Shaky start, brilliant finish

MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS

Sophie Rowell and Kristian Chong

Hamer Hall

Thursday November 26

Sophie Rowell

In his opening address to this recital, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall co-founder Christopher Howlett welcomed us – remotely – back to Hamer Hall. Fine, even if the venue isn’t one you’d choose for a duo recital. Still, Rowell and Chong faced back-of-stage rather than having to project out across to the hall proper. Great to see the place was being woken up from a long snooze (or has it? I haven’t been following Melbourne Symphony Orchestra pandemic events, unjustifiably assuming that they have been as lame as those mounted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra), but the backdrop of all those empty seats proved a tad unsettling.

Anyway, here we were in the old (?) familiar space with two fine musicians presenting a program of Mozart’s K. 454 B flat Violin Sonata, Szymanowski’s Op. 30 Mythes, and three arrangements of songs by Calvin Bowman, taken from the Melbourne composer’s seven encounters with American poet William Jay Smith. Plenty of meat here, even if the cuts differed markedly in character and effect.

A risk that only top-level partnerships should take – I’m thinking of Szeryng and Haebler, Oistrakh and Yampolsky, Francescatti and Casadesus – is to kick off your program with Mozart. The violin sonatas are a minefield for their interpreters; not the notes, but the way you deliver them. For instance, most modern-day musicians find it necessary to avoid emphasis, observing the facility of Mozart’s inventiveness by giving it kid gloves treatment. Which works if you play on period instruments but not when you have the resources of the modern violin and its steel strings, not to mention the ringing power of Hamer Hall’s big Kawai.

All of which is a preface to saying that parts of this Mozart K.454’s first movement misfired, chiefly because Rowell attempted some soft dynamics and the results sounded tentative, nervous, wavering. Chong had a better time of it but that’s largely because of the way the movement is written for the piano – with a mellifluous and safe fluency – and because it’s so much easier to play around successfully with dynamics and touch gradations on a piano than it is on a violin.

Even in the opening Largo‘s 13-bar stretch, the string line melted away in contrast with the slashing triple-stop chords of the instrument’s initial phrases; when the piano situation first came up, the bow barely hit the string and the results failed to carry or contribute. So the pendant Allegro proved very welcome for its change of emotional terrain. Rowell’s high Cs in bars 31 and 33 might have gained from more intensity, as would her exposed subsidiary theme treatment starting at bar 50: not an exceptional tune but quietly eloquent, not just quiet. For all this nitpicking, the body of the movement proceeded successfully, Chong rarely missing a note in his frequent semiquaver scale patterns.

Mozart’s Andante with its awkward two-bar phrases would have benefitted from a more determined violin approach, which might have made a less featureless creature of the B flats across bars 13 and 14; even subsidiary voices need character. An almost evanescent third F at the move to B flat minor in bar 49 was counterweighted by a fine tritone leap beginning bar 95; when the piece asked for some grit, things came alive.

You couldn’t ask for plainer sailing than this sonata’s Allegretto finale, despite its little chromatic slips in the second phrase. Chong sustained his buoyancy of output, slightly marred by an exposed revisiting of the main theme in a solo between bars 90 and 98 when a few notes went missing. One of the few thick moments, that between bars 223 and 230 with three concurrent lines in operation, came off with laudable clarity and Rowell’s running triplets from bar 251 to bar 258 could not be faulted for their even delivery: a fine final gesture after a work that missed out on achieving continuous comfort for its executants and their audience.

About the Bowman songs in this particular duo format, I’ve little to report. The organist/pianist/composer has found his own voice somewhere close to the English pastoral writers with no qualms about producing orthodox melodies supported by suitable accompaniments. What these arrangements did show was the unabashed romantic colour to them all, nowhere better than in Rowell’s rich account of Now touch the air softly, for which Bowman has provided a melody (G Major?) that touches the heart with its folk tune-like simplicity and has a fluent grace that fits the poem in the best way: as though both were written by the same hand.

No, there were no words here but Rowell gave the melody line a fine energy, on the move and of a piece with the voice of the poem’s lover who is speaking on a similar plane as that in Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. I couldn’t find Smith’s verses to The Early Morning but Bowman set it with another finely-formed lyric, interspersed pauses giving you the passing impression of an irregular metre. Again, this piece gave all its room for the violin’s breadth of colour although Chong was kept in play with an accompaniment of no little variety. A repeated note begins the tune for The Night which is another song (in A flat? My pitch sense is mouldering in these latter days) packed with carefully arched phrases. Again, I couldn’t find the text but even so you could luxuriate in the appealing, full-bodied ardour projected by Rowell in music of no great difficulty but aimed directly at Bowman’s large and appreciative audiences.

To close, Rowell and Chong performed Szymanowski’s 3 Mythes which has been acclaimed as one of the pivotal violin works of he 20th century and which I, for one, was hearing live for the first time. It may be astonishing to the composer’s enthusiasts that the work hasn’t spread into common usage but, from a discography I consulted, the only names from recordings of Mythes that resonated were those of David Oistrakh and Ida Haendel. At the time of its creation, and many years later, Szymanowski claimed that he and violinist Pawel Kochanski – the dedicatee’s husband and first interpreter of the suite – had invented a new style of violin composition. For the time – 1915 – he was probably right because the score is a compendium of special effects and production modes.

But its challenges have to be forgotten if the three pieces are to make an emotional impression. And I found it hard to get past the technical brilliance, in which tasks Rowell was impressively successful. The opening La fontaine d’Arethusa begins with a shimmering water effect in the keyboard before a high melody emerges in the violin. This sets the scene for a wealth of cascades and spouts from both instruments, particularly a rich field for Chong at Number 2 in the score and later, for Rowell, the use of eerie violin harmonics at Number 4. Changes are rung right across the remainder of the work, climaxing in an action-packed crescendo at the A tempo con passione marking that leads to sforzandi/fff in both instruments, then a return to the opening textures. It’s gripping to experience but finally impressed me as a series of frissons of varying magnitudes. The atmosphere is loaded with suggestions, rhapsodic and ample-beamed, but even this excellent partnership could not disguise the introverted aura of the hothouse.

Again, in Narcisse, the violin is sent into a high tessitura, taxingly so with the entry after a change to Poco piu animato, then again after Number 3, and at the highpoint half a dozen bars before Number 6. Chong’s keyboard is gifted with more meat in this movement than post-Jeux d’eau plashing, Szymanowski peppering the part with multi-note chords that eventually require three staves. It all made for a solid and satisfying demonstration, the performers at ease with fulfilling the writer’s intentions and, even if the air again proved over-heated, the subject matter was appropriate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the third piece, Dryades et Pan, chiefly for its restlessness – again, pertinent to the music’s scenario – and seeing Rowell weave a confident way through one of the most technically difficult parts I’ve come across in pre-serial composition. Both artists realized the importance of Szymanowski’s touch-and-release processes in these pages and, in spite of the racing ferment, the paramount need for space and clarity. You couldn’t wish for cleaner harmonics – natural and artificial – from Rowell, nor a more assured hand in the chains of trills and scrubbing bars full of double-stopped hemi-demi-semiquavers.

So much of this movement satisfied fully, even at highly dangerous and challenging points. Whether the narrative impetus was complete in itself or whether Rowell and Chong infused the movement with an abundance of personality, it was improbably difficult to make out because the animato direction was obeyed willingly, and hiatus points – like the Pan flute interlude and some rapid cadenzas – flew past. In sum, an exhilarating conclusion to an hour which – eventually – showed us this duo’s powers of interpretation and interdependent technical control.

Glittering aphorisms all round

PIANO SONATA NO. 6: 17 GRAEME LEE PRINTS

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3453

Another mixed media enterprise (of sorts) has recently emerged from Michael Kieran Harvey, who has been making the best of lockdown and isolation in Tasmania. He calls this his Sonata #6 and it has taken impetus from 17 prints by Graeme Lee: an artist long associated with Harvey, I believe, as, with his wife Margaret, Lee was part of the consortium that commissioned Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 2, premiered by Harvey 22 years ago during that year’s Sydney Festival.

Or Lee could be some other fellow entirely.

At all events, here we are with a freshly-minted CD, its booklet showing us small-scale reproductions of the particular 17 Lee prints, as well as the cover one above that seems to be untitled. Along with these mini-prints, another long-time Harvey associate – Arjun von Caemmerer – has contributed 17 Leeward Epigraemes. which are accompanying aphorisms/observations/ Tasmanian haiku/apothegms which, for the more naive among us, tend to be more immediately relevant to the print’s titles than Harvey’s material. Not too surprising as the pianist/composer is employing a creative palette that fascinates for itself alone, without the need for us to find relationships or reflections in Lee’s art, not matter how clear these are to Harvey himself.

Some of the segments are epigrammatic: 46 “, 48 “, 49 ” – just long enough to make a running leap at your imagination or analytic faculty and then halt. The longest movement, Globe, comes in at 3’32” but the average length on this album sits at 2’19”. Finishing this very basic arithmetic summation, the entire work lasts for a bit over 37 minutes, or about as long as the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3.

After a while, the tracks can appear to run into each other; it’s as though they’re using the same material but you can’t discern what’s happening to it because the actual level of activity is so unrelenting. The opening Floating Item begins with a sombre atmosphere that is immediately challenged by an ensuing mix of massive chords and coruscating flights that stand as portals to the following whirlwind. Hot Rolls is notable for its relentless syncopation, like a jazz session where the initial motive is all there is, the whole moving to bass statements that don’t fade away but remain as fierce as the initial ferocity of attack.

With Pyramid, you get a fine exhibition of Harvey’s armoury. Here also, syncopation seems to be winning the day and the opening passage is jazz-influenced with a highly mobile running bass under an upper line that is just as active. Abruptly, the onward rush stops for a series of portentous single notes, prefacing the composer’s trademark forceful pointillism where the spaces shrink, the tempo picks up and the piece reverts to a kind of restrained double layer of energy. Parts of this track are astoundingly virtuosic, as though some segments have been pre-recorded with moments when you’d swear Harvey had somehow got inside the piano lid to operate on the strings despite the extreme rapidity of the simultaneous keyboard content. By contrast, the brief White Shapes III sounds like an acerbic two-part invention, the lines yielding nothing to each other.

To the all-too-tutored ear, Vase has shades of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Three Piano Pieces in its solid opening address and sudden shifts to flamboyance. In the context of its precedents, the piece strikes you as meditative, determined to forge its path using a methodology notable for sharply-etched definition. Probably the only thing I can say about Pattern is that the surface appearance has at least two, if not three; but they leave the space very quickly.

Globe takes me back to Pyramid because it appears to be operating on two distinct sound layers. Behind the scenes is a wide-ranging arpeggio-suggesting pattern up and down the keyboard, its progress soft and recessed. In front comes a main structure of firm shapes and chords. Gradually the undercurrent becomes more prominent, a full part of proceedings. This duality continues, repeats itself, but the construct impresses for its coherence, particularly the almost grandiose power of the full-frontal matter.

At about the midway mark, at Print No. 8, Lee’s Coloured M refers to the Macdonald’s fast-food chain because the titular ‘M’ as printed here is really the company’s golden arches. For all that, the print favours green across a somewhat irregular capital M. Harvey’s contribution is stentorian, brief and highly confrontational; like the print itself, you can find a statement in the score. Old-fashioned ternary form strikes in Stage with isolated notes and chord clusters or groups at either end with another Harvey moto perpetuo on two levels in the middle; it’s like a juxtaposition of classic theatre with the wild world of action drama,

A binary pattern typifies Gap which opens with some improbably piercing and rapid work in the piano’s treble, percussive and scintillating at the same time. Then the context shifts to an active bass that sounds jazz-inflected but occupies a world of rhythmic complexity well beyond the genre’s habitual practice. The contrast is repeated and you are left with plenty of mental food to investigate what is happening in this particular space between two strata of sound and timbre.

I don’t know what to make of Oysters. It’s fast-moving, follows a lead upwards, then half-way down; you come across one of the few obvious accelerandi (or perhaps two) in the whole collection; the time-signature appears to be more regular than in all the other fast-moving pieces. We’re back with the bi-planar in Tower where the main message comes in powerful chords and even more striking trills, all setting up a suggestion or two of massiveness and truculence before the recessed sound-scene emerges in its own right, then in combination with the loud battlements plosives.

For many, the most accessible track on this CD will be Black Bowl which verges on Debussy prelude status through its employment of atmospheric motives and Harvey’s adoption of a harmonic structure that recalls something the early 20th Century French musicians would recognize. Von Caemmerer’s versicle concerns the Buddha and that’s all it takes to set you off into recollections of the Orient as seen through those ultra-refined European eyes. Mind you, it’s not affected or soft-centred, but it speaks an attractive language that, in this context, could almost be called populist.

In Item Falling, Harvey plays with a spiky brilliance, moving through his piece typified by a remarkable angularity and flawless virtuosity, including a splendid octave fragment in the treble that emerges from nowhere – just like the sudden flights of notes that briefly sparkle up and down the instrument. Even so, there’s something almost too perfect about this piece’s execution as Harvey’s articulation borders on the superhuman. But then, there have been nights when I’ve seen him enter into comparable performance states.

Yet another two-level set-up emerges in Man Running, which illustrates again some of Harvey’s methodologies, beginning with an ostinato that is deliberately irregular in metre, then accelerates using the same pattern but ends up moving somewhere else before you realise it. As in the previous piece, the pianism is exceptionally crisp as the substance settles into two high and low mobile lines, the climax emerging in energetic block chords in the right hand; if you like, you can trace a particularly dedicated jogger’s path as the composition is oddly suggestive of physical motion.

Mound II, the penultimate movement, strikes me as particularly complex in every parameter. With Harvey, time signatures are a highly moveable feast, although he often settles into a pattern, but only for a short episode; no sign of that here in a metrically confounding operating room. As in previous tracks, you experience faint sound webs overpowered by fore-fronted elliptical strokes. Above all, Harvey presents a volatile progress where nothing is allowed to settle for a moment; even the pauses bristle with potential vehemence – and it always arrives.

Finally, Fitzroy Jazz II brings back memories of nights when Harvey would set the room on a roar with his overwhelming wizardry. It follows a simple ternary format but packed with transformed tropes, onslaughts that are essentially grist to a jazz musician’s mill but here fall over each other in a brilliant cascade, including chords of great complexity and running lines in both hands that fold seamlessly into each other. Once again, you seem to be settling into a normal syncopated rhythm, only to have the edifice tilt sideways into realms where the toe-tapping hipster is all at sea. As with each track on this CD, you come across passages that both amaze and amuse for their throwaway character, as here in an ascending series of triplets of excellent dexterity.

So, what we have is yet another in the series of this great artist’s CDs for the Move company. It’s a gift to us all, the Michael Harvey Collection – one that refreshes as each album emerges. A source of delight to me is that I still have two elements in this set waiting for examination. Further, the composer is clearly as creatively fertile as ever, regardless of the many limitations necessarily inflicted over the past ten months.

This Sonata #6 breaks some time-honoured rules of Western composition; for example, by eschewing the form’s usual discursive nature in favour of a suite in which the compositional patterns – Harvey refers to the movements’ mereology – are bogglingly complex, judging by the few score samples I’ve seen. As an exploration of the piano’s potential for novel sounds and whole new paragraphs of activity, this disc of brief bursts – even for those familiar with the composer/pianist’s previous achievements – is a must-have.

Sounds heard are sweet

QUEEN OF THE NILE

Sofia Troncoso and Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 12

Sofia Troncoso

Here we are: back in the concert hall – not many of us, but enough to suggest that a corner has been turned. Will we get back to the ‘proper’ order of things and revert to valuing the packed-house syndrome as an indicator of success? Probably. but I suspect that any turning back to the way we were will take longer in the major cities because there’s so much to lose if something goes wrong. You could go the way of self-assurance and propose that people who attend serious music concerts and recitals are, by definition, non-COVID 19 carriers. But the virus is – as we have seen – indiscriminate and, although I may not be sweating and gasping all over you (as I would at a rave), there’s no confidence to be placed in an honest face – not these days.

Despite the ever-present risk, Musica Viva presented this Reconnect Brisbane program featuring the Camerata chamber orchestra in eight works from the Baroque or close to it. Chief soloist, soprano Sofia Troncoso, worked through three arias connected with the night’s Cleopatran theme, but the rest of the content had little to do with Egypt, the glaring exception being a sinfonia from Hasse’s opera Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. Relieved by some short pieces by Locke, and Biber (the inevitable Battalia), the evening’s major work was a Pisendel violin concerto, with Camerata’s artistic director Brendan Joyce as soloist.

I couldn’t see what was the state of play in the stalls, but there were meagre numbers up in the balcony of the QPAC Concert Hall. We were well-spaced out, mainly in clusters of two – but it seemed that many Musica Viva patrons were not yet willing to take the plunge and come out to a recital/concert. The auditorium’s side boxes radiating down from the balcony were pretty much empty and the ambience upstairs could charitably be called ‘quiet’.

I was sitting in the last occupied row, I think, and have to confess that the acoustic properties were lousy in this position. For a body like Camerata, which is not a dynamically volatile body like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the travelling power of their group product seems poor. But then, this room – its slight fan, its high roof, its plush seating and carpet – is not an ideal venue for transmitting performances rich in detail. For a Brahms symphony, a big Mahler, the Gurrelieder: fine. But my forebodings started when a chest of viols (2 violins, a viola, a cello, a bass and harpsichord) played the Curtain Tune from Locke’s music for The Tempest – which is the composer’s restrained musical depiction of the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not, punctuated by some intimations of Restoration storms. As far as I can tell from the score, a certain amount of repetition went on; no problem, and I’m sure it was common practice in the composer’s day while scenery was being hoisted into place. This reading proved to be plangent and restrained, lacking much bite from where I heard it and making you wish for a more aggressive approach that a group like the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra beings to this genre of composition.

Joyce then outlined the order of proceedings and led the full Camerata body – five each of first and second violins, four violas, three cellos and a double bass, with that harpsichord continuo – into Hasse’s Spiritoso e staccatoAllegroStaccato triptych which made a fine impression for its smooth unanimity of attack, but the quality of sound came up as wooly and without bite.

Troncoso gave an amiable account of Cleopatra’s last aria, Da tempeste, from Act 3 of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In the lower reaches of this piece, her voice melded into the strings all too readily. As it progressed, you could tell that all the fioriture was there but it proved uninvolving, particularly in the exposed middle section from bars 85 to 94. The highest notes required – A and G sharp – came over well enough in semiquaver patterns, not so well as individual quavers.

The Concerto grosso No. 7 in G Major from the Op. 7 set of twelve by Giuseppe Valentini made a novelty of sorts. In his program briefing, Joyce wondered why this writer’s name was not as familiar as those of Vivaldi or Corelli. Well, it might have something to do with melodic originality and a facility of expression that didn’t show so much debt to formulae. Certainly the score had elegance and the Camerata gave it their best, but the five movements – Grave, Fuga, Adagio, Vivace and Allegro assai – proved unexceptional, apart from the last which featured some unexpected modulations.

Joyce’s violin added a pliancy to the slow opening, while some predictable suspensions and close-order chording gave the Fuga membership of many another similar work. The slow movement didn’t extend very far, despite the introduction of ornaments; the following lively-paced pages brought into play some welcome subdued hugger-mugger action. But the finale, along with those key-changes, also held a more visceral attraction with much crescendo/diminuendo work and a deft juxtaposition of forte and piano passages.

Cleopatra’s Piangero comes earlier in Act 3 of Handel’s opera than Da tempeste and has become well-known here since Opera Australia mounted the work to showcase the Baroque talents of Yvonne Kenny and the trio of counter-tenors in the company’s ranks some decades ago. Here, even without the original’s flute, Troncoso sounded more persuasive with an admirable ability in communicating controlled passion, alongside an added benefit in having more room to gauge a smoother level of production. The central Ma poi morta strophes succeeded pretty well despite an unfortunate top note (scored or introduced, I couldn’t tell) and even if the semiquaver runs might have been less stolid. In this piece, the Camerata players showed the singer every consideration; even I could hear each note of the outer segments to this aria.

Matters didn’t get off to a good start with the Pisendel concerto because I somehow was labouring under the false expectation that the piece was in G Major; it was actually in D . Then the only violin concertos I could find by this composer in that key required oboes or oboes plus horns. Whatever the case, my resources for this were dissatisfyingly small. A short interlude for three solo violins (with harpsichord) in mid-Movement 1 made for a welcome timbral oasis, and Joyce’s solo line came powering up with excellent clarity. Once again, you would have liked more energy in attack; this is the sort of work that Il Giardino Armonico throws off with flamboyance and – when I last saw them – something like musical machismo. It might have made more of an impression if the Camerata’s treatment had been less polite.

An Andante followed period tropes, invested with a walking-pace melancholy and more opportunities for Joyce to shine in a few outbreaks between unexciting ritornelli. The 6/8 finale began with an infectious sweep that didn’t sustain itself; no fault of the Camerata but more Pisendel’s contentment with note-spinning. Speaking of which, the soloist was put to hard labour in this substantial movement which every so often impressed for its verve. Eventually, the work ended in about nine bars of unison/octave work that seemed rather threadbare after the triad-rich if orthodox harmony at play during the preceding pages.

Biber’s descriptive scraps never fail to entertain, but I was a tad concerned that this audience was going to applaud every movement. That trend came to a stop after Die liederliche gsellschafft von allerley Humor where the composer goes in for bi- or tri-tonality; a little touch of Ives in the night. I think most of the standing players did a bit of in-place marching during the violin/double bass Der Mars duet, which brought up memories of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s penchant for percussive footwork when performing Veress’s Transylvanian Dances. Still, this Battle is an easy accomplishment; nothing lasts too long and the scenes roll past – except for the final Lamento der Verwundeten which the Camerata dispatched with an admirable lack of maudlin self-indulgence. War is hell: get over it, as the former Cretin-in-Chief could have told you.

Troncoso ended the program with a stop-start aria from Vivaldi’s Il tigrane. Well, we say Vivaldi but he wrote only Act Two of this work; the outer acts by different composers have not survived. Squarciami pure il seno is sung by Cleopatra and is a fast-slow piece where the two tempi sit side by side rather than being confined to one or other of the work’s three segments. Here, Troncoso showed very willing in crossing between the schizophrenic Egyptian queen’s juxtaposed temperaments with an appealing limpid quality in the Lento interpolations.

An odd work, but taxing in its emotional vaults rather than in vocal technique. You could say the same about pretty much everything else we heard, apart from the violin concerto. In fact, the program mirrored the night itself in being not too hot, not too cold, not high-flying and not particularly popular in content. Rather, we eased back into going out to hear music. For all that, I’m not convinced that this is the venue that suits Camerata when working in this genre. The whole thing recalled those years when Melbourne Musica Viva presented its season in Hamer Hall; we got used to it over time but only realised what we’d put up with after the Recital Hall’s opening. I expect that there are buildings with a less booming acoustic around Brisbane and am looking forward to hearing Camerata in one of them some time soon.

Still on top

A FINAL OFFERING

Selby & Friends

Angel Place Recital Hall, Sydney

Saturday November 7

Susie Park

Nothing here to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty: a very orthodox chamber music without surprises from Kathryn Selby and three familiar guests – violinist Susie Park, violist Stefanie Farrands and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. All of these musicians are part of our continent’s musical life, but Valve leads this particular pack – or so it seems to me – in the breadth of his appearances. His omnipresence rivals that of Brett Dean in the violist/composer’s years presiding at the Australian National Academy of Music, during which time he participated in a plethora of activities.

This whole evening played to our lust for the well-known: Schubert’s Adagio/Notturno in E flat, the E minor Trio No. 2 by Shostakovich, and Schumann’s E flat Piano Quartet. As with the works, so with the performers – all of them in happy collegiality with very few signs of ensemble troubles. Which fortunate outcome you’d expect as all have participated in Selby’s recitals before.

As for the Schubert oddment – a not-too-distant relative of the String Quintet’s Adagio – it was treated with excellent sympathy, avoiding the temptation to sandpaper all the edges during the main theme’s treatments. Only the demisemiquaver at the end of many bars received a smoothing out, rather than bringing into play a short recurrent surprise, a brief interruption to the mellifluous melody. But you’d be clutching at straws to make much of this. Both of the proud internal episodes were handled with tempered vehemence, Selby’s triplets seamless as far as I could tell and the close lines of Park and Valve exemplary in dynamic unanimity and empathetic phrasing.

Coming into the Russian score, Valve worked through the opening six unaccompanied bars of harmonics without showing the stress that most other cellists communicate in this passage, an executive tension that doesn’t end with the violin’s appearance. A few high As near the end of this solo sounded near to danger but the final ascent before normal relations resumed spoke securely enough: Shostakovich’s eldritch summons fulfilled, the drama of sorrow, rage and resignation could proceed. This group favoured an emphatic delineation of the first Allegro‘s highpoint, not getting ahead of themselves – probably because they were conscious of what was coming up – with Selby establishing and maintaining a tempo that rejected the temptation of a cheap accelerando.

This broad outline was complemented by striking instances of telling synchronicity, like the strings’ creeping chromatic scales, the block-against-block interplay of violin-plus-cello against keyboard, Park’s fine juxtaposition of smooth phrases with multiple-stop scrapes, Valve’s well-crafted ability to remain audible and more than just a presence through the fraught climaxes. Later, in the second movement, the pace was mindful of the composer’s non troppo qualifier, which meant that every spicy dissonance and lavish swathe in those G Major interludes could be imbibed fully, without your being rushed across the work’s surface in a frantic presto.

No problems with the Largo: a threnody for the strings over a series of repeated piano chords and the closest thing I know to a contemporary Mourner’s Kaddish. This found both Park and Valve in fine form for the canons and duets that ruminate in muted language on tragedy (the death of dedicatee Sollertinsky? Babiy Yar 1941? The Odessa rioting of 1831? There’s a lot to pick from). Particularly moving was the eloquent accomplishment of the movement’s last nine bars, especially the beyond-grief harmonics in the final bar – one of the score’s finest moments.

With the purposeful Jewish-coloured content of the final Allegretto, it seems as though the composer is celebrating life or survival. He’s not: this is fierce music, as poundingly inevitable as the second movement but more wrenching and sardonic, soon seen in bar 28 where the strings alternate pizzicato quadruple stops – here, mightily impressive in character. Park added to the vehemence with a series of biting glissandi between D and E as she dealt with the movement’s main theme 16 bars after the caustic quadruple string chords stopped alternating.

Valve brought some humanity into the mix when the time signature changed to 5/8 and he surged through the soaring lament here under Park’s biting commentary. Even more gripping execution came in the movement’s core as the inter-linear welter increased and the instruments seemed to be chaffing against any restrictions before the change to an E Major key signature and a cascade of piano figuration relieved the crisis. Finally, it is hard to praise enough the players’ striking and emotionally valid interpretation of the work’s final subsidence which could be a benediction except for what has led to this point, in particular the composer’s reminiscence of his Adagio that begins 16 bars from the end and leads us to a chastening final vision.

Here was a finely spun version that ran across the complete work, intellectually consistent and contriving to keep its emotional reins taut while still rewarding you with a continuous current of tense pathos.

Finally, Farrands joined the party for Schumann’s welcome instance of life affirmation. His Piano Quartet, more than the Piano Quintet, speaks with a buoyant accent; even its working-out pages have a relish that, if it’s not actually rare, is remarkably jaunty. After the brief sostenuto, the first Allegro showed how the addition of an extra string voice can exert an influence on the balance, Selby being too polite by far for the first and fifth bars of the first subject. Park began impressively and enjoyed the prominences that Schumann gave her, but Selby made an unanswerable case for the piano’s dominance, even in slight details like her right-hand staccato scales 16 bars before Letter C in my aged Peters Edition score.

Indeed, the more you listen to this video, the higher your esteem for these musicians grows. Their accents are crisp, dynamic mirroring exact to a fault, octave and unison duets (or trios) precise, sense of place in the ensemble remarkably faithful and consistent. Have you ever noticed how much of the development to this movement is in the minor? Practically all of it. Yet these people made this harmonic oddity unremarkable, honing in on the underlying delight in motion even through some mighty predictable modulations.

For the Scherzo and its two Trios, you might have had an expectation of heftiness; it’s as though most interpreters can’t get their minds out of the bierhaus. The opening unison pattering from Selby and Valve set a higher bar with a delicacy that brought to mind Mendelssohn operating on a less fragile plane than usual. There are no real forte indications outside that fetching, syncopated Trio II and the executants aimed for quick-touch delivery in the Scherzo pages. Farrands distinguished herself with a clear-speaking solo in Trio I, but probably the most impressive feat in these pages came from the unfussed account of the second Trio which proved to be agreably fluent despite nearly everything being out of kilter with the pulse.

Everybody shares the honours in the following Andante cantabile, pages that are notable for the variants in accompaniment that Schumann contrives rather than for the sentimental melody over which he dawdles. Each of the strings took at least one turn in treating it and the results proved carefully shaped and mellow in timbre. But the movement shines in its coda which verges on the self-indulgent but endears itself for a kind of bare-threaded placidity.

And so to the Vivace finale with its endless repetitions of an irresistible opening motif: three chords, then a semiquaver rush to a quick cadence. As in the Piano Quintet, the composer indulges in plenty of fugato, even if in the quartet the exercises are less beefy in character. Once again, you could not fault the ensemble, least of all in those passages where Selby’s right hand went off the beat for half a bar’s worth. As well, some stretches gleamed, like the octave duet between Park and Farrands that begins 4 bars after Letter H following the key change to A flat Major and resumes shortly before the change back to the movement’s tonic: two lines soaring through the underpinning mesh with unwavering integrity.

This work is filled with optimism, not complex in its format or eccentric in thematic treatments; making a sharp contrast with the Shostakovich trio and finishing up this recital with something approaching jocularity.

After the first decade or so, you accept that Selby & Friends affairs will feature top-notch musicians; more often than not, even in these times of crisis and deprivation, you can also count on interpretations packed with insightful information and confident breadth of vision. Next year might see this organization back on its regular touring round, involved in live performances only. If that’s the case, we in the north will certainly miss these videos which have provided excellent sustenance over the long months of this unsettled year.

From dream to trauma

FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

Friday November 6

Lana Kains

At last, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has blossomed from disbursing an endless variety of twigs and branches into presenting something very like a sturdy sapling. For the next four Fridays, the organization is in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to present music that features a body rather more substantial than those we have been offered so far. This opening gambit, conducted by TSO principal guest conductor Johannes Fritzsch, comprised three connected works: songs by Wagner and Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg’s ever-green Transfigured Night in its string orchestra format.

Even in the liberated social climate of Hobart, the TSO performers had to be socially distanced; so you had twenty-odd strings for the Schoenberg, all at separate desks – which made following the composer’s direction about ‘stands’ (from bar 16 on) pretty difficult to fulfil. But this can be a thickly wrought score on many pages while the programmed songs don’t ask for as much interdependence as the transformed sextet.

The TSO made a novel move by having Marta Dusseldorp preface two of the works with readings of the poems on which they were based. Before we heard the last of the Wesendonck Lieder, she gave an appropriately rhapsodic version of the lady’s Traume; and she previewed the Schoenberg with a sympathetic account of Richard Dehmel’s fraught stanzas of 1896. What she didn’t supply was any preface to the evening’s middle work which used verses that might have struck sparks of recognition from those familiar with Schumann’s Liederkreis, but for many of us would have proved less well known than Mathilde Wesendonck’s lied and Dehmel’s emotion-drenched stanzas where sorrow turns to ecstasy.

This piece was Zemlinsky’s Waldgespräch to an Eichendorff text that celebrates the legend of the Lorelei yet again. Still, as some latter-day insightful philosopher once sang, you can’t always get what you want and the composer gave the voice pride of place. Added to this, Hobart soprano Lana Kains made a pretty fair job of articulating the text cleanly and you hear enough clues in the clearer passages to give you the gist of the poet’s intentions.

Rather than over-tire Kains, Fritzsch and the TSO powers-that-be decided to eschew the vocal version of Träume and substitute one for solo violin with chamber orchestral support that the composer arranged in 1857 for a birthday performance below the poet’s bedroom window – shades of the 1870 Siegfried Idyll for wife Cosima; my, how he spread the riches around . . . eventually. On this night, the solo fell to TSO concertmaster Emma McGrath, who gave a sympathetic, stress-free account of the line after commentator Robert Gibson gave a lengthy salute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which groups are clearly taken most seriously on the island that wiped them out.

Wagner did little but follow his own vocal line, with slight variants like leaving no break at the end of Nichts vergangen and allowing a lengthy space for the song’s high F on the last appearance of the title word. McGrath employed a finely wrought and warm vibrato where she could, as well as a deft semi-portamento at appropriate places like the 4th and 6th intervals at und dann sinken. The composer also has the soloist join in the moving final five bars, unlike the poor Frauenstimme who has to stand mute through a postlude that always seems to be longer than it is.

He was about 25 when he composed his orchestral song (strings, harp, two horns) but Zemlinsky subscribed wholeheartedly to the late Romantic ethos, employing a harmonic language that stretched not far beyond Wagner, if not as far as his brother-in-law’s sextet written three years after Waldgespräch. Like their essay at the Wesendonck work, the TSO strings faced no fears with this G minor piece, having an easy time of it up to Letter B and the singer’s second line.

But the soloist herself was hardly over-pressed, so that the sudden small intervallic jumps at Schmerz mein Herz after a series of single notes made a warm impression out of all proportion to any actuality. The upward vocal leaps at the words O flieh! came across with telling power, as the Lorelei attempts to dissuade her prey. But the performance ran both hot and cold; for example, the upper strings gave excellent service just before Letter K in their treatment of a Schoenbergian phrase or two, but their ensemble work at Letter N where the opening motif is revisited could only be seen as sloppy. Counterbalancing this was the finely-worked line from Emma McGrath across the score’s last 35 bars.

Simply for reasons of length (the final Wesendonck lied about four minutes, the Zemlinsky a bit over seven), most attention focused on the evening’s final contribution, the early Schoenberg work that never seems to have been out of favour – unlike the gnarled masterpieces of later years. Fritzsch launched this successfully with effective crosses from solo lines to tutti in the first 24 measures: an excellent instance of balancing unevenly weighted textures. But it wasn’t roses all the way: at bar 29, the first violas took over the running, yet none too clear in their definition; and the violins, because of the afore-mentioned social distancing brought into effect found blending a problem with an individual voice surging through every so often. While the violas made messy work of their three-note pattern across bars 46 to 48, the violin lines at the octave made an impressive and stirring display at the Poco piu mosso change beginning at bar 69.

With the glide into E Major – one of the work’s marvellous emotional displacements – the approach and its achievement came over as scrappy, even more so at the spelled-out violin mordents in bars 124 and 125. To their credit, the three bass lines could not be faulted to this point, although their emergence across bars 145 and 146 sounded over-emphatic. But the ensemble delivered a persuasive weltering outburst when all mutes came off at bar 169. I would have preferred more of a whip-crack approach employed for the violin’s semiquavers in the repetitions across bars 175 to 177, mainly as a relief from stolidity.

Speaking of heavy-handedness, I don’t think I’ve heard a slower reading of the penitential passage from bar 188 to 200, though things picked up for the resumption of the work’s opening motif at bar 202, greeted with plenty of punch from second violins and first cellos. An eloquent, well-proportioned attack signified the start of the Man’s reassurance at bar 209 and McGrath span an exceptionally luminous line from bar 255 during the first transfiguration sequence. Something went wrong with the fp cello harmonic that penetrates bar 251, but the rest of the fluttering wove its anticipated magic.

For the first time, I appreciated the spectral four bars of communal ponticello playing from bar 266: a startling shift in sonority, here carried off with equanimity. Later, the body gave a fine realization of Schoenberg’s hothouse freneticism beginning at bar 303, eventually driving to a powerful climacteric in the universal triple forte explosion of bar 337. Again, the course didn’t stay smooth with a messy first viola phrase at bars 344-5. But relief came quickly with a fine sheen to the group’s timbre in the dynamic breaking-down from bar 356 onward and a flawless chording (because of so many solo lines?) at bars 368-369.

From the bar 401 A tempo to the score’s conclusion, you are in a luminous sphere, luxuriating in music of incomparable beauty that you wish would go on far longer than it actually does. The TSO achieved these hushed pages with a high degree of success even if – as usual – the six pianissimo harmonics in bar 414 were not quite universally secure. But I’ve always thought they make the following D Major chord and its susurrus dissolve all the more satisfying as a leave-taking.

The players fared well in this score which presents so many difficulties, especially long sections where the writing is active and thick. They came out of the struggle with a bit of skin missing; on the other hand, they gave Fritzsch a ready response with no shying away from Schoenberg’s demands for fully-bowed enthusiasm. This piece and its predecessors made an excellent introduction to the TSO’s talent, enough to rouse interest in further Friday entertainments from Hobart.