PAAVALI, POULENC, DEBUSSY & BEETHOVEN
Australian National Academy of Music
Thursday May 19, 2016
Back at the National Academy as a guest faculty member, the Finnish pianist mentored and participated in this night of doubles where each composer was represented by two works; not in an attempt to show any progress from youth to maturity, but more to give each of them another voice, no matter how similar in accent. While the contrast between Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano of 1926 and his horn/piano Elegie from 1957 was pretty stark – the one loaded with frivolity and cheek, the Dennis Brain lament heavy with reminiscences of the Dialogues des Carmelites opera – Beethoven’s B flat Trio Op. 11 and his E flat Quintet for piano and winds, separated from each other by two years, displayed not-unexpected affinities. The links between Debussy’s Cello Sonata and some of the Book II Preludes are more difficult to articulate yet the sonata’s Serenade and General Lavine, eccentric share a brusquerie and volatility that reveal their author’s handwriting very clearly.
Similar or dissimilar, the six works programmed made for an intermittently involving night, beginning with the Poulenc trio from oboe Stephanie Dixon, bassoon Christopher Haycroft, and piano Alexander Waite. In the South Melbourne Town Hall’s large air-space, the keyboard sounded over-lush, a frequently applied sustaining pedal ensuring a mushy complement for the winds; a much better mix emerged in the Rondo-finale with the high-register piano writing slotting in deftly with the active woodwind lines.
Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio from clarinet Kenny Keppel, cello Jovan Pantelich and piano Adam McMillan made a more consistent fist of getting to grips with a consistent interpretation, giving just the right measure to the composer’s aggression; by the end of the exposition repeat in the first movement, the ensemble’s concerted attack made you feel that this was an exceptional performance-in-the-making, reinforced by an excellently well-managed variety in dynamic gradations from all three participants in the following Adagio.
For the Debussy sonata, Pantelich was accompanied by Jumppanen, who had the score by heart and was able to keep both eyes on the string player. With the piano lid on the long-stick, the keyboard dominated the performance, pretty obviously in the Final which saw Pantelich drowned at several important points (for the cello), both artists taking a very cautious approach to the composer’s Anime direction. Jumppanen was faced with more of a challenge in the Poulenc Elegie from Timothy Skelly‘s beefy horn 12-tone solo opening foray, efficiently anticipating that trademark striding energy when the piano enters this scene. Listening to a French horn by itself always fills me with foreboding; the instrument is difficult and miscalculations occur with regularity. But Skelly’s performance – apart from one slight and soft blip in the core of this score’s main argument – proved exemplary, if inclined to the more forceful end of the dynamic spectrum.
Apart from the Lavine piece, Jumppanen played Ondine and Bruyeres; the first delineated with care for detail which made the irregular arpeggio-like gruppetti of 12 notes all the more striking and crisp; the English countryside/Scottish moors/Daniel Waters film tone-picture enjoyed a plain-speaking interpretation, without the push-me pull-you rubato interpolations that other pianists use to make the negotiation of three staves easier.
The program’s concluding Beethoven Quintet Op. 16 involved all four wind players heard so far and a new pianist in Nicholas Young. As with other pieces preceding it, this was excellent in patches, nowhere more so than the opening to its central Andante cantabile where, after the pianist had enunciated the main theme, the winds entered en bloc to repeat it with a rich warmth of sound that transmuted the ordinary into a powerfully affecting statement.
Here was a performance with relatively few flaws, apart from a difficult moment for Skelly in the first movement’s Allegro where, 40 bars from the end, Beethoven gives the horn a falling arpeggio solo that he puts into lip-splitting triplets two bars later. Young had great success with his acutely active part, while Keppel took bravely to his task as dominant wind; in fact, I would have appreciated hearing Dixon’s line surging out of the mix more often but, in this case, the reason for the oboe’s reticence is as much due to Beethoven as to the assertiveness of the other ensemble members.