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.