An ambitious and moving project

JOHANNES BRAHMS: MUSIC FOR CLARINET AND PIANO

Lloyd Van’t Hoff & Peter de Jager

Thomas Grubb and Mano Musica 194660806222

Here is an initiative from two of the country’s more enterprising young musicians. With the help of some sponsors, Van’t Hoff and de Jager have produced this CD off their own bat. It was recorded well away from the beaten track, in the Four Winds Windsong Pavilion, pride of the seaside resort of Bermagui and centrepoint of an increasingly well-known festival. From pictures, the Pavilion is an open-air construct, which doesn’t present problems if the nearest wild-life are mute or murdered; I can’t make out any extraneous noise, but a good deal of this music is full-bore material. Another online photo shows an indoor space with a glass wall which is more probably where the CD was recorded.

Mind you, the Brahms output for clarinet and piano is limited: only two works – but what delights they are. The pair of Op. 120 Sonatas are the composer’s last chamber works and stand as one of the foundations of this reed instrument’s repertoire, showing what can be accomplished if a composer falls in love with a particular timbre, especially late in life when all the battles have been won or lost and knowledge is as profound as it’s going to get. While we’re blessed to have these sonatas, they don’t take much time to get through – between 45 and 46 minutes.

To flesh out their CD, Van’t Hoff and de Jager move into the sphere of arrangements. I’ve not been able to trace where the seven that appear on this recording come from, but that doesn’t detract from their effectiveness. The duo work through three of the Hungarian Dances: No. 2 in D minor, No. 6 in B flat Major (transposed from the original D flat Major) and No. 7 in A Major (moved up a tad from F Major). Four songs also appear in arrangement shape: the transcendent Feldeinsamkeit, second of the 6 Lieder Op. 86; Wie Melodien zieht es mir that leads of the Op. 105 Funf Lieder; Es traumte mir which crops up in third position of the 8 Lieder und Gesange Op. 57; and the Wiegenlied that sticks out like a beacon at No. 4 in another set of Funf Lieder, the Op. 49.

You can take as a given that both musicians are masters of the written score when it comes to the CD’s major works. The F minor Sonata’s opening Allegro appassionato lives up to the composer’s descriptor and de Jager leads the way through the small-frame (relative to the last two symphonies and both piano concertos) shifts in scene, like the subsidence at bar 38, the subterranean murmurs at bar 52, and the full-blooded chords that burst in at bar 61. As it should, the whole of the exposition sounds like a narrative, and a cohesive one because of the performers’ ability to underline the movement’s progress through the composer’s fluctuations in density, dynamic and drive. At this early stage, you are aware of some idiosyncrasies, like de Jager’s penchant for arpeggiating chords in part to point up a focal clarinet note, and Van’t Hoff’s slight rhythimc plasticity – not just garden variety rallentandi but what you can only call a metrical ease; mind you, this latter has been calculated brilliantly by both artists throughout their offerings.

You come across small subtleties all over the second movement Andante – some through de Jager’s pointing-up of upper notes and Van’t Hoff maintaining his line with some excellent breath control (you can hear a lot on this recording, especially the quick breath,s and some key thumps) and due diligence in observing the score’s fluency, as in the lack of a ritenuto or pause at the end of bar 48 where the point is to bring in the clarinet without any ‘Here I am!’ nonsense. It’s hard to find fault with the last page (in my edition, anyway: bars 61 to 81) which opens with an admirably soft clarinet restatement of the initial melody; the dying fall starting at bar 69 makes for an especially moving passage thanks to its calm, restrained delivery and the strength of bass notes from both instruments.

One of the most amiable of Brahms’ landlers enjoys fine handling, Van’t Hoff’s phrasing a particular pleasure, as is his emergence back into the light for the Trio‘s second half. Also impressive is the lilt of this performance where the pace is just rapid enough and the melody, with its repetitions/elaborations at the end of each line, is handled with empathy and a keen eye for quirkiness. But the Vivace rondo finale is the most outstanding example of duo work in this sonata with an almost flawless level of articulation from both (I could only pick out one almost-not-there clarinet quaver at the start to bar 28), notable for a ringing clarion timbre from Van’t Hoff at declamatory entries like bars 32, 62, 174, and most vitally from bar 207 to 210, and the concerto-like majesty of de Jager’s passage-work, as in the modulations from bar 100 to bar 104, and the rampaging solo exposures later in the movement . Further, when Brahms starts his long triplets-across-the-bar episodes, these performers demonstrate an ease of delivery and consciousness of shape that would be hard to better. In all, the performance is spacious, packed with character and a delight in the composer’s joyful alarums and excursions.

There’s something bordering on sentimental about the opening to the Sonata No. 2’s Allegro amabile; it probably has to do with the clarinet’s melodic curve and its leaving you up in the air after the fourth strophe, or part of it might come from the piano’s arpeggio-rich accompaniment. Whatever the case, the lolling around is short-lived, lasting only until the piano’s first three-bars of explosion, after which the plot thickens with satisfying surprises on every page including the closest of instrumental canons and the dovetailing of melodic lines between clarinet and piano. Here again, de Jager lays on the arpeggiated chords, yet he refrains from making an inevitable fetish of them. Throughout, you find reassurance in broad purple patches, as that starting from bar 40, and in the abrupt bursts into fresh activity after a substantial diminuendo. The entire changing fabric enjoys high exposure from these interpreters, who again give us a finely formed Tranquillo coda, climaxing in a carefully judged pair of mirroring triplet bars.

Probably the best known movement of this E flat sonata – or of both of them, really – is the middle Allegro appassionato. This segment, in the tonic minor with a noble Trio couched in B Major, is distinguished for its main theme that doesn’t resolve for 79 bars, moving towards cadences but never clinching the deal until the Trio arrives with a complete change of argument and territory. Once more, Van’t Hoff and de Jager melded into each other’s ground with forceful grace, the piano holding nothing back in abrupt fortissimo bolts of energy and a firm timbre from the clarinet in both statements of the Trio’s principal melody – at bar 95 and later in full chalumeau register at bar 121. These familiar pages came across with just the right balance of fire and agility.

Finishing this sonata, an Andante con moto theme and variations comes close to functioning as a virtuosic test-piece, particularly with regard to rhythmic displacements that in many hands come across as over-emphatic. Much of the score here is generously flattering to both players right from the first page where the long theme (another one) enjoys both joint and individual attention before its surprising if justifiable conclusion. For the first variation, de Jager kept his syncopations mobile and quiet under Van’t Hoff’s finely arched top strand. Dynamic restraint typified the second variation, rich in triplets and a low clarinet register here articulated with precision and kept on an even dynamic plane.

The next variant has both instruments following each other before coalescing in moments of fusion, the whole employing demi-semiquaver patterns and as light-footed as a Mendelssohn miniature, if thicker around the middle. The 14 bars of Variation 4 are an exercise in disjunction from both players; the only truth is to be found in the piano’s octave bass line – when it appears. Nevertheless, in this reading the section passed with something approaching clarity and a laudable absence of unhelpful accents. The concluding Allegro, with a Piu tranquillo interlude, makes an excellent coping stone for this reading, the brilliant rhythmic displacement beginning at bar 135 a tour de force in particular for de Jager with Van’t Hoff making a brave final power-grab from bar 147 to the concluding bounce-filled chords.

Again, you’re tempted to single out this finale movement as the most impressive of the sonata’s three, as far as this performance goes. That would be to undervalue the skill and insight to be found throughout its companions. Rather, it puts a seal on this vivid and personable outline of a masterwork. I don’t want to get over-finicky about details but in this sonata, more than in the F minor, it sounded as if one piano note at least was off-pitch, somewhere about E5. Not that the sound came over as glaringly off-centre, but it did distract from de Jager’s contribution, in the E flat Major’s first movement more than anywhere else.

As for the three Hungarian Dances, these are clarinet-favouring constructs where de Jager takes on the function of the original’s secondo; with one exception, the three pieces leave the melody work to Van’t Hoff. One of the more characteristic features of No. 2 is the clarinet beginning specific key phrases with a rapid arpeggio, which gives an added bite to the melody And you come across some time-honoured interpretative peculiarities, like the slow pace taken between bars 8 and 16. A good deal more stop-start business comes with No. 6 where Van’t Hoff gets in almost all of the acciaccaturas in the second half of the opening A part of this A-B-A construct. De Jager’s hefty solo comes between bars 43 and 50, starting the middle section. A little bit of re-scoring comes about in No. 7 during the connecting bars 41 to 43, but this dance suits the clarinet best of the three essayed here, probably because of its bouncing playfulness, even skittishness.

Finally, the four songs are straight-speaking entities, the clarinet taking Brahms’ vocal lines without introducing any elaborations or deviations. Feldeinsamkeit begins softly under normal circumstances; even more so in this interpretation. Van’t Hoff weaves coherent melodic arches and shows restraint at the unexpected shift at the word Blau in bar 21. And he differs from the norm in eschewing the usual crescendo/diminuendo across bars 31 to 33, simply treating the word selig with as much tenderness as you hear in A German Requiem. By contrast, Wie Melodien zieht es mir comes across as straightforward, effortlessly dispatched and distinguished by a splendid accompaniment from de Jager. Suiting the wind instrument best in this group, Es traumte mir proved to be a gift for both musicians with its eloquent unhurried nature, a fine fusion of languor and ardour.

No objections to the Lullaby. It winds up operations gently, Van’t Hoff playing the first verses in his lower reaches, then taking the second stanza an octave higher; it’s sweet, sincere and gives room at the end of this CD to a fine melody. For all that, you tend to wish that the composer had written another clarinet sonata to provide balance to this recording which moves from the formidable to the short-winded. In any case, the sonata interpretations live in the memory for their verve and deep musicianship; the participants’ enthusiasm and commitment are evident in every bar of them.

Not too thick; more of a lemon tang

LA CREME DE LA CREMA

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday February 18

It’s a vague photo, isn’t it? Not the best transfer from no-news-bearing Facebook but it probably looks fine in its original internet placement. Also, I’m not sure if the personnel shown are current ensemble members. In any event, six of the MBO musicians took part in this recital from the Athenaeum Theatre that was actually taped, as I understand, towards the end of last year.. For the six-part program, this night’s MBO comprised violins Natalia Harvey and Cameron Jamieson, violist Katie Yap, cellists Rosanne Hunt and Josephine Vains, supported by the theorbo of Nick Pollock. As matters turned out, this grouping impressed for a breadth of timbre with a pair of well-matched violins taking centre-stage across much of the program’s tutti work (stating the bleeding obvious) with Pollock’s continuo a full-bodied presence rather than that background tinkling you get from a harpsichord.

We heard the program’s only solo from Pollock in an arrangement of Couperin’s Les Barricades Misterieuses: one of the composer’s most recycled and re-formatted works. This piece suited the instrument, thanks to its double-bass clef register and Pollock was insightful enough to keep the part-writing clean in delivery, if not spartan; even so, a few rough spots butted into the easy flow, like the top note in bar 26 – surprising, as the same note’s repeated presence in the third couplet was almost unfailingly clear and buzz-less. In fact, this 22-bar segment with its well-stretched pulse and responsive phrasing impressed even more than the always-welcome returns of the bracketing rondeau.

Matching this solo, the ensemble offered a duet for cello and bass: the Allegro from Boccherini’s Sonata in C G.6. Vains took the top line of this 41-bar first movement, showing a reassuringly aggressive hand in the triple-stop chords that punctuate the work’s elegant flow. Mind you, sweetness of colour did not feature in the production values of Vains or Hunt, who made boisterous work of these few pages. In spite of a deliberate gruffness, both instruments seemed comfortable in their work with only a few near-discrepant moments, and an uncomfortable upward C Major scale in the solo instrument at bar 10.

Onwards and upwards, a few more players entered the lists for a Trio Sonata in G (‘in imitation of Corelli’) by William McGibbon, that 18th century hero of Scottish music, both in serious and folk spheres. Yap and Vains stayed silent for this brief gem involving two violins and a continuo bass line. The group gave out a satisfying and full amplitude of production as early as bars 6 to 9 of the opening Adagio; the content does not show a lot of invention but the Corelli echoes come across with excellent authority. Further, the group’s attention to phrasing gave these stately pages even more interest.

As the work moved forward, the interplay between Harvey and Jamieson grew more intense, both the imitations/suspensions and easier work in thirds performed with precision and authority. Probably the only question mark in a highly forward demonstration came at bar 42 of the closing Allegro where Jamieson’s semiquavers came across as mechanical, particularly in a phrase that looks like note-spinning on paper already. Still, the piece is an unabashedly amiable tribute to a master from a musician about whom so little is known, although it’s intriguing that what few encounters I’ve had with McGibbon’s work have come from Australian musicians.

This program began with one of the Baroque’s more tasteful free-for-alls in Rebel’s Les caracteres de la danse: that compendium of what was being trotted out – literally – at Versailles in the age of Louis XIV. As early as the Courante, you had to be impressed – even taken aback – by the busy crispness of all involved: from the energy of Pollock’s bottom line to the biting sprightliness of the violin pair. These characteristics returned time and again – in this case, as quickly as the Bouree. Signs of colour organization emerged throughout the suite, like the absence of a strong bass line in the Chaconne until a forte explosion at bar 75. In fact, cellos and theorbo proved capable of holding – or attracting – your interest in harmonically ambiguous passages like the short-lived Rigaudon.

Then, a lot of Rebel’s score is brief, as though he is just touching on some forms but is unsure if they’re worth his – or his audience’s – time. Not so the Sonata, which brackets the Loure and Musette pair. I’m not certain why the Sonata is there, although it does hold the most action-filled pages of the whole set. But you might well ask what is the function of the initial Prelude, except to give the band some warm-up time. Such quibbles disappear when you have the chance of re-acquaintance with the Loure‘s strange format; God knows how you dance to it and Jean-Fery doesn’t give you much time – 7 bars! – to get involved in its coils. No matter how quickly we had to digest some of these dances, the MBO outlined them all with impressive authority, particularly the continuo department who held nothing back in the rapid pages.

Hitting the popular Baroque vein, the players gave a direct-speaking version of Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid string quintet: one of your more refined examples of program music. It’s always a pleasure to see cellos being played as guitars in the Minuetto, holding their own against the concise unison violins. And the interpretation followed the usual pattern of using the written score with a mild irreverence, as in Harvey’s shortening of note values at ornamentally twitchy points. A solitary unsteadiness in the top cello near the end of the Largo assai‘s second appearance proved to be one of the few flaws in proceedings. A no-nonsense brusque attack informed the Passa Calle, during which the solo cello produced an eerie, ‘white’ melody line with no vibrato. And the noble Ritirata – what we all wait for – strode past to excellent effect, the viola and second cello rapid triplet work clear and eloquently percussive, with a deft diminuendo to polish off this small tone poem.

To end, the full group played Georg Muffat’s Passacaglia from the Sonata No. 5 in G of 1682, a score I hear mainly on keyboards. In this strings-plus-theorbo version, the ensemble generated a powerfully sonorous creation, lavish with a sort of strict opulence. As with the better parts to this program, phrasing had been organised with fine results, allowing for as much individuality as possible in a score full of chances for individual exposure, no matter how short. At Variation 5. along with the upper parts’ excellent duet work, the theorbo made a generous, resonant contribution. Variation 7 gave us some tender melting moments, thanks to Muffat’s cleverly-placed triplets. In fact, this reading gave you more opportunities than usual to appreciate the composer’s talent at catching his listeners off-guard with unanticipated extra bars and accents.

The later changes had their high points, as in the sterling violin duets that constitute Variations 20 and 23 and the broad, almost glutinous richness of the final 13 bars. Not that the composer’s inspiration remains on a high level throughout, yet even the more worked-over passages proved worthwhile as a spectacle, seeing the musicians work their various ways into and through the mesh. This Passacaglia made an assured, not-too-taxing display piece for all involved and it brought to the fore this particular ensemble’s abilities to work cohesively, with polish and certainty of intonation, generating a satisfying fabric that combined steeliness with underpinning warmth.

Venture onto unfamiliar ground

50 CHINESE FOLK SONGS

Ke Lin

Move Records MD 3436

For a person of my age and with my specific musical experiencers, this latest CD of music by Julian Yu is particularly challenging. For one thing, my familiarity with Chinese folk music is minimal; like many, I can tell it when I hear it, and even identify quite a few instruments, thanks to Tai Dun’s pioneering work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But the chance to study Eastern music never arose in early1960s Melbourne (or Australia?); even former large presences on our national music scene pursued their Oriental interests overseas, like Meale at UCLA.

Adding to this burden of ignorance is a personal unwillingness to make general assertions, for fear of revealing a lack of cultural understanding that might equal anything heard at a Collingwood Football Club press conference. The only defence to be proposed is that I would have the same problem listening to 50 Romanian folk songs, even when they’ve been arranged by Bartok; or 50 Hebridean melodies as organized by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser; or even 50 American hoedown hollers that have been funneled by Copland. Your attention wanders, the accompaniments assume an importance well beyond their competence, and seeking out any flaws in vocal delivery becomes an obsession.

Nevertheless, it behoves every musician to give attention to Yu’s collection which was written to suit the responsive powers of collaborator/pianist Ke Lin who also performed the composer’s 2017 Cutetudes CD. As well as the folk songs (which include three variants of the tune Jasmine and two of the Fengyang Flower Drum lyric), this disc also includes 15 Early Piano Pieces by Yu, all of them brief – the 40 seconds of Counterpoint sits alongside a Theme and Variations that lasts nearly 4 minutes.

This length business is of some concern with the folk songs. Most of them (43) don’t last for a minute; a few (17), not even half that. The longest treated here is an ancient song, Man Jiang Hong, which is given 2 minutes. So the repetition of verses and choruses is not an inevitability here; Yu can be quite content with giving his tune one airing and moving on straightaway. As for the accompaniments, these are sometimes based on scraps from Western classical works. For example, Yu has a soft spot for Bach’s Goldberg Variations: six of his settings use fragments from this massive compendium. There’s more Bach with one of the Two-Part Inventions, a couple of snaps from the Mass in B minor, a motif from The Musical Offering, and a kind of famous pieces amalgam supporting Willows are New. The E minor Symphony of Brahms rumbles under two songs; Pachelbel’s Canon in D can be discerned under the conjoined A Pair of Ducks and A Pair of Geese; a ground bass is lifted from Handel’s cantata Susanna; even the Dies irae supports the Jiangsu melody Weeping Seven-Seven. Finally, a melody from one of Western opera’s most pronounced efforts at chinoiserie, Puccini’s Turandot, can be found in the afore-mentioned Jasmine which the Italian master transformed into Act 1’s La sui monti dell’Est, and employed later in the action as well.

Some of these Western references are plain enough; as we have heard in previous pieces by Yu; other quotations are more difficult to ferret out. But the focus rests on a clear statement of the tunes and many of these are dispatched rapidly, one pentatonic lyric after another. It’s as though Yu sees no point in expanding a tune or giving it elaborations because, in doing so, you’re unfastening its integrity, like Tchaikovsky’s birch tree. When faced with a song that has some distinctiveness, Yu extends his treatment, as in Thunder a Thousand Miles Away. Immediately after, The Furry Gourd is played through once; not surprising, as its shape suggests melodies that proliferate in the British Isles.

Still, every so often comes an individual shard like The Little Cowherd where the melody and its setting are fetchingly melded into a piquant miniature that suggests something more earthy than the Ma Lin landscapes of many other tracks . Another melody, like Thirty-Mile Village, strikes me as unexceptional but Yu airs it twice with a fairly bland accompaniment. Still, he must hear something in its contour that escapes me – which could be the catch-cry of my experience with the CD in which, the more I listen, the less justified I feel in making generalizations about Yu’s content. Parts of it sound like under-powered impressionism; Flowing Stream has gently rippling suggestions in its accompanying figures. In other instances, the Western fusions intrude, like the Brahms E minor Symphony’s passacaglia theme announced baldly at the opening to A Rainy Day, retreating to the bass – but transmuted to a point where its contour vanishes.

Just when you think Yu has settled into a predictable setting pattern, he wakes you up with something like bitonality in A Little Bird or a perky Gallic insouciance for Snatching at Butterflies while Tea-Picking. Then, you come across only one or two chordal surprises in a Victorian-era setting of Man Jing Hong which has some shared characteristics with an Anglican hymn. Other tracks leave me baffled; the underpinning to Willows are New comprises motifs from some famous Bach pieces and, of course, I identified none of them except maybe a scrap from The Musical Offering‘s 6-line ricercar. Then there are settings that strike you as chameleonic, as is that for the concluding Song of the Yellow River Boatmen which seems intransigent in its counterpoint but aims for a ‘soft’ cadential point.

The CD concludes with 15 pieces of juvenilia, early piano pieces written when Yu was studying in Beijing and revised in 2005. The first four are short two-line works – inventions, a canon, an essay in counterpoint. In fact, you have to wait until the fifth piece, Day and Night, Thinking of You, before you hear a solid chord; this is a gentle lyric in memory of Zhou Enlai, the statesman for whom Yu had sympathy and affection, if this piece is any indication. The Dance is a two-part work where a Tibetan folk-style tune is given gentle handling before being transformed into a more lively creature. March Fair has a catchy tune given some intentionally rough harmonic bursts but it falls into the camp of genteel bucolicism, reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Gopak.

Yu’s Theme and Variations take impetus from a melody by Wang Ming from the film Hai Xia, which may refer to a channel or strait but I can’t track it down as a proper noun. Nor can I discover anything about the composer who has the same name as a famous opponent of Mao ZeDong. The tune itself is a closed unit of four phrases and Yu’s ring of changes – with one fast exception – mirrors its calm nature. This work is the first of five variations sequences. A little further on come the Little Pine Tree Variations – three of them, I think, with an extended treatment of the theme’s second half and a feather-light recapitulation of the opening strophes to finish. Much the same pattern follows with the Mini Variations – five of them with three soft and two in spiky/staccato.

Variations on “The Blossoms of Friendship” gives us one of the raciest tracks of the whole 65. It’s based on a children’s song from the 1970s with only small traces of modal or pentatonic influences. Lin’s right hand fluency is well tested in this sequence that is unfailingly cheerful and brings to mind – for no apparent reason – a Sousa march. Last piece of all is the Variations on a Hebei Folk Song, left incomplete in Yu’s student years and eventually completed in 2005. Here also, there seem to be three variants of the tune with a wafer-thin reminiscence of the original at the end.

As for the other pieces, The Little Wooden Boat was originally a song, here in A-B-A shape where the central section transfers the tune to the left hand, the whole – like so much on this album – with one line per hand: no chords. Sonatina in D presents as a formally transparent study in sonata form, following the three-part division with competence and giving the executant piquant work across the instrument’s range; another piece with very few chords to interrupt its bi-linear polyphony. The Ping-Pong Match is a crisp study in interwoven and chasing patterns, a colourful demonstration of undemanding legerdemain.

At the end, these light examples of Yu learning his art are only mildly interesting, no matter how much delicacy Lin invests in them. You have to admire the composer’s youthful talent for melody-shaping and for the finesse of his piano writing. Yet there’s not much here that raises eyebrows for its originality or daring; a chromatic slide underneath a diatonic tune might please the composer but, in this conservative ambience, it passes almost unnoticed. In spite of my out-of-comfort-zone sense during the 50 folk song settings, I found a good deal more meat to savour in them, although Lin’s clarity of articulation delighted in each of this CD’s elements.


Back in the saddle again

BENDIGO CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL – SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES I

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 3

David Griffiths

It’s quite a simplification to point to the Melbourne Digital operation as the solitary production name associated with this recital, but it was the one that sold me my ticket. Naturally, the Bendigo arts apparatus and city hall were very much part of the process: the festival operates (this is its second year) under the council’s aegis and in council venues. Somewhere along the way, the Australian National Academy of Music was mentioned; that might have been connected to cello guru Howard Penney, who has been an ANAM presence for many years now, and who performed in the night’s first offering.

In any case, this recital signalled the opening to Bendigo’s chamber music week which is packed with eminent figures. As these events take place in front of live audiences, you feel a tad uneasy about treating them as digital; if your heart was in the right place, you should have made the journey and sat in the Capital alongside other committed devotees. Only the fear of quarantine laws being suddenly hurled into place kept me home in Palaszczuk’s Paradise, yet again doomed not to visit a provincial Victorian city that I last visited in 1962. Ballarat I know well because of the Goldfields Organs days each January; Bendigo didn’t have musical interest until the creation in 2013 by David Chisholm of his International Festival of Exploratory Music Festival, but commitment circumstances and recurrent illnesses kept me from observing what looked like the most experimentally advanced music-making in the country.

Here we were on Wednesday, witnessing the start to serious musical action in 2021. MDCH founder Christopher Howlett gave one of his scatter-gun addresses that just don’t quite trip off the tongue but cover a lot of ground. Penney had notes but his speech became a mixed collation – benign burbling. Luckily, Bendigo Mayor Jennifer Alden, on stage to open the festival, had a satisfying fluency, beginning with the acknowledgement that we whites are all invaders and reprehensible scum, even if we’re not going anywhere soon. She, like Howlett and Penny, thanked everybody in sight, with a hefty emphasis on the council’s employees and local volunteers.

By the time this voluble vocal trio had finished, we were panting for some actual music. And we got it in the form of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in C RV 447, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal oboe Thomas Hutchinson as soloist. He was programmed to work in front of a small string group: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anna de Silva Chen, violist Christopher Moore, and Penney. It took me no time at all to perceive that Chen was absent and her place taken by Matthew Tomkins, the MSO’s principal second; well, I thought it was Tomkins – it had been been about 16 months since I’d last seen him at work but he looked pretty much as I remembered him. Then I found a later version of the full festival where the change had been officially recorded.

In my edition of the Vivaldi, the soloist is rarely silent, doubling the top violin line throughout. Not so here, Hutchinson not sighted (or heard) until bar 18 of the first Allegro. And so it went on, the soloist reserving himself for the exposed segments. Not that you can carp at this; it isn’t every soloist who plays along with the tuttis in Mozart piano concertos, although I’ve seen that done. Thankfully, this soloist bent his line where possible, avoiding a rhythmic regularity that can kill a Vivaldi concerto. And he bounded faultlessly through those triplet patterns that dominate the oboe line, as in bars 31-36, 52-65 and 90-93, but with some relieving pattern work of varying size. Let’s not forget the quartet which addressed its work with cutting finesse; just as well, given the small numbers involved.

Hutchinson enjoyed more room to exercise his vibrato in the central Larghetto, with only the top three strings supplying regular quaver triads as backstop. In fact, these pages alternate a syncopated melody with demi-semiquaver figurations in clusters of four which the oboist treated with an impressive fluidity, a type of suit-yourself easiness, up to a final perfect cadence sublimated in the soloist’s ornamentation. As for Vivaldi’s Minuetto finale, it was probably just as well that none of the repeats were observed, as it’s unlikely that interest could have been sustained. You could find no fault with Hutchinson who soared through more pages of rapid triplets and further demi-semiquavers that tripped over themselves on the page but poured out seamlessly despite the pressure. The only complaint you could raise was a tendency to introduce a slight pause after every four bars in the Minore C minor segment starting at bar 230.

For the highly confident reading of Bartok’s Contrasts trio, David Griffiths gave us a splendidly balanced clarinet line, handsomely partnered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Sophie Rowell. At the opening to this part of the night, I was again struck with indecision as the pianist didn’t resemble one of the scheduled keyboard players- Daniel de Borah. Nor did the musician share any physical properties with the other potential performer in this role. It took me almost till the end until I realized that this face-out-of-nowhere belonged to Benjamin Martin; almost a stranger because I haven’t seen the Firebird Trio live for many years.

In fact, the pianist played a subsidiary role for long stretches of the opening Verbunkos, leaving the fun to both Griffiths and Rowell although the whole trio clearly relished the vehement clashes that conclude bars 60 and 64. More importantly, the movement radiated an individual freedom, even in concerted passages, not to mention the fugato interplay that both eases and adds to the movement’s jaunty tension. In the ensuing Piheno, you were aware from the start of the care taken in preparing this movement, considering the dynamic consideration taken from bar 11 to bar 17, just before the first of the brief night music bursts. Later, these players maintained a clear amalgam of lines between bars 35 and 40 – possibly this work’s most moving sequence.

Then the gloves came off for the Sebes which exploded into action, most pronounced from Martin who devoured the cross-rhythms from bar 36 onward. This opening part impresses me as a remarkably dangerous sequence, threatening to spiral out of control if you attack it with gusto. But you could find few indications of vertigo, even after bar 71 up to the resumption of normal play at bar 99. Later, the performance successfully painted the wide-ranging canvas that stretches from the 8+5/8 Piu mosso simple clarity up to the mobile piano clusters that close out this spellbinding rhythmic ambiguity at bar 168. It’s hard to avoid suggestions of over-exertion in the final pages, Bartok gifting his violinist an unwieldy cadenza along the way, but this trio showed no slackening of tension or powerful impetus up to the last punch.

Luckily, the cast stayed the same on the early notifications as on the Festival program for this evening’s concluding Mendelssohn Piano Quartet Op. 3 in B minor: violinist Howell, violist Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal desk, MDCH eminence and cellist Christopher Howlett, with Daniel de Borah faced facing yet another imbalanced and hyper-active piano part from a young (15-years old) composer. Before starting, Howlett told us that this particular day was Mendelssohn’s birthday – which it was: his 212th – and gave some information about the young genius’s musical activities at the time. Then, they were off with a well-defined attack, despite the opening page’s muffled nature.

It was inevitable that attention fell on de Borah, fulfilling bar after bar of rapid triplets during the Allegro molto‘s first part. Still, the rest of the ensemble didn’t take backward steps, Breider notably forward in duets with Rowell and Howlett who played with a firm deliberation, as well as I’ve ever heard him perform. Transmission was interrupted for a few seconds in the development’s guts, compensated for by an excellently negotiated dying fall after the changes of key and tonal key restatement led to an elegant recapitulation and a fierce Piu allegro coda.

De Borah took primacy at the Andante‘s outset with an impressive shapeliness to Mendelssohn’s rather pedestrian melody, relieved by Breider at bar 10 serving as the pivot of some eloquent string duets. Possibly, Rowell proved too self-effacing in some short snatches where the violin has a passing dominance; Howlett showed no similar bent, taking full advantage of some impressive tenor clef 7th leaps and a purple cello patch leading back to the initial theme.

De Borah was fully tested by the work’s Scherzo in which the pianist is tested by endless semiquavers while the strings serve as punctuation. When the highpoints came, they proved texturally thick and aggressive at the forte passages, that triumphalism reinforced by an emphatic sequence of piano arpeggios. Still, you could not find anything less than full enthusiasm informing the B Major Trio, taken with persuasive, if eventually wearing, heartiness. I’m probably alone in finding too much note-spinning in the vivace finale where the hard-faced working-out of material sits at odds with the fluency of the preceding movements. By this stage, too, de Borah’s forte had turned into a more forceful creature and a few slips on wide leaps marred Rowell’s copybook; nothing major, but distracting from the accomplishment of an unwieldy set of pages, so that the final bars were welcome for relieving a double tension.

This recital introduced a week of music-making: the first sign anywhere, a far as I could tell, of a return to what passes for normal these days after the Christmas/New Year hiatus. Of course, it’s heart-warming to see musicians at their craft, especially flaunting their charms in a provincial centre. And this program slipped us back into concert-going mode carefully – especially those of us confined to the digital experience, for the most part. We’ll have to get used to straitened circumstances, like limited audience numbers and the concomitant care for personal/public hygiene, and an emphasis on smaller scale music-making formats. Yet, as an indication of the shape of things to come, this Bendigo festival opening made for a highly welcome reassurance.