Easy-listening guitar


Michelle Nelson

Move Records MCD 531


This is a short (41 minutes) disc consisting of some homages, pastiches, imitations, take-offs – apply whichever term you like – and several original compositions.   Melbourne guitarist Michelle Nelson has constructed and recorded a set of six works (well, five: the first and last tracks employ the same material in different guises) that are intended to link the old and the new as well as to bring art-music back into the popular domain.  The results make for soothing sounds but nothing to challenge or excite the intellect.

Nelson’s creations vary in their persuasiveness.  While the debt to other composers presents as obvious in the specified cases, Nelson’s melodic and harmonic material can be sledge-hammer in impact.   For instance, for the CD’s title (and opening track) we are referred to Gaspar Sanz and Santiago de Murcia; the former became more familiar than Murcia because of Rodrigo’s use of six dances from the Baroque composer’s Instruccion as the basis for the Fantasia para un gentilhombre concerto of 1954.  Even dipping a toe into the treasury of guitar music that both writers have left gives you a pretty good idea of the basis on which this sequence of three pieces – Danza, Minuet, Return – was constructed: harmonic orthodoxy, simplicity of melodic elements, a steady rhythm in each (reinforced by bongos with occasional bar chimes for extra colour from Mark Murphy).  Nelson uses these tropes in fairly basic adaptations; her imitations tend to be lacking in interest, deficient in bite and lyrical appeal.

The Return is a rephrasing of the main melody from the opening Danza, but it eventually gives up on melody as a contributing element and simply alternates a dominant/tonic sequence.  The first two parts have suggestions of the two Spanish masters but Nelson’s variants sound pretty tame by comparison with those of her forebears.

Like many before her, Nelson heads for the summit with The Guitarist’s Bach: Hommage a J.S. Bach.   This is a five-movement suite, starting with a clear reference to the E Major Violin Partita’s opening Preludio; but, where the master uses the two semiquavers-quaver as the kick-off for an invigorating moto perpetuo, Nelson settles in for a more moderate. ambling progression with a simple underpinning that alternates between A and E, while some awkward figuration passages dawdle on top.   The Courante that follows holds more harmonic interest at the outset with some gentle early 20th-century key switches – but these are very quickly passed through.   Too little interest blights the Sarabande which gets stuck in a repetitious groove far longer than Bach would have allowed himself.   The Bouree has some odd touches, like an asymmetrical two beats added on to the first half  that make the dance’s internal balance questionable, because these extras don’t appear in the dance’s second half.   As for the Gigue conclusion, the tune is fluent enough but any supporting notes are functional at best and the harmonising structure that is provided remains unadventurous.

Ice Crystals, five individual vignettes, acknowledge no obvious ancestry and strike a quietly original note.   Nelson sticks to her last with a predictable framework of operations and, once she puts her focus onto a particular gesture, she exploits it relentlessly, as in the spread-eagled chord of the first piece, and the Villa-Lobos-suggestive harmonics of the second crystal.   Then comes a piece that succeeds because Nelson uses her descending arpeggio figure in modulations and shapes the piece’s movement with a finesse suggestive of a post-impressionist prelude.   Although No. 4 maintains its three-chord rhythm for most of the time, it impresses for its limpidity and the atmospheric echo provided by the CD’s engineers, while the final member of this bracket seems to revert back to the disc’s opening track although the melodic trajectory has changed.

Platypus Rag involves Nelson’s guitar with a ‘taropatch’ played by Lesley Gentilin.  This latter is a ukulele commonly found in Hawaii; from what I can glean, the taropatch nomenclature refers more to its slack-key tuning than to the instrument itself.  The rag itself is amiable but short – less than 2 minutes.

Dances for the New World begins with New Volta, an updating of Elizabeth I’s favourite choreographic exercise involving a partner.   I’m not sure whether the revision offers much advance on the older style, chiefly because Nelson’s updating lacks even the small variety of divisions that a volta aficionado like Byrd provided.   Rock ‘n Rolan: Hommage a Marc Bolan puts a sedately stepping tune into the bass with an inverted pedal note (progressing after a while to a chord) to provide a petty superfluous root function.   As for its relationship to the British rock musician, I can’t make any worthwhile comment, knowing only two Bolan songs.   Mirage offers a pleasantly euphonious series of chords above a cantus firmus of one rhythmic motif; however, it serves the purpose of giving the New World target audience a reassuring outcome   –   there’ll be no change to the expected and predictable.

Finally, Return to the Dance IV involves electronics alongside a normal classical guitar and one of Yamaha’s silent guitars.   The work refers back to the opening track but is as static as much of the rest of the disc: happy to keep the bass constant and proposing little above it except repeated chord patterns which are subjected to synthesizer manipulation.  In the end, the track turned into tedium.  Yes, you found plenty of easy listening in this album, which is at its most appealing in the Ice Crystals tracks.  But the overall effect is to put your receptors into neutral; the CD is pleasant, but there’s not much going on.

Another solid success


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday September 21, 2016


                                                                                      Dene Olding

He has probably been playing in Melbourne more times over recent years than I’m aware of but I heard violinist Dene Olding at this recital with great pleasure because the memory of his ultra-refined sound quality had been dimmed by a long time-gap.   For some years, he appeared regularly here with the Goldner Quartet, and even put in some time as concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   But other audience members on Wednesday night said that he has appeared a few times each year in Kathryn Selby’s recitals; my loss, their gain.

Another all-Beethoven night and a geometrically balanced one with two piano trios book-ending a pair of sonatas from the night’s Friends  –  on this occasion, Olding and his Goldner colleague, cellist Julian Smiles.   While Olding took on the sunny, amiably disposed G Major Op. 30 which expounds contentment even in its ambling middle Tempo di Minuetto,  Smiles opted for the Op. 102 No. 1 in C which comes close to defying classification and explication.

The group opened with the early G Major Trio, the middle of the Op. 1 set and a substantial offering in four movements, probably designed so as to make a solid public impression.  From the opening, the most singular feature was the reticence of Olding’s dynamic; his line comes over as finely-spun, notably in the first movement where he offered little competition to Selby‘s restrained keyboard.  Yes, the places where the violin has the running worked well enough but in those passages of minor-strength ferment where the pianist ranges across the instrument’s compass, the upper string line cast a shadowy presence.   Smiles made more of his work, although as far as I can see he has little chance to shine until a bar before Letter Q in my score of the Largo – and even that moment of exposure doesn’t last long.

Which cannot be said about the movement itself: an expansively-worded sequence of pages, here given rich voicing and fine dynamic responsiveness from the simple piano opening statement to the final E Major chords.   The Presto-Finale came off with considerable panache, Selby again giving room to the strings so that we could appreciate their rapid semiquaver articulation – no mean feat of control in a movement where the piano part is continuously active and the instigator of much of the action (after a bland start).

The Cello Sonata No. 4 strikes me as inscrutable, having much in common temperamentally with some of the later piano sonatas in its brusque awkwardness.  Still, to his credit, Smiles found the lyrically expressive vein in its two movement’s slow introductions and Selby gave a finesse to the flurries during both the Adagio and Tempo d’andante that lead into the brisk ungainliness of the piano writing in the sonata’s concluding Allegro vivace.

Olding produced a more satisfyingly forward dynamic in his sonata, a polished determination informing the first movement’s exposition and a deft mirroring of Selby in the 25-bar-long development.  Later, in the busy final movement, the honours were rather imbalanced, especially when the semiquavers were flying around in both parts and Olding wasn’t operating on his E string.   But the solid central Minuet-of-sorts proved a rewarding passage-of-play, mainly for Olding’s mid-range polished warmth of timbre.

For excellent ensemble, you would find it hard to go past the players’ reading of the Op. 70 No. 1  Trio, the popular Ghost.   They opened with a particularly striking octave statement, an indicator of the disciplined aggression that dominated their interpretation.  Olding and Smiles have built up years (21?) of Goldner experience and so their dovetailing and imitative work are seamless.   Both the bracketing Allegro and Presto maintained attention for the balanced and complementary colour at work in the string lines, and this despite the pages being pretty  well-worn these days.   But, in spite of the sinuous, suggestive violin part in the spectral Largo, these measures are a pianist’s delight, even with all those tremolo passages, and Selby did them excellent service, her final brace of hemi-demisemiquaver-packed bars a splendid example of swiftly-accomplished diminuendo into silence.

This elevating performance capped off an adventurous night, in some ways.  The cello sonata is a programming rarity, most cellists being happier to present its two predecessors.  The early trio is also becoming harder to find in live performance, although it holds many riches for willing executants.   Put all four elements of this night together and you had a solid taste of Beethoven’s accomplishment across a productive span of 22 years, delivered with remarkably few slips and an impressive breadth of interpretative insight.

October Diary

Sunday October 2

Melba Quartet plays Schubert and Dvorak

Melbourne Recital Centre at 11 am and 2 pm

Who are they, you may ask?   Why, they were the original members of the Australian String Quartet – William Hennessy, Elinor Lea, Keith Crellin and Janis Laurs.   Here reborn under a new name, these venerable musicians are joined by Adelaide pianist Lucinda Collins in two steady-as-she-goes stalwarts of the chamber music repertoire: the 16-year-old Schubert’s String Quartet No. 10 in E flat and the Dvorak Piano Quintet No. 2 in A – a really substantial piece, packed with nationalistic colour and fervour.   We’ve seen most of these performers continue in harness over the years but it will be a real ear-opener to hear them together again after a longer time than many of us would care to remember.


Tuesday October 4

Music of the Great Renaissance Chapels: The English Chapel Royal

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Back in the Salon for the second of its two-part series, John O’Donnell and his singers have centred their activities – so to speak – on the late Tudors: Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth.   Well, not so much on them as on the composers who helped to lift their blood-drenched reigns out of the gutter.   Earliest of the contributors will be Robert Fayrfax, represented by one of his two Magnificat settings.   William Mundy’s antiphonal motet Vox Patris caelestis stands in for the Catholic reversion of Mary’s reign.   Robert  Parsons’ well-known Ave Maria,  the Lamentations of Tallis (the whole lot?) and three Byrd motets I’ve never heard flesh out the period and this slightly-over-an-hour-long recital which opens with an anonymous Salve radix setting.


Tuesday October 4

Speak Less Than You Know

Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

With an updated quote from Lear’s Fool as its title, this program from the Tinalley ensemble has the country’s most noted Shakespearean actor as guest.  The recital opens with Mendelssohn in A minor, Op. 13, but that’s not the chief course at this feast.   Bell will be reading from Beethoven’s letters, escorted on his way with extracts from the Op. 18, the Harp, and Op. 131, 132 and 135 quartets.   It’s a neat conjunction of two fine talents. Yet, for all his overpowering musical genius, Beethoven never impressed me as much of a verbal communicator; not even through the Heiligenstadt Testament which will, I fear, get plenty of attention on this night.   Still, Bell is a glory to hear, as shown recently by his end-of-program Sir Thomas More recitation for the Q&A on Shakespeare  –  the ideal response to Hanson and her home-grown basket of deplorables.   And these days the Tinalleys are working together with formidable strength.


Wednesday October 5


Australian Piano Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

I know three of this group’s members – violin Rebecca Chan, piano Daniel de Borah, viola James Wannan – but the APQ founder/director, cellist Thomas Rann, remains an unknown quantity, despite his having studied here at the Australian National Academy of Music. Given their program’s title, Mozart’s influence is heavy: the Piano Quartet in G minor K. 478 and an arrangement of the Quintet for piano and winds K. 452, presumably the one done by Freystadtler.   Not that you have much to choose from: Mozart wrote only two works for this combination.    Horizons are expanded for a piano quartet by Lachlan Skipworth, premiered last May in Sydney.   The composer has not experienced much live play-time here, although he has had works played at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis series and also I seem to recall a performance of his light rain for shakuhachi/flute and string quartet at fortyfivedownstairs some years ago fronted by Lina Andonovska.


Friday October 7

La belle et la bete

Philip Glass Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

From the look of it, this year’s Melbourne Festival is going to be, once again, light on serious music but stacked with an abundance of forgettable trivialities.   Here is a hybrid event at which Cocteau’s film gains a new sound-track,  Auric’s original score superseded by Philip Glass who has made an opera-of-sorts by having the film play straight through, accompanying it with a small instrumental group (six, I believe) and four singers lip-syncing their recitative lines with the film’s actors.   Why bother doing this?   No answer, except that Glass has carried out a similar exercise with other films.   All you can do is have a look at it on YouTube where the results are probably unfair to Glass; even so, the endlessly whirling orchestration is distracting and the dialogue suggests Massenet more than anything else.   Mind you, the composer won’t be here to talk about his revamping exercise as he isn’t coming here for this presentation, which enjoys three airings – this Friday night,  a 2 pm matinee and another 7 pm evening screening on Saturday October 8.


Saturday October 8

Star Trek

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Myer Music Bowl at 7 pm

We’re promised 50 years of Star Trek‘s musical achievements in this show where the MSO will provide the backdrop for what I suppose will be extracts from the series and its spin-off film extravaganzas.   Yet another music element in the Melbourne Festival’s meagre line-up, this event brings outdoors what the MSO has been doing for some time at the Plenary in the Exhibition Centre complex at the start of the year: Dr. Who extravaganzas, Wallace and Gromit, etc.   Last year, the January spectacular was J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film; this is a sort of amplification of the same principle, one with which the orchestra has enjoyed popular success: the audience gets to see the big-screen spectacle while the musicians play the soundtracks in real time.   It could be entertaining but I have to say that the sheen is wearing off the exercise for me.


Saturday October 8

Ballet Mecanique

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7 pm

Some esoteric music-making distinguishes this night.   Soprano Justine Anderson, percussionists Tim White, Gary France and Peter Neville, and pianist Timothy Young – along with the ANAM percussionists and pianists – present three works of great interest. That one-time Angry Young Composer George Antheil produced his best work early, his most famous score the Ballet Mecanique which began with extensive sound-source requirements and was revised down in later performances; this, I suspect, will be the form adopted here – percussion, four pianos, and an airplane engine (recorded, presumably). Ginastera’s Cantata para America Magica asks for a soprano, 13 percussionists and two pianos; unlike the familiar ballet scores and the sparkling Variaciones concertantes, this piece uses 12-tone methodology.  Young has made his own arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ballet for two pianos (the composer did that himself) and percussion (that’s a new idea).   A program with plenty of hits and, one hopes, not many misses.


Sunday October 9

Schubert Quintet

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Always a pleasure to hear the moving C Major Quintet, one of chamber music’s summits. The players are drawn from William Hennessy’s Australian Octet who also busy themselves with Dvorak’s String Sextet, a work that gets left behind in the wake of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Schoenberg  –  unfairly so.  The ensemble also offers a world premiere: Graeme Koehne’s Nevermore – also an octet and maybe indebted to Poe’s poem . . . but who can tell?    I’ve not heard the octet play, although the members must be MCO regulars; given that background,  you’d have to expect a pretty high standard.   This is the only Melbourne performance of the program.


Tuesday October 11

Cyborg Pianist

Zubin Kanga

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The Melbourne Festival is giving the London-based Australian pianist two programs in its schedule.   For this one, he is working in association with Benjamin Carey who will provide live electronics – are there any other kinds?   The program available is light on details, although one piece that is named  –  Patrick Nunn’s 2014 Morphosis for piano, sensors (attached to the pianist’s hands) and (naturally) live electronics  –  has been recently recorded by Kanga with the composer’s collaboration.   The Festival blurb promises a wealth of physical experience – drones and horror-films in the mix.  The reassuring factor is that Kanga is a fine exponent of the unfathomably modern.


Wednesday October 12

Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes

Zubin Kanga

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Tonight, Kanga goes all classical, taking us into the prepared piano universe of America’s timeless apostle of musical freedom.  The collection of 16 sonatas and 4 interludes remains one of Cage’s most striking constructs 70 years after he began putting the work together. It offered a strikingly original sound-world to my generation; the audacity of turning the piano into a gamelan – and an unpredictable one at that – impressed mightily, particularly if you heard a solid, non-flamboyant performance.   At the time, Cage was interested in Indian music and its philosophical basis, but the actual sound and movement of this cycle suggests Indonesia – a locale with more inbuilt colour and temporal stasis, and a good deal less sonic brilliance and physical excitement in execution.   It was the perfect music for its time and place; these days, an extended exercise in nostalgia.


Friday October 14

The Secret Noise

Ensemble Offspring

Arts House, North Melbourne at 7:30 pm

It’s a catchy name that this group owns but what they actually do remains a closed book to me.   Spearheaded by Damien Ricketson for this Melbourne Festival program, the 20-year-old Sydney ensemble is promising ‘sacrosanct sounds’; whether this is Festival bumf or the ensemble’s own self-evaluation, the adjective seems at odds with the projected entertainment into oddities, explored through a ‘catacomb’.  You get the feeling that the words don’t matter, that talking-up the project is the name of the game.  Still, there’s no telling where the Masonic/Opus Dei connotations of the event’s title will lead audiences. Music, performance, installation: that’s what you get for your money.   The program is repeated twice on Saturday October 15 – at 2 pm and 7:3o pm


Saturday October 15

Musical Maverick

Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

Melba Hall at 2 pm

Here beginneth a series of recitals spread across two weekends and dealing with Percy Grainger.   Performances start today at 2 pom with the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Percussion ensemble performing some of the Free Music, as well as other works not listed; God knows they have a wide repertoire to choose from.   At 4 pm today, soprano Cleo Lee-McGowen and tenor Michael Diminovski, with the Vocal Company,  go for the folk-song component, amplified by some Dvorak and Bartok.   Sunday October 16 has three events: at mid-day, 2 six-hands pianos play The Warriors ballet; 2 pm sees the MCM guitar ensemble play Random Round alongside new works by Ethan McAlister and Jacob Donohue; at 4 pm the MCM Wind Symphony plays some of those works that at one time seemed to be the Eastman Rochester’s preserve.   Saturday/Sunday October 22/23 shuffle these five programs into a different order.  Maybe this strikes you as old-hat, compared to Zubin Kanga’s Cyborg adventures, but Grainger’s sheer prodigality remains a singular marvel of this country’s musical accomplishment, all the better demonstrated by enthusiastic students from the Conservatorium and National Academy rather than jadedly slick professionals.


Saturday October 15

Baroque Brilliance

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Young soprano Julia Lezhneva, last heard here in 2014, is back with Richard Tognetti and his excellent orchestra to sing works you probably haven’t heard; well, I haven’t. Porpora’s florid motet In caelo stelle clare appears to have been resuscitated by Lezhneva, who has recorded it to many plaudits.  Vivaldi’s opera Ottone in Villa holds the aria Leggi almeno; the soprano has also contributed to a full recording of the opera.   Alongside these are two Handel brackets: the three-movement Salve Regina and excerpts from the opera Alessandro, a 2012 Decca recording of which – you’ll be happy to know – had Lezhneva as a participant.   She is contributing four arias from this opera to the evening which caps a great effort from a vocal soloist – seven ornate pieces in total  –  while the ACO will have a relatively placid time working through Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 and a Handel B flat Sonata a 5.


Wednesday October 19


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Well, you can’t say fairer than that: Serenade is the recital’s name and it kicks off with one. Danish composer Emil Hartmann’s Op 24 in A from 1877 is tailor-made for the Ensemble’s personnel – David Griffiths’ clarinet, Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s cello, Timothy Young’s piano – . and its three movements are as agreeable a Romantic era work as you could want with its echoes of ruminating Brahms and all-join-hands Dvorak.   Young gets to play actual Brahms with some extracts from the intermezzi, romance and ballade that make up the Op. 117 and 118 collections.   Guest Fiona Campbell sings the ineffably fine Brahms Op. 91, two songs for voice, viola (Griffiths’ clarinet?) and piano.  Campbell also contributes Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder, either accompanied only by Young or by what must be a remarkable arrangement involving the four instrumentalists available here.   Ingolf Dahl is rarely encountered in chamber music programs these days.   The American composer had a varied life which took in quite a few musical occupations.   His 1947 Concerto a tre employs the unusual combination of clarinet (Benny Goodman at its premiere), violin and cello, its three sections forming a unified whole.


Thursday October 20

A Voice for the Silenced

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7 pm

The subtitle of this event is Composers lost to the Terezin & Sobibor Camps.  Despite a revival of interest in Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust, you rarely come across a full program of their music; at least, rarely in this country.   Two of the writers are familiar: the Czechoslovakian Erwin Schulhoff and his countryman Pavel Haas.   The former is represented by his oboe+clarinet+bassoon Divertissement, a spiky collation complete with a Charleston alongside a theme with variations plus fugato.   Haas’ Wind Quintet of 1929 contains a Prayer and a Ballo Eccentrico at the core of its four movements of Janacek-influenced optimism.   Gideon Klein’s Divertimento for eight wind instruments was written in 1940, a year before he was deported to Terezin.    Leo Smit, a luminary between the wars of the Dutch musical world, wrote his jazzy, wrong-note Sextet for wind quintet and piano in 1932 and it brims with the spirit of France at the time of Les Six.  The brunt of the work in these performances will fall to flute Silvia Careddu, clarinet Paul Dean, oboe Nick Deutsch, bassoon Matthew Wilkie, and french horn Johannes Hinterholzer with some ANAM musicians’ help in the Smit and Klein scores.


Thursday October 20

A German Songbook

Christiane Oelze

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

One of the MRC’s Great Performers, the gifted soprano is accompanied on this occasion by Eric Schneider, with whom she has enjoyed a solid association at European and American festivals and in the recording studio (Strauss lieder, Forbidden Songs).  Tonight, the artists work through five brackets: Schubert (including  Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Du bist die Ruh and Rastlose Liebe), excerpts from Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder (but the program lists all five of them!),  selections from Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook (Schneider has recorded all 46 in the set with baritone Matthias Goerne), five extracts from Schumann’s Liederkreis Op. 39 (a bit less than half the cycle), and four solos by Weill, including the inevitable Alabama Song.   A nice spread of German art-songs moving from the sentimental to the ironic: a field of endeavour that Oelze has made her arena of specialization.


Friday October 21

Melvyn Tan

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

For serious music-seekers, here is the last gasp from this year’s musically anorexic Melbourne Festival.  Tan has been a successful visitor here in recent times, although most of my sightings have been of concerto performances.   This recital begins with Beethoven Op. 109, the E Major Sonata No. 30 with its unforgettable sequence of theme-and-variations at the end.  Tan also performs Chopin’s 24 Preludes.  That’s about 50 minutes’ worth and incontestably fine music, although why Tan should have chosen either is a mystery; they’re not what you’d call festival fare.   More interesting is the ‘international premiere’ (does that mean first time in Australia?) of British composer Jonathan Dove’s Catching Fire, written for Tan and premiered three months ago at the Cheltenham Music Festival.   As far as I can see, this is Dove’s first work for solo piano – a change from his better-known canvas of opera; as well, this is what you expect to hear in a festival context; recycling the over-familiar is an easy-programming way out.



Friday October 21

Holst’s The Planets

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Benjamin Northey, everyone’s favourite Proms conductor, fronts the MSO for this night of classic hits – of a sort.   We begin with Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps Overture, a sprightly sample of British jocundity with a Chestertonian walking theme (if the author could in fact walk that quickly) as its main matter and a contrasting melody that summons up wide-arching vistas of the English countryside – worlds away from Aristophanes’ bickering about the law and filial duty.   Australian pianist Andrea Lam plays the solo in Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 (like Beethoven, this second is really the first); here’s hoping she can cut through the cloying pseudo-scholarship surrounding interpretations of this composer and find a Perahia-like directness.   The MSO Chorus – females only –  join in for the Holst astrological round-up which begins with the most gripping depiction of war in music and ends with the wordless chorus fading away in a remarkably prescient vision of the timelessness of space.


Monday October 24


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This fine ensemble plays a straight program of Mozart, Ligeti and Ravel.  Of course, the title refers to the middle work, the Hungarian composer’s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes, written in 1953-4 during the years of Soviet occupation and not heard until the composer left his homeland for Vienna.   It’s about 20 minutes in length, divided into 17 sections – which means that it is singularly mobile; the night changes are as active as Bartok’s.  The ASQ’s Mozart is K 590 in F, his last in the form and invested with a prominent cello part for its intended dedicatee, Frederick William II of Prussia.   Ravel’s 1903 quartet is an early work but an always welcome experience, unusually warm in its emotional content and less self-observant than some of the composer’s later chamber music.


Thursday October 27

Space Jump

Sutherland Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

I know many people admired Felix Baumgartner, the man who jumped from the stratosphere 39 kilometres back to Earth in 2012 – a great physical feat, they say.   Such a pity,though, that the man opens his mouth.   One fan is Fazil Say, the Turkish musician whose piano trio gives this recital its title.   It begins with deceptive folksy charm, like Shostakovich on a day off, but moves about a third of the way through into more gravitationally hurtling territory.   The ensemble – violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Molly Kadarauch, piano Caroline Almonte – land back on their feet with the Brahms Trio in B Major – emotionally if not physically transporting – and Beethoven’s Trio No. 9; an E flat Major manuscript found only after the composer’s death, this short three-movement work has a dominant piano part.   Filling out the hour comes a world premiere from Mary Finsterer, presumably suited to the available personnel but currently still labouring under the all-purpose title new work – or perhaps that’s its real name.


Friday October 28

The Giants in Music

Duo Chamber Melange

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

No complications here.   The duo – violin Ivana Tomaskova and piano Tamara Smolyar – are performing Mozart’s two-movement G Major Sonata K. 301, the second of the mature-age series.   The duo finishes their work with the Strauss E Flat Sonata, both exuberant and controlled with an intriguing middle Improvisation: Andante cantabile which erupts into a maelstrom of piano activity in its centre and where, despite the promising title, everything is written down – improvisatory in mood, not in reality.   Noel Fidge, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, is a retired Australian biochemist who also studied music at Julliard.    Between the Mozart and Strauss, he is to enjoy the premiere of his violin-and-piano Fantasy.


Saturday October 29

Clarinet Heaven

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Linden New Art at 4:15 & 6 pm

One of the MCO’s smaller-scale events, this pair of recitals brings to an end a roving program that began in Mount Beauty, moved to Pyramid Hill, Bendigo, Elmore and Heathcote before winding up here in St. Kilda at the same time as the Linden gallery’s Postcard Show.   Violins William Hennessy and Caroline Hopson, viola Merewyn Bramble and cello Josephine Vains collaborate with the clarinet of Lloyd Van’t Hoff in a quick-change sequence.   Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor is the last of the composer’s five works for that combination, gifted with an excellent Adagio.   Weber, the clarinet composer par excellence, is represented – briefly – by the 6-minute last movement of his Clarinet Quintet.    Australian writer Nicholas Buc, an MCO favourite, is presenting a new score; no details so far.   Then there’s the focal work: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.  This is one of those masterpieces best experienced at close quarters, like in the Linden gallery, and with absolute trust in the performers to live up to its inbuilt limpid beauty.


Sunday October 30

Beethoven and Britten

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium Southgate at 11 am

A day after the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s revival of the Beethoven C minor String Trio, here it comes again, this time from the MSO musicians.  The personnel involved are all principals: Dale Barltrop and Matthew Tomkins leading the two violins corps, Christopher Moore who heads the violas, and long-time cello first-desk David Berlin.  As well as the Beethoven, all four will present Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, a product of his American years and commissioned by that lavish arts patron, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Both works last about 25 minutes which means patrons are getting a well-focused two bouts of entertainment.   Still, you have to wonder why the authorities are insisting on inserting an interval.  Custom?  Aesthetic relief?  Time-filling?


Sunday October 30

Slava, Rodrigo, Beethoven VII

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at at 2:30 pm

Yes, it’s that poor bloody Concierto de Aranjuez once again.  Slava Grigoryan, now as familiar to Australian audiences as John Williams used to be, is fronting this venerable piece yet again.   But we should be happy that at least here’s one guitarist who can play the thing.   Richard Tognetti will lead another Beethoven symphony, No 7 in A – although I can’t help thinking that we’ve heard this work before from the ACO.   Even so, it’s always a gripping 40 minutes of muscle-flexing to experience, particularly if the Allegretto is treated properly and not as a funeral march.  Melbourne audiences get to hear a world premiere of So dream thy sails by Gordon Kerry, taking its inspiration from a Hart Crane fragment, The Phantom Bark.  This is formally a violin concerto and will feature Helena Rathbone, one of the ACO’s principal violins, as its soloist.

The program will be repeated on Monday October 31 at 7:30 pm.











Man of the moment


Zubin Kanga

Move Record MD 3391


A little under a month from now, another Australian pianist based in London, Zubin Kanga, will be taking part in the ludicrously small amount of serious music offered at the Melbourne Festival with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and a Cyborg Pianist program that sounds – from the little information available – like a mutation into something even newer and stranger than the kind of music to be heard on this adventurous CD.    Kanga plays seven works, most of them by names that don’t register with me.  One that does is Elliott Gyger, Senior Lecturer in  Composition at the University of Melbourne.   Sydney composer Nicholas Vines rings some bells, if faint ones, in my memory; Daniel Rojas, David Young, Marcus Whale and Anthony Moles are simply names; Rosalind Page I’ve heard of but none of her music.  So this recording came as a voyage into the unknown, for the most part.

In fact, this set of works is as close to up-to-the-moment as you could expect, yet another indication of the Move label’s commitment to Australian art and to contemporary music-making in particular.   The pieces by Gyger, Vines and Rojas all date from 2011, the remainder of the content from the following year.   Despite their near-contemporaneity of production, each work is couched in an individual voice.

Gyger’s  .  .  .  out of obscurity, written for Kanga, begins both on the keyboard and in the piano, bringing into force a kind of balance between normal sound production and string-plucking, with some passages of hand-muting for variety.   The piece is both hectic in a well-ordered fashion and yet non-aggressive in atmosphere, unrelievedly active for the performer who is on the move without a pause, the complexity heightened by a liberal use of trills .  In fact, there is one stretch around the 4-minute point where I can’t see how Kanga achieves physically what he does with a vigorous right-hand and stopped plucked notes in the left.   Then, abruptly, the running pattern of notes stops and the piece becomes a soft musing on timbres: the under-the-lid work more metallic in character, the trills all-consuming, the notes arrayed in pointillist fashion before a fine epilogue of soft chords surrounded by a nimbus of string manipulation techniques, as the work’s emotional tenor moves into a cloud-like penumbra before one final, cheeky reference to the busy opening.  More than most of its type, Gyger’s demanding construct is both emotionally sympathetic and unfailingly interesting.

Nicholas Vines’ Uncanny Valley opens with a definite stretch of scene-setting, again using the inside and outside of Kanga’s instrument, the shadowy sound-meshes punctuated by abrupt wood-knocks.  The intention is to investigate ‘a strange perceptual phenomenon in the fields of robotics and animation’, the composer writes.   A set of variations depicts – as far as it can – an industrial robot, a humanoid robot, a stuffed animal, a corpse, a zombie, a bunraku puppet, eventually this species evolution winding up with a human being.  The style of writing suggests a world of references – at one point, Boulez without the dynamic leaps; later, a whiff of Cowell and a smidgen of Nancarrow; the grandfather figure of Cage presiding over it all.   Vines’ variation-shapes in the music itself escaped me, although the obvious indications of a change in attack and atmosphere are hard to miss.  Nevertheless, for this non-initiate, the distinction between the dead and the following un-dead  proved hard to decipher, although I suspect the zombie had more treble register action.   Vines’ piano sounds more prepared than that in the preceding Gyger  work – some paper or cardboard flutters in the instrument’s mid-register; but then, it also seems to be in operation without any notes being played.   And for the final peroration  –  an ascent out of the valley of polymorphs to the triumph of humanity  – any preparedness disappears in a near-Messiaenic ecstasy that makes a vividly affirmative conclusion to the longest work by far on this CD.   This performance is remarkably fluent and the recording exceptionally vivid with a generous reverberation and vital detail in the instrument’s output.

Daniel Rojas follows the lead (so far) by beginning inside and outside the piano.  His Entre Bajos y Alturas (Between Basses and Heights) has three discrete movements and, despite its employment of contemporary sound-production techniques, reveals a Latin-American impressionistic basis.   The first segment, Vastos Llanos (Vast Tablelands) uses what sound like folk-song melodies surrounded by a swirl of plucked bass reverberances and horizon-suggestive washes of sound.   Without a break, the Ochos Entre Dos (Eights Between Twos) hits the tango rhythm but doesn’t actually stay with it; rather, ringing changes on its rhythmic possibilities before coming to a percussive climax beyond anything Piazzolla could have imagined.   This is discarded for a salsa pulse – or something close to it – in the last section, Garras y Abrazos (Clutches and Embraces) which employs dance-rhythms to a somewhat scouring end, the language percussive and repetitious with a bristling ferocity before a sudden hiatus where the composer moves to the prepared section of his piano for a relieving moment.

Not Music Yet by David Young is a graphically notated score, but not the traditional form beloved of Bussotti, Feldman and their confreres.  It is a water-colour (reproduced in the CD booklet) and Kanga passes across it three times, performing in turn one of the three dominant colour-bands on the canvas.   He uses three sound-manufacturing devices for the three spectra: inside the piano for the black, the keyboard for the white elements, and mallets for the blue.  Naturally enough, the work’s progress is as much dependent on Kanga as it is on Young’s painting-score.   Who’s to pick holes in the process?  The performer’s subjective response is unarguable, even if Young insists that the work offers a paradox between precision and freedom.  So it undoubtedly does, and so it always has.  But I particularly liked the player’s conclusion: stopping in the middle of a propulsive action, as though he’d suddenly come up against the painting’s frame.

The disc’s shortest piece is Marcus Whale’s Errata which, unlike its companion works, focuses on a limited range of options: repeated chords, repeated notes and an unsettling air of nervousness until the work’s climax  –  a sequence of right-hand trills above a series of wide-leaping interval jumps in the bass  –   before a reversion to, and an amplification of, the disturbing semi-placidity of the opening, unnaturally sustained by the use of two e-bows (electromagnets) placed on the strings.  What the title refers to as mistakes is explained by Whale as ‘entropic slippages in practice, in machinery . . ‘   His piece gives a striking representation of matters falling in and out of sequence, of chaos avoided, and of the circularity of error.

The painter Imants Tilers and the philosophy of Heidegger inspired Rosalind Page’s Being and Time II: Tabula Rasa. Another three-section work, the composer follows the artist’s painting (also reproduced in the booklet) from left to right: the first part, remember me, reacting to an 18th century goblet, has Baroque flourishes colouring a mobile contrapuntal invention-type texture; the second part, late horizons, according to the composer’s vision, asks how we ‘navigate the abyss’ – presumably, with plenty of pauses for thought and moderated musing; the last stage, cosmos, proposes an environment of ‘the diaspora of constellations’, where time is suspended and music is reduced to well-spaced events – consciousness pinging against the darkness.

Lastly, Diabolic Machines by Anthony Moles opens for all the world like a traditional 12-tone work, the row announced in an angular octave statement.  But it develops into something of an old-fashioned exploitation of piano virtuoso sonorities, repeated toccata motifs topped and bottomed by brief reflecting bursts of action.  The moto perpetuo stops as Moles takes us into a slower version of the opening where two invention-type lines run against each other to a muted, sustained-pedal wash into stasis.  Naturally, the ferment returns, the lines positioned at either end of the keyboard and building to a fine climax using the opening violin-tuning motif from Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz as a constructional tool before a sudden cut back to reveal the invention lines very soft and out of sync at the top of the keyboard, Moles’ machines reaching a futile, inoperative demise.  It’s the sort of work that Michael Kieran Harvey delights in, here carried off with considerable brio and a keen awareness of its opportunities for variety in a pretty tight structure.

You get an awful lot of bang for your buck – literally and financially – in this recording and the great asset is that Kanga makes a fine exponent of each work.  He doesn’t over-emphasize the obvious, letting the multiform methods of making new sounds appear essential to the music’s developmental path.  And, just as important as the interpreter’s skill, each work speaks in a characteristic voice; these writers are not all preaching from the same instruction manual.   If you’re going to hear Kanga at the Festival, this goes a fair way towards exposing his abilities in handling difficult music and finding the best in it.

Much of a muchness


Amir Farid

Move Records MD 3380


A tribute by local pianist Amir Farid to one of the significant figures in modern Persian/Iranian music, this is an album which holds a limited fascination, mainly because it speaks of a world that most of us will never encounter.  Not that Persian music is a completely unknown quantity; I can recall hearing Court music at an Adelaide Festival many years ago and any listener can easily gain access to the nation’s traditional and folk music at the flick of a Google switch.

Javad Maroufi attempted to fuse his country’s music with that of Europe: a hard task when compared with his predecessors in that endeavour as most of them were by birth entrenched in the European tradition.   Maroufi’s education embraced both worlds and his piano music shows the way in which he tried to craft a language that spoke to listeners in both tongues.

Farid begins with Armenian Rhapsody, a soulful piece with a B minor tonality that doesn’t stray far from closely related keys.   A suggestively Oriental melody enjoys a straight common chord arpeggio underpinning and, in a treatment that quickens the tempo, Maroufi uses a dulcimer effect in the right-hand, imitating the santur  –   a cimbalom that is common to pretty much every country in the region from Turkey to India.   The composer faces the same problem faced by every writer using folk-songs: what can you do except play the tune louder or softer, as Tchaikovsky did with his little fir-tree?  The problem here is that, because of the unadventurous harmonization, the melody soon palls.

Fantasie follows the same pattern although the melodic content is more interesting and varied – well, there’s more of it – but the harmonic support is just as staid with no changes offered from a predictable series of underpinning chords. The santur imitation is heavily employed here.   Still there are modal deflections, including a recurring flattened second that contributes some much-needed colour in a none-too-atmospheric ambience.  Golden Dreams is one of Maroufi’s most well-known pieces and it has been subjected to a myriad arrangements.   After a burst of semi-improvisational-sounding introduction, the simple tune – a 6/8 lilt – begins with an Alberti bass underneath.   Farid gives it interest by his maintenance of the work’s underlying melancholy and by investing as much dynamic variety and pliability as he can in a construct that is easy to assimilate, no matter what your language.

Chargah-e-Esfahan strikes a heroic, quasi-Lisztian pose at its opening but quickly reverts to the by-now natural status quo.  A further  burst of action leads to a central section where the melody is interrupted by some flashy scale-work, but the piece seems to be an amalgam of segments, not at all difficult to decipher; some of them have a passing resemblance to folk-dances from further afield than Esfahan.   But Maroufi is concerned to end as he began with the same decorated melody returning to finish, with a final flourish of octaves that irresistibly recall Brahms and Liszt at their most ersatz Hungarian.

Rumi is the shortest piece on the CD; a brief musical vision, I suppose, of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic whose work underpins his homeland’s culture and those of many neighbours.  Any difference to what preceded it on the disc totally escaped me.   Jila’s Fantasy refers, I think, to one of the composer’s daughters and begins with an E minor melody in dulcimer mode; followed by a quicker movement which seems dependent on a simple descending scale and plenty of triplet passages, the opening melody later emerging in transmuted form.  Another tune follows with more obvious modal inflections.  Kuku is the longest work on the disc, but it breaks no new ground.  A tune that could be popular/folkloric in origin is given concordant treatment, as well as the all-too-familiar dulcimer/santur oscillating effect.   By this stage, the cupboard seems to be bare; Maroufi makes no effort to give his works any chromatic spike or rhythmic variety. Indeed, you feel that much of this music is suited to pianists of much less talent than Farid; a fair bit could be sight-read without stress.

The five Preludes owe much in atmosphere to Chopin, but not exclusively so.  There is a repeated passage in the first E Major one that brings to mind effortlessly Schubert’s Standchen and the over-use of sequences in thirds is a Romantic piano trope of the easiest kind; the santur device appears in the piece’s coda.  As it also does at the opening to the next F minor prelude.  But by this stage, the sequences and chord progressions were so predictable that I could play along with Farid, the score for the most part not needed.  The third in the series evokes suggestions of the Chopin D flat Nocturne but without its melodic adventurousness and avoidance of cliche.   A burst of aggression in the centre defuses into dulcimer-work before a return to the first material.   No. 4 in F sharp promises an original touch or two with its opening motive but cannot avoid slipping into the predictable; and, by this stage, those transient heroic flourishes are wearing pretty thin.  The last B minor begins with a deft modal turn or two; then, when the development begins, it reverts once more to a predictable modulation pattern.

Concluding the disc are two short lyrics: Pish-Daramad-e-Esfehan and Sari Galineh.  The first, Prelude on Esfahan  seems to be a well-known tune that Maroufi set in a more brisk arrangement than most others I’ve heard, here splendidly carried off by Farid.  The last work might refer to a village in Azerbaijan but it follows the same pattern as its companion with a few tricks of truncation at the end of phrases.

It’s a set of pieces, in the end, that present no problems – to us or to Farid, who has absolute mastery of the contents. But, compared to what we have seen him accomplish in the Benaud Trio, as a solo recitalist and in concertos, this is not very challenging matter; rather, an Iranian Album for the Young.   You can appreciate the point that Maroufi is straddling two stools and what he achieves in his efforts is not to be derided.  But, in a world used to the folk-song settings and utilizations of Bartok, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Grainger, Copland, even Berio, it seems that the Persian/Iranian pianist-composer was inclined to content himself with the use of too great a formulaic approach to his compositional constructs; at least, these piano ones.   A pleasant enough collection, but a little goes a long way.

Over the top, down the other side


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 10, 2016


                                                                                      Shunsuke Sato

A simple enough program – three works from the Romantic period, so to speak – but the realization was disappointing, to say the least.   Guest violinist/director Shunsuke Sato began his concert with the ABO as though he were directing Il Giardino Armonico in Vivaldi – rushes and retentions, louds abruptly juxtaposed with softs, bite and sweetness mixed in after each other.  But where the Venetian master profits by a passive/aggressive chameleonic approach, Mendelssohn quite simply doesn’t.   Neither does the Grieg of the Holberg Suite.   I’m not that convinced that the Grieg of the Slatter does, either, but that’s a story for another day.

Sato took the leader’s role in the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 3: one of those transparent adolescent pieces of exemplary craftsmanship that the composer completed as homework for his teacher, Carl Zelter.   The initial Allegro has a quasi-fugal shape, including plenty of imitative work for the two violin bodies.   In this performance, the firsts ruled, led from the front with a vehemence that would have amazed the composer, if not appalled him.   From the opening bars on, fluency was out the door, replaced by a welter of swoops and surges, massive dollops of ferment followed by sudden vaults back to murmuring softness.   The central Andante suffered less from this push-me-pull-you approach but the final movement made a reversion to the initial aural juggernaut.

It could have been dazzling, but with another piece – one less formally lucid and free from the strait-laced directness, without a wasted note, that this short score displays.  You were left wondering what this sprucing-up was meant to achieve.  Frissons of shock for the musically bourgeois?   A re-appraisal of the 12-year-old’s emotional depth?  A desire to set the mood for this entertainment?  The effect was of a muddle, as though the original clear lines had been thrown into disarray;  the ABO strings carried out their roles with enthusiasm, but the small symphony’s rationale as a demonstration of lessons learned was obliterated by this look-at-me approach.

The personnel numbers for both the symphony and Grieg’s suite – 6,6,4,4,2 – were sufficient for the task, if the second violins made a subsidiary force most of the time, positioned on the right side of the stage so that their instruments faced the back wall.  Yet with the whole group in full cry, you were hard pressed to point to many moments of clarity. The Grieg Prelude was overplayed, given too much heft for its congenial buzzing stream of semiquavers; the following Sarabande showed that, in Sato’s interpretative world, the portamento is alive and well, as is the disturbingly long pregnant pause.   In the Gavotte pages, the Musette emerged as a welcome oasis: regular in metre, sprightly in its phrasing, gaining much by not encouraging extra weight in the drone bass.  For the Air, Sato led from the front, urging his forces on with what sounded like impatience, at points ahead of his firsts cohort who responded quickly enough but appeared to be taken by surprise at their director’s rubato.

Sato’s duets with Monique O’Dea‘s viola punctuating the Rigaudon came across with the necessary vitality, if the lower voice sounded somewhat muffled, but the full-orchestra passages were heavy-handed.   Still, this weight exertion had been a consistent feature of the whole interpretation, particularly at cadence points – both half-way marks and concluding bars – where the ritenuti were laboured to an irritating point time after time.

Saturday evening’s second half was dedicated to the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor.   Sato’s distinction in this repertoire is that he plays on gut strings, thus following the period requirement and giving you a sound that the composer himself would have produced.   The ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, conducted an orchestra with a full complement of brass, woodwind and two percussionists on timpani and bass drum; Dyer rather awkwardly took over the function of triangle player for the third movement Rondo.

You could find certain aspects to admire in Sato’s reading of this work.  The high melodic lines on his E string carried ringingly throughout; the more concordant double-stops, as at Letter B of the first movement, proved to be authoritative and true; ditto the tenths that first appeared 7 bars further on; another purple patch followed after Letter D.   The more chromatic passages in thirds failed to impress for purity of articulation; ditto some of the octave and saltato work; but then the entire section in 6/8 proved remarkably fine.   This oscillation between the excellent and the fair enough continued for much of the opening Allegro, capped by a cadenza of unknown provenance and some vulgarity.

By eschewing the delights of metal strings, Sato also missed out on the strikingly brilliant passage work characteristic of the Accardo, Ricci, and even the early Grumiaux recordings where the rapid-fire technique-taxing passages make an indelible impact, not to mention the harmonics interludes which in Sato’s performance were pretty faint by the time they reached the back of the Murdoch Hall.

The central Adagio enjoyed a sympathetic airing, but then it’s a close-to-uninterrupted lyrical gift for the soloist after the introductory 16 bars and there is little wriggle-room except to play it as written.    As for the galant finale, Sato enjoyed his work right up to the last theme statement at Letter M; I must confess to being relieved to reach the finish. The technical display was satisfying to watch, especially when it succeeded fully, but you missed any sense of bouncy jauntiness, any personality; the movement was a sustained effort in display.

Now, it would be foolish to expect no emphasis on physical execution in a Paganini concerto; the greatest violinist ever had no compunction about setting himself ridiculously difficult hurdles to overcome and his reputation depended greatly on his genius at making the violin do the apparently impossible.   For all that, Paganini was a serious composer and a work like this D minor concerto is formally exact, developed in perfectly orthodox manner and, if the soloist occupies the greatest focus of the limelight, that’s integral to the piece.   Yet it has to be negotiated carefully, with consideration that its demands don’t twist its shape.   Sato’s treatment occasionally took metrical liberties as he gave himself plenty of space to leap into a problem, then also took his time over a piece of lush lyricism.

Dyer’s orchestra was overblown to an almost painful point in the tuttis, the brass and percussion combination taking over at all the loudest moments, the three trombones over-encouraged to a ludicrous degree; in fact, the strings needed to be at least double in number – and a bit more – to offer any balance to the mix.   The conductor made an active figure, gesturing voluminously at any group or individual who had the main melody, bouncing from leg to leg in the Rondo, sharing a laugh with the audience at a Harpo Marx moment in one of the cadenzas.   I think it’s fair to say that, if you’re in charge of the orchestra in a Paganini concerto, you’re really a cipher; the soloist gets, and deserves, all the attention.   The conductor’s job is to spearhead the full orchestra interludes – and they play themselves – but mainly to keep the soloist’s accompaniment supple, following his/her lead and, above all, staying in the background. Like a surgeon, your first duty is to do no harm.

Sorry, but I came away from this night dissatisfied, unhappy with the interpretations offered of all three program constituents, wishing that the orchestra had stuck to its Baroque last rather than making forays into a period currently outside its expertise.

Wineing the ghosts of yester-year


Kreutzer Quartet

Move Records MD 3371

Kreutzer Quartet

This CD consists of four string quartets composed between 1964 and 1975 – the heyday of contemporary Australian composition – coming from four once-important names: the Melbourne music critic Felix Werder, Sydney visionary Nigel Butterley, leader-of-the-pack Richard Meale, and returned expatriate Don Banks.  The performers are an ensemble new to me; British in origin, it would seem, and with a respectable discography of modern British and American music, although this particular CD seems like a well-meant stretch from their usual field of operations.

The performances are vehement and splendidly sharp in detail, nowhere more so than in the earliest work, Werder’s String Quartet No. 8 – Consort Music; one of the composer’s 12.  To my shame,  I’m struggling to remember a live performance of any of them.   Immensely fecund, Werder did not get much of his large output recorded, so this reading comes as a chance to fill in at least one gap in our knowledge.   I used to own a World Record Club LP which contained  No. 6 in the composer’s catalogue,  performed by the Austral String Quartet; unfortunately, one of its companion pieces was Butterley’s Laudes, which  took my attention away from its companions –  both the Werder work and Dorian Le Gallienne’s worthy four Donne settings.

This Consort Music begins with arresting discords, scrapes, glissandi – incidents, really – and proceeds to follow an inscrutable path of hot and cold action that at times is static and remote, then rorts through passages of disjunct violence; at times, you suspect that the organizational field is 12-tone, but the usage of glissandi and a few patches of clear repetition make you suspect that possibility.   Whatever the case, the work is often repellently active: ideas piled on top of each other, varied modes of articulation superimposed, a few wisps of motive-melody treated with ironic wistfulness before being hurled aside for the next eclat.   I’ve listened to it on and off for about a fortnight and it retains its secrets – although it is emphatically a product of its time, one where local writers were keen to embrace the brave new world of post-Webernian composition, fusing the sound-production trickery with Schoenberg’s assertiveness of voice.  As far as I can tell without a score, the Kreutzers do this one-movement piece good service.

Butterley’s 1965 quartet, the first of his four, is in two movements and the first is perceptibly 12-tone in its initial material and, for the most part, slow-moving and meditative with most of its dynamic coming not from decibel strength but from contrapuntal interplay – waiting for a line to enter as a complement or following a strand in a field of Nebenstimme backdrop.  The second part opens with a fortissimo free-for-all without bar-lines, although the cello is the organizational fulcrum.  Here, Butterley attempts to embody the opening of Henry Vaughan’s The Revival:

‘Unfold, unfold!’ Take in his light

Who makes thy cares more short than night.

In fact, in its later stages, this movement suggests a spiritual awakening or epiphany through slow-moving homophony/chorale motion, jagged bursts of solo flight as striking as affirmations of belief, and a near-cessation of action at the work’s end where the top line is still left inquiring despite the accomplishment of an emotional peace. This work is, despite its central eruption, more orthodox than its predecessor on the CD, but its intellectual trajectory is much more accessible, the composer’s language harnessed to a discernible course.

Richard Meale begins his String Quartet No. 1 with aggressive sustained, clashing chords that lead to a sequence of variations.  As with the Werder work on this CD, the emphasis falls on the event for its own sake as timbres and attack modes alternate to signify new material, or new treatment.  The environment is unrelentingly contemporary, with passages that move slowly in a dream-world alongside spiky angularity, broad swathes of sustained discordant work for all lines.  It’s an alternation of worlds that both interests and irritates; you sense that the instrumental discourse is controlled and directed but the matter is so diffuse in its presentation that assimilation is difficult.   Meale’s second movement, far away, has the players seated with their backs to the audience, distant from each other at the back of the performing space or stage; a debt to Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2 which has the intention, by physically separating the executants, of making it seem as though we are hearing four different pieces.  Meale’s second movement soundscape is slow, loaded with harmonics and long single notes underneath this upper scintillation.   The first movement’s studied activity has disappeared, replaced by a placid landscape of pointillism: a remarkably effective farewell to modernism because, after this piece, the composer moved to tonality with results that disconcerted a good many of his admirers.   The Kreutzers negotiate both halves of this work with equanimity, giving vent to the opening segment’s oscillating brutalism and close argument, then taking pains to give space to the second part’s calm juncture of pinpricks and stasis.

The String Quartet by Banks is the composer’s only work in the form, written during his time at the Canberra School of Music and a strictly controlled work in its first five minutes where the writing is acerbic, almost to the point of gratingly doctrinaire.   Luckily, the composer’s whimsy emerges, the academic stringency loosens and, when he quotes his opening strophes near the 10-minute mark, the effect is to show how genial the work’s atmosphere has become.   Now there is room for hints at lyricism, even sentiment, interspersed by the odd abrupt wriggle, as in the section where the first violin follows a melodic line in harmonics while the cello bubbles with slight menace below it.  The basic material doesn’t appear to have changed; its manipulation certainly has and, one outburst reminiscent of the opening pages apart, Banks stays in nocturne mood to the end with its haunting F-Fsharp-F cello repetitions fading to black.  Of all four quartets, this one is the least difficult to follow as an organic construct and the performers are comfortable with its clear-cut requirements which, even if it is the most ‘modern’ work here, are comparatively conservative.

No, string quartets don’t tell the whole story of the renaissance in Australian music that came with the 1960s but this representative sample offers an intriguing study in approaches to the form; how tradition was adopted, discarded, mutated by these composers whose voices – apart from Butterley, who is still living – have been largely forgotten. Thanks to the Kreutzers, we can hear resonances of some decades that were full of vigour and enterprise, when the music world in this country was smaller and new work was greeted with unusual readiness and an almost compulsory approbation.

Competent but bland


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

September 4 & 5, 2016


                                                                                Elisabeth Leonskaja

Here was a puzzler.  The content was fine, typical ACO fodder: the Capriccio sextet, Mozart’s Jeunehomme, and the Beethoven Op. 127.   Both string works were arrangements by principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve, who knows what he’s about.  But the Monday night performances left a sense of dissatisfaction after all three works were completed.

Rather than launching into the Richard Strauss opera prelude with the full ACO involved. Valve began with the piece as the composer wrote it: two violins, two violas, two cellos pouring out a mellifluous harmonic concordance.   And so it continued up to Figure 2 where the tremolos begin in all lines and the rest of the players were brought into the discussion.   Fine: a proper place to do the transformation, swelling the texture  .  .  .  except that in the actual event it jarred and you had to adjust abruptly to allow for the shift where the sinuosity of the original sextet was lost in more solid sound-washes.

Later, Valve again cut back to the original format – at the point where the curtain goes up on Act 1, I think – bringing the corps back into play for the concluding bars.  The standard was what you’d expect from this body, for the occasion directed by Roman Simovic, concertmaster with the London Symphony Orchestra.   If the violin attack lacked the bite and uniform accuracy that obtains when Tognetti is at the front, that’s understandable, although this was the 7th out of nine performances of this subscription series program.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, soloist in the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, is a veteran performer with a pretty full calendar throughout the year, both as concerto soloist and as recitalist.  Her reading of the work could best be described as undemonstrative.   And that’s fine; who wants a full-frontal ego projected on this urbane, aristocratic music, some clown determined to make a difference by abrupt shifts in dynamic or slicing up defenceless passage work?   For those of us brought up on Ingrid Haebler, a certain reserve in the Mozart concertos is prized, particularly when it leads to readings of intellectual perspicacity and enunciative clarity.

But this Jeunehomme ambled.   Sure, the notes appeared in the right places and the mesh between soloist and orchestra was hard to fault –  except that the tuttis and the passages with exposed horns and/or oboes took on unexpected significance, compensating for a lack of intensity from the piano.   Leonskaja’s cadenzas came over with exemplary lucidity but infused with little personality; even that garrulously rapid concluding rondeau passed by without raising the performance temperature by much, missing out on any enlivening energetic kick.

The soloist gave us an encore: the Chopin D flat Nocturne, negotiated with sensitivity and a steady pace, yet deficient in sparks even during the right-hand decorative cadenza-spurts, the whole competent but emotionally bland: just the same as the concerto.

Valve returned to the lists with his arrangement of the Beethoven E flat Quartet, the later one in that key introducing the final five in the series.  And, after this hearing, it strikes me as being the one among them all that responds pretty poorly to expansion into string orchestra form.  The trouble with the first movement is that the developmental process is undramatic, non-theatrical, harmonically simple to follow; all you achieve by expanding the forces involved is a kind of middle-age spread.   Whatever tension exists between the lines is evened out, often smothered in plump amplitude. Further, the dynamic switches can’t strike home as hard when more than one player is involved.

The quartet’s second movement begins in even worse case; its opening theme’s A flat tonality might take some time to settle but there is precious little chromatic inflexion to disrupt its even presentation.  Yes, the complexities arise soon enough but even the slightly whirling activity generated by demi-semiquaver patterns turns to slurry when a group of four or five is playing them simultaneously.  The only pages that seemed to me to succeed here came at the third variation, Adagio molto espressivo, when the syncopated trills and violin lines’ imitations stopped, the key moved to E Major and the basic theme was transformed into a clear-speaking melodic line for the first violins with placid harmonic support.

The Scherzo worked best of all, despite some intonational slips among the violins.  The massive chord snaps at bar 60 – and, later, bar 330 – best illustrated how you could amplify the percussive power to be found all over the composer’s last works, and the Trio-Presto impressed for the rapid responsiveness of the ACO executants.   But the finale brought back memories of the initial Allegro where what interests you when four players engage in a clear-voiced argument becomes, in the string orchestra transformation, something more texturally diffuse, the modulations less striking, the driving animation verging on the mechanical.   Again, a generally well-accomplished performance but, instead of giving some insight into Beethoven’s compositional practice, the process seemed to summon up echoes of 19th century string serenades, or Grieg’s Holberg, even Elgar on an indifferent day.

And so we say farewell


Melba Hall, Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne,

Sunday September  4, 2016

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                                                                                Joan DerHovsepian

Winding up the Mimir operations for this year, the quartet/quintet in residence played a program that began with the folklorically simple and ended in a pillar of the string quartet repertoire.  Not that it made much difference to the performance standard which remained at a top-flight level punctuated by moments of inspired and insight-rich accomplishment, to the point where it will be hard to avoid drawing invidious comparisons for the coming months with what we have heard during this past week.

Turina’s La Oracion del Torero paints lavishly coloured pictures of a rather well-behaved corrida before actually getting round to the stage where the bull-fighter gets down to his first prayer for survival.  The piece is impressionistic, opening with shadings and flutterings, before delving into some Falla-style dance pages –  a rather idealized scenario for what is a truly bloody business.   Curt Thompson took first chair, with Jun Iwasaki his second; Joan DerHovsepian and Brant Taylor continuing as viola and cello respectively. This performance preserved the composer’s contrast between the popular and the personal as the arena’s display breaks in on the torero’s musings concerning his fate; for all the possibilities, the prayer is rarely clouded with doubt and ends in a sweet high-pitched passage of religiosity. What the ensemble had to do with this deft piece of program music, it did with definition and an avoidance of too much vibrato.

Moving back 32 years in time, the Debussy String Quartet saw Thompson and Iwasaki change seats to launch into an emphatically well-etched first movement where the rhythmic underpinning was set down without any of the rubbery pliancy that bedevils other interpreters trying to come to terms with this formally firm construct in the oeuvre of one of music’s great tempo-twisters.   The clear definition remained a constant in the succeeding scherzo; excellently carried out with split-second accuracy through its flighty bounds from abruptness to florid melodic bursts, but finished off with as elegant a final 10 bars as I’ve heard: the triple piano G major susurrus and final three pizzicato chords as welcome as icing on a light sponge.

The players gave a certain weight to that muted sweetness that bookends the Andantino, although the gloves came off for the middle section where the key signature changes and, in this instance, Brant Taylor gave a finely consistent account of the surging mini-melody that begins seven bars before Figure 13 and which found completion in Iwasaki’s poignant re-statement before the mutes come on again.   As for the final Tres modere, the most impressive moments came from DerHovsepian’s viola, surging out with menace at the Tres mouvemente change, then leading the way into new territory at Figure 17 and maintaining a firm voice in later proceedings.

And the series concluded with Schubert in D minor, Death and the Maiden.  Stephen Rose returned to the first violin seat and the work began with a gritty flourish.  The exposition repeat was ignored but you could detect few signs of flagging stamina in this first movement with its fiercely argued statements and oscillations between triumphant blazonings and delicate murmurs.   The final 16 bars of the Tempo 1 coda came close to ideal, showing the core of steel under the surrender of the descending four-note motif that brings about a desolate conclusion.  Taylor’s contribution to the second movement Andante proved exemplary, for his unforced articulation in Variation 2 and his powerful presence in the second part of the fifth variation where his line remained dominant despite the ferment above.   I was again taken with the close-to-sul tasto passages in the scurrying last Presto and the subtle use of instrumental breath-breaks in a movement where the usual rule is that the devil takes the hindmost.

Yes, there were some signs of discomfort in this Schubert – mainly a few left-hand problems that marred the mix – but the performance encapsulated the point of Mimir.  This is what chamber music-making is about: an endless capacity for taking pains, a complete familiarity with the material; a continual state of awareness of what others are engaged in and where you fit into the mesh, a consciousness of what the music should sound like and how best to achieve the composer’s aims.   Of course, the same applies to other forms of musical performance but most of these qualities seem to loom larger in a context like string quartet playing.   It’s a great pleasure to see experts of this calibre leading the way and sharing their talents with young Australian aspirants to their seats.

One out of three?


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday September 3, 2016

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                                                                            Ralph Vaughan Williams

It’s a fraught business, picking masterpieces, and trying to do so when treating music of more recent times presents substantial difficulties.   Most of us would not argue with John O’Donnell and his Ensemble Gombert when they selected Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor as the opening to this ambitiously named concert.  The work is much loved in the English-speaking world for its serene fluency, a sort of inevitability that takes you back across centuries of self-regarding English church music to the magnificent assurance of the Tudor masters.

Expanded slightly for this occasion to twenty voices, the group produced a perfectly satisfying reading, with a splendidly full interlocking of voices at the great double-choir moments: the opening to the Gloria and its Cum Sancto Spiritu pages, both the Cujus regni and Et vitam venturi from the Creed, those seraph-suggesting Osanna antiphonal strophes, and the spacious breadth of the last page’s Dona nobis pacem pleas.  In the best British choral tradition, the four soloists proved equal to their tasks, carried out with care and no attention-grabbing quirks; the only glitch I detected came in the last exposed tenor solo of the Agnus Dei where the high G sounded strangled.

Hugo Distler‘s Totentanz is an impressive construct  . . .  but a masterpiece?   It could be, but the choral components bear only part of the score’s weight.   The work is a real Dance of Death  –  a voluble character who invites a range of representative individuals to give themselves up to the inevitable.   Starting with an emperor and working through the social ranks to a new-born child,  Death orders each to join the dance, answering their pleas for mercy/understanding with an unanswerable response concerning what each of the condemned could have or should have done before facing the Judgement.

This is conducted in rhymed spoken dialogue, the source Johannes Klocking who shaped his verses for Distler’s use.   The choral contribution comprises a group of 14 Sayings, aphorisms by Angelius Silesius from his The Cherubinic Pilgrim of 1657, the ones that Distler chose all commenting on the coming interchange between Death and his newest victim.   After a fashion, these spruchen serve as off-centre chorale-preludes, proffering brief statements about the condemned one’s condition or failing(s).  The problem is that DIstler’s settings, apart from the bookends, are truly aphoristic – no sooner begun than over – which makes it hard to find a consistent field of operations from the composer.  The choral writing is challenging for its application of dissonance, but the briefness of Distler’s statements has the impact of diffusing any compositional personality.

O’Donnell had one singer reciting Death’s lines and shared the roles of bishop, physician, merchant, sailor and the rest around his ensemble, which coped with some stickily consonant-rich German quatrains quite well, if a few of the nouns and verbs were transmuted in the process.   Yet, at the work’s conclusion, despite the encircling and infiltrating effect of the music, the greatest impression is made by Klocking’s stanzas with their no-nonsense self-evaluations and insistence.

Petr Eben‘s Horka hlina or Bitter earth is an early work from 1959-60 when the composer was 30.   It consists of a setting for baritone (not an over-taxed role), mixed choir and piano, of poems by Jaroslav Seifert, the Nobel Prize-winning Czech poet who produced these nationalistic verses in 1938 as his country faced Nazi invasion.   The imagery is emphatic and repetitious – a bayonet, a painted jug, grapes/flowers/grain/stones and pebbles – and the settings are either stentorian or folk-style sentimental.   Both outer movements – Song of the Men and Women, and Song of the Poor – have voluble piano accompaniments, here performed by O’Donnell.   Streams of powerful virtuosity introduce and sustain chorus work that is declamatory and full-blooded.  The central piece, a mainly a cappella Song of the Homeland, has a quieter ambience and more lyrical melodic content. But on one hearing – and I could find no recordings of the work – it is hard to enter into evaluative detail of worth.    A masterpiece?    I think Eben would have proposed others among his works more qualified for that title.

Nevertheless, the Gomberts’ performance of this and the Distler work, with the participants coming down from the altar to the front of the chapel pews, proved highly persuasive, particularly the ensemble’s mastery of Seifert’s texts in the original Czech.