Visitor fits right in


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Monday November 28, 2016


                                                                            Lorenza Borrani   

At the last of its national series concerts this year, the ACO enjoyed the attention of a replacement director in the Italian-born violinist Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.   For much of Monday night’s proceedings, she followed the Tognetti principle of leading from the concertmaster’s stand, although less likely than the organization’s artistic director to use her bow as a baton; indeed, I didn’t see her have recourse to this control mode at all and the precision level of the players’ entries didn’t seem to suffer in any of the three works programmed..

Borrani made her solo offering at the start with Schnittke‘s Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, the latter entity comprising strings (about 15) and harpsichord.    For me, the Russian-German composer’s music has presented continual problems; the first work I heard, it seemed, was written by a committee – you couldn’t nail down a specific voice or character to it.    At the time, I said to a moderately enthusiastic John Sinclair, critic for the Herald and also coming to Schnittke’s work for the first time, that it sounded like something written by a panel, each of the movements allocated to specific members.

This sonata goes some way to exemplifying this evaluation although, in these latter days of enlightenment, most of us have become aware of the composer’s adoption of multiple tongues in the one work like this one where a grating acerbity exists alongside common chords that suggest the religiously inspired products of recent Scandinavian and Baltic mystic-writers; and where a meditative andante of stern serial shape is balanced by a bounding dance movement owing much to jazz and its offshoots.

Borrani showed firm control in each of the four movements, nowhere better than in dialogues – if one-sided in format – with Anthony Romaniuk‘s harpsichord, used as a brisk punctuating presence or for its grinding pebbles-imitating potential.   Most of the sonata’s interest lies in the solo violin line which rises to high technical demands and asks its interpreter for a constant variety in production techniques.   Of course, Borrani met each requirement with impressive authority; but then, she has been performing this piece for some years now, directing her Chamber Orchestra of Europe colleagues in it two years ago.   She forged an uncompromising path for the ACO players to follow, notably in a series of slashing chords that cut across the sombre path of the initial movement’s pages, some very soft floating chords in the work’s later stages, and an attractive astringency to give a febrile background for the soloist’s more ardent bursts of action.

Schubert’s Five Minuets with Six Trios for string quartet in an anonymous arrangement enjoyed a vital treatment where the original’s expression markings were observed with high enthusiasm and the players worked through all the repeats. Pleasant bagatelles, these pieces hold few surprises beyond a few disruptions of expectations where the usual division of eight-bars-per half in both minuets and trios changes, as in the third minuet where the second half is 16 bars long, while its second trio has a second half of 12 bars (and in this reading a liquid solo from Borrani above pizzicato accompaniment), as does the second trio to Minuet 5.   Schubert’s melodies have an assertive energy but the only dramatic (i.e. interesting) moments come in a few bursts of polonaise rhythm – the second trio of Minuet 1 and a couple of bars in Minuet 5 – and the musette/trio to the latter.

Beethoven apparently had a liking for his own C sharp minor Quartet Op. 131, according to one contemporary authority – Karl Holz, the composer’s secretary during the late quartets’ gestation.   No one can deny its incomparable breadth of content and emotional illumination but its transference to string orchestral guise is a dubious undertaking – something I’m coming to question about the whole Beethoven oeuvre in this form.  The justification usually advanced revolves around a clarity that is bestowed on the middle lines when you have a number of players dedicated to them. To my mind, that’s not a relevant argument, suggesting rather a lack of concentration shown by the listener or an incompetence on the part of the musicians involved in the quartet’s delineation.

Of course, with all lines reinforced, the score’s nature is changed into something more sonorous and substantial, particularly in the A Major set of variations and the athletic final Allegro.  Additionally, this interpretation proved very attractive as an aural experience, Borrani asking for pronounced dynamic differentiations, an edgy bowing attack in each allegro and the Presto,  and a rapid response rate in passages like the fifth movement’s sudden shifts  –  to Molto poco adagio interludes, and to those two delectable Ritmo di quattro battute breaks in the pages’ fleet-footed propulsive drive forward.

Monday’s well-populated house received the performance with enthusiasm and it served as an excellent showcase for the participants’ expertise and sharp-as-a-whip, finely honed ensemble.  In a week when Wagner’s Ring is rampaging at the State Theatre next door to Hamer Hall, this view of Beethoven rang plenty of complementary Romantic bells and brought out strongly the composer’s vehemence and dramatic urgency – qualities that appealed to the later writer.  But, for me, this unsurpassedly rich tapestry of a string quartet was changed into something more in the nature of a concerto grosso – bigger, not necessarily better.

If you have something to say


Chamber Made Opera

Arts House, North Melbourne

November 23-27, 2016


                                         (Left to right)  Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie, Georgie Darvidis, Josh Kyle

First and foremost, the four singer-actors in this entertainment impress mightily by their devotion to the task at hand.   They sing, speak and move around their acting space with unflappable confidence, facing down the occasional amplification system overload with an aplomb that carries the piece along, almost to the point where you are convinced that there must be a point behind it all, and you’re just too thick to grasp it.

Librettist Tamara Saulwick and composer Kate Neal have constructed a work that is hard to classify.   The central quartet of personalities – not that closely individuated, as far as I could tell – begin Permission to Speak by sitting on their white cube-seats and letting loose a chain of adolescent ejaculations – er, ah, mmm – which also move into isolated phrases or cliches before the vignettes that provide a plot begin.   Immediately, you are confronted with an implied irony: if you have or want permission to say anything, you need to have some sort of message.   At the beginning of this work, there is nothing to say  –  yet – except to defer communication by means of banal temporising techniques.

Later in the work’s progress, spoken words stop and the characters sing detached chords to isolated syllables: a juxtaposition of verbal tics and choral blurtings.   What is intriguing is the way in which the performers seem to pull chords out of the air, bringing to mind the splendid chorus work in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach – one of the few redeeming factors at operation throughout that extended exercise in superficiality.   But the musical content in Neal’s work is generally subordinated to the often cryptic texts.

Which come at you both from the (amplified) executants and speakers that surround the audience and pile on recorded information employing about 27 different voices.   Sometimes, the soundtrack is overwhelming –  material overload, a fading in and out of audibility, words and whole sentences sometimes coherent and then breaking into meaninglessness.   At quieter moments, such work is left to the live performers who share in a similar complex of straight dialogue and fragments.  For Georgie Darvidis, Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie and Josh Kyle the actual theatrical action allows for little slackening off, not much time spent out of the various spotlights.

But what actually happens?   The voice-overs and live actors move through a series of tableaux, mainly presented verbally although a sort of mimed death-scene for everybody intrudes near the end.   I picked up a few of the stories – a young man offended that his mother has read his emails which contain the news that he is dating a man; a young girl railing publicly against her bourgeois family life in Glen (or was it Mount?) Waverley; a daughter appalled at her father’s matter-of-fact announcement that he has a tumour; a diatribe against an apparently cold, emotionally unresponsive mother.   Most of this struck me as commonplace domestic drama, brief snatches that could provide plot variants for TV soaps.

But these situations have the benefit of being familiar, representing experiences that many of us have had or that resemble moments in our lives.    And that’s fine: you can’t be forever looking in your entertainment for towering passions like  those of Tosca or (more relevant this week) Brunnhilde.   Saulwick and Neal take the ordinary and the immediately recognizable as their basic matter, facing their observers with – themselves.

On  Wednesday night, it struck me that what these passages of play lacked was a sense that they constituted much more than the situations they presented, that they were capable of extrapolation.    It wasn’t so much that you were waiting for a resolution to each crisis: as far as I could work out, there was no intention of working any of the episodes through to a happy or sad ending   –  you just heard the voice narrating what had happened, sometimes with hesitations and abrupt bursts of development.    But the episodes had no context outside of their bare narration.

No, you can’t expect linear narrative in an enterprise like this one where interpretation is emphatically a matter for the individual and in any case is put to the challenge by the constructors’ modes of communication.   And you can’t fault the device of recording social malaise as a series of isolated points emerging from various lives.   But, at the end, you are left with small windows, only a few illuminated, rather than a canvas to re-examine and relish.

What Permission to Speak bases itself in, what it is about, is an entity that is all too familiar to nearly all of us: the family – more properly, the unhappy family because there’s precious little light in this exercise; even those few moments that moved into humour convinced only a few of us.

For all that, the opening night audience gave the cast and creators rousing applause at the work’s end, and you could understand why.   Despite its disconcerting layers of compacted information, Permission to Speak has an unarguably serious intent, its situations familiar to the point of discomfort, the musical content eminently assimilable.   Most importantly, it is distinguished for its hard-working cast, whose devotion gave focus and drive to this hour-long enterprise.

December Diary

Thursday December 1


Arcadia Quintet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

A half-French, half-Australian program from an ensemble new to me, although it’s been going since 2013 and has been all around the country, performing in venues big and small. The Arcadias comprise flute Kiran Phatak, oboe David Reichelt, clarinet Lloyd van’t Hoff, bassoon Matthew Kneale, and horn Rachel Shaw – all of them ANAM musicians, so the cream of their particular crops.  The visiting piano is Peter de Jager, also an ANAM graduate.  The evening starts with Techno-parade from 2002 by Guillaume Connesson, a taxing five-minute romp for flute, clarinet and piano, the last-named played both ‘straight’ and with a bit of internal manipulation. Poulenc’s piquant oboe/bassoon/piano Trio celebrates to the full the composer’s wit and melodic resourcefulness.  De Jager is mounting one of his own compositions; details remain sketchy at the time of writing – no name, no instrumentation.   The program concludes with Brett Dean’s Polysomnograhy – ‘a multi-parametric test used in the study of sleep’, according to the composer who wrote this five-movement sextet nine years ago.


Thursday December 1


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

While Opera Australia is struggling with its Ring production for the second time (why?), Simone Young will front the MSO to show how Wagner should be done; an object lesson to the OA board on what a great talent left the building when it sacked her.  Not that she is laden with the fripperies and inanities of the tetralogy: her task is Parsifal, the least attractive of the whole Bayreuth oeuvre.   With tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role and veteran American mezzo Michelle de Young finishing off her year as Kundry, Young conducts part of Act 2 – possibly all of Scene 2 after the Flowermaidens have done their worst.   As a filler, Young also conducts the incomplete (although you’d never know it) Bruckner Symphony No. 9: a leviathan, not for the faint-hearted.

This program is repeated on Saturday December 3 at 8 pm


Monday December 5


Continuo Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Haven’t heard this duo – theorbo Samantha Cohen, guitar Geoffrey Morris – for some time; am assuming the work continues in much the same vein as before.  Tonight, the Collective expands to take in Marshall McGuire’s triple harp and some percussion titillation from either Dan Richardson (MRC website) or Matthew Horsley (MRC publication).  The music is all Santiago de Murcia: dances and tunes collected from European, African and American (South) sources – a toe-tappin’ hour of exuberant 18th century ‘world’ music.


Tuesday December 6



Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Details about this recital  have been stuck in a time-warp for quite a while.  Doubtless, the musicians involved will include – or consist entirely of – violin Monica Curro, clarinet Philip Arkinstall and piano Stefan Cassomenos.  The musicians are playing five new works by Hue Blanes, Ross Irwin, Stephen Magnusson, James Mustafa and Niko Schauble; except the last, names that are new to me but that’s not unexpected – they all come from the worlds of jazz/indie pop/folk.   Oddly enough, they are all male, which probably has something to do with the event’s title.  So far as I can discover, the composers’ material is still nameless; not that it matters too much when the participating personnel remain an unknown quantity.


Wednesday December 7


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A one-off event for Melbourne – welcome, of course, but I don’t know why it’s happening – this program features Richard Tognetti  and a select few of his bright-as-a-button band as soloists: violins Satu Vanska and Helena Rathbone, cello Timo-Veikko Valve, bass Maxime Bibeau, with recorder Genevieve Lacey coming in for good measure.  You’d have to assume that more of the ACO will attend to provide tutti components for Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto and the Orchestral Suite No. 2 (a great workout for Lacey), as well as Vivaldi’s Two Violins-and-Cello Concerto RV 565 and the Four-Violin Concerto RV 549.  For that gracious genuflection to the home-grown, Tognetti has programmed Elena Kats-Chernin’s Miniatures for Strings, about which I can find out nothing and so assume that this will be its premiere.


Saturday December 10


Benaud Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

The program will be repeated at 6 pm

The Bramble brothers – violinist Lachlan, cellist Ewen – are visiting from their duties with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Amir Farid is back from the US for a rare Melbourne appearance; only three times this year whereas the group used to turn up around many a corner.  Tonight is a short Salon event featuring two piano trios: Mozart in C K 548 and the Schumann No. 1.  It’s not so much an evolution of the form as a juxtaposition.  Still, these players are always welcome for their robust approach and the individual character of their communal sound . . . which has probably changed, given the wear and tear of settled professional life and expanded horizons.


Saturday December 10


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

This will, once again, not be a night for the purists.  Yes, you get a lot of indisputable Christmas music: Once in Royal David’s City, O Little Town of Bethlehem, the Coventry Carol, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Adam’s O Holy Night, Silent Night, and O Come, All Ye Faithful – a pretty exhaustive list of carols there, lyrics that have been part of the season’s celebrations for yonks.  Then you get a few tenuously related items, like Amazing Grace, Nicolai’s arrangement of Wachet auf, Caccini/Vavilov’s Ave Maria, Eriks Esenvalds’ O salutaris hostia and Norwegian writer Ola Gjeilo’s Kyrie setting, The Spheres for a cappella choir dividing and contracting in multiple lines.  On top of all this, Paul Dyer will air some inexplicables like Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets, The Luckiest by Ben Folds, the villancico Con que la lavare by Luys de Narvaez and a Ciaconna (which one? by the 17th century Moravian musician Philipp Jakob Rittler.  The ABO, in other words, ticks all the seasonal boxes but fleshes things out with music that will please patrons through its celebratory or sentimental character.  The Brandenburgers’ guest will be Madison Nonoa, a young soprano from New Zealand.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.


Saturday December 10 


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Pretty much the MSO’s last work for the year and still a fairly popular event, although I seem to remember the days when this great oratorio ran to three performances in a row.  The conductor is Paul Goodwin, recently here in July to lead the MSO in one of its Melbourne Recital Centre nights, notable on that occasion for some excellent Haydn.  His principals are: our own Emma Matthews for the soprano solos;  mezzo Luciana Mancini making what I think is her first appearance in this country following the budding of her career in Europe and the United States; British tenor Charles Daniels who is very experienced and popular enough to have his own fan club/ society; Christopher Richardson from Sydney the night’s bass and he has impressed on his few showings here.  The MSO Chorus will be prepared by Warren Trevelyan-Jones who directs the Consort of Melbourne and St. James Church in Sydney’s King St.

This program is repeated on Sunday December 12 at 5 pm.


Saturday December 10


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College at 8 pm

You could be flippant and say that John O’Donnell and his excellent choir are bringing out the usual Gallic Renaissance suspects for the season: Ockeghem, Mouton, Desprez, and Compere as well as a newcomer to me in Johannes Prioris.   Serving Charles VII and Louis XI, Ockeghem is represented by his Marian motet, Alma redemptoris mater.  Four works – Nesciens mater, Noe, noe, Quaeramus cum pastoribus, and Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem speak for Jean Mouton, who wrote for Louis XII and Francois 1.  The Gomberts sing two Josquin motets – his setting of the first 14 verses of St. John’s Gospel, In principio erat verbum, and the lactation celebration  O admirabile commercium, from a composer who might have known Louis XI but certainly knew Louis XII.   Compere worked for Charles VIII and tonight his Hodie nobis de virgine Introit from a substitution mass/motet cycle brings the program to an end.   But not before another In principio setting by Prioris who was for a time maitre de chapelle for Louis XII.  So a great swag of court music from a richly productive musical era in French music.


Sunday December 11


Australian Boys Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

Always a pleasure to hear these singers, prepared to the nth degree by Noel Ancell.  At the core of this year’s program sits Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols – a gratifying evocation of the Christian feast, if essentially English in its ambient ethos, and an always challenging series of hurdles for its choir of trebles and accompanying harp.  The ABC has a number of offshoots, all of whom enjoy exposure on these nights.   And, in the all-in-together participation carols, the parents and friends come into their own, raising the Recital Centre roof and singing the well-known arrangements in parts as only a well-disciplined and musically educated audience can.

Clear if sometimes tenuous


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday November 20, 2016


                                                                                    Grace Clifford

To finish the year, William Hennessy and his orchestra paid tribute to the mother country with a grab-bag program of works by Mendelssohn (honorary Englishman), Byrd, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Mozart, whose collection of eight-to-nine-year-old juvenilia gave this event its title.   All those sketches are for piano; the four excerpts we heard proved amiable enough, but I think Hennessy was straining when he found links between the first piece, a siciliano (or two) in D minor, and the Requiem, or between the following slight G minor Sonata and the Symphony No. 40.    As an experience, all these pieces proved to be amiable, deft exercises at worst, hardly interesting enough to send you searching for the Sketchbook‘s 39 other components.

The only other arrangement in the concert was of Byrd’s six-voice motet Sing joyfully, a cathedral choir favourite.   Its three-minutes’ length passed pleasantly enough, like the Mozart scraps, but its emotional drive was absent, possibly because the tempo taken was pretty slow, more probably because the performance for strings alone lacked the soaring exultation of the text; no incitement here to Blow the trumpet in the new moon, as the Psalmist directs us – just a clean-enough texture of interweaving lines without much personality.

Former principal cellist of this ensemble, Michael Dahlenburg, controlled a placid interpretation of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, the score’s sound-world dominated by the wind – twelve of them – who delivered their lines with plenty of vigour in each tutti, swamping the 14 strings.   But the imbalance started earlier with the second subject at bar 47 where the cello/bassoon doubling over-favoured the woodwind.   For all the allowance-making of imaginatively fleshing out sounds that proved faint images of their usual selves, the reading was hard to fault for its technical precision; I heard only one off-kilter violin note somewhere about bar 131.

John Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale is a novelty to many of us (as is anything by this writer), so this airing of the work’s central Threnody was most welcome.  The MCO strings fully embraced its lush elegance with a splendid lyrical chain supported by emphatic cello pizzicati at climactic moments.   It shares a common language with elegiac scores by the composer’s contemporaries yet it recalls, in its serene sensibility, Barber’s Adagio for Strings although the English piece is more heart-on-sleeve in its declamation, less deliberately monumental than the American masterwork.   It gave the MCO players no apparent worries, their delivery assured and idiomatically convincing.

Violinist Grace Clifford appeared at one of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s most popular Proms Town Hall concerts in July, taking the solo line in Bruch’s Concerto No. 1; an engrossing version, as it turned out, packed with confidence and polish.   For this occasion, she opened with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending: that simple-sounding, always perilous rhapsody that tests any player’s self-reliance because of the several cadenzas that are spread throughout its length.   Clifford kept a level-head and a confident right-arm in play, not put out by some scatter-gun woodwind chording at the score’s opening or a pair of horns that Dahlenburg could have tamped down to beneficial effect.   The young soloist articulated a well-honed sound, especially in those exposed passages where you are conscious of the soft whirr of the bow moving over the instrument’s strings, coming to a hall-silencing apogee in the final senza misura solo (not a cough in the house) that ended on a bravely sustained high D to B fall, softening to inaudibility.   Which is dangerous, of course, as you sacrifice some security of pronouncement on the triple-piano altar. Still, the attempt came close to ideal here.

It’s been a long time since I heard the Capriol Suite – not since Harold Badger took a student group of indifferent quality through the work in an ability-stretching struggle maybe 40 years ago.   Hennessy from his first desk (as for the Ireland, Mozart and Byrd) set a steady pace in this optimistic work, keeping the Pavane on the move, giving an attractive pliancy to the Pieds-en-l’air meditation, and hammering out a brisk Mattachins finale.   The approach might have gained from less weight in delivery, particularly for the admittedly forthright  opening Basse-Danse, but the MCO strings once again handled their work without any apparent discomfort, doing their duty by Warlock in transforming the original Thoinot Arbeau material into an indubitably English composition.

Clifford re-emerged at the program’s end for the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto.   As with her Bruch, she took on this warhorse with a briskness of attack that stayed well away from needless aggression.   Interpreters have to walk a fine line with this concerto, far too many falling into an interpretative trench of gentility, subscribing to the all-embracing conception of the composer’s tendency to Biedermeier tweeness.   We know Mendelssohn was a moraliser, even verging on a prig – his reactions to Berlioz show a middle-class incomprehension that makes you glad he didn’t survive into the heyday of Wagner – and anybody patronised by the benevolence of Victoria and Albert has an inbuilt burden of cultural attachment.   But this piece has a tensile force in its well-framed paragraphs that has to be delineated with clarity and determination.

Clifford’s first movement cadenza had a drive and dynamic arch to its development that would have been the envy of many a more experienced artist, and she kept her end up in the exciting stretto that finishes  this Allegro.   It wasn’t that this soloist left the sugar out of Mendelssohn’s pendant Andante, but she controlled her vibrato and any temptation to suffocate the main melody in sentiment.   Not an easy road to follow; has there ever been a slow movement so consciously ‘sweet’?   Her sonata/rondo finale hit all the right points, balancing sprightly delicacy with moments of sweeping breadth, full-bodied to the end without a trace of maidenly reserve or dithering with the composer’s semiquaver streams of action.

I don’t know what Clifford’s commitments are in 2017, apart from a Selby & Friends recital at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on March 9, participating in piano trios – Beethoven, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak’s Dumky.   But keep your eye out for her Melbourne appearances: so far, they’ve been top-notch efforts.

Trim and smooth

Trio Dali

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 15, 2016


                                                                                        Trio Dali

                                                  Jack Liebeck, Amandine Savary, Christian-Pierre La Marca

The Dalis have visited for Musica Viva before, appearing here in May 2012 with a similar program to this current one. Then, they performed Ravel and Schubert in E flat, as well as Australian Gordon Kerry’s Im Winde; this time, it’s Beethoven Op. 1 in E flat, Chausson’s Op. 3 and Roger Smalley‘s 1991 Trio, written as a compulsory hurdle for ensembles in that year’s Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and becoming familiar over that week through sheer power of repetition.   Some things have changed over the years: violin Vineta Sareika has been replaced by Jack Liebeck, and Amandine Savary‘s piano now opens on the long stick – a mixed blessing.

As anticipated from the one previous exposure, this ensemble is nothing if not polished.  The opening movement to their Beethoven interpretation set a high standard in the melding of lines, no one hogging the spotlight.  Even though the temptation is there for the pianist’s taking,  Savary husbands her full power, exerting it rarely, and she avoids the trap of seeing a large level of activity in both hands as giving her a justified primacy.  By a careful and constant control over both sustaining and dampening pedals, she allowed her colleagues a dream run in the trio’s first half.   And if her contribution dominated the last two movements, there’s nobody to blame but the composer who gave his keyboard a rollicking conclusion to both halves of the Scherzo and all the running of the Trio; not to mention that attention-grabbing leap of a 10th to kick off the Presto finale and an irrepressibly effervescent field of action thereafter.

Liebeck  and La Marca make a well-matched string duo, the violinist  generating a line of elegant finesse with a keen sense of shaping his contribution into a piece’s framework, while the cellist shows more aggression although his output offers a marked counterweight to Liebeck in its emphases and mode of attack which, at heated moments, involves the incidental clunking of his bow’s frog as a sort of commentary on his awareness of a phrase’s force.

It surprised me to find quite a few recordings of the early Chausson work – Parnassus, Beaux Arts, Wanderer, even one by a Trio Chausson – but I can’t recollect any live performances at all.   The Dali players showed high enthusiasm for bringing this neglect to an end and their interpretation proved very persuasive.   While Chausson’s returns and reversions have a stilted character, possibly due to the flamboyance of the work’s readily accessible emotional language and a patchwork quality to the recapitulations, the four movements reveal a welcome variety of emotional character.   An urgent energy permeates the first Anime which reaches a strikingly hectic climax across its last two pages with a welter of very loud full chords in triplets for the piano.

The players preserved a piquant sprightliness in the Vite movement, including a finely graduated decrescendo as the movement sank into triple piano harmonics. The Assez lent brought out the string player’s sympathy in canonic and unison passages, even if Chausson makes heavy work for everyone by having his pianist double the other players’ lines for a good deal of the time.   As for the buoyant final Anime, the spirit of Cesar Franck loomed large with page after page of fraught chromatic shifting and broad melodic strokes.

Smalley’s work was presented by Liebeck as an in memoriam for the Anglo-Australian composer who died last year and whose work didn’t feature overmuch in the musical rounds of this particular eastern state.   His Piano Trio uses Chopin’s A flat Op. 59 Mazurka as a fulcrum/springboard although the references are elliptical at best.   But the Dalis infused it with more vivacity and sheer interest than I can recall from its several performances 25 years ago, particularly some haunting Brittenesque cello sounds in the second part’s Passacaglia.   You got the impression from this version – far more than  in others I can recall – that an awful lot is packed into a short time-frame, so much so that the score’s four segments, though clearly discrete, fly past – in this instance, with manifest concern and mastery.   If only all local content on Musica Viva programs could occupy this excellent and enlightening standard of accomplishment.

The Dali Trio plays again on Saturday November 19 at 7 pm.  Smalley’s work sits at the centre, surrounded by Mendelssohn No. 2 in C minor (the third performance here by  professional ensembles in 12 days) and Schubert in B flat.

Straight down the middle


Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College

Saturday November 12, 2016


                                                                                     Wilma Smith

Concluding her three-recital season under the Wilma & Friends banner in the opulent  main auditorium of Scotch College’s music school, Wilma Smith hosted two guests in a night that featured three very well-known works.   Cellist Yelian He is a Scotch old boy who has studied in the UK and is back home with his performing partner, British pianist Yasmin Rowe, who was this night’s third voice.   As ad hoc ensembles go, the Smith-He-Rowe combination showed a high degree of competence in coping with Haydn’s C Major Hob XV:27, Mendelssohn in C minor and Brahms No. 1 in B Major: all fare that chamber music enthusiasts in this city have become very familiar with through the international and Asia-Pacific competitions held since 1989.

The chief problem with Saturday evening’s work was a question of balance.   The Roach space is excellent for chamber music: plenty of wood, a fan-shaped auditorium, a not-too-large airspace to fill.   But a piano on its long stick enjoys resonant pre-eminence and neither Smith nor He was able to mount a challenge to Rowe’s domination of the happy Haydn work.   Yes, its emphasis does fall heavily on the keyboard and the cello, for the most part, spends its time reinforcing the piano’s bass notes, but this interpretation proved dynamically lop-sided.

Smith’s line remained clear, coming into its own during the ornate passages of the middle Andante, but Rowe’s attack took over the work’s progress, in part because of her emphatic definition in delivery, but also because, in unison passages, she continued to maintain her position of primus inter pares.   Of course, she had the work under control and distinguished herself with excellent dexterity in the perky concluding Presto, but, for the most part, He’s timbre featured very faintly in the sound mix.

Matters improved significantly in the Mendelssohn work – but then, the cello has a more adventurous, independent part to deliver.   Most pianists find it hard to resist the temptation to turn this work into a concerto, the writing is so rich and flattering.   Rowe gave space to her colleagues, especially in the melting string-duet work of the second movement.   Both outer Allegro segments might have gained in clarity by less use of the sustaining pedal at moments like the quickly descending arpeggios from bar 142 onwards (and later from bar 307).

Still, while the work’s central pages worked well enough, particularly Rowe’s lightly chattering output in the Scherzo, the finale underlined a lack of presence from He’s cello.   The notes were all there and eloquently phrased but you had to strain to hear them, except in exposed moments like the opening sentence.    Further, at a fortissimo burst, as in bar 49 where everyone breaks into a broad theme in an elliptical E flat Major, He’s contribution sounded recessed.   Still, the musicians gave a fine account of the two places where Mendelssohn inserts his version of the Vor deinen Thron chorale: moments that I still can’t fathom in terms of structural relevance but which always rouse responsive shivers.

After interval, for the Brahms, He re-positioned himself so that, instead of facing across-stage to Smith, he sat full frontal to the audience in the piano’s curve.   The result improved the integrity of the performance markedly; just as well, as the cello takes over the noble first subject from bar 4 and sets the interpretative standard for the rest of a substantial movement, made even more so on this occasion where the expansive exposition was repeated.   To happy effect, the eloquent string writing in sixths came across with satisfying depth and balance.

Rowe  coped very well with this score’s multiple difficulties, particularly the composer’s use of syncopations in accompaniment and constant variation in rhythmic patterns, much of which seems to fall to the piano part with wearying frequency.   The player’s dynamic output was still, for my taste, over-heavy, but she sprang quite a few surprises along the way, like the evenness of her septuplets in the Scherzo‘s second half repeat, and the pointed delicacy of her delivery of that sparkling Mendelssohnian tracery-work starting at bar 145.

Later, the Adagio proved to be a continuous pleasure which showed how well-matched Wilma and He were in sound-colour and phrasing during their exposed duet passages and at dangerous moments like those sustained, scouringly clear F sharps in the last bars.   By contrast, the finale showed signs of fatigue, mainly at stages where both strings were operating pretty high in their ranges, like the declamation from bar 171 to 187.   Still, the players made a gripping experience of the last 50 bars or so as the trio surges to its determined firm final cadence: a convincing finish to a reading of welcome dynamic uniformity.

Happy half-way point


James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1468


By a happy concatenation of circumstances (or, more probably, clever organization), the latest in Brawn’s Beethoven piano sonatas CDs is packed with optimism and simple delight in music-making – both from the composer and his interpreter.   On this value-for-money recording, you will find the Sonata No. 9  in E Major,  the slightly later D Major Pastorale, and a clutch of shorter essays in the two-movement No. 24 in F sharp, the Alla tedesca No. 25, and  No. 27 in E minor – one of two with prefatory directions in German.   While a minor-key movement occurs in nearly all five – not the A Therese in F sharp, however – the emotional  content is not particularly gloomy, or even suggestive of depression.   At the end, you may feel that you have come across some movements of ADHD-style Beethoven, but generally the atmosphere remains benign; determined, of course, yet not reaching into dark psychological reserves.

Brawn opens his reading of the Op. 14 E Major Sonata with poise and a controlled excitement that he lets erupt sporadically, notably at the recapitulation with its celebratory left hand semiquaver scales.   For all that, the work impresses best in the concluding passages of each half, the melody in minims singing over murmuring quaver chords in the bass.   A placid equanimity permeates he E minor Allegretto that follows, a plain-speaking premonition of the opening movement to the Sonata No. 27; while the concluding Rondo is briskly handled with an infectious energy surrounding the initial left-hand triplets and the extended central E minor episode.

Taking the tour with Brawn re-opens the wider Beethoven vista, especially when you are looking with a vision concentrated on works of a kind, like these sonatas.   During the opening segment of the D Major Op. 28, the most striking factor is the composer’s reservation of practically his entire development for the three add-on bars to his first subject’s opening sentence.   This creative focus and its attendant flexibility receives steady handling and the moderate waltz tempo is sustained.   Only in those right-hand-only bars featuring two triplets and a quintuplet is the delivery unsatisfying; it’s hard to put your finger on the reason but it may be that each individual beat needs more emphasis.

With the Maelzel-type metronomic tick-tocks in the bass, the sonata’s D minor Andante has a serious facade only and Brawn approaches it with an appreciation of its jauntiness and patches of frivolity; for example, at the change into the major.   Quite rightly, the Scherzo is given at a rapid speed which slows slightly for the Trio‘s second half, while the occasionally bucolic finale, despite the bracing bursts of double-octave action, sounds at its best in the simplest sections where Brawn’s touch is relaxed and beguiling.

Despite the signs of stress in the F sharp Major work, like the admonitory left hand trills in bars 26 and 85 and the intense working-over of a simple motif from bars 45 to 50, the interpretation captures you through its fluent Schubertian lilt at the start and those melting postludial observations at bars 27 to 30, then further on at bars 86 to 89: deftly shaped and touchingly diffident in character.  The sonata’s complementary vivace proves to be a model of sensibility – not over-fast, lots of clarity in the sets of two semiquavers in alternating hands, and a clever, slight easing of the pace before the cell motive’s several returns.   As well, Brawn reaches a marvellous purple patch from bar 149 on the last page; the dynamic juxtapositions and contrast in timbres between treble and bass makes you raise your eyes from the score.   I’m still trying to work out how he achieves a striking and highly individual muffled effect in bar 152.

Certain piano pieces take on a personal colour for many of us according to when and how we studied them.   My instructor at the Sydney Con, Nancy Salas, with a sadly misjudged estimation of her recalcitrant charge’s abilities, gave me the Alla tedesca Sonata to work on – as well as the Bach Italian Concerto, Mozart’s K. 459 Concerto, the Andantino from Schumann’s middle sonata, and several other works over our two-year relationship – masterpieces that over-taxed this mid-adolescent’s limited abilities.   What a pleasure, now, to come on a compelling reading of the Beethoven work which, as far as possible, I’ve avoided since those years.   Brawn treats the opening Presto cleverly, not forgetting that Beethoven wanted something of a tub-thumping country-dance feel about these pages.   More pointedly, the pianist refrains from turning the movement into a moto perpetuo with some infinitesimal ritardandi before launching into the cuckoo-imitating cross-hand sections that dominate the middle pages’ action.   It’s all very brisk but warm in temperament – and, more significantly to my envious appreciation, flawlessly articulated.

I used to think that the remaining movements of this work were child’s play compared to its opening and the Andante in siciliana mode is devoid of technical problems.   But the final Vivace has its moments, as well as a running test pattern of rhythmic shifts, which Brawn negotiates with unflappable control at a very fast pace.   You are hard pressed to find any seams in the breaks between sections, mainly because the performer somehow knits the movement into one fabric by subtle note-sustaining and a non-aggressive palette of attack.  This sonata as a whole presents one of the outstanding exhibitions of sheer craft in the series so far.

The disc’s solitary grim pages come at the start of the E minor Sonata No. 27, pages that have a sort of galumphing stodginess to them.   Like the preceding G Major exercise, the technical requirements are far from shattering but agility and interpretative breadth put the executant under the pump.   Brawn is elastic with his beat in some passages, although rarely those where the forward motion is in chord steps.   He introduces an unexpected accelerando at bar 92 that dissipates before the section closes pianissimo – a little touch of sturmisch bewegt breaking up the steady first-beat emphasis that permeates the movement.   Finally comes a plain-speaking account of the Nicht zu geschwind movement where Beethoven seemingly can’t hear enough of his own main theme, a simple but multi-faceted marvel of construction.   In this very persuasive reading, the pages murmur past although Brawn proves insistent with his loud/soft/sforzando jumps between bars 32 and 38.   But his command of texture reaches a high mark at those discordant spots where the composer sets up an accompanying pattern of contrary-motion 2nds: bars 47 and later at bar 187.   In handling each of these points, Brawn maintains a gentle burble under the top line’s melodic stream, yet again showing a sensitivity to texture and intention that makes one look forward even more to the next product in this excellent series.

Winner with the well-worn


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Tuesday November 8, 2016


                                                                                Daniel Dodds

Finishing the year in style, Kathryn Selby and her guests – violin Daniel Dodds, cello Julian Smiles – gave a rich, broad airing to the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1, if more heavy-footed in the Scherzo than usual – not over-molto in this Allegro – and I believe without a repeat of the first movement’s exposition.   But what you gained from this interpretation was an awareness of the score’s linear strength and the warm humanity of its expressiveness which avoids any trace of the sentimentality that cloys some of the composer’s most popular bagatelles.

Smiles is a well-known quantity – not just from his appearance at the last Selby & Friends all-Beethoven recital, but also through years of Goldner Quartet, Australia Ensemble and Musica Viva appearances.   Once again, he brought his quietly assertive strength into play from bar 4 on, later most eloquently at that rare moment of lyrical exposure in the Adagio with the change to G sharp minor (sort of): the only moment in that inspired alternation of chorale and complex harmonic meshing where a string instrument speaks alone.

Dodds, currently artistic director of the Festival Strings Lucerne, made a remarkable contribution to the work’s success. He is not a barnstorming force, carving up the melodic soars and swoops, but more penetratingly fine in output than most players achieve in negotiating this work.   His first entry – that delayed powerfully fine theme restatement with the cello in sixths – made a deep impression for its controlled supremacy of line; but the finesse of his detail delighted just as much, like the rapidly accomplished triplets throughout the finale and his moderate dynamic at those few points where the violin in that movement actually gets to enjoy the limelight unopposed or unyoked to the cello line.

Tuesday began with a brief Schubert piece, the D.28 Sonatensatz.   A youthful single movement, this hardly stretched these performers although Selby was kept occupied with dollops of doubling and plenty of underpinning passage-work.   Just as rare, Liszt’s Tristia, a late arrangement of his own La vallee d’Obermann, the longest work in  the Swiss book of the Annees de pelerinage, impressed for its restraint, especially the muffled string output at the piece’s opening, so that the eventual explosion into dramatic hyperbole for all three performers came over with emphatic power.

A close-to-full Deakin Edge auditorium greeted the Brahms trio interpretation with considerable acclaim; with this audience you can’t go wrong with the tried-and-true Romantic.   A similar reaction greeted the Liszt rarity; for all its inbuilt depression and mournful meanderings, the work is framed in familiar 19th century terms.   Not so happy was the reception given to Gerard Brophy‘s Sheer Nylon Dances, a piano trio work in four movements with the piano ‘fetishised’, i.e. slightly prepared in the Cagean sense.

Most of the Australian composer’s suite titles suggest atmospheres or settings, although the intent is surely comic.  An initial cakewalk avec carillons lointains begins with bell-suggestions from a slow-moving piano before the strings liven up the action; the start of the voiles tunisiennes is string patterns just disjunct enough to suggest minimalism before the piano enters; a more placid la gymnopedie engloutie precedes a rhythmically disjunct danse d’extase.   These Debussyan/Satiesque titles (with a dash of Scriabin) give you no preparation for what follows, particularly as the movements’ texture is subtly dominated by the clanks and thuds of the piano.   A good deal of the piece is a test of synchronicity, the danse something of a trial for the executants who have to do a fair bit of counting eleven to the bar.

This Brophy score from 2000 puzzled the patrons – and me, simply because it was out of context, although you can see that it was programmed in comfortable surroundings to give it an airing, rather than to draw parallels with adolescent Schubert and venerable Liszt.   But the true tenor of this audience came from a question without notice after Selby’s opening talk/explanation when a lady asked when the organization would be programming Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio of 1846.   That’s the sort of curiosity that this splendidly accomplished pianist’s Melbourne patrons seem to want .  .  .  more’s the pity.

Well, the diet in 2017 is light on rarely-heard names but long on interesting products from the familiar ranks.  March brings Beethoven, Saint-Saens and Dvorak’s Dumky.  May is all arrangements: Haydn’s Miracle Symphony, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin,  and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.   Elena Kats-Chernin’s The Spirit and the Maiden will begin July’s program, with a Dvorak and Ravel to follow.  September is another all-Beethoven night, including the composer’s own arrangement of his Symphony No. 2.   And the end of the year offers the only break in the piano trio mould with Turina, Mozart and Dvorak piano quartets.   Nothing to fret about here, not even Kats-Chernin’s quarter-hour construct, thanks to the composer’s penchant for repeated patterns and traditional harmony.    What you will get across every night is excellent chamber music-making with a lot of familiar faces rotating at the string desks.

Vivaldi all over


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday November 5 and Sunday November 6, 2016


                                                                                          Avi Avital

Not an instrument you come across often, the mandolin.  No performance of Don Giovanni goes through without you hearing its gentle underpinning to a baritone booming out Deh vieni alla finestra; sometimes a director has the sense to put the player onstage.  But otherwise?

A set of mandolin-composing names are put forward in the program booklet for this particular concert.   Thanks to the modern craze for Mahler, you get to hear the instrument in the Symphony No. 7; sadly, this work is among the least commonly performed of the canon.   Then there’s the Symphony No. 8, which is even less often given and calls for at least one mandolin but preferably more; mind you, there’s a long wait before the instrument’s timbre comes out of the maelstrom at Letter 148 of the second movement (and most of the output is pianissimo – hence the call for more than one of them) and later there is ten bars’ work from Letter 187 on.   However, the best of the composer’s ventures comes in Das Lied von der Erde where it features briefly in Von der Schoenheit and to superb effect after Letter 64 in Der Abschied.

Webern, the hero-figure of the 1950s and 1960s, uses mandolin in his Op. 10 Five Pieces for Orchestra; well, he uses it sparingly – 3 notes in No. 3, 13 notes in No. 4, and 6 notes in No. 5.   The instrument also gets a guernsey – actually, a bikini strip – during the second movement in the Cantata No. 1 Op. 29.

Then there’s Schoenberg who scored the instrument into his Serenade, Op. 24; like Mahler in his Symphony No. 7, he also used guitar here.   Later, he gave the instrument a small part in No. 4 of his Variations for Orchestra, then a bigger contribution in that work’s finale.   As well, it features in the one-act opera, Von heute auf morgen which, to my shame, I’ve never heard.   The only other use I can find in this composer’s oeuvre is in that vast sprawl of an opera, Moses und Aron where he calls at one point for four mandolinists.

Stravinsky has a mandolin in his opera Le rossignol, as well as in the ballet Agon – and that’s it, as far as I can see.   The program note also lists Verdi (for a chorus in Otello) and Massenet (somewhere in Don Quichotte).   But, early Beethoven apart (two sonatinas, an Adagio and an Andante with variations – all with harpsichord accompaniment), you’re scraping to find solid material in Romantic/Modern repertoire of significance.

Which goes some way towards explaining Israeli-born virtuoso Avital‘s emphasis on Vivaldi for his tour with the Brandenburgers.   Along with the original Concerto in C RV 425, he also offered his own transcription of Summer from The Four Seasons and the solo violin A minor Concerto from L’estro armonico.    Couple that with a Paisiello concerto in E flat (a dubious attribution, it turns out – one of three mandolin works ascribed uncertainly to Napoleon’s favourite composer) and a set of Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes from the mid-20th century by an enthusiastically nationalistic writer in Sulkhan Tsintsadze, and you have a guest who’s very generous with his time and talents.

Paul Dyer and his reduced orchestra played two works in their own right.   Vivaldi’s Concerto in C RV 110, with its reminiscences of the well-known Two Trumpet Concerto, made a brisk throat-clearer involving (I think) the truncated ABO’s full complement of five violins and single viola, cello and double bass supported by Dyer’s omni-present harpsichord.   Avital made fine work of the RV 356 in A minor with a mobility of dynamic during the four solo passages in the opening Allegro and about the same number in the finale.   He enjoyed a good deal of prominence in the middle Largo where the orchestral background is confined to sustained chords, giving ample space to exhibit his ability at shaping a line, admittedly one that barely stretches above an octave’s range.

Giuseppe Valentini‘s A minor Concerto grosso, one of the longer of the composer’s Op. 7 set of twelve, was reduced from the original six movements to four; more than enough, given the predictable sequences that brought to mind first year counterpoint exercises, although the interweaving of the four solo violin lines came off quite well.   In the Georgian Folk Themes, Avital got to use the tremolo technique that most of us associate with his instrument; the Vivaldi works and the Paisiello tended to ask in the main for single notes only.   The suite itself is a pleasant entity, its melodies shaped into well-rounded format, Tsintsadze’s orchestration slick, a few harmonic quirks thrown in as a sort of post-Bartokian salute to a man who really knew what to do with a folk tune..

As for the C Major Concerto RV 425, you could hardly wish for a more authoritative interpretation: brisk even in the central slow movement, precise in its right-hand work and continuously interesting for its contrasts – very welcome in a piece where executants feel they’ve met their responsibilities by getting all the notes.  Still, it’s been a long time since I last heard this work live; in fact, probably not since Kurt Jensen’s years presenting concerts at St. John’s Southgate.

Avital introduced the Paisiello work with a short address, drawing contrasts between Venetian and Neapolitan schools, some of which rang fairly true.   But his insistence on this composer’s powers to startle with abrupt changes of harmony seemed far-fetched, once you settled into the work itself; not much of novel interest struck the ear as the opening maestoso oscillated between E flat and B flat with some glancing side-swipes.   Here, more than anywhere else, a few more strings would have helped add to the work’s density, although it has to be admitted that the score’s effectiveness gained by having Avital audible throughout.

The final, seasonal Vivaldi proved to be right up the ABO’s street, Avital infusing it with vivid emphases, driving bravura passages and a relish for the stop-start nature of the opening feast of bird-song and heat-washed languor.  Later, the storms of the finale roused plenty of enthusiasm, although the final ascending flourish of 2nds from bars 116 to 119 didn’t impress as much as the preceding rapid-fire solos.   Still, this full house reacted as you’d expect – with a torrid energy mirroring the score itself; actually, even more than you glean from Vivaldi’s excitement-rousing tutti exclamations.

If you must have transcriptions for the mandolin, then you can hardly do better than the Venetian master’s sun-drenched confections.  And every concert benefits significantly if it features a guest artist who matches the host players’ driving enthusiasm and brio in accomplishment.