Working hard to make a program

James Crabb and Julian Smiles

Bendooley Estate, Berrima

Monday July 20, 2020

James Crabb

                                                                                 James Crabb

                                                                                Julian Smiles

For its bonus recital in the middle of a year that can politely be called ‘unsettled’, Musica Viva hit on a duet combination that you would be charitable to view as made in Heaven.  In fact, matching a cello with an accordion, no matter how classical, is a dangerous affair because the string instrument doesn’t have commensurate carrying power and, although it can quadruple stop, the cello also doesn’t have the ability to hit note clusters.  Put them together and you’re asking a good deal from the accordionist in terms of dynamic subtlety.

My only previous experience with James Crabb has been through his excursions with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with which body the Scottish musician has been a welcome guest, particularly in those years when Richard Tognetti and (some of) his ACO colleagues were engaged with the music of Astor Piazzolla, that Argentinian-born fecund source of encore material.   In fact, the relationship between Crabb and the Sydney players goes back to at least 2003 when the accordionist and pianist Benjamin Martin appeared as guest soloists on the CD Song of the Angel with members of the ACO.   If you like your tangos feisty to the point of violence, here you go.

Smiles is a more familiar figure in Australian concert and recital halls.   One of the originals in the Goldner String Quartet (what’s the point of writing that?  They’re all originals, staying together as a group since its establishment in 1995), he has also been heard as a guest in Kathryn Selby’s recital series, Selby & Friends, and for some years as principal cellist with the ACO.    Also to the point, he has enjoyed a long association with Musica Viva, as an educator as well as a Goldner.

On Monday evening, the duet played in a lavishly wooden space at the winery, looking to me like a sort of warm version of the Riddling Hall at the Yarra Valley’s Domaine Chandon where Musica Viva presented a brilliant series of mini-festivals for some years.  In democratic spirit, both artists took it in turns to address their audience, which process was remarkably free from the awkwardnesses and staginess of most procedures of this kind.   Unlike the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall practice, this recital had no program: you found out what you were going to hear just before the players set to work.   So Elena Kats-Chernin’s Slicked back Tango came on before you knew it was in the offing.

Luckily enough, this dance was based on an arrangement for cello and piano by the composer, one of eight versions she has put out; no wonder her works’ catalogue is so vast.   This wide-awake writer is familiar with all the tropes of the South American dance, giving the cello pretty much all the melody material with the accordion taking on the chordal/rhythmic responsibilities, Crabb considerate in letting his partner take up prominence.   It’s brief and lively, a pick-me-up like we had in the mid-20th century when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra used to whiz through Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture to open otherwise stolid concerts.

This short work was followed by a well-known cello solo: Bloch’s Prayer – first piece in the triptych From Jewish Life.   Once again, Crabb did piano duty although you missed quite a few bass notes; one moment they were there, then omitted in the next passage.  Smiles kept the right side of schmaltzy, except in the Più vivo of the last 7½ bars which was overdrawn, as was the over-loud accordion chord in the 4th-last bar.   But neither player treated the work as a chain of glottal stops, avoiding surges of loud and abrupt drops to soft, or imposing extended time for the melismata interruption near the end or for the chains of shared triplets.

At the heart of this recital came C. P. E. Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata in G minor H. 510, the most successful of the night’s collaborations in terms of sound colours.  Crabb impressed right from the beginning of the Allegro moderato, taking on his two cembalo lines with brisk vigour and giving each one equal weighting, especially welcome in his negotiation of Bach’s infectious ‘walking’ left-hand bass.   Both players performed with a mutually shared suppleness of rhythm without disturbing the work’s underpinning pulse.   Of course, they had top-notch material to work with; not just that safe-as-houses bass but also a wealth of melody intertwined with a fluency that delights at every turn.

In the C minor Larghetto, you had time to take in the work’s detail more easily, as in the delineation of all the original’s ornamentation.   While the players interwove their melodic work, you had even more leisure in which to appreciate Bach’s fertility, ideas thrown off with as much insouciance as in a mature Mozart piano concerto.   Smiles gave us a pointed and carefully shaped reading, Crabb keeping his potential swamping power well under control, most notably in the melting 6ths across the final 8 bars of this semi-siciliano.

A different sort of pleasure came in the concluding Allegro assai where Bach pulls some subtle rhythmic tricks across its length.   Crabb did a sterling job of realising the figured bass chords during the movement’s first 11 bars before his treble entered to compete with the viol/cello.   My only disappointment came with the executants’ decision not to repeat the second half of this segment of the sonata.

Having heard Bloch’s Prayer earlier, now we were treated to the other side of the religious coin in Saint-Saens’ Prière Op. 158, a product of his last years originally for cello and organ.   You could not fault the grace of expression in the opening section but the change to E flat soon saw an influx of religiosity, notably when the cello started on its triplets in bar 38.   A little later, the cello’s two-quaver pattern treatment veered towards the sentimental and the piece’s climactic point at bars 69-70 entered into the composer’s theatrical over-kill with enthusiasm; not to mention the reminiscence of Samson at bars 91-94 which sounds cheap in this context.   However, the problem with this reading came from the accordion’s texture which couldn’t avoid sounding very reed-heavy; to be expected, given the nature of the instrument.

Last scene of all was the inevitable Piazzolla; we’d had balancing prayers, so why not balancing tangos?    This was Le Grand Tango of 1982, the one written for Rostropovich who was unaccountably slow to come to the party and play it.  It’s a long piece, well over 10 minutes, and here gave evidence of a marriage of vision even if you might have liked more vim from the cello.   Nevertheless, both parties were consistent in their observance of the many incidental passing notes throughout.    Here, the nuevo tango is writ large with plenty of individual segments contributing to the whole.   At its core, it strikes me as concert music, not the sort of thing you can easily dance to unless you’ve been pre-choreographed – which, for all I know, may be essential to this new style.   But Smiles and Crabb gave as sensibly aggressive an account of this score as you could want with firm agreement on their attack, speeds and dynamic variation.

You could quibble that a cello is not strong enough to carry the burden of Le Grand Tango; that you need a violin to realise the dance’s inbuilt eroticism; that giving a melody to any bass instrument is dangerous when you have a bandoneon/accordion on the loose.    But, as in the Bach gamba sonata, Crabb observed the decencies: letting rip when he had the running, but maintaining a backing role when Smiles took up the Hauptstimme.   For such an odd combination, one where the members had no original music for cello and accordion in their rucksack, these artists delivered a near-hour’s worth of exemplary duo-playing.