So much talent and promise


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 24 and Sunday February 25

                                                                           Max Riebl

For some of the time, this concert did give us an idea of the musical world during the time of Thomas Tallis; it contained some works by Tallis himself – three of them – and one motet by his much younger friend and business associate, William Byrd.  But then the chronology went off the anticipated schedule.  Paul Dyer and his orchestra-plus-choir sang and played a bracket of madrigals and motets by Orlando Gibbons; nothing wrong with that and some of it proved pleasurable – but this isn’t much to do with Tallis.

Things hardly improved with the interpolation of a few scraps by Purcell, born over 75 years after the death of Tallis.  A similar bracket followed by Handel,  born a full century after Tallis had shuffled off his mortal coil.  A strange byway came with a piece from Matthew Locke, giving a sort of temporal link between Byrd and Purcell but written in a language some streets removed from the program’s nominated focus.  Oddest of all, the concert’s conclusion came in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis which is a fine sample of the composer’s art but belongs pretty firmly to the Edwardian era of pre-World War I rustic polyphonic placidity and, despite its use of a Tallis tune, is in no way representative of the Tudor master’s England.

In other words, the content presented on this night was a hodgepodge, compiled with little sense of congruity of content and, whichever way you looked at it, remarkably bitty and insubstantial, as though the organizers were in a hurry to move from one thing to another, not sure of the audience’s attention span.  This trust in pace as a spur to involvement reached its apogee in the Vaughan Williams score where the direction Poco a poco animando brought about a driving urgency that barely slowed down for the climactic Largamente which misfired because of the preceding frenzied build-up.  It delighted the Brandenburgers’ Melbourne fans with its rhetorical passion but it left me unhappy because of its violence, the familiar rolling periods of euphony absent or distorted under this pummeling address.

Not that the ABO strings – expanded for this finale – were working under ideal conditions.  The acoustic properties of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall are not flattering for this meditative  –  or, better, ruminative –  construct and the prevailing mode of delivery without vibrato from most of the players I could see meant that the composition was deficient in weight of timbre, so the musicians compensated for an absence of depth and full-bodied richness of texture with an attack style that eventually bordered on hysteria.  A shame as the opening statements, central quartet fantasy pages and concluding violin/viola duet could not be faulted as well-honed interpretative oases, mobile but measured and valid responses to the composer’s intentions.

Mind you, Dyer had warned us of what was in store: probably the first performance (ever? in Australia?) of this work on period instruments.  And each member of the enlarged orchestra was identified as ‘period violin’, ‘period cello’, and so on.  Was it worth the attempt?  I would say no, apart from the exceptional passages noted above.

Countertenor Max Riebl sang two arias – Purcell’s Song of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, appropriated from the original bass register for unknown reasons – and one of the hero’s arias from Handel’s Orlando, Fammi combattere.  Both have become showpieces for this voice type over the past decade or two and Riebl has them under control, although he gave a more convincing interpretation of the English song, the Italian aria’s lower register passages sometimes swamped by an ever-enthusiastic Brandenburg corps, although the two episodically reinforcing oboes in the score were mercifully absent.

More pertinent matter came earlier in the alto solo for Gibbons’ Great Lord of Lords, a work that expresses celebration in steady, sombre strophes for which Riebl fronted the ABO Choir in an impressive interpretation, appealing for its underlying power and universally exercised control.  For once, the chief soloist was supported by a highly able alto partner, Timothy Chung, and a character-filled bass voice which I think belonged to Craig Everingham.  Like quite a few solos from this body over the past few seasons, these are not temps of the shrinking-violet quality, place-fillers promoted beyond their capabilities, but fully-produced and trained voices making solid contributions to the complex.

As for the ABO in its own Renaissance/Baroque right, it began with an octet doing its best to imitate a chest of viols in Drop, drop slow tears by Gibbons and the same composer’s The silver swan.  For the Abdelazer extracts – Overture and predictable Rondeau  –  the whole body dug into their lines with loads of vim and a cutting attack, moderated a few minutes later for the first two movements of the Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 whereas that particular work’s Hornpipe ending might have been more suitably brisk – or perhaps not, as its syncopated bonhomie would have uncomfortably overshadowed yet another boastful and fraught knightly vaunt or six.

Even though out of historical congruity with Tallis, the Curtain Tune from Locke’s The Tempest incidental music came as a welcome intruder with a robust sound across all four lines, the players and their conductor revelling in the sudden flashes from aggressive scale passages, the repeat giving more time to relish the calm discipline of these two staid and compact pages.

Through the ABO Choir, Byrd made an early appearance, represented solely by his Ave verum corpus which experienced reverent treatment although the pauses were so marked that you might have been forgiven for thinking that the interpretation was based on practices promulgated by the latter-day Scandinavian mystical crowd.  Before and after vere passum, after immolatum and after sanguine, the simple one-beat rests dragged out so long that forward momentum was sacrificed to attention-grabbing and performance-debilitating uncertainty.

I think The silver swan was given three times: first by the viol consort substitutes, then by the singers, and again by the strings, after which the Choir gave its version of Drop, drop slow tears; well negotiated and affecting, but then it’s nothing more taxing than a pretty simply harmonised chorale.  Following the rewarding Great Lord of Lords, the Gibbons bracket concluded with the notorious anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David.   This is a staple for any Anglican church choir with ambition, but musically valid performances are rare; the only one I’ve found totally convincing was at an Ely Cathedral evensong some time in July 1976.  The tendency is to allow the bar-line (so to speak) too much importance, whereas the music should be a piling-up of phrases where, for example,  emphasis on ‘to’ in the first clause should be avoided.

Following the positive impression gained from Drop, drop slow tears, the wrenching If ye love me that began the Tallis sequence gave us one of the night’s shortest works but one of its most affecting.  A gentle spread of harmonic movement and care with the textual emphases made this modest gem one of the more compelling stretches of work we heard from these singers, produced with a lulling smoothness that almost made you ignore the lack of body from the four-strong soprano line.  According to the program, five of these singers were to appear; I could only see a quartet.  Perhaps the missing voice was the body’s muscle soprano; whatever the case, here and in the final choral item, the mix would have gained from extra carrying power in the treble line.

Before the Vaughan Williams, we heard the Tallis theme for the Fantasia, Why fumeth in fight.  To make sure we got the tune fixed in our heads, the singers worked through all four verses of Archbishop Parker’s wordy translation of Psalm 2, Why do the nations.  Again, the tune itself in the sopranos tended to be overpowered by the harmonisation contributions from this body’s enthusiastic male altos and strong tenors.

You left this concert in some confusion; well, I did.  The large string band was hard to fault in responsiveness, discipline of ensemble and articulation, particularly when you consider the lack of leeway given by the body’s spartan mode of address and absence of vibrato-providing screening.  In similar vein, you could find few quibbles with the technical apparatus of the ABO Choir.  Yet the interpretations often underwhelmed when they should have swept us away.  Yes, for ‘us’, read ‘me’ because, despite my reservations, the orchestra was treated to a solid wall of applause at the Fantasia‘s conclusion.

But even that point in proceedings seemed a stagey miscalculation.  As Shaun Lee-Chen’s solo violin soared up that slow F minor arpeggio to a top A flat, the lights started going down, so that the final blazing G Major chord that folds into silence was given through a fade-to-blackout ambience when the whole point of the music’s propulsion has been towards a blazing Hildegardean epiphany rather than a John-of-the-Cross dark night.

So much to hear



Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

Chairman of the 3MBS Board Chris Howlett has taken his station’s annual marathon –  a one day series of concerts and recitals focusing on a great name in Western music  –   from the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall/Boroondara Arts Centre to the all-things-to-all-men Melbourne Recital Centre where a formidable and varied group of musicians played six programs by J. S. Bach and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, as well as a transcription of the D minor Violin Chaconne by Busoni, Liszt’s Variations on a theme of Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and one of Mozart’s semi-original/semi-transcriptions of Bach fugues from the K 404a set of 6.

I was surprised to find the Murdoch Hall almost full for the first event, before waking up to the fact that this program featured the largest work – in time and numbers – of the day: C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Well, one of them: during his time in Hamburg, he wrote/compiled 21 settings from the four Evangelists, six of the St. Matthew version.  This one dating from 1777 is not as substantial as that by the composer’s father, from whom he borrowed material (as well as from other contemporaries); fewer arias that commented on the action and much of the choral work was confined to chorales except for the essential turba segments.

Being without a program, I’ve compiled most of the following observations from scribbled notes and various processes of near-recognition allied to an unreliable sense of deja-vu.   But I was startled at the quality of soloists that preceded conductor Rick Prakhoff onto the stage; well, some of them did – three of the character singers, all male, were delayed by some backstage organizational hold-up.

As the Evangelist, Andrew Goodwin set a high standard, enunciating the text with his trademark clarity so that a listener all-too-familiar with Sebastian Bach’s setting of this part of the Gospel could follow the narrative closely.  The Emanuel Bach Evangelist gets few occasions for bravura, the son not being as deliberate in, or as tempted by, word-painting as his father, but the part runs as much more of a continuum because the interpolations are not as common.   In other words, Goodwin sang a lot of solid uninterrupted stretches and, as far as I could tell, made no palpable errors, sharply supported by Calvin Bowman’s chamber organ and showing unflagging awareness of Prakhoff’s direction at those stages where the Evangelist’s text melds into choral action.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Dinopoulos sang Christus with an assurance that recalled Warwick Fyfe’s exertions in the same role during earlier Melbourne Bach Choir Passions.  Just as pliant as Goodwin, this bass made the Gethsemane section a powerful, unsentimental experience and negotiated his line with a no-nonsense gravity during the exchanges with the High Priest and Pilate.

Michael Leighton Jones sang the roles of Judas and Pilate with his usual bluff amplitude, only an audible discomfort with the latter part’s top notes giving cause for disquiet.  But the dialogue for both characters is not substantial and Jones observed the pervading rule of this performance in negotiating his work without self-indulgence or emotive attention-grabbing; not that you can find much of that in a cold administrative fish like the Roman procurator.

Of the other soloists, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman impressed mightily right from the first principal aria.  Here was a fully-rounded production without any weak spots, kept pretty forward in the prevailing texture as the singer had to contend with an almost constant doubling, either from violins or bassoon, as though the composer didn’t quite trust his interpreter’s security of pitch; unnecessary in this instance and a bit of on-the-spot editing might have made the singer’s task easier.

Kleeman was also given a second, quick-moving aria, notable for the addition of a pair of flutes (the first time they were used in the score?) which also served a doubling function for much of the time.

Both soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and mezzo Shakira Tsindos took on the minute parts of the servant-girls questioning Peter outside the High Priest’s house.  Both were enlisted for meditative ariosos/arias after Peter’s denial and after Christ’s interchange with Pilate, pages that asked for and received a good deal of plangency but calculated for comfortable singing – nothing like the terrifically exposed female solo lines that the elder Bach wrote.

Timothy Reynolds – another light tenor possessing remarkable agility –  had the more taxing part of Peter and (I could easily be wrong) the lines attached to Caiaphas.  More significantly, this singer enjoyed the work’s final piece of meditative commentary in an arioso+aria after the death of Christ.  This turned out to be the most sustained work  (apart from Goodwin’s marathon) in the entire score and, on first impression, the most technically taxing of the lot.

Along with an appealing timbre, notable for its even spread across the required compass, Reynolds had a tendency to drag the chain; not exactly getting out of time with Prakhoff but needing to be hurried along when the lengthy aria’s vocal curvetting verged on the prolix.

As for the Bach Choir, it got off to a flying start with a splendid opening chorale; vigorous, full-bodied with a clear presence in all parts, functioning as an arresting curtain-opener.  In fact, you were hard pressed to fault the chain of chorales, especially the several appearances of Herzliebster Jesu.  The body was not solely used for these or taking the role of high priests/Pharisees or bloodthirsty population, although I can’t recall much along the lines of Komm, ihr Tochter or Sind Blitzen, sind Donner although one chorus after the High Priest’s condemnation proved memorable for the reinforcement of two horns, probably their first use in the score.

Carl Bach was quite happy – more so than his father – to have his chorus sing passages in unison or at the octave, which is a practice both easy and hard to negotiate happily, but these singers betrayed few signs of stress, least of all at recycled moments like the Lass ihn kreuzigen! and the Ich bin Gottes Sohn outbursts from the crowd, although the sopranos were showing fatigue at the Crucifixion pages.

The Bach Orchestra met Prakhoff’s direction with an excellent response, both individually and collegially, numbering a 21-strong string corps, a flawless brace of oboes as well as the afore-mentioned flute and horn pairs, supplemented by a single bassoon and the omnipresent organ.  Actually, the composer gives few opportunities for obbligato work – if any – but the general texture remained supple and well-etched, its various strata betraying few signs of thinness.

This Passion stops at the death – no space given to the veil of the Temple, earthquakes, centurion, women taking charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea, chief priests, Pharisees or Pilate.  The choir simply gives one last version of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and the work ends on a chastely simple note when compared to the monumental chorus Wir setzen uns  that finishes the elder Bach’s setting.  While you never had the sense that this work erred on the side of conciseness, the conclusion made a profound impression, a sensible and sensitive round-out of the narrative that – and this is a real compliment to all concerned – made you more than a little interested in the other 20 settings in the younger Bach’s catalogue.

After this, the second program startled for its variety.  Violinist Grace Wu partnered with pianist Laurence Matheson in J. S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, the one that starts with a siciliano-suggesting Largo.  The string sound came up to the top of the hall with a satisfyingly easy production; no straining after effects or disruption of the pulse from either musician. This was a modern-day interpretation with no lack of vibrato but a generous fluency displayed by a well-matched and mutually sensitive duo.

Matheson demonstrated a gallant sympathy by keeping his bass line – in fact, all the work’s left-hand action – restrained, moderating his upper work to just the right side of staccato when needed in the first Allegro, a well-argued passage of play from both executants.  A highly effective moment came at the end of the Adagio with some excellent congruent interweaving from bar 57 onward.   Even in the finale, Matheson ceded just enough of the ground to Wu without effacing himself, each player working through its bubbling counterpoint with precision and a delicacy that never seemed effete.

One of the left-field works of the marathon came in Tristan Lee’s presentation of the Liszt variations.  The work is a virtuosic compendium with all kinds of tests, mainly concerned with clarity in sustaining the simple falling motive that Liszt appropriated.  The sole problem in this interpretation was its segmented nature and, looking at the score again, you can see that, often, the cracks are not well-papered; in fact, the more demanding the variations, the more isolated they are in character.

You could not fault Lee’s reading of the opening pages, up to the end of the variations in triplets; when the semiquavers took over, the work’s cumulative tension abated up to the L’istesso tempo marking with its upward-rushing chromatic scales and double-octaves which moved the work into unabashed bravura display and the theme itself became a cipher.  Later, after the recitative, interest returned, specifically at where my edition is marked Quasi Allegro moderato and the theme’s treatment becomes more compressed until the ferment peters out into a bravely optimistic chorale where all the weeping, plaints, sorrows and fears are assuaged.  This transition made for a reassuring sense of completion, excellently realised by Lee even when Liszt decorates the simple harmonization of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan with rolling arpeggios.

Elyane Laussade brought us back to the mainstream with the popular French Suite No. 5 in G.  Here was a straight reading without affectation or the employment of over-prominent ornamentation; just a soupcon in the repeats.  Speaking of which, Laussade set this listener slightly off-balance by repeating the first half of each movement, but not the second; a quite deliberate choice but an odd one, leaving you feeling formally lopsided. Nevertheless, she maintained a steadiness of focus that gave any listener ample room to taken in the simple exuberance of each part, including the lyrically charming sarabande and loure.

This concert ended with the D minor Double Violin Concerto where the Australian National Academy of Music’s Robin Wilson was partnered by his very young student Christian Li, all of 10 years old and performing with unflappable panache.  You might have thought Li would have been overpowered but he held his own for the most part and contributed to a memorable passage from about bar 123 of the middle Largo where the two soloists intertwine their lines in one of the concerto’s most moving moments.

A justifiably confident attack paid even greater dividends in the final Allegro, taken at a bracing speed but with only a few notes obviously played but not sounding from the younger soloist.  Wilson performed with a no-holds-barred assurance that was well-placed, Li bringing to the work more than a little personality with a few mini-glissandi that spiced up the work’s innate stolidity.

Among the orchestral personnel, I think I saw Merewyn Bramble playing viola, Peter de Jager on harpsichord, with Howard Penny and chairman Howlett the dual cellos.  Throughout, their support mirrored the soloists’ sharp attack and impetus – one of your better scratch orchestras.

Concert 3 found Kathryn Selby in unaccustomed solo mode  –  without friends.  She performed one of the terrors of my student days, the Italian Concerto with its simple-looking but rhythmically confounding counterpoint meshes.  This approach used the piano fully, without flourishes or dynamic juxtapositions but also without mimicking the detached harpsichord-ish effect that some pianists attempt.  The first Allegro proved to be an enviable example of unfussy precision, even at the treacherous bars 135-138 section where, despite the obvious direction and placement of the notes, most players cannot persuade you that the two lines in operation fit together.

Selby’s approach to the D minor Andante erred on the side of emotional control, the movement treated as a sarabande of grave character rather than an angst-laden elegy.  What marked this interpretation out from others was the lack of thunder in the bass: the repeated low Cs from bars 19 to 25 and the mirroring low As from bar 37 to 43 enjoyed a muffled handling rather than a tolling emphasis.

Selby endured some pressure in her Presto finale which, as far as I could tell, was technically exact and enjoyable for its ebullience.  First a spotlight wandered across the back wall of the stage, then the lights dimmed, came back to life, then went out completely for a few seconds before flashing back on again.  The pianist didn’t miss a beat, whether she could see the keyboard or not.

Unfortunately, at this point I felt a distinct lack of interest in the odds and sods that were coming up, including a Christian Bach quartet and the Mozart semi-Bach exercise.  Of course, performances were scheduled for later in the afternoon/evening that would have fleshed out the day’s experience considerably, like the Australian Boys Choir accounting for the Jesu, meine Freude motet, Timo-Veikko Valve playing the last of the cello suites, Stephen McIntyre and his students taking turns at the Goldberg Variations.  But, unlike other more hardy souls in attendance, I’d had sufficient.  It’s a fine exercise, this marathon, but I think you need to prepare – just as for its Olympic-suggestive counterpart – with plenty of training, if you want to last the distance.






March Diary

Thursday March 1


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Two soloists feature in this season-opener for the MCO.   The major contributor is pianist Konstantin Shamray, who, you may recall, won the Sydney International Piano Competition ten years ago; he’s on board to play the Schumann concerto. The other guest is Markiyan Melnychenko, a top-notch violinist  whom we are lucky to have working here; his contribution is Dvorak’s Romance, which is a stranger to me.  Book-ending the night is the Overture to Act III of La Traviata where Verdi urges out a large amount of tubercular angst in a couple of minutes, and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony in A: that infectious and totally delightful sequence that depicts a country that might have presented to the composer’s non-jaundiced eye but which sits uncomfortably alongside the modern-day reality that stretches from Turin to Bari.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 4 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Saturday March 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew Davis is using his two guest artists to fine effect in this standard-unfurling event.  Nelson Freire has returned quickly for an appearance in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and the MSO has taken the opportunity to have him appear in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto; still a great challenge, especially keeping your head in the modulations of the first movement’s development.  Also on the bill will be tenor Stuart Skelton who complements Freire’s Beethoven with the opening to Act 2 of Fidelio: Florestan’s Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! He then moves to Wagner, specifically Siegmund’s outpouring, Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond – one of the few light moments in Die Walkure.  Balancing this will be the final aria from Verdi’s Otello, the Nium mi tema where everything becomes clear to the noble, misguided hero.  As for purely orchestral matter, Davis conducts Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 1, Microsymphony (Vine is the MSO Composer in Residence for 2018); some bleeding Gotterdammerung chunks – Morgendammerung and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; and Verdi’s Ballabile from Otello, an interpolated Oriental ballet that even the composer realised was a waste of space and time.

Wednesday March 7


Evergreen Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This group has swum under or over my radar.  It comprises a wealth of musicians, some of them well-known from other ensembles – violinist Ben Dollman, cellists Rosanne Hunt, Josephine Vains and Rachel Johnston, baroque guitarist/theorboist Samantha Cohen, bassoonist Simon Rickard;  others are half-recalled, like gamba expert Jennifer Eriksson, violinist/violist Anna Webb, oboist Jessica Foot and double bassist Miranda Hill.  Then there are some I don’t recognize: the group’s artistic director and violinist Shane Lestideau, Celtic harpist and vocalist Claire Patti, and Uillean piper and percussionist Matthew Horsley.  The obvious playing field is folk and art musics, exemplified by this entertainment containing a Purcell trio sonata in G minor, and Scottish composer James Oswald’s 96 Airs for the Seasons – well, extracts from them.  As chamber composer to George III, Oswald was very productive, more so than his attributed catalogue attests, it seems.  The pieces in his two sets of Airs are all named after different flowers or shrubs, divided into their annual times of florescence.  As both listed program elements are negotiated by a trio, it would seem obvious that not all the Evergreens will be involved.

Thursday March 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s another masterwork that Sir Andrew is bringing back into the light.  As his soloists, the MSO’s chief conductor has tenor Stuart Skelton as Gerontius, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as his escorting angel, and bass Nathan Berg doubling as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony.  Once popular in England and select colonies, as well as parts of Europe, Gerontius has slipped into choral backwater territory; in these piping times of short attention spans, it doesn’t have much going for it.  But Newman’s overwrought poem and Elgar’s seamless and challenging score make a splendid combination to create something that comes as close as music can to depicting a bearable afterlife, if such a thing exists, particularly as shown in the cardinal’s poem which so exercised that sad segment of the Anglican clergy who insisted on bowdlerizing its text to bring it into line with British cathedral-close orthodoxy.

This program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday March 9 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday March 10 at 2 pm.

Saturday March 10


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This first concert for the year at ANAM features music by three composers from the Czech Kingdom, as it was once called: Janacek, Smetana and Suk.  The night begins with the Fanfare that kicks off Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a bracing brevity involving 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 euphoniums supported by an active timpanist.  Smetana’s Sonata and Rondo for 2 pianos, 8-hands is a piece you won’t hear on a regular basis but it’s brilliantly written for its forces.  Suk’s popular Serenade for Strings ends the event but before that comes an arrangement for wind octet of The Bartered Bride – bits of, you’d hope, otherwise it could be a long night.  Speaking of which, it’s been a fair while between performances of the Smetana opera; the last I can recall from the national company must have been well over 40 years ago.  A pity as it’s loaded with superb melodies and highly appealing vocal writing.  The cast list for this operation features many of the ANAM instructors: Nick Deutsch, David Thomas, Saul Lewis, Tristram Williams, Timothy Young, Sophie Rowell, Robin Wilson, Caroline Henbest, Howard Penny and Damian Eckersley as well as a slew of young ANAM Musicians – the raison d’etre for this excellent finishing school.

Tuesday March 13


Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Oravas – violinists Daniel Kowalik and David Dalseno, violist Thomas Chawner, cellist Karol Kowalik – are here playing content from their first CD for Deutsche Grammophon.  We hear the Tchaikovsky D Major Quartet with its memorable, lilting Andante cantabile;  Shostakovich No. 8, the original of the popular Chamber Symphony arranged by Barshai; and the Rachmaninov String Quartet No. 1, all two movements of it.  The bonus track from the CD is an arrangement by Richard Mills for double string quartet and soprano of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise; Greta Bradman recorded it with the Oravas and sings the piece tonight although how they’ll arrange for another string quartet to participate remains to be seen . . . you’d have to anticipate some pre-recorded magic, wouldn’t you?  As a novelty, the ensemble opens with Haydn Op. 33 No. 2, known as the Joke, with its side-splitting stop-start finale.

Wednesday March 14


Domenico Nordio and Massimo Scattolin

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Violinist Paganini and guitarist Giuliani did meet in Rossini’s house and set up a sort of partnership-rivalry that resulted in several fine works for both instruments as a duo. Giuliani’s Grand Duo Concertant is a regular in recitals of this make-up, as is the Paganini Sonata No. 1 from the 18 sonatinas that make up his Centone di sonate.  As well, the players will present the Paganini Cantabile duo and Sonata Concertata.  Which is enough to be getting on with as the composer wrote an incredible amount for the combination, much of which is ringing slight changes on amiable material, but a little goes a long way.  Guitarist Scattolin I know from the Ballarat Organs Festival; Nordio is a new name to me but he is well-known enough to violin aficionados as a virtuoso with a wide repertoire.

Wednesday March 14


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at 7:30 pm

To begin her 2018 season, Kathryn Selby is working her piano trio magic with violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, who is a regular contributor to this series.  I don’t know who voted in this Beethoven poll but most of the results are predictable.  Newman works with Selby through the most popular of the cello sonatas, that in A Major;  Clifford has the chance to radiate benignity in the Spring Violin Sonata; the trio eventually assembles for the Archduke.  By way of a preface, the group plays another B flat Major trio, WoO 39, a one-movement Allegretto where the keyboard rarely surrenders primacy for its five-minute length.  A well-contrived exercise with well-spaced samples across the composer’s career, this will be given in Selby & Friends’ new venue in Hawthorn/Kew.

Thursday March 15


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This recital contains some Debussy – selections from the first book of Preludes, performed by Eidit Golder – and works by four young Australian composers, written as responses to either Debussy or these Debussys.  It’s unclear what form these homages will follow but something of an indication comes through in that Lotte Betts-Dean is not billed as a soprano but as ‘voice’.  The specific preludes are Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans  l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, and La cathedrale engloutie.  The contemporary variants are Matan Franco’s This story wants to be told in bed . . . ,  Lisa Illean’s Women love a project . . . , Charlie Sdraulig’s Rushing sounds like blood . . . ,  and Jack M. Symonds’ Tomorrow I shut down.  Of these four, Sdraulig is the only one whose work I’ve heard. probably through the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program.  Bringing up the rear, Dean will sing Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, three songs to poems of Pierre Louys that were originally credited to a contemporary of Sappho who turned out to be an erotic figment of the poet’s imagination.

Thursday March 15


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne at 6:30 pm

This one-act opera, based on Norman Lindsay’s children’s book, with music by Calvin Bowman and libretto by Anna Goldsworthy, enjoyed its premiere in October 2013 at the hands of this company and is now being resuscitated for the pleasure of those among us who missed it the first time around.  Fabian Russell conducts and Cameron Menzies returns to direct.  Nathan Lay reprises the role of Bunyip Bluegum, Timothy Reynolds returns as Bill Barnacle, Brenton Spiteri takes on Sam Sawnoff, Jeremy Kleeman persists as the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas again plays the Judge.  The VO chorus will contribute and I suppose certain roles – like Watkin Wombat and Rooster, Possum, Henderson Hedgehog and the Constable, and Benjamin Brandysnap, not to mention the Narrator – will be allocated from their ranks.

The opera will be re-presented on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

Friday March 16


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

And then there were two.  Getting a tad out of sequence, Sir Andrew Davis nears the end of his Mahler symphonic cycle and takes the MSO through the large-framed No. 9, although he’ll probably have a go at the completed-by-several-hands No. 10.  Still, we’re all waiting for No. 8, and will go on doing so: we won’t be getting it this year.  There’s been no attempt to couple this Symphony No. 9 with a filler, which is just as well as most performances of a traditional nature last about 1 and a 1/2 hours, even if some more recent ones have clipped the score back by about 10-15 minutes.  The last time I heard this Ninth was in Costa Hall, Geelong, where the MSO played under Markus Stenz; not the best space for such an experience whereas Hamer Hall gives the symphony room to flower, particularly that long final Adagio.  This score is possibly the most extended passage of focused play from the orchestra all year, something to anticipate for its tremendous concentration of emotional gravity.

The symphony will be performed again on Saturday March 17 at 7:30 pm and on Monday March 19 at 6:30 pm.

Saturday March 17


Hoang Pham

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

The title of this recital from one of our more enterprising (in a business sense) pianists comes from the Strauss/Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube, to give the famous waltz its proper title.  A magnificent display piece of five waltzes and a coda, this is the last word in extended encores and Pham is giving it to as a built-in component.  Before it will come Beethoven  –  the Polonaise, Pathetique C minor Sonata and some of the six Op. 126 Bagatelles – alongside Schubert’s C minor Sonata, one of the formidable final three.  Here’s a big program that takes the young musician on a long odyssey across the Beethoven repertoire, cutting to the Schubert chase with a Beethovenian challenge – and the real technical fireworks to finish.

Sunday March 18


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Guest director and solo violinist Ibragimova is presiding over a notably dark collection of works, reaching its apogee (or nadir)  in the great Schubert quartet as arranged for string orchestra.  The afternoon begins with Barber’s Adagio: that sinuous score that is always brought out for broadcast at moments of national tragedy in the United States.  Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue continues the muscular depression mode before Ibragimova fronts the Concerto funebre by Hartmann, a work that she recorded with the Britten Sinfonia 11 years ago.  And the comatose cat among these pigeons is Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song, as atmospherically stagey and static as you’d expect, based around a religious text by Father Silouan, a Russian mystic who died in 1938; still, the good news is that it lasts only about six minutes.

The program will be repeated on Monday March 26 at 7:30 pm.

Monday March 19


Inveni Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Boulanger seems to have educated most of the 20th century composers whom we’d have to class as creditable place-getters in the ranks; some of them on this program are surprising, most of them well-known, none of them (in my book) enough to get you out on a cold autumn night – with the honourable exception of Elliott Carter.  The Inventis begin with a Nocturne for flute and piano by Lili, Nadia’s younger sister and sometime student; this is probably to be played by Melissa Doecke and an unknown pianist.  Then, one of the ensemble – probably Ben Opie – gives an airing to Carter’s Inner Song for solo oboe, an in memoriam for Stefan Wolpe.  Thea Musgrave’s works are recital rarities; good on the Inventis for programming her Narcissus for solo flute (Doecke again?) and digital delay  –  a relatively substantial composition, it lasts about 17/18 minutes.  The compositional standard dips with Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes for solo flute (the hard-worked Doecke); there are six of them and they take about 25 minutes to get through.  Suddenly, the recital’s one hour length could be a close-run thing, if you consider that the Boulanger lasts 3 minutes, Carter’s piece 6 minutes and we still have Berkeley’s Oboe/Piano Sonatina to go (about 14 minutes) and Bacharach’s Alfie theme (in an Inventi arrangement) which could stretch out beyond 3 minutes.  It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast but still a creditable exercise.

Tuesday March 20


Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

This richly-coloured period music ensemble heads for waters that most of us have never plumbed by means of a night of music by female composers.  Only one of the three names programmed so far is a familiar one: Barbara Strozzi, daughter of Giulio and a solid presence in Baroque-era Venice.  The others are Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio and the first woman to write an opera, and the Ursuline nun Isabella Leonarda, a musically fecund contemporary of Strozzi.   But all three women wrote a great deal, so the Band has a wealth of material to work with.  The publicity material promises a ‘selection of songs’; the sole singer listed is soprano Helen Thomson, who has sung with this ensemble previously.

Wednesday March 21

Measha Brueggergosman

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Soprano Brueggergosman has a big reputation in her home country, but I can find little about any extra-Canadian work she has done.  Her surname combines her maiden name and that of her husband, which is an equality-in-marriage gesture, if – in this case – an awkward one.  Tonight, she opens with the Five Popular Greek Melodies by Ravel, followed by some Poulenc – Violon, C’est ainsi que tu es, Voyage a Paris, Hotel – and then back to Ravel for Sheherazade, that sumptuous three-part song cycle which will suffer greatly from the lack of an orchestra.   Brueggergosman opens what I surmise will be her post-interval efforts with four of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs – Rheinlegendchen, Verlorne Muh, Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? – and balances the opening Ravel with Montsalvatge’s  Cinco canciones negras, then finishes with a selection from the 24 cabaret songs by William Bolcom, which will make a welcome change to the all-too-readily trotted out equivalent songs by Britten.  This is the second recital in the MRC’s own Great Performers series.

Thursday March 22


Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I’ve not heard this band so can’t give any indication as to its quality.  Certainly, the list of players is most impressive with a few well-known musicians from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, the CAMERATA Queensland Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney’s Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra alongside ex- and present-day players with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   Directed by Richard Gill, the ARCO is not exactly carving out new territory with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6.   But more interest comes in the Brahms Five Songs, Op. 104 where the instrumentalists fall silent and make way for the Polyphonic Voices ensemble for an a cappella set, while both forces collaborate in Mozart’s so-called Spaur-Messe in C K. 258; at about 18 minutes, short and sweet, like every Mass should be, featuring an unknown set of soloists.

Friday March 23


Goldner String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It sounds like a perversion of the theological virtues but the Goldners’ program follows this title’s path, more or less, if it’s highly dependent on your willingness to accept at least one of the intended musical applications.  You can’t argue with the relevance of the night’s major work: Schubert’s D minor Death and the Maiden, the composer’s idea of mortality covering a world of emotions from the vehement and tempestuous to drear acceptance.  For the Faith part, we are directed to Arvo Part’s Fratres, a three-part work expanded to quartet form in 1989 but heard in all sorts of other arrangements; one of the Estonian composer’s most popular pieces, I can’t be alone in wondering what is has to do with this specific virtue.  As for Hope, that comes through Latvian writer Peters Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3.  Vasks has taken optimism for his country’s future as one of the fundamentals of his work and has been quite specific about the (eventual) upbeat nature of this particular score.

Saturday March 24


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The day before the centenary of Debussy’s death, ANAM is presenting this tombeau,  a celebratory compendium that arose when Henri Prunieres assembled pieces (mainly for piano solo) by ten composers to memorialise the master’s passing.  Dukas is represented by La plainte, au loin, du faune;  Roussel found a more celebratory note or two in L’acceuil des muses; Florent Schmitt worked common ground with  Dukas in Tristesse de Pan, one of his Op. 70 Mirages; Malipiero contributed A Claude Debussy, Eugene Goossens a Hommage a Debussy.  Bartok dedicated No. 7 of his Improvisations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, Op. 20; Falla moved to the guitar for his well-known Homenaje.  Ravel dedicated his Sonata for violin and cello to the composer and the duo written for the Tombeau became that sonata’s first movement.  Stravinsky contributed the Chorale from his Symphonies for Wind Instruments to Prunieres, later dedicating the completed work to Debussy.  Satie set a poem by Lamartine as the first of his Quatre Petites Melodies and sent that in as his one-page contribution.  Timothy Young is the night’s pianist; ANAM director Nick Deutsch will play his oboe, presumably in the Stravinsky Chorale because I can’t see room for it anywhere else. Richard Mills will conduct the Stravinsky, you’d expect as, like Deutsch, there’s nowhere else  to exercise his talent.

Sunday March 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard not to be a tad indifferent to this celebration that Sir Andrew has brought to the Antipodes in recent times.  The British get obvious delight in the written-in-stone second half of these Royal Albert Hall events, complete with Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Parry’s Jerusalem.  If I had my druthers on these last nights, I’d go home at interval.  This year, Sir Andrew opens with Elgar’s In London Town or Cockaigne Overture, has violinist Tamsin Little sparkle through Ravel’s Tzigane, gives space for David Jones to premiere Joe Chindamo’s Drum Kit Concerto, interpolates Carl Vine’s V fanfare lasting, as you’d expect, five minutes, and gains from the presence in Melbourne of Measha Brueggergosman for the MRC’s Great Performers Series (see March 21 above) to have her sing some orchestral songs by Duparc.  There are 8 to choose from but it’s almost certain that the bracket will contain that once-heard-never-forgotten Baudelaire setting, L’invitation au voyage, and the Leconte de Lisle setting, Phidyle.

Friday March 30


Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

For Good Friday this year, Rick Prakhoff and his Bach forces are deviating from their usual fare and presenting the Brahms Requiem that avoids any religious references as well as Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which may turn out to be sung in Polish.  The Brahms score asks for a soprano and baritone soloist, while Szymanowski wants a contralto soloist as well.  Both forces have roughly the same orchestral forces – no low brass in the Stabat Mater but a pretty large percussion force, a piccolo in the Requiem  – but the composers’ language offers a wide contrast.   As well, the hymn lasts less than 30 minutes while the Requiem canters on for well over an hour.   Lorina Gore is the soprano in both works, Warwick Fyfe the baritone and mezzo Belinda Paterson gets to share honours in three of the Szymanowski score’s movements.   It’s a well-devised pairing in that the Brahms is a humanist expression of the inevitability of death and the composer’s preference for a stoic acceptance of it while the Polish composer is more interested in his folk music characteristics than in observing and catering to the Catholic cast of the Marian sequence.

Chiff power


Monash University Flute Ensemble

MD 3421

Most of the content in this collection is light, either by intention or happenstance.  Of the 15 tracks, several were commissioned by or arranged for the Monash University Flute Ensemble: David Henderson’s three-movement Consortium, Tony Gould’s A New Spring DayPortrait de l’homme de commun by James Mustafa, Evening Prayer by Houston Dunleavy, and Carolyn Morris’ Oceana.

The ensemble’s director, Peter Sheridan, commissioned one of the other works heard here: Visions of Grace by Adrienne Albert, and two works enjoy their premiere recording:  Gould’s substantial piece – the longest on the disc – and Daniel Dorff’s Fireworks.  Filling out the edges comfortably is a group of works from all over the place: Arlen’s Over the Rainbow,  a Danse fantastique by Shostakovich, James Horner’s My Heart Will Go On, and the album’s bracing opener: Valsette by Danish 19th century all-rounder Joachim Anderson; this was originally a (italics) flute/piano Scherzino  but is heard here in an arrangement for flute quartet (I think, although it sounds as though more than that number are involved).

An agreeable if derivative stand-alone work is Rika Ishage’s Brindavan which is played by a sextet comprising piccolo, three C instruments, an alto and a bass.

The whole thing makes for a noteworthy essay in an arcane field, in as much as you will rarely hear so many flutes together outside of a university’s encouraging environment.  The combinations vary as the tracks fly past on a moderately sized 58 minutes of recording.  Along with the multiple flute personnel, Gould plays piano for his own piece while Move’s own Rhys Boak fleshes out the Titanic melody.

The Valsette gets matters off to a flying start with excellent ensemble work, setting up the prevailing sound ambience with some certainty.  This massed flute flavour suggests an organ, if an unusually uniform one, in the sound’s delivery: a touch of the chiff plosion before each note.  But the ambience is more individual in colour than you get on the keyboard instrument.  Still, there’s nothing here to keep you guessing; just a simple ternary format with a bouncy vivacity in the outer sections.

The next flute-specific composition is Henderson’s construct comprising Prelude, Processional and Romance.  This score involves piccolo, C, alto, bass and contrabass flutes with the lower instruments getting little exposure melodically in the agreeable opening movement which has an interesting opening gesture even if the consequent development sounds laboured.  The central movement is suitably measured, rising to a skirling climax, having got there by a gradual crescendo which, because of the plentiful unisons involved, shows some cracks in the ensemble’s tuning.  Henderson’s final piece strikes me as the least original of the three with an unprepossessing strolling main theme and a touch of awkwardness just before the last reprise.

American writer Albert scored her Visions of Grace for pairs of altos and basses with a contrabass bringing up the rear.  The work begins with a pleasant harmonically eliding setting of Amazing Grace which strolls into something remarkably like Loch Lomond, then Shenandoah and Red River Valley  .  .  .  there may be a couple more in there but I got confused with the bridge passages.  It’s a smoothly compiled miscellany that contrives to sound atmospherically coherent and the rendition also impresses for its fluency.

For some unfathomable reason, I was expecting something brazen from Mustafa’s work, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3 fanfare – possibly because of the title’s last three words – but this work is heavy on the timbre of low flutes, although written for what the composer calls a ‘modern classical flute orchestra’.   A certain amount of chordal shape-shifting, possibly the product of the composer’s wide experience in leading, performing in and conducting jazz ensembles,  precedes a simple flute melody in what I believe is a D flat Major modality;  the selection of which key might go some way to explaining the salty, slightly off-pitch  sound of the ensemble in the work’s brief second half, particularly a high-flying piccolo.

Young Japanese composer Ishige writes that her work takes its title from a harem in India and she attempts in her two movements to suggest a lush garden and fountains.  Piccolo Grace Wiedemann, C flutes Thomas Thorpe, Catherine King and Isobel McManus, alto Steph Leslie and bass Jazmine Morris perform this score which would have impressed more if people had paid stricter attention to tuning; during the languorous stretches of the first movement, your teeth are set on edge by some un-centred passages – and yet the post-Debussyan text is not that taxing.  The more lively second movement also features some moments that might have gained from re-recording, including a segment that juxtaposes piccolo and bass although it’s hard to pick out the latter as the middle-range accompaniment is over-hefty.  Still, the composer’s aim is lightly accomplished and these four-square flourishes and curvettes represent a congenial if unadventurous take on the impressionism of Jets d’eaux.

Dunleavy’s piece is a slow meander for an unspecified body, something like a four-square hymn although its harmonic language is ear-stretching, more sophisticated than most of the other tracks on this CD.   In fact, because of its measured, regular pace, the piece’s main interest comes from its polyphony and yet you are reminded all too often of old-time B. Mus. exercises in counterpoint.  For all that, the performance is sure-footed and a reassuring return to form from the Monash players.

Morris originally wrote her Oceana for chamber orchestra; this transcription employs a pair of piccolos, 4 C flutes, 3 altos, 2 bass and a contrabass.  The opening sees a return to the slightly off-pitch product that has bedevilled former tracks, most notable in moments where piccolo and C flutes are working in unison or at the octave.  The work is a pleasant and calm seascape where the sun is continually out and the waves are all benign and negotiated with major-key tillers.   Even when you expect a change at about the 4-minute mark when a hiatus is reached and the prevailing texture moves for a moment to the bass instruments, the atmosphere is still all calm-sea-and-prosperous-voyage and moves only for a second or two outside its happy F Major framework.

Senior American composer Dorff wrote Fireworks for a 2016 flute convention sponsored by the Flute Society of Washington.   It features lots of rushing upward scales, very exposed piccolo lines and a wealth of syncopation that is not quite deftly realised by this group.  Certainly, the composer’s intention was to set up a brilliant sound scape for experts to toss off, yet the impression given here is often of a prodding at the piece rather than a hurtling through its pages with sure-footed certainty.

Mel Orriss’ treatment of the Judy Garland show-stopper from The Wizard of Oz has a long preamble before hitting the main melody but the flute ensemble is given plenty of amplitude and – as in all the best treatments – everyone gets a guernsey.  The temptation to embellish is hardly resisted but never gets in the way of a great tune – once it gets started.

Horner’s lyric opens with an Irish whistle solo, before the massed ensemble enters and works through a full-bellied arrangement under the direction of Jazmine Morris.  The tune’s progress is strong on polemic before the whistle returns and brings the Hollywood sentiment under control and reminds you of the premise behind the film: a class-crossing love story, not a bloated disaster extravaganza.

The Shostakovich Danse fantastique comes from the early four-movement Suite for Two Pianos of 1922.  It’s not saying anything new to observe that most of the original’s percussive bite is gone in this arrangement by Melbourne educator/flautist Carolyn Grace. The piece opens with plenty of sprightly verve but the more instruments that join in – and there are quite a few – the less assurance in the chording and rhythmic synchronicity.  As with several other tracks on this CD, the middle section lapses into hard labour and the final page is lacking in the expected brittle buoyancy that two pianists bring to this section.

Gould begins his piece with a slow-moving hymn-like prelude which melds into a sequence for low flutes, elaborating and exploring the piano’s opening motives.  The motion accelerates with the arrival of a piccolo before the initial restraint takes over again with Gould’s return for another solo meditation.  The flute choir follows with a brisk optimistic passage of play which could have been honed into more crisp delivery as some of the harmonic changes seem scatter-gun, and the articulation from alto flutes down is not as exact as it should be.

In fact, the finest moments of Gould’s work come in the last piano solo that concludes the work, a pillow of restful chords under a nomadic melody line that suggests the work’s title with more efficacy than the wind interludes.  As a sound picture, the work is non-specific; like Beethoven’s Pastoral, ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.  Yet, along with the composer-pianist’s elegance of delivery, the piece is infused with a consistent and quiet sense of satisfaction, a placid delight.

So this CD is a real miscellany, a showcase in some ways for Peter Sheridan’s players who, when they’re on song, make a satisfying contribution to a rarely-heard corner of Australian musical practice.  If you’re prepared to forgive the occasional awkwardness in delivery, this disc holds sufficiently worthy accomplished tracks.