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.