Making a fair fist of closed borders

BOHEMIAN SPIRIT

Lachlan Bramble, Ewen Bramble & Anna Goldsworthy

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday August 27

                                                              Lachlan Bramble

You’d have to assume that the third member of the Benaud Trio, Amir Farid, is still locked down in Melbourne along with the rest of the city’s denizens, and that there’s no way legal that he was going to get across to Adelaide to join up with his colleagues, the Bramble brothers, for this Passport Festival recital, one of four mounted by the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.   A worthy substitution came in Adelaide-born Anna Goldsworthy who, it would appear, is home for the duration, labouring like the rest of her state under the all-protective aegis of Steven Marshall.   Among her many accomplishments, Goldsworthy is pianist for Melbourne’s Seraphim Trio, so she knows her way round the repertoire, in particular the two popular works that made up Thursday night’s program:  Haydn XV/25 in G Major, the Gypsy Rondo gem; and Smetana’s Op. 15 in G minor which stands among the Czech composer’s most self-revelatory creations.

This night marked the first night that any of these musicians had been enlisted into the MDCH ranks.   Violinist Lachlan Bramble I’ve heard pretty much exclusively at Benaud Trio recitals, and there have been quite a lot of them as the ensemble was formed in 2005.   He’s currently Associate Principal 2nd Violin with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.   In similar fashion, I know his brother Ewen’s cello through the same source; he is also an Associate Principal at the ASO.    Goldsworthy has been pretty much exclusively a chamber music personality for me; I’ve been listening to the Seraphims for 20 years.  Sadly,  any further experiences with both groups will probably be reduced to nil; not just because of COVID-19, which might eventually have an ending, but also because I believe that neither ensemble comes to Brisbane as a regular thing.

Anyway, off they went on their Haydn tour with excellent communality of phrasing and a finely-contoured correspondence between piano and violin in the theme statement – a delectable experience with its irregular sentence halves.   You might have expected more reserve from Goldsworthy in the four bars concluding Variation 2, her colleagues overwhelmed at this point.   Apart from a slight piano slip half-way through the piano-dominated final variation, the only question mark came with the slow pace chosen for the movement’s final bar which would have gained more by being kept a tempo.

Lachlan Bramble span a fine solo in bar 17 of the central Poco adagio, placed deftly into position without requiring any self-promotion.   Surprisingly, given their telling collaboration in the opening Andante, Goldsworthy and Lachlan Bramble sounded uneasy in the 8-bar doubling at Letter G on the movement’s last page; still, the piano-to-pianissimo  resolution of absolutely no tension at the close proved more than satisfyingly clean in delivery.    Not much to report about the finale where Goldsworthy mad very few errors in a pell-mell set of pages.  The group took the option of slowing down at minor key intrusions, but showed quite happy to fly past in a persuasive display of enthusiasm for these infectious pages.

Next, a switch to another kind of Bohemia and Lachlan Bramble’s violin led us into the fierce and determined score composed by Smetana on the untimely death of his favourite daughter.   You can hear what you like here, although you’d be working hard to ignore the mourning strophes in both outer movements as well as the strong railing against life’s unfairness during some powerful outbursts in the opening Moderato assai.  Mind you, the delivery of that opening 7-bar solo came across as craggy and expletive-packed; not just a sorrowful narrative, then, but a pugnacious one.   And when the ferment rose, these players gave of their best, notably the Più animato from bar 66 to a climactic point at bar 92, and later a gripping strepitoso passage leading to bar 160.

Another fine, if brief, passage came from Ewen Bramble’s exposure starting at bar 204: a powerful presence in a dark, piano-heavy environment just before another urgent outburst.   Not that you’d belittle the ensemble’s handling of the gentler passages in this movement, but its output made points more tellingly in the pages of maximum excitement and dynamic power.   Lachlan Bramble’s solo between bars 100 and 106 proved unsteady on the top B flats but his octave duet with brother Ewen’s cello between bars 147 and 172 gave an excellent instance of pressure under piano fire.

Another example of straining in the violin line emerged from nowhere in the chameleonic second movement Allegro/Alternativo 1/Allegro/Alternativo 2/Tempo 1; the violin sets the running here, leading to three high Es – nothing sensationally high, but just a tad ‘off’ on this occasion.   Later, at Smetana’s revisiting of his opening material, you could not fault the octave parallel performance between bars 137 and 145, then later between bars 155 and 162.   Even better was to come in the Maestoso pages, where I thought the interpretation was close to ideal for dynamic thrust and a shared awareness of what everybody was doing.   Only an imbalanced pizzicato 5th from the cello in the movement’s penultimate bar marred the surface of a final, subdued recall of the opening page.

Another helter-skelter finale, with an exact rendition from Goldsworthy of the three-against-two rhythmic contest that gives this movement a great deal of its energetic interest.  Both strings followed the pianist’s lead in outlining a dramatic soundscape, distinguished by a reliable precision in melodic delineation and in the many small interjections that emerge from their lines.   Contradicting my observations about the first movement, the group’s account of the first Meno presto interlude worked very well, the highlighting of all players sustained in eloquence and exhibiting three individual voices.

A near thing came at bar 330 where the strings almost missed their first beat reinforcement of Goldsworthy’s upward rush.   But, against a minor flaw like that, you can set a compelling account of the final pages where Smetana fuses his resignation and bleak desolation in a propulsion to one of the least comforting major tonality conclusions in Romantic musical literature,  carried off with a deliberately unpolished panache.  

This combination of exhilaration and despair capped off a night of compromise, in some ways.    The musicians showed no signs of discomfort, but would you seriously expect it?  They’re all solid professionals, well-versed in piano trio practices; each of them would know these two works from many years of program preparation and public performance.  As a minor benefit, the group was operating in optimal  conditions, i. e. without facing a live audience with the concomitant problems of distraction by way of coughing, shuffling, whispering, sleeping, snoring – all those timeless forms of anti-social conduct with which I’ve become too familiar over the years, if never guilty of any.

However, you missed Amir Farid’s Bramble-balancing elegance, just as much as Helen Ayres’ crispness and Timothy Nankervis’ exuberance.   Or perhaps I was mentally wallowing, bringing to mind past experiences of music-making by Thursday evening’s musicians, attempting to slot them into their usual positions and ambiences.   

If we’ve learned anything from the past 6 months, it’s how to be grateful for musical mercies, great and small.   This night was an example of how the MDCH carries out its principal benefaction of bringing us the music we love (much of the time) in performances that may not be ideal but can occasionally verge on excellence.

 

 

 

A blessing, lullabies and a prayer

KARIN SCHAUPP

Musica Viva

Saturday August 22

                                                                 Karin Schaupp

‘Schaupp has been a stalwart of this country’s guitar world for close to 40 years: in her own right as a soloist, as a concerto performer with state orchestras, and as a collaborator with musicians like Umberto Clerici and the Flinders Quartet.   On Saturday evening, she presented this no-frills recital from her home with nobody else but a recording technician in the room with her.   Great to see that Musica Viva has embraced the new model of mounting spartan events: one performer providing her own space and not playing too much in case of mental overload in a time of musical famine.

Schaupp’s choice of diet spanned a wide time range, opening with a brace of Scarlatti sonatas and taking in some modern classics of the guitar repertoire, with a side-step to Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Suspended in a Sunbeam, written for this performer last year.    Of course, some of these pieces have become familiar from the artist’s CDs: Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata K. 208 (L. 238), Brahms’ Wiegenlied and Llobet’s El Noy de la Mare (the lullabies), Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Barrios, and Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.   These date from at least a decade ago in Schaupp’s recording career; apart from the freshly-minted Charlton piece, the program’s other unrecorded works came as no surprise:  the BWV 1000 Fugue in A minor for lute by Bach, and an extra Scarlatti sonata, K 322 (L. 483), which was more successful as a guitar transcription than the other sonata by this composer performed here.

After a Musica Viva-lauding address by a ‘suit’ whom I didn’t recognize, being distracted by negotiating volume and access to scores,  Schaupp began operations with one of those remembrances or salutes to indigenous land rights – a gesture that has quickly become a behavioural cliché which could even be well-intentioned but which never fails to annoy because of its tokenism.   Remember those sad white people in Clifton Hill who put plaques on their houses noting that their lots really belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, only to have some Aboriginal people knocking on doors and laying claim to those boastful houses?   They were invited in for cups of tea, which says all you need to know about the depth of such acknowledgements.

Both the Scarlatti works were arranged by Schaupp herself and the ‘Adagio e cantabile‘ K. 208 made for an amiable opening with both repeats observed.   My only quibble was the avoiding of the 5-note chord that ends bar 13; well, not so much an avoiding but an impossibility, given the instrument’s low operating level at that point.  The faster K. 322 is better-known among keyboard players and is gifted with one of those trademark Scarlatti passages of courtly play from bar 36 to the half-way point, and again from bar 73 to the end; the harmonic transparency at these points came over with particularly gratifying clarity in Schaupp’s interpretation

Are you uncertain about the provenance of Bach’s works for lute?  Join the club.  Before the Early Music Brigade got under way, Segovia cruelled the authenticists’ pitch by transposing, transcribing and transliterating a good deal of Bach’s music.   He didn’t leave Scarlatti untouched either, making a popularly-used guitar version of the L. 483, the second of Schaupp’s offerings.

The G minor Fugue, well-known in a violin version, is taken up a tone by most guitarists, I believe; Bach might have moved it himself, for all I know.   Schaupp played a pretty clean reading with some passing glitches in bars 44 and 47 but with an otherwise sustained accuracy, reaching a well-prepared climactic point at bar 59 and onward, then realising the smothered tension of the suspensions in bars 93 and 94 before the sudden near-cadenza in the penultimate measure.   Here was a measured interpretation without imposed theatrics or a resonance-besotted bass line; rather, the lines were delivered with balance and dynamic control.

Schaupp’s husband, Giac Giacomantonio, arranged the Brahms piece for her and expanded the song to three verses.   No surprises here, even if the piano accompaniment’s slight syncopations  did not appear to survive the move.   With the arrival of its companion piece by Llobet, we entered the realm of straight guitar music, this work and what followed all original compositions.   Not that there is much more to the Spanish composer’s Catalan folk-song arrangement than there is to the Brahms lied: one page divided into two halves, one work in 6/8 and the other in 3/4, both placid in emotion (as you’d expect).    It was hard to determine why Schaupp seemed so anxious to get off the final D of bar 6, or why the lower notes of the thirds that end bar 5 didn’t resonate.   But then, I didn’t register whether or not they appeared at the bar 7 repetition.   A simple piece, but a pleasure to come across something which takes into account the instrument’s potential for colour and chord spacing.

With Brouwer’s two-movement Elogio, Schaupp jumped into a contemporary stream; even though the work dates from 1964, the Cuban composer speaks an adventurous language which takes dissonances in its stride. at odd points verging on twelve-tone writing although pedal points and the first movement’s Major 7th characteristic argues for a tendency towards a tonal centre.   The executant employed plenty of rubato in the opening Lento, which is a kind of tribute to dance in its juxtaposed flashes of motion and near-stasis, the whole comprising a mobile core surrounded by pairs of ten bars showing relative quiescence. 

Brouwer’s second movement obstinato deals, like the first, in gruppetti, but here much more aggressively.   The entire movement hurtles forward, notably in the central Vivace in 2/4 which reaches a climax in a vehement repeated rasgueado chord before returning to the rapid, metre-changing material that began the movement, followed by a vivace coda. Schaupp displayed an excellent command of this demanding work, at ease with its many  jumps in emotional and technical content, building an impressive structure in each movement while showing no hesitation in vaulting between Brouwer’s juxtapositions of the frenetic with one-line meditation.

Charlton’s work takes its inspiration from a 1994 Carl Sagan speech about the Earth and its position in the cosmos.   The Australian composer subtitles his piece Thoughts on the ‘Pale Blue Dot, as photographed by Voyager 1, and he interpolates in the music a text of his own composition with two brief Sagan excerpts.   Charlton gives his performer (guitarist and speaker in one, preferably, as here) leeway to pronounce the words over pauses or repeated patterns; Schaupp, the work’s dedicatee and commissioner, showed a reassuring ease with the score.   A good deal of its progress is spasmodic, the accompaniment to the text tersely episodic but hard to take in because the words get in the way.  Charlton inserts two passages where the speaking stops and the musical content presents as more sequential and lyrical.    You come across some moving passages, as when the composer returns to lyricism after the speaker comments on the ‘cosmic dark’ of our universe, and at the work’s end where the last chords present an affirmation of our small-scale existence on the rim of infinity.

Barrios’ tremolo study seems to be a rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist but it has an underlying sweetness of melody that complements the middle fingers’ exercise work.  I liked Schaupp’s interpretation which gave a necessary stress to the middle-range arpeggios – the tune, if you like – rather than belting out the bass dotted minims that open nearly every bar, or over-emphasizing the efficiency of her top tremolo.   Mind you, she had given us her view of the work in a prefatory talk, finding a ‘prayer’ in this music.  Which may well be the case, if only for the consolatory turn to E Major at bar 56 and he ‘Amen’ coda at bar 72.   Certainly, it brought this brief recital to a satisfying conclusion: rounding out a trip from the firm benediction of a brilliantly constructed fugue to the touching vision of an old woman asking for alms  –  all too relevant a backdrop to this year of disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opera writ small

EVA

Eva Kong and Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 15     

                                                                       Eva Kong

This was the second of two recitals I intended to review over last weekend.   The first, a Friday night exercise from Sydney with flautist Sally Walker and pianist Simon Tedeschi, comprised a bevy of (mainly) French pieces.   But my account with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall asked for a new password, then refused to accept anything I proposed and, by the time an MDCH technician got back to me (after an assuring message that the company was ‘on the case’), the recital had already started.   No recommendations, then, for Cloudmix who somehow stuffed up a connection that has lasted since the beginning of the Melbourne series; so much for trying to help Australian musicians through this organization.

No such difficulty with the Brisbane Festival; just a pity that this body can only offer one recital a fortnight.  The latest featured Korean-born soprano Kong who is better known for her opera appearances, particularly as Chiang Ch’ing in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which a large number of US critics have been trying to place in the realm of masterpieces since its premiere.   Raineri provided the piano accompaniments – as usual, with splendid command over, and sympathy with, a wide-ranging program.   Further, for one particular piece the soprano/piano ensemble was joined by two cellists: Oliver Scott and Shuhei Lawson.

Wong and Raineri opted to start with the first of Poulenc’s Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, the elliptically-titled C.   It made for a sombre opening gambit; despite its several shafts of illuminating imagery, the song indulges in no fanciful word-painting   Its vocal line moves simply with an early high note but the main impression is of grief at the loss of France to the German invader – yet again.   Kong’s treatment proved more confrontational than usual; maybe this was because of cramped studio conditions in which her dynamic sounded aggressive, or perhaps her view of the work has uncovered a vein of defiance, a sort of determined regret.   Whatever the case, C made a no-nonsense start for the soprano.

Another chanson followed with Debussy’s early Mallarmé setting, Apparition.   Here, Kong found a better place to exercise her talent for dramatic declamation, notably at the outbursts for a key signature change to G flat at C’était le jour béni and at the work’s climax on the repeat of apparue at bar 38.   Both performers interpolated a ritardando at the end of bar 8, possibly to celebrate the end of Debussy’s flirtation with B flat and A flat; Kong inserted a phrase-breaking breath or two – one I seem to recall breaking up ton premier baiser.   But the soprano’s accuracy in this work’s chromatic slips could not be faulted and the collaboration across the final page’s snow imagery was exceptionally restrained in its eloquence.

Kong then gave us the first of her three operatic arias with Obéissons quand leur voix appelle from Act 3 of Massenet’s Manon, although I believe she started well back with Est-ce vrai?, followed by Je marche sur tous les chemins.    All of this was possibly included to give us a slab of solo work before the main aria, which actually involves the chorus; Raineri’s piano substituted for the opera’s jeunes gens who comment so supportively on the heroine’s call to hedonistic arms.   Here was a more comfortable piece for Kong who infused its pages with plenty of twinkling personality for a scene fragment that ideally depicts Manon at this stage of her career.    And, when the gavotte proper began, the soprano showed herself very convincing in dealing with the direct nature of her line, even if things didn’t seem to gel in the last two bars; hard to tell what went amiss, but the effect was of uncertainty.

Kong then introduced us to some Korean songs: Youngsub Choi’s Memory and a setting of Psalm 23 by Woon Young Na.  In the first of these, the compositional language was Romantic with a Rachmaninovian turn, notable only for a repeated piano figure.  Was this originally a folk-song?    The text is by an unknown author but reads like an extended haiku.   Whatever the case, Choi’s required vocal range is demanding, as are some interpolated ornamental notes.    The prevailing mood was melancholy, mainly because the pace was slow and the minor scale/mode dominated. 

Kong told us in a prefatory address that the Church had affected Korean music, an observation well borne out by the psalm setting which proved to be slightly less lush than the previous song and more suggestive of Celtic tunes; in fact, it could have been one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean settings.  This piece was delivered with great zeal and determination, rising to a powerful high point (‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or ‘cup is overflowing’ ?); by contrast, the piano accompaniment was notable for a harmonically static bass across much of the work’s progress.

In came the two cellos to help with the aria from the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 in a Raineri arrangement which at the start had the two strings playing lines 3 and 4 of the original 8-part instrumentation.   In these operating conditions, Kong took the dominant role and never let go.    During Ruth V Corrêa’s poem in the middle of the vocalises, the cellos switched to the original’s top lines while the soprano gave an ardent account of the text, taking her time at each of the pause markings.   Raineri assumed the cello lines 5 and 6 from bar 51, as well as sustaining the piece’s two bass lines, as he had throughout.  It all made sense, even if you missed the mild texture of the original scoring in the central pages and the onward-pushing pizzicati of the outer segments.  The piece could also have gained from longer sustained A and C minims at the last chord.

Well-positioned after the Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise brought the night back to an even keel.   Kong seemed unable to operate at a soft level in this work, something that is pretty vital for the first seven bars as well as the final eight.   But she found the appropriate taut plangency for the piece’s central pages from bars 18 to 30 where the emotional; level is heightened.   

Opera extract No. 3 turned out to be Roxane’s lullaby, Usnijcie krwawe, from Act 2 of Szymanowski’s King Roger, the only real chance in the opera where the king’s wife gets to say something at length; even then, she’s interrupted by Roger, Edrisi and the chorus.  Kong made an excellent display of control in the long melismatic vocalising at the aria’s start; once into the text, she produced a dramatically heightened reading of this extract, quite right when you consider the theatrical circumstances of its delivery.  Still, the output tended to the monochrome in expressiveness despite the emotional shift when the composer’s tonality definitely shifts from its modal minor to the major. 

Speaking of modes, Raineri took the opportunity for a solo before Kong’s big finale which had relevance to what came before it and what came after.    John Adams’ short China Gates uses modes as its fundamental material and is a fairly fluid sample of what used to be called minimalism before concerned composers got distressed by such a dismissive catch-all descriptor.   The pianist demonstrated a persuasive fluency in his outlining, although the changes between sections sounded more overt than usual.   Does this music still test the patience?   Probably not when it’s small-scale like China Gates.   Yet it reminded me of witnessing Philip Glass play his own piano music at some past Melbourne International Arts Festival where the American composer was feted – lots of sustaining pedal swathes across a lyrical motif or six that intertwined to produce a lyrical cloud, with the invitation to luxuriate in the textures and let your faculties drowse.

To end, Kong sang the coloratura aria from the end to Act Two of Adams’ opera  –  I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung  –  thereby ending on a powerful note and giving us a small sample of her mastery of this role which she sang for Victorian Opera six years ago (I didn’t see it) and also gave Sydney this aria in 2017 for Opera Australia’s The Nixon Tapes concert of excerpts.   It’s a belt from start to finish, one-dimensional in character if probably making sense in context.   You had to be impressed by Kong’s emphatic delivery that sizzled with vocal power and enough spite to bring to mind the reported ferocity of the Dowager Empress Cixi as well as the raging contempt for anything outside herself that Mao’s wife showed during the Gang of Four trial in 1980. 

Raineri gave Kong all the repetitive major key support she needed and handled the long postlude with unfaltering energy. 

This aria is a highlight in Adams’ opera which has enjoyed several performances world-wide since its 1987 premiere.   But it’s a superficial product; in my mind, little more than a blip in operatic history and inferior in most ways to King Roger.   You’d have to be a determined patriot to class the work among the great operas.   But then, as someone who lived through the period, it’s outside the bounds of my understanding to find sympathy with a work that attempts to gain sympathy for Mao and Nixon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt without hysterics

LISZT’S ITALIAN PILGRIMAGE

Tristan Lee

Move Records MCD 593

It only seems like last week that I heard this young Melbourne pianist working his way through Liszt’s Deux légendes.   In fact, it was almost the end of March and Lee was appearing as the second recital-giver in that excellent and timely innovation, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, during which he gave us his reading of those picturesque sacred tales with lashings of sonorous fabric.  Not much has changed, it would seem, since this CD’s release last year but the performance is masterful, carrying you past a good deal of heaven-storming piety and grandiose musical vistas.

The first of these, St. François d’Assisse: La prédication aux oiseaux, enjoys a reading that is exemplary in its detail, most obviously when the birds are involved before and after the saint starts his avian address.   Lee keeps his texture clear despite observing pretty much all the ‘accepted’ pedal markings; even when the grouping gets a touch cluttered, as in bars 42 to 45 where the twitterings reach their peak, the pianist keeps the demi-semiquaver patterns lucid..

Further, once the saint starts preaching in earnest and the birds settle into a state of quiescence from bar 68 onwards where the chords gain in majesty, the interpretation gave an earnest, urgent outline of the music’s intended move towards the preacher’s plunge into ecstasy and the high-flown climactic fortissimo points in A flat and B flat.  The composer’s moving transition from the end of Francis’ address back to the birds’ return to their natural state (changed, one hopes, by the experience) also brought about a sense of completion;  you may not believe in the event but the musical depiction gives a remarkable depiction of this legend, all the better here for Lee’s responsive performance.

More excitement prevails in the second legend, St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots.   The piece is a near monomaniacal treatment of the opening three-octave theme on which the composer whips up a stormy Strait of Messina crossing that reaches its apotheosis at bar 103.   Again, Lee keeps his textures free from over-blurring, especially in the most active passage which is not so much thematic as fiercely aquatic – bars 72 to 98 – with chains of alternating chords, double-octaves and runs of chromatic thirds.  The pace is not startlingly fast with attention-grabbing acrobatic leaps to summon up the blood, but the accelerandi and stringendi come across as moderate, serving to underpin the miracle being depicted.   Even at the end, where Liszt opts for an affirmative-action ending rather than leaving the saint to enter Sicily in an atmosphere of pious and reserved thanksgiving as you might have anticipated from the Lento at bar 138/9, Lee keeps the triumph leashed.

These two pieces come at the end of the CD; not positioned as reassurances of Lee’s talents but well-tailored to amply display his gifts, not least one for investing both works with gravitas, the realization that we are listening to music that can stand on its own feet when treated with dedication.   This pianist is conscientious in his approach which gains a great deal from technical security but just as much from a level-headed view of Liszt’s picture-painting.

This CD’s main content is the middle volume of the Années de pèlerinage – the one specified as having Italy as its inspiration.   Liszt compressed his experiences into seven pieces: three to do with painting/sculpture/music, four referring to literature.  The suite presents as a mixed bag where the titular references can be helpful but – as with so many cross-discipline works – could also prove distracting.   You take on trust that Liszt found inspiration in his selections from art and letters; you’d be wasting your time, I suggest, if you went looking for more meaningfulness beyond a few broad strokes.

It’s easier to keep away from useless inferences in the painting/sculpture/music pieces.  For instance, Sposalizio, inspired by Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, presents an insoluble problem: what’s the connection?   It existed in the composer’s aesthetic reaction to the picture but you’re hard pressed to see how.  Lee performs it with plenty of space, in no rush to make a temporally efficient attack on the right-hand quaver pattern that starts in bar 9; but his rubato is delicately applied,   Only a few top notes get subsumed in the Più lento chorale but the double octaves leading to the piece’s high point combine care and bravado in excellent balance.

You can’t make much of Liszt’s Il penseroso either, except to presume that the composer thought the statue from Lorenzo de Medici’s tomb was given to sombre ruminations; well, so you would, wouldn’t you, given the surroundings?   Even major chords in these two pages have a dour flavour but Lee performs the piece without surprises, giving full vent to its grim character and ceding no ground in the central bars 23-31 stretch where the chain of chords acquires a subterranean mobile bass.

Most music-lovers who know the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa are aware that the actual tune was written by Bononcini whose life-span overlapped with Rosa’s by 3 years only. It’s a great march tune and quite a test to sing.  Lee finds the right amount of bounce and is musician enough to exercise discretion with regard to phrasing, notably in the Sempre l’istesso setting at the piece’s middle.

With the three Petrarch sonnets  –  Nos. 47, 104, 123  –  the listener is on familiar textual ground, assisted greatly by the fact that these were originally songs.   In fact, you can go back to the composer’s first essays of 1846 and trace fairly easily the various alterations and interpolations of the 1858 piano solo version.   in Lee’s hands, these pieces are highly effective, thanks to the performer’s keen eye for the fundamental melody lines and a reliable security in handling the inserted cadenzas and masking ornamentation.  Indeed, the more you hear these parts of the Années, the more delights you find, like the touching expressiveness of the first vocal strophe’s restatement in G Major starting at bar 37.  Lee’s handling of the syncopated vocal line throughout remains completely fluent and eloquent in its phrasing – a laudable realization of the fervent blessings that both poet and composer celebrate.

With Sonnet No. 104, we’re definitely in the land of the Liebesträume with a commanding lyrical vocal line, quiescent arpeggios and rich, mutable chord sequences.   It’s not easy to see how Liszt is reflecting Petrarch’s myriad oscillations – one per line (except for the last) in a welter of conceits.   Here is one place where the melody is not illustrating any leaps of imagery; it’s just one long, luxuriant line with several cadenza interruptions that Lee is inclined to treat without fireworks.

Not the least inspired of the three, Sonnet No. 123 is where Lee takes most liberties, most obviously with a stringendo starting at bar 56 which decelerates too early.   As well, at various points the pianist likes to linger – extending a note’s value or allowing a good deal of space before resuming after a caesura, or taking an a piacere across the last four bars very literally.    But you find just as many subtleties in this Chopin-indebted work; listen to the mild susurrus of left hand triplets that start at bar 22, or the impeccable catch-and-release of the change from E Major to C Major at bars 40-41.

In all sonnets, you hear a further testament to Lee’s insight with regard to this music and his responsiveness to their Romantic vocabulary.   These soulful gems are followed by the CD’s longest track: Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata.  To his credit, Lee gets nearly all the notes; no mean feat in this virtuosic exercise where the excitement is built up in several short-lived paragraphs as Liszt contemplates (possibly) the various descriptors of torment and vice in Hugo’s poem.  This work is probably the most technically demanding that Lee attempts here; furthermore, its length makes it difficult to mould into a narrative – even more so than the second of the légendes.

For instance, I can’t find anything else on the disc to compare with the long Presto agitato assai that stretches for about 110 bars of barely punctuated action.   Lee exercises his flexibility here with some split-second delays as he moves between registers, but it’s never enough to upset the onward surge of the paragraph.  There’s a counterbalance to this in the shift to F sharp Major at bar 157 for a più tosto ritenuto reminiscence of Beatrice where the writing is like a cross between a Chopin nocturne and an étude.   In this 23 bar episode, Lee shows a remarkably even-tempered responsiveness that gives us more than a mossy Romantic texture; rather, a subtle interplay of accents, both rhythmic and melodic, and a fine realization of Liszt’s vision of an in medias res Paradise emerging in the context of an Inferno that sounds – like Milton’s Satan – suspiciously heroic.

An all-Liszt CD from a (resident) Australian pianist is to be celebrated, of course, but not just because of the implied ambition.  This is a remarkable accomplishment for its unalloyed probity; listening to Lee’s insightful readings has been one of the more memorable passages of play that I’ve enjoyed in some years of Liszt experiences.  Here is a recording that stands secure on its own merits.  If it’s not flashy enough or Cziffra-like for some, that’s too bad: Lee is his own man and his interpretations reveal a highly welcome integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night of the arranger

LA VIE EN ROSE

Tania Frazer, Jonathan Henderson, Alan Smith, Alex Raineri,

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 1

                                                                      Tania Frazer

Alan Smith

                                                                         Alan Smith

Latest in this online series that is lighting up the synapses of music-loving Brisbane, Saturday’s all-French concert employed the services of the city’s Southern Cross Soloists; well, four of them.   While you might have expected from the title an hour-long reminiscence of Trenet, Aznavour and Piaf, what came out was both enriching and puzzling but, in synchronicity with what I have learned about the Soloists, the program was packed with arrangements – some of them comfortable for all concerned, others not so happy.    At the heart of it all sat Alex Raineri’s piano accompaniment; in an act of self-abnegation, the Festival’s artistic director performed only one sols, which is extraordinary when you consider that the offerings included works by Satie, Ravel and Debussy.

In fact, the most orthodox, ‘straight’ work kicked off the evening.   Henderson and Raineri worked through Francaix’s Divertimento of 1953; not a piece to keep you engrossed but an alternately tuneful and busy compendium.   Its initial Toccatina, a non-stop barrage of notes for both players, proved as full of surface excitement as many another showcase written especially for Rampal; a frippery, but soon over.   The following Notturno proved attractively mobile; no longueurs here.   Another vital effusion in the Perpetuum mobile which lived up to its title but annoyed at the opening because you could not tell whether the rhythm was intentionally irregular or whether the players were uneasy with its metrical lay-out.   Fitted with a galaxy of chromatic runs, these pages gave Richardson a real workout in terms of breathing.

I found Francaix’s Romanza the most attractive of the suite’s five movements with its deft combination of sentimentality and spice.   You couldn’t call the latter aggressively dissonant but the composer beguiled you with several unexpected turns of line and harmonic structure.   These pages showed Francaix at his best in a lyric of no little charm, executed without excess in any department; the unfeeling could dismiss it as film music but the final bars showed how Francaix could transcend the trite.   As for the Finale, it impressed for a dash of piquancy but sounded like a trial for the performers who fortunately found a less dogged approach as the piece neared its end – or perhaps the work gained in inspiration.   Whatever the case, you were more aware in the later pages of a sense of humour in the stop/start alternations and a slick final bar.

For a lot of us, there was a time when we found Satie to be as he presented – droll, eccentric, heart-of-gold.   But the charm wore off somewhere in the 1980s for me; now the performance directions along the lines of ‘ Take a nap, then construct a lovers’ nest from papier-mâché and osprey dung’ seem aimless, although such high-jinks gave rise (eventually) to a school of composition where the score was all prose; and who was that Frenchman discovered for us by Keith Humble and Jean-Charles François who wrote  pithy enigmatic texts as his scores?   Not to mention Stockhausen in the later Messianic years.   Even so, we are still brought up short by the pared-back calm of creations like the Gymnopédies in both piano and Debussy-scored (1 and 3 only) formats.

No less so by Satie’s Gnossiennes, which may have something to do with gnosticism or, more materially, with Knossos; I’ve had nothing to do with the creed but have wandered around the Cretan ruins and Satie’s miniatures could possibly have some connecrtion with Sir Arthur Evans’ excavated site – exactly what, I don’t know except for a shared angularity.   Whatever the background, this performance of Gnossiennes 1, 4 and 3 saw Frazer offer her own transcriptions for oboe and piano, the outer ones of this trio very well known.   Frazer took the right-hand melody line and left to Raineri the chordal background.

It took a while to get used to the penetrating double-reed timbre but Frazer generated an expressive line in No. 1, although I wondered about some of the too-simple dynamic shifts during repeats, like the move to piano in the second half of the Très luisant segment; and the upward octave shift on the final F sounded unnecessary.   The encounter with No. 4 impressed in its middle strophes, after the semiquaver quibbling.   And I couldn’t understand the acceleration during No. 3 unless Frazer and Raineri were putting an individual slant on the composer’s direction to play De manière à obtenir un creux.   If anything, the reading of this Gnossienne seemed to me rather over-played, imposing a personality where the original intention was to remove it.

Smith gave a sensible reading of Ravel’s Tzigane with fine Raineri accompaniment across the whole tension-packed canvas.   The violinist would probably not have been too happy with his A dotted crotchets in bars 9 and 10 but this whole opening section on the G string only is a taxing passage, especially as it sets a high intonational standard right from the first notes.   Smith’s rendering proved powerful enough, although the double-stops at Rehearsal Number 3 emphasized the lower line.   Coming up all too soon, a diabolical alternation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato follows before the exposed violin gets some relief (not that it ever gets much of a pause).

The violinist powered through the testing pages with admirable zest, winding up with an excellent grounding deliberation at Number 17, building to a fine clamour at Number 32 with the concluding rush from accelerando to presto impressing for its accuracy under high pressure as the piece smashes into a compelling quadruple-stopped last two bars. Tzigane is one of music literature’s great exercises in deconstruction, Ravel taking all-too-familiar Ziegeuner tropes and pushing the trite into virtuosic exercises with no concern for soppy sentimentality or faux-masculine flashiness.   It’s a delight to hear when the violinist is able to handle its trials and Smith did Ravel – and himself – proud.

From here on, the program moved into Beecham-lollipop mode with a bracket of three songs and a one-time compulsory encore for violinists.   Raineri began this group with his own solo piano arrangement of Louiguy’s La vie en rose.   It followed the song’s chorus faithfully enough, the whole piece containing only a few harmonic solecisms and, for most of its length, having a concentration on the lower half of the piano’s compass.  Taking the familiar tune up an octave was effective, not least because it made for a relief from the low-pitched preceding pages.   I’m not a fan of the ripple/arpeggio ending but at least it wasn’t overdone here.   No, it wasn’t as ambitious an undertaking as Grainger’s reshaping of The Man I Love but it did little harm to this era-representing evergreen.

Henderson partnered Raineri in a no-surprises version of Debussy’s pre-1891 Beau soir chanson.   The flautist took on the vocal part with a generously phrased volubility and giving us a well-prepared climax across bars 25 and 26.    The same composer’s 1880 Nuit d’étoiles brought Frazer to the melody line.   Here also, the lyric came across with ease and restraint.   I think that the piano part diverged from the original in the last refrain, making the octavo jump eight bars early – or perhaps I was happy to get the main theme back pianissimo.   Last in this group was the Méditation from Act Two of Massenet’s opera Thaïs, with which neglected work Sir Andrew Davis made Melbourne music-lovers familiar three years ago.    Smith had no trouble dispatching this sweetest of intermezzi with a fine deftness in handling the gruppetti of five and four semiquavers that punctuate the smooth violin line’s progress in the piece’s outer sections.   Possibly the sforzandi at the più mosso agitato direction from bar 34 on could have been pulled back to a less full-on dynamic level but it was difficult to find fault with the rest of the score, Raineri having little to do beyond outlining the harp’s almost non-stop accompanying role.

To finish off the night with some fireworks, Raineri and Co. put on a more taxing encore piece, a work that occupies a dodgy zone between definite program material and something frivolous with which to delight any audience: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.   But, rather than employing Smith’s expertise, the work was given in an arrangement by Frazer where flute and oboe share the solo violin line between them. Frazer took the opening solo up to bar 6; Henderson took over from bar 7 to bar 10; and on it went in a heart-warming demonstration of how to play musical fair-shares.   A little bit of transposition was needed to cope with the fioriture nine bars before the rondo’s start.  Nevertheless, once the main constituent of this work was in progress, Frazer maintained her even distribution of the work-load with some clever interweaving and a subtle preparation for the trill hiatus just before Letter B.

Notably appealing was the attack by both woodwind artists on the double-stops during the con morbidezza interlude.   A crunch-of-sorts came with the triple-stop cadenza five bars before Letter G which turned somehow into spaced-out arpeggios; but that’s pretty much what the original is.   Then on to a hurtling coda and home.  You’d have to call it an interesting exercise but I have to confess to a longing for the original where you get to enjoy a violinist’s handling of the composer’s hurdles, contrived especially to test that instrumentalist’s virtuosity and self-control.

Not a night for the purist, then.   Still,  Raineri had organised a well-assorted program, contrasting the tried-and-true with some arcana, peppered with three very popular works.   All of it gave a platform for four sadly under-used musicians.   But we live in hope that Aunt Annastacia will keep us free from extra-state contamination and that these artists will soon get back to playing for live audiences who are actually in the room with them.   Until then, we will have to put up manfully and womanfully   –  and appreciatively  –  with the inbuilt fluctuations in content of entertainments like La vie en rose.