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THE SCHUMANNS

Amir Farid

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday May 28

Amir Farid

                                                                       Amir Farid

Most of my experiences with pianist Amir Farid have come about through his association with the Benaud Trio, which I assume has now become something of a phantom ensemble, rather than the Melbourne chamber music stalwart that it was for several years.   These days, violinist Lachlan Bramble and cellist Ewen Bramble hold senior positions with the Adelaide Symphony and Farid himself has moved his base of operations to New York.   True, performances of any kind are impossible/improbable given the current world situation but you’d have to anticipate that Benaud re-appearances are likely to be rare, even when the world returns to what we laughingly call ‘normal’.

In fact, Farid is a victim of COVID-19 as he is marooned here for the duration.  About which he shouldn’t be too unhappy because, if there’s one place you’d rather be than Andrew Cuomo’s New York, it’s Daniel Andrews’ Melbourne.   While he’s staying in the Victorian capital until he regains access to the only American city worth visiting, Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett invited him onboard their digital vessel, for which he produced an hour’s worth of works by that remarkable husband-and-wife pair, Clara and Robert Schumann.

It was never going to be an equal occasion.   One of Europe’s greatest pianists and teachers, Clara Schumann also left behind a sizeable catalogue of compositions that contained mainly piano works and songs.   In recent times, certain artists have performed much of her music, although the only score that I’ve had much acquaintance with has been her G minor Piano Trio.   But, set alongside her husband’s early masterpiece, the opening quartet of pieces was outclasssed.

Farid opened his innings with Clara Schumann’s 4 Flüchtige Stücke, small bagatelles that were published in 1845.   None of these is a demanding work and Farid encountered few problems in handling them.   The first, a larghetto in F Major, followed simple ternary form with interest added here by the pianist’s liberal approach to rhythm and a gentle emotional prospect delivered with care and no theatricality.   In A minor, Un poco agitato came over with spirit, a few mishaps in the right hand minor distractions and the miniature probably given at a slower speed than it deserved.   A following Andante espressivo  in D Major might have gained character from greater emphasis on the un poco più animato direction that covers the middle segment.   A few missed notes in this central section’s G major flirtation surprised for their avoidability, but little details like the exposed E in the 8th last bar’s first dominant 7th chord showed a sensitivity to the composer’s chord placements that compensated for some digital slips.

Farid followed an approach in the odd-numbered pieces that favoured an arpeggiation of many chords, even if they didn’t need it for his comfort’s sake.   This reinforced the Mendelssohn-derived impression that all these pieces made of following straight on from the Songs Without Words.   That influence showed out clearly again in the concluding G Major Scherzo with its slightly elliptical opening sentence and the reading came to a satisfactory fruition in the last A tempo section which revealed some welcome panache.  You could admire the fluency of these short pieces and their emotional candour but none of them presented as striking; competent, amiable, agreable, unambitious and, now that we’ve heard them, we won’t gain much by hearing them again.

With Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, written less than a decade before Clara’s 4 Fugitive Pieces, you come into a new world of pianism where the inspiration is a mirror of the Romantic era through its tempestuousness, sparkling brilliance, hard-centred sentiment and catholicity of subjects and material.   Most commentators don’t give it top-ranking in the composer’s oeuvre for the piano and God knows there’s plenty of competition: the Symphonic Studies, Fantasie, Arabeske, Bunte Blätter, Kreisleriana, Album for the Young, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, not to mention the sonatas, so I won’t.

Despite its languid rilievo passages, this work is in a hurry, calculated to stir you, if not exactly rouse you to Hong-Kong-demonstration point.   So it strikes me that a great reading carries you along on a wave of enthusiasm, even if part of you sits back and finds the whole exercise slightly ludicrous as it leaps from one character sketch to another.   Farid gave a worthy account of this large-scale suite, giving us easy access to the composer’s portrait gallery peppered with associated dances.   If the overpowering authority of a fully informed interpretation came across only fitfully, this pianist gave cogent views of Schumann’s large landscape’s many components.

A brave attack on the Preamble showed Farid’s welcome mastery of the hefty chords that can clot this movement’s bold initial statement.    A few top-end errors blurred the first-time-through declamation but the  move to Animato came across without jarring, the concluding rush a persuasive entity.    You can’t do much with the Pierrot pages which I find laborious, chiefly for those predictable forte interpolations that close each four-bar phrase until their shape eventually takes over; here, they made for a necessary evil, just as they do every time I hear this score.   Harlequin is just as repetitive but has a more attractive framework and the only flaw I could hear in Farid’s light-hearted approach was his tendency to extend the right-hand semiquaver rests in each odd-numbered bar.

A clear-speaking Valse noble distinguished itself by an unexpected interest roused in the dance’s second longer half by some left-hand emphases.   Moving on, you could admire the legato finesse during those odd septuplet and quintuplet groupings in Eusebius which across its length maintained metrical regularity and didn’t turn into sludge.   The mirroring Florestan enjoyed a rugged attack which urged forwards and faltered only once, in the only octavo bar.    Farid might have improved his Coquette with a quicker speed to encourage a more flighty impression, but the Replique that smooths out the preceding whimsy came across neatly enough, despite a rather laboured conclusion.

Schumann’s Papillons is infamous for its sforzandi which have the disturbing faculty of turning the insects into gnats; I would have preferred a more feathery approach, despite Clara Schumann’s directions in my edition, particularly in the middle bars of alternating semiquaver duplets.   But the following Lettres dansantes could not be faulted for clarity and lively address.   Further, the waltzy-suggestiveness of Chiarina was sublimated while the performer’s octaves were close to perfect, the only problem an accentuated ritardando at the conclusion of the second part’s repeat.   In this version, Chopin was done proud with a surging sensitivity in the melody’s outline, only a single misplaced note in bar 2 of the repeat disturbing the peace.

Right-hand octaves dominate the Estrella movement, occurring in about three quarters of its length; nearly all of these came off in a realization of the page’s muzzled power.  The canon between top and bottom lines in the B Major Reconnaissance interlude came through with telling definition and the main A flat melody’s reprise was splendidly restrained despite an error in its 5th bar.   Fortunately, the more difficult presto Pantalon et Colombine movement was technically assured and an indication of this artist at his best under stress.   Similarly, Farid’s Valse allemande and its internal Paganini pages proved eloquent and fierce in turn; I was sorry my equipment didn’t capture the ppp connecting chord that leads into the Valse reprise.   But it was a real pleasure to come across a pianist who kept his head through the semiquaver’s worth of displacement in Schumann’s individualistic picture of the phenomenal violinist and to find a musician who didn’t make a meal of the left hand accents.

The spirit of Chopin infused the 24 bars of Aveu which found the interpreter injecting a healthy dose of rubato throughout, accompanied by a restrained dynamic range: a very private confession, then.   Subtlety infused the Promenade as well, the ‘small’ notes articulated with excellent reserve and the large-reach chords starting 22 bars from the end worked particularly well.

Then came the rush through Pause with an almost invisible blip in the third last bar, and we were into the anti-Philistine Davidsbündler Marche, Schumann’s anticipation of Moomba (I wish) and one which brought a willing response from Farid whose 9th-stretch right-hand chords made for enviable listening.   Like many a player before (and probably after) him, this executant found the going boggy in that stage where Schumann repeats his Theme du XVIIième  siècle in the bass.  But so much of this powerful grind-’em-into-the-dust finale was successful, Farid surfing across the various changes of scene with no pause for breath, climaxing in a rousing stretto.

It wasn’t the Carnaval of your dreams, probably because the performer took the whole thing very seriously.   Much was made before and after this reading of Schumann’s intention to depict a party, which is quite right.   But it’s not meant to be a bierfest; rather, a congregation of high spirits and no little wit.   Even that concluding march-waltz shouldn’t sound as though it belongs in a Munich hofbräu but has to glitter, if not necessarily be gay.   For all that, Farid came to the centre of the composer’s world much more often than he missed it: a fine accomplishment with great promise –  surprisingly, one of the very few times I’ve heard this artist play solo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fervent and riveting

A DISTANT LOVE

Andrew Goodwin and Roland Peelman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Satellite Night – Sydney

Wednesday May 20

AndrewGoodwinHeadshot

                                                                  Andrew Goodwin

Spreading their entrepreneurial largesse around the country, Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have moved outside Melbourne and sponsored recitals in Perth and Sydney.    I’m sorry to have missed the Western Australian ones, in particular pianist Gladys Chua and clarinetist Ashley Smith (fresh from his personable appearance on ABC TV’s Hard Quiz) playing a program of  showpieces and operatic arrangements.  Wednesday night’s hour of lieder from tenor Andrew Goodwin and pianist Roland Peelman came from Sydney, given in a rehearsal room that put us right in the picture with the performers as well as alongside them in a dangerously clear acoustic.

Even given these close quarters for operations, both artists produced an engrossing experience through Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte cycle, five songs by Schumann, and seven by Schubert.   I don’t know if Goodwin and Peelman ever worked together in those happy pre-virus years but they made an ideal pairing on this night of works central to the repertoire,  although only a few of the artists’ selections get a regular airing.

For instance, the set of six songs that Beethoven linked together so that nothing is easily extractable have not featured large in the many vocal recitals I’ve attended.   This famine of performances might be due to the chop-and-change nature of the cycle’s content which, although consistent in expressing the lover’s proposals and dejections, asks for an unvarnished interpretation.   You won’t find the pathos or merriment, forced or authentic, that infuses the work of this program’s other contributors.   Instead, the sequence has a nobility and sincerity that takes you back to the same qualities in Fidelio where Beethoven faces his audience with a black-or-white morality that allows no wriggle room.

Some glitch meant that I came into this performance only at the first song’s second stanza, Weit bin ich.    But anyone could see (and hear) straight away that Goodwin was in command of the phrasing differentiation that gives the repeated vocal line its interest. Also evident from the start was Peelman’s sophistication as an accompanist, the connecting interludes given with care for each note’s weight, both artists enthusiastic across the stringendo beginning at und eine liebend Herz where the lover turns assertive.  The pianist impressed even further in the following Wo die Berge so blau with its end-of-stanza echo effects treated with punctilious regard for the song’s mood and the singer’s regretful lingering.    Peelman also gave Goodwin excellent support in the middle verse where the singer stays on one note and the keyboard has to make the melodic running; deftly accomplished here without demanding attention.

This cycle’s third segment, Leichte Segler, is a cow to treat fairly.   Goodwin had a red hot go at separating the isolated quavers that alternate with simple crotchets and he got a majority of the distinctions right, although the difference disappeared by the time we got to the last Flüstr’ ihr verses.   Both Diese Wolken in den Höhen and Es kehret der Maien could not be faulted, the highpoint for me coming in the latter song’s last stanza: a model of flawless delivery from both performers and a wrenching realization of Beethoven’s (and poet Alois Jeitteles’) simple regret.   As icing on this particular cake, the often awkward stretch in the final song starting at und sein letzter Strahl  –  pianissimo and with a griping set of chromatic slips – came over with fitting calm, almost detachment, before the final masculine rush to completion after the manner of Mary Queen of Scots.   This surge folded up an excellent piece of interpretation  –  the participants considerate of the composer and of each other.

Their Schumann bracket began with Du bist wie eine Blume, the first of three excerpts from the Myrthen cycle.   Only 20 bars long, shaped simply with not a space wasted, this found the interpreters happy to employ ritardandi to reinforce Heine’s Biedermeier sentimentality.   The second song I didn’t know at all; thanks to Goodwin’s email graciousness, I’ve learned that it was Intermezzo from the Liederkreis Op. 39 collection, one that I’ve not heard live for many years.    Here again, the duo demonstrated its unanimity of purpose with the tenor offering a full timbre in the song’s central strophes and Peelman contriving to make the constant syncopation a support rather than a distraction.

Another success came with the second Myrthen excerpt, Die Lotosblume; Goodwin combining sensitivity and passion, notably in the 6th and 7th last bars where Heine’s flower reaches a kind of floral orgasm.   More Heine followed with the Op. 127 Dein Angesicht; despite its chromatic shifts, this is a placidly self-contained effusion – remarkable, considering the text – which Peelman rounded out with an expertly judged postlude.

Last of all came the first of the Myrthen songs, Widmung, which musicians of my age associate inevitably with the Liszt transcription performed by Eileen Joyce.   Goodwin appeared to have a breath problem when he reached du bist die Frieden and Schumann’s minims and semibreves; in fact, throughout this central page, several sustained notes were cut short.   Much better followed in the reprise of Du, meine Seele which the singer treated with a captivating, smooth ardour.

For their Schubert offensive, these musicians opened with the first of two selections from Die schöne Müllerin.   In his efforts to furnish us with a brook-suggesting chain of sextuplets, some notes disappeared from Peelman’s right hand and an unfortunately palpable error crept in during the second-last bar; by comparison, Goodwin had it easy with one of the composer’s most infectious melodies.   Meyrhofer’s Nachtstück enjoyed a full-bodied handling, almost exuberant in its changes of scene/approach and moving into near-operatic mode at the suspenseful lead-in phrase und gedämpft, balanced by a lyrical calm that floated out at Bald ist’s vollbracht.

Third on the list was another Müllerin song, Halt, which through some aberration of memory I thought was Der Müller und der Bach: two lieder quite different in most ways but I grabbed onto the Bächlein, liebes Bächlein interjection and jumped the wrong way until Goodwin’s kind email set me straight.    This lied proved notable for Peelman’s finely gauged accompaniment that gave room to the voice despite being busy and interesting in its own right.   Nacht und Träume is another difficult task to undertake because it’s so soft that any attempt at inserting even a slight dynamic crisis seems cheap.   Tenor and pianist kept on the right side of piano although Peelman failed to articulate some of his interstitial right-hand semiquavers because of a determination to whisper his part; Goodwin also had trouble sustaining dotted minims in the work’s second part, and his final wieder found him out of puff.

I’ve not come across Ruckert’s Dass sie hier gewesen before but it made an appropriate sequel to Nacht und Träume because of a quizzical posing of harmonic questions and resolving them, if not in a hurry to do so.   Fortunately, the interpreters observed moderation, setting a fluent vocal part against the piano’s colourful commentary.   You might hear Ganymed at lieder society events but it’s not often included at non-specialist recitals.   For my money, this was the finest work of the night, beginning with a well-paced salute to Spring, then packed with brio from the accelerando on, up to a warm, fulfilling address to Goethe’s alliebender Vater.   The final piece, Ständchen, was given a robust interpretation, coming over more as a command than an entreaty with Peelman reaching hard for expressiveness at bars 9-10.     But then Goodwin made very impassioned statements of the second Fürchte, Holde, nicht! and Jedes weiche Herz.

Despite some minor flaws, this performance made for one of the most enjoyable bouts of craft that I’ve heard so far in this series.   Goodwin’s voice is a never-failing delight, splendid in its purity of articulation and dynamic command.   I’m accustomed to hear him in mobile vocal works, like the Bach Passions for which he is without peer in this country, but his technical skill and interpretative honesty were just as evident in this Romantic era material.   Up till now, Peelman has been associated in my experience with The Song Company’s appearances in the Melbourne Concert Hall.    On this occasion, he revealed another side to his talents through piano accompaniments of high quality which revealed an artist of thorough musicianship and insight.

 

 

 

 

All hail, Martin Wright

 

MOVE 50

Move Records MD 3450

3450

In 2018, Move Records celebrated 50 years in operation, bringing Australian music to the forefront of its enterprises across the decades.   I’m sure it hasn’t been plain sailing throughout every stretch of the journey and it can’t be a promising panorama if you survey the current recording scene where so much is available through so many different forms of media.    You have to ask yourself: what next?     Well, a touch of spartan resignation may be appropriate.    The more intellectually adventurous can take consolation from the immortal words of the current President of the United States when reviewing the potential death rate from COVID-19: It is what it is.

As an appropriate observance of its half-century, the company produced this CD that comprises 24 tracks of works by Australian composers, ranging in length from the 59 seconds of Andrea Keller‘s Deep Blue to Paul Moulatlet‘s Dark Star which persists for 7′ 53″.    Most of the performers  are well-known names; ditto, the composers..   Further, quite a number of the works have been specifically composed to honour the Move label and its milestone, with a few directed in praise of Martin Wright who was one of the original founders and has been a producer and engineer on countless Move products.

As you could anticipate, the works vary in mode (although there are a good many piano solos) as well as in length, in ambition, and in accomplishment.   In fact, the whole miscellany is something like a festive garland or a variegated bouquet; sadly, not full of fresh blooms as some of the pieces date from before 2018.   George Dreyfus has recycled his Prelude – Outbreak of Love, written in 1981 for a projected TV series of the Martin Boyd novel.    Another metamorphosed piece comes from Ron Nagorcka whose proffered duet was originally conceived in 1988.   Roger Heagney offers a piano solo written on the birth of his first grandson who is now (one supposes) 15 years old.   Keller’s scrap dates from 2012; Christopher Young’s Pathways, Ros Bandt‘s Mystic Morn and Moulatlet’s piece all come from 2016 and don’t seem to have been written for this particular occasion.   Julian Yu has contributed a birthday piece but it also appears on a disc of his own music which was released almost simultaneously (on the Move label) with this one.

So, they’re of various lengths and varying provenances.   As for personnel, 15 of the CD’s tracks are piano solos, nearly all of them featuring Michael Kieran Harvey who has expended his extraordinary talents on so many Australian compositions.   Other piano solos come  from Tony Gould, playing his own music on the Yamaha C7 grand that he selected for Move Records’ use 25 years ago; and from Gabriella Smart performing Ros Bandt’s Mystic Morn.    The only other solo piece is the afore-mentioned Dark Star which Moulatlet wrote for Peter Sheridan‘s bass flute.

Linda Kouvaras and Deviani Segal collaborate in the former’s Northcote Days piano duet.  Harvey and saxophonist  Benjamin Price present Don Kay‘s no-nonsense Milestone Tribute while Harvey emerges yet again to work through A Memory on the Move by Ron Nagorcka with the composer providing a didjeridu profile.   Two songs form part of the offerings: Christopher Willcock‘s Wisdom outlined by tenor Lyndon Green and pianist Andrea Katz, and Gordon Kerry‘s Sonnet After John Keats with soprano Merlyn Quaife and pianist Stefan Cassomenos the interpreters.

A quartet and quintet offer further variety.  The first, Pathways by Christopher Young, has the composer on saxophone (soprano, I think), Tom Fryer on guitar, Ted Vining on drums and Nick Haywood bringing up the bass.   The recycled Yu boasts clarinet Robert Schubert and a string quartet comprising violins Lorraine Hook and Deborah Goodall, viola Gabby Halloran and cellist Virginia Kable.    And one computer construct – Warren Burt’s Postlude – is all the composer’s own work and shows us that the spirit of Latrobe University’s late Music School is still alive and kicking somewhere in the land almost 21 years after the death of the faculty itself.

Tony Gould’s Heritage sounds like a ramble, the splendidly accomplished academic/pianist walking around the Yamaha in a quiet minute-long meditation on the Move company’s mobility of repertoire; all reminiscent of Newport on a summer’s day.   Roger Heagney’s Noah is compelling in Harvey’s hands, a ternary framework that suggests one of the simpler Czerny studies or a two-part invention; it remains minor in mode until about the ¾ point and it concludes with a tierce de Picardie, the whole given a compelling and driving airing by the interpreter.

The disc’s solitary quartet by Christopher Young comes from a 2016 recording where it was called Etherial Pathways;  I haven’t heard the piece in its original form but it has apparently been edited specifically for this collation.   Its dominant voice is the composer’s sax which weaves a meandering melodic line supported by guitar and a drum part that sounds oddly disconnected from the pitched instruments’ proceedings.   Nick Heywood’s bass comes late to the party and the short work fades to black rather clumsily, but the entity has a quiet improvisatory charm.

Japanese composer Kanako Okamoto‘s name is a new one to me, but not for Harvey who recorded some of her piano output for Move 13 years ago, including some works written for the interpreter.   Bitter and Sweet is a carefully balanced piece that seems, like Gould’s opener, to be a mildly fitful meander with very few acidic spots, owing a fair bit to free-form jazz and impressionism, sympathetically accounted for by Harvey with alternating force and delicacy.    L-ove Records by Vaughan McAlley (another long-time Move recording engineer) confines itself to 50 notes in constructing a three-part augmentation canon; the language is post-Webern in one sense with separate, disjunct notes all over the keyboard but with a diatonic bias.   It would look clear on paper, I’d suggest, but deciphering the composer’s devices needs keener perceptions than mine.

Rachmaninov seems to be the influence of choice for George Dreyfus when putting together his Prelude for the unrealised Outbreak of Love TV series.   There is plenty of virtuosic-sounding work for Harvey who does as much as any pianist can with this late Romantic confection, packed with Lisztian tropes and a masculine melancholy..  The piece has little relevance to this disc’s rationale but serves as a reminder of the composer’s facility with any style that he feels like adopting.   Yet another revenant comes with Ron Nagorcka’s A Memory on the Move which began as a short prelude twenty years ago, was transmogrified for another presentation in 2002, and is here resuscitated one more time.  Harvey accounts for the angular syncopation-rich piano part that occupies central position with only two extended passages from the composer’s didjeridu before both instruments carry out a dwindling into the ether.   As a combination, this sound amalgamation works rather well, surprisingly tonal in that the wind’s fundamental note is in tune with the basic harmonic structure of the keyboard part.

Andrea Keller, like Heagney, has brought her family into the picture with her Deep Blue which takes inspiration from her son Luc’s breathing pattern and the fact that the baby was born with a caul; I’ve never seen his rare membrane but suppose it is coloured blue – sadly, not even Harvey’s skill can turn Keller into a Skryabin.    Speaking of the pianist, his  own Keen is specifically dedicated to Martin Wright and consists of a three-note plucked string ostinato with inbuilt glissandi while isolated notes that form the B-A-C-H pattern are keyed, both sound methods given with increasing fervour until a concluding 12-note arpeggio/chord stretching across the keyboard’s range concludes a noticeably chaste construction which somewhat perversely takes ‘keen’ in its mourning sense rather than as extolling the Move company’s acuity.

If ever a work lived up to its title, it’s Brenton Broadstock‘s An Endless Ripple, here given in its piano solo form by Harvey.   The right hand plays a scale passage that swells by an extra note after each pause with quiet left-hand chords providing more meaty substance.   It avoids most pictorial suggestions through its sudden pauses before the ripple resumes – not quite impressionist, but after the school.   Andrew Bullen’s poem, Wisdom, provided Christopher Willcock with his song text.   It concerns one of those superfluous angels from the Nativity in Bethlehem telling Wise Man Caspar that Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents is inescapable.   Lyndon Green has a reedy sound character but a secure articulation that makes each word clear and Katz gives an equally clear-cut account of the keyboard accompaniment that matches the vocal line in restrained declamation.

Ros Bandt’s work Mystic Morn doesn’t require much from pianist Gabriella Smart except a patience with pauses.   The work is a series of flurries that shimmer and dissolve – which is one way to parallel Hans Heysen’s light-filled landscape from which the work takes its name.   Sonnet after John Keats is Gordon Kerry’s setting of On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.    Quaife and Cassomenos make an excellent pairing for this powerful song where nothing is wasted and the ecstasy of the poet’s ambition is splendidly realised in the final couplet.

The irresistible temptation when faced with something like Michael Bertram‘s Iconoclast 2 is to wonder what happened to the first one.   In fact, it concluded a 1984 suite, Five Pieces for Piano, which makes it one of the composer’s earlier essays.   This fragment for Move’s semi-centenary holds two elements: a Caribbean dance rhythm – habanera, samba, Guadeloupe two-step for all I know – and a restrained toying with scales that suggests both Satie and then Prokofiev with its eventual turn into dissonance.   Here again, Harvey is not over-challenged but persuasively realizes the piece’s bonhomie.

With From a Star Afar, Eve Duncan projects herself a few thousand years back and imagines looking down at earth.    The result is a rather stern vision where the composer has Harvey negotiate a formally uncomplicated, short exploration of some brief motifs with an accent on the piano’s bass register through which means the composer observes the planet’s passing years; it’s a human history on a minute scale, then.   You are challenged by the composer to find a hidden theme at the end of Don Kay’s Milestone Tribute for Harvey and Benjamin Price’s saxophone.   Good luck because it’s well-concealed.   The work has a sort of theme-and-variations flavour, although the theme is a partially filled in descending common chord that enjoys increasingly disjointed handling until an out-of-nowhere major chord halts the piece’s not-for-turning forward motion.

Kate Tempany‘s name is one of several on this CD that I don’t know – Paul Moulatlet, Simon Barber and Kanako Okamoto are the others.   Her offering is a piano solo performed by Harvey: Expansion – Heart Reflects the Sky.   It aims to present an image of grasslands moved by the wind, which effect is accomplished with a minimum of apparent effort, a dreamy susurrus played only on the white notes and husbanding those almost to pentatonic status.    A dread of encroaching totalitarian regimes (and leaders?) underpins Moulatlet’s Dark Star for solo bass flute.   Peter Sheridan is put through a range of sound production techniques in a substantial score that occasionally verges on the frolicsome, possibly because the interpreter is allowed certain moments of freedom.   While the final moments have mournful suggestions, the score is far from a dirge or an elegy.    I suppose you can find inside its length moments of the ‘unease’ that Moulatlet feels (or felt in this 2016 construct), but the final impression is of striving and action.

Physics rears its not-that-ugly-a head in Andrian Pertout‘s Saral Aavart Gati, which exists in piano trio and piano solo forms; what we have here is the latter, performed by Harvey. It’s an unnerving work with an emphasis on the instrument’s extremes and a tendency to operate at both levels simultaneously.   Pertout’s explanation of the score’s genesis and realization relies on a familiarity with technical information but, broken down into one elementary thought bubble, appears to be connected to the every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction Newtonian truism.    Heady stuff, and the only one of these 24 tracks that brings you face-to-face with your own intellectual inadequacies.   Warren Burt’s Postlude computer work has a more jargon-filled explanation; it has 50 tones (for each of Move’s 50 years) per octave throughout its length and the physical actualisation of its composition seems to have been complex.   But the results summon up ghosts, like the Cage of those endless Sonatas and Interludes, and some early electronic experimental pieces where a sound and its decay were reversed.    You can hear further shadows – a gamelan, a glockenspiel, robotic percussion of several kinds – but what surprises is the regular metre that persists for lengthy slabs.

Simon Barber proposes an intriguing premise for his Interpolationen, a piano solo outlined by Harvey: each bar is a variation on the preceding bar.  Here’s a music of fits and starts, event piled on event in its later stages where the pianist operates at both ends of the keyboard, like Pertout’s work mentioned above.   But it has an underlying nervous sensibility that eventually breaks into violence; still, if you’re hoping to see how it works, you’d need a score to follow in order to trace the variant process.    Linda Kouvaras sees more in Northcote, the Melbourne suburb, than I ever did although my experiences came in pre-gentrification times when my daughter, her husband and their first-born were eking out their lives in Raleigh Street.   Northcote Days, a piano duet, presents an aggressive affirmation in its chains of unfilled chords and hectic clambering.    In some senses, the work serves as a travelogue that takes you through various parts of the district at different times of day (or so I assume from the nocturne-like segment that takes its place in the kaleidoscope on show). .  It’s a fine workout for both executants who carry off the piece with panache and well-rehearsed synchronicity.

The deceitful Ephyran king is the apparent inspiration for Brendan Colbert‘s Sisyphus, a piano solo performed by Harvey with buoyant authority.   You can – if you want – find an aural image of the rock-pushing that reaches a certain point before Zeus forces it back down to the bottom of the hill.    But this image is dispelled by a central section which takes place at the top end of the piano – an atonal gambol in the Elysian Fields, possibly – only to be negated by the piece’s determined plunge to the bass in  the final bars.   This work has been specifically dedicated to Martin Wright who has certainly performed the ongoing – and sometimes thankless – task of promoting serious Australian music in its multifarious forms, daily pushing against indifference and our own home-grown brand of philistinism.

And then there was Yu.  The popular composer melded Happy Birthday and a Chinese melody, Stepping Up, for the last piece on this CD which Yu and his wife played at Martin Wright’s 70th birthday party.   The birthday tune, tossed around by Robert Schubert and his string quartet colleagues, is variegated and fragmented cleverly enough, summoning up the spirit of Dreyfus in his nose-thumbing days, but the traces of the Chinese melody, Bubugao, are well-hidden in Yu’s jaunty quick-step,   After all the cosmic imagery and high-flown postulations, Stepping Up Birthday brings this disc to an earth-bound end with something approaching glee: an essential ingredient for any birthday observance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voluptas interrupta

CLARINET ADD STRINGS

David Thomas, Tair Khisambeev, Matthew Tomkins, Fiona Sargeant, Rohan de Korte, Elyane Laussade

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Monday May 4

David Thomas

                                                                    David Thomas     

Here was one of the more interesting offerings in the Melbourne Digital series of broadcasts, which is currently working through a Faces of Our Orchestras series in which people we know well enough in a mass environment are abruptly yanked out of their customary cocoons and given the full spotlight treatment.   These performers are mainly from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ranks with some musicians that we see very rarely (unless you have developed an unhealthy habit of peering into the Arts Centre’s State Theatre) from Orchestra Victoria.   And you also see many pianists – Stefan Cassomenos, Leigh Harrold, Elyane Laussade, Rhodri Clarke  –  who have become well-known in their own rights or in partnerships with various chamber ensembles.

This evening hour (not quite)-long recital featured two works that put the MSO’s principal clarinet David Thomas front and centre: Mozart’s Quintet in A K. 581 – up there with the finest later outpourings from that impossibly fertile brain – and Prokofiev’s Op. 34 Overture on Hebrew Themes, written during a New York tour in the composer’s 28th year.   The string quartet for Mozart’s score was formed from MSO members, the same players taking part in the Prokofiev with Elyane Laussade negotiating the stolid piano element.  Thomas used first a basset clarinet, the instrument for which the quintet was written, then a normal B flat instrument for the 1919 composition.

Of the six performers on this occasion, I’d heard three in solo or chamber music situations: Thomas, usually in front of the MSO or lesser local bodies working his way through Mozart’s concerto; Laussade pretty much exclusively as a soloist although I have faint memories of a concerto appearance in one of the Myer Free concerts some time ago; and Matthew Tomkins during his solid stint as second violin with the Flinders String Quartet.   Sergeant and de Korte have been in the MSO ranks for some years now but Tair Khisambeev moved into the ensemble pretty much at the same time as I transferred north.

The loss was mine because the ‘new’ violinist has a very attractive timbre, as well as a laudable responsiveness to this luminous score, effectively setting off Thomas’ line with his own clean, calm support.   But much of the other string work in the first part of the quintet was not as carefully measured with a petty rough approach to dynamics from the three lower strings: their pianissimo proved to be a rugged creature ( bar 49), as did some individual brief exposures (e.g. the cello at bar 26).   Mind you, improvements had somehow come about in the exposition’s repeat.   Yet each felicity was balanced by a mishap, like the scatter-gun E Major chords that conclude the sonata form’s first part.  The development’s final bar arpeggios came across as over-weighty. almost clumsy so that the final impression you had of this quintet’s first gambit was of roughness in the details.

After a moving start to the Larghetto, the ensemble generated some more rough handling in support of the first violin/clarinet answer-and-response interplay that constitutes this movement’s chief  central interest.  The group certainly adhered to the piano direction for the main melody’s reappearance; probably too much so – that habit of gilding the dynamic lily with a studied, low dynamic entry serves more as a distraction, an all-too-obvious sign of sensitivity.   Much more satisfying was the following Menuetto which demonstrated that unforgettable Mozartian trait of combining elegance with near-predictability.   A disappointment came in the Trio I where Khisambeev went for a small dose of rubato, with nobody else allowing him any leg-room but plodding onward in strict adherence to an inner metronome.   Thomas enjoyed more success in Trio II, thanks to some available flexibility in several unaccompanied bars.  I don’t mean to pick on de Korte but his top  B in bar 107 stood out as this movement’s sore thumb.

Khisambeev and Tomkins showed excellent mutual sympathy throughout the theme statement that opens the finale, and the performance moved pleasantly enough through he first variation with its wide clarinet leaps, then the second one which was a display piece for Khisambeev’s sweet line, up through the Minore change with de Korte making a fine fist of his distinctive acciaccaturas.   We swung happily enough into the burbling fourth and last variation during which Thomas may have missed a semiquaver but I didn’t catch it.

Then transmission stopped; I lost sound and the online picture froze right at the Adagio, bar 85.  Back it all came after a break, only to disappear again.  The final buoyant Allegro surged out, but only for a few bars.

De Korte gave an address of sorts before the expanded ensemble essayed Prokofiev’s short piece, but this  prefatory talk too was interrupted.  We rejoined proceedings some way into the work and it soon turned into a stop-start process, during which I discerned, through the appearance-disappearance nexus, an unhappy cello high G sharp at Rehearsal Number 20.   But then, you just had to give up any hope of making sense of the piece: it was on and off all the way home.

A day or two later, Melbourne Digital made available a tape of the recital by way of compensation.   I picked up things at the Mozart’s last-movement Adagio when the rot had initially set in.   Things seemed to be going well when, all of a sudden, we had another stop, the music pausing for a black-out; mercifully, this time round, the performance resumed at the exact point at which it broke off.   De Korte’s Prokofiev preamble was also disrupted but at least we heard it complete.   You had enough time to settle into the Overture, Thomas slurring his phrases and doing a klezmer realization very deftly – then the interruptions resumed.   I counted 13 of them.  A lot, you’d have to admit.

It’s true that the work itself isn’t dependent on a flow-through effect building into lengthy paragraphs, like a Bruckner adagio.   Prokofiev seems to have eschewed the possibilities of the folk-tune collection given to him as source material and found his own, the results of which are simple and straightforward, enough to lighten up a post-Seder party in any right-thinking kibbutz.   But, even allowing for the reading being delivered in Reader’s Digest-sized clips, the experience was unnerving.

I’ve listened to and written reviews for six of these online recitals up to this one with every confidence in the delivery process but this Mozart/Prokofiev experience gives you cause for consideration.    If you can’t rely on the transmission, what are you paying for?  My wife tells me to come down to earth: these programs are to help the musicians involved in getting through some universally unhappy months: so what if there are defects in the delivery?  Yes, that’s well and good – admirable and very true:  Howlett, Schonhardt et al are providing an admirable avenue for local Melbourne performers to be heard and to get some remittance for their work – much, much more helpful than anything the federal government has put in place for artists.   But these musicians need to be heard without disruption, with minimal distractions.   Let’s hope the MDCH technicians can lift their game.

 

 

 

 

Welcome back

LET’S GET PERSONAL

Selby & Friends

Online performance selbyandfriends.com.au

Saturday May 2 – Tuesday May 12

Selby 2020

                                                                     Kathryn Selby

One of the major losses I experienced when leaving Melbourne after 60 years’ residence was that of Selby & Friends recitals.   The ensemble’s venues had moved around like its personnel – from Melba Hall during the Macquarie Trio days, to the BMW/Deakin Edge, to the Tatoulis Auditorium at Methodist Ladies College in Kew.   Now, there is no fixed abode for this Bunte Blätter ensemble, just like the rest of the country’s/world’s chamber ensembles finding themselves adrift musically, if domestically tethered on an individual basis.   Besides, Queensland was never on the S&F touring agenda

Along the lines of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall started by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt, Kathryn Selby has taken to the internet, presenting her 2020 season  –  or however much of it she needs to  –  through the web.   This latest program  –  all piano trios  –  veers towards the tried and true, comprising Mozart in B flat K 502, Beethoven Op. 1 No. 1, and Dvorak’s Dumky.   Where the Melbourne recitals come from the Athenaeum Theatre in Collins Street, Selby & Friends work from a well-appointed rehearsal room in Sydney Grammar School (Girls? Boys?) that sounds and looks tailor-made for chamber music, even if the prevailing acoustic properties favour the piano.

Anyway, it’s a real pleasure to have practised chamber musicians back on display, players who are experienced in the nuances of the format and who have some experience in collaboration from previous seasons.   The Melbourne Digitals have been well and good, in my experience, although more attractive in solo formats than in ad hoc collaborations.   But the mutual experience and the easy relationship between pianist Selby, violinist Andrew Haveron and cellist Umberto Clerici are shown in a trailer provided on the website as a substitute for program notes; even better, as these performers don’t have to stick to talking about the pieces that they are going to perform but can discuss the problems and delights of interpretation for every musician dealing with any work at all.   In this substantial preface (over 45 minutes), Selby acts as chairperson, asking her colleagues for their insights on specific questions, and Clerici shows himself irrepressibly voluble, even if sometimes he doesn’t finish his thoughts when his information outruns his vocabulary.   I don’t think Haveron opens his mouth until about the 12th minute.   But the material is well worth hearing – as it should be, coming from Sydney Symphony Orchestra principals and Selby with her impressively long-running career in chamber music.

A carefully shaped reading of the Mozart’s first movement is distinguished for its quiet assertiveness, reaching a delightful high-point at the short stretch between bars 45 and 48 where the strings play the second subject in tenths while the piano interrupts with piquant punctuation: the sort of moment that is brilliantly simple and here articulated without affectation – just another in the chain of spritzig throwaways that crop up across this score.   The truncated development ends with the smoothest of bridge passages from Selby whose melting from semiquavers to triplets just before the recapitulation gives us all a lesson in how to treat subsidiary matter with the proper respect.

Haveron’s timbre –  sweet, light on vibrato, not attention-grabbing – emerges clearly in the Larghetto‘s re-statement of the ornate first melody.   Another instance of valuing Mozart’s prodigality comes in the move to A flat Major at bar 57 where all three executants relish the innate eloquence of statement up to the return to E flat at bar 85 and another marvellously filled-out gift for the piano until the final bar.   As for the concluding Allegretto, here again is deliciously bright articulation, notably in the modulations at the movement’s core with barely a falter from anyone despite the rapid pace.   Sparkling clear in nature, the whole movement.

I’ve heard Selby powering through the first Beethoven E flat Piano Trio on several occasions in varied venues.   Her approach has become more sprightly, less determinedly full-frontal over the years and the result has been a honing of the score’s impressive continuity of action and thought so that the final impression is of assured deftness.   You notice her delivery subtleties more easily, like a momentary hesitation in the keyboard during the bar 146 syncopations.    To its high credit, this reading is devoid of silly games like unnecessarily inserted hiatus points; here, the complete consort dances together, Haveron a discreet presence, the two strings pretty much consistent with Selby’s definite downbeats.

Although the piano announces the Adagio cantabile‘s melting first theme, the action really gets under way when violin and cello embark on an affecting series of duets – well, a long duet with a few interruptions – that stick to their emotional last, giving delight on every page with Haveron’s eloquent phrase-shaping and Clerici breaking through the sonorous web with unflustered assertiveness.   Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo‘s delivery; right from the start, the players demonstrate their mutual fidelity with those unisons/octaves from bars 8 to 16.   Here, you’re struck by Haveron’s precision and bounce as an incidental character across the second half of this segment.  Sensibly, the ensemble maintains the same tempo for the Trio rather than signposting the change of key as a mood swing, like other groups with less trust in Beethoven’s unshakable doggedness.

Most impressive about this Presto finale is its buoyant perkiness, largely due to Selby’s interrogative right-hand 10th leaps: the movement’s signature gesture.   And all three players keep up the humour without pounding or lumbering, best exemplified in the passage from bar 76 to the end of the first half during which the action hots up while the note values shrink.

Dvorak’s Trio No. 4 finds these musicians in full Romantic flow with an ardent. knock-’em-down assault on the scene-setting Lento maestoso, Clerici in particular happy to play front-of-house.   Selby drowns out her partners in the chromatic chord movement that concludes the first section of the second movement Poco adagio, even if you find no deficiencies in the faster Vivace parts of these opening parts to this colour-rich score.  A rare moment of disunity emerges in the strings’ response to the opening phrase of the following Andante; balancing this, the Poco meno mosso and its consequents sees violin and cello in excellent empathy, their output both mutually supportive and expressively empathetic.  In fact, the return to A Major just before the final Andante gifts us with the most moving moment in this interpretation: deeply-felt music played with admirable sympathy and insight.

Selby moves into supporting, almost self-effacing mode for the fourth dumky Andante moderato, emerging quite politely from retirement for the scherzando breaks to administer a fitting skittish tone to proceedings, then falling back to support the cello’s calm melody outline.  For the ensuing Allegro and its idiosyncratic oscillation between 6/8 and 3/4, the three musicians make a full-bodied shift into Dvorak’s skald-like narrative, the lines intensely strong at the violin/cello canons when the upper string begins playing arco.  Again, in the final Lento maestoso, we are offered another dark story with Haveron producing a powerful vibrato during the mid-movement slow interlude on the G string.    Still, the canvas here is a taxing one, difficult to negotiate without bathos or overkill and an ordeal for the pianist; Selby handles its leaps and twists with admirable security, only an occasional missing left-hand note disturbing the movement’s vital scenario.   You have to admire the remarkable fluency of the C Major prefaces to the final two Vivace stretches and the players’ escapes into vivid action.

No, it’s not the same as being there and watching a live performance.   But, in these non-piping times of enforced peace, close-to-current recorded readings on film are the closest we’re going to get to hearing our professionals at work.   And this is not a doctored CD set of interpretations.   What you hear on this site  (and at least one other) and can enjoy over and over until May 12 (not so on that other one) has to work as a momentary (!) substitute for the real thing.   I, for one, am delighted to have these on-line recitals available and will take them in good part until we get back to normal – a putative date for which seems to matter less to the government than the return of professional rugby matches and the opening of that vitally important indicator of a vibrant, socially undistanced society: tattoo parlours.

 

 

 

 

 

Fine performance in there somewhere

BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS PART 5

Markiyan Melnychenko and Rhodri Clarke

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 24

Markiyan-Melnychenko-3553564523-1560753706372

                                                            Markiyan Melnychenko

This evening recital marked the first disappointment (for me) in the series run by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt.  In one sense, it might have been so not because of what we heard but what we didn’t hear.  On the program were two violinists – Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Markiyan Melnychenko – both to be accompanied by pianist Rhodri Clarke.   As far as I remember, Matsuura-Miller was on board to tackle the Beethoven Sonata No. 2 before Melnychenko went on to account for the Kreutzer No. 9.  Sadly, the former player was taken ill, so we were left with a one-work program.   Well, you can hardly complain about this misfortune in our challenging climate, although patrons have been assured that we will get to hear the earliest of the composer’s sonatas in A at a later stage in this increasingly ambitious series.

The Kreutzer is a complete world in itself, of course, and swamps its fellow-passengers in Beethoven’s violin sonata output.   Most chamber music addicts cling to the concept enunciated by some clown (Goethe?) of a string quartet as ‘a conversation among four intelligent people’; outsiders like me think of a quartet as a contest, a continuous series of assertions that have to be slotted into each other, an ongoing carefully ordered alteration in supremacy.  Yes, the results can be mellifluous, yet the string quartets that stand out in the memory are those that resemble an intellectual conflict – even in Haydn.

Much the same can be said of piano trios and violin sonatas, especially this one.   I played the piano part for it many times in younger days, usually partnering a violinist with much more experience of the score than I brought to the table.   But no matter how many times we worked through it, I was always on edge; not just because of the technical requirements which simply deepen as the score progresses, but also because of the multiple decisions about what goes where and why a particular attack should be chosen and not another way equally as feasible.

Beethoven sets up this tension right from the extraordinary opening with the two instruments playing solos that eventually interlock at bar 11.   Once the tempo changes to Presto, the work moves into competitive mode and not even the individual highlighting of the middle movement variations nor the major key optimism of the tarantella finale can detract from the sonata’s consistent grappling for attention.

Melnychenko did not have the happiest of starts, encountering some trouble with the two simple double stops in his first bar which wavered unnervingly.  When he and Clarke got down to the first movement’s real business, the string line still sounded nervous; thanks to the exposition repeat, the combination began to assert authority over these active, dynamically fluctuating pages with some splendid slashing strokes from the violinist from bar 61 onward and an urgent drive from Clarke’s quaver underpinning after the piano’s C Major cadenza.

This violinist can spin a splendidly fine line in slow, lyrical passages; for example, the second subject – that unfinished E Major melody that slows the compulsive rush into a chorale –  came over with a disarming warmth, as sweet as Ferras in his prime, and meeting the composer’s requirement for an emotional and technical oasis in the heart of a fiery narrative.   Clarke showed willing from the start, inclined to overdraw his dynamics with a powerful delivery of every sforzando and an interpretation that saw a fortissimo in every forte.   Only a spot of fluster in the flat-littered contrary motion territory around bar 229 marred a reliable output from the keyboard part, at this point treated with fitting vehemence.   Whether it was quite appropriate at every stage for this partnership dynamic is another matter.

Nevertheless, we could relish the melting moment in the recapitulation of the second subject starting at bar 412: 26 bars of refined articulation from both executants.   Only a spot of fumbling around bar 467 marred an engrossing rounding-out of this movement.

Clarke did excellent service with his establishment of the second movement’s material, demonstrating a no-nonsense approach to the Andante direction and finesse in giving each of the inner lines its value in the chordal progression.   Both players collaborated in some subtle tempo tightening and easing during the initial statement before moving into an agreable first variation, which only suffered a few absent bass notes as Clarke worked hard to be discreet.    Variations 2 and 3 proved exceptionally fine: crisp in the first, then sombre with no decrease in rhythmic impetus across the latter.  The last of the variations found the pianist over-anxious to exert hegemony in pages where there is –  for once  –  no competition, least of all from Melnychenko’s occasional pizzicati contributions.  Still, the coda exemplified the best qualities that emerged every so often from this partnership: unanimity of direction, awareness of function, consonance in attack and dynamic.

Unfortunately, only a little way into the finale, you could hear that the combination had turned lop-sided.   While the articulation rarely faltered and both players had resolved on a weltering speed, the piano proved too emphatic and insistent to sustain the postulation that this was a conversation.   For instance, at bar 86 where the violin is genially bobbing around on its two lower strings, Clarke was hammering out the D Major theme as though he were engaged in a Brahms concerto.  The sforzandi that start bars 109-11 proved to be not so much emphases but power-punches.  Later, the lead-in to the two Adagio breaches near the end found the piano burying the violin in heavy fabric.

Sadly, this conclusion coloured your perceptions of the entire performance.   It would be unwise to assert that these performers were mismatched – they achieved some fine passages of play – but the result all too often sounded one-sided.   You can’t expect towering, steely lines from Lviv-born Melnychenko; his sound-quality is pointed and refined and is not capable of rising above a very forceful background or support.  It may be that these artists had no chance to calculate at any length the acoustic parameters of the Athenaeum Theatre auditorium.   At all events, this Kreutzer presented as rather imbalanced dynamically.  I’ve plenty of respect for both musicians but this was only an occasionally successful attempt at a taxing musical challenge.

 

 

 

 

A wide-ranging revelation of self

PRTZL

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3447

Wherever you look, you come across Harvey’s name.  He’s omni-present in Australia’s musical landscape, even if he makes his home in Hobart (there’s a bit of mainlander snobbery for you).   For years, he has been a fiercely prominent standard-bearer for contemporary music – Australian and otherwise – with an ability to play anything written for his instrument.    Yes, he can occasionally be heard playing mainstream repertoire, if you’re lucky enough; at various times and places, I’ve watched him perform Chopin and Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven, usually to my enrichment.   Further, I’ve seen him improvise at some long-forgotten (by me . . . more repressed than forgotten) spot in Fitzroy, sweeping an audience up with overwhelming, seemingly endless cataracts of notes.   As well, he has collaborated to splendid effect; in my experience, with Slava Grigoryan, both live and on disc.

As a composer, Harvey is well-represented in the Move catalogue, sometimes juxtaposing his own works with those of other Australian writers.   On this CD, however, it’s all Harvey  –  compositions and performances  –  playing both solo and alongside some new- and long-time collaborators.   Leading the piano solo works is the solid Piano Sonata No. 4   A. Gramsci of 2018, as well as a Module Fugue from the same year; a Divertimento originally written by Anna Amalia, Duchess of Braunschweig in 1780 for a mixed quartet of piano, clarinet, viola and cello, is here arranged by Harvey for piano alone; in this disc’s title work, Harvey uses two pianos – one grand, one electric – during which he seems to twist himself into that shape suggested by the title, although why the word loses its two vowels seems odd – but then, Cage and Lejaren Hiller did much the same with HPSCHD over 50 years ago.

Harvey presents three duos: Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion for electric piano and synthesizer (Harvey plays both) and trumpet Simon Reade; Tubby the President with Reade taking up the baritone horn; and Gestalt Climate for two pianos, Harvey in harness with wife Arabella Teniswood-Harvey.    Then you find two trios: a salute to Deep Purple’s John Lord in Deus est Fabula for violin (Tara Murphy), clarinet (Derrick Grice) and piano (Harvey); Toccata DNA in a version for flute (Peter Sheridan), percussionist (Peter Neville) and piano (Harvey).   Last of all comes a quartet – Aporia II – for three pianos
(Harvey, Teniswood-Harvey, Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson).

On Disc One, the Gramsci-inspired sonata takes up most space  –  almost two-thirds of the total area.   On the second, the tribute to Lord, Deus est Fabula, lasts longest, with the toccata coming in a worthy second.   Two related pieces – Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion and PRTZL – are the briefest, both about 2½ minutes each.   To my mind, there is one anomaly among the ten works expounded – the satire on Trump which wears out its welcome, even though anyone with a brain would sympathize with its intentions.

The album’s opening track, Module Fugue, impresses for its rapid-fire elaboration on the notes E, B and F which provide the fundamentals across the piano solo’s length.   These three notes would be the module that Harvey uses for intervallic and transpositional exercise; as for a fugue, there’s little here that brings to mind your concept of that form, although the composer/pianist does insert a small fughetta near the end but it serves as more of a slight episode in the course of this construct, one that looks sensationally difficult on paper but which sounds  –  in patches  –  mellifluously fluent in the realization.  Actually, ‘slight episode’ does this brief fugal passage poor service as it acts as a momentary and slight brake on the fierce action that precedes and follows it.

The piece is full of excitement across its breadth, right from the scene-setting right-hand sextuplets that start the action.   In fact, the work falls into two parts: the first, piled high with crisscrossing meshes typified by irregular gruppetti, irregular arpeggios, irregular rhythmic displacements, irregular time signatures – all depending on your definition of ‘irregular’.    In this instance, the sonorous web that Harvey compiles is  volatile, but moderately so compared to what comes at bar 66 when we reach a stage where the underlying three-note motif becomes the basis for a percussive chord- and rhythm-play, intensely invigorating and packed with the composer/pianist’s delight in alternating time-signatures – 3/4 becomes 5/16, 6/16, 11/16, 7/16: all semiquaver-based but the balance is asymmetrical so that toe-tapping jazz enthusiasts (for instance) would be completely at sea.   Harvey allows himself some liberties with an unscheduled pause here and a disinterest in his own designated accents there; yet, as every time when he gets the bit between his teeth, the pianist carries you breakneck past his mini-fugue and into a rip-roaring torrent of fabric.

The Sonata No. 4 begins with a statement of Gramsci’s name where R is represented by the note D, M by F, S by E flat, and I by B.   I can’t trace how these equivalents were reached but here they are, initially articulated by across-the-strings glissandi.   Some under-the-lid work emerges quickly, but not for long; in fact, manipulation of the strings disappears until near the sonata’s conclusion.   The aim of this first burst of activity is to solidify the seven-note Gramsci-name sequence through harmonic manipulation, a potent bass statement, and – after a pointillist 8-bar flurry – across a firm double whammy in alternate hands before it is subsumed into the work’s contrapuntal workings-out.

From these initial statements on, the seven-note aggregation returns en clair throughout the one-movement sonata’s length, yet you find plenty of distractions/disguises to move the work out of the realm of spot-the-row/inversion/cancrizan games.   But then, I’m slow in realizing a good deal of what development on this scale involves, to the point where it took me several hearings to appreciate how much of the sonata is set in 7/4 or 7/8, and that the first of the many chord clusters that crop up comprises 7 notes.   You can get carried away with this sort of 1950s detective-style analysis, no matter how simple-minded, especially when other features impress so vividly, like Harvey’s fluency with two part invention-style writing, the jumpy energy that breaks in at the Vivace of bar 272, and the ensuing placidity of isolated notes placating the listener and leading into the timeless string glissandi of the last 25 bars to the sonata.

Why Gramsci?   Harvey identifies with the anti-Fascist Italian philosopher’s trademark theory of cultural hegemony, in which the rich have taken over the incidentals of  aesthetic practice –  to be specific, in this case, the piano.    By using the instrument at the opening and close of his sonata in an anti-bourgeois mode, the composer is making a statement about the abstraction by a wrong-minded class of a cultural symbol which can be reprogrammed by changing its use.   OK: I’d go along with that, as long as the inside-the-lid brigade had the same intention – Cowell, Cage, and the rest of the crew.   But it’s improbable that they all march to the unheard beat of a Leveller’s drum.  Not that it matters over-much: Harvey is exemplifying the essential re-allocation of resources that so appalled Il Duce, setting the theory as his sonata’s alpha and omega.   The manifesto is at the edges; to my mind, the true interest lies in the exuberant working-out in the middle.

As for the two-movement Divertimento by Duchess Anna Amalia, this is a fairly straight reduction of the original work with the interesting parts of the non-piano lines incorporated into the keyboard part.   Before, during, and after the noblewoman’s polite work, Harvey indulges in some extemporisations – not long, but energetic to the point of frenzy, sort of putting the 18th century inside a contemporary cocoon.   The repeats are ignored and Harvey goes in for a continuous accelerando at the end of the Allegro second movement, which all sounds as though he’s tired of being polite and is rushing towards his end-of-track explosion.   As well, he allows several wrong notes to survive on the recording, which can be interpreted as uncaring or bringing the music down to earth.  It’s an odd adjunct to this collection and makes no pretensions to much beyond the status of a slight bagatelle.

PRTZL represents something similar.   A player sits in the middle of two pianos (one electric, one grand) and swivels between both – sort of.    The work begins with one instrument, the other joins in pretty quickly, they alternate with bewildering rapidity and are joined by a drum sequencer about 4/5ths of the way to the end.   Even with the score and a pretty decent sound system, I found this hard to follow; after an orthodox start, the player seemed to be following  general contours and, although I knew two keyboards were involved, both timbres combined so that the desired result was achieved and perceptions twisted into a pretzel shape.   You’re not exactly bamboozled but your sense of shape is left in disarray.   Still, Harvey is noted for his individuality: not just putting a fresh lick of paint on works, but indulging in a spot of angle-grinding and radical planing as well; if he wants to do so in his own constructs, it’s essentially his call.

This work is dedicated to Hobart lawyer Craig Mackie.  The unkind among us might see the work as a reflection of the twisting and mental contortions that the practice of law requires, or the necessity on the part of a successful legist to keep several balls in the air simultaneously, never mind about juggling them.   Harvey admires Mackie, not least for his representation of Astro Labe aka DJ Funknuckl who was charged with head-butting then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott on September 21, 2018, for which act the penalty was 6 months’ jail with a minimum of two.   It might be an over-reach, giving Astro Labe the sobriquet of Lionheart, especially as the assault was not occasioned by Abbott’s disregard of the national majority’s feelings concerning marriage equality or by any other of the Prime Minister’s blind spots in social logic, but rather by a general sense of offence caused through the presence of the man himself – rather like the reactions among the population of Cobargo when Scott Morrison showed up.   Would you headbutt him, though?   Well, I wouldn’t take on an Oxford Boxing Blue, especially if you were stupid enough to square up to him properly.   Giving a Liverpool kiss might have satisfied your sense of hubris taken down, but it’s not brave.

The piece itself is mainly an electric piano solo; another of Harvey’s rhythmically compulsive drives, mainly in 7/16 with forays into 4/4, and it hurtles past with superlative performance finesse.   An ad lib short break for synthesizer drums is interrupted by two tritone-forming trumpet notes in the distance, and a high trill before a synthesizer bass explosion and, finally, the sound of a bird tweeting.   It’s obviously a tribute to the titular hero and may reference his DJ career; as a character study, it proves inviting but inscrutable.   Recorded at a live performance, the bird-song conclusion raised some laughter.

That deals with the first disc; the second is all collaborations, the first of them the variant on Kleinsinger’s Tubby the Tuba.   In its original form, the work was a piano/tuba duet, but here the brass instrument is a baritone horn (Simon Reade) which manages the original line with a few octave transpositions.   Its opening suggests The Star Spangled Banner but that melodic contour disappears quickly as the work follows its sevenfold path: Come un imbecille; Ritmico, ma come una personna che non sa ballare; Twittare a mezzanotte; Rubato, osservato una giovane donna; Pesante, inferocito; A tempo, i farmaci per i cappelli stanno funzionando di nuovo; Coda, la vendetta di Melania. Some of these divisions live up to expectations; most are impenetrable, like the last section of all.  To ram home the message, Trump slogans – Fake news, Grab ’em by the pussy, Bad fire-fighter – are called out at certain points.   But the satirical intent remains obscurely expressed.   Not to mention the difficulty in finding material in a person who is a booby beyond the comprehension of Dryden and a yahoo mentality that might have confounded Swift.  As America is finding out with each passing day, the reality cannot be satirized: imitation is the only coping mechanism.

More serious intentions underpin Gestalt Climate where human interference with nature to the latter’s destruction is epitomized in the adjunction of two separate but internally connected sets of material.   Harvey performs a version of his own Module Fugue in which the various elements are revisited, sometimes literally.    In opposition (?) to this stream, Teniswood-Harvey imposes 3, 4 and 5 note chords (the first comprises the B, F and E source mini-row of the earlier work) and isolated interjections derived from the Module Fugue.  This might have worked more effectively if the second piano part had been more assertively written; as things stand here, Harvey wins all the attention, playing a mobile, dynamically volatile role while his partner is subsumed into the welter.

The pianos are treated as independent, although their parts are spelled out.  In the piece’s centre, they operate on different time metrics, so that the first piano occasionally waits for the other instrument to reach some sort of tempo parity.   Not that this matters too much as little relief is built into the first piano’s part.   Indeed, the temporal disjunction serves as a clear sign of the composer’s main proposal to do with ‘the concept of Gestalt prägnanz‘, so that the message comes across in aphorisms rather than paragraphs, especially as the work reaches its final stages.   While its premise is laudable –  to expound the huge problem between what we do and what we need to do  –  I’m left in an interpretative bind: the state of affairs presents as fast as well as furious, which could be the march of progress turned into helter-skelter, and the countermeasure speaks with inexorability as a possible triumph of nature or a Big-Bang Apocalypse.  Harvey’s work speaks in a language that is vital and anxious to a high degree; an uncomfortable if salutary experience.

Jon Lord’s name means very little to me and, I’d suggest. my generation.   His work is very close to Harvey’s heart; the Australian pianist gave the English composer’s solitary piano concerto its premiere performance in 2003.   In Deus est Fabula (God is a fable, Lord is a legend – take your pick), violinist Murphy and clarinettist Grice work work in very close quarters with Harvey through a score that has some of the most complex rhythmic structures and displacements I’ve seen since early Stockhausen.   The major part is as closely argued as you could wish, with some intervening duets for the viola/clarinet combination, and some splashy solos for Harvey.

By this stage, you should be getting used to the composer/pianist’s inventive tropes:  smashing alternating-hands chords, sustained pedal washes of remarkable power, time signatures that favour semiquaver patterns, unusual groupings like quintuplets and septuplets, delight in imitative part-writing (sometimes even for piano in this score), directness of utterance with little room for mawkish self-examination, bursts of syncopation that suggest bebop but defy analysis (Brubeck with his Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk are Stone Age vintage compared to this).   The trio is divided into your classical four movements, in a way: yet the piece presents as one movement.  The first division is marked with the Satiesque Credulita, con rubato; then comes a more ordinary Moderato espressivo, followed by Ossessionato, winding up with an almost predictable Impietosamente.

In terms of material, Harvey writes that his trio is based on the first seven prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.    These numbers can certainly be found in the piece but are of little help in piecing together the work’s progress.  By the way, even a tyro at this game can see that the first three bars of solo piano contain all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.   What you hear is a strident sequence of declamations involving all three instruments in solo or combinations before an abrupt launch into one of the composer’s trademark ritmico passages, everybody loaded up with tempo and range problems before the Moderato is reached and the instrumental interplay becomes less angular.  A brief Infuriati explosion of one bar leads to the slow-moving Ossessionato where the pianist operates on the strings, the clarinet enters into this new world with multiphonics, while the violinist indulges in a bit of overpressuer or grating sound production.   The players eventually reach the final merciless section which lives up to its name by sustaining a sonorous barrage to the end.  You can hear – even if you have a very limited knowledge of Lord’s output – how Harvey  hymns the fiery determination and bravura of the rock organist’s performance, if here transmuted into something more complex and intellectually challenging.

Deus est Fabula, written in 2014, is the second-oldest piece in this collection of scores which come mainly from 2018 and 2019.   The oldest track is of Harvey’s celebrated 27-years old (can you believe it?) Toccata DNA – originally for piano, and soon after appearing in this trio format; the work was subjected to further revision three years ago.   On this pressing, the toccata is a triumph for all involved, a marvel of synchronicity and a startling internal transition from a simplicity that is almost tonal to detonations of agility from each sound source – which, in Peter Neville’s case, is quite a few.

In format, the piece follows the segmented tradition that stretches from Buxtehude to Khachaturian,    It opens with a flute-piano duet that sets up a semitone nexus and shortens its note values to increase the activity level until a unison segment with shifting time-signatures leads into the active second part, the marimba establishing a a fast pattern of sextuplets with the piano revisiting the grave semibreve/minim ambience of the opening bars.   A new phase, Flowing, brings all three instruments into play together in what eventually turns into an atonal chorale with florid, complex surrounds.  The work reaches its apex with an extended Giusto sequence, piano dominated and most exciting with its ostinato bass strides and right-hand clusters.

Harvey points to two sources for the toccata: the opening segments derive from the Art of Fugue as reinterpreted by organist Gerd Zacher;  the second part hales from territory claimed by the now-40-year-old group Einstürzende Neubauten, specifically the song Z.N.S. – you can find it on YouTube although its relevance to the toccata is difficult to perceive.  But then, even when you’re given pointers like these, you probably do best to take them as indicators that may not travel beyond the personal; for example, others see Bach but I see Boulez, or someone cites German industrial rock where you hear Mosolov.   If this information proves counter-productive, listen to this reading of the toccata and revel in its helically interweaving strands as well as the pin-point accuracy of the work’s executants.

To end, the quartet Aporia II moves us into a time-honoured realm, that of the controlled aleatoric.   The title refers to a state of doubt – not just about the nature of truth in philosophical discussions, but also to what you think is happening now.   Harvey’s performers divide into two tribes – percussion plus keyboard, and two keyboards –  who respond to an initial stimulus, in 2-minute time limits.   Now, it’s always worthwhile being aware of how something musical works, particularly in the vexed continuum of form.  But, as Schoenberg (if not his followers) insisted, you don’t have to bear this knowledge at the front of your mind when you listen; it’s primary information, but it’s not primary to the experience, pace Die Reihe and all who sailed in her.

What of Aporia I?   That’s the work title for Harvey’s Piano Sonata No. 3 of 2016, in which he attempted to deal with a form of this uncertainty principle.   By contrast, this present work tenders a bare-bones explication.  The piece has four sections – pianissimo, forte, pianissimo again, fortissimo leading to a brief coda that diminishes into silence.   The initial material for improvisation comprises the notes C, A, G, E, D which also provide the coda’s elements.   Section 2 introduces B, F and C sharp alongside the existing pentad.  Section 3 brings into play the missing notes from the chromatic scale: B flat, A flat, G flat and E flat, while Section 4 is a free-for all on all 12 notes.   The player’s entrances are staggered in each part, although all are involved at a bar’s distance (each bar is a 4-second unit) from the start.   It makes for a welcome mobility for the performers, and just as welcome a comprehensibility for the listener.

Aporia II makes for a clever conclusion to this album.   It’s the most ‘adventurous’ piece in the collection, reliant more than any other on the creativity of each performer, and it represents the most challenging foray by the composer into a field that is completely different to the other nine works that precede it, and it’s the most simply structured of them all as well.   There’s something of an open-air temper to Aporia II, even in Section 2 which brings to mind irresistibly the world of the gamelan, with a side-order of Debussy’s Pagodes.

My gratitude to Michael Kieran Harvey for his generous emailing of all the scores played on these two discs.   Allowing critics to have access to your work is a rare characteristic among contemporary composers.   It’s even worse with their interpreters.   My only previous experience of this generosity came from Daryl Buckley in the years when his Elision group was performing in Melbourne and from Peter Sculthorpe, fondly remembered.   This beneficence from Australia’s master-pianist made the act of reviewing his compositions a much more cogent enterprise than it could have been, no matter what you think of the results above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All clear

BACH TO BACH

Calvin Bowman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday April 12

Calvin

                                                                   Calvin Bowman

Over the years, some Australian musicians have put themselves forward  –  or been promoted  –  as front-rank Bach experts  and I’ve heard more than a few of them stake their claims with pretensions great and small.   But my vote for primus inter pares not (to mention inferiores) would be organist Calvin Bowman.   He first performed the complete organ works over a series of recitals in 1995, of which I heard a few on the Smenge instrument in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate, Melbourne.   Then I dipped in and out of his presentation of the total Bach output for solo organ across one day/night in the Melbourne Town Hall: a singular event that brightened up an otherwise bland Arts Festival in 2009.   Finally, another complete one-day rendition took place at the 2018 MOFO in St. John’s Church (Cathedral?), Launceston.  A further run-through was planned across several recitals this year in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton where Bowman is organist, but that’s been delayed for obvious reasons.

Much of the music for this Sunday night all-Bach recital was for harpsichord originally, although a smattering of organ pieces arrived by way of transcription/transmutation.  Bowman opened with the C minor Fantasia BWV 906 without its attendant fugue, hurtling into the opening arpeggios with gusto and clarity, saving his sustaining pedalling for the mood swings at bar 9, and later at bar 25.   I was elated by the sense of purpose that obtained in the chromatic complexes at bars 14-15 and 37-38, as by the drama released in the concluding statement that begins at bar 34; the whole, a terse construct eloquently brought to life.

Written for lute or harpsichord, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 is a keyboard favourite that has led many an interpreter into excess, particularly during its opening pages.   Bowman played its first part straight: completely unadorned, letting the meandering right hand speak its part without deviation with only a slight mis-speaking at about bar 34.   The fugue enjoyed a similar uncluttered statement, the sustaining pedal only employed when the semiquavers started in earnest at bar 29.   In fact, Bowman showed himself more than assured enough with the interweaving part-writing to need little help in imposing sense on the movement’s progress.    Nothing major marred the progress of the concluding segment beyond some short, sharp signs of fatigue in the final repeat of the piece’s second part – blips on a serene surface.

A dislike of the Italian Concerto BWV 971 stems from my experiences of its first movement which a teacher constrained me to master in 1960.   The encounter was unpleasant (as is much knowledge gained for exam purposes only) but it gave me an admiration for pianists who can handle its intricacies with at least an appearance of enjoyment.   Bowman bounced through the opening pages, sure of his direction despite some passing treble uncertainty in bar 105; but the whole central part of this movement is an outwardly optimistic, inwardly bedevilling melange and even this gifted musician looked and sounded relieved to come back to clear water at bar 163’s restatement of the opening sequence, the tempo slightly increasing and the delivery buoyant.

Bach’s middle Andante movement found Bowman unafraid to employ rubato and showing a welcome tendency to give the right hand’s long stretches of action a good deal of liberality; no strict lines or rhythms here, the player heightening or lengthening notes to emphasize the piece’s idiosyncratic progress as in bars 30-31 where the syncopations proved notably unpredictable.    Just as tellingly, Bowman eschewed the temptation to use the repeated pedal Cs and As at critical points as hammer blows or portents of doom; they remained simply part of the sombre undercroft to the treble’s extended arioso. Because of the clarity of finger-work, some errors enjoyed unusual transparency in the Presto finale.    Yet, at those stages where the action cuts back to two invention-type lines, the performance gleamed: such interludes  –  between bars 25 and 52, 77 to 96, 155 to 173  –  showed spirit and vitality through simple textural contrast.

With the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 695,  Bowman moved back into organ territory, although this piece does not require the pedals that are eventually required for the BWV 718 chorale prelude on the same hymn tune.   This work came over with convincing fluency, the alto-situated chorale processing through the two outer lines with unruffled poise.   Many an interpreter treats Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein BWV 734 as a toccata, with all attention on the treble semiquavers; organists have a better time of it with the tenor melody given to the pedals, but a good pianist can give an informed account of it if the music’s purpose is kept in mind.   I might have preferred Bowman to have taken it a tad more quickly with less four-square stolidity and more use of the piano’s subtle expressive powers, but the end result was jaunty enough, a celebration rather than a race to redemption.

The recital concluded with two arrangements for piano.  The first by Bax of the G Major Fantasia for organ BWV 572 omitted the opening 27 bars and the closing 17 bars.  Admittedly, these are peripheral to the work’s main content: a massive five-part contrapuntal exercise in extended chorale shape that the British composer reinforced with doubled pedal/bass notes and aimed for slight relief from the original’s massive weight by moving the treble up an octave at about bar 104 of the original score, if only for a short while.    Bax also cut out a few bars at the end to give the extract a solid concluding cadence.   All very well as an  exercise but it struck me as heavy going; yes, so is the organ original which is Schweitzer-monochrome in character but the duration of notes in the counterpoint is not compromised, as it must be in a piano treatment.

To end, we heard Max Pirani’s transcription of the 21-bar-long middle Largo of the F minor Harpsichord Concerto.   This is the flip side to the D minor Andante from the Italian Concerto, here labelled Arioso and a much more orthodox melody.   I think it has been transposed up a semitone from its original A flat Major and Pirani fleshed out its length by repeating the first 6 ½ bars.    Some of the right-hand figuration was left out, as were the final 2 or 3 bars – just the same as Bax’s transcription preceding this.  So Bowman chose a pleasant encore piece to conclude: nothing challenging or profound but, in this treatment, appealingly Romantic in timbre.

Certainly, it’s a kind of Bach performance that appals purists but appeals to pianists who, across the past 270 years, have been unable to leave the composer’s output alone.   Do we need to hear these revisions?    Well, they don’t hurt anybody if they’re carried out with discretion and Pirani has been more careful than most to leave the work close to intact.  Furthermore,  it’s easy to put this sort of thing together and easy to play; not as jejune as Switched-On Wendy Carlos, but not as memorable as Webern’s Ricercar mutation.

It was beyond the reach of this series to have Bowman play an organ; performers are currently limited to the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre and to a minimum of human interactions during their work.   This recital served as an illuminating witness of the Melbourne musician’s encounters with Western music’s father-figure, but such an experience only tells part of the story.    We can but hope that next time Bowman might be able to give us a fuller display of his remarkable insights, albeit from a well-sterilised church.

 

A long goodbye

SCHUBERT FROM BEYOND: THE LAST PIANO SONATA

Kristian Chong

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 3 at 6 pm

Chong

                                                                     Kristian Chong

For his recital program in this worthy and welcome series, young Australian veteran Chong put most of his interpretative eggs into a Schubertian basket, giving us a reading of the final B flat Sonata that came off successfully, chiefly because the pianist knew exactly what he was about, particularly in his reading of the lengthy opening Molto moderato.  You might have asked for a more relaxed slow movement or for less force exerted during the Scherzo; still, it’s a work that speaks to many people in different voices – Richter, Brendel, Curzon, Radu Lupu for me –  and its emotional breadth is so vast and flexible that it accommodates many readings.

To clear his throat, Chong began with two short pieces that have spoken to him across his career.   Siloti’s famous transcription down to B minor of the E minor Prelude from Book I of Bach’s 48  rose to its high point in bar 15 with careful attention given to delineating the alto line melody, as well as a supple diminuendo from the point where the arranger starts spelling out the specific spacing of his left hand arpeggios.   So far. so fine, if a terse entity without its simple 2-part fugue.

Chong has had notable success with certain works by Rachmaninov: the C minor and D minor Concertos, and the Paganini Rhapsody, as well as the Op. 32 Preludes, which he has made part of his public repertoire for at least a decade.   In particular, the pianist has a predilection for the B minor Prelude, No. 10 in the series.  From where the excitement ramps up in bars 18-19, this performance took on a fine authority with an authentic clangour to the weighty chain of thick chords in both hands, the peroration sinking quickly before the change of texture at Rachmaninov’s L’istesso tempo direction

Similarly, Chong’s subterranean fervour in the bars preceding the cadenza demonstrated his control of the prelude’s structure, tension coming from the inevitable progress towards a rhythmic dissolution as well as a brilliant variation of light and shade, tension and resolution, action and hiatus.   I could have done with more spikiness in the right hand during the cadenza where brisk separation brings some welcome glitter to the work’s overall sombre surface.   But the final reminiscence, in particular the last five bars, rounded off a formidable reading of this piece’s gloom-laden pageant.

Schubert’s final sonata has been appearing on Chong’s recital programs for about six or seven years; you can be quite sure that he knows what he’s doing with it.   Or. at least, he has an informed insight regarding its interpretative challenges.   The work has been over-stressed with insights that range from the incisive to the fanciful, this composer being subject to almost as much formulaic type-casting as Chopin; the creators of Lilac Time have  done Schubert as little service as the brainiacs who devised A Song to Remember, or Magic Fire, or Song Without End, or the truly execrable Song of Scheherazade,  But, while you can find some excuses for the cinematic/musical excesses of certain screen biographies of composers, Schubert has been sentimentalised to an extraordinary degree over the past century.

I remember Michael Easton giving a pre-recital talk for Musica Viva in the stalls foyer of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall and being almost physically assaulted by an elderly patron who was incensed at Easton’s observation that Schubert had contracted syphilis about six years before his death.   This tends to undermine the patina of refreshing wholesomeness that surrounds the composer of Who is Sylvia?, Hark, hark! the lark and Standchen.   But can the disease’s physical destruction be called on to explain the subterranean trill in bar 8 that recurs during the Molto moderato and represents . . . what?   The threat of mercury?  Or simply an intimation of mortality?

Whatever your view, this sonata is not so much a technical mine-field as a long-running test of coherence, presenting pages of long paragraphs as a continuum, rather than a juxtaposition of discrete segments which isn’t helped by a series of pauses/fermatas that punctuate the flow.    Chong’s outline of the opening movement’s exposition proved intelligent – a fine line walked between restraint and excitement, as in the gloves-off exhilaration of the move to F sharp minor at bar 48.    He let the tension sag around the interrogation marks at the bar 110 mark but – wonder of wonders – he then took the first ending and repeated the exposition: something I haven’t heard in years.

Through the development, you could not fault the performer’s drive, finding purpose in the triplet pattern and the build-up to calm waters at bar 173.   Even so, a few final quavers of the triplet pattern tended to disappear, not quite sounding or swamped by left hand action.   (As at a previous recital of this series, at this late stage I discovered that the A above Middle C was slightly off.)   At that pivotal bar 173, we could have done with more dynamic cut-back to signal the move to a D minor oasis.    But the escape into the recapitulation at bars 215-216 found just the right ambience of relief in two senses of the word – contrast and relaxation.   Further, Chong treated us to an especially gracious conclusion, the main theme’s final appearance and transformation an excellent passage, the concluding four chords eloquently placed and articulated.

We’ve grown used to quite slow second movements as even great interpreters tend to linger over phrase/sentence climaxes.   Chong centred more on the Andante direction than the sostenuto  –  quite acceptable, particularly if you want to avoid overdoing the pathos (if you think it’s there).    Matters proceeded very well up to bar 408 where the right-hand alto triplets could have been accounted for with less deliberation; here again, a few of these supporting notes went missing, possibly because of the rate at which Chong was going through them.   Nevertheless, the return to C sharp minor at bar 447 reinforced your realization of the pianist’s arching overview of the movement, with a sympathetic subtlety in the heart-stopping move to C Major 14 bars further along.   An avoidance of indulgence also obtained at the final key signature change which quite a few players treat as a Debussyan shimmer, but here you could admire the unabashed across-the-bar sustaining pedal work in this final section where the forward motion is blurred intentionally and the music aspires to a benevolent sonorous halo.

As for the Scherzo, Chong punched his way through it, slamming with unexpected ferocity into bar 530: those right-hand arpeggiated chords have rarely sounded so abrupt.   No troubles with the minor key Trio which asks for heavier-handed emphasis, but you’d expect more sparkle in the movement’s outer pages which are distinguished for their swift delicacy, not any inbuilt force.   In the finale, the interpretation mirrored the first movement in its consistency of attack, despite the more overt shifts in material treatment and abrupt punctuating breaks.   Chong’s handling of the syncopated left hand quavers between bars 220 and 235 appealed for its lack of jerkiness and made you look forward to the pattern’s three recurrences.    More pounding distracted for a while from bar 375 where both hands are well occupied but not necessarily competing.    Once again,  as with most other readings, the final 27 (28) presto bars were given pell-mell handling, sense sacrificed to speed.   Chong is by no means alone in taking this oddly gabbling approach but he might be better to focus less on excitement and more on clarity, especially with regard to pedalling.

In the end, an interpretation that impressed in its chief contours as it wove the composer’s extraordinarily open-ended melodic fabric across a substantial time-scale, gave a clearly thought-out narrative in three of its four movement-sections, maintained a firm technical command despite the work’s stamina-straining demands, and won you round to many unexpected configurations and expressive insights.

 

 

 

 

A flurry of flashy favourites

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Elyane Laussade

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 2 at 6 pm

elyanecopy

                                                                   Elyane Laussade

Another in the welcome series of socially distant recitals from Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s excellent initiative, this program brought back into play a good many well-known scraps from the piano literature.   Laussade’s aim was to offer an entertainment that demonstrated the two sides to her own situation of having both French and American parents.   So we enjoyed some Debussy, a Chaminade study and the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes; from the United States came a brace by Scott Joplin, a Zez Confrey bracket, and the piano solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

All these works were written inside a 45-year window, two studies standing at the temporal extremes; Chaminade’s Automne Concert Etude dates from around 1885 while Confrey’s atypical F sharp minor Concert Etude was written in 1929.   So it was a pretty closely circumscribed world that Laussade showed us, the two pivots of the hour coming in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and the always taxing Gershwin extended fusion – one of the few that actually works and standing tall among the composer’s happier inspirations.

Somewhere along the way, the program was changed.   Originally, Joplin was represented only by his Maple Street Rag; as matters turned out, we also got to enjoy The Easy Winners.   Likewise, Confrey’s etude was partnered with the jazz writer’s much better-known (and more representative) Dizzy Fingers.  To my disappointment, we lost Ravel’s Ondine, that inspired, lavish series of pianistic splashes; instead Laussade performed a very individual reading of the first (and most attractive) in the three-part sequence that constitutes the first set of Satie’s possibly Cretan-inspired meditations.

Chaminade’s well-known piece is not that hard to negotiate if you are gifted with a talent for emphasizing an internal melody line.   Its central Con fuoco section offers more challenges, even if the action dies out into a very conventional couple of cadenza bars before a return to the opening material.     Laussade’s attack was packed with rubato which fitted in with the work’s title, and it emphasized the attractive lyricism of the outer sections, although a plethora of pauses interrupted the piece’s fluidity near the opening of the F minor interlude.  This reading put poetry before drama – a wise decision, given the Frenchwoman’s by-the-numbers attempts at the latter.

Both Joplin pieces were treated with absolute determination, the Maple Street notable for its accurate, striding left hand assurance and a sensible dynamic alternation across some of the repeats.  Later, The Easy Winners gained much from Laussade’s sense of the music’s shape as she refrained from the customary devil-take-the-hindmost assault, interpolating a few hesitations to relieve the potential tedium of a steady four-quavers-per-bar octave bass line.

Nothing much to report of the Debussy pair.   This interpretation of Reflets dans l’eau came across as rhythmically four-square for most of its duration, the executant keeping more strictly in time than most other performers a kind reference to some notably sloppy readings from very big names.   Even the Quasi cadenza stretch between bars 20 and 35 made rhythmic sense – for once.    You might have preferred a lighter approach at the En animant in bar 44 but once again the following strophes were kept on leash rather than given over to a free-for-all.    The piece’s final page passed rather quickly; I suspect that bars 74 and 78 were rushed, but the concluding Lent could not have been bettered for its amplitude and delicacy of articulation.   The following La fille aux cheveux de lin delighted for its lack of self-indulgence: a sensible reading with some clever extension of marked pauses to give some tension to this unforgettable rural idyll; no curls here.

Confrey’s etude is a very competent arpeggio essay which works best if given at a consistent rate.   Laussade took plenty of liberties, interpolating pauses and ritardandi, but even then not quite secure in its negotiation.   Still, she struck through to the post-Czerny, post-Chopin core of these pages – a fully Romantic throwback written a full century after the etude’s actual vogue.   Much more entertainment came from one of Confrey’s greatest successes, Dizzy Fingers, which is a clear successor to the Joplin era and a catchy sample of amiable virtuosity asking for deftness and a moto perpetuo approach.   Laussade had no troubles with this bagatelle, even if she gave it more gravity than it deserved.

The Gnossiennes present a problem because you don’t know how seriously to regard them.   Laussade told us she considers this first one to be ‘dark’, a work ‘that truly represents what we may be feeling in this very difficult time’.   And that’s how she played it – without any quirkiness or laissez aller frivolity, finding an implacable tragedy in the acciaccatura-rich chorus that concludes each paragraph and giving the music plenty of space  –  what else should you do in a work where there are no bar-lines?   This approach gave – to me, at least –  a new view of this familiar piece, one that had always seemed curious, slightly simple-minded in its regularity.

Gershwin’s great rhapsody presents pianists with hefty challenges at every turn, the whole thing made more difficult in the version where accompaniment is absent and the player is left to carry a can full to overflowing.    Even the composer’s own recorded version makes for a wearing experience.  S till, Laussade made a brave start with a gentle, relaxed approach to the opening pages with only the slightest hitch at the first of the ossia bars.   The first and second bars that start with a triplet figure after the poco agitato direction sounded unfocused, improving as the pattern became more common.  Nevertheless, the rest of the piece’s first half proved to be well-considered and delivered with an insightful response to each episode – and God knows, there are a lot of them.

A few notes went missing in bars 34-36 after the tonality changes to G major but the ensuing fortissimo D flat explosion succeeded in rounding out this stomp with resounding success.   And the long ruminations on the Andantino moderato E Major tune made for a fine experience, the performer taking us fully into the composer’s calmly syncopated ambience that has its unmistakable echoes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.    A few errors cropped up in the shift to Agitato e misterioso when the left hand is asked to cross over; later, the post-left hand glissando bars sounded awkward and laboured, but these are among the hardest pages of this solo version where the executant is lumbered with both the orchestra’s carrying of the sparked-up melody and also the soloists’ syncopated decoration  in the second half of each 4-bar phrase.

Laussade put in two bars extra before bringing the right hand in for the Grandioso cakewalk, and these final pages brought us back full circle to Maple Street, thanks to Gershwin’s inspired braggadocio, here realized with drive and panache.   In fine, an elevating version of this masterpiece, which resounds with confidence and optimism as it hymns the Republic’s self-assurance – qualities that radiated loud and clear from this fine artist’s realization.