Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
Deakin Edge, Federation Square
Friday September 8
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 Ades’ Arcadiana 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.