June Diary

Monday June 3

Kirill Gerstein

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A pianist who sits on the uncomfortable fence between jazz and classical, Gerstein is yet another new name to me, although his career so far as been peppered with significant accomplishments.  He’s centred in America and Europe for the most part, with a few side-trips to Japan and China (Republic of).  He might have hit these shores but I can’t recall it.   His program is all things to all men: Liszt’s Eroica Transcendental Study (Gerstein recorded the lot three years ago) and the Funerailles from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses; a Debussy brace in the late Elegie and Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon, the composer’s last piano work written in gratitude to his coal supplier; something a tad more mainstream in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin; Janacek’s political protest Sonata From the Street; Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E flat, another gloss on the Eroica finale theme; the Berceuse from Thomas Ades’ 2016 opera, The Exterminating Angel; and a blast from the Armenian past in Komitas Vardapet’s Shushiki Vagarshapat and Unabi of Shushi, both from the composer’s Six Dances.  All that should keep the mental cobwebs at bay

 

Tuesday June 4

RESPIGHI, BRITTEN & VASKS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Tognetti and troops persist in their fascination for the over-lauded abilities of Peters Vasks; on this program, they are giving the Australian premiere of the composer’s Viatore for 11 solo strings.  The work depicting a traveller in the infinite has two themes, one for the person him/herself and the other for infinity, a theme which, according to the composer, ‘does not change’ – metaphysicians, rejoice.  More earth-bound are the Overture and a few dances from Handel’s Alcina, once the national company’s solitary Baroque offering in the good old days when it had sopranos willing to, and capable of, singing the main role.  The third in the set of three Ancients Airs and Dances by Respighi ups the poressure quite a bit, including that wonderful Roncalli Passacaglia that exposes each of the string lines – well, first violins, violas and cells – with some slashing quadruple stops; let’s hope the players take it at a respectable pace, not dead slow as seems to be the norm whenever the direction Maestoso comes up.  The local content comes in Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, an arrangement of the fifth movement from the composer’s tedious String Quartet No. 2.  And the night’s best music comes last in Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; what a genius the young man had at 23 and how few were the flashes that surpassed it in his later career.

 

Friday June 7

BOLERO! SLAVA GRIGORYAN AND THE RHYTHMS OF SPAIN

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

You know just by the title that the night’s focal entertainment will be Ravel’s long crescendo and study in orchestration, especially if you have only one theme to deal with.  And, if Slava Grigoryan is involved, the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez won’t be far away, either.  Filling out the corners of this popular Town Hall menu come Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 2 – Neighbours’ Dance (simple but inspired), Miller’s Dance, Jota – and Boccherini’s Ritirata notturno di Madrid in the Berio arrangement where you get four pieces superimposed for the price of one, but at least the tune is immediately recognizable thanks to Russell Crowe’s impersonation of a musical sea captain and commander.   Also inserted in there somewhere is the Rapsodie espagnole by Ravel which gives you a better Hispanic soundscape than you get from the hysteria-promoting Bolero.   Benjamin Northey will conduct what looks like being a sold-out event.

 

Tuesday June 11

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The group, founded in 1998, is represented as ‘the leading British string quartet of its generation.’  No, I don’t know who wrote/said this; some fatuous fan, I suspect  .  .  .  or probably some under-inspired promotional people.  Anyway, taking everything with a grain of salt, I find no fault in these just musicians – at least, until they get here.  At the core of their two programs sits a new work by Brett Dean; so far untitled, but you’d have to suspect that the form will be quadrilinear.   On this night, the musicians begin with Haydn’s The Joke in E flat and end with the big-boned Schubert in G, the composer’s last.

The Dorics will present their second program on Saturday June 15 at 7 pm. As well as Dean’s new work, the ensemble offers another Haydn –  B flat from the same set as The Joke,Op. 33 – and another weltering masterwork in Beethoven’s C sharp minor that focuses on one of music’s great slow movement/variation constructs.  After this, we’ll be able to see if the publicists/fans had it right.

 

Saturday June 15

EUMERALLA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

This is a War Requiem for Peace, according to composer/soprano Deborah Cheetham.   In it, she is attempting to memorialise and put to rest the spirits of victims in a resistance war that ran from 1840 to 1863 around the Eumerella River running from Port Fairy to Portland.   I know nothing about this history, but I’m a product of my class, race and time; which also means that I can understand the composer’s need to speak of the war’s devastation on Aboriginal history and people, especially the Gunditjmara, and their descendants.   As well as Cheetham, the singers involved will be mezzo Linda Barcan, tenor Don Bemrose, the Dhungala Children’s Choir (celebrating its 10th birthday), and the MSO Chorus.   Instrumentalists come from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and and Melbourne Youth Orchestras – and, I presume, the MSO.   In charge of this assemblage is Benjamin Northey who can turn his hand to anything and everything.

 

Saturday June 15

HOMAGE TO GIDEON KLEIN

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

By all means, let us celebrate one of the musical heroes of Theresienstadt who died under peculiar circumstances at the age of 24 in the last year of World War Two.   ANAM director Nick Deutsch and MSO principal clarinet David Thomas head a group of Academy musicians in this observation of the composer’s birth year centenary.   They will perform some of the Czech writer’s last compositions – the Piano Sonata of 1943 and the same year’s Wiegenlied.  From pre-camp times come the Woodwind Octet of 1940 and a Duo for violin and cello of 1941 that I believed he left unfinished because of his arrest.  Pointing clearly to his more traditional influences, a wind sextet will perform Janacek’s chameleonic Mladi.  And the night reaches even further back to Dvorak’s  Serenade for Winds, which boasts a mutable cast: two each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, plus three horns.  There’s also an ad lib contrabassoon part, if you have a player to hand. And/or there are parts for cello and double bass to reinforce the score’s lower textures. Of course, every Czech writer has to take these great names into account but I hope their formidable chamber music pieces don’t cause us to forget the program’s shorter pieces by the talented and tragic young man who admired them.

 

Thursday June 20

MOZART’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Was it last year that we heard this overwhelming masterpiece?   Or am I confusing it with the Verdi?   Perhaps it was another body entirely than the MSO that presented its sober, brilliant strophes.   Whatever the truth of the matter, here is Mozart’s last unfinished important work, turned into grippingly dramatic material by Forman’s Amadeus film of 1984 even if a few improbable myths were not only heightened in the process but tuned into meta-history.   Here, it is paired with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite for reasons that might become clear on the night, but I doubt it.  All the soloists are familiar and welcome: soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Fiona Campbell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass James Clayton.   The novelty comes with conductor Jaime Martin, a Spanish musician currently working with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, among other positions.   You’d assume that, despite all the experimentation and clever alternatives currently available, this performance will use the Sussmayr completion.  But what is the night’s shape?   Everybody in for Ravel’s fantastic fairyland, then out for interval drinks?   Back you come for Mozart’s sombre setting and forget what’s happened up till now?

The performance will be repeated on Saturday June 22 at 2 pm.

 

Friday June 21

RUSSIAN & FRENCH MASTERS

Duo Chamber Melange

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

This association of violinist Ivana Tomaskova and pianist Tamara Smolyar is presenting another series (albeit a short one) in 2019 of unexpected works from repertoire fringes.  On this night emerges a work that many of us will not know: Ravel’s A Major Violin Sonata.   In one movement and dating from 1897, the score is a subtle complex showing the harmonic and formal influence of Faure and Franck but the vocabulary has a powerful individuality.   The other historic oddity comes in Medtner’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in B minor which you will be pressed to find on any chamber music program on Melbourne over the past half century despite the unremitting advocacy of Geoffrey Tozer.   In line with the Melange’s predilection for the new, we will hear Jane Hammond’s mint-new Noisy Friarbirds in the Silky Oaks which explains itself, you’d think.  And, to ground the audience at evening’s end, we’ll hear Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre; Smolyar will have to work hard at the transcription (whose?) of the composer’s brilliant orchestral effects.

 

Friday June 21

BACH B MINOR MASS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

In one of the year’s four major concerts from ANAM at the Recital Centre, the context leaves the orchestral for once and goes vocal with a vengeance.   Thanks to a visit by the British ensemble VOCES8, the Academy appears to have the basic vocal resources to tackle this long foundation work.   Currently, the group has two sopranos, an alto and a counter-tenor, two tenors, a baritone and a bass;  two more sopranos (locals) have been added to these forces – Susannah Lawergren and Amy Moore, both Song Company survivors.   It all brings back memories of the ridiculous performance mounted by Jonathan Mills in St. Patrick’s Cathedral to open a Melbourne Festival many years ago where the vocal numbers were about the same as in this performance and the strain of discerning what was happening wasn’t worth the pain.   Anyway, the ANAM organization will have much enjoyment on determining which authentic and/or modern-day instruments will be used.   Conducting is Benjamin Bayl, a Sydney-born musician who has worked for Opera Australia (but here?  I think not) and who will bring lashings of scholarship to the exercise; let’s hope he also has an equal amount of discernment with regard to the work’s volume levels – nothing worse than watching those open mouths during the Sanctus and hearing nothing.

 

Sunday June 23

THE KAPELLMEISTERS

Trio Anima Mundi

St. Michael’s Uniting Church at 2 pm

Back where they started off?   The Anima Mundi players open with Haydn in C Hob XV/27 which lasts about 20 minutes if you stretch but is one of those flawless scores that leaves you trailing after the composer, rushing to keep up with the fluency of every page, and I don’t just mean that rapid-fire Presto finale.   Carl Reissiger’s output includes 27 piano trios; the Anima Mundi will play his first one in D minor, which demonstrates the musician’s high reputation, not least in succeeding Weber as Kappellmeister of the Dresden Court.   If piano-heavy in its concentration, the score leaves the  two strings a wealth of melodic interest between the bravura moments.  This also is not impressive in length, even if you observe the first movement repeat.  But it’s quality, isn’t it?  And this organization is back on track again after an administrative hiccup.   You’ve got to admit: the recital’s title isn’t calculated to startle an observer into a fever of high anticipation.

 

Sunday June 23 

SZYMANOWSKI TO SUFJAN STEVENS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

OK: prepare for a mind-expansion flight, courtesy of Richard Tognetti’s link-suggesting program that sits on a Polish tripod of Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Szymanowski, at the same time moving into a parallel triad of works by Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead, Bryce Dessner from The Nationals, and Sufjan Stevens from America.   Dessner and Greenwood have collaborated, as have Stevens and Dessner.   Have all three thrown in their lot at any time?  Don’t know.   This is the intended procedure: the ACO plays Lutoslawski’s Overture for Strings from 1949, Bartok tropes all over the place; then we hear Dessner’s Reponse Lutoslawski (here enjoying its Australian premiere performances) which I thought was an answer to the Polish master’s Musique funebre for Bartok.   Does it make much difference?   We’ll see.   Stevens’ suite from Run Rabbit Run was based on an earlier work which was handed over to a group of composers to arrange for string quartet; at least, that’s what I understand happened about a decade ago at the instigation of Dessner.   You’d think that, with Michael Atkinson designated as the arranger, we”ll only get through five of the album’s 13 tracks; the others fell to different hands.   For reasons beyond me, the ACO then plays the Aria, No. 1 of Penderecki’s Three Pieces in Baroque Style which might just as well be a Respighi arrangement because of its lush picture of an ancient air and dance.   Greenwood’s suite from the film There Will Be Blood – all six movements, presumably, with the requisite ondes martenot – precedes the Szymanowski String Quartet No. 2 in Tognetti’s transcription: an ACO favourite since the ensemble recorded it nearly 17 years ago.  What connection it has to either of the three contemporary composers is not clear – yet.

This program will be repeated on Monday June 24 at 7:30 pm.

 

Tuesday June 25

Vadim Gluzman

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Another in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Gluzman is a completely unknown quantity to me; not surprising as most of his activity has been European and American.   A brilliant light, I’m sure, but flickering on the horizon.   He has a reputation for promoting contemporary composers, although you have to wonder about his offerings on this one-and-only recital here.   Of course, there’s Bach’s D minor Partita and its pendant Chaconne. And he’s offering Beethoven’s Kreutzer as another slab of more old-fashioned roughage.   In the modern field, we hear Part’s Spiegel am Spiegel – 10 minutes of F Major piano arpeggios and a slow-moving diatonic violin melody.  Some find it moving and enlightening; I want to scream.  And Lera Auerbach, another Gluzman favourite, is represented by her par.ti.ta for solo violin, here enjoying its Australian premiere.   Auerbach offers 10 short movements, probably tendering splintered Bachian perspectives if the syllabically punctuated title is any guide.   Not that this is really new: Auerbach wrote it for Gluzman back in 2007 and he has recorded it alongside tonight’s D minor Partita.   Daniel de Borah accompanies.

 

Thursday June 27

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

Possibly, I’m one of the few people of my generation who has never seen this Sondheim musical.   But then, I saw the Bergman film it was based on at the start of the 1960s and a few times since, always content with its trans-generational interplay.   Still, this production promises a good deal.  Nancye Hayes returns to play Madame Armfeldt; Ali Macgregor sings her daughter, Desiree; Sophia Walsey rounds out the family as Fredrika.   The warring unfaithful Malcolms are Verity Hunt-Ballard and Samuel Dundas. As the mis-matched Fredrik and Anne Egerman, we see Simon Gleeson – whom I do know – and Elisa Colla – whom I don’t.   Henrik, not long for the seminary, is Mat Verevis who starred in that competition without substance, The Voice.  Alinta Chidzey has the part of Petra, Anne’s servant.   The promotional material also mentions Paul Biencourt, Kirilie Blythman, Michelle McCarthy and Juel Riggall as ensemble members – possibly contributors to the Chorus-type Quintet.    Stuart Maunder directs, as he has so often for this and other companies.  Phoebe Briggs conducts.

The musical will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday June 28, Saturday June 29, Tuesday July 2, Wednesday July 3, Thursday July 4, Friday July 5 and at 1 pm on Saturday July 6.

 

Friday July 28

TCHAIKOVSKY’S VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Welcome back to Jakub Hrusa, an MSO favourite conductor with performers and audiences.    He’s starting tonight with a little-known orchestral poem by his distinguished countryman Dvorak: The Wood Dove.  It’s a substantial piece with a gloomy underpinning story but has a splendid tapestry to experience.  The night’s soloist will be Vadim Gluzman, fresh from his Great Performers recital at the MRC.  Here’s hoping that this violinist gives us a reason or six to be subject to yet another experience of this warhorse.   Hrusa finishes with Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition.  This is the earliest composed of the night’s works which all fall within a little over a 20-year range.  Of course, this is amplified by the Frenchman’s orchestral transcription which dates from 1922 and is one of the great transformations in this form.   Still, it makes for a lop-sided night: the poem and concerto come in about 54 minutes, while the suite rarely cracks half an hour.

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 29 at 7:30 pm and on Monday July 1 at 6:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

No one like him

THE MOZART PROJECT PART 2

The Melbourne Musicians

James Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew

Friday May 17

Elyane+copy

                                                                   Elyane Laussade

Frank Pam and his expanded orchestra began this program with a collection of German Dances by Haydn in an arrangement by Bernhard Paumgartner.  The Austrian conductor apparently found some merit in extracting Haydn pieces from their original settings and fabricating suites like this one which originally comprised 12 elements but Pam & Co. only player 10 of them.   Probably just as well as the third one had to be re-started.   I’m not sure what came unstuck although, in the early movements, the horns weren’t covering themselves with glory in terms of articulating some pretty easily achieved notes.

Indeed, the rendition of these simply-framed pieces – at least two of them familiar from the master’s catalogue –  laboured under an ongoing tempo disadvantage.  Pam would attempt to beat one in a bar – obviously assuming that the band could fall into line when given a down-beat – but the indecisiveness revealed that matters might have been more enjoyable for all concerned if he had hammered out three beats until the players felt confident in their work.   Yes, once the labourers had settled to the task, things went swimmingly enough and the five woodwind gave plenty of spine to the more forward tutti passages.   But a little more pre-determination and consensus on what was required would have lifted the experience to a higher level.

Speaking of such, Elyane Laussade gave a fine account of the solo part in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F Major K. 459, one of the knock-out gems in the sequence of works that this composer produced in the form across his career.   No, it wasn’t a flawless performance from everyone involved; even Laussade seemed to lose her place in some first movement passage work near bar 211; I’m not sure that the second oboe was au fait with the work’s style all the time; Kaye Duffel’s flute solos in the middle Allegretto at bars 44 and 60 sounded over-powered for their context; and the one point in the progress of this movement where the counterpoint gets complicated and players should be observing the conductor, these players were not as solicitous about their group tempo as you’d expect.

Much of the 12-strong string corps’ efforts worked well enough with only a few signs of nervousness from an over-anxious violin.   Their corporate contribution was often submerged under the wind septet so that tutti interpolations were dominated by flute-and-oboes in combination.   But the initial Allegro‘s argument remained clear and carried out with determination; if the middle movement could have gained anywhere, it might have come with a slower speed so we could luxuriate in the Figaro woodwind figuration.  Laussade gave a deft animation to her outline of the finale’s main theme, but you noticed (for the first time, in my case) the length of the movement’s first ritornello – from bar 24 to bar 120 – chiefly because, across its ;length, you missed some bite from the upper strings.   What was needed was not just an attack, but a driving attack on this jubilant set of pages, particularly in that sudden attack of the D minor fugatos between bars 288 and 321 where skill and pleasure combine to brilliant effect.

Dittersdorf’s F Major Symphony Kr. 70 is an amiable, straightforward construct with no particular distinction to it.   As in the night’s first work, this easy-going work suffered from indecisive attack, its first three movements all opening with an anacrusis, although the second Rondo is more of a gavotte than anything else.   Once under way, the general momentum carried all along.   But even the final Allegro – a simple 2/4 with everybody playing block-chord quavers while the horns belt out the crotchet pulse – sounded unsure at the outset.   When the whole body seems to be feeling its way, the results are bound to come across as leaden-footed; nobody is in a hurry to rush on towards the next unknown territory.

This lack of assurance also cruelled parts of Haydn’s Symphony No. 55 in E flat, the Schoolmaster.  Here, the demands ratcheted up several notches, just at the wrong time as the musicians were betraying fatigue and this is not music you can stroll through.  Pam managed to set movements off with more success but the shaping of this symphony’s optimistic sentences seemed to be a work in progress without many signs of near-completion.   Even the solo for cellist Laurien Kennedy in the Menuetto‘s Trio reached some questionable pitching in the homeward stretch after the bar 65 fermata.

I suppose what you missed throughout were bounce and elation.  It takes some skill to animate a passage like the strings-only passage from bar 123 to bar 140 of the first movement but playing it without phrasing inflections is not an option.  And this work’s solid second movement variations need explication and clear definition for their riches to emerge.   A few more in the string body might make a difference but the problems of entering into the music with informed unanimity of intent and unflagging attention to the work’s internal processes require a more informed approach from the core players in this venerable organization.

 

A gallery for our times

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 11

ZOFO

                                     Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi

The concept behind this exercise was an arresting one.  Taking Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a base, duo-pianists Zimmerman and Nakagoshi assembled 15 discrete compositions inspired by art works chosen by their commissioned musicians, then framed the complex with Nakagoshi’s own take on the Mussorgsky work’s Promenade prelude. But where the Russian master had only five Promenade-plus-variants in his 10-picture construct, these visitors had an initial one to ground their activity, then an interlude between every aural/visual art-work.

In fact, the pianists provided what Mussorgsky couldn’t: reproductions of those works that inspired the pieces.  Apparently, we can be certain of five Viktor Hartmann paintings and sketches that moved the Russian composer, although some of these surviving art-works make you wonder about the composer’s transformational/interpretative powers.  The artist’s Great Gate is surprisingly neat when compared to the overwhelming musical image of it; and how Mussorgsky got his fierce Baba Yaga out of Hartmann’s delicate clock painting is anyone’s guess.

No worries with the new construction, even if the musical complement to certain art works remains non-obvious.  If you don’t get the connection, that’s your problem: Zimmerman and Nakagoshi have supplied all the information required and, as far as I could tell on Saturday night, gave an expert account of the 15 compositions.  Both performers used most of the Promenades as an opportunity to stand up and wander round the piano, miming a stroller moving through a gallery, while the other pianist played the interlude.  The device also served as a means of sharing the labour so that a player could return from his or her stroll and take up the primo or secondo role – a change of performance scenery, then.

Plunging the auditorium into darkness was probably necessary for the projections to work but it made note-taking difficult.  Zimmerman and Nakagoshi eased us into the exercise agreably with a Monet painting, Le Bassin’ d’Argenteuil, underpinned by Gilles Silvestrini’s musical commentary: impressionist shimmers, suddenly interrupted by a chain of strident chords which I wondered about then  –  and later  –   when considering the painting’s bucolic placidity.   Matters did not improve with Brett Dean’s reaction to James Gleeson’s The Arrival of Implacable Gifts, but then the painting’s details failed to travel, so that it wasn’t until much later that you could appreciate how the composer’s fiery active rushes of sound reflected Gleeson’s fluent waves of action, specifically its interweaving three bands of surrealist imagery.

At or around this point, the penny dropped.  You weren’t in the Murdoch Hall to cast a jaundiced eye over the efforts of contemporary composers to give you aural images of some pieces extracted at will from a world-wide Museum of Modern Art (the Monet is from the d’Orsay; Gleeson’s work is in the NSW Art Gallery).  Rather, the duo-pianists were only concerned with entertainment, pure and simple.  You could look at something like Reuven Rubin’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron and not be distracted by the new-style tango by Avner Dorman that accompanied part of it; or you could face Wojciech Fangor’s black-hole celebrating SM 34 without worrying about Pawel Mykietyn’s accelerating bass growls punctuated by upper register pointillist 3rds,

It’s a 21st Century construct so, naturally, you expected some action inside the lid, as in Lei Liang’s Will You Come to My Dream? and a mute of some kind applied to the bass strings in Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Spring Morning in Baku.   As well, there’s always room for the theatrical gesture, as in Jonathan Russell’s Untitled Skeleton during which Zimmerman leaned over a crouching Nakagoshi; so that you suppressed wonder about how the score’s upward-moving acceleration and soft bass-notes postlude gave insight on Stormie Mills cartoon-suggestive painting.

The surprises kept on coming.  The Promenade that preceded I Wayan Gde Yudane’s  Street Solace was calculated to bring to mind one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The sound world created by Samuel Adams to support Night Sea (for Agnes) by Emily Davis Adams brought to mind the tendency towards rhythmic alliteration typical of another, older Adams musician.   But, with a keen eye for the final impression, the duo hit a vernacular button in the last two pieces.   Pablo Ortiz’s Paisaje gave us the night’s most old-fashioned ambience with an Argentinian dance sound to supplement Eduardo Stupia’s writhing landscape; Keyla Orozco’s Viajeros. a reminiscence of Russia’s massive influence over most aspects of Cuban life, carried a lot of matter with its use of a Russian song that rang some half-remembered bells from World War Two, a Gershwin-style meditation in the centre, and some Hungarian Rhapsody virtuosity to be going on with, all supporting an optimistic playful work by Douglas Perez Castro.

In the end, this Mussorgsky revision proved to be very engaging, not least for the duo itself which is a collaboration that works without any indications of exhibitionism or trite legerdemain.   Yes, there are some pieces – probably the majority – that I’m glad to have heard but won’t be in a hurry to revisit.   Zimmerman and Nakagoshi handled each of the bespoke compositions with equal deference and dedication, their labour-sharing a pleasure to witness for its certainty and purpose.

However, the duo piano format and this particular program are not your usual Musica Viva cup of tea; it’s back to the familiar script in future months with a couple of pretty orthodox string quartets and a non-boat-rocking piano quartet, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge visiting for cultural reassurance, and a clutch of early music specialists from the Paris Conservatoire who are heavy on Bach, Telemann and the French Baroque.   It’s fair to say that all of these future events will attract a much larger audience than the small number that bothered to show up for ZOFO’s 75-minute recital

A cross-reference that’s  probably worth noting is that the ZOFOMOMA Pictures at An Exhibition can be seen on the internet in a video performance at an unknown venue dating from about a year ago.  This is well worth seeing, just to get a taste of the work quality from these fine musicians – and also as a reminder of details that slipped past in the dark of Saturday’s real-time performance, particularly the eloquence of Nakagoshi’s last two Promenades for both players.

 

 

Three open hearts

LOVE & DEVOTION

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Kew

Wednesday May 8

Kathy Selby                                                                   Kathryn Selby

The cold has arrived and, as a consequence, some of us find that we need a good reason to go out at night, particularly as the enthusiasm that once spurred us ever onward now wanes because the sere, the yellow leaf is just as much a thing of the body as of the season.  Fortunate those of us who ventured out to the latest southern foray by Kathryn Selby and her collaborators in this latest recital series: violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve.   Both string players are veterans of Selby’s annual series and made a finely-matched p[air for this cleverly focused program.

Three composers who shared much intimacy, devotion and love featured on this occasion.  Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22 is the best-known of the formidable pianist’s compositions.  Written in 1853, it postdates her husband’s Piano Trio in D minor by seven years and anticipates by a year the B Major Piano Trio of Brahms, although this last was revised significantly 35 years later.  Together, the three works comprise something of a creative time capsule, although the Brahms towered above its companions on this night, certainly because of its intellectual depth and variety of instrumental textures, but also because of the major changes that followed the composer’s second appraisal.

With the Three Romances, Clifford and Selby produced a particularly clear-speaking, lucid account of a score that is often over-gelled.  Throughout the first in D flat, Selby arpeggiated with suppleness, leaving the speaking role to Clifford’s unerringly true and controlled line, the small complex nowhere more finely graduated than in the mordent and its reflection in bars 63 and 64.   A similar simplicity informed the second G minor piece, a strange four-page sequence that presents as folk-like in temperament but which the composer is content to leave free from identifiable tropes.   Even in its central G major segment, the initial melodic identifiers of an octave leap upwards and an immediate falling step of four consecutive notes permeate the rustic discussion, the narrative outlined without dynamic complications in this interpretation.

The last Romance in B flat is more rhapsodic in presentation than its predecessors, Selby at first reverting to complete accompaniment status with patterns that could have been lifted from Widmung.  In fact, the piano has to wait until the violin moves to pizzicato before there is a chance of sharing in the melodic riches.  Schumann reverts to type in the return-to-home-key segment before repenting of the keyboard’s subsidiary status and allowing a 7-bar prominence before the final flourishes.  Here again, you could relish the performers’ avoidance of magniloquence, taking the ardent melodic flow and rippling support at face value and delivering its apparently symmetrical sentences with a muted eloquence and telling flexibility of phrasing.

Valve came on for the D minor Trio and immediately settled into a rich duet with Clifford, despite his line being seconded for most of the time by Selby’s left hand.  All three performers entered without reserve into the movement’s dark, mobile world and outlined its elements and progress with unflinching clarity, surging through a lengthy development which is relieved momentarily by that ethereal interlude in F where the strings play am Steg.  It’s quite a task sustaining interest through these modulation-heavy pages where the basic material is examined from many aspects, but the result was  engrossing, Selby leading into and out of Schumann’s polyphonic melange with understated authority.

Luckily, these performers observed the composer’s rider – nicht zu rasch – for the second movement Scherzo, piano and strings set against each other in the outer sections’ galloping rising-scale motive that amounts to a melody.  The exercise was packed with energy but you’d be looking hard to find any of the pounding that these pages bring out in many interpreters, especially in the undue emphasis regularly given to the many sforzando markings.   During the following Langsam, Valve again enjoyed the intermittent reinforcement of Selby’s bass notes but the pianist kept her delivery muted; not that the movement has claims to being one of Schumann’s finer constructs but its pleasure (for me) lies in the contrast between its surrounding gloom and the interpolated Bewegter where the texture and emotional content lighten in one of those marvellous Eusebius/Florestan juxtapositions.

It’s difficult for any piano trio to bring off this work’s Mit Feuer finale, I think; but then, I’m not happy with the Piano Quintet’s concluding movement, either.  Melodic amplitude is there in spades, even though Schumann beavers away at its four-square phrases with frenetic energy. eventually reaching that climactic point where piano and strings pound out an eight-bar series of minim chords in close canon; by which stage, you scent the conclusion’s proximity with something close to relief.   It’s hard work, and not just for the players but Selby and her colleagues made the most of its potential with a constant regard for the piece’s linear interplay and responsibilities so that the experience wasn’t an unremitting hard slog – something that it can be when essayed by many other ensembles.

With the Brahms Trio No. 1, you move into a world that is similar to that of the Schumanns but more substantial in form, the composer’s voice more assured and broader in its accent.  You have to look hard to find any other work of this period that envelops listeners and performers in all four of its movements, even if the direction that Brahms takes us is in opposition to the Beethovenian norm; in this case, from noble declamation to minor key storms.  It’s easy to typecast the work as a young man’s creation, powerful in its sweep and ardour, and this perception goes some way towards explaining its popularity with young musicians at competition time.  But it is a far more mature and concise product in this second version.

Several of us have heard Selby & Co. play this score many times, since Macquarie Trio days back in the early 1990s; it might not come around every year on the organization’s schedule, but we hear it regularly enough.  Sometimes it sweeps you up when the stars are aligned  –  Selby in warmth-splaying mode, the string combination consonant in delivery characteristics, sensible decisions reached on tempo and dynamics.  At others, the results can be patchy: an exemplary opening sonata movement followed by an over-brusque scherzo. or a vibrato rich adagio sitting alongside a finale where the rhythmic kicks and scuffles are treated with something approaching fury by the pianist.

Luckily, Wednesday night’s interpretation turned into a fine coping-stone for the program, each movement consistent in itself and with the composer’s over-arching framework.   Its success had a lot to do with the sheer musicianship of all concerned, Selby responding to these particular colleagues with a splendidly controlled delivery in which the exclamation points proved hefty rather than brazen.  At the same time, Clifford and Valve showed themselves intensely committed to the exercise, the cello’s liquid elasticity evident from the entire work’s initial bars.

But the memorable joy of this reading came in Clifford’s flawless top line.  Of course, her actual product shone with added eloquence in those matchless duets that emerge at high points along the score’s progress: at the violin’s first entry in the opening Allegro, the unison sturm und drang that lasts from bar 95 to bar 109, the subdued and shadowy resuscitation process that leads into the movement’s magnificent recapitulation; the responses to the piano chorales that begin and end the all-too-brief Adagio; those impulsive major key passages where both strings get to handle the finale’s second theme, and the hurtling syncopations at, for instance, bars 171-2.   Through concerted moments like these, let alone obvious stretches of solo exposure, this violinist generated a firmly etched and elegant line, fitting in to the sonic tapestry with admirable skill and perceptiveness.

Having missed out on several of last year’s final recitals and the first in the 2019 sequence, I found out later than most that Selby has installed a reflective shell to frame the trio, just as she had done at the BMW/Deakin Edge in Federation Square, and as the ANAM administration has had in operation at the South Melbourne Town Hall for many years.   To my ears, the difference is significant in that the group’s detail work is more clear, particularly from the cello.  As well, Selby is a more comfortable dynamic entity, not having to labour over her production level, like making audible her Mendelssohnian decoration work in the Scherzo – for example, that high right-hand work just prior to the Trio, or those delicate octuple (8 quavers in the time of 6) downward arpeggios that close off some sentences.  In sum, an excellent move to enhance audience comfort in a pleasant, accessible space; another reason for bracing chilly Melbourne weather to experience this invigorating and intelligent music-making.