An unfamiliar voice emerges

MIRABILE IN PRAGUE

Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

Move Records MD 3448

It isn’t every day that you come across a local composer who has managed to get his work recorded by a well-known European orchestra, directed by a notable musician who has been active in Australia for many years. But that’s been the case for John Allan who has managed to achieve this fortunate outcome, one that is unfamiliar to many a better-known writer of serious music in this country. You’ll find seven tracks on this CD, two of them arrangements: Debussy’s La soiree dans Grenade, the central one of Debussy’s three Estampes; and the Scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, his Op. 1.

The original pieces begin with an Aeolian Caprice, which was initially a piano solo but, 15 years on, Allan decided to orchestrate it. One of the major works follows, a Fantasia on Mahler’s Purgatorio: a variant on the third movement from Mahler’s incomplete Symphony No. 10. At the centre of the disc sit three works with the Latin adjective ‘mirabile’ in their titles. The first, like Aeolian Caprice, began life as piano solo celebrating the birth of the composer’s daughter; it was orchestrated a year later, then revised six years after that. As well, there’s Mirabilia Antipodia of 2005 which offers variations on the original ‘mirabile’ theme. Finally, another one of four Allan works that use the same motif/theme, comes Marcia Mirabilis – written a year before Antipodia but revised several times since: in 2010, 2014 and 2017 . . . which makes it the most recently visited work of the seven. The whole lot adds up to a little less than 49 minutes of music.

When I see a title like Aeolian Caprice, I’m reminded of occasional pieces, post-Mendelssohn in character, for amateur pianists. Of course, the naming is ambiguous: it could refer to the Aeolian mode, or it could refer to the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, or it might be suggesting the wind-driven Aeolian harp. It starts with a suggestion of everything; clarinet-led low melody, low brass following the same pattern, until an orchestral explosion of some power, even if the heftiness is over-bearing. Then comes a series of full-blown melodies, with something a bit odd about the ensemble chording for wind and brass; can’t put my finger on it but it seems very thick and imbalanced. As the work proceeds, the texture gets thicker, then cuts back to leave the violins weaving a spacious melody, which yields to a clumsy passage for wind and percussion.

By this stage the metrical pattern is well established: a swinging (slowly) triple metre which doesn’t endear itself by a lack of variety. In fact, the piece impresses as unsophisticated, the disposition of forces clumsy, the crescendo towards the final-bar climax elementary in style. It’s the earliest work on the disc, and you can tell. As for those worries about Aeolian, I’ve no idea at the end. Probably not the harp; the score’s opening has the faintest traces of Bax’s Tintagel, so maybe the Sicilian islands.

Allan’s Mahler essay follows. Its main feature is to change the time-signature: the original 2/4 goes by the board for a deliberately unbalancing 5/8. That aside, half of this track’s length – no, a bit more than that – follows the original framework pretty closely; that is to say, you can ‘follow’ the published score’s flow without difficulty. Naturally enough, Allan has imposed his own orchestration (who hasn’t?) and so the textures have only shadings of the original. But motives and bursts of melody are transferred between woodwind, for example, or even interchanged between brass and strings. Allan moves away from this a little after the 6 minute mark and manipulates Mahler’s material for the final three minutes.

To his credit, the new score stays close in material to what we have heard already – through a glass splintered – and the entire exercise has an undeniable coherence. But, as the Australian composer observes, the work is changed considerably, its emotional intent less apparent, and the sound fabric less incisive. The whole thing is a clear homage but you aren’t quite sure what has been accomplished here. Allan takes the wind out of your carping sails, however, by calling his score a fantasia – which allows him absolute freedom; the wonder is that he didn’t take more.

At the opening of the root work Mirabile, you are reminded of Delius: a melody slowly rises out of a brooding bass before that melody is pronounced clearly in a solo horn, the lyric shifting harmonically – just like those incessant Delian bass murmurings. As the work progresses, there are shades of Hollywood sound-tracks, with some broadly swelling climaxes and plenty of swoops and ascents for the Prague orchestra to enjoy. Eventually, we come to a broad tutti statement, loaded with swelling strings. But there is also a sort of astringency added to the smooth surface with an input line or two from woodwind and/or brass. The ending is a reinforcement of the score’s orthodox harmonic nature, a triumph of sentiment over spice.

You’d like to think that Mirabile Antipodia has reference to this side of the world – Australia Olympica – but it’s more probable that the reference is formal. Allan has here transposed the voluble ‘mirabile’ theme for this piece; no, more than transposed – he has inverted it in the best Baroque or Webern fashion. The results are more disturbing than in the original work, as the accompanying material has taken on a harmonic complexity that the original didn’t contain. I found the writing here to be more sinewy – or the music’s workings were more discernible and the harmonic language a good deal more complex, although Allan cannot avoid popular tropes, like the downward movement for brass a little after the 3-minute mark, and the following full-orchestral blasts that lead to a full-blown peroration of large proportions, something like Berg piling up his forces. The whole thing then suspends for a reminiscence of Tchaikovsky – the melody’s there, if the supporting surrounds are different – before reverting to several restatement’s of the inverted ‘mirabile’ and a big finale.

So, in a real sense, this is a converse piece which largely avoids the sweetness and predictability of the previous track. Even if Allan indulges again in the lush orchestral resources available to him, they are much more interesting in their application. You feel that his compositional development has resulted in more confidence as a manipulator of possibilities. Mind you, I still think the textures are over-full, despite an attempt to add sparks; a fair bit of the brass writing is pure weight, a mid-ensemble spread.

The march based on the ‘mirabile’ melody would drive any corps to revolt: it’s too slow for military use. Not that you’d take as a principle that all marches have to be marchable; now that Tchaikovsky’s been mentioned, I can think of three major marches from his pen that also don’t fit the regimental bill. In fact, there’s not a good deal to be said about Allan’s march. I eventually found the relevant theme in the content, mainly because its initial phrase is eventually repeated till even the meanest intelligence gets the picture. This is the longest track on this CD, twice as long as the preceding tracks using the same theme; ditto for the Aeolian escapade and the Debussy rescheduling.

There’s a certain pleasure to be found in this work which strikes me as often being a bit of a ramble, despite its jaunty nature which carries it across quite a few trio interpolations. Still, it is very diffuse and, despite the efforts of Kram and his players, it could have stopped several minutes before it actually reached its big finish. Perhaps, if the composer revisits it for a fourth time, he might consider a touch more lopping than grafting because the unavoidable feeling at its end is that all concerned were labouring at their work – not that you could find much here to exercise them unduly.

If you want a benchmark for happy Debussy transcriptions, it’s hard to look past Grainger’s marvellous and richly textured arrangement of Pagodes for harmonium and tuneful percussion which I’ve heard live only once – at a John Hopkins Prom in the Melbourne Town Hall, I seem to recall. It’s colour without self-consciousness. Allan’s reworking of the next Estampe, Evening in Granada, is an orthodox piece of work in which most of the intervening chord work (bars 17-20, in the first instance) is scored in pragmatic fashion, even if the Prague players are not exact in their chord weighting. Also, I was pleased that the arranger took his time before introducing the inevitable castanets (bar 33). The horns came across as far too prominent in the Tres rythme segment; the piccolo at bar 98 was inaccurate; both Leger et lointain sections were far too slow; and surely the G sharp at bar 112 has to resolve two bars later.

Brahms’ scherzo is heavy in its humour, even in the piano original which I recently heard from one of the Sydney International Piano Competition entrants. Allan can’t do much to perk up its weightiness, although he comes close to it across the outer section’s reappearance. To his credit, he tries everything, not just content to make one version and leave it to be repeated; he’s re-scoring wherever you look. The only time anything is really unstuck is in the Trio where the chord at bar 13 – especially its top B flat – is bloated and painful to hear. Against that put the clever re-thinks that came up to revitalise your interest and you can be grateful to Allan for carrying off pretty well what many of us would have considered to be a thankless task.

An intriguing enterprise, this CD. It sounds as if David Kram and his Czech musicians could have gained more certainty from further rehearsal, as Allan could have benfited from the luxury of altering his orchestration at leisure after hearing it. But I admire the effort involved in getting the whole thing recorded and giving us the chance to make the acquaintance of this composer and his catalogue. What we have here is a small sample of his actual output, but it’s something to be going on with while we wait for the larger-framed scores to emerge – possibly from Kram and the biddable Praguers.

Celebration for the seasonally woke

A BAROQUE CHRISTMAS

Australian Chamber Choir

Move Records MCD 607

What’s in a name? Well, Ms Capulet, if you’re lucky, specificity. This new CD from one of Melbourne’s leading choral bodies embraces some odd repertoire reaches in its catch-all title, which includes two works by Josquin, a motet by Victoria,(admittedly, a special case for period encapsulation), and – to end enigmatically – a Basque carol: The angel Gabriel, in David Willcocks’ 1970 arrangement. Still, it could quite easily be argued that, except for the last track which is now synonymous with British choral practice, all the music on offer – Bach, Sweelinck, Praetorius, Giovanni Gabrieli, Scheidt as mainstream representatives – could have been heard in Christmas celebrations during the (roughly) two centuries covered blanket-like by the term Baroque, as it pertains to music history.

One of the significant virtues of the album is its presentation of familiar texts and melodies in settings that you don’t often hear. Christmas music lovers in this country are likely to experience In dulci jubilo through the R. L de Pearsall version, but Douglas Lawrence and his singers have wiped away much Victorian-era sentiment with their two readings: one by Samuel Scheidt, the other a mixture of Bach and Luther’s associate, Johann Walter. Likewise, the Resonet in laudibus that can be heard most often in enlightened churches is the setting by Lassus, so having the opportunity to enjoy Eccard’s work on this particular text is welcome. Most of us have been indoctrinated to accept the opening and closing of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols as giving the customary Gregorian shape to Hodie Christus natus est; but Sweelinck’s treatment offers a different type of richness. And our knowledge of the Von Himmel hoch tune has been conditioned by Bach’s chorale preludes, fughetta, and canonic variations (further complicated by Stravinsky’s orchestration of these last), so the Gumpelzhaimer revamp also served to crack away at pre-conceptions.

Alongside these, Lawrence and Company offer two O magnum mysterium motets (Victoria and Giovanni Gabrieli), Josquin’s Ave Maria and the Gloria from his Missa Pange lingua, three Praetorius’ treatments (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, Singt und klingt, and three verses of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem where the other four were written by Bartholomaus Gesius), a Halleluja, freuet euch by Andreas Hammerschmidt, and four Bach works (the afore-mentioned In dulci jubilo verses, Lobet den Herrn, the O Jesulein suss soprano solo, and the bookend movements to the organ solo Pastorale). The CD’s content lasts a little under 57 minutes, the Singt und klingt coming in well under a minute, with Lobet den Herrn the longest track at 7’22”.

To open, Lawrence supervises a moving account of the Josquin motet, with some excellent hocket-type syncopations, viz. the tenors from bars 44 to 50 (at the words Caelestia, terrestria nova replet, if you’re uncomfortable with subdivisions applied in later editions), and the altos joining in on the same text. As well, the ensemble work in block chords at the move to triple time – Ave vera virginitas – proved exemplary, as did the splendid reserved reaction at the motet’s wrenching final plea. The ACC’s clarity of delivery is apparent in the composer’s Gloria, recorded in a Hanover church with impeccable acoustic properties for this genre of choral work. [The other 16 tracks were recorded in two Melbourne churches: St. Andrew’s Brighton and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Middle Park.] Apart from an odd falter in bar 81 (the final miserere nobis), this track is exceptionally fine – the delivery faultless, phrasing carefully intermeshed, inner buoyancy unfailing – and each line impresses for its freshness of timbre.

Victoria’s O magnum mysterium has one of those spine-chilling moments that choristers lucky enough to perform this motet never forget, although it comes early – at bar 10 when the basses first enter. For some reason, the effect of the motet’s first 4-part chord is extraordinarily rich and powerful after those bare 5ths that have dominated the ambience till this point. The choir’s interpretation settles into a regularity of tempo that could have been eased when the iacentem in praesepio text arrives. But the O beata Virgo is finely balanced, as are the overlapping entries and tailing-off to the (what passes in Victoria for) celebratory Alleluia conclusion. With the Gabrieli 8-part setting, recorded in the Middle Park buiuding, the actual recording sound is excellent: crisp, faithful to all lines, controlling the various timbres so that individual voices are subsumed in the overall complex. Only a coarse note from the tenors around the bar 7 mark disrupts a performance that you’d be lucky to hear in Venice for its eloquence and exemplary melding of forces.

Resonet in laudibus in 5 parts gives its extra line (I think) to tenors who tend to be swamped by the formidable female contingent. This is pretty stolid singing, sort of understandable given the composer’s harmonic plan which shows no flights of fancy, but the effect might have shown more festive with a brisker tempo and more punch on linear fulcrum notes. In contrast, you can hear a fair instance of rhythmic bite in the Sweelinck Hodie, to the point where you can forgive the singers for short-changing the third syllable of that word each time it comes around. Another five-line work, this has a deft Gabrieli-like alternation of parts, mirroring each other on a smaller scale than the giant constructions for St. Mark’s. Here again, the Middle Park church is sympathetic to all the forces involved.

The singers have no problem with Gumpelzhaimer’s harmonization of Von Himmel hoch, singing three verses and sparing us the remaining twelve. . It’s nicely carried-off, blokey work without any of those slippery chromatics that will bedizen the tune a century later. All the versions I’ve come across of Scheidt’s In dulci jubilo have two trumpet parts; these look pretty incidental throughout but could have been useful to add sparkle to some sustained notes, especially the final syllable which seems to have an extra C coming in late. Like the Sweelinck, this performance stresses the brightness of the occasion, the score full of spacious textures across its 8 lines and an excellent pair of treble groups leading the changes in metre and tempering their top As with discretion.

As with Gumpelzhaimer, so with Praetorius’ lucid four-part and non-fussy treatment of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, the ACC singing three verses of the five available. They’re inclined to cut the final note of each first line, but you can understand why: taking a breath after accounting for the full note-length runs the danger of turning back the clock to those days when we endured Bach’s Passion chorales with a pause or fermata every time you turned your head. Further, each concluding phrase is carefully articulated with a tension-reducing piano that rounds out the original tune’s shape. For the little Singt und klingt, Lawrence and his choir stick to the German text and ensure that we register each consonant across the piece’s short duration, with a broad final cadence.

The alternation between Gesius and Praetorius for Ein Kind geborn zu Betlehem offers your normal garden-variety four part setting and some bare-bones verses, e.g. in two parts. The whole is well knitted together by the singers even if you have to exercise your perceptions to find much difference between the two Frankfurt cobbers and contemporaries. The following account of Hammerschmidt’s joyous effusion is effectively accomplished. Elizabeth Anderson provides the most subtle of continuo supports to a trio comprising two tenors and a bass with a four-part choir breaking in on them with an infectious Freude, Freude chorus, the whole rounded out with a bounding title refrain. This is music that spills over itself with enthusiasm and fervour – a standout among the choir’s offerings.

As for the concluding Bach group, the level of musicianship here is exemplary, as you’d expect. Soprano Elspeth Bawden is accompanied on the St. Andrew’s organ by Anderson and gives us three verses of this touching melody – well, she repeats Verse 1 – and the voice is an excellent vehicle for it with a persuasive clarity and warmth – a far cry from the hooting boy treble who usually gets to desex the innocent page. Anderson plays the two Pastorale excerpts on the Middle Park church’s instrument, finding plenty of room for its flute stops (what would you expect?) and reminding us that the first evidence some of us had of her talents was in a Bach keyboard concerto competition many years ago, well before she was a soloist/chorister in Lawrence’s choirs. The interpretation is direct and brisk in the work’s last pages, although I missed the sustained alto C in bar 10 on the first play-through; it was there on the repeat.

The large-scale motets are an essential part of this choir’s repertoire, so the Lobet den Herrn performance had much to commend it, including a definition of contour that kept you aware of the score’s progress. The linear interplay proved to be exemplary with few signs of fatigue even if the four tenors refrained from blazing out their top notes. The sopranos and altos showed no fear and made a joy out of the final stretch of sequences across the concluding 20 bars. I wasn’t sure about the very soft soprano/tenor treatment of the last syllable of Ewigkeit in Bar 85, and later didn’t see the need for a pause at the same word in bar 98. But the ACC has the excellent talent of making works like these seem fresh and colour-filled, so different to the dusty bombast and mind-numbing heftiness that typified performances in former times.

Alternating the harmonizations of In dulci jubilo between Bach and Walter made for a mildly interesting study in textures, principally because the latter gave the melody to his tenors, while Bach reserved a good deal of his attention for the bass line – not very clear in this recording from the Middle Park building. But the delivery of this composite impressed during the Walter verses – the middle two. Further, the choir treated this with the sort of care that it needs to preserve its lullaby nature; well, that’s how I see it, even more so in these complementary four-part chorales.

Last of all, Willcocks’ arrangement with its changing 12/8, 6/8 and 9/8 time signatures enjoys an excellent outing, free from British cathedral hooting and incomprehensibility. Here, the singers contrived to make the piece sound amiable without over-cleverness, not emphasizing the cross-accents from the altos and basses in verse 2 and often observing the arranger’s carefully organized expression markings, as well as providing a splendid if unnecessary hiatus on the penultimate chord. It made an impressive conclusion to a fine disc, but I’m damned if I know what this track was doing there.

Family and friends

EIGHT REFLECTIONS

Fraser Thomas Williams

. . . FOR SONJA

Tony Gould

Move Records MCD 517

Two different CDs here, as far as pretty every point of comparison goes. One is an amateur product, in both imagination and execution; the other comes from a one-time senior Melbourne academic and pianist with a wide performance spectrum. Fraser Thomas Williams was a Kyabram dairy farmer for half a century with deep ties to his local community In his senior years, Williams’ family has urged him to record some of his own compositions before they are forgotten; he has done so in a suite of eight miniatures on a disc that takes us into an oddly familiar home-grown territory, reminiscent of middle-grade AMEB piano books of many years ago. Gould’s re-issue from 2015 commemorates a friend, Sonja Krawatt, who died a decade ago; he bookends his ten tracks with original pieces named for Sonja Krawatt, while the remainder are arrangements of Jewish folk-tunes and melodies, with one exception – John Williams’ title theme for the Spielberg film Schindler’s List.

Both CDs offer accessible music on a small scale. Williams’ eight pieces combined last a little over ten minutes, while Gould’s offering falls a bit short of 42 minutes. While Gould’s treatments feature titles that are familiar to plenty of Jewish/Yiddish music aficionados – Tum balalaika, Raisins and almonds, At the fireplace – Williams aims, for the most part, to depict his farming life in Morning Showers, Looking Out, and Beauty All Around. The first of these, for instance, is a simple construct in ternary shape, 6/8 in its pulse, and with no chords – just a line per hand, played with some rubato but not over-sentimental. It sets the pace for what follows in being easy to assimilate, free from any complexities, complete in its own quiet parameters. Rather than following this pattern exactly, Looking Out takes an original motif and provides it with a series of melodic complements. Again, the texture is mainly note against note and the harmony firmly diatonic, but the looking process is slightly varied each time Williams casts his musical glance.

Christmas on the Spot was written for a family get-together for which the composer’s wife had no time to prepare for a proper piano duet, so her husband gave her a one-note left-hand accompaniment while he played a tune on top – for this piece, in chords. The oddest thing is that the opening phrase immediately calls to mind a popular Christmas song from the 1940s that I can’t trace. At all events, this track has a substantial coda relative to the rest of the content. Being Young presents as a more mildly exploratory piece with a well-exposed melody, although the rhythmic pattern – left hand three notes, then right hand three notes – is unbroken in its regularity. Still, it makes an impression of youthful mobility and, at the same time, nostalgia, especially in the first part’s reprise.

Beauty All Around begins unnervingly with an arpeggio left-hand figure that in its shape brings to mind Schumann/Liszt’s Widmung. But Williams’ melody is more orderly and less inclined to modulate beyond well-circumscribed bounds. This is one of the more substantial tracks on the disc; not simply in terms of length, but in the overall texture of the work which once again follows the composer’s preferred A-B-A framework. As for its significance, the piece proposes a view of beauty that is essentially harmonious and mobile, its aesthetic aspiring rather than static. Following this, The Williams Family is a fast hymn with an A-A-B-A format, its melody a well-crafted lyric with a four-square shape that has suggestions of both American revivalist hymns and Australian folk-songs (which, it seems to me, are inevitable revenants of British, Irish and Scottish melodies). What qualities does it suggest about the family? Straightforward, rural, appealingly calm – you can find all this in Williams’ placid memorial.

Sweet Mystery is the most salonesque of the reflections, with a melodic line that oscillates between bass and treble. Rather like Looking Out, this work has a certain unpredictability; you recognize the main motive/phrase, but Williams is not always following the party line as to where it leads. Certainly, the harmonic language is more advanced than in the first four tracks. Finally, Listening In takes its impetus from the composer’s three hearing aids, each of them sounding an individual note each time Williams puts them on. Another ternary piece, it shows a harmonic deftness, mainly at deviation-from-the-expected moments, which adds a gentle piquancy to the last in this miniature suite which is not difficult music but which speaks with an unselfconscious ease and buoyancy.

Gould begins his title track with a gentle meditative walk showing hints of Jewish tropes, including the repetitious shape of certain sequential phrases, the gentlest of intermediary seventh cords,, and suggestions of minor-inflected modes. Cellist Imogen Manins joins in for two interludes. The final track, Encore Sonja, treats the same material as this opening For Sonja, but it’s not simply a copy; rather, its character is more meditative and, to my mind, more introverted, as well as being substantially shorter . . . and all Gould, without Manins’ mellow line. Both tracks are character pieces, I suppose, in the 19th century manner, reminiscent of the mini-essays of Mendelssohn and Grieg, but couched in a placid, ruminative voice that has something of a lament about it, but the grieving is muted and non-demonstrative.

At the fireplace brings Manins back to play the lyric itself, followed by Adam Simmons working through a variant of the tune on what sounds like a saxophone even though he is billed on the CD cover as performing clarinet. Manins returns for a restatement, and finally both instruments perform the rhythmically elliptical tune together with Gould underpinning the process through an accompaniment that begins promisingly but settles into gentle predictability. Simmons returns in the next track, Let us all together, to explore his inner klezmer with lots of ‘bent’ notes, a bit of over-blowing and some mini-glissandi; both he and Gould share the melody, Simmons at his most affecting when shadowing the tune and fading in and out during the process.

Manins and Simmons take the lead in Peace unto you, Gould occasionally raising his head above the parapet in this gentle stepping song. The performance is considered, quiet and, like most of the traditional material that Gould mines, surprises only mildly when it steps into a major key; you try not to, but your mind is drawn to memories of Fiddler on the Roof and the curves of Jerry Brock’s melodies. More central European in character than much else in this collection, Raisins and almonds brings Manins to the fore twice but Gould’s supple keyboard work holds your interest for its delicacy and rhythmic ambiguity, especially in the piece’s first half where the pulse is unpredictable.

The trio participates as an entity towards the end of Tum balalaika, during which Gould enjoys an extended solo, Manins outlines the tune both straight and elaborated, and Simmons offers the most subtle of interference plays in an episode following his own yawp-inflected solo handling of the theme, which appears clearly on both guest instruments in a final round-up. Rayzele isn’t a traditional song, as the CD sleeve index proposes, but a song with multiple verses by the Yiddish composer/lyricist Mordkhe Gebirtig. Gould gives us a solo piano track here, in which he treats the four-square tune with plenty of flexibility and some interesting detours, although nothing far from a well-beaten harmonic track. And he invests it with a placidity that isn’t quite compatible with the original’s forthrightness. Jewish mother is probably the least substantial of the disc’s contents, with Gould handling the introductions, then Simmons outlining the tune – one I haven’t heard before – on what could be a bass clarinet but still has sax suggestions – with Manins playing it again, the whole furnished with a supple coda featuring the two soloists pushing the sentiment in a partnership of cosy 6ths.

Gould’s treatment of the Schindler’s List theme is no-nonsense, he and Manins sustaining a steady metre throughout and avoiding any self-indulgent suggestions. Manins partners the pianist in a brooding introduction before taking up the famous melody that brings to mind the human cost that lies at the core of this remarkable film. Gould allows himself an interstitial elaboration before Manins returns to conclude the longest track on the disc which concludes with its highest cello notes.. I don’t know if Gould’s dedicatee had a connection to the Holocaust – it’s hard to find a Jewish citizen or relative in this country who was not affected, many in shattering ways – but this aching melody fits with unquestionable ease into its surroundings, fleshing out gracefully this affecting musical memento.

The way we were/are

FLUTE PERSPECTIVES 2

Derek Jones, Cameron Roberts

Move Records MD 344

You’ll find something here to stir the embers of recognition, as well as music that is yet to withstand the rigours of memory. On this collection, five works embrace a fair gamut of contemporary music written in this country. Jones and Roberts conclude their survey with Richard Meale‘s Sonata for Flute and Piano of 1960, one of the pivotal moments in Australian composition – not so much for its content as for its language which informed the composer’s Australian colleagues that British bucolicism was no longer reliable as a reputable trail to follow; in fact, European composers had indicated a startling number of paths for the open-minded Australian artist, and had been doing so for at least half a century.

Next, historically speaking, comes Anne Boyd‘s Cloudy Mountain for Flute and Piano from 1981, a product of the writer’s fascination with Asian sounds – which focus she may have inherited from her teacher, Peter Sculthorpe, who visited this region in a handful of pieces, like Sun Music III. Rohan PhillipsFragment III for Flute and Piano dates from 2001-2 and derives from a larger construct, 7 Fragments after Paul Celan; I know very little of this Bendigo-centric composer, having heard live only his Meditations on der Krieg from the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in 2018. A close contemporary work, Mark Pollard‘s Three miniatures dates from 2004; and the most up-to-date in time, if not in adventurousness, is the Sonata for Flute and Piano of 2015 by Stuart Greenbaum, Pollard’s staff colleague at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music,

As well, Greenbaum’s four-movement work is the most substantial on the CD, coming in at close to 20 minutes. Meale’s sonata lasts pretty much on a quarter of an hour, Pollard and Boyd each a little more than half that length, while Phillips is almost minimal: his Fragment requires less than 4 minutes. So you have a cross of expanded canvases and smaller scenes to consider and, as you might have guessed, some capture attention while others fly past without making much impact on their own terms or on those of their listeners.

Greenbaum takes stellar inspiration for his work – well, three-quarters of it. Three of its movements are specifically connected with Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and the projected discovery of an underground ocean on that satellite; an event that preoccupied the world’s astronomical scene in March 2015 although, as far as I can detect, the hidden sea’s existence is still postulated, not a firm scientific fact. Greenbaum’s finale detours in an odd way with its For those in peril on the sea title – which the composer views as a ‘secular benediction’ while others among us are reminded irresistibly of Eternal Father, Strong to Save and that hymn’s association with the US and British navies.

For the first movement, the composer meditates on the distance to Ganymede: 628, 300, 000 km but you don’t find any indications here of immense parameters; in fact, the movement is a contrast between busy groups of four semiquavers and wide-arching lyrical stretches at the movement’s centre with only the slightest trace of the heroic but – for those who go looking – occasional echoes of Holst’s Neptune in a determinedly diatonic harmonic language. Jones and Roberts are well occupied, the former asked for a series of sustained notes towards the movement’s end, and the busy semiquavers of the opening reduced to slower note values in the final page(s).

Next, Greenbaum centres on depicting the moon’s ice crust: 150 km thick, The music is initially slow, solemnly paced and packed with low notes on the flute, silences, small glissandi with the odd quarter-tone. More agile measures emerge at the movement’s core but the motion remains sporadic, regular motion giving way to the opening’s sustained notes and pointillist breaks in the silence. This isn’t as brooding as this description suggests; Greenbaum’s moonscape remains placid and far from threatening. When we move seamlessly to saltwater ocean underground, Greenbaum gives us a meditative flute solo before Roberts joins in with a sort of ever-expanding cantus firmus which eventually moves to the right hand partnering the flute’s triplet fluency. Here, more than anywhere else in the work, you are firmly rooted in a specific tonality and the impression remains one of benignity – a fluent body of water but optimism-generating, not like that which faced Dumbledore and Harry when searching for the locket horcrux but more in line with the interior sea of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The brief final movement is a sort of antiphon/response dialogue between the instruments, its main motif a short figure of a perfect fifth interval played rapidly twice; it’s something like a bugle call and the piano mainly sticks to it while the flute has more liberty to wander. Still, the wind instrument has the last word, which is a definite exposition of the last line to each verse of the Whiting/Dykes hymn. This produces an unexpected sense of fulfilment to the work, the music’s action a reflection of the preceding two movements in some ways. But the reference also brings the inter-stellar ambience back to something more Earth-bound: a benediction on all humanity, it seems, not just cosmonauts and astronomers.

I’m a Celan virgin, never coming across the poet’s works. My loss, of course. This Fragment III by Rohan Phillips has a prefatory text: In den/verflussigten Namen/schnellen die Tummler. You can hear the darting dolphins, I suppose, in the highly mobile flute line; Roberts’ part is a gloss on the original’s two percussion and cello parts. Here is a definite contemporary sound with solo passages of rhythmic complexity and lyrical leaps alongside Morse-like repetitions, the whole sounding as if centred on F. In the end, you are impressed by Jones’ rapid-fire delivery and rapid recovery, even if the work’s intellectual context remains obscure.

With Anne Boyd’s Cloudy Mountain, we are moved to a world completely alien to the sophisticated modernism of Phillips. Boyd confines herself to a pentatonic scale for structural material, giving the piano some arresting arpeggiated clusters which later move into a sound sphere approximating a gamelan in effect – but not for long. As you’d expect, the flute has most of the focus and the shakuhachi timbre is never far from your thoughts, although Jones’ output lacks the Japanese instrument’s breathiness. But the wind line is a suggestive one with a wealth of acciaccaturas and rapid incidental notes to decorate the cursive melody. Of all five works on this CD, this is the most atmospherically pictorial with a keen delineation of Oriental sounds that could have worked as aural supplement for many a Crouching Tiger-style film.

As rubric measures for his composition, Mark Pollard set up two restrictions: the first sketch of each miniature had to be completed by the time he had made the tram journey from East Brighton to Melbourne’s CBD, and each had to relate to a St. Kilda Road building. Which really limits his endeavours because there’s a fair distance between Brighton and the city’s splendid avenue. So, if we take the compositional commandments at face value, Pollard couldn’t really start sketching until he hit some point a fair way along the journey. Whatever, he picked out his three locations: Sheridan Close, which backs on to Fawkner Park; a little closer to the city, the Amber Room in the Royce Hotel which is between Toorak Road and Melbourne Boys’ Grammar; and Illoura House, now demolished, which stood almost on the Toorak Road/ St. Kilda Road intersection. In other words, the three sites are clustered pretty close to each other.

The composer uses three different flutes for his collection: Sheridan Close calls for a piccolo (or flute); the Amber Room uses either an alto flute or a concert flute; Illoura asks for a flute with no alternative. The first miniature moves placidly past, its opening intervals expanded slightly as a developmental mode. I suppose the aim is to reflect the restrained grandeur of the building which has a splendid facade of almost Georgian regularity with a semi-circular drive sweeping into what looks like a porte cochere. An art deco ambience characterises the Amber Room and Pollard celebrates it with a breathy alto flute address, pretty close to the previous movement in character if a lot more smokey in suggestiveness.

Illoura House was demolished in the mid 1960s and Pollard was born in 1957. The place must have had a great impact on him, as it did on many of us who knew the grand old building in the years of its decay. Pollard’s piece relating to this declining mansion is meditative at its opening but gains in rhetorical flourishes, proving the most dynamic of the three pieces with moments of relative excitement, although the bookend mood is placid. All three of Pollard’s constructs are excellent show-pieces for the instrument, asking for assurance of output rather than virtuosity, and free from effects for their own sake, with only brief touches of flutter-tongue to disturb a surface of pleasant equanimity.

In retrospect, I find it easy to understand why so much attention was given to Meale’s sonata of 1960. In that time’s cultural landscape, the work made a striking impression as it broke away from the English pastoral mould, if not as distant in its language from that country’s more striking voices. But the spirit that hovers over the work is that of Messiaen, if truncated and with less emphasis on the ecstatic line. To give it due credit, the sonata resonated as a new voice in a pretty bland neighbourhood, but from a distance of over 60 years, its bluntness and insistence are irksome, the piece’s finale particularly grating as a sample of trying too hard, too concerned with astonishing the bourgeois.

Other commentators have made much of further influences on Meale, including Boulez. But that particular one strikes me as so much special pleading when you consider that the French composer’s Sonatine was written 14 years before 1960 and set a benchmark for flute/piano composition in rhythmic complexity and dynamic differentiations, not to mention instrumental potentialities and simple virtuosity. Even allowing for the Messiaen influence, Meale’s work every so often breaks into something that sounds very like plodding. Jones gives a careful outline of the opening movement but there’s no disguising the hard work involved in making repeated patterns interesting. As well, Meale’s preference for short bursts of action interspersed with elongated stretches, where the keyboard fixes inexorably on a cluster pattern while the flute enjoys some plain sailing melodic arches, doesn’t so much keep you on the qui vive but wears away at your interest level. Throughout, you feel the lack of the French composers’ sparkle; instead, the movement seems ham-fisted.

It’s brief, Meale’s second movement, in which the piano sustains a bass-heavy gruffness below the flute’s piercing arabesques. Here also, you sense a statement-and-response mode of operations in play, the interlude ending on a major chord, like that breaking through the turmoil in Act 2, Scene 1 bar 116 of Wozzeck. The substantial third movement begins with some bird suggestions in the flute line and a reassuring tendency to have the piano play a melodic line in octaves. But for much of its length, the work is restrained and very fluent for the wind instrument; in fact, it seems threatening, as near the 4 5 minute stretch where both instruments work themselves up to a series of strident climactic points, only to fall back onto the familiar meandering, before Jones takes on the final hushed last words.

Much of the work’s succes d’estime came from its final movement which opens with a Messiaen-suggestive piano solo where the Visions de l’Amen, the Vingt regards and Canteyodjaya spring to mind in turn, with a dash of Oiseaux exotiques thrown in. The flute is given to high bursts of energy, suggestive of the two upper instruments in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. And the work concludes with a series of gestures, each repeated four times, including the well-known high E yowls for flute. The music’s shape presents as primitive, the content momentarily arresting but . . . from this distance, naive. You can find much to admire in the performers’ address and confidence in negotiating this score which still holds plenty of problems even if the technical ones have been eclipsed by other more outrageous demands in the decades following the 1960s.

For all my reservations regarding the Meale work, it’s obvious that this CD is essential listening for anybody with a commitment to serious Australian music. The five works could not be more varied – a multiple perspective – and their interpretations are informed and make the most of the scores involved.

Ecology meets the digital

THE GREEN BRAIN CYCLE

Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3434

A double CD, this contribution to the Michael Harvey Collection is getting on in years; I received it in 2018, I believe, and was daunted by the scale of the undertaking. To begin, you need to have some awareness of Frank Herbert’s 1966 novel, The Green Brain, which treats of a world where humankind has wiped out – or thinks it has wiped out – all insects. I can’t get a copy anywhere: Dune and its sequels, no problem, but the more arcane Herbert remains an unknown quantity. Not to worry: the creators here would rather you concerned yourself with their own production which comes in the shape of 20 compositions by Harvey and almost the same number of poems by von Caemmerer which have a strong link to the music in that their source material comprises the letters that make up the names of Harvey’s chosen insects – a pretty strict form of concrete poetry.

Having said that, further caveats and modifications have to be noted. All the poems are printed in the CD booklet. Unlike Harvey’s movements, there are 21 poems, von Caemmerer being sufficiently enamoured of butterflies to give the species two treatments; for all I know, he could be celebrating the semi-Rorschach effect of the insect’s wings. In the first performance at Mona Foma in January 2018, these poems were projected onto the performance space’s walls. Although it’s informative to have them supplied, they can form no part of the recorded experience. Nor can Brigita Ozolins‘ set (in which Harvey and von Caemmerer operated at the premiere) be appreciated, apart from a pair of photos in the booklet.

What you do have to help you in comprehending facets of the 90 minutes of music is a pair of interviews by Ben Ross with the composer and the poet. Where von Caemerrer sticks to his brief and responds with admirable focus to the journalist’s questions and prompts, Harvey sets off opportunities for detours throughout his colloquy, some familiar from past addresses and statements, others unexpected and unsettling to those who regard music as essentially a form of aural pleasure. You can find soothing oases in the various tracks, but the whole composition is hardly framed to be treatable as illustrative or background music: that’s not Harvey’s way and he makes no bones about presenting his music-making as an adventure on which passivity from performer and audience is impossible.

In its printed form, The Green Brain is a piano solo. In this performance, Harvey uses various keyboards: a Kawai MP8 stage piano, a Kawai ES7 digital piano, a Korg Chrome synthesizer, and a Baldwin concert grand. This assemblage allows him a rich range with which to operate but, as well as the ability to achieve a sonic palette of infinite variety, the fabric, at various points, also has a vocal overlay as van Caemmerer reads extracts from Herbert’s novel. As he’s contending with amplified instruments, the reader operates a Mininova Novation synthesizer’s Vocorder function, which gives his output a disembodied electronic timbre and one I sometimes find hard to decipher in the general mix – although that could well be a problem with my sound system.

As a source for his structures, Harvey prefaces each movement of the printed score with physical information about each insect. For example, cockroaches have 6 legs, 2 winds, 4 antennae and 3 sections, and the composer uses these numbers as a part-basis for shaping his movements. To my mind, it could be similar to the post-serial approach to creating scores where all parameters – rhythm, pitch, timbre, harmony et al – are organized by the book – after you’ve constructed your book, of course. But the process is not the same because Harvey’s creative process is so packed with energy and surprises that the constructional steps and formats become backgrounded, intellectually satisfying as they may be.

From the start, Harvey’s melange of sounds is close to overwhelming. A wash of middle-pitch white noise sets off this Ants movement before the original piano score begins. Under a series of Ives-like chords, the composer lays out a twelve-tone series in bass octaves, all helpfully numbered, but soon the piece moves into a less New England-angular landscape with a drum-kit underpinning (on a loop, I guess) that suggests both jazz and Zappa-like rock. I think an auxiliary repeated melodic loop is also superimposed while Harvey works through his original piano pages. Whatever the sources, there’s a lot of sound manipulation going on in this, the third-longest track of the album. The more imaginative listener could probably summon up suggestions of an anthill’s ceaseless activity; the less gifted can exercise their ears trying to follow the work’s layers which merge into the following Cockroaches – an electronic keyboard tour de force which employs several facilities for sustaining notes/bands, producing impossibly regular chains of single-note staccato, flashing across the keyboard with that agility you can achieve when downward pressure is unnecessary. Again, you can easily superimpose mental impressions of scuttling throughout these rapid-fire pages.

Grasshoppers involves an extraordinary amount of percussive overlay. I have no idea how this is achieved while Harvey is working through his piano original; the whole panoply of superimpositions present as sewn into the piano part with split-second precision. And, not surprisingly, the aural effect is of angularity set inside a powerful frame of unpitched explosions. In the Mantises pages, the piano sounds are set against another spectrum incorporating both percussive strikes and the variety of noises you can extract from inside the piano. The action is startlingly rapid although a series of pedal notes towards the end suggest the row from Movement 1. And, above all, there is an occasional striking effect resembling stridulation, like the guiro that cuts through Stravinsky’s ferment in The Rite of Spring.

It sounds as though Harvey is using two keyboards simultaneously in parts of Scorpions, which comes closest so far to an old-fashioned synthesizer sound. Yet again, more seems to be happening than two hands can accomplish, although you’d be a fool to underestimate this player’s legerdemain. The texture is multi-layered and multi-faceted, even if the whole thing begins with a simplicity that brings to mind Webern’s Variations for piano opening. By contrast, the all-electronic Beetles takes us into a more stringent landscape, reminiscent of a Bach invention for its two-part linear character – even if one of the parts has chord chains punctuating its forward thrust. This time, the percussive bite comes frequently from a snare-type clip that you think might have been keyed in to coincide with a particular pitch/note; as the piece moves on, the snap becomes more of a whip or cymbal and finally the dominant treble sound suggests a Mothers of Invention energetic rough-house.

*

In his interview with Ross, Harvey speaks of confronting certain problems in his career, one of them concerning the cultural character of the piano – his instrument. ‘The piano is like a real symbol of the Establishment – now.’ Which may be a partial explanation of why he employs other sound sources – albeit keyboards – to amplify and animate this score of movements. But he’s right, of course: the piano has been an indicator of gentrification for two centuries and its potential as a source for exploration has become as unpromising as the electric guitar – once a symbol of liberation, now a suburban lifestyle trope. As Harvey observes, every Government House has its grand – ferociously unused, if my experiences are any guide – and he is probably correct in questioning what the Establishment is doing with them – apart from positioning them as handsome pieces of fenced-off furniture

*

I think Flies uses the Baldwin for much of its length, with occasional electronic implants, especially a set of drone pitches in the second part that inevitably throw you back to the title and the insect’s talent for annoyance. It also features von Caemmerer reciting plenty of Green Brain text extracts, most of them discernible but handicapped by one feature: the voice sounds like a Dalek so that any minute you expect to hear ‘Exterminate!’ commands. Here, the philosophical/ecological messages take over, the final moments given to the voice alone. Onomatopoeia comes to mind in Bees where the workers are hard at it, Harvey negotiating a rapid two-part invention etude, taken at dazzling speed, with what I suppose are pre-recorded lines both supporting and interfering.

Without a pause, we are linked into Wasps. At its start and conclusion, the sound fabric is reminiscent of exploratory rock, even if that term seems improbable, the overwhelming washes bring to mind what that branch of music could have achieved if its practitioners had not become enslaved to the most prosaic and repetitious of formulae. It’s hard to believe, in the main part of the movement, that human hands are performing because the Presto marking is an understatement; here’s technical wizardry of a high order and – like Bees – unavoidably descriptive. Matters are a little less frantic in Butterflies, even if the shifts in timbre are carried out with remarkable swiftness. The only distraction from the keyboard lines remains a rising siren sound, kept at a subsidiary volume level with some white noise delicately applied before the concluding cadence.

Sub-titled Nocturne, Moths is the longest movement in the cycle. Opening with an intervallic meditation, the original score begins after input from von Caemmerer and you can hear that this night-piece is full of action with a steady pulse in operation for much of its length. Throughout, the underpinning comes from this pulse that weaves in and out of prominence with some strident action at about the 6’30” mark where the pace increases and the work takes on a momentary fervour. Three or four vocal interpolations emerge; indeed, von Caemmerer has the last word in this piece which sticks in my memory for its implementation of the (synthetic) sound of a West Indian steel drum. As an essay in electronic pointillism, Spiders gives you a remarkably vivid experience; every note slots into place with finely-executed synchronicity as Harvey moves across his keyboard range; these pages sparkle with spiky brilliance and a remarkable economy of material.

*

Further into his interview, Harvey observes that ‘A virtuoso is now an interpreter that lives off other people’s ideas and, in classical music, that is what is regarded as an artist.’ That’s how it is; unlike Liszt, the paradigm of the virtuoso/creator, the modern-day pianist is committed to interpreting the products of other musicians. For every creator like Chopin or Rachmaninov, you have an astonishing number of latter-day interpreters, all struggling to make a living out of nights of nocturnes and etudes-tableaux. Mind you, it’s hard to deny the title of artist to musicians as revelatory as Demidenko, Ohlssohn or Hamelin but Harvey’s point is still valid: worthy of applause as the finest virtuosi are, their efforts are not creative in the strictest sense, but reproductive. In which respect, Harvey has given us some memorable nights with his interpretations of other people’s ideas.

*

Another tone row is announced in the treble of the opening bars to Fleas; which is fine information except that the movement is rhythmically complex and multi-layered. Von Caemmerer’s output has been altered; here, he sounds like a countertenor Dalek as Harvey gives dynamic precedence to the text, although not always going into a holding pattern while the sentences last. Again, the impression is of flickering activity interwoven with an impressive set of harp imitations. Another attacca takes us to Ticks where a sustained chord sits underneath pizzicati that function like sonic prickles, restless and relentless. Suggesting in miniature form the famous post-murder orchestral link in Act 3 of Berg’s Wozzeck, Harvey begins Lice with a bar comprising four levels of the note B, then launches into a bewildering series of episodes where the rough and smooth are juxtaposed and jazz suggestions lead to passages where rhythmic irregularities flatten out and linear dollops give way to sound-bands.

Again, straight ahead to Silverfish that opens with a snare-drum compilation before pitched notes start in a piece that is packed with fits and starts of activity, including a plethora of decorative work. For the most part, this is a frenetic enterprise, its general tenor a kind of rough tachisme with short interludes of celesta delicacy. In Earwigs, you can hear several instances of Harvey’s facility in close-order pianism, one hand following swiftly on the patterns set up by the other. Here is another piece that melds a sort of heavy-handedness with improbably rapid bravura performance as its counterpoint waxes and wanes. Another contrast comes in Slaters where sustained notes interweave in a timbral scenario that is sometimes reminiscent of an organ like that in Ligeti’s Volumina, a kind of slowly shifting kaleidoscope punctuated by buzzing and loud bourdon passages in the bass while on top weave shifting string chords.

*

Further to his comments regarding the modern-day practice of virtuosity, Harvey says, ‘You’re exposed to a process much like an exam every time you present this music where other people pass judgement on that piece of music to see if it’s correct or not, as if there is some sort of benchmark for that’ – a process that he finds ‘appalling’. Which reminds me of an occasion many years ago when a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music spoke of regarding a composer’s manuscript as a ‘palimpsest’; confronted with it, the performer sees as through a glass darkly and is required to scrape away any surface scum and uncover what lies beneath. Yes, you can do that – if you’re insightful and lucky. But most audiences are conditioned to position themselves as arbiters in Harvey’s exam process, a lot of these listeners happy to have their benchmarks set for them by others, like . . . Harvey is right yet again, the unfortunate truth being that our current musical professional life is structured this way, with performers required to offer themselves up to judgement by working through works of mind-boggling familiarity in which the chances of deviating from the accepted path are all but non-existent.

*

Marimba sounds dominate the opening to Aphids, gently meandering before the Baldwin breaks into the aural scene for a moment or two. But between von Caemmerer’s readings come a series of electronic variants that suggest an amiable doodling that brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet at its coolest. Last of all, Mosquitos is yet another brilliant demonstration of Harvey’s unmistakable dexterity, a presto that never lets up, climaxing in a unison/octave flight that leaves you breathless through its sheer velocity. It’s a modern-day toccata in the truest sense of that term where the composer/performer takes you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you keep up with his mental and physical athleticism. It makes a celebratory end to this vital compendium which celebrates the smallest among us with a wide-ranging humanity.

An ambitious and moving project

JOHANNES BRAHMS: MUSIC FOR CLARINET AND PIANO

Lloyd Van’t Hoff & Peter de Jager

Thomas Grubb and Mano Musica 194660806222

Here is an initiative from two of the country’s more enterprising young musicians. With the help of some sponsors, Van’t Hoff and de Jager have produced this CD off their own bat. It was recorded well away from the beaten track, in the Four Winds Windsong Pavilion, pride of the seaside resort of Bermagui and centrepoint of an increasingly well-known festival. From pictures, the Pavilion is an open-air construct, which doesn’t present problems if the nearest wild-life are mute or murdered; I can’t make out any extraneous noise, but a good deal of this music is full-bore material. Another online photo shows an indoor space with a glass wall which is more probably where the CD was recorded.

Mind you, the Brahms output for clarinet and piano is limited: only two works – but what delights they are. The pair of Op. 120 Sonatas are the composer’s last chamber works and stand as one of the foundations of this reed instrument’s repertoire, showing what can be accomplished if a composer falls in love with a particular timbre, especially late in life when all the battles have been won or lost and knowledge is as profound as it’s going to get. While we’re blessed to have these sonatas, they don’t take much time to get through – between 45 and 46 minutes.

To flesh out their CD, Van’t Hoff and de Jager move into the sphere of arrangements. I’ve not been able to trace where the seven that appear on this recording come from, but that doesn’t detract from their effectiveness. The duo work through three of the Hungarian Dances: No. 2 in D minor, No. 6 in B flat Major (transposed from the original D flat Major) and No. 7 in A Major (moved up a tad from F Major). Four songs also appear in arrangement shape: the transcendent Feldeinsamkeit, second of the 6 Lieder Op. 86; Wie Melodien zieht es mir that leads of the Op. 105 Funf Lieder; Es traumte mir which crops up in third position of the 8 Lieder und Gesange Op. 57; and the Wiegenlied that sticks out like a beacon at No. 4 in another set of Funf Lieder, the Op. 49.

You can take as a given that both musicians are masters of the written score when it comes to the CD’s major works. The F minor Sonata’s opening Allegro appassionato lives up to the composer’s descriptor and de Jager leads the way through the small-frame (relative to the last two symphonies and both piano concertos) shifts in scene, like the subsidence at bar 38, the subterranean murmurs at bar 52, and the full-blooded chords that burst in at bar 61. As it should, the whole of the exposition sounds like a narrative, and a cohesive one because of the performers’ ability to underline the movement’s progress through the composer’s fluctuations in density, dynamic and drive. At this early stage, you are aware of some idiosyncrasies, like de Jager’s penchant for arpeggiating chords in part to point up a focal clarinet note, and Van’t Hoff’s slight rhythimc plasticity – not just garden variety rallentandi but what you can only call a metrical ease; mind you, this latter has been calculated brilliantly by both artists throughout their offerings.

You come across small subtleties all over the second movement Andante – some through de Jager’s pointing-up of upper notes and Van’t Hoff maintaining his line with some excellent breath control (you can hear a lot on this recording, especially the quick breath,s and some key thumps) and due diligence in observing the score’s fluency, as in the lack of a ritenuto or pause at the end of bar 48 where the point is to bring in the clarinet without any ‘Here I am!’ nonsense. It’s hard to find fault with the last page (in my edition, anyway: bars 61 to 81) which opens with an admirably soft clarinet restatement of the initial melody; the dying fall starting at bar 69 makes for an especially moving passage thanks to its calm, restrained delivery and the strength of bass notes from both instruments.

One of the most amiable of Brahms’ landlers enjoys fine handling, Van’t Hoff’s phrasing a particular pleasure, as is his emergence back into the light for the Trio‘s second half. Also impressive is the lilt of this performance where the pace is just rapid enough and the melody, with its repetitions/elaborations at the end of each line, is handled with empathy and a keen eye for quirkiness. But the Vivace rondo finale is the most outstanding example of duo work in this sonata with an almost flawless level of articulation from both (I could only pick out one almost-not-there clarinet quaver at the start to bar 28), notable for a ringing clarion timbre from Van’t Hoff at declamatory entries like bars 32, 62, 174, and most vitally from bar 207 to 210, and the concerto-like majesty of de Jager’s passage-work, as in the modulations from bar 100 to bar 104, and the rampaging solo exposures later in the movement . Further, when Brahms starts his long triplets-across-the-bar episodes, these performers demonstrate an ease of delivery and consciousness of shape that would be hard to better. In all, the performance is spacious, packed with character and a delight in the composer’s joyful alarums and excursions.

There’s something bordering on sentimental about the opening to the Sonata No. 2’s Allegro amabile; it probably has to do with the clarinet’s melodic curve and its leaving you up in the air after the fourth strophe, or part of it might come from the piano’s arpeggio-rich accompaniment. Whatever the case, the lolling around is short-lived, lasting only until the piano’s first three-bars of explosion, after which the plot thickens with satisfying surprises on every page including the closest of instrumental canons and the dovetailing of melodic lines between clarinet and piano. Here again, de Jager lays on the arpeggiated chords, yet he refrains from making an inevitable fetish of them. Throughout, you find reassurance in broad purple patches, as that starting from bar 40, and in the abrupt bursts into fresh activity after a substantial diminuendo. The entire changing fabric enjoys high exposure from these interpreters, who again give us a finely formed Tranquillo coda, climaxing in a carefully judged pair of mirroring triplet bars.

Probably the best known movement of this E flat sonata – or of both of them, really – is the middle Allegro appassionato. This segment, in the tonic minor with a noble Trio couched in B Major, is distinguished for its main theme that doesn’t resolve for 79 bars, moving towards cadences but never clinching the deal until the Trio arrives with a complete change of argument and territory. Once more, Van’t Hoff and de Jager melded into each other’s ground with forceful grace, the piano holding nothing back in abrupt fortissimo bolts of energy and a firm timbre from the clarinet in both statements of the Trio’s principal melody – at bar 95 and later in full chalumeau register at bar 121. These familiar pages came across with just the right balance of fire and agility.

Finishing this sonata, an Andante con moto theme and variations comes close to functioning as a virtuosic test-piece, particularly with regard to rhythmic displacements that in many hands come across as over-emphatic. Much of the score here is generously flattering to both players right from the first page where the long theme (another one) enjoys both joint and individual attention before its surprising if justifiable conclusion. For the first variation, de Jager kept his syncopations mobile and quiet under Van’t Hoff’s finely arched top strand. Dynamic restraint typified the second variation, rich in triplets and a low clarinet register here articulated with precision and kept on an even dynamic plane.

The next variant has both instruments following each other before coalescing in moments of fusion, the whole employing demi-semiquaver patterns and as light-footed as a Mendelssohn miniature, if thicker around the middle. The 14 bars of Variation 4 are an exercise in disjunction from both players; the only truth is to be found in the piano’s octave bass line – when it appears. Nevertheless, in this reading the section passed with something approaching clarity and a laudable absence of unhelpful accents. The concluding Allegro, with a Piu tranquillo interlude, makes an excellent coping stone for this reading, the brilliant rhythmic displacement beginning at bar 135 a tour de force in particular for de Jager with Van’t Hoff making a brave final power-grab from bar 147 to the concluding bounce-filled chords.

Again, you’re tempted to single out this finale movement as the most impressive of the sonata’s three, as far as this performance goes. That would be to undervalue the skill and insight to be found throughout its companions. Rather, it puts a seal on this vivid and personable outline of a masterwork. I don’t want to get over-finicky about details but in this sonata, more than in the F minor, it sounded as if one piano note at least was off-pitch, somewhere about E5. Not that the sound came over as glaringly off-centre, but it did distract from de Jager’s contribution, in the E flat Major’s first movement more than anywhere else.

As for the three Hungarian Dances, these are clarinet-favouring constructs where de Jager takes on the function of the original’s secondo; with one exception, the three pieces leave the melody work to Van’t Hoff. One of the more characteristic features of No. 2 is the clarinet beginning specific key phrases with a rapid arpeggio, which gives an added bite to the melody And you come across some time-honoured interpretative peculiarities, like the slow pace taken between bars 8 and 16. A good deal more stop-start business comes with No. 6 where Van’t Hoff gets in almost all of the acciaccaturas in the second half of the opening A part of this A-B-A construct. De Jager’s hefty solo comes between bars 43 and 50, starting the middle section. A little bit of re-scoring comes about in No. 7 during the connecting bars 41 to 43, but this dance suits the clarinet best of the three essayed here, probably because of its bouncing playfulness, even skittishness.

Finally, the four songs are straight-speaking entities, the clarinet taking Brahms’ vocal lines without introducing any elaborations or deviations. Feldeinsamkeit begins softly under normal circumstances; even more so in this interpretation. Van’t Hoff weaves coherent melodic arches and shows restraint at the unexpected shift at the word Blau in bar 21. And he differs from the norm in eschewing the usual crescendo/diminuendo across bars 31 to 33, simply treating the word selig with as much tenderness as you hear in A German Requiem. By contrast, Wie Melodien zieht es mir comes across as straightforward, effortlessly dispatched and distinguished by a splendid accompaniment from de Jager. Suiting the wind instrument best in this group, Es traumte mir proved to be a gift for both musicians with its eloquent unhurried nature, a fine fusion of languor and ardour.

No objections to the Lullaby. It winds up operations gently, Van’t Hoff playing the first verses in his lower reaches, then taking the second stanza an octave higher; it’s sweet, sincere and gives room at the end of this CD to a fine melody. For all that, you tend to wish that the composer had written another clarinet sonata to provide balance to this recording which moves from the formidable to the short-winded. In any case, the sonata interpretations live in the memory for their verve and deep musicianship; the participants’ enthusiasm and commitment are evident in every bar of them.

Venture onto unfamiliar ground

50 CHINESE FOLK SONGS

Ke Lin

Move Records MD 3436

For a person of my age and with my specific musical experiencers, this latest CD of music by Julian Yu is particularly challenging. For one thing, my familiarity with Chinese folk music is minimal; like many, I can tell it when I hear it, and even identify quite a few instruments, thanks to Tai Dun’s pioneering work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But the chance to study Eastern music never arose in early1960s Melbourne (or Australia?); even former large presences on our national music scene pursued their Oriental interests overseas, like Meale at UCLA.

Adding to this burden of ignorance is a personal unwillingness to make general assertions, for fear of revealing a lack of cultural understanding that might equal anything heard at a Collingwood Football Club press conference. The only defence to be proposed is that I would have the same problem listening to 50 Romanian folk songs, even when they’ve been arranged by Bartok; or 50 Hebridean melodies as organized by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser; or even 50 American hoedown hollers that have been funneled by Copland. Your attention wanders, the accompaniments assume an importance well beyond their competence, and seeking out any flaws in vocal delivery becomes an obsession.

Nevertheless, it behoves every musician to give attention to Yu’s collection which was written to suit the responsive powers of collaborator/pianist Ke Lin who also performed the composer’s 2017 Cutetudes CD. As well as the folk songs (which include three variants of the tune Jasmine and two of the Fengyang Flower Drum lyric), this disc also includes 15 Early Piano Pieces by Yu, all of them brief – the 40 seconds of Counterpoint sits alongside a Theme and Variations that lasts nearly 4 minutes.

This length business is of some concern with the folk songs. Most of them (43) don’t last for a minute; a few (17), not even half that. The longest treated here is an ancient song, Man Jiang Hong, which is given 2 minutes. So the repetition of verses and choruses is not an inevitability here; Yu can be quite content with giving his tune one airing and moving on straightaway. As for the accompaniments, these are sometimes based on scraps from Western classical works. For example, Yu has a soft spot for Bach’s Goldberg Variations: six of his settings use fragments from this massive compendium. There’s more Bach with one of the Two-Part Inventions, a couple of snaps from the Mass in B minor, a motif from The Musical Offering, and a kind of famous pieces amalgam supporting Willows are New. The E minor Symphony of Brahms rumbles under two songs; Pachelbel’s Canon in D can be discerned under the conjoined A Pair of Ducks and A Pair of Geese; a ground bass is lifted from Handel’s cantata Susanna; even the Dies irae supports the Jiangsu melody Weeping Seven-Seven. Finally, a melody from one of Western opera’s most pronounced efforts at chinoiserie, Puccini’s Turandot, can be found in the afore-mentioned Jasmine which the Italian master transformed into Act 1’s La sui monti dell’Est, and employed later in the action as well.

Some of these Western references are plain enough; as we have heard in previous pieces by Yu; other quotations are more difficult to ferret out. But the focus rests on a clear statement of the tunes and many of these are dispatched rapidly, one pentatonic lyric after another. It’s as though Yu sees no point in expanding a tune or giving it elaborations because, in doing so, you’re unfastening its integrity, like Tchaikovsky’s birch tree. When faced with a song that has some distinctiveness, Yu extends his treatment, as in Thunder a Thousand Miles Away. Immediately after, The Furry Gourd is played through once; not surprising, as its shape suggests melodies that proliferate in the British Isles.

Still, every so often comes an individual shard like The Little Cowherd where the melody and its setting are fetchingly melded into a piquant miniature that suggests something more earthy than the Ma Lin landscapes of many other tracks . Another melody, like Thirty-Mile Village, strikes me as unexceptional but Yu airs it twice with a fairly bland accompaniment. Still, he must hear something in its contour that escapes me – which could be the catch-cry of my experience with the CD in which, the more I listen, the less justified I feel in making generalizations about Yu’s content. Parts of it sound like under-powered impressionism; Flowing Stream has gently rippling suggestions in its accompanying figures. In other instances, the Western fusions intrude, like the Brahms E minor Symphony’s passacaglia theme announced baldly at the opening to A Rainy Day, retreating to the bass – but transmuted to a point where its contour vanishes.

Just when you think Yu has settled into a predictable setting pattern, he wakes you up with something like bitonality in A Little Bird or a perky Gallic insouciance for Snatching at Butterflies while Tea-Picking. Then, you come across only one or two chordal surprises in a Victorian-era setting of Man Jing Hong which has some shared characteristics with an Anglican hymn. Other tracks leave me baffled; the underpinning to Willows are New comprises motifs from some famous Bach pieces and, of course, I identified none of them except maybe a scrap from The Musical Offering‘s 6-line ricercar. Then there are settings that strike you as chameleonic, as is that for the concluding Song of the Yellow River Boatmen which seems intransigent in its counterpoint but aims for a ‘soft’ cadential point.

The CD concludes with 15 pieces of juvenilia, early piano pieces written when Yu was studying in Beijing and revised in 2005. The first four are short two-line works – inventions, a canon, an essay in counterpoint. In fact, you have to wait until the fifth piece, Day and Night, Thinking of You, before you hear a solid chord; this is a gentle lyric in memory of Zhou Enlai, the statesman for whom Yu had sympathy and affection, if this piece is any indication. The Dance is a two-part work where a Tibetan folk-style tune is given gentle handling before being transformed into a more lively creature. March Fair has a catchy tune given some intentionally rough harmonic bursts but it falls into the camp of genteel bucolicism, reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Gopak.

Yu’s Theme and Variations take impetus from a melody by Wang Ming from the film Hai Xia, which may refer to a channel or strait but I can’t track it down as a proper noun. Nor can I discover anything about the composer who has the same name as a famous opponent of Mao ZeDong. The tune itself is a closed unit of four phrases and Yu’s ring of changes – with one fast exception – mirrors its calm nature. This work is the first of five variations sequences. A little further on come the Little Pine Tree Variations – three of them, I think, with an extended treatment of the theme’s second half and a feather-light recapitulation of the opening strophes to finish. Much the same pattern follows with the Mini Variations – five of them with three soft and two in spiky/staccato.

Variations on “The Blossoms of Friendship” gives us one of the raciest tracks of the whole 65. It’s based on a children’s song from the 1970s with only small traces of modal or pentatonic influences. Lin’s right hand fluency is well tested in this sequence that is unfailingly cheerful and brings to mind – for no apparent reason – a Sousa march. Last piece of all is the Variations on a Hebei Folk Song, left incomplete in Yu’s student years and eventually completed in 2005. Here also, there seem to be three variants of the tune with a wafer-thin reminiscence of the original at the end.

As for the other pieces, The Little Wooden Boat was originally a song, here in A-B-A shape where the central section transfers the tune to the left hand, the whole – like so much on this album – with one line per hand: no chords. Sonatina in D presents as a formally transparent study in sonata form, following the three-part division with competence and giving the executant piquant work across the instrument’s range; another piece with very few chords to interrupt its bi-linear polyphony. The Ping-Pong Match is a crisp study in interwoven and chasing patterns, a colourful demonstration of undemanding legerdemain.

At the end, these light examples of Yu learning his art are only mildly interesting, no matter how much delicacy Lin invests in them. You have to admire the composer’s youthful talent for melody-shaping and for the finesse of his piano writing. Yet there’s not much here that raises eyebrows for its originality or daring; a chromatic slide underneath a diatonic tune might please the composer but, in this conservative ambience, it passes almost unnoticed. In spite of my out-of-comfort-zone sense during the 50 folk song settings, I found a good deal more meat to savour in them, although Lin’s clarity of articulation delighted in each of this CD’s elements.


Short and mainly sweet

MUSE

Alicia Crossley, Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 587

Here’s an all-Australian product which, in six works, covers a limited amount of ground, a fragment in the small world of this country’s serious music-making. Most of the composers are unknown to me; but then, what would you expect from someone vegetating outside the contemporary music scene? The exception is Anne Boyd, an eminent offshoot of that Sydney branch of Australian composers who came of age all together in the 1960s. She was a student of Peter Sculthorpe and produced some significant works that have worn well, more so than those by many of her contemporaries. Apart from her creative accomplishments, Boyd has been a senior academic on three continents, her struggles in that thankless sphere sadly documented in the Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson film Facing the Music (2001) where her efforts to obtain funding for music courses in Sydney University’s Arts Faculty were unsuccessful.

Yuya, like every work on this disc, asks for recorder and string quartet; which is understandable, given the personnel involved – no point cutting out a string or two when they’re all available. I’m finding it hard to date this work definitively but, as Boyd wrote it for British composer Anthony Gilbert’s 70th birthday concert in Manchester, that puts it more or less at about 2004. In any case, the atmosphere is faux-Japanese with lots of sobbing shakuhachi work from Crossley’s tenor recorder, the timbre of which dominates the action with the Acacias confined for a long central stretch to accompanying tremolandi and pizzicati.

Boyd’s emotional scenario derives from a noh play in which Yuya, a prince’s mistress, wants to visit her sick mother but is refused permission. She dances among a temple’s cherry trees to such effect that the prince allows her to go on the journey after all. The central dance with its regular metre and flights of recorder fancy is surrounded by more fragmented writing. All players perform this small-framed piece with loads of conviction, making a persuasive case for its gestures and pentatonic melodic roots. As well, it’s a pleasure to see the composer sticking to that last which has been the bedrock of her craft over the last half-century and more

This CDs longest work is Three Bilitis Movements by Lyle Chan, an Australian composer of no little repute whose work I’ve never come across. The Movements are an offshoot of the composer’s efforts in 2018 when he was commissioned to write the three missing components of Debussy’s projected final three sonatas. Chan was drawn to the three-part song cycle that the composer based on some of Pierre Louys’ fake Greek translations of poetry that he himself wrote, thereby setting up a wealth of lesbic lyric material for future generations, as well as his own. Oddly enough, the three Debussy songs read as thoroughly heterosexual, but then I’m probably missing a world of subtleties. In any case, Chan has made up his own poems based on Louys’ originals; The Dancers of Mytilene, The Rains of Spring and Morning, and a startlingly brief To invoke Pan, god of the summer wind.

You are hard pressed not to find echoes in the first of these movements. It starts with a kind of swagger like a Copland reel for all farm hands; this doesn’t last too long before the section stops and another one takes off, and on it goes, so that this track takes on the nature of a suite, the last segment calling to mind some ersatz Peruvian folk-songs. Chan’s poem puts us in the capital of the island Lesbos with three dancers at work, accompanied by two flautists. As suggestive of ancient Greek choreography like the kordax, this is miles away from any Aegean setting that I know and the movement’s sectional nature means you might find a common underpinning but nothing sequential: dances rather than dancers, I would have thought.

The nature scene of Movement Two presents as a nice tune suggestive of both a Westernised lyric from China and a hymn tune that Ives might have enjoyed faffing around with. In effect, the movement has traces of a harmony exercise with the occasional deviation into unexpected territory before returning to orthodox ground. Crossley eventually takes over and the interest stays with her leading voice for most of the work’s length. In the final half, the pages take on the character of a lullaby in triple time, gifted with a plain final cadence. The woodland god makes a very quick showing, his flute given to glissando sweeps from Crossley and precious little Acacia input; this is also the most adventurous music in the triptych and comes closest to the erotic potential suggested by Bilitis/Louys.

As for the largest single stretch of work here, it is Pass to us the cups with which sorrow is forgotten by London-based Sydney writer Chris Williams; a 2017/18 composition based on a poem/song by the Muslim 12th century poet Ibn Baqi. This lyric is the result of an amalgam of Islamic, Christian and Jewish strands that existed before Spain became a Christian (later Catholic) hell-hole: a musical mixture explored and exploited by Jordi Savall to often stunning effect. The main gist of the work is variation; Williams has taken the melody and given it varying guises but, in contemporary style, he hides the melody in plain sight, its appearance in something approaching clarity seeming to come in the score’s second half.

The opening is concerned with string clusters that concentrate on 2nd intervals with slight seconding from Crossley’s bass recorder. This suggests a concentration on atmosphere rather than exploitation of the original tune, but how can you tell, not knowing what to look for, bringing to mind Britten’s Nocturnal when all becomes clear only at the end? In fact, Williams maintains this textural focus until the score reaches its half-way mark where the pace livens up and you hear something more substantial than intervallic interplay. For all that flurry of activity in which strings and recorder share, the motion returns to quietude at the three-quarter mark from which point actual melodic phrases are outlined.

Even after several hearings, this track conserves its formal mysteries but draws you back through its concentrated lyricism. The composer is in no hurry to pique your interest – how could he, with a bass recorder? – but you have to admire the continuous vein of uninflected emotional stasis that persists for much of the quintet’s length. If you wanted, you could find in this music some suggestions of Omar Khayyamesque languor, the mental disruption of an Oriental mini-arabesque or two, but any suggestion of colour comes from the listener, imposed on a reflecting canvas.

What to make of Bat-Music by Sydney writer Stephen Yates? He accompanies his amiable, undisturbing piece for alto recorder and the Acacias with an elliptical booklet note that seems to suggest that the name implies nothing, even though its matter comes from an Isherwood setting from 1988 for voice and piano. Bat-Music presents as a series of movements; some linked, others taking off after a general pause. Lisa Stewart‘s first violin gets a certain amount of exposure but the over-riding presence is Crossley. The whole effect is calm, even pastoral, without much intention of getting anywhere quickly. On top of that, you hear the odd bar that suggests other works; in particular, some by the more effete American woodsmen. A short recorder cadenza takes us into a splayed-out, summery major key conclusion. Not that I’m finding too much fault with a deftly written work; it’s just that, at the end, I’m still an empty vessel, willing to be receptive but floating in an undirected void.

Sydney film and theatre composer Jessica Wills (born in Florida but an Australian resident for many years) obviously had a great time in Denmark, if her Copenhagen Christmas is any indication. It’s unclear when this Scandinavian sojourn took place because the work is undated and relevant information on the web is vague, although we’d have to surmise that composition took place pre-2018 because the first performance by these very players was at the end of that year. The work is in two parts: Nisse and Hygge. The first is concerned with prank-pulling Danish gnomes – to me, the name suggests German aquatic creatures and, for some reason, Harry Potter – and Wills draws a lively musical picture of will-of-the-wisp creatures through pizzicati, rapid brief glissandi and perky recorder blurts and trills, with some ponticello textures to add spice and remind us that these creatures are not essentially benign.

The second movement is concerned with a term beloved of Sandi Tostvig. ‘Hygge’ suggests unbuttoned comfort and warmth of physical ambience – which could stand as benchmark indicators of a successful European Christmas. Here are sustained notes, recorder and violin single tones filtering into each other with occasional flurries and melodic motions that don’t expect to be taken seriously. Even the active segments that burst into brief climaxes give space to that initial placidity; nothing much is happening as the strings give a static backdrop to the recorder’s long-spun ruminations. I’m far from being an expert on recorders, but I think the second movement uses an alto recorder; certainly, its timbre is more muffled than that used for the playful gnomes of the first movement.

Finally, we hear Three by three, a suite beginning with a bass recorder, moving to an alto, then a sopranino. This piece from pianist/composer Sally Whitwell was commissioned by the performing artists; again, I’m not sure when it burst into the light but would assume quite recently. Whitwell takes some inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, the decreasing size of the recorders mirroring the reduction in size of Carroll’s heroine after she followed the direction to Drink Me. The three movements seem to drift into one another, although a definite pause preceded Movement Two.

The triptych makes for pleasant listening with little to distract from its instrumental merry-go-round; a divertissement gifted with melodic attractiveness and one of the few tracks on the album that gives the strings a bit of sustained attention. What it brings to mind is British chamber music during the first half of the last century: craftsmanlike, polite in its emotional output, almost bucolic at times, demanding little by way of concentrated attention span. The final section lasts as long as its precedents combined but the segment that stays with you is the middle one which is a waltz of unselfconscious grace.

This recording project appears to have come around as a result of public performances by Crossley and the Acacia Quartet. The works by Chan, Williams, Yates and Wells all received their premieres at a Muse-entitled recital in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House on December 8, 2018. Whitwell’s piece might also have enjoyed the same experience but you can whistle Dixie for any meaningful web information on that particular writer. The CD’s length is on the short side – a fraction over 50 minutes – but it makes for an agreable summer-kissed aural feast, one that highlights Crossley’s talent, especially her purity in agile passages and her restraint with vibrato in sustained notes, viz. Wells’ second movement. It serves as an insight into a lesser-known reach of Sydney’s musical world – and (a day late) an excellent present for Australia Day.

‘Tis the season, all right

CHRISTMAS VARIATIONS

Megan Reeve

Move Records MCD 585

In this collection by Melbourne-based harpist Megan Reeve, you’ll come across some undeniable Christmas music. The final track is a refreshing version of O come, all ye faithful, arranged by Oregon harpist Kathryn Cater. Reeve’s major offering is the 1917 Variations pastorales sur un vieux Noel by Marcel Samuel-Rousseau. She includes a reading of the Interlude from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, as well as three different arrangements of John Henry Hopkins’ We Three Kings. For that little touch of essential Australiana, she presents an arrangement by Jason Reeve (relation?) of The silver stars are in the sky, one of William G James’ more successful Australian Christmas Carols, this one coming from the first set of 1948. As a cultural counterweight, the harpist plays an arrangement of Jesus, Jesus rest your head, an Appalachian carol arranged by British academic Nigel Springthorpe.

I’m a bit more questioning about an amalgam of the Pachelbel D Major Canon with The First Noel, although the conjunction is not a new one; here, the version is by Reeve herself and she plays second fiddle to the sensitive flute of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sarah Beggs, who is also involved in a two-verse reading of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. And the opening track, Carols for Christmas, nonplusses completely by starting with Greensleeves before entering into the appropriate seasonal spirit with Deck the halls and Silent Night, this compendium the brainchild of Wenonah M. Govea, who may still be alive but I can only trace her to California State University where she was harp guru 32 years ago.

I’ve got vague memories of the English tune (Henry VIII? Please stop stretching the bounds of credibility) being given a Christmas text, as in What Child is this, and I have more concrete recall of the tune being included in the big Oxford Book of Carols: a solid tome that I gave away after too many years sustaining a singularly amateur church choir. In this CD’s context, it begins with some nice scrubbing preludial discords – very Brittenesque – but the air itself is given out sensitively, those opening chords linking to Deck the halls, where Reeve shows a nice touch of rubato before sliding into a Silent Night where Gruber’s tune is first delivered in harmonics underneath some silvery treble ripples before the expected arpeggiated chords treatment wends its way to a restful and polished conclusion.

Samuel-Rousseau’s variations – seven of them, with a brief conclusion – strike me as belonging to a tradition I can lazily trace to d’Aquin’s mid-18th century Nouveau livre de Noels; by a stroke of luck, an old instructor pointed me in the direction of the tenth, for Grand jeu et duo, to prepare for what must have been a fairly elementary examination. The modern work was published in 1919 but has a soft harmonic structure; you’d expect that from a writer who stayed true to his heritage (and his material), ignoring the potential for thrills and spills fomented by his immediate forbears. The tune is positioned in a modal G minor – with the B flat in play, but the E flat is naturalized in the key signature. There is a slight divergence in the third strophe which stretches to five bars rather than the four that has prevailed up to this point and after it.

Variation 1 treats the theme’s contours as a decoration, the emphasis falling on louder full-bodied chords; its time-signature oscillates between 5/4 and 4/4 which makes more sense on paper than in auditory terms. The next treatment is far more adventurous in that the Noel almost disappears under a flurry of glissandi, repeated arpeggios and a disposition where the initial phrase’s contour can still be perceived but is covered in rapid semiquavers shared between the player’s hands. Next up, we’re in more settled harmonic territory – an unabashed B flat Major – and the rhythmic space between strophes 1 and 2 is truncated to intriguing effect; again, the progress is interlarded with rapid-fire figuration, although the forward motion seems to be a thing of quick starts and detours.

We’re back with the modal in Variation 4 which is a 3/4 transformation of the main theme into a bold chorale with punctuating arpeggios between the lines. Triplets dominate most of Variation 5 where you can pick out the Noel clearly, and Variation 6 opens with a bold 3/4 statement in the vogue of Variation 4, but the plain-chords disintegrate into a 12-bar dissolve by way of arpeggios , a long downward one with a set of ascending single notes to set up tension for the final brief 11-bar variation, a Lent, where Samuel-Rousseau picks out his tune in left-hand harmonics before a gentle G Major conclusion in which the tune has been mutated into something less archaic, more Romantic than in its initial form. Reeve shows a fine responsiveness to the many changes rung throughout this oddly touching work; like a Calvin Bowman song – out of its time but appealing for all that.

Reeve’s own handling of We Three Kings comes across as placid in content with no harmonic surprises, the only oddity an extension of certain strophes by two bars in both verses and chorus. She brings the melody down an octave for the second-run-through which allows for rich chords to replace the single-note accompaniment of the opening. Verlene Schermer, currently resident in San Jose and an aficionado of many types of harp, brings into play a gentle cross-current from the start of her version: a 3-against-2 introduction, feather-light, leads to an outline of the Hopkins melody that enjoys an unusual high register and emotional reticence; unexpected when you consider that the composer intended his carol to be dominated by male solos, suggestive of the Three Kings. Schermer scoops in some syncopation, chiefly by avoiding strong beats for the end of each line, bringing the final note in a quaver before it is due; updating, sure, but this well-worn tune can stand it.

Treatment 3 comes from Megan Metheney, Arizona-born and currently based in southern France. This is the longest of the three versions, in time span much more than the other two combined; this is mainly due to Metheney’s use of an extended introduction with a plangent Celtic charm, which is used between verses and then as a postlude. Her outline of the original is kept simple with only single note accompaniment, the treatment notable for the employment of hemiolas at the words Westward leading, still proceeding. In its effect, this is a more adventurous and challenging We Three Kings than the preceding two pieces; it gives the performer more material to deal with, even if it’s a more simple construct in terms of requisite performance skills.

Beggs takes the first violin line for a strophe of the Pachelbel, then veers off into the carol while the harp maintains the chord sequence of the canon. After a stanza, the flute leaves the carol and joins the harp in playing variants on the canon. Eventually, the flute returns to the carol tune while the harp moves into the bar 19 demi-semiquaver variation of Pachelbel. Eventually, the carol disappears, so that not much of a fusion is achieved. That said, the performance is eloquent and mercifully lacking in affectation or effects.

Something like the Metheney carol treatment, Jason Reeve’s realization of the popular (in Australia) William James piece uses an introduction that is brought back between verses (three by my count) and winds up proceedings. The melody is left intact; the harmonic structure veers from the original only a few times; there is one mini-cadenza but it weaves neatly into the piece’s forward motion. This track is as long as the Metheney and also doesn’t wear out its welcome too much.

Track 11 brings you smack bang up against the brilliance that Britten demonstrated in the strangest places. In this CD’s context, the Interlude strikes you as ideally conceived for the harp, exemplifying the instrument’s fragility, transparency, rapidity and resonant majesty. Dealing with a wealth of timbres in this brief set of pages is only one facet of the score, which follows its bass string-heavy central passage with a reminiscence of the work’s opening Hodie. Even now, after so many years of acquaintance through great performances and others at the so-so level, this interpolation still strikes me as inspired and affecting. Reeve makes light of the demands from opening and closing harmonics, through thunderous octave bass notes alternating with biting chords, to the soft glissando washes across the last bars. And, marvellously, she keeps to a steady tempo throughout.

You can find little fault with the Ave Maria interpretation. Beggs doesn’t overdo the vibrato and Reeve is modesty personified with the klavier original. Both artists might have avoided the tendency to indulge in a slight pause at the start of each phrase; the flute can cope easily enough with this cantilena without needing continual assistance. Likewise, Springthorpe’s handling of Jesus, Jesus rest your head is plain with only a few rushes of blood to line-ignoring descant. But the gentle tune is allowed to follow its path with minimal interruption – chorus, verse, chorus, and that’s it, Reeve employing a gentle rubato at the right places.

For the last track, Cater takes all us faithful on a pleasant enough ride to Latin America, turning the most well-known of carols into a well-behaved rhumba – well, that’s what I thought it was as it reminded me inescapably of Arthur Benjamin’s most famous work. Cater begins with a catchy motive based on the opening phrase which she repeats at various registers before starting on the tune proper. She exercises her native right to freedom of expression by adding extra bars in the O come, let us adore Him choruses and some of the chord progressions can surprise. But you cannot fault the sensibility that avoids the usual triumphalism, Reeve simply petering out into the treble ether. It makes a sensitively couched ending to this controlled, expertly accomplished CD.

Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Greenjeans Studios, Kansas

Having a bastardized acquaintance with some Romance languages, I thought that the title of Matthew Fagan’s CD had some reference to ‘life’. Of course, it doesn’t, mainly because of the noun’s gender but, further witness to my ignorance, this Andalusian folk-tune turns out to be a very familiar one and its pertinence seems to be to St. Vitus, a true lord of the dance. Well, it’s a melody that you can’t forget; even so, I can’t recall which writer – ancient/modern, well-known/obscure, Iberian/extra-Andalusian – has employed it to such effect that it has become unforgettable.

At any rate, the tune appears at about the half-way point of this 15-track recording which consists of much original Spanish music but holds an opening bracket from that unparalleled out-of-towner, Bizet. Fagan has arranged six chunks of the Carmen score for his 10-string guitar: the Aragonaise before Act 4, the heroine’s self-introducing Habanera and its Act 1 companion Seguidilla, the opera’s introduction up to the Andante moderato, that melting Act 3 Entr’acte, and the Les tringles des sistres trio-with-chorus that opens Act 2. As things turn out, pretty much everything on this album is a Fagan arrangement – Granados’ Oriental from the 12 Danzas espanolas, Zambalera by Jorge Strunz, the album’s Andalusian dance title, another traditional tune in Solearas, Rodrigo’s Fandango from the Tres piezas espanolas dedicated to Segovia (the only non-Fagan arrangement in the CD), the middle Sevilla movement from Albeniz’s Suite espanola No. 1, a traditional sevillanas, more Albeniz in the well-known Asturias (Leyenda), and, to finish, another traditional display in the flamenco predecessor, Zambra mora.

Such a collection makes for pleasant listening and Fagan spices his mix by occasionally indulging in some layered work, inserting a light percussion support or dubbing in himself (I assume) for ballast. Further, the interpretations reveal a straight-down-the-line style of interpretation with an often dogged insistence on a set pulse, noticeable in pieces that are familiar from delineations by other guitarists whose use of rubato and pauses have set up models that Fagan eschews. As compensation, this musician’s instrument with its rich bass strings adds weight of timbre to works that often tinkle their paths towards the inevitably light, if not the arrestingly fantastic.

You are made aware of the multi-layered possibilities in the opening Bizet Aragonaise which has an underlying percussive tap throughout that more or less follows the tambourine line in the original score. The actual guitar sound complex also operates on two levels, one part providing the accompaniment while the other follows the melody, although the two get mixed as the fragment moves on. My only bleat concerns the change in notes which first appears in bar 30, and then again whenever this piccolo-plus-clarinet upward-downward subsidiary motive appears. The overall impression is bouncy and confident.

Fagan’s account of the Habanera appears to have two layers also, one giving the pizzicato rhythm underneath the melody, the other – of course – the famous tune with its chromatic opening which moves to an octave outline pretty soon. Here again, the tempo is determined but with some rallentandi before the chorus enters to echo the singer’s lines. The Seguidilla appears to move into three guitar layers for most of its length, with a gratuitous tapping underneath it all. After the introductory eight bars, Fagan interpolates a 12-bar break that comes out of nowhere and stops in mid-sentence; presumably, it’s meant to add some gypsy colour. For the rest, Fagan follows the original pretty closely and the results are crisp and bright. More layering comes in the Prelude rendition which is very successful for its controlled bounce. And the three layers works very well for the entr’acte, Fagan keeping melody and countermelodies in play throughout; the only problem here is the lack of give-and-take, notably in the last seven bars of the original, which is followed faithfully and without any deviations, even if the pace is faster than usual.

This disc’s version of the Gypsy Song-with-extras that starts Act 2 works well, although one of the verses and choruses is omitted. But I liked the carrying power of Fagan’s acciaccaturas; unlike Bizet’s original flutes who set up the piece’s action, the guitar accidentals linger in your ear. Further in, you have to be impressed by the way Fagan’s mix takes on the character of a harp with splendid resonance during Carmen’s solos. For my taste, this is the most convincing of the operatic arrangements, despite the abridgements, and the octave work in the melody line is excellently achieved.

Oriental doesn’t sit at the forefront of Granados’ piano creations but it provides a pleasant exercise in transcription for the guitar. Fagan makes telling use of harmonics at cadential points and keeps the piece mobile, although there is no rhythmic suppleness at all and dynamic contrast goes a-begging. Finally, I think there’s a misreading in the central Lento assai segment. I believe the second G in bar 5 here is a tied note; it has undergone a new shape in this reading which tends to contradict the figure’s use in several other phrases. Strunk and his collaborator Adeshir Farah’s 1985 reading of Zambalera captures attention for its fireworks bursts of rapid play and a typically ambiguous tempo (6/8 or 3/4?), as well as bringing in pan-pipes across its last third. Fagan superimposes three layers, including a fetching tremolo at two stages and, if his fingers don’t fly as fast as those of the creator and his cobber, they’re not far off it.

With the title track, the guitarist cannot resist surrounding a simple melody with plenty of colour-rich introductions, intermissions and variations. It’s all very rhythmic and loaded with energy, rasgueado strokes serving as ideal punctuation, the whole informed by an appealing vibrato whenever the main tune emerges (which it does twice). I think Solearas is played straight, without multi-layering or additions of any type. It might be unfair to say that it appears to lack substance but a good deal of padding goes on; all very atmospheric and the flamenco level rises to a high pitch, but nothing of moment seems to happen for the first 30 seconds at least and the basic material does not keep your attention as much as Fagan’s driving passage work and hammer-blow chords.

As I half-expected, the Rodrigo piece was given an earnest airing with a fine, lucid opening; later the triplet passage work proved a struggle as the composer puts his executant through some rapid-fire hurdles, mainly testing agility of response. Despite the piquancy of those added-note chords – usually a 2nd or a 7th – the work is something of a rondo-ramble and, despite its rapid passage work, resembles no fandango I’ve heard or watched. The opening three chords are a small motive that dominates the working-out process and suggest a minuet more than anything else, albeit one with some deft Hispanic curves. Still, Fagan treats it politely although more as a study than as a score with which he is emotionally engaged; some of those triplets sag more than float.

There’s very little wrong with this version of Sevilla by Albeniz except for one recurring oddity. In bar 3, when the main melody gets under way, Fagan leaves out the third-beat 2nd (A in the piano original’s G Major tonality) which ordinarily gives the tune a vital harmonic shake; instead, he plays the bass and top note only. It’s not a big del but it removes part of the work’s charm and disappoints expectations. In the centre, Albeniz’s Meno mosso is enunciated with unexpected latitude – some bars rushed, others accounted for at half-pace – but that makes for a welcome quasi-improvisatory flight in the middle of framing segments with a pronounced rhythmic pulse.

Fagan’s sevillanas is a sort of two-strophe composition in which a series of chords alternate with a single melodic line that grows in length as the piece progresses. As far as I can tell, the chords don’t vary much – two, possibly three – and the melody is quite bare. It’s what you would identify straightaway as being Spanish in its insistence and ornamental flourishes and turns. While the stamping chords come over with persuasive zeal, the opening notes to the melodic scraps sound laboured, not as fluent as they should be. In his version of Asturias, Fagan keeps very close to the Albeniz piano original, following customary practice (I think) in exchanging semiquavers for triplets from bar 17 on. He could have made more of the pauses in every fourth bar from bars 63 to 78, rather than pushing ahead regardless. But he fulfilled the need to make this piece succeed: by contrasting nervous energy with understated lyricism.

Finally, the Moorish-inflected finale gives us a track of some excitement and a good deal of repetition. Fagan’s view of this musical style where gypsy, Sephardic, flamenco and the Near East combine. It sustains interest for much of its length, chiefly because of its modal flavour. Fagan finishes with a curtain-down accelerando which brought to mind that saint named in the CD’s title. Which is a neat way to bring us home, even if a few of the preceding tracks have little to do with dancing. It’s not a stupendous collection that sets the imagination running wild, but the music-making has a directness of speech that is often both successful and attractive.