Hefty times in Hawthorn

SCHUBERT GALA WITH TIMO-VEIKKO VALVE

Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre

Tuesday June 20

      

(L to R) Helen Ireland, Shane Chen, Zoe Knighton, Nicholas Waters

Moving out momentarily from the city, this long-lived ensemble lighted on the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall as a possible future performing space, adding another option to the Recital Centre’s Salon, Collins St. Baptist Church and Montsalvat where the group currently presents programs across the year.  Not that the Boroondara Council’s refurbished centre is unknown to the city’s music-lovers as it was the site for Brett Kelly’s fine Academy of Melbourne concerts when that estimable organization was in play.  And the hall has been the venue for 3MBS’s marathon days dedicated to specific composers, so it has seen its fair share of recent chamber music action.

For reasons best known to sound engineers, this hall presents a notably clean acoustic framework, possibly because the players are positioned on or slightly in front of the proscenium; there’s no reflecting panel bank or screen, such as you find at ANAM recitals or Selby & Friends presentations at the Deakin Edge in Federation Square.  And the space is free of fabric, apart from some tightly-drawn and -anchored stage curtains.

At all events, we heard the Flinders voices at most points of their three-part program on Tuesday, even the glancing bird-imitation effects in the opening work: Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 18  –  his last and most emotionally pointed in the form.  This work is balm to an environmentalist’s ears as the composer follows a sort of thesis that begins with a celebration of a pristine Australia, followed by sound images of a wrecked landscape, ending with a sort of veiled optimism – there must be better days to come.   Sculthorpe always seemed to see the best in people but, in the seven years since this quartet’s creation, we’ve had little cause to share his hopes.

The score was commissioned jointly for the Tokyo String Quartet and the Flinders players, so these musicians have history with it – well, two of them do: violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton.  In recent times, the Flinders format has changed somewhat and the two violins today are Shane Chen and Nicholas Waters; I was hearing the latter for the first time in a string quartet format.  But when I first heard this piece in the Montsalvat Gallery in mid-2010, the violinists were Matthew Tomkins and Erica Kennedy.

Tuesday’s reading  gave us a welcome re-acquaintance with this appealing piece that works best in its optimistic early stretches while the vividness later in the score of Earth’s degradation sounds less jagged and aggressive than you might have expected.  But the composer is not attempting to show the process of nature’s disintegration, more’s the pity; rather, he gives a sonic tableau of  barren land; the sedge is withered from every lake, and the singing bird noises from the start are tellingly silent.  As struck me at the first performance, the use of O God, our help in ages past jars in its context, which is heavily reliant on Aboriginal chants and songs; you can appreciate the sentiment, in that the Isaac Watts tune regularly appears at Aboriginal community days of mourning, yet its appearance here  seems like an after-thought – following the indigenous melodies’ freedom of direction and rhythm, a four-square hymn doesn’t make the best of end-points.

All the same, this performance proved to be a moving experience; the players sustained the requisite atmospheres across all five movements and made Sculthorpe’s novel production techniques merge into the work’s fabric and impulsive progress.

Two quintets followed, fleshed out by cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  The D Major String Quintet by Boccherini, nicknamed Fandango, could have been a piece that the Flinders have played before; I can recall a work of similar nature being played by them, also at Montsalvat, but I thought that afternoon involved guitarist Karin Schaupp.   In fact, the quartet recorded a guitar quintet by Boccherini with Schaupp in 2010, also with the same suggestive sobriquet; the movements are identical with those we heard on Tuesday, with the first two reversed on the CD.   But, having no real memory of the piece played in Eltham and no longer owning the CD, I can’t make any further connections or identifications.  Nevertheless, it’s clear from Tuesday night’s showing that Boccherini, being a notable cellist himself, loved his instrument and this piece, like quite a few in his oeuvre, asks for two.

The opening Pastorale fared well enough, a congenial amble before a more assertive Allegro maestoso which lived up to its name, nowhere more so than in Valve’s contribution which surged into consideration pretty quickly.  Knighton matched him in forwardness and the players shared the prominent labours that fell to them.  As at Montsalvat, Knighton downed her cello in the final Fandango for a pair of castanets, expertly wielded and underlining the Hispanic flourishes in the score.   It’s an attractive movement, the most striking in the quartet even if, like so many writers determined to maintain a specific colour, Boccherini does go on about a minute too long.

Valve’s prominence in this work went even further in the night’s finale, Schubert’s C Major String Quintet.  He took the second cello line and was positioned mid-group facing front-on to the audience, so we got the full force of his projection.  These ad hoc ensembles are near-inescapable when performing this work, professional string quintets being pretty thin on the ground.  But it seemed as though Valve was unaware of his own dynamic level for a good deal of this Schubert’s length.

It didn’t help that Chen is a performer with an elegant line, not really inclined to push hard to make himself heard; or, for all I know, not accustomed to having to exert himself in the normal Flinders environment.   Judging by the final Allegretto and, to a lesser extent, the Scherzo, perhaps he should because notes kept disappearing at certain spots where the top line alone has the melody.  When Chen played at unison or at an octave with Walters or Ireland, the problem essentially disappeared but, without reinforcement in this performing context, Chen’s output travelled uncertainly.

All performers made a laudable effort with the luminous Adagio, Valve tamping down his attack mode and the three inner voices forming an exemplary blend for the first 27 1/2 bars.   Later, the finale came off well enough, the collegial approach to tempo changes satisfying to observe.  But you were left puzzled as to why somebody hadn’t picked up on the disparity of weighting at play – one of the executants, an observer, a coach – because it distracted markedly from the interpretation.  That didn’t stop the Flinders’ enthusiastic supporters from showing their pleasure at what they’d been hearing but, for me, it was a case of better luck next time.

A wealth of soft stillness

SONGS OF THE NIGHT

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday June 18

                                      Rebecca Chan

An afternoon of nocturnally inspired music curated by guest director Rebecca Chan: that’s what was proposed at the latest MCO subscription series concerts.  With a willing band of young players, Chan took us through some excellent performances in a program that moved across the set theme, the primary intention of which must have been to keep us entertained.  This worked well enough for most of the time, including an excellent second half to the event; the multiple compositional voices proved too strained, however, in the concert’s middle passages.

Chan began by leading a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for strings alone; an imaginative way to open a concert with this underpinning theme; after all, Act 2 is conducted under cover of darkness.   Of course, you missed the antiphonal interplay between strings and woodwind, as well as the powerful moments of release that come in the original’s full-orchestra chords, but the 13-strong MCO worked up the passion effectively.   This arrangement by Sebastian Gurtler, one-time concertmaster with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, didn’t fade as expected into silence for the curtain-rise to Act 1 but worked its way into a postlude: the latter stages of the Liebestod that ends the opera.  A bit of a cheat, even if it leaves the audience’s inner tensions resolved.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin opened his contribution to the field of nightscapes with Strauss’s Die Nacht, from the 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blatter’, the composer’s Op. 10 and first published lieder.  The arrangement for strings was unattributed but suitably supple, Goodwin exercising his telling clarity of articulation, at its most moving in the final stanza’s Rucke naher, Seel an Seele.  Speaking of early songs, Schoenberg’s Waldesnacht, arranged for strings by Chan, followed; this, along with the concert’s final work, Verklarte Nacht, gave the unwary a one-sided picture of the composer as a thorough-going Romantic – which, at this stage of his career, he was.  This song comes from Schoenberg’s early 20s and, despite its chromatic side-slips, gave Goodwin no problems, although every so often the string action distracted attention from the vocal line.

Finishing this group was Schubert’s Der Erlkonig in a version by Gregor Huber which exercised the violins, just as the original gives a workout to the pianist’s right hand.  In this format, much of the song’s gruffness is dissipated but Goodwin managed the three voices inside the lied with aplomb, especially the persuasive, then threatening lines from the Erlking himself  – treated without bombast so that the hurtling drama of the narrative came across as a sustained crescendo, rather than a series of jolts.  You missed the piano’s compelling clatter but the ever-startling vehemence of the 18-year-old composer’s vision came across unimpeded.

Chan arranged the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, spreading the work-load around to make up for the absent woodwind piquancies. It made for a mildly entertaining experience, pretty well negotiated by the MCO band, but eventually unsatisfying; very much a second-best, if you know the original.  For a complete change from Mendelssohn’s suggestions of Puck and Co. cavorting in the Athenian wood, Chan moved us to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, specifically the middle ‘night music’ Non troppo lento movement which worked more credibly, principally because the forces involved were relevant and credible.  Even so, it might have been wiser to play the piece as written without a Tognetti-style amplification, although it spiced matters up quite a bit to see both cellists sharing the honours in outlining their part’s elastic solos.  But the central Agitato segment with all the insect noises loses a good amount of its spark when being negotiated by a corps rather than an individual.

Written for the MCO, Lachlan Skipworth’s Rilke setting, The Expanse, found a persuasive exponent in Goodwin.  The lyric, Am Rande der Nacht, enjoys a calmly restrained handling, the composer constructing a darkly-coloured string backdrop for a mendicant vocal line well suited to the poet’s effete self-description.  Coupled with this was Schubert’s Nacht und Traume, another Chan arrangement, this time giving Goodwin the opportunity to demonstrate his talent for manufacturing a splendidly sustained slow-moving vocal arc in a song that consists of little more than an emotional stasis, albeit a deeply moving one..

Before the Schoenberg string orchestra version of his own sextet, Goodwin ended his night journeys with two more Chan-arranged Schubert lieder: Nachtstuck, which depicts an old man’s progress through a consoling landscape to his death, and the first song from the song-cycle Die Winterreise where the disappointed lover sets out on his journey towards inconsolable grief.   In the first, attention oscillated between the deftness of the transcription and Goodwin’s warmth of tone in the valedictory last two stanzas; but in the reading of Gute Nacht, all the honours went to the tenor for an interpretation of high quality, the four-square phrases announced with assertiveness and  a subtle shifting of emphasis that was probably as much part of the performer’s musicality as it was built-in by Schubert.

Even after almost 120 years, Verklarte Nacht is still a taxing challenge for its executants.  Nothing about it comes easily, not even the slow threnody of the first pages.  When the polyphonic meshing kicks off and the modulations pour in on top of each other, the players can’t afford to relax or take their eyes off their own work or off that of their fellow labourers.  Chan and her charges gave a pretty solid account of this score which avoided quite a few of the expected deficiencies.  In fact, only one occasion raised eyebrows  – at about bar 246 in the lead-up to the first ‘transfiguration’ section where the lower strings sounded disorganized and uncertain in their triplets’ timing.  An unexpected moment came about when second violin Peter Clark appeared to change his focus by helping out Tom Higham with his viola line for a stretch before returning to his regular duties.  By this stage of the concert, I was sitting at the back of the Murdoch Hall but, even from that distance, I don’t think I was suffering from delusions.

Chan kept the score on the move, well aware that the point of the work is a journey, not a series of stops and starts.  The players gave full measure to the thick welters of sound that make up the central, confessional part of the work, but the forward movement stayed on track, even if some of the sudden harmonic shifts had little time to breathe.  Still, the work made a neat balance to the opening Wagner, a score that set the bench-mark for chromatic Schoenbergian constructs.   In all, a worthwhile dark odyssey, despite a few mis-steps along the way.

 

July Diary

Wednesday July 5

THE NATIONALISTS

Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

For some reason best known to themselves, the members of this piano trio are mounting two of their three annual subscription series recitals in one week.  Tonight, their review of the music written for their specific format focuses on two pillars of the repertoire: Brahms No. 1 in B and Dvorak’s Dumky No. 4.  Most of us who know the Seraphims’ work will have heard them perform these two scores at least once over the years (getting on for 24 of them) since they began collaborating;  what keeps your interest level afloat is hearing how their experiences as professionals have influenced what they find in this well-known music.  They play in the Salon and without an interval – a real study in concentration. And, while the Nationalist label sits comfortably with Dvorak, especially in this score, it’s not so easy to find much local colour in the moving broad strophes of the Brahms work.

 

Friday July 7

THE MODERNS

Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Two days on from their last recital, this ensemble moves into new territory with some modern compositions for the piano trio.  Well, the descriptor is a generous one: the Shostakovich E minor Trio dates from 1944, Ravel’s A minor masterpiece was written over a century ago, and Sculthorpe’s Irkanda III is now 56 years old.  Once again, the players are heading for the heights with the Russian and French works, indispensable elements in any trio’s knapsack and – again – Seraphim patrons will have heard both from the group several times before.  The Sculthorpe inclusion is intriguing; it’s not a long piece, lasting about 6 minutes, but it rarely enjoys an airing.  Let’s hope it stands up for itself in this distinguished company.

 

Saturday July 8

Sitkovetsky Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Last time this group visited under the Musica Viva aegis in 2014, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and his pianist wife Wu Qian were in company with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, who seems to have been with the group since the trio’s inauguration. From July last year, the family duo also enjoyed the services of Danjulo Ishizaka for recitals in London, Cheltenham, the Rheingau Music Festival, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Wimbledon and Leeds.  Somewhere along the line, Ishizaka has been replaced and this time round, Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian’s collaborator is Bartholomew Lafollette; the relationship seems to be very fresh.  The musicians play Rachmaninov’s first Trio Elegiaque (the one with only a single movement), Mendelssohn  in D minor, Shostakovich in E minor a day after the Seraphims have performed it, and young Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Piano Trio, commissioned by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva and, as far as I can find out, not heard since its premiere in 2015 at Verbrugghen Hall.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday July 18.

 

Friday July 14

MSO PLAYS EINE KLEINE  NACHTMUSIK

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

This program kicks off a Mozart festival with an emphasis on the composer’s more well-known scores.   Yes, tonight features yet another run-through of the famous serenade, conducted by British keyboard performer/conductor Richard Eggar, last seen here two years ago with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  I’d assume that Eggar will personally begin with the promised harpsichord piece from K. 1, then moving with the MSO into the three-movement  Symphony No. 1 in E flat.  Soprano Jacqueline Porter takes the solo line in that joyously elegant motet Exsultate, jubilate, before concertmaster Eoin Andersen stands up for the Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra K. 261.  Eggar finishes with the Paris Symphony No. 31.  So this first instalment gives us works written between the composer’s 5th year and his 31st; we’re told to expect the unexpected – I can’t wait.

 

Saturday July 15

MSO PLAYS MOZART 40

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Night Two of the Mozart Festival and Richard Eggar is still conducting.  The guest soloist is fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout who has appeared almost three weeks before this in a Mozart/Schumann program for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (small-scale) at the Recital Centre.  Tonight, he is playing your old-fashioned piano in the Concerto No. 23 in A Major.  The program begins with the Chaconne from Idomeneo and  the great G minor Symphony is preceded by the Masonic Funeral Music of 1785.  In fact, all of this music stretches across the 1780s decade, all of it with sombre echoes, even in the mellifluous concerto’s F sharp minor Adagio/Andante.

 

Sunday July 16

ASIAN WINDS AND A WATER SPRITE

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

This program features musicians unknown to me: flautist Chie Haur Foo, principal with the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra; bassoonist Teng Aik Lim, principal with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra and Selangor Symphony Orchestra; and Penang-based pianist Zhang Chi, a one-time student of the Team’s Darryl Coote.  As whenever two or more woodwind players are gathered together, the music for this night tends towards the eclectic.  I’ve never heard Saint-Saens Bassoon Sonata, one of the composer’s last works, and will probably never hear it again.  On the other hand, Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata Op. 94 is very familiar.   Zhang Chi holds the Team’s banner high for a taxing solo with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and all three artists come together for Three miniatures Song, Dialogue in the dark, Journey –  by German-American composer Tim Jansa; not a music with any great pretensions but well-constructed for the required forces.

 

Friday July 21

MOZART’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Getting towards the end of this festival,  Richard Eggar conducts the myth-status unfinished Mass with a clutch of top-rank local soloists: soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Christopher Richardson  –  almost the same group that sang in the MSO’s October 2015 performance of this work under Benjamin Northey, when the tenor was Henry Choo.   The orchestra’s principal, David Thomas, will front the unparalleled Clarinet Concerto and the evening begins with the Overture to La clemenza di Tito.  All of these were written in the last months of the composer’s life, from September to December 1791; as a programmatic job-lot, they offer a riveting musical portrait of this flawed man and faultless musician.

 

Saturday July 22

AMADEUS LIVE IN CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm.

To end its Mozart Festival, the MSO will play the soundtrack to Milos Forman’s celebrated film.   Benjamin Northey will conduct.   It’s hard to know how this will go.   Certainly, there are passages that will work well enough where the music is used as instrumental backdrop.   But what of scenes like Kostanze’s aria at the premiere of Il seraglio? And later, how will the musicians negotiate the excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni?  The Two-Pianos Concerto extract?  Or will everybody just sit back and let the film soundtrack play?  The MSO Chorus will be on-site for the final scenes where the Requiem is laboured over by the dying composer and his predatory colleague.  I’ve got no brief for the film itself (or Shaffer’s play, for that matter) but the American actors impress for the obvious relish they take in the action’s posturing and sentiment.  While there’s no denying the truth of Mozart’s crude side, the film gives you no explanation of the genius who wrote the masterpieces we have enjoyed in the preceding concerts of this festival.

This program will be repeated on Sunday July 23 at 1 pm.

 

Thursday July 20

CONCERT GRAND

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

MCO director William Hennessy and his players host pianist Lucinda Collins, Senior Lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide.   She is soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G, notable for an uncharacteristically cramped middle movement and a rollicking finale in variation form.  Hennessy ends with the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, mirroring the good humour found in the concerto.  As a built-in encore, Collins will also play the Adagio in E Major from Mendelssohn’s A minor Piano Concerto, dating from the composer’s 13th year.  And the night opens with some unspecified Debussy Book 1 Preludes arranged by Goran W. Nilson, the Swedish conductor/pianist.  I can trace four of them in Nilson’s catalogue: Les sons et parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels – so I assume these are the ones we’ll be enjoying.  An odd selection but intriguing to hear how they work in transcription.

This program will also be performed on Sunday July 23 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.

 

Thursday July 27

BENJAMIN NORTHEY CONDUCTS ENIGMA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Getting used to the MSO’s quiet pursuit of the cult of personality: Benjamin Northey Conducts . . . . , Nicholas Carter Conducts . . . , Sir Andrew Davis Conducts . . . . as if they’d do anything else.   Tonight,  Northey conducts Elgar’s evergreen Variations as a solid wind-up.   Just before, though, he takes the players (some of them) through the composer’s brief Sospiri, a pre-World War One adagio for strings, harp and organ.  The all-French first half starts with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1, organised by Guiraud which takes us from the Act 1 Prelude up to the Toreadors’ Entry in Act IV.   Kristian Chong will be soloist in Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor which opens up with a Lisztian cadenza and rarely lets the pianist off the hook; an exhilarating ride for us all, if a demanding marathon for Chong.

This program will be repeated on Friday July 28.

 

Saturday July 29

TURANGALILA-SYMPHONIE

Australian World Orchestra and the Australian National Academy of Music

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

A gala occasion as the World comes to town: an ad hoc orchestra of professional Australians from the nation’s capital city orchestras and other musicians who are now working overseas – all coming to Melbourne for a big night out.  In this case, the conductor is Simone Young; one of the better-known names from Australia at work in foreign climes.  There is only one work: Messiaen’s massive symphony, for which the younger set from ANAM will help swell the forces to reach the numbers required.  A phenomenally difficult piano part will be taken on by ANAM veteran Timothy Young and the Ondes Martenot – the composer’s aural depiction of orgasm – will be in and under the hands of another one-time ANAM musician: keyboardist/composer Jacob Abela.  You rarely hear this work live; in my time, I’ve heard it only twice.  Mind you, the first time I saw/heard it, an elderly gentleman sitting diagonally opposite on the aisle was following his score with avid interest throughout the performance, shuffling back and forth through its pages as though he’d forgotten to remember something important.  At the end, he went up onto the Hamer Hall stage.  It was, of course, Messiaen on his solitary Australian visit.

 

Not quite ready

LUMINESCENCE

Canticum

MOVE Records MCD 558

What you see here is exactly what you get: contemporary choral music from across the world – New Zealand, Estonia, the United States, Latvia, Norway (sort-of), Sweden, and Australia.  The choir Canticum itself is new to me although it has been in existence for 21 years; in fact, this CD is a 21st birthday celebration.  With founding conductor Emily Cox, the ensemble is currently in residence at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and, on this showing, is a more-than-able body, even if some of the tracks on offer in Luminescence could have profited by a re-take.

Cox and her cohorts adopted the over-arching theme of light; in this instance, light generated by sources that need no heat to do their work.  This refers, I suppose, to the static nature of scores which, in themselves, have no physical energy.  Canticum’s task is to generate the luminous – sometimes, the numinous – by their efforts and, for a good deal of the time, this works.  Of the 16 tracks, three contain settings of the Maundy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas, seven comprise the Magnificat-Antiphons of Arvo Part, another is New Zealander David Hamilton’s version of the Ecce beatam lucem text best known for its 40-part setting by Alessandro Striggio, and Swedish composer Fredrik Sixten uses the chant Veni, veni Emmanuel in his refugee-remembering The Fleeing Child is Jesus to a text by Norwegian poet Emil Skartveit.  The remaining six works fall under the general heading of celebrations of nature, or even God-in-nature.

You can find much interest in the Ubi caritas settings which are treated handsomely by the Canticum singers, beginning with a version of that by Ola Gjeilo which owes most to the original Gregorian as well as the luminous Durufle arrangement; not many surprises in the work itself but the choir gives it a refined and fluent reading.  Paul Mealor’s treatment was used at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; in my case, its inclusion in that ceremony went through to the keeper.  Which was a pity because its quiet abrasiveness, well-husbanded dissonant moments in the work’s progress, display an unexpected individuality of voice.  Cox gives prominence to the motet’s inner parts at tense moments, which makes for some remarkable harmonic exposure, but Mealor succumbs to the temptation of citing the original chant en clair towards the end. Australian-born Joseph Twist’s treatment is slow-paced and meditative in a post-Tavener style, with moments of stasis on certain syllables – Ubi caritas et amor or congregavit.  The verses starting with Exultemus move into a more rhythmically dynamic region; even so, the singers could have attacked these pages with more ferocity.  Like the other settings, Twist’s is ternary in form and not over-adventurous harmonically, although the stretch of bitonality near the end made a pleasant surprise; a pity, then, that the work concluded so predictably.

Part’s versions of the O  Antiphons – those appearing in the Vespers services of the days leading up to Christmas Eve – are generally terse, even when he seems to be mulling over the texts.  The first, O Weisheit, is vintage Part with an orthodox texture changing at glacial pace; O Adonai seems to be for male voices only and the Canticum basses sound laudably confident; O Spross aus Isais Wurzel tests the choir’s ability at sustaining grating 2nd intervals.  In O Schlussel Davids, the body’s sopranos sound marginally ‘off’ their top notes and their line doesn’t regain its certainty until the concluding die Fessel des Todes bars.  O Morgenstern finds them in better form, although the final statement of the title could have been re-recorded with profit.  O Konig aller Volker satisfies for its firm treatment of Part’s underpinning tramping pace, while the concluding O Immanuel also suffers from top-line pitching, the series of top As not quite centred accurately; Part’s second-time through this text fares more successfully, but then, it’s less challenging.

Hamilton’s Ecce beatam lucem is written for SSAATTBB forces and its opening is a powerful and brave acclamation that more than adequately sets up a luminous choral ambience. Parts of the Canticum’s aggressive approach work very well but there are some lapses; the composer’s clever build-up of tension at the final line, Nos hinc attrahunt recta in paradisum, needs more deliberate definition and disciplined order of attack.  Like Part, Hamilton exposes his sopranos on top of low-lying textures, with the result that they sound strident on occasion, hard-pressed to do anything but get the note(s?) required.  The piece is testing of all executants but this group might be better advised to take the whole thing at a more rapid tempo – like the Kiwis do.

Sixten’s score enjoys an excellent performance here, the singers maintaining a clarity of shape and texture even when the composer puts the Gregorian line in operation simultaneous with his own setting of Startveit’s words.  The point is made without being laboured – Christ was a refugee and his status is reflected in the modern-day influx to Europe (and Australia) from the East and Africa.  Sixten is humane enough to celebrate the optimistic Gaude elements of the chant alongside the poet’s ringing appeal for the worth of charity: Open the door for suffering.  If not the high-point of the CD, this comes close to it with an appealing clarity and enthusiasm from its performers.

Cox and her choir juxtapose samples from the work of two formidable American composers.  First is Sure on this shining night, Morten Lauridsen’s interpretation for four-part choir with piano accompaniment of James Agee’s well-known poem,  You’d have to work pretty hard to miss with this splendid composition and the Canticum give a carefully honed version with a fine timbral glow; this might not be as dramatic at its climax as many American choirs make it, but I much prefer this body’s sustained communication of hushed wonder and Delius-like shimmer in the movement of lines.

Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star sets an early poem by Robert Frost and, like Lauridsen’s piece, asks for SATB choir with piano.  I’ve never understood its popularity, least of all for its leaden-footed pace at the start and the regularity of its syllabic heft.  Still, the group treats it with care, showing no trouble in handling its few tests and giving some body to pretty predictable sequences.  Thompson’s vocabulary sets no challenges for the listener but the poet’s approval of the composer’s treatment of his lines seems to veer towards the charitable.  I had the feeling that Christopher Wrench’s accompaniment was leading the voices  – or rather, anticipating them – at various stages, although that could just have been enthusiasm or an understandable urge to keep the pace moving.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds asks the singers to handle tuned glasses and Tibetan bowls;  the few performances I’ve seen have been lacking in the bowls area and only some of the choir members have been trusted to manufacture that eerie, science-fiction-suggestive sound from the glasses part-filled with water.  Some of the pitching here left me unconvinced, notably at Sara Teasdale’s line Up the dome of heaven, and the soprano solo before the climactic stanza beginning And I know that I is inexact.

Brisbane composer Phillip Gearing employs sustained chords under a gently lyrical line to set the mood for his Only the Light which uses a text fragment from Surrealist-feminist Leonora Carrington’s short story The Royal Summons.  This is in effect a slow-moving nocturne, highly atmospheric and pretty successfully achieved, although there seems to be some out-of-sync harmonic movement from the tenors during the work’s final clause. Giselle Wyers has set Roethke’s famous poem The Waking; but has she?  The text that we hear is the American poet’s I strolled across An open field that comes from Roethke’s The Lost Son and Other Poems of 1948, some years before he wrote that striking villanelle, I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  This composer also has a piano accompaniment but the work itself, lilting and benign, tends to aimless modulation – an ordinary-sounding idyll.

The CD ends with a piece written for Canticum by Keren Terpstra, who supplied both music and words.  Light refers to the Transfiguration, albeit elliptically in its two cryptic lines.  While the working-out becomes a tad ordinary at the start to the work’s second line, the composer struck gold later with her use of sonorous chord clusters in which the inner lines move downward in writing of no little complexity, testing polyphony in which the Canticum singers hold their nerve; a pity that this challenging piece ends rather tamely in a G Major resolution.

In sum, Cox and Canticum have given us an interesting miscellany including some pieces that are pretty familiar to those who have an interest in the field of contemporary choral composition and some rarities, even for the well-informed.  A more demanding editorial hand would have ironed out some problem points but the disc has considerable merit, not least for shedding light on some highly deserving writers.

 

 

 

 

Reviving the obscure

J.S. BACH SONATAS FOR VIOLA DA GAMBA AND HARPSICHORD

Laura Vaughan, Elizabeth Anderson

MOVE Records MD 3396

Robert James Stove’s booklet notes for this all-Bach CD begin by noting that ‘it is remarkable how his sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard remain in the shadows, at best, of most music lovers’ consciousness.’   He’s quite right, in a way: you won’t find many of us able to quote the initial themes of any movement in these three works, while our awareness of the cello suites, violin partitas and flute sonatas is theoretically profound.  I’m trying to recall when – or if – I’ve heard one of these gamba works in live performance but nothing springs to mind; cellists would be able to program them without much difficulty, but what’s the point when they’re already gifted with a mighty unaccompanied repertoire?

It’s not that we don’t have access to the instrument’s sound from local players, although I come from that generation where period instruments remained an unknown field until our post-university years.  Not that we didn’t know about Dolmetsch and  solitary standard-bearers like Landowska but their efforts were swamped by a musical administration in this country that just didn’t want to know.  If you search out these sonatas on modern CD catalogues, you’re swamped for choice – which might argue against Stove’s statement concerning their position in public consciousness.   But then, just because a work is recorded doesn’t mean that it impinges on the serious music world’s communal awareness.

Gamba expert Laura Vaughan and harpsichordist Elizabeth Anderson have produced a finely balanced recording of the sonatas, padding out their CD with a few arrangements: the two C Major Fugues BWV 952 and 953 where Vaughan takes the middle voice, and the  Trio Sonata in D minor from the set of six for organ, with the left hand part handed to the string player.  These fillers can disorient the casual listener by highlighting the middle line in each piece; probably more problematic in the little fugues where we’ve been taught to respect linear equality of timbre.  Not that this turns to irritation as the works are pretty transparent; the only ‘crowded’ polyphony in the BWV 952, where Bach ventures into minor keys at the fugue’s centre, presents no complex web to be deciphered.  In the other miniature, the gamba has more to do and, after the soprano line’s subject statement, has only about 4 bars of silence, being involved with lots of semiquaver work which necessarily attracts the ear away from whatever Anderson’s left hand is doing.  Indeed, the players might have been better advised to choose something more polyphonically taxing than these two slight keyboard scraps.

In the trio sonata, the mix works to better effect, I assume because the two upper parts are not challenged by a comparably interesting bass line so the listener’s focus falls on the interweaving and imitation between gamba and harpsichord treble.  The first movement is taken at a rather staid Andante pace, but not significantly different to many another organ solo reading.   Vaughan indulges in a bit of adjustment, taking her line down an octave for a stretch.  The following Adagio e dolce is more  problematic because the gamba sweeps all before it; despite the player’s best intentions, the string line is just too dominant and Anderson necessarily opts for a restrained registration.  The finale works better, possibly because the string line is mobile and Vaughan’s octave displacements give the top line exposure at tricky moments.  Yet the whole work has a deft purity to it – no ornamentation bells and whistles and a firm metre throughout with just a few slight rallentandi to avoid the suggestion of automatism.

The first of the gamba sonatas follows an equable path without any surprises.  Vaughan sets down her line with deliberation and Anderson maintains a benign commentary across the four movements.  I would have liked more bite from the string in parts of the first Allegro, for instance at throwaway segments like bars 90-92 or that odd unexpected syncopated sequence in bars 57-8.  But both musicians take their time with the odd movements, giving the strong melodic arabesques their full value and at all points letting the score breathe without hitching a ride on that relentless continuo homophony chugging band-wagon.

More immediately entertaining is the D Major Sonata No. 2.  Vaughan has more extended opportunities to engage with Anderson’s quirky right hand figures and the faster movements, the Allegri, present with a vitality that takes you by surprise; indeed, these four tracks sound as though the recording microphones have been positioned closer to both performers . . . although that could just be more a comment on the music itself than the work of the company’s veteran recorder/editor Vaughan McAlley.   The first of these fast movements comes over as an excellent collaboration, the sharing of material finely judged, while the harpsichord’s acquisition of chords impresses more for its unexpectedness; not the one or two in the first half, but the chain from bars 72 to 75 which, in this context, sound as though Puyana has hit the studio.  Later, the sheer busyness of the final movement is, in context, biting and crisp, the players deftly relieving the pressure when the movement hits F sharp minor at bar 84 and Bach thins out his layers for 12 bars or so before asking his players to bring us home with bounding enthusiasm.

The three-movement G  minor Sonata opens with a marvellously economical Allegro, one of those instances in Bach’s works where the sheer manipulation of melodic cells distracts attention from the performance itself.  One of the more engrossing tracks on the CD, these musicians traverse the pages without labouring the point, offering the gentlest of hesitations at startling moments like the out-of-nowhere 7th chord at bar 39 and shaping those two points where both instruments play the opening figure in unison, suggesting the finale to the D minor Keyboard Concerto for a brief moment.  Even better follows in the central Adagio where Vaughan and Anderson reach an interpretative high-point, the inbuilt pavane-like stateliness treated with an exemplary attention to detail but also with a communal  fluency that displays a deep awareness of each other’s status at every point of the movement.  As a result, the pages, despite a double-repeat, fly past.  The second Allegro also passes agreably enough, the executants’ dovetailing as proficient as ever and Vaughan laudably exact;  I liked the bite she gave to the triple- and double-stops during the 19th bar from the end, but would have liked a similar emphasis at the F Major explosion beginning bar 44: one of the few full-bodied chords (is it the only one?) for the gamba in all three sonatas.

However, in their basic character, these performances remain consistent.  They exemplify a lightly-applied scholarship where the bar-line is not permitted to hold tyrannical sway; rather, each phrase is handled with apt consideration and the give-and-take of these amiable sonatas is honoured.   Neither Vaughan nor Anderson tries to over-dramatise the scores, but you can find plenty of tension in their products – it just won’t slap you in the face with attention-grabbing force majeure; these two are no Baroque Kath and Kim.  But they’re not effete tinkerers either and, if they stand among a large group of musicians who have recorded these gamba works, they are distinguished by a clean-edged honesty to their work.

 

 

 

 

All for a good cause

PORTRAIT OF BOB BROWN

Michael Kieran Harvey, Emily Sheppard

MOVE Records MD 3415

Safe to say that few among us cognoscenti  have any thoughts but charitable ones towards one-time Greens Senator Bob Brown, the exemplar of an activist politician who always stood on the side of the angels in a parliamentary ambience that was rarely anything higher than murky and usually contemptible and tawdry.  Small wonder that another Tasmanian eminence, Michael Kieran Harvey, should be involved in a musical eulogy to Brown who, though born and educated in New South Wales, has become synonymous in his public life with the island state’s environmental battles.

For his homage-of-sorts, Harvey and associate artist Emily Sheppard have prepared three works – two of them original and one a revision.  All three are of shortish duration and the CD winds up being considerably less than half the length of a ‘normal’ contemporary recording: Harvey’s title track is 11:16 minutes, Sheppard’s Aftermath for viola and voice is 9:02, and Harvey’s Homage to Liszt reworked for violin/piano duet last for 9:20 minutes. These compositions were all performed at the musical launch of a collection of poems by medical practitioner Arjun von Caemmerer in October last year at the Conservatorium Concert Hall in Hobart.

Portrait of Bob Brown gives equal billing to violin and piano, not exactly asking for stamina, although the piece contains a few active bouts, but more an ability to negotiate smoothly a sequence of about five segments, the task made a touch more difficult as the work contains two significant pauses – changes of gear but not suggestive of discrete movements.  In fact, the score sounds like a rhapsody, the spirit taking the listener where it wills.  If you’re concerned that Harvey is proposing a kind of chamber-scale Heldenleben in which we follow Brown’s spiritual development from Oberon to Cygnet, fear not: the soundscape of this Portrait is non-specific, essentially abstract, non-alliterative and suggestive of a consistent personality rather than a psychological pilgrimage.

The work opens with strong pointillist statements from Harvey, Sheppard constructing a firm aria line under which the keyboard moves towards subterranean rumbles.  The composer’s language sounds too free and loaded with repetitions to be twelve-tone or doctrinaire but the events that transpire are structured towards an end, in this case from trills and a muffled dialogue to an increase in pace with the piano moving into aggression. As the dynamic changes in both instruments, the pace quickens to a hurtling speed where piano and violin occasionally join in note-for-note duets, sometimes in melodic unison, at other times following each other’s path at close range.  Although clearly written out, this writing is reminiscent of Harvey’s volcanic flights of improvisation.

A pause leads to a segment suggesting the opening strophes, albeit with a pronounced menace from a two-note tattoo in the piano’s bass underlining the fragility of the violin and keyboard’s right-hand decorative elaborations positioned in a high tessitura.  A further change to briskness sees the use of hand-muted piano notes; hard to accomplish, I would have thought, given the pell-mell pace.  Another pause before a reversion to the piano’s pointillism – single notes and chords – under the violin’s exposed lyricism and the work ends with a peroration in strong statements alternating with softer joint textures, a gradual recessiveness before the final trill-laden bars for both players.  The framework, as you can see, is not over-complex although the instrumental interplay and grafting impresses for its assurance.  It leaves its interpretation open; those that want can probably find suggestions of Brown the environmental warrior, the defender of personal liberty, the intransigent proselytizer, the relentless scourge of Parliamentary hypocrisy.  But the piece doesn’t really operate on those terms; what it does suggest is a combination of restlessness and quiescence which could apply to any man but seems to suit Brown more than most of us.

Sheppard’s work is a lament in what I think is C; could be B, but it sounds more like the former.  Its language is unrelievedly minor, even when the composer/executant is playing Major 3rds.  The progress of Aftermath sounds improvised, as though Sheppard is following a pattern as far as she wants to, then moves into another emotionally similar path.  At a few points, she sings a wordless consonantial fragment above her instrumental accompaniment which itself takes on various shapes throughout the score’s length: repeated arpeggio patterns, orthodox pizzicato and the left-hand variety, two-string unisons, harmonics, trills.  Sheppard says the work came into existence at Sarah Anne Rocks on the Tasmanian west coast, ravaged by bushfire in January 2016.  Even for those of us who don’t know the area, Aftermath suggests loss and grief, and with a strangely Celtic tinge.

Harvey’s Homage to Liszt is better known – well, to me – as a duet for piano and percussion, shorter than this arrangement.  In four parts, it takes on the Hungarian composer’s ‘look’, following a varied path of emotional sympathy though a ballade, a waltz, a csardas and that form intimately associated with the composer’s popular face, a Consolation.  Harvey takes Lisztian tropes along with direct quotes and creates a formidable edifice; a small prelude suggesting Brubeck in animated mode leads into a Romantically swirling ballade before the waltz’s re-visiting of one of the Transcendental Studies, the brilliantly parodic Hungarian dance that manages to raise the spectre of Bartok as well as mirroring Liszt’s exciting rapid scale-work across the instrument’s complete range, before a token nocturne with a 12-tone melody finishes the piece, reminding us of the composer’s final experimental works where traditional harmony was dissolving.

Sheppard’s contribution matches Harvey in enthusiasm and the track is a splendid collaboration where neither performer puts a foot wrong, the many synchronous passages exciting to experience.  For all that, I can’t think what it has to do with Bob Brown, except as a an enthusiastic salute to a character that most us would probably remember, if unfairly, as something of a sobersides.

The proceeds from this CD are being donated to the Bob Brown Foundation, an organization dedicated to ‘action with a vision to protect Australia’s wild and scenic natural places of ecological and global significance.’  It’s hard to think of a cause more worthwhile in these shameful days when the Great Barrier Reef is being killed off under our eyes and Brown’s successors are ignoring any environmental danger-signs yet wasting their energy in schoolyard squabbles.

 

 

Triple threat

BY ARRANGEMENT

Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday May 24

 

                               

          Andrew Haveron                                                Timo-Veikko Valve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A shining light in a drab year

KING ROGER

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Friday May 19

 

                                                Michael Honeyman

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

June Diary

Thursday June 1

STEFAN DOHR: SERENADE

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

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

 

Monday June 5

MIGRATION

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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

 

Thursday June 8

TRIO ALBA

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 7 pm

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

 

Friday June 9

ENSEMBLE MODERN: TRAILBLAZING

National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

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

 

Tuesday June 13

Pacifica Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

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

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

 

Thursday June 15

ZAPPA: YELLOW SHARK

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

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

 

Thursday June 15

HAYDN’S CREATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

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

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

 

Sunday June 18

SONGS OF THE NIGHT

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

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

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

 

Sunday June 18

SCHUBERT, SHOSTAKOVICH AND BEYOND

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

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

 

Tuesday June 20

SCHUBERT GALA WITH TIMO-VEIKKO VALVE

Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

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

 

Thursday June 22

CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

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

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

 

Friday June 23

MSO PLAYS PASTORAL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

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

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

 

Sunday June 25

SCINTILLATINGLY SCANDINAVIAN

Trio Anima Mundi

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne at 3 pm

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

 

Monday June 26

INTIMATE MOZART

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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

 

Thursday June 29

Behzod Abduraimov

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

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

 

Thursday June 29

MSO PLAYS DAS LIED VON DER ERDE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucid and airy

ANGELA HEWITT

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday May 16

                          

                                             Angela Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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