January Diary

This note is by way of saying what I hoped was unprintable.

There’s nothing on.

Not that there’s much difference in Melbourne.   Over many decades, the only serious music offering during January involved a rural retreat in the form of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.   Over recent years, this was complemented by the Peninsula Summer Music Festival which offered a compendium to suit the season and required a retreat of a more intellectual character.

Both were out-of-town, of course, and involved road-trips hat could veer alarmingly in time spans.

But, as far as I can see, there’s nothing comparable in Brisbane.  My favourite niece is taking her family to the Woodford Folk Festival, which is my idea of physical and mental hell, in this case possibly serving as punishment for domestic misdeeds

But that seems to be the only music available and that concourse entertainment falls mainly across the dying days of December 2019.

Talent, with bursts of brilliance


Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Brisbane, Bowen Hills

Wednesday December 18, 2019

                                                                                  Alex Raineri

Taking on the full weight of his undertaking, Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri finished the 10-event series with a solo recital, given to a respectably sized audience in the ‘second’ room at the front of the Bowen Hills museum building, which does not have ceiling-to-floor drapes along three of the four walls. as I thought: the material only covers part of them, albeit that section of the space in which the performer(s) operate(s).   Since the last offering in this festival that I attended (Friday December 13), it sounded as if the piano had not been tuned, which made some difference to the pre-interval music, if not much to the more adventurous works that fleshed out a longer-than-expected program.

Raineri began with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 – a sequence that is speckled with a few pieces that have become very familiar like No. 4 in E minor, the 8-bar No. 7 in A Major, the D flat Major No. 15.   But most of the remainder are known only to Chopin aficionados and to pianists for whom they are a constant source of delight and dread.  This reading had some impressive passages with a few surprises, as well as the occasional imperfection – which you’d expect when dealing with a composer whose music continues to present the finest pianists with executive difficulties, both digital and expressive.

You could find little to carp about with No. 1 in C; smoothly carried off with a welcome urgency, even if I didn’t understand the rallentando across the last bars; a fading dynamic, yes, but not a concomitant decrease in speed.   The following A minor-delayed prelude began very slowly, even for a Lento, but it appeared to move into a more active pace when the melody line had to be coped with.   The scintillating G  Major piece could not be faulted, Raineri’s left-hand semiquaver chains flawless, as far as I could discern.   Equally impressive, the following E minor demonstrated this pianist’s sensitivity to inbuilt phrasing rises and falls, even across a short number of bars; the effect one of spartan melancholy but not over-sensitive.

Prelude No. 5 stayed pretty clear in texture throughout its brief length, but the climactic top F sharp in the third-last bar misfired.   There’s not much new that can be done with the B minor prelude; just maintain the left hand’s dominance of the action and avoid an overdone echo effect at the end – both of which requirements Raineri achieved without effort.   The 16 bars of the well-known A Major work were treated with respect; I don’t know how he achieved it, but the pianist managed the crucial submediant 7th chord without splaying the right hand notes.   The F sharp minor successor enjoyed a compelling reading, the middle register thumb melody carrying successfully with only a few right-hand fioriture clusters in the second half sounding questionable.

The formidable and noble E Major prelude displayed once more the executant’s keen sense of inbuilt shape, with a pronounced caesura right where it belongs at the piece’s 2/3rd point.   Tenth in the series, the C sharp minor prelude flashed past, its nifty descending right hand triplet-plus-duple semiquaver patterns articulated with graceful seamlessness.    As for the B Major bagatelle, Raineri gave this due consideration, not bolting through it but ensuring that slight incidental ornaments could be distinguished. For the pounding G sharp minor exercise, we might have appreciated more vehemence at the opening to prepare for emerging energy in the chromatic top line.   The nocturne-like F sharp Major delight came across with a consistently clear soprano in the first segment and a memorably elegiac final six bars with their occasional isolated, slightly delayed top-note additions.

It was hard to make sense of the E flat minor prelude’s delivery, chiefly because Raineri over-worked the crescendodiminuendo pattern that some editors have imposed across each bar.    We eventually reached the D flat Major Raindrop gem: another nocturne, carried off with placid clarity and gifted with a suitably solid central C sharp minor interlude, the whole following a clear narrative path.  To this point, only the B flat minor prelude found the pianist falter and repeat a half-bar, but his recovery was rapid enough to meld into the general welter of this, the most taxing entity in the entire set.   Possibly, the right hand three-quaver pattern could have been treated with a more percussive attack to add some spikiness to a set of pages that can become a sonorous blur.

No. 17 in A flat  came over with a finely judged character, the top line floating clear of the accompanying repeated chords; the concluding pianissimo reprise over a sustained bass tonic note made an unexpectedly moving oasis.   A slight problem occurred during the F minor work – a simple mis-fingering during one of those downward hurtles of 22 or 17 irregular semiquavers, but the excitement of the sixth-last bar’s vaulting chords more then compensated.   One of the more difficult of these exercises to carry off, it seems to me, is the E flat where the only solution is to practice its leaps over and over until you become either absolutely secure or absolutely fearful.   It’s an ebullient (for Chopin) scherzo and Raineri handled it well with only a few errors in the right hand vaultings.

In the last section of the portentous C minor prelude, the executant opted for a fortissimo dynamic, which I’ve not experienced before but which reinforced the adamantine power of the opening strophe.   The following B flat Major work succeeded flawlessly, an admirable outlining of its simple initial melody finding a splendid reflection in the chromatic dying fall that starts 19 bars from the luminous conclusion.    Just as convincing was the following G minor piece which Raineri infused with impetus and urgency.   Apart from a robust delivery of the penultimate bar’s E flat, the benign F Major prelude maintained the pianist’s success with those happier components of the collection.   And the final D minor prelude was invested with just enough fire, only a few mishaps ruffling the surface, like the missing top F to the first upward-rushing 3-octave scale and a too-careful approach to the climactic two bars of descending chromatic thirds in the right hand.

As a whole, nevertheless, the performance of these challenging preludes, great-  and small-scale sitting cheek by jowl, made for a welcome display of Raineri’s abilities in orthodox repertoire where historic performances are easy to find and compare.   As with each of the few times I’ve heard the Preludes live, some parts capture the attention and imagination more wholly than others.   Yet this young musician has his own specific insights and interpretative mannerisms, more than enough to have made this experience well worthwhile.

Australian composer Christopher Dench composed his passing bells, day for Raineri’s festival,   It’s a furthering (improvement on? elaboration to?) of an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night: planctus for piano solo.   The bells being referred to are those that denote the monastic prayer times first established in the Middle Ages and now (post-Vatican II) settled into a series of major and minor observances: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  The original work lasted for about 12 minutes under the hands of its first performer and commissioner/dedicatee, Marilyn Nonken.  This later reincarnation is much longer.

Its operating procedure drenches the listener in washes across the piano’s sound spectrum, so the score probably operates on the same principle as the first work where the pianist has to deal with three or even four staves to help both composer and interpreter keep the various tintinnabulation spectra discrete.   As you’d anticipate, bell sounds dominate the proffered sound-world with forays into plainchant – well, melodic material that hovered around a limited range of notes.

The initial impression of chord clusters and repeated single notes persisted for some time; all very suggestive and peaceful, until the inevitable eruption into vehemence.   Dench is not only concerned with the ecclesiastical hours and bells but also with the modern age, viewing both the Middle Ages and our times as ‘catastrophic’.   So this music is both pictorial and intellectual; you can take the bells as invitations to prayer or as funeral knells, the explosions standing in for former times’ trebuchets and modern heat-seeking missiles – the composer leaves you to make what order of it you will.   But he overtaxes minds as feeble as mine with several promises of resolution that abruptly explode into further action, a faux leave-things-hanging device that is unnerving and irritating by turns.   You’re left feeling, as with so much of Dench’s products, that you’ve lost the plot along the way   –  or that you never had much of a handle on it in the first place.  For all that, Raineri’s performance sounded convincing, this performer quite at home with the music’s precise demands in dynamic and articulation.

The night finished in Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which gave us much less arcane matter to deal with.   The Argentinian master’s opening Allegro marcato engaged the listener with its pounding, massive full chords in quick succession and a construct of irregular metre to keep you counting, but the effect was of a studied brutality – like a tyro having his way with Bartok’s Allegro barbaro.    The neo-scherzo, a Berg-reminiscent (only in its title) Presto misterioso, gave welcome relief, even if the flirtations with twelve-tone composition methods appeared superficial, and Raineri kept up the initial muffled ambience for some time without much variety.

As far as I can see, an interpreter is left to his/her own pedalling resources in the central pages of the Adagio and this performer took advantage of that liberty with some substantial clashing resonances to brighten up an uninspired movement that whips itself into a frenzy of appassionato excitement before going back to single-note taws.   The Variaciones concertantes-reminiscent finale with its 9/8–alternating-6/16 time signatures pleased for the pianist’s attempts to preserve an initial bass-heavy onrush, but he had to insert a few caesurae, presumably to gather strength for upcoming challenges.   Still, the driving marcatissimo final pages brought this whole enterprise  –  sonata, recital, festival  –  to a rousing conclusion.

Let’s not be gentlemen all the time


Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills

Friday December 13, 2019

                                                                        Jonathan Henderson

All of the conversations in this recital involved Alex Raineri, the young pianist who is artistic director and factotum of this welcome festival – a series of events being mounted across Brisbane in these musically fallow months of the year.  On this sweaty night – not the best for seeking out an unfamiliar destination by public transport –  Raineri presented and supported two guests: flautist Jonathan Henderson and cellist Oliver Scott.  He also found room for a familiar monologue but the night’s three duos gave us more satisfying material in the abstract:  two of them were unexplored ground  .  .  .  well, they were for me.

The Old Museum Building, as far as I could investigate its interstices, has at least two spaces more or less suitable for music-making.  Raineri set up operations in the smaller of the building’s two front-of-house rooms; its proportions are a tad too spacious for two-person chamber music works and there are wall drapes completely covering three of the walls which  deprive performers of a fair amount of resonance.  On the other side of the ledger, the building has uncovered wooden floor which serves as a slight form of compensation.   But the Primrose Potter Salon it is not.

Scott and Raineri began Friday’s program with Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, written about the time of the first two piano concertos when the composer was 21.  It’s a patchy piece to hear, if structurally coherent and self-referential throughout, with flamboyance sitting alongside gnomic lyricism, and its unsettling expressive moves found a reflection in this performance where the cello was given to self-effacement, North putting much emphasis on shaping his notes with care rather than pushing his line to compete with a bordering-on-over-written piano part.  Raineri held back in this sequence of dialogues with courteous restraint, matching his dynamic to that of his partner.

But the further the musicians got into this neglected score, the more you felt the need for a more full-bodied string sound.  A pizzicato-rich piu animato interlude that succeeds the opening declamatory pages came over with more shadows and delicacy than it needed, lacking the bite that cuts through, as in those sforzando punches at the end of each two-bar phrase in the cello part, and deficient in a dramatic power that infuses this segment, rising to a climax in a high G flat that needed to roar out to be worth the journey.   Still, both players found a convincing brooding quality during the descent into silence across the final Allegro tranquillo pages where the instrumental output came into welcome balance.

Raineri then performed Debussy’s Suite bergamasque with a tendency to lots of washes, thanks to a heavy use of the sustaining pedal.   Mind you, to his credit – or possibly Prokofiev’s – I didn’t realise until the opening flourish of Debussy’s Prelude that one of the Yamaha piano’s lower notes was out of tune; not too much of a surprise, given the sub-tropical atmospheric conditions.  The executant’s search for textural richness got in the way again during the following Menuet, notably in the chord work that starts at bar 18 which needed a more detached attack, as did its reminiscence at the change back to A minor near the movement’s end.

Clair de lune passed along well enough, although its popularity and familiarity meant that the three errors that popped up in the bass, including one in the arpeggios near the end, acquired undue prominence.  Making up for this, Raineri’s account of the concluding Passepied proved to be the best part of this reading with a deft balance between the initial sprightliness and the lush melancholy that obtains across the piece’s length.   As a whole, this suite’s interpretation veered towards hefty Romanticism which is understandable and not uncommon, even if some of us might have preferred a less blowsy sound palette.

With Henderson, Raineri brought Pierre Sancan‘s Flute Sonatine to our attention and we owe both musicians many thanks for their efforts.   This was a fine dialogue demonstration, not least for Henderson’s remarkable stamina, particularly in some long sentences during the first movement Moderato.   A distraction from the high standard of execution came in a piano cadenza during the following Andante espressivo when some top register piano notes came across as slightly off-pitch, but the players worked very well as a combination in terms of reflecting each other’s mode of attack and dynamic interchanges.   For all their steadiness of delivery, you still got a sense that the interpretation was hard won, as if the players themselves saw it as a series of hurdles.  I’d like to hear them take on this work again after a few more public performances of it under their respective belts.

After a lengthy interval, Scott and Raineri regrouped for an essay on Rachmaninov’s solitary duo sonata, the assured G minor that is a gift for both performers.   Here was a competent reading of the composer’s final chamber work, during which the pianist displayed occasional outbursts of vitality and bite while Scott seemed unable to find any sustained vein of turmoil in what is a pretty volatile if melody-rich score.  Assuredly, much of the first movement asks for subterranean murmurings from both players but Rachmaninov also requires some balancing powerful explosions; for example, when emerging into the second subject’s recapitulation.   Yet the general approach from Scott was unrelieved sotto voce; while nobody can expect the equivalent of Rostropovich’s or Tortellier’s powerful right arm from every cellist, you’d at least like an energetic crunch or two along the way, particularly when chains of octaves are involved.

During the Allegro scherzando, both players made a fine showing in the Meno mosso trio sections but the rollicking nature of the main theme’s downward scale movement escaped them  –   to my mind, because of a realization of Rachmaninov’s pianissimo markings as more muted than they needed to be.  You play them softly, for sure, but there’s also an obligation to give them a hugger-mugger martellato kick.

Both players showed signs of real engagement, a true dialogue, in the ravishing E flat Andante which is just not long enough to relish fully because the composer pulls up stakes after a mere four pages.   Here was the most persuasive collaboration heard on this night from the pair, their integration across the long middle section where triplets overtake both parts proving an unexpected delight for its mastery of neatly interweaving focal material.   Unfortunately, the Allegro mosso finale disappointed because of the underplayed rhythmic sweep that carries this movement forward, as well as an absence of enunciative sparks.  Instead, the work was presented as a homogeneous narrative; even that touching D Major second subject which should throb with eloquence suffered from a bland delineation.

In fact, this set of pages summed up the cello/piano collaborative effort across the program with Raineri holding back, tamping down his explosions unless they happened to be abrupt solos like the three massive allargandi bars that crop up during the movement’s urgent progress.   In the end, you could appreciate the interpretation’s promise: there’s a satisfying reading somewhere in there.  But Scott needs to escape the continual restraint in sonorous output under which he operates; it just won’t work in emotionally gripping music like this.   Raineri would then make a greater impact, unconstrained and free to surge through this sonata without blinkers.

Cut-down comedy


Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Cultural Centre

Saturday November 30, 2019

                                                                                   Daniel Smerdon

Any company takes quite a risk when attempting Puccini’s last completed opera and his only comedy; not because Gianni Schicchi is hard to handle vocally, but more because of the requirement to keep the humour intact and consistent.  Fortunately, Doug Gehrke‘s direction of the work with this Gold Coast ensemble found the laughs and kept them coming, mercifully restrained at the climax where the hero outwits the rest of the cast.  I’ve seen (and heard) better casts in terms of vocal endowment and enjoyed more flashy productions as far as sets and costumes go, yet this presentation left you more than satisfied that you’d come close to the core of this dressed-up true story.

Schicchi is the ultimate con-man: hired by disdainful clients, doing the job, then coming out on top through an admirable volte-face that shows up pretty well everyone else on stage.   Many of us have become used to a very broad level of humour (that can amount to slapstick) applied to this opera – gesture-dependent with characterizations exaggerated to the near-ludicrous and with vocalization torques to match, along with busy orchestras unable to patch their dynamic into the stage’s output.   Several of these problems raised their heads at this Saturday matinee but were not significantly abrasive in effect to ruffle the work’s progress.

Fortunately for the company,  baritone Daniel Smerdon fitted the lead role with excellent panache and a welcome forthrightness of application that every so often found him working almost too hard.   Forget the silly carry-on that typifies pretty well every Schicchi you come across with the disguised Schicchi’s repeated Addio, Firenze warnings and the accompanying missing hand mime; a really fine interpreter can keep your attention in difficult territory, like the longish monologue where the central deceit is being set up.  From his perusal of the discovered will, the quizzing of the relatives, that jubilant exclamation of Ah! Vittoria! vittoria!, then right through the pages from Si corre dal notaio to da afidar l’eternita!, Smerdon sustained our interest, playing out his vocal line’s expressive possibilities and its springing text with the sort of fluency you’d expect to find from a member of a good quality opera house.

Along with the expected changes of mood after his first entrance, Smerdon later came into his own with the final address to the audience, Dittemi voi, signore; here, sensibly given in English as a deft gesture of audience connection, untrammelled by the surtitle screen which had given a fair, if not complete, translation of Forzano’s libretto.

(As an aside, you have to compliment the cast on their textual fidelity; on very few occasions did you feel that the words were being parroted or that a Strine filter was getting in the way.   But then, these days you’re justified in expecting most Australians to be familiar with more than their native tongue; even the Prime Minister can talk in English and in tongues.)

Among the Donati clan, one of the most comfortable in her role was Gaynor Morgan as Zita who showed no fear in the work’s first half where her character dominates the family’s reactions.   Also carrying their characters’ emotional and vocal responsibilities with success were two basses: Vikram Goonawardena playing the senior of the family, ex-Mayor Simone, with an appealingly low-level self-importance; and Kristian Scott as Betto di Signa who carved out a clarion-clear exposition of the mourners’ problem from an apologetic Lo dicono a Signa to a firm declaration of the same rumour that sets his family members into a fury of angry dispossession.

Some presentations underplay this work’s more static passages but it was very pleasing  to see the director give adequate space for that seductive trio E bello/Fa’ presto/Spogliati from Morgan’s Zita, Tania Vadeikis as La Ciesca and Sara Donnelly as Nella, all cosseting their universally acclaimed saviour in a sudden oasis of calm.  It is actually quite a silly passage even if it cleverly sets up Schicchi’s warning of the dangers involved in faking a will.  But these three mixed voices melded together in an appealing combination – a moment of sweetness before all three turn into harpies when they explode after the notary’s exit.

John Nicholson sang a good Rinuccio although he does not yet have a sufficiently strong production for maintaining  his high notes once he has reached them.   The aria Firenze e come un albero fiorito showed signs of stress as the singer attempted to cope with the exuberance of the young man’s declamatory phrase saldie torri snelle that concludes the first verse; and Nicholson was unable to hold on to the final B flat for its minim-plus-a-quaver length.   Still, those self-indulgent duets with Melanie Smart‘s Lauretta where the young lovers sing melting farewells to future happiness proved more effective, if not that supple in phrasing.

Smart’s soprano has a thoroughly appropriate lightness of vocal colour for roles like this naive and eminently biddable girl.   But it does come as a shock to be reminded that Lauretta is so young, a 21-year-old who should have no trouble spontaneously falling to her knees to plead with her father.   We’ve become accustomed to hearing O mio babbino caro out of context and taken on by big voices like Fleming and Te Kanawa who impose their own tempi and expression markings; it makes a huge difference to hear it sung as written – without swoops, sudden dynamic lunges and gratuitous portamenti – so that the simplicity of the aria’s appeal  –  to us and to Schicchi  –  is manifest.  Yes, Smart still has a fair amount of development to undergo by way of honing a solid timbre, but the possibilities are evident.

The few remaining cast members carried out their responsibilities without problems – Geof Webb as Gherardo, Aric Kruger as a pretty unobtrusive Marco, Ben Underwood milking the reedy role of Maestro Spinellaccio, Tom Lawson playing a circumspect Ser Amantio notary, and Zander Engel-Bowe as Gherardino, getting abused with little respite by various adults.   What you had to find impressive was the accurate response rate in the opera’s many recitative chains (I heard only one premature entry) and the laudably full-bodied and well-centred choral ensemble work.

Before the original opera got under way, a chorus of about nine female singers gave us a gratuitous Ave Maria which I suspect came from the opening to Suor Angelica, the opera in Puccini’s Il trittico that precedes Gianni Schicchi.   Why was it sung, wherever it came from?   The hymn didn’t add anything to the matinee’s focal work and certainly nonplussed more than a few audience members who came into the Helensvale Centre’s theatre/studio prepared for a comedy.

The production was advertised as having an orchestra in support.   As things turned out, the orchestra was a sextet  –  violin, cello, flute/oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano  –  all anonymous and under the direction of Nicholas Routley: the only person in this whole enterprise whom I’d encountered previously.   This instrumental group presented a fairly solid chamber version of a score that, for half of its length, eschews the full Romantic sweep of Puccini at his most grandiose.   Even with these limited instrumental resources, you gleaned some idea of the original’s whimsicality and bitonal spikiness.

As for the scenery/costumes/lighting factors, nothing obtruded as outlandish or even, in the characters’ dress, related to the work’s intended setting: Florence in 1299; indeed, the cast wore garb that wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside the theatre.   Adam Smart and Craig Vadeikas’ set allowed plenty of space for the Donati personalities to group and disband according to the plot’s movement. without over-playing the opera’s fundamental Tuscan locale which was limited to a central backdrop picture of the Duomo.   So the penultimate scene, where Schicchi’s new house is stripped by indignant failed legatees, came off unexpectedly well with just enough materiel available for pillaging without the stage picture degenerating to the ridiculous.

Of course, you had to make allowances for this presentation which in some respects operated on a bare-bones framework, viz. orchestral/pit support and amateurs occupying some of the minor roles.   But, thanks to a clarity of direction from both Gehrke and Routley, the piece maintained its theatrical and musical integrity, racing past with plenty of vim and making its points about the human condition  –  our venality, hypocrisy, capacity for love, delight in comeuppances  –  and doing so by employing few other mechanisms than Puccini’s vital score and Forzano’s splendidly pointed dialogue.