Informative, yes; dry, no


Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday August 22, 2019

                                  L to R:   Jakob Lehmann,   Rachael Beesley,   Miki Tsunoda,   Anna McMichael,                                                                       Bernadette Verhagen,    Simon Oswell,    Daniel Yeadon,    Natasha Kraemer

An inspiration of the late Richard Gill, this orchestra  –  or, on this night, chameleonic chamber ensemble  –  is  dedicated to historically informed performances which, the older I get, takes in a lot more music than it used to do.   We’ve had a welter of such groups come visiting over the past 50 years or so and have established our own organizations in this field, some to considerable acclaim.  But, as an ARCO virgin, I was taken aback and delighted by the orchestra’s most recent appearance here.

Even though the program offered little new  –  Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and Brahms’ D Major Serenade in its original nonet format   –   the standard of interpretation on offer managed to achieve what very few musical experiences do these days: making you re-hear and re-configure music that you thought you had securely under your belt.  Most of us would have heard a good many versions of the Mendelssohn gem; sometimes from two discrete string quartets banded together for the occasion, more often from performers extracted from an established orchestral body, and also there’s been the possibility of hearing 8 individuals collaborating with one end in view, as in student airings.

Is it fair to say that most of these prove worthy, sometimes exhilarating, often owing what success they have to the unkillable quality of the young composer’s score?  After hearing the ARCO forces, you have to take a step back; their interpretation doesn’t grab you for its drama, not even in the fugue-rich finale that most groups hammer into place with ferocity; nor is it affectingly rich in emotional swooping, as is too often the case in the work’s generous Andante.   Immediately, the listener knows that the reading is different.

You expect the first violin to seize the reins right from the start with those upward arpeggio surges while every one else supplies filler for 8 bars.   Guest director Jakob Lehmann cut back on the ardour so that his output emerged from the E flat Major buzzing  without unnecessary heroics or attention-grabbing.  In this, he set much of a pattern for the remainder of the players who supplied a kind of organic growth rather than a series of spotlit moments, as when Violin 4 and Viola 1 combine at bar 68 for the B flat theme in 6ths, or later when Violin 2 sets off the rush to recapitulation at bar 209, Rachael Beesley setting the semiquavers in motion from within the moment rather than seizing the opportunity to distract.

For the first five minutes, the ARCO output impresses for its caressing nature, a gentility that comes from every point of the stage.   You endure no scraping as the ensemble output is fine, carefully finished, but I was thankful for the Exposition repeat, just for the sake of temperature acclimatisation.  Quiet individual touches persisted into the Andante where Lehmann employed a fair amount of portamento, although he was pretty much alone in this practice.   As well, the group proved themselves comfortable at negotiating changes in tempo, bending the bar-line appreciably but without interrupting the movement’s fluency.

Mendelssohn’s breathtaking Scherzo was handled with courtesy and a lack of the sublimated freneticism that informs many other readings; light-footed, as the composer’s direction suggests, but not hopping about on hot coals.   The concluding Presto brought out the group’s most forthright playing with plenty of hefty bow-work, but even here the details told, like some scintillating duet fragments from Beesley and Miki Tsunoda peeking out from the muted ferment, as at bars 355 to 372.   In the end, even this heavy-handed set of pages came over as brisk and bright – remarkable given the frequent determined working-out of material where the young composer can’t disguise his learning.

You won’t come across the original form of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 very often, mainly because he destroyed the score and what we hear is a clever reconstruction based on estimates and memories.   You can see why Joachim advised Brahms to revise it for full orchestra, especially in the bookend movements.   But for this group of players, the nonet – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn – provided scope for individuality without effort, even if you could have wished for less assertiveness from Robert Percival’s bassoon in  some of the more lightly-scored moments.

Lehmann maintained his approach of using very little vibrato; cellist Daniel Yeadon cello employed it more often.  Not that this latter player had much opportunity to exercise this technique early on, thanks to the folksy drones he had to produce with bass Robert Nairn.   Violist Simon Oswell didn’t hold back when a potentially fruity solo came his way.  But the significant player for this section was Darryl Poulsen on horn which, for a natural instrument, sounded unexpectedly fresh and clear of errors.  Thanks to this unfussed clarity, the work opened with a pleasant mixture of rusticity and sophistication, as it should.

The first scherzo exposed the excellent clarinet duet work of Nicole van Bruggen and Emily Worthington – subtle in phrasing and restrained in dynamic.   But the whole group made excellent work of these pages’ seamless, long paragraphs.   Even better performance skill came in the solitary Adagio which gave us  an opportunity to luxuriate in rich scoring and some fine textural mixes, notably from Lehmann and Oswell whose production qualities – so different in solo work – complemented each other with felicitous results.     This movement is heard at its melting best in the return to taws in the last third, a gift for Lehmann who gave it the same flexibility without overkill that exemplified his playing across the evening.    Here again, Poulsen made a brave showing, enunciating his notes without apparent effort and even reconciling you to the odd nature of step-by-step melodies for which the mechanics of his instrument preclude evenness of output.

With the clarinet duet of Menuetto I, this serenade is best suited to the small chamber disposition.   The second part saw Lehmann unexpectedly impose brusque dynamic contrasts.   Admittedly, the second Menuetto is all violin but, in this version, I was happy to get back to the calm imperturbability of those clarinets in the repeated first Menuetto. The second Scherzo gained by its change to full orchestra status, not least by having three more horns to help carry the brunt of the action.   Still, these pages met with an enthusiastic response from the ARCO musicians.   If I wasn’t as pleased by the ensemble’s account of the finale, it might have been due to the rhythmic ambiguity that hangs over the movement where the time signature is 2/4 but most ensembles slip into 6.8 by not maintaining a sufficiently keen ear on the disposition of individual lines.   However, these performers worked hard to the last bar of this rondo  –  the least successful of the score’s six segments.

Obviously, listening to the Brahms score made for a further test of concentration.  You had to take on board pretty quickly the combination of clarity and restraint that seems to come with the ARCO territory.   On top of that, you found yourself trying to discount your knowledge of how this work sounds under ‘normal’ conditions.  As a result, the performance kept you on your toes, aurally speaking.   For many of us, such demands are unusual; for several of us, they make for the best kind of musical experience.  It’s hard to resist this group’s dedication to a particular style of playing which attracts for its integrity; the pity is that, as on this night, these gifted musicians are working to an audience of small numbers.  Not that this should give them pause: their efforts and  results are effective and powerful.

September Diary

Tuesday September 3

Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & Stephen de Pledge

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A piano trio that comes under the Recital Centre’s promotional heading of ‘Great Chamber Ensembles’, its violinist and cellist are familiar names – husband-and-wife team Mullova and Barley  –  but who is de Pledge, apart from being a friend of the family?  Guess we’ll find out on the night.   To open, we hear the Ravel which will test he friend/pianist, and the group winds up with the glorious Schubert in E flat – one of those feasts that always satisfies.   In between comes a new work by Salina Fisher. a young New Zealand composer/violinist    I’m assuming this is the piece for cello and piano commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand that is being taken around the composer’s home country later this month; hard to tell from Fisher’s website where her list of works is not up-to-date and this Melbourne appearance doesn’t rate a mention in the list of performances of the composer’s works.


Wednesday September 4


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew at 7:30 pm

Kathryn Selby’s colleagues for this recital are familiar from previous years: violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   It’s fair to say that these performers are not game changers, but then you’d be pressed to find much revolutionary about the composers highlighted on this amiable night’s work.   Elena Kats-Chernin has become a major presence on this country’s music scene but not for her ability to make us re-think our perceptions.   Blue Silence in a piano trio version was arranged in 2012 for the Streeton Trio, six years after the piece’s original composition for cello and piano.   Based on a four-note motif, the score is as formally -placid and non-directional as a Satie Gnossienne. In Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2 (the one we all know with the Blues middle movement), the composer experiments with jazz inflections but it hardly represents any blazing of new pathways; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue appeared three years before this sonata and really altered  public attitudes – for a while.   Smiles and Selby take on Britten’s first composition for Rostropovich: the Cello Sonata of 1961 which started the British composer on his sequence of five splendid scores for the Russian master.  This program concludes with Dvorak in F minor, Op. 65 which signified a directional change from the composer – less nationalism, more abstraction.   Like the Ravel, it’s a game changer more for the writer than for the landscape of European serious music.


Saturday September 7


Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

There’ll be no soloists in this program from the ANAM orchestra.   We hear the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, recently aired by the MSO and its Chorus, although I don’t think there’ll be any singing here.   Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat follows with what are called ‘Suite selections’ – two sets to choose from but probably no singing despite the original’s two songs for mezzo.  Then comes the title work, also given recently by the MSO and a severe test still for a young orchestra.  You’d think that the outer tableaux depicting the Shrovetide Fair would be the most problematic, but the two central scenes present problems of a different character with their concentration on individual and small group filigree work.   Tonight’s conductor is Brazilian-born Eduardo Strausser, a young gun with a string of successful appearances to his credit in South America and Europe.   He made his Australian debut last year with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, goading that ensemble through the Bruckner Symphony No. 4; this ANAM program is, in comparison, almost frivolous.


Sunday September 8


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Apart from a Haydn prelude  –  the Symphony No. 39 called Tempesta di mare for reasons I can’t fathom  –   this program is all-Mozart.   You’d assume the Haydn was selected to balance Tognetti’s final offering: the Mozart G minor Symphony No. 25 that enjoyed unusual exposure in Forman’s Amadeus film.   The artistic director takes a solo with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, yet another spirit-lifting delight from the teenage composer.    Guest artist Dejan Lazic – a truly formidable pianist – returns to the ACO to perform the E Flat Concerto No. 14 which is a piece you won’t hear often although several commentators place it at the start of the remarkable central group of such works in the composer’s oeuvre.   I think it has a brilliant first movement but is not as enthralling in the following Andantino and Allegro.  Lazic makes a further contribution with a Rondo Concertante that he has arranged from the finale to the B flat Piano Sonata K. 333.    I thought the original would have been too bare-boned and direct for any kind of transformation but Lazic may give us a startling re-composition/adaptation.   We’ll see.

This program will be repeated on Monday September 9 at 7:30 pm.


Friday September 13


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Not much to report about this night.   Conductor Benjamin Northey takes us on a brisk journey through Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1, which is always agreable to experience if the players are in skittish form for its 14 minutes’ worth.   Then the MSO’s own Thomas Hutchinson takes the lead for the Strauss Oboe Concerto which lasts for an atypically brief 25 minutes; this soloist currently occupies the Associate Principal position under Jeffrey Crellin, who has been in the main chair for 42 years.   Northey then gets the chance to expound the great G minor Symphony and you’d have to wish him well in attempting to bring something new to these all-too-familiar pages, shamefully bowdlerized by pop music cretins and ad men with absolutely no idea about the worth of their adopted material.   There’ll be some immediate interest in seeing (and hearing) whether Northey uses the version with clarinets.


Saturday September 14

Emerson String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Not that it matters, but this ensemble will play its second program first in Melbourne.  The well-settled group – one personnel change in 43 years – takes its name from Ralph Waldo, a philosopher more often used as a reference than as reading material; what I know about him derives pretty much completely from Charles Ives.  The musicians begin with Haydn Op. 71 No. 2 which will probably hold plentiful surprises for Emerson enthusiasts because this particular work does not feature in the ensmble’s The Haydn Project recordings.   Beethoven’s middle Razumovsky, they have recorded to mixed reviews.   No raised eyebrows with the centre work, either: Bartok No. 5.   In short, a program from a well-respected ‘name’ quartet, calculated to highlight the players’ abilities in core repertoire.

The Emersons will perform their Program 1 on Tuesday September 17 at 7 pm.   This comprises Mozart in D Major K. 575, first of the Prussian series which the group has recorded; Dvorak Op. 51 in E flat. oozing nationalistic flourishes, particularly in its second half; and Shostakovich Op. 92 which the Emersons have also recorded and which makes an odd match for the second program’s Bartok.


Sunday September 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank at 11 am

When you read that heading, the first thing that comes to mind is the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and sure enough: that masterwork from 1937 leads the two-part agenda for this recital.   It’s not uncommon to come across it on programs, even these days when the composer is recognized by an ever-shrinking repertoire, but you rarely hear the score achieved with complete confidence.   Here’s hoping pianists Louisa Breen and Leigh Harrold with MSO percussionists John Arcaro and Robert Cossom breeze through its three movements with aplomb.   The morning-into-afternoon concludes with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in an arrangement originally for two pianos by American composer/pianist John Musto, transmuted even further by Cossom to include the two available percussionists.   A pretty short recital, which may not stretch past noon as the two works last for about 50 minutes combined.  But no: I’m forgetting those laborious spoken introductions and commentaries that bring this extraordinary music down to the level of banality.


Thursday September 19


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Hmm . . . Elgar. . . Variations.   No secrets here, then: we’re in for the Enigma, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth who is solidly British in background and no close relation to Mark, a fine musician who could have been the MSO’s sometime chief conductor if the stars had aligned, I believe.   Anyway, good luck to Ryan and his interpretation of this hoary collection.   As guest soloist, we hear Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 which is being substituted for Wigglesworth’s own Mozart Variations . . . a new score that might have given some expanded relevance to this concert’s title.   Never mind: Lewis is a remarkable, insightful artist heard here in concertos too rarely.   To begin, Lewis and Wigglesworth collaborate as soloists in Mozart’s Two-Piano Concerto in E flat: a secret pleasure as my favourite above most of the better-known one-piano concerto masterworks.  And my lack of discernment is exhibited yet again by a partiality for the Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea live performance from 1985.

This program will be repeated on Friday September 20 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm.


Friday September 20


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Quartet No. 1 by Ives had no subtitle when I first heard it back in the 1960s.  Now the ASQ have labelled it From the Salvation Army; American groups have called it A Revival Service.   Whatever its sobriquet, the work is packed with hymn tunes and – up until the last movement – an orthodoxy that disturbs because you keep waiting for the biting clashes that signify the composer’s idea of a man’s music as opposed to all that French slop being produced about the same time (1898-1902).   Speaking of which, Debussy’s Op. 10 Quartet at the end of tonight’s program dates from 1893 and is a fine example of the kind of writing that Ives detested; we less Spartan minds have learnt to make allowances.   Nigel Westlake’s new piece being premiered on this tour is his String Quartet No. 3, about which no information is readily available.   It enjoys its first performance in Sydney on September 4; then in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth before being expounded to the discerning ears of Melbourne’s chamber music aficionados.


Saturday September 21


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The American players – flute Denis Bouriakov, oboe Ramon Ortega Quero, clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan, bassoon Whitney Crocket  and horn Andrew Bain – open with a welcome burst of nationalism through Barber’s sophisticated and benign Summer Music before employing the services of an ANAM bass clarinettist for Britten’s 1930 Movement for Wind Sextet – a window into the 16-year-old composer’s practices.  Then we cross the Channel in a big way.   An ANAM pianist (Timothy Young?)  gets to join the Los Angeles musicians for Poulenc’s Sextet before we take a step back in time for Gounod’s Petite symphonie which entails the assistance of further ANAM musicians  –  an oboe, a clarinet, a bassoon and a horn.   Milhaud’s Chamber Symphony No. 5 expands the participating personnel by one, requiring a piccolo, a cor anglais to help the oboe, that bass clarinet again, an extra bassoon and another horn.   Finally, the visitors will be duplicated by a home-grown group in Francaix’s 9 Pieces caracteristiques for double wind quintet.   If nothing else, the evening bears evidence of the immense debt that wind players owe to France.


Tuesday September 24

Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Back in the thick of the recherche, this fine British pianist is again confining himself to a circumscribed field.   He begins with Haydn in E minor Hob XVI.34 which, as far as I can detect, has not featured in his recordings of music by this composer.   It’s a pretty terse work, the three movements rushing past with an unusual conciseness of rhetoric.  Continuing his predilection for late works by the masters, Lewis then focuses on the Three Intermezzi Op. 117 by Brahms where the melancholy and resignation of old age colour every page: extraordinary creations of apparent simplicity.   For his finale, Lewis takes on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations which has not enjoyed the exposure of Bach’s Goldberg and probably lags behind the Baroque work in any universal discography.   You can wait many years to hear the Diabelli live; I believe that I’ve heard it only once – at one of Stephen McIntyre’s  one-day piano festivals at St. Michael’s Church.   To an unprepossessing tune, Beethoven brought all his hard-won craft and you’d anticipate an engrossing interpretation of this lengthy score from this player gifted with consummate skill and a working intellect.


Thursday September 26


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Terribly popular, this concerto.   It seems hardly a year goes by without its appearance on an MSO program.  Not that you can whinge about its coming up yet again when the soloist is Ray Chen, a violinist of great accomplishment and insight (when he’s playing something worthwhile).   Tonight’s director/violinist is MSO Concertmaster Dale Barltrop who leads us into a light-filled program with Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri Overture and brings us home with Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 where the concluding frolic of a presto brings to mind the composer who opened the concert.   As a sort of programmed encore, Chen and Barltrop collaborate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, which Bach transcribed, along with three other concertos by the Italian composer, for organ solo.   As a composite presentation for this hall, this all strikes me as effective and appropriate; nothing sombre and little that would benefit from a noticeable echo.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday September 27 at 7:30 pm.