A Rach pack

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PIANO AWARD 2018

Move Records MCD 586

Oliver She

                                                                       Oliver She

No Olympics this year: they’re deferred till 2021, in case you hadn’t heard, and enthusiasts are still as optimistic as the Japanese hosts showed right up to the  last moment this year.   And no Australian National Piano Award either – also put on hold.  Everything competitive  has been thrown out of sync, although it’s probably more important for the Olympics: that time-honoured four-year interval is shattered now  .  .  .  how are we going to be able to pick out our leap years so precisely any more?

Here is a CD that nobody seems to want to own, so I’m unsure about advising you where to get it.   The disc number shows that it belongs to the Move label; mastering and booklet layout are also attributed to Move, but Greater Shepparton appears to be the the real source and aegis for this product    Well, that town is where the competition takes place every two years, in the fine Eastbank Centre; thanks to the coronavirus infestation, the next competitions will occur in 2021, 2023 and 2025 which is how long the Shepparton Council has pledged its support so far.

I’ve only been to the competition twice, dropping in on the finals nights to see what the standard was like.   Quite a few musicians who have been successful here have made solid careers:  players like Clemens Leske Jr., Eidit Golder, Kristian Chong and Kenji Fujimura (joint winners in 2000), Anna Carson, Amir Farid, Jayson Gillham, Daniel de Borah, and Alex Raineri.   Well, these are the ones I’ve seen at work since their accession to ANPA greatness and this list represents a convincing number of hits to validate its strike rate.

On this CD, we hear from 2018’s first three place-getters.   The (to me) convincing winner, Oliver She, presents the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 in its 1931 revised version, then a sprightly Les collines d’Anacapri from the first book of Debussy’s Préludes.   Silver medallist Alexander Yau plays the fifth part of Granados’ Goyescas, El amor y la muerte, following up with Grunfeld’s Fledermaus paraphrase, Soiree de Vienne James Guan placed third and he presents three of Ravel’s Miroirs  –  Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso  –  leading to Chopin’s C minor Etude from the Op. 10 set and then Godowsky’s arrangement, transposed up a semitone, of this same work for left-hand alone.

I wasn’t in Shepparton for the 2018 competition; just a touch too far to drive back to Melbourne after the adjudication and one motel experience in that town was enough, thanks.   But it seems to me that, if any one work stood out from this disc guaranteed to determine who came out on top, it was She’s reading of the Rachmaninov sonata which is remarkably authoritative, both in handling its formidable technical hurdles and in realizing the composer’s emotional world.   In fact, this performance would stand comparison with several top-class recordings and assuredly has a persuasive edge when set alongside several other European and American competition winners who put this work forward as representative of their talents.

Throughout the first movement Allegro agitato, She shows a splendid  insight into the composer’s assertive energy combined with chromatic restlessness, leavened at specific moments, like the second subject statement, with plain-speaking diatonic hiatus points.  Added to this, She has that very welcome talent of highlighting the essentials in Rachmaninov’s multiple washes of peripheral action in both hands – which is extraordinary because, all too often, the left hand bass notes disappear in the wash.  Finally, in this part of the sonata, She shows an interpretative polish which allows him to linger over nocturne-like oases without disrupting the work’s urgency.

For the Lento second movement, She manages to walk that fine line that gives equal weight to a powerful inner drive and a self-contained melancholy.   You are treated to a patch of ringing strength at the movement’s centre where the melody line sits at tenor level while orderly ferment occupies the extremes, and again later when the action moves onto three staves and the eloquent spate concludes with a spiralling brief cadenza.   Finally, the last page reminiscence of the opening movement’s second subject and the placid E Major conclusion before the bridge into the finale which recycles the Lento‘s introduction are treated without emphasis, rising seamlessly out of the work’s construction with no hint of superimposition or conscious craft.

Rachmaninov’s finale is a tumult – a fine case where the Emperor Joseph II’s complaint about too many notes might be appropriate.   She bounds through its 5-minute length with impressive command of its histrionics and without slackening to regroup his forces; the quaver/dotted minim motif permeating every reach of this segment.  The executant’s security came across most obviously in passages like the fifth bar of the Meno mosso where the requirement to interpolate four chords in octavo, interrupting the surging action down below, is exciting if unreasonable..  Then the Presto conclusion is a technical triumph, notably of the triplets that take over before a concerto-reminiscent final seven bars of maximum grandeur, carried out here with headstrong elan.

The following Anacaprese excursion is determinedly bright, despite one particular section where the sustaining pedal is over-used.   Here also, She keeps this miniature on the move with plenty of scintillating rushes, although I was very taken by his dynamic balance at bar 21 where the melodic work shifts to the left hand.   And he brings the piece to a  finely insistent conclusion; the hills are sparkling in this vision, not the haze-shrouded outcrops they are today.   When it’s over, you’re pressed back to memories of full performances of Book 1 of the Préludes and how welcome this gem is, given its surroundings, and this reading often catches the exuberant, carefree quality that inspired the composer.

Yau’s exposition of the Granados balata shows  a clear understanding of the piece’s progress towards a sombre conclusion with the young man’s death; the climactic points are eloquently realized, each outbreak of eloquence is given full play, and the figuration comes over with a certain amount of colouring.   This interpretation has some brilliant moments, like the tempo tranquillo starting at bar 37, continuing through the melting modulations of the fandango at bar 45, up to the tautness of the octave interplay at the non tanto allegro direction.   Further along, Yau’s integration of the mordents starting at bar 73 demonstrates his subtlety of interpretation, the melodic lily remaining ungilded.

Probably the chief defect of this reading is an occasional one, points where the fioriture is delivered neatly enough but sticks out from the narrative.  To Yau’s credit, his articulation is pretty lucid, apart from a tendency to muffle bass notes, but he is unable to integrate odd moments like the lento at bar 67 and the following two measures with the lyrical episodes that precede and follow.   Yes, these are isolated bravura moments but they have a functionality that escapes me here; much the same comes later at bar 131 where the technique is excellently able but the passage itself seems aimless; mind you, that might be Granados’ fault, but I don’t think so  –  it’s more a question of finding what needs to be emphasized and how to make he passage appear consequential, with an accent on the ‘sequential’.

For all that, Yau gives us the most impressive technical exhibition of the CD with his Strauss paraphrase.   This heady display of vaulting leaps, rapid scale passages and integration of separate melodies is a delight to hear realised with such buoyancy and an excellent awareness of how to make such a flashy piece work, obvious in Yau’s well-placed hesitations and his almost-perfect chord placements.   Even if you’re not that sympathetic to the Strauss waltz vogue – and I’m not enamoured of it – this is intelligent virtuosity and a cleverly judged postscript to the Granados work.

Taking on the central three pieces that make up Ravel’s 5-part suite, Guan fits right in with his colleagues by owning a splendid technical apparatus, well-exercised in each of these extracts.   His Oiseaux tristes succeeds on all fronts with some glittering passing notes in bars 15 and 16 and a finely muffled presque ad lib cadenza; the whole a generous reading of this brilliantly compressed vignette where everything counts.  It’s not hard to praise the fluidity of the following Une barque sur l’océan where the executant’s negotiation of those endless arpeggios in both hands impresses considerably, even as he strives to keep them in time  –  a hopeless task, it seems to me  –  until the inevitable explosion in bar 101 where both hands indulge in a violent juxtaposition of 4 against 3, triple forte, before the piece sinks away (at length) before reaching port.  This work has its longueurs – bars 80 to 95 an example, where the action wallows – but Guan treats it all with suitable agility or deliberation.   His Alborada del gracioso strikes me as hyper-metallic in the guitar-imitating moments; I know its a percussion instrument but its prime appearances – starting at bar 43 and persisting right through to bar 57, then picking up again in bar 174 – come across as hectic.   And a more expansive brilliance might have come about if Ravel’s  high-stepping climacteric starting at bar 219 had been pronounced with a less frantic attack.

Guan follows up with the Chopin Revolutionary Study and the Godowsky transposition. Both are given powerful readings and you  can find a bridled ferocity in the original that takes you back a few generations when pianists were just as desirous as Guan of unleashing big splashes of sound with a hefty use of the sustaining pedal;  these days, the players I hear put their emphasis on left-hand lucidity at the expense of drama.  Mind you, I would have welcomed a greater pulling-back towards the end, and a real rallentando at bar 80, if not starting one three bars before.   And the real crisis at bar 37 might have gained by more carefully weighted preparation.  As for following up with the Godowsky, such a move probably proved to be an unlucky choice with the judges.   It’s a mighty test, even if Chopin has already set his own, but its necessary shortcomings –  like the absence of powerful chords and an inbuilt distraction from the main melody  –  make it a curiosity rather than a compositional entity.

For all that, the competition for 2018 brought to our attention three confident musicians, all well worth attention.   I’ve given up being astonished by sheer executive skill in young performers; rather, what I look for is insight, the ability to see the direction and potential of a statement as part of the whole construct.  You found this throughout She’s Rachmaninov sonata, fitfully during Yau’s Granados and more obviously in his Strauss frolic,, and again in the first and second of Guan’s Ravel excerpts.

As I’ve pointed out above, I don’t know where you can obtain this disc – despite its Move identifier, it’s not to be found on the company’s website.   I suspect Shepparton Council might be a fruitful place to make initial inquiries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All hail, Martin Wright

 

MOVE 50

Move Records MD 3450

3450

In 2018, Move Records celebrated 50 years in operation, bringing Australian music to the forefront of its enterprises across the decades.   I’m sure it hasn’t been plain sailing throughout every stretch of the journey and it can’t be a promising panorama if you survey the current recording scene where so much is available through so many different forms of media.    You have to ask yourself: what next?     Well, a touch of spartan resignation may be appropriate.    The more intellectually adventurous can take consolation from the immortal words of the current President of the United States when reviewing the potential death rate from COVID-19: It is what it is.

As an appropriate observance of its half-century, the company produced this CD that comprises 24 tracks of works by Australian composers, ranging in length from the 59 seconds of Andrea Keller‘s Deep Blue to Paul Moulatlet‘s Dark Star which persists for 7′ 53″.    Most of the performers  are well-known names; ditto, the composers..   Further, quite a number of the works have been specifically composed to honour the Move label and its milestone, with a few directed in praise of Martin Wright who was one of the original founders and has been a producer and engineer on countless Move products.

As you could anticipate, the works vary in mode (although there are a good many piano solos) as well as in length, in ambition, and in accomplishment.   In fact, the whole miscellany is something like a festive garland or a variegated bouquet; sadly, not full of fresh blooms as some of the pieces date from before 2018.   George Dreyfus has recycled his Prelude – Outbreak of Love, written in 1981 for a projected TV series of the Martin Boyd novel.    Another metamorphosed piece comes from Ron Nagorcka whose proffered duet was originally conceived in 1988.   Roger Heagney offers a piano solo written on the birth of his first grandson who is now (one supposes) 15 years old.   Keller’s scrap dates from 2012; Christopher Young’s Pathways, Ros Bandt‘s Mystic Morn and Moulatlet’s piece all come from 2016 and don’t seem to have been written for this particular occasion.   Julian Yu has contributed a birthday piece but it also appears on a disc of his own music which was released almost simultaneously (on the Move label) with this one.

So, they’re of various lengths and varying provenances.   As for personnel, 15 of the CD’s tracks are piano solos, nearly all of them featuring Michael Kieran Harvey who has expended his extraordinary talents on so many Australian compositions.   Other piano solos come  from Tony Gould, playing his own music on the Yamaha C7 grand that he selected for Move Records’ use 25 years ago; and from Gabriella Smart performing Ros Bandt’s Mystic Morn.    The only other solo piece is the afore-mentioned Dark Star which Moulatlet wrote for Peter Sheridan‘s bass flute.

Linda Kouvaras and Deviani Segal collaborate in the former’s Northcote Days piano duet.  Harvey and saxophonist  Benjamin Price present Don Kay‘s no-nonsense Milestone Tribute while Harvey emerges yet again to work through A Memory on the Move by Ron Nagorcka with the composer providing a didjeridu profile.   Two songs form part of the offerings: Christopher Willcock‘s Wisdom outlined by tenor Lyndon Green and pianist Andrea Katz, and Gordon Kerry‘s Sonnet After John Keats with soprano Merlyn Quaife and pianist Stefan Cassomenos the interpreters.

A quartet and quintet offer further variety.  The first, Pathways by Christopher Young, has the composer on saxophone (soprano, I think), Tom Fryer on guitar, Ted Vining on drums and Nick Haywood bringing up the bass.   The recycled Yu boasts clarinet Robert Schubert and a string quartet comprising violins Lorraine Hook and Deborah Goodall, viola Gabby Halloran and cellist Virginia Kable.    And one computer construct – Warren Burt’s Postlude – is all the composer’s own work and shows us that the spirit of Latrobe University’s late Music School is still alive and kicking somewhere in the land almost 21 years after the death of the faculty itself.

Tony Gould’s Heritage sounds like a ramble, the splendidly accomplished academic/pianist walking around the Yamaha in a quiet minute-long meditation on the Move company’s mobility of repertoire; all reminiscent of Newport on a summer’s day.   Roger Heagney’s Noah is compelling in Harvey’s hands, a ternary framework that suggests one of the simpler Czerny studies or a two-part invention; it remains minor in mode until about the ¾ point and it concludes with a tierce de Picardie, the whole given a compelling and driving airing by the interpreter.

The disc’s solitary quartet by Christopher Young comes from a 2016 recording where it was called Etherial Pathways;  I haven’t heard the piece in its original form but it has apparently been edited specifically for this collation.   Its dominant voice is the composer’s sax which weaves a meandering melodic line supported by guitar and a drum part that sounds oddly disconnected from the pitched instruments’ proceedings.   Nick Heywood’s bass comes late to the party and the short work fades to black rather clumsily, but the entity has a quiet improvisatory charm.

Japanese composer Kanako Okamoto‘s name is a new one to me, but not for Harvey who recorded some of her piano output for Move 13 years ago, including some works written for the interpreter.   Bitter and Sweet is a carefully balanced piece that seems, like Gould’s opener, to be a mildly fitful meander with very few acidic spots, owing a fair bit to free-form jazz and impressionism, sympathetically accounted for by Harvey with alternating force and delicacy.    L-ove Records by Vaughan McAlley (another long-time Move recording engineer) confines itself to 50 notes in constructing a three-part augmentation canon; the language is post-Webern in one sense with separate, disjunct notes all over the keyboard but with a diatonic bias.   It would look clear on paper, I’d suggest, but deciphering the composer’s devices needs keener perceptions than mine.

Rachmaninov seems to be the influence of choice for George Dreyfus when putting together his Prelude for the unrealised Outbreak of Love TV series.   There is plenty of virtuosic-sounding work for Harvey who does as much as any pianist can with this late Romantic confection, packed with Lisztian tropes and a masculine melancholy..  The piece has little relevance to this disc’s rationale but serves as a reminder of the composer’s facility with any style that he feels like adopting.   Yet another revenant comes with Ron Nagorcka’s A Memory on the Move which began as a short prelude twenty years ago, was transmogrified for another presentation in 2002, and is here resuscitated one more time.  Harvey accounts for the angular syncopation-rich piano part that occupies central position with only two extended passages from the composer’s didjeridu before both instruments carry out a dwindling into the ether.   As a combination, this sound amalgamation works rather well, surprisingly tonal in that the wind’s fundamental note is in tune with the basic harmonic structure of the keyboard part.

Andrea Keller, like Heagney, has brought her family into the picture with her Deep Blue which takes inspiration from her son Luc’s breathing pattern and the fact that the baby was born with a caul; I’ve never seen his rare membrane but suppose it is coloured blue – sadly, not even Harvey’s skill can turn Keller into a Skryabin.    Speaking of the pianist, his  own Keen is specifically dedicated to Martin Wright and consists of a three-note plucked string ostinato with inbuilt glissandi while isolated notes that form the B-A-C-H pattern are keyed, both sound methods given with increasing fervour until a concluding 12-note arpeggio/chord stretching across the keyboard’s range concludes a noticeably chaste construction which somewhat perversely takes ‘keen’ in its mourning sense rather than as extolling the Move company’s acuity.

If ever a work lived up to its title, it’s Brenton Broadstock‘s An Endless Ripple, here given in its piano solo form by Harvey.   The right hand plays a scale passage that swells by an extra note after each pause with quiet left-hand chords providing more meaty substance.   It avoids most pictorial suggestions through its sudden pauses before the ripple resumes – not quite impressionist, but after the school.   Andrew Bullen’s poem, Wisdom, provided Christopher Willcock with his song text.   It concerns one of those superfluous angels from the Nativity in Bethlehem telling Wise Man Caspar that Herod’s murder of the Holy Innocents is inescapable.   Lyndon Green has a reedy sound character but a secure articulation that makes each word clear and Katz gives an equally clear-cut account of the keyboard accompaniment that matches the vocal line in restrained declamation.

Ros Bandt’s work Mystic Morn doesn’t require much from pianist Gabriella Smart except a patience with pauses.   The work is a series of flurries that shimmer and dissolve – which is one way to parallel Hans Heysen’s light-filled landscape from which the work takes its name.   Sonnet after John Keats is Gordon Kerry’s setting of On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again.    Quaife and Cassomenos make an excellent pairing for this powerful song where nothing is wasted and the ecstasy of the poet’s ambition is splendidly realised in the final couplet.

The irresistible temptation when faced with something like Michael Bertram‘s Iconoclast 2 is to wonder what happened to the first one.   In fact, it concluded a 1984 suite, Five Pieces for Piano, which makes it one of the composer’s earlier essays.   This fragment for Move’s semi-centenary holds two elements: a Caribbean dance rhythm – habanera, samba, Guadeloupe two-step for all I know – and a restrained toying with scales that suggests both Satie and then Prokofiev with its eventual turn into dissonance.   Here again, Harvey is not over-challenged but persuasively realizes the piece’s bonhomie.

With From a Star Afar, Eve Duncan projects herself a few thousand years back and imagines looking down at earth.    The result is a rather stern vision where the composer has Harvey negotiate a formally uncomplicated, short exploration of some brief motifs with an accent on the piano’s bass register through which means the composer observes the planet’s passing years; it’s a human history on a minute scale, then.   You are challenged by the composer to find a hidden theme at the end of Don Kay’s Milestone Tribute for Harvey and Benjamin Price’s saxophone.   Good luck because it’s well-concealed.   The work has a sort of theme-and-variations flavour, although the theme is a partially filled in descending common chord that enjoys increasingly disjointed handling until an out-of-nowhere major chord halts the piece’s not-for-turning forward motion.

Kate Tempany‘s name is one of several on this CD that I don’t know – Paul Moulatlet, Simon Barber and Kanako Okamoto are the others.   Her offering is a piano solo performed by Harvey: Expansion – Heart Reflects the Sky.   It aims to present an image of grasslands moved by the wind, which effect is accomplished with a minimum of apparent effort, a dreamy susurrus played only on the white notes and husbanding those almost to pentatonic status.    A dread of encroaching totalitarian regimes (and leaders?) underpins Moulatlet’s Dark Star for solo bass flute.   Peter Sheridan is put through a range of sound production techniques in a substantial score that occasionally verges on the frolicsome, possibly because the interpreter is allowed certain moments of freedom.   While the final moments have mournful suggestions, the score is far from a dirge or an elegy.    I suppose you can find inside its length moments of the ‘unease’ that Moulatlet feels (or felt in this 2016 construct), but the final impression is of striving and action.

Physics rears its not-that-ugly-a head in Andrian Pertout‘s Saral Aavart Gati, which exists in piano trio and piano solo forms; what we have here is the latter, performed by Harvey. It’s an unnerving work with an emphasis on the instrument’s extremes and a tendency to operate at both levels simultaneously.   Pertout’s explanation of the score’s genesis and realization relies on a familiarity with technical information but, broken down into one elementary thought bubble, appears to be connected to the every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction Newtonian truism.    Heady stuff, and the only one of these 24 tracks that brings you face-to-face with your own intellectual inadequacies.   Warren Burt’s Postlude computer work has a more jargon-filled explanation; it has 50 tones (for each of Move’s 50 years) per octave throughout its length and the physical actualisation of its composition seems to have been complex.   But the results summon up ghosts, like the Cage of those endless Sonatas and Interludes, and some early electronic experimental pieces where a sound and its decay were reversed.    You can hear further shadows – a gamelan, a glockenspiel, robotic percussion of several kinds – but what surprises is the regular metre that persists for lengthy slabs.

Simon Barber proposes an intriguing premise for his Interpolationen, a piano solo outlined by Harvey: each bar is a variation on the preceding bar.  Here’s a music of fits and starts, event piled on event in its later stages where the pianist operates at both ends of the keyboard, like Pertout’s work mentioned above.   But it has an underlying nervous sensibility that eventually breaks into violence; still, if you’re hoping to see how it works, you’d need a score to follow in order to trace the variant process.    Linda Kouvaras sees more in Northcote, the Melbourne suburb, than I ever did although my experiences came in pre-gentrification times when my daughter, her husband and their first-born were eking out their lives in Raleigh Street.   Northcote Days, a piano duet, presents an aggressive affirmation in its chains of unfilled chords and hectic clambering.    In some senses, the work serves as a travelogue that takes you through various parts of the district at different times of day (or so I assume from the nocturne-like segment that takes its place in the kaleidoscope on show). .  It’s a fine workout for both executants who carry off the piece with panache and well-rehearsed synchronicity.

The deceitful Ephyran king is the apparent inspiration for Brendan Colbert‘s Sisyphus, a piano solo performed by Harvey with buoyant authority.   You can – if you want – find an aural image of the rock-pushing that reaches a certain point before Zeus forces it back down to the bottom of the hill.    But this image is dispelled by a central section which takes place at the top end of the piano – an atonal gambol in the Elysian Fields, possibly – only to be negated by the piece’s determined plunge to the bass in  the final bars.   This work has been specifically dedicated to Martin Wright who has certainly performed the ongoing – and sometimes thankless – task of promoting serious Australian music in its multifarious forms, daily pushing against indifference and our own home-grown brand of philistinism.

And then there was Yu.  The popular composer melded Happy Birthday and a Chinese melody, Stepping Up, for the last piece on this CD which Yu and his wife played at Martin Wright’s 70th birthday party.   The birthday tune, tossed around by Robert Schubert and his string quartet colleagues, is variegated and fragmented cleverly enough, summoning up the spirit of Dreyfus in his nose-thumbing days, but the traces of the Chinese melody, Bubugao, are well-hidden in Yu’s jaunty quick-step,   After all the cosmic imagery and high-flown postulations, Stepping Up Birthday brings this disc to an earth-bound end with something approaching glee: an essential ingredient for any birthday observance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A wide-ranging revelation of self

PRTZL

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3447

Wherever you look, you come across Harvey’s name.  He’s omni-present in Australia’s musical landscape, even if he makes his home in Hobart (there’s a bit of mainlander snobbery for you).   For years, he has been a fiercely prominent standard-bearer for contemporary music – Australian and otherwise – with an ability to play anything written for his instrument.    Yes, he can occasionally be heard playing mainstream repertoire, if you’re lucky enough; at various times and places, I’ve watched him perform Chopin and Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven, usually to my enrichment.   Further, I’ve seen him improvise at some long-forgotten (by me . . . more repressed than forgotten) spot in Fitzroy, sweeping an audience up with overwhelming, seemingly endless cataracts of notes.   As well, he has collaborated to splendid effect; in my experience, with Slava Grigoryan, both live and on disc.

As a composer, Harvey is well-represented in the Move catalogue, sometimes juxtaposing his own works with those of other Australian writers.   On this CD, however, it’s all Harvey  –  compositions and performances  –  playing both solo and alongside some new- and long-time collaborators.   Leading the piano solo works is the solid Piano Sonata No. 4   A. Gramsci of 2018, as well as a Module Fugue from the same year; a Divertimento originally written by Anna Amalia, Duchess of Braunschweig in 1780 for a mixed quartet of piano, clarinet, viola and cello, is here arranged by Harvey for piano alone; in this disc’s title work, Harvey uses two pianos – one grand, one electric – during which he seems to twist himself into that shape suggested by the title, although why the word loses its two vowels seems odd – but then, Cage and Lejaren Hiller did much the same with HPSCHD over 50 years ago.

Harvey presents three duos: Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion for electric piano and synthesizer (Harvey plays both) and trumpet Simon Reade; Tubby the President with Reade taking up the baritone horn; and Gestalt Climate for two pianos, Harvey in harness with wife Arabella Teniswood-Harvey.    Then you find two trios: a salute to Deep Purple’s John Lord in Deus est Fabula for violin (Tara Murphy), clarinet (Derrick Grice) and piano (Harvey); Toccata DNA in a version for flute (Peter Sheridan), percussionist (Peter Neville) and piano (Harvey).   Last of all comes a quartet – Aporia II – for three pianos
(Harvey, Teniswood-Harvey, Erik Griswold) and percussion (Vanessa Tomlinson).

On Disc One, the Gramsci-inspired sonata takes up most space  –  almost two-thirds of the total area.   On the second, the tribute to Lord, Deus est Fabula, lasts longest, with the toccata coming in a worthy second.   Two related pieces – Astro Labe, Coeur de Lion and PRTZL – are the briefest, both about 2½ minutes each.   To my mind, there is one anomaly among the ten works expounded – the satire on Trump which wears out its welcome, even though anyone with a brain would sympathize with its intentions.

The album’s opening track, Module Fugue, impresses for its rapid-fire elaboration on the notes E, B and F which provide the fundamentals across the piano solo’s length.   These three notes would be the module that Harvey uses for intervallic and transpositional exercise; as for a fugue, there’s little here that brings to mind your concept of that form, although the composer/pianist does insert a small fughetta near the end but it serves as more of a slight episode in the course of this construct, one that looks sensationally difficult on paper but which sounds  –  in patches  –  mellifluously fluent in the realization.  Actually, ‘slight episode’ does this brief fugal passage poor service as it acts as a momentary and slight brake on the fierce action that precedes and follows it.

The piece is full of excitement across its breadth, right from the scene-setting right-hand sextuplets that start the action.   In fact, the work falls into two parts: the first, piled high with crisscrossing meshes typified by irregular gruppetti, irregular arpeggios, irregular rhythmic displacements, irregular time signatures – all depending on your definition of ‘irregular’.    In this instance, the sonorous web that Harvey compiles is  volatile, but moderately so compared to what comes at bar 66 when we reach a stage where the underlying three-note motif becomes the basis for a percussive chord- and rhythm-play, intensely invigorating and packed with the composer/pianist’s delight in alternating time-signatures – 3/4 becomes 5/16, 6/16, 11/16, 7/16: all semiquaver-based but the balance is asymmetrical so that toe-tapping jazz enthusiasts (for instance) would be completely at sea.   Harvey allows himself some liberties with an unscheduled pause here and a disinterest in his own designated accents there; yet, as every time when he gets the bit between his teeth, the pianist carries you breakneck past his mini-fugue and into a rip-roaring torrent of fabric.

The Sonata No. 4 begins with a statement of Gramsci’s name where R is represented by the note D, M by F, S by E flat, and I by B.   I can’t trace how these equivalents were reached but here they are, initially articulated by across-the-strings glissandi.   Some under-the-lid work emerges quickly, but not for long; in fact, manipulation of the strings disappears until near the sonata’s conclusion.   The aim of this first burst of activity is to solidify the seven-note Gramsci-name sequence through harmonic manipulation, a potent bass statement, and – after a pointillist 8-bar flurry – across a firm double whammy in alternate hands before it is subsumed into the work’s contrapuntal workings-out.

From these initial statements on, the seven-note aggregation returns en clair throughout the one-movement sonata’s length, yet you find plenty of distractions/disguises to move the work out of the realm of spot-the-row/inversion/cancrizan games.   But then, I’m slow in realizing a good deal of what development on this scale involves, to the point where it took me several hearings to appreciate how much of the sonata is set in 7/4 or 7/8, and that the first of the many chord clusters that crop up comprises 7 notes.   You can get carried away with this sort of 1950s detective-style analysis, no matter how simple-minded, especially when other features impress so vividly, like Harvey’s fluency with two part invention-style writing, the jumpy energy that breaks in at the Vivace of bar 272, and the ensuing placidity of isolated notes placating the listener and leading into the timeless string glissandi of the last 25 bars to the sonata.

Why Gramsci?   Harvey identifies with the anti-Fascist Italian philosopher’s trademark theory of cultural hegemony, in which the rich have taken over the incidentals of  aesthetic practice –  to be specific, in this case, the piano.    By using the instrument at the opening and close of his sonata in an anti-bourgeois mode, the composer is making a statement about the abstraction by a wrong-minded class of a cultural symbol which can be reprogrammed by changing its use.   OK: I’d go along with that, as long as the inside-the-lid brigade had the same intention – Cowell, Cage, and the rest of the crew.   But it’s improbable that they all march to the unheard beat of a Leveller’s drum.  Not that it matters over-much: Harvey is exemplifying the essential re-allocation of resources that so appalled Il Duce, setting the theory as his sonata’s alpha and omega.   The manifesto is at the edges; to my mind, the true interest lies in the exuberant working-out in the middle.

As for the two-movement Divertimento by Duchess Anna Amalia, this is a fairly straight reduction of the original work with the interesting parts of the non-piano lines incorporated into the keyboard part.   Before, during, and after the noblewoman’s polite work, Harvey indulges in some extemporisations – not long, but energetic to the point of frenzy, sort of putting the 18th century inside a contemporary cocoon.   The repeats are ignored and Harvey goes in for a continuous accelerando at the end of the Allegro second movement, which all sounds as though he’s tired of being polite and is rushing towards his end-of-track explosion.   As well, he allows several wrong notes to survive on the recording, which can be interpreted as uncaring or bringing the music down to earth.  It’s an odd adjunct to this collection and makes no pretensions to much beyond the status of a slight bagatelle.

PRTZL represents something similar.   A player sits in the middle of two pianos (one electric, one grand) and swivels between both – sort of.    The work begins with one instrument, the other joins in pretty quickly, they alternate with bewildering rapidity and are joined by a drum sequencer about 4/5ths of the way to the end.   Even with the score and a pretty decent sound system, I found this hard to follow; after an orthodox start, the player seemed to be following  general contours and, although I knew two keyboards were involved, both timbres combined so that the desired result was achieved and perceptions twisted into a pretzel shape.   You’re not exactly bamboozled but your sense of shape is left in disarray.   Still, Harvey is noted for his individuality: not just putting a fresh lick of paint on works, but indulging in a spot of angle-grinding and radical planing as well; if he wants to do so in his own constructs, it’s essentially his call.

This work is dedicated to Hobart lawyer Craig Mackie.  The unkind among us might see the work as a reflection of the twisting and mental contortions that the practice of law requires, or the necessity on the part of a successful legist to keep several balls in the air simultaneously, never mind about juggling them.   Harvey admires Mackie, not least for his representation of Astro Labe aka DJ Funknuckl who was charged with head-butting then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott on September 21, 2018, for which act the penalty was 6 months’ jail with a minimum of two.   It might be an over-reach, giving Astro Labe the sobriquet of Lionheart, especially as the assault was not occasioned by Abbott’s disregard of the national majority’s feelings concerning marriage equality or by any other of the Prime Minister’s blind spots in social logic, but rather by a general sense of offence caused through the presence of the man himself – rather like the reactions among the population of Cobargo when Scott Morrison showed up.   Would you headbutt him, though?   Well, I wouldn’t take on an Oxford Boxing Blue, especially if you were stupid enough to square up to him properly.   Giving a Liverpool kiss might have satisfied your sense of hubris taken down, but it’s not brave.

The piece itself is mainly an electric piano solo; another of Harvey’s rhythmically compulsive drives, mainly in 7/16 with forays into 4/4, and it hurtles past with superlative performance finesse.   An ad lib short break for synthesizer drums is interrupted by two tritone-forming trumpet notes in the distance, and a high trill before a synthesizer bass explosion and, finally, the sound of a bird tweeting.   It’s obviously a tribute to the titular hero and may reference his DJ career; as a character study, it proves inviting but inscrutable.   Recorded at a live performance, the bird-song conclusion raised some laughter.

That deals with the first disc; the second is all collaborations, the first of them the variant on Kleinsinger’s Tubby the Tuba.   In its original form, the work was a piano/tuba duet, but here the brass instrument is a baritone horn (Simon Reade) which manages the original line with a few octave transpositions.   Its opening suggests The Star Spangled Banner but that melodic contour disappears quickly as the work follows its sevenfold path: Come un imbecille; Ritmico, ma come una personna che non sa ballare; Twittare a mezzanotte; Rubato, osservato una giovane donna; Pesante, inferocito; A tempo, i farmaci per i cappelli stanno funzionando di nuovo; Coda, la vendetta di Melania. Some of these divisions live up to expectations; most are impenetrable, like the last section of all.  To ram home the message, Trump slogans – Fake news, Grab ’em by the pussy, Bad fire-fighter – are called out at certain points.   But the satirical intent remains obscurely expressed.   Not to mention the difficulty in finding material in a person who is a booby beyond the comprehension of Dryden and a yahoo mentality that might have confounded Swift.  As America is finding out with each passing day, the reality cannot be satirized: imitation is the only coping mechanism.

More serious intentions underpin Gestalt Climate where human interference with nature to the latter’s destruction is epitomized in the adjunction of two separate but internally connected sets of material.   Harvey performs a version of his own Module Fugue in which the various elements are revisited, sometimes literally.    In opposition (?) to this stream, Teniswood-Harvey imposes 3, 4 and 5 note chords (the first comprises the B, F and E source mini-row of the earlier work) and isolated interjections derived from the Module Fugue.  This might have worked more effectively if the second piano part had been more assertively written; as things stand here, Harvey wins all the attention, playing a mobile, dynamically volatile role while his partner is subsumed into the welter.

The pianos are treated as independent, although their parts are spelled out.  In the piece’s centre, they operate on different time metrics, so that the first piano occasionally waits for the other instrument to reach some sort of tempo parity.   Not that this matters too much as little relief is built into the first piano’s part.   Indeed, the temporal disjunction serves as a clear sign of the composer’s main proposal to do with ‘the concept of Gestalt prägnanz‘, so that the message comes across in aphorisms rather than paragraphs, especially as the work reaches its final stages.   While its premise is laudable –  to expound the huge problem between what we do and what we need to do  –  I’m left in an interpretative bind: the state of affairs presents as fast as well as furious, which could be the march of progress turned into helter-skelter, and the countermeasure speaks with inexorability as a possible triumph of nature or a Big-Bang Apocalypse.  Harvey’s work speaks in a language that is vital and anxious to a high degree; an uncomfortable if salutary experience.

Jon Lord’s name means very little to me and, I’d suggest. my generation.   His work is very close to Harvey’s heart; the Australian pianist gave the English composer’s solitary piano concerto its premiere performance in 2003.   In Deus est Fabula (God is a fable, Lord is a legend – take your pick), violinist Murphy and clarinettist Grice work work in very close quarters with Harvey through a score that has some of the most complex rhythmic structures and displacements I’ve seen since early Stockhausen.   The major part is as closely argued as you could wish, with some intervening duets for the viola/clarinet combination, and some splashy solos for Harvey.

By this stage, you should be getting used to the composer/pianist’s inventive tropes:  smashing alternating-hands chords, sustained pedal washes of remarkable power, time signatures that favour semiquaver patterns, unusual groupings like quintuplets and septuplets, delight in imitative part-writing (sometimes even for piano in this score), directness of utterance with little room for mawkish self-examination, bursts of syncopation that suggest bebop but defy analysis (Brubeck with his Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk are Stone Age vintage compared to this).   The trio is divided into your classical four movements, in a way: yet the piece presents as one movement.  The first division is marked with the Satiesque Credulita, con rubato; then comes a more ordinary Moderato espressivo, followed by Ossessionato, winding up with an almost predictable Impietosamente.

In terms of material, Harvey writes that his trio is based on the first seven prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.    These numbers can certainly be found in the piece but are of little help in piecing together the work’s progress.  By the way, even a tyro at this game can see that the first three bars of solo piano contain all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.   What you hear is a strident sequence of declamations involving all three instruments in solo or combinations before an abrupt launch into one of the composer’s trademark ritmico passages, everybody loaded up with tempo and range problems before the Moderato is reached and the instrumental interplay becomes less angular.  A brief Infuriati explosion of one bar leads to the slow-moving Ossessionato where the pianist operates on the strings, the clarinet enters into this new world with multiphonics, while the violinist indulges in a bit of overpressuer or grating sound production.   The players eventually reach the final merciless section which lives up to its name by sustaining a sonorous barrage to the end.  You can hear – even if you have a very limited knowledge of Lord’s output – how Harvey  hymns the fiery determination and bravura of the rock organist’s performance, if here transmuted into something more complex and intellectually challenging.

Deus est Fabula, written in 2014, is the second-oldest piece in this collection of scores which come mainly from 2018 and 2019.   The oldest track is of Harvey’s celebrated 27-years old (can you believe it?) Toccata DNA – originally for piano, and soon after appearing in this trio format; the work was subjected to further revision three years ago.   On this pressing, the toccata is a triumph for all involved, a marvel of synchronicity and a startling internal transition from a simplicity that is almost tonal to detonations of agility from each sound source – which, in Peter Neville’s case, is quite a few.

In format, the piece follows the segmented tradition that stretches from Buxtehude to Khachaturian,    It opens with a flute-piano duet that sets up a semitone nexus and shortens its note values to increase the activity level until a unison segment with shifting time-signatures leads into the active second part, the marimba establishing a a fast pattern of sextuplets with the piano revisiting the grave semibreve/minim ambience of the opening bars.   A new phase, Flowing, brings all three instruments into play together in what eventually turns into an atonal chorale with florid, complex surrounds.  The work reaches its apex with an extended Giusto sequence, piano dominated and most exciting with its ostinato bass strides and right-hand clusters.

Harvey points to two sources for the toccata: the opening segments derive from the Art of Fugue as reinterpreted by organist Gerd Zacher;  the second part hales from territory claimed by the now-40-year-old group Einstürzende Neubauten, specifically the song Z.N.S. – you can find it on YouTube although its relevance to the toccata is difficult to perceive.  But then, even when you’re given pointers like these, you probably do best to take them as indicators that may not travel beyond the personal; for example, others see Bach but I see Boulez, or someone cites German industrial rock where you hear Mosolov.   If this information proves counter-productive, listen to this reading of the toccata and revel in its helically interweaving strands as well as the pin-point accuracy of the work’s executants.

To end, the quartet Aporia II moves us into a time-honoured realm, that of the controlled aleatoric.   The title refers to a state of doubt – not just about the nature of truth in philosophical discussions, but also to what you think is happening now.   Harvey’s performers divide into two tribes – percussion plus keyboard, and two keyboards –  who respond to an initial stimulus, in 2-minute time limits.   Now, it’s always worthwhile being aware of how something musical works, particularly in the vexed continuum of form.  But, as Schoenberg (if not his followers) insisted, you don’t have to bear this knowledge at the front of your mind when you listen; it’s primary information, but it’s not primary to the experience, pace Die Reihe and all who sailed in her.

What of Aporia I?   That’s the work title for Harvey’s Piano Sonata No. 3 of 2016, in which he attempted to deal with a form of this uncertainty principle.   By contrast, this present work tenders a bare-bones explication.  The piece has four sections – pianissimo, forte, pianissimo again, fortissimo leading to a brief coda that diminishes into silence.   The initial material for improvisation comprises the notes C, A, G, E, D which also provide the coda’s elements.   Section 2 introduces B, F and C sharp alongside the existing pentad.  Section 3 brings into play the missing notes from the chromatic scale: B flat, A flat, G flat and E flat, while Section 4 is a free-for all on all 12 notes.   The player’s entrances are staggered in each part, although all are involved at a bar’s distance (each bar is a 4-second unit) from the start.   It makes for a welcome mobility for the performers, and just as welcome a comprehensibility for the listener.

Aporia II makes for a clever conclusion to this album.   It’s the most ‘adventurous’ piece in the collection, reliant more than any other on the creativity of each performer, and it represents the most challenging foray by the composer into a field that is completely different to the other nine works that precede it, and it’s the most simply structured of them all as well.   There’s something of an open-air temper to Aporia II, even in Section 2 which brings to mind irresistibly the world of the gamelan, with a side-order of Debussy’s Pagodes.

My gratitude to Michael Kieran Harvey for his generous emailing of all the scores played on these two discs.   Allowing critics to have access to your work is a rare characteristic among contemporary composers.   It’s even worse with their interpreters.   My only previous experience of this generosity came from Daryl Buckley in the years when his Elision group was performing in Melbourne and from Peter Sculthorpe, fondly remembered.   This beneficence from Australia’s master-pianist made the act of reviewing his compositions a much more cogent enterprise than it could have been, no matter what you think of the results above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Re-released, at last

\WHAT IF A DAY OR A MONTH OR A YEAR

Gerald English, Jonathan Rubin, Sharyn Wiels

Move Records MD 3151

 

3151

 

This CD was recorded in Ormond Chapel at the University of Melbourne in mid-July 1979.   Scheduled for release as an LP, the pressing did not proceed but was delayed until 1995 when Move issued it as a CD.   Here it is again, remixed and edited by the company’s recording elder statesman, Martin Wright.   English and fellow artists Jonathan Rubin and Sharyn Wicks offer 26 tracks – 18 vocal, 6 for lute solo, 2 instrumental duos.   Some of the pieces are familiar to anyone with a smattering of interest in English composition at the time of Elizabeth I and her successor: Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, Sorrow, stay and Can she excuse my wrongs; Campion’s Shall I come, sweet love, to thee and It fell on a summer’s day; Robert Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse.

As master of the genre, Dowland’s work is well represented with six ayres and The Frog Galiard arranged for the two instruments.  Another major contributor is Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, who scores five vocal contributions and one pavan.   Thomas Campion, Dowland’s rival in the solo song stakes, is heard in four ayres, Robert Jones in three.   The remainder is all instrumental: Anthony Holborne’s The night watch (the other work for lute and gamba), the anonymous  Robin and Lord Zouch, his march for solo lute, and three pieces by Francis Cutting – Gig, Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan, and A toy.   Most of the tracks are brief in length.   The longest song is Dowland’s 4’22” In darkness let me dwell; the briefest, Ferrabosco’s Fain I would, but O I dare not at a minute; the most substantial instrumental offering is Cutting’s Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan – the longest track on the disc at 6’22” – and the fastest is Cutting’s A toy at 0″42″.   The whole thing comes out at about 63 minutes in length.

So much for the content.  The two instrumentalists I haven’t come across but, as I understand, they both went to Europe  (Switzerland?) to further their careers, getting married along the way.  Distinguished tenor Gerald English graced these shores for some years, most notably as Director of Opera Studies at the Victorian College o\f the Arts in the 1980s, as well as appearing in all styles of work.   I think he was part of the Deller Consort that toured here in the early 1960s – probably in 1964, appearing in Melbourne as an offshoot of a larger engagement at the Adelaide Festival of that year.  The ensemble sang in Wilson Hall and I was part of a student contingent that had seats on the stage.  The timing is right for English to have been a member but, at a distance of 55-plus years, I can’t be certain.

And as for his appearances in Melbourne, I was present at very few: possibly an early or Baroque opera; The Diary of One who Vanished at the 1992 Melbourne International Festival  –  days when the festival was worth attending for its music content; a one-off appearance  st the Assembly Hall in Collins St for the Chamber Made organization, or is that a completely stuffed-up instance of failing memory?   At all events, I saw him in audiences more often than I heard him: a great pity and I am apparently one of the few among my acquaintance who was not exposed to his high tenor on numerous occasions.

As nearly everyone has said already, English’s voice was a highly individual one; in my mind, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other for its note-centredness, impressive rapidity of negotiation, flawless diction, and unabashedly ‘forward’ projection.   As you can hear in this British music, nothing is lost or thrown away as incidental; dealing with works of this transparency, the tenor knew the value of every scrap of music.  And the most admirable element – one that distinguishes English from his peers – is the lack of ponderousness, self-importance, or ego.

Of the  six Dowland songs, pride of place goes to In darkness let me dwell, the tenor splendidly counterweighted by lute and gamba as he picks his way through the semper dolens melody without going in for over-emphasis, even at hellish jarring sounds; still, he does get a tad agitated in O let me living die and the pointedness of the line Till death do come stands as a lesson in subtle deliberation, albeit in miniature.   Were every thought an eye is rarely sung, possibly for its four-square shape although the internal syncopations and delays/emphases keep you slightly on the qui vive; all is fine except those emphatic three notes at the end of some stanzas.   English takes some pleasure in delicately emphasizing the syncopations during Can she excuse my wrongs, but you would wait a long while before you came across a singer who can despatch the final quatrain of both stanzas with such equanimity, making the awkward disjunction between words and music dissipate.

Sorrow, stay is given without gamba and the lucidity of texture is remarkable.   In this brilliantly conceived song, where the composer’s musical responses are potentially predictable yet seem inevitable, judged to a gloom-laden nicety, the interpretation puts forward motion at its centre; no languishing, no lingering is allowed to interrupt the work’s movement to a quiet despair.   Not quite the other side of the lover’s coin but a more optimistic setting of the same themes of death and love, Me, me and none but me – the second Dowland song without gamba – comes across as an amiably asymmetric construct with an easy fluency that should have appealed to Sting during his brief flirtation with Dowland’s music; alas, no: more taxing masterpieces attracted the British pop star’s attention, to nobody’s benefit.   The final piece by this composer, Lady, if you so spite me, is more ornate than the other Dowland pieces: a fanciful flight to toy with the sexual specificity of the text and a fine example of English’s breath control in the last plangent line.

One of Campion’s most well-known ayres gives this CD its title, a setting for voice and lute alone.   This is an ideal vehicle for English as the poem is articulated with remarkable clarity, lacking the pliability of metre common in this writer’s great contemporary.   What impresses most is the rhythmic heft that both performers give to a simple construct without making any obvious effort.   Shall I come, sweet love, to thee (another voice/lute performance) is missing its middle stanza but the reading makes you believe that the straightforward passage of the first four lines is continued in the following two lines of each sextet – and what a splendid, fitting ritardando at While these cold nights freeze me dead.

English and Rubin reach one of the highpoints of this disc at Campion’s I care not for these ladies which is given with a gentle swagger, particularly in the final couplet of each stanza where the singer avoids the predictable with a foreshortening of specific syllables to unsettle expectations of the four-square.   Its flavour is bucolic and slightly racy, but the delivery is ideally polished.    The most challenging of this set of four selections arrives with It fell on a summer’s day where the metre is displaced in the central lines, and then Campion adds on extra length in the final repeated verses.   Not that you’d know it; the lute and gamba work is as smooth and unflustered as English’s poised delivery which is, again, of some more-than-suggestive lines couched in exquisite lyricism.

Ferrabosco, younger or elder, are – for me – names in a catalogue of Tudor/Jacobean composers, but I would need less fingers than those available on one hand to recall the times when I heard music by either father or son.    So this CD does a service in bringing into context a small sample of the later family member’s work.   The influence of Dowland is evident; not just in subject matter, which is common to all – love and death – but the development of elongated lines in the best of these pieces strikes me as similar if not as idiosyncratic as in the senior writer’s songs.

Fain I would, but O I dare not is a fine example of varying musical line-length to cope with a sestet that is unexceptional in its scansion.   As expected, English smooths out the irregularities so that the piece – one minute long, even with a repeated final couplet – has a fluency of motion in text and music where nothing is wasted even if the inferential level complicates your assimilation or reception of the material.   With Donne’s The Expiration (So, so leave off this last lamenting kiss),  Ferrabosco strikes a fine balance between celebration and resignation: the lovers have to part but the leave-taking is conceit-rich, if not studied.   English and his colleagues ignore the temptation to droop but carve the work into a slow dance of inveigling grace.

In the same vogue, Shall I seek to ease my grief is concerned with a similar sense of loss, although the feeling is clearly one-sided.   There is little relief here, not even the fetching image of Eros shooting a Parthian dart at the wailing lover.   But English brings an unsentimental pathos to the final lines where the singer/poet is looking forward to the grave – or are we to go back to the Eng. Lit 1 re-interpretation where ‘dying’ means something else entirely?    Another rueful lament at falling out of love comes in Unconstant love, which operates in a higher tessitura than nearly everything else on the disc and where English’s voice suffers from some raspiness –  not on the top note; just one or two below it, and not all the time.    Like hermit poor, with its dour repeated-note first lines, is yet another mini-ode to disappointed love.   It doesn’t follow the monochromatic path set at its opening but walks its despairing way with occasional flights of vocal self-indulgence.   This is a polished performance which – as in so many of these songs – displays the composer’s innate fastidiousness; operating within a small palette of colours, yet presenting a unique emotional tableau in each.

The three songs by Robert Jones are apparently simple but ask for a wide-ranging technical equipment from both singer and lutenist – yes, the gamba is present but not as challenged. In Sweet, if you like and love me still, the opening quatrain is simple enough, but the following lines in each stanza are incident-packed with unexpected pauses and sustained notes, along with a few pronunciation oddities – well, they seem so to this untutored ear.   In amiable words and music, the song warns the beloved that the singer/poet/composer is not prepared to tolerate rivals.   But the mooted displeasure comes out of a landscape that is mild and insouciant: it’s a take-it-or-leave-it world here. A more regretful tone comes in Shall I look to ease my grief?, a companion piece to the Ferrabosco song Shall I seek to ease my grief: both composers set the same anonymous text but English has chosen different verses from the original to use as his second stanza. The Jones song moves in a triple metre for four verses, then jumps into a duple rhythm for the final line.  The text is doom-laden – What remains but only dying? – but the setting of these words is frisky.   Not that the performers treat it off-handedly but the impression is that this lover is singing for effect.

The last song on the CD is Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse where, possibly for reasons of space, the third stanza is omitted: a pity, as it finishes off the poem with a more overt direction to the listener (the singer, or poet, or composer, or you) to stop any self-torture. The message is a nice conclusion to all that has come before: don’t get upset at disappointment because the nature of love is unpredictable.  Jones’ setting is simple: most of the melody is step-wise and just asks for beauty of timbre – which you get throughout this disc in spades.

The eight instrumental pieces range from less than a minute to the CD’s two longest tracks.   Two solo lute pieces by Francis Cutting – A toy and Gig – are in simple AABB form and are over before you’ve settled in to them; I’ve heard both as guitar solos for intermediate students but Rubin plays them with an attractive piquancy.  The same composer’s substantial Mrs Anne Markham’s Pavan employs a very refined language, the dance’s stately progress disrupted by several ornate flights of semiquavers, although the player omits one of these about 5 or six ‘bars’ from the end.    Added to which, a few notes – three, at least – do not ‘carry’ well in these small fioriture chains.

Another slight product is Anthony Holborne’s The Night Watch, one of the lute and gamba duets.    It’s a simple march in AABBCC format with a sprightly opening gambit, assuredly more suggestive of the city waits in a British town than of Rembrandt’s vain-glorious military officers.   The other duet is The Frog Galiard by Dowland with the bass line given a semi-pizzicato treatment.   This famous piece that brings up memories of the composer’s Now, o now, I needs must part song, is a test of the lutenist’s dexterity; Rubin manages most of the divisions neatly enough, only a handful of notes not registering.

A Ferrabosco pavan is the second-longest piece on offer and one of the finest things on this collection.    Rubin’s colour shadings, his linear clarity and adoption of an unruffled pace all contribute to a fine account of a work that is not long on flashiness but loaded with powerful sentiment.   The two anonymous pieces are Lord Zouch, his march which Rubin performs with a keen eye for rhythm; not as rapid in his attack as some interpreters but better able to handle the decorated repeats with near-faultless clarity.  The other is Robin – which I believe is also/better known as Robin is to the greenwood gone.   Another formally simple piece, the approach is as restrained as other interpreters, but Rubin again distinguishes himself by keeping the work’s fluency as paramount, not indulging in an overt exhibition of skill in handling its difficulties.

I suppose the intention of this re-release was to summon up the memory of a fine singer who gave a good deal to this country through his teaching and the exercise of his skills.  We have few enough records of English’s years in Australia; this disc is a happy demonstration of his craft in a field where he shone – not eclipsing his peers, but standing in their front rank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time present and time past

MUSIC FROM 4 TO 40 PARTS

Vaughan McAlley

Move Records MD 3437

3437

I’ve been watching and hearing tenor Vaughan McAlley sing for the past 200 years, as a member of groups like the Ensemble Gombert and the Choir of the Collins St. Scots’ Church, as well as observing him cope with roles as hefty as Bach’s Evangelists.  He has also been a long-time producer and sound engineer for Move Records.  But I believe that this CD represents my first experience of his work as a composer; it contains a large number of those compositions ascribed to him on the Australian Music Centre’s web-site.

Most of the music is vocal/choral with relieving forays into part of McAlley’s String Quartet of 2015 and the complete Four Chorale Preludes for Piano, written for Michael Kieran Harvey.   While the majority of this CD’s non-instrumental  tracks comprise a cappella singing, a few involve some slight instrumental support – a recorder here, a string quartet there.   On paper, it looks like a considerable miscellany; in actuality, the disc’s totality represents a backward move – some centuries back, in fact.

The first offering is a setting for 5 voices of Christina Rossetti’s A Birthday, written for the wedding of Kate McBride and Tom Reid who take top and bottom lines respectively in this work.  We are plunged into the world of Renaissance polyphony which suggests both English madrigals and something more Continental  –  not Josquin, as McAlley’s annotation implies, but something further south.  It’s a well accomplished composition, with loads of vocal mobility; it’s just that it seems odd  –  a Tudor soundscape to underpin a Romantic poem.

Track 2 is A Madrigal, which uses words by Alexander Pope that have been set by a more well-known composer.  Where’er you walk is written for 4 voices and is another piece that straddles several practices and schools.  By now, you become aware of a tendency in the composer’s writing to give great exposure to his soprano or top line, sometimes suggestive of Allegri stratospherics.   Again, the polyphony is efficient and the standard of performance competent; which you’d expect with the composer being one of the participants.

To Rosamounde, a balade uses a Chaucer text, setting for 8 voices one of the poem’s three stanzas.   This work, full-bodied in character and one of the disc’s most two monumental constructs, is performed by the Ensemble Gombert conducted by John O’Donnell and it brings back memories of that group’s richly rewarding recitals held at Xavier College Chapel for many years.  The stanza octet is set lucidly with both the linear meshing and the interplay sensible, utilising compositional devices with admirable facility.  McAlley has added an optional extra, a coda for 18 voices to the last line, Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce, which is suggestive of Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and  –  of course  –  Tallis.  At this multiphonic point, the words become meaningless because the vocal complex becomes an end in itself.  The effect is sumptuous, the massive piling up of individual voices most impressive to aurally bathe in.   My only difficulty is that the setting loses its link with the English poet’s chirpy teasing.

The chorale preludes in Harvey’s hands are a delight.  There is no way a contemporary composer dealing in this form can avoid the shadow of Bach and McAlley makes no attempt to do so.   The first essay takes the melody of Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit and puts it in the centre of a contrapuntal web, weaving a soprano line in triplets and a solid bass that begins in measured pace but then enters more fully into the action, taking over the soprano triplets to underpin the complex; the work comes to a broad, Busoni-like conclusion   The melody is at the top for Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr’ with a quirky five-note motif dodging around the entire keyboard’s range and offering a jerky complement to the simple melody line.   Heilig, heilig, heilig also keeps the chorale tune in the soprano, while underneath is a susurrus of arpeggios that bring to mind a Chopin study or six, as well as Schumann’s Widmung.    O Lamm Gottes unschuldig has the tune in a soprano-tenor canon within a slow repeated chord backdrop.  McAlley concludes this piece with a fugue and the hymn tune floating above/inside it, which strikes me as a reflection of the opening chorus to the St, Matthew Passion where the children singers come in with this same tune above the ferment of Komm, ihr Tochter.

Harvey invest his wide-ranging sympathy and superlative technique into these works, handling the splayed chord moments carefully but maintaining each prelude’s forward motion and realising the appealing gravity in three of the four.   My references to Busoni and the others are not meant to be derogatory or emphasize any derivativeness; this set of four piano pieces  is situated in a compositional ambience that clearly appeals to McAlley and he inhabits it comfortably, able and deft in manipulating its tropes even if he shows little interest in pursuing Bach off-road into his more taxing chromatic labyrinths.   Further assisting in their success, Harvey’s interpretations are both masterful and compelling.

The musical language moves back further for the next work, a setting for 5 voices of three verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  Again, you sense the debt to Tallis, down to the opening identifying sentence and setting of the verses’ initial Hebrew words. A few unexpected modulations or discords  –  for example in the second sentence, the setting of individual words like moverunt and  Samech   –   interrupt an otherwise conventional harmonic scheme.

With the Lento from a string quartet written in 2015, you might be forgiven for thinking that McAlley has simply moved his writing wholesale from vocal to instrumental, given the slow chorale nature of the opening strophes   As the movement progresses, you get the same impression of careful voice-leading: all that’s missing are words.   Then pizzicati appear above a rephrasing of previous melodic material, until the plucking takes over completely.   In the last segment, McAlley returns to the chorale movement of the opening with silences to punctuate the phrases, moving the instruments into their top ranges before shifting to a low-level, brief coda.   The Four Seasons Quartet – violins Sunkyoung Kim and Helen Bower, viola Phoebe Green, cello Nora Brownrigg – give a committed reading of this score which comes across as something of a hodgepodge, despite its economy of melodic material.

It’s back to the Renaissance for In principio erat verbum, a setting of the first two and the 14th verses of Chapter 1 to the Gospel of St. John; familiar to Catholics of a certain age who would recall each Mass being concluded with this Biblical extract (and the intervening verses) as the final prayer in that liturgy.   Once again, this is a conventional work with few surprises except that insistence on isolating the soprano above the ruck.  I will lift up mine eyes uses the first four verses of Psalm 121 and calls for a soprano  soloist (Kate McBride) and string quartet (violins Rachael Hunt and Rachel Garner, viola Shani Williams, cello Alison Both).   It begins with yet another Bachian reminiscence: a siciliano instrumental figure before the voice enters.   The composer is at some pains to exercise McBride’s  highest notes; that’s fine, except that eventually you cannot understand a word in the outer sections of this da capo aria, the singer having one of those ‘English’ sopranos which is accurate enough but sexless and owning very little vibrato.k

Back to imitative polyphony for Lord, you have been our dwelling place which employs McAlley’s favoured combination of five a cappella voices.  The setting is more dramatic than its predecessors, in its central passage becoming very like Anglican chant, with a later strophe for solo voice,  and a moderately active fugal ending.   A solo recorder prefaces and gives an obbligato line (a bit of a distraction, in fact) to the four singers of The Lord bless you and keep you, which is mainly a chorale, the piece progressing for the most part in block chords.

For his 40th birthday, the composer proposed to organise a performance of the Tallis 40-part anthem Spem in alium  –  which may have actually occurred (I wasn’t invited)  –  but he was advised by friends to write his own piece.   Exactly why he took their advice remains unclear, but he did and came up with Omnes angeli: two verses from that primer for mystics and crazies, the Book of Revelation.   A performance of this construct took place on October 26, 2013, given by an expanded Ensemble Gombert under John O’Donnell; which group at the same event also took on the Tallis gem and Robert Carver’s 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium.   This CD’s last track is a recording, made on that date under the dome at 333 Collins St. Melbourne, of McAlley’s huge work which, like its Tallis inspiration, hits the listener as something of an aural onslaught.

The opening is clear enough as the various choirs interweave and set up a picture of the angels falling down before the Throne in worship.   All 40 lines come together to excellent effect at the first Amen.   For the motet’s second part, the texture is almost continuously massive so that the evangelist’s words of praise become a sonorous melange with a few thinner oases before the explosion which is a sort of extended vocal fantasia on a concluding Amen!    Tallis wrote for eight 5-part bodies; McAlley for ten 4-part groups – but detecting the difference in weight would require finer ears than mine.  I can hear some insecure voices in patches of the first half of Omnes angeli but these are soon forgotten when you’re faced with the sumptuous power of the work’s later pages which give a remarkable aural realization of angelic jubilation.

Quite an achievement, getting all these works down on CD.   McAlley himself sings tenor in half of the tracks; Kate McBride’s soprano is heard in nine; her bass husband, Tom Reid, and McAlley’s wife, alto Leonie Tonkin (who provides the recorder for The Lord bless you and keep you), participate in six.    The composer/singer’s dedication to his task is admirable.  But, in the end, you have to wonder whether this recreation of a long-gone style of composition is leading anywhere – or even whether it should.   To my mind, this recording is something of a curio: pleasant to hear, tasteful and well-crafted in its elements even if some of the interpretations are rough around the edges.  A tribute to the musical past by recreating it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attractive version of a Schubert landmark

 

 

 

WINTER JOURNEY/WINTERREISE

Nathan Lay and Brian Chapman

Move Records MCD 594

Winter Journey

 

Here is a considerable undertaking.  Baritone Nathan Lay and pianist Brian Chapman have recorded Schubert’s superlative song-cycle in two languages, the English translations by Chapman himself.   As well, the CD booklet incorporates illustrations by the accompanist’s wife Lucy – one picture per lied, the art designated by its creator as Nature Surrealism.   About this aspect of the product, I feel incapable of offering any meaningful appraisal; any fool can see the obvious relationships between Muller’s poems and the artist’s works, especially if you consider the schizophrenic nature of the narrator’s self-descriptions.   As far as I can tell, Lucy Chapman is not attempting a profound delineation of each lied‘s emotional content but an illustration of each poem’s main features or dominant motives.  Enough of that; it certainly makes for a colourful booklet, even if you can carp at the artist’s personality-less depiction of Muller’s protagonist as a black silhouette (see the album’s cover above).

Lay is not a known quantity to me although his career should have brought him into view through his activities with Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.   But I can’t place him.   Chapman I’ve heard several times, mainly at the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival and on Louisa Hunter-Bradley’s CD of this very same Schubert cycle, released 14 years ago.

This Lay/Chapman enterprise has many attractions, the chief one being the excellent relationship between the artists which shows an unflagging empathy at work throughout both versions of the 24-part sequence.   You’d expect a note-perfect rendition of each page these days, given the powers of recording studios to mask technical flaws.   But you don’t expect to come across a consistent meeting of interpretative minds such as you find here.   Yes, there’s a temptation to put the credit for this at Chapman’s door, given his years of chamber music experience and status as a top-class accompanist.   But that would detract from the baritone’s clear, consistently lyrical line which, if it’s not at the rich timbral level of formidable male Schubert singers who graced the last century, is as satisfying and rewarding as comparable performances from his contemporaries in this country.

The English version starts impressively with a carefully measured reading of Gute Nacht, the interpretation melancholy, not doleful and gifted with some eloquent piano detail work in the interludes.   The following Die Wetterfahne speaks clearly enough, although the ritenuti and fermata points seems to be  weighty.   Gefror’ne Tranen comes across with similar lucidity, the climactic final line impressively determined as Schubert treats one of Muller’s wettest poems.  A certain gentlemanliness restricts the impact of Erstarrung which makes its points with a sort of polite vigour.   Then, Der Lindenbaum is a complete success, both performers carving a clear arc through the lied‘s narrative with a melting-moment resignation in the final sixth verse.

Chapman’s annotation for Wasserflut refers to the 1963 version by Pears and Britten where the interpreters ironed out the dotted-quaver-semiquaver pattern that permeates the song, breaking both voice and piano lines down to convenient and congruent triplets.   The controversy must have passed me by, although I’m sure it caused a sensation in Schubertian circles and apparently brought out the progressive in Alfred Brendel and the conservative in Gerald Moore.   On the English-language disc, Lay and Chapman opt for the Pears/Britten treatment; on the German one, the musicians perform the score as written.   Storm in a teacup?   Probably, unless you’re a stickler for the written word/note.

I once heard a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music proclaim in an eventually aimless, and therefore useless seminar that a composer’s score is really a palimpsest, with the obvious inference that an interpreter should have the right to do her/his best/worst, if necessary wiping the compositional slate clean.  It’s a hard question on which to pontificate but I must confess to being moved to fury territory by performances that play blurring tricks similar to the Pears/Britten example with Baroque and Classical works.   In this case, the song necessarily becomes less fraught emotionally in the last line of the even-numbered verses.  The only irritating factor was Chapman’s use of that translator’s admission of defeat: the word ‘perforce’.

For Auf dem Flusse, the duo presents another persuasive account with a steady growth from calm meditation to powerful declamation over one of the cycle’s more gripping piano parts.   Lay makes an impassioned business of Ruckblick, shaping the rapid-moving sentences with  a welcome lack of rigidity.  Another unexpected move comes from Chapman in the second-last bar where my edition brings the heretofore alternating chords together but the pianist maintains the disjunction that obtains throughout the rest of the piece.   The split character of Irrlicht, the composer deliberately tamping down the text’s possibilities, is handled with unexpected brightness, the usual dark-timbre colours not stuffed down your throat.  The ensuing version of Rast impresses for its intensity, although the last two lines are hard to grasp in this translation.

Two out of the three segments in Fruhlingstraum come off successfully; you might have expected more bite in the middle ‘crowing cockerels’ verses.   At the cycle’s half-way point, Einsamkeit continues the Werther-like self-absorption of poet and composer; in this particular song, Lay sounds remarkably convincing, his dynamic depth not extreme and his vocal personality suitably youthful.   I’d be the last to dismiss the narrator’s dejection as essentially adolescent – his blighted love is unassailably cogent and continuous.   But the Winterreise world is emphatically that of a young man, not a character full of years and experience.

A few cracks appear in Die Post, like some blurred chords in the softer accompaniment passages and a forced quality to the leap from C sharp to E in the second and third-last bars of the vocal line.   A touch more difficult to accept is Lay’s characterisation during  Der greise Kopf which sounded more like dismay than appalled self-recognition.   Both artists produce a satisfying reading of Die Krahe, the whole carried out with a calm anguish from the voice and an untroubled inevitability from the keyboard.

The collaboration again works to excellent effect in Letzte Hoffnung where the abrupt turns of mood come across without jarring, the short song rounded off with an insightful depiction of optimism rooted in despair.  The following Im Dorfe shows requisite spine, although Lay’s best passage comes with the retraction of defiance beginning at Je nun. Chapman holds little back in Der sturmische Morgen, crowding his singer out of the picture during the Und rote Feuerflammen stanza; mind you, there’s little room for Lay to achieve anything substantial  in this bold-speaking brevity.  You know, by the time the cycle reaches Tauschung that every suggestion of lilting happiness is an illusion but you’d be working hard to find a sign of it from these artists; an interlude without depth it seems here, not helped by Chapman’s use of the odd noun ‘perambulation’ in the admittedly awkward second half of the first quatrain.

Nearing the end, Schubert asks a good deal more of his interpreters.  Der Wegweiser taxes the singer with yet another steadily rhythmic set of phrases that gradually decrease in motion until a mournful full stop – a path that Lay invests with an appealing innocence that falls just short of the innate suggestions of dread.   During Das Wirtshaus, Chapman carries all before him with a fine account of the prelude, postlude and interpolations, each note in every chord sounding clearly and in balance. – which is not to ignore the baritone’s emphatic declamation over Schubert’s final lines.

The surge out of desolation that is projected in Mut! –  a pause in the poet’s downward spiral – appears as unwieldy in this reading as in most others, with its rousing school-song echoes; Lay and Chapman play a straight bat here, not looking for any biting irony.  In the concluding brace, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann, musicians are presented with differing-but-similar visions: the first, symbolic regret; the second, a spiritual nihilism of extraordinary honesty.   Both enjoy exemplary airings, the last track of this English language CD an alternative version of Der Leiermann    Well, not that different:  Chapman simply omits the final resolving bar, leaving this Muller-Schubert enterprise hanging.

What of the German version?  Suddenly, we’re at home.   It’s not that you have to work hard to decipher Muller’s language  –  nobody would call it simple  –   but even a rudimentary knowledge of German enables you to glean clues all the way through.  Does the move back to original material change the cycle significantly?    Well, yes, it does.  For instance, Lay’s production doesn’t alter in his second-disc Gute Nacht, but the emphasis across phrases becomes more logical or appropriate, particularly in the major key move for the last stanza.    During Die Wetterfahne, the interpretation gains from an influx of initial plosives.  Erstarrung, too, becomes much more gripping and emotionally fraught in its later stretches.   Listening to the English disc, I noticed Chapman’s slight arpeggiations – no, disjunctions – at the start of some odd-numbered bars in his interludes for Der Lindenbaum; here, details like that and a punctilious observance of note-values are just as enriching to the lied‘s fabric the second time around.

The change brought about by working through Wasserflut as originally written is the establishment of a tension between voice and piano that makes the experience more aurally disturbing.   It also appears to add an aggressive undercurrent, while also seeming to slow down the tempo, although the booklet information has the German two seconds shorter than the English reading.    Indeed, the only noteworthy temporal discrepancies between the discs come with Einsamkeit which is longer in German and the cycle’s final Der Leiermann which is somewhat longer in German than in either of the English tracks.

Further on, I was again gripped by the passion of Ruckblick – a world of hurtling angst in such a brief space.   The triplet/dotted rhythm conflict that so exercised observers about Wasserflut is a bit of a moveable feast in Irrlicht: a peculiarity that I found in both discs.

Still not happy with Lay’s third leap at the end of Die Post but the second reading is, if anything, striking for Chapman’s genteel galloping.   More engrossing as a carefully considered interpretation is Letzte Hoffnung with a pliable but not over-distracting rubato applied in all sorts of places, regardless of the designated changes in tempo throughout this marvellous depiction of mutability in nature and the poet-musician’s spirits.    Even more in the original tongue, you can feel dissatisfied with Der sturmische Morgen for its light texture and those stretches where piano and vocal line progress in unison; a very moderate storm at work here until the  ego is inserted during the last couplet  –   another polite interpretation offered here as in the English disc.

A telling demonstration of the care taken in preparing this recording emerges in Der Wegweiser where Lay’s pauses for breath are finely gauged to make maximum sense of the poem’s scansion,  Chapman ever alert to the singer’s small-scale mobility.   The re-take of Mut! is resolute enough, but the vocal F Major arpeggio on the second sind wir selber Gotter! lacks ringing definition.   The baritone’s elegiac regret in Die Nebensonnen sounds even more striking here, and Der Leiermann walks a fine line between remoteness of observation and total self-identification, thanks to the pianist’s reserve and Lay’s capacity for muted plangency.

You’ll find much that satisfies in this double album, no matter whether you plump for total comprehension (Lay is admirably clear in both languages), or find it hard to hear old favourites in an unexpected garb, or are only content with readings as close to the original palimpsest as musicians can get.   No shocks await the listener on either disc and, even in the song-cycle’s less-inspired passages, Lay and Chapman’s well-crafted workmanship in performance is consistent and reliable.   It’s a most commendable exercise notable for its calm and unaffected reading of a lieder cornerstone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid and unchallenging

WHAT SHOULD I SAY

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 580

 

Elysian

 

First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events.   Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band.   Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument.  She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan.  I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.

So far, so fine.  What do you get for your money?   Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on.   In daring style, the Elysians begin with  settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting  –  that of Whoso list to hunt.   I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though.  The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall).   It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience.   I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine.  The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally.   That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.

What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings?  It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses.  For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track,  Stand Whoso list?   I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge.   The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings.  But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment.  The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.

But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite.  Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic.   Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax.   Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable.  Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.

Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey.  But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems.  It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling.   Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.

With  Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably.   Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions.   But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far.  It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.

Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD.   Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish.  It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former.   It’s taken me months to get through the CD without  becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously.   Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.

 

 

 

A lesson in guitar-playing

FOREST OF DREAMS

Callum Henshaw

Soundset Recordings  SR 1103

Callum Henshaw

Henshaw is a new name to me, although his main claim to local fame is winning the 2017 Melbourne International Concert Artist Guitar Competition.  As far as I can make out, this is his third recording and it covers an expansive territory, some of it concentrated on the near-contemporary.   He begins with a classic: Augustin Barrios’ Un Sueno en la Floresta; moves to Australian Phillip Houghton’s Stele Suite; follows with another Latin foray in Four Catalan Songs by Miguel Llobet.   Graeme Koehne’s A Closed World of fine feelings is listed in the Australian Music Centre’s catalogue as being written for voice, although its recorded performance from that same site seems to have been on carillon; Henshaw’s CD booklet claims the work was commissioned by Tim Kain who, last time I looked, was a guitarist.   Further, there seem to be two linked works in so far as one entry refers to the above title. while another adds on the phrase and grand design.  Yet another entry suggests the work is choral.  That’s the trouble if you start looking for definite information: confusion waits just around the corner.  Leo Brouwer’s Sonata del Decameron Negro follows; and the CD ends somewhat strangely in Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife.

Is there a theme running through thus collection?   Well, does there need to be?   We have a Paraguayan composer represented by a piece written before 1918; Houghton, a revered figure on the local guitar scene, wrote his four-movement work in 1989; Llobet’s collection of folk songs was collated somewhere between 1889 and 1935; Koehne’s composition in its guitar format dates from 1997;  Brouwer is Cuban and his sonata was written in 2012.  The Dow Lament – a sort of inbuilt encore –  comes post- 1805, when the lady in question, Margaret Urquhart, died, and pre-1807 in which year Scottish fiddler Gow himself yielded up the spirit.

Henshaw has a sensitive ear for the demi-semiquaver work that dominates the Barrios work, once the composer stops loitering around the outskirts of the forest and gets stuck into the canopy of filigree that carries most of his piece’s interest.   I lost the performer after the second repeat at bar 120, catching up a little further on; probably the fault of my edition.  Still, this isn’t enough to disconcert any listener who is hard pressed to carp at the performer’s negotiation of this bagatelle which paints a delicate representation of South American greenery –  a very civilized environment, from  this showing.

Houghton’s work has some Greek connections, as in the opening Stele which refers to ancient memorial stones for the dead, the precursors of our modern-day gravestones.  It’s a clear-cut composition with an inbuilt fluency of material, yet it summons up no particular image of Greek mini-monuments; nothing but a certain spartan texture. Dervish is a 6/8 prestissimo with a few percussive surprises along the whirling route.  I assume its title refers to the well-known Turkish mystics although Houghton’s character is more of a will-o’-the-wisp than one of those stately clerics whose motion is hypnotic rather than frantic.   Bronze Apollo falls into two sections: Premonition, which is slow-moving, suggesting the silent eloquence of the god, and Arpeggio, which is just that – a basic pattern that increases its dynamic range if not much else.  A crescendo gives it propulsion but at the same time everything is measured, which is very Classical Greek, isn’t it?   Nothing in excess.   The final movement, Web, is another rapid moto perpetuo which builds its questing commentary over a repeated sextuplet pedal A.   I don’t know what Houghton was getting at here, although my mind automatically goes to the myth of Arachne; but, for all I know, he might have been referring to the state of pre-Pelopennesian War politics, or the proliferation of tourists throughout the Cyclades.  Whatever the case, the suite as an entity satisfies for its fluency and variety of colours, excellently brought into being by Henshaw’s deft talent.

Llobet’s folk-song settings are Canco del Lladre (The Thief’s Song),  El Mestre (The Teacher), L’Hereu Riera (The Riera Heir), and El Noi de la Mare (The Child of the Mother), the last of which was a Segovia special.   The first impresses for Henshaw’s subtle harmonics at bar 11, but even more so from bar 24 to 27 where, thanks to the composer’s skill and Henshaw’s delivery, they make melodic sense for once.   Even better follows in El Mestre, which is a model of elegance and clarity with no signs of that slovenly left hand work that disfigures movement along the fingerboard.   Henshaw doubles the length of L’Hereu Riera by playing it twice, which gives you the chance to relish his supple ornamentation that livens up a pretty straightforward setting.   Finally, El Noi is a simple lyric in a gently rocking 6/8 with the instrument’s lowest string tuned to provide a pedal D.

Koehne’s work is also in D Major with the lowest string again tuned down a tone.  A gentle ternary-shaped piece with a repetitive rising pattern of three chords in its outer sections with a more ‘filled-in’ central part that fleshes out the arpeggio shapes, this piece is calm and suggests nostalgia for a past world of simplicity and emotional candour.  It is, apparently, an elegy in which not much is being said, but the work offers an uncomplicated landscape without surprises.

The CD’s most substantial element is Brouwer’s sonata in four movements: Guijes y Gnomos (Elf-Goblins and Gnomes), Treno por Oya (Lament for the Goddess Oya), Burlesca del Aire (Burlesque of the Air Spirit), and La Risa de los Griots (Laughter of the African Story-Tellers).   Springing from an earlier work – El Decameron Negro of 1981 – this sonata’s first movement is based on a nervous alternation of major and minor 2nds that construct a mobile motif above chord work falling easily under the hand.  But it wouldn’t be Brouwer unless it had at least one eclectic touch; in this case, a quiet reversion to Renaissance lute sounds that begins a little after the 3 minute mark: an oasis of old-time certainty in the middle of modern-day nervous twitches.   For all I know, Brouwer could be citing a particular piece from that era; my knowledge of the repertoire has, alas, diminished with the years.

Oya is in charge of winds, lightning, storms, death and rebirth; quite enough for any deity to be getting on with.   Brouwer begins his mourning peacefully enough, moves into a habanera rhythm, which abruptly turns into a music of rapid-fire flurries with theatrical pauses and questioning hiatus points; the habanera returns, the activity momentarily rises and sinks away, while the delicate-stepping conclusion brings this schizoid lament – meditative and frenetic in turn – to a questioning conclusion.   As a scherzo, the Burlesca is ebullient in a muffled manner, packed with wry flourishes at either end and holding another surprise at about the 2-minute mark when the content moves into late 19th century Romantic guitar territory  –  just for a brief stretch but it serves to throw the brisk humour of its surrounds into high relief.    Brouwer’s finale is a rondo after a slow introduction.   It follows a simple enough format with two lengthy slower episodes and a slower-paced coda that rounds out the sonata with a sort of defiant flamboyance.   What it has to do with griots and their traditions is beyond me; with its sophisticated rhythmic chopping and changing, it suggests Latin America more than anywhere else.

But the sonata has an impressive vivacity throughout, Henshaw milking it of its timbral interplay with exemplary skill and that gift of insight which cuts to a composer’s particular chase without faltering,   It helps that the work is a gift for anyone brave enough to take it on; that’s not to lessen this interpreter’s insight and clear sympathy with its language and intent.

Finally, the Gow Lament rounds off proceedings.  This is a fine melody in two strophes, both of which Henshaw repeats and in the process shows himself a dab hand at slight inflections and quicksilver grace notes, informing the lyric with a generous vibrato in its warmer, lower-register moments.  I suppose it can be viewed as fitting in with the disc’s content through an expressive honesty and a chameleonic folk tint that emerges all over the place.   After the Brouwer with its acerbic harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, its naive orthodox simplicity serves as a sort of emotional solace.

 

No worries

 

CHROMATIC FLIGHT

Virginia Taylor and Simon Tedeschi

Move Records  MCD 582

 

Chromatic Flight

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The North is minor

SNOW IN SUMMER

Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584

 

Evergreen

 

Another no-frills product from Move, this disc comes in at almost exactly 45 minutes.  You hear 13 tracks  in total, four of them movements from sonatas by James Oswald, that lucky Scot who was Chamber Composer for George III and whose magnum opus, Airs for the Seasons, has each of its movements named after a different flower – in this case, Winter flowers: the snapdragon and the snowdrop, both scoring two movements.  The other mainstream work is a sonata for viola da gamba by Lorenzo Bocchi who doesn’t get a mention in my Grove but who is historically notable for bringing the cello to Scotland.   This particular sonata, No. 11 in D minor from Bocchi’s Op. 1, has been recorded on Hyperion by members of the Parley of Instruments.  For other Bocchi works, you won’t find much; there’s an arrangement of his Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough or ‘ye Irish Wedding‘ which comes from a collection of Hibernian tunes and has been recorded by Les Basses Reunies.

The rest of the tracks make up a pleasant collection with Scottish folk tunes dominating the mix: the Unst Boat Song, Tullochgorum, Ca’ the Yowes, Twist Ye, Twine Ye (Sir Walter Scott’s poem, music by James Scott Skinner, I think) and the CD’s title song which is a poem by Shane Lestideau, the Evergreen Ensemble’s director and baroque violinist, and the setting itself based on that venerable ground bass, La Folia.

Some deviations from the Caledonian come first.   Claire Patti, the Evergreen singer and Celtic harpist, works through Jag Vet en Dejhlig Rosa – a 16th century Swedish poem set much later by Alice Tegner, either to her own tune or a pre-existing folk tune. Then, alongside the Unst Boat Song comes Guldklimpen, another Swedish tune.  Later, at Track 5, we hear Old Ditty, a piece commissioned from Sydney composer Alice Chance and part of a larger collection – The Australian Baroque Sonatas Project which has the laudable aim of creating new works for period instrumentalists in Australia.

Apart from Lestideau and Patti, the other Evergreens are veteran Samantha Cohen alternating between theorbo and baroque guitar. with Jenny Eriksson providing the viola da gamba line.

Matters don’t get off to a reassuring start with the Swedish rose song.   Nothing wrong with Patti’s voice.   The first verse is pleasant enough, supported by Cohen on guitar and a plucked gamba bass, Lestideau eventually entering after the second verse which is given a swing beat from the instrumentals.  In fact Lestideau gets a solo flight based on the inoffensive melody and the effect is of a mournful Stephane Grappelli ensemble, the which is sustained throughout a third verse.  Why the need for this move to the world of the 1920s is beyond me.  The effect is unsettling’ so much so that you ask the question (internally): is there to be more of this?   Fortunately, there is not.

Track 2 is that Boat song from the northernmost Shetland Isle and it makes a nice pairing with its predecessor.   Patti sings the three verses and repeats the first over a pretty static accompaniment that is little more than a drone.   Lestideau leads from a variant of the melody into a Golden Nugget instrumental where the other players quickly join in the fun.   Well, ‘fun’ is an overstatement as the mood has been minor mode up to this point, the singing pure but uninflected, the violin emphatically free of vibrato and the harmonization free of complications and ambiguity.

The minor lifts for the tune Tullochgorum although the language is modal.  As for the base material, the only melody of this name I could find was pretty orthodox; Patti’s performance of  (presumably) John Skinner’s text – a mix of Highland and Lowland Scots with some English thrown in – is clear enough, even if the words retain their mysteries.  Lestideau elaborates on the tune with some Skinner variations before making a lateral turn into the well-known reel, De’il Amang The Tailors.

As far as I could see, the most affecting music on this disc came with Patti’s crystalline reading of Ca’ the Yowes where the moving melody gets well-worked over, if not as much as it could have.  The singer wanders gently through the title refrain three times, the latter two with Lestideau in gentle vocal support.  The verses come from Burns’ second version and Patti is eccentric in her sequencing: Verse 2, Verse 1 and then Verse 4 with a space in the middle for a violin variant.  Patti’s harp generates a fine contribution to the melancholy/bucolic atmosphere.

The final folk element on offer is an instrumental solo that has as its title the Scott poem Twist Ye, Twine Ye with music (probably) by the universal Skinner.  Again it’s minor in tonality, and Lestideau has her company move straight from this into her own Blooms Like Stars text sung over the Folia bass – and they don’t come more minor in flavour than that.  The pairing is quite successful, of a piece with the ruminative nature of many of the preceding tracks.

Oswald’s The Snap Dragon two-movement sonata is simplicity personified with all the running given to the solo violin line while guitar and gamba provide an underpinning to a surprisingly Scottish-sounding melody.   This is not development music; you get the tunes and they are repeated, scarcely modified.   A gentle andante is followed by a jig in which I think I can hear some harp notes seconding the violin in a few bars.

We are back in minor language for Oswald’s The Snowdrop which starts in F sharp but spends a good deal of time in the relative A Major.  As with The Snap Dragon,  development is minimal as the composer simply takes his instruments for a walk.  There is little local about the first movement; the second movement does involve the harp imitating the violin line and is a kind of cross between a 4/4 gigue and a gavotte.

Published in 1725, Bocchi’s gamba sonata is a four-square composition with some slight asymmetries in its stately first movement; the more rapid middle one is an ordinary enough binary piece with some relieving double stops.  Another slower movement concludes this rather unremarkable throw-back to a time when elegance and knowing one’s musical place were cardinal qualities.  Despite some strenuous efforts, I couldn’t find much here that brought to mind Scotland, Ireland or folk-music.

The cuckoo in this speckled nest is Chance’s Odd Ditty.  Again, we are in minor mode with a vocal line from Patti’s gentle spindrift soprano in play across accompaniment from the Evergreen violin and guitar.  The main interest throughout is the composer’s quirk of flattening certain notes to give a piquancy to textures and processes that are otherwise pretty standard.   It takes some effort to decipher the words which, I suspect, are by Chance herself, and which return several times to the catch-phrase ‘my oddity’.

At the end, you’re left wanting more extended tracks from this CD, as well as more information about the music itself.  Mind you, there are plenty of researchable avenues for the interested listener; you can spend hours tracing translations from the Swedish and the Norn tongue, let alone trying to learn more about shadowy figures like Bocchi and even Oswald.   However, these musicians know what they’re after in terms of style and interpretation and, while you don’t come away from this CD enthralled by your experience, you do enjoy exposure to the Evergreens’ gently unassuming enterprise.