February Diary

Sunday February 3

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre at 5 pm

Continuing its underlying program of Wagner promulgation, the city’s opera company is heading for the first so-called masterpiece, the doorway in the received canon.  We have seen this opera recently – three years ago, almost to the day, down at St. Kilda’s Palais  presented by Victorian Opera with 3D scenery.   A good way further back, I seem to recall the Victorian State Opera mounting the work at the State Theatre in 1987, following an earlier season at the Princess Theatre in 1978.   The only controversy that hit any of these preceding interpretations was at the 1987 season when an attempt to present the opera in its original form – in one continuous three-act swoop – came up against union demands for consideration of the musicians on OH&S grounds, so that an enforced interval came just at the point where Senta and the Dutchman confront each other for the first time. Anyway, this production finds the company in the Regent Theatre and the enterprise will be conducted by Anthony Negus who directed last year’s Tristan from Melbourne Opera.  British bass-baritone Darren Jeffrey has the most significant role of his career so far as the doomed hero.   Lee Abrahmsen sings Senta,  Rosario La Spina will probably take on Erik;  Roxane Hislop brings years of experience to Mary, Senta’s nurse; and Steven Gallop takes up the challenge of Daland.   For all its youthful status in the canon, this work is unforgettable for its brisk simplicity of action, mighty marine suggestiveness and intensely sympathetic vocal writing.

 

Tuesday February 5

THE ITALIAN GROUND: MUSIC FOR DANCING

Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

As far as I can tell, the content of this recital comprises much of the CD that this ensemble produced for the ABC in 2007:  suites by Sanz, Kapsberger and Gianoncelli; a set of three compositions by Ruiz de Ribayaz; Mudarra’s Fantasia in the Ludovico manner; Castladi’s Quagliotta Canzone; Alessandro Piccinini’s Chiaconna; Murcia’s Gaitas y Cumbees; and the anonymous work that gives this night its title.   Still, it’s been 12 years or thereabouts since the recording was issued and ,although some of these pieces have emerged in Band outings across the intervening years, it’s always worth hearing the ensemble work through pieces that they have relished enough to endow with a sort of permanence.

 

Friday February 8

GERSHWIN & FRIENDS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Back we come for the annual trilogy of free concerts under the stars, complete with picnics and light-hearted revelry on the lawn, while the senior citizenry takes its entertainment more seriously in the seating under the Bowl canopy.   Tonight, Gershwin is the presiding genius with the effervescent raucousness of the Cuban Overture, that jazz-civilizing tone-poem An American in Paris, and Australian-based-in-New-York pianist Daniel Le taking the spotlight in Rhapsody in Blue, one of music’s great ad hoc amalgams that still jolts you with the arrival of each episode on the underlying train journey it depicts.  The friends, apart from conductor Benjamin Northey and Le, also number Olivia Chindamo who will take part in her father Joe’s Fantaskatto, written for the singer and showcasing her talents at scat singing.   Chindamo premiered this work two years ago at the Brisbane Powerhouse; it has been described as ‘a concertante work with jazz, contemporary and operatic flavours.’   A sort of thematic mix-up, then – which is a fair description of these go-with-the-flow nights that are usually packed out.

 

Wednesday February 13

TREBLE HELIX UNLOCKED

The Song Company

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Sydney vocal ensemble which seemed to hold its members intact for many years, is tonight singing parts of the Eton Choirbook, a collection of Catholic liturgical music that survived the excessive destructive penchant of the longer-lived Tudor monarchs.  The Song Company will position itself around a focal point and sing at each other; we are invited to watch and marvel.   Of the 64 compositions available (well, 62: a couple are incomplete), we are promised a Magnificat (one of the 9 available),  Richard Davy’s Passio Domini, a swag of motets and the Jesus autem transiens/Credo in Deum 13-part canon by Robert Wylkynson who was Master of the Choristers at Eton from 1500 onward.   The personnel of the Company appears to have altered radically since I last heard them, but that was back in the Roland Peelman days; this ensemble has acquired a new director in Antony Pitts since Peelman hung up his non-existent baton in 2015.  The night’s title is bound to be meaningful but all it suggests to me is the three-strands of English composition that the Choirbook contains.

 

Wednesday February 13

CHINESE NEW YEAR

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The MSO has ventured its arm in many ventures over the years but this night promises an exceptional welcome to the Year of the Pig.   The Mongolian group Hanggai is advertised as a ‘traditional-meets-rock band’, one which adapts folk tunes for a modern format.   Now, even with no knowledge of the music of the steppes, I’m prepared to guess that numbers like Swan Geese and Horse of Colours could be traditional songs; about The Transistor Made in Shanghai, doubt rears its none-too-credulous head.   But, as usual, what do I know?   It’s probably been sung for decades across Ulaanbaatar and in trend-setting yurts for miles around.   Tan Dun conducts, of course, and introduces us to his Double Bass Concerto, The Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves the soloist, and the composer’s Cellphone Symphony Passacaglia (Secret of Winds and Birds) which involves the audience playing an app of birdsong which we have all downloaded prior to the concert and which turn on at a specific point in the work.  Audience participation indeed, and a neat turning of the tables on those morons who cannot conceive of existing socially, even in mid-concert, without the assistance of their own audio-visual life-support systems.

 

Wednesday February 13

Grigoryan Brothers and Wolfgang Muthspiel

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This recital was to have involved Muthspiel, Slava Grigoryan and Ralph Towner, but the last-named master-guitarist has had to cancel – hence, the substitution of the other Grigoryan guitarist, Leonard.   Not much detail has been published about what the trio will play; nothing as dreary as a set program.   But we are assured of a variety of guitars and lots of improvisation, which is all to the good.  Still, Cassandra-like, I predict that the extempore stuff will be very predictable and you can forget any experimentation of a challenging nature.   Don’t believe me, then.   But Muthspiel is a fine jazz musician and he works within that genre’s limitations, which have become more and more obvious since the 1960s.

 

Saturday February 16

SATURDAY NIGHT SYMPHONY

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

The second of the free Myer Bowl concerts from the MSO features the organization’s assistant conductor, Tianyi Lu, and violinist Leon Fei who is, I think, 14 years old.   This program has no symphony on its bill of fare, but a bewildering sequence of the popular and the unknown.  The menu, that originally was to open with Berlioz’s Le corsaire overture, now starts with Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah (no, it can’t be the whole thing – I suspect we will hear the Act 3 Bacchanale only).  Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande Suite is the solitary French work of the night, which originally included Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’in faune and his orchestration of one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The rarely heard Pohjola’s Daughter tone poem by Sibelius enjoys an airing; complementing this Lapland vision is Iain Grandage’s Deep: A Silent Poem for Sir Douglas Mawson that memorializes the explorer’s 1912 solo Antarctic trek.   Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture enjoys yet another Myer Bowl performance and the night centres on The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, with Fei as the soloist.

 

Saturday February 16

PURCELL’S KING ARTHUR

Gabrieli Consort & Players

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

For this tour, the ensemble comprises nine singers and seventeen instrumentalists under director Paul McCreesh who co-edited the edition used of Purcell’s opera-of-sorts.   I can only recall one performance of King Arthur from the distant past; I believe it was at the National Theatre in St. Kilda and vague memories also stir of Richard Divall directing the pit operations.   Regardless of the reliability or otherwise to these memories, here we are with a concert performance which may approach the superlative quality of Les Arts Florissants working through Dido and Aeneas; or it may be very authentic and as interesting as an exegesis on Pascal from Barnaby Joyce.   This will be the Gabrielis’ first Australian tour and, for all one’s reservations about getting tangled up in the scholarship, you can hardly imagine a body better placed to illuminate this score which holds the effective Act 3 Frost Scene as well as the aria Fairest Isle towards the end.   The original has a considerable amount of dialogue from Dryden which you’d expect to be excised here.

This program will be repeated on Sunday February 17 at 2 pm.

 

Wednesday February 20

PARSIFAL

Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 4:30 pm

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?  The month begins with the earliest of Wagner’s works that is part of every opera house’s repertoire and, a few weeks later, we can experience the last product from the composer’s pen.   This slow-moving interpretation at several removes of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem has rarely been played in Melbourne and should be an unmissable undertaking for those dedicated to the Wagner myth.  If it weren’t for the venue, I’d be happy to pay my way but parking is impossible, the locals inspire no confidence, and you can’t be enthusiastic about walking along Marine Parade to get your car after 10:30 pm.  The title role is taken by German tenor Burkhard Fritz, who sang the first Parsifal in China and goes from here to sing the same role in Munich.   Incidentally, he looks nothing like any of the figures shown in the VO publicity.   Katarina Dalayman (Kundry) has recorded her role and has a veteran’s experience in it.   British bass Peter Rose also brings a wealth of experience to one of opera’s masters of tedium, Gurnemanz. Amfortas, the endlessly complaining, will be sung by Australian-born baritone Peter Roser.   Derek Welton, who has sung the part at Bayreuth, is Klingsor and Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes a welcome appearance as old Titurel, presiding over the whole welter. Company artistic eminence Richard Mills conducts to Roger Hodgman’s direction and the Australian Youth Orchestra will welter around the slow-moving, sonorous edifices that delineate the work’s geography.

This opera will be repeated on Friday February 22 at 4:30 pm and on Sunday February 24 at 3 pm.

 

Wednesday February 20

A SYMPHONIC CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

The MSO administration is once again wielding the symphony label, and tonight’s program gives justification for this.   It all concludes with the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 which requires an organ.   I don’t think that they’re going to ship in a true instrument with actual pipes for Calvin Bowman to use for those big blazoning chords that open this work’s finale, used to devastatingly mundane effect in Chris Noonan’s 1995 film Babe.  What’s the betting on an electronic sound-source?   Before this grand finale,  Benjamin Northey takes the p[layers through Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and A Hero’s Journey by the MSO’s Cybec Young Composer in Residence, Mark Holdsworth; oddly enough, this last work is listed on the composer’s own website as Fanfare, although the two titles aren’t mutually exclusive even if the latter points to a short career.   The night’s soloist is violinist Veriko Chumburidze, a 22-year-old Turkey-born musician from Georgia who won the Wieniawski Competition in 2016.  She is taking the brilliant and fun-filled leading line in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.

 

Wednesday February 20

Satu Vanska and Kristian Chong

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This is the opening gambit in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the specific Great being applied to Vanska, one of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s leading violinists.   She’s enjoyed a couple of solos with the ACO and they’ve been worthy enough but you’d be hard pressed to put her up there with Ehnes and Vengerov.   The collaborating artist, Chong, is apparently not great; nevertheless, he’s more than capable of dealing with this program.   Lutoslawski’s 5-minute Subito was written for an American violin competition and lives up to its title by swerving from one episode to another.   Vanska then performs the first half of the Bach G minor solo Violin Sonata and fleshes out her night with the complete Beethoven A Major Sonata Op. 30 No. 1 and Ravel’s sprightly G Major.   Before the rousing, sophisticated crudity of the Tzigane finale,  Vanska performs another solo: Kaija Saariaho’s . . . de la Terre which involves atmospheric electronics.

 

Sunday February 24

3MBS DVORAK MARATHON

Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra et al

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, 8 pm

This appears to be following the same pattern as last year’s Bach orgy sponsored by the radio station.   Along with these six major concerts, some others are occupying younger patrons in the Primrose Potter Salon space.   For an opening comes the Stabat Mater from the RMP forces under Andrew Wailes.   Mid-day has the Streeton Trio in the Dumky, Calvin Bowman performing the 8 Preludes and Fugues for organ (on what instrument?), three of the Slavonic Dances in two-piano format, and the delectably nationalistic Op. 100 Violin Sonatina.   At 2 pm, the Sutherland Trio with violist Christopher Moore play the Piano Quartet No. 1, Dindin Wang and Rhodri Clarke outline the Op. 11 violin/piano Romance Op. 11, Benjamin Martin gives us the Eclogues, and the Orava Quartet play the American in F Major.   Next, an all-star cast takes on the Piano Quintet No. 1 – pianist Stephen McIntyre, violinists Wilma Smith and Elizabeth Sellars, violist Caroline Henbest and cellist Christopher Howlett; the Australian Children’s Choir sing five brief melodies; then ANAM musicians and Arcadia Winds will bound through the Serenade Op. 44.   At dusk, Stefan Cassomenos plays the hour-long Poetic Tone Pictures for piano, members of the Australian Octet following up with the A Major String Sextet.   Finally, Elyana Laussade airs the twelve short Op. 8 Silhouettes, soprano Zara Barrett sings Rusalka’s Song to the Moon with the Corpus Medicorum under Keith Crellin, orchestra and conductor bringing the marathon to a close with the E minor Symphony.

In the Potter Salon, a youth program is also on offer; introductions to Dvorak at 11 am and 12:30 pm, followed up by masterclasses at 2 pm, 3 pm, and 4 pm.

 

Monday January 25

ORAWA

Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The boys from Brisbane form part of the 2019 Southbank Series and aim for an exemplary purity in Haydn’s Op. 33 No. 1, the first and less well-known of the composer’s two quartets in B minor.   Later, in this hour-long Salon event, we hear Mendelssohn In F minor. an elegy for his recently deceased sister Fanny and his last major composition.  In the centre the group plays Orawa, Woljchiech Kilar’s string orchestra work of 2001 reduced for quartet and from which the group took inspiration for its name.   Kilar was best known as a film composer and you can discern the travelogue elements in this tri-partite vision of the Tatra Mountains and River.

 

Tuesday February 26

NATALIE CLEIN & KATYA APEKISHEVA

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

To start Musica Viva’s subscription series this year, the combination of cellist Natalie Clein and pianist Katya Apekisheva offers two programs that teeter on the brink of over-familiarity.   I don’t know Clein and wonder if she has played here previously; a superficial bit of research revealed that she has played in Perth as a member of the Belcea Quartet but is not listed on their bio as a former member.   She has certainly performed in New Zealand but, for the most part, her activities are pretty home-grown and English.   Moscow-born Apekisheva is a close contemporary but also a novice to Melbourne; neither artist seems to have had close connections with the other in the past.  Whatever, they start tonight with Kodaly’s Sonatina, then a new work by Natalie Williams for these artists commissioned by Musica Viva, which is followed by the last Beethoven sonata in D Major and Rachmaninov’s G minor Sonata

Clein and Apekisheva will play a second program on Saturday March 16 at 7 pm. Natalie Williams’ new score will be repeated; the Beethoven is the D Major Sonata’s Op. 102 companion in C Major; another novelty comes in the vignette-length Six Studies in English Folk-Song by Vaughan Williams. Bloch looms large with the 1956 Suite No. 1 for solo cello and the inevitable From Jewish Life, written over 30 years prior.  And patrons will also hear British composer Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola or Cello and Piano of 1919.

 

Wednesday February 27

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Cellist Sharon Grigoryan is still away on parental leave and her place is being taken tonight by the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal Timo-Veikko Valve.   As with the Orava Quartet’s program from two days ago, the ASQ is beginning with Haydn Op. 33; in this case, No. 3 yclept The Bird.   To end, the players take on Sibelius in the Voces intimae score, the solitary product in this form from the composer’s mature years.  As is becoming the practice with chamber music recitals, the ensemble deviates from the norm in the program’s centre.  Here, they will play Papa Haydn’s Parrot by Helena Winkelman, a Swiss-Dutch violinist who has composed a paraphrase in 8 movements on the Haydn work that precedes it in this night’s offerings.   For a violinist, Winkelman has an impressive catalogue of compositions; my loss, probably, but I’ve heard none of them.  You’d anticipate a paraphrase in the style of Liszt on Rigoletto.  But can you carry it on for so many movements?   Here’s hoping for something more substantial than simple-minded frivolities.

 

Thursday February 28

QUARTET FRIENDS

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here’s yet another example of what I just referred to in the previous entry.   The Flinders group starts with Haydn, Op. 64 No. 3 in B flat – one of the Tost group in the process of being composed as the composer finally left Esterhaza.   The night’ conclusion comes in Schumann’s last in A, by which the composer ended his brief (month-long!) labours in the string quartet form – all three of them.   Between these solid poles comes a new work by Matthew Laing, commissioned by the Flinders players.   Speaking of which, the personnel appear to have changed yet again.   Helen Ireland and Zoe Knighton continue in viola and cello spots respectively; first violin is Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba who was for a time to be seen among the Australian Chamber Orchestra desks; second violin, Nicholas Waters, is a recent ANAM habitue but has been integrating into the Flinders sound for a few years now.

Part of this program will be played in the Collins St. Baptist Church at 1 pm on Tuesday February 26.   Laing and Schumann remain; Haydn disappears.

 

Thursday February 28

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTRE ORCHESTRA WITH WYNTON MARSALIS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another of the talented Marsalis brood comes to town, not hiding out in a subterranean bar in authentic 1950s fashion but taking to the concert hall and using the services of the MSO.   Trumpeter Wynton has not been here for 20 years, so his return is big news; on top of which, he is bringing his JLCO musicians with him.   As usual, I’m unsure who is playing what.   We are scheduled to hear some Duke Ellington selections – from both bodies or only one is unclear.   More definitely, we will enjoy Bernstein’s 1949 Prelude, Fugue and Riffs which will feature the JLCO and some guests from the MSO.   But the focal point of the night is Marsalis’ own Symphony No. 4, The Jungle, which is a portrait of New York, has six movements, and is of Mahlerian length.   Yet another fusion of jazz and classical, the symphony has generated generally amiable reactions from American audiences and writers.   Given its predecessors on this night, it faces a huge amount of competition.

This program will be repeated on Friday March 1 at 7:30 pm and on Saturday March 2 at 7:30 pm.

 

Thursday February 28

JOVIAN WORLDS

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

As for Jove, the MCO is going for the pantheonic jugular with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the Classical period’s main justification for the key of C Major.   Conductor Michael Dahlenburg, a young man set on an ultra-demanding task, has charge of this interpretation.   As well, the concert begins with a Tchaikovsky scrap: the Moderato e semplice first movement from the String Quartet No. 1 with its  rocking first subject syncopations.   We’ll hear it in a string orchestra arrangement (don’t know whose).   In this conservatively shaped program, the centre-piece concerto is Tchaikovsky in D with soloist Andrew Haveron, concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; seen here at least once a year in Kathryn Selby’s chamber music recital series at MLC in Hawthorn.  It’s a large work for the MCO to take on, asking for a woodwind octet, a brass sextet and timpani as well as a solid soloist-competitive string corps.   There’s a touch of the Jovian about the concerto, particularly in those brave polonaise-suggestive tutti outbursts during the first Allegro; also more than a suspicion of the Mercurial in the finale, with a few shadings of Saturnine grumpiness, not to mention an ongoing Venerian languor in the melting, muted outer stretches of the central Canzonetta.  Sorry: can’t find the Martial, Tellurian, Uranic or Neptunian . . . obviously not looking hard enough.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 5 at 2:30 pm in the Melbourne Recital Centre.

 

 

Not too much effort: it’s summer

PENINSULA SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL

Miles Johnston

Australian Haydn Ensemble & David Greco

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders

Sunday January 6 at 11:30 am and 2 pm

 

miles johnston

                                                                    Miles Johnston

After a decade or so under the artistic directorship of violinist Julia Fredersdorff, this festival has been taken over by a new pair of hands: those of Ben Opie, known only to me as the oboist from the two-persons-plus-guests Inventi Ensemble.  The event brief has been widened to take in some places on the Mornington Peninsula that are unknown to – and unheard of by – me.   So, letting discretion continue as the better part of valour, I beat the usual track to Flinders for two recitals that followed quickly on each other.

There are times when you can enjoy three events in one day at St. John’s Anglican Church on the outskirts of this seaside Sleepy Hollow, although the evening one is often held out-of-doors under canvas – which caters for the crowd that turns up but does nothing for the performers’ sound.   Both the morning guitar recital by Miles Johnston and the Schubert lieder collaboration after lunch were held indoors.  Now the church is not large but it does boast fine acoustic qualities; soft sounds carry successfully, fortissimo means exactly that, and shadings are instantly perceptible.

Johnston won the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantic’s Competition last year but moved outside that historical period in a four-part program of works from all over the place.   Following a practice as old as Segovia, he began with Bach: a transcription of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor.   Was this Manuel Barrueco’s arrangement?  Johnston did mention a name but it skipped past without making much of an impact – rather like two other composers on this program where syllabic proximation played a large part in their identification.

The sonata’s opening Adagio proved to be an excellent introduction to this young musician’s painstaking, lapidary interpretation by which every note is precisely delivered and the score’s progress is distinguished by the player’s fine ear for phrasing ebb and flow.   In this controlled, restrained set of pages, you got to appreciate very quickly how subtle is Johnston’s style, especially his negotiation of soft passages, which sometimes bordered on inaudibility.   The following fugue was delivered as a deliberate contrast: strict in metre, almost inexorably so until the final bars where the counterpoint dissipates into abrupt floridity.

Johnston’s view of the Siciliana – all 20 bars of it – was appealingly well-rounded with a high quality of fluency in the rush of demi-semiquavers in bars 5 and 8.   It was back to emphatic rhythmic solidity in the concluding Presto, which was just that.   Johnston observed the first repeat but not the second; still, he sustained a high degree of accuracy in this bravura exhibition which enjoyed remarkably few punctuation points.

Giulio Regondi’s Introduction and Caprice Op. 3 in E Major/minor also served as a valuable display piece for Johnston, who programmed this work for the Recital Centre competition.  He observed all the portamenti directions in the first part’s pages and managed to keep the shape sensible without overdoing the potential for rubato, exerting a firm control on the two cadenzas that occur near the end of each of the Introduction‘s two pages.   You don’t get much material to chew on in the Caprice but the executant had plenty of room for display in a brisk set of pages that ask for plenty of dexterity, a firm hand for full six-note chords, and an amiability of interpretation that keeps the tenor of the performance in the world of the salon.

Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Threnody for Chernobyl: variations on a twelve-tone theme offers a sort of meditation – not too demanding – on the Russian nuclear power-station disaster in 1986.   Johnston invested this work with a sure-footed solemnity, notably at either end: first, with the processional of single notes where Charlton sets out his material without doctrinaire rigidity; and at the conclusion where the underlying four-note inverted mordent pattern dominates the bleak emotional landscape as the work fades to silence.

Charlton makes no attempt – thankfully – to mirror the events of the colossal meltdown or the horrific aftermath that (we assume) followed.   He is concerned with mourning, so the work rarely whips itself into a passion.  And, despite the latter part of the title, he is not concerned with subscribing to any dodecaphonic rules; in fact, he does a Berg and gives his tone row an orthodox harmonic slant.   To his credit, the guitarist realised the piece’s quiet, pointed lament with a careful unveiling of its muted message; not so much rage against the dying of the light but a quiet, determined going gentle.

Last in this brief hour’s work was Russian guitarist/composer Nikita Koshkin’s Introduction and Vivace which used minor 9ths and 2nds as a sort of calling card throughout its first half before changing pace, if not material, for the faster pages.  I looked for the projected rock influences in the work that Johnston adverted to in his pre-performance address but could find little of the kind; it seemed quite a well-framed if intellectually brittle construct which, if anything, erred on the side of brevity.

Finally, a brief encore of what I think was Sergio Assad’s Valseana from the Aquarelle of 1986 and we were done.   Johnston shows an impressive technical armoury and a confidence that rarely falters; I heard only one fret error in the octave oscillations towards the end of the Regondi work and a few notes failed to register in the Koshkin Vivace, but slight slips were just that and not enough to distract from the eloquence of this musician’s product.

FOR the songs with light baritone David Greco, the Haydn Ensemble comprised five musicians: violins Skye McIntosh and Simone Slattery, viola James Eccles, cello James Bush and a double bass that I think was Jacqueline Dooser – only because she’s listed in the publicity for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival where this program is being repeated.   For this afternoon, Greco fronted seven songs while the quintet filled in  with excerpts from Les quatres saisons, a large suite of 24 pieces by Berlioz’s colleague, Felicien David.

The singer began with Die Gotter Griechenlandes which he introduced – as he did all his material – with a short explanatory talk.   Sadly, in this instance, he mishandled the title’s interpretation but, when it got around to singing, he gave a stolid account of this setting of a piece of Schiller’s pagan-celebrating poem.  I’d like to be able to report success from the Haydn players but their delivery impressed as slackly disciplined and all too often not uniform, either in striking the note simultaneously or in weighting the slow-moving chords appropriately.   It was hard to warm to Greco’s reading, principally because of an over-expressive tendency to gild the text with pointed emphasis, rather than allowing the line to make its own grave statements.

More dark shades followed with Der Jungling und der Tod and Der Tod und das Madchen, Greco relishing the several changes in persona that both songs offer and generally keeping the pathos under control.   Every so often, the Haydns would have a spongy passage where communal entries sounded anything but.   Much better came in the three excerpts from Winterreise: Gute nacht with an unexpected high vehemence pervading stanza 3, Fruhlingstraum pixilated by some added ornaments to brighten up this disturbing schizoid lyric, and Der Leiermann where you could admire the baritone’s legato if not the reading which was deficient in detachment, missing on the disembodied fade-to-black that concludes this epic essay in dreary weltschmerz.

Greco concluded the set program with a rapid version of Der Erlkonig, thoughtfully giving us a near-word-for-word translation before he began – which rather robs the experience of its point, but never mind.   Here, more than anywhere else, you missed the piano accompaniment, one of the most gripping in the art form.   Almost in compensation for the lack of percussive drive, Greco turned the song into something close to opera, in particular the lines of the dying child.   All very theatrical and enough to have the lady next to me leap to her feet in either admiration or arousal.

With the interstitial David pieces, you could find little interest and not much to challenge the quintet’s virtuosity.   McIntosh clipped some short ornamental points in the more playful interludes to the first piece, an Andantino in F sharp minor that heads the Summer bracket.   The Andante con moto 3/8 waltz that concludes the Spring experience worked to better effect although its positioning in the course of events puzzled.  During the Autumn Allegretto movement, pitching went astray somewhere in the upper strings which made you wonder whether the puristic insistence on gut strings was actually worth the trouble.   And in the final David extract – back to Spring for an Andante – the group hit a hefty dynamic level and stayed there for a remarkably long stretch.

Mind you, the packed church showed far more enthusiasm than I did for this recital and, given the working conditions, it’s to the musicians’ credit that the flaws in delivery were not more numerous or noticeable.   Even so, I was expecting more polish from the string players who came close to sounding lumpy in several of the David interludes.  Greco’s light-textured production is well-suited to Schubert with an attractive evenness across his range and a laudable clarity of diction and precision of articulation.   What is absent is a heightened insight of interpretation where the listener becomes less conscious of the vocal technique and more aware of the work’s emotional content.

 

 

2018 in review

January

As usual, this month was dominated by two festivals that marginally overlap: the Peninsula Summer Music and Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields.  Unlike previous years, where you are tempted to speed across the Mornington wastelands a few times during the week-plus stretch of recitals and concerts that artistic director Julie Fredersdorff assembles for the delectation of the district’s well-heeled conservatives, this year I found little tempting, apart from a single day at St. John the Evangelist Church in Flinders.  This small church has been a regular venue of the festival for many years, larger events transferred to the grass outside where, often enough, a large marquee is erected for audience-attracting programs.  This year’s three-recitals-in-one day exercise saw Fredersdorff and harpsichordist Aline Zylberajch powering through half of Bach’s violin sonatas, pianist Stefan Cassomenos mixing Scarlatti  with Australian writers Katy Abbott and Andrew Aronowicz, then violinist Lucinda Moon bringing up the rear with two of the Bach unaccompanied works for her instrument.

Ballarat’s hectic round kicked off with the Missa Criolla, that over-praised sample of contemporary religious composition, given an unexpectedly dour colouring from the Gloriana ensemble with additional percussion, the Mass partnered with Joby Talbot’s The Path of Miracles  –   well, some of it as the Glorianas sang only the final two movements,. but without the persuasive elation that the work’s commissioners, English choir Tenebrae, brought to it a few months before during the Melbourne International Arts Festival of 2017.   The Ballarat festivities ended with a mass from the other end of the historical spectrum in Biber’s massive Missa Salisburgensis, performed by the Newman College and Queen’s College choirs and a multitude of instruments that fleshed out the 53 lines required.   A fair attempt but the physical hurdles presented in getting all participants organized and inter-related sometimes proved too big an ask.

By some organizational holiday accident at The Age, I was asked to review Terence McNally’s Master Class, the play about Maria Callas teaching at the Juilliard School in 1971-2, its engrossing central role reprised yet again by Amanda Muggleton.   Like several similar dramatic essays that make it their business to position musical performance as their raison d’etre (including another Master Class by David Pownall about an imagined  Shostakovich-Prokofiev-Stalin confrontation), the personalities take over and the works heard assume a subsidiary importance.   I got mail after this review, assuring me that the dramatised content of Callas’ classes was based on actual recordings; which merely helped to reinforce my opinion that the diva over-charged the hosting organization for her services..   Of course, it’s hard to get the right balance but every dramatization I’ve seen of serious musicians grappling with their craft has veered towards the ludicrously over-drawn.  Examples are too numerous to detail, but you only have to remember Song of Norway, Song Without End, Magic Fire, Shine Immortal Beloved, and Rhapsody in Blue to see that sentiment wins out over fact time after time.   A great compensation is that most films about musicians these days are to do with rock performers or country-and-western people; here, the musical content is close to non-existent from the outset.

 

February

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is making a big success of its live soundtrack concerts, with a fair number of them held in the huge Plenary space.   In 2018, the organization struck out in a new direction: the Star Wars enterprise, presenting the first-made film in the series,  A New Hope.   A simple tale, before the story-line became too fraught with incestuous and Oedipal detours, the musicians gave a suitably straightforward account of John Williams’ atmospherically brilliant score.   In quick order, the MSO moved to the Myer Music Bowl for its annual series of three free concerts.   Of the two I heard, the first brought co-concertmaster Sophie Rowell to even more central centre-stage than usual for the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, which was followed by a vital Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4  directed by Dutch guest Antony Hermus; for the second, the novel programming of Berio’s Folk Songs, sung by Luciana Mancini, proved a welcome breath of fresh air on a night that began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and concluded with the same composer’s stupefyingly predictable Bolero.

A burst of Brahms generated my enthusiasm in the opening Australian Chamber Orchestra program for the year, a beefing-up of the String Sextet No. 2 that brought into the string orchestra mix some players from the Australian National Academy of Music.  Following a more prescribed path numerically, the Australian String Quartet gave a welcome re-airing to Brett Dean’s First Quartet, Eclipse, which memorializes a national shame in the Tampa crisis yet does so with remarkable restraint.   jordi Savall, his Hesperion XXI players and the Tembembe Ensemble Continuo musicians from Mexico attempted an amalgam of Spanish Baroque compositions and Latin American songs and dances, which experiment didn’t really come off with unquestionable success.

As for reviews in this blog, radio Station 3MBS mounted its annual marathon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, this year featuring J. S. Bach – including music by his sons and works by other composers inspired by, or borrowing from, the master.   C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion made an interesting novelty, well-achieved by the Bach Choir under Rick Prakhoff and graced by a fine assembly of soloists.    A trio of pianists gave good value: Tristan Lee accounted brilliantly for Liszt’s Praeludium on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, Elyane Laussade outlined the French Suite in G with some panache; Kathryn Selby showed no fear in a muscular Italian Concerto.

Beginning with a mind-boggling miscellany, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Thomas Tallis’ England proved to be a good deal more than its title proposed, taking in works by the Elizabethan master but adding music by Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, Purcell, Handel and ending with an overblown account of Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.   Still, it gave us a chance to re-evaluate the merits of countertenor Maximilian Riebl.

 

March

Sir Andrew Davis, drawing near to the end of his reign as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, put in time with his players this month.   The season opening gala featured Nelson Freire in an orthodox reading of the Beethoven E flat Piano Concerto,  tenor Stuart Skelton later surging through arias from Fidelio, Die Walkure and Otello.    Sir Andrew determined that we needed to hear The Dream of Gerontius under his tutelage, using Skelton again for the exercise, although  I thought mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers the Elgar oratorio’s outstanding contributor.   Closing out – almost – his Mahler cycle, Davis produced a sonorous if woozy version of the Symphony No. 9 and we all wait with optimism for the staging of No. 8, although I can’t see it on the schedule for 2019.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra gave way to tragedy in minimal form with the Barber Adagio, went simply serious for Mozart’s C minor Adagio and Fugue, pursued a vein of  sombre lament with Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, and wound up its joyless afternoon in Death and the Maiden, as usual arranged for string orchestra, and very effectively, too, by Tognetti.

For those essential Good Friday goosebumps, the Bach Choir and Orchestra sounded at their best in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater; not the forces’ usual stamping ground but clear-edged with only a nagging pitch problem from the upper line.   In Brahms’ A German Requiem, the choral forces under Rick Prakhoff worked diligently but Lorina Gore’s Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit shone out for its calm fluency.

Other smaller-scale events covered in this blog include the Wilma & Friends recital at Scotch College featuring James Bakirtzis’ excellent wind line in the Mozart Horn Quintet and Brahms’ Horn Trio, with another Scotch graduate, Tian Tian Lan, making a highly competent keyboard in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.   A packed house heard Kathryn Selby and friends violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman presenting Beethoven: the Spring Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata, and the Archduke Trio – all programmed by popular vote.   Victorian Opera remounted Calvin Bowman’s setting of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding which often made unexpected sense and enjoyed handling by a fired-up young cast.

 

April

Below, you can find coverage of Avi Avital and the Giocoso String Quartet appearing for Musica Viva and collaborating in a Kats-Chernin piece and British writer David Bruce’s remarkable Cymbeline; the Arcadia Winds giving a new dress to Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and expanding to a sextet for Janacek’s ardent Mladi;  Opera Australia’s recycling of La Traviata with a leading soprano and conductor unable to decide who’s in charge; and the Australian Octet playing Schubert, bouncing through the score with William Hennessy not concerned to apply the brakes on his youthful collaborators.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl juxtaposed Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Brahms Symphony No. 4, the MSO Chorale ladies carrying out their work with distinction in the French work’s Sirenes finale, and the players giving a compelling majesty to the symphony’s Chaconne conclusion.   For the first of the organization’s Metropolis series, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin enjoyed a prominent position, her sheng concerto Su refraining from giving the soloist total dynamic control, and the Australian String Quartet performed ParaMetaString, written for the Kronos Quartet and mining a rich seam of aural novelties that the local musicians clearly enjoyed articulating.

Celebrating Bernstein’s centenary, the Australian National Academy of Music engaged the services of Jose Luis Gomez to direct their forays into the 1980 Divertimento and the Candide Overture, before attention turned to the American musician’s friends and colleagues – Ginastera, Copland, Barber.

My five-star event for the year came in James Ehnes’ solo Bach recital in which the Canadian violinist swept through the E Major and D minor Partitas and the C Major Sonata No. 3.   This came about as part of the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and Ehnes fitted into that grouping with an extraordinary demonstration of technical craft and interpretative empathy of the first order.   Here was the kind of night that compensates for a hundred others spent on a lower level of engagement.

 

May

On its third Musica Viva tour, the Canadian early music ensemble Tafelmusik focused on Bach, both the grandiose statements of the Orchestral Suite No 1’s Overture and the refined tortuousness of the Goldberg Variations.   Nevertheless, the organization’s trademark illustrative backdrops proved uncomfortably variable in nature.   Over in South Melbourne, the National Academy musicians did without any visual support but invoked a more recherche Baroque: not in the Handel excerpts but in the rest of a leap-around night that took in some of the Terpsichore dances by Praetorius, a remarkable C. P. E. Bach symphony, and true rarities by Zelenka and Vejvanovsky.

At the venerable Town Hall where the acoustic that we all grew up with continues to exert its sonorous boom, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra worked through an evening of Johann Strauss et al Viennese classics, although the standard moved up and down, both players and soloist soprano Emma Matthews feeling their way through the Emperor Waltz, Lehar’s Vilja and occasionally striking a gold seam as in Meine Lippen, sie kussen and the showy Voices of Spring Waltz.   Further down the track, Sir Andrew Davis took his charges through some content being ventilated on their tour of China: Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra which proved happily to be just that and scintillating to boot; the Liszt E flat Concerto with pianist Moye Chen displaying a confident assurance; and more E flat in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony No. 3, an unflustered account but with every revolutionary point underlined in red.

In the relevant month on this site, you will find coverage of the Selby & Friends (cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Vesa-Matti Lepannen holidaying from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster chair)  recital on May 2 that featured the Brahms Sextet No.1 in a texture-opening arrangement for piano trio format, and the Arensky Trio No. 2, which is a true rarity in live performance.   Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble were up to a subcontinental exercise on May 6 infiltrated by the Afrolankan Drumming Ensemble, both groups combining for a musical travelogue around Sri Lanka.   Mother and son duo Oksana and Markiyan Melnychenko enjoyed mainly successes in their May 7 night of Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin (Porgy and Bess, Three Preludes), Ravel’s Violin Sonata and some of Korngold’s delicious incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.   And the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra hosted harpist Xavier de Maistre on May 12, the program culminating in the soloist’s arrangement for himself alone of Smetana’s The Moldau, which rather fell between the two stools of sticking to the original or making a new creature from the Bohemian composer’s raw materials.

 

June

Being even-handed with his oratorios, Sir Andrew Davis balanced his The Dream of Gerontius in March with L’enfance du Christ three months later.   Not that the score from a master-orchestrator presented the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with taxing problems and Davis was fortunate in that his soloists settled quickly into their parts, Andrew Staples’ tenor a fine linking presence as the work’s Narrator.

Australian expatriate pianist Leslie Howard, a formidable authority on Liszt, played a selection of the composer’s opera arrangements/transcriptions/reminiscences/fantasies. The Recital Centre witnessed a fine exhibition of memory and technique, even if the results impressed as uneven.   Mind you, that would have had a good deal to do with the various works presented ranging from a so-so transcription of two dances from Handel’s Almira to the melting treatment of some love music from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

In a Mozart fest, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra offered light, tripping versions of the Symphony No. 30, the Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat with Anna Goldsworthy taking on the solo part,  and the String Quartet No. 7 in string orchestra garb.   Alongside this arcana, director William Hennessy set the popular Haydn Piano Concerto in D Major, a pleasant doddle for Goldsworthy.

 

July

Compensating for a June holiday in Cairns with grandchildren, I heard a fair number of concerts in this month.   What scene we have in this city was dominated by the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, now being controlled by Musica Viva.   As usual, the heats took place at the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne – awkward to get to during the day and taxing to find long-term parking that doesn’t cost an uncomfortable amount.   Several of the Round 1 ensembles roused enthusiasm, but they must have dashed their chances in the next hurdle because they disappeared from the finals lists.   Still, it was pleasing to find that the jury at the grand final agreed with me by saluting the Marvin Trio’s reading of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s  Op. 24 Trio.   Just as fortunately, the panel got it right again with the string quartets, rewarding the Goldmund group from Germany for their committed Brahms A minor performance which spoke the right language throughout.

Simone Young conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, in which the brass impressed for their fortitude and avoidance of error.   It’s a large canvas and Young gave us the full perspective, even if the strings sounded less assured than their exposed wind colleagues.   Kolja Blacher gave excellent service as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto which is rejoicing in some favour after years of dismissal and neglect; improbable though this seems, given the convincing stature and maturity of its concluding Passacaglia.

Later, Joshua Weilerstein led two Brahms transcriptions: the late Op. 117 Intermezzo in E flat in Paul Klengel’s orchestration, and Schoenberg’s superlative re-shaping of the F minor Piano Quartet which enjoyed driving treatment from the large forces involved.  Australian pianist Jayson Gillham accounted for the Beethoven C minor Concerto with  enunciative coherence and a dynamic restraint that proved as refreshing as the rest of this remarkably well-coordinated program.

Finally, another Bernstein homage for the composer’s birth centenary year emerged with the live soundtrack performance of the 1961 West Side Story film.  Here is some of the best Bernstein and the MSO came to the party with ferocity and a crisp delivery, best heard in the more frenetic dance sequences; the whole exercise a credit to conductor Benjamin Northey, each of the MSO’s sections, and a painstaking reproduction of the original score and parts after the originals were lost.

As for this blog, I went to four differing recitals.   Joerg Widmann’s Third String Quartet took central position in the Australian String Quartet’s Recital Centre appearance, bracketed by Beethoven:  Op. 135 and  No. 3 of the Op. 18 set.   The modern piece wore out its welcome but gave a refresher course in sound-manufacture techniques of several decades ago.   The Melbourne Festival of Lieder and Art Song at Melba Hall climaxed in an exhibition on July 13 which turned into a lecture with musical illustrations, so tedious that I left at interval.   Pianist Joyce Yang, sponsored by Musica Viva, played a hurtling version of Schumann’s Carnaval, preceded by a subtle, informed Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante.   And Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble moved their attentions for the last chapter of their peregrinations to China in The Kites of Tianjin with Wang Zheng-Ting once again displaying his command of the sheng.

 

August

You can read in these pages an appreciation of one of the least successful programs from the Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra in recent times.   Blame can hardly be sheeted home to the ABO itself but more to its guests, La Camera delle Lacrime, who attempted an East/West fusion that managed to be both trying and tiring.   Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Odyssey failed to satisfy on most fronts.   Melbourne Opera put aside its Wagner fixation for a while, presenting Der Rosenkavalier in the tight Athenaeum space.   At the final performance, everyone went home happy if tired – both performers and audience.

Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra gave us Bach’s Goldberg Variations in orchestral guise, thanks to an arrangement by Bernard Labadie.   Although pretty much all of the performers enjoyed some solo exposure, the main brunt of the labour fell on director Richard Tognetti himself.    In a program rich in transcriptions – the recently-discovered 14 Goldberg Canons, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, part of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters – the main work enjoyed a bold, informed interpretation.

One of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chamber-size nights in the Recital Centre enjoyed the direction and participation of concertmaster Dale Barltrop.   Despite the central numbers of the night being near-contemporary – Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy and the Vox amoris of Peteris Vasks – the really convincing music-making came at the start and end: first, in a clean-speaking Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; later, a sure-footed Brandenburg No. 1 with excellent contributions from horns and oboes that allowed you to forget the dangers and just relish the majesty and  warmth of this all too rarely heard Baroque glory.

Intending to give us yet another British gem to savour, Sir Andrew took the MSO on an unsatisfying journey through Holst’s The Planets suite.   It might have been much intrusive heftiness and gratuitous ritardandi; it could have been a lack of interest in the slower movements’ woodwind solos; or it might possibly have arisen from some pitch problems that emerged without reason.  Whatever, an underlying malaise detracted from the score’s friendly splendour.   At all events, I much preferred the night’s only other constituent: Carl Vine’s new Symphony No. 8, The Enchanted Loom.   This is a reversion to top form from the orchestra’s 2018 Composer in Residence – a sterling exercise in novel sonorities with its five movements following a narrative that could be assimilated without much trouble but which seemed of secondary importance to the composer’s manipulation of solo instruments and unusual group matchings.

For Musica Viva, violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julien Quentin showed at their best in Grieg’s Sonata No. 2 which I believe I was hearing for the first time in live performance.  Even if it employed nationalistic tropes, this score gave both executants plenty of room for rich collaboration, at ease with each other’s musicianship.  An especially-commissioned violin sonata by Matthew Hindson left little impact but it didn’t try that hard to mark out new territory.   An obliging audience relished Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, even more so the violin virtuosity of Monti’s Csardas.

I was able to hear only two of the three major Mimir Chamber Music Festival events at Melba Hall; the second, which engaged the services of local pianist Caroline Almonte, is reviewed in these pages.   Over the last few years, these recitals have been immensely enjoyable, the teaching staff from the American source-festival in Fort Worth putting together programs of well-known repertoire and unusual novelties.   Curt Thompson, the University of Melbourne’s head of strings, co-founded the enterprise and brought it here after his appointment to the Conservatorium of Music.   This year, the festival’s opening recital began with the moving Two Songs Op. 91 by Brahms, Australian mezzo Victoria Lambourn a fine interpreter of these modest, moving lyrics.   Ringing some home-country chimes, violinists Stephen Rose, Jun Iwasaki, viola Joan DerHovsepian and cello  Brant Taylor presented Amy Beach’s F sharp minor Quintet with pianist John Novacek supporting the string players’ enthusiastic proclamatory approach.   Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet came over with more firmness than usual, these performers happy to give full voice to the composer’s purple patches of post-Beethovenian aspiration.

 

September

Om the latter half of the year, I failed in an aim to visit one concert a week for this blog, thanks to another  retreat to Queensland.  In fact, I heard only two concerts, and they were in many ways a disjunct reflection of each other.   At Deakin Edge, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra presented an Espana! night, with a guitar soloist who was indisposed but went on anyway, the exercise culminating in a wretched reading of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.   In any case, the plethora of arrangements that preceded this effort sounded remarkably tame, hardly justifying the exclamation mark of the program’s title.

But the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra returned to form with a remarkable series of Baroque scores, replacement guest violinist Daniel Pinteno heading a Mediterraneo! program with impressive panache, heard at its finest in Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto from L’estro armonico – a blinder among a happy chain of finely accomplished pieces, only one or two of them familiar.

Rich Prakhoff’s Melbourne Bach Choir Sang Mozart’s Requiem with unsurprising stolidity, the four soloists serving as welcome intruders for their athletic pliancy in phrasing and dynamic changes.   Tenor Andrew Goodwin added yet another sterling accomplishment to our experience of his work with a reflective, unfussed account of Stravinsky’s In memoriam Dylan Thomas; allied with mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and baritone Andrew Jones, he brought animation and light to a chorally bland version of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata.

Back for the umpteenth time, the Borodin Quartet played Haydn Op. 33 No. 1, Shostakovich No. 9, and Beethoven Op. 130.    I didn’t know it at the time but first violin Ruben Aharonian was performing in spite of his being in poor health.   Still, the Haydn came across with an unexpected equable balance of weight and the Russian construct worked best in its two adagio movements where the viola and cello bear the most significant emotional load.   But the group excelled, I thought, in its Beethoven: a reading such as only experience, hard work and collegial insight can yield and one of my top performances of the year.

British pianist Paul Lewis worked for the cognoscenti on this visit, playing an eclectic program of Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms, most of it late period and not the sort of music you hear these days when performers generally ride safely on the confined merry-go-round where the familiar breeds assent.   Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles Op. 119 proved confronting thanks to the pianist’s unveiling of contrapuntal complexity which most other interpreters ignore.   You couldn’t brush these pages aside as a collection of oddities written over 20 years, the later ones marking  incongruous deviations from the path to illumination of the final sonatas.   Lewis presented them as a broad sweep, sometimes complex, sometimes simple but each emotionally consistent with its surroundings.  Haydn’s late E flat Sonata and his solitary B minor Sonata stripped away any polite salon patina and revealed a rarely heard gruffness and candour.   Then the Four Pieces Op. 119 by Brahms gave us more thickly-blended harmonic progressions in the three intermezzi and an insistent triumphalism in the final Rhapsody that brought to mind the composer’s great sponsor Schumann in its driving, near-manic insistence.

Another impressive visitor was violinist Ilya Gringolts, the youngest winner 20 years ago of the Premio Paganini Prize, who took on the dual roles of director and soloist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   Most interest fell on the visitor’s reading of the Paganini Concerto No. 1, given here in its original E flat key.   Gringolts carried all before him with a scintillating, brilliant outline of the work in which the ornamentation was welded into the concerto’s construction.    He’s one of those performers who appears to have absolute control; yes, the work has dangerous moments but this musician works through them without demonstrative effort.   He has insights as a conductor, too,  leading his forces in a C. P. E. Bach symphony packed with dramatic incident and a dissonance-highlighting version of an ACO favourite: Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939.

 

October

Only one recital features on this blog for October.  It’s the final Selby & Friends program for the year at which the well-known Sydney pianist collaborated with WAAPA violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline and Sydney Symphony Orchestra cellist Umberto Clerici.  As is her wont, Selby partnered each of her guests in a duo – the Falla Suite populaire espagnole and Debussy’s Cello Sonata – before a general team-up for Piazzolla’s useless Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and the stalwart Mendelssohn in D minor.

Otherwise, the month’s serious music-making was dominated by the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.   Before this began, the Australian String Quartet finished its 2018 Melbourne appearances with cellist Blair Harris stepping in for maternity-leave member, Sharon Grigoryan.    The Schubert Rosamunde enjoyed a reading just the right side of sentimental and the Shostakovich No. 10 reflected this pureness of heart at night’s end, here making a welcome appearance following other ensembles’ concentration on earlier works in the genre by this composer.   In the middle, James Ledger’s new String Quartet No. 2, The Distortion Mirror, fed real-time sounds into a computer for manipulation.   Not too complicated, the score enjoyed a pleasing reception, although you’d be hard pressed to find much that was confrontational in its passages of play.

Also off the Festival grid, Jukka-Pekka Saraste directed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the complete Firebird ballet, which tended to show how little we miss when subjected to the several versions Stravinsky extracted for his money-spinning suites.  Saraste also aired the newly-discovered Funeral Song, Stravinsky’s in memoriam for his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.   Several pundits claim this brief score opens a new window on the composer’s early thinking; they may be right but you’d be hard pressed to predict what was coming from the composer’s pen in the coming four years.   In between, Dejan Lasic played a well-considered solo part for Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the reactionary virtuosity of its finale coming across with telling artistry.

As for the Festival content that I heard, Van Diemen’s Band offered live performances of excerpts from their 2017 CD, including three cello concertos by Nicola Fiorenza treated with convincing dedication by soloist Catherine Jones.  Not restricted by their recital’s title, Cello Napoletano, the ensemble wandered around with affable ease from both Scarlattis to Boccherini with a Geminiani and a Corelli as make-weights.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale attempted a theatrical splicing-up of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro cycle, investing their performance (sung from memory) with stylized choreographic moves and staged groupings to give a visual realization of the verbal content.   When the physical movement died down and the group stood in a semi-circle and just sang, the results proved very moving indeed, especially as the over-blown dynamic contrasts were given a rest and the work’s emotional context shifted from angry self-recrimination to a wrenching despair.

Chinese conductor/composer Tan Dun has built up a firm relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, largely through an annual Chinese New Year event in which he places his own music and/or that of his countrymen alongside well-known gems of Western music.   His Buddha Passion offers an individual take on the Bach Passions with the Indian spiritual leader as its operating fulcrum.   Where Western composers concentrate on the last night and day of Christ’s life, Tan Dun follows a loose path of parables and events from the Bodhi tree enlightenment to the translation to Nirvana.   It made for a remarkable confection of simplicity and explosive bursts of powerful commentary, the MSO Chorus working with indefatigable deliberation through Chinese and Sanskrit texts.

Sir Andras Schiff, playing here for the first time in many years, gave us the Festival highlight, even if his performance was part of Musica Viva’s season.   The pianist foraged through Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp before a brilliant, curt-and-warm reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 and an equally revelatory interpretation of Bach’s last English Suite.   Yet the core of this lavish recital came in two Brahms brackets: the Op. 78  Eight Pieces and the Op. 116 Seven Fantasias that I can’t remember hearing complete before.   This was an extraordinarily clean-scoured double sequence, the mutually dependent artistry of technique and consistent intellectual content a clear justification for this pianist’s significant stature among that small band of modern musicians with an open-handed generosity to his audience (some massive Bach encores) and interpretative insights of a high order .

 

November

Finishing its year in solid form, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented some well-worn French masterworks – Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 – and Brett Dean’s orchestrations of the Debussy Ariettes oubliees, sung by mezzo Fiona Campbell.    Soloist Beatrice Rana fronted the only nationalistic odd man out  with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece you used to hear all over the place but which has suffered a decline in interest across recent decades.    This was a blazing, confident exhibition from a gifted young artist, well-assisted by the MSO under conductor Fabien Gabel who dropped in for the occasion from Quebec but brought not much individuality along with him.

William Hennessy finished his Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s annual operations in a Bach-dominated program.   Refraining from burying the material under a thick string blanket, he directed his charges through the Orchestral Suites 3 and 4 without any period-style enervation.   The D minor Double Violin Concerto made a welcome if predictable appearance, matching the premiere of Richard Mills’ Double Violin Concerto which impressed for two-thirds of its length in the sympathetic hands of soloists Markiyan Melnychenko and Aidan Filshie.

One of the more commanding Mahler readings we’ve heard this year came from the Australian National Academy of Music whose staff and some distinguished guests from interstate and overseas played Klaus Simon’s arrangement for 16 players of the Symphony No. 9.    Their disclosure of inner workings and an absence of over-the-top theatricality made the experience elevating and packed with suspense – a far cry from the bombast that many conductors attempt to impose on this wrenching farewell to arms, in this instance discreetly conducted by expatriate Matthew Corey who had the pleasure of dealing with a band of fearless competence.

The only concert covered on this blog was an Armistice Day salute from the Arcko Symphony Ensemble at the Carlton Church of All Nations.  In a series of works written and performed by people, most of whom seemed to have family connections to World War I, we heard music by Rohan Phillips and Andrew Harrison, whose cantata gave this enterprise its title and made a moving impression, despite the meagre written source material on which it was constructed.   And it was an unalloyed delight to hear Helen Gifford’s piano solo Menin Gate given an airing by Joy Lee.

I also heard, thanks to a friend, Opera Australia’s production of Die Meistersinger which was worth sitting through for Daniel Sumegi’s firmly-articulated Pogner and some pleasurable passages from Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Sachs and the Beckmesser of Warwick Fyfe.  As for the situational ambience being translated to a gentlemen’s club, you could understand why it appealed as an idea – the guild is nothing if not as hidebound as any 19th century London establishment like White’s or the Athenaeum – but you also had to wonder at a dereliction of duty during the later acts where the venue became increasingly inchoate and irrelevant.

 

December

The only concert I heard in this month, thanks to renewed bouts of poor health, was the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! collation which, this year, was pretty free of inanities.   In fact, Paul Dyer and his players did excellent service in the earlier parts of the program with a Hildegard meditation, two Gregorian chants, a Cruger chorale and a quaint seasonal motet-of-sorts by Johannes Eccard, a Tye carol and a Monteverdi hymn.  The ABO Choir was hard pressed but responded with only a handful of stressful moments and soprano Bonnie de la Hunty should have been given an award for her manifold contributions to the entertainment.   Coverage of this event concludes this blog’s live music activity for the year.