Relief in a time of drought

PASTORALE

Tristan Lee

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Saturday March 28 at 4 pm

Tristan Lee

                                                                      Tristan Lee

Of course!   Use the internet to provide a live-performance musical fix in these alienated times.   Nobody comes into contact with anybody else; although I’m sorry I missed the Arcadia Winds recital, just to see if they observed the 20-metre rule or if they occupied separate booths to avoid breath contamination.   At all events, you have to hand it to Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for setting in motion this exercise where local musicians get to beam out a short program, about an hour long, charging the recipients $20 a pop.

By ‘local’, I mean just that, of course: you won’t be getting any interstate or international visitors dropping in to do a broadcast until the New Age dawns.   So these MDCH performers are well-known quantities, particularly for Melbourne concert-goers: the Arcadians, pianists Tristan Lee and Stefan Cassomenos, early music experts Latitude 37 (are all three Melbourne residents these days?), cellist Zoe Knighton,  pianists Elyane Laussade and Kristian Chong, and the Songmakers Australia quintet.   Yes, it’s a bit heavy on the keyboard element but, with a bit of luck, a string quartet or a piano quintet is not an impossibility in the future of this enterprise with its lowest possible overheads.

The reason I didn’t catch the Arcadia was because I forgot the time difference between Queensland and the other eastern coast states; tuning in for the group’s Mendelssohn/Saint-Saens/Glinka program, only to find the telecast was over. Disappointing, but a timely warning of how go-ahead Palaszczuk’s government is: if you want to hear a 5 pm program from Melbourne, you have to tune in up here at 4 pm.   Just like the Nobel Prize winner sang: The hours they are a-changin’.

In any case, I experienced Tristan Lee’s recital on Saturday afternoon at which he played the Intermezzo No. 1 from the Op. 117 set by Brahms, the Pastoral(e) Sonata Op 28 in D Major by Beethoven, and Liszt’s Two Legends S. 175.   These last-mentioned feature on an earlier Move disc by Lee released a year ago and which is mainly taken up by Volume II of the composer’s Années de pèlerinage.    Lee has been performing Beethoven’s Op. 27 pair of sonatas for some time but I think this might have been his first ‘public’ essay at the next work in the composer’s catalogue.

As for the Brahms, it’s a fundamental in the piano repertoire (wasn’t it on the old AMEB lists?) and, if another person observes how difficult it is to play superficially simple Brahms, I’ll start cursing with associated profanities.   This is a slow-moving piece  –  a lullaby, from the composer’s prefatory quote  –  that asks for the executant to control the interplay of lines so that the melody isn’t obscured by whatever is going on around it.   A simple ternary structure holds what is essentially a study in finger pressure.   Lee found no difficulties here, even if his approach to the middle Piú adagio section was to take it very slowly indeed with not much of an advance in pace for the final page.   But you couldn’t fault his voice-leading discrimination and finesse of delivery.

For quite a few years, this pianist has been programming the two Op. 27 sonatas, not afraid to have his own way with the Moonlight C sharp minor work in the face of massive competition.   He gave a spirited reading of the Op. 28, hitting an agreable speed and timbre for the opening Allegro, inserting his own rubato at proper points, as after the right-hand quintuplet in bar 108, even if making heavy work of part of the development, specifically between bars 177 and 190.

At about this point (late in the day, I know), it struck me that the Kawai instrument’s E below Middle C was out of tune; not that you noticed until those few occasions when the note was played by itself.  But it made a minor distraction during the rest of the work.

While you could find justifications for much of Lee’s rhythmic ebb and flow, an unnecessary mini-pause at a spot like Bar 351 struck me as unnecessary: we’re familiar with the chordal progression and know where it’s leading; so, if you insert a break, the sequence is ruined.

In the following Andante, Lee gave an excellent rendition of the left-hand staccato patterns, present but unobtrusive which is a hard task to accomplish in this context.  Every so often, that over-used series of right-hand thirds would lose the alto part, as at the end of bar 11 where the D got lost.   But Beethoven’s deft agglomeration of motives from bar 53 on in the movement’s coda enjoyed a sensitive delineation with just enough hesitation to add an extra level of interest.   As for the Scherzo, Lee gave it an unexpected heftiness which detracted from the potential sparkle in the little three-note figures that balance the movement’s distinctive octave whacks.

A glitch in the left hand octave passage work raised momentary alarm in the Trio‘s secunda parte; in similar fashion, some sequence work went astray in the stretch between bars 80 to 90 of the final Rondo and a right-hand arpeggio sounded incomplete at bar 119.    But you had to admire Lee’s attack on the Piú allegro coda which turned into a bit of a momentary scramble half-way through.   And the pianist brought out the easily flowing, potentially bucolic essence of the main theme with a keen sense of when/where to pull out the dramatic stops.

Finally, the two Liszt extravaganzas made an excellent impression.   Unlike many another interpreter, Lee kept his birds in line before St. Francis arrived to preach his sermon; plenty of fetching twittering, but well-ordered and disciplined – unusual for Italian birds, let alone an open-air aviary.   Nevertheless, the long-building crescendo to the great A flat explosion was a splendid accomplishment, despite a few missing notes, and the deceleration across the final pages proved to be well-spaced, the move back to bird-calls articulated with a fine eye for careful pacing.

More powerfully virtuosic writing comes in the second Legend where St. Francis of Paula encounters powerful seas and the chromatic urgency in the mini-tone poem’s central section proved exhilarating for the listener, although it tested Lee’s rapidity in hand positioning and register-changing vaults from bar 72 for the next 30 bars.   Just as much as in the St. Francis piece, the eruption into a relieving E Major when the saint masters the waves was a splendid passage of high pianism, Lee’s powerful thundering a tribute to the composer’s ability to generate sonorous torrents from his instrument, as well as evidence of this performer’s sympathy with, and success in, performing some of Liszt’s more challenging constructs.

No matter what you think of the religiose backgrounds to them, this brace provides more than a series of technical hurdles, even if you cannot escape the suspicion that the theatrical scenes are heavy on make-up and lighting.   Lee demonstrated that exemplary ability of carrying you along with him, despite the occasional wobble, so that you embraced the commitment from both creator and interpreter, even tolerating those slightly intrusive scene-setting accoutrements.

 

 

 

 

Re-released, at last

\WHAT IF A DAY OR A MONTH OR A YEAR

Gerald English, Jonathan Rubin, Sharyn Wiels

Move Records MD 3151

 

3151

 

This CD was recorded in Ormond Chapel at the University of Melbourne in mid-July 1979.   Scheduled for release as an LP, the pressing did not proceed but was delayed until 1995 when Move issued it as a CD.   Here it is again, remixed and edited by the company’s recording elder statesman, Martin Wright.   English and fellow artists Jonathan Rubin and Sharyn Wicks offer 26 tracks – 18 vocal, 6 for lute solo, 2 instrumental duos.   Some of the pieces are familiar to anyone with a smattering of interest in English composition at the time of Elizabeth I and her successor: Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, Sorrow, stay and Can she excuse my wrongs; Campion’s Shall I come, sweet love, to thee and It fell on a summer’s day; Robert Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse.

As master of the genre, Dowland’s work is well represented with six ayres and The Frog Galiard arranged for the two instruments.  Another major contributor is Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, who scores five vocal contributions and one pavan.   Thomas Campion, Dowland’s rival in the solo song stakes, is heard in four ayres, Robert Jones in three.   The remainder is all instrumental: Anthony Holborne’s The night watch (the other work for lute and gamba), the anonymous  Robin and Lord Zouch, his march for solo lute, and three pieces by Francis Cutting – Gig, Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan, and A toy.   Most of the tracks are brief in length.   The longest song is Dowland’s 4’22” In darkness let me dwell; the briefest, Ferrabosco’s Fain I would, but O I dare not at a minute; the most substantial instrumental offering is Cutting’s Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan – the longest track on the disc at 6’22” – and the fastest is Cutting’s A toy at 0″42″.   The whole thing comes out at about 63 minutes in length.

So much for the content.  The two instrumentalists I haven’t come across but, as I understand, they both went to Europe  (Switzerland?) to further their careers, getting married along the way.  Distinguished tenor Gerald English graced these shores for some years, most notably as Director of Opera Studies at the Victorian College o\f the Arts in the 1980s, as well as appearing in all styles of work.   I think he was part of the Deller Consort that toured here in the early 1960s – probably in 1964, appearing in Melbourne as an offshoot of a larger engagement at the Adelaide Festival of that year.  The ensemble sang in Wilson Hall and I was part of a student contingent that had seats on the stage.  The timing is right for English to have been a member but, at a distance of 55-plus years, I can’t be certain.

And as for his appearances in Melbourne, I was present at very few: possibly an early or Baroque opera; The Diary of One who Vanished at the 1992 Melbourne International Festival  –  days when the festival was worth attending for its music content; a one-off appearance  st the Assembly Hall in Collins St for the Chamber Made organization, or is that a completely stuffed-up instance of failing memory?   At all events, I saw him in audiences more often than I heard him: a great pity and I am apparently one of the few among my acquaintance who was not exposed to his high tenor on numerous occasions.

As nearly everyone has said already, English’s voice was a highly individual one; in my mind, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other for its note-centredness, impressive rapidity of negotiation, flawless diction, and unabashedly ‘forward’ projection.   As you can hear in this British music, nothing is lost or thrown away as incidental; dealing with works of this transparency, the tenor knew the value of every scrap of music.  And the most admirable element – one that distinguishes English from his peers – is the lack of ponderousness, self-importance, or ego.

Of the  six Dowland songs, pride of place goes to In darkness let me dwell, the tenor splendidly counterweighted by lute and gamba as he picks his way through the semper dolens melody without going in for over-emphasis, even at hellish jarring sounds; still, he does get a tad agitated in O let me living die and the pointedness of the line Till death do come stands as a lesson in subtle deliberation, albeit in miniature.   Were every thought an eye is rarely sung, possibly for its four-square shape although the internal syncopations and delays/emphases keep you slightly on the qui vive; all is fine except those emphatic three notes at the end of some stanzas.   English takes some pleasure in delicately emphasizing the syncopations during Can she excuse my wrongs, but you would wait a long while before you came across a singer who can despatch the final quatrain of both stanzas with such equanimity, making the awkward disjunction between words and music dissipate.

Sorrow, stay is given without gamba and the lucidity of texture is remarkable.   In this brilliantly conceived song, where the composer’s musical responses are potentially predictable yet seem inevitable, judged to a gloom-laden nicety, the interpretation puts forward motion at its centre; no languishing, no lingering is allowed to interrupt the work’s movement to a quiet despair.   Not quite the other side of the lover’s coin but a more optimistic setting of the same themes of death and love, Me, me and none but me – the second Dowland song without gamba – comes across as an amiably asymmetric construct with an easy fluency that should have appealed to Sting during his brief flirtation with Dowland’s music; alas, no: more taxing masterpieces attracted the British pop star’s attention, to nobody’s benefit.   The final piece by this composer, Lady, if you so spite me, is more ornate than the other Dowland pieces: a fanciful flight to toy with the sexual specificity of the text and a fine example of English’s breath control in the last plangent line.

One of Campion’s most well-known ayres gives this CD its title, a setting for voice and lute alone.   This is an ideal vehicle for English as the poem is articulated with remarkable clarity, lacking the pliability of metre common in this writer’s great contemporary.   What impresses most is the rhythmic heft that both performers give to a simple construct without making any obvious effort.   Shall I come, sweet love, to thee (another voice/lute performance) is missing its middle stanza but the reading makes you believe that the straightforward passage of the first four lines is continued in the following two lines of each sextet – and what a splendid, fitting ritardando at While these cold nights freeze me dead.

English and Rubin reach one of the highpoints of this disc at Campion’s I care not for these ladies which is given with a gentle swagger, particularly in the final couplet of each stanza where the singer avoids the predictable with a foreshortening of specific syllables to unsettle expectations of the four-square.   Its flavour is bucolic and slightly racy, but the delivery is ideally polished.    The most challenging of this set of four selections arrives with It fell on a summer’s day where the metre is displaced in the central lines, and then Campion adds on extra length in the final repeated verses.   Not that you’d know it; the lute and gamba work is as smooth and unflustered as English’s poised delivery which is, again, of some more-than-suggestive lines couched in exquisite lyricism.

Ferrabosco, younger or elder, are – for me – names in a catalogue of Tudor/Jacobean composers, but I would need less fingers than those available on one hand to recall the times when I heard music by either father or son.    So this CD does a service in bringing into context a small sample of the later family member’s work.   The influence of Dowland is evident; not just in subject matter, which is common to all – love and death – but the development of elongated lines in the best of these pieces strikes me as similar if not as idiosyncratic as in the senior writer’s songs.

Fain I would, but O I dare not is a fine example of varying musical line-length to cope with a sestet that is unexceptional in its scansion.   As expected, English smooths out the irregularities so that the piece – one minute long, even with a repeated final couplet – has a fluency of motion in text and music where nothing is wasted even if the inferential level complicates your assimilation or reception of the material.   With Donne’s The Expiration (So, so leave off this last lamenting kiss),  Ferrabosco strikes a fine balance between celebration and resignation: the lovers have to part but the leave-taking is conceit-rich, if not studied.   English and his colleagues ignore the temptation to droop but carve the work into a slow dance of inveigling grace.

In the same vogue, Shall I seek to ease my grief is concerned with a similar sense of loss, although the feeling is clearly one-sided.   There is little relief here, not even the fetching image of Eros shooting a Parthian dart at the wailing lover.   But English brings an unsentimental pathos to the final lines where the singer/poet is looking forward to the grave – or are we to go back to the Eng. Lit 1 re-interpretation where ‘dying’ means something else entirely?    Another rueful lament at falling out of love comes in Unconstant love, which operates in a higher tessitura than nearly everything else on the disc and where English’s voice suffers from some raspiness –  not on the top note; just one or two below it, and not all the time.    Like hermit poor, with its dour repeated-note first lines, is yet another mini-ode to disappointed love.   It doesn’t follow the monochromatic path set at its opening but walks its despairing way with occasional flights of vocal self-indulgence.   This is a polished performance which – as in so many of these songs – displays the composer’s innate fastidiousness; operating within a small palette of colours, yet presenting a unique emotional tableau in each.

The three songs by Robert Jones are apparently simple but ask for a wide-ranging technical equipment from both singer and lutenist – yes, the gamba is present but not as challenged. In Sweet, if you like and love me still, the opening quatrain is simple enough, but the following lines in each stanza are incident-packed with unexpected pauses and sustained notes, along with a few pronunciation oddities – well, they seem so to this untutored ear.   In amiable words and music, the song warns the beloved that the singer/poet/composer is not prepared to tolerate rivals.   But the mooted displeasure comes out of a landscape that is mild and insouciant: it’s a take-it-or-leave-it world here. A more regretful tone comes in Shall I look to ease my grief?, a companion piece to the Ferrabosco song Shall I seek to ease my grief: both composers set the same anonymous text but English has chosen different verses from the original to use as his second stanza. The Jones song moves in a triple metre for four verses, then jumps into a duple rhythm for the final line.  The text is doom-laden – What remains but only dying? – but the setting of these words is frisky.   Not that the performers treat it off-handedly but the impression is that this lover is singing for effect.

The last song on the CD is Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse where, possibly for reasons of space, the third stanza is omitted: a pity, as it finishes off the poem with a more overt direction to the listener (the singer, or poet, or composer, or you) to stop any self-torture. The message is a nice conclusion to all that has come before: don’t get upset at disappointment because the nature of love is unpredictable.  Jones’ setting is simple: most of the melody is step-wise and just asks for beauty of timbre – which you get throughout this disc in spades.

The eight instrumental pieces range from less than a minute to the CD’s two longest tracks.   Two solo lute pieces by Francis Cutting – A toy and Gig – are in simple AABB form and are over before you’ve settled in to them; I’ve heard both as guitar solos for intermediate students but Rubin plays them with an attractive piquancy.  The same composer’s substantial Mrs Anne Markham’s Pavan employs a very refined language, the dance’s stately progress disrupted by several ornate flights of semiquavers, although the player omits one of these about 5 or six ‘bars’ from the end.    Added to which, a few notes – three, at least – do not ‘carry’ well in these small fioriture chains.

Another slight product is Anthony Holborne’s The Night Watch, one of the lute and gamba duets.    It’s a simple march in AABBCC format with a sprightly opening gambit, assuredly more suggestive of the city waits in a British town than of Rembrandt’s vain-glorious military officers.   The other duet is The Frog Galiard by Dowland with the bass line given a semi-pizzicato treatment.   This famous piece that brings up memories of the composer’s Now, o now, I needs must part song, is a test of the lutenist’s dexterity; Rubin manages most of the divisions neatly enough, only a handful of notes not registering.

A Ferrabosco pavan is the second-longest piece on offer and one of the finest things on this collection.    Rubin’s colour shadings, his linear clarity and adoption of an unruffled pace all contribute to a fine account of a work that is not long on flashiness but loaded with powerful sentiment.   The two anonymous pieces are Lord Zouch, his march which Rubin performs with a keen eye for rhythm; not as rapid in his attack as some interpreters but better able to handle the decorated repeats with near-faultless clarity.  The other is Robin – which I believe is also/better known as Robin is to the greenwood gone.   Another formally simple piece, the approach is as restrained as other interpreters, but Rubin again distinguishes himself by keeping the work’s fluency as paramount, not indulging in an overt exhibition of skill in handling its difficulties.

I suppose the intention of this re-release was to summon up the memory of a fine singer who gave a good deal to this country through his teaching and the exercise of his skills.  We have few enough records of English’s years in Australia; this disc is a happy demonstration of his craft in a field where he shone – not eclipsing his peers, but standing in their front rank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April Diary

Wednesday April 1

SERIOUS BUSINESS – AN APRIL FOOLS DAY CONCERT

Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium at 1:05

What passes for an April Fool north of the Tweed?   This concert may hold the answer.  On the other hand, it could be a simple-minded come-on from a latter-day advertising sad sack; it could be just a few smart young people from the Con using the day’s nickname as a fulcrum for the title of their musical exercise.   Whatever the case, students from the Conservatorium are presenting a program of well-known japes.  Among these are Haydn’s Joke String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2 in E flat where the humour is both broad and refined; Mozart is necessarily represented by his A Musical Joke sextet for two horns and string quartet in which the best of the laughs are formal; Beethoven used the same instruments as Mozart for his three-movement  Horn Sextet Op. 81b.   And that fills out the great Classical trinity’s essays at raising levity, even though few of us know the last of these and are unaware of its relationship to the  April Fool theme.   To end, we get Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, that great 14-movement compendium of inspired effects which may be given in its original scoring for two pianos, string quintet, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica and xylophone.   Or maybe not.   Whatever comes up on the day, the organizers have it right: getting through this program is going to be a serious concern for the players, no matter how much we are entertained.

 

Thursday April 2

COMPASSION

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

At this first concert for the year from Brisbane’s chamber orchestra, the focus will fall on a well-travelled collaboration between Nigel Westlake and Lior which gives this concert its title.   I first heard this local equivalent to The Song of the Earth about six years ago in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl; it’s a fine vehicle for the singer (as far as I can work out, he has taken part in every performance since the first one in 2013) who performs tonight, and a very accessible work that carries its philosophical and humanitarian burdens lightly.   While it exists in two versions, you’d anticipate that Camerata will perform the later one that eschews the original large orchestra scoring for the reduced forces of string quartet, double bass, piano and percussion as a background for the tenor’s keening line.   Artistic director Brendan Joyce opens the night with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in one of its string orchestra manifestations.   Before the short La Oracion del torero by Turina, presumably in its 1926 string orchestra raiment, we hear the equally brief Echorus for Two Violins and String Orchestra by Phillip Glass, a reworking of the composer’s Etude No. 2.    A 1967 poem by Ginsberg, Wales Visitation, goes with the music and it will be read by local actor Barbara Lowing.   This composite is somehow a tribute to Yehudi Menuhin who might have been nonplussed by the score which is, as usual, an exploration of a simple arpeggio.

 

Friday April 3

MOZART’S JUPITER

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11 am

Last month, the young musicians of Griffith University’s Conservatorium of Music had their say on Mozart’s last symphony; today, the state’s top professionals have their way with it.   Conductor Alexandre Bloch is in charge; getting on for 35 years old, he has conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (2016) and the Australian Youth Orchestra (2014).   Now he comes to Brisbane to direct the great C Major symphony.   He begins this matinee with more Mozart: the Don Giovanni Overture with its composer-supplied concert ending.   In pride of place comes soprano Emma Pearson to sing the solo line in Les Illuminations by Britten – another child prodigy, if not as flashy a one as Mozart.  Thanks to Peter Pears, many people forget that the cycle – settings of Rimbaud – was originally written for the female voice and the few times I’ve come across it in live performance over recent years, sopranos have done the honours.  The work is brilliant in its melodic sweep and mastery of string orchestral writing.   No, it’s not profound or mentally challenging, but neither is the poetry.   As with a fair amount of music by the British composer, you do best to be content with its splendid surface.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 4 at 7:30 pm at which the Don Giovanni Overture will be replaced by Schubert’s B minor and Unfinished Symphony.

 

Friday April 3

SEEN BUT NOT HER

Muses Trio and Vulcana

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse at 7:30 pm

A collaboration between two organizations, this event is a performance that will ‘celebrate women being heard and taking up space’.  As all the performers are female, that shouldn’t be too difficult to carry out.   As far as the musical component goes, this will be provided by the Muses Trio: violin Christa Powell, cello Louise King, piano Therese Milanovic; an ensemble that has made an intentional choice to promote music by women composers.  There’s no indication as to what music will be played, however. But the more overtly physical component of this music theatre entertainment comes from Vulcana Circus, an organization that also seems to concentrate on expanding and exposing the talents of female artists.   It all sounds like a version of the sort of concept that we have seen in the past from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Circa, although this latter collaboration finds its musical sources in more reactionary reaches.   You’d hope that the evening’s necessary polemic is tempered to a finer edge than the night’s title which probably seemed clever at the planning stage.   Seen But Not Her lasts for 50 minutes.

 

Wednesday April 8

Goldner String Quartet & Piers Lane

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre at 7 pm

As with Garrick Ohlsson’s Musica Viva appearances, there are two programs on offer for this latest in the organization’s international series.   The venerable Sydney quartet and expatriate pianist Lane are collaborating in three piano quintets across both programs: Brahms in F minor,  Korngold in E Major, and Elgar in A minor from the remarkably fecund (for the composer) year of 1918.   The artists have recorded the Korngold (2018) and the Elgar (2010), so the performances ought to be exemplary.   Brisbane gets to hear only the British work.   As well, the Goldners trot out that hoary chestnut, Dvorak in F Major Op. 96 from the American years.   But, as a balance, they will premiere a new String Quartet No. 1 by Adelaide composer  Jakub Jankowski; in fact, this will be its third hearing, after Sydney and Perth.   I’ve had no exposure to this composer’s work, as far as I can tell, but am intrigued by the title that the Musica Viva promotional material gives to this quartet: Kairos.   Which means the proper time: not the correct tempo, but the suitable or appropriate moment.   Granted, that’s old-time Greek; in my family, we use the word to talk about the weather.

 

Wednesday April 15

Leanne Jin

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

This musician is currently studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has a string of awards to her name, including last year’s Lev Vlassenko, the Sydney Eisteddfod Kawai Piano Scholarship and the Sydney Conservatorium Piano Concerto Competition. She has won places at competitions in Vienna and New York, but you have to work hard to find out about her repertoire.    A few concertos: she has fronted the Prokofiev No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, while only last month, she was soloist in Beethoven’s E flat Emperor in Chatswood, Sydney.   As for recital material, two years ago she was playing Haydn’s E flat Sonata Hob. XVI/49, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2, Liszt’s Paganini Etude No. 2 from the S. 140 collection of six,  Falla’s Four Spanish Pieces, Beethoven’s Sonata in B flat Op. 22 (the one that featured in Garrick Ohlsson’s recent Musica Viva recital), and Schumann’s Kreisleriana.    She’s presenting Scarlatti, Haydn and Rachmaninov on April 28 at the Camberwell Uniting Church in Melbourne, so you might guess that those three composers will feature on tonight’s bill of fare.  Exactly what Jinn will present remains up in the air – a normal state of affairs with these Conservatorium recital programs.    It’s as though you’re expected to come along on trust and be happy with the music that  is served up.   Whatever we do hear, you can be pretty sure it won’t be too adventurous.

 

Sunday April 19

BEETHOVEN, ROSSINI AND WEBER

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

Here is the second in the QSO’s somewhat checkered chamber music recitals in which success is a hit-or-miss affair.   For all that, they’re popular enough, possibly because of the reasonable price of admission.   This afternoon, the Beethoven 250th birthday celebrations continue with a Rasumovsky, the String Quartet in F op. 59 No. 1 in which the composer gets serious and asks his chamber music interpreters to work hard.    The lucky winners here are violins Alan Smith and Jane Burroughs, viola Nicholas Tomkin and cello Andre Duthoit.   The other major work is Weber’s Trio in G minor for flute (Alison Mitchell), bassoon (Nicole Tait, substituting for the original cello)), and piano (Anna Grinberg, who took part in this year’s first QSO chamber music Sunday afternoon program, herbing powerfully through the Brahms Piano Quintet).   On a lighter note, in the middle come arrangements of arias from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; well, I’m assuming the intended atmosphere will be on the less hefty side, but who can tell?  These arias (and duets, and trios) have been arranged for two bassoons (Tait and Evan Lewis);  probably the transcriptions by Francois Rene Gebauer of which there are 12.    We’ve all got our favourites, even if the best is over by the time the Act 1 curtain falls; here’s hoping we get All’idea di quell metallo and Zitti, zitti, piano, piano.

 

Sunday April 19

WHEN THE WORLD WAS AT WAR

Ensemble Q

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University South Bank at 3 pm

When isn’t the world in a state of conflict: Taliban? Daesh? Coronavirus? Brexit?  Nonetheless, this recital has a clear reference to the two world wars, although some of the composers involved were more terribly affected than others.   With regard to World War 1, the Ensemble presents two compositions: Ravel’s remembrance of dead soldier-friends Le tombeau de Couperin (piano solo played by Daniel de Borah, or one of the many arrangements?), and Battle-of-the-Somme sacrifice Frederick Septimus Kelly’s 1915 Elegy in memoriam Rupert Brooke for Strings (presumably Richard Divall’s arrangement for string quintet eschewing the original’s harp).   A victim of a Nazi camp, Erwin Schulhoff wrote his four-movement Concertino for flute, viola and double bass in 1925, before the shadows deepened intolerably.   Another Czech composer, Hans Krasa wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio in the year of his murder at Auschwitz.   Heinrich Kaminski survived World War II but not by much.  His Quintet for clarinet, horn and string trio dates from 1917, so he sits in this program as a sort of middle-man, straddling the World Wars.   The regular Q Ensemble personnel will host German-Canadian guest violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel

 

Friday April 24

OPERA GALA

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

If there’s no staged opera being offered this late in the year, why not give a greatest hits concert hall selection?    Conductor Giovanni Reggioli has conducted here before, most recently at a similar concert to this one in 2019.    I can’t find out much that is current about his present overseas activities; doubtless he wouldn’t be here unless he had proven his talent.    The concert is a grab-bag, as you’d expect, with four soloists: soprano Emma Pearson, mezzo Bronwyn Douglass, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and bass James Clayton.  The QSO gets to shine in three pieces: the overture to Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers, the greatest polonaise of all from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and the Intermezzo from Act 3 of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz which tears a passion to tatters on the flimsiest of excuses. Mascagni’s opera is notable for this extract as well as the Cherry Duet in Act 2 which we also get to enjoy; the rest of the piece is lost in transition.   As for more Verdi, all the singers come together for the Rigoletto quartet, and Clayton has the last say of the night with Iago’s profession of faith.   Rossini scores with three extracts, all from The Barber of Seville: Figaro’s self-introduction, Rosina’s opening gambit, then the pair’s duet Dunque io son.    As well as the Polonaise, Eugene Onegin is further exposed in Lensky’s Kuda, kuda and the Letter Scene, Puskai pogibnu, that lays bare the marvellous character of Tatyana.   There will be two Mozart excursions: the Countess’s Dove sono from The Marriage of Figaro, and that magical quartet No ti fidar, o misera from Act 1 of Don Giovanni.   The two Gounod slabs are unexceptional: the love duet O nuit d’amour from Act 3 of Faust, and the opportunity for Pearson to sparkle in Juliet’s waltz song,  Je veux vivre.    Saint-Saens and Donizetti are represented by one aria each: for the former, Delilah’s neglected solo Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse, while Goodwin is gifted with Nemorino’s  Una furtiva lagrima from L’elisir d’amore.

About half of this program will be performed on Sunday April 26 at 11:30 am.

 

Tuesday April 28

Umberto Clerici and Daniel de Borah

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

Clerici is principal cello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and my experience of his work has been exclusively through Selby & Friends recitals where he has put in several fine appearances.   Here he is again in that field, partnered with de Borah from the Conservatorium’s staff.    This pianist also has been to my ears a chamber music performer.   From the sketchy details on the concert diary of the Conservatorium, I learn that the pair will play sonatas by Chopin and Mendelssohn.   You’d assume that the Polish composer would be represented by his G minor Cello Sonata.   And you’d be right.  Fortunately, more specific information can be found on de Borah’s website.   Of the two Mendelssohn possibilities, the duo are presenting No. 2 in D Major.   By way of introduction to the proceedings, they will also perform Mendelssohn’s Op. 109 Song Without Words.   Half way through the recital, they intend to play some ‘songs without words’ by Chopin, referring specifically to the composer’s Opus 74.   This work, you’d have to assume, is the composer’s 17 Polish Songs; I’m almost ready to guarantee that Clerici will play the vocal line, not sing it wordlessly.   The scheduled No. 8 ‘song without words’ is indeed in D Major – that finger-snapping hit, Sliczny chlopiec; No. 9 is, however, not in G Major, as the web-site has it, but a Melodia in E minor.

 

 

Unknown Handel, some of it

BEYOND MESSIAH

Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

Sunday March 8

St. John's

                                                       St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

You can’t fault the idea behind this concert: to expand our experience of Handel as more than just the composer of the most famous oratorio in Western music.   You would have expected Graeme Morton‘s choir to provide the bulk of this 75-minute entertainment – and so they did with nine works, the last two of them unexpected because very popular, even if neither of them has anything to do with Messiah.   But Sunday afternoon also included two soprano arias – one of them that famous Handel hit, Let the bright Seraphim – plus an organ concerto and a concerto grosso from the famous Op. 6 set; well, not the whole of The Cuckoo and the Nightingale but just the opening Larghetto and Allegro  .  .  .  and not the complete No. 11 concerto, more’s the pity  –  only the opening Andante larghetto e staccato and its pendant Allegro.

When the choristers emerged, they reminded me in size of Melbourne’s Ensemble Gombert, a group I’ve been listening to with admiration for many years.   Like the Gomberts, the Brisbane group numbered about 19 singers – although one of the more ridiculously irritating questions of the afternoon concerned a missing singer.  Twenty were credited in the program; by my deduction, 5 sopranos and 5 altos, 6 tenors and 4 basses.   As far as I could judge, there was indeed a bass quartet, imbalanced by 7 tenors.  The sopranos numbered 4, as did the altos, although one of the altos sang that famous soprano aria but stood among the altos.

Of course, if the performance itself is engrossing, problems like this fade into the background.   The fundamental difficulty with this Handel compendium was that it was being given in the wrong building.   As cathedrals go, St. John’s is not particularly large (long) but it has a high ceiling which means that a lot of air space has to be filled.  Morton’s singers sounded much too faint and underpowered for this program and, when the parts subdivided, the output was dissipated even more than in a normal SATB setting.    Their supporting orchestra was populated mainly by Queensland Symphony Orchestra personnel: the associate concertmaster Alan Smith led a string decet in which everybody was a QSO regular except violinist Iona Allan and violist Belinda Williams who has played in past years with the orchestra.    Both oboes came from the QSO corps, and the solitary brass player, Michael Whitaker on trumpet, is a freelance musician of excellent quality.   But even this small chamber-size ensemble proved too powerful for the choir.

Of course, the building’s acoustic would be eminently suitable and flattering for a cappella singing, atmospherically suggestive to a high degree during major services and Evensong.  But it was hard weather for all concerned trying to make a fair showing of Handel’s pages, even the more harmonically bald ones.    Your voices tune that concludes the ode Alexander’s Feast opened the afternoon’s first of four sections: In Praise of Music.  Nothing here to frighten the fishes – a fair number of high As for the sopranos and a solitary B flat, but otherwise the work is not taxing.   Unfortunately, only sopranos and tenors were perceptible throughout.   Things might have been even more difficult if the two horns that are meant to join in the mesh at Let’s imitate her notes above had been present; as it was, we settled in for a lopsided sound where the cathedral’s echo distracted from the score’s rapid-moving clarity.   Still, the orchestral fabric sounded exact and engaging.

One of the program’s two Solomon extracts – the chorus Music, spread thy voice around – began without a solo alto, I believe; not that it mattered because the output in this quiet movement was reassuring with regard to the choir’s linear integrity although once again the basses failed to impress.    Soprano Cheryl Fiedler made a straightforward attempt at the famous Samson aria although her interpretation was pretty unvarnished in terms of personality, but Morton whipped through the aria without finding space for any of those pesky fermate that most singers love to interpolate.   Whitaker’s trumpet obbligato, despite the best intentions of the player, dominated the voice in duets; unfortunately, in the last echo effect sequence in the words their loud, Fiedler began with a leap of a 5th instead of a 4th – which wouldn’t have mattered except for the trumpet’s necessary duplication of what she should have sung.

You missed out on some necessary bite during the final Samson chorus, Let their celestial concerts.   Not only bite but some dynamic oomph would have been of great benefit here, although you have to wonder what the outcome would have been if the original’s second trumpet and timpani had been brought in to the complex.   After this, the movements from Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso proved an amiable interlude, well-balanced and notable for a spirited solo contribution from leader Smith.

The briefer second division of this program, In Praise of the Divine, comprised two choruses, both from Judas Maccabeus: the near-the-end Sing unto God, and the concluding Hallelujah, Amen.   Both ask for three trumpets and timpani, as well as the ever-present oboe pair.   Again, in jubilant works like these, you need a sonorous, carrying choral sound and the requisite majestic power came through only sporadically.  As well, I missed the alto and tenor soloists at the start of the first of these works.  Division Three,   In Praise of Love, began with May no rash intruder (the second Solomon excerpt) which suited the muted choral output even as the sopranos were divided, although the whole could have been given appropriate colour if Handel’s two flutes had appeared.   The second aria soloist, soprano Elodie Geertsema, worked her way through Endless pleasure, endless love from Semele.   Like Fielder’s, this is a good voice best heard as a choir member rather than being asked to project an oratorio/operatic character.  The process here became something of a trial as the singer carefully negotiated the technical hurdles; an effort, not reassuringly secure.

Mourn, all ye muses from that odd masque/opera/oratorio Acis and Galatea (the heroine’s name given an odd pronunciation by the chorister who read an introduction to this segment) came across with some sensitivity to its context, although a change of texture – some crescendo/diminuendo phrasing – would have been welcome.   The split tenor line could have contributed to the textural smoothness of this small chorus.   Phillip Gearing, organist and choir director round the corner at St. Mary’s, Kangaroo Point, played half the F Major Concerto on a chamber instrument that the Brisbane Chamber Choir gifted last year to the cathedral; a handsome and suitable offering as an alternative to the building’s impressive W. J. Simon Pierce main instrument.   The smaller organ, also by Pierce, has five stops only, so Gearing was constrained in his operations.   You might have wished for maximum volume in the first movement where the soloist was not really in competition with his string escort.   Nevertheless, the work’s chirpy first Allegro succeeded markedly, the elegant passage work from the soloist a welcome pleasure.

Finally, In Praise of the Hero took to the mainstream with two choruses familiar to everybody, not just Handel lovers.    See, the conqu’ring hero comes from the oratorio Judas Maccabeus has always impressed me as the British answer to America’s Hail to the Chief, even if the brassy President’s theme song has become debased by its association with liars and charlatans.   The Handel piece opens with 2 soprano and 2 alto lines, moves to 2 sopranos before the eruption into SATB and a full orchestral accompaniment.  In Sunday’s arrangement, the hard-worked Whitaker and Gearing gave an instrumental backing before the full orchestra entered, minus Handel’s two horns.   But this was one of the program’s more successful events as the interpretation boasted some of the brio and flourish (if they’re not the same thing) of the original composition.

Sadly, the afternoon ended with the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest,  this reading unhappy from the outset as the orchestral ritornello was dominated by the oboes’ repeated quavers above the first violins’ scene-setting semiquaver arpeggios.   The original two bassoons were absent, as were the requisite two extra trumpets and timpani needed for the thrilling sonorous explosion when the choir enters.   But here the choral forces were not sufficiently strong in volume and forcefulness to give these all-too-well-known pages enough affirming power.  Even the tension-relieving change to 3/4 at And all the people rejoic’d sounded uninspired.  But I believe that the most taxing hurdle that the singers had to face was their sub-division into 7 lines – except for the body’s most populous entity, the tenors!

Did the exercise reveal much of the unknown Handel to us?   Well, yes and no.  We really know a good deal of the composer’s work because a large amount of it has public currency.    Both the solo arias, not just Let the bright Seraphim, are familiar; that particular organ concerto and that specific concerto grosso feature among the more frequently performed numbers in Chrysander’s catalogue; as for the Samson choruses, if you know any one of them, it’s Let their celestial concerts; Zadok and See, the conqu’ring hero are Handelian cliches.   So a touch over half of the 13 elements on this program are not in need of resuscitation; nor did they expose any unrevealed parts of the Handel canon.   Nevertheless, as a tour d’horizon where you were given a varied selection, this program fulfilled its intentions.  Both the choir and its able scratch orchestra deserve thanks, particularly for giving exposure to some relatively arcane offerings.   It’s just a pity that this event had to be relocated from its original venue  –  St. Andrew’s Uniting Church, a few doors down Ann Street  –  which might have proved a more congenial environment for this strong-boned music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still top of the class

GARRICK OHLSSON

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27

ohlsson

                                                                  Garrick Ohlsson

It’s great to have your preconceptions confirmed.  I’ve been lucky enough to attend most of this American musician’s Melbourne recitals since he started touring Australia and here he is once more, thanks to the good graces of Musica Viva Australia, which organization chose Ohlsson to open its international concert season for 2020.  You can look at the other artists to come in this series  –  Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet, the Cho-Ling/Parker duo, Les Talens Lyriques (but let’s not boast), Diana Doherty and the Eggner Trio back again, the Goldmund Quartet who won the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and the San Franciscan vocal dodecad Chanticleer – but you could be excused for thinking that the best wine has been served first.

With Ohlsson, you enjoy that all-too-rare performance element: complete trust.  On Thursday evening, the opening pages of Beethoven came over with just as much individuality and command as the final piece I heard –  a Chopin encore.  Confidence in craft practice is not that rare; these days, we expect a musician to be technically close to flawless in live performance and a great many concerts and recitals justify our confidence.  What you don’t get as  matter of course is interpretative skill where the player invests  each phrase with informed character.   Yes, you can come across other pianists with loads of personality; Bernstein as a pianist fell into this category, for instance – not all show, but example after example of attention-grabbing.   The  gift of taking you into a musical narrative or stream and not letting go: that’s very rare.   Several big names on the international scene that I’ve heard spring to mind as coming close to the ideal – Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, Marc-Andre Hamelin – but very few have this power of demanding involvement.   Nikolai Demidenko is one; Ohlsson, another.

The visitor offered two programs on his Australian tour, the alternative one comprising Brahms (the Two Rhapsodies, the late Seven Fantasias and Book 2 of the Paganini Variations) coupled with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 and last Sonata in B minor.   Program 2 featured two sonatas – Beethoven No. 11 in B flat and Prokofiev No. 6 – with a post-interval Chopin swag involving the F sharp Impromptu, the Berceuse, the third Scherzo, and Etudes 5-10 of the Opus 25 set.   Ohlsson had already performed this melange in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne (and probably elsewhere, for all I know), and he has recorded all of it except the Russian work.

For my money, the Beethoven Op. 11 Sonata is imbalanced, the real interest arriving in the last movement, a rondo combining muted optimism and a richness of material that even Mozart would have envied.   However, even in the preceding parts Ohlsson demonstrated his ability at finding striking novelties, like the powerful bass notes in bars 50-52, an unfalteringly loud delivery of the arpeggios in the development’s centre from bar 92 onward, and the balancing calm of the left-hand progression to the recapitulation.  The following Adagio, with its siciliana suggestions, illustrated the pianist’s ability in handling rough surfaces like the repeated left hand chords and pedal notes, which other interpreters attempt to mitigate in insistence.   Later, in the Minore Trio of the third movement, all 16 bars were handled with forte energy, ensuring that the surrounding segments acquired an added charm and warmth.

But the final movement gave us an extended instance of Ohlsson’s adroit mastery of Beethoven’s composition where the fluency of imagination shows as tautly harnessed and brimming with potential.   The recurring theme is eventually infused into the structure and it takes a highly informed perceptiveness to cross through its content without hammering the obvious.  Through these pages, the interpretation moved onto a high level where phrases seemed to arc naturally and the filigree sounded unflustered and organic.

At the unforgettable opening to Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, Ohlsson maintained the major-minor tension through a dynamic attack that remained sensibly couched so that the harmonic clashes sounded present and clear, presenting in its later complex working-out a full realisation of the composer’s violent, dogged emotional landscape that stays fraught even in light-textured staccato interludes.   Not that you can avoid the smash-and-grab character of the final pages but Ohlsson kept his sustaining pedal under careful control, ensuring that any sound wash couldn’t turn into a meaningless blur.

The second movement Allegretto brings to mind the ballets (for instance, the warm stream from bar 5 through to the a tempo marking) with its clear-cut melodies given a wrong-note dressing; while you took in the clarity of execution, the movement’s legerdemain reminded you of what a formidable pianist Prokofiev was.   Likewise, the following slow waltz – like the preceding Beethoven’s slow movement, a quasi-siciliana in 9/8 – called up the shade of Juliet; not surprising, as this work and the ballet are near-contemporaries.  Here also, Ohlsson delighted with his insight into the composer’s brilliantly contrived textures, leading the listener through the lavish sequence of slightly-tainted concords that peak in a rousing B Major peroration.

Prokofiev’s finale begins as a cross between a moto perpetuo and a march, not quite optimistic but mobile enough; slight in its matter and balancing the first movement’s clangour.   That is, until the writer brings the work’s opening motif back in an Andante break from the march – a brief if gloomy hiatus before the semi-quavers return and the work slashes a grinding path to its in-my-end-is-my-beginning last bars.   Along this journey, Ohlsson gifted us with a formidable reading, accomplished with no attention-grabbing dramatics, not even in the col pugno first movement smashes; rather, we enjoyed a luminous outline of the work, all its pianistic terrors handled with sensibility and masterly flair.

As for this night’s Chopin pieces, the Impromptu No. 2 is a vital window into the composer’s creative fecundity, giving the impression of near-improvisation but every addition and deviation has been ideally situated.   I was hugely impressed by the executant’s realisation of the long demi-semiquaver figuration that precedes the last 10 remembrance-of-things-past bars;  a gripping demonstration of how to find placidity in a mobile sound-web.  The six Etudes achieved their end of exhibiting the player’s control of Chopin’s several technical tests, but here invested with personality – especially the No 6 exercise in 3rds and its counterweight in No. 8’s demand for even consecutive 6ths.   Still, what lives in the memory is Ohlsson’s commanding double octave hectoring in No. 10 with a superb performance of the final six bars where the energy reaches its climax as the octaves fly in opposite directions: an enlightening conclusion to a reading that managed to juxtapose successfully a rough assault with that sophistication you find in the best interpreters of this composer’s most aggressive pages.

As you’d expect, the Berceuse enjoyed a gentle dynamic; even the moment of deepest passion at bar 23 came across as integral to the prevailing pianopianissimo approach.  And the sequences of thirds, triplet semiquaver chords, delicate use of C flat as the piece heads into its final variations – all impressed for their contributions to this interpretation’s fluency.   Finally, Ohlsson outlined one of those works that keeps every pianist striving: the C sharp Scherzo.   For much of its length, this was a master-class in rubato.   Nothing was rushed or thrown away as the performer gave full value to the volatile flights that are dotted throughout the score in profusion.   It had the lot: virtuoso right-hand streams, eloquent chorales and their tail-ending chattering arpeggio patterns, driving rhetoric in double octaves, and a gripping stretto that made you hold your breath with tension.

I don’t usually stick around for encores; if the performer has done his job, there’s no need.   But I stayed this time for a refresher course in Rachmaninov’s Op. 3 C sharp minor Prelude – no wonder the composer got sick of it, especially when you consider the gems to be found in the Op.  23 and Op. 43 sets – and a busily whimsical version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz in D flat.   Icing on the cake, some might think; to me, a case of gimme-that-old-time-religion audience reassurance.