Joyful stop-over on this long trip

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME

James Brawn

MSR Classics MSR1470

Brawn 6

Expatriate pianist Brawn is still in Shanghai during the COVID-19 pandemic but has managed to put out another volume in his series of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Following this one, there are 9 works left to be recorded, well under a third of the total. Here he is fleshing out the earlier numbers in the catalogue with No. 4 in E flat Major, No. 11 in B flat Major and No. 12 in A flat Major; so he has completed all on the master-sheet from No. 1 to No. 12. After this, the pianist has a fair task in seeing out Nos. 13, 16, 18 and 22 as well as the colossal final bracket from Sonata 28 to the ne plus ultra Op. 111.

This CD is a noticeably sunny collection, apart from the grim Eroica practice piece in the A flat work, and even that slow-moving threnody manages to sound jubilant in places. Brawn has a firm grasp of the excited undercurrent that lies at the base of the opening Allegro of the E flat Sonata Op. 7. Actually, there’s nothing ‘under’ about it: the movement begins with a dominating atmosphere of fervent anticipation and energetic impetus. The only questionable point comes at the syncopations across bars 127 to 132 which sound rushed to me; but when Beethoven gets around to treating this figure between bar 153 and bar 168 at the start of the movement’s development phase, the displacement is impeccable, as are the reappearances at bars 397-312, and finally from bar 339 to bar 348.

Acoss these pages, you can hear plenty of felicities, like the rapid mordents in bars 109 to 110, and later from bar 209 to bar 211 – both handled with the lightest of touches; or those right-hand quaver-crotchet 13th leaps that add an off-beat buoyancy to the work’s forward motion, each time treated with agile confidence. Yet the outstanding quality to this reading is its realization of the composer’s unstoppable enthusiasm which begins as a single-note regular pulse and reaches out to us with irresistible sprays of ebullience.

The following Largo finds Brawn in excellent form, negotiating the 9th and 10th stretches with finesse and unafraid to take Beethoven’s direction as a licence to linger over block chords and accelerate slightly in bridging passages, as across bars 47 to 50 leading back to the main theme’s re-statement; and space out an elaboration, as in bar 62 which can all too often turn into a gabble. Only a few questions hovered around the ensuing Allegro and Minore both of which enjoy firm treatment throughout, especially the latter segment’s Erlking-redolent pages. The rests across bars 14 and 15 seemed short-changed, and the distinction between forte and fortissimo in the Allegro’s later pages (if, in fact, the performer was looking for one) was not particularly wide.

You couldn’t say that Beethoven had kept his best till last but the final Rondo is more surprising than this sonata’s preceding movements. starting with that benign falling melody with its unsettling dominant pedal underpinning. Brawn treats the grazioso elements kindly enough but gives the long minor episode – bars 63 to 93 – with powerful determination. You can also find small touches, such as the briefest of hesitations at crossover points, although the major one – at bar 155 with the enharmonic shift to E major for a little while – is treated quietly, flowing gently out of the preceding fermata minim chord.

The performer can’t help Beethoven’s fiddly stretches from sounding stuck-on; cf. the trills beginning at bar 36, or the chromatic octave syncopation from bar 146. But even these are produced without emphasis – they’re made to be part of the energetic drive that impels this long work to its moving, evanescent conclusion.

With the variations that open the A flat Major Sonata Op. 26, Brawn is very exact in articulation, the left hand clear with each chord constituent present and contributing. He sets a sensible pace at each of the five changes and keeps to it, although you can’t get much by way of alterations here as the movement is meant to be conceived and executed as a metrical constant, rather than a series of rhythmically differentiated vignettes. Here also you are met with a fine melody with the slightest touch of melancholy about it in the second phrase and a Lebewohl quality to the coda.

You’re faced with a weighty version of the Scherzo, if not the Trio, that follows. Brawn gets as much punch as he can out of every sforzando, but he might have pulled back on them in bars 26 to 28 in favour of a smoother negotiation of the right-hand groups of consecutive thirds which here sound studied. Then comes the Marcia funebre in A flat minor, keeping things in the tonic family. Here again, you will find much to appreciate, particularly the straight-down-the-line treatment of the long-winded theme where the internal movement emerges as a matter of course, rather than being given special weighting. Brawn gives great power to the middle 8 bars of major key salutes – a precursor of Berlioz’s drawn-sword excesses.

It takes a few hearings for Brawn’s account of the Allegro finale to reveal its breadth of delivery, but in the end it makes a splendidly cogent resolution to the entire work. Right from the opening, you are captured by the movement’s inbuilt energy, in part due to the pianist’s constant rise and fall in dynamic level and a careful weaving of phrases into each other, which is the keynote of this rondo’s A sections. Further, to pick out just one detail, you can see/tell what’s coming but the lead-back following the C minor episode is exactly right – from bar 96 up to the quiet fusion at bar 100: simple to play, here felicitously shaped. And that last observation pretty well sums up my reaction to these specific four tracks.

For his last offering, Brawn skips one back to the Sonata No. 11 in B flat, which is my favourite on this CD – both for the work’s qualities and for the broad optimism of its realization. I’m always bowled over by the bubbling anticipation that leads to the appearance of the first theme at bar 4, then the sheer wealth of material that spreads across the following pages. Later, Brawn draws a broad brush at that chain of modulations in the development stretching from bar 91 to bar 103; it’s not the most original sequence but you find a reassuring inevitability in the performer’s sensible pragmatism.

As far as I can make out, Brawn is punctilious about his semiquavers in both hands, delivering them faithfully and without muffling any patterns. No, it shouldn’t matter that he gets the notes out exactly but the task is accomplished without unnecessary harshness or suggestions of automatism. A similar quality is invested in the second movement Adagio with its chains of repeated quaver triads, which Brawn articulates with sensitivity and no signs of negotiating a functional accompaniment. My only question about this grave, satisfying interpretation is the use of slight pauses at the end of certain bars before a change of dynamic, e.g. bars 39, 44 and 45, with a hint at bar 51. But then, if you go looking, you can hear, from the first page on, slight hesitations and plain rubato all over the place, which latter is usually applied carefully, particularly to the left hand. And it all comes under the movement’s supplementary head-text: con molta espressione.

You are hard pressed to find fault with Brawn’s version of the Minuetto and Minore trio. He observes the restrained grace of the first eight bars before Beethoven shifts his train of thought to aggression in the Minuetto‘s second half and those aggressive running semiquaver clusters coupled with cadential emphatic chords; here, the interruption passes without attracting too many questions. And the left-hand study at the Minore emphasises the cursive line without hitting any pre-Pathetique button.

The Allegretto rondo that finishes this sonata is a chameleonic set of pages, beginning with a main theme that proposes Mozart in its first half, then veers into unexpected territory; not really a continuation of or balance to the first four bars but a semi-completion nonetheless. Brawn keeps a steady hand on each incident until unleashing a bit of temperament during the four bars leading up to the change to F minor semi-furibondo interlude. Later, he carries off a splendid shift of pace for the triplets that permeate the main theme’s final reappraisal.

Here is well-achieved and judicious playing, an impressive reading of this mellifluous sonata and one that reads each of the four movements with conviction and persuasiveness. Not that this CD comprises ‘easy’ works since each challenges a pianist’s self-restraint and sustained insight. But there’s a vast constellation to come in Brawn’s future recordings for this series – a welcome and worthwhile re-investigation of works that serve as the fundamental for Western piano music literature.

Again, an expansion of horizons

DANCING TO THE TREMORS OF TIME

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3438

Yet another part of this company’s dedication to the art of Harvey and – by extension – to contemporary Australian composition, this disc contains seven compositions of various lengths, the whole dominated by a Brendan Colbert work: his solid score from 2017 that gives this CD its title.   Five of the tracks come from live performances, the exceptions being the last work on offer, Brendan Collins’ Prelude and Fugue, and a short piece by Elliott Gyger.

Standing alongside Colbert’s major construct is Don Kay’s Piano Sonata No. 9, which introduced me to a senior and prolific composer whose name has not crossed Bass Strait, despite a successful academic and creative career in his home state.   Harvey has been quite an apologist for Kay’s work, especially the sonatas of which there are ten.   He has had three of them dedicated to him and has commissioned at least two, giving the premiere of No. 9 at MONA on November 17, 2018   –  which is the performance offered here.

The other substantial piece, Scott McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 – also from 2017 and featured at the same concert as Colbert’s Dancing to the Tremors of Time and Kay’s sonata  –  is another witness to Harvey’s role in promoting modern Australian work; in this case, the product of another Tasmanian writer.   In fact, Harvey has given the premieres of all three extant McIntyre piano sonatas as well as the composer’s Piano Concerto in 2016.

Gyger’s D E G  and the smaller-framed Colbert piece were both recorded at Move Records’ studio last year, while screen composer Elizabeth Drake’s Rabbit Song and Martin Friedel’s Vanishing Point come from a live recording at the Brunswick Music Festival on February 20, 2019.   Harvey has history also with Friedel, having recorded in 2008 the composer’s main solo piano score: The school of natural philosophy.   In fact, Vanishing Point seems to be the only other work for piano in Friedel’s output.   And it’s the shortest track on this disc; surprising, because the composer’s intention seems to parallel drawing with music and that could have led to a wider-ranging canvas than it has.

The point that Friedel referred to is one where two parallel lines meet in the distance.  Don’t know why, but that suggestion brings to mind Philip Glass – perhaps the railway line in Einstein on the Beach.  In this piece, loud or soft individual chords alternate with frisky, surging note melanges that can be fierce or subterranean.   At the end, the chords win out – four of them – and supposedly they signify the visual/aural point of conjunction.  What stands out is Harvey’s communication of atmosphere, alternately staid cathédrale engloutie and vigorous tumbling across the keyboard.   You could regard the piece as coming to its proper end in that the last bars fade to black successfully.

Next in increasing order of size stands Drake’s bagatelle which takes its genesis from an idea germinated for Caryl Churchill’s play, Top Girls.   I don’t know it, although I do know its themes and suppose that the particular rabbit that this piece depicts is the heroine Marlene, the music suggesting her momentum now that she is on the treadmill that should lead to corporate success and familial failure.   Drake sets up and sustains a one-note-at-a-time moto perpetuo that offers slight variations on an original pattern, notes accreted and discarded in quick succession over a pivotal ascending arpeggio figure.  Harvey has its measure even if his articulation falters just before the two- and three-minute marks, and some unintended notes are struck in the last bars – at least, I think they’re due to fatigue and are not late introductions of a harmonic complication.

Drake’s language here is indebted to the Minimalists, although her fabric is not that seamless in that her deviations are apparent and the repetition does not atrophy our aural perception potential.   In this CD’s context, it seems like an oddity.   Indeed, it has a striking counterpart in Gyger’s birthday present to his father D (David) E (Elliott) G (Gyger) which takes the three designated notes of the dedicatee’s initials as a fulcrum, as well as what the composer calls ‘a cypher of his full name’  –   whatever that may be.    As promised, this piece unfolds in a series of episodes, presumably character-filled vignettes, the whole quite impressionistic, gliding rather than stating, and the personality sketch is almost uninterruptedly gentle and even-tempered.

It’s at about this stage that you are struck by this CD’s subheading: Surrealist piano music from Australia’s east coast.   To this point, have we been confronted by anything suggesting musical surrealism?   Well, the Friedel seems a possible candidate, if a rather bare-boned one.   Drake’s rabbit involved in irregular wheel running is more metaphoric than anything else, while Gyger’s musical portrait doesn’t seem to fit into the surreal category at all.   Mind you, there is a direct correlation between surrealist art and music in the disc’s major work, but that seems to be a case of packing all your titular eggs into one basket.

The Prelude and Fugue by Collins has its roots in both the formal structure that we have come to love from Bach’s time on.   Both parts are hugely indebted to jazz, mainly through syncopation for the prelude and melody shape for the fugue which, as the composer says elsewhere, is indebted in its subject to Scott Joplin as well as mirroring the American master in its buoyancy of progress.   Once more, you wonder about the surrealist aspect of these happy and/or exuberant pages which go no further than their surface.   In C minor, the prelude uses its material adroitly, juxtaposing short chords with at least two fluent melodic shapes, while the B flat Major fugue happily piles on the lines so that even Harvey has to give himself the shortest of breaks between bars when the intermeshing becomes hefty.   But Collins doesn’t aim for density and both parts of this construct radiate good humour, even some wit.

Kay has given his sonata a subtitle: the call.  It’s an easily recognized compositional tic – or, in this case, two of them.   The composer specifies an ascending octave falling back a second as an ‘appeal’ motif; later, a descending minor third becomes a bird-call which takes on high significance in the work’s later pages.  The ‘resolute’ first movement sets up a series of motifs, some of them post-Debussyan in delicacy, others more aggressive to the point of whip-sharpness, although the opening waltz-time bars recur as anchor-points.  While the harmonic vocabulary seems wide-ranging, in fact Kay is not afraid to utilise pedal points both upper and lower, and crisp turns of phrase that recall Scarlatti sonatas.

But the movement is highly discursive with some perplexing detours to complement the repetitions of key material, in particular an emphatically diatonic phrase that inserts some placidity into an often hard-edged set of spasmodic outbursts.   As the work’s three movements are played through without a break, I found it hard to determine when the second ‘tenderly’ one began – it seemed to be pretty brief – but the finale bursts in about 4 minutes from the end with an emphatic hammering that marks a new sonic canvas in which the bird-call has high prominence to the point where it has the sonata’s last word.

Harvey’s performance shows sympathy with the score’s jumps between styles of attack and abrupt bursts of energy that don’t seem capable of sustaining themselves.   You can hear an error or two where a note is added where not required.   Still, the sonata has an idiosyncratic voice: not exploitative of piano sound production resources, combining digression with argument-by-statement, weighty in its intentions but demonstrating aspiration more than achievement.

In contrast, McIntyre’s Piano Sonata No. 4 sounds more daring, disjointed, and searching for textural interest from the start.   The work is split into four segments: Prelude, Toccata, Interlude, Epilogue and the demarcations present a test in awareness of where the music is heading and whether or not it’s reached its destination.   The opening pages are strong on sustained notes and the manufacture of harmonic resonances; it sounds like the player is directed to hold down a note while the other hand rages around setting up sympathetic vibrations.  McIntyre’s work is riddled with percussive sprays, particularly from the upper reaches, which makes for a music that is constantly on the aural attack.

I think the Toccata begins at about the 5’45” mark where the texture becomes pointillistic but spiky, more so than it has been up to this point.   Any transition into the Interlude is difficult to pinpoint; when you believe that the acrobatics have stopped, they are set off again and the third movement presents as – eventually – more assertive than anything heard so far.   It’s all wonderful exercise for Harvey who rollicks through the work and generates some splendid bass rumbles against angular vaults in his right hand.

I feel safe in pointing to about the 12′ 15″ point for the transition to McIntyre’s passive Epilogue where the aggression dissipates and you are left with a benign, sotto voce soundscape that drifts to an unexpectedly moving, very soft ending.   As a contribution to advancing the piano’s possibilities, it impresses for its investigation of techniques, a remarkable realization of building and releasing tension, an abstractness in that any extra-musical factors are eschewed,  and its fitness for purpose: displaying Harvey’s prowess as executant and interpreter, albeit one who follows his own path at the same time as negotiating yours.

Colbert’s massive construct takes its title from a 2004 painting by Australian surrealist James Gleeson in which six nude pod-conglomerates hang in space below two fang-like stalactites.   Are the bodies dancing?   Is the landscape packed with trembling?   Your intimation is as good as anybody’s; much more than mine.   But the association – obviously clear for Colbert – is amplified by two quotations with which the composer extends his vision.   One comes from that poor bastard Seneca – who’d be a tutor? – and it concerns the human life span, observing that the only definite/reliable element in it is the past.   The other comes from David Bowie, who sees Time as a deceit for all of us.  So far, so old-fashioned Cynic.   Will these pictorial and philosophic lead-ins take us anywhere?  My experience is that they are soon forgotten; your experience may well be more informed.

The dancing of this work is probably intellectual, not boots on barn floors or slippers in ballrooms.   Colbert begins with short spasms, sustained bands punctuated by abrupt flurries that introduce the composer’s trademark penchant for rhythmic subdivisions: three quavers in the time of two, for example.   It might be a dynamically quiet start but the work is on the move, growing in contrapuntal density as both Harvey’s hands engage in a long-term duel loaded with mirrorings and interchanges while the short bursts and isolated intervals or chords expand into two-part dialogues.

Mind you, these conversations between lines are impossible to untangle, particularly in the long central argument of the work where the performer presents a mind-sharpening onslaught of material, brilliantly executed in the sense that the output sparkles: a real dance and one in occasional danger of spilling over into confusion.   Although the score closes placidly – Colbert and Gleeson’s mutual vision vanishing into the ether – the path to this resolution is a thorny one, if not as symphonically stormy as the artwork delineates.

Previous experience with Colbert’s products may prepare you for his complexity of thought.   His music has no compromises and reminds me of nothing so much as a sensible Fernyhough; in the Australian’s work, the flourishes lead onward, while the British/American writer dazzles in the moment.   If you had time and inclination, this music could be analysed and decanted of its mysteries, although the process in this case would distract from the score’s pivotal exuberance.   It makes a startling, exhausting opening track on this CD, and it overshadows most of what comes after – or perhaps that’s just my own predilection for work that asks for sustained concentration from an audience.

Dancing to the Tremors of Time is a stand-out contribution to this country’s piano literature.  It was tailored for Harvey and gives ample room for the display of his extraordinary brilliance in interpreting contemporary music that makes high demands.  So you would be hard pressed to find other pianists capable of mastering its multiple tests.   Haydn Reeder, Danae Killian and Peter Dumsday have given premieres of some of Colbert’s solo piano pieces over the past near-three decades but Harvey has set a standard for the composer’s recent works that I suspect will remain unchallenged for some time.

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt without hysterics

LISZT’S ITALIAN PILGRIMAGE

Tristan Lee

Move Records MCD 593

It only seems like last week that I heard this young Melbourne pianist working his way through Liszt’s Deux légendes.   In fact, it was almost the end of March and Lee was appearing as the second recital-giver in that excellent and timely innovation, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, during which he gave us his reading of those picturesque sacred tales with lashings of sonorous fabric.  Not much has changed, it would seem, since this CD’s release last year but the performance is masterful, carrying you past a good deal of heaven-storming piety and grandiose musical vistas.

The first of these, St. François d’Assisse: La prédication aux oiseaux, enjoys a reading that is exemplary in its detail, most obviously when the birds are involved before and after the saint starts his avian address.   Lee keeps his texture clear despite observing pretty much all the ‘accepted’ pedal markings; even when the grouping gets a touch cluttered, as in bars 42 to 45 where the twitterings reach their peak, the pianist keeps the demi-semiquaver patterns lucid..

Further, once the saint starts preaching in earnest and the birds settle into a state of quiescence from bar 68 onwards where the chords gain in majesty, the interpretation gave an earnest, urgent outline of the music’s intended move towards the preacher’s plunge into ecstasy and the high-flown climactic fortissimo points in A flat and B flat.  The composer’s moving transition from the end of Francis’ address back to the birds’ return to their natural state (changed, one hopes, by the experience) also brought about a sense of completion;  you may not believe in the event but the musical depiction gives a remarkable depiction of this legend, all the better here for Lee’s responsive performance.

More excitement prevails in the second legend, St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots.   The piece is a near monomaniacal treatment of the opening three-octave theme on which the composer whips up a stormy Strait of Messina crossing that reaches its apotheosis at bar 103.   Again, Lee keeps his textures free from over-blurring, especially in the most active passage which is not so much thematic as fiercely aquatic – bars 72 to 98 – with chains of alternating chords, double-octaves and runs of chromatic thirds.  The pace is not startlingly fast with attention-grabbing acrobatic leaps to summon up the blood, but the accelerandi and stringendi come across as moderate, serving to underpin the miracle being depicted.   Even at the end, where Liszt opts for an affirmative-action ending rather than leaving the saint to enter Sicily in an atmosphere of pious and reserved thanksgiving as you might have anticipated from the Lento at bar 138/9, Lee keeps the triumph leashed.

These two pieces come at the end of the CD; not positioned as reassurances of Lee’s talents but well-tailored to amply display his gifts, not least one for investing both works with gravitas, the realization that we are listening to music that can stand on its own feet when treated with dedication.   This pianist is conscientious in his approach which gains a great deal from technical security but just as much from a level-headed view of Liszt’s picture-painting.

This CD’s main content is the middle volume of the Années de pèlerinage – the one specified as having Italy as its inspiration.   Liszt compressed his experiences into seven pieces: three to do with painting/sculpture/music, four referring to literature.  The suite presents as a mixed bag where the titular references can be helpful but – as with so many cross-discipline works – could also prove distracting.   You take on trust that Liszt found inspiration in his selections from art and letters; you’d be wasting your time, I suggest, if you went looking for more meaningfulness beyond a few broad strokes.

It’s easier to keep away from useless inferences in the painting/sculpture/music pieces.  For instance, Sposalizio, inspired by Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, presents an insoluble problem: what’s the connection?   It existed in the composer’s aesthetic reaction to the picture but you’re hard pressed to see how.  Lee performs it with plenty of space, in no rush to make a temporally efficient attack on the right-hand quaver pattern that starts in bar 9; but his rubato is delicately applied,   Only a few top notes get subsumed in the Più lento chorale but the double octaves leading to the piece’s high point combine care and bravado in excellent balance.

You can’t make much of Liszt’s Il penseroso either, except to presume that the composer thought the statue from Lorenzo de Medici’s tomb was given to sombre ruminations; well, so you would, wouldn’t you, given the surroundings?   Even major chords in these two pages have a dour flavour but Lee performs the piece without surprises, giving full vent to its grim character and ceding no ground in the central bars 23-31 stretch where the chain of chords acquires a subterranean mobile bass.

Most music-lovers who know the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa are aware that the actual tune was written by Bononcini whose life-span overlapped with Rosa’s by 3 years only. It’s a great march tune and quite a test to sing.  Lee finds the right amount of bounce and is musician enough to exercise discretion with regard to phrasing, notably in the Sempre l’istesso setting at the piece’s middle.

With the three Petrarch sonnets  –  Nos. 47, 104, 123  –  the listener is on familiar textual ground, assisted greatly by the fact that these were originally songs.   In fact, you can go back to the composer’s first essays of 1846 and trace fairly easily the various alterations and interpolations of the 1858 piano solo version.   in Lee’s hands, these pieces are highly effective, thanks to the performer’s keen eye for the fundamental melody lines and a reliable security in handling the inserted cadenzas and masking ornamentation.  Indeed, the more you hear these parts of the Années, the more delights you find, like the touching expressiveness of the first vocal strophe’s restatement in G Major starting at bar 37.  Lee’s handling of the syncopated vocal line throughout remains completely fluent and eloquent in its phrasing – a laudable realization of the fervent blessings that both poet and composer celebrate.

With Sonnet No. 104, we’re definitely in the land of the Liebesträume with a commanding lyrical vocal line, quiescent arpeggios and rich, mutable chord sequences.   It’s not easy to see how Liszt is reflecting Petrarch’s myriad oscillations – one per line (except for the last) in a welter of conceits.   Here is one place where the melody is not illustrating any leaps of imagery; it’s just one long, luxuriant line with several cadenza interruptions that Lee is inclined to treat without fireworks.

Not the least inspired of the three, Sonnet No. 123 is where Lee takes most liberties, most obviously with a stringendo starting at bar 56 which decelerates too early.   As well, at various points the pianist likes to linger – extending a note’s value or allowing a good deal of space before resuming after a caesura, or taking an a piacere across the last four bars very literally.    But you find just as many subtleties in this Chopin-indebted work; listen to the mild susurrus of left hand triplets that start at bar 22, or the impeccable catch-and-release of the change from E Major to C Major at bars 40-41.

In all sonnets, you hear a further testament to Lee’s insight with regard to this music and his responsiveness to their Romantic vocabulary.   These soulful gems are followed by the CD’s longest track: Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata.  To his credit, Lee gets nearly all the notes; no mean feat in this virtuosic exercise where the excitement is built up in several short-lived paragraphs as Liszt contemplates (possibly) the various descriptors of torment and vice in Hugo’s poem.  This work is probably the most technically demanding that Lee attempts here; furthermore, its length makes it difficult to mould into a narrative – even more so than the second of the légendes.

For instance, I can’t find anything else on the disc to compare with the long Presto agitato assai that stretches for about 110 bars of barely punctuated action.   Lee exercises his flexibility here with some split-second delays as he moves between registers, but it’s never enough to upset the onward surge of the paragraph.  There’s a counterbalance to this in the shift to F sharp Major at bar 157 for a più tosto ritenuto reminiscence of Beatrice where the writing is like a cross between a Chopin nocturne and an étude.   In this 23 bar episode, Lee shows a remarkably even-tempered responsiveness that gives us more than a mossy Romantic texture; rather, a subtle interplay of accents, both rhythmic and melodic, and a fine realization of Liszt’s vision of an in medias res Paradise emerging in the context of an Inferno that sounds – like Milton’s Satan – suspiciously heroic.

An all-Liszt CD from a (resident) Australian pianist is to be celebrated, of course, but not just because of the implied ambition.  This is a remarkable accomplishment for its unalloyed probity; listening to Lee’s insightful readings has been one of the more memorable passages of play that I’ve enjoyed in some years of Liszt experiences.  Here is a recording that stands secure on its own merits.  If it’s not flashy enough or Cziffra-like for some, that’s too bad: Lee is his own man and his interpretations reveal a highly welcome integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China? No: platinum

THE GARDEN PARTY

The Marais Project

Move Records MCD 592

The garden party 14.cdr

Talk of accordions, and they spring up all over the place.   No, perhaps not all over but, as the Fates would have it, James Crabb appeared in last week’s bonus recital from Musica Viva; straight after, this Marais Project CD came up for attention and it features piano accordionist Emily-Rose Šárkova as both performer and arranger, appearing in seven of the 19 tracks.   Of course, the instrument is up against it for a lack of original material in the serious music field  –  sorry: established original material  –  but one way to get around this is to insert your contribution into a biddable ensemble and see what comes out.

Here, Šárkova has been invited by the Project founder Jenny Eriksson to enter the wide-ranging ensemble and imbue the company sound with her own.   We start out with Eriksson’s own take on the Feste Champêtre from Marais’ big Suite d’un goût Étranger, included in the composer’s Livre IV for viol and continuo.   I’ve spent a while listening to a few versions of the original, following the viol throughout, this research illuminated through a brilliant execution of the piece by Jordi Savall.   There seems to be little thematic cross-referencing between Marais’ earthy rondo and Eriksson’s The Garden Party;  not that you can read too much into that.   As well as the accordion’s penetrating timbre, you have Eriksson herself on gamba, Project regular Tommie Andersson’s baroque guitar, and the all-important violin of Susie Bishop.

Like Marais’ Feste, the Party is initially in a 4/4 rhythm with a long detour into triple time.   You hear a recurring root passage in both pieces that demarcates the variants/episodes in the earlier work and acts as a framing device in Eriksson’s reappraisal.   And while the 18th century piece’s various sub-divisions feature an appropriate musette and a tambourin, the title track doesn’t take too long before venturing close to the world of klezmer.   Later, a few jazz-inflected passages imitate Stephane Grappelli too close for comfort  .  .  .  or perhaps the aim was to summon up the French-Italian violinist’s spirit on purpose.   One of the modern variants features the gamba and accordion (single-line) in collaboration; another has violin and gamba; later gamba and guitar, before Bishop invokes the Grappelli spirit and we re-enter the klezmer mode.

Still, it’s a party and you’d be insane if you went looking for a thematic consistency at one of those events these days.   More to the point, Eriksson’s celebration is crisp and determined in every bar, complete with bracing accordion chords to interpolate some well-placed full-stops.

Next comes another arrangement by Šárkova of four pieces from the E minor Suite from the 1717 Livre IV by Marais.   We hear the Rondeau Paÿsan, jump back to the Sarabande, then hear the two characteristic pieces that end the suite: La Matelotte and La Biscayenne.   By this stage, you’re hearing (or imagine you are hearing) repetition of material between pieces – or perhaps you think it’s so because of the multiple repeats.   In any case, the arrangement is for gamba and accordion and it works pretty well because Šárkova is a deft hand at picking out melody lines to meld into and contrast with Eriksson’s part.  This is particularly effective in the Sarabande where the contrast in sonority between both instruments is nowhere near as clear-cut as you’d expect.

An O salutaris hostia by Pierre Bouteiller (no, me neither) uses Danny Yeadon’s gamba as well as Eriksson’s,  Andersson’s theorbo, while the text is sung by soprano Belinda Montgomery.   This is, for my money, the finest product on the CD but it’s a re-issue from the group’s previous recording from 2009,  Love Reconciled.   The vocal work is refreshingly clear with just enough ornamentation, while the supporting lines make a splendid and mellow mesh.   Such a pity the composer didn’t extend to Aquinas’ second verse with its terse and moving last couplet.

The Suite No. 2 in G minor of 1692 by Marais here uses Melissa Farrow on baroque flute, partnered with Fiona Ziegler’s baroque violin, while Eriksson and Andersson make a firm continuo duo.   Once you get used to the convention of treating six regular quavers as changeable into dotted quavers+semiquavers when the mood takes you (yes, that’s just being flippant about a well-established Baroque convention), it’s a pleasure to hear the upper lines move in polished synchronicity.   This is another recycling, from the Project’s 2015 Smörgåsbord album, giving us four out of the 13 pieces in the suite itself: Prelude, Rondeau, Plainte and petite Passacaille.    All are cleanly accomplished, although I missed the repeat of the Rondeau‘s second part, but delighted in the slow processional of the Plainte, and listened over and over to bars 67 to 65 of the petite Passacaille for the brisk inter-cutting between flute and violin.

Performing J’avois crû qu’en vous aimant, an anonymous petit air tendre, all participants get to run through the theme – Andersson on theorbo to start, then Bishop singing two of the three verses and playing one, Eriksson giving an elegant shape to her outline.   All of this is convincing as a mobile plaint, bu I was sorry to have to forego the final section that moves into triple time and breaks the mood, like the third Agnus Dei in so many of those Classical period masses.    Still, the MP isn’t alone in that as all other groups I’ve heard attempting this piece also avoid any bucolic suggestions.

Another recycled group (from the group’s Love Reconciled CD of 2009) follows with a selection from Marais’ Livre V of Pieces de violes, Eriksson taking prime position, supported by Andersson on theorbo, Catherine Upex supplying a gamba support, and Chris Berensen the most discreet of harpsichordists.   The quartet begins operations with an unexpected preface in the Rondeau louré from Livre III, which accretes instruments as it passes by.  then the Allemande la Marianne,  a sarabande where the theorbo and second gamba sound very forward, a menuet in which the melody line barely survives the accompanying chords’ ferocity, and La Georgienne dite la Maupertuy which brings an appealing brusqueness of articulation to the fore at each repetition of the main theme.

Last of the previously-issued numbers is Andersson’s arrangement of the Swedish tune Om sommaren sköna which comes from the previously-mentioned Smörgåsbord CD.   The executants are tenor Pascal Herrington, Farrow, Ziegler, Eriksson and, of course, Andersson.   Nothing new here, again: Andersson leads the way with a solo theorbo rendition of the tune, followed by Eriksson doing the same.  Then Herrington sings the rather doleful C minor tune’s first verse before Ziegler has her way with it, supported quietly by Farrow before the tenor comes back with verse three, Farrow very subtly shadowing him.   Sorry to miss out on the middle Där hörs en förnöjelig stanza, particularly because the melody suits Herrington’s clean-edged voice.   But then, while wishing the best to all concerned, there’s not much you can do with a tune like this except play it over and over – unless you’re prepared to take it out on a limb and provide some real variation.

The Project winds up with two jeux d’esprit that bring Šárkova back into the fold.    First is her arrangement of La Anunciación by Ariel Ramirez, sung by Bishop with the piano accordion dominating the perky accompaniment to the Argentinian composer’s Christmas song; Eriksson and Andersson are assisted by double bass Elsen Price and Šárkova takes on a short singing role.   It’s very upbeat and happy – and short, because the performers only deliver half of the Félix Luna verses.   To finish, we have De fiesta en fiesta, a catchy chacarera (or is it?) by Peteco Carabajal where yet again the performers dig deep to find their inborn Argentinian.   The personnel is the same as for La Anunciación and, as has latterly become prevailing practice, the theme gets shared around between the singer and violin with lots of interstitial commentary from the accordion; even the gamba pokes its head above the battlements for a short while and Šárkova joins Bishop for the last quatrain although, as in the previous number, only half the verses get a run-through.

The South American brace brings this celebratory CD to a rousing conclusion as the Marais Project rings up 20 years of operations with some new material and a recycling of their favourites or works that have found favour with MP supporters.  Even if you’re so-so about the outer tracks in this album, you get to re-experience these players at their best in previous releases.   And, when they’re good, they’re very, very good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The way we were – not

LUZ MERIDIONAL: ANDRIÁN PERTOUT

Move Records MD 3435

Here’s another contribution to Australian music from pianist Michael Kieran Harvey who has directed his formidable talents and energy to a project by Melbourne composer Pertout.   These 24 studies have a noteworthy genesis and – to use a term that’s probably best avoided – realization.   Each of them is a homage – a homenaje, as Pertout terms it in his birth tongue – to a specific Australian composer; further, each piece is based on a quotation from a work that the composer researched and found (or should that be the other way around?) in the State Library of Victoria – the Australian Manuscripts section, to be precise.   Pertout takes the quotation (only one for each study?) and transforms it by means of a range of techniques, some of which are familiar even to non-initiates.

For me, the experience promised a sort of walk around my youth and those years spent in a state of critical adolescence.   I knew only one of the composers in person; a few of them I saw, either seldom or often; the great majority either died before I was aware of them or operated on levels unapproachable for a naive schoolboy/student.   Pertout, in the main, goes back to a period in Australia’s compositional activity which predates that sudden coming-of-age in the 1960s with the emergence of Sculthorpe, Meale, Dreyfus and Butterley.   Still, his choices of source-composers would be generally familiar enough to generations on either side of my own, even if experiences with shadowy corners of their output would have been confined all too often to the Lists of AMEB examinations.

This is, in fact, a double disc.   The first presents the 24 études, played with an all-embracing authority by Harvey.   The other is a DVD for downloading – a task that fell partly outside my abilities: I managed to play (and see) two of its three sections, the most valuable being a visual recording of Harvey playing seven of Pertout’s pieces, while another section was a short documentary about the creating of Luz meridional with some useful information from the composer.   The part I couldn’t raise would have been just as interesting: a lecture by Arjun von Caemerrer: Luz meridional: An Introduction and Concordance from 2013 which offered ‘notes on the composition and the composers via Carter and Cowell.’    Caemmerer is a Hobart poet who has collaborated with Harvey on several projects and it would have been fascinating to hear/see him speak because Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter stand as the basic pillars for these compositions –  their structure and language(s) in particular.

Without much detail, apart from the composer’s necessarily brief notes in the CD/DVD’s accompanying booklet, I found most of these compositions not exactly impenetrable, but cloudy.    Because of the vintage of most of Pertout’s basic material, you are all too easily tempted to go looking for potential shapes and contours in the older Australian compositions; well, the ones you can trace.    Had we but world enough, and time, we could follow Pertout’s footsteps through the State Library of Victoria and look at those 24 original works.   But that venerable building is off-limits for the foreseeable future, so anything I proffer as commentary on the 24 Études is bound to be more than usually subjective.   Even more importantly, what Pertout tells us about his practice tends towards the constructional, viz. his application of chords derived from Carter’s massive compendium, Harmony Book.   Such material is intriguing but leaves you in an intellectually beleaguered state because you don’t know what chords are involved.   I fear/hope that much of this might become clear if you gain access to Caemmerer’s lecture.

The suite opens with a salute to Roy Agnew, Niño dormiente, utilising one of his many piano miniatures: Sleeping Child from the Youthful Fancies of 1936.   The original is an amiable piece with a simple melody that enjoys transposition and mutation within an increasingly chromatic accompaniment to add some interest to its meanderings.  Pertout’s homage mirrors the original’s Impressionism-lite with a spot of pointillism before a return to haze; in its outer segments, the piece suggests drowsiness – all to the good – but, like so many of the material that follows, the tongue spoken is all Pertout.

Encuentro brings to the fore John Antill’s ballet Corroboree (1946) which made such a sensation on its first staged presentation in 1950, despite its reliance on percussion effects and disjunct rhythms, with a lack of other points of interest.   Pertout has chosen the first number, Welcome Ceremony, with its unsatisfying Aboriginal-imitating gestures and out-of-place main theme that is first brought up by the trumpet.   Pertout has created a brilliant-sounding detached note study that begins by concentrating Harvey’s attention in the piano’s top reaches, but the action spreads across the keyboard in a remarkable demonstration of what I can only typify as a snatch-and-grab exercise.   You can see the pianist at work on this and the preceding Agnew work on the DVD recording which chronicles parts of a performance from Melbourne’s Recital Centre on August 5, 2017.

Don Banks left Australia in 1950 and his Divertimento for flute and string trio dates from the following year when he was studying with Matyas Seiber.   What I can see of the two-movement score shows a sinewy, 12-tone-suggestive style at first with a hard-worked jaunty bite in the Rondo second movement.   Diversión presents a contrast between a short repeated bass note anchor and abrupt coruscations in the instrument’s higher register.   It’s a combination of the dour and the flashy.   I didn’t know Banks at all (he was more a Canberra-Sydney resident when he returned here in 1972) and the only score of his that I know well is the angular Three Episodes of 1964, but I think he would have delighted in this salute.

Sadly, Arthur Benjamin is another of this country’s one-hit wonders, thanks to the catchy Jamaican Rumba; not that he spent much time in Australia, finding more amenable homes in England and Canada – still, it’s all one commonwealth, isn’t it?    Pertout has searched out his 1947 Ballade for string orchestra to generate Balada: a one line toccata/moto perpetuo that suits Harvey down to the ground, even if there is one audible error in an unstoppable torrent of notes.  The insane thing is that you (I) can hear traces of that Rumba where there are really none to find.

Clive Douglas, a journeyman conductor for the ABC in the days when that body ran the nation’s orchestras, went in for Australiana, both indigenous and imported.   From the latter, Pertout chose Sturt, 1829, a piece that enjoyed a lot of airplay after its composition in 1952.    Somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of the score but it disappeared somewhere between house moves.   In any case, this re-imagination, Poema sinfónico (which is how Douglas described this work – in English, of course) is the complete opposite to its predecessor.    It’s mainly isolated notes in the upper keyboard, articulated quite strongly with a few subterranean forays to about Middle C and, across what I can make of it, the whole thing seems to involve white keys only.   Mind you, Douglas’ lavish imagining of the explorer’s first expedition to find the inland sea is a solid example of Empire-building acclamation.

Mining the Satie cave, Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote her 1953 Three Gymnopedies for oboe, celeste, harp and strings.    The second one, referred to here, does without the oboe.   I don’t know it and am not likely to have access to it but I take from Pertout’s title – Danza de guerra – that it’s active.    So is this new piece, with a sort of restrained aggression in Harvey’s attack.    Repeated single notes, motives in transposition, the whole finally fades to silence as the battle moves on.   This rendition is one of those that can be found on Harvey’s live DVD performance.

Eugene Goossens came from the generation before Glanville-Hicks and had a powerful influence on Sydney’s musical life in my youth.   His piano suite Kaleidoscope for piano is an early (1917) work, a collection of 12 short pieces from which Pertout has taken the second, Promenade.   In the original this is mainly in 5/4 and is simply walking music with an abundance of colourful stepping chords over a sustained D; in Caleidoscopio, a bass note has become the focus, not as a sustained presence but as a percussive centrality.  There is a transposition, a change of level, but the repeated note stays: a permanent fixture with flicks of sound around it  –  the embodiment of its title.

Is it disloyal to find Grainger’s Colonial Song pretty ordinary?   Not a favourite, obviously, but I’m fond of many other works in the composer’s catalogue and I enjoyed limited access to the Grainger Museum back in the 1960s, thanks to an enthusiastic curator.  Pertout’s Canción colonial opens with fierce tinkling at the top of the piano’s range and seems to settle into a two-part invention format with plenty of rhythmic juggling, so that the lines sound independent in every way that matters.   At this point, I can’t see any relevance to the extroverted original.

Raymond Hanson’s Trumpet Concerto was his most often-performed composition (well, the ABC played it regularly) and Pertout has chosen it for his Nostalgia salute.   A disjointed note-by-note progression in the treble is supported by soft arpeggiated chords in an angular lyric that seems to circle on itself; not actually finishing, but petering out.  Still, it sent me back to the brilliant John Robertson 1952 recording in search of connections.  Needless to say .  .  .   This piece features on the accompanying DVD.

Richard Divall, that bonhomme of Australian conducting and research into the country’s musical byways, conducted Fritz Hart’s The Bush symphonic suite in 2003 but you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of the ensuing CD; still, you can hear the interpretation on YouTube.   Pertout brought this 40 minutes-plus score out of storage for El bosque, a dynamic work with a repeated note pattern as a notable constituent; this Bush has a lively ambience which quality you can certainly in Divall’s interpretation of the composer’s solidly Romantic score.

Another name familiar from AMEB books, Marjorie Hesse wrote Melancholy for solo piano, probably about 1973.   Melancolía sounds like a staccato Webern Piano Variations although the language is, if anything, diatonic.   As well as performing a keyed role, Harvey also operates inside the instrument – a plucked note here, a few stopped knocks, a curt glissando to finish.   It all makes for a piquant impression; nothing dreary or depressing, and you can see Harvey at work on the DVD.

They didn’t come more retrospective than Alfred Hill, this country’s GOM of music.  He took on the white man’s burden and shouldered it for many years, producing solid works that enjoyed a good deal of attention but rarely for their ability to inspire.   Retrospectivo is inspired by one of Hill’s piano solos which owes a good deal to Grieg.   Once again, Harvey is mainly restricted to the piano’s upper reaches in another two-line piece that features repeating patterns in both hands.   It’s as though Pertout is having his own retrospective, looking back to the American minimalists but without the tricksy rhythmic shifts.   This is another of the études performed on the DVD.

Hill’s wife Mirrie was synonymous in my youth with the AMEB, for which body she wrote many piano miniatures.   One was Meditation, a 1954 piece that here transforms expectedly to Meditación.  This is brief, the second-shortest offering in the collection, and operates on three strata with another isolated note melody in the high treble, subterranean bass support and some supple chords at the centre of the piano.   It is unusual in that its title is remarkably appropriate in mood to what you hear.

Alongside the Hills, Dulcie Holland was a long liver and also one of the AMEB’s stalwart organizers and contributors.   Her 1963 Elegy for flute and piano, a gracefully looping construct that tests both instruments, provides the impetus for Elegia, another toccata here packed with a triplet moto perpetuo that is subject to two rhythmic displacements and resembles no other elegy I’ve ever heard because it excites rather than giving cause for rumination.

Some of us might recall the premiere of Synthesis by Robert Hughes around 1969; I’ve got very faint memories but the work failed to impress as much as the composer’s 1957 Sinfonietta which still strikes me as remarkably accomplished.   Pertout has, however, chosen the Scottish-born composer’s later score for treatment as Sintesis.  Here again, we are in the piano’s upper reaches where Harvey performs an exercise in limited materials, the same notes given oscillating treatment through flurries of loud and soft in close proximity.

As a student, I knew Keith Humble who took a postgraduate seminar at Melbourne University that I attended a few times before tiring of its unstructured nature.   His Eight Bagatelles for piano come from 1992, written three years before his death and the most ‘modern’ music in this enterprise.    Bagatela is the CD’s shortest track but one of its most active; Harvey gives an exhibition of brilliant pianism, blurting out notes from across the instrument’s compass with dazzlingly abrupt bursts of digital brilliance.

At the Sydney Conservatorium, I’d occasionally pass the benign figure of Frank Hutchens on the cramped stairs; I think the poor fellow once endured the horror of examining me in piano.   His At the Bathing Pool comes from 1932 and can only be called a dated delight: energetic, buoyant (as you’d hope), and G Major to its bootstraps.    En la piscina runs parallel to Hutchens’ initial semiquaver opening strophes with a similar burst of action that self-modifies before dying out – one of Pertout’s more frequent practices.   But the emotional impressions are emphatically opposed: the older work, sunny and sentimental; the study, neurasthenic and unsettling.

Along with Dulcie Holland, Marjorie Hesse and Mirrie Hill, Miriam Hyde was a major contributor to the AMEB organization; like her colleagues, she was a familiar name to generations of Australian musicians, although not all of them could have picked her out in a crowd.    Pertout chose her The Ring of New Bells, a piano solo from 1959, to bounce from and it is a perfectly acceptable four pages’ worth of tintinnabulation; you can find a portentous out-of-tune reading of it from Weymouth’s Duncan Honeybourne on YouTube.   The new El anillo de nuevas campanas has its own brand of ringing, although Pertout’s bells eschew the stateliness of Hyde’s money-raising peals for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, Sydney.   The right hand follows a pattern of a falling 4th or 5th, followed by a leap to one of the piano’s top notes; all while the left hand follows its own round of changes.   The effect is mildly clangorous, not quite regular enough to be mesmeric, but showing Harvey at his athletic best.

As he nears the end of his cycle, Pertout uncovers some names that, even if you recognize them, the odds are you’ve heard precious little of their music.   Such a one is Horace Keats, who migrated here from Britain after World War I and became, among other activities, a song-writer of significance.   His Sea-wraith of 1939 has a simple ternary structure, an art song with a deftly-established emotional soundscape.   Fantasma del mar is brief and updates the chords that figure in Keats’ outer sections; here they are not striding past, but float.   The new look suggests haze and a more veiled menace than in the original lied.

Louis Lavater is another one of those semi-forgotten names, although he lived long and apparently prospered, his forte being bush ballads.   Pertout eschews the Paterson/Lawson element for an SATB Gloria setting of 1939 which yielded source material for this unexpected homage.   I can’t find any trace of this piece, not even in the Australian Music Centre’s archive, so have to take the new Gloria on its own terms.   It is the longest track on the CD and probably the most texturally dense with a wealth of Pertout tropes: penetrating  top notes of the instrument, ponderous bass humming, a continuous central stratum of activity, repetition of patterns and motives and chords.   In this instance, the dynamic range is sustained at a particular level for some time.  The first 5½ minutes impress as massive building blocks: this hymn of praise (if it is one, and not a vocal quartet celebrating a Hollywood actress) is not represented by chains of angelic singing but vaulting salutes that pile Pelion upon Ossa, until the eventual fade into eternity.

His setting of Sonnet 87, Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing, is the earliest  (possibly: 1954?) of four Shakespeare songs that Dorian Le Gallienne produced in his brief life.  Although I eventually fell into his job, I never met this most encouraging of Melbourne music critics, only sighting him from a distance at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts during my undergraduate years.   His interpretation of the text is to treat it as an English art song, the sort of object that proved very popular for salon purposes throughout the first half of the 20th century, featuring a forward vocal line and unassuming chordal piano support.   Pertout calls his piece Despedida (Farewell) and it is more chameleonic than expected with a dependence on brief flurries, chopped notes and a sustained melodic chain in the centre while fireflies flicker above and below it.

Another crypto-Australian composer, London-born William Lovelock spent 25 years here;  initially as the first director of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, then as a freelance pedagogue and music critic.   His Three Sketches for flute and piano – Aubade, Pastorale, and Valse Caprice – date from 1959 and Pertout has apparently chosen all three for his Tres bosquejos: the second-longest work on this recording.   Lovelock’s original music is impossible to trace, but the latter-day incarnation is another two-part work with a sort of four-note germ-motive dominating the forward movement.   These lines are in constant argument or competition, a repressed middle nocturne giving way to a vehement fantasia in which each register takes its turn in the limelight.  Three sketches, three segments.

Second-last of the études celebrates the perennially under-represented James Penberthy, singling out an organ piece, Hymn for the death of Jesus, from the composer’s broad catalogue.   The only knowledge I have of this 1972 work comes from Douglas Lawrence’s Reverberations recordings which emerged some time in the 1970s.   As with the Clive Douglas score of Sturt, 1829, these LPs have disappeared, possibly into my son-in-law’s gigantic vinyl archive.    I’ve no recollection of Penberthy’s Hymn, but Pertout’s Himno para la muerte de Jesús is one of the more memorable of the entire set.   You can see Harvey at work as this is the last of the filmed DVD performances.   He operates for much of the piece inside the piano and progress is by a series of spurts with plenty of silences and sustained sound-meshes.   I don’t like to be flippant but it’s reminiscent of Messiaen  –  without the birds, or the rhythms, or the modes of limited transposition.

To end, Pertout expends his final homage on Margaret Sutherland.   I only shared one experience with this formidable composer  –  in a South Yarra art gallery where a group, including Sutherland and Helen Gifford, assembled to hear a recording of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.   Avoiding the obvious Sutherland familiarities like Haunted Hills or The Young Kabbarli, Pertout takes up the Six Profiles for piano from 1947: With animation, Expressively, Cool and detached, A little fussily, Quietly flowing, Rhythmically.   The writing is as angular as a good deal of the composer’s chamber music, cleverly argued and determined on dissonance.    Here, Seis perfiles starts like a cross between Bartok and bebop, moving the repetitive rhythmic passion up through the keyboard’s range.   Then follow a series of episodes – possibly five: if so, they curve into each other – which comprise patterns that contain ostinati or simply repeated chords  welding into a compelling virtuosic display that comes to a definite, fortissimo end.

This is an extraordinary composition.  To the nostalgic, it brings to mind the surprising number of worthwhile composers that operated in this country before the dawn of Las Alboradas, Laudes, From Within, Looking Out among others, and our abrupt accession to 20th century compositional semi-maturity in the 1960s.   Even if you cannot follow Pertout into his chord structures and mathematical decisions, the work shows an enviably fecund mind at work with a singular responsiveness to piano textures and sound-production techniques.   It helps immeasurably that the writer has Harvey as an interpreter, a musician who has entered into Pertout’s creation with his usual single-minded dedication, extraordinary comprehension of the task, and brilliant technical delivery.

I doubt that you will hear 24 Études in live performance very often (more’s the pity) but this exceptionally clear rendition (thank you once again, Move stalwarts Martin Wright and Vaughan McAlley) is a most valuable substitute.   This is a music that may fuse past and present but unarguably it shows itself to be a consistently inventive exploration of what music in our time could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Rach pack

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PIANO AWARD 2018

Move Records MCD 586

                                                                            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

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

 

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

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.