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BEGINNINGS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday November 20

 

                     (L to R) Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King, Sharon Grigoryan

Among the good things coming to an end at this time of year was this last appearance for 2017 in the Recital Centre by an excellent ensemble, now steady on its eight feet after some years of disruption.   Three composers featured at this event, one of them something of a ring-in; despite the best efforts of violist Stephen King in tying the writers’ works to the night’s title, you were hard pressed to see how much of a beginning is represented by Beethoven’s first Razumovsky.

The ASQ went back as far as it could for its first instance of a beginning, although the possibility that Alessandro Scarlatti wrote the first string quartets and set the form’s ball rolling sounded like a bit of a stretch, unless you define the form as simply involving the four formally accepted instruments – in which case Scarlatti is all the go.  But the D minor Sonata a quattro, No. 4 in the set of six, presents more like a slightly unhinged sonata da chiesa: a Largo, followed by a brief Grave, an Allegro at the centre (really a presto on one figure), followed by a slighter Allegro and a rather disconsolate Minuet to finish.  There’s not much to get excited about in this brief work, although these players demonstrated their well-directed intonation by working with precious little vibrato to hand, the process at its most interesting in the initial fugue.

Moving from the beginnings of the string quartet personnel format, the ensemble changed direction to the start of a 20th century giant’s grappling with the form in the Bartok String Quartet No. 1.   Like the little Scarlatti, this thrilling score begins with canonic interplay but the atmosphere generated in this Lento is hardly Wagnerian or even Brahmsian as Sharon Grigoryan suggested in her prefatory remarks but more the Schoenberg of Verklarte Nacht which was written almost a decade before this work.  As with so much of Bartok’s chamber work, the material being manipulated is cellular more than thematic and the players had put in the hard yards to give the movement a convincing advancing and receding dynamic mesh, honestly direct in their treatment of the composer’s gritty dissonance.  An oddity I’d not noticed before came in the premonitions of Janacek that break out at bar 38 in a driving duet between second violin and viola – or possibly such a throw-forward impression came from the compelling work of  Francesca Hiew and King at this point.

The musicians’ account of the following Allegretto came close to being the recital’s high-point, in large part for the passionate, no-holds-barred handling of the movement’s taut material and argument.  The inter-instrumental dialogue is very striking here, to my mind because you have few distractions – none of the violent snapping pizzicati or other  sound-production techniques that pepper the later quartets.  Further, Bartok holds his performers to a common task for much of the time – everyone moving to the same pulse, if not in the same direction – but he also introduces passages where individuality is paramount and the counterpoint at work is a four-line melange, as at bar 84 where the dynamic is moderate but the parts go their individual ways.

Bartok’s Allegro vivace finale brings folk-song into prominence, although its presence is more in shape than actuality.   Here, the ASQ kept to rational, sensible speeds, driving through the asymmetric dance rhythms, then prepared to dedicate space to interludes like the Adagio at bar 94 with its luminous, unexpected C Major concluding chord.  Later, the group revealed a fine line in communal restraint when confronted with the ppp sotto voce passage at bar 330 – momentary linear wisps before the leap towards the fifth-rich finish line.  Yes, the movement is long-winded, the restatements can border on hectoring, but this interpretation was carefully spelled out, elegant in its vehemence and negotiated with minimal scraping.

This work showed once again what a splendid space the Murdoch Hall is for chamber music, the quartet’s sound during the Bartok clear even to the back of the stalls.  This aid to focus proved even more useful in Beethoven’s Op. 56 in F Major which, more than the Hungarian master’s score, is prolix.  Nevertheless, even the sprawling first Allegro slipped by smoothly, animated by first violin Dale Barltrop’s polished upper line; what I like about this player’s chamber music work is his lack of fluster – everything seems to fly into place and phrases are properly finished, given their full weight.

Beethoven’s scherzo juxtaposes sledgehammer force with featherweight passages as in the last 22 bars or so.  It’s about at this point that the composer’s insistence on pounding the message home starts to test your tolerance.  The problem is that, no matter how expert the players, not much can be done to alleviate the fact that Beethoven is beating you around the ears while he nails his matter home.  The assault is less aggressive in the following Adagio (which thankfully was taken at a mobile pace rather than dead slow) but again the work is garrulous and the players showed occasional indications of fatigue.

Many commentators find this quartet’s second half fails to live up to the majestic assurance of its first movements but I can’t find any decrease in inspiration, even in the jaunty theme that Beethoven employs as the basis for his finale.  Yes, it kicks off yet another long sequence of paragraphs but the pressure on an audience is more benign.  Not so for the performers and they were stretched by the movement’s sheer doggedness, as in passages like that beginning at bar 141 which doesn’t loosen its rhythmic grip for some time; the trouble is that the harmonic motion is often close to sedentary and the concluding Presto rush always comes as a relief.

In a certain sense, this quartet was a beginning.  It signified a break with the style of Beethoven’s preceding Op. 18 set of six works; his new field of endeavour in this form was more daring in form and emotional challenge.  As well, the demands on executants are greater, not just in stamina but in individual mastery and responsibility to the ensemble itself.  You had to be favourably impressed by the ASQ’s outlining of the score and their engagement with its challenges but I came away with more respect for the workers than enjoyment of the experience.

 

 

 

Russia all the way

LETTERS FROM TCHAIKOVSKY

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday November 19

                                                         Shane Chen

Bringing its year to a comfortable ending, the MCO finished Sunday afternoon’s offerings with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.  Nothing wrong with that; it’s a true string orchestra classic with page after page of superb writing for the instruments and graced with an unending flow of surging, full-proportioned melodies.  It’s also a score with which William Hennessy and his forces are comfortable, as evident by their bracing assault on the opening declamation, on the right side of aggressive and refreshingly free of hysteria, the temptation to overkill a feature of less emotionally disciplined music-warriors who try to turn each of the composer’s susceptible scores into escapees from Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers.  Just the same measured assurance recurred when the initial Andante re-appeared at the first movement’s conclusion.

The following Valse also proved to be a model of cutting grace, although the ensemble took its time over some of the pauses, as at bar 33 and later at bar 146.  But the movement left a pleasant taste thanks to the warm propositions put by the body’s viola pair near the shapely conclusion, taking over the proposition/response interplay with the first violins at about bar 210.   Once again at the Elegie, you could become mildly astonished at how much Tchaikovsky could extract from a simple rising scale with a few hooks at the top; despite the excellent reliability of the violins in soft passages, the main memory I carried off from this reading was the solid underpinning offered by the MCO’s small bottom-lines contingent – two cellos and Emma Sullivan’s double bass – near the conclusion where the three instruments persist with a pedal D in throbbing triplets before breaking off to join with the others for the last high harmonics that bring optimism to an often dark, plangent passage of play.

The Serenade‘s finale proved notable for those potent moments where violas and cellos acted in unison, as in the E flat interlude at bar 108 where the violins have pride of place with the segment’s broad theme but the work’s propulsion lies below them, the same effect in the home key at bar 320.  Thanks to the director’s pragmatic approach, this movement sustained its tension without descending into the atmosphere of ‘brutal and wretched jollity’, as Hanslick greeted the Viennese premiere of the composer’s violin concerto.

This concert’s other main Tchaikovsky element came with violinist Shane Chen’s firmly considered outline of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the original piano part orchestrated for strings by Nicholas Buc, who was occupied over the previous three days directing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in live-soundtrack versions of the first two Harry Potter films at the Plenary and doing so with admirable expertise.  The Souvenir, in three movements, I’ve not heard live before except for the third of its three movements, Melodie, which made a well-thumbed encore at violin recitals some decades ago.  Chen’s production is full-bodied and well-framed without being encumbered by superfluous biceps and his line in the opening Meditation made its points with a quiet passion, set up in a warm breadth across the first solo bars where most of the notes lie below the E string.

Mind you, Tchaikovsky more than makes up for this sombre opening as the work unfolds with some dazzling pyrotechnics that interpose themselves with brilliant effectiveness, pulling back to a touching sequence of solo violin trills that dominate proceedings about 27 or 28 bars before the end.  The work’s central Scherzo gave Chen plenty of scope for rapid staccato/detached bowing, offset by a glowing rendition of the intervening Con molto espressione in A flat; it’s the least inspired group of pages in the whole score but this violinist gave it an appealing Bruch-like breadth that forced you to ignore its structural shortcomings.

Hennessy and his colleagues began with Arensky’s Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky, one of the composer’s better-known pieces and giving fine service to the older composer and the four-square tune adopted for treatment.   The MCO made an enjoyable creature of this amiable series of change-ringings, the composer’s inner voices very clear because not smothered by too much violin weight.   Not that Arensky does startling things with his tune and reminiscences and shadings come to mind distractingly often, like the Borodinesque Variation VII and the suggestions of Orthodox chant in the score’s coda.  Yet the composition’s transparency makes for an agreeable listening experience and this proved to be an honest, well-judged outing for a piece of singular charm.

Hennessy filled out his program with arrangements.  Rostislav Dubinsky from the original Borodin String Quartet carried out a string quartet arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album  and the MCO performed seven of these miniatures, written in readily-admitted homage to Schumann.  Little remains in the memory some hours later, particularly as few of the pieces last long enough to do more than make a fleeting impression.  The Morning Prayer brings up comparisons with a Mendelssohn Song Without Words rather than implying a Schumann influence; Dubinsky’s sul ponticello scoring in Baba Yaga is a clever touch; Tchaikovsky’s Polka produced from the expert arranger a deft use of harmonics and in its language is startlingly suggestive of the Strauss family; The Organ-Grinder Sings has Dubinsky creating a brilliant squeeze-box imitation which is hard to divine from the original piano score; and the German Song, one of a series of nationalist miniatures in the collection, is almost a satire, occupying a middle ground between a heavy-footed landler and one of Schubert’s slighter fripperies.

None of this gave the players much of a challenge except in the interpolated effects and even these were more a question of synchronicity than production.   Keith Crellin’s orchestration for strings of the early Three Fantastic Dances by Shostakovich presented more difficult material, not least for the arranger.  The opening March is a stop-start affair but the young composer did maintain an underlying pulse which disappears in this revision, as does the buoyancy of the right-hand flights of fancy at the keyboard’s top.  The players had more success with the tricky – well, more tricksy, as Gollum would say – Polka with its off-hand cleverness.   Cleanly accomplished in the main, you still have to wonder why this triptych – not related in any way to Tchaikovsky, unlike everything else played this afternoon – was included.

 

December Diary

Sunday December 3

SOUTHERN CANTATA

St. John’s Bach Choir and Orchestra

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 9 am.

To celebrate 500 years since Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, and to mark 20 years since the Bach cantata program started in Southgate, St. John’s has commissioned a new work from Sydney composer Andrew Schultz to a text by Melbourne poet Katherine Firth.  This four-movement construct will be performed, as have a slew of Bach cantatas over the past two decades, at the centre of the Sunday 9 am service in St. John’s.  Southern Cantata is scored for two soloists, chorus and period instrument orchestra, all conducted by Graham Lieschke, and, in a compositional device familiar from Bach’s 200-plus examples, Schultz’s score incorporates a chorale; in this case, Luther’s own Advent melody, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland.

 

Sunday December 3

BACH’S CHRISTMAS ORATORIO

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Four years ago, the ACO and an imported Choir of London with a wealth of top-notch soloists presented this collation of six seasonal cantatas to excellent effect in this same venue, rounding out 2013 with a bang.  Here is a revisiting, even down to having the same Evangelist-tenor, Nicholas Mulroy, who impressed mightily in those years of benevolent reception before the flowering of local talent in Andrew Goodwin and the Thomson brothers, Daniel and Matthew  –  remarkable and reliable Bach exponents all.  You live in high expectation that Richard Tognetti and his musicians will bring off something like the same joyous experience tonight.  Whatever happens, you can always relish the delights of the first two elements in the sequence: Jauchzet, frohlocket and Und es waren Hirten, both of which encapsulate my Christmas ideal more than any other music.

This program will be repeated on Monday December 4 at 6:30 pm.

 

Monday December 4

Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Not one to sidestep obsessions, British pianist Paul Lewis has found a set of new foci for investigation.   In this typically chaste program, he confines himself to a brace of Haydn sonatas, the late Six Bagatelles Op. 126 by Beethoven, and the just-as-late Six Pieces Op. 118 of Brahms.   Even the Haydn works feature fairly late in the composer’s output in this form: the last of the G majors, Hob. XVI. 40 from 1784, and the third-last of the lot in C Major Hob. XVI: 50 which dates from 1794.  Although this composer has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the past decade, he is still an irregular recital presence.  Not so with the Beethoven block which are unique in their intimate starkness.  And the Brahms collection of four intermezzi, a ballade and romanze are often heard as single items, not so often en masse.

 

Saturday December 9

NOEL! NOEL!

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm and 7:30 pm

Pail Dyer and his spirited players begin their Christmas celebrations in the Murdoch Hall with another program of odds and sods.  You’ve got the Brandenburg Choir leading the way with some seasonal regulars  – Deck the Halls, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Come, All Ye Faithful  –  as well as works by Palestrina, Gibbons, Rutter and Faure.  The night displays a young talent in tenor Joel Parnis, fresh from Sydney’s My Fair Lady production, who has been entrusted with Bring Him Home from Les Miserables  – that Christmas-centric musical  – O Holy Night, Irving Berlin’s tooth-numbingly saccharine White Christmas, Silent Night, Once in Royal David’s City and an updated Twelve Days of Christmas.  And from the slips comes a choral piece out of the first of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films: My Love Is Always Here by Alexandre Desplat.  It’s all unabashed populism, just like Carols by Candlelight but without the inbuilt ads.

 

Saturday December 9

HANDEL’S MESSIAH

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Anything new here?  Conductor for the performances is Rinaldo Alessandrini, a Baroque keyboard authority; perhaps he’ll direct this performance from a harpsichord or chamber organ . . . we can but hope.  His soloists include soprano Sara Macliver and mezzo Joslyn Rechter, both well-known Australian-born singers. The male principals are British tenor Ed Lyon and Catania-born bass Salvo Vitale who boasts a wealth of Baroque opera experience.  The MSO Chorus could probably sing this score in their sleep and the orchestra will hardly be pressed, although Alessandrini will certainly have an individual take on how to tackle this venerable masterpiece that has almost a third of its content either directly or laterally relevant to the Christmas season.

This program will be repeated on Sunday December 10 at 5 pm.

 

Saturday December 9

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: AROUND 1600

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel at 8 pm

Once again, John O’Donnell and his formidable choir are presenting a programs of Renaissance glories for the season, in collaboration with Danny Lucin’s La Compania of period instruments.  The night opens with two settings of Resonet in laudibus: the 7-voice one by Praetorius and Lassus’ 5-voice version, both seeming to share a common opening shape of a falling common chord.   Andrea Gabrieli is represented by a Hodie Christus natus est but his nephew Andrea bears the burden of much of the night’s music-making: two glorious canzone – a primi toni and a duodecimi toni – as well as O magnum mysterium for double choir and the night’s concluding Nunc dimittis in 14 parts from the Sacrae symphoniae.   Lassus reappears with his creamy-rich Omnes de Saba and Adorna thalamum, the latter quite unknown to me.  And O’Donnell includes a moving early four-part motet by Victoria in Senex puerum portabat.  The combination of this choral body and the cornetti, sackbuts and dulcians of the Renaissance band – from past experience – is both impressive and moving.

 

Saturday December 16

MSO CHRISTMAS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

This is a celebration with definite Christmas elements and other parts that can be stretched to fit the framework; a more well-judged operating principle of supplying something for everyone than underpins the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! program above (see Saturday December 9).  The main point of difference is that this one-off night sticks to its last pretty much throughout.  Guest conductor Christopher Seaman begins with some seasonal arcana: the Polonaise from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Christmas Eve in which the MSO Chorus should play a major role.   Some extracts from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel follow: the Prelude and the Dream Pantomime where the moving Abendsegen is given luxurious post-Wagnerian treatment.   Naturally, the MSO will play some scraps from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, the MSO Chorus returning for the opening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio  –  that bouncy sample of triumphant Christianity, Jauchzet, frohlocket  –  juxtaposed with Berlioz’s chromatic pastorale, the Shepherds’ Farewell from L’enfance du Christ.  Not wasting last week’s work, Messiah extracts follow (I’d guess the Nativity section, Scene 4 from Part the First, but will the organizers be able to resist a Hallelujah! reprise?), the night ending in O Come, All Ye Faithful

 

Sunday December 17

A MIGHTY WONDER: CHRISTMAS WITH THE AUSTRALIAN BOYS CHOIR

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

This year’s concert from Noel Ancell’s choirs – the ABC itself, its graduate-enfolding Vocal Consort, and its tyro singers – is based around the chant O magnum mysterium although I don’t think the young musicians will be demonstrating their prowess with the Andrea Gabrieli construct featured in the Ensemble Gombert program of a week previous (see  Saturday December 9 above).   We are promised settings by Byrd, Victoria, Poulenc and Norwegian/American Ola Gjeilo’s slow-moving Scandi-mystic version with an obbligato cello line; don’t know why I’m being sniffy about the Gombert’s Gabrieli as this one splits into 11 vocal parts at two stages.   And, of course, there will be lacunae for mass participation when the ABC parents show with unbridled gusto the origin of their sons’ lung power.

 

 

 

 

Refined yet insipid

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Rachel Podger

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday November 14 and Saturday November 18

 

 

This democratically operating band has achieved a high reputation in the ranks of period performance if mainly, it seems to me, through the undisguised puffery of British critics and music writers.   Much has been made of the ensemble’s improbable survival, endless self-examination, penchant for various guest directors (albeit ones with top-notch reputations) and catholicity of style.   Not much of this made any difference to Tuesday’s first Melbourne concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which, fronted by guest violinist Podger, performed two symphonies – Haydn’s Lamentatione No. 26 in D minor and J.C. Bach’s G minor Op. 6 No. 6 – and the bookends of Mozart’s violin concerto output: all four compositions written within a decade of each other and coming from a cosy trio of mutually admiring master-writers.

An Australian composer once asked me to make no comparisons between his work and that of other composers whenever I reviewed his work and, although it’s a difficult omission to endure, I’ve tried to keep to it, apart from harmless generalizations that seem unarguable.  The temptation to compare ensembles and orchestras is more difficult to carry out, even on the local scene; performance differences between the Goldner, Flinders and Australian String Quartets are there to be noted, I suppose, but seem to recede in importance when you consider each group’s specific interpretative powers on a particular occasion.

But I couldn’t help thinking of the Australian Chamber Orchestra while listening to the OAE.   The points of difference are clear; Richard Tognetti doesn’t go in for the real period touches, usually because he presents programs more historically diffuse than this one from Tuesday and what’s good for your Bach is not necessarily worth persevering with in your Bartok.   For all their historical exactitude, the British players worked with a kind of diffidence, a temperamental restraint that might have been in operation during the second half of the 18th century – who can tell? – but which resulted in some passages of tedium.  While the ACO takes up every challenge with overt enthusiasm – everything becomes vital, if not confrontational – these Musica Viva guests kept themselves nice, observing a calm style of presentation which often proved admirable if also distancing.

Podger and her supporters were frugal with vibrato, but you’d be unwise to cavil at this practice because it speaks to a lucidity and freshness of texture that you can hardly hope to reach if you let your left hand wobble on the spot at every opportunity.  As a corollary, your intonation has to be spot-on because every note in a sequence takes on a quality tantamount to musical nudity; there is no leeway, no place to hide if you miscalculate. While the Enlightened outlined the Haydn symphony with a discipline of emotional content, you missed decisiveness from the string body, especially the bass elements which throughout the program showed a spread of focus, as though the absence of a conductor’s decisive beat meant that the bottom line could indulge in a bit of a spread.

This lack of bite showed up all the more sharply because the body’s pairs of oboes and horns took on extraordinary prominence, simply as timbre contributors even at obvious moments like bar 58 of the central Adagio where they set the running for the movement’s second half.  In fact, the strings’ delivery during the latter two movements showed more authority than had been obvious in the opening Allegro assai where the occasional intonative crack emerged from the violins.

You never hear the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1, violinists opting for the melodic eloquence of the final three in the set, more often than not No. 5 which Podger also performed to wind up the night.  To a certain degree, this violinist’s historically obedient use of gut strings only gave her reading an unstressed edge, the violin line primus inter pares; nevertheless, the lack of steel in timbre, coupled with  the sparing vibrato made each deviation evident and small slips emerged even as early as the soloist’s first exposure. More than the preceding symphony, this score made for involving music-making, although I have to admit that interest levels drooped during the three cadenzas.  Also, this was the only part of the night where the horns – well, one of them – dropped a note; when I think of the error-laden experiences endured at the hands of local period instrument players . . .

The Bach symphony produced the program’s most lively engagement in its outer Allegro movements but the central Andante was something of a trial. At two points for strings alone, the players appeared to concentrate on generating a continuously static communal output, situations where the work’s forward motion stopped, as though the participants were putting their trust in the composer’s orchestration colours to generate attention – which is fine when you have actual colours to deal with.

The one unalloyed high-point of the evening came in the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto’s adagio.  Yes, the music itself is some streets ahead of anything else this concert offered, but it also suited the soloist’s mellow sound flavour in the middle of the composer’s eloquent orchestra loaded with refined detail at every corner.  Again, Podger gave vent to her ability to insert substantial cadenzas; I must admit to wishing for something a tad less prolix by the time the rondeau had reached the usual spot for an interpolation; after all, you don’t have to play a cadenza, particularly in this movement which has enough internal interest to keep you on the qui vive.

The forces at work for this concert made an interesting study.  With Podger at first desk for the symphonies, the first violins numbered five, the seconds four; three violas, two cellos and one double-bass completed the group.   As well as the horn and oboe pairs, the bass line boasted Sally Jackson’s bassoon which I was hard pressed to discern anywhere during the program.  Perhaps the lack of drive from the upper strings was due to half their number not appearing on the body’s current playing list.  With the ACO, you get the occasional ring-in but most of the time each face is a very familiar one; the which faces will become more familiar to London audiences when Tognetti and his people take up their position for a three-year term as an International Associate ensemble at the Barbican during the 2018/19 season, bringing novelties like steel strings and, more importantly, biting unanimity of attack and a fusion of intellectual and emotional rigour to the London chamber orchestral scene.

Still, it was certainly entertaining being in attendance – with a highly enthusiastic audience – on this night where the OAE indulged us with some enjoyable pages of refined, delectable doodling.

 

 

 

Reductio ad absurdum

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

November 11, 14, 16 and 18

                                                         Helena Dix and Danielle Calder

I suppose that it’s some centuries too late to rail about Donizetti’s asinine Tudor operas which pervert history for the sake of improbable, rudimentary if not execrably written dramatic situations.   And it’s undeniable that, compared to the Maria Stuarda plot-line compiled for the composer by Bardari, the Cammarano book for Roberto Devereux cannot come as a shock to anyone used to bel canto pot-boiler libretti.  But experiencing this conclusion to the Melbourne Opera’s  sequence of Donizetti’s Henry VIII/Elizabeth I operas did not make for a particularly happy night in the Athenaeum.

Soprano Helena Dix returned to the company to sing the role of Elizabeth and her vocal display was one of the opening night’s highlights from her opening Duchessa . . Alle fervide preci up to the ridiculous self-indulgence of the opera’s finale, Quel sangue versato where the queen’s self-indulgence spills over into bathos.  You could relish the precision of Dix’s fioriture alongside the control on display in her ensemble work, all without finding much to fault.

But, from the beginning, the  characterization of Elizabeth offered little beyond amusement and not-to-be-suppressed memories of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  This queen, brought down to the groundlings’ level, is a figure of fun, pettish and slightly ridiculous, certainly the biggest entity on this stage and encased in an unflattering farthingale.  The malevolent turn that penetrates her first duet with Devereux, In sembianza di reo, presents as almost childishly spiteful and both Dix and director  Suzanne Chaundy seemed unable to give the character a personality with which you might find some sympathy.

Matters hardly improve in the queen’s confrontation of Devereux with Sara’s scarf, the proof (somehow) of his infidelity to her.  You can see that all the running is left to Elizabeth but her display of the incriminating object is schoolgirl-spiteful at best, as is her intransigence with Nottingham’s requests for mercy. The best recourse here was to ignore the staging and focus on the vocal interplay which, on Dix’s part – once you set aside the overdrawn malice – remained consistently impressive.

Henry Choo gave us a well-rounded Devereux, although it was easier to take to the ardour of his Una volta, crudel interchange and consequent duet with Danielle Calder’s Sara than to his initial appearance in front of Elizabeth where the tenor over-stressed the guilty asides both with the Queen and in the pendant scene with Nottingham.  Still, Choo made a fine feast of his focal scene Ed ancor, la tremenda porta where Devereux resolves to keep his secrets and endure execution; here was an excellent sample of lyrical and persuasive bel canto, determined and not over-supple but clear-speaking and consistent across its demanding range.

Phillip Calcagno, one of the company’s stalwarts, worked hard as Nottingham., the friend turned enemy who serves as the all-too-predictable fulcrum around whom the tragedy turns.   His baritone is accurate enough but it lacks pliancy; a single-minded insistence on correct delivery worked in the baritone’s favour during his reassurance of Devereux but proved wearing in his pleadings with Elizabeth, Non venni mai si mesto, probably because of the sharp contrast brought into play with Dix’s fluid phrasing.  However, the angrier Nottingham became, the more convincing Calcagno’s efforts.

It’s no fault of any singer that he has to indulge in a rapid, hardly credible conversion from dedicated confidante to moustache-twirling vengeful cuckold (or so he believes) in an instant; Cammarano’s dialogue sets up this change and Donizetti was in too much of a hurry for any subtlety.  When the penny starts to drop, Calcagno does his best from Orrenda luce balena onward but the transformation is unavoidably melodramatic. The confrontation with his wife that begins Sara, vederlo io voglio gave us the singer’s finest moments where the emotional intensity of this character’s abrupt change in situation almost brought about a commensurate flexibility in Nottingham’s vocal line.

Calder’s Sara opened the opera, fittingly enough with a plaint:  All’afflitto e dolce il pianto – a marvellous gift from the composer – but the soprano was directed in such a manner that the lines made little impression, coming across as more petulant than tinted with tragedy. Things improved markedly in Calder’s ensemble work, her deliberation a worthy match for Choo in the couple’s renunciation scene and an attention-grabbing counterweight to Calcagno’s vicious recriminations in the husband-and-wife confrontation.

Jason Wasley played Lord Cecil without stress, but then there’s not much for the character to do.  Eddie Muliaumaseali’i enjoyed the part of Raleigh, who has a scene of conspiracy with Elizabeth, Assente egli era, where he produces the scarf he has found on Devereux.  It isn’t much to play with but the bass made each phrase count; his delight in ruining a rival almost made you feel some pleasure in knowing that this knight was to meet his comeuppance under James I some 17 years after the opera’s action.

As for the company’s chorus, the general effusions sounded enthusiastic, but the night began in pretty ordinary fashion with the court ladies’ Gemer!   Pallor funesto coming across the footlights to scrappy effect.   As is customary in these 19th century Italian pre-Verdi works, the male chorus tended to bellow when given the opportunity.

Greg Hocking conducted a pit that every so often found it hard to agree on the beat.  The overture’s tutti exclamation chords sounded effective but the following reading of God save the king suffered from an uneven woodwind trio where the oboe drowned out the melody-bearing flute.  Hocking did little to keep the brass restrained which was a pity as his strings worked hard and efficiently while the horns were not always as reliable.  As Hocking knows better than most, the Athenaeum is a small space where the orchestral output sounds acoustically dry with little-to-no resonance.   Duets and trios worked effectively in stage-pit combination but the hurly-burly full choruses, enthusiastically essayed, sounded too hefty for the air volume available.

In a bid to aid communication, the work was sung in English: a practice that works well when the libretto is worth understanding in detail but not so fortunate on this occasion where the audience found plenty to laugh at in Act 1.  This comprehensibility factor favoured recitatives but arias and more complex structures did not always succeed as well as they might have if all singers had been coached in shaping their words.

But is there a point in laying bare the bones of this opera?  Much of the time, it flies in the face of sense, nowhere more so than in the essential plot element involving a ring that the queen gives to Devereux, to be used by him as a court of last appeal if he gets caught up in trouble.   Even at the final curtain, Elizabeth is brandishing this infantile talisman of intrigue, as though the tragedy can be attributed to its misuse, rather than the fact that Devereux was a compleat traitor with a long history, for such a young man, of disobedience and intemperate behaviour.

On top of this, Cammarano and Donizetti portray the queen herself as a venal, uncontrolled personage; her last words in the opera are an apparently splenetic act of abdication, although in reality she had another two – almost three – years to live and reign after Devereux’s execution.   The legend of the Virgin Queen comes in for a belting as well since her physical infatuation comes pulsing though all too clearly in her musing that begins L’amor suo mi fe’ beata.

So, at the night’s end, after the audience’s full expression of pleasure in Dix and Choo’s realizations of difficult roles, the over-riding impression that I took away was one of vulgarity; not just because the creators had played ducks and drakes with the facts but more so that they had demeaned the story, working to an operatic lowest common denominator.   I’m one of very few patrons of this mind, for sure, but I’m glad the Donizetti/Tudor experience is over.  Here’s hoping the company doesn’t attempt to round out the enterprise with a staging of Il castello di Kenilworth.

 

One for the true specialists

THE DEW GATHERERS

Amanda Cole, Janet Brewer. Neil Heymink

Move Records MCD 565

 

It’s not every day that you come across music by Johann Philipp Krieger; his younger brother Johann, yes – familiar to most organists and harpsichordists as a name to reckon with when entering the early Baroque.  But J.P. is an historical enigma and this CD deals with a significant part of his oeuvre about which details are sketchy and, even after enjoying the disc several times over, I’m uncertain whether or not I have a grip of its content.

The performers are mezzo Amanda Cole, bassoon Neil Heymink and harpsichord Janet Brewer.  Alongside the 20 arias and songs that the players work through, Brewer concludes the album with Krieger’s Aria con variazioni in B, one of the three remaining keyboard works of the composer that I can find.  As for the vocal numbers, not all of them employ Cole’s voice.   For instance, the first track, An den wilden Aeolus from the opera Flora, Ceres und Pomona, sees the vocal line entrusted to the bassoon.  Much the same happens further along with Jagerlust from Cephalus und Procris, and finally the two instruments take on the challenges of Die beue Bauernstube, also from the Procris work.

According to these musicologically informed musicians, you will only find 24 arias still extant from Krieger’s 34 (or thereabouts) operas and singspiels.  So this compendium forms the greater part of his stage work to survive, although it hasn’t done so very well.  The allocation of particular arias to specific characters presents problems – necessarily so when all you have to work with are fragments.  And the trio has engaged in further forensic work by stripping back the detail inserted by editor Hans Joachim Moser for his 1930 Nagels Verlag publication of German songs.  Throughout, the dominant orchestral input – the top string line, I suppose –  is mainly entrusted to the bassoon: a process that leaves Amanda Cole very exposed.

This represents admirable, scouring treatment of the composer’s work, taking it back to a bare-bones stage.  My problem is a simple one: the arias often lack any context; for example, the single extract from Der wiederkehrende Phoebus, a song about agility not just being witchcraft, is a spirited construct but without any trace of the opera’s libretto or cast of characters, it presents as an enigmatic operatic orphan.

Further, quite a few of the tracks are brief; three come in under a minute and the average length is a touch over two minutes.  In fact, the most substantial offering – Liebespein from Cecrops mit seinen drei Tochtern – lasts 6 minutes and yet what you learn through its duration amounts to very little in terms of insight into Krieger’s compositional technique.  Still, these musicians do good service for the Flora work with nine arias; the Cecrops and Procris works are represented by five numbers each.

Of course, the actual sound of these arias is circumscribed with few signs of inserted fanciful flights from any of the performing trio.  But the general effect is – almost necessarily – reminiscent of Bach,  mainly in the melodic movement, not in the underpinning craft where Krieger is less concerned with inventiveness but more with felicity of utterance, as in An die Sonnengott from the Flora opera: an address to Titan/Apollo which is fluent and engaging but straight out of the salon.  Then, by contrast, Verliebtes Weinen und Lachen holds a few moments that remind you of Monteverdi’s operatic declamations.

More often, the composer’s bent turns to simple lyrics that don’t make many chromatic waves, like the assertively plaintive Der Heissverliebte where, as in several other arias, the bassoon takes over the vocal line for a verse or two; although you can’t rely on this  textural relief as in Coridon in Geldnoten where Cole sings the same rather uninspired material four times.  The first opportunity in these Flora extracts where you’d hope to get a hold on the composer in slightly extended format is the concluding Sommerfreuden, a 6/8 pastorale of some charm; but this is simply an aria with more verses than its predecessors.

The Cecrops group begins with that long Liebespein.  Again, this is an amiable plaint but its melodic shape is predictable and while the players’ efforts to deck it with some ornamentation are welcome, they’re not enough to compensate for its pedestrian inspiration.  Ach! Pandrose, more concise, is brisk, almost a march and, without decrying Cole’s interpretation, might have benefited from being sung by a sturdy baritone.  The lack of harmonic variety emerges pretty plainly in Die holde Nacht where the tonal centre – D minor? – hardly moves throughout the aria.  Similarly, in Schmilz, hartes Herz!, a feint to the dominant is the only variety offered in a deft but unadventurous little lyric.

By the time you reach the Cephalus und Procris bracket, you have settled into the Krieger ethos: there will be no surprises and the melodies will be well-crafted but unexceptional.. An die Einsamkeit opens interestingly enough with a set of two phrases beginning with a sustained vocal note, but moves into near-orthodoxy although the  later unexpectedly high-ranging stages put a strain on Cole’s production and pitching.  Du ungluckseliger Morgenstern is more interesting for its steady pace and its momentary forays into the relative major and melodic minor territories, even if the vocal range seems more constricted than usual.

Brewer deals efficiently with the B flat Variations.  They offer few interpretative challenges and the harpsichordist observes all repeats.  Early on, Krieger indulges us in a touch of chromaticism, but not enough to lead us too far away from the home key at any stage.  The usual suspects turn up: triplets, running semiquavers in the left hand, pseudo-canons between the hands, registral statement and response, melodic mock-angularity, two-part inventions, paring-back to a bare outline, time-signature changes, widely-spaced parallel motion: the whole box of tricks more familiar to us from Handel’s harpsichord suites.

Finally, where do the dew gatherers come into it?  It has to do with Cecrops’ daughters.  One of them, Pandrose, was goddess of the dew; one of her other sisters is named Herse, which is Greek for ‘dew’.  Interesting to know but most of this CD’s content is more earth-bound in nature than this ephemeral title suggests.

 

Early opera, sort of

BITTERSWEET OBSESSIONS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 4-5

                                                                  Karim Sulayman

Paul Dyer and his ABO brought a split personality of a show to Murdoch Hall over the weekend; on one side of interval came stately tragedy, on the other, the closest thing the High Baroque gets to a joke.  You could make a case that the two parts didn’t gel, but you are faced with the same situation on many an orchestral and chamber music program where juxtapositions of unlikely material occur regularly.  But this program succeeded chiefly through the dedication of all involved and the absence of presentation irritations that have marred previous ABO events.

The MRC audience was faced with three scenes, two by Monteverdi and one from Bach. New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson sang in all three, as did American tenor Karim Sulayman and Danish baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen.  Local tenor Spencer Darby sang in the opening Lamento della ninfa while actors Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter took on mute roles in the more substantial works.

Dyer and his instrumentalists – three violins, viola, cello, violone, two recorders, a lirone/viola da gamba. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo/guitar/gallichon set, harp and single percussionist – worked from an open pit on the same level as the front stalls while the usual performers’ working platform became a well-spaced arena for Charlotte Montgomery’s mutable sets: a stylized landscape for the mournful nymph, a large scaffold apparatus for Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a cafe for Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.

A three-section madrigal, the Lamento is hard to present theatrically because nothing happens.  The four  voices outline the situation of a girl left abandoned by her lover; the lady takes centre-spot for the lament with the males offering subterranean commentary, finally come  a few observations about the power of love to round out a 6-minute piece centred on an inexorable ground-bass.  With a large backdrop of a stylized landscape and some cardboard clumps of bushes, the four singers spread themselves around: fine for Wilson’s penetrating, clear voice, not so hot for the males who needed to be positioned in a solid group, if only as a solid source of complementary colour.

For Il combattimento, most of the emphasis fell on Sulayman’s Narrator who surged through Tasso’s lines with requisite fire and dramatic emphasis – in line with the composer’s directions and his music’s illustrative character.  Every so often, the tenor sacrificed precision of pitch for dramatic delivery, which might have made more sense to more people if the surtitles had translated the entire libretto.  But the single-voice experience didn’t pall, thanks to this singer’s vocal vim and textual assurance.  As in the one other staged performance I’ve sen from the national company, the two paladins remained static figures, their combat acted out at ground level by Lindenthal and Sunter in aikido costumes and equipped with staves.

Dyer’s band showed a vital flexibility in this reading, taking every chance to find and deliver the revolutionary score’s flashes of illustrative colour.  Constantine Costi’s direction had Wilson and Jespersen proceed up the scaffolding, become blindfolded as a substitute for the helmets that disguise identities in the original poem, then deliver their few lines from static postures..  In this non-naturalistic mise-en-scene, armour was nowhere to be found on the nominal protagonists  –  just bland everyday clothes, while Sulayman sported a striking red thobe and the aikido fighters wore their usual white, all-enveloping bandage-uniform.

Costi was understandably sparing with his directorial bolts from the blue but noteworthy were the collapse of  the backdrop for the Lamento to reveal the confronting scaffold set, and the dropping of a long red cloth from the top level when Clorinda is mortally wounded by her lover.  Still, like its predecessor on this program, the work is short – about 20 minutes – and, apart from the absurdity of the story and the instrumentation novelties, the presentation’s chief interest lay in Sulayman’s feat of memory and stage dominance.

Framing the two madrigals, Dyer interspersed some fragments by Monteverdi’s contemporaries.  Andersson opened with Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, curdled by percussion support that featured a wind machine, the action spreading to the lower strings before a wind-driven transition to the Lamento.  Between the Monteverdi pieces came a Falconieri ciacona of refreshing exuberance but sitting completely at odds with the two tragic stories, and Monteverdi’s own overture to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria that occupies eight bars and can be (and was) elongated at will.  To round off the night’s first half, Dyer and his players moved immediately from Clorinda’s dying sentence to a Consonanze stravaganti by Trabaci which also took on more timbres than merely its keyboard orginal.

For the program’s second part, we vaulted forward a century to Bach’s cantata, prefaced by the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with the two recorders and violin solo lines. Nobody wasted any time relishing the counterpoint in this marvellous construct, top billing going to Shaun Lee-Chen’s flight of demi-semiquavers from bar 187 to bar 208; the two recorders were sadly swamped.

There isn’t much to be done with the Coffee Cantata.  It’s just four recitatives with pendant arias, then a final recitative and concluding trio.  The Narrator (Sulayman) introduces the story; father and daughter Sclendrian (Jespersen) and Lieschen (Wilson) share three recitatives, enjoy two arias each; finally, the Narrator folds it all up and all three collaborate for the summation.  As you’d expect, the girl gets to enjoy her obsession – coffee – and the father once again copes with the inevitable.  But the score holds two splendid numbers: the soprano’s lilting last aria, Heute noch; and that last ensemble, Die Katze lasst das Mausen nicht, which is so full of sturdy bonhomie that it makes you forget – almost – the affected and pretentious industry that has grown up around the simple practice of drinking coffee.                        (L to R)     Karima Sulayman, Natasha Wilson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen

Wilson played the spoiled rich girl with convincing flair, her sprightly vocal colour suited to this transparent score.   Jespersen enjoyed his only moments of extended solo work in the night, best exercised in his Madchen, die von Harten sinnen aria where he kept exasperation and self-pity deftly harnessed.  Sulayman occupied himself with the fiddly tasks that typify your born barista – a hard ask, doing nothing for a good stretch of time – but came into his own with a light ringing sound for the concluding trio.

Yes, the company asked you to jump from deep medieval gloom to pre-Enlightenment burlesque across the night but something about Bach’s assurance and innate kindness made the transition come to a softer landing.  Finally, it is hard to speak highly enough of the ABO’s flawless support, although, if pressed, you’d have to single out Melissa Farrow’s delectable flute and its supple ornamentation as a particular delight.