Blowing an ill wind good


Emily Sun, Nicolas Fleury, Amir Farid

Musica Viva

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Saturday June 26, 2021

Nicolas Fleury

Some of us were lucky to hear this recital at all. The trio did manage to play live in Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide ; they didn’t make it up here to Brisbane, or over to the Puritan Republican capital of Perth, and their Melbourne commitments remained unfulfilled. But Musica Viva found them a venue where the music could be aired and here we were on Saturday night, just like old times: huddled around the computer, linked up to our best sound systems and waiting for the entertainment to begin. It almost brought back memories of the war.

There’s not a big repertoire for the violin/horn/piano combination; maybe writers are deterred by the superb product from Brahms – one of his finer one-offs. Not that the catalogue cupboard is completely bare but other compositions in the genre haven’t caught on – with players, promoters or audiences. It’s roughly the same with concertos: after Mozart’s four and Strauss’s two, you’re scratching for a work that gives a single horn its individuality – plenty of group work, a myriad miniatures, but an Emperor Concerto equivalent? Nothing close, apart from the six specified above. There’s a wealth of contemporary compositions but the most recently-composed concerto I’ve heard is the Gliere of 1951.

In any case, it’s asking a lot of any horn player to deal with more than one major work on a program. So the Sun/Fleury/Farid finished the night with Brahms’ masterpiece. Preceding it, they all gave an outing to Ernst Naumann’s arrangement for their particular combination of Mozart’s Horn Quintet K. 407. In this version, horn and violin play Mozart’s original lines, while the piano handles what’s left – the two viola and one cello parts; well, that’s the way it operates for the opening Allegro and the following Andante. At the rondo, the arrangement gives some top viola work to the violin, and there are further peculiarities later in the movement where Naumann engages in a bit more re-distribution and a bit of abstraction, actually putting some work into what has, for two movements, been steadily unoriginal.

As the middle part to this program, Sun and Farid gave the premiere (well, the last of a series of first performances) of Gordon Kerry‘s Sonata for Violin and Piano in one movement.

I can’t be the only one who faces with trepidation any chamber music event featuring a horn player. I might be one of the few who dreads an orchestral concert that holds a significant solo for horn; Brahms Symphony in D, the Tchaikovsky No. 5, Mahler 9 – all make my stomach tense with fearful anticipation. It’s probably due to a life-time of poor playing, of eventually knowing where the cracks will appear, such trepidation leading to over-appreciation of a reading where the flaws are few, even if the production has been awkward and jerky. Fleury has recently been appointed principal with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and his work at this recital made me all too aware of what I will miss now that I’ve moved north.

First, in the Mozart’s initial Allegro, the opening bars impressed, specifically 34 and 36 where the horn’s semiquaver scales came across with clear production and calm delivery, not the all-too-familiar splatter. In fact, the only problem I could pick out was Fleury’s tendency to delay at the start of trills, as though you have to get the note fixed before you can flutter with it. as in the conclusions to bars 41 and 51. But the fluidity of the horn and Sun’s mirroring moderation added a relish to the repeat of the first part and a disappointment that the development-recapitulation pages were not subject to the same treatment – as they could have been.

Speaking of repeats, I missed the first part of the Andante being played again but took just as much pleasure as before in Fleury’s measured calm when he eventually appeared in bar 19, followed by dynamically controlled contributions in partnership with Sun, who followed the consensus policy of eschewing the temptation to hit the saccharine by generating a disciplined vibrato and a formidable strength of line that melded with the horn’s non-aggressive timbre. The violin had more to do in the rondo but Mozart focuses your attention on the horn and Fleury made telling work of the movement’s deft humour, notably in a bubbling chain from bar 25 to bar 31 with not a semiquaver hair out of place. More substantially, these pages were handled with care and a polished shade of brio so that the metrical oddity that sits at the heart of the main theme never intruded whenever it emerged. I must confess to having confidence in Fleury’s technical mastery pretty early in this work, to the point where, rather than wait for errors, I was able to notice Naumann’s textural games for Sun and Farid in this finale – a rare enjoyment.

Kerry’s sonata impresses as a set of episodes, or a mosaic, as the composer classifies it At first, the work seems lopsided in favour of the violin with Sun stringing (sorry) out a long cadenza-like line over some complex trills from Farid. Eventually, the piano comes into its own with three passages on the rise, culminating in further trills – or, better, shakes. The instrumental partnership firms into a series of textures reminiscent of the sonata’s opening but with the activity more equably distributed. Kerry changes his textures with remarkable legerdemain, giving some sul tasto work to Sun above low piano octaves, generating a dialogue of emotional gravity. Even the ensuing highpoint, as Berg would have nominated it, is texturally sparse, more inclined to explosive blurts than sonorous sweeps.

As a whole, the sonata’s character shows a delicacy or finesse of statement which is married to an ardent strain, especially in the violin writing which in its centre shows a capacity for tough, multi-stops rapidity – but not for long, even in a deliberate cadenza featuring pizzicati, isolated notes and trills eventually punctuated by the keyboard. Yet another dynamic climax for Sun with a subservient Farid whose part is sparked off into vehemence. The work’s latter segments seem stringently developed, giving the first-time listener a chance to recognize patterns and textures as the work hurtles to a triumphant acclamation.

Kerry’s new creation is an excellent display of how to write an interesting dialogue, in which the instrumental conversation follows a course of patterns that leads to a final concordance, with room throughout for individuality, a juxtaposition of personalities that are never static or over-repetitious. It’s not easy to imbibe but it doesn’t confront you with massive onslaughts of clever-clever battering, nor does it bewilder by elliptical glancing blows. We can only hope that it meets more widespread circulation than most other Musica Viva commissions over recent years. No, I agree: not just recent.

I listened to the Brahms a couple of times just for the pleasure of hearing a fine ad hoc ensemble at work and not putting a foot wrong; a toe or two, perhaps, but nothing disturbing. Your attention should be on the horn as the unusual instrument but this performance was so well-knit and expertly judged that the final impression was of the communality of the whole experience so that you couldn’t point to passages where any player took over to dominate unreasonably. It proved to be one of the more united fronts for this score that I’ve heard.

The pace was ideal for Brahms’ opening Andante, putting nobody under pressure to do anything but roll out those splendid melodies, with a marvellous shared surge from bar 37 to the easing of pressure at bar 51 – an early purple patch, soon balanced by an exemplary shared diminuendo from bar 67. This movement was loaded with such instances of fine judgement, but you could find individual touches as well. For Fleury, a sforzando direction is just that, and not an invitation to stay on a heightened dynamic level, and he observes an fp with just as much care. Later, you had to delight in the ideal invitation spread out for the horn at bars 130-131 by Sun and Farid, repeating the field-setting later on at bars 197-99. Further on, you could understand the shaping rationale behind Farid’s early start to the animato at bar 217, and warm in the balanced disposition of contributions across the last 11 bars of this moving set of pages.

Both fast movements – the Scherzo and Allegro con brio – were centred on Farid and his agility of response which only faltered at a few predictable places like the awkwardly positioned top fingers trills in bars 104 and 109 of the second movement, which actually sounded more convincing in the repeat. Fleury and Sun produced excellent dynamic mirroring in their Trio phrases, particularly across bars 294 to 298, and the horn player made no attempt in the outer segments to slow the speed, his responses as acute as those of his colleagues – no suggestions here of that bombastic testicle-dragging across the aural landscape to which less gifted players have recourse.

You could find very little to fault in the Adagio with each entry from Farid a model of linear placement and non-maudlin darkness. Neither violin nor horn dragged out the prime melody that starts in bar 5 but handled their lines without self-indulgence, even in the fraught forte lament from bar 69 to bar 76. Fleury went for the low C flat and B flat just before the main theme’s recapitulation, and they came off, if only just. Even though the final Allegro gives the initial running to violin and horn, once again your interest turned to the concerto-like explosions required of Farid who gave his all to this rapid-fire set of pages. Both Sun and Fleury halted their steady headlong rush to allow the pianist to make an impossible leap at bar 61 – and another, just as awkward, at bar 229 – but the movement succeeded largely due to Farid’s careful virtuosity; for example, in veloce explosions, like striding bass octaves answered by weighty treble chords, and in negotiating those irregular arpeggios that Brahms throws about so lavishly. It made an invigorating rounding off to this hour’s work, a fine exhibition of musicianship delivered, like all too many of its type these days, to an empty room.

Celebration for the seasonally woke


Australian Chamber Choir

Move Records MCD 607

What’s in a name? Well, Ms Capulet, if you’re lucky, specificity. This new CD from one of Melbourne’s leading choral bodies embraces some odd repertoire reaches in its catch-all title, which includes two works by Josquin, a motet by Victoria,(admittedly, a special case for period encapsulation), and – to end enigmatically – a Basque carol: The angel Gabriel, in David Willcocks’ 1970 arrangement. Still, it could quite easily be argued that, except for the last track which is now synonymous with British choral practice, all the music on offer – Bach, Sweelinck, Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Scheidt as mainstream representatives – could have been heard in Christmas celebrations during the (roughly) two centuries covered blanket-like by the term Baroque, as it pertains to music history.

One of the significant virtues of the album is its presentation of familiar texts and melodies in settings that you don’t often hear. Christmas music lovers in this country are likely to experience In dulci jubilo through the R. L de Pearsall version, but Douglas Lawrence and his singers have wiped away much Victorian-era sentiment with their two readings: one by Samuel Scheidt, the other a mixture of Bach and Luther’s associate, Johann Walter. Likewise, the Resonet in laudibus that can be heard most often in enlightened churches is the setting by Lassus, so having the opportunity to enjoy Eccard’s work on this particular text is welcome. Most of us have been indoctrinated to accept the opening and closing of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols as giving the customary Gregorian shape to Hodie Christus natus est; but Sweelinck’s treatment offers a different type of richness. And our knowledge of the Von Himmel hoch tune has been conditioned by Bach’s chorale preludes, fughetta, and canonic variations (further complicated by Stravinsky’s orchestration of these last), so the Gumpelzhaimer revamp also served to crack away at pre-conceptions.

Alongside these, Lawrence and Company offer two O magnum mysterium motets (Victoria and Giovanni Gabrieli), Josquin’s Ave Maria and the Gloria from his Missa Pange lingua, three Praetorius’ treatments (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Singt und klingt, and three verses of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem where the other four were written by Bartholomaus Gesius), a Halleluja, freuet euch by Andreas Hammerschmidt, and four Bach works (the afore-mentioned In dulci jubilo verses, Lobet den Herrn, the O Jesulein suss soprano solo, and the bookend movements to the organ solo Pastorale). The CD’s content lasts a little under 57 minutes, the Singt und klingt coming in well under a minute, with Lobet den Herrn the longest track at 7’22”.

To open, Lawrence supervises a moving account of the Josquin motet, with some excellent hocket-type syncopations, viz. the tenors from bars 44 to 50 (at the words Caelestia, terrestria nova replet, if you’re uncomfortable with subdivisions applied in later editions), and the altos joining in on the same text. As well, the ensemble work in block chords at the move to triple time – Ave vera virginitas – proved exemplary, as did the splendid reserved reaction at the motet’s wrenching final plea. The ACC’s clarity of delivery is apparent in the composer’s Gloria, recorded in a Hanover church with impeccable acoustic properties for this genre of choral work. [The other 16 tracks were recorded in two Melbourne churches: St. Andrew’s Brighton and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park.] Apart from an odd falter in bar 81 (the final miserere nobis), this track is exceptionally fine – the delivery faultless, phrasing carefully intermeshed, inner buoyancy unfailing – and each line impresses for its freshness of timbre.

Victoria’s O magnum mysterium has one of those spine-chilling moments that choristers lucky enough to perform this motet never forget, although it comes early – at bar 10 when the basses first enter. For some reason, the effect of the motet’s first 4-part chord is extraordinarily rich and powerful after those bare 5ths that have dominated the ambience till this point. The choir’s interpretation settles into a regularity of tempo that could have been eased when the iacentem in praesepio text arrives. But the O beata Virgo is finely balanced, as are the overlapping entries and tailing-off to the (what passes in Victoria for) celebratory Alleluia conclusion. With the Gabrieli 8-part setting, recorded in the Middle Park buiuding, the actual recording sound is excellent: crisp, faithful to all lines, controlling the various timbres so that individual voices are subsumed in the overall complex. Only a coarse note from the tenors around the bar 7 mark disrupts a performance that you’d be lucky to hear in Venice for its eloquence and exemplary melding of forces.

Resonet in laudibus in 5 parts gives its extra line (I think) to tenors who tend to be swamped by the formidable female contingent. This is pretty stolid singing, sort of understandable given the composer’s harmonic plan which shows no flights of fancy, but the effect might have shown more festive with a brisker tempo and more punch on linear fulcrum notes. In contrast, you can hear a fair instance of rhythmic bite in the Sweelinck Hodie, to the point where you can forgive the singers for short-changing the third syllable of that word each time it comes around. Another five-line work, this has a deft Gabrieli-like alternation of parts, mirroring each other on a smaller scale than the giant constructions for St. Mark’s. Here again, the Middle Park church is sympathetic to all the forces involved.

The singers have no problem with Gumpelzhaimer’s harmonization of Von Himmel hoch, singing three verses and sparing us the remaining twelve. . It’s nicely carried-off, blokey work without any of those slippery chromatics that will bedizen the tune a century later. All the versions I’ve come across of Scheidt’s In dulci jubilo have two trumpet parts; these look pretty incidental throughout but could have been useful to add sparkle to some sustained notes, especially the final syllable which seems to have an extra C coming in late. Like the Sweelinck, this performance stresses the brightness of the occasion, the score full of spacious textures across its 8 lines and an excellent pair of treble groups leading the changes in metre and tempering their top As with discretion.

As with Gumpelzhaimer, so with Praetorius’ lucid four-part and non-fussy treatment of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, the ACC singing three verses of the five available. They’re inclined to cut the final note of each first line, but you can understand why: taking a breath after accounting for the full note-length runs the danger of turning back the clock to those days when we endured Bach’s Passion chorales with a pause or fermata every time you turned your head. Further, each concluding phrase is carefully articulated with a tension-reducing piano that rounds out the original tune’s shape. For the little Singt und klingt, Lawrence and his choir stick to the German text and ensure that we register each consonant across the piece’s short duration, with a broad final cadence.

The alternation between Gesius and Praetorius for Ein Kind geborn zu Betlehem offers your normal garden-variety four part setting and some bare-bones verses, e.g. in two parts. The whole is well knitted together by the singers even if you have to exercise your perceptions to find much difference between the two Frankfurt cobbers and contemporaries. The following account of Hammerschmidt’s joyous effusion is effectively accomplished. Elizabeth Anderson provides the most subtle of continuo supports to a trio comprising two tenors and a bass with a four-part choir breaking in on them with an infectious Freude, Freude chorus, the whole rounded out with a bounding title refrain. This is music that spills over itself with enthusiasm and fervour – a standout among the choir’s offerings.

As for the concluding Bach group, the level of musicianship here is exemplary, as you’d expect. Soprano Elspeth Bawden is accompanied on the St. Andrew’s organ by Anderson and gives us three verses of this touching melody – well, she repeats Verse 1 – and the voice is an excellent vehicle for it with a persuasive clarity and warmth – a far cry from the hooting boy treble who usually gets to desex the innocent page. Anderson plays the two Pastorale excerpts on the Middle Park church’s instrument, finding plenty of room for its flute stops (what would you expect?) and reminding us that the first evidence some of us had of her talents was in a Bach keyboard concerto competition many years ago, well before she was a soloist/chorister in Lawrence’s choirs. The interpretation is direct and brisk in the work’s last pages, although I missed the sustained alto C in bar 10 on the first play-through; it was there on the repeat.

The large-scale motets are an essential part of this choir’s repertoire, so the Lobet den Herrn performance had much to commend it, including a definition of contour that kept you aware of the score’s progress. The linear interplay proved to be exemplary with few signs of fatigue even if the four tenors refrained from blazing out their top notes. The sopranos and altos showed no fear and made a joy out of the final stretch of sequences across the concluding 20 bars. I wasn’t sure about the very soft soprano/tenor treatment of the last syllable of Ewigkeit in Bar 85, and later didn’t see the need for a pause at the same word in bar 98. But the ACC has the excellent talent of making works like these seem fresh and colour-filled, so different to the dusty bombast and mind-numbing heftiness that typified performances in former times.

Alternating the harmonizations of In dulci jubilo between Bach and Walter made for a mildly interesting study in textures, principally because the latter gave the melody to his tenors, while Bach reserved a good deal of his attention for the bass line – not very clear in this recording from the Middle Park building. But the delivery of this composite impressed during the Walter verses – the middle two. Further, the choir treated this with the sort of care that it needs to preserve its lullaby nature; well, that’s how I see it, even more so in these complementary four-part chorales.

Last of all, Willcocks’ arrangement with its changing 12/8, 6/8 and 9/8 time signatures enjoys an excellent outing, free from British cathedral hooting and incomprehensibility. Here, the singers contrived to make the piece sound amiable without over-cleverness, not emphasizing the cross-accents from the altos and basses in verse 2 and often observing the arranger’s carefully organized expression markings, as well as providing a splendid if unnecessary hiatus on the penultimate chord. It made an impressive conclusion to a fine disc, but I’m damned if I know what this track was doing there.

Another Bach fest


Bach Akademie Australia

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

St. James Church, King St., Sydney

Friday June 18, 2021

Madeleine Easton

(Image courtesy Melbourne Digital Concert Hall)

This organization is new to me; I suspect because its activities don’t involve much touring and so its appearances are mainly confined to Sydney. Or perhaps it hasn’t been that active over the years since its foundation in later 2016; from the Akademie’s website, the farthest afield it has travelled seems to have been Canberra, and that for one festival. At all events, last week the group went online so that a wider public was able to witness its artists at work. And, as the participants’ interest is enshrined in their title, we were suitably offered a night of Bach in the Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard; but not complete as one of the six – No. 4 in C minor – was omitted.

Nevertheless, violin Madeleine Easton, harpsichord Neal Peres Da Costa and viola da gamba Anton Baba gave period-rich readings of the other five. The process was pretty much a musicologist’s delight, although the fairly full church (judging by the MDCH camera in the St. James loft) that had braved the latest of Sydney’s pandemic breakdowns (NSW the gold standard, Prime Minister? Give us a break, you clown) showed high enthusiasm at the conclusion to each of the works. Some of them are rather thorny, especially where the composer rips into his contrapuntal master mode – mainly in the faster second movements – but you had to appreciate the individual texture constructed by the three instrumentalists, Easton playing without vibrato and Baba urging out a bass line that refused to loiter in the background but set up a worthy challenge to the work’s treble, the instrument being favoured by the MDCH recording team which put Da Costa into acoustic recess for parts of the night.

All the sonatas have four movements, except No. 6 which interpolates a harpsichord solo right at its centre. The main point of differentiation from other chamber works of the period is the (almost) complete writing out of the keyboard part. Bach’s first sonata in B minor began on this night with a free-wheeling Adagio, which ended in a quasi-cadenza from Easton. In place of vibrato, Easton manipulates attack and dynamic to give her line a character that is lissom and taut at the same time. The following Allegro brought the keyboard more prominence, especially when Easton moved to a low register as at bar 43 (not that this reticence lasted long) and also in the violin harpsichord duets in 6ths. Only one miscalculation from Easton disturbed the persuasive fluency of this elating (for a minor key) movement

Da Costa benefited also in the sonata’s Andante from Baba’s use of pizzicato throughout, so that the duet work in both treble clefs became more clear-voiced. Just as welcome was the pliability of line adopted by Easton through her excellent responsiveness to inbuilt phrasing, like the sequence beginning at bar 22 where the insertion of very slight pauses gave to a repeated pattern an interest that the maintenance of strict metre wouldn’t permit. And, by the time the final Allegro had finished, you had time to appreciate Easton’s consideration for the keyboard’s dominance on paper as she gave dynamic ground to Da Costa, particularly in the main part of the movement’s second half where you could discern most of the keyboard’s detailed output.

The gamba/bass has such a considerable part in the opening dolce to Sonata No. 2 in A Major that it might have been worthwhile leaving the line to Baba alone as, for a considerable amount of time, the movement turned into a string duet. Here was another effective set of pages, with only a mini-slip from Easton marring the calm surface of this pastorale. Da Costa made one obvious right-hand error in bar 4 of the following Allegro but this is a fairly cluttered web, compared to its surrounds. Once again, we had opportunities to admire Baba’s rapidity of negotiation, even if some of his rests got short shrift.

Given the required staccato nature of the Andante un poco‘s bass, Baba stayed silent and Da Costa moved into lute mode across a section that I found the most satisfying so far in terms of instrumental balance, noting as it sailed past how Easton doesn’t totally eschew vibrato but rather uses it sparingly at the end of a sustained note – a technique that so many (all?) singers of popular music adopt to the point where it has become a talent show cliche. Bach’s concluding Presto was treated as an allegro, which makes sense when faced with the four-square heftiness of its material, added to which a more rapid pace would have made you less aware of the delectable small imitative passages between all three staves. Here was a satisfying accomplishment with the string players outlining the pages with a considered vivacity.

Easton had all the work – melodically – in the opening pages of the E Major Sonata No. 3, the harpsichord relentlessly urging out a chord pattern and the bass line, at first, immovably static. In fact, the violin’s part is ornate concerto-style lyricism, Easton keeping it under control with her subtle elasticity of phrasing. Not that there’s anything too complicated about the next movement’s harmonic adventures, but the scholarship comes through strongly, its relentlessness dissipated by lots of welcome suspensions. It seemed as if the players were here faced with a labour of love, pages to be negotiated rather than relished. For all that, the reading was the right side of aggressive with some sparkling right-hand work from Da Costa.

It seemed to me that some fatigue crept into play during the C sharp minor Adagio, the violin timbre more attenuated than it had been so far. Still, the players showed a clear realization of what they were concerned with in the long intertwining arches framed by plangent repeated chords/double stops, and in their phrasing that demonstrated a unanimity in preparation and delivery. Not the best start to the finale and you could point to some questionable delivery of individual notes as the piece surged forward, although Easton came in spot-on with those high Es across bars 103 and 105. Bab impressed even further here with passages of brisk bustling – for example, bars 15 to 20, and a particularly purple patch stretching across bars 34 to 39. It’s an extended movement and doesn’t get easier with the introduction (and then abrupt dismissal) of triplets to exercise the players. Not these three, however, who kept the impetus constant throughout.

Da Costa took the high road in the long fugue-like opening to Sonata No. 5 in F minor, Easton a presence but rarely dominant in the contrapuntal mesh. I liked the abstinence from attention-attracting ornamentation from both sides, letting the gravity of these pages have full rein and was convinced by the assurance of all concerned in their steady progress that a discrepant penultimate bar almost went past unremarked. You get distracted in the subsequent Allegro by the seamless craft of the writing, even though it’s full of asymmetrical shapes while giving the impression of faultless regularity. This substantial Bach marvel, so much more creative and innovative than anything conceived by his contemporaries, enjoyed a deft run-through with very few notes short-changed and Da Costa exceptionally definite in his semiquaver work.

By contrast, the Adagio has two modes of operation and sticks to them throughout, the violin confined to double stops and a predictable harmonic progression while the keyboard seems involved in a two-part invention. Baba sat this segment out and, despite the subsequent sparer texture, the players were unable to invest this section with interest beyond counting off the key-changes. So much more welcome, then, was the Vivace final movement which gave Easton the limelight with a wealth of suspensions to negotiate, the counterpoint brisk and finely pointed – which is the great advantage of performances in this style: you can take in so much more than when the lines are coated in both wool and lanolin.

In the last work, the G Major Sonata No. 6, the optimistic Allegro opening gave us a delectable change of scene, reminiscent of a ritornello to one of the more sunny cantatas. The pages flew past with an infectious bounce infusing each sentence, Easton clearly revelling in dealing with a congenial key. Here also, you come across compositional skill of the highest order with craft complementing lucidity of emotion, the whole dominated by that inimitable certainty of speech. A brief Adagio made a positive impression for its alternately spacious and fitful content, heading towards the galant if not already there. Da Costa’s following solo could have been cleaner with palpable errors in bars 13 and 14, and later bars 39-40, with some occasional mishits in exposed places. I don’t know if it was pre-determined, but the movement’s second half was not repeated.

Then, you would be hard to please if you remained unsatisfied with the trio’s interpretation of the penultimate Adagio that delights with its final chromatic slide from the initial B minor to the relative major. Here was a second wind that lifted the performance back to its high level of execution and emotional insight, the small hesitations and emphases finely executed. Baba delayed his entry into the concluding Vivace gigue until the subject re-statement at bar 12; one of those small touches that were dotted through this night and of which I probably missed at least half. This made a fine balance for the sonata’s opening: more earthy and basic in its material but full of good humour and those imitation games that Bach transforms into art without trying. Even at the end, these musicians were operating at DEFCON-1, as evident by those whip-crack 6ths turns for violin and harpsichord at the start of bars 76 to 79.

As the program finished, I was delighted to have come across the Akademie, if in this truncated form. Well, it may be something of a moveable ensemble, since some of the organization’s previous concerts have apparently involved ad hoc amplifications of both instrumentalists and voices. Mind you, pseudo-perfectionists like myself were left chaffing for Sonata No. 4, but there was plenty here to be going on with. At the same time, this kind of enterprise is a demanding ask of any audience; it reminds me of the days when Ronald Farren-Price, Mack Jost and Max Cooke used to play the 48 as a job lot, or – if you want to talk about concentrated efforts – Calvin Bowman’s performance of the complete solo organ music in one day at the Melbourne Town Hall. Felicitations to Easton, Da Costa and Baba on their program, one that filled out our experiences of a neglected corner in the immense Bach catalogue.

And it’s goodbye from him


Australian String Quartet

Edge Auditorium, State Library of Queensland

Friday June 18, 2021

Stephen King, Michael Dahlenburg, Francesca Hiew, Dale Barltrop

Back in Brisbane after a year’s absence, the ASQ has a new member and, on this night, was losing an old one. Fresh-faced cellist Michael Dahlenburg has been a familiar face to Melbourne audiences through his time at the Australian National Academy of Music and his appearances as chief cello and supplementary conductor with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. In his new slim-line form, he has managed to slot into the national quartet with impressive facility, showing to fine advantage in this night’s music-making which moved from the sublime, through the comfortable, to the over-hyped derivative.

Leaving the ensemble after a 10-year stint, violist Stephen King has operated on a wider scale, more chamber-music savvy than many of his colleagues thanks to his years with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Putting his instrument to one side, King is staying with the organization in a new role – Director of Learning and Engagement – and I hope he finds much fulfilment in a post that merges education with . . . well, more education. It’s always a positive sign that an ensemble can trust its tenor line to stay true to the task in all senses, and King has been a reliably confident voice in the ASQ, even through its problem years when certain members came close to shutting the enterprise down.

As King’s farewell, the ASQ administration opted for a set of three works, the last of which gave a fair dose of viola exposure. This was Pavel Fischer’s String Quartet No. 3, Mad Piper, based on the exploits of Bill Millin, who piped his regiment ashore through the D-Day landing at the behest of an infantile commanding officer with a penchant for national colour. First violin Dale Barltrop proposed traces of Scottish flavouring in the score, but I heard only middle-European folk-music influences – a poor man’s Bartok. Mind you, the performers were enthusiastic interpreters of this work, which was heavy-hitting in its percussiveness and almost involving through its employment of driving melodic scraps. From what I can recall, King fulfilled the main role in Movement III with almost all the limelight, while his colleagues gave a backdrop of uninflected, vibrato-less chords to his slow lyrical arches.

In fact, I found this segment the most convincing part of the work. A large-scale opening movement was intended to outline the activity of Millin on June 6, 1944 and the canvas drawn for us by Fischer, co-founder of the Skampa Quartet, showed a wild and hectic aural landscape but one that would have sufficed just as well for a particularly rough Moldavian rural engagement party. Even now, I’m unsure as to the point where the first two movements were separated but doubtless repeated performances will make the score’s parameters more clear. As its final Ursari movement shows, Fischer is adept at bringing out unusual sounds from his interpreters, at the same time rooting the composition in a solid folk tradition – in this case, judging by the title, Romanian.

As a wake-them-up demonstration of technical ability, Mad Piper has a decided impact, even if you tire of the hefty scraping involved and a chain of rhythmic vaults and turns that don’t surprise or disturb. At the end, the approbation was long and loud – a reaction that in my view fell somewhere between relief and approval. Despite the composer’s full-blooded relish of dissonances, his language is essentially tonal, based on the normal with lashings of distractions. In the end, you had to be happy to hear King’s swansong played with intense eloquence, yet you could also experience a fretting worry that the emotional content of this work sounded over-done, at its happiest when all four players were constructing walls of confrontational fabric that simply merged into each other without much intent beyond the activity itself.

In medias res, the ASQ aired Mendelssohn No. 1 in E flat Major, written in the composer’s 20th year and notable for its second movement Canzonetta which used to be an encore piece for quartets who found few rewards in the other three segments of the score. A different state of affairs on this night when the ensemble gave a warm-bodied and eloquent reading of the opening Adagio/Allegro, its middle and bass registers dominant while Barltrop attempted a counter-argument with a line that rises to a sustained high G twice but keeps below an E flat two octaves-and-a-bit above Middle C for the rest of the movement, for some of the time pursuing a close-current conversation with the rest of the group although the last 34 bars are a typical one-sided coda in the top violin’s favour.

Displaying fine taste, the players kept the second movement to Mendelssohn’s specified allegretto pace, undrelining the piece’s delectable spikiness within inbuilt limitations. Possibly the highpoint of the whole work comes in the Piu mosso G Major central Trio where shades of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream come dropping fast, excellently outlined by the upper and lower pairs in turn. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the following Andante, mainly because all the emphasis falls on the first violin, particularly the two sections that sound like recitatives starting at bar 19 and a more expanded version 17 bars from the movement’s end. Barltrop might have been feeling the need to hold back in these pages because the impression was of a restrained approach outside tutti passages.

The group gave the composer his required attacca into the finale which gives plenty of action to everyone but to these jaded ears presents as one L’istesso tempo too many. You couldn’t find fault with the executants’ determination and bounding energy but it’s a hard slog of a piece with very little harmonic interest, and the capitulation to E flat in the final bars is a disappointment after the preceding minor-coloured argument. Still, the packed audience welcomed with relieved enthusiasm this sometimes stodgy sample of the composer as a young man playing the part of a veteran, particularly after their exposure to the night’s initial offering.

This was Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3 and, to be fair, the score is still a confrontation for its harmonic bloody-mindedness, terse format and determination to follow its own path with no concern for anything extraneous. Each time I hear it, that startling story resurfaces in my memory about the first American performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in its orchestral format. Bartok partnered his wife Ditta, supported by the New York Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner. It’s a hard enough work to negotiate under ideal conditions but at one point in a rehearsal Bartok went his own way and showed perplexity amounting to annoyance when the rest of the musicians faltered. This was his last public performance and it’s not hard to understand why.

But the same confrontational dedication to formal ideals and an acerbic delineation of counterpoint informs this quartet more than any other similar composition that I know from this time (1927), apart from compositions by the Second Viennese School.. The ASQ interpretation had much to recommend it, although the opening bars cluster built on Dahlenburg’s C sharp+contiguous D harmonic failed to convince until Barltrop was well into his first long melodic arc. To my mind, the group impressed most in the slashing chords that punctuated the Prima parte‘s development, as in the vivid stretch from Rehearsal Number 7 to four bars past Number 8 (in the Boosey & Hawkes edition) which impressed for its dark deliberation. Nevertheless, the reading had settled into coherence by the time we reached the doubled scraps before the end three bars after Number 11.

Second violin Francesca Hiew‘s 39-bar-long D/E flat trill (with upper additions) gave a generously applied support for the opening to Bartok’s Seconda parte where Dahlenburg and King announced in pizzicato chords the simple folk-tune that provides a baics reference point for this movement before Barltrop span out the main feature with welcome refinement at Number 3. No group can avoid showing the near-disturbing intensity of effort required to handle the composer’s technical demands: sound-production devices that once seemed so revolutionary, for instance, as well as keeping a communal head in the fugal flurries that erupt in a hurtlingly rapid tempo that, apart from one brief rallentando, seems to increase in bite and headlong motion with each Piu mosso.

It’s still an alarmingly difficult Allegro to handle but I couldn’t detect any obvious faults in the ASQ’s interpretation which impressed for its precision and spirit of confrontation without relaxation. While the succeeding Recapitulazione della prima parte offered some relief from the dynamic and rhythmic tension, the linear interplay remained taut, particularly subsequent to Number 3 when the main content of the movement begins. And the players rose to meet the draining Coda with unflagging energy, Hiew and Dahlenburg contriving to cut across the violin and viola partnership at Number 5 with incisive delivery. This is exhausting music to experience: an Allegro molto that doesn’t let up once it hits the Meno vivo (but not much less) mark at Number 3 . Bartok is somehow able to convince you of a successful outcome in his last insistent chords – all 12 of them – but you are left both exhilarated and drained by the experience. Well, you should be, especially when the performance was delivered with this group’s level of insight and exacting delivery.

But the audience reaction struck me as lethargic, nowhere near as enthusiastic as that for the following Mendelssohn and Fischer. What can you do? Bartok’s score is nearly a century old and still has the potential to disturb and alienate, just as it did when I first heard it in Sydney some time during the late 1950s. For the majority of Brisbane’s ASQ patrons, it seems that sounds heard must be sweet; even century-old chamber music milestones can be discounted in this communally accepted triumph of diatonicism. Still, a tepid reaction didn’t upset me as much as the clown in seat F8 or 9 behind me, who coughed at regular intervals across the night; even his partner occasionally got in on the act. The rules are unwritten but clear, and I’ve seen them observed at orchestral concerts here; if you’ve got a cough, you get up and go out to put yourself in order, rather than sitting in the middle of a hall spreading COVID germs. I know Brisbane’s attitude to health is relaxed but there is such a thing as the public good.

So it’s a welcome to Dahlenburg and clear evidence on this night that he’ll make a welcome presence in this group that has almost settled into a regular pattern since Barltrop came to the first violin desk. But, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a replacement for King in the wings – or is there? Whatever he outcome, he will be missed for his reliability and individuality of output, his mastery across the repertoire and, as we have seen in the 2015 Highly Strung documentary, an admirable grace under abnormal circumstances and an impressively even temper; this last quality a must-have for any musical administrator.

Family and friends


Fraser Thomas Williams


Tony Gould

Move Records MCD 517

Two different CDs here, as far as pretty every point of comparison goes. One is an amateur product, in both imagination and execution; the other comes from a one-time senior Melbourne academic and pianist with a wide performance spectrum. Fraser Thomas Williams was a Kyabram dairy farmer for half a century with deep ties to his local community In his senior years, Williams’ family has urged him to record some of his own compositions before they are forgotten; he has done so in a suite of eight miniatures on a disc that takes us into an oddly familiar home-grown territory, reminiscent of middle-grade AMEB piano books of many years ago. Gould’s re-issue from 2015 commemorates a friend, Sonja Krawatt, who died a decade ago; he bookends his ten tracks with original pieces named for Sonja Krawatt, while the remainder are arrangements of Jewish folk-tunes and melodies, with one exception – John Williams’ title theme for the Spielberg film Schindler’s List.

Both CDs offer accessible music on a small scale. Williams’ eight pieces combined last a little over ten minutes, while Gould’s offering falls a bit short of 42 minutes. While Gould’s treatments feature titles that are familiar to plenty of Jewish/Yiddish music aficionados – Tum balalaika, Raisins and almonds, At the fireplace – Williams aims, for the most part, to depict his farming life in Morning Showers, Looking Out, and Beauty All Around. The first of these, for instance, is a simple construct in ternary shape, 6/8 in its pulse, and with no chords – just a line per hand, played with some rubato but not over-sentimental. It sets the pace for what follows in being easy to assimilate, free from any complexities, complete in its own quiet parameters. Rather than following this pattern exactly, Looking Out takes an original motif and provides it with a series of melodic complements. Again, the texture is mainly note against note and the harmony firmly diatonic, but the looking process is slightly varied each time Williams casts his musical glance.

Christmas on the Spot was written for a family get-together for which the composer’s wife had no time to prepare for a proper piano duet, so her husband gave her a one-note left-hand accompaniment while he played a tune on top – for this piece, in chords. The oddest thing is that the opening phrase immediately calls to mind a popular Christmas song from the 1940s that I can’t trace. At all events, this track has a substantial coda relative to the rest of the content. Being Young presents as a more mildly exploratory piece with a well-exposed melody, although the rhythmic pattern – left hand three notes, then right hand three notes – is unbroken in its regularity. Still, it makes an impression of youthful mobility and, at the same time, nostalgia, especially in the first part’s reprise.

Beauty All Around begins unnervingly with an arpeggio left-hand figure that in its shape brings to mind Schumann/Liszt’s Widmung. But Williams’ melody is more orderly and less inclined to modulate beyond well-circumscribed bounds. This is one of the more substantial tracks on the disc; not simply in terms of length, but in the overall texture of the work which once again follows the composer’s preferred A-B-A framework. As for its significance, the piece proposes a view of beauty that is essentially harmonious and mobile, its aesthetic aspiring rather than static. Following this, The Williams Family is a fast hymn with an A-A-B-A format, its melody a well-crafted lyric with a four-square shape that has suggestions of both American revivalist hymns and Australian folk-songs (which, it seems to me, are inevitable revenants of British, Irish and Scottish melodies). What qualities does it suggest about the family? Straightforward, rural, appealingly calm – you can find all this in Williams’ placid memorial.

Sweet Mystery is the most salonesque of the reflections, with a melodic line that oscillates between bass and treble. Rather like Looking Out, this work has a certain unpredictability; you recognize the main motive/phrase, but Williams is not always following the party line as to where it leads. Certainly, the harmonic language is more advanced than in the first four tracks. Finally, Listening In takes its impetus from the composer’s three hearing aids, each of them sounding an individual note each time Williams puts them on. Another ternary piece, it shows a harmonic deftness, mainly at deviation-from-the-expected moments, which adds a gentle piquancy to the last in this miniature suite which is not difficult music but which speaks with an unselfconscious ease and buoyancy.

Gould begins his title track with a gentle meditative walk showing hints of Jewish tropes, including the repetitious shape of certain sequential phrases, the gentlest of intermediary seventh cords,, and suggestions of minor-inflected modes. Cellist Imogen Manins joins in for two interludes. The final track, Encore Sonja, treats the same material as this opening For Sonja, but it’s not simply a copy; rather, its character is more meditative and, to my mind, more introverted, as well as being substantially shorter . . . and all Gould, without Manins’ mellow line. Both tracks are character pieces, I suppose, in the 19th century manner, reminiscent of the mini-essays of Mendelssohn and Grieg, but couched in a placid, ruminative voice that has something of a lament about it, but the grieving is muted and non-demonstrative.

At the fireplace brings Manins back to play the lyric itself, followed by Adam Simmons working through a variant of the tune on what sounds like a saxophone even though he is billed on the CD cover as performing clarinet. Manins returns for a restatement, and finally both instruments perform the rhythmically elliptical tune together with Gould underpinning the process through an accompaniment that begins promisingly but settles into gentle predictability. Simmons returns in the next track, Let us all together, to explore his inner klezmer with lots of ‘bent’ notes, a bit of over-blowing and some mini-glissandi; both he and Gould share the melody, Simmons at his most affecting when shadowing the tune and fading in and out during the process.

Manins and Simmons take the lead in Peace unto you, Gould occasionally raising his head above the parapet in this gentle stepping song. The performance is considered, quiet and, like most of the traditional material that Gould mines, surprises only mildly when it steps into a major key; you try not to, but your mind is drawn to memories of Fiddler on the Roof and the curves of Jerry Brock’s melodies. More central European in character than much else in this collection, Raisins and almonds brings Manins to the fore twice but Gould’s supple keyboard work holds your interest for its delicacy and rhythmic ambiguity, especially in the piece’s first half where the pulse is unpredictable.

The trio participates as an entity towards the end of Tum balalaika, during which Gould enjoys an extended solo, Manins outlines the tune both straight and elaborated, and Simmons offers the most subtle of interference plays in an episode following his own yawp-inflected solo handling of the theme, which appears clearly on both guest instruments in a final round-up. Rayzele isn’t a traditional song, as the CD sleeve index proposes, but a song with multiple verses by the Yiddish composer/lyricist Mordkhe Gebirtig. Gould gives us a solo piano track here, in which he treats the four-square tune with plenty of flexibility and some interesting detours, although nothing far from a well-beaten harmonic track. And he invests it with a placidity that isn’t quite compatible with the original’s forthrightness. Jewish mother is probably the least substantial of the disc’s contents, with Gould handling the introductions, then Simmons outlining the tune – one I haven’t heard before – on what could be a bass clarinet but still has sax suggestions – with Manins playing it again, the whole furnished with a supple coda featuring the two soloists pushing the sentiment in a partnership of cosy 6ths.

Gould’s treatment of the Schindler’s List theme is no-nonsense, he and Manins sustaining a steady metre throughout and avoiding any self-indulgent suggestions. Manins partners the pianist in a brooding introduction before taking up the famous melody that brings to mind the human cost that lies at the core of this remarkable film. Gould allows himself an interstitial elaboration before Manins returns to conclude the longest track on the disc which concludes with its highest cello notes.. I don’t know if Gould’s dedicatee had a connection to the Holocaust – it’s hard to find a Jewish citizen or relative in this country who was not affected, many in shattering ways – but this aching melody fits with unquestionable ease into its surroundings, fleshing out gracefully this affecting musical memento.

Changes with benefits


Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Friday June 11, 2021

Natsuko Yoshimoto

Here was yet another needs-must event where the originally scheduled ensemble was not able to get to Brisbane for the Musica Viva event scheduled last Friday night. We were to have heard a piano trio comprising violinist Emily Sun, French horn performer Nicholas Fleury, and pianist Amir Farid performing the Brahms Trio Op. 49, a new violin sonata by Gordon Kerry, and Ernst Naumann’s arrangement of Mozart’s E flat Major Horn Quintet which would have been more than interesting because I’ve only seen Naumann’s work on the Andante and Allegro of this last-named construct for horn, violin, two violas and cello; the transcribed opening Allegro remains a closed book.

And so it will stay until this recital is broadcast from the Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm on June 27. As a sudden substitute, the organization put together another trio – a perfectly rounded chamber group – and we heard three works, but all of them duos. Violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto, well versed in chamber music from her years with the Australian String Quartet, is currently co-concertmaster of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and is a member of the Ensemble Q chamber group. Keyboard virtuoso and jack-of-all-formats Daniel de Borah has recently made his base in Brisbane as Head of Chamber Music at the Queensland Conservatorium. Until I took a closer look, I thought cellist Umberto Clerici occupied the lead principal desk with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but he decamped from that body last year; his chamber music credentials are also substantial, not least for his appearances in Selby & Friends recitals over recent years.

And what was on offer? Yoshimoto and de Borah exerted themselves on Mozart’s two-movement E minor Violin Sonata K. 304; Yoshimoto and Clerici combined for Kodaly’s sweeping Duet Op. 7; finally, we could relish an engrossing reading of Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58. As is often the practice these days, all three works were performed consecutively – no interval – which experience made for a particularly focused evening’s listening, lasting a bit over an hour but leaving you quite content with the experience. Of course, this sense of satiety might have had much to do with the quality of the program itself, but equally as relevant was the performance standard, which was exceptionally high.

Mozart’s E minor sonata enjoyed a forward-looking handling, the violin overpowered by de Borah at times because he had his lid open on the big stick. Alongside this unforced volume benefit, the pianist treated us to some Beethoven-like dynamic power and abrupt changes of output, as well as a tendency to highlight entries by means of slight pauses – the one-note ritenuto, in particular. But Yoshimoto held her own, reminding us of her trademark strength of line, so welcome in the otherwise all-male personnel of the ASQ during her time with that body. Still, both players mined a vein of nostalgia close to regret with the simple but eloquently placed coda at bar 194, once again revealing Mozart’s unparalleled melodic skill with the simplest of materials.

De Borah found a calm lyricism in the opening statement of the second movement, giving the melody lots of space to make its melancholy point. Yoshimoto mirrored this placidity with an excellent repeat of the line, intensely caressed with a careful application of articulative shadings. In fact, both musicians enjoyed a companionable partnership throughout this movement, a cross between a minuet and a landler in their hands. Yet the chief memory is of Yoshimoto’s melting entry in the major-key trio at bar 102: a repeated-note phrase of Schubertian simplicity and assurance, just as touching in its second-half repetition at bar 121. You realized at the work’s completion that the interpretation moved across a wide range of parameters, the most telling of them being a determined ardour that moved past the score’s surface impression of a light sonatina.

I’ve come late to the Kodaly work, as was also the case with the Sonata for Solo Cello, its companion piece, which I first heard in Melba Hall from a young Liwei Qin. The Hungarian master’s early Duet is something of a vast canon, packed with imitations and intersections, and these executants entered fearlessly into its broad statements and oscillating modes of attack. Clerici made a tensile creature of his sinking solo across the 12/13 bars before Number 7 in the Universal Edition score, but you could point to just as powerful Yoshimoto exposures, and the Duet is nothing if not a dialogue of equals, striking in its few bursts of unison at one or two octaves’ distance and finally in the final 9 bars of rallentando where two dissimilar voices find resolution in a D Major third.

Kodaly’s second movement Adagio enjoyed a free-wheeling, ruminative handling which offered a contrast to the disciplined outbursts over the preceding pages. Clerici in particular sounded in impromptu mode across the opening gambits of changing bar lengths, triplets and passing 4:3 hiccups, all seasoned by tension-generating dynamic directions. Then came a scrubbing tremolo that brought grinding dissonances into play, both players hurtling against each other at instrumental compass extremes. At the heart of these pages is a linear balance, both sharing in the sharp-edged melodic arcs and in the driving, intrusive underpinning. The searing forward movement reaches a highpoint at the allargando octave unison descent 3 bars before Number 4, then sinks away to what sounds like an almost improvised ending, Clerici well-exercised by harmonics and flautando demands.

Bartok looms large over the finale Maestoso-Presto, although the slightly older composer would probably not have written the mirror phrases (and accompaniment) that dominate the Presto opening and the let’s-all-settle-down 2/2 time-signature. Yoshimoto showed a skittishness, even a willfulness in her less frenetic moments, as at that Poco meno mosso where the key changes to A Major/F sharp minor; further along, she displayed a cauterising burn in her lowest register, as at 4 bars after Number 7 where Kodaly directs that the melody be played on the G string. But, as a sign of the emotional continuity of this reading, both performers exercised the same charity with each other at either end of the score, especially through the handling of the recurrent folk-style melody that brings to mind the opening to Bartok’s Contrasts at the final Meno mosso before the exhilarating rush home and a superbly co-ordinated flurry from both musicians in the last Piu presto gallop.

I’m not sure that all of the Musica Viva patrons enjoyed this work. Three people coughed themselves out of the hall at various points, an elderly couple sought refuge in the consonance of the foyer during the second movement, and a pair of girls tip-toed out in mutual support at the start of the finale’s bracing call to arms. Which struck me as odd, given that this Duet dates from 1914 and is a striking, powerful construct that should not alarm people inured to the Bartok string quartets, works that Musica Viva has sponsored since its inception in this country.

No such problems arose during the Mendelssohn sonata which revealed another instance of inter-player fluency. De Borah kept his action-rich part under control, more so than many other pianists who have considered an over-supply of notes to represent an interpretative ascendancy; in this version, the rush of arpeggios that support the cello from Letter E to Letter F in my old Peters edition were sublimated with tact, and the pianist held back the potential force of the composer’s repeated chords from the first bar onward. Indeed, if you wanted an instance of how to accompany a Romantic era chamber work, you could hardly do better than watch this artist at work. Further, both musicians showed an easy adeptness at holding our attention, as well as toying with the smallest of rallentandi to indulge their individualistic touches.

As the whimsical Allegretto scherzando bobbed past, you could see that a good deal of attention was being exercised on giving full weight to each line; not just the cello-piano partnership, but in the piano chording as well. Clerici’s frequent pizzicato passages carried successfully to my seat near the back of the theatre, while each player made a lush meal of the two interludes in D Major and B Major, keeping the main episode dynamically lean and formally neat. As for the Bach-influenced Adagio, Clerici generated an ardent line for his pseudo-recitative interludes, a rich energy that intensified with de Borah’s chorale recapitulation from the Tempo I point.

Mendelssohn asks for a sudden attack on his Molto allegro e vivace, and got a solid one this night. Here was the composer in full flight, the voice we love to hear, loaded with fetching forays and mellifluous modulations, the whole orderly Victorian maelstrom raising lots of froth but not a black storm cloud in sight. Just as well Clerici and de Borah made use of the inbuilt ritardandi – and inserted a few of their own – to work against the sense of a seamless and tedious run of patterns and repetitions. But then, the pianist made sophisticated sense of those many passages where his right hand comes in off the beat or holds a tied note against the prevailing metre.

As with the Kodaly, so here: the performance proved to be exhilarating without self-advertisement or any emphasis on the music’s difficulty of negotiation. It made an optimistic conclusion to a night that bore all the signs of a make-do exercise, but I believe that we – those of us who showed up! – were more than happy with the replacement musicians and their works. But then, it makes a huge difference if you are faced with players who know what they’re about and are agreed on their shared path. In this time of multiple crises and perturbing interruptions, music-making of this calibre is to be cherished.

Cramped and cramping


Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 5, 2021

Orava Quartet

A few days before this concert took place, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall came on board to televise it live. A very kind offer but an odd one – after all, how many Victorian (or for that matter, extra-Brisbane) music-lovers customarily leave their homes and travel to QPAC for a Camerata night? Naturally, the orchestra’s viewing population would (should) have been expanded, especially by those (like myself) who were tempted to stay home rather than go to the hassle of hour-long train trips, Queensland Government identification codes, the slowest-moving foyer crowds in the nation, and an irrationally long program given in one hit.

But there we were, the faithful followers of live performance, giving Brendan Joyce‘s young players large dollops of encouragement as they laboured through a nine-part program of works that ranged from the sublime and challenging to the trivial and instantly forgettable. Joyce and his organizing team set the bar impossibly high for themselves by starting their operations with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op. 133. That’s the sort of bravura that Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra can handle, and even then with no subs in the ranks.; but it was a very demanding ask for the Camerata first violins, even allowing for the confidence of Joyce and his 2IC Daniel Kowalik. Some of those top B flats in the first fugue were both thin (understandable) and not universally assured in pitch; I know that the top line’s exposure is total in the most difficult stretches of this segment but those slight deviations were hard to ignore.

Camerata’s violas made an excellent showing throughout the multiple changes in this still-taxing score and the single double bass was ever-welcome in this arrangement whenever she entered to reinforce the cello line. But the ensemble often had their hands full negotiating pitch and rhythm, especially in those pages where the counterpoint is hard-worked,, and so the final effect was of musicians surmounting a struggle rather than outlining an object of interpretation.

Every time I hear Turina’s La oracion del torero, I find myself asking what kind of prayer did the composer have in mind. Even considering the usual vision of the matador genuflecting before a small statue of the Madonna and Child, you have to question the thought processes that led the composer to this lush outpouring of local colour, several salons away from a death-in-the-afternoon scenario. But setting one’s Hispano-Catholic perceptions aside, you can simply luxuriate in the piece’s fabric, and this was an excellent reading of Turina’s small jewel. The thirds and sixths exuded lushness beyond the dreams of Aztec-sacking avarice, while the players enjoyed more comfort in these pages, a welcome refuge from Beethoven’s intransigence, the ensemble showing to better advantage in the Spanish composer’s high tessitura writing towards the end in that Mantovani-suggestive Lento.

John Rotar, a highly active young Queensland composer, enjoyed hearing two of his pieces on this program; the first a Brisbane premiere of his Beyond the Front Door, referencing the emotional and physical release that comes at the end of a pandemic lockdown – in which aim, the work enjoyed a definite success in narrative terms. Strong on 2nds and 7ths at the start, the score proved active, as if the physical activity of breaking through state-imposed domestic barriers held both pleasure and pain. Not that Rotar maintained this nervous activity throughout, pausing for an attractively swelling melodic swathe from the violas that was taken over by each section. Indeed, the composition built to a full-bodied peroration until a conclusion that melded strong bass chords under the violins returning to the opening nervous mobility. This is a distinctive creative voice, informed by a sure hand at orchestration and an attractive harmonic vocabulary, albeit a diatonic one laced with brusqueness.

Next came another vault into another country with Steve Reich’s Duet for two solo violins, four violas, three cellos and a double-bass. Joyce and his principal second violin, Jonny Ng, gave an appropriately driving account of the upper lines’ canons, playing in-phase sequences that didn’t outstay their welcome – which is not always the case with he American composer’s creations. Still, Reich was kind enough not to have his supporting lines simply play sustained notes throughout but gave them some rhythmic variety, even if fitful in nature.

Continuing with the American flavour, Joyce and his colleagues followed this happy Reich flourish with Barber’s Adagio for Strings: one of the cornerstones of American music and a reliable aesthetic resource in time of travail – President Kennedy’s assassination, the Twin Towers catastrophe, Meghan’s interview with Oprah. Here was a laudable reading, without the elongated bathos that too many ensembles inflict on these spare pages; rather, simply letting the interweaving arches make their own points as the composer intended with precise dynamic markings but no demands for rallentandi, ritenuti, or supernumerary general pauses. Not that the Camerata avoided imposing some extraneous hiatus points, but the performance proved respectably uncluttered and truthful.

Before the final work – Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings – Joyce & Co. presented three Australian works of differing characters, all by Queensland writers. First, Puppet Play in Java by Betty Beath dates from 2009 and is a mildly colourful soundscape based on F Major but pentatonic for all of its duration, as far as I could tell. The senior composer keeps her texture light, the atmosphere consistent, demands on its interpreters not that great, and the duration just long enough. I don’t know Indonesia at all, its music very superficially, and Beath’s vision is of a much milder disposition than expected. And that’s fair enough, even if the results tend towards blandness.

Little Corellas: Allora 1987 by Cameron Patrick suggests a phenomenon from the composer’s youth when he played at the home of the original Camerata founder, Elizabeth Morgan. A flock of corellas in flight stayed in the composer’s mind from those years, revisited in this work from recent months and, with a craftsman’s touch, he has created a mini-tone poem, beginning with whirring suggestions of aerial action and displaying a suggestive freedom in its interplay of lines. This language is also, at base, traditional with enough dissonance to remove any banality yet, after its completion, it reminded me of a finely achieved documentary film score; considering the writer’s background and career, that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Rotar’s second offering – Plains Baked Golden in the Morning Light (on Winton) – was also composed earlier this year and turned out to be the most substantial of this Brisbane trilogy. It read, to my mind, like a series of scenes, dominated in its first part by solos for Joyce and principal cellist Karol Kowalik, the latter’s melodic line punctuated by percussive string work. But this work presented as more conscious than its companions of contemporary string production techniques, through some saltando-like passages, free-wheeling arpeggio patterns, individual high glissandi, grinding dissonances et al. It brought to mind, Sculthorpe’s Sun Music, particularly No. IV, in certain textures, specifically the suggestion of birdsong. Towards the end, the cellos revisited their broad melody with lashings of vibrato and the work concluded with more suggestions of Sculthorpe at his slow-moving best and – perhaps because of the cello’s prominence – an intimation of Schelomo, and even Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Nevertheless, this construct impressed for its ambitious scale and the honesty of its emotional scenario, no matter that I kept on hearing older voices flashing out from Rotar’s multi-coloured fabric.

I’ve got little to report about the Elgar work, the evening’s most satisfying achievement for its pliant attack and security of ensemble. Of course, it makes a big difference if you take the four powerful Orava musicians out of the Camerata ensemble to fulfil the duties of the composer’s solo quartet; the orchestral segments sounded underdone in their absence. But Joyce had ensured that the magnificent characteristic segments – like the opening strophe and its repetition at Rehearsal Number 5, the nobilmente downward striding at Number 12, the resolving Come prima and its melting two-bar quartet breaks, and the dynamic energy of the work’s final 14 bars – all came across with precision and eloquence of timbre.

I made a habit over the years of avoiding encores, if possible; it wasn’t on Saturday, so I sat through the group’s reading of Mancini’s The Pink Panther title theme. Yes, it’s a bit of fun and the group snapped fingers and whistled neatly enough, but the defining small glissandi at phrases’ endings doesn’t transfer well from sax to violin. And, even to this tolerant palate, the exercise seemed self-consciously flippant. Needless to say, the Camerata faithful loved it.

Of more importance was the length of this concert which ran without interval for over 90 minutes. I can’t answer for other backsides but mine was numb to a painful level at the end, the ache rising to a peak during the Mancini. It’s great to give value for money but I could have cut this program by three numbers and their absence would not have detracted much from the players’ demonstrations of skill.

A crown of thorns between the roses


Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

City Recital Hall, Angel Place

Thursday June 3, 2021

Alexander Briger

Any attempt to restore a sense of the normal is welcome, particularly a mammoth exercise like the Australian World Orchestra’s re-appearance. In the good old days, conductor Alexander Briger could draw on resources from all over the world, inviting back home many willing expatriate musicians to take part in a small number of concerts played only in Sydney and Melbourne over a couple of nights, picking up players from across the nation to flesh out the desks. Also, Briger and his board could attract top-notch conductors who were up to the exhausting trip from Europe or America.

The last time I can recall coming across the AWO was in 2017 when the seasoned professionals combined with some musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music to work through Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie under Simone Young. A large-frame score, this was representative of the organization’s ambition and, if the results on that night in Melbourne proved more satisfying for the attempt than the achievement, you could hardly say that the enterprise was simply marking time, just giving its actual and potential patrons a continuation of that diet which the state symphony orchestras provide in full, year after year.

With the pandemic frustrating any hopes of visitors, Briger put together a smaller-than-usual corps and tailored an entertainment-experience that followed a conservative path for two-thirds of the night. To open, the players worked through Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and they closed with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. Where an old-style program would have inserted a concerto, the AWO gave the premiere of Paul Dean‘s Symphony, commissioned by Briger for this orchestra and which turned out to be a stern sermon on the subject of despoliation, if not destruction, with only fleeting signs of light. It could be taken as a commentary on the climate catastrophe or it might be a grim perspective on humanity’s lack of regard for oncoming disaster. Whatever the case, the work had to be tailored for the resources of the Schumann score, even though Briger feels that the work needs a broader gamut of orchestral possibilities and weight.

Without a list provided of the players and their provenance, the telecast occasionally turned into a game of Spot the Musician as you suddenly realised that some of these AWO performers were very familiar faces, while others featured as half-remembrances of things past. For example, the timpanist who made his mark quickly through the Coriolan introduction – single strokes of penetrating power in bars 3, 7, 1 ,12 and 13 – seemed to me to come from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but a check of the organization’s home page disproved that impression. In fact, this timpani prominence began a more significant process: accustoming yourself to the Angel Place space’s acoustic properties which sounded pretty dry through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall system, benevolently brought into place when the AWO’s scheduled Melbourne visit turned out to be impossible.

Briger led a brisk reading of the overture which held some unexpected points of interest. For instance, the conductor let the cellos and basses set the running between bars 118 and 140, so that the upper strings and woodwind, carrying the main motive burden, were cast into second place. But the orchestra had no difficulty handling this score, most of the explosive chords that punctuate its progress coming off with minimal scatter-gun effect, the texture pierced by some excellent, if brief, solo exposures, like the second bassoon’s chain of minims at bar 234. The last bars also proved effective and moving as Beethoven prefigures his hero’s doom with that dwindling cello line: the only sign of motion across this bleak conclusion to a work packed with fierce tragedy.

Briger directed an eloquent interpretation of the Schumann work which gave all three choirs multiple opportunities to demonstrate their eloquence in ensemble work. For instance, you had to be moved by the splendidly voiced chorale from the woodwind at bar 15, which lasts for an all-too-brief four bars before the rest of the orchestra returns, but which startled for its unforced vigour and timbral purity. Then, the burst into action at Schumann’s (eventual) Allegro ma non troppo showed the players’ communal verve while the benefit of having first-class musicians shone out in the seamless jockeying between both sets of violins in the movement’s central development, and again in the later stage of the recapitulation pages with that requirement for syncopated block woodwind chords, which to my ear came across with thrilling precision. In fact, the only problem I had with this first movement came with the rallentando in its last seven bars which sounded to me like the conclusion to the Sibelius E flat Symphony, except that there the pauses are inbuilt.

But, at several times during the performance, I was faced with enough detail discrepancies to generate the belief that Briger’s score was more up-to-musicological-date than my venerable Breitkopf & Hartel.

The strings distinguished themselves yet again at the onset of the Scherzo second movement because of their pliant address in a skittering set of pages. You got so comfortable with their brilliant and continuous edge that their block dialogue with the woodwind in Schumann’s first Trio impressed as a dynamic coup de theatre. While the first maintained its crispness, the second Trio provided the perfect contrast through its (eventual) lush texture when the groups coalesce at Rehearsal Letter M in my score, about 17 measures before the composer starts harking back to his principal theme. Another unexpected move came with an accelerando at the start of the Coda which, when you think about it, makes complete sense because its effect is to refresh some familiar material.

With the plangent Adagio espressivo, Briger and his forces spaced themselves across its soundscape, using plenty of rubato as well as following the brief crescendo-diminuendo directions with tact alongside none-too-disruptive sforzandi. This mobility came within a whisker of self-satire only once, but the style of attack gave considerable breadth to a movement that can sound like whining, probably not helped by the application at odd moments of a slight portamento in the violins. On the other hand, the woodwind continued along their blameless path with some brilliantly flavoured duets above the violins’ high chromatic descending trills just before Letter O.

Not everybody kept precisely on the beat in the Allegro molto vivace finale when Schumann introduces crotchet triplets across the bar, although the middle strings made a rapid recovery. But for a music that is optimistic and inherently brassy, the orchestra en masse responded with sterling energy through pages that recalled the seemingly endless exercises and patterns of the last movement to Schubert’s 9th. The whole march moved deftly to a finely judged set of soft brass calls leading into a L’istesso tempo conclusion of high excitement, carried off with a panache that made you think that this confected orchestra might actually be capable of achieving a world-class standard of performance.

Preceding the Schumann symphony, the AWO presented its youthful branch, an orchestra of young players with a few senior players scattered around the strings and prominent in the brass. Under conductor Patrick Brennan, the group played the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6. From the start, the body’s violins sounded hesitant, nowhere near as loud as they should be leading up to the vivo in bar 13. But then, this group had troubles with the frequent changes of pace across this piece. A reasonable performance, but an odd interpolation, no matter how high-minded its intentions.

Dean’s Symphony, in its bald title, brought to mind Webern’s Op. 21. That’s where any correspondences stop. The Australian work is substantial, passing through four movements and giving full vent and playing-time to its matter. Dean opens with some woodwind scattered around the auditorium (the film crew had access to only one – a flautist up in the gallery) playing bird calls above sustained and soft string chords: a pastoral opening, then, to bring to mind our world at its quiescent best. An Allegro opened out with chugging basses and the tone changed to an acerbic sound, strong on dissonances although the language seemed to me about as complex as that of Tippett. Any listener could discern specific patterns and an elliptical melodic framework for the violins, but the movement is mainly aggressive, strong on texture if not on development. Also, at this stage, I think I saw David Berlin from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in there with the cellos.

Dean’s second movement began for me with the discovery of Wilma Smith, one-time MSO concertmaster, in the first violin ranks. Not that she had much to do at the start here, bars that were populated by melancholy-sounding woodwind weaving a threnody by themselves. I was distracted again on detecting Justin Williams at the front desk of the violas. Continuing the air of gloom, if not despair, Dean employs muted trumpets and a trombone trio with pizzicati double bass notes to construct yet another landscape of hopelessness. At which stage I believe I found Kirsty McCahon in the bass quartet. In any case, the strings continued with the threnody (and I may be mistaken, but it might have been the MSO’s former regular Michelle Wood leading the cellos) leading to an increase in intensity and breadth of output that led to a large-scale highpoint, reminiscent of Mahler.

Despite its dour temperament, this movement held some momentary pleasures, like an intervallic interplay passage for horns and a sombre oboe solo cutting through the low-pitched textures before the other woodwind joined in a slowly weaving counterpoint. At which point I think I found the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Julian Thompson in the cellos. A faster pace (I think) turned a surging violin escalation, punctuated by dramatic timpani strokes, to yet another climactic point, as dissonant and perturbing as its predecessor. Then, a de-escalation until the piccolo returned us to a mid-way emotional point with a bird-imitating solo above a layer of sustained string chords, reminiscent of the symphony’s opening pages.

The following scherzo gave hefty work to the low strings, with motivic interplay the name of the game. This movement quickly showed itself to be of a piece with its predecessors although the harmonic bite sounded more insistent, the dissonances more pronounced and clearly etched. Snatches of melody were instantly squashed, the metre was relaxed from regularity and then came an intense return to the bitterness of the movement’s start, as though we had been following a classic ternary form pattern.

The finale opened with whispering basses and cellos under low trombone chords and rumbling timpani. The composer was not going to provide a ray of redeeming light in this atmosphere of foreboding. As we had heard several times before, patterns built to a highpoint that died out before oboe and clarinet rise out of the subterranean murmur. Another large-scale outburst emerged from strings and timpani; it wove back down to silence apart from a sustained viola note from which clarinet and piccolo emerged in a duet. The strings took back their primacy, moving to a loud shudder that cut off to leave the basses muttering. But then, the work moved to a rhetorical, almost Straussian declaration, timpani cutting across the maelstrom of brass and string chords, the work coming to the time-honoured big finish but not one that left you elated; rather, if truth be told, grimly appreciative of a score that impresses in the end for its devotion to its task and the intransigence of its statements.

As a composite, this Symphony made both a firm statement of scouring intention from the composer as well as a remarkable and testing piece for the willing participants. Mind you, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear it again; perhaps it’s better kept for a return visit when there’s more light glowing on our various horizons.