Competent but uneasy


Musica Viva Australia

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday March 7, 2023

Karin Schaupp

Please excuse the disproportionately large snap above of Musica Viva’s guest guitarist; I’ve lost control over the size of inserted photographs on this WordPress system. Still, there’s little argument that the Brisbane artist was the pivotal figure in Tuesday night’s recital, the penultimate in a series of 8 outings in the usual MV national tour, albeit one that had suffered from the alarums and excursions that COVID and its variants have imposed on us all. At this point, we were hearing a program that – barring its final outing in Adelaide – was as finely honed as possible.

Several points in the evening showed plenty of ensemble finesse; at other stages, the level of accomplishment drooped. Flinders Quartet followers would be well aware of the accomplished ensemble output of viola Helen Ireland and ccllist Zoe Knighton, both foundation members of this 23-year-old group. From the violin lines, however, I detected occasional uncertainty – not just in pitch but in uniformity of production and what I can only call ‘mirroring’: that agreement in all particulars that typifies an ideal duo. Many of us would have been hearing this configuration of performers for the first time. Second violin Wilma Smith has been a stalwart of Melbourne’s musical life for many years and has accumulated an impressive curriculum vitae; Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba is a less familiar quantity, although I seem to recall his first appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in about 2014/15. But I can’t recall hearing him at close quarters.

What I thought was going to be an introductory romp, Carulli’s A Major Guitar Concerto Op. 8, seemed to offer unaccountable problems. Maybe it was the reduced personnel in use – no oboes, horns or double-bass – or the absence of the second movement polonaise, but the fabric proved imperfect, violin octaves occasionally not exactly in tune and even Schaupp having trouble generating a consistently perceptible line in semiquaver scales and then handling with requisite fluidity that odd triplet passage of four bars that breaks up Carulli’s rhythmic strait-jacket.

Richard Charlton’s Southern Cross Dreaming, a solo for Schaupp, is an amiable miniature and comfortable for the instrument. So it should be: it was written for Schaupp, at Schaupp’s suggestion; she premiered it in 2012 and her performance is also available on CD. Comfort music, then. At its heart, the piece is a tremolo study and its connection to the constellation is a matter of your own emotional reaction. Charlton’s use of ‘dreaming’ suggests a mesmerised state, rather than any Aboriginal connotations, and I was happy to collaborate.

My paternal aunt had an old LP of Segovia playing in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Guitar Quintet of 1950. But since that time. it hasn’t shown up on any guitar+string quartet recitals I’ve attended (admittedly, they’ve been few in number). Reacquaintance didn’t reinforce an inherited dislike for the score’s astringency; indeed, the initial Allegro showed this ensemble at its best with a fine clarity from everyone and a delicious piquancy at each return of the first subject of this formal but infectiously happy set of pages. The succeeding Andante featured Ireland’s line prominently, perhaps over-emphatic and ripe with vibrato but managed without the self-indulgence that the direction mesto often brings. But I feel that none of the other movements – including the sprightly Scherzo and final Allegro – maintains your interest as fully as the first.

Certainly, a good deal happens and the composer is lavish with his material, especially in the Spanish inflections of the third movement. Added to which, the melding of guitar and strings is remarkably balanced and fair, Schaupp a consistent strand in the concerted passages and making the most of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s deftly abrasive solo stretches. It’s an attractive work in competent hands and, if this performance wasn’t as vividly definite as you hear it on some recordings (Pepe Romero, I’m thinking of you), these players worked their way through it with assurance and something approaching enjoyment.

The Italian writer’s composition might have been the program’s most substantial element, but its central point arrived after interval with Carl Vine’s new composition Endless, a latter-day deploration on the death of architect/environmentalist Jennifer Bates, killed in a Newcastle hit-and-run disaster in December 2016. The score for this recital’s instrumental resources was commissioned by Kathryn Bennett, the victim’s mother. Possibly deploration suggests something morbid, definitely morose; there is little in Vine’s pages that suggests gloom. Melancholy, perhaps, but even in the meditative pages that surround the score’s central dance celebrating Bates’ passion for salsa, the work avoids requiem mode.

As you’d anticipate, the instrumental fabric is expertly managed, the guitar treated as a fulcrum voice from the outset while the full ensemble is put to active work in the dance section. The effect is not simply bipartite – the professional and the dancer – but a carefully welded musical portrait where one aspect folds into the other. In the final sections where Vine attempts to represent the ‘endless knot’ of Buddhist belief, a concept sympathetic to Bates’ credo, the instrumental layering and foregrounding of individual lines makes a telling emotional impact for reasons that are inexplicable; the moment isn’t exactly religious or suggestive of transcendence, but as a final salute, a hopeful farewell, it makes a powerful impression of that state where the fire and the rose are one.

The Flinders gave an airing to Imogen Holst’s one-movement Phantasy Quartet of 1928. This served the purpose of showing the players at ease in a generous score that took its various bases from the folk-infused examples of Vaughan Williams and other British bucolic composers. Fortunately, the composer had inherited her father’s ear for relieving astringency so that listeners aren’t swamped in sweetness. Did it add much to your depth of chamber music experience? Probably not, but this writer is overdue for exposure; even ABC Classic FM got onto the bandwagon the other day through an airing of the Fanfare for the Grenadier Guards – no, not a substantial contribution to Holst’s renaissance but an attempt, if measly, in this week of International Women’s Day.

To finish, the group performed the last two movements – Grave assai and Fandango – from Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet in D Major G. 448, which the Flinders and Schaupp recorded in 2010 with different violinists. The slow movement is really a 9-bar introduction to the dance which has the occasional infectious bite even if its repetitions start to oppress. Cellist Knighton is still taking up the castanets for part of the fandango, just as when I last saw this group perform the full quartet at Montsalvat in Eltham. Even in these non-too-difficult pages (for the strings), the upper lines didn’t come across to the back of the hall as dynamically balanced, although their pitching proved efficient enough.

As you can see, this was a multifaceted program, beginning and ending with guitar classics, two Australian compositions set alongside a 20th century repertoire staple for this combination and a curiosity from British music’s back blocks. For all the variety, it struck me that the participants were still not comfortable in all their offerings, despite the long association between three of them and the substantial preparation time enforced on the whole group by our country’s chain of medical disasters.