Familiarity breeds excellence

MOZART DVORAK CHANCE

Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 626

The Acacia group from Sydney has come my way only once before, I think: the Muse CD from Move Records (MCD 587), released in 2018, which was a collaboration between this quartet and recorder Alicia Crossley, an album featuring Australian writers. This new release features one local composer – Alice Chance – and her work has also emerged recently on Move CDs: Inhaltations for another Crossley product in Bass Instincts (MCD 624) , and also Mirroring as part of percussionist Claire Edwardes’ program on Rhythms of Change (MD 3459).

Since its formation in 2010, the ensemble’s personnel has seemingly remained unchanged: violins Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, viola Stefan Duwe, cello Anna Martin-Scrase. But is this actually the case? Some of the online material concerning the group lists Doreen Cumming as second violin; the CD has a group photo with Clohessy, and the Move website also lists her as part of the ensemble. Not that the group is alone in maintaining its original members; the Seraphim and Benaud Trios and the Orava String Quartet haven’t had to cope with any personnel comings and goings, unlike the Australian String Quartet which dizzies with its chameleonic shifts. But this steadiness across the years ensures a communal evenness of production and a collegial trust in established practices.

As well, the group is here reaping the benefits of preparation for public performance. Chance’s Sundried Quartet was given its premiere by the Acacias in March 2019, and they played it another three times in that year before the shroud of COVID fell over us all. In fact, a recital from November 3 of that year shows this exact program – Mozart’s K 421 Quartet in D minor, the Chance, Dvorak’s American Op. 96 – was played during the Glebe Music Festival. And Sundried was resuscitated for the Four Winds Festival last month when the Acacias performed at Barragga Bay’s outdoor amphitheatre; pretty much coinciding with this CD’s release.

In her CD leaflet notes, Chance links her quartet’s title to a tomato in a state of desiccation; in fact, her third movement is called Tomatoes. However, her association of music with a fruit is multi-faceted and the initial suggestion fragments in several directions. How far the correspondances carry you is your own business, of course, but it strikes me that Chance is stuck in the middle of making things easy for a listener with her four movement titles – Exposure, Dribble Castle, Tomatoes, Aloe vera – and difficult for herself in giving these physicalities an acoustic format. How to depict aurally the sun’s drying process and then offer the reassurance that her end product is not dead but succulent? What are we to make of hearing the proposed process of re-forming a sand castle by dribbling water over it, and do we actually hear this or are we just obliging Chance by imposing such suggestions on ourselves?

Exposure opens with some high bare 5ths which could represent the searing sun, or the American plains, or a medieval church preparing for the advent of organum. However you want to interpret this aural scenario, not much happens in rhythmic terms until about 2/3rds of the way through when the upper strings accelerate to a landscape of fast parallel scales (at the 4th?) that coalesce on a single note, leading to a final melancholy, late-Romantic lyric based on a falling four-note motif before a gripping final chord for all, which could be a realization of Chance’s ‘surprisingly delicious crisped ending’ – which infers that we’re still talking tomatoes . . . or bacon, or raisin bread, or potatoes.

Almost exclusively pizzicato, the quartet’s second movement considers a different type of sun-drying: the beach experience of making a sandcastle and modifying its construction with water, the dribbling of which is here exemplified by a rising scale passage with a flattened 7th. A little past half-way, the players reach for their bows and discharge a descending scale pattern in unison/at the octave before reverting to the opening material. This movement is a kind of scherzo, deftly written and carried out with a few production techniques thrown in, like Bartokian snaps and near-saltando. Here, more than in Exposure, Chance’s vocabulary is essentially diatonic, with few suggestions of harmonic confrontations.

Tomatoes opens with a cello pizzicato underpinning line, above which the other strings hold onto chords or shimmer. The top violin gives us a touch of jazz ‘bent’ notes, before the pizzicato includes another instrument and two upper voices combine for a sinewy duet. The movement is highly indebted to jazz inflexions and practice, along with a sense of jauntiness – but, even bending over backwards with good intentions, I can’t see the movement’s title reflected in what I hear, although the piece does suggest itself a fine backdrop to a scene from one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things novels.

Chance’s final movement is the longest of the four, giving us the balm of consolation after the preceding 10 minutes-plus of solar radiation. This musical salve oscillates between duple and triple metre but with an unctuous melody over the top of its calm, rocking nether regions. Again, concord is the name of this game with slight gestures towards harmonic adventure. The score moves towards an ardent highpoint before the musical unguent penetrates and we nestle cosily into a beneficent, benevolent leave-taking. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Settling to their task, the Acacias enjoy urging out the composer’s melodic swathes which make gentle technical demands and bring this newly-composed work – commissioned by the players – to its conclusion. However, alongside Sundried, the surrounding Mozart and Dvorak works on this disc seem revolutionary.

Actually, you’re hard put to find Dvorak’s spirit-raising Op. 96 that challenging, apart from the Czech master’s delight in his own melody-writing skill. You’re bound to be pleased by the opening Allegro where the performers are cleanliness personified, excellent reliability and balance shining out at memorable moments like the twin violin work at bars 21 to 23 which is a delight that makes you look forward to the exposition’s repeat. My only gripe is that the second subject is handled too carefully, the phrases allowed to loll rather than breathe.

One of the finest tracks follows with Dvorak’s Lento in D minor, a case of the writer once more clearly not wanting to let go of his material. Stewart and Clohessy give a highly charged account of the movement’s core: the long duet that lasts from bar 43 to bar 81. Coupled with Martin-Scrase’s three exposure points (bars 11, 31, and 82), these passages of melting melodic lines invest the score with a heart-on-sleeve fervour that keeps its head, the ensemble working at a high level of interpretative sympathy. later, it’s hard to find faults in the scherzo/rondo where Stewart dazzles with her impeccable top notes, As and A flats searingly precise, the whole ensemble acting as one with split-second precision in attack and dynamic agreement, notably in the two F minor trio sections.

To my ear, Dvorak’s finale is over all too soon, its several panels full of breezy delight, striding High there led by the first violin’s slightly elliptical chief theme. Alongside this controlled ebullience, the Acacias continue to demonstrate their assurance of ensemble, as in the punchy C Major drive to conclusive chords across bars 61 to 67, followed by the smoothest of shifts to the A flat subject through two fill-in bars. Or focus on the blemish-free unison/octave downward arpeggio dives across bars 146 to 151. To the group’s great credit, the conclusion features no unscripted accelerando or scraping hysteria but maintenance of the composer’s good humour without any grimaces to distract from this happy score’s equanimity of temperament.

Understandably, these musicians did not repeat the development/recapitulation pages of the Mozart quartet’s opening Allegro, some 70 bars. Only masochistic purists would have insisted, I suppose, but the group’s Classical credentials were sufficiently well established without the elongation. It’s best to take this composer at face value, without trying to wring too much Don Giovanni or K. 466 out of the prevailing D minor. So the Acacias’ careful treading through this movement struck me as most appropriate, particularly as the players can handle soft passages without the sound colour becoming wispy, nebulous. A slight acceleration at the start of the development where Duwe’s viola takes prime position proved forgivable in the quick restoration of order by the time the sextuplets started in bar 59.

I think there’s one repeat missing near the start of the Andante, but no worries: Mozart prefigures Dvorak in being enamoured of his main melody which melts on the bow. This outlining impresses for its regular metre, like a gentle dance, and the feather-light touches of the group’s pianissimo contrast after the bold statements of bars 31 to 32 and bars 47 to 48. You have to listen hard for a few slight irregularities in the dotted-quaver-semiquaver rhythmic motif that dominates the Menuetto and, even so, there are only a couple of them in a reading of carefully drawn broad strokes. In the middle, Stewart and Duwe give a finely-spun duet-at-the-octave in the Trio‘s second part.

I’ve always been happier with a concluding Allegretto in this quartet which observes the jig-like bounce throughout; giving us the shadows but freeing the top parts in particular to work with tensile arcs rather than hefty swipes. The only bluffness you could find here came in the viola-dominated (well, for half the time) variation starting at bar 73; for the rest, the reading proved dynamically restrained, with some fine detail work peppering the Piu allegro coda.

A highly recommended disc from an ensemble that has swum pretty much under my radar but which, on this evidence, clearly stands among the top chamber groups in this country.

Finding cosmic dangers at home

THE DYING SUN

Madeleine Antoine & Setsu Masuda

Move Records MCD 609

In The Dying Sun, composer Rebecca Erin Smith has written a sonata in four movements – Blood, Milk, Nectar, Salt – each referring to an aspect of the Western Australian landscape. None is particularly long in duration – the first two just on 6 minutes each, the second pair about 4’30” – so the entire work comes in at closer to 19 minutes than 20.

Two performers are involved: violin Madeleine Antoine and pianist Setsu Masuda. Both of these musicians are residents of Perth and, despite having travelled widely across this country and internationally, their talents have never come my way, probably because my attention sits on a less wide range of musical experiences than those explored by this duo. You’d have to assume that the collaboration is not one of long standing, even though both (and composer Smith) belong to the Open House Music Collective, an organization dating from 2019 and operating in Perth and Fremantle. As well, both Antoine and Masuda have a good deal of live work to their credit but precious few CDs.

Smith finds her Blood element in Western Australia’s northernmost division, the Kimberley – and also the sun, which gives something of a balance to the next Milk movement which offers a vision of the Milky Way galaxy. As for Nectar, the state’s vast canola fields/farms stand in for the gods’ drink, while Salt suggests the sea – specifically Sugarloaf Rock off Cape Naturaliste at the top of the Margaret River region.

It doesn’t take a particularly keen level of insight to glean from this set of natural and unnatural wonders that Smith’s aesthetic scenario involves the state of this planet and, by natural extension, climate change. We can delight in the Kimberley’s many facets, although the composer asks us to centre on ‘ a wide expanse of land over the course of a day’. The stars? Well, we can still see them despite the thickening of our atmospheres. Canola I’m not so sure about as it’s a man-made product and has come in for criticism because of its universality, I presume; but then, Western Australia produces 50% of the nation’s output so it might come – like coal – under the banner of a ‘national treasure’. Sugarloaf Rock is the most pristine and somehow personal of these phenomena, although it too is as subject to human interference and degradation as is the rest of the WA landscape.

The accompanying notes refer to Smith’s work as a ‘sonata’. and it probably is – in the old sense, rather than referring to the formal shape of the Classical and Romantic period composers. Smith’s Blood/Kimberley movement begins with some scene-setting sounds; a kind of static continuum before the violin enters with a high held note (semi-harmonic?), eventually broken up with some brusque piano punctuation. At the centre of this sound-picture is a wrenching octave violin line competing with a rising four-chord piano motif which reaches an impassioned highpoint; then, a return to the exposed landscape of the opening – the whole possibly suggesting the Kimberley’s solitariness, if more reminiscent to these ears of the continent’s vast, empty centre.

As for the Milky stars, Smith’s inspiration is rapid sextuplets or sets of triplets – or plain 6/8 – in both piano and violin through an opening coruscation that is packed with fifths in a conservative vocabulary and more than a little touch of Bartok-style parallel chords in the keyboard. The action dies down to a Rachmaninov-reminiscent meditation before a move to Ravelian quiverings from both instruments and we come to a more spacious view of the galaxy before a reversion to the opening action, if a few shades less scintillating, and the piece fades, although not quite to nothingness.

After this scherzo, the sonata moves to a free meditation for violin on one note, then more fifths and fourths until it seems that we are in a sort of fantasia land. The piano enters well after the movement’s halfway point with individual notes mirroring the string line, supported more and more by chords The resultant mix moves to a pseudo-chorale before the violin is left alone to recall this adagio‘s opening. You might have better luck than I did in slotting canola-field imagery into these pages; as for Nectar, I doubt that any Olympian-worshipping apiarist could find much passion-supporting ambience in this admittedly melodious trail.

Smith ends with an aspirational piece that seems to sit mainly in a 5/8 rhythm at its start. Masuda’s keyboard sets up the pattern and Antoine soon joins in, but with a more lyrical line. The flow rises to a powerful Ravel Trio-style climax. This atmosphere of excitement dies away into gentle ripples and the sonata concludes placidly. With this movement, we have a visual stimulus in that the CD cover provides an image of Sugarloaf Rock and the sea that surrounds it – not as mind-blowingly savage as the landscape off Brittany but a sort of gentle cousin.

In fact, the composer has ‘loosely’ based her four movements on photographs by Andrew J. Clarke, although, like Beethoven, the images play second fiddle to the emotions instigated and recalled when visiting or observing these four sights/sites Clarke’s cover photo is mirrored by a painting of the same outcrop on the CD’s back, which was probably produced by Jo Darvall or Kelly Wong; it’s hard to decide which, given the context of the printed acknowledgements.

The entire experience is easily assimilable and pleasant enough, the duo competent in their realization of Smith’s intentions. Still, she hasn’t give her executants many problems to solve. You get some virtuosic flourishes from Antoine, forceful passages from Masuda, but not much that raises the performing or reactive level to excitement. Apart from Milk, the sonata is a restful and restrained work; not over-priced, given its length, impressing mainly as a mild plaint against the insane destruction of our planet, abetted and encouraged by clowns in public office, and those who aspire to it. However, by her overall title, Smith clearly sees the approaching apocalypse in much broader terms than simply the continual fouling of our natural, national habitat.

A byword for excellence

BORDERLANDS

Van Diemen’s Band

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Thursday May 5, 2022

Julia Fredersdorff

The name is Tasmanian but some of this ensemble’s personnel are off-islanders; not many of us, and only some of this group, have enjoyed the gift of moving away from the modern plague to a serene retreat in the uttermost south. Van Diemen’s Band is a mobile quantity with a wide number of musicians to call on; for this Musica Viva national tour, the numbers have been whittled down to a sextet – five strings and Donald Nicolson‘s harpsichord. As well as founder/artistic director/leader Julia Fredersorff, we heard violinist Simone Slattery, Katie Yap on viola, with two bass viols in Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba. Fredersdorff, Vaughan and Nicolson I know from their Latitude 37 excursions over the past 16 years; Yap and Baba have appeared in concerts and recitals under the auspices of the Australian Digital Concert Hall – that indispensable source of interest and income for so many local musicians over the past two years.

The Band attempted a parallel between conditions in Europe today with those that prevailed during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. Which almost worked as quite a few of those composers encountering troubles with borders/national frontiers four centuries ago appeared on the Van Diemen program – well, an exception was Philipp Heinrich Erlebach who wasn’t born until a decade after the long conflict ended. The others in the ‘Borderlands’ designated section of the program – Dietrich Becker, Samuel Scheidt, Jean de Sainte-Colombe – were alive at the time (the last-named still a child), although I’m not too clear about the difficulties and/or dangers that they experienced when moving from country to country. Becker didn’t move far during his lifetime, although the German states were hardly safe havens for artists; Scheidt spent most of his life in Halle; the little that is known about Sainte-Colombe suggests he didn’t move far from Paris, once he got there.

Only a few pieces didn’t involve the complete ensemble: Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir‘s Clockworking involved Fredersdorff, Yap, and Baba on cello; both gamba players worked through one of the night’s highlights in Sainte-Colombe’s Les Pleurs. As well, Slattery played recorder in a few pieces – a sopranino (?) in Scheidt’s Galliard Battaglia, a soprano In a Scheidt courant where she seemed to double the top violin line, and again the recorder dominated the latter part of the program’s finale: Spirals by harpsichordist Nicolson.

The group showed itself to be careful and poised in delivery across the length of Becker’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major. Not that there’s much to concern players at this level of expertise in a spare sonata da chiesa-style work, yet the output balance could not be faulted, nor individual linear contours. In short, an amiable sample of throat-clearing. Fredersdorff assembled a five-part ‘Borderlands Suite’ to exemplify her Thirty Years’ War parallel, beginning with Scheidt’s galliard that comprised trumpet calls imitating each other, the work going nowhere at a measured pace so that Slattery’s new timbre proved highly welcome. Becker’s Paduan gives all the initial running to the top line, Fredersdorff impressing with an effortless ease before her colleagues Slattery and Yap took up some of the burden.

As I’ve said, the gamba duet by Sainte-Colombe impressed for the even output of Vaughan and Baba, free of the intentional scratchiness and open-string reediness that seem to be compulsory among many interpreters of this composer and his pupil, Marais. In this version, the lines matched ideally in chords and interweaving passages of play to make a moving experience of this all-too-brief plaint. A clever contrast came with the Scheidt courant, which proved to be not as meanderingly fluent as many another dance in this form, yet suggestive of relief after tragedy. The suite concluded with the chaconne that concludes Erlebach’s Ouverture No. 2, notable for a staggered entry from everyone, which spiced up the original’s 8 variants on the descending-scale ground bass; nothing startling here but a laudably confident surge in play throughout.

Then the night’s first half concluded with an absolute gem splendidly performed: Albinoni’s Sonata II in C Major from the Op. 2 Sinfonia a 5. The opening Largo duet between Fredersdorff and Slattery with its stately dotted rhythm set the standard for a dynamically rich interpretation, during which all parties demonstrated a remarkable gift for playing softly without disappearing up an acoustic fundament. Another virtuoso turn from the violins distinguished the following Allegro, but then all five string lines collaborate here in a joyful mesh of interdependence that was as close to ideal as you would want. Further, the ensemble showed its mettle in the A minor Grave with a shower of ebbs and recedings in all lines, dominated by the two top lines with some eloquent statement/response work in bars 9 and 10, later going the other way in bars 13 and 14. The whole concluded with powerful, regular allegro that maintained an interpretative fluency that can often collapse when players are faced with lighter texture and rhythmic novelty. Here, the musicians stuck to their task with admirable integrity, so reaching a mark of high distinction with some of the best Baroque music-making I’ve heard for many years.

I moved to the back of the Conservatorium Theatre for the second part of the performance, which began with Muffat’s Sonata No. 1 from the Armonico Tributo of 1682; more of a suite, really, with allemandes, a gavotte, a minuet but a couple of graves and an appealingly level-headed allegro along the way. From further back in this excellent space, the Band’s breadth of timbre proved more apparent, and the performance style just as smooth-edged or finely bevelled as in the Albinoni, even if the music by the well-travelled French composer impressed as comparatively predictable.

Sigfusdottir’s work dates from 2013 and sets the string trio against an electronic tape, the two sound sources attempting to balance together. The Icelandic composer’s methodology offers a fusion of serious and popular, Baroque and rock – and the results here border on the inane with an overall plethora of perfect 4ths and 5ths in a fabric that moves slowly, if not ponderously. In aiming at giving us, as base matter, a pre-Industrial Revolution work-song, the composer’s offering sublimates a distinctive line to effects and the rocker’s stock-in-trade of numbing repetition. There’s not much to observe about the string trio’s rendition; I assume it fitted the bill because nothing disturbed the work’s glacial surface.

Some say the Sonata Jucunda was written by Biber; others attribute it to Schmelzer. Whatever the truth of it, the work has indubitable character with imitations of Turkish music not that far removed from Mozart’s rondo and the colourful flourishes in Il Seraglio, although the composer seemed to believe that Turkish music was played in unison or at the octave. At the same time, the progress of this extravaganza included some gypsy-indebted passages, especially some polished Zigeuner flourishes from Fredersdorff near the end.

Nicolson has used a Ukrainian song, Dusha moya pregreshnaya, as a thread through his short passacaglia, the melody appearing en clair when Slattery took up her recorder. The language is approachable and orthodox, and you can’t avoid the bandura/zither/balalaika suggestions that frame the work with the strings thrumming atmospherically in a product that stands as a lament for the Ukrainian people, faced with invasion originating from a moral leper. The Van Diemen musicians were playing to a sympathetic audience and enjoyed a warm response. Yet the piece avoids vulgarity and bathos through its skillful organization, simplicity of utterance and innate dignity. It seized the moment, yes, but it brought home the elevated principles underlying this occasion – honesty, charity, even (to my mind) defiance.

Women-only outing

FABLE

Jacinta Dennett

Move Records MCD 630

Australian harpist Dennett offers a collection of works spanning almost the complete gamut of contemporary local composition, including veterans Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde as well as younger (and alive) writers like Johanna Selleck and Alicia Grant. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, that all eight creative artists heard on this album are women; of course it’s of prime importance that we get to hear voices that have been/were muffled for decades by administrative bodies overwhelmingly populated by males, but a superficial bit of detective work shows that women composers can suffer just as easily as men from rarity of performances.

The way Dennett has organized her program is almost ideally chronological. The one exception is the opening track that gives this CD its title. This 1967 piece by Helen Gifford was a commission by the Melbourne offshoot of the International Society for Contemporary Music and it was premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 1968 by Huw Jones, long-time harpist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This is succeeded by Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ well-known Sonata for Harp from 1951, written for an appreciative Nicanor Zabaleta. A big temporal leap brings us to Miriam Hyde’s Sunlit Waterfall, produced in 1993 and premiered by its dedicatee, Sydney harpist Yuko Prasad.

From two years later comes Elena Kats-Chernin‘s Chamber of Horrors that was written for the Melbourne harpist Marshall McGuire, as was Eve Duncan‘s the sun behind it, burning it of 2004. Dennett gave the first performance of Jennifer Fowler‘s Threaded Stars 2 of 2006, a revision of Threaded Stars written 23 years earlier. From two years later comes Joanna Selleck’s Spindrift, also a Dennett premiere at the Third Australian Harp Festival in Canberra. Last of all, Alicia Grant’s 2017 Three Pieces for Harp enjoyed its first outing at Dennett’s hands in Bunbury, Western Australia.

So the CD is a compendium that takes in 66 years of activity in an arcane field. The range in vocabulary is also wide, but the accent falls on contemporary sounds – insofar as the harp can produce them. Fable proposes a tensile landscape, beginning enigmatically with some suggestive arpeggios, but gradually moving to a soundscape of contrasts where little is proposed directly, the writing is pointillist and shadowed, and the solitary patch of definite statement strikes you as something of a diatonic shock. Whatever suggestions of old-time stories and legends you are able to infer, they are definitely crepuscular and Dennett produces a shimmering, cloudy series of emotional gambits.

Glanville-Hicks’ three-movement sonata has three movements: Saeta, for that Spanish Good Friday drama-plus-depression outpouring; Pastorale, brief and appropriately benign; and a rollicking Rondo to bring us home happily. In fact, the opening movement is a maestoso processional for which Dennett keeps her powder dry until the last declamatory bars, the main body restrained and bordering on laboured with each semiquaver group that leavens the piece’s distinctive full-bodied chords enunciated with unexpected precision. The middle bucolic interlude presents as an appealing, calm meander with no surprises at all in its fluent siciliano motion.

As the finale moves forward, you come to realize that it serves as summation of its precedents, not least when the full chords of the Saeta return near the conclusion and the flowing 6/8 of the Pastorale emerges from the happy buzzing that constitutes the main chorus of this rondo. You can relish quirks like the quaver duplet that first shows itself at the end of bar 2, and the wholesale key-change that surprises in one of the interludes. Well, ‘surprises’ is an over-statement in a work that is harmonically pretty ordinary and winds up reminding you of so many British chamber works of several decades prior to 1951. The harpist again appears to be playing rather tentatively at certain points, and the conclusion seems lacking in finality, but that could be because the composer had second thoughts about the soft landing towards which things were heading.

Miriam Hyde found her voice early and nothing changed it, so that this gentle bagatelle will come as no surprise to those of us familiar with her miniatures from countless AMEB lists over the decades. In ternary shape, D Major-F Major-D Major, Sunlit Waterfall is a light study in placid semiquaver runs and well-primed melodies. Dennett has no trouble at all outlining this fluent blast from the past as another Australian writer externalises her English influences.

Two years on, and we hit a different channel of water with Elena Kats-Chernin’s essay in Grand Guignol. She opens with 12 semibreve-long strong chords; something like the opening to the Rachmaninov C minor Piano Concerto but not as harmonically settled. These act as a recurrent paragraph, interspersed with whip-quick interludes, full of effects that go a fair way to summoning up the intended menacing atmosphere. One of the most striking of these is a rattling caused by using/misusing a pedal. Yet nothing here is ugly; the restless arpeggios might suggest Hollywood menace or even shudderings, tremors of a mental or physical nature; abrupt chords with added notes propose uneasiness. As the segments, brief and extended, pass through, you are impressed by the composer’s command of textures and techniques, even if the horror is skin-deep.

Eve Duncan’s short piece takes its inspiration from a poem by Esther Theiler which focuses on the appearance of a poppy; one that is close to desiccation at the end of summer, it seems. The composer opens with a single note which deviates to a minor second, the dyad serving as a fulcrum for a wide-ranging, taut rhapsody. Despite its brevity, the piece makes a singular impression for its sustained atmospheric tension and its concentration of content, the whole suggesting aridity, a bare landscape.

Jennifer Fowler reveals a chaste methodology in her contribution, the most substantial on the CD in terms of length but the most transparent in presentation. For the most part, the composer spins out a single line which meanders across the full range of the harp, finding focal notes and weaving surrounding strings into self-contained episodes. This is carried out with an equanimity of expressiveness – nothing in excess – the line punctuated by an occasional added note, more rarely an arpeggiated brief chord; alongside this spartan set of limitations, Fowler eschews any effects, content to let her interpreter outline the calmly grazing nature of this simple, remarkable composition.

In her Spindrift, Johanna Selleck sets herself the difficult task of chasing an image of the nearly intangible: spray from cresting waves. Dennett shows admirable responsiveness to this score which begins with a scene-setting scalar pattern that rises and falls aquatically enough. The composer’s vocabulary is mildly dissonant in the opening pages, well suited to the prevailing quiet dynamic. About half-way through, the environment changes to definite diatonic harmony – E minor? – which lasts until close to the end when the mild atonality returns. This is an amiable work, as obvious in its intentions as Kats-Chernin’s frolic, maintaining its submarine murmuring at either end with a hefty dose of humankind emerging in the centre of this nature-scape.

When you encounter the CD’s final tracks, Alicia Grant’s Three Pieces for Harp, you’re faced with one of the most intriguing conundrums in contemporary serious music practice: a reversion to old-fashioned melodic and harmonic structures. The first of these pieces, Sea breezes, has more of an affinity with Hyde’s waterfall than with Duncan’s sun or Fowler’s stars. The rhythm doesn’t vary from a regular pulse and the work is at times almost operating on an Alberti bass set-up. More strikingly, the melodic material has a predictability that could be soothing or dulling, according to your taste. One of the Book 1 preludes, Des pas sur la neige, provides the jumping-off point for the second piece, Footprints in the sand: Homage to Debussy – which it sort of is. Grant takes the original’s minor/Major 2nd motif as her underpinning and builds up to two passionate climaxes, obviously finding more angst in sand than Debussy did in snow, whose work is a study in piano/pianissimo. Still, homage is not simple repetition and the Australian composer is as entitled to her background imagery as the suggestive French master.

Grant’s last piece, Ocean floor, is the smallest on the CD and it seems to be a digest of its precedents. There’s an unchanging metre, broken up by Dennett’s slight pauses to handle chord-placing challenges; the regular bass/supporting line persists throughout; the melody is not far-ranging in itself but appears in several registers; and you can enter at will into the composer’s vision of deep sea denizens, which seem, by the end, to be at work pretty close to the surface, like a Western Australian tiger shark or six.

This triptych rounds out Dennett’s tour d’horizon which is a testament to her promulgation of this country’s forays into harp music; a career dedication that she shares with Marshall McGuire. Her CD covers an impressively wide range of voices, offering (with a 25-year gap) a perspective of music written for this instrument by high-achieving writers. The fact that these voices all happen to be female is a considerable bonus, from which you can draw multiple considerations about similarities and disparities – and the fertile ground in between.

Congenial musicians in some favourite pieces

LIQUID CRYSTAL

Luke Carbon & Alex Raineri

Move Records MCD 615

Having prepared Elliott Gyger‘s taxing duet that gives this CD its title, clarinetist Luke Carbon and pianist Alex Raineri performed the work throughout 2019. They put in the time, so the duo determined that their labours required a life beyond the ephemeral and, solidifying this decision, have recorded it. You can hear why these musicians went the extra mile or twenty to get this difficult score into the studio and out to the public: its demands are continuous, right up to the shrill last bars; both executants have to exercise a knife-edged mutuality of precision while the work shows an emotionally fluctuating character across each of its twelve sections.

Apart from giving a fine airing to the Sydney composer/academic’s 32-year-old score, Carbon and Raineri have produced an almost chronologically sequential tour of works that they have enjoyed playing together. They begin with the fulcrum of clarinet/piano works in Brahms’ Sonata F minor No. 1 of 1894, followed by Berg’s Four Pieces dating from 1913 which are still as sphinx-like as ever. A small reverse pulls us back twenty years to Amy Beach’s Op. 23 Romance, the clarinet taking over the original violin line. Staying in America, the young musicians exerting themselves on a young man’s music: Bernstein’s 1941-2 Clarinet Sonata, written during the prolific composer’s early 20s.

This makes for a solid exhibition of the duo’s individual and collegiate talents and, despite my habitual Doubting Thomas premonitions, the CD turned out to be a hold-all of some eloquent and informative interpretations. Most immediately impressive of these is Liquid Crystal, a crescendo that stops just short of an explosion. It opens with a burbling fast duo for both instruments: very close writing that calls for split-second timing. Then follows a sort of question-and-answer segment that moves across both instruments’ range, followed by a set of apostrophes for the clarinet with keyboard punctuation. From here on, the intersecting becomes less clear obvious although the developmental character is cut from a common cloth in a language that is percussive and, for much of the time, whimsical.

I lost track of the chain of segments when Gyger’s developmental processes and variations increased in sophistication and (as I’ve said) the segmental distinctions proved less obvious (my middle name). You can discern when a new section has happened, if not where the boundary lines are, and the intention to give the players an equal say in proceedings is handsomely achieved, the composer testing his interpreters with parts that ask for executive brilliance and a keen eye from both on what the other is up to. The score also illustrates its paradoxical title in a textural ambience that combines the fluent with the hard-edged. As far as I can tell, Carbon and Raineri fulfilled the composer’s requirements through an authoritative, enthusiastic reading.

Liquid Crystal is the CD’s last track; the Brahms sonata sits at the other end and proves to be a competent interpretation, if one that presents as somewhat imbalanced in Raineri’s favour. The pianist takes every opportunity to stress the work’s expansiveness, its emotional control and assurance. Carbon provides an outline that is more by the book and, while relaxed enough, misses out on weaving his personality into the clarinet thread. Phrases and clauses travel well, yet they lack individuality; not even a wallowing in the composer’s heart-warming mellifluousness.

On a first hearing, I thought that Carbon tried too hard with his high soft notes, determined to achieve as small a sound as possible – which you can hear in the work of many clarinetists, some of whom give you more breath than note. But this deficiency took place fewer times than I thought; indeed, the gentle approach worked to success across a very exposed point at bars 94-5. Some minor errors distracted, like a top register note that sounded marginally off-point, viz. the D5 in bar 187, and uncertain breathing when dealing with slow arches across bars 216 and 217 in the Sostenuto ed espressivo coda. Raineri put hardly a foot wrong, his work well exemplified by the sweeping, gradually subsiding grandeur on display between bars 116 and 135.

Speaking of the piano, the D flat 5 struck me as being off-colour in bar 20 of the second movement Andante un poco adagio, but other exposure points were ambiguous. Both performers sustained the score’s fluency, even if they didn’t invest much interest in the material, although Raineri employed a well-contrived rubato in the short solo space at bar 45. A more colourful patch came in the Allegretto grazioso and its landler suggestions, details like the piano’s hesitation at bar 28 a welcome infusion of irregularity. Carbon here found an amiable, calmly enunciated character, my only complaint a lack of force in his top C at bar 124. As for the concluding Vivace, this was an unalloyed success: humour without vulgarity, a spaciousness of timbre from both instruments, and an excitement that brought to mind those works where the composer rollicks so effectively – everything from the Academic Festival Overture to the D Major Symphony finale.

I once participated in a most villainous rendition of the 4 Pieces Op. 5 by Berg in South Yarra’s The Fat Black Pussycat club close to 60 years ago, accompanying a fine clarinetist who liked to fly through a work by the seat of his pants. Looking at it now, I wonder how we dared; different times, different audiences, I suppose, and this one wasn’t very concerned about exactitudes . . . or anything. Carbon and Raineri handle these pages with respect, observing every nuance of dynamic and production, careful to a high degree of refinement as in the unhurried climax to the opening Massig across bars 6 to 8, and in their whispered account of the following Webernesque Sehr langsam.

Carbon’s control showed at its best in the final two pieces where the quasi Flatterzunge direction gets a real workout and the required range reaches to the instrument’s extremes. You could rely on the concluding Sehr hastig flurries to No. 3 and, as far as I could make out, the hysteric pandemonium of bars 15 to 17 of the last Langsam piece was precise; it remained as disconcerting a passage as ever, once again impressing me as a series of splattering punches to the ear. Here, more than in Brahms sonata, Carbon’s soft notes work efficiently (with one exception) and the short sequence showed an interpretative empathy, avoiding the extremes of the ultra-scholarly and the hyped-up expressionist.

Amy Beach could possibly take over the mantle of encore-provider/program-filler from Piazzolla if more of her output is released commercially and taken up by willing performers. Carbon has made a clarinet transcription of her Romance and was hardly pressed by the undertaking which follows the original solo line, mainly at an octave’s distance. This timbral substitution changes the nature of the piece, especially at those moments when the original violin moves into a high tessitura, as at bars 18, 45, 62, 86 and for the ethereal conclusion at 114. It operates at several removes from salon music of its time, which, in America, means to me vapourings like By the Waters of Minnetonka or O Promise Me. While Beach’s work speaks a late Romantic language, its melodic felicity and stolid harmonization place it as an honourable mention in a genre honoured by Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Needless to say, the transcription gives no trouble to this well-rehearsed duo.

Before the Elliott Gyger work, we hear Bernstein’s sonata which, for something coming early in his composing career, holds resonances of later, better-known works including West Side Story, On the Town, the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs sequence, Candide, even some faint harbingers of the chaotic MASS. This interpretation sparkled in the right places (mainly the second movement Vivace e leggiero) and found both performers observing the remarkable transparency of the composer’s shadings, even through the opening Grazioso‘s more active stretches, e.g. between Letters H and L in the older Boosey & Hawkes edition. Only a touch of that uncertainty of carrying power in the clarinet part disturbed the easy flow of the second movement around the Lento molto at Letter J. But the fast-moving segments came over with an impressive light power, and the players’ handling of Bernstein’s rhythmic irregularities and alterations impressed for its level-headed ease.

Third Stream, fusion, whatever – it worked

SKETCHES OF SPAIN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday April 11, 2022

Phil Slater

Winding up its current tour, the ACO gave its penultimate performance of this particular program to an enthusiastic QPAC audience; not packed to the ceiling, but respectably populated. This, the 10th time the players had presented this music, involved the usual 16-strong string body supplemented by percussionist Brian Nixon and a jazz quartet put to several uses: trumpet Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, bass Brett Hirst and drums Jess Ciampa.

The intention of this enterprise was to fuse the visiting quartet with the ACO and, for much of the night, the success rate was high. I didn’t see any use of the guests during the opening fragment: Bernard Rofe’s arrangement of the opening to Par les rues et par les chemins from Debussy’s Iberia which was tooling along very nicely, strings and percussion in clear-speaking action, when suddenly artistic director/concertmaster Richard Tognetti made an abrupt leap into his own arrangement of the middle Blues movement to Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for which the soloist took up a contemporary and oddly-shaped instrument. This brought in the visiting quartet tangentially at first, gaining in contributory power as the movement passed in what can only be described as an arranger’s delight. I felt that there was a balance problem a bar after Number 7 in the old 1927 Durand edition when the violin starts its quadruple stops pizzicati and Tognetti was not as striking a contributor as you’d expect, given the assault typical in the two million performances I’ve heard prior to this one.

This was followed by a Sephardic song from Turkey, Yo era nina de casa alta, also in a Tognetti arrangement, that began with a percussive tambour rhythm, cellist Julian Thompson taking up a guitar, while Tognetti outlined the tune. No sooner begun than over; sadly, the guitar proved close to inaudible from my seat, although it made more of an impression during the following reading of Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Mind you, in its original form, the string quintet imitates guitar, drums, bells; this interpretation came complete with its own extra-string sound sources. Nevertheless, Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve gave an excellent account of the Largo assai (Rosary) interludes with excellently judged dynamic balance, and this version did not attempt the crescendo/diminuendo during the concluding Ritirata which seems to have been an atmospheric flourish unknown to the composer.

To finish off the evening’s first half, we got our reminiscences of Spain through several filters in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet bits in a selection from the Russian composer’s near-pastiche ballet Carmen. This piece enjoyed a vogue for some time, one that I’ve never quite understood except that the absence of wind ensures that performances are economically frugal. The arrangement is for strings and percussion (four players, originally, but Nixon and Ciampa seemed to cope; perhaps you only need two players for the selections we heard). I missed a few tubular bells notes in the Introduction and found some of the vibraphone work muffled, but the interpretation from Tognetti and his strings was very smart and arresting with patches of brilliant accomplishment from both sets of violins. We missed out on the ‘Fate’ motive that concludes the opera’s Prelude and features in the ballet, but we did score the Farandole from L’Arlesienne masquerading as a bolero and another import from The Fair Maid of Perth for a Carmen-and-Torero scene.

Some other memorable moments came in the bare-bones version of Escamillo’s Votre toast – here eloquent in its restraint – and the use of three ideally matched violas to carry the melody of the opera’s Act 3 Intermezzo. Despite the nay-sayers and the nonsense started by Furtseva about the blasphemy carried out on Bizet, this work – even in its truncated form – is a scouring agent of sorts, taking you so far into familiar pages and then cutting the ground out from under your comfort-seeking feet. Still, it’s a long way from Spain – just like Boccherini’s attractively hygienic and Debussy’s buoyantly optimistic streets, not to mention Ravel’s sophisticated foray into le jazz hot.

Matters took a sharper trans-Atlantic turn in the two main post-interval performances. The guest quartet took centre-stage for a version of the last movement, Solea, in Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. This new arrangement was a collaboration between pianist McMahon and the ACO’s Artistic Administration Manager, Bernard Rofe, the latter’s craft previously encountered in the Debussy transcription. For my taste, the only interesting facet of the experience came through Slater who made a positive impression by following a Davis trail – meandering but always dominant; mind you, what I know of the great trumpeter comes from sixty-plus years ago and a high-school fascination with the Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue albums, while Sketches of Spain passed me by.

As the work moved forward, the collaboration on display seemed to improve in persuasiveness, reaching a high point in a twinning of the three violas with the band minus McMahon in a stretch that came somewhere near suggesting Spain and exhilarated for itself. One of the question marks over this exercise actually came with Slater’s ‘bent’ notes which stood out, strangers in a familiar landscape and not quite gelling with the string writing which, as far as I could hear, played no games with microtones. Still, the final decrescendo proved to be, without question, the program’s most magical passage: excellently paced, restrained and confident: an ease-filled release into nothing.

For some reason, the ACO planning committee decided to interpose a Victoria motet between the Davis/Evans movement and another McMahon/Rofe arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain. Well, it was one way of putting a real national composer in a menu that otherwise consisted entirely of outsiders looking in on the Iberian peninsula. From choppy memories, the 8-part Ave Maria sets two choirs against each other with bursts of echoes, imitations and dovetailing; here, the visitors seemed to become one quartet, the ACO strings playing the Choir 1 lines. For reasons I can’t explain, the arrangement worked well enough, although this might have come about because of its simplicity; but then, what could you possibly add to music at this level of textural clarity?

Corea’s widely-travelled work exists in several versions. What am I talking about: it can be heard in a myriad of forms, formats, combinations and permutations and I’ve heard a fair few, if some decades ago. On this occasion, McMahon set the scene with mildly coruscating solo work before he was joined by various collaborating bodies. Not that it was all piano, or all Slater, even if these players gave us the most intriguing music-making across this long piece – the program’s most substantial by far. Tognetti and Valve took the spotlight occasionally, but not for long as the focus shifted between jazz quartet (or trio) and the ACO. Despite its episodic shape, the work didn’t come over as diffuse, being anchored by a long melodic line/chorus that all played in unison or at an octave’s remove (or two of them).

In the end, Spain presented as so much of the evening’s work did: living up to the catch-all title of sketch. I couldn’t find much national flavour in the piece, let alone the vaunted references to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which are more explicit in Corea’s earlier interpretations of this score). But you might say the same about the Victoria motet, or the Sephardic cantiga – or anything else at Monday night’s concert. For all that fretting about provenance, the exercise itself was full of expert, interesting performances and the merging of two separate bodies succeeded a good deal more than some previous experiences I’ve attended, like Don Banks’ Nexus of 1971, or Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2019. All the same, I hope that we can now move on to new pastures: the ACO’s first two presentations this year have celebrated Piazzolla/South America and the great (or infamous, if you like) Latin American colonizer.

New consort in a crammed program

HOTHEADS AND LOVERS

Castalia

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 7, 2022

Louis Hurley, Chloe Lankshear, Philip Murray, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Christopher Watson

There’d be those who think that we should always find room for another vocal consort; others might think that you’d need to be pretty good to start such a body, given the high standard of some ensembles these days. With regard to standards, I’m not talking about a creditable fact of musical life in Australia: the best that’s currently on offer here is several levels lower in quality than what’s coming out of England, America, the Baltic states and Japan. The first consort of voices that I ever heard live was that headed by Alfred Deller which performed in Wilson Hall (1964?) when I was an undergraduate; with very few exceptions, even from big-name internationals, it’s been downhill since then.

So I’m a tad jaundiced when such an ensemble announces itself, even when it arrives with lashings of enthusiasm. Here comes Castalia, taking its name from my favourite Delphic spring. This online recital seems to have been a recording of the group’s debut performance at the aMBUSH Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney on February 12 this year. Which rather surprised me, although it shouldn’t have; I was labouring under the pre-conception that this recital would be live, like most of the Australian Digital Concert Hall events that I experience. In looking up the ensemble’s website to identify the individual singers, matching names to faces, I came upon some ‘reviews’ of the February 12 program – published observations that, like so much similar writing these days, has nothing to do with criticism but more with offering ludicrously inflated praise alongside a dearth of information about the work attempted.

In an attempt to demonstrate versatility, the Castalia sextet gave us a mixture of the time-honoured and the very new (well, almost). We heard 21 pieces in all, two of them instrumental from theorboist/lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis; most of the madrigals emerged from across the Renaissance (surprise, surprise), with a throwback to Landini and a trio of throw-forwards – to American writer Caroline Shaw’s 2016 setting of a Renaissance text, to Italian historical tear-off Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2008 Rosso, cosi rosso, and to the still-desperately contemporary Englishman Michael Finnissy and his take on a mad scene, Quel ‘no’ crudel of 2012. Too much? Despite the pretty seamless co-ordination of personnel, the experience proved rather opaque as pieces melded into each other, despite the audience’s insistence on applauding every one. Castalia had organized its program in seven sections, but the temptation to clap when silence broke out was too great to be resisted.

As the first of their Dolcissimi collation, the group worked through Arcadelt’s Il bianco e dolce cigno, a solo female voice singing the verse through before the other three lines joined in for a restatement with lute underpinning; a gentle, modest first gambit. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare made a telling platform for Chloe Lankshear‘s soprano; the work is not as difficult as some of the Prince of Venosa’s effusions and the five singers handled its demands with ease, making a fine passage out of the central homophonic O miracol d’amore across bars 38 to 40. Something went wrong in the later stages of Strozzi’s Silentio nocivo where all lines had their final turn with affetuose from bar 107 on; an early entry, possibly. Last in this opening group, Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked dynamic variety in its opening pages but an erotic suggestion from the second tenor line at Ahi bocca perked up a rather staid reading of this ambiguous marvel.

As an odd opening to the second grouping, Primavera, Martyn-Ellis performed the first of Piccinini’s chiaconne, which is agreable enough to be Spring-suggestive. One of my many defects is that I can’t read tablature but it seemed to me that this reading was a few variants short; as well, the soprano quaver (for want of a better word) runs occasionally suffered from a mis-step., and the final bars sounded tame. Both tenors (Louis Hurley, Christopher Watson) worked through another truncation in Landini’s Ecco la primavera with Lankshear providing a supporting tambour – the whole medieval intrusion negotiated very rapidly and gaining little by the tenor substitution for a more resonant bass timbre. Another Monteverdi rounded off this segment: Io mi son giovinetta. This is another buoyant and bouncy stream of inventive responses to a text (by Boccaccio?) with an ambiguous, possibly minatory ending.

Augelli opened appropriately enough with Casulana’s Vaghi amorose augelli, its original four vocal lines reduced to a middle register-rich duet for Stephanie Dillon‘s mezzo and lute. A clever balance followed with Settimia Caccini’s Cantan gl’augelli for which soprano Amy Moore was accompanied by Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, although I found this treatment to be pretty strict in metre but gifted with an elegantly contrived conclusion. The first of the three contemporary works ended this bracket: Caroline Shaw’s Dolce cantavi for three female voices to a text by a Renaissance contessa. In a pretty continuous chordal movement, the composer has produced a clever piece of mimicry, her piece distinguished by an individual modulatory quirk or two and slotting into its environment here with remarkable facility.

Up next, a Crudelta grouping, beginning with yet another solo, this time from tenor Watson with a rich bass support from theorbo for Giulio Caccini’s Amor, io parto. Yet another instance of contrasting rates of activity, this song impressed for its rhythmic curvaceousness with some intriguing ornamentation; was that a 1610 Vespers-type set of repeated quavers on the final A in bar 26? Strangely, the following Crudel acerba by Arcadelt came over as emotionally bland, despite an increased vocal expansion to a quintet with lute support. A pity, as the setting is a potentially sonorous plaint. Finishing the hard-done-by nature of this segment, the group presented an intriguing rarity by Sigismondo d’India: Se tu, Silvio crudel. After a solid solo from Lankshear, the madrigal broadened out into five parts and a textural contrast between rapid block chords and interleaving duets, the whole a dramatic highlight handled with some welcome urgency.

Who better than Gesualdo to kick off a set called Infiammare? Castalia gave a reliable reading of ‘Merce!’ grido piangendo, treating its chromatic shifts and shocks with excellent ease, making a sensible creature out of the infamous Moro, dunque tacendo bars (12-17) and sailing through the remarkable shifts that begin at bar 28. My only quibble came with the last chord which I would have liked to be sustained longer – a safe arrival after a whale of a journey. Sciarrino’s study in red asked for a vocal quintet (all singers bar Hurley), proving to be strong on glissandi and some pointillist bursts, the work heavily atmospheric, although I was left in the dark as to what was being achieved. Much the same for Finnissy’s restless duet with Lankshear and Moore chasing each other’s cues in a high tessitura with some squeals and squalls to unsettle your expectations. The composer’s vocabulary remains as fluent and acerbic as in earlier instrumental pieces that I’ve come across: these latter were extremely challenging to examine and penetrate, although the actual outcomes didn’t sound anywhere near as aurally confrontational as they looked. Strozzi’s L’amante modesto enjoyed brisk handling – and it is substantial, peppered with sudden changes in timbre and rhythm that might have brought out the best in all six singers if the lower lines like that of Philip Murray had been more clear in articulation. A slight error of timing disrupted the flow at about bar 121 but I couldn’t trace the fault.

The solitary occupant of a Tirsi e Clori segment was Monteverdi’s Rimanti in pace; a bit puzzling, as the dialogue of the madrigal is between Thyrsis and Phyllis. For this piece, Lankshear rested, as did Martyn-Ellis; they were sadly missed when some of the chord work impressed as skimpy, possibly due to passing uncertainty in the middle voices. But it is a solid work, demanding in its occasionally transparent scoring.

Finally, we came to Sospiri, beginning with Capirola’s Recerchar primo; not a really happy experience with some passages of uneven delivery and several muffed notes that proved too obtrusive to be ignored. First of the Verdolets, Quante dolceca amore, has been recorded by Watson who sang it with lute support. Both musicians demonstrated a well-honed partnership with a fetching breadth of phrasing throughout this short work. Then all singers joined in for Ultimi miei sospiri, a splendid sample of emotional self-flagellation couched in limpid and mobile textures that gave this recital-exhibition a well-honed, surprise-free ending.

Mellifluous stirring of memories

NORTHERN SERENADES

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Saturday, March 26 2022

Johannes Brahms

I’ve not been living in Queensland long enough to be sure of certain musical matters. One that preoccupies me currently is whether or not the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra has been a regular visitor to Brisbane. You can’t tell anything much from the last two years’ activity but I suspect that this body’s forays north of the Tweed might have been few and far between since it sprang into being in 2013. Or it might have performed in out-of-town venues and not had time to build up a public here; Saturday night found the Conservatorium Theatre about a third full.

Not that this is an indication of anything much. For years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played to small audiences in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall; the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra worked for some surprisingly small attendance numbers in its early days at the Melbourne Recital Centre; the sterling Selby & Friends series laboured to attract supporters to its recitals at Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew. And the list could be extended to take in other brilliant performers, both locals and visitors, who didn’t get the following they deserved for reasons both specific and vague.

I’ve heard the ARCO players at least twice in the past two years, both occasions through the good graces of the Melbourne (Australian) Digital Concert Hall. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, as this particular program proved time and time again. A good deal of their output was more mellow, less astringent than I’d expected, and details of their performance practice – pre-figured in a program booklet article by Hilary Metzger, as well as a prefatory address from co-artistic director/concertmaster Rachael Beesley – ensured that the ensemble’s output reflected musical mores from the situations and times in which some of the night’s composers found themselves.

We heard five works on Saturday evening, beginning with Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite of 1913 which turned out to be the most recent score performed. Another more taxing English work came with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for Strings, followed by Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade of 1887 which the composer arranged for small orchestra (double woodwind and horns, strings) in 1892 and this was in turn edited for string orchestra by American educator Lucas Drew – which latter version we heard as a pretty thick-textured substitute for the scintillating string quartet original. After interval came Beesley’s sister Shauna‘s arrangement of that much-transcribed gem, Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke from 1849 – the night’s odd man out. To end, the ARCO forces performed – for the first time in my experience – another Serenade for Strings by Victor Herbert, written in 1888. In other words, four of these pieces were written within 26 years of each other; one way of generating a focus, even if Holst’s buoyant stomps didn’t quite fit into the prevailing late Romantic ambience.

But, the St. Paul’s Suite makes an ideal opener for any string orchestra program with its direct action and minimal use of tricky production techniques. Beesley had her players swing with a hefty bounce into Holst’s opening Jig and generated some fetching passages like the second violins’ variant at Number 3’s key signature change in the old Goodwin and Tabb score of 1922, and an unflustered Piu mosso at Number 9. Well before this, however, you became conscious of this orchestra’s smooth output, making a welcome change to the usual steel-string clangour and bringing to the front of mind how conditioned we have become to hearing this score spun out with robotic precision and an overkill of the composer’s dynamic directions – something like aristocrats slumming it in the country, which is not the name of Holst’s particular game here.

Full marks to the second violins again for their Ostinato work with some seamless dovetailing, and a pliant 8-bar solo from Beesley that set up this brief segment’s outer melodic matter. The concertmaster was put to more hefty work in the Intermezzo: this suite’s high-water mark for me with its striking oscillation between lean melodic arches and full-bodied chords for nearly everyone 18 bars from the end. Then, The Dargason conclusion mirrored the opening Jig with its absence of try-hard urbanization, the only problem coming from the cellos and their announcement of Greensleeves a bar after Number 3 which was too faint to have much impact against the busy violas. Naturally enough, this was compensated for at Number 9 when the upper strings had their way with the tune, and the final pages were robust enough.

One of the evening’s finest stretches came with the Elgar work which somehow slotted easily into the group’s performance style. Each movement passed without unnecessary flurries, capturing the score’s eloquently graduated phrasing without pushing the short crescendo requirements into overdrive, the violins true in intonation across Elgar’s aspiring E Major melody at Letter C of the opening Allegro piacevole. Not that the intonation in both violin groups was faultless; the odd slightly-off notes could be discerned in the seconds’ second desk and an inexplicable quirk in the firsts arose often enough to be noticeable in ascending small scalar passages on the E string. But you could not have wished for a more sympathetic dying fall in this movement’s last five bars.

In terms of numbers, the ensemble ran 5-4-4-4-2. To my ear, the first violins would have gained from an additional body, especially as six names appeared in the program. But then, Rob Nairn was named as principal double bass and he was absent, leaving Marian Heckenberg and Chloe Ann Williamson to carry that line – which they did with conspicuous devotion and produced a fulsome support in high-tension passages. You missed the extra violin weight mainly at the divisi bars at Letter L of the Larghetto, which Beesley took at a proper pace; in this case, a fine cross of ruminative with ardent. Later, the players captured the Allegretto‘s calmly surging essence but kept their best for the final pages following the change to E Major, in particular the delectably spacious last chords that brought this short piece to a euphonious conclusion.

It might be based on Wolf’s own arrangement for orchestra but the Italian Serenade loses its bite when re-contexted. The ARCO musicians kept the movement fluent but the innate vigour of the original went walkabout as the tempo moved into galumphing mode and chromatic changes both inner and outer (for the first time, at bar 46 and onwards) seemed ironed out, an effect that recurred to even more unfortunate effect at the interlude between bars 130 and 160 where linear clarity is vital to prefigure the joyful explosion back to G Major at bar 161. We had a taste of the string quartet original when Drew dried out his forces for the cello recitatives starting at bar 303.

So the whole thing had its flashes, particularly during concordant passages at full pelt, and you enjoyed a muffled impression of this chamber music scrap’s ebullience, but you missed the pointillist detail and the expectation-scouring wit. Something similar came across in the Fantasy Pieces arrangement where Shauna Beesley gave us a new work. Of course, you could relish swathes of string texture as long as you forgot Schumann’s original (although even he was catholic in his stipulations admitting viola and cello to take the solo line, as well as the original clarinet). However, what you do with the piano accompaniment is crucial and Beesley’s version verged on muddiness. How could it be otherwise, given the relentless arpeggios, thick bass support and competitive doubling and canonic work that persists throughout all three pieces?

In fact, at this point you needed a corps that specialized in rhythmic precision and slashing, pointed right-hand technical prowess to unplug the lower strings’ processes. Not so much in the final Rasch und mit Feuer, but certainly the opening Zart und mit Ausdruck became blancmange thick, the solo/dominant line having trouble being discerned, despite the arranger’s efforts to give it continuous prominence. For sure, the middle Lebhaft fared better, although it seemed to me that the pace had slackened once the musicians had passed the key change to F Major’s first repeat.

I’d moved further back in the Conservatorium theatre at interval; otherwise, I might not have noticed that one of the first violins moved across to the seconds for this Schumann arrangement. Presumably, the top-middle line needed reinforcing, and it’s true that this subsidiary strand probably gains from extra weight. Still, the main themes at some points in all three pieces tended to become attenuated, not exactly disappearing in the mesh but coming close to it. Perhaps the arrangement needed a bit more daring to make it more effective; as things turned out, the exercise proved sonorous but bland.

Each movement of the Victor Herbert Serenade proved how successful a choice the work was for this ensemble. If you know the composer’s background, you’d be aware that there’s nothing complicated in his music-making. But it’s not just a chain of melting melodies; each of its five movements shows a clear format and a fine awareness of writing for strings. The ARCO players seemed to enjoy themselves right from the opening Aufzug with its Babes in Toyland-reminiscent outer march sections around a lilting, central meno mosso. As for the following Polonaise, the first violins set pretty much all of the running and managed to stay together for most of its duration, although sorely tested by a five-bar stretch at the centre of Herbert’s G Major Trio.

Commentators (the very few I’ve come across) find the influence of Wagner in this serenade’s central Liebes-Scene. Even when listening to American (and one German) recording, I couldn’t find much trace of Tristan, Lohengrin, or even Act 3 of Siegfried; Herbert’s melodic span is orderly and falls into easily assimilable phrase and sentence lengths, while his harmonic vocabulary rarely ventures far afield. Nevertheless, it’s an effective movement and gave an excellent chance for the ARCO cellos to shine four bars after Letter C as they outlined the main theme under the violins’ soft sextuplet patterns.

You could make the same observations concerning structure, melody and harmony about Herbert’s Canzonetta with its infectious first violin portamento in bar 3 – and beyond. A gently-paced interlude, this movement also was reminiscent of passages from Herbert’s musicals (judging from the few that I know, thanks to my mother’s devotion to Nelson Eddy) and not outstaying its welcome. At this stage, the ARCO ensemble came pretty close to recreating the overall sound-colour of a pre-World War Two small orchestra through its melodic lilt and supple pulse. Even the repetitious jig-finale found these performers undaunted by its relentless optimism which became more than a bit wearing by the time we reached the Con spirito at Letter H, followed by a Con fuoco, and yet another Piu mosso.

Nobody would claim this Herbert suite as a burst of bright light in the string orchestra’s repertoire. It has, nevertheless, an openness of language and a charm of address that should make it welcome as a leavening of the predictable diet of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Suk and even Elgar that makes up an all-too-staple diet for organizations without the facility to bring in woodwind and brass supernumeraries, as the well-funded Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra can.

As for the performance flourishes outlined by concertmaster Beesley and the Metzger essay, these sounded well-absorbed into the musicians’ technical vocabulary. Vibrato, portamento and rubato were all employed without fuss and, as far as I could tell, in appropriate situations. In this respect, the ARCO directors and members set an agreable example of how to suit yourself to the music you’re playing. Which makes life easier for all of us, worlds away from being constrained by a doctrinaire insistence on musical correctness: an inflammation of the aesthetic membrane that I class with Putin’s A History of Ukraine and our own prime minister’s podcast, Fighting Bushfires Out of Country.

Four pianos put to good use

SCARLATTI’S STEINWAYS AT MELBOURNE

Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3458

Being out of the scholarly musical world, I’m unaware of up-to-the-moment opinions concerning the use of modern instruments in the performance of baroque music. Dealing with anything earlier, I can understand a purist’s revulsion, for example, at hearing an estampie performed on a saxophone-and-drum-kit combination, or hearing a singer of Sting’s calibre attempting lute songs by Dowland. The aesthetic gorge rises. What about this double CD from the University of Melbourne’s piano guru where Scarlatti is given the full concert hall treatment on each of the four Conservatorium Steinways? The accompanying leaflet insists that selected sonatas have been assigned to specific pianos, depending on the characteristics of the scores and their appropriateness for the different instruments. The more time-honoured problem remains: is there a place for Scarlatti in the repertoire of a concert pianist, or should we let the 555 sonatas become the harpsichordist’s province only?

I’ve never had much patience with the strict nature of performance claims made by certain period instrumentalists; less of them are doctrinaire nowadays, compared to the fervour at work in the 1960s and 1970s when purity of delivery was the aim, if rarely achieved. It might be worth my carrying out a particular exercise that would involve going back through the archives and finding out exactly how many poor early music recitals/concerts I’ve experienced – everything from playing out-of-tune (‘I was using mean temperament!’) to complete absence of expression (‘ Vibrato was never authorized by Leopold Mozart’) to plain fluffed notes or whole phrases (‘Everyone knows that leap is impossible on the dulcian’). I’m sure that even the most cursory examination will show that the worst experiences have been at the hands of local musicians – who are quickest to cavil when you call them out for incompetence.

After those early music writhings endured six decades ago (usually in churches), we eventually experienced visitors who could actually play/sing early music so that you didn’t anticipate each attempt at a Gabrieli canzon with fear or a Locke ayre with loathing. Not to mention the exposure to real medieval music with ensembles boasting members who could stay in tune – with each other and the prevailing mode/tonality. We still have throwbacks to the practices of yesteryear where near enough passes as good enough; I can pretty well name the few native valveless horn players who can be trusted with a Bach Brandenburg or a Vivaldi concerto and not setting your teeth on edge in the process.

But the field still has its precious quarters; in my experience, far more so than in any other corner of musical performance with an occasional exception from the ultra-modern ranks, where the aim is to deflect evaluation with arcane, usually mathematical intricacy.

Ian Holtham isn’t exactly trespassing on hallowed ground by performing Scarlatti on his pianos; most of us would have become acquainted with this composer through recordings by Clara Haskil; Landowska and Valenti in my youth were simply names in music magazines and journals. Further, he sits in highly distinguished company. Still, the sonatas do lose vitality, even piquancy when transferred away from the plucky harpsichord.

Along with a host of other Australian piano students, I grew up with the Ricordi collection of 25 sonatas as edited by Alessandro Longo. A few of these have been picked up for these CDs: K. 96 in D Major and K. 159 in C Major, this latter nicknamed La caccia (by Longo? Kirkpatrick?). Among the rest are some that have featured in recital programs while the last track of all, the K. 435 in D Major, was used by Tommasini for his The Good-Humoured Ladies ballet, as was the B minor K. 87 which appears in Holtham’s fourth group. But most of the sonatas are unknown to me – which is all to the good, as who wants to wallow in the familiar?

The first CD opens with five sonatas, all but the middle in C Major, that odd-man-out an A minor. These are performed on the Steinway No. 4 in the Conservatorium’s collection; this one is assessed by the performer as having ‘warm, sunny tones’ and ‘an openness of sound’ that is best suited to these uncomplicated tonalities. The K. 420 makes a pleasant enough call to arms with its internal repeated trumpet notes, only some slight hesitations at negotiating the odd left-hand leap acting as a distraction to a vital enough reading. The Cantabile K. 132 is distinguished for its care with detail, like the different types of tremolo in bars 29 and 31 (later, bars 69 and 71) and the carefully applied splaying of certain left hand chords.

The K. 54 A minor is a crossed-hands test, Holtham handling those passes with a minimum of delay, and he keeps the double-octave rhetoric at the end of each half fairly light. Again, the well-known K. 159 jig sounds jaunty if under-emphatic, particularly in off-the-beat high note bars like 14-16 and 18-20 where you’d expect some bite. Last in this cluster, the K. 461 is an uneven collation where ideas are juxtaposed and interpretation becomes pretty much a question of rhythmic impulse. Holtham splits the sonata into clumps, inserting pauses as demarcation lines, particularly in the second half’s G minor pages. But the work is odd, not least for the Schubertian suggestions starting at bar 84, and again for those Clementine bursts of contrary motion.

Holtham moves to Steinway No. 2, which is variously described s ‘svelte’, ‘acoustic bitter dark chocolate”, having ‘a rasping quality in stronger dynamics’ and ‘an especially dramatic presence’. So, naturally, enough, it becomes the vehicle for minor sonatas in all the white keys but B. The K. 7 in A minor bounded where I would have liked more bounce as well as a sacrifice of ornamentation for speed, plus a clearer definition of those triplet bursts at bars 45-6, 53-4, and at the equivalent places in the second part. The following K. 263 in E minor suited Holtham’s severe approach much better with a deft alteration between gravity and questioning, the only problem an uneven rhythmic flow across bars 69 to 71 on both runs-through.

The first half of the D minor K. 517 appeared to suffer from more irregular delivery in some early right-hand quaver groupings but it was hard to tell if this came about because of a deviation from digital regularity or from the pianist’s individual note dynamics. Suffice to say, the problem didn’t appear after the half-way mark. As for the jauntily grave K. 426 in G minor, this also played to Holtham’s strengths, delineated with an attractive finesse and inevitability despite the inbuilt pauses. Again, you would be pressed to find fault with the C minor K. 84, except for those awkward scales in bars 63, 64, 66 and 67 with their two interpolated demi-semiquavers which disrupt the regularity that obtains up to that point and which are hard to integrate successfully. As for the K. 239 in F minor, this made an unsatisfying ending to the No. 2 Steinway output because it was delivered at an uncomfortably rapid pace. It didn’t matter in the polonaise bars but the downward scales came over as uneven and uncomfortable, particularly in this most interesting of the minor key pieces.

The most commonly used of the Conservatorium Steinways, No. 3, is described as owning ‘great tonal adaptability’ – in fact, ‘a genial tonal openness . . . like an acoustic smile’, which makes it appropriate for ‘the dashing virtuosity’ to be found in the following set of six sonatas. You can hear the benignity in the F Major K. 366 which opens this second disc’s six-part series and the experience would be unblemished if not for two right-hand passages in 6ths (bars 31-2, 39-40; later 58-61)) which sound awkward, unexpectedly difficult in their execution during an otherwise fine toccata. There’s a splendidly firm touch to the B flat Major K. 545, despite an odd falter in the left-hand solo at bars 5-6, and a tendency to elongate the bar’s time-space for the sake of ornamentation from bar 12 on.

A real delight is Holtham’s account of the K. 15 in G Major: packed with vitality and minimal disruption of pace for those wide left-hand leaps in the sonata’s second half, and a welcome clarity of texture with little (any?) use of the sustaining pedal. I relished the rasgueado chords that splayed out at bars 50, 52, 128 and 130 during the K. 209 in A Major: another bright-sounding interpretation with plenty of personality. A fair few small pauses or commas were inserted into the D Major K. 492, most of them understandable but the interpretation was of the aforementioned segmented type: excellent in some parts, laboured in others (like the pattern-setting left-hand one in bar 18 where all the notes are present but metrically hard to differentiate). By contrast, the last in this sequence – K. 216 in E Major – showed a welcome authority and insight, both in treating those rushing scales that generate a supple excitement, especially from bar 129 to the end, and also in a sudden easing of tension into a strolling casualness at bars 99 and 121.

We come now to the last Steinway, No. 1, and the Conservatorium’s least heard of the four pianos. With regard to this, Holtham is full of praise, seeing it as possessing ‘superb tonal range and an abiding expressive adaptability.’ His final group of works are in D Major or B minor, keys where Scarlatti is able to summon up ‘full orchestral qualities and gentle, plaintive mimicry’. Not sure that I heard either in the D Major K. 490, but the reading was near-exemplary in its melding of sudden shocks into a composite, with the extra inbuilt charm of added-note left-hand chords generating the occasional harmonic frisson.

With the B minor K. 87, Holtham gives free rein to the piano’s ability to keep four lines separate and clear while using the instrument’s expressive power. The part-writing remained penetrable and lucid but the executant also infused his version with a Chopinesque sensibility and understated rubato in a notable track that stood out from its surrounds. K.119 in D Major is highly challenging and, at the end of this performance, I wasn’t convinced that it transfers well to the piano. For one thing, it needs more rapidity and a lighter touch than it received here; for another, those grating discords starting at bar 61 and later at bar 163 sound muddy on a Steinway; as well, the right-hand repeated notes came over as laboured.

Another gem in this collection is the mobile, melancholy B minor K. 27, here given a masterly treatment where the texture remains transparent but the actual sound colour verges on Romantic with a slight sense of rhythmic elision, capped by a splendidly shaped burst of harmonic richness across bars 17 to 20. Holtham’s hand-crossing is seamless throughout and his dynamic output even and sympathetic to each phrase’s context. Most pianists who have essayed Scarlatti know the D Major K. 96 and Holtham gives it an honest-speaking account, facing its difficulties square-on, be it the rebounds from those left-hand top As or the implied guitar buzz of repeated right-hand single notes. But the moments that appealed to me more were the buoyant octave-heavy bursts that conclude both halves.

Holtham adds an envoi, the D Major K. 435, which he discovered in his student days and which has sustained his affection. More of us would know it as the second movement from the suite made from Tommasini’s 1917 orchestration exercise for the Ballets Russes. The pianist carries it off with gusto and clear enthusiasm, although I didn’t understand why he slowed down for the opening 3 1/2 bars of the sonata’s second part, picking up the prevailing tempo when the left hand returned to the bass clef. Still, this addition made a happy finishing-off point for Holtham’s compendium which is of excellent technical quality, an example of Move record engineering at its best.

Starting the year embryonically

AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE – MOZART – VIENNESE STAR

Australian Haydn Ensemble String Quartet

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Monday March 14, 2022

Skye McIntosh

Streaming once again from Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, this Australian Digital Concert Hall recital was given by members of the worthy Sydney ensemble: artistic director Skye McIntosh, AHE regular Matthew Greco in violin 2 position, viola Karina Schmitz who may be just passing through on her way back to America, and cellist Daniel Yeadon without whom no period music performance in this country can lay claim to credibility. On paper, the quartet makes an impressive group; in the flesh, I’m afraid that these players have a fair way to travel before convincing us that they speak with one voice. Currently, the AHESQ fails to satisfy on a number of important levels.

We were presented with three works: Haydn Op. 33 No. 5 in G Major, Boccherini Op. 32 No. 5 in G minor, and the great Mozart K. 465 in C Major. Fine – an excellent launch to this year’s AHE season, if a tad chaste in personnel. But then, the live audience was not strong in numbers, as far as I could tell from the broadcast – unless a large crowd was packed into the back stalls. And I was hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd younger than (let’s be kind) 60. Not that there are any proscriptions currently in operation for events like this recital; venue organizers can ask those in attendance to wear masks, but I didn’t see any being worn. And, while it appears to be a pleasant enough space, what’s the Chatswood attraction? Previous online events show that CBD venues in Sydney have trouble attracting audiences, let alone the young; why promenade your wares in an ultra-conservative demographic that might as well block independently-thinking ne’er-do-wells from travelling further up the line at North Sydney?

Sadly, of the three works performed, I found the group’s Haydn to be the most unsatisfying. During the initial Vivace assai, first violin notes kept disappearing as early as bar 11. But McIntosh wasn’t alone: the ambient texture sounded scratchy and scrappy. Still, the first violin’s dominance is inbuilt and attracts your attention continuously – not always to a performance’s betterment, as the flimsy top notes across bars 21 and 22 demonstrated, and later a clumsiness in attack at bars 134-5. Up to this night, the players had performed in Canberra, Berry and up the road from there in Burrawang, so their roughness of ensemble surprised and disappointed.

Even in the relative safety zone of this quartet’s Largo, the question of weight distribution arose as problematic, like the accompaniment provided by second violin and viola in tandem for much of the piece’s length. As well, the uniformity of attack proved a moveable feast – either scatter-gun or over-aggressive (bar 44) – while the firm concluding measures lacked subtlety of dynamic. In the opening to Haydn’s scherzo, we were left up in the air rhythmically because of the inchoate chromatic scale across bars 4 and 5. Luckily, the trio made a more positive impression – but then, it’s four-square by comparison.

Refreshing to hear Greco and Schmitz being exposed in bar 33 of the set-of-variations finale, and Schmitz and Yeadon partnering for the penultimate excursion before Haydn moved to Presto and thereby brought about a much-needed infusion of verve and punch across that 26-bar stretch. However, this concluding glimpse of energy was insufficient to rescue a reading that seemed to be tinkering at the edges without giving the composer’s work its robust due.

Apart from devotees who have graduated beyond the Minuet from the E Major String Quintet and that entertaining mini-tone poem, La Ritirata di Madrid, most of us don’t know Boccherini’s 100 string quartets. Which is a pity, as this program’s central work demonstrated. Like the contemporary Haydn work just heard, this score favours the first violin, although Greco came in for a few partnership moments. Certain moments stood out, like McIntosh’s deft triplets peppered through the opening Allegro comodo‘s development. During the Andantino, Boccherini generated a well-tilled field of rhythmic titillations through the contrast of triplets with straight 3/4 crotchet passages. Happy to report that the ensemble’s unanimity of attack was pretty fair here, apart from a notable early strike from someone at the start of the movement’s fourth-last bar.

The composer gave his interpreters a good deal of interweaving and individual highlighting during the Minuetto con moto, the players here dealing out several clever touches, especially in the Trio‘s second part. Indeed, this movement generated some passages of individuality where the participants invested a certain layer of personality in their work, the which persisted into the concluding Allegro giusto where you gained some insight into how brisk and clear this music could be. McIntosh’s back-to-Bach Capriccio ad libitum cadenza sent a minor shock-wave through these ear-drums, probably because of the performer’s relish in the triple-stop chords that interrupted Boccherini’s busy-work demi-semiquavers.

Here was an intriguing inclusion in this recital book-ended by unquestionable and familiar masterworks. It gave plenty of indications – if they were needed – of the Italian writer’s capacity for originality and delight in experiment; nothing exceptional or disturbing like the opening passage of what was coming after this night’s interval, but venturing into the unexpected and not weighing down his lower-voiced players with supplementary pap.

Despite some drawbacks, the final piece proved the night’s most satisfying experience, in part because of the group’s employment of vibrato and the consequent production of a less strident sound colour, even in the chromatic meanderings of Mozart’s opening Adagio. Not everything went swimmingly, Yeadon sounding stressed for no apparent reason at bars 101 to 102. But the writing quality had moved onto a more finished plane than that which obtained in the program’s other content so far; even the polyphonic interplay was more satisfyingly couched and striking, as at the eloquent entry from Schmitz at bar 45. As well, the musicians allowed a fluency to their delineation of metre and pulse, giving space for moments of individual difficulty which is one of the vital requirements in chamber playing.

It’s the composer’s genius, of course, that carries off his opening Allegro, evident in the subtle changes that tittivate the recapitulation. But the performance was not able to maintain its sometimes worthy standard, displaced by odd distractions like an uneven first violin-viola duet across bars 225 and 226 and an absence of joyful elation in the effusiveness that begins in bar 235: that brilliant final gesture that carries us to the subdued final six bars.

Such imbalance in weighting also bedevilled the Andante cantabile, in particular the dynamic shifts that begin at bar 31 where the tailoring of voices proved to be something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. Across some pages, it struck me that the central pair – second violin and viola – had moved into a dynamically congruent space that sat at odds with the top and bottom lines. But the balance hadn’t improved by the time the ensemble reached that simple set of detached repeated chords in bar 81, and imperfections like that meant that these pages as a unit failed to capture this mind and heart.

Mozart’s Menuetto had its moments under these hands, despite occasional disruptions like the squeaky last F crotchet in bar 42, and several questionably pitched leaps in the Trio‘s second part. What you missed in the minuet itself was a sense of continuity; as it came across, you heard amiable scraps, if carried out with welcome fervour. I liked McIntosh’s manipulation of the metre in the opening strophes of the Allegro molto, slightly bending its shape up to the end of the first subject’s treatment at bar 34. In fact, this movement flew past with pleasing polish to the point that I was sorry we heard no exposition repeat – the only practicable one omitted throughout the night. This finale yielded a number of real pleasures, like the splendid duet for McIntosh and Yeadon beginning at bar 308 and an informed elegance at bar 391, and later at bar 404: points where other quartets batter the notes with Beethovenian passion. Certainly, this movement gave the program a convincing conclusion, if not one that wiped out the memory of a tentative Haydn interpretation and an absence of character in that unexpectedly original Boccherini.