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.