A northern digital festival comes to town

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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.