An individual voice having fun

CUTETUDES

Ke Lin

Move MD 3419

This CD contains works by Australian writer Julian Yu and features pianist Ke Lin, a friend of the composer and a devoted, eventually dogged interpreter.  The first 20 tracks are mini-pastiches, written as a contemporary Album for the Young and possibly to inspire Lin’s daughter in her piano studies.  She’d have to be very proficient to take on some of these pieces that combine cuteness with studies – well, that’s what the neologistic CD title intends to say.

As for the other, more substantial pieces on offer, a few are sort of familiar, namely Yu’s re-interpretation of the Promenade and Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with three original pieces – Impromptu, China Rhapsody (the lengthiest constituent at a tad over 10 minutes) , The Happy Couple Returns Home – and an arrangement of a symphonic movement by Yasushi Akutagawa, the second part of his Music for Symphony Orchestra from 1950.

Two of these longer pieces appear to have been written/arranged for this CD, namely The Happy Couple Returns Home and the Akutagawa movement.  Yu’s Impromptu dates from 1982, well before the composer migrated to Australia, and was recorded by Lisa Moore in 1992.  The Rhapsody has apparently been left alone since 2012 when it was premiered by Jiangang Wu  at the Sydney Opera House.   But the Mussorgsky is harder to trace; Yu made an arrangement of the original masterpiece for piano in 2001 when he scored it for sixteen players or chamber orchestra – in fact, I seem to recall hearing it (or parts thereof) during a Pro Arte/Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event at a Federation Square concert.  The piano version was organised for Ye Sisi to play at her graduation concert in the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts in mid-2007; when I say ‘it’, I’m guessing that we’re hearing only part of the complete piano reconstruction on this CD because the Promenade and Great Gate are described as  ‘Oriental version excerpts’.

Still, the obvious emphasis in this enterprise falls on the Cutetudes, which are aphoristic (the longest is 3’12”, the shortest 0’43”) and packed with references or spoofs – so much so that your attention is taken up with recalling the classics (and others) that Yu cites, amalgamates or runs on top of each other.   Condensed Prelude offers an impressionistic variant of The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Book 1 C Major Prelude; Two Swans under Two Moons presents Beethoven’s Moonlight under Debussy’s Clair de lune, before the Scene from Swan Lake  precedes Saint-Saens gift to Pavlova – all very gentle and knitted together with subtlety.  The Liebstod precedes the D flat love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet while the Dies irae chant also gets a mention in Compound Tragedy.   A Phone Call to Mozart depicts the composer trying to write his own A Major Sonata but being interrupted by a ring-tone that bears a resemblance (for me) to a theme from Till Eulenspiegel.

What for Elise? begins with Beethoven’s famous bagatelle before deviating to the Radetzky March, flirting with a boogie bass line, flashing into Happy Birthday, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance,  flirting with the Ode to Joy, indulging in a burst of mitteleuropaische kitsch, moving back to the original A minor by means of Mozart’s sonata in that key, then detouring for a gentle/manic interlude featuring Leise flehen,  Boccherini’s MinuetJingle Bells, the William Tell Overture’s galop,  followed by a soupcon of the second movement to Schubert’s Great, the merest whiff of Tales from the Vienna Woods, a snatch out of the Brindisi from Traviata, and somewhere in there a Liszt march that I can’t place.  It’s not particularly well-organized and you get just a few seconds to put your memory into gear, so the effect is of overload – clever, but jerky.

Yu takes on Schubert in Finished Symphony, toying with the Allegro‘s second theme from the B minor Symphony before moving to the finales of Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths to illustrate a consummation devoutly to be wished, accomplished through the final bars from the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto’s first movement.   He revives memories of digital aches and teacher terror with Czernissimo;  a wistful Why are Butterflies Sad?  fuses Schumann’s Warum?,  Grieg’s lepidopteral study and the Grave from the Pathetique Sonata with an unexpected sequence that inverts the melodic direction of Schumann’s slight piece.  Folk Tune on Bach is just that: a Cantonese-style tune on top of the bass to the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 – over before it has begun.

A touch of the Menotti about Interrupted Symphony has the noble four-square theme of the finale to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 interrupted by a telephone ring, an ambulance (not that convincing), somebody banging on the door, with Beethoven’s Fate motif finally thrown in to show the futility of persisting when everything conspires against you – at least, that’s how I read it.   A real transformation takes place in Dovetailed Interlude where motifs from Bach’s Cello Suites in G Major and E flat are superimposed in a meandering haze. Pachelbel’s most famous product comes in for a refreshing reappraisal in Oriental Canon, the ornate later variations given a pseudo-pentatonic flavour.  The composer moves into Mendelssohn territory with a setting of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the style of On Wings of Song.

Yu seems to have an obsession with Mussorgsky’s musical gallery because here comes another exploration: Harmonic Phrases at an Exhibition.  The Promenade theme is interrupted by Nun danket alle Gott, Clair de lune, a scrap from the Andantino in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Chopin’s E Major Etude from the Op. 10, the opening bars to Wagner’s Tristan. a bit of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the solo that begins Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and several other fragments I can’t recall.  Like the Fur Elise piece, you hear a lot, but here it is better put together.  God Save Hanon offers the famous first five-finger exercise as a support for the British national anthem

Another Hanon exercise follows, which allegedly revisits Saint-Saens’ The Swan and then Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book 1, although I only heard that book’s C minor Fugue subject.  The 24th Caprice turns into a Chinese melody during Paganini and the Hundred Birds, then both are played simultaneously.  Mozartian influences direct the following Rondo alla Twinka which again revisits Twinkle, Twinkle, here in the style of the famous A Major Sonata finale.   Prokofiev’s cat melody gets clever two-part handling in Caterpoint.  The series concludes with To Comrade Shostakovich which takes as its basis The Pioneers Plant chorus from the Song of the Forests Cantata, given fast motoric toccata treatment and spruced up with some quotations from other works by the Russian master.

Much of this series is charming and brisk; a slight amount of it is repetitive in that it says the same thing twice if not three times, and every so often the seams show through pretty obviously.   But Lin’s enthusiasm for the exercise is apparent, informed by a reliable, sometimes dazzling pianism only let down by a note (or two?) in his instrument’s treble that is slightly out-of-tune.   However, the work as a whole lives up to its title and is an attractive compendium for musicians, both experienced and amateur.

In contrast, the remaining tracks are agreeable experiences if several of them are also based on unoriginal material.   Impromptu is treble-centric from its opening, with liberal splashings of Debussy/Ravel colouring although the rhythm is suggestive of minimalist practice.   A sustained bass splash makes a momentary distraction from the upper-reaches work which fades into silence before a final statement of the piece’s chief motive.  It’s a fine study in one particular type of pianistic timbre and well worth hearing.

China Rhapsody draws on a background that I don’t have, referring as it does to traditional songs and other pieces of Chinese music; however, I feel that I could acquire the necessary knowledge pretty easily.    The opening is full of Liszt-style trumpet calls alternating with languor, employing melodies that are probably well-known in China.   Here, they serve the purpose of fleshing out Yu’s equivalent to a Hungarian rhapsody’s lassan although, the further this first segment progresses, the more occidental its harmonic language as the tunes are chromatically filled in.   The consequent friska is  –  of course  –  a presto with some jazzy syncopations, the work’s impetus held up for the glorification of a pentatonic tune before the excitement returns, suggesting Gershwin’s rhapsodies in their virtuosic clamour.   Finally, the climax is rich in fist-full flurries across the keyboard and has a fine 1930s glissando finish.

Taken from a Chinese Huangmei opera, The Happy Couple Returns Home was originally an aria; Yu offers a continuous set of variations on it.  The result is pleasant enough if the piece’s progress doesn’t move far from an E minor base – or a mode based on E.  Occasionally, an out-of-tune high A breaks your concentration; yet, to be honest, there is not much challenging matter here, the composer quite content to curvet around his melody without subjecting it to any rough treatment.

The Mussorgsky brace begins with an essentially straight reading of the initial Promenade while plenty of oriental decoration is imposed above Mussorgsky’s score; the most striking feature here is the employment of a rapid downward-scale whole-tone flourish.  For The Great Gate, Yu keeps the opening strophes restrained, the original cut down to thinner chords with plenty of filler to compensate for Mussorgsky’s bare semibreves and minims. The first chant interruption is striking and Yu employs his own brand of stentorian brashness after those quiet bars.   The second chant section shows little new except his penchant for tremolo.  I can’t see an improvement on the bell clangour that leads into the Promenade restatement and Yu’s downward arpeggios are a touch disappointing, although what he is leading into is not the original’s powerful clamour but a gentle orientalization before the tension of the striking final minim triplets comes through clearly.  Yu supplies some celebratory downward major scales, afterthoughts that bring the piece to a placid ending.   Both these treatments are not re-compositions but elaborations that stick pretty faithfully to their Mussorgsky fundamentals.

Finally, the Akutagawa transcription brought back memories from the early 1960s of the NHK Symphony Orchestra visit to Melbourne, conducted by (I think) Yuzo Toyama.  Some modern Japanese work was premiered then and, even at this distance, I recall a music more creative and striking than this busy but derivative movement which owes a good deal to 20th century Russian greats but amounts to little more than froth and bubble; exciting for the pianist, I’m sure, but its attraction for the youthful student Yu, working in Japan at developing his craft, is not shared by this listener.

You gain insights from this CD, although not from every one of its components.  Cutetudes is a jeu d’esprit and, like most of its school, has clear successes and other why-did-he-bother? moments.  But you get a clear impression of Yu’s sense of fun and, in the later tracks, an awareness of the rather welcome innocence and unclouded tranquillity that informs his musical intellect.

 

 

 

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Heavenly length? Maybe

SCHUBERT OCTET

Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday April 22

                                                                    William Hennessy

In one of its more lopsided efforts, the MCO performed three works on Sunday: a short new work by Benjamin Martin and Beethoven’s Serioso F minor String Quartet took a little over half an hour, to be followed by a solid reading of the Schubert Octet where I think every repeat was observed so that we got the work’s full effect – all quite in order, since that’s the way the composer wanted it, even if attention flags somewhat in the Andante with variations.

Martin’s Passepied was composed to capitalise on the musicians available for the octet: string quartet with double bass, and three wind – clarinet, bassoon and horn.  It needed to be played twice, in the best Society for Private Musical Performances mode.  Although lasting only a few minutes, it showed an intricacy of statement and development that could have been made more apprehensible after a second hearing.

Naturally, the work raised a simple question: exactly what is a passepied? Most of us know it’s a dance form, found in suites along with the usual courantes, allemandes, sarabandes and gigues.  Unlike these staples, it usually features as an alternative , like a musette or a gavotte.  Even though I know they are familiar to Baroque experts, I’ve only come across one from that era: the first of two in Bach’s English Suite No. 5, once part of the AMEB piano syllabus.  The form strikes me still as an active minuet.  But then, you have to consider Debussy’s one that concludes his Suite bergamasque which is fast-moving enough but eschews the traditional triple metre.  Some commentators find a passepied in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and the change in time signature (a third of the way through the third movement) to 3/16 could denote such an interpolation.

For his part, Martin makes things more complicated by layering his 6/4 metre with a hemiola, so that you’re never quite sure where you are or where the accents are meant to fall.  The theme he uses is amiable and soulful, subjected to gentle treatment including a bit of inversion.  But this music’s real interest lies in its inter-meshing levels which avoid soupiness but impress as packed with ambiguities as when a simple quaver-plus-two-semiquavers pattern shifts into a quaver triplet; at least, that’s what I think was going on.  An aggressive climactic point provides the necessary tension and sense of narrative before the piece finishes both ambiguously and quietly.  A lot happens in a little space.

William Hennessy, the MRC artistic director, took first chair throughout the afternoon, with Markiyan Melnychenko his second, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Michael Dahlenburg the ensemble’s cellist.  These four were a common factor in all three works and were heard en clair in the Beethoven quartet.  This opened with fine melding from all involved, in particular when the two violins operated at the octave in those melting moments at bars 40 to 42, bars 51 to 53, and later in equivalent positions during this initial Allegro‘s recapitulation.  Still, these are passages of emotional rest and the main thrust of the work is both vital and confrontational, descriptors fully realised by all players.

In the Allegretto, Dahlenburg’s initial cello pizzicati set up a sombre ambience for a reading of barely subdued passion, distinguished by a soulful solo from Bramble at the start of the fugal entries in bar 35, and the haunting reminiscence of his opening gesture from the cellist at bar 112.   While the scherzo impressed for its vehemence, the standout moment came in the D Major Trio with Melnychenko’s unforced solo line at the start an unexpected if brief delight.  Uniformity of attack was the distinctive feature of the finale but this is the weakest movement of the four, disappointing in its Mendelssohnian opting for the light side in its coda, complete with insistent unisons.

Sometimes dominating the Schubert’s communal timbre but not self-promoting was Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet, a creamy presence in the opening Adagio/Allegro. That was, in some ways, expected: Schubert treats this voice with a sort of demanding benevolence – which cannot be said of the horn part which enjoyed the attentions of Anton Schroeder who seemed to make remarkably few slips throughout the work’s duration and gave us some memorably clear-speaking moments like the solo at the end of this first movement.  which galloped past with few causes for concern. Hennessy was under stress at bar 130 just before the exposition ends, then waltzed through the same passage at the repeat.

Van’t Hoff p[roved to be the hero for Schubert’s Adagio, but then he had the glorious opening melody all to himself.  Still, the honours were sometimes shared fairly among the wind and upper strings, Dahlenburg and Emma Sullivan on double bass not getting much of the composer’s attention.  As in the Beethoven, the Scherzo‘s best impression was made in the trio, here treated by the string quartet with high courtesy informed by an underlying buoyancy.

The Andante‘s tune is cute, almost affectedly sweet but eminently suited to variations, even if some of the composer’s exertions follow familiar tracks in patterns given to both violins and in the allocation of primacy.  Hennessy sounded flustered in the second half of Variation 1 where the lower winds comment before the clarinet arrives for a revealing doubling of the upper string line.  Dahlenburg made the most of Variation 4, surging through his arpeggio-rich solo with commendable authority and expressive address.  But this entire movement strikes me as a drop in standard compared to what surrounds it; not enough invention or shifts from the predictable.

In the Menuetto, the material might be simple but its shaping is remarkable, well instanced by the first violin’s soft soaring at bars 30 to 33, Hennessy giving us all a lesson in expert enunciation.  The whole movement, including the Trio, prefigures the Brahms Serenades in its suggestions of bucolic opulence, notably the octave duet for Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Hennessy at the trio’s midway point.

As it should, the reading ended with a high-spirited Allegro but, oh God, it’s long.  A nice touch came through the communal hesitations in outlining the movement’s four-square main theme but, by this stage, you could hear slight imperfections in the fast triplet passages from the treble instruments.  Not that you can blame the players: Schubert is dogged in his insistence on giving out his thematic material in various combinations; it’s reminiscent of those myriad bars of whirling action to be found in the finale of the C Major Symphony No. 9 but with less opportunity for dynamic brilliance.

The MCO patrons were warmly responsive at the Octet’s conclusion, and rightly so since the rendition they had experienced captured the core of this long-winded work.  It makes no great claims to profound statements but stands foursquare as a mighty cassation: a set of disparate movements, the best of them as appealing as anything in Schubert’s improbably large output.  The fact that these performers had given the program on the previous night in Daylesford might go some way to explaining several unaccountable if slight intonation lapses in the Octet’s later pages.  At least they’ll have had a day’s grace before giving the Octet again to a select group of affluent patrons in the Recital Centre’s Salon tonight at 6 pm.

Not again

LA TRAVIATA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday April 17

                                                                     Corinne Winters

Once again, the national company of Sydney has brought this fidgety version of Verdi’s opera to Melbourne, to serve as a season opener – although you’d have to apply that term loosely as the diet for offer in the State Theatre consists of this lacklustre work,  John Bell’s Nazi update on Tosca, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte fresh from its performances in the Sydney Summer season although without one of the cast drawcards, Elena Maximova’s La Belle Dulcinee giving way to Sian Pendry’s reading of the part.  And that’s it, folks.

Let’s get to the real problem with this Traviata.  It doesn’t lie in Michael Yeargan’s familiar sets: two overstuffed parlours contrasted with bleak prospects in Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3. Nor can you fault Peter J. Hall’s costumes which are consonant with the production’s prevailing ‘look’.  It might not even be attributable to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction which lets the main characters move sensibly around the stage, even if they don’t actually do anything of interest; in fact, the country scene is stripped of visual interest; you’d have to suspect, on purpose.

No, the insurmountable hurdle at the opening night was the music-making, both on stage and in the pit.  Yes, the opera starts with a dangerous Prelude, all slow high strings; conductor Carlo Montanaro could not contrive to give his Orchestra Victoria charges the necessary confidence to carry off this fragile music.  Matters improved when the curtain rose for Act 1 on a set that always looks claustrophobic on this theatre’s large stage space.  The pit wattled along to excellent purpose in the opening dialogue, even if Corinne Winters as Violetta seemed to be distracted by her guests and lagged behind the beat.

This indifference to the established musical pulse is no new thing with opera singers.  Italian opera can fare poorly in this regard, especially Puccini who, as far as some sopranos are concerned,  might as well not have bothered with bar-lines.  And, year after year, what tempo atrocities are committed on Wagner who is much kinder than Verdi to his interpreters, regardless of voice type.

What compounded the problem was Montanaro’s bending over backwards to help Winters along; if she lingered over a phrase – and she did, over several – he followed her meanderings.   You can do that with a lot of free-standing recitative but hardly with the quick-fire repartee that opens Act 1 of this opera.  By the time we arrived at Ah, fors e lui, the pace was dragging significantly, to the point where I thought the aria might have to be re-started, or the conductor would allow it to come to a dead halt.  This devil-may-care attitude to pace doesn’t matter as much later in the opera, but in this section that depicts Violetta as a free spirit and where the character’s ebullience is paramount, there is no defence for dragging out anything, even a self-questioning aria.  Mind you, whether from unwillingness or simple good taste, the singer left out the screeching E flat that every Violetta feels that she has to interpolate before the last note of Sempre libera.

Matters of congruent tempo improved markedly in Act 2 and the solid duet with Germont pere came over as functioning properly.  Even so, Winters failed to convince of the heroine’s despair at sacrificing her happiness for a greater good (if you can call it that).  The notes were there and the emotional gestures were in plain sight, like the pianissimo repeat of Dite alle giovine; yet the necessary communication of a broken spirit failed to come across during the brief cross-purposes duet with Alfredo that is, to my mind, the opera’s most moving passage.

Winters’ death scene worked very well, despite an Addio del passato that might have gained from more variation in attack, although the descending natural A minor scale at ah! tutto fini came over informed by some welcome bitter despair in its articulation.  The soprano has an interesting stage presence and she has familiarity with this role; not surprisingly,  since she has sung it in Basel, San Diego, Seattle, Virginia, Ottawa, London and Hong Kong,  But it was a difficult task to claw back credibility from that unsatisfying first act, even though Verdi gave his sinned-against character a spell-binding farewell with the Cessarono change of pace.

You could find little to complain about with Yosep Kang’s Alfredo.  He carried out his tasks with zeal and an excellent technique, from Libiamo right through to Parigi, o cara with a nicely self-satisfied Di miei bollenti spiriti contrasting with a fetchingly self-indulgent O mio rimorso! as a chaser that brightened the aural landscape before the cant and hypocrisy of this character’s father bears all before him.

If anything, the tenor’s work lacked personality.  Even at Alfredo’s worst moment – when he throws money at Violetta in Flora’s salon – you remained outside the emotional ferment; admiring the temperamental outburst but not convinced that the lad had real cause to whip himself into such a state of frustrated rage.

The opera has only three roles and veteran Jose Carbo took on the important one of Alfredo’s father.  Again, this characterization left me cold, even in those potentially gripping moments where he condoles with Violetta at her tragic loss in giving up Alfredo.  As for Di Provenza, the gentle sway of Verdi’s melody line was not assisted by the bass’s hefty vibrato on the high F at each verse’s end.

Was it a lack of involvement from the singer that militated against any engagement with this personality?  I think so; here, Germont shows little concern for what he is asking of Violetta, contributed to by his lack of physical involvement in the action.  When she asks him Qual figlia m’abbraciate, despite the stage direction, he doesn’t.  Later, Carbo’s Di piu, non lacerarmi at Germont’s moment of self-realisation was delivered without regard for either his tortured son or the dying woman he had come to console.  This wasn’t the depiction of an unbending puritan, forbidding in his self-righteousness; you simply didn’t care about the complexity that Piave preserved from Dumas’ novel.

Dominica Matthews sang a competent Flora; Natalie Aroyan made a self-effacing Annina; John Longmuir enjoyed himself as the young roue Gastone and Tom Hamilton melted into the background as d’Obigny.  Adrian Tamburini brought the customary unpleasant swagger and machismo to Douphol.

Montanaro and his forces sounded best in Flora’s party music, reflecting the action with alacrity.  As usual, the pit output would have gained from more strings, especially violins for the exposed pages that preface the outer acts.  Still, the work rarely sounded commonplace or vulgar, which is always a danger when the chorus takes over.

While Act 1 fared well enough with a satisfyingly full choral texture, the second scene of Act 2 misfired, as it always will, not least because of the cramped conditions that obtain throughout the Noi siamo zingarelle/E Piquillo segment where the choreography looks inefficient and awkward, risible in its efforts to convey Hispanic high spirits.

To be honest, I was relieved when the final curtain came down.  Every once in a while, you could glory in a splendid page or two like the Parigi, o cara duet or Violetta’s magnificent Morro – la mia memoria outburst, but your enjoyment was principally due not to the singers’ work but to Verdi’s touching responsiveness to his characters and the superlative lyricism that he invested in them.   In the end, this was too much of a hard night at the opera.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8, and Friday May 11. There is one matinee at 1 pm on Saturday April 28.

 

 

 

May Diary

Wednesday May 2

ALCHEMY

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Hawthorn at 7:30 pm

Appearing with Kathryn Selby on this tour are violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, principal with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and a regular at these recitals.  Escorted by this Finnish-born duo, Selby brackets her night with arrangements, the more intriguing a transcription of the Brahms B flat Sextet for a piano trio combination.  This was carried out, I believe, by Theodor Kirchner of whom the composer said, ‘Not I, and certainly no one else, can make arrangements of my works as well as Theodor Kirchner.’ In fact, Selby & Co. give us a double dose, beginning their operations with another Kirchner arrangement, this one of Schumann’s Six Pieces in Canonic Form which were written for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano.  The ‘pure’ component in this program is Arensky’s Trio in F minor, the second of the composer’s pair in this form and much less well-known than its D minor predecessor.  This rarity fleshes out one of the year’s more recherche exercises in the Selby and Friends season.

 

Friday May 4

AN EVENING IN VIENNA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s all operetta tonight, with Benjamin Northey conducting the MSO and its Chorus in scraps from the Strausses and Lehar.  Details are sketchy but we are promised The Beautiful Blue Danube and Voices of Spring waltzes from The Son, the second of these calling for a soprano soloist while the first, in its original format, required a male chorus.  On this occasion, the soprano will be Emma Matthews, who will also sing arias from Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow; I’m guessing she’ll be launching into Mein Herr Marquis or/and Klange der Heimat from the former, and Es lebt’ eine Vilja’ from the latter.  Oddly enough, Viennese music of this school seemed to be part of this country’s aesthetic DNA in the first half of the last century and it still retains many enthusiasts who will probably pack the Town Hall.   Perhaps I have a lingering surfeit from my mother’s family, all of whom were addicts, but I get more impatient than most with contemporary performances of these well-worn pages.  Does anyone remember Willy Boskovsky’s visit here many moons ago?  After that, much of the Strauss we now hear live seems pedestrian.

 

Saturday May 5

RICCARDO MUTI

Australian World Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

This time around, the AWO plays two nights in Sydney before coming to Hamer Hall – poor loves.  No soloist is scheduled and the organizers are pinning their publicity on Muti’s participation.  Well, I suppose it will be interesting to see the formidable Italian opera conductor just as he is approaching his final active years.  The program will comprise the Brahms D Major Symphony and Tchaikovsky No. 4: two solid bulwarks of the symphonic repertoire that you can hear pretty much annually during the normal run of MSO concerts.  Also, we are promised a ‘Verdi surprise’, which can only refer to one of the composer’s three neglected sinfonias because there’s nothing else in the catalogue written for orchestra.   But wait: could we be treated to an operatic scrap?  Say, the Triumphal March from Aida? Or the Overture to La forza del destino?  Yes, my money’s on that sort of ‘surprise’ – a theatrical extract to sit comfortably alongside (or between) the two symphonies.

 

Sunday May 6

THE FOUR B’S

Team of Pianists

Barwon Park, Winchelsea at 2.00 pm

If you’re in the neighbourhood, you could do worse with your day in the country than visit this stately if isolated home where senior Team artist Robert Chamberlain tours music’s Four Big B’s with the assistance of Robert Schubert’s clarinet and the cello of Josephine Vains.  Bach is represented by one of his gamba sonatas, the D Major BWV 1028 – yet another of those works we know about but rarely hear.  Naturally, Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio gets a hearing – one of the few well-known works for this particular combination of instruments.   As well, the group plays Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, one of those superlative late flowerings in the composer’s life that came into existence because of his friendship with Richard Muhlfeld.   And, in the centenary year of his birth, we will be treated to music by the last great B.   Not, it’s not Boulez but Bernstein: his Variations on an Octatonic Scale, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime and originally written for recorder and cello but available in a B flat clarinet/cello arrangement. . . which is what you’ll probably get here.

 

Monday May 7

JAZZ & BLUES

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

A fine Melbourne University faculty violin talent and his pianist mother are taking the high road in a tribute to the influence that jazz has had on 20th century music .  .  .  some of it.  There’s no arguing about the blues and Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2, mainly because of the title that the composer gave to his strutting second movement.  And at least two of Gershwin’s Three Preludes have strong jazz connections, even if the last one seems to me more reminiscent of a Latin American dance; the Melnychenkos play the Heifetz arrangements of them all.   Speaking of the Heifetz-Gershwin connection, the program also offers some selections from the great violinist’s appraisals of Porgy and Bess: take your pick from Summertime, My Man’s Gone Now, A Woman Is A Sometime Thing, Bess, You Is My Woman Now, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and a Tempo di Blues which may be based on There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York.  The program’s odd man out is Korngold, whose incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing has some splendid moments but nothing that strikes me as jazzy, although I could be wrong.  In the composer’s own violin/piano suite, there are only four movements out of the original 14: The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, Dogberry and Verges, Scene in the Garden, and Masquerade: Hornpipe.

 

Thursday May 10

BEETHOVEN’S EROICA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Tonight we are being treated to Sir Andrew Davis’ interpretation of the epoch-making Symphony No. 3.   Is there anything new to find in this score?   Well, never say never but I think we should be resigned to a decent run-through, at best.   Keeping the tone upbeat and triumphalist, Moye Chen will be soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1; the Chinese pianist won the George Frederick Boyle Prize at the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition – in other words, he came third.   Setting the orchestral ball rolling is Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra.   Vine is the MSO’s Composer in Residence for 2018; this work is not one written during his term of office but a 21-minute score composed for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra four years ago.

This program is to be repeated on Friday May 11 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, and in Hamer Hall on Saturday May 12 at 2 pm.

 

Saturday May 12

THE HARPIST: XAVIER DE MAISTRE

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Yes, the Frenchman is a harpist; it remains to be seen if he is the one.  What the ABO is presenting to make the case for de Maistre’s superiority amounting to absolute pre-eminence is a mixed bag.   We’ll hear Boieldieu’s Harp Concerto in C from 1800 and a collection of Basque/Spanish encore pieces/transcriptions.  There’s Ravel’s piano solo Pavane pour une infante defunte, the orchestral Spanish Dance from Falla’s La vida breve opera, and the Recuerdos de la Alhambra that Tarrega wrote for guitar.  The ABO itself contributes the Mozart Symphony No. 20 and C. P. E. Bach’s 10-minute Symphony No. 1.  At the end, I thought that the orchestra was going to take on Smetana’s Moldau but this magnificent symphonic poem is a de Maistre solo specialty: he has recently recorded a late 19th century transcription of it by Czech harpist Hanus Trnecek.

This program will be repeated on Sunday May 13 at 5 pm.

 

Thursday May 17

FRENCH ARIAS: GRETA BRADMAN

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

A soprano who impresses more each time you hear her, Greta Bradman will be soloist at this concert which contains no real arias as far as I can tell.  I hope she is presenting Debussy’s Verlaine setting Clair de lune (Votre ame est un paysage choisi) and the MCO is not going to treat us to an orchestral version of the too-familiar Suite bergamasque piano solo.  Without doubt, Bradman will sing the six Ariettes oubliees, also Verlaine texts and strong indicators of the composer’s vocal music character.   Chausson’s Poeme for violin and orchestra will most probably be headed by artistic director William Hennessy;  Faure’s delectable Dolly Suite in Henri Rabaud’s orchestration also appears, as does more Debussy: La soiree dans Grenade from the Estampes triptych, and some selections from the Children’s Corner Suite – all of which piano music is being arranged for the MCO forces by someone as yet unidentified.   On top of this melange comes the premiere of Calvin Bowman’s Ophelie, which brings Bradman back into play; other details are currently not available although the title suggests more Harriet Smithson than Shakespeare.

This program will be repeated at the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm on Sunday  May 20.

 

Friday May 18

INTERNATIONAL BAROQUE

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This celebration bounces off with some of the dances from Terpsichore, that excellent collection by the versatile Michael Praetorius.  Director/cellist Howard Penny then takes his young players and ANAM enthusiasts on a (mainly) Baroque tour d’horizon with a Sonata a 10 by the Moravian writer Pavel Vejvanovsky, the Sonata No. 2 from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo, the startlingly-titled Hipocondrie a 7 concertanti and the Sinfonia from the oratorio I penitenti al sepolcro de Redentore by Zelenka, the Balletto No. 1 di zingari by Schmelzer, C. P. E. Bach’s Symphony in F Major (Which one?  There is a choice of three) and a Sinfonia from his father’s Christmas Oratorio (I presume the G Major gem from the second cantata with the quartet of oboes da caccia and d’amore, ho ho).  Handel is heavily represented by his Concerto a due cori No. 2 in F, the overture to his oratorio Jephtha, and selections from the second Water Music Suite, although why only selections puzzles me because the whole collection lasts less than ten minutes.

 

Sunday May 20

A FRENCH CONNECTION

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

For a recital directing us north of the Pyrenees, this one starts with a geographical clanger.  Violinist Elizabeth Sellars and Team member Rohan Murray begin the night with Beethoven’s A Major Violin Sonata; no, not the Kreutzer, nor the No. 2 from Op. 12, but the Op. 30 No. 1 that many of us have never heard in live performance.  Where the link-up with France lies, I can’t fathom.  Anyway, the musicians then move into Faure’s Op. 13, another A Major Sonata and the more popular of the composer’s two in the form.  Georgy Catoire’s Elegie may have a French title but the composer was Russian, albeit one with French heritage.  The night ends with two Debussy arrangements: the art song Beau soir from the composer’s mid-teens, and La fille aux cheveux de lin that brightens up the first book of Preludes for piano.

 

Tuesday May 22

BACH AND HIS WORLD

Tafelkmusik Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Canadian ensemble is back for its third Musica Viva-backed tour, this time concentrating its efforts on the Baroque giant.  What distinguishes Tafelmusik’s presentations is the organization’s use of screen projections, as well as a spoken commentary, the which combination provides both a visual and a verbal environment.  All very nice but what counts is the music and, last time these musicians were here with their  House of Dreams project, I found the playing capable enough but bland.  Tonight, the players are offering the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – all 12 minutes of it; the Orchestral Suite No. 1, most stolid of the four; and excerpts from the Goldberg Variations, which I’m guessing will not be left to a solitary keyboard player for negotiation.  You’d have to go along with a benign predisposition if only because of the music’s quality but I’m hoping the backdrop doesn’t take over to the extent that it did back in 2015.  Oh, the group has a new director/first violin: Elisa Citterio.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 26 at 7 pm.

 

Monday May 28

BACH & DISTLER

Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The Bach is the motet Jesu, meine Freude: one of the most complex of the six works in this form by the composer and a test of any choir’s precision of pitch and differentiation in choral colour.  With Hugo Distler’s Totentanz, the singers take us into a less assured spiritual landscape but one that would be at least slightly familiar to Ensemble aficionados because the organization presented this work at the Xavier College Chapel in September 2016.  It presents a striking sequence of choral and spoken scenes, the crux of the matter being Death’s invitation to his dance, extended to rich and poor, young and old, the musical complexion dissonant but disarmingly aphoristic.

 

Thursday May 31

Thomas Hampson

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Heading towards his middle 60s, American baritone Hampson is here to take part in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series.   Is this his first Melbourne visit?   I can’t recall his name emerging from the lists of visitors over previous decades.   While next Thursday he will sing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Andrea Molino, thus giving us a sample from his most highly acclaimed field of operations, this MRC recital program is yet to be finalised.  Among the composers to enjoy the singer’s services (and those of his accompanist, Maciej Pikulski) are Rossini, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Mahler, Copland  –  ‘and others’.  Which sounds to me as though the bones of a program have been assembled, and space has been left to add some artificial limbs or whatever comes to hand between now and May 31.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Et in Arcadia ego

LET ME DIE BEFORE I WAKE

Arcadia Winds

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday April 16

     (L to R) David Reichelt, Rachel Shaw, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale, Kiran Phatak

‘And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’  It’s an old verse but a welcome one because it sets up the possibility of a perfect death – a matter of increasing concern to those of us in what we laughingly call the twilight phase of our struggle with mortality.  In fact, this recital took its title from a solo clarinet work by Salvatore Sciarrino, a solid challenge in sound manufacture for the Arcadia’s Lloyd Van’t Hoff and rendered all the more atmospherically grim by being presented in near-darkness.

Death  stood at the heart of this event, the very able quintet beginning with Music for a Deceased Friend by Peteris Vasks, a 1981 work written to mourn the early death of bassoonist Jana Barinska.  With an intentionally limited quantity of material, the score still holds great interest for its elegant placement of timbres, even if the Vasks habit of having the players also vocalise brings an unreliable layer to the texture, one entry in particular more than a bit wobbly.   As for the emotional effect, it was not content to stay on one grieving level: Vasks gave us several instances of rage against the dying of this young light, although the employment of a Latvian melody brought a final symbolic acceptance to the piece.

As an opener, this Music brought us into the players’ professional orbit, a place where the functioning of each instrument proved striking.  In the Salon, as everyone knows, there is no room to hide, the acoustic being immediate and dry and every note significant.  Fortunately, these young musicians are highly competent, well-prepared and unafraid to make their statements boldly; yes, you could hear the (very) occasional questionable note, but not two together, and the sense of collegiality – everyone aware of each other’s work – proved to be one of the evening’s major accomplishments, especially in this work where a good deal of the action isn’t circumscribed by time-signatures and/or bar-lines.

As a pacifier of sorts, the Arcadians launched into an arrangement of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.  I can’t pinpoint who did the arranging, although you’d have to suspect Mason Jones, because he worked over the specific movements we heard yesterday: Prelude, Fugue (replacing the expected Forlane from Ravel’s own orchestration), Menuet and Rigaudon,  Hans Abrahamsen’s version follows Ravel’s orchestration while the Gunther Schuller scoring for this quintet format comprises all six original piano pieces, including the Toccata finale.

David Reichelt’s oboe enjoyed much of the limelight, particularly in the hectic (for him) Prelude, where he took the lead in generating a suitably burbling melodic stream.  Probably the only fault you could pick with this movement was the overshadowing of Kiran Phatak’s flute which every so often got lost in the briskly mobile texture.  With Ravel’s E minor Fugue, the group ventured into territory that most of us don’t know, unless we’re familiar with the piano original.  Because it has only three lines, the texture remains lucid; added to this, the subject is short and simple, its inversion about a third of the way through given more attention than it merits.  But the players handled it soberly, not trying to dress it up with tricks of over-emphasis or self-effacement for the greater good; only the final open 5th sounded a tad uncertain in its pitching.

In the centre of the Menuet, the tenor-to-bass group of Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Rachel Shaw’s horn gave a near-menacing gravity to the Musette with its essentially D minor but tonally ambiguous underpinning.  These are pages that suffer from plenty of sloppy treatment when the strings get involved 4 bars after Number 6 in the orchestral setting; no matter how considerate the conductor, the passage’s dynamic jugular suffers an assault.  What a pleasure, then, to hear the dance given with piercing clarity, particularly Shaw’s compelling contribution.  And the Rigaudon came off well enough with a deftness of delivery that complemented its innate optimism.

You could admire Sciarrino and Van’t Hoff in equal measure for the evening’s title piece.  Multiphonics and the tricks of over-blowing have been part of the contemporary composer’s stock-in-trade for decades, although the Italian composer brought a new facet to them with his use of low trills below a top note; well, two notes alternating in the clarinet’s lower reaches is probably a better description.  The piece sets up a sound palette and doesn’t move far from the material of its first page but the sensory and intellectual underload make you concentrate on exactly what you are hearing – which includes the player’s breathing under and between phrases.  It’s a work that combines outward placidity with the obvious strain put on its interpreter to get the notes out.  It would be well worth hearing again but in an environment where the instrument enjoys richer resonance.

Moving away from the death-motif that obtained even in Ravel’s memorials to his World War I companions, the quintet was amplified by the arrival of Luke Carbon and his bass clarinet for a reading of Janacek’s celebration of his own youth, Mladi: for me, the program’s highpoint for the players’ open response  to the composer’s vim-filled essays in reminiscence.  This version might not have had the surging confidence that more experienced ensembles bring to it, but certain moments showed both intelligence and personality, like the self-possessed horn solo at bar 55 in the opening Allegro.

Later, the sextet worked to fine effect to meet the composer’s expressive demands in the Andante which suggests a slow march, only to break out into whirlwind bursts of ferment, the ambience oscillating as recklessly as it does in the middle movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta or in the final movement of the Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet.  If anything, the group took their time throughout these pages, making sure the contrasts in emotional content enjoyed room to breathe.

The following Vivace gained from Phatak’s bright, staccato piccolo in its rapid-fire outer pages and also from Reichelt’s controlled and unexpectedly warm solos from bar 58 to bar 78, and again at another Meno mosso spot, bars 103 to 116, this latter well-mimicked by Shaw, her horn jumping through a couple of awkward demi-semiquaver hoops at bar 121 without too much fuss.  I would have welcomed more rapidity in the concluding Allegro animato movement, even across the slower-moving interludes; I think the upper three voices could have handled a more brisk assault although getting rapidly repeated pedal notes articulated clearly by the horn, bassoon and bass clarinet would have been a big ask, particularly for Kneale and Carbon in passages like the rapid-tongued muttering between bars 54 and 66.

The Arcadians make a welcome presence on our chamber music scene for several reasons, not the least of which is a concern with promoting the contemporary, an intention clearly illustrated in this hour-and-a-quarter offering.  What is also appealing is a willingness to take on music that requires sheer hard work, like the Janacek sextet which is marvellously rhapsodic and energising to hear but entails massive dedication to gets its components fused and individual timbres balanced.   If you needed it, here was a splendid sample of this gifted ensemble’s talent and potential.

 

 

 

Contemporary gestures but not much there

Avi Avital & Giocoso String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday April 14

            (L to R) Teofil Todica, Martha Windhagauer, Sebastian Casleanu, Bas Jongen

Just as we prepare for the next Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition which is coming up in the first week of July at the Australian National Academy of Music and the Melbourne Recital Centre, here comes a sort of success story from three years ago.  At the 2015 MICMC, the Giocoso String Quartet won Second Prize, the Audience Award and the Musica Viva Prize.  Part of this last involved an MV-sponsored tour, so here are the players, although are they in the original format?

Somewhere over the past few years, violist Adrian Stanciu has been replaced by Martha Windhagauer.   But the original Giocoso personnel remain a mystery, despite my best attempts at research.   In the publicity and program for this tour, the claim is made that this current format dates from 2014, although Stanciu seems to have been around for recording/taping sessions beyond then.

Complicating matters even further is the existence of another Giocoso quartet, made up of British musicians.

At any rate, in this collaboration with mandolinist Avi Avital, the Giocosos were heard in one work by themselves: Schumann in A minor.  What struck me straight away was the dynamic dominance of Windhagauer and cellist Bas Jongen; their entries into the first pages of the Introduzione were robust enough but, when the group swept into the pendant Allegro, the imbalance became quite pronounced.  First violin Sebastian Casleanu impressed for his fine and usually accurate line but neither he nor his partner-at-the-top, Teofil Todica, put up much challenge to their tenor/bass companions when the action quickened.

At times, the players made some odd decisions in their treatment of Schumann’s score; a pause at bar 29 lasted inordinately long and the 6/8 time signature of the Allegro proved hard to determine until an exposed violin made the pulse clear.  Even in the first movement repeat, Jongen’s cello carried more than its fair share of the group’s output.  If you thought this was an aberration, the first sentences of the Intermezzo made a similar impression as Casleanu’s melody line was overshadowed by the parallel motion parts of Todica and Windhagauer; but this movement was treated as a close cousin to the work of its dedicatee, Mendelssohn, even though its content is less redolent of the Athenian forest and more suggestive of a wilder reiter.

In the Adagio, where the first violin took hold of a theme, the viola’s punctuating semiquaver figure that stretches across 12 bars distracted from the upper lyric.  Still, the monothematic Presto-finale saw a more aggressive showing from the ensemble’s upper levels and gave some compensation for a reading that raised serious questions about the Giocosos’ weight distribution.

Avital – last heard here with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra some 17 months ago – joined the quartet for two contemporary works: Elena Kats-Chernin’s take on Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, enjoying its premiere on this tour, and US-born British writer David Bruce’s Cymbeline.  I don’t know this opera anywhere near as well as L’incoronazione di Poppea but the Australian composer has chosen scraps from Monteverdi’s score on which to elaborate her five movements.  After a quotation from near the opera’s opening, Kats-Chernin sets her usual battery into action with an attention-grabbing motoric drive , employing a modulatory chain worthy of Piazzolla, whose flamboyance somehow comes to mind through all the alarums and excursions.  For a good deal of the time, Avital’s sound came across here as a balalaika substitute with plenty of rapid tremolo.

Not much of moment was accomplished in either of the slower sections – Sea of Weeping and In the Sun and in the Stars – although the duelling in thirds for violins during the latter while Avital dealt with what sounded like a Monteverdi melody was refreshing and non-gimmicky.   For the final Don’t Look Back, Kats-Chernin indulged in a rapid folk dance with Zigeuner flavourings, the whole full of flourishes and a reliance on forward impetus to suggest the fury of the Maenads.  Throughout the work, commissioned for this tour, it seemed to me that nobody was being tested too much, except to maintain the pace; not one of the composer’s most challenging constructs for her musicians or her audience.

Avital chose to play the Bach D minor Violin Chaconne as a solo to show his instrument’s potential.  This might have been spurred by his publicity which was headed by a quote from the Haaretz Daily – ‘Everything you never dreamt a mandolin could do.’  Don’t know about that; everything he did on this night was pretty much what you’d expect this instrument to achieve.   Still, it was a pity he took on this particular work as he was competing with James Ehnes’ splendid account of the whole Partita from five days before.  And, pace the inbuilt limitations of the mandolin, he was also sitting squarely in the shadow cast by Segovia and that phenomenal guitarist’s seminal treatment of the original from more years ago than I’d care to recall  –  a transcription of high distinction that has nevertheless been pooh-poohed by more pretentious guitarists than you could shake a stick at.

Avital gave a brisk interpretation, less inclined to linger than most violinists.  That’s only natural as his mandolin and the actual mode of sound production associated with it don’t allow for sustaining sound or reverberation.  Also, a significant amount of the score’s bravado is dissipated when the violin’s slashing chords are not arpeggiated.  Better news on the emotional landscape where the interpreter gave us three well-defined variation slabs and made each of them a satisfying entity.

The only problems that came across were the occasional buzz when one of the left-hand fingers landed on a fret; which defect, with a ‘live’ instrument like this one, is hard to disguise.

Bruce’s work has nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with the Celtic interpretation of the name: Lord of the Sun.  The piece gives us three scenes, along the lines of Debussy’s La mer: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset.   Like Kats-Chernin’s, this piece is couched in a conservative harmonic vocabulary, setting the scene with plenty of open 5ths and 3rds, the texture highly suggestive of folk-music thanks to a plethora of unisons from the middle strings and melodies that veered to the modal if not the pentatonic.

For his mid-day segment, Bruce begins with a full, powerful declamation from all involved.  His rhythmic structure favours irregularity but the melodic content remains achromatic.  Your attention is attracted by the alternation of regular bar-lengths with one at the end of each clause that has two extra beats in it.  Here, the textural interest comes in duet passages for the mandolin and first violin, accomplished by Avital and Casleanu with excellent synchronicity.

As night nears, Bruce employs a slow descending scale in the first violin although the most striking music comes in a pair of duets for mandolin and cello.  The main impression is of a walking tune, the prevailing ambience suggesting the loose-limbed Grainger as an inspiration but, as well as the Celtic inferences, you can also hear shades of Jewish music – not the bending lines of klezmer stuff, but unadorned folk-tunes.  It all winds down to fine effect as the sun’s journey stops – although when, you’re not quite sure.

Cymbeline made an atmospheric end to a recital that aimed at a higher standard than its executants achieved.  Avital is a gifted performer, committed to every task and challenge and able to give his mandolin a compelling voice.  And it was pleasant to see the potential of the Giocoso musicians, even if (I think) they have some way to travel before another tour would be justified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The eternity of everything?

OMNIA AETERNA: THE DEATH & LIFE OF OTTO BLOOM

Paul Gillett

AFQ009

 

So much about this is undiscovered territory.   I haven’t seen the 2016 film for which this score was written; the composer is unknown to me; more to the point, the world of film music itself has always been something of a mystery.  A fellow student once tried to teach me some tricks of the trade, mainly to do with how you handle the brass.  He had a wealth of information about trombones in ‘classic’ film music of the 1960s but nothing of that data remains in this memory box.

But music to accompany films – even when given a sort of academic respectability by Schoenberg – is a craft that most of us don’t question, just accepting it as essential scene-setting, an invitation to emotional reaction, possibly even an irritating aural distraction from the visual feast in front of us.  On the one hand, you can enjoy the bloated Hollywood reconstructions that are regularly on offer from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which is currently involved in the Harry Potter canon: playing the music live to escort us through a screening of whichever film has been chosen for treatment.  On the other, several ensembles make a semi-career of offering music to amplify the impact of silent classics; from my experience, these exercises usually involve original music, but not the original scores.

For all this quibbling, film scores have become an essential part of cinematic practice, even if the products are over-segmented and over-written, following the principle that, if you strike a good tune, don’t let it go (cf. John Williams).   But few are memorable on their own merits, despite the industry’s herculean efforts to expound the merits of soundtrack CDs that have been produced to background instantly forgettable films.  Watching Spielberg’s Ready Player One yesterday, my companion, alert to cultural references, informed me that Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack was packed with references to popular music of several decades ago, as well as lifts from soundtracks to other films.  Which didn’t surprise me as the director was clearly determined, through his screenplay and visual gimmickry, to intrigue the cognoscenti with references to films that impressed him.

For all that, you have to sympathise with Bunuel who grew to use less and less music in his works; starting out with a sequence of random Wagner and tangos for the first screening in 1929 of Un  Chien Andalou, then winding up with absolutely no music for the 1967 Belle de jour.   Despite this admiration, the schizoid in me responds very positively to Duke Ellington’s powerful contributions to Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959 – a dazzling exhibition of both ensemble and individual brilliance.

Paul Gillett’s work for Cris Jones’ film comprises 21 tracks on this CD, featuring Luke Howard on piano and the Organic Quartet: violins Cameron Jamieson and Natalia Harvey, Matthew Laing viola, Campbell Banks on cello.  The composer notes his own references to particular musical styles, most interestingly his adoption of Nancarrow’s tempo canons.  Gillett also appears on the disc himself, in his guise of Floyd Thursby, singing two mild lyrics:  Time on our hands and Forget the Future.  And I think he accompanies himself, as well as providing the one solo guitar track.

This album opens with Who is Otto Bloom?  Well, in musical terms he seems to be a combination of Shostakovich and Satie, the latter very present in the opening string quartet strophes which suggest both the Gymnopedies and the Gnossiennes, the Russian composer’s shadow present later as the waltz movement gains in emphasis.  What does it propose in emotional terms?  Well, it’s in minor mode, hefty in delivery, not particularly complex but mildly interesting.  The Winter of ’83 has sustained icy upper strings, a piano that outlines a long melody over a steady bass pattern, a small input from the other strings and a satisfyingly bleak ambience.   Retrochronology is a solo piano vignette that irresistibly brings to mind the Andante con moto from Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio; if it’s an homage, it’s fair enough, the modulations unexceptional but, by this stage, you anticipate that Gillett is not going to move far outside an orthodox ambit.

Disorders of Memory alternates a 3/8 and 5/8 pattern in piano and violin rotating around a second inversion A minor chord, the keyboard’s left hand momentarily getting out of phase twice; a mild disorder at worst.  A waltz rhythm dominates The Time Traveller which moves not far outside a steady G minor base but offers little beyond a few piano references to Satie’s Gnossiennes again – possibly Nos. 1 and 3 – in its angularity.  Bonfire Night, another piano solo with a persistent right hand pulse, is puzzling; no Jeux d’artifice explosions of light here.

The first Thursby-persona song is a folksy song, suggestive of Dylan at his simplest, for voice and guitar, which irritates by having nearly every two-line strophe beginning with the word ‘Maybe’.  Because nothing was therefore all things are turns into a quiet ramble for piano that manages to suggest a Bach slow movement before the strings enter with some anaemic sustained notes while the piano references Chopin’s Raindrop D flat Prelude then riffs back to Bach – the middle movement of the Italian Concerto, possibly.

For The Renaissance Man, the compositional approach is back to arpeggios and a texture very much indebted to Phillip Glass, although the chugging rhythm for piano and quartet is going nowhere but straight ahead, without any variants on offer.  The guitar enjoys a solo in Pas de Cent – No hundreds? Not a cent? – which again offers nothing but arpeggios and a bit of electronic chordal shimmering in the piece’s second half; A minor is definitely the tonalite du jour.   The longest track at 5 minutes, Human Time Machine for piano, again references Bach, starting with an angular arpeggio pattern in the right hand, above an unchanging bass D, which then gets the Nancarrow treatment by way of a superimposed tape, I suppose.   As far as I can tell, there are only two upper lines intersecting and coinciding, so the texture is ultra-clear.

At The Backwards Guy, Gillett plays with a pair of impressionist chords in pianist Howard’s left hand while offering a Debussy-suggestive  roaming melody in the instrument’s upper levels – but this interesting track passes all too quickly.  We’re back in Satie waltz territory for Midnight in Byzantium where the piano quintet revisits patterns that are becoming all too familiar.  Ka mura, ka muri has the piano’s two hands moving along two paths that strike me as totally detached; Gillett calls this ‘ a pretty little tempo canon’ – and I suppose it is.  The title is a Maori saying that refers to walking backward into the future, which is the basic premise of Jones’ film in which the protagonist lives his life in reverse.

Einstein’s Letter features lots of sustained chords for string quartet, a kind of mildly grinding mournful chorale.   Precious little infinity is another Nancarrow flight for piano(s) playing a repeated treble pattern with the quartet providing, at first, unison three-note punctuation comments which later move into four-step cadences.  In 38 West 49th St, the piano solo presents a bleak emotional landscape with a sustained final bass chord to dampen the spirits even further.  We’re back with the Human Time Machine pattern for Korsakoff syndrome, although this time cello and viola provide a bass support that oscillates between D and C sharp, the whole concluding with a powerful low D from the piano alone..  It may be a musical illustration of the malady that the track’s title refers to but, as with Disorders of Memory, the effect depicted seems minor.

At what I assume is the film’s focal point, Otto Bloom is dead, Gillett heads for a piano solo slow waltz but only gets through two statements of his theme – a quick demise, then.  Omnia Aeterna is back in chugging post-Glass territory with a predictable series of descending arpeggios and chords.  And Thursby finishes the opus off with another folk-song for guitar and string quartet that aims for the heart-strings: a briskly moving love song that ends with the ambivalent line, ‘When I let you go, I will hold you in my arms’.  This is in keeping, of course, with the off-centre nature of the film’s hero who is fated to recall only his future.

All right: the album is not ground-breaking in its ambition or much more than amiable in its melodic and harmonic content.  But it does establish a sort of world, an Otto Bloom land – to the point where I’d like to see the film and see how Gillett’s work slots into its playing time, as well as discover something about how well he illuminates the director’s intentions and the actors’ efforts.