Janacek on a small scale


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday June 22, 2017

                                                      Antoinette Halloran (Fox), Celeste Lazarenko (Vixen)

While it was a fair effort on the company’s part  to get this problematic work onto the stage, a few days after the event it strikes me that not much about the production could be called memorable or striking.   The singers and orchestra went through the score with efficiency but, apart from the principals, you got the feeling that not much else was added.   On top of this sense of ordinariness, Stuart Maunder‘s direction of the secondary and tertiary figures impressed as perfunctory and, as he had little enough resource material to work with, the unsatisfying effect was all the more prominent.

The last two times I’ve been in this theatre have been for VO work: Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty and Ernest Toch’s The Princess and the Pea – both of which slotted into the Playhouse space well enough.   The Janacek opera is another matter altogether.   You can admire the truncation of orchestral forces by Jonathan Dove as a sad/necessary job done competently but nothing makes up for the absence of power in those terse rhapsodic outbursts that constitute the score’s chief glory.   The main trio of singers – Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran, Barry Ryan (Forester) – gave respectable accounts of their roles, and their peers on the human side showed equal assurance: Brenton Spiteri‘s regretful Schoolmaster, Samuel Dundas bumbling but lethal as the poacher Harasta, Jeremy Kleeman‘s Parson sustaining with distinction his maudlin solo Pomni, abys byl.

On a bare stage with abstract representations of trees, the chorus of forest creatures assembled for the capture of the vixen – but in lamentably small numbers, unable to communicate the composer’s sonorous fabric suggesting the teeming life in this environment.   Ryan’s stentorian timbre proved exemplary from this scene until his final meditation – that marvellous and moving stretch beginning Nerikal jsem to?!.   But his orchestral support sounded meagre, as though the pit occupants were operating from some distance away.   At most points, the animals’ interpolations were left unwoven into the orchestral fabric, the singers treating their interjections and comments with plenty of regard for the rhythm and nothing at all for the vocal-orchestral ambience in operation.

Lazarenko made impressive work of her feminist pitch to the hens, keeping you involved even though her line is a sequence of short phrases.   Even better came in the courting scene; not so much a duet as a dialogue and carried out with reassuring fluency alongside Halloran.   Although the Vixen has room to establish a character, the Fox has to work quickly and one of the more impressive segments of this production came in that Bozinku, ten je hezke! section where both characters meet.   Neither they nor Janacek waste time and the movement from here to the end-of-act wedding should sweep you into the action compulsively.

Disappointingly, these great moments felt under-powered, like the repetitive post-wedding chorus at the conclusion to Act 2 and the final D flat peroration, reminiscent of the composer’s Sinfonietta, that communicates so honestly the work’s underlying pantheism.   You need heft and timbral depth at both points, qualities that Jack Symonds‘ 20-strong orchestra was unable to provide.

Yes, I understand that this was a budget effort and a charitable spectator is expected to make certain allowances.   But the actual look of the work smacked of carelessly cut corners and making-do.   You can mentally compensate for deficiencies in scale when dealing with operas that really amount to operettas without dialogue; Cunning Little Vixen is no such creature.   For all the apparent disjunction of its scenes as they oscillate from human to animal, from inn and house to forest glade, from cruelty to love, the opera works on a large canvas; even the Schoolmaster’s mooncalf-like regretful longings for Terynka need to be negotiated with purpose and spirit.

A fair effort from the company, for sure, and a daring one but the actual realization, visual and aural, gave us all too often only a shadow of the original’s magnificent paean of delight in creation.

The opera will be presented again on Tuesday July 27 and Thursday June 29 at 7:30 pm, and on Saturday July 1 at 1 pm.

Hefty times in Hawthorn


Flinders Quartet

Hawthorn Arts Centre

Tuesday June 20, 2017

                                           (L to R) Helen Ireland, Shane Chen, Zoe Knighton, Nicholas Waters

Moving out momentarily from the city, this long-lived ensemble lighted on the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall as a possible future performing space, adding another option to the Recital Centre’s Salon, Collins St. Baptist Church and Montsalvat where the group currently presents programs across the year.   Not that the Boroondara Council’s refurbished centre is unknown to the city’s music-lovers as it was the site for Brett Kelly’s fine Academy of Melbourne concerts when that estimable organization was in play.   And the hall has been the venue for 3MBS’s marathon days dedicated to specific composers, so it has seen its fair share of recent chamber music action.

For reasons best known to sound engineers, this hall presents a notably clean acoustic framework, possibly because the players are positioned on or slightly in front of the proscenium; there’s no reflecting panel bank or screen, such as you find at ANAM recitals or Selby & Friends presentations at the Deakin Edge in Federation Square.   And the space is free of fabric, apart from some tightly-drawn and -anchored stage curtains.

At all events, we heard the Flinders voices at most points of their three-part program on Tuesday, even the glancing bird-imitation effects in the opening work: Peter Sculthorpe‘s String Quartet No. 18  –  his last and most emotionally pointed in the form.   This work is balm to an environmentalist’s ears as the composer follows a sort of thesis that begins with a celebration of a pristine Australia, followed by sound images of a wrecked landscape, ending with a sort of veiled optimism – there must be better days to come.   Sculthorpe always seemed to see the best in people but, in the seven years since this quartet’s creation, we’ve had little cause to share his hopes.

The score was commissioned jointly for the Tokyo String Quartet and the Flinders players, so these musicians have history with it – well, two of them do: violist Helen Ireland and cellist Zoe Knighton.  In recent times, the Flinders format has changed somewhat and the two violins today are Shane Chen and Nicholas Waters; I was hearing the latter for the first time in a string quartet format.   But when I first heard this piece in the Montsalvat Gallery in mid-2010, the violinists were Matthew Tomkins and Erica Kennedy.

Tuesday’s reading gave us a welcome re-acquaintance with this appealing piece that works best in its optimistic early stretches while the vividness later in the score of Earth’s degradation sounds less jagged and aggressive than you might have expected.   But the composer is not attempting to show the process of nature’s disintegration, more’s the pity.   Rather, he gives a sonic tableau of  barren land; the sedge is withered from every lake, and the singing bird noises from the start are tellingly silent.   As struck me at the first performance, the use of O God, our help in ages past jars in its context, which is heavily reliant on Aboriginal chants and songs; you can appreciate the sentiment, in that the Isaac Watts tune regularly appears at Aboriginal community days of mourning, yet its appearance here  seems like an after-thought – following the indigenous melodies’ freedom of direction and rhythm, a four-square hymn doesn’t make the best of end-points.

All the same, this performance proved to be a moving experience; the players sustained the requisite atmospheres across all five movements and made Sculthorpe’s novel production techniques merge into the work’s fabric and impulsive progress.

Two quintets followed, fleshed out by cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   The D Major String Quintet by Boccherini, nicknamed Fandango, could have been a piece that the Flinders have played before; I can recall a work of similar nature being played by them, also at Montsalvat, but I thought that afternoon involved guitarist Karin Schaupp.    In fact, the quartet recorded a guitar quintet by Boccherini with Schaupp in 2010, also with the same suggestive sobriquet; the movements are identical with those we heard on Tuesday, with the first two reversed on the CD.    But, having no real memory of the piece played in Eltham and no longer owning the CD, I can’t make any further connections or identifications.   Nevertheless, it’s clear from Tuesday night’s showing that Boccherini, being a notable cellist himself, loved his instrument and this piece  –  like quite a few in his oeuvre  –   asks for two.

The opening Pastorale fared well enough: a congenial amble before a more assertive Allegro maestoso which lived up to its name, nowhere more so than in Valve’s contribution which surged into consideration pretty quickly.   Knighton matched him in forwardness and the players shared the prominent labours that fell to them.   As at Montsalvat, Knighton downed her cello in the final Fandango for a pair of castanets, expertly wielded and underlining the Hispanic flourishes in the score.   It’s an attractive movement, the most striking in the quartet even if, like so many writers determined to maintain a specific colour, Boccherini does go on about a minute too long.

Valve’s prominence in this work went even further in the night’s finale: Schubert’s C Major String Quintet.   He took the second cello line and was positioned mid-group facing front-on to the audience, so we got the full force of his projection.   These ad hoc ensembles are near-inescapable when performing this work, professional string quintets being pretty thin on the ground.   But it seemed as though Valve was unaware of his own dynamic level for a good deal of this Schubert’s length.

It didn’t help that Chen is a performer with an elegant line, not really inclined to push hard to make himself heard; or, for all I know, not accustomed to having to exert himself in the normal Flinders environment.   Judging by the final Allegretto and, to a lesser extent, the Scherzo, perhaps he should because notes kept disappearing at certain spots where the top line alone has the melody.   When Chen played at unison or at an octave with Walters or Ireland, the problem essentially disappeared but, without reinforcement in this performing context, Chen’s output travelled uncertainly.

All performers made a laudable effort with the luminous Adagio, Valve tamping down his attack mode and the three inner voices forming an exemplary blend for the first 27 1/2 bars.   Later, the finale came off well enough, the collegial approach to tempo changes satisfying to observe.   But you were left puzzled as to why somebody hadn’t picked up on the disparity of weighting at play – one of the executants, an observer, a coach – because it distracted markedly from the interpretation.   That didn’t stop the Flinders’ enthusiastic supporters from showing their pleasure at what they’d been hearing but, for me, it was a case of better luck next time.

A wealth of soft stillness


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday June 18, 2017

                                                                                    Rebecca Chan

An afternoon of nocturnally inspired music curated by guest director Rebecca Chan: that’s what was proposed at the latest MCO subscription series concerts.   With a willing band of young players, Chan took us through some excellent performances in a program that moved across the set theme, the primary intention of which must have been to keep us entertained.   This worked well enough for most of the time, including an excellent second half to the event; the multiple compositional voices proved too strained, however, in the concert’s middle passages.

Chan began by leading a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for strings alone; an imaginative way to open a concert with this underpinning theme  –  after all, Act 2 is conducted under cover of darkness.   Of course, you missed the antiphonal interplay between strings and woodwind, as well as the powerful moments of release that come in the original’s full-orchestra chords, but the 13-strong MCO worked up the passion effectively.   This arrangement by Sebastian Gurtler, one-time concertmaster with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, didn’t fade as expected into silence for the curtain-rise to Act 1 but worked its way into a postlude: the latter stages of the Liebestod that ends the opera.   A bit of a cheat, even if it leaves the audience’s inner tensions resolved.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin opened his contribution to the field of nightscapes with Strauss’s Die Nacht, from the 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blatter’, the composer’s Op. 10 and first published lieder.   The arrangement for strings was unattributed but suitably supple, Goodwin exercising his telling clarity of articulation, at its most moving in the final stanza’s Rucke naher, Seel an Seele.    Speaking of early songs, Schoenberg’s Waldesnacht, arranged for strings by Chan, followed; this, along with the concert’s final work, Verklarte Nacht, gave the unwary a one-sided picture of the composer as a thorough-going Romantic – which, at this stage of his career, he was.   This song comes from Schoenberg’s early 20s and, despite its chromatic side-slips, gave Goodwin no problems, although every so often the string action distracted attention from the vocal line.

Finishing this group was Schubert’s Der Erlkonig in a version by Gregor Huber which exercised the violins, just as the original gives a workout to the pianist’s right hand.   In this format, much of the song’s gruffness is dissipated but Goodwin managed the three voices inside the lied with aplomb, especially the persuasive, then threatening lines from the Erlking himself  – treated without bombast so that the hurtling drama of the narrative came across as a sustained crescendo, rather than a series of jolts.   You missed the piano’s compelling clatter but the ever-startling vehemence of the 18-year-old composer’s vision came across unimpeded.

Chan arranged the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, spreading the work-load around to make up for the absent woodwind piquancies.   It made for a mildly entertaining experience, pretty well negotiated by the MCO band, but eventually unsatisfying; very much a second-best, if you know the original.   For a complete change from Mendelssohn’s suggestions of Puck and Co. cavorting in the Athenian wood, Chan moved us to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, specifically the middle ‘night music’ Non troppo lento movement which worked more credibly, principally because the forces involved were relevant and credible.   Even so, it might have been wiser to play the piece as written without a Tognetti-style amplification, although it spiced matters up quite a bit to see both cellists sharing the honours in outlining their part’s elastic solos.   But the central Agitato segment with all the insect noises loses a good amount of its spark when being negotiated by a corps rather than an individual.

Written for the MCO, Lachlan Skipworth‘s Rilke setting, The Expanse, found a persuasive exponent in Goodwin.  The lyric, Am Rande der Nacht, enjoys a calmly restrained handling, the composer constructing a darkly-coloured string backdrop for a mendicant vocal line well suited to the poet’s effete self-description.   Coupled with this was Schubert’s Nacht und Traume: another Chan arrangement, this time giving Goodwin the opportunity to demonstrate his talent for manufacturing a splendidly sustained slow-moving vocal arc in a song that consists of little more than an emotional stasis, albeit a deeply moving one..

Before the Schoenberg string orchestra version of his own sextet, Goodwin ended his night journeys with two more Chan-arranged Schubert lieder: Nachtstuck, which depicts an old man’s progress through a consoling landscape to his death, and the first song from the song-cycle Die Winterreise where the disappointed lover sets out on his journey towards inconsolable grief.    In the first, attention oscillated between the deftness of the transcription and Goodwin’s warmth of tone in the valedictory last two stanzas; but in the reading of Gute Nacht, all the honours went to the tenor for an interpretation of high quality, the four-square phrases announced with assertiveness and  a subtle shifting of emphasis that was probably as much part of the performer’s musicality as it was built-in by Schubert.

Even after almost 120 years, Verklarte Nacht is still a taxing challenge for its executants.   Nothing about it comes easily, not even the slow threnody of the first pages.   When the polyphonic meshing kicks off and the modulations pour in on top of each other, the players can’t afford to relax or take their eyes off their own work or off that of their fellow labourers.   Chan and her charges gave a pretty solid account of this score which avoided quite a few of the expected deficiencies.   In fact, only one occasion raised eyebrows  – at about bar 246 in the lead-up to the first ‘transfiguration’ section where the lower strings sounded disorganized and uncertain in their triplets’ timing.   An unexpected moment came about when second violin Peter Clark appeared to change his focus by helping out Tom Higham with his viola line for a stretch before returning to his regular duties.    By this stage of the concert, I was sitting at the back of the Murdoch Hall but, even from that distance, I don’t think I was suffering from delusions.

Chan kept the score on the move, well aware that the point of the work is a journey, not a series of stops and starts. The players gave full measure to the thick welters of sound that make up the central, confessional part of the work, but the forward movement stayed on track, even if some of the sudden harmonic shifts had little time to breathe.   Still, the work made a neat balance to the opening Wagner, a score that set the bench-mark for chromatic Schoenbergian constructs.   In all, a worthwhile dark odyssey, despite a few mis-steps along the way.

July Diary

Wednesday July 5


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

For some reason best known to themselves, the members of this piano trio are mounting two of their three annual subscription series recitals in one week.  Tonight, their review of the music written for their specific format focuses on two pillars of the repertoire: Brahms No. 1 in B and Dvorak’s Dumky No. 4.  Most of us who know the Seraphims’ work will have heard them perform these two scores at least once over the years (getting on for 24 of them) since they began collaborating;  what keeps your interest level afloat is hearing how their experiences as professionals have influenced what they find in this well-known music.  They play in the Salon and without an interval – a real study in concentration. And, while the Nationalist label sits comfortably with Dvorak, especially in this score, it’s not so easy to find much local colour in the moving broad strophes of the Brahms work.


Friday July 7


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Two days on from their last recital, this ensemble moves into new territory with some modern compositions for the piano trio.  Well, the descriptor is a generous one: the Shostakovich E minor Trio dates from 1944, Ravel’s A minor masterpiece was written over a century ago, and Sculthorpe’s Irkanda III is now 56 years old.  Once again, the players are heading for the heights with the Russian and French works, indispensable elements in any trio’s knapsack and – again – Seraphim patrons will have heard both from the group several times before.  The Sculthorpe inclusion is intriguing; it’s not a long piece, lasting about 6 minutes, but it rarely enjoys an airing.  Let’s hope it stands up for itself in this distinguished company.


Saturday July 8

Sitkovetsky Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Last time this group visited under the Musica Viva aegis in 2014, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and his pianist wife Wu Qian were in company with cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, who seems to have been with the group since the trio’s inauguration. From July last year, the family duo also enjoyed the services of Danjulo Ishizaka for recitals in London, Cheltenham, the Rheingau Music Festival, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Wimbledon and Leeds.  Somewhere along the line, Ishizaka has been replaced and this time round, Sitkovetsky and Wu Qian’s collaborator is Bartholomew Lafollette; the relationship seems to be very fresh.  The musicians play Rachmaninov’s first Trio Elegiaque (the one with only a single movement), Mendelssohn  in D minor, Shostakovich in E minor a day after the Seraphims have performed it, and young Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Piano Trio, commissioned by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva and, as far as I can find out, not heard since its premiere in 2015 at Verbrugghen Hall.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday July 18.


Friday July 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

This program kicks off a Mozart festival with an emphasis on the composer’s more well-known scores.   Yes, tonight features yet another run-through of the famous serenade, conducted by British keyboard performer/conductor Richard Eggar, last seen here two years ago with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  I’d assume that Eggar will personally begin with the promised harpsichord piece from K. 1, then moving with the MSO into the three-movement  Symphony No. 1 in E flat.  Soprano Jacqueline Porter takes the solo line in that joyously elegant motet Exsultate, jubilate, before concertmaster Eoin Andersen stands up for the Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra K. 261.  Eggar finishes with the Paris Symphony No. 31.  So this first instalment gives us works written between the composer’s 5th year and his 31st; we’re told to expect the unexpected – I can’t wait.


Saturday July 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Night Two of the Mozart Festival and Richard Eggar is still conducting.  The guest soloist is fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout who has appeared almost three weeks before this in a Mozart/Schumann program for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (small-scale) at the Recital Centre.  Tonight, he is playing your old-fashioned piano in the Concerto No. 23 in A Major.  The program begins with the Chaconne from Idomeneo and  the great G minor Symphony is preceded by the Masonic Funeral Music of 1785.  In fact, all of this music stretches across the 1780s decade, all of it with sombre echoes, even in the mellifluous concerto’s F sharp minor Adagio/Andante.


Sunday July 16


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

This program features musicians unknown to me: flautist Chie Haur Foo, principal with the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra; bassoonist Teng Aik Lim, principal with the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra and Selangor Symphony Orchestra; and Penang-based pianist Zhang Chi, a one-time student of the Team’s Darryl Coote.  As whenever two or more woodwind players are gathered together, the music for this night tends towards the eclectic.  I’ve never heard Saint-Saens Bassoon Sonata, one of the composer’s last works, and will probably never hear it again.  On the other hand, Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata Op. 94 is very familiar.   Zhang Chi holds the Team’s banner high for a taxing solo with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and all three artists come together for Three miniatures Song, Dialogue in the dark, Journey –  by German-American composer Tim Jansa; not a music with any great pretensions but well-constructed for the required forces.


Friday July 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Getting towards the end of this festival,  Richard Eggar conducts the myth-status unfinished Mass with a clutch of top-rank local soloists: soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Christopher Richardson  –  almost the same group that sang in the MSO’s October 2015 performance of this work under Benjamin Northey, when the tenor was Henry Choo.   The orchestra’s principal, David Thomas, will front the unparalleled Clarinet Concerto and the evening begins with the Overture to La clemenza di Tito.  All of these were written in the last months of the composer’s life, from September to December 1791; as a programmatic job-lot, they offer a riveting musical portrait of this flawed man and faultless musician.


Saturday July 22


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm.

To end its Mozart Festival, the MSO will play the soundtrack to Milos Forman’s celebrated film.   Benjamin Northey will conduct.   It’s hard to know how this will go.   Certainly, there are passages that will work well enough where the music is used as instrumental backdrop.   But what of scenes like Kostanze’s aria at the premiere of Il seraglio? And later, how will the musicians negotiate the excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni?  The Two-Pianos Concerto extract?  Or will everybody just sit back and let the film soundtrack play?  The MSO Chorus will be on-site for the final scenes where the Requiem is laboured over by the dying composer and his predatory colleague.  I’ve got no brief for the film itself (or Shaffer’s play, for that matter) but the American actors impress for the obvious relish they take in the action’s posturing and sentiment.  While there’s no denying the truth of Mozart’s crude side, the film gives you no explanation of the genius who wrote the masterpieces we have enjoyed in the preceding concerts of this festival.

This program will be repeated on Sunday July 23 at 1 pm.


Thursday July 20


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

MCO director William Hennessy and his players host pianist Lucinda Collins, Senior Lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide.   She is soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 17 in G, notable for an uncharacteristically cramped middle movement and a rollicking finale in variation form.  Hennessy ends with the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, mirroring the good humour found in the concerto.  As a built-in encore, Collins will also play the Adagio in E Major from Mendelssohn’s A minor Piano Concerto, dating from the composer’s 13th year.  And the night opens with some unspecified Debussy Book 1 Preludes arranged by Goran W. Nilson, the Swedish conductor/pianist.  I can trace four of them in Nilson’s catalogue: Les sons et parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels – so I assume these are the ones we’ll be enjoying.  An odd selection but intriguing to hear how they work in transcription.

This program will also be performed on Sunday July 23 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.


Thursday July 27


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Getting used to the MSO’s quiet pursuit of the cult of personality: Benjamin Northey Conducts . . . . , Nicholas Carter Conducts . . . , Sir Andrew Davis Conducts . . . . as if they’d do anything else.   Tonight,  Northey conducts Elgar’s evergreen Variations as a solid wind-up.   Just before, though, he takes the players (some of them) through the composer’s brief Sospiri, a pre-World War One adagio for strings, harp and organ.  The all-French first half starts with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1, organised by Guiraud which takes us from the Act 1 Prelude up to the Toreadors’ Entry in Act IV.   Kristian Chong will be soloist in Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor which opens up with a Lisztian cadenza and rarely lets the pianist off the hook; an exhilarating ride for us all, if a demanding marathon for Chong.

This program will be repeated on Friday July 28.


Saturday July 29


Australian World Orchestra and the Australian National Academy of Music

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

A gala occasion as the World comes to town: an ad hoc orchestra of professional Australians from the nation’s capital city orchestras and other musicians who are now working overseas – all coming to Melbourne for a big night out.  In this case, the conductor is Simone Young; one of the better-known names from Australia at work in foreign climes.  There is only one work: Messiaen’s massive symphony, for which the younger set from ANAM will help swell the forces to reach the numbers required.  A phenomenally difficult piano part will be taken on by ANAM veteran Timothy Young and the Ondes Martenot – the composer’s aural depiction of orgasm – will be in and under the hands of another one-time ANAM musician: keyboardist/composer Jacob Abela.  You rarely hear this work live; in my time, I’ve heard it only twice.  Mind you, the first time I saw/heard it, an elderly gentleman sitting diagonally opposite on the aisle was following his score with avid interest throughout the performance, shuffling back and forth through its pages as though he’d forgotten to remember something important.  At the end, he went up onto the Hamer Hall stage.  It was, of course, Messiaen on his solitary Australian visit.


Not quite ready



Move Records MCD 558

What you see here is exactly what you get: contemporary choral music from across the world – New Zealand, Estonia, the United States, Latvia, Norway (sort-of), Sweden, and Australia.   The choir Canticum itself is new to me although it has been in existence for 21 years; in fact, this CD is a 21st birthday celebration.   With founding conductor Emily Cox, the ensemble is currently in residence at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and, on this showing, is a more-than-able body, even if some of the tracks on offer in Luminescence could have profited by a re-take.

Cox and her cohorts adopted the over-arching theme of light; in this instance, light generated by sources that need no heat to do their work.   This refers, I suppose, to the static nature of scores which, in themselves, have no physical energy.   Canticum’s task is to generate the luminous – sometimes, the numinous – by their efforts and, for a good deal of the time, this works.   Of the 16 tracks, three contain settings of the Maundy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas, seven comprise the Magnificat-Antiphons of Arvo Part, another is New Zealander David Hamilton‘s version of the Ecce beatam lucem text best known for its 40-part setting by Alessandro Striggio, and Swedish composer Fredrik Sixten uses the chant Veni, veni Emmanuel in his refugee-remembering The Fleeing Child is Jesus to a text by Norwegian poet Emil Skartveit.   The remaining six works fall under the general heading of celebrations of nature, or even God-in-nature.

You can find much interest in the Ubi caritas settings which are treated handsomely by the Canticum singers, beginning with a version of that by Ola Gjeilo which owes most to the original Gregorian as well as the luminous Durufle arrangement; not many surprises in the work itself but the choir gives it a refined and fluent reading.   Paul Mealor‘s treatment was used at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; in my case, its inclusion in that ceremony went through to the keeper.   Which was a pity because its quiet abrasiveness, well-husbanded dissonant moments in the work’s progress, display an unexpected individuality of voice.   Cox gives prominence to the motet’s inner parts at tense moments, which makes for some remarkable harmonic exposure, but Mealor succumbs to the temptation of citing the original chant en clair towards the end.   Australian-born Joseph Twist‘s treatment is slow-paced and meditative in a post-Tavener style, with moments of stasis on certain syllables – Ubi caritas et amor or congregavit.   The verses starting with Exultemus move into a more rhythmically dynamic region; even so, the singers could have attacked these pages with more ferocity.   Like the other settings, Twist’s is ternary in form and not over-adventurous harmonically, although the stretch of bitonality near the end made a pleasant surprise; a pity, then, that the work concluded so predictably.

Part’s versions of the O  Antiphons – those appearing in the Vespers services of the days leading up to Christmas Eve – are generally terse, even when he seems to be mulling over the texts.   The first, O Weisheit, is vintage Part with an orthodox texture changing at glacial pace; O Adonai seems to be for male voices only and the Canticum basses sound laudably confident; O Spross aus Isais Wurzel tests the choir’s ability at sustaining grating 2nd intervals.   In O Schlussel Davids, the body’s sopranos sound marginally ‘off’ their top notes and their line doesn’t regain its certainty until the concluding die Fessel des Todes bars.   O Morgenstern finds them in better form, although the final statement of the title could have been re-recorded with profit.   O Konig aller Volker satisfies for its firm treatment of Part’s underpinning tramping pace, while the concluding O Immanuel also suffers from top-line pitching, the series of top As not quite centred accurately; Part’s second-time through this text fares more successfully, but then, it’s less challenging.

Hamilton’s Ecce beatam lucem is written for SSAATTBB forces and its opening is a powerful and brave acclamation that more than adequately sets up a luminous choral ambience.   Parts of Canticum’s aggressive approach work very well but there are some lapses; the composer’s clever build-up of tension at the final line, Nos hinc attrahunt recta in paradisum, needs more deliberate definition and disciplined order of attack.   Like Part, Hamilton exposes his sopranos on top of low-lying textures, with the result that they sound strident on occasion, hard-pressed to do anything but get the note(s?) required.   The piece is testing of all executants but this group might be better advised to take the whole thing at a more rapid tempo – like the Kiwis do.

Sixten’s score enjoys an excellent performance here, the singers maintaining a clarity of shape and texture even when the composer puts the Gregorian line in operation simultaneously with his own setting of Startveit’s words.   The point is made without being laboured – Christ was a refugee and his status is reflected in the modern-day influx to Europe (and Australia) from the East and Africa.    Sixten is humane enough to celebrate the optimistic Gaude elements of the chant alongside the poet’s ringing appeal for the worth of charity: Open the door for suffering.    If not the high-point of the CD, this comes close to it with an appealing clarity and enthusiasm from its performers.

Cox and her choir juxtapose samples from the work of two formidable American composers.   First is Sure on this shining night, Morten Lauridsen‘s interpretation for four-part choir with piano accompaniment of James Agee’s well-known poem,   You’d have to work pretty hard to miss with this splendid composition and the Canticum give a carefully honed version with a fine timbral glow; this might not be as dramatic at its climax as many American choirs make it, but I much prefer this body’s sustained communication of hushed wonder and Delius-like shimmer in the movement of lines.

Randall Thompson‘s Choose Something Like a Star sets an early poem by Robert Frost and, like Lauridsen’s piece, asks for SATB choir with piano.   I’ve never understood its popularity, least of all for its leaden-footed pace at the start and the regularity of its syllabic heft.   Still, the group treats it with care, showing no trouble in handling its few tests and giving some body to pretty predictable sequences.   Thompson’s vocabulary sets no challenges for the listener but the poet’s approval of the composer’s treatment of his lines seems to veer towards the charitable.   I had the feeling that Christopher Wrench‘s accompaniment was leading the voices  – or rather, anticipating them – at various stages, although that could just have been enthusiasm or an understandable urge to keep the pace moving.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds asks the singers to handle tuned glasses and Tibetan bowls;  the few performances I’ve seen have been lacking in the bowls area and only some of the choir members have been trusted to manufacture that eerie, science-fiction-suggestive sound from the glasses part-filled with water.   Some of the pitching here left me unconvinced, notably at Sara Teasdale‘s line Up the dome of heaven, and the soprano solo before the climactic stanza beginning And I know that I is inexact.

Brisbane composer Phillip Gearing employs sustained chords under a gently lyrical line to set the mood for his Only the Light which uses a text fragment from Surrealist-feminist Leonora Carrington‘s short story The Royal Summons.   This is in effect a slow-moving nocturne, highly atmospheric and pretty successfully achieved, although there seems to be some out-of-sync harmonic movement from the tenors during the work’s final clause.   Giselle Wyers has set Roethke‘s famous poem The Waking; but has she?   The text that we hear is the American poet’s I strolled across An open field that comes from Roethke’s The Lost Son and Other Poems of 1948, some years before he wrote that striking villanelle, I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   This composer also has a piano accompaniment but the work itself, lilting and benign, tends to aimless modulation – an ordinary-sounding idyll.

The CD ends with a piece written for Canticum by Keren Terpstra, who supplied both music and words.   Light refers to the Transfiguration, albeit elliptically in its two cryptic lines.   While the working-out becomes a tad ordinary at the start to the work’s second line, the composer struck gold later with her use of sonorous chord clusters in which the inner lines move downward in writing of no little complexity, testing polyphony in which the Canticum singers hold their nerve; a pity that this challenging piece ends rather tamely in a G Major resolution.

In sum, Cox and Canticum have given us an interesting miscellany including some pieces that are pretty familiar to those who have an interest in the field of contemporary choral composition and some rarities, even for the well-informed.   A more demanding editorial hand would have ironed out some problem points but the disc has considerable merit, not least for shedding light on some highly deserving writers.

Reviving the obscure


Laura Vaughan, Elizabeth Anderson

Move Records MD 3396

Robert James Stove’s booklet notes for this all-Bach CD begin by noting that ‘it is remarkable how his sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard remain in the shadows, at best, of most music lovers’ consciousness.’   He’s quite right, in a way: you won’t find many of us able to quote the initial themes of any movement in these three works, while our awareness of the cello suites, violin partitas and flute sonatas is theoretically profound.   I’m trying to recall when – or if – I’ve heard one of these gamba works in live performance but nothing springs to mind; cellists would be able to program them without much difficulty, but what’s the point when they’re already gifted with a mighty unaccompanied repertoire?

It’s not that we don’t have access to the instrument’s sound from local players, although I come from that generation where period instruments remained an unknown field until our post-university years.   Not that we didn’t know about Dolmetsch and  solitary standard-bearers like Landowska but their efforts were swamped by a musical administration in this country that just didn’t want to know.   If you search out these sonatas on modern CD catalogues, you’re swamped for choice – which might argue against Stove’s statement concerning their position in public consciousness.   But then, just because a work is recorded doesn’t mean that it impinges on the serious music world’s communal awareness.

Gamba expert Laura Vaughan and harpsichordist Elizabeth Anderson have produced a finely balanced recording of the sonatas, padding out their CD with a few arrangements: the two C Major Fugues BWV 952 and 953 where Vaughan takes the middle voice, and the  Trio Sonata in D minor from the set of six for organ, with the left hand part handed to the string player.   These fillers can disorient the casual listener by highlighting the middle line in each piece; probably more problematic in the little fugues where we’ve been taught to respect linear equality of timbre.   Not that this turns to irritation as the works are pretty transparent; the only ‘crowded’ polyphony in the BWV 952, where Bach ventures into minor keys at the fugue’s centre, presents no complex web to be deciphered.   In the other miniature, the gamba has more to do and, after the soprano line’s subject statement, has only about 4 bars of silence, being involved with lots of semiquaver work which necessarily attracts the ear away from whatever Anderson’s left hand is doing.   Indeed, the players might have been better advised to choose something more polyphonically taxing than these two slight keyboard scraps.

In the trio sonata, the mix works to better effect, I assume because the two upper parts are not challenged by a comparably interesting bass line, so the listener’s focus falls on the interweaving and imitation between gamba and harpsichord treble.   The first movement is taken at a rather staid Andante pace, but not significantly different to many another organ solo reading.   Vaughan indulges in a bit of adjustment, taking her line down an octave for a stretch.  The following Adagio e dolce is more  problematic because the gamba sweeps all before it; despite the player’s best intentions, the string line is just too dominant and Anderson necessarily opts for a restrained registration.   The finale works better, possibly because the string line is mobile and Vaughan’s octave displacements give the top line exposure at tricky moments.   Yet the whole work has a deft purity to it – no ornamentation bells and whistles and a firm metre throughout with just a few slight rallentandi to avoid the suggestion of automatism.

The first of the gamba sonatas, that in G Major, follows an equable path without any surprises.   Vaughan sets down her line with deliberation and Anderson maintains a benign commentary across the four movements.   I would have liked more bite from the string in parts of the first Allegro, for instance at throwaway segments like bars 90-92 or that odd unexpected syncopated sequence in bars 57-8.  But both musicians take their time with the odd movements, giving the strong melodic arabesques their full value and at all points letting the score breathe without hitching a ride on that relentless continuo homophony chugging band-wagon.

More immediately entertaining is the D Major Sonata No. 2.   Vaughan has more extended opportunities to engage with Anderson’s quirky right hand figures and the faster movements, the Allegri, present with a vitality that takes you by surprise; indeed, these four tracks sound as though the recording microphones have been positioned closer to both performers  .  .  .  although that could just be more a comment on the music itself than the work of the company’s veteran recorder/editor, Vaughan McAlley.   The first of these fast movements comes over as an excellent collaboration, the sharing of material finely judged, while the harpsichord’s acquisition of chords impresses more for its unexpectedness; not the one or two in the first half, but the chain from bars 72 to 75 which, in this context, sound as though Puyana has hit the studio.   Later, the sheer busyness of the final movement is, in context, biting and crisp, the players deftly relieving the pressure when the movement hits F sharp minor at bar 84 and Bach thins out his layers for 12 bars or so before asking his players to bring us home with bounding enthusiasm.

The three-movement G  minor Sonata opens with a marvellously economical Allegro, one of those instances in Bach’s works where the sheer manipulation of melodic cells distracts attention from the performance itself.   For one of the more engrossing tracks on the CD, these musicians traverse the pages without labouring the point, offering the gentlest of hesitations at startling moments like the out-of-nowhere 7th chord at bar 39 and shaping those two points where both instruments play the opening figure in unison, suggesting the finale to the D minor Keyboard Concerto for a brief moment.   Even better follows in the central Adagio where Vaughan and Anderson reach an interpretative high-point, the inbuilt pavane-like stateliness treated with an exemplary attention to detail but also with a communal fluency that displays a deep awareness of each other’s status at every point of the movement.   As a result, the pages, despite a double-repeat, fly past.   The second Allegro also passes agreably enough, the executants’ dovetailing as proficient as ever and Vaughan laudably exact;  I liked the bite she gave to the triple- and double-stops during the 19th bar from the end, but would have liked a similar emphasis at the F Major explosion beginning bar 44: one of the few full-bodied chords (is it the only one?) for the gamba in all three sonatas.

However, in their basic character, these performances remain consistent.  They exemplify a lightly-applied scholarship where the bar-line is not permitted to hold tyrannical sway; rather, each phrase is handled with apt consideration and the give-and-take of these amiable sonatas is honoured.   Neither Vaughan nor Anderson tries to over-dramatise the scores, but you can find plenty of tension in their products – it just won’t slap you in the face with attention-grabbing force majeure; these two are no Baroque Kath and Kim.   But they’re not effete tinkerers either and, if they stand among a large group of musicians who have recorded these gamba works, they are distinguished by a clean-edged honesty to their work.

All for a good cause


Michael Kieran Harvey, Emily Sheppard

Move Records MD 3415

Safe to say that few among us cognoscenti  have any thoughts but charitable ones towards one-time Greens Senator Bob Brown, the exemplar of an a ctivist politician who always stood on the side of the angels in a parliamentary ambience that was rarely anything higher than murky and usually contemptible and tawdry.  Small wonder that another Tasmanian eminence, Michael Kieran Harvey, should be involved in a musical eulogy to Brown who, though born and educated in New South Wales, has become synonymous in his public life with the island state’s environmental battles.

For his homage-of-sorts, Harvey and associate artist Emily Sheppard have prepared three works – two of them original and one a revision.   All three are of shortish duration and the CD winds up being considerably less than half the length of a ‘normal’ contemporary recording: Harvey’s title track is 11:16 minutes, Sheppard’s Aftermath for viola and voice is 9:02, and Harvey’s Homage to Liszt reworked for violin/piano duet last for 9:20 minutes.  These compositions were all performed at the musical launch of a collection of poems by medical practitioner Arjun von Caemmerer in October last year at the Conservatorium Concert Hall in Hobart.

Portrait of Bob Brown gives equal billing to violin and piano, not exactly asking for stamina, although the piece contains a few active bouts, but more an ability to negotiate smoothly a sequence of about five segments, the task made a touch more difficult as the work contains two significant pauses – changes of gear but not suggestive of discrete movements.   In fact, the score sounds like a rhapsody, the spirit taking the listener where it wills.   If you’re concerned that Harvey is proposing a kind of chamber-scale Heldenleben in which we follow Brown’s spiritual development from Oberon to Cygnet, fear not: the soundscape of this Portrait is non-specific, essentially abstract, non-alliterative and suggestive of a consistent personality rather than a psychological pilgrimage.

The work opens with strong pointillist statements from Harvey, Sheppard constructing a firm aria line under which the keyboard moves towards subterranean rumbles.   The composer’s language sounds too free and loaded with repetitions to be twelve-tone or doctrinaire but the events that transpire are structured towards an end, in this case from trills and a muffled dialogue to an increase in pace with the piano moving into aggression.   As the dynamic changes in both instruments, the pace quickens to a hurtling speed where piano and violin occasionally join in note-for-note duets, sometimes in melodic unison, at other times following each other’s path at close range.   Although clearly written out, this writing is reminiscent of Harvey’s volcanic flights of improvisation.

A pause leads to a segment suggesting the opening strophes, albeit with a pronounced menace from a two-note tattoo in the piano’s bass underlining the fragility of the violin and keyboard’s right-hand decorative elaborations positioned in a high tessitura.   A further change to briskness sees the use of hand-muted piano notes; hard to accomplish, I would have thought, given the pell-mell pace.   Another pause before a reversion to the piano’s pointillism – single notes and chords – under the violin’s exposed lyricism and the work ends with a peroration in strong statements alternating with softer joint textures, a gradual recessiveness before the final trill-laden bars for both players.   The framework, as you can see, is not over-complex although the instrumental interplay and grafting impresses for its assurance.   It leaves its interpretation open; those that want can probably find suggestions of Brown the environmental warrior, the defender of personal liberty, the intransigent proselytizer, the relentless scourge of Parliamentary hypocrisy.   But the piece doesn’t really operate on those terms; what it does suggest is a combination of restlessness and quiescence which could apply to any man but seems to suit Brown more than most of us.

Sheppard’s work is a lament in what I think is C; could be B, but it sounds more like the former.   Its language is unrelievedly minor, even when the composer/executant is playing Major 3rds.   The progress of Aftermath sounds improvised, as though Sheppard is following a pattern as far as she wants to, then moves into another emotionally similar path.   At a few points, she sings a wordless consonantial fragment above her instrumental accompaniment which itself takes on various shapes throughout the score’s length: repeated arpeggio patterns, orthodox pizzicato and the left-hand variety, two-string unisons, harmonics, trills.   Sheppard says the work came into existence at Sarah Anne Rocks on the Tasmanian west coast, ravaged by bushfire in January 2016.   Even for those of us who don’t know the area, Aftermath suggests loss and grief, and with a strangely Celtic tinge.

Harvey’s Homage to Liszt is better known – well, to me – as a duet for piano and percussion, shorter than this arrangement.   In four parts, it takes on the Hungarian composer’s ‘look’, following a varied path of emotional sympathy though a ballade, a waltz, a csardas and that form intimately associated with the composer’s popular face, a Consolation.   Harvey employs Lisztian tropes along with direct quotes and creates a formidable edifice; a small prelude suggesting Brubeck in animated mode leads into a Romantically swirling ballade before the waltz’s re-visiting of one of the Transcendental Studies, the brilliantly parodic Hungarian dance that manages to raise the spectre of Bartok as well as mirroring Liszt’s exciting rapid scale-work across the instrument’s complete range, before a token nocturne with a 12-tone melody finishes the piece, reminding us of the composer’s final experimental works where traditional harmony was dissolving.

Sheppard’s contribution matches Harvey in enthusiasm and the track is a splendid collaboration where neither performer puts a foot wrong, the many synchronous passages exciting to experience.   For all that, I can’t think what it has to do with Bob Brown, except as a an enthusiastic salute to a character that most us would probably remember, if unfairly, as something of a sobersides.

The proceeds from this CD are being donated to the Bob Brown Foundation, an organization dedicated to ‘action with a vision to protect Australia’s wild and scenic natural places of ecological and global significance.’   It’s hard to think of a cause more worthwhile in these shameful days when the Great Barrier Reef is being killed off under our eyes and Brown’s successors are ignoring any environmental danger-signs, yet wasting their energy in schoolyard squabbles.