Ringing the changes

VARIED VIRTUES

Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Monday February 22

Living up to its title, this latest foray by Kathryn Selby and two associate artists centred on variation form, although last night’s main work kept to the normal sonata-ternary-rondo framework with not a variation in sight.  In fact, by the time the players arrived at the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1, the solitary constituent of the program’s second half, the impact of a good old-fashioned exposition+development structure proved very welcome.

Not that you had much to complain of with the Beethoven Piano Trio in E flat, which comprises 14 variations on a theme of the composer’s own creation.  Selby had a mini-work-out with the keyboard part but cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and violinist Andrew Haveron, concertmaster with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, enjoyed a sweet-speaking partnership in their function as support for the piano.  The theme’s announcement has all players in unison, from which point on Beethoven-the-pianist shows his colours;  violin and cello only break into prominence in the final hunting-horn 6/8 Allegro variant.  A neat performance all round, Selby in excellent form without unduly dominating the constitutionally imbalanced mix.

Andrew Haveron (selbyandfriends.com.au)
Andrew Haveron (image: selbyandfriends.com.au)

Schubert’s C Major Fantasy D. 934 has enjoyed a poor press, as Haveron pointed out before playing it; in fact, much of the criticism hinges around the lack of comparisons that can be drawn between it and the final masterpieces that the composer was hurling out in his last months of life.   Admittedly, its sectional divisions creak but the central four variations on Schubert’s own song Sei mir gegrusst have striking interest in their brilliance of writing for both instruments, as does the extended march-finale with its Davidsbundler premonitions.  Apart from which, few elements can transform a piece’s flaws more than the work of two fine artists and the Haveron/Selby combination was impressively effective: two strong-armed performers, both finding in turn the vehemence and the poetry throughout this rambling, moving amalgam.

Busoni’s Kultaselle, ten variations on a Finnish folksong, presents just as many challenges as the Schubert, particularly when its elaborations become more dramatic and technically challenging.  Valve enjoyed much of the melodic burden in this construct, a rather orthodox one in shape and harmonic structure, although the composer was only in his early twenties when he spent time in Helsinki and found this tune, among others.  The contour of the melody remains perceptible throughout and the cello line is wide-ranging and virtuosic, exercising Valve’s powers of projection in certain passages where the keyboard contribution is more than a touch emphatic.  It’s a curiosity, of a piece with many another display-work for the mature professional and, despite the extraordinary creative mind behind it, once heard, easily forgotten.

Not so with the Arensky work, as fresh and uncomplicated now as when I first heard Selby perform it many years ago in Melba Hall.   Although in D minor, its initial impulse is to move to major tonalities and this tendency to look towards optimistic language remains one of the piece’s most enjoyable characteristics.  Dramatic in its flourishes, the first movement projects a brand of benign restlessness that these performers captured with enthusiastic drive, Haveron’s eloquent, tensile line a fine match for the broad cello strokes and the piano’s continuous energetic pulses and exclamation points.

The scherzo is a test of agility for the piano, its recurring main paragraph a minefield of irregular scale work and flamboyant arpeggios.  Somewhere near the end of the middle section, the texture thinned out unsettlingly, although the recovery was swift.  A following Elegia displayed once again the high quality of the string duo, their interweaving and alternating passages  intense and passionate without over-kill.  As for the finale, these musicians coped well with its difficulties, the main one being that there is not much going on underneath a welter of surface activity.   Fast and furious, it has an impressive impetus and a sense of potential drama but the melodic material, after three movements of richness, fails to impress, least of all when the composer introduces reminiscences of material from earlier in the trio’s all-too-brief progress.  Still, Selby urged her colleagues to a rousing coda, the whole carried off with the requisite panache and dynamic definition.

 

 

March Diary 2016

Tuesday March 1

Ensemble Gombert, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6pm

Hard to tell how this excellent choir will cope with the dry acoustic of the Salon.  John O’Donnell directs his formidable singers in the opening program to a two-part series: Music of Great Renaissance Chapels.  First up is the Sistine,  and the main work illustrating its pre-eminence will be that fundamental of Catholic church music, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.  Companions are motets by Desprez and Morales which could conceivably have been performed in that celebrated chamber.  Frankly, I’d like a bit more space and elbow-room.

Victorian Opera, Playhouse, Ats Centre Melbourne, 7:30 pm

This sounds like a Gen Y delight.  Four friends are having their annual restaurant meal; this time round, each tells the others a deep secret.  Which probably explains the title: Banquet of Secrets.  Not so much an opera as a musical, its text comes from Steve Vizard, music by Paul Grabowsky.  Roger Hodgman directs singers Antoinette Halloran, Kanen Breen, Dimity Shepherd and David Rogers-Smith.  The last Grabowsky vehicle of this nature that I can recall was a collaboration with Joanna Murray-Smith, Love in the Age of Therapy,  an entertainment of which little substantial remains in the memory except the participation of Breen (taking it all off for art) and Shepherd – both are optimistically back for more.

Runs till March 5.

 

Wednesday March 2

Dejan Lazic, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7:30 pm

Zagreb-born piano wunderkind – well, not so much of the kind: he’s 28/29 years old – is playing an esoteric program of ‘selected sonatas and fantasias’ by C.P.E. Bach, ‘selected sonatas’ by Scarlatti (plenty to pick from), Britten’s early Holiday Diary suite of four pieces, and a welcome helping of Bartok: the Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm that conclude the mighty Mikrokosmos books, Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes, and the composer’s arrangement of the Funeral March from his symphonic poem Kossuth that few people I know have experienced live.  This breaks the established mould of the piano recital, but with a clear purpose: all four composers wrote unusually idiomatically for the keyboard. This recital begins the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series for the year; here’s hoping. In 2014, Lazic took exception to a critique published in The Washington Post four years previously, endeavouring to have it removed from the internet by means of the European Union’s ‘right to be forgotten’ law; apparently, every time you entered his name, the review came up.  As criticism, it strikes me as fair and reasoned; oh, it’s still extant.

 

Thursday March 3

Luisa Morales, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Spanish harpsichordist Morales was a student of the brilliant Rafael Puyana and the breathtaking Ton Koopman.  She appears in the Salon Solo series sponsored by the Recital Centre.  Her program promises Rameau and Scarlatti in a kind of juxtaposition exercise, highlighting the two composers’ approach to the fandango; well, it’s a great dance, even in the hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.  Her Scarlatti sonatas have been nominated; the Rameau remain under the generic heading of Pieces de clavecin.  As usual, the recital lasts an hour but we get the all-too-rare chance to hear a visiting harpsichord expert and scholar.

Australian String Quartet, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7 pm

Running swiftly, you might manage to get from Morales in the Salon to the ASQ in the Murdoch Hall.  Perhaps for a while the ensemble’s personnel will stay constant; it has been a chameleonic body over the last few years.  At last sighting, the violinists were Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew; Stephen King continues in the viola chair and Sharon Draper maintains the cello position.  Guest artist is Sydney percussionist Claire Edwards who is down here to participate in a new work by Matthew Hindson (at the time of writing still unidentified) and some extracts from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams which – last time I looked – asked for a string quartet and a prepared piano; in this arrangement by Edwardes we are offered hand percussion . . . which doesn’t narrow things down much.  Bookends are the last of the Beethoven Op. 18 and Schumann No. 1.

 

Friday March 4

Grigoryan and Tawadros Brothers, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7:30 pm

The title is Band of Brothers, which gets marks for appropriate if obvious Shakespeareanism.  The four have collaborated before at this venue and clearly enjoyed that occasion.  As you’d expect, the music ranges over a wide spectrum; that is, as far as you can go with two guitars, an Arabian lute and tambourine.  All are experts and the place should be packed out with a highly appreciative band of followers. Every so often, a moment of brilliance breaks through the frenetic rhythmic interplay and tropes that are becoming very familiar as the years wear on.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Town Hall, 7:30 pm

An old-fashioned overture/concerto/symphony program format brings back memories of past concert series as the MSO gives its Prom patrons what they want.  Benjamin Northey, the happiest conductor in the country, directs the Sibelius chestnut, Finlandia, breathing nationalistic fire in the face of Russian intrusiveness – which shows how little has changed in 117 years.  Daniel de Borah will play the solo part in the most famous of Romantic piano concertos, the A minor by Grieg.  Found it hard to take this piece seriously after learning that Liszt, while praising it, played it at sight.  After interval, the MSO will once again negotiate Dvorak’s final symphony, the New World, after striking away from the rutted path by giving the No. 7 at a Myer Bowl free concert some weeks ago. A night packed with golden memories and cosy consolations.

 

Saturday March 5

ANAM Orchestra, South Melbourne Town Hall, 7 pm

Speaking of Sibelius, the ANAM musicians open their year with the rousing, popular Symphony No. 2 under Antonio Mendez, a 31-year-old Majorcan who has an active schedule ahead and already a wealth of experience behind him.  One of the night’s soloists is Kaylie Melville, an ANAM alumnus, who will be the focus of Per Norgard’s 1983 Percussion Concerto No. 1, a four-movement construct taking its impetus from the I-Ching/Book of Changes, that fertile source of inspiration for John Cage and his followers.  Paul Dean, recently retired ANAM Director, is represented by a new work, as yet title-less, which may employ the services of new director, Nick Deutsch, on his oboe.

 

Sunday March 6

MSO Chamber Series, Iwaki Auditorium Southbank, 11 am

A Sounds of France morning opens this usually packed-to-the-doors series.  Ravel’s Piano Trio is well-known to chamber music aficionados, in the repertoire of every ensemble of this nature.  Much less well-known is the Chausson Concert for violin, piano and string quartet, one of the composer’s first successes and full of delightful touches.  It lasts for about 40 minutes but you wouldn’t know it.  Kristian Chong is the fortunate pianist, Sophie Rowell (probably) the solo violin, assisted by Matthew Tomkins and Phillipa West on violins, Lauren Brigden’s viola, and cellist Rachael Tobin.  The groupings for these recitals are necessarily ad hoc but the results can be refreshingly coherent.

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Recital Centre, 2:30 pm

First up for the year, the MCO presents a varied but full-bodied menu, complete works with no scraps or isolated movements in evidence.  Mozart is represented by two masterpieces: the G minor Symphony No. 40 and the Clarinet Concerto with the estimable David Griffiths as soloist.  As preface to both come French works.  First, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet – a model of lucidity, over all too quickly.  More attention is paid to Melina van Leeuwen’s harp in Debussy’s Danses sacree et profane, one of each and strikingly exhaustive of the solo instrument’s potentialities.

The program will be repeated on Friday March 11 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm.

 

Monday March 7

Australian Baroque Brass, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Founded in 2003, this ensemble is fresh territory for me.  It seems to be a mobile set of experts in a tricky field, well-versed in collaborations, resident at St. James’ Church in the city of Sydney.  For this hour-long recital, the group under John Foster will play a Beauty & the Brass program of Heinrich, Marini, Erbach, Handel, Daniel Purcell and Monteverdi with soprano Anna Sandstrom providing the beauty and taking centre-stage for Let the bright Seraphim, Lascia ch’io pianga and Lamento della ninfa among others.  The web-site shows nine brass players, with David Drury supplying organ support; should be a real test of control, up close and personal in the Salon.

 

Wednesday March 9

Melissa Doecke and Mark Isaacs, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

An agglomeration of flute-and-piano works by French and Australian writers.  The local products come from Ross Edwards and pianist Isaacs (two pieces each), while the Gallic content comprises Poulenc’s amiable Flute Sonata and the 1943 Sonatine by Dutilleux, that difficult writer’s most commonly-heard work.  In the middle, these performers are offering three improvisations, reflecting Isaacs’ strong involvement in jazz.  Seems to be packing a good deal into the allocated time-span but you can’t say you won’t get value for your dollar.

 

Thursday March 10

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 8 pm

Sir Andrew Davis is back for one of his extended visits and leaps into cataclysmic action with An Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss, the bloated orchestral forces inflated by wind and thunder machines for the inbuilt storm/tempest and prospective avalanche.  A long time in the making, this work lasts for close to an hour but maintains interest as one of the great final gasps of Romanticism.  Ray Chen is soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  You’d think that would be enough for the night but, honouring the conductor’s heritage, the playing starts with Vaughan Williams’ delectable Serenade to Music, a setting of words from Act V of The Merchant of Venice for 16 solo voices (or, in this case, the MSO Chorus) and orchestra – one of the composer’s most opulently textured constructs.

The program is repeated on Friday March 11 and Saturday March 12 in Hamer Hall at 8 pm

 

Friday March 18

ANAM Musicians, South Melbourne Town Hall, 7 pm

Two wind serenades feature in this second ANAM offering for the year.  Director Nick Deutsch again takes up his oboe to lead Mozart No. 11 for pairs of clarinets, horns, bassoons and – oboes.  Dvorak’s Wind Serenade ups the ante to this combination by adding a third horn, as well as cello and double bass to give the bottom line extra oomph. Finally, a bigger ensemble takes on Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 in A which adds violas, cellos, double basses and a pair of flutes (with a piccolo for added frisson at the end) to the mix. The word usually associated with this piece and its companion in D is ‘genial’; can’t say fairer than that and here’s hoping the ANAM people bring out its bounce as well as its brio.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Robert Blackwood Hall, 8 pm

Are we sick of Mahler yet?  Well, I’m not over-eager to hear No. 4 again; in fact, could give the first three a rest for some years.  This is the mid-way point in Sir Andrew’s review of the complete set of symphonies: No 5 which starts out in C sharp minor but doesn’t stay there.  The work is best known for its simple, expressive Adagietto for strings and harp, linked forever with Aschenbach/Dirk Bogarde’s progress up the lagoon at the start of the film Death in Venice; Visconti has a lot to answer for.  Because the symphony lasts a bit over an hour, the program is fleshed out with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, featuring guest Pierre-Laurent Aimard; a score more sombre and passionate than most in the composer’s oeuvre and, to be fair, not just a fill-in but an intriguing prelude to its sprawling companion.

This program is repeated on Saturday March 19 at 2 pm and on Monday March 21 at 6:30 pm, both performances in Hamer Hall.

 

Saturday March 19

La Compania, Deakin Edge at Federation Square, 6 pm

One of my favourite period music groups has moved from the Melbourne Recital Centre to the more central Deakin Edge.  This program is called El fuego and proposes a musical salad from the master of the ensalada, Mateo Flecha.  I believe the program will comprise salads for 4 and 5 voices and possibly some villancicos by the Aragonese composer as well as pieces by his contemporaries and successors in this vibrant, catchy field of work.  Can’t praise this group highly enough; where you might expect dry scholarship and dust, you get spirited playing with a continual shift in textures and an infectious rhythmic buoyancy.

 

Sunday March 20

Melbourne Musicians, St.John’s Southgate, 3 pm

Frank Pam and his core body of strings will be amplified for this concert with a healthy dollop of wind players.  The program is pretty focused, the earliest offering Haydn’s Symphony No. 49, La passione, of 1768 which, not too surprisingly, has no real connection to Christ’s suffering or to overwhelming fits of rage.  The bulk of the afternoon is dedicated to Pam’s beloved Mozart.  The 1775 Violin Concerto No. 5 in A with its ‘Turkish’ finale elements remains a challenge for any soloist, in this case Anne Harvey-Nagl, concertmaster of the Vienna Volksoper.  As a pendant, Harvey-Nagl performs the Adagio in E which Mozart wrote a year later as a substitute slow movement for this concerto, his original soloist not happy with the first one.  Soprano soloist Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez sings three arias, including L’amero, saro costante from Il re pastore, written in the same year as the program’s violin concerto.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Melbourne Recital Centre, 5 pm

Part of the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series.  I’ve heard Messiaen’s mammoth Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus live only 2 1/2 times; one performance took place improbably late in the evening and the effort of staying even minimally focused was doing the work and the performer no service.  However, the experience, for the well-rested, can be illuminating, especially if the listener takes pains to enter the composer’s sound-world with an accepting mind.  Aimard studied these Twenty Contemplations with Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, so you can expect an ultra-informed interpretation.  But it’s a big ask; for the half-performance mentioned above, the audience at interval was well below 50.

 

Monday March 21

Mary Finsterer, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Co-sponsored by the Recital Centre and the Australian National Academy of Music, the Australian Voices series has served as both an introduction to present-day composers as well as a reminder of voices from the past, both still living and departed.  To begin this year’s sequence (and I can’t find details of further events under this heading), Sydney saxophonist Christina Leonard is curating a program of works by Mary Finsterer, currently a professor in composition at Monash University and a creative presence in Melbourne for many years.  Also scheduled are works by Finsterer’s teachers, Louis Andriessen and Brenton Broadstock.  The performers are, of course, the young ANAM musicians whose dedication to these recitals is beyond praise.

 

Tuesday March 22

Hamer Quartet, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

This group disappeared about five years ago as its members took on positions in other cities or other countries.  Now, three of the original members – violin Rebecca Chan, viola Stefanie Farrands, cello Michael Dahlenburg – are re-grouping and will be collaborating with a number of violinists as the year goes by.  Tonight’s lucky winner is Zoe Black who participates in Janacek’s No. 2, Intimate Letters, and the middle Brahms, No. 2 in A minor. As a warm-up, the quartet offers a selection of Monteverdi madrigals; nice, although the best ones (the ones I know) are in five parts.  Still, it will be an intriguing exercise to see how the players sound after several years apart and with a new voice in the mix.

 

Wednesday March 23

Kristian Chong, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Another one in the Salon Solo series, popular pianist Chong presents an all-Schubert recital featuring some of the late works: the 1827 Impromptus D. 935 and the final sonata in B flat, emerging in the last months of the composer’s life.  All are exacting pieces, the four impromptus restrained and liberal-handed in turns, notably in the B flat third one, distinctive for its pliant variations.  The sonata, with strong echoes of Beethoven’s insistence and rumbling bass content throughout a wide-ranging first movement and also distinguished for the stirring beauty of its slow movement’s modulations, asks for real interpretative depth; hearing it in live performance can be an intensely moving experience.

 

Friday March 25

Melbourne Bach Choirs and Orchestras, Melbourne Recital Centre, 2:30 pm

The ultimate in Good Friday observances, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion takes its audience/congregation right into the heart of the Easter mystery.  For this one-off airing, Rick Prakhoff conducts his Melbourne Bach Choirs and Orchestras (a nice touch: you do need two of both) as well as the Choir of St. Michael’s Grammar school, presumably for those chorales floating above the welter in the opening Kommt, ihr Tochter and the first half’s concluding O Mensch, bewein) fronted by ten – count them – soloists.  Andrew Goodwin takes on the exhausting responsibilities of the Evangelist; Warwick Fyfe recapitulates his Christus, the part he sang for this organization’s first Matthaus-Passion a decade ago; Lorina Gore and Jacqueline Porter share soprano duties; ditto Sally-Anne Russell and Belinda Patterson with the mezzo pages; Henry Choo and Michael Petrucelli split the tenor arias between them; and Andre Collis and Jeremy Kleeman alternate in the bass work.  An all-star cast but the work sinks or swims by its choral forces’ input and their avoidance of a relentless chugging delivery mode.  In any case, a brave enterprise.

 

Wednesday March 30

Latitude 37, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

This trio of period music experts – violin Julie Fredersdorff, viola da gamba Laura Vaughan, harpsichord Donald Nicholson – performs a Bach & his Ancestors program.  As centrepiece, the group works with bass baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos in Johann Sebastian’s Ich habe genug cantata which is accompanied by oboe, two violins, viola, organ and continuo.  The scheduled woodwind soloist is Kirsten Barry; the other personnel remain unspecified at the time of writing.  Further pieces are Johan Christoph (JS’s first cousin once removed) Bach’s Lament Wie bist du denn, O Gott with a rich solo violin line complementing the bass soloist; a five-line suite by Dietrich (presumably Sixt); and Franz Tunder’s O Jesu dulcissime for bass and two violins that runs from the funereal by way of some vocal gymnastics to a modestly jubilant Alleluia.  An ensemble whose work is always well-informed and balanced.

 

Thursday March 31

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 7 pm

Branching out into films of gravity, the MSO plays Nino Rota’s soundtrack score for Francis Ford Coppola’s grim The Godfather.   Justin Freer conducts, having carried out the same process over 2014-15 with orchestras in London, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney; in other words, after all those out-of-town try-outs, you’d expect him to be a dab hand at this exercise.  Definite crowd-pleasers, these film-supporting concerts are invariably eye-opening, although more often than not the musical content gets subsumed in the visual action.   But, for the interested, every composer’s scoring impresses as more clear-speaking in this live environment – with the added benefit that the dialogue has to be put in subtitles, so strong is the musical input.  And it’s a memorable score, especially if you have a penchant for minor keys.

Program repeated on Friday April 1 at 7 pm in Hamer Hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going bravely into the lists

CHOPIN

Enrico Padovani

ZDB Classic CD

ChopinCD

A native son of Parma,  educated in that city and Florence, Enrico Padovani has cut a swathe through the various competitions for piano in his native land – Fusignano, Racconigi, Pistoia, Piombino, Riccione, Padova, Moncalieri – winning prizes as both soloist and chamber musician.  Approaching the middle years of his career, Padovani – teacher and performer – has issued this sample of his considerable talents entering a particularly crowded field; most of the works performed on this CD have been recorded times beyond count by musicians of superb, transcendent insight as well as by players who over-estimated their own abilities.

It’s hard to think of a composer whose works have been the subject of so much brilliantly incisive scholarship and investigation for its own sake.  Chopin remains the ne plus ultra for many pianists, his works presenting challenges in their own right as well as in the light of recorded performances by high-profile executants.  Even these days, 165 years after the master’s death, players of all nationalities and abilities grapple with works that range from the near-unplayable to the deceptively simple and straightforward.  As well, Chopin is one of the few composers to have an international competition  – one of the most searching (and often controversial) on the European stage – held in his honour.

Padovani’s choice of material shows a bracing response to the Chopin challenge.  You don’t find the all-too-familiar pieces in this 11-track offering.  The stand-alone popular works – Berceuse, Barcarolle, Fantaisie-Impromptu, D flat Etude, E flat Nocturne – are absent as Padovani goes for the jugular with the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, the four Opus 17 Mazurkas, the non-flamboyant C minor Polonaise and the posthumous Waltz No. 19 in A minor. His only gesture to the well-known comes courtesy of the B flat minor Scherzo No. 2.

The sonata takes pride of place and Padovani approaches it with a firm grasp of its confrontational nature.  Unlike many of his peers, he repeats the first movement’s exposition in a fluent exhibition of technique with a deft mixture of discipline and rubato in the interpretation’s metrical progress.  The development sounds over-muscular, the texture pretty thick; but then, this segment of the work is probably the most problematic and disappointing for any executant, let alone a dispassionate analyst of the movement itself.  In the following Scherzo, for once the actual rhythm is clearly articulated, not the usual meaningless run of catch-as-catch-can quavers meant to dazzle with legerdemain while at the same time puzzling for a lack of structural sense.  Just as impressive in musically informed terms is the movement’s Trio, where the middle voices emerge with appreciable clarity.

It would be hard to cavil at the B Major Largo that opens in brusque majesty, only to fall back into a finely spun melodic paragraph.  As with the preceding movement, Padovani makes several individual strokes in the central section where his use of rubato is both pronounced and well-positioned.  He also shows an enviable tenth-embracing left hand stretch just before the turn back to the movement’s home key.  With the Finale/Presto, this interpretation gives pride of place to the left hand in those places where the right has sequences of downward-rushing scales, an emphasis that robs these pages of some much-needed lightness of texture.  Still, the final blaze into B Major is both well-accomplished and exciting to experience.

Few of the near-60 mazurkas ring recognition bells with the public, except for the early B flat Op.7 and the two used in Fokine’s Les Sylphides ballet. This Op. 17 set are fairly obscure, only the first favoured by many pianists, but none of them is technically challenging to negotiate.  Padovani begins the first B flat piece with a definite rhythmic impetus, albeit restrained in its dynamic contrasts.  The following E minor work succeeds much more pleasingly with a sensitive amalgam of strength and fragility, the left hand drones sustaining a finely-honed melody line that gradually shrinks into itself.  Pick of the set is the ambivalent No. 3 in A flat, Padovani investing its two pages with excellent shapeliness of phrase and sensitive variety of touch: an outstandingly sensible, and coherent interpretation.  The last of the sequence, Lento ma non troppo, shows an individualistic approach with the tempo direction’s last three words informing the chosen pace.  Here is not the mournfully languid meander that many other pianists make of it but a much more insistent creature; its inner propulsion both unnerving and somehow just right as a no-nonsense patina-stripping exercise.

The most sombre of the polonaises, the C minor of Op. 40, holds few moments of virtuosic excitement, unlike its Military A Major companion.  Padovani underplays the work’s tragic connotations, taking a very aggressive approach with the left-hand octave melody-line and giving us little consolation in the A flat Trio where Chopin inserts some actual polonaise rhythmic gestures; here, these passages are given sotto voce before the muffled call to arms makes its re-appearance.  In sum, this is a striking example of how to look with fresh eyes at pages that have been typecast in solid ambient gloom for far too long.

The Scherzo finds the executant using his sustaining pedal to create sound-washes, sometimes effectively, at other stages over-painting the harmonic welter. The work comes to a powerful, dramatic conclusion but the right-hand descending figure that dominates the main theme’s second strophe is often articulated oddly; its notes are all there, but they register unevenly, some weightier in impact than others.  It might be an essay in internal diminuendo each time but the effect is ungainly – a rare disappointment.

Finally, Padovani provides his own encore with the small-scale waltz, a mini-essay in delicacy and the least difficult piece on the CD.  For all that, it makes for an ideal rounding-off after all the preceding pounding vitality, as the pianist gives it a clear-speaking integrity of phrase through a muted dynamic palette that speaks volumes for his powers of musicianship and sensitivity.

He might not be the most eminent name among current Chopin interpreters but Padovani shows us through his enterprise in producing this CD how many-sided, how protean is the Polish composer’s genius, achieving this end with devotion and indubitable craft.

 

 

 

Nor fish nor . . .

VOYAGE TO THE MOON

Victorian Opera & Musica Viva

Melbourne Recital Centre

February 15-19

 

The name of this particular game was collaboration.  In a spirit of camaraderie, the state’s opera company and the country’s largest purveyor of quality chamber music pooled resources to mount that oddest of forms to pull off successfully: the pastiche opera. Not that this modern-day sequence of juxtapositions had much trace in it of the ad hoc nature of pasticcio opera melanges compiled in Baroque times where the aim was pragmatic – getting the show up and running quickly, at minimal expense through cutting and pasting, and showcasing the best points of the vocal talent available. This current-day exercise aimed more highly, as construction and performance of Voyage to the Moon came under the aegis of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100-1800.

The doctrines and practical applications of affects underpins solid Baroque composition and performance theory, providing a resource of great moment for musicians grappling with scores that present interpretative quandaries galore, not just in the application of dynamics but also in phrase-shaping, gradual or abrupt changes in timbre, even the nature of attack on individual notes.  Whatever modes of delivery are eventually chosen, they need an underlying framework that sets up a ground plan for a specific interpretation.  For musicians unschooled in this specific craft, the affect-involving process of analysis and construction connected with articulating even simple pieces like harpsichord suites or violin sonatas can be both enlightening and confrontational in that knowing which affect you are seeking to convey causes an ongoing appraisal: you have to deliberate over every aspect of your engagement in re-creating.

Yes, it can lead to mannered renditions where the results have been over-studied to the point where ultra-refinement wipes away a listener’s sympathy but, in competent hands, this period of music thus informed can come across with a refreshing commitment and simple sonic definition that animate musty pages.

Taking its launching place (like so many earlier works) from part of Ariosto’s poem Orlando furioso, this Voyage to the Moon followed a simple plot where the eponymous hero, inflamed by love, loses his reason and goes on a violent rampage.  His fidus Achates, Astolfo, travels with the assistance of an omniscient Magus (is there any other kind?) through space to our satellite, the apparent location of Earth’s lost property, persuades the intransigent Queen Selena to give back the vital spiritual essence, then restores his angrily roistering colleague to sanity.  Michael Gow and Alan Curtis collaborated to create a plot-delineating sequence of recitatives and a re-wording of selected arias from operas by Handel, Molino, de Majo, Gluck, Hasse, Orlandini and Vivaldi.  The score was completed by Calvin Bowman after Curtis’ death in July last year.

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

This creation is without spectacle, a singular disadvantage for a production of Baroque opera.  The three singers have a full stage to work with but not much by way of scene-setting or visual complements to the scenario’s changes of mood and place.  In fact, Monday’s premiere saw the instrumental septet centre-stage at the Murdoch Hall’s back wall, harpsichordist/director Phoebe Briggs surrounded by a quintet of familiar string players – violins Rachael Beesley and Zoe Black, viola Simon Oswell, cello Molly Kadarauch, bass Kirsty McCahon – with the lone reliable oboe of Emma Black. A small body, this ensemble gave excellent service throughout the opera’s 75-minute length, the upper string trio consistently valuable contributors to the affective changes in the work’s progress. Whether sighing out plangent introductions or interludes like Handel’s Entree des songes agreables, or hurtling through the close-knit accompaniment to Hasse’s O placido il mare, these musicians set their notes into position just as you’d want: precise, resonant, suggestive of the requisite flights of temperament/emotional ambience.

Two of the three singers are very familiar names.  Soprano Emma Matthews (Orlando/Selena) and mezzo Sally-Anne Russell (Astolfo) are veterans of the opera theatre, concert stage and recital hall; both have plenty of experience in Baroque music and the technical equipment to negotiate respectable paths through intricately ornate arias.  Bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman (Magus) has made a firm start on a singing career, turning up in unexpected places – as soloist for the St. John’s Lutheran Church at Southgate’s Bach cantatas during Sunday morning services, for instance, or as one of the Family quartet in Victorian Opera’s recent concert version of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins.  While Matthews thrilled her devotees with acrobatics and Russell revelled in the night’s most familiar (and best?) music with Handel’s affecting Piangero la sorte mia, Kleeman used all three of his arias to sterling effect, at his most impressive covering the vast range needed for Handel’s Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori.

In fact, Kleeman appeared to gain most from the music selected for his role, in part because his major contributions were Handel compositions but also thanks to his innate consistency in timbre and rhythmic definition. Matthews displayed her velocity from the start with de Majo’s Tutti tremar dovrete right up to a racy version of the Hasse show-stopper.  But these ornate flights of fancy featured some attention-grabbing obtrusions – improbably high notes, in particular, distracted from this operatic form’s already-ornate eloquence.  The lily-gilding continued in the singer’s second role; Handel’s Neghittosi, or che fate came across as jerky, hard work and lacking in supple fluency of delivery.  Russell enjoyed the allocation of Orlandini’s close-order filigree aria Col versar, barbaro as a counterweight to her lilting Handel contribution earlier, and managed to give a persuasive communication of Astolfo’s pseudo-belligerent intention to fight with his comrade and beat sense into him.  However, several bravura passages misfired, possibly because of the vocal register employed, or because of the tempo chosen.

Still, the work’s elements made a pleasant enough melange with enough individuality in the compositional voices to sharpen the appetite for hitherto-unknown works, those by Molino and de Majo in particular.  Every so often, the chamber-like limitations intruded, like the absence of trumpets and an extra oboe in Handel’s Gia risonar d’intorno or the missing tenor voice in the finale, a light-filled chorus from Vivaldi’s Il Giustino.  But the libretto proved more coherent (and intelligible acoustically) than most, the singers in period costume worked successfully with limited means to give physical expression to their emotions, and the opera’s onward movement never faltered.  In sum, this Moon Voyage experience impressed as a worthwhile experiment, an amiable curiosity, its hybrid nature interesting – once.

 

 

A mixed quartet of cities

CYBEC 21ST CENTURY AUSTRALIAN COMPOSERS CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank

February 10

Begun in 2003, this exercise serves as a welcome outlet for creativity and an opportunity for young writers to hear their works in a professional setting.  The invitation to participate, offered to composers under 30, is advertised, following which successful applicants are invited to workshop their scores with an established mentor-composer prior to a public performance.  For some time now, the number of participants has settled on four; given that the allocated time for each work is ten minutes, even with an ebullient verbal introduction, compulsory if sometimes awkward interviews between composers and conductor, and a lengthy postlude featuring fulsome expressions of gratitude, the night’s proceedings are quickly accomplished.

2337-fitandcrop-486x486
MSO Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey (image: mso.com.au)

The benevolent co-founder of this annual event, Roger Riordan, in his address following Wednesday’s concert, expressed the aspiration that the Foundation would have achieved its aim if, somewhere along the line, it threw up another Mozart – which appeared to be setting the bar a tad high.  Nevertheless, each of the pieces played by a chamber-formatted Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under conductor Benjamin Northey made its points with clear character and evident skill.  All composers were required to relate their constructs to a specific theme: the city.

Samuel Smith, currently based in Melbourne, offered Interior cities, five sections that felt like three. attempting a depiction of the contrast and eventual confluence of exterior and interior states – emotional, geographical, psychological, civic: it was difficult to localise.  Which was probably the point; the contrasts given by sets of instrumental trios in opposition positionally but melding into each other’s language illustrated the fluidity supporting the score’s development.  Apart from a fondness for single-note crescendos culminating in a snappish change of pitch, Smith established a sustaining aural framework employing a central string nonet encased by two horn/trumpet/clarinet discrete bodies, a flute/oboe/contrabassoon trio in the usual woodwind position, two trombones, piano, harp, and three percussion and timpani operators.  Interior cities is couched in a rigorous, emphatically contemporary language, although its most telling feature came in the concluding pages through a welcome relief from tension and rigour into pointillist flashes of colour leading to silence.

Sally Greenaway from the ACT juxtaposed the brash world of the modern city with extra-mural nature in Worlds within worlds.  In its shape, this score seemed like an old-fashioned rondo, with episodes of placidity and romantic breadth interposed between loud if tuneful depictions of urban bustle.  In her pre-performance interview, the composer indicated the influence of some early 20th century compositional strands found in Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky; once aired, it was hard to forget the names, so that echoes could be found at every turn.  Greenaway’s opening strophes brought to mind the Shrovetide Fair music from Petrushka, if without the Russian master’s heaping up of time signatures on top of one another –  but quite clearly in Greenaway’s use of brass and underpinning restless string patterns.  In fact, the score proceeded in a regular pattern, specifically in its four-square phrasing, both in its city-scape sections and in the nature-evoking interludes with their shadings of the E minor Symphony’s Adagio, and a nifty glimpse of Gershwin’s An American in Paris to finish; the allure of the natural world is all very well, but Greenaway’s city is no hell-hole.  In the concert’s four-part context, this made for easy listening and was none the worse for that.

From Perth, Alex Turley proposed a more minatory vision than anything heard so far. City of Ghosts is, as you’d expect, a deserted site, reminiscent for the composer of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 post-apocalyptic film I Am Legend where the Will Smith hero roves purposefully through a derelict New York.  Not harmonically aggressive and sticking to a regular tempo through each of its three segments, Turley’s score kept substantially to the same personnel as used in Greenaway’s work and in the final contribution by Michael Bakrncev: pairs of horns, clarinets and trumpets; flute and oboe; the string body, percussion trio, with harp and piano/celesta for additional sparks.  Just when you anticipated an extended study in sound-patterns, Andrew Macleod’s alto flute produced a fluent, fertile melody, followed by Michael Pisani’s cor anglais taking up the thread.  A faster-moving segment featuring a well-constructed piccolo solo supported by string patterns led to a brief return of the opening mood.  Turley offered his performers some aleatoric episodes but, judging by Northey’s cues, these were pretty well-contained moments of freedom.

Bakrncev’s Sky Jammer came closest in this quartet of compositions to the polemical.  Its underlying concern is for the city bursting its bounds, the one-time wondrous skyscraper becoming a symbol of over-population as its species gets higher and more prolific.  To this end, the work presents a fierce sound-fabric with plenty of frenetic action from the wind and strings, series of syncopated blips creating a sense of uncertainty and suggestive of rhythmic, and therefore social, disjunction.  But the main actors on this scene were the percussion panoplies of Robert Clarke and Robert Cossom with Christine Turpin’s timpani creating a powerful chain of bass timbres.  These supplied the score with its climactic outbursts, asking the listener to respond to their explosions with – what? Sympathy for or empathy with the composer’s dystopian musical vision, I suppose.  At its most frenetic points, Sky Jammer needed more strings – the only one of the night’s four pieces that underlined the inadequacy of that group’s dynamic impact.  You could not mistake the composer’s intensity of purpose, notably in the work’s emphatic, menacing last strokes.  Yet, in contrast with its companions, this construct presented its vehement washes of sound-fabric as an old-fashioned fusion of medium and message.

The Cybec 21st Century initiative is not confined to this one night.  Two of these four works will be selected for inclusion in the MSO’s Metropolis New Music Festival, interpolated into Melbourne Recital Centre programs on Saturday May 14 and Saturday May 21 where they will keep company with Steve Reich’s City Life and Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cite celeste, among others.   Of course, the Chosen Two will have the opportunity to refine their products further, with extended resources of personnel if no expansion in their works’ lengths.  As an enterprise that encourages musicians to exercise their craft, the Cybec Foundation’s activity is an outstanding act of corporate benevolence; looking at the honour roll of previous participants, you come across many names that continue to feature on contemporary programs – no obvious Mozarts yet, but plenty of talents that continue to create with assurance and zest.