New clothes for Christmas


The Song Company

Melbourne/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Tuesday December 21, 2021

St. Philip’s Church, Sydney

Pretty much everything that has happened to The Song Company over recent years has escaped my notice. The group made several visits to Melbourne during my last years there, performing at the Recital Centre with impressive results; I believe Roland Peelman conducted at a few of these programs, although he resigned from his directorship in 2015, about four years prior to the organization being put into receivership and the unholy mess that followed. All the singers that I saw then have left the ensemble; the octet for Tuesday night’s live-stream program from Sydney’s St Philip’s Church in York Street featured completely new faces/voices, and any efforts to identify them all have met with little success.

This online experience was actually the middle one of five performances presented over three afternoons/nights from St. Philip’s and its companion Garrison Church over the hill in Miller’s Point. A thematically well-ordered program divided into four sections found the Company covering a wide range of repertoire, setting the celebratory ball rolling with O come, o come, Emmanuel pronounced by a male solo in Latin before the rest of the singers joined in to work through all eight verses – which rather threw me because I’d only ever come across seven – variety here catered for through groovy harmonic changes and soprano descants that increased in range and intensity. All of this was handled without the support of organist Kurt Ison; when he and his instrument entered for the last verse, the choral body had slipped slightly in pitch. It’s always a risk, that device, and probably best left on one side or not attempted so blatantly, no matter how secure the singers.

Conductor/associate artistic director Francis Greep was working from two compilations new to me: the Naxos Book of Carols and the Patmos Book of Carols. In fact, 10 of the 18 works heard on this program came from the Naxos collection, 2 from the Patmos, one appeared to be a fusion of both Patmos and Naxos – a sort of Dodecanese-Cycladic melange – and five were original compositions or arrangements by contemporary writers: one-time professional cartoonist Brian Kogler (two carols), indigenous musician Elizabeth Sheppard, Sydney lawyer Rachel Scanlon, and British singer Richard Eteson. This all made for an invigorating experience, as the Oxford Book of Carols and Jacques/Willcocks/Rutter Carols for Choirs compendia were swept aside in a welter of novelty.

Coming from the once-free north, I didn’t know that masks had been instituted (re-instituted?) in Sydney and this twilight audience was hard pressed to participate in the congregational numbers: Hark! the herald angels sing, Silent night, Away in a manger, and O come, all ye faithful – so much so, that the Company proved very powerful in dynamic, unlike the usual experience where people in pews discover lungs and diaphragms that have rested unused all year. Of course, this prominence might also have had something to do with the M/ADCH recording system. Whatever the cause, we heard all Company personnel clearly in whatever was being sung.

A regular at many Christmas services, The Angel Gabriel from the Basque territory here enjoyed new garb with a hummed first statement before the first verse began. Here came some harmonic shifts from the version that we all know, if not love. In less try-hard territory, the singers’ articulation and clarity of notes made a striking impression, particularly for a group that is new to their work. A group of three pieces combined came next – A Song of Joy, Christmas Day, and The Song of Angels – all ascribed to Orlando Gibbons. Well, I knew the last by name but its precedents left me out in the dark, even if the singers’ delivery again impressed for its clarity and balance.

Mendelssohn came upon us with the refreshment of different linear content, a very prominent organ, and a striking descant that would have proved improbably difficult for your common or garden-variety church choir. Moving into the second quarter, as we say in the AFL, The Holly and the Ivy had acquired a new tune from the BBC archives and this novelty was entwined with the regular Cecil Sharp-collected melody which was entrusted to a solo bass, a tenor-and-alto duo, then a soprano-and-bass combination (I think: this vagueness comes from hasty notes scribbled down while trying to find the new tune’s origin) with an impressive fusion in the final verse/chorus.

In another Continental excursion, the Company sang Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, according to Michael Praetorius. As far as I could hear, the first two verses were trios with all in for verse 3 – an arrangement I’ve not come across before – but the intra-linear spatial balance proved to be one of the program’s delights. Back home, we were just settling in to Kogler’s The King of Blis – which presumably used the same text as John Rutter had in 2010 – when it stopped! To be followed by the Silent night feast for the Company, with a solo male voice adding in some passing excrescences to the middle verse while his companions provided a hummed backdrop, the whole capped by a sad glissando on the first ‘born’.

Sheppard’s Mary, gentle Mother brought about a change in position for the singers but what actually came across was predictable and Anglican-sweet with an orthodox harmonization, although the composer displayed a deft realization of texture in her moves from homophony to part-writing. Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep was the Rocking Carol of Czech origin, notable for a brisk harmonic surprise in bar 2. Again, the ensemble’s carefully applied equanimity impressed, even when the linear texture increased in complexity. Britten made the Balulalow text inseparable from his A Ceremony of Carols setting, although a few composers have made their own versions, including Brisbane’s own Colin Brumby. Rachel Scanlan’s version suffered from an unclear women’s contribution at the beginning, but the work improves when it starts at Oh my dear heart and captures attention for its insightful response to the Wedderburn brothers’ words and for an unexpectedly brisk conclusion.

Part the Third’s finishing mark, Away in a manger, found the tenors riding the blast across Verse 1 in a Naxos arrangement that seemed to put off the congregation. In the choir-only Verse 2, something odd happened at the end of line 2, a move that I couldn’t put my finger on although it left the sense of an unflattering flattening. Whoever improved on William J. Kirkpatrick’s original was still aiming to keep the tenors on the qui vive in the final stanza.

Into the final phase and we encountered It came upon the midnight clear by Jonathan Pitts, a relative of Song Company artistic director Antony Pitts. An organ fanfare led into a monolinear opening strain, followed by a harmonized stanza, before reverting to the opening’s atmosphere of hushed excitement at going nowhere. And still they came: an alto solo leading to stately chorale sounds and a return to a sort of neo-syncopation at For lo! the days are hastening on, and an under-emphatic organ at the conclusion. Kogler emerged again with an aphoristic contribution in Gaudete. I heard the pendant Christus est natus/Ex Maria virgine,/gaudete! lines, even if the composer was livening things up by having his singers clap to punctuate their single line. It’s a lively piece, welcome in this context but – as with Kogler’s previous The King of Blis – it didn’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impression.

Eteson has used the tune Gallants Come Away as the basis for his version of A Jolly Wassel-Bowl, which has twelve stanzas because it was to be performed on Twelfth Night. The combinations offer variety – males, females, male duet, female duet, monolinear, rich harmonization, mixed duet, change of metre, full choir with descant. But it wears out its welcome – how could it be otherwise? – like Tchaikovsky’s employment of folk-song; a little dressing-up doesn’t take you very far. Nearing the end, the Company’s reading of In dulci jubilo boasted a line of sources: Praetorius, Bach and Stainer – the lot arranged by Antony Pitts. This might have worked to better effect with more variety of dynamic but little stuck out from the clever arrangements beyond an unexpected simplicity at Nova cantica and In regis curia. Good King Wenceslas from the Naxos collection again offered some sophisticated harmonic alterations but I found the organ contributions to be the main point of interest in this well-worn classic.

Full time. Here the lack of congregational input sounded most apparent. A vox populi presence was allowed in Verse 2 – the words were printed in the program – but, by this stage, it seemed as if the St. Philip’s turba was following the practice in many other churches where the experts are left alone at this point. Verse 3 employed a descant in canon, which seemed a trifle attention-grabbing; something similar happened with the grating chords at Word of the Father.

Nevertheless, this evergreen concluded a ceremony-of-sorts that removed decades of verdigris. Not all of it was congenial, especially to listeners heavy with preconceptions and expectations of a familiar experience; with respect and congratulations to the Patmos/Naxos innovations, I’m unsure what future these new interpretations will have outside professionally distinguished choirs like this ensemble. Still, I found cause for gratification in the continued existence of the Song Company and appreciate the efforts by Greep and Pitts to persevere in shaping a future for the ensemble: still one of the more impressive and meritorious blooms in Sydney’s serious music chaplet.

Gimme that old-time Espana


Nancy Tsou

Move Records MCD 619

With her latest CD, Tsou is using the word ‘Latin’ in a trans-continental sense. At the start, she plays three familiar works by the Argentinian tango explorer, Astor Piazzolla; she concludes with another set of three pieces by the much more talented Argentinian writer, Alberto Ginastera. In the centre, we are treated to much well-circulated material in two works each by Granados, Falla and Albeniz – foundation-stones of 20th century Spanish music. The whole collection of a dozen tracks adds up to a little under 46 minutes but it has some interesting points – for me, these arise in the Ginastera Op. 2, the youngest music on the CD as it came from the composer’s 21st year.

Even at this early stage, you can relish the driving rhythmic energy, clear-voiced melodies and added-note harmonic clusters to be found in Ginastera’s masterworks like the contemporaneous Panambi ballet – a thunderbolt from my mid-adolescence when extracts appeared on Goossens’ 1958 recording alongside a truncated version of Antill’s Corroboree – and the more sophisticated 1953 Variaciones concertantes. These Danzas Argentinas begin with a Dance of the old herdsman – a particularly spry senior, it seems, with a taste for the bitonal as the right hand plays white notes exclusively while the left hand stays on the black with very few deviations. Tsou handles this with a clever mixture of restraint and jauntiness, my only problem her slight deceleration in tempo about 12 bars in after a very brisk opening. But the cross-rhythms are treated with excellent command.

The second dance, that of the Delightful Young Lady (more ‘elegant’, I would have thought), is a languid piece in 6/8 during which the melody gains an additional line that moves in 4ths and 5ths, acquires full chord status before sinking back to its quieter beginnings. The piece is more than a little suggestive of Piazzolla, albeit some decades earlier, and Tsou performs it with excellent malleability of its basic elements. Finally, Danza del gaucho matrero proves to be the most emphatically characteristic Ginastera work of the three with a welter of cross-rhythms to begin which Tsou complicates even more by adding in her own sforzandi; followed by a move into less bitonal territory and a clear tune weltered out on top of the constant whirl of a bass line. This interpretation is long on excitement if not on clarity, but then the composer was clearly intent on whipping up energy and bota-stamping enthusiasm, even if you had to keep an eye out for melodic syncopations that left-foot you and your expectations of predictability.

Those of us dedicated to the Australian Chamber Orchestra through successes and missteps became pretty familiar with Piazzolla at his best when Scots accordionist James Crabb collaborated with Richard Tognetti and his amiable band in a concert tour many years ago, the outcome one CD in 2003, Song of the Angel, and another two years later – Tango Jam, Vol. 1. Crabb is back this February for the first of the ACO national series concerts in a program that includes Libertango (still to be heard on the Tango Jam CD). Tsou’s two other Piazzollas – Oblivion and Milonga del Angel – also appeared on the ACO/Crabb 2003 recording.

This CD begins with Oblivion and Tsou handles it without any complications, but also without much interest. The composer’s melancholy melody is strait-jacketed into a shape where its sudden semiquaver bursts disappear and unexciting quavers balance each other in every second bar; the piece needs some bite but in this approach it suffers from an excess of rubato and a cloying lushness in the harmonic arrangement. Not much different comes in the Milonga where the harmonies are smoothed into cocktail bar inoffensiveness. Tsou’s ornamentation is welcome if not as spiky as I would have preferred and only a few liberties are taken with the metre. Libertango comes across as – eventually – clumsy. Tsou’s opening sounded fair enough as she worked through an extended introduction before hitting the chief melody, but at a few spots the rhythm paused while a glissando was negotiated with too much care, or a register move wasn’t snatched but proved ponderous. It’s a dance,. after all, and you have to provide certainty to the punters involved in this exhibition of self-indulgent strutting.

Granados appeared first in the Spanish contingent with his Spanish Dance Andaluza, fifth in the 12 Spanish Dances collection of 1890; not from the two Op. 37 dances as listed here, I believe. This is a familiar piece, Tsou tending to elongate the first downbeat notes in some bars – like the first. The interpretation is highly coloured, even if one of my favourite details goes missing: the little semiquaver figure that ends bars 16 and 17, in which the lower right-hand notes do not sound most of the time. Then, what to make of Tsou’s reading of the Intermezzo from Goyescas? Any suggestion of guitar pizzicato is absent, ritenuti are inserted at will. syncopations are mushy, the counter-melody that takes over at bar 40 is over-emphasized, the few fortissimo explosions are not emphatic enough, and the overall approach lacks firmness.

The Falla brace begins with an extract from The Three-Cornered Hat ballet, the Miller’s Dance which must feature among the composer’s most well-known works. Tsou makes a firm case for this boldly-contoured set of pages with no complaints coming to disrupt attention until the final accelerando which could have been less slow to take off. There’s no indication as to where this CD was recorded, nor by whom, but this particular track lacks acoustic resonance and would have gained from a favouring of sympathetic upper strings for a piano piece that stays firmly in the middle to low instrumental ranges. As for the second track, this is labelled La vida breve; it turns out to be only the Spanish Dance No. 1 from that opera’s score and the performance is a mixed bag with some nimble finger-work early on alongside some labouring when sections draw to a close. Most surprising of all is the conclusion that Tsou provides which is a light tinkle to round off the Animando poco a poco stretch; of the final Piu vivo 17/18 bars which usually bring this extract to a rousing conclusion, there is no sign.

Prelude/Asturias/Leyenda by Albeniz is one of the most popular pieces of Spanish music – up there with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez middle movement and De los alamos vengo, madre – but you can see pretty quickly why it’s such a gift for guitarists. Tsou has the usual trouble in negotiating those full-blooded right-hand chords between bars 25 and 45, later bars 147 to 167: it’s very hard to make the jumps and keep in time. But her handling of the middle cantando (bars 63 to 122) is excellent, part from a tendency to cut short the rests after each fermata. Most of the staccato running line is clear and clean. Finally, No. 3 in Albeniz’s Chant’s d’Espagne finishes of the echt-Spanish tracks. Sous le palmier receives a fine interpretation, packed with atmosphere and highly responsive to the composer’s tango rhythmic underpinning but rhythmically fluid, Tsou secure enough to follow her instincts in shaping the melody line and inserting some subtle hesitations throughout this most successful of her essays in ye (comparatively) olde-time Spanish music.

We won’t all be home for Christmas


Melbourne Octet

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday December 9, 2021

It’s hard to remember much about last year’s Christmas in musical terms. Did anything happen? Certainly nothing much in Brisbane, where such activity was more likely to come about than anywhere else in the country. At all events, this year we came upon an unexpected pleasure, one I found at the last minute and featuring a spartan ensemble – our own version of VOCES8 – that worked through a near-hour’s worth of choral music. We began with Perotin’s famous organum exercise, Viderunt omnes (well, some of it) and ended in Martin and Blane’s sentimental Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas of 1943. For obvious reasons, the whole enterprise took on characteristics from all over the place. You had music that only choirs like the Ensemble Gombert would mount; soon after came pieces that could have graced an Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! program; alongside these, you fell into Australian Boys Choir mode; creeping under the cultural portcullis came shades of the anything-goes approach typical of every Myer Bowl Carols by Candelight.

As well as negotiating hairpin bends of repertoire, I also relished coming across singers whose work I’d enjoyed many times in bygone years, like bass Jerzy Kozlowski who enriched my experiences through his appearances with the Gomberts and Nick Tsiavos’ Jouissance ensemble, not to mention turning up in unexpected places like playing the Sacristan in an Opera Australia Tosca. Also making a welcome re-appearance was tenor Timothy Reynolds whose clean timbre is still clearly piercing through multi-line complexes. In fact, I have experienced most of the Octet’s male voices – bass Oliver Mann in Bach, Christopher Roache’s tenor/countertenor in Ballarat, Southgate, and the Mornington Peninsula. The one male voice I didn’t know was that of tenor Christopher Watson.

Of the women, I have seen soprano Katherine Norman in a variety of ensembles but not her colleague Elspeth Bawden. Alto Helena Ekins’ profile indicates that I must have heard her on several occasions; alas, the memory is not what it was. However, as a unit, the singers managed quite well, if the balance proved uneven in some of the earlier pieces attempted, and a few wavering pitches showed that the operating zone wasn’t completely comfortable for everyone – neither in ensemble nor in physical situation.

To put it bluntly, much of this program would have come off more successfully in a church with a bit of resonance. The Athenaeum 2 space is an odd area where I’ve seen little beyond the premiere of Gordon Kerry’s opera Medea 30 years ago, and another event I recall only for its inclusion of Schoenberg’s arrangement of Funiculi, Funicula. For my taste, the Octet sounded too close – or too closed in – which meant that any errors were immediately obvious, especially production imbalances and the occasional early entry. Watson didn’t push himself forward as the body’s fulcrum but remained a model of discretion, especially once his various ships had been launched. Moving into first gear, that initial Perotin work impressed for its still-breathtaking vitality, thanks to the bright top three lines. Still, it finished at bar 37 in my edition, the title words having been treated but not the rest of the Gradual. Moving along a few temporal spaces, the male voices initiated a fair attempt at the medieval English carol Sing we to this merry company, working through three of the five verses I’ve come across and showing a keen responsiveness to its harmonic crises.

I believe that the Praetorius version of In dulci jubilo involves 8 parts. As the piece moved on, Elspeth Bawden was – to put it nicely – challenged by the complexity of her support; a shame as this carol stands above nearly all others in any language for its splendid shape of line and eloquent verbal matter. Only a slightly enthusiastic entry from Kozlowski in the last line ruffled the group’s unanimity. Another Praetorius motet, Joseph, lieber, moved smoothly along its way with only a falter in the pulse at a couple of measures near bar 29 to distract us, compensated by a finely shaped last five bars.

Dering’s Quem vidistis got off to an uncertain opening but impressed for the briskness of pace adopted for its duration. A pair of arrangements by John O’Donnell followed in quick succession: Noel nouvelet involving a lot of melodic repetition but featuring an unattractive mini-canon for male voices set against an excellent conclusion to very four-square material; and Il est ne, le divin Enfant, enriched by a plethora of Noe interjections, musette imitations, modulations to quicken the pulse, and a fine fade-out with only a querulous soprano note disturbing the final chord.

The Octet continued a trek through the realm of Australian Arrangement Land, and for a while it looked as though we were in for the long haul. Lachlan McDonald paid his respects to Gabriel’s Message with plenty of 2nds to add briskness to this usually mild carol. It was during this piece that Christopher Roache’s versatility became apparent – a facet or two that should have struck me much earlier in the night. The male voices provided appropriate humming while both sopranos jaunted through the Virgin’s response, ‘To me be as it pleaseth’. McDonald also took the opportunity to bathe us in Gloria treatments, later allowing Mann and Kozlowski to take on the original melody while a ferment erupted above them which didn’t aid the textual clarity or the light narrative. As with O’Donnell’s treatments, the harmonic sliding here proved rich and sometimes unexpected.

Regarding the almost unavoidable Away in a manger, Michael Leighton Jones’s version employs a soprano solo in the outer verses with a supporting syncopated susurrus of ‘lullaby’. All forces participated in a harmonized middle stanza before the final quatrain saw a refreshing rhythmic flexibility applied in the top line. Another inevitability, Silent night, gained some tension from David Brinsmead’s version which proved satisfyingly rich for the first two stanzas, including a forceful soprano descant at the opening to Verse 2, a glee club-style modulation to enter the final sextet, and a consoling recapitulation of ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ at the carol’s final bars.

Michael Leunig has written several poems to do with Christmas, but nothing as moving as his I see a twinkle in your eye. Calvin Bowman’s setting alternates between monolinear and chorale, although it moves into greater complexity for a time before its emotionally warm conclusion on ‘The manger where the real things are’, which was definitely one of those points in this program which cried out for an ecclesiastical echo. As did Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin which suffered from a lack of resonance and the equality of numbers in both choirs, as well as the first choir’s soprano trying to carry off the climactic Of all thou bear’st the prize against her enthusiastic colleagues. By contrast, Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino sounded earth-bound and beery, handled with fitting emphasis and dynamic girth.

Back to more arrangements with the Austrian escapee, Still, still, still, featuring a spotlight on Reynolds riding a genial support. British choral expert Alexander L’Estrange left nowhere for his sopranos to hide when the text turned English, but interest returned with the melody’s displacement between tenor, bass, and female voices, not to mention a little burst of ‘Schlaf in Himmlischer Ruh!’ to round off the carol. L’Estrange’s handling of In the bleak midwinter gave prominence to Christopher Watson who had the first and last words, Mann making a worthy if less substantial contribution in between. A canon between sopranos and the male voices made a mish-mash of Verse 3’s opening while Roache was granted the briefest of solos. But then, L’Estrange’s final verse moved the focus across the whole ensemble in a rather slick/smooth version that tended to make thick plum sauce of Christina Rossetti’s poised lines.

At last, we came to Jingle Bells in an arrangement by British musician Ben Parry that revived the groovy Swingle Singers’ sound, providing air space to Kozlowski’s deep and perky timbre, Roache’s tenor giving him a run for his money. As you’d expect, the whole crowd got right in there with a-ring-a-ding-ding as the sleigh-bells got a working over. Parry moved us into 6/8 for a bar or two in the sort of exercise that would go down a treat at Marquette University. Ditto Have Yourself etc. in a version by another British musician-of-all-trades, Peter Gritton. Here were more ‘close’ harmonies and laid-back sentimentality with a memorable glissando. Watson introduced an encore – yet another L’Estrange product, this time I’ll be home for Christmas. A world premiere, no less, it held plenty of exposed work for Watson’s own light timbre. Just the thing to finish off a final trio of originally-USA products and standards from the formidable republic and testifying to that nation’s terrifyingly banal debasement of a great Christian festival.

Still, at the end of this recital, we had the shades of Perotin and Praetorius still hovering to show us what Christmas can be, or better, what it can mean to musicians of stature, what it meant – and could mean – to be committed to the mystery of God made Man and finding something to be celebrated in that, rather than demeaning your intelligence to the level of a Dudley Dursley count-the-presents regime or seeking a Nativity vision at the bottom of a glass through which a red-nosed reindeer brings the promise of seasonal surfeit and stupidity. This recital made for a double-edged gift from the Octet, then – but thanks anyway; in this time of distress and disappointment, we’ll take whatever small-scale treasures we can find.

Unabashed, continuous sweetness


Michelle Nelson

Move Records MCD 621

Well-known guitarist Nelson presents 22 tracks on her latest CD. The first three are, in terms of length, the most substantial, hovering around the 4-minute mark. The rest tend to be slight, particularly her Eight Bagatelles for recorder (Will Hardy) and guitar which average out to about 1′ 30″. Yet there can be quality in brevity, as Webern is our perennial witness. But then, Nelson is not weaving skeletal miracles of organization but vignettes that soothe your frazzled receptors into calm territory with a quiet amiability. And that intention is not to be disdained in times that hold unpleasant surprises and uncertainties around every press conference.

The composer’s bagatelles are surrounded by an Isolation Suite for solo guitar, four movements each side. As its title suggests to most Melbournians, the work gives various musical reflections on aspects of the First Great Lockdown of 2020; well, it wasn’t that impressive as it lasted a matter of weeks rather than the months that this year’s venture reached. But there’s more. Those first tracks comprise Two pieces for Harp and Guitar, with Megan Reeve supporting Nelson; as well, Nelson plays an isolated solo, La despedida, which is the CD’s longest work at 4’10”. Finally, Nelson branches out to offer Short & SweetThree Pieces for Concert Ukulele.

We start with the harp/guitar duets, beginning with Falling Ashes which is an excellent example of combining timbres to the point where their interweaving comes close to indecipherable. Starting with a falling arpeggio shape, the piece sort of inverts this motif, torquing it into mild transformations but eschewing the temptation to revert back to it verbatim. A gentle exercise all round, its 4/4 metre enjoying some slight compression in its latter pages. Falling Ashes‘ companion is Floating Free, which begins with some scene-setting of water sounds; here, the previous piece’s falling pattern is inverted – at least, until the harp enters, the guitar restricted for a long time to Alberti-type supporting groups while the partner instrument sets all the running with the upper line and some syncopation to add interest to its single-note pointillism. The water noises permeate the piece at various stages: you might be floating but this body of water is not to be trusted, it seems to me.

The lengthy Farewell guitar solo follows. Here is your classic rondo form – ABACA+coda – and a deftly couched main theme/melody to carry it all along. As you’d anticipate from its Spanish title, the work reflects a world of guitar salon music, but this piece has a deft, no-nonsense attitude to its leave-taking: the major key (D? I’m losing any capacity to determine tonality from open strings) dominates and both interludes don’t venture too far away, so that the chief tune’s return becomes more of a welcome than a goodbye. For all that, Nelson has a gentle if predictable lyricism to her compositional language that soothes, never confronts.

She then switches to the ukulele for three pieces: Poco allegro: espressivo e rubato, Vivace: quasi waltz style, and Moderato : delicato e rubato. Thanks to these descriptive titles, there’s mot much further to say. The first is a gentle piece operating on two levels – a regular, plucked (what did you expect, idiot?) bass and a top tremolo line that doesn’t have much vertical motion to it. In the waltz – a not-too-distant cousin to similar exercises by Sculthorpe and Michael Easton – the triple rhythm is regularly displaced by a 5-count bar but the work operates on a sort of three-layered system, the top lines outlining the melody in euphonious thirds. The final constituent of this brief collection is a numbingly repetitious offering in which each bar appears to begin with a triplet before the bar’s other three quavers emerge in regular tempo; and when I say ‘regular’, I mean ‘unchanging’. Well, that’s not exactly true as a modicum of modulation takes place, but the rhythmic pattern impresses as inexorable. The composer refers to using the guitar’s ‘ligado’ technique which, as far as I can hear, refers to the opening triplet being played in one stroke/attack. Or maybe I’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever the case, this is the longest of the three ukulele pieces and the least interesting in its material.

Nelson returns to the guitar for her salute to COVID – the first half of it, anyway. Each section has a suggestive title, the first rather oddly named Isolationist, which suggests a political attitude to me, rather than the state of being alone, which is Nelson’s intention. It’s a mainly one-line meander with a catchy opening motif; it could suggest the state of emotional/intellectual solitude to a suggestible listener. Quietude follows, proposing the silence of Melbourne’s physical world during a severe shutdown. Here again, the movement is single-note, operating on two levels with an upper melody followed by a lower arpeggio support that takes on a night-following-day regularity. With Steel Grey, the accent changes to ennui and depression as the days of solitariness creep ever onward. This piece starts boldly enough but soon settles into a tweaking of cells that suggest the unvarying nature of each unwelcome day and even a concluding tierce does little to raise the emotional stakes. A change of scene coms in a flowing Sunset Reflection which celebrates an uplifting, unexpected sight in a page (or half a page) of mild optimism; this is also the shortest element in the suite so far.

After the Eight Bagatelles, the suite resumes through Rising Tension which has two elements: a quick minor 2nd interval, time-honoured for suggesting unrest or a Disturbance in the Force; and a set of chords where the treble seems to stay the same but the lower harmonies change slightly, signifying the physical realization of social discord – a marvel of prescience, considering the demonstrations that have hit our capital cities on recent weekends when the disaffected have had to find some way to flesh out their new – and clearly undeserved – freedoms. Following this unconscious imagery connected to the recent Storming of the Winter Palace, we have Anamnesis working as a kind of curative element where a calm and predictable melody is played with consoling charm, calculated to revive the drooping spirit. Miller’s mental odyssey then turns to the concept of weathering the months of durance vile imposed by Daniel Andrews; Endure revolves around appoggiatura which eventually seems to appear in every beat of a slow march that rises and fades away like Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. If anything, this piece emphasizes the numbing repetition of time in universally enforced quarantine. Finally, we reach the CD’s title track which observes the hiatus between the southern capital’s two lockdowns and the advent of spring, the piece’s forward movement packed with promise in a major mode, leading from lower reaches to higher ones, the suite concluding with an alternation between major and minor. It’s as though happy days may be here again but they can be deleted from your expectations bank all too easily.

Sitting in the middle of these Melbourne mediations, the Bagatelles are excellent examples of easy-going duets; for instance, the first one, Allegro, has the recorder play the tune twice, then a deviation, and a return; pleasant and piquant without any affectations. More of the same comes with Poco allegro where the sequences are unsurprising, apart from some interpolations from Hardy, and an unexpected coda that cuts across the piece’s quietly busy ambience. Giocoso is a light jig with the recorder still maintaining top-dog status, the part animated by some delayed entries and a smidgeon of syncopation. This up-beat, naive mode continues with Poco allegro e cantabile, Nelson sustaining a steady single-note pulse throughout while the recorder follows the optimistic path set by a signature upward 4th leap.

The composer contributes a single-note 6/8 bass support in Piacevole which lives up to its name – not so much for the regular guitar underpinning but more the follow-your-nose aspect of Hardy’s contribution which every so often sounds improvised; it isn’t, but the later melodic twists are carried out with telling individuality. In fact, this musician’s essays at glissando spice up a pretty unconvincing Poco adagio in which the modulations – such as they are – don’t convince because of a sort of tentativeness that was not quite as obvious in the preceding movement . Yet again, the guitar’s role is a subservient one. A straight ternary shape provides the framework for Animato, another jolly jig which acquires some folksy quality with the occasional first-beat crushed 2nd from the guitar and an opening melodic gambit that suggests Pancakes, Lisela. Finally, another gentle if unadventurous melody arrives in Allegro e sempre legato which reinforces the characteristics of this collection: a clear-singing melody line that doesn’t move far outside its original scale range, a simple accompaniment that draws little attention to itself, an even dynamic level without any surprises, and a four-square structure as reassuring as that of Grieg.