Familiarity breeds excellence

MOZART DVORAK CHANCE

Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 626

The Acacia group from Sydney has come my way only once before, I think: the Muse CD from Move Records (MCD 587), released in 2018, which was a collaboration between this quartet and recorder Alicia Crossley, an album featuring Australian writers. This new release features one local composer – Alice Chance – and her work has also emerged recently on Move CDs: Inhaltations for another Crossley product in Bass Instincts (MCD 624) , and also Mirroring as part of percussionist Claire Edwardes’ program on Rhythms of Change (MD 3459).

Since its formation in 2010, the ensemble’s personnel has seemingly remained unchanged: violins Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, viola Stefan Duwe, cello Anna Martin-Scrase. But is this actually the case? Some of the online material concerning the group lists Doreen Cumming as second violin; the CD has a group photo with Clohessy, and the Move website also lists her as part of the ensemble. Not that the group is alone in maintaining its original members; the Seraphim and Benaud Trios and the Orava String Quartet haven’t had to cope with any personnel comings and goings, unlike the Australian String Quartet which dizzies with its chameleonic shifts. But this steadiness across the years ensures a communal evenness of production and a collegial trust in established practices.

As well, the group is here reaping the benefits of preparation for public performance. Chance’s Sundried Quartet was given its premiere by the Acacias in March 2019, and they played it another three times in that year before the shroud of COVID fell over us all. In fact, a recital from November 3 of that year shows this exact program – Mozart’s K 421 Quartet in D minor, the Chance, Dvorak’s American Op. 96 – was played during the Glebe Music Festival. And Sundried was resuscitated for the Four Winds Festival last month when the Acacias performed at Barragga Bay’s outdoor amphitheatre; pretty much coinciding with this CD’s release.

In her CD leaflet notes, Chance links her quartet’s title to a tomato in a state of desiccation; in fact, her third movement is called Tomatoes. However, her association of music with a fruit is multi-faceted and the initial suggestion fragments in several directions. How far the correspondances carry you is your own business, of course, but it strikes me that Chance is stuck in the middle of making things easy for a listener with her four movement titles – Exposure, Dribble Castle, Tomatoes, Aloe vera – and difficult for herself in giving these physicalities an acoustic format. How to depict aurally the sun’s drying process and then offer the reassurance that her end product is not dead but succulent? What are we to make of hearing the proposed process of re-forming a sand castle by dribbling water over it, and do we actually hear this or are we just obliging Chance by imposing such suggestions on ourselves?

Exposure opens with some high bare 5ths which could represent the searing sun, or the American plains, or a medieval church preparing for the advent of organum. However you want to interpret this aural scenario, not much happens in rhythmic terms until about 2/3rds of the way through when the upper strings accelerate to a landscape of fast parallel scales (at the 4th?) that coalesce on a single note, leading to a final melancholy, late-Romantic lyric based on a falling four-note motif before a gripping final chord for all, which could be a realization of Chance’s ‘surprisingly delicious crisped ending’ – which infers that we’re still talking tomatoes . . . or bacon, or raisin bread, or potatoes.

Almost exclusively pizzicato, the quartet’s second movement considers a different type of sun-drying: the beach experience of making a sandcastle and modifying its construction with water, the dribbling of which is here exemplified by a rising scale passage with a flattened 7th. A little past half-way, the players reach for their bows and discharge a descending scale pattern in unison/at the octave before reverting to the opening material. This movement is a kind of scherzo, deftly written and carried out with a few production techniques thrown in, like Bartokian snaps and near-saltando. Here, more than in Exposure, Chance’s vocabulary is essentially diatonic, with few suggestions of harmonic confrontations.

Tomatoes opens with a cello pizzicato underpinning line, above which the other strings hold onto chords or shimmer. The top violin gives us a touch of jazz ‘bent’ notes, before the pizzicato includes another instrument and two upper voices combine for a sinewy duet. The movement is highly indebted to jazz inflexions and practice, along with a sense of jauntiness – but, even bending over backwards with good intentions, I can’t see the movement’s title reflected in what I hear, although the piece does suggest itself a fine backdrop to a scene from one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things novels.

Chance’s final movement is the longest of the four, giving us the balm of consolation after the preceding 10 minutes-plus of solar radiation. This musical salve oscillates between duple and triple metre but with an unctuous melody over the top of its calm, rocking nether regions. Again, concord is the name of this game with slight gestures towards harmonic adventure. The score moves towards an ardent highpoint before the musical unguent penetrates and we nestle cosily into a beneficent, benevolent leave-taking. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Settling to their task, the Acacias enjoy urging out the composer’s melodic swathes which make gentle technical demands and bring this newly-composed work – commissioned by the players – to its conclusion. However, alongside Sundried, the surrounding Mozart and Dvorak works on this disc seem revolutionary.

Actually, you’re hard put to find Dvorak’s spirit-raising Op. 96 that challenging, apart from the Czech master’s delight in his own melody-writing skill. You’re bound to be pleased by the opening Allegro where the performers are cleanliness personified, excellent reliability and balance shining out at memorable moments like the twin violin work at bars 21 to 23 which is a delight that makes you look forward to the exposition’s repeat. My only gripe is that the second subject is handled too carefully, the phrases allowed to loll rather than breathe.

One of the finest tracks follows with Dvorak’s Lento in D minor, a case of the writer once more clearly not wanting to let go of his material. Stewart and Clohessy give a highly charged account of the movement’s core: the long duet that lasts from bar 43 to bar 81. Coupled with Martin-Scrase’s three exposure points (bars 11, 31, and 82), these passages of melting melodic lines invest the score with a heart-on-sleeve fervour that keeps its head, the ensemble working at a high level of interpretative sympathy. later, it’s hard to find faults in the scherzo/rondo where Stewart dazzles with her impeccable top notes, As and A flats searingly precise, the whole ensemble acting as one with split-second precision in attack and dynamic agreement, notably in the two F minor trio sections.

To my ear, Dvorak’s finale is over all too soon, its several panels full of breezy delight, striding High there led by the first violin’s slightly elliptical chief theme. Alongside this controlled ebullience, the Acacias continue to demonstrate their assurance of ensemble, as in the punchy C Major drive to conclusive chords across bars 61 to 67, followed by the smoothest of shifts to the A flat subject through two fill-in bars. Or focus on the blemish-free unison/octave downward arpeggio dives across bars 146 to 151. To the group’s great credit, the conclusion features no unscripted accelerando or scraping hysteria but maintenance of the composer’s good humour without any grimaces to distract from this happy score’s equanimity of temperament.

Understandably, these musicians did not repeat the development/recapitulation pages of the Mozart quartet’s opening Allegro, some 70 bars. Only masochistic purists would have insisted, I suppose, but the group’s Classical credentials were sufficiently well established without the elongation. It’s best to take this composer at face value, without trying to wring too much Don Giovanni or K. 466 out of the prevailing D minor. So the Acacias’ careful treading through this movement struck me as most appropriate, particularly as the players can handle soft passages without the sound colour becoming wispy, nebulous. A slight acceleration at the start of the development where Duwe’s viola takes prime position proved forgivable in the quick restoration of order by the time the sextuplets started in bar 59.

I think there’s one repeat missing near the start of the Andante, but no worries: Mozart prefigures Dvorak in being enamoured of his main melody which melts on the bow. This outlining impresses for its regular metre, like a gentle dance, and the feather-light touches of the group’s pianissimo contrast after the bold statements of bars 31 to 32 and bars 47 to 48. You have to listen hard for a few slight irregularities in the dotted-quaver-semiquaver rhythmic motif that dominates the Menuetto and, even so, there are only a couple of them in a reading of carefully drawn broad strokes. In the middle, Stewart and Duwe give a finely-spun duet-at-the-octave in the Trio‘s second part.

I’ve always been happier with a concluding Allegretto in this quartet which observes the jig-like bounce throughout; giving us the shadows but freeing the top parts in particular to work with tensile arcs rather than hefty swipes. The only bluffness you could find here came in the viola-dominated (well, for half the time) variation starting at bar 73; for the rest, the reading proved dynamically restrained, with some fine detail work peppering the Piu allegro coda.

A highly recommended disc from an ensemble that has swum pretty much under my radar but which, on this evidence, clearly stands among the top chamber groups in this country.

Finding cosmic dangers at home

THE DYING SUN

Madeleine Antoine & Setsu Masuda

Move Records MCD 609

In The Dying Sun, composer Rebecca Erin Smith has written a sonata in four movements – Blood, Milk, Nectar, Salt – each referring to an aspect of the Western Australian landscape. None is particularly long in duration – the first two just on 6 minutes each, the second pair about 4’30” – so the entire work comes in at closer to 19 minutes than 20.

Two performers are involved: violin Madeleine Antoine and pianist Setsu Masuda. Both of these musicians are residents of Perth and, despite having travelled widely across this country and internationally, their talents have never come my way, probably because my attention sits on a less wide range of musical experiences than those explored by this duo. You’d have to assume that the collaboration is not one of long standing, even though both (and composer Smith) belong to the Open House Music Collective, an organization dating from 2019 and operating in Perth and Fremantle. As well, both Antoine and Masuda have a good deal of live work to their credit but precious few CDs.

Smith finds her Blood element in Western Australia’s northernmost division, the Kimberley – and also the sun, which gives something of a balance to the next Milk movement which offers a vision of the Milky Way galaxy. As for Nectar, the state’s vast canola fields/farms stand in for the gods’ drink, while Salt suggests the sea – specifically Sugarloaf Rock off Cape Naturaliste at the top of the Margaret River region.

It doesn’t take a particularly keen level of insight to glean from this set of natural and unnatural wonders that Smith’s aesthetic scenario involves the state of this planet and, by natural extension, climate change. We can delight in the Kimberley’s many facets, although the composer asks us to centre on ‘ a wide expanse of land over the course of a day’. The stars? Well, we can still see them despite the thickening of our atmospheres. Canola I’m not so sure about as it’s a man-made product and has come in for criticism because of its universality, I presume; but then, Western Australia produces 50% of the nation’s output so it might come – like coal – under the banner of a ‘national treasure’. Sugarloaf Rock is the most pristine and somehow personal of these phenomena, although it too is as subject to human interference and degradation as is the rest of the WA landscape.

The accompanying notes refer to Smith’s work as a ‘sonata’. and it probably is – in the old sense, rather than referring to the formal shape of the Classical and Romantic period composers. Smith’s Blood/Kimberley movement begins with some scene-setting sounds; a kind of static continuum before the violin enters with a high held note (semi-harmonic?), eventually broken up with some brusque piano punctuation. At the centre of this sound-picture is a wrenching octave violin line competing with a rising four-chord piano motif which reaches an impassioned highpoint; then, a return to the exposed landscape of the opening – the whole possibly suggesting the Kimberley’s solitariness, if more reminiscent to these ears of the continent’s vast, empty centre.

As for the Milky stars, Smith’s inspiration is rapid sextuplets or sets of triplets – or plain 6/8 – in both piano and violin through an opening coruscation that is packed with fifths in a conservative vocabulary and more than a little touch of Bartok-style parallel chords in the keyboard. The action dies down to a Rachmaninov-reminiscent meditation before a move to Ravelian quiverings from both instruments and we come to a more spacious view of the galaxy before a reversion to the opening action, if a few shades less scintillating, and the piece fades, although not quite to nothingness.

After this scherzo, the sonata moves to a free meditation for violin on one note, then more fifths and fourths until it seems that we are in a sort of fantasia land. The piano enters well after the movement’s halfway point with individual notes mirroring the string line, supported more and more by chords The resultant mix moves to a pseudo-chorale before the violin is left alone to recall this adagio‘s opening. You might have better luck than I did in slotting canola-field imagery into these pages; as for Nectar, I doubt that any Olympian-worshipping apiarist could find much passion-supporting ambience in this admittedly melodious trail.

Smith ends with an aspirational piece that seems to sit mainly in a 5/8 rhythm at its start. Masuda’s keyboard sets up the pattern and Antoine soon joins in, but with a more lyrical line. The flow rises to a powerful Ravel Trio-style climax. This atmosphere of excitement dies away into gentle ripples and the sonata concludes placidly. With this movement, we have a visual stimulus in that the CD cover provides an image of Sugarloaf Rock and the sea that surrounds it – not as mind-blowingly savage as the landscape off Brittany but a sort of gentle cousin.

In fact, the composer has ‘loosely’ based her four movements on photographs by Andrew J. Clarke, although, like Beethoven, the images play second fiddle to the emotions instigated and recalled when visiting or observing these four sights/sites Clarke’s cover photo is mirrored by a painting of the same outcrop on the CD’s back, which was probably produced by Jo Darvall or Kelly Wong; it’s hard to decide which, given the context of the printed acknowledgements.

The entire experience is easily assimilable and pleasant enough, the duo competent in their realization of Smith’s intentions. Still, she hasn’t give her executants many problems to solve. You get some virtuosic flourishes from Antoine, forceful passages from Masuda, but not much that raises the performing or reactive level to excitement. Apart from Milk, the sonata is a restful and restrained work; not over-priced, given its length, impressing mainly as a mild plaint against the insane destruction of our planet, abetted and encouraged by clowns in public office, and those who aspire to it. However, by her overall title, Smith clearly sees the approaching apocalypse in much broader terms than simply the continual fouling of our natural, national habitat.

A byword for excellence

BORDERLANDS

Van Diemen’s Band

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Thursday May 5, 2022

Julia Fredersdorff

The name is Tasmanian but some of this ensemble’s personnel are off-islanders; not many of us, and only some of this group, have enjoyed the gift of moving away from the modern plague to a serene retreat in the uttermost south. Van Diemen’s Band is a mobile quantity with a wide number of musicians to call on; for this Musica Viva national tour, the numbers have been whittled down to a sextet – five strings and Donald Nicolson‘s harpsichord. As well as founder/artistic director/leader Julia Fredersorff, we heard violinist Simone Slattery, Katie Yap on viola, with two bass viols in Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba. Fredersdorff, Vaughan and Nicolson I know from their Latitude 37 excursions over the past 16 years; Yap and Baba have appeared in concerts and recitals under the auspices of the Australian Digital Concert Hall – that indispensable source of interest and income for so many local musicians over the past two years.

The Band attempted a parallel between conditions in Europe today with those that prevailed during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. Which almost worked as quite a few of those composers encountering troubles with borders/national frontiers four centuries ago appeared on the Van Diemen program – well, an exception was Philipp Heinrich Erlebach who wasn’t born until a decade after the long conflict ended. The others in the ‘Borderlands’ designated section of the program – Dietrich Becker, Samuel Scheidt, Jean de Sainte-Colombe – were alive at the time (the last-named still a child), although I’m not too clear about the difficulties and/or dangers that they experienced when moving from country to country. Becker didn’t move far during his lifetime, although the German states were hardly safe havens for artists; Scheidt spent most of his life in Halle; the little that is known about Sainte-Colombe suggests he didn’t move far from Paris, once he got there.

Only a few pieces didn’t involve the complete ensemble: Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir‘s Clockworking involved Fredersdorff, Yap, and Baba on cello; both gamba players worked through one of the night’s highlights in Sainte-Colombe’s Les Pleurs. As well, Slattery played recorder in a few pieces – a sopranino (?) in Scheidt’s Galliard Battaglia, a soprano In a Scheidt courant where she seemed to double the top violin line, and again the recorder dominated the latter part of the program’s finale: Spirals by harpsichordist Nicolson.

The group showed itself to be careful and poised in delivery across the length of Becker’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major. Not that there’s much to concern players at this level of expertise in a spare sonata da chiesa-style work, yet the output balance could not be faulted, nor individual linear contours. In short, an amiable sample of throat-clearing. Fredersdorff assembled a five-part ‘Borderlands Suite’ to exemplify her Thirty Years’ War parallel, beginning with Scheidt’s galliard that comprised trumpet calls imitating each other, the work going nowhere at a measured pace so that Slattery’s new timbre proved highly welcome. Becker’s Paduan gives all the initial running to the top line, Fredersdorff impressing with an effortless ease before her colleagues Slattery and Yap took up some of the burden.

As I’ve said, the gamba duet by Sainte-Colombe impressed for the even output of Vaughan and Baba, free of the intentional scratchiness and open-string reediness that seem to be compulsory among many interpreters of this composer and his pupil, Marais. In this version, the lines matched ideally in chords and interweaving passages of play to make a moving experience of this all-too-brief plaint. A clever contrast came with the Scheidt courant, which proved to be not as meanderingly fluent as many another dance in this form, yet suggestive of relief after tragedy. The suite concluded with the chaconne that concludes Erlebach’s Ouverture No. 2, notable for a staggered entry from everyone, which spiced up the original’s 8 variants on the descending-scale ground bass; nothing startling here but a laudably confident surge in play throughout.

Then the night’s first half concluded with an absolute gem splendidly performed: Albinoni’s Sonata II in C Major from the Op. 2 Sinfonia a 5. The opening Largo duet between Fredersdorff and Slattery with its stately dotted rhythm set the standard for a dynamically rich interpretation, during which all parties demonstrated a remarkable gift for playing softly without disappearing up an acoustic fundament. Another virtuoso turn from the violins distinguished the following Allegro, but then all five string lines collaborate here in a joyful mesh of interdependence that was as close to ideal as you would want. Further, the ensemble showed its mettle in the A minor Grave with a shower of ebbs and recedings in all lines, dominated by the two top lines with some eloquent statement/response work in bars 9 and 10, later going the other way in bars 13 and 14. The whole concluded with powerful, regular allegro that maintained an interpretative fluency that can often collapse when players are faced with lighter texture and rhythmic novelty. Here, the musicians stuck to their task with admirable integrity, so reaching a mark of high distinction with some of the best Baroque music-making I’ve heard for many years.

I moved to the back of the Conservatorium Theatre for the second part of the performance, which began with Muffat’s Sonata No. 1 from the Armonico Tributo of 1682; more of a suite, really, with allemandes, a gavotte, a minuet but a couple of graves and an appealingly level-headed allegro along the way. From further back in this excellent space, the Band’s breadth of timbre proved more apparent, and the performance style just as smooth-edged or finely bevelled as in the Albinoni, even if the music by the well-travelled French composer impressed as comparatively predictable.

Sigfusdottir’s work dates from 2013 and sets the string trio against an electronic tape, the two sound sources attempting to balance together. The Icelandic composer’s methodology offers a fusion of serious and popular, Baroque and rock – and the results here border on the inane with an overall plethora of perfect 4ths and 5ths in a fabric that moves slowly, if not ponderously. In aiming at giving us, as base matter, a pre-Industrial Revolution work-song, the composer’s offering sublimates a distinctive line to effects and the rocker’s stock-in-trade of numbing repetition. There’s not much to observe about the string trio’s rendition; I assume it fitted the bill because nothing disturbed the work’s glacial surface.

Some say the Sonata Jucunda was written by Biber; others attribute it to Schmelzer. Whatever the truth of it, the work has indubitable character with imitations of Turkish music not that far removed from Mozart’s rondo and the colourful flourishes in Il Seraglio, although the composer seemed to believe that Turkish music was played in unison or at the octave. At the same time, the progress of this extravaganza included some gypsy-indebted passages, especially some polished Zigeuner flourishes from Fredersdorff near the end.

Nicolson has used a Ukrainian song, Dusha moya pregreshnaya, as a thread through his short passacaglia, the melody appearing en clair when Slattery took up her recorder. The language is approachable and orthodox, and you can’t avoid the bandura/zither/balalaika suggestions that frame the work with the strings thrumming atmospherically in a product that stands as a lament for the Ukrainian people, faced with invasion originating from a moral leper. The Van Diemen musicians were playing to a sympathetic audience and enjoyed a warm response. Yet the piece avoids vulgarity and bathos through its skillful organization, simplicity of utterance and innate dignity. It seized the moment, yes, but it brought home the elevated principles underlying this occasion – honesty, charity, even (to my mind) defiance.