Old favourites in safe hands


Andrew Blanch

Andrew Blanch

A young artist with no time to waste, Andrew Blanch is a graduate of the Australian National University and he has self-produced this collection which holds, inter alia, several well-known highlights from the repertoire; which is to say, if you’ve been familiar with the work of Segovia and his successors for the last 60 years or so, little on the disc will come as a surprise.  From this exhibition of musical craft, Blanch is quite justified in putting his talent before the public.  The versions that he offers of the staples are freshly considered and capable; as well, there are several pieces here that you won’t hear often these days but which have been allowed unfairly to fall by the wayside.

Inevitably, Blanch presents some arrangements, but they are pretty much all of high quality, including two Pujol transcriptions of extracts from Falla’s El amor brujo, Leo Brouwer‘s straightforward take on a Scarlatti sonata, an expertly constructed version of Albeniz’s Sevilla by expatriate Cuban master Manuel Barrueco, and three other works re-scored by Blanch’s teachers, Timothy Kain and Minh Le Hoang.

For the rest, the disc’s content is exactly what it promises.  Along with Tarrega’s all-too-familiar Recuerdos de la Alhambra comes the same composer’s Variations on the Carnival of Venice after Paganini, three of the 24 Caprichos de Goya by Castelnuovo-Tedesco (all right – an honorary Spaniard), three transparent Catalan folksongs by Llobet, and Turina’s haunting Fandanguillo.

Blanch’s readings are expertly shaped, trusting to the music to make its own points without having to exert any theatrical gestures.  For example, the opening track – the Miller’s Dance from Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat ballet (arranged by Kain) – is handled with a welcome sense of give and take.   Its biting farruca rhythm and the concurrent patches of rasgueado propose a stately drama; then Blanch pulls the tension back for the open-ended melodic theme that follows, and even the stringendo climax is articulated with controlled excitement rather than the customary lurch towards applause-inducing hysteria.  The third piece of Blanch’s Falla bracket, Song of the Will-o’-the-Wisp, offers a similar study by emphasizing the striking colour of the surrounding framework while delivering the lyrical melody itself with a comparatively restrained dynamic.

Tarrega’s well-known tremolo study coloured by memories of the Granadan palace/fortress is given an unexpectedly moderated reading, Blanch’s maintenance of the melody carried out without any automatism but with precisely managed and appropriate touches of rubato, the piece’s digital difficulties negotiated with a reassuring uniformity of attack.   Later, in the first of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Caprichos, El sueno de la razon produce monstruos, the twin lines of melody and active supporting bass come across with mutual clarity; nothing is underplayed or recessed but the central lyric remains perceptible.  For all that, the emotional content itself is hardly indicative of the monsters that Goya envisioned; too controlled in its vocabulary to bring horrors to the mind, I would have thought.

The Sevilla by Albeniz (Barrueco’s transcription sticks to the original piano solo’s G Major) is less busy than many another guitarist makes it, Blanch giving a slight emphasis by way of a minute fermata to the full chords that start each phrase in the outer segments.   But his semiquaver figure-work is immaculate and the central C minor meno mosso delivery offers an unusual but appropriately musing interlude.  With the three Llobet settings, Blanch fleshes out pretty stark material on the page with a wealth of vivid detail, including carefully articulated harmonics in the outer folksongs.  The simplest of these, El testament d’Amelia, provides one of the more sensitive interpretations on the CD, Blanch taking pains to give weight to the top line at the two points where the melody moves to octave harmonics and also on its final appearance when it is positioned inside the accompaniment.

The performer outlines Llobet’s Scherzo-Vals with a deft application of humour, especially in the articulation of the piece’s signature acciaccaturas, and then throughout its length with an old-time elasticity of metre, hesitating before nodal points and then launching back into the dance pulse with gusto.  He takes this sample of salon music and infuses it with affection and bonhomie, right up to a supple account of the brief coda.  The following pair of Scarlatti sonatas remain in their original keys, Brouwer’s version of the G Major K. 146 the more successful for its easy flow of arpeggios and busy sequences of repeated 2nds.  Minh Le Hoang made fair work of transporting the A minor K. 175 to this new medium but the piece ranks among the composer’s more percussive sonatas  –  full of drama, punctuated by harmonic clashes and requiring a hefty dynamic output.   Once heard, Rafael Puyana’s explosive 1966 recorded account set the bar for the work’s fierce emotional imprint, which is only faintly echoed in this gentlemanly treatment.

Still, the Carnival of Venice variations are a congenial way to end this self-introductory display.   Not as ferociously finger-stretching as the Paganini set that inspired Tarrega, they offer plenty of challenges, although Blanch – like any sensible player – picks the most congenial and personable from the composer’s uneven sequence.   If you want legerdemain, it’s here in spades: after a lengthy introduction comes a high-spirited gambol to leaven some of the the collection’s more sombre, meditative tracks.

In all, this disc bears strong witness to the guitarist’s interpretative skill as he turns from cornerstones of the instrument’s repertoire, through exacting arrangements, to virtuosic show-pieces.  It’s an auspicious and welcome start to his recording career and you can find further details about him at http://www.andrewblanch.com

A true individual speaks


Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3368


Composer/pianists weren’t thin on the ground in the 19th or even the 20th centuries, times when the modern instrument came into its own as the instrument of choice for postulant musicians, even if it’s been superseded by the guitar over the last 50 years.   The species is not unknown in Australia.   There’s the grandfather figure of Grainger leading the team, with Dulcie Holland, Miriam Hyde and Malcolm Williamson a few decades later.   Keith Humble knew his way round the keyboard, as does his near-contemporary Larry Sitsky.   Richard Meale comes to mind for his famed Messiaen interpretations, although I never heard him play his own work.  Carl Vine is an outstanding representative of this cross-over musician type.    But the younger creator-performers remain an amorphous quantity   –   plenty of composers but few are exponents of their own creations for piano.

Then there’s Michael Kieran Harvey who has set the bar for virtuosity in this country for about 25 years, with the capacity to turn his hand(s) to anything he’s asked.    A generous exponent of other writers’ works, he shows on this CD that his compositional craft is just as formidable.   Mind you, much of this music speaks to Harvey’s actual pianism: restless, driving, dexterously complex, reminding you at every turn of his live concerts and recitals where the act of music-making becomes startlingly physical as the material gushes from the piano in an unstoppable stream, whether it’s Brahms or Bartok.

Harvey takes part in all seven works recorded here.   He opens with the longest construct, his Psychosonata, Sonata No. 2.   Its title is due to the work’s commissioning by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the first performance coming at that body’s Hobart conference in 2012.   Divided into three movements, it begins with furious action that does not let up; even when the dynamic level reduces, Harvey’s fingers keep flying.   The composer’s notes refer to sonata form and every so often you feel a developmental pattern – but mostly not; rather, episode follows episode with the spirit of Bartok looming large through the work’s percussiveness and use of ostinati.   As for the work’s language, it presents as enthusiastically atonal, with concords intentionally avoided.   At points, the right hand action is impossibly mobile; you cannot conceive how the action is sustained for so long.    Sill, the  sound is splendidly engineered, catering for Harvey’s tendency to work simultaneously at both extremes of the keyboard and producing a clear-speaking mix.

The work’s movements meld into each other, so that the slower second one is upon you without notice.   A more passive emotional atmosphere prevails, the activity conducted above a resonantly gruff bass register continuum for some time; the advance goes slowly with insistent decorative interpolations in the treble that move to rapid scale passages in both hands before a return to aggression at about the 3:20 mark.   Yet Harvey maintains a discipline over any outbursts, while not letting go of the expressionist nightmare his musical scenario proposes here, passages of near-placidity merged with obsessive freneticism.

The final movement moves straight back to the athletic vaulting of the sonata’s opening.  After a temporally confusing introductory few pages,  it settles into a triple metre  – Harvey’s concept of a vivace gigue , possibly.   The lava flow is disrupted by relieving interludes, moderate in attack and fluency.   Even in the last pages where the activity halts for isolated blurts, the underpinning restlessness is never far away.  Yet, as a picture of psychopathic or psychotic thought processes, the sonata presents as organized and directed, its processes too purposeful to convince the listener of any erratic mental depictions.

Cellist Alister Barker collaborates with Harvey in Kursk, referring to the Russian submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in 2000 with all hands killed.   This duet has the piano generate a relentless underpinning, as though the sonata is being revisited.   Barker’s cello line presents as angular, sharp-edged writing.   The work is clearly speaking in anger, in protest as both instruments remind you of racing pulses reacting to the catastrophe.  This moves to a lament that suggests life dwindling, the  souls’ candles extinguished.   A cello cadenza rises to an uncomfortably insistent high sustained note and the last moments revert to the aggression, the string instrument executing a rising scale with double-stop support while Harvey’s piano smashes out punctuating chord clusters, the whole ending with a fierce assertiveness and insistence: you don’t forget, you can’t forget.

Fear, the disc’s second-longest work, features violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto.   Harvey takes his impetus for this duet from Bertrand Russell’s 1943 An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, citing a paragraph that concludes with the philosopher-mathematician’s well-known observation: ‘To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom . . . ‘    Which is fine as an aspiration, an ambition, although this piece’s tone appears to be more neurasthenic than the disc’s eponymous sonata.   The keyboard is confined to the upper part of its compass as it escorts the violin through various characteristics of a fearful state – a nervous tic, an urge towards hysteria, a burst of compelling trauma.    Yoshimoto works through several cadenza-type passages that present aural images of nervous twitching, a teetering on the edge of control, until the violin is left alone at the end, a single voice that doesn’t reach any resolution.

For Melbourne pianist Stephen McIntyre’s 70th birthday four years ago, Harvey produced his Mazurka, which has traces of the more heroic products of Chopin,  with one absolute quote near its end from the B flat Op. 7 piece.   Both an ebullient and a neat tribute, it is unabashedly more representative of the writer’s personality than that of the dedicatee.

A four-movement Homage to Liszt continues the references to Harvey’s virtuoso composer forebears.  With Eugene Ughetti‘s percussion seconding the pianist’s assured bounding, the opening Ballade attracts through its jazz-influenced starting pages, its liveliness punctuated by a reference or six to actual Liszt pieces.  The following Waltz seems to be nothing of the kind, even if the piano and drum-kit partnership makes an infectious combination; the Harmonies du soir study is discernible if you stretch your ears.  A Csardas offers a brisk parody of the Hungarian dance, at its most striking in a piano/percussion statement-response passage.   Consolation contains a melody line in the piano doubled by a keyed percussion instrument I couldn’t identify, but the piece’s surrounding preamble and coda come from a different world than the Liszt pieces referred to in the title.

Tristram Williams gives an invigorating interpretation of the Etude for Trumpet in C.  The composer plays rhythmic games non-stop in this brightly-textured piece that begins as a piano toccata escorting a jumpy brass line.    As in the preceding duets, the keyboard doesn’t take a back seat but insists on equal status, and equal work-load.   At 3:40, Williams employs a mute so that the heat fades somewhat, even if the impetus is not slowed, the combined output remaining spiky.   Of course, the mute comes out for the last brisk minute and the collaboration – a taxing one with its metrical complexities – comes to an abrupt end.

City of Snakes – using B flat bass clarinet, piano, bass and drums – refers to Hobart, Harvey’s home town and apparently a city subject to reptile infestations in bush-fire season.   This brings into play Ashley William Smith, who impressed me mightily with his ANAM account some years ago of the Lindberg Clarinet Concerto.   The final piece on this CD is a vehicle for Smith’s instrument which occupies the sonic forefront.   In its very accessible be-bop rush, Ughetti takes the floor for a substantial solo break and Harvey keeps himself busy.  The bass player remains unidentified and his/her actual sound is an inconclusive one – is it electric, natural, or over-miked?    Whatever, the work’s effect is optimistic, summoning up memories of 1960s Melbourne jazz club fare, if more exciting in its bravado than much that you heard live in that decade.

Harvey as a performer is full-frontal, unapologetic, master of a rolling sonority even when the music is emotionally recessive.   This exhibition of his compositions shows how complementary the acts of creation and performance are for him.   While the shorter duets and concluding quartet hold your attention for the craft exerted in their combinations and alterations of sonorities, I think that the half-hour sonata gives the listener a bitingly clear picture of the remarkable musician’s intellectual and  –  for want of a better word – spiritual attributes.   As a study of the composer/pianist at work, this Sonata No. 2 gives us unmistakable essential Harvey.

Figaro the big winner


Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday July 21, 2016

Brett Carter

                                                                                       Brett Carter

There’s a lot to like about the new production (shared with Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera) of Rossini’s masterwork, presented by Opera Queensland.   The single set works pretty well; Matthew Marshall‘s lighting design has some surprises but little obtrusiveness; Lindy Hume‘s direction has some excellent touches of laugh-out-loud comedy as well as a few spots that are groan-worthy.  Roland Peelman has made a seemingly effortless glide from the rarefied Song Company recital scene to the pit of Brisbane’s Playhouse, and the Opera Queensland Chorus made a good showing in this version which gives extranumeraries a lot of scope; probably more than Rossini would have imagined, but who’s looking?

More importantly, the set of principals I saw were well-prepared, as close to note-perfect as the composer allows, given the frantic pace of a few ensembles.  This performance  – and, I assume, the others in which he was cast – were dominated by Brett Carter who has enjoyed plenty of experience in the title role.   He has a solid and flexible baritone, evident from his self-introductory aria which maintained its polysyllabic fluency without garbling or leaving out notes.   A lithe figure, costumed to accentuate his height, Carter shows an appealing character, responsive to everybody else and slotting into place with admirable skill.   Possibly his finest showing is Act 1 where in the sequence from Largo al factotum, through the sparkling All’idea di quel metallo/Ah, che d’amore duet with Almaviva, across the interchanges with Rosina, up to the brilliant finale, Carter sustained his line with equanimity and proficiency.

He had companions in this professionalism.   David Hibbard‘s Don Basilio surprised by the vibrancy and power of his vocal equipment, the La calunnia solo given with just enough suggestiveness, not falling into the trap of over-emphasizing its inbuilt crescendo.  In fact, each time Hibbard opened his mouth, that orotund bass impressed for its masculine darkness, as though the singer had just come from an audition for Boris.   As with Carter, the singer worked efficiently in ensembles, notably the Mi par d’esser gallop.

Andrew Collis confused us very nicely.  On his first entrance, announcing to Basilio that he intended to marry his ward that day, his Bartolo looked and sounded the stock characterisation: elderly to the point of doddering, vocally reserved, an impossible match for the young person who has just introduced herself at length.  Two scenes later and Bartolo appeared with a full head of post-Elvis hair, a much more aggressive vocal colour, altogether a more formidable manipulator (he thinks) of the household and all who live in it.   As with his fellow baritone/bass principals, Collis made a coherent personality, riding over others when required, although his final capitulation to events could have been negotiated with more amplitude; as it was, Bartolo’s two-line surrender was a side-of-stage business, unremarkable in this staging even though it triggers the exhilarating last number.

Emily Burke made a colourful Berta; at first, a potentially malevolent guardian for Rosina, then more inclined to mischief.   Her account of this character’s one chance to shine, Il vechietto cerca moglie, successfully communicated exasperation with the whole mess going on in the Bartolo establishment, possibly a tad heavy in its enunciation of a pretty simple jogging tune.   Brian Lucas as the almost-silent Ambrogio presented a character something like an albino Lurch on secondment from the Addams Family, decrepit but entertaining for his clumsiness – right up to the point where he and Berta clearly have off-stage sex, after which their appearances were played for lustful laughs and, of course, they attracted your eyes at every entrance after the mid-Act II storm, right up to the final curtain where they were placed centre-stage: a down-to-earth working-class counterbalance to Almaviva and Rosina’s semi-aristocratic infatuation.   Shaun Brown as Fiorillo opened the opera efficiently, preparing the stage for his master’s unproductive serenade and did so with ample fussiness and that anticipated hopeless ineptitude in keeping his hired musicians under control.

Virgilio Marino sang Almaviva, the disguised count in love with Bartolo’s ward who eventually gets the girl.   His opening appearance was not reassuring; the treatment of Ecco ridente in cielo sounded heavy-handed, the line delivered with force rather than lilting, as though Marino wasn’t sure that he’d be heard over Rossini’s placid string support.   Not every tenor is a Tagliavini but this opera is not coloured for drama and the Count has to show suppleness and amorousness.   Much better came later when Marino shared vocal exposure, and you could not find much to complain of in his drunken soldier impersonation.   But you were left thinking that a lot less force and grinding effort would have given the work better service.

Much the same lack of lucidity informed the opening Una voce poco fa of Katie Stenzel whose ornamentation came over as studied rather than frolicsome.  I’m unsure as to who started this fashion for large infusions of fioriture in the aria – it might have been an expectation from Righetti-Giorgi right up to Sutherland – but unless the embellishments can be tossed off without stress, then the piece’s progress turns into a series of tension-inducing hurdles.   And again, as soon as Stenzel moved into recitative, Rosina became the attractively determined and quick-thinking personality that should shine out from every bar she sings.  Further on, Stenzel showed a clean pair of vocal heels in the decorated opening strophes to Freddo e immobile, although admittedly the line here lies fairly low.

Some moments during the production seemed odd, if not inappropriate.  Having the chorus move into slow-motion/freeze positions during the Act I finale was preferable to having them all standing around simply singing, but the effect looked laboured, not at all suggestive of the green-lit phantasmagoria of confusion that was intended.   And the idea of turning the music lesson into sexual mimicry, with Rosina gasping through her aria and Almaviva employing his harpsichord as a penile substitute was effective in amusing the audience  –  but is it in the music?  And, more importantly, does it gel with the rest of the work’s action?    I thought it didn’t, but then I’m a prude from down south.

Peelman’s conducting of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – or some of it – was adroit, inclined to hurry the work along, which I like.  The overture had some dodgy brass moments but the string body generated a full-bodied output in this medium-sized theatre.  Still, the outstanding instrumental work of the evening came from guitarist Andrew Veivers who spent a lot of time onstage providing the accompaniment for the recitatives – from memory.  That’s the kind of touch that makes a performance spring to life.

In all, a brisk and attractive Barber, noteworthy for its eponymous hero and the senior characters of the tale.   For all my reservations about the young lovers’ vocal straining, much of the performance proved highly enjoyable, often clever in its disposition of personnel, and eventually satisfying even the most carping observer at that brilliantly uplifting last polonaise, Di si felice innesto, choreographed with modest restraint by the Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela.


August Diary

Monday August 1

Strauss & Lavish Opulence

Kristian Chong & Friends

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Hosting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto, talented pianist Chong presents a program just varied enough to stand out from the ruck.  The pair open with Brahms in A, the middle and most contentedly happy of the three violin sonatas.  And they end with the Richard Strauss in E flat, a welter of melodic lushness from the 24-year-old.   As a makeweight comes Australian composer Arthur Benjamin’s 1924 Sonatine in three movements, a substantial piece written over a decade before Benjamin made it big with his Jamaican Rumba, a popular hit, so much so that after his death the rest of his substantial body of work was ignored.


Thursday August 4

Time’s Arrow

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

With a title to send a chill down the spines of those of us who can feel the avalanche of advancing age, the Flinders ensemble are playing three quartets in their latest subscription series.   Britten’s No. 2 in C sets them off, that wonderfully apposite celebration of the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, ending with a lyrically forceful Chacony.  The Beethoven Harp in E flat will serve to revive our memories in the process of reviewing the group’s interpretation of this work in their extended cycle of the complete set some years ago.  The first of Stuart Greenbaum’s six quartets gives the night its title; composed in 1991, the composer has spoken of its indebtedness to the Britten No. 2.   We’ll see.



Thursday August 4

Elgar, Bach, Puccini & Dvorak

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

Canadian violinist James Ehnes is back to direct and play solo in a pleasant enough set of works.  The Elgar Introduction and Allegro offers an easy Edwardian sweep of melodic warmth for a willing string body.   Ehnes takes front-of-stage for the Bach Concerto No. 2 in E Major, probably the composer’s most well-known string concerto after the Double in D minor (and ignoring those Brandenburgs ).   Filling in time, Puccini’s Crisantemi is outed; it featured as a gap-filler/encore in Australian Chamber Orchestra concerts many years ago and is charming large-salon music.   At the end, Ehnes leads his forces in the Dvorak String Serenade.   I have a suspicion that he has played/directed some of this program on previous visits; whatever the case, he’s one of the finest violinists operating today and we are fortunate that he keeps on returning to Melbourne.

The program will be repeated on Friday August 5 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 8 pm and on Saturday August 6 at 6:30 pm in Hamer Hall.


Saturday August 6

Traversing the Passage of Time

Endeavour Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Clarinet Paul Dean, cellist Trish O’Brien and pianist Stephen Emmerson have also put together a program that veers just far enough off the beaten track to avoid conservative discomfort.   Their recital opens with the Debussy Cello Sonata, the first of the composer’s projected cycle of six; it always strikes me as unfinished, stopping before it deserves to, but by the end the string player’s bowing strength and projection have been severely tried. All three musicians come together for the Brahms Trio in A minor, the first of the four masterworks involving the woodwind instrument; thanks once again, Richard Muhlfeld. At the centre of the evening stands a new work by Dean which gives this night its title; well, pretty new – it receives its premiere at the Queensland Conservatorium on July 28 before emerging again in an Accompanists’ Guild of South Australia Festival at the end of this month, so it should be well played-in by the time we hear it.


Sunday August 7

Enchanting Woodwinds

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium Southbank at 11 am

Next in the series of very well-attended chamber music recitals peopled by MSO members, this one features braces of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns as well as Philip Arkinstall’s clarinet and the piano of Louisa Breen.   Giovanni Batista Riccio’s Sonata a 4 – one of them – has been arranged by contrabassoonist extraordinaire Brock Imison for winds (obviously, considering Riccio was a dab hand at using recorders).   A more challenging arrangement comes in Jonathan Russell’s 2010 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, here in an abridged format for wind quintet.   After that, the rest of the morning settles into a relatively orthodox pattern with Jean Francaix’s oboe/bassoon/piano Trio and the Poulenc Sextet, a work that troubled the writer into years of reconstruction.


Tuesday August 9

Here Will Be My Ending

Hamer Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This group has reformed after some time away from the chamber music front-line. Original members Rebecca Chan (violin), Stephanie Farrands (viola) and Michael Dahlenburg (cello) have invited some guests to help them out; on this night, it’s the turn of Sydney musician Doretta Balkizas.   The event takes its impetus from Schubert’s last words, asking on his deathbed for a performance of Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet: one of those final engrossing products that still challenge executants, no matter how experienced.   Speaking of Schubert, his nervous Quartettsatz opens the group’s account, which then moves to Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, the final movement of his String Quartet No. 2 which for me represents the nadir of the Australian composer’s accomplishment; aimless and sugary.   It has become one of the writer’s most loved and performed pieces, so what do I know?


Thursday August 11

Our Space

Syzygy Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre 6 pm

The contemporary music group offers a tour of current or near-current Australian composition, starting with pianist Peter de Jager’s Mosaic, one of three works on this five-segment program that is enjoying its world premiere.  May Lyon’s Ode (as opposed to Road)  to Damascus suggests too many options to even guess at.  Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh contributes Contemplations, which has Messiaenic overtones.  Kate Neal’s Piano Trio No. 1 has apparently been performed elsewhere, although I can’t find out where and by whom. And Mary Finsterer’s quintet Circadian Tale 7.1 for cor anglais, alto sax, piano, violin and cello enjoys its first performance in four years and, as far as superficial research can detect, is the ‘oldest’ (2009) music on this program.  A lot of music to pack into an hour but the performers are experts in this field.


 Thursday August 11

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

James Ehnes puts in a second appearance, this time under conductor Sir Andrew Davis.  He puts his talents to work on the Richard Strauss Violin Concerto, a rarely heard part of the violin virtuoso repertoire and a work that the Canadian musician hasn’t recorded – yet. Mind you, I’d be happy listening to Ehnes playing pretty much anything from hoary Bruch in G minor to Barber.   Sir Andrew begins with Elgar – his In the South (Alassio) extended overture, a favourite with English audiences although it hasn’t travelled as well as the Enigma Variations; but then, neither has Falstaff.   As a balance to the English work, Mendelssohn’s fine symphony proposes images of an old-time Italy, seen through rose-tinted glasses but, at worst,  a great sound-track for a tourism-promoting video, and at best, an exhilarating half-hour (well, 27 minutes) of rattlingly persuasive enthusiasm.

The program will be repeated on Friday August 12 and Saturday August 13 in Hamer Hall at 8 pm.


 Saturday August 13

Laughter and Tears

Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre St. Kilda at 7:30 pm.

The aim here is to juxtapose the fun of a real circus (Circus Oz) with the tragic tale of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci,  which actually concerns a theatre troupe but the parallels stand up.   In the night’s first part, VO singers will perform works appropriate to 17th and 18th century theatre  – arie antiche by Vecchi, Banchieri and others – while the Circus Oz people do their various things with a commedia dell’arte framework.   Nothing wrong with that: the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has shown the way through its collaborations last year with the Circa company, and the MSO has just completed a set of concerts with the Cirque de la Symphonie gymnasts from the US.   As for the one-act opera, its cast includes Elvira Fatykhova as Nedda, Rosario La Spina singing Canio, baritone James Clayton as Tonio.  The company’s artistic director Richard Mills conducts.

The production will also be presented on Tuesday August 16 and Thursday August 18, both nights at 7:30 pm.


Sunday August 14

Mozart’s Piano

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

With William Hennessy at the controls, this enthusiastic band is performing four Mozart works, including two piano concertos with New York-based Australian musician David Fung as soloist.  The orchestra brackets the afternoon’s work with the delectable Serenata Notturna and the Symphony in A No. 29 – one of the more effortlessly expressive, simple-looking scores that the adolescent composer produced.   Fung fronts No. 11 in F with its unusual first movement in 3/4 time, and the No. 14 in E flat – another one of the three concertos with a 3/4 opening.   Although the later of these is valued as opening the formidable concerto output that leads up to the final B flat triumph, you rarely hear either of these works live.   Both have wind parts but they provide little interest with practically no substantial contributions, apart from expanding the sonic fabric at isolated moments, so Hennessy will probably omit them.

This program is also being performed on Friday August 12 at 7:30 pm at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square.


Monday August 15

East to West

Inventi Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

I still haven’t heard this ensemble or its co-directors, flute Melissa Doecke and oboe Ben Opie.   For this program, they host Marshall McGuire and his harp, as well as percussionists Peter Neville and Thea Rossen.   The offerings are contemporary, sort-of. Takemitsu’s 1971 trio Eucalypts No. 2 for flute, oboe and harp sounds aggressive for a nature-celebrating piece, so perhaps it’s not.   Tan Dun seems to appear in front of the MSO with a wildly disparate program every year, but the noted film composer/conductor is here represented by In Distance, another trio, this time for piccolo, harp and bass drum written in 1987 when the composer first came to New York.   The wildest child of the post-Webern school, Iannis Xenakis, wrote Dmaathen in 1976 for oboe and percussion – both drums and the keyed vibraphone and marimba.  Thanks to the ANAM musicians, we have heard more Morton Feldman in the past five years than at any other time since the composer’s death in 1987.   Instruments III for flute(s), oboe (alternating cor anglais) and percussion comes from the year after Xenakis’ composition; the night’s major offering, its sound-world is dominated by the timbre of suspended cymbals.  With idiosyncratic quiescence, it completes this near-Back-To-The-70s collation.


Friday August 19

Gala Concert

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Simone Young must have a soft sport for the National Academy.  She brings her considerable expertise to its doors on a regular basis and her gala concerts are highlights in ANAM’s performance history.   On this night she is giving the young string Academicians a strong workout with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night sextet in its orchestra format.   She directs the full orchestra in support of Lisa Gasteen for Mahler’s five Ruckert-Lieder with its contrasting inner poles of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen and Um Mitternacht representing the white and black facets of the composer’s emotional landscape.   Young ends with Schoenberg’s splendid orchestration of the substantial symphony-length Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, a revision that does great service to the original.  It’s a fine program but the lasting pleasure will come in watching young musicians respond to a first-class conductor.


Friday August 19

Tognetti and The Lark Ascending

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Robert Blackwood Hall at 8 pm

Sir Andrew Davis gives us some more of the Best of British tonight.  His guest is Richard Tognetti, long-time artistic director of the estimable Australian Chamber Orchestra who is soloist in two works.   First, Lutoslawski’s Partita in five movements takes its starting point from the collection-of-movements format familiar from Bach’s catalogue, the influence stronger especially in Lutoslawski’s odd-numbered movements.  Still, this old-time reference serves only as a springboard for a bracing experience from a composer in whom the spirit of Bartok seemed to survive.    As a chaser for his patrons, Davis has then programmed Vaughan Williams’ always-moving pastoral romance that Tognetti has played before in this hall with exceptional success.   More of the right stuff comes with the Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes, although I always feel a tad cheated when the pendant Passacaglia is omitted.   To end, Davis conducts Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final work with which the orchestra has enjoyed continual success in the last half-century.

This program is being repeated in Hamer Hall on Saturday August 20 at 2 pm and on Monday August 22 at 6:30 pm.


 Sunday August 21

Ludwig, With Strings Attached

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

They couldn’t have made it any simpler.   The youngest of the Team’s governing quartet, Rohan Murray, partners Miki Tsunoda in the first three violin sonatas by Beethoven. This Op. 12 was dedicated to Salieri, Mozart’s rival, and each sonata is about 20 minutes in length with lashings of athletic action, especially in the No. 3 in  E flat, which has a first movement as packed with brio as anything else the composer was writing at the time – the first symphony and piano concerto, the popular Septet, the Pathetique Sonata (easy stuff, compared to some of this piano writing).   Tsunoda, once very familiar from her partnership with Caroline Almonte in Duo Sol, is principal second violin with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic these days and has a finely-rounded projection that has made many a slow movement more memorable than anticipated.


Tuesday August 23

Inner Worlds

Baiba Skride

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, Skride is yet another of those violinists fortunate enough to play a Stradivarius: the 1734 ‘Ex Baron Feilitzsch’, a Gidon Kremer gift which follows her previous Stradivari experiences on the 1725 ‘Wilhelmj’ instrument.   Some artists strike it lucky, but twice?   Anyway, she is accompanied on this night by the estimable Daniel de Borah in Mozart’s Sonata No. 21, a two-movement E minor construct written at the time of his mother’s death, the Shostakovich Sonata, and two oddities I can’t explain.   The Sonata in E flat by Brahms was originally for clarinet with the viola an alternative.  Likewise, Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces call for clarinet, although the composer also allowed for viola or cello as substitutes.   Perhaps Skride will change instruments, or possibly she has arrangements of these tenor-voiced works for her historically remarkable instrument’s range.   At all  events, we’ll be waiting to see how she interprets the Shostakovich, a late creation notable for its 12-tone experimentation, as well as its bleak final Largo where the gloom is almost palpable.


Friday August 26

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

I can recall only one previous performance of this extraordinary work in Melbourne.  At the 1994 Arts Festival, one of those curated by Leo Schofield, conductor Marcello Viotti directed the Melbourne Chorale and the Tasmanian Symphony in a performance enriched by four excellent soloists.   Now Sir Andrew Davis is trying his hand at the Mass for the first time.  The MSO is tested, yes, but the MSO Chorus has a greater strain placed on its members with some extended passages that hold no consideration for singers of moderate abilities.   Davis’ soloists are soprano Emily Birsan, who will be singing Bliss’s The Beatitudes next year with him at the Barbican, poor girl; mezzo Michele Loisier sang Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette under Davis in January, also at the Barbican; British tenor Andrew Staples has a big repertoire for a young artist, but no Beethoven besides Jacquino in Fidelio; and American bass Christian van Horn is a regular at the Chicago Lyric Opera, one of Davis’ stamping grounds.   Not exactly at peace with his faith, Beethoven grapples with the Ordinary of the Mass, at times generating a heaven-challenging ferment as at the conclusion to the Gloria, pages which make Berlioz and Verdi sound like also-rans at driving power of expression.  The work runs for 90 minutes, given here without a break – quite right.

This performance is repeated on Saturday August 27 at 8 pm.















Eternal City, plus water


Arabella Teniswood-Harvey

Move Records MD 3410

Carpe Diem

Quite rightly, this pianist subtitled her disc ‘piano music from Italy’.    Not all the composers she performs are Italian; in fact, only two of the six were citizens – Respighi and Castelnuovo-Tedesco.    The others are a mixed bag: that citizen-of-the-world-if-originally-Hungarian Liszt, New Yorker Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Poitiers native Pierre Petit, with Sydney son and this performer’s husband, Michael Kieran Harvey, providing the album’s title work.

And the geographical spread of the music is a limited one.  Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este celebrates the lavish fountains near Rome;  the Roman Sketches by Griffes depict four aspects of the city, although only one is site-specific; Petit’s Rome, l’unique objet  .  .  .  refers specifically, in turn, to the Pincio Hill, the Tiber complete with sea nymphs, the church (probably) of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, with the Villa Borghese’s riding track bringing up the rear; the Australian composer’s work takes Respighi’s Pines of Rome as a launching-point.

As for the native-born, Castenuovo’s contribution is Onde, two studies helpfully differentiated as Short wave and Long wave.   Respighi gives vent to one of his interests in Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane; repeated listenings with a score have failed to help in detecting which Gregorian chants were used.   However, neither composer suggests anything Roman in these pieces.

The other element that permeates he CD is water.  Liszt’s description of the Este estate’s fountains is one of piano literature’s most impressive aquatic flights of fancy before Debussy and Ravel.   Another fountain, that of the Acqua Paola on the Janiculum, inspired the third part of Griffes’ suite and he draws an accomplished, brilliantly pointed series of images, remarkable for several reasons, not least that the composer never set foot in Rome.   Castelnuovo-Tedesco follows Griffes’ impressionistic approach for his two types of waves, while Petit’s river-picture populates the stream with Nereids – and he knew the city because he won the Prix de Rome in 1946.

Teniswood-Harvey handles this sometimes arcane material with admirable command.  The Liszt work is a restrained reading compared to those recorded by more flamboyant, effect-craving pianists, and its pages are negotiated without interpolated histrionics or nerve-tightening  fluster.  Real rarities, the Griffes pieces enjoy excellent treatment, their author’s uneven key signatures and mutating metres enunciated with an underlying stability that gives the composer great service, especially in his The Fountain of the Acqua Paola and White Peacock sketches more than in the not-as-original Clouds and Nightfall movements.

Both here and in Respighi’s preludes, Teniswood-Harvey makes her most eloquent cases. If the Gregorian is undetectable, the virtuosity needed to handle demands on sheer stamina in the middle one and sustaining the elongated tension in the last is impressive.  Further, the pianist keeps the preludes’ textural complex lucid, particularly in the three-stave spread of the concluding Lento.  By comparison, the Petit pieces strike me as amiable atmospheric rambles, the San Carlo section making a striking initial impression for its unexpectedly determined statement while the Galoppatoio bridle path, despite its suggestive title, could be depicting anywhere.

Harvey’s work, an injunction to action before it’s too late, was written as a birthday present for its current interpreter.   Aggressive, restless, packed with notes, it grabs attention straight away – like its composer in action – and doesn’t let up, even when the dynamic level sinks.   Inspired by the pines in the Villa Borghese gardens, Respighi’s opening movement depicts children playing – actually, rorting around the place with no concern for the plant life –  and Harvey mirrors the original’s frenetic action, although the emotional effect is more serious.   At the same time, it offers a final reaction to Rome that brings the disc to a close with a driving contemporary edge.  It’s all well worth hearing, both for the high quality performances and for the opportunity to hear some illuminating rarities.

A convincing Countess


The Melbourne Musicians

James Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Sunday July 17, 2016

Rosemary Ball

                                                                                    Rosemary Ball

Taking on the Classical canon with a vengeance, Frank Pam and his players presented a mixed Beethoven and Mozart afternoon at the MLC space  a room that I’d not visited for quite a few years.   With an excellent seating plan focused on the performing area, the Tatoulis auditorium gives musicians every consideration, although on this occasion the somewhat dry acoustic might have been softened if the hall’s six acoustic baffles had been retracted.   Nevertheless, Sunday afternoon’s best soloist enjoyed the plentiful air space and coped easily with any reduction in resonant bounce.

Young violinist Mi Yang performed the solo part to Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 with caution.   Her pitching wavered a few times but she kept to Pam’s directorial script, not helped on her way by a string accompaniment that was unusually tentative, feeling its way while dealing with a pretty simple F Major score that only occasionally deviates from a slow-quaver supporting pulse.   Yang had the notes – most of them – under her fingers; what she has to work out is when to take the lead and keep it, maintaining her dynamic leverage over the orchestra, particularly the wind element which took on undue prominence against a self-effacing string body.

Soprano Rosemary Ball sang the two arias for the Countess from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.   Her vocal output is firm and packed with interest although, like pretty much every opera singer I’ve known, she suits herself about pace, taking her time over phrases throughout the four-page, slow-moving work.   Still, she established a link with her accompaniment and maintained it, even through some hesitations at the beginning of phrases.

Yang returned for the Mozart Concerto No. 4 which she negotiated with more security than in her opening gambit for the afternoon.   But then, Mozart gave his soloist plenty of exposure and Yang made more than an exercise out of the work’s appealing Rondeau finale, even if she brought a tension to her reading that will disappear as she becomes more relaxed with this concerto’s benign detachment.  The Musicians had few problems with this score, agreably pitched in D, but they have a tendency not to give an emphasis to the first beat of a bar which makes their texture soupy, lacking an impulse especially in extended passages of simple accompaniment  –  which in fact constitutes most of the body of the first movement that holds only a few four-bar tutti passages outside the opening and closing pages.

When Ball returned for the E Susanna non vien?/Dove sono sequence,  the first page of the aria itself revealed the absence of the required two bassoons.   After a short search and their return to the fold, Ball gave an ardent interpretation of this vocal glory, marred only by some distracting breaks for breath in mid-phrase; surprising, as the aria is not that demanding in this regard, the melody’s arches rarely exceeding four bars in length.  Yet Ball brought a welcome fervour to the Allegro change at Ah! se almen, with a convincing dramatic force informing the di cangiar l’ingrato cor towering conclusion to the work.

After interval, Marcela Fiorillo fronted the Beethoven G Major Piano Concerto.  The exposition set the tone, which was off-puttingly heavy for a score that is viewed as poetic and lyrically buoyant.  The soloist sets the pace for this concerto, opening with a meditative solo; Fiorillo appeared to follow her own inclinations from this stage on and you were left in a state of continual tension, wondering how long the orchestra and pianist could continue without becoming obviously discrepant.  The likelihood became reality in the third movement, fortunately just before an unaccompanied passage, and the lumpy Vivace got to the final bars without another mishap.   A reading, then, with not much to recommend it – hard work for soloist and orchestra, even in the simple central Andante where the strings turned the crisp demisemiquaver/semiquaver snaps into mushy triplets.

However, the concert did reveal the potential of Yang who, in her best moments, displayed a driving sense of direction and a firm bowing arm; as well, it gave us the opportunity to hear Ball giving creditable readings to a pair of taxing arias and carrying them off with great musicianship and impressive power.

Soprano leads the way


La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Saturday July 16, 2016

Jacqueline Porter

                                                                                  Jacqueline Porter

A short program, as is this excellent period music ensemble’s wont, but an entertaining exposition of the subtle pleasures of the air du cour, the court song genre that is linked with the reign of Louis XIII, although those particular decades seem to have seen its finest final flowering.   Much of the music from this program preceded Louis’ accession in 1610; indeed only two names – Pierre Guedron and his son-in-law Antoine Boesset  –  actually worked at that monarch’s court.   On Saturday night, most of the other representatives heard from who worked in this form were retained by Louis’ predecessors, Henri III (Girard de Beaulieu) and Charles IX (Guillaume Costeley).  One of the names – Philippe de Vuildre – actually held posts for the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Danny Lucin and his band – a pretty compact group this time around – gave us a fair tour of the air’s expressive breadth, punctuated by three bransles, a compact group of sequential allemandes by Claude Gervaise, and the only composition by Gervaise’s business partner Pierre Attaignant that you hear today: Tourdion, or Quand je bois du vin clairet if you’re in a singing mood.

This is music that can take you by surprise, breaking an anticipated pattern as in the opening anonymous Bransle de Loraine where the tune’s second half doesn’t balance the first, making you feel that the shape is about two bars short; dancing to this, you’d need to keep your eyes on your partner.  Much the same obtained in a balancing phrase during Guedron’s suspiciously racy Je suis bon garcon, where the singer is nothing of the kind.   Anonymous gave us two of the recital’s more intense pleasures in the air Une jeune fillette with its caressingly soft accompaniment from Rosemary Hodgson‘s lute and the gamba of Victoria Watts, and the Bransle de la Torche, a stately stepper with some resonant open string punctuation marks from Emma Williams‘ violin.

In soprano Jacqueline Porter, the company scored a bright carrying voice, very handy in some of these songs that occupy a middle register for a good deal of the time.   Yet the singer had room to be heard to fine effect in the plaintive Me voila hors du naufrage which lutenist Charles Tessier set at a more sustained high tessitura than much else on this program.   She also made light work of the off-centre accents in Beaulieu’s Rosette, pour un peu d’absence, a lucid expression of disappointment and disdain from a lover whose girl proved  .  .  .  inconstant, as they say.   And another sample of mixed emotional language emerged in Costeley’s Mignonne, allons voir si la rose which sweetly invites the addressee to bed with that tired excuse that her beauty won’t last; as old as Vivamus, mea Lesbia, et amemus but full of innocent charm in Porter’s calm, beguiling delivery.

Porter held her own in terms of audibility, the only occasions giving cause for concern emerging when Lucin’s cornetto and Glen Bardwell‘s sackbut were together in the mix.   Even so, she fared better than Hodgson and Watts who were inaudible during some of the dance doubles.   Christine Baker contributed a stolid if timbrally unadventurous percussion, but the ensemble needed more textural variety  –  at least another violin, or the buzzing energy of a dulcian or two.    A possible move might be to utilise two singers – even three? – as some of this music could be performed to fine effect with the supporting upper lines sung rather than (or as well as) played.

La Compania ends its Deakin Edge year on Saturday November 12 with Il Paradiso, a turn around the early Italian Baroque with particular reference to the age of Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

Remembering the gentle man


Various artists

Move Records

Peter Sculthorpe

He was the most fortunate composer of his time and place; everything came to him without apparent effort – critical plaudits, friends, commissions, public appreciation, honours and prizes.  Nobody had a bad word to say about him, although some of his contemporaries were snippy at his run of successes.   Even his failures served as momentary hiccups rather than career-threatening disasters; the 1974 opera Rites of Passage at the Sydney Opera House scored some favourable reviews.  When Peter Sculthorpe died two years ago aged 85, a national presence closed up shop and suddenly we were poorer for it.

Critics and composers usually react uneasily together; I don’t know many of the former who go out of their way to offend deliberately – a few, always unqualified for the job – but many musicians have no desire to read anything but praise and, if they are writers, have little charity with even the most benign mind that grapples with their work and reaches an ambiguous or a disappointed finding.   Sculthorpe, pretty much alone in my experience, had broad shoulders for public appraisal; moreover, he seemed to bear no grudges.

I met him once only but had some slight correspondence over the years.   Attempting an eventually futile M. A. in 1974/5 with a poorly equipped supervisor, I contacted three Australian composers about specific pieces in their respective oeuvres.  One of them informed me where I ‘might’ be able to buy a copy of his deathless masterwork; another refused to correspond except through his publisher; within a few days, Sculthorpe sent back a Faber edition of his score with an encouraging inscription.   A bit less than 30 years later, this time essaying a M. Mus., I contacted four composers asking for interviews.   All obliged, but Sculthorpe as host in his Woollahra house was particularly welcoming – affable for hours, unflappable when confronted with unintended impertinences and, after he finally read the thesis, generous in remarking on its few strengths.

This CD offers a miscellany, much of it familiar to hardened concert-goers because of certain pieces’ popularity with musicians, but nearly all of the content speaks in Sculthorpe’s own language.   The tracks come from previous recordings, nearly all on the Move label with one ring-in from the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School Chapel, New York. The period covered is two decades – 1975 to 1995 – but one piece harks back to the occasion of a memorable Sculthorpe success: Love 200, written for a 1970 Sydney Symphony Orchestra Town Hall Proms concert and featuring the group Tully.   You won’t find that psychedelic extravaganza here, nor any of the Sun Musics or Kakadu; all of this particular retrospective is confined to chamber music.

A few of the pieces are arrangements, some of them enthusiastically endorsed by the composer, like Wagogo Plains (originally the Morning Song, one of the composer’s more popular lyrics) which has Max Cooke and Darryl Coote performing the piano duet parts but superimposed is throat singer Dean Frenkel contributing a high flute-like melody above a softly whirring vocal support drone.   Reshaped for plucked instrument ensemble, the Little Suite of 1983 sounds more French in flavour than ever, the Concordia Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble timbre dripping Piafian nostalgie; Michelle Nelson‘s orchestration suits the opening Sea Chant, its string ripples and sizzles highly atmospheric for the lilting main melody; the following Little Serenade with its rueful sequences of 2nds veers closely towards the sound world that Sculthorpe aimed for in the suite’s concluding Left Bank Waltz.

The version of Songs of Sea and Sky that opens the CD is performed by flautist Derek Jones and pianist Leigh Harrold.   Of the original work’s seven parts, six appear in this reading, quite obviously with Sculthorpe’s endorsement.  Based on a Torres Strait island song, the suite is an integrated composite, even with the introduction of bird chirps in the Mission Hymn movement which turns the basic material to illustrate a Western evangelical end. The performance has all you could want: flawless articulation from Jones and an unflurried handling of the keyboard part, notably at the start of the Dance-like movement.

The odd-man-out from New York is guitarist Jonathan Paget playing From Kakadu, for which the composer re-employed the main theme from his large-scale orchestral work.  Written for Darwin’s 1993 Shell Guitar Festival, this sequence of four movements sits astride complementary worlds of remote landscape musing and responsive observation.  For example, the initial Grave suggests isolation, a lonely figure in a country without horizon; the following Commodo gives the impression of a complaisant visitor, ambling through the Territory, mirrored in the warmly responsive account that Paget gives of the final Cantando –  contented music without much exertion to interrupt the atmosphere of languor.

Dream Tracks for clarinet/violin/piano trio is another Territory piece in four sections that offers exposure to all its executants: a long piano solo for Stephen Emmerson at the start, an unusually concordant duet for Floyd Williams‘ clarinet and Michele Walsh‘s violin during the  third Lontano movement, while Sculthorpe revisits one of his distinctive Arnhem Land chants, Djilile, in the even-numbered movements to hypnotic effect, the whole rising to a sort of cock-crowing jubilation and peroration as the finale circles onto a rousing D Major full-stop.

The piece that harks back to Sculthorpe’s 1970 Proms triumph, Night Song, appears in an arrangement for violin, cello and piano performed by Trio Melbourne (Isin Cakmakcioglu, Rachel Atkinson and Roger Heagney respectively).  Its minor mode melancholy still has great appeal; a slow-moving work, it makes few demands on its interpreters or its listeners – a placid, sonorous oasis.  The Melbourne String Quartet plays Sculthorpe’s 9th exercise in the form:  one movement with five sections, the first two accomplished very quickly, soundscapes of little depth preceding a long central elegy which boasts a 12-note melody which is humanised by plenty of tonal unde

rlay.   I’d forgotten how this ensemble   –  violins Carl Pini and Gerard van der Weide, viola Jane Hazelwood, cello Arturs Ezergailis   –  could produce a laudably clean and mobile output on its better days.  This version has no surprises outside a few in the score itself, like a sudden ponticello slash of semiquavers across a quiescent soundscape, showing the teeth behind the muzzle.

The collection ends with 11:59 PM, originally the Nocturnal of 1989 which Robert Chamberlain recorded the following year for Move.  Over his agile piano part, Dean Frenkel offers his own superimposed throat-singing commentary.  Once again, it must have been all right with Sculthorpe as he has included this superscription in his catalogue of works; after the Wagogo Plains effort earlier on this disc, I think that a little goes just far enough.

At the end, you have heard a fair sample of the composer’s smaller works, enough to give those unfamiliar with his voice a good idea of his individual language and his emotional breadth, as well as an unabashed statement of connection to the continent’s vastness as he perceived it.  For those of us with more years of Sculthorpe experiences than we might care to remember, some of these pieces surprise by their power to recall those years when the 20th century came alive in Australia’s music, and when a new work by this amiable musician was a matter to generate passionate discussion and interest.    And it brings back to the mind  –  well, this one  –  memories of a kind, generous and gentle soul whose avuncular presence is greatly missed.

Everything you ever wanted to know


Larry Sitsky

Move Records MD 3328

Russian Rarities

Heading towards his 82nd birthday,  Larry Sitsky is a surviving member of that group of composers who came to prominence in the 1960s when Australia’s musical world woke up to the 20th century.   Not part of the Sydney collation of Sculthorpe, Meale and Butterley; non-allied with the Melbourne league of Dreyfus, Werder and Gifford; Sitsky has made his base for many years in Canberra, where he is still Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University.   His renown as a pianist has endured through his teaching and recordings, this particular one being a double album released in 2010; on it, one of his major preoccupations is given ample space and you would find it hard to detect a similar undertaking elsewhere.

Born in China of Russian parents, the composer/pianist studied with Egon Petri and, through him, can claim some descendant status from Busoni.  Throughout these discs, you come across example after example of a 19th century European virtuoso approach to interpretation where the letter of the law is not strictly observed, the player comfortably taking liberties, mainly with respect to rhythm which becomes a moveable feast.  Much of this music I’ve not heard before and some of it fails to engage immediate sympathy.  Yet the enterprise is much more than a musicological research tool and the performer’s authority of utterance is mightily impressive.

Towards the end of Disc 2, the program  moves to an assemblage of small pieces, several of them so slight in length and substance that they almost disappear simply through weight of numbers.  But the chief works that Sitsky presents constitute a remarkable journey from the next-to-last stages of Russian Romanticism, through the outbreak of mysticism spearheaded by Scriabin, to the Constructivist movement that followed the 1917 Revolution.  These focal tracks begin with Anton Rubinstein’s Op. 88 Variations in G, Vladimir Shcherbachev‘s Sonata No. 2,  Nikolai Roslavets‘ Second Sonata, and the First Sonata by Alexander Mosolov, the man once famous for his Iron Foundry orchestral essay in Futurism.   Scattered between these are  smaller scores by Leonid Polovinkin, Nikolai Obukhov, a suite for sophisticated children by Rebikov, and will-of-the-wisp bagatelles by Vladimir Deshevov and Stravinsky’s one-time intimate, Arthur Lourie.  And that’s not all: some scraps by Roslavets and Mosolov offer slight fleshings-out of these writers’ sonatas.

Listening to these discs in succession is certain to lead to empathy overload, sometimes disguised as fatigue, so you’re best advised to oscillate between the long and the short in bursts, rather than embracing Sitsky’s program as a one-sitting continuum.  Not that the opening  Rubinstein Variations offer many difficulties.  Unlike the rest of the album’s contents, this was a live performance from 2006, performed on an elderly Ronisch instrument at the Canberra School of Music.  Rubinstein wrote his solid construct in 1871, and Sitsky’s piano was made for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 so there is a kind of historical congruence to the recording, even if the Ronisch is not exactly in tune in parts of its higher compass.

The theme is a noble extended chorale that emerges after an opening recitative for bass octaves.  Sitsky adopts a free approach to the bar-line’s exigencies as early as Variation 2, by which stage you realize that the shade of Chopin is present, even if the Polish composer’s inspired manipulation of the keyboard is not.   The Marcia Variation 3 would never do for any parade ground, thanks to lots of indulgent arpeggios.  The Vivace of Variation 6 comes over as leaden-footed, a Teutonic romp.  During the following two variations, the work takes on a predictable format; Rubinstein is never happier than when leading you into the obvious.  At Variation 11, Sitsky employs a different rhythmic pattern to the printed one, and lets fly with the individuality in the final segment with octave transpositions, hefty use of the sustaining pedal that blurs any rapid-fire passage work, idiosyncratic emphases of notes, semiquavers transform to triplet quavers.   All of which could have been part of contemporary practice in the composer’s era, especially as we know that masters like Liszt and Paganini delighted in adding quirks to stable if ordinary structures. The only real objection to this interpretation is a looseness in the joints, too much rubato when strict persistence in the pulse would give the work some flesh-strengthening muscle.

The Shcherbachev Sonata was written in 1914 when the composer was 25 and gamely experimenting.   A one-movement rhapsody, it shows an awareness of developments in harmonic vocabulary, at times a less hard-edged Prokofiev tongue, at others a Rachmaninov-like chromatic facility with much roaming anchored in tonality.   This composer is prone to employing a strong-voiced melody with plenty of surrounding ferment, his climactic moments as rhetorical and passionate as anything in the preceding Rubinstein variations.

On Disc 2, Sitsky’s first major reading is of the Roslavets sonata which reveals – as do several other tracks on this album – the influence of Scriabin, although this later composer differs from his predecessor by being pretty keen on octave declamations in both hands.   Sitsky continues to treat the set tempi erratically, with clipped triplets and a breezy treatment of time values in gruppetti.   The single-movement sonata follows the Liszt practice of referring to itself but what impresses above all else are Sitsky’s pains in mastering its myriad chord structures, its abundance of trills and its typically 20th Century tendency to leap inconsiderately across the full compass of the piano itself.

Mosolov’s vocabulary is about as confronting as Soviet music gets; the Iron Foundry is an object lesson in depicting industrial, i.e. factory, power with relentless drive, and my only other experience of this writer’s work,  Susanna Stefani-Caetani’s execution of the Piano Concerto No. 1 with her husband Oleg Caetani and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in August 2006 was memorable for its execution more than its material.   Sitsky gives the opening tone-row outline plenty of breadth before the inevitable barrage of massive block chords oscillating with discernible melodic motives over bass rumbles.  Once again, this sonata comprises one movement that juxtaposes episodes of varied texture, employing cells rather than more solid continuous arches, but at the core its world is pure Constructivist, heading towards the brutal.   Mosolov is happiest pounding ideas around the instrument rather than settling in for a good round of development.  For all the talk of his use of rows and a genre of 12-tone writing, the composer was no doctrinaire in his composition’s organization, as witnessed by the multiple repetitions of notes, chords and phrases. Sitsky contrives to preserve the 1924 sonata’s ebbs and flows of tension, right up to the soft, gloomy concluding gestures.

Of the less substantial pieces, Polovinkin’s Ereignis VII stands out.  Three internally fraught fragments make an arresting sequence, enigmatic in their terseness.  During the second, L’action, the composer inserts some notes for prepared piano – a card inserted between some centre-range strings – that startle for their unexpectedness.  The third, Souvenir, loses its drive as the performer again suits himself about both pulse and pace.

Lourie’s Formes en l’air, written without bar-lines or time signatures, reveal a moody quiescence, typified by some staccato pointillism and abrupt blurts of activity.  The last of the three pieces is formally apprehensible, the most impressive – and impressionistic  – of the set, with some Ravel washes initiating an unpretentious if brief experimental paragraph.  This composer’s slightly earlier five Syntheses occasionally startle by their anticipation of the sort of writing that came into vogue about 1950, but the revenant at this particular feast seemed to me to be Schoenberg; while Lourie’s brevities seem flighty, there are suggestions in them of the 1909 Drei Klavierstucke.  Like his great contemporary at this developmental stage, Lourie is not breaking away from his time, yet these tracks are like nothing else in Russia from the period – at least, judging from the context of these discs – and much more sophisticated in their elements than anything that his colleague Stravinsky had produced at this stage.   If one of the Syntheses stands out, it is No. 4: fertile in manipulation of material, its movement both strong and delicate.

Rebikov’s Music for Children and three extracts from the Op. 15 Melomimiques enjoy fine service from Sitsky, the former not as patronising as you might think, certainly not over-saccharine in flavour but packed with whole-tone, bitonal, and suspense-through-non-resolution surprises. The program concludes with two samples of Obukhov’s pianistic mysticism.   Revelation consists of six excursions into metaphysical areas such as Death, Immortal, and The Distress of Satan.   In atmosphere, the suite is placidly neurasthenic, hard to penetrate because of the composer’s mysticism where The Void turns out to be a pretty active plane.   The state of perpetual existence is typified by bleak isolation, and the Devil’s agony lasts only long enough for a few punitive pin-pricks.  The final diptych of Le temple est mesure: l’esprit est incarne and La paix pour les reconcilies would have delighted Messiaen with its three-stave spread and clangorous chords juxtaposed with reserved lulling.

A labour of love, then, this large-scale exercise.   You have to admire Sitsky’s dedication and erudition, as well as the clear evidence throughout these recordings of his innate virtuosity.   A lot of it makes for hard listening – not just the sheer percussiveness of a morsel like Deshevov’s Rel’sy which imitates Bartok’s Allegro barbaro in several respects – but the sustained aural onslaught of the three focal sonatas.   This music-making gives some welcome substance to our knowledge of a strikingly fertile time in Russia’s musical activity that, for many years, was in danger of being wiped from the memory of all but a few true believers.  We should thank Sitsky for his remarkable gift of restoration.

Impressionism lives


Marianne Rothschild and Glenn Riddle

MOVE Records MCD 505

The Sky is Melting

Here’s a window into a corner of the country’s musical composition world, one that is centred around Melbourne.  Both performers are locals: violinist Rothschild studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Australian National Academy of Music and has freelanced round the country; Riddle is currently Lecturer in Keyboard at Melbourne University’s Conservatorium of Music and a pedagogical force in the national music sphere.  Much of what they present on this now somewhat dated disc (released in 2014) is bound up with their collaboration; in fact, the major work on this recording, Linda KouvarasBundanon Sonata for Violin and Piano, was written for the duo.  Andrian Pertout‘s Sonus Dulcis – a construct that the composer keeps on re-framing – was arranged for these executants, who also gave the premiere performance of William James Schmidt‘s Argentine Etching.

Kouvaras has provided both the opening (and title) piece of this CD, as well as the substantial sonata.  Both have connections with the composer’s stints as artist-in-residence at the Shoalhaven River estate of Arthur and Yvonne Boyd.   In the brief initial vignette, Kouvaras gives the piano high arpeggio patterns to offset a slow-moving violin melody which suggests the heat of mid-day at Bundanon, although the images come courtesy of an impressionist sound-world so that the pictured countryside has a Gallic tang complete with whole-tone chords and little rhythmic variety beyond a 4/4 pulse.  Some double-stops around the 4:20 mark make a small change of diet, but the last pages move into a more satisfying atmospheric area with the violin meandering in desultory style above a stolid piano part, this combination making a fair proposition for sonic heat exhaustion.

Stuart Greenbaum‘s six Occasional Pieces are just that: bagatelles written for two specific birthdays, as well as a birth-day, a funeral, a marriage and the last of the set (and longest) serving as a wedding gift.   How to be in the world makes for pleasant listening, Rothschild’s violin operating in a high register for the most part, with inescapable shades of Vaughan-Williams’ lark, some small jazz interpolations disrupting the idyllic sweetness.  The lament of Life Cycles emerges as a violin solo; a slowly striding line, generally diatonic in matter, punctuated by some Celtic-style skirling and a series of ‘snaps’.   For Alette begins with  brisk pizzicato that moves to a rising scale motive with Riddle’s eloquent piano doubling the string line until the ternary shape is finished off with a sparser version of the opening gestures.   Ideas follow each other in quick succession during The 4th Saturday in April piano solo, which offers no real development but maintains an optimistically major tonality, appropriate for this small-scale epithalamium.   Another violin solo, Curves on the Great Ocean Road, proposes a pattern of self-reflecting turns, nowhere near as unsettling as the real thing, but its central section has intimations of the drive’s rugged terrain. Finally, The Lake and the Hinterland revisits the British early 20th century folk music arena with a broad tune treated in turn by both instruments, a dour middle interlude, before a reversion to the Midsomer landscape.  Some spikiness interferes with the prevailing harmonic sweetness but the piece concludes in an unambiguous D Major.

Better known to me as a pianist, William James Schmidt avoids the temptation to do a Piazzolla in his Argentinian Etching, although you can hear a plethora of Latin suggestions as well as irrepressible murmurs of a the dansant.   It maintains a steady common time pulse in a combination march-tango.  Following the crowd in this disc’s ternary form feast, Schmidt stops for a gentle meander, charming if aimless, which comes to a mutually reflecting and reinforcing climactic point before the duo hurtles back to the dance where the cross-rhythms and syncopations become pronounced and the dynamic tension heightened.

Sonus Dulcis by Andrian Pertout has a Japanese modal foundation, yet it’s not as simply utilised as it would have been in less interesting hands.   On occasions, Rothschild makes sounds that could suggest a bowed lute but, apart from some pizzicato, a dash of col legno and a hefty sprinkling of piano movement in fifths, the Orient is hinted at more than imitated.   At about the 3:30 point, the unlikely spirit of Spain and de Falla emerges, interrupted by a violin cadenza loaded with Japanese folk colour, before the Hispanic/Nipponese combination returns in a sort of 6/8 gigue finale. Most of the works that Rothschild and Riddle perform can be taken at face value; this piece offers more of an interpretative challenge.

The Kouvaras sonata, in four movements, has its feet firmly planted in the Boyd estate’s landscape.  The substantial opening, Pulpit Rock, is a sonic view of Boyd’s paintings focused on this geological formation with the violin as unabashed preacher while Riddle underpins with solid, pillar-like chords.  The composer uses brief phrases from the Ein feste Burg chorale and, on tremolo violin, a fragment from Mahler’s Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt song to add a bit of European context to the abstract sermon that this landscape advances.  But the portentous keyboard chords wear out their usefulness well before the movement’s clangorous conclusion where the violin alternates high and low notes as a gravity-loosening device.

For her second movement, The River Changes,  Kouvaras begins with a floating violin line, supported by a supple ripple of piano figuration.  Rothschild generates a clean unstressed arch, her vibrato well-regulated throughout what amounts to a meditation on the Shoalhaven, revisited after a decade-long gap.   As the sonata’s scherzo, Ballad of the Singleman’s Hut takes a syncopated waltz format; not that distracting in its soundscape surroundings but with something contrived about its shape, possibly in the rhythmic basis which lacks consistency, as though the intention is to unsettle the listener by substituting the incomplete for the spectral.

The sculptures at Bundanon, some of which are in trees, gave Kouvaras the impetus for Earth Art Could Fall from the Skies which jumps from one block of activity to another, bringing to this listener’s mind the formal practices of Carl Nielsen.  The action ceases at about 3:22 for an interlude of high tessitura violin and low bass movement – a bush silence passage – and then the rapid-fire action returns with the opening repeated patterns revisited.  A series of smash-and-grab piano chords with violin top notes bring this considerable composition to an affirmative end.

While the performers demonstrate a fine precision and finish in their work, neither Rothschild nor Riddle is greatly overtaxed by much on this CD, the Kouvaras sonata offering fair but not virtuosic challenges.  What makes the collection surprising is the conservative nature of most of the compositions.  Schoenberg said, ‘There is plenty of good music to be written in C Major’; much of the work to be heard here could be used as an attempt to substantiate the thrust of that statement.  Not that this adoption of neo-orthodoxy in compositional parameters should be decried; it’s just something that takes me aback – not for the first time and probably not the last.