The North is minor

SNOW IN SUMMER

Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584

 

Evergreen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further encounters with Beethoven’s piano

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOL. 5

James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1469

Brawn 5

In this latest album, English-born Australian pianist Brawn has filled in a gap as he progresses through his cycle of the complete Beethoven sonatas.   In this instance, he presents four of the first period group, leaving only one of the first 10 sonatas unrecorded = the big No. 4 in E flat.   For many a piano student, this new CD will bring back both memories and nightmares, especially in this country where these particular sonatas featured for many years (and probably still do) on AMEB and Year 12 examination lists.   Still, such listeners will find much of interest in these interpretations in which Brawn exercises his perennial enthusiasm and talent in finding sensible solutions to practical problems.

His outline of the first movement to the C minor Sonata No. 5 offers a deft fusion of sharp-edged drama and sensible restraint when the tonality shifts to E flat. The argument – admittedly, not a particularly dense one – is allowed just the right amount of insistence with some nice moments of emphasis, as in the hair’s breadth hesitation before the arpeggio introducing bar 180 and the emphasis on the pseudo-Alberti bass quavers that run almost uninterrupted between bars 215 and 263.

The pianist’s approach to the central Adagio is – in a word – fluid.  Which is hardly surprising, considering the alarums and excursions that the movement contains, although like many a pianist before him, Brawn makes a moving metrical feast of the middle strophes, reverting to adagio molto at bar 71 after an action-packed central venture into excitement before coming back to a home key placidity.  Possibly the coda could have been handled with less urgency to get to the end, although it’s true that there isn’t much matter here that makes you want to linger.

With the Prestissimo finale, Brawn shows the same exemplary brio as in the bounding first movement, the pages urged past with creditable clarity at spots like bars 34-35 where the tendency is to hammer out the right-hand oscillating octave semiquavers to the disadvantage of the left hand’s descending scale.  A rare inexplicable point comes in the centre of bar 68 where a minute change-of-gear interrupts the precipitate urgency.  And Brawn cannot resist the temptation to indulge in the slightest of ritardandi in the second-last bar.

An impressive agitation enriches the opening to the following F Major Sonata, the exposition treated as a very vital allegro indeed   A solitary question mark hangs over bar 72 where the switch from triplets back to straight semiquavers, compounded by a mordent, seems laboured.   But the movement simmers with plenty of panache and a forward thrust, notably at the reversion to the home key after a D Major interlude/lead-in.   Brawn then produces an exemplary rendition of the following Allegretto, a minuet and trio that seems to me more like a spectral landler in its outer segments, here firmly controlled and  well-shaped in its delineation of the composer’s right-hand counterpoint at the minuet’s return.

As for the Presto conclusion to this work, it rattles through persuasively, realizing the composer’s attempted gaiety well enough even if the humour is inclined to be heavy-handed in the movement’s second ‘half’ from about bar 41; it’s a relief to get out of the canons and back to the D Major lightness of bar 69.   However, the passage in question is handled with a good deal more aplomb in the repeat.   Further, the inner-part detail in the final segment from bar 125 onwards is exceptionally polished.

Third in the Op. 10 triptych dedicated to the Countess von Browne, the Sonata No. 7 in D Major has four movements of markedly varied temper, including a D minor Largo e mesto of splendid theatricality which is also the longest track on this CD.   Brawn enters without reserve into the energetic world of the initial Presto; this is a highly persuasive reading, observant of the usual dynamic markings and packed with buoyant spirit.  Throughout the development, tension seems to rise without letting up – on both Beethoven’s and Brawn’s parts – until the emphatic and jubilantly rattling last bars.

One of my acquaintances in student days chose piano as his second study and this sonata’s Lento as one of his end-of-year  ‘list’.   It was the first time I had paid any attention to these pages in any detail, coerced on this occasion as he wanted help.   After its sweeping tapestry had been enjoyed a few times, the detail in each section came into focus, the pages merging into a compelling and moving entity.  In this interpretation, you miss the concert hall’s majestic echo but the recording’s clarity ensures that you miss nothing in the pianist’s efforts to enunciate each chord’s full complement and the samples of pre-Chopin delicacy or Bachian meanderings (Italian Concerto, second movement) shown in bars 36 to 42; then later, after the climactic welter is finished, at bar 72.

The Minuet‘s attractive ambling pace makes a fine consequent to the Lento‘s tragedy and is notable for its precision, even down to features that tend to be subsumed into the recording ether in other recordings, like the left hand sforzando in bar 31.  But the best, like at Cana, is saved till last with a Rondo finale where pretty much everything comes together successfully, from the near-curt definition of the initial three-note theme, through the action-packed modulation-rich episodes, to the inexorable fluency of the final 8 bars where Brawn caps the whole sonata with a conclusion both convincing and elegant.

The CD ends with the G Major Sonata No. 10, a fine summation of achievement on Beethoven’s part and an excellent instance of Brawn’s talent for outlining whole paragraphs so as to conserve their integrity, a gift particularly evident in the opening Allegro‘s consistency of narrative between the exposition and recapitulation even though the latter is handled with more rhythmic freedom, if not actual quirkiness.  Further, the flurries of demi-semiquavers run past without a hint of martellato flashiness but come over as natural flourishes to close off a particular paragraph.

With the central Andante theme and three variations, you find it hard to quibble with anything.   Block chords are impressively clear and despatched without even a suggestion of arpeggiation.   Everywhere you look are signs of precise preparation, even in details like the triplet left-hand run that concludes bar 52 leading into a delicious, unexpected piano; or the differentiation between piano and pianissimo in the trademark staccato chords from bar 85 to bar 88.  The following Scherzo is almost as impressive, not least for the performer’s abstinence in use of the sustaining pedal and a consequent transparency of texture; not so much in the C Major interlude/trio that starts at bar 73, but more remarkably in the near-final pages featuring the left-hand-over frivolity that sounds effortless even though the chances of error in such cross-hand passages are ever-present.

Brawn’s odyssey-saga will continue with a sixth album due to be recorded by the end of the year but this current release leaves us with much rewarding listening.  The acoustic conditions that apply at Brawn’s recording studio in Potton Hall, Suffolk continue to underline his style of delivery, most suitable in these earlier and more intimate works which reveal Beethoven’s energy and delight in his own creativity throughout most of the four sonatas.  Brawn’s interpretations reveal a true personality at work, one that finds a coherent path and stays on it without getting bogged down in glutinous gravity.

 

 

 

 

 

For the future, yesterday

7 GREAT INVENTIONS OF THE MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGE

Syzygy Ensemble and Dan Richardson

Move Records MD 3427

It took me a while – in this case, something like three months of desultory listening – to get onto the wavelength of this CD.  As usual, the big problem was taking the whole exercise too seriously when anyone with a modicum of sense, after hearing the first track, would have known that composer Greenaway’s intentions are coloured by whimsy, not a post-Revolution intention to pictorialize musically the advances that she has selected to illustrate.

Before getting down to what happens, it would be wise to give some physical data.  For the disc’s 10 tracks, the actual musicians involved from the Syzygy Ensemble are: piano Leigh Harrold (who has the first track to himself and has the last word as well), Laila Engle’s flutes, violin Jenny Khafagi, cello Campbell Banks, Robin Henry’s clarinets and guest percussionist Dan Richardson beavering away at various sound sources.  Greenaway might have determined on 7 inventions, so where do the extras come in?  Well, they comprise a solo piano preamble, a finale that begins by involving everyone until Harrold takes over, and a Hymn to Freedom.

As for the inventions themselves, she singles out telecommunications, aviation/space exploration, advertising, artificial intelligence, world war, medicine and the cinema. That afore-mentioned paean to freedom follows the war track (which is the CD’s longest), the composer reassuring us that the worst of these creations has its ameliorating counterpart.  The odd feature of all this is that everything – preamble, inventions, Beethoven’s Ode updated and the postlude – lasts under 37 minutes total running time.

We begin with a little Bach gesture; if we’re talking inventions, how about the Two Part in F Major?   Not that you get much of it (a suggestion only) before the mood changes to Scott Joplin-style ragtime for the opening Invention Reinvention.  That’s fine; it sets a sort of time-frame that suggests what follows is either contemporaneous with or follows the Maple Leaf Rag era.  The Invention is something of a spoof of both Bach and Joplin but it makes sense even if the working-out almost tips over into laboured territory.

Telecommunications begins with a concerted flourish which gives way to some blurred radio transmissions before a Gershwin-style blues headed by clarinet and flute, with a few more radio interpolations and a humorous coda that honours an early drawback in domestic television sets the world over.   Next comes a Cape Canaveral countdown and a rising scale before a bit of early American astronaut humour and a fade into the sort of optimistic tapestry you get when you experience a satellite’s view of the globe.  A heavily-sequenced melody takes pride of place, suggesting onward progress, which is counter-weighted by a super-imposed static-heavy ‘We have a problem’ message and the space enterprise fades into nothingness.

By this point, you have a pretty firm handle on Greenaway’s vocabulary which is diatonic with a neat hand at modulation.   The tracks pass so quickly that any thought of old-fashioned development is out of the question; textures don’t so much change as meld into each other without fuss.   A skin-cleansing ad with a broad American accent from the 50s leads in to the advertising celebration,  followed by a bouncy sequence that suggests events in the preceding movement, which is interrupted by an old Maxwell House ad enunciated in Received English/ABC newsreader-speak; then, a washing machine (Whirlpool) gets a guernsey.   Betty Crocker cakes, Remington razors and a layer of superimposed tracks reduce advertising to what it has become: meaningless burble and informational white noise.   All this rises to a high dynamic level before stopping on a dime before another ad, this time for Quick-Eze proposing the possibility of a mental cleanser to parallel the product’s physical specialty at ameliorating heartburn and indigestion.

The Mechanical Brain starts with a piano ostinato which is broken into by arpeggio-rich breaks from the other instruments.  This pattern is followed without much variety, suggestive of the remorseless advance of machines although the music itself is not particularly threatening.   Soldiers marching, tanks or trucks on the move, explosions all lead into the actual instrumental elements of the And So Begins Massed World Warfare movement.  A cello solo based around a vehement low G is soon accompanied by piano chords and some stentorian gestures that fade to expectant silence; then a violin’s solo arpeggios with some disjunct piano chords, and the flute brings a descending motif into play.   This segment is pretty obviously ‘free’ in rhythm as the players work through some limited individual material.   An air-raid siren sends out its warning and downward violin glissandi lead to a welter of piano chord clusters as the bombs land.  Here is no Penderecki Threnody, nor even Holst’s Mars but a pocket-sounding image of conflict; more a Schleswig-Holstein spat than the horrid spectre of a doom-carrying Enola Gay.

The consequent Hymn stays in C minor for its four or five repetitions.  It is sung in unison by the instrumentalists, Harrold coming in with supporting chords that rarely move outside the predictable.   It’s a quiet, wordless lyric with no Finlandia bravado; more, something that you might have overlooked in the soundtrack to Schindler’s List.  The mood changes for the medical marvels.   B flat Major and minor oscillate in a rather whining set of motives over tinkling piano arpeggios.  A scientist discusses the new wonder of penicillin while the instruments do a Poissons d’or imitation.   We hear Graeme Clark speaking of his first attempts at a cochlear implant, then a therapist and patient pronounce individual words in antiphon.   The movement ends in a warm major chord; in this segment, it has to be noted that the music is of secondary interest to the recorded texts.

Last in this fleeting caravanserai are the moving pictures, The Advent of Cinema.  You hear a whirring old-time projector in action, more piano arpeggios over a pedal; there’s no real melody, just an awfully predictable modulatory sequence.   Again, we’re between major and minor tonalities as a waltz rhythm starts up, with a little less subtlety than the matter of this nature that Rota supplied for Fellini’s 8 1/2.  It’s all pretty heavy-handed and a strangely retrogressive image of film history.

The Finale opens with a small-scale fanfare that breaks into a retrospective of some themes and progressions that have featured in the preceding movements before Harrold is left with his Joplinesque syncopations to bring us home.

In the end, this is not a grave memorialization of the 20th Century’s most significant achievements but a quirky take on some of those advances that have made us what we are, for better and worse.   Greenaway has constructed more of a divertissement than a suite and – with all respect to the Syzygy players and Richardson – there isn’t much here that stretches the participants’ talents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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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.