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.