Fine performance in there somewhere

BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS PART 5

Markiyan Melnychenko and Rhodri Clarke

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 24

Markiyan-Melnychenko-3553564523-1560753706372

                                                            Markiyan Melnychenko

This evening recital marked the first disappointment (for me) in the series run by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt.  In one sense, it might have been so not because of what we heard but what we didn’t hear.  On the program were two violinists – Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Markiyan Melnychenko – both to be accompanied by pianist Rhodri Clarke.   As far as I remember, Matsuura-Miller was on board to tackle the Beethoven Sonata No. 2 before Melnychenko went on to account for the Kreutzer No. 9.  Sadly, the former player was taken ill, so we were left with a one-work program.   Well, you can hardly complain about this misfortune in our challenging climate, although patrons have been assured that we will get to hear the earliest of the composer’s sonatas in A at a later stage in this increasingly ambitious series.

The Kreutzer is a complete world in itself, of course, and swamps its fellow-passengers in Beethoven’s violin sonata output.   Most chamber music addicts cling to the concept enunciated by some clown (Goethe?) of a string quartet as ‘a conversation among four intelligent people’; outsiders like me think of a quartet as a contest, a continuous series of assertions that have to be slotted into each other, an ongoing carefully ordered alteration in supremacy.  Yes, the results can be mellifluous, yet the string quartets that stand out in the memory are those that resemble an intellectual conflict – even in Haydn.

Much the same can be said of piano trios and violin sonatas, especially this one.   I played the piano part for it many times in younger days, usually partnering a violinist with much more experience of the score than I brought to the table.   But no matter how many times we worked through it, I was always on edge; not just because of the technical requirements which simply deepen as the score progresses, but also because of the multiple decisions about what goes where and why a particular attack should be chosen and not another way equally as feasible.

Beethoven sets up this tension right from the extraordinary opening with the two instruments playing solos that eventually interlock at bar 11.   Once the tempo changes to Presto, the work moves into competitive mode and not even the individual highlighting of the middle movement variations nor the major key optimism of the tarantella finale can detract from the sonata’s consistent grappling for attention.

Melnychenko did not have the happiest of starts, encountering some trouble with the two simple double stops in his first bar which wavered unnervingly.  When he and Clarke got down to the first movement’s real business, the string line still sounded nervous; thanks to the exposition repeat, the combination began to assert authority over these active, dynamically fluctuating pages with some splendid slashing strokes from the violinist from bar 61 onward and an urgent drive from Clarke’s quaver underpinning after the piano’s C Major cadenza.

This violinist can spin a splendidly fine line in slow, lyrical passages; for example, the second subject – that unfinished E Major melody that slows the compulsive rush into a chorale –  came over with a disarming warmth, as sweet as Ferras in his prime, and meeting the composer’s requirement for an emotional and technical oasis in the heart of a fiery narrative.   Clarke showed willing from the start, inclined to overdraw his dynamics with a powerful delivery of every sforzando and an interpretation that saw a fortissimo in every forte.   Only a spot of fluster in the flat-littered contrary motion territory around bar 229 marred a reliable output from the keyboard part, at this point treated with fitting vehemence.   Whether it was quite appropriate at every stage for this partnership dynamic is another matter.

Nevertheless, we could relish the melting moment in the recapitulation of the second subject starting at bar 412: 26 bars of refined articulation from both executants.   Only a spot of fumbling around bar 467 marred an engrossing rounding-out of this movement.

Clarke did excellent service with his establishment of the second movement’s material, demonstrating a no-nonsense approach to the Andante direction and finesse in giving each of the inner lines its value in the chordal progression.   Both players collaborated in some subtle tempo tightening and easing during the initial statement before moving into an agreable first variation, which only suffered a few absent bass notes as Clarke worked hard to be discreet.    Variations 2 and 3 proved exceptionally fine: crisp in the first, then sombre with no decrease in rhythmic impetus across the latter.  The last of the variations found the pianist over-anxious to exert hegemony in pages where there is –  for once  –  no competition, least of all from Melnychenko’s occasional pizzicati contributions.  Still, the coda exemplified the best qualities that emerged every so often from this partnership: unanimity of direction, awareness of function, consonance in attack and dynamic.

Unfortunately, only a little way into the finale, you could hear that the combination had turned lop-sided.   While the articulation rarely faltered and both players had resolved on a weltering speed, the piano proved too emphatic and insistent to sustain the postulation that this was a conversation.   For instance, at bar 86 where the violin is genially bobbing around on its two lower strings, Clarke was hammering out the D Major theme as though he were engaged in a Brahms concerto.  The sforzandi that start bars 109-11 proved to be not so much emphases but power-punches.  Later, the lead-in to the two Adagio breaches near the end found the piano burying the violin in heavy fabric.

Sadly, this conclusion coloured your perceptions of the entire performance.   It would be unwise to assert that these performers were mismatched – they achieved some fine passages of play – but the result all too often sounded one-sided.   You can’t expect towering, steely lines from Lviv-born Melnychenko; his sound-quality is pointed and refined and is not capable of rising above a very forceful background or support.  It may be that these artists had no chance to calculate at any length the acoustic parameters of the Athenaeum Theatre auditorium.   At all events, this Kreutzer presented as rather imbalanced dynamically.  I’ve plenty of respect for both musicians but this was only an occasionally successful attempt at a taxing musical challenge.

 

 

 

 

A wide-ranging revelation of self

PRTZL

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3447

Wherever you look, you come across Harvey’s name.  He’s omni-present in Australia’s musical landscape, even if he makes his home in Hobart (there’s a bit of mainlander snobbery for you).   For years, he has been a fiercely prominent standard-bearer for contemporary music – Australian and otherwise – with an ability to play anything written for his instrument.    Yes, he can occasionally be heard playing mainstream repertoire, if you’re lucky enough; at various times and places, I’ve watched him perform Chopin and Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven, usually to my enrichment.   Further, I’ve seen him improvise at some long-forgotten (by me . . . more repressed than forgotten) spot in Fitzroy, sweeping an audience up with overwhelming, seemingly endless cataracts of notes.   As well, he has collaborated to splendid effect; in my experience, with Slava Grigoryan, both live and on disc.

As a composer, Harvey is well-represented in the Move catalogue, sometimes juxtaposing his own works with those of other Australian writers.   On this CD, however, it’s all Harvey  –  compositions and performances  –  playing both solo and alongside some new- and long-time collaborators.   Leading the piano solo works is the solid Piano Sonata No. 4   A. Gramsci of 2018, as well as a Module Fugue from the same year; a Divertimento originally written by Anna Amalia, Duchess of Braunschweig in 1780 for a mixed quartet of piano, clarinet, viola and cello, is here arranged by Harvey for piano alone; in this disc’s title work, Harvey uses two pianos – one grand, one electric – during which he seems to twist himself into that shape suggested by the title, although why the word loses its two vowels seems odd – but then, Cage and Lejaren Hiller did much the same with HPSCHD over 50 years ago.

Harvey presents three duos: Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion for electric piano and synthesizer (Harvey plays both) and trumpet Simon Reade; Tubby the President with Reade taking up the baritone horn; and Gestalt Climate for two pianos, Harvey in harness with wife Arabella Teniswood-Harvey.    Then you find two trios: a salute to Deep Purple’s John Lord in Deus est Fabula for violin (Tara Murphy), clarinet (Derrick Grice) and piano (Harvey); Toccata DNA in a version for flute (Peter Sheridan), percussionist (Peter Neville) and piano (Harvey).   Last of all comes a quartet – Aporia II – for three pianos
(Harvey, Teniswood-Harvey, Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson).

On Disc One, the Gramsci-inspired sonata takes up most space  –  almost two-thirds of the total area.   On the second, the tribute to Lord, Deus est Fabula, lasts longest, with the toccata coming in a worthy second.   Two related pieces – Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion and PRTZL – are the briefest, both about 2½ minutes each.   To my mind, there is one anomaly among the ten works expounded – the satire on Trump which wears out its welcome, even though anyone with a brain would sympathize with its intentions.

The album’s opening track, Module Fugue, impresses for its rapid-fire elaboration on the notes E, B and F which provide the fundamentals across the piano solo’s length.   These three notes would be the module that Harvey uses for intervallic and transpositional exercise; as for a fugue, there’s little here that brings to mind your concept of that form, although the composer/pianist does insert a small fughetta near the end but it serves as more of a slight episode in the course of this construct, one that looks sensationally difficult on paper but which sounds  –  in patches  –  mellifluously fluent in the realization.  Actually, ‘slight episode’ does this brief fugal passage poor service as it acts as a momentary and slight brake on the fierce action that precedes and follows it.

The piece is full of excitement across its breadth, right from the scene-setting right-hand sextuplets that start the action.   In fact, the work falls into two parts: the first, piled high with crisscrossing meshes typified by irregular gruppetti, irregular arpeggios, irregular rhythmic displacements, irregular time signatures – all depending on your definition of ‘irregular’.    In this instance, the sonorous web that Harvey compiles is  volatile, but moderately so compared to what comes at bar 66 when we reach a stage where the underlying three-note motif becomes the basis for a percussive chord- and rhythm-play, intensely invigorating and packed with the composer/pianist’s delight in alternating time-signatures – 3/4 becomes 5/16, 6/16, 11/16, 7/16: all semiquaver-based but the balance is asymmetrical so that toe-tapping jazz enthusiasts (for instance) would be completely at sea.   Harvey allows himself some liberties with an unscheduled pause here and a disinterest in his own designated accents there; yet, as every time when he gets the bit between his teeth, the pianist carries you breakneck past his mini-fugue and into a rip-roaring torrent of fabric.

The Sonata No. 4 begins with a statement of Gramsci’s name where R is represented by the note D, M by F, S by E flat, and I by B.   I can’t trace how these equivalents were reached but here they are, initially articulated by across-the-strings glissandi.   Some under-the-lid work emerges quickly, but not for long; in fact, manipulation of the strings disappears until near the sonata’s conclusion.   The aim of this first burst of activity is to solidify the seven-note Gramsci-name sequence through harmonic manipulation, a potent bass statement, and – after a pointillist 8-bar flurry – across a firm double whammy in alternate hands before it is subsumed into the work’s contrapuntal workings-out.

From these initial statements on, the seven-note aggregation returns en clair throughout the one-movement sonata’s length, yet you find plenty of distractions/disguises to move the work out of the realm of spot-the-row/inversion/cancrizan games.   But then, I’m slow in realizing a good deal of what development on this scale involves, to the point where it took me several hearings to appreciate how much of the sonata is set in 7/4 or 7/8, and that the first of the many chord clusters that crop up comprises 7 notes.   You can get carried away with this sort of 1950s detective-style analysis, no matter how simple-minded, especially when other features impress so vividly, like Harvey’s fluency with two part invention-style writing, the jumpy energy that breaks in at the Vivace of bar 272, and the ensuing placidity of isolated notes placating the listener and leading into the timeless string glissandi of the last 25 bars to the sonata.

Why Gramsci?   Harvey identifies with the anti-Fascist Italian philosopher’s trademark theory of cultural hegemony, in which the rich have taken over the incidentals of  aesthetic practice –  to be specific, in this case, the piano.    By using the instrument at the opening and close of his sonata in an anti-bourgeois mode, the composer is making a statement about the abstraction by a wrong-minded class of a cultural symbol which can be reprogrammed by changing its use.   OK: I’d go along with that, as long as the inside-the-lid brigade had the same intention – Cowell, Cage, and the rest of the crew.   But it’s improbable that they all march to the unheard beat of a Leveller’s drum.  Not that it matters over-much: Harvey is exemplifying the essential re-allocation of resources that so appalled Il Duce, setting the theory as his sonata’s alpha and omega.   The manifesto is at the edges; to my mind, the true interest lies in the exuberant working-out in the middle.

As for the two-movement Divertimento by Duchess Anna Amalia, this is a fairly straight reduction of the original work with the interesting parts of the non-piano lines incorporated into the keyboard part.   Before, during, and after the noblewoman’s polite work, Harvey indulges in some extemporisations – not long, but energetic to the point of frenzy, sort of putting the 18th century inside a contemporary cocoon.   The repeats are ignored and Harvey goes in for a continuous accelerando at the end of the Allegro second movement, which all sounds as though he’s tired of being polite and is rushing towards his end-of-track explosion.   As well, he allows several wrong notes to survive on the recording, which can be interpreted as uncaring or bringing the music down to earth.  It’s an odd adjunct to this collection and makes no pretensions to much beyond the status of a slight bagatelle.

PRTZL represents something similar.   A player sits in the middle of two pianos (one electric, one grand) and swivels between both – sort of.    The work begins with one instrument, the other joins in pretty quickly, they alternate with bewildering rapidity and are joined by a drum sequencer about 4/5ths of the way to the end.   Even with the score and a pretty decent sound system, I found this hard to follow; after an orthodox start, the player seemed to be following  general contours and, although I knew two keyboards were involved, both timbres combined so that the desired result was achieved and perceptions twisted into a pretzel shape.   You’re not exactly bamboozled but your sense of shape is left in disarray.   Still, Harvey is noted for his individuality: not just putting a fresh lick of paint on works, but indulging in a spot of angle-grinding and radical planing as well; if he wants to do so in his own constructs, it’s essentially his call.

This work is dedicated to Hobart lawyer Craig Mackie.  The unkind among us might see the work as a reflection of the twisting and mental contortions that the practice of law requires, or the necessity on the part of a successful legist to keep several balls in the air simultaneously, never mind about juggling them.   Harvey admires Mackie, not least for his representation of Astro Labe aka DJ Funknuckl who was charged with head-butting then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott on September 21, 2018, for which act the penalty was 6 months’ jail with a minimum of two.   It might be an over-reach, giving Astro Labe the sobriquet of Lionheart, especially as the assault was not occasioned by Abbott’s disregard of the national majority’s feelings concerning marriage equality or by any other of the Prime Minister’s blind spots in social logic, but rather by a general sense of offence caused through the presence of the man himself – rather like the reactions among the population of Cobargo when Scott Morrison showed up.   Would you headbutt him, though?   Well, I wouldn’t take on an Oxford Boxing Blue, especially if you were stupid enough to square up to him properly.   Giving a Liverpool kiss might have satisfied your sense of hubris taken down, but it’s not brave.

The piece itself is mainly an electric piano solo; another of Harvey’s rhythmically compulsive drives, mainly in 7/16 with forays into 4/4, and it hurtles past with superlative performance finesse.   An ad lib short break for synthesizer drums is interrupted by two tritone-forming trumpet notes in the distance, and a high trill before a synthesizer bass explosion and, finally, the sound of a bird tweeting.   It’s obviously a tribute to the titular hero and may reference his DJ career; as a character study, it proves inviting but inscrutable.   Recorded at a live performance, the bird-song conclusion raised some laughter.

That deals with the first disc; the second is all collaborations, the first of them the variant on Kleinsinger’s Tubby the Tuba.   In its original form, the work was a piano/tuba duet, but here the brass instrument is a baritone horn (Simon Reade) which manages the original line with a few octave transpositions.   Its opening suggests The Star Spangled Banner but that melodic contour disappears quickly as the work follows its sevenfold path: Come un imbecille; Ritmico, ma come una personna che non sa ballare; Twittare a mezzanotte; Rubato, osservato una giovane donna; Pesante, inferocito; A tempo, i farmaci per i cappelli stanno funzionando di nuovo; Coda, la vendetta di Melania. Some of these divisions live up to expectations; most are impenetrable, like the last section of all.  To ram home the message, Trump slogans – Fake news, Grab ’em by the pussy, Bad fire-fighter – are called out at certain points.   But the satirical intent remains obscurely expressed.   Not to mention the difficulty in finding material in a person who is a booby beyond the comprehension of Dryden and a yahoo mentality that might have confounded Swift.  As America is finding out with each passing day, the reality cannot be satirized: imitation is the only coping mechanism.

More serious intentions underpin Gestalt Climate where human interference with nature to the latter’s destruction is epitomized in the adjunction of two separate but internally connected sets of material.   Harvey performs a version of his own Module Fugue in which the various elements are revisited, sometimes literally.    In opposition (?) to this stream, Teniswood-Harvey imposes 3, 4 and 5 note chords (the first comprises the B, F and E source mini-row of the earlier work) and isolated interjections derived from the Module Fugue.  This might have worked more effectively if the second piano part had been more assertively written; as things stand here, Harvey wins all the attention, playing a mobile, dynamically volatile role while his partner is subsumed into the welter.

The pianos are treated as independent, although their parts are spelled out.  In the piece’s centre, they operate on different time metrics, so that the first piano occasionally waits for the other instrument to reach some sort of tempo parity.   Not that this matters too much as little relief is built into the first piano’s part.   Indeed, the temporal disjunction serves as a clear sign of the composer’s main proposal to do with ‘the concept of Gestalt prägnanz‘, so that the message comes across in aphorisms rather than paragraphs, especially as the work reaches its final stages.   While its premise is laudable –  to expound the huge problem between what we do and what we need to do  –  I’m left in an interpretative bind: the state of affairs presents as fast as well as furious, which could be the march of progress turned into helter-skelter, and the countermeasure speaks with inexorability as a possible triumph of nature or a Big-Bang Apocalypse.  Harvey’s work speaks in a language that is vital and anxious to a high degree; an uncomfortable if salutary experience.

Jon Lord’s name means very little to me and, I’d suggest. my generation.   His work is very close to Harvey’s heart; the Australian pianist gave the English composer’s solitary piano concerto its premiere performance in 2003.   In Deus est Fabula (God is a fable, Lord is a legend – take your pick), violinist Murphy and clarinettist Grice work work in very close quarters with Harvey through a score that has some of the most complex rhythmic structures and displacements I’ve seen since early Stockhausen.   The major part is as closely argued as you could wish, with some intervening duets for the viola/clarinet combination, and some splashy solos for Harvey.

By this stage, you should be getting used to the composer/pianist’s inventive tropes:  smashing alternating-hands chords, sustained pedal washes of remarkable power, time signatures that favour semiquaver patterns, unusual groupings like quintuplets and septuplets, delight in imitative part-writing (sometimes even for piano in this score), directness of utterance with little room for mawkish self-examination, bursts of syncopation that suggest bebop but defy analysis (Brubeck with his Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk are Stone Age vintage compared to this).   The trio is divided into your classical four movements, in a way: yet the piece presents as one movement.  The first division is marked with the Satiesque Credulita, con rubato; then comes a more ordinary Moderato espressivo, followed by Ossessionato, winding up with an almost predictable Impietosamente.

In terms of material, Harvey writes that his trio is based on the first seven prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.    These numbers can certainly be found in the piece but are of little help in piecing together the work’s progress.  By the way, even a tyro at this game can see that the first three bars of solo piano contain all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.   What you hear is a strident sequence of declamations involving all three instruments in solo or combinations before an abrupt launch into one of the composer’s trademark ritmico passages, everybody loaded up with tempo and range problems before the Moderato is reached and the instrumental interplay becomes less angular.  A brief Infuriati explosion of one bar leads to the slow-moving Ossessionato where the pianist operates on the strings, the clarinet enters into this new world with multiphonics, while the violinist indulges in a bit of overpressuer or grating sound production.   The players eventually reach the final merciless section which lives up to its name by sustaining a sonorous barrage to the end.  You can hear – even if you have a very limited knowledge of Lord’s output – how Harvey  hymns the fiery determination and bravura of the rock organist’s performance, if here transmuted into something more complex and intellectually challenging.

Deus est Fabula, written in 2014, is the second-oldest piece in this collection of scores which come mainly from 2018 and 2019.   The oldest track is of Harvey’s celebrated 27-years old (can you believe it?) Toccata DNA – originally for piano, and soon after appearing in this trio format; the work was subjected to further revision three years ago.   On this pressing, the toccata is a triumph for all involved, a marvel of synchronicity and a startling internal transition from a simplicity that is almost tonal to detonations of agility from each sound source – which, in Peter Neville’s case, is quite a few.

In format, the piece follows the segmented tradition that stretches from Buxtehude to Khachaturian,    It opens with a flute-piano duet that sets up a semitone nexus and shortens its note values to increase the activity level until a unison segment with shifting time-signatures leads into the active second part, the marimba establishing a a fast pattern of sextuplets with the piano revisiting the grave semibreve/minim ambience of the opening bars.   A new phase, Flowing, brings all three instruments into play together in what eventually turns into an atonal chorale with florid, complex surrounds.  The work reaches its apex with an extended Giusto sequence, piano dominated and most exciting with its ostinato bass strides and right-hand clusters.

Harvey points to two sources for the toccata: the opening segments derive from the Art of Fugue as reinterpreted by organist Gerd Zacher;  the second part hales from territory claimed by the now-40-year-old group Einstürzende Neubauten, specifically the song Z.N.S. – you can find it on YouTube although its relevance to the toccata is difficult to perceive.  But then, even when you’re given pointers like these, you probably do best to take them as indicators that may not travel beyond the personal; for example, others see Bach but I see Boulez, or someone cites German industrial rock where you hear Mosolov.   If this information proves counter-productive, listen to this reading of the toccata and revel in its helically interweaving strands as well as the pin-point accuracy of the work’s executants.

To end, the quartet Aporia II moves us into a time-honoured realm, that of the controlled aleatoric.   The title refers to a state of doubt – not just about the nature of truth in philosophical discussions, but also to what you think is happening now.   Harvey’s performers divide into two tribes – percussion plus keyboard, and two keyboards –  who respond to an initial stimulus, in 2-minute time limits.   Now, it’s always worthwhile being aware of how something musical works, particularly in the vexed continuum of form.  But, as Schoenberg (if not his followers) insisted, you don’t have to bear this knowledge at the front of your mind when you listen; it’s primary information, but it’s not primary to the experience, pace Die Reihe and all who sailed in her.

What of Aporia I?   That’s the work title for Harvey’s Piano Sonata No. 3 of 2016, in which he attempted to deal with a form of this uncertainty principle.   By contrast, this present work tenders a bare-bones explication.  The piece has four sections – pianissimo, forte, pianissimo again, fortissimo leading to a brief coda that diminishes into silence.   The initial material for improvisation comprises the notes C, A, G, E, D which also provide the coda’s elements.   Section 2 introduces B, F and C sharp alongside the existing pentad.  Section 3 brings into play the missing notes from the chromatic scale: B flat, A flat, G flat and E flat, while Section 4 is a free-for all on all 12 notes.   The player’s entrances are staggered in each part, although all are involved at a bar’s distance (each bar is a 4-second unit) from the start.   It makes for a welcome mobility for the performers, and just as welcome a comprehensibility for the listener.

Aporia II makes for a clever conclusion to this album.   It’s the most ‘adventurous’ piece in the collection, reliant more than any other on the creativity of each performer, and it represents the most challenging foray by the composer into a field that is completely different to the other nine works that precede it, and it’s the most simply structured of them all as well.   There’s something of an open-air temper to Aporia II, even in Section 2 which brings to mind irresistibly the world of the gamelan, with a side-order of Debussy’s Pagodes.

My gratitude to Michael Kieran Harvey for his generous emailing of all the scores played on these two discs.   Allowing critics to have access to your work is a rare characteristic among contemporary composers.   It’s even worse with their interpreters.   My only previous experience of this generosity came from Daryl Buckley in the years when his Elision group was performing in Melbourne and from Peter Sculthorpe, fondly remembered.   This beneficence from Australia’s master-pianist made the act of reviewing his compositions a much more cogent enterprise than it could have been, no matter what you think of the results above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All clear

BACH TO BACH

Calvin Bowman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday April 12

Calvin

                                                                   Calvin Bowman

Over the years, some Australian musicians have put themselves forward  –  or been promoted  –  as front-rank Bach experts  and I’ve heard more than a few of them stake their claims with pretensions great and small.   But my vote for primus inter pares not (to mention inferiores) would be organist Calvin Bowman.   He first performed the complete organ works over a series of recitals in 1995, of which I heard a few on the Smenge instrument in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate, Melbourne.   Then I dipped in and out of his presentation of the total Bach output for solo organ across one day/night in the Melbourne Town Hall: a singular event that brightened up an otherwise bland Arts Festival in 2009.   Finally, another complete one-day rendition took place at the 2018 MOFO in St. John’s Church (Cathedral?), Launceston.  A further run-through was planned across several recitals this year in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton where Bowman is organist, but that’s been delayed for obvious reasons.

Much of the music for this Sunday night all-Bach recital was for harpsichord originally, although a smattering of organ pieces arrived by way of transcription/transmutation.  Bowman opened with the C minor Fantasia BWV 906 without its attendant fugue, hurtling into the opening arpeggios with gusto and clarity, saving his sustaining pedalling for the mood swings at bar 9, and later at bar 25.   I was elated by the sense of purpose that obtained in the chromatic complexes at bars 14-15 and 37-38, as by the drama released in the concluding statement that begins at bar 34; the whole, a terse construct eloquently brought to life.

Written for lute or harpsichord, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 is a keyboard favourite that has led many an interpreter into excess, particularly during its opening pages.   Bowman played its first part straight: completely unadorned, letting the meandering right hand speak its part without deviation with only a slight mis-speaking at about bar 34.   The fugue enjoyed a similar uncluttered statement, the sustaining pedal only employed when the semiquavers started in earnest at bar 29.   In fact, Bowman showed himself more than assured enough with the interweaving part-writing to need little help in imposing sense on the movement’s progress.    Nothing major marred the progress of the concluding segment beyond some short, sharp signs of fatigue in the final repeat of the piece’s second part – blips on a serene surface.

A dislike of the Italian Concerto BWV 971 stems from my experiences of its first movement which a teacher constrained me to master in 1960.   The encounter was unpleasant (as is much knowledge gained for exam purposes only) but it gave me an admiration for pianists who can handle its intricacies with at least an appearance of enjoyment.   Bowman bounced through the opening pages, sure of his direction despite some passing treble uncertainty in bar 105; but the whole central part of this movement is an outwardly optimistic, inwardly bedevilling melange and even this gifted musician looked and sounded relieved to come back to clear water at bar 163’s restatement of the opening sequence, the tempo slightly increasing and the delivery buoyant.

Bach’s middle Andante movement found Bowman unafraid to employ rubato and showing a welcome tendency to give the right hand’s long stretches of action a good deal of liberality; no strict lines or rhythms here, the player heightening or lengthening notes to emphasize the piece’s idiosyncratic progress as in bars 30-31 where the syncopations proved notably unpredictable.    Just as tellingly, Bowman eschewed the temptation to use the repeated pedal Cs and As at critical points as hammer blows or portents of doom; they remained simply part of the sombre undercroft to the treble’s extended arioso. Because of the clarity of finger-work, some errors enjoyed unusual transparency in the Presto finale.    Yet, at those stages where the action cuts back to two invention-type lines, the performance gleamed: such interludes  –  between bars 25 and 52, 77 to 96, 155 to 173  –  showed spirit and vitality through simple textural contrast.

With the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 695,  Bowman moved back into organ territory, although this piece does not require the pedals that are eventually required for the BWV 718 chorale prelude on the same hymn tune.   This work came over with convincing fluency, the alto-situated chorale processing through the two outer lines with unruffled poise.   Many an interpreter treats Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein BWV 734 as a toccata, with all attention on the treble semiquavers; organists have a better time of it with the tenor melody given to the pedals, but a good pianist can give an informed account of it if the music’s purpose is kept in mind.   I might have preferred Bowman to have taken it a tad more quickly with less four-square stolidity and more use of the piano’s subtle expressive powers, but the end result was jaunty enough, a celebration rather than a race to redemption.

The recital concluded with two arrangements for piano.  The first by Bax of the G Major Fantasia for organ BWV 572 omitted the opening 27 bars and the closing 17 bars.  Admittedly, these are peripheral to the work’s main content: a massive five-part contrapuntal exercise in extended chorale shape that the British composer reinforced with doubled pedal/bass notes and aimed for slight relief from the original’s massive weight by moving the treble up an octave at about bar 104 of the original score, if only for a short while.    Bax also cut out a few bars at the end to give the extract a solid concluding cadence.   All very well as an  exercise but it struck me as heavy going; yes, so is the organ original which is Schweitzer-monochrome in character but the duration of notes in the counterpoint is not compromised, as it must be in a piano treatment.

To end, we heard Max Pirani’s transcription of the 21-bar-long middle Largo of the F minor Harpsichord Concerto.   This is the flip side to the D minor Andante from the Italian Concerto, here labelled Arioso and a much more orthodox melody.   I think it has been transposed up a semitone from its original A flat Major and Pirani fleshed out its length by repeating the first 6 ½ bars.    Some of the right-hand figuration was left out, as were the final 2 or 3 bars – just the same as Bax’s transcription preceding this.  So Bowman chose a pleasant encore piece to conclude: nothing challenging or profound but, in this treatment, appealingly Romantic in timbre.

Certainly, it’s a kind of Bach performance that appals purists but appeals to pianists who, across the past 270 years, have been unable to leave the composer’s output alone.   Do we need to hear these revisions?    Well, they don’t hurt anybody if they’re carried out with discretion and Pirani has been more careful than most to leave the work close to intact.  Furthermore,  it’s easy to put this sort of thing together and easy to play; not as jejune as Switched-On Wendy Carlos, but not as memorable as Webern’s Ricercar mutation.

It was beyond the reach of this series to have Bowman play an organ; performers are currently limited to the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre and to a minimum of human interactions during their work.   This recital served as an illuminating witness of the Melbourne musician’s encounters with Western music’s father-figure, but such an experience only tells part of the story.    We can but hope that next time Bowman might be able to give us a fuller display of his remarkable insights, albeit from a well-sterilised church.

 

A long goodbye

SCHUBERT FROM BEYOND: THE LAST PIANO SONATA

Kristian Chong

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 3 at 6 pm

Chong

                                                                     Kristian Chong

For his recital program in this worthy and welcome series, young Australian veteran Chong put most of his interpretative eggs into a Schubertian basket, giving us a reading of the final B flat Sonata that came off successfully, chiefly because the pianist knew exactly what he was about, particularly in his reading of the lengthy opening Molto moderato.  You might have asked for a more relaxed slow movement or for less force exerted during the Scherzo; still, it’s a work that speaks to many people in different voices – Richter, Brendel, Curzon, Radu Lupu for me –  and its emotional breadth is so vast and flexible that it accommodates many readings.

To clear his throat, Chong began with two short pieces that have spoken to him across his career.   Siloti’s famous transcription down to B minor of the E minor Prelude from Book I of Bach’s 48  rose to its high point in bar 15 with careful attention given to delineating the alto line melody, as well as a supple diminuendo from the point where the arranger starts spelling out the specific spacing of his left hand arpeggios.   So far. so fine, if a terse entity without its simple 2-part fugue.

Chong has had notable success with certain works by Rachmaninov: the C minor and D minor Concertos, and the Paganini Rhapsody, as well as the Op. 32 Preludes, which he has made part of his public repertoire for at least a decade.   In particular, the pianist has a predilection for the B minor Prelude, No. 10 in the series.  From where the excitement ramps up in bars 18-19, this performance took on a fine authority with an authentic clangour to the weighty chain of thick chords in both hands, the peroration sinking quickly before the change of texture at Rachmaninov’s L’istesso tempo direction

Similarly, Chong’s subterranean fervour in the bars preceding the cadenza demonstrated his control of the prelude’s structure, tension coming from the inevitable progress towards a rhythmic dissolution as well as a brilliant variation of light and shade, tension and resolution, action and hiatus.   I could have done with more spikiness in the right hand during the cadenza where brisk separation brings some welcome glitter to the work’s overall sombre surface.   But the final reminiscence, in particular the last five bars, rounded off a formidable reading of this piece’s gloom-laden pageant.

Schubert’s final sonata has been appearing on Chong’s recital programs for about six or seven years; you can be quite sure that he knows what he’s doing with it.   Or. at least, he has an informed insight regarding its interpretative challenges.   The work has been over-stressed with insights that range from the incisive to the fanciful, this composer being subject to almost as much formulaic type-casting as Chopin; the creators of Lilac Time have  done Schubert as little service as the brainiacs who devised A Song to Remember, or Magic Fire, or Song Without End, or the truly execrable Song of Scheherazade,  But, while you can find some excuses for the cinematic/musical excesses of certain screen biographies of composers, Schubert has been sentimentalised to an extraordinary degree over the past century.

I remember Michael Easton giving a pre-recital talk for Musica Viva in the stalls foyer of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall and being almost physically assaulted by an elderly patron who was incensed at Easton’s observation that Schubert had contracted syphilis about six years before his death.   This tends to undermine the patina of refreshing wholesomeness that surrounds the composer of Who is Sylvia?, Hark, hark! the lark and Standchen.   But can the disease’s physical destruction be called on to explain the subterranean trill in bar 8 that recurs during the Molto moderato and represents . . . what?   The threat of mercury?  Or simply an intimation of mortality?

Whatever your view, this sonata is not so much a technical mine-field as a long-running test of coherence, presenting pages of long paragraphs as a continuum, rather than a juxtaposition of discrete segments which isn’t helped by a series of pauses/fermatas that punctuate the flow.    Chong’s outline of the opening movement’s exposition proved intelligent – a fine line walked between restraint and excitement, as in the gloves-off exhilaration of the move to F sharp minor at bar 48.    He let the tension sag around the interrogation marks at the bar 110 mark but – wonder of wonders – he then took the first ending and repeated the exposition: something I haven’t heard in years.

Through the development, you could not fault the performer’s drive, finding purpose in the triplet pattern and the build-up to calm waters at bar 173.   Even so, a few final quavers of the triplet pattern tended to disappear, not quite sounding or swamped by left hand action.   (As at a previous recital of this series, at this late stage I discovered that the A above Middle C was slightly off.)   At that pivotal bar 173, we could have done with more dynamic cut-back to signal the move to a D minor oasis.    But the escape into the recapitulation at bars 215-216 found just the right ambience of relief in two senses of the word – contrast and relaxation.   Further, Chong treated us to an especially gracious conclusion, the main theme’s final appearance and transformation an excellent passage, the concluding four chords eloquently placed and articulated.

We’ve grown used to quite slow second movements as even great interpreters tend to linger over phrase/sentence climaxes.   Chong centred more on the Andante direction than the sostenuto  –  quite acceptable, particularly if you want to avoid overdoing the pathos (if you think it’s there).    Matters proceeded very well up to bar 408 where the right-hand alto triplets could have been accounted for with less deliberation; here again, a few of these supporting notes went missing, possibly because of the rate at which Chong was going through them.   Nevertheless, the return to C sharp minor at bar 447 reinforced your realization of the pianist’s arching overview of the movement, with a sympathetic subtlety in the heart-stopping move to C Major 14 bars further along.   An avoidance of indulgence also obtained at the final key signature change which quite a few players treat as a Debussyan shimmer, but here you could admire the unabashed across-the-bar sustaining pedal work in this final section where the forward motion is blurred intentionally and the music aspires to a benevolent sonorous halo.

As for the Scherzo, Chong punched his way through it, slamming with unexpected ferocity into bar 530: those right-hand arpeggiated chords have rarely sounded so abrupt.   No troubles with the minor key Trio which asks for heavier-handed emphasis, but you’d expect more sparkle in the movement’s outer pages which are distinguished for their swift delicacy, not any inbuilt force.   In the finale, the interpretation mirrored the first movement in its consistency of attack, despite the more overt shifts in material treatment and abrupt punctuating breaks.   Chong’s handling of the syncopated left hand quavers between bars 220 and 235 appealed for its lack of jerkiness and made you look forward to the pattern’s three recurrences.    More pounding distracted for a while from bar 375 where both hands are well occupied but not necessarily competing.    Once again,  as with most other readings, the final 27 (28) presto bars were given pell-mell handling, sense sacrificed to speed.   Chong is by no means alone in taking this oddly gabbling approach but he might be better to focus less on excitement and more on clarity, especially with regard to pedalling.

In the end, an interpretation that impressed in its chief contours as it wove the composer’s extraordinarily open-ended melodic fabric across a substantial time-scale, gave a clearly thought-out narrative in three of its four movement-sections, maintained a firm technical command despite the work’s stamina-straining demands, and won you round to many unexpected configurations and expressive insights.

 

 

 

 

A flurry of flashy favourites

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Elyane Laussade

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 2 at 6 pm

elyanecopy

                                                                   Elyane Laussade

Another in the welcome series of socially distant recitals from Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s excellent initiative, this program brought back into play a good many well-known scraps from the piano literature.   Laussade’s aim was to offer an entertainment that demonstrated the two sides to her own situation of having both French and American parents.   So we enjoyed some Debussy, a Chaminade study and the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes; from the United States came a brace by Scott Joplin, a Zez Confrey bracket, and the piano solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

All these works were written inside a 45-year window, two studies standing at the temporal extremes; Chaminade’s Automne Concert Etude dates from around 1885 while Confrey’s atypical F sharp minor Concert Etude was written in 1929.   So it was a pretty closely circumscribed world that Laussade showed us, the two pivots of the hour coming in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and the always taxing Gershwin extended fusion – one of the few that actually works and standing tall among the composer’s happier inspirations.

Somewhere along the way, the program was changed.   Originally, Joplin was represented only by his Maple Street Rag; as matters turned out, we also got to enjoy The Easy Winners.   Likewise, Confrey’s etude was partnered with the jazz writer’s much better-known (and more representative) Dizzy Fingers.  To my disappointment, we lost Ravel’s Ondine, that inspired, lavish series of pianistic splashes; instead Laussade performed a very individual reading of the first (and most attractive) in the three-part sequence that constitutes the first set of Satie’s possibly Cretan-inspired meditations.

Chaminade’s well-known piece is not that hard to negotiate if you are gifted with a talent for emphasizing an internal melody line.   Its central Con fuoco section offers more challenges, even if the action dies out into a very conventional couple of cadenza bars before a return to the opening material.     Laussade’s attack was packed with rubato which fitted in with the work’s title, and it emphasized the attractive lyricism of the outer sections, although a plethora of pauses interrupted the piece’s fluidity near the opening of the F minor interlude.  This reading put poetry before drama – a wise decision, given the Frenchwoman’s by-the-numbers attempts at the latter.

Both Joplin pieces were treated with absolute determination, the Maple Street notable for its accurate, striding left hand assurance and a sensible dynamic alternation across some of the repeats.  Later, The Easy Winners gained much from Laussade’s sense of the music’s shape as she refrained from the customary devil-take-the-hindmost assault, interpolating a few hesitations to relieve the potential tedium of a steady four-quavers-per-bar octave bass line.

Nothing much to report of the Debussy pair.   This interpretation of Reflets dans l’eau came across as rhythmically four-square for most of its duration, the executant keeping more strictly in time than most other performers a kind reference to some notably sloppy readings from very big names.   Even the Quasi cadenza stretch between bars 20 and 35 made rhythmic sense – for once.    You might have preferred a lighter approach at the En animant in bar 44 but once again the following strophes were kept on leash rather than given over to a free-for-all.    The piece’s final page passed rather quickly; I suspect that bars 74 and 78 were rushed, but the concluding Lent could not have been bettered for its amplitude and delicacy of articulation.   The following La fille aux cheveux de lin delighted for its lack of self-indulgence: a sensible reading with some clever extension of marked pauses to give some tension to this unforgettable rural idyll; no curls here.

Confrey’s etude is a very competent arpeggio essay which works best if given at a consistent rate.   Laussade took plenty of liberties, interpolating pauses and ritardandi, but even then not quite secure in its negotiation.   Still, she struck through to the post-Czerny, post-Chopin core of these pages – a fully Romantic throwback written a full century after the etude’s actual vogue.   Much more entertainment came from one of Confrey’s greatest successes, Dizzy Fingers, which is a clear successor to the Joplin era and a catchy sample of amiable virtuosity asking for deftness and a moto perpetuo approach.   Laussade had no troubles with this bagatelle, even if she gave it more gravity than it deserved.

The Gnossiennes present a problem because you don’t know how seriously to regard them.   Laussade told us she considers this first one to be ‘dark’, a work ‘that truly represents what we may be feeling in this very difficult time’.   And that’s how she played it – without any quirkiness or laissez aller frivolity, finding an implacable tragedy in the acciaccatura-rich chorus that concludes each paragraph and giving the music plenty of space  –  what else should you do in a work where there are no bar-lines?   This approach gave – to me, at least –  a new view of this familiar piece, one that had always seemed curious, slightly simple-minded in its regularity.

Gershwin’s great rhapsody presents pianists with hefty challenges at every turn, the whole thing made more difficult in the version where accompaniment is absent and the player is left to carry a can full to overflowing.    Even the composer’s own recorded version makes for a wearing experience.  S till, Laussade made a brave start with a gentle, relaxed approach to the opening pages with only the slightest hitch at the first of the ossia bars.   The first and second bars that start with a triplet figure after the poco agitato direction sounded unfocused, improving as the pattern became more common.  Nevertheless, the rest of the piece’s first half proved to be well-considered and delivered with an insightful response to each episode – and God knows, there are a lot of them.

A few notes went missing in bars 34-36 after the tonality changes to G major but the ensuing fortissimo D flat explosion succeeded in rounding out this stomp with resounding success.   And the long ruminations on the Andantino moderato E Major tune made for a fine experience, the performer taking us fully into the composer’s calmly syncopated ambience that has its unmistakable echoes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.    A few errors cropped up in the shift to Agitato e misterioso when the left hand is asked to cross over; later, the post-left hand glissando bars sounded awkward and laboured, but these are among the hardest pages of this solo version where the executant is lumbered with both the orchestra’s carrying of the sparked-up melody and also the soloists’ syncopated decoration  in the second half of each 4-bar phrase.

Laussade put in two bars extra before bringing the right hand in for the Grandioso cakewalk, and these final pages brought us back full circle to Maple Street, thanks to Gershwin’s inspired braggadocio, here realized with drive and panache.   In fine, an elevating version of this masterpiece, which resounds with confidence and optimism as it hymns the Republic’s self-assurance – qualities that radiated loud and clear from this fine artist’s realization.