Retrospective, but on the move

UNCOVERED GROUND

Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MD 3456

The dominating sounds in this collection of music come from the clarinets of Jason Noble. This musician appears in the first and last pieces recorded; a pity that I know nothing about him or his work but at the end he might just as well be an old friend, since his voices shine out in 8 out of the 10 tracks. Still, I don’t know anything of Felicity Wilcox’s music either, possibly because she has spent much of her creative life so far connected to film and theatre and is also linked to Sydney’s musical life and performing artists. Mind you, such a classification is based pretty much on this recording and the biographical details supplied in its accompanying leaflet; as well, I’ve not encountered her name on Melbourne programs or the little I’ve seen of those in Brisbane.

Her review of her own chamber music begins with People of this Place, a construct for solo bass clarinet that uses many sound-production techniques that became current in the 1960s. Wilcox has an affinity with and respect for the Aboriginal people of this country and parts of this piece resemble corroboree music as well as suggesting the landscape of the continent’s interior – motionless, remote, unadorned – as at the opening when the blown overtones suggest the didjeridu. In fact, the ‘worked-out’ pieces of the work have less interest than these colourful segments. Still, you can see how Wilcox is attempting to manage two separate systems of music-making and certain passages are tellingly effective – but mainly because the Aboriginal element predominates, as at about the 3’30” to 4’40” segment.

The CD’s title work constitutes another kind of fusion – no, that’s not the right word but it’s as close as this limited brain can get. The ground is a bass that Wilcox supplies herself but it’s not heard in its pristine form until near the end – rather like Britten’s lute piece Nocturnal. A double commission from the Sydney ensembles Offspring and Ironwood, its instrumentation is mixed: three Baroque strings from the latter group and violin, flutes, bass clarinet, percussion and piano from the contemporary experts. Wilcox works through juxtapositions of orthodox and adventurous, the work’s body a series of duets – modern and Baroque violins (Liisa Pallandi and Matthew Greco), viola and alto flute (Nicole Forsyth and Lamorna Nightingale), bass clarinet and cello (Noble and Daniel Yeadon), with prepared and normal piano (Benjamin Kopp) occupying the same sound-space; all the while, Offspring founder Claire Edwardes generating a percussion commentary. Mind you, it’s not as compartmentalised as this sounds with enough subsidiary action going on to disrupt any suggestions of a purely binary sound-spectrum.

The final statement – for the three Ironwood strings, I think (no vibrato) – is remarkably well achieved, rising smoothly out of the angular processes that come before. You’d need a full score to work out how Wilcox achieves her ends; after several hearings, you are left admiring a rich tapestry rooted in a baroque language from the first bars but which moves rapidly to a contemporary sound-field and back again. For those of us who have doubts about some hybrid sitting uncomfortably on a fence, or leaping awkwardly backwards and forwards across it, Uncovered Ground impresses for its lucid transitions. As well, the composer is blessed with sympathetic interpreters, notably in those sinewy duets.

Following this major score, we embark on the first of four (five?) tracks from Gouttes d’un sang etranger, Wilcox’s exercises in metamorphosis on parts of Marais’ Suitte d’un gout etranger. My first problem is that Wilcox’s initial piece is called Tambourin, yet that name is missing from the Marais collection of 33 pieces; I’ve tried several CDs and scores but this particular piece keeps its mysteries. In Wilcox’s novel format, Noble and Yeadon collaborate although the cellist has little to do but provide an octave drone on D while the woodwind plays a discernible. four-square melody with flights into melismata. All smoothly accomplished, sophisticatedly brooding and hence the complete opposite to any other tambourin I’ve come across.

A more experimental piece comes next with Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude). Here, Wilcox takes the initial version of her Marais reworking (No. 10 in the original suite) – a duet for viola da gamba (Anthea Cottee) and tenor saxophone (Nathan Henshaw) – and reverses it, with extra processing thrown into the mix. Not much happens beyond a gentle rumbling on several levels. It’s suggestive of Atmospheres but there’s only one. Immediately following is a clear (i.e. non-electronic and played forward) version of Wilcox/Marais’ Le Tourbillon, this time for clarinet (Noble) and baroque cello (Yeadon) where the performers oscillate in the spotlight; sometimes producing clear-cut Marais, more often following Wilcox’s processing of the original whirlwind musical imagery. Both Tourbillon constructs are brief and, while avoiding the pit of whimsical obscurity, are hard not to take at face value as diverting bagatelles.

The longest track on this CD, Vivre sa vie, composer’s cut, is a re-appraisal of Godard‘s 1962 film which was scored by Michel Legrand. Its 12 scenes provide Wilcox with a rough framework, inside which she gives the film’s heroine, Nana Kleinfrankenheim, a voice through Nightingale’s alto flute while Nana’s men – Paul, Raoul, the philosopher, the young man – all speak in the scenario through the bass clarinet (Noble). As well, Edwardes manages a percussion part, Kopp a subtle keyboard contribution. Now Wilcox makes it clear that this accompaniment to a film is a shorter effort than that of Legrand; Godard’s film is 105 minutes long, Wilcox’s suite 15′ 32″. However, I’m sure that a familiarity with Vivre sa vie would help immeasurably in understanding the music’s movement. But what if you’re not prepared to put in the time, no matter how worthy the exercise? It’s a conundrum at least as old as Alexander Nevsky; Prokofiev’s score is a masterpiece of sound painting against which the Eisenstein film can strike you as unnecessary, e.g. the Battle on the Ice.

You’d be engaging in a frustrating exercise if you focus on Wilcox’s product as a strict parallel to Godard’s twelve scenes-with-prefaces. For one thing, this new begleitungsmusik appears to begin with the film’s third scene where the heroine attends a screening of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; Wilcox uses her own slow hymn-suggestive sequence later in her collection. Still, it could be a game for Godard aficionados in trying to match various musical episodes to the film’s narrative; both are episodic and structurally discrete (or so I gather from descriptions of Vivre sa vie). To its credit, the music walks a fine line in mood construction, and the identification game would probably be easier for aficionados when taking into account Wilcox’s efforts to mimic the cadences of the film’s dialogue in her flute/clarinet duets/exchanges.

After this substantial interlude, we rejoin the Marais experiment with La Reveuse, No. 28 in the Suitte but here transformed electronically into La Reveuse – Coda in which Henshaw’s tenor saxophone performance of Wilcox’s mutation is played backwards, with some pedal-work from Cottee’s gamba; then the last third of the piece is given over to Noble playing solo the Marais piece’s coda (did it have one?) straight – well, as straight as Wilcox has contrived it. As with the former electronic effort (Track 4), the results are softly undulating, deliberately non-specific nd atmospherically dour, this last also to be found in Noble’s single line contribution.

SON-ombra, Wilcox’s String Quartet No. 1, is a two-movement score; its first part is to do with sound, the second moves into the shadows – as you might have predicted. Put in simple terms, the movements offer direct speaking, then inferences and shadows. OK: here we get the solid stuff from an ensemble I’ve not come across before: the Sydney Art Quartet comprising violins Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and Anna Albert, viola Andrew Jezek, cello/founder James Beck. I know the first of these musicians from the times he has put in at the Australian National Academy of Music, then with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and, more recently, the Flinders Quartet; the other three quartet members are new names to me. Across the work’s duration, you hear a good many sound-production exercises put into effect in a vocabulary that is assertive and contemporary, even if the employment of glissandi gets a touch predictable. It’s above all a music of effects, the players able to encourage their inner taste for expressive hyperbole but not at the expense of sense.

Alone among the performances on this CD, this track is a live performance, recorded at Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in late February 2018. Does the piece contribute to the historical development of the string quartet as a compositional entity? You can’t really judge by one movement alone but these SON pages offer reassurance of intent in their dogged pursuit of the recherche with an infectious and energetic drive accompanied by frequent success in maintaining attention by several unexpected strokes.

There’s a reversion to the Marais connection with Fragments I-IV which serve as side-dishes in the progress of Wilcox’s Gouttes. Slight scraps, gleaned from the French composer’s work, are shared between Noble and Yeadon but modulated and transmuted by Wilcox, the third of these electronic manipulations after Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude) and La Reveuse – Coda. My limited research facilities inform me that this piece was originally written for gamba (Cottee) and soprano saxophone (Henshaw); indeed, these two musicians are acknowledged in the CD’s booklet as participants in the ‘electronic section’ of this track. To my ears, their work is undetectably fused with the two live performers, except towards the end of the sequence where the textural manipulation becomes blatant. In their original shape, each Fragment lasts 3 minutes; this compendium of the four stretches to about 2/3rds of that length. In spite of expectations – of disparate flimsies, I suppose – the total effect is smooth and even, ephemeral rather than confrontationally gnomic.

To end, Wilcox presents Falling, the second movement of her variable trio Snow. In this performance we hear Noble and cellist Freya Schack-Arnott, both of whom assisted at the complete work’s 2016 premiere; the pianist here is Wilcox herself. What is falling is obvious, and it does so with mesmerising effect as the three instruments follow a repetitious sequence that comes close to a chaconne. The effect is placid enough, highly predictable after the first 30 seconds with only a short-lived mini-acceleration in mid-stream to brighten the path (F minor?) of this painless but bland essay.

This disc displays the work of a talented composer, one happy to operate in a generally well-trodden harmonic and melodic framework – with exceptions where a more ambitious and contemporary prospect is in plain view. What surprises me most is that the various tracks are not representative of the composer’s latest products; the Gouttes date from 2014, Uncovered Ground from 2015, People of this Place and Falling from 2016, Vivre sa vie from 2017 and the string quartet movement – the CD’s most original sequence – was written in 2018. This last shows Wilcox in a very different light to nearly everything else to be heard here and I, for one, would welcome more of the adventurous spirit promised in such material.

No marriage impediments here

PIERS LANE & ENSEMBLE Q STRING QUARTET

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Thursday October 7, 2021

(L to R) Anne Horton, Imants Larsens, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Trish Dean, Piers Lane

Yet again, a professional performer has had to cut his pandemic cloth to suit prevailing circumstances. Expatriate pianist Piers Lane was all set to tour the country for Musica Viva in collaboration with the Sydney-based Goldner String Quartet. Lockdown put an end to that organizational fantasy but Lane did get to exercise his craft in the rarefied double-doughnut purity of a city very familiar to him. As substitute for the Goldners came a quartet made up of Ensemble Q members: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. I’m not sure how far back Yoshimoto’s relationship with the Ensemble stretches prior to her recent assumption of the co-concertmaster position with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, but she slotted in ideally with her colleagues on this night, heading a highly persuasive reading of Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 – a work with which this group has had experience already in 2021.

In this reading, you were immediately inveigled into the composer’s unique sound world by the rapid sul tasto pattern-work from Horton and Larsens that, despite its harmonic distress on paper, gently backgrounded an excellently spun at-the-double-octave duet from Yoshimoto and Dean; the atmosphere a delicate web up to the punchy jump to forte at bar 28 where you realize just how aggressive yet disciplined Szymanowski’s counterpoint can be. While the players coped with the movement’s central matter, you were impressed by the congruent ensemble work, each attack finely slotted into position to sustain the dissonant argument. As one simply effective instance, it was hard to go past the lead back to the first subject, a duet for both violins between bars 60 and 67 that could have come from one instrument.

Yet again, Yoshimoto demonstrated her chamber music insights, leading from the front; not carrying her colleagues but heading the enterprise without hogging the limelight, as heard in the whispered final two bars’ close to a benevolent G Major cadence with plagal suggestions.

Mutes off for the second movement Vivace where aggression oscillates with languor and this group kept the prize in constant sight: making formal sense of the piece’s abrupt turns from rapidity to calando and sostenuto with a meno mosso or two along the way, Here also you could admire the soaring power of Yoshimoto’s high register between bars 194 and 205, mounted against rhythmically disjunct pizzicati from all other lines. As the slow last movement opened, Horton’s exposed line came across as clumsy, more in outline than pitching, even if order came quickly on the heels of Larsens’ arrival in the canon. All four musicians found a rich and eloquent vein from the bar 21 Doppio movimento point, the atmosphere rising to very aggressive very quickly after the pivotal Moderato compression of argument, preceded by a delicious pair of brief affretando passages in bars 45 and 47.

Yoshimoto displayed her command of idiom and linear crafting just as much in these pages as earlier in the quartet, sharing the honours with Horton in a downward spiralling duet from bar 14 on and giving room for some penetrating viola exposures, Larsens owning a fine and forward tenor voice of exceptional and distinctive character. But the group played with exemplary control and passion throughout the work’s precipitate last moments – no scraping, no line over-prominent, the timbral placement rich and ardent.

Lane then appeared for a solo, shedding light on Lili Boulanger’s Theme et variations which the young composer eventually finished writing in 1914. It’s not a piece that has hit a posthumous big time, but, as Lane pointed out, the work isn’t a significant one – except as a bump along Boulanger’s career-path trajectory. In this score, she delivered exactly what she nominated: this is one of the most lucid, even plain-speaking set of variants you’ll come across, especially in a 20th century context. The only place where the theme becomes difficult to pick out is during Variation 7, pages Boulanger describes as Theme totalement modifie: the time signature changes and the theme gains some extra feet in its second half.

This reading emphasized the work’s sombre C minor character, Lane giving loads of sustained resonance to the first Theme a la basse and preserved the atmosphere through No. 2 Sur la tete du theme and later in No. 4 La basse et le surtout. Fortunately, the account of No. 6 Theme modifie a la partie superieure proved a welcome change of texture, if not scene, with its rippling underpinning layers of demi- and semiquaver figuration. But the dour character returns all too soon, and in spades for the final Theme a la basse where the final stretch from bar 141 to 148 is an aural sinking away to nothing – no hope, no promise, eventually no movement. All right. Thanks to Lane for dusting this piece off but I suspect its prevailing post-Brahmsian thickness of texture and reliance on harmonic shifts almost exclusively for interest will work against its proliferation on recital schedules.

Both parties, Ensemble Q and Lane, came together for the great Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, their collaboration resulting in a performance of warm conviction and coherence. Lane kept very little back dynamically, trusting that the quartet could hold its own; a confidence that was almost universally justified except for those passages of grandiose piano striding in tandem with the strings. What sprang out from the performance early on was the strength of Larsens’ contribution, as at bar 27 and his elegant melodic shaping between bars 55 and 58. Having chosen not to repeat the exposition, the ensemble worked with polished sensitivity through the mainly subterranean development to the last segment which was peppered with excellent passages like the duet for Yoshimoto and Larsens from bar 230: one of the performance’s memorable flashes of excellence.

It wasn’t just a case of balancing the piano’s heavy contributions. At the recapitulation in particular, where the action is wrenchingly powerful, you heard an ensemble in ideal balance where each line could be discerned, even Dean’s mirroring of Lane’s bass. Further, the players seized with passion on those moments of unstoppable affirmation, like the burst into D flat Major at bar 286 and the subsequent arpeggio feast till the end, and hurled them out to formidable effect.

After the storm of that opening Allegro, Brahms’ following Andante is an emotional balm, loaded with melting solos and duets, as when the piano eventually lays off at bars 25/26; Horton urging out a melody line of refined sweetness, then combining with Larsens for an exemplary unison octave passage, chiefly of triplets, that emerges and recedes into soft meanderings – which might well be the prime characteristic of these pages. Dean stayed just the right side of overbearing in her lengthy lyrical duet with Yoshimoto beginning at bar 83 and persisting with some interruptions until bar 117 when the composer lets his material collapse in on itself for a hushed, benevolent conclusion.

Still, there’s no getting away from Lane’s dominance in this movement, opening with a carefully poised, bass-rich statement that returned to intensely moving effect at bar 75, those parallel 3rds murmured over with lapidary care. A turn of the page showed us a different approach in the vital Scherzo, the pianist taking off the gloves for exhilarations like the fortissimo explosion for everyone at bar 57 and (my favourite) those B flat oscillations between keyboard and strings across bars 100-109, followed by an extension of the same pattern at bar 158: splendidly compelling in its negotiation here. While the attack remained dogged in the movement’s Trio, pianist and strings ladled on the lyricism across the first two of its three pages, the Scherzo repeat an active powerhouse to be savoured right up to its rough-hewn end.

While we can all appreciate the craft of this work’s Sostenuto/Allegro finale, the working-out comes as a let-down after the satisfying emotional splaying of its precedents, the whole verging on disappointing with the rather whiney theme brought into play at the bar 94’s un pochettino piu animato. However, that’s a story for another decade and you had to appreciate the stamina of this ensemble which followed the composer’s jumps and transformations with assiduous zeal. Once again, you were able to appreciate Lane’s consideration, notably at places where the competition is fragilely placed, like the triplet-heavy stretch from bar 137 through to bar 159 where the piano has a reinforced top line and a potentially thunderous left-hand counterpoint. As in the first movement, the interpretation held a consistency of outline, the return of main themes en clair impressing as organically achieved – which is the formidable gift and problem of developing variation.

Speaking of stamina, that quality shone out keenly in the solid (150 bars!) coda to this finale, pages where the pace is furious and the players’ negotiation skills are tested over and over, especially those of the pianist who is involved in a juxtaposition of elements that bring to mind the inbuilt energy of the composer’s piano concertos. Lane missed the company of his Goldner allies, with whom he has made at least 8 recordings: he told us so. But I don’t believe any of us could find fault with the Ensemble Q players; rather, this night opened my eyes and ears to the existence of a local string quartet of impressive accomplishment.

No blush of shame to these cheeks of modesty

MYTHOLOGY OF NAKED FLESH

Brisbane Music Festival

Sunday October 3, 2021

Katie Stenzel

Before going any further, I have to say how impressive the musical elements of this farrago turned out to be. In essence, here was a duo recital with a cornucopia of accoutrements. Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri engaged with soprano Katie Stenzel in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, the latter a tour de force from both performers, not just the singer. Raineri also performed two piano solos: Scriabin’s Vers la flamme and his own arrangement of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome – actually, it seemed to me to include a bit more than the dance alone.

The odd program constituent came in a world premiere: Australian writer Alex Turley‘s Piano Flesh XXX in which Raineri shared the spotlight with actor Matthew Connell. As things turned out, not so much a spotlight as a split-screen exposure with the pianist working in Brisbane, the actor in Melbourne and – as seems to be the norm these days – never the twain did meet . . . not for this piece, anyway. As you might have expected, Turley’s segment of the program was the hardest to interpret; an arcane gesture-laden performance from both artists made even more puzzling when a scrap from Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean emerged out of nowhere and went back all too quickly into the ether.

Thrilling the pedants among us no end, Stenzel proved to be a model of clarity for most of the Britten songs; an achievement to be treasured when you listen to some of the available readings from better-known artists who think that ‘cabaret’ is a synonym for ‘slovenly’. The soprano observed the correct pitches and triplets throughout Tell me the truth about love, giving us accurate chromatic slippages and investing the song with a personality in each of its three stanzas. The following Calypso impressed for its crescendo and accelerando motions and the security of a few sustained top notes in a work that operates for much of the time in a low-ish register. During Johnny, I missed the vocal portamento at the end of the Charity Matinee Ball stanza and, as in many another execution, Stenzel’s below-the-staff notes in Auden’s final stanza tended to disappear while the final note (F?) lacked definition. On the other hand, Funeral blues succeeded on every level, here treated as an ascendant threnody with a defiant, negative finish of impressive power, not forgetting Raineri’s telling give-way-to-none under- and over-pinning.

For the Scriabin poem, Raineri’s preliminary address proposed an erotic subtext; along with the composer’s intended universal conflagration towards which we are all hurtling, you might also find a more personal interpretation in which the short work illustrates a drive towards orgasm. Good luck with that. I was happy to revel in the pianist’s splendid communication of direction and coherence in a score that can degenerate into unabashed flamboyance. Here, the eventual employment of double-note and three-against-one note trills was subsumed into the piece’s dramatic fabric; if I couldn’t rise to the occasion and find a sexual thread, I was able to appreciate the heightening of both tension and fabric as the apocalypse broke out.

Elgar Howarth, the British musician who conducted the premiere of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, made arrangements of three of that work’s arias for the Chief of the Gepopo (Secret Political Police), who is trying to warn of an impending disaster but can only produce meaningless vocalisms. One of Howarth’s reductions was for voice and piano; I haven’t been able to trace it, so have little informative to report about this rendition. Further, the two participants took on characters that I can’t find in the opera: Stenzel (in overalls) as Harley Quinn (Harlequin) and Raineri a punk-of-sorts. They performed in front of a pixilated backdrop for most of the time but the arias were punctuated by abrupt shots of the participants alone, Raineri vocalising sometimes as much as Stenzel. You’d be going to find much that made sense here as the exclamations and expostulations flew thick and fast but the interweaving of lines and simultaneity of attack were carried out with excellent skill.

Turley’s piece saw Raineri spend much of his time inside the piano, working on the strings with his hands and using at least one over-sized drum stick with a soft head. Prior to the sounds, we had a mimed approach to the piano, an opening of the keyboard, the change from inside the instrument to orthodox sound production via the keyboard, and what looked like a farewell caress that might have been fetishistic – one of the ‘amazing possibilities’ that the pianist referred to in his introduction. Connell, as far as I could tell, made no sounds at all but attitudinized semi-seductively throughout the work’s four parts.

Then came the Seven Veils finale, executed with high brilliance and an object lesson in transferring a sumptuously colourful orchestral fabric to fit a piano’s limitations. Above his skill in negotiating Strauss’s harmonic vagaries, Raineri fulfilled the essential task and made a convincing dance of it all, complete with the expected curvets and wayward darting forward and then receding with a satisfying sense of balance. Indeed, the performance impressed most when you simply shut your eyes and enjoyed the sonorities rather than looking at the extra-musical element of this concluding gambit.

What Raineri attempted in this Strauss work, he said, was to offer an exercise in subversion. In the opera, the heroine strips herself to nudity; here, Raineri did the same, taking off a seven-part black costume, devised by Joel Dunkley, at various points in his performance. Nothing wrong with that exercise in the abstract but the realization was another thing. It would have been better to have Raineri’s clothes taken off him, in similar style to many productions of the opera where the heroine gets a helping hand or six. As it was, the undressing points were awkward; the final rapid removal of a pair of black briefs suggested nothing so much as misplaced modesty in a change-room. As well, it’s probably advisable to have some reason to take off your clothes; to my vulgar way of thinking, the body has to live up to the music. While I admire Raineri’s pianism mightily, his physique is slight and undeveloped in terms of muscle and tone, as well as in matching Strauss’s whirling score Still, this was probably part of the projected sapping away at both musical and situational parameters in the work.

Something similar came through in the Turley enterprise. In the Melbourne/Connell screen, the actor appeared in facial close-up, looking in to the camera with a narcissistic self-awareness. Eventually, it was revealed that he was sitting on a bed, dressed in a bunny costume which he slowly took off to display his torso. The process struck me as little more than a pale imitation of striptease; Connell seemed to be wearing a female wig as well as the forced smile that typifies this entertainment. But, for all the ambisexual suggestions from Melbourne and the Brisbane intimations of the piano-as-sexual-substitute, you found nothing in the presentation that raised a frisson of eroticism: we had a piano, we had a bit of flesh, but the triple X promise needed the input of a sympathetic and daring dramaturge.

With the Ligeti, I believe that most of us would have been distracted or titillated by the visual dickering provided by Jai Farrell which reflected the quick-fire musical content of Ligeti’s arias and superimposed a Dadaistic visual complement. Raineri referred to ‘energy of a sexual nature’ that could be found in these pages, an observation which might have been a distinct possibility although, viewed from my vague memories of sexual energy, this experience proposed a kind of benign phantasmagoria projecting a wealth of energy from both executants but not much that would strike you as sexual – rather the opposite, in fact. Possibly the pianist was referring to the mutual sparks that the performers struck off each other but those appeared to be entirely a matter of split-second timing . . . which, to be fair, has a definite relevance to sexuality.

While Raineri worked through the Scriabin work, we were offered some visual stimuli from Eljo Agenbach who began with a black screen, a quasi-human-shaped flame appearing at bars 27/28, transforming into a hand holding the flame, before a full-screen shot of a fire spread across the horizon, like part of those immense bushfires in our Black Summer, the focus moving closer to the white centre of the conflagration as Raineri took us to the brink. Sorry: that’s exactly how I took the work – as illustrative of the physical world rather than proposing an erotic vision; mainly this was due to the final scene from Agenbach’s visual commentary which moved us straight into the composer’s definite vision of the world collapsing into fire.

Easiest on this program to take in without caveats, Farrell’s contribution to the Britten songs came mainly through different backdrops for each one: an up-market bar for Tell me the truth about love with Raineri in shirtsleeves and waistcoat while Stenzel stood at the piano’s end like a real-deal chantoozy; a colourful city-road at night for Calypso; a graveyard for Funeral blues with Stenzel sporting a face-veil. All right: this was another instance of over-egging the pudding, yet the results worked surprisingly well, giving us four contrasting scenas with limited musical materiel.

From the way Raineri introduced each work on this program, particularly the last two for which he asked his online audience to refrain from copying or storing, you might have anticipated something a good deal more visually daring than what actually occurred. You gleaned the impression that the artistic director and his collaborators were intent on breaking boundaries, crashing into a new juxtaposition or junction of revolutionary art forms. That didn’t come to pass. I don’t know about past Brisbane events but for decades I’ve been present at plenty of musical/physical exhibitions in Bourgeois Sin City where boundaries haven’t been stretched: they’ve just disappeared, as in Les Ballets Africains, the Samson et Dalila bacchanale from the Victorian State Opera, visiting dance companies for the Melbourne Arts Festival, Stuart Ringholt’s nude gallery tours.

In sum, such an exercise is not the rarity it once was. Further, I believe that the various premises behind this night’s segments fell between two stools and, in the end, failed to yield much aesthetic illumination for their audience. If anything, the demonstrations of proposed eroticism showed a naivete in the face of physical/sexual reality. That’s not to be lampooned or decried but I don’t think this innocence will lead us anywhere new. Even for this battle-scarred but tolerant concert-goer, Sunday’s recital illustrated the truth of that celebrated maxim: prima la musica e poi la sessualita.

Easy atmospheres

SHADES OF IVORY

Bill Canty

Move Records MCD 605

I can’t honestly admit to knowing anything about Bill Canty; not unexpected, that, as the composer has carved out his career in more popular fields than those I frequent. This CD is a suite of 12 pieces for piano, performed by the composer and using no orthodox piano but rather altered, piano-simulating sounds by means of digital/electronic interference and manipulation. It turns out that the performer/composer is true to his promise and lives up to his descriptors and extract titles. I don’t think there’s much to the whole exercise beyond a satisfaction in arranging sounds into appealing formats. The question is: appealing to whom?

A further problem with this CD pressing is that the tracks that come up on my system are completely unrelated to Canty’s efforts but are entered under the name of Phil Broikos and one of his chef d’oeuvres, A Day in Music. I know what I’m hearing isn’t Broikos because I listened to some of A Day; the things you do for certainty. Anyway, Canty begins with a Fantasia which is a meandering piece of mood music – very euphonious and playing pretty games with arpeggios rolling across the keyboard. It’s all very pleasant and diatonic with bass pedals and a spoonful of upper register tinkling, and it leads straight into Glissade that has a metrically regular Alberti treble with some portamenti between notes, as well as an assortment of downward-heading scales. It starts in the minor and moves to a relieving major about half-way through, but doesn’t stay there long. Dollops of notes are sprinkled across the constant Alberti figure with accompanying bands of sustained bass before we revert to the glissandi/portamenti of the opening and a slowing down.

Immediatelt we are in Rubato land where the continuous quaver figure sustains the forward propulsion but with lots of the promised slowing down and make-up acceleration; a constellation of overheard notes almost meld into a melody, the texture suggestive of extra-terrestrial illustrative music such as you get in programs from NASA or organizations determined to sell you the idea that outer space is benevolent rather than the horrifying chaos we know it to be. But the emphasis is on atmosphere and the one-word titles leave interpretation very open, as you can see in the following Sanctuary. Canty makes reference to the bellbirds in Kew’s Studley Park and you hear plenty of bird-suggestive sounds; not the multi-coloured flourishes of Messiaen but little two-note oscillations piercing a brooding multi-layered backdrop. And that, unfortunately, brings to my mind suggestions of the Picnic at Hanging Rock soundtrack without the interference of Beethoven or pan-pipes.

Then there’s a change of pace as we enter Thirteens which Canty has based on the odd time-signature that opens Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells; all credit to Oldfield for creating a lasting album on his lonesome and all that nonsense but, as I read it, his initial track is in 7/8 which may have some mathematical relationship to 13 but I can’t compute it. As things turn out, a ‘straight’ piano plays the underpinning pattern throughout with superimposed dribbling until about the 3’30” mark where the unusual tempo dissipates and we are left with upward scales and growling bass sound bands. The pattern returns just prior to the turn into Droplets which has a fine imitation of that phenomenon in its treble, something like a cross between a finely-tuned marimba and a glockenspiel tinkling away above the (by now) inevitable bass layers that slowly shift. Here, Canty refers to his ‘fascination with controlled randomness’ – which suggests that he is employing some sort of program. But I found the actual musical progress loaded with extraneous gestures like downward-moving rapid portamenti, again suggestive of documentary soundtracks for visions of the moons of Saturn.

Statement begins with a sort of motive comprising a segmented scale that initially moves up, then down, while around it are shadows, delayed repetitions that offer a nimbus of distortions that have immediate reference to the base material. A sort of mental oasis follows in which nothing solid happens but the atmosphere is packed with soft gamelan-type patterns and fragments of what has been secondary in importance so far. The segmented scale returns, now at a higher pitch but with the same nimbus surrounding it. Trance opens with a repeated note – in stereo – being surrounded by accretions and attempted distractions like a heavy counter-rhythm in open 5ths. The repeated note falls in pitch step-wise, this motion setting the activity level for the surrounding matter; the jazzy 5ths continue to interrupt but most of the piece’s colour comes from swathes of texture that offer continuity of effect rather than variety.

In Rebound, we have a reaction to the bouncing of a ping-pong ball which is aurally depicted in the middle of the customary swathes. Once more, the electronic transformations suggest both the Orient and the extra-terrestrial, although I liked the overlapping bouncing lines. But it passes and we are called into the soundscape of Immersion, where gentle descending scales close down into a subterranean sound-wall with isolated piano notes setting off those various downward slides into the depths. Some upper register washes provide a counter-balance in this slow-moving celebration of stasis that comes to a halt before Lucid comes into view with a reversion to middle-layer Alberti pattern-making. The difference here is that Canty offers a tune in the forefront of his texture. This is unexpected and, while he gives it two or three airings, eventually it is abandoned for arpeggios and atmospherics. However, this ternary piece brings back its continuous quaver underpinning and another version of the melody which is not so striking this time around.

Finally, Canty offers a Toccata which is headed by a ‘straight’ piano line but one surrounded by plenty of echoing effects. Soon enough, a ponderous bass layer emerges before the piano and its overlays and mimicries takes off on a pretty predictable set of excursions that wear out their welcome because of an absence of rhythmic variety, something you won’t find in pretty much every toccata from Buxtehude onward. After some grandiose crescendo work, Canty arrives at an affirmative major key conclusion.

Each of the suite’s movements lasts about 5 minutes but, as indicated, most of them run into each other and sometimes you are hard pressed to find a delimiting point, The same can be said about the internal material of many of the pieces. Canty has a definite idea for each one of them, developing or simply stating and restating an idea to give aural sense to his particular title. Yet you come back to the over-arching question of: what is achieved by this exercise? Much of it is harmonically trite and melodically bereft; apart from Thirteens, you look in vain for rhythmic imagination or challenge. While the composer rings changes on his keyboard with transformations of a piano’s normal sounds, little of what we hear has the distinctive feature of novelty. At the end, it strikes me that this is a music that is not to be subjected to analysis but enjoyed as background to one’s own mental ramblings, or as support for rather trippy visual stimulation. Rather than falling in with the CD’s generation process, I’ve unfortunately taken on the cast of Shakespeare’s Cassius – and I don’t mean lean and hungry.

En ce bordeau ou tenons notre etat

FRENCH TRIPTYCH

Natsuko Yoshimoto & Alex Raineri

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday September 23, 2021

Natsuko Yoshimoto

Not the best week for a French/Australian entente that has become quite a bit less cordiale. While the Prime Minister writhes and wriggles his way round the truth, hoping that aimless meetings will eclipse his bad faith and ineptness, the world – well, the small part of it that’s interested – looks at the sabotaged submarine deal with a mix of surprise and contempt. Not that Francophiles have always been easy to find in the immediate environment. I remember a parish stalwart in Kew coming up after a Sunday service and asking for more Bach for voluntaries, but certainly ‘none of that French stuff’. And teaching the language (badly) for about ten years didn’t make it any more attractive – to me or the students. Of course, it’s a useful tongue to know, as I found out at the Vienna Opera, the market in Monte Carlo, and the back blocks of Melbourne’s Southbank.

But its main use has been to do with French music, of which I’ve heard and played more than is consistent with the bounds of propriety. Knowing something of the exclusivist culture that produced Perotin and Yves Prin helps in both knowing what to expect and learning to exercise tolerance. So this all-French (well, actual and adopted) hour of great violin/piano sonatas served as a refresher course in marvellous achievement and in witnessing two excellent local musicians at work. Mind you, ‘local’ is a loaded term in Yoshimoto’s case; she has been playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the last ten years before coming to Brisbane as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster. Her fellow artist Raineri has been a local resident for some time (forever?), running the peripatetic year-long Brisbane Music Festival since 2018 to fine effect.

On Thursday, working from Opera Queensland’s Studio, these artists opened their innings with the Debussy sonata of 1917 which begins with deceptive simplicity even though wheels are turning at a great rate beneath the placid surface. The work sprang into high relief at a splendid burst of energy with the Appassionato 8 bars before Number 2 in the Durand edition, the executants working with fine collaboration across the piece’s ebbs and flows. Yoshimoto exercised a supple rubato throughout, nowhere better applied than when specified five bars after Number 3, but the partnership rose to an attack both crisp and fierce over the last rhetoric-rich final page. Debussy’s Intermede proved to be packed with high jinks and jerks in an individualistic reading that took some liberties, like the violin’s employment of rubato well before it was called for at Number 3, and again before Number 4; perhaps it’s a personal reading of Meno mosso. As a counterweight, the duo’s pliability from the final au Mouvement direction to the violin’s fading flashes was excellently achieved.

A reversion to the opening movement’s whirling crispness shone out in the hectic Finale, Yoshimoto glancing off her top notes in passage-work with an easy grace. Still, the most impressive facet of the partnership came in their rhythmic congruency across pages that sound effervescent, a cycle of explosions and oases, even though the movement is packed with difficulties in shape-moulding and dynamic harnessing, e.g. Raineri’s active underpinning from Number 3 to the shift at Expressif et soutenu, the whole reaching an exhilarating high point in the final 12 clamorous bars.

Where the violinist tended to push hard in this opening work, coming close to vehement scraping in G-string forte moments, she worked for more purity of output in the following reading of Ravel No. 2, initially during the high melodic outline 6 bars before Number 2. But then, the opening Allegretto holds long passages of lean activity, best exemplified by the placidity obtaining around Number 4. Still, the work also erupts in bursts of excitement, like the long series of shuddering violin demi-semiquavers from Number 9 to Number 11, and the multi-level piano activity that surges in at Number 13 and sets the emotional basis for this movement’s luminous, magical ending.

Yoshimoto made us aware of every note in her pizzicato chords during the Blues, as well as producing some hefty glissandi when she eventually went arco. Raineri impressed for his pointillist polish at the key signature change to F sharp, gradually increasing his heftiness until the movement’s first biting explosion at Number 7. I’m not sure the Gs in both instruments came together at Number 12, but the sul tasto slide of a 7th rounded off the experience with just the right dose of soft salt. A few notes dropped out in the piano’s assault on the Perpetuum mobile, notably when the octave work stopped after Number 5, but this movement is hard-going for both players; even when Ravel pits them against each other in canonic activity, the pace for both remains relentless Yoshimoto demonstrated skill and understatement in her pianissimo low-string mutterings at Number 12 and beyond, and the conclusion was a model combination of discipline and excitement.

When it comes to the Franck sonata, you enter a big league of sorts. The emotional canvas is splayed out in the best Romantic tradition, the form exceptionally satisfying, the virtuosity required highly demanding. Both Yoshimoto and Raineri went for big strokes, even when the dynamic level dropped to minimal, although matters seemed a bit shaky at the opening to the initial Allegretto with a thin-sounding D from the violin in bar 6. But as an early illustration of the expansive style of attack, you only had to wait for Raineri’s largamente solo starting at bar 31 to experience the noble breadth of this reading. Of course, the piano has much of the attention in these pages and this executant made a feast of his three exposed points, at the same time making allowance for Yoshimoto’s smoothness of line, as at bar 71’s dolcissimo.

Both musicians took to the D minor Allegro with obvious relish after the lilting restraint of the sonata’s opening gambit. Raineri tended to treat his energetic main theme flurries beginning at bar 4 in an unexpectedly four-square manner, the rhythm too regular for the material, which might have been a question of beat-emphasis. Speaking of stressing the point, the working from both back to stage 1 that begins at Bar 94 came across with unexpected determination at bar 94; not enough build-up but straight into the dynamic required for bars 96 and 100. At the same time, this urging resulted in several splendid passages, as in the soaring arch from Yoshimoto at bar 172 where also I became aware of the boomingly rich bass notes of Raineri’s Kawai, both executants hurling themselves into the devil-take-the-hindmost presto build-up to the jubilant D Major ending.

Yoshimoto let Franck’s recitatives speak unvarnished in the Recitativo-Fantasia, verging on overkill with some forceful bowing in exposed passages. But this meandering movement enjoyed a voluble airing, particularly in that long build-up from bar 71 to a dramatic climax at bar 105, replicated in the last movement. Many commentators regard this set of pages as the sonata’s high-water mark but the first canon of the final Allegretto still strikes me, after many years, as a musical blessing for the simplicity of its opening and the open-endedness of its resolution. Raineri set a brisk tempo, which I prefer to ladling on the sugar right from the start, even if Yoshimoto showed that she can do just that with a splendid leaning-in entry at bar 52. The stretto that the piano kicked off at bar 87 gave notice of what was coming up but without stealing too much thunder. One of the few errors I encountered in this hothouse maelstrom came in a piano solo at bar 127 when Raineri was involved with the composer’s false-canons on the way to a resolution (of sorts) into that blinding C Major cascade at bar 169.

If anything more needed to be demonstrated, this finale gave illustration after instance of how well these players fed off each other equally effectively in moments of stress and calm. Yes, this sonata lends itself to slathering around the point with lashings of ad lib, real and potential, but here was an interpretation that worked brilliantly in passages of mutual dependence, right up to the jubilant last 21 bars, complete with the minute pause on Yoshimoto’s high E beginning bar 232. This completed a memorable recital – almost ideally secure, insightful, emotionally consistent and a testament to the enduring excellence of French serious musical art which will doubtless endure, no matter what else takes place – like contemporary external boorishness.

Elegant but insubstantial

TWO

The Marais Project

Move Records MCD 617

This brief CD (less than 40 minutes long) sprang out of the pandemic. Planning for 2020, the Marais Project intended to tour Tommie Andersson playing theorbo, guitar and gallichon and Jennifer Eriksson (the organization’s founder) on her trusty viola da gamba. Each would play a set of solos, then come together for a suite by the ensemble’s namesake. Sadly but predictably, the musicians encountered difficulties in getting around the country but, rather than seeing their efforts go to waste, determined to immortalise their labours through the graces of the ever-cooperative Move Records.

So here we are. Andersson’s contributions include Handel’s Sonata for a Musical Clock, arranged for the gallichon (bass lute), three guitar pieces by Jan Antonin Losy, Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica K. 536 (also re-shaped for gallichon), and participation in selections from Marais’ Books II and IV for gamba and continuo. Eriksson matches this with a D minor suite by Jacques Lambert du Buisson, the outer movements of a G Major sonata by Abel, a condensing of Paul Cutlan‘s Sarabande from the composer’s Spinning Forth suite, and the lead role in those Marais selections.

As a bonus, the CD’s final track is an anonymous love-song published in 1703: J’avais cru qu’en vous aymant. This begins with Andersson playing through the plaint solo (I think, on theorbo); Susie Bishop comes out of nowhere to add to the complex, eventually taking up her violin for a rehash of the by-now well-thumbed melody. I don’t know why the Rule of Two was broken but it’s always a pleasure to hear Bishop’s clear vocal timbre brought into play.

The Handel sonata seems to have been a two-movement affair; here, you find an Air and Minuet interposed. The pieces are slight and, despite plenty of repetitions, soon over. None of the writing goes beyond two parts, although the opening Allegro boasts a final full C Major chord. If I report that there’s little to say about any of the four parts, I’m overstating the case. Not even the timbre of Andersson’s gallichon brings a ruffle of interest to the surface.

Not much changes when Eriksson launches into the Lambert du Boisson suite. Some double-stops raise the listener’s eyebrow in the first Prelude, while the following Allemande variation follows a familiar path of one line with some cadential multi-string chords. A sarabande shows more emotional depth and the multi-string writing becomes more pronounced in the second half; the concluding courante is complex in this ambience. But the movements pass very quickly and you have only time enough to experience the movements’ shape; the gamba’s texture is finely spun – but that’s the only impression left, even after a few hearings,

Andersson plays the three guitar pieces expertly enough. The opening Prelude is another single line journey; its successor, an aria, has two independent lines – for a while; the concluding Gavote has a similar format, if quicker in tempo. As with the Handel sonata, these are flimsy constructs, and they would probably have been even more ephemeral if the repeats had been omitted. By contrast, Eriksson engages with only a few repeats and omits the central Allegro in my edition of Abel’s sonata. The performance follows a staid path with the frissons coming through some three- and four-part chords punctuating the concluding Minuet‘s progress.

Cutlan wrote his 2014 Spinning Forth suite in four movements for gamba and harpsichord, one of the commissioners being Eriksson. Its third movement, Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande, has been rewritten as plain Sarabande. This is one of the recording’s longer tracks – the 2nd most substantial, in fact – and I’m not sure how much rewriting has taken place. The first page of the original is the same as this new version, but I assume matters take a more radical turn at that point where the harpsichord enters in the first version. It’s a stately enough progress, very much in keeping with the other gamba content offered here, with the added charm of discordant intervals. Oddly enough, the piece doesn’t strike me as much of a sarabande but more a slow minuet, chiefly (I suppose) because the second beat gets no emphasis, large or small. Nevertheless, Eriksson’s account is full-bodied and sharply etched.

Mozart’s one-page Adagio serves an amiable purpose for its original instrument and Andersson makes a fair case for its movement to the gallichon, although this arrangement means that some of the secondary notes (lines?) go missing and most of the glass harmonica’s fragility of timbre flies out the window. The first repeat is observed; the longer second part of the piece gets a once through..

When it comes to the Marais compendium, the listener is invited into a world of some gravity; at least, at the start with a Prelude of intense grace and eloquence. A sprightly allemande follows; yes, perhaps that’s to oversell it as Eriksson lumbers through it with hefty support from Andersson. The following Air en Vaudeville/MesmeAir double begins with a downward-moving tune that has an irresistible resemblance to Joy to the world! The double is, it seems, a short variation. A sarabande is treated with high distinction, Eriksson’s melody-shaping a pleasure to experience for its supple breadth. But both players treat this brevity with respect and a keen eye for its shape.

Most of the gigues I’ve heard from Marais suites come across as fairly sober affairs, but this one is more buoyant and perky (at moments) than you’d expect. It’s still more of a tramp than a pieds-en-l’air exercise but its heftiness beguiles even to the very definite final chord. A pair of minuets proved more animated than expected, possibly because of the strength of the performers’ downbeats, but both flow past with an excellent demonstration of Eriksson’s talent at dynamic contouring. To finish, a Branle de Village is over very quickly, having just enough time to impress with its sophisticated rugosity.

The last track, that love-song, brings the Marais Project together – sort of. Bishop’s account of the first verse is accompanied only by Andersson; Eriksson then enters for her go at the tune; then all three combine for Verse 2. Bishop contributes her violin for a last instrumental recap – and that’s it. Certainly, this is a delectably melancholy conclusion to the disc and is in itself an argument for more of the same to offer a change of timbre in a collection of brief vignettes, amiable though they may be.

Filling Festival fare

THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 10, 2021

Part of the current Brisbane Festival, this remarkable program demonstrated once again how fortune slips and slides around this continent with irresponsible abandon. Most of us have given up trying to keep a mental grip on which performers are where and what the prospects are of scheduled events going ahead; you just take what you can get and are grateful. Thanks to the premier of Queensland’s desire to keep her state out of lockdown as long as possible (even with the delta virus knocking at our south-eastern portal), much of what is promised here comes to fruition. Unlike what is going on in the southern states where compromise and replacements/deferrals are the new order, Brisbane regularly gets to go to the theatre big-time; for instance, on this Camerata night, a musical was playing in the Lyric Theatre and something else was happening in the Playhouse (I know, because the code-inspectors were on duty at the foot of the staircase). Mind you, at Southbank on Friday evening, everyone inside or out was masked, whether they needed to be or not – such a biddable population.

Brendan Joyce and his 17 string players – 4 firsts, 4 seconds, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses – warmed up with Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia in B minor which enjoyed an enthusiastic run-through, its Allegro exposition repeated and enough energy in the communal tank for a hefty accelerando at the piu presto from bar 352 to the end. Mind you, the actual sound definition proved not as crisp as you get in recorded readings of this work, but Camerata has to cope with the acoustic boom in QPAC’s large hall. Nevertheless, you found a pleasing attention to phrasing in a score that plays its Sturm-und-Drang cards with a tight fist, the energy contained if not constrained.

Joyce then took the solo line in Vaughan Williams‘ The Lark Ascending. He brought in the accepted number for a chamber performance – single woodwind and a horn, with one of the front desk violins doing the triangle tinkles that start four bars before Letter M and last just a few bars after Letter P in the old OUP score (actually, this instrument’s pitch was questionable [aren’t they all?]: the composer notates it as a treble clef B but overtones cruelled that likelihood). More importantly, we heard only part of the piece; Joyce and his forces stopped just before the Allegretto molto tranquillo at Letter R; at least, I think so. At all events, the piece took up from this break at the end of the night to round out a large-scale avian experience.

This was Lembit Beecher‘s composition that gave this particular event its title. Based on a lengthy poem by the Sufi Attar of Nishapur, the work concerns a quest by the world’s birds for their leader, who turns out to be themselves but, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, the covey has to overcome tests in the form of seven valleys before their self-apotheosis. American illustrator Peter Sis contributed the visual element to support this occasion – pictures of various birds, the valleys, and the climactic confrontation with the Mountain of Kaf and self-awareness. As well, he also provided the translation articulated by Brisbane actor and singer Liz Buchanan which introduced the music and followed Movement 1, but then split up the other two movements (which are to be played without a pause, if the composer is any guide). As well, I didn’t have access to a full program but it looked to me as if the first violins were down by a member, according to Beecher’s original requirements.

I’ve nothing to offer about the poetry reading by Buchanan. It was obviously a selection from the original which is packed with allegorical stories and sidelines to illustrate various morals that the central character, the hoopoe bird, inflicts on his swiftly diminishing flock. Beecher starts his score with bird imitations: high brief glissandi and whips of sound, all seemingly individual and as aleatoric in effect as you’d like. The narrative itself probably begins with low pedal notes/chords although the bird imitations last for a considerable time – long enough to convince you that you’re in mid-conference. Just when you wonder if there are any more strings to these bows, the movement becomes concerted and people tend to move in blocks before we are returned to the original chirps.

A poetic interlude as Buchanan outlined the progress across the seven valleys, and we are on to Movement 2 Part A. This has a far more savage ambience. You can still find traces of avian activity but the journey has turned grim; well, it would with so many travellers dying off or leaving the caravan. Beecher inserts fraught unison onslaughts and insistent rhythmic motives that suggest a sort of homophony, albeit a discordant one. You had to admire the Cameratas’ industriousness, particularly in sustaining clouds of fabric with ideal ensemble. But all intensity has to end somewhere and this section concluded with many of the players using sandpaper to generate a gentle stridulating effect as the notated material ceased for the final recitation.

Buchanan gave Sis’s conclusion to the quest for Simorgh and we came to Movement 2 Part B – or what I assume was Movement 3. This proved memorable for a plangent segment involving three violins and one cello, swerving into a series of slow chords in a high register and a final chord that wasn’t quite as uniform as expected; but then, that could have been what the composer wanted. It brought to an end a work which left little in the memory, possibly because of the visual distraction although, after the bird drawings, nothing else in Sis’s pictorial catalogue struck me as mildly interesting. Further, Buchanan’s introduction and interpolations tended to reduce the poet’s remarkable verses to a tale redolent of the nursery, undercutting the sophistication to be gleaned from even a superficial reading of the original.

Then we were back with Vaughan Williams with Joyce continuing an interpretation that, even split as it was, I found most impressive, with only a slight waver early in the piece’s first cadenza. While the solo line delighted for its lack of affectation and its fidelity, the supporting forces also deserved credit, coping well without a conductor, in particular the wind quintet who made only one scatter-gun block entry, possibly at the a tempo after the soloist’s first flight of double-stops after Letter S. As well, the Camerata strings showed an admirable sympathy with the piece, excellent in pursuing the ebb and flow of the longer bursts of tutti and pitching their responses to congruent effect in the colla parte bars.

Would we have enjoyed Beecher’s work more if we’d experienced it in isolation – without interpolated text and without the paintings? Hard to say. Would the audience have reacted with such enthusiasm if the score had not been bookended by the great English composer’s evocative gem, Joyce’s concluding solo a model of restraint and faultless pitching, right to that last splendidly elongated falling-third interval? Maybe; having listened to a ‘straight’ reading from the work’s commissioners, A Far Cry, I have to wonder.

Finally, the new Camerata pre-performance explanatory process is to hand out a sheet with basic performance details, referring patrons to a QR code at the bottom for access to the full program. Which is, of course, a sign of the times, reminiscent of having to scan yourself into every public building you enter. I’ve tried to access the document but something is lacking in both phones I employed, let alone the myriad QR ingress platforms that now sit in my apps stores. I assume that more specific information is to be found at this online repository; as the Gershwin brothers sang, but not for me.

Art songs with insight

MOONLIGHT REFLECTIONS

Stacey Alleaume and Amir Farid

Move Records MCD 613

Now here’s an unapologetic, old-fashioned CD with content suited to a recital from several decades ago – except for some unexpected American interpolations. Soprano Alleaume has succeeded – as far as anyone can these days – with the national company. I can’t recall seeing her in Melbourne Opera Australia productions – but then, in my last years down south, I got to see very few of them. Here she is partnered with the one of our most gifted piano accompanists who has been stranded in his Australian base town, thanks to the world scourge.

Both artists are concerned with some fine music, a track or four of worthy arcana, and a couple of absolute forgettables. Their presentation lasts a little over 52 minutes in all, the longest track a Victor Hugo setting, the shortest an excerpt from Browning’s Pippa passes, both composed by Amy Beach. Some writers feature a few times – two songs each by Puccini, Massenet and Reynaldo Hahn; three from Respighi, with single submissions by Chaminade, Duparc, Frank Bridge, Pietro Cimara and Saint-Saens. Beach has four samples, the CD ending with her Three Browning Songs Op. 44.

Alleaume sings 18 songs – eight French, six Italian, and four English – which is versatile enough, especially if the intention is to hone in on a particular period. This collection’s earliest sample comes from c.1865 in Saint-Saens’ Clair de lune, while the latest is Reynaldo Hahn’s most popular product, A Chloris, dating from 1916. Most of the material was composed between 1888 and 1913 – 15 tracks in total – while the odd man out that misses these parameters (besides the two extremes) is one of the most famous art songs in the repertoire: Duparc’s 1870 L’invitation au voyage.

In a way stressing the basic difference in art-song potentialities, Alleaume and Farid begin with Chaminade’s L’ete, which is succeeded by the Duparc gem. The first is a show-piece, trimmed with decorative short roulades between a swift-moving melody while the piano curvets in support. It’s superficial, showy stuff and the soprano reaches every note with no indication of stress; perhaps the accompaniment might have been crisper but there also you can hear no flaws. With the Baudelaire setting, it seemed to me that both artists were intent on underlining the last word of each stanza because the approach impressed as slow-paced and indulgent. The chanson was devoid of forward motion; any invitation to travel to the Land of Heart’s Desire lacked direction apart from towards the bed and the piano’s restless accompaniment was slowed down to a sensual fluttering. To my mind, the second stanza’s canals were being viewed from indoors, rather than on a vessel bound for Cythera.

Bridge’s setting of Landor’s O that it were so! has a congenial sentiment underpinning its lyrical flow, excellently managed by both artists as they rise to the central climax and soothingly return to the calm of this song’s opening. There’s a worrying moment as both recover from the rallentando after ‘blest’, but the soprano shows her sense of taste by taking the lower alternative in the 6th last bar. Both Puccini songs enjoy sensitive treatment, the phrasing careful and almost all the sung notes ideally centred. Terra e mare holds indicators of the composer’s confidence in setting heavily Romantic lines while Sole e amore is a familiar friend, having provided material for the La Boheme Act 3 quartet when Mimi sings Addio, dolce svegliare. The oddest thing about this piece is the composer’s inclusion of the dedication (?) to be sung in the last bars, as well as the pretty trite lines, possibly by Puccini, that don’t fit with the music, once you remember their use in the opera for an unforgettable scene.

What do you learn from Amy Beach’s setting of Vicor Hugo’s Chanson d’amour? The American writer had a fine ear for the genre, certainly, best demonstrated in the three choruses of this work, throughout which cellist Zoe Knighton joins her long-time collaborator Farid in weaving some lush lines around Alleaume’s far-ranging part. It’s a persuasive piece, particularly for the care that Beach gave to the supporting material and her differentiations between the verses and choruses. Having said that, you won’t find much here that’s harmonically or melodically original but it slots into the then-contemporary French scene quite easily.

Pietro Cimara’s Stornello is an elegant urbanization of a rustic format wherein funsters capped each other’s lines to entertaining effect in accommodating bars/hotels. This one is a love song of some individuality in its verses by Arnaldo Frateili and a lean eloquence in the music which doesn’t range too far; a quiet, melancholy looking back to the first flush of rapturous love and presenting our performers with absolutely no challenges.

Both Hahn songs – L’enamouree and A Chloris – show restraint, probably a tad too much in the latter where a singer can achieve much with careful dynamic shadings and a disciplined employment of vibrato. But both musicians do the composer excellent service, illustrating an emotional insight that you wouldn’t anticipate from a writer who has been denigrated and minimzed for many years. Even the dropping sequences in the vocal part of the first song don’t irritate as much in performance as they do on paper, and Farid is impressively calm with the attention-grabbing accompaniment, complete with Bach-indebted ground bass, to Hahn’s most celebrated chanson.

In the three Respighi songs, Alleaume runs a cleverly contrived gamut of mainly mild emotions while Farid has plenty with which to make accompanists’ hay. Notte sets up a tautly drawn scene where a garden’s nocturnal placidity masks a world of possible despair; both musicians give the work plenty of breathing space, with an excellent transformation at the half-way point where the bass and alto line triplets rise to the surface while both voice and piano left-hand revisit the opening stanza. Nebbie remains constantly menacing and tragic from the start, a fine scena with lots of dramatic vocal material. Farid gave the impression of holding nothing back in an accompaniment that almost continually reinforces the vocal line with massive minim chords. And Contrasto offers a gently rolling allegretto accompaniment to an amiable if completely forgettable vocal contribution, the text offering an elementary premonition of Pierrot Lunaire with the moon weeping while lovers ignore its suffering; a placid piece that seems to present one side and, not living up to its title, omits the other.

It’s hard to fight against the self-centred rhapsody of Hugo’s Etre aime, as the author is so confident in his statements, emotionally flimsy though they may be. Massenet manages to smooth them out into something almost palatable and Alleaume sustains a nice oscillation between restraint and hothouse ecstasy in her account. The composer’s Amoureuse is a different kettle of semi-erotic fish in its somewhat stately apostrophes to the discontented lover, and the vocal and histrionic range is larger. Both performers do very well in maintaining a forward movement, eschewing the temptation to linger over-much in those scrappy bars treating the ante- and penultimate lines of each stanza. But then, this is not a poetry or a music with which I find much sympathy, perhaps because it impresses as being superficial and displaying a Proustian-corkwood insulation of address.

Saint-Saens has no other vocal portal in my experience beyond Samson et Dalila and his Clair de lune comes as an unexpected oddity, chiefly because his setting of Catulle Mendes’ poem is metrically challenging for its interpreters, notably at the start where the melodic line emphasizes a few unimportant syllables. Farid makes agreable work of the asymmetric piano part but the piece is vocally unremarkable and Alleaume is untested to any noticeable degree.

Beach’s settings of Browning begin with The year’s at the spring, and it reflects the optimism of the young girl as she sets out on her walk. The tone is moderately jubilant, necessarily so as it leads to that famous, life-affirming concluding couplet. You couldn’t call it volatile, but the atmosphere is not far from it and Beach was careful to avoid monotony of metre by stretching lines that she considered focal, as well as indulging in textual repetitions and displacements. Much the same happens in Ah, love, but a day where the repetitions seem more pronouncedly self-indulgent, even if this track ranks among the best on the CD. It also reveals an unexpected visitor in violinist Erica Kennedy who spends some of her time following Farid’s top line – but not slavishly so as she enjoys some passages of individual action. Which makes you wonder whether or not this obbligato is kosher; I can’t find it in any edition of these songs. Still, the piece holds a moving transition from F minor to F Major in the plaintive last 13 bars.

A more consistent achievement comes in the final I send my heart up to thee, the opening seven lines from the verse-dialogue In a Gondola. Here, the male lover’s ardour is expressed in a carefully shaped series of phrases that Alleaume treats with fine craft, using the ossia top note when offered except in the last bars where taking the pitch up an octave would be unnecessary to the lyric’s shape. Again, the composer offers variety for her singer inside the 9/8 time-signature with some lines stretched while others follow a predictable pattern.

Here’s an opportunity to experience Alleaume’s abilities in an unexpected field. She has appeared in several Opera Australia productions over the last six years and it looks as though her career is set to follow that trajectory. This collection of songs reveals an interpretative ability of some accomplishment, the soprano’s laudable efforts reinforced by one of our most insightful accompanists.

A sophisticated oncer

ENSEMBLE Q

Musica Viva

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Southbank

August 23, 2021

Huw Jones, David Mitchell, Trish Dean, Paul Dean, Peter Luff, Virginia Taylor

Apologies for the photo above. As time goes on, the reproductive capabilities of this WordPress system become more and more unsatisfactory – I’d change product if I knew how.

In any case, the blurred figures above are members of Brisbane’s Ensemble Q which had a national tour lined up before the latest branch of the pandemic struck and all travel intrastate became impossible. Full marks to Musica Viva for taping/recording/transmitting one sitting of this program that proved to be remarkably professional and even-tempered. Which just goes to show that musicians of calibre can keep their heads while all around . . .

The ensemble’s offering-sheet included two solos, a very mixed trio, two well-known wind quintets, and a chamber concerto for cello and the afore-mentioned wind quintet. For the mildest of openings, Virginia Taylor performed Debussy’s flute solo Syrinx, an integral element in most flautist’s repertoire, here getting off to an unfortunate start because the sonic part of this transmission didn’t actually begin until bar 3; you could see Taylor making all the right moves but without sound. For one dreadful moment, I thought that we had moved into the land of the pre-avant garde and the program was to be totally gestural. Fortunately not, although there was a further tremor between bars 11 and 12. These technical problems aside, the reading proved impressively intense at its two mild climaxes, Taylor taking the work into more well-defined country than most other interpreters who are quite happy in doodling chromatically.

For all that, I couldn’t make out the D that concludes bar 17 and the B flat in the middle of bar 24 didn’t travel strongly enough for my equipment to register it. On the other hand, the Tres retenu conclusion worked very well indeed, just the right side of stop-all-engines.

The other solo came from cellist Trish Dean who strode through the Ciacona from Britten’s Second Suite. Here was intense playing, determined and aggressive after the opening variants, particularly when negotiating the strident double-stopping segments. Fortunately, Dean also reacted sensitively to the flashes of piquant writing that relieve what could become an unrelievedly overwrought slab of drama tending to tragedy. As happens every time this piece is heard, you marvel at Britten’s knowledge of the instrument, specifically the sudden jolts when his attack shifts from one technical demand to another.

Mind you, the jolts are deftly accomplished and, as with a lot of Britten’s instrumental music, you look back at particular points and wonder how you arrived at a certain stage. The piece progresses in a deceptively organic way; it looks sensible on paper but the actual sound being generated is packed with surprise and event. Dean swept her way to the Bach-suggestive (what isn’t, in this piece?) D Major quadruple-stop chord sequence at the chaconne’s climax and her deep-delving attack reinforced the drive-relax-presto character of the final 30 bars.

Probably the most curious part of the evening came in Beethoven’s 1795 Variations on La ci darem la mano WoO 28, originally scored for a trio comprising two oboes and cor anglais. There is an arrangement for oboe, clarinet and cello by Tom van der Grinten and I’d assume that this is what we heard but, of all the other transcriptions, this one strikes me as the oddest, simply for its combination – to be specific, the inclusion of a cello. Not that you’d want to be over-fussy about this because the variations – eight of them, plus a coda – treat Mozart’s duet-melody pretty easily; some flashes of energy but not much to mark them out from many other works of the time.

As it turned out, this performance was as straight and ordinary as the music itself. Variation I avoided any tempo liberties, forging directly through points where a ritardando might have relieved the steadiness. The following variation gives the lowest line all the work and here a necessary (?) alteration in register changed the nature of the piece, not to mention the timbral switch. Again, I would have welcomed a tad more subtlety at the oboe solo 8 bars from the end of Variation III. At Variation V, the top oboe line has a brisk demi-semiquaver sprint that allows only only two bars rest, well-achieved by Huw Jones with only one mis-step somewhere in the chromatics of bar 19.

For sure, the trio – Jones, clarinet Paul Dean, cello Trish Dean – showed at their expressive best in the minore Variation VI where you couldn’t complain about a lack of rhythmic flexibility; just so, you could admire the precision and jauntiness in the following reversion to the home key. Dean travelled safely through the rapid-fire figuration in his part for Variation VIII, while all three executants rattled through the Coda before Beethoven’s restrained last 13 bars where we are brought back to the original melody and a soft landing. Obviously from all this, it appeared to me that this trio worked at its most effective in the later stages when the executants were facing more pliable material.

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet have enjoyed popularity with audiences and ensembles since their 1953 appearance. They’re a test of rhythmic exactness, starting with a smart-as-paint Allegro con spirito which sounded as bright and jaunty as you could want, the only problem coming with a bassoon hesitation from David Mitchell at bar 41. In the following Rubato. Lamentoso, pitch sounded uncertain at bars 7 to 8 but the whole group generated a brave complex at the tragic strophes between bars 21 and 28 and observed a tight stringendo leading to the movement’s highpoint, although you might have asked for a more subtle approach to the dynamics obtaining in and around bar 34. Fluency characterized the Allegro grazioso – one of the more exceptional parts of this collection – and the ensemble’s rhythmic responsiveness in Ligeti’s 7/8 Presto ruvido achieved the intended purpose of making irregularity sound normal.

With the Adagio. Mesto, the Hungarian composer writes a brief, pointed elegy for his compatriot Bartok, not quite mirroring the senior writer’s night music but coming close. Here, the only defect came in a not-altogether-congruent first note from Mitchell, but the construction of an elegiac atmosphere was expertly accomplished, the final resolution a blessing as satisfying as the concluding cadence to the Third Piano Concerto’s Adagio religioso. As happens so often in these later years, my initial reaction to the concluding Molto vivace. Capriccioso was to detect a completely improbable influence: the spirit of Fellini – or, rather, Nino Rota, a decade before the appearance of 8 1/2. Peter Luff‘s horn near the end, about bar 118, sounded over-aggressive in the current context but it made a minor blemish in a fine outlining of this life-filled music.

Barber’s Summer Music worked very well with these players, Luff showing excellent assurance and fidelity at his extended solo about Figure 27, while Jones’ oboe showed purity of line at every turn. As I said above, this work is popular, a regular at wind chamber music events and I’ve become accustomed to its pleasures in recent times thanks to the Arcadia Winds whose excursions into Barber-Land are a never-failing delight. The Q players demonstrated an unflappable expertise throughout, each exposed solo – like Taylor’s, Dean’s and Mitchell’s flurries during the opening bars – slotting into the process with high skill. But the outstanding characteristic of this reading was its smoothness; even when he works hard to counteract it, the composer’s fabric remains urbane, emotionally even, and this ensemble infused it with a fluent sophistication that proved both appealing and comfortable through the score’s various segments, in particular that rapid block-chord work that begins at Figure 5 and serves as a contrast to the prevailing languor.

Paul Dean’s concerto dates from 2018 when it enjoyed its premiere at an Ensemble Q event. It has also been heard from these same musicians at a July recital this year, so our streamed performance presented it at its best, thanks to this temporal proximity. The composer gives his cello soloist prime position right from the start, Trish Dean’s long-note melody-spinning rising over a low-wind ostinato. While not looking for echoes that may not be there, I was hard put to ignore a certain First Nations texture in the subterranean wind writing, as well as a touch of Sculthorpe in the string arches. Whatever the case, the score moves at its own sweet will as Jones took over from Dean for a change of timbre before both instruments combined in a touching duet.

The score accelerates and gives more independence to the winds; phrases are tossed in the air and transformed in their flights. It’s all suggestive of a scherzo, but you’d be reaching to impose a specific format on this composition. Pretty soon, the motion slows and the quintet flickers with motivic lights around the cello’s melodic drawl. At three points (at least), Dean gives his soloist a cadenza, albeit brief, then allows the soloist an extended exposure above some semi-static accompaniment.

Dean’s language is not exactly tonal but, at the same time, not far from it. Perhaps it’s a deft way of using nodes in his melodic structures that makes you sense that the score is grounded on points in-touch more than recurring modal or tonal progressions. At the work’s most potent pages, the cello is momentarily drowned by a vehement, urging quintet before another short cadenza and a reversion to the solo line’s dominance before this segment moves into what sounds like a threnody.

A final cadenza leads to a perky ‘finale’ and here matters became unnerving because traces of Ligeti and Barber occasionally surged out. Of course, this might have been (probably was) wishful thinking – making connections while grasping at first-time straws – but the segment/movement took on a buoyancy in both solo and accompanying lines, the action growing in fervour before a brisk conclusion, just when you thought that the energy was in danger of toppling into excess.

So much for first impressions. We’d all do better after more experiences with this work but, as I’ve said too many times about other new creations, that possibility seems more and more unlikely, given the nature of our world at present with troops at the border and an unnerving air of national intransigency from far too many quarters. Nevertheless, Dean’s concerto makes a solid contribution to Australian chamber music, emerging in a format that I’ve not encountered before, tailor-made for his accommodating and capable Ensemble Q colleagues.

Even-tempered retrospective

ELEPHANTASY

Eve Duncan

Move Records MD 3454

Eve Duncan has been a strong force in Australian Music for many years; not just as a composer but also as a teacher and administrator. By this last term, I don’t mean a career-conscious functionary snuffling out a life in some university departmental office, but as a servitor of this country’s composers, principally as founder of the Melbourne Composers League and as a participant in enterprises like the Asian Composers League and director of Federation Music Week when we all decided in 2001 to celebrate a century since the legislated and constitutional combining of states. And we can all see these days how well that turned out.

On this CD, Duncan is chiefly represented by two major works: her 2012 piano concerto in two movements called Sydney Opera House, and excerpts from her opera The Aspern Papers, with a libretto by David Malouf extracted from the Henry James novella. This latter is one of the many products of the American writer’s fertile and prolix imagination with which I am totally unfamiliar. Like all opera-lovers, I know The Turn of the Screw, once upon a time even going back to read the original as a method of assessing Myfanwy Piper‘s skill in transforming the original into something simpler for the composer. Again, like all opera-lovers, I don’t know anything of Britten’s other James incursion, Owen Wingrave, which was also arranged for Aldeburgh consumption by Piper.

Apart from these well-known James-indebted operas, I’m completely ignorant about Douglas Moore‘s The Wings of the Dove 1961 adaptation, Thea Musgrave‘s 1974 The Voice of Ariadne (rising from the bones of The Last of the Valerii), Thomas Pasatieri‘s Washington Square of 1976, and two other treatments of The Aspern Papers by Dominick Argento in 1987 and Philip Hagemann in 1988. I once heard Donald Hollier‘s version of Washington SquareThe Heiress – in its premiere performance by ChamberMade at The Church Theatre in Hawthorn, some time in November 1988; not a rack remains behind. And, in another life, I’ve taught The Europeans but it remains as vague in the memory as an ill-advised assault on The Golden Bowl.

This CD opens with Approaching Venice, which is the prelude to Duncan’s opera. Later, we are treated to a duet – I told you, Mr. Vayne, nothing here is mine; a soprano aria, Do you think I am beautiful?; another couple of duets – Ah, but I do know his face, and Juliana and Jeffrey’s Love Duet; to end, a pair of trios – So this is the dragon’s den, and If you were a relation. These extracts take a little over half the CD’s running time, with a bit of space left for some short instrumental solos: Deep in Summer for trumpet and piano, From a Star Afar for piano solo, and Aer Turas for flute, clarinet and cello.

Adding to the complexity of these several tracks, Duncan has found inspiration and/or structure for many of them in architecture – Utzon’s bastardized masterpiece for the concerto, Palladio and the Venetian environment (somehow) for the operatic fragments. As well, the aria is internally referencing Korean court music on the underlying principle that Venice traded with the Far East. Does any of this help to clarify what we hear? I’ve tried to find connections but don’t have the requisite responsiveness or nimbleness of intellect, not even finding reminiscences of the city’s alleys in the singers’ intertwining lines. Still, over the past five decades I’ve spent only a few days during three visits in penetrating the city’s labyrinthine back-blocks, frequently getting lost, and so am under-prepared for Duncan’s compositional grids.

As an introduction to her opera, Duncan presents an optimistic and healthy view of the city; rather at odds with the unpleasant plot of the novella which involves greed, theft and monomania. The mobility of the cityscape is evident with plenty of rustling strings and brief tuckets, swift trombone glissandi, with some unsettling timpani as a tidal underpinning. Throughout, the emphasis is on action, or at least an active scenario is anticipated even before the curtain rises. Cymbal crashes add to the aura of sparkling light and, despite its sometimes grinding harmonic clusters, the overture’s conclusion is set in a bright brass-dominated major. No adagietto here as your boat crawls up the lagoon but a brightly coloured atmosphere, performed by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Josefino Chino Toledo – and how that came about, I’ve no idea.

Next come the two parts of Duncan’s piano concerto with Michael Kieran Harvey investing his brilliance in its solo part. He is supported by an unspecified chamber orchestra conducted by ‘Timothy Philips’, who I assume is Timothy Phillips, director of the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble. In any case, the work was recorded by the ABC in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2016 – as were the six vocal excerpts from The Aspern Papers and the trumpet-piano duet.

Duncan begins her score with a semi-cadenza for piano which sets up another rustling soundscape with occasional interpolations from others – percussion, single brass and woodwind, a band of strings. The aim is to focus on Utzon: in Movement 1, he focus is directed to his influences and background as well as what can only be styled as his construction’s topography which the composer has used as a kind of palimpsest. You can pick out motifs and gestures, especially as the orchestral contribution expands, but the work’s impetus is left in the pianist’s hands. To be honest, the score tends to fade into effort when the keyboard is silent – which is fortunately rare. Harvey is quite at home with his peripatetic role, sounding more comfortable than the supporting ensemble, despite some startlingly lucid and confident contributions from clarinet and percussion.

Movement 2 opens with more collegiality as Duncan weaves her orchestra-based scintillations, suggestive of the Opera House site and surrounds. In what follows, the Utzon/piano figure is well-integrated with the other musicians and the texture takes on an Ivesian style of agglomeration before Harvey re-asserts his dominance momentarily at the half-way point. Apparently, this part of the concerto treats the architect’s interior world, the realization of his project being brought up short against the realities of New South Wales politics of the time: an apotheosis of philistinism. Utzon can be discerned putting his head above the parapet but is all too often swamped by the orchestral fabric and some wearing outbursts.

The score would doubtless yield more treasures than those discovered in the few hearings I’ve given it but staying on Duncan’s compositional continuum is very difficult. You can find many reflections of your own attitudes to both Utzon and the Opera House, although it’s more than probable that where I find suggestions of the relentless criticism – by troglodytes from both major political parties – that dogged the architect’s last years on the project, others will hear more benign forces at work, reflecting the industry involved in its protracted construction and the brilliant juxtaposition of the building, harbour and city in what has become a splendid national cliche over its 48-year history.

Harvey appears on the following duo track, with Tristram Williams playing trumpet. This work moves with an energy that relaxes only in its final bars, both instruments handling a limited number of motives to happy effect. As far as the work’s language goes, Duncan walks a kind of middle road between complexity and sophisticated simplicity where even the dissonances aim to strike few sparks and suggestions of tonal underpinning loom large. As anticipated, Harvey performs the solo From a Star Afar with admirable sympathy, the underlying vision here being of observing Earth from outside itself. No tricks as the piece winds its way along with a kind of calm determination – but it’s over very quickly, coming in at under 90 seconds.

The first of the opera extracts is sung by soprano Justine Anderson as Miss Tita and baritone Jerzy Kozlowski taking the role of Henry Vayne, the work’s fulcrum and a shady negotiator who is attempting to acquire memorabilia left by the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. In the original, this character has no name but opera tends to collapse if anonymity is the go. The two singers engage in a dialogue where each is feeling his/her way into a relationship; it’s all very civilised and artificial with the chamber orchestra giving an appropriate pattering support. The vocal articulation is agreably clear and accurate but few demands are made on anybody. Still, it’s early days.

Soprano Deborah Kayser has the role of Juliana Bordereau, lover of the poet and now a century old vendor in need of money. She mocks Vayne by asking him if he finds her beautiful and sings of her past with something approaching rhapsody, although Kayser has to cope with some tough competition, including a persistent trumpet. Still, you can hear the shaping of a real character, a distant relation to Miss Havisham; the only problems come in Kayser’s breathing as she copes with an angular line.

In the next duet, the old woman shows Vayne a portrait of Aspern, painted by her father, which she might be prepared to sell if the price is right. Even while making the offer, she knows her visitor can’t afford it and appears to take some malefic delight in this realization. Again, Kayser is occasionally menaced by a heavy accompaniment but my main interest is wondering how this scene would be carried off, especially in its later pages where the orchestral contribution is intended (I believe) to be a commentary on the two characters’ mental/emotional states. Next comes a duet of sorts for Juliana and the shade of Aspern, sung by countertenor Dan Walker; well, he’s chronicled as owning that voice type but his sound here was really your normal tenor. The text consisted of both artists singing the other’s name, once more over a turbulent orchestral force. Well, the old lady is dying and Aspern is a ghost; nevertheless, the results are unconvincing; as they say on The Bachelor: what you can’t hear, you can’t feel.

Vayne and Miss Tita search Juliana’s room for Aspern’s letters, but the old lady wakes up from her delirium and denounces Vayne as she dies. Much of this is comprehensible and becomes a real duet while Kayser is confined to forcing out some low-pitched fulminations at the scene’s end. But Duncan does present her characters with skill here; when they sing, they have definite personalities, no matter how distorted or unpleasant they may be. As the crisis approaches, the instrumental forces take over with insistent energy. Oddly enough, the track ends on a tierce – possibly because Vayne has fled the scene.

Finally, Miss Tita asks Vayne to marry her; then he can have the papers in good conscience. He turns over the proposition but is too slow in responding and the deal falls through, whereupon she burns the papers. In a final trio, Juliana revives to carol with the two non-lovers in a calmly flowing retrospective, I suppose; the words are hard to make out, although the final word is a communal Respiro statement – patently not true for one character. I’m assuming this is the opera’s last scene; if so, matters wind down swiftly in a soft lyrical glow.

As far as I can detect, this ABC recording of the six extracts from The Aspern Papers – from October 26, 2016 – is the only time even parts of the opera have been performed in this country. The Australian Music Centre site suggests that a performance took place in Manila a year previously, but that occasion in all probability featured only the overture, Track 1 on this CD. Will we be likely to hear a complete performance at any time soon? Probably not, particularly considering the parlous state of contemporary Australian music in 2021, let alone the fits and starts that beset the larger, tradition-minded companies. A pity, because Duncan’s work has its advantages: its language easily assimilable, its characterization lucid, demands on vocalists and instrumentalists (a chamber group here, conducted by Phillips) falling well inside the competence of professionals.

Finally comes Aer Turas, which translates from the Gaelic as ‘air journey’. This is a reminiscence of travel to four sites: the monasteries of Leh, Tibet; North America’s Appalachians, particularly Mount Washington; the MacDonnell Ranges that lie in the southern reaches of the Northern Territory; and Wollemi National Park stretching from the Blue Mountains to the Hunter. Our participating trio – flute Lisa Breckenridge, clarinet Ian Sykes, cello Claire Kahn – travel with effortless collegiality through this piece which, I think, treats each of the specified destinations in turn; doing so with a deft alternation between curlicuing solos and disciplined ensemble writing.

In essence, this all represents a mini-retrospective of Duncan’s activity, bridging from 2012 (the Sydney Opera House concerto) to 2018 (Aer Turas and From a Star Afar). But its temporally cramped recording conditions – everything taped on the same day, apart from Approaching Venice, the piano solo and that final instrumental trio – indicate how difficult it is for a serious composer to be heard. Of course, the results here are blemished but that’s the cost of getting one chance at performing. However, this CD is commended to those who have sympathy with Australian composition, especially of a type that follows an approachable middle ground and avoids attention-seeking novelty for its own sake.