Uncomplicated but odd

ENOCH ARDEN

Brisbane Music Festival & Victorian Theatre Company

Bowen Studio, Bowen Hills

Sunday March 28

Matthew Connell

Richard Strauss’s setting of the well-known Tennyson poem is an uncomfortable fit for classification. The composer was quite sparing in his score, framing the work – sort of – but writing only a few extended passages for the piano alone. At the conclusion, you realize that attention has focused on the speaker/reciter throughout, even when the work moves into a duo format. So the star of this night was actor Matthew Connell, given the task of reading the Poet Laureate’s somewhat Victorian (to state the bleeding obvious) effusion on the nature of self-sacrifice ,a virtue that does no favours for the character who exercises it. By contrast, pianist Alex Raineri, the Brisbane Musical Festival’s director and factotum, had moments of activity but huge hiatuses as well. As for the Melbourne visual contribution/complement, that consisted of atmospheric slides of landscapes and clips of the sea in motion; none of this interfered with the performance and was not original enough to distract you.

Strauss already had a large amount of material under his 32/3-year-old belt by the time that he composed Enoch Arden: two symphonies, the Burleske, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Macbeth, Aus Italien, Death and Transfiguration, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote on the near horizon, and a wealth of lieder and chamber music. In this company, the duo melodrama looks and sounds a slight product: 24 pages of piano score that feature several leitmotifs, left hand G minor scales (the sea) being the most memorable. One of the most sustained and active segments for piano involves Annie’s dream of self-justification, the determination to accept Enoch’s death and marry long-suffering Philip. That has its second part counterpart in Enoch’s visit to the house of his one-time wife and best friend, an experience that prostrates him.

As far as I could hear, Strauss’s piano part presented Raineri with few challenges. For every surging billow suggestion, the score presented simple progressions, sustained chords, repeated patterns if the speaker needed time to catch up. As opposed to other works like the Sinfonia domestica or An Alpine Symphony, the composer kept his word- or scene-painting simple, eschewing opportunities to lay colour on thickly, as in the lush descriptions of Arden’s island. For all the freedom allowed, Raineri played correctly and precisely, keeping control of the arpeggiated chords and matching his speaker’s delivery with a responsive dynamic range.

As for Connell, he is a young artist and so was able to avoid the tone of sententiousness in certain moralizing passages, while entering completely into the histrionics embedded in the text during the early debate between Annie and Enoch, the over-ripe marriage declaration that ends Part 1, and the returned Arden’s despair. Not as important as his insightful delivery but most surprising as a matter of mechanics was Connell’s fidelity to the text which most reciters arrange to have cut substantially; I could find only a few places where some lines had been left out, For instance, in the description of Philip’s careful wooing, some lines disappeared after ‘By this the lazy gossips of the port’; and, further on, some more strophes disappeared during Enoch’s night-time walk to Annie’s old house (near the parenthetic ‘A bill of sale gleam’d thro’ the drizzle’).

In their combined passages, both speaker and pianist were able to keep pretty much in proper relation to each other. Were they at work in the same space? Or was Connell operating in Melbourne while Raineri performed from his own Bowen Street lair? Whatever the case, the partnership between text and music was noticeably out of synch at the end of that moving scene where Philip sees he has lost his chance at happiness, ‘and rose and past Bearing a lifelong hunger in his heart.’ But that was really the only severely discrepant point. Another unexpected twist came after Philip’s solicitous ‘Tired, Annie?’ when more of Tennyson’s lines than sit in the score were superimposed on this segment’s concluding 13 bars.

These minor points did little to disrupt the reading’s energy which persevered up to the final strangely prosaic line. Both artists seized those opportunities for emotional zeal that at some stages comes close to bathos and managed to display the work’s probity of character as its three protagonists find satisfaction and/or redemption after suffering. I doubt if many more performances of Enoch Arden will come my way. There was an old LP recording that used to be available in the Melbourne Conservatorium library, which is how I first came across it. And Ensemble Liaison presented an odd version of it almost seven years ago to the day in the Melbourne Recital Centre, with extra parts added in from the original score for clarinet and cello.

And the form itself is a cover-term for such a variety of compositions; a case has been made that opera is really melodrama. But Strauss’s effort comes from an era when the melodrama was a more circumscribed object, certainly more so in terms of subject matter which tended to the moralistic. Apart from Berlioz’s extravagant Lelio – which he calls a melologue – I don’t know any other melodramas apart from this one. That is, of course, to ignore the greatest melodrama of them all – Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire – which stands alone, unassailable and inimitable, thank God. But both the VTC and BMF can be satisfied with their interpretation of this Strauss/Tennyson composite, even if I’m not really sure that the visual stimulation added much to the experience.

Youth breaks through

INTO THE NEW WORLD

Melbourne Youth Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday March 21

Brett Kelly

Over the past year, it’s been hard to ferret out live orchestral performances. Not that they haven’t been going on in some form or other but most organizations have wanted you to revel in recordings and tapes of past triumphs. Well, you can hardly blame them: pandemic restrictions have militated against large groups banding together as was their wont to work through the repertoire. To be honest, looking back in this way hasn’t appealed to me, even if the only chance to hear live music means that you have to be content with chamber groups or solo programs where contiguity is manageable or irrelevant. I’ve seen the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra give a concert under the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall banner – in fact, I believe several programs were broadcast from Hobart – but Sunday afternoon’s transmission from Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium impressed me as the clearest indication yet of orchestral life returning to normal.

Mind you, I wasn’t anticipating a youth orchestra. In years well gone, I’ve listened to – and reviewed – the Australian Youth Orchestra, and even a few chamber ensembles populated partly by secondary school students, but childish things were put away after I stopped secondary school teaching in 1997. So this New World program brought up a sense of deja entendu, not least for its mixture of ease and ambition. Director/conductor Brett Kelly opened with some sectional samples – Strauss’s early Serenade for Winds, then Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a freshly-written percussion trio by an MYO member, the woodwind-and-brass Scherzo alla marcia from Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8, another brass/woodwind (now with percussion) extravaganza in J. Cook’s reduction of the first Pomp and Circumstance – before everybody knuckled down to the big last Dvorak symphony.

It’s a young person’s product, the Strauss Serenade: written when the composer was 17, but packed with hurdles concerning production and dynamic control This tredectet opened benignly enough with an oboes/clarinets/bassoons combination of fine weighting, and this characteristic continued across most of the brief score’s duration. The bugbear of intonation problems soon reared up, however: from the horns in octaves at bar 25, somewhere among the 4 players negotiating F sharp in bar 46, the horn/clarinet downward scale in bar 60, the horn quartet at bar 71. Not that anybody was off-pitch for a notable length of time, but these blips stuck out from an otherwise satisfying sonorous mesh. And specific members made excellent contributions, like the supple oboe solo at bar 81’s Tempo I, and the restrained second clarinet and first bassoon duet from bar 167 to bar170.

Dur4ing the initial bars, Elgar’s Serenade impressed for its push/pull phrasing – a real piacevole from everybody. In these pages, the first violins impressed for their confidence in attack, still going strong at the Letter F/bar 92 recapitulation, with only a touch of looseness about the bars 109-110 change-over to blot an otherwise amiable surface. Elgar’s Larghetto was handled with a straighter bat, the second violins unsubtle in their bars 10-11 exposure, and some points made little sense like the hefty attack on bar 34’s first note. Still, these details were counter-weighted by a passionate first violin- and-violas duet starting at bar 54, while the last 12 bars came across with impressive restrained eloquence. Later, in the Allegretto, both violas and cellos matched each other very successfully; a disappointment, then, to have the pace pushed too hard after the key change at bar 42, such doggedness also detracting from the upward motion at bar 68 that should lead towards a placid conclusion to the score.

Substituting for the Fanfare pour preceder La Peri for brass by Dukas, a burnished showpiece that was dropped from the original program, MYO percussionist Joseph Fiddes wrote a short trio, Percussion 2021, for himself and colleagues Madeleine Ng and Felix Gilmour. This involved marimba, timpani, and (I think) glockenspiel with wood-block as a side-dish. A brief interlude, possibly in E minor, the piece proved active and packed with syncopations, winding up in an impressive accelerando plus presto (or the other way round?) finish.

Also a surprise replacement for the Dukas, Vaughan Williams’ scherzo asks for crisp delivery, here well illustrated by a deft first trumpet solo of 8 bars (repeated) at Number 3. For a work that doesn’t ask much in terms of rhythmic complexity, the simple suspensions two bars after Number 8 came over as slovenly. Things picked up noticeably in the latter part (last 7 bars) of the movement’s trio but the final unison woodwind demi-semiquavers failed to register, and not just because of their pianissimo marking.

J(eff?). Cook’s arrangement of the first Pomp and Circumstance march served to show how much of the work relies on non-string forces. Naturally, you miss the warmth of timbre in the big theme, but the bustling elements don’t suffer from the abstraction of string forces. This reading emphasized the pomp and came across with few signs of refinement in delivery, as witnessed by a fair dose of clutter accompanying the jump into Letter G (and later at Letter P), and an unorganized belting of the chords that accompany the Land of Hope and Glory tune at Letter K. The piccolo that spikes out over all at the Molto maestoso 5 bars after R seemed just slightly off-true, which put a sealant on an inescapable sense of musicians operating outside their potential, the results blunt and blowsy.

Then we arrived at the big canvas of Dvorak’s E minor Symphony: a gift to its interpreters and their audiences alike. After a long interruption, any orchestra would have needed time to feel out an interpretation of this familiar score, let alone a set of young musicians who put this program together after a rush of full rehearsals conducted across a short space of time. So Sunday’s performance necessarily moved between various levels of achievement. Across the four movements, certain stretches made a positive impression, mostly in ensemble passages. The greater part of the introductory Adagio worked positively, despite an over-eager violin anxious to hit the Allegro molto proper. A fine flute and oboe duet emerged at bar 91, setting out that G minor melody thrown off by Dvorak with his habitual prodigality. Later, when the same tune is given in the major beginning at bar 129, the ebb and flow in ensemble phrasing proved exemplary; just what you’d expect from a professional body.

After the first movement’s development pages began, the horns came under more exposure – not just with the occasional solo, but more with the need to administer plenty of stentorian chords which, in some cases, proved flawed. As well, the upper strings would have profited from more definition and prominence, even in restrained passages like the repetitions beginning at bar 269, as well as observing the conductor’s wish to disallow any racing ahead. I also noticed a lack of upper string power at bar 408 where everyone else has abrupt chords, leaving the violins to slash out some exhilarating upward arpeggios that should cut through the surrounding full orchestra blasts. Speaking of which, what comes with regular rehearsal is reliability in chording – the complete consort belting together – rather than some of the splayed results we heard in his movement’s final pages.

Another highly congenial ground was established for the Largo by the brass/wind/timpani combination chords across the first four bars. The MYO cor anglais would have enjoyed greater success with one of music’s most recognizable melodies if she had enjoyed stronger lung power, ensuring that the minims at the end of each two-bar phrase lasted their full length. Yet again, the strings were urging forward at bar 27 through a passage that calls out for indulgence. At the key change to C sharp minor, Un poco piu mosso, another flawless first flute/first oboe doubling brightened the atmosphere by its purity of ensemble; further along, some momentary carelessness marred the loaded final violin quavers in bar 82. Another pacing problem arrived at the staccato flute solo in bar 90 which was taken very rapidly, making matters hard for all involved before the sudden brass outburst at bar 96 which finishes all shenanigans before the cor anglais tune returns. Finally, the whole string corps might have made more of a point at their final forte point finishing bar 112 before the moving collapse to the concluding bass chords (another detail that would have gained from a good deal more Molto adagio).

The orchestra fared better the second time around with the Molto vivace‘s initial 59 bars. Further into this movement, the strings were showing signs of fatigue at the Tempo I resumption but showed more dedication with the poised leaps from bar 193 onward. With their arpeggio bursts during the coda, the MYO horns had mixed success, faring better with the consequent loud block chords that thinned out efficiently from bar 285 to bar 291. A few pages further on, at the Allegro con fuoco, trumpets and horns made a fair showing in the movement’s main theme, the sound solid and aggressive. While the violins scrawled unhappily through their exposed line at bar 120, the violas emerged from the ruck with distinction in a substantial patch of passage work from bar 154 through to bar 171, keeping a firm collegiality of attack and phrasing.

While the brass held their fire at the bar 190 tutti, they more than made up for it later, at the mighty dominant-based declamation of bars 208-213, I’m not sure what happened in the all-horn stringendo at bar 271 but the effect was not as exhilarating as expected and the subsequent pages proved to be something of a trial as Dvorak urges towards an apotheosis that eventually ends in an ever-welcome final bar of transfigured woodwind and brass, giving us a soft landing after all the rhetoric.

Taken as a whole, this performance let itself down on details, points where the score is demanding and others where you would not expect to find difficulties. Kelly kept his young musicians on the move, every so often making a distinctive point but usually determined to forge ahead. In the end, the MYO made a valiant effort at a too-well-known masterpiece, keeping their communal head with very few serious lapses and presenting us with an honest reading, even if the final pages proved to be something of a relief.

Ecology meets the digital

THE GREEN BRAIN CYCLE

Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3434

A double CD, this contribution to the Michael Harvey Collection is getting on in years; I received it in 2018, I believe, and was daunted by the scale of the undertaking. To begin, you need to have some awareness of Frank Herbert’s 1966 novel, The Green Brain, which treats of a world where humankind has wiped out – or thinks it has wiped out – all insects. I can’t get a copy anywhere: Dune and its sequels, no problem, but the more arcane Herbert remains an unknown quantity. Not to worry: the creators here would rather you concerned yourself with their own production which comes in the shape of 20 compositions by Harvey and almost the same number of poems by von Caemmerer which have a strong link to the music in that their source material comprises the letters that make up the names of Harvey’s chosen insects – a pretty strict form of concrete poetry.

Having said that, further caveats and modifications have to be noted. All the poems are printed in the CD booklet. Unlike Harvey’s movements, there are 21 poems, von Caemmerer being sufficiently enamoured of butterflies to give the species two treatments; for all I know, he could be celebrating the semi-Rorschach effect of the insect’s wings. In the first performance at Mona Foma in January 2018, these poems were projected onto the performance space’s walls. Although it’s informative to have them supplied, they can form no part of the recorded experience. Nor can Brigita Ozolins’ set (in which Harvey and von Caemmerer operated at the premiere) be appreciated, apart from a pair of photos in the booklet.

What you do have to help you in comprehending facets of the 90 minutes of music is a pair of interviews by Ben Ross with the composer and the poet. Where von Caemerrer sticks to his brief and responds with admirable focus to the journalist’s questions and prompts, Harvey sets off opportunities for detours throughout his colloquy, some familiar from past addresses and statements, others unexpected and unsettling to those who regard music as essentially a form of aural pleasure. You can find soothing oases in the various tracks, but the whole composition is hardly framed to be treatable as illustrative or background music: that’s not Harvey’s way and he makes no bones about presenting his music-making as an adventure on which passivity from performer and audience is impossible.

In its printed form, The Green Brain is a piano solo. In this performance, Harvey uses various keyboards: a Kawai MP8 stage piano, a Kawai ES7 digital piano, a Korg Chrome synthesizer, and a Baldwin concert grand. This assemblage allows him a rich range with which to operate but, as well as the ability to achieve a sonic palette of infinite variety, the fabric, at various points, also has a vocal overlay as van Caemmerer reads extracts from Herbert’s novel. As he’s contending with amplified instruments, the reader operates a Mininova Novation synthesizer’s Vocorder function, which gives his output a disembodied electronic timbre and one I sometimes find hard to decipher in the general mix – although that could well be a problem with my sound system.

As a source for his structures, Havey prefaces each movement of the printed score with physical information about each insect. For example, cockroaches have 6 legs, 2 winds, 4 antennae and 3 sections, and the composer uses these numbers as a part-basis for shaping his movements. To my mind, it could be similar to the post-serial approach to creating scores where all parameters – rhythm, pitch, timbre, harmony et al – are organized by the book – after you’ve constructed your book, of course. But the process is not the same because Harvey’s creative process is so packed with energy and surprises that the constructional steps and formats become backgrounded, intellectually satisfying as they may be.

From the start, Harvey’s melange of sounds is close to overwhelming. A wash of middle-pitch white noise sets off this Ants movement before the original piano score begins. Under a series of Ives-like chords, the composer lays out a twelve-tone series in bass octaves, all helpfully numbered, but soon the piece moves into a less New England-angular landscape with a drum-kit underpinning (on a loop, I guess) that suggests both jazz and Zappa-like rock. I think an auxiliary repeated melodic loop is also superimposed while Harvey works through his original piano pages. Whatever the sources, there’s a lot of sound manipulation going on in this, the third-longest track of the album. The more imaginative listener could probably summon up suggestions of an anthill’s ceaseless activity; the less gifted can exercise their ears trying to follow the work’s layers which merge into the following Cockroaches – an electronic keyboard tour de force which employs several facilities for sustaining notes/bands, producing impossibly regular chains of single-note staccato, flashing across the keyboard with that agility you can achieve when downward pressure is unnecessary. Again, you can easily superimpose mental impressions of scuttling throughout these rapid-fire pages.

Grasshoppers involves an extraordinary amount of percussive overlay. I have no idea how this is achieved while Harvey is working through his piano original; the whole panoply of superimpositions present as sewn into the piano part with split-second precision. And, not surprisingly, the aural effect is of angularity set inside a powerful frame of unpitched explosions. In the Mantises pages, the piano sounds are set against another spectrum incorporating both percussive strikes and the variety of noises you can extract from inside the piano. The action is startlingly rapid although a series of pedal notes towards the end suggest the row from Movement 1. And, above all, there is an occasional striking effect resembling stridulation, like the guiro that cuts through Stravinsky’s ferment in The Rite of Spring.

It sounds as though Harvey is using two keyboards simultaneously in parts of Scorpions, which comes closest so far to an old-fashioned synthesizer sound. Yet again, more seems to be happening than two hands can accomplish, although you’d be a fool to underestimate this player’s legerdemain. The texture is multi-layered and multi-faceted, even if the whole thing begins with a simplicity that brings to mind Webern’s Variations for piano opening. By contrast, the all-electronic Beetles takes us into a more stringent landscape, reminiscent of a Bach invention for its two-part linear character – even if one of the parts has chord chains punctuating its forward thrust. This time, the percussive bite comes frequently from a snare-type clip that you think might have been keyed in to coincide with a particular pitch/note; as the piece moves on, the snap becomes more of a whip or cymbal and finally the dominant treble sound suggests a Mothers of Invention energetic rough-house.

*

In his interview with Ross, Harvey speaks of confronting certain problems in his career, one of them concerning the cultural character of the piano – his instrument. ‘The piano is like a real symbol of the Establishment – now.’ Which may be a partial explanation of why he employs other sound sources – albeit keyboards – to amplify and animate this score of movements. But he’s right, of course: the piano has been an indicator of gentrification for two centuries and its potential as a source for exploration has become as unpromising as the electric guitar – once a symbol of liberation, now a suburban lifestyle trope. As Harvey observes, every Government House has its grand – ferociously unused, if my experiences are any guide – and he is probably correct in questioning what the Establishment is doing with them – apart from positioning them as handsome pieces of fenced-off furniture

*

I think Flies uses the Baldwin for much of its length, with occasional electronic implants, especially a set of drone pitches in the second part that inevitably throw you back to the title and the insect’s talent for annoyance. It also features von Caemmerer reciting plenty of Green Brain text extracts, most of them discernible but handicapped by one feature: the voice sounds like a Dalek so that any minute you expect to hear ‘Exterminate!’ commands. Here, the philosophical/ecological messages take over, the final moments given to the voice alone. Onomatopoeia comes to mind in Bees where the workers are hard at it, Harvey negotiating a rapid two-part invention etude, taken at dazzling speed, with what I suppose are pre-recorded lines both supporting and interfering.

Without a pause, we are linked into Wasps. At its start and conclusion, the sound fabric is reminiscent of exploratory rock, even if that term seems improbable, the overwhelming washes bring to mind what that branch of music could have achieved if its practitioners had not become enslaved to the most prosaic and repetitious of formulae. It’s hard to believe, in the main part of the movement, that human hands are performing because the Presto marking is an understatement; here’s technical wizardry of a high order and – like Bees – unavoidably descriptive. Matters are a little less frantic in Butterflies, even if the shifts in timbre are carried out with remarkable swiftness. The only distraction from the keyboard lines remains a rising siren sound, kept at a subsidiary volume level with some white noise delicately applied before the concluding cadence.

Sub-titled Nocturne, Moths is the longest movement in the cycle. Opening with an intervallic meditation, the original score begins after input from von Caemmerer and you can hear that this night-piece is full of action with a steady pulse in operation for much of its length. Throughout, the underpinning comes from this pulse that weaves in and out of prominence with some strident action at about the 6’30” mark where the pace increases and the work takes on a momentary fervour. Three or four vocal interpolations emerge; indeed, von Caemmerer has the last word in this piece which sticks in my memory for its implementation of the (synthetic) sound of a West Indian steel drum. As an essay in electronic pointillism, Spiders gives you a remarkably vivid experience; every note slots into place with finely-executed synchronicity as Harvey moves across his keyboard range; these pages sparkle with spiky brilliance and a remarkable economy of material.

*

Further into his interview, Harvey observes that ‘A virtuoso is now an interpreter that lives off other people’s ideas and, in classical music, that is what is regarded as an artist.’ That’s how it is; unlike Liszt, the paradigm of the virtuoso/creator, the modern-day pianist is committed to interpreting the products of other musicians. For every creator like Chopin or Rachmaninov, you have an astonishing number of latter-day interpreters, all struggling to make a living out of nights of nocturnes and etudes-tableaux. Mind you, it’s hard to deny the title of artist to musicians as revelatory as Demidenko, Ohlssohn or Hamelin but Harvey’s point is still valid: worthy of applause as the finest virtuosi are, their efforts are not creative in the strictest sense, but reproductive. In which respect, Harvey has given us some memorable nights with his interpretations of other people’s ideas.

*

Another tone row is announced in the treble of the opening bars to Fleas; which is fine information except that the movement is rhythmically complex and multi-layered. Von Caemmerer’s output has been altered; here, he sounds like a countertenor Dalek as Harvey gives dynamic precedence to the text, although not always going into a holding pattern while the sentences last. Again, the impression is of flickering activity interwoven with an impressive set of harp imitations. Another attacca takes us to Ticks where a sustained chord sits underneath pizzicati that function like sonic prickles, restless and relentless. Suggesting in miniature form the famous post-murder orchestral link in Act 3 of Berg’s Wozzeck, Harvey begins Lice with a bar comprising four levels of the note B, then launches into a bewildering series of episodes where the rough and smooth are juxtaposed and jazz suggestions lead to passages where rhythmic irregularities flatten out and linear dollops give way to sound-bands.

Again, straight ahead to Silverfish that opens with a snare-drum compilation before pitched notes start in a piece that is packed with fits and starts of activity, including a plethora of decorative work. For the most part, this is a frenetic enterprise, its general tenor a kind of rough tachisme with short interludes of celesta delicacy. In Earwigs, you can hear several instances of Harvey’s facility in close-order pianism, one hand following swiftly on the patterns set up by the other. Here is another piece that melds a sort of heavy-handedness with improbably rapid bravura performance as its counterpoint waxes and wanes. Another contrast comes in Slaters where sustained notes interweave in a timbral scenario that is sometimes reminiscent of an organ like that in Ligeti’s Volumina, a kind of slowly shifting kaleidoscope punctuated by buzzing and loud bourdon passages in the bass while on top weave shifting string chords.

*

Further to his comments regarding the modern-day practice of virtuosity, Harvey says, ‘You’re exposed to a process much like an exam every time you present this music where other people pass judgement on that piece of music to see if it’s correct or not, as if there is some sort of benchmark for that’ – a process that he finds ‘appalling’. Which reminds me of an occasion many years ago when a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music spoke of regarding a composer’s manuscript as a ‘palimpsest’; confronted with it, the performer sees as through a glass darkly and is required to scrape away any surface scum and uncover what lies beneath. Yes, you can do that – if you’re insightful and lucky. But most audiences are conditioned to position themselves as arbiters in Harvey’s exam process, a lot of these listeners happy to have their benchmarks set for them by others, like . . . Harvey is right yet again, the unfortunate truth being that our current musical professional life is structured this way, with performers required to offer themselves up to judgement by working through works of mind-boggling familiarity in which the chances of deviating from the accepted path are all but non-existent.

*

Marimba sounds dominate the opening to Aphids, gently meandering before the Baldwin breaks into the aural scene for a moment or two. But between von Caemmerer’s readings come a series of electronic variants that suggest an amiable doodling that brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet at its coolest. Last of all, Mosquitos is yet another brilliant demonstration of Harvey’s unmistakable dexterity, a presto that never lets up, climaxing in a unison/octave flight that leaves you breathless through its sheer velocity. It’s a modern-day toccata in the truest sense of that term where the composer/performer takes you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you keep up with his mental and physical athleticism. It makes a celebratory end to this vital compendium which celebrates the smallest among us with a wide-ranging humanity.

But soft!

DIANA DOHERTY & STREETON TRIO

Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Southbank

Thursday March 4

Diana Doherty

We’re starting the Musica Viva 2021 with an all-Australian affair – which is the way it’s going to continue into the foreseeable future. Doherty and the Streetons bracketed Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor with a brace of works for the oboe+piano trio combination; not just two works, but the only two ones to employ this instrumental format. Martinu’s Quartet dates from 1947 and Lachlan Skipworth’s from 2020, the latter commissioned for Musica Viva and this round of recitals. The musicians worked straight through without an interval – what else can you do in these straitened months when the bars can’t be opened, not even to supply water? – and, while all performed to a high standard, something sounded wrong with the sound diffusion.

If memory serves me properly (still), Musica Viva’s opening recital for 2020 featured Garrick Ohlsson who gave his Brisbane recital in this Conservatorium hall. After that night, the great live silence. At that time, I had no problem with the space’s acoustic, and it’s a big area to fill; not the most comfortable for subtle chamber music because of the high ceiling and significant length. Still, Ohlsson resonated quite adequately, I suspect because his piano was situated favourably. On this Doherty/Streeton night, Benjamin Kopp played with the lid on the long stick and was a fainter presence. For all I know, this could be an ensemble peculiarity in which Emma Jardine’s violin and Umberto Clerici’s cello take joint pre-eminence while their pianist self-effaces; a far cry from nearly every other piano trio I’ve encountered, especially given the exposure we’ve enjoyed with Selby & Friends over many years.

Whether the piano was situated too far back or the instrument itself wasn’t big enough, it’s hard to make a definitive statement. But the mix was not convincing for Martinu’s amiable quartet where the two strings enjoyed an unusual degree of attention, Doherty a fine interpreter with a winningly shaped line. Right from the first bars of the opening Moderato, it was clear that this reading would not emphasize the sharp bounce that permeates recordings of this score; here was an evenness of dynamic and a levelling out of piquancy in attack that changed your expectations. Oddly enough, despite the strings’ dynamic dominance, they enjoy very little solo action – a bar here and there, but generally acting in partnership underneath or punctuating the oboe and piano.

We heard Kopp clearly enough in the second movement’s introductory 5-bar Adagio – a chord-rich piano solo. But in the following siciliano-like Andante, even his forte interruptions and punctuations lacked carrying power while Jardine and Clerici gave vent to passages of exceptionally rich timbre. However, the dynamic climax to this section starting at Number 4 in the Max Eschig edition of 1961 came over with fine conviction and a rewardingly (for us) rich spread of colours.

The Allegro conclusion to this second-of-two movements, like the opening Moderato, did not present as perky in character as expected; most of your attention fell on Martinu’s modulations, especially the more brusque ones, rather than any deft instrumental sparkle. Indeed, the working-out of these pages turned into a bit of a trial as there’s little relief in its forward movement and, despite the composer’s gleeful pointing-up of detail, you get a sense of cerebral activity when the counterpoint moves up a gear or two. Because of an absence of pointillistic brilliance, the final flurrying 16 bars sounded hefty, the conclusion something of a relief.

Once again, I would have been pleased with more bite from Kopp’s instrument for the Smetana masterpiece, particularly as Jardine and Clerici powered into their bar 8 duet in the first movement Moderato assai. In fact, Jardine maintained a strong voice throughout this trio while Clerici could be discerned even in loud chordal passages supplied by Kopp. A fine sense of theatrical contrast came with the second subject at bar 43, cello and violin delivering it with full responsiveness, the former heavy on vibrato. What turned out to be the most involving stretch of playing in the recital came during this first movement’s development, the Tempo rubato at its conclusion a welcome opportunity to hear untrammeled Kopp and his sensitive freedom across the three cadenza bars. Later, the polonaise-rhythm segment of the recapitulation proved splendidly effective in the lead-up to the fortissimo bars and the reduction in dynamic to the coda page.

Little marred the second movement Allegro except some disappearing, soft piano notes; at various points you could just make them out while at others you wondered if they’d been announced at all. Nevertheless, all players observed the composer’s juxtaposition of light and dark, wispy and hefty. Smetana’s Alternativo I seemed slower than usual, but I liked Clerici’s slight use of portamento when he entered the section’s action in the latter part. The second Alternativo impressed in its most dramatic moments, as at the opening strophes and later between bars 187 and 191, all followed by a suitably delicate rounding-out.

If you were familiar with your Smetana, you knew what was going on in the final Presto‘s piano part but that simple two-against-three mesh sounded as if it was coming from a fair distance while the competing strings from bar 26 on enjoyed too much of one’s attention with pretty subsidiary matter. When the group resumed their treatment of the opening theme at bar 215, you were struck by the restraint shown from all sides, a polite re-acquaintance, until Jardine’s triple stops at bar 255 jolted us back into the movement’s vehement urgency. That sudden break into a semi-funeral march at bar 467 over an unsettling dominant pedal is fine fare for those who want to read a program into the work and detect grief for his recently-dead daughter written large across Smetana’s score, but it doesn’t quite satisfy; the 28 bars make for a hiatus in the emotional acceleration under way from the Piu mosso marking, but it’s an unnecessary one, in my opinion. Not that this distracted from the Streetons’ ensemble work, reliable and passionate right up to the concluding, emphatic double punch.

Skipworth’s new quartet sounds at its outset like a work infused with an Australian flavour: a benign melody and not too far-reaching or angular, with a touch of British bucolicism – even if this initial lyrical arch is a remarkably long one with plenty of sustained single notes at large. The second thought that struck me was a sense of operating in a post-Impressionist world, but Sisley rather than Monet. I’m not at all aware of the formal structure of this movement, beyond the welcome and informative program notes from the composer, but his rhythmic manipulations promised to be more complex than they turned out to be in performance. Certainly, the activity is fluent and brisk, while one of the new score’s great strengths lies in its insights into the potential of all participants – at least, in this Allegro moderato, with an accent on the adjective.

Starting the second movement, a Misterioso, molto rubato (joy-inducing words for any player), Skipworth seemed to be entering Sculthorpe’s ‘isolation’ landscape with an oboe/cello duet over low chords in the piano, Clerici eventually taking the forefront. A brief duet with Jardine preceded the violin articulating what sounded like a threnody. The composer mentions Messiaen as an inspirational source but I missed any obvious signs, apart from a kind of slow-moving gravity. To end, Doherty sets off on a buoyant offensive, a folk-dance in its suggestions before Skipworth enters a series of episodes. It was at about this point that I noticed how little exposure was being given to Kopp, the composition here favouring the strings’ and wind’s agility. But the attraction here lies in the chameleonic nature of the narrative in play, coupled with more readable rhythmic games than I found in the first movement.

A particularly attractive feature of this work came with its clarity of intent, an impetus at work in each of its segments, and the definition that informed the performance. Still, as Doherty pointed out, the ensemble has had plenty of time to get their interpretation organized. So, this recent creation by Skipworth not only occupies a singular position in the catalogue of scores for this grouping, but it also pleases by speaking in an optimistic voice; very welcome at the start of this particular year and a suitable indicator of the Musica Viva organization’s hopes.