High spirits and optimism in major keys


James Brawn

MSR Classics 1472

Here is the penultimate leg in this long voyage, Brawn has only two more works to release and the complete argosy comes home to Ithaca. For this CD, he has allocated four of the lesser-known elements in Beethoven’s output of 32 works, although each of them holds a world entire, even the F Major two-movement gem. It’s been a long time since I heard any of these in live performance; they’re usually the preserve of aspirants, as the big guns in the field go in search of more fleshy game. But each adds another facet or thirteen to this pianist’s insightful chain of interpretations.

None more so than the four-movement Sonata No. 13 in E flat Major, a quasi una fantasia companion to the more celebrated Moonlight Sonata No. 14. This particular work asks for an attaca between each segment, underlining the composer’s use of building-block inter-relationships, not to mention his looking backwards to the content of former pages, particularly obvious in the sonata rondo finale. Brawn opens his initial rondo with amiable expansiveness, giving full weight to those intrusive left-hand sforzandi at bars 6 and 7, then gently plucking out of the ether the C Major chords that surprise in the best Beethovenian style at bar 9, eventually attacking the central allegro with enthusiasm before taking us back to the four-square main theme and its gradual dissipation into three quiet bars of the home key.

It is hard to fault the following Allegro molto, either. This repeat-rich proto-scherzo enjoys an easy exposition, even when the arpeggios stop, and the syncopated version of the opening pages is persuasive if the whole passage is a tad blurred until the climax arrives at bar 132 where the off-the-beat right hand rings clear to the second-last bar. As in some previous sonatas, Brawn is free with his mini-pauses and phrase-pointing across the short Adagio, taking the rider con espressione with some interpretative amplitude, mainly in pausing before a bar’s first downbeat. Such an approach gives these 26 bars plenty of breathing space, if achieved at the expense of melodic fluency.

But the vivace finale runs past with an infectious head of steam; even the leaps at places like those between bars 31 to 35 are kept up to the mark and the handy treatment of this movement’s first (prime) subject are happily busy, rather than plodding as hefty semi-inventions. The performer maintains the light-footed humour and optimism by observing a style of attack that emphasizes Beethoven’s delight in movement, so that the episodes that touch on the minor (e.g. bars 131 to 138) come across with energy rather than weight. This is completely assured playing, a sunny conclusion to the sonata and in every way an atmospheric contrast with its opus number companion.

You might find the same in the following G Major Sonata No. 16 with its jaunty off-the-beat initial gambit that carries through the opening Allegro vivace‘s first subject. The exposition here is not all major-inflected, especially towards that section’s conclusion, but the development – as much of it as there is – definitely pursues a chain of minor modulations. Here you can enjoy Brawn’s unfaltering clarity, especially in those stages where the melodic operations transfer to the left hand, or those thinly textured but awkwardly placed pieces of mini-counterpoint (see bars 261-263). And this performer makes as much dynamic contrast as he can with the unexpectedly (or is it?) soft ending to the movement, as later he does in the sonata’s concluding rondo.

More of the contented Beethoven comes in the middle Adagio grazioso, Brawn following a fine vein of the adjective throughout with a clean observance of the left-hand’s initial arpeggio separated notes and allowing himself some metrical latitude at the end of elaborately decorated right-hand work (bars 10 and 12). He is not to be hurried in the two cadenza breaks, accounting for these brief rhythmic oases with quiet, measured placidity. Mind you, the composer is Romantically voluble throughout this Venetian arena, nowhere more so than in the plunging 6ths and 3rds of bar 107, but I admired the subtlety of Brawn’s restrained negotiation of some left-hand 7ths that are present but muffled, most obviously in bars 116 and 117. Small details like these send you back to pick up more occasions of delicate delivery.

The sonata’s conclusion is deceptive as it opens with a neatly balanced primary theme, then moves to play relentlessly with this tune’s opening mordent figure. Indeed, the composer occupies himself with subsidiary material, accompanying triplets and the like, before reviewing his amiable first idea, then moving into more hard three-part labour from bar 87 to bar 98: an instance of modulation working to little purpose. A lengthy period of footling leads to two brief adagio breaks before a presto coda that concerns itself almost exclusively with the afore-mentioned mordent shape. Compared to the preceding movements, this impresses as expanded beyond its dimensions, the working-out full of forward motion but lacking substance. Brawn treats it with an ease that recalls the first movement, following the triplet scale passages and left-hand melody announcements with a sympathetic response to each sequence-laced vagary.

Another four-movement sonata arrives with No. 18 in E flat Major, here distinguished by a musical sobriquet, ‘The Hunt’. This is an opus number companion of the preceding G Major work and shares its buoyancy of outlook, particularly in the even-numbered movements. You get the impression that its first movement is a stop-start operation, mainly because a ritardando is built into the opening gesture (see bars 3 to 6) and its reappearances. But these pages move forward with developmental purpose and the welcome presence – as in all the works on this CD – of whimsicality, here more contained than in its co-opus G Major’s opening allegro. Brawn keeps the pleasures coming smoothly, allowing only the smallest of independent gestures in the two irregular bars (54 and 177) and he negotiates his trills without cramming in extra oscillations (particularly the chain across bars 193 to 201), eventually opting for a piano final cadence.

He gives an individual transparence to the following 2/4 scherzo, one of the more infectiously pell-mell movements in Beethoven’s middle period sonatas. The initial theme and its restatements are not drowned in sustaining pedal melding but come across with excellent clarity. Some of the demi-semiquaver left-hand interjections from bar 42 to bar 49 are not as crisp as you’d like, although most of the later stretch (bars 147 to 154) are close to exemplary. Also, Brawn’s accounting for those abrupt fortissimo chords that punctuate passages of two-hand semiquaver work show a deft hand in supplying an apt dynamic level – just vehement enough not to drown out what follows.

Commentators speak of the Menuetto‘s standing as an unexpected throw-back to Mozart and Haydn – the sonata form’s courtly age. But this example seems integral to the work, standing as an easy break between two rapid-fire bursts of energy. The first third sets up a gentle, controlled environment through a simple series of splendidly interlocking four-bar phrases, before the gentle surprise of the Trio’s mildly vaulting chords, before the Menuetto‘s return and that touching calando conclusion. The whole is treated with clear sympathy and responsiveness: a model lesson in giving unassuming pages their proper respect.

As for the ‘hunt’ finale, Brawn maintains his presto pace convincingly, with just a hint of awkwardness in an odd spot like the left hand work in bars 135 to 138, and later, the preparatory pause before those 10-note chords at bars 307 and 317. But you find plenty of examples of exemplary skill, like the first over-the-hills-and-far-away burst from bar 64 to the end of the exposition, the relieving settle onto C Major at bar 120, and the ease of the crossed-hands single notes and main-motif statements between bars 280 and 299. This is a sustained example of rapid-fire playing but – as I’ve said before – articulated with admirable clarity and almost-unflagging impetus.

To end, Brawn gives us the shortest work on this CD in the F Major Sonata Op. 54. Compared to its predecessors on this CD, this score is decidedly odd. While the first movement opens easily enough, it soon (bar 24) takes a turn away from a slightly dour menuetto into aggressive contrary motion octaves in triplets for each hand; the two elements contrast and sort-of combine before the end. What presents as disparate in the first pages becomes more rational after the repetitions, yet the contrast is not really fused. I liked Brawn’s subtle force applied in the triplet-dominated pages, alongside a clipped approach to the opening material’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver repeated pattern. As across all four of these sonatas, you can rely on this pianist to give full measure to each note’s rhythmic value, even when the part-writing verges on the complex; everything is in its place and subsidiary elements are given as much care as dominant melodic lines.

Finishing this disc is a driving interpretation of the sonata’s Allegretto which many a pianist manages to turn into burbling. Not so here where the ceaseless semiquavers lead into a development of considerable tension across bars 23 to 99 – the movement’s core. Brawn keeps a cool head throughout the multiple modulations that Beethoven works on his one theme and carries us happily into a celebratory coda that keeps its head, despite a momentary indication of acceleration. An ending that borders on the over-wrought, if not as jubilant or as ferocious as the finales to its catalogue companions (the C Major Waldstein and the F minor Appassionata).

So what are we waiting for? Two late sonatas round out Brawn’s enterprise: the A Major Op. 101 and the B flat Major Hammerklavier Op. 106 – the first two in that late period sequence of five incomparable masterworks, setting the benchmark for Romantic (and beyond) pianism. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Diary June 2023


Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Thursday June 1

One day in 2020, it was Ohlsson appearing for Musica Viva; the next, it was COVID and we all fell down. Now the Canadian master is back, beginning another MV tour and presenting works by Schubert, Liszt and Scriabin. In Adelaide, Perth and the second recitals in Sydney and Melbourne, he’s playing Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, sonatas by Barber and Chopin and some other bon-bons by this last-named. Common to both programs is a new work commissioned for Musica Viva: Thomas Misson‘s Convocations. Yes, I know: sounds like Meale’s Coruscations of 1971, written before that writer changed his style for something old and predictable. What I’ve heard of Misson’s constructs is promising, dealing in advances in composition with integrity, not wallowing in the tried and sometimes not-true. Anyway, Ohlsson at Queensland Con plays the Schubert C minor Impromptu, Op.90 No. 1 – the one of the four that nobody touches. Then the Liszt B minor Sonata – a one-movement composition of high technical demands and a (for Liszt) high watermark of emotional compression. After the new Misson comes a fair sample of the Russian mystic’s creativity: three etudes from different sets (Op. 2, Op. 8, Op. 42), the first of the Two Poems Op. 32, and the Sonata No. 5: like Liszt’s, in one movement. Not that I’m an enthusiast, but we rarely hear a concentrated dose of Scriabin; you can hardly imagine better hands than these through which to have this experience. Prices of tickets range from $15 to $109, but I don’t know if that’s bumped up by the credit card usage fee/theft.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday June 2 at 7:30 pm

As I’m coming to expect, this concert’s title is not quite accurate. Stretching relationships and time-scales, it’s taxing to align some parts of this modest program with the Baroque. To open, the QSO strings under director/concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto will run through Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue K. 546, written about the time of the Jupiter finale and at a period when the composer was doing Bach research and arrangements. Tick for this one, then. Next comes real Baroque in a canon and fugue from the Art of Fugue, transcribed by George Benjamin; the canon is the one alla Ottava, the fugue is Contrapunctus 7 per Augment et Diminut. This instrumentation calls for flute, two horns, three violins, two violas and a cello. It doesn’t get more of the period than this. Now come the temporal outsiders, first with the Haydn Symphony No. 70 in D which can only be included in this tribute because its second movement is a double variation canon – and nothing spells ‘Baroque’ better than a canon. To finish, we have Stravinsky’s Concerto in D (‘Basle’) for string orchestra which – as far as I can see – fits into the program because its middle movement is an arioso. The outer ones don’t strike me as much more than the composer’s usual neoclassical style coming to an end during his freshly-naturalized period (1945 or thereabouts). This concerto is sprightly and direct and you won’t find any excrescences indulged throughout its brief length – not a trace of self-indulgence. Still, it’s a splendid test of precision playing. Tonight’s performance is sold out, but . . .

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 3 at 3 pm. Prices range from $30 to $75 with the usual outrageous booking fee which is close to $8.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday June 8 at 10 am

A kids’ concert, pitched at Years 1 to 6; yes, Year 1 – it is to laugh. The story is by Angela McAllister, the music comes from Paul Rissmann, the pictures are by Grahame Baker-Smith – all UK creators and so terrifically relevant in the aftermath of watching two elderly and uninspiring marital defaulters stagger towards the thrones of England. Their tale is allegedly set in a circus, although one publisher’s website puts Leon and his siblings at a ‘magic show’; no matter the environment, our protagonist learns heaps about all those human qualities that make today’s young so repulsively assured enough as to express their ignorance loudly and to put their feet up on train seats. I know nothing about Rissmann’s products, although he has a strong connection with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and has appeared with several state orchestras, while his reputation in the UK is high as a presenter, raconteur, host, explicator and front-man for children’s music. It’s fortunate that he will be on hand to take us through this work, which will be directed by Jen Winley, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor. Tickets are a flat $30 and, with each 10 students, a teacher gets in free. The whole thing seems geared to schools, presumably on the understanding that primary teachers can control their charges across this 50-minute-long operation. As I said at the start, it is to laugh.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday June 9 at 10 am

The audience here is children in Years 6 to 10 and the QSO plus Voices of Birralee is conducted by Jen Winley from Perth. To those in the know, The Lost Thing is a picture-book by West Australian Shaun Tan; Scottish-born composer Paul Rissmann wrote a score to accompany the tale in this concert format, commissioned by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2020. I’ve seen some of Tan’s work in concert and you wouldn’t say it’s going out of its way to entertain, the illustrator/author’s monumental environment reminding me of a colourless Chirico world. Rissmann will be there to present – his own score, at least. It’s inserted in medias res with some intriguing surrounds. The QSO begins with Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2013 Dance of the Paper Umbrellas; then come Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumblebee, the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms, a Star Wars Suite by John Williams to end and a true oddity in Coleridge-Taylor’s Othello Suite: Dance, Children’s Intermezzo, Funeral March, The Willow Song, Military March – this last adding up to about 15 minutes’ playing time. The performance is meant to last for an hour, but Rissmann’s score only endures for 22 minutes, according to his catalogue of works. So you’d have to assume that the two performances on offer are presenting the full program, despite the QSO website not listing the above bevy of compositions for this Friday bridging-the-primary-secondary-gap experience. As with yesterday’s event, tickets are $30 per student.

This program – probably in yesterday’s format – will be repeated on Saturday June 10 at 10 am in a Family Concert when tickets will range from $39 to $49 with the credit-card fleecing fee of $7.20


4MBS Festival of Classics

Main Auditorium, City Hall, Brisbane

Sunday June 11 at 3 pm

The city’s specialist serious music radio station presents this night – part of a long chain of events across May and June – that features a quartet of well-known soloists. Soprano Eva Kong leads the way and she is the only artist about whom a program detail might be gleaned as she is singing some Madama Butterfly – inevitably Un bel di, unless she is put into harness with tenor Rosario La Spina for the duet ending Act 1. And the meagre publicity blurb does mention ‘excerpts’. The other soloists are La Spina’s wife, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, and baritone Jose Carbo. The Ensemble Q Orchestra (love to see that when it’s at home) will be conducted by Tahu Matheson, currently working with Opera Australia, and filling in the gaps with an intra-number narration will be Matheson’s brother, Tama. Other details are unavailable but I’d anticipate that everything will be quite familiar; what’s the point of going spectacularly operatic unless you can wow your audience with arias (and that’s really all that’s promised) known by all and sundry? So I don’t think we’ll be hearing any Richard Strauss; probably no Wagner; Monteverdi will be absent from the feast, and you can be pretty sure that another innovator – Gluck – won’t be present, either Holding out for Berlioz? Not a chance. Here’s looking at you, Britten, but your time has probably not yet come at this kind of concert. Mozart? Maybe. All the same, you have to thank 4MBS for organizing an opera concert in a city where the art form is rarely performed. Tickets cost between $89 and $30 with a booking fee of $1.25.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday June 16 at 11:30 am

What appears to be in play here is that the QSO is welcoming its newly-appointed principal trumpet, Rainer Saville. Great to see, although I think Saville has been in the ensemble for a while. Anyway, he’s taking on the Tomasi Trumpet Concerto, beloved of trumpeters for a host of reasons: it’s short, shows off technique, doesn’t call for any timbral insanities, covers a bevy of compositional styles without falling too heavily into that irritating pseudo-jazz French 1920s genre, has no melodies worth remembering, serves as a splendid instance of physical jerks with a just-long-enough central Nocturne to display arabesques, and boasts a flashy first-movement cadenza supported by snare drum, Filipino-Finnish conductor Tarmo Peltokoski – a tender 23- year-old – escorts Saville through this flashy ephemera before turning to the Sibelius Symphony No. 2, which is exhibitionism of a different water: all those ice sheets, shadow-drenched fjords, pastel veils of the Aurora Borealis, and the rest of that Finnish malarkey. This score stands out from the rest of the composer’s symphonic output for its Romantic breadth and audience-pleasing accessibility, while asking its interpreters for a sobbing warmth of approach as well as stamina. At all events, the concert is scheduled to last for 65 minutes without interval.

With the addition of Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet, this program will be repeated on Saturday June 17 at 7:30 pm.


Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday June 18 at 3 pm

If you take that title literally, it’s not much territory to cover. The trip takes 2 1/2 hours by car and you move from Austria straight into Hungary; hence, your compositional choices are geographically limited. This recital/concert ticks some of the expected boxes, as in Mozart’s last (and best-known) Horn Concerto K. 495 which here stands alongside the Viola Concerto by Bartok – well, the composer left sketches for completion by a friend and his own son. Anyway, that sort of takes in the two European capitals, even if the Hungarian master wrote his work in New York. Later on, we hear the Totentanz by Liszt: the original version for piano and orchestra involving double woodwind plus piccolo, double horns and trumpets, three trombones plus tuba, timpani and three other percussion, with the full string complement. Still, it’s a full Hungarian work, regularly played by Bartok and momentarily reminiscent of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Now we move a little further afield to the north-east of the Austrian capital with Two Moravian Songs by Pavel Fischer; the former first violin of the Skampa Quartet has organized a pair of folk songs for voice and string quartet, so I suppose these are what we’ll hear. Then we move to Poland for Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes in the 1955 version for clarinet, harp, piano, percussion, and strings; folk tunes, they say, although nobody has identified which ones and the composer wasn’t giving his game away. Anyway, we’ve moved to Warsaw, 850-plus kilometres north of Budapest – so, a well-expanded heartland. As well, we have a homegrown novelty from trumpet virtuoso James Morrison in collaboration with the Southern Cross’s didgeridoo-in-residence, Chris Williams; they are producing a new work, as yet nameless. That’s a big program and you can hear it for $85 (adult) or $35 (youth) with a credit card fee of $7.20. Why didn’t Chalmers and Albanese do something about this unjust impost in their mealy-mouthed budget, instead of wasting time on avaricious gas companies and the under-privileged?


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 24 at 1:30 pm

What the QSO thinks of as ‘favourites’ seem to be selections. For instance, this program launches itself with selections from the Suites 1 and 2 from Bizet’s Carmen, compiled after the composer’s death by Ernest Guiraud. The first collection is better suited for orchestra as it includes the Prelude and all three entr’actes, while the second comprises transcriptions of sung numbers only. The occasion concludes with selections from the three suites from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. Conductor Umberto Clerici has 20 numbers to choose from, although it has to be observed that the best collection comes from Suite No. 1. As some sort of filler, the QSO presents the Main Theme and Love Theme from the Ennio and Andrea Morricone score for Cinema Paradiso. OK, although why this should be a favourite is a bit of a mystery. Central to the entertainment is Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which is a melodic feast and spirit-lifting in its outer movements. Soloist will be Karin Schaupp, a Queenslander since her 8th year. It’s great to see that the orchestra takes pleasure in this particular score, especially as its instrumentation is lean: your normal double woodwind, pairs of horns and trumpets, strings. But its high attraction for me is that the orchestra sparkles when everyone is on board. And I’m so pleased that the nonsensical legends about the Adagio being a Civil War lament or an elegy on the bombing of Guernica have been put to rest.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.


Medici Concerts

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday June 25 at 3 pm

The popular Brisbane-raised pianist is here presenting a recital of works by Chopin and Rachmaninov, the central work being the Russian composer’s rarely-heard Variations on a Theme of Chopin. The scrap chosen for elaboration is the C minor Prelude No. 20 from the Op. 28 set and the interpreter has to cope with 22 variations in all; you can hope that Lane will work through them all, rather than following a widespread practice (allowed in later editions) of cutting out some later parts of the work. At all events, on either side of this exhibition, we hear a selection from the Chopin preludes and another collation plucked from the ballets Chopiniana and Les Sylphides. The first comprises five works orchestrated by Glazunov: the A Major Polonaise, the F Major Nocturne, the D minor Mazurka from Op. 50, the C sharp minor Waltz, and the Tarantelle. Les Sylphides has 8 numbers, beginning with the same polonaise but ending with the Op. 18 E flat Major Waltz. In the middle come the A flat Major Nocturne, two waltzes in the G flat Major and the C sharp minor recycled from Chopiniana, a pair of mazurkas (Op. 33 No. 2 and Op. 67 No. 3), and not forgetting the A Major Prelude. Pick your poison but I’m betting the Tarantelle won’t get an outing. And it’s no use asking why the big Rachmaninov in the middle: it’s his 150th birthday this year and even a work written when he was 30 (surely not juvenilia) should enjoy a dusting-off.


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday June 26 at 7 pm

Topping up on a previous (2015?) Mozart symphonic excursion featuring the last three in the catalogue, artistic director Richard Tognetti and his band of renown move back a little to present three more, each with a nickname. The night opens with the Symphony No. 31 in D, called the Paris because it was premiered in that riotous city and enjoyed favour right from the start. Only three movements but a big orchestra with double woodwind – all four of them – with pairs of trumpets and horns, strings and timpani. Another D Major follows in the Symphony No. 35, Haffner, written for the semi-noble family of that name and using the same instrumentation as the Paris composition but expanded to four movements with the use of a menuetto surviving from the earlier Haffner Serenade. To conclude the triptych, we hear the Linz Symphony No. 36 in C, written in that town during a stop-over in late 1783. It also has four movements and differs from the others on this program by lacking flutes and clarinets. Fleshing out the symphonies, which last a bit over an hour, the ACO will play the Ballet Music from Idomeneo K. 367: Chaconne, Annonce, more Chaconne, Pas seul, Passepied, Gavotte, Passecaille. This uses the same Paris/Haffner forces and lasts about 19 minutes – thereby pushing the concert out to a solid length. As for tickets, they fall into a tight range between $94 and $129, with the customary booking fee of $7.20. Still, it’s been a fair while between drinks, the ACO having called in here last on March 13 and the group’s appearances are to be treasured in this shrinking age for serious music-making.

Unusual, expert group


Adam Walker, Timothy Ridout, Anneleen Lenaerts

Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University

Wednesday May 3, 2023

Anneleen Lenaerts

Latest in the Musica Viva national tour recitals, we heard the instrumental combination set-up for one of Debussy’s final sonatas: that for flute (Adam Walker), viola (Timothy Ridout) and harp (Anneleen Lenaerts). This program had a sort of innate sense, its major elements the Debussy work and two later works employing the same ensemble: Gubaidulina’s The Garden of Joy and Sorrow, and Takemitsu’s And then I knew ’twas Wind. Along the way, each musician contributed a party piece or two. In the first half, Walker made an eloquent case for Georg Benjamin’s Flight; Lenaerts indulged in a transcription of Jardins sous la pluie from Debussy’s Estampes trilogy; Ridout too played a transcription with the Fantasia No. 7 in E flat by Telemann, a piece originally for violin. After interval, Walker and Lenaert collaborated in Messiaen’s Le Merle noir (originally for flute and piano), before Lenaerts yet again indulged in another Debussy piano transcription with Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque.

Best of all, as far as this audience was concerned, was this last which served as some reassurance in a foreign landscape. The night’s finale, Debussy’s trio sonata, is not well known because of rarity in performances – although why that should matter in these happy times of perfect recordings, I don’t know. But the composer’s best-known piano solo enjoyed sensitive treatment, the long-arched drooping melody picked out with finesse while much of the accompanying figuration came over the space to this hall’s rear. It made a pleasing preface to the sonata which gained much from a compelling collaboration between these artists who demonstrated a reassuring awareness of their relative positions, specifically in the rambling first two movements.

It’s a composition that, for two-thirds of its length, radiates a loose warmth in a setting where everything is thematically controlled but the content seems to spill from one segment into the next. More than the transformations and subtle timbral changes, the moments that have always attracted me are those where the instruments mesh in something close to equality: the first movement Gracieux five bars after Number 2 in the Durand score; later in the same movement the brilliant wash four bars after Letter 4; and the soft fall to the movement’s conclusion beginning at Number 6. These were delivered with excellent balance and idiomatic responsiveness, highpoints in a reading welcome for its cool warmth.

The pleasures continued in the following Interlude, notably the energetic outburst that begins with a harp glissando six bars after Number 10, which peters out five bars after Number 12; here was an invigorating, light-filled centre to this movement that is languid at either end. Not to mention Lenaerts’ supple support through the duets and imitations that follow Number 14; on the verge of lushness, but eloquent. As for the Final, this was handled with an unexpected percussiveness, the harp making forceful work of the left-hand F quavers that mark the opening of each bar up to Number 16. I liked the heavy-footed discursiveness that sets in four bars after Number 18, and the joyous bolt towards home that begins straight after that nostalgic look-back to the opening Pastorale. A work that has so little of the doctrinaire about it and which proves a welcome experience after each live performance.

About Gubaidulina’s composition, I’m not sure what to report. These players had the score’s measure and the various incidents passed with apparently easy ensemble, but the language evades me, being on the cusp of dissonance but inserting, especially towards the end, common chord arpeggios. The work begins arrestingly enough with what appear to be single-string harp glissandi, producing an approximation of a sine wave. But the Eastern inflexions promised as part of the composer’s inspiration passed me by, as did the relevance of Francois Tanzer’s poem from which Gubaidulina took inspiration, although Ridout read it for us beforehand in English and German. But then, this set of verses moves beyond the other poetic source – Iv Oganov and a wealth of garden/flower imagery – into general prospects of the world at large . . . and there, I’m lost.

As usual with Takemitsu’s work, And then I knew ’twas Wind takes a melody or a motif and toys with it; the fascination lies in hearing or trying to trace the multiple torsions. This composition – like Gubaidulina’s, based on a poem (in this case, by Emily Dickinson) – sets up an expansive landscape where flute and viola slowly emerge after the harp has set up the focal flourish, and you’re carried forward on the poet’s fitful gustiness. The product presents as more ‘constructed’ than either of the two other trios programmed, while the Japanese master makes an early reference to Debussy’s Sonata. But the palette is varied and crammed with pointillist touches informed by the opening 3rd and 7th intervals and a moving, oddly concordant conclusion.

The Japanese master’s music proved more accessible than Gubaidulina’s essayed fusion – possible for its placidity of utterance and contentment in a fixed number of colours, although the viola is taxed heavily with production shifts. Added to this, Takemitsu infuses his music with individual colour but without trying to make statements, or drawing attention to the technical skill of those involved. More than most of his contemporaries, this writer creates without self-regard or the desire to generate some sort of eclat; it’s a marvellous accomplishment, especially from a student of Messiaen, a master of look-at-me, watch-my-modes composition.

As for the party pieces, there’s little to say. Benjamin’s solo flute bagatelle of 1979 opens with some low glissandi, punctuated by abrupt blips, before we encounter some typical atonal birdsong outbursts. Then the composition moves into further episodes, alternating lengthy lyrics with busy chattering. It’s obviously a favourite for Walker who moved through its pages with high eloquence, even if the English composer is following a path well-established by his European peers. You could find the same enthusiasm in Lenaerts’ Debussy. The gardens suffered very little from this rain as the original’s bite was missing in the more formidable passages, such as the D flat Major arpeggio explosion at bar 47, the meteorological panorama starting with the long-awaited final change of key signature to E Major two pages from the end, and the percussive strikes of the last three bars – all present here but missing their characteristic cutting vitality.

Ridout’s Telemann transcription worked persuasively enough across its four divisions, the performer drawing out the unremarkable seven splits of the opening Dolce with a firm right hand, and being victim to less errors in the two faster movements than you might have expected, given the Allegro‘s high activity level. But I think the most outstanding of these fillers came with the Messiaen duo: a favourite for certain flautists, if (like so many of the composer’s bird-infested works) blessed with the most melodically adventurous blackbird in avian history. Here again, Lenaerts took on the piano part – with considerable success, although much of the piece’s interest lies in the cadenzas for flute before and after the first duet segment, with the final presto rush between both players as fine an instance as you will experience of metre-less rhythmic energy (perhaps).

Walker and Ridout have collaborated in recent years; Lenaerts has appeared at the same venues/festivals as her male colleagues but I’m unsure whether she has partnered either (or both) of them before. Yet, in this session one-third of the way through a 9-night program across the country, all three musicians displayed excellent ensemble across the focal trio compositions, bringing a high level of chamber music performance to audiences of an organization that has sponsored so successfully this corner of a shrinking serious music environment.

Young musicians in Rachmaninov tribute


Australian Digital Concert Hall

Primrose Potter Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday April 31, 2023

Matthew Garvie

In his opening talk, pianist Reuben Johnson proposed that this Australian National Academy of Music program was the brainchild of pianist Matthew Garvie and himself; the institution putting its members to work in the fullest sense – think of it, organize it, play it. Like many other keyboard musicians – well, specifically pianists – the two decided to observe the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rachmaninov. The Russian master’s natal sesquicentenary, as it were, and we enjoyed some examples of this composer’s work, framed by a couple of dubious superimpositions.

Johnson began with some Bach; because that’s what you do, I suppose. Exactly what relevance you were meant to see between the presiding genius of Western music and the popular pianist/composer seemed difficult to detect. Yes, all European writers worth the name who entered the craft from the post-Baroque on owe a massive debt to Bach, whether they know it or not. Exactly why Rachmaninov should be singled out escapes me; he played Bach, yes, but not very much, if his discography is any guide; his only transcriptions were the Preludio, Gavotte and Gigue from the E Major Partita for violin – a fairly obvious source to raid. Did he learn his counterpoint from Bach? You’d have to think that Taneyev put his student through some of The Well-Tempered Clavier; whatever the case, his part-writing presents as full-blooded from the start (e.g., the C sharp minor Prelude).

At all events, Johnson worked through the English Suite No. 2 in A minor. Then Garvie led us into the second Op. 39 set of with Nos. 1, 8 and 9. Alongside violinist Harry Egerton and cellist Shuhei Lawson, Garvie presented the first Trio elegiaque in G minor, the (slightly) younger work in one movement. Then we enjoyed two bon-bons; first, with a four-hands transcription by American pianist Greg Anderson of the Rachmaninov Vocalise; then a nationalistic swoop in Miriam Hyde’s brief Toccata for Two of 1973 which might have owed some debt to the sesquicentennial boy but struck me as more Prokofiev-lite.

Speaking of the percussive, Johnson’s Prelude to the suite proved aggressive with a persuasive thrusting aspect, leavened with some eloquent dynamic intensity. In fact, the approach moved beyond a rattling martellato at certain points, like the sudden Romantic retrospective at bar 95 and beyond, with more hefty piano timbre emerging in the bass Es at bars 152-154. The Allemande‘s fluency occasionally faltered, as at the opening to the first half’s repeat; the bass crotchet B of bar 11, also in the first half, was fumbled at first attempt. I also started noticing the player’s unexpected arpeggiations on fulcrum chords, letting them speak in both upward or downward directions, No problems with the Courante, apart from a missing A crotchet in bar 21 of the 2nd repeat.

Johnson’s reading of the suite’s Sarabande followed the usual pattern of loading in the ornaments on the repeats, using Les agrements de la meme Sarabande the second time around; well, there’s no point arguing with City Hall. He employed a well-deployed piano dynamic and delicacy of touch, in much the same way as he inserted subtlety of attack into the repeats of Bourree 1; indeed, the complex of both bourrees made for a dramatic journey, the more arresting for Johnson’s abrupt switch back to the minor for the Bourree I repeat. Yes, Bach obviously planned the effect but it’s a pleasure to see the contrast achieved with such success, alongside a forward reference to Rachmaninov in the final 8 bars of Bourree II‘s second-half repeat. After which, the Gigue was something of a let-down, mainly for a momentary lack of rhythmic definition, the impetus being slightly disrupted at those points where both hands have mordents (e.g. bars 7, 9, 11), especially in the dance’s second half (bars 52, 54, 56), The spirit was certainly willing . . .

Enter Garvie with his Rachmaninov triptych. It’s hard to make much sense of the first etude-tableau in C minor: phenomenal athleticism but not much else to hang onto. The performer worked through it with technical heels flying, even if he showed a penchant for emphasizing bass notes – well, the bass clef in general – while the right-hand filigree was left as just that. Better (music and performance) came in No. 8 where Garvie demonstrated a laudable control of idiom and technique with an effective luminous atmosphere when the dynamic level was light, as at the G Major meno mosso in the movement’s centre.

No. 9, the last in the opus number, enjoyed a powerful interpretation, evenly spread apart from some disappearing right-hand semiquaver duplets in bars 18 and 20. And I appreciated the dynamic extremes achieved across this score’s canvas – the abrupt jumps without mediation between loud and soft, all leading to a driving final 6 bars – and the later treble-clef clarity, complementing its secondary status during the first of these Rachmaninov forays.

As usual, the piano part proved too loud for both strings in parts of the G minor Trio No. 1, right from the start when both violin and cello take their turns with the first theme (bars 20 and 24 respectively), and even later at the bar 79 outburst where Garvie announced his scale outbursts with over-wielded authority. Both Egerton and Lawson sounded at their most comfortable in the canonic duet from bar 135 to bar 142, the latter producing a rich, exposed thematic restatement at bar 168. But these performers displayed a reliable fidelity to dynamic direction throughout this score, enduring some blistering obliterations from Garvie. Possibly, the musicians might have benefited from more rehearsal to get their output levels into closer synchronization; they knew where they were headed, certainly, but the reading lacked coherence of effort, it seemed to me. They might all be attending ANAM but that doesn’t mean they group up regularly.. I’m not sure of previous experiences with Lawson but I’ve heard Egerton in recent times playing towards better results.

So we came to the two inserted encores. The Vocalise arrangement for Garvie and Johnson had the four hands interweaving; well, mainly Johnson reaching between and across his partner’s operations for some bass notes. I assume that arranger Anderson made this criss-cross organization for recitals with his long-time (over 20 years) partner Elizabeth Joy Roe because it involves – as was pointed out – quite a bit of choreographic organizational preparation. Both artists here worked happily together through this elaborate treatment which looked more complex than it sounded. And the Hyde toccata made an excellent counterweight with a brisk tempo and a communally bouncy application. Still not sure how Hyde fits in here but this small gem summoned up a smile or two after a solid whack of aggressive gloom and strong-armed melancholy.