East is East and . . .


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

December 9, 2015

Caricature of Vivaldi Il prete rosso by Pier Leone Ghezzi                                       (1723)

In virtually identical fashion, the ACO began and ended its Melbourne year with this program built around Vivaldi’s well-worn quartet of violin concertos.  Richard Tognetti roused audience approbation for his vital interpretations of these familiar pages at both last Wednesday’s packed concert and back in the last week of February.  With characteristic mastery, he found refreshing novelties in both tutti passages and solos – heaving the line into faster or slower pace to unsettle expectations, lingering suggestively over chromatic ascents, then abruptly hurtling through whole segments in the Autumn and Winter scores with remarkable rapidity, and always finding a ready response from his associates – a string nonet of ACO regulars, Neal Peres Da Costa oscillating between harpsichord and chamber organ in performing continuo offices, Tommie Andersson also doing dual service on theorbo and guitar.

So far, so fair.  These concerts have a well-earned reputation for rattling cupboards, raising dust, turning on unfiltered lights.  Along with a re-viewing of the season-celebrating evergreens, with two isolated Vivaldi movements from other concertos and a Gabrieli sonata for extra Venetian heft, Tognetti arranged a juxtaposition of European Baroque and contemporary Egyptian through a collaboration with the Tawadros brothers, Joseph playing oud and James on the tambourine-like riq and occasionally the bendir hand-drum.  Not that this musical association is new; both Tawadros musicians have been performing with the ACO for almost 15 years.

But this program proposed a more serious aim than a mirror reflecting culturally differing musical elements.  Tognetti has been looking for a common ground between the worlds of Islam and the Venetian Republic with specific reference to music, given that the inter-relationship certainly existed in artefacts, goods and solid artistic objects, not to mention that trite descriptor of cross-cultural  pollination – cuisine.

But when it comes to music, the influences, one-sided or mutual, prove difficult to track down.  In the end, what this program offered seemed unconvincing, even more so after a second experience.  Joseph’s lute-like instrument served competently in giving an edge to the orchestra’s output, reinforcing Andersson’s timbre if with a more brusque sound-quality, less happy doubling the solo line in several concerto movements.  Joseph’s percussion underpinning, especially in the more bouncy third movements, sounded like an unnecessary adjunct, sadly reminiscent of that inane version of the first Allegro in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 which was supplied with a drum-kit undertow.  What did the insertion of that percussive supplement add to the Mozartian experience?  Precious little, if anything.   I fear, the same applied to this Vivaldi fusion experience.

Interleaved between the Vivaldi concertos and single movements, Joseph presented seven of his own compositions, episodic constructs with occasional spotlights on ACO players – Tognetti, of course, and bass Maxime Bibeau – but the focus centred consistently on the oud, apart from one extended riq solo to begin Give or Take.   Modal melodies, sprightly metrical set-ups, plenty of unison work for the ACO strings, cadenza-type breaks all helped to create a specific sound-world although I found it hard to differentiate between most of these pieces and what I’ve heard from Turkey and Iran.  Complicating the mix, an Indian influence is inescapable, the riq’s rapidity and ability to produce rapid-fire bursts and semi-complex patterns resembling the tabla in everything but the use of the palm, while the decorative ripples from Joseph’s lute occasionally came very close to a sitar’s enunciation of a raga.

Yet, while both the orchestra and its guests entered into each other’s worlds with that confidence gained through a long-time aesthetic conversation and built on the performing security invested in the last night of a national tour taking in four state capitals,  their respective worlds, their basic languages remained discrete.  In the opening Gabrieli sonata for three violins, it seemed that an attempt was made to give lines an Eastern curve – hesitant, languorous, dynamically restrained – but when all parts were well under way, the Orient disappeared and the instrumental fabric reverted to type.   In the Tawadros pieces, the ACO players sounded as if added on, providing a sound quality that all too often sounded suggestive of an old-fashioned the dansant straight out of Death on the Nile.  When Tognetti took a prominent part, the spectre of Stephane Grappelli and his Hot Club Quintet loomed unnervingly close.   Added to this odd non-Venetian shadow of reminiscence, the works  sometimes began promisingly – the oud solo at the beginning of Point of Departure with suggestions of intriguing irregularities,  a similarly expectation-lifting start to Permission to Evaporate  – but settled for rapid-fire rushes of activity, negotiated with a palette of colours in which eventually you laboured to find points of differentiation, let alone any timbral, melodic, harmonic or rhythmic congruence with the European scores.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Further exposure to Tawadros’ music may reveal connections with music of the European Mediterranean that are definitely discernible in several parameters.  At present, the links continue to elude. Not that this concerned the rest of the MRC audience, who were fortunate to hear these players in the clear acoustic of the Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch space rather than at the ACO’s usual theatre of operations in Hamer Hall, as was the case in February.  A well-applied amplification system helped even more in heightening accessibility, particularly during the central movement to Vivaldi’s Autumn where Da Costa filled in its 45 bars with a deftly executed  solo over the semi-static string chords.  More importantly, it put us up-close with the Tawadros brothers’ determined attack and sharp delivery right from their opening Kindred Spirits – one of the concert’s most effective demonstrations of their craft.

A triumph for magniloquence


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

December 5, 2015

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne’s finest choral force had a pretty easy time at its last concert for 2015, a by-now traditional event that can take in music dealing with the Christmas Night event as well as its Gospel postludes up to the Feast of the Purification and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  On Saturday, the Gombert singers collaborated with some of Danny Lucin‘s early music experts from La Compania: a sextet of cornett, sackbuts and three strings supplementing John O’Donnell who directed each segment from a chamber organ.

Central to the program, Schutz’s Weinachtshistorie prefigures later settings of the Nativity story, the most famous being Bach’s wide-ranging Christmas Oratorio.  But where the later composer deviates from the New Testament text to interpolate introductory choruses, a sinfonia, many arias, chorales, a duet or two, some ariosi, even a trio, Schutz sticks to his last and simply tells the story as set down in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.   Most of this task falls to an Evangelist who occupies centre-stage for much of the piece’s length, following a rather strict one-note-one-syllable recitative path with – as far as I could hear – only a couple of fanciful flights – on the word entfloh suggesting the flight to Egypt, and a final flourish at the close of the Evangelist’s contributions where he observes God’s grace in the growing child Jesus.

The full Gombert complement contributed to the work with the solid opening which promises at some length that what follows is concerned with Christ’s birth, and with the conclusion, a hymn of thanks praising God at some length.  The 18 singers also contributed to the 6-part Gloria exclamation from the angels praising God to the shepherds; this is one of eight intermedia where the text is given personalisation – the solitary angel of Katharina Hochheiser addressing the shepherds, later prompting Joseph to exile in Egypt, then ordering him home; an alto/tenor sextet for the shepherds’ response, a tenor trio for the Wise Men questioning the Child’s whereabouts, all four Gombert basses representing the priests and scribes, Michael Strasser‘s solo bass for Herod.

Vaughan McAlley‘s tenor was not over-pressed by the Evangelist’s line, which is easy-going compared to the same role in the Christmas Oratorio, not to mention the St. Matthew Passion marathon which McAlley has sung with other groups.  His voice is clear, the notes accurately centred, but the actual timbre, the vocal quality lacks assurance and comes across as studied; not tentative, as the singer knows the task in hand, yet lacking that fluency which urges the narrative forward.  Hochheiser’s first angelic address made a positive impact of agility, but for a fair while I could not distinguish any specific word: fricatives, plosives, consonants of any kind were absent from the vocal output which had only two Baroque violins vying for attention.   Better followed with the semi-recitative encouragements to Joseph and a less aggressive string support.

Still, the impression of Schutz’s score in this reading was of an often dour construct, lightened by the choral bracketing. La Compania contributed with a flawless sonic mix that could have been amplified to the fabric’s benefit, particularly with some woodwind colour like recorders or a buzzing dulcian or two.

In the night’s second part, the ensemble sang three Michael Praetorius motets: the rarely-heard Jesaia dem Propheten das geschah, and two more familiar workings of well-known melodies in the double-choir Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her and the impressive 9-part Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern.   Full fruits of the Venetian school and the Gabrielis’ influence, these sumptuous complexes brought a seasonal richness to the Gomberts’ celebration, balancing the spartan directness of Schutz’s bare-bones narrative with its very welcome interpolations.  Despite the body’s modest numbers, O’Donnell’s ensemble handles these grand soundscapes with more elegance and clarity than most other bodies with many times the number of participants.

O’Donnell introduced the two final anthems with a Pachelbel chorale-prelude for Von Himmel hoch and a solid Buxtehude chorale fantasia on Wir schon leuchtet; both tests of digital exactness and linear distinction.  For this music, you could not hope for a more informed and able executant.

Post-concert, the night took a turn for the bizarre when the audience found that Xavier’s security operations – with both the Ensemble Gombert and the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at work in the grounds – had closed off the gates.  It’s one way to treat your guests, I suppose, but suggests an unnerving lack of consideration for others that stands clearly in opposition to the college’s self-proclaimed aim of producing career altruists.


Light on Schubert


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 30, 2015

Michael Smallwood

Almost five months ago, baritone Florian Boesch accompanied by Malcolm Martineau performed the three Schubert song-cycles as a job lot for the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series: solid readings, eloquent in address, determinedly serious if not actually stern in their impact.  Such an interpretative approach is generally to be expected: two of the sets – Winterreise and Die Schone Mullerin – illustrate tragedies.  But both of these cycles offer combinations of light and dark, excesses of enthusiasm as well as of depression, and this alternation came over clearly in Monday night’s reading of the Mullerin sequence from tenor Michael Smallwood and pianist Eidit Golder.

One of the factors that made this recital so exceptional was Smallwood’s splendid diction; every word counted and came across with sterling precision.  Yes, it’s much easier to achieve this in the small confines of the Salon, as opposed to Boesch’s having to cope with the Murdoch Hall acoustic, but the young Australian sustained his precision of articulation from the strongly accented opening Das Wandern, to the last soft strophes of Des Baches Wiegenlied.  In between, the tenor’s operatic experience told in bracing accounts of Ungeduld, typified by a deft alternation between the nervous excitement of each verse’s first five lines and the proud assertiveness each time in the concluding Dein ist mein Herz proclamation, deludedly one-sided as it turns out to be.

While Smallwood maintained a fluent delivery in less taxing numbers like Morgengruss or the four-square patterns of Mein!, more complex structures demonstrated his facility of even output – the long phrases of Pause, the erratic intensity that permeates Die bose Farbe, the shifts in character between the various sections of Am Feierabend where the poet/singer’s fate is determined.  Dynamic gradations sparked interest in practically all of the cycle’s 20 components but just as noticeable was Smallwood’s use of his high register: at times stentorian and bold, at others mezza voce for the high-mark of a curved phrase, flautando verging on falsetto in restrained, tense moments of introspection (although what parts of this obsessive work fall outside that descriptor?).

Golder, the most considerate of accompanists, put hardly a finger wrong throughout the cycle’s length, diligently negotiating the wide-ranging elements that are exercised during the work’s progress; to my ears, the most notable being those amiable but difficult-to-phrase semiquaver flurries in Wohin?,  the circular pattern-work of Halt!, scads of gruff low-lying triplets during Die bose Farbe, and the eventually mobile but disturbingly insistent upper pedal notes of the work’s last lied.

With her instrument open on the short stick, Golder offered a chameleonic support for her singer, not fearing to take an aggressive note when the attack directive called for it, happy to take geschwind on face value for Der Jager and  Eifersucht und Stolz and observe its various modulations for other lyrics.  But the most impressive characteristic of her work was not its beneficence but her awareness of the singer’s needs. It was rare to hear a hint of rhythmic dislocation, although it would be difficult to achieve any discrepancy in something like Der Jager which these executants took at breakneck speed.

In sum, here was a light-filled version of Schubert’s compendium which sustains its underpinning of despairing innocence to the end.  While many collaborators in Die schone Mullerin can offer impressive moments, only informed intelligences like Smallwood and Golder can take you without a mis-step along the traveller’s journey, outlining with clarity and dedication each step along its slow downward gradient; an impressive partnership that contrived to make this major work both technically clean and interesting.