THE GYPSY PALACE
Melbourne Recital Centre
April 17, 2016
Despite a lurching process from one end of Western music’s history to the other – a Josquin motet from 1485 to Carl Vine‘s Third String Quartet of 1994 – the latest MCO concert was an invigorating business, presided over by Rebecca Chan who took on directorial duties as well as the solo line in Haydn’s G Major Concerto. In a quest to make connections between gypsy music and some Baroque and Classical period writers, Chan punctuated her offerings with excerpts from the Uhrovska Collection, a Slovakian miscellany of melodies arranged by the violinist for the forces available (11 strings and a lutenist), and occasionally serving as links while stands and players’ positions were being adjusted.
From her time with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Chan brought to this afternoon’s work that sort of scouring effect that Tognetti has made a feature of his group’s approach to pre-Romantic scores. Setting the standard straight away, the MCO took an aggressive road with Telemann’s G minor Suite, La musette, making a biting attack on the Ouverture that grabbed your interest and sustained it through the following brief movements, Samantha Cohen‘s theorbo a vital presence as substitute for the usual harpsichord continuo. In contrast to many another ensemble playing this music, the viola line made its presence felt, the duo of James Wannan and Simon Gangotena a contributing thread to the mix.
Vivaldi’s Four Violin Concerto, the first of the L’estro armonico set, found Roy Theaker taking the top line, with Shane Chen, Monique Lapins and Lynette Rayner his colleagues in a reading that continued the forward-projecting character of these performances, sustaining the suspension-rich tension even through a few patches of rhythmic discrepancy in the opening Allegro. Michael Dahlenburg‘s account of the solo part in the same composer’s A minor Cello Concerto opened with a rapidly paced Allegro that turned placid arpeggios into exciting bouts of play, relieved by some effective if predictable dynamic terracing and a subtle rubato.
Chan’s Haydn interpretation proved to be polished and unaffectedly refined, animated in its opening, just as urgent in the Adagio‘s attractive arcs, then packed with vim for the bracing finale. This violinist has the insight to leave any histrionics to the cadenzas and let the solo part speak for itself, without over-emphasizing the many trills or semiquaver runs. Still, she can project well enough to dominate the texture, an audible voice even in tutti passages like the concerto’s final non-flamboyant bars. This exercise in clarity made a fine companion piece for the C.P.E Bach String Symphony in B flat, which Tognetti and his band played here last October and which I have a fading memory of the ACO performing in Hamer Hall many years ago. Just as with their Telemann, the young players gave this a surface layer of punchy drama, complete with action-packed leaps across the admittedly limited violin compass. By the time of the final Presto, however, the intonation was suffering, not as reliably true as it had been in the program’s first half.
The concert proper concluded with part of Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy, the assertive final movement with lashings of sound-rocket unisons and a trademark rhythmic emphasis that compensates for a dearth of interesting melodic matter. It made for a brisk conclusion to this event, mirroring the vitality that permeated the opening Telemann suite. Certainly, it showed more of a relationship with the gypsy pieces than two other oddities that emerged from nowhere in each of the afternoon’s halves. String arrangements of Josquin’s Ave Maria and a Gesualdo madrigal., O dolce mio tesoro, gave service chiefly as respites from the program’s main urging thrust, but apart from an alleviation of tension, it was hard to work out if either of these texturally transparent pieces served any other purpose.
Nevertheless, Chan’s arrangements of about eight pieces from the Uhrovska collection made for pleasant listening. The influence of gypsy music was admitted by Telemann and very obvious in parts of Haydn’s output, if not necessarily that clear in this afternoon’s violin concerto. But the effect of these interpolations proved bracing, especially the second one of three that followed the opening work; Chan’s suggestion here of a dulcimer was remarkably effective. Later, a metrically changeable construct that preceded the Bach symphony brought the twin spectres of Bartok and Kodaly to the Recital Centre’s hall. These fragments, moulded into shapely entities, mirrored the vivacity of Telemann’s Murky and Harlequinade movements in particular.
The pity is that MCO patrons stayed away in numbers. While quite happy to pack in for yet another run-through of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, when it comes to a mildly experimental afternoon such as this one, without the presence of an over-familiar masterpiece or three, people would rather stay at home, it seems. Well, their loss: this was a vital, interesting afternoon’s work, a tribute to Chan’s organizational skills and her talent at infusing other musicians with her enthusiasm.