Chausson ideal, Prokofiev not so much


Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday September 26, 2017

                                                                             Markiyan Melnychenko

For their recital in the MRC Salon, the Melnychenkos covered almost as much territory as other duos are happy to handle in a full recital-with-interval.   Well, sort of: the addition of another major work might have exercised this audience’s endurance but not by much because the responses were very warm to all four programmed items.   In fact, the musicians played three repertoire staples as well as a brief curiosity and, for long stretches, any auditor would have been quite happy with the experience.

Markiyan is the violinist in this pairing, Oksana the pianist.   To my mind, the event’s first offering proved to be the most rewarding: Chausson’s Poeme  –  originally with orchestral accompaniment but then arranged by the composer for this combination, with other writers offering improvements as the work achieved its deserved popularity until these times when it has become a staple in every professional player’s repertoire.   The piano’s role, however improved, is subsidiary to the solo string and Markiyan Melnychenko impressed straight away after the sombre introduction with a gripping account of the first solo  –  unaccompanied and not difficult but immediately loaded with character and giving evidence of this player’s admirably firm bowing work.

Even when the score progresses to those rich double-stop bars inspired by the dedicatee Ysaye  –  the Animato at Number 11 in my Breitkopf & Hartel imprint  –  you were treated to a smooth delivery without a hint of scratch or scrape.   Indeed, the violinist’s enunciation proved near-flawless at those moments of exposure and/or peril, like the cadenza that Chausson interpolated early on, and the soaring high-set lines that reach their conclusion in the set of trills starting on a low B flat bringing the Poeme to its muted resolution.   Here was a controlled and metrically disciplined account of a favourite that often suffers  –  just like many similar products of its time and genre  –  from sloppy sentimentality and a devil-may-care attitude to the bar-line.

In comparison, the following Debussy Violin Sonata made a less favourable impact.   It’s a hard piece to get right, particularly in this environment where, to play safe, a pianist might make constant use of the left pedal for fear of manufacturing a glutinous texture or sounding over-prominent.   The opening to the Allegro vivo sounded sprightly enough but the movement’s centre found both artists inflicting heavy treatment on pages that don’t need power.  From the first Meno mosso where the key signature changes to E Major, Debussy is operating in a kind of atmospheric susurrus, a restrained mesh which is meant to sound light and transparent; the effect here was mobile but muddy.

Nor did the Intermede offer much better.   For one thing, it was taken at a pretty fast pace, which suited the violinist but found the pianist working too hard in chordal sequences like bars 29 to 33 or in potentially whimsical passages like the 16 bars before Number 3 in the Durand edition.   This over-emphatic attack also brought an unnecessary tension to the finale where Debussy’s contrapuntal interplay gets quite complex, to the point where you relished the violin’s abrupt unaccompanied flights in 9/16.   Soft passages like the chain that follow the direction au Mouvement initial lacked the expected delicacy, although the players recovered some finesse of attack by the time of that magical Meno mosso move to E Major.

Prokofiev provided the evening’s second half, beginning with the first of the Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102; this is the third suite of piano solo extracts from the ballet and I didn’t know it had been arranged for violin/piano duet.   In this format, the waltz sounded very effective, the string line taking melodic responsibilities but also adding a good deal to the slightly manic impetus  that the composer invested in this scene where the private and public overlap to brilliant if alarming effect.   If for nothing else, the extract gave Markiyan Melnychenko an opportunity to display his gift for urging out long lyrical sweeps of fabric not dependent on a hefty vibrato.

With the Sonata in D Major, co-opted for Oistrakh from the Flute Sonata, the piano contribution again erred on the side of heft and a forceful dynamic.   The partners worked with certainty through the opening Moderato‘s exposition but things took a turn for the hectic during the development, notably when Prokofiev changes his key signature to B flat Major/G minor and the action involves chromatic creep and an increase in linear tension.   It struck me that both performers were again pushing what is a pretty simple work, in terms of construction and atmosphere on to a more weighty plane that it deserved.

The Scherzo would have gained, like the Debussy Intermede, from a more brisk staccato and a softer dynamic.   In the music I have for the work, there is no request for anything beyond mezzo-forte from the keyboard until the D flat chords four bars before Number 14; as it was, this presto impressed as lumpen-footed, lacking biting humour or acerbic spark.   Still, the D Major interlude/Trio was accomplished with sympathy and polish, in particular Markiyan Melnychenko’s quadruple stops and quiet, present harmonics.

Both musicians gave the Andante its space and showed a well-controlled dynamic balance, notably in the long central pages where triplets are the order of the day; their subsiding into that marvellous, simply-achieved drift down a chromatic scale at Figure 31 impressed also for its sweetness of timbre from the violin and gentle underpinning from Oksana Melnychenko.

Both musicians enjoyed the vigour of Prokofiev’s concluding Allegro con brio but a good deal of this sonata section came across as strident.   As with many another reading of this work, the deceleration at Figure 37 struck me as unnecessary; as far as I can see, the composer only wants a change of pace twice during this movement  –  for the rest of the time, it makes sense in the actual music itself to maintain a steady metre.   The final eight bars would have gained a good deal in accuracy if the tempo initially adopted had been more considered and the sustaining pedal not so readily employed.   Yes, Prokofiev has a reputation as a seeker after the percussive, but not in this elegant if sometimes ebullient score.

I’ve heard Markiyan Melnychenko in larger combinations before this and found plenty to admire in the accuracy of his pitching and the finesse of his delivery, the technical and emotional control evident no matter how ardent the composer’s temperament.   Of course, these qualities emerged often in this particular night’s work but it seemed as if both musicians were making hard work of their music-making –  like the Debussy which should shimmer with energy, not be delivered with gritty determination and hard-edged insistence.

Closing in on ideal


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday September 20, 2017

                                                                                     Daniel Dodds

These all-Beethoven recitals from Kathryn Selby and her mobile band of associate-friends have proved popular in recent years, the only problem being the thin repertoire available; it doesn’t take long before you start repeating yourself.   The composer left 13-and-a-bit works for the piano trio combination and, for this program, Selby brought into play two of the ‘fringe’ scores:  the composer’s own arrangement of his Symphony No. 2 in D, and the Gassenhauer Trio which offers the violin line as an alternative to a clarinet, the original treble instrument.

Filling out the night, Selby and her guests  –  violinist Daniel Dodds from the Festival Strings Lucerne, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve of the Australian Chamber Orchestra  –  chose that ground-breaking work, the C minor Op. 1 No. 3.   In the normal run of performances, you can half-understand the legend that Haydn thought this ought not be published as it was a step too far for the Viennese public of the time; a stern and outspoken musical drama.   The general practice is to emphasize its brusqueness, particularly in the outer movements which make the most lasting impression.

In this ensemble’s hands, the trio itself preserved its inbuilt tension and tempestuous bursts of power, yet you were given the inestimable gift of seeing it in context  –  not just in relation to its opus number companions but also as a development in the form, Beethoven taking it several steps forward in dramatic potential and expressive intensity.   It helped immeasurably that this particular set of musicians worked with unfailing cohesion so that moments of ferment like the explosion at Letter C (in my score) of the opening Allegro con brio were punched out with compelling drive and well-husbanded dynamic control.   Later, these performers made an enriching odyssey of this movement’s development, sustaining tension but not by the fits-and-starts methodology of many another group.

Selby gave a spiky edge to the Andante variations, but then the pianist has most to say here.   Despite the composer’s best efforts to share the load, his piano intrudes at every turn, even when the two strings have the melodic burden and the keyboard is relegated to peripheral duties, as in the fifth variation.   Matters don’t improve in the scherzo, either, as the piano has those distracting arpeggio runs in the second half, not to mention a set of light-as-Mendelssohn scale punctuation points in the pendant trio.

The reading reached its highpoint where it should: in the stormy finale where Dodds’ firm line cut through the surrounding thunder to fine effect nine bars after Letter R when the relative major rears its welcome head.   Later, when Beethoven’s counterpoint is exercised more fully, both Dodds and Valve made clean-cut work of their flashing duets in thirds, octaves and in canon – all transparent and comprehensible rather than a meaty maelstrom-dive.   Finally, the players brought this urgent movement to an effective conclusion, the last two pages an object lesson in how to play a diminuendo without losing tension.

This trio was preceded by a light-stepping version of the Gassenhauer Trio No. 4 in B flat Major.   Here, the approach was measured, even deliberate, but the score’s inbuilt good humour bubbled continuously, particularly in the finale where even the advent of some B flat minor variations sounded tongue-in-cheek, surrounded as they were by forthright, athletic boisterousness.   The players made sparkling, deft work of the concluding Allegro with its jaunty syncopations, the strings in an ideal tandem partnership across these happy pages.

Apart from this bracing energy, other sections of the interpretation showed a painstaking degree of preparation; details like Selby’s hesitation before her eloquent D Major entry 8 bars before Letter B in the first Allegro; the calm eloquence of the Adagio‘s first theme’s restatement from bar 8 onwards; an expertly calculated evenness of delivery in the interplay 8 bars from the movement’s conclusion.   It might be a second-runner to the composer’s Archduke and Ghost masterpieces but this work, in the right hands, can make for an experiential delight; so it proved to be here in a display that came very close to ideal.

As for the symphony transcription, interest there focused on how hard Selby would have to work.   In effect, she was pressed very strongly across the breadth of the score.   Dodds and Valve contributed, generally with lines simply extracted from the orchestral score, but the pianist took on the primary responsibility load, having to handle all sorts of material that originally fell to the violins, woodwind and brass.   By the time the finale began, it was clear that Beethoven had given all his confidence to the keyboard musician.   That’s fine, but at times you wondered why he hadn’t gone the full Liszt and just written a solo piano transcription.   It was an interesting experience, if one where you admired Selby’s stamina more than the arrangement’s skill.

Lively night in North Melbourne


Gertrude Opera

130 Dryburgh St., North Melbourne

Saturday September 16, 2017

                                                                                    Allegra Giagu

For sure, it was a triple bill; the question of a treat, I’m not so certain.   This company, coming up for its 10th birthday, gives a welcome avenue for aspiring local and international singers to gain expertise and repertoire; whether by design or by chance, the participants in this group of one-acters were young, although the GO promotional material shows that this accent on tender years doesn’t always obtain.

For Saturday night’s premiere, members of the company began with Salieri’s Prima la musica, poi le parole: that little entertainment, first performed on the same night in the same venue as Mozart’s Impresario, with which it shares pretty much the same plot-line  –  the problem of getting an opera written with two competing sopranos in play.   The male roles of Poet and Composer were handled with plenty of grunt by baritones Josh Erdelyi-Gotz and Darcy Carroll; they exuded a persuasive sense of exasperation from the start, setting out the plot-lines competently enough, although Salier  and his librettist Casti make sure an audience is aware of the competitive collaboration that underpins the action, simply by means of sheer repetition.

Soprano Allegra Giagu sang Eleonora, the prima donna with an ego the size of Schonbrunn.   This voice was over-projected for the room that was used for the triple bill, but she made a fine fist of the three satirical extracts from Sarti’s Giulio Sabino that saw the three soloists involved move into slapstick.   Bethany Hill‘s contribution as the good-time soubrette Tonina presented as more hectic than happy, the account of Via largo ragazzi given too rapidly for comfort.   But I did enjoy the wrap-it-up quartet, Lieto intanto, mainly for the unabashed energy that each of the singers gave it.

Second up was Menotti’s evergreen The Telephone, one of the shortest operatic two-handers you’ll ever come across. Bethany Hill put in another appearance as Lucy, Darcy Carroll also returning for the not-too-demanding part of prospective fiance Ben.   A fluffy piece which gives its soprano all the running, this staging by Greta Nash worked efficiently, even if there’s little enough you can do with it.   Hill proved more effective in this piece, but then it’s an easy ask: the line is simply dialogue (or monologue, if we’re honest) dressed up with notes.

In these days of instant communications where a phone is rarely out of many people’s hands, this work takes on a credibility that is streets beyond its effect in 1947.   The ubiquity of multi-function phones as an extension of personality plays out well in a reading set in today’s world, with the added advantage that Hill could (almost inevitably) use her device as a physical appendage  –  to talk into, of course, but also to take selfies.   Carroll had few occasions to shine, except when his beloved left the room for a short spell and then in the love-duet that concludes the work to general satisfaction.   Not that the singers were playing for subtlety: Ben and Lucy are both as superficial as anyone you can see on The Bachelor or, more pertinently, The Farmer Wants a Wife.

A new quartet came on for the staging of the 18-year-old Bizet’s operetta Doctor Miracle, the most substantial of the evening’s components, in part due to a fair bit of truncated dialogue in the Salieri work.   Resounding with echoes of The Barber of Seville, Don Pasquale, Cosi fan tutti and even La serva padrona, the plot concerns the feisty daughter of the Mayor of Padua who wants to marry a buoyant Almaviva-type military sprig, who gets into the house by disguise, is found out, pulls a swifty on the podesta and gets the girl in the end.   Nothing particularly original, yet the music is loaded with attractive melodies and the young composer had a keen eye for how long he could justifiably hold up the dramatic onward surge.

Juliet Dufour sang the daughter-in-love, Laurette, with a keen eye for the part’s vitality, especially in recitative.   The solitary problem came from her pronunciation.   Doctor Miracle was written in French, of course, with a libretto from Leon Battu and the highly prolific Ludovic Halevy, but the Gertrudes presented it (as also Prima la musica  .  .  . ) in English and Dufour’s enunciation showed a lack of ease with idiomatic English singing.    While she would have been happy sailing through Ne me grondez pas, it was often hard to decipher her meaning in that romance’s English equivalent.

Bass baritone Henry Shaw made a satisfyingly fussy Mayor, if inclined to overdo his revulsion at certain stages; the objection to Miracle’s clamour was strident enough but the omelette reaction exceeded the bounds of probability. Nevertheless, his contribution to ensembles like the trio with Laurette and Silvio was assured and moderately resonant. As his wife, Veronique, Lisa Parker played a comfortably assured vamp, too clever for her current company but pushing all the right buttons; in other words, making her presence felt in spite of having little but dialogue with which to do it.

Tenor Hew Wagner, a guest artist with GO,  made a bright beginning as Silvio, the military man disguised as Pasquin, the Mayor’s newly-hired servant.   His boasting Je sais monter les escaliers self-introduction came across with a breathless vigour and assurance.   A pity, then, that his ensemble contributions were close to inaudible, even in the rousing final quartet.   It was hard to see why this ringing timbre went missing in concerted moments, although I sympathized with him in coping with Jeremy Stanford‘s direction.

Wagner is a solid fellow, with the physique of a second-row forward and a solid diaphragm at his disposal.   But the tenor was required to climb onto a fairly rickety table at two points in the action, moments where your expectations that he wouldn’t make it or that he would fall were high.   This clambering requirement looked effort-laden and distracted from your focus on the voice and characterization.   A pity as he might have made a more persuasive showing if he’d had his feet on the ground throughout.

The company works under certain constraints, most of which are understandable.   Costumes have to be contemporary, regardless of traditional settings (1786 Vienna?  An American city in 1947?  18th century Padua?  Forget it), lighting is rudimentary and scene-setting errs on the functional side with little room for stage effects.   The most serious problem relates to the absence of an orchestra.   Bizet’s opera requires a pretty standard pit with a quartet of instruments for off-stage noises representing the Doctor’s self-promotion; Menotti asks for six wind, percussion, piano and strings; Salieri has the full woodwind, trumpets and horns, timpani as well as an active string body.

Opera Australia’s veteran Brian Castles-Onion took on the unenviable task of escorting the company’s singers through all three elements of the triple bill; he did so from the piano, just like at a rehearsal which, at times, this night seemed in danger of becoming.   I don’t know what he was doing with Salieri’s opening sinfonia but it sounded like selected bars were hefted out with little care for exactitude.   Matters improved for the actual opera but the results across the three productions were often ragged, the most successful collaboration coming in the Bizet score which, compared to the others, radiated fluency.

It’s beyond the company’s means to assemble an orchestra, although thought might be given to organizing a skeleton band  –  even a string quartet for something like the 18th century piece would have helped, or some percussion(ists) for Menotti’s entertainment.   But serious thought should be given to providing the Gertrude’s singers with something like a realistic accompaniment against which they can show their talents more fairly and with more rewarding results.

The productions have been presented also on Monday September 18 and will receive their last performances tonight at 8 pm.

October Diary

Sunday October 1


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Getting themselves into shape, the ACO begins with the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s A Musical Offering; I doubt that it will be the enthralling Webern orchestration – just a bland, everyday transcription for strings.  Pahud, here billed as ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, will then play the C.P.E. Bach A minor Sonata, hopefully unaccompanied.  The orchestra’s outing wouldn’t be complete without a string quartet transmogrified for their forces, and here comes defenceless Ravel in F.  Another unaccompanied stand-by in Debussy’s Syrinx and Pahud finally joins up with the ACO in Franck’s Sonata for Flute and Strings, which is a misnomer: the composer wrote nothing for flute solo.  This work is for violin and piano, one of the great duos and not that suited to the flute, even Pahud’s; but then, I didn’t think much of the Galway/Agerich recording, either. Tognetti has organised the piano part for strings which should provide a barrel of laughs for anyone who’s played the work in its original form.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday October 3 at 7:30 pm.


Sunday October 1


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

The MCO has its own octet; not hard to achieve, considering the wealth of willing talent available.  This afternoon, the title work is surrounded by the buoyant B flat Major Sextet by Brahms and a new octet by Douglas Weiland, the British composer, founding member of the Australian String Quartet, and a favourite voice of the ACO’s artistic director, William Hennessy who shared those early ASQ days with Weiland.  The new work is called Winterreise, which sets up all sorts of expectations.  The work comprises six movements, lasts about 14 minutes and was commissioned by Hennessy in 2015, was completed in August that year and is finally getting an airing here.  It’s very welcome, of course, but the pairing of the Mendelssohn and Brahms scores was an inspired move: both youthful, glowing works but what a world of difference!


Tuesday October 3


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Continuing the Academy’s percussion festival, the California-based senior citizen of contemporary music-making leads three works by Lou Harrison, the centenary of whose birth is the fulcrum on which this series of concerts and recitals turns.  First is Tributes to Charon from 1982 for three percussionists and alarm clocks, which Winnant requested from the composer for a 65th birthday concert; then, the 1987 five-movement Varied Trio for violin, piano and percussion; finally, the earlier (1973) Concerto for organ with percussion orchestra – about a dozen players –  in five movements which will present some logistical problems, mainly in siting the solo instrument.  As light relief come Henry Cowell’s Ostinato Pianissimo for Percussion octet, a pioneering piece from 1934 that lasts about 3 minutes – don’t blink; and John Cage’s Four6 from 1992, one of the great master’s late works and originally written for an unspecified (naturally) quartet.  Like pretty well everything in these American Triptych events, the content is significant and still challenging.



Friday October 6


Brenda Rae and the Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30

While the Academy’s percussionists are being happily engaged in their US-inspired orgy, the organisation’s other instrumentalists will be working under conductor Benjamin Bayl to support the American soprano in this night of music by Rameau.  I know nothing about Rae who is appearing here for the first time in Australia and tonight has the honour of launching the serious  music side of this year’s Melbourne Festival.  She will sing seven arias, which will be surrounded by overtures, dances and scene-setting interludes from the French composer’s operas, none of which we see today unless you’re lucky enough to live in Sydney: Les Paladins, Castor et Pollux (produced by Pinchgut Opera five years ago), Platee, Zoroastre, and two works from which you might have heard extracts: Les Boreades, and Les Indes galantes.   Other Pinchgut Rameaux include Dardanus in 2005, then Anacreon and Pigmalion on a triple bill earlier this year.  It’s a specialized field but just the sort of material that should be mounted at a festival because you’re unlikely to hear anything this concentrated very often.  The musicologists among us will be happy; let’s hope the singer is able.


Saturday October 7


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Finishing up the American Triptych celebrating the wealth of the Republic’s composers for percussion comes another senior figure in the field and long-time presence at the University of Buffalo.  Williams leads four works by Lou Harrison, with a solitary stranger in the middle: Morton Feldman’s Instruments 3 for flute, oboe and percussion – 20 minutes of atypical activity.  But the night opens with Song of Quetzalcoatl, a 1941 composition for four percussionists with an understandable emphasis on Mexican instruments.   The brief 1939 Concerto No. 1 for Flute follows: also a trio, the woodwind solo is supported by two percussionists, although I’ve seen it played with only one handling the accompaniment. Like Debussy’s Rhapsodie, the ‘No. 1’ seems superfluous: I can’t find another.  Post-Feldman, Williams takes charge of the Canticle No. 1, also from 1939 and a percussion quintet lasting about 4 or 5 minutes; don’t blink.  The last Harrison work is the 1941 Labyrinth No. 3 for 11 percussion players and a relatively large-scale work, not just in the number of its executants but also in its four-movement length.


Saturday October 7


Australian String Quartet

Collingwood Arts Precinct at 8 pm

A further bullet in the Melbourne Festival’s gun-belt, this recital begins with a non-string quartet: Scarlatti’s Piece in 4 voices.  Well, I say it’s not a string quartet but I could be wrong; the work might not be by Alessandro or Domenico but by some other member of the family.  Or it could just be a keyboard sonata arranged for the ASQ instruments.   Anyway, there’s no doubting the provenance of Bartok’s First String Quartet or the first Beethoven Razumovsky which sustain the bulk of this event.  Also enjoying an outing is Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, Mishima: a six-movement work and part of the composer’s score for Paul Schrader’s film based on the Japanese author’s last day.  The recital’s venue is a new one to me; from the directions given on the Festival website, it seems to be part of the old NMIT complex on the corner of Wellington and Johnston Streets.

This program will be repeated on Sunday October 8 at 6 pm, and on Monday October 8 at 7 pm.


Sunday October 8


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Finishing up for the year, Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra give Bach’s voluble contemporary a fair hearing, starting with his Canary Cantata, a compendium of four arias and recitatives on the death of a well-loved pet to be sung by soprano Tania de Jong. Pam himself takes the solo line in Telemann’s solitary and popular Viola Concerto in G Major, followed by Mark Fitzpatrick coping with the composer’s even-more popular, brief D Major Trumpet Concerto.  As makeweights, de Jong will sing Handel’s Ombra mai fu – the only aria anyone knows from the opera Serse – and the afternoon concludes with the first two symphonies by Johann Stamitz, so-called Mannheim Symphonies the first of which is a questionable attribution to this fertile composer who had an impact on Haydn and Mozart.


Thursday October 12


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

They will eventually get around to playing the unassuming F Major symphony, but only after an odd collection of pieces, beginning with Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds.  Written for pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with three horns, an ad lib line for contrabassoon and cello and double bass parts supplied to supplement the bass line if you can’t find a contra, this work belongs more to the MSO’s Sunday morning Iwaki Auditorium recital programs.  Still, guest conductor Michael Collins will doubtless control proceedings from the first clarinet desk.  The night’s other soloist will be Lloyd Van’t Hoff sharing the honours in Mendelssohn’s Konzertstuck on his basset horn while Collins takes the clarinet line; I just don’t know which one of the two that the composer wrote is to be played   –  the F minor or the D minor.   And you’d assume they will use the orchestrated accompaniment instead of the composer’s clearer piano support.  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ornamental Air from 2007, a solid three-movement concerto for basset clarinet and chamber orchestra, could find either of the two Mendelssohn soloists under the spotlight.

This program will be repeated in the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday October 13 at 8 pm.


Friday October 13


Rithy Panh, Him Sophy

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another Melbourne Festival offering, this is the result of a collaboration between film-maker Rithy Panh and composer Him Sophy.  They have assembled a group of singers and instrumentalists to perform a hybrid lament for the agony of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  The hour-long piece combines the Buddhist Bangsokol ritual and the Christian requiem in a fusion of dance, film, song and speech.  As the world now knows, there is a lot to grieve for; it strikes you even four decades on, principally the loss of two million lives as well as the near-annihilation of a culture = all made possible by a continuing wilful ignorance in the West.  This collaboration is receiving its world premiere here before it is taken to New York and Paris.

The program will be repeated on Saturday October 14 at 7:30 pm.


Saturday October 14

Joep Beving

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Beving is an amateur pianist from the Netherlands who has made a splash with two CDs and is appearing under the aegis of the Melbourne Festival. I’ve listened to about ten tracks from these and the best that can be said is that it constitutes fairly harmless musical doodling.   The titles of his works might be different but Beving’s music is tediously similar, an aimless meander around the keyboard that betrays a harmonic gaucheness and melodic stasis.   It makes you long for the going-nowhere-quickly ambience of the American minimalists.  This recital is scheduled to last 75 minutes; for some of us, that’s over an hour too long.


Tuesday October 17


Peter de Jager

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Another pianist on the Melbourne Festival roster is this remarkable musician who is mounting a one-night stand featuring only music by Iannis Xenakis, the Romanian/Greek/French composer whose immersion of composition in mathematics set challenges – some of them impossible to surmount – for even the most willing and adventurous musicians.  De Jager plays three of the major piano pieces – Herma (1961), Evryali (1973) and Mists (1980), which was written for Roger Woodward.  For variety, he will also play the composer’s only two solo harpsichord works: Khoai (1976) and Naama (1984). The performance of one Xenakis keyboard work is a rarity because preparation requires a very long time . . . but five?  Unless you attend with scores in your hand, there’s no way you can testify to de Jager’s precision, especially in the earlier piano works which show what wimps Stockhausen and Boulez turned out to be.  But for some of us, this 70-minute stretch could turn out to be one of this year’s high-water marks.


Thursday October 19


Emanuele Arciuli

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

Third of our Festival’s three solo pianists is the Italian-born expert in contemporary American composition for his instrument.  Making his Australian debut, Arciuli goes all the way, beginning with China Gates by John Adams, a brief bagatelle from 1977.  Then he plays Judd Greenstein’s First Ballade, a jump of thirty years in chronological time but a retrograde step in modernity; the piece stays in the same harmonic loop for most of its duration and you can see why he gave it this title.  Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik: Ruminations on ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk by George Crumb requires an amplified piano and is a nine-section construct commissioned by Arciuli himself 16 years ago.  Sound Gone was written in 1967 by Stephen Alexander Chambers before he converted to Sufism and changed his name to Talib Rasul Hakim.  Arciuli winds up his hour with Rzewski’s pounding Constructivist revival, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.

Arciuli presents a second program at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on Friday October 20.  Works include Cage’s In a Landscape, Louis Ballard’s Four American Indian Piano Preludes, the ‘Round Midnight Suite variations on a Thelonious Monk theme by Rzewski, Babbitt, Torke, Harbison and Daugherty, and  Phrygian Gates by John Adams.


Friday October 20


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Head of Strings at ANAM, Penny takes control of the organization’s strings in a breezy night’s work that begins with Two Pieces for String Octet by Shostakovich, a prelude and scherzo dating from the composer’s student years and written concurrently with the startling Symphony No. 1.   The forces reduce a tad for the warm, aspiring Brahms Sextet No. 2 in G Major; you can go years without hearing either of the composer’s works in this form, then they both turn up within weeks of each other (see above, Sunday October 1). Quite a few more players will be needed for Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939; in fact, 22 is the prescribed minimum, the composer having a keen eye for the weight needed when he divides the players which happens regularly, although he’s more happy to play off principals from each section against the main body in the best concerto grosso manner; always an exhilarating journey, if a brief one.


Friday October 20



St. John’s Anglican Church, Malvern East at 7:30 pm

A 15-year-old British choir making its debut in the Melbourne Festival, Tenebrae is presenting a single program at two different venues.  The works to be given are Owain Park’s Footsteps and Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles, both of them recently recorded together by these singers.  Which makes you wonder why they’d bother bringing them so far and making them the only offerings available.  Talbot’s four-movement work, for 17-part a cappella choir with a few crotales thrown in for atmosphere, follows a pilgrim’s route from Roncesvalles, through Burgos and Leon to Santiago and the shrine of St. James; it lasts a little over an hour and is a Tenebrae specialty because the director Nigel Short commissioned it.   But then, so he did for Park’s work that presents images of a tiring traveller in a little over fifteen minutes.  All well and good and the few performance extracts provided sound effective, but again: why come all this way to sing a record?

The program will be repeated  in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm on Saturday October 21.


Saturday October 21


Charles Gaines

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This recital concludes an exhibition, The Score,  which runs from August 1 to November 5, and a series of seminars held throughout the Melbourne Festival at the Ian Potter Museum.  The recital is a combination of art and music put together by American conceptual artist Charles Gaines with music supplied by Opera Povera’s Sean Griffin.  The musical content ranges from Reconstruction-era spirituals (were there any?) to French Revolutionary ballads.  The art itself seems to revolve around musical scores that lurch out into visual and linguistic areas; something like the stuff we were all writing back in the 1960s, except that this has intimations of holding more of an emphasis on politics.  It all sounds promising and there’s some hope, as it’s Festival time, that the occasion could be confrontational.


Tuesday October 24


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

As soon as you see this night’s title, you immediately think of Messiaen, don’t you?  And you’re spot-on: the climax of this recital is the famous quartet with guest Dene Olding coming in for the work’s violin line.  Before that long sequence of visions spiritual and a leetle bit temporal comes Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70 which could feature either Olding or Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s cello, but certainly Timothy Young’s piano, and certainly not the original score’s horn.  As well, the group presents the premiere of Australian writer Samantha Wolf’s Splinter for an as-yet unspecified instrumental combination; and, to begin, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in the composer’s own version for violin, clarinet (David Griffiths, on this night) and piano.  We are promised a lighting design from Paul Jackson, so the night’s colours won’t be only instrumental.


Wednesday October 25


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Once again, a real chamber recital from the ACO and exclusively for Melbourne, it would seem.   As well as Tchaikovsky’s athletic string sextet to bring down the curtain, the visiting ACO personnel will also indulge us in Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge – hopefully for just the original four strings – and Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, performed just five days previously by Howard Penny and his ANAM forces (see above, Friday October 20). Carrying the torch for frequent collaborator Olli Mustonen, Tognetti and his colleagues will play the Finnish pianist’s eight-movement Nonet No. 2 from 2000 for two string quartets and double bass: a work that the ACO hastened to present in the following year and of which I can’t recall any trace.


Friday October 27


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Back in the old routine, this event shows the MSO back in the well-worn saddle.  Finishing off the program, the strings will suffer from an extended bout of RSI with the Schubert Symphony No. 9 which is Great, as its nickname claims, but draining for the performers who endure page after page of scrubbing.  British conductor/musicologist Andrew Manze starts off with Beethoven as well – the dour Coriolan Overture – and Isabelle van Keulen is soloist in Prokofiev’s rapidly accomplished (20 minutes or so) Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major.   Van Keulen was the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1984 but has been much more than a flash-in-the-pan popular success; the pity is that it has taken her so long to get to these shores.

This program will be repeated at 8 pm on Saturday October 28 and Monday October 30 at 6:30 pm.


Saturday October 28


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel at 8 pm

John O’Donnell begins this journey into another historical byway with an organ work by John Bull, Prelude on Laet ons met herten reijne; probably written while the composer saw out his exile in Antwerp after having to escape from the law in England for the unmusical talents of fornication and adultery.  The Gombert singers come on to the scene with selections from Peter Philips’ Cantiones sacrae, apparently picking material from both sets for five and eight voices;  this composer had a more high-flown reason for living in the Netherlands and Belgium as he was a Catholic.  The main part of the program will probably be consumed by Richard Dering’s first book of Cantiones sacrae quinque vocum; here was another Catholic who nevertheless managed to get back to England when  appointed organist to that crazy, resentful royal, Queen Henrietta Maria.  A last chance to hear this excellent choir before its final-for-the-year Christmas celebration in the same venue on Saturday December 9.







Top of the town in Shepparton


Move Records MCD 560

                                                                   Oliver She, Tony Lee, Peter de Jager

According to the booklet that accompanies this CD, ‘the winners deserve the same acclaim accorded to top national athletes.’   Considering the current crop of sportspeople who occupy the headlines whenever Australia hits the big-time, I suppose we can take the comparison as well-intentioned but you’d hope that the three place-winners at last year’s Shepparton competition would be prepared to forego the company or example of Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic or – to juggle with the term ‘top national athletes’   Shane Warne.

In fact, the three musicians featured on this album display a kind of discipline and authority under pressure that even gifted sports-persons can only dream of acquiring.   Those hoops that competitors are required to jump through can’t slowly diminish into the near distance like those for the Sydney Piano Competition where the number of prizes for specific abilities stretches from the Opera House to South Head.    This national award  –  and it is just that: to enter, you have to be a citizen, not a laurel-gathering visitor  –  focuses on an entrant’s abilities as shown in solo recital format,    An Australian work has to appear in a candidate’s repertoire, but the choice of core material is wide open: Baroque, Classical, 19th century Romantic, French impressionist, music written between 1900 and 1950, and works written in or after 1951.

New South Wales musician Tony Lee (24 at the time) won the first prize in the 2016 event.   He is a veteran in competitions in this country, France and Norway and on the present recording (made during live performances) he plays Scriabin’s two-movement Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre as arranged by Liszt and then revamped by Horowitz, Chopin’s posthumous E Major Waltz (not the E minor one, as the CD has it listed) and the same composer’s Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 50 No. 3.

In 2013, Lee won first prize in the Under 24 division of the 13th Scriabin International Piano Competition, so he came to Shepparton with his credentials for the Russian composer well-established.   The performance of the Fourth Sonata has an admirable drive, especially in the Prestissimo volando second movement where the pianist executes a dazzling tour de force, realizing all the detail with fine discipline yet still responding to this music’s neurasthenic core.

Lee suits himself about parts of the slow opening Andante, freely adopting several interpretations of the direction con voglia found in my score, to the point where I can’t hear the lower right hand notes in bars 33 and 34; but the approach is impressively confident and takes full advantage of the composer’s rhythmic flexibility.   The sonata’s second section flies along, Lee managing the long bursts of athletic movement and twitchy melodic particles with admirable musicianship  –  inserting short pauses, changing his weight of attack, giving adequate measure to the relieving moments (the few of them there are) but reading the score with discrimination, even when it reaches its bombastic climax at bar 144 and the shades of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov become fused in a powerful polemic on the work’s first theme.

Saint-Saens’ tone poem, especially after two legendary pianists have applied themselves to it, makes another brilliant exhibition.   This work is very familiar and stands up fairly well to the interpolations added to its already exhilarating momentum and Lee handles it with plenty of 19th century virtuosic flair.   I could find only one moment where a momentary faltering occurred; the rest is a dazzling exercise, nowhere more so than in the chromatic riot that starts to build up at bar 431.   For the purist, not all the notes are there and careful attention shows up some points where there are a few subterranean additions; in this, Lee is only following in his distinguished predecessors’ footsteps and the results are formidable.

Both Chopin tracks are amiable enough.   There is one miscalculation in the waltz in the right hand at bar 50 but the trills are as crisp as you could desire.   Across the mazurka, the pianist exercises his God-given right to rubato but he impresses as one of the few pianists who thinks that taking time over one phrase means you have to make it up further down the track.   So his reading is a fine combination of the ruminative and the assertive, effectively and sensitively carried off.   By this stage, Lee has demonstrated a telling sympathy with the 19th century Romantic division of the competition’s repertoire (yes, I know the Scriabin was written in 1903 but its language sits unsteadily on the 20th century cusp).

In second place came Peter de Jager, a familiar face around the Melbourne traps from his contributions to ANAM events and occasional appearances at the Recital Centre.   His offerings on this disc are idiosyncratic to say the least, far more adventurous than you would expect at a competition of this nature, although I’m no authority on what the other entrants performed.   This musician is dedicated  –  among his other interests  –   to contemporary music and is a composer in his own right, so two of the works he presents here are post-1951.   He begins with Lyapunov‘s Transcendental Study No. 10, sub-titled Lezghinka and a refined version of that Caucasian dance (for unrefined, you can find a lezghinka in Khachaturian’s Gayane score).    De Jager’s attack is not as tumultuously rapid as that of some other pianists but you can hear every note in this Allegro con fuoco.   The pianist’s command of the composer’s sophisticated setting/adornment of two unremarkable melodies is excellent, the first toccata descending-scale motive given without the mindless martellato punchiness that it usually suffers.

The central section, when the key changes from B minor to D flat Major, finds de Jager indulging in some late Russian Romanticism.   Lyapunov formed part of Balakirev’s circle and this tune has an inflection that recalls both Prince Igor and Scheherazade; indeed, the melody could have been a candidate for adoption into Kismet if the composer had been somebody else.   But the study makes a fine contrast with Lee’s Danse macabre; not surprising as the composer’s aim in these studies was to finish the work begun but not completed by Liszt through his own similarly named exercises in pianistic impossibility.

Next comes the only Australian work on the CD: Chris Dench‘s tiento de medio registro alto from the composer’s Phase Portraits Book 1, the piece itself occupying Dench from 1978 to 2003.   The score states that the work is ‘after Francisco de Peraza’, who is probably the 16th century Salamanca-born composer to whom is ascribed one work:  a Medio registro alto (de) Premier Tono, although the work’s authorship remains a dubious quantity among the scholars. Dench’s brief fantasia is a ferocious-looking complex on paper, packed with metrical subdivisions that recall early scores of Boulez and Stockhausen, although not as insanely demanding.   De Jager makes light of its terrors and those summoned up by the score’s irregular scalar rushes from one node to another.   The work is awash with sustained textures, its connection to Peraza’s little piece escapes me (no surprise there), and its performance complements the preceding track’s calisthenics.

The silver medallist ends his group with Stephen Hough‘s arrangement of My Favourite Things from Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The Sound of Music.  Another fleet-fingered display piece which is dispatched with a good deal more determination than Hough himself invests in it, this song setting  works as a pleasant encore, which is how Hough uses it, I think.   But its whimsicality goes a-begging here.

Of the three artists featured, de Jager gets the least amount of playing time; Lee has a tad over 24 minutes, Oliver She enjoys 23-and-a-half minutes, but de Jager clocks in at just a bit over a quarter-of-an-hour.

After this mixed bag, third place winner She comes to us with one work only: Beethoven’s C Major Sonata, the Waldstein  –  that unforgiving, deceptive behemoth with its many temptations to take the easy path and substitute glitter for power.   Stretching back into the past, She is bolstered in his enterprise by the interpretative wealth of great Waldstein interpreters  –  Solomon, Schnabel, Kempff, Richter. Arrau, Brendel  –  and every so often he breaks through into a stretch of originality that takes you by surprise.   For example, he achieves a refreshing continuity and felicity of phrasing in the 12 bars or so that conclude the first movement’s exposition and, by the time we reach the recapitulation proper, he is at home with the work so that the semiquaver patterns show few signs of blurring and the sonata’s surging action is expertly maintained, even if the three fermate before the final rush to judgement are a touch overlong.

The Introduzione is given an appropriately slow pace, its measured progress marred by a muffed melody note at the start of bar 10.   However, from bar 19 to the attacca, She shows excellent discretion in dynamic restraint and  –  apart from an odd shuffle in the left hand on the first beat of bar 21  –  the climax and decrescendo cap a worthwhile realization of this incongruous page-and-a-bit.

A few more glancing errors creep into the Rondo but nothing too disturbing.   The pianist intends  –  as do we all  –  to keep the semiquaver ripples at the start on a very soft level, but the first movement’s opening blurring recurs; if you turn up the volume very high, you can hear the notes are all there but, in live performance, you’d have to be very close to She to discern them clearly.   Happily, the interludes are enunciated with precise lucidity, notably the C minor one that begins at bar 175 and the riot of triplets taking flight at bar 344.   She has no hesitation in taking the Prestissimo at a cracking speed; the wonder is that he perseveres with it, keeping his nerve at the glissando octaves from bar 465 to 474 and keeping the pressure on himself at bar 484 and not slowing down, unlike many pianists who, for unknown reasons, take the arrival of crotchet triplets in the left hand as a signifier of a change in metre.

You’d be hard pressed to disagree with the final ranking of this competition, judging by this CD’s content.   It was recorded a little over a year ago on September 9 and 10, 2016; I presume in the final rounds so that each of the three pianists was working at full capacity.  Thanks to the ABC recording staff and the Award administration, we have a picture, albeit a second-hand one, of the event’s climactic points and a reassuring illustration of the state of the country’s pianism.

Diffident but persistent


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday September 10 and Monday September 11, 2017

                                                                                Henning Kraggerud

I’m not a fan of that musician who feels the need for talk and so gives his real work an oral preamble.   All too often, such a speech wastes time and that particular commodity is becoming more precious to some of us as the years bound on.   Further, all too often what you hear is instantly forgettable or essentially trite or  –  worse   –  a repeat of information found in the program notes.   For a few, this preliminary oral exordium is an ego-bolstering exhibition conducted with the silent encouragement of defenceless listeners, a meandering monologue that can even turn into an attempt to do a Seinfeld and show a try-hard humorous facet to the artistic persona.   While having its points as soul-destroying meta-theatre, the introductory talk can amount to little more than ambient buzzing, the kind of useless fodder you get from announcers presenting a concert or recital from their incubating sound-booths.

Even worse is the interview, where the conductor interrogates a soloist or composer about what’s coming up.   The stilted instance of Paul Dyer talking to horn player Bart Aerbeydt about his natural instrument during last Sunday’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra event was a case in point where dialogue disappears and oral give-and-take goes missing; mind you, in that particular interview, matters were somewhat redeemed by the instrumentalist pulling out a few party tricks and flip lines to spice up yet another demonstration of the horn’s natural harmonic series and note production methods.

For most of the time, I’m left inwardly groaning at these pseudo-Parkinson preliminary obstacles that wind up with all the non-sequitur awkwardness of a ‘One on One’ clip.   At rare intervals, a light will shine, the most notable when a conductor like Brett Kelly asks a young composer about his latest score –  as at the Cybec New Music concerts each January from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, where the chance for a moment of worthwhile information is strongest.    And you can strike the aware musician who knows just how long is enough; Markus Stenz was an excellent exponent of the rapid communication of just sufficient information to keep you  .  .  .  well, if not engrossed, then mollified.

Guest director and soloist in the latest ACO subscription series, Norwegian violinist/composer/arranger Kraggerud prefaced every one of the five works on his Grieg-Plus program with an explication, not getting off to the best of starts with the In Folk Style, one of Grieg’s Two Nordic Melodies.   This was a pseudo-folksong sent to the composer by a diplomat which Grieg subjected to some variations and restatements; nothing very original and, in places (like Letters C and E) failing to impress as little more than composition by the numbers.   The conductor-leader’s introduction  –  soft-spoken, courteous and prepared  –  proved mildly interesting for the speaker’s fluency and naive charm, even if he made more of this specific triviality than it deserved.

Ross EdwardsEntwinings is enjoying its world premiere on this tour.   In two movements, the work proposes both a juxtaposition and a link between the natural world and our civilization although the most attractive section of the score, the opening Animato, holds more interest for its Maninyas-type suggestions and the bird-like sounds that eventually dominate the texture and round out the aural imagery, the whole fore-fathered in atmosphere by Sculthorpe’s Irkanda exercises.   In the following Lento magico, Edwards employs a chorale-type statement to open and conclude a chain of sequences, the emotional language more worked-out than in the initial movement: less suggestive of the bush and wild-life, the accent less on pantheistic rhapsody and more on the civic world, the narrative sustaining your interest for its inner variety of approach as well as being a gift in multiple textures and techniques for the well-rehearsed ACO.

Kraggerud has turned all three of Grieg’s violin sonatas into concertos, to flesh out the number of Scandinavian exercises in the form  –  although, if you look hard enough, there are several available apart from the towering Sibelius in D minor.   This concert’s offering, No. 3 in C minor, isn’t a full orchestration  –  no brass, no percussion, only single woodwind to punctuate the string texture  –  but the results are forceful enough.   There’s not much any musician can do to spice up Grieg’s orthodox melodic divisions; still the same two-bar phrases that obtain through most of the composer’s works, very evident in the opening Allegro, but on Sunday this predictable four-squaredness was mitigated to a large extent by the orchestra’s enthusiastic address.

The guest violinist was heard here in fully exposed voice for the first time.   His sound-colour is admirably pointed and clear with an individual lyric timbre in higher-string passages of play, most obvious in the middle movement at the sideways move from E to E flat Major at bar 209.   The long restatement of Grieg’s opening theme high on the soloist’s E string made for a moving display of emotional wealth of feeling and impeccably shaped performance skill.   In the final Hall-of-the-Mountain-King allegro, where Grieg oscillates between dance-like thumping and smooth simple melody, Kraggerud splashed around his technical agility with carefully moderated abandon, the most memorable passage coming at the shift to A flat for the central trio where a low-lying melody line for the soloist was supported by cellos and bass: an outstanding realization of another heart-on-sleeve moment from this most approachable and complication-free of writers.

The Topelius Variations (from Topelius’ Time) commemorated the 19th century Finnish writer in a sequence of connected episodes that also paid a kind of homage to Grieg’s Holberg Suite.   As its composer, Kraggerud had a fair bit to communicate to us before he started on this score, which is receiving its Australian premiere on this tour, but, by the time he’d finished, I was expecting something a good deal more taxing than the reality turned out to be.   While he varies his basic material, not sticking to one theme to treat, Kraggerud veers towards the folk-tune-style of lyric with which to play around.   His variants may occasionally veer into complex territory but as a rule they make for easy absorption; even the rhythmic difficulties  –  a time-signature of 19/16, we were promised   –   didn’t seem to make extreme demands on the ACO  –  or on us.

To end, the ACO took us back to Grieg: the arrangement by Richard Tognetti of the String Quartet Op. 27.   It’s been a while since I heard the ensemble play this piece but it has been bred into the players’ bones  –  quite a few of them, at any rate  –  because they recorded it in 2012.   Kraggerud exerted minimal control for this piece.   At first, I suspected because the musicians had an intimate familiarity with its performance problems.   But really, the guest engaged in very little overt direction; nothing like Tognetti’s habit of conducting with his bow for significant cues.   Mind you, little on this program required any semaphoring, with the possible exception of the new Edwards work, but I can’t recall Kraggerud taking time out to make many directional gestures for that piece, either.   As well, the musicians had already given six accounts of this program in Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra before hitting Hamer Hall, so they were more than adequately played in.

The quartet ran its course with maximal flourish, in particular the symphonic first movement with a wealth of declamation and spirited rhetoric.   In fact, much of the work is well-suited to string orchestral guise, including the smart, syncopated Intermezzo and the saltarello finale, even if the actual material wears out its welcome many minutes before the G Major coda.

As promised, we had plenty of Grieg at this afternoon’s event, the Topelius piece probably suiting the ‘Beyond’ promise, although how much further Kraggerud takes his heritage is questionable; an amiable work, yes, but not as far advanced as you might expect, considering the musical earthquakes that have taken place since the Norwegian master’s death in 1907.   A lot has happened over the last 110 years, but this new piece looks back in more ways than one.   However, Entwinings took us some steps into the 20th century and it was heartening to hear another Edwards work, just two days after the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra had aired his Tyalgum Mantras with striking elan at the Deakin Edge.

The long and the short


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Friday September 8, 2017

                                                                                 Merewyn Bramble

A deftly organized program is a treasure beyond price these days.   Whether or not this latest offering from the MCO was all the work of soloist Genevieve Lacey‘s doesn’t matter; whoever put it together had a nice sense of proportion, Friday night’s entertainment constructed in two almost equal halves that reflected each other without too much close mirror-imaging.

Both halves of the evening began in medieval mode – first, with the Leonin/Perotin motet. Viderunt omnes arranged by Lacey for three cellos and double bass; later, a continuation of the species, Notum fecit in an adaptation for four violins. The latter made for a sobering experience, coming close to the night’s title than the opening gambit which once again gave cause for wonder at how conjunct were popular and religious musics in the 12th century and what a feeble echo comes from the auditoria of Hillsong and its ilk in these latter days.   The experience also rolled back many years of memory to student days when Dr. Percy Jones endeavoured to interest us laggards in the intricacies of organum and conductus – and how little actual knowledge remains.

After the Viderunt omnes, a string quartet of violins William Hennessy and Rachael Beesley, viola Merewyn Bramble and cello Michael Dahlenburg moved without a break into the penultimate movement, O Albion, of Thomas AdesArcadiana which carried through an ultra-restrained pastoralism that might have caused little surprise in 1198 Notre Dame, so subtle was the slide from the motet’s meditative last pages to Ades’ placid sound scape.   This in turn gave place to a madrigal, Cipriano da Rore‘s Ancor che col partire, with two divisions by Giovanni Bassano – which brought Lacey to the stage playing the top line: a stream of expressiveness in the middle of a non-vibrato (well, very little) string halo, followed by variants with the strings pizzicato, then with mutes.

This made for a sensible trans-generational journey before the night moved on a century to Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor, one of the multitude in the composer’s catalogue that I’ve never come across.  By contrast, in the program’s second half,  Lacey presented Sammartini‘s F Major Concerto, the writer’s best (only?)-known work.

Balancing the night’s opening, after interval, following the sober Notum fecit, the second stanza of Viderunt omnes merged into Ross Edwards’ Tyalgum Mantras in an arrangement I’ve not come across: solo violins at every corner of the Deakin Edge space, two central cellos, Lacey’s recorder, three violas, a group of four violins – all contributing their individual voices to the Australian composer’s own pastorale that showed a clear debt to Sculthorpe with its sustained pedal notes and shared melismata duties.   This in turn mutated into John Dunstable‘s Quam pulchra es arranged for three violas – Bramble, Katie Yap, Matthew Laing – which capped off this second group gambit with remarkable success, thanks to the performers’ sensitively-melded negotiation of the British composer’s clear-speaking polyphony.

The two Baroque recorder concertos gave Lacey another opportunity to remind us of her instrumental and interpretative brilliance.   They don’t look adventurous on paper, but the Vivaldi concerto’s first movement solos challenge any interpreter to smooth out some demanding leaps, keep faith with the underpinning metre through syncopations, and enunciate several demi-semiquaver exposed near-cadenzas.   With Lacey, you sense no performance tension but rather an awareness of the composition’s coherence, thanks in part to the recorder being written in to the outer movements’ tutti passages for both works.    But the efficiency of this soloist emerged best in the three rapid-fire solos of the concluding Sammartini gigue-like Allegro assai, notably the precision of the sequence of trills that punctuate vaulting pairs of semiquavers.   This work presents as more gracious than that of the Venetian master but then it doesn’t travel very far; its simplicity from a galant-style opening is sustained because Sammartini doesn’t travel far from his home-key.   Even the chromatic descents of the middle siciliano fail to lead far from a central A minor/C Major harmonic spindle.   But the solo line is light and buoyant in its movement, Lacey carrying it off with elegant spiritedness.

Hennessy led his forces into interval with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.   Unlike the customary take-no-prisoners mode of attack, this reading pleased for its lucid delivery, even in those passages of maximal inner strife.   The two elements that surprised from this experience were the power of the two violas  –  Bramble and Yap in bracingly concerted voice  –  and the surprising dearth of interest delivered in the central Meno mosso e moderato where everyone seemed happy enough to observe the pianissimo marking throughout but otherwise did little shading work with this material.   Elsewhere, the musicians coped best with the movement’s broader dynamic passages  –  the sterner the fugue itself, the more involving this account   –   but some relieving moments misfired, like the soft trills that intervene at Bar 710.

Ending the night, Hennessy and his forces played the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams: another vision of the eternal to set alongside that of Beethoven’s vision of a divine architect.   This lacked the massive washes of fabric that a full orchestra can generate with its 50 or 60 participants but it came close to being one of the most successful readings I’ve heard of this superb score.   The second orchestra made vivid work of the manual-changing moments, starting four bars before Letter F, despite the presence of only one player at each desk.   Bramble and leader Hennessy gave splendid service in the quartet fantasy at the work’s heart, and later made a joy of the spine-tingling duet a bar after Letter U.   In fact, the only question mark arose at the start of Hennessy’s last solo F minor arpeggio but I wasn’t alert enough to put a name to the specific note.   Still, it hardly mattered in the context of this excellent demonstration of the MCO’s grace under pressure and responsiveness to the director’s insightful preparation.

Finishing up properly


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Sunday September 3, 2017

                                                                                     Brant Taylor

And so we say farewell to Mimir for 2017.   The festival’s concluding recital on Sunday afternoon played to an enthusiastic if under-sized crowd, happily ensconced in the comfort of Melba Hall, these lower numbers possibly explained by the coincidence of Fathers’ Day, although I don’t know how many of us take that fabricated celebration seriously when the options are to manufacture jollity for a few hours or to listen to top-notch chamber music-making. This concordance of dates has been a problem over the last few years with the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent, but this time that celebration has been transferred to the last Friday in the month rather than the first; let’s see what difference this makes to MITR’s attendance figures.

A familiar quartet ensemble first presented Mozart, the D Major K. 499; Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson violins, Joan DerHovsepian viola, and the exhaustively employed Brant Taylor doing cello duty as he has for every item throughout all three main Mimir recitals.  The ensemble did not play a repeat of the first movement’s exposition which meant less exposure to a well-rounded ensemble output, Iwasaki projecting as forthright a top line as ever while urging his colleagues through a slim development where his part has most of the interest.

For unknown reasons, DerVorsepian gained prominence in the following Menuetto, prominent in the mix although the score shows no reason why this should be so; still, it gave interest to an unexceptionable if bland few pages.   As with the other slow movements at Friday’s recital, this work’s Adagio sounded assertive from all quarters; nobody was really prepared to supply much sugar with this dish.   The performers were well agreed on their use of vibrato, abstaining from excess; but then, there wasn’t much room for indulgence in this volatile movement with quite a good deal of ornate action from all parties, although Iwasaki enjoyed the lion’s share.   At all events, the outcome was fittingly free from sweetness, the dulcet giving place to the crisply deliberate.

The last movement is a molto allegro but this exercise held several passages of scrambling; not so much shown by intonation problems, although these weren’t entirely absent, but more by coping with Mozart’s sudden modulation checks and jumps in atmosphere.   Indeed, it was hard to make rhythmic sense of the first 18 bars or so as the emphasis was on metrical sleight-of-hand, so that you weren’t quite certain of the prevalence of triplets until they became texturally solid in bar 22.   Enthusiasm and rapidity were the movement’s characteristics but the players’ impetus made the chromatic sliding that started at bar 186 sound as though a touch more rehearsal time would have clarified the composer’s intentions.

Flying the standard of democratic hope, the same personnel gave most of us our first encounter with US composer Kevin PutsCredo, a four-movement construct that made its various images harder to imbibe because the players worked through it without a break.   This attaca procedure always leaves me unhappy and uncertain; what I think I have decided to be the end of one particular segment might in fact be nothing of the kind but simply the composer taking a new breath before revisiting the same scenario.    For instance, Puts begins with a scene set in a store in New York, The Violin Guru of Katonah, where clients come to play their instruments to the specialist who then carries out repairs.   The movement starts with harmonics and atmospheric rustling sounds before settling into a display piece for the first violin while his peers play simple underpinning chords.   Puts proposes that he quotes specific violin pieces during this dazzling display and, although you heard fleeting references to 19th century concertos  –  perhaps  – nothing stuck around long enough to be recognizable.   Fair enough: the composer’s point is to suggest flashes of virtuosic light rather than simply set up a forum for Guess the Tune.

But, before you’re quite aware how it was done, you are into the second phase, Infrastructure: a new picture, this one of an industrial landscape in Pittsburgh.   You know you have arrived because the players drum out zesty rhythmic patterns and hard-edged dissonances to suggest the mechanical age.   It’s not high on the brutalist level of Mosolov or Honegger but the inhuman landscape surges up, unmistakable.   The third stage, Intermezzo: Learning to Dance, begins with a soft lullaby motion, a simple lyric involving euphonic chords in the best Vaughan Williams vogue; simple juxtapositions suggest the innocence of a scene where a mother teaches her daughter dancing, Taylor’s cello significant for an ascending scalar melody of benign nature.

And somehow we move syncretically into the Credo movement, announced by a presto involving everyone in a moto perpetuo that builds excitement, then stops for what is heading towards a one-note meditation for Iwasaki’s line.   But then, in democratic style, Taylor takes on the prominent role, succeeded by DerHovsepian, and Thompson brings up the rear, with all eventually involved in a slow declaration, a statement of aspirations, I suppose, which gradually dies away, fading to black.   From what I could make out, this last segment is the work’s most substantial  –  and its most voluble.   If it is a statement of belief, Puts is speaking in optimistic terms, even if it takes him some time to have his say; you look in vain for the brusque determination of a Ruggles or Harris, two sterling exemplars of self-revelation without indulgence.   But then I might have the structural delineation all wrong; I don’t think so, but it’s quite possible.

Despite the confusion that it presents to those of us who over-compensate for our ignorance, Credo maintained your interest, not least for the command shown by all involved of the work’s emotional landscapes, and the full-throated generosity of their participation.

Australian pianist Kristian Chong started the program’s final offering: the magniloquent Brahms Trio Op. 8 in B Major. His partners were the omnipresent Taylor and violinist Stephen Rose.   Here was a very compelling account of a work that grabs you by the throat every time you hear it.   Chong’s opening statements enjoyed an uncluttered delivery, without any clagging from an over-employed sustaining pedal but taking the score’s open features at face value.   The strings’ entry into the action mirrored this approach with an exemplary amalgamation, strong in contour so that every phrase was shaped and delivered with care.   While you could admire the clarity of ensemble in a score that suffers more than most from superimposed temperament, the artistry of all concerned welled out from about bar 181 onward where the key signature returns to normal and the trio carves its way back to the main first subject en clair: a passage of extraordinary clarity after the development’s long hegira, where eventually peace came dropping slow.

Chong kept his attack sotto voce for much of the Scherzo, saving his full force for those moments where it counted most  –   in the ample Trio.   The only error I could pick came in the later stages of the scherzo repeat, somewhere about bar 409 where the right hand quavers momentarily faltered.   Taylor’s voice glowed in the great Adagio, notably in the lengthy G sharp minor solo that begins at bar 32, a moving digression from the preceding chorale antiphon.  And Taylor began the last Allegro with an impressive display of sublimated strength.   All three musicians cooperated in a compelling build-up of tension before the splendid relief of the D Major second subject bursting in at bar 64; an electrifying moment in this considered and temperate version of the trio,  Chong resisting the common temptation to take over by keeping his declamatory moments temperate.   Here also I found only one questionable piano passage at about bar 218, during the return of this subordinate theme, now in the home key.

You have to feel envious of musicians fortunate enough to be asked to perform this generous and rich masterpiece, even if it winds up being oversold by ensembles who seize on its innate weight, dynamic shifts, juxtaposition of inspired melodies and gripping chromatic exploration, in order to generate a simple-minded dramatic ferocity.   Here we enjoyed the labours of players who aimed for clarity above all, typified by Rose’s cogent and intensely sympathetic line, best instanced by his shaping of the long high-set path of the first movement’s Tranquillo: one of this afternoon’s most powerful stretches.

Hold nothing back


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Friday September 1, 2017

                                                                                      Jun Iwasaki

Back for a fifth year, this chamber music festival, originating in Texas, has settled on the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney Road for a far-too-brief week of seminars, tutorials and exhibition recitals.   Most of the participants are familiar, especially the core US string quartet – violinists, Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, violist Joan DerHovsepian, cellist Brant Taylor  –  all overseen by Curt Thompson, Head of Strings in the Music Faculty.   Another returning artist is Melbourne pianist Kristian Chong, with colleague Benjamin Martin also appearing in two programs to flesh out the repertoire.   The newly-appointed Associate Professor of Double Bass, Robert Nairn, made a one-off contribution during the festival’s middle recital, assisting to realise a work new to most of us.

Beginning this second recital, the US musicians played that challenging serenade for string quartet, the Italian by Hugo Wolf.   For perhaps the first time in my experience of the score, first violin Stephen Rose regularly surrendered primacy to his colleagues, the top violin line overwhelmed by its companions, in particular a well-roused Iwasaki who dominated the group’s output except at climactic flights, as at bars 161-5 where the first violin operates an octave above its partner, or at the long crescendo beginning in bar 470 where Rose – for a time – had all the running.

To be fair, the interpretation improved after the mid-movement cello recitative from a voluble Taylor, and the move to F sharp minor and its consequents proved to be a light-footed delight.   True to its spirit, the work came over as vital, ironically humorous and the performers gave a crystal-clear account of the score’s metrical games, the quicksilver interplay deftly accomplished and, if the product began as sonically imbalanced, you could not fault the quartet’s underlying consciousness of mutual responsibility.

Martin and Nairn joined Curt Thompson’s violin, DerHovsepian and Taylor for the Piano Quintet in C minor by Vaughan Williams.   This, composed in 1903, is the first chamber work listed in the composer’s catalogue but it remained unpublished until 2002.   Despite British sponsorship and enthusiasm as well as its handy partnership with Schubert’s Trout which uses the same instrumentation, the quintet has not proved popular  –  a pity, as its language is heartfelt and its ambitions come to a splendid conclusion in a mobile and emotionally engrossing Fantasia.

The point has been hammered home by every commentator I’ve come across that the score owes much to Brahms – which, after you’ve heard the first two chords, is stating the bleeding obvious.   More so than in most Brahms chamber compositions, the keyboard dominates and its attack seemed disproportionate on this evening, particularly when a string trio interlude followed, as at bar 139 with a move to Andante sostenuto.   But a look at the score shows that Martin was simply following orders and Vaughan Williams wanted a fair dollop throughout of fortissimo and triple forte dynamics from the pianist.   The following Andante, however, was much more satisfying, both for its own content and for the expansiveness allowed to the players.   An undercurrent of the repeated chord stasis found in the composer’s contemporaneous song Silent Noon enriched this appealing pastoral, a well-justified comparison observed by annotator Michael Kennedy.   An opening piano solo was succeeded by the first of several melting moments for strings at bar 30 and, after a very mobile middle section with a powerful allargando climax, the return of this euphonious calm rounded out a splendid passage of play.

The variations/fantasia begin with an antiphon between piano and strings, the material a simple-enough melody harmonised in full common chords, anticipating so many of the composer’s most well-known music.   Both sound-sources generated a powerful timbre without straining, each variation clearly given its own context, although you’d have had to be comatose not to appreciate the Brahmsian sweep of the change announced by Martin’s powerful move to E flat minor at bar 67 and the concerted strings’ vehement responses, all capped by a potent clamour at bar 216 where strings and piano lined up for an enthusiastic D flat affirmation of the main theme’s last strophe before the work fades out with a touching descending C Major carillon in the bass.

While a large part of the Mimir week comprises performances and examinations of standard repertoire, it’s the resuscitation of a score like this Vaughan Williams that adds value to the festival experience.   Further to this, you have the inestimable advantage of hearing such a composition handled with confident mastery, not only from the well-exercised Martin but also from that admirable central string trio with Thompson and DerHovsepian splendidly matched in their frequent octave or unison duets.

Dvorak in G Major Op. 106 brought up the rear, one of the last two of the composer’s string quartets.   Here, Iwasaki took the first chair and the combination with Rose sitting at second worked to much more congenial effect than had been the case with Wolf’s serenade.   Even so, some signs of strain emerged in a strident section, about 22 bars before Figure 10 in my score, where the violins are operating in thirds for about 16 bars and intonation was momentarily suspect.   More significantly, from the start the players were over-hefty; even DerHovsepian went for the jugular in the more hectic pages of an otherwise benign Adagio.

This break-through dynamic also obtained in the Molto vivace, the outer scherzo sections given with a certain compulsiveness of address; the central Trio came across as even more of a relief than expected.   This tautness worked to better effect in the finale with its happily hectic drive oscillating with burbling lyricism, the episodes featuring melodic material that for some reason brought to mind that annoying scrap of faux-calypso, Yellow Bird.   More to the point, you felt that the labourers in this particular vineyard were on a time limit, urging through the movement, especially from Figure 7 at the Allegro con fuoco return.   The effect was exciting to experience and to a large effect justifiable because, to be fair, the matter that Dvorak presents in these pages is hardly the stuff of transporting elevation.   But the outcome of the reading was to leave you with unalloyed admiration for the executants’ deliberation and precision under (generally self-applied) pressure.