His own man


Elisabeth Sellars and Kenji Fujimura

Move Records MD 3369

Messiaen Nexus

Like many celebrated composers, Messiaen served as a nodal point, but not in establishing his own school, nor in being part of a substantial movement.  He stands out in the ranks of 20th century composers as a complete individual, even on a superficial level, for combining so many elements that other writers avoided or simply could not use.  The point of this CD is to indicate where Messiaen came from – although this retrospective glance is pretty frail – and the fruits of his pedagogic labours, which were legendary, in works by his students.

Elisabeth Sellars and Kenji Fujimura, colleagues in the Faculty of Music at Monash University, are long-time duo partners and this collection of seven works furthers their reputation as exemplary duo-artists.   As you’d expect, Messiaen is represented: first, by the solo piano Piece pour le tombeau de Paul Dukas of 1935, and, in the last track, by the Fantaisie for violin and piano, written in 1933 but not published until 2007.

But the disc begins with a violin/piano Sonata by George Benjamin, the British composer who studied with Messiaen and reputedly was the French master’s favourite pupil; mind you, Benjamin was very young at the time and the first movement of this work was finished at about the time that he began his studies with Messiaen..  Another pupil, Gyorgy Kurtag, is represented by Tre Pezzi from 1979 and some pieces from the solo violin collection Signs, Games and Messages, generally brief in length; the elements for this instrument’s version assembled from 1989 to 2004.  At the recording’s centre stands Anthemes for violin solo by Boulez, a late work from 1991 that was, typically, later revised to include electronics as part of the sound-mix.

Benjamin’s sonata, the most substantial work on this CD, has a unique vocabulary.  It begins with pointillist dollops of piano notes over which the violin stretches a long melodic line.  The pace is slow, hieratic, and you can hear Messiaenic trace-elements in the repetitions of both lines and the occasional suggestion of a mode or two in the keyboard writing.  In the movement’s central pages, where the ambience tends toward a Bartok brutality, the instrumental dialogue verges on the obsessive, especially in the piano’s sometimes clangorous writing.   In fact, the more you listen, the more teacher references you pick up, like the Quartet for the end of time tenor of the movement’s conclusion.

The quicker middle movement involves more under-the-lid work and a good deal of nervous ostinati, the whole heavy on effects; like his master, Benjamin is not concerned about unexpected referents that may occur to the listener, like the dance-hall suggestions that pop up, especially from some sinuous violin curvetting.  But the segment ends in a set of frenetic yet organized pages where the excitement level rises but you are aware of a mind in control of the ferment. The finale  is slow-paced, both more mellow than its opening counterpart and more dramatic in its gestures.   Again, you can find the influence of Messiaen in the slow-paced final peroration which, rather than ending in beatitude as the master would, finishes in a state of unresolved meditativeness.

Dukas, whose The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Fanfare for the ballet La Peri are all that survive in the concert hall, taught Messiaen – as well as an honour roll of other European composers.   He was invited, like Ravel and Debussy, by the Societe Internationale de Musique in 1910 to write a work using Haydn’s name as inspiration – well, a jumping-off point; the Prelude elegiaque was the result, three somewhat desultory pages that begin and end in harmonic stacks, if suitably placid in character, with a more ornate middle moment.   If you want, you can find in the piece’s sustained and wide-ranging chords a precedent for something like the final movement of L’ascension – or not.   Fujimura’s reading is calm, the chords carefully splayed although the final bars fail to register fully on my equipment.

Kurtag’s Tre Pezzi are brief, making their respective statements without much by way of development.   Od und traurig lives up to its name, notable for deliberately off-kilter violin sustained notes that suggest depression and desolation; Vivo has both instruments moving more rapidly in a suggested march-rhythm, but the forward propulsion is interrupted by pauses and you hear few moments of full-bodied sound; Aus der Ferne sits for some of its length close to inaudibility, out-Weberning Webern with the violin playing simple diatonic sequences, the piano interpolating occasional punctuation marks as a  background.  Where this fits into the CD’s nexus musically speaking is hard to see.

Much the same could be said of the Boulez Anthemes, four pages packed with difficulties for any performer; just getting the improbably detailed expression markings correct presents Sellars with a huge task which she carries out with sense.  If the distinction between her piano and pianissimo delivery in bar 65 on alternate up and down bows is vague, who can blame her?   The work has a wealth of detail, superlatively organized and suited to the instrument’s potential.   But the time-changes, abrupt differentiations in modes of sound-production, flow-disrupting demi-semiquaver gruppetti, massively taxing quadruple stops – all combine to focus your attention on the instrumental timbre, rather than the intended sequence between initial and of verse  – as in the Tudor Lamentations settings – that prompted the composer.   A pity, as this is one of the few Boulez pieces I’m aware of that has any connection to religious inspiration and a less distracting environment might have revealed a sensibility that is masked with virtuosity in most of the composer’s greatest scores.  His teacher based the greater part of his oeuvre on his emphatically expressed faith although he didn’t write much that could be comfortably shaped to fit any liturgies, apart from those in his own head.

Messiaen’s tribute to Dukas may be an early work but it speaks the composer’s tongue eloquently, using one of his own modes of limited transposition and proceeding in a processional pace, albeit one with no allowance for regularity of step.   If anything, the work is triumphant in impact, without virtuosic demands except to get the fingers across those massive chord chains that resolve onto a dominant seventh; well, Messiaen says so although the key chord seems to me to be something else entirely.   Fujimura gives the piece plenty of space to make its celebratory statements with firm amplitude.

The four pieces from Signs, Games and Messages present few problems to Sellars.  The first, Doloroso, is a plaint that passes all too rapidly; Postcard to Anna Keller was written on the day of the dedicatee’s birth and is buoyant, optimistic and folksy in a strident fashion; Calmo-Sognando is an In memoriam for an old school-friend that expresses a masculine, mobile regret despite all the tapering away of its final phrase; the In nomine – all’ongherese begins with a stern one-line motive – and stays with it, the atmosphere growing more and more nationalistic as the short work proceeds.   In all, an intriguing bracket of works but the links to this CD’s nodal point seem tenuous.

Finally, Messiaen’s Fantaisie begins with a piano statement familiar to most organists: the opening recitative to the Alleluias sereins d’une ame qui desire le ciel, the second movement of L’ascension.  This angular proclamation recurs later in duo form with both players in unison, further on with a vitally contrasting piano support, and in a truncated form at the work’s final flourishes.   In between come interludes that are both sweet bordering on saccharine and drivingly active; it may be a young man’s work but it is already idiosyncratic and totally inimitable.

Which brings us back to the disc’s title.  It is probably the best term to describe the performers’ attempt; what they have contributed is a brief tour of voices that spring out of the Messiaen fulcrum.  Expecting them all to share a commonality of expression is to look for connections and links that are either not there or have been assuaged by individual development.

Mind you, the master might have been a wonder in the seminar room but he could also be a curmudgeon.  A one-time colleague, Anna King-Murdoch, accompanied Messiaen to the Dandenongs during one of his rare visits here; the composer was, as usual, wanting to transcribe some native bird song.  He’d heard of the lyrebird but never experienced its mimicking ability live.   The small party crept close to where one of the species was carolling when Anna stood on a stick, which broke.   Also broken (off) was the lyrebird’s song, not to be heard again    Messiaen was angry, as you might have expected.  But then, what sort of song-collector goes into the bush accompanied by a retinue that includes a journalist and photographer?

As ever, the music is what matters and the Sellars+Fujimura duet gives a fine airing of the Fantaisie and Benjamin’s self-possessed Sonata.  If you are left, like I am, wondering about the Kurtag brevities and their place in this Messiaen-infused collation, you can simply enjoy them for their own sakes, admiring the control and aplomb with which they are delivered.

September Diary

Thursday September 1

Wood, Metal & Vibrating Air

Tamara Smolyar

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm

This has been an ongoing cycle featuring several well-known pianists performing under the heading ‘The piano – up close and personal’.   Which is apparently what it says; while the performances are held in the large Blackwood Hall, the audience is grouped on-stage around the soloist – so far, the participants have included Caroline Almonte, Stefan Cassomenos, Andrea Keller, Simon Tedeschi, Lisa Moore.   Tamara Smolyar is last in this series of recitals.  She is performing a new work by her colleague in Monash University’s Music Faculty, Kenji Fujimura, the Australian premiere of Anatoly Documentov’s Mood 2: Preludes, another world premiere in Livia Teodorescu-Ciocanea’s Briseis, yet another first hearing in Anthony Halliday’s Introduction and Fugue for Tamara,  Jane Hammond’s There is a solitude enjoying its first outing, and an arrangement for duo pianists by Halliday and Smolyar of Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque in D minor.   A night packed with novelty and exploration.


Thursday September 1

Hrusa Conducts Suk’s Asrael Symphony

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

This is a huge gamble; as far as I can see, solely based on the attraction of having conductor Jakob Hrusa direct another big tract of Czech music, if not as varied in content as his complete Ma Vlast with the MSO in 2014.   The long symphony that Suk wrote in memory of Dvorak, his father-in-law, then reformed from a celebration to something darker when his wife died the following year, is a complete unknown to me.   Hrusa took it to the London Proms two years ago and the work has enjoyed the attention of several enthusiastic promoters in Britain.  Tonight, it is allied with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor – the one that enjoyed a lot of exposure (well, its opening bars did) in the film Amadeus.

The program will be repeated on Friday September 2 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 8 pm.


Friday September 3


Australian National Academy of Music at 7 pm

I’ve been an Elision follower for many years – that is, before the group shifted base and went international.   Still, admiration has to be kept within bounds and this night’s trick speaks of a superhuman talent to be in two places at once.  According to the ANAM calendar of events, the group is collaborating with musicians from ANAM at the South Melbourne Town Hall in German composer Enno Poppe’s (apparently) challenging Speicher – which could mean granary, an attic storage room, or computer memory.   Whatever the case, the players are also down to perform the work in the Capital Theatre, Bendigo as part of that city’s Festival of Exploratory Music.   Look, they could be doing both: the South Melbourne performance is at 7 pm, Bendigo’s is scheduled for 9 pm.  But then, the work lasts about 75 minutes so it would be close-run thing that would involve the sort of driving that shouldn’t be encouraged on the Calder.    Or perhaps the participants will be split in half.   Either way, you’d want to check exactly what’s going on before the date.


Saturday September 3

Three Twentieth-Century Masterpieces

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College, Kew at 5:30 pm

And they are Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor and two scores unknown to me: Hugo Distler’s Totentanz and Petr Eben’s Horka hlina.  The German composer is a celebrated force in his country’s choral tradition and, in his comparatively short life, he wrote a great deal of music for choirs.  This Dance of Death has many sections, some of them spoken.   Bitter Earth, Eben’s cantata, requires a baritone solo, choir and piano.   As for whether these are masterpieces, the proof is yet to come, although you can be sure that the Gomberts will give each work their best efforts.   Let’s hope they’re persuasive.


Sunday September 4

Leonskaja Mozart

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Hard to tell who takes pride of place at this event – the Soviet/Austrian pianist or the plain Austrian composer.  Both have a hand in the central work, the Jeunehomme Concerto in E flat: the only one you hear regularly of the first 13 or 14 in the catalogue.  On either side is a string work: the lavishly opulent Sextet from Strauss’s Capriccio, and Beethoven’s  E flat Major Quartet, the later Op. 127 one,  arranged for string orchestra by . . . well, it could be the absent Richard Tognetti, but there are plenty of other takers.   Leonskaja, by the way, is not taking on leader duties; these are the responsibility of Roman Simovic, one of the two  London Symphony Orchestra concertmasters, who is guest director.

The program is repeated in Hamer Hall on Monday September 5 at 7: 30 pm.


Sunday September 4

Classical Romanticism

Trio Anima Mundi

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne at 3 pm.

Second in the ensemble’s subscription series, this begins and ends with works by two friends.  Sterndale Bennett’s Chamber Trio in A, an early work, has three movements only and is not over-taxing but will make an intriguing contrast with the last piece on the program by his cobber Mendelssohn: the ubiquitous Piano Trio in D minor.   In between come two small-scale bagatelles by Theodore Dubois, whose name is known to me solely as an organ composer.   But here is his Canon for piano trio, two pages in which the imitative work is confined to the string instruments at the 2nd.   Dubois’ Promenade sentimentale in A flat is more substantial but really a show-case for violin and cello with the keyboard doing arpeggio support duty for most of the time.   The group’s move to East Melbourne took me by surprise; intending to attend the first recital this year, I drove round for some time without finding a parking space free that accommodates you for more than an hour.   I’d suggest taking the tram, or adventuring on the train to Jolimont.


Wednesday September 7

Beethoven Festival  –  Piano Concerto No. 1

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Paul Lewis will be soloist in this celebration of the complete piano concertos.   Conducting is Douglas Boyd, whose complete Beethoven symphonies cycle at the Town Hall five years ago was a remarkable success.   It’s quite a challenge, this C Major score, gifted with a chirpy finale but preceded by two substantial essays that test a pianist’s capacity for variety of touch, as well as the power to sustain some lengthy paragraphs.   As preludes come Haydn’s Symphony No.102, contemporary with the evening’s concerto, and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1   –  no, I don’t understand how this fits in, either. You’d presume that the MSO will play the composer’s orchestral arrangement of 1935 rather than the original format for 15 instrumentalists.   But it still makes a challenging aural experience, even 110 years after its production.


Saturday September 10

Sato and the Romantics

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

A guest new to me – and the Brandenburgers, I think – Shunske Sato is an American-based Baroque violinist.   Which makes it all the more interesting that he is playing the Paganini Concerto No. 4, although he has recorded all of the Caprices on a period instrument.  Still, there’s nothing like upping the ante and handicapping yourself even further than just handling the technical demands; throwing in gut strings will make a big difference to Sato’s ease of negotiation    Also to be heard is Grieg’s Holberg Suite – the poet lived in the Baroque era but this music is just as unusual fare for this orchestra as is the concerto – and Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 2 in D: 10 minutes’ worth of early adolescent skilfulness but not much there to sink your teeth into.  There must be more on the program but I can’t find out what; perhaps we’re in for an early mark.

This program will be repeated on Monday September 11 at 5 pm.


Saturday September 10

Beethoven Festival  –  Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Back with Paul Lewis as soloist in the only occasion during this festival where you hear two concertos.  The C minor work is well-known but you have to wait quite a few years before you come across the B flat (originally, the first composed of the lot).   It’s a fair test of the pianist as the two works couldn’t be more temperamentally opposed.   For reasons that defy any sort of logic, the concertos are separated by Webern’s Five Movements for String Orchestra, which I assume is an arrangement of the well-travelled Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5.   They’ll do good service as a complete change of pace but, in this context, it’s hard to see the point.   Maybe it will all come clear on the night; or maybe it will just remain an inexplicable programming anomaly.


Monday September 12

Rare Gems


Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The gems begin with Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s well-beloved sister.  Her String Quartet in E flat has only been extant for a little over 25 years and, alongside the composer’s multiple songs and piano pieces, is a true rarity.   Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls are forever associated with the composer’s student, Benjamin Britten, who rifled the middle one for his striking Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, but the idylls themselves make for genially astringent listening experiences.   Ervin Schulhoff died in the Wulzburg concentration camp but his first string quartet has gained more performances than most of his music, if CD recordings are any indication.  But Quartz has it right by classifying this score as rare; whether it’s a gem remains to be seen.


Wednesday September 14

Beethoven Festival  –  Piano Concerto No. 4

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Lewis takes on the most languid and contemplative of the five concertos.  Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony No. 103 sets the night’s tone – somehow.  The two works are separated by about a decade in terms of composition.  And the finale is Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, that romantic effusion for strings that comes to one of Western music’s most luminous conclusions in a wash of harmonics.  The program sort of balances the first one in this series, so, along with Boyd’s trustworthy interpretation and Lewis’ facility, we should be grateful to hear works by two composers who are often strangers to live performance  –  and I don’t mean Beethoven.


Thursday September 15

Beyond all this . . .

Israel Camerata Jerusalem Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Founded in 1983, this ensemble is fortunate enough to have retained its original director and conductor –  Avner Biron.   Tonight, the ICJO makes its Australian debut with guest Zvi Plesser, whom I last heard in this venue nearly seven years ago collaborating with the Jerusalem Quartet (see directly below).  The Camerata and soloist are rolling out the big guns with Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, a lengthy piece that never gets stale.  To keep it company comes Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, La Reine – so-called because Marie Antoinette liked it; not exactly a ringing guarantee of quality but the symphony survives with flying colours.   And also flying, the nationalistic banner is hoisted by way of the respected Ukrainian/Israeli composer Mark Kopytman’s earnest and spikily-scored work that gives this night its title.

The orchestra plays again on Monday September 19.  Kopytman puts in another appearance,  with another of his works that the ICJO has recorded: Kaddish, which can have either a viola or cello soloist; obviously, on this night, Plesser will do the honours.  He also fronts the popular Haydn Concerto in C.    Book-ending these are Bartok’s Divertimento for strings and the feather-light Symphony No. 5 by Schubert.


Saturday September 17

Jerusalem Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Appearing for Music Viva, as usual, this well-known group is offering two programs, both containing a piece of Australian craft: the String Quartet No. 3, Summer Dances, by Ross Edwards.   In five movements, this work is four years old and I think it must have been played here at some stage; if so, the memory has not lingered.  Tonight, the surrounding elements are Beethoven in B flat – the last of the Op. 16 set – and Dvorak No. 13, reflecting the composer’s delight at being out of the United States and back home.   In all, it’s a happy-tempered night’s work

The Jerusalem musicians will return for a second program on Tuesday September 27.  With the Ross Edwards, they will play the first Razumovsky of Beethoven and Haydn’s Lark, Op. 64, No. 5.   Again, this promises contentment rather than musical angst.


Saturday September 17

Beethoven Festival  –  Piano Concerto No. 5

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

The festival ends with Paul Lewis mounting an assault on the Emperor: an always majestically confronting experience with a circuitous first movement that has momentarily befuddled several pianists in live performance over the years.   Completing a Haydn trifecta, the MSO under Douglas Boyd plays the Symphony No. 104, the London and last of the composer’s mighty output in this form.   As for the de rigueur Second Viennese School offering at these events, tonight it’s the turn of Alban Berg; nothing so simple as the Three Orchestral Pieces but a transcription for orchestra by Julian Yu of the defenceless Piano Sonata.   Yes, some of us are grateful that Schoenberg and his close colleagues/students have not been completely forgotten but how they fit in with Haydn and Beethoven in any terms but national – and that’s a doubtful quantity – is one of the year’s programming mysteries


Sunday September 18

Tricolore: Three Italian Maestri

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Back in their usual habitat after an excursion to MLC for a Beethoven+Mozart feast in July, the Musicians take on three well-known Italian scores.   Two similar works are  Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto – well, one of the eight; probably the D minor from Op. 9 – and Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, also in D minor.    Both will feature Musicians’ regular Anne Gilby as soloist.   Completing the trio of offerings is Pergolesi’s Stabat mater with soprano Tania de Jong and counter-tenor Hamish Gould.  The organization has enjoyed success with this work in previous years, although my experience of it has usually involved two female voices – which is a pretty good indication of how little I get around.   Still, the components make for a congenial afternoon’s listening with nothing too tension-inducing, except for the soloists.


Tuesday September 20

The Wanderer

Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Now here’s a night for Schubert enthusiasts.   The Seraphims – violin Helen Ayres, cello Timothy Nankervis, piano Anna Goldsworthy – will play both the trios in one sitting. Actually, there’ll be an interval, so it’s a double sitting.   Not an impossible undertaking but it is an ordeal to test the players’ concentration.   No, they won’t have trouble with the notes but there are some big canvases in these eight movements and maintaining your focus throughout can be daunting.   That’s the joy and terror of chamber music: there’s no place to hide, least of all in the MRC’s Salon.  The trio members have been buoyed by audience responses to their Beethoven trios cycle last year – hence this year’s move to his admirer-from-afar.   The title has me puzzled, though.  Is it the song?  A reference to Schubert’s love of hiking?  Or does it pertain to his amiable meandering round the key spectrum?   Let’s hope the game is worth the candle and the interpretations can improve on those thrown up by outfits like the Beaux Arts.


Wednesday September 21

Shakespeare in Love

Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This offers a vast range of repertoire, everything from Schumann (Der Dichter spricht? A piano solo?), Berlioz mourning the death of Ophelia in Legouve’s take on Gertrude’s description of the tragedy,  Brahms giving actual voice to Ophelia, through Korngold and Grainger’s melancholy voicing of Desdemona’s song, some side-tracks to the poet’s fellow-countrymen Quilter and Finzi, a sonnet setting by Kabalevsky as a side-dish, and Australian Alison Bauld’s vision of somnambulistic Lady Macbeth doing the rampart rounds.   Andrea Katz will accompany Songmakers regulars soprano Merlyn Quaife, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos.   A pretty well-focused hour’s entertainment delivered by reliable musicians.


Wednesday September 21

Basically Beethoven #3

Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Not just basic: nothing but Beethoven here.   The night opens and closes with piano trios, as expected: Op. 1 No. 2 in G Major, while the Ghost in D Major brings up the rear.  Kathryn Selby’s guests tonight are the top and bottom ends of the Goldner Quartet: violinist Dene Olding putting in a rare Melbourne appearance, and cellist Julian Smiles who is participating also in the last of this subscription series on November 8.   Olding will also perform the Sonata No. 8 in G, while Smiles plays the first of the Op. 102 in C Major, a sternly compressed two-movement structure that in parts has the same emotional breadth as the last piano sonatas.   Selby and her associates invariably produce interpretations of remarkable depth and control, object-lessons for any aspiring chamber music tyro and for devotees of the craft.


Friday September 23

Sara Macliver, Paul Wright & The Italian Baroque

ANAM Orchestra

Australian National Academy of Music at 7 pm

A program that could have been filched wholesale from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.   Considering its contents, it suddenly struck me how little Baroque music I’ve heard the Academy musicians play; well, they’re making up for it tonight.   Soprano Sara Macliver sings Caldara’s slow-stepping In lagrime stemprato from the oratorio Magdalene at the feet of Christ, and later Perseus’s aria Sovente il sole from Vivaldi’s serenata Andromeda liberata with the night’s director, Paul Wright, supplying the violin obbligato line.   In fact, Vivaldi scores well here with the Il Riposo Violin Concerto, a Christmas celebration, the La Folia variations, and the Sinfonia in D for strings RV 125.   Starting the night is Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid with its clever guitar imitations and atmospheric crescendo and diminuendo effects; Gregori’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 in C from the Opus 2 set follows.   Later on, we are treated to an arrangement by Joe Chindamo of a Scarlatti Sonata in G Major – which admits of a pretty large field of possibilities.


Monday September 26

Intimate Beethoven

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The ACO comes to town out of its subscription series; well, part of it is coming.  This program comprises two works only: Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, and Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor.  The personnel are all core ACO personnel:  violins Helena Rathbone and Linda Palladini, violas Alexandru-Mihai Bota and Nicole Divall, and cello Timo-Veikko Valve who is the ensemble member of whom we have seen most in a chamber music role at Selby & Friends recitals.   As for the music they have prepared, Mozart doesn’t come much more sombre than this quintet which, oddly enough, has a happy ending tacked on, presumably to nullify the minor-tonality gravity that overpowers much of the score.    As for the Beethoven, this is the five-movement work with a long central Hymn of Thanksgiving which often sounds like anything but.   It’s great to see that the players are not fobbing us off with mere entertainment but are heading straight for the tragic heartland of both composers.


Thursday September 29

The Offering

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Guest with the popular quartet will be pianist Benjamin Martin who will assist in winding up the program with the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, puzzlingly listed as Op. 34a which I assume is meant to differentiate this original scoring from the Op 34b arrangement for two pianos.  Martin will also take part in the world premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Piano Quintet No. 1 which gives the evening its title.  The Flinders players are themselves performing another world premiere: Stuart Greenbaum’s String Quartet No. 7 with the cummings-style name 4 before (and after) 5.  To flesh out the night, the quartet will also essay Shostakovich No. 5, the first one with the movements joined by attacca directions.  Plenty of novelty here alongside two superb repertoire staples.


Friday September 30

Four Saints in Three Acts

Victorian Opera

Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse at 7:30 pm

An opera by Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein, this work has fascinated many musicians for years.   For some, its delights are wrapped in a deliberate maze of oblique suggestions and intentional obscurities but, to get the best out of it, you probably have to adopt an old-fashioned abnegation of rationality and run with whatever happens. The cast is drawn from the company’s Youth Opera personnel; the pit will be peopled by the organization’s Youth Orchestra conducted by Fabian Russell.  Director is Nancy Black and the production will involve 3D imagery, as we have experienced with the company’s previous The Flying Dutchman performances at St. Kilda’s Palais.  St. Ignatius Loyola, two St. Theresas of Avila and a panoply of other canonized characters sing whatever action there is and, at the end, the company is hosting a (separately ticketed) dinner inspired by Alice B. Toklas’ notebook, at which the hosts will be soprano Merlyn Quaife as Toklas herself and Robyn Archer will appear as Gertrude Stein.  Hath earth anything to show more fair?

A further performance of this work will be given on Saturday October 1 at 7:30 pm.


Friday September 30

Respighi’s Fountains of Rome

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

A travelogue to satisfy any devotee of the once-Eternal City, the MSO performs Respighi’s Fountains of Rome (an all-day tour involving the Valle Giulia, the Triton, the Trevi and the Villa Medici) and then the Pines of Rome (at the Villa Borghese, near a catacomb, up the Janiculum, along the Appian Way).   In sequence, the works present an orgy of orchestration, the effects brilliantly conceived and irresistible.   Guest pianist Nelson Freire, one of Brazil’s finest musicians, takes the solo part in Schumann’s modestly flamboyant Piano Concerto, and Brazilian-born conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who toured South America with Freire eight years ago, begins the event with the Concert Overture in E Major by Szymanowski – an early work that matches the lushness of the Respighi extravaganzas at night’s end.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 1 at 2 pm, and on Monday October 3 at 6:30 pm.






Blasts from the past


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1501


Taking a pause from his labours in recording the complete Beethoven piano sonatas , Brawn produced this album that holds the makings of what could have been an old-fashioned recital program, complete with inbuilt encores.   The most substantial work is a regular these days, as well as a favourite of pianists in previous generations: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  Some steps down in terms of stamina comes the Bach/Busoni Chaconne transcription, partnered in flamboyance with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1.  Less taxing material technically comes in the Liszt Consolation No. 3 in D flat, Rachmaninov’s B minor Prelude, while the first of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Preludes brings up the rear, whimsically plain-speaking after a welter of barnstorming virtuosity.

Both the smaller Liszt piece and the Bach prelude would be familiar to most pianists, although it takes a fair deal of work to get them sounding as uncluttered as Brawn makes them.   In its one-note-at-a-time progress, the C Major prelude asks for an even pace and a regularity of delivery that also avoids the automatic.  There are no absolutes in pedal use or using the initial notes of each bar as harmonic foci and the performance here is mobile and dutiful.   The Liszt nocturne gives a fine instance of evenly applied left-hand support, letting the melody float on its path unchallenged; perhaps the performer allows himself a fair liberality with pauses before pivotal bar-lines, but the outcome makes as much sense as possible of this simple effusion.

Moving up the degree of difficulty, Brawn creates an imaginative creature in the Rachmaninov piece, revealing the piece’s dark surges of energy carefully, not breaking the thread for effects in those central pages where the massive double-handed four-part chords compete for attention with an elephantine melodic movement.   In fact, judging by this one sample, the performer could have presented a few more from this Op. 32 set to excellent effect; he shows a gift of perceptiveness in unifying the composer’s grinding keyboard mastery with that inescapable granitic melancholy.

Busoni’s transcription and Liszt’s waltz offer a stark contrast in technical responsiveness. Both the products of incomparable pianists, the pieces are opposed in emotional character and underlying force; Busoni’s treatment of the original partita’s unaccompanied violin line is massive over-kill, while Liszt spends much of his time avoiding a waltz metre, even a waltz bar-line as he jumps between fine-spun filigree and pounding martellato passages.

Brawn impresses in the Chaconne with his ease at negotiating inbuilt problems like Busoni’s left-hand chords that stretch the hand to more than discomfort.  Further in, he handles both rapid octaves and sixths passages with controlled rapidity while observing the arranger’s late-Romantic dynamic contrasts.   One of the variations in my edition went AWOL – just before the con fuoco animato direction – but you get swept up in Brawn’s note-avalanche before you first notice.   On the switch to D Major, Brawn succeeds markedly in living up to the quasi Tromboni direction, then contrives to keep the work moving in the fifth of the major-key variants by skillfully arpeggiating the left-hand chords.   Unlike other pianists, Brawn refrains from treating the work in large-scale blocks, although his manipulation of the last two variants before D minor returns is a powerful percussive onslaught of semiquaver alternations between the hands.  The triplets come earlier in Brawn’s closing pages than in my score but he completes the  work with persuasive grit – which is what you need to get through its digital and aural vehemence.

Liszt’s showpiece demands crispness at the outset and this player has its measure with finely clipped articulation before the main melody hits the ground and the whirlwind – with breaks – takes off.   Those scurrying arpeggios and scalar runs across the top of the instrument show a suitable agility, and the sudden shifts in tonality and pace make their points rapidly before Brawn moves us on.   Still, he is not afraid to pull everything back 18 bars before the final Presto – an affecting passage of uneasy calm.  Yes, you can find a few smudges where the action is middle-keyboard, but what do you expect?  The rapidity of response that Liszt asks for  is unnervingly difficult; to get the notes right is a mighty achievement.

Still, after this reading I was left wondering about how closely Brawn was miked at the Potton Hall recording studio; given a more ample reverberation, this work in particular might have gained in aural presence   –   a more resonant envelope, a bit of echo to give its brittle superstructure some greater spatial ambience.

Mussorgsky’s suite is a marvel in live performance, in part for the sadistic pleasure an observer gets watching its execution,  the sheer effort of working through its pages.  But it has attracted pianists galore to record it; multiple times for Ashkenazy, Horowitz and Richter, among others.   Brawn’s version is straightforward, without any re-shaping or distortions, even though the original has scope for dynamic adventurousness.   As with previous recordings by this artist, you notice some elements that have not struck you before, like the crotchet in the left hand at the start of bar 60 in Gnomus when all you’ve heard before is the expected minim.  The second Promenade gave an addition to the composer’s gallery – a study in contemplation as the gallery-visitor moves along, illustrated with telling restraint by this page of delicatezza playing.

Keeping to the letter of the law, Brawn ensured that the dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver pattern in The Old Castle stayed just that, not a slovenly triplet. In the Tuileries pages, he made herculean efforts to keep the treble semiquaver staccato runs detached.  Bydlo began as it should – loud;  nothing as trite as having this big wagon/cart slowly coming into view, then fading to incorporeality over the last bars.  The Unhatched Chickens Ballet came over with fleetness of hand, notable for the accelerando at the end of the first page (and at each of its reappearances).

A similar energizing animated the conclusion to the Limoges Market segment, Brawn making sure of his right-hand chords rather than blurring the bolt into the next picture, Catacombs, which has me still wondering how he achieved the massive left-hand stretch at bar 21.   Kiev’s Great Gate impressed for the slow pace adopted during the last 13 bars – the peroration after the bells and whistles have had their time in the sun.  Even so, this conclusion had some of its thunder stolen by the crotchet triplets section that follows the second chant interlude, here rising to a sonorously impressive clangour during Mussorgsky’s extended bell imitations.

This great example of musical pictorialism takes pride of place in the CD and Brawn presents an involving  reading of its familiar pages, untrammelled by distractions or superficiality.   Listeners would also enjoy the weighty power of Busoni’s take on Bach, as well as a glittering version of Liszt’s diabolic dance.

Talent to spare


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday August 14, 2016

David Fung

                                                                                       David Fung

Nothing but Mozart in this latest subscription series concert.  Well, almost; somewhere along the way, Australian writer Nicholas Buc‘s new Shadow Dances put in a brief and not too painful appearance, even if the pacy score stuck out in this context like an intellectual in the current Senate.   But artistic director of the MCO, William Hennessy, was obviously relishing his Mozartian commitment as he led his young musicians through the Serenata Notturna, the Symphony No. 29 in A, and supported David Fung in two early Piano Concertos:  No. 11 in F Major and No. 14 in E flat.

Opening with the serenade, Hennessy took on mini-Orchestra 1 duties with Courtenay Cleary, viola Merewyn Bramble and double bass Emma Sullivan.  The performance of the first two movements proved exemplary: balanced in phrasing and attack, well-organized dynamically and infused with the welcome sense of a unified ensemble at work.  In the final multi-sectioned Rondo, Hennessy allowed his group a certain amount of licence in tempo torques, but not to the self-indulgent extent that other ensembles go in for.   More to the point, the MCO players were well prepared for the alterations.   What I (eventually) missed were the timpani that should form part of the work’s sound complex.  Yes, the part is not an exciting one and any tyro could perform it at sight, but it does add an edge to the outer movements, especially in the pizzicato bars 5-6 and 11-12 of the opening march’s second part, which is where I first noticed that the drum sound was absent.

Buc’s piece followed, a bagatelle that began as an active Latin-American dance with lots of snap and bounding action.   The work moved from tango to tango, as far as I could tell; the promised detours to different dance beats and major/minor contrasts passed me by, mainly because I was expecting the changes of pace to be more marked, more obvious to distinguish.  Then, the piece ended before any re-orientation had set in.   My fault for trying to over-analyse a happy frippery whose function was primarily to entertain.

David Fung gave an incisive reading of the F Major Concerto, a work you would be lucky to hear once in a double-decade.  His Mozart is no limpid aristocrat but a vital, even prickly individual with a turn for the idiosyncratic, like the Beethoven-heavy left-hand chords for the soloist that come out of nowhere in bars 82 and 86 of the first Allegro, and the oddly unsettling shape of the first two phrases of the Larghetto‘s main theme.   Fung made interesting work of each paragraph, notably in the solidly argued initial movement but what impressed most was his fusion with the MCO; he’s an ideal soloist in his awareness of where he fits in to a concerto’s framework, which made his merging into the score’s activity after tutti passages and cadenzas a model of responsibility.

Even better came with the E flat work; but then, it’s more engaging in its material.   Fung raised the aggression level slightly so that his initial entries came across with energizing brio.   Still, his legato passage work proved admirable – evenly paced and set out with care for its crescendo/diminuendo potential – and throughout this and the preceding work his ornamentation was worked into the fabric with a sensibility that would have done credit to a player many years his senior.   Of special note was Fung’s account of the first movement cadenza – Mozart’s own?  – where the brusque power of the preceding development came into a kind of heightened focus.   Across the whole work, Fung displayed an authority and decisiveness that made even the main body of the four-square finale a feast of elegantly contoured articulation.

Hennessy’s account of the splendid symphony was all the more welcome for the absence of first-half repeats in the outer movements and the Andante; yes, there is much to be said for the formal and spatial balance these provide, but they seem unnecessary in a work as well-ploughed as this one.   The MCO strings made a fine showing here, even if the body could have done with another viola to reinforce Bramble and her solitary colleague.   But a significant distraction here – and in the concertos, for that matter – came from the two horns who were positioned very close to the Murdoch Hall’s back wall and who performed with resonant gusto, more than suited many pages of this music, especially as much of their content is reinforcement, not real and intended dynamic prominence as in bars 171-2 of the K. 201’s concluding Allegro.

Yu and the clarinet


Robert Schubert

Move Records MD 3351

Julian Yu

This CD is a testament to the friendship between clarinet master Robert Schubert and composer Julian Yu, as well as an illustration of the encouragement that one musician gives to another to broaden a particular instrument’s repertoire.   The recording sessions involved range from 2000 to 2012 and employ the talents of the Victorian College of the Arts Strings under Marco van Pagee and a collection of the soloist’s Melbourne University colleagues and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra peers past and present – flute Derek Jones, violins Isin Cakmakcioglu, Lorraine Hook and Deborah Goodall, violas Danielle Arcaro and Gabrielle Halloran, cellists Rachel Atkinson and Virginia Kable  –  as well as his wife, Akemi, on piano.

The five scores performed here are not the only ones by Yu that employ clarinet; just those where that instrument is the dominant voice.  The earliest, Sol Do La Re for clarinet and string trio, dates from 1985; Atanos, eleven years later, is written for flute, clarinet and string trio; The Lamentations of Micius for clarinet quintet comes from 1998; a 2000 triptych based on poems by the emperor Li Yu, Silent and Alone, asks for clarinet, piano and string quartet; and the latest music, from 2002, is the Concerto on Chinese Themes where the VCA players support Schubert.

Yu is a remarkably able writer and arranger, his professional equipment ever prepared for the task, whether it be original composition or arranging other composers – and here his activity is more expansive than I’d thought: Tchaikovsky, Palchelbel, Saint-Saens, Holst, Glinka, Janacek, Ligeti and Berg – or writing ‘fusions’ with masters like Mozart, Biber, Beethoven and Mussorgsky.  His activity level is high, as is his facility, which is a very apparent quality on this disc.

The most recently written music, the concerto, sounds the most traditional.   In the classic three-movement format, it is constricted by its melodic material, the tunes it uses not remarkable in shape.   The work begins with a slow introduction foregrounding the soloist who occasionally concludes a phrase with that ‘falling’ break you can hear on Chinese folk-music recordings.   The work changes pace to a fast allegro with lots of action for both clarinet and strings, the effect being mainly that of ‘busy’ music.  In the middle slower movement, it seems that one tune only serves the writer’s purpose and the impression is calm and placid, if reminiscent of a travelogue sound-track.   The finale is, of course, rapid and packed with twittering and trilling, the texture relieved by a segment involving woodblocks.   But Yu treats his basic material in a surprisingly orthodox manner, with very little here to ruffle any anti-modernist feathers.   It’s a pleasant enough entity, a fine vehicle for Schubert’s voluble C instrument, but very concerned to give the Chinese folk-tunes a plain and non-challenging setting.

The philosopher Micius (Mozi) grieved apparently about the  way silk was adulterated by being coloured, marring its original pristine state – just as man is ruined by increasing contact with a corrupting world.   Yu imitates the ch’in (zither) with plenty of initial pizzicati for Cakmakcioglu, Goodall, Arcaro and Atkinson before the texture alters to a more communal mesh where the wind player’s long notes are mirrored by the strings, although the emotional atmospheric changes are more dependent on the quartet than the clarinet at the score’s central point.   Yu’s suggestions of grieving oscillate; you have moments of sedate resignation, then energetic dissatisfaction, even menace and, under all, the restlessness of those pizzicati that seem determined to disturb the despair of Micius.   Here, Yu’s vocabulary is emphatically contemporary, loaded with disjunct leaps and juxtapositions.   Still, The Lamentation of Micius is an odd choice of subject, especially as the philosopher himself denounced music as a wasteful activity.

Atanos brings Jones’ flute into play straight away with Cakmakcioglu or Goodall (both are credited in the CD booklet), Arcaro and Atkinson joining to move this brisk jeu d’esprit forward.   A small group of motives are sprayed lavishly across the ensemble’s sound and range spectrum but the composer is principally concerned with using ornamentation to inform his country’s melodic lines, not simply transpose a tune holus-bolus into a Western chamber-music or harmonic garb.   In this piece, you can soon discern his use of scraps of phrases over and over, his texture pointillist and rapid-fire with plenty of doubling for the two wind instruments.   But whether the music is rapid or meditatively paced, its character is optimistic, quick-witted and content, the final pages an object lesson in economy of material, vaulting from near-stasis to a happy and communal rush of blood.

Using a tone-row, Sol Do La Re opens with those notes on Atkinson’s cello before Arcaro, Schubert and Cakmakcioglu join in the expansively argued fugal-type texture.  Written as an exercise while Yu was studying in Japan, the piece is a fine contrast with its predecessor on this CD: measured in pace, sticking to the same rather heavy rhythm, packed with references to technical devices, this almost abnegates personality for a  kind of academic gravity that interests for the manner in which it suggests tonality by its row’s disposition and the trend to concordance that runs throughout its brief length.

The Silent and Alone pieces are brief atmospheric vignettes with Schubert taking the vocal line that featured in the original version of this work.   He is supported by Akemi’s piano standing in for the first version’s harp   – Hook, Goodall, Halloran and Kable a quartet representing the chamber orchestra that Yu wrote for in the first place.   Since We Parted is a brief poem that centres on a melancholy longing for home; in this vision, the speaker is unhappy, but resigned while the strings suggest his inner urge to be on the move back with an impotent repetitive rhythm.

The title poem, probably the most famous of the emperor’s surviving pieces, poses the solitary speaker on an isolated tower beneath the moon, finding a self-reflection in a courtyard tree as the pang of parting strikes his consciousness with unexpected force. The piano sets out a haunting 8-note ascending figure over which the clarinet softly broods, interweaving with the strings to establish a soft mood of detached despair; only a brief burst of energy disturbs the music’s even flow to end almost as it began.

Lingering Thoughts puts the poet in a landscape fringed by mountains, vast sky and misty water where he is embroiled in the surroundings by his thoughts.  The seasons change but the expected traveller doesn’t return and the poet is left with moon and wind to populate his solitariness.   Here again, there is a surge of life before a voiceless conclusion.  The music throughout each of these pieces is reflective of European art song, even an impressionist-style scene-painting, but the colour is not daubed on in the Debussy Pagodes manner; the Chinese element stays recessed – present, but not blatant.  And the CD as a whole serves not just as a monument to Yu’s writing for clarinet as solo but also as an expertly accomplished exhibition of the composer’s range of abilities, in particular the charm of his lyrical line and the jaunty expertise of his instrumentation.

Let’s notch it up a gear or two


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1466


In this second instalment of Brawn’s review of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the performer works through three of the very well-known masterpieces: the Pathetique No 8 in C minor, the Moonlight No 14 in C sharp minor, and the Waldstein No. 21 in C Major.  Each of these is familiar to pianists, both capable and the vaultingly ambitious, necessary obstacles on the path to self-recognition and all capable of fostering self-delusion.   As well, Brawn includes the two ‘easy’ catalogue-listed preludes to the Waldstein, although both Sonatas 19 and 20 were written almost a decade previously than their position suggests, closer in time to the Pathetique and atypically lean in content and texture.

It’s sort of like putting all the populist eggs in one basket and thus it makes the CD an attractive buying proposition.   Fortunately, the finished product is well worth attention for its own sake, beginning with a clean-limbed reading of the C minor work.   As the first disc in this series demonstrated, Brawn has a canny eye for details that others neglect or ignore, like the crescendo five bars into the first movement’s Allegro which comes at the right place rather than featuring in the ascending chord sequence that precedes it.  Throughout these pages   –   and the rest of the work, for that matter  –   Brawn distinguishes himself from many another performer by playing what’s written, giving full courtesy to Beethoven and his listeners.   He keeps to his tempi, maintains a clear texture, gives notes their right length, builds and releases tension with subtlety, and preserves the work’s stark directness of expression.   For once, the sudden Grave bars are delivered with as much sombre weight as they deserve.

Like the first movement, the Adagio cantabile comes across with a balanced deliberation, its progress interspersed with subtle semi-pauses denoting a sectional  change or something as simple as an imminent reprise.   Five bars from the end, for the first time ever, I heard a splendidly achieved crescendo/decrescendo that had never struck me before.   No murky blowsiness in the light-filled Rondo.   Mozart was only dead 7/8 years before and his influence is still pervasive; certainly, Beethoven’s gloom and thunder is approaching but, at this stage, not full-blown.   Here again come details that never struck you previously, like the cut back to piano at bar 182; it’s probably there on many other versions but this time its appearance is striking.    Brawn repeatedly displays an awareness of colour differentiation, as in the change from the semiquaver patterns of bars 107-112 to the immediately-following triplets: the landscape changes abruptly even though the underpinning urgent tension remains constant.

Too much has been inferred about the C sharp minor sonata’s history/background/ positioning in the composer’s love-life, but Brawn communicates from the first the dark, looming passion that informs the work.   He takes the direction delicatissimamente as a prime directive for the opening Adagio which remains on the move, sticking to an orthodox path although a hesitation with the broken 7th chord at bars 35-37 added a human touch to this dour nocturne.   The Allegretto was paced more slowly than other pianists treat it, which is usually as an aimless burst of bucolic sunshine.   In this handling, the page impresses as a more valid sequel to the liquid first movement; here there is doubt, regret, an autumnal calm as the composer pauses before the sonata’s scorching finale.

Brawn tries very hard and almost completely succeeds in making a sforzando on only the first of the repeated chords that finish off each arpeggio run-up in the Presto‘s first theme; it’s a remarkable effect, leaving you dangling.  Yes, other players observe the same dynamic direction but here the dent in your expectations is strikingly sharp.   Some excellent pianism appears with an impressive recovery rate in the leaps that pepper bars 47 to 56, and the demisemiquaver clusters from bars 163 to 165 reverberate like side-drum flourishes.   In all, the player offers a no-nonsense version of this restless Rondo, too often treated with that latitude afforded to Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

When the track for Sonata No. 19 began, it suddenly hit me that I’ve never heard this work live.  It is easy to churn out the notes, which may make it unattractive to recitalists,  but the atmospheric vein it explores presents interpretative problems.   Brawn invests it with a dignity that brings to the work’s few pages a kind of substantiality.   He gives its phrases every consideration, avoids any indication of hurrying, but impresses on his audience the movement’s small-framed restraint.   A delight from start to finish, the following Rondo/Allegro is an ignored treasure, packed with finesse; for example, the difference in how the player follows the same expression markings in close succession  –  at bars 120-121 and bars 122-3.

Sonata No. 20 is an open-slather field, with only two definite expression directions in its second movement; you can let yourself go, your realization tempered chiefly by the work’s sunny gentility.   Brawn keeps his attack rational and moderately dynamic; he presents an interesting outline, giving the left hand equal billing rather than falling in love with the optimistic upper melodic ripples.    I greatly appreciated his crispness in the Minuet, specifically his delivery of the over-riding rhythmic figure of dotted quaver-semiquaver- crotchet or minim: the simplest of motifs but once heard, never forgotten   This movement’s three pages enjoy a snappy delivery, a modestly exuberant skip in the Minuet itself well balanced by the lusty gusto of the C Major Trio.   It all makes for a performing style of delicacy without affectation.

Brawn ends his disc with the C Major Waldstein, a cow of a work written in the simplest of keys but loaded with pitfalls.  This version copes with pretty much every handicap that Beethoven loads on, the pace blistering from the rustling repeated bass chords that kick off the journey.   During the second theme’s announcement, Brawn concerns himself with the alto part at bar 38, the line carried on by the tenor at bars 47-48; it’s there to be played but a good many pianists concern themselves mainly with the decorative soprano triplets only.   Still, this executant knows that the only game in town when triplets take over the development is the harmonic changes and he powers through them to achieve maximum effect from the juxtapositions.   Listen to the relentless flying build-up of excitement (through a simple ascending scale in the bass) between bars 268-276 and you’ll hear as gripping a reading of this difficult passage-of-play as you could want.

The second movement Introduzione brings an abrupt change  –  Adagio molto  –  and Brawn delivers that exactly, descending gracefully from the page’s insistent dynamic highpoint to a near-mute bar 26 before gliding into the Rondo tour de force.   For the most part, he follows those notorious sustaining-pedal directions, an oddity I fail to fathom every time I hear this movement.   Moreover, Brawn does excellent, sometimes brilliant work with other obstacles  –  like the two-hand contrary motion triplets that go on and on from bar 352 to 377; later, the glissandi featured in bars 465 and 474 come across with admirable smoothness.    But the movement, despite its few moments of relief, is a slog; most of the interpolated episodes approach the bloody-minded and the trill work required adds a Pelion to Beethoven’s already oppressive Ossa.

Brawn gives a bracing account of this challenging score, not letting himself off by taking the easy road with jog-trot speeds, convenient easing-up at danger points, or slackening the tension with mid-sentence pauses.    There’s worse to come with the Les Adieux, No 28 in A, the Hammerklavier  .  .  .  in fact, all of the last five sonatas are packed with enough unnerving material to deter most of us.    But, so far with Brawn, the signs are more than promising.

What’s your fancy?


Bruno Siketa and Rhys Boak

Move Records MD 3379

Trumpet and Organ

Another addition to the impressive number of collaborative recordings on the Move label, this trumpet-and-organ effort offers a wide mix, ranging from Bach without frills to arrangements that are packed with incident.   The playing involves two organs: the Hill/Fincham instrument in St. Michael’s Uniting Church on Collins Street where Boak is the resident performer, and one in ‘Collingwood Castle’ where the Radixon Group has its Islington Street headquarters and which, despite assiduous searching, retains its mysteries as a privately-owned construct.

The Collingwood organ is used for duets exclusively while the artists also perform four works at the city church, which is where Boak chose to record his solos.   An early indication of the hybrid nature of the material on offer comes in the first track, an arrangement by both musicians of the Albinoni Adagio in G minor, now known to have been written by Remo Giazotto – not the first ghostwriter to take a leaf out of the Kreisler creative-abnegation handbook.    As expected with this slow-moving dirge, there are a few notes where tuning is not spot-on.   Less importantly, you can’t avoid feeling that the chord-supported cadenza-like passages for the trumpet  come straight from a spaghetti western – the spirit of Morricone putting in an unanticipated appearance.

Telemann’s Heroic Marches, La Generosite and La Grace, fare better, although in the first Siketa’s low Gs close to the start are questionable; the second piece’s slow D Major stateliness works much better for both players as a whole.

Boak’s first solo is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which is now ascribed to one of the composer’s students or friends; exactly which one is the problem.    This reading is unexceptional, with no Ton Koopman-style surprises in ornamentation or registration; only one unexpected pause for what could be a change of manual in mid-fugue disrupts the regular rhythmic underpinning of the work’s second part up to the ducks-and-drakes games at the Recitativo.   Later in the CD, the Little Fugue in G minor is handled with similar directness of utterance in the warm St. Michael’s acoustic.   During Edwin Lemare‘s transcription of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser, Boak shows a controlled flamboyance, the work’s inexorable progress handled with musicianship so that the decorative violin patterns that accompany the chorale in its stentorian climactic form remain in their place.   Guilmant‘s 1861 March on a theme by Handel is treated sensibly as a long crescendo, starting off with a theme outline in unusually reserved manner, gaining headway in the middle fugue and exerting plenty of sonorous muscle in the final grandiose pages.

Siketa gives to Alan Hovhaness‘s A Prayer f St. Gregory a calm delineation, which is the best approach possible with a work that is meant to depict a holy man’s spiritual and physical crisis expressed in semi-modal language that takes the listener nowhere.   Piazzolla’s Ave Maria was written for a film version of Pirandello’s Enrico IV, originally scored for oboe and piano; Siketa produces an attractive line but the piece itself is nondescript, a meander that indicates a mental break between its devotional re-naming and its original purpose.

The Romance from Shostakovich’s score to Aleksandr Fajntsimmer’s film The Gadfly sees the players in Collingwood and the tuning for the piece’s first pages is still not quite right, although matters improve by the reprise.   Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, another favourite Russian lollipop, enjoys more success and the arrangement by Boak, moving down a semitone from the original C sharp, uses the organ to good effect, although its dynamic pays over-deferential courtesy to the brass melody line which remains very prominent. The pair end their suburban bracket with the Ave Maria attributed to Caccini (how?) but composed by Vladimir Vavilov; as in every other version you hear of this piece, the executants never come close to being challenged.

The final trumpet+organ works are unabashed showpieces.  Jean-Baptiste Arban‘s Theme et variations sur ‘Norma’ holds some preparatory and fill-in work for the accompanist but its only interest is the trumpet’s virtuosity.   Siketa begins with a straightforward outline of Bellini’s Casta diva aria  –  well, the first part of it  –  complete with a cadenza at the end. The first variation is a bouncy march distinctive for a bit of quick action at its conclusion. Variation 2 continues in the same metre but with continuous semiquavers; not jerking the player around but testing his evenness of enunciation.   Matters ratchet up in Variation 3 where the action moves to triplets – really sextuplets – and the player is hard pressed; Siketa manages this very competently – I heard only one near-dropped note at bar 100.   A piu lento is the deceptive lead-in to the last section which features a gradual acceleration leading to a brilliantly definite conclusion.   In the excitement, the synchronicity between the players put Siketa under stress; at points like bar 135 where he had to draw breath, there was a danger of his being left behind by his inexorable escort in the race to the piece’s final post.

The other showpiece is better known as a violin encore: Monti’s Csardas; this appears to be the work’s first re-positioning for trumpet and organ.   It’s a brave effort but perhaps the unspoken request to ignore the original is impractical.   Triple- and double-stops are impossible to accomplish, as is the Meno quasi lento segment in harmonics which is taken over by Boak; any spicy acciacaturas are too difficult to negotiate in this context.   Still, the interpretation goes some way to catching the original’s faux-Gypsy spirit and there are precious few flaws, the most notable a missed note eight bars before the final A tempo/piu presto gallop.

I think that the motive underpinning this recording is more entertainment value than repertoire expansion, although it does accomplish that end with six of the tracks being arrangements by Boak.   The content jumps around – from familiar Bach and Telemann to Hovhaness of 1946 and a 1984 piece by Piazzolla, the most modern of the 14 works presented.    It will interest trumpeters, I suspect, and admirers of both Melbourne musicians involved  –  and those with a taste for that noble, vital sound-world so desired by wedding organists who have to make do with their trumpet stops: a poor substitute for the real thing, as this CD demonstrates.

Here we go again


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1465

Brawn 1

Not that there’s any cause for complaint in facing another cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas.  Such an exercise has occupied the talents of many artists, some of whom have brought new life to hoary standards from the well-worn catalogue; we would be much the poorer without the recordings from Arrau, Brendel and Pollini.   British-born and sometime-Australian resident James Brawn has entered the lists with this CD, which has been swiftly followed by three others; currently, he is exactly half-way through the cycle of 32 and, like any sensible artist, is not taking them on sequentially.

In this first essay, Brawn performs the first and last of the Op. 2 job-lot dedicated to Haydn, followed by the blistering Op. 57 in F minor, the Appassionata.   Each reading is finely calibrated in meeting the composer’s multiplex of technical demands, and the performer reaches a persuasive accommodation with the individual sonatas’ intellectual and emotional rigour.

Beginning at the beginning, Brawn impresses straightaway in the Op. 2 F minor Sonata No. 1, not least with his accounting for Beethoven’s sforzandi.   These are treated humanely, as abrupt interjections, not belts around the listener’s ear-hole.   So the texture remains clear throughout, especially in the first Allegro where Brawn avoids the usual trap of blurring passages of maximum activity, chiefly by observing a sensible dynamic spectrum and maintaining a brisk pace in which the trills are handled as integral icing.

The ensuing Adagio enjoys careful treatment with small touches of rubato that still preserve the movement’s fluency.   The only possible fault I could find in the Menuetto was one sforzando too many, while the finale was taken very fast, as required, with a sustained reliability of delivery in the segment’s chains of left-hand arpeggios.   A passage of particular interest comes between bars 161 and 172; excitingly urgent in its emphasis on the bass melody the first time around, then even more so with the reinforced right-hand doubling on the repeat.   Speaking of which, Brawn observes that of the movement’s second-half  – easy to accomplish in the studio, of course, but you rarely hear it in live performances, especially from younger interpreters.

For the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, the semiquaver passage-work comes across in emphatic and digitally decisive shape, yet the first movement’s exposition is distinguished by a generous fluency, only faltering at bars 156-8, the sole question mark in a set of pages that rattle past with fitting assurance and contentment.   For the Adagio, Brawn  is intent on observing melodic continuity rather than following the usual pattern and detaching notes in the onward flow, as from bar 43 inwards; unexpected, but it works for me.

A generously applied staccato dominates the Scherzo wherever slurs are not indicated, but the Trio is the opposite – a melange of pedal-sustained right-hand arpeggios.   In the spritzig Allegro finale, the lightly articulated attack is refreshing, as intended.   Here the only awkwardness comes in the busy pendant to the main theme from bars 8-16, and at its recurrence later on at 116-205 – but then I can’t recall another interpreter apart from Brendel who can give these segments some persuasive kind of organic continuity.

Ten years lie between these two works and the Op. 57 which is one of the four most popular of the composer’s output in this form.   Brawn’s reading has an admirable spaciousness right from the opening which is handled as a true Allegro rather than a shock-and-horror show of inconsistent metres.   In finding and communicating a structural cogency in these challenging pages, Brawn is distinguishing himself from the ruck; not afraid to give full weight to the composer’s explosive, almost manically insistent blocks of full chords alternating between the hands, and then giving an urgency to the counter-weighted piano leavening while avoiding any hint of neurasthenic twitching.   His account of the Piu allegro is exemplary, carried off with passion and lucidity, most notable in a bracing passage from bars 249-256 – as powerful and biting as you could want.

The pianist treats the central Andante‘s theme with deliberation, allowing himself the space to linger at a few points, although the following variations come across as regular without metronomic rigidity.  The last Allegro concludes the drama with plenty of character, its almost-continual restlessness carried off as all-of-a-piece, dynamically sensible and unflustered.   Brawn powers through the coda, hitting his left-hand accents manfully in the sonic mash of bars 325-340 and bringing the whole to a rousing conclusion.

This is sensible Beethoven, giving these sonatas a well-rounded airing and facing the interpretative problems with gusto and honesty.  Brawn’s command and sympathy are present on every page and I look forward to experiencing the rest of his efforts in this wide-ranging musical exploration.

Laying it all out


Amir Farid

Move Records MD 3402

Satellite Mapping

Released this year, here are the complete works for piano solo by Melbourne composer Stuart Greenbaum, a luminary of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Music and a writer whose name is continually before the public.  In his 50th year, Greenbaum’s retrospective is being observed by pianist Amir Farid, one of the Benaud Trio musicians and a highly esteemed contributor to this city’s cultural life.   While this retrospective takes up a double CD, much of the music it contains is brief in length, and every so often slight in character.   Yet, because of the composer’s absorption of a wealth of influences from the serious and popular fields, his work has a consistent attractiveness, not afraid to show an inner emotional world that appeals across the potential spectrum of listeners, from those aware of musical developments over the past half-century to others who eschew background for straight-talking  –  not that these groups necessarily exclude each other.

The album follows the development of Greenbaum’s craft in temporal order, starting with the 1991 Portrait and Blues Hymn, recorded some time ago by Michael Kieran Harvey.   Farid’s handling of this miniature displays some basic elements in the composer’s style: a penchant for pauses, a grounding repetition of phrases with varying harmonic-block underpinning (or not), progressions straight from a jazz player’s vocabulary, an easily digestible formal lay-out.   It’s a birthday-celebration piece but its title eludes any definite interpretation.

One of the recording’s major works, Ice Man, follows.  Among the more impressive and sustained products in Greenbaum’s output, this three-movement set of meditations refers to  extracts from Andrew Scott’s Lost in the Himalayas memoir, which details the Australian doctor’s celebrated 43-day ordeal in 1991.   The first (and shortest)  part – Lost | The Moon | Don’t leave me here – presents an atmospherically quiescent sound scape that suggests a detached despair, erupting into a short blast of vehemence before returning to the prevailing placidity.   Picture of an anorexic | Dignity | The dream continues the prevailing pointillist writing style, projecting sound pictures of a landscape where nothing happens in the physical surroundings; only the sufferer’s mind has active flashes that fade to silence or lead to obsession, denoted by repeated chords, a series of arpeggiated or broken sequences that grow slightly by accretion.   But, over all, the  music speaks of isolation, even when Scott’s dream of addressing his family brings about a passage of relative magniloquence.   But in the end the activity dies away to a single repeated note, like a drop wearing away stone.

For the last movement, They must have seen me | Faint voices | Affinity,  the atmosphere changes from meditative to flurries of action, although Greenbaum returns to the passive mode when the excitement of a possible sighting by helicopter dissipates.  Not that the composer is following a script, but it is difficult not to project your own narrative for piano writing that is, at its core, pictorial/impressionist.   Common chords over an oscillating D octave pedal propose a return to humankind and the movement ends with a kind of reconciliation, Scott’s affinity being with the rock that sheltered him and his acceptance of the Himalayas’ beauty, despite their innate menace.  Farid outlines this work’s slow-paced poetry with a high sympathy, giving each gesture plenty of space and maintaining a steady pace through to its consolatory final bars.

Innocence (in Stillness) was written for a birth and may be familiar to some pianists from the AMEB Grade 2 syllabus; a melody punctuated by some simple bass notes and chords, it’s over before you know it.   Looking to the Future, composed as a theme for a play concerning the 1989 Newcastle earthquake, states a bluesy theme several times, then stops on a middle-instrument question – a real bagatelle.   From 1996 comes one of the composer’s more well-known pieces, But I Want the Harmonica which, in some ways, bears traces of the preceding two scraps.   Again, the work follows a clear path, its motivic  repetition sufficiently varied to sustain interest as a descending sequence of two-note gruppetti enjoys multiple accompanying variants with a heavy jazz colour at its high point.   This work exemplifies Greenbaum’s individual vein of melancholy not taking itself too seriously as he recalls with open-hearted benignity a childhood school experience that meant much to him.

The first CD ends with three pieces that cover ground similar to that already covered.  New Roads, Old Destinations attempts to illustrate an Escher drawing, one of those trade-mark building designs where stairs ascend and descend simultaneously.  Chords follow a downward path round a central ostinato, either inside the harmonic progression that forms the piece’s material, or below it.   The structure plays neatly with the concept of nothing changing except superficially; as in the Escher drawing, the actual lines remain the same, no matter how you perceive them.   First Light’s four-note basic motive offers a sort of reflection of the previous piece, the motion being upward over a central-keyboard ostinato.   And again, the added-note chords, even the modulations, are reminiscent of a soft-edged Shearing-style improvisation that rises to a powerful C sharp Major conclusion – yet  the almost inevitable, unsettling distant high notes that conclude the work offer a coda of quiet negation, or at least a question-mark.   At about half the length of the other two pieces in this concluding triptych, Fragments of Gratification presents an evanescent meditation on one, possibly two, themes which rises to a brief dynamic high-point at about 1:40 but its true air-space tenancy is coloured in soft pastels.   Composed on the last day of the previous millennium, it eschews hoo-rah celebration for a gently rueful anticipation.

Disc 2 begins with Equator Loops, a set of variations radiating our from a central D; this is one of the few points on either of these discs where Greenbaum asks for unabashed virtuosic playing, the concluding loops in particular wide-ranging and aggressive.  Three Optical Allusions presents as a short suite dealing with musical representations of a solar eclipse, a time-lapse photograph and a Mobius strip.  It is hard to avoid impressions during the second of these, a gradually expanded rising phrase over a fixed bass pattern, of hearing something like  organized doodling, while the third offers little more, except louder.

Four Thoughts remain in the same compositional continuum.  The End of Winter oscillates between two short phrases; For Oliver offers a touch more interest in its change-ringing on simple, if rhythmically varied melodic matter; the Escher (again) inspired Spirals moves into some interesting, almost adventurous territory after a somewhat numbing first half; Bagatelle for Aksel kept its mystery – it is based on a children’s song – until near its ending, but it brought to your attention how surprisingly orthodox is Greenbaum’s underpinning tonality.

Written for Elyane Laussade, Matilda Deconstructions takes fragments of Waltzing Matilda and, in the first segment, gives a driving minimalist-mimicking moto perpetuo; the second dissection, less rhythmically rigid, uses a five-note falling ostinato to support yet another set of wilting, decorative passages of play.

Glen Riddle recorded The 4th Saturday in April among a slew of Greenbaum occasional pieces two years ago, and Farid brings an equal gift of placid serenity to this wedding gift for a wedding that Greenbaum could not attend.   Evocation of 2006 sits as a kind of memento mori concerning one of Greenbaum’s students who died young; the Albeniz connection is a vague one, although the ostinato has some congruence with a permeating figure in the Spaniard’s piece.   And the composer’s avoidance of the anticipated in his disposition of the descending five-note scale pattern in the work’s last third is masterly.

Written for the birth of the composer’s daughter, Lavender for Hanna presents some quick variations on the British folk-song Lavender’s Blue; another miniature that is over very quickly.   More substance comes in Allusion, Introspection and Ascension which uses well-established piano masterpieces as springboards.  The first takes part of Chopin’s Barcarolle and superimposes a structure that oscillates between the chromatic versatility of the original and a patch of 1930s-era syncopation that brings the piece to a close in medias resIntrospection extracts certain chord progressions from the finale to Schubert’s last B flat Major Sonata, but does not do very much with them; it’s as though the original is too self-sufficient to need much treatment – which rather defeats the purpose of the exercise.   The middle one of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets generates an exciting outburst in the last Ascension piece, even if the referrents are difficult to decipher until Greenbaum offers some literal quotes; Farid here provides a resonant interpretation of a piece that maintains its virtuosic roots.

The CD’s title work begins sparely before slowly passing to a roiling across-the-keyboard melange: an exercise in depicting the overwhelming detail that emerges as you hit the plus indicator on your Google map image.  It’s an ingenious concept – the gradual crescendo in information – yet it completes its work pretty rapidly; rather like the impatience most of us show when using a satellite map.   The CD ends with Fanfare for Elizabeth: not a royalist tribute but a piece written for the 80th birthday of Greenbaum’s mother.   It uses an optimistic rising four-note trumpeter’s motive but does not modulate outside its A Major framework; still, it’s emphatically a celebration, an occasion for jubilation, and a suitable conclusion to this lengthy remembrance of things past.

On the composer’s website, you can find analyses of some of the pieces on these discs, viz. First Light and two parts of the Ice Man set.  See http://www.stuartgreenbaum.com

Good start – and the rest?


Tinalley String Quartet

Move Records  MD 3374


We’ve enjoyed a lot of Haydn over the past few years; the Melbourne Festival saw to that.  For reasons beyond guessing, the complete string quartets were reviewed   –  by visiting ensembles who generally fitted in some Haydn among other works, as well as local groups taking up the challenge.   Any slack fell to students from the Australian National Academy of Music who lustily joined in the binge.   Not that the composer has suffered from so much neglect that he had to be resuscitated; you find that one of the quartets occupies pride of first place at many a chamber music event – sometimes being treated as a warm-up, on more reputable occasions handled with as much care as the executants give to their Beethoven or Shostakovich.

The Tinalley group has been constant in personnel for some years now: violins Adam Chalabi and Lerida Delbridge, viola Justin Williams, cello Michelle Wood.   At the same time as the members have taken up career positions – Chalabi at the University of Queensland, Delbridge and Williams with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Wood with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – their performances here have decreased markedly in number, cut back this year to  a two-program series at the Recital Centre.   Certainly, the group performs at festivals throughout the year – Perth, McLaren Vale, Townsville, Bellingen, and a few oncers from Albany to Mount Macedon – but, as a matter of necessity, these musicians’ time together is limited.

So this CD of half the Op. 20 quartets – Nos. 1, 3 and 4 – is a welcome opportunity to hear the players in well-seasoned shape.  The works make an excellent exercise in contrasts of all kinds – texture, developmental processes, harmonic elisions and jumps, rhythmic surprises, allocation of responsibility.   More surprisingly, the start of each opus number presents a contrast in ensemble colour; it’s as though the players have re-thought their style of attack each time they take on one of these ground-breaking quartets.

During the first movement exposition of the D Major No. 4, you are taken immediately by the controlled volatility of the triplets in Chalabi’s line, as well as by the finely proportioned weighting of the playing, which obtains also through the following set of variations where the supporting roles remain part of the fabric rather than fading into quiescence.   But the gem in this work comes in the plainest-looking writing: the Menuet alla Zingarese with its clever off-centre shape  –  gypsy music of real character, and treated with controlled elation, notably when Wood takes the lead in the movement’s Trio.  And the work is finished off in exemplary fashion with a smart-as-paint Presto, distinguished by faultless duet work, deft dovetailing across all lines and as crisp a delivery of the pages’ frequent dotted quaver-semiquaver-crotchet rhythmic motif as you are likely to hear.

The No. 1 in E flat is a more galant creation at its opening, more curvaceous in its anatomy than its plain-speaking D Major companion.  Here the Tinalleys give another extended example of their craft with the Affetuoso e sostenuto‘s mezza voce delivery, packed with subtle variation in delivery while giving the impression of seamless uniformity of dynamic, while still giving the work’s fluid motion a few mild sforzando accents where required.   Another crisp Presto ends the performance, notable for the evenness of Chalabi’s syncopations and the interpolation of subtle touches like the slightest of rallentandi at bars 148-9 to give a tonal and metrical relief just before the placid last phrases.

To round out the disc, the Tinalleys have chosen No. 3 in G minor, which begins with unexpectedly asymmetric melodic lines – well, they don’t last as long as they should in a perfect world.   Here, the details are lavishly spread around, like Williams’ semiquaver/trills from bars 41 to 44, brisk without being flurried and mirrored with panache by Delbridge 80 bars further along.   The following Allegretto features phrases of odd lengths but these players pronounce them with a dissembling persuasiveness so that you have to listen hard to realise that Haydn has inserted extra bars.   An arresting event comes close to the start of the Poco adagio where the three upper strings sustain  viol-like chords while Wood outlines semiquaver commentary for ten luminous bars.   It somehow suggests stasis and motion simultaneously and is only one of the praiseworthy passages in this set of pages – for me, the outstanding track on the CD.    The finale is dominated by Chalabi, but you also get to admire again partnership passages of high quality between the two violins and the Williams/Wood collaboration.

Every so often, Haydn inserts a unison, a sort of semi-colon in the narrative.   These musicians handle such tests without flinching and the sympathetic resonances that result speak volumes for their precision.    Of course, these are obvious instances of successful synchronicity and you can find finer instances when the texture becomes more complex in the first movement development sections of all three quartets.   The members maintain a lucidity in their work: no overstatement, no milking a phrase for sentiment, no step off the rational and civilized path that Haydn set down in these light-filled scores.   All we need now is for the Tinalleys to complete the opus with another CD of this excellent standard.