We should remember them


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday April 27, 2016

Ensemble Liaison

                                                                                  Ensemble Liaison

As the group’s front-man said, this was a program of composers who don’t get many performances these days.  Well, that’s certainly true but a further problem is that, with two of them, we used to hear only a few works from their considerable compositional achievements, yet even these popular choices are currently falling by the wayside.  Still, this night went some way towards resurfacing their names, even if the point of the night’s title seemed rather arcane after the first ten minutes or so.

At the opening, the Liaisoners welcomed Sophie Rowell, Associate Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.  With foundation members Svetlana Bogosavljecvic, cellist, and pianist Timothy Young, Rowell performed Bloch’s Three Nocturnes of 1924, the year when the composer took out American citizenship.  As Griffith’s indicated, Bloch’s name is one that is becoming a rarity in concert halls, although time was when the Schelomo rhapsody was a welcome annual revenant, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 was not unknown, the Israel Symphony had its adherents, and every violinist had Baal Shem in the repertoire, as cellists did the From Jewish Life sketches.

If anything in the program impressed as black, these small pieces came close, even though the darkness suggested was simply the same night that permeates Chopin’s works of the same descriptor.  In fact, both the opening Andante nocturnes bore the Chopin imprint, if the vocabulary proved more complex.  While the first is scenic, its successor held more expansive character with some splendidly broad melodic speeches in its central pages with a lavishly Romantic violin/cello duet.  As for the last one –  Tempestuoso – being jazzy, as Griffiths and other commentators suggest, you could find faint traces if you listened hard but the piece impressed more for its irregular metre and sudden vivid strokes of vitality that served as comparison with the piece’s predecessors.  The trio gave the set fine treatment, Young a responsive support for the two dominant and active string players.

As for strangers on  a program, Dohnanyi would seem to be in a worse case than his Swiss/American contemporary. Not too long ago, the Variations on a Nursery Tune appeared in every Youth Concert series I can remember, as well as occasionally hitting the big-time Red Series or Master Series sequences.  But as for the Hungarian composer’s operas, the symphonies, the piano and violin concertos, any of the piano pieces (and he was a great pianist, as the recordings attest) – you can live a lifetime and not come across them.  I seem to remember his Stabat Mater being sung by an adventurous women’s choir or three many years ago.  All the more welcome, then, was this airing of the Sextet in C Major with guests Elizabeth Sellars on violin and Christopher Moore playing viola alongside Bogosavljecvic’s cello in a trio facing Griffiths’ clarinet and final guest Roman Ponomariov‘s horn, with Young acting as circuit-breaker.

The shade of Brahms falls across much of this score, especially in its grandiose moments like the opening Allegro appassionato which sounded at its best when the adjective applied full-bore.  With plenty of octave/unison work and surging, eloquent melodic swathes, the score maintained involvement from the start and sustained it – which you would be hard pressed to assert about many another post-Brahms piece.  Ponomariov impressed throughout the work but nowhere more than in this section where he played the opening subject and powered through a wide-reaching part with only one slight slip.

Young and the string trio made a beguiling start to the Intermezzo: Adagio in A flat, giving the sentiment room to settle before the 12/8 march interlude introduced the wind duo’s direct-speaking statements that made an excellent study in timbre-mixing and just how much leeway to allow your partner.   In place of a minuet, Dohnanyi uses another allegro in 2/4 with the clarinet giving out a tune that might have escaped from one of the Brahms Serenades. This multi-partite sequence leads to a reminiscence of the horn’s first movement initial melody and suddenly the composer takes us into his finale with a perky and simple C major piano tune that is shared  by all (even the horn) despite its fast-moving opening mordent shape. As with the opening pages, this section of the work impresses most when the tension is high – a hard thing to achieve with so simple a tune – but Dohnanyi eventually works his players into an emphatic D flat Major, only to slip sideways in to a C Major perfect cadence.  It’s not witty music (what is?) but its expansive good-humour is patently obvious and these performers gave it rousingly firm handling with not a noir trace in sight.

Osvaldo Golijov‘s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind bases itself on the work of a medieval Provencal Kabbalist rabbi, specifically his dictum that the universe’s objects and occurrences are founded on the combinations of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  As a musical illustration of this theory, Golijov’s work for clarinet and string quartet holds three main movements celebrating, Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew.  These are encircled by a prelude which takes in the first movement’s Aramaic tone while the Postlude leads out of the final movement’s extended prayer for clarinet-as-cantor.

The performance proved engrossing, dramatic but not blackly so, although for this listener the interest fell pretty strongly on its physical character: the sounds urged from the quartet and their lengthy phases of near-stasis, and Griffiths’ oscillation between piccolo clarinet, instruments in B flat and A, bass, and a concluding passage featuring the basset horn.  As for what was played  –  Golijov’s material  –  that seemed, in essence, interchangeable in structure and melodic process; but what else would you expect with three aspects for the same linguistic heritage, especially when the klezmer-heavy middle movement contained so many Jewish popular-music tropes that somehow seemed to leach into surrounding areas?   As a display by Griffiths, the work gave testament to his technical skill and his ability to construct and sustain the composer’s emotional and sound worlds.   What was missing, I suppose, was something that the composer could not provide or never intended to cover in the first place: an original illustration in music of the complex mentality and imagination of a great Jewish mystic.   As things turned out, at many stages of the middle Yiddish and final Hebrew movements, I was highly distracted by memories of the  Schindler’s List sound-track by John Williams.

Yet the night’s work provided some worthwhile insights into two Jewish composers – one who imbibed his heritage and turned it into a fluent individual voice, and another who grapples with the opportunities and responsibilities of the jaded present day.  Oh, and it also brought to vivid life that marvellous, reassuring sextet, filling out our experiences of a fine musician’s work.