‘Tis the season, all right

CHRISTMAS VARIATIONS

Megan Reeve

Move Records MCD 585

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy-handed visions

RACHMANINOV, RAMEAU & COWELL

Timothy Young

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday December 11

Timothy Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Green Jean Studios, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaky start, brilliant finish

MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS

Sophie Rowell and Kristian Chong

Hamer Hall

Thursday November 26

Sophie Rowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glittering aphorisms all round

PIANO SONATA NO. 6: 17 GRAEME LEE PRINTS

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3453

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

Or Lee could be some other fellow entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds heard are sweet

QUEEN OF THE NILE

Sofia Troncoso and Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 12

Sofia Troncoso

Here we are: back in the concert hall – not many of us, but enough to suggest that a corner has been turned. Will we get back to the ‘proper’ order of things and revert to valuing the packed-house syndrome as an indicator of success? Probably. but I suspect that any turning back to the way we were will take longer in the major cities because there’s so much to lose if something goes wrong. You could go the way of self-assurance and propose that people who attend serious music concerts and recitals are, by definition, non-COVID 19 carriers. But the virus is – as we have seen – indiscriminate and, although I may not be sweating and gasping all over you (as I would at a rave), there’s no confidence to be placed in an honest face – not these days.

Despite the ever-present risk, Musica Viva presented this Reconnect Brisbane program featuring the Camerata chamber orchestra in eight works from the Baroque or close to it. Chief soloist, soprano Sofia Troncoso, worked through three arias connected with the night’s Cleopatran theme, but the rest of the content had little to do with Egypt, the glaring exception being a sinfonia from Hasse’s opera Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. Relieved by some short pieces by Locke, and Biber (the inevitable Battalia), the evening’s major work was a Pisendel violin concerto, with Camerata’s artistic director Brendan Joyce as soloist.

I couldn’t see what was the state of play in the stalls, but there were meagre numbers up in the balcony of the QPAC Concert Hall. We were well-spaced out, mainly in clusters of two – but it seemed that many Musica Viva patrons were not yet willing to take the plunge and come out to a recital/concert. The auditorium’s side boxes radiating down from the balcony were pretty much empty and the ambience upstairs could charitably be called ‘quiet’.

I was sitting in the last occupied row, I think, and have to confess that the acoustic properties were lousy in this position. For a body like Camerata, which is not a dynamically volatile body like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the travelling power of their group product seems poor. But then, this room – its slight fan, its high roof, its plush seating and carpet – is not an ideal venue for transmitting performances rich in detail. For a Brahms symphony, a big Mahler, the Gurrelieder: fine. But my forebodings started when a chest of viols (2 violins, a viola, a cello, a bass and harpsichord) played the Curtain Tune from Locke’s music for The Tempest – which is the composer’s restrained musical depiction of the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not, punctuated by some intimations of Restoration storms. As far as I can tell from the score, a certain amount of repetition went on; no problem, and I’m sure it was common practice in the composer’s day while scenery was being hoisted into place. This reading proved to be plangent and restrained, lacking much bite from where I heard it and making you wish for a more aggressive approach that a group like the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra beings to this genre of composition.

Joyce then outlined the order of proceedings and led the full Camerata body – five each of first and second violins, four violas, three cellos and a double bass, with that harpsichord continuo – into Hasse’s Spiritoso e staccatoAllegroStaccato triptych which made a fine impression for its smooth unanimity of attack, but the quality of sound came up as wooly and without bite.

Troncoso gave an amiable account of Cleopatra’s last aria, Da tempeste, from Act 3 of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In the lower reaches of this piece, her voice melded into the strings all too readily. As it progressed, you could tell that all the fioriture was there but it proved uninvolving, particularly in the exposed middle section from bars 85 to 94. The highest notes required – A and G sharp – came over well enough in semiquaver patterns, not so well as individual quavers.

The Concerto grosso No. 7 in G Major from the Op. 7 set of twelve by Giuseppe Valentini made a novelty of sorts. In his program briefing, Joyce wondered why this writer’s name was not as familiar as those of Vivaldi or Corelli. Well, it might have something to do with melodic originality and a facility of expression that didn’t show so much debt to formulae. Certainly the score had elegance and the Camerata gave it their best, but the five movements – Grave, Fuga, Adagio, Vivace and Allegro assai – proved unexceptional, apart from the last which featured some unexpected modulations.

Joyce’s violin added a pliancy to the slow opening, while some predictable suspensions and close-order chording gave the Fuga membership of many another similar work. The slow movement didn’t extend very far, despite the introduction of ornaments; the following lively-paced pages brought into play some welcome subdued hugger-mugger action. But the finale, along with those key-changes, also held a more visceral attraction with much crescendo/diminuendo work and a deft juxtaposition of forte and piano passages.

Cleopatra’s Piangero comes earlier in Act 3 of Handel’s opera than Da tempeste and has become well-known here since Opera Australia mounted the work to showcase the Baroque talents of Yvonne Kenny and the trio of counter-tenors in the company’s ranks some decades ago. Here, even without the original’s flute, Troncoso sounded more persuasive with an admirable ability in communicating controlled passion, alongside an added benefit in having more room to gauge a smoother level of production. The central Ma poi morta strophes succeeded pretty well despite an unfortunate top note (scored or introduced, I couldn’t tell) and even if the semiquaver runs might have been less stolid. In this piece, the Camerata players showed the singer every consideration; even I could hear each note of the outer segments to this aria.

Matters didn’t get off to a good start with the Pisendel concerto because I somehow was labouring under the false expectation that the piece was in G Major; it was actually in D . Then the only violin concertos I could find by this composer in that key required oboes or oboes plus horns. Whatever the case, my resources for this were dissatisfyingly small. A short interlude for three solo violins (with harpsichord) in mid-Movement 1 made for a welcome timbral oasis, and Joyce’s solo line came powering up with excellent clarity. Once again, you would have liked more energy in attack; this is the sort of work that Il Giardino Armonico throws off with flamboyance and – when I last saw them – something like musical machismo. It might have made more of an impression if the Camerata’s treatment had been less polite.

An Andante followed period tropes, invested with a walking-pace melancholy and more opportunities for Joyce to shine in a few outbreaks between unexciting ritornelli. The 6/8 finale began with an infectious sweep that didn’t sustain itself; no fault of the Camerata but more Pisendel’s contentment with note-spinning. Speaking of which, the soloist was put to hard labour in this substantial movement which every so often impressed for its verve. Eventually, the work ended in about nine bars of unison/octave work that seemed rather threadbare after the triad-rich if orthodox harmony at play during the preceding pages.

Biber’s descriptive scraps never fail to entertain, but I was a tad concerned that this audience was going to applaud every movement. That trend came to a stop after Die liederliche gsellschafft von allerley Humor where the composer goes in for bi- or tri-tonality; a little touch of Ives in the night. I think most of the standing players did a bit of in-place marching during the violin/double bass Der Mars duet, which brought up memories of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s penchant for percussive footwork when performing Veress’s Transylvanian Dances. Still, this Battle is an easy accomplishment; nothing lasts too long and the scenes roll past – except for the final Lamento der Verwundeten which the Camerata dispatched with an admirable lack of maudlin self-indulgence. War is hell: get over it, as the former Cretin-in-Chief could have told you.

Troncoso ended the program with a stop-start aria from Vivaldi’s Il tigrane. Well, we say Vivaldi but he wrote only Act Two of this work; the outer acts by different composers have not survived. Squarciami pure il seno is sung by Cleopatra and is a fast-slow piece where the two tempi sit side by side rather than being confined to one or other of the work’s three segments. Here, Troncoso showed very willing in crossing between the schizophrenic Egyptian queen’s juxtaposed temperaments with an appealing limpid quality in the Lento interpolations.

An odd work, but taxing in its emotional vaults rather than in vocal technique. You could say the same about pretty much everything else we heard, apart from the violin concerto. In fact, the program mirrored the night itself in being not too hot, not too cold, not high-flying and not particularly popular in content. Rather, we eased back into going out to hear music. For all that, I’m not convinced that this is the venue that suits Camerata when working in this genre. The whole thing recalled those years when Melbourne Musica Viva presented its season in Hamer Hall; we got used to it over time but only realised what we’d put up with after the Recital Hall’s opening. I expect that there are buildings with a less booming acoustic around Brisbane and am looking forward to hearing Camerata in one of them some time soon.

Still on top

A FINAL OFFERING

Selby & Friends

Angel Place Recital Hall, Sydney

Saturday November 7

Susie Park

Nothing here to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty: a very orthodox chamber music without surprises from Kathryn Selby and three familiar guests – violinist Susie Park, violist Stefanie Farrands and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. All of these musicians are part of our continent’s musical life, but Valve leads this particular pack – or so it seems to me – in the breadth of his appearances. His omnipresence rivals that of Brett Dean in the violist/composer’s years presiding at the Australian National Academy of Music, during which time he participated in a plethora of activities.

This whole evening played to our lust for the well-known: Schubert’s Adagio/Notturno in E flat, the E minor Trio No. 2 by Shostakovich, and Schumann’s E flat Piano Quartet. As with the works, so with the performers – all of them in happy collegiality with very few signs of ensemble troubles. Which fortunate outcome you’d expect as all have participated in Selby’s recitals before.

As for the Schubert oddment – a not-too-distant relative of the String Quintet’s Adagio – it was treated with excellent sympathy, avoiding the temptation to sandpaper all the edges during the main theme’s treatments. Only the demisemiquaver at the end of many bars received a smoothing out, rather than bringing into play a short recurrent surprise, a brief interruption to the mellifluous melody. But you’d be clutching at straws to make much of this. Both of the proud internal episodes were handled with tempered vehemence, Selby’s triplets seamless as far as I could tell and the close lines of Park and Valve exemplary in dynamic unanimity and empathetic phrasing.

Coming into the Russian score, Valve worked through the opening six unaccompanied bars of harmonics without showing the stress that most other cellists communicate in this passage, an executive tension that doesn’t end with the violin’s appearance. A few high As near the end of this solo sounded near to danger but the final ascent before normal relations resumed spoke securely enough: Shostakovich’s eldritch summons fulfilled, the drama of sorrow, rage and resignation could proceed. This group favoured an emphatic delineation of the first Allegro‘s highpoint, not getting ahead of themselves – probably because they were conscious of what was coming up – with Selby establishing and maintaining a tempo that rejected the temptation of a cheap accelerando.

This broad outline was complemented by striking instances of telling synchronicity, like the strings’ creeping chromatic scales, the block-against-block interplay of violin-plus-cello against keyboard, Park’s fine juxtaposition of smooth phrases with multiple-stop scrapes, Valve’s well-crafted ability to remain audible and more than just a presence through the fraught climaxes. Later, in the second movement, the pace was mindful of the composer’s non troppo qualifier, which meant that every spicy dissonance and lavish swathe in those G Major interludes could be imbibed fully, without your being rushed across the work’s surface in a frantic presto.

No problems with the Largo: a threnody for the strings over a series of repeated piano chords and the closest thing I know to a contemporary Mourner’s Kaddish. This found both Park and Valve in fine form for the canons and duets that ruminate in muted language on tragedy (the death of dedicatee Sollertinsky? Babiy Yar 1941? The Odessa rioting of 1831? There’s a lot to pick from). Particularly moving was the eloquent accomplishment of the movement’s last nine bars, especially the beyond-grief harmonics in the final bar – one of the score’s finest moments.

With the purposeful Jewish-coloured content of the final Allegretto, it seems as though the composer is celebrating life or survival. He’s not: this is fierce music, as poundingly inevitable as the second movement but more wrenching and sardonic, soon seen in bar 28 where the strings alternate pizzicato quadruple stops – here, mightily impressive in character. Park added to the vehemence with a series of biting glissandi between D and E as she dealt with the movement’s main theme 16 bars after the caustic quadruple string chords stopped alternating.

Valve brought some humanity into the mix when the time signature changed to 5/8 and he surged through the soaring lament here under Park’s biting commentary. Even more gripping execution came in the movement’s core as the inter-linear welter increased and the instruments seemed to be chaffing against any restrictions before the change to an E Major key signature and a cascade of piano figuration relieved the crisis. Finally, it is hard to praise enough the players’ striking and emotionally valid interpretation of the work’s final subsidence which could be a benediction except for what has led to this point, in particular the composer’s reminiscence of his Adagio that begins 16 bars from the end and leads us to a chastening final vision.

Here was a finely spun version that ran across the complete work, intellectually consistent and contriving to keep its emotional reins taut while still rewarding you with a continuous current of tense pathos.

Finally, Farrands joined the party for Schumann’s welcome instance of life affirmation. His Piano Quartet, more than the Piano Quintet, speaks with a buoyant accent; even its working-out pages have a relish that, if it’s not actually rare, is remarkably jaunty. After the brief sostenuto, the first Allegro showed how the addition of an extra string voice can exert an influence on the balance, Selby being too polite by far for the first and fifth bars of the first subject. Park began impressively and enjoyed the prominences that Schumann gave her, but Selby made an unanswerable case for the piano’s dominance, even in slight details like her right-hand staccato scales 16 bars before Letter C in my aged Peters Edition score.

Indeed, the more you listen to this video, the higher your esteem for these musicians grows. Their accents are crisp, dynamic mirroring exact to a fault, octave and unison duets (or trios) precise, sense of place in the ensemble remarkably faithful and consistent. Have you ever noticed how much of the development to this movement is in the minor? Practically all of it. Yet these people made this harmonic oddity unremarkable, honing in on the underlying delight in motion even through some mighty predictable modulations.

For the Scherzo and its two Trios, you might have had an expectation of heftiness; it’s as though most interpreters can’t get their minds out of the bierhaus. The opening unison pattering from Selby and Valve set a higher bar with a delicacy that brought to mind Mendelssohn operating on a less fragile plane than usual. There are no real forte indications outside that fetching, syncopated Trio II and the executants aimed for quick-touch delivery in the Scherzo pages. Farrands distinguished herself with a clear-speaking solo in Trio I, but probably the most impressive feat in these pages came from the unfussed account of the second Trio which proved to be agreably fluent despite nearly everything being out of kilter with the pulse.

Everybody shares the honours in the following Andante cantabile, pages that are notable for the variants in accompaniment that Schumann contrives rather than for the sentimental melody over which he dawdles. Each of the strings took at least one turn in treating it and the results proved carefully shaped and mellow in timbre. But the movement shines in its coda which verges on the self-indulgent but endears itself for a kind of bare-threaded placidity.

And so to the Vivace finale with its endless repetitions of an irresistible opening motif: three chords, then a semiquaver rush to a quick cadence. As in the Piano Quintet, the composer indulges in plenty of fugato, even if in the quartet the exercises are less beefy in character. Once again, you could not fault the ensemble, least of all in those passages where Selby’s right hand went off the beat for half a bar’s worth. As well, some stretches gleamed, like the octave duet between Park and Farrands that begins 4 bars after Letter H following the key change to A flat Major and resumes shortly before the change back to the movement’s tonic: two lines soaring through the underpinning mesh with unwavering integrity.

This work is filled with optimism, not complex in its format or eccentric in thematic treatments; making a sharp contrast with the Shostakovich trio and finishing up this recital with something approaching jocularity.

After the first decade or so, you accept that Selby & Friends affairs will feature top-notch musicians; more often than not, even in these times of crisis and deprivation, you can also count on interpretations packed with insightful information and confident breadth of vision. Next year might see this organization back on its regular touring round, involved in live performances only. If that’s the case, we in the north will certainly miss these videos which have provided excellent sustenance over the long months of this unsettled year.

From dream to trauma

FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

Friday November 6

Lana Kains

At last, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has blossomed from disbursing an endless variety of twigs and branches into presenting something very like a sturdy sapling. For the next four Fridays, the organization is in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to present music that features a body rather more substantial than those we have been offered so far. This opening gambit, conducted by TSO principal guest conductor Johannes Fritzsch, comprised three connected works: songs by Wagner and Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg’s ever-green Transfigured Night in its string orchestra format.

Even in the liberated social climate of Hobart, the TSO performers had to be socially distanced; so you had twenty-odd strings for the Schoenberg, all at separate desks – which made following the composer’s direction about ‘stands’ (from bar 16 on) pretty difficult to fulfil. But this can be a thickly wrought score on many pages while the programmed songs don’t ask for as much interdependence as the transformed sextet.

The TSO made a novel move by having Marta Dusseldorp preface two of the works with readings of the poems on which they were based. Before we heard the last of the Wesendonck Lieder, she gave an appropriately rhapsodic version of the lady’s Traume; and she previewed the Schoenberg with a sympathetic account of Richard Dehmel’s fraught stanzas of 1896. What she didn’t supply was any preface to the evening’s middle work which used verses that might have struck sparks of recognition from those familiar with Schumann’s Liederkreis, but for many of us would have proved less well known than Mathilde Wesendonck’s lied and Dehmel’s emotion-drenched stanzas where sorrow turns to ecstasy.

This piece was Zemlinsky’s Waldgespräch to an Eichendorff text that celebrates the legend of the Lorelei yet again. Still, as some latter-day insightful philosopher once sang, you can’t always get what you want and the composer gave the voice pride of place. Added to this, Hobart soprano Lana Kains made a pretty fair job of articulating the text cleanly and you hear enough clues in the clearer passages to give you the gist of the poet’s intentions.

Rather than over-tire Kains, Fritzsch and the TSO powers-that-be decided to eschew the vocal version of Träume and substitute one for solo violin with chamber orchestral support that the composer arranged in 1857 for a birthday performance below the poet’s bedroom window – shades of the 1870 Siegfried Idyll for wife Cosima; my, how he spread the riches around . . . eventually. On this night, the solo fell to TSO concertmaster Emma McGrath, who gave a sympathetic, stress-free account of the line after commentator Robert Gibson gave a lengthy salute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which groups are clearly taken most seriously on the island that wiped them out.

Wagner did little but follow his own vocal line, with slight variants like leaving no break at the end of Nichts vergangen and allowing a lengthy space for the song’s high F on the last appearance of the title word. McGrath employed a finely wrought and warm vibrato where she could, as well as a deft semi-portamento at appropriate places like the 4th and 6th intervals at und dann sinken. The composer also has the soloist join in the moving final five bars, unlike the poor Frauenstimme who has to stand mute through a postlude that always seems to be longer than it is.

He was about 25 when he composed his orchestral song (strings, harp, two horns) but Zemlinsky subscribed wholeheartedly to the late Romantic ethos, employing a harmonic language that stretched not far beyond Wagner, if not as far as his brother-in-law’s sextet written three years after Waldgespräch. Like their essay at the Wesendonck work, the TSO strings faced no fears with this G minor piece, having an easy time of it up to Letter B and the singer’s second line.

But the soloist herself was hardly over-pressed, so that the sudden small intervallic jumps at Schmerz mein Herz after a series of single notes made a warm impression out of all proportion to any actuality. The upward vocal leaps at the words O flieh! came across with telling power, as the Lorelei attempts to dissuade her prey. But the performance ran both hot and cold; for example, the upper strings gave excellent service just before Letter K in their treatment of a Schoenbergian phrase or two, but their ensemble work at Letter N where the opening motif is revisited could only be seen as sloppy. Counterbalancing this was the finely-worked line from Emma McGrath across the score’s last 35 bars.

Simply for reasons of length (the final Wesendonck lied about four minutes, the Zemlinsky a bit over seven), most attention focused on the evening’s final contribution, the early Schoenberg work that never seems to have been out of favour – unlike the gnarled masterpieces of later years. Fritzsch launched this successfully with effective crosses from solo lines to tutti in the first 24 measures: an excellent instance of balancing unevenly weighted textures. But it wasn’t roses all the way: at bar 29, the first violas took over the running, yet none too clear in their definition; and the violins, because of the afore-mentioned social distancing brought into effect found blending a problem with an individual voice surging through every so often. While the violas made messy work of their three-note pattern across bars 46 to 48, the violin lines at the octave made an impressive and stirring display at the Poco piu mosso change beginning at bar 69.

With the glide into E Major – one of the work’s marvellous emotional displacements – the approach and its achievement came over as scrappy, even more so at the spelled-out violin mordents in bars 124 and 125. To their credit, the three bass lines could not be faulted to this point, although their emergence across bars 145 and 146 sounded over-emphatic. But the ensemble delivered a persuasive weltering outburst when all mutes came off at bar 169. I would have preferred more of a whip-crack approach employed for the violin’s semiquavers in the repetitions across bars 175 to 177, mainly as a relief from stolidity.

Speaking of heavy-handedness, I don’t think I’ve heard a slower reading of the penitential passage from bar 188 to 200, though things picked up for the resumption of the work’s opening motif at bar 202, greeted with plenty of punch from second violins and first cellos. An eloquent, well-proportioned attack signified the start of the Man’s reassurance at bar 209 and McGrath span an exceptionally luminous line from bar 255 during the first transfiguration sequence. Something went wrong with the fp cello harmonic that penetrates bar 251, but the rest of the fluttering wove its anticipated magic.

For the first time, I appreciated the spectral four bars of communal ponticello playing from bar 266: a startling shift in sonority, here carried off with equanimity. Later, the body gave a fine realization of Schoenberg’s hothouse freneticism beginning at bar 303, eventually driving to a powerful climacteric in the universal triple forte explosion of bar 337. Again, the course didn’t stay smooth with a messy first viola phrase at bars 344-5. But relief came quickly with a fine sheen to the group’s timbre in the dynamic breaking-down from bar 356 onward and a flawless chording (because of so many solo lines?) at bars 368-369.

From the bar 401 A tempo to the score’s conclusion, you are in a luminous sphere, luxuriating in music of incomparable beauty that you wish would go on far longer than it actually does. The TSO achieved these hushed pages with a high degree of success even if – as usual – the six pianissimo harmonics in bar 414 were not quite universally secure. But I’ve always thought they make the following D Major chord and its susurrus dissolve all the more satisfying as a leave-taking.

The players fared well in this score which presents so many difficulties, especially long sections where the writing is active and thick. They came out of the struggle with a bit of skin missing; on the other hand, they gave Fritzsch a ready response with no shying away from Schoenberg’s demands for fully-bowed enthusiasm. This piece and its predecessors made an excellent introduction to the TSO’s talent, enough to rouse interest in further Friday entertainments from Hobart.

Joyful stop-over on this long trip

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME

James Brawn

MSR Classics MSR1470

Brawn 6

Expatriate pianist Brawn is still in Shanghai during the COVID-19 pandemic but has managed to put out another volume in his series of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Following this one, there are 9 works left to be recorded, well under a third of the total. Here he is fleshing out the earlier numbers in the catalogue with No. 4 in E flat Major, No. 11 in B flat Major and No. 12 in A flat Major; so he has completed all on the master-sheet from No. 1 to No. 12. After this, the pianist has a fair task in seeing out Nos. 13, 16, 18 and 22 as well as the colossal final bracket from Sonata 28 to the ne plus ultra Op. 111.

This CD is a noticeably sunny collection, apart from the grim Eroica practice piece in the A flat work, and even that slow-moving threnody manages to sound jubilant in places. Brawn has a firm grasp of the excited undercurrent that lies at the base of the opening Allegro of the E flat Sonata Op. 7. Actually, there’s nothing ‘under’ about it: the movement begins with a dominating atmosphere of fervent anticipation and energetic impetus. The only questionable point comes at the syncopations across bars 127 to 132 which sound rushed to me; but when Beethoven gets around to treating this figure between bar 153 and bar 168 at the start of the movement’s development phase, the displacement is impeccable, as are the reappearances at bars 397-312, and finally from bar 339 to bar 348.

Acoss these pages, you can hear plenty of felicities, like the rapid mordents in bars 109 to 110, and later from bar 209 to bar 211 – both handled with the lightest of touches; or those right-hand quaver-crotchet 13th leaps that add an off-beat buoyancy to the work’s forward motion, each time treated with agile confidence. Yet the outstanding quality to this reading is its realization of the composer’s unstoppable enthusiasm which begins as a single-note regular pulse and reaches out to us with irresistible sprays of ebullience.

The following Largo finds Brawn in excellent form, negotiating the 9th and 10th stretches with finesse and unafraid to take Beethoven’s direction as a licence to linger over block chords and accelerate slightly in bridging passages, as across bars 47 to 50 leading back to the main theme’s re-statement; and space out an elaboration, as in bar 62 which can all too often turn into a gabble. Only a few questions hovered around the ensuing Allegro and Minore both of which enjoy firm treatment throughout, especially the latter segment’s Erlking-redolent pages. The rests across bars 14 and 15 seemed short-changed, and the distinction between forte and fortissimo in the Allegro’s later pages (if, in fact, the performer was looking for one) was not particularly wide.

You couldn’t say that Beethoven had kept his best till last but the final Rondo is more surprising than this sonata’s preceding movements. starting with that benign falling melody with its unsettling dominant pedal underpinning. Brawn treats the grazioso elements kindly enough but gives the long minor episode – bars 63 to 93 – with powerful determination. You can also find small touches, such as the briefest of hesitations at crossover points, although the major one – at bar 155 with the enharmonic shift to E major for a little while – is treated quietly, flowing gently out of the preceding fermata minim chord.

The performer can’t help Beethoven’s fiddly stretches from sounding stuck-on; cf. the trills beginning at bar 36, or the chromatic octave syncopation from bar 146. But even these are produced without emphasis – they’re made to be part of the energetic drive that impels this long work to its moving, evanescent conclusion.

With the variations that open the A flat Major Sonata Op. 26, Brawn is very exact in articulation, the left hand clear with each chord constituent present and contributing. He sets a sensible pace at each of the five changes and keeps to it, although you can’t get much by way of alterations here as the movement is meant to be conceived and executed as a metrical constant, rather than a series of rhythmically differentiated vignettes. Here also you are met with a fine melody with the slightest touch of melancholy about it in the second phrase and a Lebewohl quality to the coda.

You’re faced with a weighty version of the Scherzo, if not the Trio, that follows. Brawn gets as much punch as he can out of every sforzando, but he might have pulled back on them in bars 26 to 28 in favour of a smoother negotiation of the right-hand groups of consecutive thirds which here sound studied. Then comes the Marcia funebre in A flat minor, keeping things in the tonic family. Here again, you will find much to appreciate, particularly the straight-down-the-line treatment of the long-winded theme where the internal movement emerges as a matter of course, rather than being given special weighting. Brawn gives great power to the middle 8 bars of major key salutes – a precursor of Berlioz’s drawn-sword excesses.

It takes a few hearings for Brawn’s account of the Allegro finale to reveal its breadth of delivery, but in the end it makes a splendidly cogent resolution to the entire work. Right from the opening, you are captured by the movement’s inbuilt energy, in part due to the pianist’s constant rise and fall in dynamic level and a careful weaving of phrases into each other, which is the keynote of this rondo’s A sections. Further, to pick out just one detail, you can see/tell what’s coming but the lead-back following the C minor episode is exactly right – from bar 96 up to the quiet fusion at bar 100: simple to play, here felicitously shaped. And that last observation pretty well sums up my reaction to these specific four tracks.

For his last offering, Brawn skips one back to the Sonata No. 11 in B flat, which is my favourite on this CD – both for the work’s qualities and for the broad optimism of its realization. I’m always bowled over by the bubbling anticipation that leads to the appearance of the first theme at bar 4, then the sheer wealth of material that spreads across the following pages. Later, Brawn draws a broad brush at that chain of modulations in the development stretching from bar 91 to bar 103; it’s not the most original sequence but you find a reassuring inevitability in the performer’s sensible pragmatism.

As far as I can make out, Brawn is punctilious about his semiquavers in both hands, delivering them faithfully and without muffling any patterns. No, it shouldn’t matter that he gets the notes out exactly but the task is accomplished without unnecessary harshness or suggestions of automatism. A similar quality is invested in the second movement Adagio with its chains of repeated quaver triads, which Brawn articulates with sensitivity and no signs of negotiating a functional accompaniment. My only question about this grave, satisfying interpretation is the use of slight pauses at the end of certain bars before a change of dynamic, e.g. bars 39, 44 and 45, with a hint at bar 51. But then, if you go looking, you can hear, from the first page on, slight hesitations and plain rubato all over the place, which latter is usually applied carefully, particularly to the left hand. And it all comes under the movement’s supplementary head-text: con molta espressione.

You are hard pressed to find fault with Brawn’s version of the Minuetto and Minore trio. He observes the restrained grace of the first eight bars before Beethoven shifts his train of thought to aggression in the Minuetto‘s second half and those aggressive running semiquaver clusters coupled with cadential emphatic chords; here, the interruption passes without attracting too many questions. And the left-hand study at the Minore emphasises the cursive line without hitting any pre-Pathetique button.

The Allegretto rondo that finishes this sonata is a chameleonic set of pages, beginning with a main theme that proposes Mozart in its first half, then veers into unexpected territory; not really a continuation of or balance to the first four bars but a semi-completion nonetheless. Brawn keeps a steady hand on each incident until unleashing a bit of temperament during the four bars leading up to the change to F minor semi-furibondo interlude. Later, he carries off a splendid shift of pace for the triplets that permeate the main theme’s final reappraisal.

Here is well-achieved and judicious playing, an impressive reading of this mellifluous sonata and one that reads each of the four movements with conviction and persuasiveness. Not that this CD comprises ‘easy’ works since each challenges a pianist’s self-restraint and sustained insight. But there’s a vast constellation to come in Brawn’s future recordings for this series – a welcome and worthwhile re-investigation of works that serve as the fundamental for Western piano music literature.

A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst

Friday October 23

(L to R) Julia Russoniello, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Georgia Browne, Kirsty McCahon, Daniel Yeadon

We’ve had one Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra recital/concert already in the Melbourne Digital series; now it’s the turn of the ensemble’s Sydney chapter to keep the Richard Gill flag flying, in which undertaking they were helped considerably by having Georgia Browne’ s flute as either top line or stage-front in this program of which three-quarters was completely new to me. The organizers gave us a familiar Mozart in the D Major Flute Quartet K. 285 but balanced this with an early string quartet, K.157 in C Major. This brace was book-ended by two Carl Friedrich Abel scores: a three-movement (like everything on this night) flute quartet in A Major, unhappily juxtaposed with a work of the same genre by the younger master; and the Flute Concerto No. 5 in G Major, one of a set of six that are probably grist to every flautist’s mill these days.

A product of the Bach house through his studentship at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig during Johann Sebastian’s years there, Abel was well known in his lifetime, notably for a time by association with Johann Christian Bach with whom he established a concert series in London. He also met the 8-year-old Mozart in that city when he himself was about 40 – which is a nice, if fleeting connection with which to yoke these two writers. But Browne has a stronger relationship with Abel’s music than most of her peers, as she has recorded this G Major Concerto (and several other flute-dominated works by this composer) with the Icelandic ensemble, Nordic Affect.

As the night turned out, Browne made the best of all possible cases for Abel through her fluent technical control and an unfailing search for variety of timbre and shape, even in the unabashedly learned pages of the concerto’s opening Allegro. As a sample of ensemble work, this score proved to be the night’s least satisfying – not because of the ARCO musicians’ expertise, but mainly because of a lack of substance from the string quintet and its one-line-per-instrument lack of ‘bloom’, as I’ve heard expert acousticians describe it. You had precision in spades, each note on the dot, but vibrato or open with no mellowing shades at all. Yes, we’ve been here before: this purity of output is a period music enthusiast’s nirvana and it is irrelevant in faster music, but middle movements from Andante down can be a trial.

It’s probably because of the continual close suggestions of a chest of viols, as though every work played here found its antecedent in a Lawes suite. This might suit some writers but you’d have to question the approach in a work like Mozart’s delectably optimistic flute quartets. Compositions where the sinews stand out – like Art of Fugue or A Musical Offering – benefit from this no-nonsense treatment but its apologists argue for a wider historical range of application than just the Baroque. At all events, one side of the argument is proposed by this organization, which is consistent in its application across the repertoire.

In the concerto, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo took on the continuo function; in this situation, his contribution came across very clearly and made its presence felt throughout in this musician’s one appearance on the program. The same could be said of Kirsty McCahon’s bass which, as always, contributed an enthusiastic line in support of her higher-pitched companions’ caperings, including those of cellist Daniel Yeadon. Even the reedy- textured violins of Matthew Greco and Julia Russoniello took on an infectious bounce in the first movement’s initial strutting tutti.

But the delight of this program constituent came in Browne’s appearance as a fore-grounded soloist in her own right, not as the top line of a quartet. Her first appearance was lengthy and, as the piece progressed, the flute’s elaborations on the opening march theme dominated proceedings. But Browne took all the tricks with an ideal placement of each note while Abel puts his soloist through a range of technical and breath-control tests; nothing flamboyant, but ever-demanding. He even managed to insert some thematic variants which Mozart might have been happy to imitate. I don’t know who wrote the cadenzas for this concerto – probably not Abel, if other manuscripts are any guide – but this one turned out sufficiently voluble and just long enough.

I think the middle Adagio was in G minor; whatever the case, these pages tested Browne’s sustaining power. She dominated the texture even more here but had to work hard because of the longer time for sweeping bow strokes allowed to the strings. To leader Matthew Greco’s credit, the pace proved sensible for all concerned; not over-weighty or insistent. Again, Browne’s cadenza brimmed with good judgement – but then, so did the ensemble’s approach, particularly in the treatment of ornamentation which emerged as it should: without fanfare or obviously basted onto a line, but just a slight disturbance in the Force.

Just how lively this ensemble can sound emerged when the Presto finale flurried into action, the results justifying the observation that this group (maybe just this section of the ARCO personnel?) sounds at its most convincing when the tempo is rapid. However, the flute gets total exposure when the tuttis end and Abel indulges in reams of rapid-fire sequence work. There’s an odd mix of the utterly predictable (thanks to repetitions, he being capable of three of a set phrase when Mozart would have been happy with two, at most) and a (in context) startling novelty, like a modulation which, in the normal run of events, was unanticipated.

Even against the light weight of a string quintet and theorbo combination, the period flute that Browne used was sometimes hard pressed to be heard, particularly when the instrument was operating inside its lowest fifth. But, in the main, the flute carved out its path with an appealing breathy quality, climaxing in yet another cadenza – which seemed unnecessary, given the amount of exercise the soloist had to put in throughout this movement. And the small ensemble brought the exercise to a gratifying end with a congenial solidarity.

Abel’s Flute Quartet in A Major Op. 12 No. 2 opened the recital with Browne taking top place above Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon. Her breath allocation made an interesting study across the opening measures of the first Un poco Allegro; indeed, it continued throughout a somewhat jumpy line that reached a finely couched oasis at a sustained E across bars 76 and 77. As far as I can tell, Browne’s transpositions – actually, translocations would be a better term – were kept to a minimum.

Browne’s melding into the fabric during the following Adagio ma non troppo showed at its subtlest during the repeated E semiquavers across bars 21 to 23. She also gave us an elegant taste of the galant in her negotiation of the appoggiaturas in bars 34 and 36, while Greco’s violin entered into a delectable partnership with Browne at bars 51-53 to put a suitable cap on proceedings. With the Tempo di Menuetto, Abel sets up a melody that is deftly shaped as a comparable piece by Mozart, but it moves into ordinariness at bars 5 and 6 when the sheen of direct speech goes astray. Greco found it hard to tamp down his attack in this movement, although Browne maintained a soft dynamic for the most part, so he’s not totally responsible for his own prominence. This last rondo is amiable without much content – a certain fluffiness around the edges made it unmemorable in itself, if a fitting vehicle to introduce the musicians without much stress brought into play.

Mozart’s own quartet coming straight after Abel’s gave Browne even more opportunity to demonstrate the breathy purity of her output while Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon brought as a counterweight their trademark lack of vibrato and open-string fear. You could pick up on phrasing differences between flute and strings (violin and viola) at certain points but more distracting was the tendency by the upper strings to employ a crescendo/diminuendo effect all over the shop. And you missed some sparks from the violin’s 2nds in places like bar 115, even if Schmitz compensated for this with her own contributions between bars 132 and 135. I missed the repetitions of both halves in this movement but that absence was not confined to this movement which nonetheless revealed a firmness and unanimity of ensemble from all involved.

Thanks to the strings’ pizzicati, the Adagio is a gift for the flautist who holds our interest across all 34 bars. Browne maintained an even melodic flow with no abrupt dynamic shifts. typified by a carefully prepared soft high D at the end of bar 21. But then, across this night none of her high notes grated. In the brilliantly happy Rondeau, Greco sounded scratchy at the throwaway gesture in bar 20 but made a more secure showing at its reappearance in bar 99; he also failed to etch a definite path through the bars’ 133-139 partial episode. You could not fault Schmitz or Yeadon in this exhilarating movement which reached a delectable pianissimo for all in the last main theme restatement beginning at bar 231, the whole set of pages taken at a brisk, not breathless, pace.

Of all players on this occasion, Yeadon had the most trouble with his tuning, his instrument affected by Sydney’s seasonal humidity. Consequently, he had to spend some time getting ready for the Mozart string quartet; then he and the other members of the group – Greco, Russoniello Schmitz – did not show at their best in a slip-shod account of the 1772 composition’s first strophes. In fact, the ensemble’s balance sounded unsettled, as in the recessed contributions from Russoniello in bars 25 to 28. A major signpost in the violins’ triple- and double-stops at bar 60 came across as laboured, although a similar construction in the last bar presented with much more acuity. Finally, I didn’t see what was gained by the insertion of a short violin cadenza at bar 74.

The group did repeat the first part of the Andante; a kind structural concession that stood out on this evening. Yet, in spite of the sensibility shown in this movement, the combined texture at points like bars 16 to 21 sounded like a piano accordion in timbre, possibly because of the octave unison between first and second violins not helped by the viola’s bland arpeggio filler. Once again, Russoniello went missing between bars 57 and 64 despite having the principal matter (what there is of it) in her part.

Greco showed to better advantage from the outset of the Presto finale as he and Russoniello were kept busy by the brisk pace and the score’s racy character, the first violin’s address best illustrated by his biting attack in the section from bar 85 onward. Despite commentators directing you to hear operatic traces in this work because Mozart was writing these quartets at the same time as Lucio Silla, this movement is memorable for its lavish use of syncopation which tends to attract the attention of performers more than giving primacy to melodic development; not that there’s much of that in these rapid-fire pages, here gifted with some suitable abruptness at the final chord.

It’s an immature work and streets away from what was going to turn up ten years later in the quartets dedicated to Haydn. But it made for an indication of what Mozart could do with inspirations that were short-stemmed. It might have gained from a less timbrally astringent handling but, as a rule, pieces of near-juvenilia need top-notch performers to lift them out of the second or third tier level they occupy in a great composer’s output.

But ARCO deserves our thanks for this exercise because, although it might not make Abel converts of us all, the occasion gave us the opportunity to revel in Browne’s expertly honed performance skills and her ability to take an also-ran score and turn it into a miniature gem.