We’ve heard better

FLINDERS QUARTET & VATCHE JAMBAZIAN

Sydney Mozart Society/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Tuesday August 23, 2022

Vatche Jambazian

A program of familiarities offering no surprises: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms – and played straight through without an interval. Which would have been testing for the concentration powers of any intellectually frolicsome members in the Sydney Mozart Society, which organization sponsored the event, bringing one of Melbourne’s favourite chamber ensembles to the North Shore, then allying them with one of the Harbour City’s bright-spark pianists. We heard the last of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, that in A Major; then an a quattro version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 414, the earlier of the A Major couple; and the String Quartet No. 1 by Brahms in C minor (for a change of key). A most satisfying entertainment for the true musical conservatives among us – well, on paper.

But the reality was pretty rough and ready in its delivery style. Actually, that’s a bit too polite: a more proper estimation would be ‘scruffy’, with a cavalier regard for detail even as early as bars 8 to 10 in the first Allegro where Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba‘s first violin semiquavers were smothered under some low-lying chord support. And it wasn’t much better the second time around, although by then both violins had roused discontent with some ragged intonational pairing further into the exposition. Throughout, the emphasis rested on a sort of rusticity with little polish or finesse applied, as in the aggressive opening to the recapitulation. For all that, I was disappointed that the movement’s larger second part wasn’t repeated.

It seems unfair to single out the first violin line but it is dominant in this work; so, when it falters, the performance’s ambience is weakened, as at the uncertain repeated E crotchets between bars 19 and 20 of the Adagio, and a poor assault on bar 21’s top F sharp. By about half way through, the reading’s aggressive style had taken over, become the norm and you reconciled with the Concourse’s lively acoustic. Second violin Wilma Smith‘s descending thirds starting at bar 65 proved uneasy in execution but Helen Ireland‘s viola striding arpeggios at bar 55 and onwards gave the work’s progress some welcome solidity. Something went awry with the first violin’s B sharp in the third last bar, marring an otherwise amiable resolution.

Once again, both violins were not sufficiently synchronised at a pivotal bar 8 of the Menuetto, although the repeat showed an improvement. In fact, this part of the work worked better than others because it could take some brisk handling, although I found the Trio‘s second half clumsily treated – a case of bucolic overkill. Fortunately, the final Fuga held some cerebral pleasure, mainly for its internal workings (even if these aren’t that strenuous), and for the moveable feast whereby the first subject’s four-semiquaver group enjoyed both regular and clipped handling.

When Jambazian joined in for the Mozart, errors still occurred, if not so prominently. The violin lines at the octave in bars 13 to 15 of the first movement sounded disjunct in tuning but the opening tutti as a whole showed improvement as the score moved forward. The pianist matched his quartet-orchestra in determination although he could pull out the lapidary stops as well, e.g. the 8 bar solo at bar 152, and the delicate figuration later beginning at bar 224.. Still, mistakes arose for no apparent reason with the B notes at bar 14 of the cadenza, and a mis-step further on at bar 32. Just as in the Haydn, the Allegro‘s closing bars came over as willing but ragged.

You could say that matters improved during the Andante; certainly, the violin duo worked to bracing effect in the unison bars 15 to 18, a passage that shone out for its singular eloquence, even if a repeat at bars 51 to 55 was less unified in pitching Jambazian observed a disciplined attack but the movement’s fluency was disturbed by a transmission blackout which had to be compensated for in a later viewing (the ADCH ticket purchase means you can review the whole performance for 72 hours after the initial transmission). I didn’t see what was gained by the arpeggiation of the E minor chord in bar 76: the melody restatement post-mini cadenza was proceeding amiably when this idiosyncrasy came up: slight but uncalled-for, I would have thought. Still, the post-major cadenza finishing-off was fairly clean.

Jambazian took a hearty approach to the Rondeau when he entered at bar 21, rising to hyper-metallic by bar 81. An odd error blunted the player’s output, e.g. bar 91, and the thistledown-light syncopations at bars 122-3 were over-emphatic. Mind you, the player sustained this style into his reading of Cadenza B which here prefigured Beethoven, although an inexplicable arpeggio flaw at bar 17 made the near-truculent flame flicker. Mozart’s light-stepping finale would have gained from less heavily-applied power from all participants; at the end, you wondered where the expected light and grace had gone.

A more suitable fit for the Flinders’ energy came with the Brahms C minor Quartet where flexing took over pretty early in the opening Allegro; luckily, the exposition repeat gave a better indication of the ensemble’s talents although that middle B in Smith’s bar 7 triple stop didn’t sit comfortably in the mesh. But, for all of the enthusiasm shown, the dynamic became overwhelmingly heavy, as at bar 52 and in the urgency of Brahms’ development which often bordered on hysterical. When the temperature cooled, strange things happened like a palpably wrong note in the violin 1/viola octave unison at bar 162. And moments that you anticipate with relish, like the wrenching violins’ duet between bars 178 and 181, misfired because of an absence of lyricism. Occasionally, Pavlovic-Hobba inserted a portamento that recalled a delivery style from a bygone age (he was alone, it seemed, in exercising this individuality), but he gave a splendid account of himself in the final burst of high-octane fervour across bars 231 to 239.

Not that you hadn’t noticed her until now, but Zoe Knighton‘s cello solo at bar 7 of the Poco adagio made for a welcome burst of moderately applied lushness. But the whole group came pretty close to fulfilling expectations right from the start of this romanze, notably in detailed work, like the alternating arpeggios across bars 61-63. Ireland’s viola emerged in fine voice during the following Allegretto molto; unusually effective in this busy, if not cluttered, environment. I admired the carefully shared switches between Pavlovic-Hobba and Ireland from bar 38, even if you might have asked for more vibrato on the sustained notes.

A firm and bold account of the finale’s opening statement – all two bars of it – prefaced the ensemble’s double-faceted interpretation which held some fine passages of play juxtaposed with others that were unsatisfactory because of faulty articulation and dynamics that held little common currency as the lines hurtled forwards. Still, that underlying impulse was maintained and a carefully outlined sweep from bar 219 to the concluding cadence made for a more impressive demonstration than might otherwise have been expected, given the push-through impetus that obtained for this movement’s more thickly-textured moments.

I’ve heard the Flinders at work for many years now – right from the start, in fact, when Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins began the group in partnership with survivors Ireland and Knighton. Other changes to the violin personnel have come about over the years, although nothing nearly as drastic has taken place as it has with the Australian String Quartet where, in comparison, Nothing beside remains. We know that COVID has brought discontinuity to musicians on all sides and in all lands, but ample rehearsal preparation time has returned as a concomitant of public performance. Judging by this night’s display, the Flinders have quite a way to go before they reach the level of homogeneity that obtained in the group’s earlier years. This will be particularly important when the possibility/probability of programming transparencies like Haydn and Mozart arises, although it appears that the rest of the ensemble’s year is headed for a more meat-and-three-veg diet.

Reflections of our struggle

THE CROWD & I

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday August 15, 2022

I would have thought that putting this exercise into operation was pretty simple. For all that, the process seems to have taken a number of years before it grew into its current form. The construct’s realization came from three prime sources: the ACO’s artistic director Richard Tognetti, film and staging director Nigel Jamieson, cinematographer and editor Jon Frank. Of course, a cast of several assisted this creative trinity, but the actual composite whole boiled down to a sequence of film sequences for the eyes and a collation of musics for the ears.

I’ve seen one of these collaborations before, when Tognetti went into partnership with photographer Bill Henson for Luminous in 2005. I think the surf/water one came my way at some time but nothing remains in the memory about that; Mountain, from about five years ago, remains a personal terra incognita, if not quite nullius. You can find little to take exception to in The Crowd & I; visually, it’s occasionally gripping and at other times tedious; with its musical stratum, the success rate is just about the same. So, much of the presentation fell outside my competence level, and the ACO’s contribution was hard to assess as the body seemed to be amplified for part of the night and the corps had mixed success with some works; not so much with the notes’ production but in how they sounded.

Along with the organization’s 16 strings (one down on the usual number, I think), we heard a flute/piccolo, a clarinet/bass clarinet, a bassoon/contrabassoon, a trumpet, a trombone/bass trombone, two percussionists and pianist Konstantin Shamray. Supplying vocal sounds came six members of Sydney’s Song Company. I think that summary includes all on-stage performers but can’t be sure: for much of the night, the musicians were working in darkness, a black-as-pitch pit situation with some strange groupings being carried out. Further to this, certain moments had you wondering whether you should just give up and watch the films rather than trying to make logical sense out of what you were hearing. For instance, during Ives’ The Unanswered Question, I could have sworn I saw an extra (anonymous) flute taking part in the woodwind ejaculations. The night began with the first movement to Schubert’s B minor Symphony in a Tognetti arrangement where the 15 original winds were cut to five, the result being that both oboe and horn textures were sadly missed by those of us who are asinine enough to revere this splendid fragment.

But some readings succeeded well enough, like the Slow Waltz section of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices that accompanied images of refugee camps and their dispiriting mixture of desolation and overcrowding. A Shostakovich polka supported shots of football crowds in all their natural repulsive mindlessness. The sickening images of the Cronulla riots in 2005 made a fine melding with Tognetti’s own rabid Mosh Maggot, which title is an apt descriptor for each one of those who initiated (from a gutless distance) or took part in this national celebration. Also, the final sequence of a Japanese fast train speeding through a seemingly endless, self-perpetuating cityscape while Chopin’s Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne forged along its troubled, unhappy path made for a conclusion to the evening that transcended much of the program’s main body, colourful though this was in many parts.

In the end, you’re left with an old-fashioned entertainment which, in fact, has no pretensions to grandeur or wide range of thought; more, it’s a look at the multitude and the individual in different contexts: the crowd or I. As expected, the visual component(s) stole most of the thunder and it often required a wrench to give proper focus to what Tognetti and his cohorts were about. I never thought that I’d be distracted from the Molto adagio of Beethoven’s Op. 132 but Michael Wolf’s images of individual faces among a crushed host of Japanese commuters were among the most arresting sequences in this night’s work; as were the succeeding prospects of Hong Kong housing that resembled computer strips straight out of the Matrix films.

It’s clear (to me, at least) that Tognetti, Jamieson and Frank are content to face you with their combined vision and leave open whatever you choose to make of it. (Well, there’s nothing original in that observation: most of today’s arts avoid audience direction.) Certainly, there are crowds galore, some of them obviously Australian (not just the Cronulla sub-normals), some of them close to being in extremis like the refugees coming to land on Samos or Lesbos, others a mass of individual colours that somehow cancel out individuality as in the millions that gather on the banks of the Ganges. Juxtaposed or interspersed with these come single units, like an elder walking into the landscape of the Tanami while the camera pans back until his figure is just a fleck in the spinifex; or like the football fan captured by Dragan Aleksic whose creased face reflects his team’s fortunes from minute to minute but might just as well be witnessing yet another mind-numbing spectacle in today’s Ukraine.

Look, for me, Augustus’ pet put it best: Odi profanum volgus et arceo. It’s clearly a sign of social decrepitude but these days I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in a packed football stadium – and this from somebody who stood from 8:30 am to the final whistle at the 1970 Collingwood-Carlton grand final and who, at the same ground, watched with muted involvement as South Melbourne won their 2005 premiership cup. Despite the much-vaunted bonhomie of sports crowds, any generosity of spirit, tolerance and fellowship can disappear in a split second with an unintentional jostle, just as it can in a bar. What this night made me consider was the essential – for better or worse – isolation that pervades our society.

In the filmed imagery, you saw little sign of benevolence. No, it wasn’t all horror stories but the final message was a contradiction of the dean’s dictum: every man is an island, entire of itself. You may live in one of those Hong Kong pigeon coops, as a tour leader in that city described her home to me, but, just because you are thrust daily into a variety of social complexes, what follows isn’t membership of a philanthropic multitude. For assured social connection, you might have your family; all too often, that’s it. As a counterweight to this gloom, our aboriginal peoples are determined to speak individually of belonging to a ‘mob’; but I suppose that concept is vital if you are part of an all-too-easily dismissed minority.

But the majority of us have no such right of relationship. Friends? Sure, but, as you age, they become ships that disappear into the night. A multiplicity of associations give you a semblance of being part of the main, but all such clannish continents are built on sand; ask any politician. For my part, The Crowd & I impressed as a 15-part kaleidoscope of sombre sadness, bordering on depression; the world’s peoples are varied but rarely are you attracted to join in, even when faced with bland celebrations of the spectacularly little, like Ekka or Moomba. But I admired the probity of the ACO’s construct which persevered in its unflattering vision of humanity as, in line with the Schubert overture piece, unfinished.

You’d like to be optimistic about our future, as proposed in the night’s opening shot of the earth as a vital, beautiful object in space, before the camera zooms in on the globe’s details. As it was presented, our world is – from a distance – a breathtaking objet trouve. But then comes the rot: while you may hope for the dearest freshness deep down things, you rarely find it. Strangely enough, on this night, while recognizing several truncations and arrangements, a sort of buoyancy of spirit emerged, even out of the program’s more tenebrous music, bearing witness to Tognetti’s (assisted?) catholicity of vision.

September 2022 Diary

ORAVA QUARTET

Brisbane Festival

South Bank Piazza, 410 Stanley Street

Sunday September 4 at 2 pm

The city’s own quartet – brothers Daniel (violin) and Karol (cello) Kowalik, Thomas Chawner (viola), David Dalseno (violin) – is contributing to the festival’s serious music component with this 60-minute recital in a part of South Bank/South Brisbane that I haven’t come across yet. The action is taking place in the Bank of Queensland Festival Garden, which could be interesting acoustically, although the players won’t have to compete with any opposing night music from nearby coffee bars and nightclubs. As currently scheduled, the event lasts 60 minutes and the group will play a world premiere in the form of a new piece by Elena Kats-Chernin which revolves around Greek folk song, strong women, and family ties across four generations . I understand how you’d use the first source (a big hello, Maurice) but struggle to see how the personality/relationships facets will be expressed. You’d hope that the musicians will be playing something else as well: I admire Kats-Chernin’s industry but an hour-long string quartet is a big ask – from her and from us.

PIANO POWER

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 9 at 11:30 pm

Here’s something to please those of us with a weakness for old-fashioned symphony orchestra programs. Under Asher Fisch, the QSO treats itself to the Brahms Symphony No. 3, distinguished for its striding power and conciseness of utterance. Before this, patrons can revel in Rachmaninov’s C minor Piano Concerto, the work that broke the composer’s compositional/psychological impasse in 1900/01. This is a powerful, instantly recognizable masterpiece: the harbinger of a plethora of Hollywood scores that celebrate angst and the moody side of romance. Soloist will be Behzod Abduraimov, a player I heard several years ago in Melbourne and a very impressive talent in a crowded field. For an overture we are offered Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland which Fisch premiered with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2018; this morning, it receives its first Queensland performance. I don’t know anything worth writing about this Australian work, let alone how long it lasts; the Perth critics liked it but supplied no information beyond inane generalisations. All I can report with certainty is that Skipworth’s vision is probably more elemental than and environmentally different to what we on the Gold Coast call ‘hinterland’.

This program will be repeated on Saturday September 10 at 7:30 pm

HEART CRY

Brisbane Chorale

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday September 11 at 11:30 am

For this event, the focal work is Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ Stabat Mater of 2008. This is something of an organizational nightmare as the Near Eastern colours that Jenkins requires need the help of a duduk (Armenian reed instrument) and at least four non-Western percussion. As well as the choral forces, a mezzo soloist is a sine qua non; in this case, Shirin Majd. The guest conductor is definitely Stefanie Smith who will direct the Chorale and Brisbane Symphony Orchestra in this work that you could wait a long time to hear again, I should think. Much of the singing element is set in your normal Latin, but it changes along the way several times into Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic as well as a few English texts by the composer and his wife. In 12 movements, Stabat Mater is substantial – over an hour long – and, in the best Bach tradition, Jenkins has recycled parts of his previous compositions. For prefatory matter, the orchestra plays Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Milhaud’s brief Meurtre d’un chef d’etat of 1963 which commemorated President Kennedy’s assassination, and Sculthorpe’s 1986 Earth Cry that requires a didjeridu performer – or does it? I recall William Barton coming on stage for a Melbourne Concert Hall performance but can’t find his instrument entered in a score sample. Still, the composer did publish an arrangement for string quartet and didjeridu; perhaps we’ll be hearing that version – and (with a bit of luck) the quartet original of the Barber work.

EXTASE

Voxalis

St. Andrew’s Uniting Church, 299 Ann Street

Sunday September 17 at 7 pm

Now that we’ve re-buddied up with our cher ami Manny, three members of the Voxalis group are leading an artistic rapprochement by presenting this excursion into French 19th/20th century song. I don’t believe I’ve heard any of the participants at work but that’s clearly because of my lack of familiarity with Queensland’s opera scene. Soprano Annie Lower will collaborate with tenor Mattias Lower (a relation?), both supported by pianist Mark Connors. As to what’s on offer, that’s rather opaque. For certain, patrons will hear Duparc’s Baudelaire setting, L’invitation au voyage and the earlier Op. 2 Serenade. And they will hear some unspecified Faure songs; in this latter area, the possibilities are vast. Because of the singers’ repertoire and experience, the program offers excerpts from Gounod’s most popular operas: Faust and Romeo et Juliette. Well, you can let your imagination run riot while anticipating this: Ah ! je ris de me voir, Salut, demeure, Laisse-moi contempler, Oui. c’est toi. Or, Je veux vivre, Ah! leve-toi, soleil, Ange adorable, O nuit divine, Salut, tombeau. Perhaps all of the above? Probably not, because the event is meant to last 70 minutes only. Although, if they get a move on . . .

MENDELSSOHN’S ELIJAH

The Queensland Choir

Brisbane City Hall

Sunday September 18 at 3 pm

For many years, this oratorio was almost as popular as Handel’s Messiah in English-speaking countries. Apparently am ongoing general consensus determined that one annual religious concert observance per year was enough and Elijah became de trop for any conscientious Anglican. I’ve experienced its joys only once – from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic in its stodgier days; not a trace of that performance remains in the memory. Proving that not everything I write has a basis in truth, The Queensland Choir is performing Mendelssohn’s masterpiece today and is mounting Messiah exactly three months later; well, they do things differently here as the Bjelke-Petersen era proved It’s hard to track down details about this Elijah except that the organization is presenting it ‘complete’, and the orchestra is that of Ensemble Q – a surprise in all senses as I thought the Qers were a chamber ensemble and incapable of stretching to the woodwind pairs, horn quartet, pair of trumpets trombone trio and ophicleide/tuba, as well as timpanist, organist and formidable body of strings that the composer’s large-scale construct requires. A choir that can stretch to 8 parts? Fair enough. Will there be the designated octet of soloists, or will conductor Kevin Power (I assume ’tis he) revert to the usual practice of having only four? For all those reservations, the only one of the work’s 42 numbers that I know is O rest in the Lord which sums up powerfully the composer’s four-square, unexceptionable standard of inspiration for this representative Victorian-era composition.

STUDIO SESSIONS 4

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Sunday September 25 at 3 pm

Here is a contemporary program that rivals most of what I’ve heard since moving north in terms of challenging an audience. Well, it looks that way on paper. The QSO is touting this chamber music recital as giving an audition to female and Australian composers. But is this exactly true? First up will be Holly Harrison’s Balderdash of 2017, an entertainment for string quartet which was given multiple outings at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition of 2018. Then there’s Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte of 2011; well, I’m assuming it will be in its original string quartet version. Shaw is certainly a woman composer, but she’s American. Not (as they say in Seinfeld) that there’s anything wrong with that, and it spreads the net somewhat wider: you don’t have to be both a woman and Australian to get a hearing this afternoon. Both works will be performed by violinists Sonia Wilson and Nicholas Thin, viola Nicole Greentree and cello Matthew Kinmont. Another entrant in these programmatic lists is Melbourne-born Harry Sdraulig, whose Meridian won the Arcadia Winds Composition Prize of 2020, and who is also qualified to be here as he’s Australian, if a man. For a mystery contributor, we have another wind quintet by ‘Green’ This could be Christina Green, who is based in Melbourne. It may be Thomas Green, a well-known presence in Brisbane. It might even refer to Brooke Green, although her interests lie more in strings than in wind composition. Whoever it turns out to be, his/her score and Meridian will be presented by flute Alison Mitchell, clarinet Irit Silver, bass clarinet Nicholas Harmsen, bassoon Nicole Tait, and horn Lauren Manuel. Which line-up leaves one rather major problem unsolved: we don’t know about the Green piece, but who from the QSO ranks will play the oboe line for Sdraulig? Huw Jones? Sarah Meagher? Alexa Murray? Or perhaps Vivienne Brooke indulging in some extra-cor anglais moonlighting?

SCHUBERT’S TROUT

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday September 26 at 7 pm

Central to this small-sized recital is the presence of pianist/composer Olli Mustonen, a musician who can delight and debilitate in turn. He’s become a regular visitor to this country over the last two decades and he has proved to be an asset in live performances on this scale, more so than in orchestral events; that’s been my experience, so far. He is part of an ACO-extracted ensemble that mounts the Schubert gem: one of the more delectable ways I can think of to spend a lazy 40 minutes or so. The other contributors are either Satu Vanska or Liisa Pallandi on violin, viola Stefanie Farrands, cello Timo-Veikko Valve, and double bass Maxime Bibeau. Before interval, a Bibeau-less ensemble will present Milhaud’s jazz-saturated La creation du monde ballet in the composer’s arrangement for piano and string quartet. Following this quarter-hour of cross-fertilization, Mustonen presents his own Piano Quintet of 2015 – the Milhaud format, rather than the Schubert idiosyncrasy. He’s a very competent composer and his three movements’ titles indicate his emotional tendencies: Drammatico e passionato; Quasi una passacaglia (Andantino); Finale (Misterioso). I heard this work some years ago and a repeated encounter convinces me that its language is hyper-emotional in a post-Romantic manner, on a par with the brilliantly contrived, skin-deep intellectual plunges of Britten.

MEDITERRANEAN

Avi Avital & Giovanni Sollima

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Tuesday September 27

You’d have to assume that this partnership came about through the players themselves, rather than an ad hoc something initiated by sponsors Musica Viva Australia. Let’s be brutally honest: the repertoire of original works for mandolin and cello is slim. What exactly can you perform when both instruments present as an unadorned duo? Lots of arrangements, of course: transcriptions, transpositions, transformations, transpondences for all I know. Our musical couple has roamed around the inland sea and come up with some folk-music to amplify their material: two traditional Sephardic melodies, one from Turkey, another from Macedonia, and one from Italy’s Salento region. As another source, publicity material mentions Bulgaria which these days is not strictly Mediterranean. The rest comprise a Scarlatti sonata, another one by Castello, a Frescobaldi canzone, and a slew of pieces by Sollima himself, along with a piano solo from 1939 by his father Eliodoro: Tarantella orientale. The cellist gives us an improvisation and the first movement, Federico II, of his string quartet Il viaggio in Italia; then, the second movement – Alep (pesce) – from his Il bestiario di Leonardo that was originally written for guitar quartet. Your projected experience involves a fair amount of mind-opening, particularly if you’re used to regular Musica Viva operations, but a reassuring factor for any agnostic comes through the virtuosity of both musicians involved.

Honest and resolute

BACH PIANO I

Judith Lambden

Move Records MCD 631

Lambden has already produced two Bach albums for Move: the English Suites in 2011 and the French Suites in 2013. Earlier, in 2009, she recorded the Partitas for Divine Art Recordings Now, after an interval of almost ten years, comes another collection which includes two major solo keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and the Italian Concerto. As a distinguishing feature to the CD, she begins with four of the seven toccatas for keyboard: BWV 911 in C minor, BWV 912 in D Major, BWV 913 in D minor and BWV 914 in E minor. These last-mentioned tracks are the more interesting components in this offering, works that don’t get much exposure, except for the BWV 912 which, in my experience, is one of the more manageable of the set.

I don’t know this artist at all, neither through live performance nor through broadcasts or recordings. This is unsurprising as well as unusual: Lambden spent many years in the UK and Europe, becoming a presence at the Victorian College of the Arts and other tertiary institutions on her return home, from which ambiences her name/presence should have struck my attention. But somehow it didn’t. Apart from a foray into Schubert’s last sonata, her recording activity has been confined to Bach where she is in distinguished company, to say the least.

The results are up and down, although not too much of the latter. Every so often, you are reminded of fallibility where a note is missed and so a line loses continuity, or the speed moves around rubato-like, in contrast to the metrical inflexibility that reigns these days as a reaction to the-alignments generated by Brahms, Busoni and even through Schoenberg’s chorale-prelude orchestrations In the toccatas, for instance, you won’t find majestic flourishes or moments of spontaneity, even if you think that you can see them in the music. Lambden’s approach is thoroughly workmanlike and her technical control is efficient; the results satisfy but they don’t show much spirit.

You won’t find any of the gallant Canadian humanism of Angela Hewitt, for example. Nor will you be confronted with the shibboleth-shattering re-toolings of Ton Koopman. Orthodoxy obtains all the way here and it’s somehow reassuring, even for my generation raised on Glenn Gould’s combination of purity and intransigence. The opening gestures post-dating Buxtehude in the C minor toccata are treated with metrical regularity and clarity; no sudden dashes, least of all in the strange layout of bar 11 leading to the Adagio, although Lambden inserts some individuality in that section’s flashy conclusion. It’s all gentle motion with entries pointed by the slightest of pauses.

You become aware of stiltedness in the following fugue, places where the expected dexterity doesn’t so much falter but is clearly tested, as in the arrival of the third voice. Still, the counterpoint is clear and the mid-flow cadenza enjoys some idiosyncratic negotiation. When the web becomes thick, e.g. from bar 100 to about bar 108, the texture is penetrable but Lambden’s articulation turns awkward, as later across bars 144-5 where Bach sticks to the middle of the keyboard. Still, the last adagio-to-presto is an unflustered flash of bar-busting insouciance.

Nothing disturbs the equanimity of the D Major work’s opening and its five rising scales and pendant power-accruing chords are buoyant if sober. The following gavotte-suggestive Allegro begins sturdily enough although, as matters move one, the pianist allows herself a fair amount of wriggle room, breaking the movement up into two- and four-bar stretches rather than aiming for smooth linkages. Well, it’s her choice, even if the effect is to change the action into something of a study.

At the bar 68 Adagio, we seem to have moved into the sound-world of Beethoven sonata slow movements, particularly at bar 71. The following andante-paced pages showed sympathetic expressiveness in a carefully applied Romantic manner which would have succeeded even better if the ornamentation had been more easily fused into the movement’s flow. Everything from the con discrezione direction on is open slather but here not wild enough to move out of Lambden’s pre-established context, although I would have preferred more of an expansiveness at bar 125 leading up to the gigue/fugue.

With this, Lamden’s approach proved light, which is more than acceptable, given the requisite mobility and the writing’s register. Something happened around bar 167 where a bar or two were omitted, according to my score; but with Bach, all things are possible. Though not quite a few notes that went missing, either through the pianist’s semi-staccato attack or simply because they didn’t sound – or possibly through the edition employed, although I can’t see the composer just letting his lines stop. My real problem came with the double-time acceleration that starts at bar 265 where Bach moves into demi-semiquaver land until the final two bars. To my mind, you have to stick to your last and play this section at double speed, not just offer a slight quickening; the splayed right-hand arpeggios are not hard to negotiate and should make for a crackling bravura explosion.

The smallest of the four toccatas on this CD, the E minor, is given a comparatively percussive treatment when you consider the approach taken in its predecessors. Each line is clearly delineated in the four voice allegro and again throughout the three-voice fugue at the conclusion. A few notes disappear, and in this situation you can tell that they simply don’t sound – because they do in a next-bar repetition of the same pattern. And again, half of the ornaments stick out like unhappy encrustations rather than as passing glances. Still, the emphatic attack works exceptionally well in the brittle two-page central adagio where abrupt outbursts contrast with predictable cadences and sequences.

And so to the longest in this set, that in D minor, which gets off to a fine, attention-grabbing start before the theatrics give way to a slow meditation at bar 15 from which point Lambden heaps on more incidentals than is comfortable, as well as revisiting her rubato approach in a slow meander up to bar 28 and a touch of presto. This toccata’s first fugue is a bit puzzling: at moments, a model of clear plain-speaking, then a bar that sounds clumsy in execution, followed by immediate recovery, an inexplicable acceleration at bar 100/101, later speeding up again at bar 111 where the repeated pattern’s insistence is mitigated by a flurry of temperament..

In the slow segment that follows, an instance of inconsistent touch comes with the last left-hand B flat in bar 127 which simply doesn’t sound and breaks a too-well-established pattern; it’s a small detail but hard to ignore. Actually, I find this one of the more yawn-inducing parts of the seven toccatas and Lambden unfortunately gives it full indulgence with a Romantic, tender approach that makes her breaking-out in the last 4 1/2 bars almost explosive in its impact. The final fugue finds the pianist in robust shape again with a steady pulse, a few moments of clumsiness, and an emphatic greeting of the subject whenever and wherever it emerges. But I liked the understated final two bars – a sort of withdrawal of drive in favour of an echo.

The two major works that Lambden presents will be familiar to most music-lovers and – even more than the toccatas – put the Australian pianist into a field populated by mighty names: Kempff, Brendel, Gilels, Arrau, Schiff, Landowska, Gould, Tureck, Nikolayeva, and the rest of the gang. For the Chromatic Fantasia, this artist carves an attractively fitful path, if it does slow down considerably at the end – a dying fall brought into play at about bar 74 – and the last chord’s top D is another non-sounder (or non-carrier). Apart from a few (and I mean about two) awkward-sounding bars where the inexorability slightly falters, Lambden outlines the fugue’s complex with admirable lucidity, bringing specific force to entries, reminding you of the plot when the composer’s love for leanly populated episodes takes over. Perhaps a bit too sturdy? Maybe, but you know exactly where the performance is leading in a performance of high conviction.

When it comes to the Italian Concerto, Lambden’s reading goes to prove the venerable saw: you can find something new in every performance of an old warhorse. I didn’t appreciate, even after 60+ years’ intimate knowledge of this score, how mock-melancholy are those decorated turns in bars 91, 93, 95 and later in bars 147, 149, 151; or how buoyant you can make the first theme’s restatement at bar 164 by a touch of speed; or how elated is the prevailing atmosphere that underpins this opening movement. A fellow student those many years ago who was also preparing this concerto for an exam told me that she found the most difficult bars to negotiate were bars 135-8, which thenceforward made this passage one of dread for me; even Lambden doesn’t come out of the displacement quite intact/assured.

Her approach to the middle movement is, as expected, sober and focused on highlighting the right-hand meandering above all else, including the repeated bass notes that many a pianist turns into something more than I think Bach intended; these pages enshrine a lengthy lyrical soprano line which plays top fiddle to the lugubrious left hand work which all too often moves into Beethoven Op. 31 D minor country. Again, the executant’s approach to the movement is individual, shaping the line and following its progress with a fine sensibility. Then, the final Presto is deftly carried off, even if a few notes fail to carry unless your amplification is maximal. It makes a jaunty ending to this worthy program; Lambden mightn’t have the mercurial brilliance of today’s young Bach interpreters but her readings have a reassuring probity and communicate a sense that an informed musical personality is at work.

Movement at the station, going . . . ?

AUSTRALIAN FESTIVAL OF CHAMBER MUSIC: JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY OPENING NIGHT CONCERT

NEW BEGINNINGS

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Friday July 29, 2022

Peteris Vasks

I’ve been to the Townsville Chamber Music week, way back in the days when newspaper had money – and so did festivals. It must have been in the earlier manifestations; as it’s been going for 30 years, that would put it back in the middle 1990s, I suppose. The place struck me as rough and ready, and not just because of the off-duty military looking for a Saturday night fight in the centre of town. It was a laid-back sort of place; so much so, that I found myself walking in a land rights demonstration because I was labouring under the misapprehension that everybody walked in the middle of the road.. Was it held in July/August in those times? I just remember the weather being stinking hot so that walking around in search of venues was a major effort.

As for music, I recall a master class being given by a cranky Charmian Gadd, dissatisfied (and showing it) at the poor preparation of some participants. A major concert in the Civic Centre escapes into the dim recesses of the memory, but a reading of the Brahms Horn Trio in a church on Sunday morning was a valuable introduction to a work that I’d never heard till then.

For this year’s opening night concert, an impressive number turned up, even if (as with so many chamber music events these days) the patrons were mainly elderly. What they heard was varied in quality and very long. Pace Jack Liebeck and his administrative team, this initial program was a farrago in standard of works and standard of execution. As for us spectators-from-afar, the event proved to be slippery: even with the program notes, you didn’t know what was coming next, or – more importantly – why.

Artistic director Liebeck came on stage after the inevitable voice-over salute to First Nations peoples and gave a speech that might have been better prepared instead of the stumble that it turned out to be. He told us that the first piece, Nginda Ngarrini Bi Ngya by Deborah Cheetham, would/could not be performed because the composer/soprano was ill. OK; not the best of openings but bearable. He also told us that a visiting artist, Turkish cellist Jamal Aliyev, was also unavailable but his place would be taken by Michael Goldschlager, one-time member of the Macquarie Trio before that university took away its patronage of the ensemble. Actually, this change would have passed unnoticed by most because Goldschlager’s name led one published list of personnel for this opening night schedule.

So we started with the original second piece: Milhaud’s ballet La creation du monde, in the version for piano and string quartet minus the viola which is replaced by a saxophone – or not: this reading found Daniel de Borah on keyboard with violinists Elizabeth Layton and Natsuko Yoshimoto, cellist Trish Dean, and Paul Dean on clarinet. One recording with Previn as pianist uses a standard string quartet; some others go in for the clarinet-for-viola substitute. Whatever the reality, this version made for agreeable listening. testifying to the composer’s discovery of jazz and use of it to his fullest. No surprises besides some cuts to the original chamber orchestra score and, of course, the interest in seeing how Milhaud dealt out his gifts to this limited number of executants.

It’s of its time – 1923 – and to contemporary ears sounds rather dated, with lots of Gershwin-type flourishes and similarities, like the ghost of the Prelude No. 2 arising in the Romance. But the rhythmic blurts and syncopations present no problems for players of this calibre and the score is repetitious enough for you to feel unchallenged as it follows its comfortable, slightly swinging path through a slightly elliptical fugue to the precise vigour of the Final‘s fast episodes. For an ad hoc group, these players generated a fair interpretation.

Next came the Gran Sestetto Concertante, an anonymous arrangement for string sextet of Mozart’s magnificently assured Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola of 1779. Well, that was what the program promised but Liebeck forgot to say in his initial address, that the entertainment would feature only the middle Andante movement – so the Gran bit disappeared. For this oddity, Liebeck and Corey Cerovsek played the violin lines, Simon Oswell and Benjamin Roskams the violas, Elina Faskhi and Julian Smiles the dual cellos. This C minor gem was seen through with diligence and a tendency to hard-hitting, notably in those passages where not much is happening melodically and everyone is marking time (for example, bars 53 to 57, bar 126 up to the cadenza accompagnata).

Apart from these to chugging bursts, the only other faults to be heard came from Liebeck himself with a pair of squeaks: one in bar 27, the other at bar 112. It’s a fair arrangement, no matter who put it together: everybody gets a guernsey at some stage, particularly Faskhi whose first cello part enjoyed the initial violin solo and engaged with other gifts along the way. The absent orchestral parts – pairs of horns and oboes – provide chords and reinforcements mainly, with only a few points where either set breaks out into something else; so the loss in timbre seems minimal. Still, the colours are there in the original’s background and, if you know and love the sinfonia, you feel the lack.

A complete change of pace followed when mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean sang two numbers with pianist Kristian Chong giving her the blandest of supports: Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, and The Inchworm from Frank Loesser’s music for the King Vidor film Hans Christian Andersen. For the first, Betts-Dean’s voice held a plummy richness which worked against the seductiveness of the song itself, as did the all-stops power of the climactic So don’t let them begin the beguine. However, it was a pleasurable change to hear a real voice giving this song an airing, after nearly 90 years of scungy, slovenly readings from every Thomasina, Dick and Harry. Similarly, in the Danny Kaye song, this singer made the leaps accurately, the song very flattering to her production technique and her expressive ability. Nice to hear, but stretching the definition of chamber music.

A festival minor specialty followed in Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, a wind quintet that asks its performers to speak the text as well as play the score. In four movements, the work carries its heavier messages lightly, here performed by flute Alison Mitchell, oboe Emmanuel Cassimatis, clarinet Dean, bassoon David Mitchell, and horn Peter Luff. As the music originally comes from Berio’s younger days, you look in vain for anything resembling the chamber music for which his name resonated as an innovator – Circles, the Sequenze, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), Recital I. Much of it sounded uncomplicated, with the possible exception of The Fawn movement where the despair at man’s inhumanity to man is more stringently expressed.

But it’s very quick and full of action as the musicians shared the spoken lines, rather than having one player laden with textual responsibility. By and large, the necessary legerdemain (in the odd-numbered movements) was maintained, and the work held some surprises; for instance, it took me a while to realise that Mitchell was playing an alto during the last Tom Cats piece. I suppose the work appeared as a precursor to the evening’s finale, although Rhoda Levine’s libretto/poems were superior to pretty much everything spoken during the Saint-Saens.

After an extended interval (meant to be 20 minutes, according to the transmitted communication, but stretching out for at least half-an hour while the Townsvilleans re-discovered their seats/the building), we heard the night’s best music-making when the Goldner Quartet performed Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3. Right from the start, you were aware of the ensemble’s security, even in the linear balance that obtained in the short hymn-like chord chains above or below a drone that framed the score’s discussion. As the initial Moderato progressed, the Goldners’ settled personality reassured, their mutual confidence a gift to the music itself.

This reliability came into higher focus in the following Allegro energico where rough open fifths and dislocated rhythmic pulses demonstrated these musicians’ preparation and integrity of interpretation, even turning the two folksy interludes into something more impressive than bucolic dross or fiedel whining. Speaking of twos, the group generated a pair of powerful highpoints in the threnody-like Adagio. Even more telling skill came across in this movement’s polyphonic webs: tough writing where material is packed together with weight that approaches suffocation.

In his finale, Vasks brings in bird imitations – simple trills and susurrations that meld with the opening movement’s hymn chains. A burst of folk-music stamping, then back to the hymn+trills; some more Latvian hoedown before a hohepunkt, and the work fades into silence through its opening material. Vasks suggests that his work is linked to the twin concepts of Christmas and peace; his vision is a personal one in that this feast-day is pretty fraught, and his prospects for a universal armistice remain open-ended. So, while affecting in its emotional language, the quartet is unsettling, despite its luminous final bars, disrupted by a ridiculously prominent cough from a patron during the second-last bar (where do they dig these people up?)

We came, at last, to the Carnival of the Animals. The two pianists whose work is central to the score were Chong and Daniel Grimwood. Mitchell and Dean returned as woodwind soloists; the string quintet comprised violins Layton and Brigid Coleridge, viola Oswell, cello Goldschlager, and double bass Phoebe Russell. In charge of the percussion, Jacob Enoka played xylophone and possibly a glockenspiel for the original’s glass harmonica; to be honest, I was looking at the score for the entire performance. Damien Beaumont provided the prefatory verses to each movement, and I wish he hadn’t; I don’t know who wrote them but the effort was misplaced because of a lack of wit, rhyme, and self-restraint (a few of them were longer than the music they preceded).

This wasn’t the cleanest of renditions, but I suppose you’d have to expect that with necessarily insufficient rehearsal time to prepare this deceptive work. Something odd happened in the contrary-motion glissandi in bar 11 – or was it simple clumsiness? Nothing disturbed the Lion’s March or the Hens and Roosters. The Wild Asses piano duet only came apart at one obvious point; then Chong supplied a deftly graduated support of triplets for Russell in the Tortoises pages. Elephant and Kangaroos passed painlessly.

Aquarium proved delicate although someone had problems settling into the first bar’s rhythmic mesh. Personages with long ears is marked ad lib; both violinists took full advantage. In the pretty simple Cuckoo in the deep woods, the pianos were out of sync at about bar 8/9 and the last chord failed to impress as a united effort. Mitchell skittered through Aviary without dropping a note, as far as I could tell. Chong and Grimwood went for broad humour in Pianists, deliberately hitting wrong notes and getting out of time with each other; for me, the fun lies in the executants’ ability to become automata.

Fossils brought Enoka’s xylophone into the sound-world, even though that instrument’s part is repetitive and simple. Then Goldschlager played a sensitive, restrained The Swan, although some stretches to the line’s top notes were achieved with effort, like the top D just before Figure I in the Durand edition. And the Finale bounced along with no apparent flaws, apart from a disjunction six or seven bars before Figure 7. The night ended at 10:45 pm, leaving me satiated, but not in a totally satisfied way.

As I say, this program was a mash-up, not helped by a lack of determination in certain pieces, especially the final offering. It was hard to avoid the impression that this program lacked any cohesion; it was as though pieces were being given on spec, to see how they would go. Somehow, the whole exercise struck me as provincial, rudderless, pitched at an unnecessarily low level (typified by Beaumont’s twee commentary). You have to hope that later events prove more coherent in their essentials; we’re all celebrating that we’ve been allowed out of detention, but that shouldn’t mean that, as a fine entertainer once said to us, anything goes.

******************************

The above was written before I looked at upcoming programs in the festival. Now that I’ve seen what’s on offer, I’ve been too harsh: those over this weekend also have an everybody-in ambience, as though available participants dictate the events – which is as strange as Liebeck’s request for patrons to vote on their favourite piece of chamber music, with an aim of programming the most acclaimed works at the next festival. My money’s on the over-familiar like the Archduke and the Trout – anything with a nickname – the American, Dumky, Spring, Kreutzer. I’m almost prepared to lay money that Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky will not get nominated. In fact, my gamble would probably extend to any living composer.

August 2022 Diary

RAY CHEN

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday August 11 at 8 pm

The young Taiwanese/Australian violinist has special ties with Brisbane where he carried all before him as an extraordinarily talented pre-teen. His career since leaving the Sydney Conservatorium has been remarkable, distinguished by winning the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin Competition and the 2009 Queen Elisabeth, named for one of the few worthwhile European royals of the last century. It was a tedious struggle but I eventually found out what Chen is performing, with the support of Melbourne pianist Timothy Young. The duo will work through Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G, the one that precedes the Kreutzer and which is welcome for its extended, sunny disposition. Also, patrons will hear Stravinsky’s Divertimento of 1934, wheedled out of his The Fairy’s Kiss ballet for Samuel Dushkin. Bach’s solo E Major Partita, last in the set, stands out for that non-stop Preludio that appealed so much to Robert Moog; Chen plays all six (seven) movements. He also works through two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in arrangements by Joachim (No. 7) and Kreisler (No. 17), before taking on Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs – a piece I heard him play some years ago with brilliant effectiveness. I fear this event may be sold out; the one stalls seat I found was going for $250. I like both players, but not at that price.

FOUR LAST SONGS

Brisbane Music Festival

Loyal Hope of the Valley Lodge, Fortitude Valley

Friday August 12 at 6:30 pm

No, Alex Raineri hasn’t managed to cobble together the large orchestra that Strauss called into being for this farewell to arms. Indeed, I’m going on the assumption that soprano Rebecca Cassidy will have pianist Raineri’s backing only, although another guest on this program – violinist Courtenay Cleary – may come in to bat for the central violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen. This is a big ask for Raineri who has to suggest a world of warmth and orchestral detail; but then, he made a pretty fair fist of the transcribed Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome which he performed last year. Showing us more of his talents, Raineri also plays Bach’s transcription for organ of Vivaldi’s RV 565, for which D minor Concerto the pedal line is mercifully not too taxing. The only other artist mentioned as contributing is Drew Gilchrist who will take front spot for Margaret Sutherland’s 1949 Sonata for clarinet and piano in two movements. Cleary’s also performing a chamber work in Arthur Benjamin’s heart-on-sleeve Sonatina for violin and piano of 1924. All respect to Cassidy for taking on those long lyrical arches but I’d be anticipating with more interest the Australian pieces which attract much fewer public performances.

DEFIANT WOMEN

Brisbane Music Festival

Loyal Hope of the Valley Lodge, Fortitude Valley

Saturday August 13 at 6:30 pm

It could be part of the Me Too movement’s attempts to find valuable avatars; this recital focuses on female composers of the Baroque. The details of exactly what is being sung or played have not been made clear but the roll-call is impressive. Naturally enough, the list is headed by Barbara Strozzi, one of the most published composers of her time who lived a life that is half open-book, half innuendo. Less sensational was Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, a Louis XIV musician who also enjoyed considerable success in her lifetime. Her countrywoman Mlle Guedon de Presles was primarily a singer but also wrote the first book of airs written and published by a woman. Lady Mary Dering’s output survives, thanks to its publication by Lawes, but it comprises only three pieces, all songs: the first music by a woman published in England. Mlle Bocquet, a lutenist, composed music for her instrument; I can’t find anything else in her output. Rosa Giacinta Badalla had a book of solo motets published in her lifetime, as well as two cantatas. Providing a bit of balance to an almost-all Italian/French program comes Countess Amalia Katharina von Waldeck-Eisenberg who published Pietist poems and songs in 1692. All very well, but I don’t know how defiant any/all of these women were; the music will tell us, undoubtedly. Performing these rarities are soprano Bethany Shepherd, guitarist Jeremy Stafford, cellist Katherine Philp, and harpsichordist (who else?) Alex Raineri.

ORCHESTRAL ADVENTURES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 13 at 7:30 pm

Newly-ordained associate conductor for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Elena Schwarz is here to direct this one-night, one-off program which features Jack Liebeck, who takes over as the new controller of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, while maintaining a high activity level in a wide-ranging solo career. He’s here to play the middle one of the canonic Mozart violin concertos, No. 3 in G. It’s one of the quirky joyful discoveries of this craft to know that the composer wrote the whole set by the time he was 19; yes, he didn’t have time to waste but this rate of focused production still dumbfounds me. Schwarz conducts the Shostakovich E flat Symphony No. 9, written after World War II and a disappointment to some of that conflict’s winners because of its lack of heroic blather. Mind you, these are the same people who misinterpreted the Symphony No. 5 for decades. This five-movement score only lasts for about 25 minutes which (so far as I can judge) will suit the QSO patrons to a T. As a prelude to the swelling scene, Schwarz leads her players in the Australian premiere of Piece 43 for Now, written in 2020 by Brisbane-born Cathy Milliken. This chamber orchestra-sized piece takes its inspiration from three sources: the COVID-19 lockdown of March 2020; the August 2020 police shooting of Jakob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 – When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see. Well, that’s plenty to be going on with, especially seven orchestral explosions representing the shots that crippled Blake for life. But you have to ask yourself: in a state that has produced intellectual debris like Palmer, Hanson and Katter, do black lives matter?

THE CROWD & I

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday August 15 at 7 pm

This, by my count, is the fourth of Richard Tognetti‘s documentary films with musical accompaniment, following a path set by Mountain (2017), The Reef (2013) and Luminous (2005). Only the first-born of these has come my way as a reviewer, the other two experienced partially, in fragments. You get lots of suggestive film/photography – in this instance, showing massed humanity in all its goriness – and a selection of whole pieces (sometimes) and extracts (more often) from scores that the creators find appropriate. Speaking of the onlie begetters, they are Tognetti, director Nigel Jamieson, and cinematographer Jon Frank. To be honest, I can take or leave the film component of exercises like this, being able to find only the most superficial relationships between the seen and the heard. So, for the latter, we are promised that the ACO will be airing music by Chopin, Ives, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Tognetti himself – although I think that listing may be partial only. Yes, the purpose is admirable: to give us snapshots of humanity and show us that we are part of the main. Will we learn much more than this? Let’s wait and see.

ICONIC CLASSICS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Southbank

Wednesday August 17 at 10 am

They’re scraps of classics, the pieces on this program; there is only one discrete score. A good many events from the QSO belong to this bitty genre and they lead you to think that the administration finds benefit in offering Reader’s Digest-type entertainments; possibly, there’s a tapping-in to a different audience to the one that is prepared to sit through the Mahler Symphony No. 3 later in this month. It’s sort of working on the same premise that spoon-feeds the classics to children, popular wisdom being that kids can’t concentrate for extended periods. Maybe so: for me, it all depends on the presentation as mediocre playing leads to impatience when you’re 7 or when you reach 70. Guy Noble serves the dual role of conductor and host for this concert; an ideal choice for these circumstances. Setting the bar low from the start comes The Toreadors, the concluding movement from Guiraud’s Suite No. 1 from Bizet’s Carmen. Move to a scrap from John Williams’ score for E.T., then Morricone’s well-known Gabriel’s Oboe from Roland Joffe’s film The Mission – a delight for any delusional Jesuit. Later, Noble leads his forces in music from Babe, a film which, as I recall, features strongly the fourth movement to Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, complete with four-hands piano and organ (do they have one in the Studio?). A bow in the direction of Vienna with the Radetzky March from Strauss Vater will probably lead to mass-clapping, like it does at those predictable New Year’s concerts; what the Austrians call audience participation. But this is the complete piece mentioned above. Some masterworks are truncated: Beethoven’s C minor Symphony, first movement only; Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the opening Allegro only. And finally, two ballet score extracts: the second movement from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans Suite, Eliza aria; and the finale to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake which should send everyone home feeling appropriately apotheosized.

The performance will be repeated on August 18 at 10 am and 11:30 am.

SUBITO

Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Wednesday August 17 at 6:30 pm

British violinist Victoria Sayles makes her only Australian recital appearance here. Accompanied by Festival director Alex Raineri, she plays a pretty orthodox program that starts with Mozart: the two-movement Sonata in E Minor K. 304, written about the time of the death of Mozart’s mother, and his only work in this particular key. Sayles wraps up her demonstration with Elgar’s Violin Sonata, also in E minor and coming from the last active burst in the composer’s life. You hear it rarely in live performance but its manifold merits argue for it against criticism of Elgar’s later years’ introspection. In the evening’s middle comes Lutoslawski’s Subito, a duet written in 1992. As its title suggests, it’s abrupt, compressed (less than 5 minutes), and takes no prisoners. As a companion relief, Sayles and Raineri give an outing to Takemitsu’s Distance de fee of 1951 where the Japanese composer extends the line running from Debussy through to Messiaen, his teacher. A well-hinged program, pivoting on two substantial sonatas with a soft centre comprising two samples of 20th century fare by writers with individual voices.

MOONDRUNK

Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Thursday August 18 at 7 pm

Any festival that gives you Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is doing right by its patrons. The epoch-shredding melodrama of 1912 remains one of the corner-stones of 20th century composition, at the apex of modernism and a thorny test for its executants. Speaking of which, the original personnel number has been expanded here; from the original sextet, this performance boasts seven participants. That dilation comes about because the violin/viola part has been divided between Courtenay Cleary and Nicole Greentree. For the rest, Jonathan Henderson has charge of the flute/piccolo lines, Drew Gilchrist is undertaking the clarinet in A/clarinet in B flat/bass clarinet trio, Trish Dean will play the cello part, and festival director Alex Raineri presides at the all-important piano. Our Sprechstimme expert is Tabatha McFadyen, no stranger to Brisbane as a director, and an authority on the vocal part of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. It will be a great pleasure to hear this taxing vocal/speaking part in capable hands (so to speak) for once. Not complaining, mind you, but this will be a pretty focused night: the work lasts about 40 minutes. And it will be sung/chanted in English, which I think is in line with the composer’s preference for the vernacular wherever Pierrot is performed.

HOMEGROWN

Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Friday August 19 at 7 am

And who better to embody this title than a collection of Australian female composers? Soprano Rebecca Cassidy, having negotiated the Four Last Songs of Strauss a week ago, now has the joy of singing a program of local bon-bons, accompanied by festival director Alex Raineri. No details are available of what is being presented; just a list of names from recent historical reaches, including a world premiere by Deborah Cheetham who was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence for 2020. There will be blasts from the recent past by Margaret Sutherland, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Dulcie Holland, Miriam Hyde, Queensland’s own Betty Beath, and American-born Mary Mageau. Also, we hear from some senior composers who are still with us – Helen Gifford, Elena Kats-Chernin and Linda Kouvaras, as well as a younger voice in yet another Queensland-born writer, Lisa Cheney. That’s a fine collection; as varied in number of contributors as a Joan Sutherland recital program, but with somewhat more focus on sources than what looks good on me.

75TH BIRTHDAY CONCERT

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday August 19 at 7:30 pm

How do you celebrate achieving 75 years of existence? If you’re sensible, you let the occasion pass without drawing attention to yourself; it’s an achievement of sorts, but not that extraordinary. Longevity starts at 100, I think; the lead-up is unremarkable these days. Still, the QSO is obviously happy to have come of age in the sense of graduating into an exclusive set; or it may be just happy to have lasted, given the hurdles put in place for any symphony orchestra’s continued existence. To observe this underwhelming feat, the organization is bringing in two conductors: Johannes Fritzsch, who has been associated with the QSO officially since 2008 and has recently returned as chief conductor; and Guy Noble, one of the country’s most well-known musical personalities and all-rounders. Fritzsch rounds off the occasion with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which will showcase the QSO, in a way: all colour, no substance. He also directs percussionist Chantel Chen, the QSO’s 2022 Young Instrumentalist prize-winner, in Keiko Abe’s Prism Rhapsody for Marimba and Orchestra. Well, sort of: we won’t hear the full thing, but excerpts – in keeping with the administration’s penchant for fragmentation. Noble has charge of Sean O’Boyle’s 2001 Concerto for Didgeridoo, with soloist Chris Williams. Again, sort of: we will hear only the last of the work’s four movements – Fire. And Noble also repeats his interpretation of the Swan Lake Finale, resuscitated from the Iconic Classics program of two days previous. Not sure who has the job of re-animating Strauss’s Radetzky March – also from the collation of August 17 – and you’d have to assume that the Fanfare for the Seventy-Fifth Birthday of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will play itself if it’s an all-brass/timpani undertaking in the best Copland manner. The composer of this last is Craig Allister Young, one of the more active (extra-QSO) members of the organization’s cello septet.

SUPERFAMOUS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 20 at 7:30 pm

Here’s Guy Noble back to head a program that is half a repeat of the Iconic Classics menu of August 17/18. Kats-Chernin’s Eliza Aria from the Wild Swans ballet suite, Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission film, the final pages of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, John Williams’ Adventures on Earth from the E.T. soundtrack, and the opening Allegro to Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade all re-appear. True, there are some novelties: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Overture, Debussy’s Clair de lune as orchestrated by Stokowski, the second movement to Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, the Nimrod dirge from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and – most impressive of all – Michael Giacchino’s Full Mayhem from the soundtrack to The Incredibles computer-animated film. Now, the promoters are pushing this event as ‘For all those people new to classical music that think, “I just want to hear the really famous pieces” – this concert is for you.’ Good luck with that. Do you think your one-time first-go patrons will come back, given the extracts to be aired? That Mozart piece has been bastardized beyond belief; God knows what a newcomer will make of Kats-Chernin’s segment; and why play the Beethoven Allegretto when you could have energized the audience with the symphony’s final Allegro con brio? Still, the powers-that-be must know what they’re doing.

MAHLER 3

Brisbane Chorale

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 27 at 7 pm

I’ve heard a few performances live of this mammoth symphony. Markus Stenz worked through it as part of his cycle of the complete symphonies. Sir Andrew Davis also gave it to us when he was attempting to mount the same series. And I heard it again from Stenz when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra visited Sydney in the Olympics year as part of a concomitant cultural festival. I don’t understand what it is about this composer’s large-scale constructs that proves so attractive to officials in charge of celebrations. For example, to mark the centenary of Federation, we endured No. 8 in the Exhibition Building; I’m still struggling to see how No. 3 relates to competitive sport. And as for using No. 2 as a demonstration of the improved acoustics in Sydney’s Opera House Concert Hall, the mind boggles. What were they demonstrating, exactly? How a massive orchestral fabric has improved in sound quality because the suspended reflectors have been replaced? If the hall did its job properly, you wouldn’t need them. Ditto the box fronts’ panels. A better indication of acoustic quality would have come from a Gabrieli canzone, Webern’s Symphonie, Penderecki’s Threnody, Ionisation, the Gran Partita, and the Janacek Sinfonietta for a clear big sound – not Mahler’s waffling. All that content would give you some precise ideas on how the ‘new’ acoustic works. Anyway, here comes Brisbane’s home-grown Mahler, the often teeth-on-edge No. 3 in D minor. Not all the Chorale is needed; only the women appear, having to wait around (just like the unfortunate choir in the Resurrection Symphony), in this case for the second-last movement. So does the children’s choir, in this case that of the Queensland Youth Orchestra who will be put to work by Simon Hewett, the QYO’s spanking new Music Director. Mezzo Deborah Humble, who came in as a last-minute replacement for Michelle DeYoung at Sydney’s extravaganza on July 22, will have the pleasure of giving us Mahler’s fourth movement setting of Nietzsche’s O Mensch! Gib acht! verses.

KREUTZER

Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sunday August 28 at 3 pm

Put to further use in the initial flurries of this festival, Courtenay Cleary is performing one of the violin repertoire’s cornerstones: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, yclept Kreutzer following its re-dedication to a violinist who never played it. The more fool he, as it is one of the most exhilarating duos to work through, even for mediocre performers. At this stage, it probably doesn’t need noting, but I will anyway: the accompanist is festival director and factotum Alex Raineri. After this sonata’s exuberant finale, both artists will be joined by violinist Miriam Niessl and cellist Daniel Shearer for a work that I’ve never heard: Korngold’s Suite Op. 23. This quartet is in five movements and is constructed on a broad canvas, although the piano part is for left hand alone; the work was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein for his own use. You’ll get your money’s worth at this event: both works last well over half-an-hour each.

ITALIAN SONGBOOK

Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sunday August 28 at 6:30 pm

Here’s another special, the sort of thing you expect to hear at a festival. Soprano Alexandra Flood and baritone Alexander York are accompanied by festival guru Alex (three of them!) Raineri in the two volumes of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. There are a lot to get through: 22 in the first book, 24 in the second. The practice has been that two singers alternate in their performance, the whole thing taking between 75 and 80 minutes. The composer has had wonderful interpreters, both male and female, but you can go some years without coming across any Wolf lieder on a recital program; indeed, the only Wolf I’ve heard in the last decade has been the Italian Serenade, a quick-witted exhibition piece for string quartet. On this night, the musicians take a break between the books, during which interval complimentary cannoli and wine will be served. Flood, originally from Victoria, is a well-travelled artist, a good part of her time spent in German opera houses and concert halls; Wisconsin-born York is similarly internationalist, with a recent accent on France. He and Flood sang this Wolf cycle in Munich on July 7 this year, so they should arrive here pretty well-prepared.

The flute in our time

FLUTE PERSPECTIVES VOLUME 3

Derek Jones & Jerry Wong/Leigh Harrold

Move Records MD 3463

Another long-range view of Australian composition: that chamber music corner reserved for solo flute and flute-plus-piano works. This time, Jones keeps his oldest till last: Miriam Hyde‘s Flute Sonata of 1962. Jump forward 32 years for Johanna Selleck‘s Deja Vu, written for the composer herself as part of her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. From three years ago come Tom Henry‘s Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of his music-loving father, which starts the disc; and a Sonatine for flute and piano by Linda Verrier, a Canadian-born writer recently settled in Australia and who has dedicated this score to Jones. Most recent in this collection, Rohan PhillipsInvention (V) was composed last year, another piece specifically for Jones (so far).

Each sonata has three movements, Henry’s being the most temporally substantial work at a little over 18 minutes, Hyde’s coming in 6 minutes shorter. All the piano parts are performed by Wong, except for the Verrier Sonatine where Harrold partners Jones. The other three works are single-movement units, both Selleck and Phillips speaking and communicating with assurance and a compression of structure and material that impress, not least for their individuality of utterance.

Hyde wrote her sonata just at the time when a group of young guns were bringing us all to a consciousness that Bartok was not the last word in modernity. Richard Meale had produced his confrontational Sonata for flute and piano in 1960; Sculthorpe, his Sonata for Viola and Percussion in the same year; Butterley’s Laudes appeared a year after Hyde’s work which was contemporaneous with George Dreyfus’ From within, looking out. Of course, a good deal of musical activity was continuing blithely along Hydean lines, but the creative situation had shifted pretty suddenly from its former, settled underpinnings.

Even Hyde’s movement titles come from a bygone era: Allegro giocoso, Andante pastorale, Allegro con spirito – all reflect an age that predates the British country/folk-song eruption of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Still, as this work demonstrates, she had a mastery of style and vocabulary that persisted throughout her career, this work coming from the long middle years of it. Although the Sonata is sited in G minor, no matter how hard she exerts herself, in her opening Allegro Hyde can’t stay away from the relative major and the only severe traces of minor come in a march-like repeated chord pattern that occurs in the exposition and the orthodox recapitulation. Things proceed in unexceptionable style with some lightly perky work for Jones and a pulse that doesn’t vary but seems to stick to the initial 2/4 throughout.

The second movement sounds rather heavy for a pastoral, Wong delivering his repeated quaver chords with fidelity if not much variety of attack. But the piece is a fairly simple, polished lyric where you can see clearly what use Hyde makes of her building blocks, be it a minor second dip, a descending pattern of two triplets, or a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver. Much the same transparency applies to the rondo finale which ends, apart from a final flourish, with a reference to one of the preceding episodes. Yet again, the piece is in G minor but the dark shadings are applied with a light touch and this jig with its defining held quaver across the centre of a 6/8 bar is deftly utilised in a set of pages that flash several welcome sparks in a finely controlled, coherent realization from both musicians.

Henry’s sonata opens with a keening, regularly-paced flute solo notable for some ‘bent’ notes and a few contributions from Wong operating inside the piano for some of the time before both instruments settle into a kind of threnody. The composer calls this movement The elements; nothing to do with the periodic table or ballets by Delalande or Fery, but more a setting-out of the work’s material which at first presentation sounds like an orthodox step-by-step melody, moving into some rapid trills in both instruments. The ambience becomes more frenetic as the pace increases and the flute’s range moves into more expanded and angular territory, mirrored by the keyboard. Henry uses a language that is half-traditional in harmonic terms but has its dissonant moments. The excitement fades and the initial patterns – well, a few of them – re-emerge before a quiet, unresolved ending.

If anything, the second movement sounds more orthodox at its opening before moving to slightly more challenging ground and thicker part-writing. There is a sort of catch-and-release about these pages where disjunct leaps across the flute’s register and a dense keyboard part give way to more transparent writing. Weighty repeated chords and a declamatory outburst from the piano in an Ivesian Pelion-upon-Ossa climax ends this depiction of Inner worlds.

A genial trill-laden introduction sets up anticipation for the lead into a concluding 6/8 Presto in which Henry again oscillates between several languages melded into a satisfying entity. I wouldn’t call the melodic material memorable but then I find echoes of many another flute/piano duet in these pages – everything from Prokofiev through Poulenc to Ibert and even (probably unconscious) echoes of Hyde. Nonetheless, the movement in this fast section presented as segmented, the episodes overtly linked by recalls of the opening bars to the Presto but not quite cohesive enough; in two places, I thought that the forward impetus had halted for no good reason. But the sonata as a whole is an excellent showcase for flute, Jones showing few signs of stress despite some testing passages.

Low piano notes and a rising four note pattern dominate the first pages of Verrier’s Sonatine. The flute floats above this with an angular lyric before a partnership is established and the piece is underway and the cells expand and coalesce. Mind you, appearances are deceptive and, although you feel hat you have a handle on the various motives and themes, you haven’t: Verrier is a dab hand at transformation and suddenly interpolating new patterns and intervallic twists as she attempts a depiction of bird sounds.

A pause precedes a slower section that sounds like an old-fashioned Andantino, which doesn’t last long before the flute’s energy level rises in a virtuosic semiquaver flight, succeeded by a piano solo and a return to more calm territory that, as in Henry’s sonata, occupies an all-man’s-land, although Verrier is quite happy to wear her diatonic colours more often. She leads us to a calmly optimistic conclusion, notable for a sustained richly vibrato-ed single note from the flute while the piano growls in the depths. It’s a most interesting construct with several striking sections alongside others that sound like sheer hard work for Jones and Harrold.

In Selleck’s solo, we come across a flautist writing for herself with a highly informed knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities – and it shows. This is the most pointedly characteristic music on this album as the composer goes through a battery of techniques that are not heard in the other tracks here. Not just flutter-tonguing or percussive attacks, but we hear that extraordinary effect produced by forcing a repeated note out of its comfort zone in the first bar, as well as the flute’s ability to vault across its register with glancing acciaccature preceding a broad sustained note an octave or more away. Jones gives fine voice/air to Selleck’s use of fat minims that hang like ripe plums in medias res, only to be succeeded by rapid flurries that recur in this piece that exemplifies the lived experience of half-remembrances, or memories that only partly remain intact. At its best moments, Deja vu is riveting, explosive in the best sense: an energy-filled successor to some of the superlative flute solos that have peppered contemporary compositional activity since 1936’s Density 21.5.

To my ears, the most ‘advanced’ work on this CD is that by Rohan Phillips, Invention (V), subtitled Still Life and taking its impetus from a brief poem of that name by Antigone Kefala. A study in treble sonorities, Wong’s piano part is written on one stave and only once drops below the flute’s range. Unlike Selleck’s piece, this work is pretty chaste in its technical demands, its temper benign even if the two lines slash across each other at certain points. But the composer’s language is uncompromising, rising to stridency as he gives sound to the poet’s images of light on water and trees in their own symmetry. The score is almost continually flashing with brilliance, the effect eventually that of an impossibly note-rich carillon.

A fine addition to Jones’ series of CDs devoted to Australian flute music, much of them new and a good many tracks comprising older works that ought to be preserved or revived. Jones acknowledges the support given to him in this enterprise by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in the new Southbank building of which he recorded this third volume.

Masterwork with Oz seasoning

A WINTER’S JOURNEY

Allan Clayton & Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday July 14, 2022

Allan Clatyton

This latest Musica Viva touring program could have been more than unappealing. Well, it proved to be so for many patrons who stayed away in droves. Or did they? Hard to tell in Brisbane’s Concert Hall, which is much more capacious than the organization’s usual haunt in the Griffith University Conservatorium of Music. Did somebody in administration think that the northern capital’s music-lovers would come out in numbers to enjoy Schubert’s gloomy song-cycle? Was there a book running on the popular appeal of a young English tenor? Or did some off-site official bank on public curiosity about a wedding between German Romanticism and the paintings of Fred Williams?

As far as I can tell, Brisbane is the only city that has been upgraded in potential capacity this way; every other Winterreise is being performed in the usual spaces. Moving from a hall with a maximum capacity of 750 to one that holds 1600 is one of the more striking instances I know of great expectations. I didn’t attempt to count on Thursday evening – bad-mannered and depressing at the same time – but the place would have been about a third full. I couldn’t see any patrons in the upper reaches of the Concert Hall and in the stalls we were well spread out; even then, with not much occupation at the fringes.

Possibly it’s one thing to mount Winterreise in Melbourne where self-consciousness is unremarkable; or in Sydney, a town where awareness of self is strangely attractive in a city so inured to promotion of personality from the womb on; or in Adelaide and Perth in whose cultural reaches individual self-love is abnegated in favour of Church and State respectively. Brisbane, as they say, is different: a smaller pool for clientele, a chamber music audience that is dutiful but elderly, a set of patrons who take more pleasure in short bursts than in sustained essays (we were warned in a pre-recital voice-over that the 24 songs should not be interrupted by applause, just in case any of us went ape over Der Lindenbaum or Fruhlingstraum).

Whatever the local peculiarities are, we heard a fine performance from Clayton and his almost-faultless accompanist Golla. While the tenor prowled the stage and Golla sat and played, stately at the pianoforte, paintings by Fred Williams were projected on screens behind the performers, presumably to give an Australian wanderer’s perspective on trolling through the countryside, albeit reflecting a happier, more positive personality than that of Muller’s rejected lover, as well as a series of landscapes some centuries and 10,000 miles away from the imaginary originals. I think most of us would be receptive of Williams’ visions of this country, even without Patrick McCaughey telling us what and how to think about them. But marrying them with the cycle’s aesthetic content proved challenging, not least because Muller’s poems are often very physically suggestive, reliant on solid objects in the world as well as on mood and psychological deviation.

Lindy Hume directed the 70-minute-long spectacle; not able to do much with Golla, she put Clayton to work by using the stage’s width and sending him roaming around the backdrop screens. But she didn’t descend to nonsensical mimicry as was carried out by Simon Keenlyside when he participated in a staged Winterreise for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival where one of the low points was having the baritone pose as a lime tree. Mind you, at one point Clayton came close, settling in for a sleep under the piano (possibly during Das Wirtshaus, although that’s unlikely as the poet finds no rest there; more likely it was Rast). But the emphasis was mainly on the tenor’s vocal powers of suggestion, rather than physical flourishes. Still, one in particular impressed when Clayton simulated quickly pulling a curtain across the backdrop as a placid Williams painting changed into a wild vertical expressionist panel-triptych, perhaps for Der sturmische Morgen.

Sorry for the overuse of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, etc., but my memory is becoming unreliable as the decades creep past. In normal conditions, you can see enough in a venue to scratch out some notes for later reference; when the lights go out for a visual presentation like this one, you’ve got little-to-no hope of recording anything. Nor are you helped when the relevant program-booklet pages are black with white print – which is illegible anyway under these conditions. So you’re left to fall back on memory alone which, even at one day’s distance, is chancy. Nonetheless, video designer David Bergman kept his background projection movements quiet in general, paintings melding into each other with considerable skill; to my shame, I recognized only three of them and one was the early Balwyn landscape of 1946, although many of the other 18 (from across the following 30 years) were familiar in style, if not content.

So I’ve got few comments on individual songs. Clayton and Golla made a firm opening with a steady Gute Nacht that took a few tempo liberties, maintaining its pulse and balancing between a trudge and a march. At this early stage, you could appreciate the tenor’s clean production and the pianist’s unobtrusive determination that didn’t labour the details. Even more impressive, Die Post proved to be memorable for Clayton’s communication of self-exasperation; something I’ve not seen before as most singers head for jaunty exhilaration, even though the stanza-concluding Mein Herz?/! is best read as impatience at approaching and inevitable disappointment – as in this Clayton vision.

During the familiar Der Lindenbaum, we witnessed some instances of this singer’s unexpected moves, including an almost-not-there soft volume at Hier findest du deine Ruh’!, as well as an avoidance of bluster in the cold wind stanza’s modulation. Across the 24 lieder, Clayton showed an impressive control in the larger-framed works like the urgent Ruckblick, the subterranean menace that permeates Im Dorfe, and the hope-destructive repeated notes that eventually consume all in Der Wegweiser.

I get impatient with writers who manage to find some sort of uplift in Der Leiermann, the cycle’s concluding song. No matter which way you turn, neither poet nor composer offers redemption or a light breaking through: it’s despair contemplating itself in the bleakest of landscapes. And that’s exactly what I took from Clayton and Golla’s reading where their voice/piano alternation made a powerful conclusion to this atmospherically consistent interpretation. It obviously impressed this audience which greeted the fade-to-black with an initial tentativeness that swelled rapidly into infectious enthusiasm.

Finally, the conceptual elephant: what, if anything, do the paintings contribute? Eye candy is the kindest I can think of: they don’t challenge much, and even those that branch away from the trademark straight tree-trunks like the two Sherbrooke forest works from 1961 or dabs of scrub in the You Yangs landscape still border on the figurative, like one of the two Mount Kosciusko studies. Whatever conceptualizing lay behind super-imposing these backdrops, there was no intention of illustrating or visually complementing the lieder; rather, the intention appears to have been to present us with a familiar environment in which to site the cycle. For me, this didn’t work, music and paintings occupying utterly different strata and never the twain did meet – well, very rarely.

An additional chauvinism-reinforcing observance came in the form of 24 poems (of sorts) by Judith Nangala Crispin, Musica Viva Australia’s Artist in Residence, printed in the program booklet. These stanzas depict Williams wandering around the Kosciuszko (take your pick) landscape pursuing a white emu, presumably to paint rather than to eat. You assume that the questing, determined artist stands in for Muller’s pseudo-Werther, while the animal represents the jilting lover. Imagery and landscape details are piled on thick to give us a new Winterreise, one that has nothing in common with the original. But I assume that was the whole point: to escape the European cliche/trope and depict your typical Australian artist, ploughing through the mulga in search of a bunyip substitute. It’s all an interesting adjunct but such a juxtaposition across time and space stretches my limited imagination to breaking point.

You could, easily enough, shut your eyes and just listen to the Clayton/Golla Experience – which I did for a time, starting at Der greise Kopf. And thereby relished – undistracted – the duo’s stellar combination of restraint and vehemence. For my part, the score itself works against any ethnic transubstantiations or contemporary parallel-drawing. It’s a puzzlement: go along and see/hear for yourself.

July 2022 Diary

Is it safe to bring back The Diary? Let’s hope that Monkeypox doesn’t have the virulent power of COVID-19, so that the teetering semblance of normality that is currently prevailing continues, or even strengthens.

Friday July 1 at 7:30 pm

FESTIVAL OPENING

Claire Edwardes, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

To start his annual Brisbane Music Festival with some sonic oomph, director/pianist Alex Raineri is pairing up with percussionist Edwardes. If they each had a double, we might have enjoyed the Bartok Sonata; as it is, the bag on offer looks very mixed with only one composer’s name familiar to me (Alex Turley), one other possibly half-recalled (Matthew Shlomowitz), and the other four complete strangers. ‘Macens’, I presume, is Ella Macens, a 30-year-old Sydney writer of Latvian extraction; Peggy Polias is another Sydney artist moving into the central years of her creative life with a solid academic pedigree. Also with a Sydney background is Cyrus Meurant, many of whose works appear to be written for theatre or dance, and so would not have hit my field of operations. Turley from Western Australia lived for some time in Melbourne as well as Sydney. So, all Australians, including expatriate Turley, originally from Adelaide. Odd one out is Nicole Lizee, a Canadian composer of eclectic output – by which I mean that her influences are wide-ranging and ‘modern’, although what that entails when used in reference to a former indie rock band member is probably best left unexplored. Or. if you want to leave it all in the laps of the gods, join Edwardes and Raineri in their exposition of this ‘kaleidoscopically colourful’ hour’s music-making.

Saturday July 2 at 3 pm

MOTIONS

Paul Dean, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

I suppose the main feature for some of us at this afternoon recital will be the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in E flat for Dean’s clarinet and Raineri’s piano. They don’t come more canonic in that wind instrument’s repertoire than this, the second of two produced just before the composer’s death, and this could serve as a congenial filling-out of recent Brahms-through-Raineri experiences, thanks to the pianist’s recent Move recording of the Sonata No. 1 with clarinet Luke Carbon. Dean premieres his own Miniatures, presumably the pieces for clarinet and piano from 70 works written for other musicians in lockdown during 2020. Jorg Widmann’s Five Fragments won’t take long, being exactly what the composer promised. As well, more Australian content comes with Catherine Likhuta‘s 2010 composition for alto saxophone and piano that gives this recital its name; I’m assuming that Dean will play the clarinet arrangement that appears in the composer’s list of compositions.

Tuesday July 12 at 7:30 pm

RETURN TO THE STAGE

Australian Youth Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sir Mark Elder, venerable director of the Halle Orchestra, is visiting this colony once more, this time to take the AYO’s aspirational players through a 70-minute non-stop program of Berlioz and Strauss. I suppose the stage return referred to is that of the AYO itself; it probably doesn’t refer to Strauss, although his output usually shows that he was never off it. This evening, we hear An Alpine Symphony, which is one of the great landscape works in the Western repertoire, complete with offstage hunting horns, a storm, sunrise, sunset, cowbells, a waterfall, sheep bleats. On top of the massive orchestra, you get a wind machine and even the organ roars out in the tempest scene. And that’s what it is: a big tone poem packed with musical set-changes. Before this extravaganza, the AYO will play Berlioz’s Les francs-juges Overture: part of one of the composer’s first failures. Not that the opera was intrinsically bad; how can we tell when nobody got to hear it? But the composer destroyed his manuscript and revisions, only a few scraps remaining of which this overture is one; in musicological terms, his first surviving work for orchestra.

Wednesday July 13 at 7:30 pm

EAST MEETS WEST

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Local lad Dane Lam conducts this program where we are shown just how much European musical concepts have invaded the brave new world of Mao Zedong and his successors. Top of the list will be the Yellow River Piano Concerto, written by a panel of two/three at the command of Jiang Qing of happy memory, and displaying to all the world the aspirations of the nation. Soloist is Tony Lee who carried all before him at the Sydney International Piano Competition of 2016. A more sensitive type of chauvinism comes in the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, written by two students in 1959 and performed here by Anna Da Silva Chen. Other details are not available but you are promised sopranos Victoria Lambourn and Sharon Zhai, with guzheng young artist Angie Liu coming up from Sydney to infuse a touch of exoticism through her instrument of fixed and moveable bridges . I’m assuming the singers will present some standard West Meets East repertoire – perhaps a touch of Liu and/or Turandot?

Thursday July 14 at 12 pm

QUIRKY

Real and Diverse Theatre/Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Here is an offshoot of our recent pandemic, the RAD Theatre people showing us how our daily life regularities altered; whether for good or ill, or both, I guess we’ll find out. The ensemble is at pains to state that their piece is not about COVID but rather how cast members reacted to and coped with the new order. As for the music, that has been written by Nicole Murphy, a name that doesn’t ring any bells but whose career has been packed with activity, both here and in the United States (of America). Nothing is explicit about the QSO’s role in all this, but you’d have to guess that the forces are chamber-size when the promotional spiel speaks of ‘musicians from [the] Queensland Symphony Orchestra’.

The performance will be repeated on Friday July 15 at 7:30 pm and on Saturday July 16 at 2 pm.

Thursday July 14 at 7 pm

A WINTER’S JOURNEY

Allan Clayton, Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

In this year’s Musica Viva season, Schubert’s mighty, depressing song cycle will be performed by English tenor Clayton and Sydney-born, London-based Golla. It should be a musical discovery for most of us in Brisbane because I don’t think Clayton has worked here before, and Golla moved to the UK pretty soon after finishing a stint as repetiteur and coach with Opera Australia. To add to the stimulation, Lindy Hume is directing this performance, with videographer Dave Bergman projecting large-scale backdrops of Fred Williams paintings – 24 of them, just like the cycle’s number of songs! I wish everybody well, of course, but the last time I witnessed a staged Winterreise was at the Melbourne International Festival of 2004 when English baritone Simon Keenlyside sang and danced the music – sort of. I thought much of that exercise was ludicrous miming; other members on the panel of the newspaper I was writing for considered it worthy of an award as Performance of the Festival. I remain(ed) unconvinced and, proving that I was in the right, most of them are dead now (however, not Keenlyside).

Wednesday July 20 at 7:30 am

LA LUNE BLANCHE

Ensemble Q

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St.

A real knock-’em-down chamber music recital from this group which boasts a variety of instruments at its disposal. At the core comes a string quartet: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. Two other performers will feature in proceedings: Q guru Paul Dean on clarinet and soprano Eva Kong. And what do you get? There’s some Mozart, a touch of Faure, a little scrap of Borodin, and various whispers from Webern. As far as Kong is concerned, Reynaldo Hahn is mentioned as a contributor to the program, so you’d anticipate a song or six; not much else is feasible as all the chamber music by Hahn that I can find involves piano. The Borodin would have to be that string quartet, wouldn’t it? As for Mozart, it could be anything, especially if you take into account ad hoc arrangements. A Faure song – like La lune blanche – would be welcome. But the Webern? The Five Movements? The Six Bagatelles? The String Quartet? The String Trio? Then there’s the white moon suggestion in this music-of-the-night celebration, or does that just apply to one song? Whatever, you’re encouraged to bring champagne – which, at my age, is the ultimate debilitating narcotic as far as listening to nocturnal music goes.

Sunday July 24 at 11:30 am

FANTASY AND FOLKLORE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

This is one for the kids, the recommended audience age being 6+ (good luck with keeping them enthralled for 80 minutes). Umberto Clerici, having completed his sea-change from cellist to conductor, will take his young auditors through a miscellany, starting with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, presumably in the Rimsky whizz-bang orchestration and without Walt Disney’s Fantasia film interpretation. A Tchaikovsky valse from The Sleeping Beauty ballet suite, a few of Ravel’s Mother Goose miniatures, the first movement to Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto with Huw Jones the soloist, that most equine of warhorses in Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (without the girls), Dvorak’s The Noon Witch tone poem (has anybody heard that in live performance? I haven’t) – most of these fall under the concert’s titular umbrella, apart from the concerto which might suggest The Shire to some of us. Speaking of films, the orchestra plays John Williams’ The Flight to Neverland from Hook, which summons up adventure and fantasy as efficiently as any other of the American’s more forgettable scores. And an indirect reference to our world today emerges with Catherine Likhuta‘s Rituals of Heartland which is based on musical motifs from the composer’s native Ukraine. This work was written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Cybec 21st Century Composers program of February 2018, well before the abomination that struck Likhuta’s birth country, that pointless disaster emanating from Ukraine’s large neighbour, whose leader should be – like Arthur Miller’s Abigail – cut out of the world.

Friday July 29 at 11:30 am

TRIUMPHANT TCHAIKOVSKY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Yes, it is Tchaikovsky at his most affirmative as the QSO takes on the Symphony No. 4 in F minor in this program’s second half. Leading the players through this weltering masterpiece is conductor Giordano Bellincampi, an Italian-Danish musician who is currently music director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra; I’m unsure whether he has worked before in this country. He also will exercise his talents on the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco and the Intermezzo that opens Act 3 of Manon Lescaut by Puccini. The concert’s soloist is tenor Kang Wang, well-known in Queensland as he has sung many times with the QSO, as well as appearing with Opera Queensland. He gets to thrill the audience with more Puccini in Nessun dorma and Che gelida manina. As well as these over-familiar favourites, we hear two Verdi rarities: Adorno’s enraged O inferno/Sento avvampar nell’anima from Simon Boccanegra; and Quando le sere e placido, Rodolfo’s Act 2 aria in Luisa Miller – both examples of characters who have been emotionally diddled.

This program will be repeated on Saturday July 30 at 7:30 pm

Sunday July 31 at 3:30 pm

MAHLER & STRAUSS

Leanne Kenneally, Caitlin Weal, Alla Yarosh, Francis Atkins

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sopranos Kenneally and Weal eventually team up with mezzo Yarosh for the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier in this lush late-Romantic program, pianist Atkins having to provide a substitute for that lush orchestral fabric that eventually overwhelms the opera’s three main female singers as all those 6/4 chords have to be resolved. More importantly, someone is singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder; probably the mezzo, because the vocal line suits that register. And we are promised some very familiar Strauss songs, including Allerseelen and that superbly robust-yet-hushed Standchen. Kenneally is a well-known quantity; the other two singers are hopefully (as we say ad nauseam in sports interviews) on their paths to satisfying careers.

Mix and (possibly) match

AUSTRALIAN MONODY

The Marais Project

Move Records 633

Here is something of a miscellany, the CD’s title overtly relevant to a few tracks, secondarily related to other music by a liberal interpretation, the whole box and dice the product of Australian musicians, even if the monody angle is out of kilter with quite a few elements on offer. Marais Project founder Jenny Eriksson‘s viola da gamba is heard in all but one of the fifteen tracks, four times in partnership with fellow gamba Catherine Upex; multi-tasker Susie Bishop sings solo or contributes to five pieces with her soprano and violin, plays violin only in two, and sings only in two others; Marais regular Tommie Andersson plays in everything – theorbo in eleven pieces, guitar in three others, and touches his lute in another; organist Anthony Abouhamad reinforces two Purcell works on a continuo organ; and countertenor Russell Harcourt participates in six pieces with his remarkably clear, high-flying vocal timbre.

Further to the CD’s title. As far as national content is concerned, the Marais group jumps across the centuries. From our ancient white music, we hear Isaac Nathan’s The Aboriginal Mother and The Aboriginal Father from the composer’s Australian Melodies collection of 1841-1863. Vault forward a touch and you come to Carl Vine’s Love me sweet, written for The Battlers TV series in 1994. In composing mode, Bishop wrote her Lullaby for a Broken World during the 2020 Sydney COVID lockdown. Alice Chance’s 2018 Precious Colours was revised for the Marais ensemble last year, which also saw the arrival of Gordon Kerry’s Christchurch Monody, a response to the 2019 attack on two mosques in that city.

As for non-Australian monodies, we have a Dowland ayre – Now, O now, I needs must part – from the composer’s First Booke of 1597; those two Purcells – the Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary of 1695, O dive custos, and An Evening Hymn, first published in 1688; as well, a blast from the near-present in Michael Nyman’s If, composed for use in the 1995 Japanese animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank.

And breaking the British-Australian cultural dominance is a Marais gamba suite, that in A minor from Book V, published in 1725; after performing which, Eriksson immediately restores the status quo with her own very recently contrived La Petite Tarantelle, living up to its name by being the second-shortest track on Australian Monody.

Three of these tracks – the lullaby, Kerry’s monody, the tarantella – are world premiere recordings.

One of the treasures of this collection is the ayre which features both singers, the three Marais strings (violin in stanza 2 only?), and Andersson on lute with a solo of his own in medias res based on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Bishop sings the first stanza, Harcourt the second and the similarity in vocal shadings is extraordinary, even more so when both combine for the final Deare, if I doe not returne where they sing the two upper parts of the composer’s four-part setting. This exercise is carried off with a warm clarity from all contributors, an ensemble effort to match the best that I’ve heard – a pity that I can’t compare it with Gordon Sumner’s Dowland excursions, but he didn’t record this work (thanks be to God). While the singers are phrase-length near-perfect, the gambas and violin are discretion personified, everybody occasionally inserting a communal, brief hiatus point.

Abouhamad’s flutey continuo organ fits well with Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson on theorbo to support Harcourt in the Purcell hymn, another throwaway gem from the greatest British composer. Not that Harcourt is piercingly true in pitch all the time but his slight deviations reinforce the touching humanity of Bishop Fuller’s words and their buoyant setting with Purcell’s unforgettable chain of Hallelujah exclamations across the piece’s last 45 bars – a reverent praise-chant that leaves Handel’s bombast well in its wake. The near-contemporary elegy, a vocal duet for two upper-range voices (or so it appears from the only edition I could find), is carefully accomplished by Bishop and Harcourt, once more almost indistinguishable in timbre, with the same support as in the hymn. You might have asked for more sustained power at the start with one or two breathing spots interrupting otherwise seamless lines. While you could delight in the vocal interweaving of the opening quatrain, the duet showed at its most persuasive from the Seu te fluentem change in metre at bar 33, handling with impressive ease the chromatic dips starting at bar 99’s o flete leading to a sombre conclusion. Not what you’d call a monody, then, but welcome for its own sake in this miscellany.

It wouldn’t be a Marais Project disc without a gamba suite by the ensemble’s inspiration. Eriksson has recorded several of these for Move, including the G minor suite from Livre V twice; well, it appears on two different Move CDs. This A minor work has four movements in this presentation: Prelude le Soligni, Allemande la Facile, Sarabande and Menuet. While forging a calm, undemonstrative path through these constituents, Eriksson has Andersson’s theorbo providing an underpinning continuo force. The compositions are constitutionally lean: 24, 16, 28 and 32 (Menuet plus Double) bars in length; in other words, completed quickly, despite the repeats – even the Sarabande. The reading is tasteful and tactful, carefully shaped in phrasing and dynamic gradations and without a trace of aggression or harshness.

Perhaps I’m among a very few but I can’t get excited about the two Nathan songs; possibly more sympathy might be roused by greater research, but I don’t think so. The CD’s booklet makes some fanciful observations about the cultural worth of the colonial Australian composer’s insight into Aboriginal culture and his appropriation of First Nation songs, but the actual products have demonstrated yet again the craft of shaping original indigenous melodies into lieder fit for any Victorian salon. An only man standing in Sydney’s early days, Nathan isn’t our Ives; nor is expatriate Grainger, nor Alfred Hill. In fact, none of them addresses us in a vocabulary that we would seriously call our own.

This brace of songs comes across as amiable enough, well matched to Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s soppy verses. For the three stanzas of The Aboriginal Father, Bishop participates in the prelude, postlude and interludes with her violin, along with Andersson on a 9-string guitar and Eriksson’s gamba; of course, breaking from her instrumental participation to sing Nathan’s four-square Europeanized melody.

A bleaker scenario is proposed in The Aboriginal Mother although it’s hard to imagine many indigenous hearts identifying with its elevated, studied language, let alone the 4-square tune that might easily have been written by the singer’s namesake, Henry. Here, she is escorted by Andersson’s guitar alone. Both monodies are performed with clarity and poise. but their curiosity standing is the only remarkable feature about them; they could have come from 19th century Leipzig or Dublin as easily as Sydney.

From Nathan’s songs on, the remainder of this disc consists of monody, with one final exception. I’ve always had high respect for Vine as an all-round musician: as composer, with his early ballets and the first four symphonies; as well, his brilliant pianism. This little song, performed here by the ensemble minus Abouhamad, is the gentlest of lyrics with a mildly rocking instrumental support. At one point, I could have sworn that Harcourt was being doubled by Bishop’s soprano, but that was probably wishful thinking. In any case, it makes for an easy-listening final track.

Nyman’s song is set in one key, like Vine’s, and is sung by Harcourt who is unpressured and under-exercised. The song, in both stanzas and choruses, follows a simple downward motion for the singer while Bishop, Eriksson and Andersson’s theorbo follow a rudimentary supporting role. Roger Pulvers’ wish-rich text brings to mind the naivete of the famous diary and Nyman gives it a setting that suits the requisite emotional ambience.

Gordon Kerry is another Australian composer whose work has often delighted me; on occasion, impressing as much as any contemporary writer I’ve come across, e.g. his 1993 opera Medea and the String Quintet of 2012. His meditation on the Christchurch massacre sets two Old Testament texts: one is two verses from Ecclesiastes, known to many by its observation that the race is not to the swift; the other, featuring that striking simile of the righteous who shall run to and fro like sparks among the stubble, involves verses from Book 3 of the Book of Wisdom. This piece, commissioned by the Project, is performed by Bishop vocal and instrumental, both gambas, and Andersson’s theorbo.

Kerry’s composition is an exemplification of my idea of monody, particularly the first part where the voice and two strings intertwine with the same motif. The work’s first part is lean in texture, even when the other instruments enter, the whole reflecting those anguished and doom-laden verses. If there is any redemption to be found in our memories of the senseless, terrifying slaughter in New Zealand, Kerry epitomizes it in his monody’s second part where the souls of the mosques’ dead worshippers are commended to God. Here, the harmony moves to the major and the instrumental contribution changes to rustlings of warmth as Bishop’s violin and soprano alternate in an uplifting tribute to the fallen. Like certain other tracks on the CD, this music moves through its emotional sparseness and simple musical material.

Precious Colours is a Project-tailored revision of an earlier Alice Chance work, Pallah Pallah, which recounts an Aboriginal legend about a butterfly caught in the snow; when it melts, the insect’s colours run to generate the opal. The text is a dialogue between the butterfly and her husband, both lamenting the transformation. There is no cleverness here; the song is a duet for Harcourt and Bishop, who also contributes an intervallic violin, with both gambas and theorbo reinforcing what seems to be a cantus-firmus. The initial melody is pentatonic/mono-harmonic (D minor?) and is employed by both voices, who actually combine vertically at only one point. As the first track on the CD, it sets the monodic expectations at very little, if not naught, but it also establishes an intimation of the European interpretation of Aboriginal music that flowers more fully in the Nathan songs.

More adventurous by a smidgen in its harmonic vocabulary, Bishop’s Lullaby represents the kind of thing that the composer thinks we could sing to our children in a world broken by COVID, climate change and the horror of being confronted by our previous Federal government’s ministers. A gentle piece, Bishop treats it as a soothing entity, at odds with the threats to those young ones being lullabied. Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson’s guitar combine with the singer’s violin, the singer/violinist able to carry out both functions simultaneously when she hums/recapitulates her opening lines; a monodist with a difference, then.

Last in this chronological sequence comes Eriksson’s tarantella, a tribute to Marais as it’s an essay at a final suite movement in the master’s style. The gamba is still underpinned by the theorbo and it cuts a fine period rug with a metrical change from 6/8 to 3/4 near the end. Not sure how the maitre would have evaluated this bagatelle’s melodic material which struck me as lacking in quirkiness.

Take it all in all, here is a collection that, despite the drawing of various parallels and long bows, is far from described by its title. It may be unkind, but I don’t feel as if anyone concerned has been strained by their participation; mind you, that’s not a bad quality for musicians to enjoy. As well as this facility in music-making, several tracks strike me as exceptionally fine: both Purcells, the ayre, Eriksson’s Marais suite account, and the contributions from Vine and Kerry.