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.