Triple threat

BY ARRANGEMENT

Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday May 24

 

                               

          Andrew Haveron                                                Timo-Veikko Valve

In association with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Andrew Haveron, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cello, Timo-Veikko Valve, pianist Kathryn Selby presented a large-framed program on the latest of her subscription series rounds; big music reduced in size to suit a piano trio.  As you’d expect with experts like these at work, the readings impressed for their balance and well-achieved realization of the arrangers’ intentions.  More unexpectedly, two of the three works performed offered us some rare insights, views of the interstices of well-worn scores and how they achieve their effects in normal form.

Selby began with the Haydn Miracle Symphony No. 96 in D as arranged by J. P. Salomon, the violinist/impresario who brought Haydn to England and did much to ensure his success there.   The arrangement is, as you’d expect, heavy on piano content; indeed, it was rare that Haveron or Valve enjoyed a non-doubled solo line; Selby had responsibility for most of the first violins’ content, and even the odd woodwind outing, like the flute solo at bar 75 of the opening Allegro.  As Haveron pointed out in a post-performance address, the work in this format sounds like an early piano trio in its keyboard-takes-all style, but the content remained symphonic in its directness of address and a quality that, in the context of the later piano trios, sounded like simplicity.

A different experience emerged from young American musician Matt van Brink’s version of Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel which was originally (to re-state the bleeding obvious) a six-part piano solo suite from which the composer chose four movements to orchestrate Van Brink’s version gave both string players much more to handle and it walked a fine line between over-utilising the original and thereby handing Selby the work on a plate, and sharing more than the dominant melodic lines fairly.

Remarkably, van Brink’s arrangement reflected much of the composer’s orchestration but not slavishly;  some cello lines from Valve took on a sudden startling freshness, moving from other wind instruments into the string player’s domain.  For all that, the most successful movements were the outer Prelude and Rigaudon, the first for the splendid realization of the piece’s benign burbling, the latter for bringing out clearly the spiky harmonic content, especially of the foundation ritornello of this dance.

In some senses, this harmonic clarification proved the most interesting characteristic of this performance.  Where the piano version – or perhaps its interpretation by pianists who should know better – blurs the bright acerbities that leap out at every turn, thanks to the sustaining pedal, and the orchestration also attenuates the sparks because your ear is seduced by the change-ringing of textures that shift from woodwind to strings with a numbing haziness, this piano trio version puts the work’s forward motion in a sharper light; to the point where you are pulled up short by an unfamiliar chord or an unexpectedly stark subsidiary line.

A work well worth hearing, although I’m not convinced that it makes much of an addition to the repertoire of French chamber music, as Valve seemed to be saying in his little address.   But the evening’s final offering was a different matter.  This was Beethoven’s Triple Concerto Op. 56 which has a piano trio at its centre.

I have to confess to a partiality for this concerto above all the others in the composer’s canon.  Many years ago, while I was on a return trip from Amsterdam, the plane’s audio entertainment channel of serious music somehow got stuck on a repeat of this concerto and the Love Scene from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette Symphony.  Having nothing better to do – all the books read, all the films seen – I passed several hours in this Beethoven/Berlioz loop and, unlike most forced relationships. wound up with an affection for both.  Suffice to say that, ever since then, live readings of the Triple give rise to an extended anticipatory frisson.

Carl Reinecke, the eminent 19th century teacher and friend of Brahms (among others), cut down Beethoven’s full score so that the three soloists take on all the tutti passages, the subsequent construct a splendid sample of seamless organization.   Certainly, the players have to work hard with very few moments of relaxation for anybody (does the piano get any peace at all?) but the work gains in focus when all that extraneous support is removed. Beethoven made sure that his soloists got equal time in the limelight, even if their relative tasks vary in degrees of difficulty.

This was a thoroughly amiable reading, Selby firing on all cylinders but giving her colleagues space to shine and be heard.   Haveron pulled his weight in full orchestra passages and then lightened his attack for the solo violin flights.  The only problem I found with the cello line came at moments of high tessitura where Valve strained to maintain pitch, as in the first movement solo passages where the line moves into the treble clef and the cello is very exposed over a light piano accompaniment; rather puzzling as the problem emerged only fitfully during unaccompanied concerted trio passages.  Still, the occasional high A sounded strained.  The middle Larghetto, on the other hand, where most of the cello’s work lies in the upper clef, proved admirably even and well-pitched under Haveron’s benignly phrased upper part.

Still, it’s the polonaise-suggestive finale that raises the spirits and all executants worked to excellent effect throughout, Valve skittering through the semiquaver scales with plenty of push while Selby scampered across Beethoven’s busy demands with very few slips.  Above all, the trio gave full voice to the whole concerto’s benign expansiveness, a pre-Schubertian sunny quality that impresses in the substantial opening Allegro which makes its composer’s mind-set clear from the opening four-square bars but then travels through page after page of modulatory disquisitions, in no hurry to come back to the argument but just relishing the journey.

In realizing this unstudied, almost relaxed emotional fabric, Selby and her two friends made this a refreshing experience, a surprise for many in the audience, I would have thought, given the dead silence that obtained after the first movement’s final chord – as if people were dumbfounded by the concerto’s obviously-stated contented benevolence. Yes, the commentators decry the unadventurous nature of this score’s material and its garrulous outer movements, but for all that you come away from it lighter of spirit.  And when it’s finely accomplished, as on this night, you’re not only mentally elevated but also grateful.   Mind you, for all Reinecke’s craft, it would be an even more gratifying experience to hear these players work through the piece with its original underpinning.

 

A shining light in a drab year

KING ROGER

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Friday May 19

 

                                                Michael Honeyman

 

Szymanowski’s opera presents a few problems to some of us but not for the usual reasons. The work should be easy to imbibe, particularly as it comprises three pretty brief acts which could be run together without any difficulty, except for trying the main character’s stamina.  And this presentation from director Kasper Holten, a co-production with Covent Garden and Dallas, cuts out the libretto’s extraneous exotica to focus on the three main characters with exacting intensity, just as the composer and his co-librettist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz intended.  But the opera comes with inbuilt baggage that is hard to ignore; well it is for me.  Still, this night’s work came across with such drive and purpose that you easily ignored the question-marks for the duration.

This version continued the pattern of updates in the national company’s Melbourne season: Carmen in mid-20th century Cuba, Cav/Pag in the same 1980s Calabrian village, King Roger in an abstract environment of the 1920s, this last making the most significant break with the original.   Leaving this chronology element to one side, the finest achievement in the opening night of the Szymanowski opera lay in the musical realization which came close to ideal, conductor Andrea Molino displaying admirable command of a score that juxtaposes garrulity with terseness, euphony and dissonance, seductiveness and brutality.  He was rewarded with an outstanding response from Orchestra Victoria whose playing remained assured from the opening tam-tam strokes to the abrupt final C Major chord.

The action begins with Christian prayers, led by Gennadi Dubinsky as the Archbishop and Dominica Matthews singing his female counterweight, the Deaconess.  As demonstrated by her Mamma Lucia of nine days before, Matthews has a riveting force to her mezzo, made even more confronting in this character who is, from start to finish, out for blood. Dubinsky held his own throughout his 24 lines, the later ones against an increasingly powerful choral backdrop as he stepped up his appeals to Roger for retribution on the free spirit distracting his flock.  Not as forceful as Matthews, Dubinsky impressed as a more querulous figure, albeit one with a rich Orthodox-resonant bass.

As the royal hero, baritone Michael Honeyman gave one of the more memorable characterizations to come from the company’s recent trips south.  Even in Act 1 where Roger has little to say until near the end, the singer exposed clearly the king’s oscillation between firmness and uncertainty, rigid application of the law and fairness informed by agnosticism.  With the opening to Act 2, we are admitted to the man’s mental and physical trepidation in his Niepokoj bladych gwiazd invocation of the stars and his own helplessness. The following exchange with Arthur Espiritu’s Shepherd, the near-stichomythia from Szymanowski’s encounter with Euripides, gave us a vivid chain of outbursts as the ruler’s arguments and effectiveness turned to meaninglessness, Honeyman becoming more and more engrossed in the interplay of libido and authority, his voice reflecting Roger’s struggles with a fine ability at animating the composer’s increasingly taut vocal line.

But Roger really comes under the microscope when he has lost everything in Act 3 and he is faced with the Shepherd/god’s ultimatum.  In a powerful stretch, Honeyman travelled from the rueful Wokol martwota glazow self-appraisal, through the unsettled vision of his wife Roxana, Tyzes to, Roksano!, past the final encounter with the fateful Shepherd/Dionysus, to that final blazoning salutation, Slonce! Slonce!  He contrived to keep these changes consistent in a kind of personality continuum so that the leaps in mood remained credible, the king’s voice a steady force across the act’s changes from depression, through distress and near-hysteria, to an authoritative triumph.

As Roxana, Lorina Gore showed with singular success how to handle a personality who really doesn’t change.  The queen’s initial defence and pleading for the Shepherd were enunciated with fine definition in a vocally crowded passage, but Gore came into her own with the aria that seems to be the only familiar scrap from the score, Usnijcie krwawe sny Krola Rogera, delivered with sinuous placidity and an effortless floating quality, just right for a segment that is predicting Roxana’s rapid slide into the Shepherd’s hedonistic gang. In Act 3,  Gore made a tellingly persuasive case for Roger to yield to the temptations of the flesh with her Jest w gwiazd usmiechu solo, a moment of driving rhapsody that served as an intriguing mirror for Roger’s own last solo.

Espiritu was the only cast change from previous Sydney performances of the opera.  He has a burnished timbre, making an impression for its calm address right from the self-introductory Moj Bog jest piekny jako ja, hitting just the right tone of aplomb and shameless proselytizing.  Even without the traditional setting’s trappings, the singer convinced you of his capacity for transcendence, although prepared, like the Euripides character at the start, to deal fairly with his human prey.  In Szymanowski’s hands, the Shepherd has a kind of tonal certainty to his commands and dictates that found an excellent vehicle in the Act 2 attempted conversion of the King and the seduction of his court and kingdom.

As with Honeyman, so too Espiritu enjoyed a thrilling Act 3.  At this point, the god’s intent is for a complete surrender from the king and his dealings from Rogerze! Rogerze! Czy slszysz glos moj? onward are meant to enfold the king into his followers’ camp.  At this point, the character is a menacing figure who is reaching out without argument but an appeal to abandon self-regard – self-consciousness, really – and embrace the world-as-pleasure principle.  Quite properly, Espiritu left the Shepherd’s blandishments behind and his voice led into the climactic assault on Roger with penetrating authority.

James Egglestone enjoyed his main points of exposure in Act 1, oddly enough.  Possibly it’s an idiosyncrasy of the score but the adviser’s prominence is evident here in dialogue with the king; later, he takes on a very secondary position, both at the start of Act 2 when he attempts to calm Roger, and later at the ruins where he commands his master to act.  This tenor role was the night’s solitary underplayed participant; admittedly, Edrisi has little enough to sing but revival director Matthew Barclay kept him pretty much out of the way, an incidental presence even when his is the only voice speaking commonsense.

As a swathe of publicity shots in the media have shown, the outstanding feature of Steffen Aarfing’s design is a huge head positioned at centre-stage.  This is full-frontal in Act 1, which opens with Roger kneeling before it and the ‘public’ church scene plays in front of and around it.  The head rotates for Act 2 and its back gives us a scaffold-set in its interior, at the bottom of which lie nine near-nude male dancers who carry out the libretto’s choreographic demands.  In Act 3, the head has been reduced to smouldering ashes – all of which is probably a physicalization of Roger’s situation: masterful and confrontational fascism, then uncertainty and mental stratification above a writhing id, eventually the collapse of pretension and a reversion to basic elements.  That’s fine (if that interpretation is correct or justifiable) and the surrounding semi-circle of spectator cut-outs functions well enough as an action delimiter.

Holten’s direction has several striking elements.  In the opening pages, lights play over the dominating head, suggesting the mutability of Roger’s psychological make-up.  The chorus is pretty much just that, their participation in the action limited, especially as the depiction of their surrender to Dionysus in the libretto’s general dances is taken over by the nine professionals.  Szymanowski uses the chorus as backdrop at several points  –  like Roxana’s Act 2 aria, and before the crisis in the last act  –  but their dynamic contribution on this occasion was often muted, even for an off-stage body.   Against this, you have to put the marvellous burst of power that stormed out in the hymn Boze poblogoslaw Panie praodwieczny.  The director also treated with restraint the homosexual subtext that everything associated with the composer appears to summon up these days, King Roger in particular where the Dionysian/Apollonian divide is simplified to a juxtaposition of gay and straight; the use of only male dancers filled that particular bill well enough by allowing for the obvious without smashing us in the face with it.

The composer and his cousin made fairly selective use of The Bacchae as source material.  The Shepherd parallel with Euripides’ herdsman works well enough, although the opera’s superhuman is not as malicious as the play’s character with his appalling boast: I lead this young man to a mighty contest and the conqueror shall be I and Dionysus.  The king is not dismembered in a maenad frenzy, although we get a taste of that madness; rather, he comes to his own victory and repels the invitation to follow the herd; in which sense – bereft of kingdom and standing – he becomes his own man, unlike the grieving and doomed elder generations that survive Pentheus.

In fact, the Euripidean framework and references can take you only so far – which is reassuring, especially for the religiously blameless Sicilian empire-builder that the opera creators settled on as their hero.   Unlike the Theban king, Roger is persuadable in the cause of fairness; he listens to the pleading of Roxana and Edrisi in the first two acts, and he is enough of a poet and insecure like all of us to listen to the Shepherd’s creed. Although his initial reaction is towards the orthodox, the king rescinds his own order for execution, so this latter-day god gives him a second chance and doesn’t send him mad for challenging a divinity.

In fact, the ‘mystery’, as Szymanowski called it, is best explained in Edrisi’s last lines: Przesniony sen! Stargany lancuch zlud!   The dream that threatened Roger – of abnegating the soul and giving in to pleasure alone – is indeed over, and the chain of illusions promulgated by Dionysus has been broken up.  When the malleable hordes have left, including your own beloved, and are following an easy calling that makes no demands on the intellect, you are lucky to be left standing, alone but upright.  It makes for a powerful affirmation of self-hood, regardless of your sexuality, and it caps this extraordinary drama with intelligence and warmth, both qualities that are paramount in this presentation – one of the finest in the company’s chronicles.

The production will be presented again at 7:30 pm on Tuesday May 23 and on Thursday May 25, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 27.   If I had the money, I’d attend all three of them.

 

 

 

June Diary

Thursday June 1

STEFAN DOHR: SERENADE

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Solo horn of the Berlin Philharmonic for the last 24 years or so, Stefan Dohr plays and directs this event, his second appearance for ANAM and a good deal  more mainstream than the first.  He and his local charges open with the Mozart C minor Serenade No. 12, a wind octet for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns.  They will end their endeavours with Dvorak’s Wind Serenade, for the same instruments plus a third horn, as well as an ad lib contrabassoon, and extra parts for cello and double bass, presumably in case the woodwind bass isn’t available.  In between come Nielsen’s Serenata in vano (clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass) for semi-comic relief, and Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for your normal wind quintet, an early work from 1953.  If you presume that Dohr has a strong work ethic, he’s going to be a busy boy to cope with this lot.

 

Monday June 5

MIGRATION

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Settled into position and playing with excellent flair, this ensemble centres its night on the big Schubert in G, D. 887.   At close to an hour in length and managing to be both profuse and diffuse, the work tests any group bold enough to attempt it.  As preludes, we hear a guitar quintet about quarter-of-an-hour in length by Ralph Towner that gives the night its title and refers to the American jazz composer’s reaction to the sight of spawning salmon in his country’s north-west.   Another guitar quintet by Iain Grandage enjoys the subtitle Black Dogs which refers to that well-known Churchillian state of depression and dejection. Another 15-minute piece, it can take on a slightly theatrical aspect by having the violinists start playing at either side of the stage, gradually advancing on the central performer; whether this carries on throughout all three movements will be revealed on the night but it sounds like an organizational nightmare.  The guitarist in both quintets will be the estimable Slava Grigoryan.

 

Thursday June 8

TRIO ALBA

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 7 pm

Not a regular program from Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra, this night features an Austrian piano trio which I’ve not heard before, although the ensemble has been in existence at least since 2013 when they recorded the trios of Mendelssohn.  Its members are violin Livia Sellin, cello Philipp Comploi, and piano Chengcheng Zhao.  The program for Southgate will begin with Haydn in C Major Hob. XV 27 (presumably the same one they will be playing at St. Ambrose Hall, Woodend over the following weekend). The other major work is the mighty Schubert in E flat, a treasure-house of invention.  In between comes Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly by the Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, with whom this ensemble has established a firm relationship as, three years ago, they commissioned and premiered her third piano trio,  Search My Heart.  If you happen to be in Woodend for that town’s festival, you can hear the Albans playing Suk’s Op. 23 Elegy from 1902, Smetana in G minor, as well as the Haydn mentioned above.

 

Friday June 9

ENSEMBLE MODERN: TRAILBLAZING

National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

During its residency at ANAM, the famous German group which pioneers and sustains the contemporary is represented tonight by flute Dietmar Wiesner, horn Saar Berger, violin Jagdish Mistry, and pianist Hermann Kretzschmar (shades of Smiley’s People).  In league with some lucky ANAM musicians, these visitors are mounting a program that is demandingly disparate in nature and bound to flood the mind with information; whether much will be retained is another question.  To start comes POLLOK by one of the group’s founders, Brisbane-born Cathy Milliken, for flute, clarinet, string quintet, percussion and piano.  Then we hear Jorg Widmann’s Etude II for solo violin, followed by Kretzschmar’s own Eskalation, about which I can find nothing; the composer is a clarinettist and conductor, so this work could be for any force imaginable.   Heiner Goebbels is represented by a Toccata for Teapot and Piccolo; Warm-up by Vito Suraj for horn and two percussionists testifies to the composer’s love for tennis, although there’s little time for stretching during this 20-minute burst.   During these days of fraught political activity, Isang Yun’s Octet for clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet, written in 1978, brings to mind the composer’s two-year imprisonment by South Korea –  an over-the-top example of nationalism gone wrong.   John Cage’s Variations I allows anything – any number of players on any instruments – but then so do the composer’s other Variations.  The score is a chance construct and so everything is a surprise . . . to everybody.   Last is Enno Poppe’s Geloeschte Lieder for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano; let’s hope it doesn’t take its own title too literally.  Almost 20 years old and, at 20 minutes, this will be one of the more substantial works on this full program.

 

Tuesday June 13

Pacifica Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

I believe this group from Bloomington, Indiana has toured for Musica Viva before; there’s some mention of their playing all the Mendelssohn quartets in a visit here nearly a decade ago; presumably, all seven of them (the Mendelssohn, I mean).  Tonight, the group plays the first of two programs:  Haydn in G, Op. 76 No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Beethoven homage, the A minor Quartet No. 2 are the book-ends.  In between, the Pacificas resuscitate Nigel Westlake’s String Quartet No. 2, which was commissioned for the Goldner String Quartet to perform by its dedicatee, Musica Viva eminence Kenneth W. Tribe, back in 2005.

In their second appearance on Saturday June 17, the quartet plays the Westlake, Beethoven’s last in F Major Op. 135, and Shostakovich No. 3, the fruit of this group’s extended study of the Russian writer in recording, between 2011 and 2013, all his quartets.

 

Thursday June 15

ZAPPA: YELLOW SHARK

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

As well as Wiesner, Berger, Mistry and Kretzschmar from the ANAM concert of six days previous, the Ensemble Modern is also represented tonight by conductor Johannes Debus. Frank Zappa – one of the few interesting and really creative musicians to come out of rock – wrote The Yellow Shark for the Ensemble in 1992; well, compiled it with them is more like it.  The fruits of the collaboration came in a recorded concert where the Ensemble, partly under Zappa’s direction, played 19 of his pieces as their contribution to a festival in Frankfurt, just a month before the composer’s death.   The CD lasts about 70 minutes.   As a filler, the program also features Zappa’s The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, which the ensemble has recorded – a fantastic (literally) tale which lasts about 25 minutes, as the Moderns play it.

 

Thursday June 15

HAYDN’S CREATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Sir Andrew Davis is on hand this month to artistically direct the MSO and its Chorus through this great oratorio.   His three soloists are Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, and two British imports – tenor Andrew Staples and bass Neal Davies.   Instead of biting the bullet, the organizers have decided to have an interval, rather than running right through; which means that we sit through Parts 1 and 2 for 75 minutes, pause, then have to come back for the remaining half hour in the Garden of Eden.  But it doesn’t matter: performances of this monument are few and far between – most of those I’ve attended seemed to be living up to God’s operational time-span.

This program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday June 16 at 7:30 pm, and again in Hamer Hall on Saturday June 17 at 2 pm.

 

Sunday June 18

SONGS OF THE NIGHT

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Rebecca Chan has curated and will direct this afternoon’s work, which is an ambitious medley.  The requisite singer is tenor Andrew Goodwin who will be vaulting between some strange orchestral interludes.   Chan begins with a string orchestra arrangement of the Tristan Prelude, which will put us on our toes as we imaginatively supply those wind chords that give the piece so much of its initial tension.  Goodwin opens his innings with two Chan arrangements: Strauss’s Die Nacht, then one of Schoenberg’s early 1897 songs, Waldesnacht.  As we’ve got him here, we might as well hear more – so the MCO strings will follow the song with that lush fruit of the composer’s late-tonal loins, Verklarte Nacht.   Still in arrangement mode, I hope,  we hear the Prestissimo from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, which should be worth the price of admission in itself.   For another piece of comic relief, Chan will lead the players in her own arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music.  A new work by young Australian Lachlan Skipworth precedes a welter of Schubert for Goodwin: Nacht und Traume, Gute Nacht, Nachtstuck and, after these introspective, if not gloomy, nocturnes, one of the great races in music: Der Erlkonig.

This program will be repeated on Thursday June 22 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday June 18

SCHUBERT, SHOSTAKOVICH AND BEYOND

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Mid-way through its season, the Team is mounting a fine recital that boasts pianist Rohan Murray and guest cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic.   For the most part, the duo’s program is mainstream: Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor that is always heard in this instrumental format (I, for one, have never even seen an arpeggione in action), followed by the Shostakovich D minor Cello Sonata of 1934.  For local colour, we hear Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence, a work that exists in many formats, so it could be heard here as a duo or as a piano solo.   The piece was written for an exhibition devoted to artists with schizophrenia but the actual emotional content suggests more melancholy than any sort of mental disturbance – or perhaps I’ve got no insight to this work; wouldn’t be the first time.   All the Team’s events are enjoyable, and this stately house’s ballroom is as fine a recital space as any in the city.

 

Tuesday June 20

SCHUBERT GALA WITH TIMO-VEIKKO VALVE

Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

No strangers to working outside the CBD, this ensemble is appearing at the lavishly endowed former town hall where Brett Kelly and his Academy of Melbourne used to perform.   With guest Valve, principal cellist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble heads for the empyrean with the Schubert C Major Quintet, the ne plus ultra of chamber music.   As well, they give a foretaste of Schubert’s instrumental format by playing a Boccherini quintet in G Major, but then the issue is clouded by the attached sobriquet – Fandango  –  which, as far as I can tell, applies to one of the composer’s guitar quintets.   But then I have a vague memory of the Flinders people playing such a work, complete with castanets, at Montsalvat.   Anyway, the program begins with Sculthorpe’s Quartet No. 18, commissioned for performance by both the Tokyo String Quartet and the Flinders in 2010.

 

Thursday June 22

CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

I can vaguely recall a production of this Janacek hymn to pantheism from the national company some time back in the 1970s at the Princess Theatre.  Even earlier, I remember a radiant recording of the opera from Sadler’s Wells starring June Bronhill and conducted by Colin Davis, being broadcast in the early 1960s and the Australian soprano’s voice made a remarkable impression.   In this version, directed by Stuart Maunder, the title role is to be taken by Opera Australia soprano Celeste Lazarenko; Antoinette Halloran has the furry trousers role of the Fox; Barry Ryan sings the part of the Forester, Dimity Shepherd is his wife and Brenton Spiteri the Schoolmaster.   Jack Symonds conducts a chamber orchestration of the original rhapsodic score; I suppose you couldn’t expect to fit the original forces into the Playhouse pit.  A shame, but here’s hoping the magic persists.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday June 24, Tuesday June 27 and Thursday June 29, and at 1 pm on Saturday July 1.

 

Friday June 23

MSO PLAYS PASTORAL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Nothing new here, you’d expect.  Sir Andrew Davis will conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6; fine, if ordinary programming.   But the night begins with a rarity: Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, a lengthy (45 minutes) tone-poem comprising introduction, two themes, ten variations and finale.  The hero is represented by a cello – here, Daniel Muller-Schott – while his squire, Sancho Panza, enjoys the services of Christopher Moore’s viola, as well as tuba (Tim Buzbee?) and bass clarinet (Jonathan Craven?).  Somewhere between Strauss and Beethoven comes a melding of Brett Dean and Beethoven: Adagio molto e mesto, an arrangement for flute, clarinet and strings of the slow movement from the Rasumovsky String Quartet No. 1 and which is usually paired with the Australian composer’s Testament, referring to the German master’s heartfelt Heiligenstadt letter to his brothers.

The program will be repeated on Saturday June 24 at 8 pm and on Monday June 26 at 6:30 pm

 

Sunday June 25

SCINTILLATINGLY SCANDINAVIAN

Trio Anima Mundi

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne at 3 pm

You’d have to take this title on trust because I reckon that most of us have heard none of the music that the trio is presenting.   The promise of scintillation in chamber music is a big call at any time, let alone from the ultra-cool Scandinavian musical world.  This afternoon starts with a bit of Grieg, a 10-minute Andante con moto in C minor from an unfinished piano trio which is sombre and Brahmsian for most of its length.  From Norway to Sweden with Dag Wiren’s early Piano Trio No. 1 in four movements – Allegro, Adagio, Fughetta, Alla passacaglia – compressed into a quarter of an hour.   To end, across to Copenhagen for Emil Hartmann’s Piano Trio of 1867 which fools you by starting in the minor before launching into its B flat Major home key and which enjoys a scherzo livelier than most from its heavy-handed time.   But is it scintillating?  Could be: these players – violin Rochelle Ughetti, cello Noella Yan, piano Kenji Fujimura –  are more than capable enough of finding its sparkle.

 

Monday June 26

INTIMATE MOZART

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The orchestra cuts itself down to real chamber proportions for a night with pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.  The centrepiece will be Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, here given in its a quattro setting with string quartet accompaniment only.  On either side lie two Schumann works: the last of his three string quartets, that in A Major, and the exuberant Piano Quintet in E flat Major which is a delight for the keyboard player if not that exciting for his escorting string colleagues whose parts have a good deal of padding.  Richard Tognetti will be in the first violin chair but so far there are no details on his companions  –  Timo-Veikko Valve on cello?  Satu Vanska or Helena Rathbone in second-violin spot?  Anybody at all up for the viola line?   Bezuidenhout has been involved for about  nine years in recording Mozart’s complete keyboard music and he recorded tonight’s concerto last year with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; you can expect a solidly framed, idiosyncratic interpretation.

 

Thursday June 29

Behzod Abduraimov

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the Uzbek pianist is building on his success here in 2012 which I recall as being brilliantly technical if not endowed with insight.   This time, he plays Bach rather than the Scarlatti he essayed in 2012.  But it’s the Busoni transcription of the D minor Toccata and Fugue; cascades and flurries so early in the night?  The Liszt B minor Sonata is a solid test of interpretation, though, and Abduraimov follows this with the same composer’s Valse-Caprice No. 6 from the nine Soirees de Vienne paraphrases of Schubert; the direction Allegro con strepito gives this particular game away. For a contrast, we hear Schubert en clair – the restrained, meditative Moment musical No. 2 in A flat.  Then, it’s Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A: acerbic but dour, despite the brisk writing; like the Liszt sonata, it asks for more than a smash-and-grab approach.

 

Thursday June 29

MSO PLAYS DAS LIED VON DER ERDE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Coming up to the last two in his complete Mahler symphonies review, Sir Andrew Davis is preparing us for the deluge with this extraordinary song-cycle that lies between those final leviathans; indeed, the composer thought of Das Lied as a symphony.  He wanted a tenor and an alto as soloists: these readings have veteran Australian Stuart Skelton for Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde, Von der Jugend, and Der Trunkene im Fruhling while British mezzo Catherine Wynn-Rogers will sing Der Einsame im Herbst, Von der Schonheit, and the heart-breaking Der Abschied.   As for the MSO, it will be in fuller form than usual, even if a good deal of the work has a chamber-like texture.   Preceding this, we will hear Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony No. 8 in B minor, possibly to leaven the emotional depths depicted in the pages of Mahler’s concluding song.

This program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday June 30 at 7:30 pm, and again in Hamer Hall on Saturday July 1 at 2 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucid and airy

ANGELA HEWITT

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday May 16

                          

                                             Angela Hewitt

The Canadian-born pianist has appeared here under a few organizational banners – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Impresaria, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Musica Viva which is sponsoring this latest tour of two programs and a clutch of masterclasses. Oddly, her stellar Bach recordings and live appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra don’t rate a mention in the MV program, which is a pity because her readings of the concertos and even a strange Brandenburg No. 5 where she has the solos and Linda Kent’s harpsichord does continuo duty were/are remarkable weddings of soloist and accompaniment.

On Tuesday, Hewitt opened with Bach, of course; you don’t build a reputation like this, with its attendant expectations, and then avoid the obvious; God knows there’s plenty of material to deal with.   For both programs on offer, the pianist is performing two partitas, the big No. 4 in D Major (which is common to both nights), balanced – sort of – on this occasion  by the better-known No. 1 in B flat.  After interval, we branched out into five Scarlatti sonatas, the Ravel Sonatine, and the final solo piano work by Chabrier, his Bouree fantasque.

No short-changing in her Bach, Hewitt played all repeats; like every pianist with sense, she made sure the second time around was more than a simple here-we-go-again exercise. For the familiar B flat Partita, she impressed as always by the clarity of her linear work. Given her instrument’s ability to make life easy, she continues to be most sparing with the sustaining pedal, which makes her load more taxing but fills these pages with a welcome sparkle; even the opening Praeludium with its (mainly) three layers came over with excellent lucidity, aided by a supple dynamic range that avoided heroic clangour.

This clear-speaking delivery continued through the work’s dances, notable for a sturdy Sarabande informed by a gently applied rubato, and as close to ideal as you could expect in the concluding Giga in which the supplementary quavers  enjoyed a burbling subservience to the crotchet melody line – far from the more common and leaden Solfeggietto cross-hand exercise we usually have to endure.

For the D Major work, Hewitt began the Ouverture with an attractive declamatory style that emphasized the key movement rather than the brusqueries of the demi-semiquaver scales and written-out ornaments, before a stunning account of the movement’s latter section that begins with a light-hearted fugue motive before working into a striking polyphonic complex at about Bar 62, a nexus that doesn’t take itself too seriously; in Hewitt’s hands the  bouncy good humour is maintained, particularly through the bass-heavy bars 105 to 109.  The following dances and Aria became intriguing for the executant’s mode of presentation rather than for her technique which was hard to fault: the poised solemnity of the large-scale Allemande where Hewitt made the occasional triplet or pair of them serve as placid disturbances of the regular metre; a sturdy drive in one of the finest Courantes from the composer; a similarly firm impetus in the odd-man-out Aria; the deft folding-in of the Sarabande‘s  opening two-bar question with its lengthy, ornate response; in the Menuet, a simple example of art concealing art in the gentle handling of congruent triple and duple passages;  all capped by a buoyant Gigue where yet again the more active passages of interplay – like bars 16 to 19, or 78 to 85 – delighted for their purity of detail and Hewitt’s remarkable gift of keeping three balls in the air.

The post-interval events began with five Scarlatti sonatas.  Two of them were among the composer’s most well-known: K. 491 in D Major, and the E Major K. 380.  If anything, Hewitt makes these works speak more simply than many another pianist; her chording is less flamboyant or filled out, the ornamentation veers towards spartan, dynamics rarely move below mezzo forte.  The D Major K. 492 enjoyed brisk treatment, a fine contrast with the courtliness of the two better-known sonatas.  And the final K. 24 in A Major came over with plenty of braggadoccio, the pulse maintained throughout without turning towards a martellato effect.  I must admit to being distracted by the middle work in the bracket, listed as ‘Sonata in B Major, K 377’  –  a piece I didn’t know and which proved even more unfamiliar as it was actually in B minor; puzzling about this and doubting my sense of pitch distracted from whatever Hewitt was accomplishing with it.

The Ravel piece also came in for firm treatment.  Hewitt is not disposed to apply washes to these pages and the Modere, despite its lush underpinning figure-work, impressed for a no-nonsense delivery where ppp remained a definite entity rather than a wisp.  The Menuet impressed for the rhetoric brought into play at its central climactic point, while the concluding Anime gave the pianist ample space to show her talent at unflustered dexterity in what amounts to a toccata, albeit a remarkably tautly structured one.  The only quality missing was verve, like the elation you experience when hearing the main motive striking out from an underlying susurrus of semiquavers.

Hewitt has a passion for Chabrier’s piano music, and most of us know too little of it to sympathize one way or the other.  The Bouree fantasque is a formidable show-piece without much substance but packed with excitement and flurries of virtuosity.  This performance was lively enough, if it lacked the punch that you can see in the score; the reading caught fire at the return of the main theme proper after Chabrier has finished with his F major central section and the florid chromaticising he employs to get back to his C minor home key.  The final rousing 24 bars brought this entertaining if unwieldy bonbon to a glittering conclusion.

Hewitt plays her second program on Saturday May 20 at 7 pm.  Along with the Bach Partita No 4, she will play the C minor Partita No. 2.  The rest is Beethoven: Sonata No. 1 in F minor and the Moonlight No. 14 in C sharp minor.

Bully for us

SPANISH BAROQUE

Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra and CIRCA

Melbourne Recital Centre

May 13-14

                                                Circa

I’m sorry but, try as hard as I may to wish it were otherwise, the musical content in these collaborations often goes through to the back of the net.  After three exposures to Circa, I thought I’d seen all their manoeuvres and manipulations; this last experience shows that, even when working with the tried-and-true, this troupe can often strike out in unexpected directions.  Added to which, the off-the-cuff showmanship and near-flawless expertise on display tends to swamp out the Brandenburg offering which often became, to be kind, something close to aural wallpaper.

Paul Dyer and his small band of players began with an Entrada dinamica y ruidosa, put together by the man himself.   It was certainly noisy enough, being mainly for percussion and reminiscent of the sound onslaught generated by Les Ballets Africains of many years ago.   A canarios by Santiago de Murcia followed in an arrangement by Dyer and film-music writer Alex Palmer, which I seem to recall backed a rather impressive series of tall totem-poles and pyramid shapes  constructed from themselves by the eight Circa members.

Two women from the troupe then played balancing games on a long seesaw construct while soprano Natasha Wilson sang a Tarquinio Merula aria, Su la cetra amorosa – negotiated well enough although the singer’s range of vocal colours is not large and I think she underestimated the force of her accompaniment.   A Murcia fandango followed, arranged by Palmer and Stefano Maiorana, guest guitarist with the ABO for this program; lively and fiercely rhythmic, it was overshadowed by one of the Circa men twisting himself round a vertical pole, finishing off his routine with a heart-stopping vertical drop – the sort of accomplishment that threw the musical action well into the background, sad to say.

An organ solo from Dyer that sounded like a scrap from the Bologna school followed before Wilson contributed an anonymous cancion, Muerto estais, in an adaptation by Dyer, Palmer, and the renowned Argentinian-born lutenist Eduardo Eguez.  This proved most interesting because of the singer’s restrained address and the fore-fronting of Tommie Andersson’s theorbo (amplified?), while the acrobats performed four pas de deux, interweaving and exchanging places in an engrossing display of inter-dependence.

Suddenly, we left the Spanish Baroque for the familiar Spanish Modern when Maiorana broke into Albeniz’s Leyenda, arranged by Palmer for the rest of the ensemble to join in but a touch demanding for the baroque instrument that the main executant was using; the version moved beyond the original’s simplicity of texture, naturally enough, with various accretions and excisions while a female acrobat climbed up a cluster of white ropes in an enthusiastic if not over-original solo.

Wilson sang Con que la lavare, better known to most of us as one of Rodrigo’s Cuatro madrigales amatorios; the earlier version sung here by Luis de Narvaez is a more languorous construct, even in this arrangement by Sydney-based composer Tristan Coelho.  As things turned out, the singer gave some of her best work in this piece, supporting seven of the Circa players before the rope-specialist from the preceding turn came on for an ensemble displaying sheer muscular control.   Vivaldi’s version of La folia, that simple theme subjected to so many variation-sequences across the centuries, is inevitably more light-filled than most, handled here with plenty of free-wheeling abandon by the Brandenburg strings (what there were of them), while a female trapeze artist dealt handsomely with the four Circa men who tried to disrupt her routine.

Palmer’s arrangement of the traditional Catalan song La mare de Deu, another Palmer arrangement, also gave Wilson fine exposure as her visual competition was a solitary female carrying out a sequence of hand stands on three slender-looking pillars – again, simple craft without fireworks but somehow matching the quiet tension of the musical content.   Back came the men with a table for plenty of diving across and under with a scattering of near-misses to the backdrop of an anonymous villancico, Rodrigo Martinez, reshaped by Dyer and Palmer.   This pre-Baroque melody is fairly familiar – Jordi Savall has treated it and it turns up in all sorts of formats from other ensembles – but, once you’ve played it, there’s not much else to do except elaborate it; yes, you could say the same about a wealth of material on this program.   Eventually, of course, the whole Circa corps joined in this perfectly-judged and -calculated frolic.

Another Catalan song, La dama d’Arago, enjoyed the Palmer treatment,  Wilson again given a considerate Brandenburg accompaniment while a female acrobat re-visited a Circa regular in manipulating herself up two cloth ribands, although she avoided that extraordinary move where the performer wraps the cloth around her, then lets herself fall floor-wards, spinning all the while; yes, the child in me (never far from the surface) missed it.

A  jacara by Murcia put the spotlight again on Maiorana who revelled in the slashing rasgueado chords in this version constructed by himself and Palmer, while a wheelbarrow provided a bull-representation for the Circa’s turn as matadors – Spanish, I suppose, but not over-entertaining.   The finale came in an improvisation called Passacaglia Andaluz, notable for yet more apparently off-hand body-throwing and a sense of predictability from the musicians, their creativity well-harnessed to a set pattern – naturally enough, given this traditional format, but we could have done with more linear and vertical extravagance.

Look, it was most entertaining; my grand-daughter loved it from start to finish, the whole experience bringing out her latent Nadia Comaneci.  But, like quite a few in the packed Murdoch Hall, she was barely aware of the Brandenburg players.  Which may have been the musicians’ intention – not to distract from their guests.   But I think that the collaboration has reached its use-by date and could well be rested for a few years. Their first appearance together in 2015 proved extraordinarily exciting, exhilarating even to these well-worn eyes and ears; Circa alone at the Playhouse for a Carnival of the Animals production reinforced impressions of the company’s prowess; this Spanish night entertained but, when all’s said and done,  the prevailing ethos at work is physical.  Until the two bodies can mesh more with each other with both bodies inside each other’s space for extended periods rather than a few slight juxtapositions, the gymnasts will enjoy the limelight and the formidable Brandenburgers might just as well be sitting in an orchestral pit.

 

Try-hard maths: two into one

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA/PAGLIACCI

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Wednesday May 10

                         Cavalleria Rusticana

At first glance, this looks like a cost-cutting exercise – having these two often-paired contemporaneously-composed operas set in the same locale, so that the subtle distinctions between Mascagni’s representation of Sicily and Leoncavallo’s deep-south Calabrian village are fused.   You can economise on sets, costumes and, in some cases, singers.   But the bare-bones production look of both operas, particularly Cavalleria Rusticana, is deceptive and, thanks to the State Theatre’s revolving-stage mechanism, each opera has a variety in its presentation, even if some of the director’s staged events are cringe-making.

But what and how an opera is acted out has taken on undue prominence these days; what really matters is the music and how the company copes with it.  Luckily, Opera Australia has some fine artists at work here, with not really any unsatisfactory principals, even if their ardour was rarely matched by a full body of choristers.

The Mascagni piece enjoys a welter of fine melodies, beginning with Turiddu’s offstage siciliana that in this instance brought Diego Torre’s hefty tenor into play well before he actually showed up in person.  Dragana Radakovic’s first appearance as Santuzza showed a singer hard at work but getting very little across the pit, up to the fourth scene’s Romance, Voi lo sapete, o mamma, where the soprano moved into high gear with a driving force that continued throughout her confrontations with both Turiddu and Alfio.

Santuzza, in fact, carries the action and is a continuous presence.  Dominica Matthews sang Mamma Lucia, who spends most of her time reacting to others in dumb-play with some inane recitative.   None of this challenged the singer who went through the expected motions required of an overwrought mother of a wastrel son.  The other female principal, Sian Pendry’s Lola, produced a fair off-stage Fior di giaggiolo and played up to Torre fetchingly in the Brindisi scene.  As the most (only?) attractive woman on-stage, she exhibited the requisite relish for attention but, as so often happens with Lola, she is hard-pressed to make any vocal impression, even in her nasty dialogue with Santuzza.

Torre maintained a striking vocal presence through the opera’s second half, matching Radakovic’s vehemence in their confrontation, playing an effective lad-about-the-village in the catchy Viva il vino spumeggiante, playing efficiently for undeserved sympathy in the remarkable Mamma –  quel vino e generoso aria with its move from hectic, subdued excitement to valedictory lyricism: for me, the work’s finest moment.  The only problem with this Turiddu was the one-dimensional attack, which was rarely less than full-throttle; as a result, the young man presented as an intransigent ne’er-do-well, with whose fate it was hard to feel much sympathy.

Having less to work with, Jose Carbo took this night’s honours as Alfio, bringing some much-appreciated vitality to the opera through his Il cavallo scalpita self-introductory bragging – an aria that puts a bass through his paces with several top E flats and a pair of taxing F sharps.  As with Matthews, most of his vocal work is confined to recitative, yet Carbo built a firmly-etched personality in the short scene of Santuzza’s betrayal, finishing with a convincing Infami loro quatrain, then offering a self-composed balance with Turiddu’s  self-recriminations in the duel challenge.

Andrea Licata conducted, giving full weight to the score’s mellifluous arches of melody and bringing out a steady response from Orchestra Victoria.  The ensemble’s place to shine, the well-loved Intermezzo, passed along well enough, although the pit’s tinny organ substitute dimmed the piece’s timbral lustre more than a little.   In the opening pages, the Opera Australia Chorus sounded lively enough, even if the male voices dominated; but the performance pace slipped to dragging for the Ineggiamo procession.

Director Damiano Michieletto updated both operas to the 1980s, which presents no problem as long as you subscribe to the theory that nothing has changed in the social life of Italy’s poorest region over a century.  The Prelude is played out over a tableau, the villagers all gathered around the dead body of Turiddu; the stage unfreezes and the opera’s action begins.  Much of it involves a bakery, staffed by two men, one of whom I think was Samuel Dundas, who turned up in the same clothes as Silvio for the Leoncavallo opera.  The impression is of a clean but run-down community; Dundas’s yellow t-shirt is a colour highlight, Lola goes in for seductress black, Alfio sports a spivvish orange-brown suit, but the main impression is of soul-quelling dowdiness.

Then the producer has introduced a few oddities.  Why the statue of the Virgin in procession comes to life to make imprecatory gestures to Santuzza strikes me as unnecessary theatrical padding.   Updating Alfio to a car-driving purveyor of women’s gear would be fine, except for the self-identifying text he has to sing.  Also, it’s working against the placid rest from action that the Intermezzo gives us to have Yellow-T-Shirt and a passing girl carry on a little gauche flirtation; that kind of interpolation strikes me as indicative of a belief that, if nothing is happening on stage, then the audience is bound to be bored.  Maybe, but I think that people who can’t just listen to a master-stroke for three minutes should stay at home with their play-stations.

During the work’s progress, someone puts up posters advertising the coming appearance of Pagliacci in the village’s theatre; so we know what’s coming, I suppose.   Still, you’d have to be pretty thick not to be aware of what’s on the other side of interval.

In the second opera, Torre plays and sings Canio with impressive dedication.   This character is a tenor’s delight, revealing himself on every page in every line.  The role’s high-point, Vesti la giubba at the end of Act 1, was a minor triumph with the tenor making every point a winner and giving a vital counterbalancing picture to the jealous brute who is the outward manifestation of the troupe’s leader.   But Torre made his mark at the beginning with a gripping Un tal gioco where he prefigures what would happen if he found his wife Nedda had taken a lover: a fine crescendo of barely-suppressed rage and violence, shrugged off at the end of this solo in a most non-persuasive show of benignity.

At the work’s climax – the entertainment that the strolling players are providing for the villagers – Torre displayed a vocal and emotional command right from his appearance as Pagliaccio, Nome di Dio!   As the scene moved forward and the actor’s self-control deserted him, the tenor gave a gripping realization of Canio’s move into homicidal anger, thus bringing the opera full circle: we were warned what would happen, and it did.

Carbo also performed in the second work, this time as Tonio who enjoys the inestimable gift of Leoncavallo’s wide-ranging prologue, Si puo?  This could have been a fine experience but the baritone was hampered by Licata’s leaden-footed tempo.  Better followed in the Nedda-Tonio scene, Carbo making an excellent self-apologia in the So ben che difforme solo, loaded with self-pity but showing his unhappiness and longing with a rich sound-colour and something approaching dignity before he throws it all to the winds and assaults the disdaining object of his love/lust.

Anna Princeva, the production’s Nedda,  opened with a fine study in contrasts, from her fear of Canio in Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! to the extended flight of fancy where she identifies herself with passing birds, Oh! che volo d’augelli.   This soprano possesses a crisp, bright quality, very accurate in delivery and manipulating her line’s phrasing with admirable flexibility.  To her credit (and that of her colleague), the love duet for once didn’t pall, in large part due to the sprightly nature of her vocal attack and the mobility she demonstrated in segments like Non mi tentar! and the ravishing Nulla scorda! sestet.

Dundas, in a windcheater over the previous opera’s t-shirt/jeans outfit, sang an assertive Silvio, the young lover who has no solo but must delineate himself in his love-duet with Nedda.   Where Carbo suffered from the slow pit pace, this baritone had to work with direction that had him jumping around the stage like a pre-match athlete from an American university, his physical restlessness detracting from the longing and desperate pleas that make up the greater part of his work.

John Longmuir sang Beppe, the general hand/actor whose only chance to shine comes in the play-scene where he acts the 11 lines’ worth of Arlecchino and rarely gets noticed because of the crisis that looms throughout this Commedia scene.

For this opera, the chorus showed a good deal more vocal energy; but then, the demands placed on them are greater – from the opening frenzied excitement, through the Vespers chorus, to the play-within-a-play’s disastrous progress.  Licata’s orchestra appeared un-pressurized, but the great surges of vitality in the work’s middle pages came over efficiently.

Michieletto raised these eyebrows again with his Pagliacci.   For the interlude between the acts, he has Santuzza onstage receiving post-Confession absolution from the priest who led the Easter procession.  She meets Mamma Lucia and demonstrates that she is pregnant; the two go off arm-in-arm.  Some might consider this elevating; I think it’s bordering on ridiculous.   Still, it’s part of the intention of having the two operas cross-fertilise each-other . . . perhaps that clause is unfortunate.   Of more interest is the strange scene concurrent with the presentation to the village in which Canio hallucinates that he sees Nedda  being unfaithful to him – a vision that leads him into his murderous dementia.

A slight problem is one that bedevils every Pagliacci.  Canio catches Nedda embracing Silvio, but the lover escapes without Canio being able to recognize him.  It’s generally a clumsy piece of staging – how can the clown not see his wife’s lover? – and this particular effort is reliant on Canio being pretty myopic . . . or possibly he can’t identify yellow.

Also, as usual, the Leoncavallo work engages an audience more immediately than its Mascagni companion; the drama is more taut, the characters’ motivations more clear-cut, the score more energetic.   But the joint productions’ attempts to bleed one piece of verismo into the other are marginally successful, it seems to me.   If the musical content is taken as the dominant guide in approaching each work, then their internal differences argue for treating each work as a discrete construct, rather than supporting an attempt to push them into the same space.

Further performances will take place at 7:30 pm on Saturday May 13, Monday May 15, Wednesday May 17, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 20.

Bit of this, bit of that

ACO SOLOISTS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday May 7

]

                                      Satu Vanska

You may be from an old school, so you tend to look for themes, thematic links, but sometimes the search is futile.  Take this latest program from the country’s premier chamber orchestra.  The ensemble opened with a scrap of semi-modern Americana and ended with yet another string quartet arrangement, this time of Mendelssohn No. 2 in A minor.  At the core of the afternoon came two Baroque violin concertos – Vivaldi for two violins and cello, RV 578; and Locatelli in D Major, the Harmonic Labyrinth which is really nothing of the kind – an arrangement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata which became a new piece in the process, and a fresh work by Perth-based composer James Ledger, The Natural Order of Things.

A mixed bag, then, but not unpalatably so.  Under temporary director Satu Vanska, the ACO gave an airing to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings, an arrangement by the composer of the slow movement from her own String Quartet of 1931.  In the concert program, an appreciation of this movement came from critic Peter Dickinson, who described Crawford Seeger’s work as that of ‘a kind of American Webern’.  The assessment seems to have been based on the composer’s practice in this movement of quick crescendos so that the melodic element moves between the parts.   Cute but, even given the composer’s somewhat acerbic language, it falls a fair way short of the Viennese master’s Klangfarbenmelodie, which is what Dickinson is attempting to persuade us that the American innovator was attempting.

The Andante is pretty brief, but you wouldn’t want it more prolix, chiefly because the surges and recessions can’t hope to capture as much interest as that constant flickering of textures and gruppetti in Webern’s setting of the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering, or, to be fairer, his master Schoenberg’s famous Farben movement in the Five Pieces for Orchestra.  The American work is quaint, a moderately interesting experiment but – and there’s nothing macho-sexist about this – the piece is bland in character when juxtaposed with Ives’ scores dating from previous decades.

More contemporary still, Ledger’s work was being given its second performance on Sunday, after an out-of-town reading in Wollongong.   The work celebrates the life of Simon Libling, an escapee from the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Poland (associated in my mind with the efforts of Oskar Schindler)  who eventually migrated to Melbourne in 1960.   Ledger was commissioned by Libling’s son and daughter-in-law and has produced a five-movement work that offers a kind of odyssey. pictures marking certain stages in Libling’s life.   Ledger employs an accessible vocabulary, reaching its most aggressive reaches in the central Threatening and agitated section.  But he doesn’t overtax his audience in any of the movements, each segment having its own discernible character and dynamic impetus.  If anything, Ledger is determined to construct his five life-chapters without frills and sustains the atmosphere for just long enough.  Above all, it’s a music without self-consciousness, the composer’s voice present but channeled into the work’s narrative, not drawing attention to itself with sound-production tricks.

Satu Vanska and ACO regular Glenn Christensen worked pretty well as top lines in the Vivaldi concerto, principal Timo-Veikko Valve the sublimated cello.  You were hard pressed to find flaws in the soloists’ attack, although I would have preferred the violinists to work alongside each other, rather than facing from opposite sides of the stage.  The opening spiccato sounded less fierce and abrupt than when Richard Tognetti is at the first desk but, even for a L’estro armonico stalwart, this piece is forgettable.

Vanska took the solo Locatelli part and negotiated its endless stream of semiquavers with very few misses.  Most of the score’s interest comes in the solo capriccios/cadenzas of the outer movements, and Vanska gave bracing accounts of both.   But the work is over-hyped: it’s not complicated in any sense – it’s just busy.  For instance, the solo that interrupts the first Allegro is little more than a series of arpeggios in D Major and its close associates; playing them rapidly generates excitement but it strikes me as being little more than an eighteenth century precursor of Czerny.   Vanska gave considerable personality to the middle movement’s substantial melodic lines but raised the audience’s temperature with the long capriccio in the finale, packed with double-stops and flights across the instrument’s compass, including Locatelli’s favourite trick of asking for notes above the fingerboard.  In the end, the player displayed a formidable technique; pity about the repetitive content, but that’s the period.

At this work’s start, a baroque guitar crept in behind cellists Valve and Melissa Bernard; it took me a fair while to realize that this was the third of the ACO’s regular players – Julian Thompson – revealing an unheralded talent.  Speaking of personnel, the scheduled viola Alexandru-Mihai Bota didn’t seem to be present behind guest principal Jasmine Beams and Nicole Divall, unless he has altered radically in height and complexion.

It was hard to warm to the Debussy Cello Sonata, although Valve made an excellent solo voice surrounded by a small group of piano-substituting strings.  You missed the keyboard’s bite and percussive force, of course; even stranger was the lack of contrast in this version, the cello merging into a bland cocoon of fellow strings.  The pay-off was that the string instrument remained prominent, unchallenged in that regard by its accompaniment.  Every pizzicato from Valve told and the calculated immersion of the string instrument’s activity in the piano’s occasionally vehement attack didn’t occur.  In this form, the piece is a radically different entity and you find that you’re pulling yourself up short when an anticipated harmonic clash is muted almost into non-existence.

The ACO is renowned for its adaptation of string quartets from the mainstream repertoire as expansions of its programs.  Alongside understandable fleshings-out of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the ensemble has recorded and/or performed quartets (and the occasional quintet) by Grieg, Janacek, Schubert, Beethoven, Szymanowski and Haas.  Now Mendelssohn’s most accessible work in the form has enjoyed the string orchestra treatment  (whose arrangement it is, I don’t know).   The work is big-statement-rich in its outer movements and so stands up well to dynamic and timbral aggrandisement in its bookends; added to which, the musicians are responsive to Mendelssohn’s shapely counterpoint, each line melding into its peers with the group’s inimitable mix of urging power and elegant finish.

As with other similar arrangements that the organization has presented, you experience the odd moment of dislocation, when the forces reduce themselves and the texture thins to regular quartet individuality, as in the Andante con lento, or at Vanska’s solo towards the final Adagio‘s conclusion; so that, when the full complement of players comes back on board, reinforced by Maxime Bibeau’s bass, you have to make a jump back to accepting the larger sound as the norm.  They’re not as impressive in construction as this Beethoven homage, but I’d be more interested in hearing some of the composer’s early symphonies for strings than these re-writes.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s patrons were quite happy with the ACO’s work, even if one lady behind me commented unfavourably about Ledger’s piece.  You can’t please everyone all the time – which is the best rationale for a bitzer of a program like this one.

 

 

 

 

Pratt takes the honours

LA SONNAMBULA

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre

Friday May 5

                              Jessica Pratt

Somehow I’ve missed the Victorian Opera’s previous concert versions of Bellini operas – Norma and I puritani.  A real pleasure, then, to come upon the latest enterprise, particularly as the performance worked very well, notable for a top-notch cast, a willing if distant chorus and a revitalised Orchestra Victoria, coping easily with this score and revealing a good deal more polish than had obtained during the previous night’s Carmen for Opera Australia.

Not that the opera has a large principal line-up.  The sleep-walking heroine Amina is a virtuoso role – well, it’s made so by the insertion of ornamentation to taste; Jessica Pratt proved more than equal to the task with admirable technical control and a fine characterization of open-hearted simplicity.  As her betrothed, Elvino, tenor Carlos Enrique Barcenas maintained a firm delivery throughout the night; if the high notes sounded strained, they were present and correct, although they would be more telling if the singer would treat them with greater relaxation of his physical equipment.   Paolo Pecchioli, a bass new to me, proved an exceptional Count Rudolfo, capable of responsible phrasing and varied delivery as evident from his first appearance where you immediately gained insight into a personality capable of command and sensitivity.

Another substantial contributor was Greta Bradman who, as Lisa, enjoyed two arias, including that which follows the opening chorus, Tutto e gioia, and the later one with chorus, De’ lieti auguri, where she thinks Elvino will marry her instead of the ‘unfaithful’ Amina.  The pyrotechnics came less thick and fast than in Pratt’s line but Bradman balanced her fellow principal soprano with a more solid timbre in production, and brought some welcome relief to the work’s sweetness and light with her barbed responses to her courting by Alessio.  This latter role brought bass Timothy Newton down from the chorus for the character’s contributions, although his role in ensembles often simply mirrored his upstage colleagues.

Mezzo Roxane Hislop sang Amina’s foster-mother, Teresa, with seasoned security, blotting her copybook only once with an early entry, almost cutting off the distant horns at  Ma . . . il sol tramonta, but quickly pounced on by conductor Richard Mills.  Tenor Tomas Dalton followed Newton’s lead, coming down from the choir for the Notary’s brief contribution when all things are going swimmingly at the betrothal scene.

Pecchioli had only two significant passages in which to shine.  The deceptively long Vi ravviso and its pendant Tu non sai is the more important in revealing something of the Count’s character as an informed, benevolent if somewhat secretive aristocrat with a splendid line in rolling reminiscence.   In Act 2, he attempts to explain (briefly and lucidly) to the village what a somnambulist is, V’han certuni che dormendo, before Elvino leads a chorus of denial.  As you’d hoped, the singer’s tone quality retained a carrying amplitude, not over-stressed in the part’s upper register and satisfyingly dark at the other end.

Barcenas made a favourable impression from his opening recitative, although the strain to get through the mordent to the upper B flat at rendesti il padre interrupted a well-controlled delivery.  But the following duet  Prendi: l’anel ti dono turned out to be one of the performance’s gems, the tenor gifted with the high road and keeping it.  Still, the four high Cs that turn up later in the scene would have gained from a less determined approach.  As shown better in Act 2, this tenor has an attractive authority across most of his compass, if not yet the floating elasticity of an ideal Elvino like Tagliavini.  A short burst of regret in Ah! Perche no posso odiarti gave us a telling insight into Barcenas’ talent at instant communication – address without complications, the lyric falling in the nutty kernel of his talent.

Pratt gave us an excellent Amina, from her first appearance to the happy (and quick) resolution of the opera’s action.   In the initial Come per me sereno cavatina, she demonstrated how to handle the composer’s thick fioriture, particularly in a throw-away piece of brilliance at non, non brillo (the sort of startling facility that typified Sutherland at her best). and again at a quicksilver non ha forza a sostener.   In fact, Pratt sustained her role beyond expectations at the crucial point where she is spurned by Elvino, maintaining our sympathy throughout the D’un pensiero quintet and the following Act 1 finale where again the character yields dynamic and range primacy to her ex-fiance –  whom any spirited girl outside opera would have now given up as a waste of space.

But it’s Ah non credea mirarti that crowns the opera – a surprisingly non-flamboyant peak, but you can expect only a few flashes of brilliance from a sleepwalking heroine (unless you happen to be watching Lady Macbeth or Lucia).  Pratt mirrored her opening aria’s happiness with a moving depiction of a credulous soul finding consolation in her dreams. But the pretty-well packed hall was waiting for the fireworks of Ah! non giunge, and Pratt didn’t disappoint, although the top E flat in her final solo bar was a close thing.

Without claiming to have made a concerted study of the scores, it’s hard to recall an opera of this type that requires so much chorus work.  Looking through the music afterwards, I was taken aback by the number of principal solos, duets and other ensembles that featured support, in this case from the near-omnipresent villagers.  On this night, the VO Chorus carried out their work with diligence, even if you might have wanted more power from the 32 singers involved.  Mind you, the body operated from behind Mills and his orchestra, who were nothing if not lively.  But their contribution assisted considerably in raising the work’s involvement level.

Another oddity that struck me after this performance was Bellini’s delight in his own triplet-rich, meandering melodies; his operating principle appeared to be that, if something was worth saying twice, it was probably worth repeating once more.  This can take its toll in Act 1 where the lovers’ idyllic satisfaction goes on for a patience-wearing stretch of time.  However, the absence of staging, costumes, and scenery meant that the performance centred solely on the music – a real concert, in other words, and so an experience to be treasured for giving all executants, both vocal and instrumental, a blank field to work in, and handing to an audience the inestimable gift of witnessing music-making without theatrical distractions, in an arena where the performers stand purely on their own abilities.  After this, I’m more than a little regretful that I missed the company’s previous Bellini expeditions.

 

 

 

You can take the girl out of Seville . . .

CARMEN

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday May 4

                                     Stacey Alleaume

You’re pressed to put your finger on significant faults in the national company’s opening salvo for the Melbourne Autumn season, yet the net result doesn’t satisfy as much as you’d want it to do.  The Carmen, Rinat Shaham, is gifted with a full-bodied mezzo range and she plays her role well enough, if not distinctively.  Her Jose, Dmytro Popov, gets all the notes and is an assertive enough figure, even in that drawn-out final duet.  Shane Lowrencev is a competent Escamillo, his big number ringingly confident.  Our heroine’s gypsy/smuggler cohorts – Jane Ede (Frasquita), Sian Pendry (Mercedes), Dancairo (Luke Gabbedy), Remendado (Benjamin Rasheed) –  handle the middle act ensembles with gusto and reliability.   Even the principal soldiers – Christopher Hillier as Morales, Adrian Tamburini playing Zuniga – work through their parts with unswerving directness.

But the only time you felt that something exceptional was taking place occurred during that difficult Act 3 aria, Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante when the night’s Micaela, Stacey Alleaume, gave a flawless interpretation that clearly woke up a house that till that point was polite but not off its collective face with enthusiasm.   Yes, you could quibble with some of Alleaume’s breathing decisions but the careful construction of the lyric and her treatment of its melodic arches were not only memorable, but as good as I’ve heard live.

The opera’s last real solo made as good a high-point as any for the night, although its usual reception is often to be under-rated; after all, Micaela is the only decent character in the whole work and she can cast a pallid shadow in the middle of so much passion and nationalistic colour.   But Alleaume’s success was obvious, especially at curtain-call time when her appearance was greeted by the closest thing a first-night Melbourne audience comes to a roar of approbation.

Shaham’s Carmen follows the usual path.  She’s physically attractive, dominates the Habanera scene very well, handles her duets with Popov successfully enough, although there seemed to be a hesitant moment when a cue was dropped at the point in Act IV when Don Jose gives up the wimping appeals and turns violent.   Her fault. his fault? I wasn’t quick enough to pick it up.   But the best part of Shaham’s reading came early; her L’amour est un oiseau rebelle made deft work of an all-too-familiar aria, but her Seguidilla proved to be vocally distinctive and well-pitched – I don’t mean just the notes’ placement but the nice mix of sultriness and pseudo-innocence that constitutes Carmen’s quick-moving seduction of Don Jose.

Later, the brilliantly atmospheric opening to Act 2, Les tringles des sistres tintaient, worked to fine effect vocally, while the staging and choreography walked a distracting uninspired path.   Even Carmen’s sudden change of character into a freedom-fighter came over without generating too much scepticism.  But the Act 3 card scene, where Carmen takes over for the solo En vain pour eviter, the pace slowed to an improbable adagio, sucking out the music’s fluency and this section’s tragic resignation to the inevitable.   Shaham gave excellent work in the vituperation of the last act’s closing stages where the semi-erotic posturing of the previous three acts has no place, but the same can be said of many another Carmen that the company has given us.

Popov impressed in Act 1 for his straightforward delivery, even if he faced the same problem as every Don Jose in making his rapid fall from grace an occasion of general disbelief suspension.  His tenor is solid, stentorian rather than elegant, as evident in his Act 1 duet with Micaela, Ma mere, je la vois, where Alleaume turned into an emphatic second fiddle.   His La fleur que tu m’avais jetee had everything but suppleness; even the climactic top note wasn’t the usual bellow you get from many another singer.   But the duel scene with Escamillo held little suggestion of danger from either singer and Popov, while convincing in his communication of despair at the end, missed out on communicating the fierce brutality of murdering Carmen; equipped vocally to invest this duet with force and energy, the tenor failed to impress as deranged and heartbroken at what he has done.

One of the night’s successes emerged in the delicious Nous avons en tete une affaire quintet where the vocal combination came across as precise and well-judged, Jane Ede’s soprano occasionally riding without unnecessary force above the others.   Lowrencev’s big Votre toast number worked well enough; its refrain is difficult to freshen up but this bass-baritone refrained from bellowing.  The trouble with his characterization was its lack of spark; the invitation in Act 3 to his upcoming corrida sounded perfunctory, even when he got specific with Carmen.

Brian Castles-Onion conducted Orchestra Victoria and, the louder the forces involved, the better the score sounded..  To general gratification, the ensemble’s horns acquitted themselves very creditably in exposed passages, but every so often a fault marred the good work: a missed flute note in one of the entr’actes, an off-kilter upper string phrase, some heavy vibrato from the cellos, an over-egged percussion during choruses.

Teresa Negroponte’s costumes concentrated on unsubtle bubble-gum colours: pink, orange, greens of various shades, purple.  Both adult and children’s choruses were dressed in a contemporary fashion, the latter looking as though they could have stepped off any street corner in Melbourne.  These bodies’ singing was solid in delivery, the males tending to hog the limelight, but then they are the force that sets the opera’s tone right from the opening scene.

Michael Scott Mitchell has constructed a touring set, a three-wall frame that could fit anywhere and doesn’t change throughout the opera.  A truck features in three acts – Lillas Pastia’s easily transportable tavern, then the contraband conveyance, finally the triumphal dais at the entrance of Escamillo and Carmen for their four lines of love declaration. Mitchell’s stage is on two planes with some connecting stairs along the stage’s length; this only proved a problem at one point in the last act where things were in danger of coming adrift between singers on the upper level and the pit.

Director John Bell has re-situated the opera’s locale to ‘somewhere resembling today’s Havana’.  As it’s only a semblance, he can gloss over references to Seville in the libretto.  Why Havana?  Because he knows it and he enjoys ‘the audience’s shock of recognition’ (of Havana, that much visited city?) and ‘the dramatic tension between a contemporary vision and an older text’  –  which is fine if difficult to achieve when dealing with a work so much wedded to its original place in both words and music.

Bell also wanted to avoid the ‘traditional . . .  flamenco dancers, gypsies and toreadors’. Sadly, a lot of these remain, although I have to admit the dancers have been replaced  –  by four couples who specialize in a New York-style 50s latter- day jitterbug, co-existing with stretches of languorous leg movements, stylized sexual gestures reminiscent of a camped-up tango club, and some aimless gesturing from the non-dancing chorus.   More Havanian relevance comes to Bell with the findings that ‘it’s hot, it’s Spanish, it’s sexy, and right now seems to be flavour of the month’.   Much the same –  hot, sexy, Spanish – could be said about Mexico and the Philippines, but flavour of the month?   It was heading that way with the recent relaxation of  restrictions but any recover from its Castro-era greyness (or jungle greenness} will be a long while coming.  As, I suspect, will a meaningful influx of tourists.

But these are all accidents of performance, attempts to set a scene and sustain it.  You’d have to work hard to find Cuba in this production; you might just as well look to Buenos Aires or Bogota for a locale positioning.  Sadly, to my mind the city that came to mind most was Miami – clashing colours piled on and juxtaposed, old-time honky-tonk eroticism, rank depression in this nether-world behind a Mar-a-Largo facade.

But what you don’t get is any sense of urgent menace and, without that, the opera suffers considerably.

As for what the principals and chorus actually do, you won’t find much difference here to any other Carmen.  There’s an absence of crowds to populate the opening scene’s plaza; the official parade of the last act is not on-stage but in the audience, the chorus looking out at us as a poor substitute for the spectacle they’re observing.   But it’s in the principals’ activity that you look for some freshness of approach and I, for one, found not much.  Bell has not caused any chance of a frisson of outrage or excitement to interfere with his production; by its underlying staidness, it is probably for some a reassurance, for others a disappointment.

The work will be performed at 7:30 pm on May 6, 11, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26 and at 1 pm on May 13.   As far as I can see, the cast remains unchanged.

 

 

 

 

 

Greatest of Centuries?

IN HONOUR OF LIFE: 20TH CENTURY SELECTIONS

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 29

Frank Martin

                    Frank Martin

 

James J. Walsh, safe in the pre-World Wars harbour of 1907 New York, believed that the Thirteenth was the Greatest of Centuries, and he wrote a lengthy appraisal to prove it.  He may still be right but, considering music, there’s a case for placing the Twentieth as the most significant period in that art’s development.  It’s not just that populations exploded and so did the numbers of musicians; after all, a huge number of them became involved in the post-1950 popular music industry, turning their backs on the development of their art to bog themselves down in endless repetition and debasement to the point where the music itself became secondary to peripherals – costumes, lighting, dry ice –  and where the great world of possibilities released in the field of electronic music was reduced to an endless array of incompetents and non-musicians recycling the trite and the cliched, reducing rhythm to a sub-primal jog-trot, avoiding any harmonic progress beyond Brahms, refusing to employ any material for melody outside a diatonic scale.

Counterbalancing this descent to the gutter, the century enjoyed incredible liberation across every musical parameter, sustaining remarkable leaps in aesthetic theory and virtuosity of performance.  The consoling fact for some of us is that musical craft marches on, despite frequent lurches sideways into mediocrities so that, while the popular bent is to hallow Prince or David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix – none of whom I would have trusted with singing a line in a Palestrina mass – the massive figures of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez continue to shine lights onto the compositional practices of our more adventurous (and musically educated) contemporaries.

On Saturday, John O’Donnell and his uncompromising Ensemble Gombert veered once again away from their habitual Renaissance stamping-ground into near-contemporary regions, their program’s chief work being the oldest.   The singers opened their night with in time of, a well-known piece originally produced in 1995 by composer/conductor Stephen Sametz.  This e. e. cummings setting is a representative sample of the Ethereal American, which has some similarities with the pseudo-mysticism of John Tavener and the slew of Baltic composers who favour slender immobility.  Sametz’s work sets the five stanzas in cummings’ botanically referential lyric in straight-through fashion before returning to earlier sections and confounding the text in a striking exhibition of verbal polyphony.  Sametz uses high soprano textures like many of his peers but the music has a dynamic fervour that separates it from the ruck.  Unlike several US performances of this piece, the Gombert version gained clarity from the Xavier Chapel acoustic which exposed the vocal interplay to better effect than the heavy echoes favoured by choirs from across the Pacific.

John McCabe’s Motet from 1979 sets a poem by James Clarence Mangan which sounds like a fusion of Swinburne and Christopher Smart.  The music’s most obviously striking feature comes at the start of each of its nine stanzas on the words Solomon! where is thy throne, and Babylon! where is thy might; wide common chords provide an arresting contrast with the score’s main body with is satisfyingly complicated, a test for the double choir involved.   Like the Sametz preceding it, McCabe’s work sustains a consistent atmosphere, arresting and idiosyncratic.

From 1976 come Mervyn Burtch’s Three Sonnets of John Donne; no recherche surprises here with Oh my blacke Soule!, Batter my heart and Death be not proud.  The first presents on the whole as a contrast between monody and a sparing harmony, both alternating between the lines; in the most famous of the sonnets, Burtch uses unison more sparingly although the vocabulary he employs is chorally congenial with only a few points to cause some eyebrow-lifting – the attack on Yet dearely sounded clumsy, while the magnificent last line begins in monody before branching into parts for the last four words which seem tame for their content; while the last of the trio delighted for the rich treatment of Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie, and the clever alternation of forces in the final couplet. The Welsh composer wrote these settings for simple SATB choir and the Gomberts  – in slightly amplified form with  five each of altos, tenors and basses, and seven sopranos –  invested each sonnet with firm eloquence and some splendid soft chord-work.

Antonin Tucapsky’s In honorem vitae, five Horace settings, also requires only four vocal lines.  The composer has selected the opening stanzas to odes from Book 1 – Nos. 2 (with an extra two words) and 37; the first stanza of Odes II, 14 with the address that rings across the centuries  –  Eheu, fugaces, Postume; the initial stanza of Carmen 9 from Odes IV; and the complete Odes I, 11.

Written in 1975, this composition opens with appropriate vigour for Ne forte credas, before moving into a more severe strain for the second set of verses. Iam satis terris, in ternary shape, employed a dynamically reduced plane.  For Nunc est bibendum, bubbly enough, Tucapsky seemed engrossed by the suggestive clause, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus, which eventually took over the setting; the address to Postumus made little impression; the last line of the Tu ne quaesieris octet surprised for its employment of fugato – a touch dry after the investment of ardent emphasis on isolated phrases and words like quem mihi, quem tibi, or Ut melius, or sapias.  Still, the composer contrived an intriguing composition with loads of variety in texture as he worked through what he called ‘madrigals’.

It was a source of enjoyment to hear the singers present Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, one of those choral masterworks that for many years lived an existence outside of performance, given a reputation as un-singable.  These days, its difficulties seem manageable and its alleged fearsomeness is belied by interpretations like this one which shine with facility and consoling humanity.  As for the opening Sametz work, the Xavier chapel proved a gift for this score, despite the carpet that covers most of the building’s floor; the choir enjoyed plenty of resonance, much preferable to a definition-softening echo.

The Christe eleison in the first movement demonstrated very ably how to construct an impressive ecstatic outpouring without losing dynamic control.  Ditto for the racing energy of the Cum Sancto Spiritu of the Gloria, during which Martin gives the basses a hefty presence for the first time in the Domine Deus segment.  You realized the advantages of having this work sung by female voices during the imaginatively mobile Credo; the gain in expressiveness is remarkable, even when compared with the last time I heard this work – from the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in July last year – a fine reading, certainly, but the Gomberts gave you a more telling vision of the composer’s passionate humanism.

The Sanctus got off to a clumsy start from the Choir I sopranos but both Osanna segments were among the night’s high-points for their bright, light-filled bravura.  The Agnus Dei has Choir Two maintaining a slow march-like tread as it outlines the text while the other force delivers a fluid, near-Gregorian melody in unison, before both bodies combine for the final dona nobis pacem.  At certain stages, the various lines split into two, a device which does not trouble larger choirs.  But the Ensemble rarely sounded attenuated – partly because of their innate musicianship, partly because of Martin’s excellent distribution and allocation of labour.

This Mass capped off a night where the Gomberts showed their ability to turn their combined talents to unexpected enterprises and come through the trials of 20th century compositions with high success.