Love short-changed


Chloe Lankshear & Alan Hicks

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

October 28, 2021

Chloe Lankshear

Great to see the MDCH enterprise is forging ahead, maintaining a bit of a cash flow for its participating artists, even as tentative steps are being made back to normal practice. Still, the way we were is a long time coming back and, even though various premiers and ministers are promising the end of lockdowns, I don’t believe them. This whole pandemic experience has been a farrago of mismanagement, lies and delusion to the point where, even in the so-called safety of Queensland, I still think twice before engaging with non-vital contacts. Recitals and concerts are still going on but the price to be paid for attending live performances is wearing a mask – almost endurable for an hour’s worth of chamber music, lethal for The Marriage of Figaro.

Hence, this non-intrepid music-lover’s delight in digital offerings. Thursday’s duo recital was a perplexing business in some respects. For one thing, it was short, the whole thing lasting about 40 minutes. Not that brevity is unusual in vocal recitals but another offering or two would have spun this out to an acceptable length. Another odd occurrence was that Strauss’s song from the Op. 68 set, Amor, was repeated and, further down the track, the Er, der herrlichste von allen from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, disappeared – quite a loss in a series that either managed to put men (really? men only?) in a curious or negative light or lamented their absence/death; I, for one, would have welcomed a splendid outburst of praise, particularly the way Schumann wrought triumph out of self-abnegation by concluding with a repetition of the first heroic verse.

Whatever the case, we heard the Strauss lied twice – and Hicks made a false start on Debussy’s Apparition . . . or did he? I was looking at the score, not the screening from Chatswood’s Concourse concert hall, but it seemed to me that the introductory bar stopped and began again before Lankshear emerged from the E Major mist with appropriate dreaminess.

What we did hear proved varied enough. These musicians opened with the earliest music on their tour of love’s highways and byways: Purcell’s The Cares of Lovers from Shadwell’s masque on Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Real opera followed with Despina’s Act 1 aria in Cosi fan tutte, In uomini, in soldati. The double-dose of Strauss followed, then Debussy’s Mallarme setting and his pacific Beau soir to Paul Bourget’s gather-we-rosebuds verses. From about 45 years later came Nadia Boulanger’s J’ai frappe, before Lankshear and Hicks vaulted back to Handel’s Piangero la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare of 1724, 46 years after the Purcell/Shadwell collaboration and very well known to Opera Australia survivors of that company’s surrender to the countertenor vogue.

Rameau’s Tristes apprets, the first aria for Telaire (or, indeed, anybody human) in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737), completed a tripartite homage to the Baroque, although the French master’s deploration was partnered with something of a similar character in Ravel’s Kaddish, even if the Jewish anthem is a single-minded hymn of praise. On either side of these two European works came two settings from George Crumb’s 1947 Three Early Songs: Wind Elegy and Let it be forgotten, to texts by Sara Teasdale. These also are flavoured with leave-taking, and absence amounting to death. So, with a few detours, the night’s promise was fulfilled, moving to personal loss (if not always death) from observations on love’s vagaries.

Lankshear handled her Purcell like the mini-rhapsody it is, employing a variable metre to which Hicks reacted with fidelity. My only question mark arose with some portamenti, like that between the last two notes of bar 3; not inappropriate exactly but a touch too suggestive, although the soprano employed the device temperately, setting up a contrast with the semiquaver figuration that erupts in the first 12 bars and in bars 19 to 21. Even better followed with the Mozart aria, both musicians clear in articulation except for a slight sluggishness in Lankshear’s final vanita. As well, one of the piano notes sounded flat in the orchestral interludes – the A above Middle C?

With the twice-heard Strauss Amor, the singer displayed a suitable fluency in handling the key shifts and brought out a modified ebullience of attack in the song’s hectic action. Still, the five crotchets’ worth of ornamentation at the first lachelt didn’t register; less noticeable problems, like the short quaver in the middle of ihn die Glut made little difference to the singer’s fluency. Later, the trills on the high B and B flat of Flamme didn’t register and a late entry on Brentano’s last line was another misfire in a work that is quite disciplined despite its sprightly-looking pages.

The first Debussy, Apparition, found the musicians hurling themselves into the composer’s purple patches with impressive gusto, particularly the lushness of Et j’ai cru. For all that rich smoothness, I didn’t understand what was going on at the change from laisse to La cueillaison; my old 1926 Revue musicale score doesn’t show any need for a pause or a here-changeth-the-key-signature highlighting. No worries with Beau soir which is easier on the imagery and the harmonic shifts; Lankshear blended with Hicks’ muted output in a reading of light sensitivity, memorable for its control in those hushed final 9 bars.

Lili Boulanger’s brief song continued the implied despair of Bourget’s poem – actually, well beyond implication to definite despair, this duo milking it for its dramatic potential throughout the second stanza and into the start of the third where poet and composer become more frantic in their abandonment. Hicks impressed with his emphatic chords in bars 6 and 11 and the abrupt turn to gloom in the sepulchral concluding Lent stretch. I’d not come across the piece prior to this night but admired greatly its atmosphere of concise hysteria. As you might have anticipated, the Handel aria held a few oddities which simply amounted to editorial choices, I suppose, like delaying the octave leap at bar 20 and ironing out any rhythmic irregularities in the later reaches of Handel’s central Ma poi morta display of temperament. More to the point, Lankshear made a sensible gear-shift back to pathos at the return to Piangero, well-suited to the recital situation if not quite emphatic enough for a staged performance. At the end, that final dotted crotchet on avro could have been held a tad longer.

The first of the Crumb songs, Wind Elegy, presents immediately a nice keyboard flourish to illustrate its title’s first noun. The vocal line is congenial enough, although I lost track of it during the Sparrows mate in the eaves verse; however, the song’s conclusion is a gift for both interpreters – and for us listeners, too, with its unresolved quality illustrating the ambivalence between sleep and death. Later, Let it be forgotten impressed as a slow-moving, steady plaint, treated with careful consideration and heading to an engrossing languor in the last lines’ three similes and to the fine stroke of leaving the voice with the last word – literally.

Between the American works came the Rameau solo. As with certain previous pieces like the Purcell, this presented as dramatic but essentially restrained, stately in its delivery from both musicians and striking in those bars where the voice is left unaccompanied; but then, the whole aria is spartan (appropriately). My only question mark came with the extended semibreve on Non at bar 30, although you can understand why a singer would want to emphasize its singularity in the aria’s context even if you disrupt the funereal inevitability. Then, completing this gloomy grouping that covered the last seven offerings in this 11-part program, Ravel’s half kaddish (congregation only) enjoyed an informed interpretation for which Lankshear kept focus during the cantillation sequences . . . actually, the whole thing is a cantillation but the soprano treated it to a ‘pure’ outline, apart from some small interpolations like the elision at the end of venehemata that concludes the prayer’s second last line, as well as a pause before the last Amen which, to my mind, should flow straight on from ve’imru.

Despite its early conclusion, this recital served to exhibit Lankshear’s range which does show a fair level of accomplishment from hard-edged precision to a creamy-smooth full timbre. You could find sure delight in her French components but what lives in the memory well after Thursday’s transmission are her Crumb readings: clear in direction and output, the notes slotting into place without fretfulness, the composer’s understated lines floating out with convincing sincerity.

Retrospective, but on the move


Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MD 3456

The dominating sounds in this collection of music come from the clarinets of Jason Noble. This musician appears in the first and last pieces recorded; a pity that I know nothing about him or his work but at the end he might just as well be an old friend, since his voices shine out in 8 out of the 10 tracks. Still, I don’t know anything of Felicity Wilcox’s music either, possibly because she has spent much of her creative life so far connected to film and theatre and is also linked to Sydney’s musical life and performing artists. Mind you, such a classification is based pretty much on this recording and the biographical details supplied in its accompanying leaflet; as well, I’ve not encountered her name on Melbourne programs or the little I’ve seen of those in Brisbane.

Her review of her own chamber music begins with People of this Place, a construct for solo bass clarinet that uses many sound-production techniques that became current in the 1960s. Wilcox has an affinity with and respect for the Aboriginal people of this country and parts of this piece resemble corroboree music as well as suggesting the landscape of the continent’s interior – motionless, remote, unadorned – as at the opening when the blown overtones suggest the didjeridu. In fact, the ‘worked-out’ pieces of the work have less interest than these colourful segments. Still, you can see how Wilcox is attempting to manage two separate systems of music-making and certain passages are tellingly effective – but mainly because the Aboriginal element predominates, as at about the 3’30” to 4’40” segment.

The CD’s title work constitutes another kind of fusion – no, that’s not the right word but it’s as close as this limited brain can get. The ground is a bass that Wilcox supplies herself but it’s not heard in its pristine form until near the end – rather like Britten’s lute piece Nocturnal. A double commission from the Sydney ensembles Offspring and Ironwood, its instrumentation is mixed: three Baroque strings from the latter group and violin, flutes, bass clarinet, percussion and piano from the contemporary experts. Wilcox works through juxtapositions of orthodox and adventurous, the work’s body a series of duets – modern and Baroque violins (Liisa Pallandi and Matthew Greco), viola and alto flute (Nicole Forsyth and Lamorna Nightingale), bass clarinet and cello (Noble and Daniel Yeadon), with prepared and normal piano (Benjamin Kopp) occupying the same sound-space; all the while, Offspring founder Claire Edwardes generating a percussion commentary. Mind you, it’s not as compartmentalised as this sounds with enough subsidiary action going on to disrupt any suggestions of a purely binary sound-spectrum.

The final statement – for the three Ironwood strings, I think (no vibrato) – is remarkably well achieved, rising smoothly out of the angular processes that come before. You’d need a full score to work out how Wilcox achieves her ends; after several hearings, you are left admiring a rich tapestry rooted in a baroque language from the first bars but which moves rapidly to a contemporary sound-field and back again. For those of us who have doubts about some hybrid sitting uncomfortably on a fence, or leaping awkwardly backwards and forwards across it, Uncovered Ground impresses for its lucid transitions. As well, the composer is blessed with sympathetic interpreters, notably in those sinewy duets.

Following this major score, we embark on the first of four (five?) tracks from Gouttes d’un sang etranger, Wilcox’s exercises in metamorphosis on parts of Marais’ Suitte d’un gout etranger. My first problem is that Wilcox’s initial piece is called Tambourin, yet that name is missing from the Marais collection of 33 pieces; I’ve tried several CDs and scores but this particular piece keeps its mysteries. In Wilcox’s novel format, Noble and Yeadon collaborate although the cellist has little to do but provide an octave drone on D while the woodwind plays a discernible. four-square melody with flights into melismata. All smoothly accomplished, sophisticatedly brooding and hence the complete opposite to any other tambourin I’ve come across.

A more experimental piece comes next with Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude). Here, Wilcox takes the initial version of her Marais reworking (No. 10 in the original suite) – a duet for viola da gamba (Anthea Cottee) and tenor saxophone (Nathan Henshaw) – and reverses it, with extra processing thrown into the mix. Not much happens beyond a gentle rumbling on several levels. It’s suggestive of Atmospheres but there’s only one. Immediately following is a clear (i.e. non-electronic and played forward) version of Wilcox/Marais’ Le Tourbillon, this time for clarinet (Noble) and baroque cello (Yeadon) where the performers oscillate in the spotlight; sometimes producing clear-cut Marais, more often following Wilcox’s processing of the original whirlwind musical imagery. Both Tourbillon constructs are brief and, while avoiding the pit of whimsical obscurity, are hard not to take at face value as diverting bagatelles.

The longest track on this CD, Vivre sa vie, composer’s cut, is a re-appraisal of Godard‘s 1962 film which was scored by Michel Legrand. Its 12 scenes provide Wilcox with a rough framework, inside which she gives the film’s heroine, Nana Kleinfrankenheim, a voice through Nightingale’s alto flute while Nana’s men – Paul, Raoul, the philosopher, the young man – all speak in the scenario through the bass clarinet (Noble). As well, Edwardes manages a percussion part, Kopp a subtle keyboard contribution. Now Wilcox makes it clear that this accompaniment to a film is a shorter effort than that of Legrand; Godard’s film is 105 minutes long, Wilcox’s suite 15′ 32″. However, I’m sure that a familiarity with Vivre sa vie would help immeasurably in understanding the music’s movement. But what if you’re not prepared to put in the time, no matter how worthy the exercise? It’s a conundrum at least as old as Alexander Nevsky; Prokofiev’s score is a masterpiece of sound painting against which the Eisenstein film can strike you as unnecessary, e.g. the Battle on the Ice.

You’d be engaging in a frustrating exercise if you focus on Wilcox’s product as a strict parallel to Godard’s twelve scenes-with-prefaces. For one thing, this new begleitungsmusik appears to begin with the film’s third scene where the heroine attends a screening of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc; Wilcox uses her own slow hymn-suggestive sequence later in her collection. Still, it could be a game for Godard aficionados in trying to match various musical episodes to the film’s narrative; both are episodic and structurally discrete (or so I gather from descriptions of Vivre sa vie). To its credit, the music walks a fine line in mood construction, and the identification game would probably be easier for aficionados when taking into account Wilcox’s efforts to mimic the cadences of the film’s dialogue in her flute/clarinet duets/exchanges.

After this substantial interlude, we rejoin the Marais experiment with La Reveuse, No. 28 in the Suitte but here transformed electronically into La Reveuse – Coda in which Henshaw’s tenor saxophone performance of Wilcox’s mutation is played backwards, with some pedal-work from Cottee’s gamba; then the last third of the piece is given over to Noble playing solo the Marais piece’s coda (did it have one?) straight – well, as straight as Wilcox has contrived it. As with the former electronic effort (Track 4), the results are softly undulating, deliberately non-specific nd atmospherically dour, this last also to be found in Noble’s single line contribution.

SON-ombra, Wilcox’s String Quartet No. 1, is a two-movement score; its first part is to do with sound, the second moves into the shadows – as you might have predicted. Put in simple terms, the movements offer direct speaking, then inferences and shadows. OK: here we get the solid stuff from an ensemble I’ve not come across before: the Sydney Art Quartet comprising violins Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and Anna Albert, viola Andrew Jezek, cello/founder James Beck. I know the first of these musicians from the times he has put in at the Australian National Academy of Music, then with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and, more recently, the Flinders Quartet; the other three quartet members are new names to me. Across the work’s duration, you hear a good many sound-production exercises put into effect in a vocabulary that is assertive and contemporary, even if the employment of glissandi gets a touch predictable. It’s above all a music of effects, the players able to encourage their inner taste for expressive hyperbole but not at the expense of sense.

Alone among the performances on this CD, this track is a live performance, recorded at Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in late February 2018. Does the piece contribute to the historical development of the string quartet as a compositional entity? You can’t really judge by one movement alone but these SON pages offer reassurance of intent in their dogged pursuit of the recherche with an infectious and energetic drive accompanied by frequent success in maintaining attention by several unexpected strokes.

There’s a reversion to the Marais connection with Fragments I-IV which serve as side-dishes in the progress of Wilcox’s Gouttes. Slight scraps, gleaned from the French composer’s work, are shared between Noble and Yeadon but modulated and transmuted by Wilcox, the third of these electronic manipulations after Le Tourbillon (electronic interlude) and La Reveuse – Coda. My limited research facilities inform me that this piece was originally written for gamba (Cottee) and soprano saxophone (Henshaw); indeed, these two musicians are acknowledged in the CD’s booklet as participants in the ‘electronic section’ of this track. To my ears, their work is undetectably fused with the two live performers, except towards the end of the sequence where the textural manipulation becomes blatant. In their original shape, each Fragment lasts 3 minutes; this compendium of the four stretches to about 2/3rds of that length. In spite of expectations – of disparate flimsies, I suppose – the total effect is smooth and even, ephemeral rather than confrontationally gnomic.

To end, Wilcox presents Falling, the second movement of her variable trio Snow. In this performance we hear Noble and cellist Freya Schack-Arnott, both of whom assisted at the complete work’s 2016 premiere; the pianist here is Wilcox herself. What is falling is obvious, and it does so with mesmerising effect as the three instruments follow a repetitious sequence that comes close to a chaconne. The effect is placid enough, highly predictable after the first 30 seconds with only a short-lived mini-acceleration in mid-stream to brighten the path (F minor?) of this painless but bland essay.

This disc displays the work of a talented composer, one happy to operate in a generally well-trodden harmonic and melodic framework – with exceptions where a more ambitious and contemporary prospect is in plain view. What surprises me most is that the various tracks are not representative of the composer’s latest products; the Gouttes date from 2014, Uncovered Ground from 2015, People of this Place and Falling from 2016, Vivre sa vie from 2017 and the string quartet movement – the CD’s most original sequence – was written in 2018. This last shows Wilcox in a very different light to nearly everything else to be heard here and I, for one, would welcome more of the adventurous spirit promised in such material.

No marriage impediments here


Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Thursday October 7, 2021

(L to R) Anne Horton, Imants Larsens, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Trish Dean, Piers Lane

Yet again, a professional performer has had to cut his pandemic cloth to suit prevailing circumstances. Expatriate pianist Piers Lane was all set to tour the country for Musica Viva in collaboration with the Sydney-based Goldner String Quartet. Lockdown put an end to that organizational fantasy but Lane did get to exercise his craft in the rarefied double-doughnut purity of a city very familiar to him. As substitute for the Goldners came a quartet made up of Ensemble Q members: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. I’m not sure how far back Yoshimoto’s relationship with the Ensemble stretches prior to her recent assumption of the co-concertmaster position with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, but she slotted in ideally with her colleagues on this night, heading a highly persuasive reading of Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 – a work with which this group has had experience already in 2021.

In this reading, you were immediately inveigled into the composer’s unique sound world by the rapid sul tasto pattern-work from Horton and Larsens that, despite its harmonic distress on paper, gently backgrounded an excellently spun at-the-double-octave duet from Yoshimoto and Dean; the atmosphere a delicate web up to the punchy jump to forte at bar 28 where you realize just how aggressive yet disciplined Szymanowski’s counterpoint can be. While the players coped with the movement’s central matter, you were impressed by the congruent ensemble work, each attack finely slotted into position to sustain the dissonant argument. As one simply effective instance, it was hard to go past the lead back to the first subject, a duet for both violins between bars 60 and 67 that could have come from one instrument.

Yet again, Yoshimoto demonstrated her chamber music insights, leading from the front; not carrying her colleagues but heading the enterprise without hogging the limelight, as heard in the whispered final two bars’ close to a benevolent G Major cadence with plagal suggestions.

Mutes off for the second movement Vivace where aggression oscillates with languor and this group kept the prize in constant sight: making formal sense of the piece’s abrupt turns from rapidity to calando and sostenuto with a meno mosso or two along the way, Here also you could admire the soaring power of Yoshimoto’s high register between bars 194 and 205, mounted against rhythmically disjunct pizzicati from all other lines. As the slow last movement opened, Horton’s exposed line came across as clumsy, more in outline than pitching, even if order came quickly on the heels of Larsens’ arrival in the canon. All four musicians found a rich and eloquent vein from the bar 21 Doppio movimento point, the atmosphere rising to very aggressive very quickly after the pivotal Moderato compression of argument, preceded by a delicious pair of brief affretando passages in bars 45 and 47.

Yoshimoto displayed her command of idiom and linear crafting just as much in these pages as earlier in the quartet, sharing the honours with Horton in a downward spiralling duet from bar 14 on and giving room for some penetrating viola exposures, Larsens owning a fine and forward tenor voice of exceptional and distinctive character. But the group played with exemplary control and passion throughout the work’s precipitate last moments – no scraping, no line over-prominent, the timbral placement rich and ardent.

Lane then appeared for a solo, shedding light on Lili Boulanger’s Theme et variations which the young composer eventually finished writing in 1914. It’s not a piece that has hit a posthumous big time, but, as Lane pointed out, the work isn’t a significant one – except as a bump along Boulanger’s career-path trajectory. In this score, she delivered exactly what she nominated: this is one of the most lucid, even plain-speaking set of variants you’ll come across, especially in a 20th century context. The only place where the theme becomes difficult to pick out is during Variation 7, pages Boulanger describes as Theme totalement modifie: the time signature changes and the theme gains some extra feet in its second half.

This reading emphasized the work’s sombre C minor character, Lane giving loads of sustained resonance to the first Theme a la basse and preserved the atmosphere through No. 2 Sur la tete du theme and later in No. 4 La basse et le surtout. Fortunately, the account of No. 6 Theme modifie a la partie superieure proved a welcome change of texture, if not scene, with its rippling underpinning layers of demi- and semiquaver figuration. But the dour character returns all too soon, and in spades for the final Theme a la basse where the final stretch from bar 141 to 148 is an aural sinking away to nothing – no hope, no promise, eventually no movement. All right. Thanks to Lane for dusting this piece off but I suspect its prevailing post-Brahmsian thickness of texture and reliance on harmonic shifts almost exclusively for interest will work against its proliferation on recital schedules.

Both parties, Ensemble Q and Lane, came together for the great Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, their collaboration resulting in a performance of warm conviction and coherence. Lane kept very little back dynamically, trusting that the quartet could hold its own; a confidence that was almost universally justified except for those passages of grandiose piano striding in tandem with the strings. What sprang out from the performance early on was the strength of Larsens’ contribution, as at bar 27 and his elegant melodic shaping between bars 55 and 58. Having chosen not to repeat the exposition, the ensemble worked with polished sensitivity through the mainly subterranean development to the last segment which was peppered with excellent passages like the duet for Yoshimoto and Larsens from bar 230: one of the performance’s memorable flashes of excellence.

It wasn’t just a case of balancing the piano’s heavy contributions. At the recapitulation in particular, where the action is wrenchingly powerful, you heard an ensemble in ideal balance where each line could be discerned, even Dean’s mirroring of Lane’s bass. Further, the players seized with passion on those moments of unstoppable affirmation, like the burst into D flat Major at bar 286 and the subsequent arpeggio feast till the end, and hurled them out to formidable effect.

After the storm of that opening Allegro, Brahms’ following Andante is an emotional balm, loaded with melting solos and duets, as when the piano eventually lays off at bars 25/26; Horton urging out a melody line of refined sweetness, then combining with Larsens for an exemplary unison octave passage, chiefly of triplets, that emerges and recedes into soft meanderings – which might well be the prime characteristic of these pages. Dean stayed just the right side of overbearing in her lengthy lyrical duet with Yoshimoto beginning at bar 83 and persisting with some interruptions until bar 117 when the composer lets his material collapse in on itself for a hushed, benevolent conclusion.

Still, there’s no getting away from Lane’s dominance in this movement, opening with a carefully poised, bass-rich statement that returned to intensely moving effect at bar 75, those parallel 3rds murmured over with lapidary care. A turn of the page showed us a different approach in the vital Scherzo, the pianist taking off the gloves for exhilarations like the fortissimo explosion for everyone at bar 57 and (my favourite) those B flat oscillations between keyboard and strings across bars 100-109, followed by an extension of the same pattern at bar 158: splendidly compelling in its negotiation here. While the attack remained dogged in the movement’s Trio, pianist and strings ladled on the lyricism across the first two of its three pages, the Scherzo repeat an active powerhouse to be savoured right up to its rough-hewn end.

While we can all appreciate the craft of this work’s Sostenuto/Allegro finale, the working-out comes as a let-down after the satisfying emotional splaying of its precedents, the whole verging on disappointing with the rather whiney theme brought into play at the bar 94’s un pochettino piu animato. However, that’s a story for another decade and you had to appreciate the stamina of this ensemble which followed the composer’s jumps and transformations with assiduous zeal. Once again, you were able to appreciate Lane’s consideration, notably at places where the competition is fragilely placed, like the triplet-heavy stretch from bar 137 through to bar 159 where the piano has a reinforced top line and a potentially thunderous left-hand counterpoint. As in the first movement, the interpretation held a consistency of outline, the return of main themes en clair impressing as organically achieved – which is the formidable gift and problem of developing variation.

Speaking of stamina, that quality shone out keenly in the solid (150 bars!) coda to this finale, pages where the pace is furious and the players’ negotiation skills are tested over and over, especially those of the pianist who is involved in a juxtaposition of elements that bring to mind the inbuilt energy of the composer’s piano concertos. Lane missed the company of his Goldner allies, with whom he has made at least 8 recordings: he told us so. But I don’t believe any of us could find fault with the Ensemble Q players; rather, this night opened my eyes and ears to the existence of a local string quartet of impressive accomplishment.

No blush of shame to these cheeks of modesty


Brisbane Music Festival

Sunday October 3, 2021

Katie Stenzel

Before going any further, I have to say how impressive the musical elements of this farrago turned out to be. In essence, here was a duo recital with a cornucopia of accoutrements. Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri engaged with soprano Katie Stenzel in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, the latter a tour de force from both performers, not just the singer. Raineri also performed two piano solos: Scriabin’s Vers la flamme and his own arrangement of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome – actually, it seemed to me to include a bit more than the dance alone.

The odd program constituent came in a world premiere: Australian writer Alex Turley‘s Piano Flesh XXX in which Raineri shared the spotlight with actor Matthew Connell. As things turned out, not so much a spotlight as a split-screen exposure with the pianist working in Brisbane, the actor in Melbourne and – as seems to be the norm these days – never the twain did meet . . . not for this piece, anyway. As you might have expected, Turley’s segment of the program was the hardest to interpret; an arcane gesture-laden performance from both artists made even more puzzling when a scrap from Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean emerged out of nowhere and went back all too quickly into the ether.

Thrilling the pedants among us no end, Stenzel proved to be a model of clarity for most of the Britten songs; an achievement to be treasured when you listen to some of the available readings from better-known artists who think that ‘cabaret’ is a synonym for ‘slovenly’. The soprano observed the correct pitches and triplets throughout Tell me the truth about love, giving us accurate chromatic slippages and investing the song with a personality in each of its three stanzas. The following Calypso impressed for its crescendo and accelerando motions and the security of a few sustained top notes in a work that operates for much of the time in a low-ish register. During Johnny, I missed the vocal portamento at the end of the Charity Matinee Ball stanza and, as in many another execution, Stenzel’s below-the-staff notes in Auden’s final stanza tended to disappear while the final note (F?) lacked definition. On the other hand, Funeral blues succeeded on every level, here treated as an ascendant threnody with a defiant, negative finish of impressive power, not forgetting Raineri’s telling give-way-to-none under- and over-pinning.

For the Scriabin poem, Raineri’s preliminary address proposed an erotic subtext; along with the composer’s intended universal conflagration towards which we are all hurtling, you might also find a more personal interpretation in which the short work illustrates a drive towards orgasm. Good luck with that. I was happy to revel in the pianist’s splendid communication of direction and coherence in a score that can degenerate into unabashed flamboyance. Here, the eventual employment of double-note and three-against-one note trills was subsumed into the piece’s dramatic fabric; if I couldn’t rise to the occasion and find a sexual thread, I was able to appreciate the heightening of both tension and fabric as the apocalypse broke out.

Elgar Howarth, the British musician who conducted the premiere of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, made arrangements of three of that work’s arias for the Chief of the Gepopo (Secret Political Police), who is trying to warn of an impending disaster but can only produce meaningless vocalisms. One of Howarth’s reductions was for voice and piano; I haven’t been able to trace it, so have little informative to report about this rendition. Further, the two participants took on characters that I can’t find in the opera: Stenzel (in overalls) as Harley Quinn (Harlequin) and Raineri a punk-of-sorts. They performed in front of a pixilated backdrop for most of the time but the arias were punctuated by abrupt shots of the participants alone, Raineri vocalising sometimes as much as Stenzel. You’d be going to find much that made sense here as the exclamations and expostulations flew thick and fast but the interweaving of lines and simultaneity of attack were carried out with excellent skill.

Turley’s piece saw Raineri spend much of his time inside the piano, working on the strings with his hands and using at least one over-sized drum stick with a soft head. Prior to the sounds, we had a mimed approach to the piano, an opening of the keyboard, the change from inside the instrument to orthodox sound production via the keyboard, and what looked like a farewell caress that might have been fetishistic – one of the ‘amazing possibilities’ that the pianist referred to in his introduction. Connell, as far as I could tell, made no sounds at all but attitudinized semi-seductively throughout the work’s four parts.

Then came the Seven Veils finale, executed with high brilliance and an object lesson in transferring a sumptuously colourful orchestral fabric to fit a piano’s limitations. Above his skill in negotiating Strauss’s harmonic vagaries, Raineri fulfilled the essential task and made a convincing dance of it all, complete with the expected curvets and wayward darting forward and then receding with a satisfying sense of balance. Indeed, the performance impressed most when you simply shut your eyes and enjoyed the sonorities rather than looking at the extra-musical element of this concluding gambit.

What Raineri attempted in this Strauss work, he said, was to offer an exercise in subversion. In the opera, the heroine strips herself to nudity; here, Raineri did the same, taking off a seven-part black costume, devised by Joel Dunkley, at various points in his performance. Nothing wrong with that exercise in the abstract but the realization was another thing. It would have been better to have Raineri’s clothes taken off him, in similar style to many productions of the opera where the heroine gets a helping hand or six. As it was, the undressing points were awkward; the final rapid removal of a pair of black briefs suggested nothing so much as misplaced modesty in a change-room. As well, it’s probably advisable to have some reason to take off your clothes; to my vulgar way of thinking, the body has to live up to the music. While I admire Raineri’s pianism mightily, his physique is slight and undeveloped in terms of muscle and tone, as well as in matching Strauss’s whirling score Still, this was probably part of the projected sapping away at both musical and situational parameters in the work.

Something similar came through in the Turley enterprise. In the Melbourne/Connell screen, the actor appeared in facial close-up, looking in to the camera with a narcissistic self-awareness. Eventually, it was revealed that he was sitting on a bed, dressed in a bunny costume which he slowly took off to display his torso. The process struck me as little more than a pale imitation of striptease; Connell seemed to be wearing a female wig as well as the forced smile that typifies this entertainment. But, for all the ambisexual suggestions from Melbourne and the Brisbane intimations of the piano-as-sexual-substitute, you found nothing in the presentation that raised a frisson of eroticism: we had a piano, we had a bit of flesh, but the triple X promise needed the input of a sympathetic and daring dramaturge.

With the Ligeti, I believe that most of us would have been distracted or titillated by the visual dickering provided by Jai Farrell which reflected the quick-fire musical content of Ligeti’s arias and superimposed a Dadaistic visual complement. Raineri referred to ‘energy of a sexual nature’ that could be found in these pages, an observation which might have been a distinct possibility although, viewed from my vague memories of sexual energy, this experience proposed a kind of benign phantasmagoria projecting a wealth of energy from both executants but not much that would strike you as sexual – rather the opposite, in fact. Possibly the pianist was referring to the mutual sparks that the performers struck off each other but those appeared to be entirely a matter of split-second timing . . . which, to be fair, has a definite relevance to sexuality.

While Raineri worked through the Scriabin work, we were offered some visual stimuli from Eljo Agenbach who began with a black screen, a quasi-human-shaped flame appearing at bars 27/28, transforming into a hand holding the flame, before a full-screen shot of a fire spread across the horizon, like part of those immense bushfires in our Black Summer, the focus moving closer to the white centre of the conflagration as Raineri took us to the brink. Sorry: that’s exactly how I took the work – as illustrative of the physical world rather than proposing an erotic vision; mainly this was due to the final scene from Agenbach’s visual commentary which moved us straight into the composer’s definite vision of the world collapsing into fire.

Easiest on this program to take in without caveats, Farrell’s contribution to the Britten songs came mainly through different backdrops for each one: an up-market bar for Tell me the truth about love with Raineri in shirtsleeves and waistcoat while Stenzel stood at the piano’s end like a real-deal chantoozy; a colourful city-road at night for Calypso; a graveyard for Funeral blues with Stenzel sporting a face-veil. All right: this was another instance of over-egging the pudding, yet the results worked surprisingly well, giving us four contrasting scenas with limited musical materiel.

From the way Raineri introduced each work on this program, particularly the last two for which he asked his online audience to refrain from copying or storing, you might have anticipated something a good deal more visually daring than what actually occurred. You gleaned the impression that the artistic director and his collaborators were intent on breaking boundaries, crashing into a new juxtaposition or junction of revolutionary art forms. That didn’t come to pass. I don’t know about past Brisbane events but for decades I’ve been present at plenty of musical/physical exhibitions in Bourgeois Sin City where boundaries haven’t been stretched: they’ve just disappeared, as in Les Ballets Africains, the Samson et Dalila bacchanale from the Victorian State Opera, visiting dance companies for the Melbourne Arts Festival, Stuart Ringholt’s nude gallery tours.

In sum, such an exercise is not the rarity it once was. Further, I believe that the various premises behind this night’s segments fell between two stools and, in the end, failed to yield much aesthetic illumination for their audience. If anything, the demonstrations of proposed eroticism showed a naivete in the face of physical/sexual reality. That’s not to be lampooned or decried but I don’t think this innocence will lead us anywhere new. Even for this battle-scarred but tolerant concert-goer, Sunday’s recital illustrated the truth of that celebrated maxim: prima la musica e poi la sessualita.