Addio del passato

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

QSO Studio, South Bank

Sunday November 24

                                                                     Shane Chen

There’s something reassuring about moving to a new part of the country and finding that some of the practices you’ve come to appreciate in your old home are continuing in the new milieu.  So it is with these Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals from members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra which inevitably bring to mind similar recitals on Sunday mornings from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players – a nomenclature that suggests a discrete group but in fact – at one time or another – involves most of the organization’s members, some more willing than others.

So yesterday’s event had many familiar characteristics although the Brisbane list of players impressed as more numerous and varied.  The only doubling up came from Shane Chen, the QSO’s Principal First Violin, and Nicole Greentree from the viola ranks.  Also, little attempt was made to match pieces to a set list of participants: we heard a string sextet and a string quintet, but also on offer was a Michael Haydn Divertimento in C (well, most of it) from an oboe/viola/double bass combination.  On superficial appearances, then, the northerners are more prodigal with their forces, or possibly more musicians want to participate in these exercises.

This was my first experience of the QSO Studio which has a different ambience to the Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne.  Actually, it’s not just a changed ambience that impresses but also room shape and material – a lot more wood on the walls, for instance.  And I was impressed by the layout in Russell Street where pretty much all the audience is placed in tiered seating; not as comfortable as the Iwaki chairs upstairs, but the effect is to make the players more immediately present.  And some clever designer has made the most of the Studio’s lighting which is of a piece with the wood-encrusted walls – not as useless for score-reading as the back rows of the Iwaki.  Further, the Brisbane space has a lavish foyer compared to the cramped area that fronts the Southbank Boulevard auditorium.

To begin, Chen, Greentree and colleagues – violin Katie Betts, viola Bernard Hoey, cellists Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae – accounted for Martinu’s String Sextet of 1932.  Nothing amiss with the initial Lento but the ensuing Allegro was less appealing mainly for some rough handling from violas and cellos in moments of exposure as at bars 72 to 76, and isolated unsettling moments like a barely-won B flat climactic point at bar 101 from the first cello.   Still, the group observed a deft clarity in the composer’s more complex polyphonic moments and approached the discord-relieving chordal slashes across the score’s last four pages with excellent definition of output.

At the opening to the sextet’s central Andantino, I started to worry about the dynamic level of the violin pair.  Were they intentionally recessive, or was the imbalance due to my choice of seat on the left side of the Studio?  Whatever the reason, the balance had adjusted (or I had) by the time of the recapitulation to this movement’s first third.  More impressive work came in a central Allegretto which fulfilled its scherzo function with no little panache, the whole canvas subtly tinged with the folk-music colouring that Martinu employed at this stage of his creative life.  The concluding movement sounded heavy-handed in comparison to recorded readings where the attack is generally light and full of sparks.   This interpretation sounded Brahmsian-stolid, the melody-shaping work coming across as four-square, in particular the broad tune in octaves for violins that runs between bars 17 and 24.

In sum, this sextet made a convincing enough argument for itself, if distinguished in  patchy fashion; its outlining not lacking in expertise but deficient in bounding vivacity where it was most needed – across the outer segments.

For the Michael Haydn piece, it was determined that the scheduled fifth movement Theme and variations would be omitted for reasons of time.  The recital’s playing lasted for a little over an hour and I can’t see that much was saved by the loss of this pleasant if unremarkable theme with 4 variants and its untesting series of 8-bar-length sentences.  All the running for the piece is set by the oboe line, here handled by Associate Principal Sarah Meagher who gave us a well-shaped account of all five surviving movements and kept any errors to a minimum – a bottom-of-the-compass note that failed to materialise, a note not sustained long enough in the first paragraph of the Aria.   With viola Jann Keir-Haantera and double bass Justin Bullock, Meagher observed the anticipated dynamic juxtapositions, although you might have expected  more polish to the phrasing from her supporters in this uncomplicated work’s slow movement, especially at hiatus points like those in bars 7 and 11.

Somewhere along the way, I missed the Trio to the second Menuet; perhaps Homer nodded (don ‘t flatter yourself), but the concluding Presto was a delight with Bullock’s bass enjoying some brief arpeggio-laden bursts of spotlight.  Meagher coped with her none-too-taxing part, only suffering from a few over-soft notes that failed to travel when the ensemble went in for that familiar soft-loud alternation.

Finally, a group comprising Chen, Greentree, Helen Travers from the orchestra’s second violins, violist Graham Simpson and cellist Andre Duthoit worked through Beethoven’s solitary String Quintet in C which I was hearing live for the first time in many years.  Of all three works performed, this one would have gained from more rehearsal time.  In Melbourne, quite a few pieces that I heard over the years showed clear signs of rushed preparation; mind you, the problem is not one peculiar to one place – or even one group of musicians.   But in this instance, anomalies came early with the change to triplets in bar 17 of the opening Allegro moderato; this pretty ordinary leap in mid-action sounded clumsy with the two violins working at it, and not much better when the top viola joined them.  Mind you, this hesitancy came into play nearly every time the triplets recurred in the three upper parts; when the whole group was involved, the sailing proved much more smooth.

Other instances of rough address emerged sporadically throughout this movement and you would have been justified in asking for more awareness of internal dynamic balance from players as experienced as these.  Even Chen produced the occasional intonational inaccuracy and he was, for my money, the outstanding performer in this afternoon’s work.   As a welcome contrast, the ensuing Adagio, which brought Duthoit’s firm timbre into higher textural prominence, was an instance of building on a successful opening gambit which saw Beethoven’s musical fluency eloquently realised, to the point where you were left quite content with the careful resolution of the final pinpoint-packed eight bars.

The third movement’s Trio proved hard to decipher, probably due to a lack of definition in attack; only on the first half’s repetition did the melodic burden reveal itself.  But the Scherzo had not begun well as Chen’s output level proved too laid-back to rise comfortably above his accompaniment.    He was put to much harder labour in the Presto conclusion where the first violin dominates the action, even in the two Andante interludes which gave the player some relief from those rapid-fire flurries that dominate the movement proper’s hurtling action.  Yet the accomplishment level, while able and essentially satisfactory, might have been raised by some notches if the musicians had enjoyed more time to  refine this amiable work’s details.