Gifted group returns

Ensemble Liaison

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday February 23, 2022

Opening its season for 2022, this venerable group (at least 18 years on the go) displayed once more its penchant for mixing its programs: the rough with the smooth, old-fashioned with up-to-this-minute, time-honoured with temporary, full lungs versus short pants. Because of an injury to cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevich‘s left (I assume) hand, the scheduled Zemlinsky Op. 3 Trio of 1896 disappeared from the published agenda, replaced by the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, the second of his late two and part of the composer’s twilight-years affair with this instrument that produced four masterworks with the clarinet as fulcrum.

As things turned out in the Athenaeum 2 space, all three players appeared in the opening and closing numbers. Timothy Young‘s piano served as benign bindweed for three of Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83; then later shared an equal load with Bogosavljevich and David Griffiths‘ clarinet for Armenian-Canadian pianist Serouj Kradjian‘s salute to the Carpathians, Dracula’s Ballad, newly arranged for the Liaison’s instrumental format. Another piece of make-weight appeared with Tema III from Giovanni Sollima‘s music for the 2005 remake of Il bell’Antonio, popularized by the cellist composer and Yo-Yo Ma.

Not that film music has to be fragile in construction, limited in melodic scope or rhythmically predictable – but it usually is. Bunuel had the right idea in using it as little as possible, if at all. But the extract from Sollima’s film score was pretty typical of the genre with a slowly developing theme on the cello while the piano backgrounded itself through an ostinato middle C. As atmospherics go, this sounded like a close cousin to John Williams’ main theme for Schindler’s List, mainly for its inner self-reduction to short motives woven into a thin-ply C minor fabric. Little disturbed the predictable flow apart from some unexpected harmonic clashes in the piano part and a few cello glissandi colouring a high-pitched climax. At about this point, you were aware of Bogosavljevich’s handicap with her vaults to high notes coming off accurately three times out of five.

The cello’s passage in octaves also sounded slightly off-colour, more so than when this musician is in her usual form; the moment was an exposed one while Young’s piano went all Sinding on us. A powerful highpoint sounded the conclusion to this more active middle section before the score moved back to a recapitulation of its moody opening, this time with a G/C ostinato. It’s a well-contrived display piece for both instruments, even if I can’t work out how it fits into the film’s scene-setting scheme which appears to balance the main character’s sexual impotence with the political situation in Fascist Italy of the 1930s. But it added another facet to Sollima’s musical personality, which I’ve only previously experienced through his 2016 guest appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

As for the Dracula-centric piece, this turned out to be a folkloric hodge-podge, opening to a martial rhythm with a perky tune from the clarinet punctuated by loads of dynamic belting from Young’s piano. An inexplicable mental deviation made me think of The Soldier’s Tale, although Kradjian showed no tendency to harmonic acerbics. A shift into tango mode and we were treated to some excellent concerted passages where each trio member folded into the ensemble mix enthusiastically before a bridge led into a presto that could have been in G minor and where a hell-for-leather set of pages showed the composer flirting with 1920s jazz, a klezmer touch or two, plus some pale-Bartok freneticism with a mass of octaves bringing down the curtain. Comparing this with a recorded reading, the Melbourne trio gave the score an unexpected bite and relentless vigour.

Did I last hear some of the Bruch pieces from this group? Probably, because not many groups have the characteristic ensemble needed to negotiate them. In the opening Andante, Bogosavljevich’s rich timbre emerged at the change to A Major at Letter E in the 1910 Simrock edition but her colleagues also made rubato-rich going across the piece’s length. the bars flowing past easily and the texture enriched by some slight string portamenti. The second piece, Allegro con moto, intrigued mainly for the changes that Bruch made to his original viola line, the score’s ongoing surges reaching a deftly placed slight pause at Letter F 13 bars from the touching, muted conclusion.

Last selection from this work, the No. 6 Nachtgesang, immediately impressed for the determination in Young’s bass notes even when the prevailing ambience asked for a restrained attack. Luckily, the nocturne is a gift for all interpreters, Griffiths and Bogosavljevich eloquent across imitative and parallel motion passages, an excellent instance of both at Latter G. Still, the cello’s pitching three bars from the end fell just short of true and Griffiths spiked his penultimate note.

This program’s most substantial component, the Brahms sonata, was an up-and-down experience, the opening subject delivered with little character, the first instance of striking work coming with Young’s tender, muffled chords beginning at bar 28. But the outbursts that pepper this Allegro were not always crisp, possibly because Young was making instant adjustments to cope with a few out-of-tune notes, particularly an unhappy A5 and sudden unhappy complexes like the simple parallel piano part at bar 66. Nevertheless, the duo showed ideal pairs of heels in the benign regression starting at bar 138, and later a splendidly graduated intermeshing when the triplets started for the Tranquillo and those magical last 12 bars.

Griffiths and Young gave an impressive account of the Sostenuto trio in the middle of the following Allegro appassionato, even if the piano’s bass came over with extra power and the return at bar 139 was dynamically over-blasted. indeed, both players appeared over-exercised in the movement’s final third, with lots of fortissimo when forte would have sufficed.

But the Andante con moto variations were hard to fault, the theme a ravishing construct, particularly for that touching plagal cadence in bar 14. Then, the delights kept coming; carefully paced and delivered syncopations in the piano at bars 22 and 23; the elegantly balanced handling of triplets in the second variation; an attractive juxtaposition of responsorial and concerted across the following grazioso; Young’s laid-back off-the-beat progress right through Variation 4; and an infectious drive that reinforced the rush home from bar 135 onward.

As I said, this somewhat-less-than-an-hour’s worth of musical action proved to be an alternation between the venerable and the contemporary; in line with the Liaison group’s practice of offering a wide range. For all that, the Brahms and Bruch scores were written only 16 years apart, Sollima’s and Kradjian’s pieces composed even closer in time. Relieving one of my long-time bugbears, we heard no oddly-voiced arrangements but only versions of works totally endorsed by their creators. To general reassurance, this temperamentally vital ensemble is off on its way for a full year’s operations; here’s hoping nothing gets in the way this time.

Noli me tango


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 14, 2022

Back in Brisbane after two years’ absence, the ACO opened its break-out live-again lease of life here with one of the organization’s more popular guests. Accordionist Crabb has enjoyed a 20-year-long association with the Sydney players, given vivid life by a 2003 Chandos CD which contains all four Piazzolla works in this concert’s concluding melange, as well as the evening’s unexpected encore: Oblivion.

While the Argentinian composer’s music framed the program, the interstices proved more intriguing for this listener. At the centre of each half came a sample of orthodoxy: first, Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso, penultimate in the Op. 6 set and a reworking of one of the composer’s own organ concertos in the same key; later, the Bachiana Brasileira No. 9 by Villa-Lobos, obviously in the string orchestra version. Frippering around these scores came one-time Piazzolla collaborator Antonio Agri‘s Desde adentro arranged by Crabb (as was the opening Libertango); Elena Kats Chernin‘s 20-year-old Torque, an automobile engine celebration, which Crabb premiered with the ACO who commissioned the score. Additions to the night’s second half were Gardel‘s Por una cabeza in an arrangement by John Williams for Itzhak Perlman, the whole transcribed by Crabb and bringing back memories of Pacino in the Scent of a Woman film from 1992; the fourth movement, Coqueteos, from Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout which raised no eyebrows or much interest, I’m afraid; and the Piazzolla concluding tetralogy in yet another Crabb transcription: Milonga del Angel, Vayamos al Diablo, Romance del Diablo, and La Muerte del Angel.

Crabb sat front and centre for the night, contributing to everything in the first half, including a tenor-bass support in the concerto grosso, but was silent for the Frank and Villa-Lobos. Pianist for the program, Stefan Cassomenos, relished his role in the tangos and the Kats-Chernin escapade, but seemed to be silent for the Gardel – or else he was being super-subtle and merging selflessly into the ensemble. Most of the ACO personnel remained familiar apart from violinist Lily Higson-Spence and violist Meagan Turner. Despite the program’s information, Maxime Bibeau was not at the double bass stool; his place was taken by David Campbell from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been to few enough concerts in recent times and the trend has been to present a program as a unit, without interval. However, the ACO took us back to pre-COVID practice – which has its good points (mainly, physical relaxation) and drawbacks (principally, the facility to find room for programmatic flab). This occasion’s particular sequence of works depended for its appeal largely on the South American components which – the Handel apart – were all-pervasive, even in Kats-Chenin’s Torque.

The ensemble’s account of Libertango took its time getting to the main melody; indeed, artistic director/ concertmaster/soloist Richard Tognetti‘s articulation of this tune seemed overdue after a lengthy span of scene-setting flourishes. Crabb’s solo contributions had that welcome character of sounding improvised, framed for the performance itself. My only problem came with the tuning of both first and second violins playing unison phrases; a touch off-point in some stretches – which surprised as this was the tail-end of the ensemble’s eleven-night national tour. Tognetti also starred in Desde adentro with a substantial solo; but then, he has an ideal fluency with this genre where it’s rare to have a player sensitive to the inbuilt style of production who also has an unshakeable technique.

Not much to say about the Handel concerto. Tognetti enjoyed dominating exposure; that’s the nature of this particular Handelian beast. The whole work was treated with an abundance of dynamic flexibility, some contrasts verging on bizarre. Still, the uniformity of attack reminded us of how much we have missed the expertise of this body, its sheer precision when the musicians are operating at their best. As well, certain moments startled both for the composer’s sense of theatre and the performance immediacy, like the bass entry in bar 8 of the first Allegro, the reassuring repeated notes in the prime melody to the appealing Andante, a splendid dovetailing of soloists and ripieno in this same movement and Tognetti’s semiquaver flights after bar 127, followed by a whip-cracking finale with just the right amount of ornamentation to distract from the movement’s bouree-like heftiness.

While she began with some tango-suggestive rhythmic movement in the first third of Torque, Kats-Chernin’s piece appealed most in its central slow section, in particular a chain of 2nds between Crabb and Cassomenos that spiced up a long melodic chain. But when the composer entered into a musical description or simulation of hurtling down the highway in the score’s last segment, it struck me that the journey could have been cut by half, if not more: the motoric only takes you so far – in music, not on the road where your wallet sets the limit.

Beginning the program’s second part, Tognetti set the mind-set for Gardel’s clever curvetting and ardent swoops. This is music that invites you to dance, thanks to its infectiousness, rather than asking you to leave the floor to professionals: my response to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango which is – thanks to its adoption by too many should-know-better musicians – in great danger of becoming viejo because of over-exposure and the mistaken belief that any combination will do . . . rather like the federal government’s mix-and-match approach to vaccines.

Frank attempts to meld classical traditional format with Andean folk music, although I feel that the former wins out over the latter in this movement from her Leyendas. The composer’s language is accessible enough and her scoring for strings shows a keen awareness of textural potential, but it was difficult to find the folkloric element. Probably my fault as, like so many Australians of my generation, west coast South American music has remained unexplored territory. For all that, the ACO presented the score with apparent mastery of its none-too-troubling mysteries. After, the Villa-Lobos prelude-and-fugue construct came across with a firm unanimity from all concerned, although I believe a compromise was worked out with the composer’s double bass line which requires three performers at the Preludio‘s beginning; one of the cellos was deputed to engage in lowest-level support duties for both segments. While the 37-bar first movement has a restrained ardour in its wide-spaced layers, the fugue shows the Bach strain more obviously in play. Most attractive is the central action where the fugue subject almost disappears in a chromatic ferment, threatens to come back in full force with the violas at bar 109 but dissipates its semiquaver energy, only for a real recapitulation 20 bars later in a score that is not too clever-clever but errs on the side of Brazilian jubilation rather than exercising Bach’s deceptive formal control.

Probably nothing new came to ACO veterans with the last Piazzolla bracket; if you know the Song of the Angel CD, the only major change for this night was that Benjamin Martin wasn’t on piano. A deft alternation between fast and slow, the pieces formed an amiable suite, albeit one where the harmonic shifts made for comfortable listening. Cassomenos achieved some penetration but the main memory I have is of Crabb dominating the mix, demonstrating his instrument’s capacity for explosive bursts of vehemence and piercing single-note melodic contours. Further, Vayamos al Diablo presents listeners with an unexpected rhythmic shape: 4/8 + 3/8 – enough to test even the most musically woke tango dancers.

But I’m operating at a disadvantage because of a lack of sympathy with Piazzolla and the tango. Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of varied exposure to the composer’s music; from a catalogue of about 3,000 pieces, I’d know a maximum of 10 (well,13 if you individualize the Estaciones Portenas) and repeated hearings of those few is the only way I can distinguish nearly all of them. As for the dance as choreography, it’s difficult to find an attraction because of its self-consciousness. Even the dedicated advocacy of Clive James wasn’t persuasive, though the spectacle of that great writer performing with characteristic understatement showed how the steps need not become ridiculously stilted.

That’s the way the cards fall; not every program is going to bring complete satisfaction and, if you are fated to encounter a musical genre that leaves you cold, it’s best to face the experience in the company of a distinguished, always distinctive body such as the ACO. Yet again, we have to be grateful that these musicians are at liberty to visit, raising both standards and spirits in a time that is still beset with uncertainty.

Best wine first?


Bendigo Chamber Music Festival

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 2, 2022

Breaking in from the south, the Australian Digital Concert Hall put an end to Queensland’s long serious music drought by presenting all the recitals programmed for this Bendigo celebration which is, for the first time (as I understand it) devoted to chamber music. Co-directors Christopher Howlett and Howard Penney began the gala concert with addresses that demonstrated how pleased they were to be back participating in live performance in front of an actual audience, while Mayor Andrea Metcalf opened the festival with something approaching proprietorial pleasure.

As Penny pointed out, no undertaking like this occurs without some problems. In this case, violinist Sulki Yu from Orchestra Victoria had incurred the joys of being a close contact and had to withdraw, replaced by Andrew Haveron moonlighting from his Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster duties. As well, Emma Sullivan stepped in to the double bass chair (or stool) – an absence that had me worried in the festival’s program notes when the instrument was completely absent although specifically required for one of the scores being attempted.

In fact, we heard three works: Vivaldi’s In furore motet from the early 1720s, Saint-Saens’ double bass-requiring Septet of 1979-80, and Dvorak’s 1889 Piano Quartet No. 2. None of these is a regular in the concert hall and I would think that many of us were hearing the motet and septet live for the first time, although the former has been thrust into the early music spotlight by Julia Lezhneva whose recorded reading is little short of spectacular, particularly as she is assisted along the way by Il Giardino Armonico who make Vivaldi’s instrumental support a vital and chameleonic creation.

Soprano Chloe Lankshear displayed a fine clarity and near-precision in the opening movement and the concluding Alleluia, employing some of Lezhneva’s interpolations in the repeat of the opening aria, with only a few omitted notes in bar 64 disrupting an excellent seam of virtuosic production notable for some expertly despatched high notes. The string body was a formidable one with violins Natsuko Yoshimoto, Sophie Rowell, Rachael Beesley and Haveron; violas Tobias Breider and Stephen King; cellos Penney and Howell; bass Sullivan, with Donald Nicholson providing a crisp harpsichord tang. Thanks to Lankshear, the opening pages radiated verve although the singer’s phrase-shaping still has some way to go.

I would have preferred the central Largo beginning Tunc meus fletus to have been handled with less room for pauses; they were of little use to the singer and the result was a romanticisation of the texture, even if the performers believed they were giving these fairly simple pages some flexibility. For all that, the ensemble functioned very well here while all forces handled that unexpected flattened 3rd at bar 31 with equanimity. Lankshear eschewed noteworthy ornamentation in the repeats of this section, reserving her powers for the final jubilant pages which needed just a bit more punch on downbeats to move this reading from pleasing to remarkable.

In his Septet, Saint-Saens employs an eclectic mix: string quintet (including double bass), trumpet and piano. And the greatest of these is the piano which relishes the composer’s flashy brand of virtuosity and dominates the mix all too often – or perhaps that was just Daniel de Borah exercising his dynamic potential which is bound to determine your opening impressions in the initial Preambule right up to the Piu allegro change, just before Saint-Saens goes all Schumann Piano Quintet with thematic and motivic sharing. In the initial flurries, de Borah only blotted his page once, as far as I could hear: half-way through bar 17. In the semi-exposed trumpet part, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s David Elton showed precise and measured delivery in a part that wouldn’t tax many players, except for a final low E flat which I couldn’t detect.

Following his antique path, Saint-Saens moved to a Menuet where a rare Elton mis-step came up during the repeat of the first 10-bar sentence. Later, the strings-minus-bass unison pages (involving Yoshimoto, , Haveron, King and Howlett) with trumpet above a rippling piano proved a purple patch in a reading that depended above all else on the musicianship of its disparate participants, coming as they did from across the lower eastern seaboard. Despite the rather brash high-stepping nature of the Menuet itself, de Borah introduced a pleasantly subtle disruption in his short solo twelve bars from the ending to this segment of the movement. Later, some interest during the Intermede came in solos from King and Howlett which promised much but petered out all too soon, the aggression that bursts out at Letter C (in the Durand. Schoenewerk & Cie 1991 reprint) a welcome relief from a glut of sweetly intersecting lines. Still, the finest achievement of this section – possibly the whole reading – came in a sensitively couched 11-bar coda with some eloquent gradations of softness in all layers.

Being open-minded and chauvinistic in equal measure, I found the shade of Percy Grainger lingering over the opening to the Septet’s Gavotte et Final; don’t know how this came to mind except in the generous. bumptious leaps at the beginning. Again, this movement is a fairly easy ride for everyone except the pianist whose break into triplets towards the first double-bar is a delicacy as toothsome as anything else in Saint-Saens’ chamber music. The keyboard work apart, the remainder of these pages is pretty plain sailing with lashings of mutual support in the Piu allegro/ Stringendo/Animato acceleration until the restrained welter of the final bars. At which point, the only clear defect in the performance came as Elton essayed the third-last bar’s top E flat where a more cautious performer would have taken the composer’s ossia and left that ascending arpeggio well alone. The note cracked, of course, and left this listener a tad dispirited.

Nevertheless, the performance succeeded because the timbral mixtures came over with vigour and freshness in an acoustic that seemed boxy. I’ve not been inside this theatre – ever – but I suspect there’s a lot of absorbent material apart from the stage curtains in the building. Lankshear coped admirably with a lack of resonance/echo in her Vivaldi and the two exposed soloists in this second work showed an essential agility.

Eschewing an interval, the program then launched into the Dvorak with Amir Farid making a banquet for himself of the rich piano part; his colleagues were Rowell, Breider and Penney. From its opening Allegro con fuoco declamation, this ensemble left little doubt that it was determined to be involved in the proposed struggle, their dynamic levels hefty and the strings’ bowing often stretched to a strained mark. In writing of this thickness, you could forgive a few errors from Farid, since the composer gives his pianist an often virtuosic role where keyboard hammering sits across and alongside strident string lines.

The Lento opens with a three-segment cello solo, an opportunity here for Penny to go all wooly on us with a searching throb to his vibrato in alternation with Farid’s echo. And each participant had the opportunity to emote, thanks to changes of emphasis and texture, as well as sudden turns to rhetoric before reversions to eloquent poetry, as at the change to D flat Major at Letter D in the post-1945 Simrock edition which received a carefully detailed interpretation that once again made you realize what close conditions the players were enduring, especially when Penny returned to draw us back on track at Letter E. This melting moment was well-matched by Farid’s assumption of primacy at Letter F as he canoodled through the prime melody with a hushed support of string chords. Indeed, the whole movement came over with alternating sentiment and passion – but that’s what the score proposes.

Given the first movement’s aggressive emphasis, the group’s approach to Dvorak’s third movement impressed as muted or muffled, the landler-style dance an example of the composer’s prolixity, so that the Trio change to B Major came upon us as very welcome. Penney’s three exposed quaver bars at Tempo I came across as rough in context; the violin/viola duet work 15 bars before Letter C didn’t live up to the standards of congeniality and accord that obtained through the other three movements; the final cadence would have gained from a more decisive communal attack.

Farid again took the dynamic high road in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, even in the support role required prior to Letter E. I think this assumption of authority might have had something to do with a faltering across the chromatic shifts in bar 5 before Letter C. The only major flaw in this movement came from the restrained nature of Rowell’s violin which impressed as elegant and reliable but too refined to offer much competition to her string colleagues, let alone the emphatic keyboard.

In the end, this quartet struck me as the most put-together, confected segment of the gala program; four excellent musicians, without doubt, but not given the time needed to put together a consistently integrated interpretation. And in this Dvorak, more than in the motet or septet, such a uniformity of approach is fundamental.