Confidence, with personality

THE PIANO IN ARCADIA

Arcadia Quintet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday December 1

arcadia             (L to R) Matthew Kneale, Kiran Phatak, David Reichelt, Lloyd Van’t Hoff,  Rachel Shaw

As you can tell from the photo, the Arcadians are a wind quintet. now three years old, comprising graduates of the Australian National Academy of Music.  For this recital, part of the Recital Centre’s Spotlight series, the ensemble hosted pianist Peter de Jager who not only played in all four works programmed, but also wrote one of them.   With the enthusiasm of youth, these combined forces gave value for money, their event going some 20 minutes overtime.  I suppose that it would have been hard to cut back on anything, although the opening piece stuck out from the ruck pretty obviously.

Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano of 1926 served as a palate cleanser, enjoying a very affirmative account in the Salon space where audiences are close to the players; in this case, the ambience felt even more tightly knit, as though you were seated alongside the wind players, if not inside de Jager’s keyboard.   From the full-frontal initial Lent, it was evident we were in for a take-no-prisoners evening, de Jager powering across his opening 9 chords, followed by an intransigent semi-cadenza from Matthew Kneale’s bassoon, climaxing in a low B flat, massively triple forte, with David Reichelt rounding out the pseudo-Baroque dotted-rhythm-plus-trills stateliness with a piercing elegance – all of which disappeared with the jump into Presto at Figure 2 where we hit the 1920s as that period struck a receptive composer on the watch for piquancy of harmony and instrumental character.

As delivered by these players, this trio  impressed as more rowdy in atmosphere than usual, where the emphasis tends to be placed on the effete.  While the central Andante hit the expected element of melancholy with a bite, at the Rondo finale in D flat these musicians found a permeating current of vigorous excitement, buoyant enough to communicate Poulenc’s restrained exuberance, if presenting as more muscular in contour than you are accustomed to hear.

In some ways leading on from this spiky opening gambit, Guillaume Connesson’s four-minute moto perpetuo Techno Parade served as a tour de force for Kiran Phatak’s flute, Lloyd Van’t Hoff’s clarinet and Ledger on piano.  A relentless exercise in rapid-fire articulation and simultaneity, the piece came off  to fine effect, the wind duet work close to faultless and, if there’s not much to the score but boppy energy and a deft manipulation of jazz-inflected motifs, you could admire the execution for its confident drive.

Concerning the final two works on this night’s menu, what follows is unfortunately vague and, in some aspects, unreliable.  Not that the music itself was difficult to follow, but scratching notes in the dark as an aide-memoire is no way to guarantee precision of observation or evaluation. Still, this is what I heard – or thought I heard.

De Jager’s own Disintegration in two parts, elliptically titled Before and After, received its premiere here.   It involved all the Arcadians with extra instruments emerging occasionally – Phatak’s flute alternating with piccolo, Reichelt doubling up with a cor anglais and an oboe d’amore.  Each half held six sub-divisions, both starting with a chorale and ending with a movement called Perotin which offered a contemporary take or two on the medieval organum/conductus nexus.

In the work’s first half, a Barcarolle impressed for its subdued menace, a duet for bassoon and one of the oboe group weaving its path above suspended chords and a rolling piano underpinning.  Mounds of Earth brought Shaw’s horn into prominence in alliance with the piano although the title’s relevance to the movement’s emphatic linear content escaped me.  Phatak enjoyed a searching and emotionally appropriate cadenza in Melody: Hysteria. For the second Chorale, de Jager opted for staccato wind chords juxtaposed with sustained keyboard sounds; Evaporated Earth gave a clear illustration of the composer’s economy of matter: his music’s progress is orderly, not obsessively dissonant but concerned with sounds and their placement  –  in this movement particularly, I heard suggestive echoes of Webern-like cells and acrostics.  Death Metal Depths eschewed the flute and oboe voices at its beginning – all bass rumbles and very loud ostinati, illustrating the title’s sonic potential persuasively, although the action eventually did spread upwards to involve the soprano voices.

Disintegration intrigues for a restless mobility, reflected in its multi-partite nature, and it is a clear success as an essay in timbres.  You’d have to hear it several times to acquire a definite appreciation of its structure; for example, I found little to distinguish the Death Metal Depths from its attacca consequent, Immolation, apart from some Zauber Feuer Musik trills; and the Techno Funk Fire passed by without making much of an impression – quite distinctive, of course, but standing as something of an intellectual hiatus in proceedings.  De Jager’s lyrical and harmonic vocabularies are assimilable, his intentions remain clear throughout and, as you’d expect from a band of colleague-friends, the execution on this occasion impressed for its persuasive energy and pretty reliable ensemble work.

The sextet then engaged with Brett Dean’s Polysomnography, which took its inspiration from the technology associated with tracking and recording the brain’s activity.when one is dreaming.  Five movements examined, in musical terms, various techniques and/or results from this process: theta and delta waves, myocloni (twitches and spasms and their release), sleep spindles (abrupt bursts of brain activity) and the composer provided a kind of summative assessment in a Dream Sequence that capped the experience.

Dean begins with theta waves where rhythmic motion is all over the shop; the acoustic spectrum is disturbed (or eased?) by having some executants breathe into their instruments; an unsettling music with sustained trills for flute over complex sound washes.  Myoclonus presents a very active sonic field that yields to a placid conclusion. Dean’s Sleep Spindles are punctuated by woodwind arpeggios suggestive of that scene in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle where the unfortunate heroine discloses a lake of tears, a searching horn solo rising from the mesh.  As for the climactic dream, this opens with a series of ejaculations led by bassoon, the sleeper’s experience eventually rising to a frantic climax with rushing figures that recede but, in a telling inspiration, remain sotto voce under the concluding pages’ placid progress.

This is a remarkable construct, all the more so when you consider what Dean is attempting.  You can find musical data that depict the designated brain activity if your bent is towards the specific, but Polysomnography works even more satisfyingly on a more suggestive plane or two.   Besides exemplifying in some shape the referents that the composer’s titles propose, the work stands as a remarkable challenge for its executants, testing their mastery of synchronicity, of dynamic leaps and articulatory bounds, and of crafting their sounds into a highly exposed, clear fabric.  Without a score, I can’t make any assertions about the precision of this performance but it pleased the composer, who was present.  For all that, like de Jager’s new work, it would be worth resuscitating in a future Arcadia program – on this showing, an event to be relished.

The players have an attractive collegiality in their work, further emphasized by their attraction to new music rather than sinking back into more comfortable repertoire by Danzi, Reicha, Nielsen and Hindemith.  They hold back nothing, giving you the benefits of their craft unstintingly.  And, thank God, they have a sense of humour; mind you, negotiating a taxing (and long) program like this, you’d need one.