Ecology meets the digital

THE GREEN BRAIN CYCLE

Michael Kieran Harvey and Arjun von Caemmerer

Move Records MD 3434

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

An ambitious and moving project

JOHANNES BRAHMS: MUSIC FOR CLARINET AND PIANO

Lloyd Van’t Hoff & Peter de Jager

Thomas Grubb and Mano Musica 194660806222

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venture onto unfamiliar ground

50 CHINESE FOLK SONGS

Ke Lin

Move Records MD 3436

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Short and mainly sweet

MUSE

Alicia Crossley, Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 587

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis the season, all right

CHRISTMAS VARIATIONS

Megan Reeve

Move Records MCD 585

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain, with honesty

EL VITO

Matthew Fagan

Green Jean Studios, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glittering aphorisms all round

PIANO SONATA NO. 6: 17 GRAEME LEE PRINTS

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3453

Another mixed media enterprise (of sorts) has recently emerged from Michael Kieran Harvey, who has been making the best of lockdown and isolation in Tasmania. He calls this his Sonata #6 and it has taken impetus from 17 prints by Graeme Lee: an artist long associated with Harvey, I believe, as, with his wife Margaret, Lee was part of the consortium that commissioned Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 2, premiered by Harvey 22 years ago during that year’s Sydney Festival.

Or Lee could be some other fellow entirely.

At all events, here we are with a freshly-minted CD, its booklet showing us small-scale reproductions of the particular 17 Lee prints, as well as the cover one above that seems to be untitled. Along with these mini-prints, another long-time Harvey associate – Arjun von Caemmerer – has contributed 17 Leeward Epigraemes. which are accompanying aphorisms/observations/ Tasmanian haiku/apothegms which, for the more naive among us, tend to be more immediately relevant to the print’s titles than Harvey’s material. Not too surprising as the pianist/composer is employing a creative palette that fascinates for itself alone, without the need for us to find relationships or reflections in Lee’s art, not matter how clear these are to Harvey himself.

Some of the segments are epigrammatic: 46 “, 48 “, 49 ” – just long enough to make a running leap at your imagination or analytic faculty and then halt. The longest movement, Globe, comes in at 3’32” but the average length on this album sits at 2’19”. Finishing this very basic arithmetic summation, the entire work lasts for a bit over 37 minutes, or about as long as the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3.

After a while, the tracks can appear to run into each other; it’s as though they’re using the same material but you can’t discern what’s happening to it because the actual level of activity is so unrelenting. The opening Floating Item begins with a sombre atmosphere that is immediately challenged by an ensuing mix of massive chords and coruscating flights that stand as portals to the following whirlwind. Hot Rolls is notable for its relentless syncopation, like a jazz session where the initial motive is all there is, the whole moving to bass statements that don’t fade away but remain as fierce as the initial ferocity of attack.

With Pyramid, you get a fine exhibition of Harvey’s armoury. Here also, syncopation seems to be winning the day and the opening passage is jazz-influenced with a highly mobile running bass under an upper line that is just as active. Abruptly, the onward rush stops for a series of portentous single notes, prefacing the composer’s trademark forceful pointillism where the spaces shrink, the tempo picks up and the piece reverts to a kind of restrained double layer of energy. Parts of this track are astoundingly virtuosic, as though some segments have been pre-recorded with moments when you’d swear Harvey had somehow got inside the piano lid to operate on the strings despite the extreme rapidity of the simultaneous keyboard content. By contrast, the brief White Shapes III sounds like an acerbic two-part invention, the lines yielding nothing to each other.

To the all-too-tutored ear, Vase has shades of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Three Piano Pieces in its solid opening address and sudden shifts to flamboyance. In the context of its precedents, the piece strikes you as meditative, determined to forge its path using a methodology notable for sharply-etched definition. Probably the only thing I can say about Pattern is that the surface appearance has at least two, if not three; but they leave the space very quickly.

Globe takes me back to Pyramid because it appears to be operating on two distinct sound layers. Behind the scenes is a wide-ranging arpeggio-suggesting pattern up and down the keyboard, its progress soft and recessed. In front comes a main structure of firm shapes and chords. Gradually the undercurrent becomes more prominent, a full part of proceedings. This duality continues, repeats itself, but the construct impresses for its coherence, particularly the almost grandiose power of the full-frontal matter.

At about the midway mark, at Print No. 8, Lee’s Coloured M refers to the Macdonald’s fast-food chain because the titular ‘M’ as printed here is really the company’s golden arches. For all that, the print favours green across a somewhat irregular capital M. Harvey’s contribution is stentorian, brief and highly confrontational; like the print itself, you can find a statement in the score. Old-fashioned ternary form strikes in Stage with isolated notes and chord clusters or groups at either end with another Harvey moto perpetuo on two levels in the middle; it’s like a juxtaposition of classic theatre with the wild world of action drama,

A binary pattern typifies Gap which opens with some improbably piercing and rapid work in the piano’s treble, percussive and scintillating at the same time. Then the context shifts to an active bass that sounds jazz-inflected but occupies a world of rhythmic complexity well beyond the genre’s habitual practice. The contrast is repeated and you are left with plenty of mental food to investigate what is happening in this particular space between two strata of sound and timbre.

I don’t know what to make of Oysters. It’s fast-moving, follows a lead upwards, then half-way down; you come across one of the few obvious accelerandi (or perhaps two) in the whole collection; the time-signature appears to be more regular than in all the other fast-moving pieces. We’re back with the bi-planar in Tower where the main message comes in powerful chords and even more striking trills, all setting up a suggestion or two of massiveness and truculence before the recessed sound-scene emerges in its own right, then in combination with the loud battlements plosives.

For many, the most accessible track on this CD will be Black Bowl which verges on Debussy prelude status through its employment of atmospheric motives and Harvey’s adoption of a harmonic structure that recalls something the early 20th Century French musicians would recognize. Von Caemmerer’s versicle concerns the Buddha and that’s all it takes to set you off into recollections of the Orient as seen through those ultra-refined European eyes. Mind you, it’s not affected or soft-centred, but it speaks an attractive language that, in this context, could almost be called populist.

In Item Falling, Harvey plays with a spiky brilliance, moving through his piece typified by a remarkable angularity and flawless virtuosity, including a splendid octave fragment in the treble that emerges from nowhere – just like the sudden flights of notes that briefly sparkle up and down the instrument. Even so, there’s something almost too perfect about this piece’s execution as Harvey’s articulation borders on the superhuman. But then, there have been nights when I’ve seen him enter into comparable performance states.

Yet another two-level set-up emerges in Man Running, which illustrates again some of Harvey’s methodologies, beginning with an ostinato that is deliberately irregular in metre, then accelerates using the same pattern but ends up moving somewhere else before you realise it. As in the previous piece, the pianism is exceptionally crisp as the substance settles into two high and low mobile lines, the climax emerging in energetic block chords in the right hand; if you like, you can trace a particularly dedicated jogger’s path as the composition is oddly suggestive of physical motion.

Mound II, the penultimate movement, strikes me as particularly complex in every parameter. With Harvey, time signatures are a highly moveable feast, although he often settles into a pattern, but only for a short episode; no sign of that here in a metrically confounding operating room. As in previous tracks, you experience faint sound webs overpowered by fore-fronted elliptical strokes. Above all, Harvey presents a volatile progress where nothing is allowed to settle for a moment; even the pauses bristle with potential vehemence – and it always arrives.

Finally, Fitzroy Jazz II brings back memories of nights when Harvey would set the room on a roar with his overwhelming wizardry. It follows a simple ternary format but packed with transformed tropes, onslaughts that are essentially grist to a jazz musician’s mill but here fall over each other in a brilliant cascade, including chords of great complexity and running lines in both hands that fold seamlessly into each other. Once again, you seem to be settling into a normal syncopated rhythm, only to have the edifice tilt sideways into realms where the toe-tapping hipster is all at sea. As with each track on this CD, you come across passages that both amaze and amuse for their throwaway character, as here in an ascending series of triplets of excellent dexterity.

So, what we have is yet another in the series of this great artist’s CDs for the Move company. It’s a gift to us all, the Michael Harvey Collection – one that refreshes as each album emerges. A source of delight to me is that I still have two elements in this set waiting for examination. Further, the composer is clearly as creatively fertile as ever, regardless of the many limitations necessarily inflicted over the past ten months.

This Sonata #6 breaks some time-honoured rules of Western composition; for example, by eschewing the form’s usual discursive nature in favour of a suite in which the compositional patterns – Harvey refers to the movements’ mereology – are bogglingly complex, judging by the few score samples I’ve seen. As an exploration of the piano’s potential for novel sounds and whole new paragraphs of activity, this disc of brief bursts – even for those familiar with the composer/pianist’s previous achievements – is a must-have.

Joyful stop-over on this long trip

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME

James Brawn

MSR Classics MSR1470

Brawn 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, an expansion of horizons

DANCING TO THE TREMORS OF TIME

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Records MD 3438

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt without hysterics

LISZT’S ITALIAN PILGRIMAGE

Tristan Lee

Move Records MCD 593

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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