Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Southbank
August 23, 2021
Apologies for the photo above. As time goes on, the reproductive capabilities of this WordPress system become more and more unsatisfactory – I’d change product if I knew how.
In any case, the blurred figures above are members of Brisbane’s Ensemble Q which had a national tour lined up before the latest branch of the pandemic struck and all travel intrastate became impossible. Full marks to Musica Viva for taping/recording/transmitting one sitting of this program that proved to be remarkably professional and even-tempered. Which just goes to show that musicians of calibre can keep their heads while all around . . .
The ensemble’s offering-sheet included two solos, a very mixed trio, two well-known wind quintets, and a chamber concerto for cello and the afore-mentioned wind quintet. For the mildest of openings, Virginia Taylor performed Debussy’s flute solo Syrinx, an integral element in most flautist’s repertoire, here getting off to an unfortunate start because the sonic part of this transmission didn’t actually begin until bar 3; you could see Taylor making all the right moves but without sound. For one dreadful moment, I thought that we had moved into the land of the pre-avant garde and the program was to be totally gestural. Fortunately not, although there was a further tremor between bars 11 and 12. These technical problems aside, the reading proved impressively intense at its two mild climaxes, Taylor taking the work into more well-defined country than most other interpreters who are quite happy in doodling chromatically.
For all that, I couldn’t make out the D that concludes bar 17 and the B flat in the middle of bar 24 didn’t travel strongly enough for my equipment to register it. On the other hand, the Tres retenu conclusion worked very well indeed, just the right side of stop-all-engines.
The other solo came from cellist Trish Dean who strode through the Ciacona from Britten’s Second Suite. Here was intense playing, determined and aggressive after the opening variants, particularly when negotiating the strident double-stopping segments. Fortunately, Dean also reacted sensitively to the flashes of piquant writing that relieve what could become an unrelievedly overwrought slab of drama tending to tragedy. As happens every time this piece is heard, you marvel at Britten’s knowledge of the instrument, specifically the sudden jolts when his attack shifts from one technical demand to another.
Mind you, the jolts are deftly accomplished and, as with a lot of Britten’s instrumental music, you look back at particular points and wonder how you arrived at a certain stage. The piece progresses in a deceptively organic way; it looks sensible on paper but the actual sound being generated is packed with surprise and event. Dean swept her way to the Bach-suggestive (what isn’t, in this piece?) D Major quadruple-stop chord sequence at the chaconne’s climax and her deep-delving attack reinforced the drive-relax-presto character of the final 30 bars.
Probably the most curious part of the evening came in Beethoven’s 1795 Variations on La ci darem la mano WoO 28, originally scored for a trio comprising two oboes and cor anglais. There is an arrangement for oboe, clarinet and cello by Tom van der Grinten and I’d assume that this is what we heard but, of all the other transcriptions, this one strikes me as the oddest, simply for its combination – to be specific, the inclusion of a cello. Not that you’d want to be over-fussy about this because the variations – eight of them, plus a coda – treat Mozart’s duet-melody pretty easily; some flashes of energy but not much to mark them out from many other works of the time.
As it turned out, this performance was as straight and ordinary as the music itself. Variation I avoided any tempo liberties, forging directly through points where a ritardando might have relieved the steadiness. The following variation gives the lowest line all the work and here a necessary (?) alteration in register changed the nature of the piece, not to mention the timbral switch. Again, I would have welcomed a tad more subtlety at the oboe solo 8 bars from the end of Variation III. At Variation V, the top oboe line has a brisk demi-semiquaver sprint that allows only only two bars rest, well-achieved by Huw Jones with only one mis-step somewhere in the chromatics of bar 19.
For sure, the trio – Jones, clarinet Paul Dean, cello Trish Dean – showed at their expressive best in the minore Variation VI where you couldn’t complain about a lack of rhythmic flexibility; just so, you could admire the precision and jauntiness in the following reversion to the home key. Dean travelled safely through the rapid-fire figuration in his part for Variation VIII, while all three executants rattled through the Coda before Beethoven’s restrained last 13 bars where we are brought back to the original melody and a soft landing. Obviously from all this, it appeared to me that this trio worked at its most effective in the later stages when the executants were facing more pliable material.
Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet have enjoyed popularity with audiences and ensembles since their 1953 appearance. They’re a test of rhythmic exactness, starting with a smart-as-paint Allegro con spirito which sounded as bright and jaunty as you could want, the only problem coming with a bassoon hesitation from David Mitchell at bar 41. In the following Rubato. Lamentoso, pitch sounded uncertain at bars 7 to 8 but the whole group generated a brave complex at the tragic strophes between bars 21 and 28 and observed a tight stringendo leading to the movement’s highpoint, although you might have asked for a more subtle approach to the dynamics obtaining in and around bar 34. Fluency characterized the Allegro grazioso – one of the more exceptional parts of this collection – and the ensemble’s rhythmic responsiveness in Ligeti’s 7/8 Presto ruvido achieved the intended purpose of making irregularity sound normal.
With the Adagio. Mesto, the Hungarian composer writes a brief, pointed elegy for his compatriot Bartok, not quite mirroring the senior writer’s night music but coming close. Here, the only defect came in a not-altogether-congruent first note from Mitchell, but the construction of an elegiac atmosphere was expertly accomplished, the final resolution a blessing as satisfying as the concluding cadence to the Third Piano Concerto’s Adagio religioso. As happens so often in these later years, my initial reaction to the concluding Molto vivace. Capriccioso was to detect a completely improbable influence: the spirit of Fellini – or, rather, Nino Rota, a decade before the appearance of 8 1/2. Peter Luff‘s horn near the end, about bar 118, sounded over-aggressive in the current context but it made a minor blemish in a fine outlining of this life-filled music.
Barber’s Summer Music worked very well with these players, Luff showing excellent assurance and fidelity at his extended solo about Figure 27, while Jones’ oboe showed purity of line at every turn. As I said above, this work is popular, a regular at wind chamber music events and I’ve become accustomed to its pleasures in recent times thanks to the Arcadia Winds whose excursions into Barber-Land are a never-failing delight. The Q players demonstrated an unflappable expertise throughout, each exposed solo – like Taylor’s, Dean’s and Mitchell’s flurries during the opening bars – slotting into the process with high skill. But the outstanding characteristic of this reading was its smoothness; even when he works hard to counteract it, the composer’s fabric remains urbane, emotionally even, and this ensemble infused it with a fluent sophistication that proved both appealing and comfortable through the score’s various segments, in particular that rapid block-chord work that begins at Figure 5 and serves as a contrast to the prevailing languor.
Paul Dean’s concerto dates from 2018 when it enjoyed its premiere at an Ensemble Q event. It has also been heard from these same musicians at a July recital this year, so our streamed performance presented it at its best, thanks to this temporal proximity. The composer gives his cello soloist prime position right from the start, Trish Dean’s long-note melody-spinning rising over a low-wind ostinato. While not looking for echoes that may not be there, I was hard put to ignore a certain First Nations texture in the subterranean wind writing, as well as a touch of Sculthorpe in the string arches. Whatever the case, the score moves at its own sweet will as Jones took over from Dean for a change of timbre before both instruments combined in a touching duet.
The score accelerates and gives more independence to the winds; phrases are tossed in the air and transformed in their flights. It’s all suggestive of a scherzo, but you’d be reaching to impose a specific format on this composition. Pretty soon, the motion slows and the quintet flickers with motivic lights around the cello’s melodic drawl. At three points (at least), Dean gives his soloist a cadenza, albeit brief, then allows the soloist an extended exposure above some semi-static accompaniment.
Dean’s language is not exactly tonal but, at the same time, not far from it. Perhaps it’s a deft way of using nodes in his melodic structures that makes you sense that the score is grounded on points in-touch more than recurring modal or tonal progressions. At the work’s most potent pages, the cello is momentarily drowned by a vehement, urging quintet before another short cadenza and a reversion to the solo line’s dominance before this segment moves into what sounds like a threnody.
A final cadenza leads to a perky ‘finale’ and here matters became unnerving because traces of Ligeti and Barber occasionally surged out. Of course, this might have been (probably was) wishful thinking – making connections while grasping at first-time straws – but the segment/movement took on a buoyancy in both solo and accompanying lines, the action growing in fervour before a brisk conclusion, just when you thought that the energy was in danger of toppling into excess.
So much for first impressions. We’d all do better after more experiences with this work but, as I’ve said too many times about other new creations, that possibility seems more and more unlikely, given the nature of our world at present with troops at the border and an unnerving air of national intransigency from far too many quarters. Nevertheless, Dean’s concerto makes a solid contribution to Australian chamber music, emerging in a format that I’ve not encountered before, tailor-made for his accommodating and capable Ensemble Q colleagues.