Just a bit more, please

THE WANDERER

Jennifer Timmins and Leigh Harrold

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday June 25

 

                                                                  Jennifer Timmins

As promised, we wandered: from Bach, to a prospective co-Bubble composer in Gillian Whitehead, then across the larger ditch to Robert Muczynski, and home to Schubert.   All very pleasant and dexterously accomplished, as you would expect from two ex-luminaries from the Australian National Academy of Music who collaborated successfully during their time at that finishing school – a source of national pride for us all throughout its distinguished, if threatened, career.  In fact, when you’re faced with an abomination like The Voice, you should cherish ANAM all the more as a source of real musicians.

Timmins/Harrold’s Bach was the last sonata, BWV 1035 in E Major, which I’ve always found the most amiable and rewarding of the lot, even if most of the running is left to the flute.   Their opening Adagio came across with an unforced directness, if probably not as sweet (the unfriendly might say ‘mannered’) in timbre as other performances, chiefly due to Timmins’ spartan use of vibrato.   The following Allegro impressed for its sturdy reliability and a deft treatment in both instruments of some light ornamentation that sparks up a set of pages that speak with the forthrightness of Handel.

As usual, the Siciliano took pride of place for its floating placidity that rises to an unstressed high-point and sinks back to a resonant rest.   This was the most eloquent playing so far with a penetrating and unsentimental flute line that followed a steady, unfaltering path.   Apart from one note missing from the flute  in bar 36 of the Allegro assai (an unavoidable breath necessity), the sonata’s finale proved to be steady and painstakingly thorough, with Harold given the chance for the shortest of  solo exposures from bar 4 to bar 8.    Still, this was a reading that had little room to breathe because none of the repeats were observed; to those of us with some expectations, the result was close to half a performance.   As well, the whole experience impressed as oddly dated, a blast from the not-too-distant past when harpsichords and wood flutes were rarely heard in this country’s Bach renditions.

Whitehead’s Taurangi duet is etymologically intended to propose themes of the wanderer and/or an unsettled state.   At the time of composition (1999), the composer was engrossed with the struggle of East Timor, which was then enduring the last vicious ravages of the Indonesian occupation; her intention, I think, was to communicate the ethnic and political uncertainty at play across that country.    In some way, the piece is an occasional lament that is combined with a firm statement of conviction; what that is exactly is open to interpretation.   On its first page, sequences of repeated piano chords lead to flute cadenzas of brittle rapidity, before the piece settles on a juxtaposition of assertive declamation with urgent flute trills and breathy or overblown notes, some of the latter directed into the piano, although what effect was intended didn’t travel very far in this broadcast.

Timmins was also constrained to produce some multiphonic passages to add to her challenges but the core of the work is a set of antiphonal responses between the instruments that finally settles on a mournful atmospheric psalm with Harrold operating inside his instrument generating a series of rapid glissandi while the flute returned to its opening cadenza interpolations.   Whitehead’s array of production techniques concludes with further multiphonics and string glissandi while silently depressed piano chords produce some excellent nimbus effects.

Even though both players enjoyed a great deal of independence throughout Taurangi, they also had true duet passages of some intensity.   But the piece came alive when the interpreters were allowed to wander solo, giving voice to Whitehead’s suggestive sonorities that can be married to the  terrible last days before the Indonesian army and its local sympathizers were ejected from the newly-born country.   This night’s two executants also see in Whitehead’s score a certain relevance to the current world situation which each day confounds hopes for determination and resolution – which terms probably mean the same thing.

I enjoyed Robert Muczynski’s Op. 14 Flute Sonata of 1961 – one of the American composer’s most popular works – right through the first Allegro deciso with its bright Latin rhythmic assertions and interplay; at first suggestive of Gershwin in Cuban Overture phase, but then moving  into line with Villa-Lobos and that writer’s more harmonically aggressive constructs; the whole leading to a brisk, if not slick, conclusion.  The pleasure endured through the 6/8-with-interpolations Vivace, a kind of moto perpetuo shared between Timmins and Harrold with each player given individual breaks before joining up for  narrative propulsion.  This is both fanciful and cleverly constructed writing, performed with clarity and polish.

With the ‘slow movement’ Andante, the flute solo abruptly brought to mind Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata of 1943 which has a much shorter solo.   But just a touch was enough to present the similarity and, after that, the comparison wouldn’t go away: the same lyrical meandering set against insistent statements, although Muczynski crops his farewells, eschewing the Russian composer’s sentimentality.   The final Allegro con moto completes a fair haul of vivid, active movements to this construct.   Again, reminiscences of  the Russian composer emerge regularly, although there are none of the earlier work’s more poetic interludes.   Timmins accounted for a major central cadenza (in strict time) with enthusiasm,  Harrold bouncing through a jazz-inflected keyboard role before a tack-bright finish from both players in a fine display of synchronicity.

To finish this recital, the duo offered their own transcription of Der Neugierige from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin cycle.   It’s a superbly shaped song with just enough suggestive instrumental ambience in which to set the poet’s earnest questioning.  Timmins went for a pronounced vibrato here while Harrold burbled gently underneath.  I don’t know why it was included but it made for a refreshing sorbet after the preceding two works’ biting episodes.   In fact, we could have done with three or four of these transcriptions to flesh out a pretty under-length program which came in at about 45 minutes long.

 

 

 

A Rach pack

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PIANO AWARD 2018

Move Records MCD 586

                                                                            Oliver She

No Olympics this year: they’re deferred till 2021, in case you hadn’t heard, and enthusiasts are still as optimistic as the Japanese hosts showed right up to the  last moment this year.   And no Australian National Piano Award either – also put on hold.  Everything competitive  has been thrown out of sync, although it’s probably more important for the Olympics: that time-honoured four-year interval is shattered now  .  .  .  how are we going to be able to pick out our leap years so precisely any more?

Here is a CD that nobody seems to want to own, so I’m unsure about advising you where to get it.   The disc number shows that it belongs to the Move label; mastering and booklet layout are also attributed to Move, but Greater Shepparton appears to be the the real source and aegis for this product    Well, that town is where the competition takes place every two years, in the fine Eastbank Centre; thanks to the coronavirus infestation, the next competitions will occur in 2021, 2023 and 2025 which is how long the Shepparton Council has pledged its support so far.

I’ve only been to the competition twice, dropping in on the finals nights to see what the standard was like.   Quite a few musicians who have been successful here have made solid careers:  players like Clemens Leske Jr., Eidit Golder, Kristian Chong and Kenji Fujimura (joint winners in 2000), Anna Carson, Amir Farid, Jayson Gillham, Daniel de Borah, and Alex Raineri.   Well, these are the ones I’ve seen at work since their accession to ANPA greatness and this list represents a convincing number of hits to validate its strike rate.

On this CD, we hear from 2018’s first three place-getters.   The (to me) convincing winner, Oliver She, presents the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 in its 1931 revised version, then a sprightly Les collines d’Anacapri from the first book of Debussy’s Préludes.   Silver medallist Alexander Yau plays the fifth part of Granados’ Goyescas, El amor y la muerte, following up with Grunfeld’s Fledermaus paraphrase, Soiree de Vienne James Guan placed third and he presents three of Ravel’s Miroirs  –  Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso  –  leading to Chopin’s C minor Etude from the Op. 10 set and then Godowsky’s arrangement, transposed up a semitone, of this same work for left-hand alone.

I wasn’t in Shepparton for the 2018 competition; just a touch too far to drive back to Melbourne after the adjudication and one motel experience in that town was enough, thanks.   But it seems to me that, if any one work stood out from this disc guaranteed to determine who came out on top, it was She’s reading of the Rachmaninov sonata which is remarkably authoritative, both in handling its formidable technical hurdles and in realizing the composer’s emotional world.   In fact, this performance would stand comparison with several top-class recordings and assuredly has a persuasive edge when set alongside several other European and American competition winners who put this work forward as representative of their talents.

Throughout the first movement Allegro agitato, She shows a splendid  insight into the composer’s assertive energy combined with chromatic restlessness, leavened at specific moments, like the second subject statement, with plain-speaking diatonic hiatus points.  Added to this, She has that very welcome talent of highlighting the essentials in Rachmaninov’s multiple washes of peripheral action in both hands – which is extraordinary because, all too often, the left hand bass notes disappear in the wash.  Finally, in this part of the sonata, She shows an interpretative polish which allows him to linger over nocturne-like oases without disrupting the work’s urgency.

For the Lento second movement, She manages to walk that fine line that gives equal weight to a powerful inner drive and a self-contained melancholy.   You are treated to a patch of ringing strength at the movement’s centre where the melody line sits at tenor level while orderly ferment occupies the extremes, and again later when the action moves onto three staves and the eloquent spate concludes with a spiralling brief cadenza.   Finally, the last page reminiscence of the opening movement’s second subject and the placid E Major conclusion before the bridge into the finale which recycles the Lento‘s introduction are treated without emphasis, rising seamlessly out of the work’s construction with no hint of superimposition or conscious craft.

Rachmaninov’s finale is a tumult – a fine case where the Emperor Joseph II’s complaint about too many notes might be appropriate.   She bounds through its 5-minute length with impressive command of its histrionics and without slackening to regroup his forces; the quaver/dotted minim motif permeating every reach of this segment.  The executant’s security came across most obviously in passages like the fifth bar of the Meno mosso where the requirement to interpolate four chords in octavo, interrupting the surging action down below, is exciting if unreasonable..  Then the Presto conclusion is a technical triumph, notably of the triplets that take over before a concerto-reminiscent final seven bars of maximum grandeur, carried out here with headstrong elan.

The following Anacaprese excursion is determinedly bright, despite one particular section where the sustaining pedal is over-used.   Here also, She keeps this miniature on the move with plenty of scintillating rushes, although I was very taken by his dynamic balance at bar 21 where the melodic work shifts to the left hand.   And he brings the piece to a  finely insistent conclusion; the hills are sparkling in this vision, not the haze-shrouded outcrops they are today.   When it’s over, you’re pressed back to memories of full performances of Book 1 of the Préludes and how welcome this gem is, given its surroundings, and this reading often catches the exuberant, carefree quality that inspired the composer.

Yau’s exposition of the Granados balata shows  a clear understanding of the piece’s progress towards a sombre conclusion with the young man’s death; the climactic points are eloquently realized, each outbreak of eloquence is given full play, and the figuration comes over with a certain amount of colouring.   This interpretation has some brilliant moments, like the tempo tranquillo starting at bar 37, continuing through the melting modulations of the fandango at bar 45, up to the tautness of the octave interplay at the non tanto allegro direction.   Further along, Yau’s integration of the mordents starting at bar 73 demonstrates his subtlety of interpretation, the melodic lily remaining ungilded.

Probably the chief defect of this reading is an occasional one, points where the fioriture is delivered neatly enough but sticks out from the narrative.  To Yau’s credit, his articulation is pretty lucid, apart from a tendency to muffle bass notes, but he is unable to integrate odd moments like the lento at bar 67 and the following two measures with the lyrical episodes that precede and follow.   Yes, these are isolated bravura moments but they have a functionality that escapes me here; much the same comes later at bar 131 where the technique is excellently able but the passage itself seems aimless; mind you, that might be Granados’ fault, but I don’t think so  –  it’s more a question of finding what needs to be emphasized and how to make he passage appear consequential, with an accent on the ‘sequential’.

For all that, Yau gives us the most impressive technical exhibition of the CD with his Strauss paraphrase.   This heady display of vaulting leaps, rapid scale passages and integration of separate melodies is a delight to hear realised with such buoyancy and an excellent awareness of how to make such a flashy piece work, obvious in Yau’s well-placed hesitations and his almost-perfect chord placements.   Even if you’re not that sympathetic to the Strauss waltz vogue – and I’m not enamoured of it – this is intelligent virtuosity and a cleverly judged postscript to the Granados work.

Taking on the central three pieces that make up Ravel’s 5-part suite, Guan fits right in with his colleagues by owning a splendid technical apparatus, well-exercised in each of these extracts.   His Oiseaux tristes succeeds on all fronts with some glittering passing notes in bars 15 and 16 and a finely muffled presque ad lib cadenza; the whole a generous reading of this brilliantly compressed vignette where everything counts.  It’s not hard to praise the fluidity of the following Une barque sur l’océan where the executant’s negotiation of those endless arpeggios in both hands impresses considerably, even as he strives to keep them in time  –  a hopeless task, it seems to me  –  until the inevitable explosion in bar 101 where both hands indulge in a violent juxtaposition of 4 against 3, triple forte, before the piece sinks away (at length) before reaching port.  This work has its longueurs – bars 80 to 95 an example, where the action wallows – but Guan treats it all with suitable agility or deliberation.   His Alborada del gracioso strikes me as hyper-metallic in the guitar-imitating moments; I know its a percussion instrument but its prime appearances – starting at bar 43 and persisting right through to bar 57, then picking up again in bar 174 – come across as hectic.   And a more expansive brilliance might have come about if Ravel’s  high-stepping climacteric starting at bar 219 had been pronounced with a less frantic attack.

Guan follows up with the Chopin Revolutionary Study and the Godowsky transposition. Both are given powerful readings and you  can find a bridled ferocity in the original that takes you back a few generations when pianists were just as desirous as Guan of unleashing big splashes of sound with a hefty use of the sustaining pedal;  these days, the players I hear put their emphasis on left-hand lucidity at the expense of drama.  Mind you, I would have welcomed a greater pulling-back towards the end, and a real rallentando at bar 80, if not starting one three bars before.   And the real crisis at bar 37 might have gained by more carefully weighted preparation.  As for following up with the Godowsky, such a move probably proved to be an unlucky choice with the judges.   It’s a mighty test, even if Chopin has already set his own, but its necessary shortcomings –  like the absence of powerful chords and an inbuilt distraction from the main melody  –  make it a curiosity rather than a compositional entity.

For all that, the competition for 2018 brought to our attention three confident musicians, all well worth attention.   I’ve given up being astonished by sheer executive skill in young performers; rather, what I look for is insight, the ability to see the direction and potential of a statement as part of the whole construct.  You found this throughout She’s Rachmaninov sonata, fitfully during Yau’s Granados and more obviously in his Strauss frolic,, and again in the first and second of Guan’s Ravel excerpts.

As I’ve pointed out above, I don’t know where you can obtain this disc – despite its Move identifier, it’s not to be found on the company’s website.   I suspect Shepparton Council might be a fruitful place to make initial inquiries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A northern digital festival comes to town

READS

Alex Raineri

2020  Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday June 6

                                                                  Alex Raineri  

Now the North has its own smaller-scale equivalent of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, thanks to Alex Raineri: artistic director of, comptroller for and performer in this year’s Brisbane Music Festival, of which this recital was the opening gambit.   Rather than throwing hands up in the air and abandoning plans for anything at all, Raineri and his associate artists and support team have resolved to mount a set of digital events, one a fortnight, to keep the flame burning: you will have a festival, Cinderella.

Putting himself forward as a pace-setter, the young pianist presented a program in three parts.   He began with Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, a work that he performed fairly recently; moved to some Australian works, including a Kate Moore semi-premiere and three sparkling Grainger folk-song arrangements; wound up a full hour-plus night with Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on the  Overture to Tannhäuser by Wagner.

The opening Debussy quartet of pieces obviously occupies a prime place in this pianist’s affections; he performed it in the last Brisbane Festival, almost 6 months to the day since – on December 13 at the Old Museum in Bowen Hills.   At that time, it struck me as enjoying a solidly Romantic interpretation with plenty of sustained sound clouds, both white and black.   And what would you expect?    Not much has changed.   Raineri allows himself a lot of room in the Prélude, but then the sub-textual direction in my edition is tempo rubato, so he’s quite justified in taking his time.   Still, some of the left-hand arpeggiated chords were very languid, although he gave the impression of being quite capable of playing some 10th stretches straight.   This effort concluded with an excellent reading of the movement’s last nine bars, including a deft incorporation of that sextuplet mordent squiggle preceding the second-last chord.

As with the Prélude, Raineri suited himself with regard to tempo in the Menuet.  But he kept pretty firmly in time when the texture turned Brahmsian at bar 22 and the harmonic slips became a touch more glutinous than usual.   Continuing the Brahms influence, Raineri’s sustaining pedal enjoyed some more overwork at those textural breaks with descending right hand F major and E flat Major scales, and the 7-bar break into a key-signatured E flat came over as unexpectedly heavy in emphasis.   However, much of this weighty atmosphere dissipated in a finely-judged build-up and diminuendo to the magical reversion into A minor at the work’s end, including an unfussed, natural-sounding glissando.

A few details marred the opening of Clair de lune, like a maladjusted chord or two where the inner part enjoyed unnecessary prominence.   Fortunately, Raineri found a fine vein of idiomatic ardour for the middle un poco mosso segment, even if I thought he wound down his En animant too quickly, rather than hurtling into the consolatory Calmato page.  A few oddities emerged at the end also, like the sustained final element of the triplet at bar 59, counterbalanced by a fine murmuring delivery of the morendo jusqu’à la fin passage.

Finally, the Passepied failed to impress as strongly as it had last year with some notes missing in the left hand at the piece’s start and, if one of these pieces is going to suffer from a lack of crispness, this is it.    As well, the dynamic gradations sounded as though they were operating on a ramped-up level, where piano, pianissimo and triple piano were not that far apart in scale.   For all that, Raineri reached a welcome well-enunciated delicacy further into the score that only improved as the work wound down.

Kate Moore’s Meuse exists in two forms, according to Raineri’s introductory comments. An abridged form was premiered at last year’s Brisbane Music Festival, for which it was commissioned in a Bloodpaths exercise involving many Australian composers.   This was the first outing of the extended piece and Raineri gave it every consideration.  The composer proposes her work as a celebration of the Maas River which is primarily known to most Australians as recalling the Meuse-Argonne Campaign in the later months of 1918.

For Moore, the river connects or offers a parallel with her family tree and she wrote this piece on retreat in a convent beside the river.   Its process chiefly consists of alternating left and right hand notes, the sustaining pedal softening any percussive suggestions; a kind of cushioned pointillism that follows a tonal path, any narrative shifts coming through crescendi and decrescendi.  Sometimes a two- or three-note sequence is given to one of the hands but I must confess that my chief point of interest lay in trying to decipher whether Moore was working in a flat or sharp minor key; it was impossible to work out because the delay between what Raineri was visibly playing and the actual sound was so great.    It’s a long river – 925 kilometres – and Moore takes us well along its way.

Something of a relief to turn from Moore’s lengthy two-part invention to that other expatriate, Grainger.   In this trio, Raineri impressed mightily for his mastery of the composer’s headstrong musical character.  In all that running around for Molly on the Shore, I could only find one questionable melody-line insecurity at around bar 160-1, but the interpretation was head-long secure and splendidly in sync with the aggressive Grainger mode, while you heard some excellent individual strokes as the dance reeled past, like the biting exhilaration at the bar 118 fortissimo explosion.

The Irish Tune tests the executant’s powers at delineating an inner part and Raineri did fine service, bringing out the tenor-level melody in the first stanza with due regard for the composer’s ‘little’notes that enfold it.   Here was a sympathetic and mobile treatment of a well-loved lyric, flawed only by an error somewhere in the climactic triple forte chord four bars from the end, but giving us satisfaction with an unfussy delineation of Grainger’;s brilliant harmonization.   As far as I could hear, Raineri didn’t substitute any of Grainger’s ossia right hand possibilities for Country Gardens and, in every respect, this was an excellent piece of playing with a clear relish for those full-bodied chords, the infectious and constantly fore-fronted melody line ringing very clear, and that original characteristic that you can hear in the composer’s own recordings where he  bounds through his own music as though he can’t wait to show you what’s coming up.  Obviously, I enjoyed this group of three very much, which is more than I can say for most Grainger piano performances I’ve endured since the Grand Old Man’s re-discovery in the latter part of the last century.

Liszt’s version of the Tannhäuser Overture is almost a transcription, as far as I can remember the orchestral score.   Here, we enter the land of anything-goes pianism with extreme demands made on any musician determined to handle its ordeals which aren’t just confined to getting the notes out, but doing so in something close to a regular metre and vaulting across the keyboard while trying to do so.   Raineri gave a most exciting interpretation of this monsterwork from its sombre opening to its clangour-filled last flourishes.    Almost from the start, I was ready to go on this challenging journey when the performer easily handled those violin-imitating incomplete-triplet descending scales that emerge when Wagner eventually gets around to restating his initial chorale.  And it goes on for bar after bar!

Mind you, the fun doesn’t really start until the Allegro scenery changes to Venusberg where Liszt’s re-imagining becomes more imaginative and virtuosic with a remarkable realization of the scene in the Court of Love until a triple-octave precipitato leads to Tannhäuser’s Dir töne Lob outburst and the party really begins, the ferment uniting with the chorale in a roiling set of arpeggios and scales that ask for great reserves of stamina and a complete assurance of direction along with a near-perfect strike-rate in handling rapid-fire passage work and massive chord clusters.   Raineri met all these problems with an admirable command and a sense for the path of this overture that made me suspect that he knew it in its orchestral form, realizing what he had to do to get the right sounds in their appropriate places.

You wouldn’t want to make it your daily fare but hearing such a mighty transliteration,  given with this degree of skill and awareness, gave us a true festival gift.  Thanks to such a strong bid from the director, this whole exercise is off to a start that has now roused pretty high expectations.