A few clever touches, some worthy singing: yet a general inconsistency

 

DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17

Hans Sachs

                                                                  Hans Sachs

Wagner’s long comedy opera made a welcome step up in stature from a year’s work in Melbourne by the national company that raised few anticipatory frissons.   Yes, this co-production between Opera Australia, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts came with a controversial reputation but there’s no absolute disadvantage in that; Bayreuth itself opened the directorial floodgates in the post-World War Two years, not least with a startling reworking of The Mastersingers by Wieland Wagner which worked against the historical pageantry that coloured the composer’s original vision.

Kasper Holten’s direction, Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes were intended to fuse coherently, offering new situational and temporal situations through which to filter a libretto that is one of the composer’s more satisfying literary products and a score that rarely falters in its warm fluency and burnished brilliance.   But the new look didn’t work as well as it might have and all attempts at following Wagner’s overpowering resolution disappeared with a dumb-show that was probably meant to offer a sharp comment on the opera’s innate sexism but impressed me as dramatically under-cooked and theatrically inept.

In the central role of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg civic father-figure, Michael Kupfer-Radecky coped laudably, given that he came into the production at a week’s notice.   OA’s own Shane Lowrencev had to withdraw, he himself a replacement for the scheduled American bass-baritone James Johnson.   Third time more-or-less lucky although the German singer got off to a pedestrian start, taking an easy ride through the conclave in Act 1 where he alone takes up the cause of the stroppy young knight.

He showed to better effect in the second act, although Sachs has the great advantage of interacting one-on-one with several of the main players, if in short bursts with some.  Nevertheless, the Wie duftet doch der Flieder musing on his own situation made for a moving and convincing hiatus in the action and Sachs’ dialogue with Beckmesser came across without the usual heavy-handed jocularity, the two cobbling verses – Als Eva aus dem Paradies and O Eva! Hor mein Klageruf – impressing for their irony more than irritating because of the customary superficial bluster.

Luckily, Kupfer-Radecky kept his best for Act 3; not just the Wahn! soliloquy, although I have to say he moved through that with more ease and impulse than many a more famous interpreter.   But the arc from Sachs’ opening distraction to the wise resolution in the character’s words during the moving quintet made a gift of the first scene.   Further, Sachs’ none-too-subtle machinations leading towards the Preislied‘s final statement came across with a happy naturalness, Kupfer-Radecky leading the whole corps to the blazing C Major triumph of the final bars with resonant insistence, even through that unpleasant nationalist stanza beginning Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.

As Walther, Stefan Vinke played a down-at-heel aristocrat with little grace.   The disaster of his initial gambit, So rief der Lenz in den Wald, worked well enough as the singer tore the passion to tatters with a delivery that stormed along its way with a fine lack of concern for subtlety.   That’s quite comprehensible; the young man is all emotion and unalloyed vapouring at this point.   Still, the lack of dynamic interest was worrying and you felt somehow on the side of the dismissive collegium.

Vinke had little to deal with in the central act and coped with its lack of demands manfully, sustaining in his few lines the personality of a young noble sprig who shouldn’t get his own way because of an inbuilt selfishness.    With the help of Sachs, of course, he manages to cobble together a song for the climactic competition and the many verses that Walther gives us betrayed a voice getting more and more tired.   In the first scene of Act 3, Vinke attempted a soft high note with unhappy results; he was much happier belting out the later, more hectic strophes of each third to his popularly-acclaimed Preislied.

Of course, the point where the assembly hears Morgenlich leuchtend in its final form is a superb passage, the crowd’s enthusiasm growing until it erupts in an irrepressible furore.  Vinke’s high As rang out with a firm clangour and he contrived to stay on the right side of rhapsody.    Yet the song lacked an underpinning sympathy; it seemed to be subject to strain, occasionally hurled out with a lack of even delivery across the phrases.   A good effort, I suppose, but with the emphasis on the noun.

As Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe worked with considerable insight by making this unpleasant character quite human, particularly in Act 1.   Usually, the Marker’s pedantry contrasts poorly with Walther’s gallantry and high-mindedness but you could find excuses for Beckmesser’s spite, in particular when Fyfe made it clear that the man was offended and nonplussed by the neophyte’s complete disregard for the Mastersingers’ Tabulature.  Beckmesser’s attempt to serenade Eva was carried through without resorting to the whining silliness that European houses have tolerated for far too long.

Of course, both here and in the disastrous attempt to sing the text he inveigled from Sachs, Beckmesser is handicapped by Wagner’s pointless melismata and his own uncomprehending mangle of Walther’s poem.   But Fyfe did a commendable job of singing pretty straight, not indulging in much distortion or conscious vocal slapstick, holding his own when confronting Sachs on his ‘dishonesty’ and then trying to ensure that there would be no repercussions or public revelations that would counter his run at the prize.    Almost alone among his colleagues, this Beckmesser brought an animation to every line; you were faced with a personality, if an unattractive one, that expressed the baser emotions without resorting to cheap effects.

Nicholas Jones’ David appealed as attractively buoyant, at his best in that instructional dialogue in Act 1 where the apprentice aims to teach Walther ‘the rules’ of writing a song. This young tenor’s German came across very clearly, a model for some of his colleagues. He stayed just the right side of bearably put upon in the solo and consequent dialogue with Sachs that opens Act 3, later holding his own in the Selig, wie die Sonne quintet.  Mind you, he had to put up with much of his character’s comedy cut or barely credible because of the updating wished upon him by director Holten, but his sharp-as-a-pin characterization lit up some pedestrian pages in the outer acts.

She gets to appear in all the acts and has some contributions to make in each one, but the heroine Eva gets very little solo exposure.    Natalie Aroyan made each line count with an admirable clarity, sticking to the conductor’s beat with more consistency than some of her colleagues.    But Eva’s output is often restricted to quick dialogue as she admits to her love for Walther in Act 1, tries to glean information from Sachs in Act 2, although she enjoys a shining moment when eulogising the old man and trusting that all will turn out for the best.   Not a performance that attracted attention but persuasive for its bursts –  often just a quatrain – of ardour.

Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, has less to do; even so, Dominica Matthews was hard to fault, particularly as her most extended passage of play came during a weighty ensemble.   Like several others in the cast, she laboured under directorial and costuming constraints, not to mention a clumsy entrance and exit in the apprentices’ Johannistag! scene.

Among the other ten Mastersingers, many familiar names showed up – Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky – but to my ears the performance’s outstanding male voice belonged to Daniel Sumegi, who gave sterling service as Pogner.

Sumegi served notice of his pre-eminence in a powerful and warm reading of Nun hort, und versicht mich recht where the character gives notice of why he is putting his daughter up as prize for the final of Nuremberg’s Got Talent.   From here on, you could take pleasure in every line from Pogner: his introduction of Walther, the later post-attempt vacillation, and the self-doubts and justifications  at the start of Act 2.   Even the singer’s few solo apostrophes in the last scene added to the opera’s humane breadth.

Inkinen brought out the best in an expanded Orchestra Victoria, especially the high strings which generally sound thin but, even faced with Wagner’s hefty brass, soared through the overture with an unexpected clarity and precise articulation that was rarely found wanting in the long hours ahead.    Being seated on the State Theatre’s left side, I enjoyed plenty of exposure to the horns, but flaws from that section proved remarkably few.    Above all, the conductor exercised firm control over his pit, even if some principals found themselves behind the beat on occasions, while the chorus showed a tendency to rush forward at animated moments.

So, a fairly satisfying vocal and instrumental outlining of the work with no signs of fatigue except from Vinke, over-energised in the last act.   But, as soon as the curtain rose, the production’s viewpoint(s) raised many questions.

You weren’t faced with St. Katherine’s Church but the interior of a gentlemen’s club – well, maybe.   No congregation sang the opening chorale but a group dressed in business suits – even the females – who belted the hymn out with little subtlety.   An onstage conductor led them and an unidentified man sitting at a desk took the choir’s plaudits after the piece had finished.  This latter could have been the chorale’s putative composer, but you were not sure.   The choir went off.  Were they club members?  An ensemble that used the place for rehearsals?   No reason presented itself and this was only a few minutes into the opera proper.

Unlike the original staging, Eva is not hanging around the church waiting for Walther to approach; she’s being fitted for her wedding dress in this catch-all venue, while Magdalena supervises – not so much a nurse as a secretary, and not confined to Eva’s concerns, it seems, but the club’s as well.   David is not top dog among the apprentices but a head of staff for the club.   Walther enters, looking like a 1960s Woodstock scruff.   The declarations of love are made while the staff busy themselves primping and prinking the club’s surrounds.  Tables are set up for the Mastersingers’ meal.    The men themselves enter, dressed as masons, complete with gauntlet cuffs, aprons and medallions of office.

So far, you’ve been asked to face nothing too ridiculous.   You can easily take on board the concept of the guild as a secret society, an idea reinforced by the insistence on rules and regulations., and later on, the rejection – with the exception of Sachs the Tolerant – of Walther’s new art.

When Act 2 gets under way properly, it has none of the staging that the original requires: no corner houses of Pogner and Sachs, only symbolic trees/shrubs, no divided door for the cobbler’s workshop, no elder tree, no windows.   We’re a long way from a street scene; indeed, it’s hard to conceive exactly where we’ve been transported.    Jesper Kongshaug’s lighting design starts to move from Act 1’s light-filled space to darkness; so it should, as the opera’s temporal progress requires.   But the background shifts almost imperceptibly as the action heats up.

The act culminates in a riot, during which Beckmesser is attacked by David who thinks that he’s serenading Magdalena; Sachs disrupts the eloping party and sends Eva back to her own house while taking Walther into his own; the chorus whips up a state of ferment as fighting breaks out.   Not for this production.   The whole thing becomes a nightmarish orgy, complete with horse-headed men simulating sex with willing women across front of stage.    When the Nightwatchman comes on, there is a general freeze, which rather undercuts the point – and humour –  of the scene.    But then, Adrian Tamburini in this role has entered into the spirit of things by now being dressed as a barrel-chested satyr.

In the final scene, we’re back to a central staircase and tiered semi-circular rows of steps.  A pair of choruses enters, dressed in modern-day evening wear and takes up position on the risers.   But. when the procession begins, we’re back with orthodoxy.  The apprentices/staff have reverted to 16th century apparel, complete with tabards; even the girls from Furth have taken on the fashion of 1550 Germany.   When the Mastersingers enter, they have collaborated in turning back time, wearing large quadrangular hats and embroidered robes, and carrying the gleaming symbols of their crafts on poles.

So the gentlemen’s club business has disappeared; now we have what amounts to a dress-up party.

Beckmesser sings disastrously, Walther shows how it’s done and eventually accepts his status as one of the Mastersingers’ company.   But in this version, Eva is not happy; she applauds his initial rejection of Pogner’s welcome to the guild, delighted by her man’s contrariness; when Sachs changes the knight’s mind for him and the accoutrements of office land on his head, shoulders and neck, she turns away from him, mounts the stairs and disappears from the scene while Walther basks in having made the grade, becoming one of the fellows.

Whether this is a statement about the objectification of women and/or Eva’s rejection of her father and all he stands for, your guess is as good as mine.   But it fails to ring true, whatever interpretation you try, when faced with the final pages of Act 3’s first scene, from Eva’s O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du Theurer Mann! onwards, in particular Eva’s final couplet in the great quintet.   I might have missed the signs, but I saw nothing on stage which prepared me for this deviation from the expected outcome.

Does it all make you think twice?  Will this version cause a refashioning of your interpretation of a great opera?   Not this time.   You’re faced with a lack of consistency that saps at the director’s premise because the updating and the complete change of ambience are inconsistent or perhaps applied with too much subtlety to travel.   For sure, you will find whole passages in this version where you forget the setting; the less detail visually exposed, the more moving is the drama.   But then, abruptly, you experience a shock of incomprehension as to why the production looks like it does and the cross-bred staging that tries to meld our time with that of Sachs does little more than distract.

 

 

 

 

 

News from the front

Due to some confusion in communications, I think it’s necessary to state somewhere that I’ve resigned from writing music criticism for The Age.  A message went out to all on my email address book, but clearly that move didn’t spread the information far enough.

My first review appeared on March 20, 1978, the last on October 22 this year; quite long enough, I think.   All those luminaries on the paper who brightened my reviewing life – Kenneth Hince, Neil Jillett, Leonard Radic, Michael Shmith, Ray Gill, Gina McColl, Robin Usher – have passed on in one way or another and I can tell you emphatically that there’s no joy or triumph in being the last man of my generation still standing.

I intend to keep this blog running, not least because it allows more spatial freedom than the inexorable 250-word limit imposed by the paper, but also because – as intended from the start three years ago – it’s a means of celebrating and encouraging musicians and composers who get precious little attention elsewhere.

December Diary

Saturday December 1

SEASON FINALE GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

So how will we bring this year’s operations to a smashing close?   Let’s invite Markus Stenz back.   That’s all right; he left us with goodwill on both sides, has visited at least once since his term as MSO Chief Conductor ended in 2004, and his reappearance will put a spring into the pistons and slides of the MSO brass – those precious few that have not departed the orchestra’s ranks over the last 14 years.  Tonight opens with Wagner: the Prelude and Transformation Scene (one of them) from Parsifal – a deft reminder that the Victorian Opera is presenting this turgid opera next February in the unholy ambience of St. Kilda’s Palais Theatre.   Stenz ends with that ever-challenging ballet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; always entertaining to see what the players make of the composer’s demands on them.  Guest violinist Maxim Vengerov will present a concerto written for him by  Qigang Chen and which he premiered a little over a year ago.   I know nothing of this composer, although he did direct music for the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in 2008 and has enjoyed much acclaim both in his homeland and in France where he has been resident for 34 of his 67 years.   This work is subtitled La joie de la souffrance which is promisingly masochistic, and it takes its impetus from a Chinese melody.   In other words, you’ll get the best (possibly) of both (well, at least two) worlds.

This program is also being presented on Friday November 30 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday December 1

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS

Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell at 8 pm

Yet again, John O’Donnell and his excellent choir take patrons on a much-anticipated exceptional tour of Renaissance sacred music that covers the Christmas story from the stable at Bethlehem to Simeon’s prophecies in the Temple.  Proceedings open with two Lassus motets: Quem viditis, pastores? for the shepherds’ take on the whole business, and In principio erat Verbum, the first 14 verses of St John’s Gospel which used to conclude the Tridentine Mass ritual and which still give a stunningly visionary theological context for Christ’s birth.   Jacob Handl’s Mirabile mysterium also offers an appraisal of the birth’s significance, while his Omnes de Saba makes a jubilant welcome for the Three Kings’ arrival on the scene.   Lassus then contributes his Videntes stellam which gives more physical detail concerning the royal visitors and their gifts.   O’Donnell & Co. move to the Tudors with a Byrd brace: Hodie beata virgo Maria which comes from the Candlemas Vespers and depicts Mary giving Jesus to Simeon for his blessing; the antiphon Senex puerum portabat deals with a series of paradoxes in lucid polyphony that lasts about two minutes.   Videte miraculum by Tallis concentrates heavily on Mary’s virginity with ethereal detachment.  The program’s main work is the 7-voice Puer natus est nobis Mass by Tallis which has no Kyrie or Credo and is based on a plainchant, with which the Gomberts will kindly preface their performance.   This chant’s text derives from Isaiah and most of it will be familiar to Handel’s Messiah lovers who, at this event, will be transported far beyond the German/British composer’s visions of worldly pomp and circumstance.

 

Tuesday December 4

Ksenija Sidorova

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Bringing the MRC’s Great Performers series to a reedy conclusion, the Latvian accordion player presents a solo recital that comprises mainly music that I’ve never heard by people who are strangers, although there’s a bit of Bach on offer in three parts of the solo keyboard Overture in the French Style.   Sidorova opens with Danish writer Bent Lorentzen’s Tears, an original accordion solo from 1992.   Then follow three Russian offerings: Anatoly Kusyakov’s six Autumnal Sceneries, Alexei Arkhipovsky’s melancholy Cinderella (originally for balalaika), and Sergei Voytenko’s moody Revelation.  All of these are exactly what you think of when considering accordion music: harmonically orthodox and, despite their provenance, full of 1950s Parisian atmosphere.   Sidorova moves into the world of Piazzolla with a group including SVP (S’il vous plait), Sentido Unico and Tanti Anni Prima, all arranged by the performer; while the first two are tangos, the last, originally called Ave Maria, is a quiet, plangent lyric that shows a less abrasive side to the pugilistic Argentinian composer and bandoneon virtuoso.   Finally, we delve into the catalogue of Schnittke for Revis Fairy Tale, a quartet of pieces originally composed for a staging of Gogol’s satire Dead Souls and then transcribed for accordion by Sidikova and two other experts.   James Crabb taught us not to undervalue the instrument as a by-product of Young Talent Time and, in the right hands, it can exercise considerable appeal; but a lot of this program looks (and may sound) pretty one-dimensional.

 

Wednesday December 5

SONATAS FOR STRINGS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Finishing its Melbourne operations for 2018 in the Recital Centre, the ACO will be heard to excellent advantage, its zesty enthusiasm more immediate here than in the gloomy cavern of Hamer Hall.   Richard Tognetti has assembled a rag-bag program that takes in some welcome novelties as well as several familiars.   The ACO opens with Sculthorpe’s Sonata for Strings No. 1, a work that this ensemble commissioned back in 1983 and which is an orchestration of the composer’s own String Quartet No. 10 – well, according to the catalogue, it ‘succeeds/complements’ that particular quartet.   Mind you, it all gets a tad confusing: is this No. 1 identical with the same year’s Sonata for Strings?  Will we ever know?   Will we ever care?   After this whiff of Australiana, the group moves to some Debussy arrangements: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and The Interrupted Serenade, two companion pieces from Book I of the Preludes.   Another Tognetti arrangement follows with Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies, originally for voice and piano/orchestra but I’m guessing the vocal line will here be taken by a violin, especially in the Kaddisch which the ACO has recorded.    Elgar’s E minor Serenade for Strings tests the ACO’s richness of warm timbre rather than its scintillating virtuosity.   Finally, we hear Walton’s Sonata for Strings, the composer’s arrangement (with Malcolm Arnold’s help in the finale) of his own String Quartet in A minor, written 25 years previously.

 

Friday December 7

VIVICA GENAUX IN CONCERT

Opera Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

In recent times, some of these one-off recitals/concerts by famous imports have been either sad or ludicrous.   This one features an American mezzo, presented by Pinchgut Opera, not the national company, so there are grounds for optimism.   Pinchgut artistic director Erin Helyard is directing an all-Baroque program that also features ’21 of Australia’s best early music instrumentalists’  –  no details available so far.   As for the music, the night offers a sinfonia (Op. 6 No. 1 .  .  . but isn’t this Op. 6 a set of flute concertos?) and two overtures (Cleofide, Demofoonte) by Hasse as well as an aria from Cleofide (the heroine’s Son qual misera colomba); two arias (one from Semiramide, the other from Polifemo) by Haydn’s teacher Porpora; one aria only by Broschi from his IdaspeOmbra fedele anchio which featured in that prodigious waste of money, the film Farinelli; a Vivaldi sinfonia and three opera (L’OlimpiadeGriselda, Catone in Utica) arias; and there’s a Handel pair for good measure – Ho perso il caro ben from Il Parnasso in festa, and Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana that I vaguely remember from Opera Australia’s Alcina production.   Apart from this last, the rest represent unknown territory, except for those happy souls who revel in this arcane field.   And jolly good luck to you; here’s hoping the night proves both satisfying and rewarding.   What you can be sure of is music-making of authority from all concerned.

 

Saturday December 8

CHRISTMAS WITH THE MSO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 1 pm and 5 pm

This program is a few levels above Carols by Candelight, one of this city’s aesthetic abominations, but it isn’t much to boast about.   What you get is entertainment but it all comes in short squirts.    Benjamin Northey, the MSO’s go-to conductor with personality, leads the festive round.    Guest soprano Greta Bradman has the unalloyed joy of belting out Adam’s O Holy Night, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the carol Silent Night (possibly the others on the program as well  –  Oh come, all ye faithful, Hark! the herald angels sing, We Three Kings).    As well as the Berlin hit, you will find a solid swathe of Americana on offer: indeed, the program opens and ends with Leroy Anderson – A Christmas Festival to begin, Sleigh Ride to close.   You’ve also got James Pierpont’s Jingle Bells, Johnny Marks’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a suite from Alan Silvestri’s score for Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express film.   By way of cutting cross-cultural commentary, Northey and his forces will play bleeding chunks from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet Suite No. 1 (which holds most of the work’s attractive character pieces) and the Troika on loan from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije film music suite, uncomfortably situated close to Anderson’s trite musical sleigh excursion.   The odd one out in all this is Howard Blake’s Walking in the Air from the 1982 The Snowman soundtrack.   In short, the MSO is playing a set of bon-bons, nearly all of which have connections to the season.

 

Friday December 14

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary at 7:30 pm

This second instalment in the first Star Wars trilogy – for us true believers, the only films in George Lucas’ series worth serious attention –  is being given several airings in this vast auditorium; here’s hoping the organization is able to pack out all four sessions.   John Williams reinforces motifs and tropes from the first film, A New Hope, but a large amount of extra material had to be produced for new sites like the ice planet Hoth as well as suitable aural underpinning for Luke Skywalker’s clumsy efforts both there and on the swamp planet Dagobah, not to mention the atmospherics needed for the first sighting of Cloud City and the eventual duel between Luke and Darth Vader.   Much of this is rousing stuff but the MSO will be hard put to bring freshness to a score that is all too well-known.  What takes me aback in these declining years is that the film is now 38 years old and still manages to surprise you with musical details that slipped by the first twenty times you saw it.

This screening will be repeated on Saturday December 15 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm, and on Sunday December 16 at 1 pm.

 

Friday December 14

THE SOUND OF SHADOWS: SUGAR COATED

Bianca Gannon, Luqmanul Chakim, Peni Candra Rini, Jumaadi, Jean Poole. Robert Jarvis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Here is a one-off production, presented by Bianca Gannon and Mapping Melbourne, which is ‘a platform for strengthening arts networks between contemporary independent artists across the Asian region, building connections and establishing collaborative ongoing relationships, and presenting challenging work’  –  an offshoot of Multicultural Arts Victoria.    This particular recital features Indonesian instruments whose use revolves around food.    Central performer Chakim plays a bundengan (zither), a rantok (a blade, but I’m guessing), and a set of gule gending (steel pans)  –  all instruments of the people, to be contrasted with Javanese court music sung by Candra Rini.    Gannon, artistic director for this enterprise, contributes gamelan and post-minimalist piano (at last, I’ll get to find out just what that terminology means), and Jumaadi offers his own digitally enhanced take on Indonesian shadow puppetry to flesh out the occasion.    My only regret is that the food relevant to Chakim’s instruments – duck, rice, fairy floss – is not being served; you can never have too much sensory overload.

 

Saturday December 15

HANDEL’S MESSIAH

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Something of a clash here as a good number of the MSO players will be involved with a session of The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack across at the Plenary.    An expert in early music practice, Jan Willem de Vriend, is directing and may well do so from the concertmaster’s desk.    If you’ve not heard of de Vriend, join the club, although most of his activity appears to be centred on mainland Europe.    His soloists are soprano Jeanine De Bique  from Trinidad, Australian countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, that sterling locally-grown tenor Andrew Goodwin, and Dresden-born bass-baritone Stephan Loges.   Of course, the MSO Chorus has the enviable task of handling those great choral tapestries that pepper this oratorio, although the body’s numbers may be cut down in proportion to what I assume will be a spartan chamber orchestra.    Prior to these Melbourne performances, the work will be heard in Ballarat on Saturday December 8 (Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 5 pm), and in Bendigo (Ulumbarra Theatre at 5 pm) on Sunday December 9.

This program will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Sunday December 16 at 5 pm

 

Sunday December 16

A GLORIOUS CHRISTMAS

Australian Boys Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

This is the last entry on the Recital Centre’s calendar for the year; thankfully, the Murdoch Hall will hear some decent music-making to terminate 2018, rather than tacky aural crud from easily forgotten pseudo-musicians exhibiting a woeful lack of mastery and talent.    What the Choir’s administrators mean by ‘glorious’ isn’t just hyperbole, a non-specific wish that everybody will have the best of times over the coming fortnight.  The emphasis falls on the liturgical specificity of the word and its importance for Christmas as the jubilant song of the angels, expertly reported to St. Luke by those terrifically literate shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem.    At the heart of this occasion is Vivaldi’s Gloria  –  RV 589. you’d assume  –  which asks for soprano or contralto soloists in four of its twelve movements.   As usual, audience participation will be expected and encouraged in some of those carols  essential to this event, even if most of them don’t qualify for the glorious label.   But the Choir, its senior Vocal Consort and the large bank of tyros are all managed carefully enough so that they rarely wear out their welcome.    Of great interest for some of us will be to observe how new artistic director Nicholas Dinopoulos copes with filling the shoes of recently departed ABC veteran, Noel Ancell.

Lest we forget? Not a chance

IF NOT IN THIS WORLD

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Sunday November 11 at 7 pm

Menin_Gate_at_midnight_(Will_Longstaff)

                                      Menin Gate at Midnight   (Will Longstaff, 1927) 

This event marked an ominous date.  It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.

At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.

Only one of the writers was familiar to me.   Helen Gifford’s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch.  Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison –  are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.

Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of  Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips.   This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought.   Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.

Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix.   From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen.   Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.

For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action.   While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes  and overlapping timbre textures.   For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.

Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench.  Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.

The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic.  This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing  manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis.   To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.

Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury  was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos.   It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived.  As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.

As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday.  The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction.  Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.

Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres.   Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate.  In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.

Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord.  As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.

Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.

Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together.   Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field.   The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.

Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches.  Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.

The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’   Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief.  To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it.  In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.

Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary.  None of the music drew attention to itself  for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence.   The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.

It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.

 

 

 

The North is minor

SNOW IN SUMMER

Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584

 

Evergreen

 

Another no-frills product from Move, this disc comes in at almost exactly 45 minutes.  You hear 13 tracks  in total, four of them movements from sonatas by James Oswald, that lucky Scot who was Chamber Composer for George III and whose magnum opus, Airs for the Seasons, has each of its movements named after a different flower – in this case, Winter flowers: the snapdragon and the snowdrop, both scoring two movements.  The other mainstream work is a sonata for viola da gamba by Lorenzo Bocchi who doesn’t get a mention in my Grove but who is historically notable for bringing the cello to Scotland.   This particular sonata, No. 11 in D minor from Bocchi’s Op. 1, has been recorded on Hyperion by members of the Parley of Instruments.  For other Bocchi works, you won’t find much; there’s an arrangement of his Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough or ‘ye Irish Wedding‘ which comes from a collection of Hibernian tunes and has been recorded by Les Basses Reunies.

The rest of the tracks make up a pleasant collection with Scottish folk tunes dominating the mix: the Unst Boat Song, Tullochgorum, Ca’ the Yowes, Twist Ye, Twine Ye (Sir Walter Scott’s poem, music by James Scott Skinner, I think) and the CD’s title song which is a poem by Shane Lestideau, the Evergreen Ensemble’s director and baroque violinist, and the setting itself based on that venerable ground bass, La Folia.

Some deviations from the Caledonian come first.   Claire Patti, the Evergreen singer and Celtic harpist, works through Jag Vet en Dejhlig Rosa – a 16th century Swedish poem set much later by Alice Tegner, either to her own tune or a pre-existing folk tune. Then, alongside the Unst Boat Song comes Guldklimpen, another Swedish tune.  Later, at Track 5, we hear Old Ditty, a piece commissioned from Sydney composer Alice Chance and part of a larger collection – The Australian Baroque Sonatas Project which has the laudable aim of creating new works for period instrumentalists in Australia.

Apart from Lestideau and Patti, the other Evergreens are veteran Samantha Cohen alternating between theorbo and baroque guitar. with Jenny Eriksson providing the viola da gamba line.

Matters don’t get off to a reassuring start with the Swedish rose song.   Nothing wrong with Patti’s voice.   The first verse is pleasant enough, supported by Cohen on guitar and a plucked gamba bass, Lestideau eventually entering after the second verse which is given a swing beat from the instrumentals.  In fact Lestideau gets a solo flight based on the inoffensive melody and the effect is of a mournful Stephane Grappelli ensemble, the which is sustained throughout a third verse.  Why the need for this move to the world of the 1920s is beyond me.  The effect is unsettling’ so much so that you ask the question (internally): is there to be more of this?   Fortunately, there is not.

Track 2 is that Boat song from the northernmost Shetland Isle and it makes a nice pairing with its predecessor.   Patti sings the three verses and repeats the first over a pretty static accompaniment that is little more than a drone.   Lestideau leads from a variant of the melody into a Golden Nugget instrumental where the other players quickly join in the fun.   Well, ‘fun’ is an overstatement as the mood has been minor mode up to this point, the singing pure but uninflected, the violin emphatically free of vibrato and the harmonization free of complications and ambiguity.

The minor lifts for the tune Tullochgorum although the language is modal.  As for the base material, the only melody of this name I could find was pretty orthodox; Patti’s performance of  (presumably) John Skinner’s text – a mix of Highland and Lowland Scots with some English thrown in – is clear enough, even if the words retain their mysteries.  Lestideau elaborates on the tune with some Skinner variations before making a lateral turn into the well-known reel, De’il Amang The Tailors.

As far as I could see, the most affecting music on this disc came with Patti’s crystalline reading of Ca’ the Yowes where the moving melody gets well-worked over, if not as much as it could have.  The singer wanders gently through the title refrain three times, the latter two with Lestideau in gentle vocal support.  The verses come from Burns’ second version and Patti is eccentric in her sequencing: Verse 2, Verse 1 and then Verse 4 with a space in the middle for a violin variant.  Patti’s harp generates a fine contribution to the melancholy/bucolic atmosphere.

The final folk element on offer is an instrumental solo that has as its title the Scott poem Twist Ye, Twine Ye with music (probably) by the universal Skinner.  Again it’s minor in tonality, and Lestideau has her company move straight from this into her own Blooms Like Stars text sung over the Folia bass – and they don’t come more minor in flavour than that.  The pairing is quite successful, of a piece with the ruminative nature of many of the preceding tracks.

Oswald’s The Snap Dragon two-movement sonata is simplicity personified with all the running given to the solo violin line while guitar and gamba provide an underpinning to a surprisingly Scottish-sounding melody.   This is not development music; you get the tunes and they are repeated, scarcely modified.   A gentle andante is followed by a jig in which I think I can hear some harp notes seconding the violin in a few bars.

We are back in minor language for Oswald’s The Snowdrop which starts in F sharp but spends a good deal of time in the relative A Major.  As with The Snap Dragon,  development is minimal as the composer simply takes his instruments for a walk.  There is little local about the first movement; the second movement does involve the harp imitating the violin line and is a kind of cross between a 4/4 gigue and a gavotte.

Published in 1725, Bocchi’s gamba sonata is a four-square composition with some slight asymmetries in its stately first movement; the more rapid middle one is an ordinary enough binary piece with some relieving double stops.  Another slower movement concludes this rather unremarkable throw-back to a time when elegance and knowing one’s musical place were cardinal qualities.  Despite some strenuous efforts, I couldn’t find much here that brought to mind Scotland, Ireland or folk-music.

The cuckoo in this speckled nest is Chance’s Odd Ditty.  Again, we are in minor mode with a vocal line from Patti’s gentle spindrift soprano in play across accompaniment from the Evergreen violin and guitar.  The main interest throughout is the composer’s quirk of flattening certain notes to give a piquancy to textures and processes that are otherwise pretty standard.   It takes some effort to decipher the words which, I suspect, are by Chance herself, and which return several times to the catch-phrase ‘my oddity’.

At the end, you’re left wanting more extended tracks from this CD, as well as more information about the music itself.  Mind you, there are plenty of researchable avenues for the interested listener; you can spend hours tracing translations from the Swedish and the Norn tongue, let alone trying to learn more about shadowy figures like Bocchi and even Oswald.   However, these musicians know what they’re after in terms of style and interpretation and, while you don’t come away from this CD enthralled by your experience, you do enjoy exposure to the Evergreens’ gently unassuming enterprise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further encounters with Beethoven’s piano

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOL. 5

James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1469

Brawn 5

In this latest album, English-born Australian pianist Brawn has filled in a gap as he progresses through his cycle of the complete Beethoven sonatas.   In this instance, he presents four of the first period group, leaving only one of the first 10 sonatas unrecorded = the big No. 4 in E flat.   For many a piano student, this new CD will bring back both memories and nightmares, especially in this country where these particular sonatas featured for many years (and probably still do) on AMEB and Year 12 examination lists.   Still, such listeners will find much of interest in these interpretations in which Brawn exercises his perennial enthusiasm and talent in finding sensible solutions to practical problems.

His outline of the first movement to the C minor Sonata No. 5 offers a deft fusion of sharp-edged drama and sensible restraint when the tonality shifts to E flat. The argument – admittedly, not a particularly dense one – is allowed just the right amount of insistence with some nice moments of emphasis, as in the hair’s breadth hesitation before the arpeggio introducing bar 180 and the emphasis on the pseudo-Alberti bass quavers that run almost uninterrupted between bars 215 and 263.

The pianist’s approach to the central Adagio is – in a word – fluid.  Which is hardly surprising, considering the alarums and excursions that the movement contains, although like many a pianist before him, Brawn makes a moving metrical feast of the middle strophes, reverting to adagio molto at bar 71 after an action-packed central venture into excitement before coming back to a home key placidity.  Possibly the coda could have been handled with less urgency to get to the end, although it’s true that there isn’t much matter here that makes you want to linger.

With the Prestissimo finale, Brawn shows the same exemplary brio as in the bounding first movement, the pages urged past with creditable clarity at spots like bars 34-35 where the tendency is to hammer out the right-hand oscillating octave semiquavers to the disadvantage of the left hand’s descending scale.  A rare inexplicable point comes in the centre of bar 68 where a minute change-of-gear interrupts the precipitate urgency.  And Brawn cannot resist the temptation to indulge in the slightest of ritardandi in the second-last bar.

An impressive agitation enriches the opening to the following F Major Sonata, the exposition treated as a very vital allegro indeed   A solitary question mark hangs over bar 72 where the switch from triplets back to straight semiquavers, compounded by a mordent, seems laboured.   But the movement simmers with plenty of panache and a forward thrust, notably at the reversion to the home key after a D Major interlude/lead-in.   Brawn then produces an exemplary rendition of the following Allegretto, a minuet and trio that seems to me more like a spectral landler in its outer segments, here firmly controlled and  well-shaped in its delineation of the composer’s right-hand counterpoint at the minuet’s return.

As for the Presto conclusion to this work, it rattles through persuasively, realizing the composer’s attempted gaiety well enough even if the humour is inclined to be heavy-handed in the movement’s second ‘half’ from about bar 41; it’s a relief to get out of the canons and back to the D Major lightness of bar 69.   However, the passage in question is handled with a good deal more aplomb in the repeat.   Further, the inner-part detail in the final segment from bar 125 onwards is exceptionally polished.

Third in the Op. 10 triptych dedicated to the Countess von Browne, the Sonata No. 7 in D Major has four movements of markedly varied temper, including a D minor Largo e mesto of splendid theatricality which is also the longest track on this CD.   Brawn enters without reserve into the energetic world of the initial Presto; this is a highly persuasive reading, observant of the usual dynamic markings and packed with buoyant spirit.  Throughout the development, tension seems to rise without letting up – on both Beethoven’s and Brawn’s parts – until the emphatic and jubilantly rattling last bars.

One of my acquaintances in student days chose piano as his second study and this sonata’s Lento as one of his end-of-year  ‘list’.   It was the first time I had paid any attention to these pages in any detail, coerced on this occasion as he wanted help.   After its sweeping tapestry had been enjoyed a few times, the detail in each section came into focus, the pages merging into a compelling and moving entity.  In this interpretation, you miss the concert hall’s majestic echo but the recording’s clarity ensures that you miss nothing in the pianist’s efforts to enunciate each chord’s full complement and the samples of pre-Chopin delicacy or Bachian meanderings (Italian Concerto, second movement) shown in bars 36 to 42; then later, after the climactic welter is finished, at bar 72.

The Minuet‘s attractive ambling pace makes a fine consequent to the Lento‘s tragedy and is notable for its precision, even down to features that tend to be subsumed into the recording ether in other recordings, like the left hand sforzando in bar 31.  But the best, like at Cana, is saved till last with a Rondo finale where pretty much everything comes together successfully, from the near-curt definition of the initial three-note theme, through the action-packed modulation-rich episodes, to the inexorable fluency of the final 8 bars where Brawn caps the whole sonata with a conclusion both convincing and elegant.

The CD ends with the G Major Sonata No. 10, a fine summation of achievement on Beethoven’s part and an excellent instance of Brawn’s talent for outlining whole paragraphs so as to conserve their integrity, a gift particularly evident in the opening Allegro‘s consistency of narrative between the exposition and recapitulation even though the latter is handled with more rhythmic freedom, if not actual quirkiness.  Further, the flurries of demi-semiquavers run past without a hint of martellato flashiness but come over as natural flourishes to close off a particular paragraph.

With the central Andante theme and three variations, you find it hard to quibble with anything.   Block chords are impressively clear and despatched without even a suggestion of arpeggiation.   Everywhere you look are signs of precise preparation, even in details like the triplet left-hand run that concludes bar 52 leading into a delicious, unexpected piano; or the differentiation between piano and pianissimo in the trademark staccato chords from bar 85 to bar 88.  The following Scherzo is almost as impressive, not least for the performer’s abstinence in use of the sustaining pedal and a consequent transparency of texture; not so much in the C Major interlude/trio that starts at bar 73, but more remarkably in the near-final pages featuring the left-hand-over frivolity that sounds effortless even though the chances of error in such cross-hand passages are ever-present.

Brawn’s odyssey-saga will continue with a sixth album due to be recorded by the end of the year but this current release leaves us with much rewarding listening.  The acoustic conditions that apply at Brawn’s recording studio in Potton Hall, Suffolk continue to underline his style of delivery, most suitable in these earlier and more intimate works which reveal Beethoven’s energy and delight in his own creativity throughout most of the four sonatas.  Brawn’s interpretations reveal a true personality at work, one that finds a coherent path and stays on it without getting bogged down in glutinous gravity.

 

 

 

 

 

Vehement night’s work

FOUR SEASONS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday October 17

Alexandre-Da-Costa-02

                                               Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline

 

For her final Melbourne recital this year, Kathryn Selby chose two volatile friends as her partners in a program of high energy, giving as good as she got in fierce address and consistent drive.   Violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline began operations with an ardent reading of Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Paul Kochanski’s arrangement of the Siete canciones populares espagnoles – well, most of them: the arranger, with Falla’s approval, left out the original’s Seguidilla.

After a brooding account of the opening El Pano moruno, Da Costa-Graveline stopped the music to give us an account of each movement’s context.  Normally, this sort of intervention leaves me cold but the explanations were brief, gave the remaining pieces some individuality and – as I thought (wrongly) at the time – served as a sort of delaying tactic so that the string player could gird his loins for the fray.

To me, this music is pretty much all show; you look in vain for any emotional or developmental depths in folk music or its imitation.  There’s no doubt that the melodies can be well-shaped and appealing, but, without the transformative power of a Bartok, they are best heard without adornment, or even insulting simplification.  As somebody said about the birch tree song that Tchaikovsky used in the finale of his Symphony No. 4, after you outline the tune, what is left for you to do but play it again, only louder?

Which is actually unfair to Falla whose suite certainly repeats melodies but not mindlessly.   Da Costa-Graveline found a willing partner in Selby who matched him point for point in the quieter excerpts like Asturiana and Nana, elegantly shaped by the dominant violin line but with a commanding bowing arm.  This performance proved memorable for the impressive power of both the Polo and Jota dances which set aside all conceptions of the suite itself as a benign collection of bagatelles with lashings of local colour loaded on.   These were emphatic almost to the point of violence, giving a different slant to the composer’s usual characterization through the dreamy Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a post-impressionist or a master of Hispanic applique, as in The Three-Cornered Hat or even El amor brujo.

The night’s cellist, Umberto Clerici, is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal and  plays a powerful Goffriller instrument, a fine dynamic match for his violin partner’s steely Stradivarius.   For his duet spot, Clerici, Head of Strings at Edith Cowan University, opted for the Debussy Sonata of 1915, a work that delights at every turn.  It was impossible not to respond to the affirmative polemic that this cellist gave to the opening Prologue that brings to my mind echoes of the great French gamba composers, thanks to its affirmative statements alternating with ornate mini-cadenzas.

In his preliminary talk, Clerici covered a confusingly broad stretch of historical references but much more usefully demonstrated the pizzicato effects that Debussy wanted in this work’s second movement Serenade: the first time in my experience that this variety of requirements has been made clear.   Here was a virtuoso reading, loaded with changes of speed, abrupt decelerations and mirroring forward rushes, handled with assurance by both players.   But then, Clerici, like Da Costa-Graveline, had the score by heart and Selby is the most aware and obliging of partners.

Still, the substantial Finale to this sonata is the work’s high-point, loaded with incident and sudden moments of stunning beauty, as in the ascending cello motive from bar 7 to bar 14, hinted at just before Rehearsal Number 8, and recapitulated with moving effect 6 bars after Number 10.  Following the movement’s flurries and almost continuous concerted action for both players, the penultimate cello solo flourish that calls to mind the sonata’s braggadocio opening takes your breath away, particularly in this very direct, strikingly forward interpretation that did for Debussy what Da Costa-Graveline and Selby had done for Falla; taking away all that Clair de lune drowsiness and showing how precise, finely tuned and assertive was this great composer’s sensibility in the last painful years of his life, pointing up yet again his primacy among important 20th century musical figures.

The three musicians came together for the evening’s signature work, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires which several local piano trios and other chamber combinations have performed in recent years.   I seem to be in a minority, especially when faced with the advocacy of significant musicians in this country like Richard Tognetti who is a fan, but the Argentine writer’s tangos, despite being ‘new’ and far removed from the early 20th century’s emasculation of the dance, leave me browned out.   But then, you could simply sit back and appreciate the emphatic address of these players, particularly Selby’s unfailing definition of metre and security in chords and the two string players dynamism even in unison/octave passages during the Autumn and Spring  movements.

But, as with so much other Piazzolla, you felt that you were being pummelled.  In which respect, the trio lived up to the composer’s expectations, intentions and transferred life experience – well, part of it.   Put simply, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the movements – certainly not in format or harmonic language – and the Pizzolla tango’s natural state is somehow one of musical violence.  Selby and her colleagues realised this work’s broad underpinning of machismo with determined gusto.

From the rear of the Tatoulis space, the post-interval reading of Mendelssohn  in D minor came across as sharply defined, crisp, and not as thunderous as I had anticipated following the Latin-heavy first half to the night.  Very few errors crept into Selby’s piano part which is where the score’s chief interest falls, the pianist/composer unable to hold back from his own command of digital legerdemain.   Da Costa-Graveline and Clerici made a moving creature of the repeated first melody to the meltingly fine central Andante where the composer manifests his emotional maturity by avoiding any trace of sentimentality simply though the calm serenity of his lyrical gift which in these pages never fails to weave its involving spell.

It seemed to me that the final Allegro was over-anxious, an emphasis on urgent mobility even in those moments where the strings have prominence as in the broad B flat Major burst of eloquence at bar 141 where the piano tones down its semiquaver prominence.  At the end, the trio brought the exercise to a satisfying conclusion, Selby courteously tamping down her volume for the string-rich duet from bar 297 up to bar 311, at which point the piano explodes into D Major virtuosity.   An uplifting way to end a solid year’s work.

For the future, yesterday

7 GREAT INVENTIONS OF THE MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGE

Syzygy Ensemble and Dan Richardson

Move Records MD 3427

It took me a while – in this case, something like three months of desultory listening – to get onto the wavelength of this CD.  As usual, the big problem was taking the whole exercise too seriously when anyone with a modicum of sense, after hearing the first track, would have known that composer Greenaway’s intentions are coloured by whimsy, not a post-Revolution intention to pictorialize musically the advances that she has selected to illustrate.

Before getting down to what happens, it would be wise to give some physical data.  For the disc’s 10 tracks, the actual musicians involved from the Syzygy Ensemble are: piano Leigh Harrold (who has the first track to himself and has the last word as well), Laila Engle’s flutes, violin Jenny Khafagi, cello Campbell Banks, Robin Henry’s clarinets and guest percussionist Dan Richardson beavering away at various sound sources.  Greenaway might have determined on 7 inventions, so where do the extras come in?  Well, they comprise a solo piano preamble, a finale that begins by involving everyone until Harrold takes over, and a Hymn to Freedom.

As for the inventions themselves, she singles out telecommunications, aviation/space exploration, advertising, artificial intelligence, world war, medicine and the cinema. That afore-mentioned paean to freedom follows the war track (which is the CD’s longest), the composer reassuring us that the worst of these creations has its ameliorating counterpart.  The odd feature of all this is that everything – preamble, inventions, Beethoven’s Ode updated and the postlude – lasts under 37 minutes total running time.

We begin with a little Bach gesture; if we’re talking inventions, how about the Two Part in F Major?   Not that you get much of it (a suggestion only) before the mood changes to Scott Joplin-style ragtime for the opening Invention Reinvention.  That’s fine; it sets a sort of time-frame that suggests what follows is either contemporaneous with or follows the Maple Leaf Rag era.  The Invention is something of a spoof of both Bach and Joplin but it makes sense even if the working-out almost tips over into laboured territory.

Telecommunications begins with a concerted flourish which gives way to some blurred radio transmissions before a Gershwin-style blues headed by clarinet and flute, with a few more radio interpolations and a humorous coda that honours an early drawback in domestic television sets the world over.   Next comes a Cape Canaveral countdown and a rising scale before a bit of early American astronaut humour and a fade into the sort of optimistic tapestry you get when you experience a satellite’s view of the globe.  A heavily-sequenced melody takes pride of place, suggesting onward progress, which is counter-weighted by a super-imposed static-heavy ‘We have a problem’ message and the space enterprise fades into nothingness.

By this point, you have a pretty firm handle on Greenaway’s vocabulary which is diatonic with a neat hand at modulation.   The tracks pass so quickly that any thought of old-fashioned development is out of the question; textures don’t so much change as meld into each other without fuss.   A skin-cleansing ad with a broad American accent from the 50s leads in to the advertising celebration,  followed by a bouncy sequence that suggests events in the preceding movement, which is interrupted by an old Maxwell House ad enunciated in Received English/ABC newsreader-speak; then, a washing machine (Whirlpool) gets a guernsey.   Betty Crocker cakes, Remington razors and a layer of superimposed tracks reduce advertising to what it has become: meaningless burble and informational white noise.   All this rises to a high dynamic level before stopping on a dime before another ad, this time for Quick-Eze proposing the possibility of a mental cleanser to parallel the product’s physical specialty at ameliorating heartburn and indigestion.

The Mechanical Brain starts with a piano ostinato which is broken into by arpeggio-rich breaks from the other instruments.  This pattern is followed without much variety, suggestive of the remorseless advance of machines although the music itself is not particularly threatening.   Soldiers marching, tanks or trucks on the move, explosions all lead into the actual instrumental elements of the And So Begins Massed World Warfare movement.  A cello solo based around a vehement low G is soon accompanied by piano chords and some stentorian gestures that fade to expectant silence; then a violin’s solo arpeggios with some disjunct piano chords, and the flute brings a descending motif into play.   This segment is pretty obviously ‘free’ in rhythm as the players work through some limited individual material.   An air-raid siren sends out its warning and downward violin glissandi lead to a welter of piano chord clusters as the bombs land.  Here is no Penderecki Threnody, nor even Holst’s Mars but a pocket-sounding image of conflict; more a Schleswig-Holstein spat than the horrid spectre of a doom-carrying Enola Gay.

The consequent Hymn stays in C minor for its four or five repetitions.  It is sung in unison by the instrumentalists, Harrold coming in with supporting chords that rarely move outside the predictable.   It’s a quiet, wordless lyric with no Finlandia bravado; more, something that you might have overlooked in the soundtrack to Schindler’s List.  The mood changes for the medical marvels.   B flat Major and minor oscillate in a rather whining set of motives over tinkling piano arpeggios.  A scientist discusses the new wonder of penicillin while the instruments do a Poissons d’or imitation.   We hear Graeme Clark speaking of his first attempts at a cochlear implant, then a therapist and patient pronounce individual words in antiphon.   The movement ends in a warm major chord; in this segment, it has to be noted that the music is of secondary interest to the recorded texts.

Last in this fleeting caravanserai are the moving pictures, The Advent of Cinema.  You hear a whirring old-time projector in action, more piano arpeggios over a pedal; there’s no real melody, just an awfully predictable modulatory sequence.   Again, we’re between major and minor tonalities as a waltz rhythm starts up, with a little less subtlety than the matter of this nature that Rota supplied for Fellini’s 8 1/2.  It’s all pretty heavy-handed and a strangely retrogressive image of film history.

The Finale opens with a small-scale fanfare that breaks into a retrospective of some themes and progressions that have featured in the preceding movements before Harrold is left with his Joplinesque syncopations to bring us home.

In the end, this is not a grave memorialization of the 20th Century’s most significant achievements but a quirky take on some of those advances that have made us what we are, for better and worse.   Greenaway has constructed more of a divertissement than a suite and – with all respect to the Syzygy players and Richardson – there isn’t much here that stretches the participants’ talents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November Diary

Saturday November 3

Benedetti, Elschenbroich, Grynyuk Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here is the final Musica Viva series for this year: a piano trio comprising Nicola Benedetti, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and pianist Alexei Grynyuk.   The Scots violinist does not seem to have made much of an impression outside her home country and England, and most of her reputation rests on concerto work.   Elschenbroich has been here previously as a member of the Sitkovetsky Trio and proved to be a fine contributor; like Benedetti, Grynyuk is an unknown quantity to me, occupying as he does that genealogical half-way position somewhere between Ukraine and England.   For this night’s program, the musicians perform two early Richard Strauss sonatas: one for cello, the other for violin.  Before they reach into the glories of the Brahms C Major Trio, the group will give an airing to another second piano trio, that by Gordon Kerry subtitled Im Winde, which was last heard here 8 1/2 years ago from the Trio Dali.

The BEG combination will present its second program on Tuesday November 20 at 7 pm.  As well as Kerry’s Im Winde, the fare changes from Strauss to Prokofiev sonatas and the affair ends with the Ravel Trio.

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Saturday November 3

LORELEI

Victorian Opera

Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse at 7:30 pm.

It’s hard to know what to expect here.   Three divas are involved: Ali McGregor, Dimity Shepherd and Antoinette Halloran, each taking a turn at playing Lorelei or, more properly, a version of the eternal temptress.   As for the music, this has been written by Melbourne screen-composer Julian Langdon, writer and broadcaster Casey Bennetto (Keating!), and musical comedian Gillian Cosgriff; the latter two also have supplied the librettos.  The promotional spiel claims this will be ‘an intoxicating encounter with love and death: part cabaret, part opera, all seduction.’   Be still, my beating heart.   Further, the sopranos’ ‘hypnotic music is to die for.’   No, it’s not: at best, it’s to enjoy; at worst, to endure.

The performance will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Wednesday November 7, Thursday November 8, Friday November 9 and Saturday November 10, with a matinée performance on Saturday November 10 at 1 pm.

 

Monday November 5

BACH & BARBER

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Why this pairing?   It could be a demonstration of old and new counterpoint or an exploration of the contrast between masculinity and flaccidity.   However you read it, the night will test the Gomberts’ pitching and interpretative skills in the confined Salon space of the MRC.   For the Bach, we are confronted by three of the mighty motets: Der Geist hilft, Lobet den Herrn, and Furchte dich nicht.   Taking a bit longer to work through, the American composer’s group comprises the choral madrigal in three movements, Reincarnations; a setting of Laurie Lee’s Christmas poem Twelfth Night; its companion piece, To Be Sung on the Water; and the almost inevitable Agnus Dei arrangement of the Adagio for Strings which will probably make up the longest piece on the program.   The outer Bach pieces are for double choir, and they sound magnificently mobile in a fair-sized church but I think that here the dubious Lobet in 4 lines will come off best.

 

Wednesday November 7

LA BOHEME

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

And, just for a laugh, let’s move the whole shebang to Weimar Republic Berlin.  That way, we can weave in suggestions of depravity and physical grime, potentially providing a refresher course in George Grosz, I don’t think.   Have we seen this Gale Edwards vision here before?   It could be so – in which case any memories went straight through to the keeper.   In charge of the pit is Pietro Rizzo who conducted the score almost two years ago in Sydney and is forging an onward-and-upward career in second-class European houses.  Mimi is Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska who sang the role earlier this year on Sydney Harbour; her Rodolfo will be Yosep Kang, back after his impressive Alfredo Germont in April.   The remainder of the cast is native-born.   Jane Ede enjoys Musetta; Christopher Tonkin is her matching Marcello.   The other Bohemians are Richard Anderson (Colline) and Christopher Hillier (Schaunard), with Graeme Macfarlane, Adrian Tamburini, Clifford Plumpton, Anthony Mackey and Benjamin Rasheed handling the minor parts.   In the end, though, you’re asked to exercise that unnecessary suspension of disbelief and read in Weill’s world for Puccini’s.

The opera will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday November 9, Monday November 12, Wednesday November 14, Friday November 16 and Tuesday November 20 with a concluding matinee at 1 pm on Saturday November 24.

 

Thursday November 8

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN IN CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre at 7:30 pm.

From here on, the whimsy leaches out of this famous series while the sense of menace increases markedly.   This is the final film for which John Williams wrote the score and conducted the results, although the leitmotives persisted in later films.   Above all, the ambience has become monumental, illustrated by director Alfonso Cuaron’s insistence on massive clocks and their workings while Hermione and her two doofus mates negotiate the ins and outs of turning back time.   A moment that appeals to the repressed English chorister in some of us comes with the choral treatment of Double, double toil and trouble which gives the whole witchcraft/sorcery meme an unexpected layer of cultural references – or am I falling into the pit of becoming a Potter nerd?   Whatever, this will doubtless prove to be a winner for the MSO with determined patrons turning up dressed in their house robes and – with the benefit of hindsight – restraining their boos for Severus Snape.

The concert will be repeated on Friday November 9 (sold out, apparently) and at 1 pm on Saturday November 10.

 

Friday November 9

CELEBRATING BRETT DEAN

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A celebration on two layers as the Australian National Academy of Music has Dean come ‘home’ to lead its orchestra in music of his own as well as ventilating some other compositions that have been of  significance to the Australian composer.   Meale’s Clouds now and then, one of the Sydney writer’s haiku-inspired pieces, leads off – a real 1969 blast from the past for some of us, recalling a time when Australian music seemed to be coming of age, at last.   Georges Lentz is also a Sydney name that enjoyed a few brief exposures during Markus Stenz’s time as chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Jerusalem (after Blake) of 2016 has not been performed here.   Sydney composer and London resident Lisa Illean contributes her 2015 Land’s End, written for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and conducted a year later by Dean with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.   His own music is also pretty much up-to-date: From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction) springs out of the composer’s well-received 2016 opera for Glyndebourne on Shakespeare’s play, with Lorina Gore semi-reprising her role as Ophelia in this year’s Adelaide Festival performances. and Brisbane-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu singing Hamlet.   This is a welcome tribute to the Academy’s former director and an opportunity to hear one of his more recent major products.

 

Saturday November 10

LIXSANIA AND THE LABYRINTH

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Lixsania Fernandez is a Cuban gamba player and the ABO’s final guest artist for this year.  Under Paul Dyer’s direction, the orchestra will partner her in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Viola da gamba, a plain concerto for gamba by Graun and a contemporary work by Rene Duchiffre (Schiffer) – the Tango barocco finale from his Concerto for Two Violas da gamba.   We can be fairly sure that Fernandez will be playing one of these, but the other?   On top of this, concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen will take the leading role in Locatelli’s D Major Violin Concerto, The Harmonic Labyrinth, and a tad more Vivaldi fleshes out the night in the 5-minute Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro.   Apart from the contemporary Brabantian fusion, the other three composers stretch across the Baroque proper and represent a territory on which some of us prefer to hear the ABO at its labours.

This program will be repeated on Sunday November 11 at 5 pm.

 

Sunday November 11

TOGNETTI’S BEETHOVEN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Never happy with this appellation; after all, what makes Tognetti’s Beethoven different to Vengerov’s or Francescatti’s?   I’d even prefer the pornograpically suggestive Tognetti Does Beethoven than have this proposition of proprietorship pushed forward as a reason to attend.   Only two works are programmed: the Violin Concerto with Tognetti as soloist, and the Symphony No. 5.   These were written contemporaneously and stand at the pinnacle of the so-called ‘middle’ period.   Quite a few of us can recall the artistic director’s last solo performance of the concerto and you can be sure that the years will not have diminished the player’s skill and insight.   About the symphony, I’m not so sure; we’ve heard pretty much all the canon from these players in the recent past and, while some interpretations have proved riveting, I can’t recall much more than some remedial scouring of this C minor score’s tradition-heavy surface.

This program will be repeated on Monday October 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday November 11

19TH CENTURY SPLENDOUR

Team of Pianists

Glenfern, St. Kilda at 3 pm

Finishing its year – apart from a fund-raising recital for the Dili Hospital on November 24 – the Team hosts Melbourne Symphony Orchestra principal clarinet David Thomas who, with senior TOP member Darryl Coote, will play both the Brahms Op. 120 sonatas.   Now there’s an afternoon’s solid modicum of delight for you: the last chamber works by the composer, featuring an instrument that he fell in love with during his final years.  Punctuating these gems, Coote plays two Schubert impromptus: the C minor and most mournful from the Op. 90 set, followed by the theme-and-five variations B flat Major from the Op. 142 quartet.  Somehow, the whole gels to make up a most inviting and atmospherically consistent program with the added thrill that, in this house’s central room, you seem to be right on top of the performers, even when sitting in the back row or half-way out the back window.

 

Tuesday October 13

THE MASTERSINGERS OF NUREMBERG

Opera Australia

State Theatre,  Arts Centre Melbourne at 4 pm

After the company’s Ring resuscitation, what better move by the national company than to thrill Melbourne with Wagner’s thigh-slapping yet actually unfunny comedy?   Such a long haul for everybody concerned, but conductor Pietari Inkinen, who has covered himself with acclaim for previous Wagner marathons here, is back for this long-winded nationalistic pap.  The direction has been achieved by Kasper Holten who, with the willing assistance of set designer Mia Stensgaard and costume designer Anja Vangh Kragh, has transposed the action from mid-16th century Nuremberg and put it in a London club (unclear when; could be at the time of Beau Brummell or during the period of Evelyn Waugh) which doesn’t allow women – bad luck for Eva and Magdalene as this embargo will probably hamper their efforts to take part in  the action.   Still, the anachronisms might make bearable the unpleasant overtones of Sachs’ last address to the crowd – such a pity it all had to take place in this particular city.    As this fulcrum figure comes local lad Shane Lowrencev who is fated to rabbit on almost as tediously as Wotan.   The young hero Walther also features a Ring revenant in Stefan Vinke.   The two female roles are local favourites: Natalie Aroyan as Eva and Dominica Matthews as her confidante.   Apprentice David is taken up by Kazakh tenor Medet Chotabaev and Warwick Fyfe, a revelation in previous Wagner, gets the plum role of Beckmesser; who wouldn’t want to play a critic?  Veteran Daniel Sumegi plays Pogner and the rest of the club is a list of familiars: Luke Gabbedy, Adrian Tamburini, John Longmuir, Nicholas Jones, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Andrew Jones, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky and Richard Anderson.   You need a wealth of stage magic to keep audiences awake and focused through this opera which begins brilliantly and  quickly peters out as the characters set themselves forward in clear single dimensions.

The opera will be repeated at 4 pm on Monday November 19 and Thursday November 22, and in a matinée performance on Saturday November 17 at 12 pm.

 

Thursday November 15

BEETHOVEN 5

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Would you believe it?  Two C minor symphony performances within four days of each other.   This concert also features a violin concerto: Shostakovich’s all-things-to-all-men-except-Zhdanov No. 1, a remarkable construct of great originality in texture and format.  Guest violinist Mayu Kishima won the Shanghai Isaac Stern Violin Competition two years ago and plays the ‘ex-Petri’ Stradivarius instrument of 1700 – all of which sounds promising; as well, she has the endorsement of Rostropovich.   American Karina Canellakis has recently been appointed the next chief conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Netherlands, the first woman in that post as well as the first female chief conductor anywhere in that country.   She will take the MSO through a rarely-heard Dvorak tone poem, The Noon Witch, as a procedural prelude, then finish off the night with that blazing Beethoven.

The program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday November 16 at 7:30 pm, and again in Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday November 17.

 

Sunday November 18

DOUBLE TROUBLE

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 3 pm

Frank Pam and his players finish off their 2018 efforts with this special concert featuring quite a few doubles.   First come the Grigoryan brothers, Slava and Leonard, bringing their guitars to bear on some concertos for two instruments.   The first is by Handel, the sixth of the Op. 4 set of organ concertos; still, it was originally composed with a harp solo, so doubtless the solo work will be easily divided.   The other is from Vivaldi, the RV532 which is well-known as a work for two mandolins, but the composer would be the last to complain about an adaptation of this type.   Pam surrounds these with Viennese dance music, beginning with Karol Komzak’s Vindobona March and Lanner’s six Dornbacher Landler.   After the concertos come 15 of Schubert’s 16 German Dances and 2 Ecossaises Op. 33, originally for piano solo.   And the afternoon ends with a Strauss double: the senior’s Champagne Galop, followed by the junior’s Bacchus-Polka which could take on extra interest if the Musicians take up the composer’s original instructions which ask for the players to sing as well.

 

Thursday November 22

BACH SUITES

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

And here is the MCO finishing off its subscription series with a well-structured set of four works.   The night begins and ends with Bach: first, the Orchestral Suite No. 4; finally, the Orchestral Suite No. 3.   Both of them ask for three trumpets, timpani and and two or three oboes, as well as the usual body of strings with a bassoon for extra colour in No. 4.  In between come two double violin concertos.   As you’d expect in this programmatic company, the first is the slashing and popular Bach D minor, while the second is freshly minted and comes from the pen of the concert’s conductor, Richard Mills.   Who are taking the solo lines?   No idea yet, but MCO director William Hennessy has a fair assembly of talent from which to choose – or he could take one of the lines himself.  Always happy to hear top-class Bach but this event’s main interest comes from the Mills concerto, about which the gossip mills have maintained a stolid silence.   Its catalogued title at the Australian Music Centre gives something away: ‘Concerto for two violins and strings (string orchestra with multiple soloists)’.

This program will be repeated in the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday November 25 at 2:30 pm.

 

Friday November 23

FRENCH CLASSICS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

To be fair, you will hear two significant French masterpieces on these nights: Debussy’s limpid Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 for which the MSO Chorus will contribute to the final orgy.   This night’s conductor, Paris-born Fabien Gabel, is music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, so we can be reasonably sure of the requisite Gallic insights.   Debussy appears again on the program through his early six-part song-cycle to Verlaine poems,  Ariettes oubliees.  These were orchestrated in 2015 by Brett Dean for the Australian World Orchestra, later recorded by the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin, tonight sung by mezzo Fiona Campbell.   But the night’s showpiece, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is solidly Russian, setting the benchmark for all those skittering works of similar ilk that flowed from the pencils of the composer’s less-talented compatriots.   Beatrice Rana is the soloist; Italian-born, silver medallist at the 2013 Van Cliburn, first prize at the 2011 Montreal Piano Competition and still in her mid-20s .  .  .  ideal for this concerto.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday November 24 and at 6:30 pm on Monday November 26.

 

Thursday November 29

MAHLER 9: FOR CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

That’s it, of course: just the last Mahler (well, the last completed).  The arrangement, by pianist/conductor Klaus Simon, is one of the fruit’s of his editing endeavours in the scores of Schoenberg and Mahler.   Somehow, he has cut down the large orchestral body to 15 players, in this outing most of them notable Australian presences: flute Virginia Taylor (ex-ANU, ANAM), oboe Nick Deutsch (ANAM artistic director), clarinet Philip Arkinstall (MSO), bassoon Lyndon Watts (Munich Philharmonic), horns Andrew Bain (LA Philharmonic) and Saul Lewis (MSO), trumpet Tristram Williams (ex-MSO), piano Timothy Young (ANAM), percussion Peter Neville (ANAM, University of Melbourne), piano accordion James Crabb (ACO favourite), violins Sophie Rowell (MSO) and Robin Wilson (ANAM, Sydney Conservatorium), viola Caroline Henbest (ACO, MSO, everyone’s favourite guest viola), cello Howard Penny (ANAM, Chamber Orchestra of Europe) and double bass Phoebe Russell (QSO).  The conductor is Matthew Coorey, an Australian based in London who has conducted the MSO although I didn’t hear him.  A one-time horn player, he should be well equipped to direct this agglomeration of timbres.  Accordion?  Really?

 

Thursday November 29

LUDWIG’S LEGACY

Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College at 7:30 pm

In this final recital for the year, Wilma Smith and four colleagues are playing a set of little-known works by top-rank composers.   For instance, although it shames me to admit it, I’ve never come across Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, nor the other two works that make up the composer’s Op. 9.   In similar vein, I doubt that the Brahms String Quintet in F Major has swung across my horizon; nor has its later companion, the G Major String Quintet.    And Mendelssohn’s B flat String Quintet is further unknown territory, as is the composer’s earlier A Major work in the same format.   An occasion, therefore, to remedy woeful ignorance.   Along with Smith’s violin, the other voices in this recital are to be taken by Ji Won Kim from the MSO’s first violin ranks, violas Stefanie Farrands from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Caleb Wright, newly appointed principal with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, while Michael Dahlenburg from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra plays cello.

 

 

Return to top form

MEDITERRANEO

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 15

                                                                       Daniel Pinteno

In its original schedule, the ABO was to have played host this month to senior Italian baroque violinist Stefano Montanari, who promised a program that included Telemann, Vivaldi, Locatelli and those three household names – Gregori, Heinichen and Pisendel.  Somewhere along the way, a few wheels fell off this arrangement and artistic director Paul Dyer had to find another musician of similar ilk – which he did in Daniel Pinteno, one of Spain’s luminaries in the field of Baroque performance and, for good measure, musicology.

The only name to survive from the original program was Vivaldi, who scored two appearances on Saturday night.   While the main intention of the exercise was to present Spanish scores that most of us have never heard, the Venetian master falls under the occasion’s all-encompassing title.  And it’s pretty obvious that Vivaldi’s works would have been very familiar to the major (and minor) courts of the Iberian peninsula, just as they were across Europe.

Along with two Vivaldi concertos – La Notte for flute with the ABO’s principal Melissa Farrow doing solo honours, and No. 9, the second of the D Major ones from L’estro armonico – Pinteno headed half of a Charles Avison concerto grosso, one of those that the British composer based on Scarlatti sonatas, but the rest of his offerings were complete novelties: an overture by Vicente Basset, the Concerto a 5 from Giacmo Facco’s Pensieri Adriamonici collection, a substantial overture by Felix Maximo Lopez, and a surprising C Major sinfonia by Gaetano Brunetti.

It might have been the effect of Pinteno’s preparation, or it could have been the nature of the music, but this set of (mainly) unfamiliar compositions brought out the best from the orchestra which was back treating with a school of music that emphasizes the players’ talents and substantiates their reputation as members of a first-class band of Baroque expert interpreters.   Not that everything was perfect in detail but the strings and wind produced an unfailing radiance of address and emotional commitment that kept you engaged, even through several repeats.

An opening Basset overture set the interpretative direction with an arresting, biting attack from the whole body of strings, plus Dyer’s harpsichord and Tommie Andersson’s theorbo.   Pinteno played/directed with an involving physicality, contributing a languid middle-movement solo before a concluding presto engaged by the ensemble with spiky aggression, carefully harnessed and distinguished by excellently disciplined terraced dynamics.   Facco’s more substantial E Major violin concerto built on this foundation with a strong and voluble address in its opening Allegro, although you had to wait for the central Adagio to hear any extended solo work from Pinteno, while the finale followed the first movement’s model in giving the solo violin only short bursts of individuality.  Still, you heard enough to take in the guest director’s pliancy of line which depends less on mobility of rhythm and more on milking his part of its expressive potential, handling his exposed passages like a singer bursting from the ruck.

Farrow gave a graceful, measured approach to the Vivaldi suite-concerto, her string accompaniment cut back to a 3-3-2-2-1-plus continuo format.  Her sequence of trills in the initial Largo demonstrated impeccable control and projection, followed by a balancing Presto of high vivacity with the soloist subsumed into the general texture.  Another Largo gave Farrow an opportunity to highlight her supple, carefully controlled timbre for which she avoided unnecessary histrionics or attention-grabbing gasps, again followed by a Presto with some unexpected room for solo exposure.  The final two movements followed this slow-fast pattern, the three Il sonno pages a nice study in stasis, while the finale yielded the concerto’s most interesting activity, not least for a sparkling duet involving the flute and Pinteno’s violin from bars 166 to 177.

Concluding the first half, the Lopez Overtura con tutti instrumenti brought a clutch of wind players on-stage: pairs of oboes and horns, along with Brock Imison’s bassoon,  Pinteno increased his strings to about 20 but the composer gave his brace of oboes plenty of exposure, both Emma Black and Kirsten Barry entering the lists with impressive panache.  Indeed, the wind added a piquancy to what is a melodically ordinary construct and handled their responsibilities with very few minor glitches from the horns and only a handful of questionable intonation question-marks at cadential points from the oboes.

Pinteno enjoyed some solo work in this score as well.  Despite the interest of his well-proportioned output, he seems to have the occasional pitching problem, almost suggesting that he’s trying on a different temperament to his surrounds.  It didn’t happen often, this deviation; just enough to make you wonder if he was over-working his output.  Without doubt, he showed complete involvement in the work at hand and was no fly-in, fly-out guest, taking part in everything programmed, keeping a firm hand on his forces in this Lopez work’s final Allegro that became a rondo with two unexpected minuet inserts for metrical contrast and relief of tension.

Any questioning of Pinteno’s articulation disappeared in his post-interval account of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto from L’estro armonico.  Here was aggressive, button-bursting work peppered with crisp solos in the outer movements, while the Larghetto revealed a master’s hand in splendidly controlled trills peppering what is almost continuous solo playing between the first four and last five bars; the overall impression here for me was a sort of curvaceous angularity, Pinteno’s delivery intensely sympathetic, enough to make this the night’s high-water mark and a clear-enough explanation of why Dyer chose this musician to take charge of his ABO.

For reasons best known to themselves, the body settled on presenting only the first half of Avison’s D Major Concerto grosso: the second of the four in D of his Op. 6 set of 12 based on Scarlatti sonatas.  The opening Largo came across with lordly assurance, a striding post-Handelian strut to its progress, while the succeeding Con furia brought into play lots of virtuoso scampering which showed no sign of letting-up though both its halves were repeated.

The winds returned for Brunetti’s Il Maniatico sinfonia for which the ABO’s principal cello Jamie Hey took on the designated role of the composer’s ‘maniac’ who has to be brought into line by the rest of the players.  As it turned out, the solo cello’s mania turned out to be an ongoing trill or a repeated figure of a 2nd which the solo line stayed with throughout most of the four movements, an idee fixe going nowhere.

This score made a sterling match with the Lopez overture that concluded the evening’s first half, both for its compositional felicity – if not originality – and its size.  The difference between this and pretty much everything else on the program was its Classic period self-aplomb, with a broader melodic ambit than its predecessors in this night;’s work.   You could tire quite easily of the manic 2nds from the cello, Brunetti having locked his protagonist into a monotonous personality; but the orchestral bracketing showed a brand of sophistication that opened up a new compositional prospect – like hearing Haydn after Geminiani.

After some recent disappointments, I found this concert served as a refreshing reminder of the ABO’s concerted talents when negotiating works from across the Baroque, and the players’ remarkable ability to enter into works that –  in some cases  –  have been left untouched for centuries until Pinteno and his collaborators came along to resurrect them,  Indeed, I doubt that the visiting violinist could have found a group more talented and committed to assisting him in his undertaking which, far from being a dry-as-dust musicological exercise, whetted the appetite for more similar unveilings.  Dyer and his organization would do well to bring this musician back to us in the not-too-distant future.