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Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 15, 2018

                                                                                 Daniel Pinteno

In its original schedule, the ABO was to have played host this month to senior Italian baroque violinist Stefano Montanari, who promised a program that included Telemann, Vivaldi, Locatelli and those three household names – Gregori, Heinichen and Pisendel.  Somewhere along the way, a few wheels fell off this arrangement and artistic director Paul Dyer had to find another musician of similar ilk – which he did in Daniel Pinteno, one of Spain’s luminaries in the field of Baroque performance and, for good measure, musicology.

The only name to survive from the original program was Vivaldi, who scored two appearances on Saturday night.   While the main intention of the exercise was to present Spanish scores that most of us have never heard, the Venetian master falls under the occasion’s all-encompassing title.  And it’s pretty obvious that Vivaldi’s works would have been very familiar to the major (and minor) courts of the Iberian peninsula, just as they were across Europe.

Along with two Vivaldi concertos – La Notte for flute with the ABO’s principal Melissa Farrow doing solo honours, and No. 9, the second of the D Major ones from L’estro armonico – Pinteno headed half of a Charles Avison concerto grosso, one of those that the British composer based on Scarlatti sonatas, but the rest of his offerings were complete novelties: an overture by Vicente Basset, the Concerto a 5 from Giacomo Facco‘s Pensieri Adriamonici collection, a substantial overture by Felix Maximo Lopez, and a surprising C Major sinfonia by Gaetano Brunetti.

It might have been the effect of Pinteno’s preparation, or it could have been the nature of the music, but this set of (mainly) unfamiliar compositions brought out the best from the orchestra which was back treating with a school of music that emphasizes the players’ talents and substantiates their reputation as members of a first-class band of Baroque expert interpreters.   Not that everything was perfect in detail but the strings and wind produced an unfailing radiance of address and emotional commitment that kept you engaged, even through several repeats.

An opening Basset overture set the interpretative direction with an arresting, biting attack from the whole body of strings, plus Dyer’s harpsichord and Tommie Andersson‘s theorbo.   Pinteno played/directed with an involving physicality, contributing a languid middle-movement solo before a concluding presto engaged by the ensemble with spiky aggression, carefully harnessed and distinguished by excellently disciplined terraced dynamics.   Facco’s more substantial E Major violin concerto built on this foundation with a strong and voluble address in its opening Allegro, although you had to wait for the central Adagio to hear any extended solo work from Pinteno, while the finale followed the first movement’s model in giving the solo violin only short bursts of individuality.  Still, you heard enough to take in the guest director’s pliancy of line which depends less on mobility of rhythm and more on milking his part of its expressive potential, handling his exposed passages like a singer bursting from the ruck.

Farrow gave a graceful, measured approach to the Vivaldi suite-concerto, her string accompaniment cut back to a 3-3-2-2-1-plus continuo format.  Her sequence of trills in the initial Largo demonstrated impeccable control and projection, followed by a balancing Presto of high vivacity with the soloist subsumed into the general texture.  Another Largo gave Farrow an opportunity to highlight her supple, carefully controlled timbre for which she avoided unnecessary histrionics or attention-grabbing gasps, again followed by a Presto with some unexpected room for solo exposure.  The final two movements followed this slow-fast pattern, the three Il sonno pages a nice study in stasis, while the finale yielded the concerto’s most interesting activity, not least for a sparkling duet involving the flute and Pinteno’s violin from bars 166 to 177.

Concluding the first half, the Lopez Overtura con tutti instrumenti brought a clutch of wind players on-stage: pairs of oboes and horns, along with Brock Imison‘s bassoon,  Pinteno increased his strings to about 20 but the composer gave his brace of oboes plenty of exposure, both Emma Black and Kirsten Barry entering the lists with impressive panache.  Indeed, the wind added a piquancy to what is a melodically ordinary construct and handled their responsibilities with very few minor glitches from the horns and only a handful of questionable intonation question-marks at cadential points from the oboes.

Pinteno enjoyed some solo work in this score as well.  Despite the interest of his well-proportioned output, he seems to have the occasional pitching problem, almost suggesting that he’s trying on a different temperament to his surrounds.  It didn’t happen often, this deviation; just enough to make you wonder if he was over-working his output.  Without doubt, he showed complete involvement in the work at hand and was no fly-in, fly-out guest, taking part in everything programmed, keeping a firm hand on his forces in this Lopez work’s final Allegro that became a rondo with two unexpected minuet inserts for metrical contrast and relief of tension.

Any questioning of Pinteno’s articulation disappeared in his post-interval account of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto from L’estro armonico.  Here was aggressive, button-bursting work peppered with crisp solos in the outer movements, while the Larghetto revealed a master’s hand in splendidly controlled trills peppering what is almost continuous solo playing between the first four and last five bars; the overall impression here for me was a sort of curvaceous angularity, Pinteno’s delivery intensely sympathetic, enough to make this the night’s high-water mark and a clear-enough explanation of why Dyer chose this musician to take charge of his ABO.

For reasons best known to themselves, the body settled on presenting only the first half of Avison’s D Major Concerto grosso: the second of the four in D of his Op. 6 set of 12 based on Scarlatti sonatas.  The opening Largo came across with lordly assurance, a striding post-Handelian strut to its progress, while the succeeding Con furia brought into play lots of virtuoso scampering which showed no sign of letting-up though both its halves were repeated.

The winds returned for Brunetti’s Il Maniatico sinfonia for which the ABO’s principal cello Jamie Hey took on the designated role of the composer’s ‘maniac’ who has to be brought into line by the rest of the players.  As it turned out, the solo cello’s mania turned out to be an ongoing trill or a repeated figure of a 2nd which the solo line stayed with throughout most of the four movements, an idee fixe going nowhere.

This score made a sterling match with the Lopez overture that concluded the evening’s first half, both for its compositional felicity – if not originality – and its size.  The difference between this and pretty much everything else on the program was its Classic period self-aplomb, with a broader melodic ambit than its predecessors in this night’s work.   You could tire quite easily of the manic 2nds from the cello, Brunetti having locked his protagonist into a monotonous personality; but the orchestral bracketing showed a brand of sophistication that opened up a new compositional prospect – like hearing Haydn after Geminiani.

After some recent disappointments, I found this concert served as a refreshing reminder of the ABO’s concerted talents when negotiating works from across the Baroque, and the players’ remarkable ability to enter into works that –  in some cases  –  have been left untouched for centuries until Pinteno and his collaborators came along to resurrect them,  Indeed, I doubt that the visiting violinist could have found a group more talented and committed to assisting him in his undertaking which, far from being a dry-as-dust musicological exercise, whetted the appetite for more similar unveilings.  Dyer and his organization would do well to bring this musician back to us in the not-too-distant future.

October Diary

Tuesday October 2


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Visiting as part of its national series, if a remarkably truncated one these days, the ASQ plays a standard classic to begin in the Schubert Rosamunde; not the most cheerful nor the most aggressive of the composer’s extraordinary mature forays into this field.  Balancing this comes Shostakovich in A flat, No. 10 in the series of 15 and one of the more formally adroit and emotionally satisfying of the lot.   James Ledger’s String Quartet No. 2, sub-titled The Distortion Mirror, will enjoy its world premieres as the ensemble tours the country.   Sad to say, I don’t know this writer’s work at all well; he appears to be based in Perth, which doesn’t help, but in 2011 he was Composer-in-Residence at the Australian National Academy of Music, during which time he undertook a collaboration with Paul Kelly that somehow evaded me – or was a bullet dodged?.  Adding to the mystery, on the Australian Music Centre site, this new quartet is called Transmissions.


Friday October 5


Los Angeles Master Chorale

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here we start the small number of serious music offerings for this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival.  Once again, the organization has done us proud with a heavy number of stage works, exhibitions galore, the essential rock events to drag in the crowds (but do they?), and a measly handful of serious music programs which, more often than not, turn out to be middling-to-poor quality.  This group is being touted as ‘one of the world’s leading choral ensembles of the last half century’; yet again, modesty and understatement are not proving to be part of the festival’s house directory.  The night’s content are the 20 sacred madrigals and concluding motet by Orlando di Lassus that offer expressions of Peter’s guilt at his betrayal of Christ.   As a summation of the composer’s career and his technical mastery, the work holds manifold musicological attractions; director Peter Sellars seems to have got the LA singers to memorize the work and do some acting to illustrate its passions.   The experience lasts 75 minutes, with no interval.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 6.


Saturday October 6


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

For the Festival, Tan Dun is back to conduct this substantial work in its Australian premiere from the MSO and Chorus.  It’s a joint commission from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the MSO.  The title promises a paradox but is the composer’s contribution to world music by way of being the first passion to use the teachings of the Buddha.  This exercise is the fruit of two years spent in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province.   No half-steps here: the work lasts 2 1/2 hours with a 20 minute interval and the texts will be sung in Chinese and Sanskrit.   Which is asking for a good deal from those of us with a wafer-thin scraping of Tourist Mandarin.  While not looking for impediments to any true minds’ marriage, I can’t help wondering about the efficacy of this enterprise, the most serious question being the attempted fusion of Christ and Buddha.  Would you feel any different if faced with a title like Jesus Diamond Sutra, or does that smack too much of the flirtations of loutish rock-stars with Oriental philosophy?   Best not to overthink; after all, it’s Festival time.


Monday October 8


Van Diemen’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This period ensemble, new to me, is under the direction of Julia Fredersdorff, doyenne of the Peninsula Summer Music Festival for the last 11 years and leading light of the trio Latitude 37.   This Festival contribution is a 90-minute one-night-stand, no interval, featuring the music of Corelli (one of the concerti grossi from Op. 6), a concerto grosso from Geminiani’s Op. 3, a sinfonia each from the two Scarlattis, and Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 9 (yes , that tired old La Ritirata di Madrid).  Pride of place, however, goes to music by Nicola Fiorenza, a sparsely documented and historically shadowy Neapolitan writer of the 18th century’s first half; the Band will play three of his cello concertos, although I only know of one in F Major and another in A Major.   As for the other writers, I was unaware of Corelli’s connection to Naples;  Geminiani certainly spent three years there; both father and son Scarlatti are inextricably linked with the city; I can’t find any reference to Boccherini ever visiting the place.   But, once again: it’s holiday time – let’s not get bogged down in pedantry and facts.   As for the Band’s personnel (as set out in the organization’s web-site), most of them are unknown to me – as is the greater part of Tasmania itself.  Some familiar faces are Laura Vaughan on gamba, double bass Kirsty McCahon, violinist Lucinda Moon, and lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis.  The other 14 members occupy yet another O’Connell terra incognita.


Thursday October 11


Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 7:30 pm

Not the most invigorating night, even if the opera has stretches of unadulterated magic.  Fortunately, the whole is greater than its parts and I’m sorry to be missing out on seeing (and hearing, more importantly) what the state company makes of this neglected work.  As the self-deludedly cuckolded Golaud, Samuel Dundas gets to exercise his rich bass.  Pelleas, Golaud’s younger brother, will be sung by Angus Wood who strikes me as being on the robust side for this shadowy work.   Siobhan Stagg sings Melisande; Liane Keegan takes on Genevieve, the mother of Pelleas and Golaud who gets to sing one of the few sustained passages of solo work in the opera.   Sophia Wasley appears in the short-pants role of the child Yniold and David Parkin works his magic as the chronic valetudinarian, Arkel.  The company’s artistic director, Richard Mills, conducts; Elisabeth Hill directs.

The opera will be repeated on Saturday October 13.


Thursday October 11


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The MSO’s principal violist and ex-principal with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Moore is being given a time in the sun after an impressive career (so far) of excellent performance on his instrument coloured by some eminently forgettable hairstyles.   Like Dale Barltrop and one-time co-Concertmaster Eoin Anderson, this prominent member of the orchestral cast gets to direct and star in his own program which begins with the Brahms Serenade No. 2, the one that omits violins so their larger cousins get all the exposure.   Moore takes up the soloist’s responsibilities with Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell for the glowing Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 of Mozart.  Sandwiched between these glories comes the world premiere of Iain Grandage’s All the World’s a Stage which you’d expect would be for chamber orchestral forces and have something to do with Jaques – or is that hoping for too much directness of reference?   At the moment, I can’t find any solid information about it.

This program will be repeated on Friday October 12 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University..


Monday October 15

Silkroad Ensemble

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

This ensemble has been supporting one of the Festival’s big drawcards: the Azerbaijani dance-opera, Layla and Manjun.   Silkroad was established by cellist Yo-Yo Ma but the publicity for this event makes it quite clear that the great man himself will not be appearing.   We are given the repertoire for this occasion which includes traditional music from Vietnam, China and Tibet along with material composed by modern writers: suona/shen expert Wu Tong, clarinettist Tony Scott, pianist Gabriela Lena Frank, violinist Colin Jacobsen, shakuhachi/electronics exponent Kojiro Umezaki.   Composer (from where?) Sapo Perakaskero’s most famous work, Turceasca, will provide the finale, informed by the input or presence of the Romani/Romanian ensemble Taraf de Haidouks.  Also, somewhere along the way, Chick Corea’s Spain comes in for Silkroad treatment.  The list of musicians who have participated in the ensemble’s work since its founding is large and some of those mentioned above are notated collaborators.   Now, I hate to be a leveler but it all sounds to me a lot like the sort of thing Phillip Glass did here at Melbourne Festivals some decades ago: give us a sample of musics from all over the place and expect applause for finding a communality of spirituality, despite cultural differences.  Good luck with that.


Wednesday October 17


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew at 7:30 pm

Sadly, the title gives away the night’s main handicap: Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which I’ve heard too many times by now to be tolerant.   The famed tango writer put together a suite that shows that BA is mono-seasonal; there’s no difference between any of the movements.   Still, you can always sit back and admire the standard of play from pianist Kathryn Selby and her guests for tonight – violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline who is currently working at Edith Cowan University in Perth, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal cello Umberto Clerici.    Apart from the Piazzolla, the group joins up for Mendelssohn in D minor while the solos will be Debussy’s Cello Sonata – all 11 minutes of it – and the Falla Canciones Populares which seems to be an arrangement for violin and piano from one already organised by Falla and Paul Kochanski that sprang out of the Siete canciones populares espanolas song-cycle.   Or it could be the same authorised arrangement under another name.   If that’s the case, then it’s about the same length as the Debussy.  Not that such a matter should be a consideration in chamber music-making of this quality, particularly as this will be S&F’s last Melbourne appearance this year.


Saturday October 20

Andras Schiff

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Once again, Musica Viva comes to the Festival’s rescue with a real star.   The organization is offering special access to the Hungarian-born pianist’s presence with a post-performance reception/celebration on the Hamer Hall stage.   Or you could attend the pianist’s masterclass at the Australian National Academy of Music on Friday October 19 at 2 pm.   Or you could have a gourmet lunch with matched wines somewhere down the Mornington Peninsula, although I can’t work out whether Schiff is also going down the freeway for this expensive fund-raising exercise.   What about the music?  He’s giving a different program in Sydney two days after this one, but we score Mendelssohn’s F sharp minor Fantasy and, speaking of F sharp, the Beethoven Sonata No. 24, A Therese.  Then, in case you hadn’t heard enough from Paul Lewis, a swag of Brahms: the Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76, followed by the Seven Fantasias Op. 116 which I don’t think I’ve heard live for many years.   Icing on the cake comes through the final Bach English Suite.  This is Schiff’s first appearance here in over 20 years and, even if he has cut a few neo-Fascist countries from his visiting schedule, you ought to take this chance to hear him live; he’s 64 and, about now, long-distance travel becomes unattractive, if not irksome.


Tuesday October 23

Tasmin Little & Piers Lane

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Even for a Brit, Little’s life, achievements and activities seem to be remarkably home-based.   So we should be more than happy that she has broached the Channel and made it out here.   Her associate is very well-known if mainly as a concerto soloist and solo recitalist.   The duo is offering one major masterwork in Franck’s Violin Sonata in A: a real duet with pitfalls all over the place and a finale to lift you out of your seat with something close to elation – on a good night.  The other interesting piece is Szymanowski’s D minor Violin Sonata, first performed by Kochanski (see above under Wednesday October 17) and Artur Rubinstein; well, it was probably a patriotic duty at the time for all concerned.  The rest comprises encore material: Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag Revisited, the Ravel Piece en forme de Habanera, Brahms’s Scherzo contribution to that hybrid F-A-E Sonata, and – somewhat longer –  the Schubert Sonatina in D, the easiest of the composer’s three sonatas in this format.


Thursday October 25


Opera Australia

Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse at 7 pm

It’s been a long while between drinks with regard to this piece.  The last time I saw it was in 1983 at St. Martin’s Theatre in South Yarra when it was presented by the Victoria State Opera.   Now, the work is enjoying a resurrection at the hands of the national company, currently under the artistic direction of the first exponent of the hero Gregor in Brian Howard’s take on Kafka.  This time around, Gregor will be sung by Sydney baritone Simon Lobelson who, as far as I can find out, has made absolutely no mark in Melbourne.   Julie Lea Goodwin sings Greta, Gregor’s sister.   Christopher Hillier and Taryn Fiebig are Gregor’s parents, Adrian Tamburini the noisome Chief Clerk, while Benjamin Rasheed will be the Lodger, standing in for the original novella’s three gentlemen boarders.  Paul Fitzsimon conducts and Tama Matheson directs.  Full marks to the company for this revival of  Howard’s score and Steven Berkoff’s libretto; it’s a tight, percussion-rich drama which copes with the Czech author’s naturalistic nightmare world utilising memorable subtlety.

The opera will be repeated on Friday October 26 at 7 pm, and again on Saturday October 27 at 2 pm.


Thursday October 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Yes, the whole ballet;  even those dull bits where nobody does much memorable except go to sleep, change the lighting, move the scenery.   Still, the big attraction here is watching Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekke Saraste at work on this lavish post-impressionist relic of the Rimsky school which stretches to about 50 minutes.   Dejan Lazic makes his debut appearance with the MSO, enjoying the central role in Bartok’s remembrance-of-things-past Piano Concerto No. 3.   Also, we are treated to a real Stravinsky curiosity in the Funeral Song: written in 1909 as a memorial after Rimsky’s death, played only once, then lost until a clean-out of the St Petersburg Conservatory Library three years ago.  Recordings have failed to rouse much excitement, although Alex Ross of The New Yorker sees it as a revelatory work in the context of what was to follow.  Maybe so; to me, the influences are all too clear, the orchestration clever-clever, the emotional content bordering on bathos.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 27 at 2 pm


Friday October 26


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The night ends with these magnificent studies, immensely demanding for any artist and a labour of love to present in one hit.   But that’s apparently what ANAM’s resident keyboard guru, Timothy Young, intends to do.   Beforehand, we enjoy some petit pois.  A pair of ANAM musicians will play the not-quite-two minutes Petite piece for clarinet and piano and the more substantial and contemporaneous Premiere rhapsodie for the same coupling.  Then comes a block of piano solos in the 1890 Reveries, the 1888-91 Deux arabesques, Hommage a Haydn from 1909 and the composer’s first published piano piece  –  the utterly forgettable Danse bohemienne of 1880.   Fleshing out our experience of the composer’s chamber music will be the G minor Piano Trio which also dates from 1880 during Debussy’s time in the household of Nadezhda von Meck.   Decried as character-less juvenilia by anybody who matters, the work is inoffensive enough, if not much of an indication of future fireworks.


Sunday October 28


Team of Pianists

Glenfern, 417 Inkerman St., East St. Kilda at 3 pm

The Team’s Rippon Lea series has ended and what remain in the organization’s year are a few recitals at its home base: the National Trust demesne at Glenfern.   This afternoon, Robert Chamberlain represents the TOP, collaborating with local baroque violinist Shane Lestideau who also has an interest in Scottish folk music.   Their program begins with Telemann, a fantasie for solo violin; the theme is continued – nay elevated – with the Gigue from the Partita No. 2 by Bach – the little frivolity that precedes the colossal Chaconne in D minor.   We make a swift shift into the folk realm with some traditional violin solos from Scotland and Ireland before a lurch into O’Carolan’s Concerto and a pivot back to the baroque with A Highland Battle by James Oswald, Chamber Composer for George III, the poor lad.   Move across the North Sea for Anders Wesstrom, an Oswald contemporary, and his Variations on a Swedish polonaise for violin and piano.   The Oz bit comes with Sydney composer Alice Chance’s Saturation, a duo commissioned for the composer’s Evergreen Ensemble and premiered at the 2017 Port Fairy Music Festival.   Oh, Chamberlain will provide some as-yet unnamed solos by Bach and Ross Edwards.  Lots to hear; it could go on and on.





Not the best of Spanish nights


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4, 2019

                                                                            Michael Dahlenburg

MCO director William Hennessy pointed out in a mini-address during this concert that there isn’t much chamber orchestra music by Spanish composers.  And that’s true, if you’re talking about the big names on this program – Turina, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo.  But you just have to move a little outside the predictable round and there’s plenty of choice.

Much of this night’s work came in arrangement format, some of it authorised like Turina’s own string orchestra arrangement of his La oracion del torero, while other renditions sounded pretty fresh off the press, like Nicholas Buc‘s setting of five pieces from the Espana suite for piano by Albeniz, and his treatment of three Danzas espanolas by Granados, also originally for piano,  The evening’s guest, Christoph Denoth, contributed to the festivities with his own arrangement for guitar and strings of Joaquin Malats’ Serenata which was originally composed as a piano solo before being hijacked by Tarrega for the delectation of guitarists the world over. What was achieved by Denoth’s revisiting?  Not much, although the string orchestra interludes proved welcome.

Even the two unaccompanied solos from Denoth were transcriptions, albeit famous ones, of two more piano originals: Leyenda (known to most of us as Asturias) and Torre bermeja, both by Albeniz.  Boil it all down and the only ‘clear’ content in this bitty entertainment arrived with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which concluded the program.

You could find little wrong with the Turina, lightly laced with some solos and a few brief excursions for string quartet with only a few traces of intonation problems near the last pages.  All fine, if you can mask your lack of sympathy for a blood sport aficionado; despite Turina’s mixture of religiosity and bravado, I’d always back the bull, just on the off-chance that justice prevails.

As inferred above, the Malats piece neither suffered nor gained from its transposition.  It’s a salon composition, a picture of Spain for export without any sign of individuality or colour.   More to the point, it was hard to see what Denoth gained by having a pretty bland string backdrop, particularly when you take into account his undemonstrative style of delivery which put the solo instrument pretty often in the background.  A stage hand positioned a microphone on Denoth’s playing podium but, if it was meant to help with amplification rather than recording, it failed of its promise.

Parts of the Espana were suited to re-planning, like the well-worn Tango and the Capricho catalan.  While much of Buc’s re-staging made for easy work, director Hennessy seemed to be dragging his cohorts into line during a hard-fought Preludio and coping with the awkward, non-catchy 5/8 tempo of the concluding Zortzico.    Still, at least you got a slight taste of the music’s Hispanic roots; later, in the Spanish Dances of Granados, matters weren’t so hearty.  In fact, during the first – an alleged fandango –  it struck me that the music could have come from anywhere, possibly even England at the time of the folk-song collectors like Holst and Vaughan-Williams.  It wasn’t the St. Paul’s Suite, but it impressed this listener as a close cousin.

Whether this impression of blandness in colour came from the original work or Buc’s clean-lines scoring, it’s hard to determine.  Once again, Hennessy seemed to be dragging his violins onward during the second selection (the famous Andaluza) while the final piece chosen – the No. 6 Jota – was distinguished by some quartet work at its centre but little else.

Denoth’s two Albeniz solos proved questionable.  The repeated notes of Asturias gained some comrades as the player struck a few open strings that were better left alone.  Further, you missed the slashing power of the full-blooded chords that interrupt the piece’s driving moto perpetuo.  The Torre bermeja hardly fared better, as the chief impression that it left was of difficulty and awkwardness, as though the player was struggling to handle its intricacies.

The Rodrigo concerto enjoyed a few successful stretches, mainly in the central AdagioMichael Dahlenburg left the cello ranks to conduct, Molly Kadarauch coming on to flesh out the numbers.  From the start, Denoth presented a studied, laboured reading in which some notes simply disappeared, most noticeably in the decrescendo before the first movement’s cello solo.  The uncertainties continued with some awkward scale passages and misjudged rasgueado chords.  In the second movement, it was hard to fault the first cadenza, but just as hard to warm to the second one; in the build-up to this latter, I suspect that Denoth lost his place.

The weakest of the concerto’s movements, its concluding Allegro gentile, did little to help the guest’s strike rate.    Instead of finding a neat balance between courtly sprightliness and earthy vigour, the reading proved pedestrian, although you quickly learned to look forward to Dahlenburg’s tuttis.  The soloist was in all sorts of strife, to the point where some of the anticipated orchestral cueing-in became a matter of (informed) luck as expected flurries failed to start on time or continue; at one point, Denoth made no attempt at a particularly active scale run.   Full marks, then,  to the young conductor for shepherding his forces through what is a spectacularly transparent score.

Now we find out (Saturday morning) that the guest soloist was ill, his place being taken this afternoon at the Recital Centre by Slava Grigoryan.  I’m sorry to hear it, of course, but why wasn’t the Australian guitarist brought in before this particular night?  And if not him, then his brother or one of a plethora of local guitarists who would have nearly all these items – the Malats Serenata, perhaps not – under his/her belt?

At all events, Denoth hopes to be able to fulfil the other calls on this program’s tour – Warragul, Daylesford, Bairnsdale, Frankston – over the coming week.  Good luck to him and I hope he is heard to fine effect in those cities/towns.  But what we heard on Thursday last was sadly disappointing and – as it now seems – unnecessary.


A night at the coal-face


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31, 2018

                                                                             Caroline Almonte

For the second of the Mimir demonstration recitals – where young Melbourne music-students can see and hear how to penetrate the mysteries of chamber music by watching solid professionals at work – the organizers set a high concentration bar.   Not that it seemed that way on paper – a Sibelius scrap, a two-piano romp by Rachmaninov, the first of Beethoven’s last five string quartets – but, as the evening turned out, each work made for hard going.  Not that this was entirely due to the players, who worked both manfully and womanfully to reach their interpretative goals.

For example, the combination of violinist Curt Thompson, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor performed the Sibelius G minor String Trio – what there is of it because only one of the projected three movements, a Lento,  was completed.  The bardic element is strong with a plethora of unison/octave writing and slow-moving harmonic progressions, a fine set of excursions for the cello and a mood-setting sequence of single-note crescendi for the upper strings.

I’m not sure that this set of Mimir personnel fitted the bill ideally.  Thompson projects a finely shaped line which sang out intermittently over a hefty bass from Taylor while DerHovsepian’s usually strong, forthright contribution impressed as unusually recessive – until you looked at the piece itself which is not much of a gift to the viola.  The effect was of an inner imbalance of dynamic address with the bass line taking on an unexpected prominence.

Still, hearing a string trio these days is something of a rarity and it takes some time to adapt to the absence of a second violin.  This is compounded when the passage of play is about 7 minutes long; you adjust to the three layers easily enough.  But then, with a late Romantic efflorescence like this bagatelle, the temptation arises to mentally flesh out chords and melodies-with-accompaniment; a pointless occupation and a distraction, at best.  At the end, this movement served as little more than a brief curtain-raiser, competently delivered if unexceptional in impact.  I know you can’t expect masterpieces like the Webern Op. 20 or the Schoenberg Op. 45 to pop up every time a string trio is mooted but this gambit failed to impress for several reasons, not the least being its actual content

Speaking of distractions, the following run-through of Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos set my teeth on edge for all the wrong reasons.  Melbourne musician Caroline Almonte teamed with visitor John Novacek for this flamboyant exercise but her page-turner was ill-prepared for the experience, doing her job too early for Almonte or failing to move quickly enough.  And this is not a work where mechanical slip-ups can be ignored, particularly in the outer movements, Alla marcia and Tarantella, let alone the rapid second-movement Waltz.

Coping with this problem meant much more to Almonte than to any of us observers, yet it made for an enervating 20 minutes or so.   I assume that the turner was faced with a score that had both parts set out and she underwent considerable confusions separating Almonte’s part from the other; matters weren’t helped for her by the performers using different editions.   Whatever the case, the work’s progress often took on the character of a slug-fest, which is partly the composer’s fault because much of the writing involves massive doubling that gives rise to an ongoing heftiness.  Sure, there are more relaxed passages where the texture cuts back as at Figure 4 in the Muzgiz 1948 edition of the first movement, and later after the fff explosion at Figure 14 where the dynamic scales back radically to an unexpectedly placid ending.

Even the headlong finale has bouts of relative quiescence; after the initial quick contrast between pp and ff,  Rachmaninov lets up at Figure 16 for some restrained skipping before bursting back to the normal operating condition of hectoring.  This interpolation of potentially air-filled relief recurs twice more before the rhythm piles hemiolas on its 6/8 pulse and the performers head for an emphatic home stretch.  It could be exhilarating but the overwhelming sensation at the suite’s end was of relief.

Nevertheless, Almonte and Novacek showed excellent synchronicity and responsiveness in the extended Romance, especially in the long stretch from Figure 2 to the key-change at Figure 5 which saw the interpretation reach a peak of consistent mutual sympathy that recurred later on with an interchanging of elaborate right hand decorative material, the whole urging towards a powerful D flat/A flat outburst at the movement’s climax.  This was a purple patch, lushly eloquent and delivered with a convincing amplitude of balanced timbres.

After interval, the program moved back into familiar Mimir mode with the Beethoven Op. 127 expounded by violinists Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor.  Does anybody else find that this is the most mentally exhausting of these late works?  Yes, it follows the usual four-movement format, unlike most of the following constructs, but it raises mental sweat at every turn through its relentless tension, especially the demands on the first violinist, the onward drive that seems to stop and start – the Baroque flourish of the opening bars and their recurrence in medias res, for instance – and the juggernaut approach to texture that comes to a head in the finale.

This was a hard-fought engagement, each player stretched if none more so than Iwasaki, notably in the wrenching – and I don’t mean emotionally – Adagio where the first violin sets the running and, with precious few interludes, has no break; rather, the part is an exhaustion in the Andante central 20 bars before the key change to E Major.   And the succeeding movements’ working-out becomes an intellectual onslaught as Beethoven launches into no-compromise mode, most noticeable in the finale where even the great performer-quartets are exercised to just negotiate the notes, caught up as we all are in an inventive maelstrom that stupefies by its single-mindedness.

No one can claim that this airing was flawless, although it held together rhythmically through all stages.  The finicky among us could point to intonational flaws and an occasional tension-easing interpolated hiatus.  But the players threw themselves into the score without reserve, giving of their best in a work that looks so sensible on paper while bringing it into sound presents a world of problems.  In the best possible way, this experience showed those young players in attendance (and there were many more on this night than had been present for the first in this series two days before) that the task of interpreting a masterwork involves a dedication to hard work – and that process never stops.