February Diary

Thursday February 1

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE IN CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s the first of the blockbusters in the sterling first trilogy from George Lucas, complete with everything we grew to love over the years since 1977  –  from the looming spaceship taking over the screen at the start to the Saturday afternoon matinee heroics of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, all seeming so much younger than their actual years, but practically amoebas when compared with their craggy re-appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  This set of screenings more or less kicks off the MSO’s year and you can see from the number of sittings how popular these live soundtrack performances have been/are/will be.  Benjamin Northey, who had an active year with the orchestra in 2017 as Associate Conductor, continues to shine in his role as the organisation’s go-to leader.

This program will be repeated on Friday February 2 and Saturday February 3 at 7:30 pm, as well as at a matinee on Saturday February 3 at 1 pm

 

Friday February 2

TRISTAN AND ISOLDE

Melbourne Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 6:30 pm

Back to this dated large shack by the bay with all its time-honoured problems associated with parking and pest-dodging.   I think the last time I was in the Palais was for another Wagner: Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman  –  an enterprise that had considerable merit.   This time, MO has left behind the frivolities of Rienzi, Tannhauser and Lohengrin and heads for the Wagner fulcrum: a score of such power and complexity that it remains the high-water mark of opera, inspired from first bar to last and incomparably crafted.  Lee Abrahmsen sings Isolde, tenor Neal Cooper takes on his fifth Tristan, Sarah Sweeting has the Wagner gift-of-a-role in Brangaene,  baritone Michel Lampard mirrors Sweeting as Kurwenal, bass Steven Gallop broods as King Mark and Jason Wasley does his worst as Melot.  Anthony Negus, a Reginald Goodall graduate, conducts and we can approach the night with an earnest hope that the MO Orchestra will be up to the mark with this exhausting, superlative score.

The opera will be repeated at 6:30 pm on Monday February 5 and Wednesday February 7, and moves to the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Saturday February 10 at 6:30 pm.

 

Sunday February 4

TOGNETTI, TCHAIKOVSKY, BRAHMS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

To set an underlying context for the year, Richard Tognetti and his band offer a contrast between the sublime and the also-ran.   For serious music-making, the country’s premier string orchestra will play (yet again) the Tchaikovsky Serenade.  And we’ll have yet another important chamber work in an arrangement for the ACO resources; this time round, it’s Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 in G Major as seen through the vivisectional prism of Kurt Atterberg, I suspect, although Tognetti has never been one to content himself with other people’s organisational talents.  To start, we’ll hear British composer Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds from 2012 for two violins (Ike See and Glenn Christensen from the orchestra’s ranks) and string orchestra.  As well, American composer Missy Mazzoli confronts some of us for the first time with her newly-composed Dark with Excessive Bright, a semi-line from Paradise Lost.  The work has been written specifically for the talents of the ACO and its double bassist, Maxime Bibeau.

This program will be repeated on Monday February 5 at 7:30 pm.

 

Wednesday February 7 

ROMANCE AND CLASSICS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

No rush to originality in the first of three very popular Myer free concerts from the MSO.   Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell takes centre-stage for the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto No. 1; you’ll never hear the composer’s other two at this venue, but there’s surely a case for dusting off that jolly, satisfying Scottish Fantasy.   The night ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, one of your great psychological summative works with loads of lyricism and an exciting finale to send everyone home happy.  The only novelty comes at the start in Dutch composer Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, the only work by the composer/organist that you ever hear and probably included here as a repertoire specialty of the night’s conductor, Antony Hermus who has positions with the North Netherlands Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands.  Seems like a sort of justifiable payback for all those Australian conductors who took Sculthorpe scores to Finland and Britain.

 

Saturday February 10

HOT SUMMER NIGHT!

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 p,m

This second and solitary weekend concert in the MSO’s free series can attract a spill-over crowd if the atmospheric conditions reflect this program’s title.  For some reason, the music is almost all Spanish or Iberian/Latin-inflected, beginning with Ravel’s ambiguous Alborada del gracioso –  a morning serenade with a difference.  Conductor Antony Hermus moves to Falla’s El amor brujo but I can’t imagine that he’ll be working through the whole ballet.  Still, you can’t be sure; he has Chilean-Swedish mezzo Luciana Mancini at his disposal as the night’s soloist and she’d be ideal for the score’s three songs.  Danzon No. 2 by Mexican writer Arturo Marquez is packed with colour, something of a thematically concise dance suite.  Mancini then sings the program’s odd-man-out: Berio’s Folk Songs, all eleven of them and a surprisingly euphonious collection from this 20th century master but I suspect a bit of a puzzler for this audience.  By the way, these Folk Songs have not a Spanish text in sight.  Finally, to wipe away all suggestions of the eclectic, Hermus gives the snare-drum(s) right of way for Ravel’s Bolero, that mindless symphonic wheeze.

 

Wednesday February 14

FROM MSO, WITH LOVE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Ending three free Myer concerts, the MSO goes Puccini-mad, bringing to the fore Australian opera regulars soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Rosario La Spina.  They begin with Mario! Mario! Mario!, where Tosca bursts in on Cavaradossi’s nonchalant attempts at painting.  They end the night with the Act 1 finale to La Boheme, probably from Che gelida manina up to the spellbinding O soave fanciulla duet conclusion off-stage.  Benjamin Northey conducts Strauss’s Don Juan to give Bowl patrons another aspect of love, and three pieces with tenuous links, at best, to the night’s intended amatory motif:  Martucci’s 1891 miniature Notturno, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien for no other reason than the nationality of everything else on the program, and Puccini’s 1882 student work, Preludio sinfonico, which reveals Wagner’s influence; a predictable presence in an aspiring composer’s aesthetic life during those formative years.

 

Friday February 16

GLASS, DEAN, MENDELSSOHN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

No smart title here: what you read is what you’ll get.  The ASQ begins its MRC series with Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet, subtitled Mishima because the music comprises part of the sound-track that the composer supplied for Paul Schrader’s film which is based on the Japanese novelist’s last bloody day.  The middle work, Brett Dean’s Eclipse String Quartet No. 1, is underpinned by the Tampa outrage of 2001 that displayed with searing clarity the contemptible ethical degeneracy of the Howard government, its leader lying and lying and being a villain.  To end, the players  –  violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King, cellist Sharon Grigoryan  –  play Mendelssohn in D, first of the 1838 Op. 41 set of three, although the last written.  This ensemble has settled remarkably well after its years of personnel disruptions and the behavioural immaturity of former members; now it has a distinctive personality and rarely disappoints.

 

Sunday February 18

3MBS BACH MARATHON

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra et al

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 am, 12 pm, 2: 15 pm, 4: 15 pm, 6: 30 pm and 8: 15 pm

Going for the big-time, the Abbotsford-based classical radio station has booked a day at the MRC.   The first concert begins with the opening two preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 – no idea who’s playing but quite a few pianists appear during the day – then abruptly progresses to C.P.E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the one written in 1777 for the composer’s duties in Hamburg.  This will involve the Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra with some fine soloists: bass/baritones Michael Leighton-Jones and Nicholas Dinopoulos, tenors Andrew Goodwin and Timothy Reynolds, and soprano Kathryn Radcliffe.

The mid-day recital features the E flat minor Prelude and D sharp Major Fugue from Book 1, partnered with the Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Grace Wu outlining the string part.  Then somebody will surge through Liszt’s voluble Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen; another pianist will present the happy and difficult French Suite in G; the program ends with the Double Violin Concerto in D minor featuring – I think – Robert Wilson and his student Christian Li.

At 2:15 pm, a pianist leads off with the G Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 1, followed by the G minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II, all capped by the great Italian Concerto solo.   J. C. Bach enters the scene with a piano quartet in G and a gamba sonata in the same key.  Somewhere in these works the Sutherland Trio and early music specialists  Latitude 37 will appear. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue K 404a/3 for violin, viola and cello is a piece of real arcana where Mozart supplied the first work and then arranged a Bach fugue – in this case, the F sharp Major from Book II.  To end, the Violin/Oboe Concerto in C minor appears to be bringing Nick Deutsch and Kristian Winther to the crease as soloists.

3MBS’s next recital opens with the B flat Major and minor Preludes and Fugues from Book I, coupled with the motet Jesu, meine Freude from the Australian Boys Choir.   W. F. Bach’s Dissonant Sinfonia for strings highlights yet another of the talented sons, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra doing the honours.   Seven of the Inventions – presumably in two-parts – come next and the program ends with Timo-Veikko Valve outlining the last of the Cello Suites.

At twilight, the Book II D Major Prelude and Fugue begins proceedings, followed by the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden, another Fantasia super Jesu, meine Freude and the chorale prelude on Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein; the first two are manuals only, but the second seems to need a pedal-board – that’s assuming Calvin Bowman will play them on a specially imported organ rather than all three pieces being given as piano transcriptions.   A definite arrangement comes through Busoni’s transcription of the D minor violin Chaconne, probably played by Gintaute Gataveckaite, and matters end with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 from a combination of the Flinders and Melba Quartets with double bass Emma Sullivan as well as viola Merewyn Bramble somewhere in the mix for the third viola line, I guess.  Oh, and inserted just before this concerto comes the aria Schlummert ein from the Ich habe genug Cantata BWV 82 but no bass soloist is specified.

Finally, the 8:15 pm program kicks off with the F minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II before Stephen McIntyre and a swag of his ex-students  –  Caroline Almonte,  Stefan Cassomenos, Kristian Chong, Lachlan Tan and Peter de Jager  –  all contribute their particles to a run-through of the Goldberg Variations.

 

Wednesday February 21

FOLIAS ANTIGUAS Y CRIOLLAS: FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD TO THE NEW WORLD

Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI & Tembembe Ensemble Continuo

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A fellow critic found little to like last time Savall and his Hesperions were here as he disapproved of the fusion that the Spanish violist constructed between the medieval/Renaissance and the folky/contemporary.   Just shows that you can’t trust us: I found the mix irresistible.   The only descriptor to be found concerning this particular program is: ‘The cosmopolitan music of Spain and Latin America from the 16th to the 18th centuries.’   Hesperion we know from previous visits although its membership can vary considerably.  Tembembe specializes in the Spanish Baroque and Mexican-plus-Latin American music, finding links with African and American sources.  Part of a tour, Savall and his forces will appear at the Perth International Arts Festival, then Melbourne before Sydney and Brisbane; useful to know if you plan on being interstate in the second half of the month.

The performers will present another program – Folias y Romanescas: The Golden Age of the Viol on Thursday February 22 at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday February 24

THOMAS TALLIS’ ENGLAND

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The title is sort of true if you’re flexible.  One of the pillars of this program will be Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis from 1910, which is some distance away from the Tudor musician who died in 1585.  And I’m not sure where Purcell fits into this landscape – or Handel, for that matter  .  .  .  both coming into existence a century or so after Tallis’ death.  Paul Dyer and his ABO are on firmer ground with music by Byrd and Gibbons.  Soloist is countertenor Maximilian Riebl and the Brandenburgers come in two forms: Orchestra and Choir.   So far, details of what the groups are attempting remain elusive, apart from the Vaughan Williams work for strings which has brought to grief many another body more attuned to the Edwardian era’s bucolic suggestions and more tolerant of facile English transcendentalism.

This program will be repeated on Sunday February 25 at 5 pm.

 

Saturday February 24

EAST MEETS WEST

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The Occidental is represented by Schumann’s Spring Symphony No. 1; how this will help celebrate the Chinese Year of the Dog’s arrival boggles the mind but doubtless Lu Jia, Chief Conductor of the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra,  will elucidate all.   A notable collaboration of composers from 1959, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chen Gang and He Zanhao will be fronted by Lu Siqing and the program includes two other Chinese works: Chinese Sights and Sounds: Dialogue on Flowers by Bao Yuankai, which is a ternary form piece of pentatonic frou-frouism and the last of the composer’s four Heibei Folk Songs Suite; and Shepherd Girl in the Tianshan Mountains by pianist/composer/pedagogue Yang Liqing.  Somewhere in the latter work, erhu player Ma Xiaohui will emerge to generate one of the country’s trademark sounds.

 

Monday February 26

Nelson Freire

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I thought the well-known Brazilian pianist was here only a few months ago.  And he was, fronting the Schumann A minor Concerto for an MSO series in September/October.  He pops up again for this solo recital which takes in a lot of ground.  For your Classical, Freire plays Mozart’s Ten Variations on a Theme by Gluck K. 455, a nice four-square tune put through some increasingly entertaining paces.   Then straight to the deep Romantic by way of Schumann’s turbulent Fantasie in C and a couple of the less frivolous Chopins: the F sharp Impromptu and A flat Ballade.   Freire will work through a selection from the Debussy Preludes Book II and winds up with an Albeniz brace: the Evocacion from Iberia, and Navarra, which I’ve not come across before in live performance but which serves as a none-too-subtle invitation to solicit encores.

 

Tuesday February 27

Sabine Meyer & Alliage Quintet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

One of the great clarinet players of our time is touring for Musica Viva and brings with her a saxophone quartet plus pianist.   As you could easily predict, the program content is all arrangements with a complementary emphasis on light classics.  The ensemble begins with Bernstein’s Candide Overture before moving into Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Across the evening, Meyer and her Alliages play a double Shostakovich bracket – the Prelude and Gavotte from Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano originally arranged by Lev Atovmian, and then the other three of the suite’s five scraps – Waltz, Elegy and Polka.  Alongside these sharp-edged nebulosities come Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Holst’s Venus and Stravinsky’s Firebird (the suite, I’m hoping).  Not a night for the sober-sided chamber music lover.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 3 at 7 pm.

 

Wednesday February 28

WINGS OF SONG

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Obviously, this recital involves a bit of Mendelssohn.  Exactly how much?   The Flinders have commissioned young Bundaberg-born writer John Rotar to arrange four of the composer’s lieder: Op. 57 No. 5, Venetian Gondola Song; Op. 34 No. 2, On Wings of Song (well, that’s a relief); Op. 8 No 8, Witches’s Song; and the 24-bar Beethoven-reflecting Op. 9 No 1, Question.  An original Rotar work also appears: V Vecernih about which I can find out nothing except that it’s short, it had a popular success at the Flinders’  inaugural composer workshop in 2016, and its title seems to be a Slovenian phrase for ‘In the evening’.  At either end of the night come Mozart’s internally compact yet lengthy No. 18 in A, and Beethoven in F Op. 135 – his last and the one with that Muss es sein? questioning in the finale that Mendelssohn took up in his Ist es wahr? phrase-shape that opens Op. 9 No. 1.

 

 

 

 

2017 in review

It seems most unlikely now that the paper for which I am an (increasingly) occasional contributor will be asking for a piece of reportage on what happened throughout last year on Melbourne’s serious music scene.

Rather than leave some extraordinary efforts unremarked, I offer these random observations as a well-intentioned diary of events, supplementing the accounts in this blog of 37 concerts/recitals and 11 operas across 2017.

January

Because of an administrative snafu and an insistence that January was packed with action (rock festivals and reprints of articles from the UK and USA), I got to hear little at the start to 2017;  nothing from the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, for example, and only one concert from the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.

It can be a dry month for Melbourne’s musicians, in particular those who specialize in period performances.  But Ballarat’s annual January festival, under the joint aegis of Sergio di Pieri and Judy Houston, offers some relief from drought, no more so than this concluding program at St. Patrick’s Cathedral called The Agony of Hell and the Peace of Soul which celebrated the genius of Schutz, with two diversions into Monteverdi and Schein. Wherever you looked, you could see authorities at work, both in the choral forces and in the Unholy Rackett and Ensemble 642 instrumental combination, all under Stephen Grant’s direction.   It cohered into a joyful song unto the Lord, one of those experiences that you seek in vain elsewhere.  This year’s finale promises to further this pursuit of the monumental in Biber’s 53-line Missa Salisburgensis.

February

The Australian Chamber Orchestra began its national series with Pekka Kuusisto taking the reins for a program based around Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet in string orchestra arrangement.   In another of the ACO’s experimental melding exercises, folk-singer Sam Amidon provided interpolations with some Appalachian melodies that were melodically attractive if textually incomprehensible.  But the afternoon wasn’t wasted, thanks to a sterling performance of John Adams’ Shaker Loops which cut through the obfuscating commentary to the score’s innate clarity of utterance.

As expected, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its three Myer Music Bowl concerts to large crowds, some of whom actually listened.  It was a Russian week with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and, to begin, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2  –  the stuff of a thousand Hollywood and Ealing Studios  wartime dramas – while conductor Benjamin Northey finished off the night with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – the barnstormer that keeps on giving.

                                                                  Benjamin Northey

Also in this month, the MSO kicked off what used to be called its Town Hall Proms which can’t be named that anymore, particularly as chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis has brought actual Proms concerts to Hamer Hall.  Sponsoring young Australian conductors (well, some of them) to the hilt, the organization presented Nicholas Carter directing Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony with plenty of stop-start energy, balanced by a sober Prokofiev Classical Symphony.

                                                                Nicholas Carter

On the month’s last night, the MSO offered a season opening gala – which meant that everything up till now had been just a tease.   Maxim Vengerov played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with unflappable assurance, plain sailing all the way with Benjamin Northey directing, then Vengerov conducted Rimsky’s Scheherazade as though  accompanying a troupe of elderly dancers.

March

Continuing its almost-unfailingly popular series of soundtrack concerts, the MSO took on the original Jurassic Park with laudable enthusiasm, even if stretches of critical dialogue were swamped under the considerable weight produced by the players under Benjamin Northey.  A week or so later, the disciplining hand of Sir Andrew Davis, took over the reins for a continuation of his Mahler Cycle, this time with No. 7 which is a movement too far as far as I’m concerned, burdened with the most coitus interruptus-suggestive finale in the composer’s symphonic canon.

Young prodigy Daniel Trifonov gave his solitary recital here on March 14 and it turned out to be one of the year’s high points.  His review of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Toccata and Kreisleriana was remarkable for its continuous rigour, especially the last-named, and he kept his technical brilliance for a sharply-etched selection from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, and an overpowering version of Stravinsky’s arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein of Petrushka.

Trifonov also graced an MSO concert a week later with the neglected Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1: again, he played with impeccable fluency, bringing passion and polish to a work that most pianists neglect – either from choice or from management constraints.  Davis continued his residency with an effective Tchaikovsky Pathetique, for once treated as a whole rather than four marvellous units, and fleshed out the month with a Last Night of the Proms that went even more all-British than usual with Piers Lane resuscitating John Ireland’s Piano Concerto for us – the only time most of us will ever hear this one-time acclaimed construct.

                                                                    Daniel Trifonov

At the MSO’s Recital Centre concerts, program control often seems be handed over to either of the body’s concertmasters, Eoin Andersen or Dale Barltrop.  For this end-of-month sojourn, Barltrop directed and also brought on-board the Australian String Quartet (of which he is first violin) for Australian writer Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale.  Taking its inspiration from Schubert’s last quartet, the work was sadly placed alongside a string orchestra transcription of the Death and the Maiden Quartet in D minor which showed the MSO strings to excellent effect.  Try as I might. I still find it hard to warm to much music coming out of Sydney, my home town.  But this piece, attempting a fusion/development of well-known pages, served little other purpose than to show what a brilliant mind this country owns in Brett Dean.

April

Almost 30 years since its last visit, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields came to Melbourne with new director Joshua Bell. who repeated his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto interpretation last heard here with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 2013.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but hardly venturesome programming, the orchestra’s ensemble not satisfactory in the Recital Centre where its strings (too few) were swamped by their wind and timpani colleagues.

The MSO ended its April with Orff’s Carmina Burana, to which the most successful contributor was Warwick Fyfe whose bass-baritone reflected the verses he was singing with excellent interpretative skill; a very welcome factor as the MSO Chorus underwhelmed in the more explosive strophes of the outer movements.

                                                                       Warwick Fyfe

May

Nicholas Carter enjoyed his day in the sun at the February Town Hall concert.  This month, it was Benjamin Northey’s turn, capitalising on his educational background in conducting with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and generating a blazoning power throughout, well-complemented by Stefan Cassomenos’ driving encounter with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

British pianist/conductor/raconteur Bramwell Tovey paid a fleeting visit to the MSO to premiere a new piece by composer-in-residence Elena Kats-Chernin and to escort Alexander Gavrylyuk through the Tchaikovsky B flat Piano Concerto, a reading packed with brilliance but nowhere more so than the final double-octave cadenza.

Many of us are happy to turn out for a recital from Nikolai Demidenko who has, in the past, enriched our knowledge of both piano concertos and solo piano works, no matter how well-known.  Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the master played an all-Scarlatti first half which proved to be a few sonatas too long, even given the player’s individual approach.  Schubert’s C minor Sonata D 958 moved the goalposts and we were treated to a fulfilling and clearly articulated reading of a neglected monument in the literature.

June

Back in Melbourne for his second annual stint as the MSO’s chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis headed Haydn’s The Creation.  An up-and-down affair for the MSO Chorus, soprano Siobhan Stagg gave the roles of Gabriel and Eve a welcome burnish, lending elegance to this oratorio with a cosmic theme and an often mundane level of utterance.  Later in the month,  Davis conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral with more oomph than Disney pastel, while cellist Daniel Muller-Schott soared through the Don Quixote variations of Richard Strauss.

                                                                      Siobahn Stagg

The Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted one of its intimate recitals with some overworked Schumann surrounding Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 with Kristian Bezuidenhout escorted by a bare-bones string quartet.

A few of us latter-day Nathanaels are prone to asking, Can any good come out of Trumpian America?  To our delight, a resounding ‘Yes’ followed the Musica Viva tour by the Pacifica Quartet who gave a sympathetic airing to Westlake’s 2005 String Quartet No. 2, found a solid foundation for the last of Beethoven’s awkward essays in the form, and offered a captivating account of Shostakovich No. 3.

Next in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Behzod Abduraimov built on the excellent impression he made five years previously.  A controlled reading of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as arranged by Busoni, some Schubert Moments musicaux and a spacious Beethoven Appassionata were capped by Abduraimov’s memorable insights into Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 6.

July

Sir Andrew Davis took a detour from his Mahler symphonies cycle to take in Das Lied von der Erde, working productively with tenor Stuart Skelton and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers.  You can’t help but be moved by the composer’s compelling embrace and abnegation of existence but the MSO’s efforts might have been more carefully harnessed in vehemently scored passages where the soloists were swamped.

For no apparent reason, the MSO mounted a mini-Mozart Festival of three concerts, some recitals, and Milos Forman’s Amadeus film.   What I heard of the symphonic events under Richard Egarr proved generally delightful, ranging from the first catalogued keyboard music played by Egarr himself up to the tensile muscularity of the Symphony No. 40, with Jacqueline Porter’s soprano a lucid delight in the Exsultate, jubilate motet and the MSO strings generating a near-faultless account of the Paris Symphony No. 31.

                                                                     Jacqueline Porter

The live soundtrack underpinning to Amadeus had the orchestra and chorus in laudable synchronicity with the screen, conductor Benjamin Northey pleating the media together with scarcely a seam showing.   But the final orchestral concert woke you up –  if you needed to be  –  to the peerless genius who produced the Clarinet Concerto and the D minor Requiem – well, a good deal of it – in his last, crowded months.  Here was a concert where the spirits looked kindly on Egarr and his forces so that their realizations made for an engrossing, moving experience.

I felt unbridled enthusiasm for the Sitkovetsky Trio after their 2014 tour for Musica Viva.  This time, their cellist, Leonard Elsenbroich, was replaced by Bartholomew LaFollette at short notice.   Nevertheless, the ensemble made exemplary work of Rachmaninov’s Trio elegiaque No. 1, the Shostakovich in E minor and swept us away with that hoary repertoire cornerstone, Mendelssohn in D minor.

A benevolent amalgam, the Australian World Orchestra stretched out to the young musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music for a collaboration in a July 29 one-night, one-work program under Simone Young.  Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie asks for a good deal from its executants, none more than its pianist and Ondes Martenot player; on this night, Timothy Young and Jacob Abela gave the symphony’s sprawling canvas both brilliance and emotional heft.

August

Each Takacs Quartet night offers an object lesson in chamber music performance.  This year’s Musica Viva tour opened with the last Haydn in F Major, MV artistic director Carl Vine’s No. 6, Child’s Play, and a penetrating reading of Beethoven’s Op. 127 with an adagio that you didn’t want to end, despite its complexities of construction.

                                                                     Takacs Quartet

Li-Wei Qin offered yet again his interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with the MSO under Johannes Fritzsch backing his efforts with balancing zest.  It’s a work you find has an immediate appeal, no matter how often it’s performed, and this soloist impresses for the forceful drive of his sound and his soaring richness of line in the concerto’s many lyrical flights.

Sir Andrew Davis clearly has a soft spot for Massenet’s opera Thais.  He made this work his mid-season gala and it largely succeeded for the quality of his soloists: soprano Erin Wall (Thais), baritone Quin Kelsey (Athanael), bass Daniel Sumegi (Palemon), tenor Diego Silva (Nicias), and mezzo Liane Keegan (Abbess Albine).  Having heard it once, I’d like to thank all concerned but can’t see any need for staging it, despite the opportunities for a set designer/choreographer’s pseudo-Oriental excess.

On the month’s last night, Davis made another side-trip from the Mahler path into Bruckner territory with the Symphony No. 7, preceding the performance with an illustrated lecture.  The MSO’s account found the strings and woodwind in excellent temper, the brass not so much, but the conductor embraced the outer movements’ long paragraphs with gusto.

September

Paul Dyer and his Australian Brandenbuurg Orchestra focused on friends Mozart and Haydn, with Cannabich a handy filler/acquaintance during this visit to composing contemporaries.  A wind octet played parts of the Harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio that Mozart probably arranged himself; the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey, faced projection difficulties in the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto, but not as many problems as Bart Aerbeydt confronted with his natural instrument in Mozart’s last horn concerto.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar atrocity, the Zelman Symphony essayed the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 which uses Yevtushenko’s poems as a fulcrum. Mark Shiell conducted his orchestra, a bass choir and bass soloist; the singing element sustained the composer’s gravity of expression and the instrumental corps, often deliberate and aware, could have been improved by more assertiveness from the strings.

Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made a fine pairing with the Mozart Symphony No. 34 at this month’s concluding MSO concerts, both light and buoyant even in their slow movements.  Conductor Andre de Ridder moved to the dark side with Ravel’s La Valse and Unsuk Chin’s kaleidoscopic Mannequin – one of the year’s more adventurous program choices.

More French material emerged at the month’s end when Otto Tausk conducted the MSO in Debussy’s La mer, the body’s brass section in powerful, accurate voice, before a complete shift in temper when pianist Saleem Ashkar fronted the Brahms D minor Concerto, giving this rumbling rort of a  score its full complement of roaming sensitivity and pounding majesty.

                                                                  Saleem Ashkar

For once not clashing with Fathers’ Day, the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent site was held on September 24 and brought some stirring music-making into play.  I was lucky enough to hear the Arcadia Winds quintet in Barber’s Summer Music and the eloquent Nielsen Wind Quintet; later, violinist William Hennessy, violist Stefanie Farrands, and cellist Michael Dahlenburg – Melbourne Chamber Orchestra core personnel – laboured with pianist Louisa Breen  across the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with excellent results; and pianist Stefan Cassomenos thundered through Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony.

October

Suffering from a publicist’s hyperbole by appearing under the title of ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, Emmanuel Pahud was guest for this month’s Australian Chamber Orchestra program, a compendium of great variety in which the guest performed most effectively in unaccompanied solos: Bach’s A minor Sonata and Debussy’s Syrinx.  An arrangement for the ACO strings and Pahud of Franck’s Violin Sonata removed most of the original’s chromatic bite and the finale’s sweep from placidity to generous clamour.

Later, Richard Tognetti  brought the full ACO ensemble to the Recital Centre for a singular achievement climaxing in Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence as you would like to hear it all the time: light textures oscillating with driving blasts, each movement a finely-honed, concentrated vein of gleaming ore.

This year’s Melbourne Festival brought some enriching music to the public ear, starting with A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol which fused Western and Eastern genres into a moving lament for those millions murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s ascendancy.  Local pianist Peter de Jager staggered me with his all-Xenakis program which contained most of the Greek/French composer’s keyboard music for both piano and harpsichord: a stimulating grapple with very difficult material, some of it unplayable.  The British choir Tenebrae brought Jody Talbot’s Path of Miracles to town, a four-part musical tracing of the pilgrim’s trail from Roncesvalles to the shrine of St. James of Compostella.

                                                                          Tenebrae

A Festival finish of high distinction came with the two recitals by Emanuele Archiuli which focused on American modern works, in particular highlighting Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.  Despite the pianist covering too much territory and revealing a tolerance for some pretty lightweight matter, he enriched our awareness of near-contemporary pianistic craft with George Crumb’s far-foraging variations on the Monk tune, then performed part of his own vast enterprise which involved 20 composers writing individual takes on ‘Round Midnight.

British conductor Andrew Manze took the MSO through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, the first time I can remember hearing this masterpiece live since Gelmetti conducted it at Robert Blackwood Hall many years ago, my review of that occasion eliciting a letter from one of the first violins that indicated how I’d undervalued the stamina required from the strings to get through this score.  Manze pointed to the inescapable influence of Beethoven on Schubert, but also the impact of Rossini’s jauntiness, and that information gave extra colour to what can be a trying experience, especially in the verbose tarantella finale.

November

The MSO has given plenty of exposure to its associate conductor, Benjamin Northey, this year, coming to a head with his being given charge of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  The young conductor gave his exuberant best to the experience, met with full-throated responsiveness from both orchestra and the MSO Choir and well-served by his all-Australian principal line-up: Jacqueline Porter, Liane Keegan, Henry Choo, Shane Lowrencev.

A tad down-river, the MSO under Nicholas Buc did their live soundtrack thing with the first two Harry Potter films, playing to packed audiences at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Plenary.  The music itself is warmingly familiar, yet another sparkling amethyst in composer John William’s chain of memorable film scores, but both nights were exemplary public occasions: for The Philosopher’s Stone, by the audience’s participation in greeting and groaning at various characters – all encouraged by Buc – to the final explosion of delight when Dumbledore changed the house points at film’s end; for The Chamber of Secrets, you had to be impressed by the audience’s applause at each discrete passage of play, patrons quite happy to drown out the film’s action with approbation of the MSO’s efforts.

                                                                        Nicholas Buc 

Back at Hamer Hall, Stanislav Kochanovsky directed a sonorous but unsatisfying reading of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, one of the MSO’s more memorable successes under Hiroyuki Iwaki.  Possibly the conductor and his band were too focused on exerting a powerful drive throughout; even more probable, the interpretation proved self-conscious, the weight of both outer movements approached with an excessive consideration for inner bulk.

December

My concert of the year for 2013 was the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s revelation of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Quite a bit of its success came from the orchestra’s talent at walking a line between opulent modern warmth and period instrument piquancy.  Even more was due to the brilliant Choir of London, a body of about 18 singers, all soloists in their own right who combined for the most lustrous and full choruses and chorales you may ever encounter.  Much the same occurred this time around with many of the same participants back at work, headed by that paragon of Evangelist tenors, Nicholas Mulroy.

                                                                    Nicholas Mulroy

Finishing the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, British pianist Paul Lewis confronted us with another of his demanding programs, this one comprising late-in-life works by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, the last represented by the Six Piano Pieces Op. 118 in which Lewis found a subtle continuity of emotional language to produce one of the year’s most significant and revelatory interpretations.

The MSO’s annual Messiah proved disappointing, in part due to the lack of ginger from conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini.  About two touches of originality aside, this struck me as a pretty pedestrian effort, the MSO Chorus imbalanced by a shy tenor group, the orchestra reduced to an emotionally faceless stratum, and only two of the soloists leavening the drabness, soprano Sara Macliver and tenor Ed Lyon casting light across a dour landscape.

                                                                        Sara Macliver

                                                                            Ed Lyon

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – some of them – and Choir began their Noel! Noel! concerts in the Recital Centre, moving ever closer to a Carols by Candelight format with young musicals singer Joel Parnis making a hash of Adam’s O Holy Night, set too low for his voice, but coming into his own with Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.  But Paul Dyer followed his customary path of having something for everyone, moving from Palestrina motets to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, supplementing his string quintet with a trio of sackbuts.

The Australian Boys Choir finished my year with their A Mighty Wonder program.  Director Noel Ancell took as his program’s basis the O sacrum convivium antiphon, beginning with the familiar Gregorian chant, then moving into  settings by Gallus, Poulenc, Ivo Antognini and Ola Gjeilo.  And, aware of the enthusiasm of his choirs’ parents, Ancell also inserted plenty of audience-participation with carols unfamiliar – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, albeit in an English translation – and others that are part of our DNA – O come, all ye faithful and Hark! The herald angels sing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The viol da gamba lives

SPINNING FORTH

Jenny Eriksson, the Marais Project

Move Records MCD 564

Many would find it hard what to make of some connections drawn throughout this CD’s content.  You’d expect, given the ensemble’s title and the repute of Jenny Eriksson, that the music would owe a large debt to the Baroque French violist Marin Marais, best known through the Alain Corneau 1991 film Tous les matins du monde which investigated the composer’s relationship with his eminent predecessor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.  And you do find a Marais track listed, but it’s more of a play on Marais than the original; hence, you can glean something of an explanation in the participating group’s name which suggests that its enterprises will not be devoted to a straight reproduction of the past.

In fact, the only other period music to be found is a suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, one of Marais’ pupils.  But even this work has been gussied up to some extent with the addition of an extra gamba line; I’m not sure what this alteration accomplishes even though the results prove unexceptionable.

But the CD’s chief content is contemporary, or near-so.  A musician who appears in nearly everything on this recording, theorbo master Tommie Andersson, supplied an arrangement of Hjort Anders Olsson’s Min levnads afton, a walking tune that the Swedish fiddler performed and so resuscitated.  The title work by Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan offers  another suite, a take on the form with a prelude, sarabande and gigue of sorts and a cross-bred bouree.  Fleshing out the tracks are two scraps of Anglo-Australiana: The Cheshire Rounds, a tune dating back to Playford’s Dancing Master, and the Streets of Forbes memorializing the career and death of bush-ranger Ben Hall.

Because of the ‘project’ sobriquet, it seems to me that anything goes with everything here. Both constructors and composers/arrangers have a great time finding links in their notes.  For example, Llew Kiek comments on similarities between  the Swedish tune Lat till Far (recorded in a previous Marais Project album) and the Ben Hall lyric; Cutlan embraces the notion of fortspinnung as exemplified in the close-knit use of material found in Bach (a Baroque tie-in).  Andersson differs from this connection-conscious thrust in not linking his Olsson tune adaptation to anything; it’s just there, fleshing out the CD’s 44 minutes’ length.

Eriksson, Andersson and supplementary gambist Catherine Upex perform the Caix d”Hervelois Suite in D minor from the composer’s first book of Pieces de viole.  In line with the genre’s plastic layout, some of the seven movements are self-explanatory – prelude, menuet, gigue – while others are personal and impenetrable, like l’Henriette, La Luthee (gift of God?), and, less obscurely, La Villageoise.   In the only manuscript I could find of this piece, the player is offered three preludes; Eriksson takes the central one.  A few pieces appear to go missing: an allemande and La Coquette.  For this opening, Ypex plays a simple continuo reinforcement of Andersson’s theorbo, then occasionally underpins Eriksson’s line in l’Henriette with some parallel motion in thirds.  A rondeau goes missing before the calculated rusticity of La Villageoise, where Ypex plays her support with a bit more independence.  For the following La Bagatelle, the second gamba supplies the continuo support, which amounts to a running line, most of the time in support of Eriksson.  La Luthee sees the second viol almost effaced; in fact, I’m unsure whether its contributions are more than a few subordinate notes throughout this slow gavotte. The concluding gigue and menuet show an amiable jauntiness that has prevailed throughout the suite, notably in some rhythmic jerks during the last piece.  A piece called Paisane in my manuscript is not performed, possibly because it adds no change of mood or colour to its predecessors.

The Marais work is a Tombeau for John Dowland, originally the composer’s Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet: a memorial piece, then, for Marais’ own son.   Scored for viol and continuo, Eriksson has added another viol line and adapted the original in ways that I can’t fathom.  Certainly the extra viol gives the work a smooth edge and fluency that you miss when only one instrument has to supply the chord work.  But the only other version of this piece I’ve heard already uses two viols, although the second one is continuo-based.  But that reading also uses a harpsichord as well as an archlute to create a rich sound fabric, as does the Marais group here with a fluid, moving deploration.

Olsson’s walking tune brings baroque violinist Matthew Bruce into play; like Andersson, Bruce is a regular member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  Also adding to the mix comes flautist Mikaela Oberg, another ABO musician, but the opening is all Andersson and Eriksson until the upper instruments creep into the mix.  Not that there’s much to give anyone pause: the tune is attractive and folksy and the musicians play its two halves in various combinations, sharing linear primacy with tact and somehow contriving to suggest – as so much of this Nordic folk-music does – both Scottish and Irish lilts.

Cutlan’s suite involves Eriksson and harpsichordist Raymond Harvey, who begin with the Prelude that has the keyboard spinning out a single line which eventually accretes another while the string complements and moves sideways into different note-values, having the last word at the movement’s brusque conclusion.  With Rustic Energy has its fair share of pedal-figures and patterns but Cutlan’s minimalist gestures are mutable creatures and,  a third of the way through, he deserts the clod-thumping country-dance effects for a touch of bird-song.  The later stretches of this movement interest through the composer’s ability to offer both imitation between his players and independence of movement, all within an insistent framework.

Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande opens with a viol solo, followed by a harpsichord solo on the lute stop.  This is true note-spinning where the initial elements lead into imaginative quarters, particularly when Cutlan sets up a statement-response dialogue between Harvey and Eriksson in what can only be described as a kind of harnessed improvisatory melange.  The Quasi Gigue starts with fitful propositions from both players that eventually coalesce, but into what sound like two independent parts that settle into a partnership when both decide on common points of emphasis.  It is, indeed, like a gigue, in that the metrical inevitability of a similar movement from the English or French Suites is missing here.  The composer’s emotional language is a kind of sophisticated bucolicism where you are not far from orthodox harmonic structures but the landscape is spiced with deliberately placed dissonances and contrapuntal accidents.

Brown and Oberg open the Cheshire Rounds with a duet, Andersson enters with chords, and the tune is played several times  before it moves into an answering strophe.  The arrangement offered here is a Balkan variant on the original Old Lancashire Hornpipe in that the rhythm has been displaced into a Bulgarian 2+2+3+2+2 which would have dispirited those colonists who apparently frolicked through the original 3/2 setting during the first ball at the New South Wales Government House.

The hornpipe merges into the CD’s final track, the memorial to Ben Hall sung by tenor Koen van Stade.  It is a pretty familiar ballad, if melodically unremarkable, and makes an odd conclusion to the whole Marais exercise; nationalistically pleasing, to be sure, but how it fits into the general baroque-and-beyond format escapes me.  I suspect that, as with so many other projects, the point of this addition to the amalgam is to underline the relationship between different schools, forms and nationalities in music.  Having listened to the tune Lat till Far that this Streets of Forbes is said to resemble., I fear that the Swedish tune is much the superior construct; as a result, the Australian ballad rounds things off in a pretty mundane manner.