A few of my favourite things


Tamara Smolyar

MOVE MD 3372


A luminary at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University, Tamara Smolyar is one of this city’s foremost pedagogue/practitioner pianists.   The product of an extensive number of Ukrainian, Russian and Australian teachers. she is well-known outside Monash circles for her partnership with violinist Ivana Tomaskova in the Duo Chamber Melange recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre.   On this disc, she performs a pretty broad program of works that she has made part of her repertoire, a few of them familiar but most more honoured by reputation than by performance.  As she indicates, the music itself transcends its own time of creation, having become part of our long-running and all-too-familiar European tradition.

Smolyar begins with the CD’s earliest music, Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, which she works through with assurance and a no-nonsense approach, handling the first eleven of the set as a continuous unit before the tone changes to the major at Variation 12.  The performer is linked to a substantially authoritative and orthodox school which takes its Beethoven without reconstructions or torques on accepted practice, so the return to the home key in Variation 17 continues the direct, somewhat pell-mell attack that leads to the elongated final variant which brings the piece to a determined conclusion.  The work is carried off clearly enough, although Smolyar is not hesitant in using the sustaining pedal, even during the more thick-textured passages.

Next come two Chopin nocturnes from the back of the book: the Op. 62 No. 2 in E Major and the posthumous Op. 72 No. 1 in E minor which are the last and first written in the sequence.   For the E Major Nocturne, Smolyar holds back on the potential for glitter, taking plenty of time over the mini-cadenzas that punctuate the melodic flow but heightening the drama where it should be emphasized from bar 40 on with a sensible subdued thunder in the work’s low-lying central segment.  The composer held back the E minor attempt and, to me, the piece only gets into its stride at the octave restatement of the first theme.  But this interpretation offers a fair case for the nocturne’s survival in the canon, the later treatments of the material handled by Smolyar with sensible restraint and flexibility.

A bracket of Rachmaninov impresses for its internal variety.  The Elegie in E flat Minor makes its points across a canvas of slowly rising passion with some fierce moments of intensity in the later pages, the elegiac quality eventually subsumed in tragedy.  Smolyar comes closest to familiar ground on this disc with the Prelude in G sharp minor giving a generous account of the piece’s difficult central stages, the metrical disposition changing from the continuous current of semiquavers in groups of six.   To her credit, Smolyar makes light work of the many punctuating splayed chords, even if you might have expected a greater dynamic explosion in the lead-up to the D sharp Major climax.  But the outstanding element in this set comes with the Etude-tableau Op. 39 No. 1, coherent for once as a study that tests the right-hand’s stamina and the rhythmic security of the left.  A continuous energetic surge that becomes more impassioned as it progresses, this remarkable exercise in dexterity enjoys an unexpected clarity of texture in this realization.

Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor provide a bracing, slightly acerbic interlude with an enviable lightness in the four-part fugue, all the more appreciated after the fraught, tremolo-informed harbingers of disaster that precede it.

So far, the recording’s origin has been the Iwaki Auditorium in the ABC building, Southbank.   For the last piece, Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Smolyar changes venue and piano.   It remains unclear what instrument the ABC provided but she uses a Schimmel Concert Grand for this last offering and the sound becomes less full-bodied; clearer to discern the composer’s contrapuntal interweaving, but more bright in its timbral quality.  The artist handles with calm virtuosity the score’s many demands – the roiling sequential exercises of the first part, those solemn rolled chords in the chorale and the all-in-together-boys textual imbroglio of the work’s last section – yet the final impression is more of a task well accomplished than an engrossing journey from restlessness to affirmation.   Still, the CD as a compendium serves as a reminder of the many byways available for exploration to be found in between (or behind) the better-known masterworks of the serious pianist’s basic repertoire.

Wiping the floor


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday July 4, 2016

Australian String Quartet

                                                                            Australian String Quartet

And then there are the nights when everything pans out   –   the playing is as close as live performance gets to flawless, the works programmed combine (despite appearances) to offer a solid display of prowess and musical intelligence, any defects are swamped by the context in which they momentarily rear up.  The latest subscription series recital from this ensemble was exemplary: four performances that should have had the Murdoch Hall audience roaring for more.

Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew again impressed for the unusual nature of their upper-layer combination. Both seem to read each other like performers with an inbuilt agility resulting from decades passed in shared experience, their partnership generating lines rich in fine synchronicity and balance.  At the same time, each has a distinctive colour: where Barltrop produces a finely spun, athletic line, Hiew offers a sturdier heft to the combination with a vitally pronounced lower register.  Further to this, violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Draper collaborate in similar style, King’s trenchant output a fine match for one of the fiercest bass lines at play on the local chamber music scene.

Not that this harnessed aggression came to the fore straight away; the group opened with Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, that ground-breaking suite of atonal wisps and blurts that somehow manages to make a set of individual statements that cohere to present its listeners with a coherent sound-world, despite those sound-production techniques that still have the power to startle, especially the lavish use of sul ponticello directions and the application of mutes.  What took you aback about this reading was a tenderness given to the disjunct strands of sound that permeate each page; in the ASQ’s hands, Webern’s pp markings were barely audible and the expressionist suggestions of the opening movement and later the restless ostinati and unison eruption of the third came over with a veiled drama that satisfied much more than the galvanic spasms of action that other ensembles favour.

A rigorous respect again emerged in the following Haydn,  Op. 20 No. 2 in C Major.  Draper’s cello set the scene with an impressive firmness as the composer begins jockeying with his force’s contrapuntal interplay, and the group’s determination was sustained up to the jaunty fugue/finale.  What you noticed was a lack of over-simplification, so that the Menuet came across with an unexpected grittiness; not that the reading lacked bounce, but the chromatic fall of the movement’s second half impressed for its dourness after the high-flying skittishness of Barltrop’s G major ascent to a high B immediately beforehand.  And the unison opening to Haydn’s Adagio, in its purity of articulation, brought back memories of the Webern’s more dramatic bars.

Joe Chindamo‘s 2013 String Quartet No. 1 is cast in the traditional four movements: Tempesta, Lament/Seduction, Frenzy and Flight.  An amiable work, its emotional statements avoid extreme expression; the promised storm is a pretty well-controlled outpouring and the frenetic pages later on show up surprisingly balanced and well-proportioned.  For all its moderate temper, the piece enjoyed a deft, enthusiastic exposition from these players who ensured that the composer’s expression markings and tempo shifts were given full measure, from the oscillations between storm and momentary calm in the opening movement, through the pizzicato-heavy vibrancy of the Frenzyscherzo, to the psychologically ambivalent finale.  Chindamo employs lucid melodic and harmonic structures, looking back on the quartet’s accepted heritage rather than employing the lingua franca of the post-Webern school; a blast definitely back to the past, but none the less attractive for that.

Just in the right program position, the ASQ came to Mendelssohn’s last in F minor which is inextricably linked with the death of his sister Fanny.  The score is a moving revelation of the composer’s profound reaction to this loss, an essay in a quality that rises above gentlemanly despair, where the composer’s craft is subsumed in an atypical and sustained tragedy.   Here the performers gave another sterling interpretation, maintaining the tension from the first Allegro‘s urgent rustlings onward.   Despite the intensity of attack, each musician maintained a consistent dynamic level in the ensemble, the work reaching its climax at the change in key signature in the core of the Adagio where the  delivery of Mendelssohn’s fortissimo outburst with Barltrop riding the blast was both emphatic and dangerously intense, the sort of risky straining at the bit that you rarely hear from more temperamentally circumscribed ensembles.

In this powerful piece, the ASQ capped off a generous and redoubtable stretch of playing where memorable passages remain in the memory long after, like the insistent syncopations disrupting the even pulse during the first part of the Allegro assai, and the beneficence of those two melting passages where the quavers and triplets stop for the first movement’s placid interludes.

In  fact, the only complaint you could make about this night would have to do with the audience.  It amazes me that some concert-going individuals will insist on giving full vent to their adenoidal or catarrhal problems at inopportune moments mid-performance.  Even more startling is the dual practice by such recital hall offal of continuing to inflict their medical drawbacks at large for extended periods, at the same time making no effort to muffle their all-too-audible mucous movements.  You can sit in the Recital Centre’s Salon for a solid hour and not experience any of this unpleasantness; up in the Hall, it seems, anything goes.  An experienced usher once told me that elderly people are often unaware that they are acting offensively; maybe, but more than a few of these clowns look suspiciously middle-aged.   Some old adages make good sense – like, if you’re sick, stay home.

That’s entertainment


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday July 3 and Monday July 4, 2016

Giovanni Sollima - Copy

                                                                                  Giovanni Sollima

In the absence of their resident guru, Richard Tognetti, the ACO players hosted Italian cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima as soloist and, in some cases, director.  As the afternoon rushed past, you weren’t quite sure how much direction was involved; three of the four works in the program’s first half didn’t involve Sollima, although he made up for that in a dominant display after interval.  In all, he played a Leo concerto, an arrangement by his father of one of Rossini’s Old Age Sins, and wound up with his own concerto, Fecit Neap 17..  And there is no doubt that these three comprised Sunday afternoon’s most remarkable playing.

He’s an attention-grabbing cellist, although at the first instance this was due to his remarkable virtuosity in the Leo Concerto No. 3 in D minor, that composer one of the masters of the Neapolitan Baroque.  The four-movement work, patterned roughly on the church-sonata form, can be treated with too much care,  but not this time.  Sollima vaulted into its wide melodic arches with no fear and a powerful right-hand urging on zealously the opening Andante grazioso with its melodic minor peculiarities.   As the concerto moved past, the tenor-clef solo line took on an added fascination thanks to Sollima’s chameleonic handling of texture and dynamic; for all the surprises (limited as they were) in the development of the Con spirito and Allegro movements, what really captured attention was the volatile cellist.

Of course, the ACO loves a showman and they got one in spades with Sollima.  While the Leo concerto walked a fine line between extraversion and control, the second part of the program spilled over into unbridled display, first through Rossini’s Une larme Theme and Variations with the ACO strings playing straight-man to the soloist’s wise-cracking hero, the languid and frenetic variants revealing a fully-realized catalogue of devices and effects,  negotiated with both legerdemain and humour.   Sollima’s own composition refers in its title to an inscription abbreviation that features on 18th century manuscripts from Naples; in its content, the concerto moves between a stringent cantabile mood and hurtling dance rhythms that suggest 20th century dance music, simplified Bartok, and Stravinsky without an editor.   The soloist plays games – walking on after the piece has begun and wandering round the ACO, finding a hole in the floor to put his instrument’s end pin, twirling his cello like a dance partner, racing his accompaniment in stretto passages – and gives himself a breath-stopping series of production hurdles to handle.

It all made for fun times, with the benefit of seeing and hearing a charismatic musician at work.  Sollima makes a fine jewel in this ensemble’s setting; he is all fire and passion, bounding through his work with animal spirits and sensuality, while the ACO keeps its cool, giving strait-laced support for the most part and, while appreciating the skills of their guest, seemingly content to surrender the limelight, even in the hyped-up irregular rhythms of the wilder stretches in the cellist’s own composition.

All the program’s music made up a sort of Italian sequence, beginning with an arrangement for strings (with harpsichord and theorbo providing continuo) of Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa madrigal; pleasant enough as a throat-clearer but quite vapid in effect because the (eventual) movement of the four vocal lines over a four-note cantus firmus loses most of its dramatic punch unless the piece is sung.

Then came some a massive temporal leap and a realization of the program’s title: Berio’s Sequenza VIII for violin and Sequenza XIVb for double bass (originally for cello but produced with the composer’s authorization after his death).   Well, when I say ‘real’, that’s not really true .  What ACO leader Satu Vanska and bass Maxime Bibeau did was play about half of their respective sequenze in alternation, so that the pieces interwove, thereby offering two nodes of concentration at either end of the stage.   Both performers made a fair fist of their semi-pieces, Bibeau more comfortable in negotiating an adventurous gamut of sound-manufacturing techniques although his instrument was over-amplified.  You can see why this fusion was attempted – each work on its own lasts over 13 minutes and that level of concentration on challenging aleatoric music would have been a powerful demand for even the most charitably-minded ACO enthusiast.   But was there really a need to perform both?

Vanska later offered some Paganini: the Introduction and Variations by Paganini on the prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio from Rossini’s opera Moses in Egypt.  One of the great tests on a violinist’s ability to transcend improbable limitations, the work asks the soloist to perform only on the G string.  Vanska gave a good account of this trial, which is much more interesting to watch than to hear, the theme itself enunciated with throbbing strength.   Most of the upper-register filigree came off, apart from a couple of very exposed harmonics; like the Rossini piece, the whole point here is exhibitionism – brilliant technique displayed in throwaway frivolity.

Bibeau also enjoyed another solo spot in Giacinto Scelsi‘s C’est bien la nuit from the 1972 diptych Nuits.  Here was an engrossing reading, music of concentrated vigour and informational intensity that established a cogent voice using limited materials and sustained attention throughout a tantalisingly brief time-span.   This composer’s work is rarely played here; indeed, the few times I’ve heard any Scelsi products occurred many years ago when the ELISION contemporary music ensemble under the benevolent artistic direction of Daryl Buckley was operating in Melbourne.   This brief remembrance of things past came as a standout, an enjoyable surprise in this often-sparkling, sometimes brilliant concert.