The way we were/are


Derek Jones, Cameron Roberts

Move Records MD 344

You’ll find something here to stir the embers of recognition, as well as music that is yet to withstand the rigours of memory. On this collection, five works embrace a fair gamut of contemporary music written in this country. Jones and Roberts conclude their survey with Richard Meale‘s Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1960, one of the pivotal moments in Australian composition – not so much for its content as for its language which informed the composer’s Australian colleagues that British bucolicism was no longer reliable as a reputable trail to follow; in fact, European composers had indicated a startling number of paths for the open-minded Australian artist, and had been doing so for at least half a century.

Next, historically speaking, comes Anne Boyd‘s Cloudy Mountain for Flute and Piano from 1981, a product of the writer’s fascination with Asian sounds – which focus she may have inherited from her teacher, Peter Sculthorpe, who visited this region in a handful of pieces, like Sun Music III. Rohan PhillipsFragment III for Flute and Piano dates from 2001-2 and derives from a larger construct, 7 Fragments after Paul Celan; I know very little of this Bendigo-centric composer, having heard live only his Meditations on der Krieg from the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in 2018. A close contemporary work, Mark Pollard‘s Three miniatures dates from 2004; and the most up-to-date in time, if not in adventurousness, is the Sonata for Flute and Piano of 2015 by Stuart Greenbaum, Pollard’s staff colleague at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music,

As well, Greenbaum’s four-movement work is the most substantial on the CD, coming in at close to 20 minutes. Meale’s sonata lasts pretty much on a quarter of an hour, Pollard and Boyd each a little more than half that length, while Phillips is almost minimal: his Fragment requires less than 4 minutes. So you have a cross of expanded canvases and smaller scenes to consider and, as you might have guessed, some capture attention while others fly past without making much impact on their own terms or on those of their listeners.

Greenbaum takes stellar inspiration for his work – well, three-quarters of it. Three of its movements are specifically connected with Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and the projected discovery of an underground ocean on that satellite; an event that preoccupied the world’s astronomical scene in March 2015 although, as far as I can detect, the hidden sea’s existence is still postulated, not a firm scientific fact. Greenbaum’s finale detours in an odd way with its For those in peril on the sea title – which the composer views as a ‘secular benediction’ while others among us are reminded irresistibly of Eternal Father, Strong to Save and that hymn’s association with the US and British navies.

For the first movement, the composer meditates on the distance to Ganymede: 628, 300, 000 km but you don’t find any indications here of immense parameters; in fact, the movement is a contrast between busy groups of four semiquavers and wide-arching lyrical stretches at the movement’s centre with only the slightest trace of the heroic but – for those who go looking – occasional echoes of Holst’s Neptune in a determinedly diatonic harmonic language. Jones and Roberts are well occupied, the former asked for a series of sustained notes towards the movement’s end, and the busy semiquavers of the opening reduced to slower note values in the final page(s).

Next, Greenbaum centres on depicting the moon’s ice crust: 150 km thick, The music is initially slow, solemnly paced and packed with low notes on the flute, silences, small glissandi with the odd quarter-tone. More agile measures emerge at the movement’s core but the motion remains sporadic, regular motion giving way to the opening’s sustained notes and pointillist breaks in the silence. This isn’t as brooding as this description suggests; Greenbaum’s moonscape remains placid and far from threatening. When we move seamlessly to saltwater ocean underground, Greenbaum gives us a meditative flute solo before Roberts joins in with a sort of ever-expanding cantus firmus which eventually moves to the right hand partnering the flute’s triplet fluency. Here, more than anywhere else in the work, you are firmly rooted in a specific tonality and the impression remains one of benignity – a fluent body of water but optimism-generating, not like that which faced Dumbledore and Harry when searching for the locket horcrux but more in line with the interior sea of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The brief final movement is a sort of antiphon/response dialogue between the instruments, its main motif a short figure of a perfect fifth interval played rapidly twice; it’s something like a bugle call and the piano mainly sticks to it while the flute has more liberty to wander. Still, the wind instrument has the last word, which is a definite exposition of the last line to each verse of the Whiting/Dykes hymn. This produces an unexpected sense of fulfilment to the work, the music’s action a reflection of the preceding two movements in some ways. But the reference also brings the inter-stellar ambience back to something more Earth-bound: a benediction on all humanity, it seems, not just cosmonauts and astronomers.

I’m a Celan virgin, never coming across the poet’s works. My loss, of course. This Fragment III by Rohan Phillips has a prefatory text: In den/verflussigten Namen/schnellen die Tummler. You can hear the darting dolphins, I suppose, in the highly mobile flute line; Roberts’ part is a gloss on the original’s two percussion and cello parts. Here is a definite contemporary sound with solo passages of rhythmic complexity and lyrical leaps alongside Morse-like repetitions, the whole sounding as if centred on F. In the end, you are impressed by Jones’ rapid-fire delivery and rapid recovery, even if the work’s intellectual context remains obscure.

With Anne Boyd’s Cloudy Mountain, we are moved to a world completely alien to the sophisticated modernism of Phillips. Boyd confines herself to a pentatonic scale for structural material, giving the piano some arresting arpeggiated clusters which later move into a sound sphere approximating a gamelan in effect – but not for long. As you’d expect, the flute has most of the focus and the shakuhachi timbre is never far from your thoughts, although Jones’ output lacks the Japanese instrument’s breathiness. But the wind line is a suggestive one with a wealth of acciaccaturas and rapid incidental notes to decorate the cursive melody. Of all five works on this CD, this is the most atmospherically pictorial with a keen delineation of Oriental sounds that could have worked as aural supplement for many a Crouching Tiger-style film.

As rubric measures for his composition, Mark Pollard set up two restrictions: the first sketch of each miniature had to be completed by the time he had made the tram journey from East Brighton to Melbourne’s CBD, and each had to relate to a St. Kilda Road building. Which really limits his endeavours because there’s a fair distance between Brighton and the city’s splendid avenue. So, if we take the compositional commandments at face value, Pollard couldn’t really start sketching until he hit some point a fair way along the journey. Whatever, he picked out his three locations: Sheridan Close, which backs on to Fawkner Park; a little closer to the city, the Amber Room in the Royce Hotel which is between Toorak Road and Melbourne Boys’ Grammar; and Illoura House, now demolished, which stood almost on the Toorak Road/ St. Kilda Road intersection. In other words, the three sites are clustered pretty close to each other.

The composer uses three different flutes for his collection: Sheridan Close calls for a piccolo (or flute); the Amber Room uses either an alto flute or a concert flute; Illoura asks for a flute with no alternative. The first miniature moves placidly past, its opening intervals expanded slightly as a developmental mode. I suppose the aim is to reflect the restrained grandeur of the building which has a splendid facade of almost Georgian regularity with a semi-circular drive sweeping into what looks like a porte cochere. An art deco ambience characterises the Amber Room and Pollard celebrates it with a breathy alto flute address, pretty close to the previous movement in character if a lot more smokey in suggestiveness.

Illoura House was demolished in the mid 1960s and Pollard was born in 1957. The place must have had a great impact on him, as it did on many of us who knew the grand old building in the years of its decay. Pollard’s piece relating to this declining mansion is meditative at its opening but gains in rhetorical flourishes, proving the most dynamic of the three pieces with moments of relative excitement, although the bookend mood is placid. All three of Pollard’s constructs are excellent show-pieces for the instrument, asking for assurance of output rather than virtuosity, and free from effects for their own sake, with only brief touches of flutter-tongue to disturb a surface of pleasant equanimity.

In retrospect, I find it easy to understand why so much attention was given to Meale’s sonata of 1960. In that time’s cultural landscape, the work made a striking impression as it broke away from the English pastoral mould, if not as distant in its language from that country’s more striking voices. But the spirit that hovers over the work is that of Messiaen, if truncated and with less emphasis on the ecstatic line. To give it due credit, the sonata resonated as a new voice in a pretty bland neighbourhood, but from a distance of over 60 years, its bluntness and insistence are irksome, the piece’s finale particularly grating as a sample of trying too hard, too concerned with astonishing the bourgeois.

Other commentators have made much of further influences on Meale, including Boulez. But that particular one strikes me as so much special pleading when you consider that the French composer’s Sonatine was written 14 years before 1960 and set a benchmark for flute/piano composition in rhythmic complexity and dynamic differentiations, not to mention instrumental potentialities and simple virtuosity. Even allowing for the Messiaen influence, Meale’s work every so often breaks into something that sounds very like plodding. Jones gives a careful outline of the opening movement but there’s no disguising the hard work involved in making repeated patterns interesting. As well, Meale’s preference for short bursts of action interspersed with elongated stretches, where the keyboard fixes inexorably on a cluster pattern while the flute enjoys some plain sailing melodic arches, doesn’t so much keep you on the qui vive but wears away at your interest level. Throughout, you feel the lack of the French composers’ sparkle; instead, the movement seems ham-fisted.

It’s brief, Meale’s second movement, in which the piano sustains a bass-heavy gruffness below the flute’s piercing arabesques. Here also, you sense a statement-and-response mode of operations in play, the interlude ending on a major chord, like that breaking through the turmoil in Act 2, Scene 1 bar 116 of Wozzeck. The substantial third movement begins with some bird suggestions in the flute line and a reassuring tendency to have the piano play a melodic line in octaves. But for much of its length, the work is restrained and very fluent for the wind instrument; in fact, it seems threatening, as near the 4 5 minute stretch where both instruments work themselves up to a series of strident climactic points, only to fall back onto the familiar meandering, before Jones takes on the final hushed last words.

Much of the work’s succes d’estime came from its final movement which opens with a Messiaen-suggestive piano solo where the Visions de l’Amen, the Vingt regards and Canteyodjaya spring to mind in turn, with a dash of Oiseaux exotiques thrown in. The flute is given to high bursts of energy, suggestive of the two upper instruments in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. And the work concludes with a series of gestures, each repeated four times, including the well-known high E yowls for flute. The music’s shape presents as primitive, the content momentarily arresting but . . . from this distance, naive. You can find much to admire in the performers’ address and confidence in negotiating this score which still holds plenty of problems even if the technical ones have been eclipsed by other more outrageous demands in the decades following the 1960s.

For all my reservations regarding the Meale work, it’s obvious that this CD is essential listening for anybody with a commitment to serious Australian music. The five works could not be more varied – a multiple perspective – and their interpretations are informed and make the most of the scores involved.

Working well if underpowered


Melbourne Bach Choir

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton

Saturday May 22, 2021

Conductor/founder Rick Prakhoff directed an underpowered collection of his Bach Choir on Saturday in a program that had to be altered, apparently due to the number of choristers who were out sick. In essence, the change was a simple swap: we didn’t hear Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos motet but were treated to organist Calvin Bowman‘s reading of the Bach chorale-prelude Ich ruf zu dir. And that’s an experience worth the price of entry, coupled as it was with Bowman’s earlier airing of more Bach in the Christ ist erstanden chorale-prelude. Not that we lacked Bruckner completely: the choir worked through the composer’s Locus iste, Christus factus est and Ave Maria for openers, and a brass trio gave us the Aequale No. 1 later in the night.

For the rest, we were offered more trombone work in the three Beethoven Aequale WoO 30, the Geistliches Lied by Brahms for choir and organ, Bach’s three-verse setting of Christ ist erstanden by way of prelude to Bowman’s chorale-prelude account, and three Bowman works, all of them sacred settings: Regina caeli, Ave Maria and a large-scale Pater noster for almost the same forces as the relegated Bruckner Ecce sacerdos, which, I assume, it was meant to complement.

A varied entertainment, with 11 segments, played/sung to what looked like a full church with a splendid organ, although one in need of repairs, it seems; Bowman has recently been appointed music director of St. Andrew’s Brighton and his craft will be put to work regularly on this refurbished instrument if/when the money is raised.

The choristers began by easing themselves into the night, the Locus iste gaining some interest at the chromatic slides at the irreprehensible est passage at bar 22. This apart, the motet is plain-speaking, in this reading keeping to a narrow path with not much give-and-take in the metre until a ritardando from bar 44 to the end. In the following Christus factus est, Prakhoff took an amiable pace for his Moderato, misterioso and it suited his forces, although range was another matter; I couldn’t hear the low F at bar 15 when the basses introduced the word crucis into the mix. For the most part, the texture proved smoothly fluent, although the tenors sounded constrained at their quod est entry in bar 44. I know it’s hard to differentiate, but the pp entries starting at bar 65 were pretty much the same level as at the triple piano called for in my edition beginning at bar 71. Also four-square in outline was the Ave Maria in which altos, tenors and basses are split in two, but the climactic gathering of the clans at the Jesus of bars 19-20 would have benefitted from some less eager altos. Nevertheless, despite is seven lines, this work is pretty plain sailing for a choir as competent as this one.

For the Bach chorale, Prakhoff reinforced his singers with trombones to produce a firm, cogent mass of timbres, most moving at each repetition of Kyrieleis where each verse comes to a quietly jubilant conclusion. Bowman’s reading of the Orgelbuchlein‘s chorale-prelude impressed for its fluidity, especially its realization of the inbuilt bounce of verses 1 and 2 before the invention blazes out in the final setting where the double-quaver underpinning dilates to three, here with a powerful bank of reeds in full cry.

From the ordering in my edition of the Beethoven Aequale, the brass ensemble played the three works in the order 1-3-2. The first in D minor sounded rushed, although the players’ production could not be faulted. No. 3 – all 16 bars of it – presented confidently if sharing the choir’s tendency to set a rhythm and stick to it without the slightest chance of marginally elongating a rest. My only problem was not being able to discern the Trombone 4’s low B flat in the last chord.

The Bruckner brass trio followed and again showed acceptably accurate intonation except at two sustained semibreves in bars 8 and 24; both G major triads and not hard to pitch. The only other flaw came in the penultimate bar where the alto seemed to run out of breath/sustaining power on the rather important B natural..

In what I thought was the best music-making of the night, the choir gave a well-prepared reading of Brahms’ yearning sacred song, the canonic entries firmly enunciated and pitched across the three verses, Bowman a subtle accompanist offering plenty of support. As Prakhoff promised, the concluding Amen impressed for its sweet benevolence and a carefully restrained climactic point across bars 59 and 60, the only problem area a rough octave leap from the basses at bar 58.

Apart from Bowman’s interpolation of the Ich ruf zu dir chorale-prelude to replace the Bruckner with its high As and B flats for sopranos (and plenty of testing high stretches for tenors as well), the remainder of the program comprised the organist’s three new compositions, all of them enjoying their first performances here. The Ave Maria setting impressed immediately for its attractive main melody; if there’s one thing you can expect from Bowman’s compositions, it is lyrical fluency and a formal shape – nothing too complex but a use of sequencing and mirrors, as where the Dominus tecum mirrored the opening. Further, the composer shows a textual sensitivity, as in his restricting the texture to female voices alone at the start to et benedictus fructus ventris tui – which is mirrored later at et in hora mortis. In sum, this piece makes a welcome entry into a pretty well-stocked field and it’s distinguished for its ease and grace.

What took me by surprise in the Regina caeli setting was Bowman’s decision to use a Slavonic scansion for the text’s plentiful use of Alleluia, which here becomes a five-syllable All-e-lu-ee-a. The text is otherwise treated as expected, with a degree of repetition that can’t be avoided, because the text is so sparse and because each of its four lines ends with the aforesaid Alleluia, even if Bowman does overdo the word at his conclusion . . . which can be excused as a reaching towards the intended ecstasy of delight in a Marian hymn that focuses so much on Christ’s mission accomplished.

Prakhoff and his forces saved their most ambitious undertaking till last with the new Pater noster. Each phrase of the prayer is repeated; none of your Gregorian get-it-over-with rapidity here. As in much serious liturgical work for instruments and voices, the work is packed with doubling, first becoming obvious in the repetitions at sicut in caelo. I liked the abrupt change straight after this congestion to voices alone at Panem nostrum, even if this second half to the prayer – when the praise is finished and the demands come piling out – sounds more tentative and worked-at than the opening strophes. But the work’s involvement level leaps up some notches with the re-entry of the instrumental forces.

Bowman goes in for another extensive musical expansion on the sed libera nos a malo segment; understandable, since this is the most important demand that the pleader makes of his creator, but such insistence causes you to wonder if the penitent is feeling sure of success or is simply hoping that repetition bolsters the chances of the requested delivery coming through. The musical content is more thick in the prayer’s second part, and this final clause lives in the memory as a prime example of this solidity. Bowman provides an emphatic and hefty Amen, confident and fortified in its language – in the best Anglican style and different from his other works on this program which, as the composer admits, reveal his affiliation with similar Marian music by Poulenc.

We hope for better days in musical performance, just as most of us are optimistic about a more relaxed life in the coming era of universal Covid vaccination. As well, I’m sure that the Melbourne Bach Choir looks for a return to normal when its members re-group at full strength; after all, there’s not only safety in numbers.

Free for all


Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3452

This CD offers the same work twice. First, Harvey performs his Piano Sonata No. 5 on your common or garden-variety piano . Then he offers a second performance given on different forms of keyboard. The first movement, 100 bpm, uses an electric organ; the following Misterioso, a Fender Rhodes piano; Retorico, an electric harpsichord; Ritmico, electric bass; and the final, shortest section – Maestoso stoico, con rubato – employs an electric piano. The work is in five parts, dictated by the letters in the first name of activist Greta Thunberg. R? and T? I hear you cry? Well, make allowances: for Harvey, R transmutes to D, and T becomes F. So the fundamental notes run G-D-E-F-A – which tends to be forgotten in a work that, as only Harvey can, takes you by the throat and carries you along on yet another brilliant virtuosic ride.

Actually, I’m not sure that this particular work needs much coverage. If you want to hear its content, you can find it on YouTube where you can also find the long poem REGRET by Harvey’s long-time collaborator, Arjun von Caemmerer, which documents the number of Australian species, animal and botanical, that is at risk or has disappeared. It hardly needs saying that the sonata and poem are tributes to Thunberg’s environment-defending passion, an atonement for Harvey who has dedicated the work to his own children – which is probably both an apology and a promise to do better on behalf of us all.

The work starts in an ambience somewhere between a formal sonata with a prodigious wealth of ideas and a hefty toccata. Is there a preponderance of the note G? Not so you’d notice but the movement hurtles past in a welter of athleticism. Sure, you come across passages of tamped-down action. Open octaves alternate with syncopated block-chords that dominate the opening pages, but the work’s progress is chameleonic; you hear scraps that seem semi-familiar – revisitings for example, of the cadenza-like flights that punctuate the opening firm assertions. Textural transparency in two parts gives way to intense and thick writing, the whole typical of Harvey’s often overwhelming fluency, climaxing in a series of frenetic right-hand glissandi.

No break before we are in the Misterioso; in fact, there is a deliberate blurring before the opening high D repetitions take control, sounding like a kind of musical Morse code. It might be mysterious in ambition, but the activity level is hardly pulled back and before long Harvey is back with his intense and loud pointillism: another toccata with some astonishing repeated note demonstrations, followed later by brilliant, even trills. And the riches keep on coming when the player’s two hands operate on different levels, apparently independent of each other in rhythm, dynamic and what I can only describe as digital content and attack. Suddenly a rapid-fire canon between the hands begins and keeps you guessing about its shape, before the Morse note returns and the movement halts on a soft chord.

Which is immediately followed in attacca mode by the middle Retorico which opens with a rash of flourishes and dramatic pauses, these gestures punctuated by multi-layered trills. You are aware that, despite the occasional, outburst of first-movement vehemence, these pages are fundamentally intent on hard-edged melodic lines, to the point where repetitions become apparent even in the middle of the movement’s latter-part welters. At the end, Harvey comes back to his opening with its crisp flights between anchor points and trills, leading without pause into the Ritmico.

Which brings us again into Harvey’s stunning virtuosic field that carries you forward on an irresistible tide, here comprising a constant underpinning of semiquavers, sometimes at the octave and at others in parallel or contrary motion, with a five note figure sporadically emerging in both hands. The actual rhythmic continuum is a sequence of surprises; you think you have a handle on things moving in fast groups of three, but suddenly you’re in duple (or quadruple?) territory with irregular emphases to make an irrelevance of counting before the 5/16 gruppetti enter. And, abruptly, the onrush is halted at about 4’15” for a series of slow, portentous chords that recall Rachmaninov 2 in a strange manner. before a final brilliant set of coruscations leads to a definite ending.

The last movement is separated from the preceding four by a track break. It starts on an unequivocal A minor chord and is the most polemical of the five with a wide-ranging compass in both hands and makes its statements with a Brahmsian stoicism – it’s far from relevant but the opening chords with the intervening sets of triplets suggest (to this cluttered mind) the opening to Brahms’ B flat Concerto, even if the harmonic language is centuries distant. As you might predict, the temperature warms up considerably and the work moves through a series of segments that suggest fragments from previous movements, although most of these are fleeting apart from a brilliant chain of repeated notes. The last word is energetic in the extreme, the sonata concluding with an upward, optimistic inflexion.

When you come to the alternative version for electronic instruments, the work’s character necessarily changes. Movement 1 for electronic organ is memorable for the sustained chords and some brilliant pointillist high note sequences that recall early studio experiments by Kagel and Stockhausen. I think Harvey is using a two-manual instrument – or perhaps he’s lightning fast between registration changes. Here, and elsewhere, the bucket-loads of chords take on a more muted effect because the percussive attack is absent. Oddly enough, you have a more informed view of the movement’s content, its form and its recapitulations more obvious.

There is a break before the next track; naturally, as Harvey changes instruments to a Fender Rhodes piano with a lavishly employed sustaining pedal, Mind you, it seems that there’s an inbuilt quality that the executant is anxious to explore, moving between non-reverberant staccato runs in the centre of this Misterioso and summoning up washes of sound. Here again, the uses of fabrics and material seem more easy to pick out. Not all the time, of course, but shapes take on distinct form in particular parts of the Fender’s compass. By contrast, the harpsichord timbre in the following track aids Harvey in adding bite to the opening rapid flurries of ornamentation. As well, the unusual ability to sustain notes gives an extra dimension to this clear-speaking set of pages, and the multiple-trills sections towards the end have a ferocity that recalls Puyana playing Scarlatti.

You can hear little break between the Fender Rhodes and the harpsichord, and the fourth movement’s shift to electric bass is seamless. Once more, the textural variety available on this instrument aids in observing the movement’s rhythmic activity and its ever-moving layers, each with its own timbral qualities. I wasn’t sure much was being gained by using an electric piano for the final Moderato stoico – until Harvey inserted a section of organ sound, then went in for some electronic pointillism, before coming back to the piano sound spectrum with an even more shattering final crescendo than that in Track 5.

As I reported above, you don’t need to buy this CD; Move has made it available online for anyone to hear. At the end, I was full of admiration for Harvey’s tribute to Thunberg; not that you should read anything into this sonata that the composer subtitles ‘Concerto in no need of an orchestra’ – quite understandably as the performance in both forms is an inspired solo torrent, for which any accompaniment would be a distraction. If you like, you can draw some parallel between the music’s energy, its urgent purpose and the career to date of the Swedish environmentalist who stands as a beacon in a landscape populated by time-wasters and political lick-spittles. It’s a remarkable musical work, certainly assisted on its vehement trajectory by association with Thunberg, a character whose single-mindedness and unflinching vigour for change here enjoy a high-powered salute.

ANAM scores again


Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday May 11, 2021

Konstantin Shamray

This program – the latest in Musica Viva‘s year of promoting local talent, seeing that the other kind is as house-bound as we are – had plenty of preparation behind it. By the time the Australian National Academy of Music and guest Shamray hit Brisbane, they had already played in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and twice in Sydney; finishing the tour will be a visit to Adelaide and a return to Melbourne. So we Tuesday night observers enjoyed the benefits of a thorough rehearsal-plus-live-performance experience that informed the outcome of this enterprise.

To urge on the musicians, including six Queensland players in a 19-strong ensemble of strings, the Conservatorium Theatre looked pretty full, especially for a program that only veered toward the popular in its last component: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Preceding this came a mixed bag with little common ground, apart from a general air of grimness, if not downright gloom. Shamray took the piano part in Mahler’s one-movement A minor Piano Quartet, the original three string lines expanded to give work to all ANAM players present. This conversion came from the institution’s own Harry Ward, leading the second violins for the greater part of this night. Schnittke’s 1979 Concerto for Piano and Strings gave Shamray a broader platform on which to display his fearless talents. And Ward appeared in more exposed guise for Mihkel Kerm’s Lamento, here arranged by the composer for solo violin, which replaced the original score’s cello.

We were some way into the Mahler arrangement before the strings made much of an impact because Shamray took the dynamic initiative from the start: the piano has first dibs on the material, ergo the piano dominates. In fact, the keyboard part was liable to take over even in moments where you might have expected a modicum of self-diminution. For instance, the abrupt turn at bar 42 (Letter B) where the violins and violas burst into action, entschlossen, the piano rumbled powerfully for four bars before taking over the action, Speaking of the violas, you’d go far to come across a quartet that worked with this brand of ideal ensemble: a very welcome entity when they emerged from the maelstrom, as at bar 72, and in the slanging match with the violins some 14 bars later. But their exposure was infrequent, probably due to the arranger’s re-allocation of material.

When the counterpoint reaches its apex, you’re reminded of the lushness to come in Verklaerte Nacht, but the workings here impress as less urgent, as much formally necessary as emotionally driven. Further, the initial theme is employed to the detriment of other material, like the second subject descending scale pattern which seems just pretty alongside the aspirational 6th leap falling back to the fifth that dominates in the memory, even if Mahler gives his subsidiary theme all the running in the score’s final pages. All of which is somewhat secondary to the standard of execution which proved excellent, as you’d expect from an ANAM body controlled by Sophie Rowell. But then, the work itself is far from difficult, possibly even less so when you have a pianist determined to take on the leading role, even when his contributions are secondary.

After hearing a particularly perplexing work by Schnittke, I once confessed to John Sinclair, long-time critic for the Melbourne Herald, that I doubted the composer’s existence. Because of the score’s abrupt changes of style and progress, I thought the result might have been the work of a committee, like the 1970 Yellow River Piano Concerto, and that Schnittke was a fabrication. Mind you, that was in the days before the composer wound up in Germany and the unpleasant history of his career in the USSR was made clear. You could hardly have the same concerns about the concerto on this program. Shamray opened the one-movement construct with a long solo that suggested both a trudge towards the concentration camp and a post-Shostakovich stretch of depression.

You were faced with consonant output from the strings while Shamray cut across it with powerful outbursts of ferocious discord. In fact, this juxtaposition proved to be the main point of interest throughout the score where a kind of schizoid character persists – the rough and the smooth, the dreamy and the Prokofiev-type percussive. As for the form of the piece, Schnittke seems to follow the precept of when in doubt, give the piano a cadenza. Not that you could complain too much: Shamray’s mastery made a chastening display of pianistic machismo that beat back any opposition.

Mind you, much of this took up the main body of the movement; at the outer limits, Schnittke played the Mary Queen of Scots/T.S. Eliot game of ‘In my end is my beginning’ (or the other way around) with a welcome recall of the opening sombre strophes. Further, the dual activity levels worked persuasively; no longer could you entertain thoughts of many hands making light work since this concerto followed an individually designed scheme and its overall temperament remained consistently identifiable. Again, the ANAM group worked through its bountifully moulded elements with fine precision and impressive responsiveness, while Shamray impressed with a fierce virtuosity, sweeping you along with the music’s rough fervour.

Estonian-born musician Mihkel Kerem, assistant concertmaster with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, breaks no new ground with his meditative soliloquy. Ward enjoyed all the attention in outlining the main theme of this Lamento, while his fellow strings gave a backdrop of oscillating 2nds and drones. The work has no development but toys with scraps of the eventually all-too-familiar chief melody/motif. Its main interest lay in following the soloist’s finely arched arabesques across a sepulchral landscape, the whole ending in aspirational harmonics to relieve the deeply-felt but plangent emotional content – some light pointing a way out of what threatened to become a musical huis-clos.

As expected, the Tchaikovsky Serenade pleased mightily, coming after three works that emphasized minor scales and harmonies. Here was an opportunity to evaluate fully the quality of this ANAM body and it proved more than equal to the task of working through a repertoire chestnut. It seemed that Rowell had chosen a particularly slow pace for the first movement’s initial Andante non troppo but such steadiness worked well at the transfer into the main movement at bar 37, where the forte enjoyed proper treatment relative to its very soft precedents. It was a pleasure to sit back and revel in the security of all concerned and the attention given to dynamic shadings, thereby avoiding the bull-at-a-gate procedure of giving in to the violins at every turn.

That’s not consistently true: Tchaikovsky gives everyone fair dibs, but you could be pleased in this instance to hear certain groups clearly and playing more than small note groups, like the seconds and violas in tandem at bar 99. But the ensemble generated an excellent series of passages of play across this movement, nowhere better than at the crossover from divisi to unison starting at bar 257 before the affirmative bursting into sunlight and the tonic at bar 265. Even the straightforward Waltz produced some telling moments, like the delectable handling of a counter-figure from the violas between bars 114 and 134 – groups of two quavers each that give both tension and support to the composer’s splendidly fluid melody – and a deft Boskovsky-style hesitation before the seconds and cellos take over the principal melody – well, re-present it – at bar 166. Finally, the ensemble nearly pulled off the penultimate pizzicato chord, despite the scatter-gun challenge to both sets of violins.

At the conclusion to the Elegy, I was in no doubt that this string group is among the best I’ve heard from the National Academy since the organization took off in 1994. The timbral quality came over with laudable depth and polish, in part due to Rowell’s encouragement of full bowing at the movement’s rich cadences and a general responsiveness in ensemble work during the more hectic passages, e. g. beginning at bar 31 when violas and cellos have the floor; also, the lower strings maintained their purpose in spill-over passages like the violas’ largamente at bar 65 and the first violins’ produced an ardent, controlled account of the Piu mosso group cadenza leading into the last recapitulation with its moving excursion to disturbance before that benevolent final 11-bar stretch.

In line with the interpretation’s basis in musical reality, rather than aiming for Mantovani sweetness and mittel-European swooning, Rowell and her charges worked for purity of articulation and restrained dynamic power in the Finale which began with a moving delineation of the opening 42 bars where the composer achieves his once-upon-a-time ambience through the simplest means, without an accidental to mar this benign C Major landscape. Later, the ANAM cellos gave an expert burnish to the second main melody that comes with the key change to E flat – an excellent stretch deftly concluded with a clever transition at bar 101 where the violins regain control. Even at the more hectic moments, like the pages preceding the firm statement of bar 264, the texture remained clear to the ear while the pressure level increased without approaching the frenzy of a Russian kermesse, as Hanslick described the Violin Concerto’s finale with customary insight.

All right:, the ensemble wasn’t working at the level of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, but the young players impressed by their obvious awareness of what it means to work as an entity and how to respond fully to direction, even a control as lightly exercised as Rowell’s. I find it hard to enter into the back-slapping proclamations that see an assured future for this country’s music in these musicians; it may be that some of them will survive into the Australian professional world, while others will probably leave and animate the musical scenes of other countries. It’s best to eschew predictions in these uncertain times, I think: take what you receive and be grateful that you can still have the chance to enjoy nights as richly textured as this one turned out to be.