Third Stream, fusion, whatever – it worked

SKETCHES OF SPAIN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday April 11, 2022

Phil Slater

Winding up its current tour, the ACO gave its penultimate performance of this particular program to an enthusiastic QPAC audience; not packed to the ceiling, but respectably populated. This, the 10th time the players had presented this music, involved the usual 16-strong string body supplemented by percussionist Brian Nixon and a jazz quartet put to several uses: trumpet Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, bass Brett Hirst and drums Jess Ciampa.

The intention of this enterprise was to fuse the visiting quartet with the ACO and, for much of the night, the success rate was high. I didn’t see any use of the guests during the opening fragment: Bernard Rofe’s arrangement of the opening to Par les rues et par les chemins from Debussy’s Iberia which was tooling along very nicely, strings and percussion in clear-speaking action, when suddenly artistic director/concertmaster Richard Tognetti made an abrupt leap into his own arrangement of the middle Blues movement to Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for which the soloist took up a contemporary and oddly-shaped instrument. This brought in the visiting quartet tangentially at first, gaining in contributory power as the movement passed in what can only be described as an arranger’s delight. I felt that there was a balance problem a bar after Number 7 in the old 1927 Durand edition when the violin starts its quadruple stops pizzicati and Tognetti was not as striking a contributor as you’d expect, given the assault typical in the two million performances I’ve heard prior to this one.

This was followed by a Sephardic song from Turkey, Yo era nina de casa alta, also in a Tognetti arrangement, that began with a percussive tambour rhythm, cellist Julian Thompson taking up a guitar, while Tognetti outlined the tune. No sooner begun than over; sadly, the guitar proved close to inaudible from my seat, although it made more of an impression during the following reading of Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Mind you, in its original form, the string quintet imitates guitar, drums, bells; this interpretation came complete with its own extra-string sound sources. Nevertheless, Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve gave an excellent account of the Largo assai (Rosary) interludes with excellently judged dynamic balance, and this version did not attempt the crescendo/diminuendo during the concluding Ritirata which seems to have been an atmospheric flourish unknown to the composer.

To finish off the evening’s first half, we got our reminiscences of Spain through several filters in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet bits in a selection from the Russian composer’s near-pastiche ballet Carmen. This piece enjoyed a vogue for some time, one that I’ve never quite understood except that the absence of wind ensures that performances are economically frugal. The arrangement is for strings and percussion (four players, originally, but Nixon and Ciampa seemed to cope; perhaps you only need two players for the selections we heard). I missed a few tubular bells notes in the Introduction and found some of the vibraphone work muffled, but the interpretation from Tognetti and his strings was very smart and arresting with patches of brilliant accomplishment from both sets of violins. We missed out on the ‘Fate’ motive that concludes the opera’s Prelude and features in the ballet, but we did score the Farandole from L’Arlesienne masquerading as a bolero and another import from The Fair Maid of Perth for a Carmen-and-Torero scene.

Some other memorable moments came in the bare-bones version of Escamillo’s Votre toast – here eloquent in its restraint – and the use of three ideally matched violas to carry the melody of the opera’s Act 3 Intermezzo. Despite the nay-sayers and the nonsense started by Furtseva about the blasphemy carried out on Bizet, this work – even in its truncated form – is a scouring agent of sorts, taking you so far into familiar pages and then cutting the ground out from under your comfort-seeking feet. Still, it’s a long way from Spain – just like Boccherini’s attractively hygienic and Debussy’s buoyantly optimistic streets, not to mention Ravel’s sophisticated foray into le jazz hot.

Matters took a sharper trans-Atlantic turn in the two main post-interval performances. The guest quartet took centre-stage for a version of the last movement, Solea, in Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. This new arrangement was a collaboration between pianist McMahon and the ACO’s Artistic Administration Manager, Bernard Rofe, the latter’s craft previously encountered in the Debussy transcription. For my taste, the only interesting facet of the experience came through Slater who made a positive impression by following a Davis trail – meandering but always dominant; mind you, what I know of the great trumpeter comes from sixty-plus years ago and a high-school fascination with the Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue albums, while Sketches of Spain passed me by.

As the work moved forward, the collaboration on display seemed to improve in persuasiveness, reaching a high point in a twinning of the three violas with the band minus McMahon in a stretch that came somewhere near suggesting Spain and exhilarated for itself. One of the question marks over this exercise actually came with Slater’s ‘bent’ notes which stood out, strangers in a familiar landscape and not quite gelling with the string writing which, as far as I could hear, played no games with microtones. Still, the final decrescendo proved to be, without question, the program’s most magical passage: excellently paced, restrained and confident: an ease-filled release into nothing.

For some reason, the ACO planning committee decided to interpose a Victoria motet between the Davis/Evans movement and another McMahon/Rofe arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain. Well, it was one way of putting a real national composer in a menu that otherwise consisted entirely of outsiders looking in on the Iberian peninsula. From choppy memories, the 8-part Ave Maria sets two choirs against each other with bursts of echoes, imitations and dovetailing; here, the visitors seemed to become one quartet, the ACO strings playing the Choir 1 lines. For reasons I can’t explain, the arrangement worked well enough, although this might have come about because of its simplicity; but then, what could you possibly add to music at this level of textural clarity?

Corea’s widely-travelled work exists in several versions. What am I talking about: it can be heard in a myriad of forms, formats, combinations and permutations and I’ve heard a fair few, if some decades ago. On this occasion, McMahon set the scene with mildly coruscating solo work before he was joined by various collaborating bodies. Not that it was all piano, or all Slater, even if these players gave us the most intriguing music-making across this long piece – the program’s most substantial by far. Tognetti and Valve took the spotlight occasionally, but not for long as the focus shifted between jazz quartet (or trio) and the ACO. Despite its episodic shape, the work didn’t come over as diffuse, being anchored by a long melodic line/chorus that all played in unison or at an octave’s remove (or two of them).

In the end, Spain presented as so much of the evening’s work did: living up to the catch-all title of sketch. I couldn’t find much national flavour in the piece, let alone the vaunted references to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which are more explicit in Corea’s earlier interpretations of this score). But you might say the same about the Victoria motet, or the Sephardic cantiga – or anything else at Monday night’s concert. For all that fretting about provenance, the exercise itself was full of expert, interesting performances and the merging of two separate bodies succeeded a good deal more than some previous experiences I’ve attended, like Don Banks’ Nexus of 1971, or Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2019. All the same, I hope that we can now move on to new pastures: the ACO’s first two presentations this year have celebrated Piazzolla/South America and the great (or infamous, if you like) Latin American colonizer.

New consort in a crammed program

HOTHEADS AND LOVERS

Castalia

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 7, 2022

Louis Hurley, Chloe Lankshear, Philip Murray, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Amy Moore, Stephanie Dillon, Christopher Watson

There’d be those who think that we should always find room for another vocal consort; others might think that you’d need to be pretty good to start such a body, given the high standard of some ensembles these days. With regard to standards, I’m not talking about a creditable fact of musical life in Australia: the best that’s currently on offer here is several levels lower in quality than what’s coming out of England, America, the Baltic states and Japan. The first consort of voices that I ever heard live was that headed by Alfred Deller which performed in Wilson Hall (1964?) when I was an undergraduate; with very few exceptions, even from big-name internationals, it’s been downhill since then.

So I’m a tad jaundiced when such an ensemble announces itself, even when it arrives with lashings of enthusiasm. Here comes Castalia, taking its name from my favourite Delphic spring. This online recital seems to have been a recording of the group’s debut performance at the aMBUSH Gallery in Waterloo, Sydney on February 12 this year. Which rather surprised me, although it shouldn’t have; I was labouring under the pre-conception that this recital would be live, like most of the Australian Digital Concert Hall events that I experience. In looking up the ensemble’s website to identify the individual singers, matching names to faces, I came upon some ‘reviews’ of the February 12 program – published observations that, like so much similar writing these days, has nothing to do with criticism but more with offering ludicrously inflated praise alongside a dearth of information about the work attempted.

In an attempt to demonstrate versatility, the Castalia sextet gave us a mixture of the time-honoured and the very new (well, almost). We heard 21 pieces in all, two of them instrumental from theorboist/lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis; most of the madrigals emerged from across the Renaissance (surprise, surprise), with a throwback to Landini and a trio of throw-forwards – to American writer Caroline Shaw’s 2016 setting of a Renaissance text, to Italian historical tear-off Salvatore Sciarrino’s 2008 Rosso, cosi rosso, and to the still-desperately contemporary Englishman Michael Finnissy and his take on a mad scene, Quel ‘no’ crudel of 2012. Too much? Despite the pretty seamless co-ordination of personnel, the experience proved rather opaque as pieces melded into each other, despite the audience’s insistence on applauding every one. Castalia had organized its program in seven sections, but the temptation to clap when silence broke out was too great to be resisted.

As the first of their Dolcissimi collation, the group worked through Arcadelt’s Il bianco e dolce cigno, a solo female voice singing the verse through before the other three lines joined in for a restatement with lute underpinning; a gentle, modest first gambit. Gesualdo’s Luci serene e chiare made a telling platform for Chloe Lankshear‘s soprano; the work is not as difficult as some of the Prince of Venosa’s effusions and the five singers handled its demands with ease, making a fine passage out of the central homophonic O miracol d’amore across bars 38 to 40. Something went wrong in the later stages of Strozzi’s Silentio nocivo where all lines had their final turn with affetuose from bar 107 on; an early entry, possibly. Last in this opening group, Monteverdi’s Si ch’io vorrei morire lacked dynamic variety in its opening pages but an erotic suggestion from the second tenor line at Ahi bocca perked up a rather staid reading of this ambiguous marvel.

As an odd opening to the second grouping, Primavera, Martyn-Ellis performed the first of Piccinini’s chiaconne, which is agreable enough to be Spring-suggestive. One of my many defects is that I can’t read tablature but it seemed to me that this reading was a few variants short; as well, the soprano quaver (for want of a better word) runs occasionally suffered from a mis-step., and the final bars sounded tame. Both tenors (Louis Hurley, Christopher Watson) worked through another truncation in Landini’s Ecco la primavera with Lankshear providing a supporting tambour – the whole medieval intrusion negotiated very rapidly and gaining little by the tenor substitution for a more resonant bass timbre. Another Monteverdi rounded off this segment: Io mi son giovinetta. This is another buoyant and bouncy stream of inventive responses to a text (by Boccaccio?) with an ambiguous, possibly minatory ending.

Augelli opened appropriately enough with Casulana’s Vaghi amorose augelli, its original four vocal lines reduced to a middle register-rich duet for Stephanie Dillon‘s mezzo and lute. A clever balance followed with Settimia Caccini’s Cantan gl’augelli for which soprano Amy Moore was accompanied by Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, although I found this treatment to be pretty strict in metre but gifted with an elegantly contrived conclusion. The first of the three contemporary works ended this bracket: Caroline Shaw’s Dolce cantavi for three female voices to a text by a Renaissance contessa. In a pretty continuous chordal movement, the composer has produced a clever piece of mimicry, her piece distinguished by an individual modulatory quirk or two and slotting into its environment here with remarkable facility.

Up next, a Crudelta grouping, beginning with yet another solo, this time from tenor Watson with a rich bass support from theorbo for Giulio Caccini’s Amor, io parto. Yet another instance of contrasting rates of activity, this song impressed for its rhythmic curvaceousness with some intriguing ornamentation; was that a 1610 Vespers-type set of repeated quavers on the final A in bar 26? Strangely, the following Crudel acerba by Arcadelt came over as emotionally bland, despite an increased vocal expansion to a quintet with lute support. A pity, as the setting is a potentially sonorous plaint. Finishing the hard-done-by nature of this segment, the group presented an intriguing rarity by Sigismondo d’India: Se tu, Silvio crudel. After a solid solo from Lankshear, the madrigal broadened out into five parts and a textural contrast between rapid block chords and interleaving duets, the whole a dramatic highlight handled with some welcome urgency.

Who better than Gesualdo to kick off a set called Infiammare? Castalia gave a reliable reading of ‘Merce!’ grido piangendo, treating its chromatic shifts and shocks with excellent ease, making a sensible creature out of the infamous Moro, dunque tacendo bars (12-17) and sailing through the remarkable shifts that begin at bar 28. My only quibble came with the last chord which I would have liked to be sustained longer – a safe arrival after a whale of a journey. Sciarrino’s study in red asked for a vocal quintet (all singers bar Hurley), proving to be strong on glissandi and some pointillist bursts, the work heavily atmospheric, although I was left in the dark as to what was being achieved. Much the same for Finnissy’s restless duet with Lankshear and Moore chasing each other’s cues in a high tessitura with some squeals and squalls to unsettle your expectations. The composer’s vocabulary remains as fluent and acerbic as in earlier instrumental pieces that I’ve come across: these latter were extremely challenging to examine and penetrate, although the actual outcomes didn’t sound anywhere near as aurally confrontational as they looked. Strozzi’s L’amante modesto enjoyed brisk handling – and it is substantial, peppered with sudden changes in timbre and rhythm that might have brought out the best in all six singers if the lower lines like that of Philip Murray had been more clear in articulation. A slight error of timing disrupted the flow at about bar 121 but I couldn’t trace the fault.

The solitary occupant of a Tirsi e Clori segment was Monteverdi’s Rimanti in pace; a bit puzzling, as the dialogue of the madrigal is between Thyrsis and Phyllis. For this piece, Lankshear rested, as did Martyn-Ellis; they were sadly missed when some of the chord work impressed as skimpy, possibly due to passing uncertainty in the middle voices. But it is a solid work, demanding in its occasionally transparent scoring.

Finally, we came to Sospiri, beginning with Capirola’s Recerchar primo; not a really happy experience with some passages of uneven delivery and several muffed notes that proved too obtrusive to be ignored. First of the Verdolets, Quante dolceca amore, has been recorded by Watson who sang it with lute support. Both musicians demonstrated a well-honed partnership with a fetching breadth of phrasing throughout this short work. Then all singers joined in for Ultimi miei sospiri, a splendid sample of emotional self-flagellation couched in limpid and mobile textures that gave this recital-exhibition a well-honed, surprise-free ending.

Mellifluous stirring of memories

NORTHERN SERENADES

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Saturday, March 26 2022

Johannes Brahms

I’ve not been living in Queensland long enough to be sure of certain musical matters. One that preoccupies me currently is whether or not the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra has been a regular visitor to Brisbane. You can’t tell anything much from the last two years’ activity but I suspect that this body’s forays north of the Tweed might have been few and far between since it sprang into being in 2013. Or it might have performed in out-of-town venues and not had time to build up a public here; Saturday night found the Conservatorium Theatre about a third full.

Not that this is an indication of anything much. For years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played to small audiences in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall; the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra worked for some surprisingly small attendance numbers in its early days at the Melbourne Recital Centre; the sterling Selby & Friends series laboured to attract supporters to its recitals at Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew. And the list could be extended to take in other brilliant performers, both locals and visitors, who didn’t get the following they deserved for reasons both specific and vague.

I’ve heard the ARCO players at least twice in the past two years, both occasions through the good graces of the Melbourne (Australian) Digital Concert Hall. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, as this particular program proved time and time again. A good deal of their output was more mellow, less astringent than I’d expected, and details of their performance practice – pre-figured in a program booklet article by Hilary Metzger, as well as a prefatory address from co-artistic director/concertmaster Rachael Beesley – ensured that the ensemble’s output reflected musical mores from the situations and times in which some of the night’s composers found themselves.

We heard five works on Saturday evening, beginning with Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite of 1913 which turned out to be the most recent score performed. Another more taxing English work came with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for Strings, followed by Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade of 1887 which the composer arranged for small orchestra (double woodwind and horns, strings) in 1892 and this was in turn edited for string orchestra by American educator Lucas Drew – which latter version we heard as a pretty thick-textured substitute for the scintillating string quartet original. After interval came Beesley’s sister Shauna‘s arrangement of that much-transcribed gem, Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke from 1849 – the night’s odd man out. To end, the ARCO forces performed – for the first time in my experience – another Serenade for Strings by Victor Herbert, written in 1888. In other words, four of these pieces were written within 26 years of each other; one way of generating a focus, even if Holst’s buoyant stomps didn’t quite fit into the prevailing late Romantic ambience.

But, the St. Paul’s Suite makes an ideal opener for any string orchestra program with its direct action and minimal use of tricky production techniques. Beesley had her players swing with a hefty bounce into Holst’s opening Jig and generated some fetching passages like the second violins’ variant at Number 3’s key signature change in the old Goodwin and Tabb score of 1922, and an unflustered Piu mosso at Number 9. Well before this, however, you became conscious of this orchestra’s smooth output, making a welcome change to the usual steel-string clangour and bringing to the front of mind how conditioned we have become to hearing this score spun out with robotic precision and an overkill of the composer’s dynamic directions – something like aristocrats slumming it in the country, which is not the name of Holst’s particular game here.

Full marks to the second violins again for their Ostinato work with some seamless dovetailing, and a pliant 8-bar solo from Beesley that set up this brief segment’s outer melodic matter. The concertmaster was put to more hefty work in the Intermezzo: this suite’s high-water mark for me with its striking oscillation between lean melodic arches and full-bodied chords for nearly everyone 18 bars from the end. Then, The Dargason conclusion mirrored the opening Jig with its absence of try-hard urbanization, the only problem coming from the cellos and their announcement of Greensleeves a bar after Number 3 which was too faint to have much impact against the busy violas. Naturally enough, this was compensated for at Number 9 when the upper strings had their way with the tune, and the final pages were robust enough.

One of the evening’s finest stretches came with the Elgar work which somehow slotted easily into the group’s performance style. Each movement passed without unnecessary flurries, capturing the score’s eloquently graduated phrasing without pushing the short crescendo requirements into overdrive, the violins true in intonation across Elgar’s aspiring E Major melody at Letter C of the opening Allegro piacevole. Not that the intonation in both violin groups was faultless; the odd slightly-off notes could be discerned in the seconds’ second desk and an inexplicable quirk in the firsts arose often enough to be noticeable in ascending small scalar passages on the E string. But you could not have wished for a more sympathetic dying fall in this movement’s last five bars.

In terms of numbers, the ensemble ran 5-4-4-4-2. To my ear, the first violins would have gained from an additional body, especially as six names appeared in the program. But then, Rob Nairn was named as principal double bass and he was absent, leaving Marian Heckenberg and Chloe Ann Williamson to carry that line – which they did with conspicuous devotion and produced a fulsome support in high-tension passages. You missed the extra violin weight mainly at the divisi bars at Letter L of the Larghetto, which Beesley took at a proper pace; in this case, a fine cross of ruminative with ardent. Later, the players captured the Allegretto‘s calmly surging essence but kept their best for the final pages following the change to E Major, in particular the delectably spacious last chords that brought this short piece to a euphonious conclusion.

It might be based on Wolf’s own arrangement for orchestra but the Italian Serenade loses its bite when re-contexted. The ARCO musicians kept the movement fluent but the innate vigour of the original went walkabout as the tempo moved into galumphing mode and chromatic changes both inner and outer (for the first time, at bar 46 and onwards) seemed ironed out, an effect that recurred to even more unfortunate effect at the interlude between bars 130 and 160 where linear clarity is vital to prefigure the joyful explosion back to G Major at bar 161. We had a taste of the string quartet original when Drew dried out his forces for the cello recitatives starting at bar 303.

So the whole thing had its flashes, particularly during concordant passages at full pelt, and you enjoyed a muffled impression of this chamber music scrap’s ebullience, but you missed the pointillist detail and the expectation-scouring wit. Something similar came across in the Fantasy Pieces arrangement where Shauna Beesley gave us a new work. Of course, you could relish swathes of string texture as long as you forgot Schumann’s original (although even he was catholic in his stipulations admitting viola and cello to take the solo line, as well as the original clarinet). However, what you do with the piano accompaniment is crucial and Beesley’s version verged on muddiness. How could it be otherwise, given the relentless arpeggios, thick bass support and competitive doubling and canonic work that persists throughout all three pieces?

In fact, at this point you needed a corps that specialized in rhythmic precision and slashing, pointed right-hand technical prowess to unplug the lower strings’ processes. Not so much in the final Rasch und mit Feuer, but certainly the opening Zart und mit Ausdruck became blancmange thick, the solo/dominant line having trouble being discerned, despite the arranger’s efforts to give it continuous prominence. For sure, the middle Lebhaft fared better, although it seemed to me that the pace had slackened once the musicians had passed the key change to F Major’s first repeat.

I’d moved further back in the Conservatorium theatre at interval; otherwise, I might not have noticed that one of the first violins moved across to the seconds for this Schumann arrangement. Presumably, the top-middle line needed reinforcing, and it’s true that this subsidiary strand probably gains from extra weight. Still, the main themes at some points in all three pieces tended to become attenuated, not exactly disappearing in the mesh but coming close to it. Perhaps the arrangement needed a bit more daring to make it more effective; as things turned out, the exercise proved sonorous but bland.

Each movement of the Victor Herbert Serenade proved how successful a choice the work was for this ensemble. If you know the composer’s background, you’d be aware that there’s nothing complicated in his music-making. But it’s not just a chain of melting melodies; each of its five movements shows a clear format and a fine awareness of writing for strings. The ARCO players seemed to enjoy themselves right from the opening Aufzug with its Babes in Toyland-reminiscent outer march sections around a lilting, central meno mosso. As for the following Polonaise, the first violins set pretty much all of the running and managed to stay together for most of its duration, although sorely tested by a five-bar stretch at the centre of Herbert’s G Major Trio.

Commentators (the very few I’ve come across) find the influence of Wagner in this serenade’s central Liebes-Scene. Even when listening to American (and one German) recording, I couldn’t find much trace of Tristan, Lohengrin, or even Act 3 of Siegfried; Herbert’s melodic span is orderly and falls into easily assimilable phrase and sentence lengths, while his harmonic vocabulary rarely ventures far afield. Nevertheless, it’s an effective movement and gave an excellent chance for the ARCO cellos to shine four bars after Letter C as they outlined the main theme under the violins’ soft sextuplet patterns.

You could make the same observations concerning structure, melody and harmony about Herbert’s Canzonetta with its infectious first violin portamento in bar 3 – and beyond. A gently-paced interlude, this movement also was reminiscent of passages from Herbert’s musicals (judging from the few that I know, thanks to my mother’s devotion to Nelson Eddy) and not outstaying its welcome. At this stage, the ARCO ensemble came pretty close to recreating the overall sound-colour of a pre-World War Two small orchestra through its melodic lilt and supple pulse. Even the repetitious jig-finale found these performers undaunted by its relentless optimism which became more than a bit wearing by the time we reached the Con spirito at Letter H, followed by a Con fuoco, and yet another Piu mosso.

Nobody would claim this Herbert suite as a burst of bright light in the string orchestra’s repertoire. It has, nevertheless, an openness of language and a charm of address that should make it welcome as a leavening of the predictable diet of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Suk and even Elgar that makes up an all-too-staple diet for organizations without the facility to bring in woodwind and brass supernumeraries, as the well-funded Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra can.

As for the performance flourishes outlined by concertmaster Beesley and the Metzger essay, these sounded well-absorbed into the musicians’ technical vocabulary. Vibrato, portamento and rubato were all employed without fuss and, as far as I could tell, in appropriate situations. In this respect, the ARCO directors and members set an agreable example of how to suit yourself to the music you’re playing. Which makes life easier for all of us, worlds away from being constrained by a doctrinaire insistence on musical correctness: an inflammation of the aesthetic membrane that I class with Putin’s A History of Ukraine and our own prime minister’s podcast, Fighting Bushfires Out of Country.

Four pianos put to good use

SCARLATTI’S STEINWAYS AT MELBOURNE

Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3458

Being out of the scholarly musical world, I’m unaware of up-to-the-moment opinions concerning the use of modern instruments in the performance of baroque music. Dealing with anything earlier, I can understand a purist’s revulsion, for example, at hearing an estampie performed on a saxophone-and-drum-kit combination, or hearing a singer of Sting’s calibre attempting lute songs by Dowland. The aesthetic gorge rises. What about this double CD from the University of Melbourne’s piano guru where Scarlatti is given the full concert hall treatment on each of the four Conservatorium Steinways? The accompanying leaflet insists that selected sonatas have been assigned to specific pianos, depending on the characteristics of the scores and their appropriateness for the different instruments. The more time-honoured problem remains: is there a place for Scarlatti in the repertoire of a concert pianist, or should we let the 555 sonatas become the harpsichordist’s province only?

I’ve never had much patience with the strict nature of performance claims made by certain period instrumentalists; less of them are doctrinaire nowadays, compared to the fervour at work in the 1960s and 1970s when purity of delivery was the aim, if rarely achieved. It might be worth my carrying out a particular exercise that would involve going back through the archives and finding out exactly how many poor early music recitals/concerts I’ve experienced – everything from playing out-of-tune (‘I was using mean temperament!’) to complete absence of expression (‘ Vibrato was never authorized by Leopold Mozart’) to plain fluffed notes or whole phrases (‘Everyone knows that leap is impossible on the dulcian’). I’m sure that even the most cursory examination will show that the worst experiences have been at the hands of local musicians – who are quickest to cavil when you call them out for incompetence.

After those early music writhings endured six decades ago (usually in churches), we eventually experienced visitors who could actually play/sing early music so that you didn’t anticipate each attempt at a Gabrieli canzon with fear or a Locke ayre with loathing. Not to mention the exposure to real medieval music with ensembles boasting members who could stay in tune – with each other and the prevailing mode/tonality. We still have throwbacks to the practices of yesteryear where near enough passes as good enough; I can pretty well name the few native valveless horn players who can be trusted with a Bach Brandenburg or a Vivaldi concerto and not setting your teeth on edge in the process.

But the field still has its precious quarters; in my experience, far more so than in any other corner of musical performance with an occasional exception from the ultra-modern ranks, where the aim is to deflect evaluation with arcane, usually mathematical intricacy.

Ian Holtham isn’t exactly trespassing on hallowed ground by performing Scarlatti on his pianos; most of us would have become acquainted with this composer through recordings by Clara Haskil; Landowska and Valenti in my youth were simply names in music magazines and journals. Further, he sits in highly distinguished company. Still, the sonatas do lose vitality, even piquancy when transferred away from the plucky harpsichord.

Along with a host of other Australian piano students, I grew up with the Ricordi collection of 25 sonatas as edited by Alessandro Longo. A few of these have been picked up for these CDs: K. 96 in D Major and K. 159 in C Major, this latter nicknamed La caccia (by Longo? Kirkpatrick?). Among the rest are some that have featured in recital programs while the last track of all, the K. 435 in D Major, was used by Tommasini for his The Good-Humoured Ladies ballet, as was the B minor K. 87 which appears in Holtham’s fourth group. But most of the sonatas are unknown to me – which is all to the good, as who wants to wallow in the familiar?

The first CD opens with five sonatas, all but the middle in C Major, that odd-man-out an A minor. These are performed on the Steinway No. 4 in the Conservatorium’s collection; this one is assessed by the performer as having ‘warm, sunny tones’ and ‘an openness of sound’ that is best suited to these uncomplicated tonalities. The K. 420 makes a pleasant enough call to arms with its internal repeated trumpet notes, only some slight hesitations at negotiating the odd left-hand leap acting as a distraction to a vital enough reading. The Cantabile K. 132 is distinguished for its care with detail, like the different types of tremolo in bars 29 and 31 (later, bars 69 and 71) and the carefully applied splaying of certain left hand chords.

The K. 54 A minor is a crossed-hands test, Holtham handling those passes with a minimum of delay, and he keeps the double-octave rhetoric at the end of each half fairly light. Again, the well-known K. 159 jig sounds jaunty if under-emphatic, particularly in off-the-beat high note bars like 14-16 and 18-20 where you’d expect some bite. Last in this cluster, the K. 461 is an uneven collation where ideas are juxtaposed and interpretation becomes pretty much a question of rhythmic impulse. Holtham splits the sonata into clumps, inserting pauses as demarcation lines, particularly in the second half’s G minor pages. But the work is odd, not least for the Schubertian suggestions starting at bar 84, and again for those Clementine bursts of contrary motion.

Holtham moves to Steinway No. 2, which is variously described s ‘svelte’, ‘acoustic bitter dark chocolate”, having ‘a rasping quality in stronger dynamics’ and ‘an especially dramatic presence’. So, naturally, enough, it becomes the vehicle for minor sonatas in all the white keys but B. The K. 7 in A minor bounded where I would have liked more bounce as well as a sacrifice of ornamentation for speed, plus a clearer definition of those triplet bursts at bars 45-6, 53-4, and at the equivalent places in the second part. The following K. 263 in E minor suited Holtham’s severe approach much better with a deft alteration between gravity and questioning, the only problem an uneven rhythmic flow across bars 69 to 71 on both runs-through.

The first half of the D minor K. 517 appeared to suffer from more irregular delivery in some early right-hand quaver groupings but it was hard to tell if this came about because of a deviation from digital regularity or from the pianist’s individual note dynamics. Suffice to say, the problem didn’t appear after the half-way mark. As for the jauntily grave K. 426 in G minor, this also played to Holtham’s strengths, delineated with an attractive finesse and inevitability despite the inbuilt pauses. Again, you would be pressed to find fault with the C minor K. 84, except for those awkward scales in bars 63, 64, 66 and 67 with their two interpolated demi-semiquavers which disrupt the regularity that obtains up to that point and which are hard to integrate successfully. As for the K. 239 in F minor, this made an unsatisfying ending to the No. 2 Steinway output because it was delivered at an uncomfortably rapid pace. It didn’t matter in the polonaise bars but the downward scales came over as uneven and uncomfortable, particularly in this most interesting of the minor key pieces.

The most commonly used of the Conservatorium Steinways, No. 3, is described as owning ‘great tonal adaptability’ – in fact, ‘a genial tonal openness . . . like an acoustic smile’, which makes it appropriate for ‘the dashing virtuosity’ to be found in the following set of six sonatas. You can hear the benignity in the F Major K. 366 which opens this second disc’s six-part series and the experience would be unblemished if not for two right-hand passages in 6ths (bars 31-2, 39-40; later 58-61)) which sound awkward, unexpectedly difficult in their execution during an otherwise fine toccata. There’s a splendidly firm touch to the B flat Major K. 545, despite an odd falter in the left-hand solo at bars 5-6, and a tendency to elongate the bar’s time-space for the sake of ornamentation from bar 12 on.

A real delight is Holtham’s account of the K. 15 in G Major: packed with vitality and minimal disruption of pace for those wide left-hand leaps in the sonata’s second half, and a welcome clarity of texture with little (any?) use of the sustaining pedal. I relished the rasgueado chords that splayed out at bars 50, 52, 128 and 130 during the K. 209 in A Major: another bright-sounding interpretation with plenty of personality. A fair few small pauses or commas were inserted into the D Major K. 492, most of them understandable but the interpretation was of the aforementioned segmented type: excellent in some parts, laboured in others (like the pattern-setting left-hand one in bar 18 where all the notes are present but metrically hard to differentiate). By contrast, the last in this sequence – K. 216 in E Major – showed a welcome authority and insight, both in treating those rushing scales that generate a supple excitement, especially from bar 129 to the end, and also in a sudden easing of tension into a strolling casualness at bars 99 and 121.

We come now to the last Steinway, No. 1, and the Conservatorium’s least heard of the four pianos. With regard to this, Holtham is full of praise, seeing it as possessing ‘superb tonal range and an abiding expressive adaptability.’ His final group of works are in D Major or B minor, keys where Scarlatti is able to summon up ‘full orchestral qualities and gentle, plaintive mimicry’. Not sure that I heard either in the D Major K. 490, but the reading was near-exemplary in its melding of sudden shocks into a composite, with the extra inbuilt charm of added-note left-hand chords generating the occasional harmonic frisson.

With the B minor K. 87, Holtham gives free rein to the piano’s ability to keep four lines separate and clear while using the instrument’s expressive power. The part-writing remained penetrable and lucid but the executant also infused his version with a Chopinesque sensibility and understated rubato in a notable track that stood out from its surrounds. K.119 in D Major is highly challenging and, at the end of this performance, I wasn’t convinced that it transfers well to the piano. For one thing, it needs more rapidity and a lighter touch than it received here; for another, those grating discords starting at bar 61 and later at bar 163 sound muddy on a Steinway; as well, the right-hand repeated notes came over as laboured.

Another gem in this collection is the mobile, melancholy B minor K. 27, here given a masterly treatment where the texture remains transparent but the actual sound colour verges on Romantic with a slight sense of rhythmic elision, capped by a splendidly shaped burst of harmonic richness across bars 17 to 20. Holtham’s hand-crossing is seamless throughout and his dynamic output even and sympathetic to each phrase’s context. Most pianists who have essayed Scarlatti know the D Major K. 96 and Holtham gives it an honest-speaking account, facing its difficulties square-on, be it the rebounds from those left-hand top As or the implied guitar buzz of repeated right-hand single notes. But the moments that appealed to me more were the buoyant octave-heavy bursts that conclude both halves.

Holtham adds an envoi, the D Major K. 435, which he discovered in his student days and which has sustained his affection. More of us would know it as the second movement from the suite made from Tommasini’s 1917 orchestration exercise for the Ballets Russes. The pianist carries it off with gusto and clear enthusiasm, although I didn’t understand why he slowed down for the opening 3 1/2 bars of the sonata’s second part, picking up the prevailing tempo when the left hand returned to the bass clef. Still, this addition made a happy finishing-off point for Holtham’s compendium which is of excellent technical quality, an example of Move record engineering at its best.

Starting the year embryonically

AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE – MOZART – VIENNESE STAR

Australian Haydn Ensemble String Quartet

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Monday March 14, 2022

Skye McIntosh

Streaming once again from Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, this Australian Digital Concert Hall recital was given by members of the worthy Sydney ensemble: artistic director Skye McIntosh, AHE regular Matthew Greco in violin 2 position, viola Karina Schmitz who may be just passing through on her way back to America, and cellist Daniel Yeadon without whom no period music performance in this country can lay claim to credibility. On paper, the quartet makes an impressive group; in the flesh, I’m afraid that these players have a fair way to travel before convincing us that they speak with one voice. Currently, the AHESQ fails to satisfy on a number of important levels.

We were presented with three works: Haydn Op. 33 No. 5 in G Major, Boccherini Op. 32 No. 5 in G minor, and the great Mozart K. 465 in C Major. Fine – an excellent launch to this year’s AHE season, if a tad chaste in personnel. But then, the live audience was not strong in numbers, as far as I could tell from the broadcast – unless a large crowd was packed into the back stalls. And I was hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd younger than (let’s be kind) 60. Not that there are any proscriptions currently in operation for events like this recital; venue organizers can ask those in attendance to wear masks, but I didn’t see any being worn. And, while it appears to be a pleasant enough space, what’s the Chatswood attraction? Previous online events show that CBD venues in Sydney have trouble attracting audiences, let alone the young; why promenade your wares in an ultra-conservative demographic that might as well block independently-thinking ne’er-do-wells from travelling further up the line at North Sydney?

Sadly, of the three works performed, I found the group’s Haydn to be the most unsatisfying. During the initial Vivace assai, first violin notes kept disappearing as early as bar 11. But McIntosh wasn’t alone: the ambient texture sounded scratchy and scrappy. Still, the first violin’s dominance is inbuilt and attracts your attention continuously – not always to a performance’s betterment, as the flimsy top notes across bars 21 and 22 demonstrated, and later a clumsiness in attack at bars 134-5. Up to this night, the players had performed in Canberra, Berry and up the road from there in Burrawang, so their roughness of ensemble surprised and disappointed.

Even in the relative safety zone of this quartet’s Largo, the question of weight distribution arose as problematic, like the accompaniment provided by second violin and viola in tandem for much of the piece’s length. As well, the uniformity of attack proved a moveable feast – either scatter-gun or over-aggressive (bar 44) – while the firm concluding measures lacked subtlety of dynamic. In the opening to Haydn’s scherzo, we were left up in the air rhythmically because of the inchoate chromatic scale across bars 4 and 5. Luckily, the trio made a more positive impression – but then, it’s four-square by comparison.

Refreshing to hear Greco and Schmitz being exposed in bar 33 of the set-of-variations finale, and Schmitz and Yeadon partnering for the penultimate excursion before Haydn moved to Presto and thereby brought about a much-needed infusion of verve and punch across that 26-bar stretch. However, this concluding glimpse of energy was insufficient to rescue a reading that seemed to be tinkering at the edges without giving the composer’s work its robust due.

Apart from devotees who have graduated beyond the Minuet from the E Major String Quintet and that entertaining mini-tone poem, La Ritirata di Madrid, most of us don’t know Boccherini’s 100 string quartets. Which is a pity, as this program’s central work demonstrated. Like the contemporary Haydn work just heard, this score favours the first violin, although Greco came in for a few partnership moments. Certain moments stood out, like McIntosh’s deft triplets peppered through the opening Allegro comodo‘s development. During the Andantino, Boccherini generated a well-tilled field of rhythmic titillations through the contrast of triplets with straight 3/4 crotchet passages. Happy to report that the ensemble’s unanimity of attack was pretty fair here, apart from a notable early strike from someone at the start of the movement’s fourth-last bar.

The composer gave his interpreters a good deal of interweaving and individual highlighting during the Minuetto con moto, the players here dealing out several clever touches, especially in the Trio‘s second part. Indeed, this movement generated some passages of individuality where the participants invested a certain layer of personality in their work, the which persisted into the concluding Allegro giusto where you gained some insight into how brisk and clear this music could be. McIntosh’s back-to-Bach Capriccio ad libitum cadenza sent a minor shock-wave through these ear-drums, probably because of the performer’s relish in the triple-stop chords that interrupted Boccherini’s busy-work demi-semiquavers.

Here was an intriguing inclusion in this recital book-ended by unquestionable and familiar masterworks. It gave plenty of indications – if they were needed – of the Italian writer’s capacity for originality and delight in experiment; nothing exceptional or disturbing like the opening passage of what was coming after this night’s interval, but venturing into the unexpected and not weighing down his lower-voiced players with supplementary pap.

Despite some drawbacks, the final piece proved the night’s most satisfying experience, in part because of the group’s employment of vibrato and the consequent production of a less strident sound colour, even in the chromatic meanderings of Mozart’s opening Adagio. Not everything went swimmingly, Yeadon sounding stressed for no apparent reason at bars 101 to 102. But the writing quality had moved onto a more finished plane than that which obtained in the program’s other content so far; even the polyphonic interplay was more satisfyingly couched and striking, as at the eloquent entry from Schmitz at bar 45. As well, the musicians allowed a fluency to their delineation of metre and pulse, giving space for moments of individual difficulty which is one of the vital requirements in chamber playing.

It’s the composer’s genius, of course, that carries off his opening Allegro, evident in the subtle changes that tittivate the recapitulation. But the performance was not able to maintain its sometimes worthy standard, displaced by odd distractions like an uneven first violin-viola duet across bars 225 and 226 and an absence of joyful elation in the effusiveness that begins in bar 235: that brilliant final gesture that carries us to the subdued final six bars.

Such imbalance in weighting also bedevilled the Andante cantabile, in particular the dynamic shifts that begin at bar 31 where the tailoring of voices proved to be something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. Across some pages, it struck me that the central pair – second violin and viola – had moved into a dynamically congruent space that sat at odds with the top and bottom lines. But the balance hadn’t improved by the time the ensemble reached that simple set of detached repeated chords in bar 81, and imperfections like that meant that these pages as a unit failed to capture this mind and heart.

Mozart’s Menuetto had its moments under these hands, despite occasional disruptions like the squeaky last F crotchet in bar 42, and several questionably pitched leaps in the Trio‘s second part. What you missed in the minuet itself was a sense of continuity; as it came across, you heard amiable scraps, if carried out with welcome fervour. I liked McIntosh’s manipulation of the metre in the opening strophes of the Allegro molto, slightly bending its shape up to the end of the first subject’s treatment at bar 34. In fact, this movement flew past with pleasing polish to the point that I was sorry we heard no exposition repeat – the only practicable one omitted throughout the night. This finale yielded a number of real pleasures, like the splendid duet for McIntosh and Yeadon beginning at bar 308 and an informed elegance at bar 391, and later at bar 404: points where other quartets batter the notes with Beethovenian passion. Certainly, this movement gave the program a convincing conclusion, if not one that wiped out the memory of a tentative Haydn interpretation and an absence of character in that unexpectedly original Boccherini.

But is it?

SCHUMANN CELLO

Zoe Knighton & Amir Farid

Move Records MD 346 1

Not that I’m complaining – overmuch – but this CD’s title is ambiguous, if not misleading. Both Schumanns are treated here: Clara and Robert. Clara, I hear you cry? Yes: it’s far-fetched because the finest pianist of her time didn’t write anything for cello and piano – the only instruments in play when Zoe Knighton and Amir Farid are the featured artists. Although a short frisson of hope rose when I saw the CD’s accompanying leaflet.

Clara Schumann’s chamber music includes a piano trio and a violin sonata – and that’s all. What we’re given here are three of her song-cycles, and no – Knighton does not display another side to her talents but uses her instrument as a substitute for the vocal line to the Op. 12 Three Ruckert Lieder, the Op. 13 Six Songs, and the Sechs Lieder aus ‘Jucunde’, Op. 23. As for Robert Schumann, his output involving cello as an individual voice is more substantial, including the A minor Concerto, three piano trios, the piano quintet and quartets, and one definite cello/piano duet: Funf Stucke im Volkston. This last-named is included on this CD, as well as one of two other pieces where the cello is a possible participant: the Fantasy Pieces Op. 73 that the composer wrote for the clarinet/piano combination but allowed for violin or cello, just as he did for the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro – originally for horn and piano, but capable of transference to violin or cello.

The Knighton/Farid combination has produced a fair swag for Move Records, including an album of pretty much everything Mendelssohn wrote for this combination; ditto Beethoven; a Russian catch-all, including Prokofiev’s Op. 119; Debussy’s sonata finishing off a French collection with lots of arrangements; and an Argentine Tango CD with only one Piazzolla track (a remarkable accomplishment), although it’s a substantial one. This Schumann release is the duo’s first collaboration in six years, their previous five Move products dating from between 2010 and 2015.

The 15 songs average about 2’42” in length; not much time for padding. But you could say much the same about Robert Schumann’s two works, which are generally concise and lacking in sprawl. Confounding expectations even further (or adding to the mystery), the text of each song is printed in English; presumably, so you yourself can sing along with the cello. Or, more realistically, this verse publication intends to give you an idea of what the Knighton/Farid duo are attempting to communicate. Actually, not just an idea but the full picture.

This disc opens with Clara Schumann’s Op. 13 settings of two Heine poems, one by Ruckert, and three by Emanuel Geibel. These are polished and lyrically crafted songs, Knighton performing the first three an octave below the vocal line, the final three at the original level. Of course, you can find traces of her husband’s characteristics and some specific phrases sound finely woven enough to have come from his catalogue, like the slightly asymmetric prelude and postlude to Ich stand in dunklen Traumen; possibly the performers make too much of the sustained D on gestehen and Traum in Sie liebten sich beide but the work needs some individuality; Liebeszauber was accomplished with excellent control of touch by Farid whose triplets were light and non-glutinous, while both artists shone in the ritardando across the poem’s last two regretful lines.

Knighton gave a remarkable reading of the vocal line to Der Mond kommt still gegangen, the 5th that features at the start of each stanza’s second line moving into territory as touching as any singer could make it. A similar sensitivity pervaded the duo’s reading of Ich hab’ in Deinem Auge, a finely constructed lyric with a silk-smooth ease of utterance. As for Die stille Lotusblume, both musicians found here an ideal capstone for the cycle with a sensitive realization of the piano part’s rhythmic regularity, a plangent cello line that followed the composer’s evolving melodic patterns with telling sympathy, the series ending with a fine reflection of the poet’s concluding question through an inconclusive dominant 7th.

Kingston shines even more in the Ruckert poems, the first played an octave lower than written while the others make a positive impression because the cellist gives them a carefully etched outline; not exactly overdoing the vibrato but staying the right side of intrusive. Both artists made excellent work of Er ist gekommen with its contrast of nervous Werther-like angst succeeded by a mellifluous Ruhig stanza, polished off with a meltingly fluid downward moving cello line in the composer’s repeat of the last stanza.

Liebst du um Schonheit also was handled with consideration, even if its material impresses as bland – probably because of the sameness at the start of each section, the mould only fractured in the second half of the last quatrain; Farid’s brief postlude an excellent instance of his talent in finding a level of warm pathos – nothing too much. As for the concluding Warum willst du, here you come across a small gem of expression where each phrase slots into the next with admirable craft and, as in its companions, the climax arrives with little bravura but a world of emotional conviction. It helps immeasurably that Knighton and Farid deliver each sentence in well-practised partnership, each slight pause pitched in unshakeable congruence.

Clara’s Six Songs taken from Hermann Rollet’s novel Jucunde are a mixed blessing in terms of attractiveness and emotional variety. Here, if anywhere, you miss a singer’s input because of a kind of textual similarity, both literary and musical. The opening piece, Was weinst du, Blumlein, prefigures the unalloyed optimism of the cycle’s last two numbers – Das ist ein Tag and O lust, o Lust. Mind you, this first number also aims for a folksy cuteness and it unfortunately succeeds, to the point where the third stanza, fairly predictable, verges on the tedious. Nothing against the following An einem lichten Morgen, but attention fell more on the piano accompaniment and its speckled arpeggios than on the cello line which remained measured and spacious – one might almost say orotund – in comparison.

It takes you a while to get into the vein of Geheimes Flustern which has a 3/8 time signature but sets up two rhythmic patterns that wrong-foot each other. Not that challenging, as things turn out, but a deft exercise with a fine melody which didn’t captivate the performers that much as they played only two of its three verses. A complement to the first song in the cycle, Auf einem grunen Hugel has the same simplicity of style, if in a minor key and langsam. The realization is just as much a contrast, too, as the performers take care with their continuity to weave the setting’s irregular statements into a convincing whole.

The last pair are brief essays in jubilation: the first celebrates spring with some familiar onomatopoeia in bird tweets and hunting horns, while O Lust, o Lust has the same 6/8 metre but speaks in wider arches than its companion (the shortest in the set) where the piano support is a jig. Farid’s contributions have a convincing energy to them; Knighton clearly delights in the euphony of her melodies, the instrumental web fluent and definite.

Then we arrive at Robert Schumann’s two works and more familiar territory. I came to know, if not to love, the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces through student performances under its three formats – clarinet, violin and cello. – and prefer the clarinet version for its definition and parity of dynamic. Knighton and Farid give a worthy account on this disc but its contours are cloudy. This is not an avoidable problem but any partial solution lies in the cello’s ability to push itself forward; a big bull instrument would have more luck but in this instance the instrumental mix proved over-polite. Farid, as usual, was all consideration for his partner and this approach worked pretty well in the first two Eusebius pieces, although even here you were denied much insight into the undercurrents of restlessness that characterize Schumann’s emotional landscape.

The concluding Rasch und mit Feuer kept up the underpinning rhythmic ferment but the piano’s output came over as half-cocked, nowhere strong enough in loud concerted passages; not even at the one fortissimo marking in my edition four bars from the end. The sforzandi lacked much punch and that vehemence that should erupt when cello and piano unite for the main theme’s upward rush impressed as muddy. To my ears, the most lucid of the three pieces was the central Lebhaft, mainly because the actual writing is more transparent and – to use a technical term – bouncy.

On first hearing, you’d think that the Five Pieces in Folk Style puts the cello consistently in front position and, for some of the time, that’s true. Listen again and you become aware of the interesting nature of the keyboard accompaniment. Sometimes it stays just that, with chord support and melody doubling. Then, a burst of individualism emerges, and another; eventually you realize that the distribution of labour is not all one-sided. There is another intriguing factor in Schumann’s odd phrase-lengths. I’m assuming that the melodies are the composer’s own, not gleaned from mittel-European sources; as well, the tunes often range too far to have that necessary gnomic quality.

Speaking of gnomic, the first of these pieces is titled Vanitas vanitatum, which some commentators have taken to refer to a Goethe poem about a drunken soldier. Certainly, that seems to have informed this duo who rolick through it Mit Humor, as required, and a plethora of lurches. This is where you get the impression that Farid will be underused, but then the piano takes on prominence when the key changes to F Major and he is not backward in coming forward, even if Kingston is working on her lower strings. But then, in the following Langsam, the piano gets to shine for about 15 bars only with a statement of the mellifluous and wide-reaching tune before sinking back to secondary position.

Honours are more even in Nicht schnell, mit viel Ton zu spielen for which the piano has a tattoo-like pattern under the cello’s asymmetrical tune; then full chords under the cello’s double-stop 11 bars when the key changes to A Major (not kind for the instrument and an obvious strain for Knighton) during which the keyboard is set into arpeggio mode that recurs at a finger-stretching coda. Further on, in the penultimate Nicht zu rasch piece, Farid gave the full-bodied chords unexpected power, notably in the last two bars. Not that this is subtle music with its oddly four-square structure and non-subtle movement forward; added to this, Farid’s harmonic changes in the central section take attention away from the treble-clef cello line/theme.

The last piece, Stark und markirt, reminds you of the Cello Concerto’s outer movements with its surging power. Once more, Farid is far from a support only. Luckily, this piece was articulated with welcome briskness of attack and a determination to call a forte a forte. Further, you were left in no doubt that this piece was a thorough partnership, one furnished with dramatic character and emotional urgency: an attention-grabbing track that worked quite effectively to finish a CD that has its fair share of restrained, pensive rambles.

Gifted group returns

Ensemble Liaison

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday February 23, 2022

Opening its season for 2022, this venerable group (at least 18 years on the go) displayed once more its penchant for mixing its programs: the rough with the smooth, old-fashioned with up-to-this-minute, time-honoured with temporary, full lungs versus short pants. Because of an injury to cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevich‘s left (I assume) hand, the scheduled Zemlinsky Op. 3 Trio of 1896 disappeared from the published agenda, replaced by the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, the second of his late two and part of the composer’s twilight-years affair with this instrument that produced four masterworks with the clarinet as fulcrum.

As things turned out in the Athenaeum 2 space, all three players appeared in the opening and closing numbers. Timothy Young‘s piano served as benign bindweed for three of Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83; then later shared an equal load with Bogosavljevich and David Griffiths‘ clarinet for Armenian-Canadian pianist Serouj Kradjian‘s salute to the Carpathians, Dracula’s Ballad, newly arranged for the Liaison’s instrumental format. Another piece of make-weight appeared with Tema III from Giovanni Sollima‘s music for the 2005 remake of Il bell’Antonio, popularized by the cellist composer and Yo-Yo Ma.

Not that film music has to be fragile in construction, limited in melodic scope or rhythmically predictable – but it usually is. Bunuel had the right idea in using it as little as possible, if at all. But the extract from Sollima’s film score was pretty typical of the genre with a slowly developing theme on the cello while the piano backgrounded itself through an ostinato middle C. As atmospherics go, this sounded like a close cousin to John Williams’ main theme for Schindler’s List, mainly for its inner self-reduction to short motives woven into a thin-ply C minor fabric. Little disturbed the predictable flow apart from some unexpected harmonic clashes in the piano part and a few cello glissandi colouring a high-pitched climax. At about this point, you were aware of Bogosavljevich’s handicap with her vaults to high notes coming off accurately three times out of five.

The cello’s passage in octaves also sounded slightly off-colour, more so than when this musician is in her usual form; the moment was an exposed one while Young’s piano went all Sinding on us. A powerful highpoint sounded the conclusion to this more active middle section before the score moved back to a recapitulation of its moody opening, this time with a G/C ostinato. It’s a well-contrived display piece for both instruments, even if I can’t work out how it fits into the film’s scene-setting scheme which appears to balance the main character’s sexual impotence with the political situation in Fascist Italy of the 1930s. But it added another facet to Sollima’s musical personality, which I’ve only previously experienced through his 2016 guest appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

As for the Dracula-centric piece, this turned out to be a folkloric hodge-podge, opening to a martial rhythm with a perky tune from the clarinet punctuated by loads of dynamic belting from Young’s piano. An inexplicable mental deviation made me think of The Soldier’s Tale, although Kradjian showed no tendency to harmonic acerbics. A shift into tango mode and we were treated to some excellent concerted passages where each trio member folded into the ensemble mix enthusiastically before a bridge led into a presto that could have been in G minor and where a hell-for-leather set of pages showed the composer flirting with 1920s jazz, a klezmer touch or two, plus some pale-Bartok freneticism with a mass of octaves bringing down the curtain. Comparing this with a recorded reading, the Melbourne trio gave the score an unexpected bite and relentless vigour.

Did I last hear some of the Bruch pieces from this group? Probably, because not many groups have the characteristic ensemble needed to negotiate them. In the opening Andante, Bogosavljevich’s rich timbre emerged at the change to A Major at Letter E in the 1910 Simrock edition but her colleagues also made rubato-rich going across the piece’s length. the bars flowing past easily and the texture enriched by some slight string portamenti. The second piece, Allegro con moto, intrigued mainly for the changes that Bruch made to his original viola line, the score’s ongoing surges reaching a deftly placed slight pause at Letter F 13 bars from the touching, muted conclusion.

Last selection from this work, the No. 6 Nachtgesang, immediately impressed for the determination in Young’s bass notes even when the prevailing ambience asked for a restrained attack. Luckily, the nocturne is a gift for all interpreters, Griffiths and Bogosavljevich eloquent across imitative and parallel motion passages, an excellent instance of both at Latter G. Still, the cello’s pitching three bars from the end fell just short of true and Griffiths spiked his penultimate note.

This program’s most substantial component, the Brahms sonata, was an up-and-down experience, the opening subject delivered with little character, the first instance of striking work coming with Young’s tender, muffled chords beginning at bar 28. But the outbursts that pepper this Allegro were not always crisp, possibly because Young was making instant adjustments to cope with a few out-of-tune notes, particularly an unhappy A5 and sudden unhappy complexes like the simple parallel piano part at bar 66. Nevertheless, the duo showed ideal pairs of heels in the benign regression starting at bar 138, and later a splendidly graduated intermeshing when the triplets started for the Tranquillo and those magical last 12 bars.

Griffiths and Young gave an impressive account of the Sostenuto trio in the middle of the following Allegro appassionato, even if the piano’s bass came over with extra power and the return at bar 139 was dynamically over-blasted. indeed, both players appeared over-exercised in the movement’s final third, with lots of fortissimo when forte would have sufficed.

But the Andante con moto variations were hard to fault, the theme a ravishing construct, particularly for that touching plagal cadence in bar 14. Then, the delights kept coming; carefully paced and delivered syncopations in the piano at bars 22 and 23; the elegantly balanced handling of triplets in the second variation; an attractive juxtaposition of responsorial and concerted across the following grazioso; Young’s laid-back off-the-beat progress right through Variation 4; and an infectious drive that reinforced the rush home from bar 135 onward.

As I said, this somewhat-less-than-an-hour’s worth of musical action proved to be an alternation between the venerable and the contemporary; in line with the Liaison group’s practice of offering a wide range. For all that, the Brahms and Bruch scores were written only 16 years apart, Sollima’s and Kradjian’s pieces composed even closer in time. Relieving one of my long-time bugbears, we heard no oddly-voiced arrangements but only versions of works totally endorsed by their creators. To general reassurance, this temperamentally vital ensemble is off on its way for a full year’s operations; here’s hoping nothing gets in the way this time.

Noli me tango

PIAZZOLLA

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 14, 2022

Back in Brisbane after two years’ absence, the ACO opened its break-out live-again lease of life here with one of the organization’s more popular guests. Accordionist Crabb has enjoyed a 20-year-long association with the Sydney players, given vivid life by a 2003 Chandos CD which contains all four Piazzolla works in this concert’s concluding melange, as well as the evening’s unexpected encore: Oblivion.

While the Argentinian composer’s music framed the program, the interstices proved more intriguing for this listener. At the centre of each half came a sample of orthodoxy: first, Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso, penultimate in the Op. 6 set and a reworking of one of the composer’s own organ concertos in the same key; later, the Bachiana Brasileira No. 9 by Villa-Lobos, obviously in the string orchestra version. Frippering around these scores came one-time Piazzolla collaborator Antonio Agri‘s Desde adentro arranged by Crabb (as was the opening Libertango); Elena Kats Chernin‘s 20-year-old Torque, an automobile engine celebration, which Crabb premiered with the ACO who commissioned the score. Additions to the night’s second half were Gardel‘s Por una cabeza in an arrangement by John Williams for Itzhak Perlman, the whole transcribed by Crabb and bringing back memories of Pacino in the Scent of a Woman film from 1992; the fourth movement, Coqueteos, from Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout which raised no eyebrows or much interest, I’m afraid; and the Piazzolla concluding tetralogy in yet another Crabb transcription: Milonga del Angel, Vayamos al Diablo, Romance del Diablo, and La Muerte del Angel.

Crabb sat front and centre for the night, contributing to everything in the first half, including a tenor-bass support in the concerto grosso, but was silent for the Frank and Villa-Lobos. Pianist for the program, Stefan Cassomenos, relished his role in the tangos and the Kats-Chernin escapade, but seemed to be silent for the Gardel – or else he was being super-subtle and merging selflessly into the ensemble. Most of the ACO personnel remained familiar apart from violinist Lily Higson-Spence and violist Meagan Turner. Despite the program’s information, Maxime Bibeau was not at the double bass stool; his place was taken by David Campbell from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been to few enough concerts in recent times and the trend has been to present a program as a unit, without interval. However, the ACO took us back to pre-COVID practice – which has its good points (mainly, physical relaxation) and drawbacks (principally, the facility to find room for programmatic flab). This occasion’s particular sequence of works depended for its appeal largely on the South American components which – the Handel apart – were all-pervasive, even in Kats-Chenin’s Torque.

The ensemble’s account of Libertango took its time getting to the main melody; indeed, artistic director/ concertmaster/soloist Richard Tognetti‘s articulation of this tune seemed overdue after a lengthy span of scene-setting flourishes. Crabb’s solo contributions had that welcome character of sounding improvised, framed for the performance itself. My only problem came with the tuning of both first and second violins playing unison phrases; a touch off-point in some stretches – which surprised as this was the tail-end of the ensemble’s eleven-night national tour. Tognetti also starred in Desde adentro with a substantial solo; but then, he has an ideal fluency with this genre where it’s rare to have a player sensitive to the inbuilt style of production who also has an unshakeable technique.

Not much to say about the Handel concerto. Tognetti enjoyed dominating exposure; that’s the nature of this particular Handelian beast. The whole work was treated with an abundance of dynamic flexibility, some contrasts verging on bizarre. Still, the uniformity of attack reminded us of how much we have missed the expertise of this body, its sheer precision when the musicians are operating at their best. As well, certain moments startled both for the composer’s sense of theatre and the performance immediacy, like the bass entry in bar 8 of the first Allegro, the reassuring repeated notes in the prime melody to the appealing Andante, a splendid dovetailing of soloists and ripieno in this same movement and Tognetti’s semiquaver flights after bar 127, followed by a whip-cracking finale with just the right amount of ornamentation to distract from the movement’s bouree-like heftiness.

While she began with some tango-suggestive rhythmic movement in the first third of Torque, Kats-Chernin’s piece appealed most in its central slow section, in particular a chain of 2nds between Crabb and Cassomenos that spiced up a long melodic chain. But when the composer entered into a musical description or simulation of hurtling down the highway in the score’s last segment, it struck me that the journey could have been cut by half, if not more: the motoric only takes you so far – in music, not on the road where your wallet sets the limit.

Beginning the program’s second part, Tognetti set the mind-set for Gardel’s clever curvetting and ardent swoops. This is music that invites you to dance, thanks to its infectiousness, rather than asking you to leave the floor to professionals: my response to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango which is – thanks to its adoption by too many should-know-better musicians – in great danger of becoming viejo because of over-exposure and the mistaken belief that any combination will do . . . rather like the federal government’s mix-and-match approach to vaccines.

Frank attempts to meld classical traditional format with Andean folk music, although I feel that the former wins out over the latter in this movement from her Leyendas. The composer’s language is accessible enough and her scoring for strings shows a keen awareness of textural potential, but it was difficult to find the folkloric element. Probably my fault as, like so many Australians of my generation, west coast South American music has remained unexplored territory. For all that, the ACO presented the score with apparent mastery of its none-too-troubling mysteries. After, the Villa-Lobos prelude-and-fugue construct came across with a firm unanimity from all concerned, although I believe a compromise was worked out with the composer’s double bass line which requires three performers at the Preludio‘s beginning; one of the cellos was deputed to engage in lowest-level support duties for both segments. While the 37-bar first movement has a restrained ardour in its wide-spaced layers, the fugue shows the Bach strain more obviously in play. Most attractive is the central action where the fugue subject almost disappears in a chromatic ferment, threatens to come back in full force with the violas at bar 109 but dissipates its semiquaver energy, only for a real recapitulation 20 bars later in a score that is not too clever-clever but errs on the side of Brazilian jubilation rather than exercising Bach’s deceptive formal control.

Probably nothing new came to ACO veterans with the last Piazzolla bracket; if you know the Song of the Angel CD, the only major change for this night was that Benjamin Martin wasn’t on piano. A deft alternation between fast and slow, the pieces formed an amiable suite, albeit one where the harmonic shifts made for comfortable listening. Cassomenos achieved some penetration but the main memory I have is of Crabb dominating the mix, demonstrating his instrument’s capacity for explosive bursts of vehemence and piercing single-note melodic contours. Further, Vayamos al Diablo presents listeners with an unexpected rhythmic shape: 4/8 + 3/8 – enough to test even the most musically woke tango dancers.

But I’m operating at a disadvantage because of a lack of sympathy with Piazzolla and the tango. Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of varied exposure to the composer’s music; from a catalogue of about 3,000 pieces, I’d know a maximum of 10 (well,13 if you individualize the Estaciones Portenas) and repeated hearings of those few is the only way I can distinguish nearly all of them. As for the dance as choreography, it’s difficult to find an attraction because of its self-consciousness. Even the dedicated advocacy of Clive James wasn’t persuasive, though the spectacle of that great writer performing with characteristic understatement showed how the steps need not become ridiculously stilted.

That’s the way the cards fall; not every program is going to bring complete satisfaction and, if you are fated to encounter a musical genre that leaves you cold, it’s best to face the experience in the company of a distinguished, always distinctive body such as the ACO. Yet again, we have to be grateful that these musicians are at liberty to visit, raising both standards and spirits in a time that is still beset with uncertainty.


Best wine first?

SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES 1 OPENING GALA

Bendigo Chamber Music Festival

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 2, 2022

Breaking in from the south, the Australian Digital Concert Hall put an end to Queensland’s long serious music drought by presenting all the recitals programmed for this Bendigo celebration which is, for the first time (as I understand it) devoted to chamber music. Co-directors Christopher Howlett and Howard Penney began the gala concert with addresses that demonstrated how pleased they were to be back participating in live performance in front of an actual audience, while Mayor Andrea Metcalf opened the festival with something approaching proprietorial pleasure.

As Penny pointed out, no undertaking like this occurs without some problems. In this case, violinist Sulki Yu from Orchestra Victoria had incurred the joys of being a close contact and had to withdraw, replaced by Andrew Haveron moonlighting from his Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster duties. As well, Emma Sullivan stepped in to the double bass chair (or stool) – an absence that had me worried in the festival’s program notes when the instrument was completely absent although specifically required for one of the scores being attempted.

In fact, we heard three works: Vivaldi’s In furore motet from the early 1720s, Saint-Saens’ double bass-requiring Septet of 1979-80, and Dvorak’s 1889 Piano Quartet No. 2. None of these is a regular in the concert hall and I would think that many of us were hearing the motet and septet live for the first time, although the former has been thrust into the early music spotlight by Julia Lezhneva whose recorded reading is little short of spectacular, particularly as she is assisted along the way by Il Giardino Armonico who make Vivaldi’s instrumental support a vital and chameleonic creation.

Soprano Chloe Lankshear displayed a fine clarity and near-precision in the opening movement and the concluding Alleluia, employing some of Lezhneva’s interpolations in the repeat of the opening aria, with only a few omitted notes in bar 64 disrupting an excellent seam of virtuosic production notable for some expertly despatched high notes. The string body was a formidable one with violins Natsuko Yoshimoto, Sophie Rowell, Rachael Beesley and Haveron; violas Tobias Breider and Stephen King; cellos Penney and Howell; bass Sullivan, with Donald Nicholson providing a crisp harpsichord tang. Thanks to Lankshear, the opening pages radiated verve although the singer’s phrase-shaping still has some way to go.

I would have preferred the central Largo beginning Tunc meus fletus to have been handled with less room for pauses; they were of little use to the singer and the result was a romanticisation of the texture, even if the performers believed they were giving these fairly simple pages some flexibility. For all that, the ensemble functioned very well here while all forces handled that unexpected flattened 3rd at bar 31 with equanimity. Lankshear eschewed noteworthy ornamentation in the repeats of this section, reserving her powers for the final jubilant pages which needed just a bit more punch on downbeats to move this reading from pleasing to remarkable.

In his Septet, Saint-Saens employs an eclectic mix: string quintet (including double bass), trumpet and piano. And the greatest of these is the piano which relishes the composer’s flashy brand of virtuosity and dominates the mix all too often – or perhaps that was just Daniel de Borah exercising his dynamic potential which is bound to determine your opening impressions in the initial Preambule right up to the Piu allegro change, just before Saint-Saens goes all Schumann Piano Quintet with thematic and motivic sharing. In the initial flurries, de Borah only blotted his page once, as far as I could hear: half-way through bar 17. In the semi-exposed trumpet part, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s David Elton showed precise and measured delivery in a part that wouldn’t tax many players, except for a final low E flat which I couldn’t detect.

Following his antique path, Saint-Saens moved to a Menuet where a rare Elton mis-step came up during the repeat of the first 10-bar sentence. Later, the strings-minus-bass unison pages (involving Yoshimoto, , Haveron, King and Howlett) with trumpet above a rippling piano proved a purple patch in a reading that depended above all else on the musicianship of its disparate participants, coming as they did from across the lower eastern seaboard. Despite the rather brash high-stepping nature of the Menuet itself, de Borah introduced a pleasantly subtle disruption in his short solo twelve bars from the ending to this segment of the movement. Later, some interest during the Intermede came in solos from King and Howlett which promised much but petered out all too soon, the aggression that bursts out at Letter C (in the Durand. Schoenewerk & Cie 1991 reprint) a welcome relief from a glut of sweetly intersecting lines. Still, the finest achievement of this section – possibly the whole reading – came in a sensitively couched 11-bar coda with some eloquent gradations of softness in all layers.

Being open-minded and chauvinistic in equal measure, I found the shade of Percy Grainger lingering over the opening to the Septet’s Gavotte et Final; don’t know how this came to mind except in the generous. bumptious leaps at the beginning. Again, this movement is a fairly easy ride for everyone except the pianist whose break into triplets towards the first double-bar is a delicacy as toothsome as anything else in Saint-Saens’ chamber music. The keyboard work apart, the remainder of these pages is pretty plain sailing with lashings of mutual support in the Piu allegro/ Stringendo/Animato acceleration until the restrained welter of the final bars. At which point, the only clear defect in the performance came as Elton essayed the third-last bar’s top E flat where a more cautious performer would have taken the composer’s ossia and left that ascending arpeggio well alone. The note cracked, of course, and left this listener a tad dispirited.

Nevertheless, the performance succeeded because the timbral mixtures came over with vigour and freshness in an acoustic that seemed boxy. I’ve not been inside this theatre – ever – but I suspect there’s a lot of absorbent material apart from the stage curtains in the building. Lankshear coped admirably with a lack of resonance/echo in her Vivaldi and the two exposed soloists in this second work showed an essential agility.

Eschewing an interval, the program then launched into the Dvorak with Amir Farid making a banquet for himself of the rich piano part; his colleagues were Rowell, Breider and Penney. From its opening Allegro con fuoco declamation, this ensemble left little doubt that it was determined to be involved in the proposed struggle, their dynamic levels hefty and the strings’ bowing often stretched to a strained mark. In writing of this thickness, you could forgive a few errors from Farid, since the composer gives his pianist an often virtuosic role where keyboard hammering sits across and alongside strident string lines.

The Lento opens with a three-segment cello solo, an opportunity here for Penny to go all wooly on us with a searching throb to his vibrato in alternation with Farid’s echo. And each participant had the opportunity to emote, thanks to changes of emphasis and texture, as well as sudden turns to rhetoric before reversions to eloquent poetry, as at the change to D flat Major at Letter D in the post-1945 Simrock edition which received a carefully detailed interpretation that once again made you realize what close conditions the players were enduring, especially when Penny returned to draw us back on track at Letter E. This melting moment was well-matched by Farid’s assumption of primacy at Letter F as he canoodled through the prime melody with a hushed support of string chords. Indeed, the whole movement came over with alternating sentiment and passion – but that’s what the score proposes.

Given the first movement’s aggressive emphasis, the group’s approach to Dvorak’s third movement impressed as muted or muffled, the landler-style dance an example of the composer’s prolixity, so that the Trio change to B Major came upon us as very welcome. Penney’s three exposed quaver bars at Tempo I came across as rough in context; the violin/viola duet work 15 bars before Letter C didn’t live up to the standards of congeniality and accord that obtained through the other three movements; the final cadence would have gained from a more decisive communal attack.

Farid again took the dynamic high road in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, even in the support role required prior to Letter E. I think this assumption of authority might have had something to do with a faltering across the chromatic shifts in bar 5 before Letter C. The only major flaw in this movement came from the restrained nature of Rowell’s violin which impressed as elegant and reliable but too refined to offer much competition to her string colleagues, let alone the emphatic keyboard.

In the end, this quartet struck me as the most put-together, confected segment of the gala program; four excellent musicians, without doubt, but not given the time needed to put together a consistently integrated interpretation. And in this Dvorak, more than in the motet or septet, such a uniformity of approach is fundamental.

Original works that breathe

BASS INSTINCTS

Alicia Crossley

Move Records MCD 624

Straight on the heels of percussionist Claire Edwardes‘ new CD of works by female Australian composers comes this publication by Alicia Crossley of bass recorder compositions, again all by Australian women composers. There’s only one common element: Alice Chance whose Mirroring appears on the Edwardes disc, and a mutation called Inhaltations stands at the centre of Crossley’s production. The other names that Crossley promotes are Holly Harrison, Fiona Hill, Anne Boyd, Lisa Cheney, Amanda Cole and Jessica Wells. As far as I can tell, all of these are Sydney composers except Lisa Cheney, who is Melbourne-based. But it’s no good being absolute about this; you can check up on contradictory websites and information sources and still not wind up with the right facts; least of all in a these chop-me-change-you years where personal movement is hard to detect.

This CD moves into more advanced compositional territory than Edwardes’ recent product. Three of the works involve electronics, one allies itself to percussion, wind chimes appear in another and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet stars in Chance’s work. Spending far too long chasing down information, I’ve come to the conclusion that all these pieces were probably commissioned by Crossley, although I can only swear to four of them being so blessed. As for their dating, three of them are definitely 2021 while the others are probably from that year. Thanks to Move Records’ promotion of local writers, I’ve come across isolated works by most of these composers – many more in the case of veteran Boyd – and traces remain of other pieces that came to the fore in concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when in Cybec-modern mode, also at the occasional Musica Viva recital, and even one score heard during the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

It’s a hard ask for these writers. Even allowing for Crossley’s skill, her instrument is a limited one with a range of two octaves; hence, I suppose, the fact that only one work is for the bass recorder alone and unadorned. Everybody except Lisa Cheney has looked at opportunities for expansion. But this one unadorned work, Before You, is one of the more affecting offerings on this disc. As I understand, it’s a love-song to the composer’s newly-born baby daughter, Nora. The piece is not all slow-moving lullaby material but has some deftly-placed emphatic plosions and root-forming repeated notes, even some double stops (note plus humming?), and a touchingly curved lyrical section before the final monotone tattoo. It’s a strange and imprecise ambience we’re offered, where uncertainty and affirmation sit alongside each other: a fine summation of parenthood, in other words.

Slightly more varied in its instrumental source material, Anne Boyd’s Alhekulyele brings wind chimes into the mix. This piece revolves around illustrator and Aboriginal rights activist Olive Pink and the Botanical Garden that she established in Alice Springs, from which in her latter years she would watch the sun set on Mt. Gillen, the imposed name of Alhrkulyele. Boyd presents the work as both a meditation and a dance; as far as I can see, the dance reference doesn’t start until about the two-thirds point, the preceding material presenting an aural scene all too easily transferred into one’s preconceptions of the continent’s centre. The percussion element is introduced at various points, serving as aural brackets, while the recorder is gifted with a long, going-nowhere melodic line, interrupted by over-blowing passages that imitate the same effect on a didjeridu.

Again, Boyd uses a double-stop-producing technique which could involve breathing and/or fingering in a specific manner, such as we have come to know and love from contemporary flautists, the rot setting in (for me, at least) with the recordings of the incomparable Severino Gazzelloni. The dance segment is a piece of pattern-play that would probably not appeal to many choreographers because it stops and starts at its own sweet will, although the full and partial repetitions are suggestive of similar essays from Antill to Sculthorpe.

Beginning the CD is Holly Harrison’s Sylvan, a three-movement suite with erotic overtones. In the first, Crossley works in partnership with percussionist Joshua Hill on hand drums to show the woodwind instrument as a cool-eyed vamp, starting her act slowly and gradually rising to a jazz- and Latin-inflected climax. This is a deft piece of construction for its crescendo shape and for the juxtaposition of the recorder’s breathy sound quality against Hill’s snappy percussion. In the second movement, Harrison moves to a recorder-marimba partnership which pursues another cool jazz path; nothing over-aggressive but plenty of mild effects like small glissandi, breaths, flutter-tonguing, the whole capped by a moody, vibrato-rich coda. Hill’s marimba also works hard in the final piece which follows another catchy Latin rhythm but with more instrumental interweaving and a mid-way switch to a soft tinkling underpinning which suggests a cymbal used carefully, content to stay in the background of Crossley’s syncopated flights.

This is a fine opening as Harrison takes Crossley’s disc title and pursues one of its suggestions, if you allow ‘bass’ to become ‘base’. Still, Harrison’s communications of an earthy compositional stratum remain above the aesthetic navel and the suite suggests diversion rather than full-blown engagement.

Alice Chance’s Inhaltations – a cross between ‘inhale’ and ‘exaltation’ – is proposed as yet another dance, this one for the bass recorder and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet; the whole sound complex supplied, I assume, by Crossley because no other artists are listed as contributors. It begins as a kind of slow chorale with the solo (live?) recorder line weaving a melodic line above the chords – more an incantation than an inhalation. A few dissonant harmonies appear at about the 3’40” mark but the greater part of the piece is unexceptional and follows an orthodox pattern, the solo line eventually moving into the centre of the chordal fabric. If there is a dance here, it has the character of a slow-moving pavane, and the exaltation is essentially spiritual, not physical.

The remaining three works involve bass recorder and electronics. Fiona Hill’s Lost in the Darkness takes as its starting point a poem by a refugee who had spent two years in detention with her younger sister. The atmosphere is, as you’d expect, dark and mournful with many sustained notes, tightly whispered words, a light use of electronics which seem to be based mainly on bass recorder sounds. At the centre, the solo wind line tends to be more volatile and unpredictable – rather like the federal government’s treatment of those dispossessed unfortunate enough to wind up on Australian shores.

Hill suggests very strongly the scenario of a captive bird struggling against restraints, as well as the futility and endlessness of the detention process, particularly in the final moments of her piece where the real-time output is mirrored by an electronic sustain. This makes for a fine piece of polemic, to my ears: presenting us with an aural equivalent to the isolation and quiet, depressing environment of people like those refugees who remain in Carlton’s Park Hotel while a spoilt Serbian tennis star has been able to tip his toe into their world and then fly home to his waiting minions and millions. It’s not an absolutely depressing piece; the solo line has many flights of restlessness and agitation. But the imprisoned spirit that it represents finds no way out – just a sustained, floating changelessness.

Microtones make a basic element in Amanda Cole’s Vibration Meditation which is focused on changes in timbre and production techniques more than rhythm and harmony which remain unadventurous across the work’s breadth. While the sustained electronic notes and chords give a certain weight to the score’s progress, the live recorder line holds the really interesting elements as Crossley employs pretty much all the same techniques as her colleagues, and then some. Her variation comes in that exposed line’s fluency, it seems to me, and not in the material itself which is content with a comfortable diatonic repetition – slowly altered, yet the same elements are sustained.

The CD’s last track has a schizoid form: The Clockmaker on the sleeve, The Clock in the booklet. It opens with electronic tick-tocks and a soft but perky recorder line, punctuated by percussive interpolations as the rhythm moves in a five/six alternating pattern. In fact, the electronic percussion takes on major importance with a sonorous passage for bell sounds and notes reminiscent of a steel band. Then the rhythmic insistence stops for a kind of free-wheeling lyric line supported by sonorous sound bands, before the ticking recurs and a faster tempo obtains as the composer revisits her initial material, although the electronic support is here more richly coloured. While the live recorder performs a sort of dribbling-away sign-off, the background persists in its energy until it fades into the distance.

This final piece has claims to being the disc’s most solid example of physical replication. Like many of its companions, The Clockmaker uses the bass recorder’s compass with a specific determination to display its timbral qualities, although this composer avoids most of the sound-production techniques brought into play by others with a more adventurous bent. All nine tracks show a musical world that is essentially soft-voiced and inferential – a circumscribed ambience with smooth edges. It soothes but is intriguing enough to engross rather than working as an aural narcotic.