July 2022 Diary

Is it safe to bring back The Diary? Let’s hope that Monkeypox doesn’t have the virulent power of COVID-19, so that the teetering semblance of normality currently prevailing continues, or even strengthens.

Friday July 1 at 7:30 pm

FESTIVAL OPENING

Claire Edwardes, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

To start his annual festival with some oomph, director/pianist Alex Raineri is pairing up with percussionist Edwardes. If they each had a double, we might have enjoyed the Bartok Sonata; as it is, the bag on offer is very mixed with only one composer’s name familiar (Alex Turley), one other possibly half-recalled (Matthew Shlomowitz), and the other four complete strangers. ‘Macens’, I presume, is Ella Macens, a 30-year-old Sydney writer of Latvian extraction; Peggy Polias is another Sydney artist moving into the central years of her creative life with a solid academic pedigree. Also with a Sydney background is Cyrus Meurant, many of whose works appear to be written for theatre or dance, and so would not have hit my field of operations. Turley from Western Australia lived for some time in Melbourne as well as Sydney. So, all Australians, including expatriate Turley, originally from Adelaide. Odd one out is Nicole Lizee, a Canadian composer of eclectic output – by which I mean that her influences are wide-ranging and ‘modern’, although what that entails when used in reference to a former indie rock band member is probably best left unexplored. Or. if you want, join Edwardes and Raineri in their exposition of this ‘kaleidoscopically colourful’ hour’s music-making.

Saturday July 2 at 3 pm

MOTIONS

Paul Dean, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

I suppose the main feature for some of us at this afternoon recital will be the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in E flat for Dean’s clarinet and Raineri’s piano. They don’t come more canonic in the wind instrument’s repertoire than this, the second of two produced just before the composer’s death, and this could be a congenial filling-out of recent Brahms-through-Raineri experiences, thanks to the pianist’s recent Move recording of the Sonata No. 1 with clarinet Luke Carbon. Dean premieres his own Miniatures, presumably the pieces for clarinet and piano from 70 works written for other musicians in lockdown during 2020. Jorg Widmann’s Five Fragments won’t take long, being exactly what the composer promised. As well, more Australian content comes with Catherine Likhuta’s 2010 composition for alto saxophone and piano that gives this recital its name. I’m assuming that Dean will play the clarinet arrangement that appears in the composer’s list of compositions.

Tuesday July 12 at 7:30 pm

RETURN TO THE STAGE

Australian Youth Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sir Mark Elder, venerable director of the Halle Orchestra, is visiting this colony to take these aspirational players through a 70-minute non-stop program of Berlioz and Strauss. I suppose the stage return is that of the AYO itself; it probably doesn’t refer to Strauss, although his output usually shows that he was never off it. This evening, we hear An Alpine Symphony, which is one of the great landscape works in the Western repertoire, complete with offstage hunting horns, a storm, sunrise, sunset, cowbells, a waterfall, sheep bleats. On top of the massive orchestra, you get a wind machine and even the organ roars out in the tempest scene. And that’s what it is: a big tone poem packed with musical set-changes. Before this extravaganza, the AYO will play Berlioz’s Les francs-juges Overture: one of the composer’s first failures. Not that the opera was intrinsically bad; how can we tell when nobody got to hear it? But the composer destroyed his manuscript and revisions, only a few scraps remaining of which this overture is one; in musicological terms, his first surviving work for orchestra.

Wednesday July 13 at 7:30 pm

EAST MEETS WEST

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Dane Lam conducts this program where we are shown just how much European musical concepts have invaded the brave new world of Mao Zedong and his successors. Top of the list will be the Yellow River Piano Concerto, written by a panel of two/three at the command of Jiang Qing of happy memory, and displaying to all the world the aspirations of the nation. Soloist is Tony Lee who carried all before him at the Sydney International Piano Competition of 2016. A more sensitive type of chauvinism comes in the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, written by two students in 1959 and performed here by Anna Da Silva Chen. Other details are not available but you are promised sopranos Victoria Lambourn and Sharon Zhai, with guzheng young artist Angie Liu coming up from Sydney to infuse a touch of exoticism through her fixed and moveable bridges instrument. I’m assuming the singers will present some standard repertoire – perhaps a touch of Liu and/or Turandot?

Thursday July 14 at 12 pm

QUIRKY

Real and Diverse Theatre/Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Here is an offshoot of our recent pandemic, the RAD Theatre people showing us how our daily life regularities altered; whether for good or ill, I guess we’ll find out. The ensemble is at pains to state that their piece is not about COVID but rather how cast members reacted to and coped with the new order. As for the music, that has been written by Nicole Murphy, a name that doesn’t ring any bells but whose career has been packed with activity, both here and in the United States (of America). Nothing is explicit about the QSO’s role in all this, but you’d have to guess that the forces are chamber-size when the promotional spiel speaks of ‘musicians from [the] Queensland Symphony Orchestra’.

The performance will be repeated on Friday July 15 at 7:30 pm and on Saturday July 16 at 2 pm.

Thursday July 14 at 7 pm

A WINTER’S JOURNEY

Allan Clayton, Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

In this year’s Musica Viva season, Schubert’s mighty, depressing song cycle will be performed by English tenor Clayton and Sydney-born, London-based Golla. It should be a musical discovery for most of us in Brisbane because I don’t think Clayton has worked here before, and Golla moved to the UK pretty soon after finishing a stint as repetiteur and coach with Opera Australia. To add to the stimulation, Lindy Hume is directing this performance, with videographer Dave Bergman projecting large-scale backdrops of Fred Williams paintings – 24 of them, just like the cycle’s number of songs! I wish everybody well, of course, but the last time I witnessed a staged Winterreise was at a Melbourne International Festival in 2004 when English baritone Simon Keenlyside sang and danced the music – sort of. I thought much of that exercise was ludicrous miming; other members on the panel of the newspaper I was writing for considered it worthy of an award as Performance of the Festival. I remain(ed) unconvinced and, proving that I was in the right, most of them are dead now.

Wednesday July 20 at 7:30 am

LA LUNE BLANCHE

Ensemble Q

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St.

A real chamber music recital from this group with a variety of instruments at its disposal. At the core comes a string quartet: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. Two other performers will feature in proceedings: Q guru Paul Dean on clarinet and soprano Eva Kong. And what do you get? There’s some Mozart, a touch of Faure, a little scrap of Borodin, and various whispers from Webern. As far as Kong is concerned, Reynaldo Hahn is mentioned as a contributor to the program, so you’d anticipate a song or six; not much else is feasible as all the chamber music by Hahn that I can find involves piano. T he Borodin would have to be that string quartet, wouldn’t it? Mozart? Could be anything, especially if you take into account ad hoc arrangements. A Faure song – like La lune blanche – would be welcome. But the Webern? The Five Movements? The Six Bagatelles? The String Quartet? The String Trio? Then there’s the white moon suggestion in this music-of-the-night celebration, or does that just apply to one song? Whatever, you’re encouraged to bring champagne – which, at my age, is death as far as listening to nocturnal music goes.

Sunday July 24 at 11:30 am

FANTASY AND FOLKLORE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

This is one for the kids, the recommended audience age being 6+ (good luck with keeping them enthralled for 80 minutes). Umberto Clerici, having completed his sea-change from cellist to conductor, will take his young auditors through a miscellany, starting with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, presumably in the Rimsky whizz-bang orchestration and without Walt Disney’s Fantasia film interpretation. A Tchaikovsky valse from The Sleeping Beauty ballet suite, a few of Ravel’s Mother Goose miniatures, the first movement to Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto with Huw Jones the soloist, that most equine of warhorses, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (without the girls), Dvorak’s The Noon Witch tone poem (has anybody heard that in live performance? I haven’t) – most of these fall under the concert’s titular umbrella, apart from the concerto which might suggest The Shire to some of us. Speaking of films, the orchestra plays John Williams’ The Flight to Neverland from Hook, which summons up adventure and fantasy as efficiently as any of the American’s more forgettable scores. And an indirect reference to our world today emerges with Catherine Likhuta’s Rituals of Heartland which is based on musical motifs from the composer’s native Ukraine. This work was written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Cybec 21st Century Composers program of February 2018, well before the abomination that struck Likhuta’s birth country, a disaster emanating from its large neighbour, whose leader should be – like Arthur Miller’s Abigail – cut out of the world.

Friday July 29 at 11:30 am

TRIUMPHANT TCHAIKOVSKY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Yes, it is Tchaikovsky at his most affirmative as the QSO takes on the Symphony No. 4 in F minor in this program’s second half. Leading the players through this weltering masterpiece is conductor Giordano Bellincampi, an Italian-Danish musician who is currently music director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra; I’m unsure whether he has worked before in this country. He also will exercise his talents on the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco and the Intermezzo that opens Act 3 of Manon Lescaut by Puccini. The concert’s soloist is tenor Kang Wang, well-known in Queensland as he has sung many times with the QSO, as well as appearing with Opera Queensland. He gets to thrill the audience with more Puccini in Nessun dorma and Che gelida manina. As well as these over-familiar favourites, we hear two Verdi rarities: Adorno’s enraged O inferno/Sento avvampar nell’anima from Simon Boccanegra; and Quando le sere e placido, Rodolfo’s Act 2 aria in Luisa Miller – both examples of characters who have been emotionally diddled.

This program will be repeated on Saturday July 30 at 7:30 pm

Sunday July 31 at 3:30 pm

MAHLER & STRAUSS

Leanne Kenneally, Caitlin Weal, Alla Yarosh, Francis Atkins

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sopranos Kennelly and Weal eventually team up with mezzo Yarosh for the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier in this lush late-Romantic program, pianist Atkins having to provide a substitute for that lush orchestral fabric that eventually overwhelms the opera’s three main female singers as all those 6/4 chords have to be resolved. More importantly, someone is singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder; probably the mezzo, because the vocal line suits that register. And we are promised some very familiar Strauss songs, including Allerseelen and that superbly robust-yet-hushed Standchen. Kenneally is a well-known quantity; the other two singers are hopefully (as we say ad nauseam in sports interviews) on their paths to satisfying careers.

Mix and (possibly) match

AUSTRALIAN MONODY

The Marais Project

Move Records 633

Here is something of a miscellany, the CD’s title overtly relevant to a few tracks, secondarily related to other music by a liberal interpretation, the whole box and dice the product of Australian musicians, even if the monody angle is out of kilter with quite a few elements on offer. Marais Project founder Jenny Eriksson‘s viola da gamba is heard in all but one of the fifteen tracks, four times in partnership with fellow gamba Catherine Upex; multi-tasker Susie Bishop sings solo or contributes to five pieces with her soprano and violin, plays violin only in two, and sings only in two others; Marais regular Tommie Andersson plays in everything – theorbo in eleven pieces, guitar in three others, and touches his lute in another; organist Anthony Abouhamad reinforces two Purcell works on a continuo organ; and countertenor Russell Harcourt participates in six pieces with his remarkably clear, high-flying vocal timbre.

Further to the CD’s title. As far as national content is concerned, the Marais group jumps across the centuries. From our ancient white music, we hear Isaac Nathan’s The Aboriginal Mother and The Aboriginal Father from the composer’s Australian Melodies collection of 1841-1863. Vault forward a touch and you come to Carl Vine’s Love me sweet, written for The Battlers TV series in 1994. In composing mode, Bishop wrote her Lullaby for a Broken World during the 2020 Sydney COVID lockdown. Alice Chance’s 2018 Precious Colours was revised for the Marais ensemble last year, which also saw the arrival of Gordon Kerry’s Christchurch Monody, a response to the 2019 attack on two mosques in that city.

As for non-Australian monodies, we have a Dowland ayre – Now, O now, I needs must part – from the composer’s First Booke of 1597; those two Purcells – the Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary of 1695, O dive custos, and An Evening Hymn, first published in 1688; as well, a blast from the near-present in Michael Nyman’s If, composed for use in the 1995 Japanese animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank.

And breaking the British-Australian cultural dominance is a Marais gamba suite, that in A minor from Book V, published in 1725; after performing which, Eriksson immediately restores the status quo with her own very recently contrived La Petite Tarantelle, living up to its name by being the second-shortest track on Australian Monody.

Three of these tracks – the lullaby, Kerry’s monody, the tarantella – are world premiere recordings.

One of the treasures of this collection is the ayre which features both singers, the three Marais strings (violin in stanza 2 only?), and Andersson on lute with a solo of his own in medias res based on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Bishop sings the first stanza, Harcourt the second and the similarity in vocal shadings is extraordinary, even more so when both combine for the final Deare, if I doe not returne where they sing the two upper parts of the composer’s four-part setting. This exercise is carried off with a warm clarity from all contributors, an ensemble effort to match the best that I’ve heard – a pity that I can’t compare it with Gordon Sumner’s Dowland excursions, but he didn’t record this work (thanks be to God). While the singers are phrase-length near-perfect, the gambas and violin are discretion personified, everybody occasionally inserting a communal, brief hiatus point.

Abouhamad’s flutey continuo organ fits well with Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson on theorbo to support Harcourt in the Purcell hymn, another throwaway gem from the greatest British composer. Not that Harcourt is piercingly true in pitch all the time but his slight deviations reinforce the touching humanity of Bishop Fuller’s words and their buoyant setting with Purcell’s unforgettable chain of Hallelujah exclamations across the piece’s last 45 bars – a reverent praise-chant that leaves Handel’s bombast well in its wake. The near-contemporary elegy, a vocal duet for two upper-range voices (or so it appears from the only edition I could find), is carefully accomplished by Bishop and Harcourt, once more almost indistinguishable in timbre, with the same support as in the hymn. You might have asked for more sustained power at the start with one or two breathing spots interrupting otherwise seamless lines. While you could delight in the vocal interweaving of the opening quatrain, the duet showed at its most persuasive from the Seu te fluentem change in metre at bar 33, handling with impressive ease the chromatic dips starting at bar 99’s o flete leading to a sombre conclusion. Not what you’d call a monody, then, but welcome for its own sake in this miscellany.

It wouldn’t be a Marais Project disc without a gamba suite by the ensemble’s inspiration. Eriksson has recorded several of these for Move, including the G minor suite from Livre V twice; well, it appears on two different Move CDs. This A minor work has four movements in this presentation: Prelude le Soligni, Allemande la Facile, Sarabande and Menuet. While forging a calm, undemonstrative path through these constituents, Eriksson has Andersson’s theorbo providing an underpinning continuo force. The compositions are constitutionally lean: 24, 16, 28 and 32 (Menuet plus Double) bars in length; in other words, completed quickly, despite the repeats – even the Sarabande. The reading is tasteful and tactful, carefully shaped in phrasing and dynamic gradations and without a trace of aggression or harshness.

Perhaps I’m among a very few but I can’t get excited about the two Nathan songs; possibly more sympathy might be roused by greater research, but I don’t think so. The CD’s booklet makes some fanciful observations about the cultural worth of the colonial Australian composer’s insight into Aboriginal culture and his appropriation of First Nation songs, but the actual products have demonstrated yet again the craft of shaping original indigenous melodies into lieder fit for any Victorian salon. An only man standing in Sydney’s early days, Nathan isn’t our Ives; nor is expatriate Grainger, nor Alfred Hill. In fact, none of them addresses us in a vocabulary that we would seriously call our own.

This brace of songs comes across as amiable enough, well matched to Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s soppy verses. For the three stanzas of The Aboriginal Father, Bishop participates in the prelude, postlude and interludes with her violin, along with Andersson on a 9-string guitar and Eriksson’s gamba; of course, breaking from her instrumental participation to sing Nathan’s four-square Europeanized melody.

A bleaker scenario is proposed in The Aboriginal Mother although it’s hard to imagine many indigenous hearts identifying with its elevated, studied language, let alone the 4-square tune that might easily have been written by the singer’s namesake, Henry. Here, she is escorted by Andersson’s guitar alone. Both monodies are performed with clarity and poise. but their curiosity standing is the only remarkable feature about them; they could have come from 19th century Leipzig or Dublin as easily as Sydney.

From Nathan’s songs on, the remainder of this disc consists of monody, with one final exception. I’ve always had high respect for Vine as an all-round musician: as composer, with his early ballets and the first four symphonies; as well, his brilliant pianism. This little song, performed here by the ensemble minus Abouhamad, is the gentlest of lyrics with a mildly rocking instrumental support. At one point, I could have sworn that Harcourt was being doubled by Bishop’s soprano, but that was probably wishful thinking. In any case, it makes for an easy-listening final track.

Nyman’s song is set in one key, like Vine’s, and is sung by Harcourt who is unpressured and under-exercised. The song, in both stanzas and choruses, follows a simple downward motion for the singer while Bishop, Eriksson and Andersson’s theorbo follow a rudimentary supporting role. Roger Pulvers’ wish-rich text brings to mind the naivete of the famous diary and Nyman gives it a setting that suits the requisite emotional ambience.

Gordon Kerry is another Australian composer whose work has often delighted me; on occasion, impressing as much as any contemporary writer I’ve come across, e.g. his 1993 opera Medea and the String Quintet of 2012. His meditation on the Christchurch massacre sets two Old Testament texts: one is two verses from Ecclesiastes, known to many by its observation that the race is not to the swift; the other, featuring that striking simile of the righteous who shall run to and fro like sparks among the stubble, involves verses from Book 3 of the Book of Wisdom. This piece, commissioned by the Project, is performed by Bishop vocal and instrumental, both gambas, and Andersson’s theorbo.

Kerry’s composition is an exemplification of my idea of monody, particularly the first part where the voice and two strings intertwine with the same motif. The work’s first part is lean in texture, even when the other instruments enter, the whole reflecting those anguished and doom-laden verses. If there is any redemption to be found in our memories of the senseless, terrifying slaughter in New Zealand, Kerry epitomizes it in his monody’s second part where the souls of the mosques’ dead worshippers are commended to God. Here, the harmony moves to the major and the instrumental contribution changes to rustlings of warmth as Bishop’s violin and soprano alternate in an uplifting tribute to the fallen. Like certain other tracks on the CD, this music moves through its emotional sparseness and simple musical material.

Precious Colours is a Project-tailored revision of an earlier Alice Chance work, Pallah Pallah, which recounts an Aboriginal legend about a butterfly caught in the snow; when it melts, the insect’s colours run to generate the opal. The text is a dialogue between the butterfly and her husband, both lamenting the transformation. There is no cleverness here; the song is a duet for Harcourt and Bishop, who also contributes an intervallic violin, with both gambas and theorbo reinforcing what seems to be a cantus-firmus. The initial melody is pentatonic/mono-harmonic (D minor?) and is employed by both voices, who actually combine vertically at only one point. As the first track on the CD, it sets the monodic expectations at very little, if not naught, but it also establishes an intimation of the European interpretation of Aboriginal music that flowers more fully in the Nathan songs.

More adventurous by a smidgen in its harmonic vocabulary, Bishop’s Lullaby represents the kind of thing that the composer thinks we could sing to our children in a world broken by COVID, climate change and the horror of being confronted by our previous Federal government’s ministers. A gentle piece, Bishop treats it as a soothing entity, at odds with the threats to those young ones being lullabied. Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson’s guitar combine with the singer’s violin, the singer/violinist able to carry out both functions simultaneously when she hums/recapitulates her opening lines; a monodist with a difference, then.

Last in this chronological sequence comes Eriksson’s tarantella, a tribute to Marais as it’s an essay at a final suite movement in the master’s style. The gamba is still underpinned by the theorbo and it cuts a fine period rug with a metrical change from 6/8 to 3/4 near the end. Not sure how the maitre would have evaluated this bagatelle’s melodic material which struck me as lacking in quirkiness.

Take it all in all, here is a collection that, despite the drawing of various parallels and long bows, is far from described by its title. It may be unkind, but I don’t feel as if anyone concerned has been strained by their participation; mind you, that’s not a bad quality for musicians to enjoy. As well as this facility in music-making, several tracks strike me as exceptionally fine: both Purcells, the ayre, Eriksson’s Marais suite account, and the contributions from Vine and Kerry.

The more, the merrier

THE WEAPONS OF RHETORIC

Bach Akademie Australia

Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, New South Wales

Saturday June 11, 2022

The best moments of this Bach celebration came when the numbers performing were at their largest. Not that this is saying much because the Akademie doesn’t run to crowded stages, their emphasis being on a refinement of tone that can lead to tenuousness. But, of the six works or extracts programmed, those I enjoyed most were the ensemble’s version of the superb Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and the night’s finale – the Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043. Both were chamber-proportioned with one instrument for the orchestral violins and viola line in the Double Concerto, and one instrument per line in the Brandenburg.

Laura Vaughan opened the recital with Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord, Neal Peres Da Costa playing the keyboard. The opening Adagio set off alarm bells with an enunciative error hitting the string line as early as bar 7, but the actual progress of the movement was uneasy as the viola’s output proved uneven, dipping in and out of audibility while the harpsichord stayed omni-present. In the pendant Allegro, Vaughan had her hands full ensuring the accuracy of line, but her delivery lacked dynamic differentiation; admittedly hard to achieve when you eschew vibrato and have your hands full of semiquavers. Still, these pages relied largely on the harpsichord for bite and shape.

Patches of the eloquent Andante succeeded, mainly those parts where the harpsichord is responding to figured bass directions only, but the continued unevenness of the viol disappointed, especially in closely integrated segments where lines overlap and link motivically. As for the final Allegro, Vaughan seemed yet again hard pressed to get her notes out, let alone do anything with them. For this reason, much of the movement’s high spirits failed to fire, and scintillations like the quick bumps in bars 100, 102, 104 and especially from bar 106 through to the exhilaration of bar 110 preluding the return home, all failed to carry and to have their full effect.

To take us through the Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering, Akademie founder Madeleine Easton and Julia Fredersdorff played violins, Karina Schmitz and John Ma violas, Anthea Cottee cello, and Kirsty McCahon double bass. There’s no definitive instrumentation for this part (or much else) of this score, so this all-strings version works as well as most, although throughout its length I was inevitably reminded of Webern’s orchestration – a bad situation because I kept on mentally replacing the Akademie’s string lines with the Austrian composer’s imagined timbres. It wasn’t as though the players didn’t fulfil their roles, but the playing was rhythmically mechanical and the prevailing dynamic remained bland and colourless, even in moving passages like the touching cadence in bar 39.

Surprises like the exposed bass line from bar 66 to bar 72 was given as a gruff, uninflected grumble, and the written out top-line mordents in bar 93 simply didn’t carry. At the end, the last five bars in Webern’s version radiate jubilation and achievement, albeit with a small orchestra’s resources; this sextet maintained their chugging approach and brought about an unexceptional end to this magnificent structure. Fair’s fair: everyone stuck to their period-authentic guns and laid bare the architecture, but is that enough? To me, the effect was that of an exercise, one carried out half-cocked.

Solo violas (da braccio) for the Brandenburg 6 were Schmitz and Ma; Vaughan and Jenny Eriksson played violas da gamba; Cottee enjoyed the prominent cello line; McCahon’s double bass stood in for the original violone and Da Costa gave ample support with his cembalo/harpsichord. I’ve heard other performances that were more accurate and polished, but not another that proved as enjoyable and refreshing as this one.

What struck you straightaway was the relish with which all performers threw themselves into the ritornelli; each time a pivotal refrain came round, the players smiled – with delight, I assume, at the splendidly rich and powerful noise they were producing, as well as revelling in a music that tests but leaves room for delight. The top viola notes were occasionally wavering off-pitch, but in gthe first movement these glitches were few and far between after about bar 40. And the continuo homophony with those insistent bass chords under the twinning top lines proved emphatically compelling.

In the central not-too-much Adagio, you became more aware of the swelling and diminishing phrases employed by the two viola soloists; nothing overdone or swooping but giving the weaving lines some shape, not leaving them to survive unadorned, without attention. Alongside this, the employment of differing dynamic levels shone through, assisted by the silence of the gambas, and taken full advantage of by Cottee who broke into independence at bar 35 where she was relieved from her regular six-crotchets-a-bar stolidity. In similar vein to the first movement, the concluding Allegro was a delight, pretty close to an unqualified one. Once more, the musicians showed obvious pleasure in their individual work and their collegial results in this spirit-lifting dance. I relished the give-and-take manners of the three solo lines from Schmitz, Ma and Cottee, and the polished oomph of the returning ritornelli did great service to the composer – and that’s the best you can hope to witness at any concert.

After interval, Easton worked through the first two movements of the G minor Violin Sonata, an Adagio and Fugue. On first hearing, the first of these impressed as strained, a sequence of hurdles. Second time around, the reading seemed more coherent in every sense except rhythmic; in that, Easton is not alone as interpreters galore take their own sweet time and liberties over the movement’s passagework with its semiquavers, demi-semiquavers, and hemi-demi-semiquavers. Only a few violinists I’ve heard adhere to the letter of the metrical law and negotiate these flights in strict time; for most, Bach’s score is a palimpsest only, so bar lengths can expand and contract at will. Still, the part-writing was observed properly and only two articulation errors emerged from the mesh.

The fugue, familiar to many of us from the organ Prelude and Fugue BWV 539, was a more rigorous test aa the linear interplay intensified, the first danger sign coming at bar 11 where a few of the triple-stop chords failed to resonate properly. Later, top notes started to waver or not register securely. But the experience was something of a mixed bag; the written-out arpeggio passage work from bar 42 to bar 50 succeeded well enough, with a bit of interpolated dynamic juxtaposition, such as organists make by switching between manuals when playing the same material twice. But then, a pivotal top note to a bar 52 chord failed to sound. Bars 61 to 62 revealed pitch problems; bars 74 to 75 were near-disastrous; and even the single-note passages were not exactly fault-free. Something of a struggle for Easton, and for us.

The ten Riddle Canons from The Musical Offering present logistical problems for any performers, I suppose. There’s no worry about the actual notes, which are not difficult to negotiate. But it’s an organizational question, deciding who comes into the mix and where. To a large extent, these exercises are paper music, not really audience-attracting; but then, after this night, at least you can say you’ve heard them. Rather than entrust them all to Da Costa (who scored Canon 9 as a solo), Easton and her advisers used a mixed quintet: herself and Fredersdorff on violins, an anonymous flautist, Cottee’s cello, and the harpsichord.

And on they went; five duos, a trio, three quartets, and the aforementioned keyboard solo. Easton prefaced groups of canons with a few explanatory comments, mainly telling us the pieces’ names, their peculiarities, and their functions as indirect praise of the whole work’s pseudo-commissioner, Frederick the Great. The actual outlining of each canon raised no problems; everyone appeared to find their places in the simple labyrinths but, as with the Ricercar a 6, the experience proved bloodless, if formally satisfying.

Easton and Fredersdorff took the solo lines in the D minor Concerto for Two Violins, Schmitz changing her viola for a violin to give a tutti force to back Easton, while Fredersdorff scored the ripieno services of a young musician whose face I recognized but who wasn’t acknowledged in the program (like the Canons’ flautist) but whom I’ve seen in Australian Digital Concert Hall broadcasts like this one on at least one previous program. Ma gave us the viola line, while Cottee and McCahon supplemented Da Costa’s left hand.

This is a very familiar work and we’ve heard sterling performances over the years, my first experience being the old Deutsche Grammophon disc from the late 1950s of Oistrakh father and son with the Gewandhaus under Konwitschny. Our Easton/Fredersdorff pairing came across as well-matched, both displaying their own personalities with a slight edge in volatility on Easton’s part, her partner giving a more polished production. Again, the ensemble appeared happy in their work with a good deal of mutual appreciation signs and smiling acknowledgement of a well-turned line. Their opening Vivace was exceptional because of its light bounce, despite that reinforced bass, bowing lengths kept modest and the entire body sprightly in attack.

A substantiating instance of the soloists’ striking their own paths came up in the central Largo with the fine-pointed partnership that arises in bar 10, here an understated pleasure to the bar 15/16 cadence. Even better music-making followed with remarkably sensitive interplay up to bar 31; but the whole movement is an easy-flowing duet and, to a certain extent, plays itself into your affections. While the finale made a rousing conclusion to the program, its success rate was uneven. For instance, the sweeping double stops in both solo violins from bar 41 to bar 48 were accomplished with impressive grandeur; their recurrence between bars 127 and 134 failed to catch the same fire because of a lack of pitch accuracy. However, with Da Costa driving the assault, these pages as a composite unit brought this night to an invigorating conclusion.

I’ve not got much to say about the contributions of commentators Jonathan Biggins and Jonathan Horton who made intermittent attempts to bring the arts of rhetoric and music into line, thereby aiming for some justification regarding this concert’s title. Some of the speakers’ addresses were entertaining, if several details stretched the bounds of belief or truth, and Biggins moved into an unexpectedly Jesuit trope in his final Bach encomium. But a sustained shared thesis might have been more persuasive, especially one that had been well-researched and didn’t look so blatantly toward raising laughs.

Two Bachs, two baroques

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

Andrea Lam & Paul Grabowsky

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Saturday June 11, 2022

Andrea Lam

This latest gambit in Musica Viva‘s 2022 season gives us Lam and Grabowsky exercising their talents on the supremely accomplished Bach variations, which used to be rarely performed but currently attract all sorts of keyboard players. You can blame Glenn Gould for the attraction of the Goldberg Variations to contemporary pianists, the Canadian musician releasing his parameter-splitting recording in 1956 – since when things have never been the same. Of course, it’s more convenient to work through the score on a two-manual harpsichord (not to mention oh-so-authentic) so that intersecting lines don’t sound awkward. But what you lose in nerve-tensing clarity, you gain in dynamic and expressive potential.

Lam gave us the work as written, and she saw the task through with minimal trauma. On this occasion, that was her brief: to deliver the work ‘straight’, with technical prowess and interpretative insight. Grabowsky was required to improvise on the opening Aria‘s content, to transform Bach’s material into whatever harmonic, melodic or rhythmic shape occurred to him on the spot. I’d anticipate that, in later performances on this tour (Brisbane was the first), he might repeat himself; more than probable, given the nature of Grabowsky’s first dealings with the melody after he’d played it as written.

Throughout her account, Lam gave us a deft interpretation that took advantage of the piano’s powers to sustain and to offer toccata-like brilliance. Her reading of the initial Aria was slow-paced and restrained dynamically – a regular pavane. So her attack on the first variation sounded all the more startling, a full-blooded demonstration of hefty two-part counterpoint. I wasn’t certain about the player’s control during the early unison canon where the counterpoint faltered. Later, Variation 12’s canon at the fourth held a moment of dislodgement in its first half,

But Lam’s attack on the Ouverture and the following Variation 17 was direct and powerfully couched; in fact, the night’s lack of repeat observations turned the former into a too-short experience, the 3/8 second-part passing all too quickly. You couldn’t ask for a more lucid and fair reading of the alla breve Variation 22, each line individual and perceptible throughout. Later, the group of Variations 27 to 29 served as a masterclass in accelerating excitement and energy with sparkling finger-work in the right-hand demi-semiquavers of 28 and an exhilarating interplay at 29’s bars 9 to 14, 17 to 20, and 27 to 30.

The only mis-step that caused a hiccough in these final pages came in the bierhaus-reminiscent Quodlibet, before another calm restatement of the Aria brought us back to base. I’ve heard this last performed as a strong celebration, the dynamics amped up to turn the penultimate sinuous weaving of bars 27 to 31 into a chain of thumping assertions. Lam chose the upper path, giving us just the poetry and inbuilt elegance.

My problem with the night was that the recital started late; don’t know why – I was in my seat on time, everybody else turned up promptly (as far as I could tell), no obvious crises were on show in the foyer, and no smoke was seeping from backstage. Whatever the cause, Grabowsky didn’t get on with his Variations exercise until later than anticipated, the procedure made more delayed by a post-interval address from Musica Viva’s State Manager Paul McMahon, jiggling our charity bones through an EOFY reminder. The outcome was that, due to transportation necessities in getting back home, I had to leave before Grabowsky had finished.

The jazz musician’s concern was not that described by one patron returning to her seat who assured her companion that Grabowsky was going to go through each variation in a sort of cosmic re-assessment. His real concentration was on the Aria (which Bach left pretty much alone, using its bass as his creative fulcrum) and he restated it for us before embarking on what sounded like two variations of his own, carrying on in Bachian style. Well, that’s one way to get things rolling.

Then began the mystery of watching and hearing Grabowsky offer his own mutations. For a good deal longer than I’d expected, the path was followable, without any breaks into free-fall or a completely different musical dimension. Indeed, as the pianist grew into his own fluency, the structure occasionally dissipated, only to be brought back into line eventually. This is a large part of Grabowsky’s craft, of course, an aspect of it that for me has lain undiscovered; television apart, I’ve only seen him live twice – once with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing the solo in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and on an earlier occasion in the Melbourne Town Hall directing the Australian Art Orchestra (which might have been a performance of Passion). Not to mention his score for the opera Love in the Age of Therapy which I heard 20 years ago and of which, in my memory, there is left not a rack behind.

What struck me about this improvisation process was its normality and placidity. Grabowsky introduced plenty of 7th and 9th chords as well as upper-line work that sometimes bordered on doodling. In fact, the impression I gained at some spots was of a tinkering rather than a full-scale construction. Most of the enterprise’s intrigue came in hearing the pianist move from one harmonic mesh to another, in particular an extended sequence in E flat, from which key Grabowsky was in no hurry to extricate himself. Mind you, he was well on the way by the time I had to go, having landed in G minor and taking his own sweet time getting away from that into the home-key major.

That’s the point, of course: the improviser is under no obligation to rush but can milk a sweet spot for as long as s/he likes. It’s a different kind of baroque. Where Bach gives rein to his overpowering skill in manipulating notes across mathematical and lyrical frameworks, ornamentation hanging from the framework like grapes from a trellis, Grabowsky moves into a creative sphere where, if there’s nothing actually in excess, you can yet hear the borders sliding towards being unmoored on the smoothest of anchoring surfaces. To his great credit, this player manages the classical/jazz divide with equilibrium, neither side being forgotten or eclipsed in the process. Not that you’d expect anything less, especially when you call to mind his decades of exercising that specific musical muscle.

I’ve never had much patience with those who pose the question: what would Bach have thought of it? There’s no possible answer because the only finding is circumscribed by impossibilities. Do you think of Bach as an innovator, or as a culminating point? Is he the Baroque’s musical summa, or can you trace the developmental path through his sons to the geniuses-in-waiting of 1732 and 1765? What this night proves is that we can’t leave him alone; everybody in the Western musical world sources Bach, the well-spring of his – and our – craft. You emerge from this recital (even early) with great satisfaction that both executants have given the best of themselves in two versions of this towering construct.

A serene melancholy

BECOMING

Johanna Selleck

Move Records MCD 629

In a fortnight when the new Prime Minister and/or his Minister for Foreign Affairs have slashed their carbon-spouting paths to Tokyo, South Pacific khanates and New Age republics, as well as the apparently obligatory drop-in to Jakarta (when did Indonesia become [according to our gutter-spawned Fifteenth Estate] the compulsory first overseas foray for a fresh Australian PM?), it came as a refreshment to experience Melbourne composer Selleck’s new hour-long CD. It has an individual Asian perspective as its textual components comprise haiku and renga in three languages – French (along with Australia, a major colonial power in the Pacific), English, and Tibetan (a long stretch geographically but just as much a legitimate Chinese satellite as the Spratly Islands).

Selleck’s suite follows a Four Seasons format with a substantial Spring, a lesser temporally substantial scenario for Summer, then a minute less for Autumn and a desiccating two minutes shorter for Winter. A cadenza for shakuhachi occupies the centre of this foray into Vivaldi/Piazzolla country and the disc concludes with an instrumental Interlude and a valedictory Finale. The Spring movement was first heard at the 2006 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, while the complete score enjoyed a first airing at the following year’s Castlemaine Festival. I missed both performances, as well as the August 2013 city interpretation at the Melbourne Recital Centre which featured the three vocal artists heard on this CD – soprano Merlyn Quaife, counter-tenor Dean Sky-Lucas, bass Jerzy Kozlowski – and the Silo String Quartet. As far as I can tell, the Silos have radically changed personnel, founder Caerwen Martin the sole survivor. Here the two violins are Lynette Rayner and Zachary Johnston, with Barbara Hornung accounting for the viola line. As for the shakuhachi contribution, 2013’s Anne Norman has been replaced by the inimitable, ever-questing Adam Simmons.

Selleck is not the first Australian musician/composer/writer to be enchanted with the three locales visited by the Albanese/Wong circus. Japan has exerted a modest interest for some formidable names; well, I can think of one in Richard Meale whose Clouds now and then, Soon it will die and Nagauta balance the same musician’s catholic involvement in Europe with Very High Kings, Las Alboradas and Incredible Floridas. What about New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa and – above all else – the Solomon Islands? Here, you struggle, although Alfred Hill made a now largely-neglected fist for New Zealand – about as South in the Pacific as you can get. Indonesia provided an occasional mine/source for Peter Sculthorpe; who could forget his gamelan imitation at the start to Sun Music 3? Not to mention his one-time fiancee Anne Boyd’s career-long focus on Asia as seen in (to mention just a few titles) Angklung, Goldfish through summer rain and Bali Moods. These are names that were productive during my life-time; God knows how many young composers are currently delighting in the music of our geographical neighbours, mirroring in their craft the ways in which our local bogan-redneck brigades revel in the art of Ubud and Jembawan.

Spring opens with the quartet working arpeggios and a three note motif before Quaife enters with a haiku by Selleck herself that proposes a dreamy landscape before the mood changes to a more rhythmically definite segment, its text celebrating the burgeoning power of the season. Quietly, the shakuhachi timbre merges into the ambience in antiphon with the strings playing jagged twitterings while Simmons works through a brilliant display of sound manufacturing devices, Quaife declaiming a haiku concerning a butterfly by Masaoka Shiki, the vocal writing here the most challenging so far with a splendid juncture of voice-into-shakuhachi at the change of scene. Sliding high notes from the strings preface the final setting of verses by Australian poet Janice Bostok, translated into French, the voice almost following a single note as it offers the image of barrel water gleaming in sunlight – which brings this four-part song-cycle to a comatose conclusion, with a final sparkle coming from an uncredited bell sound that could have escaped from a by-standing set of chimes or crotales.

Selleck’s language is far from abrasive; indeed, her opening pages for the Silo strings work above a low base drone, her melody-making lyrical for the most part. While she makes her players work with production techniques that engage the ear, nothing is obtrusive because she’s seeking that compositional dorado of sustaining an atmosphere long enough to become comfortable. Simmons makes the most of his instrument’s capabilities, especially the wind-in-tunnel effects and the capacity for producing two simultaneous notes. Selleck’s soundscape, as you can imagine, sits in congenial partnership with her brief text slabs, suggesting worlds in sparse imagery.

Kozlowski begins another Shiki haiku at the opening to Summer, Sky-Lucas eventually taking part in a duet after the bass has made us comfortable with an imitation of our favourite family bonze. The scene is of suspended rains allowing ant processions to pursue their industry. In this segment, Selleck continues to follow an intriguing path between passages transparent enough for you to analyse chord progressions and other segments packed with vehement, jagged action from both voices and instruments. Sky-Lucas has most of the honours (and the work) for a Natsumo Soseki haiku, focused on the setting sun, where the vocal line mimics its own text while simultaneously expressing a slow mobility.

A series of overlapping string textures supports three lines by Bostok that are sung in both English and Tibetan by Sky-Lucas and Kozlowski; here is another passage that is diatonic-susceptible where the quartet’s behaviour suggests the lushness of Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica. Selleck ends her Spring with a haiku by Jack de Vidas that proposes a lover/nightingale pair (thank you, Enrique) singing to the moon (and hello to you, Arnold), counter-tenor and bass producing barely mobile lines above a drone-like (second inversion?) minor chord from the Silos and a few shakuhachi breaths for punctuation.

You could twist yourself into teleological knots by seeking relationships between the four poems that constitute each movement’s textual material in the vocal movements of Becoming. Rather than indulge in a search that in my hands would definitely prove fruitless, I think that it’s better to simply allow yourself to be led through each season and finale, taking the poems as single objects where the intellectual or emotional relationships are given, data that you can mould into your own interpretation. Certainly, my response to Summer veers towards the melancholy, if not tragic; others may find a sultry languor, or a moody brooding. All of which proposes that Selleck’s work is as suggestive in its multi-faceted emotional attraction as is her technical skill.

Simmons’ shakuhachi solo is a delight. The instrument is employed so as to display its abilities and potential, all the while maintaining its nationalist character despite some firm aleatoric writing. Apart from the characteristic chiff-attacks and near-overblowing, Selleck includes some atmospheric, small glissandi, bending notes downward to produce a series of plaints that reinforce my sense of melancholy underpinning this work.

Simmons takes us into Autumn, dovetailing with the Silos in brief fragments and, eventually with Quaife and Sky-Lucas in a renga by Fujiwara na Toshiyuki: a forthright duet, almost martial in effect. As is the following three-line maybe-haiku by the shadowy KWH, and another renga by Bunya na Asayasu. All three have a continuous motif of wind: a threatening presence, a symbol of evanescence, a power of dispersal. Only the final text by de Vidas brings us back to earth when the poet laments the ageing of his wind/voice. All four settings are duets, serving both soprano and counter-tenor as excellent vehicles for expressive collaboration. As well, Selleck has contrived an intelligent representation of this season’s combination of colour and decay.

Kozlowski is the solitary vocalist for Winter, which mirrors Autumn in its aggressive nature, sparked by images of a winter blast (Natsume Seibi), a pale sun (KWH), a snowstorm and loneliness (Shuji Miya), and an internal thunderstorm (KWH again). Here, the musical vocabulary is fraught with harmonic tension, timbrally concentrated as the shakuhachi is silent while the strings ride the blast. Unexpectedly, there is a cross-breeding of the last two poems (renga and haiku), Kozlowski returning to the loneliness theme before a substantial two-minute postlude for strings which operates above a pedal note while a plethora of open 5ths and a volatile arpeggio figure dominate the movement’s ending, the bass once more giving an echo of his spirit-lowering message of despair.

Selleck maintains the gloom into her Interlude for strings alone. This is a movement that suggests the final stretch of Berg’s Lyric Suite, although the Australian work shows less bleak a prospect with a well-worked melodic arch and some stretches of deliberate instrumental colour, like powerful block chords to interrupt the interweaving lines, and a series of slow upward glissandi. Still, the landscape here seems full of the milk of human kindness, each instrument treating the original arch with a benevolent calm, the Interlude’s final bars a moving fade-to-black with Selleck’s forces sustaining notes at opposite ends of the sound spectrum.

In the Finale, all three voices come together for the first time in a KWH haiku which is first sung in English, then by Kozlowski alone in Tibetan and in a monotone suggestive of a dungchen. Again, the text is an updated vanitas vanitatum, the voices mingling but somehow knotted. A kind of break arises where the forces collaborate in what sounds like rising and falling C Major triads, a vocalise for everybody. The throbbing pulse continues into another de Vidas haiku translated into French; then, another poem by the same poet in English. Finally, a culmination where the single line ‘Become so quiet’ is translated into (and sung in) Japanese, French and Tibetan – another fading into nothingness with a revenant, solitary chiming ping to send us on our way.

In these final settings, Selleck follows her theme of yielding to inevitability: our illusions shatter and are gone, personal grief is deleted by indifferent birdsong, human endeavour is momentary, probably futile . . . and the rest is silence. Having said that, the work’s conclusion is far from grim. The composer’s responsiveness to a wide range of texts is highly sympathetic, measured and ecstatic in turn; her application of instrumental colour shows telling restraint; and the performers impress for their clear-voiced delivery of a construct that successfully straddles an aesthetic fence – not too sour, not too sweet.