July Diary

Sunday July 1

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

South Melbourne Town Hall at 10 am, 2 pm and 7:30 pm

Off we go once more on a week of wall-to-wall piano trio and string quartet music as young ensembles from everywhere compete for several glittering prizes.  It’s a marvellous time for chamber music devotees and their relish in the events is patently clear: everybody who performs enjoys affirmative, if not rapturous, applause.

In the first recital, the Netherlands/Belgium Mosa Trio plays Haydn in E Hob XV 28 No. 44, the E minor Shostakovich and Dutch writer Sam David Wamper’s Portrait of Light from 2015; it probably will help that the group has recorded these last two works.  Then the Idomeneo String Quartet  – a Belgian/Hungarian/Spanish combo – is listed to play Haydn No. 15 in D minor K. 421 (which makes me suspect somebody has the wrong composer although, in a different incarnation, this could be one of Mozart’s Haydn quartets), Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata, and Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters of 2011 which boasts, in its finale, the unusual time signature of 25/16.

After lunch, the Bukolika Trio from Poland gives us Haydn in C Major Hob XV No. 27; then, beating the nationalistic drum, Gorecki’s 6 Bagatelles.  The South Korean Baum Quartet follows with the Mozart D minor – probably the second performance of this score that we’ll hear today – and Szymanowski No. 2.  To end comes the Amatis Trio – another hybrid: Netherlands/Germany/UK – with the same Haydn as the Bukolikas, the same Shostakovich as the Mosas, but a real novelty in Iranian composer Kaveh Tayaranian Azimi’s Fragmented Impulses II.

Leading off the evening recital, the Quatuor Agate attempts Mozart’s Dissonance No. 19 in C, the terse Bartok No. 3, and Bernadette Clozel’s Volutes, written for the 2013 Festival quatuors a l’Ouest and the composer’s first essay in this form.  Australia’s own Clarendon Trio finishes off the first day with Haydn in E minor Hob XV No. 12, resurrects the Alexander Tcherepnin Trio Op. 34 (not 35, as on the MICMC web-site), and airs Stanhope’s (which one? Paul) Dolcissimo Uscignolo tribute to Monteverdi; yes, we can flaunt the chauvinistic banner as proudly as anybody else.

 

Monday July 2

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

South Melbourne Town Hall at 10 am, 2 pm and 7:30 pm

First up, the Austrian/Russian/German Eliot Quartett, taking its name from Thomas Stearns, performs Haydn Op. 71 No. 2, Bartok No. 3 (hello, the lads from Agate), and the same Ades as yesterday’s Idomeneo group.  This morning’s trio is the French/Latvian Sora who break no new Haydn ground with the same Haydn as yesterday’s Bukolikas but then move off the predictable path with Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Op 24 Trio of 1945.

The afternoon brings us the United Kingdom’s Gildas Quartet in Haydn’s Fifths Op. 76 No. 2, followed by – what else? – Britten’s last, No. 3.   The Australian/US Merz Trio, taking  inspiration from the unlikely figure of Kurt Schwitters, presents the festival’s first Beethoven in the flashy Op. 1 No. 2, with an off-setting pendant Shostakovich (third rendering so far, after the Mosa and Amatis versions).  The Thaleia Quartet of Japan sets up a direct challenge to the Eliots with Haydn Op. 71 No. 2, throws down the gauntlet to yesterday’s Idomeneos through Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata, finally offering a real original in Akira Nishimura’s 2013 Quartet No. 5, Shesha – written for Irvine Arditti as a 60th birthday present from another sixty-year-old.

The Trio Marvin (Russia. Kazakhstan and Germany – hence the name’s inversion[?]) launches our evening with the competition’s first Mozart piano trio, the B flat K. 502, before vaulting the centuries to senior Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ Episodi e canto perpetuo, an 8-movement homage to Messiaen from 1985.   Then the all-German Goldmund Quartet plays a different Haydn in the G Major first of the Tost Op. 54 set, runs off-centre with Serbian-born Canadian-resident Ana Sokolovic’s Commedia dell’arte III centred on the characters Brighella, Signora, and the Innamorati, and pulls back a historical decade or four with Wolfgang Rihm’s lop-sided Quartet No. 4

 

Tuesday July 3

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

South Melbourne Town Hall at 10 am, 2 pm and 7:30 pm

The morning session completes the first round for all ensembles.  Trio Gaon, a German/South Korean fusion, complements the Merz initiative with Beethoven’s Op. 1 No. 1 in E flat.  An unusual direction comes through Jean Francaix’s late Piano Trio from 1986, followed by Simone Corti’s two-year-old Musica discreta.  Round One concludes with the American Callisto Quartet offering a difference from the Eliot and Thaleia groups with  Haydn’s No. 1 in B flat from the Op. 71 set, then aiming for the stars with Bartok No. 6.

At 2 pm, the competition moves into Round 2 where everyone has to perform a compulsory Australian work:  Holly Harrison’s Balderdash for the quartets, Paul Stanhope’s Pulses for the trios.  Hearing each of these commissioned pieces eight times will give aficionados plenty of space to exercise their standards of comparison, although I fear people will follow the easier road of slagging the works themselves.   Anyway, for its second attempt, after Balderdash enjoys its first airing, the Baum Quartett essays Mendelssohn No. 6 in F minor, his last completed major work and a requiem for his recently departed sister Fanny.  Then, attention turns to German phenomenologist/composer Elmar Lampson through his Quartet No. 3, Canzone.   The Clarendon Trio follows with the Stanhope, then puts its faith in Mendelssohn in C minor with the big chorale finish.  Finishing this ample afternoon, the Quatuor Agate couples its Harrison insights with Debussy – a real show of self-confidence.

Night brings back the Amatis Trio with Stanhope and Mendelssohn in D minor, bare hours after the Clarendons have worked through the ‘other’ one.  The Idomeneo players couple their Harrison with Mendelssohn in F minor, setting up a juxtaposition with the Baums earlier in the day.

 

Tuesday July 3

BEETHOVEN WIDMANN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

In an unfortunate bit of untimely scheduling, the ASQ is appearing in the middle of a chamber music orgy; perhaps something went wrong in the planning stage but somebody must have known about the chamber music competition.  Will people be happy to forego the pleasures of the Amatis Trio and Idomeneo Quartet for our home-grown musicians? Let’s hope so.  The title tells it all: the last Beethoven and one of his first – Op. 18 No. 3 in D – surround the Hunt Quartet, the third by German contemporary Jorg Widmann.  In this, the group apparently hunts down and kills (musically, one expects) its cellist, the work based on that repetitive rhythm dominating the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A.  Well, it’s a connection of sorts and Widmann’s opus lasts for a bit over 10 minutes – a quick homicide, then.

 

Wednesday July 4

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

South Melbourne Town Hall at 10 am, 2 pm and 7:30 pm

First out of the blocks comes the Bukolika outfit with Stanhope, and Dvorak’s Trio Op. 49 No. 1 in D minor which has me beat because it’s not in the catalogue.   Perhaps Mendelssohn is the intended composer but his Op. 49 is self-contained – no individualizing numbers.  At all events, the ensemble finishes up with Kaija Saariaho’s Light and Matter, a 2014 commission from the Finnish-born composer for the Bowdoin International Festival (a college in Maine that offers an annual summer music school and concerts).  The Gildas Quartet then does its Harrison, finishes with Ravel, these two works bracketing Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s 10-year-old My day in Hell; well, she’s a fellow Brit and a busy writer in her home milieu  .  .  .  so much so that this performance doesn’t rate a mention on her web-site.

After lunch, the Mosa Trio pair their Stanhope with – surprise, surprise – Mendelssohn in D minor.  Then the Thaleias juxtapose Harrison with the demanding Ravel Quartet.  Finally, Trio Marvin matches Stanhope with the last Brahms in C minor, as well as Thorsten Encke’s Trio No. 2, written last year and commissioned by the Felix-Mendelssohn-Wettbewerb Berlin but which conceals its mysteries from this writer.

Ending the day’s labours, the Eliot Quartett, like the Agate boys, sets up Harrison and then hopes that Debussy doesn’t suffer in comparison.  On the other hand, the Trio Gaon puts its Stanhope alongside Brahms No. 1, the noble B Major masterpiece.

 

Thursday July 5

Melbourne International Chamber Music Festival

South Melbourne Town Hall at 10 am and 2 pm

The penultimate Round 2 event opens with the Callisto Quartet opting for Debussy alongside Harrison, then offering a difference from the Eliot and Agate people with young Spanish trombonist Francisco Coll’s 5 minutes’ worth of Cantos, written for the Cuarteto Casals last year and with a barrel-load of effects inside its small frame.  The Merz collageists follow Stanhope with Schumann’s last Trio in G minor Op. 110 No. 3 – great to see this being aired – and Johannes Maria Staud’s 10 miniatures ofrom 2007, Fur Balint Andras Varga, a homage to the prolific Hungarian commentator on contemporary music and this composer’s ‘mentor and advocate’.

To finish the round, the Goldmunds break no new ground, putting their Harrison beside Ravel, just like the Thaleia Quartet.  Last cab off the rank, the Trio Sora give their Stanhope before Mendelssohn in C minor, then take on Kagel’s Trio No. 2, In einem Satz; seems to me like overkill if you consider the length of this last work which may be in one movement but is a solid and unusually enervating score.

 

Thursday July 5

SIMONE YOUNG AND KOLJA BLACHER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The very popular conductor and splendid violinist collaborate in a simple program that makes little sense on paper if you’re looking for logic.  Regardless, I think that Melbourne people have a lot of time for the Sydney-born musician, especially after the inane and inept treatment afforded her by the national opera company.   Blacher was first sponsored here, I believe, by Markus Stenz and his repertoire mastery continues to impress on each visit.  Tonight, he fronts Britten’s Concerto, a pretty early work but a fine example of the composer’s genius at walking a distinctive line between bracing neo-modernity and piquant sweetness.   As a counterweight, Young conducts Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, a work you hear very rarely but, to my mind, refreshingly uncluttered – the only one that the composer didn’t subject to revisions.

The program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday July 6 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday July 7 at 2 pm.

 

Friday July 6

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

South Melbourne Town Hall at 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 2 pm, 4 pm, 7:30 pm

It’s semi-finals day.  Each of these recitals features a quartet and a trio that have one final chance to impress the audience and jurors.   Five recitals mean five of each ensemble, so by this stage only three in each competitive formation have been eliminated.  It makes for a long day and the only assurance is that competitors can only stay on-stage for an hour maximum.

At this level, the repertoire is limited to Beethoven or Schubert.  Which may explain why these composers barely feature on preceding programs; in Schubert’s case, not at all, which avoidance you can certainly understand with regard to the piano trios who will all have been thinking of this round’s single limitation.

 

Sunday July 8

Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

Melbourne Recital Centre at 1 pm and 6 pm.

We’ve moved up-market to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for the competition’s grand final.  The earlier recital features three piano trio ensembles, the last men and women standing.  Their mission is to play a work that they have not performed so far at MICMC.

Obviously, the evening event is for the quartets.  The same situation applies: they can play anything they want but it can’t have been part of their Rounds One or Two programs.

You can wait around for the jury to file out to give its verdict.  Or, if you’re time-poor, you can listen to the results on ABC FM which is broadcasting this event, while 3MBS has been taking responsibility for all of the other recitals over the preceding week-plus.

The prizes seem to grow in number every year, but the pity is that either a trio or a quartet wins the top Grand Cash+Tour Bonanza; a choice between apples and oranges, once again.

 

Saturday July 14

WILLIAM TELL

Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 7:30 pm

It’s been 140 years between performances in Australia, but now the state company is taking the plunge into Rossini’s final opera.  As you’d expect, it will be given in abridged form, but it has rarely been staged in its original length, shortened even during the composer’s life-time.  VO is presenting a three-hour version, which is long enough for those of us who have a powdered coffee acquaintance with the score.  The cast is heavily local, with a few major imports: Argentinian  baritone Armando Noguera takes the title role; Swedish soprano Gisela Stille sings the love interest, Mathilde; Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli will be the villain, Gesler.  Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a sort of import, plays Melcthal, the unfortunate patriot who lasts for only one act.  In the vocally pivotal part of Arnold, Melcthal’s son, Carlos E. Barcenas has his work cut out for him; Jeremy Kleeman serves as Tell’s off-sider, Walter; Alexandra Flood has the young-pants role of Tell’s son, Jemmy; Liane Keegan will suffer as Tell’s pressurized wife, Hedwige.  Jerzy Kozlowski appears as Leuthold who sets the whole story in motion by killing one of Gesler’s guards; Timothy Reynolds’ tenor enjoys the opera’s first solo as the fisherman Ruodi.  Company artistic guru Richard Mills conducts; Rodula Gaitanou directs and here’s hoping she can improve on last year’s Cav/Pag double from Opera Australia.

The opera will be repeated on Tuesday July 17 and Thursday July 19 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday July 15

ESPANA

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 3 pm

Rada Tochalna is Frank Pam’s soloist for this concert.  Living up to the title’s expectations, she will sing the well-known Seven Spanish Folk-Songs by Falla which give a rich all-embracing view of the country’s music in encapsulated form.  The chamber orchestra also plays Albeniz, a Carmen suite, and pieces by Shostakovich (Salute to Spain? Spanish Dance?  Some or all of the six Spanish Songs?)  and Waldteufel (the Espana Waltz?).  All this Iberian frivolity will eventually give way to a brief birthday greeting for Australian composer George Dreyfus who turns 90 a fortnight from today.  Horn player Tom Campbell takes the melody line in Larino Safe Haven, and the whole ensemble revisits the composer’s most popular piece: the main title for the mid-70s TV series Rush.

 

Sunday July 15

VIENNESE MAGIC

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea, Elsternwick at 6:30 pm

Rather than the collation of short-breathed pieces that have speckled TOP programs so far this year, this recital has only two works scheduled.  A senior Team figure, Darryl Coote, provides the keyboard line for Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E flat K. 493, then does double duty with Schubert’s A Major Piano Quintet – yes, the happy Trout.  His collaborators are all current MSO members: violin Kathryn Taylor, viola Christopher Cartlidge, cello Rohan de Korte, and double-bass Benjamin Hanlon.  Like every performance of the Schubert, this will come from an ad hoc ensemble but it’s hard to strike a misfire with such a benign score.  The Mozart is another story, notable for its hard-hitting directness and oh-so-revealing clarity of texture.

 

Friday July 20

BEETHOVEN & BRAHMS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Here’s an unusual set-up from the programmers; something that gives you a lot to chew on.  Tonight’s conductor is Joshua Weilerstein – brother of cellist Alisa, son of pianist Vivian Hornik and violinist Donald.  He is currently artistic director of the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne.  His first task is not that challenging: escorting Dalby-born pianist Jayson Gilham through the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, which has always struck me as being the simplest of the five, technically and intellectually.  After this has been done with, the MSO plays a Klengel arrangement of the soothing Brahms Intermezzo No. 1 from the Op. 117 set;  I assume it’s Paul’s and not Julius’ orchestration because Weilerstein has recorded the former with the BBC Philharmonic.  Following this near-lullaby, the orchestra plays what is called the ‘orchestral version’ of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor; again, I’m into presumption territory. thinking/hoping that this could be Schoenberg’s celebrated transcription of 1937 which is hard to surpass for mouth-watering textural richness.

This program will be repeated on Saturday July 21 at 7:30 pm, and again on Monday July 23 at 6:30 pm.

 

Sunday July 22

MIDSUMMER MENDELSSOHN GALA

Flinders Quartet

Upper Gallery, Montsalvat at 2:30 pm

As you could probably guess, we’re hearing music for the Shakespeare play, arranged for string quartet by Iain Grandage, with the MSO’s principal viola, Christopher Moore, declaiming a sequence of extracts from the text.  I once saw Joel Edgerton carry out the same task with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the results were top-notch.  Moore further builds on his spoken-word duties by narrating Michael Leunig’s texts for The Curly Pyjama Letters, with music by Calvin Bowman; all the whimsy you could possibly desire.  The recital continues its gala quality with the buoyant Brahms String Quintet in G Major Op. 111, which requires two violas and which the composer intended to be his final work – that was, until he heard Muhlfeld’s clarinet.  For this, Moore closes his mouth and partners Helen Ireland’s tenor line.   The Flinders’ first violin position is changing occupants throughout the year; this afternoon, it will be taken by Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba, whom I’ve only seen/heard in the  ranks of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

 

Tuesday July 24

Joyce Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The South Korean-born pianist has appeared here with the MSO but I think these are her first Melbourne recitals.  Appearing for Musica Viva, she is playing two separate programs here and in Sydney; the common element to both is a newly commissioned Piano Sonata by young Australian composer Elizabeth Younan.  Tonight, she begins with Five Lyric Pieces by Grieg; don’t know which ones but she has 66 to choose from.  Then come the three Debussy Estampes, Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Younan’s sonata, and Schumann’s Carnaval for a weltering finale.   In the second program, Yang opens with three of Rachmaninov’s preludes from the catalogue’s 25; moves forward with the Janacek Piano Sonata; brings us a blast from the past in Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody – it’s been years since I heard this finger-twister; follows the Younan sonata with one of the greatest in the form – Liszt in B minor.  She’s a fine pianist (judged from her concerto appearances) with a welcome level head on her shoulders.

Yang will play her second program on Saturday July 28 at 7 pm.

 

Friday July 27

OSBORNE TOGNETTI VALVE IN RECITAL

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A fine combination: the ACO’s long-time artistic director Richard Tognetti and that cellist-for-all-seasons Timo-Veikko Valve make chamber music of the purest kind with Scottish pianist Steven Osborne.  Mind you, they’re not bringing any surprises to this event, playing just two repertoire staples: Dvorak’s Dumky E minor Piano Trio and the Brahms No. 1 in B Major.  This is a one-night stand between Perth and Brisbane appearances and, like some other ACO small-group programs at the MRC, could be so-so or a night to relish for months to come.

 

Friday July 27

WEST SIDE STORY

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another of the live soundtrack efforts from the MSO, this also serves to amplify local efforts to observe the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.  A revelation when it first appeared, this film is almost standing the test of time; only the acting is occasionally over-melodramatic (George Chakiris) or ineffectual (Richard Beymer).  But you’d come along for the music, wouldn’t you?  And its dance sequences will be a test of the MSO’s responsiveness to changing rhythms and the brassy assertiveness that radiates from the original, even though Bernstein didn’t approve of the arrangements made by Irwin Kostal.  Above all, in this era of ditzy stupidity in musical theatre, West Side Story has a dramatic and musical clarity that set it as one of the high watermarks of the art – and  that’s exactly what Bernstein made of it.

The program will be repeated on Saturday July 28 at 1 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

Take another look

BACH’S TONAL SOUNDSCAPE

Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3413

 

 

It isn’t something you come across every day, Bach’s keyboard monument played in order of key where the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier are melded pretty directly so that both C Major preludes and fugues come after each other, then the C minor couples are juxtaposed, and so on.  The whole exercise stays in order except for two inversions where, at the half-way and end points of the four discs, Holtham reverses the order so that the F minor and B minor pairs from Book 2 are played before their Book 1 counterparts for reasons that have a fair bit to do with music and shape, even more with accomplishment and aesthetic finish.

This remarkable endeavour is intriguing for long stretches in its juxtapositions and has the welcome added attraction of fully engaging the careful listener –  by which I mean someone who is benignly disposed to the mighty 48 compendium and who finds riches in even the most well-known pages.  I don’t think the recording company and artist have their eyes set on a purely musicological audience, or one that is predominantly student-centric, although Holtham is one of the country’s most distinguished piano pedagogues.  No, it seems that their focus is firmly set on the exercise itself, which is to give pointed indications of Bach’s stylistic growth in the years between the two volumes that make up the W-TC and, from that maturity, to provoke a differentiation in the listener’s perceptions and responses: a conglomerate of what you get out of each set.

Holtham performs without histrionics, working with reliable firmness through his imposing task with very few moments where you might have preferred him to have a second take at something.  The CDs have no suggestion of over-splicing or a massaging of the prevailing dynamics or resonance.  As a result, the recordings appeal for their sincerity, a kind of plain-speaking which avoids the temptation to parade virtuosity even in the limited range of the two books; limited in physical compass, but a world of intellectual or emotional breadth.  You won’t find the interest-at-all-costs approach of bigger names who have recorded the work (and, once you start looking, it’s surprising how many virtuosi have done so).

The approach throughout is determined, task-focused more than startling or surprising in delivery, concerned with the music’s negotiation and allowing it to speak for itself without excessive ornamentation or using the distracting drug of injecting fake drama by abrupt changes of attack, dynamic or pace.  But then, the performer’s intention is not to highlight technical skill: that ability is taken as a given.

If you’re something of a sceptic about extra-musical associations, you are occasionally brought up very short by this exercise.  To begin, Holtham and his notes-collaborator, David Tieri, propose in the extensive discs-accompanying booklet, that the C Major tonality ‘offers a concept . . . as purity and infinity’.   This sort of synaesthetic idealization is one of the currents that we are encouraged to draw from the performances.  In a way, it adds a philosophical layer to what you’re hearing.  When we reach D Major, reference is made to Monteverdi’s Toccata that opens his opera Orfeo and which is written in that key; here, it is proposed that the earlier composer’s flourish shares a relationship with Book 2’s prelude in their shared trumpet sounds.  You may hear the similarities but I’m afraid that they pass me by.

Further along the tonal track comes a statement that is simply hard to fathom: ‘this fugue brings us back to the core of E as the solid concept of tonal firmament’.   Foes this refer to the round trip of this particular piece – the E Major from Book 2 – coming to rest on concrete tonal ground?  Or does ‘tonal firmament’ have a grander aim, where this particular tonality moves into the empyrean and is set above the rest?  When we get to G major, the writers speak of an ‘open-hearted tonality’; but that adjective can apply to many other constituents in the 48.  Later, A flat Major ‘remains a warm sunny key’; a summation that may be true in this instance, but is it a transferable descriptor?  I’m not at all sure about that.   A Major becomes ‘Bach’s display key’., but even a simple observation like this leaves you worried – what is being displayed, and is the display reserved for the Well-Tempered Clavier or is it meant to apply to more A Major Bach scores?

To be fair, these excerpts are far from common and the extensive written commentary is very valuable when it gets down to the formal character and emotional language of individual pieces, all of which receive commentary – some more than others, but that’s only to be expected.  By and large, Holtham’s interpretations mirror the printed attributes; well, what would you expect in discussing the various formats employed throughout in the 48 preludes?  Yet, quite often you are given a novel insight, especially about well-known material, which makes you stop the disc and look for yourself how a subject or episode is worked through, or why what has always seemed a simple slog is actually a carefully fabricated three-part invention.

In the end, this CD set succeeds in setting up bracing contrasts and similarities between the two books, even though the outcome is not always to the benefit of the later volume.  If you’re expecting extreme contrasts between works, you’ll be satisfied but not as often as you might think; indeed, there’s a fair amount of cross-pollination in play throughout the first three discs.

But the last one where Holtham performs the B Major and B minor pairs is a remarkable revelation.  How many of these 8 pieces do most of us know?  In my case, the Book 2 B minor Prelude was the only composition of any familiarity and that simply because of its place on an exam list of many years ago.

The remaining seven tracks comprise unexplored territory, and not just for me, I’d wager. I doubt that I’ve heard the B Major works live  – except when Angela Hewitt gave a recital of one of the books in Melba Hall under the Impresaria management many years ago.  Yes, many a pianist will have sight-read these pieces just to get a feel for the counterpoint and keyboard style, but a deep study? Forget it.

Holtham finishes his undertaking with a compelling reading of the B minor Fugue from Book 1, masterful in its direct forward motion and the restrained handling of those three sequence-rich interludes that move this score up to a rarefied level of achievement.  It puts a capstone to this unusual enterprise which gives a novel aspect to a humane masterpiece by Western music’s chief glory.

 

 

 

Similar, but not the same

GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN: SIX CONCERTI

Hans-Dieter Michatz, Monika Kornel

Move Records MCD 576

 

Once upon a time, you could hardly go to any period music affair in Melbourne without coming across one of two expert flautists: Greg Dikmans or Hans-Dieter Michatz.   The former you can still find  playing in large-scale events; the last time I saw him was at one of the major concerts for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival a couple of years ago.  But Michatz has been absent for a while.  I thought this lack of appearances might have been caused by a move to Europe or America or Japan – any place where his talents would be valued.  But it appears not: he has been ill.

He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, which Dr. Google informs me is a neurological problem with your muscles that makes them contract or distort.  So Michatz has had to give up his work on the transverse flute and, along with that, his long-range plan to record these Telemann concerti as the composer originally specified.  For a substitute, he offers these works on two recorders: a tenor in C and a voice-flute in D.  While he’s not entering the lists and claiming these works for the recorder repertoire, he finds that they are unexpectedly congenial in transplanted mode.

Further, Michatz is accompanied by harpsichordist Monika Kornel, artistic director of the Sydney Consort and a stalwart supporter of the musician throughout the painful process of re-shaping his career.  Not surprisingly, the pair make a sterling partnership in what are called concerti but are, in more ways than one, duo sonatas; not that you need to worry about discrimination between specific terms in a period as non-doctrinaire as the Baroque where even the colossal figure of Bach was often enough highly flexible with some of his descriptors.

The age-old question with these six Telemann works is: are they all the same?  I don’t know why but, since my youth, the accusation/observation has persisted that you will always find it hard to differentiate between this composer’s works, a) because he wrote so many, and b) because his vocabulary is free of the distinctive polyphonic grandeur or contrapuntal mesh-work of his two great contemporaries.  A facile temptation is always there, especially among non-musicians, to group Vivaldi and Telemann as a successful duopoly notable for prolific output but mechanical achievement.

Well, these concerti do have similarities, but you’d expect that.  The format follows an unchanging sequence of four movements; although the performing headings can change (are they Telemann’s own? The oldest manuscript that my limited resources can find suggests that they are), the pattern is a consistent slow-fast-slow-fast, inherited from the church sonata.  As you’d expect, the actual keys vary but, once Telemann settles on a tonality, you rarely move far away from it, although there are some surprises in the later scores.

The first concerto in D Major opens with a piacevole, that easeful injunction that proposes, as one of my teachers once put it, that you ‘can do what you like’ as long as it’s agreable – which in music can mean anything.   Michatz and Kornel adopt a gentle strolling pace.  About the only disruption to its progress comes with a passage in triplets that is over almost before it makes any impression.  The following Allegro shows the composer’s delight in sharing the material equally between his executants and his nimble handling of close imitation and modulations, the pages given with unfussed, mobile aplomb. The following B minor Largo is a delicately accomplished duet where the triplets give way to sextuplets and, as in previous movements, the players have many passages in duet at a third or a sixth.

The concluding Vivace is filled with ornamentation, for once not sounding over-cramped in its handling.  Admittedly, some of the bar-sequences are terrifically predictable, but the unexpected emerges when a couple of bars emerge that sound as though they had strayed in from a Rossini overture.  This is the only part of the concerto with repeats of both halves; no sign of fatigue from the musicians but. leaving aside the demands of proportion and balance, the regularity and pattern-building is a tad wearisome.

Concerto No. 2 in G minor opens in a 12/8 siciliano-suggestive Largo, with an initial sharing of the melodic statement, one instrument after another before the centre of the movement moves into a true simultaneous sharing of the labour.  It shouldn’t, but this whole concerto brings to mind the questionable Bach (probably C.P.E.) G minor Flute Sonata, although this part of it serves to show how happy Telemann could be with formulae and regularity of structure.  A crisp Vivace both illustrates this sense of order and occasionally disrupts it when, for example, a four-bar sequence is suddenly curtailed, missing a bar as the composer breaks back into his initial subject’s restatement.

A Handelian Soave in B flat Major follows, a short interlude that gives a splendid exhibition of this duo’s fluency and sensitive mimicry of each other in bending melodic lines and selecting notes for emphasis: the sort of detail you expect from players who know their period and know each other.  More unassuming examples of asymmetry emerge in the final Vivace with its 14-bar first half and second portion of 37 bars, along with its economical material that avoids sounding four-square through the unexpected nature of the harpsichord’s activity; not that it veers off into sudden flights of imagination, but the passage work and accompaniment figures offer mild surprises.

Tempo giusto is the heading for the Concerto No. 3 in A Major which opens with another amiable walking tune; so the executants take the direction as less ‘strict’ and more ‘appropriate’.  The movement’s second half is repeated, allowing Kornel’s keyboard some exposure, before a brief coda.  In the following Vivace, the interest seems to fall on the harpsichord,although Michatz has pride of place for the opening 8 bars.  A busy movement, it suddenly breaks into Scarlatti territory a little over half-way through when a sudden burst of repeated notes interrupts the normal chain of arpeggio and scale-based activity.  I’ve listened to this movement several times and can’t avoid the feeling that the prevailing rate of speed changes or slightly accelerates once the instruments are in real duet mode.

As expected, the concerto’s Adagio is in the relative minor and, in the prevailing context, sounds exceptionally meditative and not in a hurry to finish.  Michatz and Kornel maintain a stately pace, giving themselves ample room to negotiate the elaborations that are part-and-parcel of the two soprano lines – demi-semiquaver groups and galant-style duplet snaps.  The Presto that rounds off this concerto is simplicity itself – nothing taxing for these players – but it also has its own off-centre charm where four-bar sequences are finished off with a short two-bar scrap of filler.  The delight comes in realizing that there is really no inflexible, mathematical balance at work; just like Bach, Telemann can opt for the unexpected, even if he is not ostentatious about achieving it.

The next work, Concerto No. 4 in E minor, opens with a Largo that, for a while, raises the possibilities of a French ouverture but is not that ambitious, oscillating between the stately dotted note rhythm and fluid triplets; quite rhetorical in its language but within the bounds of decorum   –  the Dean of Windsor as opposed to Bishop Curry.   Surprises abound in the Vivace where the harpsichord announces a ten-bar theme before the recorder enters and, from there on, the forward movement makes a series of elongations and abridgements that are treated all-of-a-piece by these players, making sure we are aware of the re-appearances of the initial and rather stolid theme but making much of the busy activity that comes between.

While the G Major Dolce opens with a kind of pastoral motif in thirds, the movement proper only starts in bar 15 with a syncopated tune of little distinction. What does have interest is the recurrence towards the end of this movement of a left-hand harpsichord figure from the second bar, as though the composer decided on a spot of recycling.  This calm placidity is counterbalanced by a sort of gigue-finale, a Vivace in 12/8 which is given aggressive handling, especially by Kornel who revels in its abrupt stops and starts, her part punctuated by demi-semiquaver groups of four simultaneously in both hands.  It’s an unexpectedly violent set of pages, almost impatient in its rush to completion, and the only movement on the entire disc where I caught a wrong note in the keyboard part.

There’s a sort of break in the tonality alternations that have obtained so far in these concertos with No. 5 which is a B minor work, the only one that opens with an Adagio; a slow-stepping processional which features plenty of elegant linear dovetailing and interception work from both executants.  The succeeding Vivace in 3/2 keeps the harpsichord in figured bass mode for about 14 bars before permitting it any melodic contribution but, from then on, the instruments enjoy some rapid-fire contrasts and duplications, although the pace does slacken at two points – bars 32-33 and at bar 49 – although it’s hard to see why, unless the players feel they are in danger of becoming too rhythmically mechanical.

An E minor Grazioso intervenes – its title aptly chosen for the movement’s calm ambience punctuated by disciplined ornamentation.  The only problem here came in the final low-lying bars where an unsteady B from the recorder mars the assured, measured atmosphere.  Kornel has the focus for the start to the Presto finale with about 16 bars’ worth of solo.  This is one of the more aggressive fast movements in the whole collection with plenty of close-order fugato writing and some gestures that are, in this context, unexpectedly flamboyant.  The key might be minor but the temperament is optimistic, almost victorious.

Telemann ends his collection with an A minor construct, starting with an Andante that holds off on committing itself with some restless modulations and a tendency to highlight the dominant.   But, after the novelties exposed in the preceding work, this seems to be business back to normal as far as instrumental counterpoint practice goes.   After this comes a splendid Allegro, exemplifying how the composer can compress his material, while reverting back to the first concerto’s penchant for interpolated triplet passages.  As with so much you hear on this disc, things seem to verge on complexity but never quite get there – neither a good thing nor a bad thing, unless your penchant for the difficult can’t be satisfied by anything less than the Bach B minor Flute Sonata.

During the Largo, Telemann takes some time before pitching onto a definite C Major root, enjoying himself by wandering across other possibilities, including some meandering chromatic descents in the movement’s centre, all the while maintaining his predilection for triplets to soften the onward march of crotchets and quavers.   Here, Michatz and Kornel enter into the pages’ spirit with an approach that suggests the improvisatory and emotionally diffident; as we used to say on the acropolis, Nothing in excess.  But then the Allegro assai that finishes the whole opus is remarkably lavish with different themes for the participants to elaborate, while also doing the Bachian trick of introducing a passing theme (and it is as transient as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) before working back to the initial interweaving topics for discussion.   In other words, there’s yet another slight and subtle surprise in the tail of this collection.

As a labour of love on Michatz’s part, this is a welcome addition to the Move disc catalogue.   Yes, the whole thing is a transcription in essence, but what you lose in the flute’s carrying power, you gain in the supple suggestiveness of the recorder – or, in this case, two of them (the tenor instrument is used for the Concerto No. 2 in G minor).  To the performer’s credit, apart from this product representing the culmination of an ambition for Michatz and Kornel, his talented supporter/friend, the CD opens yet another window on the rich resource that is available if you bother to delve into the vast wealth of Telemann’s compositions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June Diary

Thursday June 7

THOMAS HAMPSON SINGS MAHLER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Well, he’s here at last if not exactly in what you could call the heyday of his career.  Still, other singers have managed to keep going well into their 60s, so the best thing is to wait and see.  Hampson, the famous American baritone, is fronting Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer; not exhausting himself, then, with about 15 minutes’ worth of not-too-demanding work in a cycle that he has recorded twice.  Probably of more interest is a rare outing for Mahler’s stand-alone symphonic movement, Totenfeier.  Another rarity is Messiaen’s Le tombeau resplendissant, an assuredly idiosyncratic score from the composer’s early 20s, while conductor Andrea Molino  – to whom we owe thanks for a splendid King Roger last year – takes us all a bit further into the transfigured death stratum of musical experience through Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung.

This program will be repeated on Friday June 8 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 9

HANSEL AND GRETEL

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre at 11 an, 2 pm and 5 pm

First thing to note is that this is not a complete performance of Humperdinck’s opera; it comes in at about 55 minutes, so expect highlights only.  This version, previously presented by the company in 2014, is sung in German and may feature translations on side-screens.   Elizabeth Hill returns to direct, and Simon Bruckard, assistant to Fabian Russell four years ago, stands at the podium this time.  As far as I can tell, the cast is a completely new one: Shakira Dugan (Hansel), Cleo Lee-McGowan (Gretel), Tomas Dalton (Witch), Kirilie Blythman (Mother/Angel/Child), Stephen Marsh (Fairy/Angel/Child), Michelle McCarthy (Dew Fairy), Matthew Thomas (Angel/Child), and Douglas Kelly (Sandman).  Ross Hall’s set and costumes return, as does Peter Darby’s lighting set-up.  When you think of the voluminous breadth of the original, a less-than-an-hour experience sounds pretty attractive.

This performance will be re-presented on Tuesday June 12 at 1 pm.

 

Wednesday June 13

LISZT AT THE OPERA

LESLIE HOWARD

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The Australian expatriate pianist has been a Liszt authority for many years and, in recording everything that the composer wrote, he has unearthed many a long-forgotten score.  Despite most people’s experiences, Liszt didn’t stop with Rigoletto and Tristan but took liberties with a whole range of other operas.  On this program, Howard brings to life forgotten corners from the large treasury of transcriptions and arrangements that Liszt wrote and put beyond the scope of most pianists.  There’s a sarabande and chaconne based on themes from Handel’s Almira; the final act of Aida is handled with remarkable thrift; a double-whammy emerges with a fantasia on themes from both Don Giovanni and Figaro; Howard performs one of the three arrangements that Liszt produced on Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the generous Reminiscences; further recollections come from Bellini’s Norma; and the composer takes a motif or six from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette for his Les adieux – Reverie.

 

Friday June 15

L”ENFANCE DU CHRIST

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Anyone who has sung in a half-decent church choir will know the Shepherds’ Farewell from this oratorio, but the rest of the score is generally unfamiliar territory.  Thanks to Sir Andrew Davis and his concern to fill in certain gaps in our musical experience, this state of affairs will be changed, just as he did for us with Massenet’s Thais.  Sasha Cooke, an American mezzo who appeared here in Davis’ 2015 review of the Mahler No. 3,  sings Mary; British tenor Andrew Staples, also here three years ago for a Davis performance of The Damnation of Faust,  will be the Narrator; Roderick Williams, a British baritone who has collaborated with Davis on two CDs of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, takes on Joseph; local boy Andrew Goodwin scores the role of the Centurion, lucky fellow with his eight bars of recitative; Melbourne-born Shane Lowrencev enjoys the role of Polydore, commander of the patrol in Jerusalem and embarrassed with the riches of two sets of recitative; and we go back to Britain for the plum part of Herod, to be taken by baritone Matthew Brook whom I last heard in a 2013 MSO Messiah. The MSO Chorus gets to sing the afore-mentioned shepherds’ near-lullaby and a lot more besides: angels, soothsayers and a moving final set of pages supporting Staples.  Not to be missed because you’ll probably never get another opportunity to enjoy this gentler Berlioz live.

This program will be repeated on Saturday June 16 at 7:30 pm and on Monday June 18 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 16

LAWRENCE POWER: SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Making his debut appearance at ANAM as a resident teacher, Power was last heard here, almost two years ago to the day, playing Bartok’s Viola Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.    Tonight, he takes his ANAM string charges through Biber’s Battalia a 10, although the work rarely uses that many lines; at least, not in my score.  Mozart’s String Quintet No. 1 follows, the one with a bass line rather than a specific cello one and a treat for those of us who revel in the composer’s unexplored catalogue.  The promised Shostakovich is the Chamber Symphony, that arrangement by Rudolf Barshai (a violist, among other things) of the composer’s largo-rich String Quartet No. 8.  Before we get there, Power and his forces present British writer John Woolrich’s 1989 Ulysses Awakes, a meditation of sorts for solo viola and string decet that revolves around the hero’s initial aria, Dormo ancora, from the criminally under-performed Monteverdi opera.

 

Thursday June 21

MOZART & THE CLASSICAL AGE

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Pianist Anna Goldsworthy is soloist at this event which comprises mainly Mozart and Haydn, with an unexpected oddity at the night’s start.  William Hennessy directs/leads his orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 30 to round out the program, possibly with the missing timpani part inserted – or an attempt at what it might have sounded like.  The other Mozart components are an arrangement of the String Quartet No. 7 for the MCO players; I assume this is the E Flat K. 160, fairly close in time to the D Major Symphony. Goldsworthy takes up the cudgels for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat, which has somehow escaped my notice – remarkable, considering the score’s substance.  This program’s genuflection to Haydn comes with his popular D Major Piano Concerto which dates from some years after the Mozart we are hearing.   The overture that German-born, Swedish-resident and almost-exact Mozart contemporary Joseph Martin Kraus supplied to precede a performance of Voltaire’s Olympie in 1792 begins the MCO’s endeavours.

This program will be repeated on Sunday June 24 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.

 

Saturday June 23

MID-SEASON GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

For one night only, Anne-Sophie Mutter appears in this MSO mid-season celebratory concert, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  Sir Andrew Davis conducts the program, opening with Stravinsky’s homage to his great compatriot, Le baiser de la fee; not the complete ballet, but the 25-minute Divertimento of extracts from the original.  Davis closes out his celebrations with Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia espansiva and most striking of the composer’s six essays in the form.  Mutter is also playing host for Markings, a work for solo violin, strings and harp by the popular and active film-score composer John Williams that was premiered last year at Tanglewood, at which concert this gifted musician also worked her way through the Tchaikovsky concerto – as she will have done at three concerts, a week prior to this, in the Sydney Opera House.

 

Sunday June 24

STEVEN ISSERLIS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

As usual, nothing if not varied fare from the ACO.  At the core of the program sits the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat Major, one of the most famous in the repertoire, and a taxing piece to negotiate – at least, for the soloist.  The other pillar of orthodoxy comes at the end with Richard Tognetti taking his orchestra through the last Haydn symphony, No. 104, the London; thereby adding to our limited exposure to any of the last twenty or so in the composer’s output.  Alongside these come two world premieres.  Elena Kats-Chernin wrote A Knock One Night as a commission by Mirek Generowicz to commemorate his family’s fraught migration path to Australia.  Movements (for us and them) was composed by Samuel Adams, son of the American composer John Adams, to a commission from the ACO and Stanford Live; so far, I can’t find out anything about the rationale behind the work, which retains the mystery behind its enigmatic title.

This program will be repeated on Monday June 25 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday June 24

BREATH-TAKING AND FOUR HANDS

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Well, the performers may be puffed by the time they reach the end of this very varied night’s work.  Veteran oboist Anne Gilby  is partnered by one of the Team’s senior partners, Darryl Coote. as they wander all over the place.  Their tour takes in the Poulenc Oboe Sonata, one of the last pieces that the composer completed; Arnold’s Sonatina of 1951; Gabriel’s Theme from Morricone’s score for that spirit-numbing 1986 Roland Joffe film, The Mission; Schumann’s solitary composition for oboe, the Three Romances; Margaret Sutherland’s 1958 Sonatina; cellist/composer Caerwen Martin’s brief The Native Garden; and Carolyn Morris’s A Day in the Brindabellas.  As a leavening for this fare, Coote and Max Cooke play a couple of four-hand piano works: Mozart’s B flat Sonata and the Andante and Variations K.501.

 

Wednesday June 27

A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE ROMANTIC

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at 7:30 pm

For this reversion to the normal after the organization’s previous excursion into transcriptions/arrangements, Kathryn Selby is joined by violinist Andrew Haveron, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, and that orchestra’s co-principal cello, Umberto Clerici.  Both of these guests have appeared in previous years, so they would be well-informed about what Selby requires in her collaborators.   Each of them gets a duo showcase: Haveron plays the Mendelssohn F Major Sonata of 1838, the mature one; Clerici has the joy of taking us through Brahms’ F Major Sonata No. 2.  When the players combine after interval, they aim for the heights with the Schubert Piano Trio in E flat: one of the last of the composer’s completed works and an ever-welcome, ever-moving experience.

 

Thursday June 28

KOLJA BLACHER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

These events have been taken over in previous years by the MSO’s concertmasters, but this time round, regular guest Blacher has taken on the task of curating and leading this particular MRC program.   He will play the solo violin line for Beethoven’s G Major Romance No. 1 of 1802, then directs a reading of the same composer’s Symphony No. 1, published in the preceding year.  Blacher begins with what I hope is the overture only to Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; as the publicity stands, there is no specificity about what piece(s) will be performed from that rich score which conditioned reactions to the play for generations.  Blacher really hits his front-of-band straps for the Bernstein Serenade, which the composer built on Plato’s Symposium, that personality-rich celebration of love; the composer’s five movements take their inspiration from dialogues and monologues spoken by seven of the characters who attended Agathon’s famous 4th century B.C. celebratory party.

 

 

 

 

 

To begin, the usual kerfuffle

THE HARPIST: XAVIER DE MAISTRE

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 12

                                                                             Xavier de Maistre

In one of the most publicized ABO events for some time, French harpist de Maistre gave lavishly of his talents in Boieldieu’s C Major (ostensibly) Concerto, following this with two transcriptions of well-known Spanish pieces and one of his signature offerings in an arrangement (I presume, his own) of Smetana’s Vltava – well, a good deal of it, although the Country Wedding  polka from bars 122 to 177 disappeared completely and certain parts of the river’s progress to Prague disappeared for the sake of some flashy cadenzas.

At the evening’s start, the players came onstage and for once, I thought, we would be spared the customary address from artistic director Paul Dyer.   Sadly, no; we were yet again subjected to a plethora of laudatory adjectives: two ‘spectaculars’, a ‘marvellous’, three ‘wonderfuls’, two ‘most beautifuls’ plus a ‘really beautiful’, a ‘most spectacular’, a ‘really incredible’, a ‘real treat’, a ‘gorgeous’ and a ‘most moving’.  It was hard to keep up with the flow and so I might have missed a few stray self-encomiums.

It was obviously going to be a night of superlatives  –  but then, it always is.  As for actual information as opposed to hyperbole, it was thin on the ground.  The soloist lives in Monaco with his wife and young daughter; he gets to see them for only a few months of his professionally active year.  Also, we would be hearing Ravel’s Pavane  pour une infante defunte on period instruments, ‘probably for the first time’ – and this was a notable experience because . . . ?  At all events, we were promised a sort of historical tour.  And we got one, although little of the changes were rung by the ABO itself.  Mozart’s Symphony No. 20 in D dated from 1772; C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony No. 1 was written in 1775-6; the harp concerto comes from 1800.  Granted, the Ravel scrap was composed in 1889 but its introduction to this program, given the ABO’s specified operational territory, was aberrational.

Unless my note-taking was a fault, Dyer had referred to Mozart in his opening address as ‘this little protege’, although of whom I am still in doubt.  Anyway, the performance featured Dyer accompanying his orchestra on the harpsichord which, for much of the time, was inaudible.  He might have expended his energies better in restraining the horns’ volume which drowned out the violin action for far too much of the energetic first Allegro.  Certainly, the work was played first-up but you might have expected better tuning from the oboes in a hall that was by no means cold.

The same problem arose in the Andante where the solo flute, doubling the first violins an octave higher, was marginally off-pitch.  Despite the verve in the string attack at its opening, the finale was weighed down by the emergence of the wind in bar 5, so much so that the presto speed that set up expectations was dragged back into more of a jog-trot.  Here again, the brass were over-encouraged;  God knows, their parts are simple enough, so there’s not much point in drawing attention to them by braying.

We also enjoyed a harpsichord continuo in the Boieldieu concerto; none of the four performances to which I have access use a keyboard, but let that pass.  De Maistre has great talent and a fine fluency, yet his outline of the first movement Allegro brillante impressed as wayward; on occasions, small passing notes didn’t sound in his instrument’s upper register, and both he and Dyer played around with the music’s metre, on occasions suggesting a practice of Chopinesque rubato that came into play a couple of decades down the chronological track.  This proved even more noticeable in the short Andante lento where the strings stuck to their last by employing no vibrato.  Both this middle segment and the attacca-linked Rondo finale were in C minor, the latter a fine sample of excellent interplay between soloist and orchestra with very few discrepancies at post-cadenza entries.

Matters hadn’t improved much for the oboes in the post-interval C.P.E. Bach work, a balancing compensation coming from a splendid crispness in the string attack on the work’s stop-start mode of address.  In fact, both groups of violins enjoyed the curt flamboyance of this work’s first movement which played itself along with minimal direction, although Dyer leaped up for an attention-grabbing gesture about 9 bars before the brief (26 bars) middle Largo began.  This hiatus gave fine exposure to the matched timbres of first flute Melissa Farrow doubling Monique O’Dea’s lead viola, and second flute Mikaela Oberg in partnership with principal cellist Jamie Hey.

The concluding Presto also almost plays itself, with only two fermata points to stem the flow, both controlled with fair success by concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen.  As with the concerto, this finale impressed as the work’s most convincing segment – for its innate energy, yes, but also for the interest generated by the performers’ approach to dynamics and the score’s appealing restlessness.

The Ravel Pavane begins with a horn solo – not hard to negotiate but uneven when performed on a period instrument using crooks.  Apart from this oddity, the reading sounded very much like that you might hear from any other chamber orchestra, although I can’t recall any clarinets.  You could have welcomed some more strings to give this placid piece some contrasting vitality in the middle G minor pages.  The fade-to-black at the end struck me as gauche, an unnecessary pictorialization of the dead infanta’s state of being (or non-being).

Enter de Maistre with his solo bracket.  He began with the Spanish Dance from Falla’s La vida breve (1904-5) which was brightened up with a clutch of passing glissandi and generally managed to transfer the infectious rhythmic contrasts of the orchestral original.  A guitar classic, Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (1896), produced the most intriguing music of the night from this artist with some feather-light tremolo work and a dangerously soft dynamic in some passages that had you holding your breath in admiration.

You could find much pleasure in sections of the Smetana tone poem (composed in 1874); in fact, the opening trickling up to the main theme’s initial exhaustion was very deftly handled.  De Maistre spiced up the score with some cadenza-like flurries and gave us a fine line in harmonics in the A flat nocturne at the work’s centre.  Still, you missed the excitement of the St. John’s Rapids section where the orchestra frets and fumes with gusto, while the glorious Vysehrad appearance near the work’s end was necessarily under-powered.  For all that, this was an impressive demonstration of technical skill and informed responsiveness to a marvellous sequence of musical depictions of landscape, made all the more remarkable when you have a look at the original’s wafer-thin harp part.

 

 

 

 

Sensitive, sincere but not for everybody

SPIRIT WIND

Derek Jones

Move Records MD 3423

I don’t know what to make of this disc.  It consists of 7 tracks, improvisations for flute, synthesiser, high-pitched bells with Peter Neville contributing the occasional gong-induced sound.   Obviously, it is a labour of love for Jones, who has recorded another CD along these lines: Sun Down Moon Up which dates from 2008.  In broad terms, this is ambient music, not made for analysis but for an uncritical mind to indulge in its soporific progress.  What seems to be happening is that Jones uses the synthesiser as a mood-setting with the percussion employed to vary the backdrop while the flute (concert and alto on one track) plays its calm meditations on top.

The player/composer aims ‘to bring particular ‘experiences and thoughts into sound and to express inner feelings through the form of musical sound scapes’.  And that’s fine, as long as you are prepared to accept that music can do that.  Some of us are incapable of accepting that Jones can realise these aspirations.  ‘For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.’  Thus spake Stravinsky in 1936, before he enjoyed the inestimable gift of being intellectually and linguistically filtered by Robert Craft.   But he was right then and, to my mind, remains so.

Of course, you can go along with any composer and swallow entirely what (s)he says (s)he is telling you, although words are the only sure method by which you can be sure of the relevance of what you are hearing to the composer’s stated intentions; you don’t believe in Till’s execution unless you know that Strauss wants you to picture the scene; but you’d be ready to believe in Cavaradossi’s despair because he tells you about it.  Without verbal or written direction, we all flounder to attach specific emotional interpretations to music.

Jones begins his spiritual odyssey with Journey to Serenity – an attempt ‘to show the place of arrival where one experiences a great sense of unity and tranquillity.’ The flute enters over a soft synthesizer background centred around B flat Major; the chords change slowly, so the solo line has space to curvet and meander around a pretty limited set of notes although Jones uses a pretty full instrumental compass.  It’s somehow reminiscent of The Lark Ascending but without the broad, open spaciousness of that tone-poem’s development.  It also serves as a kind of Occidental take on Eastern meditation music; nothing is happening to engage the musical intellect but your aural sense is bathed in an amiable sonorous sequence that is devoid of events. After not too long a time you can almost predict the harmonic shifts – which, I’m afraid, lowered my interest/involvement level even further.

Jones pairs Journey to Serenity with the CD’s last track, Blue Star, which is presented as ‘lighting up our path towards the final goal and destination’.  The melodic path shows a more adventurous edge here and the synthesizer suggests a subdued choral texture  rather than strings.  Also adding some textural interest is what sounds like Peter Neville stroking a gong around its edge with a stick, although the effect is subject to some modification so it’s hard to discern the true nature of this complementary colour.  At all events, the musical path wanders across quite a few concordant sequences before concluding in a quiet B minor.

The second track, Violet Rays, starts out with a synthesizer version of the Gregorian chant, Pange lingua gloriosi, stated fairly plainly.  When Jones’ flute enters, it takes off on a path that I can’t reconcile with the chant which emerges again on the synthesizer just before the 3 minute mark.  The ambition here is cosmic; an  ‘observation of the human condition.’  The chant emerges once more en clair on the synthesizer but the flute’s slow-moving melismata add little to my differentiation between ‘the good and dark qualities being played out in the world’.  The Pange returns for the last time while the flute concludes with a C sharp minor triad.   It’s hard to draw a link between Aquinas’ hymn celebrating the Eucharist with the piece’s philosophical intent, but that’s not to say there isn’t one.

Meditation and Distant Bells, the third and sixth improvisations,  share a common platform: the visualization of musicians ‘improvising in an ethereal space’ – an image that is quite attractively presented, even if the flute is the only real line that does much.  In Meditation, the synthesizer provides a B drone and some intermittent sounds suggestive of a sitar add another element of a rising or falling 2nd to the mix.  Distant Bells opens with more of the sitar-like sounds (which by now are sounding like plucked piano strings) before the flute enters. Some bells add a fetching colour to the familiar drone backdrop.  In fact, this piece is more definitely ordered in its shape, along the lines of a short-versicle long-response pattern.  Sadly, my attention was wandering into irrelevant regions by the end, which bore an unfortunate similarity to the five-note motif that dominates the climax of Spielberg’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

To Bliss commemorates the flautist/composer’s experience of his father’s death nine years ago and fuses an alto flute line with the concert flute, signifying a conversation between father and son.  Distant high bells give a piquant edge to the dialogue.  The disc’s shortest track, it is easily the most effective and affecting: an eloquent in memoriam that leads to a consolatory F Major optimistic ending.

Finally, Night Sky comes with more lofty aims – ‘to show the tendency to feel the sense of separation in our human condition, and our need and yearning to find our true place in this world.’   Jones writes that this piece is based on the hymn tune Forty Days and Forty Nights and you can perceive its elements off and on in the flute line, while fragments emerge in the soft choral-reminiscent synthesizer backing.  This is demonstrably nocturnal music, in terms of its projected mood – but you could say much the same about most of the album’s content.

While I find it hard to come to terms with the propositions that underpin Jones’ improvisations, the player’s command of register and articulation is admirable.  His transitions from middle to high ranges cannot be faulted and, if the music itself follows a conservative, if not diatonic path for much of the time, the actual sound of flute and synthesizer in partnership is vivid and sensitively recorded.   It’s not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

 

 

 

Time for a change?

JAZZ & BLUES

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 7

                                                    Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

One of the finest talents in Melbourne’s violin world, Markiyan Melnychenko is a delight to hear whenever he takes to the stage, whether in chamber works, as a soloist, or presenting a straight recital, as on this night when, once again, he worked with his mother Oksana through an hour’s music rich in variety: 14 movements with only one work expressly written for the violin/piano format.

I can imagine that, in his work at the Faculty of Music in the University of Melbourne (or the Conservatorium of Music .  .  .  or whatever seasonal change in nomenclature is being applied this week to that amalgam of the white building next to the Grainger Museum in Royal Parade and the brick building next to the white building in St. Kilda Road), Markiyan would be an outstanding teacher.  He has youth and enthusiasm on his side, and it doesn’t hurt that his technical ability shows no flaws, regardless of whatever the repertoire he engages.

But I’m not sure about the success of this partnership, simply in terms of the product achieved.  Oksana plays with security and an obvious awareness of what her responsibilities entail, yet the collaboration impresses as uneasy; not exactly lop-sided but not far from it.  On Monday’s program of incidental music by Korngold for Much Ado About Nothing, then four of Heifetz’s selections from Porgy and Bess, followed by the Ravel Violin Sonata, winding up with more  Gershwin/Heifetz in the Three Preludes, the instrumental balance waxed and waned uncomfortably, to most obvious effect in the brilliant sonata.

The work began well enough, with a restrained dynamic on both sides, although the piano’s first left hand passage erred on the side of insistence rather than titillation.  But climaxes like the build-up and arrival at Rehearsal Number 9 in the Durand score were keyboard-dominated, to the point where the violin’s 20 bars of tremolo were hard to discern for quite a while.  Now, it’s well-known that Ravel didn’t go out of his way to give expression markings; hence, performances of famous works like this sonata, the G Major Piano Concerto and the Piano Trio contain whole pages where the interpreters have to work out their phrasing and attack style in mind-numbing detail and hold many moderation sessions concerning dynamics.  It’s a matter of finding what works best for you and your partner(s).  With this performance, it struck me that more needed to be done inside these parameters.

The following Blues promised well, Markiyan a deft hand with the pizzicato ten-bar introduction, and Oksana began sensibly enough, imitating the previous string chords, but the texture turned over-weighty a bar after Number 3 where the piano has the lead – for a while – and the subtle syncopations at Number 6 where the piano makes a virtue out of a silent first beat in pivotal bars came across as studied, not throwaway rhythmic flicks. The fortissimo marking at Number 9 which carries through for 25 bars before a triple forte mini-explosion proved wearing, a barrage where even the harmonic shifts failed to provide relief.

The Perpetuum mobile finale also opened effectively, Markiyan getting off to an engrossing start on his semi-quaver packed progress towards the final quadruple-stop chord.  Throughout the movement’s main body, Oksana took the lead, mainly I suppose because the violin is busy following its relentless but increasingly exciting path while the keyboard has the motivic/thematic content.  Yet the movement turned into a slog, the dynamic temperature at its peak fare too early and any sense of elation leached because of the prevailing inexorable dynamic.  The occasional piano inaccuracy didn’t help.

In contrast, the Heifetz arrangements were much more successful.  The great violinist played fair and gave his accompanist something approaching equal status, although he exercised his anticipated dominance with attention-grabbing octaves and harmonics.  The Porgy and Bess excerpts began with Summertime – the most magical opening to an opera that I know.  Oksana relished the moody chain of chords that underpin the solo soprano/violin, Heifetz taking delight in sharing the labour of Gershwin’s moving harmonic shifts across the last six bars or so.

A few octaves seem to be slightly ‘off’ during the episodic passages of My Man’s Gone Now, at about bars 15 to 18 but the reading held plenty of power.  You might have wanted a less hefty approach at the centre of Bess, You Is My Woman where, in the opera, both singers come into duet but the final bars made up for any shortcomings with their splendid lyrical resolution.  Most of the interest for It Ain’t Necessarily So fell on Markiyan’s faultless pitching even when ‘bending’ his notes in the best Cab Calloway fashion.  It would have been a kind gesture to us Gershwin enthusiasts to perform the complete set of Heifetz arrangements with A Woman Is A Sometime Thing but we should be grateful that the Melnychenkos resurrected these four pieces that seem to have disappeared from recitals, even as encore materiel.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes, as Markiyan observed, have more Latin-American dance rhythms in their outer segments than jazz, but the central Andante is a great blues, one of the composer’s most simple and moving set of pages.  These also, thanks to Heifetz, share the labour and these performers rollicked through them with enthusiasm.  Oksana got the final bass note of the middle prelude wrong, quietly correcting it, but hit further trouble in the final Allegro‘s middle section where the insistent E flat minor tonality gives way to some fast chromatic creeping upwards which to these ears sounded uncertain in delivery.

As Markiyan admitted at the event’s opening, of the four works programmed, the Korngold pieces had least relevance to this recital’s title: you could find no jazz in them, and blues were out of the question.  The composer’s neatly structured lyric Maiden in the Bridal Chamber made a mild start to the recital, although Markiyan’s finely curved melody line made its customary favourable impression. The March of the Watch (Dogberry and Verges) is meant to be musical mock-heroic comedy but gave the evening’s first inkling that, while one player was aware of the fun attached to the play’s base mechanicals, the other had a more aggressive take on the scene.

The Garden Scene was a specialty of Miki Tsunoda and Caroline Almonte in their Duo Sol days and is a finely-spun instrumental song with a ravishing passage in harmonics and an avoidance of sentimentality as witnessed by the aggressive mood before the final transformation of the main theme.; its old-fashioned Romantic heart-on-sleeve attractiveness made for one of this recital’s high points.  As for the final Hornpipe, this was a bounding, athletic construct that could have come from a young Grainger with its happily exuberant echoes of British folk-music.  Both players had no problems with these boisterous pages which they accomplished with generous breadth and accurate synchronicity.

 

 

Seek and ye may find

THE CALLING

Afrolankan Drumming System and Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Sunday May 6

                                           Adam Simmons backed by Vikram Iyengar

Continuing his five-part hegira in search of a utilitarian justification for writing/making/listening to music, Adam Simmons fronted his own ensemble of twelve and brought in a brace of drummers – Ray Pereira and Kanchana Karunaratna – to give us an odd travelogue; partly psychological, partly geographical, fully emotional.  In The Calling, Simmons is documenting a trip he made to Sri Lanka two years ago, a visit to that troubled nation which came about from a wish to explore his own heritage, emanating from his mother who is Sri Lankan-born.

As usual, the hour-long odyssey was divided into parts; in this case, eight of them.  Probably the longest came first: The Calling which opened with a drum duet from the guests that exemplified the split  personality of their work as exemplified in their name.  Pereira stuck to the African percussion – djembe, dundun and, by way of Cuba, the conga – while Karunaratna played Sri Lankan drums – the ubiquitous gata bera and the thammattama two-part cluster.  Nearly every one else involved processed on while playing – Simmons and two saxophones, a pair of trumpets with trombone, two double basses and four percussionists with Peter Lawler playing a space drum although I didn’t see him at work on it, possibly because of my seat’s line of vision.

Matters moved, as they do in these concerts, to a determined climax or six, the various segments fooling you into believing that you had missed the cut-off points between movements.   But no: the performers oscillated between what looked like free improvisation over a percussive lynch pin and near-unison chorus passages where the melodic material could have been Sri Lankan or original.  This was energising to witness, even if the Afrolankan drumming brought back memories of a long-ago visit by Les Ballets Africains which remains the non-pareil in my experience of cross-rhythmic percussion brilliance.

The second movement  –  got the ticket? get the ticket?  –   consisted of all musicians repeating that particular couplet in unison while rubbing or lightly smacking their hands together.   Explanation? Well, it provided a textural change of scene even if the context remained elliptical.  It could have been an injunction to us all to get on board because the journey proper then began with another instrumental movement, Place: The Pearl which, from memory, appeared to represent the feel-good chaos of life anywhere on the sub-continent, not just on the streets of Colombo or Kandy.

A film dominated the fourth segment – Train: Nurawa Eliya to Ella – which showed some of the sights between those two towns in the highlands as shot from a train.  While the visual content was black and white, the accompaniment was strong on mimicry of train sounds, brass and reeds combining for some deafening train whistles while the percussion ran through a small gamut of accelerations and decelerations.

Living: The dance of Kattu Rati passed me by without leaving a mark; not as remarkable, the name of the postulated dancer has eluded my researches.  Another film – Train: Ambalangoda to Galle –  documented another trip, about half the distance of the previous one and along the nation’s south-western coast.  You’d be hard pressed to distinguish this from its predecessor in musical terms.

Connection: The Tooth of Buddha took us back to the mountains, to Kandy where the relic is held and venerated.  The film material here proved confusing, resembling an op-art cartoon/construct from the 1960s.  The music resolved into an extended, frenetic solo by Simmons where the accent was on his instrument’s physicality and the multiplicity of sounds it could generate when the player uses over-blowing as a primary mode of sound manipulation.  This, the high-point of the journey, was acoustically scouring stuff, delivered straight into the audience’s communal face like a call to arms; so powerful, in fact, that the lady sitting in front of me had to cover her ears.

While this vehement soliloquy was in train, dancer Vikram Iyengar shadowed Simmons, holding him by the waist, then by the legs, finally resting on the bent-over player, then returning the compliment.  Here, I think, The Calling was answered and the composer/performer came closest to articulating the intensity of his reaction to an unexplored facet of his heredity.  It seemed like a fusion of the ecstatic headiness that mystical/religious experiences can cause (and the Buddha’s Tooth is, above all, housed in a most holy site) and the expressive powers that a dedicated musician can find in carrying out his work, particularly in the field of jazz and/or high-flying improvisation.

Simmons’ Epilogue: Ice-cream, tuk-tuks and cricket offered a sort of descent from the mountain with all performers settling in to a celebratory dance; infectious and exciting to hear at these close quarters but challenging   –  the sort of thing where you’d be scared to get up unless you knew the requisite gestures and motions.

At the end, you were left wondering about what the experience was meant to achieve.  Simmons is sharing ‘some of my searchings’ – about his identity, his family, his home ground – and this process would have been of great significance and worth for him.  But, apart from The Tooth of Buddha section, a good deal of The Calling presented as over-excited, as though the listener had to be bludgeoned into entering into the world that Simmons was showing us.  This is not to infer that the temperature was white-hot from go to whoa, although the moments of placidity were very welcome when they came, in particular, a gentle susurrus from Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on keyed percussion, and a moment or two of quiet interchange between the basses of Howard Cairns and Miranda Hill.

So, in the end, The Calling was of use principally to Simmons, although he does hope ‘to prompt others to consider their own connections.’   Mind you, patches of the music-making made for powerful sonorous fabrics even if it becomes hard to determine how much of the eventual effect of the group’s output en masse is contrived – that is, conceived to sound pretty much the same each time –  and how much is the product of individual input. Still, what I like about Simmons’ events is the passion and conviction that he transmits through his work; not so much through his spoken introductions and post-performance addresses which sometimes threaten to fade into an unsettling silence.

 

Venerable bodies, fresh clothes

ALCHEMY

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew

Wednesday May 2

                                                                 Vesa-Matti Leppanen

In the current serious music habitat, nothing succeeds like the expected.  A case in point is this latest recital from Kathryn Selby and her kaleidoscopic family of Friends.  One of the more intriguing programs of this year’s five, the event began and closed with arrangements by Theodor Kirchner, friend of Schumann and Brahms (among others) and a master of his particular craft.

Now, at the S&F initial recital back in March, the musicians worked through an all-Beethoven diet, most of its elements chosen by a patrons’ poll.  As a consequence, the Tatoulis Auditorium was close to packed as clients heard yet again the Spring Violin Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata and the Archduke Trio: all scores familiar right through to the last note and justifiably well-loved.

Attendance numbers were only respectable for last Wednesday’s recital which had Selby back in operation at a firmly projecting Kawai instrument, well-honed guest cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and a new face to me in Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  Those of us who went along enjoyed Kirchner’s transcription of the Six Pieces in Canonic Form by Schumann, the Brahms String Sextet No. 1 in a piano trio version by Kirchner, and Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 2 – a carefully constructed work yet nowhere near as well-known (i.e., as popular) as the composer’s first Trio in D minor.

Schumann wrote his Six Pieces for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano; this means that you rarely come across the score being played in its original format.  This arrangement is a splendid example of Kirchner’s flexibility, even if the material he had to deal with wasn’t exactly spartan in its formality.  The first Bachian piece offers a canon at the octave with a functional pedal-bass line, and the arrangement shuttles the semiquaver-filled interweaving canonic lines between all three instruments.  The disposition of material gets more complex in the second exercise, as does the supporting harmonic matter yet the arrangement serves as a textural clarification as Kirchner employs contrasting timbres to emphasize the polyphonic interplay which, on a piano, can easily become muddy.

The third piece begins and ends with a pianistic flourish that would be hard to replace but the subsequent canon at the fifth with a mobile nervous supporting figuration is a gem that passes all too quickly.  Next comes a song without words in ternary form where the return of the initial material is carried off with a skill that impresses and touches.  The fifth invites pizzicato but the arranger sustains the subject’s primacy while the final essay – like its predecessor, a canon at the 5th – is a striking B Major adagio with the pedal line entering more fully into the complex than at any previous stage.

In this performance, Selby walked a fine line between over-prominence and self-effacement, particularly when her colleagues controlled the focal material.  Valve and Leppanen make a fine complementary pairing, the cellist a firmly projected presence in contrast with Leppanen’s clear and unforced line, a mobile delight in the more rapid canons and informed by a graceful benevolence in the second and sixth movements.  As Selby indicated, the original takes on a new personality in the trio format; if anything, the effect is more immediately appealing, so much so that, if you wish, the canons can be ignored after their first statement.  In this instance, the pieces gained from the timbral interplay, of course, but also from the performers’ individuality in performance.

The Russian work offers more cohesion than its better-known D minor companion but the composer’s individual voice emerges with strikingly comparable determination.  Both string players have to cope with long stretches of playing at the octave in the first movement and, while most of the time this can be the cause of gritted teeth for a listener, here the uniformity sounded true, close to faultless.  When the lines diverged for the Romance/Andante, the contrast in attack showed up strongly, Valve more immediately ardent but the violinist saving his powder for the high tessitura bars that open the movement’s coda.

Selby proved the dominant voice in this particular trio, nowhere more than in the Scherzo/Presto where the keyboard leaps across its range, attracting attention even when the action ostensibly falls to the strings.  For the concluding set of variations, the honours are shared more evenly in the central segments but the piano carries all before it – well-Selby certainly did – in the jubilant sixth variation with its exuberant keyboard reinforcement of everything that is happening.  At the end, you were glad to have heard the trio – in my case, for the first time in live performance – but you would need to experience it with players of this calibre to make it worth hearing again.

For quite a few of us, I believe, the Brahms sextet arrangement came as a mixed blessing. The work is a buoyant affirming joy in its outer movements where the melodic fluency impresses further on each encounter, yet it took a while to adjust to this new setting where the capacity for different allocations of responsibility is greater than in the Schumann Six Pieces.  In fact, it wasn’t until the re-statement of the opening subject at bar 43 that a sort of reconciliation with the new order came into play.

As things turned out, interest fell less on who had been entrusted with what but more on the details that emerged from this new sound scape, particularly from the piano in the first two movements when you were suddenly struck by many note groups that are subsumed into the comfortable string mesh of the original.

A double-stop that seemed to lead nowhere was the only unsettling moment I heard in Leppanen’s first movement work, soon offset by his civilized stentorian approach to the Andante‘s variations.   Mind you, this section of the work came close to ideal in terms of emotional congruence between all players.  You were also hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo, a stolid gem that bridges Schubert and Mahler.

But the final Rondo made a fine capstone to this surprising, novelty-rich night, including a moving dying fall for the strings from about bar 266 onward.  No, you can’t improve on Brahms’ score for sonorous warmth and wide emotional breadth but this performance conveyed a fine facsimile of the sextet, performed with a consistent burnished virtuosity.

 

 

An individual voice having fun

CUTETUDES

Ke Lin

Move MD 3419

This CD contains works by Australian writer Julian Yu and features pianist Ke Lin, a friend of the composer and a devoted, eventually dogged interpreter.  The first 20 tracks are mini-pastiches, written as a contemporary Album for the Young and possibly to inspire Lin’s daughter in her piano studies.  She’d have to be very proficient to take on some of these pieces that combine cuteness with studies – well, that’s what the neologistic CD title intends to say.

As for the other, more substantial pieces on offer, a few are sort of familiar, namely Yu’s re-interpretation of the Promenade and Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with three original pieces – Impromptu, China Rhapsody (the lengthiest constituent at a tad over 10 minutes) , The Happy Couple Returns Home – and an arrangement of a symphonic movement by Yasushi Akutagawa, the second part of his Music for Symphony Orchestra from 1950.

Two of these longer pieces appear to have been written/arranged for this CD, namely The Happy Couple Returns Home and the Akutagawa movement.  Yu’s Impromptu dates from 1982, well before the composer migrated to Australia, and was recorded by Lisa Moore in 1992.  The Rhapsody has apparently been left alone since 2012 when it was premiered by Jiangang Wu  at the Sydney Opera House.   But the Mussorgsky is harder to trace; Yu made an arrangement of the original masterpiece for piano in 2001 when he scored it for sixteen players or chamber orchestra – in fact, I seem to recall hearing it (or parts thereof) during a Pro Arte/Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event at a Federation Square concert.  The piano version was organised for Ye Sisi to play at her graduation concert in the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts in mid-2007; when I say ‘it’, I’m guessing that we’re hearing only part of the complete piano reconstruction on this CD because the Promenade and Great Gate are described as  ‘Oriental version excerpts’.

Still, the obvious emphasis in this enterprise falls on the Cutetudes, which are aphoristic (the longest is 3’12”, the shortest 0’43”) and packed with references or spoofs – so much so that your attention is taken up with recalling the classics (and others) that Yu cites, amalgamates or runs on top of each other.   Condensed Prelude offers an impressionistic variant of The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Book 1 C Major Prelude; Two Swans under Two Moons presents Beethoven’s Moonlight under Debussy’s Clair de lune, before the Scene from Swan Lake  precedes Saint-Saens gift to Pavlova – all very gentle and knitted together with subtlety.  The Liebstod precedes the D flat love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet while the Dies irae chant also gets a mention in Compound Tragedy.   A Phone Call to Mozart depicts the composer trying to write his own A Major Sonata but being interrupted by a ring-tone that bears a resemblance (for me) to a theme from Till Eulenspiegel.

What for Elise? begins with Beethoven’s famous bagatelle before deviating to the Radetzky March, flirting with a boogie bass line, flashing into Happy Birthday, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance,  flirting with the Ode to Joy, indulging in a burst of mitteleuropaische kitsch, moving back to the original A minor by means of Mozart’s sonata in that key, then detouring for a gentle/manic interlude featuring Leise flehen,  Boccherini’s MinuetJingle Bells, the William Tell Overture’s galop,  followed by a soupcon of the second movement to Schubert’s Great, the merest whiff of Tales from the Vienna Woods, a snatch out of the Brindisi from Traviata, and somewhere in there a Liszt march that I can’t place.  It’s not particularly well-organized and you get just a few seconds to put your memory into gear, so the effect is of overload – clever, but jerky.

Yu takes on Schubert in Finished Symphony, toying with the Allegro‘s second theme from the B minor Symphony before moving to the finales of Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths to illustrate a consummation devoutly to be wished, accomplished through the final bars from the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto’s first movement.   He revives memories of digital aches and teacher terror with Czernissimo;  a wistful Why are Butterflies Sad?  fuses Schumann’s Warum?,  Grieg’s lepidopteral study and the Grave from the Pathetique Sonata with an unexpected sequence that inverts the melodic direction of Schumann’s slight piece.  Folk Tune on Bach is just that: a Cantonese-style tune on top of the bass to the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 – over before it has begun.

A touch of the Menotti about Interrupted Symphony has the noble four-square theme of the finale to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 interrupted by a telephone ring, an ambulance (not that convincing), somebody banging on the door, with Beethoven’s Fate motif finally thrown in to show the futility of persisting when everything conspires against you – at least, that’s how I read it.   A real transformation takes place in Dovetailed Interlude where motifs from Bach’s Cello Suites in G Major and E flat are superimposed in a meandering haze. Pachelbel’s most famous product comes in for a refreshing reappraisal in Oriental Canon, the ornate later variations given a pseudo-pentatonic flavour.  The composer moves into Mendelssohn territory with a setting of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the style of On Wings of Song.

Yu seems to have an obsession with Mussorgsky’s musical gallery because here comes another exploration: Harmonic Phrases at an Exhibition.  The Promenade theme is interrupted by Nun danket alle Gott, Clair de lune, a scrap from the Andantino in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Chopin’s E Major Etude from the Op. 10, the opening bars to Wagner’s Tristan. a bit of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the solo that begins Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and several other fragments I can’t recall.  Like the Fur Elise piece, you hear a lot, but here it is better put together.  God Save Hanon offers the famous first five-finger exercise as a support for the British national anthem

Another Hanon exercise follows, which allegedly revisits Saint-Saens’ The Swan and then Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book 1, although I only heard that book’s C minor Fugue subject.  The 24th Caprice turns into a Chinese melody during Paganini and the Hundred Birds, then both are played simultaneously.  Mozartian influences direct the following Rondo alla Twinka which again revisits Twinkle, Twinkle, here in the style of the famous A Major Sonata finale.   Prokofiev’s cat melody gets clever two-part handling in Caterpoint.  The series concludes with To Comrade Shostakovich which takes as its basis The Pioneers Plant chorus from the Song of the Forests Cantata, given fast motoric toccata treatment and spruced up with some quotations from other works by the Russian master.

Much of this series is charming and brisk; a slight amount of it is repetitive in that it says the same thing twice if not three times, and every so often the seams show through pretty obviously.   But Lin’s enthusiasm for the exercise is apparent, informed by a reliable, sometimes dazzling pianism only let down by a note (or two?) in his instrument’s treble that is slightly out-of-tune.   However, the work as a whole lives up to its title and is an attractive compendium for musicians, both experienced and amateur.

In contrast, the remaining tracks are agreeable experiences if several of them are also based on unoriginal material.   Impromptu is treble-centric from its opening, with liberal splashings of Debussy/Ravel colouring although the rhythm is suggestive of minimalist practice.   A sustained bass splash makes a momentary distraction from the upper-reaches work which fades into silence before a final statement of the piece’s chief motive.  It’s a fine study in one particular type of pianistic timbre and well worth hearing.

China Rhapsody draws on a background that I don’t have, referring as it does to traditional songs and other pieces of Chinese music; however, I feel that I could acquire the necessary knowledge pretty easily.    The opening is full of Liszt-style trumpet calls alternating with languor, employing melodies that are probably well-known in China.   Here, they serve the purpose of fleshing out Yu’s equivalent to a Hungarian rhapsody’s lassan although, the further this first segment progresses, the more occidental its harmonic language as the tunes are chromatically filled in.   The consequent friska is  –  of course  –  a presto with some jazzy syncopations, the work’s impetus held up for the glorification of a pentatonic tune before the excitement returns, suggesting Gershwin’s rhapsodies in their virtuosic clamour.   Finally, the climax is rich in fist-full flurries across the keyboard and has a fine 1930s glissando finish.

Taken from a Chinese Huangmei opera, The Happy Couple Returns Home was originally an aria; Yu offers a continuous set of variations on it.  The result is pleasant enough if the piece’s progress doesn’t move far from an E minor base – or a mode based on E.  Occasionally, an out-of-tune high A breaks your concentration; yet, to be honest, there is not much challenging matter here, the composer quite content to curvet around his melody without subjecting it to any rough treatment.

The Mussorgsky brace begins with an essentially straight reading of the initial Promenade while plenty of oriental decoration is imposed above Mussorgsky’s score; the most striking feature here is the employment of a rapid downward-scale whole-tone flourish.  For The Great Gate, Yu keeps the opening strophes restrained, the original cut down to thinner chords with plenty of filler to compensate for Mussorgsky’s bare semibreves and minims. The first chant interruption is striking and Yu employs his own brand of stentorian brashness after those quiet bars.   The second chant section shows little new except his penchant for tremolo.  I can’t see an improvement on the bell clangour that leads into the Promenade restatement and Yu’s downward arpeggios are a touch disappointing, although what he is leading into is not the original’s powerful clamour but a gentle orientalization before the tension of the striking final minim triplets comes through clearly.  Yu supplies some celebratory downward major scales, afterthoughts that bring the piece to a placid ending.   Both these treatments are not re-compositions but elaborations that stick pretty faithfully to their Mussorgsky fundamentals.

Finally, the Akutagawa transcription brought back memories from the early 1960s of the NHK Symphony Orchestra visit to Melbourne, conducted by (I think) Yuzo Toyama.  Some modern Japanese work was premiered then and, even at this distance, I recall a music more creative and striking than this busy but derivative movement which owes a good deal to 20th century Russian greats but amounts to little more than froth and bubble; exciting for the pianist, I’m sure, but its attraction for the youthful student Yu, working in Japan at developing his craft, is not shared by this listener.

You gain insights from this CD, although not from every one of its components.  Cutetudes is a jeu d’esprit and, like most of its school, has clear successes and other why-did-he-bother? moments.  But you get a clear impression of Yu’s sense of fun and, in the later tracks, an awareness of the rather welcome innocence and unclouded tranquillity that informs his musical intellect.

 

 

 

\