Heavy-handed visions

RACHMANINOV, RAMEAU & COWELL

Timothy Young

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday December 11

Timothy Young

Well known and cherished as the long-time resident piano guru at the South Melbourne-sited Australian National Academy of Music, as well as his foundation status as the keyboard component of that excellent trio, Ensemble Liaison, Timothy Young has appeared in two previous events of Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series before this solo recital on Friday evening. For those of us who had categorized this performer as straight-down-the-line orthodox, his Cowell/Rameau/Rachmaninov program served as an eye-opener in nearly every aspect that matters.

You’d be stretching to find anything disturbing about the two Cowell pieces that began the night. Aeolian Harp from 1923 comprises only 26 bars and these days it impresses as what it probably is: an early study in re-imagining the piano, the composer daring to venture inside the lid and play rapid arpeggios/glissandi on the strings. Young told us that he had to effect some transpositions because Cowell’s piano differed from the one in the Athenaeum Theatre. Apart from the necessity to hold down the relevant keys while operating them also inside the instrument, the player has to follow the composer’s dynamic directions which admittedly aren’t difficult. Thanks to Young for resurrecting this piece, even if it sounds like no Aeolian harp I’ve heard or imagined.

The second of the Cowell pieces, The Tides of Manaunaun, opens the composer’s 1917 Three Irish Legends suite and stands as the best-known example of his use of tone clusters. While the right hand plays a melody with ensuing transpositions and amplifications, the left hand and forearm produce note clusters of differing shapes . . . well, that’s not really true as the specified compass comprises two chords until the piece’s semi-climactic point where the melody is imitated out of contention by matching sound blocks in the bass. Young performed this innovative two-page, 36-bar composition with impressive power, happy to deliver Cowell’s glowering four bars of quadruple forte before, like Aeolian Harp, the fabric dies away to silence.

Although the quiet didn’t last. I thought my score had been truncated as Young continued playing in Manaunaun mode before suddenly bursting into Rameau’s Tambourin from the 1724 Suite in E minor. This well-known Baroque gem came over with unusual aggression, using the piano’s percussive powers to an elevated degree. Some of the right hand work occasionally misfired; surprising, as there’s nothing to distract you in the bass. Again, we had an improvised lead-in to Le rappel des oiseaux which appears in the same collection. From the start, Young punished the lower mordents that provide much of this insistent piece’s atmosphere of persistent avian strife. I didn’t understand why the pianist took a long pause at bar 30; the sonic melange changes but not by much and not for long. The mordents in both hands from bar 48 on fairly spat at each other before the quarrel led, via a reminiscence of Purcell’s Dido, into Les tendres plaintes. Here again, Young gave ample room for added notes, accents and rhythmic ups and downs in an approach that dressed Rameau’s bare bones in ornate clothing, like changing quaver scale passages into dotted quaver-plus-semiquaver patterns, and repeating single notes in quick succession like some passages in the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

Similar alterations emerged in Les tourbillons, which followed without a link. Here again, the approach emphasized the percussive and the rhythmic fun and games mirrored the piece’s title with a free-hand approach to the arpeggios and scales that come near the conclusion to the large central segment of this piece. A lead-in of repeated patterns took us into the final Rameau work, Les cyclopes where we heard a fair rendering of a refined forge in operation. Some digital errors were obvious in the central part, probably brought about by over-emphasis, and also in the rapid alternating hands quaver pointillism, while the last four bars forfeited clarity for the sake of a sonorous deluge.

Which led without a pause into the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2. Eventually, I worked out that Young was performing the revised 1931 version of this splendid score; the MDCH program notes arrived late up here in the north. But the first movement interpretation disappointed because of its bull-at-a-gate mode of attack. Whole pages rattled by in a driven mesh, melodies overwhelmed by passages stuffed with escorting incidentals, the process coming to an occasional halt like the second subject’s emergence at the 12/8 Meno mosso point. But the movement ‘s focus fell on broiling action and over-weighty dynamics, any forward progress also dissipated by a liberal application of rubato.

Thankfully, the following Lento brought a more pointed and deliberate approach with a fine control over the soft clutters that broaden into a spacious fortissimo burst at the movement’s heart. Still, the concluding Allegro molto turned into a welter in which fortissimo became the default position for long stretches. Further, the insistent nature of Young’s production meant that anything that did go wrong was all too obvious, like a miscarried emphatic right hand note four bars before the Tempo I direction. I struggled to find any directional sense in the entire page preceding the Tempo rubato section, not assisted by a relentless application of the sustaining pedal.

Finally, the Presto that starts 27 bars from the end muddied the waters even further. Any contrast between triplets and straight quavers at the start to this section was hard to pick out; that wonderful skipping motion at the right hand octavo sign was articulated too rapidly to relish; and you felt no relief at the 2nd Piano Concerto alternating chords starting seven bars from the end. I didn’t time the performance but it would have been one of the fastest I’ve attended with a huge amount of energy expended for a frustrating outcome. Young has the sonata at his fingertips but what he conveys with this knowledge amounts to little more than virtuosic display – which is part of the score’s fabric, certainly, but it’s only where your interpretation starts. I think the work would have been better handled with less haste, more definition in its many note-crowded pages, and a clearer perception of the composer’s long bouts of heavily-complected languor.

Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Green Jean Studios, Kansas

Having a bastardized acquaintance with some Romance languages, I thought that the title of Matthew Fagan’s CD had some reference to ‘life’. Of course, it doesn’t, mainly because of the noun’s gender but, further witness to my ignorance, this Andalusian folk-tune turns out to be a very familiar one and its pertinence seems to be to St. Vitus, a true lord of the dance. Well, it’s a melody that you can’t forget; even so, I can’t recall which writer – ancient/modern, well-known/obscure, Iberian/extra-Andalusian – has employed it to such effect that it has become unforgettable.

At any rate, the tune appears at about the half-way point of this 15-track recording which consists of much original Spanish music but holds an opening bracket from that unparalleled out-of-towner, Bizet. Fagan has arranged six chunks of the Carmen score for his 10-string guitar: the Aragonaise before Act 4, the heroine’s self-introducing Habanera and its Act 1 companion Seguidilla, the opera’s introduction up to the Andante moderato, that melting Act 3 Entr’acte, and the Les tringles des sistres trio-with-chorus that opens Act 2. As things turn out, pretty much everything on this album is a Fagan arrangement – Granados’ Oriental from the 12 Danzas espanolas, Zambalera by Jorge Strunz, the album’s Andalusian dance title, another traditional tune in Solearas, Rodrigo’s Fandango from the Tres piezas espanolas dedicated to Segovia (the only non-Fagan arrangement in the CD), the middle Sevilla movement from Albeniz’s Suite espanola No. 1, a traditional sevillanas, more Albeniz in the well-known Asturias (Leyenda), and, to finish, another traditional display in the flamenco predecessor, Zambra mora.

Such a collection makes for pleasant listening and Fagan spices his mix by occasionally indulging in some layered work, inserting a light percussion support or dubbing in himself (I assume) for ballast. Further, the interpretations reveal a straight-down-the-line style of interpretation with an often dogged insistence on a set pulse, noticeable in pieces that are familiar from delineations by other guitarists whose use of rubato and pauses have set up models that Fagan eschews. As compensation, this musician’s instrument with its rich bass strings adds weight of timbre to works that often tinkle their paths towards the inevitably light, if not the arrestingly fantastic.

You are made aware of the multi-layered possibilities in the opening Bizet Aragonaise which has an underlying percussive tap throughout that more or less follows the tambourine line in the original score. The actual guitar sound complex also operates on two levels, one part providing the accompaniment while the other follows the melody, although the two get mixed as the fragment moves on. My only bleat concerns the change in notes which first appears in bar 30, and then again whenever this piccolo-plus-clarinet upward-downward subsidiary motive appears. The overall impression is bouncy and confident.

Fagan’s account of the Habanera appears to have two layers also, one giving the pizzicato rhythm underneath the melody, the other – of course – the famous tune with its chromatic opening which moves to an octave outline pretty soon. Here again, the tempo is determined but with some rallentandi before the chorus enters to echo the singer’s lines. The Seguidilla appears to move into three guitar layers for most of its length, with a gratuitous tapping underneath it all. After the introductory eight bars, Fagan interpolates a 12-bar break that comes out of nowhere and stops in mid-sentence; presumably, it’s meant to add some gypsy colour. For the rest, Fagan follows the original pretty closely and the results are crisp and bright. More layering comes in the Prelude rendition which is very successful for its controlled bounce. And the three layers works very well for the entr’acte, Fagan keeping melody and countermelodies in play throughout; the only problem here is the lack of give-and-take, notably in the last seven bars of the original, which is followed faithfully and without any deviations, even if the pace is faster than usual.

This disc’s version of the Gypsy Song-with-extras that starts Act 2 works well, although one of the verses and choruses is omitted. But I liked the carrying power of Fagan’s acciaccaturas; unlike Bizet’s original flutes who set up the piece’s action, the guitar accidentals linger in your ear. Further in, you have to be impressed by the way Fagan’s mix takes on the character of a harp with splendid resonance during Carmen’s solos. For my taste, this is the most convincing of the operatic arrangements, despite the abridgements, and the octave work in the melody line is excellently achieved.

Oriental doesn’t sit at the forefront of Granados’ piano creations but it provides a pleasant exercise in transcription for the guitar. Fagan makes telling use of harmonics at cadential points and keeps the piece mobile, although there is no rhythmic suppleness at all and dynamic contrast goes a-begging. Finally, I think there’s a misreading in the central Lento assai segment. I believe the second G in bar 5 here is a tied note; it has undergone a new shape in this reading which tends to contradict the figure’s use in several other phrases. Strunk and his collaborator Adeshir Farah’s 1985 reading of Zambalera captures attention for its fireworks bursts of rapid play and a typically ambiguous tempo (6/8 or 3/4?), as well as bringing in pan-pipes across its last third. Fagan superimposes three layers, including a fetching tremolo at two stages and, if his fingers don’t fly as fast as those of the creator and his cobber, they’re not far off it.

With the title track, the guitarist cannot resist surrounding a simple melody with plenty of colour-rich introductions, intermissions and variations. It’s all very rhythmic and loaded with energy, rasgueado strokes serving as ideal punctuation, the whole informed by an appealing vibrato whenever the main tune emerges (which it does twice). I think Solearas is played straight, without multi-layering or additions of any type. It might be unfair to say that it appears to lack substance but a good deal of padding goes on; all very atmospheric and the flamenco level rises to a high pitch, but nothing of moment seems to happen for the first 30 seconds at least and the basic material does not keep your attention as much as Fagan’s driving passage work and hammer-blow chords.

As I half-expected, the Rodrigo piece was given an earnest airing with a fine, lucid opening; later the triplet passage work proved a struggle as the composer puts his executant through some rapid-fire hurdles, mainly testing agility of response. Despite the piquancy of those added-note chords – usually a 2nd or a 7th – the work is something of a rondo-ramble and, despite its rapid passage work, resembles no fandango I’ve heard or watched. The opening three chords are a small motive that dominates the working-out process and suggest a minuet more than anything else, albeit one with some deft Hispanic curves. Still, Fagan treats it politely although more as a study than as a score with which he is emotionally engaged; some of those triplets sag more than float.

There’s very little wrong with this version of Sevilla by Albeniz except for one recurring oddity. In bar 3, when the main melody gets under way, Fagan leaves out the third-beat 2nd (A in the piano original’s G Major tonality) which ordinarily gives the tune a vital harmonic shake; instead, he plays the bass and top note only. It’s not a big del but it removes part of the work’s charm and disappoints expectations. In the centre, Albeniz’s Meno mosso is enunciated with unexpected latitude – some bars rushed, others accounted for at half-pace – but that makes for a welcome quasi-improvisatory flight in the middle of framing segments with a pronounced rhythmic pulse.

Fagan’s sevillanas is a sort of two-strophe composition in which a series of chords alternate with a single melodic line that grows in length as the piece progresses. As far as I can tell, the chords don’t vary much – two, possibly three – and the melody is quite bare. It’s what you would identify straightaway as being Spanish in its insistence and ornamental flourishes and turns. While the stamping chords come over with persuasive zeal, the opening notes to the melodic scraps sound laboured, not as fluent as they should be. In his version of Asturias, Fagan keeps very close to the Albeniz piano original, following customary practice (I think) in exchanging semiquavers for triplets from bar 17 on. He could have made more of the pauses in every fourth bar from bars 63 to 78, rather than pushing ahead regardless. But he fulfilled the need to make this piece succeed: by contrasting nervous energy with understated lyricism.

Finally, the Moorish-inflected finale gives us a track of some excitement and a good deal of repetition. Fagan’s view of this musical style where gypsy, Sephardic, flamenco and the Near East combine. It sustains interest for much of its length, chiefly because of its modal flavour. Fagan finishes with a curtain-down accelerando which brought to mind that saint named in the CD’s title. Which is a neat way to bring us home, even if a few of the preceding tracks have little to do with dancing. It’s not a stupendous collection that sets the imagination running wild, but the music-making has a directness of speech that is often both successful and attractive.