A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst

Friday October 23

(L to R) Julia Russoniello, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Georgia Browne, Kirsty McCahon, Daniel Yeadon

We’ve had one Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra recital/concert already in the Melbourne Digital series; now it’s the turn of the ensemble’s Sydney chapter to keep the Richard Gill flag flying, in which undertaking they were helped considerably by having Georgia Browne’ s flute as either top line or stage-front in this program of which three-quarters was completely new to me. The organizers gave us a familiar Mozart in the D Major Flute Quartet K. 285 but balanced this with an early string quartet, K.157 in C Major. This brace was book-ended by two Carl Friedrich Abel scores: a three-movement (like everything on this night) flute quartet in A Major, unhappily juxtaposed with a work of the same genre by the younger master; and the Flute Concerto No. 5 in G Major, one of a set of six that are probably grist to every flautist’s mill these days.

A product of the Bach house through his studentship at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig during Johann Sebastian’s years there, Abel was well known in his lifetime, notably for a time by association with Johann Christian Bach with whom he established a concert series in London. He also met the 8-year-old Mozart in that city when he himself was about 40 – which is a nice, if fleeting connection with which to yoke these two writers. But Browne has a stronger relationship with Abel’s music than most of her peers, as she has recorded this G Major Concerto (and several other flute-dominated works by this composer) with the Icelandic ensemble, Nordic Affect.

As the night turned out, Browne made the best of all possible cases for Abel through her fluent technical control and an unfailing search for variety of timbre and shape, even in the unabashedly learned pages of the concerto’s opening Allegro. As a sample of ensemble work, this score proved to be the night’s least satisfying – not because of the ARCO musicians’ expertise, but mainly because of a lack of substance from the string quintet and its one-line-per-instrument lack of ‘bloom’, as I’ve heard expert acousticians describe it. You had precision in spades, each note on the dot, but vibrato or open with no mellowing shades at all. Yes, we’ve been here before: this purity of output is a period music enthusiast’s nirvana and it is irrelevant in faster music, but middle movements from Andante down can be a trial.

It’s probably because of the continual close suggestions of a chest of viols, as though every work played here found its antecedent in a Lawes suite. This might suit some writers but you’d have to question the approach in a work like Mozart’s delectably optimistic flute quartets. Compositions where the sinews stand out – like Art of Fugue or A Musical Offering – benefit from this no-nonsense treatment but its apologists argue for a wider historical range of application than just the Baroque. At all events, one side of the argument is proposed by this organization, which is consistent in its application across the repertoire.

In the concerto, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo took on the continuo function; in this situation, his contribution came across very clearly and made its presence felt throughout in this musician’s one appearance on the program. The same could be said of Kirsty McCahon’s bass which, as always, contributed an enthusiastic line in support of her higher-pitched companions’ caperings, including those of cellist Daniel Yeadon. Even the reedy- textured violins of Matthew Greco and Julia Russoniello took on an infectious bounce in the first movement’s initial strutting tutti.

But the delight of this program constituent came in Browne’s appearance as a fore-grounded soloist in her own right, not as the top line of a quartet. Her first appearance was lengthy and, as the piece progressed, the flute’s elaborations on the opening march theme dominated proceedings. But Browne took all the tricks with an ideal placement of each note while Abel puts his soloist through a range of technical and breath-control tests; nothing flamboyant, but ever-demanding. He even managed to insert some thematic variants which Mozart might have been happy to imitate. I don’t know who wrote the cadenzas for this concerto – probably not Abel, if other manuscripts are any guide – but this one turned out sufficiently voluble and just long enough.

I think the middle Adagio was in G minor; whatever the case, these pages tested Browne’s sustaining power. She dominated the texture even more here but had to work hard because of the longer time for sweeping bow strokes allowed to the strings. To leader Matthew Greco’s credit, the pace proved sensible for all concerned; not over-weighty or insistent. Again, Browne’s cadenza brimmed with good judgement – but then, so did the ensemble’s approach, particularly in the treatment of ornamentation which emerged as it should: without fanfare or obviously basted onto a line, but just a slight disturbance in the Force.

Just how lively this ensemble can sound emerged when the Presto finale flurried into action, the results justifying the observation that this group (maybe just this section of the ARCO personnel?) sounds at its most convincing when the tempo is rapid. However, the flute gets total exposure when the tuttis end and Abel indulges in reams of rapid-fire sequence work. There’s an odd mix of the utterly predictable (thanks to repetitions, he being capable of three repetitions of a set phrase when Mozart would have been happy with two, at most) and a (in context) startling novelty, like a modulation which, in the normal run of events, was unanticipated.

Even against the light weight of a string quintet and theorbo combination, the period flute that Browne used was sometimes hard pressed to be heard, particularly when the instrument was operating inside its lowest fifth. But, in the main, the flute carved out its path with an appealing breathy quality, climaxing in yet another cadenza – which seemed unnecessary, given the amount of exercise the soloist had to put in throughout this movement. And the small ensemble brought the exercise to a gratifying end with a congenial solidarity.

Abel’s Flute Quartet in A Major Op. 12 No. 2 opened the recital with Browne taking top place above Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon. Her breath allocation made an interesting study across the opening measures of the first Un poco Allegro; indeed, it continued throughout a somewhat jumpy line that reached a finely couched oasis at a sustained E across bars 76 and 77. As far as I can tell, Browne’s transpositions – actually, translocations would be a better term – were kept to a minimum.

Browne’s melding into the fabric during the following Adagio ma non troppo showed at its subtlest during the repeated E semiquavers across bars 21 to 23. She also gave us an elegant taste of the galant in her negotiation of the appoggiaturas in bars 34 and 36, while Greco’s violin entered into a delectable partnership with Browne at bars 51-53 to put a suitable cap on proceedings. With the Tempo di Menuetto, Abel sets up a melody that is deftly shaped as a comparable piece by Mozart, but it moves into ordinariness at bars 5 and 6 when the sheen of direct speech goes astray. Greco found it hard to tamp down his attack in this movement, although Browne maintained a soft dynamic for the most part, so he’s not totally responsible for his own prominence. This last rondo is amiable without much content – a certain fluffiness around the edges made it unmemorable in itself, if a fitting vehicle to introduce the musicians without much stress brought into play.

Mozart’s own quartet coming straight after Abel’s gave Browne even more opportunity to demonstrate the breathy purity of her output while Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon brought as a counterweight their trademark lack of vibrato and open-string fear. You could pick up on phrasing differences between flute and strings (violin and viola) at certain points but more distracting was the tendency by the upper strings to employ a crescendo/diminuendo effect all over the shop. And you missed some sparks from the violin’s 2nds in places like bar 115, even if Schmitz compensated for this with her own contributions between bars 132 and 135. I missed the repetitions of both halves in this movement but that absence was not confined to this movement which nonetheless revealed a firmness and unanimity of ensemble from all involved.

Thanks to the strings’ pizzicati, the Adagio is a gift for the flautist who holds our interest across all 34 bars. Browne maintained an even melodic flow with no abrupt dynamic shifts. typified by a carefully prepared soft high D at the end of bar 21. But then, across this night none of her high notes grated. In the brilliantly happy Rondeau, Greco sounded scratchy at the throwaway gesture in bar 20 but made a more secure showing at its reappearance in bar 99; he also failed to etch a definite path through the bars’ 133-139 partial episode. You could not fault Schmitz or Yeadon in this exhilarating movement which reached a delectable pianissimo for all in the last main theme restatement beginning at bar 231, the whole set of pages taken at a brisk, not breathless, pace.

Of all players on this occasion, Yeadon had the most trouble with his tuning, his instrument affected by Sydney’s seasonal humidity. Consequently, he had to spend some time getting ready for the Mozart string quartet; then he and the other members of the group – Greco, Russoniello Schmitz – did not show at their best in a slip-shod account of the 1772 composition’s first strophes. In fact, the ensemble’s balance sounded unsettled, as in the recessed contributions from Russoniello in bars 25 to 28. A major signpost in the violins’ triple- and double-stops at bar 60 came across as laboured, although a similar construction in the last bar presented with much more acuity. Finally, I didn’t see what was gained by the insertion of a short violin cadenza at bar 74.

The group did repeat the first part of the Andante; a kind structural concession that stood out on this evening. Yet, in spite of the sensibility shown in this movement, the combined texture at points like bars 16 to 21 sounded like a piano accordion in timbre, possibly because of the octave unison between first and second violins not helped by the viola’s bland arpeggio filler. Once again, Russoniello went missing between bars 57 and 64 despite having the principal matter (what there is of it) in her part.

Greco showed to better advantage from the outset of the Presto finale as he and Russoniello were kept busy by the brisk pace and the score’s racy character, the first violin’s address best illustrated by his biting attack in the section from bar 85 onward. Despite commentators directing you to hear operatic traces in this work because Mozart was writing these quartets at the same time as Lucio Silla, this movement is memorable for its lavish use of syncopation which tends to attract the attention of performers more than giving primacy to melodic development; not that there’s much of that in these rapid-fire pages, here gifted with some suitable abruptness at the final chord.

It’s an immature work and streets away from what was going to turn up ten years later in the quartets dedicated to Haydn. But it made for an indication of what Mozart could do with inspirations that were short-stemmed. It might have gained from a less timbrally astringent handling but, as a rule, pieces of near-juvenilia need top-notch performers to lift them out of the second or third tier level they occupy in a great composer’s output.

But ARCO deserves our thanks for this exercise because, although it might not make Abel converts of us all, the occasion gave us the opportunity to revel in Browne’s expertly honed performance skills and her ability to take an also-ran score and turn it into a miniature gem.

Power from four likely lads

AN EVENING WITH ORAVA QUARTET

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Saturday October 17

 

Orava Quartet

Using the resources of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music which is being celebrated, as usual, in Townsville, Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett inserted this popular Queensland ensemble into their strong Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series, yet again showing that lockdown means nothing to administrators with a will. Mind you, the program was a brief one, with only two scheduled works: Haydn’s Sunrise Op. 76 No. 4, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 of 1924. Lucky I hung around at the end because the group came back to play a filler in the third movement, Tres lent, of the Ravel String Quartet.

It turned into a bit of a lop-sided hour with the Schulhoff score gaining most from the Oravas’ attentions. As expected, the young men made much of the vehemence to be found in the odd-numbered movements, but they were able to present an attractively dawdling version of the problematic second movement Allegretto and surprised with a non-indulgent treatment of the final affecting Andante – not flawless but assuredly insightful, living up to the composer’s emotional addresses (and distresses, for that matter).

The quartet’s score begins with a forte sempre dynamic direction across the board; the Oravas were quite happy to intensify the one term and obey the other. You could not want for any enthusiasm here in a Presto that owes much to Bartok and a little less to Stravinsky, and the pace was pretty inflexible up to two bars after Number 11 in the Philharmonia/Universal Edition score when the pizzicati, au talon and arco melange halts and the four lines come together in a four-octave-wide unison stringendo before a ferocious reversion to taws.

It sounds like an onslaught and in some ways it was, but the players found room for a bit of tempo flexibility along with the pressing motor-rhythms, so much so that the effect was far from freneticism for its own sake. The ensemble was crisp and exact as the players set out the ordered clash between modal and dissonant writing that started in D and ended in C. The result was pacy and entertaining to hear as the machismo level in the Townsville theatre took an upward turn.

Violist Thomas Chawner dominated the following Allegretto, his partners giving him an unobstructed field for his Number 1 solo. And he did not disappoint, generating a malleable and accurate line that exemplified the malincolia grotesca that Schulhoff required. Not to be outdone, cellist Marek Kowalik took up the reins after the the Tempo I marking: a 17-bar lyric of remarkable variety. All players made the sudden sul ponticello Nachtmusik a startling motion-packed melange before Chawner returned for a brief, acerbic cadenza leading to the last lingering and opening-recollecting violin solo; the texture quietly restless until the fade to darkness with a final squiggle from the top line.

It’s an unusual set of pages, organized but whimsical, and packed with effects that, for the most part, don’t get in the way. What I carried away was an awareness of the executants’ respect for every note and its placement, especially in the passagework of communal demi-semiquavers in pianissimo parallel motion. A turn back to the muscular broke in with the Allegro giocoso, a highpoint emerging at Number 2 with some gripping duets in fourths and a burst of unison work – the kind of fierce action that suits this group to a T. Nevertheless, five bars after Number 4 where the dynamic of the potentially Slovak melody is blazoned out, the composer’s forte enjoyed an upgrade to fortissimo. No wonder: this jaunty, affirmative and tautly written genre of composition presents an irresistible temptation to overload on testosterone.

In late Mahler mode, Schulhoff reserves his slow movement for the quartet’s finale: an Andante molto sostenuto of grave introspection, doubly telling after the hefty folksiness of its precedent. The cello has all the running to begin with, the bar-3 high A sharp not enjoying the most secure of treatments. But the landscape of dejection enjoyed some expertly accomplished interventions, like the viola and cello harmonics punctuations following Daniel Kowalik’s brief cadenza straight after Number 2, even if these sounded over-emphatic under the first violin’s sweet, atonal solo line.

The players completed their task with a moving account of the death-watch beetle mutterings in the final segment after Number 4, although the strictissimo sempre in tempo of the preceding violin two-bar cadenza proved to be something of a moveable feast. But the group made telling work of the quartet’s final, twitching bars in which several commentators have found intimations of Schulhoff’s concentration camp death 18 years later; stretching their levels of prescience, I think, since the writer’s state of mind at the time of this composition was more likely shadowed by his in-the-field experiences of World War I. Whatever your opinion, this haunting passage concluded an interpretation that successfully balanced brio and placidity, often on consecutive pages.

Opening their debut MDCH appearance, the Oravas ran through their chosen Haydn with its inane title. First violin Daniel Kowalik surprised with his rubato approach to the first aspiring theme, and you were unable to pick out a steady pulse until the semiquavers kicked off in bar 22. Still, the ensemble showed its teeth at places like bar 54 with a few bars of upper-level orderly scurrying. And, to their credit, the group stayed consistent in their schizoid interpretation, changing to ambling pace whenever the ‘sunrise’ theme emerged.

Along with the interrupted impetus approach, you could be surprised by individual touches as well, like the ringing top A flat from Daniel Kowalik at bar 85, the well-judged prefatory ritenuto at bar 108, cellist Marek Kowalik’s attention-grabbing slight delay at bar 166, and the clarity at work in the players’ output during polyphonic interchanges like those beginning at bar 130. Not that the balance remained perfect throughout. In the second movement Adagio, a sudden rush of blood meant that the first violin’s G across bar 2 disappeared in the forceful subsidiary E flats from second violin David Dalseno and Karel Kowalik. Urgency wasn’t actually in play here but the pace chosen seemed to me to be on the quick side.

Countering the steady-pace regularity came odd spots like the pause before starting bar 27, the reason for which was hard to fathom unless the group considered that the first violin’s leap from a staff-top G to a low E pointed to a need for opening a new sentence. A slow-down move at bar 35 heralded a pace that sounded more like an adagio. Later, progress came to an arresting halt at bar 51 for the first violin’s quaver rest, possibly to highlight the main theme’s resuscitation en clair. Dalseno took his time over his exposed semiquavers in bar 60, but then I would have liked more time expended on the C minor fermata chord in bar 65.

I liked the hesitant start to the Menuetto‘s main theme, as it made a point of the determination invested in the following measures, but it might have been varied with profit further down the track; you didn’t have to utilise that tic all the time. Haydn’s enigmatic Trio enjoyed a welcome equivalence of speed, rather than being slowed down for its minor/chromatic suggestions; the result gave a fine drive to the whole section, although – again – I thought the fermata at bar 97 could have been sustained a tad longer.

Another idiosyncrasy appeared early in the Allegro finale where both violins inserted a slight comma after their last note in bar 3 – and repeated this quirk every time the pattern was repeated. Nevertheless, these pages passed along with plenty of sustained fluent action, the only question mark coming through at the Piu allegro of bar 110, after which the dovetailing of lines could/should have been smoother. Yet you had to admire without question the full-bodied unison octave work at bar 161, these musicians relishing a final welter and carrying it off with refreshing panache.

To cheer us up after the Schulhoff, the Oravas decided to play the Ravel movement, but I’m not sure if you could say they lightened the mood overmuch. Possibly the players see this piece as a benign nocturne, which is fair enough as a general view of its main body, with some superb interludes based on the first movement’s initial theme. More memorable than worrying about this choice of program extra, the reading included some splendid moments, like the viola’s richly pointed contribution at the key change at Number 1, and again at Number 2; and like the subtle pause at six bars after Number 2.

I missed out on the cello’s pedal E three bars after Number 5 – surprising, since the lowest line is marked piano while the other three parts are pitched at pianissimo; but then, perhaps it was my equipment at fault. Later, I missed the distinction in diminished dynamics in bars 6 and 7 after Number 8. But Chawner made a welcome, direct and expressively balanced reappearance at Number 9, taking his colleagues into a fine conclusion, especially a carefully calculated interpretation of the last seven bars. It made for a reassuringly ‘sweet’ ending to the night but a better result might have been achieved by outing Ravel’s second movement Assez vif, which melds rhythmic excitement with this some of this slow movement’s subtle shadings.

It was a well worthwhile exercise, in the end. These young musicians have been successful in forming a musical alliance that works exceptionally well, four voices distinguished from several other high-profile Australian ensembles for a practically flawless purity of intonation, and an equally reliable balance of output that is so good that you notice immediately those few places where it falters. And, of course, their program gave us a welcome reminder of what ‘normal’ life looks like in a state that is coming closer than most to cultural resurrection.

The long and the short

NEW SOUNDS

Alex Raineri and Angus Wilson

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday October 10

Angus Wilson

So what do we do from now on? This is the last of the recitals in this Festival sequence – the end of music-making in Brisbane for the year . . . well, the production of music that is reliable, serious and regular by nature. Yes, you expect some other bodies to put up their hands to present the odd program, and so some of them have done. But we have come to rely on Alex Raineri and his organization to supply us with fortnightly events of musical value. From here on, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has the field all to itself as far as generating streamed material of consequence goes.

Raineri has a big reputation for interpreting contemporary music and his wind-up for 2020 played to this strength. The night featured first performances of four Australian compositions, all written by Raineri’s peers and colleagues associated with the avant-garde Kupka’s Piano enterprise: Samantha Wolf, Jakob Bragg, Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle. These works featured piano and percussion – usually vibraphone, handled by Angus Wilson who is another Kupka associate.

Agreable as it was to hear these fresh works, they were all – deliberately, or by chance – brief. So the duo gave at least half of their allotted time to an import in John Luther Adams’ ten-year-old Four Thousand Holes which requires two-to-six musicians but also has a continuous electronic underpinning. This non-live component doesn’t actually do much except swell and diminish, ending as it began after a half-hour-plus round-the-block hegira. The human contributors to this reading were Raineri on piano – staying at the keyboard throughout, I think, rather than making forays under the lid – and Wilson handling vibraphone and glockenspiel, following the composer’s requirement for ‘metallic percussion sounds’.

This performance was bedevilled near its beginning by several cuts in transmission: some of them short, then later dilating to the point where the broadcaster had to put up a web-site frame. After the transmission was completed, Raineri posted a tape of the complete recital for those feeling short-changed by these missing fragments. I dutifully went back to hear the first moves in Adams’ work – never look a gift horse, etc. – but this extra exposure achieved very little in my case. To be frank, I rather enjoyed the moments of unintentional disruption; probably a generational overload of Cage-ean yearning for any signs of Zen in music, according to which there are no mistakes or flaws, even if there are. But I delighted in those passages where the sound came back intact while the players were freeze-framed in action.

As for what the live performers had to do, the essentials seemed to be plenty of chords from the piano, mainly major, and single notes from the percussion, although I’m probably wrong about that because Wilson kept two sticks/mallets ready in both hands; still, it seemed to me that his function was essentially pointillist while the piano amplified the ongoing electronic stream with chords that drifted in and out of consonance with it.

Actually, the in-and-out breaths of this sonorous back-cloth became annoying, possibly because of an absence of variety – harmonic, polyphonic, rhythmic: you name it – but chiefly because the mesh wound up sounding like an accordion and, given the unadventurous nature of its construction, a particularly elementary. Young Talent Time-reminiscent one. You’d suppose that all these long periods of stasis would engender a sympathy with Adams’ emotional landscape, which involves the wide open spaces of America’s northernmost state, residence in which shaped the composer’s aesthetic aspirations.

Wilson used both keyboards, sometimes by themselves, sometimes at the same time but the chief memory of his activity remains those single note patterns. Yet, even when his dynamic was at its most compelling and Raineri’s chords ranged widest, the work’s process and progress comprised a haze, scintillations breaking through but not intended to jar against the prevailing sound continuum. After a while, you were tempted to abandon hope of any analysis and just suppress the critical, sinking into the repetitions and the glowing taped-sound stratum. All that was missing was a chain of visuals, like sub-Arctic landscapes of snow and ice-filled vistas until the instruments stopped and the tape drew to its elongated diminuendo conclusion (in E Major?).

You are in sync with Adams or you’re not; he isn’t of the same ilk as the big-name minimalists and ‘modernists’ who can often enrage with their futility or pretension, but he works on a Cinemascope level in which the natural world fundamental is idealised. It’s easy to go along with this cosmic humming, the musical equivalent of a lengthy ‘Om’, but I’ve been suspicious for many years of works that ask you to ignore all that you know and surrender to a benign intellectual coma. For all that, both players did the composer excellent service with a reading that outstripped two other recorded interpretations that I’ve heard recently, their superior in exerting personality and finding space in an aural area where both were difficult to achieve.

Each of the Australian premieres was preceded by a taped short address from its composer, most of them revisiting topics that had already been made public in Raineri’s interviews, published on the internet some days before the event itself. Wolf’s Bull in A China Shop set piano and vibraphone in bitonal competition, the most interesting moments coming when both instruments played the same melody line in their own specific tonalities – the effect rather like an organ Mixture stop. You were hard pressed to find anything aggressively taurine here, particularly during the substantial middle section reminiscent of Pagodes that moved into a vibraphone ostinato supporting 5th-heavy piano chords. A moderate degree of deftness appeared in the final ‘fast’ section that had more than a touch of Bernstein in his dance mode about it.

Both players worked inside the piano for Bragg’s Nest of gravel in which the sounds produced related strongly to the composer’s desire to suggest the granular and dessicated. Wilson mounted a slightly grating ostinato with wire-brush strokes on the upper strings, graduating from one hand to two in the piece’s later reaches. Raineri contributed his own bevy of scrapes on the lower range of the instrument, using a variety of wood and (I think) plastic strips as well as various sticks while complementing his scrapes and block glissandi with punctuating stopped notes. The physical presentation looked device-heavy as we were confronted with a wide gamut of effects. Whether the whole thing lived up to its backdrop aims of illuminating COVID-19 lockdown life and the constricted world of refugees still imprisoned on fast-decaying Pacific islands depends on your response to auditory stimuli, of which this brief score offered a sizeable amount.

Reardon-Smith’s three questions of scale appeared to be over too soon for anything much to land. Her first movement, three ants carry a dead wasp/east coast-west coast fires, had Raineri operating inside his piano with a long stick ending in a knob, producing single notes both struck and stopped. Wilson’s vibraphone confined itself to single notes. The composer’s debt to Morton Feldman seemed most apparent in this section. The next segment, the continuous trickle of my cat’s drinking fountain/the port of beirut explosion, impressed for its unsettling mobility. Here, the pianist scratched out sounds with two drum-sticks and both players interchanged range areas to produce a mobile fretwork of sonorities, Wilson’s contribution enriched by two cow-bells. At its climax, the work simply stopped, the narrative halting with nothing left to say.

Finally, mould growing inside an unopened tub of coconut yoghurt/we have all run out of medicare-supported therapy sessions saw Raineri at the keyboard for an array of single notes, indulging in a pin-pricking intersection with the vibraphone. The content of this movement moved between the frantic, including one wild piano passage, and the refined. Wilson’s cowbells weren’t struck but patted and tapped near the end, the piano mirroring this reticence with isolated blips.

These comments are quickly-noted gleanings from a run-through that left little time for awareness of much beyond texture. Added to that, you were confronted with the same problem as the Adams work presents: how much do you invest in any composer-derived information? Reardon-Smith’s movement titles split into halves where one is highly personal, the other broader in its implications – even the last with its reference to a national health crisis. But does either half help you to understand the composer’s intentions? It’s an open question to which – of course – there’s no definite answer.

Last of the Australian quartet, Rottle’s Public Figure springs from the composer’s interest on how personalities use the internet and associated media to make their names. Another score for piano and vibraphone, it revealed some early dexterity with both instruments playing the same notes in unison, then just after each other, the piano’s right hand and the vibraphone working into catchy off-beat rhythms before Wilson picked up a large string-instrument bow to create an all-too-familiar unearthly effect, then gave the same soft treatment to a stray cymbal.

Raineri moved inside his piano for some short glissandi while the bowed vibraphone helped generate a cleverly atmospheric interlude – soft, with threadbare action – before the piano regained authority against a brushed cymbal and, from nowhere, emerged a five-note motif that brought memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to this irreverent mind. I started to wonder about the tuning in some of the piano’s lower notes but was taken aback by the subtle, inconclusive ending: a parable of the quest for public recognition, maybe.

Here was an ambitious program, a striking ending to the Festival’s 10-event series. It’s hard to emphasize to onlookers how much we are indebted to Raineri – and his guests – for keeping live music-making alive here. With limited resources, he has presented a splendid variety of programs in which we were lucky to enjoy several excellent interpretations. This final one had the added benefit of giving a small showcase to four young local voices, in which endeavour Wilson and Raineri demonstrated an unflinching probity, despite the physical (and, one hopes, transitory) handicap that the percussionist had to endure and the shared necessity of coping with such disparate creations.

A dry season trifecta

BERNADETTE HARVEY

Musica Viva

Thursday October 1

Bernadette Harvey

The latest in Musica Viva’s direct telecast recitals, this program found pianist Bernadette Harvey performing in a Sydney gallery to a small audience. As far as I can remember from previous MV escapades of this kind, having a live audience is a new move, a sign that what we used to consider as normal could be on the way back. Of course, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has been spruiking for live audience members over the past weeks but then Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have been at the forefront of pandemic-time musical activity since the first hit revealed that life for all artists had changed, these two blazing a trail for everybody else to follow – tentatively, in the main, especially considering the talent allowed to lie fallow that emerges in lots of orchestral rehashes and solo instrumental squibs.

No point in getting bitter, is there? Even if the thought of all that salaried talent fallen into quiescence makes you wonder about an absence of enterprise from bodies with pages of patrons and sponsorships, all quite content to show minimal signs of life, leaving real and useful activity up to the MDCH and Brisbane Music Festival’s Alex Raineri. Musica Viva is doing its best, faced with the enforced absence of its usual rota of overseas guests. So Harvey’s hour of performance brightened up an operational landscape that currently depends largely on the drive of three young musicians.

Her program fell into three sections: a completely unfamiliar (to me, if not to you, mainly because I can’t trace a published score or a recorded performance) Second Sonatine by Donald Hollier who stands among the least-performed of this country’s senior composers; a selection of five pieces from Chopin’s Op. 10 Etudes – Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9 and 4; and Alternating Current by the American writer Kevin Puts, which is one of Harvey’s party pieces as she recorded it for the Tall Poppies label in 2011 and on YouTube you can find her authoritative live performance from March last year in Tucson.

Written in 1997, Alternating Current proved to be the most interesting work on this program. Its three movements kept you engaged through their motoric energy and Puts’ mastery of making his material work to fine effect, both in terms of virtuosity and simple emotional messaging. The opening is reminiscent of a toccata – not necessarily a Bach, but more a Buxtehude with its constant changes of pace. This enjoyed a brilliant expounding from Harvey, who showed herself quite aware of the composition’s metrical dispositions and the often relentless digital precision required to swamp the listener in a benign hammering. Despite the brilliance of these pages – an exhilarating updating of Le Tic-toc-choc – I was more taken by the following slow movement with its descending bell-like chords and simple melodic motives – the whole a mono-chromatic canvas in the end where the insistence on a root tonality (E flat? Couldn’t tell for sure because of screen/sound delay and creative camera angles) generated an all-too-appealing immersive web of sonority.

For a finale, Puts went all out in another rapid movement, also something of a toccata but an intentionally bitonal one – each hand playing in the ‘key’ of the preceding movements. I tried keeping track of the matter under discussion but soon gave up because clearly the urgent forward motion was the prime aim. Here, Harvey proved most persuasive, generating full-bodied washes of sound, making light work of the deft syncopations. As with the first movement, you were taken up by the energy and insistence although, thanks to the superimposed tonalities, this finale showed more bite in its dissonances and more variety in its march towards a harmonically satisfying, if orthodox, conclusion.

Hollier’s 1996 Second Sonatine, subtitled On popular themes, runs to four movements and cites themes that everyone should know – if only they were recognizable. But it’s not the composer’s job to make his music over-simple, although Hollier goes some way towards that in his third movement Ayre: Nostalgico, con molto rubato – a rumination on the Lennon(?)-McCartney song Yesterday. Thank God Harvey told us at the end which other sources had been recast.

A choral (?) prelude made for an elegant opening in the slow and stately mode that the title probably was meant to suggest, samples of it discernible in everything of this genre from Bach to Reger. What first impressed you was Hollier’s whimsical mordents in the progress of his melodic line, which was punctuated by quick block chords moving in either direction. Climaxing in a state of quasi-hysteria, the movement covered itself with a dark, slow conclusion. This used Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves, carefully transmuted. A passacaglia followed, but nothing like the big C minor for organ; this was a dance that moved in metre between 5/8 and 6/8 and covered in its freneticism the title song from Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! Although the fluctuating time-signature suggests a bumpy ride, this was a steady set of pages, regularly irregular but well-equipped with clusters and rapid scale-work. And brief.

The Yesterday treatment brought to mind Grainger’s musings on Gershwin, although Hollier was not so tightly bound to his original, deviating from the original and lingering over fragments of the whining melody, like the rise and fall of a 6th at the words ‘Why’d she have to go? I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’. For all the clever loitering, this experience reminded me of nothing so much as the sort of thing you’d hear in an up-market piano bar. Harvey held on to some notes longer than any lounge pianist would dare, and Hollier’s ending sounded disappointingly bland and ‘easy’ – or perhaps he was making a sardonic comment on his material.

The sonatine’s finale, a Fugue: Allegro ritmico, was certainly that and more. Shades of Prokofiev and Bartok proved hard to ignore with loads of cutting harmonic clashes and the fugue’s lines running into each other rather than coalescing into a mellifluous whole. Hollier’s headlong progress came to a sort of stretto climax with hand-smashes across the keyboard, although the whole thing wound up with a kind of fugal flourish as the composer finished dealing with the Toreador’s March from Carmen (or was that just Escamillo’s aria from Act Two?) and Strangers in the Night by Bert Kaempfert. In the end, this unknown piece turned out to be great entertainment and a fine showcase for Harvey’s virtuosity and ready sympathy – a deft reflection from the other side of the Pacific on Puts’ powerhouse construct written a year later.

As a preface to the five Etudes, Harvey spoke of the differences between Chopin and herself, which didn’t lead to many insights, probably because the address seemed diffuse and unsure of what it intended to accomplish. During No. 1 in C Major, the right hand arpeggios proved pretty reliable, although a squeaky top D flat six bars from the end detracted from the work’s fluency. You could find much to like with No. 3 in E Major, even if Harvey showed a tendency to ‘point’ notes too often – lingering in a mini-rubato at melody-disturbing points. By contrast, her handling of the central poco piu animato section was powerful and eloquent in both passion and drive. No. 8 in F gave us a good deal of perky left hand work underneath the semiquaver-happy right hand which again did not maintain absolute accuracy.

You rarely hear No. 9 in F minor, unless the executant is presenting the complete set. Harvey made a persuasive case for the piece’s characteristic restlessness but also found out its declamatory quality, particularly when Chopin gives octaves to the right hand. I don’t know whether a decelerando in the final bars works, but if that’s what you think makes a suitable conclusion, you can only choose to disagree on principle when it’s accomplished with this amount of finesse. Harvey’s decision to wind up with No. 4 in C sharp during which both hands enjoy a thorough workout was successful; here, you could find few flaws in the technical work and she managed to sustain the study’s interest despite the temptation to segmentalise it into a series of two-, four- and six-bar challenges.

Again, thanks to Musica Viva for presenting this event, more worthwhile than many in that I’ve rarely heard Harvey in my time in Melbourne and am probably unlikely to experience her work live in the Light North. Among a plethora of artists with few conceptions about how to interpret difficult music, she has been – and continues to be – a welcome presence that should be exposed more often.

We’re all in this together

THE ROMANTICS

Trish Dean, Alex Raineri, Paul Dean

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday September 26

                                                                        Trish Dean

Last weekend’s recital in the Festival sequence featured three musicians  –  two from Brisbane’s versatile Ensemble Q, and the Festival’s own presiding genius: Ensemble co-directors  Trish Dean and Paul Dean, and pianist Alex Raineri.   For this event, we were back at the usual site in Bowen Terrace studio for another close-quarters affair.   All musicians participated in the Clarinet Trio by Brahms of 1891; then, Trish Dean and Raineri launched into Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, written a decade after the trio.   A Romantic program, for sure, and one celebrating the last fruits of that era  . . .  sort of; Strauss was still indulging himself in lushness over 40 years after 1901, and many writers have persisted with that creative strand to the present day – well, it’s easier than inventing your own path, isn’t it?

From the outset of the Brahms work’s Allegro, Raineri displayed a performance-enhancing ease, a supple quality when treating the unsettling triplets that disturb the equanimity at bars 13 and 14, only to erupt powerfully eight bars further on when the keyboard comes into its own.    Still, the pianist kept his swamping potential well under control, probably taking a few leaves from Paul Dean who did the right chamber music thing and took a mellow, restrained  view of his part, apparent in the unforced top line between bars 71 and 82 and later, in tandem with Trish Dean, maintaining a welcome dynamic clarity in the close duet beginning at bar 96.

In its overall shape, this movement was typified by a calm surface, any tension coming in sporadic outbursts like Raineri’s two explosions starting at bar 127.   If anything, the cello line took overall prominence with an ardent attack and lots of crescendodiminuendo surges inside phrases, best seen during an impeccable duet for clarinet and cello from bar 189 up to the poco meno Allegro on this movement’s last page. the whole coming to rest with excellent balance.

Each player enjoys a wealth of exposure in the second movement Adagio, Trish Dean’s cello an early aspiring delight in the slow semiquavers of bar 7.   But the ensemble had prepared these pages carefully, with a finely judged rubato at work in the decrease of tension from bar 19.   By the time the players had reached bar 31 with its antiphonal clarinet/cello interplay, you were quite confident in these interpreters, who went the full Romantic in those generous textures obtaining from bar 41 until the last 10 measures where the linear interweaving proved touchingly eloquent.

Raineri treated the Andante grazioso with further suppleness, keeping his left-hand contributions mobile but not attention-grabbing when shape and accent changed.   Later, in the D Major trio, the pianist gave excellent service in his three-fold treatment of the main melody, notably in his deftly crafted third statement where a temptation looms large to overstate your case.   To their credit, all three executants captured the not-too-rustic lilt of these happy pages.

Right from the first page, Trish Dean engaged with the Allegro finale, delivering her isolated semiquavers with bite and setting an urgency of attack in play for her colleagues.  Raineri made a brave display at the first of the ‘gypsy’ outbursts in bar 58; it’s not difficult to get through, but here it was treated with a scene-setting brio that carried all before it, even to an electric shaft of light from everyone at bar 128.   Each episode, each reversion and reshaping glowed as Brahms swept to his determined A minor conclusion.  In the recital hall, this performance would have been greeted with acclaim for its balance, ensemble and drive; let’s hope that the days are not far off when we can once again show well-merited enthusiasm in public.

A different story in the sonata.  Both Raineri and Trish Dean presented a languorous Lento before letting us know that aggression was forming the backbone of a work where the cello often has to work hard to be heard.   Raineri made strong work of his staccato chords introducing the movement’s main body, then gave a sweeping, rubato-rich enunciation of the second subject.  Mercifully, the exposition was repeated so that Dean’s soaring moments could be savoured; yet, the players made an excellent match for the shared vigour of their attack, as witnessed by their treatments of that second theme, the cello giving a sensible and sensitive shape to each phrase.   While the keyboard enjoys the dominant role, Raineri gave place  at difficult moments, like Dean’s mid-development pizzicati.   Mind you, when solo chances came, he wasn’t one to hold back as at the 14-bar  hectic interlude preceding Rachmaninov’s return to duet work.   Each player milked the second subject’s return with possibly even more Romantic endeavour than before, but Dean hit on a golden seam at the (largely) G Major Un poco più mosso segment: sweetly engaging lyricism with a moving near-vocal responsiveness before Raineri urged her into the brisk A tempo hurtle to the finish line.

You might have asked for cleaner definition from both players of the near-full C minor descending scale that gives the Allegro scherzando its impetus; they galloped rapidly enough but a lot of sotto voce material flew pretty much under the radar.  A well-positioned vein of sentiment came at the change to E flat Major at the Un poco meno mosso point, Dean urging out a persuasive continuous line at this point.   Just as well that she took her opportunities because the movement’s outer reaches are piano-heavy, more so as the motion fragments towards the conclusion – here handed to us with a well-judged pair of perdendi.

Was there a late entry from the cello in bar 9 of the mellifluous Andante?  I was following the score in a desultory fashion, but it seemed to me that Raineri did a bit of filler before Dean joined in with her main theme restatement.   Later, the cello’s first fortissimo marking sounded under-powered for such a dramatic moment, but both performers were having their way with the dynamics of these pages, best seen at the climax to this Andante where the descent from Rachmaninov’s heights enjoyed a wealth of well-sited rubato.   Not for the first time, Raineri showed his worth as a sometime-supporting player in his allowance of space for his partner across these pages, both rhythmically and dynamically.

Finally, a heady rush into the Allegro mosso from the piano’s initial flourish.   I admired the assurance of this start but delighted in Dean’s D Major second-subject statement – the cello enjoying the splendid breadth of this moment – and took even more pleasure in this theme’s restatement in faux-canon with the piano a page later.   Even more so, it seems, than in previous movements, the piano encounters virtuosic explosions across this Allegro with bar after bar of full repeated chords in both hands. gestures which have strayed in from the Piano Concerto No. 2.

About this stage of the performance, Dean started showing signs of fatigue in reaching for her top notes; not too often, and rarely two times running, but just enough to be worrying.    Yet much could be ignored when faced with the expressive power of the second theme’s restatement at he final Moderato (come prima) direction where the composer lingers over his tender melody, unwilling to give it up until coerced by the need for a concluding racy Vivace and yet another brilliant coda. 

Here was a full-blooded program, living up as much as it could to its era-encompassing title, delivering to us a pair of essentially optimistic works performed with a valuable musical acumen by three of this city’s top professionals.   It’s intense experiences like this that generate good humour and gratitude in testing times, even to those of us who have enjoyed a pretty easy time of it.   Events like these keep your faith alive in hopes for a revival of public performance, despite the ignorance and disdain for art shown every day by governmental charlatans of all stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

Again, an expansion of horizons

DANCING TO THE TREMORS OF TIME

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3438

Yet another part of this company’s dedication to the art of Harvey and – by extension – to contemporary Australian composition, this disc contains seven compositions of various lengths, the whole dominated by a Brendan Colbert work: his solid score from 2017 that gives this CD its title.   Five of the tracks come from live performances, the exceptions being the last work on offer, Brendan Collins’ Prelude and Fugue, and a short piece by Elliott Gyger.

Standing alongside Colbert’s major construct is Don Kay’s Piano Sonata No. 9, which introduced me to a senior and prolific composer whose name has not crossed Bass Strait, despite a successful academic and creative career in his home state.   Harvey has been quite an apologist for Kay’s work, especially the sonatas of which there are ten.   He has had three of them dedicated to him and has commissioned at least two, giving the premiere of No. 9 at MONA on November 17, 2018   –  which is the performance offered here.

The other substantial piece, Scott McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 – also from 2017 and featured at the same concert as Colbert’s Dancing to the Tremors of Time and Kay’s sonata  –  is another witness to Harvey’s role in promoting modern Australian work; in this case, the product of another Tasmanian writer.   In fact, Harvey has given the premieres of all three extant McIntyre piano sonatas as well as the composer’s Piano Concerto in 2016.

Gyger’s D E G  and the smaller-framed Colbert piece were both recorded at Move Records’ studio last year, while screen composer Elizabeth Drake’s Rabbit Song and Martin Friedel’s Vanishing Point come from a live recording at the Brunswick Music Festival on February 20, 2019.   Harvey has history also with Friedel, having recorded in 2008 the composer’s main solo piano score: The school of natural philosophy.   In fact, Vanishing Point seems to be the only other work for piano in Friedel’s output.   And it’s the shortest track on this disc; surprising, because the composer’s intention seems to parallel drawing with music and that could have led to a wider-ranging canvas than it has.

The point that Friedel referred to is one where two parallel lines meet in the distance.  Don’t know why, but that suggestion brings to mind Philip Glass – perhaps the railway line in Einstein on the Beach.  In this piece, loud or soft individual chords alternate with frisky, surging note melanges that can be fierce or subterranean.   At the end, the chords win out – four of them – and supposedly they signify the visual/aural point of conjunction.  What stands out is Harvey’s communication of atmosphere, alternately staid cathédrale engloutie and vigorous tumbling across the keyboard.   You could regard the piece as coming to its proper end in that the last bars fade to black successfully.

Next in increasing order of size stands Drake’s bagatelle which takes its genesis from an idea germinated for Caryl Churchill’s play, Top Girls.   I don’t know it, although I do know its themes and suppose that the particular rabbit that this piece depicts is the heroine Marlene, the music suggesting her momentum now that she is on the treadmill that should lead to corporate success and familial failure.   Drake sets up and sustains a one-note-at-a-time moto perpetuo that offers slight variations on an original pattern, notes accreted and discarded in quick succession over a pivotal ascending arpeggio figure.  Harvey has its measure even if his articulation falters just before the two- and three-minute marks, and some unintended notes are struck in the last bars – at least, I think they’re due to fatigue and are not late introductions of a harmonic complication.

Drake’s language here is indebted to the Minimalists, although her fabric is not that seamless in that her deviations are apparent and the repetition does not atrophy our aural perception potential.   In this CD’s context, it seems like an oddity.   Indeed, it has a striking counterpart in Gyger’s birthday present to his father D (David) E (Elliott) G (Gyger) which takes the three designated notes of the dedicatee’s initials as a fulcrum, as well as what the composer calls ‘a cypher of his full name’  –   whatever that may be.    As promised, this piece unfolds in a series of episodes, presumably character-filled vignettes, the whole quite impressionistic, gliding rather than stating, and the personality sketch is almost uninterruptedly gentle and even-tempered.

It’s at about this stage that you are struck by this CD’s subheading: Surrealist piano music from Australia’s east coast.   To this point, have we been confronted by anything suggesting musical surrealism?   Well, the Friedel seems a possible candidate, if a rather bare-boned one.   Drake’s rabbit involved in irregular wheel running is more metaphoric than anything else, while Gyger’s musical portrait doesn’t seem to fit into the surreal category at all.   Mind you, there is a direct correlation between surrealist art and music in the disc’s major work, but that seems to be a case of packing all your titular eggs into one basket.

The Prelude and Fugue by Collins has its roots in both the formal structure that we have come to love from Bach’s time on.   Both parts are hugely indebted to jazz, mainly through syncopation for the prelude and melody shape for the fugue which, as the composer says elsewhere, is indebted in its subject to Scott Joplin as well as mirroring the American master in its buoyancy of progress.   Once more, you wonder about the surrealist aspect of these happy and/or exuberant pages which go no further than their surface.   In C minor, the prelude uses its material adroitly, juxtaposing short chords with at least two fluent melodic shapes, while the B flat Major fugue happily piles on the lines so that even Harvey has to give himself the shortest of breaks between bars when the intermeshing becomes hefty.   But Collins doesn’t aim for density and both parts of this construct radiate good humour, even some wit.

Kay has given his sonata a subtitle: the call.  It’s an easily recognized compositional tic – or, in this case, two of them.   The composer specifies an ascending octave falling back a second as an ‘appeal’ motif; later, a descending minor third becomes a bird-call which takes on high significance in the work’s later pages.  The ‘resolute’ first movement sets up a series of motifs, some of them post-Debussyan in delicacy, others more aggressive to the point of whip-sharpness, although the opening waltz-time bars recur as anchor-points.  While the harmonic vocabulary seems wide-ranging, in fact Kay is not afraid to utilise pedal points both upper and lower, and crisp turns of phrase that recall Scarlatti sonatas.

But the movement is highly discursive with some perplexing detours to complement the repetitions of key material, in particular an emphatically diatonic phrase that inserts some placidity into an often hard-edged set of spasmodic outbursts.   As the work’s three movements are played through without a break, I found it hard to determine when the second ‘tenderly’ one began – it seemed to be pretty brief – but the finale bursts in about 4 minutes from the end with an emphatic hammering that marks a new sonic canvas in which the bird-call has high prominence to the point where it has the sonata’s last word.

Harvey’s performance shows sympathy with the score’s jumps between styles of attack and abrupt bursts of energy that don’t seem capable of sustaining themselves.   You can hear an error or two where a note is added where not required.   Still, the sonata has an idiosyncratic voice: not exploitative of piano sound production resources, combining digression with argument-by-statement, weighty in its intentions but demonstrating aspiration more than achievement.

In contrast, McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 sounds more daring, disjointed, and searching for textural interest from the start.   The work is split into four segments: Prelude, Toccata, Interlude, Epilogue and the demarcations present a test in awareness of where the music is heading and whether or not it’s reached its destination.   The opening pages are strong on sustained notes and the manufacture of harmonic resonances; it sounds like the player is directed to hold down a note while the other hand rages around setting up sympathetic vibrations.  McIntyre’s work is riddled with percussive sprays, particularly from the upper reaches, which makes for a music that is constantly on the aural attack.

I think the Toccata begins at about the 5’45” mark where the texture becomes pointillistic but spiky, more so than it has been up to this point.   Any transition into the Interlude is difficult to pinpoint; when you believe that the acrobatics have stopped, they are set off again and the third movement presents as – eventually – more assertive than anything heard so far.   It’s all wonderful exercise for Harvey who rollicks through the work and generates some splendid bass rumbles against angular vaults in his right hand.

I feel safe in pointing to about the 12′ 15″ point for the transition to McIntyre’s passive Epilogue where the aggression dissipates and you are left with a benign, sotto voce soundscape that drifts to an unexpectedly moving, very soft ending.   As a contribution to advancing the piano’s possibilities, it impresses for its investigation of techniques, a remarkable realization of building and releasing tension, an abstractness in that any extra-musical factors are eschewed,  and its fitness for purpose: displaying Harvey’s prowess as executant and interpreter, albeit one who follows his own path at the same time as negotiating yours.

Colbert’s massive construct takes its title from a 2004 painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson in which six nude pod-conglomerates hang in space below two fang-like stalactites.   Are the bodies dancing?   Is the landscape packed with trembling?   Your intimation is as good as anybody’s; much more than mine.   But the association – obviously clear for Colbert – is amplified by two quotations with which the composer extends his vision.   One comes from that poor bastard Seneca – who’d be a tutor? – and it concerns the human life span, observing that the only definite/reliable element in it is the past.   The other comes from David Bowie, who sees Time as a deceit for all of us.  So far, so old-fashioned Cynic.   Will these pictorial and philosophic lead-ins take us anywhere?  My experience is that they are soon forgotten; your experience may well be more informed.

The dancing of this work is probably intellectual, not boots on barn floors or slippers in ballrooms.   Colbert begins with short spasms, sustained bands punctuated by abrupt flurries that introduce the composer’s trademark penchant for rhythmic subdivisions: three quavers in the time of two, for example.   It might be a dynamically quiet start but the work is on the move, growing in contrapuntal density as both Harvey’s hands engage in a long-term duel loaded with mirrorings and interchanges while the short bursts and isolated intervals or chords expand into two-part dialogues.

Mind you, these conversations between lines are impossible to untangle, particularly in the long central argument of the work where the performer presents a mind-sharpening onslaught of material, brilliantly executed in the sense that the output sparkles: a real dance and one in occasional danger of spilling over into confusion.   Although the score closes placidly – Colbert and Gleeson’s mutual vision vanishing into the ether – the path to this resolution is a thorny one, if not as symphonically stormy as the artwork delineates.

Previous experience with Colbert’s products may prepare you for his complexity of thought.   His music has no compromises and reminds me of nothing so much as a sensible Fernyhough; in the Australian’s work, the flourishes lead onward, while the British/American writer dazzles in the moment.   If you had time and inclination, this music could be analysed and decanted of its mysteries, although the process in this case would distract from the score’s pivotal exuberance.   It makes a startling, exhausting opening track on this CD, and it overshadows most of what comes after – or perhaps that’s just my own predilection for work that asks for sustained concentration from an audience.

Dancing to the Tremors of Time is a stand-out contribution to this country’s piano literature.  It was tailored for Harvey and gives ample room for the display of his extraordinary brilliance in interpreting contemporary music that makes high demands.  So you would be hard pressed to find other pianists capable of mastering its multiple tests.   Haydn Reeder, Danae Killian and Peter Dumsday have given premieres of some of Colbert’s solo piano pieces over the past near-three decades but Harvey has set a standard for the composer’s recent works that I suspect will remain unchallenged for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Complementary shades of the spectrum

BRAHMS & STRAUSS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Passport Series

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 11

                                                               Daniel Chiou

                                                           Leanne McGowan

I can’t imagine what young National Academy musicians have been doing to fill their days throughout these lean times.   Plenty of practice, of course, but that occupation palls when there are no alternatives.   Of course, young ANAMites from Melbourne are in a worse case than some of their interstate colleagues because of the state’s entirely appropriate lock-down.   Up here in the Palaszczuk Palatinate (which may turn into a Frecklington Fiefdom if a sufficiently large local wedge of neo-Trumpists have their way), the social contract is comparatively flexible and musicians of all stripes can talk, drink and ignore AFL fixtures with only minor restrictions imposed,

Four ANAM musicians made up the performing list at this third recital in a four-part Brisbane festival presented under the MDCH banner.   Organizer and presiding genius of the Brisbane Music Festival, Alex Raineri, accompanied one of the two works on Saturday evening’s program; he was lucky enough to work at ANAM from 2014 to 2016.  The other three musicians involved in this Brahms/Strauss night are in different boats.  Cellist Daniel Chiou was meant to have started at ANAM this year; for all I know, he might have got in a few months there before darkness fell.   Ditto pianist Caleb Salizzo who was the other pianist involved with this occasion.   Fortunately for her, violinist Leanne McGowan spent 2019 at the South Melbourne academy, but I’m assuming that she’s been seeing out her past five months in Brisbane, enduring a state of exile from all Garden State delights.

Full marks, then, to Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for including these Queensland players – and several others, like Ensemble Q and the Southern Cross Soloists – in their Victoria-based digital initiative which goes from strength to strength in raising some income for career-strapped professionals across the country.   Compared to other and much bigger organizations, MDCH is the most outstanding contributor to sustaining and nurturing live music performance and creativity- even if all efforts have to be confined to soloists and chamber groups.

Saturday night offered two sonatas: Brahms No. 2 in F for cello and piano,  and Strauss’s youthful Violin Sonata Op. 18.   As the readings progressed, I was deeply impressed by the assurance of both duos in their treatment of scores that hold difficulties and demands of various types.    Both sonatas can be linked under a Late Romantic heading and contain passages of luscious clutter.   But technical and interpretative mishaps occurred rarely, by their nature not enough to disturb any listener’s perceptions of the executants’ fluency and insights.

Chiou and Silizzo have made the Brahms sonata a specialty of their combined repertoire, as you can see on social media.   They also form two-thirds of the Islay Trio, so their performance qualities would be pretty well-known to each other.   Further, they had a large canvas or two on which to operate.   The work itself is big-boned, although every repetition is precious to us enthusiasts and its opening Allegro vivace a marvel of vital enthusiasm.  Then, by some remarkable administrative dealing, the recital was given in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre which gifted the players with a resonance, a powerful bloom of sonority that is absent in the dryer acoustic of Raineri’s studio, from which site most of the Brisbane Music Festival recitals I’ve heard have emanated.

Chiou swept into the first movement’s broad and sweeping main theme with drive and a well-honed sense of phrasing, Silizzo surging into prominence with a firm peroration between bars 33 and 39, revisited with just as much power between bars 144 and 150 – both stand-out passages in an intelligent reading.   But Brahms rewards his interpreters with a beautifully-judged preparation for the recapitulation at bar 128: one of those moments where you mentally gasp with relief that your anticipation has been rewarded with such brio.

You could take plenty of enjoyment from Chiou’s clear line and unfailingly accurate articulation despite two sustained-note patches where he came close to running out of bow.   But the collaboration itself proved unstintingly sympathetic, notably in the last page’s tremolando alternation where what could be an unstructured mess came across with fine definition.   And I appreciated the punch in those last irregular five bars that end with the cello’s brusque quadruple-stop chord.   Your ears open with the rhythmic mixture starting at bar 10 of the Adagio affettuoso when Brahms begins his displacement of the obvious.  But the rest of this movement was a lesson in excellent pointing-up of fabric like  Salizzo’s determined ritenuto across bars 18 and 19, the vocal eloquence from Chiou in the 12 bars before the change of key signature to F sharp Major, the cellist’s pliant pizzicato dynamics straight after this change and his surge to prominence at bar 54, both players’ carefully paced piano to pianissimo in the last measures.

By the time the Allegro passionato came around, an out-of-tune E flat 5 was proving a distraction.   Salizzo soldiered on, too hard-pressed in these pages to worry about tamping down the note (as if anyone could).   The spiky interchanges leading to unison work beginning at bar 109 stood out for their insistence, but the pianist showed his tact by restraining the keyboard’s sforzando explosions at bars 156 and 157 to give Chiou carrying space.  The cellist showed himself quite able to introduce a period gesture with some light portamenti, as at the octave leap at bar 178.   But both musicians relished Brahms’ hemiola passages, giving them room to flow rather than belting them into the ground of obviousness.

At the final Allegro molto, the off E flat seemed to have been joined in discomfort by its neighbouring E.   Chiou struck a gold seam with his lyrical outline of the main theme beginning at bar 45 – not overbearing, but combining zeal with melancholy: a real accomplishment in this music.   And then, a sudden shock through a premonition of Shostakovich at bar 102 where bare octaves and pizzicati prefigure the Russian composer’s fighting stance; over in a few seconds but alarming for all sorts of reasons, not least the challenge to your perspicacity, or otherwise.   Despite that anomaly, here was a persuasive setting-out of this ‘problem’ movement that presents as too amiable for its surrounds but is a leisurely capping-stone to a score that spreads itself out, at ease with its Rubensesque plumpness.   If this is what the Chiou/Salizzo duo can accomplish with minimal ANAM exposure, its future is packed with promise.

After an intervallic address by Virginia Taylor from ANAM’s flute faculty in which she extolled the values of that splendid finishing school, McGowan and Raineri launched into the Strauss sonata, unfortunately (for the pianist) pitched in E flat.   If anything, the violinist proved just as ardent as Chiou, forging a bright path across the first page and only slightly questionable pitching 14 bars before the espressivo e appasionato change to common time.   Still, the high B flat three bars into that section was justifiably confident and ringing.   Later on, in the movement’s development,. the artists demonstrated how to dovetail successfully, showing no signs of waiting around for cues or for the other player to hit the marks with deliberation.   Closer to the end at the mit lebhafter Steigerung direction, the collaboration raised the harmonically rich excitement level, even if Strauss’s actual harmonic structure isn’t that novel.

Sorry to be carping, but the piano’s D6 was also sounding a tad unhappy at bar 21 of the following Andante cantabile, although such details dissipated when the A flat tonality gave way to a passionate Erlkönig interlude that in turn yielded to a Rosenkavalier precursor stuffed with pianissimo curlicues and brief ornamental figures.  Then,  both performers laid on their sweetness of timbre when the movement changed back to A flat for an  inevitable return to base with Raineri almost nonchalantly burbling out his continuously arpeggio-rich support.

The pianist seemed to enjoy the finale’s flamboyance, even when severely pressed as near the start when his part turned to C minor and the right hand’s high chord work came over as rough.   To add to the mix, the piano’s G4 was enjoying some pitch-wavering.   Luckily, your attention became more and more engaged by the bitzer nature of this Andante/Allegro, especially when Mendelssohnian rapid-motion dialogues sounded out at two stages.   McGowan’s lavish bowing force enriched the final fervour even before the composer’s call for a stringendo leading into the triple forte declamation that anticipates the Till Eulenspiegel-style conclusion.

Raineri quite properly insisted on giving his part full weight, holding back not a whit in loud duet sections and, given more preparation time, McGowan might have acclimatised better to the pianist’s tendency to let the devil take the hindmost and go for broke, particularly when spurred to do so by a lot of athletic weltering around the Strauss estate.  Still, this mixed pair proved to be a scintillating one, well able to push accurately through many pages that ask executants to juggle with accents and awkward off-the-pulse entries and exits.   As an exhibition of ANAM past and present, this sonata was exceptionally positive.

 

 

Always a cut above

TRANSFIGURED

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall

Monday August 31

(L to R) Grace Clifford, Kathryn Selby, Stefanie Farrands, Maxime Bibeau, Julian Smiles

Back in pre-Plague days when musical organizations could safely plan a year in advance, Kathryn Selby mapped out her 2020 season, doing the right thing by balancing the popular with the should-be-popular.   For the August/September program, she was to begin each night with Mozart’s last piano trio, the K. 564 in G Major.  Then, in line with the program’s title – A Night Transfigured – we were to hear Schönberg’s sextet Verklärte Nacht in the piano trio arrangement by Edward Steuermann.   Finally came that old favourite, Schubert in B flat D.898.   Guests for the event were violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles.

Bending to necessity, the format had to change pretty substantially for the studio-broadcast situation that is now the only way to keep professional music practice alive.  Smiles remained on board, but Grace Clifford substituted for Chee in the Mozart trio, which survived into the modified program.   Out went the Schönberg; in came the final Brahms piano quartet, No. 3 in C minor where Selby, Clifford and Smiles were partnered by violist Stefanie Farrands.   And the Schubert work changed from that expansive piano trio to the Trout Quintet in A Major, for which the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s long-time bass player Maxime Bibeau came into the party.  

Selby’s keyboard work in the Mozart set a high standard by its pellucid attack on the 8-bar first theme of the opening Allegro.  Clifford achieved a similar clarity but her style of delivery presented as cautious across the first pages.   As with more Mozart works than you can count, the development was over before you had time to take it in, but we eventually heard Smiles in a solo at bar 98, revisiting material that belonged to the upper string voice further back (bar 22).   Still,  Selby took parting honours with three flawless trills on the last line.

The second movement series of variations found Clifford weaving a highly sympathetic line for the first; Smiles showed himself as carefully supple as ever throughout No. II with a nicely judged hesitation on the A flat highlight in bar 13; Selby made herself a presence in Variation III but Clifford shone out without having to force her tone.   Selby scored again in the next sequence,  her elegantly formed phrases enjoying cadential commentary from the string duo – a process that continued in the minore Variation V.  The piano finally yielded place again to Clifford in the last segment, Selby muffling her demi-semiquavers yet keeping their flow discernible, not reduced to an impressionistic mumble.  And I don’t think you could have wanted a gentler coda, Clifford taking on the passage-work with suitable reserve.

Again, you could not fault the Allegretto/Rondo‘s initial statement from Selby: a clean pair of heels shown, without any vulgarity in the skipping 6/8 melody.   Clifford found a welcome force in her leading statements at bars 61 and 117.   Another pleasure came from Selby’s clipped gruppetti from bars 72 to 83, carried off with no sign of strain.   Just before the end, Clifford and Smiles produced a lyrically melting moment between bars 133 and 137 – the ideal lead-in to Mozart’s heartbreakingly optimistic conclusion.   In sum, an excellent rendering of this poised masterpiece.

A sombre build-up in the Brahms’ Allegro non troppo eventually exploded at bar 31 in typical defiance, but nothing thrashed out excessively.  Still, I relished the determination of the ensemble in their surge and ebb up to the magnificent E flat resolution at bar 102.  Throughout, the players had the measure of the score, displaying many heartening passages of execution, like Smiles’ impeccable phrasing in the descent at bar 142, and Bramble’s full-bodied lower voice in collaboration with Clifford immediately after.  But then, Farrands is a fine violist with an unwavering sense of pitch; as proof, you only had to hear her substantial solo arc from bar 252 onward: a true and individual voice which matched her violin companion in sheer sweetness of timbre.  Then, after the stress came a moving conclusion with fine growling from all three strings across the last three bars.

As in the Mozart first movement, Selby excelled in the quartet’s Scherzo/Allegro, combining impulsiveness with firm security of accents, on the beat and off.   The upper strings made an ideal match in an octave duet starting at bar 72.   Actually, while you take Selby as a given positive factor in music of this nature, you were hard pressed to find the other quartet members wanting, particularly in moments of dynamic crisis like the fortissimo leaps that begin at bar 54.   Yet again, the violin line could have contributed more prominently to the mix at the trio oases of bars 177 and 184; Selby, on the other hand, kept her power leashed at the string octaves leading to the weltering last measures.

The work’s Andante, its splendid core, opened with a well-rounded line from Smiles that remained present even when Clifford took the tune over.   My score has a molto dolce direction for all three strings starting at bar 34/35, and all responded sensitively, treading light paths up to the melting sixths beginning at bar 54.   Farrands gave way to Clifford at bars 70 and 75 in a telling instance of a musician knowing her place despite the inciting availability of double-stops.   Even better came at bar 94 which begins the unequalled pathos of this movement’s ending, these performers observing a breathless deceleration at bar 119, the instrumental mix balanced to an ideal degree.

After this, it might have been too much to expect an equally effective Allegro commodo finale.   From the beginning, Clifford had trouble projecting, to the point where her line seemed too wispy a creature at bar 21, then underplaying her soprano role at the chorale interludes beginning at bar 75.   Selby maintained her clarity of output in the piano’s rhythmic ducks and drakes, especially when Brahms began his galumphing two sets of triplet crotchets across the bar.   Shine-out moments came in a violin/cello duet at bar 270 where Smiles and Clifford merged to telling effect for 12 ardent measures; then, another  – almost a long-anticipated relief – when Selby thundered out the chorale at bar 311; and finally, Smiles’ grinding sustained low C from bar 351 to the positive last chords.

I’ve rarely come across this work in live performance.  But the same could be said for most piano quartets, probably because it’s hard to assemble four players with enough interpretative synchronicity to do such scores justice.   So this drama-packed Brahms made an excellent replacement for the Schönberg sextet arrangement, not least because its finale brought to mind that of Mendelssohn’s compelling C minor Piano Trio, although the later composition hid its seams more competently.

Schubert’s quintet, on the other hand, attracts musicians despite its odd instrumentation and resultant problems of balance.   It always brings about a strange relief when the main body of the first Allegro vivace gets under way at  bar 25 and you can settle down to revel in the composer’s benevolent melodies and watch the players’ collaborating in a work that is so formally straightforward and clear-speaking.   Viola and cello emitted delicate triplets from bar 38, leaving the foreground to violin and piano before subsuming everyone into their pattern.   Indeed, this work suited Clifford very well, allowing her trademark clarity and elegance plenty of scope.

You wanted balance and equanimity?  You had instances galore, one of the best emerging from the company at bar 93 after one of Selby’s  pointed solos.   When Bibeau got his six-measure exposure at bar 165, what you noticed was the evenness of his delivery – a melody, rather than a special effect.   Later at bar 260, violin and cello canoned efficiently while the supporting trio kept their station without moving in on the important interplay.  And the ensemble’s precision of delivery in Schubert’s brilliantly contrived dynamic about-turns and gripping drive, even across rests, made for a well-accomplished resolution to this (for some of us) not-quite-long-enough movement, even with a repeated exposition.

Still moving on a different plane to other chamber music we’ve heard in the lockdowns and population embargoes so far, Selby and her colleagues took us through a splendidly shaped Andante, the only question concerning pause-emphases on the initial fp notes in bars 19 to 22 which added punctuation, certainly, but made too much of slight harmonic changes.   Another sample of first-rate ensemble stood out between bars 36 and 60 where the even delivery from all participants demonstrated how to achieve Schubert’s mix of light rhythmic snap and throwaway melody.  As in the Mozart trio, Selby’s disciplined trills proved a delight, and the viola cello duet in thirds from bar 84 took us to one of the evening’s high-points for its probity of articulation and dynamic synchronicity.

The group’s output could have endured more forwardness from the top two lines at the Scherzo‘s opening, although the lines proved to be better balanced the further along the movement ran.   Fortunately, the Trio was consistent throughout: a brilliant interplay of texture, dynamic and attack.   A particularly effective patch of play came with the fiedel texture produced by Clifford and Farrands in exposed breaks such as between bars 59 and 62 – bringing the country to the city in the nicest way.

So we arrived at the eponymous song with variations.   The opening gambit for strings alone came across with a suitably placid charm, avoiding any over-insertion of swooping mid-phrase crescendi.  By Variation II, Clifford was well played-in, giving us an attractive and pliant decorative upper line; Selby delivered an object lesson in phrasing during the next segment where the keyboard dominates.   Again, the ensemble work shone in Variation IV, everybody tailoring themselves for that initial group of fortissimo four bars and the subsequent sinking back to soft duets and imitations.  Smiles in the tenor clef produced a well-honed hauptstimme in the next strophe of 27 bars before we arrived at the lied proper with Selby reassuring us that we were home and hosed with the familiar accompaniment while Clifford and Smiles shared the – finally – jaunty melody en clair before that throat-catching, simply put final four bars.

As with the preceding four movements, the Allegro giusto finale seemed packed with well-graduated passages, like the expert softening of texture from bars 61 to 78: not particularly inspired material but these people made a gift out of slim materials.   Still, this movement is a driving one, constantly coming back to the initial violin/viola opening theme and the composer happy to offer a repetition as an alternative to formal development.  By the way, most ensembles leave out the first half’s repetition; it might be a minority opinion but I would have welcomed hearing those pages again, given the ebullience of this reading which entered unstintingly into the underlying build-up/release pattern of these pages. 

This mobile movement kept you on the edge of your seat, involved with the process despite the ‘heavenly length’ of its precedents.   As a whole, the performance projected a wealth of positive elements, realising the score’s underpinning glories: a melodic brilliance exceptional even for Schubert, rhythmic juxtapositions of remarkable fluency, subtle dynamic development to soften the edges, and an unflinching assurance of language across leisurely paragraphs.  Nevertheless, despite the elevated quality of this quintet, the Brahms work proved to be the program’s focus, mainly for its emotional consistency, no matter how tragic the composer’s world-view during its gestation.

 

 

 

 

Here come the young

FANTASY

Dario Scalabrini, Shuhei Lawson, Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 29

                                                                 Shuhei Lawson

Another offering from he Brisbane Music Festival, this recital featured festival director Alex Raineri once again engaging in keyboard partnership with some guests.  In this case, we heard cellist Shuhei Lawson who contributed to the last event in this series, playing a part in the Aria from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.  As well, Raineri presented clarinettist Dario Scalabrini.   Both visitors were labelled ‘young artists’ – which they are in age, for sure, and inferentially, young in experience.   That lack of public exposure became momentarily obvious as the evening moved forward, yet most of the problems I could discern were fixable, given more time for preparation.

Raineri and his visitors gave us three works: the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata of 1962, dedicated to the composer’s friend Honneger; Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke Op. 73 with Lawson substituting for the original clarinet as the composer permitted; and a work which brought all three participants together in Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83, written in 1910 (and showing that fertile Max stuck to his melodic last, even while the  trajectory of music history was on the verge of vaulting in extraordinary directions) with another composer-approved substitution, this time of cello for viola.

For reasons best known to themselves, the musicians split Bruch’s eight pieces into two groups of four, playing one set at the program’s start and another to wind up proceedings.  As a job lot, the trios are richly Romantic and the effect of all of them together might have proved too glutinous, especially in company with Schumann’s rhapsodies and the blunt spikes of Poulenc’s sonata.   But there must have been a bit more to it as the division was not a numerically serial one.   At the beginning we heard Nos. 6, 2, 8 and 4; to end, Nos. 3, 1, 7 and 5 – all the evens and odds in separate clusters.   This process evoked memories of a one-time common practice of splitting up symphony movements with irrelevant intermezzi; if it was good enough for Haydn and Beethoven, then . . . 

The ensemble began with Bruch No. 6, Nachtgesang.   Raineri did little to observe the detached notes in his left-hand arpeggios but the direction was difficult to carry out, unless you slowed the nocturne down to a glacial speed.   Scalabrini suffered a squawk a bar after the change to Un poco meno lento, and Lawson missed out on some of the viola’s clarinet-line doubling a few bars after Letter E which was hardly his fault but a pity, all the same. Like most of what followed, this lyric proved to be a gift for  a pair of players eager to enter the score’s fulsome emotional web.

No. 2 sounded fluent, Raineri establishing a rippling B minor undercurrent for his colleagues in a set of pages that rarely challenged anybody.   In the E flat minor No. 8, both clarinet and cello made a fittingly dour and hollow combination in doubled/unison passages, particularly the stretch after Letter C which came over with engrossing force.  Raineri maintained a steady pulse through this charged and dynamically fluctuating work.   And he bore the brunt of the labour for No. 4, a romp for piano leading from D minor to D Major and operating in almost non-stop triplets and sextuplets against the steady crotchet/minim melodic output from clarinet and cello,   To his credit, Raineri got nearly all the notes and couldn’t avoid staying in the limelight for most of its duration as he negotiated the piece’s volatile onrush.

Back to the more familiar Schumann triptych and both Lawson and Raineri luxuriated in the Zart und mit Ausdruck direction, weaving a languid web which reached a high-water mark at the diminuendo from Raineri across bars 57 and 58, preceding an eloquently restrained conclusion.   An excellently couched response came in the Lebhaft, leicht movement, full of proposition/response work and here accomplished with an infectious ardour.   A momentary lapse of cohesion marred bar 48; I don’t know why because the duet motion is very straightforward.   But the only other problem came after bar 67 where the players treated the diminuendo direction to equate with decelerando, whereas I think the work ends more fetchingly if the pace is sustained right up to the final piano arpeggios.

Both players made fine work of the concluding Rash und mit Feuer, with some exceptional moments like Raineri’s deft negotiation of the switch from syncopation to block chords at bars 21 to 22; like the partnership across the whole block from bar 34 to bar 47;  like the cello’s ecstatic melodic arch from bars 74 to 78.   In fact, this movement proved to be one of the recital’s finer moments, showing an exemplary insight into Schumann’s urgent drive across fast movements and the architectural functionality of his block repetitions.

Scalabrini and Raineri ran through the Poulenc sonata’s outer movements with keen eyes for their frenetic undertones, pulling back for the signature expressive melodic interludes.   I’m not as enamoured with this score as with the Flute Sonata, which impresses as a pinnacle of French 20th century chamber music.   But, for all that inbuilt bias, I could still admire the brio of the duo’s assault on the first movement Allegro tristamente, Scalabrini making a brave showing until the whole bar pianissimo trill at bar 9 where reducing his power proved a difficult feat; and more obviously, nine bars after Figure 9 where a note went missing in the B/E minor arpeggios.   Both musicians responded very ably to the changes in texture and dynamic, at their best on the last page where the brusque leading motive sinks to nothingness, but under protest.

Scalabrini earned plaudits through the Romanza, bringing the shade of Benny Goodman to life at Number 2 with those Gershwin-suggestive rapid scales and the abrupt recovery required from each.   Raineri gave more force than expected at Letter 4 but pulled back his emphasis to suit Scalabrini’s more dispassionate interpolations around the movement’s centre; still, the clarinettist had trouble starting very soft melodic arches. as in the 8th last bar where both executants have a triple piano marking. 

Poulenc’s concluding Allegro con fuoco proved testing for both players, the clarinet missing the odd note, as in the downward runs leading up to Number 6.   But Scalabrini could surprise you with sudden brilliant details of execution, including a facility with Poulenc’s curt pre-melody ornamentation.   The only insecure moment I heard came near Figure 12: a question of a minutely delayed entry.   For the rest, this movement was carried off with ample enthusiasm and a powerful account of the batteringly loud last 7 bars.

Back to Bruch and the odd-numbered pieces.   No. 3 gives the two linear instruments a solo each,  Lawson bringing up memories of Kol Nidre during his firmly delivered account of the first 24 bars.   Where the string solo was a stop-and-start creature, Scalabrini’s clarinet wove a fine, measured lyrical arch.   Some high notes tested Lawson’s pitching during his second solo, but the eventual collaboration succeeded, the string’s abruptness finally yielding to the clarinet’s calm and the piece coming to an impressively sonorous  conclusion that began with a true unison ten bars from the end.   The A minor first piece in the series is the least interesting of them all, here giving no grief to any of the performers.   On the opposite side of the coin, No. 7 has Mendelssohnian rapidity as its premise and the brunt of that work fell to Raineri who found out the pages’ scintillations and gave just enough weight to the piano’s hefty chords that relieve the 6/8 skittering at two focal points.

Last of all, Bruch’s Rumänische Melodie No. 5 gave a platform to Lawson’s talent for full bowing in outlining the initial tune.   Scalabrini’s entry prompted a sort of canonic duet with the cello but the folk colour didn’t carry much weight, belonging more to the school of Liszt in slow rhapsodic mode than to Bartok searching out asperities and irregularities.  Here, Ranieri kept his powder dry, notably in the whirlpool of arpeggios that start at Letter E and gain in flourishes before fading away 26 lush bars later.

At least we can say we heard them, but I’m not sure that these Bruch bagatelles have much to offer these days, except as works for a mutable combination of instruments.   Next time, Raineri might give his two friends something a touch more substantial, less salonesque – Mozart’s Kegelstatt,  Beethoven’s Op. 11, Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, or other works with similar instrumentation by Ireland and d’Indy.    For a nationalistic note, perhaps Alfred Hill’s Miniature Trio might be worth resuscitating.   Nevertheless, this recital served to bring a pair of young talents into the public arena, both estimable contributors to Brisbane’s musical stage.   And it reinforced Raineri’s reputation as an outstandingly sympathetic chamber musician.

 

 

 

Making a fair fist of closed borders

BOHEMIAN SPIRIT

Lachlan Bramble, Ewen Bramble & Anna Goldsworthy

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday August 27

                                                              Lachlan Bramble

You’d have to assume that the third member of the Benaud Trio, Amir Farid, is still locked down in Melbourne along with the rest of the city’s denizens, and that there’s no way legal that he was going to get across to Adelaide to join up with his colleagues, the Bramble brothers, for this Passport Festival recital, one of four mounted by the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.   A worthy substitution came in Adelaide-born Anna Goldsworthy who, it would appear, is home for the duration, labouring like the rest of her state under the all-protective aegis of Steven Marshall.   Among her many accomplishments, Goldsworthy is pianist for Melbourne’s Seraphim Trio, so she knows her way round the repertoire, in particular the two popular works that made up Thursday night’s program:  Haydn XV/25 in G Major, the Gypsy Rondo gem; and Smetana’s Op. 15 in G minor which stands among the Czech composer’s most self-revelatory creations.

This night marked the first night that any of these musicians had been enlisted into the MDCH ranks.   Violinist Lachlan Bramble I’ve heard pretty much exclusively at Benaud Trio recitals, and there have been quite a lot of them as the ensemble was formed in 2005.   He’s currently Associate Principal 2nd Violin with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.   In similar fashion, I know his brother Ewen’s cello through the same source; he is also an Associate Principal at the ASO.    Goldsworthy has been pretty much exclusively a chamber music personality for me; I’ve been listening to the Seraphims for 20 years.  Sadly,  any further experiences with both groups will probably be reduced to nil; not just because of COVID-19, which might eventually have an ending, but also because I believe that neither ensemble comes to Brisbane as a regular thing.

Anyway, off they went on their Haydn tour with excellent communality of phrasing and a finely-contoured correspondence between piano and violin in the theme statement – a delectable experience with its irregular sentence halves.   You might have expected more reserve from Goldsworthy in the four bars concluding Variation 2, her colleagues overwhelmed at this point.   Apart from a slight piano slip half-way through the piano-dominated final variation, the only question mark came with the slow pace chosen for the movement’s final bar which would have gained more by being kept a tempo.

Lachlan Bramble span a fine solo in bar 17 of the central Poco adagio, placed deftly into position without requiring any self-promotion.   Surprisingly, given their telling collaboration in the opening Andante, Goldsworthy and Lachlan Bramble sounded uneasy in the 8-bar doubling at Letter G on the movement’s last page; still, the piano-to-pianissimo  resolution of absolutely no tension at the close proved more than satisfyingly clean in delivery.    Not much to report about the finale where Goldsworthy mad very few errors in a pell-mell set of pages.  The group took the option of slowing down at minor key intrusions, but showed quite happy to fly past in a persuasive display of enthusiasm for these infectious pages.

Next, a switch to another kind of Bohemia and Lachlan Bramble’s violin led us into the fierce and determined score composed by Smetana on the untimely death of his favourite daughter.   You can hear what you like here, although you’d be working hard to ignore the mourning strophes in both outer movements as well as the strong railing against life’s unfairness during some powerful outbursts in the opening Moderato assai.  Mind you, the delivery of that opening 7-bar solo came across as craggy and expletive-packed; not just a sorrowful narrative, then, but a pugnacious one.   And when the ferment rose, these players gave of their best, notably the Più animato from bar 66 to a climactic point at bar 92, and later a gripping strepitoso passage leading to bar 160.

Another fine, if brief, passage came from Ewen Bramble’s exposure starting at bar 204: a powerful presence in a dark, piano-heavy environment just before another urgent outburst.   Not that you’d belittle the ensemble’s handling of the gentler passages in this movement, but its output made points more tellingly in the pages of maximum excitement and dynamic power.   Lachlan Bramble’s solo between bars 100 and 106 proved unsteady on the top B flats but his octave duet with brother Ewen’s cello between bars 147 and 172 gave an excellent instance of pressure under piano fire.

Another example of straining in the violin line emerged from nowhere in the chameleonic second movement Allegro/Alternativo 1/Allegro/Alternativo 2/Tempo 1; the violin sets the running here, leading to three high Es – nothing sensationally high, but just a tad ‘off’ on this occasion.   Later, at Smetana’s revisiting of his opening material, you could not fault the octave parallel performance between bars 137 and 145, then later between bars 155 and 162.   Even better was to come in the Maestoso pages, where I thought the interpretation was close to ideal for dynamic thrust and a shared awareness of what everybody was doing.   Only an imbalanced pizzicato 5th from the cello in the movement’s penultimate bar marred the surface of a final, subdued recall of the opening page.

Another helter-skelter finale, with an exact rendition from Goldsworthy of the three-against-two rhythmic contest that gives this movement a great deal of its energetic interest.  Both strings followed the pianist’s lead in outlining a dramatic soundscape, distinguished by a reliable precision in melodic delineation and in the many small interjections that emerge from their lines.   Contradicting my observations about the first movement, the group’s account of the first Meno presto interlude worked very well, the highlighting of all players sustained in eloquence and exhibiting three individual voices.

A near thing came at bar 330 where the strings almost missed their first beat reinforcement of Goldsworthy’s upward rush.   But, against a minor flaw like that, you can set a compelling account of the final pages where Smetana fuses his resignation and bleak desolation in a propulsion to one of the least comforting major tonality conclusions in Romantic musical literature,  carried off with a deliberately unpolished panache.  

This combination of exhilaration and despair capped off a night of compromise, in some ways.    The musicians showed no signs of discomfort, but would you seriously expect it?  They’re all solid professionals, well-versed in piano trio practices; each of them would know these two works from many years of program preparation and public performance.  As a minor benefit, the group was operating in optimal  conditions, i. e. without facing a live audience with the concomitant problems of distraction by way of coughing, shuffling, whispering, sleeping, snoring – all those timeless forms of anti-social conduct with which I’ve become too familiar over the years, if never guilty of any.

However, you missed Amir Farid’s Bramble-balancing elegance, just as much as Helen Ayres’ crispness and Timothy Nankervis’ exuberance.   Or perhaps I was mentally wallowing, bringing to mind past experiences of music-making by Thursday evening’s musicians, attempting to slot them into their usual positions and ambiences.   

If we’ve learned anything from the past 6 months, it’s how to be grateful for musical mercies, great and small.   This night was an example of how the MDCH carries out its principal benefaction of bringing us the music we love (much of the time) in performances that may not be ideal but can occasionally verge on excellence.