An ambitious and moving project

JOHANNES BRAHMS: MUSIC FOR CLARINET AND PIANO

Lloyd Van’t Hoff & Peter de Jager

Thomas Grubb and Mano Musica 194660806222

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not too thick; more of a lemon tang

LA CREME DE LA CREMA

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday February 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venture onto unfamiliar ground

50 CHINESE FOLK SONGS

Ke Lin

Move Records MD 3436

For a person of my age and with my specific musical experiencers, this latest CD of music by Julian Yu is particularly challenging. For one thing, my familiarity with Chinese folk music is minimal; like many, I can tell it when I hear it, and even identify quite a few instruments, thanks to Tai Dun’s pioneering work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But the chance to study Eastern music never arose in early1960s Melbourne (or Australia?); even former large presences on our national music scene pursued their Oriental interests overseas, like Meale at UCLA.

Adding to this burden of ignorance is a personal unwillingness to make general assertions, for fear of revealing a lack of cultural understanding that might equal anything heard at a Collingwood Football Club press conference. The only defence to be proposed is that I would have the same problem listening to 50 Romanian folk songs, even when they’ve been arranged by Bartok; or 50 Hebridean melodies as organized by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser; or even 50 American hoedown hollers that have been funneled by Copland. Your attention wanders, the accompaniments assume an importance well beyond their competence, and seeking out any flaws in vocal delivery becomes an obsession.

Nevertheless, it behoves every musician to give attention to Yu’s collection which was written to suit the responsive powers of collaborator/pianist Ke Lin who also performed the composer’s 2017 Cutetudes CD. As well as the folk songs (which include three variants of the tune Jasmine and two of the Fengyang Flower Drum lyric), this disc also includes 15 Early Piano Pieces by Yu, all of them brief – the 40 seconds of Counterpoint sits alongside a Theme and Variations that lasts nearly 4 minutes.

This length business is of some concern with the folk songs. Most of them (43) don’t last for a minute; a few (17), not even half that. The longest treated here is an ancient song, Man Jiang Hong, which is given 2 minutes. So the repetition of verses and choruses is not an inevitability here; Yu can be quite content with giving his tune one airing and moving on straightaway. As for the accompaniments, these are sometimes based on scraps from Western classical works. For example, Yu has a soft spot for Bach’s Goldberg Variations: six of his settings use fragments from this massive compendium. There’s more Bach with one of the Two-Part Inventions, a couple of snaps from the Mass in B minor, a motif from The Musical Offering, and a kind of famous pieces amalgam supporting Willows are New. The E minor Symphony of Brahms rumbles under two songs; Pachelbel’s Canon in D can be discerned under the conjoined A Pair of Ducks and A Pair of Geese; a ground bass is lifted from Handel’s cantata Susanna; even the Dies irae supports the Jiangsu melody Weeping Seven-Seven. Finally, a melody from one of Western opera’s most pronounced efforts at chinoiserie, Puccini’s Turandot, can be found in the afore-mentioned Jasmine which the Italian master transformed into Act 1’s La sui monti dell’Est, and employed later in the action as well.

Some of these Western references are plain enough; as we have heard in previous pieces by Yu; other quotations are more difficult to ferret out. But the focus rests on a clear statement of the tunes and many of these are dispatched rapidly, one pentatonic lyric after another. It’s as though Yu sees no point in expanding a tune or giving it elaborations because, in doing so, you’re unfastening its integrity, like Tchaikovsky’s birch tree. When faced with a song that has some distinctiveness, Yu extends his treatment, as in Thunder a Thousand Miles Away. Immediately after, The Furry Gourd is played through once; not surprising, as its shape suggests melodies that proliferate in the British Isles.

Still, every so often comes an individual shard like The Little Cowherd where the melody and its setting are fetchingly melded into a piquant miniature that suggests something more earthy than the Ma Lin landscapes of many other tracks . Another melody, like Thirty-Mile Village, strikes me as unexceptional but Yu airs it twice with a fairly bland accompaniment. Still, he must hear something in its contour that escapes me – which could be the catch-cry of my experience with the CD in which, the more I listen, the less justified I feel in making generalizations about Yu’s content. Parts of it sound like under-powered impressionism; Flowing Stream has gently rippling suggestions in its accompanying figures. In other instances, the Western fusions intrude, like the Brahms E minor Symphony’s passacaglia theme announced baldly at the opening to A Rainy Day, retreating to the bass – but transmuted to a point where its contour vanishes.

Just when you think Yu has settled into a predictable setting pattern, he wakes you up with something like bitonality in A Little Bird or a perky Gallic insouciance for Snatching at Butterflies while Tea-Picking. Then, you come across only one or two chordal surprises in a Victorian-era setting of Man Jing Hong which has some shared characteristics with an Anglican hymn. Other tracks leave me baffled; the underpinning to Willows are New comprises motifs from some famous Bach pieces and, of course, I identified none of them except maybe a scrap from The Musical Offering‘s 6-line ricercar. Then there are settings that strike you as chameleonic, as is that for the concluding Song of the Yellow River Boatmen which seems intransigent in its counterpoint but aims for a ‘soft’ cadential point.

The CD concludes with 15 pieces of juvenilia, early piano pieces written when Yu was studying in Beijing and revised in 2005. The first four are short two-line works – inventions, a canon, an essay in counterpoint. In fact, you have to wait until the fifth piece, Day and Night, Thinking of You, before you hear a solid chord; this is a gentle lyric in memory of Zhou Enlai, the statesman for whom Yu had sympathy and affection, if this piece is any indication. The Dance is a two-part work where a Tibetan folk-style tune is given gentle handling before being transformed into a more lively creature. March Fair has a catchy tune given some intentionally rough harmonic bursts but it falls into the camp of genteel bucolicism, reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Gopak.

Yu’s Theme and Variations take impetus from a melody by Wang Ming from the film Hai Xia, which may refer to a channel or strait but I can’t track it down as a proper noun. Nor can I discover anything about the composer who has the same name as a famous opponent of Mao ZeDong. The tune itself is a closed unit of four phrases and Yu’s ring of changes – with one fast exception – mirrors its calm nature. This work is the first of five variations sequences. A little further on come the Little Pine Tree Variations – three of them, I think, with an extended treatment of the theme’s second half and a feather-light recapitulation of the opening strophes to finish. Much the same pattern follows with the Mini Variations – five of them with three soft and two in spiky/staccato.

Variations on “The Blossoms of Friendship” gives us one of the raciest tracks of the whole 65. It’s based on a children’s song from the 1970s with only small traces of modal or pentatonic influences. Lin’s right hand fluency is well tested in this sequence that is unfailingly cheerful and brings to mind – for no apparent reason – a Sousa march. Last piece of all is the Variations on a Hebei Folk Song, left incomplete in Yu’s student years and eventually completed in 2005. Here also, there seem to be three variants of the tune with a wafer-thin reminiscence of the original at the end.

As for the other pieces, The Little Wooden Boat was originally a song, here in A-B-A shape where the central section transfers the tune to the left hand, the whole – like so much on this album – with one line per hand: no chords. Sonatina in D presents as a formally transparent study in sonata form, following the three-part division with competence and giving the executant piquant work across the instrument’s range; another piece with very few chords to interrupt its bi-linear polyphony. The Ping-Pong Match is a crisp study in interwoven and chasing patterns, a colourful demonstration of undemanding legerdemain.

At the end, these light examples of Yu learning his art are only mildly interesting, no matter how much delicacy Lin invests in them. You have to admire the composer’s youthful talent for melody-shaping and for the finesse of his piano writing. Yet there’s not much here that raises eyebrows for its originality or daring; a chromatic slide underneath a diatonic tune might please the composer but, in this conservative ambience, it passes almost unnoticed. In spite of my out-of-comfort-zone sense during the 50 folk song settings, I found a good deal more meat to savour in them, although Lin’s clarity of articulation delighted in each of this CD’s elements.


Back in the saddle again

BENDIGO CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL – SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES I

Melbourne Digiutgal Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 3

David Griffiths

It’s quite a simplification to point to the Melbourne Digital operation as the solitary production name associated with this recital, but it was the one that sold me my ticket. Naturally, the Bendigo arts apparatus and city hall were very much part of the process: the festival operates (this is its second year) under the council’s aegis and in council venues. Somewhere along the way, the Australian National Academy of Music was mentioned; that might have been connected to cello guru Howard Penney, who has been an ANAM presence for many years now, and who performed in the night’s first offering.

In any case, this recital signalled the opening to Bendigo’s chamber music week which is packed with eminent figures. As these events take place in front of live audiences, you feel a tad uneasy about treating them as digital; if your heart was in the right place, you should have made the journey and sat in the Capital alongside other committed devotees. Only the fear of quarantine laws being suddenly hurled into place kept me home in Palaszczuk’s Paradise, yet again doomed not to visit a provincial Victorian city that I last visited in 1962. Ballarat I know well because of the Goldfields Organs days each January; Bendigo didn’t have musical interest until the creation in 2013 by David Chisholm of his International Festival of Exploratory Music Festival, but commitment circumstances and recurrent illnesses kept me from observing what looked like the most experimentally advanced music-making in the country.

Here we were on Wednesday, witnessing the start to serious musical action in 2021. MDCH founder Christopher Howlett gave one of his scatter-gun addresses that just don’t quite trip off the tongue but cover a lot of ground. Penney had notes but his speech became a mixed collation – benign burbling. Luckily, Bendigo Mayor Jennifer Alden, on stage to open the festival, had a satisfying fluency, beginning with the acknowledgement that we whites are all invaders and reprehensible scum, even if we’re not going anywhere soon. She, like Howlett and Penny, thanked everybody in sight, with a hefty emphasis on the council’s employees and local volunteers.

By the time this voluble vocal trio had finished, we were panting for some actual music. And we got it in the form of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in C RV 447, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal oboe Thomas Hutchinson as soloist. He was programmed to work in front of a small string group: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anna de Silva Chen, violist Christopher Moore, and Penney. It took me no time at all to perceive that Chen was absent and her place taken by Matthew Tomkins, the MSO’s principal second; well, I thought it was Tomkins – it had been been about 16 months since I’d last seen him at work but he looked pretty much as I remembered him. Then I found a later version of the full festival where the change had been officially recorded.

In my edition of the Vivaldi, the soloist is rarely silent, doubling the top violin line throughout. Not so here, Nicholson not sighted (or heard) until bar 18 of the first Allegro. And so it went on, the soloist reserving himself for the exposed segments. Not that you can carp at this; it isn’t every soloist who plays along with the tuttis in Mozart piano concertos, although I’ve seen that done. Thankfully, this soloist bent his line where possible, avoiding a rhythmic regularity that can kill a Vivaldi concerto. And he bounded faultlessly through those triplet patterns that dominate the oboe line, as in bars 31-36, 52-65 and 90-93, but with some relieving pattern work of varying size. Let’s not forget the quartet which addressed its work with cutting finesse; just as well, given the small numbers involved.

Hutchinson enjoyed more room to exercise his vibrato in the central Larghetto, with only the top three strings supplying regular quaver triads as backstop. In fact, these pages alternate a syncopated melody with demi-semiquaver figurations in clusters of four which the oboist treated with an impressive fluidity, a type of suit-yourself easiness, up to a final perfect cadence sublimated in the soloist’s ornamentation. As for Vivaldi’s Minuetto finale, it was probably just as well that none of the repeats were observed, as it’s unlikely that interest could have been sustained. You could find no fault with Hutchinson who soared through more pages of rapid triplets and further demi-semiquavers that tripped over themselves on the page but poured out seamlessly despite the pressure. The only complaint you could raise was a tendency to introduce a slight pause after every four bars in the Minore C minor segment starting at bar 230.

For the highly confident reading of Bartok’s Contrasts trio, David Griffiths gave us a splendidly balanced clarinet line, handsomely partnered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Sophie Rowell. At the opening to this part of the night, I was again struck with indecision as the pianist didn’t resemble one of the scheduled keyboard players- Daniel de Borah. Nor did the musician share any physical properties with the other potential performer in this role. It took me almost till the end until I realized that this face-out-of-nowhere belonged to Benjamin Martin; almost a stranger because I haven’t seen the Firebird Trio live for many years.

In fact, the pianist played a subsidiary role for long stretches of the opening Verbunkos, leaving the fun to both Griffiths and Rowell although the whole trio clearly relished the vehement clashes that conclude bars 60 and 64. More importantly, the movement radiated an individual freedom, even in concerted passages, not to mention the fugato interplay that both eases and adds to the movement’s jaunty tension. In the ensuing Piheno, you were aware from the start of the care taken in preparing this movement, considering the dynamic consideration taken from bar 11 to bar 17, just before the first of the brief night music bursts. Later, these players maintained a clear amalgam of lines between bars 35 and 40 – possibly this work’s most moving sequence.

Then the gloves came off for the Sebes which exploded into action, most pronounced from Martin who devoured the cross-rhythms from bar 36 onward. This opening part impresses me as a remarkably dangerous sequence, threatening to spiral out of control if you attack it with gusto. But you could find few indications of vertigo, even after bar 71 up to the resumption of normal play at bar 99. Later, the performance successfully painted the wide-ranging canvas that stretches from the 8+5/8 Piu mosso simple clarity up to the mobile piano clusters that close out this spellbinding rhythmic ambiguity at bar 168. It’s hard to avoid suggestions of over-exertion in the final pages, Bartok gifting his violinist an unwieldy cadenza along the way, but this trio showed no slackening of tension or powerful impetus up to the last punch.

Luckily, the cast stayed the same on the early notifications as on the Festival program for this evening’s concluding Mendelssohn Piano Quartet Op. 3 in B minor: violinist Howell, violist Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal desk, MDCH eminence and cellist Christopher Howlett, with Daniel de Borah faced facing yet another imbalanced and hyper-active piano part from a young (15-years old) composer. Before starting, Howlett told us that this particular day was Mendelssohn’s birthday – which it was: his 212th – and gave some information about the young genius’s musical activities at the time. Then, they were off with a well-defined attack, despite the opening page’s muffled nature.

It was inevitable that attention fell on de Borah, fulfilling bar after bar of rapid triplets during the Allegro molto‘s first part. Still, the rest of the ensemble didn’t take backward steps, Breider notably forward in duets with Rowell and Howlett who played with a firm deliberation, as well as I’ve ever heard him perform. Transmission was interrupted for a few seconds in the development’s guts, compensated for by an excellently negotiated dying fall after the changes of key and tonal key restatement led to an elegant recapitulation and a fierce Piu allegro coda.

Nicholson took primacy at the Andante‘s outset with an impressive shapeliness to Mendelssohn’s rather pedestrian melody, relieved by Breider at bar 10 serving as the pivot of some eloquent string duets. Possibly, Rowell proved too self-effacing in some short snatches where the violin has a passing dominance; Howlett showed no similar bent, taking full advantage of some impressive tenor clef 7th leaps and a purple cello patch leading back to the initial theme.

De Borah was fully tested by the work’s Scherzo in which the pianist is tested by endless semiquavers while the strings serve as punctuation. When the highpoints came, they proved texturally thick and aggressive at the forte passages, that triumphalism reinforced by an emphatic sequence of piano arpeggios. Still, you could not find anything less than full enthusiasm informing the B Major Trio, taken with persuasive, if eventually wearing, heartiness. I’m probably alone in finding too much note-spinning in the vivace finale where the hard-faced working-out of material sits at odds with the fluency of the preceding movements. By this stage, too, de Borah’s forte had turned into a more forceful creature and a few slips on wide leaps marred Rowell’s copybook; nothing major, but distracting from the accomplishment of an unwieldy set of pages, so that the final bars were welcome for relieving a double tension.

This recital introduced a week of music-making: the first sign anywhere, a far as I could tell, of a return to what passes for normal these days after the Christmas/New Year hiatus. Of course, it’s heart-warming to see musicians at their craft, especially flaunting their charms in a provincial centre. And this program slipped us back into concert-going mode carefully – especially those of us confined to the digital experience, for the most part. We’ll have to get used to straitened circumstances, like limited audience numbers and the concomitant care for personal/public hygiene, and an emphasis on smaller scale music-making formats. Yet, as an indication of the shape of things to come, this Bendigo festival opening made for a highly welcome reassurance.

Short and mainly sweet

MUSE

Alicia Crossley, Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 587

Here’s an all-Australian product which, in six works, covers a limited amount of ground, a fragment in the small world of this country’s serious music-making. Most of the composers are unknown to me; but then, what would you expect from someone vegetating outside the contemporary music scene? The exception is Anne Boyd, an eminent offshoot of that Sydney branch of Australian composers who came of age all together in the 1960s. She was a student of Peter Sculthorpe and produced some significant works that have worn well, more so than those by many of her contemporaries. Apart from her creative accomplishments, Boyd has been a senior academic on three continents, her struggles in that thankless sphere sadly documented in the Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson film Facing the Music (2001) where her efforts to obtain funding for music courses in Sydney University’s Arts Faculty were unsuccessful.

Yuya, like every work on this disc, asks for recorder and string quartet; which is understandable, given the personnel involved – no point cutting out a string or two when they’re all available. I’m finding it hard to date this work definitively but, as Boyd wrote it for British composer Anthony Gilbert’s 70th birthday concert in Manchester, that puts it more or less at about 2004. In any case, the atmosphere is faux-Japanese with lots of sobbing shakuhachi work from Crossley’s tenor recorder, the timbre of which dominates the action with the Acacias confined for a long central stretch to accompanying tremolandi and pizzicati.

Boyd’s emotional scenario derives from a noh play in which Yuya, a prince’s mistress, wants to visit her sick mother but is refused permission. She dances among a temple’s cherry trees to such effect that the prince allows her to go on the journey after all. The central dance with its regular metre and flights of recorder fancy is surrounded by more fragmented writing. All players perform this small-framed piece with loads of conviction, making a persuasive case for its gestures and pentatonic melodic roots. As well, it’s a pleasure to see the composer sticking to that last which has been the bedrock of her craft over the last half-century and more

This CDs longest work is Three Bilitis Movements by Lyle Chan, an Australian composer of no little repute whose work I’ve never come across. The Movements are an offshoot of the composer’s efforts in 2018 when he was commissioned to write the three missing components of Debussy’s projected final three sonatas. Chan was drawn to the three-part song cycle that the composer based on some of Pierre Louys’ fake Greek translations of poetry that he himself wrote, thereby setting up a wealth of lesbic lyric material for future generations, as well as his own. Oddly enough, the three Debussy songs read as thoroughly heterosexual, but then I’m probably missing a world of subtleties. In any case, Chan has made up his own poems based on Louys’ originals; The Dancers of Mytilene, The Rains of Spring and Morning, and a startlingly brief To invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.

You are hard pressed not to find echoes in the first of these movements. It starts with a kind of swagger like a Copland reel for all farm hands; this doesn’t last too long before the section stops and another one takes off, and on it goes, so that this track takes on the nature of a suite, the last segment calling to mind some ersatz Peruvian folk-songs. Chan’s poem puts us in the capital of the island Lesbos with three dancers at work, accompanied by two flautists. As suggestive of ancient Greek choreography like the kordax, this is miles away from any Aegean setting that I know and the movement’s sectional nature means you might find a common underpinning but nothing sequential: dances rather than dancers, I would have thought.

The nature scene of Movement Two presents as a nice tune suggestive of both a Westernised lyric from China and a hymn tune that Ives might have enjoyed faffing around with. In effect, the movement has traces of a harmony exercise with the occasional deviation into unexpected territory before returning to orthodox ground. Crossley eventually takes over and the interest stays with her leading voice for most of the work’s length. In the final half, the pages take on the character of a lullaby in triple time, gifted with a plain final cadence. The woodland god makes a very quick showing, his flute given to glissando sweeps from Crossley and precious little Acacia input; this is also the most adventurous music in the triptych and comes closest to the erotic potential suggested by Bilitis/Louys.

As for the largest single stretch of work here, it is Pass to us the cups with which sorrow is forgotten by London-based Sydney writer Chris Williams; a 2017/18 composition based on a poem/song by the Muslim 12th century poet Ibn Baqi. This lyric is the result of an amalgam of Islamic, Christian and Jewish strands that existed before Spain became a Christian (later Catholic) hell-hole: a musical mixture explored and exploited by Jordi Savall to often stunning effect. The main gist of the work is variation; Williams has taken the melody and given it varying guises but, in contemporary style, he hides the melody in plain sight, its appearance in something approaching clarity seeming to come in the score’s second half.

The opening is concerned with string clusters that concentrate on 2nd intervals with slight seconding from Crossley’s bass recorder. This suggests a concentration on atmosphere rather than exploitation of the original tune, but how can you tell, not knowing what to look for, bringing to mind Britten’s Nocturnal when all becomes clear only at the end? In fact, Williams maintains this textural focus until the score reaches its half-way mark where the pace livens up and you hear something more substantial than intervallic interplay. For all that flurry of activity in which strings and recorder share, the motion returns to quietude at the three-quarter mark from which point actual melodic phrases are outlined.

Even after several hearings, this track conserves its formal mysteries but draws you back through its concentrated lyricism. The composer is in no hurry to pique your interest – how could he, with a bass recorder? – but you have to admire the continuous vein of uninflected emotional stasis that persists for much of the quintet’s length. If you wanted, you could find in this music some suggestions of Omar Khayyamesque languor, the mental disruption of an Oriental mini-arabesque or two, but any suggestion of colour comes from the listener, imposed on a reflecting canvas.

What to make of Bat-Music by Sydney writer Stephen Yates? He accompanies his amiable, undisturbing piece for alto recorder and the Acacias with an elliptical booklet note that seems to suggest that the name implies nothing, even though its matter comes from an Isherwood setting from 1988 for voice and piano. Bat-Music presents as a series of movements; some linked, others taking off after a general pause. Lisa Stewart’s first violin gets a certain amount of exposure but the over-riding presence is Crossley. The whole effect is calm, even pastoral, without much intention of getting anywhere quickly. On top of that, you hear the odd bar that suggests other works; in particular, some by the more effete American woodsmen. A short recorder cadenza takes us into a splayed-out, summery major key conclusion. Not that I’m finding too much fault with a deftly written work; it’s just that, at the end, I’m still an empty vessel, willing to be receptive but floating in an undirected void.

Sydney film and theatre composer Jessica Wills (born in Florida but an Australian resident for many years) obviously had a great time in Denmark, if her Copenhagen Christmas is any indication. It’s unclear when this Scandinavian sojourn took place because the work is undated and relevant information on the web is vague, although we’d have to surmise that composition took place pre-2018 because the first performance by these very players was at the end of that year. The work is in two parts: Nisse and Hygge. The first is concerned with prank-pulling Danish gnomes – to me, the name suggests German aquatic creatures and, for some reason, Harry Potter – and Wills draws a lively musical picture of will-of-the-wisp creatures through pizzicati, rapid brief glissandi and perky recorder blurts and trills, with some ponticello textures to add spice and remind us that these creatures are not essentially benign.

The second movement is concerned with a term beloved of Sandi Tostvig. ‘Hygge’ suggests unbuttoned comfort and warmth of physical ambience – which could stand as benchmark indicators of a successful European Christmas. Here are sustained notes, recorder and violin single tones filtering into each other with occasional flurries and melodic motions that don’t expect to be taken seriously. Even the active segments that burst into brief climaxes give space to that initial placidity; nothing much is happening as the strings give a static backdrop to the recorder’s long-spun ruminations. I’m far from being an expert on recorders, but I think the second movement uses an alto recorder; certainly, its timbre is more muffled than that used for the playful gnomes of the first movement.

Finally, we hear Three by three, a suite beginning with a bass recorder, moving to an alto, then a sopranino. This piece from pianist/composer Sally Whitwell was commissioned by the performing artists; again, I’m not sure when it burst into the light but would assume quite recently. Whitwell takes some inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, the decreasing size of the recorders mirroring the reduction in size of Carroll’s heroine after she followed the direction to Drink Me. The three movements seem to drift into one another, although a definite pause preceded Movement Two.

The triptych makes for pleasant listening with little to distract from its instrumental merry-go-round; a divertissement gifted with melodic attractiveness and one of the few tracks on the album that gives the strings a bit of sustained attention. What it brings to mind is British chamber music during the first half of the last century: craftsmanlike, polite in its emotional output, almost bucolic at times, demanding little by way of concentrated attention span. The final section lasts as long as its precedents combined but the segment that stays with you is the middle one which is a waltz of unselfconscious grace.

This recording project appears to have come around as a result of public performances by Crossley and the Acacia Quartet. The works by Chan, Williams, Yates and Wells all received their premieres at a Muse-entitled recital in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House on December 8, 2018. Whitwell’s piece might also have enjoyed the same experience but you can whistle Dixie for any meaningful web information on that particular writer. The CD’s length is on the short side – a fraction over 50 minutes – but it makes for an agreable summer-kissed aural feast, one that highlights Crossley’s talent, especially her purity in agile passages and her restraint with vibrato in sustained notes, viz. Wells’ second movement. It serves as an insight into a lesser-known reach of Sydney’s musical world – and (a day late) an excellent present for Australia Day.

‘Tis the season, all right

CHRISTMAS VARIATIONS

Megan Reeve

Move Records MCD 585

In this collection by Melbourne-based harpist Megan Reeve, you’ll come across some undeniable Christmas music. The final track is a refreshing version of O come, all ye faithful, arranged by Oregon harpist Kathryn Cater. Reeve’s major offering is the 1917 Variations pastorales sur un vieux Noel by Marcel Samuel-Rousseau. She includes a reading of the Interlude from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, as well as three different arrangements of John Henry Hopkins’ We Three Kings. For that little touch of essential Australiana, she presents an arrangement by Jason Reeve (relation?) of The silver stars are in the sky, one of William G James’ more successful Australian Christmas Carols, this one coming from the first set of 1948. As a cultural counterweight, the harpist plays an arrangement of Jesus, Jesus rest your head, an Appalachian carol arranged by British academic Nigel Springthorpe.

I’m a bit more questioning about an amalgam of the Pachelbel D Major Canon with The First Noel, although the conjunction is not a new one; here, the version is by Reeve herself and she plays second fiddle to the sensitive flute of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sarah Beggs, who is also involved in a two-verse reading of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. And the opening track, Carols for Christmas, nonplusses completely by starting with Greensleeves before entering into the appropriate seasonal spirit with Deck the halls and Silent Night, this compendium the brainchild of Wenonah M. Govea, who may still be alive but I can only trace her to California State University where she was harp guru 32 years ago.

I’ve got vague memories of the English tune (Henry VIII? Please stop stretching the bounds of credibility) being given a Christmas text, as in What Child is this, and I have more concrete recall of the tune being included in the big Oxford Book of Carols: a solid tome that I gave away after too many years sustaining a singularly amateur church choir. In this CD’s context, it begins with some nice scrubbing preludial discords – very Brittenesque – but the air itself is given out sensitively, those opening chords linking to Deck the halls, where Reeve shows a nice touch of rubato before sliding into a Silent Night where Gruber’s tune is first delivered in harmonics underneath some silvery treble ripples before the expected arpeggiated chords treatment wends its way to a restful and polished conclusion.

Samuel-Rousseau’s variations – seven of them, with a brief conclusion – strike me as belonging to a tradition I can lazily trace to d’Aquin’s mid-18th century Nouveau livre de Noels; by a stroke of luck, an old instructor pointed me in the direction of the tenth, for Grand jeu et duo, to prepare for what must have been a fairly elementary examination. The modern work was published in 1919 but has a soft harmonic structure; you’d expect that from a writer who stayed true to his heritage (and his material), ignoring the potential for thrills and spills fomented by his immediate forbears. The tune is positioned in a modal G minor – with the B flat in play, but the E flat is naturalized in the key signature. There is a slight divergence in the third strophe which stretches to five bars rather than the four that has prevailed up to this point and after it.

Variation 1 treats the theme’s contours as a decoration, the emphasis falling on louder full-bodied chords; its time-signature oscillates between 5/4 and 4/4 which makes more sense on paper than in auditory terms. The next treatment is far more adventurous in that the Noel almost disappears under a flurry of glissandi, repeated arpeggios and a disposition where the initial phrase’s contour can still be perceived but is covered in rapid semiquavers shared between the player’s hands. Next up, we’re in more settled harmonic territory – an unabashed B flat Major – and the rhythmic space between strophes 1 and 2 is truncated to intriguing effect; again, the progress is interlarded with rapid-fire figuration, although the forward motion seems to be a thing of quick starts and detours.

We’re back with the modal in Variation 4 which is a 3/4 transformation of the main theme into a bold chorale with punctuating arpeggios between the lines. Triplets dominate most of Variation 5 where you can pick out the Noel clearly, and Variation 6 opens with a bold 3/4 statement in the vogue of Variation 4, but the plain-chords disintegrate into a 12-bar dissolve by way of arpeggios , a long downward one with a set of ascending single notes to set up tension for the final brief 11-bar variation, a Lent, where Samuel-Rousseau picks out his tune in left-hand harmonics before a gentle G Major conclusion in which the tune has been mutated into something less archaic, more Romantic than in its initial form. Reeve shows a fine responsiveness to the many changes rung throughout this oddly touching work; like a Calvin Bowman song – out of its time but appealing for all that.

Reeve’s own handling of We Three Kings comes across as placid in content with no harmonic surprises, the only oddity an extension of certain strophes by two bars in both verses and chorus. She brings the melody down an octave for the second-run-through which allows for rich chords to replace the single-note accompaniment of the opening. Verlene Schermer, currently resident in San Jose and an aficionado of many types of harp, brings into play a gentle cross-current from the start of her version: a 3-against-2 introduction, feather-light, leads to an outline of the Hopkins melody that enjoys an unusual high register and emotional reticence; unexpected when you consider that the composer intended his carol to be dominated by male solos, suggestive of the Three Kings. Schermer scoops in some syncopation, chiefly by avoiding strong beats for the end of each line, bringing the final note in a quaver before it is due; updating, sure, but this well-worn tune can stand it.

Treatment 3 comes from Megan Metheney, Arizona-born and currently based in southern France. This is the longest of the three versions, in time span much more than the other two combined; this is mainly due to Metheney’s use of an extended introduction with a plangent Celtic charm, which is used between verses and then as a postlude. Her outline of the original is kept simple with only single note accompaniment, the treatment notable for the employment of hemiolas at the words Westward leading, still proceeding. In its effect, this is a more adventurous and challenging We Three Kings than the preceding two pieces; it gives the performer more material to deal with, even if it’s a more simple construct in terms of requisite performance skills.

Beggs takes the first violin line for a strophe of the Pachelbel, then veers off into the carol while the harp maintains the chord sequence of the canon. After a stanza, the flute leaves the carol and joins the harp in playing variants on the canon. Eventually, the flute returns to the carol tune while the harp moves into the bar 19 demi-semiquaver variation of Pachelbel. Eventually, the carol disappears, so that not much of a fusion is achieved. That said, the performance is eloquent and mercifully lacking in affectation or effects.

Something like the Metheney carol treatment, Jason Reeve’s realization of the popular (in Australia) William James piece uses an introduction that is brought back between verses (three by my count) and winds up proceedings. The melody is left intact; the harmonic structure veers from the original only a few times; there is one mini-cadenza but it weaves neatly into the piece’s forward motion. This track is as long as the Metheney and also doesn’t wear out its welcome too much.

Track 11 brings you smack bang up against the brilliance that Britten demonstrated in the strangest places. In this CD’s context, the Interlude strikes you as ideally conceived for the harp, exemplifying the instrument’s fragility, transparency, rapidity and resonant majesty. Dealing with a wealth of timbres in this brief set of pages is only one facet of the score, which follows its bass string-heavy central passage with a reminiscence of the work’s opening Hodie. Even now, after so many years of acquaintance through great performances and others at the so-so level, this interpolation still strikes me as inspired and affecting. Reeve makes light of the demands from opening and closing harmonics, through thunderous octave bass notes alternating with biting chords, to the soft glissando washes across the last bars. And, marvellously, she keeps to a steady tempo throughout.

You can find little fault with the Ave Maria interpretation. Begge doesn’t overdo the vibrato and Reeve is modesty personified with the klavier original. Both artists might have avoided the tendency to indulge in a slight pause at the start of each phrase; the flute can cope easily enough with this cantilena without needing continual assistance. Likewise, Springthorpe’s handling of Jesus, Jesus rest your head is plain with only a few rushes of blood to line-ignoring descant. But the gentle tune is allowed to follow its path with minimal interruption – chorus, verse, chorus, and that’s it, Reeve employing a gentle rubato at the right places.

For the last track, Cater takes all us faithful on a pleasant enough ride to Latin America, turning the most well-known of carols into a well-behaved rhumba – well, that’s what I thought it was as it reminded me inescapably of Arthur Benjamin’s most famous work. Cater begins with a catchy motive based on the opening phrase which she repeats at various registers before starting on the tune proper. She exercises her native right to freedom of expression by adding extra bars in the O come, let us adore Him choruses and some of the chord progressions can surprise. But you cannot fault the sensibility that avoids the usual triumphalism, Reeve simply petering out into the treble ether. It makes a sensitively couched ending to this controlled, expertly accomplished CD.

Heavy-handed visions

RACHMANINOV, RAMEAU & COWELL

Timothy Young

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday December 11

Timothy Young

Well known and cherished as the long-time resident piano guru at the South Melbourne-sited Australian National Academy of Music, as well as his foundation status as the keyboard component of that excellent trio, Ensemble Liaison, Timothy Young has appeared in two previous events of Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series before this solo recital on Friday evening. For those of us who had categorized this performer as straight-down-the-line orthodox, his Cowell/Rameau/Rachmaninov program served as an eye-opener in nearly every aspect that matters.

You’d be stretching to find anything disturbing about the two Cowell pieces that began the night. Aeolian Harp from 1923 comprises only 26 bars and these days it impresses as what it probably is: an early study in re-imagining the piano, the composer daring to venture inside the lid and play rapid arpeggios/glissandi on the strings. Young told us that he had to effect some transpositions because Cowell’s piano differed from the one in the Athenaeum Theatre. Apart from the necessity to hold down the relevant keys while operating them also inside the instrument, the player has to follow the composer’s dynamic directions which admittedly aren’t difficult. Thanks to Young for resurrecting this piece, even if it sounds like no Aeolian harp I’ve heard or imagined.

The second of the Cowell pieces, The Tides of Manaunaun, opens the composer’s 1917 Three Irish Legends suite and stands as the best-known example of his use of tone clusters. While the right hand plays a melody with ensuing transpositions and amplifications, the left hand and forearm produce note clusters of differing shapes . . . well, that’s not really true as the specified compass comprises two chords until the piece’s semi-climactic point where the melody is imitated out of contention by matching sound blocks in the bass. Young performed this innovative two-page, 36-bar composition with impressive power, happy to deliver Cowell’s glowering four bars of quadruple forte before, like Aeolian Harp, the fabric dies away to silence.

Although the quiet didn’t last. I thought my score had been truncated as Young continued playing in Manaunaun mode before suddenly bursting into Rameau’s Tambourin from the 1724 Suite in E minor. This well-known Baroque gem came over with unusual aggression, using the piano’s percussive powers to an elevated degree. Some of the right hand work occasionally misfired; surprising, as there’s nothing to distract you in the bass. Again, we had an improvised lead-in to Le rappel des oiseaux which appears in the same collection. From the start, Young punished the lower mordents that provide much of this insistent piece’s atmosphere of persistent avian strife. I didn’t understand why the pianist took a long pause at bar 30; the sonic melange changes but not by much and not for long. The mordents in both hands from bar 48 on fairly spat at each other before the quarrel led, via a reminiscence of Purcell’s Dido, into Les tendres plaintes. Here again, Young gave ample room for added notes, accents and rhythmic ups and downs in an approach that dressed Rameau’s bare bones in ornate clothing, like changing quaver scale passages into dotted quaver-plus-semiquaver patterns, and repeating single notes in quick succession like some passages in the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

Similar alterations emerged in Les tourbillons, which followed without a link. Here again, the approach emphasized the percussive and the rhythmic fun and games mirrored the piece’s title with a free-hand approach to the arpeggios and scales that come near the conclusion to the large central segment of this piece. A lead-in of repeated patterns took us into the final Rameau work, Les cyclopes where we heard a fair rendering of a refined forge in operation. Some digital errors were obvious in the central part, probably brought about by over-emphasis, and also in the rapid alternating hands quaver pointillism, while the last four bars forfeited clarity for the sake of a sonorous deluge.

Which led without a pause into the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2. Eventually, I worked out that Young was performing the revised 1931 version of this splendid score; the MDCH program notes arrived late up here in the north. But the first movement interpretation disappointed because of its bull-at-a-gate mode of attack. Whole pages rattled by in a driven mesh, melodies overwhelmed by passages stuffed with escorting incidentals, the process coming to an occasional halt like the second subject’s emergence at the 12/8 Meno mosso point. But the movement ‘s focus fell on broiling action and over-weighty dynamics, any forward progress also dissipated by a liberal application of rubato.

Thankfully, the following Lento brought a more pointed and deliberate approach with a fine control over the soft clutters that broaden into a spacious fortissimo burst at the movement’s heart. Still, the concluding Allegro molto turned into a welter in which fortissimo became the default position for long stretches. Further, the insistent nature of Young’s production meant that anything that did go wrong was all too obvious, like a miscarried emphatic right hand note four bars before the Tempo I direction. I struggled to find any directional sense in the entire page preceding the Tempo rubato section, not assisted by a relentless application of the sustaining pedal.

Finally, the Presto that starts 27 bars from the end muddied the waters even further. Any contrast between triplets and straight quavers at the start to this section was hard to pick out; that wonderful skipping motion at the right hand octavo sign was articulated too rapidly to relish; and you felt no relief at the 2nd Piano Concerto alternating chords starting seven bars from the end. I didn’t time the performance but it would have been one of the fastest I’ve attended with a huge amount of energy expended for a frustrating outcome. Young has the sonata at his fingertips but what he conveys with this knowledge amounts to little more than virtuosic display – which is part of the score’s fabric, certainly, but it’s only where your interpretation starts. I think the work would have been better handled with less haste, more definition in its many note-crowded pages, and a clearer perception of the composer’s long bouts of heavily-complected languor.

Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Green Jean Studios, Kansas

Having a bastardized acquaintance with some Romance languages, I thought that the title of Matthew Fagan’s CD had some reference to ‘life’. Of course, it doesn’t, mainly because of the noun’s gender but, further witness to my ignorance, this Andalusian folk-tune turns out to be a very familiar one and its pertinence seems to be to St. Vitus, a true lord of the dance. Well, it’s a melody that you can’t forget; even so, I can’t recall which writer – ancient/modern, well-known/obscure, Iberian/extra-Andalusian – has employed it to such effect that it has become unforgettable.

At any rate, the tune appears at about the half-way point of this 15-track recording which consists of much original Spanish music but holds an opening bracket from that unparalleled out-of-towner, Bizet. Fagan has arranged six chunks of the Carmen score for his 10-string guitar: the Aragonaise before Act 4, the heroine’s self-introducing Habanera and its Act 1 companion Seguidilla, the opera’s introduction up to the Andante moderato, that melting Act 3 Entr’acte, and the Les tringles des sistres trio-with-chorus that opens Act 2. As things turn out, pretty much everything on this album is a Fagan arrangement – Granados’ Oriental from the 12 Danzas espanolas, Zambalera by Jorge Strunz, the album’s Andalusian dance title, another traditional tune in Solearas, Rodrigo’s Fandango from the Tres piezas espanolas dedicated to Segovia (the only non-Fagan arrangement in the CD), the middle Sevilla movement from Albeniz’s Suite espanola No. 1, a traditional sevillanas, more Albeniz in the well-known Asturias (Leyenda), and, to finish, another traditional display in the flamenco predecessor, Zambra mora.

Such a collection makes for pleasant listening and Fagan spices his mix by occasionally indulging in some layered work, inserting a light percussion support or dubbing in himself (I assume) for ballast. Further, the interpretations reveal a straight-down-the-line style of interpretation with an often dogged insistence on a set pulse, noticeable in pieces that are familiar from delineations by other guitarists whose use of rubato and pauses have set up models that Fagan eschews. As compensation, this musician’s instrument with its rich bass strings adds weight of timbre to works that often tinkle their paths towards the inevitably light, if not the arrestingly fantastic.

You are made aware of the multi-layered possibilities in the opening Bizet Aragonaise which has an underlying percussive tap throughout that more or less follows the tambourine line in the original score. The actual guitar sound complex also operates on two levels, one part providing the accompaniment while the other follows the melody, although the two get mixed as the fragment moves on. My only bleat concerns the change in notes which first appears in bar 30, and then again whenever this piccolo-plus-clarinet upward-downward subsidiary motive appears. The overall impression is bouncy and confident.

Fagan’s account of the Habanera appears to have two layers also, one giving the pizzicato rhythm underneath the melody, the other – of course – the famous tune with its chromatic opening which moves to an octave outline pretty soon. Here again, the tempo is determined but with some rallentandi before the chorus enters to echo the singer’s lines. The Seguidilla appears to move into three guitar layers for most of its length, with a gratuitous tapping underneath it all. After the introductory eight bars, Fagan interpolates a 12-bar break that comes out of nowhere and stops in mid-sentence; presumably, it’s meant to add some gypsy colour. For the rest, Fagan follows the original pretty closely and the results are crisp and bright. More layering comes in the Prelude rendition which is very successful for its controlled bounce. And the three layers works very well for the entr’acte, Fagan keeping melody and countermelodies in play throughout; the only problem here is the lack of give-and-take, notably in the last seven bars of the original, which is followed faithfully and without any deviations, even if the pace is faster than usual.

This disc’s version of the Gypsy Song-with-extras that starts Act 2 works well, although one of the verses and choruses is omitted. But I liked the carrying power of Fagan’s acciaccaturas; unlike Bizet’s original flutes who set up the piece’s action, the guitar accidentals linger in your ear. Further in, you have to be impressed by the way Fagan’s mix takes on the character of a harp with splendid resonance during Carmen’s solos. For my taste, this is the most convincing of the operatic arrangements, despite the abridgements, and the octave work in the melody line is excellently achieved.

Oriental doesn’t sit at the forefront of Granados’ piano creations but it provides a pleasant exercise in transcription for the guitar. Fagan makes telling use of harmonics at cadential points and keeps the piece mobile, although there is no rhythmic suppleness at all and dynamic contrast goes a-begging. Finally, I think there’s a misreading in the central Lento assai segment. I believe the second G in bar 5 here is a tied note; it has undergone a new shape in this reading which tends to contradict the figure’s use in several other phrases. Strunk and his collaborator Adeshir Farah’s 1985 reading of Zambalera captures attention for its fireworks bursts of rapid play and a typically ambiguous tempo (6/8 or 3/4?), as well as bringing in pan-pipes across its last third. Fagan superimposes three layers, including a fetching tremolo at two stages and, if his fingers don’t fly as fast as those of the creator and his cobber, they’re not far off it.

With the title track, the guitarist cannot resist surrounding a simple melody with plenty of colour-rich introductions, intermissions and variations. It’s all very rhythmic and loaded with energy, rasgueado strokes serving as ideal punctuation, the whole informed by an appealing vibrato whenever the main tune emerges (which it does twice). I think Solearas is played straight, without multi-layering or additions of any type. It might be unfair to say that it appears to lack substance but a good deal of padding goes on; all very atmospheric and the flamenco level rises to a high pitch, but nothing of moment seems to happen for the first 30 seconds at least and the basic material does not keep your attention as much as Fagan’s driving passage work and hammer-blow chords.

As I half-expected, the Rodrigo piece was given an earnest airing with a fine, lucid opening; later the triplet passage work proved a struggle as the composer puts his executant through some rapid-fire hurdles, mainly testing agility of response. Despite the piquancy of those added-note chords – usually a 2nd or a 7th – the work is something of a rondo-ramble and, despite its rapid passage work, resembles no fandango I’ve heard or watched. The opening three chords are a small motive that dominates the working-out process and suggest a minuet more than anything else, albeit one with some deft Hispanic curves. Still, Fagan treats it politely although more as a study than as a score with which he is emotionally engaged; some of those triplets sag more than float.

There’s very little wrong with this version of Sevilla by Albeniz except for one recurring oddity. In bar 3, when the main melody gets under way, Fagan leaves out the third-beat 2nd (A in the piano original’s G Major tonality) which ordinarily gives the tune a vital harmonic shake; instead, he plays the bass and top note only. It’s not a big del but it removes part of the work’s charm and disappoints expectations. In the centre, Albeniz’s Meno mosso is enunciated with unexpected latitude – some bars rushed, others accounted for at half-pace – but that makes for a welcome quasi-improvisatory flight in the middle of framing segments with a pronounced rhythmic pulse.

Fagan’s sevillanas is a sort of two-strophe composition in which a series of chords alternate with a single melodic line that grows in length as the piece progresses. As far as I can tell, the chords don’t vary much – two, possibly three – and the melody is quite bare. It’s what you would identify straightaway as being Spanish in its insistence and ornamental flourishes and turns. While the stamping chords come over with persuasive zeal, the opening notes to the melodic scraps sound laboured, not as fluent as they should be. In his version of Asturias, Fagan keeps very close to the Albeniz piano original, following customary practice (I think) in exchanging semiquavers for triplets from bar 17 on. He could have made more of the pauses in every fourth bar from bars 63 to 78, rather than pushing ahead regardless. But he fulfilled the need to make this piece succeed: by contrasting nervous energy with understated lyricism.

Finally, the Moorish-inflected finale gives us a track of some excitement and a good deal of repetition. Fagan’s view of this musical style where gypsy, Sephardic, flamenco and the Near East combine. It sustains interest for much of its length, chiefly because of its modal flavour. Fagan finishes with a curtain-down accelerando which brought to mind that saint named in the CD’s title. Which is a neat way to bring us home, even if a few of the preceding tracks have little to do with dancing. It’s not a stupendous collection that sets the imagination running wild, but the music-making has a directness of speech that is often both successful and attractive.

Shaky start, brilliant finish

MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS

Sophie Rowell and Kristian Chong

Hamer Hall

Thursday November 26

Sophie Rowell

In his opening address to this recital, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall co-founder Christopher Howlett welcomed us – remotely – back to Hamer Hall. Fine, even if the venue isn’t one you’d choose for a duo recital. Still, Rowell and Chong faced back-of-stage rather than having to project out across to the hall proper. Great to see the place was being woken up from a long snooze (or has it? I haven’t been following Melbourne Symphony Orchestra pandemic events, unjustifiably assuming that they have been as lame as those mounted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra), but the backdrop of all those empty seats proved a tad unsettling.

Anyway, here we were in the old (?) familiar space with two fine musicians presenting a program of Mozart’s K. 454 B flat Violin Sonata, Szymanowski’s Op. 30 Mythes, and three arrangements of songs by Calvin Bowman, taken from the Melbourne composer’s seven encounters with American poet William Jay Smith. Plenty of meat here, even if the cuts differed markedly in character and effect.

A risk that only top-level partnerships should take – I’m thinking of Szeryng and Haebler, Oistrakh and Yampolsky, Francescatti and Casadesus – is to kick off your program with Mozart. The violin sonatas are a minefield for their interpreters; not the notes, but the way you deliver them. For instance, most modern-day musicians find it necessary to avoid emphasis, observing the facility of Mozart’s inventiveness by giving it kid gloves treatment. Which works if you play on period instruments but not when you have the resources of the modern violin and its steel strings, not to mention the ringing power of Hamer Hall’s big Kawai.

All of which is a preface to saying that parts of this Mozart K.454’s first movement misfired, chiefly because Rowell attempted some soft dynamics and the results sounded tentative, nervous, wavering. Chong had a better time of it but that’s largely because of the way the movement is written for the piano – with a mellifluous and safe fluency – and because it’s so much easier to play around successfully with dynamics and touch gradations on a piano than it is on a violin.

Even in the opening Largo‘s 13-bar stretch, the string line melted away in contrast with the slashing triple-stop chords of the instrument’s initial phrases; when the piano situation first came up, the bow barely hit the string and the results failed to carry or contribute. So the pendant Allegro proved very welcome for its change of emotional terrain. Rowell’s high Cs in bars 31 and 33 might have gained from more intensity, as would her exposed subsidiary theme treatment starting at bar 50: not an exceptional tune but quietly eloquent, not just quiet. For all this nitpicking, the body of the movement proceeded successfully, Chong rarely missing a note in his frequent semiquaver scale patterns.

Mozart’s Andante with its awkward two-bar phrases would have benefitted from a more determined violin approach, which might have made a less featureless creature of the B flats across bars 13 and 14; even subsidiary voices need character. An almost evanescent third F at the move to B flat minor in bar 49 was counterweighted by a fine tritone leap beginning bar 95; when the piece asked for some grit, things came alive.

You couldn’t ask for plainer sailing than this sonata’s Allegretto finale, despite its little chromatic slips in the second phrase. Chong sustained his buoyancy of output, slightly marred by an exposed revisiting of the main theme in a solo between bars 90 and 98 when a few notes went missing. One of the few thick moments, that between bars 223 and 230 with three concurrent lines in operation, came off with laudable clarity and Rowell’s running triplets from bar 251 to bar 258 could not be faulted for their even delivery: a fine final gesture after a work that missed out on achieving continuous comfort for its executants and their audience.

About the Bowman songs in this particular duo format, I’ve little to report. The organist/pianist/composer has found his own voice somewhere close to the English pastoral writers with no qualms about producing orthodox melodies supported by suitable accompaniments. What these arrangements did show was the unabashed romantic colour to them all, nowhere better than in Rowell’s rich account of Now touch the air softly, for which Bowman has provided a melody (G Major?) that touches the heart with its folk tune-like simplicity and has a fluent grace that fits the poem in the best way: as though both were written by the same hand.

No, there were no words here but Rowell gave the melody line a fine energy, on the move and of a piece with the voice of the poem’s lover who is speaking on a similar plane as that in Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. I couldn’t find Smith’s verses to The Early Morning but Bowman set it with another finely-formed lyric, interspersed pauses giving you the passing impression of an irregular metre. Again, this piece gave all its room for the violin’s breadth of colour although Chong was kept in play with an accompaniment of no little variety. A repeated note begins the tune for The Night which is another song (in A flat? My pitch sense is mouldering in these latter days) packed with carefully arched phrases. Again, I couldn’t find the text but even so you could luxuriate in the appealing, full-bodied ardour projected by Rowell in music of no great difficulty but aimed directly at Bowman’s large and appreciative audiences.

To close, Rowell and Chong performed Szymanowski’s 3 Mythes which has been acclaimed as one of the pivotal violin works of he 20th century and which I, for one, was hearing live for the first time. It may be astonishing to the composer’s enthusiasts that the work hasn’t spread into common usage but, from a discography I consulted, the only names from recordings of Mythes that resonated were those of David Oistrakh and Ida Haendel. At the time of its creation, and many years later, Szymanowski claimed that he and violinist Pawel Kochanski – the dedicatee’s husband and first interpreter of the suite – had invented a new style of violin composition. For the time – 1915 – he was probably right because the score is a compendium of special effects and production modes.

But its challenges have to be forgotten if the three pieces are to make an emotional impression. And I found it hard to get past the technical brilliance, in which tasks Rowell was impressively successful. The opening La fontaine d’Arethusa begins with a shimmering water effect in the keyboard before a high melody emerges in the violin. This sets the scene for a wealth of cascades and spouts from both instruments, particularly a rich field for Chong at Number 2 in the score and later, for Rowell, the use of eerie violin harmonics at Number 4. Changes are rung right across the remainder of the work, climaxing in an action-packed crescendo at the A tempo con passione marking that leads to sforzandi/fff in both instruments, then a return to the opening textures. It’s gripping to experience but finally impressed me as a series of frissons of varying magnitudes. The atmosphere is loaded with suggestions, rhapsodic and ample-beamed, but even this excellent partnership could not disguise the introverted aura of the hothouse.

Again, in Narcisse, the violin is sent into a high tessitura, taxingly so with the entry after a change to Poco piu animato, then again after Number 3, and at the highpoint half a dozen bars before Number 6. Chong’s keyboard is gifted with more meat in this movement than post-Jeux d’eau plashing, Szymanowski peppering the part with multi-note chords that eventually require three staves. It all made for a solid and satisfying demonstration, the performers at ease with fulfilling the writer’s intentions and, even if the air again proved over-heated, the subject matter was appropriate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the third piece, Dryades et Pan, chiefly for its restlessness – again, pertinent to the music’s scenario – and seeing Rowell weave a confident way through one of the most technically difficult parts I’ve come across in pre-serial composition. Both artists realized the importance of Szymanowski’s touch-and-release processes in these pages and, in spite of the racing ferment, the paramount need for space and clarity. You couldn’t wish for cleaner harmonics – natural and artificial – from Rowell, nor a more assured hand in the chains of trills and scrubbing bars full of double-stopped hemi-demi-semiquavers.

So much of this movement satisfied fully, even at highly dangerous and challenging points. Whether the narrative impetus was complete in itself or whether Rowell and Chong infused the movement with an abundance of personality, it was improbably difficult to make out because the animato direction was obeyed willingly, and hiatus points – like the Pan flute interlude and some rapid cadenzas – flew past. In sum, an exhilarating conclusion to an hour which – eventually – showed us this duo’s powers of interpretation and interdependent technical control.

Glittering aphorisms all round

PIANO SONATA NO. 6: 17 GRAEME LEE PRINTS

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3453

Another mixed media enterprise (of sorts) has recently emerged from Michael Kieran Harvey, who has been making the best of lockdown and isolation in Tasmania. He calls this his Sonata #6 and it has taken impetus from 17 prints by Graeme Lee: an artist long associated with Harvey, I believe, as, with his wife Margaret, Lee was part of the consortium that commissioned Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 2, premiered by Harvey 22 years ago during that year’s Sydney Festival.

Or Lee could be some other fellow entirely.

At all events, here we are with a freshly-minted CD, its booklet showing us small-scale reproductions of the particular 17 Lee prints, as well as the cover one above that seems to be untitled. Along with these mini-prints, another long-time Harvey associate – Arjun von Caemmerer – has contributed 17 Leeward Epigraemes. which are accompanying aphorisms/observations/ Tasmanian haiku/apothegms which, for the more naive among us, tend to be more immediately relevant to the print’s titles than Harvey’s material. Not too surprising as the pianist/composer is employing a creative palette that fascinates for itself alone, without the need for us to find relationships or reflections in Lee’s art, not matter how clear these are to Harvey himself.

Some of the segments are epigrammatic: 46 “, 48 “, 49 ” – just long enough to make a running leap at your imagination or analytic faculty and then halt. The longest movement, Globe, comes in at 3’32” but the average length on this album sits at 2’19”. Finishing this very basic arithmetic summation, the entire work lasts for a bit over 37 minutes, or about as long as the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3.

After a while, the tracks can appear to run into each other; it’s as though they’re using the same material but you can’t discern what’s happening to it because the actual level of activity is so unrelenting. The opening Floating Item begins with a sombre atmosphere that is immediately challenged by an ensuing mix of massive chords and coruscating flights that stand as portals to the following whirlwind. Hot Rolls is notable for its relentless syncopation, like a jazz session where the initial motive is all there is, the whole moving to bass statements that don’t fade away but remain as fierce as the initial ferocity of attack.

With Pyramid, you get a fine exhibition of Harvey’s armoury. Here also, syncopation seems to be winning the day and the opening passage is jazz-influenced with a highly mobile running bass under an upper line that is just as active. Abruptly, the onward rush stops for a series of portentous single notes, prefacing the composer’s trademark forceful pointillism where the spaces shrink, the tempo picks up and the piece reverts to a kind of restrained double layer of energy. Parts of this track are astoundingly virtuosic, as though some segments have been pre-recorded with moments when you’d swear Harvey had somehow got inside the piano lid to operate on the strings despite the extreme rapidity of the simultaneous keyboard content. By contrast, the brief White Shapes III sounds like an acerbic two-part invention, the lines yielding nothing to each other.

To the all-too-tutored ear, Vase has shades of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Three Piano Pieces in its solid opening address and sudden shifts to flamboyance. In the context of its precedents, the piece strikes you as meditative, determined to forge its path using a methodology notable for sharply-etched definition. Probably the only thing I can say about Pattern is that the surface appearance has at least two, if not three; but they leave the space very quickly.

Globe takes me back to Pyramid because it appears to be operating on two distinct sound layers. Behind the scenes is a wide-ranging arpeggio-suggesting pattern up and down the keyboard, its progress soft and recessed. In front comes a main structure of firm shapes and chords. Gradually the undercurrent becomes more prominent, a full part of proceedings. This duality continues, repeats itself, but the construct impresses for its coherence, particularly the almost grandiose power of the full-frontal matter.

At about the midway mark, at Print No. 8, Lee’s Coloured M refers to the Macdonald’s fast-food chain because the titular ‘M’ as printed here is really the company’s golden arches. For all that, the print favours green across a somewhat irregular capital M. Harvey’s contribution is stentorian, brief and highly confrontational; like the print itself, you can find a statement in the score. Old-fashioned ternary form strikes in Stage with isolated notes and chord clusters or groups at either end with another Harvey moto perpetuo on two levels in the middle; it’s like a juxtaposition of classic theatre with the wild world of action drama,

A binary pattern typifies Gap which opens with some improbably piercing and rapid work in the piano’s treble, percussive and scintillating at the same time. Then the context shifts to an active bass that sounds jazz-inflected but occupies a world of rhythmic complexity well beyond the genre’s habitual practice. The contrast is repeated and you are left with plenty of mental food to investigate what is happening in this particular space between two strata of sound and timbre.

I don’t know what to make of Oysters. It’s fast-moving, follows a lead upwards, then half-way down; you come across one of the few obvious accelerandi (or perhaps two) in the whole collection; the time-signature appears to be more regular than in all the other fast-moving pieces. We’re back with the bi-planar in Tower where the main message comes in powerful chords and even more striking trills, all setting up a suggestion or two of massiveness and truculence before the recessed sound-scene emerges in its own right, then in combination with the loud battlements plosives.

For many, the most accessible track on this CD will be Black Bowl which verges on Debussy prelude status through its employment of atmospheric motives and Harvey’s adoption of a harmonic structure that recalls something the early 20th Century French musicians would recognize. Von Caemmerer’s versicle concerns the Buddha and that’s all it takes to set you off into recollections of the Orient as seen through those ultra-refined European eyes. Mind you, it’s not affected or soft-centred, but it speaks an attractive language that, in this context, could almost be called populist.

In Item Falling, Harvey plays with a spiky brilliance, moving through his piece typified by a remarkable angularity and flawless virtuosity, including a splendid octave fragment in the treble that emerges from nowhere – just like the sudden flights of notes that briefly sparkle up and down the instrument. Even so, there’s something almost too perfect about this piece’s execution as Harvey’s articulation borders on the superhuman. But then, there have been nights when I’ve seen him enter into comparable performance states.

Yet another two-level set-up emerges in Man Running, which illustrates again some of Harvey’s methodologies, beginning with an ostinato that is deliberately irregular in metre, then accelerates using the same pattern but ends up moving somewhere else before you realise it. As in the previous piece, the pianism is exceptionally crisp as the substance settles into two high and low mobile lines, the climax emerging in energetic block chords in the right hand; if you like, you can trace a particularly dedicated jogger’s path as the composition is oddly suggestive of physical motion.

Mound II, the penultimate movement, strikes me as particularly complex in every parameter. With Harvey, time signatures are a highly moveable feast, although he often settles into a pattern, but only for a short episode; no sign of that here in a metrically confounding operating room. As in previous tracks, you experience faint sound webs overpowered by fore-fronted elliptical strokes. Above all, Harvey presents a volatile progress where nothing is allowed to settle for a moment; even the pauses bristle with potential vehemence – and it always arrives.

Finally, Fitzroy Jazz II brings back memories of nights when Harvey would set the room on a roar with his overwhelming wizardry. It follows a simple ternary format but packed with transformed tropes, onslaughts that are essentially grist to a jazz musician’s mill but here fall over each other in a brilliant cascade, including chords of great complexity and running lines in both hands that fold seamlessly into each other. Once again, you seem to be settling into a normal syncopated rhythm, only to have the edifice tilt sideways into realms where the toe-tapping hipster is all at sea. As with each track on this CD, you come across passages that both amaze and amuse for their throwaway character, as here in an ascending series of triplets of excellent dexterity.

So, what we have is yet another in the series of this great artist’s CDs for the Move company. It’s a gift to us all, the Michael Harvey Collection – one that refreshes as each album emerges. A source of delight to me is that I still have two elements in this set waiting for examination. Further, the composer is clearly as creatively fertile as ever, regardless of the many limitations necessarily inflicted over the past ten months.

This Sonata #6 breaks some time-honoured rules of Western composition; for example, by eschewing the form’s usual discursive nature in favour of a suite in which the compositional patterns – Harvey refers to the movements’ mereology – are bogglingly complex, judging by the few score samples I’ve seen. As an exploration of the piano’s potential for novel sounds and whole new paragraphs of activity, this disc of brief bursts – even for those familiar with the composer/pianist’s previous achievements – is a must-have.