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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.