Brisbane Music Festival
Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills
Friday December 13
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.