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.