Mellifluous stirring of memories

NORTHERN SERENADES

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Saturday, March 26 2022

Johannes Brahms

I’ve not been living in Queensland long enough to be sure of certain musical matters. One that preoccupies me currently is whether or not the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra has been a regular visitor to Brisbane. You can’t tell anything much from the last two years’ activity but I suspect that this body’s forays north of the Tweed might have been few and far between since it sprang into being in 2013. Or it might have performed in out-of-town venues and not had time to build up a public here; Saturday night found the Conservatorium Theatre about a third full.

Not that this is an indication of anything much. For years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played to small audiences in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall; the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra worked for some surprisingly small attendance numbers in its early days at the Melbourne Recital Centre; the sterling Selby & Friends series laboured to attract supporters to its recitals at Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew. And the list could be extended to take in other brilliant performers, both locals and visitors, who didn’t get the following they deserved for reasons both specific and vague.

I’ve heard the ARCO players at least twice in the past two years, both occasions through the good graces of the Melbourne (Australian) Digital Concert Hall. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, as this particular program proved time and time again. A good deal of their output was more mellow, less astringent than I’d expected, and details of their performance practice – pre-figured in a program booklet article by Hilary Metzger, as well as a prefatory address from co-artistic director/concertmaster Rachael Beesley – ensured that the ensemble’s output reflected musical mores from the situations and times in which some of the night’s composers found themselves.

We heard five works on Saturday evening, beginning with Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite of 1913 which turned out to be the most recent score performed. Another more taxing English work came with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for Strings, followed by Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade of 1887 which the composer arranged for small orchestra (double woodwind and horns, strings) in 1892 and this was in turn edited for string orchestra by American educator Lucas Drew – which latter version we heard as a pretty thick-textured substitute for the scintillating string quartet original. After interval came Beesley’s sister Shauna‘s arrangement of that much-transcribed gem, Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke from 1849 – the night’s odd man out. To end, the ARCO forces performed – for the first time in my experience – another Serenade for Strings by Victor Herbert, written in 1888. In other words, four of these pieces were written within 26 years of each other; one way of generating a focus, even if Holst’s buoyant stomps didn’t quite fit into the prevailing late Romantic ambience.

But, the St. Paul’s Suite makes an ideal opener for any string orchestra program with its direct action and minimal use of tricky production techniques. Beesley had her players swing with a hefty bounce into Holst’s opening Jig and generated some fetching passages like the second violins’ variant at Number 3’s key signature change in the old Goodwin and Tabb score of 1922, and an unflustered Piu mosso at Number 9. Well before this, however, you became conscious of this orchestra’s smooth output, making a welcome change to the usual steel-string clangour and bringing to the front of mind how conditioned we have become to hearing this score spun out with robotic precision and an overkill of the composer’s dynamic directions – something like aristocrats slumming it in the country, which is not the name of Holst’s particular game here.

Full marks to the second violins again for their Ostinato work with some seamless dovetailing, and a pliant 8-bar solo from Beesley that set up this brief segment’s outer melodic matter. The concertmaster was put to more hefty work in the Intermezzo: this suite’s high-water mark for me with its striking oscillation between lean melodic arches and full-bodied chords for nearly everyone 18 bars from the end. Then, The Dargason conclusion mirrored the opening Jig with its absence of try-hard urbanization, the only problem coming from the cellos and their announcement of Greensleeves a bar after Number 3 which was too faint to have much impact against the busy violas. Naturally enough, this was compensated for at Number 9 when the upper strings had their way with the tune, and the final pages were robust enough.

One of the evening’s finest stretches came with the Elgar work which somehow slotted easily into the group’s performance style. Each movement passed without unnecessary flurries, capturing the score’s eloquently graduated phrasing without pushing the short crescendo requirements into overdrive, the violins true in intonation across Elgar’s aspiring E Major melody at Letter C of the opening Allegro piacevole. Not that the intonation in both violin groups was faultless; the odd slightly-off notes could be discerned in the seconds’ second desk and an inexplicable quirk in the firsts arose often enough to be noticeable in ascending small scalar passages on the E string. But you could not have wished for a more sympathetic dying fall in this movement’s last five bars.

In terms of numbers, the ensemble ran 5-4-4-4-2. To my ear, the first violins would have gained from an additional body, especially as six names appeared in the program. But then, Rob Nairn was named as principal double bass and he was absent, leaving Marian Heckenberg and Chloe Ann Williamson to carry that line – which they did with conspicuous devotion and produced a fulsome support in high-tension passages. You missed the extra violin weight mainly at the divisi bars at Letter L of the Larghetto, which Beesley took at a proper pace; in this case, a fine cross of ruminative with ardent. Later, the players captured the Allegretto‘s calmly surging essence but kept their best for the final pages following the change to E Major, in particular the delectably spacious last chords that brought this short piece to a euphonious conclusion.

It might be based on Wolf’s own arrangement for orchestra but the Italian Serenade loses its bite when re-contexted. The ARCO musicians kept the movement fluent but the innate vigour of the original went walkabout as the tempo moved into galumphing mode and chromatic changes both inner and outer (for the first time, at bar 46 and onwards) seemed ironed out, an effect that recurred to even more unfortunate effect at the interlude between bars 130 and 160 where linear clarity is vital to prefigure the joyful explosion back to G Major at bar 161. We had a taste of the string quartet original when Drew dried out his forces for the cello recitatives starting at bar 303.

So the whole thing had its flashes, particularly during concordant passages at full pelt, and you enjoyed a muffled impression of this chamber music scrap’s ebullience, but you missed the pointillist detail and the expectation-scouring wit. Something similar came across in the Fantasy Pieces arrangement where Shauna Beesley gave us a new work. Of course, you could relish swathes of string texture as long as you forgot Schumann’s original (although even he was catholic in his stipulations admitting viola and cello to take the solo line, as well as the original clarinet). However, what you do with the piano accompaniment is crucial and Beesley’s version verged on muddiness. How could it be otherwise, given the relentless arpeggios, thick bass support and competitive doubling and canonic work that persists throughout all three pieces?

In fact, at this point you needed a corps that specialized in rhythmic precision and slashing, pointed right-hand technical prowess to unplug the lower strings’ processes. Not so much in the final Rasch und mit Feuer, but certainly the opening Zart und mit Ausdruck became blancmange thick, the solo/dominant line having trouble being discerned, despite the arranger’s efforts to give it continuous prominence. For sure, the middle Lebhaft fared better, although it seemed to me that the pace had slackened once the musicians had passed the key change to F Major’s first repeat.

I’d moved further back in the Conservatorium theatre at interval; otherwise, I might not have noticed that one of the first violins moved across to the seconds for this Schumann arrangement. Presumably, the top-middle line needed reinforcing, and it’s true that this subsidiary strand probably gains from extra weight. Still, the main themes at some points in all three pieces tended to become attenuated, not exactly disappearing in the mesh but coming close to it. Perhaps the arrangement needed a bit more daring to make it more effective; as things turned out, the exercise proved sonorous but bland.

Each movement of the Victor Herbert Serenade proved how successful a choice the work was for this ensemble. If you know the composer’s background, you’d be aware that there’s nothing complicated in his music-making. But it’s not just a chain of melting melodies; each of its five movements shows a clear format and a fine awareness of writing for strings. The ARCO players seemed to enjoy themselves right from the opening Aufzug with its Babes in Toyland-reminiscent outer march sections around a lilting, central meno mosso. As for the following Polonaise, the first violins set pretty much all of the running and managed to stay together for most of its duration, although sorely tested by a five-bar stretch at the centre of Herbert’s G Major Trio.

Commentators (the very few I’ve come across) find the influence of Wagner in this serenade’s central Liebes-Scene. Even when listening to American (and one German) recording, I couldn’t find much trace of Tristan, Lohengrin, or even Act 3 of Siegfried; Herbert’s melodic span is orderly and falls into easily assimilable phrase and sentence lengths, while his harmonic vocabulary rarely ventures far afield. Nevertheless, it’s an effective movement and gave an excellent chance for the ARCO cellos to shine four bars after Letter C as they outlined the main theme under the violins’ soft sextuplet patterns.

You could make the same observations concerning structure, melody and harmony about Herbert’s Canzonetta with its infectious first violin portamento in bar 3 – and beyond. A gently-paced interlude, this movement also was reminiscent of passages from Herbert’s musicals (judging from the few that I know, thanks to my mother’s devotion to Nelson Eddy) and not outstaying its welcome. At this stage, the ARCO ensemble came pretty close to recreating the overall sound-colour of a pre-World War Two small orchestra through its melodic lilt and supple pulse. Even the repetitious jig-finale found these performers undaunted by its relentless optimism which became more than a bit wearing by the time we reached the Con spirito at Letter H, followed by a Con fuoco, and yet another Piu mosso.

Nobody would claim this Herbert suite as a burst of bright light in the string orchestra’s repertoire. It has, nevertheless, an openness of language and a charm of address that should make it welcome as a leavening of the predictable diet of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Suk and even Elgar that makes up an all-too-staple diet for organizations without the facility to bring in woodwind and brass supernumeraries, as the well-funded Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra can.

As for the performance flourishes outlined by concertmaster Beesley and the Metzger essay, these sounded well-absorbed into the musicians’ technical vocabulary. Vibrato, portamento and rubato were all employed without fuss and, as far as I could tell, in appropriate situations. In this respect, the ARCO directors and members set an agreable example of how to suit yourself to the music you’re playing. Which makes life easier for all of us, worlds away from being constrained by a doctrinaire insistence on musical correctness: an inflammation of the aesthetic membrane that I class with Putin’s A History of Ukraine and our own prime minister’s podcast, Fighting Bushfires Out of Country.