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.