Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University
Tuesday May 11, 2021
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.