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.