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Somewhere over the past few years, violist Adrian Stanciu has been replaced by Martha Windhagauer.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.