High spirits and optimism in major keys


James Brawn

MSR Classics 1472

Here is the penultimate leg in this long voyage, Brawn has only two more works to release and the complete argosy comes home to Ithaca. For this CD, he has allocated four of the lesser-known elements in Beethoven’s output of 32 works, although each of them holds a world entire, even the F Major two-movement gem. It’s been a long time since I heard any of these in live performance; they’re usually the preserve of aspirants, as the big guns in the field go in search of more fleshy game. But each adds another facet or thirteen to this pianist’s insightful chain of interpretations.

None more so than the four-movement Sonata No. 13 in E flat Major, a quasi una fantasia companion to the more celebrated Moonlight Sonata No. 14. This particular work asks for an attaca between each segment, underlining the composer’s use of building-block inter-relationships, not to mention his looking backwards to the content of former pages, particularly obvious in the sonata rondo finale. Brawn opens his initial rondo with amiable expansiveness, giving full weight to those intrusive left-hand sforzandi at bars 6 and 7, then gently plucking out of the ether the C Major chords that surprise in the best Beethovenian style at bar 9, eventually attacking the central allegro with enthusiasm before taking us back to the four-square main theme and its gradual dissipation into three quiet bars of the home key.

It is hard to fault the following Allegro molto, either. This repeat-rich proto-scherzo enjoys an easy exposition, even when the arpeggios stop, and the syncopated version of the opening pages is persuasive if the whole passage is a tad blurred until the climax arrives at bar 132 where the off-the-beat right hand rings clear to the second-last bar. As in some previous sonatas, Brawn is free with his mini-pauses and phrase-pointing across the short Adagio, taking the rider con espressione with some interpretative amplitude, mainly in pausing before a bar’s first downbeat. Such an approach gives these 26 bars plenty of breathing space, if achieved at the expense of melodic fluency.

But the vivace finale runs past with an infectious head of steam; even the leaps at places like those between bars 31 to 35 are kept up to the mark and the handy treatment of this movement’s first (prime) subject are happily busy, rather than plodding as hefty semi-inventions. The performer maintains the light-footed humour and optimism by observing a style of attack that emphasizes Beethoven’s delight in movement, so that the episodes that touch on the minor (e.g. bars 131 to 138) come across with energy rather than weight. This is completely assured playing, a sunny conclusion to the sonata and in every way an atmospheric contrast with its opus number companion.

You might find the same in the following G Major Sonata No. 16 with its jaunty off-the-beat initial gambit that carries through the opening Allegro vivace‘s first subject. The exposition here is not all major-inflected, especially towards that section’s conclusion, but the development – as much of it as there is – definitely pursues a chain of minor modulations. Here you can enjoy Brawn’s unfaltering clarity, especially in those stages where the melodic operations transfer to the left hand, or those thinly textured but awkwardly placed pieces of mini-counterpoint (see bars 261-263). And this performer makes as much dynamic contrast as he can with the unexpectedly (or is it?) soft ending to the movement, as later he does in the sonata’s concluding rondo.

More of the contented Beethoven comes in the middle Adagio grazioso, Brawn following a fine vein of the adjective throughout with a clean observance of the left-hand’s initial arpeggio separated notes and allowing himself some metrical latitude at the end of elaborately decorated right-hand work (bars 10 and 12). He is not to be hurried in the two cadenza breaks, accounting for these brief rhythmic oases with quiet, measured placidity. Mind you, the composer is Romantically voluble throughout this Venetian arena, nowhere more so than in the plunging 6ths and 3rds of bar 107, but I admired the subtlety of Brawn’s restrained negotiation of some left-hand 7ths that are present but muffled, most obviously in bars 116 and 117. Small details like these send you back to pick up more occasions of delicate delivery.

The sonata’s conclusion is deceptive as it opens with a neatly balanced primary theme, then moves to play relentlessly with this tune’s opening mordent figure. Indeed, the composer occupies himself with subsidiary material, accompanying triplets and the like, before reviewing his amiable first idea, then moving into more hard three-part labour from bar 87 to bar 98: an instance of modulation working to little purpose. A lengthy period of footling leads to two brief adagio breaks before a presto coda that concerns itself almost exclusively with the afore-mentioned mordent shape. Compared to the preceding movements, this impresses as expanded beyond its dimensions, the working-out full of forward motion but lacking substance. Brawn treats it with an ease that recalls the first movement, following the triplet scale passages and left-hand melody announcements with a sympathetic response to each sequence-laced vagary.

Another four-movement sonata arrives with No. 18 in E flat Major, here distinguished by a musical sobriquet, ‘The Hunt’. This is an opus number companion of the preceding G Major work and shares its buoyancy of outlook, particularly in the even-numbered movements. You get the impression that its first movement is a stop-start operation, mainly because a ritardando is built into the opening gesture (see bars 3 to 6) and its reappearances. But these pages move forward with developmental purpose and the welcome presence – as in all the works on this CD – of whimsicality, here more contained than in its co-opus G Major’s opening allegro. Brawn keeps the pleasures coming smoothly, allowing only the smallest of independent gestures in the two irregular bars (54 and 177) and he negotiates his trills without cramming in extra oscillations (particularly the chain across bars 193 to 201), eventually opting for a piano final cadence.

He gives an individual transparence to the following 2/4 scherzo, one of the more infectiously pell-mell movements in Beethoven’s middle period sonatas. The initial theme and its restatements are not drowned in sustaining pedal melding but come across with excellent clarity. Some of the demi-semiquaver left-hand interjections from bar 42 to bar 49 are not as crisp as you’d like, although most of the later stretch (bars 147 to 154) are close to exemplary. Also, Brawn’s accounting for those abrupt fortissimo chords that punctuate passages of two-hand semiquaver work show a deft hand in supplying an apt dynamic level – just vehement enough not to drown out what follows.

Commentators speak of the Menuetto‘s standing as an unexpected throw-back to Mozart and Haydn – the sonata form’s courtly age. But this example seems integral to the work, standing as an easy break between two rapid-fire bursts of energy. The first third sets up a gentle, controlled environment through a simple series of splendidly interlocking four-bar phrases, before the gentle surprise of the Trio’s mildly vaulting chords, before the Menuetto‘s return and that touching calando conclusion. The whole is treated with clear sympathy and responsiveness: a model lesson in giving unassuming pages their proper respect.

As for the ‘hunt’ finale, Brawn maintains his presto pace convincingly, with just a hint of awkwardness in an odd spot like the left hand work in bars 135 to 138, and later, the preparatory pause before those 10-note chords at bars 307 and 317. But you find plenty of examples of exemplary skill, like the first over-the-hills-and-far-away burst from bar 64 to the end of the exposition, the relieving settle onto C Major at bar 120, and the ease of the crossed-hands single notes and main-motif statements between bars 280 and 299. This is a sustained example of rapid-fire playing but – as I’ve said before – articulated with admirable clarity and almost-unflagging impetus.

To end, Brawn gives us the shortest work on this CD in the F Major Sonata Op. 54. Compared to its predecessors on this CD, this score is decidedly odd. While the first movement opens easily enough, it soon (bar 24) takes a turn away from a slightly dour menuetto into aggressive contrary motion octaves in triplets for each hand; the two elements contrast and sort-of combine before the end. What presents as disparate in the first pages becomes more rational after the repetitions, yet the contrast is not really fused. I liked Brawn’s subtle force applied in the triplet-dominated pages, alongside a clipped approach to the opening material’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver repeated pattern. As across all four of these sonatas, you can rely on this pianist to give full measure to each note’s rhythmic value, even when the part-writing verges on the complex; everything is in its place and subsidiary elements are given as much care as dominant melodic lines.

Finishing this disc is a driving interpretation of the sonata’s Allegretto which many a pianist manages to turn into burbling. Not so here where the ceaseless semiquavers lead into a development of considerable tension across bars 23 to 99 – the movement’s core. Brawn keeps a cool head throughout the multiple modulations that Beethoven works on his one theme and carries us happily into a celebratory coda that keeps its head, despite a momentary indication of acceleration. An ending that borders on the over-wrought, if not as jubilant or as ferocious as the finales to its catalogue companions (the C Major Waldstein and the F minor Appassionata).

So what are we waiting for? Two late sonatas round out Brawn’s enterprise: the A Major Op. 101 and the B flat Major Hammerklavier Op. 106 – the first two in that late period sequence of five incomparable masterworks, setting the benchmark for Romantic (and beyond) pianism. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Diary June 2023


Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Thursday June 1

One day in 2020, it was Ohlsson appearing for Musica Viva; the next, it was COVID and we all fell down. Now the Canadian master is back, beginning another MV tour and presenting works by Schubert, Liszt and Scriabin. In Adelaide, Perth and the second recitals in Sydney and Melbourne, he’s playing Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, sonatas by Barber and Chopin and some other bon-bons by this last-named. Common to both programs is a new work commissioned for Musica Viva: Thomas Misson‘s Convocations. Yes, I know: sounds like Meale’s Coruscations of 1971, written before that writer changed his style for something old and predictable. What I’ve heard of Misson’s constructs is promising, dealing in advances in composition with integrity, not wallowing in the tried and sometimes not-true. Anyway, Ohlsson at Queensland Con plays the Schubert C minor Impromptu, Op.90 No. 1 – the one of the four that nobody touches. Then the Liszt B minor Sonata – a one-movement composition of high technical demands and a (for Liszt) high watermark of emotional compression. After the new Misson comes a fair sample of the Russian mystic’s creativity: three etudes from different sets (Op. 2, Op. 8, Op. 42), the first of the Two Poems Op. 32, and the Sonata No. 5: like Liszt’s, in one movement. Not that I’m an enthusiast, but we rarely hear a concentrated dose of Scriabin; you can hardly imagine better hands than these through which to have this experience. Prices of tickets range from $15 to $109, but I don’t know if that’s bumped up by the credit card usage fee/theft.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday June 2 at 7:30 pm

As I’m coming to expect, this concert’s title is not quite accurate. Stretching relationships and time-scales, it’s taxing to align some parts of this modest program with the Baroque. To open, the QSO strings under director/concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto will run through Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue K. 546, written about the time of the Jupiter finale and at a period when the composer was doing Bach research and arrangements. Tick for this one, then. Next comes real Baroque in a canon and fugue from the Art of Fugue, transcribed by George Benjamin; the canon is the one alla Ottava, the fugue is Contrapunctus 7 per Augment et Diminut. This instrumentation calls for flute, two horns, three violins, two violas and a cello. It doesn’t get more of the period than this. Now come the temporal outsiders, first with the Haydn Symphony No. 70 in D which can only be included in this tribute because its second movement is a double variation canon – and nothing spells ‘Baroque’ better than a canon. To finish, we have Stravinsky’s Concerto in D (‘Basle’) for string orchestra which – as far as I can see – fits into the program because its middle movement is an arioso. The outer ones don’t strike me as much more than the composer’s usual neoclassical style coming to an end during his freshly-naturalized period (1945 or thereabouts). This concerto is sprightly and direct and you won’t find any excrescences indulged throughout its brief length – not a trace of self-indulgence. Still, it’s a splendid test of precision playing. Tonight’s performance is sold out, but . . .

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 3 at 3 pm. Prices range from $30 to $75 with the usual outrageous booking fee which is close to $8.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday June 8 at 10 am

A kids’ concert, pitched at Years 1 to 6; yes, Year 1 – it is to laugh. The story is by Angela McAllister, the music comes from Paul Rissmann, the pictures are by Grahame Baker-Smith – all UK creators and so terrifically relevant in the aftermath of watching two elderly and uninspiring marital defaulters stagger towards the thrones of England. Their tale is allegedly set in a circus, although one publisher’s website puts Leon and his siblings at a ‘magic show’; no matter the environment, our protagonist learns heaps about all those human qualities that make today’s young so repulsively assured enough as to express their ignorance loudly and to put their feet up on train seats. I know nothing about Rissmann’s products, although he has a strong connection with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and has appeared with several state orchestras, while his reputation in the UK is high as a presenter, raconteur, host, explicator and front-man for children’s music. It’s fortunate that he will be on hand to take us through this work, which will be directed by Jen Winley, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor. Tickets are a flat $30 and, with each 10 students, a teacher gets in free. The whole thing seems geared to schools, presumably on the understanding that primary teachers can control their charges across this 50-minute-long operation. As I said at the start, it is to laugh.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday June 9 at 10 am

The audience here is children in Years 6 to 10 and the QSO plus Voices of Birralee is conducted by Jen Winley from Perth. To those in the know, The Lost Thing is a picture-book by West Australian Shaun Tan; Scottish-born composer Paul Rissmann wrote a score to accompany the tale in this concert format, commissioned by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2020. I’ve seen some of Tan’s work in concert and you wouldn’t say it’s going out of its way to entertain, the illustrator/author’s monumental environment reminding me of a colourless Chirico world. Rissmann will be there to present – his own score, at least. It’s inserted in medias res with some intriguing surrounds. The QSO begins with Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2013 Dance of the Paper Umbrellas; then come Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumblebee, the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms, a Star Wars Suite by John Williams to end and a true oddity in Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite: Dance, Children’s Intermezzo, Funeral March, The Willow Song, Military March – this last adding up to about 15 minutes’ playing time. The performance is meant to last for an hour, but Rissmann’s score only endures for 22 minutes, according to his catalogue of works. So you’d have to assume that the two performances on offer are presenting the full program, despite the QSO website not listing the above bevy of compositions for this Friday bridging-the-primary-secondary-gap experience. As with yesterday’s event, tickets are $30 per student.

This program – probably in yesterday’s format – will be repeated on Saturday June 10 at 10 am in a Family Concert when tickets will range from $39 to $49 with the credit-card fleecing fee of $7.20


4MBS Festival of Classics

Main Auditorium, City Hall, Brisbane

Sunday June 11 at 3 pm

The city’s specialist serious music radio station presents this night – part of a long chain of events across May and June – that features a quartet of well-known soloists. Soprano Eva Kong leads the way and she is the only artist about whom a program detail might be gleaned as she is singing some Madama Butterfly – inevitably Un bel di, unless she is put into harness with tenor Rosario La Spina for the duet ending Act 1. And the meagre publicity blurb does mention ‘excerpts’. The other soloists are La Spina’s wife, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, and baritone Jose Carbo. The Ensemble Q Orchestra (love to see that when it’s at home) will be conducted by Tahu Matheson, currently working with Opera Australia, and filling in the gaps with an intra-number narration will be Matheson’s brother, Tama. Other details are unavailable but I’d anticipate that everything will be quite familiar; what’s the point of going spectacularly operatic unless you can wow your audience with arias (and that’s really all that’s promised) known by all and sundry? So I don’t think we’ll be hearing any Richard Strauss; probably no Wagner; Monteverdi will be absent from the feast, and you can be pretty sure that another innovator – Gluck – won’t be present, either Holding out for Berlioz? Not a chance. Here’s looking at you, Britten, but your time has probably not yet come at this kind of concert. Mozart? Maybe. All the same, you have to thank 4MBS for organizing an opera concert in a city where the art form is rarely performed. Tickets cost between $89 and $30 with a booking fee of $1.25.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday June 16 at 11:30 am

What appears to be in play here is that the QSO is welcoming its newly-appointed principal trumpet, Rainer Saville. Great to see, although I think Saville has been in the ensemble for a while. Anyway, he’s taking on the Tomasi Trumpet Concerto, beloved of trumpeters for a host of reasons: it’s short, shows off technique, doesn’t call for any timbral insanities, covers a bevy of compositional styles without falling too heavily into that irritating pseudo-jazz French 1920s genre, has no melodies worth remembering, serves as a splendid instance of physical jerks with a just-long-enough central Nocturne to display arabesques, and boasts a flashy first-movement cadenza supported by snare drum, Filipino-Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski – a tender 23- year-old – escorts Saville through this flashy ephemera before turning to the Sibelius Symphony No. 2, which is exhibitionism of a different water: all those ice sheets, shadow-drenched fjords, pastel veils of the Aurora Borealis, and the rest of that Finnish malarkey. This score stands out from the rest of the composer’s symphonic output for its Romantic breadth and audience-pleasing accessibility, while asking its interpreters for a sobbing warmth of approach as well as stamina. At all events, the concert is scheduled to last for 65 minutes without interval.

With the addition of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, this program will be repeated on Saturday June 17 at 7:30 pm.


Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday June 18 at 3 pm

If you take that title literally, it’s not much territory to cover. The trip takes 2 1/2 hours by car and you move from Austria straight into Hungary; hence, your compositional choices are geographically limited. This recital/concert ticks some of the expected boxes, as in Mozart’s last (and best-known) Horn Concerto K. 495 which here stands alongside the Viola Concerto by Bartok – well, the composer left sketches for completion by a friend and his own son. Anyway, that sort of takes in the two European capitals, even if the Hungarian master wrote his work in New York. Later on, we hear the Totentanz by Liszt: the original version for piano and orchestra involving double woodwind plus piccolo, double horns and trumpets, three trombones plus tuba, timpani and three other percussion, with the full string complement. Still, it’s a full Hungarian work, regularly played by Bartok and momentarily reminiscent of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Now we move a little further afield to the north-east of the Austrian capital with Two Moravian Songs by Pavel Fischer; the former first violin of the Skampa Quartet has organized a pair of folk songs for voice and string quartet, so I suppose these are what we’ll hear. Then we move to Poland for Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes in the 1955 version for clarinet, harp, piano, percussion, and strings; folk tunes, they say, although nobody has identified which ones and the composer wasn’t giving his game away. Anyway, we’ve moved to Warsaw, 850-plus kilometres north of Budapest – so, a well-expanded heartland. As well, we have a homegrown novelty from trumpet virtuoso James Morrison in collaboration with the Southern Cross’s didgeridoo-in-residence, Chris Williams; they are producing a new work, as yet nameless. That’s a big program and you can hear it for $85 (adult) or $35 (youth) with a credit card fee of $7.20. Why didn’t Chalmers and Albanese do something about this unjust impost in their mealy-mouthed budget, instead of wasting time on avaricious gas companies and the under-privileged?


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 24 at 1:30 pm

What the QSO thinks of as ‘favourites’ seem to be selections. For instance, this program launches itself with selections from the Suites 1 and 2 from Bizet’s Carmen, compiled after the composer’s death by Ernest Guiraud. The first collection is better suited for orchestra as it includes the Prelude and all three entr’actes, while the second comprises transcriptions of sung numbers only. The occasion concludes with selections from the three suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Conductor Umberto Clerici has 20 numbers to choose from, although it has to be observed that the best collection comes from Suite No. 1. As some sort of filler, the QSO presents the Main Theme and Love Theme from the Ennio and Andrea Morricone score for Cinema Paradiso. OK, although why this should be a favourite is a bit of a mystery. Central to the entertainment is Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which is a melodic feast and spirit-lifting in its outer movements. Soloist will be Karin Schaupp, a Queenslander since her 8th year. It’s great to see that the orchestra takes pleasure in this particular score, especially as its instrumentation is lean: your normal double woodwind, pairs of horns and trumpets, strings. But its high attraction for me is that the orchestra sparkles when everyone is on board. And I’m so pleased that the nonsensical legends about the Adagio being a Civil War lament or an elegy on the bombing of Guernica have been put to rest.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.


Medici Concerts

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday June 25 at 3 pm

The popular Brisbane-raised pianist is here presenting a recital of works by Chopin and Rachmaninov, the central work being the Russian composer’s rarely-heard Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The scrap chosen for elaboration is the C minor Prelude No. 20 from the Op. 28 set and the interpreter has to cope with 22 variations in all; you can hope that Lane will work through them all, rather than following a widespread practice (allowed in later editions) of cutting out some later parts of the work. At all events, on either side of this exhibition, we hear a selection from the Chopin preludes and another collation plucked from the ballets Chopiniana and Les Sylphides. The first comprises five works orchestrated by Glazunov: the A Major Polonaise, the F Major Nocturne, the D minor Mazurka from Op. 50, the C sharp minor Waltz, and the Tarantelle. Les Sylphides has 8 numbers, beginning with the same polonaise but ending with the Op. 18 E flat Major Waltz. In the middle come the A flat Major Nocturne, two waltzes in the G flat Major and the C sharp minor recycled from Chopiniana, a pair of mazurkas (Op. 33 No. 2 and Op. 67 No. 3), and not forgetting the A Major Prelude. Pick your poison but I’m betting the Tarantelle won’t get an outing. And it’s no use asking why the big Rachmaninov in the middle: it’s his 150th birthday this year and even a work written when he was 30 (surely not juvenilia) should enjoy a dusting-off.


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday June 26 at 7 pm

Topping up on a previous (2015?) Mozart symphonic excursion featuring the last three in the catalogue, artistic director Richard Tognetti and his band of renown move back a little to present three more, each with a nickname. The night opens with the Symphony No. 31 in D, called the Paris because it was premiered in that riotous city and enjoyed favour right from the start. Only three movements but a big orchestra with double woodwind – all four of them – with pairs of trumpets and horns, strings and timpani. Another D Major follows in the Symphony No. 35, Haffner, written for the semi-noble family of that name and using the same instrumentation as the Paris composition but expanded to four movements with the use of a menuetto surviving from the earlier Haffner Serenade. To conclude the triptych, we hear the Linz Symphony No. 36 in C, written in that town during a stop-over in late 1783. It also has four movements and differs from the others on this program by lacking flutes and clarinets. Fleshing out the symphonies, which last a bit over an hour, the ACO will play the Ballet Music from Idomeneo K. 367: Chaconne, Annonce, more Chaconne, Pas seul, Passepied, Gavotte, Passecaille. This uses the same Paris/Haffner forces and lasts about 19 minutes – thereby pushing the concert out to a solid length. As for tickets, they fall into a tight range between $94 and $129, with the customary booking fee of $7.20. Still, it’s been a fair while between drinks, the ACO having called in here last on March 13 and the group’s appearances are to be treasured in this shrinking age for serious music-making.

Unusual, expert group


Adam Walker, Timothy Ridout, Anneleen Lenaerts

Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University

Wednesday May 3, 2023

Anneleen Lenaerts

Latest in the Musica Viva national tour recitals, we heard the instrumental combination set-up for one of Debussy’s final sonatas: that for flute (Adam Walker), viola (Timothy Ridout) and harp (Anneleen Lenaerts). This program had a sort of innate sense, its major elements the Debussy work and two later works employing the same ensemble: Gubaidulina’s The Garden of Joy and Sorrow, and Takemitsu’s And then I knew ’twas Wind. Along the way, each musician contributed a party piece or two. In the first half, Walker made an eloquent case for Georg Benjamin’s Flight; Lenaerts indulged in a transcription of Jardins sous la pluie from Debussy’s Estampes trilogy; Ridout too played a transcription with the Fantasia No. 7 in E flat by Telemann, a piece originally for violin. After interval, Walker and Lenaert collaborated in Messiaen’s Le Merle noir (originally for flute and piano), before Lenaerts yet again indulged in another Debussy piano transcription with Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque.

Best of all, as far as this audience was concerned, was this last which served as some reassurance in a foreign landscape. The night’s finale, Debussy’s trio sonata, is not well known because of rarity in performances – although why that should matter in these happy times of perfect recordings, I don’t know. But the composer’s best-known piano solo enjoyed sensitive treatment, the long-arched drooping melody picked out with finesse while much of the accompanying figuration came over the space to this hall’s rear. It made a pleasing preface to the sonata which gained much from a compelling collaboration between these artists who demonstrated a reassuring awareness of their relative positions, specifically in the rambling first two movements.

It’s a composition that, for two-thirds of its length, radiates a loose warmth in a setting where everything is thematically controlled but the content seems to spill from one segment into the next. More than the transformations and subtle timbral changes, the moments that have always attracted me are those where the instruments mesh in something close to equality: the first movement Gracieux five bars after Number 2 in the Durand score; later in the same movement the brilliant wash four bars after Letter 4; and the soft fall to the movement’s conclusion beginning at Number 6. These were delivered with excellent balance and idiomatic responsiveness, highpoints in a reading welcome for its cool warmth.

The pleasures continued in the following Interlude, notably the energetic outburst that begins with a harp glissando six bars after Number 10, which peters out five bars after Number 12; here was an invigorating, light-filled centre to this movement that is languid at either end. Not to mention Lenaerts’ supple support through the duets and imitations that follow Number 14; on the verge of lushness, but eloquent. As for the Final, this was handled with an unexpected percussiveness, the harp making forceful work of the left-hand F quavers that mark the opening of each bar up to Number 16. I liked the heavy-footed discursiveness that sets in four bars after Number 18, and the joyous bolt towards home that begins straight after that nostalgic look-back to the opening Pastorale. A work that has so little of the doctrinaire about it and which proves a welcome experience after each live performance.

About Gubaidulina’s composition, I’m not sure what to report. These players had the score’s measure and the various incidents passed with apparently easy ensemble, but the language evades me, being on the cusp of dissonance but inserting, especially towards the end, common chord arpeggios. The work begins arrestingly enough with what appear to be single-string harp glissandi, producing an approximation of a sine wave. But the Eastern inflexions promised as part of the composer’s inspiration passed me by, as did the relevance of Francois Tanzer’s poem from which Gubaidulina took inspiration, although Ridout read it for us beforehand in English and German. But then, this set of verses moves beyond the other poetic source – Iv Oganov and a wealth of garden/flower imagery – into general prospects of the world at large . . . and there, I’m lost.

As usual with Takemitsu’s work, And then I knew ’twas Wind takes a melody or a motif and toys with it; the fascination lies in hearing or trying to trace the multiple torsions. This composition – like Gubaidulina’s, based on a poem (in this case, by Emily Dickinson) – sets up an expansive landscape where flute and viola slowly emerge after the harp has set up the focal flourish, and you’re carried forward on the poet’s fitful gustiness. The product presents as more ‘constructed’ than either of the two other trios programmed, while the Japanese master makes an early reference to Debussy’s Sonata. But the palette is varied and crammed with pointillist touches informed by the opening 3rd and 7th intervals and a moving, oddly concordant conclusion.

The Japanese master’s music proved more accessible than Gubaidulina’s essayed fusion – possible for its placidity of utterance and contentment in a fixed number of colours, although the viola is taxed heavily with production shifts. Added to this, Takemitsu infuses his music with individual colour but without trying to make statements, or drawing attention to the technical skill of those involved. More than most of his contemporaries, this writer creates without self-regard or the desire to generate some sort of eclat; it’s a marvellous accomplishment, especially from a student of Messiaen, a master of look-at-me, watch-my-modes composition.

As for the party pieces, there’s little to say. Benjamin’s solo flute bagatelle of 1979 opens with some low glissandi, punctuated by abrupt blips, before we encounter some typical atonal birdsong outbursts. Then the composition moves into further episodes, alternating lengthy lyrics with busy chattering. It’s obviously a favourite for Walker who moved through its pages with high eloquence, even if the English composer is following a path well-established by his European peers. You could find the same enthusiasm in Lenaerts’ Debussy. The gardens suffered very little from this rain as the original’s bite was missing in the more formidable passages, such as the D flat Major arpeggio explosion at bar 47, the meteorological panorama starting with the long-awaited final change of key signature to E Major two pages from the end, and the percussive strikes of the last three bars – all present here but missing their characteristic cutting vitality.

Ridout’s Telemann transcription worked persuasively enough across its four divisions, the performer drawing out the unremarkable seven splits of the opening Dolce with a firm right hand, and being victim to less errors in the two faster movements than you might have expected, given the Allegro‘s high activity level. But I think the most outstanding of these fillers came with the Messiaen duo: a favourite for certain flautists, if (like so many of the composer’s bird-infested works) blessed with the most melodically adventurous blackbird in avian history. Here again, Lenaerts took on the piano part – with considerable success, although much of the piece’s interest lies in the cadenzas for flute before and after the first duet segment, with the final presto rush between both players as fine an instance as you will experience of metre-less rhythmic energy (perhaps).

Walker and Ridout have collaborated in recent years; Lenaerts has appeared at the same venues/festivals as her male colleagues but I’m unsure whether she has partnered either (or both) of them before. Yet, in this session one-third of the way through a 9-night program across the country, all three musicians displayed excellent ensemble across the focal trio compositions, bringing a high level of chamber music performance to audiences of an organization that has sponsored so successfully this corner of a shrinking serious music environment.

Young musicians in Rachmaninov tribute


Australian Digital Concert Hall

Primrose Potter Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday April 31, 2023

Matthew Garvie

In his opening talk, pianist Reuben Johnson proposed that this Australian National Academy of Music program was the brainchild of pianist Matthew Garvie and himself; the institution putting its members to work in the fullest sense – think of it, organize it, play it. Like many other keyboard musicians – well, specifically pianists – the two decided to observe the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rachmaninov. The Russian master’s natal sesquicentenary, as it were, and we enjoyed some examples of this composer’s work, framed by a couple of dubious superimpositions.

Johnson began with some Bach; because that’s what you do, I suppose. Exactly what relevance you were meant to see between the presiding genius of Western music and the popular pianist/composer seemed difficult to detect. Yes, all European writers worth the name who entered the craft from the post-Baroque on owe a massive debt to Bach, whether they know it or not. Exactly why Rachmaninov should be singled out escapes me; he played Bach, yes, but not very much, if his discography is any guide; his only transcriptions were the Preludio, Gavotte and Gigue from the E Major Partita for violin – a fairly obvious source to raid. Did he learn his counterpoint from Bach? You’d have to think that Taneyev put his student through some of The Well-Tempered Clavier; whatever the case, his part-writing presents as full-blooded from the start (e.g., the C sharp minor Prelude).

At all events, Johnson worked through the English Suite No. 2 in A minor. Then Garvie led us into the second Op. 39 set of with Nos. 1, 8 and 9. Alongside violinist Harry Egerton and cellist Shuhei Lawson, Garvie presented the first Trio elegiaque in G minor, the (slightly) younger work in one movement. Then we enjoyed two bon-bons; first, with a four-hands transcription by American pianist Greg Anderson of the Rachmaninov Vocalise; then a nationalistic swoop in Miriam Hyde’s brief Toccata for Two of 1973 which might have owed some debt to the sesquicentennial boy but struck me as more Prokofiev-lite.

Speaking of the percussive, Johnson’s Prelude to the suite proved aggressive with a persuasive thrusting aspect, leavened with some eloquent dynamic intensity. In fact, the approach moved beyond a rattling martellato at certain points, like the sudden Romantic retrospective at bar 95 and beyond, with more hefty piano timbre emerging in the bass Es at bars 152-154. The Allemande‘s fluency occasionally faltered, as at the opening to the first half’s repeat; the bass crotchet B of bar 11, also in the first half, was fumbled at first attempt. I also started noticing the player’s unexpected arpeggiations on fulcrum chords, letting them speak in both upward or downward directions, No problems with the Courante, apart from a missing A crotchet in bar 21 of the 2nd repeat.

Johnson’s reading of the suite’s Sarabande followed the usual pattern of loading in the ornaments on the repeats, using Les agrements de la meme Sarabande the second time around; well, there’s no point arguing with City Hall. He employed a well-deployed piano dynamic and delicacy of touch, in much the same way as he inserted subtlety of attack into the repeats of Bourree 1; indeed, the complex of both bourrees made for a dramatic journey, the more arresting for Johnson’s abrupt switch back to the minor for the Bourree I repeat. Yes, Bach obviously planned the effect but it’s a pleasure to see the contrast achieved with such success, alongside a forward reference to Rachmaninov in the final 8 bars of Bourree II‘s second-half repeat. After which, the Gigue was something of a let-down, mainly for a momentary lack of rhythmic definition, the impetus being slightly disrupted at those points where both hands have mordents (e.g. bars 7, 9, 11), especially in the dance’s second half (bars 52, 54, 56), The spirit was certainly willing . . .

Enter Garvie with his Rachmaninov triptych. It’s hard to make much sense of the first etude-tableau in C minor: phenomenal athleticism but not much else to hang onto. The performer worked through it with technical heels flying, even if he showed a penchant for emphasizing bass notes – well, the bass clef in general – while the right-hand filigree was left as just that. Better (music and performance) came in No. 8 where Garvie demonstrated a laudable control of idiom and technique with an effective luminous atmosphere when the dynamic level was light, as at the G Major meno mosso in the movement’s centre.

No. 9, the last in the opus number, enjoyed a powerful interpretation, evenly spread apart from some disappearing right-hand semiquaver duplets in bars 18 and 20. And I appreciated the dynamic extremes achieved across this score’s canvas – the abrupt jumps without mediation between loud and soft, all leading to a driving final 6 bars – and the later treble-clef clarity, complementing its secondary status during the first of these Rachmaninov forays.

As usual, the piano part proved too loud for both strings in parts of the G minor Trio No. 1, right from the start when both violin and cello take their turns with the first theme (bars 20 and 24 respectively), and even later at the bar 79 outburst where Garvie announced his scale outbursts with over-wielded authority. Both Egerton and Lawson sounded at their most comfortable in the canonic duet from bar 135 to bar 142, the latter producing a rich, exposed thematic restatement at bar 168. But these performers displayed a reliable fidelity to dynamic direction throughout this score, enduring some blistering obliterations from Garvie. Possibly, the musicians might have benefited from more rehearsal to get their output levels into closer synchronization; they knew where they were headed, certainly, but the reading lacked coherence of effort, it seemed to me. They might all be attending ANAM but that doesn’t mean they group up regularly.. I’m not sure of previous experiences with Lawson but I’ve heard Egerton in recent times playing towards better results.

So we came to the two inserted encores. The Vocalise arrangement for Garvie and Johnson had the four hands interweaving; well, mainly Johnson reaching between and across his partner’s operations for some bass notes. I assume that arranger Anderson made this criss-cross organization for recitals with his long-time (over 20 years) partner Elizabeth Joy Roe because it involves – as was pointed out – quite a bit of choreographic organizational preparation. Both artists here worked happily together through this elaborate treatment which looked more complex than it sounded. And the Hyde toccata made an excellent counterweight with a brisk tempo and a communally bouncy application. Still not sure how Hyde fits in here but this small gem summoned up a smile or two after a solid whack of aggressive gloom and strong-armed melancholy.

Not new enough


Mark Papworth and Amanda Millar

Move Records MCD 632

Here’s a perplexing product: a set of four sonatas (one is actually a sonatina) for natural horn with accompaniment for fortepiano or cello. I know Papworth’s ability from another Move Records issue of Wagner Ring chunks, Siegfried’s Story; Millar is an unknown quantity in my experience. They have devoted their talents to these works by Thomas McConochie, an Australian musician with an interest in the antique brass instrument who produces music to flesh out an almost non-existent contemporary repertoire. Of course, the horn in its valveless form continued in use up to (most notably) Brahms, who had a penchant for the older mysteries, but you’ll rarely come across readings of the C minor Symphony in which natural horns appear.

Now this CD’s title seems to refer to the horn with crooks as the old bottle. Fair, enough. But what is being poured in can hardly be classed as a new wine: it’s vintage, but undistinguished. McConochie’s formal patterns are predictable, as are his melodic shapes and harmonic structure. It had to be so, you’d think, given the natural instrument’s capabilities. For many of us, the natural horn is exemplified for these times by the Prologue and Epilogue in Britten’s Serenade Op. 31. Even given the limitations imposed on the English composer, you’ll hear nothing so advanced here. I can’t see how these compositions have added substantially to the repertoire; rather, they return to ground that was well-trodden by the time of Haydn and Mozart.

The CD doesn’t contain details about the four works’ lengths, so here goes. Like all of them, the Sonata No. 1 in F for Natural Horn and Fortepiano Op. 14 has three movements lasting 15′ 11″: Allegro (6′ 09″), Andante (4′ 58″), Sonata-Rondo (4′ 04″). Next comes the Horn Sonatina No. 5, Op. 16 No. 3 with a duration of 10′ 02″: Presto (3′ 09″), Adagio (2′ 31″), Presto (4′ 22″). A novel Sonata for Natural Horn and Cello in D Major, Op. 22 takes up 13′ 27″: Allegro (5′ 09″), Recitative and Aria (5′ 25″), Presto (2′ 53″). To finish, the Sonata No. 2 in E flat for Natural Horn and Fortepiano, Op. 15 lasts for 12′ 58″: Allegro (5′ 24″), Andante con moto (3’23”), Maestoso (4′ 11″). The whole CD takes 51′ 38″, which is a bit on the under-nourished side. But then, you have to take into consideration the quality of, and degree of difficulty involved in handling, these scores.

I’m probably wrong as far as the horn side of things is concerned, but the piano aspect is unassuming; quite a few of these movements a competent player could sight-read. Both instruments take up the simple first subject of the Sonata No. 1, the piano making most of the running as the movement moves forward, after an overused rhythmic motif that sounds like Mozart . . . no, more a contemporary whose imagination has dipped considerably. The phrases are four-square and nothing new is allowed to interrupt the Alberti bass-rich accompaniment. As for the melodies, these are well enough in their openings but fail of their promise with several awkwardnesses in their rounding-off. What of modulation and harmonic interest, you cry? Forget it. The second movement boasts an ‘Oom-Pah Section’ but this lasts about a minute; the segment sounds like desiccated klezmer, and goes nowhere but simply serves as a diversion from its calm, bland surroundings.

For his finale McConochie hits 6/8 and the suggestions of hunting horns with a few more stopped notes than we’ve heard so far. Still, this is a restrained hunt with an unhealthy penchant for repeated notes and chords. The piano’s solo ritornelli are rather frequent and the main subject of this Sonata-Rondo (rather more of the latter than the former) is yet another instance of the first half being let down by its consequent. You can take as an instance any of the Mozart horn concerto finales but their buoyancy and innate verve show that McConochie has so much to learn about sustaining interest.

Incidentally, the two outer sonatas are written for natural horn ‘and fortepiano’, but the keyboard instrument employed here in both is a normal pianoforte. Would the earlier piano’s use have made much difference? Possibly, mainly as a credible partner for Papworth’s muffled timbre.

For a bit of a giggle, the sonatina is subtitled ‘A Little Bit of Sturm and Drang’; and so it seems, right at the start, but the proposed aesthetic doesn’t last. The first movement is gifted with an opening that is arresting for about two bars, then moves into banality and more awkwardnesses, especially in the use of repeated notes. The horn part is secondary; for sure, Papworth gets to play the themes but the keyboard dominates in treatment and overall activity. As for a prevailing compositional period, it’s still uncooked Mozart. Matters are reversed in the slow movement where the horn gets dibs on the first mournful tune; the central B section moves in to the relative major before the A opening is repeated, This section has more going for it than its predecessor with the establishment of an Eroica-indebted funeral march rhythmic pattern and a definite arch to the main melody. The finale presents as an allegro rather than the prescribed presto and the piano sets most of the running as the horn is limited to finding a relevant note and sitting on it while the keyboard goes around an unarresting series of modulations in the various episodes of this rondo.

Next comes the horn and cello work. Its opening allegro improves in performance security on the exposition’s repeat but the modulations in the development cannot be regarded as much more than predictable and – every so often – clumsy. But the musicians themselves sound uncertain in their work here with very little colour invested in phrasing. The following Recitative is a short introduction with a metrical inevitability that persists until a short horn cadenza leads us into a 6/8 lyric during which the horn enjoys a good deal of exposure; Millar provides an arpeggiated support before taking on the central section’s melody-line herself.. The cellist’s articulation and production values are not always reliable with some obvious difficulties in her part’s upper reaches, so that it’s something of a relief when this movement draws to its end.

There is another trace of the Mozart horn concerto finales in this sonata’s concluding Rondo, but the opening section and its returns prove very welcome after some strained interludes (how many are there? One?). You can see how the work is meant to bounce past with infectious jollity, but this doesn’t come off. Perhaps the players take these pages too slowly; possibly the movement requires more determination in attack and dynamic variation. Whatever the case, music of this simplicity needs high expertise to give it any performance interest because there is not much to grab onto as far as content goes.

The composer believes he learned much from writing his first sonata and feels that this is reflected in the more equable partnership of his E flat Sonata. This may be so but you have to wonder at his idea of distributing the goods. For instance, the opening Allegro‘s second subject is announced by the piano, then the horn, at which point the keyboard’s accompaniment is both prosaic and intrusive. But by this stage of the CD you realize that not much is going to emerge that is strikingly original and the compositional methodology is far from sophisticated, as evidenced by the development pages which hold several instances of ungainly part-writing. Even the scale passages for both executants come across as laboured, hard work rather than imaginative flights.

Not much to take exception to in the Romanza, although McConochie can’t avoid odd strokes that a more aware hand would have struck out like the descending bass’s conclusion before the move into a minore variant, and a piano left hand of no little tedium. With the last movement, we hit the world of variations but not in a big way: there are only three of them and all are quite predictable, if vehicles for Papworth’s expertise more than anything else. McConochie’s theme is four-square and plain and nobody is really stretched – except the horn in the movement’s unexpectedly athletic coda.

Here again, as in so much of the whole CD, I sense a lack of character. You have to take into account the necessary limitations of the brass line; even so, nothing here grips the imagination – neither the content of the works themselves, nor the interpretations offered. I can imagine that the natural horn community might be pleased with these additions to their archives but nothing here advances the instrument’s expressive or technical horizons.

Filling in a neglected corner


Victoria Brass

Move Records MCD 641

Brass bands don’t come across your path every day, least of all in these times when they are commonly associated with the military rather than a company that actually makes something rather than weapons. Growing up in Sydney, I came across none except the rancid collection of bugles and side drums that marched in front of our school’s cadet unit. In Melbourne, the Box Hill City and the Kew bands were far more prominent, notably on civic occasions. But, until now, Victoria Brass has not even been a name, as far as my experience has gone. It presents as a conglomerate of players from various sources in the state (chiefly, the city of Melbourne, it appears), gathered together on particular occasions; this disc records several of those – concerts that took place at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Brighton, Box Hill Salvation Army Hall, Ian Roach Hall at Scotch College, and Bendigo’s Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral.

In fact, there are two sets of personnel recorded here – one from 2021 (Bendigo and Brighton), the other from 2022 (Box Hill and Scotch). You will find a few variations across the year space. Soprano cornet and principal cornet remain the same, while the four solo cornets are all different, as is the repiano cornet. All second cornets remain the same, one of the three third cornets remains the same, and the flugelhorn is taken by two separate players. All horns and euphoniums remain the same, but the 2022 line-up has a second euphonium. The solo baritone part falls to two different players and the second baritone set-up shares one player – but the second baritone in 2021 becomes the solo in 2022!. The solo trombone stays the same over the years, but only one of the second trombones survives, and the bass trombone player changes between discs. Tuba personnel stay the same, apart from an extra B flat player in the 2022 recordings. Finally, percussionist numbers change from five in 2021 to three in the following year; in the latter, there are two survivors and the fifth-named in 2021 plays among the third cornets in 2022! In short, it’s a slightly claustrophobic little world and I haven’t noted all the benched/interchange players – just the obvious ones.

As for what they play, the 2021 ensemble present the Toccata that concludes Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5, an arrangement of the Benedictus from Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man Mass, another arrangement of the fourth movement to Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, a version of Sullivan’s The Lost Chord, Handel Parker’s hymn Deep Harmony, and Philip Wilby’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Story of John Bunyan). From the next year come the premiere of Andrew Batterham’s Trumpet Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal, David Elton, as soloist; Tallis’s Third Mode Melody (‘Why fumeth in the fight’); the finale to the ballet Checkmate by Bliss, Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in Sleep, Jared McCunnie’s Elegy, and part of the Cathedral Square Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. In other words, half of the tracks for each of the combinations.

As far as I can tell, the fount of all wisdom for all of these tracks is Matthew van Emmerick, an expert director and euphonium specialist who is Victoria Brass’s principal conductor. His soloists are trumpeter Elton, organist Calvin Bowman (the Musicke Master at Brighton’s Anglican church), and singer/narrator Matthew Little who shines in the Bunyan biography.

Some of the music performed is taxing in terms of clear production, particularly under live performance conditions. But there are a few tracks which are straight and uncomplicated, like the several hymn tunes where the demands are mostly for an even dynamic and a secure top line. Still, the Brass get off to an impressive start with the Widor toccata, beloved of wedding organists throughout the Western world. The division of labour in handling those right-hand arpeggios from the original is cleverly accomplished; the top cornets taking the left-hand chords while an active gaggle share the accompanying unbroken semiquaver-figure (or do they? Later on, one instrument alone handles this figure); soon, the bass entry at bar 9 with the composer’s striding pedal line is most impressive. In fact, Bowman takes some part in this arrangement by Philip Sparke, his organ contribution an addition by Philip Wilby, although you’re hard pressed to pick it out – perhaps the sumptuous bass line from bar 50 on? Certainly, he isn’t called upon to provide those incessant semiquavers when the score moves outside the top brass’s range.

Batterham’s concerto in this band accompaniment version is a fine example of expert and sympathetic writing for soloist and a brisk revamping of the original orchestration for strings. While the composer might well be a master of various genres (as claimed in the CD booklet), this piece is written in something I can only call contemporary orthodoxy, not varying much from the kind of jaunty dissonance (not too much) to be found in British composers of a century ago. For example, the middle movement is a flowing, lyrical andante with plenty of Elgarian warmth in its chord progressions and calm suggestions of the organ loft, as well as a graceful economy of melody.

Like the quick declamations of the opening movement, the third forges a bright path for all, right from the start with its pizzicato strummings supporting a fresh-faced 6/8 solo arc, with a wood-block clicking quietly during one of the episodes and a timpani/bass drum emerging in the finale’s later stages. But, as with all good concertos, the emphasis sits firmly on Elton’s solo line which has an attractively jaunty character in the score’s outer pages and a dexterity that you’d expect from the work’s prime executant. Not much of gravity is being expressed here but the work stands as a more-than-worthy addition to a repertoire which is not that substantial; it’s probably not true, but the last trumpet concerto written by an Australian composer that I can recall is Raymond Hanson’s product of 1948! That can’t be right, can it?

Not much to report about the Tallis arrangement by New Zealand cornet/conductor Ken Smith. He gives three iterations of the theme as outlined in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia with pretty orthodox harmonizations, the second heavy on lower brass and a few cadential descants for the cornets in verses 2 and 3 with a somewhat superfluous Amen added by way of conclusion. Eric Ball’s highly active arrangement of the Finale to Bliss’s ballet becomes something of a broad-beamed melange before the block chords denoting the Red King’s last stand, and there are a few messy notes in subsidiary lines near the movement’s opening. But the aggressive last pages are confidently carried off.

Starring in Tony Small’s arrangement of Jenkins’ Benedictus is euphonium soloist Michael Wells who gives the original’s solo cello line a welcome infusion of clarity and an absence of swooping and near-glissandi that can cripple the work’s innate sensibility. As well, you would go some way to find a moment as powerful as the Hosanna explosion in this reading. But it’s easy playing, I think, for both soloist(s) and ensemble, with nothing of great technical moment apart from maintaining dynamic control. And, as when listening to Lloyd Webber’s Requiem (and in certain phases of Britten’s War Requiem), it strikes me that the emotional effect is too simple, too calculated to manipulate; but then, I think that about the In gloria Dei Patris of the Missa Solemnis and nearly everything in the Verdi Requiem.

Another Wilby arrangement comes with the Saint-Saens Maestoso – Allegro with Bowman kicking off all our Babe memories. The arrival of that noble main theme almost works except for the organ dynamic level which is not loud enough to complement the ensemble taking on the strings’ announcement of the chorale; also, the piano four-hands scintillations here are sorely missed. A good deal of the movement is omitted; just as well, as the absence of woodwind and string timbres would be very noticeable if Wilby had stuck to the original’s grandiose self-indulgent repetitions. As well, without the original instrumentation, organ and brass are a tad disjunct as far as tuning is concerned, especially in the fortissimo pesante section at Letter GG in my International Music Company 1950 reprint score, Again, you can hear some high notes fluffed if you listen hard enough, and the tempo seems to be rather ham-fisted – insistent, regular, lacking much elasticity.

I liked the simplicity of Esenvalds’ setting of Sara Teasdale’s gentle poem; his melody is folk-simple and the rich choral fabric under the soprano soloist impresses for its timbral depth and suggestions of consolation, even when the choir takes over in the work’s centre. In this arrangement by Phillip Littlemore, the Brass’s flugel horn, Andrew McAdam, substitutes for the solo voice and the results are pleasing, especially as an instance of a sustained melody enunciated seamlessly and with emotional restraint.

Wilby’s own work celebrating Bunyan impresses for its vision, even if the identification of the Puritan writer with his own Christian seems ingenuous. This work begins with an unaccompanied male voice singing Who would true valour see/He who would valiant be to Vaughan Williams’ setting of the melody line – all three stanzas. Having accomplished this, Matthew Little then starts on a set of read excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress with musical illustrations: The Journey, Meditation, Vanity Fair, and The Celestial City. In other words, we are given a selection from the writer’s narrative as the hero is divested of his burden and journeys to his transfigured end.

You hear traces of the hymn tune early in the suite but, of course, it comes into its own when the pilgrim arrives at his destination. As illustrative music, the work meets expectations, notably in the rapid hurly-burly of Vanity Fair. The Brass are agile and solemnly stentorian in turn but there isn’t a good deal of audience challenge in The Pilgrim’s Progress as a musical experience. It’s probably more intriguing for brass players. Nevertheless, the work has appeal as an illustration of how to score for brass and organ in four separate scenarios.

Melbourne composer Jared McCunnie’s Elegy is part of a larger work, SIEGE, which deals with the Martin Place Lindt cafe disaster of December 2014. The score ends with this movement which commemorates the two victims: Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, the latter dying from police-generated shrapnel in one of the more cack-handed terrorism-related incidents of modern times. This movement is calm, slow-moving, rising to a powerful climax before dying out into unforgiving silence. McCunnie’s language is uncomplicated and earnest in emotional character, his elegy doubling as a lament for the waste of two useful lives.

I can’t remember when I first heard Sullivan’s very popular song; probably in my teens when all I knew of the composer were some of the Savoy operas. It isn’t as off-putting as many another wrenching Victorian-era gem of religiosity and there’s a good deal to be said for performing it in arrangement, like this excellent version by notable British brass band expert, Gordon Langford, which gains a great deal from Bowman’s organ in Brighton. A very truncated version of the Kremlin coronation from Mussorgsky’s opera (another Littlemore construct) seems to conflate two segments, leaving out the self-torturing aria that the Tsar sings to himself while the crowd and boyars are apparently otherwise occupied. You can hear an uncertain cornet wandering at one stage and there’s some rough trombone work later, but you get the general flavour of the scene, with even a break for a carillon. All very exciting but, sadly, a pale echo of the real thing.

The disc concludes with a flawless reading of Handel Parker’s hymn, arranged by American academic Lee Harrelson. Apparently, Victoria Brass uses this four-part harmonization as a rehearsal warm-up and it makes a modestly rich-flavoured ending to the ensemble’s endeavours. To be honest, I prefer the sense and stability of such slower tracks on this recording to the frenetic or heftier offerings, although the Bliss Checkmate is a stand-out. Like a good many other musical observers, I’ve not encountered a brass band in the normal run of concert-going; this product by Victoria Brass shows that the loss has been a significant one, made all the more telling by my grandson’s enrolment this year as a trumpet student at the Victorian College of the Arts; I feel that my ignorance of brass literature and performance practice is about to be remorselessly filled in.

Diary May 2023


Brodsky Quartet

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday May 2 at 7 pm

Once again, the devil’s in the detail. Yes, the Brodskies have been in operation since 1972, so a 50-year observation is in order, if slightly overdue. Two of the original players have survived: second violin Ian Belton and cello Jacqueline Thomas. Another member musician has retained his Brodskyism since 1982: viola Paul Cassidy. First violin position has undergone the most change until 2021 when Krysia Osostowicz took over the role. So it’s 50 years – good on you all – but only half the group has seen out the distance. Anyway, this British ensemble is offering tickets from $79 to $99 with the usual $7.20 fee to put you off. As for what’s to be heard, the Brodskies will indulge in a bit of nationalistic touting with Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, which is the most impressive of the composer’s three major essays in the form, probably for its concluding Chacony; if there’s one thing you can rely on Lord Benny for, it’s clever foraging in the past. Added to which, this group has recorded all of Britten’s quartets – twice. Then the musicians make their assault on Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, recorded back in 1993. To kick off, we’ll hear Cassidy’s arrangement of the Bach G minor Sonata for violin solo, BWV 1001 which the Brodskies also recorded two years ago on a CD containing all three sonatas Cassidied into string quartet format. So the whole occasion is a well-rehearsed celebration-cum-remembrance of things past – some recent, some mid-Brodsky ageing – with the main point of interest in listening to how Osostowicz melds with the old-timers. I’m assuming that QPAC is sponsoring this event, chiefly because I can’t find any publicity spruiking a specific sponsor.


Musica Viva Australia

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, South Brisbane

Wednesday May 3 at 7 pm

As far as I can tell, the three artists on this latest national tour are not regular collaborators. Flautist Adam Walker recorded with violist Timothy Ridout a CD of French flute music, but of harpist Anneleen Lenaerts I can’t find a mention in either of her two male colleagues’ discographies or recital lists. In any case, they have come together to perform the Debussy Sonata – the only work anyone is aware of that was composed for this particular instrumental trio. You’ll have to wait till night’s end to hear it but the three Musica Viva guests will work through another two flute/viola/harp compositions: Gubaidulina’s one-movement Garden of Joy and Sorrow from 1980, and Takemitsu’s 1992 And then I knew ’twas Wind which took its title from an Emily Dickinson poem. Along the way come a few piano solos – Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie and Clair de lune, British composer George Benjamin’s Flight for solo flute and the famous Messiaen duo Le Merle noir for flute and piano (harp?). And I assume that the Telemann Fantasia No. 7 in E flat – all four movements of it – will be entrusted to Ridout, although with these sorts of programs you can’t be sure who’ll wind up doing what; those two Debussy piano solos come to mind insofar as they’d have to be transcriptions by or for Lenaerts – or will one of the others step in for a solo line? Mind you, they’d have trouble with the gardens. Tickets range from $15 to $109 with concessions available but I can’t figure out if there’s an attached booking fee; sadly, there probably is.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday May 5 at 7:30 pm

We’ve got two famous night musics on this 75 minute interval-less program. First comes Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the Serenade No.13 in G, K. 525 which is known to pretty much anyone who’d be attracted to this QSO event as one of serious music’s signature dishes, harnessed to the advertising industry like few other scores. Here’s hoping that concertmaster/director Natsuko Yoshimoto can bring plenty of verve, if not novelty, to these familiar pages.. This Classical gem is followed by Romanticism’s last gasp in Schoenberg’s sextet Verklaerte Nacht of 1899, packed with depression, guilt and redemption-through-love. It’s a great nocturnal journey, nowhere better than from the breathtaking change of key to F sharp Major and the radiant final 12 bars. You’d probably be right in thinking that both Mozart and Schoenberg will be given in string orchestra format, chiefly because the final work to be presented – Telemann’s 8-part Don Quixote Suite – calls for a big string sound (with harpsichord? and lute??) and what’s the point of having all those musicians hanging around through a quartet and sextet in which they could easily (and legitimately) swell the numbers? This trio of scores shows a sensible, if uninspired, temporal sweep but the arrangement would be improved if the Baroque work came first. Tickets range from $30 to $75, plus an inflated booking fee just 5 cents short of $8: a compulsory tip of over 10%.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 6 at 3 pm.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday May 12 at 7:30 pm

And tonight, the QSO makes another foray into the world of Cervantes. Nothing as refined or as brief as Telemann’s little suite from a week ago but Richard Strauss’s vast, blowsy depiction of the knight and his squire which asks for two soloists: cello for the Don, viola (and a few others) for Sancho. I’ve heard this once in live performance from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the performance wasn’t memorable, apart from Christopher Moore carrying out discreet solo viola duties. Here, with chief conductor Umberto Clerici in charge, the character lines will be performed by the QSO’s section principals – Hyung Suk Bae and Imants Larsens. Not that the tone poem is a trial; it falls into 14 sections over its 35-minute length and the orchestration is as subtle as that for Till Eulenspiegel. In the program’s first half, Piers Lane will be soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K. 491. With a big frame, this work calls for more orchestral forces than any other in this division of the composer’s catalogue and its emotional demands are as severe as Beethoven’s Op. 37. It’s a solid half-hour, granted, but I can’t understand why the orchestra needs an interval between this and the Strauss. Tickets range from $90 to $130 with the supplementary charge of $7.20 for stuff-all.

A guest I can’t explain convincingly is actor Eugene Gilfedder. It’s hard to see him fitting into the concerto format, so it’s probable that he’ll be involved in the Strauss reduced epic. Yet, as far as I know, there’s no place for a narrator or any dialogue in the score. So he could be present on stage to welcome us, or to apologize for us to the original inhabitants for being there, or to attune us to post-COVID changes in concert hall etiquette, or (best of all) to explain the workings of a wind machine.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 13 at 1:30 pm


Australian String Quartet

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Friday May 19 at 7 pm

On a rare visit to Brisbane – but not as rare as some other chamber groups with lesser drawing power – the ASQ is performing at the Con theatre. Last time I was aware of them here, the group played in a library building opposite QPAC which took me ages to find, especially in the penumbra that operates after dark through the riverside buildings of the Cultural Precinct. Griffith spends a good deal more on lighting so we should have a well-lit path to where the ensemble in its current format – violins Dale Barrltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Christopher Cartlidge, cello Michael Dahlenburg – will present a solid recital. The evening begins with Thomas Ades’ Arcadiana: a seven-movement, non-stop composition celebrating the idyll with a good many references to other composers and several options as to what the composer understands by Arcadia. The recital’s title is a pretty good representation of where Ades is leading his listeners. After this British early work, the ASQ heads for Mozart in D minor K. 421, second of the Haydn quartets and irregular in many aspects, mainly formal. Then it’s the turn of Shostakovich through the No. 9 in E flat Major (you reckon?) which, like the Ades, is played without a pause between its five movements. It seems that a good many youngish ensembles take on the Russian master’s quartets without much preparation and even less natural insight, resulting in bland readings which stay on the surface. You’d hope for much better from these artists who have enjoyed several years of mutual experience behind them – and the fact that two of this score’s movements are adagios where bouncy, biting satire is absent from the interpretative equation. Tickets are a flat $81, without a booking fee but apparently with no concessions on tap.


Queensland Youth Symphony

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday May 20 at 7 pm

Under Simon Hewett, these young players taken on Debussy’s La mer which will be as mobile and possibly as inchoate as you’d expect. It’s is a hard ask for any orchestra and I’ve yet to hear live a performance that fully satisfies. But do we stand still and put it into the too-hard basket, almost 120 years after its gestation? To be honest, I’d rather hear what the QYS can make of these sketches than watch them labour through yet another slab of German Romanticism. The concert ends with Stravinsky’s Firebird, and I believe that this means the complete ballet rather than one of the three suites. Which is both interesting and unsettling as I heard part of the work in the car a few days ago on ABC Classic; I think it was the 1945 suite because I came in during one of the Pantomimes and left during the Khorovod. But the shock was that, for about three minutes, I had no idea what I was hearing; there is a good deal of the complete work that is unfamiliar to those of us who have been bred on the 1919 suite and who have come to realize that there’s precious few pages outside those five movements that comprise neglected gems. In the program’s middle, the orchestra escorts William Barton through his own Apii Thatini Mu Murtu (To sing and carry a coolamon on country together where a coolamon is a dish). Barton will play a didgeridoo and sing, as he did at the work’s premiere with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Benjamin Northey in July last year. I’m out of sync with this sort of music where the Aboriginal instrument and chant are superimposed on a Western orchestral sound fabric. The most convincing fusions of didgeridoo and orthodox instruments come from writers with advanced compositional techniques, or so it seems to me. You can applaud the respect shown to First Nations musicians who make the effort to grapple with serious music-making, rather than award time and space to those proposing country/rock imitations of hillbilly Americana. But listening to this work of Barton’s won’t convince you that such a hybrid music leads forward. Tickets are a flat $45, with the $7.20 tax-for-no-service added.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday May 21 at 11:30 am

After what seems to be an out-of-town try-put, the QSO is dishing out one of its lollipop programs in an obvious attempt to put bums on seats. On May 19, a Symphony Under the Stars night to be held somewhere in Gladstone will be conducted by Johannes Fritzsch and feature, as guests, soprano Rebecca Cassidy and tenor Rosario La Spina. The audience will be treated to clumps of Puccini (Un bel di, E lucevan le stelle, the Act III Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut, Che gelida manina to the end of the act), a bit of Bizet in the Prelude to Carmen, and Verdi’s Act 2 Triumphal March from Aida. Another art form gets a look-in with The Young Juliet from Prokofiev’s great ballet. A few other isolates are included, like Elgar’s Salut d’amour and the Strauss waltz Roses from the South. Back in Brisbane, the Elgar, Bizet, Prokofiev and Strauss are scheduled, as are excerpts from Madama Butterfly, Tosca and La Boheme (I wonder which ones?), as well as ‘AND MORE’ . What’s missing? The Verdi and the Puccini Intermezzo? Still, there’ll be the same guests, the same conductor but – especially written in for The Big Smoke – Guy Noble will play host. Not much has gone into preparing this event with its catch-as-catch-can list of classical hits, but seats – from $75 to $105 with concessions and booking fee surplus of $7.20, regardless of how much your ticket costs – are selling like Vegemite hot cross buns.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday May 26 at 7:30 pm

It appears to be a simple celebration of contemporary film music, but does it have accompanying clips? With the Voices of Birralee singers, the QSO under Nicholas Buc will bring back memories – some pleasant, others nauseating – of movies we have seen, beginning with the opening to Richard Strauss’s 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, bars that provided so much grist to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey mill of 1968. From there, it’s pretty much all downhill. James Horner is represented by scraps from Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997). Hans Zimmer also scores a double with The Dream is Collapsing and Time from his 2010 suite for Inception. And so does Danny Elfman with the Main Theme and Ice Dance out of his 1990 score for Edward Scissorhands. Not to forget Craig Armstrong’s work for Love Actually of 2003, from which we hear the Glasgow Love Theme and Prime Minister Theme. You get to hear quite a few oncers: Alan Menken’s Main Theme for 1991’s Beauty and the Beast; the whole symphonic suite (apparently) from The Two Towers of 2002 by Howard Shore; a spin-off in Ludwig Goransson’s 2019 Main Theme for The Mandalorian; Australia’s own Nigel Westlake’s Ready to Launch from Paper Planes of 2014; Michael Giacchino’s Married Life sequence from 2009’s Up; Simple and Clean from a ring-in with Kingdom Hearts of 2002 (hope that’s accurate: these video games are so hard to track down to specifics) by Hikaru Utada; and Merry-Go Round of Life from Joe Hisaishi’s 2004 music for Howl’s Moving Castle. But let’s not forget the grand master John Williams, who is honoured with the Hymn to the Fallen from Saving Private Ryan of 1998, Harry’s Wondrous World from 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and the 1999 Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. For me, the memories would be more thin than most; I’ve seen the Kubrick, Avatar and Titanic (sort of; between dozes), Edward Scissorhands, Love Actually, The Lord of the Rings trilogy,, all the Harry Potters and all the canonic Star Wars epics – a little less than half of the program content. But I’d much rather watch complete films and be exposed to their full audio components than listen to bits and pieces. After all, doesn’t everyone want to know what happens after Strauss’s magniloquent proclamation? Well, perhaps not. Tickets, with concessions available, range from $90 to $130 but there are precious few of the former left; what is constant is the $7.20 tax for daring to come to the Concert Hall.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 27 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm.


Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Friday May 26 at 7:30 pm

It’s big, as suits its theme: a memorial to the revolutionary demonstration outside the Tsar’s Palace in St. Petersburg; to be specific, the massacre of January 22 when the army came to the aid of a nervous government to commit yet another atrocity in a long line of disasters that pepper Russian history. The Symphony No. 11 is something of a polemic, full of big strokes – drama, conflict and mourning come in impressive splashes across the work’s hour-long canvas. Triple woodwind (thirds doubling piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabassoon), 11 brass, two harps, xylophone, tubular bells, celesta, timpani and assorted other percussion, with a large bank of strings – all ensure a powerful climax or twelve. Johannes Fritzsch will conduct this work, but will he conduct anything else? The university website proposes that this ‘program includes’ the Shostakovich symphony, but no details are available as to what else will be given to us. Adult tickets are $45 but there are concessions for pensioners, seniors, students and 4MBS patrons; and no booking fee/consumption tax on top! Yes, they’re students but The Year 1905 Symphony is rarely heard in this country, particularly when the major Australian orchestras are concerned with cash flow and expanding their client base. In that context, where conservative programmers are racing for survival and leaving the hard stuff alone, a little child shall lead them.


Brisbane Chorale

St. John’s Cathedral, 373 Ann St., Brisbane

Sunday May 28 at 2:30 pm

The Chorale is presenting this concert under the auspices of 4MBS and that station’s Festival of Classics. The Bach is easy enough to assimilate as conductor/music director Emily Cox and her forces will present the Magnificat – but only the first movement: all 90 bars of it with three trumpets, timpani, braces of flutes and oboes plus continuo forces and strings. Seems like a lot of people gathered together for a short burst. Fortunately there’s more, if not much. On the program is Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which could be Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe or Jesus bleibet meine Freude from the Cantata BWV 147. Doesn’t really matter: it’s 71 bars in both. Before this come the Mendelssohns. In Felix’s case, it’s a setting of Psalm 42, Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser (As the hart pants for fresh water; or, as the Chorale has it, As the deer longs for water; or, as I recall from my Gelineau days, Like the deer that yearns for running streams). This concentrates heavily on a soprano soloist who also enjoys the assistance of pairs of tenor and bass soloists in the penultimate movement. Double woodwind, four horns, strings and organ support the edifice while the full SATB choir actually frames the work at either end while the female voices carol along with the soprano through Denn ich wollte gern. All very lovely and German Anglican. But the afternoon’s real interest comes with sister Fanny’s Oratorio on words from the Bible, following the 1821 cessation of a cholera epidemic in Berlin. Despite the recent revival of interest in this writer, we still know so little, apart from the Piano Trio. This score packs 15 movements into a little over half an hour with choruses and solos alongside two duets (one involving the choir) and a trio. The soloists for this reading will be soprano Sarah Crane, alto Anne Fulton, tenor Paul McMahon and baritone (bass) Shaun Brown; with the Chorale, all will be escorted by the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, fresh from the nearby Uniting Church. Adults pay $55, as do Seniors; Centrelink concessionaries and 4MBS subscribers pay $50; students pay $20; other group costs can be arranged. But the booking fee for any ticket is $1.25, which is – given what other bodies try to scrounge out of you – almost forgiveable.

Craft with clarity


Sydney Chamber Choir and Camerata Antica

Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, Sydney

Saturday March 25, 2023

Sam Allchurch

This concert, broadcast by the Australian Digital Concert Hall, was encased by Giovanni Gabrieli. At the beginning, the Choir and Camerata performed the Venetian composer’s Jubilate Deo for 10 voices/parts; in the middle, the four-member Camerata played the little Canzon seconda; to finish, we heard the Magnificat a 14 for three choirs, with some brass support, balancing another block-chord gem heard previously: Schutz’s Deutsches Magnificat for a simple double choir.

In between times, Sam Allchurch took his forces through two Australian works written for the SCC – Claire Maclean‘s Christ the King of 1984, and Brooke Shelley‘s Heavenly Father composed last year – as well as Tavener’s A Hymn to the Mother of God from 1985, the first in his pair of such musical devotions to the Virgin. All are written for multiple voices. Christ the King opts for a normal SATB format but one that splits into several parts so that the individual staves become layers of sound fabric, expanding and contracting to sometimes brilliant effect. Shelley’s construct uses eight vocal lines but not the expected division into two choirs; rather – like Maclean’s work – interweaving textures and offering timbral differentiations, most obviously employing vocal gender as a textual discriminant. The British composer wrote for a double choir, each containing six lines equally divided between male and female singers.

The last time I heard Allchurch conducting was also on an ADCH telecast, albeit one that was already a year old: Messiah from Christ Church St. Laurence in Haymarket. That was a run-of-the-mill reading with not much to distinguish it from many another. This chamber choir is a different body, although there might be some crossover between the two, as there was with Douglas Lawrence’s Ormond College group and the Scots Church Choir (and, I suspect, the Australian Chamber Choir). A good, early indication of quality came with the Jubilate Deo, in particular the piercing high As from the sopranos during each of the refrain repetitions. Possibly a hesitation at the bars’ 31-2 qui timet raised a frisson of doubt but this detail disappeared in the luscious fabric that obtained in the tutti-voice parts.

I have to admit to being impressed highly by the clarity from tenor and bass lines, even when reinforced by the occasional sackbut. The Camerata quartet gave a kind of outline to the score’s purely instrumental first 15 bars, Matthew Manchester‘s cornetto sounded quavering at bar 10 but the group gave quiet support to the choral forces, although I found it hard to pick out exactly which of the lines they were reinforcing – apart from the in laetitia bursts from bar 142 onwards when all I could discern of the top line was Manchester in full flight senza sopranos.

Organist Thomas Wilson supported the brass quartet in their essay at the Canzon seconda about which there’s not much to report except that the group got through its 49 bars competently enough; not totally unscathed, mind you and lacking any brio to inform what came across as something of a plod.

Allchurch split his forces into three discrete groups for the Magnificat finale – one in front of him on stage, two on either side of the organ gallery. Not that it made much difference to those of us who were listening online – and possibly not very effective for those on hand in the Verbrugghen space. Some of us have visited St. Mark’s Basilica which boasts the galleries from which Gabrieli’s choirs and instrumental groups operated to provide that much-vaunted ultra-quadrophonic assault on those standing/sitting on the wavy floor below. Fewer, I believe, would have enjoyed an actual Gabrieli concert in this venerable church but, judging by domestic attempts to replicate the Venetian experience (thanks, John O’Donnell), the effect can be remarkable with sheets of sonorous fabric pouring into your ears from different quarters.

By this stage of the evening, the multi-choral techniques had been well exercised. Not that this last work failed to make its grand effect but the chordal juxtapositions and linear imitations proved less striking than might have been the case with less peripheral matter. At places, I again thought that Manchester was taking the top line by himself; but the mesh is so thickly packed at many points that the voices might have been present.

I don’t have much sympathy with Tavener’s works; still, I’m also not sympathetic to any of the Baltic school of religion-inspired writers, either. All that hushed stasis fails to link into my concept of theological discourse, as it verges on the simple-minded or the exploration of a single idea stretched way beyond its initial potential. A Hymn to the Mother of God sets verses from the St. Basil Liturgy, full of striking hyperbole and metaphor that enjoys a simply organized setting – a canon in which the solitary points of interest come when harmonic clashes arise between the inexorable paths of the two choirs. You had to admire the singers’ steadfastness of pitch throughout these purging dissonances, although it seems to me that, once you’re settled into Tavener’s playbook, you simply aren’t that hard pressed to follow his none-too-difficult path.

Maclean’s text emanates from two poems by James Keir Baxter, a New Zealand writer. These particular lines are loaded with symbolism from the natural world and the speaker’s psyche, a series of tragedy-tinged prayers and observations on the poet’s relationship to God – not the happiest, it seems, and reminiscent of St. Peter’s view of the flesh. The composer sets the opening lines to a monophonic chant for female voices, transforming into a canon before the texture spreads for the first interjectory Alleluia. You get the impression that each syllable gets a note but that isn’t exactly true; yet the result is of a quiet vocal martellato.

The composer’s melodic and harmonic spread is not large but the whole piece holds your attention through its turns from simplicity to deftly placed melismata; suddenly, at the words Father, you know that it is so, the work’s movement mutates into the note-per-syllable mode in a reflection of Anglican chant, but the separate stanzas merge into more Alleluias which serve as a kind of transformation, from the core pleading and bleak self-awareness to the transcendental which eventually obliterates everything else in the score’s unsettling, incomplete conclusion. Honestly, I’m much more responsive to this grappling with faith, struggling to place yourself in a metaphysical context, than in the extended panels of placidity found in Tavener where you have to be content with admiration of a thought-shuttering iconostasis.

In some contrast, Shelley’s composition struck me as more four-square. Its opening and closing German strophes suggest a good old-fashioned Lutheran chorale, while the central English octet is processed quite slowly. I think that the work’s impact could have been diminished by its positioning after the Martin Mass, particularly as the new work reflected much of the Swiss master’s close-knit complexes.

Earlier in the program, Allchurch took his forces through the Schutz Magnificat setting with brass and organ accompaniment. All forces worked with fine verve through this score, even if I thought that the second choir’s tenors and basses had the edge over their opposite numbers; for example, the contrast at bars 71-73 on Die Hungeringen. Still, the divided sopranos were equally strong and definite in their articulation and the exchanges of Abraham beginning at bar 97 sounded seamless, capped by the choirs’ handling of the repeated zu Ewigkeit acclamations across the score’s restrained final bars. An impressive demonstration.

Time was when the Martin Mass was seen by many choirs as a high challenge. Its terrors have, to a large extent, vapourised over the decades, and you have a good chance of hearing the work from some organization in this country once a year. The SCC handled its many tests with aplomb, even if the opening Kyrie took a while to settle into a true concordance at the bar 37 Avec mouvement C Major chords. The ensemble displayed excellent pitch control in the built-up chords starting the Gloria, followed by a powerfully moving account of Agnus Dei, Filius Patris through to this segment’s conclusion at bar 84. The following Quoniam for basses at the octave showed appropriate firmness without stridency, and the final two-bar Amen proved to be very Retenu indeed.

The composer’s Credo moves rapidly through the text and I could find only one questionable bar up to the Et incarnatus, somewhere in the Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine passage. You have to wonder, at several stages in this mass, just how ‘old’ it sounds; e.g., the et sepultus est, which strikes me as ersatz Renaissance. But the choir followed Martin’s clear path with dedication, moving into bouncy suppleness at the Et in Spiritum Sanctum verses before a jubilant conclusion to this happy declaration of faith. A respectful, reverent initial move from the male forces began the Sanctus, moving to a controlled handling of the 5/8 rhythm in the Hosanna.

Perhaps the most moving section of this work arrives with the Benedictus and its move from muttered open 5th chords in the lower vocal layers to melodic cells in thirds echoing in both sets of sopranos. This interplay makes for a splendidly dramatic point where ritual intersects with rhapsody; on paper, it presents as difficult to position in rhythm and pitch, but the accession to a final Hosanna proved to be most exhilarating in this reading. I heard no signs of stress during the Agnus Dei, apart from an unhappy conclusion to bar 39 from the first choir sopranos. Otherwise, this movement rounded off a fruitful and vivid interpretation of a ‘difficult’ music, although its trials are just about commensurate with Webern’s Op. 2 written 14 years earlier, and a doddle compared to the same composer’s two cantatas – but then, what isn’t?

This Sydney ensemble has been functioning for almost 50 years and its performance standard is on a level with some of the better Melbourne choirs I’ve come across (certainly superior to anything I’ve heard in Brisbane) if not quite up to the mark of the Ensemble Gombert. Its program worked very cleverly to a specific brief – music for more than one choir – with each performance well-rehearsed and – insofar as any such thing was offered – insightful. The organization’s presentations later in the year are filled with works both intriguing and bland (Jacques Brel? Arvo Part??), but what you cannot doubt is the singers’ enthusiasm in their work – a sine qua non of public performance.

Where to now?


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday March 13, 2023

Joseph Tawadros

I’ve heard this program before. Well, perhaps not the exact thing but something close to it. When the penny dropped during Spring, the preliminary program booklet statement from ACO Managing Director Richard Evans suddenly struck a nerve: ‘We are thrilled to bring back this spectacular concert . . . ‘ If the energy had been there, I might have tracked down when the ACO and the Tawadros brothers launched their first shared national tour, but I know they committed their Four Seasons collaboration in Melbourne (and everywhere else) during 2015 when the Vivaldi concerti were also surrounded by, amongst other things, compositions from oud expert Joseph Tawadros.

The organization knew that it was on to a good thing with this partnership; hence a re-presentation to packed houses across the country. Brisbane proved no exception: as far as I could see, apart from a few empty seats in the organ gallery, the Concert Hall was packed. With enthusiasm as well, for everything from the individual Vivaldi compositions to Tawadros‘ flashy works that seemed to be divided into two sections: rhapsodic slow, pacey fast. These latter seem to follow a pattern that turns up in musical settings from India’s alap/taan to the lassan/friska of Hungary – uncomplicated, an easy juxtaposition/ capable of revisitings and recapitulations to taste. Tawadros proposes that some of his work has its roots in personal experiences. Good for him, although it has to be said that such inspirational roots are hardly uncommon. You might almost say that the fertile Venetian seasonal depictions come from living through plenty of Veneto campagna weather variants: it’s true, but just what you’d expect.

As well as the four concerti, we were also promised other Baroque music. Well, we got a scrap: the 22-bar long Grave from Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto RV 208, nicknamed Grosso Mogul and therefore relevant to this program. Maybe: did the composer know about this distinctive title? Most organists know the work in a Bach transcription, BWV 594 where whatever Oriental flavour is dissipated. In any case, ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti took the solo line and turned it into an improvisational exercise, packed with bazaar-style flourishes and whines, alongside abrupt curvets in and out of focus, dynamic hurtling and soft rustlings in turn; all very creative, but it couldn’t disguise an inbuilt taut structure of (almost) predictable sequences.

Apart from the six Tawadros numbers – Kindred Spirits, Permission to Evaporate, Eye of the Beholder, Give or Take, Point of Departure, Constantinople – the only other extraneous pieces were a prelude or taksim, named Nihavend, by Mehmed VI Vahideddin, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire; and Makam-i-Rehavi Cember-i-Koca, an Ottoman march by Tanburi Angeli which was played – like the four other Angeli(s) pieces I know – as a single line taken on by all instruments. Both pieces were among the briefest on the program: 3 minutes and 2 minutes respectively.

A continuing performance peculiarity was Joseph Tawadros’ penchant for following Tognetti’s line (or somebody else’s) in the Vivaldi concertos, as well as brother James‘ support, particularly in thumping bucolic movements, on his riq or bendir. To me, the percussion reinforcement sounded superfluous for most of the time: the originals are bouncy enough, like the first movement of Mozart’s 40th; a percussive underpinning, no matter how subtle in dynamic, seems like gilding an already glittering lily. Still, you got a perverse pleasure from hearing the lute attempting to match Tognetti’s flickering, fast output.

Not that all of the artistic director’s work was audible. In the later Seasons especially, his production moved into inaudible territory and I was sitting in a fairly close stalls position. Virtuosic scale passages often disappeared in their downward trajectories, casualties from the effort to make this firmly-based concerto sequence take on the character of an improvisation. Maybe it might have worked with a set of scores not so well known but this demonstration wound up by irritating; notes you know should have been audible failed to come across, although a famous passage like the three-violin bird exchange at the start of Spring was crystal-clear. Then – the oddest moment of all – between Movements One and Two of Winter, the orchestra inserted what I suspect was another Tawadros composition. Rather than cementing a pathway between East and West, the disjunction proved incomprehensible.

Which brings us to the most difficult aspect of this entertainment: the projected musical connection between Venice and the Orient. As light entertainment, the program contained an essay by Robert Dessaix which, before it reached its didactic core, described a Good Friday concert in the Scuola Grande of the Four Seasons; it sounds glorious until you reckon with the standard of Vivaldi performances in pretty much all reaches of the lagoon. Dessaix writes further of the mercantile achievement of the city and its artistic magnificence – the paintings, the buildings (some of them), the occasional solid fantasias – but there is precious little about the music.

I probably carped about this when covering the previous Four Seasons appearances of the ACO and Tawadros brothers, but you scratch hard and painfully to find a relationship between Vivaldi and a non-European music. The modes and scales are different; the harmonic languages don’t touch; when Tawadros goes in for metrical complexity or simple syncopations, you’re a world away from continuo homophony. Even the fusing of textures serves as aural confrontation; you could say it was Vivaldi’s fault for not experimenting with the oud’s texture, contenting himself with an archlute (Simon Martyn-Ellis theorboing and Baroque guitaring behind Joseph Tawadros all night), and not using any member of the Arabian percussion panoply. But he didn’t.

At the end of the printed program, after the rousing flurries of fabric and driving rhythmic freneticism, a standing ovation from a house packed with patrons who have learned their reaction techniques from State of the Union broadcasts or (more credibly) Australia’s Got Talent. So you can argue that, even if the cross-over is not persuasive, it makes for popular success. For me, as with the first time I came on a Tawadros/Grigoryan mixture, the original experience was indubitably interesting for its level of accomplishment and the willing endeavour from all concerned; this time around, the output was expert if unsurprising. Next time? I don’t know. Where do you go after the Four Seasons? Going back to the Gabrieli family is impossible; and there’s not much that is well-known after the so-called Venetian Golden Age. Furthermore, what about Tawadros’ contribution? By the time he began his last number on this night, I felt as though we were spinning on the spot, that nothing new was happening.

A palpable hit, this whole affair, punctuated by some splendid music-making. And there’ll always be fans who appreciate and love these artists working together: God knows that the world of popular music demonstrates daily how long you can get along by repeating yourself. Further, you will always have couples like the pair in front of me who got carried away into ecstatic applause with the Near-Eastern excerpts and relaxed with knowing smiles every time Tognetti launched into a tune familiar from TV ads. Makes a fellow proud to be Australian.

Competent but uneasy


Musica Viva Australia

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday March 7, 2023

Karin Schaupp

Please excuse the disproportionately large snap above of Musica Viva’s guest guitarist; I’ve lost control over the size of inserted photographs on this WordPress system. Still, there’s little argument that the Brisbane artist was the pivotal figure in Tuesday night’s recital, the penultimate in a series of 8 outings in the usual MV national tour, albeit one that had suffered from the alarums and excursions that COVID and its variants have imposed on us all. At this point, we were hearing a program that – barring its final outing in Adelaide – was as finely honed as possible.

Several points in the evening showed plenty of ensemble finesse; at other stages, the level of accomplishment drooped. Flinders Quartet followers would be well aware of the accomplished ensemble output of viola Helen Ireland and ccllist Zoe Knighton, both foundation members of this 23-year-old group. From the violin lines, however, I detected occasional uncertainty – not just in pitch but in uniformity of production and what I can only call ‘mirroring’: that agreement in all particulars that typifies an ideal duo. Many of us would have been hearing this configuration of performers for the first time. Second violin Wilma Smith has been a stalwart of Melbourne’s musical life for many years and has accumulated an impressive curriculum vitae; Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba is a less familiar quantity, although I seem to recall his first appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in about 2014/15. But I can’t recall hearing him at close quarters.

What I thought was going to be an introductory romp, Carulli’s A Major Guitar Concerto Op. 8, seemed to offer unaccountable problems. Maybe it was the reduced personnel in use – no oboes, horns or double-bass – or the absence of the second movement polonaise, but the fabric proved imperfect, violin octaves occasionally not exactly in tune and even Schaupp having trouble generating a consistently perceptible line in semiquaver scales and then handling with requisite fluidity that odd triplet passage of four bars that breaks up Carulli’s rhythmic strait-jacket.

Richard Charlton’s Southern Cross Dreaming, a solo for Schaupp, is an amiable miniature and comfortable for the instrument. So it should be: it was written for Schaupp, at Schaupp’s suggestion; she premiered it in 2012 and her performance is also available on CD. Comfort music, then. At its heart, the piece is a tremolo study and its connection to the constellation is a matter of your own emotional reaction. Charlton’s use of ‘dreaming’ suggests a mesmerised state, rather than any Aboriginal connotations, and I was happy to collaborate.

My paternal aunt had an old LP of Segovia playing in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet of 1950. But since that time. it hasn’t shown up on any guitar+string quartet recitals I’ve attended (admittedly, they’ve been few in number). Reacquaintance didn’t reinforce an inherited dislike for the score’s astringency; indeed, the initial Allegro showed this ensemble at its best with a fine clarity from everyone and a delicious piquancy at each return of the first subject of this formal but infectiously happy set of pages. The succeeding Andante featured Ireland’s line prominently, perhaps over-emphatic and ripe with vibrato but managed without the self-indulgence that the direction mesto often brings. But I feel that none of the other movements – including the sprightly Scherzo and final Allegro – maintains your interest as fully as the first.

Certainly, a good deal happens and the composer is lavish with his material, especially in the Spanish inflections of the third movement. Added to which, the melding of guitar and strings is remarkably balanced and fair, Schaupp a consistent strand in the concerted passages and making the most of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s deftly abrasive solo stretches. It’s an attractive work in competent hands and, if this performance wasn’t as vividly definite as you hear it on some recordings (Pepe Romero, I’m thinking of you), these players worked their way through it with assurance and something approaching enjoyment.

The Italian writer’s composition might have been the program’s most substantial element, but its central point arrived after interval with Carl Vine’s new composition Endless, a latter-day deploration on the death of architect/environmentalist Jennifer Bates, killed in a Newcastle hit-and-run disaster in December 2016. The score for this recital’s instrumental resources was commissioned by Kathryn Bennett, the victim’s mother. Possibly deploration suggests something morbid, definitely morose; there is little in Vine’s pages that suggests gloom. Melancholy, perhaps, but even in the meditative pages that surround the score’s central dance celebrating Bates’ passion for salsa, the work avoids requiem mode.

As you’d anticipate, the instrumental fabric is expertly managed, the guitar treated as a fulcrum voice from the outset while the full ensemble is put to active work in the dance section. The effect is not simply bipartite – the professional and the dancer – but a carefully welded musical portrait where one aspect folds into the other. In the final sections where Vine attempts to represent the ‘endless knot’ of Buddhist belief, a concept sympathetic to Bates’ credo, the instrumental layering and foregrounding of individual lines makes a telling emotional impact for reasons that are inexplicable; the moment isn’t exactly religious or suggestive of transcendence, but as a final salute, a hopeful farewell, it makes a powerful impression of that state where the fire and the rose are one.

The Flinders gave an airing to Imogen Holst’s one-movement Phantasy Quartet of 1928. This served the purpose of showing the players at ease in a generous score that took its various bases from the folk-infused examples of Vaughan Williams and other British bucolic composers. Fortunately, the composer had inherited her father’s ear for relieving astringency so that listeners aren’t swamped in sweetness. Did it add much to your depth of chamber music experience? Probably not, but this writer is overdue for exposure; even ABC Classic FM got onto the bandwagon the other day through an airing of the Fanfare for the Grenadier Guards – no, not a substantial contribution to Holst’s renaissance but an attempt, if measly, in this week of International Women’s Day.

To finish, the group performed the last two movements – Grave assai and Fandango – from Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet in D Major G. 448, which the Flinders and Schaupp recorded in 2010 with different violinists. The slow movement is really a 9-bar introduction to the dance which has the occasional infectious bite even if its repetitions start to oppress. Cellist Knighton is still taking up the castanets for part of the fandango, just as when I last saw this group perform the full quartet at Montsalvat in Eltham. Even in these non-too-difficult pages (for the strings), the upper lines didn’t come across to the back of the hall as dynamically balanced, although their pitching proved efficient enough.

As you can see, this was a multifaceted program, beginning and ending with guitar classics, two Australian compositions set alongside a 20th century repertoire staple for this combination and a curiosity from British music’s back blocks. For all the variety, it struck me that the participants were still not comfortable in all their offerings, despite the long association between three of them and the substantial preparation time enforced on the whole group by our country’s chain of medical disasters.