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.