The Mass as opera, but who cares?

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

Okka

                                                             Okka von der Damerau  

My father, like many other Catholics of his generation, never warmed to Verdi’s Requiem Mass; he persisted in the unoriginal assertion that it smacked too much of the theatre and distracted from the purpose of a  true requiem.  But then, he wasn’t much taken by Gounod’s amiable St. Cecilia Mass when out local Pymble choir used to present it back in the late 1950s.   Faure was more his measure, even if that benign musical oasis fell outside the strictures of the 1903 motu proprio from Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini.  Sadly, I was never able to call the Berlioz Requiem to his attention: I didn’t know it in those years and, in any case. who wants to give scandal to musical innocents?

Sixty years on, the appraisal decrying Verdi’s secularization of the Requiem form is close to irrelevant when you consider contemporary practice in the Church’s music, let alone the outright vulgarities committed during services held by younger Christian sects.  Getting into any discussion about this topic has become increasingly futile in an era when church musicians have to cut their choral cloth to suit their congregations’ intellectual width.   As the unarguable directive goes, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.  If that means you feel constrained to take on the Verdi work as simply a historical anomaly, so be it.

Saturday’s performance from the MSO Orchestra and Chorus proved to be more than acceptable, conductor Lawrence Renes overseeing a generously ample version of the work in which nobody rushed unduly, the soloists generally kept to the prevailing metre, and the sonorously lavish moments were given full measure.   Each of the four solo voices showed positive qualities, although I was most taken by alto Okka von der Damerau, right from a formidable Kyrie entry, through an initially quavering Liber scriptus that settled into artfully spun phrases, up to a moving, transparent introduction to the Lux aeterna movement. To be sure, this singer proved well aware of her line’s potential for emotional heft, as in her decreasing dynamic intensity on the repeats of the word ‘nul’ at the end of her Sequence solo.

To her credit, soprano Leah Crocetto showed a dynamic sympathy with Damerau during the Recordare and Agnus Dei duets although she took many another opportunity to dominate the ruck when all four solo singers were involved.   At the start, her hefty vibrato surprised during slow-paced passages, although any initial dissatisfaction had worn off by the conclusion of the Recordare pages that impressed as one of the performance’s highlights, thanks to the female soloists’ empathy and avoidance of sentimentality.    Crocetto underplayed the monotonic drama of the Libera me opening recitative, a moment that a singer of Vishnevskaya’s calibre could make spine-tingling with passion and scarcely bridled fear.  But you could not fault the tension of Crocetto’s Tremens factus sum ego solo: a passage where those long-time accusations of theatricality garnered heavy support.

Tenor Issachach Savage invested the opening to the Kyrie with panache and a clarity of production that he maintained until the end, although it seemed to me that he was labouring under some physical difficulty towards the work’s conclusion.  Still, his most exposed solos, the Ingemisco and Hostias, came across with clear definition and a rousing, powerful upper register if the final ascending scale of the former sounded slightly abridged after the top B flat.   Bass soloist Nicholas Brownlee made stately rather than histrionic work of the Mors stupebit verses but impressed more when he came to the Confutatis maledictis section – a fine demonstration of musical and textural clarity.

Carrying out their work to maximum effect, the MSO Chorus kept up with Renes’ tempi and showed very creditably in nearly all the a cappella segments from a stalwart Te decet to the final movement’s Requiem aeternam support of the soprano soloist; certainly more assured than the preceding section’s Cum sanctis tuis trio from three soloists.   As well as relishing the explosive Dies irae outbursts with which Verdi gratuitously peppers the Mass process, the Chorus did their best in the Tuba mirum explosion; as usual, you could see the physical motion but the voices were drowned.  Matters might have been improved if the large body of sopranos on the side gallery had been slanted to face the audience rather than singing into the orchestral space.   But the male singers gave good value to the enterprise, the basses tending to extra prominence in the opening pages but the tenors present and secure in the choral texture.

Very little miscarried in the instrumental forces, the exercise carried along by a clear expertise from both wind and strings.   For the first time in my memory, the gallery trumpets melded in with the ground-level action, to the point where the communal fabric sounded as it should: a heightening of the texture, rather than a superimposition from discrete groups.  In fact, the brass choirs acquitted themselves with distinction: no lagging behind the pulse, a laudable balance in output, general precision in exposed chords. In the Dies irae strophes, the bass drum sounded over-hefty but the player was just responding to Verdi’s request for a delivery that is ‘dry’ and very loud.  In fact, the whole ensemble gave a confident reaction to Renes’ direction, even compensating during its less assured phases.

A satisfying and cogent reading, then, of this score that, despite what you think of its ecclesiastical suitability, is packed with melodic riches.  And that, I suppose, is the end point of all the fuss.   The message is overdrawn, the chances for musical pictorialization all too readily seized, the canvas very lavish emotionally, if not as coloured as some others.   Yet it has an emphatic certainty of utterance that carries you along each time you hear it.   You can regret, like my father, the work’s disruptive surface, one that does not really allow for contemplation, and the flights of virtuoso singing that it holds, surging glories that bring your attention to the performers’ craft.   But what else would you expect from the 19th century’s second-greatest opera composer?   Of course, there are oddities, like the choir’s fugal treatment of the Libera me text, yet the work as a whole is invested with an enthralling mixture of high tension and taut consolation, solidly delivered on this night.

 

 

 

 

Keen work from stand-ins

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

Michael Collins

                                                                   Michael Collins

This program ran for two nights, the first of them a house-full affair.  Yes, it’s true that the chance of hearing Mozart’s last concerto from a famous performer will bring in a crowd, and it is much easier to fill the Murdoch Hall than the MSO.s much larger usual stamping ground.   Further, the cake was sweetened even more by the addition of Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, a work that can elate you with its sheer bravura of expression  no matter how many times you hear it.

Fortunately, both of these staples enjoyed remarkably clear and vivid renditions, the overall fabric remarkably present, even cutting, in this fine space where every layer of the Beethoven score could be discerned, even if the winds took on greater prominence than usual.    Conductor /soloist Michael Collins made do with fewer desks of strings than are normally involved in the symphony, but those he had at his direction sounded united in their attack and finish.   All the more remarkable, then, that quite a few of them were guests, not regulars.   For example, the player list involved seven visiting violinists, including concertmaster-for-the-night Helena Rathbone from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   That’s an impressive swag when you consider that the two violin groups numbered about 14 in total.   Even better came in the double bass ranks where three out of the four participants were irregulars.

For all that, the symphony sounded imbalanced in the outer movements, especially when the dozen wind operated as a unit.   Passages where the violins held melodic primacy were occasionally lop-sided dynamically and some sentences loaded with scrubbing semiquavers showed us plenty of furious activity going on but, even from close up, it was a case of often filling in mentally for sounds that you knew were there but just didn’t travel with sufficient weight.

A little of this reared up in the Mozart as well, although here the wind component is only half as large as in the Beethoven score.   However,what impressed in this version was the bold elegance of this concerto’s outer Allegro movements which displayed a sinewy vigour that prefigured Beethoven’s early athleticism.   Playing on what I think was a basset clarinet,  Collins produced a compelling reading of this work’s solo line, pliable when it was to the purpose and admirably regular in his bubbling passage work.

In his handling of the well-loved Adagio, Collins demonstrated admirable dynamic control, his piano reprise at bar 60 excellently shaped and in no danger of revealing production flaws.   This security might have had something to do with the extra sounding length of the instrument; whatever the cause – even if it was partly physical – the results made for a beguiling interpretation, one where the low notes stayed where they belonged and where the clarinet could be heard carving its path through the orchestral surrounds, even in the final tutti bars of the finale.   If you were looking for faults, you might have found one at the conclusion to the Adagio, bar 94 to be specific, where the violins gave a sloppy account of their quaver-semiquaver downward slip; but this is nit-picking compared to the band’s confident realization of the work, particularly as their director was, for the most part, engaged on his own business.

It was easy to appreciate the energy that Collins invested in the Beethoven symphony.  He didn’t unveil any surprises or over-stress the dynamic vibrancy that gives three out of the four movements their essential character.   But this wasn’t your usual 7th in which vitality gives way to doggedness; the score radiated that ebullience and galumphing energy that distinguishes it among Beethoven’s major creations while it stands as a vital pillar of optimism and all-too-human light in the pages of European musical achievement.   Even in the minor-key Allegretto, Collins set a forward-looking pace, although the brace of horns pulled the tempo back at the movement’s first fortissimo tutti.

So far, so unexceptionable: a great concerto and a mighty symphony, cornerstones of a conservative decades-old MSO program pattern.   Thursday night’s real attention-grabber came in between with a new clarinet concerto from the organization’s Composer in Residence for 2019, Paul Dean, the composer appearing as soloist under Collins’ direction.   Contrived in two movements, each is further sub-divided into four sections which might become completely discernible on a second hearing; as it was, some parts bled into each other, for which you can’t blame Dean and which became more obvious once you came to the realization that individual segments varied remarkably in length.

Right from the opening, you’re confronted with atmospheric vehemence in the form of a set of slashing quickly arpeggiated chords across the orchestra, almost fully percussive in nature and  intentionally confrontational with the added unsettling colour of the upper strings (all of them?) playing sul ponticello.  Out of a tense unpredictability emerges a cantabile line for the soloist and this juxtaposition of calm and abrupt bursts seems to make up the operating arena for the first movement’s Introduction.

I haven’t been able to find out the work’s orchestration details and from my seat it was difficult to see into the interstices of the assembled ensemble.   Robert Clarke operated from what looked like a drum-kit but one that sounded heavy on drums and short on cymbals; I believe a pair of bass clarinets participated; a contrabassoon was certainly in play; an extra desk was added to each of the string bodies after the chastely populated Mozart.   But the performance’s chief focus, as you’d expect, fell on the solo clarinet which gave a vital and brilliant exhibition, with a particular emphasis on the instrument’s highest reaches, every so often recalling the piercing soprano in alt work of James Morrison.

Following the sort-of-slow Introduction, a sudden vault led to a Scherzetto in 6/8 time (possibly) which in turn transformed into a Burlesque although the dividing line escaped me.  At about this time, Dean initiated a hectic solo over a striking brass/timpani base that gave notice of a transformation into something more urgent than a little scherzo, the texture notable for large washes for brass and woodwind.  Concluding the opening half came an Adagio with slow sustained notes/chords for the strings and a Mahlerian leap to denote the opening to the solo clarinet’s extended melody.   Up to this point, you could have categorized the composer’s vocabulary as atonal but the pizzicato bass line to this Adagio at some points struck me as old-fashioned, reminiscent of a chaconne.   This section rose to its apogee through a piercing high-note from the soloist before a brief resolution.

Movement 2 began with a trademark quirky sonic squiggle, bandied between Dean and various orchestral members; in effect, the rapid action served as a pertinent sonic illustration of this segment’s sub-title, Out of the blue  –  a passage of play climaxing in yet another frantic clarinet solo which took the rest of the ensemble on a Pied Piper chase.  After some time, you became aware that the scheduled Waltz had started, folded into the preceding motion-sickness pages with deceptive deftness.  Actually, it was difficult to find the steps to this dance as the composer didn’t so much shift the rhythmic goalposts as move the emphasis so that your expectations were partly met and just as often side-stepped.   It could have been intended as a deliberate distortion, in the finest Ravel tradition, but the segment’s later pages impressed as long-winded.

Dean’s Cadenza followed the usual rule of pronouncing a set of technical display flourishes, rapid-fire runs peppered with intense high notes which made you wonder at the actual upper range of the instrument.   The following Finale served as an actual coda – no sooner had it broken in on the Cadenza than it was over.   This brought an end to a concerto that showed individuality of voice, a superlative command of the solo instrument’s resources – even if you were left wondering if another player could have brought the composer’s vehemence and hard-edged brilliance to the task – and a rigour of development and resolution that I, for one, found engrossing.

Will we hear this new score again?   It’s safe to say: not with the regularity that applies to its companion pieces on this night.   But Dean’s new work has an immediacy of impact and what can only be described as a generosity of expression that drags it out of the institutional graveyard of many another clarinet concerto of these times.   I had the general impression that its first audience was nonplussed by its processes, particularly its abrupt conclusion; still, Dean was warmly applauded if possibly more for his voluble virtuosity than for the strident power of his score’s most compelling moments.

 

 

 

 

A sombre seasonal prelude

ARVO PART: PASSIO

Australian Boys Choir and The Vocal Consort

Sacred Heart Church, Carlton

Sunday March 24

Dinopoulos

                                                                 Nicholas Dinopoulos

Under new conductor/artistic director Dinopoulos, the ABC singers are striking out into unexpected territory, viz. this choral chef-d’oeuvre by Estonia’s most important living composer.  Part has featured on many programs in the last decade, mainly choral or orchestral, and his compositional language –  in particular the much-extolled tintinnabuli technique – has contributed to making his voice as identifiable and distinctive as that of Peter Sculthorpe.

In a program note for this concert, Dinopoulos proposes that Part is the most performed serious composer of our time.  This could be borne out by some prominent concerts held already this year.  To open 2019, the Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted a Part-Bach celebration in collaboration with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, winding up with the 1990/1997 Berliner Messe.   And the first event in the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival on January 11 was a performance of this work, Part’s St. John Passion, from Gary Ekkel and his Schola Cantorum.

Not attracting their usual house-full numbers, the ABC and Vocal Consort gave a steady, no-nonsense account of this remarkable score.  Part gives most of his operation over to a four-voice group representing the Evangelist, continually changing the combination from solos through to quartet.   In this version, Dinopoulos placed his chief principals – Steven Hodgson (Christ) and Spencer Chapman (Pilate)  –   in the Sacred Heart choir-loft with Rhys Boak at the William Anderson organ.   The small requisite instrumental ensemble – violin (Elizabeth Anderson), cello (Anna Pokorny), oboe (Jasper Ly), bassoon (Chris Martin) – contributed a sustained commentary with only a few patches of questionable pitching.

But the afternoon’s outstanding effort came from the Evangelists: soprano Katharine Norman, mezzo Kristy Biber, tenor Robin Parkin, baritone Lucien Fischer.  Most of these are members of The Consort of Melbourne and predictably competent at handling Part’s repetitive, circular vocal writing.

Much of the difficulty in handling this Passion’s vocal work seems to be in maintaining a sustained regularity of output.   Each line has a limited compass, little room for dynamic innovation, a circumscribed rhythmic impetus; so much so that a greater part of the complex’s interest emerges from the changing combinations of voices and the spartan character of their counterpoint.   Not even the central character is given emotional latitude, although his exchanges with Pilate came across in this performance with unexpected power, no doubt due to Part’s unwillingness to get in the way of his text.

As a forward step in the ABC’s development, this event made for a memorable occasion, a hurdle that the young (and youngish) members of both junior and senior ensembles negotiated with unexpected aplomb.   You may say that the terrors of articulation are mitigated by a close instrumental support, but vocalists still have to find their own way without lagging or waiting for reinforcement.   It helped that Dinopoulos’ mode of direction came from an emphatic and clear school; just the sort of conducting that you’d expect from a singer-musician who has learned his craft from observing both the worthwhile and the useless gestures of senior figures during his career to date.

I’m thankful to the ABC performers and their guests for working through this hour-long score with respectful probity, showing a clear-headedness of interpretation that persisted in following the composer’s bare-bones expression.   If you’re accustomed to associate musical settings of the Passion with the two canonical masterpieces by Bach, Part’s score hits you between the eyes as unsettling, intensely repetitious and a grim progress through the story without digressions or melismata.   Those moments from St. John’s Gospel that have previously summoned up dramatic climaxes, like the turba‘s exchanges with Pilate, here take on a remote ambience; the remorseless journey towards Christ’s death impresses for its uninterrupted steadiness, reinforced by the composer’s vocal and lyrical economy.

Yet, while applauding the performance’s conviction and reverence, the catharsis that some of us experience during Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions is alien to Part’s intention.  This contemporary construct, after you settle into accepting its stilted ambience, is eminently accessible, without any of Bach’s rhetoric or expansiveness.  Only in the final sentence, where the composer moves away from the Johannine text, does the work’s atmosphere abruptly explode into a rich flourish of jubilant colour.  The main body of the score comprises sinuous interweaving lines from both principals and choir, the whole body operating in a state of subsumed tension that fluctuates like gentle waves – no breakers in sight.

It’s not repulsive, this music; indeed, it can be attractive, but not so much to those who know and find it hard to ignore their history.   Final accurate assessment of products from the latter-day school of musical mystics like Part, Tavener, Gorecki, Kancheli and Vasks must be left to a later generation but I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for them, chiefly because I distrust an inbuilt naivete.   If anything strikes me, it is that these proponents of minimalism in religious music are content to work at a too-simple level – perhaps to communicate directly, possibly to express their verities untrammeled by scholarship, hopefully composing with an innocence of intention.   But they appear to be reducing music to a deliberately unsophisticated base, one that discards the achievements of yesteryear.  To hear Part’s Passio after an Isaac mass is comparable to moving from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye; somewhere along the line, intellectual and spiritual advances have gone into reverse.

Naturally, musicians have to deal with Part and his peers; for want of known competition, these writers can claim eminence on the current musical scene.  The Australian Boys Choir and Vocal Consort have negotiated their first Part encounter with distinction.  Now, Dinopoulos & Co. can push their charges’ talents even further, into more difficult music.  Nobody expects the Webern Cantatas, Schoenberg’s Psalms, or the more rugged Bartok Folksongs.  But a little investigation will uncover a wealth of choral music that moves the level of difficulty needle somewhat higher than modern-day British pap or American filler.

 

 

 

April Diary

Monday April 1

Teddy Tahu Rhodes & Kristian Chong

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6:30 pm

The well-loved baritone has given few Melbourne recitals, as far as I can recall.  Tonight he makes up for this famine with a solid program that offers three song-cycles.  Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte is a real cycle in its end being wound into its beginning and the whole six numbers being through-composed and musically linked.  Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, five Shakespeare settings of great integrity, have not travelled well outside England.   Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, drawn from verses of that name by Robert Louis Stevenson, is also little attempted outside the English-speaking world, if having an easier path to appreciation than the Finzi suite.   A trio of Celtic tunes brings in an unexpected level of popular appeal – Raglan Road (presumably On Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, set to The Dawning of the Day tune), Molly Malone and Loch Lomond.   Between the British song cycles, Rhodes and Chong will perform three lyrics by Calvin Bowman: West Sussex Drinking Song, The Night, and Noel – all three recorded for Decca last year by baritone Christopher Richardson.  This duo on paper makes a promising combination, both artists notable for their generosity of timbre and spirit.

 

Thursday April 4

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

You can be lucky – as a composer, as a performer, as an audience member.  Tonight, British clarinettist Michael Collins gets to play solo in his instrument’s greatest concerto.  Paul Dean, the MSO’s Composer in Residence for this year and former director of the Australian National Academy of Music, is presenting his own new Clarinet Concerto.    As a tick of public approval, the first night is sold out already; which may be due to the small (1001 seats) capacity of the MRC’s Murdoch Hall but in some small way also would have been brought about on the strength of the Mozart concerto’s attractiveness.  Most of us know Michael Collins and his musical progress –  Philharmonia, London Sinfonietta, Nash Ensemble, Royal College of Music, then a glittering freelance career; tonight, he plays and leads this well-loved work, which headed a Top of the Pops list fomented by ABC radio some years ago.   Immediately after the Mozart comes Dean’s new score, played by the composer with Collins directing; could be an unavoidable case of by their ambience ye shall judge them.   After interval, we are treated once more to the Beethoven Symphony No. 7: a welter of bludgeoning delight in three of its four movements while a dour tragedy informs most of the grave Allegretto.

This program will be repeated on Friday April 5 in the Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday April 6

BACH AND TELEMANN IN CONCERT

Pinchgut Opera

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

We don’t get to see Pinchgut productions in Melbourne, which is a great pity as the company’s repertoire engages with a bevy of neglected works by big-name composers.  When I say ‘neglected’, I mean ignored in this country where you can wait from one millennium to the next for the national company to program anything by Rameau, Vivaldi, Purcell, Charpentier (ancient or modern), Cavalli, Salieri, Haydn or Hasse.  Even Handel has fallen out of favour, now that the counter-tenor craze has passed.   These Baroque/early Classical works comprise Pinchgut’s stock-in-trade.   Anyway, let’s take what we can get; in this case, a night of  Bach’s Easter Oratorio and Telemann’s Thunder Ode.  The first is fairly well-known as an extended cantata that lasts about 45 minutes, here to be given as originally set out with SATB soloists (Alexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley,  Richard Butler, and a choice between David Greco and Andrew O’Connor) with no choir.   Telemann’s work is of similar length, with five soloists (including the two basses) and, I assumed, a four-part choir but here also the soloists will be doing double service.    Erin Helyard conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes: a body that I, for one, will be hearing live for the first time with keen anticipation.

 

Sunday April 7

LATE MASTERPIECES

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank at 11 am

Ringing in the MSO’s chamber music recital series will be the job for a string quartet and Philip Arkinstall whose clarinet enriched the recent visit by Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra.  This morning opens with a divertimento for string trio by Mozart, the K. 563 in E flat Major and a considerable six-movement work with a rich Andante plus 7 variations at its core.  As for performers, you can be sure of principals Christopher Moore on viola and David Berlin on cello;  the violin line will be taken by either concertmaster Sophie Rowell or principal second violin Matthew Tomkins.   The afternoon second half will be taken up by the Brahms Clarinet Quintet; hard to think of a better way to spend your Sunday than luxuriating in this superbly finished construct.  And, for once, the program’s title sums up these proceedings accurately.

 

Thursday April 11

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Directing this dramatic setting of the Mass for the Dead is Lawrence Renes, a Dutch-Maltese conductor who is completely unknown to me.   He’s had plenty of opera experience – chief conductor of the Royal Swedish Opera, as well as working with the Netherlands and English National Operas; all of which will stand him in good stead here.  American soprano Leah Crocetto has enjoyed wide Verdi experience: Otello, Luisa Miller, Il trovatore, Falstaff, AidaDon Carlo and this Requiem last year in Spain.   Alto Okka von der Dammerau has less substantial Verdi credentials, although she has sung Emilia in Otello and Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.   Issachah Savage, another American, sings the solo tenor, hopefully with the same power that he has brought to Radames, Manrico and Otello.   Tonight’s bass is Nicholas Brownlee, another American whose most recent Verdi experience was last year’s Simon Boccanegra in Karlsruhe where he sang the part of Paolo Albiani; he has also sung Banquo’s aria at the 2016 Belvedere Competition in Villach (he won).   If all this sounds like an unusually mixed bag of individual experiences, you can always trust in the MSO and its Chorus to give the performance a solid base of professionalism.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 13 at 2 pm.

 

Friday April 19

ST. MATTHEW PASSION

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Reverting to its foundation repertoire, the Bach Choir and Orchestra under Rick Prakhoff takes on this big Good Friday special which concentrates the attention remorselessly on the events of this day without a trace of Easter morning celebrations.   Sure, you can find consolation descending after the Es ist vollbracht but you leave the Murdoch Hall – one hopes – in imaginary penitential garb.   This reading of the Passion brings back some familiar voices: Andrew Goodwin ever-welcome as the Evangelist; Jud Arthur, familiar from national opera company productions, as the Christus; two Jacquelines – Porter and Dark – soprano and alto soloists respectively; Michael Smallwood the tenor (whom I last heard perform a fine Mullerin a bit over 3 years ago); and Jeremy Kleeman given the bass solos, coming into his own in the last part of the work.  Much of the score’s processes rely on the choirs, for whom this Passion is home-ground; the only information lacking is where Prakhoff is sourcing his boys’ choir for the opening and closing numbers of Part 1.

NEWS JUST IN: The boys’ choir needed for Part 1 will be supplied by VOYCE, the youth ensemble from the Victorian Opera company.   Which means, you’d guess, the appellation ‘boys’ will not apply – and a good thing, too.

 

Friday April 26

GHOSTBUSTERS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Not the all-female (except for Chris Hemsworth) remake but the original from 1984 starring Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, directed by Ivan Reitman (once described by Arnold Schwarzenegger as ‘a genius’, so it must be true).   The film did well at the box office – extremely well – and the MSO is counting on a lot of nostalgia out there, scheduling three performances in Hamer Hall; at the time of writing, there are plenty of seats available at all three performances, except for the first performance balcony where none appear to be on offer.   Benjamin Northey will add to his live soundtrack laurels by taking the MSO through Elmer Bernstein’s acclaimed score although the composer seems to have had as much trouble with studio shenanigans as did his contemporary non-relative Leonard with the West Side Story film transmutation.   Apart from the title number, the rest of the score is not vivid in my memory, despite my having seen the film several times.   That’s the attraction of these events: you have to focus on the music because it attracts unusually high attention, often becoming the dominant constituent in the aural mix.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 27 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm.

 

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

SEASON OPENING GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 16

Lu Siqing

                                                                          Lu Siqing

Well, not me, exactly, but possibly the ABC when it controlled the upper echelons of serious music in this country.   I can’t have been the only member of Saturday night;’s audience who suffered from a profound sense of deja-vu.   Here was an old-fashioned Red Series program, the kind of fare that many of us grew up on and which is trotted out regularly as a reassurance that, while you might have to endure some puzzling music at odd spots during the year, at the core of things you can rely on tried-and-true practice.  Next week, Sir Andrew Davis presents a lecture-concert dealing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 – a near-novel exercise, tried on last year, and reminiscent of Bernstein’s efforts to educate a public even more reactionary than Australia.   But the MSO’s last submission for March is the old overture – (Egmont) – concerto (Mozart 27) – symphony (Sibelius 1) set-up . . . more lasting than bronze, indeed.

Nevertheless, the well-worn procedure can produce excellent results and Saturday night brought us a polished and committed reading of Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto No. 1 from Lu Siqing, one where the soloist and orchestra under Davis stayed on point throughout.   Certainly, the score is a familiar one to all concerned and the MSO is familiar with this excellent violinist’s work after his tour of China with the ensemble last year. and following his accession to the role of MSO Soloist in Residence for 2019.

Siqing gave a brooding glamour to the work’s initial recitatives before settling into the Vorspiel‘s main material where he balanced the role’s requirements for rapid figuration with hefty chord-work, all the while delivering Bruch’s expressive lyricism without mawkishness.   This prelude gives the orchestra few chances to shine until just before the reclamation of its opening solo flourishes but Davis kept the MSO in near-ideal synchronicity with this soloist, who distinguished himself with an arresting series of upward moving trills that conclude the first treatment of the movement’s second subject.

Even better came in the Adagio where, apart from two 8-bar breaks, the soloist is front-and-centre all the time.  Here also, Siqing let his line sing without emotional impediments and no interpolated cleverness, ably assisted by a respectful string section background.  He is a model musician for this deeply Romantic school because of his technical security, of course, but also for the ability he has of giving the music prime position, so that his pyrotechnics during the Finale impressed more for their transfixing clarity of sound than as instances of flamboyant personality.

As an encore, we heard an unaccompanied version that seemed to lack a segment or two  of Monti’s Csardas, which met with tremendous acclaim

As well as an exemplary concerto, the MSO later put up a brave showing in Tchaikovsky’s B minor Symphony No. 6, a score which it invariably carries off with eloquence of address, balanced ensemble and persuasive conviction.  Most of the wind chording came across cleanly, the brass well-harnessed in the odd-numbered movements and the strings sounding at their best with a finely honed responsiveness, the first violins (who were pretty close to in my face) working as one, apart from a single over-enthusiastic attack moment from leader Dale Barltrop.

Each conductor shows individuality of interpretation most clearly when coping with the finale’s Adagio lamentoso.  Davis set a firm pace, one that looked forward rather than yielding to the lugubrious.  This more-mobile-than-expected approach did the score no disservice; in fact, the great climactic surges impressed more as coherent argument conclusions than as the fits of temper that many another interpreter hurls at you.   A fine interpretation concluded in the last Andante giusto bars of the work which lived up to the tempo direction and faded to a quadruple-piano silence with remarkable self-effacement from the divisi cellos and basses: a passage of grave accomplishment after the symphony’s preceding restlessness.

As an overture, Davis brought in the MSO Chorus for a romp through Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, a work which you can easily go your whole life without encountering.   This collection was once a staple of Red Series programs, although often without any singing involved, and for many of us represented a significant facet of the Kuchka’s operations, in particular its mixture of semi-Oriental and Russian characteristics – or what we thought those geographical-cultural terms represented.

The extracts are still a pleasure to hear, even if the associations with the Davis/Lederer/Wright/Forrest musical Kismet are inescapable to those of us coming of age in the 1950s.   Davis set an unusually slow pace for the Chorus of Slavewomen which obviously took the female MSO Chorus members by surprise as they set off on their own path at a faster tempo.   As they do, matters settled quickly into shared synchronicity and the rest of the work’s constituents followed without much cause for alarm.

Not that this is a difficult work to handle, although the faster dances find the orchestra busy, especially the woodwind and in particular the clarinets.  Yet it does need a firm control of the ferment, particularly when Khan Konchak’s name is bandied about by the singers.   Considering their numbers, the sopranos and altos could have made a stronger contribution in the later stages when in combination with the male chorus members.   But the sung part of the work remained audible – which is more than I can say for other performances I’ve experienced at opposite ends of the time spectrum from Ansermet and Gergiev, during both of which you might have wondered why the chorus bothered to show up.

So, thanks to the MSO administration for dusting off this relic, although the program notes refer to a 2014 performance under Diego Matheuz.   Perhaps we can have a real blast from the past with Borodin’s just-as-Romantic view of the East, In the Steppes of Central Asia.   Or we could go one better with Rimsky’s Russian Festival Overture.   Considering Siqing’s encore, how about Poet and PeasantLight Cavalry, anyone?

Still, there’s no merit  –   or even benefit  –   in railing against the old-fashioned.   As a welcome counterweight, the MSO’s April brings us the first of two outstandingly original Metropolis programs, Verdi’s Requiem, and a night where Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto brushes shoulders with Paul Dean’s new work in the same format.   Or you could forget all about this and watch the MSO provide a live soundtrack to Ghostbusters.

 

 

 

 

Bach with a bit of bite

BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday March 9

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                                                                   Melissa Farrow 

What I heard of this concert was pretty impressive – but wouldn’t you expect that to be the case?   Paul Dyer nailed his ensemble’s colours to a specific mast 30 years ago when he established the ABO and we’ve had a bit of proof over the decades since that his musicians have expertise with the six phenomenal concertos that Bach put together as one of history’s most remarkable job applications.

On Saturday, the Brandenburgers, interleaving with a cluster of guests experienced in period performance, worked through all of the concertos bar one – and, sad to say, that was a part of the sequence that I was anticipating with delight: No. 2 with the four soloists including a brilliant, high trumpet.  To be honest, to hear it I would have sacrificed either the D Major No. 5 or the over-exercised No. 3 in G which has become a chamber orchestra cliche and all too often turns to stodge as its inbuilt chiaroscuro goes by the board.

Still, ABO regulars turned out in force for the first of the usual brace of Melbourne series performances and liked everything on the agenda without revealing much discrimination,  applauding the first movement of the D Major concerto as a salute to Paul Dyer’s negotiation of the famous cadenza – even if his rendition was far from cleanly accomplished with many two-notes-for-the-price-of-one splices in the right-hand work.  But then, the ABO’s artistic director had given himself a demanding schedule,  providing the continuo keyboard for everything else on show.

Yet there was a lot to like.   Brandenburg No. 4 started us off with plenty of verve, Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg excellently balanced and clean-speaking in the flute a bec roles, concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen a chameleonic character with some introduced pauses in the interrupted solo that lasts from bar 81 to bar 124, but you could  not cavil at his skirling demisemiquaver virtuosity between bars 187 and 208 and his headlong attack on the heart-stopping flight in the fugal finale where the violin has centre-stage for 26 furiously active measures.  As a welcome contrast, both recorders wound an untroubled way through the placid central Andante and its piano/forte alternations.

We all have a favourite Brandenburg, and mine is No. 6, probably for its earthy texture of two dominant violas and the superb thick-withied interlocking that Bach made of their parts.   Monique O’Dea and (I think: none of the solo/exposed musicians was identified) Marianne Yeomans began the first movement with excellent rapport and projection, the hefty port-flavoured timbre sustained with few signs of the violist’s weakness – an occasional note slightly off-centre.  There is little to distract from the two top lines outside the tuttis, apart from a sporadic outburst or six from the cello; in this instance, the ABO’s hard-worked Jamie Hey, who also enjoyed a couple of bars in the sun at the end of the Adagio.

But the best, as at Cana, was left till last with a buoyant account of the syncopation-rich Allegro-finale which managed to combine weight and bounce.  Here also, Hey joined in the contrapuntal interplay at two points, deserting his continuo-homophonious  companions: the dual gambas of Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba, Rob Nairn’s bass and Dyer’s harpsichord.   But the focus remained on the spiralling violas whose attack – in canon, in echo, in unison – showed no signs of faltering.   It might not have been the most polished duet work you’d have heard (that appears almost exclusively on recordings), yet it  served as a welcome reminder of the composer’s consummate, infallible craft even when he bends the rules.

Dyer dominated the reading of No. 5, as is only to be expected.   His partners – violin Ben Dollman and Farrow – showed a well-balanced emotional range in the trio-sonata Affettuoso while displaying a well-rounded athleticism in the outer movements, notably a strong version of the last movement with its relieving segments of abrupt exposure for the three soloists.   The concerto is properly regarded as a Baroque high-watermark and, the blips aside, the ABO turned in a brisk performance that emphasized the score’s driving sinewy energy with an episodic surprise around every page-turn.

While I cut out on the concluding No. 3  –  the concert ran over-time, as we were warned it could do, but my transport waits for no man  –  the chance to hear live its program predecessor, No. 1 in F, was one of the chief attractions of the whole exercise.

It’s not that you want to hear the horns misfire in the first two Allegri or the work’s last Trio but it somehow always happens in the concert hall, particularly when the instruments are Baroque/natural and so use crooks.  On this night, Michael Dixon and Doree Dixon made few intonational errors (none, I believe, in the first movement) but these pockmarked the surface of the third movement and  flew up to rattle the listener in that infamous trio involving horns and the three oboes in unison.

Such blemishes apart, this proved a satisfying experience with reassuring input from the woodwind trio – Christopher Palameta, Kirsten Barry, Kailen Cresp – and the ever-reliable bassoon of Brock Imison from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with ABO associate concertmaster Ben Bruce adding spice with a piccolo violin which hardly emerges from the ruck in the opening movement, is rarely silent in the succeeding Adagio, then enjoys some energetic bursts in the 6/8 Allegro – moments that Bruce took every opportunity to emphasize.

Not for the first time on this night, I found the ABO string corps in fine shape: well-prepared for the abrupt pianoforte changes, with a clean finish to their phrases, especially from the violin camps, finely attuned to Dyer’s performance style – so much so that there was little reason for his semi-conducting efforts during this work which seemed to run itself, as each of the preceding four works had managed to do with minimal gestures from anybody.

At the end, quite a bit to remember with pleasure came from this exhibition of music-making from a band that has identified itself with these masterworks.   Our two Melbourne appearances came at the end of a 7-performance run in Sydney and you’d guess that the standard by this stage is as high as possible.   In fact, Dyer and his charges could take plenty of satisfaction from their efforts which exemplified the period orchestra’s best practice: a central body on song and a collection of character-rich soloists.  Now, just as we’re waiting for Sir Andrew Davis to lead the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the large Symphony No. 8 to complete his Mahler cycle before leaving us bereft, so we can expect – somewhere along the line – an outing for the Brandenburg No. 2.    But not this year, it seems.

 

 

 

Symphony in need of a firm editor

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Thursday February 28

Marsalis

                                                                  Wynton Marsalis

When you’re used to the standard orchestral fabric on offer at 99% of MSO concerts, it takes you a while to adjust to the rare sound of an introduced ensemble that collaborates with those regular instrumentalists you know pretty well.   With the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the adjustment process passed very quickly, thanks to sensible programming,

To open, Marsalis and his 14 colleagues eased us in with three Duke Ellington pieces which genre of the art I take to be part of the Lincoln Orchestra’s artistic rationale.   After a rousing reception from a full house, the famous trumpeter led a version of Braggin’ and Brass which involved a bright solo that might have come from Marsalis himself; confusingly, he mentioned another trumpet player during the applause and I failed to catch the name.   But there are two trumpet solos in this piece, so he might have played one and Ryan Kisor, Kenny Tampton or Marcus Printup could have taken the other.

This talking across the music has always struck me as a persistent flaw in nearly every jazz event I’ve been to.  The custom is for the listeners to applaud after each solo spot, during which outbreak the players either mark time or the next soloist immediately leads off.   Fine, but then to try to shout names through the more formidable acclaim that comes at a piece’s end taxes the clarity of utterance in most of us.   In fact, it took me some research to work out two of the three Ellington titles, let alone who was at work in the back-blocks of the group.

For the rest of the night, most of the attention focused on the five sax/clarinet/flute players who sat in a line along the front of the stage, trumpets and trombones situated directly behind this phalanx with Dan Nimmer’s piano  prominent on the left until the night’s second half.  Carlos Henriquez’s bass was also visible and audible up to interval; I looked but couldn’t see him participate in the long symphony.   Brother and drummer Jason Marsalis fleshed out the rhythm section with the usual not-afraid-to-come-forward character of a man in control of a drum-kit battery, making for a dominant line of textures across the evening.

If patrons had paid to hear Marsalis in multiple solo spots, they were disappointed.   He may have been leading his group but it was done, as by many sage generals, from the rear.   Following the group exhilaration of 1938 with Marsalis possibly giving us the main high-flying solo (from my seat, nothing of the second and third rows of musicians could be seen), the environment changed abruptly to the 1966 Far East Suite from which the JLCO played the last two tracks from the initial recording: Amad and Ad Lib on Nippon, the first notable for a fluent trombone solo – after all the initial Oriental scene-setting – from Vincent Gardner; its successor featured tenor sax player Victor Goines playing a volatile clarinet line.

While you could wonder at the creative versatility shown during the solos that peppered this opening bracket, the effect was less brisk than you encounter on Ellington’s own performances which are models of crackling ensemble and, in the suite selections, less self-conscious, especially the pentatonic suggestions of Amad in which work Ellington himself is a very prominent force.   Nimmer, Henriquez and Jason Marsalis gave a competent setting-up of the Ad Lib on Nippon material but somewhere along the way I missed out on Ellington’s original substantial second solo.

Some MSO brass, percussion and clarinet Philip Arkinstall glided onstage for the Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs concoction that shows what a brilliant, gifted musician can do with conventions and still sound individualistic.   Arkinstall had a fair while to wait before the third – and most interesting – movement but he generated a crisply etched line that held its own against a solid brass onslaught in the latter stages of the score.   If anything, the airing of this piece brought to mind the clever combination of craft and bloody-mindedness you can hear in Cool from West Side Story; Bernstein’s fugue of eight years previous is a remarkable harbinger.   Most of the players coped with the composer’s rhythmic games, although one of the sax players – probably Paul Nedzela on baritone – teetered on the brink of falling off the beat in one of the fugue’s more fraught segments.

After the break, Nicholas Buc, who had directed the Bernstein score, again took control of Marsalis’ Symphony No. 4, The Jungle.   This is a substantial score but at the same time one that flattens your interest simply from its grandiloquence.   The composer alternates his movements deftly enough, as well as pulling both orchestra and band into and out of focus with a keen eye on audience interest levels.  Yet, in spite of the multi-faceted interlacing of colour and shadings, the impact is tiring – partly, I feel, for an insistence on motifs rather than full-blown melodies in the action-packed strophes of the fast movements.

Marsalis memorialises New York in this work; it isn’t really a transferable piece that takes in a city like London or Berlin (or Melbourne) as its vocabulary is linked to what we outsiders know (and think we know) is the New York experience.   This symphony opens with a wide-ranging city-scape, loaded with gestures and the kind of expansiveness that could have been written by a Gershwin with a taste for dissonance.  A succeeding scherzo  –  The Big Show  –  is even more reminiscent of Gershwin and 1930 sophisticated jazz tropes, somehow taking in a cakewalk and a blues.   A clean-textured slow movement (with reservations) follows in Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral),featuring lush string fabric set alongside bluesy interludes from the JLCO group.

La Esquina returns to more strident territory and a more consistently optimistic scenario representing that major Latin element in this Big City, best exemplified here in a kind of habanera-rhythm ramble.  Us continues the amiability at its start but its memorable feature on this night came in a soaring fast trumpet solo (Marsalis?) in its central pages.  To end, Marsalis produced a punchy syncopated march which boiled down into a garden-variety swing band sound before fading to black.

In fact, this last part of the whole work posed some interesting questions.  The final movement is called Struggle in the Digital Market and Marsalis seems to be as ambivalent about this stage of our development as most of us are.   The progress of civilization is unarguable but who is in control of it?   At the end, he leaves us with an extended passage of sputterings as the uncertainty grows, the forward motion falters and the machine fails of its power.   For some reason, I was reminded of Duke Ellington with whose work this night began; in particular, his music for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder which features, at the end, an impossibly high trumpet sending out a kind of erratic Morse code – ditto The Jungle.

But fragments that linger in the memory aren’t enough to justify the large chasms of music-making from which nothing remains.   What this work needed was a censor, some musician who could show the composer where he was either repeating material that wasn’t contributing to the symphony’s progress (or was significantly impeding it), or where a delight in constructing large sonorous edifices had become an end in itself and the individual movements’ aims had detoured into flamboyant gestures.

For all that, the Hamer Hall audience gave clear signs of having relished the whole experience, applauding each movement and greeting its conclusion with obvious endorsement.  Despite my reservations, the enterprise realised many expectations.  Anyone who regards this fusion of jazz and serious music as dated, just a throwback to a time when such a musical cross-breeding produced masterpieces, would have to re-think his or her stance, even if this modern-day product does for me what An American in Paris, Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk and On The Town don’t do – wears out its welcome.

 

 

 

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Gripping sub-Arctic fervour

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday February 27

Australian String Quartet Haydn Winkelman Sibelius - Melbourne - photo by Sam Jozeps

                     (L to R) Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King, Timo-Veikko Valve

                                                                   (Photo: Sam Jozeps)                                               

Introducing the last work on this subscription series recital from the ASQ, stand-in cellist Timo-Veikko Valve thanked his colleagues for programming a work from his own country: the Voces intimae String Quartet in D minor by Sibelius which is the Finnish composer’s outstanding contribution to chamber music.   Valve’s gesture was sincere, I’m sure, but not really necessary as this undertaking was the night’s highlight, largely due to a solid interpretative consensus from all concerned.

The regular ASQ members – violins Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King – contrived to weld Valve into their performing practice with pretty consistent success.    Replacing Sharon Grigoryan (absent on parental leave), the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cellist made his presence all too obvious in the opening sentences of Haydn’s  Bird String Quartet Op. 33 No. 3 in C.   While Barltrop was finishing his 1st theme statement, Valve’s ascending C Major arpeggio was  pushed forward with excessive force; ditto for the D minor pattern repeat in bars 11-12.  A small thing but it drew attention to a balancing flaw that arose several times in this particular movement.

Unlike quite a few extant recorded performances, the ASQ followed Haydn’s repeat signs.  In the following Scherzando, Barltrop and Hiew produced a cogent, rustic version of the two-voice Trio; the only oddity came with Valve’s tendency to anticipate the others at some of the Allegretto‘s mid-paragraph cadences where the upper three players had pre-determined a small hesitation.   The group’s approach to the Adagio was anything but.   It sounded as though a communal decision had been taken to view these pages as a sort of minuet.   This might work for some of the score’s more obvious and simple stretches but leads to dismissiveness when the first violin encounters sextuplets and that benign flight of fancy lasting from bar 43 to bar 36.

Also dissimilar to several contemporary approaches, the ASQ eschewed the possibility of radically meddling with metre, sticking consistently to a regular pulse without extending hiatus points, this slow movement a case in point where the phrasing sounded collegial and the ensemble’s underlying impetus unshakeable, except for Barltrop’s solo interstitial breaks.   And the rondo-finale proved to be a deft gem, the lower voices of King and Valve not over-emphatic but then much of their work sits in their instruments’ middle ranges.  Haydn’s felicitous chains of parallel 3rds and 6ths look so simple on paper but translate into crisp and attractive passages of play, the actual sound more effervescent than you’d expect.   In realising this, the ASQ brought a much-appreciated verve to what is fast becoming a string quartet recital cliche:  the opening Haydn.

Swiss-born contemporary composer Helena Winkelman’s Papa Haydn’s Parrot offers an 8-movement sequence of variants on parts of the Bird Quartet.  With admirable gusto, the ASQ gave this rapidly-moving score an outing, each segment staying around just long enough to make its point although the opening A Question of Character sounded over-strident in its content and unexpectedly four-square, with little I could make out of Haydn’s clever disturbance of equilibrium.

As the movements passed, Winkelman employed most of the modern-day production techniques for strings: harmonics in the second Menuet in Slow Motion, col legno, pizzicati all over the shop, microtones (if not simple glissandi) in At Ease (Adagio), and the insertion of sticks (knitting needles) for part of Memory of a Dance.  In fact, much of these devices came into clear prominence in the penultimate Rondo in Presence of Fleas where Winkelman wrong-noted Haydn’s finale to give us a musical image of 18th century wig-wearers’ cranial irritation.  This work’s finale, Haydn on the Rocks, intended to summon up a Big Band spectre through jazz-inspired flashy musical gestures; can’t say that it was convincing in its achievement because, no matter what instructions you give in Satiesque vein, it’s nigh impossible to convey the essential brassiness of a band by means of four strings, not even if you write a superfluity of slashing, sweeping chords.

That Haydn had a parrot is a historical fact; the animal survived its owner, who bought it 20 years before his death.   So he had at least one avian interest.  Winkelman seems to identify the parrot with the popular nickname of this quartet, even though the set from which it comes predates the parrot’s purchase by nearly a decade.  Not that it matters too much in this instance, where the work’s name doesn’t matter as much as its use of Haydn’s score which is probably more clever than it sounds after one hearing..

The Sibelius quartet needs to be played with unyielding intensity, at the least in both outer movements and that’s what we got from these players.  Barltrop and Valve led their colleagues into Sibelius’ passionate argument that dominates the opening Allegro; a demonstration of stern polyphony uninterrupted by circuit breakers which finds its resolution in a striking chorale across the final 12 bars.   After this, the A Major Vivace, packed with semiquaver patterns that interweave and contrast, made for a welcome refresher, here treated with a welcome amalgam of heft and dexterity rising to a bountiful C Major climax at Rehearsal Number 3 where the upper voices duet at the octave over a weltering support of double-stopped semiquavers – a splendidly invigorating bout over all too quickly.

This work’s core, its Adagio, produced the evening’s most dramatic and moving work from the ASQ, the interweaving syncopated labyrinth of melodies realised with eloquence and a laudable self-awareness on the part of each participant, notably at the two sets of chords, in E minor and C sharp minor, that earned this quartet its sobriquet: clear in their parts and enunciated triple-piano as required.   The pace is not demanding but the counterpoint is a consistent test of flexibility and abnegation to the greater cause. With controlled fervour, these musicians took us through these pages with consistent unanimity of purpose.

Sibelius prefigures the rustling activity of Tapiola in this work’s Allegretto where, after the hefty rustic measures that provide the main material, second violin and viola move into parallel quaver triplets to background the outer lines’ brief melody lines.  It’s a scherzo-of-sorts but the 16-bar stretto comes as a relief from the unabashed angularity and unsettling awkwardness of the movement’s development.  Finally, the concluding Allegro proved irresistible thanks to the ASQ’s clear articulation and head-long confidence that persisted in the abrupt shift to a higher gear at the Piu allegro with the upper three lines in unison urging the work’s pace forward for relentless pages of ferment, even in later segments where the dynamic markings accentuate softness and subterranean heaving until an apogee is reached – in case the players feel like wavering – at the Number 9 Sempre piu energico, the fabric punctuated by abrupt unison scale passages up and down.

With this piece, all the elements are provided for a tense involvement with the listener, Sibelius exerting a grip that doesn’t falter after the first movement.  The ASQ – even in this format, or possibly because of this format – produced an ardent, involving interpretation of a work that stretched them beyond the preceding Haydn-Winkelman double-bill.  It brings about the kind of experience that makes you more conscious than ever that there is no substitute for live performance; I don’t care how fine your sound-system, you cannot equal the excitement involved in watching musicians in the flesh grappling with an emotionally rich, dangerously vital score like this one.

Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26

Clein

               Natalie Clein

To open its 2019 season, Musica Viva presented this cello-piano duet, two young artists (yes, they’re in their forties but they all look young to me) of high achievement.  Their careers are studded with prizes, academic positions, recital and concert appearances with significant organizations and well-known conductors and colleagues, now coming into the climacteric of their lives with this Australian tour.   A respectably sized audience came along to the MRC for this program which boasted two masterpieces from the cello/piano repertoire and a fresh composition by an Australian writer.

The evening began with Kodaly’s Sonatina, a brief one-movement work that I’d not heard before.   In fact, the only piece for this string instrument that I did know was one which occupies such a large position in the cello’s limited storehouse that it can hardly be ignored: the Solo Sonata of 1915: a monumental masterwork that first introduced me to the brilliant craft of Liwei Qin.   This brief duo has reminiscences of the greater work – and of the composer’s partner in transcribing Hungarian folk music from the source: Bartok.   Both instruments share a welter of rhapsodic gestures and modal inflexions that go back to Liszt in serious mode.

The reading set something of a pattern for the program’s progress.  Apekisheva powered through the keyboard’s ardent 12-bar introduction before setting up the quintuplet waves that support the string’s long-arched D minor melody.   Not that Kodaly divides the labour in doctrinaire fashion; the cello gets its powerful declamations, if nothing as striking as the piano’s fortissimo outburst at bar 158.   In this well-integrated score, idiomatic, even flattering, for both instruments, Clein  and Apekisheva showed an agreeable balance, despite the piano being open on the long stick and this cellist not one to belt out her sound.

Natalie Williams’ freshly composed The Dreaming Land, created for these artists and this tour, is in three movements and seems to be concerned with Australia and its pre-European civilization.   After one experience of its content, however, I’m not sure.  ‘Dreaming’ tends to set off shivers of local recognition in most of us but the composer’s actual vocabulary and technical armoury is employed in such a way as to suggest any landscape.   Not that you expect intentional Jindyworobakisms to leap out, but these three movements/scenes have more universal associations than expected.

Williams speaks a tonal tongue in which the natural bent is towards resolution; at several points, leading notes yearn towards the tonic and usually fold into it.   Yes, there are passages of dissonance but you aren’t left with much ambiguity about where the composer has led you.   Movement One, Voices of the Ancients, is dominated by rising patterns from the piano, which underpins the string’s role as narrator dominating its supporting companion.   The voices are essentially lyrical in the time-honoured Western tradition and they also tend to follow an upward-leading and continuously prevalent optimism.

The Chanting Walker . . . follows without much change in procedure even if the timbre-world is more dour.   For all the eloquent melodic arches from the string player, well-written to exhibit Clein’s disciplined vibrato, the pilgrimage scenario failed to move me, chiefly because the work’s progress is too self-assured.   You’d expect the title’s trailing off to suggest doubts, even indeterminacy, but this walker has all the answers and leaves nothing to the imagination, reaching a full close – which I, for one, find atypical of this country’s native metaphysics.

Finally, Ethereal Furies is an emotionally moderate moto perpetuo with some intriguing rhythmic hockets but eventually settles into regular patterns.  These Eumenides are well-dressed and, while active, would not discombobulate any Orestes, now or then.  The atmosphere is of Mendelssohn through a well-ordered restlessness, but dressed in light 21st Century garb.  We can thank Williams for her musical journey and the prospects that it offered but the score lacked bite, even though Clein and Apekisheva outlined it with enthusiasm and apparent precision.

Beethoven’s final Cello Sonata in D, second of the Op. 192 brace, enjoyed a very welcome airing.   The performers’ account of the initial Allegro gave us a complete, consistent canvas; no small feat when you remember the composer’s penchant for abrupt changes in most compositional parameters, including the unsettling leaps that typify the sonata’s opening matter.   You looked in vain for overt declamation or jolts of power in the Rostropovich/Richter style of delivery; here the emphasis fell on finding a continuous seam and following it through.

The central Adagio also impressed for its composure and deftly conserved harmonic ambiguity in the outer sections, which embraced a splendid D Major centre with eminently fluent passage work and tic-free treatment of the demi-semiquaver Alberti bass figures in the keyboard and the fragmented commentary offered by the cello, marred only by some strained high Ds.  The gentlest of transitions moved us into the finale fugal Allegro where both artists quite sensibly put their trust in the composer.  The texture gets piano-heavy at two definite points but Apekisheva persisted with her dynamic, leaving Clein to emerge from the ferment that comes about from near bar 84 to bar 89 and reconvenes near bar 126.

To end, the duo played the Rachmaninov G minor Sonata which gave the lion’s share of labour to Apekisheva.   Clein’s generous bowing action made some form of compensation for the composer’s over-hefty keyboard writing but she is not a bullish performer, urging out her line at the expense of accuracy.   Not that the inbuilt imbalance proved too distracting except in the concluding Allegro mosso where the composer was manifestly unfair to the cellist, studding the piano part with brilliant bursts of virtuosity and scintillating textures.

It’s true that the string player doesn’t fare much better in the vital Allegro scherzando.  Clein can’t put on a gruff voice for any money and she was hard-pressed to mirror her partner’s volatile scampering downward two-note skips.  Of course, there are compensations in the central A flat Major trio but even here Rachmaninov supplies the pianist with a lush accompanying textural web towards the transition back to taws.  To her credit, Apekisheva maintained the correct role, her mastery evident in that we were aware of her content – just not overpowered by it.

An admirable interpretation, then, but not one that dripped with tension.  True to her lights, Clein gave not a hint of a scrape, her bowing address impeccable across the program.   You were able to rest secure in the hands of a highly competent musician with a fine command of phrasing.   Yet, for the two major works, those hefty sonatas, her elegance of utterance necessarily was overshadowed by her colleague who also – as far as I could hear – made precious few errors across a taxing night’s work.

No worries

 

CHROMATIC FLIGHT

Virginia Taylor and Simon Tedeschi

Move Records  MCD 582

 

Chromatic Flight

 

Here is a short disc of thoroughly amiable duets for flute and piano, unassuming music treated with consideration if not much flamboyance by a couple of distinguished Australian artists.   The contents comprise six individual pieces and two suites – one Latin, the other jazz.  The briefest track, Ripples, lasts 2:03 minutes; the longest, Contemplation, comes in at a second short of 5 minutes.

All works are products by Graham Jesse, a well-known Australian performer, composer and arranger whose life has revolved principally around jazz:  a biographical descriptor borne out by this album.   Taylor’s flute is the dominant thread throughout; Tedeschi has his moments of exposure but it remains clear in every track that the wind line is all-important.  Which doesn’t come as a surprise; most of the publicity shots I could find of Jesse have him holding a flute, concert or bass.

We’ve all been victims – willing or otherwise – of elevator music, that irritating or anaesthetising noise that fills out a vacuum in our shopping experience.  It could be a rendition of a well-known popular song or a hotted-up Christmas carol.  Its function – if it really has one – is as aural decor, acoustic tinsel, and often dismissable.  Sadly, I’ve never been in a lift where the sound system is burbling out Good King Wenceslas at which all of we transportees join in a verse or six.   Fortunately, Jesse’s music is original and rather individual, which removes it from the realm of material that just sits on the periphery of consciousness.

But I couldn’t help thinking of certain types of composition that have an assertively functional philosophy behind them.   Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik or music for utility is not the right fit for Jesse’s work in Chromatic Flight, even if you have to listen hard to find any moments where Taylor and Tedeschi have much to cope with as far as technical challenges go.   Yet there is a faint patina of the utilitarian about this CD’s content which is light and slight, for the most part.

As well, you might be struck by an echo of Satie’s Musique d’ameublement where the music is meant to be background, like wall-paper.  Stravinsky tells the story of the composer rushing round the room where this music was being performed, trying to get people to talk over, rather than listen attentively to, his work.

Mind you, that can work in reverse.  I remember being at a launch of something to do with chamber music at the Naval and Military Club where music was supplied by an ad hoc string quartet from the National Academy.   We were standing around on a terrace at the rear of the building, chatting amiably enough when Dame Elisabeth Murdoch  – whose money was probably funding the event – querulously demanded that we all be quiet and listen to the music, which could have been Haydn, or Paisiello, or Salieri but  was definitely in divertimento vein and not being accomplished with much concern beyond getting the notes right.  S till, the piper calls the tune, so the hard-liners among us who can distinguish between pap and prowess adjourned to the inner bar.

But, to the matter in hand, Jesse’s work tends to operate on an impressionistic level, evident in the first three titles recorded here.  Waves is really ripples with Tedeschi setting up an arpeggio ostinato – no, a splayed common chord base with some soothing meandering from both instruments.   These waves are gentle enough; even when the atmosphere gets a bit hectic in the work’s centre, there is nothing here to transport you from Elwood or Balmoral to Portsea back beach or Mona Vale on a stormy afternoon.

Flutter begins with a flute solo, punctuated by some – yes, flutter-tonguing.   Then, you settle down for a lot of repeated notes and patterns with the inevitable flutter as the main focus of action.   It’s a nicely calculated ‘effect’ piece with a neat suggestion of jazz in its elliptical central section.   Ripples is a faster Waves – at least for the flute which begins and stays in Debussyland with an arpeggiated 7th chord/almost whole-tone pattern meandering up and down with little required from the piano but dutiful chords and mirroring.

The CD’s title number is a non-confrontational  bagatelle with lots of chromatic  passage work but it’s not alarmingly atonal;  more along the lines of a modern-day Flight of the Bumble-Bee, speaking in easily digestible phrase-lengths with nothing spartan or confrontational along its journey towards a C Major final chord.  The pace in the outer thirds is fast yet the whole impresses this jaded mind as a fine AMEB study piece.  Convolution is similarly brisk, follows the same ternary pattern, also ends in C and takes a pattern of descending 4ths as its central building block.   Belying its title, the piece is clarity exemplified.

You’d want to be  more agile than most navel-gazers to find Contemplation useful.   It has no great incidents – quite properly  –  but an intriguing irregular rhythmic patter-line set up by the piano before the flute enters with a lucid melody that gives Taylor an opening to show her well-managed vibrato and security of articulation on sustained notes.  Much of Tedeschi’s part could be played by one hand, so that some consecutive chords at about the 3-minute mark come as a surprise.   Still, there’s nothing wrong with a bi-linear pattern gently wandering round a D tonality pivot to suggest something close to mental stasis – if that’s what you understand by contemplation, of course

A mild bossa nova rhythm is the only memorable factor in the first movement of the Latin Flute Suite with the prescriptive title of Bossa Flauto and there are some of those mild syncopations in the piano part to help you sway along the Brazilian dance path.  Silly Galoot, a slang term for flute, is a companion piece to the bossa nova gem and is one of the tracks that suggests to me most strikingly the landscape of Satie’s furniture music. Its more arresting moments come when both instruments play the same melody line in unison; much of the rest seems to me sprightly note-spinning with a clear lack of purpose starting about half-way through before the by-now-inevitable reprise of the piece’s opening material.   Savusavu celebrates a Fijian resort that Jesse visited and there found much the same inspiration as from bossa nova and the preceding galoot.  You can take little objection to this except where the players move into some uncomfortably situated triplets.   Nevertheless, in this piece the actual progress of the composition is very predictable.  To each his own, I suppose, but I’m puzzled as to why Jesse found a calypso rhythm gave the best reflection of his South Pacific island experience.

Jesse’s Jazz Flute Suite has three movements: Don This, Waltz and Flutist Blues.  The first is a tribute to 91-year-old jazz great Don Burrows and is a mildly swinging ramble with four places where both instruments play in unison. moments that certainly bring back memories of the Burrows Quartet and the MJQ’s influence on the art form in the middle of the last century, although this later product is low-key and short-breathed in its little paraphrases of Bach Inventions-type textures.  The Waltz is anything but: full of hemiolas at its opening before settling down for a moment, as if it prove that 3/4 is capable of more than you’d think.  It’s a placid rondo with a quiet interest, and probably not suited for dancing, but you could say the same about plenty of Chopin.   The concluding blues is an optimistic one with an attractive main melody and a clever sharing of the labour between these players; its only problem comes in an episode before the final reprise which sounds over-studied compared to the easy swagger of its surrounds.

You won’t find anything ground-breaking or unusual on this CD.  The performances are smooth, apart from a few moments of not-quite-synchronicity in the last three tracks. Bob Scott has achieved a fair balance between the players, Tedeschi’s work not being under-played and Taylor’s flute allowed a vivid amplitude without over-miking; you’re not conscious of chuffs or breathiness.  Indeed, the calm surface of the CD may go some way to explaining why I think it – or parts of it – may fit the afore-mentioned Satie performance conditions.