Once were giants

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Duo Chamber Melange

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 27

Duo Chamber Melange

                                             Duo Chamber Melange

On one of those Indeterminacy discs that John Cage put out more than half a century ago, he told a story about his then-cobber Stockhausen.  The famous electronic music master pronounced, ‘I ask two things from a composer: invention, and that he astonish me.’  Which possibly goes some way to explaining the intellectual isolation of the German composer’s last years.  At pretty much every concert or recital I get to, I’d be happy in being met with one of his two criteria in operation.  But it’s the kind of apothehgm  that’s hard to forget, once you’ve heard it,  because it usually applies to those phenomenal works that dominate our musical landscape in the world of Western art.

As I suspect, for the rest of us mortals outside the rarefied realm of Donaueschingen, one or the other could be enough, even if the days of astonishment come less and less frequently as the years wear on.   Sadly, the first work on this latest program from Duo Chamber Melange – violin Ivana Tomaskova, pianist Tamara Smolyar – satisfied neither benchmark, under-flying the inventiveness quality by many feet.  Alla Pavlova, born in Ukraine, has resided in New York since 1990 and has provided our duo with other pieces that I’ve not heard.  The six-part orchestral Suite from her ballet Sulamith, completed in 2005, has been recorded several times; she has abstracted from this suite a set of three movements for violin and piano which seem to come from the ballet suite’s first half: Introduction, Ritual dance and Love duet.

After a pretty lengthy opening statement from Smolyar, Tomaskova took over the running with some soaring melodic work, the atmosphere altering for the dance movement, then moving back to lyrical apostrophes for the finale.   Nothing wrong about the performance, even if the violinist urged out her high passages with a touch too much emphasis; the music passed over with no signs of stress.  But its vocabulary proved to be early Romantic, without even the harmonic grinding of Brahms or the chromatic interest of Chopin.  Every so often, the duet reminded me of a particularly fleshy Song Without Words, spiced up by some rhythmic energy in the middle movement which bore a trace of Khatchaturian-style folksy charm from over the Black Sea.  But inventive?  Not much. Perhaps it all works better as ballet music in that dancers would find it easy to follow.  As for colours suggesting the world of King Solomon (whose love for the serving girl of the title provides the action), they escaped this listener.

Shchedrin’s In the style of Albeniz is a slight encore piece, originally for piano solo but arranged to employ violin, trumpet or cello in a duo format.  After the Pavlova piece, this came as a welcome bagatelle of modernity.  Written in 1952, the piece offers something like a parody of the Spanish composer’s Espana but its flourishes and semi-moody languishings cleverly summon up the intended atmosphere, here delineated with plenty of firm directness of speech by both executants.

Smolyar then took a solo: an arrangement of the finale to Rachmaninov’s D minor Trio elegiaque No. 2.  This was constructed by the pianist and Anthony Halliday.  I don’t know the piece, although the score shows that it is piano-heavy.  Sadly, little of it remains in the memory apart from a gaucheness in its piling-up of episodes and a surprising lack of sophistication in the piece’s language; but then, Rachmaninov was only 20 when he wrote the work as a memento mori of the recently-departed Tchaikovsky.

The evening’s main work was Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor which is rarely presented by any duo, glossed over in favour of the No. 2 in D Major, a re-working of the composer’s splendid Flute Sonata.  The collaboration throughout this score proved exemplary, if again inclined to stress the inbuilt polemics.  More impressive as an achievement was the whispering-winds-through-a-graveyard passage in both the outer movements, handled with discipline and muted confidence.  The Allegro brusco lived up to its title; the temptation here is to do a Shostakovich and remain on the one taut and loud level for too long.  The succeeding Andante proved masterly, a full-bodied elegy articulated clearly and in excellent dynamic balance,  succeeded by a full-frontal, determined Allegrissimo.

What the players seemed to be pursuing in this interpretation was Prokofiev’s clear anti-war message, although, even in the brusco, he doesn’t venture far into the brutal but lightens the texture with something approaching satire.  The emotional atmosphere, despite occasional breaks,  remains morose but not depressing.  To the credit of both musicians, we were taken faithfully on a dark journey, one whose ending the composer realized was not going to be achieved by the armistice of May 8, 1945.  Nothing astonishing here, but this sonata is brim-full with inventiveness and it gave a welcome depth to the duo’s presentation.

 

 

May Diary

Thursday May 4

BETWEEN STRINGS

Katapult

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

A kick-off for the Metropolis New Music Festival, this program comes from ‘ a trio of internationally acclaimed soloists’ and is part of a Festival sub-set called the Resonant Bodies Festival.  As far as the actual players go, they include Dylan Lardelli, Lizzy Welsh, Laura Moore, and an extra body in Eric Lamb.  Lardelli is a New Zealand-born guitarist; Welsh is a Melbourne resident and is practised on both violin and baroque violin; Moore is a Sydney-based baroque cello and gamba specialist.  The outsider, Lamb, is an American flautist.   As for their program, there’s a new work by Lardelli, as yet unnamed; Melbourne son Vincent Giles’ silver as catalyst in inorganic reactions and also an apparent spin-off, . . . of sediment; New Zealand musician (I think) Nancy Haliburton’s Music for Guitar; another unnamed piece by Chris Watson, the senior British composer (again, I think); and Austrian conductor Roland Freisitzer’s Music for Eric Lamb of 2015.  It’s a lot to fit into an hour but variety is the spice of new music recitals.

 

Thursday May 4

Metropolis 1

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The MSO’s contribution to this festival seems to have shrunk behind my back to two programs instead of three.  And the definition of ‘new music’ also  has undergone something of a sea-change.  This night opens with a gem from the orchestra’s Composer-in-Residence, Elena Kats-Chernin: her re-version of the Prelude and Toccata from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo.  To balance this, the C-i-R has produced a real new work for the occasion in Ancient Letters, although the title suggests a provenance older than the late Renaissance.   Conductor Brett Kelly (or is it Mahan Esfahani, who shares leadership duties and is apparently making a harpsichord contribution?) will revive Brett Dean’s Carlo, the Australian composer’s 20-year-old monument to the murderous Prince of Venosa.   Guest soloist Joseph Tawadros fronts his fresh Oud Concerto and the night is rounded by Boulez’s 1985 Dialogue de l’ombre double, a stunning near-20 minute solo, here in an authorized version for the night’s second/third? soloist, recorder player Erik Bosgraaf, the performer reacting as he moves across the music stands to a pre-recorded tape of himself.

 

Thursday May 4

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

This ensemble is here for the first time ever, so I know nothing about them.  Not that they’re spreading their riches lavishly; just the one program performed for one night here, the following night in Sydney, and it’s home, James.   Their conductor is Jaap van Zweden, who is shortly going to take up a post as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic as well.   The program is not exactly breaking new ground, apart from a work by one of the orchestra’s composers-in-residence, Fung Lam; Quintessence was premiered in 2014 and has been performed by the HK Philharmonic every year since. The main work is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and guest Ning Feng, with his MacMillan Stradivarius, fronts the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4.

 

Friday May 5

LA SONNAMBULA

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

VO is making a habit of  Bellini concert stagings  –  Norma and I Puritani in previous seasons  –   so we’re inured to the disbelief suspensions required for this smaller-framed masterpiece.   Jessica Pratt sings Amina and here’s hoping she has a happier time than she endured in the company’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  Another survivor from the Donizetti, Carlos Enrique Barcenas, has the role of the sleepwalking heroine’s fiance, Elvino;  Greta Bradman is the advantage-seeking  innkeeper  Lisa; Paolo Pecchioli features as the nobleman with the revolving bedroom door, Count Rodolfo, while Roxane Hislop appears as the heroine’s foster-mother, Teresa.  As yet, I can’t find details of who will take the role of Alessio, the song-writer who has the misfortune to be devoted to Lisa.   Richard Mills conducts and this is a one-night only presentation scheduled to last three hours, which seems pretty excessive unless the interval is a gargantuan one.

 

Saturday May 6

THE THINGS THAT BIND US

Latitude 37

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

In an unexpected change of repertoire, this period music trio takes on a contemporary field as part of the recitals in this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival.    The players cast a wide net, with music from Iceland, the UK and America, as well as New Zealand and Australia.  Two works from Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir will enjoy an airing: Clockworking for violin, viola, cello and electronics will present the players with a how-many-of-us-are-there challenge, while Sleeping Pendulum calls for only a violin and an electronics operator.   The music is pleasant enough – starkly folksy, if anything.   David Chisholm’s 2011 Trick fits Latitude’s personnel, as far as I can hear;  for bass viol alone comes Lines Curved Rivers Mirrored from 2014 by British writer Edmund Finnis; then follows the delightfully named Slow Twitchy Organs by that brilliant American arranger, Nico Muhly – I’ve heard Fast Twitchy Organs which is electronics only, I think, but not this one; New Zealand’s John Psathas is represented by a piano solo, Waiting for the Aeroplane from 1988, close to the first thing he wrote; Australian Brooke Green’s Reza Barati is a 2016 elegy for the Iranian refugee killed on Manus Island, written for gamba solo, viol consort and drum; and finally comes the work that gives the night its title, a 2013 piece by Australian Luke Howard for organ, violin and gamba.

 

Saturday May 6

METROPOLIS 2

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A night of excess; there’s too much here.  Brett Kelly conducts but Mahan Esfahani is also billed as ‘play conductor’.  We begin with Ligeti: the Passacaglia ungherese for solo mean-tempered harpsichord (Esfahani).  Which is followed by Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 6 (the Brandenburg No 4 re-arranged).  A recorder concerto by Dutch composer Willem Jeths will enjoy its Australian premiere from Erik Bosgraaf, its dedicatee.  A Vivaldi violin concerto in A minor has been transcribed for oud by the ubiquitous Joseph Tawadros who presents it tonight; British composer Anna Meredith’s Origami Songs, also written for Bosgraaf, end the program.   And somewhere in the middle come two works from the Cybec Twentieth Century Composers Program earlier this year: Ade Vincent’s The Secret Motion of Things, and Connor D’Netto’s Singular Movement.

 

Saturday May 6

FRAGMENTS

Alicia Crossley

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 pm

This is the Metropolis New Music Festival’s last gasp and it features a solo artist in recorder player Alicia Crossley.   She kicks off with Bach – the whole G Major Cello Suite arranged for one of her instruments.  Another familiar name is Debussy whose Syrinx for solo flute will also be moved across to a new/old medium.  From her own recording Addicted to Bass from 2015, Crossley performs Andrew Batt-Rawden’s E and Mark Oliveiro’s Calliphora, both for bass recorder and electronics.  Johann George Tromlitz, a contemporary of Haydn, was a flute master of that time; Crossley performs one of his partitas as well as contemporary Dutch writer Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ 2003 work for oboe and ‘soundtrack’, The Garden of Love.  This last, the Bach, Debussy and Tromlitz have also been recorded by Crossley on the Move Records label.

 

Sunday May 7

ACO SOLOISTS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Eschewing the attractions of visitors, the ACO uses its own people as front-runners for this latest program in the national subscription series.  Satu Vanska is director in her husband’s absence and she takes solo responsibilities in Locatelli’s Harmonic Labyrinth Violin Concerto in D Major.   Glen Christensen partners her in Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor for Two Violins and Cello, that bottom line taken by principal Timo-Veikko Valve, who also gets exposure in an arrangement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.  The program ends with Mendelssohn’s Beethoven-quoting String Quartet No. 2 in a string orchestra arrangement.  The odd men out are a new work, as yet unnamed, by Western Australian-based James Ledger, and an Andante for Strings, the slow movement from the String Quartet of 1931 by American innovator Ruth Crawford Seeger, Pete’s step-mother.

This program is repeated on Monday May 8 at 7:30 pm

 

Thursday May 11

BENJAMIN NORTHEY CONDUCTS SIBELIUS 2

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Well, the youngish Australian conductor studied in Finland, so we’re expecting something of an affinity for this most popular of the composer’s seven symphonies; not that studying there or even being a Finn gives you much of an edge in these internationalist days.   The night’s first half is all-Beethoven: the Coriolan Overture, then the Emperor Piano Concerto in E flat where Stefan Cassomenos is entrusted with the solo part.   I suppose this last is what will bring in the punters and hopefully justifies the MSO presenting this Prom (or have they discarded that nomenclature?) on two consecutive nights.

This program will be repeated on Friday May 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday May 13

BAROQUE JOINS THE CIRCUS 2

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra/Circa

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed the last collaboration between the Brandenburgers and the Circa troupe in a French Baroque program, part of the orchestra’s 2015 season.  The focus has moved south this time round to Spain and, while actual details are currently lacking, the program will include works by Monteverdi, Falconieri, Kapsberger, Merula and Cazzati – none of whom, as far as I can see, ever visited Spain.  The orchestra has mined its own Tapas CD, which features tracks of music by each of the above-mentioned composers.  But then, most of the time your attention is focused on the acrobats and their extraordinary feats.

This program will be repeated on Sunday May 14 at 5 pm

 

Saturday May 13

TOGNETTI: PENDERECKI & BRAHMS

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Taking up a residency at the National Academy, Richard Tognetti directs a program split in two.  He concludes operations with the Brahms Symphony No. 1, that much-deferred and well-worth-the-wait product of the composer’s 43rd year.  By way of a lead-in, the ANAM forces perform Penderecki’s 1961 composition for 48 strings, Polymorphia, and the more famous Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, written a year earlier for 52 strings.   In between the Polish master’s works comes Jonny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia, a construction that the Radiohead personality wrote in collaboration with Penderecki.   All very neat, concise and inter-related but you’ll need the interval to carry out some mental gear-changes, swerving from 40 minutes of mid-20th century (pace Greenwood’s 2011 homage) experimentation to late 19th century conservatism.

 

Tuesday May 16

Angela Hewitt

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Of course, there’s Bach: two partitas – No. 1 in B flat and No. 4 in D: well-known quantities just waiting for the clarifying exposition of this expert performer.   It’s a solid dose; Hewitt’s reading of both adds up to about 40 minutes’ worth.  Then comes a selection of Scarlatti sonatas, as yet unspecified but you’d expect about six of them, probably extracts from the pianist’s Hyperion album of 16.  Hewitt vaults across time for a bit less than 20 minutes of French music in  Ravel’s Sonatine and Chabrier’s Bouree fantasque, both also recorded on Hyperion.   Oh well, you play to your strengths but, for the dedicated fan, there’s nothing new here.

Angela Hewitt will perform a second program on Saturday May 20 at 7 pm, including Bach’s Partitas 2 and 4, and two Beethoven sonatas: No 2 in C minor and the Moonlight C sharp minor.

 

Saturday May 20

MSO + JAMES MORRISON

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

After a day-time effort for the younger set (Fri May 19 at 10:30 am for Years 7-12), this is an event for those aged over 13 and ‘all  adult lovers of jazz’.   Trumpet veteran James Morrison, one of the most recognized characters in the field, is the focus on this limited odyssey of a night.  For the jazz/classical fogies, Benjamin Northey conducts the MSO in Gershwin’s tone-poem An American in Paris and the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story.   The rest is less substantial, although covering a wide ambit.  There’s Spencer Williams’ Basin Street Blues of 1928,  Ray Henderson’s The Birth of the Blues from two years earlier, Benny Goodman’s Seven Come Eleven for his own sextet in 1939, and Cat Anderson’s El Gato, written for Duke Ellington and the Newport Festival of 1958  –  a real test for Morrison.   Other items will be Miles Davis’ All Blues, also from 1958; an Afro-Cuban classic, Manteca, by Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gill Fuller; Weather Report‘s Joe Zawinul’s classic 1977 fusion gem and homage to Charlie Parker, Birdland; then back to 1931 for Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing.   Pretty comfortable listening, nothing too confrontational and experimental, but then the night has to showcase Morrison’s trumpet and much of this will carry out that mission very well.

 

Sunday May 21

SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

With an obvious Scotch touch and a promised Australian twist, this night in the National Trust stately home’s ballroom stars three singers  – Icon Trio –  and the Team’s own Robert Chamberlain.   Soprano Justine Anderson and mezzos Vivien Hamilton and Jeannie Marsh will lilt their various ways through Ye Banks and Braes, Charlie is my Darlin’, the Eriskay Love Lilt and a few other songs that generally lie undisturbed in the Caledonian ersatz-folk musical crypt.   As well, there’ll be no forgetting Beethoven, who arranged more than his fair share of Scottish airs for sundry vocal combinations.  And contemporary Scottish lights get a guernsey or three; first, the  prolific John Maxwell Geddes will have three extracts from his Lasses, Love and Life song-cycle expounded; we’ll hear two pieces from another cycle  –  William Sweeney’s five-part Luminate: from the Islands; the genders remain imbalanced despite the presence of three excerpts from Claire Liddell’s Five Orkney Scenes; Chamberlain gets to play music by Manchester-born Peter Maxwell Davies and the nationalistic drum beats loud with some more keyboard scraps from Percy Grainger.  Oh, and there’ll be a few Burns recitations to ram the message home.

 

Thursday May 25

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

Melba Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

What you see is all you’ll get  –  or is it?  The Recital Centre’s handbook promises a two-hour program in the Salon but the only work scheduled is the great Schubert quartet.  For the sum of $199, you and a select group of 64 others will also enjoy preliminary canapes and Narkoojee Winery drinks before and after the performance, an introductory address from the organisation’s executive director Richard Jackson, and the opportunity to mingle with the performers (violinists William Hennessy and Elinor Lee, violist Keith Crellin and cellist Janis Laurs) after they have expended their energies on one of the most draining works in the chamber music repertoire.   As they say in the world of PR, enjoy.

 

Thursday May 25

MSO PLAYS PETRUSHKA

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Bramwell Tovey, that amiable British pianist/conductor/raconteur, is back in town for a night of Russian music, more or less.  There’s no denying the provenance of Stravinsky’s great ballet of 1911, written before the composer said goodbye to his motherland for many decades; of course, this is the 1947 revision, carried out from the physical safety if copyright badlands of the United States.   The best-known Russian piano concerto, Tchaikovsky No. 1 in B flat minor, will enjoy the services of Cuban-born Spanish resident Jorge Luis Prats who I believe is performing here for the first time.   He is of an age with Tovey so I’m expecting a steady two pairs of hands on the score.   Russian at one remove, Elena Kats-Chernin is this year’s Composer in Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   To celebrate her position, she has produced Big Rhap and tonight will be its world premiere.  The Tashkent-born composer can always be relied on for accessibility.

This program is to be repeated in Costa Hall Geelong on Friday May 26 at 7:30 pm, and again back in Hamer Hall on Saturday May 27 at 2 pm.

 

Saturday May 27

STEFAN DOHR: FANFARE & FANTASIES

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Dohr has been principal horn with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 24 years, which is testament to his enduring ability and sense of service – although, once you have a job like that, where else can you go?   He is taking the Academy brass musicians (and others) through a program of ten segments, beginning with the famous and uplifting Fanfare from Dukas’ ballet, La Peri, followed by some more Dukas in the horn test-piece Villanelle arranged with brass accompaniment.   Thierry de Mey’s Table Music, where three or more performers percussionize on available table-tops, provides a break, after which the Belgian-French fin de siecle ambience continues with Trois Melodies by Debussy, arranged for trombone quartet.   Slovenian composer Vito Zuraj jolts us back to de Mey territory with his Quiet Please from 2014, a construct for three brass mouthpieces.    Back where we belong come Henri Tomasi’s Fanfares liturgiques – well, the final Good Friday Procession from this 1947 suite for brass, timpani and drums.   No concert of this nature would be complete with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, derived from the splendid Third Symphony.   Chou Wen-Chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet solo, brass octet and three percussionists continues the American connection briefly, only to have the night wrenched back to the mainstream with a Tristan Fantasie involving 6 horns, which I assume will offer a digest of the Wagner opera’s main points of interest.  But finally, The Great Satan has the last word with a suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story – arranged for brass and percussion, of course.

 

Monday May 29

Nikolai Demidenko

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Two composers only on this program – Scarlatti and Schubert.   Like Angela Hewitt (see above – Tuesday May 16), Demidenko has recorded some of the sonatas – 39 on two albums – so he’s got a lot to choose from.  As with Hewitt, at the time of writing, which ones he will perform has not been determined; well, not to the stage of telling us.   He has also recorded one of his Schuberts – the A flat Impromptu from Op. 90.   But the big C minor Sonata, one of the great final three from the composer’s last months, is a fresh offering.  Mind you, I’d be content to hear this musician play even his beloved Medtner live; like Garrick Ohlsson, he enriches us by the insight and devotion he invests in large-scale and small works alike.

 

 

 

No better way to spend Good Friday

ST. JOHN PASSION

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday April 14

andrew-goodwin

                                                             Andrew Goodwin

After last year’s sterling performance of the St. Matthew Passion, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff elected this Easter to take his Bach singers and instrumentalists into the St. John score, using pretty much the same soloists as in 2016 (their ranks cut a tad because there’s less work to go round).  With the orchestral and choral forces, I can’t comment on any continuity because the program for that event has gone the way of most print.

But the reading was comparable with its predecessor in general security and consistency. Prakhoff pointed out in a program note that he had no intention to present a total period interpretation, complete with gut strings, lute, and oboes di caccia ; rather, he utilised what he found practical in performance methodology and, if it sounded well-rounded or even orotund, the aim was to propose one way to interpret this moving work.  Fair enough, I say; better to have a comfortable sound, even if it suggests 19th century practice, rather than witness players struggle with unreliable instruments or trebles jog-trotting through page after ornate page without a clue of what they’re doing.

The Bach Choir is a large body which packed quite a punch in this hall.   After a suitably restless orchestral ritornello, the opening chorus’s Herr ejaculation came as an abrupt explosion; gripping in effect and setting up the operating ambience for the rest of the night with the instrumental fabric falling into the background, even in power-attenuating polyphonic complexes.  But the sheer mass of singers acted as a kind of brake so that, even as early as the semiquaver-heavy unser Herrscher passage, the action was being pulled back;  a traction that re-appeared later on in turba segments like Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen and Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater.  Still, the chorales impressed uniformly, particularly the spot-on attack on the unprepared Part Two opening Christus , der uns selig macht.  The only flaw in these singers’ work was the tentative sound produced by the tenors; for a body that can boast 20 of them, you’d expect a more resonant presence, particularly in fugato entries.

Prakhoff’s orchestra was fortunate in its bass elements, including a willing double bass pair and Matthew Angus’ bassoon.  I couldn’t see much of the band’s interstices but gamba Laura Vaughan apparently offered her skills to the complex obbligato for Es ist vollbracht!; Jasper Ly and Nicole Misiurak alternated oboes with cor anglais for the da caccia appearances late in the score;  flutes Jennifer Timmins and Alyse Faith made a clean sweep of Ich folge dir gleichfalls, leader Susan Pierotti led a safe string corps and generated a driving top line in the Betrachte/Erwage double.

If you had to typify this performance succinctly, you’d call it forthright.  None of the soloists showed any sign of lingering over his/her work and the standard of production veered towards clear-cut definition with little space for sentiment or supple elisions. Once again, Warwick Fyfe sang the Christus role but with an adamantine firmness; this was no figure of pathos but an activist, speaking with directness to everyone from the apostles to Pilate.  For those of us brought up on the tradition of Christ’s words being encased in a nimbus of sustained string chords, Fyfe’s interpretation represents a novel approach where the text’s drama is dominant and the impetus towards death is unabated.

Also continuing from 2016, Andrew Goodwin sang the Evangelist with, if possible, even more distinction.  This tenor has a flawless delivery, projecting each note across his compass with an exemplary balance; not gabbling the lengthy slabs like Die Juden aber and the narrative-ending Darnach bat Pilatum but vaulting sensitively through the recitatives, maintaining the sense of John’s gospel, although prepared to give rein to the slow chromaticism of Peter’s weeping and that hurtling descending flight at the description of Christ’s scourging.   Singing of this elating assurance is experienced rarely these days, and Goodwin struck a fine balance between empathy and simple story-telling; for most of us, I’d suggest, we felt privileged to be in the hall each time the tenor stood up.

Lorina Gore was among the revenants, gifted in this work with two arias only.  Her sprightliness of delivery served well in Ich folge dir gleichfalls, interweaving to telling effect with the escorting flutes; later in the ornate Zerfliesse, mein Herze, the soprano’s craft shone through in her negotiation of the exquisitely figured vocal line and in a well-judged handling of breath control in some difficult legato passages.

Dominica Matthews sang the Passion’s alto arias; she did not feature among the preceding year’s soloists but put her own stamp on this work, handling her allotted arias with a firmness that mirrored her male colleagues.  Her version of the pivotal Es ist vollbracht! proved excellent for its sense of forward motion, in tune with the general dynamic of this performance.  Matthews made sure of offering maximum contrast when the pace quickened for the Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht pages, a riveting explosion of bravura in the middle of an elegy.

Henry Choo was indisposed by a back injury, which meant that he carried out his work but then retired backstage rather than sitting in front of us for the performance’s length. You could hear no signs of stress in his athletic Ach, mein Sinn, the top As in this aria’s central section punched out with a vigour that typified the tenor’s approach to these restless pages.  And his energy remained constant in that exhausting Erwage aria which holds three of the entire work’s most continuous passages of rest-less singing; luckily, Choo has a bright, clarion-clear timbre that made following his line a rare pleasure.

Bass Jeremy Kleeman impressed in the St Matthew Passion and enjoyed similar success on Friday.  While Part One held little content apart from some recitative contributions, he produced a pair of stalwart gems in the score’s second part where the soloist is interrupted/escorted by choral forces; first, with sopranos, altos and tenors in the scale-rich Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen handled here with  deftly-controlled restlessness; then, in one of the work’s most consolatory sequences, the chorale Jesu, der du warest tot underpinning the lilting Mein teurer Heiland – a stretch of unabashed candour in this Passion’s high drama and a joy for any bass.

So yet again, the organization achieved a successful Good Friday commemoration, giving Bach’s formidable score a fine airing, crowned by a real sense of accomplishment with a fervent declamatory attack on the concluding Herr Jesu Christ, erhore mich, ich will dich preisen ewiglich!   On which promise, the Bach Choir, Orchestra and soloists delivered handsomely.

 

 

And again I say, rejoice

GEORGE DREYFUS . . . LIVE!

George Dreyfus and Paul Grabowsky

MOVE Records 3300

Dreyfus

Next year, George Dreyfus will turn 90.   On the current Australian music scene, he regards himself as a true rara avis, in that he seems to be one of only a few survivors from that halcyon period when this country discovered best European practice and the creaking shackles of musical composition  –  as taught by transplants from British academia  – started to buckle.  Unarguably, many of the Bright Young Things of that Golden Age from the 1950s to the 1970s have passed on: Don Banks, Ian Bonighton, Bruce Clarke, Ian Cugley,  Ian Farr, Eric Gross, Keith Humble, Richard Meale, James Penberthy, Peter Sculthorpe, George Tibbits,  Felix Werder and Malcolm Williamson.   And their own near-predecessors have definitely left us – John Antill, Clive Douglas, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Raymond Hanson, Robert Hughes, Dorian Le Gallienne and Margaret Sutherland.

But some of the Dreyfus-contemporary  generation are still loitering, like Alison Bauld, Anne Boyd, Peter Brideoake, Colin Brumby, Nigel Butterley, Barry Conyngham, Ross Edwards, Helen Gifford, David Lumsdaine, Larry Sitsky and Martin Wesley-Smith. Admittedly, some are lingering quietly, outwardly content after the highs and lows of careers in composition.  Dreyfus can not be numbered among these but is still writing, still revelling in every performance of his own work, still kicking against the pricks.

The alphabetical lists above follow the contents page of a volume to which Dreyfus refers in his notes for this CD: ‘James Murdoch’s piss-weak 1972 Australian Composers picture book’  –  about which, more later.   If I were to follow Frank Callaway and David Tunley’s study published six years later, Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century, the well-gone group would extend to Edgar Bainton, Arthur Benjamin, Moneta Eagles, George English, Felix Gethen, Alfred and Mirrie Hill, Dulcie Holland and William Lovelock;  John Exton and Eric Gross  would feature among the BYTs, while  Jennifer Fowler and Donald Hollier are survivors.

Andrew Ford’s Composer to Composer (1993) casts an extra-Australian net but the locals he includes number the very-much-alive Gerard Brophy, Moya Henderson and Liza Lim.

All of which is to say that Dreyfus is not starved for company but he is, of all the composers listed above and still at work, the oldest  –  in many cases, by more than a decade.

This CD is a re-release of a 1978 LP, so it’s offering nothing new except the opportunity to drink old wine from a new jar.   The works – all short – cover the period from 1957 to 1978, the largest number coming from the 70s . . . as you’d expect.  Dreyfus himself plays bassoon and sings enthusiastically; for the nostalgic among us, memories come seeping back, encouraged by the composer who starts off with his most famous creation: the title theme to Rush, a TV series set on the Ballarat Goldfields brought to vivid life in a hurtling, catchy tune which is actually infiltrated by little quirks that come across loud and clear in this reduced version for two instruments.

The following track also features an early success: the main theme to a children’s TV series, The Adventures of Sebastian the Fox, which had the significant advantage of being singable.  And so it was, by flocks of engrossed young admirers.   After this comes a sort of lucky dip of pieces that can be handled by two performers, among which is a heavy representation from film scores, a form that the composer found most congenial: the main title from the ABC commissioned Marion of 1973; the theme of Ken Hannam’s post-World War One film Break of Day; another 1976 creation in music for another film,  Let the Balloon Go.  This same productive year also saw the production of Power Without Glory, a 26-episode serialisation from the ABC of Frank Hardy’s controversial novel, Dreyfus providing the score for this ambitious undertaking; and there’s a small scrap called Peace, the lone survivor of a Film Australia production in 1969 called Sons of the Anzacs.

Dreyfus and Grabowsky give these samples of the composer’s music without flourishes, the amiable melodies scaled down in effect from the lavish treatment they are given on a composer-conducted CD The film music of George Dreyfus, Move Records MD 3098 which holds them all.

As for the singing, Dreyfus treats us to his Ballad for a Dead Guerrilla Leader, a segment of his opera The Gilt-Edged Kid which was commissioned in 1969 by the national opera company but never performed by it: God knows why – this extract is falling over itself with accessibility and when you consider the thousands of dollars lavished on models of local-grown tedium that appeared on Opera Australia’s playlists in later years, you have to wonder about the perceptual frameworks of the apparatchiks involved and their selection criteria.

The earliest track on the CD is Das Knie,  part of the early (1957) nine-part setting of some Galgenlieder by Christian Morgenstern.   Song of the Standard Lamp comes from a 1975 collaboration between Dreyfus and Tim Robertson, The Lamentable Reign of Charles the Last, written for that year’s Adelaide Festival.  Finally, Dreyfus sings his Three Ned Kelly Ballads, with texts by film-maker Tim Burstall but, like the other sung works, without their original accompaniment.  Dreyfus’ vocal quality is best described as honest rather than burnished by years of training and Grabowsky’s keyboard contributions support his collaborator without attracting much attention.

Apart from the Ballads, the longest work on offer is Deep Throat, a work of no little oddity. Offended by Murdoch’s evaluation of his Symphony No. 1, Dreyfus put together a short two-page score (reprinted in the CD’s accompanying leaflet) consisting of scraps from Murdoch’s commentary given a mundane vocal setting alongside scraps from other sources – Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, the composer’s own symphonies  –  the most dismissive of Murdoch’s statements coming in for special repetition.  The score comes complete with performing instructions which basically amount to open slather, to the point where players can introduce whatever they feel is fitting, i.e. any other symphonic scraps that strike a performer’s fancy; Dreyfus himself brings in a bit of Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony.

Deep Throat is a satire, poking fun at the aleatoric practices of mid-20th century advanced composers and charlatans alike.  The humour is far from subtle but the sense of anger is obvious enough.  As you’d expect, the work isn’t mean to travel far outside the world of contemporary Australian composition in the late 1970s.   Far more interesting is to re-visit Dreyfus’s Symphony No. 1 with Murdoch’s pallid observations in mind; here, the composer’s justification rings with resonant force, particularly throughout the powerful Moderato finale.

At the end of the CD, what you have enjoyed is a small retrospective; even for its time, it was light-on in content and length (a bit over 33 minutes).  It’s unlikely that even as well-disposed a company as Move Records has the resources to re-issue some of Dreyfus’ sterling works, like the Symphony No. 1, From Within Looking Out, Jingles,  The Seasons, the Noverre Wind Quintet, the Sextet for Didjeridu and Wind Instruments,  And what of the operas that have been produced successfully overseas – Rathenau and Die Marx Sisters, both of them over 20 years’ old and not a note of them heard here?  Furthermore, I haven’t mentioned (so far) other small gems like Larino, Safe Haven, Lawson’s Mates or Waterfront that have enriched that ever-stretching shelf that holds the Dreyfus catalogue.

This brief remembrance of things past is welcome yet it can’t help but bring to mind a larger canvas, one that deserves re-viewing and so shining a light on the major role that Dreyfus played during a strikingly productive era in this country’s serious music life, a time that many of us recall with affection and respect.

 

 

Pastoral power

THE PROSPECT AND BOWER OF BLISS

Tall Poppies TP 240

Jo Selleck

This disc holds two song cycles by Melbourne composer Johanna Selleck, both different in atmosphere and performance modes.   The shorter composition, in four parts, uses texts extracted from Aphra Behn’s A Voyage to the Isle of Love, set for soprano and piano. here interpreted by Merlyn Quaife (for whom the cycle was composed) and Caroline Almonte.   Graeme Ellis’s Seven Tanka also uses Quaife as well as soprano Judith Dodsworth, with Arwen Johnston’s percussion and Anne Norman’s shakuhachi as instrumental support.

The Behn poems are part of The Prospect and Bower of Bliss segment of the large poem, Selleck setting the first four of its six stanzas.  The opening ‘Tis all eternal Spring around takes a measured approach to the happy verses, Almonte’s piano setting up a slow-paced pattern over which Quaife’s line roams across a wide compass, coming back to the opening line’s statement from time to time, a sort of thread linking the poet’s placid descriptions of burgeoning nature.    Fountains, wandering Banks, soft rills begins pictorially enough with a fragile figure high in the piano, the voice also used deftly to suggest sparkling textures, before the performers move to a lower compass when Behn turns her attention to forests and earth.   This setting is fragmentary interrupted by a series of long pauses,  Selleck bringing her setting to an ecstatic climax before returning to that opening delicacy before arriving at a firm salutation to the poet’s Bower of Bliss.

For the third song, The verdant banks no other prints retain, begins in a plain-speaking B flat Major tonality, the forward movement from the keyboard suggestive of a rhythmically unsteady country dance.   The text introduces human beings onto a scene that has been focused so far on a lush natural world and both composer and poet bring the atmosphere down to earth with a set of pages that come close to suggesting a British folk-song setting, especially the reprise in C Major at the work’s centre   Above everything else, you appreciate the easy lustiness of the lines and their straightforward musical setting: a mostly successful juxtaposition of sophistication and simplicity.

The final piece, A thousand gloomy Walks the Bower contains, returns to the same world as the second song, Almonte’s piano proposing a shadowy aura of soft dissonance while the vocal line meanders and, after reaching a climax, subsides into silence.  The movement is slow and close to meditative, suggesting the depletion that comes after the Bower’s purpose has been achieved.  This is the longest of the cycle’s parts, almost equal to its combined predecessors.  But it is a finely graduated sequence where the temptation to word-paint is almost entirely resisted and the evanescent conclusion is emotionally soothing and intellectually apposite.

Behn’s lyrics centre on love; to this over-reactive mind, erotic passion rather than courtly interchanges.  The bucolic scenes set a calmly sensual scene and, if the poet is not the most mellifluous of her generation’s creators, her intentions are pretty clear, particularly in her insistence on concluding each stanza with the word ‘ravishing’.    Quaife emphasizes this imagery of sexual passion in the suggestive portamenti on the sequence Gazing, sighing, pressing, dying in connection with a ravisht swain  –  the only solid human figure in the setting’s scenario.

The work offers a stimulating exercise in giving a modern voice to a 334-year-old poem, Selleck handling her text with unexpected ease, finding her own metre in the verses and not afraid to halt the process and reflect for a moment – on ‘gloomy Walks’, for example. She keeps her interpreters harnessed to the work but the impression is of a gently spreading ambience, not an adherence to rhythmic and harmonic discipline.  Further, this set of pages speaks an individual language, one that suggests certain influences but these hints rarely solidify into certainty; like the music itself, they remain possibilities.

Judith Dosworth emerges fairly soon after Quaife in the first of Ellis’s Seven Tanka where Selleck follows a pretty substantial tradition of Australian composers engaging with Asia –  if you allow that the tradition is less than 70 years old.   The two sopranos alternate and intertwine with Norman’s shakuhachi, these three lines  armed with a set of ‘effects’ like short notes that fall downwards, sustained tones that eventually take on vibrato (as those sadly under-prepared and untrained children do on television talent shows), remote pianissimi.  Other colours emerge from Johnston’s percussion, which seems to consist mainly of vibraphone and a touch of marimba.

That distant thunder offers a more dramatic scena, complete with a straight duet passage for the singers.  Johnston employs cymbals, bells and what sounds like a water gong and a light tam-tam as Selleck depicts the poet’s  active imagery.  Next, Grey before the first dawn is a slow threnody in which the singers begin by keeping pace with each other, note for note, while the shakuhachi operates on several levels – as an orthodox Western flute, using noteless breaths, sliding off the note – and, like its predecessor, has an elongated postlude.   The force of Red wine of maple takes you by surprise.  It’s another of Selleck’s direct-speaking pieces, the sopranos striding through the lyric with loads of colour from Johnston’s keyed percussion and metal sheet; then, just when you think the lyric is ending jubilantly (although with an unhappy low note from Dodsworth at the end of the final line, The cracking of winter calls), the voices return softly, suggesting that the wine has had a less-than-happy effect.

Soft marimba wood-block sounds and quavering shakuhachi vocalisms set a sonorously suggestive scene before the voices enter on Long crane free feathered, in which the instrumental work is of striking interest for its complexity, in particular the hard-pressed Johnston who produces some remarkable juxtapositions and superimpositions.  The moon is gliding finds singers and Norman making great play with the first line’s last word; in fact, ‘gliding’ is the first word you hear, and the last.   While the outer parts of this setting have lots of slow eliding and imitation, the central line, Scattered with starlight, brings into play some brisk, consonantial vocal vaulting.  Selleck is also not afraid to have Quaife and Dodsworth articulate a straight descending sequence based on a harmonised C Major arpeggio; but the composer’s vocabulary is a catholic quantity and the tonal sits comfortably alongside advanced flourishes and an unclogged impressionist palette.

The final tanka, Five white stones unite, finds the vocalists working in canon on a striding march-suggestive melody; but the canon is not strictly observed.  As you can hear in other tracks on this CD, the composer bends patterns and expectations; not disturbingly so that you lose track of her sequences, but offering intriguing variants from the predictable.  The singers work through the lines twice and then the instrumentalists play a lengthy postlude, loaded with some brisk percussion commentary and Norman’s plangent sounds eventually ending on a muffled gasp.

In these Seven Tanka, Selleck has written a clear-voiced and idiomatic setting of poems that were written in traditional Japanese format.   The use of Norman’s instrument takes the listener into that country’s musical atmosphere, as do Johnston’s various percussion underpinnings  –  bass drum/timpani standing in for the dayko, not to mention the suggestive small chimes that get an occasional airing.   But you experience little sense of self-consciousness; the resources employed are not used simply for Oriental mimicry.  As with her Behn cycle, Selleck has a firm artistic personality, a writer hard to typecast as belonging to any particular compositional methodology.

This CD is not lavish with its contents – the total running time is 46′ 43″.  But it’s well worth attention for the excellence of the participants and the chance of hearing a pair of song cycles by a highly expressive voice in the cluttered ranks of Australian composers. As well, its executants are all female and that’s something of a rarity in contemporary chamber music-making.

 

Take my breath away . . . sometimes

BACH VIOLIN CONCERTOS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday April 2 and Monday April 3

Johann-Sebastian-Bach

A congenial combination of Haydn and J.S.Bach provided the fodder for Richard Tognetti’s ACO concerts over the weekend.  Playing to indubitable strengths, the ensemble presented three Bach concertos: that for solo violin in E Major, BWV 1042, which some of us may know better as a keyboard work; the overwhelming D minor Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, fixed firmly in this backward-gazing mind by the inspired recording of David and Igor Oistrakh from the early 1960s; and the Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed from the Three Keyboards pseudo-original, but by whom I’m not sure – there’s an edition by Christopher Hogwood but the arranger could easily have been someone less familiar/eminent . . . like Wilfried Fischer (probably not).

Interwoven with the concertos came some smaller gems.  Tognetti began Sunday afternoon with the Preludio of the Violin Partita in E Major which he himself arranged, taking the semiquaver-stacked solo himself and leaving the ACO strings to pizzicato an accompaniment that struck me as having its basis in the organ-fronting Sinfonia score to the composer’s Cantata No. 29 where Bach indulged in yet another piece of recycling.  In the middle of the program’s second part, room was made for principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve to perform the Sarabande from the E flat Suite straight, without any accompaniment.

The pair of Haydn symphonies were early: No. 22 in E flat, called The Philosopher for no apparent reason, and No. 27 in G Major.  Both were written within 15 years of Bach’s death but have little relationship with the Bach scores, except as possible commentaries on why the senior composer’s work fell into neglect as a less contrapuntally fixated generation took over the reins.

The Preludio lollipop worked as a throat-clearer, I suppose, its non-stop onward rush a test of left-hand dexterity in negotiating scales and arpeggios interspersed with some interest-raising leaps; Tognetti dispatched it with brisk authority.  More solid matter emerged in the solo concerto and on this wider canvas you could appreciate the violinist’s manipulation of what looks so four-square on the page.  Taking Eliot to heart, Tognetti does not cease from exploration but treats Bach’s bare bones with flexibility – not just inserting ornamentation but investing those long phrases with something close to rubato, just not as obviously following the wait/catch-up process that the term entails. In fact, it’s not just a case of being flexible, but more a pliable quality and, if the distinction seems non-existent, the only explanation I can offer is that you can hear that Bach’s solo line is being manipulated but it comes across as unforced, as part of the performer’s approach: not trying it on but treating the linear contour with respect for its organic elements.

In this work, Tognetti was more able to demonstrate this originality of approach, something that amounts to affection for the composer’s product informed by a fine array of dynamic shades and juxtapositions where the soloist could take familiar passages and re-animate them with unexpected differentiations of attack, in particular eschewing the sawing heftiness of many interpretations that emphasize the composer’s harmonic insistence rather than the chromatic subtleties that come between those solid tutti passages.   He might have been following a similar pattern in other works, but this was one where harpsichordist Joao Rival swapped his harpsichord continuo for a chamber organ in the Adagio movement, supporting the momentarily placid ACO strings – nine violins excluding Tognetti, three violas, three cellos and Maxime Bibeau’s bass.

Later, principal violin Helena Rathbone joined her artistic director for the second solo part in that urgent Double Violin Concerto and again the central players eschewed heft for sinuosity. as in the long intertwining exposed passage in the first Allegro from Bar 58 to Bar 84 or in the light application of two double-stop passages in the finale where both players pulled back and exposed the orchestral movement rather than churning out their chords fortissimo.

It would be difficult to find a more affecting interpretation of this work’s central Largo where the pliability of tempo was a shared quantity between Tognetti and Rathbone but the players eschewed that  non-stop mimicry that you expect to hear in these pages.  By contrast, the last Allegro showed the ACO at its most exhilarating, with plenty of bite in attack and lots of brisk work near the nut in a reading that contrasted the linear clarity of its precedent with a fast-paced aggression.   An odder unexpected touch came with the first movement’s concluding tierce de Picardie where probably every other version I’ve heard is content to leave the violas with their F natural.

The last performed of these concertos, that for three violin soloists, brought Satu Vanska to the front as third-line specialist.  This sounded the most virtuosic of the program’s offerings with loads of exposure for each principal either in solo, duo or trio format. with some mini-cadenzas thrown in.  Both outer movements came across with loads of vim and gusto, all concerned obviously enthusiastic about the score’s emotional spaciousness, even in the plangent B minor Adagio.  Vanska eventually enjoyed the limelight in a rapid-fire moment of sustained exposure during the Allegro assai but the principal trio impressed chiefly by dovetailing and curvetting around each other with eloquent elegance.

The Haydn G Major Symphony in three brief movements brought some super-numeraries to the stage in braces of oboes and horns.  Not that this slight piece tests anybody except in clarity.  Unfortunately, the horn work generated an occasional blooper which, in this transparent score, makes more of an impact than usual.  Despite the repeats, this symphony is quickly accomplished and, if the speeds were on the rapid side, that’s fine as there isn’t much ground for meditation.  The E flat Major work sticks out from the ruck by asking for a pair of cor anglais rather than oboes; Michael Pisani from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and visitor Dmitry Malkin from the Jerusalem Symphony made a well-matched pair, offering antiphonal interplay with the Sydney Symphony’s Ben Jacks and Stephane Mooser  on horns in the initial ceremonial Adagio. The ACO itself bounded through the work’s three following segments with as much finesse and dedication as they had shown throughout the program, but I have to confess that the second movement’s Presto repeats  made for dutiful listening rather than the totally elevating experience that previous program components had brought about.