Talent, with bursts of brilliance

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Brisbane, Bowen Hills

Wednesday December 18

                                                                     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.