Graeco-Roman bout

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Russell St., South Brisbane

Sunday February 23

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                                                                     Anna Grinberg

Opening this year’s series of recitals, the Chamber Players of the QSO presented a lop-sided hour-and-a-bit’s music on Sunday afternoon, played to a large audience that showed excitement and enthusiasm for the main work: the mighty Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor.  As A prelude, we heard Beethoven’s Wind Sextet in E flat, Op. 71 although that number is an inaccuracy if you’re expecting a score to come from the era of the Ghost Piano Trio, the Emperor Concerto and Fidelio.  This sextet comes from 1796, the time of the first two cello sonatas and the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat.

To be honest, this sextet is pretty unremarkable with only a few bursts of action for  the first clarinet and the leading horn to raise your temperature level.   Perhaps more gripping material will follow later as the orchestra observes Beethoven’s 250 birthday.  At the next chamber recital in April, the program contains the first of the Rasumovsky string quartets; in the following month Guy Braunstein, once the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster. is soloist and conductor for the Violin Concerto which he brings a few days later to the Gold Coast, along with the Coriolan Overture and the Romance in F arranged for flute rather than violin soloist.   During June, the orchestra takes this Romance arrangement and the Symphony No. 7 to Toowoomba and airs the Egmont Overture back in QPAC.

August has Simone Young conducting the Choral Symphony and supporting Jan Lisiecki‘s efforts in the G Major Piano Concerto.   October sees three performances of the Symphony No. 5 over two days, and the next month concludes the celebrations with the Piano Concerto No. 5 featuring the estimable Behzod Abduraimov as soloist.   So, the observance is respectable but not over the top: three of the landmark symphonies, the last two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, an early string quartet, two overtures and a romance in unoriginal format.  But first  this divertimento sextet, which was preceded by Beethoven’s only other piece for the combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns: the March in B flat WoO 29. which lasts barely 90 seconds.

Involved in the sextet performance were three principals – Brian Catchlove (Acting Associate Clarinet), David Mitchell (Associate Bassoon), and Alex Miller (Associate Horn) – with three regulars in Kate Travers (clarinet), Evan Lewis  (bassoon) and Lauren Manuel (horn).   Their ensemble work proved to be functional, generally accurate, fairly rough in balance.   The work is not taxing but it has some rapid semiquaver runs to pepper up its benign breezy warmth.   Catchlove did not seem secure in the 2 1/2-octave scale passage that brightens the first movement Exposition; more persuasive work came in the lead-up to the pre-Recapitulation fermata where we were treated to an unexpected, just-long-enough cadenza.   The second horn line experiences a couple of arpeggio-rich bars near the Allegro‘s conclusion and these were close to error-free; like the playing itself, the product was rough around the edges.

When the clarinets enunciated the principal melody of the following Adagio, the duet work  failed to satisfy after an empathetic statement from Mitchell; Catchlove and Travers sounded unmatched working at the octave so that, although the intonation impressed as accurate and clean, the timbral combination lacked mutual warmth.  I didn’t understand why the group slowed down the pace for the Scherzo‘s Trio; it’s common practice, I know, but you really have to suit the tempo to music that is worth lingering over.  Sadly, the horns were over-prominent in the outer sections – or possibly we relished their absence from the Trio‘s action.   This beefiness from the brass figured again in the finale where the clarinet melody line was drowned in the opening bar’s output.  Miller’s burbling triplets spiced up the action in the first episode.  But the balance problem emerged as this performance’s major shortfall; the sextet may be early Beethoven but this heady, bull-at-a-gate mode of attack does little service to a structure that has good bones if little meat.

You could say much the same about the Brahms’ treatment where the outer movements rose to high points of weighty dynamic output but ended in beating the audience around its collective head with an excess of punch.   Anna Grinsberg took up the piano cudgels for this mighty score.   She was joined by first violins Warwick Adeney (Concertmaster) and Shane Chen (Principal), viola Bernard Hoey, and cello Hyung Suk Bae (Associate Principal) in a reading that seemed to work hard to convince you of the composer’s struggle in shaping his material, but made an overall impression of jumping from one from one bear hug to the next, a chain of force-filled grapplings.

The group repeated the Exposition to Brahms’ first movement and it was quickly obvious that Grinberg was in control – which some say is a necessary positioning for the pianist in this work.   The repeat was, in fact, well worth the time as the musicians showed more group awareness, both violins ramping up their lines’ vehemence and pressure.   Then, the recoil at Letter A into more sentimental material proved effective, possibly as sheer relief from the previous dynamic pressure-cooker.   Adeney sounded cautious during his exposed 8-bar solo at the Development’s opening but he was not alone in handling these complex pages without assurance.   By the time of the return to taws at bar 172, it sounded as if the interpretation was being driven by its inbuilt impetus rather than by a fully determined plan.

After an eloquent and long statement from Grinberg to open the moving Andante second movement, you might have anticipated a similar warmth when the strings eventually had their turn with the gently swelling second theme at bar 26 but the Chen/Adeney partnership gained in warmth only some time further along when the action became more intense.   It was at this stage of the reading that you became aware of Hyung’s unflappable presence, sustaining the cello line without the same sweeping and swooping as obtained in the upper reaches of the group.   Actually, this movement entire would have benefited from a more lingering approach, less anxiety about getting through its finely dovetailed segments.  From previous experience, you expect an emotional benison to be brought about through the crowded 6ths and 3rds of the final bars; not so this time, because sufficient care and tenderness was lacking in those simple three-note phrases.

With the Scherzo, once more the impression was of over-exertion – in this instance, applied very early at the first fortissimo starting at bar 22 and maintained for some time with the added thrill of several sforzandi.   After this card reveal, the players had little space to negotiate, missing out on the detached brilliance that should counter any preceding mobile brooding from bar 57, and their lead-up to the C Major Trio proved to be a thundering welter, the piano disappearing in the last pages of the Scherzo repeat. What we heard was packed with splash but lacking in subtlety.

Grinberg took over in the Allegro non troppo finale at the point where her doubling action becomes all-encompassing at Letter A.   Matters got even more intense in the thundering octave triplets at bar 137 where the temptation to belt and thump out the notes has to be resisted.   Yes, you had your hiatus points, and very welcome they were, like the un pochettino piu animato interlude for exposed strings, and that antiphonal/responsorial relief at Letter E lasting up to bar 237.  But the performers  once again moved through such passages with little grace, in a hurry to gt to the meaty full-bodied passages where the keyboard could pound and the strings could force their unisons and octaves into dominance of a kind.

You have to make allowances: these musicians are not accustomed to playing in the groups set up for the QSO’s Sunday chamber music series.  Their bread and butter is orchestral work, not this kind of exposed linear interplay.  And, as I found in Melbourne, rehearsal time is limited and musicians have to rely on their peers’ extra-orchestral experience and honed intuition in handling this music.  As I wrote above, the large Studio audience for the event gave a warm response to this Brahms interpretation and, at the end, all performers/competitors were left standing  –  as was the composer.   Yet, to me, it all came down to that well-worn report card summation: could do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many points of pleasure

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm

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The observances across this year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth are bound to be many and varied, yet I suspect that few will cause as much interest as this concentrated dose of the composer’s symphonic output.   Later in 2020, at various venues, members of the ACO will play the String Quintet in C minor, the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for string quintet (why?), all the cello sonatas, the Cavatina from the Op. 130 String Quartet arranged for string orchestra, the first movement of the Op. 18 C minor String Quartet in its original form, Movement 3 from the A minor String Quartet for string orchestra, and the Grosse Fuge  –  one of the ensemble’s calling cards.

To perform the first three symphonies, Richard Tognetti (celebrating 30 years at the artistic directorial helm of the ACO) and his 17 core musicians were joined by 14 extra strings, all members of the Australian National Academy of Music, and 13 wind players of mixed provenances, with the inevitable Brian Dixon on timpani.   An ad hoc combination, then, if one calculated to give us an aural experience in line with Beethoven’s own auditory experience, the string instruments using gut and the wind employing period instruments, ensuring that the orchestral families sounded balanced.   Fine in theory, except that these three performances were dominated by the first violins.  As it should be?  Perhaps.

Needless to say – but I will – the readings were exhilarating throughout each of the twelve movements, the musicians making the most of every opportunity, both written and unwritten, to highlight or underline dynamic contrasts and to confront the score with an energetic response at every turn.   Mind you, by this stage of the organization’s national tour, the ACO/ANAM/guests’ readings had reached a point where they were as good as they were going to be with eight almost-consecutive preceding performances on the trot, Brisbane the last port of call.   Which probably explain Tognetti’s insistence at the end of the Eroica in going round the band, congratulating/thanking each participant; a well-deserved recognition for a sustained professional mini-odyssey.

While the E flat Symphony No. 3 is a repertory warhorse, battle-scarred from two-plus centuries of usage both good and bad, the first two symphonies are rarely aired by state orchestras, who are ever eager to take up the public’s reliable investment in the well-worn and familiar.   And I think some of us would have gained the main benefit of this exercise through experiencing live, vivid performances of these two remarkable constructs rather than by waiting to see what interpretative quirks peppered the night’s final offering.

For a thoroughly worked-in concert, this occasion did not begin well, the opening movement’s pizzicato chords in the Symphony No. 1 given scatter-gun treatment until the third one reached a requisite level of congruence.   The remainder of the Adagio introduction worked to better effect before the first violins rattled into the Allegro proper, its first subject setting up the night’s modus operandi with a spiky attack.   The rapid crescendo-decrescendo device was worked heavily inside phrases, and the designated sforzando notes were delivered with a very powerful punch from all string quarters, to the point where succeeding semiquavers tended to be lost.   Further along, you were pressed to work out whether the wind had been taken by surprise or the string corps were champing at the tempo bit; whatever the case, you could sense a discrepancy, a slight lack of uniformity.   With distracting frequency, Tognetti kept turning to the players directly behind him throughout the night – encouraging their efforts, for sure, but also appearing to urge the pace.

Another feature of the string texture, notably in the first two symphonies, was an abstention from vibrato at certain stages, carefully selected hiatus points where the fabric could benefit from a change in timbre.   This made for an attention-focusing version of the Andante to the C Major symphony where, after adjusting to some unusual pitch peculiarities from the upper woodwind, the ensemble gave a perky account of pages that less conscientious bodies stroll through at ambling pace.   Straight away in the third movement, the strings impressed with their short bowing stabs which gave an urgent character to the outer sections.   If you were looking for faults, the only questionable product in these pages came towards the end of the Trio where the violins’ passage work sounded scruffy on the first time through.

The finale’s Adagio opening came across as a splendid, minuscule piece of musical theatre; not so much searching for resolution but consciously teetering on the edge of that infectious break into this work’s light-fingered vivace finale.  Tognetti set a blistering pace for this movement proper, again urging his colleagues onward and achieving a commensurate response from the wind forces, at the same time giving them room to be heard, particularly bassoons Jane Gower and Lisa Goldberg whose gritty sound-colour came through in exposed moments, even if their work involved no solos.

At the slow opening to the D Major Symphony, I was nonplussed by the timbre of oboes Helene Mourot and Lidewei De Sterck which sounded rough-hewn, even for period instruments.   But, by the time we came to the interplay between woodwind and strings at bar 29, the oddity had been evened out, chiefly by the introduction of other wind players.  Once again, the ACO/ANAM string players attacked the first movement Allegro con brio with lashings of piss and vinegar, probably assisted in maintaining their stamina by the absence of an Exposition repeat; they were but passing this way once.   To my ear, one of the most remarkable points of play came in the violin triplets beginning at bar 187: a model of delicacy and restraint in a performance notable for its weltering activity.   It certainly shone when compared with the movement’s last note: a sustained semibreve D which sounded over-aggressive and coarse.

With the following Larghetto, the playing presented  –  for once  –  as slightly affected and dulcet in the extended main melodies, which in fact contrasted tellingly with intermediary passages where the players took to bowing in alternate briskly detached notes and something close to saltando.   Still, the modified reversion beginning from bar 158  demonstrated the ACO’s ability to find new facets to familiar sentences, ensuring that you never felt that these performers were going through the motions, but rather were concerned with re-presenting material with many unexpected shifts in balance and dynamic.

In the second half of the third movement’s outer segments, notes tended to disappear in the violins’ descending scale phrases, but the Trio proved to be hard-hitting and volatile with reliable horn work in the last 14 bars of the second half.   Tognetti led his forces through a break-neck account of the Allegro molto finale, urging his first violins by way of repeated exhibitions to them of the style of attack he required.   Occasionally, this generated sparks, as in several punchy repetitions of the quirky figure that punctuates the movement’s first theme; less often, the concerted string corps sounded hard-pressed, caught in a chugging action.   At certain points, the wind in ensemble work came across as unbalanced  in their handling of the second subject where the strings thin out or offer functional support.   Yet the end result was persuasive, capping a determined and cleverly crafted interpretation.

It is hard to find strikingly new facets to the Eroica.   Performances that emphasize  harmonic shocks or emphasize the thematic brusqueness in each movement have little capacity to raise eyebrows in this jaded age.   Tognetti’s reading found plenty of drama and a vehemence that didn’t teeter over into lurching from one overwrought climax to the next.   Most praiseworthy was an over-arching integrity in delineating each of the four movements’ characteristic shapes, encouraging the sort of consciousness in us listeners of large-scale paragraphs being woven seamlessly together – something along the lines of Furtwangler’s achievement with Bruckner symphonies.   As a responsible director, Tognetti brought a combative drama to the chain of discords starting at bar 180 of the first movement, but he ensured that they grew organically out of the preceding 132 bars.   The reading’s transmission of continuity ensured that this large-scale Allegro con brio kept you engaged across its wide length.

The second movement of this symphony, Beethoven’s funeral march, is a taxing interpretative test, mainly because conductors have to decide on whether or not to stress the score’s potential for pathos.  To my mind, it requires more of a stoic resolve and needs to be taken at a speed which takes just as much notice of the assai as the Adagio in the heading.   Following from several previous stages during this concert, you were startled that Tognetti’s sound made so significant a difference to the upper strings’ effectiveness; when he had settled his forces into the desired performance mode, he played with a carrying timbre that noticeably enriched the band’s output.   Through a combination of sympathy and discipline, the musicians generated a cogent, composite account of this bold expression of controlled grief.

Particularly admirable was the orchestra’s restraint and care with details in the symphony’s third movement/scherzo; the control exercised by all involved up to the half-way point’s fortissimo explosion, coupled with an abstention from a hefty chugging sound continuum, ensured that the success of the score’s first half was repeated.   Later, the three horns grabbed your attention by working through the Trio with no signs of stress that weren’t associated with their instruments’ natural abilities.   The following set of variations that constitute the symphony’s finale offered another high point among several across this concert’s length thanks to a vigorous approach and an ability to weave each variation into the next and to infuse each of them with individuality.

As on previous occasions (not all, but quite a few) when the ACO puts its efforts into treating a solid orchestral Classical/Romantic masterpiece, you came away from this concert with positive reactions.   During the E flat symphony, you could delight in the performers’ unanimity of effort and rich palette of colours.   But just as memorable was the biting address invested in this work’s two predecessors.   Yes, we will be treated to more large-scale Beethoven over this year from other organizations and ensembles, but the memory of this event will be lasting and its level of accomplishment could remain our benchmark for the remaining ten months of celebrations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time present and time past

MUSIC FROM 4 TO 40 PARTS

Vaughan McAlley

Move Records MD 3437

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I’ve been watching and hearing tenor Vaughan McAlley sing for the past 200 years, as a member of groups like the Ensemble Gombert and the Choir of the Collins St. Scots’ Church, as well as observing him cope with roles as hefty as Bach’s Evangelists.  He has also been a long-time producer and sound engineer for Move Records.  But I believe that this CD represents my first experience of his work as a composer; it contains a large number of those compositions ascribed to him on the Australian Music Centre’s web-site.

Most of the music is vocal/choral with relieving forays into part of McAlley’s String Quartet of 2015 and the complete Four Chorale Preludes for Piano, written for Michael Kieran Harvey.   While the majority of this CD’s non-instrumental  tracks comprise a cappella singing, a few involve some slight instrumental support – a recorder here, a string quartet there.   On paper, it looks like a considerable miscellany; in actuality, the disc’s totality represents a backward move – some centuries back, in fact.

The first offering is a setting for 5 voices of Christina Rossetti’s A Birthday, written for the wedding of Kate McBride and Tom Reid who take top and bottom lines respectively in this work.  We are plunged into the world of Renaissance polyphony which suggests both English madrigals and something more Continental  –  not Josquin, as McAlley’s annotation implies, but something further south.  It’s a well accomplished composition, with loads of vocal mobility; it’s just that it seems odd  –  a Tudor soundscape to underpin a Romantic poem.

Track 2 is A Madrigal, which uses words by Alexander Pope that have been set by a more well-known composer.  Where’er you walk is written for 4 voices and is another piece that straddles several practices and schools.  By now, you become aware of a tendency in the composer’s writing to give great exposure to his soprano or top line, sometimes suggestive of Allegri stratospherics.   Again, the polyphony is efficient and the standard of performance competent; which you’d expect with the composer being one of the participants.

To Rosamounde, a balade uses a Chaucer text, setting for 8 voices one of the poem’s three stanzas.   This work, full-bodied in character and one of the disc’s most two monumental constructs, is performed by the Ensemble Gombert conducted by John O’Donnell and it brings back memories of that group’s richly rewarding recitals held at Xavier College Chapel for many years.  The stanza octet is set lucidly with both the linear meshing and the interplay sensible, utilising compositional devices with admirable facility.  McAlley has added an optional extra, a coda for 18 voices to the last line, Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce, which is suggestive of Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and  –  of course  –  Tallis.  At this multiphonic point, the words become meaningless because the vocal complex becomes an end in itself.  The effect is sumptuous, the massive piling up of individual voices most impressive to aurally bathe in.   My only difficulty is that the setting loses its link with the English poet’s chirpy teasing.

The chorale preludes in Harvey’s hands are a delight.  There is no way a contemporary composer dealing in this form can avoid the shadow of Bach and McAlley makes no attempt to do so.   The first essay takes the melody of Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit and puts it in the centre of a contrapuntal web, weaving a soprano line in triplets and a solid bass that begins in measured pace but then enters more fully into the action, taking over the soprano triplets to underpin the complex; the work comes to a broad, Busoni-like conclusion   The melody is at the top for Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr’ with a quirky five-note motif dodging around the entire keyboard’s range and offering a jerky complement to the simple melody line.   Heilig, heilig, heilig also keeps the chorale tune in the soprano, while underneath is a susurrus of arpeggios that bring to mind a Chopin study or six, as well as Schumann’s Widmung.    O Lamm Gottes unschuldig has the tune in a soprano-tenor canon within a slow repeated chord backdrop.  McAlley concludes this piece with a fugue and the hymn tune floating above/inside it, which strikes me as a reflection of the opening chorus to the St, Matthew Passion where the children singers come in with this same tune above the ferment of Komm, ihr Tochter.

Harvey invest his wide-ranging sympathy and superlative technique into these works, handling the splayed chord moments carefully but maintaining each prelude’s forward motion and realising the appealing gravity in three of the four.   My references to Busoni and the others are not meant to be derogatory or emphasize any derivativeness; this set of four piano pieces  is situated in a compositional ambience that clearly appeals to McAlley and he inhabits it comfortably, able and deft in manipulating its tropes even if he shows little interest in pursuing Bach off-road into his more taxing chromatic labyrinths.   Further assisting in their success, Harvey’s interpretations are both masterful and compelling.

The musical language moves back further for the next work, a setting for 5 voices of three verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  Again, you sense the debt to Tallis, down to the opening identifying sentence and setting of the verses’ initial Hebrew words. A few unexpected modulations or discords  –  for example in the second sentence, the setting of individual words like moverunt and  Samech   –   interrupt an otherwise conventional harmonic scheme.

With the Lento from a string quartet written in 2015, you might be forgiven for thinking that McAlley has simply moved his writing wholesale from vocal to instrumental, given the slow chorale nature of the opening strophes   As the movement progresses, you get the same impression of careful voice-leading: all that’s missing are words.   Then pizzicati appear above a rephrasing of previous melodic material, until the plucking takes over completely.   In the last segment, McAlley returns to the chorale movement of the opening with silences to punctuate the phrases, moving the instruments into their top ranges before shifting to a low-level, brief coda.   The Four Seasons Quartet – violins Sunkyoung Kim and Helen Bower, viola Phoebe Green, cello Nora Brownrigg – give a committed reading of this score which comes across as something of a hodgepodge, despite its economy of melodic material.

It’s back to the Renaissance for In principio erat verbum, a setting of the first two and the 14th verses of Chapter 1 to the Gospel of St. John; familiar to Catholics of a certain age who would recall each Mass being concluded with this Biblical extract (and the intervening verses) as the final prayer in that liturgy.   Once again, this is a conventional work with few surprises except that insistence on isolating the soprano above the ruck.  I will lift up mine eyes uses the first four verses of Psalm 121 and calls for a soprano  soloist (Kate McBride) and string quartet (violins Rachael Hunt and Rachel Garner, viola Shani Williams, cello Alison Both).   It begins with yet another Bachian reminiscence: a siciliano instrumental figure before the voice enters.   The composer is at some pains to exercise McBride’s  highest notes; that’s fine, except that eventually you cannot understand a word in the outer sections of this da capo aria, the singer having one of those ‘English’ sopranos which is accurate enough but sexless and owning very little vibrato.k

Back to imitative polyphony for Lord, you have been our dwelling place which employs McAlley’s favoured combination of five a cappella voices.  The setting is more dramatic than its predecessors, in its central passage becoming very like Anglican chant, with a later strophe for solo voice,  and a moderately active fugal ending.   A solo recorder prefaces and gives an obbligato line (a bit of a distraction, in fact) to the four singers of The Lord bless you and keep you, which is mainly a chorale, the piece progressing for the most part in block chords.

For his 40th birthday, the composer proposed to organise a performance of the Tallis 40-part anthem Spem in alium  –  which may have actually occurred (I wasn’t invited)  –  but he was advised by friends to write his own piece.   Exactly why he took their advice remains unclear, but he did and came up with Omnes angeli: two verses from that primer for mystics and crazies, the Book of Revelation.   A performance of this construct took place on October 26, 2013, given by an expanded Ensemble Gombert under John O’Donnell; which group at the same event also took on the Tallis gem and Robert Carver’s 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium.   This CD’s last track is a recording, made on that date under the dome at 333 Collins St. Melbourne, of McAlley’s huge work which, like its Tallis inspiration, hits the listener as something of an aural onslaught.

The opening is clear enough as the various choirs interweave and set up a picture of the angels falling down before the Throne in worship.   All 40 lines come together to excellent effect at the first Amen.   For the motet’s second part, the texture is almost continuously massive so that the evangelist’s words of praise become a sonorous melange with a few thinner oases before the explosion which is a sort of extended vocal fantasia on a concluding Amen!    Tallis wrote for eight 5-part bodies; McAlley for ten 4-part groups – but detecting the difference in weight would require finer ears than mine.  I can hear some insecure voices in patches of the first half of Omnes angeli but these are soon forgotten when you’re faced with the sumptuous power of the work’s later pages which give a remarkable aural realization of angelic jubilation.

Quite an achievement, getting all these works down on CD.   McAlley himself sings tenor in half of the tracks; Kate McBride’s soprano is heard in nine; her bass husband, Tom Reid, and McAlley’s wife, alto Leonie Tonkin (who provides the recorder for The Lord bless you and keep you), participate in six.    The composer/singer’s dedication to his task is admirable.  But, in the end, you have to wonder whether this recreation of a long-gone style of composition is leading anywhere – or even whether it should.   To my mind, this recording is something of a curio: pleasant to hear, tasteful and well-crafted in its elements even if some of the interpretations are rough around the edges.  A tribute to the musical past by recreating it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March Diary

Sunday March 1

Jayson Gilham

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 3 pm

Hailing from the recently drought-stricken, now over-wet town of Dalby, Gilham has carved out for himself a respectable career as a recording and touring pianist based in London but making frequent return visits to home soil.  Appearing under the local Medici Concerts banner, this 33-year-old musician is presenting an all-sorts program with some old-fashioned virtuoso favourites to further the melange’s attractiveness.  Not one, but two Beethoven sonatas: the No. 17 Tempest in D minor with its spinning-wheel finale, and the No. 14 in C sharp minor yclept Moonlight.   Gilham ends with a group of three ‘Schubert’ arrangements by Liszt: Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Der Muller und der Bach, and Widmung which, since my Eileen Joyce days, I’d always thought was written by Schumann.   Anyway, as exotica, the pianist will perform the Chopin Barcarolle, and then two French bagatelles in the unexpectedly mobile Melancolie by Poulenc, and  Chaminade’s lilting Op. 89 Theme varie; these last two serving the function of mid-program encore materiel, to my mind.

 

Tuesday March 3

VIVALDI’S VENICE

Brandenburg  Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

French harpist Xavier de Maistre is returning to perform as guest with the Brandenburgers, wedging in one Brisbane appearance between his duties in Sydney and Melbourne.   I’m not as hyperbolically responsive to this musician’s talents as most of my colleagues; his transcription of Smetana’s The Moldau – one of this musician’s signature pieces – works well as far as it goes but there are slabs of the original score that have gone missing.   Anyway, this program looks less of a grab-bag than that for de Maistre’s previous tour because it does focus on Venice in the days of its musical (and economic) greatness; an inspiring vision of a city that these days is an unpleasant tourist trap.   We will hear the Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D, RV 93 in D Major, transcribed for harp soloist; the same composer’s Winter from The Four Seasons, also transcribed from the violin solo original.  There will be a Marcello transcription also of the D minor Oboe Concerto, the one that Bach arranged for solo keyboard.   The evening ends with a concerto grosso from Gregori’s Op. 2 set for two violin soloists, this performance billed as an Australian premiere; possibly it will be given as originally scored.   It’s a tad out of place, as this composer lived in Lucca, but what’s a separation of 300 kilometres between friends?     Salzedo’s transcription of Pescetti’s keyboard Sonata in C minor gives us another Venetian voice from Vivaldi’s time.    For non-Venetian filler, de Maistre plays Parish Alvars’ La Mandoline, called a gran studio in my score and a repeated-note test-piece par excellence.  This 19th century salonesque aberration apart, the rest of the program is laudably homogeneous.

 

Friday March 6

MUSICAL SORCERY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11 am

Conducted by Benjamin Northey, the QSO begins this entertainment with Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, irremediably linked in my mind with Walt Disney’s vision of it in his 1940 film Fantasia, ruined at the end by Stokowski condescending to an enthusiastic Mickey Mouse.   The night ends with the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, complete with piano (two and four hands) and organ parts; such a fine constituent of contemporary Australian culture, thanks to Nigel Westlake‘s interpolation of its Maestoso into both Babe films.   Lucky Brisbane to have the splendid Klais instrument at the orchestra’s disposal for this rousing score; to general astonishment, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall lost its Casavant organ in the building’s refurbishment 10 years ago, which consequently made performances of works like this one impossible in that city’s main orchestral concert-giving venue.   The night’s soloist, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic Stefan Dohr, fronts the first Strauss Concerto in E flat, written when the composer was about 18.   You’d expect a really authoritative reading; I’d be happy for an intonationally accurate one.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 7 at 7:30 pm with the addition of Brisbane-born Cathy Milliken‘s Earth Plays, Þingvellir or Thingvellir, which refers to a park in Iceland where the country’s first parliament, the Althing, assembled from 930 to 1798.  I’ve not heard the work but would anticipate that the writer might have concentrated on musically illustrating the site’s natural properties rather than its legislative achievements.

 

Saturday March 7

SPANISH SOUVENIRS

Jonathan Henderson and Emily Granger

Old Government House at 3 pm

I came across flautist Henderson in Alex Raineri‘s chamber music festival towards the end of last year, during which he played difficult music in several consecutive recitals.  Here, he partners harpist Granger for an hour-long program in which some of the composers have been named; several details are specific, others inferential.   For example, the players begin with Ravel, who wrote nothing for this duo combination, but we are getting his Piece en forme de Habanera, originally a Vocalise etude for bass voice and piano.   Marin Marais?  A treatment of La Folia from its original viol publication into a version for solo flute.  Then Bizet, and automatically you think of that intermezzo in Carmen between Acts 2 and 3; but that isn’t on offer.   Rather, Henderson flaunts his gifts in Francois Borne’s showy Fantaisie brillante on Carmen tunes, mainly the Habanera and the Act 2 Gypsy Dance.   Here comes Jacques Ibert who wrote some entr’actes for flute and harp, as well as a clutch of splendid harp solos, but who also wrote a piece that simulates the Spanish guitar; I can’t find much in his works that brings Spain to mind, except some Don Quixote-related songs.   Chabrier is unrepresented in this combination’s stakes, so you get another habanera: the piano solo from 1885.   De Falla is a near-absentee from the instrumental chamber music field, so we’ll be treated to the Nocturne piano solo of 1896 and all of the Seven Spanish Folksongs.   In addition, we can sample Alphonse Hasselmans, a famous Belgian/French harpist and teacher who wrote a good deal for his instrument, but the only potentially flamenco-reminiscent work I can find is his Gitana caprice.   Whatever comes out, it’s a lot to pack into an hour.

 

Sunday March 8

BEYOND MESSIAH: HIGHLIGHTS OF HANDEL

Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. Andrew’s Uniting Church at 1:30 pm

On the premise that there’s more to the great German composer than his evergreen oratorio, the BCC are presenting other music by Handel.  God knows there’s a lot to choose from but details are non-existent.   Brisbane University’s Graeme Morton will conduct; there will be a supporting band, led by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Concertmaster, Alan Smith.   About the pieces to be attempted, I am as much in the dark as anybody else not associated with this event.   ZadokMy heart is inditing? Judas MaccabeusSolomonSaulThe Water MusicThe Fireworks Music??   Behold, I tell you a mystery.   The oddest factor is that this concert is apparently going to run concurrently with the Queensland Baroque Orchestra’s program below.   I don’t know the physical layout of St. Andrew’s, but it would need to be larger than it shows on the city map to cope with these simultaneous events.

 

Sunday March 8

THE KING’S TRUMPETER

Queensland Baroque Orchestra

At. Andrew’s Uniting Church at 2 pm

Here is another program about which details are very few.   The guest soloist is trumpeter John Foster, who is also this body’s artistic director.   His CV is an impressive one, with a lengthy list of appearances in the United States and Europe.   For all that, I can’t recall seeing and/or hearing him in Melbourne.   This afternoon’s music features works by Purcell, Handel, Corbett (presumably William) ‘and others’.  The list of this ensemble’s members is substantial, even if none of the names is familiar to me; 20 strings, 4 woodwind, a brace of trumpets, Baroque guitar and harpsichord adds up to a considerable body.   The only problem is that this event is scheduled at the same time in the same venue as the Brisbane Chamber Choir’s all-Handel effort mentioned above  .  .  .  or is it?

 

Sunday March 8

THE MAN WHO CRIED

Ensemble Q

Conservatorium Theatre, Southbank at 3 pm

The title comes from a 2000 film with a soundtrack featuring some original pieces supplied by Osvaldo Golijov.   The two extracts nominated for this occasion are Lullaby and Doina; the former is probably the soundtrack number called Close Your Eyes, while the latter has me stumped as it refers to a Romanian musical style well-documented by Bartok.   It could be referring to another track called Without a Word which is an instrumental number from the film that features the Kronos Quartet –  on the recording, not in the film itself.   The concert opens with The Unanswered Question by Ives, that puzzling pseudo-philosophical scrap that asks for four flutes (with an oboe and a clarinet possible for the bottom two lines), a trumpet (or a cor anglais, oboe or clarinet) solo, and a body of strings.   This is followed by a Beethoven string trio, the C minor last of the Op. 9 set; then Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in one of its several arrangements – Henze, Christophe Lootem, Alain Bonardi, or maybe just as the composer wrote it: voice and piano.   Hindemith’s Trauermusik for viola soloist and strings follows, written at short notice on the death of George V.    Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A rounds out the central German/Austrian core of the entertainment; it can be performed a quattro, without the need for braces of oboes, bassoons and horns.   In the Hindemith, Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will be soloist; soprano Greta Bradman sings the Wagner cycle; Daniel de Borah takes centre-stage in the concerto.  Violinist William Huxtable from Victoria is guest concertmaster.

 

Wednesday March 11

BEN FOLDS: THE SYMPHONIC TOUR

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

Look, I don’t know about this.   Not the merits of it, but how the actual collaboration will work and make sense.    Or perhaps I really am troubled by its value as my main question is: what is Folds bringing to the orchestra and to an informed public?   The American singer-songwriter has appeared several times in this country, notably in 2006 when he performed with most of the state symphony orchestras.   This time around, he’s fronting all these mainland organizations again.    He has a piano concerto in his catalogue of compositions, and that might be interesting to experience.   But what I’ve heard of his songs makes me think that the premier orchestral musicians of this country will be slumming.    We’ve seen plenty of this in Melbourne as far back as when the MSO collaborated with Elton John and got so excited by the experience that the organization made him a life member.    But then, Kiss also stood in front of the MSO, after which certain participants struggled to sound grateful for the experience.   In any case, audiences will obviously come in droves to these concerts; otherwise, putting them on the annual program couldn’t be justified.    It’s probably a pleasant enough event to sit through, but it’s mindless and, in these mentally tremulous times, we have to exercise our brains more often than we have done over the past seven decades.   Oh, and I’ve just listened to the Folds Piano Concerto.    It’s another case of somebody playing at being creative but with absolutely nothing new to say, the construct emanating from a musical type who shows no awareness of developments in serious music over the past century and hence is hard to take seriously.

This program will be repeated on Thursday March 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday March 15

THE BALLET BEAUTIFUL

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11:30 am

Here is the first of this year’s five ‘Music on Sundays’ concerts from the QSO.   For one mad moment, I thought that the event would have dancers to bring the music into the dimension where it belongs.   But a look at what is being offered put paid to that daydream.    Popular local lad Simon Hewitt, currently principal conductor at the Hamburg Ballet, is one of the two directors listed; the other is Guy Noble, who also has the narrator’s job thrust upon him.   You’ll have to be ready to do a lot of jumping around, with several ‘selections from’ on the menu.   Bits from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes preface selections from Delibes’ Sylvia and Coppelia,  The concert ends with the Suite No. 2 from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane with its exhilarating and entirely appropriate Bacchanale.  Speaking of which, we also get to hear the Bacchanale that starts the last act of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila, an extract that cemented Near Eastern atmospherics for some generations of Hollywood composers.   The Grand Pas de deux from Adam’s Giselle is ranged alongside the Dance of the Furies and its balancing Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo.    Also, the QSO brass get a chance to shine in the Fanfare pour preceder ‘La Peri’ by Dukas – music for a ballet before the curtain actually goes up.   And, on this kind of program, you can always rely on an outsider sneaking up on you; in this case, another Saint-Saens in the Morceau de concert, today showing off the talents of Alex Miller, the orchestra’s associate principal horn, and having no relevance at all to The Ballet Beautiful.

 

Friday March 20

THE JUPITER SYMPHONY

Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

The most aristocratic of Classical period symphonies concludes this night’s work, its student participants under the control of Johannes Fritzsch, conductor laureate of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and currently guest conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.    Preceding this elevating masterpiece, Fritzsch takes his charges through Stravinsky’s eight-movement Pulcinella Suite, extracted from the 1920 ballet which marked the composer’s descent into neoclassicism; this requires pairs of woodwind and horns, as well as a single trumpet and trombone, with a string corps.  Requiring probably even fewer numbers, at the night’s centre stands Takemitsu’s 10-minute Tree Line for chamber orchestra.    Put it all together and you get a bit over an hour’s playing time, which strikes me as rather short, especially for a university concert.    However, you’d hope that the music-making itself will prove brisk and refreshing.

 

Saturday March 21

THE PEASANT PRINCE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 9:30 am and 11 am

This is a musical re-telling of Li Cunxin‘s life story: how the country boy became one of the world’s most famous dancers.   There’s no choreography involved but the exercise is reinforced with illustrations by Anne Spudvilas, and actor Bryan Probets will provide the narrative component.   This work, written in 2009, is a ‘symphonic tale’ which lasts half an hour, involving single woodwind, single brass, timpanist and two percussionists, harp and 30 strings.   The story has, of course, particular significance for Queensland as Li is artistic director of the state’s ballet company.    But, even to outsiders like this writer, the dancer’s story is a gripping one: it illustrates how having the right people helping you at the right time makes the difference between a successful career in the upper echelons of Australia’s cultural world and a lengthy term of detention on Christmas Island or Nauru.  Brett Kelly conducts.

 

Monday March 30

ARVO PART & SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Again, something of a mixed bag from the country’s leading chamber orchestra.   One of the more revealing works will be Prokofiev’s 1947 Solo Violin Sonata being played by all ten of the ACO violinists.   In fact, the composer wrote this work for massed performers, in line with Russian teaching practice (then? now?) where groups regularly played soloists’ music en masse.   ACO Artistic director Richard Tognetti and Satu Vanska are the violin soloists in Arvo Part’s Tabula rasa Double Concerto, which requires a prepared piano as well as string orchestra support.   Shostakovich provides the concert’s conclusion with his Chamber Symphony: the Quartet No. 8 arranged for string orchestra by notable violist/conductor Rudolf Barshai.   Prefacing these major works will be Wojciech Kilar‘s Orawa, a work relating to a district on the border between Poland and Slovakia.  Nevertheless, the most linguistically advanced work on this program is also its shortest: the Misterioso movement from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho‘s Nymphea Reflection in which the textures are added to by the players’ whispering lines of a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky at the same time as articulating the composer’s wispy textures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attractive version of a Schubert landmark

 

 

 

WINTER JOURNEY/WINTERREISE

Nathan Lay and Brian Chapman

Move Records MCD 594

Winter Journey

 

Here is a considerable undertaking.  Baritone Nathan Lay and pianist Brian Chapman have recorded Schubert’s superlative song-cycle in two languages, the English translations by Chapman himself.   As well, the CD booklet incorporates illustrations by the accompanist’s wife Lucy – one picture per lied, the art designated by its creator as Nature Surrealism.   About this aspect of the product, I feel incapable of offering any meaningful appraisal; any fool can see the obvious relationships between Muller’s poems and the artist’s works, especially if you consider the schizophrenic nature of the narrator’s self-descriptions.   As far as I can tell, Lucy Chapman is not attempting a profound delineation of each lied‘s emotional content but an illustration of each poem’s main features or dominant motives.  Enough of that; it certainly makes for a colourful booklet, even if you can carp at the artist’s personality-less depiction of Muller’s protagonist as a black silhouette (see the album’s cover above).

Lay is not a known quantity to me although his career should have brought him into view through his activities with Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.   But I can’t place him.   Chapman I’ve heard several times, mainly at the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival and on Louisa Hunter-Bradley’s CD of this very same Schubert cycle, released 14 years ago.

This Lay/Chapman enterprise has many attractions, the chief one being the excellent relationship between the artists which shows an unflagging empathy at work throughout both versions of the 24-part sequence.   You’d expect a note-perfect rendition of each page these days, given the powers of recording studios to mask technical flaws.   But you don’t expect to come across a consistent meeting of interpretative minds such as you find here.   Yes, there’s a temptation to put the credit for this at Chapman’s door, given his years of chamber music experience and status as a top-class accompanist.   But that would detract from the baritone’s clear, consistently lyrical line which, if it’s not at the rich timbral level of formidable male Schubert singers who graced the last century, is as satisfying and rewarding as comparable performances from his contemporaries in this country.

The English version starts impressively with a carefully measured reading of Gute Nacht, the interpretation melancholy, not doleful and gifted with some eloquent piano detail work in the interludes.   The following Die Wetterfahne speaks clearly enough, although the ritenuti and fermata points seems to be  weighty.   Gefror’ne Tranen comes across with similar lucidity, the climactic final line impressively determined as Schubert treats one of Muller’s wettest poems.  A certain gentlemanliness restricts the impact of Erstarrung which makes its points with a sort of polite vigour.   Then, Der Lindenbaum is a complete success, both performers carving a clear arc through the lied‘s narrative with a melting-moment resignation in the final sixth verse.

Chapman’s annotation for Wasserflut refers to the 1963 version by Pears and Britten where the interpreters ironed out the dotted-quaver-semiquaver pattern that permeates the song, breaking both voice and piano lines down to convenient and congruent triplets.   The controversy must have passed me by, although I’m sure it caused a sensation in Schubertian circles and apparently brought out the progressive in Alfred Brendel and the conservative in Gerald Moore.   On the English-language disc, Lay and Chapman opt for the Pears/Britten treatment; on the German one, the musicians perform the score as written.   Storm in a teacup?   Probably, unless you’re a stickler for the written word/note.

I once heard a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music proclaim in an eventually aimless, and therefore useless seminar that a composer’s score is really a palimpsest, with the obvious inference that an interpreter should have the right to do her/his best/worst, if necessary wiping the compositional slate clean.  It’s a hard question on which to pontificate but I must confess to being moved to fury territory by performances that play blurring tricks similar to the Pears/Britten example with Baroque and Classical works.   In this case, the song necessarily becomes less fraught emotionally in the last line of the even-numbered verses.  The only irritating factor was Chapman’s use of that translator’s admission of defeat: the word ‘perforce’.

For Auf dem Flusse, the duo presents another persuasive account with a steady growth from calm meditation to powerful declamation over one of the cycle’s more gripping piano parts.   Lay makes an impassioned business of Ruckblick, shaping the rapid-moving sentences with  a welcome lack of rigidity.  Another unexpected move comes from Chapman in the second-last bar where my edition brings the heretofore alternating chords together but the pianist maintains the disjunction that obtains throughout the rest of the piece.   The split character of Irrlicht, the composer deliberately tamping down the text’s possibilities, is handled with unexpected brightness, the usual dark-timbre colours not stuffed down your throat.  The ensuing version of Rast impresses for its intensity, although the last two lines are hard to grasp in this translation.

Two out of the three segments in Fruhlingstraum come off successfully; you might have expected more bite in the middle ‘crowing cockerels’ verses.   At the cycle’s half-way point, Einsamkeit continues the Werther-like self-absorption of poet and composer; in this particular song, Lay sounds remarkably convincing, his dynamic depth not extreme and his vocal personality suitably youthful.   I’d be the last to dismiss the narrator’s dejection as essentially adolescent – his blighted love is unassailably cogent and continuous.   But the Winterreise world is emphatically that of a young man, not a character full of years and experience.

A few cracks appear in Die Post, like some blurred chords in the softer accompaniment passages and a forced quality to the leap from C sharp to E in the second and third-last bars of the vocal line.   A touch more difficult to accept is Lay’s characterisation during  Der greise Kopf which sounded more like dismay than appalled self-recognition.   Both artists produce a satisfying reading of Die Krahe, the whole carried out with a calm anguish from the voice and an untroubled inevitability from the keyboard.

The collaboration again works to excellent effect in Letzte Hoffnung where the abrupt turns of mood come across without jarring, the short song rounded off with an insightful depiction of optimism rooted in despair.  The following Im Dorfe shows requisite spine, although Lay’s best passage comes with the retraction of defiance beginning at Je nun. Chapman holds little back in Der sturmische Morgen, crowding his singer out of the picture during the Und rote Feuerflammen stanza; mind you, there’s little room for Lay to achieve anything substantial  in this bold-speaking brevity.  You know, by the time the cycle reaches Tauschung that every suggestion of lilting happiness is an illusion but you’d be working hard to find a sign of it from these artists; an interlude without depth it seems here, not helped by Chapman’s use of the odd noun ‘perambulation’ in the admittedly awkward second half of the first quatrain.

Nearing the end, Schubert asks a good deal more of his interpreters.  Der Wegweiser taxes the singer with yet another steadily rhythmic set of phrases that gradually decrease in motion until a mournful full stop – a path that Lay invests with an appealing innocence that falls just short of the innate suggestions of dread.   During Das Wirtshaus, Chapman carries all before him with a fine account of the prelude, postlude and interpolations, each note in every chord sounding clearly and in balance. – which is not to ignore the baritone’s emphatic declamation over Schubert’s final lines.

The surge out of desolation that is projected in Mut! –  a pause in the poet’s downward spiral – appears as unwieldy in this reading as in most others, with its rousing school-song echoes; Lay and Chapman play a straight bat here, not looking for any biting irony.  In the concluding brace, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann, musicians are presented with differing-but-similar visions: the first, symbolic regret; the second, a spiritual nihilism of extraordinary honesty.   Both enjoy exemplary airings, the last track of this English language CD an alternative version of Der Leiermann    Well, not that different:  Chapman simply omits the final resolving bar, leaving this Muller-Schubert enterprise hanging.

What of the German version?  Suddenly, we’re at home.   It’s not that you have to work hard to decipher Muller’s language  –  nobody would call it simple  –   but even a rudimentary knowledge of German enables you to glean clues all the way through.  Does the move back to original material change the cycle significantly?    Well, yes, it does.  For instance, Lay’s production doesn’t alter in his second-disc Gute Nacht, but the emphasis across phrases becomes more logical or appropriate, particularly in the major key move for the last stanza.    During Die Wetterfahne, the interpretation gains from an influx of initial plosives.  Erstarrung, too, becomes much more gripping and emotionally fraught in its later stretches.   Listening to the English disc, I noticed Chapman’s slight arpeggiations – no, disjunctions – at the start of some odd-numbered bars in his interludes for Der Lindenbaum; here, details like that and a punctilious observance of note-values are just as enriching to the lied‘s fabric the second time around.

The change brought about by working through Wasserflut as originally written is the establishment of a tension between voice and piano that makes the experience more aurally disturbing.   It also appears to add an aggressive undercurrent, while also seeming to slow down the tempo, although the booklet information has the German two seconds shorter than the English reading.    Indeed, the only noteworthy temporal discrepancies between the discs come with Einsamkeit which is longer in German and the cycle’s final Der Leiermann which is somewhat longer in German than in either of the English tracks.

Further on, I was again gripped by the passion of Ruckblick – a world of hurtling angst in such a brief space.   The triplet/dotted rhythm conflict that so exercised observers about Wasserflut is a bit of a moveable feast in Irrlicht: a peculiarity that I found in both discs.

Still not happy with Lay’s third leap at the end of Die Post but the second reading is, if anything, striking for Chapman’s genteel galloping.   More engrossing as a carefully considered interpretation is Letzte Hoffnung with a pliable but not over-distracting rubato applied in all sorts of places, regardless of the designated changes in tempo throughout this marvellous depiction of mutability in nature and the poet-musician’s spirits.    Even more in the original tongue, you can feel dissatisfied with Der sturmische Morgen for its light texture and those stretches where piano and vocal line progress in unison; a very moderate storm at work here until the  ego is inserted during the last couplet  –   another polite interpretation offered here as in the English disc.

A telling demonstration of the care taken in preparing this recording emerges in Der Wegweiser where Lay’s pauses for breath are finely gauged to make maximum sense of the poem’s scansion,  Chapman ever alert to the singer’s small-scale mobility.   The re-take of Mut! is resolute enough, but the vocal F Major arpeggio on the second sind wir selber Gotter! lacks ringing definition.   The baritone’s elegiac regret in Die Nebensonnen sounds even more striking here, and Der Leiermann walks a fine line between remoteness of observation and total self-identification, thanks to the pianist’s reserve and Lay’s capacity for muted plangency.

You’ll find much that satisfies in this double album, no matter whether you plump for total comprehension (Lay is admirably clear in both languages), or find it hard to hear old favourites in an unexpected garb, or are only content with readings as close to the original palimpsest as musicians can get.   No shocks await the listener on either disc and, even in the song-cycle’s less-inspired passages, Lay and Chapman’s well-crafted workmanship in performance is consistent and reliable.   It’s a most commendable exercise notable for its calm and unaffected reading of a lieder cornerstone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid and unchallenging

WHAT SHOULD I SAY

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 580

 

Elysian

 

First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events.   Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band.   Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument.  She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan.  I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.

So far, so fine.  What do you get for your money?   Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on.   In daring style, the Elysians begin with  settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting  –  that of Whoso list to hunt.   I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though.  The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall).   It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience.   I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine.  The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally.   That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.

What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings?  It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses.  For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track,  Stand Whoso list?   I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge.   The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings.  But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment.  The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.

But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite.  Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic.   Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax.   Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable.  Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.

Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey.  But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems.  It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling.   Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.

With  Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably.   Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions.   But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far.  It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.

Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD.   Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish.  It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former.   It’s taken me months to get through the CD without  becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously.   Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.

 

 

 

February Diary

SONATA WORLD TOUR 2020

Yundi Li

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday February 6 at 7:30 pm

Somewhere along the line, I must have  missed this pianist’s Melbourne appearance in 2018; surprising, because his standing as the youngest competitor ever to win the Chopin Piano Competition (in 2000) would have brought him to any interested party’s attention.  Fortunately, he’s back in Australia to electrify his devoted adherents with a solo recital that – you’d guess from its title – features sonatas; in this instance, works by Chopin (No. 3, which Li has recorded twice) Schubert (the A Major D. 664) and Rachmaninov (not much of a choice here and Li has opted for No. 2).   As a filler, the performer moves outside the format and brings in the eight Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninov.   If you’re interested, prepare to pay: the worst seats (and they are pretty terrible) cost $89 apiece while a decent place puts you back $129.   Group discounts are available but none for individuals, as far as I can work out from the QPAC site.   Li is being presented by Harmonie International, this Brisbane recital following appearances in Melbourne and Perth before two nights in Sydney, a stop-off in Auckland, then on to the US and Canada.  A limited world tour, then.

 

POWER AND GLORY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday February 8 at 7:30 pm

One-time teenage prodigy Alexander Prior conducts this opening concert for the QSO’s 2020 operations.   Building on his Russian heritage, he directs the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 that most of us considered to be a paean to Communist ideology until we were admitted into the arcane world of the composer’s sub-texts which turned every pre-conception on its head.   Still, it never fails to energize the spirit, whether you interpret its import as sustaining the down-trodden kulak or condemning Stalin’s police state.   Opening the night, we hear a new score from Melody Eotvos, currently teaching composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium.   The name of this freshly-written work is, as yet, unknown but it was a QSO commission and Eotvos is well-versed in such occasional tasks.   At the night’s centre comes Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – with the Brahms Double Concerto, one of my guilty pleasures.   The soloists all have strong local connections:  violinist Emily Sun comes fresh from reviving Matthew Hindson‘s Violin Concerto Australian postcards at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl; cellist Caleb Wong has been a Melbourne regular, thanks to the Australian National Academy of Music, for several years; and pianist Aura Go has made a recurrent and welcome presence in Australia’s recital programs.   How the three of them will work together in this work is anyone’s guess; my preference has always been for an established piano trio fronting a work that is all too often undervalued.

 

STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre

Saturday February 15 at 2 pm

Everybody’s favourite in the first trilogy, I guess; having just endured the overblown Gothic of the last instalment of the final set, this old (1983) masterpiece shows up how poorly the scripts have developed over 36 years.   I’ve not experienced the production modes of Brisbane as far as film soundtracks go but am assuming they’re not that much different to Melbourne’s practices.   The music will be very prominent, probably to the point where projected surtitles will be necessary for those desert-dwelling Stylites who haven’t seen this film twenty times over.   There’s no avoiding the warming inevitability of the John Williams score with its memorable main title and the motifs that hurl out every time Darth Vader and the storm troopers come into view, although you get some relief with the Ewoks and the final medieval celebration music is a splendid touch.  Nicholas Buc here adds to his impressive repertoire of realized film soundtracks, getting the audience well onside before the QSO brass bursts out across the first frame.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.

 

A NEW WORLD: INTIMATE MUSIC FROM FINAL FANTASY

New World Players

Brisbane Powerhouse

Saturday February 15 at 7:30 pm

These players are new to me.  Are they locals?  I can’t trace them; moreover, the ensemble plays a lot in the USA, if you can trust the internet for your information.  Further, the group’s advertised conductor/director, Eric Roth, is a famous American jack-of-all-trades: composer, orchestrator/arranger. producer and conductor with wide acclaim for this particular program.  It’s based on a video game which revolves around fantasy and science fantasy role-playing games.  Right: I’ve got some awareness of this from my grandson although the exercise seems to be far more directed towards participants than observers; mind you, they’re probably one and the same.  In any case, Roth and his ensemble – a decet, if the publicity photo is any guide – will play this video-game music, written by Nobuo Uematsu who is a big noise in the industry and composed most of the scores for the Final Fantasy franchise.  An individual musician singled out for note in this concert is German pianist Benyamin Nuss who has had composer-approving success interpreting Uematsu’s work.  With only limited exposure to Final Fantasy‘s soundtrack, I found the product charming, Romantic, salonesque; no matter what happens in the games, it’s as though 20th century music didn’t happen.

 

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm

And here we go on the Beethoven sestercentennial.  Richard Tognetti and his excellent orchestra – expanded for the occasion with 12 wind (13 for the Symphony in E flat), timpani and some extra strings provided by the Australian National Academy of Music. This is a marvellous juxtaposition of two scores that we rarely hear live and one of the cornerstones of the repertoire, all written across a five-year span and demonstrating Beethoven’s expansiveness of vision; already obvious in the first C Major work but explosive in the Eroica.   Have we heard the ACO’s reading of the composer’s first two essays in the symphony form?   I don’t think so but we are assured of a dust-free evening as Tognetti and his charges unveil a fresh battery of sparkling facets to music that all too frequently is delineated with numbing solemnity and attention-dulling heft.  The question that faces us after tonight is: will anybody better this program in a year full of celebratory observances?

 

PURELY MOZART

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House

Friday February 21 at 7 pm

This will be one of the more concentrated chamber music experiences of the year.  Flautist Monika Koerner and three friends are taking on the four Flute Quartets by Mozart.  Not particularly difficult, these small-frame gems exemplify the composer’s melodic facility and his capacity to surprise you with unexpected quirks that are absent in his contemporaries’ more four-square creations.   Helping Koerner through the hour’s worth of music performance are violinist Anne Horton from the Australian National University’s School of Music, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal violist Yoko Okayasu, and cellist Trish O’Brien from Ensemble Q.   It will all be a leisurely stroll, these works products of Mozart’s early 20s and of a piece with his lighter string quartets or divertimenti.   Fleshing out the entertainment, the quartets will be interwoven with readings from Mozart’s letters; you assume the musicians will carry out this task as no speaker is specified.

 

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

Opening its Beethoven celebrations in this 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the QSO dedicates half of this chamber recital to a rarely performed piece: the Wind Sextet Op. 71.   Its catalogue number would make you think that the score belongs to the period of the Pastoral Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Ghost Piano Trio, and Fidelio.  But it actually belongs to the era of the first two piano concertos, the early cello sonatas, the C minor Piano Trio, and the Quintet for piano and winds.   Its four movements show a brusqueness, if not too aggressive in its application; for many of us, this will be the first live performance we’ll have heard – and are likely to hear for some time.  The clarinets are acting associate principal Brian Catchlove and Kate Travers; principal Nicole Tait and Evan Lewis provide the bassoon lines; the horn players are associate principal Alex Miller and Lauren Manuel.   As an odd complement to this rarity, we hear the massive Piano Quintet in F minor by Brahms, thanks to concertmaster Warwick Adeney and fellow violinist Shane Chen, violist Bernard Hoey, associate principal cello Hyung Suk Bae, with guest Anna Grinberg from the University of Queensland’s School of Music taking on the

formidable keyboard element.   Both works total only about an hour in performance but there’s a fair chance you’ll be satisfied, if not sated, at the event’s conclusion.

 

THE TRUMPET UNLEASHED

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

To be honest, I’d be delighted to hear a trumpet player let loose; most of the time, they’re inclined to behave as if constipated, tastefully controlling their dynamic level to avoid any semblance of domination.    From the Concertgebouw comes principal Miroslav Petkov who opens his innings with Maurice Andre‘s arrangement of the Vivaldi Trumpet Concerto RV 20, which in my book is the Violin Sonata No. 4 in F Major.  Did the composer write a concerto for single trumpet?   If so, I can’t find it.   For relief, Paul Dean interpolates a clarinet solo by Tasmanian-based saxophonist Jabra Latham before the ensemble launches into Frozen River Flows from 2005, originally for oboe and percussion, by Petkov’s fellow Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova.   Then come some arrangements for trumpet of Rachmaninov Romances – probably not all 7 in the list of the composer’s compositions.    Stravinsky’s Petrushka then appears, but surely not the whole ballet?   And Petkov ends with La Virgen de la Macarena in the version made popular by the famous Mexican trumpeter Rafael Mendez: a nice piece of kitsch to round off another mixed bag of offerings from this unpredictable ensemble.  Oh, and the recital will take place in Reverse Mode, with the audience positioned in the choir seats surrounding the stage, thereby enjoying close proximity to the performers.

 

Karlsruhe Konzert-duo

Commissariat Store Museum, 115 William Street

Tuesday February 25 at 6:30 pm

This ensemble, established in 1998, comprises cellist Reinhard Armleder and pianist Dagmar Hartmann.   For this event, the musicians are being sponsored by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, which might go some way to explaining the recital’s venue.   In any case, we are promised works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann,  Liszt, Ravel and de Falla.  No problems with the first two names, thanks to five formidable sonatas from Beethoven and two sonatas as well as a set of fine concert variations from Mendelssohn.   Schumann produced the 5 Stucke im Vokkston, and the cello is a possibility in the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro, as well as the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces.  Liszt arranged two elegies for the cello/piano combination, as well as the Romance oubliee and La lugubre gondola.  R avel wrote nothing for this instrumental duo; Falla wrote a Melody, a Piece and a Romance for cello and piano.  Or perhaps this list of possibilities is a tad purist.   The duo certainly play Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in an arranged format and I suspect they may play other transcriptions as well.   Try as I might, details of actual works are impossible to find: you just have to invest the players with a certain amount of  trust.  There will be no intermission and the event lasts for 90 minutes.

 

GARRICK OHLSSON

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27 at 7 pm

Always a welcome visitor, American master-pianist Ohlsson is offering two programs for this tour, Brisbane scoring the first of them.   The offerings range from Beethoven, through Prokofiev, landing finally on a substantial Chopin bracket.  Over the years, Melbourne has heard a good deal from Ohlsson, most of it in solo recital format, and he never disappoints, his interpretation standards informed without excessive erudition and his technical command unfaltering.   Beethoven to begin, then: the B flat Sonata No. 11 of 1800 which some commentators esteem as formal perfection, in this case wedded to an easy-flowing optimism across all four movements.   Ohlsson then bounds forward 140 years to the bracing Prokofiev Sonata No. 6: brilliant virtuosic writing for keyboard and asking for rapid-fire recovery rates.   As for the Chopin, the pianist – only American winner of the Chopin Piano Competition (1970) – genuflects to the well-known with the Berceuse, as well as the half-remembered in the Impromptu No. 2, gives an airing to the open-hearted C sharp minor Scherzo, and treats us to some of the Op. 25 Etudes – Nos. 5 to 10.   Unmissable.

 

January Diary

This note is by way of saying what I hoped was unprintable.

There’s nothing on.

Not that there’s much difference in Melbourne.   Over many decades, the only serious music offering during January involved a rural retreat in the form of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.   Over recent years, this was complemented by the Peninsula Summer Music Festival which offered a compendium to suit the season and required a retreat of a more intellectual character.

Both were out-of-town, of course, and involved road-trips hat could veer alarmingly in time spans.

But, as far as I can see, there’s nothing comparable in Brisbane.  My favourite niece is taking her family to the Woodford Folk Festival, which is my idea of physical and mental hell, in this case possibly serving as punishment for domestic misdeeds

But that seems to be the only music available and that concourse entertainment falls mainly across the dying days of December 2019.

Talent, with bursts of brilliance

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Brisbane, Bowen Hills

Wednesday December 18

ALEX_RAINERI_SLIDER_2560x1100_HERO

                                                                     Alex Raineri

Taking on the full weight of his undertaking, Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri finished the 10-event series with a solo recital, given to a respectably sized audience in the ‘second’ room at the front of the Bowen Hills museum building, which does not have ceiling-to-floor drapes along three of the four walls. as I thought: the material only covers part of them, albeit that section of the space in which the performer(s) operate(s).   Since the last offering in this festival that I attended (Friday December 13), it sounded as if the piano had not been tuned, which made some difference to the pre-interval music, if not much to the more adventurous works that fleshed out a longer-than-expected program.

Raineri began with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 – a sequence that is speckled with a few pieces that have become very familiar like No. 4 in E minor, the 8-bar No. 7 in A Major, the D flat Major No. 15.   But most of the remainder are known only to Chopin aficionados and to pianists for whom they are a constant source of delight and dread.  This reading had some impressive passages with a few surprises, as well as the occasional imperfection – which you’d expect when dealing with a composer whose music continues to present the finest pianists with executive difficulties, both digital and expressive.

You could find little to carp about with No. 1 in C; smoothly carried off with a welcome urgency, even if I didn’t understand the rallentando across the last bars; a fading dynamic, yes, but not a concomitant decrease in speed.   The following A minor-delayed prelude began very slowly, even for a Lento, but it appeared to move into a more active pace when the melody line had to be coped with.   The scintillating G  Major piece could not be faulted, Raineri’s left-hand semiquaver chains flawless, as far as I could discern.   Equally impressive, the following E minor demonstrated this pianist’s sensitivity to inbuilt phrasing rises and falls, even across a short number of bars; the effect one of spartan melancholy but not over-sensitive.

Prelude No. 5 stayed pretty clear in texture throughout its brief length, but the climactic top F sharp in the third-last bar misfired.   There’s not much new that can be done with the B minor prelude; just maintain the left hand’s dominance of the action and avoid an overdone echo effect at the end – both of which requirements Raineri achieved without effort.   The 16 bars of the well-known A Major work were treated with respect; I don’t know how he achieved it, but the pianist managed the crucial submediant 7th chord without splaying the right hand notes.   The F sharp minor successor enjoyed a compelling reading, the middle register thumb melody carrying successfully with only a few right-hand fioriture clusters in the second half sounding questionable.

The formidable and noble E Major prelude displayed once more the executant’s keen sense of inbuilt shape, with a pronounced caesura right where it belongs at the piece’s 2/3rd point.   Tenth in the series, the C sharp minor prelude flashed past, its nifty descending right hand triplet-plus-duple semiquaver patterns articulated with graceful seamlessness.    As for the B Major bagatelle, Raineri gave this due consideration, not bolting through it but ensuring that slight incidental ornaments could be distinguished. For the pounding G sharp minor exercise, we might have appreciated more vehemence at the opening to prepare for emerging energy in the chromatic top line.   The nocturne-like F sharp Major delight came across with a consistently clear soprano in the first segment and a memorably elegiac final six bars with their occasional isolated, slightly delayed top-note additions.

It was hard to make sense of the E flat minor prelude’s delivery, chiefly because Raineri over-worked the crescendodiminuendo pattern that some editors have imposed across each bar.    We eventually reached the D flat Major Raindrop gem: another nocturne, carried off with placid clarity and gifted with a suitably solid central C sharp minor interlude, the whole following a clear narrative path.  To this point, only the B flat minor prelude found the pianist falter and repeat a half-bar, but his recovery was rapid enough to meld into the general welter of this, the most taxing entity in the entire set.   Possibly, the right hand three-quaver pattern could have been treated with a more percussive attack to add some spikiness to a set of pages that can become a sonorous blur.

No. 17 in A flat  came over with a finely judged character, the top line floating clear of the accompanying repeated chords; the concluding pianissimo reprise over a sustained bass tonic note made an unexpectedly moving oasis.   A slight problem occurred during the F minor work – a simple mis-fingering during one of those downward hurtles of 22 or 17 irregular semiquavers, but the excitement of the sixth-last bar’s vaulting chords more then compensated.   One of the more difficult of these exercises to carry off, it seems to me, is the E flat where the only solution is to practice its leaps over and over until you become either absolutely secure or absolutely fearful.   It’s an ebullient (for Chopin) scherzo and Raineri handled it well with only a few errors in the right hand vaultings.

In the last section of the portentous C minor prelude, the executant opted for a fortissimo dynamic, which I’ve not experienced before but which reinforced the adamantine power of the opening strophe.   The following B flat Major work succeeded flawlessly, an admirable outlining of its simple initial melody finding a splendid reflection in the chromatic dying fall that starts 19 bars from the luminous conclusion.    Just as convincing was the following G minor piece which Raineri infused with impetus and urgency.   Apart from a robust delivery of the penultimate bar’s E flat, the benign F Major prelude maintained the pianist’s success with those happier components of the collection.   And the final D minor prelude was invested with just enough fire, only a few mishaps ruffling the surface, like the missing top F to the first upward-rushing 3-octave scale and a too-careful approach to the climactic two bars of descending chromatic thirds in the right hand.

As a whole, nevertheless, the performance of these challenging preludes, great-  and small-scale sitting cheek by jowl, made for a welcome display of Raineri’s abilities in orthodox repertoire where historic performances are easy to find and compare.   As with each of the few times I’ve heard the Preludes live, some parts capture the attention and imagination more wholly than others.   Yet this young musician has his own specific insights and interpretative mannerisms, more than enough to have made this experience well worthwhile.

Australian composer Christopher Dench composed his passing bells, day for Raineri’s festival,   It’s a furthering (improvement on? elaboration to?) of an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night: planctus for piano solo.   The bells being referred to are those that denote the monastic prayer times first established in the Middle Ages and now (post-Vatican II) settled into a series of major and minor observances: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  The original work lasted for about 12 minutes under the hands of its first performer and commissioner/dedicatee, Marilyn Nonken.  This later reincarnation is much longer.

Its operating procedure drenches the listener in washes across the piano’s sound spectrum, so the score probably operates on the same principle as the first work where the pianist has to deal with three or even four staves to help both composer and interpreter keep the various tintinnabulation spectra discrete.   As you’d anticipate, bell sounds dominate the proffered sound-world with forays into plainchant – well, melodic material that hovered around a limited range of notes.

The initial impression of chord clusters and repeated single notes persisted for some time; all very suggestive and peaceful, until the inevitable eruption into vehemence.   Dench is not only concerned with the ecclesiastical hours and bells but also with the modern age, viewing both the Middle Ages and our times as ‘catastrophic’.   So this music is both pictorial and intellectual; you can take the bells as invitations to prayer or as funeral knells, the explosions standing in for former times’ trebuchets and modern heat-seeking missiles – the composer leaves you to make what order of it you will.   But he overtaxes minds as feeble as mine with several promises of resolution that abruptly explode into further action, a faux leave-things-hanging device that is unnerving and irritating by turns.   You’re left feeling, as with so much of Dench’s products, that you’ve lost the plot along the way   –  or that you never had much of a handle on it in the first place.  For all that, Raineri’s performance sounded convincing, this performer quite at home with the music’s precise demands in dynamic and articulation.

The night finished in Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which gave us much less arcane matter to deal with.   The Argentinian master’s opening Allegro marcato engaged the listener with its pounding, massive full chords in quick succession and a construct of irregular metre to keep you counting, but the effect was of a studied brutality – like a tyro having his way with Bartok’s Allegro barbaro.    The neo-scherzo, a Berg-reminiscent (only in its title) Presto misterioso, gave welcome relief, even if the flirtations with twelve-tone composition methods appeared superficial, and Raineri kept up the initial muffled ambience for some time without much variety.

As far as I can see, an interpreter is left to his/her own pedalling resources in the central pages of the Adagio and this performer took advantage of that liberty with some substantial clashing resonances to brighten up an uninspired movement that whips itself into a frenzy of appassionato excitement before going back to single-note taws.   The Variaciones concertantes-reminiscent finale with its 9/8–alternating-6/16 time signatures pleased for the pianist’s attempts to preserve an initial bass-heavy onrush, but he had to insert a few caesurae, presumably to gather strength for upcoming challenges.   Still, the driving marcatissimo final pages brought this whole enterprise  –  sonata, recital, festival  –  to a rousing conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s not be gentlemen all the time

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills

Friday December 13

 

Henderson

                                                       Jonathan Henderson

All of the conversations in this recital involved Alex Raineri, the young pianist who is artistic director and factotum of this welcome festival – a series of events being mounted across Brisbane in these musically fallow months of the year.  On this sweaty night – not the best for seeking out an unfamiliar destination by public transport –  Raineri presented and supported two guests: flautist Jonathan Henderson and cellist Oliver Scott.  He also found room for a familiar monologue but the night’s three duos gave us more satisfying material in the abstract:  two of them were unexplored ground  .  .  .  well, they were for me.

The Old Museum Building, as far as I could investigate its interstices, has at least two spaces more or less suitable for music-making.  Raineri set up operations in the smaller of the building’s two front-of-house rooms; its proportions are a tad too spacious for two-person chamber music works and there are wall drapes completely covering three of the walls which  deprive performers of a fair amount of resonance.  On the other side of the ledger, the building has uncovered wooden floor which serves as a slight form of compensation.   But the Primrose Potter Salon it is not.

Scott and Raineri began Friday’s program with Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, written about the time of the first two piano concertos when the composer was 21.  It’s a patchy piece to hear, if structurally coherent and self-referential throughout, with flamboyance sitting alongside gnomic lyricism, and its unsettling expressive moves found a reflection in this performance where the cello was given to self-effacement, North putting much emphasis on shaping his notes with care rather than pushing his line to compete with a bordering-on-over-written piano part.  Raineri held back in this sequence of dialogues with courteous restraint, matching his dynamic to that of his partner.

But the further the musicians got into this neglected score, the more you felt the need for a more full-bodied string sound.  A pizzicato-rich piu animato interlude that succeeds the opening declamatory pages came over with more shadows and delicacy than it needed, lacking the bite that cuts through, as in those sforzando punches at the end of each two-bar phrase in the cello part, and deficient in a dramatic power that infuses this segment, rising to a climax in a high G flat that needed to roar out to be worth the journey.   Still, both players found a convincing brooding quality during the descent into silence across the final Allegro tranquillo pages where the instrumental output came into welcome balance.

Raineri then performed Debussy’s Suite bergamasque with a tendency to lots of washes, thanks to a heavy use of the sustaining pedal.   Mind you, to his credit – or possibly Prokofiev’s – I didn’t realise until the opening flourish of Debussy’s Prelude that one of the Yamaha piano’s lower notes was out of tune; not too much of a surprise, given the sub-tropical atmospheric conditions.  The executant’s search for textural richness got in the way again during the following Menuet, notably in the chord work that starts at bar 18 which needed a more detached attack, as did its reminiscence at the change back to A minor near the movement’s end.

Clair de lune passed along well enough, although its popularity and familiarity meant that the three errors that popped up in the bass, including one in the arpeggios near the end, acquired undue prominence.  Making up for this, Raineri’s account of the concluding Passepied proved to be the best part of this reading with a deft balance between the initial sprightliness and the lush melancholy that obtains across the piece’s length.   As a whole, this suite’s interpretation veered towards hefty Romanticism which is understandable and not uncommon, even if some of us might have preferred a less blowsy sound palette.

With Henderson, Raineri brought Pierre Sancan‘s Flute Sonatine to our attention and we owe both musicians many thanks for their efforts.   This was a fine dialogue demonstration, not least for Henderson’s remarkable stamina, particularly in some long sentences during the first movement Moderato.   A distraction from the high standard of execution came in a piano cadenza during the following Andante espressivo when some top register piano notes came across as slightly off-pitch, but the players worked very well as a combination in terms of reflecting each other’s mode of attack and dynamic interchanges.   For all their steadiness of delivery, you still got a sense that the interpretation was hard won, as if the players themselves saw it as a series of hurdles.  I’d like to hear them take on this work again after a few more public performances of it under their respective belts.

After a lengthy interval, Scott and Raineri regrouped for an essay on Rachmaninov’s solitary duo sonata, the assured G minor that is a gift for both performers.   Here was a competent reading of the composer’s final chamber work, during which the pianist displayed occasional outbursts of vitality and bite while Scott seemed unable to find any sustained vein of turmoil in what is a pretty volatile if melody-rich score.  Assuredly, much of the first movement asks for subterranean murmurings from both players but Rachmaninov also requires some balancing powerful explosions; for example, when emerging into the second subject’s recapitulation.   Yet the general approach from Scott was unrelieved sotto voce; while nobody can expect the equivalent of Rostropovich’s or Tortellier’s powerful right arm from every cellist, you’d at least like an energetic crunch or two along the way, particularly when chains of octaves are involved.

During the Allegro scherzando, both players made a fine showing in the Meno mosso trio sections but the rollicking nature of the main theme’s downward scale movement escaped them  –   to my mind, because of a realization of Rachmaninov’s pianissimo markings as more muted than they needed to be.  You play them softly, for sure, but there’s also an obligation to give them a hugger-mugger martellato kick.

Both players showed signs of real engagement, a true dialogue, in the ravishing E flat Andante which is just not long enough to relish fully because the composer pulls up stakes after a mere four pages.   Here was the most persuasive collaboration heard on this night from the pair, their integration across the long middle section where triplets overtake both parts proving an unexpected delight for its mastery of neatly interweaving focal material.   Unfortunately, the Allegro mosso finale disappointed because of the underplayed rhythmic sweep that carries this movement forward, as well as an absence of enunciative sparks.  Instead, the work was presented as a homogeneous narrative; even that touching D Major second subject which should throb with eloquence suffered from a bland delineation.

In fact, this set of pages summed up the cello/piano collaborative effort across the program with Raineri holding back, tamping down his explosions unless they happened to be abrupt solos like the three massive allargandi bars that crop up during the movement’s urgent progress.   In the end, you could appreciate the interpretation’s promise: there’s a satisfying reading somewhere in there.  But Scott needs to escape the continual restraint in sonorous output under which he operates; it just won’t work in emotionally gripping music like this.   Raineri would then make a greater impact, unconstrained and free to surge through this sonata without blinkers.