Long time between drinks

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday June 15, 2019

                                          (L to R) Alex Redington, Ying Xue, Helene Clement, John Myerscough

I’ve got plenty of happy memories of the Dorics in their original shape back in 2007 when the group entered Melbourne’s International Chamber Music Competition and got dudded by some other ensembles along the finals’ road.   Those musicians gave fine service in Bartok No. 6 – not your average young persons’ fare –  and an exemplary Round 2 combination of Brett Dean‘s Eclipse with Schumann No. 1 in A minor.  Over the past 12 years, the ensemble has revisited Australia, but not getting past the Huntington Festival in 2013, followed by the 2015 Musica Viva Festival in Sydney.

However, memory only takes you so far.   I’ve got no recollection of the current Doric violist, Helene Clement; just as well, as I find that she only joined up in 2013 to replace Simon Tandree.   It’s probable that first violin Alex Redington and cellist John Myerscough are foundation members.   But the body seems to have enjoyed a change in the Violin 2 chair: Jonathan Stone has been recently replaced by Ying Xue  –  and I mean very recently, Ying having made the move from the Parker String Quartet late in 2018.

Illness kept me away from the group’s first program – Haydn’s Joke, the new Brett Dean No. 3, and the last Schubert.  Still, you couldn’t complain about the alternative a few days later: Haydn Op. 33 No 4, Dean, and Beethoven in C sharp minor.  The players have recorded more than a few Haydn works, although none of the six from the Op. 33 set. Over the past 12 years or so, the group has built up a firm relationship with Dean, ever since the composer heard them performing his work in the 2007 competition here in Melbourne.   And, while they did record the big Schubert in 2017, no Beethoven, large or small, has tempted them into the studio.

Saturday night’s Haydn opening displayed a sharp individual character to the interpretation; par for the course these days.   Before long, you were faced with an unexpectedly wide dynamic range and juxtapositions, not to mention a non-doctrinaire approach to metre, and the occasional sound shock, like the outbreak of rustic fiedel-timbre from Redington in the first movement.   But the actual dynamic terracing left you unsatisfied at various points throughout the reading.   Well, not just that but the abruptness of changes; it was almost as if the players were drawing attention to their own skill at the expense of Haydn’s.

Much better emerged in the two central movements with a generous breadth to the Scherzo and a deft turn to the asymmetrical B flat minor Trio.  At the outset, these players treated the Largo without unflattering flourishes, Redington leading into its small-frame  escapades with a restrained hand during the movement’s brief length.  The first violin also led the revels in Haydn’s Presto/finale with an unassuming mastery, although there are few challenges to the line’s supremacy.   In these pages, the Dorics made their most interesting music, possibly because Haydn offers a variety of segments to play around with, including a winsome pizzicato conclusion that always surprises because of its delicacy, substituting for the usual rabble-rousing welter – yes, even in Haydn.

Dean’s new work has a political subtext; no, more than that.  The work operates as a commentary on the current dispiriting theatre and raft of operators who have taken over the state of play in so many countries.   At the same time, Dean is not only occupied with presenting us with his vision of the world gone astray but he also injects the personal into his work’s progress so that, although you can appreciate the multi-faceted irrationalities that confront the political observer,  you also are a part of the main and, if things have come to this pretty pass, you bear responsibility for it, along with the idiots you allow to represent you.

The work, subtitled Hidden Agendas,  is in five movements: Hubris, Response, Retreat, Self-Censorship and On-Message.   If you so desired, you could find plenty of material in each section to reflect or reinforce your world-view.   But that pursuit suggests the momentary: we will not always have Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Kim Jong-un, or Mohammed bin Salman to bedevil our times.   Yet most of them will not pass rapidly, so Dean offers a state-of-play commentary, beginning with a kind of communal hurtling where each member of the quartet is involved in synchronized action; it may be discordant, but it presents as organized.   It’s intensely invigorating to watch but you can’t avoid the impression that each performer is operating both in concord with the others and also gainsaying them at the same time.

Response is an opposite in pretty much every way: harmonics dominate the opening strophes in a passive landscape where the participants become more extroverted, the violins reach for high tessitura notes and the lower strings avoid any answering depths, the most memorable device an unaggressive saltando.  For Retreat, the move is back to a form of the work’s initial scrabbling, resolving into sustained chords, under which Myerscough urged out what I can only call an impassioned, well-rocked lullaby.

For the confessional pages of Self-Censorship, Dean has the players exchange their bows for ones that have not been treated with rosin, at the same time wiping down their instruments’ strings to make sure there is a complete absence of the powder.   This is a movement of feints and whispers in which nothing is defined; nothing like a statement of determined effort emerges.  This is not so much a Party-style exercise in self-recrimination or a general admission of guilt for perceived error, but a reservation of the eyes, the tongue and the mind – an old-fashioned monastic would feel completely at home with this music,

Dean brings us round to something like full-circle at the end yet, where there was something collegial about the aggression of the first movement, here the impulse that drives the work impresses as obsessive, more dissonant in language and argument than we heard in Hubris.   Is anything resolved?  I doubt it: the composer leaves us with an open-ended result simply because the world that he deals with has little definition.  These days, information arrives from so many sources through so many different media direct to the listener/reader, to such a point where the tasks of shuffling into shape, categorising and even imbibing cogently all the materials with which we are bombarded  are becoming impossibly difficult.   Dean is far from negative; much of this quartet is immediately attractive and challenging.   Yet what he leaves you (me) with is a type of regretful scepticism.

Of course, the composer has been fortunate in his interpreters who showed, at every stage, a confidence and security of delivery that did not falter, even in those passages that required split-second communal accuracy.

While you could find certain facets of the Beethoven performance to enjoy, beginning with a firm, spartan rendition of the initial fugue which often refrained from treating those multiple sforzandi as if they were escapees from Verklarte Nacht country, to a controlled and bounding account of the Allegro finale – in tune and in time to its manic last bars.   Throughout, however, I was troubled by an impression that I’d gained back in the Haydn run-through: the ensemble’s viola, Helene Clement, tends to self-emphasize, her line brimming with over-confidence even in those passages where her instrument is making the running.

About the quartet’s core, the Andante with variations, you were hard pressed to quibble, the movement opening with a reassuring fluency and maintaining its underlying urgency.    Yet the group found it difficult to negotiate the following Presto with much beyond the slam-dunk attack that many another ensemble employs.   By the end, you were happy for the weltering action to stop; no, it’s not a set of pages that lends itself to subtlety or that gains relief by studied elegance of delivery but it need not be handled with a coarseness of utterance like the remorseless pounding that ran from bar 220 to bar 232, or again between bars 434 and 446.

As with so many other experiences of this monument, you were happy to have experienced it one more time but I couldn’t class this night’s work as one of those transcendent visions of the score that ensures a tolerance amounting to admiration for its brusque plain-speaking.

July Diary

Thursday July 4


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Lang Lang came here many years ago in the first flush of his success to play with the MSO: Tchaikovsky No. 1, I think.  Rapturous applause but I was unmoved; a player with full mastery of the tricks but no idea what he was dealing with.  Packing a lot more exposure and experience, he’s back in yet another of the administration’s by-the-book programs.   No, that’s not fair.  It may follow the overture/concerto/symphony format of yore but not slavishly.   Conductor Kirill Karabits opens this celebration with the incomparable lightness of being that is The Marriage of Figaro Overture; thrown off hours before the premiere, according to legend.   But it’s still barely 4 minutes’ worth of festive greatness.   The guest pianist dis/continues the prevailing strain with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, the overture’s companion in Kochel’s catalogue and a C minor harbinger of Beethoven.   Among the final flurry of the composer’s piano concertos, it sticks out like a sore thumb for its intransigence of expression (except for the amiable middle Larghetto) and is a real test of Lang Lang’s interpretative strength.   For us old-timers, the work is a deviation: 40 years ago, a celebratory gala with a focal Mozart concerto would have been hard to imagine without the presence of a superstar like Haebler in town.   Ditto for the symphony, which is not the Rachmaninov No. 2  –  an MSO favourite  –  but the No. 3 which  I’ve heard the orchestra play twice.   More concise than its predecessor, this score is another splendid  canvas for the performers to unveil.  Karabits remains an unknown quantity; all his work so far appears to be Eurocentric.


Saturday July 13


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

What do you think will happen when Sir Andrew eventually leaves his chief conductor post with the MSO?   Will this annual observance fall into abeyance?   We can only hope.  I can’t be the only one who thinks that, with these Last Night events, you might just as well leave at interval because the second half is as processed as a ham-and-cheese roll from Coles.   The pre-Brexit chain-rattling of imperial reassurance will echo across the decades with the usual Elgar/Wood/Arne/Parry predictables.   Before this prolonged excuse to roll out the Union Jacks, patrons get some familiar works and a handful of unknowns.  Violinist Lu Siqing, the MSO’s Soloist in Residence, will vault through Saint-Saens’ rollicking Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  And then, presumably, go home.  Soprano Greta Bradman has more to do, beginning with two operatic favourites: Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and poor Leonora’s D’amor sull ali’ rosee just before the Miserere in Verdi’s Il trovatore.   The MSO Chrous will be given the chance to animate Parry’s Blest pair of sirens where Milton comes in for the Pax Britannica treatment.  Bradman returns with an odd brace in Horn’s Cherry Ripe juxtaposed with a work by the singer’s grandfather: Sir Donald’s Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me which stems blamelessly from the Victorian music hall – melodious and four-square.   To conclude the interesting if scrappy first half, Michael Hurst’s Swagman’s promenade offers a medley of Australian tunes (among the Irish and English ones that have been smuggled past customs) calculated to make you nostalgic for the brain-dead Menzies era.


Sunday July 14


Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 5 pm

What’s so heroic here?   Well, primarily, the music is most taxing and not the kind of thing we hear from any organization.   The first half is all-Rossini and he is also a main contributor to the program’s second part.   It looks like the company is preparing for a production of Semiramide: we hear the Overture, Arsace’s Eccomi alfine in Babilonia, the heroine’s Bel raggio lusinghier, the mother-and-son Ebben . . . a te; ferisci duet.  Intertwined with these four will be two scraps from Ciro in Babilonia, the lesser-known of the composer’s two Lenten operas: Avrai tu pur vendetta for the tenor role Arbace, and Chi disprezza gl’infelici from the mezzo confidante Argene.   As well, we get a reminder of the company’s recent essay at Guillaume Tell with Arnold’s famous Asile hereditaire.  After interval, the composer’s massive catalogue gives us two arias from the delicious L’Italiana in Algeri – Isabella’s Act 1 cavatina, Cruda sorte! and the slightly later Ai capricci della sorte – and the night ends with the concluding trio and finale from Le comte Ory.  Bellini scores one guernsey – the overture to Norma –  and the company offers four Donizetti pieces: the heroine’s entrance from Linda di Chamounix, O luce di quest’anima; Deserto in terra from Dom Sebastiano (the same as the eponymous hero’s Seul sur la terre from the original Dom Sebastien); O mon Fernand, Leonore’s big self-sacrifice from La favorite which so accurately prefigures the work’s final curtain; and Livorno. dieci Aprile from Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, a dramma giocoso about which I know nothing – but one of this night’s singers will be an expert: soprano Jessica Pratt recorded the work 8 years ago for La Scala.  The other singers will be mezzo Daniela Barcellona, tenor Carlos E. Barcenas, ‘and guests’.  Richard Mills conducts what one hopes will be an evening of revelations.


Sunday July 14

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Out of the regular MLC series, this program takes the Musicians back to their former seat of operations.  To say its appeal is catholic is an understatement.  Frank Pam conducts two Bach violin concertos: the A minor BWV 1041, with Anne Harvey-Nagl as soloist; then the E Major BWV 1042 in a transcription featuring Justin Kenealy’s soprano saxophone.   Mozart’s bracing, magnificent Sinfonia concertante partners Harvey-Nagl with violist Sally Clarke.  But the fun comes with tenor Lorenzo Iannotti and his bracket of Caro mio ben, Schubert’s Ave Maria, and O sole mio.  In fact, you can find nothing to argue with in most of this afternoon’s work.  The Bach works are spiritually cleansing, although you’d have to have reservations about Kenealy’s timbre in this close space.  You’d hope Pam will supplement his strings with pairs of horns and oboes for the majestic Mozart.   As for the Italian/Latin songs, I’m predicting a popular success, even though the tenor is an unknown force to me


Sunday July 14


Corpus Medicorum

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

An orchestra of medical people  – practitioners and auxiliaries – that I’ve heard once before.   It’s conducted by Keith Crellin who occasionally revisits his trademark viola but is now more firmly linked with the baton, directing this and other orchestras in Adelaide.   The program involves only two works and one of them is calculated to stroke the plumage of a certain  kind of patriotism: Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony No. 3 with its broad-bosomed chauvinism serving as an advantage throughout an atypically happy construct.   Preceding this, violinist Markiyan Melnychenko and cellist Michael Dahlenburg front the Brahms Double Concerto which has suffered a poor critical reception for many years but I can’t see why.   Mind you, my affection for it sprang from a long flight leg many years ago during which the classical audio channel got stuck so you had access to a few works only: excerpts from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette and this concerto were the recurring highlights – hour after hour.  Whatever the abilities of the orchestra itself, I can speak highly of the two soloists’ professional skills.


Thursday July 18


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The city performances marry a concert-hall cliche with a bourn undiscovered outside the pages of text-books.   Sir Andrew Davis revisits the work that, in 1913, re-defined serious music; after The Rite of Spring, nothing was even potentially the same again and those ignorant enough to dismiss Stravinsky’s chef d’oeuvre in the following decades by pursuing the traditional paths have suffered the fate of all those who stand in the doorway and block up the hall.   The rhythmic changes remain compelling and abrasive, the melodies superbly apposite (now that Taruskin has revealed to us that most of them are folk-tunes), but the orchestration must have shown the composer’s peers how much they still had to learn.   Davis draws on the MSO Chorus and two children’s choirs to present the 1934 melodrame Persephone to a Gide text.  As for principals, his Eleusinian Mysteries originator Eumolphe will be American tenor Paul Groves; the narrator is Lotte Betts-Dean who I’m supposing will not follow commissioner Ida Rubinstein’s lead and dance as well (the four other dance roles are not mentioned on the MSO site).  At the Geelong performance, Persephone disappears (as she does every year), replaced by Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and the 1919 suite that Stravinsky fabricated from The Firebird – the one that we all know and which makes us comfortable.

This program will be repeated – well, half of it – on Friday July 19 in Costa Hall Geelong at 7:30 pm and, in its original format, back in Hamer Hall on Saturday July 20 at 2:30 pm.


Saturday July 27

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

The famous choir is back again, moving into a large space that can host its many admirers.  While it may be singing in Melbourne twice, it will sing the same works on each night; unlike Sydney, which will enjoy an almost completely separate menu at its night/matinee performances.   We will be treated to some all-too-familiar repertoire staples – Gibbons’ Hosanna to the son of David, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols (really?), Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis.   The singers will work through an off-shore bracket with Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, Monteverdi’s settle-down motet Cantata Domino, and the four-part Salve Regina by Cavalli.   The remainder is solidly British, for the most part: Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis, Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting for last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols in Cambridge of Wesley’s O Mercy Divine (this calls for the assistance of Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Umberto Clerici); Vaughan Williams’ setting of Bunyan sentences in Valiant-for-Truth (who’s going to supply the organ-or-piano intro? Probably harpist Alice Giles who’s involved in the Britten Christmas collation).   Erollyn Wallen’s 6-minute PACE suggests novelty – so far.  Like the Weir, a new work by our own Ross Edwards will enjoy its Australian premiere.  Singing the Love currently retains its mysteries, including the origin of its text, but we can hope for an outpouring of Maninyas ecstasy to brighten up what looks like a by-the-numbers event.


This program will be repeated on Tuesday August 6 at 7 pm in the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Brilliant, even with the dross


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday June 4, 2019

                                                                              Richard Tognetti

These smaller concerts that the ACO gives in the Murdoch Hall of the Recital Centre are something of a gamble.   While the main series in Hamer Hall attracts respectable numbers, those mounted in the more acoustically clear space can be depressing affairs; not from the performers’ point-of-view, I hope; nor from the experiences of those patrons that come along to something that falls out of the usual season; but definitely to those of us who can see and hear splendid music-making being given to a half-full auditorium, as was the case last Tuesday.

No soloist was being touted, neither the ACO’s better-known visitors nor the recherche artists that the organization brings to our attention.   And your casual concert-goer isn’t going to be stimulated in the hip-pocket by the trifold promise contained in this particular night’s title.   By this stage, though, you’d think that concert-goers with any discernment would be aware that this company can be relied upon to make the mundane into the extraordinary . . . well, most of the time.

As a tuning exercise, Richard Tognetti and his ten colleagues opened with the Alcina Overture by Handel, followed by a sequence of seven dances from that opera that ended in a brisk Tamburino with Maxime Bibeau‘s bass and Julian Thompson‘s cello helping out as percussion, the whole company  concluding the set with a machismo-flaunting ‘Hey!’  As an introduction, this pointed to the night’s approach: all-out vehemence tempered by rigorous ensemble work, probably best exemplified in a sarabande where personnel cut in and out of proceedings with seamless fluency.

This Handel bracket lacked the original’s oboes doubling violins and also the usual harpsichord underpinning to give the rich vein of melody some spikiness.   Still, the group avoided Hamilton Harty country with a precisely judged cutting edge to their attack, even if the two-cellos-plus-bass made for an amply solid bottom line.   Every so often, you might have wished for more weight from the first violins – all three of them – but occasional imbalance seemed a small price to pay while witnessing this zestful performance.

Another filler came with Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the slow final movement to the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 of 1980 where the book was emphatically closed on Meale’s leadership of the Australian contemporary music world by his reversion to tonality   –   a movement of the times but one that produced little of much value, particularly in this instance.   The piece is a violin solo, articulated with clear dedication by Tognetti while his companions provided an endless chain of supporting triplet arpeggios.   Nevertheless, a sensitive rendition offers little compensation for the piece’s aimlessness and eventual monotony, the prevailing texture breaking up only close to the end, by which stage the listener has given up expecting anything but dated blandness.

On this occasion, the Respighi was the Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. III, one of the fertile composer’s most worthwhile exercises.  The four movements are presented to performers as very open plan, with some dynamic markings and differentiations in articulation, e.g. pizzicato.   But any interpreter has plenty of room to move to colour what are bare-boned pages.  So Tognetti made a large feature of accelerandi in the opening Italiana, giving an interesting tidal motion to three pages in which many organizations aim for the easily achieved saccharine.

The ensemble made gripping material of the following Aria di corte, this suite’s most chameleonic element.   We had the opportunity to admire the timbre of viola Elizabeth Woolnough, moonlighting from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and shining in the opening and closing strophes of this movement.   Her sombre solos stood in excellent contrast with the sprightliness of the Vivace sections and the rolling rich chords of the central F Major Lento segment – a testament to this body’s uniformity of address and sustained delivery.

Respighi’s Siciliana found the ACO once more in accord during the movement’s driving central climax between bars 39 and 56 with some bracing triple stops from both sets of violins.   This ferocity continued in the concluding Passacaglia where each section gets a moment in the spotlight.   Here, the group’s recovery rate was shown to fine effect in the change from the powerful block chords on display from bar 24’s Energico to the bounding Vivace that breaks out eight bars later.  Further, the crackling unanimity evident in previous movements came to the fore in these concluding pages to riveting effect.

Peteris Vask’s Viatore for 11 solo strings (and hence tailor-made for this ensemble giving the score its Australian premiere) is dedicated to Arvo Part, and it shows.  The voyager of the title could be you, could be me, could be an extra-terrestrial; whichever it is, the travelling is conducted along straight lines.   Vasks offers us two theatres of action: one depicts the universe, the eternal which is depicted by high violin arpeggios and brings to mind Ives’ The Unanswered Question; the second outlines the voyager’s experiences on earth and consists of full chords beneath an aspirational melody.   These two elements alternate, the voyager theme rising in content and power before the score fades into the supernal.

You find it easy to engage with this work.    Its content is simple to imbibe, especially as the elements offer no challenge to instant comprehension and Vasks eschews the need for linking passages.  This night’s audience clearly engaged with the work which enjoyed a performance that brought out its passion and delicacy.   If I thought it over-simple and wanted a faster progress for the voyager, that’s probably a sign of crotchety dissatisfaction with a contemporary urge to under-intellectualize the process of composition, leaving the few goodies you have on the surface and thereby worrying the listener that the cosmic or spiritual depth proposed isn’t very profound at all.

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge followed attacca, doubly welcome for its brilliance of construction and sheer personality.   Here was an exhilarating tour de force from each member of the group involved: the elan of the top three violins during the Aria Italiana, a white hot fervour radiating from the Funeral March, Tognetti’s idiosyncratic solo during the Bouree classique, an impossibly fast Moto perpetuo, and an extraordinary fusion of Fugue and Finale.  It’s a young man’s work, jam-packed with scintillating flourishes which found an obvious response from this remarkable set of musicians.

I wasn’t sure about the personnel required in the Chant; I made a loan of my mini-score 50 years ago, never saw it again, of course, and can’t verify the facts.  But it seemed to me that three violas are required in this movement; hard when you have only two on board. But that was the only questionable question mark over a demonstration of expertise the like of which I haven’t ever seen exercised on this sparkling piece.   If you missed it, too bad, but I’m sure it will linger in the memories of those of us lucky to be witnesses to a display of the ACO in superb form.