A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic & 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 & 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 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.