Take another look

BACH’S TONAL SOUNDSCAPE

Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3413

 

 

It isn’t something you come across every day, Bach’s keyboard monument played in order of key where the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier are melded pretty directly so that both C Major preludes and fugues come after each other, then the C minor couples are juxtaposed, and so on.  The whole exercise stays in order except for two inversions where, at the half-way and end points of the four discs, Holtham reverses the order so that the F minor and B minor pairs from Book 2 are played before their Book 1 counterparts for reasons that have a fair bit to do with music and shape, even more with accomplishment and aesthetic finish.

This remarkable endeavour is intriguing for long stretches in its juxtapositions and has the welcome added attraction of fully engaging the careful listener –  by which I mean someone who is benignly disposed to the mighty 48 compendium and who finds riches in even the most well-known pages.  I don’t think the recording company and artist have their eyes set on a purely musicological audience, or one that is predominantly student-centric, although Holtham is one of the country’s most distinguished piano pedagogues.  No, it seems that their focus is firmly set on the exercise itself, which is to give pointed indications of Bach’s stylistic growth in the years between the two volumes that make up the W-TC and, from that maturity, to provoke a differentiation in the listener’s perceptions and responses: a conglomerate of what you get out of each set.

Holtham performs without histrionics, working with reliable firmness through his imposing task with very few moments where you might have preferred him to have a second take at something.  The CDs have no suggestion of over-splicing or a massaging of the prevailing dynamics or resonance.  As a result, the recordings appeal for their sincerity, a kind of plain-speaking which avoids the temptation to parade virtuosity even in the limited range of the two books; limited in physical compass, but a world of intellectual or emotional breadth.  You won’t find the interest-at-all-costs approach of bigger names who have recorded the work (and, once you start looking, it’s surprising how many virtuosi have done so).

The approach throughout is determined, task-focused more than startling or surprising in delivery, concerned with the music’s negotiation and allowing it to speak for itself without excessive ornamentation or using the distracting drug of injecting fake drama by abrupt changes of attack, dynamic or pace.  But then, the performer’s intention is not to highlight technical skill: that ability is taken as a given.

If you’re something of a sceptic about extra-musical associations, you are occasionally brought up very short by this exercise.  To begin, Holtham and his notes-collaborator, David Tieri, propose in the extensive discs-accompanying booklet, that the C Major tonality ‘offers a concept . . . as purity and infinity’.   This sort of synaesthetic idealization is one of the currents that we are encouraged to draw from the performances.  In a way, it adds a philosophical layer to what you’re hearing.  When we reach D Major, reference is made to Monteverdi’s Toccata that opens his opera Orfeo and which is written in that key; here, it is proposed that the earlier composer’s flourish shares a relationship with Book 2’s prelude in their shared trumpet sounds.  You may hear the similarities but I’m afraid that they pass me by.

Further along the tonal track comes a statement that is simply hard to fathom: ‘this fugue brings us back to the core of E as the solid concept of tonal firmament’.   Foes this refer to the round trip of this particular piece – the E Major from Book 2 – coming to rest on concrete tonal ground?  Or does ‘tonal firmament’ have a grander aim, where this particular tonality moves into the empyrean and is set above the rest?  When we get to G major, the writers speak of an ‘open-hearted tonality’; but that adjective can apply to many other constituents in the 48.  Later, A flat Major ‘remains a warm sunny key’; a summation that may be true in this instance, but is it a transferable descriptor?  I’m not at all sure about that.   A Major becomes ‘Bach’s display key’., but even a simple observation like this leaves you worried – what is being displayed, and is the display reserved for the Well-Tempered Clavier or is it meant to apply to more A Major Bach scores?

To be fair, these excerpts are far from common and the extensive written commentary is very valuable when it gets down to the formal character and emotional language of individual pieces, all of which receive commentary – some more than others, but that’s only to be expected.  By and large, Holtham’s interpretations mirror the printed attributes; well, what would you expect in discussing the various formats employed throughout in the 48 preludes?  Yet, quite often you are given a novel insight, especially about well-known material, which makes you stop the disc and look for yourself how a subject or episode is worked through, or why what has always seemed a simple slog is actually a carefully fabricated three-part invention.

In the end, this CD set succeeds in setting up bracing contrasts and similarities between the two books, even though the outcome is not always to the benefit of the later volume.  If you’re expecting extreme contrasts between works, you’ll be satisfied but not as often as you might think; indeed, there’s a fair amount of cross-pollination in play throughout the first three discs.

But the last one where Holtham performs the B Major and B minor pairs is a remarkable revelation.  How many of these 8 pieces do most of us know?  In my case, the Book 2 B minor Prelude was the only composition of any familiarity and that simply because of its place on an exam list of many years ago.

The remaining seven tracks comprise unexplored territory, and not just for me, I’d wager. I doubt that I’ve heard the B Major works live  – except when Angela Hewitt gave a recital of one of the books in Melba Hall under the Impresaria management many years ago.  Yes, many a pianist will have sight-read these pieces just to get a feel for the counterpoint and keyboard style, but a deep study? Forget it.

Holtham finishes his undertaking with a compelling reading of the B minor Fugue from Book 1, masterful in its direct forward motion and the restrained handling of those three sequence-rich interludes that move this score up to a rarefied level of achievement.  It puts a capstone to this unusual enterprise which gives a novel aspect to a humane masterpiece by Western music’s chief glory.

 

 

 

Similar, but not the same

GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN: SIX CONCERTI

Hans-Dieter Michatz, Monika Kornel

Move Records MCD 576

 

Once upon a time, you could hardly go to any period music affair in Melbourne without coming across one of two expert flautists: Greg Dikmans or Hans-Dieter Michatz.   The former you can still find  playing in large-scale events; the last time I saw him was at one of the major concerts for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival a couple of years ago.  But Michatz has been absent for a while.  I thought this lack of appearances might have been caused by a move to Europe or America or Japan – any place where his talents would be valued.  But it appears not: he has been ill.

He was diagnosed with focal dystonia, which Dr. Google informs me is a neurological problem with your muscles that makes them contract or distort.  So Michatz has had to give up his work on the transverse flute and, along with that, his long-range plan to record these Telemann concerti as the composer originally specified.  For a substitute, he offers these works on two recorders: a tenor in C and a voice-flute in D.  While he’s not entering the lists and claiming these works for the recorder repertoire, he finds that they are unexpectedly congenial in transplanted mode.

Further, Michatz is accompanied by harpsichordist Monika Kornel, artistic director of the Sydney Consort and a stalwart supporter of the musician throughout the painful process of re-shaping his career.  Not surprisingly, the pair make a sterling partnership in what are called concerti but are, in more ways than one, duo sonatas; not that you need to worry about discrimination between specific terms in a period as non-doctrinaire as the Baroque where even the colossal figure of Bach was often enough highly flexible with some of his descriptors.

The age-old question with these six Telemann works is: are they all the same?  I don’t know why but, since my youth, the accusation/observation has persisted that you will always find it hard to differentiate between this composer’s works, a) because he wrote so many, and b) because his vocabulary is free of the distinctive polyphonic grandeur or contrapuntal mesh-work of his two great contemporaries.  A facile temptation is always there, especially among non-musicians, to group Vivaldi and Telemann as a successful duopoly notable for prolific output but mechanical achievement.

Well, these concerti do have similarities, but you’d expect that.  The format follows an unchanging sequence of four movements; although the performing headings can change (are they Telemann’s own? The oldest manuscript that my limited resources can find suggests that they are), the pattern is a consistent slow-fast-slow-fast, inherited from the church sonata.  As you’d expect, the actual keys vary but, once Telemann settles on a tonality, you rarely move far away from it, although there are some surprises in the later scores.

The first concerto in D Major opens with a piacevole, that easeful injunction that proposes, as one of my teachers once put it, that you ‘can do what you like’ as long as it’s agreable – which in music can mean anything.   Michatz and Kornel adopt a gentle strolling pace.  About the only disruption to its progress comes with a passage in triplets that is over almost before it makes any impression.  The following Allegro shows the composer’s delight in sharing the material equally between his executants and his nimble handling of close imitation and modulations, the pages given with unfussed, mobile aplomb. The following B minor Largo is a delicately accomplished duet where the triplets give way to sextuplets and, as in previous movements, the players have many passages in duet at a third or a sixth.

The concluding Vivace is filled with ornamentation, for once not sounding over-cramped in its handling.  Admittedly, some of the bar-sequences are terrifically predictable, but the unexpected emerges when a couple of bars emerge that sound as though they had strayed in from a Rossini overture.  This is the only part of the concerto with repeats of both halves; no sign of fatigue from the musicians but. leaving aside the demands of proportion and balance, the regularity and pattern-building is a tad wearisome.

Concerto No. 2 in G minor opens in a 12/8 siciliano-suggestive Largo, with an initial sharing of the melodic statement, one instrument after another before the centre of the movement moves into a true simultaneous sharing of the labour.  It shouldn’t, but this whole concerto brings to mind the questionable Bach (probably C.P.E.) G minor Flute Sonata, although this part of it serves to show how happy Telemann could be with formulae and regularity of structure.  A crisp Vivace both illustrates this sense of order and occasionally disrupts it when, for example, a four-bar sequence is suddenly curtailed, missing a bar as the composer breaks back into his initial subject’s restatement.

A Handelian Soave in B flat Major follows, a short interlude that gives a splendid exhibition of this duo’s fluency and sensitive mimicry of each other in bending melodic lines and selecting notes for emphasis: the sort of detail you expect from players who know their period and know each other.  More unassuming examples of asymmetry emerge in the final Vivace with its 14-bar first half and second portion of 37 bars, along with its economical material that avoids sounding four-square through the unexpected nature of the harpsichord’s activity; not that it veers off into sudden flights of imagination, but the passage work and accompaniment figures offer mild surprises.

Tempo giusto is the heading for the Concerto No. 3 in A Major which opens with another amiable walking tune; so the executants take the direction as less ‘strict’ and more ‘appropriate’.  The movement’s second half is repeated, allowing Kornel’s keyboard some exposure, before a brief coda.  In the following Vivace, the interest seems to fall on the harpsichord,although Michatz has pride of place for the opening 8 bars.  A busy movement, it suddenly breaks into Scarlatti territory a little over half-way through when a sudden burst of repeated notes interrupts the normal chain of arpeggio and scale-based activity.  I’ve listened to this movement several times and can’t avoid the feeling that the prevailing rate of speed changes or slightly accelerates once the instruments are in real duet mode.

As expected, the concerto’s Adagio is in the relative minor and, in the prevailing context, sounds exceptionally meditative and not in a hurry to finish.  Michatz and Kornel maintain a stately pace, giving themselves ample room to negotiate the elaborations that are part-and-parcel of the two soprano lines – demi-semiquaver groups and galant-style duplet snaps.  The Presto that rounds off this concerto is simplicity itself – nothing taxing for these players – but it also has its own off-centre charm where four-bar sequences are finished off with a short two-bar scrap of filler.  The delight comes in realizing that there is really no inflexible, mathematical balance at work; just like Bach, Telemann can opt for the unexpected, even if he is not ostentatious about achieving it.

The next work, Concerto No. 4 in E minor, opens with a Largo that, for a while, raises the possibilities of a French ouverture but is not that ambitious, oscillating between the stately dotted note rhythm and fluid triplets; quite rhetorical in its language but within the bounds of decorum   –  the Dean of Windsor as opposed to Bishop Curry.   Surprises abound in the Vivace where the harpsichord announces a ten-bar theme before the recorder enters and, from there on, the forward movement makes a series of elongations and abridgements that are treated all-of-a-piece by these players, making sure we are aware of the re-appearances of the initial and rather stolid theme but making much of the busy activity that comes between.

While the G Major Dolce opens with a kind of pastoral motif in thirds, the movement proper only starts in bar 15 with a syncopated tune of little distinction. What does have interest is the recurrence towards the end of this movement of a left-hand harpsichord figure from the second bar, as though the composer decided on a spot of recycling.  This calm placidity is counterbalanced by a sort of gigue-finale, a Vivace in 12/8 which is given aggressive handling, especially by Kornel who revels in its abrupt stops and starts, her part punctuated by demi-semiquaver groups of four simultaneously in both hands.  It’s an unexpectedly violent set of pages, almost impatient in its rush to completion, and the only movement on the entire disc where I caught a wrong note in the keyboard part.

There’s a sort of break in the tonality alternations that have obtained so far in these concertos with No. 5 which is a B minor work, the only one that opens with an Adagio; a slow-stepping processional which features plenty of elegant linear dovetailing and interception work from both executants.  The succeeding Vivace in 3/2 keeps the harpsichord in figured bass mode for about 14 bars before permitting it any melodic contribution but, from then on, the instruments enjoy some rapid-fire contrasts and duplications, although the pace does slacken at two points – bars 32-33 and at bar 49 – although it’s hard to see why, unless the players feel they are in danger of becoming too rhythmically mechanical.

An E minor Grazioso intervenes – its title aptly chosen for the movement’s calm ambience punctuated by disciplined ornamentation.  The only problem here came in the final low-lying bars where an unsteady B from the recorder mars the assured, measured atmosphere.  Kornel has the focus for the start to the Presto finale with about 16 bars’ worth of solo.  This is one of the more aggressive fast movements in the whole collection with plenty of close-order fugato writing and some gestures that are, in this context, unexpectedly flamboyant.  The key might be minor but the temperament is optimistic, almost victorious.

Telemann ends his collection with an A minor construct, starting with an Andante that holds off on committing itself with some restless modulations and a tendency to highlight the dominant.   But, after the novelties exposed in the preceding work, this seems to be business back to normal as far as instrumental counterpoint practice goes.   After this comes a splendid Allegro, exemplifying how the composer can compress his material, while reverting back to the first concerto’s penchant for interpolated triplet passages.  As with so much you hear on this disc, things seem to verge on complexity but never quite get there – neither a good thing nor a bad thing, unless your penchant for the difficult can’t be satisfied by anything less than the Bach B minor Flute Sonata.

During the Largo, Telemann takes some time before pitching onto a definite C Major root, enjoying himself by wandering across other possibilities, including some meandering chromatic descents in the movement’s centre, all the while maintaining his predilection for triplets to soften the onward march of crotchets and quavers.   Here, Michatz and Kornel enter into the pages’ spirit with an approach that suggests the improvisatory and emotionally diffident; as we used to say on the acropolis, Nothing in excess.  But then the Allegro assai that finishes the whole opus is remarkably lavish with different themes for the participants to elaborate, while also doing the Bachian trick of introducing a passing theme (and it is as transient as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) before working back to the initial interweaving topics for discussion.   In other words, there’s yet another slight and subtle surprise in the tail of this collection.

As a labour of love on Michatz’s part, this is a welcome addition to the Move disc catalogue.   Yes, the whole thing is a transcription in essence, but what you lose in the flute’s carrying power, you gain in the supple suggestiveness of the recorder – or, in this case, two of them (the tenor instrument is used for the Concerto No. 2 in G minor).  To the performer’s credit, apart from this product representing the culmination of an ambition for Michatz and Kornel, his talented supporter/friend, the CD opens yet another window on the rich resource that is available if you bother to delve into the vast wealth of Telemann’s compositions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sensitive, sincere but not for everybody

SPIRIT WIND

Derek Jones

Move Records MD 3423

I don’t know what to make of this disc.  It consists of 7 tracks, improvisations for flute, synthesiser, high-pitched bells with Peter Neville contributing the occasional gong-induced sound.   Obviously, it is a labour of love for Jones, who has recorded another CD along these lines: Sun Down Moon Up which dates from 2008.  In broad terms, this is ambient music, not made for analysis but for an uncritical mind to indulge in its soporific progress.  What seems to be happening is that Jones uses the synthesiser as a mood-setting with the percussion employed to vary the backdrop while the flute (concert and alto on one track) plays its calm meditations on top.

The player/composer aims ‘to bring particular ‘experiences and thoughts into sound and to express inner feelings through the form of musical sound scapes’.  And that’s fine, as long as you are prepared to accept that music can do that.  Some of us are incapable of accepting that Jones can realise these aspirations.  ‘For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.’  Thus spake Stravinsky in 1936, before he enjoyed the inestimable gift of being intellectually and linguistically filtered by Robert Craft.   But he was right then and, to my mind, remains so.

Of course, you can go along with any composer and swallow entirely what (s)he says (s)he is telling you, although words are the only sure method by which you can be sure of the relevance of what you are hearing to the composer’s stated intentions; you don’t believe in Till’s execution unless you know that Strauss wants you to picture the scene; but you’d be ready to believe in Cavaradossi’s despair because he tells you about it.  Without verbal or written direction, we all flounder to attach specific emotional interpretations to music.

Jones begins his spiritual odyssey with Journey to Serenity – an attempt ‘to show the place of arrival where one experiences a great sense of unity and tranquillity.’ The flute enters over a soft synthesizer background centred around B flat Major; the chords change slowly, so the solo line has space to curvet and meander around a pretty limited set of notes although Jones uses a pretty full instrumental compass.  It’s somehow reminiscent of The Lark Ascending but without the broad, open spaciousness of that tone-poem’s development.  It also serves as a kind of Occidental take on Eastern meditation music; nothing is happening to engage the musical intellect but your aural sense is bathed in an amiable sonorous sequence that is devoid of events. After not too long a time you can almost predict the harmonic shifts – which, I’m afraid, lowered my interest/involvement level even further.

Jones pairs Journey to Serenity with the CD’s last track, Blue Star, which is presented as ‘lighting up our path towards the final goal and destination’.  The melodic path shows a more adventurous edge here and the synthesizer suggests a subdued choral texture  rather than strings.  Also adding some textural interest is what sounds like Peter Neville stroking a gong around its edge with a stick, although the effect is subject to some modification so it’s hard to discern the true nature of this complementary colour.  At all events, the musical path wanders across quite a few concordant sequences before concluding in a quiet B minor.

The second track, Violet Rays, starts out with a synthesizer version of the Gregorian chant, Pange lingua gloriosi, stated fairly plainly.  When Jones’ flute enters, it takes off on a path that I can’t reconcile with the chant which emerges again on the synthesizer just before the 3 minute mark.  The ambition here is cosmic; an  ‘observation of the human condition.’  The chant emerges once more en clair on the synthesizer but the flute’s slow-moving melismata add little to my differentiation between ‘the good and dark qualities being played out in the world’.  The Pange returns for the last time while the flute concludes with a C sharp minor triad.   It’s hard to draw a link between Aquinas’ hymn celebrating the Eucharist with the piece’s philosophical intent, but that’s not to say there isn’t one.

Meditation and Distant Bells, the third and sixth improvisations,  share a common platform: the visualization of musicians ‘improvising in an ethereal space’ – an image that is quite attractively presented, even if the flute is the only real line that does much.  In Meditation, the synthesizer provides a B drone and some intermittent sounds suggestive of a sitar add another element of a rising or falling 2nd to the mix.  Distant Bells opens with more of the sitar-like sounds (which by now are sounding like plucked piano strings) before the flute enters. Some bells add a fetching colour to the familiar drone backdrop.  In fact, this piece is more definitely ordered in its shape, along the lines of a short-versicle long-response pattern.  Sadly, my attention was wandering into irrelevant regions by the end, which bore an unfortunate similarity to the five-note motif that dominates the climax of Spielberg’s film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

To Bliss commemorates the flautist/composer’s experience of his father’s death nine years ago and fuses an alto flute line with the concert flute, signifying a conversation between father and son.  Distant high bells give a piquant edge to the dialogue.  The disc’s shortest track, it is easily the most effective and affecting: an eloquent in memoriam that leads to a consolatory F Major optimistic ending.

Finally, Night Sky comes with more lofty aims – ‘to show the tendency to feel the sense of separation in our human condition, and our need and yearning to find our true place in this world.’   Jones writes that this piece is based on the hymn tune Forty Days and Forty Nights and you can perceive its elements off and on in the flute line, while fragments emerge in the soft choral-reminiscent synthesizer backing.  This is demonstrably nocturnal music, in terms of its projected mood – but you could say much the same about most of the album’s content.

While I find it hard to come to terms with the propositions that underpin Jones’ improvisations, the player’s command of register and articulation is admirable.  His transitions from middle to high ranges cannot be faulted and, if the music itself follows a conservative, if not diatonic path for much of the time, the actual sound of flute and synthesizer in partnership is vivid and sensitively recorded.   It’s not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

 

 

 

An individual voice having fun

CUTETUDES

Ke Lin

Move MD 3419

This CD contains works by Australian writer Julian Yu and features pianist Ke Lin, a friend of the composer and a devoted, eventually dogged interpreter.  The first 20 tracks are mini-pastiches, written as a contemporary Album for the Young and possibly to inspire Lin’s daughter in her piano studies.  She’d have to be very proficient to take on some of these pieces that combine cuteness with studies – well, that’s what the neologistic CD title intends to say.

As for the other, more substantial pieces on offer, a few are sort of familiar, namely Yu’s re-interpretation of the Promenade and Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with three original pieces – Impromptu, China Rhapsody (the lengthiest constituent at a tad over 10 minutes) , The Happy Couple Returns Home – and an arrangement of a symphonic movement by Yasushi Akutagawa, the second part of his Music for Symphony Orchestra from 1950.

Two of these longer pieces appear to have been written/arranged for this CD, namely The Happy Couple Returns Home and the Akutagawa movement.  Yu’s Impromptu dates from 1982, well before the composer migrated to Australia, and was recorded by Lisa Moore in 1992.  The Rhapsody has apparently been left alone since 2012 when it was premiered by Jiangang Wu  at the Sydney Opera House.   But the Mussorgsky is harder to trace; Yu made an arrangement of the original masterpiece for piano in 2001 when he scored it for sixteen players or chamber orchestra – in fact, I seem to recall hearing it (or parts thereof) during a Pro Arte/Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event at a Federation Square concert.  The piano version was organised for Ye Sisi to play at her graduation concert in the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts in mid-2007; when I say ‘it’, I’m guessing that we’re hearing only part of the complete piano reconstruction on this CD because the Promenade and Great Gate are described as  ‘Oriental version excerpts’.

Still, the obvious emphasis in this enterprise falls on the Cutetudes, which are aphoristic (the longest is 3’12”, the shortest 0’43”) and packed with references or spoofs – so much so that your attention is taken up with recalling the classics (and others) that Yu cites, amalgamates or runs on top of each other.   Condensed Prelude offers an impressionistic variant of The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Book 1 C Major Prelude; Two Swans under Two Moons presents Beethoven’s Moonlight under Debussy’s Clair de lune, before the Scene from Swan Lake  precedes Saint-Saens gift to Pavlova – all very gentle and knitted together with subtlety.  The Liebstod precedes the D flat love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet while the Dies irae chant also gets a mention in Compound Tragedy.   A Phone Call to Mozart depicts the composer trying to write his own A Major Sonata but being interrupted by a ring-tone that bears a resemblance (for me) to a theme from Till Eulenspiegel.

What for Elise? begins with Beethoven’s famous bagatelle before deviating to the Radetzky March, flirting with a boogie bass line, flashing into Happy Birthday, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance,  flirting with the Ode to Joy, indulging in a burst of mitteleuropaische kitsch, moving back to the original A minor by means of Mozart’s sonata in that key, then detouring for a gentle/manic interlude featuring Leise flehen,  Boccherini’s MinuetJingle Bells, the William Tell Overture’s galop,  followed by a soupcon of the second movement to Schubert’s Great, the merest whiff of Tales from the Vienna Woods, a snatch out of the Brindisi from Traviata, and somewhere in there a Liszt march that I can’t place.  It’s not particularly well-organized and you get just a few seconds to put your memory into gear, so the effect is of overload – clever, but jerky.

Yu takes on Schubert in Finished Symphony, toying with the Allegro‘s second theme from the B minor Symphony before moving to the finales of Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths to illustrate a consummation devoutly to be wished, accomplished through the final bars from the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto’s first movement.   He revives memories of digital aches and teacher terror with Czernissimo;  a wistful Why are Butterflies Sad?  fuses Schumann’s Warum?,  Grieg’s lepidopteral study and the Grave from the Pathetique Sonata with an unexpected sequence that inverts the melodic direction of Schumann’s slight piece.  Folk Tune on Bach is just that: a Cantonese-style tune on top of the bass to the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 – over before it has begun.

A touch of the Menotti about Interrupted Symphony has the noble four-square theme of the finale to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 interrupted by a telephone ring, an ambulance (not that convincing), somebody banging on the door, with Beethoven’s Fate motif finally thrown in to show the futility of persisting when everything conspires against you – at least, that’s how I read it.   A real transformation takes place in Dovetailed Interlude where motifs from Bach’s Cello Suites in G Major and E flat are superimposed in a meandering haze. Pachelbel’s most famous product comes in for a refreshing reappraisal in Oriental Canon, the ornate later variations given a pseudo-pentatonic flavour.  The composer moves into Mendelssohn territory with a setting of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the style of On Wings of Song.

Yu seems to have an obsession with Mussorgsky’s musical gallery because here comes another exploration: Harmonic Phrases at an Exhibition.  The Promenade theme is interrupted by Nun danket alle Gott, Clair de lune, a scrap from the Andantino in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Chopin’s E Major Etude from the Op. 10, the opening bars to Wagner’s Tristan. a bit of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the solo that begins Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and several other fragments I can’t recall.  Like the Fur Elise piece, you hear a lot, but here it is better put together.  God Save Hanon offers the famous first five-finger exercise as a support for the British national anthem

Another Hanon exercise follows, which allegedly revisits Saint-Saens’ The Swan and then Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book 1, although I only heard that book’s C minor Fugue subject.  The 24th Caprice turns into a Chinese melody during Paganini and the Hundred Birds, then both are played simultaneously.  Mozartian influences direct the following Rondo alla Twinka which again revisits Twinkle, Twinkle, here in the style of the famous A Major Sonata finale.   Prokofiev’s cat melody gets clever two-part handling in Caterpoint.  The series concludes with To Comrade Shostakovich which takes as its basis The Pioneers Plant chorus from the Song of the Forests Cantata, given fast motoric toccata treatment and spruced up with some quotations from other works by the Russian master.

Much of this series is charming and brisk; a slight amount of it is repetitive in that it says the same thing twice if not three times, and every so often the seams show through pretty obviously.   But Lin’s enthusiasm for the exercise is apparent, informed by a reliable, sometimes dazzling pianism only let down by a note (or two?) in his instrument’s treble that is slightly out-of-tune.   However, the work as a whole lives up to its title and is an attractive compendium for musicians, both experienced and amateur.

In contrast, the remaining tracks are agreeable experiences if several of them are also based on unoriginal material.   Impromptu is treble-centric from its opening, with liberal splashings of Debussy/Ravel colouring although the rhythm is suggestive of minimalist practice.   A sustained bass splash makes a momentary distraction from the upper-reaches work which fades into silence before a final statement of the piece’s chief motive.  It’s a fine study in one particular type of pianistic timbre and well worth hearing.

China Rhapsody draws on a background that I don’t have, referring as it does to traditional songs and other pieces of Chinese music; however, I feel that I could acquire the necessary knowledge pretty easily.    The opening is full of Liszt-style trumpet calls alternating with languor, employing melodies that are probably well-known in China.   Here, they serve the purpose of fleshing out Yu’s equivalent to a Hungarian rhapsody’s lassan although, the further this first segment progresses, the more occidental its harmonic language as the tunes are chromatically filled in.   The consequent friska is  –  of course  –  a presto with some jazzy syncopations, the work’s impetus held up for the glorification of a pentatonic tune before the excitement returns, suggesting Gershwin’s rhapsodies in their virtuosic clamour.   Finally, the climax is rich in fist-full flurries across the keyboard and has a fine 1930s glissando finish.

Taken from a Chinese Huangmei opera, The Happy Couple Returns Home was originally an aria; Yu offers a continuous set of variations on it.  The result is pleasant enough if the piece’s progress doesn’t move far from an E minor base – or a mode based on E.  Occasionally, an out-of-tune high A breaks your concentration; yet, to be honest, there is not much challenging matter here, the composer quite content to curvet around his melody without subjecting it to any rough treatment.

The Mussorgsky brace begins with an essentially straight reading of the initial Promenade while plenty of oriental decoration is imposed above Mussorgsky’s score; the most striking feature here is the employment of a rapid downward-scale whole-tone flourish.  For The Great Gate, Yu keeps the opening strophes restrained, the original cut down to thinner chords with plenty of filler to compensate for Mussorgsky’s bare semibreves and minims. The first chant interruption is striking and Yu employs his own brand of stentorian brashness after those quiet bars.   The second chant section shows little new except his penchant for tremolo.  I can’t see an improvement on the bell clangour that leads into the Promenade restatement and Yu’s downward arpeggios are a touch disappointing, although what he is leading into is not the original’s powerful clamour but a gentle orientalization before the tension of the striking final minim triplets comes through clearly.  Yu supplies some celebratory downward major scales, afterthoughts that bring the piece to a placid ending.   Both these treatments are not re-compositions but elaborations that stick pretty faithfully to their Mussorgsky fundamentals.

Finally, the Akutagawa transcription brought back memories from the early 1960s of the NHK Symphony Orchestra visit to Melbourne, conducted by (I think) Yuzo Toyama.  Some modern Japanese work was premiered then and, even at this distance, I recall a music more creative and striking than this busy but derivative movement which owes a good deal to 20th century Russian greats but amounts to little more than froth and bubble; exciting for the pianist, I’m sure, but its attraction for the youthful student Yu, working in Japan at developing his craft, is not shared by this listener.

You gain insights from this CD, although not from every one of its components.  Cutetudes is a jeu d’esprit and, like most of its school, has clear successes and other why-did-he-bother? moments.  But you get a clear impression of Yu’s sense of fun and, in the later tracks, an awareness of the rather welcome innocence and unclouded tranquillity that informs his musical intellect.

 

 

 

\

 

The eternity of everything?

OMNIA AETERNA: THE DEATH & LIFE OF OTTO BLOOM

Paul Gillett

AFQ009

 

So much about this is undiscovered territory.   I haven’t seen the 2016 film for which this score was written; the composer is unknown to me; more to the point, the world of film music itself has always been something of a mystery.  A fellow student once tried to teach me some tricks of the trade, mainly to do with how you handle the brass.  He had a wealth of information about trombones in ‘classic’ film music of the 1960s but nothing of that data remains in this memory box.

But music to accompany films – even when given a sort of academic respectability by Schoenberg – is a craft that most of us don’t question, just accepting it as essential scene-setting, an invitation to emotional reaction, possibly even an irritating aural distraction from the visual feast in front of us.  On the one hand, you can enjoy the bloated Hollywood reconstructions that are regularly on offer from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which is currently involved in the Harry Potter canon: playing the music live to escort us through a screening of whichever film has been chosen for treatment.  On the other, several ensembles make a semi-career of offering music to amplify the impact of silent classics; from my experience, these exercises usually involve original music, but not the original scores.

For all this quibbling, film scores have become an essential part of cinematic practice, even if the products are over-segmented and over-written, following the principle that, if you strike a good tune, don’t let it go (cf. John Williams).   But few are memorable on their own merits, despite the industry’s herculean efforts to expound the merits of soundtrack CDs that have been produced to background instantly forgettable films.  Watching Spielberg’s Ready Player One yesterday, my companion, alert to cultural references, informed me that Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack was packed with references to popular music of several decades ago, as well as lifts from soundtracks to other films.  Which didn’t surprise me as the director was clearly determined, through his screenplay and visual gimmickry, to intrigue the cognoscenti with references to films that impressed him.

For all that, you have to sympathise with Bunuel who grew to use less and less music in his works; starting out with a sequence of random Wagner and tangos for the first screening in 1929 of Un  Chien Andalou, then winding up with absolutely no music for the 1967 Belle de jour.   Despite this admiration, the schizoid in me responds very positively to Duke Ellington’s powerful contributions to Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959 – a dazzling exhibition of both ensemble and individual brilliance.

Paul Gillett’s work for Cris Jones’ film comprises 21 tracks on this CD, featuring Luke Howard on piano and the Organic Quartet: violins Cameron Jamieson and Natalia Harvey, Matthew Laing viola, Campbell Banks on cello.  The composer notes his own references to particular musical styles, most interestingly his adoption of Nancarrow’s tempo canons.  Gillett also appears on the disc himself, in his guise of Floyd Thursby, singing two mild lyrics:  Time on our hands and Forget the Future.  And I think he accompanies himself, as well as providing the one solo guitar track.

This album opens with Who is Otto Bloom?  Well, in musical terms he seems to be a combination of Shostakovich and Satie, the latter very present in the opening string quartet strophes which suggest both the Gymnopedies and the Gnossiennes, the Russian composer’s shadow present later as the waltz movement gains in emphasis.  What does it propose in emotional terms?  Well, it’s in minor mode, hefty in delivery, not particularly complex but mildly interesting.  The Winter of ’83 has sustained icy upper strings, a piano that outlines a long melody over a steady bass pattern, a small input from the other strings and a satisfyingly bleak ambience.   Retrochronology is a solo piano vignette that irresistibly brings to mind the Andante con moto from Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio; if it’s an homage, it’s fair enough, the modulations unexceptional but, by this stage, you anticipate that Gillett is not going to move far outside an orthodox ambit.

Disorders of Memory alternates a 3/8 and 5/8 pattern in piano and violin rotating around a second inversion A minor chord, the keyboard’s left hand momentarily getting out of phase twice; a mild disorder at worst.  A waltz rhythm dominates The Time Traveller which moves not far outside a steady G minor base but offers little beyond a few piano references to Satie’s Gnossiennes again – possibly Nos. 1 and 3 – in its angularity.  Bonfire Night, another piano solo with a persistent right hand pulse, is puzzling; no Jeux d’artifice explosions of light here.

The first Thursby-persona song is a folksy song, suggestive of Dylan at his simplest, for voice and guitar, which irritates by having nearly every two-line strophe beginning with the word ‘Maybe’.  Because nothing was therefore all things are turns into a quiet ramble for piano that manages to suggest a Bach slow movement before the strings enter with some anaemic sustained notes while the piano references Chopin’s Raindrop D flat Prelude then riffs back to Bach – the middle movement of the Italian Concerto, possibly.

For The Renaissance Man, the compositional approach is back to arpeggios and a texture very much indebted to Phillip Glass, although the chugging rhythm for piano and quartet is going nowhere but straight ahead, without any variants on offer.  The guitar enjoys a solo in Pas de Cent – No hundreds? Not a cent? – which again offers nothing but arpeggios and a bit of electronic chordal shimmering in the piece’s second half; A minor is definitely the tonalite du jour.   The longest track at 5 minutes, Human Time Machine for piano, again references Bach, starting with an angular arpeggio pattern in the right hand, above an unchanging bass D, which then gets the Nancarrow treatment by way of a superimposed tape, I suppose.   As far as I can tell, there are only two upper lines intersecting and coinciding, so the texture is ultra-clear.

At The Backwards Guy, Gillett plays with a pair of impressionist chords in pianist Howard’s left hand while offering a Debussy-suggestive  roaming melody in the instrument’s upper levels – but this interesting track passes all too quickly.  We’re back in Satie waltz territory for Midnight in Byzantium where the piano quintet revisits patterns that are becoming all too familiar.  Ka mura, ka muri has the piano’s two hands moving along two paths that strike me as totally detached; Gillett calls this ‘ a pretty little tempo canon’ – and I suppose it is.  The title is a Maori saying that refers to walking backward into the future, which is the basic premise of Jones’ film in which the protagonist lives his life in reverse.

Einstein’s Letter features lots of sustained chords for string quartet, a kind of mildly grinding mournful chorale.   Precious little infinity is another Nancarrow flight for piano(s) playing a repeated treble pattern with the quartet providing, at first, unison three-note punctuation comments which later move into four-step cadences.  In 38 West 49th St, the piano solo presents a bleak emotional landscape with a sustained final bass chord to dampen the spirits even further.  We’re back with the Human Time Machine pattern for Korsakoff syndrome, although this time cello and viola provide a bass support that oscillates between D and C sharp, the whole concluding with a powerful low D from the piano alone..  It may be a musical illustration of the malady that the track’s title refers to but, as with Disorders of Memory, the effect depicted seems minor.

At what I assume is the film’s focal point, Otto Bloom is dead, Gillett heads for a piano solo slow waltz but only gets through two statements of his theme – a quick demise, then.  Omnia Aeterna is back in chugging post-Glass territory with a predictable series of descending arpeggios and chords.  And Thursby finishes the opus off with another folk-song for guitar and string quartet that aims for the heart-strings: a briskly moving love song that ends with the ambivalent line, ‘When I let you go, I will hold you in my arms’.  This is in keeping, of course, with the off-centre nature of the film’s hero who is fated to recall only his future.

All right: the album is not ground-breaking in its ambition or much more than amiable in its melodic and harmonic content.  But it does establish a sort of world, an Otto Bloom land – to the point where I’d like to see the film and see how Gillett’s work slots into its playing time, as well as discover something about how well he illuminates the director’s intentions and the actors’ efforts.

 

 

 

 

US on the outside, Oz in the middle

CLAIRAUDIENT

Claire Edwardes

Move Records MD 3416

Artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes is almost alone on this CD, although one of its ten tracks features the clarinet of Jason Noble in collaboration with the percussionist’s vibraphone.   Half of the content comes from Melody Eotvos, an Australian composer currently resident in the United States of America, and her contributions seem to have been written for Edwardes and/or her ensemble.  The other local content comes from Damien Ricketson, one of Edwardes’ Offspring colleagues, and the partnership of Marcus Whale and Tom Smith who present the cryptically titled Work: part 1 and Work: part 2.

To open and close the album, Edwardes goes to the North American continent.  Her first gambit is Nostalgia by Canadian composer Vincent Ho, a vibraphone solo that revisits the composer’s percussion concerto, The Shaman.  This slow movement has no modernist terrors but meanders impressionistically around an E flat Major fulcrum before flirting with near-dissonance, then reverting at the last minute to the euphonious simplicity of its opening phrases.  Edwardes is not stretched but gives an attractive, languorous account of pages that have absolutely no distinctiveness.

Closing the disc, Edwardes brings both vibraphone and xylophone into play for a version of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint of 1982.  Originally for trios of alto flutes, flutes and piccolos and one solo part, all pre-recorded, with a live solo flute part, this work is the second-longest track and – as you’d anticipate – the least interesting.  As usual, scraps are piled on top of each other in a mosaic that masquerades as rhythmically ingenious but is even less satisfying than usual as the displacement of perception towards which these patterns so earnestly aspire borders on the simple-minded.

The tragedy is that this passes for modern-day counterpoint: a going-nowhere layering of lines which divides into discrete sections that seem to start up whenever the composer gets tired of his own lack of invention.  I understand the hypnotic attraction of the minimalist style and practice but can find nothing to admire or engross in its workings.  What is intensely dispiriting is the reduction to basic inanity that a product like Vermont Counterpoint involves.  Our art reaches a contrapuntal mastery in Bach, gets even more complex in Schoenberg and Boulez – and we wind up with this triviality.

Mind you, Reich and his colleagues aren’t totally accountable for a latter-day lowering in compositional craft standards.  The last century started with an explosion of rhythmic possibilities in The Rite of Spring and a few decades later we are confronted by the clod-hopping aesthetic dead-end that is rock; our insights into the ephemeral reach a kind of mini-summit with the Missa Papae Marcelli and the same aspiration results, 400 years later, in Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life.  Sound artists like Debussy and Schoenberg expand horizons so that modern-day inheritors of their blazoning paths can stand still in the Hollywood film recording studios; Stockhausen and Pousseur explore the potential of electronic sound-manipulation and, some decades later, the personification of trite – the Beatles – assist in bringing any adventurousness to a shameful end by embodying popular music’s morass of sterility.

Take The Work: part 1 which sources its impetus from the Rebonds of Xenakis; that ascription might be accurate, except that the Greek composer’s work does not involve electronics, whereas this score has a chugging, unchanging motorised pulse as its fundamental with some  focused white noise weaving in and out of the texture.  On top, Edwardes plays the dominant line on drums, a stratum that offers an opposition to the underpinning electronic support.  This contrast of the regular with the disjunct works half the time except that the Whale/Smith combination want to have and eat their percussive cake, having the live percussionist offer both a cross-rhythmic Hauptstimme but one that, every so often, falls into line with the support,  In other words, the piece challenges sporadically but doesn’t convince.

With The Work: part 2, the sound material is more intriguing as it involves a piece of garden slate and rocks, although how these sources are manipulated electronically – and they are – escapes me.  Still, it makes for an arresting 5-and-a-half minutes, even if the time that it takes to pass by presents not much more than an invitation to surrender to Edwardes’ state of clairaudience: hearing sounds that you would not encounter in your daily life, music ‘not audible to the normal ear’, as the CD’s leaflet expresses it.

Ricketson’s Time Alone – also for vibraphone and electronics – is the disc’s lengthiest work.  It forms part of an arcane collection that comprises pieces that have been ‘deliberately shielded from public life’: The Secret Noise.  Well, this part of the collection is now very public and, on the face of it, we haven’t been missing much.  A long chain of single vibraphone notes are sounded; about five minutes in, a faint electronic commentary enters for sonorous complementary reasons, gradually rising in importance to challenge the pointillism of the live instrument.

The effect is a good deal more intriguing than The Work, mainly because Ricketson has a finer perception of what to do with his material to keep it fresh, balanced and continuous. Yet again, it can’t be classed as a challenge for Edwardes but she projects the composer’s odd ambition for a construct that is both assimilable and arcane, public and private, with excellent control.

The odd-man-out of Eotvos’ quintet is Leafcutter, written in 2012 for vibraphone and clarinet.  It functions as the composer’s tribute to leafcutter ants, specifically the females for their path to procreation and founding individual colonies.  Both instruments pursue busy and continuous intersecting paths that suggest industry and a benign single-mindedness that eventually fades to inactivity when, I suppose, all the necessary work has been achieved and the ants can rest.  It’s hard to find any comparisons; Eotvos’s mobile linear interplay suggests a Hindemith-like rigour but the score’s bubbling inexorability sounds like early Boulez.  For all that, this creative voice is disciplined and individualistic.

The other four Eotvos works come from a collection called Counterpoint where the composer, Edwardes and three poets  –  Luka Lesson, Jessica L. Wilkinson, Margaret West  –  came together to create, their aesthetic congress resulting in a series of poems and music that, living up to the title, interweave and balance each other.  Lesson is responsible for How does a Miller and No Man, Wilkinson for And I was Tired and Book of Flying; West goes unrepresented.

Each piece has its own timbre world.  In How does a Miller, Edwardes employs tom toms, bass drum and electronics in a fusion of primitive and sophisticated.  Long on supple patting rather than pounding, the atmosphere delineated is rather menacing.  Somewhere along the way, I think Lesson recites his own lines; they are distorted intentionally and so are incomprehensible.

And I was Tired involves cymbal, waterphone, crotales and electronics and the poet’s recitation is almost clear while Eotvos relishes introducing us to the waterphone’s suggestiveness.  This is a more rhythmically emphatic construct to start with before moving into impressionistic amblings for its second-part, with isolated distorted words the sole point of reference.

Back comes the vibraphone (and electronics)  for Book of Flying which has no spoken text, although it was one of two poems I was able to track down.  Edwardes lays on the vibraphone repeated clusters with a will and you can hear definite mimicry of the fly noted in Wilkinson’s lines.  Yet the achievement is not that impressive, possibly because it seems happy in its own haiku-like stasis.

Naturally, the vibraphone and electronics feature in Lesson’s No Man, as well as the almglocken or tuned cowbells which for my generation have an unbreakable link with Mahler.  Edwardes indulges in a sturdy brand of mild aggression – but you could say the same about much of Counterpoint – before Lesson speaks his four lines en clair.  The latter part of the piece is a series of distortions of this spoken material. improving on the original’s flat delivery but bringing to mind how much more adventurous and daring were similar experiments like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge from over 60 years ago.

Nevertheless, this experimental music+verse exercise demonstrated an aspiration towards true creativity.  The results might be uneven but Eotvos and her multi-talented interpreter give us on this CD a much-needed collection of how music might be advanced, taken outside its self-satisfied strictures and hauled into something approaching a musical landscape that builds on the past, proposing the new rather than wallowing in pointless populism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guitar. Fits in everywhere

FAIRY TALES MONSTERS AND WILD ANIMALS

Meredith Connie

Move Records MCD 567

 

 

Connie’s latest CD is divided, unlike Gaul, into five parts, two of them having to do with children’s music.

She begins with a collection of 14 pieces for guitar and speaker that are animal pieces offering illustrative character pieces of no particular weight to poems by David Elliott that the guitarist recites with a convincing Playschool clarity and theatricality.  The verses are not too twee, even if the rhymes are predictable.  Similarly, Connie’s guitar is rarely stretched, although her illustrations are often spry and not simple-minded pap.

Her lion is a languid prowler, one of the longer-lasting members (tracks) of this menagerie; a habanera rhythm dominates the elephant-vision’s opening and closing; not surprisingly, the giraffe is depicted in a slow-moving melody pretty much confined to the instrument’s top strings; for the zebra, Connie uses a jig format, a catchy single-note pattern obtaining throughout.  The intention of the rhinoceros’ musical image is to offer – in 28 seconds – a battery of not-too-offensive sounds to represent the creature’s monstrous physical properties.  Oddly enough, the sloth – a natural do-nothing –  has the longest music attached to it: a slow pavane of sorts that quite properly doesn’t move anywhere harmonically.

The jaguar is comparable to the zebra in its rapid-fire content but suggests a scrap by Torroba.  As with the sloth, Connie/Elliott’s panda is going nowhere, with two-bar phrases repeated over and over, although not as tedious as a minimalist exercise – here is one more animal that the composer is in no hurry to abandon.  Another great cat, this tiger is packed with harmonics and muted notes as the poet offers a starlit picture with concluding Blakean inferences.  Again, the habanera rhythm provides an initial basis for the orangutan – and a conclusion as well;  and it’s another, more lop-sided jig for the kangaroo on one of the album’s shortest tracks.

I find it hard to follow what is being done with the buffalo which sadly occupies a climatic binary state – hot and cold; the tone is eventually elegiac as poet and musician mourn the creature’s passing.  There’s something much stronger about the wolf music which almost offers a narrative from howling to loping and back again.  As you’d expect, the polar bear moves slowly if regularly, eventually fading from sight.

After dealing with her wild animals, Connie moves back quite some distance to the works of Johann Kaspar Mertz, specifically pieces from Books 2 and 5 of his Bardenklange.  She begins with Fingals-Hohle, which I take to be this composer’s take on his contemporary Mendelssohn’s somewhat more famous overture.  It turns out to be a clever exercise in arpeggios of increasing speed and range, showing as much enthusiasm for regular patterns as Mendelssohn himself.  The following Abendlied could have sat quite comfortably in the pages of the Lieder ohne worte; beginning with a chorale, then moving into a more fussy pattern rich in sextuplets which Connie treats with plenty of pliancy.

Unruhe begins with a 9-bar introduction that sets the unsettled scene, then opts for an sonorously intimate, wide-ranging development of simple material, rich in unusual spacings – not of the notes as a series but as they are placed for the instrument.  It’s given supple handling which helps justify the intended restlessness, no matter how Biedermeier its underlying character.  Finally, Elfenreigen starts firmly enough with not much of a tune to speak of but an amiable rustle of triplets; then, on its second page, the matter moves into descending patterns that simply burst the initial placid magic for the sake of a technical exercise.  It’s smoothly handled but even Connie’s elegant delivery can’t disguise Mertz’s sudden lapse in inspiration.

Australian composer Phillip Houghton’s Gothica – Book of Spooks and Spectres originally had ten parts; here, we are offered six of them, starting with The Old Spanish Castle is Full of Vampires, Sleeping which has Spanish tropes but you have to supply your own spectres before a poke-your-tongue-out ending.  The Gates That Hold King Kong are represented by a series of upward-sweeping arpeggiated chords that fade to silence; I assume these stand for the massive structure that kept the great ape imprisoned in the 1933 film but, as with much of this suggestive music, they could just as easily have set the scene for a menacing night on Flinders St. Station.

Juju seems to me too complex to stand for a fetish, but perhaps I’ve missed the point.  I much preferred Spell which, for all its stop-start opening, presented a simple post-Bartok example of rhythmic disjunction.  Houghton uses a number of instrumental effects in Headhunter, in particular the suspenseful pause; you can also admire the metallic scrapes he inserts, probably to remind you of the title-character’s life vocation.  They of the Half Light are represented by a miniature that is quite a mobile construct but Houghton keeps his harmony ambiguous with a plethora of added notes so that you don’t see much en clair – it’s the most sophisticated of these six tracks.

Stepan Rak, a senior Rusyn guitarist/composer, has compiled a suite of Czech Fairy Tales which also require a narrator, here supplied by Connie, although her oral duties seem confined to information concerning what’s coming up.  The pieces begin with a fortune-teller in a market place telling tales to children, whom he leads into a forest where they play before the advent of the inevitable witch in menacing, discordant minor mode.  Unaware, you assume, the children continue playing although there is a minatory undercurrent.  To flesh out the fairy nature of the suite, enter a dragon who, rather abruptly and without any musical warning, dies quietly.

To brighten the funereal mood, Rak introduces goblins – all rough slapping chords and scrapes –  then fairies who are a susurrus – and a reassuring  photo-shoot of the children who are all over the place  –  hopping running, jumping.   Lost in the story of a fortune-teller returns to the opening theme and you’re in Pied Piper territory, I suppose: the children gone for good inside the fairy tales.   Rak sustains the central-European/Slavic folk suggestiveness with a plethora of motifs that sound authentic, despite the dressing-up in biting, crisp harmonizations and a willingness to alter everything abruptly just for the sake of a change.  You’re grateful for Connie’s commentary but, as it stands, the information is pretty lean in content and direction.

Finally, we are offered four tracks of a composition by Californian guitar guru, Jim Ferguson.  This is Four Monsters, beginning with the most famous of all in Frankenstein Meets the Jazzman, which might be suggesting the mechanical rigidity that is so unreliable in the old Boris Karloff film, and you’d guess that the eponymous jazzman emerges in the  unremarkable chords that provide the piece with so much of its forgettability.  We are almost definitely in Poe country for The Raven Vanishes, but this bird is in no hurry to leave the scene as its laid-back funereal theme-motive makes its presence felt with some weight in this amiable ternary-format piece.

Mad Love is a waltz of a quietly manic insistence, the scenario for which one commentator traces to a Peter Lorre horror film of 1935.  It’s splendidly played by Connie with a calculated uncertainty of pulse carefully adopted to suggest a kind of musical – and by extension, mental – imbalance.  Lastly, The Fly succeeds in irritating through a wealth of five-finger-exercise buzzing, but the piece is brief and leaves you longing only slightly for the insertion of a satisfying swat sound.

This recording seems to have been processed largely by Connie both here, in Coffs Harbour, and in the United States.  I was very impressed by the quality of the final Jim Ferguson tracks which were excellent in balance and fidelity with every detail clarion-clear.  The content, as you can gather from the above, is a mixture that makes little sense to me; yes, the pieces are flights of fancy in most cases but they vary vastly in quality and what I can only call aesthetic provenance.  Nevertheless, the whole compendium is a tribute to Connie’s artistry and widely spread sympathies.

 

 

 

 

 

Chiff power

DANCES AND DELIGHTS

Monash University Flute Ensemble

MD 3421

Most of the content in this collection is light, either by intention or happenstance.  Of the 15 tracks, several were commissioned by or arranged for the Monash University Flute Ensemble: David Henderson’s three-movement Consortium, Tony Gould’s A New Spring DayPortrait de l’homme de commun by James Mustafa, Evening Prayer by Houston Dunleavy, and Carolyn Morris’ Oceana.

The ensemble’s director, Peter Sheridan, commissioned one of the other works heard here: Visions of Grace by Adrienne Albert, and two works enjoy their premiere recording:  Gould’s substantial piece – the longest on the disc – and Daniel Dorff’s Fireworks.  Filling out the edges comfortably is a group of works from all over the place: Arlen’s Over the Rainbow,  a Danse fantastique by Shostakovich, James Horner’s My Heart Will Go On, and the album’s bracing opener: Valsette by Danish 19th century all-rounder Joachim Anderson; this was originally a (italics) flute/piano Scherzino  but is heard here in an arrangement for flute quartet (I think, although it sounds as though more than that number are involved).

An agreeable if derivative stand-alone work is Rika Ishage’s Brindavan which is played by a sextet comprising piccolo, three C instruments, an alto and a bass.

The whole thing makes for a noteworthy essay in an arcane field, in as much as you will rarely hear so many flutes together outside of a university’s encouraging environment.  The combinations vary as the tracks fly past on a moderately sized 58 minutes of recording.  Along with the multiple flute personnel, Gould plays piano for his own piece while Move’s own Rhys Boak fleshes out the Titanic melody.

The Valsette gets matters off to a flying start with excellent ensemble work, setting up the prevailing sound ambience with some certainty.  This massed flute flavour suggests an organ, if an unusually uniform one, in the sound’s delivery: a touch of the chiff plosion before each note.  But the ambience is more individual in colour than you get on the keyboard instrument.  Still, there’s nothing here to keep you guessing; just a simple ternary format with a bouncy vivacity in the outer sections.

The next flute-specific composition is Henderson’s construct comprising Prelude, Processional and Romance.  This score involves piccolo, C, alto, bass and contrabass flutes with the lower instruments getting little exposure melodically in the agreeable opening movement which has an interesting opening gesture even if the consequent development sounds laboured.  The central movement is suitably measured, rising to a skirling climax, having got there by a gradual crescendo which, because of the plentiful unisons involved, shows some cracks in the ensemble’s tuning.  Henderson’s final piece strikes me as the least original of the three with an unprepossessing strolling main theme and a touch of awkwardness just before the last reprise.

American writer Albert scored her Visions of Grace for pairs of altos and basses with a contrabass bringing up the rear.  The work begins with a pleasant harmonically eliding setting of Amazing Grace which strolls into something remarkably like Loch Lomond, then Shenandoah and Red River Valley  .  .  .  there may be a couple more in there but I got confused with the bridge passages.  It’s a smoothly compiled miscellany that contrives to sound atmospherically coherent and the rendition also impresses for its fluency.

For some unfathomable reason, I was expecting something brazen from Mustafa’s work, like Copland’s Symphony No. 3 fanfare – possibly because of the title’s last three words – but this work is heavy on the timbre of low flutes, although written for what the composer calls a ‘modern classical flute orchestra’.   A certain amount of chordal shape-shifting, possibly the product of the composer’s wide experience in leading, performing in and conducting jazz ensembles,  precedes a simple flute melody in what I believe is a D flat Major modality;  the selection of which key might go some way to explaining the salty, slightly off-pitch  sound of the ensemble in the work’s brief second half, particularly a high-flying piccolo.

Young Japanese composer Ishige writes that her work takes its title from a harem in India and she attempts in her two movements to suggest a lush garden and fountains.  Piccolo Grace Wiedemann, C flutes Thomas Thorpe, Catherine King and Isobel McManus, alto Steph Leslie and bass Jazmine Morris perform this score which would have impressed more if people had paid stricter attention to tuning; during the languorous stretches of the first movement, your teeth are set on edge by some un-centred passages – and yet the post-Debussyan text is not that taxing.  The more lively second movement also features some moments that might have gained from re-recording, including a segment that juxtaposes piccolo and bass although it’s hard to pick out the latter as the middle-range accompaniment is over-hefty.  Still, the composer’s aim is lightly accomplished and these four-square flourishes and curvettes represent a congenial if unadventurous take on the impressionism of Jets d’eaux.

Dunleavy’s piece is a slow meander for an unspecified body, something like a four-square hymn although its harmonic language is ear-stretching, more sophisticated than most of the other tracks on this CD.   In fact, because of its measured, regular pace, the piece’s main interest comes from its polyphony and yet you are reminded all too often of old-time B. Mus. exercises in counterpoint.  For all that, the performance is sure-footed and a reassuring return to form from the Monash players.

Morris originally wrote her Oceana for chamber orchestra; this transcription employs a pair of piccolos, 4 C flutes, 3 altos, 2 bass and a contrabass.  The opening sees a return to the slightly off-pitch product that has bedevilled former tracks, most notable in moments where piccolo and C flutes are working in unison or at the octave.  The work is a pleasant and calm seascape where the sun is continually out and the waves are all benign and negotiated with major-key tillers.   Even when you expect a change at about the 4-minute mark when a hiatus is reached and the prevailing texture moves for a moment to the bass instruments, the atmosphere is still all calm-sea-and-prosperous-voyage and moves only for a second or two outside its happy F Major framework.

Senior American composer Dorff wrote Fireworks for a 2016 flute convention sponsored by the Flute Society of Washington.   It features lots of rushing upward scales, very exposed piccolo lines and a wealth of syncopation that is not quite deftly realised by this group.  Certainly, the composer’s intention was to set up a brilliant sound scape for experts to toss off, yet the impression given here is often of a prodding at the piece rather than a hurtling through its pages with sure-footed certainty.

Mel Orriss’ treatment of the Judy Garland show-stopper from The Wizard of Oz has a long preamble before hitting the main melody but the flute ensemble is given plenty of amplitude and – as in all the best treatments – everyone gets a guernsey.  The temptation to embellish is hardly resisted but never gets in the way of a great tune – once it gets started.

Horner’s lyric opens with an Irish whistle solo, before the massed ensemble enters and works through a full-bellied arrangement under the direction of Jazmine Morris.  The tune’s progress is strong on polemic before the whistle returns and brings the Hollywood sentiment under control and reminds you of the premise behind the film: a class-crossing love story, not a bloated disaster extravaganza.

The Shostakovich Danse fantastique comes from the early four-movement Suite for Two Pianos of 1922.  It’s not saying anything new to observe that most of the original’s percussive bite is gone in this arrangement by Melbourne educator/flautist Carolyn Grace. The piece opens with plenty of sprightly verve but the more instruments that join in – and there are quite a few – the less assurance in the chording and rhythmic synchronicity.  As with several other tracks on this CD, the middle section lapses into hard labour and the final page is lacking in the expected brittle buoyancy that two pianists bring to this section.

Gould begins his piece with a slow-moving hymn-like prelude which melds into a sequence for low flutes, elaborating and exploring the piano’s opening motives.  The motion accelerates with the arrival of a piccolo before the initial restraint takes over again with Gould’s return for another solo meditation.  The flute choir follows with a brisk optimistic passage of play which could have been honed into more crisp delivery as some of the harmonic changes seem scatter-gun, and the articulation from alto flutes down is not as exact as it should be.

In fact, the finest moments of Gould’s work come in the last piano solo that concludes the work, a pillow of restful chords under a nomadic melody line that suggests the work’s title with more efficacy than the wind interludes.  As a sound picture, the work is non-specific; like Beethoven’s Pastoral, ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’.  Yet, along with the composer-pianist’s elegance of delivery, the piece is infused with a consistent and quiet sense of satisfaction, a placid delight.

So this CD is a real miscellany, a showcase in some ways for Peter Sheridan’s players who, when they’re on song, make a satisfying contribution to a rarely-heard corner of Australian musical practice.  If you’re prepared to forgive the occasional awkwardness in delivery, this disc holds sufficiently worthy accomplished tracks.

 

 

The viol da gamba lives

SPINNING FORTH

Jenny Eriksson, the Marais Project

Move Records MCD 564

Many would find it hard what to make of some connections drawn throughout this CD’s content.  You’d expect, given the ensemble’s title and the repute of Jenny Eriksson, that the music would owe a large debt to the Baroque French violist Marin Marais, best known through the Alain Corneau 1991 film Tous les matins du monde which investigated the composer’s relationship with his eminent predecessor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.  And you do find a Marais track listed, but it’s more of a play on Marais than the original; hence, you can glean something of an explanation in the participating group’s name which suggests that its enterprises will not be devoted to a straight reproduction of the past.

In fact, the only other period music to be found is a suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, one of Marais’ pupils.  But even this work has been gussied up to some extent with the addition of an extra gamba line; I’m not sure what this alteration accomplishes even though the results prove unexceptionable.

But the CD’s chief content is contemporary, or near-so.  A musician who appears in nearly everything on this recording, theorbo master Tommie Andersson, supplied an arrangement of Hjort Anders Olsson’s Min levnads afton, a walking tune that the Swedish fiddler performed and so resuscitated.  The title work by Tasmanian-born Paul Cutlan offers  another suite, a take on the form with a prelude, sarabande and gigue of sorts and a cross-bred bouree.  Fleshing out the tracks are two scraps of Anglo-Australiana: The Cheshire Rounds, a tune dating back to Playford’s Dancing Master, and the Streets of Forbes memorializing the career and death of bush-ranger Ben Hall.

Because of the ‘project’ sobriquet, it seems to me that anything goes with everything here. Both constructors and composers/arrangers have a great time finding links in their notes.  For example, Llew Kiek comments on similarities between  the Swedish tune Lat till Far (recorded in a previous Marais Project album) and the Ben Hall lyric; Cutlan embraces the notion of fortspinnung as exemplified in the close-knit use of material found in Bach (a Baroque tie-in).  Andersson differs from this connection-conscious thrust in not linking his Olsson tune adaptation to anything; it’s just there, fleshing out the CD’s 44 minutes’ length.

Eriksson, Andersson and supplementary gambist Catherine Upex perform the Caix d”Hervelois Suite in D minor from the composer’s first book of Pieces de viole.  In line with the genre’s plastic layout, some of the seven movements are self-explanatory – prelude, menuet, gigue – while others are personal and impenetrable, like l’Henriette, La Luthee (gift of God?), and, less obscurely, La Villageoise.   In the only manuscript I could find of this piece, the player is offered three preludes; Eriksson takes the central one.  A few pieces appear to go missing: an allemande and La Coquette.  For this opening, Ypex plays a simple continuo reinforcement of Andersson’s theorbo, then occasionally underpins Eriksson’s line in l’Henriette with some parallel motion in thirds.  A rondeau goes missing before the calculated rusticity of La Villageoise, where Ypex plays her support with a bit more independence.  For the following La Bagatelle, the second gamba supplies the continuo support, which amounts to a running line, most of the time in support of Eriksson.  La Luthee sees the second viol almost effaced; in fact, I’m unsure whether its contributions are more than a few subordinate notes throughout this slow gavotte. The concluding gigue and menuet show an amiable jauntiness that has prevailed throughout the suite, notably in some rhythmic jerks during the last piece.  A piece called Paisane in my manuscript is not performed, possibly because it adds no change of mood or colour to its predecessors.

The Marais work is a Tombeau for John Dowland, originally the composer’s Tombeau pour Marais le Cadet: a memorial piece, then, for Marais’ own son.   Scored for viol and continuo, Eriksson has added another viol line and adapted the original in ways that I can’t fathom.  Certainly the extra viol gives the work a smooth edge and fluency that you miss when only one instrument has to supply the chord work.  But the only other version of this piece I’ve heard already uses two viols, although the second one is continuo-based.  But that reading also uses a harpsichord as well as an archlute to create a rich sound fabric, as does the Marais group here with a fluid, moving deploration.

Olsson’s walking tune brings baroque violinist Matthew Bruce into play; like Andersson, Bruce is a regular member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.  Also adding to the mix comes flautist Mikaela Oberg, another ABO musician, but the opening is all Andersson and Eriksson until the upper instruments creep into the mix.  Not that there’s much to give anyone pause: the tune is attractive and folksy and the musicians play its two halves in various combinations, sharing linear primacy with tact and somehow contriving to suggest – as so much of this Nordic folk-music does – both Scottish and Irish lilts.

Cutlan’s suite involves Eriksson and harpsichordist Raymond Harvey, who begin with the Prelude that has the keyboard spinning out a single line which eventually accretes another while the string complements and moves sideways into different note-values, having the last word at the movement’s brusque conclusion.  With Rustic Energy has its fair share of pedal-figures and patterns but Cutlan’s minimalist gestures are mutable creatures and,  a third of the way through, he deserts the clod-thumping country-dance effects for a touch of bird-song.  The later stretches of this movement interest through the composer’s ability to offer both imitation between his players and independence of movement, all within an insistent framework.

Slow and Sustained – quasi Sarabande opens with a viol solo, followed by a harpsichord solo on the lute stop.  This is true note-spinning where the initial elements lead into imaginative quarters, particularly when Cutlan sets up a statement-response dialogue between Harvey and Eriksson in what can only be described as a kind of harnessed improvisatory melange.  The Quasi Gigue starts with fitful propositions from both players that eventually coalesce, but into what sound like two independent parts that settle into a partnership when both decide on common points of emphasis.  It is, indeed, like a gigue, in that the metrical inevitability of a similar movement from the English or French Suites is missing here.  The composer’s emotional language is a kind of sophisticated bucolicism where you are not far from orthodox harmonic structures but the landscape is spiced with deliberately placed dissonances and contrapuntal accidents.

Brown and Oberg open the Cheshire Rounds with a duet, Andersson enters with chords, and the tune is played several times  before it moves into an answering strophe.  The arrangement offered here is a Balkan variant on the original Old Lancashire Hornpipe in that the rhythm has been displaced into a Bulgarian 2+2+3+2+2 which would have dispirited those colonists who apparently frolicked through the original 3/2 setting during the first ball at the New South Wales Government House.

The hornpipe merges into the CD’s final track, the memorial to Ben Hall sung by tenor Koen van Stade.  It is a pretty familiar ballad, if melodically unremarkable, and makes an odd conclusion to the whole Marais exercise; nationalistically pleasing, to be sure, but how it fits into the general baroque-and-beyond format escapes me.  I suspect that, as with so many other projects, the point of this addition to the amalgam is to underline the relationship between different schools, forms and nationalities in music.  Having listened to the tune Lat till Far that this Streets of Forbes is said to resemble., I fear that the Swedish tune is much the superior construct; as a result, the Australian ballad rounds things off in a pretty mundane manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genial and appealing

BACH CELLO

Zoe Knighton

Move Records MD 3422

Many cellists play the Bach unaccompanied suites and sometimes gain great acclaim from the process.  They all owe a singular debt to Pablo Casals who unveiled the scores after centuries of neglect.  Indeed, sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the instrument’s repertoire would be partly denuded if the six suites were removed from public view.  Alongside a wealth of superb concertos, what remains for cello recital programs?  Beethoven’s five sonatas and two each from Mendelssohn and Brahms, for sure. Then there are the single units by Debussy and, less popular, Grieg and Chopin.  After that, the chief source of nourishment is the 20th century with its momentary successes and more frequent conundrums and wastes of time.   For such a fundamentally important musical voice, the cello has accrued a wealth of pap and arrangements but it’s a rare player who takes the exclusively contemporary (anything after 1900) path.

Melbourne musician Zoe Knighton is best-known for her endeavours in the chamber music field, especially as a founding constant in the Flinders Quartet and for organizing festival days of chamber music at the University of Melbourne that featured most of this city’s outstanding ensembles.  For Move Records, she has made several recordings, mainly with Amir Farid, that include estimable readings of Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s complete oeuvres for cello and piano.  Now she has moved to the fundamental, putting her hat into the ring with Casals, Tortelier, Fournier, Rostropovich and Isserlis.  Why not?  She has an obvious sympathy with these scores and achieves the valuable goal of letting sunlight into musical rooms that all too often tend to be stacked with well-lacquered mahogany.

For space allocation reasons, I suppose, this album’s two CDs split the suites into non-sequential groups of three.  Disc 1 has Suite 1 in G Major, Suite 4 in E flat Major, and Suite 5 in C minor; the second disc holds the D minor Suite 2, Suite 3 in C Major and the last in D Major.  As the informed are aware, the works’ organization follows a regular pattern: each has a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, and concluding gigue.  In penultimate position come two minuets (Suites 1 and 2), or two bourees (Suites 3 and 4) or 2 gavottes (Suites 5 and 6).  For all that symmetry and simplicity of format, Bach invests each movement with individual personality and Knighton has a gift for reaching into these pages and revealing their character.

As far as familiar Bach cello music goes, you won’t find much that beats the prelude to the Suite No. 1 which sounds out in recital spaces with tedious regularity.  Knighton sets up the pattern for her overall reading through these familiar pages which, for some inexplicable reason, brought to mind a totally dissimilar musician: Ton Koopman, whose versions of canonic Bach organ works once struck me as hectically  iconoclastic.  Not that this cellist walks an unexpectedly original path, but her treatment of the variables that are intrinsic to these editorially bare pages is quite original so that not much is predictable, least of all in her choice of resting-points and the length of time she stays on them.  She avoids the overkill temptation in this prelude’s climax but takes the opportunity to address powerfully the movement’s last four bars to fine effect.

Like many among her predecessors, Knighton saves her ornamentation for the repeats, as seen first in this suite’s allemande, more effectively in the consequent courante which reveals another aspect of the musician’s vision in that it remains a dance, one with pronounced rhythmic underlay.  The imbalance between the piece’s two segments is somehow smoothed out by a clear intent to maintain this vital pulse rather than twisting the courante‘s format into fantasia-like excess.  You come to a restrained landscape with the sarabande; no imposed heft but an outline that borders on the affectionately lingering.

Knighton omits the triple stops that occur in my edition at bars 18 and 20 of Minuet 1‘s second part and allows herself a relaxation in metre for the G minor Minuet II.  The gigue brings the suite home in sensible style, distinguished by a delicate emphasis on each bar’s first beat.

Opening Suite 4, the interpretation of the prelude offers a forceful emphasis on the low note at each bar’s start, but the attack quietens to a soft low C sharp at the movement’s shift in character for a recitative passage.  This is one of the more unpredictable parts in the entire set of suites but the cellist shows intelligent musicianship in negotiating the relentless wide-ranging arpeggio element in the movement’s central segments.  Following this temperamental ride, the allemande attests to  the natural affable charm of Knighton’s approach, illustrated best by the gentle bounce colouring the 7th leaps during bars 9 to 11, these pages coming to a fetching, insouciant finish.

For the following courante, I found the most attractive passage to be the final 23 bars.  Bach’s superficially carefree but clever vaulting metrical patterns, especially the use of triplets in the third-last bar, present a kind of jeu d’esprit that Knighton negotiates deftly without drawing attention to its brisk craft.  The sarabande is given all of a piece, without dynamic jumps in dynamic, its final diminuendo in the concluding two bars accomplished with tact.  The bouree brace raised some production question marks at a few of the top E flats and Fs.   You’d be satisfied with the gigue‘s first half but Knighton gives a very rousing vitality to the lengthy, bounding second part – and its repeat – with no signs of fatigue.

The scordatura Suite 5 begins with a mighty prelude, more a French overture in form and an invitation to indulge in grandiose gestures.  Here it receives its fair amount of dramatic tension but the 3/8 long second section leaves you in no doubt that, yet again, everything here tends towards dance.  An impressive detail emerged in the player’s skill at sustaining both upper and lower pedal notes in a busy fabric.  An exercise in musing rather than an allemande, the next movement finds Knighton treating the second half’s rhythmic abrupt grupetti with calm fluidity.  She also takes relish in articulating the sudden change in emphasis of the courante‘s two cadential bars.  For the famous sarabande, all artifice is stripped away and the slow line of single notes comes across as a kind of sophisticated keening.

The pair of gavottes offer a notable contrast: the first is gritty, its double,  triple and quadruple stops ground out with confidence; the second could be taken for a gigue, albeit a very rapid, sotto voce one.  The finale itself brings this exceptional work to the finest of lopsided endings, especially when real irregularity sets in after the second half’s two-bar trill where Bach kicks against the predictable and Knighton is happy to leave his adventure to speak clearly for itself.

Opening Disc 2, the D minor Suite No. 2 offers the experience of an excellently handled increase in ardour to the prelude’s rhetorical climax beginning at bar 40, the energy sustained in the composer’s simple but moving pattern work to the fermata at bar 48.  Knighton boldly splays the allemande‘s opening chord but thereafter maintains a mobile pace.  More rousing is the courante, strikingly vivid in its bursts of action and hiatus points.  You start to fear that the speed chosen here is too rapid, particularly after a few glancing, almost-not-there notes in the first part.  But the executant’s results justify this hurtling attack and firm-hand treatment.

Echoes of the D minor Violin Partita inevitably rise up during the sarabande, largely because of a similar severe clarity of utterance.  Without dismissing Knighton’s obvious care, I have to admit to being distracted by Bach’s marvellous craft in giving emphasis to the second beat of each bar, even in those stretches of superficially undifferentiated quavers.  Later, you hear another clear-speaking instance of the player’s affection for this music in the wide leaps of Minuet II – gently administered so that the bow glances off the strings without unnecessary force.  By contrast, she swaggers through the gigue, gaining plenty of approbation for the controlled aggression of those double-stopped pedal passages that wind up each half.

Suite 3 opens with panache, surging through its opening strophes to a slow-burn dynamic build-up at the broken arpeggio writing that starts at bar 36 and builds to a powerful construct on the dominant G from bars 45 to 61; Knighton enters spiritedly into the thrilling flamboyance of this prelude’s last ten bars.  Both allemande and courante avoid machine-like regularity, thanks to a plethora of well-pointed loitering.

Not facing any emotional depths, Knighton produces a generous, sensitively-shaped sarabande before moving into popular encore fare with the pair of C Major/minor bourees.  If she finds little original to be articulated here, she still gives both pieces a clean texture and handles their fluent angularity with aplomb.  Interesting in itself, the gigue never ceases to delight for its invention, notably when the second half strikes out on its own before toeing the line.  Here it gains from a clever type of inner bounce that still delivers the piece as a unit, despite the interpolation of gabbling semiquaver passages and some transitions into musette territory.

Finally, Knighton reaches the taxing Suite VI, originally asking for a 5-string instrument. Suddenly, the timbre changes upwards with a wealth of writing in the tenor clef, the first time in the collection.  Bach celebrates the work’s singularity with another solid prelude, the second-longest in the set.  Not that this version is rushed, but I would have preferred it at a slower pace; yes, the opening 77 bars have nothing but quavers to propel the action but a lot is going on that stands up to measured consideration.

With its 20 mammoth-length bars, the allemande is a welter of ornamentation, straining at its own bonds as it reveals itself as a cross between a fantasia and a meditation.  This is powerful and brooding music, despite its flashes of action and Knighton gives it ample space – the longest track on both discs – and an excellent dynamic diminution at about the half-way point.  Normal running resumes with the courante, sprightly and definite in pulse; the performer is enjoying the experience here, carrying on a kind of internalised dance with the most quiet and subtle of emphases brought into play.

She makes a noble processional out of the sarabande, for once in keeping with the dance name, quietly progressing despite the composer’s clutches of chords and those double-stopped passages that dominate the second half.  More encore material comes with the gavottes although, like pretty much every other cellist, Knighton struggles with the requirement of negotiating massive and frequent chords while giving prominence to a melody line.  Which is nothing to the gigue with its impossibly demanding first half loaded with demanding problems of fingering and bowing, giving way to a relieving second part that leaves you with the sense of having experienced a moderately pleasant exercise after an ocean of trials.

Like many of us, I’ve found Knighton’s chamber music a reliable source of enjoyment.  She radiates confidence in her work and participates with  personality and no little finesse.  These discs are a rewarding demonstration of her talents as a solitary voice, one well worth hearing for the pleasure given in so many of the 18 tracks through this player’s familiar warmth and honesty of musical character.