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.