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.