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.