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.