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.