Top of the town in Shepparton

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PIANO AWARD 2016

Move Records MCD 560

                                                   Oliver She, Tony Lee, Peter de Jager

According to the booklet that accompanies this CD, ‘the winners deserve the same acclaim accorded to top national athletes.’   Considering the current crop of sportspeople who occupy the headlines whenever Australia hits the big-time, I suppose we can take the comparison as well-intentioned but you’d hope that the three place-winners at last year’s Shepparton competition would be prepared to forego the company or example of Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic or – to juggle with the term ‘top national athletes’   Shane Warne.

In fact, the three musicians featured on this album display a kind of discipline and authority under pressure that even gifted sports-persons can only dream of acquiring. Those hoops that competitors are required to jump through can’t slowly diminish into the near distance like those for the Sydney Piano Competition where the number of prizes for specific abilities stretches from the Opera House to South Head.  This national award – and it is just that: to enter, you have to be a citizen, not a laurel-gathering visitor – focuses on an entrant’s abilities as shown in solo recital format,  An Australian work has to appear in a candidate’s repertoire, but the choice of core material is wide open: Baroque, Classical, 19th century Romantic, French impressionist, music written between 1900 and 1950, and works written in or after 1951.

New South Wales musician Tony Lee (24 at the time) won the first prize in the 2016 event. He is a veteran in competitions in this country, France and Norway and on the present recording (made during live performances) he plays Scriabin’s two-movement Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre as arranged by Liszt and then revamped by Horowitz, Chopin’s posthumous E Major Waltz (not the E minor one, as the CD has it listed) and the same composer’s Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 50 No. 3.

In 2013, Lee won first prize in the Under 24 division of the 13th Scriabin International Piano Competition, so he came to Shepparton with his credentials for the Russian composer well-established.  The performance of the Fourth Sonata has  an admirable drive, especially in the Prestissimo volando second movement where the pianist executes a dazzling tour de force, realizing all the detail with fine discipline yet still responding to this music’s neurasthenic core.

Lee suits himself about parts of the slow opening Andante, freely adopting several interpretations of the direction con voglia found in my score, to the point where I can’t hear the lower right hand notes in bars 33 and 34; but the approach is impressively confident and takes full advantage of the composer’s rhythmic flexibility.  The sonata’s second section flies along, Lee managing the long bursts of athletic movement and twitchy melodic particles with admirable musicianship – inserting short pauses, changing his weight of attack, giving adequate measure to the relieving moments (the few of them there are) but reading the score with discrimination, even when it reaches its bombastic climax at bar 144 and the shades of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov become fused in a powerful polemic on the work’s first theme.

Saint-Saens’ tone poem, especially after two legendary pianists have applied themselves to it, makes another brilliant exhibition.  This work is very familiar and stands up fairly well to the interpolations added to its already exhilarating momentum and Lee handles it with plenty of 19th century virtuosic flair.  I could find only one moment where a momentary faltering occurred; the rest is a dazzling exercise, nowhere more so than in the chromatic riot that starts to build up at bar 431.  For the purist, not all the notes are there and careful attention shows up some points where there are a few subterranean additions; in this, Lee is only following in his distinguished predecessors’ footsteps and the results are formidable.

Both Chopin tracks are amiable enough.  There is one miscalculation in the waltz in the right hand at bar 50 but the trills are as crisp as you could desire.  Across the mazurka, the pianist exercises his God-given right to rubato but he impresses as one of the few pianists who thinks that taking time over one phrase means you have to make it up further down the track.  So, his reading is a fine combination of the ruminative and the assertive, effectively and sensitively carried off.  By this stage, Lee has demonstrated a telling sympathy with the 19th century Romantic division of the competition’s repertoire (yes, I know the Scriabin was written in 1903 but its language sits unsteadily on the 20th century cusp).

In second place came Peter de Jager, a familiar face around the Melbourne traps from his contributions to ANAM events and occasional appearances at the Recital Centre.  His offerings on this disc are idiosyncratic to say the least, far more adventurous than you would expect at a competition of this nature, although I’m no authority on what the other entrants performed.  This musician is dedicated – among his other interests –  to contemporary music and is a composer in his own right, so two of the works he presents here are post-1951.  He begins with Lyapunov’s Transcendental Study No. 10, sub-titled Lezghinka and a refined version of that Caucasian dance (for unrefined, you can find a lezghinka in Khachaturian’s Gayane score).  De Jager’s attack is not as tumultuously rapid as that of some other pianists but you can hear every note in this Allegro con fuoco.  The pianist’s command of the composer’s sophisticated setting/adornment of two unremarkable melodies is excellent, the first toccata descending-scale motive given without the mindless martellato punchiness that it usually suffers.

The central section, when the key changes from B minor to D flat Major, finds de Jager indulging in some late Russian Romanticism.  Lyapunov formed part of Balakirev’s circle and this tune has an inflection that recalls both Prince Igor and Scheherazade; indeed, the melody could have been a candidate for adoption into Kismet if the composer had been somebody else.  But the study makes a fine contrast with Lee’s Danse macabre; not surprising as the composer’s aim in these studies was to complete the work begun but not completed by Liszt through his own similarly named exercises in pianistic impossibility.

Next comes the only Australian work on the CD: Chris Dench’s tiento de medio registro alto from the composer’s Phase Portraits Book 1, the piece itself occupying Dench from 1978 to 2003.  The score states that the work is ‘after Francisco de Peraza’, who is probably the 16th century Salamanca-born composer to whom is ascribed one work:  a Medio registro alto (de) Premier Tono, although the work’s authorship remains a dubious quantity among the scholars.  Dench’s brief fantasia is a ferocious-looking complex on paper, packed with metrical subdivisions that recall early scores of Boulez and Stockhausen, although not as insanely demanding.   De Jager makes light of its terrors and those summoned up by the score’s irregular scalar rushes from one node to another.  The work is awash with sustained textures, its connection to Peraza’s little piece escapes me (no surprise there), and its performance complements the preceding track’s calisthenics.

The silver medallist ends his group with Stephen Hough’s arrangement of My Favourite Things from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.  Another fleet-fingered display piece which is dispatched with a good deal more determination than Hough himself invests in it, this song setting  works as a pleasant encore, which is how Hough uses it, I think.  But its whimsicality goes a-begging here.

Of the three artists featured, de Jager gets the least amount of playing time; Lee has a tad over 24 minutes, Oliver She enjoys 23-and-a-half minutes, but de Jager clocks in at just a bit over a quarter-of-an-hour.

After this mixed bag, third place winner She comes to us with one work only: Beethoven’s C Major Sonata, the Waldstein  –  that unforgiving, deceptive behemoth with its many temptations to take the easy path and substitute glitter for power.  Stretching back into the past, She is bolstered in his enterprise by the interpretative wealth of great Waldstein interpreters –  Solomon, Schnabel, Kempff, Richter. Arrau, Brendel – and every so often he breaks through into a stretch of originality that takes you by surprise.  For example, he achieves a refreshing continuity and felicity of phrasing in the 12 bars or so that conclude the first movement’s exposition and, by the time we reach the recapitulation proper, he is at home with the work so that the semiquaver patterns show few signs of blurring and the sonata’s surging action is expertly maintained, even if the three fermatas before the final rush to judgement are a touch overlong.

The Introduzione is given an appropriately slow pace, its measured progress marred by a muffed melody note at the start of bar 10.  However, from bar 19 to the attacca, She shows excellent discretion in dynamic restraint and – apart from an odd shuffle in the left hand on the first beat of bar 21 – the climax and decrescendo cap a worthwhile realization of this incongruous page-and-a-bit.

A few more glancing errors creep into the Rondo but nothing too disturbing.  The pianist intends – as do we all – to keep the semiquaver ripples at the start on a very soft level, but the first movement’s opening blurring recurs; if you turn up the volume very high, you can hear the notes are all there but, in live performance, you’d have to be very close to She to discern them clearly.   Happily, the interludes are enunciated with precise lucidity, notably the C minor one that begins at bar 175 and the riot of triplets taking flight at bar 344.  She has no hesitation in taking the Prestissimo at a cracking speed; the wonder is that he perseveres with it, keeping his nerve at the glissando octaves from bar 465 to 474 and keeping the pressure on himself at bar 484 and not slowing down , unlike many pianists who, for unknown reasons, take the arrival of crotchet triplets in the left hand as a signifier of a change in metre.

You’d be hard pressed to disagree with the final ranking of this competition, judging by this CD’s content.  It was recorded a little over a year ago on September 9 and 10, 2016; I presume in the final rounds so that each of the three pianists was working at full capacity. Thanks to the ABC recording staff and the Award administration, we have a picture, albeit a second-hand one, of the event’s climactic points and a reassuring illustration of the state of the country’s pianism.

 

Not quite ready

LUMINESCENCE

Canticum

MOVE Records MCD 558

What you see here is exactly what you get: contemporary choral music from across the world – New Zealand, Estonia, the United States, Latvia, Norway (sort-of), Sweden, and Australia.  The choir Canticum itself is new to me although it has been in existence for 21 years; in fact, this CD is a 21st birthday celebration.  With founding conductor Emily Cox, the ensemble is currently in residence at St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and, on this showing, is a more-than-able body, even if some of the tracks on offer in Luminescence could have profited by a re-take.

Cox and her cohorts adopted the over-arching theme of light; in this instance, light generated by sources that need no heat to do their work.  This refers, I suppose, to the static nature of scores which, in themselves, have no physical energy.  Canticum’s task is to generate the luminous – sometimes, the numinous – by their efforts and, for a good deal of the time, this works.  Of the 16 tracks, three contain settings of the Maundy Thursday antiphon Ubi caritas, seven comprise the Magnificat-Antiphons of Arvo Part, another is New Zealander David Hamilton’s version of the Ecce beatam lucem text best known for its 40-part setting by Alessandro Striggio, and Swedish composer Fredrik Sixten uses the chant Veni, veni Emmanuel in his refugee-remembering The Fleeing Child is Jesus to a text by Norwegian poet Emil Skartveit.  The remaining six works fall under the general heading of celebrations of nature, or even God-in-nature.

You can find much interest in the Ubi caritas settings which are treated handsomely by the Canticum singers, beginning with a version of that by Ola Gjeilo which owes most to the original Gregorian as well as the luminous Durufle arrangement; not many surprises in the work itself but the choir gives it a refined and fluent reading.  Paul Mealor’s treatment was used at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton; in my case, its inclusion in that ceremony went through to the keeper.  Which was a pity because its quiet abrasiveness, well-husbanded dissonant moments in the work’s progress, display an unexpected individuality of voice.  Cox gives prominence to the motet’s inner parts at tense moments, which makes for some remarkable harmonic exposure, but Mealor succumbs to the temptation of citing the original chant en clair towards the end. Australian-born Joseph Twist’s treatment is slow-paced and meditative in a post-Tavener style, with moments of stasis on certain syllables – Ubi caritas et amor or congregavit.  The verses starting with Exultemus move into a more rhythmically dynamic region; even so, the singers could have attacked these pages with more ferocity.  Like the other settings, Twist’s is ternary in form and not over-adventurous harmonically, although the stretch of bitonality near the end made a pleasant surprise; a pity, then, that the work concluded so predictably.

Part’s versions of the O  Antiphons – those appearing in the Vespers services of the days leading up to Christmas Eve – are generally terse, even when he seems to be mulling over the texts.  The first, O Weisheit, is vintage Part with an orthodox texture changing at glacial pace; O Adonai seems to be for male voices only and the Canticum basses sound laudably confident; O Spross aus Isais Wurzel tests the choir’s ability at sustaining grating 2nd intervals.  In O Schlussel Davids, the body’s sopranos sound marginally ‘off’ their top notes and their line doesn’t regain its certainty until the concluding die Fessel des Todes bars.  O Morgenstern finds them in better form, although the final statement of the title could have been re-recorded with profit.  O Konig aller Volker satisfies for its firm treatment of Part’s underpinning tramping pace, while the concluding O Immanuel also suffers from top-line pitching, the series of top As not quite centred accurately; Part’s second-time through this text fares more successfully, but then, it’s less challenging.

Hamilton’s Ecce beatam lucem is written for SSAATTBB forces and its opening is a powerful and brave acclamation that more than adequately sets up a luminous choral ambience. Parts of the Canticum’s aggressive approach work very well but there are some lapses; the composer’s clever build-up of tension at the final line, Nos hinc attrahunt recta in paradisum, needs more deliberate definition and disciplined order of attack.  Like Part, Hamilton exposes his sopranos on top of low-lying textures, with the result that they sound strident on occasion, hard-pressed to do anything but get the note(s?) required.  The piece is testing of all executants but this group might be better advised to take the whole thing at a more rapid tempo – like the Kiwis do.

Sixten’s score enjoys an excellent performance here, the singers maintaining a clarity of shape and texture even when the composer puts the Gregorian line in operation simultaneous with his own setting of Startveit’s words.  The point is made without being laboured – Christ was a refugee and his status is reflected in the modern-day influx to Europe (and Australia) from the East and Africa.  Sixten is humane enough to celebrate the optimistic Gaude elements of the chant alongside the poet’s ringing appeal for the worth of charity: Open the door for suffering.  If not the high-point of the CD, this comes close to it with an appealing clarity and enthusiasm from its performers.

Cox and her choir juxtapose samples from the work of two formidable American composers.  First is Sure on this shining night, Morten Lauridsen’s interpretation for four-part choir with piano accompaniment of James Agee’s well-known poem,  You’d have to work pretty hard to miss with this splendid composition and the Canticum give a carefully honed version with a fine timbral glow; this might not be as dramatic at its climax as many American choirs make it, but I much prefer this body’s sustained communication of hushed wonder and Delius-like shimmer in the movement of lines.

Randall Thompson’s Choose Something Like a Star sets an early poem by Robert Frost and, like Lauridsen’s piece, asks for SATB choir with piano.  I’ve never understood its popularity, least of all for its leaden-footed pace at the start and the regularity of its syllabic heft.  Still, the group treats it with care, showing no trouble in handling its few tests and giving some body to pretty predictable sequences.  Thompson’s vocabulary sets no challenges for the listener but the poet’s approval of the composer’s treatment of his lines seems to veer towards the charitable.  I had the feeling that Christopher Wrench’s accompaniment was leading the voices  – or rather, anticipating them – at various stages, although that could just have been enthusiasm or an understandable urge to keep the pace moving.

Stars by Eriks Esenvalds asks the singers to handle tuned glasses and Tibetan bowls;  the few performances I’ve seen have been lacking in the bowls area and only some of the choir members have been trusted to manufacture that eerie, science-fiction-suggestive sound from the glasses part-filled with water.  Some of the pitching here left me unconvinced, notably at Sara Teasdale’s line Up the dome of heaven, and the soprano solo before the climactic stanza beginning And I know that I is inexact.

Brisbane composer Phillip Gearing employs sustained chords under a gently lyrical line to set the mood for his Only the Light which uses a text fragment from Surrealist-feminist Leonora Carrington’s short story The Royal Summons.  This is in effect a slow-moving nocturne, highly atmospheric and pretty successfully achieved, although there seems to be some out-of-sync harmonic movement from the tenors during the work’s final clause. Giselle Wyers has set Roethke’s famous poem The Waking; but has she?  The text that we hear is the American poet’s I strolled across An open field that comes from Roethke’s The Lost Son and Other Poems of 1948, some years before he wrote that striking villanelle, I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.  This composer also has a piano accompaniment but the work itself, lilting and benign, tends to aimless modulation – an ordinary-sounding idyll.

The CD ends with a piece written for Canticum by Keren Terpstra, who supplied both music and words.  Light refers to the Transfiguration, albeit elliptically in its two cryptic lines.  While the working-out becomes a tad ordinary at the start to the work’s second line, the composer struck gold later with her use of sonorous chord clusters in which the inner lines move downward in writing of no little complexity, testing polyphony in which the Canticum singers hold their nerve; a pity that this challenging piece ends rather tamely in a G Major resolution.

In sum, Cox and Canticum have given us an interesting miscellany including some pieces that are pretty familiar to those who have an interest in the field of contemporary choral composition and some rarities, even for the well-informed.  A more demanding editorial hand would have ironed out some problem points but the disc has considerable merit, not least for shedding light on some highly deserving writers.

 

 

 

 

Reviving the obscure

J.S. BACH SONATAS FOR VIOLA DA GAMBA AND HARPSICHORD

Laura Vaughan, Elizabeth Anderson

MOVE Records MD 3396

Robert James Stove’s booklet notes for this all-Bach CD begin by noting that ‘it is remarkable how his sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard remain in the shadows, at best, of most music lovers’ consciousness.’   He’s quite right, in a way: you won’t find many of us able to quote the initial themes of any movement in these three works, while our awareness of the cello suites, violin partitas and flute sonatas is theoretically profound.  I’m trying to recall when – or if – I’ve heard one of these gamba works in live performance but nothing springs to mind; cellists would be able to program them without much difficulty, but what’s the point when they’re already gifted with a mighty unaccompanied repertoire?

It’s not that we don’t have access to the instrument’s sound from local players, although I come from that generation where period instruments remained an unknown field until our post-university years.  Not that we didn’t know about Dolmetsch and  solitary standard-bearers like Landowska but their efforts were swamped by a musical administration in this country that just didn’t want to know.  If you search out these sonatas on modern CD catalogues, you’re swamped for choice – which might argue against Stove’s statement concerning their position in public consciousness.   But then, just because a work is recorded doesn’t mean that it impinges on the serious music world’s communal awareness.

Gamba expert Laura Vaughan and harpsichordist Elizabeth Anderson have produced a finely balanced recording of the sonatas, padding out their CD with a few arrangements: the two C Major Fugues BWV 952 and 953 where Vaughan takes the middle voice, and the  Trio Sonata in D minor from the set of six for organ, with the left hand part handed to the string player.  These fillers can disorient the casual listener by highlighting the middle line in each piece; probably more problematic in the little fugues where we’ve been taught to respect linear equality of timbre.  Not that this turns to irritation as the works are pretty transparent; the only ‘crowded’ polyphony in the BWV 952, where Bach ventures into minor keys at the fugue’s centre, presents no complex web to be deciphered.  In the other miniature, the gamba has more to do and, after the soprano line’s subject statement, has only about 4 bars of silence, being involved with lots of semiquaver work which necessarily attracts the ear away from whatever Anderson’s left hand is doing.  Indeed, the players might have been better advised to choose something more polyphonically taxing than these two slight keyboard scraps.

In the trio sonata, the mix works to better effect, I assume because the two upper parts are not challenged by a comparably interesting bass line so the listener’s focus falls on the interweaving and imitation between gamba and harpsichord treble.  The first movement is taken at a rather staid Andante pace, but not significantly different to many another organ solo reading.   Vaughan indulges in a bit of adjustment, taking her line down an octave for a stretch.  The following Adagio e dolce is more  problematic because the gamba sweeps all before it; despite the player’s best intentions, the string line is just too dominant and Anderson necessarily opts for a restrained registration.  The finale works better, possibly because the string line is mobile and Vaughan’s octave displacements give the top line exposure at tricky moments.  Yet the whole work has a deft purity to it – no ornamentation bells and whistles and a firm metre throughout with just a few slight rallentandi to avoid the suggestion of automatism.

The first of the gamba sonatas follows an equable path without any surprises.  Vaughan sets down her line with deliberation and Anderson maintains a benign commentary across the four movements.  I would have liked more bite from the string in parts of the first Allegro, for instance at throwaway segments like bars 90-92 or that odd unexpected syncopated sequence in bars 57-8.  But both musicians take their time with the odd movements, giving the strong melodic arabesques their full value and at all points letting the score breathe without hitching a ride on that relentless continuo homophony chugging band-wagon.

More immediately entertaining is the D Major Sonata No. 2.  Vaughan has more extended opportunities to engage with Anderson’s quirky right hand figures and the faster movements, the Allegri, present with a vitality that takes you by surprise; indeed, these four tracks sound as though the recording microphones have been positioned closer to both performers . . . although that could just be more a comment on the music itself than the work of the company’s veteran recorder/editor Vaughan McAlley.   The first of these fast movements comes over as an excellent collaboration, the sharing of material finely judged, while the harpsichord’s acquisition of chords impresses more for its unexpectedness; not the one or two in the first half, but the chain from bars 72 to 75 which, in this context, sound as though Puyana has hit the studio.  Later, the sheer busyness of the final movement is, in context, biting and crisp, the players deftly relieving the pressure when the movement hits F sharp minor at bar 84 and Bach thins out his layers for 12 bars or so before asking his players to bring us home with bounding enthusiasm.

The three-movement G  minor Sonata opens with a marvellously economical Allegro, one of those instances in Bach’s works where the sheer manipulation of melodic cells distracts attention from the performance itself.  One of the more engrossing tracks on the CD, these musicians traverse the pages without labouring the point, offering the gentlest of hesitations at startling moments like the out-of-nowhere 7th chord at bar 39 and shaping those two points where both instruments play the opening figure in unison, suggesting the finale to the D minor Keyboard Concerto for a brief moment.  Even better follows in the central Adagio where Vaughan and Anderson reach an interpretative high-point, the inbuilt pavane-like stateliness treated with an exemplary attention to detail but also with a communal  fluency that displays a deep awareness of each other’s status at every point of the movement.  As a result, the pages, despite a double-repeat, fly past.  The second Allegro also passes agreably enough, the executants’ dovetailing as proficient as ever and Vaughan laudably exact;  I liked the bite she gave to the triple- and double-stops during the 19th bar from the end, but would have liked a similar emphasis at the F Major explosion beginning bar 44: one of the few full-bodied chords (is it the only one?) for the gamba in all three sonatas.

However, in their basic character, these performances remain consistent.  They exemplify a lightly-applied scholarship where the bar-line is not permitted to hold tyrannical sway; rather, each phrase is handled with apt consideration and the give-and-take of these amiable sonatas is honoured.   Neither Vaughan nor Anderson tries to over-dramatise the scores, but you can find plenty of tension in their products – it just won’t slap you in the face with attention-grabbing force majeure; these two are no Baroque Kath and Kim.  But they’re not effete tinkerers either and, if they stand among a large group of musicians who have recorded these gamba works, they are distinguished by a clean-edged honesty to their work.

 

 

 

 

All for a good cause

PORTRAIT OF BOB BROWN

Michael Kieran Harvey, Emily Sheppard

MOVE Records MD 3415

Safe to say that few among us cognoscenti  have any thoughts but charitable ones towards one-time Greens Senator Bob Brown, the exemplar of an activist politician who always stood on the side of the angels in a parliamentary ambience that was rarely anything higher than murky and usually contemptible and tawdry.  Small wonder that another Tasmanian eminence, Michael Kieran Harvey, should be involved in a musical eulogy to Brown who, though born and educated in New South Wales, has become synonymous in his public life with the island state’s environmental battles.

For his homage-of-sorts, Harvey and associate artist Emily Sheppard have prepared three works – two of them original and one a revision.  All three are of shortish duration and the CD winds up being considerably less than half the length of a ‘normal’ contemporary recording: Harvey’s title track is 11:16 minutes, Sheppard’s Aftermath for viola and voice is 9:02, and Harvey’s Homage to Liszt reworked for violin/piano duet last for 9:20 minutes. These compositions were all performed at the musical launch of a collection of poems by medical practitioner Arjun von Caemmerer in October last year at the Conservatorium Concert Hall in Hobart.

Portrait of Bob Brown gives equal billing to violin and piano, not exactly asking for stamina, although the piece contains a few active bouts, but more an ability to negotiate smoothly a sequence of about five segments, the task made a touch more difficult as the work contains two significant pauses – changes of gear but not suggestive of discrete movements.  In fact, the score sounds like a rhapsody, the spirit taking the listener where it wills.  If you’re concerned that Harvey is proposing a kind of chamber-scale Heldenleben in which we follow Brown’s spiritual development from Oberon to Cygnet, fear not: the soundscape of this Portrait is non-specific, essentially abstract, non-alliterative and suggestive of a consistent personality rather than a psychological pilgrimage.

The work opens with strong pointillist statements from Harvey, Sheppard constructing a firm aria line under which the keyboard moves towards subterranean rumbles.  The composer’s language sounds too free and loaded with repetitions to be twelve-tone or doctrinaire but the events that transpire are structured towards an end, in this case from trills and a muffled dialogue to an increase in pace with the piano moving into aggression. As the dynamic changes in both instruments, the pace quickens to a hurtling speed where piano and violin occasionally join in note-for-note duets, sometimes in melodic unison, at other times following each other’s path at close range.  Although clearly written out, this writing is reminiscent of Harvey’s volcanic flights of improvisation.

A pause leads to a segment suggesting the opening strophes, albeit with a pronounced menace from a two-note tattoo in the piano’s bass underlining the fragility of the violin and keyboard’s right-hand decorative elaborations positioned in a high tessitura.  A further change to briskness sees the use of hand-muted piano notes; hard to accomplish, I would have thought, given the pell-mell pace.  Another pause before a reversion to the piano’s pointillism – single notes and chords – under the violin’s exposed lyricism and the work ends with a peroration in strong statements alternating with softer joint textures, a gradual recessiveness before the final trill-laden bars for both players.  The framework, as you can see, is not over-complex although the instrumental interplay and grafting impresses for its assurance.  It leaves its interpretation open; those that want can probably find suggestions of Brown the environmental warrior, the defender of personal liberty, the intransigent proselytizer, the relentless scourge of Parliamentary hypocrisy.  But the piece doesn’t really operate on those terms; what it does suggest is a combination of restlessness and quiescence which could apply to any man but seems to suit Brown more than most of us.

Sheppard’s work is a lament in what I think is C; could be B, but it sounds more like the former.  Its language is unrelievedly minor, even when the composer/executant is playing Major 3rds.  The progress of Aftermath sounds improvised, as though Sheppard is following a pattern as far as she wants to, then moves into another emotionally similar path.  At a few points, she sings a wordless consonantial fragment above her instrumental accompaniment which itself takes on various shapes throughout the score’s length: repeated arpeggio patterns, orthodox pizzicato and the left-hand variety, two-string unisons, harmonics, trills.  Sheppard says the work came into existence at Sarah Anne Rocks on the Tasmanian west coast, ravaged by bushfire in January 2016.  Even for those of us who don’t know the area, Aftermath suggests loss and grief, and with a strangely Celtic tinge.

Harvey’s Homage to Liszt is better known – well, to me – as a duet for piano and percussion, shorter than this arrangement.  In four parts, it takes on the Hungarian composer’s ‘look’, following a varied path of emotional sympathy though a ballade, a waltz, a csardas and that form intimately associated with the composer’s popular face, a Consolation.  Harvey takes Lisztian tropes along with direct quotes and creates a formidable edifice; a small prelude suggesting Brubeck in animated mode leads into a Romantically swirling ballade before the waltz’s re-visiting of one of the Transcendental Studies, the brilliantly parodic Hungarian dance that manages to raise the spectre of Bartok as well as mirroring Liszt’s exciting rapid scale-work across the instrument’s complete range, before a token nocturne with a 12-tone melody finishes the piece, reminding us of the composer’s final experimental works where traditional harmony was dissolving.

Sheppard’s contribution matches Harvey in enthusiasm and the track is a splendid collaboration where neither performer puts a foot wrong, the many synchronous passages exciting to experience.  For all that, I can’t think what it has to do with Bob Brown, except as a an enthusiastic salute to a character that most us would probably remember, if unfairly, as something of a sobersides.

The proceeds from this CD are being donated to the Bob Brown Foundation, an organization dedicated to ‘action with a vision to protect Australia’s wild and scenic natural places of ecological and global significance.’  It’s hard to think of a cause more worthwhile in these shameful days when the Great Barrier Reef is being killed off under our eyes and Brown’s successors are ignoring any environmental danger-signs yet wasting their energy in schoolyard squabbles.

 

 

And again I say, rejoice

GEORGE DREYFUS . . . LIVE!

George Dreyfus and Paul Grabowsky

MOVE Records 3300

Dreyfus

Next year, George Dreyfus will turn 90.   On the current Australian music scene, he regards himself as a true rara avis, in that he seems to be one of only a few survivors from that halcyon period when this country discovered best European practice and the creaking shackles of musical composition  –  as taught by transplants from British academia  – started to buckle.  Unarguably, many of the Bright Young Things of that Golden Age from the 1950s to the 1970s have passed on: Don Banks, Ian Bonighton, Bruce Clarke, Ian Cugley,  Ian Farr, Eric Gross, Keith Humble, Richard Meale, James Penberthy, Peter Sculthorpe, George Tibbits,  Felix Werder and Malcolm Williamson.   And their own near-predecessors have definitely left us – John Antill, Clive Douglas, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Raymond Hanson, Robert Hughes, Dorian Le Gallienne and Margaret Sutherland.

But some of the Dreyfus-contemporary  generation are still loitering, like Alison Bauld, Anne Boyd, Peter Brideoake, Colin Brumby, Nigel Butterley, Barry Conyngham, Ross Edwards, Helen Gifford, David Lumsdaine, Larry Sitsky and Martin Wesley-Smith. Admittedly, some are lingering quietly, outwardly content after the highs and lows of careers in composition.  Dreyfus can not be numbered among these but is still writing, still revelling in every performance of his own work, still kicking against the pricks.

The alphabetical lists above follow the contents page of a volume to which Dreyfus refers in his notes for this CD: ‘James Murdoch’s piss-weak 1972 Australian Composers picture book’  –  about which, more later.   If I were to follow Frank Callaway and David Tunley’s study published six years later, Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century, the well-gone group would extend to Edgar Bainton, Arthur Benjamin, Moneta Eagles, George English, Felix Gethen, Alfred and Mirrie Hill, Dulcie Holland and William Lovelock;  John Exton and Eric Gross  would feature among the BYTs, while  Jennifer Fowler and Donald Hollier are survivors.

Andrew Ford’s Composer to Composer (1993) casts an extra-Australian net but the locals he includes number the very-much-alive Gerard Brophy, Moya Henderson and Liza Lim.

All of which is to say that Dreyfus is not starved for company but he is, of all the composers listed above and still at work, the oldest  –  in many cases, by more than a decade.

This CD is a re-release of a 1978 LP, so it’s offering nothing new except the opportunity to drink old wine from a new jar.   The works – all short – cover the period from 1957 to 1978, the largest number coming from the 70s . . . as you’d expect.  Dreyfus himself plays bassoon and sings enthusiastically; for the nostalgic among us, memories come seeping back, encouraged by the composer who starts off with his most famous creation: the title theme to Rush, a TV series set on the Ballarat Goldfields brought to vivid life in a hurtling, catchy tune which is actually infiltrated by little quirks that come across loud and clear in this reduced version for two instruments.

The following track also features an early success: the main theme to a children’s TV series, The Adventures of Sebastian the Fox, which had the significant advantage of being singable.  And so it was, by flocks of engrossed young admirers.   After this comes a sort of lucky dip of pieces that can be handled by two performers, among which is a heavy representation from film scores, a form that the composer found most congenial: the main title from the ABC commissioned Marion of 1973; the theme of Ken Hannam’s post-World War One film Break of Day; another 1976 creation in music for another film,  Let the Balloon Go.  This same productive year also saw the production of Power Without Glory, a 26-episode serialisation from the ABC of Frank Hardy’s controversial novel, Dreyfus providing the score for this ambitious undertaking; and there’s a small scrap called Peace, the lone survivor of a Film Australia production in 1969 called Sons of the Anzacs.

Dreyfus and Grabowsky give these samples of the composer’s music without flourishes, the amiable melodies scaled down in effect from the lavish treatment they are given on a composer-conducted CD The film music of George Dreyfus, Move Records MD 3098 which holds them all.

As for the singing, Dreyfus treats us to his Ballad for a Dead Guerrilla Leader, a segment of his opera The Gilt-Edged Kid which was commissioned in 1969 by the national opera company but never performed by it: God knows why – this extract is falling over itself with accessibility and when you consider the thousands of dollars lavished on models of local-grown tedium that appeared on Opera Australia’s playlists in later years, you have to wonder about the perceptual frameworks of the apparatchiks involved and their selection criteria.

The earliest track on the CD is Das Knie,  part of the early (1957) nine-part setting of some Galgenlieder by Christian Morgenstern.   Song of the Standard Lamp comes from a 1975 collaboration between Dreyfus and Tim Robertson, The Lamentable Reign of Charles the Last, written for that year’s Adelaide Festival.  Finally, Dreyfus sings his Three Ned Kelly Ballads, with texts by film-maker Tim Burstall but, like the other sung works, without their original accompaniment.  Dreyfus’ vocal quality is best described as honest rather than burnished by years of training and Grabowsky’s keyboard contributions support his collaborator without attracting much attention.

Apart from the Ballads, the longest work on offer is Deep Throat, a work of no little oddity. Offended by Murdoch’s evaluation of his Symphony No. 1, Dreyfus put together a short two-page score (reprinted in the CD’s accompanying leaflet) consisting of scraps from Murdoch’s commentary given a mundane vocal setting alongside scraps from other sources – Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, the composer’s own symphonies  –  the most dismissive of Murdoch’s statements coming in for special repetition.  The score comes complete with performing instructions which basically amount to open slather, to the point where players can introduce whatever they feel is fitting, i.e. any other symphonic scraps that strike a performer’s fancy; Dreyfus himself brings in a bit of Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony.

Deep Throat is a satire, poking fun at the aleatoric practices of mid-20th century advanced composers and charlatans alike.  The humour is far from subtle but the sense of anger is obvious enough.  As you’d expect, the work isn’t mean to travel far outside the world of contemporary Australian composition in the late 1970s.   Far more interesting is to re-visit Dreyfus’s Symphony No. 1 with Murdoch’s pallid observations in mind; here, the composer’s justification rings with resonant force, particularly throughout the powerful Moderato finale.

At the end of the CD, what you have enjoyed is a small retrospective; even for its time, it was light-on in content and length (a bit over 33 minutes).  It’s unlikely that even as well-disposed a company as Move Records has the resources to re-issue some of Dreyfus’ sterling works, like the Symphony No. 1, From Within Looking Out, Jingles,  The Seasons, the Noverre Wind Quintet, the Sextet for Didjeridu and Wind Instruments,  And what of the operas that have been produced successfully overseas – Rathenau and Die Marx Sisters, both of them over 20 years’ old and not a note of them heard here?  Furthermore, I haven’t mentioned (so far) other small gems like Larino, Safe Haven, Lawson’s Mates or Waterfront that have enriched that ever-stretching shelf that holds the Dreyfus catalogue.

This brief remembrance of things past is welcome yet it can’t help but bring to mind a larger canvas, one that deserves re-viewing and so shining a light on the major role that Dreyfus played during a strikingly productive era in this country’s serious music life, a time that many of us recall with affection and respect.

 

 

Pastoral power

THE PROSPECT AND BOWER OF BLISS

Tall Poppies TP 240

Jo Selleck

This disc holds two song cycles by Melbourne composer Johanna Selleck, both different in atmosphere and performance modes.   The shorter composition, in four parts, uses texts extracted from Aphra Behn’s A Voyage to the Isle of Love, set for soprano and piano. here interpreted by Merlyn Quaife (for whom the cycle was composed) and Caroline Almonte.   Graeme Ellis’s Seven Tanka also uses Quaife as well as soprano Judith Dodsworth, with Arwen Johnston’s percussion and Anne Norman’s shakuhachi as instrumental support.

The Behn poems are part of The Prospect and Bower of Bliss segment of the large poem, Selleck setting the first four of its six stanzas.  The opening ‘Tis all eternal Spring around takes a measured approach to the happy verses, Almonte’s piano setting up a slow-paced pattern over which Quaife’s line roams across a wide compass, coming back to the opening line’s statement from time to time, a sort of thread linking the poet’s placid descriptions of burgeoning nature.    Fountains, wandering Banks, soft rills begins pictorially enough with a fragile figure high in the piano, the voice also used deftly to suggest sparkling textures, before the performers move to a lower compass when Behn turns her attention to forests and earth.   This setting is fragmentary interrupted by a series of long pauses,  Selleck bringing her setting to an ecstatic climax before returning to that opening delicacy before arriving at a firm salutation to the poet’s Bower of Bliss.

For the third song, The verdant banks no other prints retain, begins in a plain-speaking B flat Major tonality, the forward movement from the keyboard suggestive of a rhythmically unsteady country dance.   The text introduces human beings onto a scene that has been focused so far on a lush natural world and both composer and poet bring the atmosphere down to earth with a set of pages that come close to suggesting a British folk-song setting, especially the reprise in C Major at the work’s centre   Above everything else, you appreciate the easy lustiness of the lines and their straightforward musical setting: a mostly successful juxtaposition of sophistication and simplicity.

The final piece, A thousand gloomy Walks the Bower contains, returns to the same world as the second song, Almonte’s piano proposing a shadowy aura of soft dissonance while the vocal line meanders and, after reaching a climax, subsides into silence.  The movement is slow and close to meditative, suggesting the depletion that comes after the Bower’s purpose has been achieved.  This is the longest of the cycle’s parts, almost equal to its combined predecessors.  But it is a finely graduated sequence where the temptation to word-paint is almost entirely resisted and the evanescent conclusion is emotionally soothing and intellectually apposite.

Behn’s lyrics centre on love; to this over-reactive mind, erotic passion rather than courtly interchanges.  The bucolic scenes set a calmly sensual scene and, if the poet is not the most mellifluous of her generation’s creators, her intentions are pretty clear, particularly in her insistence on concluding each stanza with the word ‘ravishing’.    Quaife emphasizes this imagery of sexual passion in the suggestive portamenti on the sequence Gazing, sighing, pressing, dying in connection with a ravisht swain  –  the only solid human figure in the setting’s scenario.

The work offers a stimulating exercise in giving a modern voice to a 334-year-old poem, Selleck handling her text with unexpected ease, finding her own metre in the verses and not afraid to halt the process and reflect for a moment – on ‘gloomy Walks’, for example. She keeps her interpreters harnessed to the work but the impression is of a gently spreading ambience, not an adherence to rhythmic and harmonic discipline.  Further, this set of pages speaks an individual language, one that suggests certain influences but these hints rarely solidify into certainty; like the music itself, they remain possibilities.

Judith Dosworth emerges fairly soon after Quaife in the first of Ellis’s Seven Tanka where Selleck follows a pretty substantial tradition of Australian composers engaging with Asia –  if you allow that the tradition is less than 70 years old.   The two sopranos alternate and intertwine with Norman’s shakuhachi, these three lines  armed with a set of ‘effects’ like short notes that fall downwards, sustained tones that eventually take on vibrato (as those sadly under-prepared and untrained children do on television talent shows), remote pianissimi.  Other colours emerge from Johnston’s percussion, which seems to consist mainly of vibraphone and a touch of marimba.

That distant thunder offers a more dramatic scena, complete with a straight duet passage for the singers.  Johnston employs cymbals, bells and what sounds like a water gong and a light tam-tam as Selleck depicts the poet’s  active imagery.  Next, Grey before the first dawn is a slow threnody in which the singers begin by keeping pace with each other, note for note, while the shakuhachi operates on several levels – as an orthodox Western flute, using noteless breaths, sliding off the note – and, like its predecessor, has an elongated postlude.   The force of Red wine of maple takes you by surprise.  It’s another of Selleck’s direct-speaking pieces, the sopranos striding through the lyric with loads of colour from Johnston’s keyed percussion and metal sheet; then, just when you think the lyric is ending jubilantly (although with an unhappy low note from Dodsworth at the end of the final line, The cracking of winter calls), the voices return softly, suggesting that the wine has had a less-than-happy effect.

Soft marimba wood-block sounds and quavering shakuhachi vocalisms set a sonorously suggestive scene before the voices enter on Long crane free feathered, in which the instrumental work is of striking interest for its complexity, in particular the hard-pressed Johnston who produces some remarkable juxtapositions and superimpositions.  The moon is gliding finds singers and Norman making great play with the first line’s last word; in fact, ‘gliding’ is the first word you hear, and the last.   While the outer parts of this setting have lots of slow eliding and imitation, the central line, Scattered with starlight, brings into play some brisk, consonantial vocal vaulting.  Selleck is also not afraid to have Quaife and Dodsworth articulate a straight descending sequence based on a harmonised C Major arpeggio; but the composer’s vocabulary is a catholic quantity and the tonal sits comfortably alongside advanced flourishes and an unclogged impressionist palette.

The final tanka, Five white stones unite, finds the vocalists working in canon on a striding march-suggestive melody; but the canon is not strictly observed.  As you can hear in other tracks on this CD, the composer bends patterns and expectations; not disturbingly so that you lose track of her sequences, but offering intriguing variants from the predictable.  The singers work through the lines twice and then the instrumentalists play a lengthy postlude, loaded with some brisk percussion commentary and Norman’s plangent sounds eventually ending on a muffled gasp.

In these Seven Tanka, Selleck has written a clear-voiced and idiomatic setting of poems that were written in traditional Japanese format.   The use of Norman’s instrument takes the listener into that country’s musical atmosphere, as do Johnston’s various percussion underpinnings  –  bass drum/timpani standing in for the dayko, not to mention the suggestive small chimes that get an occasional airing.   But you experience little sense of self-consciousness; the resources employed are not used simply for Oriental mimicry.  As with her Behn cycle, Selleck has a firm artistic personality, a writer hard to typecast as belonging to any particular compositional methodology.

This CD is not lavish with its contents – the total running time is 46′ 43″.  But it’s well worth attention for the excellence of the participants and the chance of hearing a pair of song cycles by a highly expressive voice in the cluttered ranks of Australian composers. As well, its executants are all female and that’s something of a rarity in contemporary chamber music-making.

 

Light and leisurely

RINGING THE STRINGS

Concordia

Move Records MCD 557

 

concordia

 

It’s been a while since I heard a mandolin, let alone an ensemble of them.  Not surprising as the instrument appears rarely in serious music endeavours.   Like everyone else (except mandolin aficionados), for a long time I associated the instrument with Neapolitan love-songs and popular lyrics in the pre-Pavarotti era when tenors were real musicians despite their preference for musical schmaltz  –  Santa Lucia, Torna a Surriento and a whole catalogue of sloppy Tyrrhenian flim-flam.

Yet, every so often, the instrument appeared where you least expected.  Thanks to a fellow student, I found it, in my early student days, lodged in Schoenberg’s Serenade Op. 24, playing up to the stringent aesthetic that infects the work.  Then it appeared in Mahler’s Symphonies 7 and 8, as well as Das Lied von der Erde.  Webern employed it sparingly in his Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 10; Stravinsky also called for it in the ballet Agon.  But its most common appearance for most of us comes in Deh vieni alla finestra from Don Giovanni.  And that short catalogue of original music for the instrument takes no account of the significant Vivaldi and Paisiello concertos that, in these latter days, the master-mandolinist Avi Avital has resurrected for us during his recent tours with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

So, for an instrument that gets typecast as a step below the guitar but a cut above the ukulele, the mandolin has endured a lot of downtime.   On this disc from the Concordia Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble, the main source of material is Michelle Nelson, the organization’s composer in residence, who provides a tarantella, a three-part suite and a five-part sequence of Midsummer Bagatelles.   These are original compositions, but Nelson also supplies arrangements of Faure’s violin/piano Op. 16 Berceuse and Erik Satie’s Valse-ballet.

The other components of this rather brief disc (47 minutes) are Sculthorpe’s Little Suite for Strings, A travers la Hongrie (Hungarian Journey) by French master-mandolinist Francois Menichetti, and East-West, the first movement of Sydney composer Steven Lalor’s World Music Suite.  In all, the CD has 16 tracks, which works out to about 3 minutes each; so the emphasis is on instant impact and congenial melody.

You get this right from the opening Kangarella where Nelson tries an Italian/Australian fusion, giving the spotlight to piano accordionist Juliette Maxwell for a catchy dance putting a neat chromatic-flavoured tune inside the 6/8 tarantella rhythm.  Faure’s miniature has gained an extra two bars of harmless introduction and then lost much of its original torso.

It’s hard to object to the arrangement of Satie’s defenceless Waltz-ballet; Maxwell’s accordion has a starring role, which only reinforces the highly suggestive La Ronde atmospherics, and the additions at start and end are undisturbingly cosmetic. The CD’s title work by Nelson is the previously mentioned and amiable tripartite suite: an Allegretto where the Concordia guitars and mandolins generally treat the straightforward plain-speaking material together; Barcarolle and Waltz, probably more latter than former, and somewhat tedious because the main rhythmic cell is repeated over-conscientiously in the movement’s first section; a Rondo conclusion showing some moments of awkward negotiation in its initial allegro pages, while the central grazioso lives up to its title with some fetching tremolo work even though some of the bridging modulations int he last section are clumsy in construction.  Nelson binds the suite together by making her final movement’s main melody a variant of that which dominates the opening Allegretto.

Sculthorpe’s 1983 suite – another Nelson arrangement –  suits the Concordia personnel remarkably well, right from the opening Sea Chant with its simple folksy tune treated with calm discretion, through the appealing and whimsical Little Serenade that makes a virtue of the mildest of syncopations, to the most well-known of these pieces, the Left Bank Waltz – slightly asymmetric in phrasing and, in its scene-setting owing so much to Satie, Auric and Monsieur Hulot.  It might have something to do with the arranger’s skill but this trio of pieces sounds idiomatic in this performing context and very deftly carried off, even in the last pages of the Waltz where inspiration flags.

Nelson’s Bagatelles open with A Foggy Morn, which is actually a placid waltz-rhythm piece that sets up the English bucolic backdrop that inspired this cycle.  Strawberry Fair  is a jig with a perfectly proportioned central theme at its start and finish with some harmless central padding.   In Bullocks may graze safely, you’d expect a Bach reference or two, but the atmosphere is one of noon-time torpor and a slow-moving melodic arch that doesn’t go very far and moves in simple steps.   A Midsummer Dance gives a fairly good imitation of a 6/8 country frolic; again, the tune is simplicity itself, as is the harmonic vocabulary. Midsummer Nocturne, the longest of the five pieces in the set,  is more of a lullaby with some gently rocking underpinning and welcome interludes from the ensemble’s guitars.

To conclude come two showpieces.  Menichetti’s Hungarian frolic begins with a nicely calculated lassu before making the inevitable turn to fast 2/4-Liszt Rhapsody motion. In later pages, the piece reproduces so many tropes of Zigeuner compositions that the listener feels quite at home with what is basically Central European kitsch, especially when the tempo moves into a fast waltz, then the necessary friska coda.   Lalor’s piece features the solo mandolin of Michelle Wright and is suggestive of much music you hear on both sides of Aegean, with a powerful suggestion of massed bouzoukia and a more diatonic-than-usual use of the oud, the band operating in a modally inflected D minor framework at the score’s centre before reverting to the opening major optimism.

Concordia’s musical director Basil Dean has a dedicated band of performers to work with and the music heard on this CD is fairly well carried out by them all, if some tracks seem more stolid than exhilarating.   Here is a good deal of easy listening, the works selected for their charm and felicitous adaptability to the mandolin/guitar forces available. While there are no Schoenbergian shocks, this CD is amiably honest in its prime intention of entertaining.

 

 

Happy half-way point

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME 4

James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1468

Booklet.qxd

By a happy concatenation of circumstances (or, more probably, clever organization, the latest in Brawn’s Beethoven piano sonatas CDs is packed with optimism and simple delight in music-making – both from the composer and his interpreter.  On this value-for-money recording, you will find the Sonata No. 9  in E Major,  the slightly later D Major Pastorale, and a clutch of shorter essays in the two-movement No. 24 in F sharp, the Alla tedesca No. 25, and  No. 27 in E minor – one of two with prefatory directions in German. While a minor-key movement occurs in nearly all five – not the A Therese in F sharp, however – the emotional  content is not particularly gloomy, or even suggestive of depression.    At the end, you may feel that you have come across some movements of ADHD-style Beethoven, but generally the atmosphere remains benign; determined, of course, yet not reaching into dark psychological reserves.

Brawn opens his reading of the Op. 14 E Major Sonata with poise and a controlled excitement that he lets erupt sporadically, notably at the recapitulation with its celebratory left hand semiquaver scales.   For all that, the work impresses best in the concluding passages of each half, the melody in minims singing over murmuring quaver chords in the bass.  A placid equanimity permeates he E minor Allegretto that follows, a plain-speaking premonition of the opening movement to the Sonata No. 27; while the concluding Rondo is briskly handled with an infectious energy surrounding the initial left-hand triplets and the extended central E minor episode.

Taking the tour with Brawn re-opens the wider Beethoven vista, especially when you are looking with a vision concentrated on works of a kind, like these sonatas.  During the opening segment of the D Major Op. 28, the most striking factor is the composer’s reservation of practically his entire development for the three add-on bars to his first subject’s opening sentence.   This creative focus and its attendant flexibility receives steady handling and the moderate waltz tempo is sustained.   Only in those right-hand- only bars featuring two triplets and a quintuplet is the delivery unsatisfying; it’s hard to put your finger on the reason but it may be that each individual beat needs more emphasis.

With the Maelzel-type metronomic tick-tocks in the bass, the sonata’s D minor Andante has a serious facade only and Brawn approaches it with an appreciation of its jauntiness and patches of frivolity; for example, at the change into the major.  Quite rightly, the Scherzo is given at a rapid speed which slows slightly for the Trio‘s second half, while the occasionally bucolic finale, despite the bracing bursts of double-octave action, sounds at its best in the simplest sections where Brawn’s touch is relaxed and beguiling.

Despite the signs of stress in the F sharp Major work, like the admonitory left hand trills in bars 26 and 85 and the intense working-over of a simple motif from bars 45 to 50, the interpretation captures you through its fluent Schubertian lilt at the start and those melting postludial observations at bars 27 to 30, then further on at bars 86 to 89: deftly shaped and touchingly diffident in character.  The sonata’s complementary vivace proves to be a model of sensibility – not over-fast, lots of clarity in the sets of two semiquavers in alternating hands, and a clever, slight easing of the pace before the cell motive’s several returns.   As well, Brawn reaches a marvellous purple patch from bar 149 on the last page; the dynamic juxtapositions and contrast in timbres between treble and bass makes you raise your eyes from the score.  I’m still trying to work out how he achieves a striking and highly individual muffled effect in bar 152.

Certain piano pieces take on a personal colour for many of us according to when and how we studied them.   My instructor at the Sydney Con, Nancy Salas, with a sadly misjudged estimation of her recalcitrant charge’s abilities, gave me the Alla tedesca Sonata to work on – as well as the Bach Italian Concerto, Mozart’s K. 459 Concerto, the Andantino from Schumann’s middle sonata, and several other works over our two-year relationship – masterpieces that over-taxed this mid-adolescent’s limited abilities.  What a pleasure, now, to come on a compelling reading of the Beethoven work which, as far as possible, I’ve avoided since those years.  Brawn treats the opening Presto cleverly, not forgetting that Beethoven wanted something of a tub-thumping country-dance feel about these pages. More pointedly, the pianist refrains from turning the movement into a moto perpetuo with some infinitesimal ritardandi before launching into the cuckoo-imitating cross-hand sections that dominate the middle pages’ action.   It’s all very brisk but warm in temperament – and, more significantly to my envious appreciation, flawlessly articulated.

I used to think that the remaining movements of this work were child’s play compared to its opening and the Andante in siciliana mode is devoid of technical problems.  But the final Vivace has its moments, as well as a running test pattern of rhythmic shifts, which Brawn negotiates with unflappable control at a very fast pace.   You are hard pressed to find any seams in the breaks between sections, mainly because the performer somehow knits the movement into one fabric by subtle note-sustaining and a non-aggressive palette of attack.  This sonata as a whole presents one of the outstanding exhibitions of sheer craft in the series so far.

The disc’s solitary grim pages come at the start of the E minor Sonata No. 27, pages that have a sort of galumphing stodginess to them.   Like the preceding G Major exercise, the technical requirements are far from shattering but agility and interpretative breadth put the executant under the pump.   Brawn is elastic with his beat in some passages, although rarely those where the forward motion is in chord steps.  He introduces an unexpected accelerando at bar 92 that dissipates before the section closes pianissimo – a little touch of sturmisch bewegt breaking up the steady first-beat emphasis that permeates the movement.   Finally comes a plain-speaking account of the Nicht zu geschwind movement where Beethoven seemingly can’t hear enough of his own main theme, a simple but multi-faceted marvel of construction.  In this very persuasive reading, the pages murmur past although Brawn proves insistent with his loud/soft/sforzando jumps between bars 32 and 38.  But his command of texture reaches a high mark at those discordant spots where the composer sets up an accompanying pattern of contrary-motion 2nds: bars 47 and later at bar 187.  In handling each of these points, Brawn maintains a gentle murmur under the top line’s melodic stream, yet again showing a sensitivity to texture and intention that makes one look forward even more to the next product in this excellent series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tour, not the full package

CHOPIN: THE NOCTURNES

Nancy Tsou

Move Records MCD 546

tsou

I could be getting precious (ha!) but the title of this CD has me querulous.  If the cover reads The Nocturnes, then I reckon you should get the Nocturnes – all of them.  That’s not the case with Nancy Tsou’s latest album.   Of the 21 (19 regular, 2 extras) in my edition, the pianist presents only 13.    For reasons best known to herself and the Move production team, she omits Nos. 2 and 3 from the Op. 15 group, both the Op. 37 pieces, the second of the Op. 48 pair, both the Op. 62 works and – not so importantly –  the two-page miniature in C minor from 1837.   Not that the recording is under-length physically, coming in at about 69 minutes.   But, if you were after the lot, you’d better look elsewhere.

Tsou begins with the posthumous C sharp minor; for some reason, this has been a favourite with film-makers in recent times.   She is very free-and-easy with the application of rubato, particularly in the con forza bars 13 and its repetition at bar 46.  The reading has a clear sensitivity, even if its Lento could have been applied more literally.

Moving into the canon proper with the Op. 9 B flat minor, the metre treatment is even more cavalier, notable for a tendency to linger before a bar’s second half, emphasizing the irregular melodic placement of the main theme.    Nothing exceptionable here; the right hand work offers an even line with few surprises, although the second-last bar was rushed.   For the famous E flat Major No. 2, the hesitating and pointing of notes is played up; Tsou uses some alternatives in bars 22 and 35, the latter of which I’ve not heard before, but that’s not saying much with a very well-known work that has enjoyed more than its share of differentiating ‘takes’.   One of the longer nocturnes, No. 3 in this group, again rings idiosyncratic bells, although the pauses on first notes in some bars did little for the internal fluency of this  (initially) light-stepping piece.   Later, at the  Agitato change to B minor, the texture grew muddy with too much pedal and a lack of clarity in the inner syncopated chords.

The cantabile direction heading Op. 15 No. 1 in F is somewhat sapped by Tsou’s elasticity in the top melodic line, let alone the by-now inevitable pauses/hesitations.  Later, when the mood changes to con fuoco and the minor, I would have preferred seeing a more strict adherence to the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern against the escorting sextuplets, particularly in bars 45-47.   The remaining parts of the opus are omitted and sadly missed, especially the perfectly shaped Larghetto in F sharp.

A convincing version of the first Op. 27 in C sharp was only marred by a repeated lingering on the initial strokes of each bar after the Piu mosso change-over.  Tsou might have taken the last three-bar Adagio more slowly, although the pivotal bass notes resound satisfyingly.  It proved easy to like the player’s command in the D flat No. 2: an informed combination of restraint and lyricism.  Still, the fioriture in bar 52 could have been more lightly delineated and I’m not sure that much was gained by the extra ornamentation from bars 66 to 68, piquant though it sounded.

For the following Op. 32 B Major, I’ve not heard before the practice of converting nearly every soprano line first-beat acciaccatura into an appoggiatura; not that it matters over-much but it does flat-line the melodic rhythmic surprises.  The D flat Major work that follows, a pianist’s delight, suffered from Tsou’s determination to interpolate pauses where they were not needed.   Chopin has gifted this nocturne with a rolling, infectious melody; why interrupt its progress?   The decorative work in bars 14 and 22 is laboured; notes failed to register during the central pages, notably in the top left-hand chords, but the whole segment was taken too quickly for comfort.

Skipping Op. 37,  the pianist moves to the C minor Op. 48 and things are well enough until the hectic arpeggios start.  I suppose you can treat these with a certain amount of liberty; Tsou does – and that would have been fine if the piece had stayed in time, but when the double octaves get under way, the work slows down and the bravura is dissipated in obvious effort.   As in the previous work, the inner workings of the doppio movimento return are cloudy, hard to single out in their context.

The plain-speaking Op. 55 in F minor suffers from another overdose of the pointed hesitation, which interrupts the measured pace of its regular bass-line.   Sadly, the reversion at bar 73 does not come creeping slowly, the spectre at the feast after a contrasting interlude, but is treated matter-of-factly.  At the end, Tsou does not reserve her forte for the last three chords but plays all four last bars at the same dynamic level, which is not the most inspired choice in handling this strong-minded, poignant conclusion.   But you could point to other occasions where the listener is left-footed by odd decisions; by this stage, the effects are rarely challenging or informative.  The companion No. 2 suits itself about the irregular gruppetti, even as early as bars 7 and 9: the left hand slows down to make way too much space for them to be slotted in, a process that reaches an apogee in bars 35 and 36.   Yet again, passages are blurred by sustained pedal work across half-bar lengths.

Last track of all is the posthumous Op. 72 No. 1, the composer’s first nocturne that didn’t come up to his standards.   This reading is fluent and competent but lacks a sense of impetuosity where it is needed from bars 31 to 38, at which stage Chopin’s right hand rhapsodises against the relentless quaver-triplet bass line.

Which is eventually the chief problem with these nocturnes.  The performances are able, occasionally persuasive, but they lack compelling passion.   You can point to pages where Tsou is on the verge of moving into a gripping interpretation, but the rubato brake is applied, or the dynamic stays in a rut, or emphasis falls on a particular note that disrupts a work’s fluency.    In a crowded market with complete sets of the nocturnes from Arrau, Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Ohlsson and Pollini still available, you’re spoiled for choice. This CD is not operating at that exalted level, but it makes the most of its executant’s virtues and abilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encores galore

THE TIME TRAVELLER AND HIS MUSE

James Brawn

MSR Classics MS 1502

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This is a double CD which contains a plethora of pieces that, over my time listening to recitals, many pianists have used as encores.   Brawn travels across time indeed – starting with Scarlatti and Bach, then finishing up with Prokofiev and Gershwin. He follows a scrupulous chronology, ensuring that Chopin (born 1810) comes before Liszt (1811), and keeping Scriabin ahead of Rachmaninoff, the mystic born a year earlier than the great pianist-expatriate.

There are a few carry-overs from Brawn’s first In Recital (MS 1501) volume; he has different interpretations of the first Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the third of Liszt’s Consolations, and the Prelude in B minor from the Op. 32 set by Rachmaninov.  As grounding comparisons, he accompanies the Bach re-examination with four other preludes from the same Book 1, and fits the re-cycled Rachmaninov inside a context of four disparate preludes.  A pity that the Liszt remains alone here, especially when Brawn showed his talent with this composer by way of an expert Mephisto Waltz No. 1 in the previous album.

The time difference is not too important in the Bach interpretations: the earlier 1:58, the later one 1:49.   It’s a bit more telling with Brawn’s B minor Rachmaninov where 5:57 changes to a racier 5:03.   And the Consolation moves from 5:24 to 4:11   –  a substantial change of approach; well,a more purposeful performance, you could say.

Disc 1 opens with two well-known Scarlatti sonatas: the E Major K. 380, and C Major K. 159. The first enjoys a crisp airing with a fair swag of detached notes in the right-hand scale passages and the trills and ornaments are neatly inserted, the pianist saving his powder for the B Major climax in the second half.   Much the same applies to La caccia where the dynamics are more engaging than on many another disc: not just through juxtapositions of piano and forte, but a clever gradation across the central segments of each half  –  impressive in illuminating this simple-speaking bagatelle.

After the C Major Bach prelude, Brawn offers the C minor, D Major, E flat minor and E Major ones; fine, although I would have been more satisfied if a few fugues had been added.  Nevertheless, the D Major piece is articulated with precision and, as with its predecessor, projects a gentle flamboyance in the final bars where the motor-rhythm stops for a mini-cadenza flourish or two.   Brawn  makes no attempt at emotional dryness with the sarabande-like E flat work, using his instrument to give the two pages a romantic sensibility but without sustaining-pedal washes.  Still, the finest in this set comes at the end with an urbane rendering of the E Major invention, given with grace and a non-insistent metrical regularity; here, most of all, you would have welcomed the complementary fugue as a sprightly consequent to this prelude’s amiable gentility.

Mozart is dispatched with the Rondo alla turca and the D minor Fantasia.  Even with the first work’s over-familiar pages, Brawn maintains an interestingly light texture, especially when the janissaries are in full A Major flight.  Also particularly worthy of note are his left-hand arpeggios: brisk, not over-loud, appropriately suggestive of elegantly civilized drum fusillades.   He keeps the longer work measured, infusing the opening Andante with a muted emotional detachment which obtains even in the piece’s three cadenza bars where the approach is deliberate, eschewing the temptation to turn their swooping scales into leaps of legerdemain.   The result of this approach is to push the dramatic balance to the score’s front, the D Major Allegretto properly a relief of tension but something of an addendum.

Beethoven’s Fur Elise Bagatelle makes a fair space-filler, but the stretto from bar 61 to about bar 83 showed a nicely contrived mini-climax in what remains a sweet but insubstantial set of pages that lives up to its descriptor.  Schubert’s F minor Moment musical, the jog-trot No. 3, raises no eyebrows, nor does the G flat Impromptu, even if you could quibble with a few leaning-post moments where the regular sextuplet/triplet underlying figure is slackened – you understand why, but not necessarily the places where this rubato is brought into play.

Brawn presents seven Chopin pieces: three preludes and four etudes.  The E minor Prelude from Op. 28 makes a soulful introduction to Brawn’s approach to this supreme piano composer; the left hand is allowed to speak distinctly, where other interpreters muffle its repeated chords.  The sweep of the final Op. 25 Etude was well-maintained, this reading favouring the first accent of every tempestuous bar, which is probably wiser than treating its progress as 2/4 rather than 4/4.   With the E Major No. 3 from the Op. 10 Etudes, Brawn relished the fierce central pages where the mood changes from nocturnal to the heft and plosiveness of a polonaise; again, some over-sensitive pauses/hesitations emerged in the main theme’s reprise.

A shapely version of the Op. 25 A flat Aeolian Harp Etude accounts very well for yet another encore standard, capped by an attractive concluding four bars of arpeggios that actually make you think the work’s nickname might be appropriate.   Brawn ends his first disc with the Black Key G flat Major from Op. 10; it’s very vigorous, handles the right-hand trickiness with plenty of brio and only a few notes fail to carry.  Some chords in the bass are pretty emphatic at several points but the interpretation succeeds for its appealing bounce and well-judged tightening and loosening of the initial rhythmic juggernaut, sprightly though it is.

Disc 2 opens with the Op. 28 Raindrop Prelude in D flat, one of the lengthier pieces among the 24 in Chopin’s publication and very well-known in its own right.  Brawn does the right thing by sticking with his opening tempo into the central C sharp minor segment and doesn’t over-egg the two high-points in G sharp.   Concluding this bracket is a real rarity, both in actual programs and as encore fodder: the Op. 45 Prelude in C sharp minor.  Here is a persuasive account of a harmonic tongue-twister that the performer welds into a coherent whole without a trace of unnecessary theatrics or manipulation; indeed, this version is spartan in its lack of introduced ornament or colour-adding arpeggiations.

The Liszt Consolation No. 3 follows, the left hand susurrus generally more rapid than in the previous recording and with less time allowed for labouring over the melody.  Is the quickened pace an improvement?  Maybe.  But if anything sums up the sort of thing a fagged-out concerto soloist would like to treat adoring fans to as a goodnight gesture, this is it.   Of the Brahms Op. 39 Waltzes, we hear the penultimate and popular-favourite one in A flat Major; not too slow and not too light, especially when the triplets start in the reprise.   A more moving depth comes in the composer’s A Major Intermezzo from the Op. 118 Klavierstucke where Brawn spares us any muddy thickness, relying on the piece’s inbuilt phrasing, simply following where the composer leads, which is both honest and refreshing.

Grieg’s 23-bar-long Arietta that introduces the Lyric Pieces Op. 12 raises few ripples, apart from its cadential disruption of the composer’s habitual two-bar sequences/patterns.   Scriabin’s C sharp minor Etude is an AMEB staple, a fusion of Chopin and Rachmaninov, capping off a sequence of  seven tracks that are a collective corner of temperamental reserve in this album.  Speaking of Rachmaninov, Brawn begins his tour with the famous C sharp minor Op. 3 Prelude, the one that composer wound up loathing.  Matters are fine up to the Agitato which Brawn takes fast to begin with and ups the ante so that the section loses balance  –  no, evenness  –  between the hands.

The G sharp minor Prelude, penultimate in the Op. 32, works much better through a dexterous recovery rate and a pliancy of metre.  The B minor No. 10 from that same set is exceptionally well accomplished, packed with telling details like  the three bars leading into the L’istesso tempo pages – a model of taut deceleration in atmosphere – and the gentle delivery of chords in the final twelve gloomy bars.   Listen to the restatement of the main theme in the following Op. 23 D Major where the action is in the alto line for a sample of digital skill and reliability; or the change in intensity at the move back to the major in the Op. 32 G Major’s last a tempo marking – simple yet striking, even in a moment of harmonic relief.

To finish, Brawn plays Prokofiev and Gershwin.  The Russian composer’s Toccata makes a striking encore but it’s exhausting; not that this puts off some players who can’t get enough of performing time.   This reading has a heart-in-mouth climax, the three bars of right hand octaves thrilling to hear; still, I would have liked the motor rhythm sustained without a break until the rallentando marking is reached.  I Got Rhythm in transcription (by Gershwin? Suppose so) is a 90-second flourish which raises the spectre of both the composer and Oscar Levant with its clever harmonic shifts and progressions.

You get a lot for your money in this demonstration of the keyboard’s historical progression; some fine interpretations are peppered throughout both discs.  Of course, you might carp (as I have) about some of Brawn’s readings but even the questionable tracks are some steps above the everyday that you hear regularly.  It’s an enterprising and entertaining trip that this gifted pianist takes you on and, if you meet a fair few familiar faces along the way, so much the better for the encounter’s informed nature.