Women-only outing


Jacinta Dennett

Move Records MCD 630

Australian harpist Dennett offers a collection of works spanning almost the complete gamut of contemporary local composition, including veterans Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Miriam Hyde as well as younger (and alive) writers like Johanna Selleck and Alicia Grant. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, that all eight creative artists heard on this album are women; of course it’s of prime importance that we get to hear voices that have been/were muffled for decades by administrative bodies overwhelmingly populated by males, but a superficial bit of detective work shows that women composers can suffer just as easily as men from rarity of performances.

The way Dennett has organized her program is almost ideally chronological. The one exception is the opening track that gives this CD its title. This 1967 piece by Helen Gifford was a commission by the Melbourne offshoot of the International Society for Contemporary Music and it was premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 1968 by Huw Jones, long-time harpist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This is succeeded by Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ well-known Sonata for Harp from 1951, written for an appreciative Nicanor Zabaleta. A big temporal leap brings us to Miriam Hyde’s Sunlit Waterfall, produced in 1993 and premiered by its dedicatee, Sydney harpist Yuko Prasad.

From two years later comes Elena Kats-Chernin‘s Chamber of Horrors that was written for the Melbourne harpist Marshall McGuire, as was Eve Duncan‘s the sun behind it, burning it of 2004. Dennett gave the first performance of Jennifer Fowler‘s Threaded Stars 2 of 2006, a revision of Threaded Stars written 23 years earlier. From two years later comes Joanna Selleck’s Spindrift, also a Dennett premiere at the Third Australian Harp Festival in Canberra. Last of all, Alicia Grant’s 2017 Three Pieces for Harp enjoyed its first outing at Dennett’s hands in Bunbury, Western Australia.

So the CD is a compendium that takes in 66 years of activity in an arcane field. The range in vocabulary is also wide, but the accent falls on contemporary sounds – insofar as the harp can produce them. Fable proposes a tensile landscape, beginning enigmatically with some suggestive arpeggios, but gradually moving to a soundscape of contrasts where little is proposed directly, the writing is pointillist and shadowed, and the solitary patch of definite statement strikes you as something of a diatonic shock. Whatever suggestions of old-time stories and legends you are able to infer, they are definitely crepuscular and Dennett produces a shimmering, cloudy series of emotional gambits.

Glanville-Hicks’ three-movement sonata has three movements: Saeta, for that Spanish Good Friday drama-plus-depression outpouring; Pastorale, brief and appropriately benign; and a rollicking Rondo to bring us home happily. In fact, the opening movement is a maestoso processional for which Dennett keeps her powder dry until the last declamatory bars, the main body restrained and bordering on laboured with each semiquaver group that leavens the piece’s distinctive full-bodied chords enunciated with unexpected precision. The middle bucolic interlude presents as an appealing, calm meander with no surprises at all in its fluent siciliano motion.

As the finale moves forward, you come to realize that it serves as summation of its precedents, not least when the full chords of the Saeta return near the conclusion and the flowing 6/8 of the Pastorale emerges from the happy buzzing that constitutes the main chorus of this rondo. You can relish quirks like the quaver duplet that first shows itself at the end of bar 2, and the wholesale key-change that surprises in one of the interludes. Well, ‘surprises’ is an over-statement in a work that is harmonically pretty ordinary and winds up reminding you of so many British chamber works of several decades prior to 1951. The harpist again appears to be playing rather tentatively at certain points, and the conclusion seems lacking in finality, but that could be because the composer had second thoughts about the soft landing towards which things were heading.

Miriam Hyde found her voice early and nothing changed it, so that this gentle bagatelle will come as no surprise to those of us familiar with her miniatures from countless AMEB lists over the decades. In ternary shape, D Major-F Major-D Major, Sunlit Waterfall is a light study in placid semiquaver runs and well-primed melodies. Dennett has no trouble at all outlining this fluent blast from the past as another Australian writer externalises her English influences.

Two years on, and we hit a different channel of water with Elena Kats-Chernin’s essay in Grand Guignol. She opens with 12 semibreve-long strong chords; something like the opening to the Rachmaninov C minor Piano Concerto but not as harmonically settled. These act as a recurrent paragraph, interspersed with whip-quick interludes, full of effects that go a fair way to summoning up the intended menacing atmosphere. One of the most striking of these is a rattling caused by using/misusing a pedal. Yet nothing here is ugly; the restless arpeggios might suggest Hollywood menace or even shudderings, tremors of a mental or physical nature; abrupt chords with added notes propose uneasiness. As the segments, brief and extended, pass through, you are impressed by the composer’s command of textures and techniques, even if the horror is skin-deep.

Eve Duncan’s short piece takes its inspiration from a poem by Esther Theiler which focuses on the appearance of a poppy; one that is close to desiccation at the end of summer, it seems. The composer opens with a single note which deviates to a minor second, the dyad serving as a fulcrum for a wide-ranging, taut rhapsody. Despite its brevity, the piece makes a singular impression for its sustained atmospheric tension and its concentration of content, the whole suggesting aridity, a bare landscape.

Jennifer Fowler reveals a chaste methodology in her contribution, the most substantial on the CD in terms of length but the most transparent in presentation. For the most part, the composer spins out a single line which meanders across the full range of the harp, finding focal notes and weaving surrounding strings into self-contained episodes. This is carried out with an equanimity of expressiveness – nothing in excess – the line punctuated by an occasional added note, more rarely an arpeggiated brief chord; alongside this spartan set of limitations, Fowler eschews any effects, content to let her interpreter outline the calmly grazing nature of this simple, remarkable composition.

In her Spindrift, Johanna Selleck sets herself the difficult task of chasing an image of the nearly intangible: spray from cresting waves. Dennett shows admirable responsiveness to this score which begins with a scene-setting scalar pattern that rises and falls aquatically enough. The composer’s vocabulary is mildly dissonant in the opening pages, well suited to the prevailing quiet dynamic. About half-way through, the environment changes to definite diatonic harmony – E minor? – which lasts until close to the end when the mild atonality returns. This is an amiable work, as obvious in its intentions as Kats-Chernin’s frolic, maintaining its submarine murmuring at either end with a hefty dose of humankind emerging in the centre of this nature-scape.

When you encounter the CD’s final tracks, Alicia Grant’s Three Pieces for Harp, you’re faced with one of the most intriguing conundrums in contemporary serious music practice: a reversion to old-fashioned melodic and harmonic structures. The first of these pieces, Sea breezes, has more of an affinity with Hyde’s waterfall than with Duncan’s sun or Fowler’s stars. The rhythm doesn’t vary from a regular pulse and the work is at times almost operating on an Alberti bass set-up. More strikingly, the melodic material has a predictability that could be soothing or dulling, according to your taste. One of the Book 1 preludes, Des pas sur la neige, provides the jumping-off point for the second piece, Footprints in the sand: Homage to Debussy – which it sort of is. Grant takes the original’s minor/Major 2nd motif as her underpinning and builds up to two passionate climaxes, obviously finding more angst in sand than Debussy did in snow, whose work is a study in piano/pianissimo. Still, homage is not simple repetition and the Australian composer is as entitled to her background imagery as the suggestive French master.

Grant’s last piece, Ocean floor, is the smallest on the CD and it seems to be a digest of its precedents. There’s an unchanging metre, broken up by Dennett’s slight pauses to handle chord-placing challenges; the regular bass/supporting line persists throughout; the melody is not far-ranging in itself but appears in several registers; and you can enter at will into the composer’s vision of deep sea denizens, which seem, by the end, to be at work pretty close to the surface, like a Western Australian tiger shark or six.

This triptych rounds out Dennett’s tour d’horizon which is a testament to her promulgation of this country’s forays into harp music; a career dedication that she shares with Marshall McGuire. Her CD covers an impressively wide range of voices, offering (with a 25-year gap) a perspective of music written for this instrument by high-achieving writers. The fact that these voices all happen to be female is a considerable bonus, from which you can draw multiple considerations about similarities and disparities – and the fertile ground in between.

Congenial musicians in some favourite pieces


Luke Carbon & Alex Raineri

Move Records MCD 615

Having prepared Elliott Gyger‘s taxing duet that gives this CD its title, clarinetist Luke Carbon and pianist Alex Raineri performed the work throughout 2019. They put in the time, so the duo determined that their labours required a life beyond the ephemeral and, solidifying this decision, have recorded it. You can hear why these musicians went the extra mile or twenty to get this difficult score into the studio and out to the public: its demands are continuous, right up to the shrill last bars; both executants have to exercise a knife-edged mutuality of precision while the work shows an emotionally fluctuating character across each of its twelve sections.

Apart from giving a fine airing to the Sydney composer/academic’s 32-year-old score, Carbon and Raineri have produced an almost chronologically sequential tour of works that they have enjoyed playing together. They begin with the fulcrum of clarinet/piano works in Brahms’ Sonata F minor No. 1 of 1894, followed by Berg’s Four Pieces dating from 1913 which are still as sphinx-like as ever. A small reverse pulls us back twenty years to Amy Beach’s Op. 23 Romance, the clarinet taking over the original violin line. Staying in America, the young musicians exerting themselves on a young man’s music: Bernstein’s 1941-2 Clarinet Sonata, written during the prolific composer’s early 20s.

This makes for a solid exhibition of the duo’s individual and collegiate talents and, despite my habitual Doubting Thomas premonitions, the CD turned out to be a hold-all of some eloquent and informative interpretations. Most immediately impressive of these is Liquid Crystal, a crescendo that stops just short of an explosion. It opens with a burbling fast duo for both instruments: very close writing that calls for split-second timing. Then follows a sort of question-and-answer segment that moves across both instruments’ range, followed by a set of apostrophes for the clarinet with keyboard punctuation. From here on, the intersecting becomes less clear obvious although the developmental character is cut from a common cloth in a language that is percussive and, for much of the time, whimsical.

I lost track of the chain of segments when Gyger’s developmental processes and variations increased in sophistication and (as I’ve said) the segmental distinctions proved less obvious (my middle name). You can discern when a new section has happened, if not where the boundary lines are, and the intention to give the players an equal say in proceedings is handsomely achieved, the composer testing his interpreters with parts that ask for executive brilliance and a keen eye from both on what the other is up to. The score also illustrates its paradoxical title in a textural ambience that combines the fluent with the hard-edged. As far as I can tell, Carbon and Raineri fulfilled the composer’s requirements through an authoritative, enthusiastic reading.

Liquid Crystal is the CD’s last track; the Brahms sonata sits at the other end and proves to be a competent interpretation, if one that presents as somewhat imbalanced in Raineri’s favour. The pianist takes every opportunity to stress the work’s expansiveness, its emotional control and assurance. Carbon provides an outline that is more by the book and, while relaxed enough, misses out on weaving his personality into the clarinet thread. Phrases and clauses travel well, yet they lack individuality; not even a wallowing in the composer’s heart-warming mellifluousness.

On a first hearing, I thought that Carbon tried too hard with his high soft notes, determined to achieve as small a sound as possible – which you can hear in the work of many clarinetists, some of whom give you more breath than note. But this deficiency took place fewer times than I thought; indeed, the gentle approach worked to success across a very exposed point at bars 94-5. Some minor errors distracted, like a top register note that sounded marginally off-point, viz. the D5 in bar 187, and uncertain breathing when dealing with slow arches across bars 216 and 217 in the Sostenuto ed espressivo coda. Raineri put hardly a foot wrong, his work well exemplified by the sweeping, gradually subsiding grandeur on display between bars 116 and 135.

Speaking of the piano, the D flat 5 struck me as being off-colour in bar 20 of the second movement Andante un poco adagio, but other exposure points were ambiguous. Both performers sustained the score’s fluency, even if they didn’t invest much interest in the material, although Raineri employed a well-contrived rubato in the short solo space at bar 45. A more colourful patch came in the Allegretto grazioso and its landler suggestions, details like the piano’s hesitation at bar 28 a welcome infusion of irregularity. Carbon here found an amiable, calmly enunciated character, my only complaint a lack of force in his top C at bar 124. As for the concluding Vivace, this was an unalloyed success: humour without vulgarity, a spaciousness of timbre from both instruments, and an excitement that brought to mind those works where the composer rollicks so effectively – everything from the Academic Festival Overture to the D Major Symphony finale.

I once participated in a most villainous rendition of the 4 Pieces Op. 5 by Berg in South Yarra’s The Fat Black Pussycat club close to 60 years ago, accompanying a fine clarinetist who liked to fly through a work by the seat of his pants. Looking at it now, I wonder how we dared; different times, different audiences, I suppose, and this one wasn’t very concerned about exactitudes . . . or anything. Carbon and Raineri handle these pages with respect, observing every nuance of dynamic and production, careful to a high degree of refinement as in the unhurried climax to the opening Massig across bars 6 to 8, and in their whispered account of the following Webernesque Sehr langsam.

Carbon’s control showed at its best in the final two pieces where the quasi Flatterzunge direction gets a real workout and the required range reaches to the instrument’s extremes. You could rely on the concluding Sehr hastig flurries to No. 3 and, as far as I could make out, the hysteric pandemonium of bars 15 to 17 of the last Langsam piece was precise; it remained as disconcerting a passage as ever, once again impressing me as a series of splattering punches to the ear. Here, more than in Brahms sonata, Carbon’s soft notes work efficiently (with one exception) and the short sequence showed an interpretative empathy, avoiding the extremes of the ultra-scholarly and the hyped-up expressionist.

Amy Beach could possibly take over the mantle of encore-provider/program-filler from Piazzolla if more of her output is released commercially and taken up by willing performers. Carbon has made a clarinet transcription of her Romance and was hardly pressed by the undertaking which follows the original solo line, mainly at an octave’s distance. This timbral substitution changes the nature of the piece, especially at those moments when the original violin moves into a high tessitura, as at bars 18, 45, 62, 86 and for the ethereal conclusion at 114. It operates at several removes from salon music of its time, which, in America, means to me vapourings like By the Waters of Minnetonka or O Promise Me. While Beach’s work speaks a late Romantic language, its melodic felicity and stolid harmonization place it as an honourable mention in a genre honoured by Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Needless to say, the transcription gives no trouble to this well-rehearsed duo.

Before the Elliott Gyger work, we hear Bernstein’s sonata which, for something coming early in his composing career, holds resonances of later, better-known works including West Side Story, On the Town, the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs sequence, Candide, even some faint harbingers of the chaotic MASS. This interpretation sparkled in the right places (mainly the second movement Vivace e leggiero) and found both performers observing the remarkable transparency of the composer’s shadings, even through the opening Grazioso‘s more active stretches, e.g. between Letters H and L in the older Boosey & Hawkes edition. Only a touch of that uncertainty of carrying power in the clarinet part disturbed the easy flow of the second movement around the Lento molto at Letter J. But the fast-moving segments came over with an impressive light power, and the players’ handling of Bernstein’s rhythmic irregularities and alterations impressed for its level-headed ease.

Third Stream, fusion, whatever – it worked


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday April 11, 2022

Phil Slater

Winding up its current tour, the ACO gave its penultimate performance of this particular program to an enthusiastic QPAC audience; not packed to the ceiling, but respectably populated. This, the 10th time the players had presented this music, involved the usual 16-strong string body supplemented by percussionist Brian Nixon and a jazz quartet put to several uses: trumpet Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, bass Brett Hirst and drums Jess Ciampa.

The intention of this enterprise was to fuse the visiting quartet with the ACO and, for much of the night, the success rate was high. I didn’t see any use of the guests during the opening fragment: Bernard Rofe’s arrangement of the opening to Par les rues et par les chemins from Debussy’s Iberia which was tooling along very nicely, strings and percussion in clear-speaking action, when suddenly artistic director/concertmaster Richard Tognetti made an abrupt leap into his own arrangement of the middle Blues movement to Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for which the soloist took up a contemporary and oddly-shaped instrument. This brought in the visiting quartet tangentially at first, gaining in contributory power as the movement passed in what can only be described as an arranger’s delight. I felt that there was a balance problem a bar after Number 7 in the old 1927 Durand edition when the violin starts its quadruple stops pizzicati and Tognetti was not as striking a contributor as you’d expect, given the assault typical in the two million performances I’ve heard prior to this one.

This was followed by a Sephardic song from Turkey, Yo era nina de casa alta, also in a Tognetti arrangement, that began with a percussive tambour rhythm, cellist Julian Thompson taking up a guitar, while Tognetti outlined the tune. No sooner begun than over; sadly, the guitar proved close to inaudible from my seat, although it made more of an impression during the following reading of Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Mind you, in its original form, the string quintet imitates guitar, drums, bells; this interpretation came complete with its own extra-string sound sources. Nevertheless, Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve gave an excellent account of the Largo assai (Rosary) interludes with excellently judged dynamic balance, and this version did not attempt the crescendo/diminuendo during the concluding Ritirata which seems to have been an atmospheric flourish unknown to the composer.

To finish off the evening’s first half, we got our reminiscences of Spain through several filters in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet bits in a selection from the Russian composer’s near-pastiche ballet Carmen. This piece enjoyed a vogue for some time, one that I’ve never quite understood except that the absence of wind ensures that performances are economically frugal. The arrangement is for strings and percussion (four players, originally, but Nixon and Ciampa seemed to cope; perhaps you only need two players for the selections we heard). I missed a few tubular bells notes in the Introduction and found some of the vibraphone work muffled, but the interpretation from Tognetti and his strings was very smart and arresting with patches of brilliant accomplishment from both sets of violins. We missed out on the ‘Fate’ motive that concludes the opera’s Prelude and features in the ballet, but we did score the Farandole from L’Arlesienne masquerading as a bolero and another import from The Fair Maid of Perth for a Carmen-and-Torero scene.

Some other memorable moments came in the bare-bones version of Escamillo’s Votre toast – here eloquent in its restraint – and the use of three ideally matched violas to carry the melody of the opera’s Act 3 Intermezzo. Despite the nay-sayers and the nonsense started by Furtseva about the blasphemy carried out on Bizet, this work – even in its truncated form – is a scouring agent of sorts, taking you so far into familiar pages and then cutting the ground out from under your comfort-seeking feet. Still, it’s a long way from Spain – just like Boccherini’s attractively hygienic and Debussy’s buoyantly optimistic streets, not to mention Ravel’s sophisticated foray into le jazz hot.

Matters took a sharper trans-Atlantic turn in the two main post-interval performances. The guest quartet took centre-stage for a version of the last movement, Solea, in Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. This new arrangement was a collaboration between pianist McMahon and the ACO’s Artistic Administration Manager, Bernard Rofe, the latter’s craft previously encountered in the Debussy transcription. For my taste, the only interesting facet of the experience came through Slater who made a positive impression by following a Davis trail – meandering but always dominant; mind you, what I know of the great trumpeter comes from sixty-plus years ago and a high-school fascination with the Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue albums, while Sketches of Spain passed me by.

As the work moved forward, the collaboration on display seemed to improve in persuasiveness, reaching a high point in a twinning of the three violas with the band minus McMahon in a stretch that came somewhere near suggesting Spain and exhilarated for itself. One of the question marks over this exercise actually came with Slater’s ‘bent’ notes which stood out, strangers in a familiar landscape and not quite gelling with the string writing which, as far as I could hear, played no games with microtones. Still, the final decrescendo proved to be, without question, the program’s most magical passage: excellently paced, restrained and confident: an ease-filled release into nothing.

For some reason, the ACO planning committee decided to interpose a Victoria motet between the Davis/Evans movement and another McMahon/Rofe arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain. Well, it was one way of putting a real national composer in a menu that otherwise consisted entirely of outsiders looking in on the Iberian peninsula. From choppy memories, the 8-part Ave Maria sets two choirs against each other with bursts of echoes, imitations and dovetailing; here, the visitors seemed to become one quartet, the ACO strings playing the Choir 1 lines. For reasons I can’t explain, the arrangement worked well enough, although this might have come about because of its simplicity; but then, what could you possibly add to music at this level of textural clarity?

Corea’s widely-travelled work exists in several versions. What am I talking about: it can be heard in a myriad of forms, formats, combinations and permutations and I’ve heard a fair few, if some decades ago. On this occasion, McMahon set the scene with mildly coruscating solo work before he was joined by various collaborating bodies. Not that it was all piano, or all Slater, even if these players gave us the most intriguing music-making across this long piece – the program’s most substantial by far. Tognetti and Valve took the spotlight occasionally, but not for long as the focus shifted between jazz quartet (or trio) and the ACO. Despite its episodic shape, the work didn’t come over as diffuse, being anchored by a long melodic line/chorus that all played in unison or at an octave’s remove (or two of them).

In the end, Spain presented as so much of the evening’s work did: living up to the catch-all title of sketch. I couldn’t find much national flavour in the piece, let alone the vaunted references to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which are more explicit in Corea’s earlier interpretations of this score). But you might say the same about the Victoria motet, or the Sephardic cantiga – or anything else at Monday night’s concert. For all that fretting about provenance, the exercise itself was full of expert, interesting performances and the merging of two separate bodies succeeded a good deal more than some previous experiences I’ve attended, like Don Banks’ Nexus of 1971, or Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2019. All the same, I hope that we can now move on to new pastures: the ACO’s first two presentations this year have celebrated Piazzolla/South America and the great (or infamous, if you like) Latin American colonizer.

New consort in a crammed program



Australian Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 7, 2022

Louis Hurley, Chloe Lankshear, Philip Murray, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Christopher Watson

There’d be those who think that we should always find room for another vocal consort; others might think that you’d need to be pretty good to start such a body, given the high standard of some ensembles these days. With regard to standards, I’m not talking about a creditable fact of musical life in Australia: the best that’s currently on offer here is several levels lower in quality than what’s coming out of England, America, the Baltic states and Japan. The first consort of voices that I ever heard live was that headed by Alfred Deller which performed in Wilson Hall (1964?) when I was an undergraduate; with very few exceptions, even from big-name internationals, it’s been downhill since then.

So I’m a tad jaundiced when such an ensemble announces itself, even when it arrives with lashings of enthusiasm. Here comes Castalia, taking its name from my favourite Delphic spring. This online recital seems to have been a recording of the group’s debut performance at the aMBUSH Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney on February 12 this year. Which rather surprised me, although it shouldn’t have; I was labouring under the pre-conception that this recital would be live, like most of the Australian Digital Concert Hall events that I experience. In looking up the ensemble’s website to identify the individual singers, matching names to faces, I came upon some ‘reviews’ of the February 12 program – published observations that, like so much similar writing these days, has nothing to do with criticism but more with offering ludicrously inflated praise alongside a dearth of information about the work attempted.

In an attempt to demonstrate versatility, the Castalia sextet gave us a mixture of the time-honoured and the very new (well, almost). We heard 21 pieces in all, two of them instrumental from theorboist/lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis; most of the madrigals emerged from across the Renaissance (surprise, surprise), with a throwback to Landini and a trio of throw-forwards – to American writer Caroline Shaw’s 2016 setting of a Renaissance text, to Italian historical tear-off Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2008 Rosso, cosi rosso, and to the still-desperately contemporary Englishman Michael Finnissy and his take on a mad scene, Quel ‘no’ crudel of 2012. Too much? Despite the pretty seamless co-ordination of personnel, the experience proved rather opaque as pieces melded into each other, despite the audience’s insistence on applauding every one. Castalia had organized its program in seven sections, but the temptation to clap when silence broke out was too great to be resisted.

As the first of their Dolcissimi collation, the group worked through Arcadelt’s Il bianco e dolce cigno, a solo female voice singing the verse through before the other three lines joined in for a restatement with lute underpinning; a gentle, modest first gambit. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare made a telling platform for Chloe Lankshear‘s soprano; the work is not as difficult as some of the Prince of Venosa’s effusions and the five singers handled its demands with ease, making a fine passage out of the central homophonic O miracol d’amore across bars 38 to 40. Something went wrong in the later stages of Strozzi’s Silentio nocivo where all lines had their final turn with affetuose from bar 107 on; an early entry, possibly. Last in this opening group, Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked dynamic variety in its opening pages but an erotic suggestion from the second tenor line at Ahi bocca perked up a rather staid reading of this ambiguous marvel.

As an odd opening to the second grouping, Primavera, Martyn-Ellis performed the first of Piccinini’s chiaconne, which is agreable enough to be Spring-suggestive. One of my many defects is that I can’t read tablature but it seemed to me that this reading was a few variants short; as well, the soprano quaver (for want of a better word) runs occasionally suffered from a mis-step., and the final bars sounded tame. Both tenors (Louis Hurley, Christopher Watson) worked through another truncation in Landini’s Ecco la primavera with Lankshear providing a supporting tambour – the whole medieval intrusion negotiated very rapidly and gaining little by the tenor substitution for a more resonant bass timbre. Another Monteverdi rounded off this segment: Io mi son giovinetta. This is another buoyant and bouncy stream of inventive responses to a text (by Boccaccio?) with an ambiguous, possibly minatory ending.

Augelli opened appropriately enough with Casulana’s Vaghi amorose augelli, its original four vocal lines reduced to a middle register-rich duet for Stephanie Dillon‘s mezzo and lute. A clever balance followed with Settimia Caccini’s Cantan gl’augelli for which soprano Amy Moore was accompanied by Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, although I found this treatment to be pretty strict in metre but gifted with an elegantly contrived conclusion. The first of the three contemporary works ended this bracket: Caroline Shaw’s Dolce cantavi for three female voices to a text by a Renaissance contessa. In a pretty continuous chordal movement, the composer has produced a clever piece of mimicry, her piece distinguished by an individual modulatory quirk or two and slotting into its environment here with remarkable facility.

Up next, a Crudelta grouping, beginning with yet another solo, this time from tenor Watson with a rich bass support from theorbo for Giulio Caccini’s Amor, io parto. Yet another instance of contrasting rates of activity, this song impressed for its rhythmic curvaceousness with some intriguing ornamentation; was that a 1610 Vespers-type set of repeated quavers on the final A in bar 26? Strangely, the following Crudel acerba by Arcadelt came over as emotionally bland, despite an increased vocal expansion to a quintet with lute support. A pity, as the setting is a potentially sonorous plaint. Finishing the hard-done-by nature of this segment, the group presented an intriguing rarity by Sigismondo d’India: Se tu, Silvio crudel. After a solid solo from Lankshear, the madrigal broadened out into five parts and a textural contrast between rapid block chords and interleaving duets, the whole a dramatic highlight handled with some welcome urgency.

Who better than Gesualdo to kick off a set called Infiammare? Castalia gave a reliable reading of ‘Merce!’ grido piangendo, treating its chromatic shifts and shocks with excellent ease, making a sensible creature out of the infamous Moro, dunque tacendo bars (12-17) and sailing through the remarkable shifts that begin at bar 28. My only quibble came with the last chord which I would have liked to be sustained longer – a safe arrival after a whale of a journey. Sciarrino’s study in red asked for a vocal quintet (all singers bar Hurley), proving to be strong on glissandi and some pointillist bursts, the work heavily atmospheric, although I was left in the dark as to what was being achieved. Much the same for Finnissy’s restless duet with Lankshear and Moore chasing each other’s cues in a high tessitura with some squeals and squalls to unsettle your expectations. The composer’s vocabulary remains as fluent and acerbic as in earlier instrumental pieces that I’ve come across: these latter were extremely challenging to examine and penetrate, although the actual outcomes didn’t sound anywhere near as aurally confrontational as they looked. Strozzi’s L’amante modesto enjoyed brisk handling – and it is substantial, peppered with sudden changes in timbre and rhythm that might have brought out the best in all six singers if the lower lines like that of Philip Murray had been more clear in articulation. A slight error of timing disrupted the flow at about bar 121 but I couldn’t trace the fault.

The solitary occupant of a Tirsi e Clori segment was Monteverdi’s Rimanti in pace; a bit puzzling, as the dialogue of the madrigal is between Thyrsis and Phyllis. For this piece, Lankshear rested, as did Martyn-Ellis; they were sadly missed when some of the chord work impressed as skimpy, possibly due to passing uncertainty in the middle voices. But it is a solid work, demanding in its occasionally transparent scoring.

Finally, we came to Sospiri, beginning with Capirola’s Recerchar primo; not a really happy experience with some passages of uneven delivery and several muffed notes that proved too obtrusive to be ignored. First of the Verdolets, Quante dolceca amore, has been recorded by Watson who sang it with lute support. Both musicians demonstrated a well-honed partnership with a fetching breadth of phrasing throughout this short work. Then all singers joined in for Ultimi miei sospiri, a splendid sample of emotional self-flagellation couched in limpid and mobile textures that gave this recital-exhibition a well-honed, surprise-free ending.