Cut-down comedy

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Cultural Centre

Saturday November 30

Daniel Smerdon

                                                                   Daniel Smerdon

Any company takes quite a risk when attempting Puccini’s last completed opera and his only comedy; not because Gianni Schicchi is hard to handle vocally, but more because of the requirement to keep the humour intact and consistent.  Fortunately,  Doug Gehrke’s direction of the work with this Gold Coast ensemble found the laughs and kept them coming, mercifully restrained at the climax where the hero outwits the rest of the cast.  I’ve seen (and heard) better casts in terms of vocal endowment and enjoyed more flashy productions as far as sets and costumes go, yet this presentation left you more than satisfied that you’d come close to the core of this dressed-up true story.

Schicchi is the ultimate con-man: hired by disdainful clients, doing the job, then coming out on top through an admirable volte-face that shows up pretty well everyone else on stage.   Many of us have become used to a very broad level of humour (that can amount to slapstick) applied to this opera – gesture-dependent with characterizations exaggerated to the near-ludicrous and with vocalization torques to match, along with busy orchestras unable to patch their dynamic into the stage’s output.   Several of these problems raised their heads at this Saturday matinee but were not significantly abrasive in effect to ruffle the work’s progress.

Fortunately for the company,  baritone Daniel Smerdon fitted the lead role with excellent panache and a welcome forthrightness of application that every so often found him working almost too hard.   Forget the silly carry-on that typifies pretty well every Schicchi you come across with the disguised Schicchi’s repeated Addio, Firenze warnings and the accompanying missing hand mime; a really fine interpreter can keep your attention in difficult territory, like the longish monologue where the central deceit is being set up.  From his perusal of the discovered will, the quizzing of the relatives, that jubilant exclamation of Ah! Vittoria! vittoria!, then right through the pages from Si corre dal notaio to da afidar l’eternita!, Smerdon sustained our interest, playing out his vocal line’s expressive possibilities and its springing text with the sort of fluency you’d expect to find from a member of a good quality opera house.

Along with the expected changes of mood after his first entrance, Smerdon later came into his own with the final address to the audience, Dittemi voi, signore; here, sensibly given in English as a deft gesture of audience connection, untrammelled by the surtitle screen which had given a fair, if not complete, translation of Forzano’s libretto.

(As an aside, you have to compliment the cast on their textual fidelity; on very few occasions did you feel that the words were being parroted or that a Strine filter was getting in the way.   But then, these days you’re justified in expecting most Australians to be familiar with more than their native tongue; even the Prime Minister can talk in English and in tongues.)

Among the Donati clan, one of the most comfortable in her role was Gaynor Morgan as Zita who showed no fear in the work’s first half where her character dominates the family’s reactions.   Also carrying their characters’ emotional and vocal responsibilities with success were two basses: Vikram Goonawardena playing the senior of the family, ex-Mayor Simone, with an appealingly low-level self-importance; and Kristian Scott as Betto di Signa who carved out a clarion-clear exposition of the mourners’ problem from an apologetic Lo dicono a Signa to a firm declaration of the same rumour that sets his family members into a fury of angry dispossession.

Some presentations underplay this work’s more static passages but it was very pleasing  to see the director give adequate space for that seductive trio E bello/Fa’ presto/Spogliati from Morgan’s Zita, Tania Vadeikis as La Ciesca and Sara Donnelly as Nella, all cosseting their universally acclaimed saviour in a sudden oasis of calm.  It is actually quite a silly passage even if it cleverly sets up Schicchi’s warning of the dangers involved in faking a will.  But these three mixed voices melded together in an appealing combination – a moment of sweetness before all three turn into harpies when they explode after the notary’s exit.

John Nicholson sang a good Rinuccio although he does not yet have a sufficiently strong production for maintaining  his high notes once he has reached them.   The aria Firenze e come un albero fiorito showed signs of stress as the singer attempted to cope with the exuberance of the young man’s declamatory phrase saldie torri snelle that concludes the first verse; and Nicholson was unable to hold on to the final B flat for its minim-plus-a-quaver length.   Still, those self-indulgent duets with Melanie Smart’s Lauretta where the young lovers sing melting farewells to future happiness proved more effective, if not that supple in phrasing.

Smart’s soprano has a thoroughly appropriate lightness of vocal colour for roles like this naive and eminently biddable girl.   But it does come as a shock to be reminded that Lauretta is so young, a 21-year-old who should have no trouble spontaneously falling to her knees to plead with her father.   We’ve become accustomed to hearing O mio babbino caro out of context and taken on by big voices like Fleming and Te Kanawa who impose their own tempi and expression markings; it makes a huge difference to hear it sung as written – without swoops, sudden dynamic lunges and gratuitous portamenti – so that the simplicity of the aria’s appeal  –  to us and to Schicchi  –  is manifest.  Yes, Smart still has a fair amount of development to undergo by way of honing a solid timbre, but the possibilities are evident.

The few remaining cast members carried out their responsibilities without problems – Geof Webb as Gherardo, Aric Kruger as a pretty unobtrusive Marco, Ben Underwood milking the reedy role of Maestro Spinellaccio, Tom Lawson playing a circumspect Ser Amantio notary, and Zander Engel-Bowe as Gherardino, getting abused with little respite by various adults.   What you had to find impressive was the accurate response rate in the opera’s many recitative chains (I heard only one premature entry) and the laudably full-bodied and well-centred choral ensemble work.

Before the original opera got under way, a chorus of about nine female singers gave us a gratuitous Ave Maria which I suspect came from the opening to Suor Angelica, the opera in Puccini’s Il trittico that precedes Gianni Schicchi.   Why was it sung, wherever it came from?   The hymn didn’t add anything to the matinee’s focal work and certainly nonplussed more than a few audience members who came into the Helensvale Centre’s theatre/studio prepared for a comedy.

The production was advertised as having an orchestra in support.   As things turned out, the orchestra was a sextet  –  violin, cello, flute/oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano  –  all anonymous and under the direction of Nicholas Routley: the only person in this whole enterprise whom I’d encountered previously.   This instrumental group presented a fairly solid chamber version of a score that, for half of its length, eschews the full Romantic sweep of Puccini at his most grandiose.   Even with these limited instrumental resources, you gleaned some idea of the original’s whimsicality and bitonal spikiness.

As for the scenery/costumes/lighting factors, nothing obtruded as outlandish or even, in the characters’ dress, related to the work’s intended setting: Florence in 1299; indeed, the cast wore garb that wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside the theatre.   Adam Smart and Craig Vadeikas’ set allowed plenty of space for the Donati personalities to group and disband according to the plot’s movement. without over-playing the opera’s fundamental Tuscan locale which was limited to a central backdrop picture of the Duomo.   So the penultimate scene, where Schicchi’s new house is stripped by indignant failed legatees, came off unexpectedly well with just enough materiel available for pillaging without the stage picture degenerating to the ridiculous.

Of course, you had to make allowances for this presentation which in some respects operated on a bare-bones framework, viz. orchestral/pit support and amateurs occupying some of the minor roles.   But, thanks to a clarity of direction from both Gehrke and Routley, the piece maintained its theatrical and musical integrity, racing past with plenty of vim and making its points about the human condition  –  our venality, hypocrisy, capacity for love, delight in comeuppances  –  and doing so by employing few other mechanisms than Puccini’s vital score and Forzano’s splendidly pointed dialogue.

 

 

 

 

 

The vision splendid – sometimes

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 28

Brett Brown

                                                                      Brett Brown

It’s hard to avoid comparisons, especially when you’re finding your feet in a new place.  This was my first experience of Camerata, Brisbane’s leading chamber orchestra and a formidable part of the city’s/state’s musical life.  Naturally enough, similarities sprang up uninvited  between William Hennessy’s Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Brendan Joyce’s 18-strong string ensemble.   It wasn’t stretching too far to think also of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra even if the Sydney group outclasses everything else in the country for its inbuilt energy, flair and large number of patrons that have secured economic stability for the organization.

However, this wasn’t the most suitable of demonstrations on which to make any informed judgements about the Cameratas’ ability level.   Just like the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra when collaborating with Circa, these musicians were integral but secondary components in this program’s development.   Front place was taken by two actors, Tama Matheson and Brett Brown, who played Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson respectively, charting the poets’ lives and literary careers with excellent skill, cherry-picking key stages in the men’s lives to address, using their actual words where possible, as well as digestible slabs of their verses.   But, apart from the dialogue taking place almost continuously front-of-stage, the actual music that Camerata had to deal with was not calculated to draw attention to the group’s operating skills, although the various excerpts performed gave no cause for concern and some solos were excellently carried off.

As an entertainment form, When the World Was Wide would probably fall into a performance category along the lines of ‘dialogue with musical accompaniment’.  At some points, the actors simply spoke over the music reminiscent of a Lelio-style melologue.   Every so often, the voices would fall silent and the musicians had a short passage of undiluted exposure.   Brown sang two Lawson settings – Faces in the Street and The Shame of Going Back – by John Thom, the first showing that Andrew Lloyd Webber has not lived in vain, the second oddly set to a habanera rhythm; still,  the composer  revealed a healthy degree of empathy with the poet’s hectoring stanzas.   Somewhere in the mix, Brown was also prevailed upon to dance – one of the less successful passages in the night’s action.

As realizations of the poets’ characters, you would be captious to find errors or omissions.   Matheson had the unenviable task of playing Lawson’s rapid fall into life-long alcoholism and poverty; my paternal grandfather told the family of seeing the writer falling over in the streets of North Sydney –  public witness to a terrible waste of talent, here shown to be mainly self-inflicted.   Brown had it somewhat easier as the gentlemanly Paterson who, by comparison with his Bulletin colleague, led a charmed life.  The interplay between both impressed most for its accuracy in the depiction of the Bulletin Debate where both men gave their conflicting views of outback life, but the action took a rather mawkish turn at the night’s end when the poets moved into a sentimental tableau in which they united in extolling ‘the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.’

Matheson and Brown came on stage well before the audience arrived and settled; the Camerata players then drifted on individually to perform what I think was John Rodgers’ Carolling: a semi-aleatoric sequence in which short scraps and scrapes mimicked the sounds of bush birds; Messiaen, this was not.   But the soundscape set an aural scene for the country life that both Lawson and Paterson endured or enjoyed in their young years.

The next music heard was Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the final movement of the Sydney composer’s String Quartet No. 2 and an early example of Meale’s famous turn-about of 1979/80 when he threw off the constraints of modernism and assumed the mantle of a conservative.   In the progress of this theatrical exercise, Meale’s piece emerged at various stages, fittingly as an accompaniment to the final scene of transcendent fusion: an effective nocturne for a sentimental fade-to-black.   In fact, the first use of the piece was most welcome for the chance it gave to hear Joyce playing a splendid solo line, effective for its restraint and infusing this benign if predictable score with a healthy dose of sublimated lyricism.

During the central part of the night, I tried to notate what further items the Camerata musicians gave us by way of punctuation.   We heard a scrap from Grieg’s Holberg Suite  –  the energetic Praeludium that stopped just as it was getting under way properly; pages from Sculthorpe’s Third Sonata for Strings and his hybrid Port Essington, both of them appearing to emerge at various stages like the Cantilena; the opening four bars to May Brahe’s Bless This House, repeated more softly each time to underline the scene where Lawson lost his hearing; and the Hoedown from Copland’s Rodeo ballet to illustrate a moment of exuberance from Paterson, although how this famous sample of Americana connected with the Australian poet I cannot fathom.

Listed in the program as part of the evening’s musical material, Cameron Patrick’s Impressions of Erin escaped me, unless it was the background to a scene where Paterson called a horse race.    As for the rest, a stand-out moment came in a luminous solo from Thomas Chawner, violist with the Orava Quartet whose members are Camerata’s Artists-in-Residence.  But the main impressions from a night that comprised shreds and patches was the coherence of Camerata’s essays with a unanimity of attack from all quarters, plenty of body from the violas and the provision of a solid, unassuming bass line.

At the end of its 70 minutes or so, this enterprise made a positive impression as a convincing fusion, albeit a lop-sided one.   If attention necessarily focused on the Matheson/Brown partnership, Camerata fitted into the action without fuss.  While you could cavil at some of the musical choices – why that Hoedown instead of a Grainger romp –  the ensemble’s responsiveness showed consistency of timbre and care for detail; impressive from a body that had played this program only once before, in Toowoomba two days previously.   A better chance to hear the orchestra at its work in unadulterated circumstances comes on April 2 next year in a program that begins with the Grosse Fuge and ends with the 2013 song-cycle Compassion, a collaboration between Lior and Nigel Westlake.

 

 

Addio del passato

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

QSO Studio, South Bank

Sunday November 24

shane-chen-waist-up-2-jpg-1

                                                                      Shane Chen

There’s something reassuring about moving to a new part of the country and finding that some of the practices you’ve come to appreciate in your old home are continuing in the new milieu.  So it is with these Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals from members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra which inevitably bring to mind similar recitals on Sunday mornings from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players – a nomenclature that suggests a discrete group but in fact – at one time or another – involves most of the organization’s members, some more willing than others.

So yesterday’s event had many familiar characteristics although the Brisbane list of players impressed as more numerous and varied.  The only doubling up came from Shane Chen, the QSO’s Principal First Violin, and Nicole Greentree from the viola ranks.  Also, little attempt was made to match pieces to a set list of participants: we heard a string sextet and a string quintet, but also on offer was a Michael Haydn Divertimento in C (well, most of it) from an oboe/viola/double bass combination.  On superficial appearances, then, the northerners are more prodigal with their forces, or possibly more musicians want to participate in these exercises.

This was my first experience of the QSO Studio which has a different ambience to the Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne.  Actually, it’s not just a changed ambience that impresses but also room shape and material – a lot more wood on the walls, for instance.  And I was impressed by the layout in Russell Street where pretty much all the audience is placed in tiered seating; not as comfortable as the Iwaki chairs upstairs, but the effect is to make the players more immediately present.  And some clever designer has made the most of the Studio’s lighting which is of a piece with the wood-encrusted walls – not as useless for score-reading as the back rows of the Iwaki.  Further, the Brisbane space has a lavish foyer compared to the cramped area that fronts the Southbank Boulevard auditorium.

To begin, Chen, Greentree and colleagues – violin Katie Betts, viola Bernard Hoey, cellists Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae – accounted for Martinu’s String Sextet of 1932.  Nothing amiss with the initial Lento but the ensuing Allegro was less appealing mainly for some rough handling from violas and cellos in moments of exposure as at bars 72 to 76, and isolated unsettling moments like a barely-won B flat climactic point at bar 101 from the first cello.   Still, the group observed a deft clarity in the composer’s more complex polyphonic moments and approached the discord-relieving chordal slashes across the score’s last four pages with excellent definition of output.

At the opening to the sextet’s central Andantino, I started to worry about the dynamic level of the violin pair.  Were they intentionally recessive, or was the imbalance due to my choice of seat on the left side of the Studio?  Whatever the reason, the balance had adjusted (or I had) by the time of the recapitulation to this movement’s first third.  More impressive work came in a central Allegretto which fulfilled its scherzo function with no little panache, the whole canvas subtly tinged with the folk-music colouring that Martinu employed at this stage of his creative life.  The concluding movement sounded heavy-handed in comparison to recorded readings where the attack is generally light and full of sparks.   This interpretation sounded Brahmsian-stolid, the melody-shaping work coming across as four-square, in particular the broad tune in octaves for violins that runs between bars 17 and 24.

In sum, this sextet made a convincing enough argument for itself, if distinguished in  patchy fashion; its outlining not lacking in expertise but deficient in bounding vivacity where it was most needed – across the outer segments.

For the Michael Haydn piece, it was determined that the scheduled fifth movement Theme and variations would be omitted for reasons of time.  The recital’s playing lasted for a little over an hour and I can’t see that much was saved by the loss of this pleasant if unremarkable theme with 4 variants and its untesting series of 8-bar-length sentences.  All the running for the piece is set by the oboe line, here handled by Associate Principal Sarah Meagher who gave us a well-shaped account of all five surviving movements and kept any errors to a minimum – a bottom-of-the-compass note that failed to materialise, a note not sustained long enough in the first paragraph of the Aria.   With viola Jann Keir-Haantera and double bass Justin Bullock, Meagher observed the anticipated dynamic juxtapositions, although you might have expected  more polish to the phrasing from her supporters in this uncomplicated work’s slow movement, especially at hiatus points like those in bars 7 and 11.

Somewhere along the way, I missed the Trio to the second Menuet; perhaps Homer nodded (don ‘t flatter yourself), but the concluding Presto was a delight with Bullock’s bass enjoying some brief arpeggio-laden bursts of spotlight.  Meagher coped with her none-too-taxing part, only suffering from a few over-soft notes that failed to travel when the ensemble went in for that familiar soft-loud alternation.

Finally, a group comprising Chen, Greentree, Helen Travers from the orchestra’s second violins, violist Graham Simpson and cellist Andre Duthoit worked through Beethoven’s solitary String Quintet in C which I was hearing live for the first time in many years.  Of all three works performed, this one would have gained from more rehearsal time.  In Melbourne, quite a few pieces that I heard over the years showed clear signs of rushed preparation; mind you, the problem is not one peculiar to one place – or even one group of musicians.   But in this instance, anomalies came early with the change to triplets in bar 17 of the opening Allegro moderato; this pretty ordinary leap in mid-action sounded clumsy with the two violins working at it, and not much better when the top viola joined them.  Mind you, this hesitancy came into play nearly every time the triplets recurred in the three upper parts; when the whole group was involved, the sailing proved much more smooth.

Other instances of rough address emerged sporadically throughout this movement and you would have been justified in asking for more awareness of internal dynamic balance from players as experienced as these.  Even Chen produced the occasional intonational inaccuracy and he was, for my money, the outstanding performer in this afternoon’s work.   As a welcome contrast, the ensuing Adagio, which brought Duthoit’s firm timbre into higher textural prominence, was an instance of building on a successful opening gambit which saw Beethoven’s musical fluency eloquently realised, to the point where you were left quite content with the careful resolution of the final pinpoint-packed eight bars.

The third movement’s Trio proved hard to decipher, probably due to a lack of definition in attack; only on the first half’s repetition did the melodic burden reveal itself.  But the Scherzo had not begun well as Chen’s output level proved too laid-back to rise comfortably above his accompaniment.    He was put to much harder labour in the Presto conclusion where the first violin dominates the action, even in the two Andante interludes which gave the player some relief from those rapid-fire flurries that dominate the movement proper’s hurtling action.  Yet the accomplishment level, while able and essentially satisfactory, might have been raised by some notches if the musicians had enjoyed more time to  refine this amiable work’s details.

 

 

 

 

 

Tepid response to insightful brilliance

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday November 18

Tognetti

                                                                  Richard Tognetti

I used to think it was a Melbourne thing; some splendid interpretation that made your spirit soar would often be greeted by half-grudging applause – not just in the concert hall but also in the State Theatre.   You could take small consolation by noting that Sydney Opera House audiences lavish their plaudits with a complete lack of discrimination so that even the so-so gets a standing ovation.   But Monday’s reaction from patrons in Brisbane’s Concert Hall to a striking interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto from Richard Tognetti, Timo-Veikko Valve and a lively expanded Australian Chamber Orchestra impressed me as noticeably pallid and lukewarm.   Not that I expected the place to explode with the brand of enthusiasm that greets even average Mahler symphony performances in this country, but a lethargic response to their brilliant efforts short-changed the artists concerned.

Matters got off to an unfortunate start.   Instead of the scheduled Jouissance by Andrew Ford – a 1993 scrap for two trumpets and vibraphone – we heard Fanfare for Neverland, a freshly-written piece for solo trumpet aired from the Concert Hall’s organ console by Visa Haarala, visiting from the Tapiola Sinfonietta.  The announcement of this substitution was  a near-sotto voce affair, the off-stage announcer working against audience hubbub and operating at a low dynamic level.  The Fanfare, one hopes, is referring to J.M. Barrie’s domain for Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and their contemporaries rather than the ranch established by Michael Jackson.  Regardless of the reference, this piece contained two prime elements: a staccato motif of repeated notes and large melodic arcs.   As far as I could tell, errors were minimal and the performer invested his line with a graceful bravura.

Ford’s Fanfare was followed immediately by eight of the ACO violins launching into Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, a moto perpetuo with occasional oases.   Its effects proved unsurprising and efficiently suggestive of automotive regularity, which made it all the more surprising that Satu Vanska and Ilya Isakovich were engaged in beating time when the piece seemed to rattle past without much rhythmic subtlety.  Norman refers to the well-known video game and Italian Futurism (as well as Vivaldi somewhere in the mix) as launching-pads for his work.   That’s all fine; you can grant him the cars and probably the Venetian composer’s bright upper-string texture, but you’d be pushed to find traces of Marinetti or Balla; you might just as well have cited Kandinsky or Ken Done, except that Norman is determined on following an Italian spin.

It was racy, well articulated and the players sustained a balanced attack, the inner groupings coming over with effective clarity in this high-ceilinged hall.

Some years ago, Tognetti and Valve collaborated in the Brahms A minor Concerto for Violin and Cello – too long ago to remain in this concert-goer’s memory, I’m afraid.  They make an intriguing partnership, Valve observing a steady and fairly conventional path while the violinist’s track is, as expected, full of individuality.  You don’t get any Isaac Stern heftiness or Ferras sweetness in this upper-string solo reading; indeed, much of the detail comes over as inferential,  Tognetti rejecting the temptation to power through his own figuration while summoning up a powerful series of tuttis from his expanded and remarkably enthusiastic band.

For all that, the initial cadenzas that usher in the action made solid statements, especially when Tognetti and Valve combined from bar 50 for an urgent drive towards those massive quadruple stops that precipitate the opening movement’s proper start.   Later, Tognetti gave notice that this was not going to turn into your usual knock-’em-down burly display when the triplets really come into their own at bar 132 where his dynamic stayed consistent with the light woodwind/string support.   Both soloists made a steady but light-filled path through the movement’s development; when you look at the music again, so they should as moments of dynamic intensity are both abrupt and rare.  But time after time, the violinist startled you by doing little more than reading the score correctly, as in the luminous purity of a top high C in bar 341, the ascent to which showed this musician’s insight and self-control.

With the Andante, the most immediate impact came with the rolling fluency of the soloists’ attack on the first theme; here was a pretty brisk walking stride.  Tognetti slowed the pace for the change to F Major and both he and Valve observed my edition’s dolce direction with consistent fidelity.   Another striking passage came with the violinist’s double-stops five bars from the end – delivered without bathos but measured, both temporally and emotionally.

During the final Vivace‘s opening statements, both players reined in the customary tendency to punch out the rondo theme, investing it with a rare delicacy as a carefully calculated preface to the orchestral explosion.  And this set a sort of model for the movement, with Tognetti in volatile form but pulling back to outline the work’s contours with fine tracery in passages like the antiphonal interplay with Valve between bars 181 and 196.   Right through the work – not just this movement – you were aware of a consistency of both interpretative and executive intent so that this neglected score – in live, if not recorded, performance – became a consistent entity, intriguing in its progress for those of us who cherish it and also for others who come to it unaware of its stature as the high-water mark of Brahms’ essays in the concerto form.

By the time this expanded ACO came to Brisbane, it had performed the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 seven times in public, consequently, the prevailing accomplishment level proved to be exceptionally high.   If this night’s reading demonstrated one thing in particular, it came in the benefit of having a fully efficient and willing string corps at work.   As far as I could discern, Tognetti – conducting, not leading from the concertmaster’s desk – directed 16 violins in total, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 3 basses; roughly half the numbers used in the larger state orchestra concerts that feature Romantic scores.   But what distinguished this group was the collegiality of their output.  You might have wished for a smarter rate of response from the brass at certain stages but the woodwind choir – as individuals, duos or a composite body – pleased mightily for their polish and a responsiveness that you rarely experience when listening to better paid ensembles.

As with so many ACO performances, you could cherry-pick plenty of memorable moments from this Dvorak reading, like the vivid divisi viola passage in thirds during the first Allegro‘s development – a model of clear definition and phrasing shapeliness with a fine communal finish at the end of lines.   In this whole body, you found no passengers, only willing collaborators giving their best.  Yes, Tognetti encouraged the bouncy bucolic, while ensuring that his players eschewed any wallowing in lavish tutti passages; for instance, restraining the sustained brass chords and punctuation marks from drowning out the real action – strings and wind – in the first movement’s final pages.

At the Adagio, you were faced with a challenging approach in which the tempo proved to be very pliable.   Rather than setting a speed, getting a tad faster at the central piu animato, then pulling back to Tempo I for the movement’s final pages, Tognetti implemented a chain of accelerations and decelerations  to mirror the various changes in material and treatment that Dvorak employs in these heartfelt pages.  It all resulted in a mobile and mutable lyricism that stymied any hint of sentimentality.  The more fanciful among us might have traced some prefiguring of Janacek in the haunting violin and trumpet falling 4ths across the last bars – an out-of-the-blue wrenching bareness of utterance.

The Allegretto featured a splendidly balanced unison duo from flautist Sally Walker and oboist Roni Gal-Ed at the opening to the G Major Trio, and the (eventually) rollicking finale proved a delight with its rollicking woodwind and first horn trills first heard in bar 6 of the real action.   Just before the final sprint, Bjorn Nyman’s clarinet gave us one of the night’s most exquisitely articulate solos at Rehearsal Letter P in the Dover 1984 edition, even more touching in its muted repeat.

Such details contributed to a near-ideal interpretation which achieved an deservedly positive audience response.   Tognetti has few podium tricks; he knows what he wants to achieve and reads a work’s musical flow with sense, so that what you hear is prepared to a fine degree of precision.  Added to his perceptions, he is dealing with hand-picked players, many of this concert’s imported players coming from recherche places – Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, Opera Australia, Israel Philharmonic, Australian National University and the University of Sydney, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra alongside a few familiar faces from the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.  To the artistic director/conductor’s credit, this ad hoc composite gave us an exceptional musical experience across both of the program’s major constituents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

December Diary

Sunday December 1

BRISBANE SINGS MESSIAH

The Queensland Choir

Brisbane City Hall at 2:45 pm

The choir is one of the country’s oldest, on a par with the Hurlstone Choral Society of blessed memory and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.  Despite its venerable status, the northern body seems to be pretty focused on this one exercise: a seasonal observance that probably obtains in every Australian state.  The choral forces number about 100 and their Handel appears to be a popular event in which certain members of the Brisbane public are invited on board.  Which makes it a cross between your regular orthodox performance without surprises and those odd occasions where the soloists are professionals but the choir comprises anyone who turns up with a score.   Conductor this afternoon is QC’s long-time director Kevin Power; his soloists are soprano Eleanor Greenwood, mezzo Sarah Winn, tenor Phillip Costovski and bass Sam Hartley.  Supplying the instrumental component will be the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, which is associated with the city’s central Uniting Church.

 

Tuesday December 3

AUSTRALIAN WORKS FOR PIANO TRIO: #1 HERITAGE

Maree Kilpatrick

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium at 6:30 pm

Kilpatrick is fulfilling part of the requirements for her Doctor of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium (I assume) with a series of recitals.  This evening, the pianist is accompanied by violinist Jason Tong and cellist Kirsten Tong in Australian ‘heritage’ works by Percy Grainger (that field is wide open: I don’t know anything for piano trio by our GOM  but God knows the possibilities are myriad) and Miriam Hyde who wrote a Fantasy Piano Trio.  As well, we are promised pieces by ‘others, including unpublished works’, which suggests the programming of a few products of academic research that may have lain dormant for some time and might be worth resurrecting.   Still, any attempt to bring part of our fast-fading historical record to light is well worth encouraging.   Further, the 90-minute recital is free.

 

Saturday December 7

SYMPHONIC SANTA

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 9:30 am

I reviewed a few concerts of this genre from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before the administration had the good sense to stop inviting me.  The musical fare on offer is essentially populist – tunes everyone knows or pap that won’t stress the brain-cells at all.  And nothing too long, either.  This methodology continues with the QSO’s family-oriented series of matinee concerts which features music by conductor (and QSO cellist) Craig Allister Young and five collaborations with his song-writing partner, Donna Dyson.  Young contributes the exercise’s Overture, conducts the whole event and plays Santa Claus;  Dyson has paired up with him to produce Sneezy the Reindeer, I Won’t Believe It’s Christmas, Santa’s Christmas Cake, Santa Boogie Woogie and Lucy and the Orchestra – that’s half of the music-making today.  As well, families get to experience Santa Claus Is Coming to TownRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silent Night, all in Young arrangements.  The odd man out is Stephen Lawrence’s The Incredible Shrinking Clarinet.  Helping Young in his endeavours will be QSO horn  player Vivienne Collier-Vickers as Mrs.Claus. Zac Parkes playing Sneezy, and Ashleigh Denning as Izzy the Elf.

This program will be repeated at 11 am and 1 pm.

 

Saturday December 7

MESSIAH

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

A more polished version than that from December 1 above, I’m guessing.   Is this venerable oratorio out of vogue here in the north?  The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra manages to attract two pretty full houses to its Messiah renditions in Hamer Hall (and an extra one this year at Costa Hall in Geelong); the QSO seems content with one.  Tonight’s conductor is Stephen Layton, a well-known visitor down south, and his soloists are soprano Sara Macliver. mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor Gwilym Bowen and bass Lawrence Williams, with the brunt of the work’s argument falling to the Brisbane Chamber Choir.  It’s useless to rail any more about the suitability of this choral monument to Christmas when its central matter and conclusion centre on Easter, but it might be time for more consideration to be given to Bach’s massive Christmas Oratorio as a more suitable seasonal celebration.   Mind you, such a change would mean doing without your annual overdose of hearty musical plum pudding.

 

Sunday December 8

JOURNEYMAN

Brisbane Chamber Project

Old Government House at 5 pm

It’s not clear to whom the title of this recital refers.   It might be to the Chamber Project’s guest artist, baritone Jason Barry-Smith, although this musician has progressed well beyond the post-apprenticeship stage of his life.   More probably, ‘journeyman’ refers to one of the works that feature on Barry-Smith’s bill of fare: Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, whose narrator has made a profession out of Weltschmerz.   A wind quintet and a speaker (Barry-Smith?) are required for Berio’s 1950-1970 Opus Number Zoo; its gestation length seems inordinately long when you consider that it only lasts for a fraction over 7 minutes.  As for the rest of he night, details are scant although the Project organizers seem to be particularly gratified in announcing the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which has, for inexplicable reasons, attracted continued popular acclaim since its 1985 debut.  I saw Cohen once in the State Theatre during a Melbourne International Arts Festival many years ago; ‘underwhelmed’ comes close but I didn’t know how impressed I was meant to be until much later.  Tonight, this journeyman work comes under the generic heading of ‘festive music’, which might have surprised the composer.

 

Sunday December 8

METAMORPHOSIS

Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point at 7:30 pm

This is a remarkable series of recitals that brightens up a usually barren time of year across the country.   Living up to its title, tonight’s program is a thoroughly Austro-German affair featuring masterpieces from both Viennese schools (the more extraordinary metamorphoses coming from the Second) but the chief burden of the players’ output comprises work by Brahms.  To open, Alex Miller from the horn corps of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra partners with pianist Alex Raineri in Beethoven’s Horn Sonata; no, I don’t know it, either.   Raineri then has the joy of providing the keyboard part for two glorious Brahms scores: the F minor Clarinet Sonata with Luke Carbon, followed by the A Major Violin Sonata with Anne Horton.  Carbon returns after interval for Berg’s Four Pieces Op. 5 and Raineri enjoys a solo with Webern’s transparent Variations for Piano.  Finally, Miller, Horton and Raineri have the enviable task of outlining the Brahms Horn Trio in E flat – packed with melancholy in balance with vibrant good humour and the outstanding example in this format (not that Brahms has much competition).

 

Wednesday December 11

SLOW FLIGHT

Brisbane Music Festival

356 Bowen Terrace, New Farm at 7 pm

In this admirable series, artistic director/pianist Alex Raineri serves as a fulcrum for several programs.  Tonight, he works with double bass Marian Heckenberg in Suspended Preludes by Andrew Schultz, a seven-movement work from 1993 from the fertile Adelaide-born composer.   Swiss writer Beat Furrer has not crossed my path previously; his Phasma of 2002 is one of only four works for solo piano in Furrer’s voluminous catalogue.  The Sonatine for flute and piano by Boulez still gives me nightmares.  I had to play the keyboard part for a Master’s concert by an ambitious flautist friend back in the 1960s and our necessarily  sporadic preparation took months of labour; even the recorded version by David Tudor and Severino Gazzelloni from 1957 was little help as the players’ congruity proved to be a moveable feast.  On this occasion, the flautist will be Jonathan Henderson.  To end, we hear Liam Flenady’s Oikeios Topos (Inbuilt/Interior Theme?) which will here enjoy its world premiere and, as a consequence, the composer is withholding its elements or trace constituents from public gaze.

 

Friday December 13

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 7:30 pm

This festival’s artistic director, Alex Raineri, sees the four components of this program as two-way streets: it’s instrument talking to instrument in a set of duos, or composer addressing listener in a set of four vignettes.   The latter comes to life in Debussy’s early Suite bergamasque for solo piano which proposes four discrete scenes, the most famous being Clair de lune.  A fledgling musician’s staple, this opulently arpeggiated gem shines out in some odd surroundings, although the concluding Passepied has an attractive falling note to its whimsy.   Cellist Oliver Scott works with Raineri through Prokofiev’s Ballade Op. 15, a lavish sectional rhapsody with plenty of spiky dissonances to smarten up a surprisingly conservative harmonic backdrop.   Jonathan Henderson’s flute returns to the series for another Sonatine for flute and piano, this one by Pierre Sancan and the most famous work by this composer who remains pretty much an unknown quantity outside France.   In case Scott didn’t feel as though the 12-minute Ballade had given him ample exposure, he works with Raineri through Rachmaninov’s weighty G minor Sonata of 1901, a product of the months after the famous hypno-/psychotherapy treatment of the composer’s depression by Nikolai Dahl.

 

Sunday December 15

THE TROUT

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 3 pm

You see this fish and your thoughts automatically turn to Schubert, unless you’re gastronomically monomaniacal.   In this penultimate recital of the festival, Alex Raineri provides the pivotal piano part for Schubert’s evergreen quintet, in partnership with violinist Anne Horton, violist Yoko Okayasu from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, cellist Oliver Scott, and double bass Marian Hackenberg.   This composition, even for Schubert, is remarkably splayed out with a good deal of potential tedium inbuilt because of the bank of repeats that are involved in a ‘true’ performance.   But the fourth movement variations are always a delight, especially in confident hands.   By way of prelude to this score, flautist Jonathan Henderson appears in his third recital across four days to perform the Bach A minor Partita: one of the cornerstones of this instrument’s repertoire and as impermeable in its surfaces as the composer’s output for solo violin.

 

Sunday December 15

CAROLS ON THE CLIFFS

Canticum Chamber Choir

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point at 5:30 pm

A regular seasonal contribution from the well-regarded Brisbane choir, this seems to a newcomer to be a good old-fashioned service of Lessons and Carols, if probably a bit more free in format than those re-creations that cling with fidelity to the King’s College tradition.   Founder Emily Fox is not slated to direct but then neither is anybody else.  Some community singing is advertised as part of the proceedings; fine, as long as those members of the public who choose to participate can actually stay on pitch.   As a warm-up, Cox’s husband, Christopher Wrench, is playing a short recital starting at 5.10 pm; don’t know how much he can get through in 20 minutes on the state’s oldest organ but it would be a pleasure to hear this musician after a long hiatus (I’ve not heard him play since he won the Melbourne International Festival of Organ and Harpsichord Bach Competition in 1985) and, as a bonus, working at the instrument of a church where he was organist for 18 years.

 

Wednesday December 18

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 7:30 pm

You’d think that he title of this final Festival event would owe something to Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. But maybe not: it doesn’t do to second-guess composer Christopher Dench, one of this country’s more intellectually agile composers.   His new composition – here enjoying its first exposure under the hands of Festival artistic director/pianist Alex Raineri – builds on an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night which presents a resonance-rich range of tintinnabulations to the listener and a challenge in rhythmic capsules for its interpreter.  Raineri surrounds this premiere with Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1 which shows that you don’t have to give up your nationalistic vitality when you employ 12-tone writing; and he ends the night with Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28 which offer a round trip through all major and minor keys as well as displaying an astounding emotional variety.

 

 

 

Mad, not that bad, little danger

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday October 24

Orpheus

Gluck lovers in this country of a certain vintage will remember with pleasure the Opera Australia version from the early 1990s of this ground-breaking opera that featured David Hobson in the demanding haute-contre hero’s role.   As with most assaults on the composer’s chaste, dramatically spartan works,  the production impressed for its stark setting and focus on the hero, who bears the brunt of the labour in Orpheus and Eurydice.  This recent OQ presentation also exercised both the vocal and physical talents of its counter-tenor, Owen Willetts, who worked through the opera with admirable tenacity and the kind of assurance across the part’s range that typifies a top-drawer Baroque expert.

Not that you can nominate Gluck as representing the Baroque: the whole thrust of his theatrical labour was aimed at repudiating excess in operatic matters.  Rather, the composer’s works from this one forward offer a solid path towards stripped-down classicism.  Which makes the premise behind the company’s collaboration with the Circa ensemble more than a little hard to swallow.   It’s all very well pointing to the brilliant craft that went into the staging of Handel, the exuberance of effects created to stir public interest in 17th century French theatres, the willingness of high-flying European musicians to parade their wares with maximum virtuosity.   But Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi pursued a different, individual aim in which ostentation and distraction were outlawed.

All this is known – or should be known –  by every opera-lover, although, in this country, not so much; thanks to the partialities of the national company, for instance,  you’re more likely to be swamped in the glutinous pleasures of Alcina or Giulio Cesare rather than be purged by the chastening directness of Iphigenia in Tauris or Alceste.   Even though Willetts was constrained to execute some distracting physical exercises, his vocal work compensated for a good deal, right from the character’s initial wrenching plaints of Eurydice! to the opera’s celebratory Trionfi Amore finale.

One of the most pleasing elements of Willetts’ work was an absence of histrionics.  Instead of trying to point up words in the substantial recitatives that stimulate the opera’s progress, the singer kept on an even keel, letting Gluck’s vocal line do the underlining for him.   In his first aria, Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the singer seemed to open the later two verses with a subtle change in dynamic married to a fine clarity of production that hit each note right in the centre.   Later, in the Deh placatevi con me face-off with the Furies and Spectres, you had to be impressed by this counter-tenor’s ability to cut across those vivid choral outbursts and to hold his own through plain emotional constraint – again, with  stalwart determination despite the self-pitying suggestions in the libretto.

After this point, the hero is blessed with two superlative arias in Che puro ciel, here treated with care by both counter-tenor and Dane Lam’s pit which featured musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; and the work’s most popular excerpt, Che faro senza Euridice?, given without those Mozartian excursions at the end of the final stanza and all the more effective without them,  thanks to the piece’s inbuilt dying fall.  Here also, Willetts impressed for the restraint of his interpretation, one that erred on the side of faintness, which is justified by the text which shows Orpheus giving up the struggle.

For some reason, the company decided to give the opera’s other two principal roles of Amor and Eurydice to one soprano, Natalie Christie Peluso.   I suppose this economy came about because neither role has much work, apart from recitative.  Amor has the happily rustic Gli sguardi trattieni aria that comes near the end of Act 1 and she contributes to the opera’s final trio with chorus.  Eurydice gets more meat to work with in the duet Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, followed by the pseudo-rage aria Che fiero momento where more than a few of us potential Orpheuses would have left the lady to her own devices rather than trying to bring her back to life.   Peluso gave excellent service in both roles with a clear, carrying soprano at ease with the benign major key Amor contributions and following Willetts in negotiating the late-appearing heroine’s alarm and anger without recourse to dynamic explosions or gimmickry.

Lam led his forces through a score that looks simple enough but is full of surprises; not so much in what physical demands are made on the instrumentalists but more in the need to polish the edges of paired phrases that are asymmetrical, and in giving fresh voice to the many repetitions – mainly of dances – that are an integral part of the Orpheus experience.  No over-prominent woodwind, a pleasantly reliable brass choir and an unflagging string ensemble all supplied a well-rounded reading of the opera.   As did the 16-strong choir which showed few signs of that perennial problem that besets Opera Australia choruses in Melbourne: getting out of sync with the pit.

I’ve enjoyed the work of Circa on their visits to Melbourne, mainly working with Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, although once I took a grand-daughter going through her gymnastic phase to see the company in unadulterated shape at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Playhouse.   With Dyer and his orchestra, Circa simply takes over; the music becomes secondary to the acrobatic/gymnastic display.

Director Yaron Lifschitz put his athletes into the action right from the overture during which a Eurydice clone writhed in a mesh of suspended ropes.  Every dance movement was entrusted to the Circa octet, their movement not necessarily allied to the music accompanying their efforts.

By their nature, the Circa contributions were attention-grabbing, although Lifschitz and his team made a fair effort at integrating both corps, to the extent of having Willetts climb up a set of grouped male backs in mid-aria.   Matters became more than a little confusing when the Circa women wore the same red dress costume as Eurydice/Amor; at one stage, I seem to recall the male acrobats donning dresses, too.   Mind you, comprehension was tight enough towards the night’s end where, in the final bout of recitative, both Amor and Eurydice make individual contributions pretty close together.

Did it work, this attempted fusion?  Well, it did Gluck no harm and it gave this audience plenty to look at and admire in a 90-minute work without much action; perhaps just a bit more than you enjoy in your average Greek tragedy.   At the end, the opening night audience exploded into a standing ovation frenzy; the two middle-aged women sitting next to us whooped and hollered like twelve-year-olds at a Justin Bieber gig.   Certainly, there was a good deal to admire and praise; but I came away unmoved: no catharsis for this soul.

Lifschitz sets the opera in an asylum.  It’s all white walls and stark bed frames.   Orpheus is under restraint at the work’s start; during the final chorus he daubs a message – ‘The Triumph of Love’ – across the back wall using what I think was meant to represent blood.   But, if you make a madman out of Orpheus, it’s difficult to make sense of the work as a dramatic construct.   Not only that: such a conceit gnaws away at the superb lyrical control of the music, even at its most frenetic on the descent into Hades.

Did it make you reconsider the work as a potential commentary on the human condition, specifically insanity?  No: any such enlightenment was lost in the energetic on-stage flurries.  Was it entertaining?   For sure.  But it’s hard to think of any opera that could stand up to such continuous interpolations from an unrelated form of entertainment.  And, no matter what apologetics you try on, forcing a comparison between physical and vocal routines, this production left you/me unsatisfied, faced with the old quandary of many another contemporary take on a classic:  are you eating fish, fowl, or good red herring?

Orpheus and Eurydice will be performed on Tuesday October 29 at 6:30 pm, Thursday October 31 at 6:30 pm, Saturday November 2 at 7:30 pm, Tuesday November 5 at 6:30 pm, Thursday November 7 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday November 9 at 1:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

November Diary

As I’ve relocated to the Gold Coast, the musical events outlined below (few as they are) relate to Brisbane and its environs.  Fortunately, some of the organizations and ensembles that perform in Melbourne also appear in Queensland’s capital – Musica Viva, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian String Quartet.  And there may be the chance to see what’s become of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the 20 years since I last heard it live, as well as the possibility of getting to a Camerata performance at last, and perhaps opportunities to witness Queensland Opera grappling with Tristan and Aida.

 

Friday November 1

TCHAIKOVSKY AND BEETHOVEN

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

Alondra de la Parra, chief conductor of the QSO,  introduces this program with a work that springs from her Mexican family’s heritage: the Sinfonia No. 2,  Las Antesalas del Sueno, by Federico Ibarra Groth.   Well, it’s arrestingly different to be invited to explore the antechambers of dream, whatever and wherever they are; all you can do is withhold judgement until the 10-minute score has reached its termination.   Matters become more predictable when Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic, fresh from a short recital tour (Hobart, Melbourne Sydney) with Ensemble Liaison, fronts the Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto.   De la Parra fills out the night pleasantly enough with the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 which will give the QSO woodwind ranks plenty of scope to exercise their bucolic talents.

 

Saturday November 2

MUSIC BY THE SEA

Orava Quartet

Town Hall, Sandgate at 7:30 pm

These players have enjoyed remarkable success, both in this country and in America and Europe.   I’ve heard them in the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Collins St. Baptist Church, and the South Melbourne Town Hall during their participation in the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition; now the occasion presents itself to watch them in their home town, although Sandgate is a tad off the beaten track.  More unnerving is that I can’t find out what will be played.  The group follows this appearance with two more in the Utzon Room and the Potter Salon later in November where they play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet No. 14, than which they do not come more demanding, framed by two Renaissance motets: Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.   Both are in four parts but don’t get your hopes up: the Oravas will probably play the lines, not sing them.   And I could be off the track altogether and the actual program will have a marine element to justify the night’s title.

 

Friday November 8

FRENCH REVELATIONS

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House, Brisbane at 7 pm

On this occasion, the ensemble is a quintet: soprano Rachael Griffin, founder/flute Monika Koerner, viola Raquel Bastos, cello Eleanor Streatfeild, and pianist Brierley Cutting.  Koerner is a known quantity and a highly gifted artist; the other participants are new to me.  But their program features a fair cross-section of French masters: Devienne, Debussy, Roussel, Ravel, Poulenc, Durufle, and Messiaen.  The Devienne piece is a duo concertante for flute and viola; Debussy is represented by his exhilarating Cello Sonata;  Roussel’s Trio for flute, viola and cello ends the program.  But the rest of the evening moves into some unexplored byways.  The Chansons madecasses by Ravel are not left-field material but not suited to every voice; they will be a test of Griffin’s lower register.  Written for soprano and piano, Poulenc’s 1943 Metamorphoses is a very brief cycle of three poems that I’ve never heard.   Similarly, Durufle’s early Op. 3 Prelude, Recitatif et Variations for flute, viola and piano has never crossed my path.  To compensate, Messiaen’s Le merle noir is a highly popular fundamental of modern French writing for the flute-and-piano combination.

 

Saturday November 16

TIMELESS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

This night’s operations roughly parallel the QSO’s program on November 1.  De la Parra works her players pretty hard with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole as a warm-up.  Admittedly the first three movements are not over-taxing but the Feria finale asks for brilliance from each part of the orchestra.   I heard the estimable Paul Lewis perform Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in mid-September with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – an honest, original take on a very familiar masterpiece.  Tonight, he takes to Grieg’s Piano Concerto and will probably bring an equal level of insight to its four-square lyricism.  To close proceedings, de la Parra takes on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 where melancholy and lacerating vitality combine in a remarkable construct that falters only in the final pompous pages.

 

Sunday November 17

HANDEL ISRAEL IN EGYPT

Brisbane Chorale, Canticum Chamber Choir, Camerata

City Hall, Brisbane at 3 pm

Perhaps it depends on where you live but I’ve heard this oratorio exactly once; like Belshazzar and Mendelssohn’s St Paul.   Yet, at one time, Israel in Egypt was well-known, if nowhere near as popular to the point of universality, as Messiah, probably because of its multiplicity of choruses.   Anyway, here it comes as a welcome novelty, on a par with Saul, Alexander’s Feast and Solomon and the approximately 20 other compositions in this genre that are familiar only in excerpt form.   Graham Abbott conducts and the work features six soloists: sopranos Sarah Crane and Emily Turner, mezzo Jessica Low, tenor Nick Kirkup, and baritones Shaun Brown and Daniel Smerdon.  I don’t know anything about the City Hall’s acoustics but, going on this country’s tendency to duplicate itself in this regard – e.g., Sydney Town Hall, Melbourne Town Hall and Adelaide Town Hall, which I have experienced – you’d be expecting something booming and with a generous echo.

 

Monday November 18

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Two splendid works from the great composers but the ACO would be the last to toe the party line by playing only the very familiar.  The Brahms is his Double Concerto for violin and cello, while the Dvorak is that composer’s penultimate symphony in G Major which, after a long interval, I last heard at the start of September from the MSO under James Gaffigan.   An optimistic piece, this Dvorak muffles its rustic roots to some extent and the melodic output has less immediate appeal than its successor in the composer’s oeuvre.   But it contrives an impressive union of craft and lyricism.   In similar vein, the Brahms score has suffered by comparison with the composer’s mighty solo violin concerto and the equally strong two piano concertos.   But you’d be crazy to miss the chance of hearing Richard Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve launch themselves across its broad canvas.  For preludial material, some ACO ring-ins play Andrew Ford’s 3 minute-long Jouissance for two trumpets and vibraphone which the organization premiered in 1993.   Then we hear American writer Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo for 8 virtuoso violinists that finds a link between the Baroque concerto grosso, Italian Futurist art (specifically Giacomo Balla),and a race car video game; good luck with that.

 

Sunday November 24

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

This program brings to mind the Sunday morning recitals from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra personnel in the Iwaki Auditorium which are always packed out.  What strikes you as different is the variety of participants – or perhaps that’s just due to the demands of this particular program.   The afternoon begins with a Michael Haydn Divertimento for oboe (Sarah Meagher), viola (Charlotte Burbrook de Vere), and double bass (Justin Bullock) substituting for the original violone; not a particularly original piece but an amiable sequence of four movements.   Beethoven’s String Quintet in C uses a quartet – violinists Shane Chen and Helen Travers, viola Graham Simpson, cellist Andre Duthoit – and an extra viola in Nicole Greentree.   It’s the composer’s only original quintet, not a reworking or arrangement of other material.   Finally comes the chance to experience Martinu’s String Sextet, composed in one 1932 week.   Here, the executants are violins Chen and Katie Betts, violas Greentree and Bernard Hoey, cellos Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae.

 

Thursday November 28

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

The fifth collaboration between Camerata and director/actor/writer Tama Matheson, this exercise investigates the relationship between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson through a melding of music, narrative and acting.   Well, the excerpts from the two poets’ writings will be very welcome in this age when their reputations grow dim.  As for the music, Camerata have outlined what they intend, beginning with May Brahe’s Bless This House song from 1927 which certainly suggests the between-wars period and a facet of its emotional atmosphere.  Two Lawson settings follow, both by John Horn and coming from his 2015 song cycle Looking for Lawson: The Shame of Going Back and Faces in the Street – one a plaint on failure in life, the second a warning of social revolution.   Peter Sculthorpe’s Port Essington recalls the attempts to found a Northern Territory settlement.   It compares and contrasts the out-of-place world of the garrison and settlers with the Aboriginal culture that eventually reclaimed the landscape.   John Tavener’s Eternal Memory for cello and strings follows: like Port Essington, an Australian Chamber Orchestra commission.   Back with the people concerned most in this evening, Camerata resurrects Miriam Hyde’s Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda in, I assume, the 1943 version. The finale comprises Brisbane film composer Cameron Patrick’s Impressions of Erin, which is drawing a long bow if it refers to the background of either poet.  But it matches the program’s opening in its musical summation of an era.

 

Friday November 29

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Library Community and Cultural Centre at 7:30 pm

One third of Il Trittico – the only decent one of the set – is to be presented by a group that is new to me.   The opera’s humour is broad, the action completely improbable, the characters straight out of a commedia dell’arte copy-book.   But there are two passages of melting Puccini magnificence in Rinuccio’s Firenze e come un albero fiorito and O mio babbino caro sung by the titular character’s daughter, Lauretta.  Most of the productions I’ve seen (3? 4?) have been directed poorly so that Buoso’s grieving relatives have no personality while Schicchi usually has too much because the temptation to over-act is not resisted.   But it’s a quick piece – less than an hour – and this presentation boasts a ‘live orchestra’, although conductor and singers remain anonymous.  The temptation to see what’s happening just up the road is near irresistible; God knows, I’ve wasted my time at many higher profile operatic essays.

This opera will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday November 30

CINEMATIC

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at  2 pm

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or its administration, fell in love with film scores some years ago and is presenting heftier swags of them as the years roll by.   Some of these have been enchanting experiences, especially if the film dialogue is subtitled since the orchestral fabric can drown out the words.   This concert is less ambitious in that it comprises music from great and not-so-great films, but without pictures.   Nicholas Buc conducts, a veteran in this music despite his youth (for a conductor: he can’t be 40 yet).  As you’d expect, John Williams scores well: the main theme from Star Wars, selections from the Harry Potter films, Rey’s theme from  Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Nigel Westlake’s output is whittled down to some scraps from Babe; Jerry Goldsmith is also shrunk to the end credits for Star Trek: First Contact.   Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future music appears – hopefully, not all of it – and his Avengers Theme.  Michael Giacchino is represented by his score to The Incredibles and a Star Trek: Into Darkness suite.  Another suite has been assembled from Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings scores.  A swag of singles I don’t know or don’t recall fleshes out the material: James Horner’s main title for Apollo 13,  an excerpt from the How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell, two segments from Austin Wintoury’s sound-track for the game JourneyNascence and Apotheosis, and the brief Time from Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception.   Younger ears will doubtless enjoy much of this: the more senior among us will silently lament Korngold and Steiner.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

Eloquent small-scale requiem

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday September 20

Charles Ives, graduation photo, Yale 1898

                                                                      Charles Ives

Finishing its Melbourne subscription series for the year, the ASQ balanced exploration and novelty with a repertoire staple, the equipoise yielding some outstanding results.  Despite the historical stature of Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 standing on one side, and the ground-breaking assertiveness of Debussy’s solitary essay in the form on the other,  Friday evening’s efforts focused on a new work by Nigel Westlake: his String Quartet No. 3. Sacred Sky, written in memory of his sister Kate and the outcome of an ASQ commission.

This new score is something of a fining-down of Westlake’s impressive Missa Solis, a requiem for the composer’s son Eli who was killed in a car accident in 2008.  The Mass requires large forces – among which number 13 brass, 2 harps, celesta/piano, 6 percussionists, choir and high soloist, as well as your usual complement of strings and pairs of woodwind –  and its texts come from a widely varied group of sources.  Sacred Sky‘s four movements are headed by the names of four paintings from the dead woman’s output:  Sacred Sky, Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea, The Turning Tide, The Journey Begins.  You can read as much as you like into the relationship between movement title and musical narrative; most of us find it hard to make any connection without access to the paintings.

But the quartet is old-fashioned in one respect: it follows a time-honoured format, albeit one where the first movement is not fast, although the second is a scherzo, the third a soulful adagio, and the finale a lengthy sequence of episodes that it’s tempting to classify as a rondo except that this particular listener wasn’t adequately endowed enough to retain mentally the quick changes in mood and texture.   Like the Missa Solis, the composer’s new creation is not simply a deploration or a sustained elegy; in fact, the last pages are brimful of optimism – a celebration with a kind of pantheistic underpinning.

Westlake’s initial movement is almost entirely a first violin solo – a gift for Dale Barltrop who moved purposefully through a long melodic arch while his companions provided a sustained chord backdrop which enjoyed a wealth of colour shifts.   For no good reason, these pages brought to mind the Cantilena Pacifica from Meale’s String Quartet No. 2, only with more point or purpose and a much more eloquent melodic sequence.  The following scherzo that celebrated spirit dancing made for an intentional complete contrast – packed with pizzicati and abrupt slashes, the lyrical action shifting to Stephen King’s stolid viola.

While The Turning Tide moves into a meditative ambience, the players are kept active and Westlake spreads the content more evenly.   As a memorial, I thought that this moved into more ruminative ground than the surrounding movements, different from the first movement in not being so much a sustained lyric as comprising bursts of abrupt melody that suggested an individual character   –  and so proved to be the high point of this celebration of a life.   You could say something the same of the quartet’s finale except that the changes being rung did so at tiring length, in spite of the composer’s mastery of sound-production techniques, in particular a restrained use of harmonics.   Westlake appears to concern himself here with grief being subsumed in action – by which I mean life; certainly something more dynamic than fond memories.

The composer worked on this piece with the ASQ members, so the lines are tailor-made for the commissioners with plenty of passages that highlight each voice – Barltrop’s sweetness of delivery in his instrument’s higher tessitura, second violin Francesca Hiew’s determination amounting to vehemence, the individual ardour and weight of King’s viola, and cellist Sharon Grigoryan’s solid presence in polyphonic complexes and spiky punctuation points.

The American master’s String Quartet No. 1 has, somewhere along the line, gained the distinctive sub-title, From the Salvation Army but I’m unsure when this came about.  While the work is saturated with hymn tunes, there appears to be no exclusivity to their use by the Army.   The first recording by the Kohon Quartet came across my desk in the mid-1960s and I’ve been paying it irregular attention in the half-century since.  Unlike this and other US interpretations, like the Juilliard and Emerson versions, the ASQ took Ives at face value with few efforts at ameliorating the score’s many brusque passages; little tenderising of this meat.   To their credit, the local musicians made a refreshing meal of the Postlude finale where the going gets difficult, verging on the labyrinthine rhythmic and harmonic processes of the central movement to Three Places in New England or the Emerson pages of the colossal Concord Sonata.

One of the ensemble members – Hiew? – gave a preliminary talk about this work in which she made it sound more toxic to elderly sensibilities than it really is; my neighbour was almost groaning with fearful anticipation before the work got underway but she soon relaxed when faced with the sober deliberation of the opening Chorale fugue and was well on-side by the time we reached the rich warmth of the slow Offertory.  Nevertheless, the ensemble’s approach would have benefited from a less stentorian attack in the thicker-textured pages, and certainly more sobriety with the odd-numbered movements.

A comparable absence of sentiment emerged in the group’s interpretation of the Debussy quartet’s  framing movements, in particular the busy Tres mouvemente ending. However, this work is deficient in the wispy frailties that are invested in many of the piano works and has more than its share of assertiveness, even in the muted Andantino. You would not call this reading a polished example of these players in operation but their approach made for an involving, gripping experience, one that gave you unexpected insights into the ebullience of the composer in his youth.

 

 

October Diary

Wednesday October 9

A MULTITUDE OF VOICES

Arcadia Winds

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Well, there’ll be four of them, which isn’t too many.   Oldest of all is J.S. Bach who yet again comes in for a transcription exercise: the Organ Sonata No. 6 in G.   You’d have to assume that this will involve only three members of the Arcadia quintet – perhaps flute, oboe and bassoon?   Around this venerable construct are much more contemporary voices, like Steve Reich whose Vermont Counterpoint for amplified flute and tape will showcase the talents of Kiran Phatak.   English-Australian composer Andrew Ford’s Scenes from Streeton melds some of the artist’s paintings with what the various landscapes look like these days as reported by people who farm them; at the same time, there will be illustrative music, you’d hope.   This will be the world premiere of a work commissioned to commemorate the Recital Centre’s 10th birthday.   As a bonus, the Arcadians perform a work chosen as the recipient of their own Composition Prize.

 

Saturday October 12

Nevermind

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This quartet, performing under the Musica Viva aegis,  comprises flute Anna Besson, violin Louis Creac’h, viola da gamba Robin Pharo and harpsichord Jesn Rondeau. Their collaboration in Baroque performance dates from their student years at the Conservatoire Superieur National de Paris – which can’t have been too long ago as they all look young, although their chronicled activities and discographies so far are impressive.   Tonight focuses on two composers: J.S. Bach and Telemann.  From the former come selections from the Art of Fugue, an arrangement of the Organ Sonata in C, and the Trio Sonata in G BWV 1039 which usually calls for two flutes as well as the inevitable continuo.    As for Telemann, the group plays the first and last of his Paris Quartets (of which these musicians have made a particular study), as well as Fuga 14 from the 20 Small Fugues which are not that small, nor what you would commonly call fugues.

The second program on Tuesday October 15 at 7 pm is more adventurous in scope for the audience.  The group starts off with some Marais –  Suite IV from the Trios for the King’s Bedtime.   Then comes L’Espagnole from Couperin’s Les Nations suite.  The Nevermind fixation on Telemann is exercised here as well with No. 4 of the Paris Quartets.  The ensemble moves into unknown territory for most of us with quartet sonatas by Quentin and Guillemain – once (in the 18th century) well-known names, now all but forgotten.

 

Sunday October 13

A THOUSAND THOUGHTS

Kronos Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The fabled group is here as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival’s meagre serious music line-up.   This time, the Kronoi are accompanying a documentary film by Sam Green and Joe Bini, the subject of which is  –  you guessed it   –   the players themselves.   Such larks.   I can’t think of an exercise more self-reflective than playing the score to a film about yourself, but that’s the sort of thing you can get away with when you’re numbered among the legends.   This exercise lasts for 85 minutes with no interval – which either argues for the concentration necessary for such an experience or a fear that audience numbers might plummet if the chance arose for an interval exit.   But you can’t be too unkind about a group that gave us those searing performances of George Crumb’s Black Angels dating back about 45 years.   And, as with the Ardittis, where would contemporary music be without them?

This program will be repeated on Monday October 14 at 7 pm.

 

Thursday October 17

STALIN’S PIANO

Robert Davidson

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This odd program is another element from the Melbourne International Arts Festival collation.   It features pianist  Sonya Lifschitz playing the music of Robert Davidson, a Brisbane composer-musician whose name hasn’t come across my path, as far as I can tell.   The hour-long work has an audio-visual component and it offers pretty much everything  –  ‘a maelstrom of history, politics, art and rebellion.’    Great.   The pre-performance blurb makes reference to Maria Yudina, an uncompromising pianist of the Soviet era admired by Stalin, or so the story goes.   She was a proponent of 20th century music and was a fellow-student of Shostakovich.   Whether her repertoire features in Davidson’s work, I don’t know; whether he quotes giants that Yudina favoured like Bartok and Stravinsky is unclear.  All will be revealed on the night

 

Friday October 18

SPRING: LU SIQING IN RECITAL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Lu is the MSO’s soloist-in-residence for 2019 and tonight gets the opportunity to show his abilities in recital, rather than in the concerto format.   He collaborates with Melbourne-based Chinese-Australian pianist Angela Li in a program that moves from solid repertoire to frolicsome encore material with a couple of Chinese bagatelles in the middle.   Debussy’s Violin Sonata of 1917 makes for a brave opening, immediately followed by Beethoven’s F Major Spring Sonata.   Lei Zhenbang’s Why Are the Flowers So Red is essentially a folk-song, presumably organised here for violin/piano duo; Lei arranged it some time ago with Julian Yu for a CD entitled Willow Spirit Song.   Cantonese composer Han Kun Sha’s Pastoral is a straight duo and, as far as I can tell, an original composition.  Then we come to the show-pieces: Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allegro, Svendsen’s Romance, and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen to raise the performance temperature while the aesthetic level sinks to the flashy virtuosic.  Nevertheless, this violinist is a brilliant performer, not just a fleet-fingered lightweight.

 

Friday October 25

NEMANJA RADULOVIC

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It’s the hair.  Every time Serbian violinist Radulovic hits Melbourne, the promotional photos feature the musician in full flight with his substantial mane streaming around his skull.   What does this crowning glory have to do with his playing?   Well, the only way to find out is to drop in and watch the man at work, alongside his friends from Ensemble Liaison – cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, clarinet David Griffiths, piano Timothy Young.  The night begins with J.S. Bach’s Clarinet Sonata in D minor BWV 1034, better known as the Flute Sonata in E minor.    Bogosvljevic and Radulovic collaborate on Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Handel original theme.   Khachaturian’s G minor Trio for clarinet, violin and piano will enjoy a rare outing, only to be outshone by Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, presumably in a violin/piano format.   And another arrangement ends the night: Griffiths’ version of the monumental Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, in which the clarinet takes the viola line, although a few of us will find it hard to repress memories of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of this score.

 

Saturday October 26

BRAHMS’ REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This performance will be one that uses two pianos as an orchestral substitute; all quite hunky-dory as Brahms arranged the work himself in this format.   The players are Donald Nicolson, better known to me as the harpsichordist member of Latitude 37, and Tom Griffiths who has been the MSO Chorus’s principal repetiteur/accompanist for yonks.   Soloists are soprano Lee Abrahmsen and baritone Simon Meadows while the lengthy work will be conducted by Chorus Master Warren Trevelyan-Jones.   The concert begins with two Schutz motets: a precursor of the Requiem’s conclusion in Selig sind die Toten; and Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener – the Song of Simeon that the composer set twice.   Sorry I can’t get to it; besides the tender and massive choral complexes, there is little more wrenching and moving in Western music than the Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit movement – enough to make humanists of us all.

 

Monday October 28

INTIMATE BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A bitzer of a program here.   There will be Bach, beginning with the Violin Sonata in A minor; no, not all of it – just the third movement Andante.   This will probably feature Richard Tognetti in solo mode.   And the night ends with my favourite Brandenburg Concerto: No. 6 with two violas as the top voices.   Speaking of which, one of the night’s guests will be composer/violist Brett Dean.   The program’s second piece brings the other guest into play: Erin Helyard will give a harpsichord accompaniment to Tognetti (one expects) in the Violin Sonata No. 2.   Adding to the mix are selections from the  15 Three-Part Inventions which will be surely entrusted to Helyard.   As punctuation, patrons get to experience Kurtag’s Hommage a J.S.B. which is for a solo instrument – any one you have to hand, it appears; the Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve du Mont de Paris by Marais that generally involves violin, viola and continuo; and Dean’s own Approach (Prelude to a Canon), here enjoying its Australian premiere.

 

Wednesday October 30

Quatuor Ebene

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Like the Kronos, this quartet has been fortunate in retaining most of its original members.  Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure have been there since the beginning in 1999; so has cellist Raphael Merlin.  Only the violist has changed: from Mathieu Herzog to Adrien Boisseau to Marie Chilemme who has been an Ebeniste since 2017 and the ensemble’s first female.   For its Australian debut under our Recital Centre auspices, the ensemble plays three Beethoven works: Op. 18 No. 2 in G, the Serioso Op. 95 and the Harp Op. 74.   This comes about because the players are celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday (next year, in fact) by playing all 16 quartets as they tour the globe, recording their performances and, for local colour, audience reactions.   Quite a challenge for musicians who have not really specialised in any corner of the repertoire, although a CD (recorded in Vienna?) of the first two Razumovsky quartets is to be issued at the end of September.

 

Wednesday October 30

BEETHOVEN’S BACK!

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Kew at 7:30 pm

OK, although for many of us he never went away.   Kathryn Selby and two friends we’ve not seen so far this year – violinist Andrew Haveron from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster desk, and cellist Richard Narroway who becomes Lecturer in Cello at Melbourne University’s Faculty of Music next year – take up the Beethoven challenge with two sonatas and a piano trio.   First up is the penultimate cello sonata, Op. 102 No. 1 in C with its unusual two-movement structure operating in a time-frame of about 15 minutes.   Then comes the C minor Violin Sonata No. 7 which takes nearly twice as long; this is the work that Brahms is reputed to have transposed up a semitone at sight to accommodate Remenyi’s unwillingness to re-tune his violin.  Well, the composer became a master of chromatic shifts, so it’s sort of credible.   Finally, all three musicians work through the Op. 70 No. 2 – a welcome appearance given the popular penchant for its companion: the Ghost Trio.   These three works offer an interesting tour of significant points in Beethoven’s compositional journey; a nimble piece of programming that avoids the well-trodden path.

 

 

 

We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

selby-and-friends-the-game-changers-5d4b89e9bb3fc90138c868b7-1600x1200

                                       (L to R) Kathryn Selby, Susie Park, Julian Smiles

In this penultimate recital of her 2019 season,  Kathryn Selby brought into play two well-known faces from previous years – violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   As is frequently the modus operandi, we heard two framing piano trios, embracing sonatas from each of the Friends.   This arrangement has a good deal to offer, although it can make the occasion a draining one for Selby who gets no release from engagement and – as on this night – can be more than fully exercised by her partners’ choices of repertoire.

No problem with the first of our Game Changers:  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence in the 2012 trio version.   The composer wrote it for her son, who suffers from schizophrenia; it’s an aid to help him and other sufferers attain a meditative, serene state.   In this aim, the work is a success, its germ motif mutating slowly – placid motion, not logical development.   To my ears, the emotional content divides in half as the composer progresses from cellular work to a full-blown lyricism before following the Debussyan dictum: say what you have to stay, then stop.

There is little in the score that tests its interpreters beyond asking for care with dove-tailing lines, particularly the strings.  Park and Smiles outlined some carefully placed intersections in the first half, followed by stretches of lush consonances later on.  It’s a small-framed work of simple construction, so it was interesting to watch the interpreters reining in their dynamic level to observe Kats-Chernin’s quest for placid meditativeness.

At night’s end, Dvorak in F minor asked for a much more sustained interpretative effort; the results could hardly be faulted.   The only problem you could find in the opening Allegro was an overshadowing of Park’s line in passages where the piano has bar after bar of sweeping strophes, and later in the first moves of the development.   Smiles projected a firm line, sustaining a prominent voice in proceedings.   But when Park’s voice became the dominant one, this movement became different in character – sweeter, less hectoring.

Much better followed in the Allegretto grazioso, a movement loaded with Central European breeziness but here articulated with an impressive sense of united purpose, both in the outer dance sections and the central interlude.  This was excellent trio playing, all three executants involved in working towards a common goal.   Much the same came across in a fine Poco adagio where Smiles maintained dynamic control over his announcement of the principal matter.  But what impressed most came later when Dvorak’s working-out takes a turn for the academic and a long genuflection at the altar of his mentor Brahms; once more, the players kept their focus on the score’s progress and how they had to work as a coherent force to keep their audience involved.   Here was another example of chamber music performance at its finest, alternately sweet and strong.

In the trio’s Allegro finale, the two strings presented another lesson in noteworthy duet work, mainly through an attractive combination of timbres – Park’s output all tensile elegant deliberation, Smiles assertive, vibrato-rich, pressure-packed.  This sonata/rondo fusion, like the second movement, showed the folk-tune influence racing alongside a Brahms-influenced gravity of intent and these players powered through its considerable length with ample gusto, capping a most satisfying interpretation.

For his moment in the sun, Smiles performed Britten’s C Major Cello Sonata, the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Rostropovich.  The initial Dialogo came across with fluency and idiomatic precision – but the piece seemed lacking in personality.  I can only put this down to the inimitability of the composer’s own performance with the Russian master which has shaped my perceptions of this sonata’s character, a position that hasn’t changed across many live and recorded versions of the score.  It’s unfair, of course, but sadly inescapable.  While constructing this invidious comparison, I was elated to hear Smiles and Selby, near the movement’s ending, come to a passage of eloquent if quiet restraint that came off ideally.

Britten’s all-pizzicato second movement is brief, or just long enough for some.  Deftly carried off here, its chief message serves to show that Bartok did not live in vain.  The central Elegia has an inbuilt power, a drive that carries you along, if only so far.  It’s always struck me that the two instruments are very-inter-dependent in these pages; one can’t make a move without the other sitting in support, in particular rhythmically where for long stretches piano and cello work in sync, note-for-chord.  Then, the Marcia presents as an interlude; clever in its linear ambiguity but leading towards . . .what?  Further, the final Moto perpetuo shows us Britten the Brilliant in a display of harmonic sleight-of-hand and rhythmic excitement with continuously glittering exposure points for each player.  The texture remained clear but here again you were reminded of the roar-inducing virtuosity of the original interpreters who transformed something smart into remarkable craft.

Park chose Ravel No. 2 for her showpiece, making sure we appreciated the weight of the opening Allegretto in its close melodic content and in the breadth that Ravel allowed himself to explore it.   Both players displayed a firm grasp of the expressive subtleties to be found in this movement which is often treated as a set of episodes rather than a composite.  You could find few traces of humour in the Blues which brought out a clamorous punch from Selby to match an unnerving ferocity of attack from Park in the climactic pizzicato quadruple slashes between Rehearsal Numbers 10 and 12 in the Durand edition.  As for the Perpetuum mobile, it seemed to me that the final pages made sense for the first time: a massive build-up of power driven across the last 18 bars and splendidly disciplined across an exhilarating crescendo.

You wouldn’t class it among the sweetest-voiced interpretations of this work that you’ve heard but Park and Selby removed a good deal of the saccharine and trivialising that this sonata endures pretty often.   The deceptive bucolicism of the first movement’s opening sentences was quickly subsumed in a focus on the interweaving patterns and subtle expressiveness of these pages.   No sign of introduced cleverness marred a straightforward, no-nonsense account of the Blues, and the finale made a brilliantly honed rounding-off to the piece.   Not an effete image of the composer, but one showing a massive, controlled energy.   If not for the Dvorak, this sonata would have taken Wednesday night’s performance honours.