Melba Hall, University of Melbourne
Sunday September 3, 2017
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 Puts‘ Credo, 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.