A tour, not the full package


Nancy Tsou

Move Records MCD 546


I could be getting precious (ha!) but the title of this CD has me querulous.   If the cover reads The Nocturnes, then I reckon you should get the Nocturnes – all of them.   That’s not the case with Nancy Tsou’s latest album.   Of the 21 (19 regular, 2 extras) in my edition, the pianist presents only 13.    For reasons best known to herself and the Move production team, she omits Nos. 2 and 3 from the Op. 15 group, both the Op. 37 pieces, the second of the Op. 48 pair, both the Op. 62 works and – not so importantly –  the two-page miniature in C minor from 1837.   Not that the recording is under-length physically, coming in at about 69 minutes.   But, if you were after the lot, you’d better look elsewhere.

Tsou begins with the posthumous C sharp minor; for some reason, this has been a favourite with film-makers in recent times.   She is very free-and-easy with the application of rubato, particularly in the con forza bars 13 and its repetition at bar 46.   The reading has a clear sensitivity, even if its Lento could have been applied more literally.

Moving into the canon proper with the Op. 9 B flat minor, the metre treatment is even more cavalier, notable for a tendency to linger before a bar’s second half, emphasizing the irregular melodic placement of the main theme.  Nothing exceptionable here; the right hand work offers an even line with few surprises, although the second-last bar was rushed.   For the famous E flat Major No. 2, the hesitating and pointing of notes is played up; Tsou uses some alternatives in bars 22 and 35, the latter of which I’ve not heard before, but that’s not saying much with a very well-known work that has enjoyed more than its share of differentiating ‘takes’.   One of the longer nocturnes, No. 3 in this group, again rings idiosyncratic bells, although the pauses on first notes in some bars did little for the internal fluency of this (initially) light-stepping piece.   Later, at the  Agitato change to B minor, the texture grew muddy with too much pedal and a lack of clarity in the inner syncopated chords.

The cantabile direction heading Op. 15 No. 1 in F is somewhat sapped by Tsou’s elasticity in the top melodic line, let alone the by-now inevitable pauses/hesitations.   Later, when the mood changes to con fuoco and the minor, I would have preferred seeing a more strict adherence to the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern against the escorting sextuplets, particularly in bars 45-47.   The remaining parts of the opus are omitted and sadly missed, especially the perfectly shaped Larghetto in F sharp.

A convincing version of the first Op. 27 in C sharp was only marred by a repeated lingering on the initial strokes of each bar after the Piu mosso change-over.   Tsou might have taken the last three-bar Adagio more slowly, although the pivotal bass notes resound satisfyingly.   It proved easy to like the player’s command in the D flat No. 2: an informed combination of restraint and lyricism.   Still, the fioriture in bar 52 could have been more lightly delineated and I’m not sure that much was gained by the extra ornamentation from bars 66 to 68, piquant though it sounded.

For the following Op. 32 B Major, I’ve not heard before the practice of converting nearly every soprano line first-beat acciaccatura into an appoggiatura; not that it matters over-much but it does flat-line the melodic rhythmic surprises. The D flat Major work that follows, a pianist’s delight, suffered from Tsou’s determination to interpolate pauses where they were not needed.   Chopin has gifted this nocturne with a rolling, infectious melody; why interrupt its progress?   The decorative work in bars 14 and 22 is laboured; notes failed to register during the central pages, notably in the top left-hand chords, but the whole segment was taken too quickly for comfort.

Skipping Op. 37,  the pianist moves to the C minor Op. 48 and things are well enough until the hectic arpeggios start.  I suppose you can treat these with a certain amount of liberty; Tsou does – and that would have been fine if the piece had stayed in time, but when the double octaves get under way, the work slows down and the bravura is dissipated in obvious effort.   As in the previous work, the inner workings of the doppio movimento return are cloudy, hard to single out in their context.

The plain-speaking Op. 55 in F minor suffers from another overdose of the pointed hesitation, which interrupts the measured pace of its regular bass-line.   Sadly, the reversion at bar 73 does not come creeping slowly, the spectre at the feast after a contrasting interlude, but is treated matter-of-factly.   At the end, Tsou does not reserve her forte for the last three chords but plays all four last bars at the same dynamic level, which is not the most inspired choice in handling this strong-minded, poignant conclusion.    But you could point to other occasions where the listener is left-footed by odd decisions; by this stage, the effects are rarely challenging or informative.   The companion No. 2 suits itself about the irregular gruppetti, even as early as bars 7 and 9: the left hand slows down to make way too much space for them to be slotted in, a process that reaches an apogee in bars 35 and 36.   Yet again, passages are blurred by sustained pedal work across half-bar lengths.

Last track of all is the posthumous Op. 72 No. 1, the composer’s first nocturne that didn’t come up to his standards.   This reading is fluent and competent but lacks a sense of impetuosity where it is needed from bars 31 to 38, at which stage Chopin’s right hand rhapsodises against the relentless quaver-triplet bass line.

Which is eventually the chief problem with these nocturnes.  The performances are able, occasionally persuasive, but they lack compelling passion.   You can point to pages where Tsou is on the verge of moving into a gripping interpretation, but the rubato brake is applied, or the dynamic stays in a rut, or emphasis falls on a particular note that disrupts a work’s fluency.    In a crowded market with complete sets of the nocturnes from Arrau, Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Ohlsson and Pollini still available, you’re spoiled for choice.  This CD is not operating at that exalted level, but it makes the most of its executant’s virtues and abilities.

Finishing their year on a high


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday October 24, 2016


                                                                                     Gyorgy Ligeti

Now that the underwhelming serious music content of the Melbourne Festival has passed into a well-deserved oblivion, we are watching most local ensembles and organizations close down for the Christmas/New Year (and beyond) break.   Monday saw the ASQ performing its final subscription series recital for 2016 but the group’s assurance and insight left you hopeful of even better things to come when the musicians re-assemble next May – with guest Slava Grigoryan –  for the first of the usual three inter-capital tours.

Like the Beilman & Tyson duo a few days before, the ASQ opened with Mozart, which always strikes me as either a foolhardy or a supremely confident gambit; the instrumental web for most of the composer’s chamber music is not so much fine as exactingly precise – no time to feel your way in or sloven around with the back-of-the-conscious reassurance that the exposition repeat will signal the group’s ‘real’ start on the matter in hand.   Even more ambitious, this kick-starter was the  K. 590 in F Major, last of the ‘Prussian’ trio – indeed, the last work by Mozart in this form.

In its opening statements, the players went for drama, extending the third and sixth bars’ rests into what came close to a general pause; understandable, given the music’s momentarily brusque nature, but presenting as something like overkill in this essentially urbane compositional ambience.   Most of the striking initial Allegro fared well, with occasional question marks over the mediant’s tuning in cellist Sharon Draper‘s upward-rising common chords; part of that famously outstanding bass line intended to showcase the capabilities of Friedrich Wilhelm II, the alleged dedicatee of the work.

What one carried away from this interpretation was a reinforced admiration for first violin Dale Barltrop‘s subtlety of output.   He was in the thick of things when the going got rough and raspy, as in the Menuetto‘s Trio and across the rapid-fire finale; but the lacework moments, like the decorative line above the first melody’s iteration at the Andante‘s opening, the throwaway interpolations topping the first movement’s gossamer coda, or the burden of activity at the work’s end, all delighted for their release of tension in a reading where Draper and viola Stephen King showed no hesitation at hurtling into the action with a vigour just this side of confrontation.

Draper spoke to us before the group launched into the night’s semi-title work, Ligeti‘s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes, giving the 60-plus-year-old construct a sort of context, including the warning that it could be ‘scary’.   Possibly, if you were a newcomer to chamber music.   But this score stands more as a young composer’s dealing with his heritage and what he thought was the prevailing musical environment of the mid-1950s.   It jumps from one activity to the next with enormous agility; as there are 17 sections in all spread across 20 minutes, the chances of following the work’s four-note nerve-cell are not great.   Still, the debt to Bartok’s night music escapades (what did you expect with a subtitle like that?) remains apparent and constant, with lots of bridge and fingerboard bowing bursts, some effective harmonics, glissandi for that scare factor – all carried off here with excellent crispness, the players’ weaving in with each other without faltering.   Ligeti springs a continual series of surprises, none of them electrifying these days but a clever canvas of contrasts prefiguring the greater, larger scale works to come.

To finish, the ASQ headed to Ravel, and justifiably so.   Here was an eloquent interpretation which showed how the allocation of weight means everything in this light-filled masterwork.    As the movements slipped past all too rapidly, you were struck afresh by how much the work’s development comes from the first violin-viola interplay, often almost antiphonal in its structure; this time, Barltrop complemented King with a steely determination in the outer movements.  All members worked towards a well-rounded version of each movement, vitally percussive in the pizzicato-heavy Assez vif and then unfolding the muted languor of the Tres lent with its Proustian hothouse suggestions.

Particularly in this endearing work, the quartet members showed a brand of synchronous individuality that marks them off from other ensembles.  This quality doesn’t just come from Barltrop’s quiet authority and linear purity, nor from the firm deliberation of King’s tenor, nor the evenly generated warmth across the full range of Draper’s resonant Guadagnini, not even Francesca Hiew‘s vitality in imitative or support passages with her leader.   I think the group’s appeal comes from an innate assertiveness that survives the demands of ensemble-work, where a musician is expected to subsume natural inclinations when faced with the general good.

Each of these contributors preserves his or her voice and they come through clearly, no more so than in a work like the Ravel with its continuous opportunities for each of the four participants to exercise  –  often pretty discreetly  –  a personality.   Yes: roll on 2017, with more of the same.

Encores galore


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1502


This is a double CD which contains a plethora of pieces that, over my time listening to recitals, many pianists have used as encores.   Brawn travels across time indeed – starting with Scarlatti and Bach, then finishing up with Prokofiev and Gershwin.   He follows a scrupulous chronology, ensuring that Chopin (born 1810) comes before Liszt (1811), and keeps Scriabin ahead of Rachmaninoff, the mystic born a year earlier than the great pianist-expatriate.

There are a few carry-overs from Brawn’s first In Recital (MS 1501) volume; he has different interpretations of the first Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the third of Liszt’s Consolations, and the Prelude in B minor from the Op. 32 set by Rachmaninov.   As grounding comparisons, he accompanies the Bach re-examination with four other preludes from the same Book 1, and fits the re-cycled Rachmaninov inside a context of four disparate preludes.   A pity that the Liszt remains alone here, especially when Brawn showed his talent with this composer by way of an expert Mephisto Waltz No. 1 in the previous album.

The time difference is not too important in the Bach interpretations: the earlier 1:58, the later one 1:49.   It’s a bit more telling with Brawn’s B minor Rachmaninov where 5:57 changes to a racier 5:03.   And the Consolation moves from 5:24 to 4:11   –  a substantial change of approach; well, a more purposeful performance, you could say.

Disc 1 opens with two well-known Scarlatti sonatas: the E Major K. 380, and C Major K. 159.  The first enjoys a crisp airing with a fair swag of detached notes in the right-hand scale passages and the trills and ornaments are neatly inserted, the pianist saving his powder for the B Major climax in the second half.   Much the same applies to La caccia where the dynamics are more engaging than on many another disc: not just through juxtapositions of piano and forte, but a clever gradation across the central segments of each half  –  impressive in illuminating this simple-speaking bagatelle.

After the C Major Bach prelude, Brawn offers the C minor, D Major, E flat minor and E Major ones; fine, although I would have been more satisfied if a few fugues had been added.   Nevertheless, the D Major piece is articulated with precision and, as with its predecessor, projects a gentle flamboyance in the final bars where the motor-rhythm stops for a mini-cadenza flourish or two.   Brawn  makes no attempt at emotional dryness with the sarabande-like E flat work, using his instrument to give the two pages a romantic sensibility but without sustaining-pedal washes.  Still, the finest in this set comes at the end with an urbane rendering of the E Major invention, given with grace and a non-insistent metrical regularity; here, most of all, you would have welcomed the complementary fugue as a sprightly consequent to this prelude’s amiable gentility.

Mozart is dispatched with the Rondo alla turca and the D minor Fantasia.   Even with the first work’s over-familiar pages, Brawn maintains an interestingly light texture, especially when the janissaries are in full A Major flight.   Also particularly worthy of note are his left-hand arpeggios: brisk, not over-loud, appropriately suggestive of elegantly civilized drum fusillades.   He keeps the longer work measured, infusing the opening Andante with a muted emotional detachment which obtains even in the piece’s three cadenza bars where the approach is deliberate, eschewing the temptation to turn their swooping scales into leaps of legerdemain.   The result of this approach is to push the dramatic balance to the score’s front, the D Major Allegretto properly a relief of tension but something of an addendum.

Beethoven’s Fur Elise Bagatelle makes a fair space-filler, but the stretto from bar 61 to about bar 83 showed a nicely contrived mini-climax in what remains a sweet but insubstantial set of pages that lives up to its descriptor.   Schubert’s F minor Moment musical, the jog-trot No. 3, raises no eyebrows, nor does the G flat Impromptu, even if you could quibble with a few leaning-post moments where the regular sextuplet/triplet underlying figure is slackened – you understand why, but not necessarily the places where this rubato is brought into play.

Brawn presents seven Chopin pieces: three preludes and four etudes.  The E minor Prelude from Op. 28 makes a soulful introduction to Brawn’s approach to this supreme piano composer; the left hand is allowed to speak distinctly, where other interpreters muffle its repeated chords.   The sweep of the final Op. 25 Etude was well-maintained, this reading favouring the first accent of every tempestuous bar, which is probably wiser than treating its progress as 2/4 rather than 4/4.   With the E Major No. 3 from the Op. 10 Etudes, Brawn relished the fierce central pages where the mood changes from nocturnal to the heft and plosiveness of a polonaise; again, some over-sensitive pauses/hesitations emerged in the main theme’s reprise.

A shapely version of the Op. 25 A flat Aeolian Harp Etude accounts very well for yet another encore standard, capped by an attractive concluding four bars of arpeggios that actually make you think the work’s nickname might be appropriate.   Brawn ends his first disc with the Black Key G flat Major from Op. 10; it’s very vigorous, handles the right-hand trickiness with plenty of brio and only a few notes fail to carry.   Some chords in the bass are pretty emphatic at several points but the interpretation succeeds for its appealing bounce and well-judged tightening and loosening of the initial rhythmic juggernaut, sprightly though it is.

Disc 2 opens with the Op. 28 Raindrop Prelude in D flat, one of the lengthier pieces among the 24 in Chopin’s publication and very well-known in its own right.   Brawn does the right thing by sticking with his opening tempo into the central C sharp minor segment and doesn’t over-egg the two high-points in G sharp.   Concluding this bracket is a real rarity, both in actual programs and as encore fodder: the Op. 45 Prelude in C sharp minor.  Here is a persuasive account of a harmonic tongue-twister that the performer welds into a coherent whole without a trace of unnecessary theatrics or manipulation; indeed, this version is spartan in its lack of introduced ornament or colour-adding arpeggiations.

The Liszt Consolation No. 3 follows, the left hand susurrus generally more rapid than in the previous recording and with less time allowed for labouring over the melody.   Is the quickened pace an improvement?   Maybe.   But if anything sums up the sort of thing a fagged-out concerto soloist would like to treat adoring fans to as a goodnight gesture, this is it.   Of the Brahms Op. 39 Waltzes, we hear the penultimate and popular-favourite one in A flat Major; not too slow and not too light, especially when the triplets start in the reprise.   A more moving depth comes in the composer’s A Major Intermezzo from the Op. 118 Klavierstucke where Brawn spares us any muddy thickness, relying on the piece’s inbuilt phrasing, simply following where the composer leads, which is both honest and refreshing.

Grieg’s 23-bar-long Arietta that introduces the Lyric Pieces Op. 12 raises few ripples, apart from its cadential disruption of the composer’s habitual two-bar sequences/patterns.   Scriabin’s C sharp minor Etude is an AMEB staple, a fusion of Chopin and Rachmaninov, capping off a sequence of seven tracks that are a collective corner of temperamental reserve in this album.   Speaking of Rachmaninov, Brawn begins his tour with the famous C sharp minor Op. 3 Prelude, the one that composer wound up loathing.   Matters are fine up to the Agitato which Brawn takes fast to begin with and ups the ante so that the section loses balance  –  no, evenness  –  between the hands.

The G sharp minor Prelude, penultimate in the Op. 32, works much better through a dexterous recovery rate and a pliancy of metre.   The B minor No. 10 from that same set is exceptionally well accomplished, packed with telling details like  the three bars leading into the L’istesso tempo pages – a model of taut deceleration in atmosphere – and the gentle delivery of chords in the final twelve gloomy bars.   Listen to the restatement of the main theme in the following Op. 23 D Major where the action is in the alto line for a sample of digital skill and reliability; or the change in intensity at the move back to the major in the Op. 32 G Major’s last a tempo marking – simple yet striking, even in a moment of harmonic relief.

To finish, Brawn plays Prokofiev and Gershwin.   The Russian composer’s Toccata makes a striking encore but it’s exhausting; not that this puts off some players who can’t get enough of performing time.   This reading has a heart-in-mouth climax, the three bars of right hand octaves thrilling to hear; still, I would have liked the motor rhythm sustained without a break until the rallentando marking is reached.   I Got Rhythm in transcription (by Gershwin? Suppose so) is a 90-second flourish which raises the spectre of both the composer and Oscar Levant with its clever harmonic shifts and progressions.

You get a lot for your money in this demonstration of the keyboard’s historical progression; some fine interpretations are peppered throughout both discs.  Of course, you might carp (as I have) about some of Brawn’s readings but even the questionable tracks are some steps above the everyday that you hear regularly.  It’s an enterprising and entertaining trip that this gifted pianist takes you on and, if you meet a fair few familiar faces along the way, so much the better for the encounter’s informed nature.

New talents in cool combination

Benjamin Beilman and Andrew Tyson

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday October 22, 2016


                                                                                  Beilman & Tyson

The second-last set of guests for Musica Viva‘s subscription series recitals this year are better-known as individual achievers, prize-winners at competitions for their instruments, rather than as chamber music laureates.  In fact, as far as I can see, their association with each other, as opposed to their relationships with other duo artists, is of pretty recent origin: an all-Mozart recital at the Louvre in March which included the Violin Sonata in A Major K 526, as on Saturday’s program; another at Wigmore Hall on July 10 where they played the Janacek Sonata.

The other elements in their Australian tour are a new work by Australian-born, Glasgow resident Jane Stanley, Cerulean Orbits (in two sources, her first name has been re-gender-assigned to ‘John’), and the Saint-Saens Violin Sonata No. 1.   By the time they reached Melbourne’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, the pair had negotiated these four works ten times in a 17-day stretch crisscrossing the country, which must have given them a remarkably concentrated opportunity to hone their interpretations; the final performance should be a gem.  After which, I’d assume, they’d be happy to give these scores a rest for quite a few months.

Meanwhile, we reap the benefits.  The Mozart proved to be a polished, well-synchronised performance; in fact, a standard-setter for the rest of the night.  In the first Molto allegro,  Andrew Tyson’s touch was lapidary-refined, each note slotted into position with singular craft, while his Presto finale could hardly be bettered for fleetness of finger-work.  Benjamin Beilman allowed his partner to set the running, coming into prominence where required, but the reading as a whole favoured the keyboard’s output, although honours were split more evenly in the middle Andante with its unsettling, plain-speaking octave doubling passages.   A different perception of the piece to your classic Szeryng/Haebler delineation but shaped  – no, honed  –  to a very high standard.

The tables weren’t quite reversed for the Janacek work.   Long in gestation and even longer in revision, the sonata shares problems equally as both instruments cope with its alternating bursts of spasmodic interjections and short-winded tunefulness bordering on the folksy.   Here, Beilman enjoyed more exposure, even if Andrew Tyson’s percussive explosions sometimes drowned his pizzicato doubling, or later his rapid downward scales in bars 2 and 4 of the third movement Allegretto.   But both musicians were intent on communicating the essential bite of Janacek’s writing where even a simple lyric like the second movement Ballada can’t be relied on to remain lyrically plain, or harmonically definite: just as you think you’re happily in E Major, the menace of C sharp minor wins out at the end.   This segment of the work impressed most because of the affecting embrace by both executants of the composer’s restless, unapologetic sentiment.

While Tyson dealt forcefully with the irrepressible jagged rhythmic patterns and complex trills that dominate the piano’s content in both of the first two movements and that return at the finale’s climax, Beilman brought a persuasive warmth to the Poco mosso section of the final Adagio, capped later with a rasping glow at the Maestoso G-string melody that rises to a weltering high B flat before the sonata ends in whispers and tight-lipped depression.  The players maintained tension throughout this work, taking their time over its relieving interludes so as to more effectively set up the following frenetic action.

Jane Stanley’s work was introduced by Tyson with an admirably fluent pre-performance address which went as far as possible, in the time allocated, to unveil some of the orbital mysteries.   This new score’s progress seemed to hold little meat beyond a series of timbral and rhythmic patterns or motifs, complete with sparse passing quarter-tones for Beilman and punctuating chordal splodges from Tyson.   Any suggestive extra-terrestrial images came from some high, ethereally calm passages for violin, while the arrival of space-junk generated a patch of twitchy, if not temperamentally refractory, playing  –  to my mind, the short piece’s most arresting moment.

In the Saint-Saens D minor Sonata, the players found performance gold.   Like a fair amount of the composer’s work that I know, the requisite virtuosity isn’t that demanding on fingers being urged to negotiate hard-to-manage chords and positions, but more reliant on the musicians’ response rate, which has to be lightning-fast.   Beilman and Tyson were note-perfect, as far as I could tell, and easily at home with the composer’s flamboyant style.   Just as in the preceding works, if more noticeably here, their collegial phrasing, agreement on points d’appui, interdependence in spots of rapid execution  (like the helter-skelter doubling – really, tripling – that breaks out about 12 bars before the final Animato indication in the Allegro molto) informed a reading of striking efficiency and brio.

Yes, the sonata is an intrinsically flashy piece, one that draws attention to its own brilliance and that of its interpreters – as in the central section of the Adagio which is flattering for everybody involved – or when it gets stuck in  bar after bar of light-hearted repetition (see the third movement’s change of key to E flat).   For all that, it suited Beilman and Tyson exceptionally well, allowing them to give free rein to their executive skill and high-powered temperament.   Here’s hoping their future performances together gain in interpretative depth because this set of four works demonstrated to a high degree their matched abilities and capacity for concentration and the impressive results that come from simple hard work.

This program is repeated on Tuesday October 25 at 7 pm.

November Diary

Wednesday November 2


Speak Percussion

Arts House North Melbourne at 7:30 pm

This is promoted as a 45-minute exercise – which I’ll believe when it ends on time. Percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott has created a new variable speed rotating instrument with engineer Richard Allen.  The construct has been complemented on this night with a rotational lighting system and multi-channel audio; in other words, it will bathe you in a super-sensory experience.   Assisted by Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti, Schack-Arnott will perform his Anicca, a word that denotes impermanence with references to both Hinduism and Buddhism, both sources of inspiration, if not theological/experiential crutches, for many Western artists.  I’m hoping for something a touch more coherent than Ensemble Offspring’s offering during the Melbourne Festival which also promised a journey towards the immanent.


Wednesday November 2


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre at 7:30 pm

This is being advertised as the first professional presentation of this oddity in Melbourne, if not the country.   I must admit to having been primarily attracted by the opportunity to watch Richard Divall at work in the pit once more, but I understand that his appearances have been cancelled because of illness and Melbourne Opera regular Greg Hocking will conduct.   Elena Xanthoudakis is singing the title role, Sally-Anne Russell the part of Jane Seymour, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i takes on Henry VIII, Boyd Owen plays Henry Percy, Dimity Shepherd will sing Mark Smeaton, and Phillip Calcagno appears as George Boleyn.

At least, I think that’s the way the singers will be arranged; I’ve got the names but the matching roles are unspecified, so these allocations are guesswork.  This opera is a closed book to me, as I’ve not heard one skerrick of Donizetti’s score.  A lot of homework, then, between now and November 9.

Further performances are on Saturday November 5 and Wednesday November 9 at 7:30 pm, and at Monash University on Saturday November 12, possibly at 7:30 pm.


Thursday November 3


Xuefei Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7: 30 pm

Last in this year’s Great Performers series for the Recital Centre, Xuefei Yang is a guitarist who is best known here for her performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra two years ago.   Here she plays solo, of course, beginning with a Bach lute suite, her own arrangements of some Granados and a Chinese traditional song, as well as a Ross Edwards premiere – Melbourne Arioso.  Then she moves to South American names, all Brazilian and most (all?) of them would be known to guitar aficionados and fans of the Grigoryan brothers.   The lead-in is easy enough with three pieces from Villa Lobos’ Suite populaire brasilienne; then it’s over to teacher/performer Dilermando Reis, the bossa nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim, his one-time collaborator Luiz Bonfa, and Anibal Augusto Sardinha  –  the last three composers’ pieces all in arrangements.   We’ve seen many Chinese-born pianists and violinists, and also masters of the country’s own instruments performing in Tan Dun’s concerts with the MSO.   But Beijing-born classical guitarists are rare creatures in this city, let alone in this pianist-heavy series.


Thursday November 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

There’s no denying the MSO’s enthusiasm for these screen-the-film-and-play-the-soundtrack events; judging by the information coming out now, there’ll be lots more of the same in 2017.   Meanwhile, Harrison Ford commits his first Dr. Jones adventure tonight – probably the best of the four, from its scene-setting rolling stone opening sequence complete with Amazonian natives’ blow-darts to the apocalyptic finale  where the baddies feel the full wrath of a vengeful-in-disturbance Old Testament divinity complete with howling angels.   We all recall the jaunty main title theme without much prompting; as for the rest of John Williams’ score, I’m sure that everything will slot into its half-remembered place.  No idea who is conducting but will it matter?   The administration keeps on adding extra shows as the original sessions fill up.

The program is repeated on Friday November 4 at 8 pm and on Saturday November 5 at 2 pm and 8 pm.


Saturday November 5


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

A mandolin player from Israel, Avital appeared with the ABO two years ago to a warm response.  Tonight he is soloist in Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto RV 425 and Paisiello’s Concerto in E flat.   But there’s more  –  possibly.   Also on the program are three other Vivaldis: the Concerto for Strings RV 110, a three-movement overture;  the A Minor Concerto RV 356 which is for violin solo; and Summer from The Four Seasons, which also needs a violin soloist.   You’d have to assume that Avital will fill in, wouldn’t you? Giovanni Valentini’s Concerto Grosso in A minor is complemented by a piece for mandolin and string quartet, written for Avital by American composer David Bruce.   Cymbeline has nothing to do with Shakespeare, it seems, but is closely connected to Celtic sun myths. The piece has had a fair few performances in America, Germany, Canada and Israel; sadly the composer’s website shows he’s unaware of these upcoming ABO airings.

This program is repeated on Sunday November 6 at 5 pm


Sunday November 6

The Tallis Scholars

Hamer Hall at 6:30 pm

This well-known vocal group is appearing under Arts Centre sponsorship, in association with Orchestral Manoeuvres and Maxima Artists, companies about which I’m completely ignorant.   Whatever the background, this group is here for a one-early-evening-stand, conducted by founder Peter Phillips.   The program begins with the eight-voice motet by Peter Phillips, Cecilia virgo, which is followed by two Tallis works and the eight-part Lamentations by Flemish 16th century writer, Dominique Phinot.   Then the rot sets in with some Arvo Part, his genealogical Which was the son of . . .    After interval, the contemporary takes continue with American youngish gun Nico Muhly’s Recordare, Domine, and Tavener’s As one who has slept.   Phillips and his singers (how many? The core of ten? Or more, to fill this large air-space?) return to the Renaissance with pieces by Clemens, Crecquillon and Byrd.   None of this is familiar to most of us, apart from the Tallis Lamentations 1; but there’d be plenty who would be delighted to hear this ensemble sing anything.


Tuesday November 8


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge at 7:30 pm

Finishing up for the year, Kathryn Selby hosts cellist Julian Smiles of the Goldner Quartet, Australia Ensemble and Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and violinist Daniel Dodds of the Festival Strings Lucerne.   The ‘big’ work will be the Brahms Piano Trio in B Major, that rolling heart-quickener.    Also, the musicians play Schubert’s Sonatensatz, the adolescent composer’s only prefiguring of the two great piano trios of 1827.   Tristia, the piano trio arrangement of La Vallee d’Obermann by Liszt, gets a rare outing and the stocking-suggestive title refers to Gerard Brophy’s 2000 Sheer Nylon Dances, a work that has been performed in various instrumental combinations but here appears in its violin/cello/fetishised piano format where window stoppers are inserted between the strings in a lukewarm imitation of Cage’s prepared keyboard  of 70 years ago.


Thursday November 10


Syzygy Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Penderecki’s Clarinet Quartet of 1993 is followed by Mexican composer Gabriel Ortiz’s The Two-Headed Eagle,  American Richard Toensing’s Ciacona and Roger Smalley’s Poles Apart, all of which ask for the same basic quintet.of flute, clarinet and piano trio.   It’s never easy to work out who will be playing because the Syzygy personnel swap around; so you can’t tell what the level of performance is likely to be.   Still, this is a well-spread program geographically, although the compositional time-span involved is pretty tight.  It’s a contemporary music ensemble so you have to take a fair bit on trust.


Friday November 11


Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The ANAM Orchestra will be directed by Ilyich Rivas,  a Venezuelan 23-year-old who seems to be going places after a brief American apprenticeship and some impressive appearances in Britain.   He is taking his equally young charges through Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite  –  as a demonstration of the Academy’s depth of instrumental colour, you’d suppose.   The organization’s long-time resident pianist, Timothy Young, is soloist in the Ginastera Concerto No. 1, which is quite a workout for all concerned but a work that involves you by its sheer force of personality.   The big finale is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor; although the ANAM players often succumb to the temptation to over-indulge in such a big and impassioned score; there’s always the chance that Rivas will be able to rein them in.


Friday November 11


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Have you ever heard a performance of this concerto that hasn’t satisfied?   Well, yes, you probably have, but let’s hope this one turns out to be acceptable.   Soloist is Alban Gerhardt, whom I’ve not heard before; he plays a 1710 Goffriller, so there’s a good chance we’ll hear all the notes.   American conductor Andrew Litton reappears after a long gap to lead the MSO in Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture, a bon-bon that needs a light touch, and the Prokofiev Symphony No. 6 which requires the opposite: a wrenching threnody, for the most part, and a fierce commentary on the suffering inherent in the human condition, evoked in the composer by the aftermath of World War 2, although it stands as a valid commentary on today’s bloody Middle East conflict.

This program is repeated on Monday November 14 at 6:30 pm.


Saturday November 12


La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 6 pm

With this Dantesque title, the early music band concludes its subscription series.  The proffered goods come from Italian composers ‘at the turn of the seventeenth century’; rather confusing to my limited intelligence because this could mean the turn into the 1600s or music on the cusp of the 1690s-1710s.   But it’s going to be the former, as the advertising material also refers to Monteverdi.  So, as well as that towering father-figure, we could be in for a night of Grandi, Priuli and Donati as well.  It will be an intriguing program mainly because I know very few instrumental works by Monteverdi; La Compania will doubtless have a vocalist guest or two – which can present an audibility problem when the cornetto and sackbuts with a rampant shawm or two are in full cry.


Saturday November 12


Wilma & Friends

Scotch College at 7:30 pm

Having set up base in Scotch College’s Ian Roach Hall, former concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Wilma Smith has followed the path pioneered by Kathryn Selby (& Friends) by inviting guests for her series of recitals to collaborate in chamber music-making.   In July, along with other local musicians, she hosted David Griffiths to centre the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets.  Tonight, it’s the turn of Scotch old boy cellist Yelian He and pianist Yasmin Rowe to partner Smith’s violin in some unarguable gems: Mendelssohn in C minor with its grand Vor deinen Thron-quoting finale, the formidable Brahms No. 1 (four days after Selby and her guests play it at the Deakin Edge), and Haydn in C Hob XV: 27 with one of the composer’s most infectious Presto finales.   I’ve heard only one recital in this space – a choral one from the Concordis group – but it’s ideal for music of this genre with a roomy operating space and plenty of wood casing.


Sunday November 13


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra will again be supplemented for this program with wind, mainly because the afternoon ends with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony No. 45 which asks for pairs of oboes and horns as well as a bassoon.   Flutes, clarinets and harps are needed for a full realization of the scheduled Meditation from Massenet’s opera Thais, the only work on the program I can see that will exercise the Musicians’ soloist, violinist Ksenia Belenko.   For the Viennese content, Pam and his musicians will perform waltzes and polkas by three of the Strauss family and one of the Marches militaires by Schubert. Alongside this European content sits a 1995 piece by George Dreyfus, Love your animal, a six-minute ballad for pairs of flutes and horns with strings.


Tuesday November 15

Trio Dali

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Appearing again for Musica Viva, the Dali group finish their year’s work in this country. They follow their host organization’s model by performing an Australian work; in this case, it’s Roger Smalley’s Piano Trio of 1991, a piece composed as an obligatory hurdle for competitors in that year’s Melbourne International Chamber Competition.  In two parts with a pair of linked movements in each, it is based on a Chopin mazurka; here’s hoping that this time I can work out which one of the 59 it is.   The group also plays on this night Beethoven’s happy-tempered Op. 1 No. 1 and the 26-year-old Chausson’s  Op. 3 which, despite its many advocates, you rarely hear live.

The Dalis present their second program – Smalley again, Mendelssohn No. 2 in C minor (three days after Wilma & Friends play it at Scotch College), Schubert in B flat –  on Saturday November 19 at 7 pm.


Friday November 18


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

The 40-plus sketches in question are by the youthful Mozart; small pieces for the most part, but original, if corrected by his watchful father.  There are a lot of them and several have been arranged in mini-suites, which is probably the case here where William Hennessy and his devoted ensemble will perform a sonata movement in G minor, a B flat Andante, a Rondo in C and Sicilianos in D minor – all originally written for piano, on this occasion arranged for string orchestra.   The afternoon’s guest is violinist Grace Clifford, last heard with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Bruch’s G minor Concerto at an end-of-July pair of Prom concerts.  Today, she performs Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending rhapsody and the ever-welcome (George Bernard Shaw thought so) Mendelssohn E minor Concerto.    Furthering the English connection is Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides (close enough, I guess); Warlock’s Capriol Suite (sad Peter/Philip was born and died in the capital); yet another string orchestra arrangement, this one of Byrd’s Sing joyfully six-voice anthem; and the second movement World-War-Two-prefiguring  Threnody from John Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale.

The program will be repeated in the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday November 20 at 2:30 pm.


Sunday November 20


Trio Anima Mundi

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne at 3 pm

It’s an old line but a good one that the Germans of the 19th century applied to England – mainly out of chauvinistic superiority (and God knows they had a lot to feel top-doggish about) but equally applicable to several other countries at the time.   In any case, the Anima Mundis are out to scupper this libel with Malcolm Arnold’s 1956 Piano Trio Op. 54; you also have probably never heard it but the composer’s reputation for professional skill gives grounds for a welcoming anticipation.   As well, patrons will be treated to James Friskin’s Phantasie in E minor which shows by its title its relation to the Cobbett Phantasy Competiition (in which Friskin, a Scot who migrated to America, was one of the prize winners), and a piano trio from 1921 by Rebecca Clarke, Friskin’s under-rated wife.  As a side-path from this British emphasis, the recital will also feature the first performance of the winning entry in the Anima Mundi Trio’s chamber music competition for this year.


Monday November 21


Latitude 37

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm.

The Latitudinarians host Melissa Farrow who will bring her flute to the mix in J.S. Bach’s Trio Sonata BWV 1038, to set the standard for what comes after   –  which looks like a family reunion with appropriate works by Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Wilhelm Friedemann – the three Big Boys.   Carl is represented by a violin sonata and a gamba sonata with fortepiano; J.C. F. gives us a trio sonata with the same scoring as his father’s, as does Wilhelm.   You’d expect to hear how his sons improved on their father’s effort in the chamber music field; perhaps they did, especially in lyrical loquacity if not in linear construction and that inescapable sense of inevitability.   A valuable lesson here in inter-generational influences – or not.


Sunday November 27


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Violinist Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is guest director for this penultimate ACO concert for the year.   She has charge of yet another string quartet arrangement for string orchestra: Beethoven’s Op. 131 in C sharp minor with its unusual seven movement structure.   Borrani also heads Schubert’s 5 Minuets and 6 Trios, part of the D. 89/90 compendium from the composer’s 16th year.    And she takes the solo in Schnittke’s Sonata for violin and chamber orchestra, which I understand to be a 1968 arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 1, although it might just as easily be the 1987 arrangement of the composer’s Violin Sonata No. 2.   Will it matter?  Probably to Schnittke enthusiasts; as for the rest of us, . . .

This program is repeated on Monday November 28 at 7:30 pm.


Sunday November 27


Team of Pianists

Glenfern, East St. Kilda at 3 pm

Rather doubtful how comfortable this setting is for a horn player.   The front room of the Glenfern mansion is a sterling place to hear solo pianists but Roman Pomonariov’s horn in full cry might be another thing.   With violinist Elizabeth Sellars and the Team’s Rohan Murray, he will perform the wonderfully weltering Horn Trio by Brahms; then couples it with Lennox Berkeley’s Op. 44 Trio from the 1950s, written for Dennis Brain.  The English composer rarely gets a hearing today, which is a pity as some works in his catalogue are well worth reviving.   For all that, this trio is one of Berkeley’s scores that has survived in the horn trio’s admittedly limited repertoire and Team patrons will certainly hear every note of this reading.

Cut-down ACO in top form


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday October 15, 2016


                                                                                    Julia Lezhneva

It had nothing to do with the performance but I fell ill just before interval at this concert and went home, rather than risk disrupting my neighbours in the night’s second half; added to which, kidney-stones have a powerfully distracting effect on your concentration, no matter how ravishing a Handel aria’s execution.

Still, I stuck around long enough to hear soprano Julia Lezhneva sing Porpora’s In caelo stelle clare fulgescant motet and the Salve Regina antiphon setting by Handel.  This is a highly individual voice, light and buoyant with unexpected carrying power across its range, even in the lower registers.  Much of Lezhneva’s technical equipment is based around her rapid negotiation rate, which can be appreciated best in fast scale passages, but what startled me – so much so that I wasn’t sure of what I was hearing – was a kind of one-note trill during the Porpora work.  It recalled the effect that you hear in sections of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, where one note is repeated in rapid, detached semiquaver action. Lezhneva is adroit in handling the normal cadential trills but this not-quite-tremolo is strikingly unusual.

It first appeared when she reached the volent in fronde aves canendo phrase and immediately struck a response; what better way of simulating exactly that image?  Further on, the device is employed to just as brilliant an effect in the mecum gaudendo passage to suggest elated spirits.   But by this stage, Lezhneva had delighted with a richness of ornamentation and a splendid pliability of phrasing, almost caressing the line into shape. With a corps of about eleven strings only, Richard Tognetti and the ACO grounded proceedings with an accompaniment of exemplary subtlety.

Just as arresting as her decorative work, the soprano made a brilliant impression with her brisk and flawlessly accurate account of the motet’s concluding Alleluia, handled with bravado but sensibly so that the long chains of scale passages came across with clarity and balance – not the scramble that some Baroque interpreters give to such flights of vocal velocity.  The only fault you could pick with the whole account came in a high A (at least I think it was: Tognetti had brought his tuning down to 415) that for some reason came out as half-hearted, although it was awkwardly positioned – not cadential but not able to be thrown away as part of a roulade.

In the Handel piece, Lezhneva enjoyed even more success, probably because the combination of sentiment and fireworks is much more dramatically shaped.  The slow wide-ranging sentences of the opening, where the children of Eve emphasize their depressed state, enjoyed excellent exposition, notably at the point where the music becomes monosyllabic as the suspiramus setting brought out the dramatist in Handel and the actress in Lezhneva.

Despite the warm pianissimo ending, carefully negotiated by the soprano and her sparse string accompaniment, the Murdoch Hall audience relished the middle section’s rapid-fire jollity, particularly those sections where organist Erin Helyard and Lezhneva imitated and duetted in a setting where buoyancy and an old-fashioned desire for contrast resulted in an emotional musical language at odds with the text – well, actually riding roughshod over the images of the Virgin’s merciful eyes in favour of a vision of Jesus the fruit of her womb who for Handel was obviously a baby with a bent for the happier side of infant life.

But it satisfied both as a contrast and complement to the Porpora work, exhibiting both composers’ approaches to happiness and veneration, the interpretations equally satisfying although, as you’d expect, the merits of the Handel left the greater impression because of the felicitous flow of the master’s melodic genius.   But then, Handel had the advantage of setting a straightforward and well-known text with a limited emotional framework, so much so that he used it as a blank canvas, while Porpora was determined to relish the sidereal and bucolic riches of his text with galant flamboyance.

Just as enjoyable as Lezhneva’s contributions was the ACO’s account of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C with two oboes – Benoit Laurent and Ludovic Achour  – and bassoon Jane Gower fleshing out the strings,  as well as Helyard ‘s harpsichord and Axel Wolf‘s theorbo.  Tognetti directed a taut reading of this relative rarity – well, rare when compared to its B minor companion for flute and strings: a concert-hall regular  –  which was cleverly organised so that the wind trio weren’t called upon to play continuous doublings.  As with most of Tognetti’s re-examinations, this made an object lesson in shading, most obvious in the long-winded Ouverture where the continuo’s cutting undercarriage gave the violins a vital balance.

Each of the following dances spoke with distinct character: the slightly off-centre Courante, that odd Forlane melding the rustic with the courtly, an improbably fast rendition of the Bourees.   But the final Passepieds proved to be a touchingly gentle set of pages, investing the whole performance with a tolerant humanity, the composer’s three levels of activity fusing into a simple but elevating farewell.  This suite represents for me the sort of playing that the ACO accomplishes without peer in this country, and with precious little competition from what I’ve heard elsewhere.

When the audience gets in the way


Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday October 9, 2016


                                                                             Markiyan Melnychenko

As most local chamber music enthusiasts know by now, the Australian Octet is an off-shoot of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra,  with William Hennessy the artistic director/leader of both bodies.   Now in its third year of operations, the Octet is a mobile organism; not only touring but adjusting its personnel so that programs can take in a much wider range than only that written for all eight string instruments.

Sunday’s well-attended recital made a case in point.  The whole group appeared for the premiere performance (in this hall, at least) of Graeme Koehne‘s Nevermore  .  .  .  which has been set up for the orthodox Mendelssohnian personnel of four violins and pairs of violas and cellos.   Speaking of orthodoxy, the score is a model of old-style lyricism and harmony, undemanding of any auditor’s forbearance in its one-movement minor melancholy, richly satisfying for its performers as it gives each instrument a flattering area in which to operate and asks for none of those brusque, even violent sound-manufacturing techniques that have become vin ordinaire since the start of the last century.  Koehne points to Poe’s The Raven and Verlaine’s Nevermore sonnet as source material; perhaps better tied to the latter than to the American’s gnomic nightmare.

I identify the piece more with the French poem because the work’s emotional world suggests retrospective regret, if you want.   But in its nature,  Nevermore  .  .  .  is a music that looks backward to an aesthetic that abjures adventurousness and plays expertly with a traditional mode of composition.  Not that this was unexpected from the creator of To his servant Bach, God grants a final glimpse: the morning star which comes close to a celebration of the German composer couched in parameters that remain well inside a conservative field.  At odd moments in Nevermore . .  .  you aren’t inclined to think of specific composers so much as of a period; although the traces often defy specificity; at two points, the inescapable suggestion of a the dansant‘s salon ensemble came to this mind.  Whatever the case with those of us trying to categorize the work, it very clearly appealed to the Octet’s audience which emitted a murmur of approval before applauding.

In Dvorak’s A Major String Sextet, Markiyan Melnychenko took Hennessy’s position as first violin, supported by fellow violinist Robin Wilson, violists Merewyn Bramble and Tobias Breider, with cellists Paul Ghica and Josephine Vains.  While all pairs made excellent contributions to the work’s progress, the violins proved an exceptionally fine combination, particularly during the second movement Dumka, their passages in sixths showing an admirable empathy in pitch and phrasing.  This success continued even in the following Furiant, notably at the testing octaves that abound from from Letter H onward.

Although the concluding set of variations works some notches below the inventive spirit of the preceding movements, these musicians made it an enjoyable experience, their linear interdependence and character well-defined and invigorating to experience.  As a contributor to the work’s success, it’s hard to look past Melnychenko – a born leader who sets a high standard but observes his own place in the ensemble.  At the end, other players clapped him on the back – a rare accolade in my experience but well-merited here for the combination of directional control, encouragement and finesse in delivery with which he brought this work to completion.

Performing in the program’s title work, D. 956 in C Major, Hennessy returned to first violin with Madeleine Jevons his ever-secure second.  Breider made a formidable alto voice, while Ghica and Vains took on the terrors and delights of first and second bass lines respectively.   Interpretations of this apical masterpiece come in many varieties: quite a few blood-baths of woody texture, others holding back on the vibrato and weighty right hand for a more polished sound-world, while an unhappy few border on the nondescript.  This run-through succeeded for its generosity of dynamic, which rarely teetered off balance except at two points in the first long Allegro,  as well as a reassuring precision in bowing attack.  The players did not repeat the first movement’s exposition (thanks) or one or two in the Scherzo/Trio complex.   But the work unfolded with an open-handed graciousness, including a tautly balanced Adagio where the holy calm of the outer segments was achieved with respect for the score; the central F minor outpouring conserved its most fervid moment for the true crisis at bar 51 and the final E Major nocturne’s duet between Hennessy  and Vains impressed for its contrast of lightly crystalline violin and muffled burbling cello commentaries.

If you wanted, you could point to the odd misfire – an ill-pitched note, an octave that didn’t quite ring true – but these hardly broke the performance’s intensity of utterance and the players’ informed outlining of their responsibilities.  It might not have been a transfiguring experience – and how often do these come along? – but you could relish the quintet’s great compositional achievement and the spirit of the incomparable genius who penned it.

More noticeable than at any other event I’ve experienced in this Murdoch Hall was the disturbance caused by coughing.   Both final bars of the first and second movements in Schubert’s quintet were saluted by a fusillade of throat-clearing, almost ludicrous in its intensity.   Of course, the odd clown or six also toyed with his/her sputum in mid-performance as well, most with an infantile disdain to do anything about muffling their noise.   Is it an MCO audience characteristic to give vent to foul-mannered public catarrhal onslaughts like these?   It added an unexpectedly revolting aspect to the concert’s progress, marring an otherwise pleasant, civilized entertainment.

On Calypso’s island


James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1467


For the third disc in his Beethoven sonatas cycle, James Brawn has picked out three works across a (roughly) 14-year span of production.  He starts with the consistently even-tempered, happy No. 2 in A Major, hurtles forward to No.. 17 –  the D minor Tempest of 1802  –  and finishes on the cusp of the second-to-third period interchange with the exultant  Les Adieux No. 26 in E flat.   With  this recording, Brawn moves closer to the half-way mark of his journey and the rewards from accompanying him, or just going along for the ride, keep on coming.

He finds a satisfying vein of restrained jocularity in the A Major work; not piling on the humour but giving a pleasurable heft to the staccato chords that recur in this sonata’s opening.   As expected, he keeps the texture clear, right from the opening pages’ semiquaver triplets alternating between the hands.   Even better proof of the player’s executive lucidity emerges whenever he has to negotiate a quick mordent or three, and the stretch of development past the first double bar is impressive in its transparent delivery – both times, since Brawn observes the second-half repeat.

Again, in the Largo‘s opening sentence, Brawn strikes a persuasive emotional level with his shaping of the near-static melody over that strangely moving pizzicato bass – Beethoven as a young man showing his capacity for inexorability with consolation.  The pianist’s innate polish of delivery shines out in the finely-judged trills of bars 9-11.  On the repeat, you get to take in the amiable charm infused into the extended melody line and the unflustered character of the movement’s ornamentation.   But with Brawn, detail is vital and makes a large element in the satisfaction of his performing style; each movement has some luminous instance, like the excellent accuracy of his pacing in the last six-bars where the slurred right-hand motive balances the left-hand’s combination of slurred and detached notes, leading to a moving subsidence in the final notes.

For the Scherzo, Brawn takes a level-headed look at the many staccato/accent markings, implying that, if Beethoven puts a dot over a crotchet, he doesn’t want the note under-valued but negotiated in such a way as to form part of the central motif.  There’s no lack of crispness as the message passes across treble and bass registers.  With the Rondo, the performer takes the Grazioso direction literally, employing as much room as he needs to make an elegant statement of the main theme’s arpeggiated upward sweep in all its disparate rhythmic transformations.  And you feel no need to have emphasized the second bar’s semiquaver rest after the leap of a 12th downwards: it’s a breath, not a separation mark.  When the key signature changes to accommodate A minor, Brawn moves into more declamatory, punchy territory, so that the eventual move back gains by contrast in this movement’s gradual unfolding.

Speaking of contrast, in this CD’s reading of the D minor Sonata,  those famous opening Largo bars are given dead slow – which makes the move to Allegro all the more invigorating.   Here also, the use of staccato is carefully positioned in a relentlessly driving urgency that prevails until the slightest of rallentandi at the end of the exposition.   The atmosphere moves into the spacious for the arpeggio-rich passage that follows the double bar and the progress becomes tightly-argued until the Largo returns, capped with two small recitatives that impress for their pianissimo understatement.  And Brawn is to be praised for his control of touch in the dynamic deceleration to silence during the movement’s uncompromising conclusion.

Another detail among many, it was hard to ignore the demi-semiquaver triplet/quaver rhythmic motto during the Adagio, mainly because you heard no smudging, the tattoo making its presence felt with telling regularity each time.   Brawn gave these pages the correct tension with his effectively administered crescendi cutting abruptly back to piano, a kind of emotional delaying tactic until the last six bars, here played at a slower tempo as Beethoven gives a final chaste valediction.  In the Gretchen-at-the-Spinning-Wheel Allegretto finale, the pianist treats each repetition of the main four-note figure as part of a sentence-length contributing to a composite, rather than as a series of perky individual blobs.  The effect makes this reading more legato than most, the interpreter trusting in the expression markings, particularly crisp sforzandi, to provide dramatic character, as in the passage leading back to the rondo tune after the post-exposition chromatic shenanigans.  Brawn is his own man here in what he chooses to link up and what he isolates; yet the spinning-wheel is unfaltering, right up to the final bars’ fade to black.

With the Les Adieux program piece, the shortest sonata on this disc, we come closer to the taxing masterpieces at the end of Beethoven’s piano sonata achievement.  The initial Lebewohl  is taken slowly, reinforcing Brawn’s consistent reaction to tempo and mood directions; the Allegro that follows proves brisk but not as much as its counterpart in the preceding sonata’s first movement.   The leave-taking nervousness comes through pretty consistently despite some cluttered chordal writing.   During the busy wide arpeggios in the left-hand, a few notes are ‘dropped’ or fail to register fully.

Luckily, Brawn stays the right side of Chopinesque melancholy in the Abwesenheit, abstaining from going maudlin at the Archduke Rudolph’s absence which this interlude memorialises.   Still, a more pliable outlining of the movement’s rise and fall might have given the pages more humanity; for example, the right hand solos at bars 13-14 and later at bars 28-30 which come across as too self-regarding and prim.  To compensate, Brawn promises suspense with a cleverly arranged breath-holding in the change-over bars.  The Wiedersehen movement captures an admirable vein of delight-in-action, dodging any hint of hysterical relief at the money being back in town.   Brawn eases the tension – or Beethoven’s insistence – with a deft pause or rallentando at various points; for instance, in the stretch between bars 130 and 140.   But he gives the movement’s interior linear mobility its due, right up to the pause for reflection at bar 218’s Poco andante  –  which is actually a bit more than poco as the pace is pulled back considerably more than you’d anticipate.   Still, it gives the segment’s tolling thirds and sixths time to reinforce the quietly celebratory underpinning of this interlude before the exhilarating conclusion.

In the next disc of this series, Brawn performs five sonatas – No. 9 in E Major, the Pastorale No. 15, No. 24 A Therese, the alla tedesca No. 25, and the two-movement No. 27.   This current CD whets the appetite considerably because of the continuously fresh approach and emotional breadth of Brawn’s interpretations.

Beethoven’s fixations


Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday October 4, 2016


                                                                                        John Bell

For a program scheduled to last 90 minutes including interval, this recital went well over its allotted time.  Not that the experience was necessarily painful  – just long-winded, and the miscalculation made you wonder about the precision of any organizational pre-planning.

I can’t explain the program’s title, an updated version of a piece of advice offered early in the play by Lear’s Fool.   As the program moved forward, it seemed to me that this specific behavioural stricture was being ignored, both literally and metaphorically.

The night’s main intention was to interweave extracts from Beethoven’s letters with movements from his string quartets, the Tinalley ensemble providing the music and actor John Bell reading the composer’s words.   This succeeded fairly well, the quartet moving from the Op. 18 set  –  three discrete movements  –  to the Harp Op. 74, and significant segments from the Op. 131, 132 and 135 masterworks.   Bell’s selection of letters covered a considerable span – beginning with the 13-year-old’s self-introduction to the Elector of Cologne and ending in the sad codicil to his will in which  he left everything he owned (not much) to his nephew.  And, of course, the evening’s last word went to the Heiligenstadt Testament, that over-emphatic plaint addressed to the composer’s brothers but never sent.

Prefacing this Beethoven letters-and-music compendium, the Tinalleys played Mendelssohn in A minor Op. 13:  yet another product from the phenomenally gifted 18-year-old written in the year of Beethoven’s death and deeply indebted to the late works, especially the Op. 132 in A minor.   First violin Adam Chalabi impressed immediately through the disciplined moderation of his production and a deft manipulation of phrase.  And the group made a sterling essay in assertive sonority across the Adagio, every line contributing to a solid bout of weltering in the fugue sections, even more gripping when the subject was inverted; the movement capped by a luminous ending and a final chord of unexpected evenly distributed weight.

In the Allegretto/Allegro alternation of the Intermezzo, the melded lines of second violin Lerida Delbridge and Chalabi served as a fine instance of emotional sympathy underpinning a firm congruence of phrase-shaping.  But all four musicians shared the responsibility for a mightily impressive evenness of output; indeed, the substantial proof of their partnership’s success was borne out even in passages like the pseudo-recitatives at the finale’s start where Mendelssohn imitates Beethoven’s Op. 132 device without disguise.   At the end, the players’ efforts were given a moderately animated reception, although probably not as warm as the performance should have received, considering the interpretation’s fluency and its success in conveying the composer’s emotional fervour and open-heartedness.

Bell’s letter-reading followed a chronological chain, the 1802 Testament finale apart.  To mirror each text with a contemporaneous quartet would have been impossible, so the deviser of this concept, Anna Melville, went for sympathetic resonances rather than direct links between words and music.   This worked quite well with certain parts of the entertainment  –  the first F Major quartet’s confident Allegro con brio (without the exposition repeat) following the brash Cologne Elector letter – if a tad forced at other points, as with the Immortal Beloved letters supported by the Adagio from the E flat Harp score.

The chosen texts fell roughly into two thematic divisions: Beethoven’s encroaching and then full-blown deafness, and a near-manic concern for his nephew Karl.  With regard to his physical disability, the composer was clearly distraught at its advance; the later letters show a determined acceptance born from suffering far too many shonky medical experiences in fruitless efforts towards a cure.   But the nephew-related communications, loaded with irrational invective about his sister-in-law, betray an off-putting real-world misogyny that not all the high-flown Wertheresque proclamations of the love letters can dispel.

Bell brought to life the over-interfering uncle effectively, as well as the early enthusiastic greetings to the composer’s friend Karl Amenda.  But the Immortal Beloved extracts read like a melodrama script – full of gesture and poetic fancy but with no convincing depth to them.   Later, while the final letter to Moscheles, written two weeks before his death, showed without affectation the composer’s stoic resignation, the Testament itself was handled briskly, making the man sound less an unhappy and noble spirit but more of a cranky whinger.

The quartet moved across the designed repertoire with security, showing a flawless synchronicity of attack during the F Major Op. 18 extract, particularly clean at the fermate near Letter O.   Small details emerged continually to demonstrate the group’s constitutional finesse, like the opposed delicacy and mellow power brought into action after bar 115 where the violins share melodic and decorative functions in turn.   Even Justin Williams‘ single note exposed F flat strokes at bars 152-3 caught the attention for their well-judged, tension-inducing delivery.

One of the happier juxtapositions occurred with a letter to publisher Moritz Schlesinger accompanying the last Op. 135 Quartet, and the Tinalleys playing that work’s Muss es sein?/Es muss sein finale.   Finally, although 23 years apart, the Testament and the Heiliger Dankgesang from the Op. 132 quartet made a solid pairing.  While these musicians’ reading offered security of delivery and a well-ordered textural complex, it missed out on full effectiveness through removal from its natural context; unfortunately, the movement had been brought to vivid life a week before in the same venue by players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra who presented the complete work.

However, the Bell/Tinalley mixture put the composer and his work into fascinating juxtaposition, the main effect being to make you wonder  –  yet again  –  how this self-regarding, temperamentally unpleasant human being could have produced such a miraculous chain of Heaven-touched marvels.


Back in the saddle again


Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday October 2, 2016


                                                                                         William Hennessy

This Melba group is actually the original Australian String Quartet – well, almost: the second violin chair, first occupied by Douglas Weiland, was later taken up by Elinor Lea who appeared on this night with first violin William Hennessy, viola Keith Crellin, and cello Janis Laurs.  The players kept their load manageable, working through Schubert’s early E flat Quartet D. 87, then the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A with one-time regular collaborator Lucinda Collins.

It’s been twenty years since the group handed over the ensemble to younger hands, and the subsequent years have been rich in personnel changes, some on a grand scale.   The current inheritors are forging a steady individual voice and we can only hope that, after a period of some ferment, they can build on their current success.

In fact, individuality proved a key factor in the Melba ensemble’s performances (I heard the first of two last Sunday). Each member established a style of attack pretty quickly, remarkably so in the tenor and bass lines where Crellin and Laurs took no backward steps, making their contributions with a generally justifiable authority.   Still, the articulation wavered every so often – not enough to disturb Schubert’s composite structure but putting the teeth slightly on-edge.

More immediately interesting was the score itself which is rarely played, what with Death and the Maiden, Rosamunde, the last G Major and the Quartettsatz featuring in relentless sequence on recital programs.  In  its opening Allegro, the composer’s E flat insistence is striking, as is the modulational husbandry at work throughout.  But the only eyebrow-raising moment  –  even in the exposition repeat  –  came at bar 90 where the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern in the three lower strings veered towards triplets.  Apart from an occasional and fractional pitching discrepancy between Hennessy and Lea, the perky Scherzo enjoyed a fluent run-through, while the Adagio suited these performers pretty seamlessly.  You could have asked for more pianissimo in the viola/cello interplay after the half-way point of the finale; this came across as more aggressive than necessary.

Yet the interpretation cleared the bar comfortably for its impulse, the performers giving satisfaction with a powerful, exertion-rich attack that brought to the fore the quartet’s clarity of shape and ebullient nature; the ventures into minor-key territory prove transient, very much so in that benign and brief slow movement.

I’ve heard the Dvorak quintet recently but can’t pinpoint where.  With the addition of Collins, any intonational discrepancies became more obvious, although less frequent than anticipated.  She is not a pianist to occupy a secondary role, particularly not when gifted with a driving note-packed part such as this score provides.  After the melodic richness of the first pages, the ensemble made a remarkably urgent business from Letter D to the end of the exposition, the repeat as compelling as the first time around with every player participating fully in the continual fortissimo markings over these pages.

Some enthusiasts enjoy this work’s Dumka; I’d probably be among them if the repeats were not there.   I think that the Melbas played them all which showed exemplary obedience to the letter of the law but, each time the opening querulous piano motive came round, my interest waned – and that’s despite the presence of plenty of contrasting episodes.   By contrast with the Schubert, the group’s lower voices here tended to take a back-seat when faced with Hennessy and Lea in lyrical duet, Collins a voluble presence.  The pianist showed her mastery in a fine Scherzo/Furiant, informed with sparkling lightness of attack when her part moved to the upper range of the instrument.  You might have asked for less stridency in the last Allegro which was hard-fought without much dynamic relief – either very loud or moderately soft but not much in between or in reserve . . . and this is generally a busy, tightly-written movement.

For those of us with even vague memories of these musicians in their ASQ days, it was a pleasure to hear them again, playing with a full-throttle diligence and certainty in each other after a long time-gap.  Of course, they are all still active  –  working at the University of Adelaide (Collins, Laurs), the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (Lea), the Adelaide Youth Orchestras (Crellin) and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra/Octet (Hennessy).  It makes a welcome change to see and hear our home-grown old masters, especially when they haven’t lost their cunning and craft.  Here’s hoping this wasn’t just a celebratory one-off.