A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst

Friday October 23

(L to R) Julia Russoniello, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Georgia Browne, Kirsty McCahon, Daniel Yeadon

We’ve had one Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra recital/concert already in the Melbourne Digital series; now it’s the turn of the ensemble’s Sydney chapter to keep the Richard Gill flag flying, in which undertaking they were helped considerably by having Georgia Browne’ s flute as either top line or stage-front in this program of which three-quarters was completely new to me. The organizers gave us a familiar Mozart in the D Major Flute Quartet K. 285 but balanced this with an early string quartet, K.157 in C Major. This brace was book-ended by two Carl Friedrich Abel scores: a three-movement (like everything on this night) flute quartet in A Major, unhappily juxtaposed with a work of the same genre by the younger master; and the Flute Concerto No. 5 in G Major, one of a set of six that are probably grist to every flautist’s mill these days.

A product of the Bach house through his studentship at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig during Johann Sebastian’s years there, Abel was well known in his lifetime, notably for a time by association with Johann Christian Bach with whom he established a concert series in London. He also met the 8-year-old Mozart in that city when he himself was about 40 – which is a nice, if fleeting connection with which to yoke these two writers. But Browne has a stronger relationship with Abel’s music than most of her peers, as she has recorded this G Major Concerto (and several other flute-dominated works by this composer) with the Icelandic ensemble, Nordic Affect.

As the night turned out, Browne made the best of all possible cases for Abel through her fluent technical control and an unfailing search for variety of timbre and shape, even in the unabashedly learned pages of the concerto’s opening Allegro. As a sample of ensemble work, this score proved to be the night’s least satisfying – not because of the ARCO musicians’ expertise, but mainly because of a lack of substance from the string quintet and its one-line-per-instrument lack of ‘bloom’, as I’ve heard expert acousticians describe it. You had precision in spades, each note on the dot, but vibrato or open with no mellowing shades at all. Yes, we’ve been here before: this purity of output is a period music enthusiast’s nirvana and it is irrelevant in faster music, but middle movements from Andante down can be a trial.

It’s probably because of the continual close suggestions of a chest of viols, as though every work played here found its antecedent in a Lawes suite. This might suit some writers but you’d have to question the approach in a work like Mozart’s delectably optimistic flute quartets. Compositions where the sinews stand out – like Art of Fugue or A Musical Offering – benefit from this no-nonsense treatment but its apologists argue for a wider historical range of application than just the Baroque. At all events, one side of the argument is proposed by this organization, which is consistent in its application across the repertoire.

In the concerto, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo took on the continuo function; in this situation, his contribution came across very clearly and made its presence felt throughout in this musician’s one appearance on the program. The same could be said of Kirsty McCahon’s bass which, as always, contributed an enthusiastic line in support of her higher-pitched companions’ caperings, including those of cellist Daniel Yeadon. Even the reedy- textured violins of Matthew Greco and Julia Russoniello took on an infectious bounce in the first movement’s initial strutting tutti.

But the delight of this program constituent came in Browne’s appearance as a fore-grounded soloist in her own right, not as the top line of a quartet. Her first appearance was lengthy and, as the piece progressed, the flute’s elaborations on the opening march theme dominated proceedings. But Browne took all the tricks with an ideal placement of each note while Abel puts his soloist through a range of technical and breath-control tests; nothing flamboyant, but ever-demanding. He even managed to insert some thematic variants which Mozart might have been happy to imitate. I don’t know who wrote the cadenzas for this concerto – probably not Abel, if other manuscripts are any guide – but this one turned out sufficiently voluble and just long enough.

I think the middle Adagio was in G minor; whatever the case, these pages tested Browne’s sustaining power. She dominated the texture even more here but had to work hard because of the longer time for sweeping bow strokes allowed to the strings. To leader Matthew Greco’s credit, the pace proved sensible for all concerned; not over-weighty or insistent. Again, Browne’s cadenza brimmed with good judgement – but then, so did the ensemble’s approach, particularly in the treatment of ornamentation which emerged as it should: without fanfare or obviously basted onto a line, but just a slight disturbance in the Force.

Just how lively this ensemble can sound emerged when the Presto finale flurried into action, the results justifying the observation that this group (maybe just this section of the ARCO personnel?) sounds at its most convincing when the tempo is rapid. However, the flute gets total exposure when the tuttis end and Abel indulges in reams of rapid-fire sequence work. There’s an odd mix of the utterly predictable (thanks to repetitions, he being capable of three repetitions of a set phrase when Mozart would have been happy with two, at most) and a (in context) startling novelty, like a modulation which, in the normal run of events, was unanticipated.

Even against the light weight of a string quintet and theorbo combination, the period flute that Browne used was sometimes hard pressed to be heard, particularly when the instrument was operating inside its lowest fifth. But, in the main, the flute carved out its path with an appealing breathy quality, climaxing in yet another cadenza – which seemed unnecessary, given the amount of exercise the soloist had to put in throughout this movement. And the small ensemble brought the exercise to a gratifying end with a congenial solidarity.

Abel’s Flute Quartet in A Major Op. 12 No. 2 opened the recital with Browne taking top place above Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon. Her breath allocation made an interesting study across the opening measures of the first Un poco Allegro; indeed, it continued throughout a somewhat jumpy line that reached a finely couched oasis at a sustained E across bars 76 and 77. As far as I can tell, Browne’s transpositions – actually, translocations would be a better term – were kept to a minimum.

Browne’s melding into the fabric during the following Adagio ma non troppo showed at its subtlest during the repeated E semiquavers across bars 21 to 23. She also gave us an elegant taste of the galant in her negotiation of the appoggiaturas in bars 34 and 36, while Greco’s violin entered into a delectable partnership with Browne at bars 51-53 to put a suitable cap on proceedings. With the Tempo di Menuetto, Abel sets up a melody that is deftly shaped as a comparable piece by Mozart, but it moves into ordinariness at bars 5 and 6 when the sheen of direct speech goes astray. Greco found it hard to tamp down his attack in this movement, although Browne maintained a soft dynamic for the most part, so he’s not totally responsible for his own prominence. This last rondo is amiable without much content – a certain fluffiness around the edges made it unmemorable in itself, if a fitting vehicle to introduce the musicians without much stress brought into play.

Mozart’s own quartet coming straight after Abel’s gave Browne even more opportunity to demonstrate the breathy purity of her output while Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon brought as a counterweight their trademark lack of vibrato and open-string fear. You could pick up on phrasing differences between flute and strings (violin and viola) at certain points but more distracting was the tendency by the upper strings to employ a crescendo/diminuendo effect all over the shop. And you missed some sparks from the violin’s 2nds in places like bar 115, even if Schmitz compensated for this with her own contributions between bars 132 and 135. I missed the repetitions of both halves in this movement but that absence was not confined to this movement which nonetheless revealed a firmness and unanimity of ensemble from all involved.

Thanks to the strings’ pizzicati, the Adagio is a gift for the flautist who holds our interest across all 34 bars. Browne maintained an even melodic flow with no abrupt dynamic shifts. typified by a carefully prepared soft high D at the end of bar 21. But then, across this night none of her high notes grated. In the brilliantly happy Rondeau, Greco sounded scratchy at the throwaway gesture in bar 20 but made a more secure showing at its reappearance in bar 99; he also failed to etch a definite path through the bars’ 133-139 partial episode. You could not fault Schmitz or Yeadon in this exhilarating movement which reached a delectable pianissimo for all in the last main theme restatement beginning at bar 231, the whole set of pages taken at a brisk, not breathless, pace.

Of all players on this occasion, Yeadon had the most trouble with his tuning, his instrument affected by Sydney’s seasonal humidity. Consequently, he had to spend some time getting ready for the Mozart string quartet; then he and the other members of the group – Greco, Russoniello Schmitz – did not show at their best in a slip-shod account of the 1772 composition’s first strophes. In fact, the ensemble’s balance sounded unsettled, as in the recessed contributions from Russoniello in bars 25 to 28. A major signpost in the violins’ triple- and double-stops at bar 60 came across as laboured, although a similar construction in the last bar presented with much more acuity. Finally, I didn’t see what was gained by the insertion of a short violin cadenza at bar 74.

The group did repeat the first part of the Andante; a kind structural concession that stood out on this evening. Yet, in spite of the sensibility shown in this movement, the combined texture at points like bars 16 to 21 sounded like a piano accordion in timbre, possibly because of the octave unison between first and second violins not helped by the viola’s bland arpeggio filler. Once again, Russoniello went missing between bars 57 and 64 despite having the principal matter (what there is of it) in her part.

Greco showed to better advantage from the outset of the Presto finale as he and Russoniello were kept busy by the brisk pace and the score’s racy character, the first violin’s address best illustrated by his biting attack in the section from bar 85 onward. Despite commentators directing you to hear operatic traces in this work because Mozart was writing these quartets at the same time as Lucio Silla, this movement is memorable for its lavish use of syncopation which tends to attract the attention of performers more than giving primacy to melodic development; not that there’s much of that in these rapid-fire pages, here gifted with some suitable abruptness at the final chord.

It’s an immature work and streets away from what was going to turn up ten years later in the quartets dedicated to Haydn. But it made for an indication of what Mozart could do with inspirations that were short-stemmed. It might have gained from a less timbrally astringent handling but, as a rule, pieces of near-juvenilia need top-notch performers to lift them out of the second or third tier level they occupy in a great composer’s output.

But ARCO deserves our thanks for this exercise because, although it might not make Abel converts of us all, the occasion gave us the opportunity to revel in Browne’s expertly honed performance skills and her ability to take an also-ran score and turn it into a miniature gem.

Power from four likely lads

AN EVENING WITH ORAVA QUARTET

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Saturday October 17

 

Orava Quartet

Using the resources of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music which is being celebrated, as usual, in Townsville, Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett inserted this popular Queensland ensemble into their strong Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series, yet again showing that lockdown means nothing to administrators with a will. Mind you, the program was a brief one, with only two scheduled works: Haydn’s Sunrise Op. 76 No. 4, and Erwin Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 of 1924. Lucky I hung around at the end because the group came back to play a filler in the third movement, Tres lent, of the Ravel String Quartet.

It turned into a bit of a lop-sided hour with the Schulhoff score gaining most from the Oravas’ attentions. As expected, the young men made much of the vehemence to be found in the odd-numbered movements, but they were able to present an attractively dawdling version of the problematic second movement Allegretto and surprised with a non-indulgent treatment of the final affecting Andante – not flawless but assuredly insightful, living up to the composer’s emotional addresses (and distresses, for that matter).

The quartet’s score begins with a forte sempre dynamic direction across the board; the Oravas were quite happy to intensify the one term and obey the other. You could not want for any enthusiasm here in a Presto that owes much to Bartok and a little less to Stravinsky, and the pace was pretty inflexible up to two bars after Number 11 in the Philharmonia/Universal Edition score when the pizzicati, au talon and arco melange halts and the four lines come together in a four-octave-wide unison stringendo before a ferocious reversion to taws.

It sounds like an onslaught and in some ways it was, but the players found room for a bit of tempo flexibility along with the pressing motor-rhythms, so much so that the effect was far from freneticism for its own sake. The ensemble was crisp and exact as the players set out the ordered clash between modal and dissonant writing that started in D and ended in C. The result was pacy and entertaining to hear as the machismo level in the Townsville theatre took an upward turn.

Violist Thomas Chawner dominated the following Allegretto, his partners giving him an unobstructed field for his Number 1 solo. And he did not disappoint, generating a malleable and accurate line that exemplified the malincolia grotesca that Schulhoff required. Not to be outdone, cellist Marek Kowalik took up the reins after the the Tempo I marking: a 17-bar lyric of remarkable variety. All players made the sudden sul ponticello Nachtmusik a startling motion-packed melange before Chawner returned for a brief, acerbic cadenza leading to the last lingering and opening-recollecting violin solo; the texture quietly restless until the fade to darkness with a final squiggle from the top line.

It’s an unusual set of pages, organized but whimsical, and packed with effects that, for the most part, don’t get in the way. What I carried away was an awareness of the executants’ respect for every note and its placement, especially in the passagework of communal demi-semiquavers in pianissimo parallel motion. A turn back to the muscular broke in with the Allegro giocoso, a highpoint emerging at Number 2 with some gripping duets in fourths and a burst of unison work – the kind of fierce action that suits this group to a T. Nevertheless, five bars after Number 4 where the dynamic of the potentially Slovak melody is blazoned out, the composer’s forte enjoyed an upgrade to fortissimo. No wonder: this jaunty, affirmative and tautly written genre of composition presents an irresistible temptation to overload on testosterone.

In late Mahler mode, Schulhoff reserves his slow movement for the quartet’s finale: an Andante molto sostenuto of grave introspection, doubly telling after the hefty folksiness of its precedent. The cello has all the running to begin with, the bar-3 high A sharp not enjoying the most secure of treatments. But the landscape of dejection enjoyed some expertly accomplished interventions, like the viola and cello harmonics punctuations following Daniel Kowalik’s brief cadenza straight after Number 2, even if these sounded over-emphatic under the first violin’s sweet, atonal solo line.

The players completed their task with a moving account of the death-watch beetle mutterings in the final segment after Number 4, although the strictissimo sempre in tempo of the preceding violin two-bar cadenza proved to be something of a moveable feast. But the group made telling work of the quartet’s final, twitching bars in which several commentators have found intimations of Schulhoff’s concentration camp death 18 years later; stretching their levels of prescience, I think, since the writer’s state of mind at the time of this composition was more likely shadowed by his in-the-field experiences of World War I. Whatever your opinion, this haunting passage concluded an interpretation that successfully balanced brio and placidity, often on consecutive pages.

Opening their debut MDCH appearance, the Oravas ran through their chosen Haydn with its inane title. First violin Daniel Kowalik surprised with his rubato approach to the first aspiring theme, and you were unable to pick out a steady pulse until the semiquavers kicked off in bar 22. Still, the ensemble showed its teeth at places like bar 54 with a few bars of upper-level orderly scurrying. And, to their credit, the group stayed consistent in their schizoid interpretation, changing to ambling pace whenever the ‘sunrise’ theme emerged.

Along with the interrupted impetus approach, you could be surprised by individual touches as well, like the ringing top A flat from Daniel Kowalik at bar 85, the well-judged prefatory ritenuto at bar 108, cellist Marek Kowalik’s attention-grabbing slight delay at bar 166, and the clarity at work in the players’ output during polyphonic interchanges like those beginning at bar 130. Not that the balance remained perfect throughout. In the second movement Adagio, a sudden rush of blood meant that the first violin’s G across bar 2 disappeared in the forceful subsidiary E flats from second violin David Dalseno and Karel Kowalik. Urgency wasn’t actually in play here but the pace chosen seemed to me to be on the quick side.

Countering the steady-pace regularity came odd spots like the pause before starting bar 27, the reason for which was hard to fathom unless the group considered that the first violin’s leap from a staff-top G to a low E pointed to a need for opening a new sentence. A slow-down move at bar 35 heralded a pace that sounded more like an adagio. Later, progress came to an arresting halt at bar 51 for the first violin’s quaver rest, possibly to highlight the main theme’s resuscitation en clair. Dalseno took his time over his exposed semiquavers in bar 60, but then I would have liked more time expended on the C minor fermata chord in bar 65.

I liked the hesitant start to the Menuetto‘s main theme, as it made a point of the determination invested in the following measures, but it might have been varied with profit further down the track; you didn’t have to utilise that tic all the time. Haydn’s enigmatic Trio enjoyed a welcome equivalence of speed, rather than being slowed down for its minor/chromatic suggestions; the result gave a fine drive to the whole section, although – again – I thought the fermata at bar 97 could have been sustained a tad longer.

Another idiosyncrasy appeared early in the Allegro finale where both violins inserted a slight comma after their last note in bar 3 – and repeated this quirk every time the pattern was repeated. Nevertheless, these pages passed along with plenty of sustained fluent action, the only question mark coming through at the Piu allegro of bar 110, after which the dovetailing of lines could/should have been smoother. Yet you had to admire without question the full-bodied unison octave work at bar 161, these musicians relishing a final welter and carrying it off with refreshing panache.

To cheer us up after the Schulhoff, the Oravas decided to play the Ravel movement, but I’m not sure if you could say they lightened the mood overmuch. Possibly the players see this piece as a benign nocturne, which is fair enough as a general view of its main body, with some superb interludes based on the first movement’s initial theme. More memorable than worrying about this choice of program extra, the reading included some splendid moments, like the viola’s richly pointed contribution at the key change at Number 1, and again at Number 2; and like the subtle pause at six bars after Number 2.

I missed out on the cello’s pedal E three bars after Number 5 – surprising, since the lowest line is marked piano while the other three parts are pitched at pianissimo; but then, perhaps it was my equipment at fault. Later, I missed the distinction in diminished dynamics in bars 6 and 7 after Number 8. But Chawner made a welcome, direct and expressively balanced reappearance at Number 9, taking his colleagues into a fine conclusion, especially a carefully calculated interpretation of the last seven bars. It made for a reassuringly ‘sweet’ ending to the night but a better result might have been achieved by outing Ravel’s second movement Assez vif, which melds rhythmic excitement with this some of this slow movement’s subtle shadings.

It was a well worthwhile exercise, in the end. These young musicians have been successful in forming a musical alliance that works exceptionally well, four voices distinguished from several other high-profile Australian ensembles for a practically flawless purity of intonation, and an equally reliable balance of output that is so good that you notice immediately those few places where it falters. And, of course, their program gave us a welcome reminder of what ‘normal’ life looks like in a state that is coming closer than most to cultural resurrection.

The long and the short

NEW SOUNDS

Alex Raineri and Angus Wilson

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday October 10

Angus Wilson

So what do we do from now on? This is the last of the recitals in this Festival sequence – the end of music-making in Brisbane for the year . . . well, the production of music that is reliable, serious and regular by nature. Yes, you expect some other bodies to put up their hands to present the odd program, and so some of them have done. But we have come to rely on Alex Raineri and his organization to supply us with fortnightly events of musical value. From here on, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has the field all to itself as far as generating streamed material of consequence goes.

Raineri has a big reputation for interpreting contemporary music and his wind-up for 2020 played to this strength. The night featured first performances of four Australian compositions, all written by Raineri’s peers and colleagues associated with the avant-garde Kupka’s Piano enterprise: Samantha Wolf, Jakob Bragg, Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle. These works featured piano and percussion – usually vibraphone, handled by Angus Wilson who is another Kupka associate.

Agreable as it was to hear these fresh works, they were all – deliberately, or by chance – brief. So the duo gave at least half of their allotted time to an import in John Luther Adams’ ten-year-old Four Thousand Holes which requires two-to-six musicians but also has a continuous electronic underpinning. This non-live component doesn’t actually do much except swell and diminish, ending as it began after a half-hour-plus round-the-block hegira. The human contributors to this reading were Raineri on piano – staying at the keyboard throughout, I think, rather than making forays under the lid – and Wilson handling vibraphone and glockenspiel, following the composer’s requirement for ‘metallic percussion sounds’.

This performance was bedevilled near its beginning by several cuts in transmission: some of them short, then later dilating to the point where the broadcaster had to put up a web-site frame. After the transmission was completed, Raineri posted a tape of the complete recital for those feeling short-changed by these missing fragments. I dutifully went back to hear the first moves in Adams’ work – never look a gift horse, etc. – but this extra exposure achieved very little in my case. To be frank, I rather enjoyed the moments of unintentional disruption; probably a generational overload of Cage-ean yearning for any signs of Zen in music, according to which there are no mistakes or flaws, even if there are. But I delighted in those passages where the sound came back intact while the players were freeze-framed in action.

As for what the live performers had to do, the essentials seemed to be plenty of chords from the piano, mainly major, and single notes from the percussion, although I’m probably wrong about that because Wilson kept two sticks/mallets ready in both hands; still, it seemed to me that his function was essentially pointillist while the piano amplified the ongoing electronic stream with chords that drifted in and out of consonance with it.

Actually, the in-and-out breaths of this sonorous back-cloth became annoying, possibly because of an absence of variety – harmonic, polyphonic, rhythmic: you name it – but chiefly because the mesh wound up sounding like an accordion and, given the unadventurous nature of its construction, a particularly elementary. Young Talent Time-reminiscent one. You’d suppose that all these long periods of stasis would engender a sympathy with Adams’ emotional landscape, which involves the wide open spaces of America’s northernmost state, residence in which shaped the composer’s aesthetic aspirations.

Wilson used both keyboards, sometimes by themselves, sometimes at the same time but the chief memory of his activity remains those single note patterns. Yet, even when his dynamic was at its most compelling and Raineri’s chords ranged widest, the work’s process and progress comprised a haze, scintillations breaking through but not intended to jar against the prevailing sound continuum. After a while, you were tempted to abandon hope of any analysis and just suppress the critical, sinking into the repetitions and the glowing taped-sound stratum. All that was missing was a chain of visuals, like sub-Arctic landscapes of snow and ice-filled vistas until the instruments stopped and the tape drew to its elongated diminuendo conclusion (in E Major?).

You are in sync with Adams or you’re not; he isn’t of the same ilk as the big-name minimalists and ‘modernists’ who can often enrage with their futility or pretension, but he works on a Cinemascope level in which the natural world fundamental is idealised. It’s easy to go along with this cosmic humming, the musical equivalent of a lengthy ‘Om’, but I’ve been suspicious for many years of works that ask you to ignore all that you know and surrender to a benign intellectual coma. For all that, both players did the composer excellent service with a reading that outstripped two other recorded interpretations that I’ve heard recently, their superior in exerting personality and finding space in an aural area where both were difficult to achieve.

Each of the Australian premieres was preceded by a taped short address from its composer, most of them revisiting topics that had already been made public in Raineri’s interviews, published on the internet some days before the event itself. Wolf’s Bull in A China Shop set piano and vibraphone in bitonal competition, the most interesting moments coming when both instruments played the same melody line in their own specific tonalities – the effect rather like an organ Mixture stop. You were hard pressed to find anything aggressively taurine here, particularly during the substantial middle section reminiscent of Pagodes that moved into a vibraphone ostinato supporting 5th-heavy piano chords. A moderate degree of deftness appeared in the final ‘fast’ section that had more than a touch of Bernstein in his dance mode about it.

Both players worked inside the piano for Bragg’s Nest of gravel in which the sounds produced related strongly to the composer’s desire to suggest the granular and dessicated. Wilson mounted a slightly grating ostinato with wire-brush strokes on the upper strings, graduating from one hand to two in the piece’s later reaches. Raineri contributed his own bevy of scrapes on the lower range of the instrument, using a variety of wood and (I think) plastic strips as well as various sticks while complementing his scrapes and block glissandi with punctuating stopped notes. The physical presentation looked device-heavy as we were confronted with a wide gamut of effects. Whether the whole thing lived up to its backdrop aims of illuminating COVID-19 lockdown life and the constricted world of refugees still imprisoned on fast-decaying Pacific islands depends on your response to auditory stimuli, of which this brief score offered a sizeable amount.

Reardon-Smith’s three questions of scale appeared to be over too soon for anything much to land. Her first movement, three ants carry a dead wasp/east coast-west coast fires, had Raineri operating inside his piano with a long stick ending in a knob, producing single notes both struck and stopped. Wilson’s vibraphone confined itself to single notes. The composer’s debt to Morton Feldman seemed most apparent in this section. The next segment, the continuous trickle of my cat’s drinking fountain/the port of beirut explosion, impressed for its unsettling mobility. Here, the pianist scratched out sounds with two drum-sticks and both players interchanged range areas to produce a mobile fretwork of sonorities, Wilson’s contribution enriched by two cow-bells. At its climax, the work simply stopped, the narrative halting with nothing left to say.

Finally, mould growing inside an unopened tub of coconut yoghurt/we have all run out of medicare-supported therapy sessions saw Raineri at the keyboard for an array of single notes, indulging in a pin-pricking intersection with the vibraphone. The content of this movement moved between the frantic, including one wild piano passage, and the refined. Wilson’s cowbells weren’t struck but patted and tapped near the end, the piano mirroring this reticence with isolated blips.

These comments are quickly-noted gleanings from a run-through that left little time for awareness of much beyond texture. Added to that, you were confronted with the same problem as the Adams work presents: how much do you invest in any composer-derived information? Reardon-Smith’s movement titles split into halves where one is highly personal, the other broader in its implications – even the last with its reference to a national health crisis. But does either half help you to understand the composer’s intentions? It’s an open question to which – of course – there’s no definite answer.

Last of the Australian quartet, Rottle’s Public Figure springs from the composer’s interest on how personalities use the internet and associated media to make their names. Another score for piano and vibraphone, it revealed some early dexterity with both instruments playing the same notes in unison, then just after each other, the piano’s right hand and the vibraphone working into catchy off-beat rhythms before Wilson picked up a large string-instrument bow to create an all-too-familiar unearthly effect, then gave the same soft treatment to a stray cymbal.

Raineri moved inside his piano for some short glissandi while the bowed vibraphone helped generate a cleverly atmospheric interlude – soft, with threadbare action – before the piano regained authority against a brushed cymbal and, from nowhere, emerged a five-note motif that brought memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to this irreverent mind. I started to wonder about the tuning in some of the piano’s lower notes but was taken aback by the subtle, inconclusive ending: a parable of the quest for public recognition, maybe.

Here was an ambitious program, a striking ending to the Festival’s 10-event series. It’s hard to emphasize to onlookers how much we are indebted to Raineri – and his guests – for keeping live music-making alive here. With limited resources, he has presented a splendid variety of programs in which we were lucky to enjoy several excellent interpretations. This final one had the added benefit of giving a small showcase to four young local voices, in which endeavour Wilson and Raineri demonstrated an unflinching probity, despite the physical (and, one hopes, transitory) handicap that the percussionist had to endure and the shared necessity of coping with such disparate creations.

A dry season trifecta

BERNADETTE HARVEY

Musica Viva

Thursday October 1

Bernadette Harvey

The latest in Musica Viva’s direct telecast recitals, this program found pianist Bernadette Harvey performing in a Sydney gallery to a small audience. As far as I can remember from previous MV escapades of this kind, having a live audience is a new move, a sign that what we used to consider as normal could be on the way back. Of course, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has been spruiking for live audience members over the past weeks but then Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have been at the forefront of pandemic-time musical activity since the first hit revealed that life for all artists had changed, these two blazing a trail for everybody else to follow – tentatively, in the main, especially considering the talent allowed to lie fallow that emerges in lots of orchestral rehashes and solo instrumental squibs.

No point in getting bitter, is there? Even if the thought of all that salaried talent fallen into quiescence makes you wonder about an absence of enterprise from bodies with pages of patrons and sponsorships, all quite content to show minimal signs of life, leaving real and useful activity up to the MDCH and Brisbane Music Festival’s Alex Raineri. Musica Viva is doing its best, faced with the enforced absence of its usual rota of overseas guests. So Harvey’s hour of performance brightened up an operational landscape that currently depends largely on the drive of three young musicians.

Her program fell into three sections: a completely unfamiliar (to me, if not to you, mainly because I can’t trace a published score or a recorded performance) Second Sonatine by Donald Hollier who stands among the least-performed of this country’s senior composers; a selection of five pieces from Chopin’s Op. 10 Etudes – Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9 and 4; and Alternating Current by the American writer Kevin Puts, which is one of Harvey’s party pieces as she recorded it for the Tall Poppies label in 2011 and on YouTube you can find her authoritative live performance from March last year in Tucson.

Written in 1997, Alternating Current proved to be the most interesting work on this program. Its three movements kept you engaged through their motoric energy and Puts’ mastery of making his material work to fine effect, both in terms of virtuosity and simple emotional messaging. The opening is reminiscent of a toccata – not necessarily a Bach, but more a Buxtehude with its constant changes of pace. This enjoyed a brilliant expounding from Harvey, who showed herself quite aware of the composition’s metrical dispositions and the often relentless digital precision required to swamp the listener in a benign hammering. Despite the brilliance of these pages – an exhilarating updating of Le Tic-toc-choc – I was more taken by the following slow movement with its descending bell-like chords and simple melodic motives – the whole a mono-chromatic canvas in the end where the insistence on a root tonality (E flat? Couldn’t tell for sure because of screen/sound delay and creative camera angles) generated an all-too-appealing immersive web of sonority.

For a finale, Puts went all out in another rapid movement, also something of a toccata but an intentionally bitonal one – each hand playing in the ‘key’ of the preceding movements. I tried keeping track of the matter under discussion but soon gave up because clearly the urgent forward motion was the prime aim. Here, Harvey proved most persuasive, generating full-bodied washes of sound, making light work of the deft syncopations. As with the first movement, you were taken up by the energy and insistence although, thanks to the superimposed tonalities, this finale showed more bite in its dissonances and more variety in its march towards a harmonically satisfying, if orthodox, conclusion.

Hollier’s 1996 Second Sonatine, subtitled On popular themes, runs to four movements and cites themes that everyone should know – if only they were recognizable. But it’s not the composer’s job to make his music over-simple, although Hollier goes some way towards that in his third movement Ayre: Nostalgico, con molto rubato – a rumination on the Lennon(?)-McCartney song Yesterday. Thank God Harvey told us at the end which other sources had been recast.

A choral (?) prelude made for an elegant opening in the slow and stately mode that the title probably was meant to suggest, samples of it discernible in everything of this genre from Bach to Reger. What first impressed you was Hollier’s whimsical mordents in the progress of his melodic line, which was punctuated by quick block chords moving in either direction. Climaxing in a state of quasi-hysteria, the movement covered itself with a dark, slow conclusion. This used Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves, carefully transmuted. A passacaglia followed, but nothing like the big C minor for organ; this was a dance that moved in metre between 5/8 and 6/8 and covered in its freneticism the title song from Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! Although the fluctuating time-signature suggests a bumpy ride, this was a steady set of pages, regularly irregular but well-equipped with clusters and rapid scale-work. And brief.

The Yesterday treatment brought to mind Grainger’s musings on Gershwin, although Hollier was not so tightly bound to his original, deviating from the original and lingering over fragments of the whining melody, like the rise and fall of a 6th at the words ‘Why’d she have to go? I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’. For all the clever loitering, this experience reminded me of nothing so much as the sort of thing you’d hear in an up-market piano bar. Harvey held on to some notes longer than any lounge pianist would dare, and Hollier’s ending sounded disappointingly bland and ‘easy’ – or perhaps he was making a sardonic comment on his material.

The sonatine’s finale, a Fugue: Allegro ritmico, was certainly that and more. Shades of Prokofiev and Bartok proved hard to ignore with loads of cutting harmonic clashes and the fugue’s lines running into each other rather than coalescing into a mellifluous whole. Hollier’s headlong progress came to a sort of stretto climax with hand-smashes across the keyboard, although the whole thing wound up with a kind of fugal flourish as the composer finished dealing with the Toreador’s March from Carmen (or was that just Escamillo’s aria from Act Two?) and Strangers in the Night by Bert Kaempfert. In the end, this unknown piece turned out to be great entertainment and a fine showcase for Harvey’s virtuosity and ready sympathy – a deft reflection from the other side of the Pacific on Puts’ powerhouse construct written a year later.

As a preface to the five Etudes, Harvey spoke of the differences between Chopin and herself, which didn’t lead to many insights, probably because the address seemed diffuse and unsure of what it intended to accomplish. During No. 1 in C Major, the right hand arpeggios proved pretty reliable, although a squeaky top D flat six bars from the end detracted from the work’s fluency. You could find much to like with No. 3 in E Major, even if Harvey showed a tendency to ‘point’ notes too often – lingering in a mini-rubato at melody-disturbing points. By contrast, her handling of the central poco piu animato section was powerful and eloquent in both passion and drive. No. 8 in F gave us a good deal of perky left hand work underneath the semiquaver-happy right hand which again did not maintain absolute accuracy.

You rarely hear No. 9 in F minor, unless the executant is presenting the complete set. Harvey made a persuasive case for the piece’s characteristic restlessness but also found out its declamatory quality, particularly when Chopin gives octaves to the right hand. I don’t know whether a decelerando in the final bars works, but if that’s what you think makes a suitable conclusion, you can only choose to disagree on principle when it’s accomplished with this amount of finesse. Harvey’s decision to wind up with No. 4 in C sharp during which both hands enjoy a thorough workout was successful; here, you could find few flaws in the technical work and she managed to sustain the study’s interest despite the temptation to segmentalise it into a series of two-, four- and six-bar challenges.

Again, thanks to Musica Viva for presenting this event, more worthwhile than many in that I’ve rarely heard Harvey in my time in Melbourne and am probably unlikely to experience her work live in the Light North. Among a plethora of artists with few conceptions about how to interpret difficult music, she has been – and continues to be – a welcome presence that should be exposed more often.