Powerful persuasiveness


Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Record  MD 3407

Michael Bertram Fantaisie-Sonata

It’s not a form you come across too often, the fantasy-sonata combination.  There are the two by Scriabin – an early one outside the canon and the Op. 19 in G sharp minor (there’s a lovely key for you) – one by Raff, another by Turina. Only the German composer uses the same title word-order as Michael Bertram; not that it would make too much difference, I suppose, except in giving some hint about the composer’s set of priorities.  The Australian work is a confronting amalgam that has a great freedom in its opening, then becomes more formally conservative as it moves towards its ending.

The Fantaisie-Sonata is this CD’s major offering, coming in at a little under 50 minutes.  In comparison, the other compositions are slighter: two of the Six Bagatelles from 2012, the Seven Sarcasms for an Out-Of-Tune Piano, and an isolated Violet 2, written five years ago.  None of these cracks the five-minute mark, the Sarcasms cycle’s elements decreasing in time-span as the work moves to its conclusion.  But, as a job lot, these comprise a substantial amount of the composer’s output for solo piano.   Still, the oldest piece is the CD’s title work which has waited 16 years for its appearance here, performed by its initial interpreter with splendid technical mastery and obvious sympathy.

Bertram’s Fantaisie-Sonata consists of three movements that offer a progress from the particular to the general, a fairly localised background to something approaching the transcendental.   If you search for the fantasy element, the work’s first and longest segment comes closest to it.  Each of the movements is explicated  –  or not –  by a quotation and, for the first, Bertram cites part of The Wanderings of Oisin by Yeats:

And then lost Niamh murmured, ‘Love, we go

To the Island of Forgetfulness, for lo!

The Islands of Dancing and of Victories

Are empty of all power.’

‘And which of these

Is the Island of Content?’

‘None know,’ she said  .  .  .

The aim is to set up a ‘Celtic phantasmagoria’, and so the listener is given this mental framework of the legendary Irish hero wandering through the centuries with his loving fairy princess before coming to the realization that his age is past.  The movement opens with Morse code-style twitterings in the instrument’s high register above a sequence of repeated chords and gestures; a heavy start that fades to placidity, where the material moves to manipulating intervals and motifs, like oscillating 3rds and 4ths.  At the 10/11 minute mark, the texture moves to washes of colour, semi-impressionist in flavour where a mid-range ostinato supports small flashes or flourishes in the piano’s upper and lower reaches alternately.   The movement turns darker with block bass chords punctuating the restless onward flow before a release of tension as Bertram takes his dominant line for a Klee-like walk.   More formal patterns come into play, almost an exercise-type interlude when Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum is suggested at the 13-minute mark.  The key of C minor dominates in this sudden excursion into Debussyanism which at one point could almost be breaking into a reminiscence of Jardins sous la pluie, but the ominous ostinato returns to centre the action and also move away from any focal tonal suggestions.  The fantasy element continues to a small nodal point where the work breaks into oscillating 3rds at the 16-minute point before a burst of Rachmaninov-style roulades, taken with infectious dash by Harvey, the movement’s climactic point arriving after some determined crescendos, with an error at 19:13 distracting for a moment from the high-point’s stentorian insistence which dwindles, you would think, to silence before an emphatic big bass full-stop.

For his second movement, Bertram sets the scene with a sentence extract from the Conclusion to Pater’s The Renaissance:

we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.

After the first movement’s freedom, this offers stark contrast in a set of variations on a brief theme.   It begins with softly-drawn pastel textures punctuated by some more colourful outbursts.   The segments that follow offer: a Gershwin-style jaunt with plenty of artfully placed grace notes; an etude of restrained elegance; a burst of Latin rhythm that suggests a habanera/tango hybrid couched in salonesque language; an exercise in Bartok-style intervallic play (if not as rigorous in its counterpoint as the Hungarian master’s practice) which develops into rhetorical bravura before a return to the opening’s discipline; yet another Debussy suggestion as a shimmering backdrop underpins a long-ranging melody weaving above the susurrus, before the four-note theme appears, set in high, soft relief before broken arpeggios and triads conclude the movement peacefully.  Bertram presents this as a ‘life-story’, an abstract on Everyman and I suppose there’s plenty here to suggest the multiplicity that our existence has to offer.

For his concluding pages, the composer resorts to Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi :

Man [in imitation of his creator] wanted to reproduce the continuity of cosmic time  .  .  .

In this section of his text, the mathematician/astronomer is postulating that making music or song is an attempt by man to share God’s joy in creation.   So Bertram has moved from the specific if imaginary that Yeats hymns, to the mundanity of real life with its ups and downs, to this plane where the world disappears and we observe – and participate in – the opposition of darkness and light.   The first is given musical voice through a sequence of ‘synthetic’ scales, which suggest Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition but are simpler in presentation and employment; the light takes the form of insistent notes and chords.  This Manichaean juxtaposition opens with clouds of ascending and descending scales, Harvey’s sustaining pedal applied lavishly; Bertram obviously enjoyed this textural mesh as he maintains it almost to the stage of irritation.  Then come the repeated notes, recalling the first movement, here tamed by supporting chords that are eventually repeated common chords.  The scales return, then the chords in quick succession before a long sequence of composite textures rooted in the C tonality.  A final downward scalar plunge precedes the victory of the light’s repeated chords alternating between left and right hands, fading to a concluding broken C major triad.

For its breadth – of intellectual ambition, of pianistic skill, of emotional flexibility, of sustained continuity – this is an extraordinary construct, Harvey giving it as eloquent an interpretation as you could want.  What I find particularly attractive about it is that it maintains your attention; it excites, puzzles, illuminates in turn and what sense you make of its language, form and imaginative processes depends on a willingness to enter Bertram’s idiosyncratic but remarkably open sound-world.

No. 2 of the Six Bagatelles, called Chant, is based on a Russian folk-song fragment that has obsessed the composer for some time.  The melody is not covered in additional excrescences; rather, you notice the large number of repeated single notes in its outline with a modest application of harmonizing chords.  At the end, the tune is left pretty much to speak for itself.    No. 5, Uranus, uses an upper spaced/broken arpeggio pattern with isolated, sustained chords underneath.  Bertram cites Brian Eno as inspiration; I presume, the appeal lies in the British composer’s minimalist ventures as you hear a fair amount of pattern work while Bertram is proposing his sound-images of this icy, faceless planet.

Violet 2 is a travel piece that employs a central minor chord ostinato as an immediate suggestion that the journey is either fraught at the start or going to turn unpleasant, if not tragic.  The tune begins with an alternating 2nd interval in the soprano register, the focus changing to a slightly more interesting motivic cell in the bass.  The texture grows pointillist, reverts to the juxtaposition of high and low sound-layers before a clear expression of frustration at a dissonant-laden high-point.  The piece’s ending is as dark as the music gets on this CD.

Finally, the Seven Sarcasms suggest Prokofiev in their title and the first of them has a tang of the Russian composer although the parallels don’t go very far in a short piece notable for its use of repeated chords.   The second, a waltz, eventually moves into a regular rhythm but stops continually for pregnant pauses; the piece hints at satisfaction but remains unfinished, stunted in its progress.   No. 3 uses the Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen melody, opening in orthodox mode before veering into Messiaen-suggesting chords above the tune with a repeated pedal note to add to the fun. The following piece seems Webernian in character – it’s disjointed enough – but the referent sounds come through only in flashes;  Bertram is too fond of sustained washes to mimic the serial master’s acerbic scintillations.   The fifth of the series seems to propose one effect after another; despite an arresting and original cluster series, this terse scrap avoided engaging attention.   No. 6 skipped past in Hindemith’s Lebhaft mode; happy if brief.  To end, a Presto with quick pattern-work bubbled above some striding left hand Hindemith-style action.

These smaller-scale works give some further samples of Bertram at work, all of them assimilable and often atmospherically convincing.   Still, the effect of the disc as a whole is rather lop-sided because of the impressive canvas on which the composer has set his fantasy-sonata.   For all that, Move has done us all excellent service by giving a voice to this impressively questing, challenging composer and by providing a forum once again for the insights and artistry of this country’s finest pianist.

An eloquent enthusiasm


Music by Hugh Crosthwaite

Scots’ Church, Collins St.

Monday June 20, 2016

Hugh Crosthwaite - Copy

                                                                             Hugh Crosthwaite

Since Monday night, I’ve been trying to remember when, or if, this kind of concert has been done here before: a young composer decides to mount an event consisting only of his own music and chooses performers of top quality, some of the best his city can provide, to help expose his craft.   There are precedents, of course; you don’t have to look far to find plenty of chronicled self-expository concerts given by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss although many of these had powerful, well-heeled aristocratic sponsors.  With a small band of supporters, individual and organizational, Hugh Crosthwaite, a young Melbourne composer/lawyer, presented us with three works, about an hour’s worth of music, attracting a respectable and enthusiastic audience to hear what he had to say.

First, the actual compositions are rational, well-organized and deftly orchestrated.  While Crosthwaite is not going to prick your ears with startling modulations or spiky melodic leaps and turnabouts, his sound world is accessible and pretty well consistently congenia l. If one compositional parameter falls behind the others, it comes in rhythm which tends to be measured; a presto is rarely encountered, at least in these three products.  Crosthwaite operates quite happily in a regular harmonic framework with bursts of consonances and simple modulations that bathe the listener in a comfortable sonic cocoon.

Along with various commissions from local organizations and individuals, the composer has also constructed music for films, providing the score for 2012’s winner at Tropfest, Lemonade Stand.  And, from the first pages of the tone poem Moonah and Whirlpool, I must confess to looking for a screen because the work impresses primarily as film music and you spend your time conceiving complementary images while the score illustrates Brian Walters’ poem to do with the love between Moonah and Whirlpool, possibly real-time lovers kept apart by kinship law, more probably natural or transcendent forces that eventually merge.   Crosthwaite begins with bells, cymbal crashes and timpani rolls, the main interest coming from woodwind and brass who have all the initial running while the string body plays sustained chords.  The melodies tend to be brief, more motives than extended sentences.  A violin solo from concertmaster Monica Curro breaks out from a thick orchestral impasto, refreshing and diatonic; at its conclusion you realize that this writer is happy to repeat a phrase or a cadence multiple times – having found the effect, he insists that we know it fully.

Any inspirational background for this music is solidly European in its lavish Romantic blocks.  The story may be a form of Aboriginal legend or allegory, the Moonah may in fact refer to the melaleuca as trees play a significant role in this night’s major work, but you won’t find any of the bare-bones back-country spareness of Sculthorpe’s Sun Musics or Kakadu here, not the slightest hint of musical Jindyworobakism.   At its climaxes, the tone-poem employs a brass choir as portentous as anything in Bruckner.  But, behind it all, you sense a pictorial flow, as though the score is primarily illustrative and its fabric is the work’s pivot.

Thoughts are Free, a poem by an unknown author, has a strong association for Crosthwaite with the German jurist Hans Litten, who brought Hitler to court for a grilling during a 1931 trial, cross-examining him for hours and eliciting the first public-record information about the Nazi party and its pseudo-philosophy.   Needless to say, Litten was punished for this lese-majeste, eventually dying by his own hand in Dachau.   The poem was Litten’s brave contribution to a  compulsory celebration concert for Hitler’s birthday at a prison in Lichtenburg, with SS members in attendance.

Leana Papaelia sang the poem’s three verses truly enough but it was a struggle.  The orchestra enjoyed plenty of reflecting bounce from the semi-circular wainscoting in the Scots’ Church, horns and trumpets in the back row having a particular dynamic dominance.  Papaelia, standing in the body of the church alongside conductor Patrick Miller, would have needed a Bayreuth-quality diaphragm to compete with her accompaniment.   When matters thinned out, the singer’s sound travelled well enough, her voice a natural, naive soprano with a fresh, youthful quality that brought plangency to the vocal line, especially effective in the closing quatrain which seemed to speak for innocence resurgent the world over.  Between verses two and three, Crosthwaite inserts an orchestral interlude amounting to an extra verse, a kind of heavy commentary on the poem’s simplicity of utterance.   This had its points, although the scoring smacked of Rimsky-Korsakov richness, somewhat at odds with the pure transparency of the vocal line.

Crosthwaite’s major work, a piano concerto that gave the night its title, had Stefan Cassomenos as soloist.  The work is an extended environmental essay in 8 parts, referring to the mountain ash forests near Melbourne but giving them a context.  Once again, the urge is hard to resist to use the work as a springboard towards visual images; program writing in the vein of Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony or Symphonia Domestica.

Crosthwaite opens with a kind of Fanfare for the Common Ash: massive brass chords, mimicked by the piano which brought to mind the grandeur of the opening to Tchaikovsky’s B flat Concerto.  Possibly less stolidity might have made the impression less wearing; every beat does not necessarily require a hefty note, and slow marches can out-wear their usefulness as scene-setting.   In any case, after the imposing mountains prelude, we moved to consider the earth and rock, then water, followed by flora, and eventually the mountain ash itself.   Cassomenos expounded several cadenzas, packed with full-bodied arpeggios and emotional polemic.   By the time the tree itself appeared, the composer had revealed his particular pleasure in using horn, oboe and cymbal textures.   With this ash section came a return to the opening polemic-style writing where Crosthwaite leaves you in no doubt that he is on a mission to persuade his listeners of the vital necessity to preserve these trees, investing the salvation exercise with a majesty and naturally epic character.

The concerto is in two sections but I found it hard to detect any break before the last three segments: the fauna of these forests, the fires that sweep through them where the compositional context moved from a barely unruffled conservative harmonic layout to a kind of Shostakovich-lite, but returning to the prevailing ambience with a climactic apotheosis or homage culminating in a rather overwrought piano solo before the concluding blazes of optimism.  Like Papaelia’s soprano in the night’s central aria,  the concerto speaks an uncomplicated message, even if yet again a relish in his rich orchestration tended to cushion Crosthwaite’s challenge to us to help environmental conservation.

In the 47-strong orchestra, 17 musicians were MSO members, many of the others occasional players in that body, one from Orchestra Victoria, and several familiar faces from National Academy concerts.  While the first two works moved steadily enough, the synchronicity between Cassomenos and the orchestra was questionable at certain stages in Mountain Ash, made more obvious because of the composer’s habit of using one or the other elements as beat-specific reinforcement.

The conclusion to Mountain Ash brought a ringing endorsement of Crosthwaite’s endeavours, the audience giving him – and his interpreters – a standing ovation.  You were left in no doubt of his earnestness, his professionalism and the gravity of his commitment.   Still, the three works are couched in a musical language that is undemanding.   Some find that unobjectionable, happy to have no barrier to instant assimilation.   But you can be sympathetic to Crosthwaite’s message and still want him to speak through more challenging sounds.  These three works together construct a fine sonorous tapestry – but there has to be more.

Bach by the beach


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Peninsula Community Theatre, Mornington

Saturday June 18, 20, 2016

Macliver-Sara-04 - Copy

                                                                           Sara Macliver

Quite a pleasant experience catching up with the MCO at an out-of-town centre, although you are hard pressed to call Mornington that any more, with Melbourne’s suburban tentacles and freeways stretching further south by the month.   The community’s theatre is a no-frills but suitable venue for William Hennessy‘s young string players, their sound fabric coming through the hall with plenty of clarity and no error-shrouding echo.  Then again, a fair bit of this night’s output was as straightforward as you can get, the ensemble quite happy to bound through their work at full bore.

Apart from Calvin Bowman‘s song-cycle Die Linien des Lebens, seven Holderlin settings, the MCO played Bach, beginning with a Stokowski arrangement of the simple aria Mein Jesu, was vor Seelenweh.  Starting with a finely balanced statement for cellos and double-basses, a pair of violas joining in later, this was a luscious, lustrous setting in which the upper strings emerged for two strophes but left the bulk of the work to these lower-voiced musicians.  And it made a fine impression, especially the sympathetic solo of Michael Dahlenburg who gave full value to the famous conductor’s heart-on-sleeve, Romantic view of Bach.

The orchestra thinned down, though not by much, for the following Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, one instrument a line and the support of a chamber organ which gave an added weight to the bass texture, revivifying the spirit of Stokowski and not for the only time in the evening.  The reading proved to be beefy in tutti passages, the cellos urging through the first movement’s mix with enthusiasm.  As a substitute for the two-chord slow movement, we heard the C minor Violin Sonata’s opening Siciliano given with finely-spun eloquence by leader Shane Chen, Dahlenburg’s cello support a prominent presence.  The rapid last Allegro gave us loads of Baroque burble, heavy on the two accents in each bar, Merewyn Bramble heading a resonant viola trio with Hennessy showing his versatility by taking the third of these  lines.  Yet this finale also generated that individual Bach sound texture, thick with wood and vibrating strings as physical elements.

A scrap from The Art of Fugue, the Contrapunctus V where the inversions and stretti of the great compendium start, made for a moment of placid exposition, even if the concluding bars were ramped up dramatically to a this-is-the-end bloated statement.   Soprano Sara Macliver then began Bowman’s cycle, only to stop in the second Sybille segment as an audience-member was taken ill and interval was brought forward.  Beginning again, the soprano and MCO gave a sympathetic outing for this work which alternates full-blown lyrics with fragments of verse given sparse, mainly pizzicato accompaniment.  From the opening to Fruhling beginning the cycle, Bowman strikes a lyrical vein, suggestive in its violin writing of Tippett, if more concordant than the English master-composer.  But the work’s vocabulary refrains from being over-saccharine or too amiably pastoral with a good deal of assertive string support at play under Macliver’s wide-ranging line.

Later, in Abbitte, the emotional flavouring smacks more of Richard Strauss, showing a lavish richness of consonance between voice and orchestra, which dissipates in the succeeding Aus ‘Der Adler’ which exposes the most interesting, demanding vocal writing of the sequence.   A focus on viola timbre throughout Auf die Geburt eines Kindes offered a tenor-pitched complement to Macliver’s warm timbre in the cycle’s most comfortable pages, while the Strauss shadows gathered again for the final An Zimmern which opened with a substantial and moving solo cello paragraph under Hennessy’s tremolo violin.  In this quatrain comes the cycle’s title and the work concludes with sustained string chords, giving a sombre, majestic opulence to Macliver’s spacious outlining of the final transcendence-suggestive line, Mit Harmonien und ewigem Lohn und Frieden – Mahlerian in tone if not as sparse as that composer’s final philosophical musings.

This work shows a different aspect of Bowman’s output; well, different to me.  The harmonic language remains orthodox, for the most part, the vocal line clean and uncomplicated if willing to linger on specific phrases.  You hear fewer of the bucolic Vaughan Williams suggestions than in earlier pieces and, although the influences are still discernible, the composite language of these songs remains individual, the composer’s own.

Macliver returned to the program’s regular path with the second soprano’s Laudamus te from the B minor Mass, Bete aber auch dabei from the cantata Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit with Hennessy’s violin substituting for the original flute obbligato, and Vergnugen und Lust from the wedding cantata Gott ist unsre Zuversicht where pairs of violins and violas stood in for Bach’s two oboes d’amore.  The soprano’s subtle, underplayed ornamentation proved as delectable as ever, her articulation penetratingly precise through pages of highly mobile writing, with never a hint of unease or hesitation.  If you needed a key-point to demonstrate the singer’s expertise, it would be hard to surpass her smooth negotiation of the final aria’s central section: Das Auge, die Brust Wird ewig sein Teil An susser Zufriedenheit haben – here, words and music found an ideal fusion, each textual repetition to be relished.  After this bracket, you wondered why many another soprano bothers in the face of artistry in Bach of this quality.

Finishing the night, Anne-Marie Johnson gave a firmly administered treatment of the D minor Violin Concerto, probably the original format of the famous keyboard work in the same key.   Speaking of which, this definitely needed a harpsichord to add sparkle to a heavy string mass, Michael Fulcher‘s chamber organ again providing heft to an already well-encouraged bass component.   Johnson gave as good as she got in terms of output, urging out her line against an unapologetic string backdrop, although the slow central movement revealed a steely lyricism, welcome between the hectoring pair of Allegros. Some relief might have been brought into play by cutting numbers back in non-tutti moments; as it was, the finale’s continuo homophony became a driven chugging – energetic, for sure, but deficient in timbral variety or intellectual challenge.

July Diary

Saturday July 2

Schubert, Schumann & Mendelssohn, Australian National Academy of Music at 7 pm

It wouldn’t be Mendelssohn without the  A Midsummer Night’s Dream music.  Well, yes, it would but, if you want to hear what a young genius is capable of, it’s hard to go past the overture to that delectable set of musical illustrations which set the scene for this play with impeccable brilliance.  This concert from the ANAM personnel under Howard Penny promises excerpts.   The ANAM brass are presenting arrangements of Schubert male choruses; there are over a hundred to pick from but we could be lucky and score the Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern, still fresh in the memory from a recent MSO Proms night. Then the musicians take on Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony No. 3, generally decried for its awkwardnesses but always welcome for its warm-spirited geniality, if not quite enough to persuade you to take on a river cruise.


Sunday July 3

Sollima, Satu & Max: Sequenza Italiana, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

The ACO welcomes back their guest maverick cello guest from 2014, Giovanni Sollima.  As the title makes clear (eventually), it’s going to be an all-Italian affair, beginning with Monteverdi and concluding with – bless my soul! – a piece by Sollima himself.   Satu Vanska will be leader in Richard Tognetti’s absence and the ensemble’s principal double bass, Maxime Bibeau, will feature in Berio’s Sequenza (we also get to hear the ones for violin and viola) and Giacinto Sclesi’s C’est bien la nuit, one of the composer’s two pieces for double bass from 1972.   Vanska will vault through Paganini’s Introduction and Variations on Rossini’s Dal tuo stellate soglio prayer from Moses in Egypt.  Sollima himself directs and fronts Leo’s D minor Concerto No. 3, his father Eliodoro Sollima’s arrangement of Rossini’s Une larme variationsone of those endless Old Age Sins  –  and his own composition, Fecit Neap 17 . . .   Well, at least the Italian theme is consistent; the only question is: who is going to play that Berio viola Sequenza?

This program will be repeated on Monday July 5 at 8 pm.


Monday July 4

Tempesta, Australian String Quartet, Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This now-settled (let’s hope) group brings out its chest of Guadagninis for the middle one of three subscription series recitals here.  The musicians begin with that evergreen of the atonal repertoire, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, written before the composer had perfected his compressed craft to its ultimate point.  Following this, Haydn in C Major from the Opus 20 set, the one with the finale fugue on four subjects.   Mendelssohn in F minor, his last major work, concludes the night in sombre vein while the program takes its title from the two-year-old String Quartet No. 1 by Joe Chindamo which I think is yet to enjoy its Melbourne premiere; it’s in good company here.


Thursday July 7

Fuoco, Ensemble Liaison & Nemanja Radulovic, Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

For the third time, the French/Serbian violinist joins up with this fine ensemble for a night packed with incident.  The guest joins with Liaison members Svetlana Bogosavljevic (cello) and Timothy Young (piano) for Rachmaninov’s Trio elegaique, the one-movement work not written in memory of Tchaikovsky.   Furthering the occasion’s Slavic tenor, the same musicians will perform Shostakovich’s E minor Trio, often an intensely moving experience if the executants can shape the work intelligently, not overdoing the passion or the dour whimsy.   Radulovic has a virtuoso turn with Ravel’s Tzigane, the composer’s sophisticated take on Gypsy flourishes, and that old chestnut, the Handel/Halvorsen Passacaglia duo, emerges like a programmed encore, although what remains unclear is who will provide the viola line.


Friday July 15

Cirque de la Symphonie, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall at 7 pm

This night hosts a company which has the lot – aerial artists, jugglers, contortionists, strongmen, dancers, acrobats – and it will mount its turns in front of the MSO under Benjamin Northey.   The musical content ranges from strong circus links (sort of) to pieces with no trace of the sawdust rings about them, you’d think.   Dvorak’s Carnival Overture is razzle-dazzle enough in its outer pages but what to do in that languorous middle nocturne?   Both the Carmen Suites from Bizet’s opera have a certain amount of bustle in them, but quite a few placid stretches as well.  Smetana’s Dance of the Comedians fits the bill; many excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake also have potential.  But Sibelius’ Finlandia?  Could suit the strongmen, I suppose.  From experiencing the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s collaboration with Circa last year, I think it’s obvious that the music will be cast into second-row status, anyway.

The program is repeated in Hamer Hall on Saturday July 16 at 7 pm.


Saturday July 16

L’air parfume, La Compania, Deakin Edge Federation Square at 6 pm

With guest soprano Jacqueline Porter, this fine period music ensemble ventures into the cultural life of France under Louis XIII, showcasing that court’s musical entertainment. The Palais du Louvre was a prolific site for music; Louis himself was a lutenist and wrote music – for at least one ballet.   But the composers active in his time are mainly unknown these days, their efforts dwarfed by the following giant figures of Lully, Couperin and Rameau.    Against these, the names of Louis Constantin, Pierre Guedron, Antoine Boesset, Jean de Cambefort and Etienne Moulinie ring few bells.   But making the acquaintance of neglected music is part of the experience that La Compania offers; in this case, breathing new life into the precious and ornate atmosphere of the period’s flamboyant aristocratic world as well as unveiling the ornate and richly-scented fabric of the court’s music-making.


Sunday July 17

Mid-Winter Brilliance – Beethoven and Mozart, The Melbourne Musicians, Methodist Ladies’ College at 3 pm

As well as essaying some brilliant music, the Musicians are having a mid-winter change of venue, moving east of their usual Southgate home to MLC’s Kew campus.  Whether to the Flockhart Hall or the Tatoulis Auditorium, I’m not sure; the latter is a new and hitherto unknown space in my experience.   The afternoon’s Beethoven element comprises two works: the F Major Romance with soloist Mi Yang negotiating its ornate melodies and wide leaps, and the Piano Concerto No. 4, Argentina-born Canberra resident Marcela Fiorillo taking up that benign work’s subtle challenges.   As for Mozart, Mi Yang fronts the Violin Concerto No. 4, and Rosemary Ball will sing two soprano arias from The Marriage of Figaro; she’s spoiled for choice with the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino responsible for some of the opera’s most famous segments.   Needless to say, for these Classical period works, the ensemble will be expanded beyond its normal string complement to include pairs of woodwinds, trumpets and horns as well as a timpanist.


Classic and French – or a lot of hot air in E flat!, Team of Pianists, Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Brightening up these bitingly cold nights, the Team’s Darryl Coote welcomes us and four wind artists to a recital of Mozart, Beethoven and Poulenc.  The Classic is represented by Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds in E flat, and Beethoven’s early work in the same key.  Three MSO artists participate in these amiable works: oboe Ann Blackburn, principal bassoon Jack Schiller and French horn Jenna Breen.  The essential ‘other’ is Alex Morris, newly appointed  bass clarinet with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  As for the French component, both works were aired in mid-May at an ANAM Poulenc-celebrating evening featuring Paavali Jumppanen.   Breen and Coote are presenting the Elegy tribute of 1957, written in memory of Dennis Brain, followed by Blackburn, Schiller and Coote performing the youthful, brio-rich 1926 Trio.


Tuesday July 19

Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Under Musica Viva’s aegis, this famous choral group returns, still enjoying the direction of Stephen Layton who currently is celebrating his 11th year of incumbency as Trinity’s controller.  The two programs being toured nationally centre around Frank Martin’s Mass for unaccompanied double choir which has grown in accessibility over the past 20 years or so. Without an organ in the MRC, Layton has omitted Elgar’s Psalm 29 setting Give Unto the Lord and Howells’ Te Deum from the Melbourne line-up, substituting Pawel Lukaszewski’s Nunc dimittis and American choral expert Eric Whitacre’s popular interpretation of e e cummings’ i thank You God for most this amazing day verses.  The common elements include Byrd, Tallis and Purcell motets, some Baltic gestures with pieces by Rautavaara and Esenvalds, American writer Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium, a commission piece by the choir’s own Organ Scholar, Owain Park, as well as an Australian commission in Joe Twist’s Hymn of Ancient Lands.   It’s a pleasure to hear a solid, highly reputable Anglican choir at work, especially one that casts its repertoire net pretty wide, but the Murdoch Hall strikes me as a disquieting space to hear the Trinity singers; everything carries, certainly, but the choral mesh lacks resonance in these immediate-response surroundings.

The program will be repeated on Saturday July 23 at 7 pm.


Wednesday July 20

Sparks of Conflict, Quartz, Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This ensemble – a string quartet, of course, comprising violins Kathryn Taylor and Rachael Beesley, viola Matt Laing and cello Zoe Wallace – is appearing as part of the Recital Centre’s Local Heroes series.   In an ambitious move, the group will play the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9, five movements played without a pause; Carl Vine’s String Quartet No. 4, two movements played as one, commissioned to celebrate the composer’s 50th birthday in 2004; and Samuel Barber’s excellent setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, here calling on the rich bass-baritone of Nicholas Dinopoulos.  Plenty of conflict in these scores although the most arresting sparks come in the Russian master’s extended essay.


Thursday July 21

Shakespeare Classics, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Enough with the Shakespeare quatercentenary observations, you say?  Be patient and treat it like the current Federal election, even if this last is as welcome an activity as passing stones: only five more months of sporadic celebrations to go.  The latest festive concert is conducted by youngish Briton Alexander Shelley who has gone a long way in a short time. He begins with – would you believe? – Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, five illustrative pieces, is distinguished for its lyrical Scene in the Garden.  The home country is represented by some of Walton’s music to Olivier’s film of Henry V: the Death of Falstaff and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part.  That arch-musical-illustrator Richard Strauss finishes off the night with his first tone-poem, Macbeth.   The soloist is German pianist Lars Vogt who takes us completely out of the night’s intellectual arena through Mozart’s last concerto, No. 27 in B flat;  music of this supreme quality is to be treasured in live performance but it rather undermines the night’s thematic intentions.

This program is repeated on Friday July 22 in Monash University’s Robert Blackwood Hall at 8 pm.


Monday July 25

Beethoven, Bach and Beyond, Lars Vogt, Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Having taken the weekend off after his two MSO spots,  the Mozart expert appears in the Murdoch Hall for the Recital Centre’s  Great Performers series,  The night promises to be short, the content exhausting – for him, if not for us as well.  Vogt begins with Bach’s Goldberg Variations – which is excellent recital fare.  I wonder if he’ll play all the repeats or will he follow the practice of many another interpreter and leave most of them out.  After interval, Vogt plays the last Beethoven sonata, No. 32 in C minor/Major, one of the composer’s greatest challenges to an interpreter’s level of insight and interpretative sensibility.  Given a combination like this, perhaps Vogt could think of nothing else to perform that wouldn’t sound either distracting or irrelevant.


Tuesday July 26

Melodies & Visions, Daniel de Borah plus One, Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Another in the Centre’s Local Heroes string, this recital has pianist Daniel de Borah hosting Dale Barltrop, concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.  The recital’s title couldn’t be more apt as the first work will be Prokofiev’s Cinq melodies, originally vocalises for piano-accompanied soprano, the vocal line later transcribed for violin; followed by Prokofiev’s early Visions fugitives for piano solo.   No, not all 20 of them but selections from the set.  Finally, for a change, the performers will work through some Prokofiev: the Violin Sonata in F minor – the real one, since the very popular D Major work was a by-blow, transcribed at Oistrakh’s request from the eloquent Flute Sonata.  Full marks to de Borah for this program that gives a rapid but engaging tour of some less-performed pieces from the  Russian composer’s oeuvre.


Wednesday July 27

Lost Landscapes, Sutherland Trio, Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

And still they come: another in the Local Heroes series.  Where would this city’s chamber music scene be without initiatives like this?  The Sutherland ensemble – violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Molly Kadarauch, piano Caroline Almonte – begins and ends in orthodox style with Mozart’s second-last and puzzlingly simple piano trio in C, K. 548, and with Schumann’s substantial No. 3 in G minor.  Two novelties are framed by these familiar works. Russian-born American pianist/composer Lera Auerbach wrote 24 Preludes for cello/piano duet, then revamped No. 12 in G sharp minor (there’s an unusual key for you) as a postlude, which Kadarauch and Almonte will expound; the only recorded performance I’ve heard seems to have part of the piano slightly ‘prepared’.   And Sellars and Almonte will play West 23rd Street NY, the last of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 2005  suite of four pieces that gives this recital its name;  reminiscences of significant places where the composer resided in his earlier years.


Friday July 29

Beethoven’s Fifth, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Benjamin Northey conducts the most famous symphony of all, Beethoven in C minor.  Is there anything new to be dragged from this always-invigorating score?   We’ll see, especially in the frantic, jubilant finale.  The night begins with Weber’s Der Freischutz Overture and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is fronted by Grace Clifford who won the 2014 Young Performer’s Award aged 16.   There you have it: a perfectly shaped, old-fashioned concert program of overture-concerto-symphony format and you could hardly ask for anything more comfortably familiar in its content.

And here’s one for the books.  This program has proven so popular that the MSO has organized a repeat of it the following night, Saturday July 30  –  again in the Town Hall and again at 7:30 pm.   When you’re on a good thing . . .





Clarity and elegance


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday June 15, 2016

Selby & Friends

                                                     (L to R) Nikki Chooi, Timo-Veikko Valve, Kathryn Selby

For this month’s subscription series recital, Kathryn Selby welcomed back to her piano trio the principal cellist of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Timo-Veikko Valve.  As for a violin, a newcomer made a positive first impression; Canadian artist Nikki Chooi took the night’s opening, Julian Yu‘s Prelude and Not-a-Fugue trio, and contributed substantially to an assertive reading of the Australian composer’s Bach tribute.  In fact, Chooi set the pace by stressing the vigour in the Prelude’s initial rising chromatic arpeggio flourish, setting up a rougher communal texture than expected.

Not that the piece makes too many challenges in terms of dealing with a wealth of material; this Prelude follows a Bachian pattern in its motoric repetition.  With the non-fugue second part, Yu makes use of the main theme from the Bach work that gives this program its title.  While the strict rules of fugal establishment and sequencing are not followed, the contrapuntal interweavings in these pages impose a sort of order that suggests fugue.  As a homage, both parts are appealing, updating a format that can stand up to imitation, both satirical and flattering.   As an initial gambit, this piece proved amiable, not too taxing for the executants, and just long enough.

Chooi and Selby collaborated in Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, a work that you can go for years without coming across in chamber music programs; the only other time I’ve heard it live, I believe, was at an Australian National Academy of Music program several years ago.   These performers made an effective case for the work, which is not that substantial in terms of developmental length.  But it did give Chooi room for his powerful projection, right from the opening G-string statement.  This is not a violinist who holds back and this Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck movement gave him scope to construct some drivingly urgent melodic chains, alternating with resonant octaves and passionate semiquaver sequences, particularly nearing the final bars.  His ability to articulate rapidly and with some humour informed the succeeding Allegretto and the concluding Lebhaft was taken at a reasonable pace, adding to the pleasure of the  E and A Major interludes that brighten up a rather dour landscape, Selby giving the violinist plenty of space but not holding back with her double-hand full chords.

Valve was apparently indisposed but still managed to give a sterling reading of the Brahms E minor Sonata.  Both he and Selby took the first movement’s Allegro non troppo at face value and erred on the stately side for its initial pages. Right on top of the piece’s challenges, both musicians gave each paragraph full weight, notably in the first movement’s shift to (nominally) F Major where Brahms soars into magnificent polemic. Selby made light work of the testing figuration in the Trio of the Allegretto, Valve keeping the circuitous melody line of this segment fluent and placid.  The pianist’s control of touch in the finale showed as securely as ever, both performers keeping the texture lucid, refraining from dynamic over-kill even in the helter-skelter of the last page’s Piu presto.

The three musicians came together again for the night’s concluding gem, Schubert in B flat.  For once, this well-worn masterpiece came over with few signs of Biedermeier cosiness or self-satisfaction, Chooi making a firm and generously voiced statement from the outset, in fine collaboration with Valve during the second movement’s imitative duet that stretches the cello to the treble clef for most of its length.   Later, the Trio to the third movement substantiated this reading’s lack of sentimentality with an unexaggerated vibrato from the strings while Selby’s keyboard chords on the off-beats remained recessed.  In sum, the trio came across with its clarity intact, if also having a touch of the scouring cloth with the dynamic levels a tad strident in places like the finale’s octave/unisons preceding Letter A, this feature balanced by a spotless delivery of the movement’s first 3/2 interlude in D flat –  an inspired sideways shift on paper and realized with agility and sustained elegance by these executants.

The best came last


Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday June 7 & Saturday June 18, 2016

Enso String Quartet

                                                                                Enso String Quartet

The latest visitors appearing under the Musica Viva banner have made it to Melbourne; their only previous appearance, as far as I can tell, has been at the Huntington Estate Music Festival.  For this first intra-capital (and Newcastle) tour, the ensemble is presenting two programs; well, one-and-a-half, actually as two works remain constant across the board.

The Ensor are an expert group, well versed in their craft since their foundation at Yale in 1999, although the actual personnel has changed since the ensemble’s well-received recordings of the complete Pleyel quartets.  Since those days, second violin Tereza Stanislav has been replaced, first by John Marcus, then by Ken Hamao; at the viola desk, Melissa Reardon has taken over from Robert Brophy.   But the current formation has a homogeneity and balance you’d expect from a body with that temporal pedigree and history of accomplishment.

One of the constants throughout the Ensos’ Australian sojourn is a freshly composed work by Brenton Broadstock, commissioned (like so many other pieces) by Musica Viva.  Safe Haven celebrates the escape from and survival of the 1956 Hungarian uprising of a young child, Marianne.  In three movements, the work delineates the situation from which Marianne and her family fled, the first inklings of freedom, and the reassurance offered by their coming to rest in Australia.    Broadstock uses a nursery song, Boci, boci tarka, as the basis for a set of variations.   In the first, the melody is discernible under some intimations of unrest represented by rapid gruppetti and plenty of loud outbursts, but the task of expressing in musical terms the national tragedy that was taking place is a daunting, probably impossible one.

With the resources of four strings only, any composer would blanch at the idea of conveying the distressing images that remain in the memory of those days – a year when the term ‘Molotov cocktail’ came to mean something to my generation.   The rebellion’s brutal repression eventually resulted in the sequestration of Cardinal Mindszenty in Budapest’s American Embassy and later the infamous execution of Premier Imre Nagy.     Closer to home, the year 1956 still reverberates in this city for the infamous Hungary/Russia water-polo match during the Melbourne Olympics. Broadstock takes a sensible path and hints at tragedy rather than attempting a full-blown dramatic musical panorama.

In the second movement, the theme emerges en clair and the expressive language turns more congenial; the third lullaby variation is a long stretch of placidity which is determined to hammer home the message of harmonious security at extraordinary length. Safe Haven wears its emotions openly and is quite accessible; pleasant enough but its interest is limited by a perplexing veneer of simplicity.

The other fixed touring repertoire component is the earlier Beethoven in E flat Major, the Harp,  with its mildly suggestive first movement pizzicati.  Here was a satisfying performance, full of energy and a powerful impulse from opening Poco adagio to the finale’s set of variations.   You could have asked for more subtlety in the third movement where the players’ emphasis fell on the dramatic potential of the central declamatory Piu presto rather than the surrounding pages’ dour legerdemain.   But, at the work’s conclusion came the question that presents itself with a worrying regularity these days: what differentiated this reading from any other in terms of insight?   While admiring the players’ dedication, the answer had to be: not much.   Like most of their peers, the Ensos perform standards like this with technical security and a communication of the work’s developmental progress.   But I found it hard to recall any section that impressed for its intellectual incisiveness, or even a detail that offered some new aspect to these familiar movements.

The night’s second part offered two related pieces in Turina’s Serenata and Ginastera’s Quartet No. 2.   The first, a one-movement construct, lays on the Iberian colour with a will at the start before its substantial central Andante where the instrumental interplay takes more prominence.   The spirit of Falla rises every so often but the composer’s individuality is continuously asserted with a deft manipulation of the framing segments’ 3/8 rhythmic pulse and a masterful control of the string fabric’s possibilities.

With the Ginastera, the Ensos are playing to a particular strength, as they have recorded the Argentinian composer’s complete output in this genre.  Much has been made of the twelve-tone elements in this piece but, while Ginastera clearly uses Schoenbergian rows, he does so with a freedom from any doctrinaire application; repetitions abound, the immediate repetition of fragments is just as common, and no attempt is made to avoid consonances.   The score gave the performers plenty of individual exposure; first, in the second movement Adagio angoscioso with some brief shining moments for Melissa Reardon’s well-projected viola and Richard Belcher‘s eloquent cello; later, in the fourth movement Tema libero e rapsodico where each instrument enjoyed a cadenza, first violin Maureen Nelson having the opening and closing words, with second violin Hamao making a stentorian meal of his Allegro variation.

For all its dodecaphonic referents, this work gave Tuesday’s Musica Viva patrons few problems, its 1958 progressiveness a modest challenge alongside other contemporaneous works like Boulez’s Improvisations sur Mallarme, Stockhausen’s Zyklus, or Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra.   But it showed these visiting players at their best on this occasion, their performance definite, full-blooded and persuasive.

The Enso program on June 18 replaces the Turina and Ginastera with Ravel in F and a Renaissance medley, compiled and arranged by first violin Nelson.

Softly, softly


Judy Diez d’Aux & Peter Sheridan bass flutes, Lachlan Dent cello

MOVE MD 3403

Continental Drift - Copy

No matter how obscure you think a particular combination of instruments may be, or how much you wonder if anyone could possibly be interested in it, when you express your reservations, you can be stunned by the chorus of enthusiastic affirmation that rises from the throats of a host of aficionados and fans, demanding to know how you can possibly question the appeal of said combination.   Here is a CD from the innovative Melbourne label that features, for the most part, original compositions for the bass flute – or, better still, two of them; in this instance, the duet is sometimes supported by a cello underpinning and, for good measure, all three participants enjoy solos.

I’ve known (and worked with) a few flautists and, while they have all been happiest with the normal Middle C-based instrument and can enjoy for limited periods a stint on the alto species, not one of them made much of a case for the bass.   Not surprising, really, when you compare the repertoire available across the three-level spectrum; while the alto has been put to striking use by 20th century masters, the lower-pitched instrument is a rare sight in orchestral ranks and never emerges from the shadows for a solo, except during a Master’s all-in recital, perhaps.

Peter Sheridan, the American flautist now resident in Australia, has done more than most performers to commission and promote music for the bass flute.   Here, in collaboration with fellow-countrywoman Judy Diez d’Aux and Melbourne cellist Lachlan Dent, Sheridan presents a series of works, some of them slight while others are fairly substantial, most of them written in the last few years.   As bookends, the musicians play some Haydn: the outer movements of the first London Trio in C as an ice-breaker, and the opening to the G Major Trio No. 3 to finish.   The benefit of these transcriptions, at the start in particular, is to give some context for the timbral interplay at work, acclimatising the listener to the breathy wind texture, initially reminiscent of some of the less assertive flute organ stops.

A fair amount of what is enclosed by these brisk, mildly spirited Haydn pieces comes from America, starting with Gary Schocker‘s Underwater Flowers of 2014: an impressionistic triptych for bass flute duet suggestive of Debussy in chamber aquatic mode, at its most original in the middle Flower Hat Jelly which inserts some jauntiness to animate the work’s undulating fluidity.   From Quebec’s Ella Louise Allaire/Martin Lord Ferguson partnership comes a 2015 diptych, Spring Awaking, which employs the cello as well.   It was hard to see much difference between the initial awaking and the pendant awakened segments, mainly because the writing style remained uniform; easy listening, certainly, with a penchant for unison and octave work but leavened with some sequences that bordered on the banal.

Sheridan’s solo, Doggerel by New Zealand writer Eve de Castro-Robinson, brought to the fore some interest in terms of sound production with plenty of initial plosives, a few passages that featured harmonics, some bent-note mini-glissandi, and what sounded like a dash or two of multiphonics.    As the piece progressed, a jig-type rhythm became more and more clear, helping to reinforce the relevance of the work’s title, I suppose.   Still, it made a fine vehicle for Sheridan’s skill, particularly an impressive breath-recovery rate. Madelyn Byrne, the computer music expert from California’s Palomar College, produced Suite in Sea three years ago and it presented as the most harmonically daring work so far on this CD.   Suggestive of the marine, but not as predictable as Schocker’s  Flowers, the middle Soliloquy for solo flute and the following Sea Spirits for flute duet revealed a well-harnessed lyricism and atmospheric eloquence, although the concluding Argentinian Ghost Tango for all three musicians intrigued for its out-of-left-field context and its use of Dent’s cello as a rhythm bass that eventually moved into an independent line of its own.

Dent makes a fine case for Stuart Greenbaum‘s Lunar Orbit, a solo that depicts simultaneously two aspects of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission: Armstrong and Aldrin sleeping in the landing module while Collins has to orbit the Moon by himself.  The composer makes uncomplicated pictorial suggestions with deliberately limited material but this was, so far, the most sustained piece of composition on the disc; not that at 5 1/2 minutes you are being intellectually stretched, but it makes its case with cogency and comes to an ardent and persuasive conclusion.

Peter Senchuk, Canadian/American in background, wrote the CD’s title piece last year. Another triptych, this score employs the flutes only and is very agreably constructed for them in a kind of fast-slow-fast format, both Diez d’Aux and Sheridan revealing a fine responsiveness to its emotional climate.   Not that the work over-stretches these players and the rhythmic interplay in its opening Divergent movement holds no terrors.  The central Slipping segment involves a good deal of luxuriant paired work where the lines move uniformly rather than showing much disjunction; the final Convergent pages offer a tad more complexity but not the ‘flutes frantically dance’ activity level proposed in the cover-notes.

Australian composer Brennan KeatsFantasies and Wilderness, yet another triptych, also employs all three executants.   Its inspiration is Ireland: a nostalgia for the land itself, the sadness caused by young men leaving for war, and the sublimated depression generated by migration, in this case to the United States.   Keats uses a conservative harmonic language, which is effective enough in the opening section with its mournful summoning-up of some Celtic twilight.   In the middle pages, he quotes Danny Boy in an unabashedly euphonious arrangement, although the context calls out for something less humdrum; possibly the folksong Fil, fil o run o?   The last part also uses a well-worn quote – When Irish Eyes Are Smiling – which turns minor to suggest migrant struggles in America and the widespread social disharmony that prevailed, but then returns in full sentimental strength, although the work ends in something approaching depression.

Yuko Uebayashi‘s Le vent a travers les ruines is Diez d’Aux’s solo.   Full of pauses and couched in an aphoristic, slow-moving limited language, the composer’s ruins are not menacing – just deserted, offering little opposition or challenge to the placid wind that blows through them.   Its later stages offer a fine exploration of the instrument’s lower register as its moves to a calm, understated conclusion.  Stanley M. Hoffman‘s Arirang Variations began as a piano solo, the composer arranging it last year for Sheridan’s use.  Another work for the two flutes, it takes a Korean melody and offers four variations on it, the original tune announced at either end of the work.  This is intended for young players, to give them some intellectual impetus and to improve their skills; needless to say, these players handle it with aplomb and the sort of polish that would be the admiration of any player at any age.

Oddly enough, the more you hear of these pieces, the more intriguing the combination sounds.   At moments, Dent’s cello is unexpectedly dominant; at others, the variety of attack makes the organ-flute stop comparison invalid, chiefly because in this situation we are dealing with two distinct lines played by well-matched but not identical individuals. Still, at the end, you feel that the mysteries of the bass flute have been well-expounded, if not exactly exhausted.