CLARINET ADD STRINGS
Monday May 4, 2020
Here was one of the more interesting offerings in the Melbourne Digital series of broadcasts, which is currently working through a Faces of Our Orchestras series in which people we know well enough in a mass environment are abruptly yanked out of their customary cocoons and given the full spotlight treatment. These performers are mainly from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ranks with some musicians that we see very rarely (unless you have developed an unhealthy habit of peering into the Arts Centre’s State Theatre) from Orchestra Victoria. And you also see many pianists – Stefan Cassomenos, Leigh Harrold, Elyane Laussade, Rhodri Clarke – who have become well-known in their own rights or in partnerships with various chamber ensembles.
This evening hour (not quite)-long recital featured two works that put the MSO’s principal clarinet David Thomas front and centre: Mozart’s Quintet in A K. 581 – up there with the finest later outpourings from that impossibly fertile brain – and Prokofiev’s Op. 34 Overture on Hebrew Themes, written during a New York tour in the composer’s 28th year. The string quartet for Mozart’s score was formed from MSO members, the same players taking part in the Prokofiev with Elyane Laussade negotiating the stolid piano element. Thomas used first a basset clarinet, the instrument for which the quintet was written, then a normal B flat instrument for the 1919 composition.
Of the six performers on this occasion, I’d heard three in solo or chamber music situations: Thomas, usually in front of the MSO or lesser local bodies working his way through Mozart’s concerto; Laussade pretty much exclusively as a soloist although I have faint memories of a concerto appearance in one of the Myer Free concerts some time ago; and Matthew Tomkins during his solid stint as second violin with the Flinders String Quartet. Sergeant and de Korte have been in the MSO ranks for some years now but Tair Khisambeev moved into the ensemble pretty much at the same time as I transferred north.
The loss was mine because the ‘new’ violinist has a very attractive timbre, as well as a laudable responsiveness to this luminous score, effectively setting off Thomas’ line with his own clean, calm support. But much of the other string work in the first part of the quintet was not as carefully measured with a petty rough approach to dynamics from the three lower strings: their pianissimo proved to be a rugged creature ( bar 49), as did some individual brief exposures (e.g. the cello at bar 26). Mind you, improvements had somehow come about in the exposition’s repeat. Yet each felicity was balanced by a mishap, like the scatter-gun E Major chords that conclude the sonata form’s first part. The development’s final bar arpeggios came across as over-weighty. almost clumsy so that the final impression you had of this quintet’s first gambit was of roughness in the details.
After a moving start to the Larghetto, the ensemble generated some more rough handling in support of the first violin/clarinet answer-and-response interplay that constitutes this movement’s chief central interest. The group certainly adhered to the piano direction for the main melody’s reappearance; probably too much so – that habit of gilding the dynamic lily with a studied, low dynamic entry serves more as a distraction, an all-too-obvious sign of sensitivity. Much more satisfying was the following Menuetto which demonstrated that unforgettable Mozartian trait of combining elegance with near-predictability. A disappointment came in the Trio I where Khisambeev went for a small dose of rubato, with nobody else allowing him any leg-room but plodding onward in strict adherence to an inner metronome. Thomas enjoyed more success in Trio II, thanks to some available flexibility in several unaccompanied bars. I don’t mean to pick on de Korte but his top B in bar 107 stood out as this movement’s sore thumb.
Khisambeev and Tomkins showed excellent mutual sympathy throughout the theme statement that opens the finale, and the performance moved pleasantly enough through he first variation with its wide clarinet leaps, then the second one which was a display piece for Khisambeev’s sweet line, up through the Minore change with de Korte making a fine fist of his distinctive acciaccaturas. We swung happily enough into the burbling fourth and last variation during which Thomas may have missed a semiquaver but I didn’t catch it.
Then transmission stopped; I lost sound and the online picture froze right at the Adagio, bar 85. Back it all came after a break, only to disappear again. The final buoyant Allegro surged out, but only for a few bars.
De Korte gave an address of sorts before the expanded ensemble essayed Prokofiev’s short piece, but this prefatory talk too was interrupted. We rejoined proceedings some way into the work and it soon turned into a stop-start process, during which I discerned, through the appearance-disappearance nexus, an unhappy cello high G sharp at Rehearsal Number 20. But then, you just had to give up any hope of making sense of the piece: it was on and off all the way home.
A day or two later, Melbourne Digital made available a tape of the recital by way of compensation. I picked up things at the Mozart’s last-movement Adagio when the rot had initially set in. Things seemed to be going well when, all of a sudden, we had another stop, the music pausing for a black-out; mercifully, this time round, the performance resumed at the exact point at which it broke off. De Korte’s Prokofiev preamble was also disrupted but at least we heard it complete. You had enough time to settle into the Overture, Thomas slurring his phrases and doing a klezmer realization very deftly – then the interruptions resumed. I counted 13 of them. A lot, you’d have to admit.
It’s true that the work itself isn’t dependent on a flow-through effect building into lengthy paragraphs, like a Bruckner adagio. Prokofiev seems to have eschewed the possibilities of the folk-tune collection given to him as source material and found his own, the results of which are simple and straightforward, enough to lighten up a post-Seder party in any right-thinking kibbutz. But, even allowing for the reading being delivered in Reader’s Digest-sized clips, the experience was unnerving.
I’ve listened to and written reviews for six of these online recitals up to this one with every confidence in the delivery process but this Mozart/Prokofiev experience gives you cause for consideration. If you can’t rely on the transmission, what are you paying for? My wife tells me to come down to earth: these programs are to help the musicians involved in getting through some universally unhappy months: so what if there are defects in the delivery? Yes, that’s well and good – admirable and very true: Howlett, Schonhardt et al are providing an admirable avenue for local Melbourne performers to be heard and to get some remittance for their work – much, much more helpful than anything the federal government has put in place for artists. But these musicians need to be heard without disruption, with minimal distractions. Let’s hope the MDCH technicians can lift their game.