We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Informative, yes; dry, no

NEW CONSTELLATIONS

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday August 22

ARCO Aug 2019

      L to R:   Jakob Lehmann,   Rachael Beesley,   Miki Tsunoda,   Anna McMichael,                          Bernadette Verhagen,    Simon Oswell,    Daniel Yeadon,    Natasha Kraemer

 

An inspiration of the late Richard Gill, this orchestra  –  or, on this night, chameleonic chamber ensemble  –  is  dedicated to historically informed performances which, the older I get, takes in a lot more music than it used to do.   We’ve had a welter of such groups come visiting over the past 50 years or so and have established our own organizations in this field, some to considerable acclaim.  But, as an ARCO virgin, I was taken aback and delighted by the orchestra’s most recent appearance here.

Even though the program offered little new  –  Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and Brahms’ D Major Serenade in its original nonet format   –   the standard of interpretation on offer managed to achieve what very few musical experiences do these days: making you re-hear and re-configure music that you thought you had securely under your belt.  Most of us would have heard a good many versions of the Mendelssohn gem; sometimes from two discrete string quartets banded together for the occasion, more often from performers extracted from an established orchestral body, and also there’s been the possibility of hearing 8 individuals collaborating with one end in view, as in student airings.

Is it fair to say that most of these prove worthy, sometimes exhilarating, often owing what success they have to the unkillable quality of the young composer’s score?  After hearing the ARCO forces, you have to take a step back; their interpretation doesn’t grab you for its drama, not even in the fugue-rich finale that most groups hammer into place with ferocity; nor is it affectingly rich in emotional swooping, as is too often the case in the work’s generous Andante.   Immediately, the listener knows that the reading is different.

You expect the first violin to seize the reins right from the start with those upward arpeggio surges while every one else supplies filler for 8 bars.   Guest director Jakob Lehmann cut back on the ardour so that his output emerged from the E flat Major buzzing  without unnecessary heroics or attention-grabbing.  In this, he set much of a pattern for the remainder of the players who supplied a kind of organic growth rather than a series of spotlit moments, as when Violin 4 and Viola 1 combine at bar 68 for the B flat theme in 6ths, or later when Violin 2 sets off the rush to recapitulation at bar 209, Rachael Beesley setting the semiquavers in motion from within the moment rather than seizing the opportunity to distract.

For the first five minutes, the ARCO output impresses for its caressing nature, a gentility that comes from every point of the stage.   You endure no scraping as the ensemble output is fine, carefully finished, but I was thankful for the Exposition repeat, just for the sake of temperature acclimatisation.  Quiet individual touches persisted into the Andante where Lehmann employed a fair amount of portamento, although he was pretty much alone in this practice.   As well, the group proved themselves comfortable at negotiating changes in tempo, bending the bar-line appreciably but without interrupting the movement’s fluency.

Mendelssohn’s breathtaking Scherzo was handled with courtesy and a lack of the sublimated freneticism that informs many other readings; light-footed, as the composer’s direction suggests, but not hopping about on hot coals.   The concluding Presto brought out the group’s most forthright playing with plenty of hefty bow-work, but even here the details told, like some scintillating duet fragments from Beesley and Tsunoda peeking out from the muted ferment, as at bars 355 to 372.   In the end, even this heavy-handed set of pages came over as brisk and bright – remarkable given the frequent determined working-out of material where the young composer can’t disguise his learning.

You won’t come across the original form of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 very often, mainly because he destroyed the score and what we hear is a clever reconstruction based on estimates and memories.   You can see why Joachim advised Brahms to revise it for full orchestra, especially in the bookend movements.   But for this group of players, the nonet – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn – provided scope for individuality without effort, even if you could have wished for less assertiveness from Robert Percival’s bassoon in  some of the more lightly-scored moments.

Lehmann maintained his approach of using very little vibrato; cellist Daniel Yeadon cello employed it more often.  Not that this latter player had much opportunity to exercise this technique early on, thanks to the folksy drones he had to produce with bass Robert Nairn.   Violist Simon Oswell didn’t hold back when a potentially fruity solo came his way.   But the significant player for this section was Darryl Poulsen on horn which, for a natural instrument, sounded unexpectedly fresh and clear of errors.  Thanks to this unfussed clarity, the work opened with a pleasant mixture of rusticity and sophistication, as it should.

The first scherzo exposed the excellent clarinet duet work of Nicole van Bruggen and Emily Worthington – subtle in phrasing and restrained in dynamic.   But the whole group made excellent work of these pages’ seamless, long paragraphs.   Even better performance skill came in the solitary Adagio which gave us  an opportunity to luxuriate in rich scoring and some fine textural mixes, notably from Lehmann and Oswell whose production qualities – so different in solo work – complemented each other with felicitous results.     This movement is heard at its melting best in the return to taws in the last third, a gift for Lehmann who gave it the same flexibility without overkill that exemplified his playing across the evening.    Here again, Poulsen made a brave showing, enunciating his notes without apparent effort and even reconciling you to the odd nature of step-by-step melodies for which the mechanics of his instrument preclude evenness of output.

With the clarinet duet of Menuetto I, this serenade is best suited to the small chamber disposition.   The second part saw Lehmann unexpectedly impose brusque dynamic contrasts.   Admittedly, the second Menuetto is all violin but, in this version, I was happy to get back to the calm imperturbability of those clarinets in the repeated first Menuetto. The second Scherzo gained by its change to full orchestra status, not least by having three more horns to help carry the brunt of the action.   Still, these pages met with an enthusiastic response from the ARCO musicians.   If I wasn’t as pleased by the ensemble’s account of the finale, it might have been due to the rhythmic ambiguity that hangs over the movement where the time signature is 2/4 but most ensembles slip into 6.8 by not maintaining a sufficiently keen ear on the disposition of individual lines.   However, these performers worked hard to the last bar of this rondo  –  the least successful of the score’s six segments.

Obviously, listening to the Brahms score made for a further test of concentration.  You had to take on board pretty quickly the combination of clarity and restraint that seems to come with the ARCO territory.   On top of that, you found yourself trying to discount your knowledge of how this work sounds under ‘normal’ conditions.  As a result, the performance kept you on your toes, aurally speaking.   For many of us, such demands are unusual; for several of us, they make for the best kind of musical experience.  It’s hard to resist this group’s dedication to a particular style of playing which attracts for its integrity; the pity is that, as on this night, these gifted musicians are working to an audience of small numbers.  Not that this should give them pause: their efforts and  results are effective and powerful.

 

September Diary

Tuesday September 3

Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & Stephen de Pledge

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A piano trio that comes under the Recital Centre’s promotional heading of ‘Great Chamber Ensembles’, its violinist and cellist are familiar names – husband-and-wife team Mullova and Barley  –  but who is de Pledge, apart from being a friend of the family?  Guess we’ll find out on the night.   To open, we hear the Ravel which will test he friend/pianist, and the group winds up with the glorious Schubert in E flat – one of those feasts that always satisfies.   In between comes a new work by Salina Fisher. a young New Zealand composer/violinist    I’m assuming this is the piece for cello and piano commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand that is being taken around the composer’s home country later this month; hard to tell from Fisher’s website where her list of works is not up-to-date and this Melbourne appearance doesn’t rate a mention in the list of performances of the composer’s works.

 

Wednesday September 4

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew at 7:30 pm

Kathryn Selby’s colleagues for this recital are familiar from previous years: violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   It’s fair to say that these performers are not game changers, but then you’d be pressed to find much revolutionary about the composers highlighted on this amiable night’s work.   Elena Kats-Chernin has become a major presence on this country’s music scene but not for her ability to make us re-think our perceptions.   Blue Silence in a piano trio version was arranged in 2012 for the Streeton Trio, six years after the piece’s original composition for cello and piano.   Based on a four-note motif, the score is as formally -placid and non-directional as a Satie Gnossienne. In Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2 (the one we all know with the Blues middle movement), the composer experiments with jazz inflections but it hardly represents any blazing of new pathways; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue appeared three years before this sonata and really altered  public attitudes – for a while.   Smiles and Selby take on Britten’s first composition for Rostropovich: the Cello Sonata of 1961 which started the British composer on his sequence of five splendid scores for the Russian master.  This program concludes with Dvorak in F minor, Op. 65 which signified a directional change from the composer – less nationalism, more abstraction.   Like the Ravel, it’s a game changer more for the writer than for the landscape of European serious music.

 

Saturday September 7

PETRUSHKA

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

There’ll be no soloists in this program from the ANAM orchestra.   We hear the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, recently aired by the MSO and its Chorus, although I don’t think there’ll be any singing here.   Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat follows with what are called ‘Suite selections’ – two sets to choose from but probably no singing despite the original’s two songs for mezzo.  Then comes the title work, also given recently by the MSO and a severe test still for a young orchestra.  You’d think that the outer tableaux depicting the Shrovetide Fair would be the most problematic, but the two central scenes present problems of a different character with their concentration on individual and small group filigree work.   Tonight’s conductor is Brazilian-born Eduardo Strausser, a young gun with a string of successful appearances to his credit in South America and Europe.   He made his Australian debut last year with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, goading that ensemble through the Bruckner Symphony No. 4; this ANAM program is, in comparison, almost frivolous.

 

Sunday September 8

CELEBRATING MOZART

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Apart from a Haydn prelude  –  the Symphony No. 39 called Tempesta di mare for reasons I can’t fathom  –   this program is all-Mozart.   You’d assume the Haydn was selected to balance Tognetti’s final offering: the Mozart G minor Symphony No. 25 that enjoyed unusual exposure in Forman’s Amadeus film.   The artistic director takes a solo with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, yet another spirit-lifting delight from the teenage composer.    Guest artist Dejan Lazic – a truly formidable pianist – returns to the ACO to perform the E Flat Concerto No. 14 which is a piece you won’t hear often although several commentators place it at the start of the remarkable central group of such works in the composer’s oeuvre.   I think it has a brilliant first movement but is not as enthralling in the following Andantino and Allegro.  Lazic makes a further contribution with a Rondo Concertante that he has arranged from the finale to the B flat Piano Sonata K. 333.    I thought the original would have been too bare-boned and direct for any kind of transformation but Lazic may give us a startling re-composition/adaptation.   We’ll see.

This program will be repeated on Monday September 9 at 7:30 pm.

 

Friday September 13

MOZART 40

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Not much to report about this night.   Conductor Benjamin Northey takes us on a brisk journey through Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1, which is always agreable to experience if the players are in skittish form for its 14 minutes’ worth.   Then the MSO’s own Thomas Hutchinson takes the lead for the Strauss Oboe Concerto which lasts for an atypically brief 25 minutes; this soloist currently occupies the Associate Principal position under Jeffrey Crellin, who has been in the main chair for 42 years.   Northey then gets the chance to expound the great G minor Symphony and you’d have to wish him well in attempting to bring something new to these all-too-familiar pages, shamefully bowdlerized by pop music cretins and ad men with absolutely no idea about the worth of their adopted material.   There’ll be some immediate interest in seeing (and hearing) whether Northey uses the version with clarinets.

 

Saturday September 14

Emerson String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Not that it matters, but this ensemble will play its second program first in Melbourne.  The well-settled group – one personnel change in 43 years – takes its name from Ralph Waldo, a philosopher more often used as a reference than as reading material; what I know about him derives pretty much completely from Charles Ives.  The musicians begin with Haydn Op. 71 No. 2 which will probably hold plentiful surprises for Emerson enthusiasts because this particular work does not feature in the ensmble’s The Haydn Project recordings.   Beethoven’s middle Razumovsky, they have recorded to mixed reviews.   No raised eyebrows with the centre work, either: Bartok No. 5.   In short, a program from a well-respected ‘name’ quartet, calculated to highlight the players’ abilities in core repertoire.

The Emersons will perform their Program 1 on Tuesday September 17 at 7 pm.   This comprises Mozart in D Major K. 575, first of the Prussian series which the group has recorded; Dvorak Op. 51 in E flat. oozing nationalistic flourishes, particularly in its second half; and Shostakovich Op. 92 which the Emersons have also recorded and which makes an odd match for the second program’s Bartok.

 

Sunday September 15

PIANOS AND PERCUSSION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank at 11 am

When you read that heading, the first thing that comes to mind is the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and sure enough: that masterwork from 1937 leads the two-part agenda for this recital.   It’s not uncommon to come across it on programs, even these days when the composer is recognized by an ever-shrinking repertoire, but you rarely hear the score achieved with complete confidence.   Here’s hoping pianists Louisa Breen and Leigh Harrold with MSO percussionists John Arcaro and Robert Cossom breeze through its three movements with aplomb.   The morning-into-afternoon concludes with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in an arrangement originally for two pianos by American composer/pianist John Musto, transmuted even further by Cossom to include the two available percussionists.   A pretty short recital, which may not stretch past noon as the two works last for about 50 minutes combined.  But no: I’m forgetting those laborious spoken introductions and commentaries that bring this extraordinary music down to the level of banality.

 

Thursday September 19

MOZART AND ELGAR: AN EVENING OF VARIATIONS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Hmm . . . Elgar. . . Variations.   No secrets here, then: we’re in for the Enigma, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth who is solidly British in background and no close relation to Mark, a fine musician who could have been the MSO’s sometime chief conductor if the stars had aligned, I believe.   Anyway, good luck to Ryan and his interpretation of this hoary collection.   As guest soloist, we hear Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 which is being substituted for Wigglesworth’s own Mozart Variations . . . a new score that might have given some expanded relevance to this concert’s title.   Never mind: Lewis is a remarkable, insightful artist heard here in concertos too rarely.   To begin, Lewis and Wigglesworth collaborate as soloists in Mozart’s Two-Piano Concerto in E flat: a secret pleasure as my favourite above most of the better-known one-piano concerto masterworks.  And my lack of discernment is exhibited yet again by a partiality for the Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea live performance from 1985.

This program will be repeated on Friday September 20 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm.

 

Friday September 20

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Quartet No. 1 by Ives had no subtitle when I first heard it back in the 1960s.  Now the ASQ have labelled it From the Salvation Army; American groups have called it A Revival Service.   Whatever its sobriquet, the work is packed with hymn tunes and – up until the last movement – an orthodoxy that disturbs because you keep waiting for the biting clashes that signify the composer’s idea of a man’s music as opposed to all that French slop being produced about the same time (1898-1902).   Speaking of which, Debussy’s Op. 10 Quartet at the end of tonight’s program dates from 1893 and is a fine example of the kind of writing that Ives detested; we less Spartan minds have learnt to make allowances.   Nigel Westlake’s new piece being premiered on this tour is his String Quartet No. 3, about which no information is readily available.   It enjoys its first performance in Sydney on September 4; then in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth before being expounded to the discerning ears of Melbourne’s chamber music aficionados.

 

Saturday September 21

LA PHILHARMONIC WIND QUINTET

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The American players – flute Denis Bouriakov, oboe Ramon Ortega Quero, clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan, bassoon Whitney Crocket  and horn Andrew Bain – open with a welcome burst of nationalism through Barber’s sophisticated and benign Summer Music before employing the services of an ANAM bass clarinettist for Britten’s 1930 Movement for Wind Sextet – a window into the 16-year-old composer’s practices.  Then we cross the Channel in a big way.   An ANAM pianist (Timothy Young?)  gets to join the Los Angeles musicians for Poulenc’s Sextet before we take a step back in time for Gounod’s Petite symphonie which entails the assistance of further ANAM musicians  –  an oboe, a clarinet, a bassoon and a horn.   Milhaud’s Chamber Symphony No. 5 expands the participating personnel by one, requiring a piccolo, a cor anglais to help the oboe, that bass clarinet again, an extra bassoon and another horn.   Finally, the visitors will be duplicated by a home-grown group in Francaix’s 9 Pieces caracteristiques for double wind quintet.   If nothing else, the evening bears evidence of the immense debt that wind players owe to France.

 

Tuesday September 24

Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Back in the thick of the recherche, this fine British pianist is again confining himself to a circumscribed field.   He begins with Haydn in E minor Hob XVI.34 which, as far as I can detect, has not featured in his recordings of music by this composer.   It’s a pretty terse work, the three movements rushing past with an unusual conciseness of rhetoric.  Continuing his predilection for late works by the masters, Lewis then focuses on the Three Intermezzi Op. 117 by Brahms where the melancholy and resignation of old age colour every page: extraordinary creations of apparent simplicity.   For his finale, Lewis takes on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations which has not enjoyed the exposure of Bach’s Goldberg and probably lags behind the Baroque work in any universal discography.   You can wait many years to hear the Diabelli live; I believe that I’ve heard it only once – at one of Stephen McIntyre’s  one-day piano festivals at St. Michael’s Church.   To an unprepossessing tune, Beethoven brought all his hard-won craft and you’d anticipate an engrossing interpretation of this lengthy score from this player gifted with consummate skill and a working intellect.

 

Thursday September 26

MENDELSSOHN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Terribly popular, this concerto.   It seems hardly a year goes by without its appearance on an MSO program.  Not that you can whinge about its coming up yet again when the soloist is Ray Chen, a violinist of great accomplishment and insight (when he’s playing something worthwhile).   Tonight’s director/violinist is MSO Concertmaster Dale Barltrop who leads us into a light-filled program with Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri Overture and brings us home with Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 where the concluding frolic of a presto brings to mind the composer who opened the concert.   As a sort of programmed encore, Chen and Barltrop collaborate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, which Bach transcribed, along with three other concertos by the Italian composer, for organ solo.   As a composite presentation for this hall, this all strikes me as effective and appropriate; nothing sombre and little that would benefit from a noticeable echo.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday September 27 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

No sweat

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall

Saturday July 27

King's

                                                   Chapel, King’s College, Cambridge

Here they are again, for an eighth Musica Viva tour of Australia; nice to hear the group in excellent vocal shape and an improvement on their last appearance here.  A pretty full house appeared to be satisfied with the experience last Saturday evening, even if what was on offer didn’t deviate much outside the bounds of Establishment repertoire and an almost palpable tastefulness.   Singing to their strengths, the Cambridge choristers excelled in certain parts of the one program they were presenting to Melbourne and even the so-so works  came across as thoroughly prepared and committed, although at some stages you wondered what all the fuss was about.

Conductor Daniel Hyde, replacing an indisposed Sir Stephen Cleobury who was unable to tour, gave a benign introduction to the choir’s most adventurous offerings: Ross Edwards’ new Singing the Love, Judith Weir’s O Mercy Divine and Pace by Errollyn Wallen.   The impression gained from Hyde’s address was of something daring, music that moved the singers from their usual staid fare into new arenas of emotional and technical adventure.

Not exactly.  Edwards had inserted a touch of nationalist colour with an accompaniment of some Aboriginal-type sticks, but the familiar clicks punctuated an orthodox choral texture with only a rapid downward-falling motif from the sopranos to provide an unexpected frisson of novelty.   His work is in essence a setting of Psalm 100, the one about making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord’; these words recur so that you inevitably categorise the format as a small-scale rondo, the exuberant recurrent chorus book-ending quieter sections.  Every so often, you got a burst of Maninyas joyfulness but much of the work sat more than comfortably alongside the sober placidity of the program.

Weir’s setting of a Charles Wesley hymn also burst into no new territory.  It seemed at the start to be a lullaby in 6/8 with a canon between the lower voices and the sopranos before moving into a more concerted central body of development.  Adorning its placid choral writing, Umberto Clerici’s cello inserted a busy counter-activity – one of the night’s few points where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal wasn’t just reinforcing the bass line.  The piece was written for last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, into which context it would have slotted seamlessly.

Wallen’s piece used its title as text; by the way, it’s the Italian word for ‘peace’, not a synonym for ‘step’.  Throughout its (brief) length, the singers’ lines move in a sort of sliding impressionism from concords to quiet dissonances, the textures floating by pleasantly enough towards a single-note resolution.   Yet again, the score presented these musicians with no striking challenges, but what could you expect from a piece whose primary aim is to encourage reflection?   To that end, I think Pace might succeed to better effect in a church environment blessed with a significant echo; in this context, the experience offered little beyond the chance to admire the choir’s security of pitch.

Following this modernist bracket, the choir ended their set program with a reassuring reversion to type, just in case Wallen’s impressionist drifting had disoriented your sense of harmonic rectitude.  Vaughan Williams’ Bunyan setting, Valiant-for-Truth is a fine statement of stalwart faith ending in a blaze of fanfares as ‘all the trumpets sounded for him’  –  a welcome burst of aggressive, militant Christianity from the temperamentally mild Cambridge choir.

Saturday opened with a now-you-hear-it-now you-don’t Monteverdi motet, Cantate Domino: a warm-up number served with the reassurance of a chamber organ support – God knows why.   The scheduled Bach, Lobet den Herrn, disappeared somewhere along the track to be replaced by Komm, Jesu, komm; fine by me – I’ll take a double choir gem against a 4-part motet any day and this one concludes with that mellifluous aria/chorale, Drauf schliess’ ich mich.   Clerici and an unknown organist provided the bass-line/continuo that I can’t find in my edition but which is de rigueur in performances these days.   The sound complex sounded rather sweet and euphonious for what is possibly a piece written for a funeral but Hyde and his forces approached it with a clear eye for its close echo effects and innate reserve.

The boys left the stage so that the men could sing Cavalli’s Salve Regina for altos, two sets of tenors, basses and, in this instance, organ with a certain level of independence although it’s hard to know if that was inserted by the anonymous performer.  The composer sustains a reverential tone before the exciting outbreak of Ad te clamavi but the movement returns to placid, with a moving repetition of Ostende from the altos as the piece moves into its final phase.   At its best, this exercise demonstrated the clarity of the Cambridge tenors and the gentlemanly restraint of the body’s basses who maintained a ruminative rumble for much of the night.

The boys returned for one of their party pieces: Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with harpist Alice Giles a scintillating support.   During this score, I became aware of an exceptional and individual voice on the right-hand side of the singers, a ripe and mature soprano with a vivid vibrato.   Distracting?   To some extent but also an enrichment to the choral output.   I think this singer had one of the earlier solos – That yonge child? – but the ensemble handled each movement with impressive professionalism, even the rapid-fire canons of This little babe which for once showed no signs of losing pace or unanimity of attack.

As you’d expect, the singers showed an unflashy authority throughout, impressing with  elegant phrasing on the Transeamus conclusion to There is no rose, an irreproachable reading blessed with a fine conclusion from the two soloists handling the Spring Carol, and a welcome animation throughout Adam lay i–bounden.  The performance was punctuated with applause from listeners unfamiliar with the process of hearing a work as a unity rather than as a series of sound-bites – the same reaction that you get at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Myer Bowl concerts in February where each individual symphony movement is hailed with enthusiasm regardless of length or quality of performance.

Straight after interval, the choir sang three Tudor works, meat and drink to Anglican choirs over the past century and always welcome from practitioners like these; the sort of music-making many of us could have listened to all night.   Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis emphasized yet again the excellent unforced security from the body’s tenors while the basses continued to exercise restraint, even at pivotal moments like their Laude Dei entrances.   But the energy of the two soprano parts was a source of high pleasure.  Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis was supported by the chamber organ, although I think its role was confined to doubling the bass line.  This also showed the singers in a flattering light, particularly in the sprightly vigour of their Alleluia repetitions.

Concluding this segment was Hosanna to the Son of David by Gibbons that I first heard over 40 years ago at an Ely Cathedral Evensong; memorable because, on the admission of one of the choristers,  the choir barely scraped through this taxing masterpiece.   No worries here as Hyde directed a lightly bounding version rich in rhythmic displacements and some of the most deliciously understated false relations I’ve ever heard.   Most choirs turn this motet into a loud-voiced battleground where non-existent bar-lines take unwelcome precedence.   In contrast, the Cambridge musicians handled it with linear probity, the polyphonic web rising and receding with masterly skill.

Giles enjoyed a solo with Salzedo’s Variations sur un theme dans le style ancien, a virtuoso late-Romantic turn that stays close to its original material with some impressive treble detail work.   In this players’ hands, the piece impressed for its subtle virtuosity.   Still, it  stuck out from its surroundings  – Gibbons and Edwards – with uncomfortable distinctiveness . . . which didn’t do anything to subdue the enthusiasm with which it was greeted.

August Diary

Friday August 2

ELGAR’S CELLO CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

French conductor Bertrand de Billy comes to front the MSO for the first time.   He has made a reputation as an expert at opera in various houses throughout Europe, although his residences have been uncommonly brief.   His exhibition piece for this program is Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra which the MSO publicity team is anxious to link with Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey; yes, the eminent film-maker used the whole first minute of this verbose tone poem.   What will they do for an organ, now that Hamer Hall doesn’t have one?   Yet another electronic substitute for Calvin Bowman to coax into life, I suppose.   Guest soloist Johannes Moser won the Tchaikovsky Competition 17 years ago; tonight, he works through the most famous 20th century concerto which, unlike the Strauss, is a model of concise expression.   And to ease us into late Romantic mood, de Billy directs Wagner’s ever-moving Siegfried Idyll, that delectable pre-Ring palate-cleanser.

This program will be repeated on Saturday August 3 at 7:30 pm and on Monday August 5 at 6:30 pm.

 

Friday August 9

MOZART PROJECT NO. 3

The Melbourne Musicians

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Kew at 7:30 pm

Accompanied by Frank Pam and his ensemble, Elyane Laussade concludes a three-concert series of Mozart piano concertos with the only one among the first ten or so that concert-goers regularly hear: No. 9 in  E flat, the Jeunehomme, which breaks the rules by having the soloist enter almost straight away, then keeps the surprises coming, including a sudden Minuet in the Rondeau finale.   On either side, Pam directs two Haydn symphonies – No. 43 in E flat, the Mercury, and the better-known La Passione No. 49 in F minor.   Breaking the Viennese flavour, the night ends with a three-movement Boccherini symphony in D minor called House of the Devil which reserves its supernatural promise for a violently active final Allegro con molto.

 

Saturday August 10

JOY & HEARTBREAK

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Well, the joy isn’t hard to find.   ANAM resident faculty member Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic, directs and leads Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony to bring the program to a vitally optimistic, if minor-key conclusion.   What comes before is less happy.   Gideon Klein’s folk-influenced, astringent Partita of 1944, the year before the composer’s death in or near the Furstengrube labour camp, was originally a trio for violin, viola and cello, later arranged for string orchestra by Vojtech Saudek.   Further in the heartbreak stakes, Bendix-Balgley takes the solo part in Hartmann’s powerful Concerto funebre, written in the first year of World War Two but drawing part of its sources from German and Russian songs memorializing victims of violence.   Quite a test in concentration for the conductor/soloist; still, you’re only young once.

 

Sunday August 11

LUMINOUS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

This is another collaboration by the ACO with photographer Bill Henson, revisiting a previous effort in 2005.   These fusions rarely come without problems of balance in interest, although what I remember of the previous exercise was not an unusually lopsided affair, possible due to the cool, detached nature of Henson’s work.   As for the music, it’s another medley that, at time of writing, is vague in its details; some Britten, some Janacek, Peteris Vasks’ Violin Concerto entitled Distant Light, a descent into the abyss with something from R. E.M.    I’m anticipating that this last will involve the participation of the program’s main guest, the singer Lior whose work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in music by Nigel Westlake stands as one of the few almost-successful fusions of serious intentions with popular vocalisation.   You can understand that Richard Tognetti, director and probably soloist in the 30-minute-long Vasks concerto, wants to keep open options to marry his music with Henson’s photographs; let’s hope the wash-up doesn’t consist of incongruent scraps.

This program will be repeated on Monday August 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Wednesday August 14

GERMAN ROMANTICS

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This mother-and-son piano/violin duo has shown admirable versatility in previous recitals.   This time, it’s straight down the line with Schubert and Brahms.   To begin, they play the Grand Duo, Schubert’s Violin Sonata D 574; not a work that you experience often – not like the contemporary and highly appealing Sonatinas.   In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard it in live performance.   The main Brahms offering is the magnificent G Major Regen Sonata which radiates a healthy gemutlichkeit that typifies this composer’s finest chamber music: a warmth that swells in all-embracing  breadth from one bar to the next.   Finally, the Melnychenko partners look further back in the composer’s career – some 25 years or so – to that youthful oddity, the F-A-E Sonata written in collaboration with Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich.   Brahms contributed a scherzo to this composite construct which hits you like a hammer with its intense power and rhythmic vigour, including a clutch of signature hemiolas.

 

Wednesday August 14

SONG CYCLES WITH SARA MACLIVER

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Australian soprano is a guest artist in residence at ANAM at this time of year.   As far as I can make out, she has no singing pupils to deal with; which is to say that none are mentioned on the Academy’s 2019 list of musicians.   So you’d assume that Macliver is giving ANAM pianists a chance to accompany her, one of the country’s most versatile sopranos.   Some lucky player will escort the singer through Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe und -Leben, which sets the bar impossibly high for any other lieder composer: an intense, heart-breakingly moving depiction of female psychology in eight superb songs.  Someone else will assist Macliver in selections from Duparc’s 17 chansons: we can hope for L’invitation au voyage, Phydile and Extase.   In between, we’re to enjoy Grieg’s Haugtussa, the composer’s solitary song-cycle which follows a country girl from youthful joy in life to later disillusionment.

 

Saturday August 17

QUARTET & COUNTRY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 4 pm & 6 pm

Both of these programs consist of Australian works: six in the early session, five in the later one.   Two singer-composers will be guest artists at 4 pm: Stephen Pigram, from whom we’ll hear Walganyagarra Buru, then Mimi in an arrangement by Iain Grandage; and Lou Bennett whose Jaara Nyilamum is preceded by a collaboration with Grandage, dirt song.   Running parallel with this indigenous current come Kate Moore’s String Quartet No. 3, Cicadidae, which the ASQ presented here in May; and David Paterson’s Quartettsatze, all two of them.   For the second program, the players begin with a venerable (well, it’s almost 30 years old) favourite in Sculthorpe’s two-movement String Quartet No. 11, Jabiru Dreaming.   Guest William Barton joins the ensemble for a new work by Stephen King that involves, naturally, the didgeridoo.   Grandage speaks en clair with his After Silence – like the Sculthorpe, taking its inspiration from Aboriginal sources.  Barton’s own Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand from 2017 is preceded by Sarah Hopkins’ Reclaiming the Spirit of 1993, presumably in its string quartet format.   Good on the ASQ for taking on the challenge of two all-Australian recitals, even if the audiences will probably fit comfortably into the Primrose Potter Salon.

 

Thursday August 22

SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

And here comes another cellist.   Johannes Moser opens the month with Elgar’s anguished masterpiece; now Jian Wang puts his talents into Saint-Saens’ Concerto No. 1, the more popular of the composer’s two works in the form.   Conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider has enjoyed a sterling career as a solo violinist with an impressive CD catalogue of concerto and chamber music performances.   Tonight, he begins proceedings with excerpts from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; no sign of any singers or speakers, so there’ll be no melodramas or Ye spotted snakes – which rather limits these extracts to the all-too-familiar.   Szeps-Znaider gives pride of place to the brilliant Berlioz symphony, a masterpiece that nonplussed the strait-laced Mendelssohn and set out an orchestration text-book from which Saint-Saens profited handsomely.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday August 23 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday August 24 at 2 pm.

 

Thursday August 22

NEW CONSTELLATIONS

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Only two works occupy this evening’s program: the Mendelssohn Octet for strings and the Brahms Serenade No. 1, in its second format for nonet which will be a reconstruction because the original score disappeared.   Piecing together possibilities, this Brahms may be articulated by flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, and one each of the string groups. A full complement of the 8 strings necessary for Mendelssohn’s light-filled gem is outlined on the ARCO web-site including violinists Rachael Beesley and Miki Tsunoda, violist Simon Oswell, and cellist Daniel Yeadon.   The whole exercise will be led by Jakob Lehmann who is continuing his liaison with this organization while leading a hectic artistic life focused on his home-town, Berlin.   On paper, the entertainment looks a tad lop-sided: Mendelssohn’s Octet lasts about 30 minutes, the Brahms close to 45.   But you’d be hard pressed to think of two such complementary optimistic and innately happy scores.

 

Thursday August 29

QUINTETS WITH FRIENDS

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The ensemble’s three friends for this night’s work are top-notch musicians: Natsuko Yoshimoto from the Adelaide Symphony,  Elizabeth Sellars at Monash University, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s principal violist Christopher Moore.   But operations begin with two of the core Liaison personnel – cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic and pianist Timothy Young – playing Three Pieces: Humoresk, Lied and Tarantell by Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law.   Brief in length, these bagatelles precede one of the promised quintets, that by Weber for clarinet and string quartet.   This puts Ensemble stalwart David Griffiths firmly at the centre of the action in one if the foundation works for his instrument.   Australian writer Natalie Williams is represented by a new trio, Treppenwitz  –  the German term for l’esprit de l’escalier, or thinking too late of the perfect reply –  which piece seems to have been tailored for the Liaison personnel.   Finally, guest violinists and viola come on to partner Bogosavljevic and Young through the sombre depths of Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor.

 

Friday August 30

SIBELIUS’ VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

James Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, lightens the atmosphere after interval with Dvorak’s rural-flavoured Symphony No. 8 in G Major.  Eschewing the stentorian brouhaha of the following New World, this score is a fine example of the Czech composer’s ability to appeal to the bucolic in even the most metropolitan-centred of us; a special delight comes with those waffling horns in the exciting finale.   Viktoria Mullova is an honoured name world-wide and you couldn’t ask for a more authoritative hand than hers with the night’s eponymous concerto; it’s one of a kind and engrossing from start to finish, not least for the torrent of work given to the soloist.   For a starter, Gaffigan directs Janacek’s Jealousy, the original overture for Jenufa about which the composer had second thoughts; a fraught 6 minutes of perturbing fragments and blazing brass.

This program will be repeated on Saturday August 31 at 7:30 pm, and on Monday September 2 at 6:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

Party pieces

HEROIC BEL CANTO

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall

Sunday July 15

Rossini

                                                                      Rossini

First, a confession.  I didn’t last the distance on this night.  Mind you, I missed only the last three items: a solo from visiting mezzo Daniel Barcellona, a curious Donizetti septet featuring some of the company’s younger voices, and the finale to Rossini’s Le Comte Ory which involved all ten of the evening’s vocalists.   But the exercise had made its points quite obviously by this stage and sticking around would only have resulted in weariness of spirit if not a growing impatience at an unhappy alternation between laudable accomplishment and mediocre interpretation and/or material.

On the positive side, soprano Jessica Pratt shone at every turn.   Admittedly, she wasn’t overworked: Bel raggio lusinghier from Rossini’s Semiramide, the final act soprano/mezzo duet from the same opera, O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, and a leading role in the night’s all-in conclusion.  This singer showed excellent pliability of phrasing in the first aria with a congenial bounce to her fioriture later in the piece; if the style of attack occasionally impressed as over-studied, the results proved accurate and firmly spun.

Pratt and Barcellona worked gratifyingly well together in the Ebben . . .a te; ferisci duet, largely because both singers were pitching their efforts in the same direction, Pratt keeping her dynamic power at a level congruent with her partner’s output, each singer sustaining a congruent dramatic balance which helped to maintain both interest and admiration during an operatic passage more improbable than most.   Pratt gave a successful airing to her Donizetti aria, finding a lightness of delivery in the final pages that brought to mind the sparkling brilliance of Sutherland in the same work.

Of all the singers I heard on this night, the one most affected by the prevailing working conditions was Barcellona.  With Orchestra Victoria under Richard Mills making some effort to moderate their weight, the mezzo opened her account with Eccomi alfine in Babilonia; another Semiramide excerpt which the singer and conductor thought would be amusing to turn into Eccomi alfine in Melbourne – a verbal twist that went unnoticed . . . or perhaps people didn’t consider it that funny.  The opening recitative showed us an interesting Arsace, active to the point of volatility; parts of the Ah! quel giorno aria made for heavy going, Barcellona’s lower register disappearing under the orchestra’s output.

There’s not much you can do about this, of course.  Operating from a pit, OV is less confrontational a creature than when spread out across the Hamer Hall stage, and the brass – even if confined to horns alone – is necessarily prominent in carrying power.  Later, in her rendition of Cruda sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri and that sparkling duet Ai capricci from the same opera in collaboration with baritone Stephen Marsh, Barcellona came across with a much more determined dynamism; but then the singer has a more infectious character to portray, one with a high degree of emotional volatility, especially in the duet’s comings and goings.

The night’s solitary tenor, Carlos E. Barcenas, coped with his three arias to a fair degree but the bravura high notes sounded strangled.  Things went swimmingly through most of Avrai tu pur vendetta from another Rossini Oriental construct, Ciro in Babilonia, right up to the final pages where the top notes were uncomfortable to hear.   Later, the same problem occurred throughout Asile hereditaire from Guillaume Tell where the top B flats lacked power and conviction.   The tenor was more comfortable with Deserto in terra from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano although the final two lines with the high C was of a piece with the singer’s previous efforts of the evening.   A pity, as the middle register is individual and carries well; in fact, most of his range is well-harnessed and his production eloquent and polished.  But, if you’re a tenor, the top is unfairly important.

Mezzo Shakira Dugan enjoyed the distinction of airing Rossini’s one-note aria Chi disprezza gl’infelici from Ciro; a curiosity but not much more than a school-boy joke, even if enlivened with an amiable obbligato from Paul McMillan’s viola.  At the opening to each of the night’s halves, the orchestra performed the overtures to Semiramide and Bellini’s Norma with credit; mind you the strings – 10-8-5-4-3 in sectional number –  were no match for the brass nonet (occasionally decet) physically elevated above their peers.  Piccolo Sally Walker shone in the Rossini overture: an idiosyncratic skittering presence rising above her doubling first violin colleagues.  Mills maintained undemonstrative command over his forces, considerate towards his singers and making occasional attempts to mute orchestrally active passages for their comfort.

He also introduced every item, which in some cases was a misguided exercise; either the information was too confusing – as in the Rossini Babylonian plots – or it wasn’t informative enough about the character, e.g. Donizetti’s Linda.  Nevertheless, apart from us few malcontents, he had his audience pretty much onside; not surprising as most of them (from the conversations I heard) seemed to be VO patrons and enthusiasts.  Still, the lasting impression that some of us would have carried away from the night was not so much one of heroism but more of a conductor-headmaster introducing his star pupils at their graduation concert.

 

Long time between drinks

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday June 15

doric string quartet

                      (L to R) Alex Redington, Ying Xue, Helene Clement, John Myerscough

I’ve got plenty of happy memories of the Dorics in their original shape back in 2007 when the group entered Melbourne’s International Chamber Music Competition and got dudded by some other ensembles along the finals’ road.   Those musicians gave fine service in Bartok No. 6 – not your average young persons’ fare –  and an exemplary Round 2 combination of Brett Dean’s Eclipse with Schumann No. 1 in A minor.  Over the past 12 years, the ensemble has revisited Australia, but not getting past the Huntington Festival in 2013, followed by the 2015 Musica Viva Festival in Sydney.

However, memory only takes you so far.   I’ve got no recollection of the current Doric violist, Helene Clement; just as well, as I find that she only joined up in 2013 to replace Simon Tandree.   It’s probable that first violin Alex Redington and cellist John Myerscough are foundation members.   But the body seems to have enjoyed a change in the Violin 2 chair: Jonathan Stone has been recently replaced by Ying Xue  –  and I mean very recently, Ying having made the move from the Parker String Quartet late in 2018.

Illness kept me away from the group’s first program – Haydn’s Joke, the new Brett Dean No. 3, and the last Schubert.   Still, you couldn’t complain about the alternative a few days later: Haydn Op. 33 No 4, Dean, and Beethoven in C sharp minor.  The players have recorded more than a few Haydn works, although none of the six from the Op. 33 set. Over the past 12 years or so, the group has built up a firm relationship with Dean, ever since the composer heard them performing his work in the 2007 competition here in Melbourne.   And, while they did record the big Schubert in 2017, no Beethoven, large or small, has tempted them into the studio.

Saturday night’s Haydn opening displayed a sharp individual character to the interpretation; par for the course these days.   Before long, you were faced with an unexpectedly wide dynamic range and juxtapositions, not to mention a non-doctrinaire approach to metre, and the occasional sound shock, like the outbreak of rustic fiedel-timbre from Redington in the first movement.   But the actual dynamic terracing left you unsatisfied at various points throughout the reading.   Well, not just that but the abruptness of changes; it was almost as if the players were drawing attention to their own skill at the expense of Haydn’s.

Much better emerged in the two central movements with a generous breadth to the Scherzo and a deft turn to the asymmetrical B flat minor Trio.  At the outset, these players treated the Largo without unflattering flourishes, Redington leading into its small-frame  escapades with a restrained hand during the movement’s brief length.  The first violin also led the revels in Haydn’s Presto/finale with an unassuming mastery, although there are few challenges to the line’s supremacy.   In these pages, the Dorics made their most interesting music, possibly because Haydn offers a variety of segments to play around with, including a winsome pizzicato conclusion that always surprises because of its delicacy, substituting for the usual rabble-rousing welter – yes, even in Haydn.

Dean’s new work has a political subtext; no, more than that.  The work operates as a commentary on the current dispiriting theatre and raft of operators who have taken over the state of play in so many countries.   At the same time, Dean is not only occupied with presenting us with his vision of the world gone astray but he also injects the personal into his work’s progress so that, although you can appreciate the multi-faceted irrationalities that confront the political observer,  you also are a part of the main and, if things have come to this pretty pass, you bear responsibility for it, along with the idiots you allow to represent you.

The work, subtitled Hidden Agendas,  is in five movements: Hubris, Response, Retreat, Self-Censorship and On-Message.   If you so desired, you could find plenty of material in each section to reflect or reinforce your world-view.   But that pursuit suggests the momentary: we will not always have Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Kim Jong-un, or Mohammed bin Salman to bedevil our times.   Yet most of them will not pass rapidly, so Dean offers a state-of-play commentary, beginning with a kind of communal hurtling where each member of the quartet is involved in synchronized action; it may be discordant, but it presents as organized.   It’s intensely invigorating to watch but you can’t avoid the impression that each performer is operating both in concord with the others and also gainsaying them at the same time.

Response is an opposite in pretty much every way: harmonics dominate the opening strophes in a passive landscape where the participants become more extroverted, the violins reach for high tessitura notes and the lower strings avoid any answering depths, the most memorable device an unaggressive saltando.  For Retreat, the move is back to a form of the work’s initial scrabbling, resolving into sustained chords, under which Myerscough urged out what I can only call an impassioned, well-rocked lullaby.

For the confessional pages of Self-Censorship, Dean has the players exchange their bows for ones that have not been treated with rosin, at the same time wiping down their instruments’ strings to make sure there is a complete absence of the powder.   This is a movement of feints and whispers in which nothing is defined; nothing like a statement of determined effort emerges.  This is not so much a Party-style exercise in self-recrimination or a general admission of guilt for perceived error, but a reservation of the eyes, the tongue and the mind – an old-fashioned monastic would feel completely at home with this music,

Dean brings us round to something like full-circle at the end yet, where there was something collegial about the aggression of the first movement, here the impulse that drives the work impresses as obsessive, more dissonant in language and argument than we heard in Hubris.   Is anything resolved?  I doubt it: the composer leaves us with an open-ended result simply because the world that he deals with has little definition.  These days, information arrives from so many sources through so many different media direct to the listener/reader, to such a point where the tasks of shuffling into shape, categorising and even imbibing cogently all the materials with which we are bombarded  are becoming impossibly difficult.   Dean is far from negative; much of this quartet is immediately attractive and challenging.   Yet what he leaves you (me) with is a type of regretful scepticism.

Of course, the composer has been fortunate in his interpreters who showed, at every stage, a confidence and security of delivery that did not falter, even in those passages that required split-second communal accuracy.

While you could find certain facets of the Beethoven performance to enjoy, beginning with a firm, spartan rendition of the initial fugue which often refrained from treating those multiple sforzandi as if they were escapees from Verklarte Nacht country, to a controlled and bounding account of the Allegro finale – in tune and in time to its manic last bars.   Throughout, however, I was troubled by an impression that I’d gained back in the Haydn run-through: the ensemble’s viola, Helene Clement, tends to self-emphasize, her line brimming with over-confidence even in those passages where her instrument is making the running.

About the quartet’s core, the Andante with variations, you were hard pressed to quibble, the movement opening with a reassuring fluency and maintaining its underlying urgency.    Yet the group found it difficult to negotiate the following Presto with much beyond the slam-dunk attack that many another ensemble employs.   By the end, you were happy for the weltering action to stop; no, it’s not a set of pages that lends itself to subtlety or that gains relief by studied elegance of delivery but it need not be handled with a coarseness of utterance like the remorseless pounding that ran from bar 220 to bar 232, or again between bars 434 and 446.

As with so many other experiences of this monument, you were happy to have experienced it one more time but I couldn’t class this night’s work as one of those transcendent visions of the score that ensures a tolerance amounting to admiration for its brusque plain-speaking.

 

 

 

 

 

July Diary

Thursday July 4

LANG LANG

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Lang Lang came here many years ago in the first flush of his success to play with the MSO: Tchaikovsky No. 1, I think.  Rapturous applause but I was unmoved; a player with full mastery of the tricks but no idea what he was dealing with.  Packing a lot more exposure and experience, he’s back in yet another of the administration’s by-the-book programs.   No, that’s not fair.  It may follow the overture/concerto/symphony format of yore but not slavishly.   Conductor Kirill Karabits opens this celebration with the incomparable lightness of being that is The Marriage of Figaro Overture; thrown off hours before the premiere, according to legend.   But it’s still barely 4 minutes’ worth of festive greatness.   The guest pianist dis/continues the prevailing strain with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, the overture’s companion in Kochel’s catalogue and a C minor harbinger of Beethoven.   Among the final flurry of the composer’s piano concertos, it sticks out like a sore thumb for its intransigence of expression (except for the amiable middle Larghetto) and is a real test of Lang Lang’s interpretative strength.   For us old-timers, the work is a deviation: 40 years ago, a celebratory gala with a focal Mozart concerto would have been hard to imagine without the presence of a superstar like Haebler in town.   Ditto for the symphony, which is not the Rachmaninov No. 2  –  an MSO favourite  –  but the No. 3 which  I’ve heard the orchestra play twice.   More concise than its predecessor, this score is another splendid  canvas for the performers to unveil.  Karabits remains an unknown quantity; all his work so far appears to be Eurocentric.

 

Saturday July 13

LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

What do you think will happen when Sir Andrew eventually leaves his chief conductor post with the MSO?   Will this annual observance fall into abeyance?   We can only hope.  I can’t be the only one who thinks that, with these Last Night events, you might just as well leave at interval because the second half is as processed as a ham-and-cheese roll from Coles.   The pre-Brexit chain-rattling of imperial reassurance will echo across the decades with the usual Elgar/Wood/Arne/Parry predictables.   Before this prolonged excuse to roll out the Union Jacks, patrons get some familiar works and a handful of unknowns.  Violinist Lu Siqing, the MSO’s Soloist in Residence, will vault through Saint-Saens’ rollicking Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  And then, presumably, go home.  Soprano Greta Bradman has more to do, beginning with two operatic favourites: Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and poor Leonora’s D’amor sull ali’ rosee just before the Miserere in Verdi’s Il trovatore.   The MSO Chrous will be given the chance to animate Parry’s Blest pair of sirens where Milton comes in for the Pax Britannica treatment.  Bradman returns with an odd brace in Horn’s Cherry Ripe juxtaposed with a work by the singer’s grandfather: Sir Donald’s Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me which stems blamelessly from the Victorian music hall – melodious and four-square.   To conclude the interesting if scrappy first half, Michael Hurst’s Swagman’s promenade offers a medley of Australian tunes (among the Irish and English ones that have been smuggled past customs) calculated to make you nostalgic for the brain-dead Menzies era.

 

Sunday July 14

HEROIC BEL CANTO

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 5 pm

What’s so heroic here?   Well, primarily, the music is most taxing and not the kind of thing we hear from any organization.   The first half is all-Rossini and he is also a main contributor to the program’s second part.   It looks like the company is preparing for a production of Semiramide: we hear the Overture, Arsace’s Eccomi alfine in Babilonia, the heroine’s Bel raggio lusinghier, the mother-and-son Ebben . . . a te; ferisci duet.  Intertwined with these four will be two scraps from Ciro in Babilonia, the lesser-known of the composer’s two Lenten operas: Avrai tu pur vendetta for the tenor role Arbace, and Chi disprezza gl’infelici from the mezzo confidante Argene.   As well, we get a reminder of the company’s recent essay at Guillaume Tell with Arnold’s famous Asile hereditaire.  After interval, the composer’s massive catalogue gives us two arias from the delicious L’Italiana in Algeri – Isabella’s Act 1 cavatina, Cruda sorte! and the slightly later Ai capricci della sorte – and the night ends with the concluding trio and finale from Le comte Ory.  Bellini scores one guernsey – the overture to Norma –  and the company offers four Donizetti pieces: the heroine’s entrance from Linda di Chamounix, O luce di quest’anima; Deserto in terra from Dom Sebastiano (the same as the eponymous hero’s Seul sur la terre from the original Dom Sebastien); O mon Fernand, Leonore’s big self-sacrifice from La favorite which so accurately prefigures the work’s final curtain; and Livorno. dieci Aprile from Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, a dramma giocoso about which I know nothing – but one of this night’s singers will be an expert: soprano Jessica Pratt recorded the work 8 years ago for La Scala.  The other singers will be mezzo Daniela Barcellona, tenor Carlos E. Barcenas, ‘and guests’.  Richard Mills conducts what one hopes will be an evening of revelations.

 

Sunday July 14

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Out of the regular MLC series, this program takes the Musicians back to their former seat of operations.  To say its appeal is catholic is an understatement.  Frank Pam conducts two Bach violin concertos: the A minor BWV 1041, with Anne Harvey-Nagl as soloist; then the E Major BWV 1042 in a transcription featuring Justin Kenealy’s soprano saxophone.   Mozart’s bracing, magnificent Sinfonia concertante partners Harvey-Nagl with violist Sally Clarke.  But the fun comes with tenor Lorenzo Iannotti and his bracket of Caro mio ben, Schubert’s Ave Maria, and O sole mio.  In fact, you can find nothing to argue with in most of this afternoon’s work.  The Bach works are spiritually cleansing, although you’d have to have reservations about Kenealy’s timbre in this close space.  You’d hope Pam will supplement his strings with pairs of horns and oboes for the majestic Mozart.   As for the Italian/Latin songs, I’m predicting a popular success, even though the tenor is an unknown force to me

 

Sunday July 14

PATRIOTS CONCERT 2

Corpus Medicorum

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

An orchestra of medical people  – practitioners and auxiliaries – that I’ve heard once before.   It’s conducted by Keith Crellin who occasionally revisits his trademark viola but is now more firmly linked with the baton, directing this and other orchestras in Adelaide.   The program involves only two works and one of them is calculated to stroke the plumage of a certain  kind of patriotism: Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony No. 3 with its broad-bosomed chauvinism serving as an advantage throughout an atypically happy construct.   Preceding this, violinist Markiyan Melnychenko and cellist Michael Dahlenburg front the Brahms Double Concerto which has suffered a poor critical reception for many years but I can’t see why.   Mind you, my affection for it sprang from a long flight leg many years ago during which the classical audio channel got stuck so you had access to a few works only: excerpts from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette and this concerto were the recurring highlights – hour after hour.  Whatever the abilities of the orchestra itself, I can speak highly of the two soloists’ professional skills.

 

Thursday July 18

THE RITE OF SPRING

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The city performances marry a concert-hall cliche with a bourn undiscovered outside the pages of text-books.   Sir Andrew Davis revisits the work that, in 1913, re-defined serious music; after The Rite of Spring, nothing was even potentially the same again and those ignorant enough to dismiss Stravinsky’s chef d’oeuvre in the following decades by pursuing the traditional paths have suffered the fate of all those who stand in the doorway and block up the hall.   The rhythmic changes remain compelling and abrasive, the melodies superbly apposite (now that Taruskin has revealed to us that most of them are folk-tunes), but the orchestration must have shown the composer’s peers how much they still had to learn.   Davis draws on the MSO Chorus and two children’s choirs to present the 1934 melodrame Persephone to a Gide text.  As for principals, his Eleusinian Mysteries originator Eumolphe will be American tenor Paul Groves; the narrator is Lotte Betts-Dean who I’m supposing will not follow commissioner Ida Rubinstein’s lead and dance as well (the four other dance roles are not mentioned on the MSO site).  At the Geelong performance, Persephone disappears (as she does every year), replaced by Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and the 1919 suite that Stravinsky fabricated from The Firebird – the one that we all know and which makes us comfortable.

This program will be repeated – well, half of it – on Friday July 19 in Costa Hall Geelong at 7:30 pm and, in its original format, back in Hamer Hall on Saturday July 20 at 2:30 pm.

 

Saturday July 27

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

The famous choir is back again, moving into a large space that can host its many admirers.  While it may be singing in Melbourne twice, it will sing the same works on each night; unlike Sydney, which will enjoy an almost completely separate menu at its night/matinee performances.   We will be treated to some all-too-familiar repertoire staples – Gibbons’ Hosanna to the son of David, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (really?), Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis.   The singers will work through an off-shore bracket with Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, Monteverdi’s settle-down motet Cantata Domino, and the four-part Salve Regina by Cavalli.   The remainder is solidly British, for the most part: Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis, Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting for last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge of Wesley’s O Mercy Divine (this calls for the assistance of Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Umberto Clerici); Vaughan Williams’ setting of Bunyan sentences in Valiant-for-Truth (who’s going to supply the organ-or-piano intro? Probably harpist Alice Giles who’s involved in the Britten Christmas collation).   Erollyn Wallen’s 6-minute PACE suggests novelty – so far.  Like the Weir, a new work by our own Ross Edwards will enjoy its Australian premiere.  Singing the Love currently retains its mysteries, including the origin of its text, but we can hope for an outpouring of Maninyas ecstasy to brighten up what looks like a by-the-numbers event.

 

This program will be repeated on Tuesday August 6 at 7 pm in the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Brilliant, even with the dross

RESPIGHI, BRITTEN & VASKS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday June 4

                                                                 Richard Tognetti

These smaller concerts that the ACO gives in the Murdoch Hall of the Recital Centre are something of a gamble.   While the main series in Hamer Hall attracts respectable numbers, those mounted in the more acoustically clear space can be depressing affairs; not from the performers’ point-of-view, I hope; nor from the experiences of those patrons that come along to something that falls out of the usual season; but definitely to those of us who can see and hear splendid music-making being given to a half-full auditorium, as was the case last Tuesday.

No soloist was being touted, neither the ACO’s better-known visitors nor the recherche artists that the organization brings to our attention.   And your casual concert-goer isn’t going to be stimulated in the hip-pocket by the trifold promise contained in this particular night’s title.   By this stage, though, you’d think that concert-goers with any discernment would be aware that this company can be relied upon to make the mundane into the extraordinary . . . well, most of the time.

As a tuning exercise, Tognetti and his ten colleagues opened with the Alcina Overture by Handel, followed by a sequence of seven dances from that opera that ended in a brisk Tamburino with Maxime Bibeau’s bass and Julian Thompson’s cello helping out as percussion, the whole company  concluding the set with a machismo-flaunting ‘Hey!’  As an introduction, this pointed to the night’s approach: all-out vehemence tempered by rigorous ensemble work, probably best exemplified in a sarabande where personnel cut in and out of proceedings with seamless fluency.

This Handel bracket lacked the original’s oboes doubling violins and also the usual harpsichord underpinning to give the rich vein of melody some spikiness.   Still, the group avoided Hamilton Harty country with a precisely judged cutting edge to their attack, even if the two-cellos-plus-bass made for an amply solid bottom line.   Every so often, you might have wished for more weight from the first violins – all three of them – but occasional imbalance seemed a small price to pay while witnessing this zestful performance.

Another filler came with Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the slow final movement to the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 of 1980 where the book was emphatically closed on Meale’s leadership of the Australian contemporary music world by his reversion to tonality   –   a movement of the times but one that produced little of much value, particularly in this instance.   The piece is a violin solo, articulated with clear dedication by Tognetti while his companions provided an endless chain of supporting triplet arpeggios.   Nevertheless, a sensitive rendition offers little compensation for the piece’s aimlessness and eventual monotony, the prevailing texture breaking up only close to the end, by which stage the listener has given up expecting anything but dated blandness.

On this occasion, the Respighi was the Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. III, one of the fertile composer’s most worthwhile exercises.  The four movements are presented to performers as very open plan, with some dynamic markings and differentiations in articulation, e.g. pizzicato.   But any interpreter has plenty of room to move to colour what are bare-boned pages.  So Tognetti made a large feature of accelerandi in the opening Italiana, giving an interesting tidal motion to three pages in which many organizations aim for the easily achieved saccharine.

The ensemble made gripping material of the following Aria di corte, this suite’s most chameleonic element.   We had the opportunity to admire the timbre of viola Elizabeth Woolnough, moonlighting from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and shining in the opening and closing strophes of this movement.   Her sombre solos stood in excellent contrast with the sprightliness of the Vivace sections and the rolling rich chords of the central F Major Lento segment – a testament to this body’s uniformity of address and sustained delivery.

Respighi’s Siciliana found the ACO once more in accord during the movement’s driving central climax between bars 39 and 56 with some bracing triple stops from both sets of violins.   This ferocity continued in the concluding Passacaglia where each section gets a moment in the spotlight.   Here, the group’s recovery rate was shown to fine effect in the change from the powerful block chords on display from bar 24’s Energico to the bounding Vivace that breaks out eight bars later.  Further, the crackling unanimity evident in previous movements came to the fore in these concluding pages to riveting effect.

Peteris Vask’s Viatore for 11 solo strings (and hence tailor-made for this ensemble giving the score its Australian premiere) is dedicated to Arvo Part, and it shows.  The voyager of the title could be you, could be me, could be an extra-terrestrial; whichever it is, the travelling is conducted along straight lines.   Vasks offers us two theatres of action: one depicts the universe, the eternal which is depicted by high violin arpeggios and brings to mind Ives’ The Unanswered Question; the second outlines the voyager’s experiences on earth and consists of full chords beneath an aspirational melody.   These two elements alternate, the voyager theme rising in content and power before the score fades into the supernal.

You find it easy to engage with this work.    Its content is simple to imbibe, especially as the elements offer no challenge to instant comprehension and Vasks eschews the need for linking passages.  This night’s audience clearly engaged with the work which enjoyed a performance that brought out its passion and delicacy.   If I thought it over-simple and wanted a faster progress for the voyager, that’s probably a sign of crotchety dissatisfaction with a contemporary urge to under-intellectualize the process of composition, leaving the few goodies you have on the surface and thereby worrying the listener that the cosmic or spiritual depth proposed isn’t very profound at all.

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge followed attacca, doubly welcome for its brilliance of construction and sheer personality.   Here was an exhilarating tour de force from each member of the group involved: the elan of the top three violins during the Aria Italiana, a white hot fervour radiating from the Funeral March, Tognetti’s idiosyncratic solo during the Bouree classique, an impossibly fast Moto perpetuo, and an extraordinary fusion of Fugue and Finale.  It’s a young man’s work, jam-packed with scintillating flourishes which found an obvious response from this remarkable set of musicians.

I wasn’t sure about the personnel required in the Chant; I made a loan of my mini-score 50 years ago, never saw it again, of course, and can’t verify the facts.  But it seemed to me that three violas are required in this movement; hard when you have only two on board. But that was the only questionable question mark over a demonstration of expertise the like of which I haven’t ever seen exercised on this sparkling piece.   If you missed it, too bad, but I’m sure it will linger in the memories of those of us lucky to be witnesses to a display of the ACO in superb form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imas ena

MOORE BEETHOVEN BRAHMS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 27

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                                                         Australian String Quartet

So we’re all back together again.  Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, and violist Stephen King have reunited with their regular cellist, Sharon Grigoryan, who has returned to the ASQ ranks after parental leave; more than ready, by the sound of it, to take up duties in this program and put to an end the (admittedly small) round of guest musicians who have filled in for her over the past year.   She hit the ground running with a night’s work here that included Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4, the only minor one in the composer’s bracket of six quartets; and, later, the weltering passion of Brahms No. 1  –  like the Beethoven, in C minor and bearing all the trademark weight that the tonality implies.

But this solid material was preceded by a new Australian work, commissioned by the ASQ to honour a long-time patron.   Kate Moore’s String Quartet No. 3, subtitled Cicadidae, is a sample of atmosphere music about 15 minutes long and it makes its point or draws its aural pictures quickly; you’ve plumbed its depths well before the composer decides to call time.   As you can pick up easily enough, the one-movement score aims at an Australian atmosphere through the stridulous sounds of cicadas.  I don’t mean to be picky but you can hear cicadas, particularly representatives of the Cicadidae family, pretty much everywhere in the world bar Antarctica.  Still, we have made a case over the years for the sound being a national characteristic or aural determinant so there’s little point arguing with Moore’s choice.

The composer goes in for lots of tremolo, most of it regular in pulse.  The three upper strings set things in motion and it isn’t long before you realise that the actual melodic and harmonic content comprises major and minor triads in root position or inversion.  In fact, the whole work consists of ringing the changes on a series of triads, eventually widening out into chords; these cicadas are remarkably harmonious creatures.  Tension comes from sudden accents and abrasiveness of attack, and I think further aural interest arises when individual instruments switch strings but play the same note, although I could be indulging in wishful thinking here.

The pace eases from semiquaver to quaver, although one member of the ensemble seems to be occupied with the faster tempo at all stages.   As the work moves forward, you become aware of the allocation of rest time to each player, although Hiew seemed to enjoy an inordinate break about half-way through t proceedings.  Moore also has recourse to an abrupt burst or two of very loud address, suggestions of cross-rhythms, a patch of sul ponticello and/or sul tasto.  But, as the work moves towards its end, the material presents as more disciplined and regular in essence than you first thought, with flashes of individual colour and shifting internal perspectives.  Yet the juxtaposition of triads is not particularly subtle, albeit not as predictable as you find in early minimalist compositions.   Some shuddering full-bodied chord work leads to a climactic surge which ends in mid-stream  –  just as when the cicada chorus itself cuts off to beneficent effect.

The main complaint I have about this new piece is its limited range.  All you need to imbibe is presented in the first few minutes and the rest of the time is hammering home simplicities, ringing the changes in a micro-musical manner.  In the end, you feel more than a bit tetchy about the complex’s circularity and repetition; in which sense, Moore has achieved her intention of presenting cicadas in all their croaking tedium.  It looks invigorating for the players and the audience on Monday evening received it amiably enough.

Moving to their Beethoven, the ASQ produced a satisfying interpretation, repeating the first movement’s exposition and keeping the tempo fairly strait-laced, except for a little rubato at about bar 50 and a hesitation before the section’s conclusion.  The group took to the sforzando chords at the core of the development with great gusto.  Grigoryan made the most of her role in the following scherzo, leading the group in a fulsome rusticity, although some delectable, elegantly balanced work emerged in the more complex pages from about bar 146 where the tub-thumping bucolicism is reined back.

Hiew’s rich line came out in the third movement’s Trio; this is not a soaring lyric but a calm sequence of descending arpeggios, a gentle easing of tension in this active score. She again powered through the finale’s first episode, carving an independent strand through her none-too-intrusive surrounds.  But the group displayed its cohesiveness at the Prestissimo coda where the action not only speeds up but the dynamic alternations and rapid-fire crescendos and their opposites ask for everybody to be on the ball; there’s no room for faltering and the ASQ bolted to the major key ending with exemplary assurance.

But the Brahms score brought us the performance of the evening, its surging initial movement accomplished with engrossing ardour, the composer’s close-knit argument embraced with dedication in long paragraphs of powerful contours.  Nowhere could you find this better exemplified than in the stretches that followed the grand polemic of bars 37 to 40, the concentration of material and close imitation an illustration of why the composer waited so long before publishing this first essay.   Even as the syncopations and melding of rhythmic complexities waxed and waned, the group kept the essential building blocks in place, the whole structure finely balanced and clear.

Grigoryan relished her windows of exposure during the Romanze, enriching these brief pages with a firm eloquence, notably in that simple but heartwarming rise and fall just before the rhythm moves into triplets.  You could hardly find fault with the ASQ’s unalloyed embrace of the melting sweetness to be found across the final bars, a velvet-smooth resolution in which even the pizzicati sound like sonorous caresses.  We could have done with more assertiveness from Barltrop at the opening to the third movement Allegretto; as it was, King’s viola took much of the attention with its counter-melody. But later, both violins gave poised accounts of their brief duet flights – bars 43-45, bars 51-54.  Later, the F Major landler was handled by the first violinist with an expressive muscularity instead of the usual vagueness of definition.

It was all hands to the dramatic wheel for the Allegro finale but the group held itself in check dynamically, building the tension up to the peroration at bar 215 and the symphonic ebullience that brings the C minor Symphony’s first movement to mind so clearly in those slashing response-and-answer chords that precede the final, exhilarating stringendo.

Full credit to these players in their treatment of this work that often winds up battered and helpless in over-enthusiastic hands.  This interpretation – in its outer reaches, where it counts  –  fused the composer’s emotional components with remarkable agility: the ideal response to those who find turgidity in Brahms’ more intense chamber works.  Now, having their usual personnel stabilised once again, and having shown their ability at handling this great score, the ASQ should be encouraged to investigate the limited material that Brahms left for a string quartet’s exploration, in particular the Quartet No. 3 in B flat which I can’t remember ever hearing in live performance.