So much to hear

BACH MARATHON

3MBS

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

Chairman of the 3MBS Board Chris Howlett has taken his station’s annual marathon –  a one day series of concerts and recitals focusing on a great name in Western music  –   from the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall/Boroondara Arts Centre to the all-things-to-all-men Melbourne Recital Centre where a formidable and varied group of musicians played six programs by J. S. Bach and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, as well as a transcription of the D minor Violin Chaconne by Busoni, Liszt’s Variations on a theme of Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and one of Mozart’s semi-original/semi-transcriptions of Bach fugues from the K 404a set of 6.

I was surprised to find the Murdoch Hall almost full for the first event, before waking up to the fact that this program featured the largest work – in time and numbers – of the day: C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Well, one of them: during his time in Hamburg, he wrote/compiled 21 settings from the four Evangelists, six of the St. Matthew version.  This one dating from 1777 is not as substantial as that by the composer’s father, from whom he borrowed material (as well as from other contemporaries); fewer arias that commented on the action and much of the choral work was confined to chorales except for the essential turba segments.

Being without a program, I’ve compiled most of the following observations from scribbled notes and various processes of near-recognition allied to an unreliable sense of deja-vu.   But I was startled at the quality of soloists that preceded conductor Rick Prakhoff onto the stage; well, some of them did – three of the character singers, all male, were delayed by some backstage organizational hold-up.

As the Evangelist, Andrew Goodwin set a high standard, enunciating the text with his trademark clarity so that a listener all-too-familiar with Sebastian Bach’s setting of this part of the Gospel could follow the narrative closely.  The Emanuel Bach Evangelist gets few occasions for bravura, the son not being as deliberate in, or as tempted by, word-painting as his father, but the part runs as much more of a continuum because the interpolations are not as common.   In other words, Goodwin sang a lot of solid uninterrupted stretches and, as far as I could tell, made no palpable errors, sharply supported by Calvin Bowman’s chamber organ and showing unflagging awareness of Prakhoff’s direction at those stages where the Evangelist’s text melds into choral action.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Dinopoulos sang Christus with an assurance that recalled Warwick Fyfe’s exertions in the same role during earlier Melbourne Bach Choir Passions.  Just as pliant as Goodwin, this bass made the Gethsemane section a powerful, unsentimental experience and negotiated his line with a no-nonsense gravity during the exchanges with the High Priest and Pilate.

Michael Leighton Jones sang the roles of Judas and Pilate with his usual bluff amplitude, only an audible discomfort with the latter part’s top notes giving cause for disquiet.  But the dialogue for both characters is not substantial and Jones observed the pervading rule of this performance in negotiating his work without self-indulgence or emotive attention-grabbing; not that you can find much of that in a cold administrative fish like the Roman procurator.

Of the other soloists, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman impressed mightily right from the first principal aria.  Here was a fully-rounded production without any weak spots, kept pretty forward in the prevailing texture as the singer had to contend with an almost constant doubling, either from violins or bassoon, as though the composer didn’t quite trust his interpreter’s security of pitch; unnecessary in this instance and a bit of on-the-spot editing might have made the singer’s task easier.

Kleeman was also given a second, quick-moving aria, notable for the addition of a pair of flutes (the first time they were used in the score?) which also served a doubling function for much of the time.

Both soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and mezzo Shakira Tsindos took on the minute parts of the servant-girls questioning Peter outside the High Priest’s house.  Both were enlisted for meditative ariosos/arias after Peter’s denial and after Christ’s interchange with Pilate, pages that asked for and received a good deal of plangency but calculated for comfortable singing – nothing like the terrifically exposed female solo lines that the elder Bach wrote.

Timothy Reynolds – another light tenor possessing remarkable agility –  had the more taxing part of Peter and (I could easily be wrong) the lines attached to Caiaphas.  More significantly, this singer enjoyed the work’s final piece of meditative commentary in an arioso+aria after the death of Christ.  This turned out to be the most sustained work  (apart from Goodwin’s marathon) in the entire score and, on first impression, the most technically taxing of the lot.

Along with an appealing timbre, notable for its even spread across the required compass, Reynolds had a tendency to drag the chain; not exactly getting out of time with Prakhoff but needing to be hurried along when the lengthy aria’s vocal curvetting verged on the prolix.

As for the Bach Choir, it got off to a flying start with a splendid opening chorale; vigorous, full-bodied with a clear presence in all parts, functioning as an arresting curtain-opener.  In fact, you were hard pressed to fault the chain of chorales, especially the several appearances of Herzliebster Jesu.  The body was not solely used for these or taking the role of high priests/Pharisees or bloodthirsty population, although I can’t recall much along the lines of Komm, ihr Tochter or Sind Blitzen, sind Donner although one chorus after the High Priest’s condemnation proved memorable for the reinforcement of two horns, probably their first use in the score.

Carl Bach was quite happy – more so than his father – to have his chorus sing passages in unison or at the octave, which is a practice both easy and hard to negotiate happily, but these singers betrayed few signs of stress, least of all at recycled moments like the Lass ihn kreuzigen! and the Ich bin Gottes Sohn outbursts from the crowd, although the sopranos were showing fatigue at the Crucifixion pages.

The Bach Orchestra met Prakhoff’s direction with an excellent response, both individually and collegially, numbering a 21-strong string corps, a flawless brace of oboes as well as the afore-mentioned flute and horn pairs, supplemented by a single bassoon and the omnipresent organ.  Actually, the composer gives few opportunities for obbligato work – if any – but the general texture remained supple and well-etched, its various strata betraying few signs of thinness.

This Passion stops at the death – no space given to the veil of the Temple, earthquakes, centurion, women taking charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea, chief priests, Pharisees or Pilate.  The choir simply gives one last version of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and the work ends on a chastely simple note when compared to the monumental chorus Wir setzen uns  that finishes the elder Bach’s setting.  While you never had the sense that this work erred on the side of conciseness, the conclusion made a profound impression, a sensible and sensitive round-out of the narrative that – and this is a real compliment to all concerned – made you more than a little interested in the other 20 settings in the younger Bach’s catalogue.

After this, the second program startled for its variety.  Violinist Grace Wu partnered with pianist Laurence Matheson in J. S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, the one that starts with a siciliano-suggesting Largo.  The string sound came up to the top of the hall with a satisfyingly easy production; no straining after effects or disruption of the pulse from either musician. This was a modern-day interpretation with no lack of vibrato but a generous fluency displayed by a well-matched and mutually sensitive duo.

Matheson demonstrated a gallant sympathy by keeping his bass line – in fact, all the work’s left-hand action – restrained, moderating his upper work to just the right side of staccato when needed in the first Allegro, a well-argued passage of play from both executants.  A highly effective moment came at the end of the Adagio with some excellent congruent interweaving from bar 57 onward.   Even in the finale, Matheson ceded just enough of the ground to Wu without effacing himself, each player working through its bubbling counterpoint with precision and a delicacy that never seemed effete.

One of the left-field works of the marathon came in Tristan Lee’s presentation of the Liszt variations.  The work is a virtuosic compendium with all kinds of tests, mainly concerned with clarity in sustaining the simple falling motive that Liszt appropriated.  The sole problem in this interpretation was its segmented nature and, looking at the score again, you can see that, often, the cracks are not well-papered; in fact, the more demanding the variations, the more isolated they are in character.

You could not fault Lee’s reading of the opening pages, up to the end of the variations in triplets; when the semiquavers took over, the work’s cumulative tension abated up to the L’istesso tempo marking with its upward-rushing chromatic scales and double-octaves which moved the work into unabashed bravura display and the theme itself became a cipher.  Later, after the recitative, interest returned, specifically at where my edition is marked Quasi Allegro moderato and the theme’s treatment becomes more compressed until the ferment peters out into a bravely optimistic chorale where all the weeping, plaints, sorrows and fears are assuaged.  This transition made for a reassuring sense of completion, excellently realised by Lee even when Liszt decorates the simple harmonization of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan with rolling arpeggios.

Elyane Laussade brought us back to the mainstream with the popular French Suite No. 5 in G.  Here was a straight reading without affectation or the employment of over-prominent ornamentation; just a soupcon in the repeats.  Speaking of which, Laussade set this listener slightly off-balance by repeating the first half of each movement, but not the second; a quite deliberate choice but an odd one, leaving you feeling formally lopsided. Nevertheless, she maintained a steadiness of focus that gave any listener ample room to taken in the simple exuberance of each part, including the lyrically charming sarabande and loure.

This concert ended with the D minor Double Violin Concerto where the Australian National Academy of Music’s Robin Wilson was partnered by his very young student Christian Li, all of 10 years old and performing with unflappable panache.  You might have thought Li would have been overpowered but he held his own for the most part and contributed to a memorable passage from about bar 123 of the middle Largo where the two soloists intertwine their lines in one of the concerto’s most moving moments.

A justifiably confident attack paid even greater dividends in the final Allegro, taken at a bracing speed but with only a few notes obviously played but not sounding from the younger soloist.  Wilson performed with a no-holds-barred assurance that was well-placed, Li bringing to the work more than a little personality with a few mini-glissandi that spiced up the work’s innate stolidity.

Among the orchestral personnel, I think I saw Merewyn Bramble playing viola, Peter de Jager on harpsichord, with Howard Penny and chairman Howlett the dual cellos.  Throughout, their support mirrored the soloists’ sharp attack and impetus – one of your better scratch orchestras.

Concert 3 found Kathryn Selby in unaccustomed solo mode  –  without friends.  She performed one of the terrors of my student days, the Italian Concerto with its simple-looking but rhythmically confounding counterpoint meshes.  This approach used the piano fully, without flourishes or dynamic juxtapositions but also without mimicking the detached harpsichord-ish effect that some pianists attempt.  The first Allegro proved to be an enviable example of unfussy precision, even at the treacherous bars 135-138 section where, despite the obvious direction and placement of the notes, most players cannot persuade you that the two lines in operation fit together.

Selby’s approach to the D minor Andante erred on the side of emotional control, the movement treated as a sarabande of grave character rather than an angst-laden elegy.  What marked this interpretation out from others was the lack of thunder in the bass: the repeated low Cs from bars 19 to 25 and the mirroring low As from bar 37 to 43 enjoyed a muffled handling rather than a tolling emphasis.

Selby endured some pressure in her Presto finale which, as far as I could tell, was technically exact and enjoyable for its ebullience.  First a spotlight wandered across the back wall of the stage, then the lights dimmed, came back to life, then went out completely for a few seconds before flashing back on again.  The pianist didn’t miss a beat, whether she could see the keyboard or not.

Unfortunately, at this point I felt a distinct lack of interest in the odds and sods that were coming up, including a Christian Bach quartet and the Mozart semi-Bach exercise.  Of course, performances were scheduled for later in the afternoon/evening that would have fleshed out the day’s experience considerably, like the Australian Boys Choir accounting for the Jesu, meine Freude motet, Timo-Veikko Valve playing the last of the cello suites, Stephen McIntyre and his students taking turns at the Goldberg Variations.  But, unlike other more hardy souls in attendance, I’d had sufficient.  It’s a fine exercise, this marathon, but I think you need to prepare – just as for its Olympic-suggestive counterpart – with plenty of training, if you want to last the distance.

 

 

 

 

 

March Diary

Thursday March 1

ROMANCE

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Two soloists feature in this season-opener for the MCO.   The major contributor is pianist Konstantin Shamray, who, you may recall, won the Sydney International Piano Competition ten years ago; he’s on board to play the Schumann concerto. The other guest is Markiyan Melnychenko, a top-notch violinist  whom we are lucky to have working here; his contribution is Dvorak’s Romance, which is a stranger to me.  Book-ending the night is the Overture to Act III of La Traviata where Verdi urges out a large amount of tubercular angst in a couple of minutes, and Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony in A: that infectious and totally delightful sequence that depicts a country that might have presented to the composer’s non-jaundiced eye but which sits uncomfortably alongside the modern-day reality that stretches from Turin to Bari.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 4 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Saturday March 3

SEASON OPENING GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew Davis is using his two guest artists to fine effect in this standard-unfurling event.  Nelson Freire has returned quickly for an appearance in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and the MSO has taken the opportunity to have him appear in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto; still a great challenge, especially keeping your head in the modulations of the first movement’s development.  Also on the bill will be tenor Stuart Skelton who complements Freire’s Beethoven with the opening to Act 2 of Fidelio: Florestan’s Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! He then moves to Wagner, specifically Siegmund’s outpouring, Wintersturme wichen dem Wonnemond – one of the few light moments in Die Walkure.  Balancing this will be the final aria from Verdi’s Otello, the Nium mi tema where everything becomes clear to the noble, misguided hero.  As for purely orchestral matter, Davis conducts Carl Vine’s Symphony No. 1, Microsymphony (Vine is the MSO Composer in Residence for 2018); some bleeding Gotterdammerung chunks – Morgendammerung and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; and Verdi’s Ballabile from Otello, an interpolated Oriental ballet that even the composer realised was a waste of space and time.

Wednesday March 7

AUTUMN AIRS

Evergreen Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This group has swum under or over my radar.  It comprises a wealth of musicians, some of them well-known from other ensembles – violinist Ben Dollman, cellists Rosanne Hunt, Josephine Vains and Rachel Johnston, baroque guitarist/theorboist Samantha Cohen, bassoonist Simon Rickard;  others are half-recalled, like gamba expert Jennifer Eriksson, violinist/violist Anna Webb, oboist Jessica Foot and double bassist Miranda Hill.  Then there are some I don’t recognize: the group’s artistic director and violinist Shane Lestideau, Celtic harpist and vocalist Claire Patti, and Uillean piper and percussionist Matthew Horsley.  The obvious playing field is folk and art musics, exemplified by this entertainment containing a Purcell trio sonata in G minor, and Scottish composer James Oswald’s 96 Airs for the Seasons – well, extracts from them.  As chamber composer to George III, Oswald was very productive, more so than his attributed catalogue attests, it seems.  The pieces in his two sets of Airs are all named after different flowers or shrubs, divided into their annual times of florescence.  As both listed program elements are negotiated by a trio, it would seem obvious that not all the Evergreens will be involved.

Thursday March 8

THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s another masterwork that Sir Andrew is bringing back into the light.  As his soloists, the MSO’s chief conductor has tenor Stuart Skelton as Gerontius, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as his escorting angel, and bass Nathan Berg doubling as the Priest and the Angel of the Agony.  Once popular in England and select colonies, as well as parts of Europe, Gerontius has slipped into choral backwater territory; in these piping times of short attention spans, it doesn’t have much going for it.  But Newman’s overwrought poem and Elgar’s seamless and challenging score make a splendid combination to create something that comes as close as music can to depicting a bearable afterlife, if such a thing exists, particularly as shown in the cardinal’s poem which so exercised that sad segment of the Anglican clergy who insisted on bowdlerizing its text to bring it into line with British cathedral-close orthodoxy.

This program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday March 9 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday March 10 at 2 pm.

Saturday March 10

BOHEMIA

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This first concert for the year at ANAM features music by three composers from the Czech Kingdom, as it was once called: Janacek, Smetana and Suk.  The night begins with the Fanfare that kicks off Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a bracing brevity involving 9 trumpets, 2 bass trumpets and 2 euphoniums supported by an active timpanist.  Smetana’s Sonata and Rondo for 2 pianos, 8-hands is a piece you won’t hear on a regular basis but it’s brilliantly written for its forces.  Suk’s popular Serenade for Strings ends the event but before that comes an arrangement for wind octet of The Bartered Bride – bits of, you’d hope, otherwise it could be a long night.  Speaking of which, it’s been a fair while between performances of the Smetana opera; the last I can recall from the national company must have been well over 40 years ago.  A pity as it’s loaded with superb melodies and highly appealing vocal writing.  The cast list for this operation features many of the ANAM instructors: Nick Deutsch, David Thomas, Saul Lewis, Tristram Williams, Timothy Young, Sophie Rowell, Robin Wilson, Caroline Henbest, Howard Penny and Damian Eckersley as well as a slew of young ANAM Musicians – the raison d’etre for this excellent finishing school.

Tuesday March 13

ROMANCE AND REVOLUTION

Orava Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Oravas – violinists Daniel Kowalik and David Dalseno, violist Thomas Chawner, cellist Karol Kowalik – are here playing content from their first CD for Deutsche Grammophon.  We hear the Tchaikovsky D Major Quartet with its memorable, lilting Andante cantabile;  Shostakovich No. 8, the original of the popular Chamber Symphony arranged by Barshai; and the Rachmaninov String Quartet No. 1, all two movements of it.  The bonus track from the CD is an arrangement by Richard Mills for double string quartet and soprano of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise; Greta Bradman recorded it with the Oravas and sings the piece tonight although how they’ll arrange for another string quartet to participate remains to be seen . . . you’d have to anticipate some pre-recorded magic, wouldn’t you?  As a novelty, the ensemble opens with Haydn Op. 33 No. 2, known as the Joke, with its side-splitting stop-start finale.

Wednesday March 14

IN THE HOUSE OF ROSSINI

Domenico Nordio and Massimo Scattolin

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Violinist Paganini and guitarist Giuliani did meet in Rossini’s house and set up a sort of partnership-rivalry that resulted in several fine works for both instruments as a duo. Giuliani’s Grand Duo Concertant is a regular in recitals of this make-up, as is the Paganini Sonata No. 1 from the 18 sonatinas that make up his Centone di sonate.  As well, the players will present the Paganini Cantabile duo and Sonata Concertata.  Which is enough to be getting on with as the composer wrote an incredible amount for the combination, much of which is ringing slight changes on amiable material, but a little goes a long way.  Guitarist Scattolin I know from the Ballarat Organs Festival; Nordio is a new name to me but he is well-known enough to violin aficionados as a virtuoso with a wide repertoire.

Wednesday March 14

BEETHOVEN BY BALLOT

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at 7:30 pm

To begin her 2018 season, Kathryn Selby is working her piano trio magic with violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, who is a regular contributor to this series.  I don’t know who voted in this Beethoven poll but most of the results are predictable.  Newman works with Selby through the most popular of the cello sonatas, that in A Major;  Clifford has the chance to radiate benignity in the Spring Violin Sonata; the trio eventually assembles for the Archduke.  By way of a preface, the group plays another B flat Major trio, WoO 39, a one-movement Allegretto where the keyboard rarely surrenders primacy for its five-minute length.  A well-contrived exercise with well-spaced samples across the composer’s career, this will be given in Selby & Friends’ new venue in Hawthorn/Kew.

Thursday March 15

THE DEBUSSY PROJECT

Melbourne Art Song Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This recital contains some Debussy – selections from the first book of Preludes, performed by Eidit Golder – and works by four young Australian composers, written as responses to either Debussy or these Debussys.  It’s unclear what form these homages will follow but something of an indication comes through in that Lotte Betts-Dean is not billed as a soprano but as ‘voice’.  The specific preludes are Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest, Les sons et les parfums tournent dans  l’air du soir, La serenade interrompue, and La cathedrale engloutie.  The contemporary variants are Matan Franco’s This story wants to be told in bed . . . ,  Lisa Illean’s Women love a project . . . , Charlie Sdraulig’s Rushing sounds like blood . . . ,  and Jack M. Symonds’ Tomorrow I shut down.  Of these four, Sdraulig is the only one whose work I’ve heard. probably through the Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program.  Bringing up the rear, Dean will sing Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, three songs to poems of Pierre Louys that were originally credited to a contemporary of Sappho who turned out to be an erotic figment of the poet’s imagination.

Thursday March 15

THE MAGIC PUDDING

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne at 6:30 pm

This one-act opera, based on Norman Lindsay’s children’s book, with music by Calvin Bowman and libretto by Anna Goldsworthy, enjoyed its premiere in October 2013 at the hands of this company and is now being resuscitated for the pleasure of those among us who missed it the first time around.  Fabian Russell conducts and Cameron Menzies returns to direct.  Nathan Lay reprises the role of Bunyip Bluegum, Timothy Reynolds returns as Bill Barnacle, Brenton Spiteri takes on Sam Sawnoff, Jeremy Kleeman persists as the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas again plays the Judge.  The VO chorus will contribute and I suppose certain roles – like Watkin Wombat and Rooster, Possum, Henderson Hedgehog and the Constable, and Benjamin Brandysnap, not to mention the Narrator – will be allocated from their ranks.

The opera will be re-presented on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

Friday March 16

MAHLER 9

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

And then there were two.  Getting a tad out of sequence, Sir Andrew Davis nears the end of his Mahler symphonic cycle and takes the MSO through the large-framed No. 9, although he’ll probably have a go at the completed-by-several-hands No. 10.  Still, we’re all waiting for No. 8, and will go on doing so: we won’t be getting it this year.  There’s been no attempt to couple this Symphony No. 9 with a filler, which is just as well as most performances of a traditional nature last about 1 and a 1/2 hours, even if some more recent ones have clipped the score back by about 10-15 minutes.  The last time I heard this Ninth was in Costa Hall, Geelong, where the MSO played under Markus Stenz; not the best space for such an experience whereas Hamer Hall gives the symphony room to flower, particularly that long final Adagio.  This score is possibly the most extended passage of focused play from the orchestra all year, something to anticipate for its tremendous concentration of emotional gravity.

The symphony will be performed again on Saturday March 17 at 7:30 pm and on Monday March 19 at 6:30 pm.

Saturday March 17

THE BEAUTIFUL BLUE DANUBE

Hoang Pham

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

The title of this recital from one of our more enterprising (in a business sense) pianists comes from the Strauss/Schulz-Evler Arabesques on The Beautiful Blue Danube, to give the famous waltz its proper title.  A magnificent display piece of five waltzes and a coda, this is the last word in extended encores and Pham is giving it to as a built-in component.  Before it will come Beethoven  –  the Polonaise, Pathetique C minor Sonata and some of the six Op. 126 Bagatelles – alongside Schubert’s C minor Sonata, one of the formidable final three.  Here’s a big program that takes the young musician on a long odyssey across the Beethoven repertoire, cutting to the Schubert chase with a Beethovenian challenge – and the real technical fireworks to finish.

Sunday March 18

ALINA IBRAGIMOVA: DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Guest director and solo violinist Ibragimova is presiding over a notably dark collection of works, reaching its apogee (or nadir)  in the great Schubert quartet as arranged for string orchestra.  The afternoon begins with Barber’s Adagio: that sinuous score that is always brought out for broadcast at moments of national tragedy in the United States.  Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue continues the muscular depression mode before Ibragimova fronts the Concerto funebre by Hartmann, a work that she recorded with the Britten Sinfonia 11 years ago.  And the comatose cat among these pigeons is Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song, as atmospherically stagey and static as you’d expect, based around a religious text by Father Silouan, a Russian mystic who died in 1938; still, the good news is that it lasts only about six minutes.

The program will be repeated on Monday March 26 at 7:30 pm.

Monday March 19

NADIA’S INFLUENCE: WORKS BY STUDENTS OF NADIA BOULANGER

Inveni Ensemble

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Boulanger seems to have educated most of the 20th century composers whom we’d have to class as creditable place-getters in the ranks; some of them on this program are surprising, most of them well-known, none of them (in my book) enough to get you out on a cold autumn night – with the honourable exception of Elliott Carter.  The Inventis begin with a Nocturne for flute and piano by Lili, Nadia’s younger sister and sometime student; this is probably to be played by Melissa Doecke and an unknown pianist.  Then, one of the ensemble – probably Ben Opie – gives an airing to Carter’s Inner Song for solo oboe, an in memoriam for Stefan Wolpe.  Thea Musgrave’s works are recital rarities; good on the Inventis for programming her Narcissus for solo flute (Doecke again?) and digital delay  –  a relatively substantial composition, it lasts about 17/18 minutes.  The compositional standard dips with Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes for solo flute (the hard-worked Doecke); there are six of them and they take about 25 minutes to get through.  Suddenly, the recital’s one hour length could be a close-run thing, if you consider that the Boulanger lasts 3 minutes, Carter’s piece 6 minutes and we still have Berkeley’s Oboe/Piano Sonatina to go (about 14 minutes) and Bacharach’s Alfie theme (in an Inventi arrangement) which could stretch out beyond 3 minutes.  It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast but still a creditable exercise.

Tuesday March 20

THE VOICES OF WOMEN

Ludovico’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

This richly-coloured period music ensemble heads for waters that most of us have never plumbed by means of a night of music by female composers.  Only one of the three names programmed so far is a familiar one: Barbara Strozzi, daughter of Giulio and a solid presence in Baroque-era Venice.  The others are Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio and the first woman to write an opera, and the Ursuline nun Isabella Leonarda, a musically fecund contemporary of Strozzi.   But all three women wrote a great deal, so the Band has a wealth of material to work with.  The publicity material promises a ‘selection of songs’; the sole singer listed is soprano Helen Thomson, who has sung with this ensemble previously.

Wednesday March 21

Measha Brueggergosman

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Soprano Brueggergosman has a big reputation in her home country, but I can find little about any extra-Canadian work she has done.  Her surname combines her maiden name and that of her husband, which is an equality-in-marriage gesture, if – in this case – an awkward one.  Tonight, she opens with the Five Popular Greek Melodies by Ravel, followed by some Poulenc – Violon, C’est ainsi que tu es, Voyage a Paris, Hotel – and then back to Ravel for Sheherazade, that sumptuous three-part song cycle which will suffer greatly from the lack of an orchestra.   Brueggergosman opens what I surmise will be her post-interval efforts with four of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs – Rheinlegendchen, Verlorne Muh, Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? – and balances the opening Ravel with Montsalvatge’s  Cinco canciones negras, then finishes with a selection from the 24 cabaret songs by William Bolcom, which will make a welcome change to the all-too-readily trotted out equivalent songs by Britten.  This is the second recital in the MRC’s own Great Performers series.

Thursday March 22

PASTORAL MELODIES – IDYLLIC & TEMPESTUOUS

Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I’ve not heard this band so can’t give any indication as to its quality.  Certainly, the list of players is most impressive with a few well-known musicians from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, the CAMERATA Queensland Chamber Orchestra, and Sydney’s Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra alongside ex- and present-day players with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   Directed by Richard Gill, the ARCO is not exactly carving out new territory with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No. 6.   But more interest comes in the Brahms Five Songs, Op. 104 where the instrumentalists fall silent and make way for the Polyphonic Voices ensemble for an a cappella set, while both forces collaborate in Mozart’s so-called Spaur-Messe in C K. 258; at about 18 minutes, short and sweet, like every Mass should be, featuring an unknown set of soloists.

Friday March 23

FAITH, HOPE & DEATH

Goldner String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It sounds like a perversion of the theological virtues but the Goldners’ program follows this title’s path, more or less, if it’s highly dependent on your willingness to accept at least one of the intended musical applications.  You can’t argue with the relevance of the night’s major work: Schubert’s D minor Death and the Maiden, the composer’s idea of mortality covering a world of emotions from the vehement and tempestuous to drear acceptance.  For the Faith part, we are directed to Arvo Part’s Fratres, a three-part work expanded to quartet form in 1989 but heard in all sorts of other arrangements; one of the Estonian composer’s most popular pieces, I can’t be alone in wondering what is has to do with this specific virtue.  As for Hope, that comes through Latvian writer Peters Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3.  Vasks has taken optimism for his country’s future as one of the fundamentals of his work and has been quite specific about the (eventual) upbeat nature of this particular score.

Saturday March 24

TOMBEAU DE CLAUDE DEBUSSY

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The day before the centenary of Debussy’s death, ANAM is presenting this tombeau,  a celebratory compendium that arose when Henri Prunieres assembled pieces (mainly for piano solo) by ten composers to memorialise the master’s passing.  Dukas is represented by La plainte, au loin, du faune;  Roussel found a more celebratory note or two in L’acceuil des muses; Florent Schmitt worked common ground with  Dukas in Tristesse de Pan, one of his Op. 70 Mirages; Malipiero contributed A Claude Debussy, Eugene Goossens a Hommage a Debussy.  Bartok dedicated No. 7 of his Improvisations on a Hungarian Peasant Song, Op. 20; Falla moved to the guitar for his well-known Homenaje.  Ravel dedicated his Sonata for violin and cello to the composer and the duo written for the Tombeau became that sonata’s first movement.  Stravinsky contributed the Chorale from his Symphonies for Wind Instruments to Prunieres, later dedicating the completed work to Debussy.  Satie set a poem by Lamartine as the first of his Quatre Petites Melodies and sent that in as his one-page contribution.  Timothy Young is the night’s pianist; ANAM director Nick Deutsch will play his oboe, presumably in the Stravinsky Chorale because I can’t see room for it anywhere else. Richard Mills will conduct the Stravinsky, you’d expect as, like Deutsch, there’s nowhere else  to exercise his talent.

Sunday March 25

LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard not to be a tad indifferent to this celebration that Sir Andrew has brought to the Antipodes in recent times.  The British get obvious delight in the written-in-stone second half of these Royal Albert Hall events, complete with Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Parry’s Jerusalem.  If I had my druthers on these last nights, I’d go home at interval.  This year, Sir Andrew opens with Elgar’s In London Town or Cockaigne Overture, has violinist Tamsin Little sparkle through Ravel’s Tzigane, gives space for David Jones to premiere Joe Chindamo’s Drum Kit Concerto, interpolates Carl Vine’s V fanfare lasting, as you’d expect, five minutes, and gains from the presence in Melbourne of Measha Brueggergosman for the MRC’s Great Performers Series (see March 21 above) to have her sing some orchestral songs by Duparc.  There are 8 to choose from but it’s almost certain that the bracket will contain that once-heard-never-forgotten Baudelaire setting, L’invitation au voyage, and the Leconte de Lisle setting, Phidyle.

Friday March 30

BRAHMS GERMAN REQUIEM & SZYMANOWSKI STABAT MATER

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

For Good Friday this year, Rick Prakhoff and his Bach forces are deviating from their usual fare and presenting the Brahms Requiem that avoids any religious references as well as Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which may turn out to be sung in Polish.  The Brahms score asks for a soprano and baritone soloist, while Szymanowski wants a contralto soloist as well.  Both forces have roughly the same orchestral forces – no low brass in the Stabat Mater but a pretty large percussion force, a piccolo in the Requiem  – but the composers’ language offers a wide contrast.   As well, the hymn lasts less than 30 minutes while the Requiem canters on for well over an hour.   Lorina Gore is the soprano in both works, Warwick Fyfe the baritone and mezzo Belinda Paterson gets to share honours in three of the Szymanowski score’s movements.   It’s a well-devised pairing in that the Brahms is a humanist expression of the inevitability of death and the composer’s preference for a stoic acceptance of it while the Polish composer is more interested in his folk music characteristics than in observing and catering to the Catholic cast of the Marian sequence.

Chiff power

DANCES AND DELIGHTS

Monash University Flute Ensemble

MD 3421

Most of the content in this collection is light, either by intention or happenstance.  Of the 15 tracks, several were commissioned by or arranged for the Monash University Flute Ensemble: David Henderson’s three-movement Consortium, Tony Gould’s A New Spring DayPortrait de l’homme de commun by James Mustafa, Evening Prayer by Houston Dunleavy, and Carolyn Morris’ Oceana.

The ensemble’s director, Peter Sheridan, commissioned one of the other works heard here: Visions of Grace by Adrienne Albert, and two works enjoy their premiere recording:  Gould’s substantial piece – the longest on the disc – and Daniel Dorff’s Fireworks.  Filling out the edges comfortably is a group of works from all over the place: Arlen’s Over the Rainbow,  a Danse fantastique by Shostakovich, James Horner’s My Heart Will Go On, and the album’s bracing opener: Valsette by Danish 19th century all-rounder Joachim Anderson; this was originally a (italics) flute/piano Scherzino  but is heard here in an arrangement for flute quartet (I think, although it sounds as though more than that number are involved).

An agreeable if derivative stand-alone work is Rika Ishage’s Brindavan which is played by a sextet comprising piccolo, three C instruments, an alto and a bass.

The whole thing makes for a noteworthy essay in an arcane field, in as much as you will rarely hear so many flutes together outside of a university’s encouraging environment.  The combinations vary as the tracks fly past on a moderately sized 58 minutes of recording.  Along with the multiple flute personnel, Gould plays piano for his own piece while Move’s own Rhys Boak fleshes out the Titanic melody.

The Valsette gets matters off to a flying start with excellent ensemble work, setting up the prevailing sound ambience with some certainty.  This massed flute flavour suggests an organ, if an unusually uniform one, in the sound’s delivery: a touch of the chiff plosion before each note.  But the ambience is more individual in colour than you get on the keyboard instrument.  Still, there’s nothing here to keep you guessing; just a simple ternary format with a bouncy vivacity in the outer sections.

The next flute-specific composition is Henderson’s construct comprising Prelude, Processional and Romance.  This score involves piccolo, C, alto, bass and contrabass flutes with the lower instruments getting little exposure melodically in the agreeable opening movement which has an interesting opening gesture even if the consequent development sounds laboured.  The central movement is suitably measured, rising to a skirling climax, having got there by a gradual crescendo which, because of the plentiful unisons involved, shows some cracks in the ensemble’s tuning.  Henderson’s final piece strikes me as the least original of the three with an unprepossessing strolling main theme and a touch of awkwardness just before the last reprise.

American writer Albert scored her Visions of Grace for pairs of altos and basses with a contrabass bringing up the rear.  The work begins with a pleasant harmonically eliding setting of Amazing Grace which strolls into something remarkably like Loch Lomond, then Shenandoah and Red River Valley  .  .  .  there may be a couple more in there but I got confused with the bridge passages.  It’s a smoothly compiled miscellany that contrives to sound atmospherically coherent and the rendition also impresses for its fluency.

For some unfathomable reason, I was expecting something brazen from Mustafa’s work, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3 fanfare – possibly because of the title’s last three words – but this work is heavy on the timbre of low flutes, although written for what the composer calls a ‘modern classical flute orchestra’.   A certain amount of chordal shape-shifting, possibly the product of the composer’s wide experience in leading, performing in and conducting jazz ensembles,  precedes a simple flute melody in what I believe is a D flat Major modality;  the selection of which key might go some way to explaining the salty, slightly off-pitch  sound of the ensemble in the work’s brief second half, particularly a high-flying piccolo.

Young Japanese composer Ishige writes that her work takes its title from a harem in India and she attempts in her two movements to suggest a lush garden and fountains.  Piccolo Grace Wiedemann, C flutes Thomas Thorpe, Catherine King and Isobel McManus, alto Steph Leslie and bass Jazmine Morris perform this score which would have impressed more if people had paid stricter attention to tuning; during the languorous stretches of the first movement, your teeth are set on edge by some un-centred passages – and yet the post-Debussyan text is not that taxing.  The more lively second movement also features some moments that might have gained from re-recording, including a segment that juxtaposes piccolo and bass although it’s hard to pick out the latter as the middle-range accompaniment is over-hefty.  Still, the composer’s aim is lightly accomplished and these four-square flourishes and curvettes represent a congenial if unadventurous take on the impressionism of Jets d’eaux.

Dunleavy’s piece is a slow meander for an unspecified body, something like a four-square hymn although its harmonic language is ear-stretching, more sophisticated than most of the other tracks on this CD.   In fact, because of its measured, regular pace, the piece’s main interest comes from its polyphony and yet you are reminded all too often of old-time B. Mus. exercises in counterpoint.  For all that, the performance is sure-footed and a reassuring return to form from the Monash players.

Morris originally wrote her Oceana for chamber orchestra; this transcription employs a pair of piccolos, 4 C flutes, 3 altos, 2 bass and a contrabass.  The opening sees a return to the slightly off-pitch product that has bedevilled former tracks, most notable in moments where piccolo and C flutes are working in unison or at the octave.  The work is a pleasant and calm seascape where the sun is continually out and the waves are all benign and negotiated with major-key tillers.   Even when you expect a change at about the 4-minute mark when a hiatus is reached and the prevailing texture moves for a moment to the bass instruments, the atmosphere is still all calm-sea-and-prosperous-voyage and moves only for a second or two outside its happy F Major framework.

Senior American composer Dorff wrote Fireworks for a 2016 flute convention sponsored by the Flute Society of Washington.   It features lots of rushing upward scales, very exposed piccolo lines and a wealth of syncopation that is not quite deftly realised by this group.  Certainly, the composer’s intention was to set up a brilliant sound scape for experts to toss off, yet the impression given here is often of a prodding at the piece rather than a hurtling through its pages with sure-footed certainty.

Mel Orriss’ treatment of the Judy Garland show-stopper from The Wizard of Oz has a long preamble before hitting the main melody but the flute ensemble is given plenty of amplitude and – as in all the best treatments – everyone gets a guernsey.  The temptation to embellish is hardly resisted but never gets in the way of a great tune – once it gets started.

Horner’s lyric opens with an Irish whistle solo, before the massed ensemble enters and works through a full-bellied arrangement under the direction of Jazmine Morris.  The tune’s progress is strong on polemic before the whistle returns and brings the Hollywood sentiment under control and reminds you of the premise behind the film: a class-crossing love story, not a bloated disaster extravaganza.

The Shostakovich Danse fantastique comes from the early four-movement Suite for Two Pianos of 1922.  It’s not saying anything new to observe that most of the original’s percussive bite is gone in this arrangement by Melbourne educator/flautist Carolyn Grace. The piece opens with plenty of sprightly verve but the more instruments that join in – and there are quite a few – the less assurance in the chording and rhythmic synchronicity.  As with several other tracks on this CD, the middle section lapses into hard labour and the final page is lacking in the expected brittle buoyancy that two pianists bring to this section.

Gould begins his piece with a slow-moving hymn-like prelude which melds into a sequence for low flutes, elaborating and exploring the piano’s opening motives.  The motion accelerates with the arrival of a piccolo before the initial restraint takes over again with Gould’s return for another solo meditation.  The flute choir follows with a brisk optimistic passage of play which could have been honed into more crisp delivery as some of the harmonic changes seem scatter-gun, and the articulation from alto flutes down is not as exact as it should be.

In fact, the finest moments of Gould’s work come in the last piano solo that concludes the work, a pillow of restful chords under a nomadic melody line that suggests the work’s title with more efficacy than the wind interludes.  As a sound picture, the work is non-specific; like Beethoven’s Pastoral, ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.  Yet, along with the composer-pianist’s elegance of delivery, the piece is infused with a consistent and quiet sense of satisfaction, a placid delight.

So this CD is a real miscellany, a showcase in some ways for Peter Sheridan’s players who, when they’re on song, make a satisfying contribution to a rarely-heard corner of Australian musical practice.  If you’re prepared to forgive the occasional awkwardness in delivery, this disc holds sufficiently worthy accomplished tracks.

 

 

February Diary

Thursday February 1

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE IN CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s the first of the blockbusters in the sterling first trilogy from George Lucas, complete with everything we grew to love over the years since 1977  –  from the looming spaceship taking over the screen at the start to the Saturday afternoon matinee heroics of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, all seeming so much younger than their actual years, but practically amoebas when compared with their craggy re-appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  This set of screenings more or less kicks off the MSO’s year and you can see from the number of sittings how popular these live soundtrack performances have been/are/will be.  Benjamin Northey, who had an active year with the orchestra in 2017 as Associate Conductor, continues to shine in his role as the organisation’s go-to leader.

This program will be repeated on Friday February 2 and Saturday February 3 at 7:30 pm, as well as at a matinee on Saturday February 3 at 1 pm

 

Friday February 2

TRISTAN AND ISOLDE

Melbourne Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 6:30 pm

Back to this dated large shack by the bay with all its time-honoured problems associated with parking and pest-dodging.   I think the last time I was in the Palais was for another Wagner: Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman  –  an enterprise that had considerable merit.   This time, MO has left behind the frivolities of Rienzi, Tannhauser and Lohengrin and heads for the Wagner fulcrum: a score of such power and complexity that it remains the high-water mark of opera, inspired from first bar to last and incomparably crafted.  Lee Abrahmsen sings Isolde, tenor Neal Cooper takes on his fifth Tristan, Sarah Sweeting has the Wagner gift-of-a-role in Brangaene,  baritone Michel Lampard mirrors Sweeting as Kurwenal, bass Steven Gallop broods as King Mark and Jason Wasley does his worst as Melot.  Anthony Negus, a Reginald Goodall graduate, conducts and we can approach the night with an earnest hope that the MO Orchestra will be up to the mark with this exhausting, superlative score.

The opera will be repeated at 6:30 pm on Monday February 5 and Wednesday February 7, and moves to the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Saturday February 10 at 6:30 pm.

 

Sunday February 4

TOGNETTI, TCHAIKOVSKY, BRAHMS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

To set an underlying context for the year, Richard Tognetti and his band offer a contrast between the sublime and the also-ran.   For serious music-making, the country’s premier string orchestra will play (yet again) the Tchaikovsky Serenade.  And we’ll have yet another important chamber work in an arrangement for the ACO resources; this time round, it’s Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 in G Major as seen through the vivisectional prism of Kurt Atterberg, I suspect, although Tognetti has never been one to content himself with other people’s organisational talents.  To start, we’ll hear British composer Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds from 2012 for two violins (Ike See and Glenn Christensen from the orchestra’s ranks) and string orchestra.  As well, American composer Missy Mazzoli confronts some of us for the first time with her newly-composed Dark with Excessive Bright, a semi-line from Paradise Lost.  The work has been written specifically for the talents of the ACO and its double bassist, Maxime Bibeau.

This program will be repeated on Monday February 5 at 7:30 pm.

 

Wednesday February 7 

ROMANCE AND CLASSICS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

No rush to originality in the first of three very popular Myer free concerts from the MSO.   Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell takes centre-stage for the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto No. 1; you’ll never hear the composer’s other two at this venue, but there’s surely a case for dusting off that jolly, satisfying Scottish Fantasy.   The night ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, one of your great psychological summative works with loads of lyricism and an exciting finale to send everyone home happy.  The only novelty comes at the start in Dutch composer Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, the only work by the composer/organist that you ever hear and probably included here as a repertoire specialty of the night’s conductor, Antony Hermus who has positions with the North Netherlands Orchestra and the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands.  Seems like a sort of justifiable payback for all those Australian conductors who took Sculthorpe scores to Finland and Britain.

 

Saturday February 10

HOT SUMMER NIGHT!

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 p,m

This second and solitary weekend concert in the MSO’s free series can attract a spill-over crowd if the atmospheric conditions reflect this program’s title.  For some reason, the music is almost all Spanish or Iberian/Latin-inflected, beginning with Ravel’s ambiguous Alborada del gracioso –  a morning serenade with a difference.  Conductor Antony Hermus moves to Falla’s El amor brujo but I can’t imagine that he’ll be working through the whole ballet.  Still, you can’t be sure; he has Chilean-Swedish mezzo Luciana Mancini at his disposal as the night’s soloist and she’d be ideal for the score’s three songs.  Danzon No. 2 by Mexican writer Arturo Marquez is packed with colour, something of a thematically concise dance suite.  Mancini then sings the program’s odd-man-out: Berio’s Folk Songs, all eleven of them and a surprisingly euphonious collection from this 20th century master but I suspect a bit of a puzzler for this audience.  By the way, these Folk Songs have not a Spanish text in sight.  Finally, to wipe away all suggestions of the eclectic, Hermus gives the snare-drum(s) right of way for Ravel’s Bolero, that mindless symphonic wheeze.

 

Wednesday February 14

FROM MSO, WITH LOVE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Ending three free Myer concerts, the MSO goes Puccini-mad, bringing to the fore Australian opera regulars soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Rosario La Spina.  They begin with Mario! Mario! Mario!, where Tosca bursts in on Cavaradossi’s nonchalant attempts at painting.  They end the night with the Act 1 finale to La Boheme, probably from Che gelida manina up to the spellbinding O soave fanciulla duet conclusion off-stage.  Benjamin Northey conducts Strauss’s Don Juan to give Bowl patrons another aspect of love, and three pieces with tenuous links, at best, to the night’s intended amatory motif:  Martucci’s 1891 miniature Notturno, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien for no other reason than the nationality of everything else on the program, and Puccini’s 1882 student work, Preludio sinfonico, which reveals Wagner’s influence; a predictable presence in an aspiring composer’s aesthetic life during those formative years.

 

Friday February 16

GLASS, DEAN, MENDELSSOHN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

No smart title here: what you read is what you’ll get.  The ASQ begins its MRC series with Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet, subtitled Mishima because the music comprises part of the sound-track that the composer supplied for Paul Schrader’s film which is based on the Japanese novelist’s last bloody day.  The middle work, Brett Dean’s Eclipse String Quartet No. 1, is underpinned by the Tampa outrage of 2001 that displayed with searing clarity the contemptible ethical degeneracy of the Howard government, its leader lying and lying and being a villain.  To end, the players  –  violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King, cellist Sharon Grigoryan  –  play Mendelssohn in D, first of the 1838 Op. 41 set of three, although the last written.  This ensemble has settled remarkably well after its years of personnel disruptions and the behavioural immaturity of former members; now it has a distinctive personality and rarely disappoints.

 

Sunday February 18

3MBS BACH MARATHON

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra et al

Melbourne Recital Centre at 10 am, 12 pm, 2: 15 pm, 4: 15 pm, 6: 30 pm and 8: 15 pm

Going for the big-time, the Abbotsford-based classical radio station has booked a day at the MRC.   The first concert begins with the opening two preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 – no idea who’s playing but quite a few pianists appear during the day – then abruptly progresses to C.P.E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the one written in 1777 for the composer’s duties in Hamburg.  This will involve the Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra with some fine soloists: bass/baritones Michael Leighton-Jones and Nicholas Dinopoulos, tenors Andrew Goodwin and Timothy Reynolds, and soprano Kathryn Radcliffe.

The mid-day recital features the E flat minor Prelude and D sharp Major Fugue from Book 1, partnered with the Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Grace Wu outlining the string part.  Then somebody will surge through Liszt’s voluble Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen; another pianist will present the happy and difficult French Suite in G; the program ends with the Double Violin Concerto in D minor featuring – I think – Robert Wilson and his student Christian Li.

At 2:15 pm, a pianist leads off with the G Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 1, followed by the G minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II, all capped by the great Italian Concerto solo.   J. C. Bach enters the scene with a piano quartet in G and a gamba sonata in the same key.  Somewhere in these works the Sutherland Trio and early music specialists  Latitude 37 will appear. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue K 404a/3 for violin, viola and cello is a piece of real arcana where Mozart supplied the first work and then arranged a Bach fugue – in this case, the F sharp Major from Book II.  To end, the Violin/Oboe Concerto in C minor appears to be bringing Nick Deutsch and Kristian Winther to the crease as soloists.

3MBS’s next recital opens with the B flat Major and minor Preludes and Fugues from Book I, coupled with the motet Jesu, meine Freude from the Australian Boys Choir.   W. F. Bach’s Dissonant Sinfonia for strings highlights yet another of the talented sons, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra doing the honours.   Seven of the Inventions – presumably in two-parts – come next and the program ends with Timo-Veikko Valve outlining the last of the Cello Suites.

At twilight, the Book II D Major Prelude and Fugue begins proceedings, followed by the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden, another Fantasia super Jesu, meine Freude and the chorale prelude on Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein; the first two are manuals only, but the second seems to need a pedal-board – that’s assuming Calvin Bowman will play them on a specially imported organ rather than all three pieces being given as piano transcriptions.   A definite arrangement comes through Busoni’s transcription of the D minor violin Chaconne, probably played by Gintaute Gataveckaite, and matters end with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 from a combination of the Flinders and Melba Quartets with double bass Emma Sullivan as well as viola Merewyn Bramble somewhere in the mix for the third viola line, I guess.  Oh, and inserted just before this concerto comes the aria Schlummert ein from the Ich habe genug Cantata BWV 82 but no bass soloist is specified.

Finally, the 8:15 pm program kicks off with the F minor Prelude and Fugue from Book II before Stephen McIntyre and a swag of his ex-students  –  Caroline Almonte,  Stefan Cassomenos, Kristian Chong, Lachlan Tan and Peter de Jager  –  all contribute their particles to a run-through of the Goldberg Variations.

 

Wednesday February 21

FOLIAS ANTIGUAS Y CRIOLLAS: FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD TO THE NEW WORLD

Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI & Tembembe Ensemble Continuo

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A fellow critic found little to like last time Savall and his Hesperions were here as he disapproved of the fusion that the Spanish violist constructed between the medieval/Renaissance and the folky/contemporary.   Just shows that you can’t trust us: I found the mix irresistible.   The only descriptor to be found concerning this particular program is: ‘The cosmopolitan music of Spain and Latin America from the 16th to the 18th centuries.’   Hesperion we know from previous visits although its membership can vary considerably.  Tembembe specializes in the Spanish Baroque and Mexican-plus-Latin American music, finding links with African and American sources.  Part of a tour, Savall and his forces will appear at the Perth International Arts Festival, then Melbourne before Sydney and Brisbane; useful to know if you plan on being interstate in the second half of the month.

The performers will present another program – Folias y Romanescas: The Golden Age of the Viol on Thursday February 22 at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday February 24

THOMAS TALLIS’ ENGLAND

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The title is sort of true if you’re flexible.  One of the pillars of this program will be Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis from 1910, which is some distance away from the Tudor musician who died in 1585.  And I’m not sure where Purcell fits into this landscape – or Handel, for that matter  .  .  .  both coming into existence a century or so after Tallis’ death.  Paul Dyer and his ABO are on firmer ground with music by Byrd and Gibbons.  Soloist is countertenor Maximilian Riebl and the Brandenburgers come in two forms: Orchestra and Choir.   So far, details of what the groups are attempting remain elusive, apart from the Vaughan Williams work for strings which has brought to grief many another body more attuned to the Edwardian era’s bucolic suggestions and more tolerant of facile English transcendentalism.

This program will be repeated on Sunday February 25 at 5 pm.

 

Saturday February 24

EAST MEETS WEST

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The Occidental is represented by Schumann’s Spring Symphony No. 1; how this will help celebrate the Chinese Year of the Dog’s arrival boggles the mind but doubtless Lu Jia, Chief Conductor of the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra,  will elucidate all.   A notable collaboration of composers from 1959, the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chen Gang and He Zanhao will be fronted by Lu Siqing and the program includes two other Chinese works: Chinese Sights and Sounds: Dialogue on Flowers by Bao Yuankai, which is a ternary form piece of pentatonic frou-frouism and the last of the composer’s four Heibei Folk Songs Suite; and Shepherd Girl in the Tianshan Mountains by pianist/composer/pedagogue Yang Liqing.  Somewhere in the latter work, erhu player Ma Xiaohui will emerge to generate one of the country’s trademark sounds.

 

Monday February 26

Nelson Freire

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

I thought the well-known Brazilian pianist was here only a few months ago.  And he was, fronting the Schumann A minor Concerto for an MSO series in September/October.  He pops up again for this solo recital which takes in a lot of ground.  For your Classical, Freire plays Mozart’s Ten Variations on a Theme by Gluck K. 455, a nice four-square tune put through some increasingly entertaining paces.   Then straight to the deep Romantic by way of Schumann’s turbulent Fantasie in C and a couple of the less frivolous Chopins: the F sharp Impromptu and A flat Ballade.   Freire will work through a selection from the Debussy Preludes Book II and winds up with an Albeniz brace: the Evocacion from Iberia, and Navarra, which I’ve not come across before in live performance but which serves as a none-too-subtle invitation to solicit encores.

 

Tuesday February 27

Sabine Meyer & Alliage Quintet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

One of the great clarinet players of our time is touring for Musica Viva and brings with her a saxophone quartet plus pianist.   As you could easily predict, the program content is all arrangements with a complementary emphasis on light classics.  The ensemble begins with Bernstein’s Candide Overture before moving into Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Across the evening, Meyer and her Alliages play a double Shostakovich bracket – the Prelude and Gavotte from Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano originally arranged by Lev Atovmian, and then the other three of the suite’s five scraps – Waltz, Elegy and Polka.  Alongside these sharp-edged nebulosities come Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Holst’s Venus and Stravinsky’s Firebird (the suite, I’m hoping).  Not a night for the sober-sided chamber music lover.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 3 at 7 pm.

 

Wednesday February 28

WINGS OF SONG

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Obviously, this recital involves a bit of Mendelssohn.  Exactly how much?   The Flinders have commissioned young Bundaberg-born writer John Rotar to arrange four of the composer’s lieder: Op. 57 No. 5, Venetian Gondola Song; Op. 34 No. 2, On Wings of Song (well, that’s a relief); Op. 8 No 8, Witches’s Song; and the 24-bar Beethoven-reflecting Op. 9 No 1, Question.  An original Rotar work also appears: V Vecernih about which I can find out nothing except that it’s short, it had a popular success at the Flinders’  inaugural composer workshop in 2016, and its title seems to be a Slovenian phrase for ‘In the evening’.  At either end of the night come Mozart’s internally compact yet lengthy No. 18 in A, and Beethoven in F Op. 135 – his last and the one with that Muss es sein? questioning in the finale that Mendelssohn took up in his Ist es wahr? phrase-shape that opens Op. 9 No. 1.

 

 

 

 

2017 in review

It seems most unlikely now that the paper for which I am an (increasingly) occasional contributor will be asking for a piece of reportage on what happened throughout last year on Melbourne’s serious music scene.

Rather than leave some extraordinary efforts unremarked, I offer these random observations as a well-intentioned diary of events, supplementing the accounts in this blog of 37 concerts/recitals and 11 operas across 2017.

January

Because of an administrative snafu and an insistence that January was packed with action (rock festivals and reprints of articles from the UK and USA), I got to hear little at the start to 2017;  nothing from the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, for example, and only one concert from the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.

It can be a dry month for Melbourne’s musicians, in particular those who specialize in period performances.  But Ballarat’s annual January festival, under the joint aegis of Sergio di Pieri and Judy Houston, offers some relief from drought, no more so than this concluding program at St. Patrick’s Cathedral called The Agony of Hell and the Peace of Soul which celebrated the genius of Schutz, with two diversions into Monteverdi and Schein. Wherever you looked, you could see authorities at work, both in the choral forces and in the Unholy Rackett and Ensemble 642 instrumental combination, all under Stephen Grant’s direction.   It cohered into a joyful song unto the Lord, one of those experiences that you seek in vain elsewhere.  This year’s finale promises to further this pursuit of the monumental in Biber’s 53-line Missa Salisburgensis.

February

The Australian Chamber Orchestra began its national series with Pekka Kuusisto taking the reins for a program based around Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet in string orchestra arrangement.   In another of the ACO’s experimental melding exercises, folk-singer Sam Amidon provided interpolations with some Appalachian melodies that were melodically attractive if textually incomprehensible.  But the afternoon wasn’t wasted, thanks to a sterling performance of John Adams’ Shaker Loops which cut through the obfuscating commentary to the score’s innate clarity of utterance.

As expected, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its three Myer Music Bowl concerts to large crowds, some of whom actually listened.  It was a Russian week with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and, to begin, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2  –  the stuff of a thousand Hollywood and Ealing Studios  wartime dramas – while conductor Benjamin Northey finished off the night with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – the barnstormer that keeps on giving.

                                                                  Benjamin Northey

Also in this month, the MSO kicked off what used to be called its Town Hall Proms which can’t be named that anymore, particularly as chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis has brought actual Proms concerts to Hamer Hall.  Sponsoring young Australian conductors (well, some of them) to the hilt, the organization presented Nicholas Carter directing Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony with plenty of stop-start energy, balanced by a sober Prokofiev Classical Symphony.

                                                                Nicholas Carter

On the month’s last night, the MSO offered a season opening gala – which meant that everything up till now had been just a tease.   Maxim Vengerov played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with unflappable assurance, plain sailing all the way with Benjamin Northey directing, then Vengerov conducted Rimsky’s Scheherazade as though  accompanying a troupe of elderly dancers.

March

Continuing its almost-unfailingly popular series of soundtrack concerts, the MSO took on the original Jurassic Park with laudable enthusiasm, even if stretches of critical dialogue were swamped under the considerable weight produced by the players under Benjamin Northey.  A week or so later, the disciplining hand of Sir Andrew Davis, took over the reins for a continuation of his Mahler Cycle, this time with No. 7 which is a movement too far as far as I’m concerned, burdened with the most coitus interruptus-suggestive finale in the composer’s symphonic canon.

Young prodigy Daniel Trifonov gave his solitary recital here on March 14 and it turned out to be one of the year’s high points.  His review of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Toccata and Kreisleriana was remarkable for its continuous rigour, especially the last-named, and he kept his technical brilliance for a sharply-etched selection from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, and an overpowering version of Stravinsky’s arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein of Petrushka.

Trifonov also graced an MSO concert a week later with the neglected Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1: again, he played with impeccable fluency, bringing passion and polish to a work that most pianists neglect – either from choice or from management constraints.  Davis continued his residency with an effective Tchaikovsky Pathetique, for once treated as a whole rather than four marvellous units, and fleshed out the month with a Last Night of the Proms that went even more all-British than usual with Piers Lane resuscitating John Ireland’s Piano Concerto for us – the only time most of us will ever hear this one-time acclaimed construct.

                                                                    Daniel Trifonov

At the MSO’s Recital Centre concerts, program control often seems be handed over to either of the body’s concertmasters, Eoin Andersen or Dale Barltrop.  For this end-of-month sojourn, Barltrop directed and also brought on-board the Australian String Quartet (of which he is first violin) for Australian writer Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale.  Taking its inspiration from Schubert’s last quartet, the work was sadly placed alongside a string orchestra transcription of the Death and the Maiden Quartet in D minor which showed the MSO strings to excellent effect.  Try as I might. I still find it hard to warm to much music coming out of Sydney, my home town.  But this piece, attempting a fusion/development of well-known pages, served little other purpose than to show what a brilliant mind this country owns in Brett Dean.

April

Almost 30 years since its last visit, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields came to Melbourne with new director Joshua Bell. who repeated his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto interpretation last heard here with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 2013.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but hardly venturesome programming, the orchestra’s ensemble not satisfactory in the Recital Centre where its strings (too few) were swamped by their wind and timpani colleagues.

The MSO ended its April with Orff’s Carmina Burana, to which the most successful contributor was Warwick Fyfe whose bass-baritone reflected the verses he was singing with excellent interpretative skill; a very welcome factor as the MSO Chorus underwhelmed in the more explosive strophes of the outer movements.

                                                                       Warwick Fyfe

May

Nicholas Carter enjoyed his day in the sun at the February Town Hall concert.  This month, it was Benjamin Northey’s turn, capitalising on his educational background in conducting with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and generating a blazoning power throughout, well-complemented by Stefan Cassomenos’ driving encounter with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

British pianist/conductor/raconteur Bramwell Tovey paid a fleeting visit to the MSO to premiere a new piece by composer-in-residence Elena Kats-Chernin and to escort Alexander Gavrylyuk through the Tchaikovsky B flat Piano Concerto, a reading packed with brilliance but nowhere more so than the final double-octave cadenza.

Many of us are happy to turn out for a recital from Nikolai Demidenko who has, in the past, enriched our knowledge of both piano concertos and solo piano works, no matter how well-known.  Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the master played an all-Scarlatti first half which proved to be a few sonatas too long, even given the player’s individual approach.  Schubert’s C minor Sonata D 958 moved the goalposts and we were treated to a fulfilling and clearly articulated reading of a neglected monument in the literature.

June

Back in Melbourne for his second annual stint as the MSO’s chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis headed Haydn’s The Creation.  An up-and-down affair for the MSO Chorus, soprano Siobhan Stagg gave the roles of Gabriel and Eve a welcome burnish, lending elegance to this oratorio with a cosmic theme and an often mundane level of utterance.  Later in the month,  Davis conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral with more oomph than Disney pastel, while cellist Daniel Muller-Schott soared through the Don Quixote variations of Richard Strauss.

                                                                      Siobahn Stagg

The Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted one of its intimate recitals with some overworked Schumann surrounding Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 with Kristian Bezuidenhout escorted by a bare-bones string quartet.

A few of us latter-day Nathanaels are prone to asking, Can any good come out of Trumpian America?  To our delight, a resounding ‘Yes’ followed the Musica Viva tour by the Pacifica Quartet who gave a sympathetic airing to Westlake’s 2005 String Quartet No. 2, found a solid foundation for the last of Beethoven’s awkward essays in the form, and offered a captivating account of Shostakovich No. 3.

Next in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Behzod Abduraimov built on the excellent impression he made five years previously.  A controlled reading of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as arranged by Busoni, some Schubert Moments musicaux and a spacious Beethoven Appassionata were capped by Abduraimov’s memorable insights into Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 6.

July

Sir Andrew Davis took a detour from his Mahler symphonies cycle to take in Das Lied von der Erde, working productively with tenor Stuart Skelton and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers.  You can’t help but be moved by the composer’s compelling embrace and abnegation of existence but the MSO’s efforts might have been more carefully harnessed in vehemently scored passages where the soloists were swamped.

For no apparent reason, the MSO mounted a mini-Mozart Festival of three concerts, some recitals, and Milos Forman’s Amadeus film.   What I heard of the symphonic events under Richard Egarr proved generally delightful, ranging from the first catalogued keyboard music played by Egarr himself up to the tensile muscularity of the Symphony No. 40, with Jacqueline Porter’s soprano a lucid delight in the Exsultate, jubilate motet and the MSO strings generating a near-faultless account of the Paris Symphony No. 31.

                                                                     Jacqueline Porter

The live soundtrack underpinning to Amadeus had the orchestra and chorus in laudable synchronicity with the screen, conductor Benjamin Northey pleating the media together with scarcely a seam showing.   But the final orchestral concert woke you up –  if you needed to be  –  to the peerless genius who produced the Clarinet Concerto and the D minor Requiem – well, a good deal of it – in his last, crowded months.  Here was a concert where the spirits looked kindly on Egarr and his forces so that their realizations made for an engrossing, moving experience.

I felt unbridled enthusiasm for the Sitkovetsky Trio after their 2014 tour for Musica Viva.  This time, their cellist, Leonard Elsenbroich, was replaced by Bartholomew LaFollette at short notice.   Nevertheless, the ensemble made exemplary work of Rachmaninov’s Trio elegiaque No. 1, the Shostakovich in E minor and swept us away with that hoary repertoire cornerstone, Mendelssohn in D minor.

A benevolent amalgam, the Australian World Orchestra stretched out to the young musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music for a collaboration in a July 29 one-night, one-work program under Simone Young.  Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie asks for a good deal from its executants, none more than its pianist and Ondes Martenot player; on this night, Timothy Young and Jacob Abela gave the symphony’s sprawling canvas both brilliance and emotional heft.

August

Each Takacs Quartet night offers an object lesson in chamber music performance.  This year’s Musica Viva tour opened with the last Haydn in F Major, MV artistic director Carl Vine’s No. 6, Child’s Play, and a penetrating reading of Beethoven’s Op. 127 with an adagio that you didn’t want to end, despite its complexities of construction.

                                                                     Takacs Quartet

Li-Wei Qin offered yet again his interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with the MSO under Johannes Fritzsch backing his efforts with balancing zest.  It’s a work you find has an immediate appeal, no matter how often it’s performed, and this soloist impresses for the forceful drive of his sound and his soaring richness of line in the concerto’s many lyrical flights.

Sir Andrew Davis clearly has a soft spot for Massenet’s opera Thais.  He made this work his mid-season gala and it largely succeeded for the quality of his soloists: soprano Erin Wall (Thais), baritone Quin Kelsey (Athanael), bass Daniel Sumegi (Palemon), tenor Diego Silva (Nicias), and mezzo Liane Keegan (Abbess Albine).  Having heard it once, I’d like to thank all concerned but can’t see any need for staging it, despite the opportunities for a set designer/choreographer’s pseudo-Oriental excess.

On the month’s last night, Davis made another side-trip from the Mahler path into Bruckner territory with the Symphony No. 7, preceding the performance with an illustrated lecture.  The MSO’s account found the strings and woodwind in excellent temper, the brass not so much, but the conductor embraced the outer movements’ long paragraphs with gusto.

September

Paul Dyer and his Australian Brandenbuurg Orchestra focused on friends Mozart and Haydn, with Cannabich a handy filler/acquaintance during this visit to composing contemporaries.  A wind octet played parts of the Harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio that Mozart probably arranged himself; the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey, faced projection difficulties in the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto, but not as many problems as Bart Aerbeydt confronted with his natural instrument in Mozart’s last horn concerto.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar atrocity, the Zelman Symphony essayed the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 which uses Yevtushenko’s poems as a fulcrum. Mark Shiell conducted his orchestra, a bass choir and bass soloist; the singing element sustained the composer’s gravity of expression and the instrumental corps, often deliberate and aware, could have been improved by more assertiveness from the strings.

Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made a fine pairing with the Mozart Symphony No. 34 at this month’s concluding MSO concerts, both light and buoyant even in their slow movements.  Conductor Andre de Ridder moved to the dark side with Ravel’s La Valse and Unsuk Chin’s kaleidoscopic Mannequin – one of the year’s more adventurous program choices.

More French material emerged at the month’s end when Otto Tausk conducted the MSO in Debussy’s La mer, the body’s brass section in powerful, accurate voice, before a complete shift in temper when pianist Saleem Ashkar fronted the Brahms D minor Concerto, giving this rumbling rort of a  score its full complement of roaming sensitivity and pounding majesty.

                                                                  Saleem Ashkar

For once not clashing with Fathers’ Day, the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent site was held on September 24 and brought some stirring music-making into play.  I was lucky enough to hear the Arcadia Winds quintet in Barber’s Summer Music and the eloquent Nielsen Wind Quintet; later, violinist William Hennessy, violist Stefanie Farrands, and cellist Michael Dahlenburg – Melbourne Chamber Orchestra core personnel – laboured with pianist Louisa Breen  across the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with excellent results; and pianist Stefan Cassomenos thundered through Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony.

October

Suffering from a publicist’s hyperbole by appearing under the title of ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, Emmanuel Pahud was guest for this month’s Australian Chamber Orchestra program, a compendium of great variety in which the guest performed most effectively in unaccompanied solos: Bach’s A minor Sonata and Debussy’s Syrinx.  An arrangement for the ACO strings and Pahud of Franck’s Violin Sonata removed most of the original’s chromatic bite and the finale’s sweep from placidity to generous clamour.

Later, Richard Tognetti  brought the full ACO ensemble to the Recital Centre for a singular achievement climaxing in Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence as you would like to hear it all the time: light textures oscillating with driving blasts, each movement a finely-honed, concentrated vein of gleaming ore.

This year’s Melbourne Festival brought some enriching music to the public ear, starting with A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol which fused Western and Eastern genres into a moving lament for those millions murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s ascendancy.  Local pianist Peter de Jager staggered me with his all-Xenakis program which contained most of the Greek/French composer’s keyboard music for both piano and harpsichord: a stimulating grapple with very difficult material, some of it unplayable.  The British choir Tenebrae brought Jody Talbot’s Path of Miracles to town, a four-part musical tracing of the pilgrim’s trail from Roncesvalles to the shrine of St. James of Compostella.

                                                                          Tenebrae

A Festival finish of high distinction came with the two recitals by Emanuele Archiuli which focused on American modern works, in particular highlighting Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.  Despite the pianist covering too much territory and revealing a tolerance for some pretty lightweight matter, he enriched our awareness of near-contemporary pianistic craft with George Crumb’s far-foraging variations on the Monk tune, then performed part of his own vast enterprise which involved 20 composers writing individual takes on ‘Round Midnight.

British conductor Andrew Manze took the MSO through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, the first time I can remember hearing this masterpiece live since Gelmetti conducted it at Robert Blackwood Hall many years ago, my review of that occasion eliciting a letter from one of the first violins that indicated how I’d undervalued the stamina required from the strings to get through this score.  Manze pointed to the inescapable influence of Beethoven on Schubert, but also the impact of Rossini’s jauntiness, and that information gave extra colour to what can be a trying experience, especially in the verbose tarantella finale.

November

The MSO has given plenty of exposure to its associate conductor, Benjamin Northey, this year, coming to a head with his being given charge of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  The young conductor gave his exuberant best to the experience, met with full-throated responsiveness from both orchestra and the MSO Choir and well-served by his all-Australian principal line-up: Jacqueline Porter, Liane Keegan, Henry Choo, Shane Lowrencev.

A tad down-river, the MSO under Nicholas Buc did their live soundtrack thing with the first two Harry Potter films, playing to packed audiences at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Plenary.  The music itself is warmingly familiar, yet another sparkling amethyst in composer John William’s chain of memorable film scores, but both nights were exemplary public occasions: for The Philosopher’s Stone, by the audience’s participation in greeting and groaning at various characters – all encouraged by Buc – to the final explosion of delight when Dumbledore changed the house points at film’s end; for The Chamber of Secrets, you had to be impressed by the audience’s applause at each discrete passage of play, patrons quite happy to drown out the film’s action with approbation of the MSO’s efforts.

                                                                        Nicholas Buc 

Back at Hamer Hall, Stanislav Kochanovsky directed a sonorous but unsatisfying reading of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, one of the MSO’s more memorable successes under Hiroyuki Iwaki.  Possibly the conductor and his band were too focused on exerting a powerful drive throughout; even more probable, the interpretation proved self-conscious, the weight of both outer movements approached with an excessive consideration for inner bulk.

December

My concert of the year for 2013 was the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s revelation of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Quite a bit of its success came from the orchestra’s talent at walking a line between opulent modern warmth and period instrument piquancy.  Even more was due to the brilliant Choir of London, a body of about 18 singers, all soloists in their own right who combined for the most lustrous and full choruses and chorales you may ever encounter.  Much the same occurred this time around with many of the same participants back at work, headed by that paragon of Evangelist tenors, Nicholas Mulroy.

                                                                    Nicholas Mulroy

Finishing the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, British pianist Paul Lewis confronted us with another of his demanding programs, this one comprising late-in-life works by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, the last represented by the Six Piano Pieces Op. 118 in which Lewis found a subtle continuity of emotional language to produce one of the year’s most significant and revelatory interpretations.

The MSO’s annual Messiah proved disappointing, in part due to the lack of ginger from conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini.  About two touches of originality aside, this struck me as a pretty pedestrian effort, the MSO Chorus imbalanced by a shy tenor group, the orchestra reduced to an emotionally faceless stratum, and only two of the soloists leavening the drabness, soprano Sara Macliver and tenor Ed Lyon casting light across a dour landscape.

                                                                        Sara Macliver

                                                                            Ed Lyon

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – some of them – and Choir began their Noel! Noel! concerts in the Recital Centre, moving ever closer to a Carols by Candelight format with young musicals singer Joel Parnis making a hash of Adam’s O Holy Night, set too low for his voice, but coming into his own with Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.  But Paul Dyer followed his customary path of having something for everyone, moving from Palestrina motets to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, supplementing his string quintet with a trio of sackbuts.

The Australian Boys Choir finished my year with their A Mighty Wonder program.  Director Noel Ancell took as his program’s basis the O sacrum convivium antiphon, beginning with the familiar Gregorian chant, then moving into  settings by Gallus, Poulenc, Ivo Antognini and Ola Gjeilo.  And, aware of the enthusiasm of his choirs’ parents, Ancell also inserted plenty of audience-participation with carols unfamiliar – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, albeit in an English translation – and others that are part of our DNA – O come, all ye faithful and Hark! The herald angels sing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The viol da gamba lives

SPINNING FORTH

Jenny Eriksson, the Marais Project

Move Records MCD 564

Many would find it hard what to make of some connections drawn throughout this CD’s content.  You’d expect, given the ensemble’s title and the repute of Jenny Eriksson, that the music would owe a large debt to the Baroque French violist Marin Marais, best known through the Alain Corneau 1991 film Tous les matins du monde which investigated the composer’s relationship with his eminent predecessor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.  And you do find a Marais track listed, but it’s more of a play on Marais than the original; hence, you can glean something of an explanation in the participating group’s name which suggests that its enterprises will not be devoted to a straight reproduction of the past.

In fact, the only other period music to be found is a suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, one of Marais’ pupils.  But even this work has been gussied up to some extent with the addition of an extra gamba line; I’m not sure what this alteration accomplishes even though the results prove unexceptionable.

But the CD’s chief content is contemporary, or near-so.  A musician who appears in nearly everything on this recording, theorbo master Tommie Andersson, supplied an arrangement of Hjort Anders Olsson’s Min levnads afton, a walking tune that the Swedish fiddler performed and so resuscitated.  The title work by Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan offers  another suite, a take on the form with a prelude, sarabande and gigue of sorts and a cross-bred bouree.  Fleshing out the tracks are two scraps of Anglo-Australiana: The Cheshire Rounds, a tune dating back to Playford’s Dancing Master, and the Streets of Forbes memorializing the career and death of bush-ranger Ben Hall.

Because of the ‘project’ sobriquet, it seems to me that anything goes with everything here. Both constructors and composers/arrangers have a great time finding links in their notes.  For example, Llew Kiek comments on similarities between  the Swedish tune Lat till Far (recorded in a previous Marais Project album) and the Ben Hall lyric; Cutlan embraces the notion of fortspinnung as exemplified in the close-knit use of material found in Bach (a Baroque tie-in).  Andersson differs from this connection-conscious thrust in not linking his Olsson tune adaptation to anything; it’s just there, fleshing out the CD’s 44 minutes’ length.

Eriksson, Andersson and supplementary gambist Catherine Upex perform the Caix d”Hervelois Suite in D minor from the composer’s first book of Pieces de viole.  In line with the genre’s plastic layout, some of the seven movements are self-explanatory – prelude, menuet, gigue – while others are personal and impenetrable, like l’Henriette, La Luthee (gift of God?), and, less obscurely, La Villageoise.   In the only manuscript I could find of this piece, the player is offered three preludes; Eriksson takes the central one.  A few pieces appear to go missing: an allemande and La Coquette.  For this opening, Ypex plays a simple continuo reinforcement of Andersson’s theorbo, then occasionally underpins Eriksson’s line in l’Henriette with some parallel motion in thirds.  A rondeau goes missing before the calculated rusticity of La Villageoise, where Ypex plays her support with a bit more independence.  For the following La Bagatelle, the second gamba supplies the continuo support, which amounts to a running line, most of the time in support of Eriksson.  La Luthee sees the second viol almost effaced; in fact, I’m unsure whether its contributions are more than a few subordinate notes throughout this slow gavotte. The concluding gigue and menuet show an amiable jauntiness that has prevailed throughout the suite, notably in some rhythmic jerks during the last piece.  A piece called Paisane in my manuscript is not performed, possibly because it adds no change of mood or colour to its predecessors.

The Marais work is a Tombeau for John Dowland, originally the composer’s Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet: a memorial piece, then, for Marais’ own son.   Scored for viol and continuo, Eriksson has added another viol line and adapted the original in ways that I can’t fathom.  Certainly the extra viol gives the work a smooth edge and fluency that you miss when only one instrument has to supply the chord work.  But the only other version of this piece I’ve heard already uses two viols, although the second one is continuo-based.  But that reading also uses a harpsichord as well as an archlute to create a rich sound fabric, as does the Marais group here with a fluid, moving deploration.

Olsson’s walking tune brings baroque violinist Matthew Bruce into play; like Andersson, Bruce is a regular member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  Also adding to the mix comes flautist Mikaela Oberg, another ABO musician, but the opening is all Andersson and Eriksson until the upper instruments creep into the mix.  Not that there’s much to give anyone pause: the tune is attractive and folksy and the musicians play its two halves in various combinations, sharing linear primacy with tact and somehow contriving to suggest – as so much of this Nordic folk-music does – both Scottish and Irish lilts.

Cutlan’s suite involves Eriksson and harpsichordist Raymond Harvey, who begin with the Prelude that has the keyboard spinning out a single line which eventually accretes another while the string complements and moves sideways into different note-values, having the last word at the movement’s brusque conclusion.  With Rustic Energy has its fair share of pedal-figures and patterns but Cutlan’s minimalist gestures are mutable creatures and,  a third of the way through, he deserts the clod-thumping country-dance effects for a touch of bird-song.  The later stretches of this movement interest through the composer’s ability to offer both imitation between his players and independence of movement, all within an insistent framework.

Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande opens with a viol solo, followed by a harpsichord solo on the lute stop.  This is true note-spinning where the initial elements lead into imaginative quarters, particularly when Cutlan sets up a statement-response dialogue between Harvey and Eriksson in what can only be described as a kind of harnessed improvisatory melange.  The Quasi Gigue starts with fitful propositions from both players that eventually coalesce, but into what sound like two independent parts that settle into a partnership when both decide on common points of emphasis.  It is, indeed, like a gigue, in that the metrical inevitability of a similar movement from the English or French Suites is missing here.  The composer’s emotional language is a kind of sophisticated bucolicism where you are not far from orthodox harmonic structures but the landscape is spiced with deliberately placed dissonances and contrapuntal accidents.

Brown and Oberg open the Cheshire Rounds with a duet, Andersson enters with chords, and the tune is played several times  before it moves into an answering strophe.  The arrangement offered here is a Balkan variant on the original Old Lancashire Hornpipe in that the rhythm has been displaced into a Bulgarian 2+2+3+2+2 which would have dispirited those colonists who apparently frolicked through the original 3/2 setting during the first ball at the New South Wales Government House.

The hornpipe merges into the CD’s final track, the memorial to Ben Hall sung by tenor Koen van Stade.  It is a pretty familiar ballad, if melodically unremarkable, and makes an odd conclusion to the whole Marais exercise; nationalistically pleasing, to be sure, but how it fits into the general baroque-and-beyond format escapes me.  I suspect that, as with so many other projects, the point of this addition to the amalgam is to underline the relationship between different schools, forms and nationalities in music.  Having listened to the tune Lat till Far that this Streets of Forbes is said to resemble., I fear that the Swedish tune is much the superior construct; as a result, the Australian ballad rounds things off in a pretty mundane manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Diary

As usual, you won’t find much happening in January apart from the two festivals: (Mornington) Peninsula Summer Music and Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields. Unfortunately, advertising for both is firm on performers, venues and times but often vacant on the music being played, so there’s a great deal of speculation in the following calendar

 

Tuesday January 2

Arcadia Winds

St Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

I heard this ensemble at the recent Abbotsford Convent Music in the Round, with a substitute for regular clarinet Lloyd Van’t Hoff.  This recital features the replaced one and two others from the group: oboe David Reichelt and bassoon Matthew Kneale.  What are they playing?  Well, the information I’ve gleaned is vague .  .  . Bach and Mozart are mentioned, then a big jump to Jean Francaix.  If you don’t know any music by the earlier composers for this combination, you’re not alone;  Francaix, on the other hand, produced the Divertissment of 1947 and, in a cornucopia of other music for wind combinations, nothing else for this particular personnel formation.   Great stuff if you’re nearby but for some of us – still – Balnarring is a long way off.

 

Tuesday January 2

ETERNAL FLAME

Bethany Hill, Andrew Byrne, PSMF Academy 2017 alumni

Hurley Vineyard, Balnarring at 5 pm

Soprano and lute expert present music by Caccini, Strozzi, Carissimi, Merula and the Australian writer Jodie O’Regan, in company with those young musicians lucky enough to be involved with the Peninsula Summer Music Festival Academy where elders share their tutelary riches with the next generation.   Not clear on specifics but the exercise should be well worth it, especially if you’ve already committed to the preceding recital from the Arcadia trio.   O’Regan’s work is unknown to me, but her main interests seem to be as an educator with an emphasis on singing (community and otherwise).

 

Wednesday January 3

Massimo Scattolin and Hannah Dahlenberg

Port Phillip Estate, Red Hill South at 6 pm

Scattolin is a familiar name from Sergio di Pieri’s Ballarat festival where he is a regular guest.   Here he partners soprano Dahlenberg whose name I’ve heard and not in the context of local cellist Michael.   Their offerings remain big on composer identities, not on specifics.   We’re to get arias by Handel, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini; chamber music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Falla, Lorca, Piazzolla and Morricone – which I presume means duets for the two recitalists.   Interspersed come guitar solos.  The only mystery here is the mention of Lorca who, while a fine pianist and collaborator with Falla, as far as I know did not compose anything.   Almost worth going along to find out what’s what.

 

Saturday January 6

MAIDEN VOYAGE: WORKS FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO

Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Adam McMillan

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 12 pm

This duo – Matsuura-Miller violin and McMillan piano – won the 2017 Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantics Competition, although I can’t find any mention of their triumph online.   To their credit, these musicians have committed early and have a set program.  They start with Bach, the Violin/Keyboard Sonata in E Major BWV 1016; they finish with the young Richard Strauss’ Sonata in E flat Op 18, and fill out the centre with a new work by Australian writer Christopher Healey, who has made quite a name for himself in Brisbane, both as a writer and an organizer of new music concerts.

 

Saturday January 6

Kiazma Piano Duo

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 3 pm

Nothing like the four-hand piano duet to bring out the Victoria-and-Albert in all of us.  Aura Go collaborates with Tomoe Kawabata in some heights of the repertoire, including  Schubert’s late Fantasie in F minor, a Mozart or two from the five definites in the catalogue, and Poulenc’s Sonata.   Which last has me puzzled.   All the performances I’ve come across have involved two pianos, but the original of 1918 seems to have been composed for two players operating at one keyboard.   Poulenc did revise the piece in 1939, so I’m assuming that’s when he decided on separate instruments.  Might be a squash in this small church.   For that essential touch of modernity, we’ll be treated to the 1985 Cahier sonore by Akira Miyoshi.

 

Saturday January 6

BAROQUE OPERA GALA

Lotte Betts-Dean and Genesis Baroque

St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 7 pm

The orchestra for this event is chaste – 9 strings and Simon Rickard’s bassoon, the whole co-ordinated from a harpsichord by Martin Gester.  Details are slim but patrons are promised Telaira’s aria Tristes apprets from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, and concertmaster Lucinda Moon will take solo spot for Leclair’s Violin Concerto in C Major – Op. 7 No. 3 or Op. 9 No. 8 will doubtless be revealed on the night.  The orchestra, Genesis Baroque, is newly-formed but most of its members are familiar faces from period music circles and concerts.   Mezzo-soprano Betts-Dean, by all accounts, is on a pretty rapid career trajectory and was last seen and heard here in excellent form at the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s luminous Christmas Oratorio on December 3 and 4.

 

Sunday January 7

Lucinda Moon

Church of St. John the Evangelist at 11 am

They don’t come any simpler or more concentrated than this.  Moon makes her solo – i.e., unaccompanied – debut for the Festival here with Bach.   She takes on the Violin Sonata in A minor and the Partita No. 2 in D minor which climaxes in the towering Chaconne.  What makes this hour more than a little interesting is Moon’s reputation as an emphatic purist for period music observances, so you can’t expect to be confronted with any vibrato-heavy waffling in either of these peerless masterpieces.

 

Sunday January 7

Stefan Cassomenos

Church of St. John the Evangelist at 2 pm

This Melbourne pianist, blazing with talent, returns to the Festival for a solo recital which promises the old and the new in equal balance; such a juxtaposition may turn out to be a bit strong for the easy-going Peninsula patrons.  Cassomenos plays pieces by Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov – four foundation composers for the keyboard – and tops these up with recently-contrived Australian music by Andrew Aronowicz, Linda Kouvaras, Katy Abbott Kvasnica and Kate Moore.  And it’s great to see the genders almost coming into balance this afternoon.

 

Sunday January 7

BACH SONATAS

Julie Fredersdorff and Aline Zylberajch

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 4 pm

Winding up the Festival’s serious music content, artistic director Fredersdorff and harpsichordist Zylberajch play Bach.  Again, details are not yet there to be collated but you’d anticipate that the duo could handle three of the six in the repertoire.  Fredersdorff is a well-known presence and sound from this week’s activities over the years and through her appearances with that expandable period music trio,  Latitude 37.  However, the harpsichordist is a stranger to me although she has an impressive discography and has worked before with the Genesis Baroque conductor, Martin Gester.

 

Friday January 12

MISSA CRIOLLA AND THE PATH OF MIRACLES

Gloriana

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Andrew Raiskums is bringing his choir to Ballarat for the annual Festival’s opening concert.  This time, the Baroque is left behind in a ferment of post-Vatican II colour in the Missa Criolla by Ariel Ramirez which marries the Mass text (the Nicene Creed shortened to the Apostles’) in Spanish with Latin-American musical colour.  As well as soloists and choir, this work uses a set of unusual percussion instruments in its instrumental accompaniment.  It’s quite a short construct, so the program has been expanded with Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles, recently sung here by the Tenebrae choir during the Melbourne Festival.  The work traces the pilgrim’s route from France to the Shrine of St. James of Compostella through four movements.  It’s an interesting experience mainly for the movements’ contrasts but I’m not convinced that its spruikers have much justification in claiming the term ‘modern masterpiece’ for it.

 

Saturday January 13

MUSIC FROM FOUR CENTURIES

Tomomi Brennan, Anthony Halliday

Violinist Brennan is allied with organist Halliday for a program that is completely unknown at this stage.  Four centuries is a big time-span but, even so, I’m sceptical about the amount of music written for this duo, so it looks as if we’ll be enjoying a wealth of transcriptions and arrangements.  Don’t know the violinist as a soloist but she is a senior member of Orchestra Victoria; Halliday I’ve been hearing for many, many years – since his schooldays, in fact –  and am ever-admiring of his insightful security.

 

Saturday January 12

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 4 pm

Fresh from his labours at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, Cassomenos comes to Ballarat’s cultural temple to perform with the Assistant Principal Second Violin of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   You’d probably be safe to assume that the pair will be playing one (or two) of the ten Beethoven violin sonatas, and one (or two) of the three Brahms sonatas.  For all I know, Curro and Cassomenos are old hands (well, not so old in his case) at performing sonatas together – or possibly their appearance is ad hoc.  Either way, both are skilled in chamber music.

 

Saturday January 13

ECHOES OF THE CELTS

La Compania, Lotte Betts-Dean

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

Danny Lucin and his period music ensemble of cornetto, sackbuts, dulcians, the occasional viol and percussion present a night of the ‘Celtic baroque’.  Now there’s a phrase that summons up absolutely nothing at all.   In what way were the Celts involved with the Baroque?  Come along and find out, I suppose.  Betts-Dean is, like Cassomenos, plying her craft fresh from an appearance at Flinders in the Peninsula festival.  The whole underpinning of the recital is a mystery: was there a Celtic school of music during the Baroque, or did the composers of that era experience some influence from the Celts?   The latter sounds more likely but is it just something like Beethoven’s Scottish folk-song arrangements?  Not much of an influence, then, and not really an echo.  Still, the band is a lively formation and always refreshing to experience.

 

Sunday January 14

GRAND CHOEUR

Martin Setchell

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 3 pm

Based in New Zealand’s Canterbury, Setchell plays the cathedral’s 1930 Fincham organ, which I’ve generally found to be one of the least distinctive instruments in the city.  There is no indication as to what will be performed; the event’s title simply indicates ‘full organ’.

 

Sunday January 14

HEROES, HEROINES AND VILLAINS

Maty’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

The subtitle for this entertainment runs ‘Recognizable loved and loathed operatic characters.’   Taking part are soprano Olivia Cranwell, tenor Carlos E. Barcenas and baritone Stephen Marsh – all soloists from Victorian Opera.  Accompaniment will be provided by pianist Phoebe Briggs, who is the company’s head of music. Barcenas will appear in the coming VO productions of Rossini’s William Tell and Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues; Marsh will be the Shepherd in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande and is taking on a triple role in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel;  Cranwell last appeared in March for the VO production of The Princess and the Pea and seems to be enjoying plenty of exposure through the national company.  Anyway, you can take your pick of what you’d expect to hear: the parameters are very broad.

 

Monday January 15

THE FINCHAM AND HOBDAY ORGAN OF 1889

Christopher Trikilis

St. John’s Anglican Church, Creswick at 10 am

Last year, this young Melbourne organist played at the Carngham Uniting Church for the festival, on another Fincham and Hobday instrument; this time, he’s working at a larger F & H organ in one of the solo recitals to feature this festival’s eponymous source of inspiration.  Trikilis proposes J.S.Bach, Vivaldi and contemporaries which is a gargantuan field to contemplate but the event is intriguing as the player is young and the organ itself is unknown to me although I believe it has featured in many preceding festival programs. In my defence, it’s arduous enough getting up to Ballarat itself without adding on the extra 18 kilometres required to reach Creswick; so says the ageing curmudgeon.

The program will be repeated at 12 noon.

 

Monday January 15

IN LOVE AND WAR

Luke Severn and Elyane Laussade

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 4 pm

Severn is a busy young Melbourne cellist and he has presented this program with pianist Laussade already, last September at St. Peter’s Eastern Hill – so they’re well played-in, you’d expect.  The artists have prepared works by Rachmaninov, Barber and Shostakovich.   The American work I’d expect to be the Cello Sonata in C minor, Op. 6 – mainly because there’s nothing else by Barber for this combination.  Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata is also a young man’s work, although better-known than Barber’s piece.  The Shostakovich Sonata of 1934 comes from the time of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk denunciation by the authorities and the composer’s separation from his pregnant wife.  Of course, all this speculation can be right off the mark if Laussade is playing a solo; if not, the three sonatas make for a powerful afternoon’s music-making.

 

Monday January 15

MOZART FOR QUINTET

Trio Leonardo, Nicci Dellar, Miriam Skinner

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

Some hard-worked guests from Venice begin their various stints tonight.  The Trio Leonardo comprises harpist Elisabetta Ghebbioni, flautist Andrea Dainese and violist Giancarlo di Vacri.   Two other musicians make up the numbers for the promised quintet: violinist Nicci Dellar and cellist Miriam Skinner.   The only work of which you can be certain is Mozart’s sprightly Flute and Harp Concerto K. 299 which here undergoes a change into the guise of a quintet.  The other content will also feature more arrangements because the participants are hard to configure into known Mozart works, although there are possibilities like the flute quartets and the string trios and duos that could turn up.  But Mozart’s employment of the harp appears to be rare: is there anything apart from this concerto?

 

Tuesday January 16

MOZARTIANA FOR ORGAN

Douglas Mews

Christ Church, Castlemaine at 11 am

City of Wellington organist and organ teacher at the University of Wellington, Mews is most likely playing some arrangements because, like last night’s affair, there’s not much in the catalogue with which to engage.  The F minor Adagio and Allegro, Fantasia in F minor and Andante in F are the most commonly heard Mozart organ pieces; also, the composer wrote some fugues, an ouverture and a small gigue.  Put it all together and you can eke out an hour’s worth, if you play slowly and deliberately.  But the ‘-iana’ part of Mews’ title could take in a lot of territory – even a Tchaikovsky transcription.

This program will be repeated at 12:30 pm.

 

Tuesday January 16

THE UNIMAGINABLE COMBINATION WITH UNEXPECTED RESULTS

Tomomi Brennan, Anthony Halliday, Joel Brennan

Castlemaine Town Hall at 3 pm

Tomomi and Brennan will have already performed together in last Saturday morning’s recital.   Here, they are joined by another Brennan who plays flugelhorn.  The title sums it up: I can’t imagine how the combination sounds but have no doubt about the unpredictable nature of the outcome.  No details are currently available.

 

Wednesday January 17

TOUCHES OF SWEET HARMONY

Martin Setchell, Eisabetta Ghebbioni

Loreto College Chapel at 11 am

I’m thinking solos here because the scores written for the combination of organ (Setchells) and harp (Ghebbioni) are as rare as an Australian federal politician with ethics.  The entertainment is subtitled ‘a morning musical serenade’ which is giving nothing away, except to this tortured mind: an elliptical reference to Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music which uses texts from Act V of The Merchant of Venice that contains the line-and-a-half ‘soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony’.  Then, when you think about it, whatever the music, the organ/harp combination sounds excellent in the abstract.

 

Wednesday January 17

Arcadia Winds

Neil St. Uniting Church at 4 pm

With the encouragement that either they or their offerings are ‘inspired by the folk rhythms of Europe’, the members of this fine ensemble (still only three of the five?) could be repeating their program of January 2 which formed part of the Peninsula Summer series.  Musical recycling: it’s as old as Aeschylus.

 

Wednesday January 17

EINE ABENDMUSIK

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

This is a recreation of what is called the ‘traditional Advent Cantata Concert’, a celebration that comes from the early 18th century.  So it differs from the cantata that you hear interpolated into the Lutheran Mass/Service in that here we have a fairly definite extra-liturgical context.   Whatever goes on, John Weretka will be in charge of a group featuring sopranos Helen Thomson and Amelia Jones, countertenor Hamish Gould, tenor/countertenor Christopher Roache, and Weretka himself making up the set with his bass, supported instrumentally by oboe, theorbo, bassoon, violin and the Consort Eclectus which, last time I looked, comprised viols and recorders.  All of this adds up to a wealth of period music expertise.

 

Thursday January 18

HAYDN AND VIVALDI CONCERTI

Trio Leonardo, Anthony Halliday, Festival Chamber Orchestra

Former Wesley Church, Clunes at 11 am

The first of two concerts at the sleepy hollow of Clunes features the individual members of the Leonardo group, I suspect, playing a concerto each by one of the specified masters. There’s a spurious one for flute by Haydn and a few that could work for Halliday on the church’s organ, but nothing for Giancarlo di Vacri’s viola or Elisabetta Ghebbioni’s harp. Vivaldi, on the other hand,  wrote flute concertos and a swag for viola d’amore, but nothing for harp, although Halliday will be able to find something suitable in the catalogue.  Yet again, I sense that the day of the transcription will come upon us.

 

Thursday January 18

HANDEL FOR ORGAN AND FLUTE

Douglas Mews and Andrea Dainese

St Paul’s Anglican Church, Clunes at 2:15 pm

This reassuringly bucolic church’s organ is an 1862 Hamlin mechanical action instrument on which Mews will produce some Handel, in company with the Trio Leonardo’s flautist, appearing for the second time today.  Again, no ideas what will be performed but, with this composer, anything goes; he was a fabulous recycling merchant and would doubtless approve of a two-instrument reduction of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba or Where’er you walk.  We are assured of the organ’s ‘lovely woodwind’, but I can’t find much to talk about apart from two stops on the instrument’s Great.

 

Friday January 19

GONG, GARDENS AND GRIEG

Douglas Mews and Giancarlo di Vacri

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bakery Hill at 10 am

This morning, Mews, in his third Festival appearance, collaborates with another member of the Trio Leonardo.  The program is Victorian/Edwardian, one of the promised items being Elgar’s Chanson de matin, originally for violin and piano, but probably transferable without much stress to the viola/organ duet playing here.  The emphasis is on light classics, so gird up your loins for Come into the garden, Maud and the Kashmiri Song.  Where Grieg fits in, I can’t hazard a guess; he wrote nothing for viola or organ but he was a dab hand at Victorian/Edwardian melodies.

 

Friday January 19

MOZART AND SCHUMANN

Seraphim Trio

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 3 pm

Violinist Helen Ayres, cellist Timothy Nankervis and pianist Anna Goldsworthy make up this excellent ensemble which appears regularly at the Melbourne Recital Centre.  I can’t work out what they will play out of the Mozart six scores for this combination, although you might punt on the glorious K. 502 in B flat Major, which they performed last February.  With Schumann, the choices are thinner, the composer having written only three in the format, but you might pin your hopes on the first in D minor which soars above the other two in power and inspiration.

 

Saturday January 20

A GUSTO ITALIANO

Martin Setchell

Uniting Church, Daylesford at 11 am

Setchell performs here for the third and last time in the festival.  His offerings embrace Italian music from the 16th to the 20th century, played on this church’s William Anderson organ.

 

Saturday January 20

SELECTIONS FROM THE FITZWILLIAM VIRGINAL BOOK

Douglas Mews

Christ Church, Daylesford at 2 pm

Mews also presents his final performance for the festival.  The Christ Church organ is an unusual one in having two manuals of Choir and Swell, and is that rare thing: a Fincham construction that has survived intact.   The player is spoilt for choice, as the Book holds 297 pieces and, although the title specifies the virginal, in those lax late Elizabethan/early Jacobean times, any keyboard instrument would do.  Needless to say, no specifics are available but the content won’t be very substantial if Mews is going to play it all again 45 minutes after the first sitting.

This program will be repeated at 2:45 pm

 

Saturday January 20

TRIO LEONARDO PLAY DEBUSSY

Trio Leonardo

Daylesford Town Hall at 5:30 pm

Well, at last this ensemble gets to perform the one work that we all associate with its configuration: Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp of 1915 – one of that last bold sequence of three sonatas that the composer managed to finish while aiming for a total of six.  There is an extraordinary number of works written for this trio combination, the greater amount coming from the last century following Debussy’s lead, and some of these works may feature on this evening’s program.

 

Sunday January 21

Australian Chinese Ensemble

Ballarat Mechanics Institute at 3 pm

I’ve heard this ensemble a few times but not for some years now.  The musicians last played at this festival in 2003, so it’s been a fair while between drinks.   The four members I recall are: Wang Zheng-Ting playing the sheng, an upright reed instrument that always reminds me of a versatile harmonica; Dong Qiuming on the dizi (transverse flute); Tao Wennliang manipulating the erhu, that sonically permeating, small string instrument played like a mini-cello that has become familiar from a busker or two along Swanston Street and St. Kilda Road.; and Gu Chuen underpinning all with his yangqin or hammered dulcimer.  When it comes to Western music, the festival publicity is vague enough; with this Oriental encounter, you can whistle Dixie for any information.

 

Sunday January 21

MISSA SALISBURGENSIS

Choirs of Queen’s and Newman Colleges

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Bringing up the rear is the Australian premiere of a Baroque colossus: the Salzburg Mass of Heinrich Biber which asks for 53 parts – two 8-part human choirs, 16 soloists, separate groups of strings, woodwind and brass, as well as two discrete sets of trumpets and timpani, plus the inevitable organ and bass continuo.  Don’t know how director Gary Ekkel from Newman College will manage all this in the pretty confined conditions of Ballarat’s Catholic cathedral but the impact from recordings is of battering sheets of C Major sound.  Not the most ambitious ending to the festival but it could be among the more stupendous (or stupefying) exercises in massed sonorities we’ll have heard in this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A double ending

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: AROUND 1600

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday December 9

                                                                     La Compania

For the last Xavier Chapel program – well, it looks that way, and the Ensemble’s three eastern suburb appearances are moving to Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Camberwell next year –  director John O’Donnell brought in the services of Danny Lucin’s early music musicians, La Compania to flesh out a final night for 2017 of lush, almost corpulent Renaissance Christmas music: both Gabrielis, of course, along with Praetorius, de Lassus, and a single Epiphany motet by Victoria.

The program was rich in choral works for multiple vocal lines, interspersed with three Andrea Gabrieli intonationes and a relatively more substantial ricercar from O’Donnell on chamber organ.  Other instrumental pieces included two canzone by Giovanni Gabrieli for eight voices.  Lucin’s cornetto led the quartet from La Compania – sackbuts Julian Bain, Trea Hindley, Glen Bardwell – and the second instrumental choir was represented by O’Donnell; a mixture that worked well enough, even better after ears had adjusted to the organ’s tuning in mean-tone temperament.

The Gombert numbers had expanded slightly with an additional soprano and tenor in the force and the body’s reliability had also been resumed with the return of some absentees from the previous recital.   In all, the ensemble sang eight works, most of them in company with the four wind and organ.  But in the night’s latter stages, we heard two plain works for the standard four lines: the afore-mentioned Victoria piece, Senex puerum portabat, and the less ornate of the two Lassus representatives, Adorna thalamum: both making for a moment of meditative ease as they celebrated the Presentation in the Temple – the Candlemas of this concert’s title.  Like most of the works performed here, these motets moved swiftly through their texts, over too soon for some of us but handled with confidence and dedication.

But the body of the program comprised music of extraordinary stateliness, polished grandeur which summoned up the spirit of what Renaissance church rituals might have been like – mobile and inspirational but completely controlled in movement and expression.  The combined forces opened with two settings of Resonet in laudibus: the first by Praetorius in seven parts, loaded with full-bodied common chords processing past with solid majesty, then the Lassus version for five voices with more polyphonic interest but just as buoyant in its realization of the Christmas Day-celebrating words.

Andrea Gabrieli’s lavishly coloured Hodie Christus natus est, also instrumentally reinforced/doubled, summoned up the phantom of Venice in 1600 through the organized glory of sound blocks combining, alternating and eventually reaching blazing swathes of rich sonic fabric, particularly the focused relish on the word laetantur and the piling on of concords for the final Alleluia exclamations.  This piece enjoyed an exhilarating performance by both Gomberts and Compania musicians, proposing a form of that controlled ecstasy you hear in the B minor Mass’s Sanctus opening, the emotion kept in harness as the composer looks for intimations of the divine in a music of aspiring solidity.

Nephew Giovanni’s O magnum mysterium for double choir of disparate personnel – the first with two sopranos, alto and tenor, while the second holds an alto, tenor and two bass lines – countering each other and combining for stately interweaving strophes, the whole again typified by dramatic restraint without any vocal adventures and reaching its high point not in the final Alleluia but placing a moving focus on the iacentem in praesepio phrase: the core of the text, picturing the Child lying in a manger.  The first statement is chordal, the second more irregular, yet the effect was intensely moving due to the singers’ incisive delivery.

On either side of the smaller-framed four-voice Victoria and Lassus motets came two powerful works.  The first celebrated the Epiphany, that moment in Matthew’s gospel where the Magi enter the Bethlehem stable, even if Lassus constructs a more expansive picture with not just royalty but Omnes de Saba bringing gifts, the nominated kings coming from Saba (Sheba) with the rest of the population, but from Arabia and Tharsis (Spain or Sardinia? ) as well.  This motet, for double choir, has been sung by the ensemble in previous years, although I can’t remember it coming across with such lustrous majesty; the cornetto and sackbuts might have made a difference in this regard. But the score’s fabric in this performance gleamed with high polish, the smooth and opulent movement underlining the significance of those remarkably outlandish offerings  –  gold and frankincense.

Another Venetian blockbuster made for a memorable farewell to the Xavier Chapel, a building which has been fortunate to witness and host the Ensemble Gombert’s performances for many years.  Giovanni Gabriel’s Nunc dimittis is Simeon’s prayer of gratitude for being allowed to live long enough to see Christ, but it also served as a mutual thank-you between these singers and their loyal audience.  For 14 voices divided into three choirs, this construct proved intensely satisfying for its fusion of massively resonant and fluid motion with a non-indulgent handling of the text.  Mind you, the concluding doxology is just as lengthy as the words of the righteous and devout man from Luke’s gospel that were set by the composer.  But O’Donnell and his forces gave us a most satisfying, driving reading of this High Renaissance gem, a potent reminder of the choir’s outright distinction in this country’s choral ranks.

 

 

 

Useful = accessible

TRAVELLING TALES

Adam Simmons and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday December 7

                                                                     Adam Simmons

Another stage along the path of Adam Simmons’ odyssey towards working out for himself – and us – the problems of art’s utility, this program comprised nine segments, all connected with the travel theme, some of them in rather personal ways; personal to Simmons, I mean.  To support and amplify this enterprise, Timothy Phillips and his Arcko musicians – 20 strings from the Ensemble – slotted into the mix without obvious bumps, although it has to be admitted that, compared to other concerts presented by this group, you were scraping to find much that would have tested their powers of ensemble and articulation.

Indeed, Simmons map was pretty laid-back. His beginnings opened with a gentle underpinning over which the soprano saxophone meandered quietly, before the pace changed to marching ponderousness for a single step, a segment that moved forward to a rather extended climax; nothing too harmonically adventurous and the scoring for string orchestra made its points without resorting to conspicuous efforts or tricks.

Simmons third movement, milosc, was a solo to illustrate the maxim (presumably from Milosc) that travelling while simultaneously playing music was about the life-experience you gained by doing so; unarguable, one would hope but most interesting in this context for Near-Eastern colours coaxed from his tenor sax by Simmons.  In a nod to the old world, the composer/performer gives some recognition to previous times and cultures but in a manner that left not much impact on this listener.

More immediately gripping matter came in the city that never slept which was based on a rising five-note step-like motif in the strings, gradually accruing members as the movement passed by but not following a predictable path of building up volume through numbers; rather, sharing the material around between groups.  On top of this, Simmons generated a wild, near-frenetic line where the night’s work came closest to contemporary practice with plenty of over-blowing and percussive slaps at the instrument’s tube and keys.  No, these techniques are not unheard of and were common practice among avant-garde jazz musicians many decades ago, but in this (till now) calm dynamic context, the effect was remarkable, especially at summoning up a kind of aural equivalent to a Big Cityscape.

in threnody, the emotional atmosphere was conditioned by open 4ths and 5ths, making a deliberate contrast with the preceding movement, both sax and string orchestra weaving together in a calm consolation rather than a mournful dirge.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the night followed in living by numbers which was something of an organized free-for-all for the bulk of the orchestra over the grounding of a string quartet formed by the section principals. The impression appeared to be something close to a minimalist gesture in that the material used stayed simple if rhythmically taut.  But counterbalancing this was Simmons’ contribution which took the form of another gripping series of phrases/outbursts that at times followed the orchestra, but more often presented as improvisations over the sustaining string ferment; all exhilarating to experience and the whole hurtling forward stopped on a dime.

Pulling back from this energetic outburst, a song for sharing began with another solo for saxophone.  For me, the communal mood spoke clearly of 1960s cool jazz, boppy and tuneful, the strings joining in after a time with canon-style imitations employed to impose an underpinning order.  Finally, Simmons took up his soprano for warm croissants – referring to a consolation coming at breakfast after a night of deep and meaningful talk – and roamed over and into a sequence of slow string chords to suggest the settling back into Ithacan domesticity or a return to the land of the lotus-eaters.

What the composer presents here is, obviously, a sequence of vignettes amounting to a self-portrait.  For the Arcko musicians, the stages were fully organized and scored and, if novelties or technical troubles were hard to find, they were able to concentrate on synchronicity and the generation of clear-speaking group timbres.  Simmons served as both a wandering voice, merging and diverging at will so that he seemed to be improvising, particularly at moments of highest tension.

And the concert fulfilled the aim of Simmons’ intent: to illustrate the usefulness of his art – both to himself and to us.  I think that the basis of what he is attempting is to found his music in comprehensibility – no, instant understanding.  Music that is accessible, intellectually and emotionally, is useful; composers who choose to obfuscate, inadvertently or intentionally, are heading in the other direction and writing music of no help to anyone.  Which again brings to mind that story of Stravinsky whispering to his secretary Robert Craft, while both were listening to the latest string quartet by a US academic,  ‘Who needs it?’

On the other hand, we might not need Simmons’ physical and spiritual travelogue but it is available and accessible, presumably unlike the afore-mentioned string quartet.  More down-to-earth, the composer has succeeded in linking his own swooping performance creativity and the pervasive power of his playing with a formal framework of such character that should reassure even the most conservative listener.

Finally, as a pre-empting of apologies that may be necessary, these observations are based on a set of notes written in darkness, or its near equivalent.  Recollection in tranquillity is a wonderful exercise but I hope that my scribbles superimposed on the night’s program in what I hope was sequential order still manage to bear a general reference to what actually took place.

 

 

Genial and appealing

BACH CELLO

Zoe Knighton

Move Records MD 3422

Many cellists play the Bach unaccompanied suites and sometimes gain great acclaim from the process.  They all owe a singular debt to Pablo Casals who unveiled the scores after centuries of neglect.  Indeed, sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the instrument’s repertoire would be partly denuded if the six suites were removed from public view.  Alongside a wealth of superb concertos, what remains for cello recital programs?  Beethoven’s five sonatas and two each from Mendelssohn and Brahms, for sure. Then there are the single units by Debussy and, less popular, Grieg and Chopin.  After that, the chief source of nourishment is the 20th century with its momentary successes and more frequent conundrums and wastes of time.   For such a fundamentally important musical voice, the cello has accrued a wealth of pap and arrangements but it’s a rare player who takes the exclusively contemporary (anything after 1900) path.

Melbourne musician Zoe Knighton is best-known for her endeavours in the chamber music field, especially as a founding constant in the Flinders Quartet and for organizing festival days of chamber music at the University of Melbourne that featured most of this city’s outstanding ensembles.  For Move Records, she has made several recordings, mainly with Amir Farid, that include estimable readings of Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s complete oeuvres for cello and piano.  Now she has moved to the fundamental, putting her hat into the ring with Casals, Tortelier, Fournier, Rostropovich and Isserlis.  Why not?  She has an obvious sympathy with these scores and achieves the valuable goal of letting sunlight into musical rooms that all too often tend to be stacked with well-lacquered mahogany.

For space allocation reasons, I suppose, this album’s two CDs split the suites into non-sequential groups of three.  Disc 1 has Suite 1 in G Major, Suite 4 in E flat Major, and Suite 5 in C minor; the second disc holds the D minor Suite 2, Suite 3 in C Major and the last in D Major.  As the informed are aware, the works’ organization follows a regular pattern: each has a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, and concluding gigue.  In penultimate position come two minuets (Suites 1 and 2), or two bourees (Suites 3 and 4) or 2 gavottes (Suites 5 and 6).  For all that symmetry and simplicity of format, Bach invests each movement with individual personality and Knighton has a gift for reaching into these pages and revealing their character.

As far as familiar Bach cello music goes, you won’t find much that beats the prelude to the Suite No. 1 which sounds out in recital spaces with tedious regularity.  Knighton sets up the pattern for her overall reading through these familiar pages which, for some inexplicable reason, brought to mind a totally dissimilar musician: Ton Koopman, whose versions of canonic Bach organ works once struck me as hectically  iconoclastic.  Not that this cellist walks an unexpectedly original path, but her treatment of the variables that are intrinsic to these editorially bare pages is quite original so that not much is predictable, least of all in her choice of resting-points and the length of time she stays on them.  She avoids the overkill temptation in this prelude’s climax but takes the opportunity to address powerfully the movement’s last four bars to fine effect.

Like many among her predecessors, Knighton saves her ornamentation for the repeats, as seen first in this suite’s allemande, more effectively in the consequent courante which reveals another aspect of the musician’s vision in that it remains a dance, one with pronounced rhythmic underlay.  The imbalance between the piece’s two segments is somehow smoothed out by a clear intent to maintain this vital pulse rather than twisting the courante‘s format into fantasia-like excess.  You come to a restrained landscape with the sarabande; no imposed heft but an outline that borders on the affectionately lingering.

Knighton omits the triple stops that occur in my edition at bars 18 and 20 of Minuet 1‘s second part and allows herself a relaxation in metre for the G minor Minuet II.  The gigue brings the suite home in sensible style, distinguished by a delicate emphasis on each bar’s first beat.

Opening Suite 4, the interpretation of the prelude offers a forceful emphasis on the low note at each bar’s start, but the attack quietens to a soft low C sharp at the movement’s shift in character for a recitative passage.  This is one of the more unpredictable parts in the entire set of suites but the cellist shows intelligent musicianship in negotiating the relentless wide-ranging arpeggio element in the movement’s central segments.  Following this temperamental ride, the allemande attests to  the natural affable charm of Knighton’s approach, illustrated best by the gentle bounce colouring the 7th leaps during bars 9 to 11, these pages coming to a fetching, insouciant finish.

For the following courante, I found the most attractive passage to be the final 23 bars.  Bach’s superficially carefree but clever vaulting metrical patterns, especially the use of triplets in the third-last bar, present a kind of jeu d’esprit that Knighton negotiates deftly without drawing attention to its brisk craft.  The sarabande is given all of a piece, without dynamic jumps in dynamic, its final diminuendo in the concluding two bars accomplished with tact.  The bouree brace raised some production question marks at a few of the top E flats and Fs.   You’d be satisfied with the gigue‘s first half but Knighton gives a very rousing vitality to the lengthy, bounding second part – and its repeat – with no signs of fatigue.

The scordatura Suite 5 begins with a mighty prelude, more a French overture in form and an invitation to indulge in grandiose gestures.  Here it receives its fair amount of dramatic tension but the 3/8 long second section leaves you in no doubt that, yet again, everything here tends towards dance.  An impressive detail emerged in the player’s skill at sustaining both upper and lower pedal notes in a busy fabric.  An exercise in musing rather than an allemande, the next movement finds Knighton treating the second half’s rhythmic abrupt grupetti with calm fluidity.  She also takes relish in articulating the sudden change in emphasis of the courante‘s two cadential bars.  For the famous sarabande, all artifice is stripped away and the slow line of single notes comes across as a kind of sophisticated keening.

The pair of gavottes offer a notable contrast: the first is gritty, its double,  triple and quadruple stops ground out with confidence; the second could be taken for a gigue, albeit a very rapid, sotto voce one.  The finale itself brings this exceptional work to the finest of lopsided endings, especially when real irregularity sets in after the second half’s two-bar trill where Bach kicks against the predictable and Knighton is happy to leave his adventure to speak clearly for itself.

Opening Disc 2, the D minor Suite No. 2 offers the experience of an excellently handled increase in ardour to the prelude’s rhetorical climax beginning at bar 40, the energy sustained in the composer’s simple but moving pattern work to the fermata at bar 48.  Knighton boldly splays the allemande‘s opening chord but thereafter maintains a mobile pace.  More rousing is the courante, strikingly vivid in its bursts of action and hiatus points.  You start to fear that the speed chosen here is too rapid, particularly after a few glancing, almost-not-there notes in the first part.  But the executant’s results justify this hurtling attack and firm-hand treatment.

Echoes of the D minor Violin Partita inevitably rise up during the sarabande, largely because of a similar severe clarity of utterance.  Without dismissing Knighton’s obvious care, I have to admit to being distracted by Bach’s marvellous craft in giving emphasis to the second beat of each bar, even in those stretches of superficially undifferentiated quavers.  Later, you hear another clear-speaking instance of the player’s affection for this music in the wide leaps of Minuet II – gently administered so that the bow glances off the strings without unnecessary force.  By contrast, she swaggers through the gigue, gaining plenty of approbation for the controlled aggression of those double-stopped pedal passages that wind up each half.

Suite 3 opens with panache, surging through its opening strophes to a slow-burn dynamic build-up at the broken arpeggio writing that starts at bar 36 and builds to a powerful construct on the dominant G from bars 45 to 61; Knighton enters spiritedly into the thrilling flamboyance of this prelude’s last ten bars.  Both allemande and courante avoid machine-like regularity, thanks to a plethora of well-pointed loitering.

Not facing any emotional depths, Knighton produces a generous, sensitively-shaped sarabande before moving into popular encore fare with the pair of C Major/minor bourees.  If she finds little original to be articulated here, she still gives both pieces a clean texture and handles their fluent angularity with aplomb.  Interesting in itself, the gigue never ceases to delight for its invention, notably when the second half strikes out on its own before toeing the line.  Here it gains from a clever type of inner bounce that still delivers the piece as a unit, despite the interpolation of gabbling semiquaver passages and some transitions into musette territory.

Finally, Knighton reaches the taxing Suite VI, originally asking for a 5-string instrument. Suddenly, the timbre changes upwards with a wealth of writing in the tenor clef, the first time in the collection.  Bach celebrates the work’s singularity with another solid prelude, the second-longest in the set.  Not that this version is rushed, but I would have preferred it at a slower pace; yes, the opening 77 bars have nothing but quavers to propel the action but a lot is going on that stands up to measured consideration.

With its 20 mammoth-length bars, the allemande is a welter of ornamentation, straining at its own bonds as it reveals itself as a cross between a fantasia and a meditation.  This is powerful and brooding music, despite its flashes of action and Knighton gives it ample space – the longest track on both discs – and an excellent dynamic diminution at about the half-way point.  Normal running resumes with the courante, sprightly and definite in pulse; the performer is enjoying the experience here, carrying on a kind of internalised dance with the most quiet and subtle of emphases brought into play.

She makes a noble processional out of the sarabande, for once in keeping with the dance name, quietly progressing despite the composer’s clutches of chords and those double-stopped passages that dominate the second half.  More encore material comes with the gavottes although, like pretty much every other cellist, Knighton struggles with the requirement of negotiating massive and frequent chords while giving prominence to a melody line.  Which is nothing to the gigue with its impossibly demanding first half loaded with demanding problems of fingering and bowing, giving way to a relieving second part that leaves you with the sense of having experienced a moderately pleasant exercise after an ocean of trials.

Like many of us, I’ve found Knighton’s chamber music a reliable source of enjoyment.  She radiates confidence in her work and participates with  personality and no little finesse.  These discs are a rewarding demonstration of her talents as a solitary voice, one well worth hearing for the pleasure given in so many of the 18 tracks through this player’s familiar warmth and honesty of musical character.