Not the best of Spanish nights

ESPANA!

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  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 guitarist 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 Adagio.  Michael 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 striking 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.

 

 

 

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