Eloquent small-scale requiem

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday September 20

Charles Ives, graduation photo, Yale 1898

                                                                      Charles Ives

Finishing its Melbourne subscription series for the year, the ASQ balanced exploration and novelty with a repertoire staple, the equipoise yielding some outstanding results.  Despite the historical stature of Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 standing on one side, and the ground-breaking assertiveness of Debussy’s solitary essay in the form on the other,  Friday evening’s efforts focused on a new work by Nigel Westlake: his String Quartet No. 3. Sacred Sky, written in memory of his sister Kate and the outcome of an ASQ commission.

This new score is something of a fining-down of Westlake’s impressive Missa Solis, a requiem for the composer’s son Eli who was killed in a car accident in 2008.  The Mass requires large forces – among which number 13 brass, 2 harps, celesta/piano, 6 percussionists, choir and high soloist, as well as your usual complement of strings and pairs of woodwind –  and its texts come from a widely varied group of sources.  Sacred Sky‘s four movements are headed by the names of four paintings from the dead woman’s output:  Sacred Sky, Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea, The Turning Tide, The Journey Begins.  You can read as much as you like into the relationship between movement title and musical narrative; most of us find it hard to make any connection without access to the paintings.

But the quartet is old-fashioned in one respect: it follows a time-honoured format, albeit one where the first movement is not fast, although the second is a scherzo, the third a soulful adagio, and the finale a lengthy sequence of episodes that it’s tempting to classify as a rondo except that this particular listener wasn’t adequately endowed enough to retain mentally the quick changes in mood and texture.   Like the Missa Solis, the composer’s new creation is not simply a deploration or a sustained elegy; in fact, the last pages are brimful of optimism – a celebration with a kind of pantheistic underpinning.

Westlake’s initial movement is almost entirely a first violin solo – a gift for Dale Barltrop who moved purposefully through a long melodic arch while his companions provided a sustained chord backdrop which enjoyed a wealth of colour shifts.   For no good reason, these pages brought to mind the Cantilena Pacifica from Meale’s String Quartet No. 2, only with more point or purpose and a much more eloquent melodic sequence.  The following scherzo that celebrated spirit dancing made for an intentional complete contrast – packed with pizzicati and abrupt slashes, the lyrical action shifting to Stephen King’s stolid viola.

While The Turning Tide moves into a meditative ambience, the players are kept active and Westlake spreads the content more evenly.   As a memorial, I thought that this moved into more ruminative ground than the surrounding movements, different from the first movement in not being so much a sustained lyric as comprising bursts of abrupt melody that suggested an individual character   –  and so proved to be the high point of this celebration of a life.   You could say something the same of the quartet’s finale except that the changes being rung did so at tiring length, in spite of the composer’s mastery of sound-production techniques, in particular a restrained use of harmonics.   Westlake appears to concern himself here with grief being subsumed in action – by which I mean life; certainly something more dynamic than fond memories.

The composer worked on this piece with the ASQ members, so the lines are tailor-made for the commissioners with plenty of passages that highlight each voice – Barltrop’s sweetness of delivery in his instrument’s higher tessitura, second violin Francesca Hiew’s determination amounting to vehemence, the individual ardour and weight of King’s viola, and cellist Sharon Grigoryan’s solid presence in polyphonic complexes and spiky punctuation points.

The American master’s String Quartet No. 1 has, somewhere along the line, gained the distinctive sub-title, From the Salvation Army but I’m unsure when this came about.  While the work is saturated with hymn tunes, there appears to be no exclusivity to their use by the Army.   The first recording by the Kohon Quartet came across my desk in the mid-1960s and I’ve been paying it irregular attention in the half-century since.  Unlike this and other US interpretations, like the Juilliard and Emerson versions, the ASQ took Ives at face value with few efforts at ameliorating the score’s many brusque passages; little tenderising of this meat.   To their credit, the local musicians made a refreshing meal of the Postlude finale where the going gets difficult, verging on the labyrinthine rhythmic and harmonic processes of the central movement to Three Places in New England or the Emerson pages of the colossal Concord Sonata.

One of the ensemble members – Hiew? – gave a preliminary talk about this work in which she made it sound more toxic to elderly sensibilities than it really is; my neighbour was almost groaning with fearful anticipation before the work got underway but she soon relaxed when faced with the sober deliberation of the opening Chorale fugue and was well on-side by the time we reached the rich warmth of the slow Offertory.  Nevertheless, the ensemble’s approach would have benefited from a less stentorian attack in the thicker-textured pages, and certainly more sobriety with the odd-numbered movements.

A comparable absence of sentiment emerged in the group’s interpretation of the Debussy quartet’s  framing movements, in particular the busy Tres mouvemente ending. However, this work is deficient in the wispy frailties that are invested in many of the piano works and has more than its share of assertiveness, even in the muted Andantino. You would not call this reading a polished example of these players in operation but their approach made for an involving, gripping experience, one that gave you unexpected insights into the ebullience of the composer in his youth.

 

 

October Diary

Wednesday October 9

A MULTITUDE OF VOICES

Arcadia Winds

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Well, there’ll be four of them, which isn’t too many.   Oldest of all is J.S. Bach who yet again comes in for a transcription exercise: the Organ Sonata No. 6 in G.   You’d have to assume that this will involve only three members of the Arcadia quintet – perhaps flute, oboe and bassoon?   Around this venerable construct are much more contemporary voices, like Steve Reich whose Vermont Counterpoint for amplified flute and tape will showcase the talents of Kiran Phatak.   English-Australian composer Andrew Ford’s Scenes from Streeton melds some of the artist’s paintings with what the various landscapes look like these days as reported by people who farm them; at the same time, there will be illustrative music, you’d hope.   This will be the world premiere of a work commissioned to commemorate the Recital Centre’s 10th birthday.   As a bonus, the Arcadians perform a work chosen as the recipient of their own Composition Prize.

 

Saturday October 12

Nevermind

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This quartet, performing under the Musica Viva aegis,  comprises flute Anna Besson, violin Louis Creac’h, viola da gamba Robin Pharo and harpsichord Jesn Rondeau. Their collaboration in Baroque performance dates from their student years at the Conservatoire Superieur National de Paris – which can’t have been too long ago as they all look young, although their chronicled activities and discographies so far are impressive.   Tonight focuses on two composers: J.S. Bach and Telemann.  From the former come selections from the Art of Fugue, an arrangement of the Organ Sonata in C, and the Trio Sonata in G BWV 1039 which usually calls for two flutes as well as the inevitable continuo.    As for Telemann, the group plays the first and last of his Paris Quartets (of which these musicians have made a particular study), as well as Fuga 14 from the 20 Small Fugues which are not that small, nor what you would commonly call fugues.

The second program on Tuesday October 15 at 7 pm is more adventurous in scope for the audience.  The group starts off with some Marais –  Suite IV from the Trios for the King’s Bedtime.   Then comes L’Espagnole from Couperin’s Les Nations suite.  The Nevermind fixation on Telemann is exercised here as well with No. 4 of the Paris Quartets.  The ensemble moves into unknown territory for most of us with quartet sonatas by Quentin and Guillemain – once (in the 18th century) well-known names, now all but forgotten.

 

Sunday October 13

A THOUSAND THOUGHTS

Kronos Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The fabled group is here as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival’s meagre serious music line-up.   This time, the Kronoi are accompanying a documentary film by Sam Green and Joe Bini, the subject of which is  –  you guessed it   –   the players themselves.   Such larks.   I can’t think of an exercise more self-reflective than playing the score to a film about yourself, but that’s the sort of thing you can get away with when you’re numbered among the legends.   This exercise lasts for 85 minutes with no interval – which either argues for the concentration necessary for such an experience or a fear that audience numbers might plummet if the chance arose for an interval exit.   But you can’t be too unkind about a group that gave us those searing performances of George Crumb’s Black Angels dating back about 45 years.   And, as with the Ardittis, where would contemporary music be without them?

This program will be repeated on Monday October 14 at 7 pm.

 

Thursday October 17

STALIN’S PIANO

Robert Davidson

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This odd program is another element from the Melbourne International Arts Festival collation.   It features pianist  Sonya Lifschitz playing the music of Robert Davidson, a Brisbane composer-musician whose name hasn’t come across my path, as far as I can tell.   The hour-long work has an audio-visual component and it offers pretty much everything  –  ‘a maelstrom of history, politics, art and rebellion.’    Great.   The pre-performance blurb makes reference to Maria Yudina, an uncompromising pianist of the Soviet era admired by Stalin, or so the story goes.   She was a proponent of 20th century music and was a fellow-student of Shostakovich.   Whether her repertoire features in Davidson’s work, I don’t know; whether he quotes giants that Yudina favoured like Bartok and Stravinsky is unclear.  All will be revealed on the night

 

Friday October 18

SPRING: LU SIQING IN RECITAL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Lu is the MSO’s soloist-in-residence for 2019 and tonight gets the opportunity to show his abilities in recital, rather than in the concerto format.   He collaborates with Melbourne-based Chinese-Australian pianist Angela Li in a program that moves from solid repertoire to frolicsome encore material with a couple of Chinese bagatelles in the middle.   Debussy’s Violin Sonata of 1917 makes for a brave opening, immediately followed by Beethoven’s F Major Spring Sonata.   Lei Zhenbang’s Why Are the Flowers So Red is essentially a folk-song, presumably organised here for violin/piano duo; Lei arranged it some time ago with Julian Yu for a CD entitled Willow Spirit Song.   Cantonese composer Han Kun Sha’s Pastoral is a straight duo and, as far as I can tell, an original composition.  Then we come to the show-pieces: Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allegro, Svendsen’s Romance, and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen to raise the performance temperature while the aesthetic level sinks to the flashy virtuosic.  Nevertheless, this violinist is a brilliant performer, not just a fleet-fingered lightweight.

 

Friday October 25

NEMANJA RADULOVIC

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It’s the hair.  Every time Serbian violinist Radulovic hits Melbourne, the promotional photos feature the musician in full flight with his substantial mane streaming around his skull.   What does this crowning glory have to do with his playing?   Well, the only way to find out is to drop in and watch the man at work, alongside his friends from Ensemble Liaison – cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, clarinet David Griffiths, piano Timothy Young.  The night begins with J.S. Bach’s Clarinet Sonata in D minor BWV 1034, better known as the Flute Sonata in E minor.    Bogosvljevic and Radulovic collaborate on Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Handel original theme.   Khachaturian’s G minor Trio for clarinet, violin and piano will enjoy a rare outing, only to be outshone by Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, presumably in a violin/piano format.   And another arrangement ends the night: Griffiths’ version of the monumental Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, in which the clarinet takes the viola line, although a few of us will find it hard to repress memories of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of this score.

 

Saturday October 26

BRAHMS’ REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This performance will be one that uses two pianos as an orchestral substitute; all quite hunky-dory as Brahms arranged the work himself in this format.   The players are Donald Nicolson, better known to me as the harpsichordist member of Latitude 37, and Tom Griffiths who has been the MSO Chorus’s principal repetiteur/accompanist for yonks.   Soloists are soprano Lee Abrahmsen and baritone Simon Meadows while the lengthy work will be conducted by Chorus Master Warren Trevelyan-Jones.   The concert begins with two Schutz motets: a precursor of the Requiem’s conclusion in Selig sind die Toten; and Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener – the Song of Simeon that the composer set twice.   Sorry I can’t get to it; besides the tender and massive choral complexes, there is little more wrenching and moving in Western music than the Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit movement – enough to make humanists of us all.

 

Monday October 28

INTIMATE BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A bitzer of a program here.   There will be Bach, beginning with the Violin Sonata in A minor; no, not all of it – just the third movement Andante.   This will probably feature Richard Tognetti in solo mode.   And the night ends with my favourite Brandenburg Concerto: No. 6 with two violas as the top voices.   Speaking of which, one of the night’s guests will be composer/violist Brett Dean.   The program’s second piece brings the other guest into play: Erin Helyard will give a harpsichord accompaniment to Tognetti (one expects) in the Violin Sonata No. 2.   Adding to the mix are selections from the  15 Three-Part Inventions which will be surely entrusted to Helyard.   As punctuation, patrons get to experience Kurtag’s Hommage a J.S.B. which is for a solo instrument – any one you have to hand, it appears; the Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve du Mont de Paris by Marais that generally involves violin, viola and continuo; and Dean’s own Approach (Prelude to a Canon), here enjoying its Australian premiere.

 

Wednesday October 30

Quatuor Ebene

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Like the Kronos, this quartet has been fortunate in retaining most of its original members.  Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure have been there since the beginning in 1999; so has cellist Raphael Merlin.  Only the violist has changed: from Mathieu Herzog to Adrien Boisseau to Marie Chilemme who has been an Ebeniste since 2017 and the ensemble’s first female.   For its Australian debut under our Recital Centre auspices, the ensemble plays three Beethoven works: Op. 18 No. 2 in G, the Serioso Op. 95 and the Harp Op. 74.   This comes about because the players are celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday (next year, in fact) by playing all 16 quartets as they tour the globe, recording their performances and, for local colour, audience reactions.   Quite a challenge for musicians who have not really specialised in any corner of the repertoire, although a CD (recorded in Vienna?) of the first two Razumovsky quartets is to be issued at the end of September.

 

Wednesday October 30

BEETHOVEN’S BACK!

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Kew at 7:30 pm

OK, although for many of us he never went away.   Kathryn Selby and two friends we’ve not seen so far this year – violinist Andrew Haveron from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster desk, and cellist Richard Narroway who becomes Lecturer in Cello at Melbourne University’s Faculty of Music next year – take up the Beethoven challenge with two sonatas and a piano trio.   First up is the penultimate cello sonata, Op. 102 No. 1 in C with its unusual two-movement structure operating in a time-frame of about 15 minutes.   Then comes the C minor Violin Sonata No. 7 which takes nearly twice as long; this is the work that Brahms is reputed to have transposed up a semitone at sight to accommodate Remenyi’s unwillingness to re-tune his violin.  Well, the composer became a master of chromatic shifts, so it’s sort of credible.   Finally, all three musicians work through the Op. 70 No. 2 – a welcome appearance given the popular penchant for its companion: the Ghost Trio.   These three works offer an interesting tour of significant points in Beethoven’s compositional journey; a nimble piece of programming that avoids the well-trodden path.

 

 

 

We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

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                                       (L to R) Kathryn Selby, Susie Park, Julian Smiles

In this penultimate recital of her 2019 season,  Kathryn Selby brought into play two well-known faces from previous years – violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   As is frequently the modus operandi, we heard two framing piano trios, embracing sonatas from each of the Friends.   This arrangement has a good deal to offer, although it can make the occasion a draining one for Selby who gets no release from engagement and – as on this night – can be more than fully exercised by her partners’ choices of repertoire.

No problem with the first of our Game Changers:  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence in the 2012 trio version.   The composer wrote it for her son, who suffers from schizophrenia; it’s an aid to help him and other sufferers attain a meditative, serene state.   In this aim, the work is a success, its germ motif mutating slowly – placid motion, not logical development.   To my ears, the emotional content divides in half as the composer progresses from cellular work to a full-blown lyricism before following the Debussyan dictum: say what you have to stay, then stop.

There is little in the score that tests its interpreters beyond asking for care with dove-tailing lines, particularly the strings.  Park and Smiles outlined some carefully placed intersections in the first half, followed by stretches of lush consonances later on.  It’s a small-framed work of simple construction, so it was interesting to watch the interpreters reining in their dynamic level to observe Kats-Chernin’s quest for placid meditativeness.

At night’s end, Dvorak in F minor asked for a much more sustained interpretative effort; the results could hardly be faulted.   The only problem you could find in the opening Allegro was an overshadowing of Park’s line in passages where the piano has bar after bar of sweeping strophes, and later in the first moves of the development.   Smiles projected a firm line, sustaining a prominent voice in proceedings.   But when Park’s voice became the dominant one, this movement became different in character – sweeter, less hectoring.

Much better followed in the Allegretto grazioso, a movement loaded with Central European breeziness but here articulated with an impressive sense of united purpose, both in the outer dance sections and the central interlude.  This was excellent trio playing, all three executants involved in working towards a common goal.   Much the same came across in a fine Poco adagio where Smiles maintained dynamic control over his announcement of the principal matter.  But what impressed most came later when Dvorak’s working-out takes a turn for the academic and a long genuflection at the altar of his mentor Brahms; once more, the players kept their focus on the score’s progress and how they had to work as a coherent force to keep their audience involved.   Here was another example of chamber music performance at its finest, alternately sweet and strong.

In the trio’s Allegro finale, the two strings presented another lesson in noteworthy duet work, mainly through an attractive combination of timbres – Park’s output all tensile elegant deliberation, Smiles assertive, vibrato-rich, pressure-packed.  This sonata/rondo fusion, like the second movement, showed the folk-tune influence racing alongside a Brahms-influenced gravity of intent and these players powered through its considerable length with ample gusto, capping a most satisfying interpretation.

For his moment in the sun, Smiles performed Britten’s C Major Cello Sonata, the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Rostropovich.  The initial Dialogo came across with fluency and idiomatic precision – but the piece seemed lacking in personality.  I can only put this down to the inimitability of the composer’s own performance with the Russian master which has shaped my perceptions of this sonata’s character, a position that hasn’t changed across many live and recorded versions of the score.  It’s unfair, of course, but sadly inescapable.  While constructing this invidious comparison, I was elated to hear Smiles and Selby, near the movement’s ending, come to a passage of eloquent if quiet restraint that came off ideally.

Britten’s all-pizzicato second movement is brief, or just long enough for some.  Deftly carried off here, its chief message serves to show that Bartok did not live in vain.  The central Elegia has an inbuilt power, a drive that carries you along, if only so far.  It’s always struck me that the two instruments are very-inter-dependent in these pages; one can’t make a move without the other sitting in support, in particular rhythmically where for long stretches piano and cello work in sync, note-for-chord.  Then, the Marcia presents as an interlude; clever in its linear ambiguity but leading towards . . .what?  Further, the final Moto perpetuo shows us Britten the Brilliant in a display of harmonic sleight-of-hand and rhythmic excitement with continuously glittering exposure points for each player.  The texture remained clear but here again you were reminded of the roar-inducing virtuosity of the original interpreters who transformed something smart into remarkable craft.

Park chose Ravel No. 2 for her showpiece, making sure we appreciated the weight of the opening Allegretto in its close melodic content and in the breadth that Ravel allowed himself to explore it.   Both players displayed a firm grasp of the expressive subtleties to be found in this movement which is often treated as a set of episodes rather than a composite.  You could find few traces of humour in the Blues which brought out a clamorous punch from Selby to match an unnerving ferocity of attack from Park in the climactic pizzicato quadruple slashes between Rehearsal Numbers 10 and 12 in the Durand edition.  As for the Perpetuum mobile, it seemed to me that the final pages made sense for the first time: a massive build-up of power driven across the last 18 bars and splendidly disciplined across an exhilarating crescendo.

You wouldn’t class it among the sweetest-voiced interpretations of this work that you’ve heard but Park and Selby removed a good deal of the saccharine and trivialising that this sonata endures pretty often.   The deceptive bucolicism of the first movement’s opening sentences was quickly subsumed in a focus on the interweaving patterns and subtle expressiveness of these pages.   No sign of introduced cleverness marred a straightforward, no-nonsense account of the Blues, and the finale made a brilliantly honed rounding-off to the piece.   Not an effete image of the composer, but one showing a massive, controlled energy.   If not for the Dvorak, this sonata would have taken Wednesday night’s performance honours.