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.