We’re all in this together

THE ROMANTICS

Trish Dean, Alex Raineri, Paul Dean

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday September 26

                                                                        Trish Dean

Last weekend’s recital in the Festival sequence featured three musicians  –  two from Brisbane’s versatile Ensemble Q, and the Festival’s own presiding genius: Ensemble co-directors  Trish Dean and Paul Dean, and pianist Alex Raineri.   For this event, we were back at the usual site in Bowen Terrace studio for another close-quarters affair.   All musicians participated in the Clarinet Trio by Brahms of 1891; then, Trish Dean and Raineri launched into Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, written a decade after the trio.   A Romantic program, for sure, and one celebrating the last fruits of that era  . . .  sort of; Strauss was still indulging himself in lushness over 40 years after 1901, and many writers have persisted with that creative strand to the present day – well, it’s easier than inventing your own path, isn’t it?

From the outset of the Brahms work’s Allegro, Raineri displayed a performance-enhancing ease, a supple quality when treating the unsettling triplets that disturb the equanimity at bars 13 and 14, only to erupt powerfully eight bars further on when the keyboard comes into its own.    Still, the pianist kept his swamping potential well under control, probably taking a few leaves from Paul Dean who did the right chamber music thing and took a mellow, restrained  view of his part, apparent in the unforced top line between bars 71 and 82 and later, in tandem with Trish Dean, maintaining a welcome dynamic clarity in the close duet beginning at bar 96.

In its overall shape, this movement was typified by a calm surface, any tension coming in sporadic outbursts like Raineri’s two explosions starting at bar 127.   If anything, the cello line took overall prominence with an ardent attack and lots of crescendodiminuendo surges inside phrases, best seen during an impeccable duet for clarinet and cello from bar 189 up to the poco meno Allegro on this movement’s last page. the whole coming to rest with excellent balance.

Each player enjoys a wealth of exposure in the second movement Adagio, Trish Dean’s cello an early aspiring delight in the slow semiquavers of bar 7.   But the ensemble had prepared these pages carefully, with a finely judged rubato at work in the decrease of tension from bar 19.   By the time the players had reached bar 31 with its antiphonal clarinet/cello interplay, you were quite confident in these interpreters, who went the full Romantic in those generous textures obtaining from bar 41 until the last 10 measures where the linear interweaving proved touchingly eloquent.

Raineri treated the Andante grazioso with further suppleness, keeping his left-hand contributions mobile but not attention-grabbing when shape and accent changed.   Later, in the D Major trio, the pianist gave excellent service in his three-fold treatment of the main melody, notably in his deftly crafted third statement where a temptation looms large to overstate your case.   To their credit, all three executants captured the not-too-rustic lilt of these happy pages.

Right from the first page, Trish Dean engaged with the Allegro finale, delivering her isolated semiquavers with bite and setting an urgency of attack in play for her colleagues.  Raineri made a brave display at the first of the ‘gypsy’ outbursts in bar 58; it’s not difficult to get through, but here it was treated with a scene-setting brio that carried all before it, even to an electric shaft of light from everyone at bar 128.   Each episode, each reversion and reshaping glowed as Brahms swept to his determined A minor conclusion.  In the recital hall, this performance would have been greeted with acclaim for its balance, ensemble and drive; let’s hope that the days are not far off when we can once again show well-merited enthusiasm in public.

A different story in the sonata.  Both Raineri and Trish Dean presented a languorous Lento before letting us know that aggression was forming the backbone of a work where the cello often has to work hard to be heard.   Raineri made strong work of his staccato chords introducing the movement’s main body, then gave a sweeping, rubato-rich enunciation of the second subject.  Mercifully, the exposition was repeated so that Dean’s soaring moments could be savoured; yet, the players made an excellent match for the shared vigour of their attack, as witnessed by their treatments of that second theme, the cello giving a sensible and sensitive shape to each phrase.   While the keyboard enjoys the dominant role, Raineri gave place  at difficult moments, like Dean’s mid-development pizzicati.   Mind you, when solo chances came, he wasn’t one to hold back as at the 14-bar  hectic interlude preceding Rachmaninov’s return to duet work.   Each player milked the second subject’s return with possibly even more Romantic endeavour than before, but Dean hit on a golden seam at the (largely) G Major Un poco più mosso segment: sweetly engaging lyricism with a moving near-vocal responsiveness before Raineri urged her into the brisk A tempo hurtle to the finish line.

You might have asked for cleaner definition from both players of the near-full C minor descending scale that gives the Allegro scherzando its impetus; they galloped rapidly enough but a lot of sotto voce material flew pretty much under the radar.  A well-positioned vein of sentiment came at the change to E flat Major at the Un poco meno mosso point, Dean urging out a persuasive continuous line at this point.   Just as well that she took her opportunities because the movement’s outer reaches are piano-heavy, more so as the motion fragments towards the conclusion – here handed to us with a well-judged pair of perdendi.

Was there a late entry from the cello in bar 9 of the mellifluous Andante?  I was following the score in a desultory fashion, but it seemed to me that Raineri did a bit of filler before Dean joined in with her main theme restatement.   Later, the cello’s first fortissimo marking sounded under-powered for such a dramatic moment, but both performers were having their way with the dynamics of these pages, best seen at the climax to this Andante where the descent from Rachmaninov’s heights enjoyed a wealth of well-sited rubato.   Not for the first time, Raineri showed his worth as a sometime-supporting player in his allowance of space for his partner across these pages, both rhythmically and dynamically.

Finally, a heady rush into the Allegro mosso from the piano’s initial flourish.   I admired the assurance of this start but delighted in Dean’s D Major second-subject statement – the cello enjoying the splendid breadth of this moment – and took even more pleasure in this theme’s restatement in faux-canon with the piano a page later.   Even more so, it seems, than in previous movements, the piano encounters virtuosic explosions across this Allegro with bar after bar of full repeated chords in both hands. gestures which have strayed in from the Piano Concerto No. 2.

About this stage of the performance, Dean started showing signs of fatigue in reaching for her top notes; not too often, and rarely two times running, but just enough to be worrying.    Yet much could be ignored when faced with the expressive power of the second theme’s restatement at he final Moderato (come prima) direction where the composer lingers over his tender melody, unwilling to give it up until coerced by the need for a concluding racy Vivace and yet another brilliant coda. 

Here was a full-blooded program, living up as much as it could to its era-encompassing title, delivering to us a pair of essentially optimistic works performed with a valuable musical acumen by three of this city’s top professionals.   It’s intense experiences like this that generate good humour and gratitude in testing times, even to those of us who have enjoyed a pretty easy time of it.   Events like these keep your faith alive in hopes for a revival of public performance, despite the ignorance and disdain for art shown every day by governmental charlatans of all stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

Again, an expansion of horizons

DANCING TO THE TREMORS OF TIME

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3438

Yet another part of this company’s dedication to the art of Harvey and – by extension – to contemporary Australian composition, this disc contains seven compositions of various lengths, the whole dominated by a Brendan Colbert work: his solid score from 2017 that gives this CD its title.   Five of the tracks come from live performances, the exceptions being the last work on offer, Brendan Collins’ Prelude and Fugue, and a short piece by Elliott Gyger.

Standing alongside Colbert’s major construct is Don Kay’s Piano Sonata No. 9, which introduced me to a senior and prolific composer whose name has not crossed Bass Strait, despite a successful academic and creative career in his home state.   Harvey has been quite an apologist for Kay’s work, especially the sonatas of which there are ten.   He has had three of them dedicated to him and has commissioned at least two, giving the premiere of No. 9 at MONA on November 17, 2018   –  which is the performance offered here.

The other substantial piece, Scott McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 – also from 2017 and featured at the same concert as Colbert’s Dancing to the Tremors of Time and Kay’s sonata  –  is another witness to Harvey’s role in promoting modern Australian work; in this case, the product of another Tasmanian writer.   In fact, Harvey has given the premieres of all three extant McIntyre piano sonatas as well as the composer’s Piano Concerto in 2016.

Gyger’s D E G  and the smaller-framed Colbert piece were both recorded at Move Records’ studio last year, while screen composer Elizabeth Drake’s Rabbit Song and Martin Friedel’s Vanishing Point come from a live recording at the Brunswick Music Festival on February 20, 2019.   Harvey has history also with Friedel, having recorded in 2008 the composer’s main solo piano score: The school of natural philosophy.   In fact, Vanishing Point seems to be the only other work for piano in Friedel’s output.   And it’s the shortest track on this disc; surprising, because the composer’s intention seems to parallel drawing with music and that could have led to a wider-ranging canvas than it has.

The point that Friedel referred to is one where two parallel lines meet in the distance.  Don’t know why, but that suggestion brings to mind Philip Glass – perhaps the railway line in Einstein on the Beach.  In this piece, loud or soft individual chords alternate with frisky, surging note melanges that can be fierce or subterranean.   At the end, the chords win out – four of them – and supposedly they signify the visual/aural point of conjunction.  What stands out is Harvey’s communication of atmosphere, alternately staid cathédrale engloutie and vigorous tumbling across the keyboard.   You could regard the piece as coming to its proper end in that the last bars fade to black successfully.

Next in increasing order of size stands Drake’s bagatelle which takes its genesis from an idea germinated for Caryl Churchill’s play, Top Girls.   I don’t know it, although I do know its themes and suppose that the particular rabbit that this piece depicts is the heroine Marlene, the music suggesting her momentum now that she is on the treadmill that should lead to corporate success and familial failure.   Drake sets up and sustains a one-note-at-a-time moto perpetuo that offers slight variations on an original pattern, notes accreted and discarded in quick succession over a pivotal ascending arpeggio figure.  Harvey has its measure even if his articulation falters just before the two- and three-minute marks, and some unintended notes are struck in the last bars – at least, I think they’re due to fatigue and are not late introductions of a harmonic complication.

Drake’s language here is indebted to the Minimalists, although her fabric is not that seamless in that her deviations are apparent and the repetition does not atrophy our aural perception potential.   In this CD’s context, it seems like an oddity.   Indeed, it has a striking counterpart in Gyger’s birthday present to his father D (David) E (Elliott) G (Gyger) which takes the three designated notes of the dedicatee’s initials as a fulcrum, as well as what the composer calls ‘a cypher of his full name’  –   whatever that may be.    As promised, this piece unfolds in a series of episodes, presumably character-filled vignettes, the whole quite impressionistic, gliding rather than stating, and the personality sketch is almost uninterruptedly gentle and even-tempered.

It’s at about this stage that you are struck by this CD’s subheading: Surrealist piano music from Australia’s east coast.   To this point, have we been confronted by anything suggesting musical surrealism?   Well, the Friedel seems a possible candidate, if a rather bare-boned one.   Drake’s rabbit involved in irregular wheel running is more metaphoric than anything else, while Gyger’s musical portrait doesn’t seem to fit into the surreal category at all.   Mind you, there is a direct correlation between surrealist art and music in the disc’s major work, but that seems to be a case of packing all your titular eggs into one basket.

The Prelude and Fugue by Collins has its roots in both the formal structure that we have come to love from Bach’s time on.   Both parts are hugely indebted to jazz, mainly through syncopation for the prelude and melody shape for the fugue which, as the composer says elsewhere, is indebted in its subject to Scott Joplin as well as mirroring the American master in its buoyancy of progress.   Once more, you wonder about the surrealist aspect of these happy and/or exuberant pages which go no further than their surface.   In C minor, the prelude uses its material adroitly, juxtaposing short chords with at least two fluent melodic shapes, while the B flat Major fugue happily piles on the lines so that even Harvey has to give himself the shortest of breaks between bars when the intermeshing becomes hefty.   But Collins doesn’t aim for density and both parts of this construct radiate good humour, even some wit.

Kay has given his sonata a subtitle: the call.  It’s an easily recognized compositional tic – or, in this case, two of them.   The composer specifies an ascending octave falling back a second as an ‘appeal’ motif; later, a descending minor third becomes a bird-call which takes on high significance in the work’s later pages.  The ‘resolute’ first movement sets up a series of motifs, some of them post-Debussyan in delicacy, others more aggressive to the point of whip-sharpness, although the opening waltz-time bars recur as anchor-points.  While the harmonic vocabulary seems wide-ranging, in fact Kay is not afraid to utilise pedal points both upper and lower, and crisp turns of phrase that recall Scarlatti sonatas.

But the movement is highly discursive with some perplexing detours to complement the repetitions of key material, in particular an emphatically diatonic phrase that inserts some placidity into an often hard-edged set of spasmodic outbursts.   As the work’s three movements are played through without a break, I found it hard to determine when the second ‘tenderly’ one began – it seemed to be pretty brief – but the finale bursts in about 4 minutes from the end with an emphatic hammering that marks a new sonic canvas in which the bird-call has high prominence to the point where it has the sonata’s last word.

Harvey’s performance shows sympathy with the score’s jumps between styles of attack and abrupt bursts of energy that don’t seem capable of sustaining themselves.   You can hear an error or two where a note is added where not required.   Still, the sonata has an idiosyncratic voice: not exploitative of piano sound production resources, combining digression with argument-by-statement, weighty in its intentions but demonstrating aspiration more than achievement.

In contrast, McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 sounds more daring, disjointed, and searching for textural interest from the start.   The work is split into four segments: Prelude, Toccata, Interlude, Epilogue and the demarcations present a test in awareness of where the music is heading and whether or not it’s reached its destination.   The opening pages are strong on sustained notes and the manufacture of harmonic resonances; it sounds like the player is directed to hold down a note while the other hand rages around setting up sympathetic vibrations.  McIntyre’s work is riddled with percussive sprays, particularly from the upper reaches, which makes for a music that is constantly on the aural attack.

I think the Toccata begins at about the 5’45” mark where the texture becomes pointillistic but spiky, more so than it has been up to this point.   Any transition into the Interlude is difficult to pinpoint; when you believe that the acrobatics have stopped, they are set off again and the third movement presents as – eventually – more assertive than anything heard so far.   It’s all wonderful exercise for Harvey who rollicks through the work and generates some splendid bass rumbles against angular vaults in his right hand.

I feel safe in pointing to about the 12′ 15″ point for the transition to McIntyre’s passive Epilogue where the aggression dissipates and you are left with a benign, sotto voce soundscape that drifts to an unexpectedly moving, very soft ending.   As a contribution to advancing the piano’s possibilities, it impresses for its investigation of techniques, a remarkable realization of building and releasing tension, an abstractness in that any extra-musical factors are eschewed,  and its fitness for purpose: displaying Harvey’s prowess as executant and interpreter, albeit one who follows his own path at the same time as negotiating yours.

Colbert’s massive construct takes its title from a 2004 painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson in which six nude pod-conglomerates hang in space below two fang-like stalactites.   Are the bodies dancing?   Is the landscape packed with trembling?   Your intimation is as good as anybody’s; much more than mine.   But the association – obviously clear for Colbert – is amplified by two quotations with which the composer extends his vision.   One comes from that poor bastard Seneca – who’d be a tutor? – and it concerns the human life span, observing that the only definite/reliable element in it is the past.   The other comes from David Bowie, who sees Time as a deceit for all of us.  So far, so old-fashioned Cynic.   Will these pictorial and philosophic lead-ins take us anywhere?  My experience is that they are soon forgotten; your experience may well be more informed.

The dancing of this work is probably intellectual, not boots on barn floors or slippers in ballrooms.   Colbert begins with short spasms, sustained bands punctuated by abrupt flurries that introduce the composer’s trademark penchant for rhythmic subdivisions: three quavers in the time of two, for example.   It might be a dynamically quiet start but the work is on the move, growing in contrapuntal density as both Harvey’s hands engage in a long-term duel loaded with mirrorings and interchanges while the short bursts and isolated intervals or chords expand into two-part dialogues.

Mind you, these conversations between lines are impossible to untangle, particularly in the long central argument of the work where the performer presents a mind-sharpening onslaught of material, brilliantly executed in the sense that the output sparkles: a real dance and one in occasional danger of spilling over into confusion.   Although the score closes placidly – Colbert and Gleeson’s mutual vision vanishing into the ether – the path to this resolution is a thorny one, if not as symphonically stormy as the artwork delineates.

Previous experience with Colbert’s products may prepare you for his complexity of thought.   His music has no compromises and reminds me of nothing so much as a sensible Fernyhough; in the Australian’s work, the flourishes lead onward, while the British/American writer dazzles in the moment.   If you had time and inclination, this music could be analysed and decanted of its mysteries, although the process in this case would distract from the score’s pivotal exuberance.   It makes a startling, exhausting opening track on this CD, and it overshadows most of what comes after – or perhaps that’s just my own predilection for work that asks for sustained concentration from an audience.

Dancing to the Tremors of Time is a stand-out contribution to this country’s piano literature.  It was tailored for Harvey and gives ample room for the display of his extraordinary brilliance in interpreting contemporary music that makes high demands.  So you would be hard pressed to find other pianists capable of mastering its multiple tests.   Haydn Reeder, Danae Killian and Peter Dumsday have given premieres of some of Colbert’s solo piano pieces over the past near-three decades but Harvey has set a standard for the composer’s recent works that I suspect will remain unchallenged for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Complementary shades of the spectrum

BRAHMS & STRAUSS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Passport Series

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 11

                                                               Daniel Chiou

                                                           Leanne McGowan

I can’t imagine what young National Academy musicians have been doing to fill their days throughout these lean times.   Plenty of practice, of course, but that occupation palls when there are no alternatives.   Of course, young ANAMites from Melbourne are in a worse case than some of their interstate colleagues because of the state’s entirely appropriate lock-down.   Up here in the Palaszczuk Palatinate (which may turn into a Frecklington Fiefdom if a sufficiently large local wedge of neo-Trumpists have their way), the social contract is comparatively flexible and musicians of all stripes can talk, drink and ignore AFL fixtures with only minor restrictions imposed,

Four ANAM musicians made up the performing list at this third recital in a four-part Brisbane festival presented under the MDCH banner.   Organizer and presiding genius of the Brisbane Music Festival, Alex Raineri, accompanied one of the two works on Saturday evening’s program; he was lucky enough to work at ANAM from 2014 to 2016.  The other three musicians involved in this Brahms/Strauss night are in different boats.  Cellist Daniel Chiou was meant to have started at ANAM this year; for all I know, he might have got in a few months there before darkness fell.   Ditto pianist Caleb Salizzo who was the other pianist involved with this occasion.   Fortunately for her, violinist Leanne McGowan spent 2019 at the South Melbourne academy, but I’m assuming that she’s been seeing out her past five months in Brisbane, enduring a state of exile from all Garden State delights.

Full marks, then, to Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for including these Queensland players – and several others, like Ensemble Q and the Southern Cross Soloists – in their Victoria-based digital initiative which goes from strength to strength in raising some income for career-strapped professionals across the country.   Compared to other and much bigger organizations, MDCH is the most outstanding contributor to sustaining and nurturing live music performance and creativity- even if all efforts have to be confined to soloists and chamber groups.

Saturday night offered two sonatas: Brahms No. 2 in F for cello and piano,  and Strauss’s youthful Violin Sonata Op. 18.   As the readings progressed, I was deeply impressed by the assurance of both duos in their treatment of scores that hold difficulties and demands of various types.    Both sonatas can be linked under a Late Romantic heading and contain passages of luscious clutter.   But technical and interpretative mishaps occurred rarely, by their nature not enough to disturb any listener’s perceptions of the executants’ fluency and insights.

Chiou and Silizzo have made the Brahms sonata a specialty of their combined repertoire, as you can see on social media.   They also form two-thirds of the Islay Trio, so their performance qualities would be pretty well-known to each other.   Further, they had a large canvas or two on which to operate.   The work itself is big-boned, although every repetition is precious to us enthusiasts and its opening Allegro vivace a marvel of vital enthusiasm.  Then, by some remarkable administrative dealing, the recital was given in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre which gifted the players with a resonance, a powerful bloom of sonority that is absent in the dryer acoustic of Raineri’s studio, from which site most of the Brisbane Music Festival recitals I’ve heard have emanated.

Chiou swept into the first movement’s broad and sweeping main theme with drive and a well-honed sense of phrasing, Silizzo surging into prominence with a firm peroration between bars 33 and 39, revisited with just as much power between bars 144 and 150 – both stand-out passages in an intelligent reading.   But Brahms rewards his interpreters with a beautifully-judged preparation for the recapitulation at bar 128: one of those moments where you mentally gasp with relief that your anticipation has been rewarded with such brio.

You could take plenty of enjoyment from Chiou’s clear line and unfailingly accurate articulation despite two sustained-note patches where he came close to running out of bow.   But the collaboration itself proved unstintingly sympathetic, notably in the last page’s tremolando alternation where what could be an unstructured mess came across with fine definition.   And I appreciated the punch in those last irregular five bars that end with the cello’s brusque quadruple-stop chord.   Your ears open with the rhythmic mixture starting at bar 10 of the Adagio affettuoso when Brahms begins his displacement of the obvious.  But the rest of this movement was a lesson in excellent pointing-up of fabric like  Salizzo’s determined ritenuto across bars 18 and 19, the vocal eloquence from Chiou in the 12 bars before the change of key signature to F sharp Major, the cellist’s pliant pizzicato dynamics straight after this change and his surge to prominence at bar 54, both players’ carefully paced piano to pianissimo in the last measures.

By the time the Allegro passionato came around, an out-of-tune E flat 5 was proving a distraction.   Salizzo soldiered on, too hard-pressed in these pages to worry about tamping down the note (as if anyone could).   The spiky interchanges leading to unison work beginning at bar 109 stood out for their insistence, but the pianist showed his tact by restraining the keyboard’s sforzando explosions at bars 156 and 157 to give Chiou carrying space.  The cellist showed himself quite able to introduce a period gesture with some light portamenti, as at the octave leap at bar 178.   But both musicians relished Brahms’ hemiola passages, giving them room to flow rather than belting them into the ground of obviousness.

At the final Allegro molto, the off E flat seemed to have been joined in discomfort by its neighbouring E.   Chiou struck a gold seam with his lyrical outline of the main theme beginning at bar 45 – not overbearing, but combining zeal with melancholy: a real accomplishment in this music.   And then, a sudden shock through a premonition of Shostakovich at bar 102 where bare octaves and pizzicati prefigure the Russian composer’s fighting stance; over in a few seconds but alarming for all sorts of reasons, not least the challenge to your perspicacity, or otherwise.   Despite that anomaly, here was a persuasive setting-out of this ‘problem’ movement that presents as too amiable for its surrounds but is a leisurely capping-stone to a score that spreads itself out, at ease with its Rubensesque plumpness.   If this is what the Chiou/Salizzo duo can accomplish with minimal ANAM exposure, its future is packed with promise.

After an intervallic address by Virginia Taylor from ANAM’s flute faculty in which she extolled the values of that splendid finishing school, McGowan and Raineri launched into the Strauss sonata, unfortunately (for the pianist) pitched in E flat.   If anything, the violinist proved just as ardent as Chiou, forging a bright path across the first page and only slightly questionable pitching 14 bars before the espressivo e appasionato change to common time.   Still, the high B flat three bars into that section was justifiably confident and ringing.   Later on, in the movement’s development,. the artists demonstrated how to dovetail successfully, showing no signs of waiting around for cues or for the other player to hit the marks with deliberation.   Closer to the end at the mit lebhafter Steigerung direction, the collaboration raised the harmonically rich excitement level, even if Strauss’s actual harmonic structure isn’t that novel.

Sorry to be carping, but the piano’s D6 was also sounding a tad unhappy at bar 21 of the following Andante cantabile, although such details dissipated when the A flat tonality gave way to a passionate Erlkönig interlude that in turn yielded to a Rosenkavalier precursor stuffed with pianissimo curlicues and brief ornamental figures.  Then,  both performers laid on their sweetness of timbre when the movement changed back to A flat for an  inevitable return to base with Raineri almost nonchalantly burbling out his continuously arpeggio-rich support.

The pianist seemed to enjoy the finale’s flamboyance, even when severely pressed as near the start when his part turned to C minor and the right hand’s high chord work came over as rough.   To add to the mix, the piano’s G4 was enjoying some pitch-wavering.   Luckily, your attention became more and more engaged by the bitzer nature of this Andante/Allegro, especially when Mendelssohnian rapid-motion dialogues sounded out at two stages.   McGowan’s lavish bowing force enriched the final fervour even before the composer’s call for a stringendo leading into the triple forte declamation that anticipates the Till Eulenspiegel-style conclusion.

Raineri quite properly insisted on giving his part full weight, holding back not a whit in loud duet sections and, given more preparation time, McGowan might have acclimatised better to the pianist’s tendency to let the devil take the hindmost and go for broke, particularly when spurred to do so by a lot of athletic weltering around the Strauss estate.  Still, this mixed pair proved to be a scintillating one, well able to push accurately through many pages that ask executants to juggle with accents and awkward off-the-pulse entries and exits.   As an exhibition of ANAM past and present, this sonata was exceptionally positive.

 

 

Always a cut above

TRANSFIGURED

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall

Monday August 31

(L to R) Grace Clifford, Kathryn Selby, Stefanie Farrands, Maxime Bibeau, Julian Smiles

Back in pre-Plague days when musical organizations could safely plan a year in advance, Kathryn Selby mapped out her 2020 season, doing the right thing by balancing the popular with the should-be-popular.   For the August/September program, she was to begin each night with Mozart’s last piano trio, the K. 564 in G Major.  Then, in line with the program’s title – A Night Transfigured – we were to hear Schönberg’s sextet Verklärte Nacht in the piano trio arrangement by Edward Steuermann.   Finally came that old favourite, Schubert in B flat D.898.   Guests for the event were violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles.

Bending to necessity, the format had to change pretty substantially for the studio-broadcast situation that is now the only way to keep professional music practice alive.  Smiles remained on board, but Grace Clifford substituted for Chee in the Mozart trio, which survived into the modified program.   Out went the Schönberg; in came the final Brahms piano quartet, No. 3 in C minor where Selby, Clifford and Smiles were partnered by violist Stefanie Farrands.   And the Schubert work changed from that expansive piano trio to the Trout Quintet in A Major, for which the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s long-time bass player Maxime Bibeau came into the party.  

Selby’s keyboard work in the Mozart set a high standard by its pellucid attack on the 8-bar first theme of the opening Allegro.  Clifford achieved a similar clarity but her style of delivery presented as cautious across the first pages.   As with more Mozart works than you can count, the development was over before you had time to take it in, but we eventually heard Smiles in a solo at bar 98, revisiting material that belonged to the upper string voice further back (bar 22).   Still,  Selby took parting honours with three flawless trills on the last line.

The second movement series of variations found Clifford weaving a highly sympathetic line for the first; Smiles showed himself as carefully supple as ever throughout No. II with a nicely judged hesitation on the A flat highlight in bar 13; Selby made herself a presence in Variation III but Clifford shone out without having to force her tone.   Selby scored again in the next sequence,  her elegantly formed phrases enjoying cadential commentary from the string duo – a process that continued in the minore Variation V.  The piano finally yielded place again to Clifford in the last segment, Selby muffling her demi-semiquavers yet keeping their flow discernible, not reduced to an impressionistic mumble.  And I don’t think you could have wanted a gentler coda, Clifford taking on the passage-work with suitable reserve.

Again, you could not fault the Allegretto/Rondo‘s initial statement from Selby: a clean pair of heels shown, without any vulgarity in the skipping 6/8 melody.   Clifford found a welcome force in her leading statements at bars 61 and 117.   Another pleasure came from Selby’s clipped gruppetti from bars 72 to 83, carried off with no sign of strain.   Just before the end, Clifford and Smiles produced a lyrically melting moment between bars 133 and 137 – the ideal lead-in to Mozart’s heartbreakingly optimistic conclusion.   In sum, an excellent rendering of this poised masterpiece.

A sombre build-up in the Brahms’ Allegro non troppo eventually exploded at bar 31 in typical defiance, but nothing thrashed out excessively.  Still, I relished the determination of the ensemble in their surge and ebb up to the magnificent E flat resolution at bar 102.  Throughout, the players had the measure of the score, displaying many heartening passages of execution, like Smiles’ impeccable phrasing in the descent at bar 142, and Bramble’s full-bodied lower voice in collaboration with Clifford immediately after.  But then, Farrands is a fine violist with an unwavering sense of pitch; as proof, you only had to hear her substantial solo arc from bar 252 onward: a true and individual voice which matched her violin companion in sheer sweetness of timbre.  Then, after the stress came a moving conclusion with fine growling from all three strings across the last three bars.

As in the Mozart first movement, Selby excelled in the quartet’s Scherzo/Allegro, combining impulsiveness with firm security of accents, on the beat and off.   The upper strings made an ideal match in an octave duet starting at bar 72.   Actually, while you take Selby as a given positive factor in music of this nature, you were hard pressed to find the other quartet members wanting, particularly in moments of dynamic crisis like the fortissimo leaps that begin at bar 54.   Yet again, the violin line could have contributed more prominently to the mix at the trio oases of bars 177 and 184; Selby, on the other hand, kept her power leashed at the string octaves leading to the weltering last measures.

The work’s Andante, its splendid core, opened with a well-rounded line from Smiles that remained present even when Clifford took the tune over.   My score has a molto dolce direction for all three strings starting at bar 34/35, and all responded sensitively, treading light paths up to the melting sixths beginning at bar 54.   Farrands gave way to Clifford at bars 70 and 75 in a telling instance of a musician knowing her place despite the inciting availability of double-stops.   Even better came at bar 94 which begins the unequalled pathos of this movement’s ending, these performers observing a breathless deceleration at bar 119, the instrumental mix balanced to an ideal degree.

After this, it might have been too much to expect an equally effective Allegro commodo finale.   From the beginning, Clifford had trouble projecting, to the point where her line seemed too wispy a creature at bar 21, then underplaying her soprano role at the chorale interludes beginning at bar 75.   Selby maintained her clarity of output in the piano’s rhythmic ducks and drakes, especially when Brahms began his galumphing two sets of triplet crotchets across the bar.   Shine-out moments came in a violin/cello duet at bar 270 where Smiles and Clifford merged to telling effect for 12 ardent measures; then, another  – almost a long-anticipated relief – when Selby thundered out the chorale at bar 311; and finally, Smiles’ grinding sustained low C from bar 351 to the positive last chords.

I’ve rarely come across this work in live performance.  But the same could be said for most piano quartets, probably because it’s hard to assemble four players with enough interpretative synchronicity to do such scores justice.   So this drama-packed Brahms made an excellent replacement for the Schönberg sextet arrangement, not least because its finale brought to mind that of Mendelssohn’s compelling C minor Piano Trio, although the later composition hid its seams more competently.

Schubert’s quintet, on the other hand, attracts musicians despite its odd instrumentation and resultant problems of balance.   It always brings about a strange relief when the main body of the first Allegro vivace gets under way at  bar 25 and you can settle down to revel in the composer’s benevolent melodies and watch the players’ collaborating in a work that is so formally straightforward and clear-speaking.   Viola and cello emitted delicate triplets from bar 38, leaving the foreground to violin and piano before subsuming everyone into their pattern.   Indeed, this work suited Clifford very well, allowing her trademark clarity and elegance plenty of scope.

You wanted balance and equanimity?  You had instances galore, one of the best emerging from the company at bar 93 after one of Selby’s  pointed solos.   When Bibeau got his six-measure exposure at bar 165, what you noticed was the evenness of his delivery – a melody, rather than a special effect.   Later at bar 260, violin and cello canoned efficiently while the supporting trio kept their station without moving in on the important interplay.  And the ensemble’s precision of delivery in Schubert’s brilliantly contrived dynamic about-turns and gripping drive, even across rests, made for a well-accomplished resolution to this (for some of us) not-quite-long-enough movement, even with a repeated exposition.

Still moving on a different plane to other chamber music we’ve heard in the lockdowns and population embargoes so far, Selby and her colleagues took us through a splendidly shaped Andante, the only question concerning pause-emphases on the initial fp notes in bars 19 to 22 which added punctuation, certainly, but made too much of slight harmonic changes.   Another sample of first-rate ensemble stood out between bars 36 and 60 where the even delivery from all participants demonstrated how to achieve Schubert’s mix of light rhythmic snap and throwaway melody.  As in the Mozart trio, Selby’s disciplined trills proved a delight, and the viola cello duet in thirds from bar 84 took us to one of the evening’s high-points for its probity of articulation and dynamic synchronicity.

The group’s output could have endured more forwardness from the top two lines at the Scherzo‘s opening, although the lines proved to be better balanced the further along the movement ran.   Fortunately, the Trio was consistent throughout: a brilliant interplay of texture, dynamic and attack.   A particularly effective patch of play came with the fiedel texture produced by Clifford and Farrands in exposed breaks such as between bars 59 and 62 – bringing the country to the city in the nicest way.

So we arrived at the eponymous song with variations.   The opening gambit for strings alone came across with a suitably placid charm, avoiding any over-insertion of swooping mid-phrase crescendi.  By Variation II, Clifford was well played-in, giving us an attractive and pliant decorative upper line; Selby delivered an object lesson in phrasing during the next segment where the keyboard dominates.   Again, the ensemble work shone in Variation IV, everybody tailoring themselves for that initial group of fortissimo four bars and the subsequent sinking back to soft duets and imitations.  Smiles in the tenor clef produced a well-honed hauptstimme in the next strophe of 27 bars before we arrived at the lied proper with Selby reassuring us that we were home and hosed with the familiar accompaniment while Clifford and Smiles shared the – finally – jaunty melody en clair before that throat-catching, simply put final four bars.

As with the preceding four movements, the Allegro giusto finale seemed packed with well-graduated passages, like the expert softening of texture from bars 61 to 78: not particularly inspired material but these people made a gift out of slim materials.   Still, this movement is a driving one, constantly coming back to the initial violin/viola opening theme and the composer happy to offer a repetition as an alternative to formal development.  By the way, most ensembles leave out the first half’s repetition; it might be a minority opinion but I would have welcomed hearing those pages again, given the ebullience of this reading which entered unstintingly into the underlying build-up/release pattern of these pages. 

This mobile movement kept you on the edge of your seat, involved with the process despite the ‘heavenly length’ of its precedents.   As a whole, the performance projected a wealth of positive elements, realising the score’s underpinning glories: a melodic brilliance exceptional even for Schubert, rhythmic juxtapositions of remarkable fluency, subtle dynamic development to soften the edges, and an unflinching assurance of language across leisurely paragraphs.  Nevertheless, despite the elevated quality of this quintet, the Brahms work proved to be the program’s focus, mainly for its emotional consistency, no matter how tragic the composer’s world-view during its gestation.

 

 

 

 

Here come the young

FANTASY

Dario Scalabrini, Shuhei Lawson, Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 29

                                                                 Shuhei Lawson

Another offering from he Brisbane Music Festival, this recital featured festival director Alex Raineri once again engaging in keyboard partnership with some guests.  In this case, we heard cellist Shuhei Lawson who contributed to the last event in this series, playing a part in the Aria from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.  As well, Raineri presented clarinettist Dario Scalabrini.   Both visitors were labelled ‘young artists’ – which they are in age, for sure, and inferentially, young in experience.   That lack of public exposure became momentarily obvious as the evening moved forward, yet most of the problems I could discern were fixable, given more time for preparation.

Raineri and his visitors gave us three works: the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata of 1962, dedicated to the composer’s friend Honneger; Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke Op. 73 with Lawson substituting for the original clarinet as the composer permitted; and a work which brought all three participants together in Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83, written in 1910 (and showing that fertile Max stuck to his melodic last, even while the  trajectory of music history was on the verge of vaulting in extraordinary directions) with another composer-approved substitution, this time of cello for viola.

For reasons best known to themselves, the musicians split Bruch’s eight pieces into two groups of four, playing one set at the program’s start and another to wind up proceedings.  As a job lot, the trios are richly Romantic and the effect of all of them together might have proved too glutinous, especially in company with Schumann’s rhapsodies and the blunt spikes of Poulenc’s sonata.   But there must have been a bit more to it as the division was not a numerically serial one.   At the beginning we heard Nos. 6, 2, 8 and 4; to end, Nos. 3, 1, 7 and 5 – all the evens and odds in separate clusters.   This process evoked memories of a one-time common practice of splitting up symphony movements with irrelevant intermezzi; if it was good enough for Haydn and Beethoven, then . . . 

The ensemble began with Bruch No. 6, Nachtgesang.   Raineri did little to observe the detached notes in his left-hand arpeggios but the direction was difficult to carry out, unless you slowed the nocturne down to a glacial speed.   Scalabrini suffered a squawk a bar after the change to Un poco meno lento, and Lawson missed out on some of the viola’s clarinet-line doubling a few bars after Letter E which was hardly his fault but a pity, all the same. Like most of what followed, this lyric proved to be a gift for  a pair of players eager to enter the score’s fulsome emotional web.

No. 2 sounded fluent, Raineri establishing a rippling B minor undercurrent for his colleagues in a set of pages that rarely challenged anybody.   In the E flat minor No. 8, both clarinet and cello made a fittingly dour and hollow combination in doubled/unison passages, particularly the stretch after Letter C which came over with engrossing force.  Raineri maintained a steady pulse through this charged and dynamically fluctuating work.   And he bore the brunt of the labour for No. 4, a romp for piano leading from D minor to D Major and operating in almost non-stop triplets and sextuplets against the steady crotchet/minim melodic output from clarinet and cello,   To his credit, Raineri got nearly all the notes and couldn’t avoid staying in the limelight for most of its duration as he negotiated the piece’s volatile onrush.

Back to the more familiar Schumann triptych and both Lawson and Raineri luxuriated in the Zart und mit Ausdruck direction, weaving a languid web which reached a high-water mark at the diminuendo from Raineri across bars 57 and 58, preceding an eloquently restrained conclusion.   An excellently couched response came in the Lebhaft, leicht movement, full of proposition/response work and here accomplished with an infectious ardour.   A momentary lapse of cohesion marred bar 48; I don’t know why because the duet motion is very straightforward.   But the only other problem came after bar 67 where the players treated the diminuendo direction to equate with decelerando, whereas I think the work ends more fetchingly if the pace is sustained right up to the final piano arpeggios.

Both players made fine work of the concluding Rash und mit Feuer, with some exceptional moments like Raineri’s deft negotiation of the switch from syncopation to block chords at bars 21 to 22; like the partnership across the whole block from bar 34 to bar 47;  like the cello’s ecstatic melodic arch from bars 74 to 78.   In fact, this movement proved to be one of the recital’s finer moments, showing an exemplary insight into Schumann’s urgent drive across fast movements and the architectural functionality of his block repetitions.

Scalabrini and Raineri ran through the Poulenc sonata’s outer movements with keen eyes for their frenetic undertones, pulling back for the signature expressive melodic interludes.   I’m not as enamoured with this score as with the Flute Sonata, which impresses as a pinnacle of French 20th century chamber music.   But, for all that inbuilt bias, I could still admire the brio of the duo’s assault on the first movement Allegro tristamente, Scalabrini making a brave showing until the whole bar pianissimo trill at bar 9 where reducing his power proved a difficult feat; and more obviously, nine bars after Figure 9 where a note went missing in the B/E minor arpeggios.   Both musicians responded very ably to the changes in texture and dynamic, at their best on the last page where the brusque leading motive sinks to nothingness, but under protest.

Scalabrini earned plaudits through the Romanza, bringing the shade of Benny Goodman to life at Number 2 with those Gershwin-suggestive rapid scales and the abrupt recovery required from each.   Raineri gave more force than expected at Letter 4 but pulled back his emphasis to suit Scalabrini’s more dispassionate interpolations around the movement’s centre; still, the clarinettist had trouble starting very soft melodic arches. as in the 8th last bar where both executants have a triple piano marking. 

Poulenc’s concluding Allegro con fuoco proved testing for both players, the clarinet missing the odd note, as in the downward runs leading up to Number 6.   But Scalabrini could surprise you with sudden brilliant details of execution, including a facility with Poulenc’s curt pre-melody ornamentation.   The only insecure moment I heard came near Figure 12: a question of a minutely delayed entry.   For the rest, this movement was carried off with ample enthusiasm and a powerful account of the batteringly loud last 7 bars.

Back to Bruch and the odd-numbered pieces.   No. 3 gives the two linear instruments a solo each,  Lawson bringing up memories of Kol Nidre during his firmly delivered account of the first 24 bars.   Where the string solo was a stop-and-start creature, Scalabrini’s clarinet wove a fine, measured lyrical arch.   Some high notes tested Lawson’s pitching during his second solo, but the eventual collaboration succeeded, the string’s abruptness finally yielding to the clarinet’s calm and the piece coming to an impressively sonorous  conclusion that began with a true unison ten bars from the end.   The A minor first piece in the series is the least interesting of them all, here giving no grief to any of the performers.   On the opposite side of the coin, No. 7 has Mendelssohnian rapidity as its premise and the brunt of that work fell to Raineri who found out the pages’ scintillations and gave just enough weight to the piano’s hefty chords that relieve the 6/8 skittering at two focal points.

Last of all, Bruch’s Rumänische Melodie No. 5 gave a platform to Lawson’s talent for full bowing in outlining the initial tune.   Scalabrini’s entry prompted a sort of canonic duet with the cello but the folk colour didn’t carry much weight, belonging more to the school of Liszt in slow rhapsodic mode than to Bartok searching out asperities and irregularities.  Here, Ranieri kept his powder dry, notably in the whirlpool of arpeggios that start at Letter E and gain in flourishes before fading away 26 lush bars later.

At least we can say we heard them, but I’m not sure that these Bruch bagatelles have much to offer these days, except as works for a mutable combination of instruments.   Next time, Raineri might give his two friends something a touch more substantial, less salonesque – Mozart’s Kegelstatt,  Beethoven’s Op. 11, Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, or other works with similar instrumentation by Ireland and d’Indy.    For a nationalistic note, perhaps Alfred Hill’s Miniature Trio might be worth resuscitating.   Nevertheless, this recital served to bring a pair of young talents into the public arena, both estimable contributors to Brisbane’s musical stage.   And it reinforced Raineri’s reputation as an outstandingly sympathetic chamber musician.