tracks are mini-pastiches, written as a contemporary Album for the Young and possibly to inspire Lin’s daughter in her piano studies.  She’d have to be very proficient to take on some of these pieces that combine cuteness with studies – well, that’s what the neologistic CD title intends to say.

As for the other, more substantial pieces on offer, a few are sort of familiar, namely Yu’s re-interpretation of the Promenade and Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with three original pieces – Impromptu, China Rhapsody (the lengthiest constituent at a tad over 10 minutes) , The Happy Couple Returns Home – and an arrangement of a symphonic movement by Yasushi Akutagawa, the second part of his Music for Symphony Orchestra from 1950.

Two of these longer pieces appear to have been written/arranged for this CD, namely The Happy Couple Returns Home and the Akutagawa movement.  Yu’s Impromptu dates from 1982, well before the composer migrated to Australia, and was recorded by Lisa Moore in 1992.  The Rhapsody has apparently been left alone since 2012 when it was premiered by Jiangang Wu  at the Sydney Opera House.   But the Mussorgsky is harder to trace; Yu made an arrangement of the original masterpiece for piano in 2001 when he scored it for sixteen players or chamber orchestra – in fact, I seem to recall hearing it (or parts thereof) during a Pro Arte/Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event at a Federation Square concert.  The piano version was organised for Ye Sisi to play at her graduation concert in the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts in mid-2007; when I say ‘it’, I’m guessing that we’re hearing only part of the complete piano reconstruction on this CD because the Promenade and Great Gate are described as  ‘Oriental version excerpts’.

Still, the obvious emphasis in this enterprise falls on the Cutetudes, which are aphoristic (the longest is 3’12”, the shortest 0’43”) and packed with references or spoofs – so much so that your attention is taken up with recalling the classics (and others) that Yu cites, amalgamates or runs on top of each other.   Condensed Prelude offers an impressionistic variant of The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Book 1 C Major Prelude; Two Swans under Two Moons presents Beethoven’s Moonlight under Debussy’s Clair de lune, before the Scene from Swan Lake  precedes Saint-Saens gift to Pavlova – all very gentle and knitted together with subtlety.  The Liebstod precedes the D flat love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet while the Dies irae chant also gets a mention in Compound Tragedy.   A Phone Call to Mozart depicts the composer trying to write his own A Major Sonata but being interrupted by a ring-tone that bears a resemblance (for me) to a theme from Till Eulenspiegel.

What for Elise? begins with Beethoven’s famous bagatelle before deviating to the Radetzky March, flirting with a boogie bass line, flashing into Happy Birthday, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance,  flirting with the Ode to Joy, indulging in a burst of mitteleuropaische kitsch, moving back to the original A minor by means of Mozart’s sonata in that key, then detouring for a gentle/manic interlude featuring Leise flehen,  Boccherini’s MinuetJingle Bells, the William Tell Overture’s galop,  followed by a soupcon of the second movement to Schubert’s Great, the merest whiff of Tales from the Vienna Woods, a snatch out of the Brindisi from Traviata, and somewhere in there a Liszt march that I can’t place.  It’s not particularly well-organized and you get just a few seconds to put your memory into gear, so the effect is of overload – clever, but jerky.

Yu takes on Schubert in Finished Symphony, toying with the Allegro‘s second theme from the B minor Symphony before moving to the finales of Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths to illustrate a consummation devoutly to be wished, accomplished through the final bars from the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto’s first movement.   He revives memories of digital aches and teacher terror with Czernissimo;  a wistful Why are Butterflies Sad?  fuses Schumann’s Warum?,  Grieg’s lepidopteral study and the Grave from the Pathetique Sonata with an unexpected sequence that inverts the melodic direction of Schumann’s slight piece.  Folk Tune on Bach is just that: a Cantonese-style tune on top of the bass to the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 – over before it has begun.

A touch of the Menotti about Interrupted Symphony has the noble four-square theme of the finale to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 interrupted by a telephone ring, an ambulance (not that convincing), somebody banging on the door, with Beethoven’s Fate motif finally thrown in to show the futility of persisting when everything conspires against you – at least, that’s how I read it.   A real transformation takes place in Dovetailed Interlude where motifs from Bach’s Cello Suites in G Major and E flat are superimposed in a meandering haze. Pachelbel’s most famous product comes in for a refreshing reappraisal in Oriental Canon, the ornate later variations given a pseudo-pentatonic flavour.  The composer moves into Mendelssohn territory with a setting of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the style of On Wings of Song.

Yu seems to have an obsession with Mussorgsky’s musical gallery because here comes another exploration: Harmonic Phrases at an Exhibition.  The Promenade theme is interrupted by Nun danket alle Gott, Clair de lune, a scrap from the Andantino in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Chopin’s E Major Etude from the Op. 10, the opening bars to Wagner’s Tristan. a bit of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the solo that begins Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and several other fragments I can’t recall.  Like the Fur Elise piece, you hear a lot, but here it is better put together.  God Save Hanon offers the famous first five-finger exercise as a support for the British national anthem

Another Hanon exercise follows, which allegedly revisits Saint-Saens’ The Swan and then Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book 1, although I only heard that book’s C minor Fugue subject.  The 24th Caprice turns into a Chinese melody during Paganini and the Hundred Birds, then both are played simultaneously.  Mozartian influences direct the following Rondo alla Twinka which again revisits Twinkle, Twinkle, here in the style of the famous A Major Sonata finale.   Prokofiev’s cat melody gets clever two-part handling in Caterpoint.  The series concludes with To Comrade Shostakovich which takes as its basis The Pioneers Plant chorus from the Song of the Forests Cantata, given fast motoric toccata treatment and spruced up with some quotations from other works by the Russian master.

Much of this series is charming and brisk; a slight amount of it is repetitive in that it says the same thing twice if not three times, and every so often the seams show through pretty obviously.   But Lin’s enthusiasm for the exercise is apparent, informed by a reliable, sometimes dazzling pianism only let down by a note (or two?) in his instrument’s treble that is slightly out-of-tune.   However, the work as a whole lives up to its title and is an attractive compendium for musicians, both experienced and amateur.

In contrast, the remaining tracks are agreeable experiences if several of them are also based on unoriginal material.   Impromptu is treble-centric from its opening, with liberal splashings of Debussy/Ravel colouring although the rhythm is suggestive of minimalist practice.   A sustained bass splash makes a momentary distraction from the upper-reaches work which fades into silence before a final statement of the piece’s chief motive.  It’s a fine study in one particular type of pianistic timbre and well worth hearing.

China Rhapsody draws on a background that I don’t have, referring as it does to traditional songs and other pieces of Chinese music; however, I feel that I could acquire the necessary knowledge pretty easily.    The opening is full of Liszt-style trumpet calls alternating with languor, employing melodies that are probably well-known in China.   Here, they serve the purpose of fleshing out Yu’s equivalent to a Hungarian rhapsody’s lassan although, the further this first segment progresses, the more occidental its harmonic language as the tunes are chromatically filled in.   The consequent friska is  –  of course  –  a presto with some jazzy syncopations, the work’s impetus held up for the glorification of a pentatonic tune before the excitement returns, suggesting Gershwin’s rhapsodies in their virtuosic clamour.   Finally, the climax is rich in fist-full flurries across the keyboard and has a fine 1930s glissando finish.

Taken from a Chinese Huangmei opera, The Happy Couple Returns Home was originally an aria; Yu offers a continuous set of variations on it.  The result is pleasant enough if the piece’s progress doesn’t move far from an E minor base – or a mode based on E.  Occasionally, an out-of-tune high A breaks your concentration; yet, to be honest, there is not much challenging matter here, the composer quite content to curvet around his melody without subjecting it to any rough treatment.

The Mussorgsky brace begins with an essentially straight reading of the initial Promenade while plenty of oriental decoration is imposed above Mussorgsky’s score; the most striking feature here is the employment of a rapid downward-scale whole-tone flourish.  For The Great Gate, Yu keeps the opening strophes restrained, the original cut down to thinner chords with plenty of filler to compensate for Mussorgsky’s bare semibreves and minims. The first chant interruption is striking and Yu employs his own brand of stentorian brashness after those quiet bars.   The second chant section shows little new except his penchant for tremolo.  I can’t see an improvement on the bell clangour that leads into the Promenade restatement and Yu’s downward arpeggios are a touch disappointing, although what he is leading into is not the original’s powerful clamour but a gentle orientalization before the tension of the striking final minim triplets comes through clearly.  Yu supplies some celebratory downward major scales, afterthoughts that bring the piece to a placid ending.   Both these treatments are not re-compositions but elaborations that stick pretty faithfully to their Mussorgsky fundamentals.

Finally, the Akutagawa transcription brought back memories from the early 1960s of the NHK Symphony Orchestra visit to Melbourne, conducted by (I think) Yuzo Toyama.  Some modern Japanese work was premiered then and, even at this distance, I recall a music more creative and striking than this busy but derivative movement which owes a good deal to 20th century Russian greats but amounts to little more than froth and bubble; exciting for the pianist, I’m sure, but its attraction for the youthful student Yu, working in Japan at developing his craft, is not shared by this listener.

You gain insights from this CD, although not from every one of its components.  Cutetudes is a jeu d’esprit and, like most of its school, has clear successes and other why-did-he-bother? moments.  But you get a clear impression of Yu’s sense of fun and, in the later tracks, an awareness of the rather welcome innocence and unclouded tranquillity that informs his musical intellect.

 

 

 

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Heavenly length? Maybe

SCHUBERT OCTET

Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday April 22

                                                                    William Hennessy

In one of its more lopsided efforts, the MCO performed three works on Sunday: a short new work by Benjamin Martin and Beethoven’s Serioso F minor String Quartet took a little over half an hour, to be followed by a solid reading of the Schubert Octet where I think every repeat was observed so that we got the work’s full effect – all quite in order, since that’s the way the composer wanted it, even if attention flags somewhat in the Andante with variations.

Martin’s Passepied was composed to capitalise on the musicians available for the octet: string quartet with double bass, and three wind – clarinet, bassoon and horn.  It needed to be played twice, in the best Society for Private Musical Performances mode.  Although lasting only a few minutes, it showed an intricacy of statement and development that could have been made more apprehensible after a second hearing.

Naturally, the work raised a simple question: exactly what is a passepied? Most of us know it’s a dance form, found in suites along with the usual courantes, allemandes, sarabandes and gigues.  Unlike these staples, it usually features as an alternative , like a musette or a gavotte.  Even though I know they are familiar to Baroque experts, I’ve only come across one from that era: the first of two in Bach’s English Suite No. 5, once part of the AMEB piano syllabus.  The form strikes me still as an active minuet.  But then, you have to consider Debussy’s one that concludes his Suite bergamasque which is fast-moving enough but eschews the traditional triple metre.  Some commentators find a passepied in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and the change in time signature (a third of the way through the third movement) to 3/16 could denote such an interpolation.

For his part, Martin makes things more complicated by layering his 6/4 metre with a hemiola, so that you’re never quite sure where you are or where the accents are meant to fall.  The theme he uses is amiable and soulful, subjected to gentle treatment including a bit of inversion.  But this music’s real interest lies in its inter-meshing levels which avoid soupiness but impress as packed with ambiguities as when a simple quaver-plus-two-semiquavers pattern shifts into a quaver triplet; at least, that’s what I think was going on.  An aggressive climactic point provides the necessary tension and sense of narrative before the piece finishes both ambiguously and quietly.  A lot happens in a little space.

William Hennessy, the MRC artistic director, took first chair throughout the afternoon, with Markiyan Melnychenko his second, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Michael Dahlenburg the ensemble’s cellist.  These four were a common factor in all three works and were heard en clair in the Beethoven quartet.  This opened with fine melding from all involved, in particular when the two violins operated at the octave in those melting moments at bars 40 to 42, bars 51 to 53, and later in equivalent positions during this initial Allegro‘s recapitulation.  Still, these are passages of emotional rest and the main thrust of the work is both vital and confrontational, descriptors fully realised by all players.

In the Allegretto, Dahlenburg’s initial cello pizzicati set up a sombre ambience for a reading of barely subdued passion, distinguished by a soulful solo from Bramble at the start of the fugal entries in bar 35, and the haunting reminiscence of his opening gesture from the cellist at bar 112.   While the scherzo impressed for its vehemence, the standout moment came in the D Major Trio with Melnychenko’s unforced solo line at the start an unexpected if brief delight.  Uniformity of attack was the distinctive feature of the finale but this is the weakest movement of the four, disappointing in its Mendelssohnian opting for the light side in its coda, complete with insistent unisons.

Sometimes dominating the Schubert’s communal timbre but not self-promoting was Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet, a creamy presence in the opening Adagio/Allegro. That was, in some ways, expected: Schubert treats this voice with a sort of demanding benevolence – which cannot be said of the horn part which enjoyed the attentions of Anton Schroeder who seemed to make remarkably few slips throughout the work’s duration and gave us some memorably clear-speaking moments like the solo at the end of this first movement.  which galloped past with few causes for concern. Hennessy was under stress at bar 130 just before the exposition ends, then waltzed through the same passage at the repeat.

Van’t Hoff p[roved to be the hero for Schubert’s Adagio, but then he had the glorious opening melody all to himself.  Still, the honours were sometimes shared fairly among the wind and upper strings, Dahlenburg and Emma Sullivan on double bass not getting much of the composer’s attention.  As in the Beethoven, the Scherzo‘s best impression was made in the trio, here treated by the string quartet with high courtesy informed by an underlying buoyancy.

The Andante‘s tune is cute, almost affectedly sweet but eminently suited to variations, even if some of the composer’s exertions follow familiar tracks in patterns given to both violins and in the allocation of primacy.  Hennessy sounded flustered in the second half of Variation 1 where the lower winds comment before the clarinet arrives for a revealing doubling of the upper string line.  Dahlenburg made the most of Variation 4, surging through his arpeggio-rich solo with commendable authority and expressive address.  But this entire movement strikes me as a drop in standard compared to what surrounds it; not enough invention or shifts from the predictable.

In the Menuetto, the material might be simple but its shaping is remarkable, well instanced by the first violin’s soft soaring at bars 30 to 33, Hennessy giving us all a lesson in expert enunciation.  The whole movement, including the Trio, prefigures the Brahms Serenades in its suggestions of bucolic opulence, notably the octave duet for Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Hennessy at the trio’s midway point.

As it should, the reading ended with a high-spirited Allegro but, oh God, it’s long.  A nice touch came through the communal hesitations in outlining the movement’s four-square main theme but, by this stage, you could hear slight imperfections in the fast triplet passages from the treble instruments.  Not that you can blame the players: Schubert is dogged in his insistence on giving out his thematic material in various combinations; it’s reminiscent of those myriad bars of whirling action to be found in the finale of the C Major Symphony No. 9 but with less opportunity for dynamic brilliance.

The MCO patrons were warmly responsive at the Octet’s conclusion, and rightly so since the rendition they had experienced captured the core of this long-winded work.  It makes no great claims to profound statements but stands foursquare as a mighty cassation: a set of disparate movements, the best of them as appealing as anything in Schubert’s improbably large output.  The fact that these performers had given the program on the previous night in Daylesford might go some way to explaining several unaccountable if slight intonation lapses in the Octet’s later pages.  At least they’ll have had a day’s grace before giving the Octet again to a select group of affluent patrons in the Recital Centre’s Salon tonight at 6 pm.

Not again

LA TRAVIATA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday April 17

                                                                     Corinne Winters

Once again, the national company of Sydney has brought this fidgety version of Verdi’s opera to Melbourne, to serve as a season opener – although you’d have to apply that term loosely as the diet for offer in the State Theatre consists of this lacklustre work,  John Bell’s Nazi update on Tosca, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte fresh from its performances in the Sydney Summer season although without one of the cast drawcards, Elena Maximova’s La Belle Dulcinee giving way to Sian Pendry’s reading of the part.  And that’s it, folks.

Let’s get to the real problem with this Traviata.  It doesn’t lie in Michael Yeargan’s familiar sets: two overstuffed parlours contrasted with bleak prospects in Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3. Nor can you fault Peter J. Hall’s costumes which are consonant with the production’s prevailing ‘look’.  It might not even be attributable to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction which lets the main characters move sensibly around the stage, even if they don’t actually do anything of interest; in fact, the country scene is stripped of visual interest; you’d have to suspect, on purpose.

No, the insurmountable hurdle at the opening night was the music-making, both on stage and in the pit.  Yes, the opera starts with a dangerous Prelude, all slow high strings; conductor Carlo Montanaro could not contrive to give his Orchestra Victoria charges the necessary confidence to carry off this fragile music.  Matters improved when the curtain rose for Act 1 on a set that always looks claustrophobic on this theatre’s large stage space.  The pit wattled along to excellent purpose in the opening dialogue, even if Corinne Winters as Violetta seemed to be distracted by her guests and lagged behind the beat.

This indifference to the established musical pulse is no new thing with opera singers.  Italian opera can fare poorly in this regard, especially Puccini who, as far as some sopranos are concerned,  might as well not have bothered with bar-lines.  And, year after year, what tempo atrocities are committed on Wagner who is much kinder than Verdi to his interpreters, regardless of voice type.

What compounded the problem was Montanaro’s bending over backwards to help Winters along; if she lingered over a phrase – and she did, over several – he followed her meanderings.   You can do that with a lot of free-standing recitative but hardly with the quick-fire repartee that opens Act 1 of this opera.  By the time we arrived at Ah, fors e lui, the pace was dragging significantly, to the point where I thought the aria might have to be re-started, or the conductor would allow it to come to a dead halt.  This devil-may-care attitude to pace doesn’t matter as much later in the opera, but in this section that depicts Violetta as a free spirit and where the character’s ebullience is paramount, there is no defence for dragging out anything, even a self-questioning aria.  Mind you, whether from unwillingness or simple good taste, the singer left out the screeching E flat that every Violetta feels that she has to interpolate before the last note of Sempre libera.

Matters of congruent tempo improved markedly in Act 2 and the solid duet with Germont pere came over as functioning properly.  Even so, Winters failed to convince of the heroine’s despair at sacrificing her happiness for a greater good (if you can call it that).  The notes were there and the emotional gestures were in plain sight, like the pianissimo repeat of Dite alle giovine; yet the necessary communication of a broken spirit failed to come across during the brief cross-purposes duet with Alfredo that is, to my mind, the opera’s most moving passage.

Winters’ death scene worked very well, despite an Addio del passato that might have gained from more variation in attack, although the descending natural A minor scale at ah! tutto fini came over informed by some welcome bitter despair in its articulation.  The soprano has an interesting stage presence and she has familiarity with this role; not surprisingly,  since she has sung it in Basel, San Diego, Seattle, Virginia, Ottawa, London and Hong Kong,  But it was a difficult task to claw back credibility from that unsatisfying first act, even though Verdi gave his sinned-against character a spell-binding farewell with the Cessarono change of pace.

You could find little to complain about with Yosep Kang’s Alfredo.  He carried out his tasks with zeal and an excellent technique, from Libiamo right through to Parigi, o cara with a nicely self-satisfied Di miei bollenti spiriti contrasting with a fetchingly self-indulgent O mio rimorso! as a chaser that brightened the aural landscape before the cant and hypocrisy of this character’s father bears all before him.

If anything, the tenor’s work lacked personality.  Even at Alfredo’s worst moment – when he throws money at Violetta in Flora’s salon – you remained outside the emotional ferment; admiring the temperamental outburst but not convinced that the lad had real cause to whip himself into such a state of frustrated rage.

The opera has only three roles and veteran Jose Carbo took on the important one of Alfredo’s father.  Again, this characterization left me cold, even in those potentially gripping moments where he condoles with Violetta at her tragic loss in giving up Alfredo.  As for Di Provenza, the gentle sway of Verdi’s melody line was not assisted by the bass’s hefty vibrato on the high F at each verse’s end.

Was it a lack of involvement from the singer that militated against any engagement with this personality?  I think so; here, Germont shows little concern for what he is asking of Violetta, contributed to by his lack of physical involvement in the action.  When she asks him Qual figlia m’abbraciate, despite the stage direction, he doesn’t.  Later, Carbo’s Di piu, non lacerarmi at Germont’s moment of self-realisation was delivered without regard for either his tortured son or the dying woman he had come to console.  This wasn’t the depiction of an unbending puritan, forbidding in his self-righteousness; you simply didn’t care about the complexity that Piave preserved from Dumas’ novel.

Dominica Matthews sang a competent Flora; Natalie Aroyan made a self-effacing Annina; John Longmuir enjoyed himself as the young roue Gastone and Tom Hamilton melted into the background as d’Obigny.  Adrian Tamburini brought the customary unpleasant swagger and machismo to Douphol.

Montanaro and his forces sounded best in Flora’s party music, reflecting the action with alacrity.  As usual, the pit output would have gained from more strings, especially violins for the exposed pages that preface the outer acts.  Still, the work rarely sounded commonplace or vulgar, which is always a danger when the chorus takes over.

While Act 1 fared well enough with a satisfyingly full choral texture, the second scene of Act 2 misfired, as it always will, not least because of the cramped conditions that obtain throughout the Noi siamo zingarelle/E Piquillo segment where the choreography looks inefficient and awkward, risible in its efforts to convey Hispanic high spirits.

To be honest, I was relieved when the final curtain came down.  Every once in a while, you could glory in a splendid page or two like the Parigi, o cara duet or Violetta’s magnificent Morro – la mia memoria outburst, but your enjoyment was principally due not to the singers’ work but to Verdi’s touching responsiveness to his characters and the superlative lyricism that he invested in them.   In the end, this was too much of a hard night at the opera.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8, and Friday May 11. There is one matinee at 1 pm on Saturday April 28.