Cup half full


The Melbourne Musicians

St John’s Southgate

Sunday May 22, 2016

Things were fair enough in this latest subscription series concert from Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra, as long as the body kept within its means, as the Federal Treasurer is currently encouraging us to do.   The afternoon opened with an arrangement of Begli occhi, merce, the most (only?) popular aria by Antonio Tenaglia.   Pretty well known in arrangement form, this F minor slow-mover gave the Musicians no troubles, but then it is the sort of thing a competent player could handle at sight, included here as a warm-up to prepare the ground for harder matter.

Molly Kadarauch

                                                                                 Molly Kadarauch

Molly Kadarauch gave a driving account of the solo in C.P.E. Bach’s first Cello Concerto in A minor, the only one of the composer’s three that seems to get much ventilation.   The Musicians began with plenty of punch, although the tempo could have been quickened with benefit, notably to relieve the impression of stolidity rather than mobility.  Kadarauch was on the same wave-length, however, and urged her line with high intensity, using the busily Romantic double-stopped and chord-packed cadenzas of Friedrich Grutzmacher to transfer us momentarily into the world of Dvorak’s cello.  Even the central Andante sounded stormy and stressed rather than a C Major haven.  Some of the orchestral detail went walkabout, particularly a tendency to read the finale’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver patterns as triplet-based.  Still, the reading held interest through its bravado and lack of affectation.

I wasn’t sure that much was gained by an encore, in this case Bloch’s Prayer, the first section of the popular From Jewish Life suite.  It gave Kadarauch a chance to orate a slow-moving melody line full of melting melismata and a line-up of the composer’s expected tropes reminiscent of the Schelomo Hebraic Rhapsody, but it sat oddly alongside the discipline of the concerto’s framework.

After interval, another guest appeared: Justin Kenealy, leading the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto of 1934.   All in one movement, the work has no trace of jazz suggestions or the seedy world of Weill and the contemporarily composed Berg’s Lulu; indeed, the composer treats his soloist like any other woodwind, although one with a dominant voice. What strikes you, in fact, is that the soloist has so few moments of rest, as though Glazunov wants the interpreter kept busily at work in such a short-framed construct, and so the saxophone makes all the running, apart from some obvious interpolations during the last movement’s progress when the soloist takes a few bars break while the strings articulate the themes’ basic elements.

This solo-domination was just as well as the ensemble laboured in the faster-moving tuttis, some of the violins not quite getting on top of their notes and the texture liable to thin out as things got tricky.  However, Kenealy made a fine exponent of this rarity – well, rare in local exposure terms although it features large in the instrument’s repertoire – with a cogent outline of the central cadenza and a pretty jaunty approach to the outer sections of this free-flowing last flower of the composer’s solidly Tory talent.

To finish, conductor Pam attempted to flesh out the Russian side of this program with the Shostakovich Sinfonia, a string orchestration of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 Op. 110 organised by the American double-bass expert Lucas Drew, rather than the traditional version transcribed by Rudolf Barshai..  An ambitious undertaking, this score was often beyond the players’ competence.  Even during the opening Largo, the uniformity of articulation was suspect, the upper strings’ overall attack tentative.

Matters improved in the following harsh Allegro molto where the slashing accents and driving thematic insistence came close to acceptable.  But the last Largo was a mess;  I don’t know where but someone jumped the gun – hard to do in this slow-moving elegy – and, to finish the afternoon with some coherence, Pam had his players repeat it.  Rather than an emotionally wrenching experience, I think many of us were relieved to get to the Sinfonia‘s end and then look forward to the next program from this band on Sunday July 17 at MLC: those tried-and-true familiar entities the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 provide the main elements.