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.

 

 

 

A blessing, lullabies and a prayer

KARIN SCHAUPP

Musica Viva

Saturday August 22

                                                                 Karin Schaupp

‘Schaupp has been a stalwart of this country’s guitar world for close to 40 years: in her own right as a soloist, as a concerto performer with state orchestras, and as a collaborator with musicians like Umberto Clerici and the Flinders Quartet.   On Saturday evening, she presented this no-frills recital from her home with nobody else but a recording technician in the room with her.   Great to see that Musica Viva has embraced the new model of mounting spartan events: one performer providing her own space and not playing too much in case of mental overload in a time of musical famine.

Schaupp’s choice of diet spanned a wide time range, opening with a brace of Scarlatti sonatas and taking in some modern classics of the guitar repertoire, with a side-step to Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Suspended in a Sunbeam, written for this performer last year.    Of course, some of these pieces have become familiar from the artist’s CDs: Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata K. 208 (L. 238), Brahms’ Wiegenlied and Llobet’s El Noy de la Mare (the lullabies), Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Barrios, and Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.   These date from at least a decade ago in Schaupp’s recording career; apart from the freshly-minted Charlton piece, the program’s other unrecorded works came as no surprise:  the BWV 1000 Fugue in A minor for lute by Bach, and an extra Scarlatti sonata, K 322 (L. 483), which was more successful as a guitar transcription than the other sonata by this composer performed here.

After a Musica Viva-lauding address by a ‘suit’ whom I didn’t recognize, being distracted by negotiating volume and access to scores,  Schaupp began operations with one of those remembrances or salutes to indigenous land rights – a gesture that has quickly become a behavioural cliché which could even be well-intentioned but which never fails to annoy because of its tokenism.   Remember those sad white people in Clifton Hill who put plaques on their houses noting that their lots really belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, only to have some Aboriginal people knocking on doors and laying claim to those boastful houses?   They were invited in for cups of tea, which says all you need to know about the depth of such acknowledgements.

Both the Scarlatti works were arranged by Schaupp herself and the ‘Adagio e cantabile‘ K. 208 made for an amiable opening with both repeats observed.   My only quibble was the avoiding of the 5-note chord that ends bar 13; well, not so much an avoiding but an impossibility, given the instrument’s low operating level at that point.  The faster K. 322 is better-known among keyboard players and is gifted with one of those trademark Scarlatti passages of courtly play from bar 36 to the half-way point, and again from bar 73 to the end; the harmonic transparency at these points came over with particularly gratifying clarity in Schaupp’s interpretation

Are you uncertain about the provenance of Bach’s works for lute?  Join the club.  Before the Early Music Brigade got under way, Segovia cruelled the authenticists’ pitch by transposing, transcribing and transliterating a good deal of Bach’s music.   He didn’t leave Scarlatti untouched either, making a popularly-used guitar version of the L. 483, the second of Schaupp’s offerings.

The G minor Fugue, well-known in a violin version, is taken up a tone by most guitarists, I believe; Bach might have moved it himself, for all I know.   Schaupp played a pretty clean reading with some passing glitches in bars 44 and 47 but with an otherwise sustained accuracy, reaching a well-prepared climactic point at bar 59 and onward, then realising the smothered tension of the suspensions in bars 93 and 94 before the sudden near-cadenza in the penultimate measure.   Here was a measured interpretation without imposed theatrics or a resonance-besotted bass line; rather, the lines were delivered with balance and dynamic control.

Schaupp’s husband, Giac Giacomantonio, arranged the Brahms piece for her and expanded the song to three verses.   No surprises here, even if the piano accompaniment’s slight syncopations  did not appear to survive the move.   With the arrival of its companion piece by Llobet, we entered the realm of straight guitar music, this work and what followed all original compositions.   Not that there is much more to the Spanish composer’s Catalan folk-song arrangement than there is to the Brahms lied: one page divided into two halves, one work in 6/8 and the other in 3/4, both placid in emotion (as you’d expect).    It was hard to determine why Schaupp seemed so anxious to get off the final D of bar 6, or why the lower notes of the thirds that end bar 5 didn’t resonate.   But then, I didn’t register whether or not they appeared at the bar 7 repetition.   A simple piece, but a pleasure to come across something which takes into account the instrument’s potential for colour and chord spacing.

With Brouwer’s two-movement Elogio, Schaupp jumped into a contemporary stream; even though the work dates from 1964, the Cuban composer speaks an adventurous language which takes dissonances in its stride. at odd points verging on twelve-tone writing although pedal points and the first movement’s Major 7th characteristic argues for a tendency towards a tonal centre.   The executant employed plenty of rubato in the opening Lento, which is a kind of tribute to dance in its juxtaposed flashes of motion and near-stasis, the whole comprising a mobile core surrounded by pairs of ten bars showing relative quiescence. 

Brouwer’s second movement obstinato deals, like the first, in gruppetti, but here much more aggressively.   The entire movement hurtles forward, notably in the central Vivace in 2/4 which reaches a climax in a vehement repeated rasgueado chord before returning to the rapid, metre-changing material that began the movement, followed by a vivace coda. Schaupp displayed an excellent command of this demanding work, at ease with its many  jumps in emotional and technical content, building an impressive structure in each movement while showing no hesitation in vaulting between Brouwer’s juxtapositions of the frenetic with one-line meditation.

Charlton’s work takes its inspiration from a 1994 Carl Sagan speech about the Earth and its position in the cosmos.   The Australian composer subtitles his piece Thoughts on the ‘Pale Blue Dot, as photographed by Voyager 1, and he interpolates in the music a text of his own composition with two brief Sagan excerpts.   Charlton gives his performer (guitarist and speaker in one, preferably, as here) leeway to pronounce the words over pauses or repeated patterns; Schaupp, the work’s dedicatee and commissioner, showed a reassuring ease with the score.   A good deal of its progress is spasmodic, the accompaniment to the text tersely episodic but hard to take in because the words get in the way.  Charlton inserts two passages where the speaking stops and the musical content presents as more sequential and lyrical.    You come across some moving passages, as when the composer returns to lyricism after the speaker comments on the ‘cosmic dark’ of our universe, and at the work’s end where the last chords present an affirmation of our small-scale existence on the rim of infinity.

Barrios’ tremolo study seems to be a rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist but it has an underlying sweetness of melody that complements the middle fingers’ exercise work.  I liked Schaupp’s interpretation which gave a necessary stress to the middle-range arpeggios – the tune, if you like – rather than belting out the bass dotted minims that open nearly every bar, or over-emphasizing the efficiency of her top tremolo.   Mind you, she had given us her view of the work in a prefatory talk, finding a ‘prayer’ in this music.  Which may well be the case, if only for the consolatory turn to E Major at bar 56 and he ‘Amen’ coda at bar 72.   Certainly, it brought this brief recital to a satisfying conclusion: rounding out a trip from the firm benediction of a brilliantly constructed fugue to the touching vision of an old woman asking for alms  –  all too relevant a backdrop to this year of disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opera writ small

EVA

Eva Kong and Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 15     

                                                                       Eva Kong

This was the second of two recitals I intended to review over last weekend.   The first, a Friday night exercise from Sydney with flautist Sally Walker and pianist Simon Tedeschi, comprised a bevy of (mainly) French pieces.   But my account with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall asked for a new password, then refused to accept anything I proposed and, by the time an MDCH technician got back to me (after an assuring message that the company was ‘on the case’), the recital had already started.   No recommendations, then, for Cloudmix who somehow stuffed up a connection that has lasted since the beginning of the Melbourne series; so much for trying to help Australian musicians through this organization.

No such difficulty with the Brisbane Festival; just a pity that this body can only offer one recital a fortnight.  The latest featured Korean-born soprano Kong who is better known for her opera appearances, particularly as Chiang Ch’ing in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which a large number of US critics have been trying to place in the realm of masterpieces since its premiere.   Raineri provided the piano accompaniments – as usual, with splendid command over, and sympathy with, a wide-ranging program.   Further, for one particular piece the soprano/piano ensemble was joined by two cellists: Oliver Scott and Shuhei Lawson.

Wong and Raineri opted to start with the first of Poulenc’s Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, the elliptically-titled C.   It made for a sombre opening gambit; despite its several shafts of illuminating imagery, the song indulges in no fanciful word-painting   Its vocal line moves simply with an early high note but the main impression is of grief at the loss of France to the German invader – yet again.   Kong’s treatment proved more confrontational than usual; maybe this was because of cramped studio conditions in which her dynamic sounded aggressive, or perhaps her view of the work has uncovered a vein of defiance, a sort of determined regret.   Whatever the case, C made a no-nonsense start for the soprano.

Another chanson followed with Debussy’s early Mallarmé setting, Apparition.   Here, Kong found a better place to exercise her talent for dramatic declamation, notably at the outbursts for a key signature change to G flat at C’était le jour béni and at the work’s climax on the repeat of apparue at bar 38.   Both performers interpolated a ritardando at the end of bar 8, possibly to celebrate the end of Debussy’s flirtation with B flat and A flat; Kong inserted a phrase-breaking breath or two – one I seem to recall breaking up ton premier baiser.   But the soprano’s accuracy in this work’s chromatic slips could not be faulted and the collaboration across the final page’s snow imagery was exceptionally restrained in its eloquence.

Kong then gave us the first of her three operatic arias with Obéissons quand leur voix appelle from Act 3 of Massenet’s Manon, although I believe she started well back with Est-ce vrai?, followed by Je marche sur tous les chemins.    All of this was possibly included to give us a slab of solo work before the main aria, which actually involves the chorus; Raineri’s piano substituted for the opera’s jeunes gens who comment so supportively on the heroine’s call to hedonistic arms.   Here was a more comfortable piece for Kong who infused its pages with plenty of twinkling personality for a scene fragment that ideally depicts Manon at this stage of her career.    And, when the gavotte proper began, the soprano showed herself very convincing in dealing with the direct nature of her line, even if things didn’t seem to gel in the last two bars; hard to tell what went amiss, but the effect was of uncertainty.

Kong then introduced us to some Korean songs: Youngsub Choi’s Memory and a setting of Psalm 23 by Woon Young Na.  In the first of these, the compositional language was Romantic with a Rachmaninovian turn, notable only for a repeated piano figure.  Was this originally a folk-song?    The text is by an unknown author but reads like an extended haiku.   Whatever the case, Choi’s required vocal range is demanding, as are some interpolated ornamental notes.    The prevailing mood was melancholy, mainly because the pace was slow and the minor scale/mode dominated. 

Kong told us in a prefatory address that the Church had affected Korean music, an observation well borne out by the psalm setting which proved to be slightly less lush than the previous song and more suggestive of Celtic tunes; in fact, it could have been one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean settings.  This piece was delivered with great zeal and determination, rising to a powerful high point (‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or ‘cup is overflowing’ ?); by contrast, the piano accompaniment was notable for a harmonically static bass across much of the work’s progress.

In came the two cellos to help with the aria from the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 in a Raineri arrangement which at the start had the two strings playing lines 3 and 4 of the original 8-part instrumentation.   In these operating conditions, Kong took the dominant role and never let go.    During Ruth V Corrêa’s poem in the middle of the vocalises, the cellos switched to the original’s top lines while the soprano gave an ardent account of the text, taking her time at each of the pause markings.   Raineri assumed the cello lines 5 and 6 from bar 51, as well as sustaining the piece’s two bass lines, as he had throughout.  It all made sense, even if you missed the mild texture of the original scoring in the central pages and the onward-pushing pizzicati of the outer segments.  The piece could also have gained from longer sustained A and C minims at the last chord.

Well-positioned after the Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise brought the night back to an even keel.   Kong seemed unable to operate at a soft level in this work, something that is pretty vital for the first seven bars as well as the final eight.   But she found the appropriate taut plangency for the piece’s central pages from bars 18 to 30 where the emotional; level is heightened.   

Opera extract No. 3 turned out to be Roxane’s lullaby, Usnijcie krwawe, from Act 2 of Szymanowski’s King Roger, the only real chance in the opera where the king’s wife gets to say something at length; even then, she’s interrupted by Roger, Edrisi and the chorus.  Kong made an excellent display of control in the long melismatic vocalising at the aria’s start; once into the text, she produced a dramatically heightened reading of this extract, quite right when you consider the theatrical circumstances of its delivery.  Still, the output tended to the monochrome in expressiveness despite the emotional shift when the composer’s tonality definitely shifts from its modal minor to the major. 

Speaking of modes, Raineri took the opportunity for a solo before Kong’s big finale which had relevance to what came before it and what came after.    John Adams’ short China Gates uses modes as its fundamental material and is a fairly fluid sample of what used to be called minimalism before concerned composers got distressed by such a dismissive catch-all descriptor.   The pianist demonstrated a persuasive fluency in his outlining, although the changes between sections sounded more overt than usual.   Does this music still test the patience?   Probably not when it’s small-scale like China Gates.   Yet it reminded me of witnessing Philip Glass play his own piano music at some past Melbourne International Arts Festival where the American composer was feted – lots of sustaining pedal swathes across a lyrical motif or six that intertwined to produce a lyrical cloud, with the invitation to luxuriate in the textures and let your faculties drowse.

To end, Kong sang the coloratura aria from the end to Act Two of Adams’ opera  –  I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung  –  thereby ending on a powerful note and giving us a small sample of her mastery of this role which she sang for Victorian Opera six years ago (I didn’t see it) and also gave Sydney this aria in 2017 for Opera Australia’s The Nixon Tapes concert of excerpts.   It’s a belt from start to finish, one-dimensional in character if probably making sense in context.   You had to be impressed by Kong’s emphatic delivery that sizzled with vocal power and enough spite to bring to mind the reported ferocity of the Dowager Empress Cixi as well as the raging contempt for anything outside herself that Mao’s wife showed during the Gang of Four trial in 1980. 

Raineri gave Kong all the repetitive major key support she needed and handled the long postlude with unfaltering energy. 

This aria is a highlight in Adams’ opera which has enjoyed several performances world-wide since its 1987 premiere.   But it’s a superficial product; in my mind, little more than a blip in operatic history and inferior in most ways to King Roger.   You’d have to be a determined patriot to class the work among the great operas.   But then, as someone who lived through the period, it’s outside the bounds of my understanding to find sympathy with a work that attempts to gain sympathy for Mao and Nixon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt without hysterics

LISZT’S ITALIAN PILGRIMAGE

Tristan Lee

Move Records MCD 593

It only seems like last week that I heard this young Melbourne pianist working his way through Liszt’s Deux légendes.   In fact, it was almost the end of March and Lee was appearing as the second recital-giver in that excellent and timely innovation, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, during which he gave us his reading of those picturesque sacred tales with lashings of sonorous fabric.  Not much has changed, it would seem, since this CD’s release last year but the performance is masterful, carrying you past a good deal of heaven-storming piety and grandiose musical vistas.

The first of these, St. François d’Assisse: La prédication aux oiseaux, enjoys a reading that is exemplary in its detail, most obviously when the birds are involved before and after the saint starts his avian address.   Lee keeps his texture clear despite observing pretty much all the ‘accepted’ pedal markings; even when the grouping gets a touch cluttered, as in bars 42 to 45 where the twitterings reach their peak, the pianist keeps the demi-semiquaver patterns lucid..

Further, once the saint starts preaching in earnest and the birds settle into a state of quiescence from bar 68 onwards where the chords gain in majesty, the interpretation gave an earnest, urgent outline of the music’s intended move towards the preacher’s plunge into ecstasy and the high-flown climactic fortissimo points in A flat and B flat.  The composer’s moving transition from the end of Francis’ address back to the birds’ return to their natural state (changed, one hopes, by the experience) also brought about a sense of completion;  you may not believe in the event but the musical depiction gives a remarkable depiction of this legend, all the better here for Lee’s responsive performance.

More excitement prevails in the second legend, St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots.   The piece is a near monomaniacal treatment of the opening three-octave theme on which the composer whips up a stormy Strait of Messina crossing that reaches its apotheosis at bar 103.   Again, Lee keeps his textures free from over-blurring, especially in the most active passage which is not so much thematic as fiercely aquatic – bars 72 to 98 – with chains of alternating chords, double-octaves and runs of chromatic thirds.  The pace is not startlingly fast with attention-grabbing acrobatic leaps to summon up the blood, but the accelerandi and stringendi come across as moderate, serving to underpin the miracle being depicted.   Even at the end, where Liszt opts for an affirmative-action ending rather than leaving the saint to enter Sicily in an atmosphere of pious and reserved thanksgiving as you might have anticipated from the Lento at bar 138/9, Lee keeps the triumph leashed.

These two pieces come at the end of the CD; not positioned as reassurances of Lee’s talents but well-tailored to amply display his gifts, not least one for investing both works with gravitas, the realization that we are listening to music that can stand on its own feet when treated with dedication.   This pianist is conscientious in his approach which gains a great deal from technical security but just as much from a level-headed view of Liszt’s picture-painting.

This CD’s main content is the middle volume of the Années de pèlerinage – the one specified as having Italy as its inspiration.   Liszt compressed his experiences into seven pieces: three to do with painting/sculpture/music, four referring to literature.  The suite presents as a mixed bag where the titular references can be helpful but – as with so many cross-discipline works – could also prove distracting.   You take on trust that Liszt found inspiration in his selections from art and letters; you’d be wasting your time, I suggest, if you went looking for more meaningfulness beyond a few broad strokes.

It’s easier to keep away from useless inferences in the painting/sculpture/music pieces.  For instance, Sposalizio, inspired by Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, presents an insoluble problem: what’s the connection?   It existed in the composer’s aesthetic reaction to the picture but you’re hard pressed to see how.  Lee performs it with plenty of space, in no rush to make a temporally efficient attack on the right-hand quaver pattern that starts in bar 9; but his rubato is delicately applied,   Only a few top notes get subsumed in the Più lento chorale but the double octaves leading to the piece’s high point combine care and bravado in excellent balance.

You can’t make much of Liszt’s Il penseroso either, except to presume that the composer thought the statue from Lorenzo de Medici’s tomb was given to sombre ruminations; well, so you would, wouldn’t you, given the surroundings?   Even major chords in these two pages have a dour flavour but Lee performs the piece without surprises, giving full vent to its grim character and ceding no ground in the central bars 23-31 stretch where the chain of chords acquires a subterranean mobile bass.

Most music-lovers who know the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa are aware that the actual tune was written by Bononcini whose life-span overlapped with Rosa’s by 3 years only. It’s a great march tune and quite a test to sing.  Lee finds the right amount of bounce and is musician enough to exercise discretion with regard to phrasing, notably in the Sempre l’istesso setting at the piece’s middle.

With the three Petrarch sonnets  –  Nos. 47, 104, 123  –  the listener is on familiar textual ground, assisted greatly by the fact that these were originally songs.   In fact, you can go back to the composer’s first essays of 1846 and trace fairly easily the various alterations and interpolations of the 1858 piano solo version.   in Lee’s hands, these pieces are highly effective, thanks to the performer’s keen eye for the fundamental melody lines and a reliable security in handling the inserted cadenzas and masking ornamentation.  Indeed, the more you hear these parts of the Années, the more delights you find, like the touching expressiveness of the first vocal strophe’s restatement in G Major starting at bar 37.  Lee’s handling of the syncopated vocal line throughout remains completely fluent and eloquent in its phrasing – a laudable realization of the fervent blessings that both poet and composer celebrate.

With Sonnet No. 104, we’re definitely in the land of the Liebesträume with a commanding lyrical vocal line, quiescent arpeggios and rich, mutable chord sequences.   It’s not easy to see how Liszt is reflecting Petrarch’s myriad oscillations – one per line (except for the last) in a welter of conceits.   Here is one place where the melody is not illustrating any leaps of imagery; it’s just one long, luxuriant line with several cadenza interruptions that Lee is inclined to treat without fireworks.

Not the least inspired of the three, Sonnet No. 123 is where Lee takes most liberties, most obviously with a stringendo starting at bar 56 which decelerates too early.   As well, at various points the pianist likes to linger – extending a note’s value or allowing a good deal of space before resuming after a caesura, or taking an a piacere across the last four bars very literally.    But you find just as many subtleties in this Chopin-indebted work; listen to the mild susurrus of left hand triplets that start at bar 22, or the impeccable catch-and-release of the change from E Major to C Major at bars 40-41.

In all sonnets, you hear a further testament to Lee’s insight with regard to this music and his responsiveness to their Romantic vocabulary.   These soulful gems are followed by the CD’s longest track: Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata.  To his credit, Lee gets nearly all the notes; no mean feat in this virtuosic exercise where the excitement is built up in several short-lived paragraphs as Liszt contemplates (possibly) the various descriptors of torment and vice in Hugo’s poem.  This work is probably the most technically demanding that Lee attempts here; furthermore, its length makes it difficult to mould into a narrative – even more so than the second of the légendes.

For instance, I can’t find anything else on the disc to compare with the long Presto agitato assai that stretches for about 110 bars of barely punctuated action.   Lee exercises his flexibility here with some split-second delays as he moves between registers, but it’s never enough to upset the onward surge of the paragraph.  There’s a counterbalance to this in the shift to F sharp Major at bar 157 for a più tosto ritenuto reminiscence of Beatrice where the writing is like a cross between a Chopin nocturne and an étude.   In this 23 bar episode, Lee shows a remarkably even-tempered responsiveness that gives us more than a mossy Romantic texture; rather, a subtle interplay of accents, both rhythmic and melodic, and a fine realization of Liszt’s vision of an in medias res Paradise emerging in the context of an Inferno that sounds – like Milton’s Satan – suspiciously heroic.

An all-Liszt CD from a (resident) Australian pianist is to be celebrated, of course, but not just because of the implied ambition.  This is a remarkable accomplishment for its unalloyed probity; listening to Lee’s insightful readings has been one of the more memorable passages of play that I’ve enjoyed in some years of Liszt experiences.  Here is a recording that stands secure on its own merits.  If it’s not flashy enough or Cziffra-like for some, that’s too bad: Lee is his own man and his interpretations reveal a highly welcome integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night of the arranger

LA VIE EN ROSE

Tania Frazer, Jonathan Henderson, Alan Smith, Alex Raineri,

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 1

                                                                      Tania Frazer

Alan Smith

                                                                         Alan Smith

Latest in this online series that is lighting up the synapses of music-loving Brisbane, Saturday’s all-French concert employed the services of the city’s Southern Cross Soloists; well, four of them.   While you might have expected from the title an hour-long reminiscence of Trenet, Aznavour and Piaf, what came out was both enriching and puzzling but, in synchronicity with what I have learned about the Soloists, the program was packed with arrangements – some of them comfortable for all concerned, others not so happy.    At the heart of it all sat Alex Raineri’s piano accompaniment; in an act of self-abnegation, the Festival’s artistic director performed only one sols, which is extraordinary when you consider that the offerings included works by Satie, Ravel and Debussy.

In fact, the most orthodox, ‘straight’ work kicked off the evening.   Henderson and Raineri worked through Francaix’s Divertimento of 1953; not a piece to keep you engrossed but an alternately tuneful and busy compendium.   Its initial Toccatina, a non-stop barrage of notes for both players, proved as full of surface excitement as many another showcase written especially for Rampal; a frippery, but soon over.   The following Notturno proved attractively mobile; no longueurs here.   Another vital effusion in the Perpetuum mobile which lived up to its title but annoyed at the opening because you could not tell whether the rhythm was intentionally irregular or whether the players were uneasy with its metrical lay-out.   Fitted with a galaxy of chromatic runs, these pages gave Richardson a real workout in terms of breathing.

I found Francaix’s Romanza the most attractive of the suite’s five movements with its deft combination of sentimentality and spice.   You couldn’t call the latter aggressively dissonant but the composer beguiled you with several unexpected turns of line and harmonic structure.   These pages showed Francaix at his best in a lyric of no little charm, executed without excess in any department; the unfeeling could dismiss it as film music but the final bars showed how Francaix could transcend the trite.   As for the Finale, it impressed for a dash of piquancy but sounded like a trial for the performers who fortunately found a less dogged approach as the piece neared its end – or perhaps the work gained in inspiration.   Whatever the case, you were more aware in the later pages of a sense of humour in the stop/start alternations and a slick final bar.

For a lot of us, there was a time when we found Satie to be as he presented – droll, eccentric, heart-of-gold.   But the charm wore off somewhere in the 1980s for me; now the performance directions along the lines of ‘ Take a nap, then construct a lovers’ nest from papier-mâché and osprey dung’ seem aimless, although such high-jinks gave rise (eventually) to a school of composition where the score was all prose; and who was that Frenchman discovered for us by Keith Humble and Jean-Charles François who wrote  pithy enigmatic texts as his scores?   Not to mention Stockhausen in the later Messianic years.   Even so, we are still brought up short by the pared-back calm of creations like the Gymnopédies in both piano and Debussy-scored (1 and 3 only) formats.

No less so by Satie’s Gnossiennes, which may have something to do with gnosticism or, more materially, with Knossos; I’ve had nothing to do with the creed but have wandered around the Cretan ruins and Satie’s miniatures could possibly have some connecrtion with Sir Arthur Evans’ excavated site – exactly what, I don’t know except for a shared angularity.   Whatever the background, this performance of Gnossiennes 1, 4 and 3 saw Frazer offer her own transcriptions for oboe and piano, the outer ones of this trio very well known.   Frazer took the right-hand melody line and left to Raineri the chordal background.

It took a while to get used to the penetrating double-reed timbre but Frazer generated an expressive line in No. 1, although I wondered about some of the too-simple dynamic shifts during repeats, like the move to piano in the second half of the Très luisant segment; and the upward octave shift on the final F sounded unnecessary.   The encounter with No. 4 impressed in its middle strophes, after the semiquaver quibbling.   And I couldn’t understand the acceleration during No. 3 unless Frazer and Raineri were putting an individual slant on the composer’s direction to play De manière à obtenir un creux.   If anything, the reading of this Gnossienne seemed to me rather over-played, imposing a personality where the original intention was to remove it.

Smith gave a sensible reading of Ravel’s Tzigane with fine Raineri accompaniment across the whole tension-packed canvas.   The violinist would probably not have been too happy with his A dotted crotchets in bars 9 and 10 but this whole opening section on the G string only is a taxing passage, especially as it sets a high intonational standard right from the first notes.   Smith’s rendering proved powerful enough, although the double-stops at Rehearsal Number 3 emphasized the lower line.   Coming up all too soon, a diabolical alternation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato follows before the exposed violin gets some relief (not that it ever gets much of a pause).

The violinist powered through the testing pages with admirable zest, winding up with an excellent grounding deliberation at Number 17, building to a fine clamour at Number 32 with the concluding rush from accelerando to presto impressing for its accuracy under high pressure as the piece smashes into a compelling quadruple-stopped last two bars. Tzigane is one of music literature’s great exercises in deconstruction, Ravel taking all-too-familiar Ziegeuner tropes and pushing the trite into virtuosic exercises with no concern for soppy sentimentality or faux-masculine flashiness.   It’s a delight to hear when the violinist is able to handle its trials and Smith did Ravel – and himself – proud.

From here on, the program moved into Beecham-lollipop mode with a bracket of three songs and a one-time compulsory encore for violinists.   Raineri began this group with his own solo piano arrangement of Louiguy’s La vie en rose.   It followed the song’s chorus faithfully enough, the whole piece containing only a few harmonic solecisms and, for most of its length, having a concentration on the lower half of the piano’s compass.  Taking the familiar tune up an octave was effective, not least because it made for a relief from the low-pitched preceding pages.   I’m not a fan of the ripple/arpeggio ending but at least it wasn’t overdone here.   No, it wasn’t as ambitious an undertaking as Grainger’s reshaping of The Man I Love but it did little harm to this era-representing evergreen.

Henderson partnered Raineri in a no-surprises version of Debussy’s pre-1891 Beau soir chanson.   The flautist took on the vocal part with a generously phrased volubility and giving us a well-prepared climax across bars 25 and 26.    The same composer’s 1880 Nuit d’étoiles brought Frazer to the melody line.   Here also, the lyric came across with ease and restraint.   I think that the piano part diverged from the original in the last refrain, making the octavo jump eight bars early – or perhaps I was happy to get the main theme back pianissimo.   Last in this group was the Méditation from Act Two of Massenet’s opera Thaïs, with which neglected work Sir Andrew Davis made Melbourne music-lovers familiar three years ago.    Smith had no trouble dispatching this sweetest of intermezzi with a fine deftness in handling the gruppetti of five and four semiquavers that punctuate the smooth violin line’s progress in the piece’s outer sections.   Possibly the sforzandi at the più mosso agitato direction from bar 34 on could have been pulled back to a less full-on dynamic level but it was difficult to find fault with the rest of the score, Raineri having little to do beyond outlining the harp’s almost non-stop accompanying role.

To finish off the night with some fireworks, Raineri and Co. put on a more taxing encore piece, a work that occupies a dodgy zone between definite program material and something frivolous with which to delight any audience: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.   But, rather than employing Smith’s expertise, the work was given in an arrangement by Frazer where flute and oboe share the solo violin line between them. Frazer took the opening solo up to bar 6; Henderson took over from bar 7 to bar 10; and on it went in a heart-warming demonstration of how to play musical fair-shares.   A little bit of transposition was needed to cope with the fioriture nine bars before the rondo’s start.  Nevertheless, once the main constituent of this work was in progress, Frazer maintained her even distribution of the work-load with some clever interweaving and a subtle preparation for the trill hiatus just before Letter B.

Notably appealing was the attack by both woodwind artists on the double-stops during the con morbidezza interlude.   A crunch-of-sorts came with the triple-stop cadenza five bars before Letter G which turned somehow into spaced-out arpeggios; but that’s pretty much what the original is.   Then on to a hurtling coda and home.  You’d have to call it an interesting exercise but I have to confess to a longing for the original where you get to enjoy a violinist’s handling of the composer’s hurdles, contrived especially to test that instrumentalist’s virtuosity and self-control.

Not a night for the purist, then.   Still,  Raineri had organised a well-assorted program, contrasting the tried-and-true with some arcana, peppered with three very popular works.   All of it gave a platform for four sadly under-used musicians.   But we live in hope that Aunt Annastacia will keep us free from extra-state contamination and that these artists will soon get back to playing for live audiences who are actually in the room with them.   Until then, we will have to put up manfully and womanfully   –  and appreciatively  –  with the inbuilt fluctuations in content of entertainments like La vie en rose.

 

 

China? No: platinum

THE GARDEN PARTY

The Marais Project

Move Records MCD 592

The garden party 14.cdr

Talk of accordions, and they spring up all over the place.   No, perhaps not all over but, as the Fates would have it, James Crabb appeared in last week’s bonus recital from Musica Viva; straight after, this Marais Project CD came up for attention and it features piano accordionist Emily-Rose Šárkova as both performer and arranger, appearing in seven of the 19 tracks.   Of course, the instrument is up against it for a lack of original material in the serious music field  –  sorry: established original material  –  but one way to get around this is to insert your contribution into a biddable ensemble and see what comes out.

Here, Šárkova has been invited by the Project founder Jenny Eriksson to enter the wide-ranging ensemble and imbue the company sound with her own.   We start out with Eriksson’s own take on the Feste Champêtre from Marais’ big Suite d’un goût Étranger, included in the composer’s Livre IV for viol and continuo.   I’ve spent a while listening to a few versions of the original, following the viol throughout, this research illuminated through a brilliant execution of the piece by Jordi Savall.   There seems to be little thematic cross-referencing between Marais’ earthy rondo and Eriksson’s The Garden Party;  not that you can read too much into that.   As well as the accordion’s penetrating timbre, you have Eriksson herself on gamba, Project regular Tommie Andersson’s baroque guitar, and the all-important violin of Susie Bishop.

Like Marais’ Feste, the Party is initially in a 4/4 rhythm with a long detour into triple time.   You hear a recurring root passage in both pieces that demarcates the variants/episodes in the earlier work and acts as a framing device in Eriksson’s reappraisal.   And while the 18th century piece’s various sub-divisions feature an appropriate musette and a tambourin, the title track doesn’t take too long before venturing close to the world of klezmer.   Later, a few jazz-inflected passages imitate Stephane Grappelli too close for comfort  .  .  .  or perhaps the aim was to summon up the French-Italian violinist’s spirit on purpose.   One of the modern variants features the gamba and accordion (single-line) in collaboration; another has violin and gamba; later gamba and guitar, before Bishop invokes the Grappelli spirit and we re-enter the klezmer mode.

Still, it’s a party and you’d be insane if you went looking for a thematic consistency at one of those events these days.   More to the point, Eriksson’s celebration is crisp and determined in every bar, complete with bracing accordion chords to interpolate some well-placed full-stops.

Next comes another arrangement by Šárkova of four pieces from the E minor Suite from the 1717 Livre IV by Marais.   We hear the Rondeau Paÿsan, jump back to the Sarabande, then hear the two characteristic pieces that end the suite: La Matelotte and La Biscayenne.   By this stage, you’re hearing (or imagine you are hearing) repetition of material between pieces – or perhaps you think it’s so because of the multiple repeats.   In any case, the arrangement is for gamba and accordion and it works pretty well because Šárkova is a deft hand at picking out melody lines to meld into and contrast with Eriksson’s part.  This is particularly effective in the Sarabande where the contrast in sonority between both instruments is nowhere near as clear-cut as you’d expect.

An O salutaris hostia by Pierre Bouteiller (no, me neither) uses Danny Yeadon’s gamba as well as Eriksson’s,  Andersson’s theorbo, while the text is sung by soprano Belinda Montgomery.   This is, for my money, the finest product on the CD but it’s a re-issue from the group’s previous recording from 2009,  Love Reconciled.   The vocal work is refreshingly clear with just enough ornamentation, while the supporting lines make a splendid and mellow mesh.   Such a pity the composer didn’t extend to Aquinas’ second verse with its terse and moving last couplet.

The Suite No. 2 in G minor of 1692 by Marais here uses Melissa Farrow on baroque flute, partnered with Fiona Ziegler’s baroque violin, while Eriksson and Andersson make a firm continuo duo.   Once you get used to the convention of treating six regular quavers as changeable into dotted quavers+semiquavers when the mood takes you (yes, that’s just being flippant about a well-established Baroque convention), it’s a pleasure to hear the upper lines move in polished synchronicity.   This is another recycling, from the Project’s 2015 Smörgåsbord album, giving us four out of the 13 pieces in the suite itself: Prelude, Rondeau, Plainte and petite Passacaille.    All are cleanly accomplished, although I missed the repeat of the Rondeau‘s second part, but delighted in the slow processional of the Plainte, and listened over and over to bars 67 to 65 of the petite Passacaille for the brisk inter-cutting between flute and violin.

Performing J’avois crû qu’en vous aimant, an anonymous petit air tendre, all participants get to run through the theme – Andersson on theorbo to start, then Bishop singing two of the three verses and playing one, Eriksson giving an elegant shape to her outline.   All of this is convincing as a mobile plaint, bu I was sorry to have to forego the final section that moves into triple time and breaks the mood, like the third Agnus Dei in so many of those Classical period masses.    Still, the MP isn’t alone in that as all other groups I’ve heard attempting this piece also avoid any bucolic suggestions.

Another recycled group (from the group’s Love Reconciled CD of 2009) follows with a selection from Marais’ Livre V of Pieces de violes, Eriksson taking prime position, supported by Andersson on theorbo, Catherine Upex supplying a gamba support, and Chris Berensen the most discreet of harpsichordists.   The quartet begins operations with an unexpected preface in the Rondeau louré from Livre III, which accretes instruments as it passes by.  then the Allemande la Marianne,  a sarabande where the theorbo and second gamba sound very forward, a menuet in which the melody line barely survives the accompanying chords’ ferocity, and La Georgienne dite la Maupertuy which brings an appealing brusqueness of articulation to the fore at each repetition of the main theme.

Last of the previously-issued numbers is Andersson’s arrangement of the Swedish tune Om sommaren sköna which comes from the previously-mentioned Smörgåsbord CD.   The executants are tenor Pascal Herrington, Farrow, Ziegler, Eriksson and, of course, Andersson.   Nothing new here, again: Andersson leads the way with a solo theorbo rendition of the tune, followed by Eriksson doing the same.  Then Herrington sings the rather doleful C minor tune’s first verse before Ziegler has her way with it, supported quietly by Farrow before the tenor comes back with verse three, Farrow very subtly shadowing him.   Sorry to miss out on the middle Där hörs en förnöjelig stanza, particularly because the melody suits Herrington’s clean-edged voice.   But then, while wishing the best to all concerned, there’s not much you can do with a tune like this except play it over and over – unless you’re prepared to take it out on a limb and provide some real variation.

The Project winds up with two jeux d’esprit that bring Šárkova back into the fold.    First is her arrangement of La Anunciación by Ariel Ramirez, sung by Bishop with the piano accordion dominating the perky accompaniment to the Argentinian composer’s Christmas song; Eriksson and Andersson are assisted by double bass Elsen Price and Šárkova takes on a short singing role.   It’s very upbeat and happy – and short, because the performers only deliver half of the Félix Luna verses.   To finish, we have De fiesta en fiesta, a catchy chacarera (or is it?) by Peteco Carabajal where yet again the performers dig deep to find their inborn Argentinian.   The personnel is the same as for La Anunciación and, as has latterly become prevailing practice, the theme gets shared around between the singer and violin with lots of interstitial commentary from the accordion; even the gamba pokes its head above the battlements for a short while and Šárkova joins Bishop for the last quatrain although, as in the previous number, only half the verses get a run-through.

The South American brace brings this celebratory CD to a rousing conclusion as the Marais Project rings up 20 years of operations with some new material and a recycling of their favourites or works that have found favour with MP supporters.  Even if you’re so-so about the outer tracks in this album, you get to re-experience these players at their best in previous releases.   And, when they’re good, they’re very, very good.