When the audience gets in the way

SCHUBERT QUINTET

Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday October 9

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                                                                  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.