Blowing an ill wind good

THE RULE OF THREE

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.