SIBELIUS, RACHMANINOV, BEETHOVEN
Melba Hall, University of Melbourne
August 31, 2018
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.