Comfortable beans

FIKA

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 603



The least I can say about this CD is that it’s uncommon; you won’t find much to compare it with on the folk or jazz or serious music scenes. Or is that untrue? Perhaps there are a whole lot of similar ensembles out there, all straddling stools and producing albums like this one, being published for a group of admirers willing to offer support of a definite nature. Elysian Fields is an ensemble with a catholic taste, headed by Jenny Eriksson on electric viol da gamba. She is accompanied on this heavily Swedish CD by Susie Bishop (voice and violin), Matt Keegan (saxophones), Matt McMahon (piano), Siebe Pogson (bass guitar) and Dave Goodman (drums).

Of the nine tracks, six are vocal and cover a wide range. Three have Swedish texts, two are English, one is Greek/Latin using parts of the Common of the Mass. Two of the Swedish texts use folk tunes, while one, Frid na Jord, was written by folk-singer Sofia Karlsson.

As for the instrumental titles, they begin with Living, a work by Jan Gunnar Hoff which is here arranged by Eriksson. The tune itself is amiably folksy and almost pentatonic. It is treated at the opening and at the end with a side-line into something more jazz-inflected in the middle after Keegan’s saxophone takes solo spot. It is probably as well to point out that composer Hoff is Norwegian and his work as outlined here is a smaller version of an original, larger piece for jazz trio. Nothing here will disturb anyone’s equanimity; just a simple ternary construct in which the main tune is played several times without elaboration.

Next comes Karlsson’s Peace on Earth, a Christmas song with some sombre suggestions that make a counterpoint to the text’s celebratory theme. Alongside this ambiguous set of lines, the melody is slow-moving and, in an arrangement by pianist McMahon, attractively modal and, after not too long, almost predictable. The second stanza offers a timbre change, the voice accompanied only by piano for the first quatrain before the sax and percussion (very soft) flesh out the supporting ambience. Here also, we have a jazz excursion for piano which is relaxed and not that inventive; to my ears, it seems unconnected to its precedents. For good measure, Bishop sings the second stanza again, her exceptionally lucid colour and security a significant contributor to the performance’s success, especially considering the song’s slow pace.

For me, the pick of the disc comes now with an early 19th century courting (on both sides) round dance, Vi ska stalla till en rolger dans. The melody is catchy and asymmetrical and Bishop’s delivery is crystal-clear and vital without effort, her choruses beginning with a repeated Hei hopp (Heigh ho) particularly infectious and spot on pitch. Here again, there are interludes after the two verses; then the first is repeated. Keegan uses a soprano, I think, and he with Bishop on violin and McMahon provide an 8-bar introduction notable for violin tremolo and two-note intervallic leaps on sax – I can’t tell what it has to do with the following skipping tune but that’s my fault, I’m sure.

(Parenthetically, I must apologise here for not being able to put in accents any more, such as the missing diaeresis on the first a in stalla above, or the small circle above the a in Frid pa Jord.. WordPress changed its operating format some months ago and I can no longer get access to the list of accented letters that used to be available. As well, I can’t manage these days to set up links to organizations and individuals. Progress: you gotta love it.)

Lat till Far constitutes a bit of recycling. Composed by Pers Erik Olsson. it appeared on a 2013 Marais Project disc in an arrangement by Sydney theorboist Tommie Andersson, and that version formed the basis of this version for Bishop’s violin, Eriksson’s gamba and new arranger McMahon’s piano. Olsson’s melody is fine folksy fodder, its second phrase interesting for an unexpected momentary modulation. But again, the old problem arises: what do you do with a folk-song-like melody except repeat it over and over in different guises? Vide Copland’s Appalachian Spring, God help us. The trio gives the tune slightly different guises, principally in the piano’s supporting chords, but both strings end up playing this melody at the octave. Not exactly tedious, but not engaging after the first few runs-through.

What came irresistibly to mind in the next track was the Irish folk-song She moved through the fair, which has the same disappointed-in-love matter at its core. Nar som jag var pa mitt adertonde ar has no ghost appearing at its end but it might as well have gone the full sprite hog. An 18-year-old girl falls in love, but the lad is embraced by another girl. Our narrator is left looking for a unification with her distant beloved after death. The Swedish folk song is, like the Irish one, bar-less and the support offered to Bishop’s typically clear delivery comprises drones from piano and gamba, Keegan offering a quasi-improvisatory interlude at the half-way point. Particularly effective is the conclusion where the voice is left alone with the softest subterranean support, so that the final aspiration/threat takes on a vivid clarity.

Track 1’s composer, Gunnar Hoff, returns with Meditatus, a version of Kyrie I from the composer’s Mass for jazz ensemble and choir. Eriksson has used the original version as well as an arrangement for voice and piano, inserting some improvisatory sections into this construct which uses the Kyrie eleison and last three words of the Agnus Dei. Here is pretty simple – no, very simple – material where the voice is supported by piano chords in a few melodic strains that might have escaped from Vatican II at its most elementary. Bishop sings the Greek and Latin without problems and also has a bit of vocalising, if nothing too adventurous. Keegan presents a solo that almost suggests improvisation but seems pretty strait-laced.

By about this stage, even to this mean intelligence, the penny drops: any jazz involved here lies in inflexions and interludes, not sustained passages of free-wheeling fabrication. This factor becomes pretty obvious in this neo-liturgical piece where the demarcation between the text setting (and associated whee-ooh-hees) and instrumental solos is so sharp. Still, if that’s a distinction that the Elysians are happy with, we have little recourse except to listen . . . and possibly learn.

The last of the instrumental tracks – Cold Soul by saxophonist Keegan – puts the piano at it centre, the viola/violin/sax following a formal, fully-scored path with washes and snare-drum backing from Goodman, whose contributions throughout are polished and unobtrusive, but at their most noticeable here. You can’t be sure but there’s a sense that the piano goes off on a tangent in the centre of the work, the before and after sections having a smooth, cool quality with a nice waltz-like sway that eventually dissipates at the end in a wash of hemiolas. Keegan was commissioned to produce the piece as part of an Eriksson project that resulted in this CD; he took his inspiration from a year-long sojourn in Sweden. You may find Scandinavian suggestions here; they were not apparent to me, as I thought the projected emotional ambience could have fitted in at Rosebud or Byron on a Hemsworth-less sunny morning.

Siebe Pogson – like Goodman, a quiet presence for the most part – enjoyed another Eriksson commission: a three-movement work from which we are offered the first, which is called The Tragedy. This is the second-longest track on Fika (7’20”), after Frid pa Jord (8’48”), and it has a solid jazz flavour, if a laid-back sentimental tang. The first of two verses has a wide-ranging diatonic melodic line which is doubled by the gamba, I think, while the piano does some soulful doodling. The setting is strophic, with no melismata to interrupt the step-like motion. A short sax solo leads to a second verse in which the sax works in concert with the voice, note for note, but not the same notes, thank God.

In fact, the line covers a wide vocal range, well beyond the capacities of most singers of popular music. An exposed piano solo follows the end of the singing, rather like the opening in effect and a nice sample of gentle meandering, before the player recapitulates his opening and sax-plus-gamba work in unison through a reprise, after which the work ends in the minor. Pogson also wrote the lyrics, which are loaded with existential angst; sadly, this is not reflected in the music itself, which, in the end, presents as attractively smooth in its instrumental content, and pleasantly angular in its vocal shape.

Last of all comes Believe Beleft Below by Esbjorn Svensson; well, the music is from the Swedish jazz pianist/composer but a text has been provided by Josh Haden whose own version can be found on YouTube and which seems to bear no relation to Svensson’s product. This is a calm, gently paced ballad in Eriksson’s arrangement, with Bishop caressing the vocal line and, as you’d expect, an instrumental interlude divided between gamba and sax; a reprise begun by piano has Bishop joining back in on proceedings at the third line. It has to be noted that the singer is not stretched at all by this soft-stepping if trite melody and – as we’ve come to anticipate by this stage – the texture might owe a lot to jazz but the overall atmosphere occupies a ground half-way between the Kingston Trio and the mildest of torch songs.

There you have it: a miscellany of charm and warmth on its best tracks. The CD’s title apparently means a coffee break, but even more the inter-personal warmth that comes from such an interlude. Take that into consideration, and you have an excellent musical accompaniment to this sort of cosy pastime: calm and casual, any crises dissipated by comfort, a continuous emphasis (for a short while) on the laid-back. And Fika certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, the total playing time coming in between 50 and 51 minutes.

The hues of youth

THE FIREBIRD

Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Friday April 23

Samuel Choi

One of the great critic’s put-downs I can remember was applied to a prize-winner at the International Chopin Piano Competition. The reviewer wrote, ‘At least most of the notes were there.’ I think this might have been applied to Ashkenazy in 1955, but it could have been anybody in that rarefied, self-regarding world where musicologists rather than performers worry a potential flattened third to death. Still, as opposed to regarding such a comment as negative, it seems to me that the writer was offering praise: it is something when a pianist can get nearly all the notes out, even in a well-worn field like Chopin’s oeuvre.

All of which is a preamble to considering Samuel Choi’s efforts with the the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 last Friday in a well-attended program from the Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra. In fact, as far as I could tell, Choi managed to get out nearly all the notes and held his own in this work which, in its first half, resembles a series of lightly-accompanied solos and straight-out cadenzas with memorable orchestral links. While the soloist encountered some perilous moments, mainly in the Allegro con fuoco finale, he enjoyed considerable success with the highly exposed Allegro con spirito part of the opening movement. In fact, his only obvious difficulty throughout this long sequence of emotional ups and downs came at about bar 261 when the ante-penultimate and penultimate arpeggiated chords came to inaccurate conclusions.

But for small slips like that, the major part of this movement showed a fine technique at work allied to loads of preparation as in the accuracy of the massive double octave passages that preceded the above-mentioned arpeggios from bar 251 to 259, and later in the thrilling build-up after the main cadenza at bar 611 where the onward drive is irresistible but a nightmare for the soloist, particularly when the triplets arrive in bar 620. And you could find a good deal to admire in Choi’s avoidance of dynamic excess, those mighty opening chords pronounced with confidence, not braggadoccio, and he showed a willingness to take part in segments rather than dominating the output at every point as at the flute doubling at bar 218 and which lasts with other woodwind up to bar 234.

Mind you, the process might have been more successful if the first flute had been more assertive, but only clarinets and bassoons mounted a challenge in this movement, while the brass made their combined mark with as much self-confidence as this corps in most other orchestras does, even if the horns were unexpectedly accurate (which back-handed praise comes from one all too used to student ensembles in Melbourne and Sydney, and hence inclined to be fretful in advance).

Along with Choi’s fine, often well-nuanced reading, the other arresting factor in this concerto’s duration was the quality of the Conservatorium strings. Here was fine ensemble work from a body that responded to conductor Peter Luff with precision and, as far as I could tell, commitment from first desk to the rear echelons. No scraping, no imprudent isolated entries (well, maybe one), no self-regard from anybody but a professional approach from each group – and all carried off without soupy vibrato but a keen responsiveness that ensured exactitude in block chord explosions, like the hammer-blows that interrupted Choi’s double octaves between bars 251 and bar 257.

We heard the first flute en clair announcing the Andantino‘s first melody, before Choi took up the tune over a mild string susurrus, a passage that was probably too restrained from the soloist. Later, his delicacy in the central Allegro vivace showed an insight beyond his years, and he handled pretty cleanly the exposed jerky angularity of the occasional 8-bar solo as well as making a restrained helter-skelter charm in one of the concerto’s most genial passages, from bar 99 to bar 114.

To my mind, Luff’s pace for the finale seemed a touch stolid but it proved comfortable for Choi, which is the only criterion worth considering, after all. You could have asked for more definition in certain odd sections, like the accidentals/acciaccature between bars 29 and 36, but you balance against that the splendid meld from action to lyricism that heralds the movement’s D flat Major second subject. In treating this noble theme after its string statement, Choi arrived at one of his interpretative highlights with an excellent mastery of sustaining a line surrounded by arpeggiated distractions. As expected, the violin entry at 234, rising out of the twitchy, skipping preface, proved an increasingly impressive fabric, an ideal combination of pliant and solid. Choi’s double-octaves solo sounded flawless to me, a show-stopping ‘filled’ fermata before the relieving climax of Tchaikovsky’s Molto meno mosso and the compelling last four bars that I suddenly realised prefigure the same point in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3; wonderful how these obvious comparisons become clear after about 60 years.

To follow, in this interval-less concert, Luff and his forces gave an eminently respectable airing of Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. For this work, woodwind and brass forces changed personnel, except for the bass trombone who stayed in situ, alongside an un-named tuba performer; the timpanist also changed. Here, you were more able to appreciate the disciplined input of this band’s five double basses, all low strings making an arresting demonstration of pianissimo playing in the opening six bars. Bassoons and clarinets sounded unusually prominent in the following strophes of Stravinsky’s Introduction, given the feathery light opening with the faintest of bass drum rolls, the whole disturbed only by the clacking of an unfortunately incontinent woman in front of me who decided to take a toilet break between the two programmed works and – of course – came back in late

Even the sforzandi from second violins and violas that introduce the title character came over as crisp as you could wish, while the Variation de l’oiseau de fer, packed with instrumental tachisme, found few faults in this group’s rhythmic balance and that vital ability to attack and retreat on a pinpoint, punctuated by some eloquent outbursts as at Number 17 in my old Boosey and Hawkes score. The Ronde showed us a more forthright flautist and oboist in play, although the whole woodwind group and first horn gave this dance a particularly straight-speaking character, even the small one-bar contributions handled sensibly and without elongating languor.

In the Danse infernale, there’s something of a release for the players who have been doodling impressionistically up till now. The sound was brilliant and velvet-thick in turns (for the latter, Number 15 at the D flat Major key signature change), and the musicians responded with excellent agility to Stravinsky’s sudden piano cut-back at Number 21. Despite the usual brass leisureliness when negotiating the block chord work starting at Number 22, the orchestra kept on track for the gripping accelerando and Piu mosso pages that surge and ebb dynamically until the difficult triplet-rich last bars. It’s not that the work is rhythmically taxing – much worse was to follow in 1911 and 1913 – but the pace is hectic; to the performers’ credit, I couldn’t detect any hesitations or missing threads in the fabric, least of all from the first trombone and his glissandi either side of Number 13( which, to be honest, I would prefer to do without).

Once again, the strings surprised by their polish in the divisi passage at Number 4 of the Berceuse, the players generating a persuasively lush timbre despite the use of mutes (nearly) all round. But it’s hard to miscalculate in this soothing nocturne during which the brass are given a rest from their labours, in preparation for the excesses of the Final where the composer does a Tchaikovsky and dresses his one theme in multiple guises. This last movement enjoyed full bowing, a powerful trumpet/trombone combination in its central pages, a reliable first horn for the first 8 bars (which came off with minimal stress), but I would have preferred the slashing detached string chords that the composer later employed at the Doppio valore page.

Still, this performance and that of the concerto were of an impressive standard, particularly for an observer steeped in the frailties of student orchestras. In spite of Luff’s imperturbable direction, or more probably because of it, the Conservatorium musicians looked and sounded keenly involved throughout the evening’s work, thoroughly prepared and showing evidence of relishing their encounters with these two repertoire warhorses, written when Tchaikovsky was 34 and Stravinsky 28; harbingers in both cases of the chains of masterpieces to come.

Large written small

SIEGFRIED’S STORY

Mark Papworth, Per Forsberg, Rosa Scaffidi

Move Records MCD 597

Does anyone in the current generation – X, Y, Z squared – remember Leopold Stokowski? Not the talk-down-to-the-audience posturing figure in DIsney’s first Fantasia of 1940, but the important force in American music-making (and music) who suffered vilification from less-endowed colleagues and underlings, but who stayed the course and remained active almost until his death aged 95 in 1977. He comes irresistibly to mind when considering this idiosyncratic CD which reduces some of Wagner’s most powerful outpourings in the Ring cycle to a mixed trio’s compass: horn, tuba and piano. In doing so, the content covers a bit more ground than just that trodden by Siegfried, who only appears in the last two of the four operas. But, as everyone will tell you, the big tetralogy is nothing less than a monster family show, albeit one starting in primordial ooze and ending in an apocalypse.

Stokowski put his own mark on well-known chunks like the Liebstod, Magic Fire Music and Ride of the Valkyries. In fact, it was some years before I realized that this last-named had singing interpolated. He also put together what he labelled syntheses. Quite a few of both these formats introduced many of my peers and myself to Wagner, mainly because our chances of seeing any parts of the Ring cycle were next to none in this country. Lohengrin or Tannhauser, perhaps; Tristan, less likely; Mastersingers, on the outer rim of feasibility; Parsifal, an impossible dream. These orchestrations were, for their time, very impressive-sounding, especially the three extracts from Tristan: the Prelude, Liebesnacht and Liebstod. Stokowski also gave us more than a nodding acquaintance with the last act of Parsifal, including the Good Friday Spell, as it was known in less religiously correct times.

This Scaffidi/Papworth/Forsberg trio seem to have been driven to their enterprise by little more than Wagner love. Well, that’s certainly true of Papworth who constructed all twelve arrangements and persuaded his colleagues to enter the lists with him. Great to have a musician follow his ambitious path, following the Stokowski trail but scaling down rather than revelling in sumptuousness. Further, it’s admirable to have a player behind the exercise, rather than a well-meaning amateur who responds to the Ring for questionable reasons. For one thing, if you remove most of the tracks on this CD from the original corpus, you are left with hours of tedium in theatrical or dramatic terms. The same can’t be said of the music where many of us look for salvation, but Wotan’s (and others’) lengthy recapitulations can daze many a music-lover. regardless of any singer’s quality.

So, here we are at the opening to Das Rheingold, Wagner’s exercise in E flat Major if mainly its tonic triad. Both wind players have little to do here but sustain the tonic drone while also sounding out the endless chain of E flats, Gs and B flats that are the lot of the brass while Scaffidi copes with the semiquaver arpeggios that turn up in the bass (eventually) and then the woodwind, roaming around both dominant and tonic triads. The group plays a straight version of this famous opening before the first of he composer’s Kardashian precursors, Woglinde, opens her mouth and introduces us to Wagner’s mellifluous vocal line and onomatopoeiac rhyme patterns. No problems here, and the performance is fluid enough.

A more difficult excerpt to carry off follows. After the ‘Get up, you lazy sod’ colloquy between Fricka and Wotan, Fasolt and Fafner, having built Valhalla, show up for their payment. The extract starts at the giants’ entry – Sanft schloss Schlaf dein Aug’ – and their trio with Wotan is followed right up to the D Major cadence just before Donner threatens the giants with his hammer. Forsberg carries the vocal line brunt, Papworth taking over when the movement becomes more chromatic, while the piano is prominent in the galumphing leitmotif that brings to ear the brothers’ heftiness. The players do their best to cover all harmonic bases and, for the most part, the extract doesn’t sound threadbare, although I must confess to losing the vocal line when Freia starts carrying on about being carried off.

This set of three extracts ends with the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla and it’s an impossible task to give even an inkling of the grandiose effect of these pages in a small-scale version. The trio begins at the spot where Donner tells everyone to come on up at Weise der Brucke den Weg!, omits the brooding of Wotan, his uneasy triumphalism countered with the distant Rhinemaidens bemoaning their loss, and takes up when the singing stops and the stately three-in-a-bar march takes over as the gods move into their new quarters. No way on earth can Scaffidi hope to cope with the divisi string work that goes on for page after page and the brass can only hint at the colossal grandeur of the massive brass choir. Still, the extract does show you how brilliant Wagner could be at fleshing out his bare-bones material through a mighty orchestral onslaught.

We are given four excerpts from Die Walkure: two from Act 1 and the concluding act’s Ride of the Valkyrie and Magic Fire Music, with nothing from the much-maligned middle act. The opera’s Prelude is handled well enough, lasting just up until curtain up and a bar before Siegmund comes into the hut. Both brass take on the minor scale motif while the piano keeps up a sustained chord pattern which doesn’t attempt to replicate the sextuplets in violins and violas; even so, the brass cannot hope to replicate the rushed quintuplets that feature so often on the first crotchet in the cellos’ and basses’ pattern work. Still, the dual impressions of storm and urgency come across efficiently enough and with very few errors, considering the pell-mell music and the considerable troubles with giving string music to low brass.

Towards the end of the first act comes Siegmund’s Wintersturme wichend dem Wonnemond aria. sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of this menacing act. Our trio begins 8 bars before the singer and cuts out on the same bar as the aria’s final Lenz! Papworth takes the tune, Scaffidi gives us the mobile arpeggio-rich support, but Forsberg roves across the score with remarkable liberty, here following a bass clarinet part, there a horn, sometimes a violin or cello scrap. It all makes for a genial experience, in large part due to the horn’s smooth agility, especially when the aria moves out of its B flat comfort zone.

The hackneyed Ride of the Valkyries is played straight, without gimmicks, and proves to be a real workout for Scaffidi who has to handle all the athletic work that falls to strings and woodwind. Both brass players tend to reinforce each other, playing at the octave as the piece reaches its highpoint. It’s a bit heavy-handed, as Rides go, and you certainly miss the blazing energy when the brass go into canon with themselves. Scaffidi brings things to a halt at the spot just before Ortlinde sets the girls off on their dead hero body-count, suggestive of AFLW post-match locker room banter – enjoy it while you can, girls: Coach Wotan’s on his way. Then we hear part of Wotan’s Farewell, starting four bars before he summons Loge to install the fire hurdle, and moving to the end of the opera with some omissions to the god’s moving ruminations before he leaves his daughter to her doom. Again, the piano had all the flickering labour while the brass hefted out the pompous descending scales and that unforgettably moving Innocent Sleep motif.

I started to lose the plot with the first extract from Act 2 of Siegfried. I followed the real Forest Murmurs – obvious in the score, beginning at the Wachsendes Waldweben notification and the key change to E Major – but the preceding introduction seemed a Stokowski-style mashing of melodies and motifs from the preceding scene. After a while, of course, Siegfried starts singing and the brass outlined his part, but the process was fragmented and the extract ended in mid-flight, the piano giving us the clarinet solo that accompanies the hero’s picking up his horn prior to blasting at Fafner. This fragment of the opera came off very well, handled with an agreable fluidity, even if most of the effectiveness came from Scaffidi’s non-glutinous string substitution. Papworth gave an excellent reading of Siegfried’s Horn Call, one of Wagner’s rare solo passages – completely exposed, I mean, not just rising above the ruck. You’d go some way to find an equal to this player’s accelerando: immer schnell und schmetternder indeed.

The final extract from Siegfried was the Prelude and first scene of Act 3 where Wotan/Wanderer is loitering at the base of Brunnhilde’s rock. This is pretty dour Wagner with little to recommend it except as an informative harbinger of impending doom and a marvellous contrast with the splendid final duet to the opera. Or perhaps I just miss the orchestral ferment here more than in several other excerpts.

And finally, the trio reaches Gotterdammerung and two solid pieces of work, the longest on the CD: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and his Funeral March. Everybody puts themselves to employment in the musical picture that shows Siegfried leaving the rock, Brunnhilde’s last glimpses of him, and the jaunty journey that our hero has on his luxury-less Scenic tour before the music sinks to depression. The players follow the score right through till the ambiguous chord that signifies the curtain going up on the Gibichung Hall. Much of this is horn-heavy in the original but the keyboard provides much of the movement’s thrust, doubling the brass’s handling of the main melody line for substantial lengths of time. Here, as in previous tracks, details have been omitted; admittedly, most of these are rapid and hard to incorporate into an arrangement, but it might have been worth leaving the brass to jockey with the melodic Hauptstimmen and given Scaffadi the opportunity to fill in the supporting gaps.

And we come at last to the opera’s penultimate dramatic highpoint. Auden once said, ‘When my time is up, I’ll want Siegfried’s Funeral Music and not a dry eye in the house.’ Wishes are all very well, but the poet had a quieter send-off at the churchyard of Kirchstetten in 1973. It’s hard to think of anything to rival Wagner’s pages for shattering, sombre power and these musicians give a convincing musical depiction of this imposing scene, picking up in the bar where Siegfried dies and coming to a neat C Major conclusion (the original’s C sharp down to C) at the point where Gutrune comes on stage to reap the rewards of her household’s duplicity. This is a very hard ask without a conductor and you can hear some slightly discrepant entries, moments when the ensemble is just a tad imperfect. But the interpretation has a reduced grandeur and punch at those stirring moments of C and G Major repeated chords that, even on a small scale as here, take you into the tragedy of this saga’s final moments.

In the end, this CD is something of a curiosity, reducing the irreducible and clarifying where the original intent was often a fabric of rich agglomeration. What you must do is respect the exercise as a labour of love, fed by Papworth’s familiarity with and attachment to Wagner’s music. No, of course it’s no substitute for the original bleeding chunks that Stokowski carved out for us. It’s more like a digest of a digest: improbably diminished canvases, yet bearing enough distinctive lineaments to satisfy the sympathizer, if not the Bayreuth purist.

Penitentials for all

MUSIC FOR HOLY WEEK

Canticum Chamber Choir

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Rosalie

Friday April 2

Canticum Chamber Choir

One of the few opportunities to hear some traditional Good Friday music arose from this event from one of Brisbane’s leading choral bodies. Given the state premier’s penchant for lockdowns, the planned initial presentation on March 31 had to be postponed for a week; luckily, conductor/director Emily Cox and her forces were able to get themselves together for this performance on the heels of the snap-lockdown’s lifting. The experience thereby gained an added frisson, as though events of this kind were lacunae in the normal life of this city – like early Christians getting a partial reprieve when a theologically indifferent Caesar came to power.

Emerging from our live-performance catacombs, Canticum gave us a mixed program, its material widespread in ambit but nearly all of it appropriate for the dour day itself. That familiar setting of Psalm 51 from the 1630s by Allegri with its exposed high Cs for solo soprano was written for Tenebrae services in Holy Week; O vos omnes is a responsory for Holy Saturday, here in the setting by Pablo Casals; presenting a Good Friday scene, although not written for that day’s observances, the Stabat mater dolorosa sequence has attracted many composers, including Domenico Scarlatti whose treatment I was hearing for the first time live.

O nata lux has its foundation in the Feast of the Transfiguration and, if not there, then Christmas, but I was happy to hear Canticum put their voices to another Lauridsen composition. Lotti’s 8-part Crucifixus deals with part of the Creed, but the part most pertinent to this day. And the Xhosa song Indodana is centred around the Son’s self-sacrifice which is the fundamental matter of Good Friday.

It’s a brave choir that opens its account with the Allegri score. For one thing, your force is split into three: the Gregorian set, the small group in the distance, and the main body. On the plus side, it’s repetitive and the change in timbre gives a necessary variety. Still, I must admit to a certain relief when the Benigne fac, Domine verse comes around and we’re on the home stretch.

Cox sent three male singers to stand under the church’s dome, from which they articulated the mono-linear chant, a line that got progressively slower as the work proceeded. But the trio stayed in tune, as did the main body Choir I who showed themselves well-prepared and expressively capable. With the four-line Choir II, matters got off to an unfortunate start, the soprano seemingly left high and dry in the first Amplius lava me intercession, the tenor and bass vanishing from view around the time of the top note on munda. Luckily, the group showed increased security in their next excursion and the negotiation of mihi proved much more secure.

As a whole, this performance was reverent, lacking in dynamic drama, although that’s understandable in a psalm that, more than most, rambles across a wide range of guilt. What it lacked more than anything, though, was a sense of urgency; these sinners were in no placatory hurry but admitted their iniquities at a measured pace. More trepidation would have helped the setting to carry more weight than this reading’s pleasure in its comfortable resonance.

As intra-choral interludes, cellist Louise King offered us two solo improvisations with a loop supporting her live performance. The first, Lament, opened with a long pizzicato passage before a solid bowed melody emerged. The language was diatonic, highly suggestive of Jewish music with what sounded like reminiscences of Bruch’s Kol Nidre setting along with a handful of Hasidic sobs. Nothing particularly startling here but an intriguing mix of sonorities and a richly expressive lyrical fluency.

The Casals motet began in the same key as the conclusion to King’s Lament – a nice piece of continuity. This O vos omnes is popular in Holy Week ceremonies, not least for its adoption by British choirs which find a reflection of their conservatism in its simple, concordant pages that reveal the cellist/composer’s happiness in a harmonic landscape that has barely progressed beyond Schumann but sets the text with impressive ardour for all that, particularly at the arresting climax on attendite. This showed a clarity of texture from the Canticums, especially across the sections where Casals almost divides his forces into 8 parts; the interpretation gave us a good taste of a choral body momentarily not under much pressure.

As with the Allegri, this evening’s performance of Scarlatti’s solid Stabat mater impressed more for its steady workmanship than for any suggestions of transcendence. For all that, the Canticums (or should that be Cantica?) enjoyed a continuo support throughout from Phillip Gearing’s chamber organ with King lending a subtle, welcome hand. In the first movement, the delivery proved reliable, apart from one of the soprano lines being happier at her work than the other in the brief canon at bars 5-6. The succeeding Cuius animam followed the same emotional bandwidth, although here you find some more intriguing harmonic structures as in the treatment of Et dolentem. Cox gave her forces some solo work at various stages across he score; fine as a change in surface tension although the ones employed in the centre of this movement tended to lag behind the pulse.

With Quis non posset, Scarlatti gives his interpreters a bit more chromatic creeping and a more lively pace at the Pro peccatis text. Even so, I think these pages could have been negotiated at a brisker pace because the sopranos and first tenors struggled with the downward motion between bars 69 to 72. A much more comfortable time they had of it in the balmy 2nds of Eia Mater, King’s surging colour prominent here for the first time. Also, the mix of soloists proved texturally intriguing and individual, while the movement came to a moving efflorescence in the closing bars with a finely judged tierce de Picardie. In this last respect, ditto for the Sancta Maria verses, moving from major to minor throughout before a concluding raised B flat. At this point, the soloists’ contribution, accurate in intonation though it was, lacked plosive bite, consonants disappearing with that freedom shown by Sutherland in her prime.

I’m fascinated by the setting styles of various writers in the Fac me tecum interlude. Scarlatti doesn’t disappoint with his major-key determination while the poet keeps giving the Mother of God more orders. The singers made a bold start on these pages but I sensed a slackening of determination at about bars 18 and 24 where the top sopranos have a short break. Some more surprises emerged in the Juxta crucem sequence. Every so often in this score, a note emerges that doesn’t exactly jar but rather points in a new harmonic direction, the composer here moving between D and D flat; not making a Gesualdo chromatic strike but sapping away at your expectations. Yet again, in these pages the soloists showed a tendency to pull against the conductor’s admittedly fluent metre, and the only unhealthy contribution heard across this score came in the soprano soloist’s last note.

A florid tenor/soprano solo alternation opened the Inflammatus, well carried off even if it might have gained from more exuberance and less self-consciousness. When they entered, the main body also played by the book and tamped down the potential for vigour, possible because of Scarlatti’s sudden plethora of minims. To their credit, the soloists’ second exposure proved more persuasive, almost exhilarating. I expect (not having counted the bars) that the Fac ut animae segment is the longest of this score and hard work for its interpreters as Scarlatti channels his inner Handel. Sadly, the melodic material stays unremarkable at a point where we need novelty but instead get blocks of vocal fabric that offer little variety. Full marks to the singers for soldiering through it.

The 3/8 Amen (even though we’d enjoyed an Amen during the previous movement) restored some vitality, even if the basses failed to make much of an impact at their first bar 11 entry. But the performance ended in fine style thanks to an excellent integration of solo lines into the full corps, completing the task with some welcome panache.

Canticum has recorded some Lauridsen and has clear sympathy with the American master’s style, including an ease with those added 2nds and 7ths. The singers treated O nata lux with devotion, putting their vocal backs (?!) into the task and carrying off a fine realization of the brief work’s recapitulation/coda at bar 35. To Cox’s credit, she kept her charges at a steady pace, without wallowing in the wash of choral colours and the occasional passage of very ripe chordal texture.

King’s Dawn Light solo moved to the major and impressed for its felicitous character, enriched by some excellent integration of live and taped material. Were there some Sculthorpe-type bird imitations in the mix, or was that a serendipitous intrusion from outside the building? Whatever the case, this was a welcome instance of affirmative action, giving vent even more to the player’s appealing and resonant production abilities.

All of Canticum moved to stand under the Sacred Heart dome for Lotti’s Crucifixus. It’s unusual to clump your lines together like this in a work for 8 parts but the results were excellent, the mesh a glowing texture of impressive movement at sub Pontio Pilato.

If you’ve seen the University of Pretoria Camerata sing Indodana under arranger Michael Barrett (available on YouTube), you’ve heard this simple construct at its best. Which is no reason for not essaying such an atmospheric piece yourself. I liked the Canticum version, although it was necessarily more elegant than anticipated. Still, the linear complex proved faultless with some well-balanced sustained chords from tenors and basses, the latter an explosive force at the work’s Jehova! climax across bars 46-48. An uplifting conclusion to this event that, for me at least, put the day into its proper perspective.