Last sonatas but not the last word

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOLUME 7

James Brawn

MSR Classics MS1471

Carrying us onward towards the conclusion of his complete Beethoven piano sonatas cycle, James Brawn has grouped the final three works in the series under one roof. It’s a bold move, presenting the major intellectual challenges before taking on an imposing technical mammoth: the Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Hammerklavier. While this last-mentioned is the preserve of master-pianists (although I’ve heard a few readings that disappointed greatly, including one where the performer simply left the stage mid-slow movement), each of the final three sonatas features commonly in recital programs these days – much more than half a century ago when they were avoided in favour of more agreeable works with appealing nicknames.

The favourites linger, of course, Pathetiqueing, Moonlighting and Waldsteining their ways across recital programs until their appearance induces frissons of ennui: you know that nothing informative will be achieved across the duration of yet another Tempest or Appassionata but, like Christians the world over, you wait in hope (usually disappointed). With the last three sonatas, you can expect more fine gradations of interpretation. It’s not that they are more difficult to get around than their predecessors, although certain movements are risky – the Prestissimo from No. 30 in E Major, the I’ve-been-everywhere fugue that concludes the A flat Op.110, and the multi-layered Allegro of Sonata No. 32’s first movement.

Brawn’s reading of Op. 109, the E Major Sonata, is blessed with a well-matched pair of opening movements before the disproportionately long theme-and-variations conclusion. For the opening Vivace/Adagio, he finds an appealing give-and-take set of speeds which don’t over-egg the changes from the initial two-note motif-chains to mini-cadenzas (bars 9 and 58), passages that often enjoy a piacevole treatment rather than the disciplined observation of underlying pulses that obtains here; why the hell would Beethoven have bothered with those explicit groupings of demi-semiquavers and hemi-demi-semiquavers unless he wanted pianists to exercise a relative tempo ratio? Brawn’s care for detail shows out in minutiae like his handling of the last crotchet’s worth of bar 12’s right hand, and the elision of those wafer-thin joins between segments (bars 9, 15, 57 and 65).

The following very fast movement also shines for its sensible treatment, the pauses slight and used to mark a differentiation of attack rather than employed for the usual excuse of repositioning a hand. Brawn makes full use of the expression markings (well, those in Wallner’s edition for Henle), with a few clever dynamic pulling-back instants that serve to keep the onward rush buoyant. And here was one of the more fluent transfers of attention from right hand to left at bar 112; it only lasts a few seconds but it’s become one of my discriminant points for determining a player’s dynamic balance and care in avoiding bluster.

For the sonata’s largest span, the third movement theme and six variations, Brawn shows the requisite alternation between ultra-sensitivity, as in the hiatus breaths he employs during the melody’s first articulation’s phrases, and helter-skelter jollity (Variation 3) alongside an Handelian determined simplicity during Variation 5’s fugal mesh. The executant shows commendable care with the second variation’s juxtaposition of detached semiquaver two-note motives and the broad chordal thematic treatments (bars 41 and 57). A more relaxed approach typified Brawn’s handling of the Etwas langsamer variation which enjoyed a quietly splayed outlining; not enough to undercut the prevailing metre but sufficient to suggest a surging barcarolle.

For all that, you have to relish this pianist’s bringing the sonata home in the final variation where the sustained trills on B (with a brief excursion to home-key E) generate an underpinning that threatens to overpower the material being outlined both above (mainly) and below. With a further example of that insight shown across this odyssey, Brawn observes a dynamic level that doesn’t distract from the composer’s strands of operation; you find no heavy pounding of those arpeggio/broken chord chains that reveal a simple, devastating musical deconstruction before the theme returns en clair, bringing us round to full term.

I’m not so taken with the first movement of Op. 110 in A flat Major. Admittedly, Beethoven’s writing is fitful, putting a sonata-form shape through several odd wriggles and engineering sudden changes in tonality. Brawn underlines these oddities and abrupt shifts by pointing them up (or out) with brief pauses, so that the movement advances as a set of episodes rather than as wholly-woven fabric. I suppose it’s a fundamental problem of interpretation – how do you treat a chameleonic canvas? – but my view comes down on the side of playing the pages without any tangential commentary on the not-so-subtle shifts in register alongside the traditional modulatory brusqueries.

Not much to find fault with in the ensuing Allegro molto. Brawn keeps a cool head, especially when faced with the invitation to belt out the forte and sforzando chords. Further he gives the central D flat Major trio some lucidity by not accelerating or moving into a slushy over-use of the sustaining pedal. Still, this page-and-a-bit is hard to integrate in any sense; you can’t call it aimless because it has direction (mainly down, from a fair height) but any congruence with the surroundings escapes me. Of course, I could go to that bank of scholars and hanger-on pedants who make theses and careers out of explaining these ‘problem’ sonatas but life’s too short; well, it’s getting that way in this quarter, what with the endless struggle against infections both physical and mental, particularly now that we have returned to normal after the Australian Open has limped to its flaccid conclusion.

You can find more justification for Brawn’s pointing-up character in the tragic-heroic last movement of this work where arioso, recitative and fugue are assembled in a carefully staged scenario of lament and ebullience. The pianist is very painstaking with his left-hand chords and their shadings into one another right across the Adagio ma non troppo when it really starts (half-way through bar 7). Further, his outline of the Klagender Gesang itself proves to be irreproachably clear and poised, With the fuga‘s first part, this reading preserves a contrapuntal clarity and control that obtains up to and throughout the reinforced bass explosions at bars 45, 72 and especially 101. Brawn also manages to suggest the rests between those enigmatic semiquaver chords from bar 131 to 134 while still following the sustained pedal direction.

For the fuga‘s inversion and complexities, this interpretation takes the high road by treating the score with respect, ensuring clarity even as the argument becomes more determined at the change of key in bar 153. Further, in the final pages where the material is reduced to an alternating bipolarity and Beethoven stretches further and further outward to the topmost and most bass-ic limits of his instrument, Brawn observes the decencies, articulating with weight but without bombast or hysterics. Which gives us a reading informed by warmth and integrity, one where I can’t find any note or gesture out of place.

Last of all comes the C minor Op. 111: a minefield, they say. It’s not technically over-remarkable but its first movement offers too many opportunities for pontification before and after bar 19 where the Allegro kicks off properly. Brawn is awake to the inbuilt drama of the scene-setting seventh chords at the opening and the unsettling hiatus chords between bars 6 and 10 where expectations of regularity are roused and left unsatisfied. He is quite happy to indulge in a considerable hold-back whenever he comes across a poco ritenente in the main dramatic chapter, while some hard-pressing passages come within cooee of dragging, e.g. bars 37 to 42. Then there emerge some fine sweeps of impassioned confidence; for example, the crescendo at bar 96 leading to a marvellously contrived piece of contrapuntal display, rich in octaves from both hands until the escorting semiquavers take over at the end of bar 108.

Another effective interpretative illustration comes in the final bars. After a chain of eight sforzandi and a vehement tonic affirmation, the subsequent chords become epuise, until the menacing semiquaver runs emerge in the bass while the right hand consoles with three resolutions into a tierce de Picardie – a passage that brings to most minds the penultimate relaxation (8 bars from the end) in Chopin’s final Op. 10 etude.

Yet again, I’m impressed by Brawn’s intellectual control, specifically in the second movement Arietta with variations. His initial pace is spacious, and you can hear every element of the chord work, no matter how raw the texture. Each variation is welded into a framework that relies on its foundation rivets, no matter how discursive or florid the embellishments. I’ve listened to these pages several times, making sure that Brawn gives exact measure in the syncopations and displacements of the later variations when tied chords or notes ask for intense concentration from an executant; or further on when both hands operate in the bass clef (bars 65 to 71, 81 to 88) and those left-hand groups of nine demi-semiquavers hare murmur clearly; or closer to the end when Beethoven brings in his trills, which are delivered in this context with unstudied regularity.

The CD is an excellent sample of Brawn’s powers in Beethoven performance. The three works are treated with a respect and firmness that reveal an intimate awareness of the composer’s demands and a fidelity to the works’ aesthetic compass – true to the drama, the gravity, the incredibly powerful impetus underpinning what can look on paper like ambling. This isn’t Brawn’s final odyssey leg – there are two more discs to come – but it’s a considerable and bracing contribution to the journey.

Fiat lux

THREADING THE LIGHT

Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MCD 636

I don’t know how to catalogue this four-part exercise. According to the notes available on the Move Records site, the score formed the basis of Wilcox’s Ph.D. submission and was written between 2008 and 2012. The composer provides a good deal of technical detail on how she contrived the background/supporting musical stream that runs throughout the work. As you probably know if you’ve dabbled in academia, very little impresses a supervisor/examiner more than graphs, tables and photos of mechanisms; the trouble lies in interpreting the numbers which few people (except those paid to do so, viz. supervisors and examiners) can be bothered attempting. I had a few tries and got some way in – but then you listen to the CD and have to wonder at the need to explain technical details when the whole product presents more puzzles than the technical tooling around with frequencies extracted from or supplied by Sydney percussionist Michael Askill’s singing bowls.

Wilcox’s four soundscapes go by elemental titles: Light, Water, Blood, Fire. The overall emotional tenor of the work is meditative and ritualistic, with a heavy accent on Near and Far Eastern practices. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of this from the composer’s instrumental fabric, but it helps that she uses singers who beaver away at various texts that might give some reinforcement or illustration of the work’s four generic titles. Soprano Alison Morgan, contralto Jenny Duck-Chong and baritone Mark Donnelly are the nominated vocalists, the last-named moving very close to a tenor range in the score’s latter pages – a tribute to Donnelly’s versatility.

It’s a mixed ensemble that provides the bulk of Wilcox’s output, all led by Sada Muramutsu. Top of the town sits a string trio: violin Anna McMichael, viola Luke Spicer, cello Anthea Cottee, with a prominent part allocated to Alison Pratt and her multiform percussion. As a central body, we hear a string quintet: violins Ben Adler and Victor Wu, viola Tara Hashambhoy, cello Anthony Albrecht, bass Muhamed Mehmedbasic, while Ben Burton supervises the composer’s electronic instrument. Once again, according to the online booklet, the recording’s mixing and mastering (Daniel Brown at Trackdown) was carried out in March 2012 – which means this disc has been a long time coming.

One of the more intriguing compositional bases that Wilcox employs is a contrast between just intonation and equal temperament, the first sourced from the bowls and manipulation of their output while the second is the regular tuning of the string-rich ensemble. Any disjunction between the two tuning systems is not apparent at the start of Light, Track 1, but the aim is to refine the difference into obviousness by the time we reach Track 4, Fire, so that eventually a palpable disjunction obtains. God knows the difference ought to be clear as the work moves at a ceremonial pace for the most part and the progress is rarely interrupted by technical conundrums of a significant order – apart from the electronics which seem happy for much of the time to bathe us in a soothing infinity pool of familiar warmth layers..

So we begin with Light and plenty of bowl sounds, some of them sounding real-time, others pre-recorded. The atmosphere is hushed, reverent and inescapably oriental. A female voice (Duck-Chong?) begins singing a three-note Vedic mantra about sacred light illuminating us. A continuation of the subtly pulsing backdrop brings forward a male voice (Donnelly) celebrating the light of Allah (as outlined in a Quran verse) in a melodic arc that seems to be farther-ranging than the first solo but is limited to the same three notes (plus some octaves). At all events, simple percussive tinklings emerge in the struck-bowl main timbre-world and take on some prominence here as punctuation points. I believe it’s Morgan who gives us the final textual content with a Buddhist lama’s prayer of thanksgiving (for light, of course); again, her material follows the same trail as blazed by her peers. What follows is an instrumental slab where the three base notes are elaborated and twisted into all sorts of predictable shapes by McMichael with two essays in melisma, eventually followed by Spicer and Cottee rising out of a sonorous band supplied by the string ensemble with some occasional high bells and an underpinning current of bowl sounds operating as a support.

The language is deliberately limited but the dynamic level moves from meditative calm to fierce percussiveness. At its opening, Water sets a suitably limpid atmosphere with sustained bowl sound-bands, the strings entering gently in high/harmonics strata, with an occasional dollop of a Wilcox gesture where a soft string passage or crescendo ends in a chordal thump. The composer’s textures now have become less transparent, her string ensemble producing a sustained mid-range sound-band that could have escaped from Penderecki’s Threnody. Suddenly, we have moved into a new and completely unexpected segment where the bass is a five-note cantus firmus above which Cottee pours out a sad if mobile lament. It’s the sort of music that struck me as being useful for indicating a transcontinental trudge of the Burke & Wills genre, but no: such an interpretation is overturned by all three singers breaking out in an (eventually) unison setting of the opening lines to Psalm 23 (22) with a strikingly non-impressionist vision of the still waters. It’s hard to penetrate the vocalists’ Hebrew, given the strident accompaniment, but with a few hearings under the belt I’m not sure whether they reach the final phrases set out in the online booklet about being guided along straight paths for his name’s sake.

We are again grounded by two more settings which appear in reverse order to their printing in the booklet. First come a few lines about the Lord pouring out blessings, written by the composer’s brother, Rev. Dr. Gavin Wilcox who died in 2008 from cancer aged 46, and to whom Threading the Light is dedicated; this setting is a wide-ranging one with a welcome addition of vocal and instrumental glissandi that relax the three- or four-note limitations exercised so far. Duck-Chong and Donnelly outline an anonymous Buddhist prayer (well, most of it) about rains filling streams and oceans being reflected in the exercise of human goodness in healing all things. Here. we’re back in limited ground, Duck-Chong’s line at least mobile while the baritone sings a single note. Then the movement ends in similar condition to its predecessor: in a lengthy interstellar hum punctuated by a single note.

Comparatively brief in this context, Blood lasts for 6 1/2 minutes and uses one text; well, actually two, but the second comprises just two Latin words for blood. The main one is a Vedic mantra in which the aim is complete identity between the chanter and whomever/whatever he is addressing; not so much blood will out as much as blood is blood, as we say in Calabria. The movement opens with a Bloch-reminiscent cello solo couched in a more adventurous vocabulary than that used by the Jewish master. Donnelly sings through the Sanskrit quatrain with similar adventurousness before being joined by the female voices who generally finish off his lines for him. I think the mantra is repeated three times, the latter two a pulsing monotone in Donnelly’s case; underneath come sinuous strings arcing and glissading above an insistent timpani. Here, the ceremonial achieves its hypnosis through forceful insistence, rather than quiet repetition.

The movement’s second half comprises mainly an interweaving of the three voices, sticking to a limited number of notes for each and treating the two words sanguis and cruor with increasing intensity that involves aggressive string linear interplay and a vehement undercurrent iof percussion, including a prominent side-drum. Without a score, I can’t make much insightful headway into the work’s interstices but, once again, it appears that Wilcox is deliberately confining herself in her material while expending more adventurousness on drama; this piece ends with an explosion, not the suggestion of an all-embracing, eternal continuum. The final strokes have the singers returning to the Veda’s final words, ‘Light of all lights’.

Last comes Fire, about double the length of Blood. We’re back with the singing bowls straight away and on the lookout (listenout) for a change in temperament and pretty quickly there’s a scale that announces the new – the changed, rather – followed by the cello playing an imitation, possibly to illustrate the technical differentiation. The string group focuses on a single chord, alternately soft and loud, sustained and agitated before the bowl music returns and integrates itself with a single string line. So far (about a quarter of the way through), there’s little to grab on to, even if you’re prepared to find fiery flickers in the alternating timbres. Then comes another of those bowl scales which is definitely filling in your usual well-tempered cracks; the ensuing cello solo (Cottee, I assume) now seems to be doing the same thing with another odd scale/arpeggio upward motion/gesture before a substantial solo that features some welcome technical flourishes. This merges into a chord and some isolated ejaculations for all three vocalists which dissipate into a sort of tutti for strings and bowls.

The voices enter; first Donnelly, with another verse-prayer from Gavin Wilcox, speaking of the individual’s helplessness and a complete frailty that depends on the Lord’s support to survive. Meshing in with this comes yet another excerpt from Psalm 23 (22) – the bit about walking through the valley of the shadow of death but enjoying divine support from both rod and staff. As before, the Old Testament extract is sung in Hebrew and I think has been entrusted to Duck-Chong because it sounds as if it’s Morgan who immediately breaks in with yet another text: an anonymous saeta to Our Lady of Sorrows which bears a close resemblance to the Stabat Mater‘s first stanza. In all three vocal lines, we have returned to the tonal chastity of the work’s opening, Wilcox using few notes and maintaining a regular pulse of one note repeated twice underneath the singers; nothing like a constant unvaried pulse to suggest the hieratic.

This slow, lurching pace continues through the final sung fragment which is for all three voices and is an evening prayer ascribed to Muhammad, a salutation that again records the worshipper’s total dependence on God. The vocalists rise to a vehement climax that involves the interjections of slapping-sticks, the episode culminating in an instrumentally reinforced open-chord Amen – very Muslim in its decisiveness. And immediately we are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, back into the outer reaches of the universe with a final sample of sustained humming and soft high strings. I’m not sure what part fire plays in all this; I suspect that where I expect the vivid and the passionate (the ardent), Wilcox is more concerned with the (divine) spiration that ignites us all. Sad to report that, at about the halfway mark of this finale, I’d forgotten completely about listening for the disjunction between Wilcox’s two tuning systems; it’s certainly there – he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Congratulations to Wilcox and her collaborators for getting this CD into the light of day. It strikes me that its content deserves attention, principally because of its rarity in celebrating the numinous with individuality and doing so by using in part a novel language of sound sources. A kind of catholicity pervades the work, the textual sources highly varied in their origins, and the musical content falling into a strange land. Somehow, the orthodox sits alongside the novel – and not just alongside but the two intertwine. Indeed, it is these moments of fusion that interest me, more than the singing bowls as an isolated creation. Most listeners, I believe, will find something admirable in the course of hearing Wilcox’s substantial musical essay, not least her vaulting ambition.

Why not take all of me

LIGHT IN DARK

Jennifer Enchelmaier

Move Records MD 3465

One of the oddest anthologies I’ve come across, this CD features all the (till-now) known piano solo music by Tom Henry, a Melbourne-based composer who began his career path as a flautist before changing to the more idealistic, top-of-the-class transcendental role of a composer.   He has an ideal interpreter in Enchelmaier who lavishes her skills on rich and poor alike – or perhaps it would be better to distinguish between the junior and the elder, the tyro and the proficient, the smooth and the rough.  What is apparent is that Henry travelled through a not-uncommon creative trajectory that began with imitations of the masters, then switched overnight to a cracker-jack contemporary style which takes the wind out of your sails through its stark contrast.

But then, this vault between light and dark (you choose) is not at all clear-cut.   Enchelmaier begins with 14 pieces stretching from 2003 to 2006.   They come in various groups: three Songs without words (2003-2006), three Studies for modern times (2005) and three Ecstatic preludes from that same year, a slightly puzzling brace from the composer’s 2006 Pieces for children (originally three in number, but A Funny Game has been omitted  –  hence the descriptor here of From ‘Pieces for children’).   Then there are the Three short pieces for piano of 2005 which take on the function of a midriff punch after what we’ve heard so far because they sound like Webern of the Variations for Piano alternating with Schoenberg of the Drei Klavierstucke.   And these lead into the Piano Sonata No. 1, written for Michael Kieran Harvey and an excellent vehicle for that pianist/composer’s scintillating skills.  This is followed by the forward-leaning Three pieces for piano of 2010, and the one-movement Piano Sonata No. 2 written four years ago and less elliptical than its predecessor in the form from 2006.

We start with the Ecstatic preludes No. 1 – Like an omen.   Well it’s ominous enough, taking its opening cell – a clipped, falling interval – and putting it through some unremarkable, post-Rachmaninov harmonic changes.   No, not so much ominous; more, a prophecy emanating from a Tarot reading.   Sensual and languid depends for its mood-setting on surging scales that aren’t allowed to take over the message which is a carefully circumscribed melody that suggests the eroticism of Saint-Saens.   Finally, Calm and flowing presents as something of a study for the right hand which reserves its melodic interest for the middle two notes of every quaver group of four; as I’ve mentioned before, this is written in a style that suggests Rachmaninov but without the surprises, harmonic or lyrically transporting.

Pop song is the first of the Studies for modern times; not too modern, I’d suggest, as its language is lush and harmonically too subtle for anything I’ve heard from the gutter-mouthed rappers that captured the imaginations of my students and too frisky in its instrumental range to compete with the musical debris that spews from my gym’s sound-system.   Not to mention that the vocal range required to sing this piece would be beyond the abilities of anyone currently performing on any ‘pop’ stage.   The death of Pope John Paul II prompted April 2005 which manages to sound optimistic and elegiac at the same time.   Henry imposes a fair amount of bell-ringing on us with a running scale figure doing the peals while a few chorale-suggestive figures range across the keyboard; it’s not La cathedrale engloutie (the pace is too rapid for Debussy’s lush washes) but the liturgical suggestions are there for those unkind enough to find them.    And the composer’s forging along an harmonically conservative path seems right in line with the heritage (such as it remains) of Karol Wojtyla.    Last in this set, Film theme suggested all sorts of possibilities.   It’s got a rolling undercurrent of left-hand arpeggiations and a ‘noble’ tune in block chords that proposes all sorts of visual equivalents – the Australian bush but not too far west of the Great Dividing Range, a Mary Tyler Moore family drama, Avatar 3 in its pictorial obviousness, perhaps even a Big Sur Buddhism scenario in a cleaned-up Kerouac setting.

From ‘Pieces for Children’ involves A sad story and Barcarolle.  You might find signs of Schumann here, although Mendelssohn is more the go despite some harmonic slips and slides.   The story has a melancholy fluency to it but it could be played at sight by a reasonably competent pianist; Enchelmaier spices the outline with clever phrasing and sympathetic dynamics.   As for the Venetian scene, you look in vain for any complexities; the pulse is regular and the right hand melodic outline is not distinctive enough to distract from the piece’s lack of adventure or colour, despite some sudden swerves into a new tonality – for a moment.

Henry admits to a collegiality with Mendelssohn in introducing his Songs without words and the three small-frame works share a certain picturesque reflectiveness with the German composer’s miniatures.   Remembrance is upper-level lounge music with a wealth of added 7th chords and a definite lyrical shape; I was distracted by an odd resemblance in the work’s emotional character to Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves  –  not that there’s anything wrong with that.   More blues-inflected chord work emerges in Nocturne, a simple ternary shape with a very long central section (in relation to its surrounds) but the initial flourish is attractive enough to tolerate repetitions.   New York comes over as a sort of ambling promenade not that far removed from Loved Walked In but bedevilled by its unchanging movement of block chords, occasionally spiced up with some arpeggiations; it’s certainly a very benign view of a city that I found menacing and unpleasant, by day and by night.

Now we come to the split where Henry’s compositional language turns into the second half of the 20th century.   Following his studies with Lawrence Whiffin (or probably during that time), Henry produced Three short pieces for piano which are aphoristic in terms of length (in particular the last Molto allegro) and unpredictable in terms of rhythm and harmony which is emphatically atonal and probably 12-tone although you can hear repeated notes and motifs that would disrupt strict application of the rules.   All of a sudden, the listener has to cope with an abstract set of soundscapes, starting with an Andante of tight-lipped stringency, followed by a Piu agitato that is my pick of the three for its expressive range and technical dexterity.   Aficionados of the Second Viennese School will find plenty of reminiscences in these all-too-brief essays.

Henry wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 in 2006 and revised it in 2011; a fascinating fact although it’s difficult to know what to do with it.   As it comes across on this CD, the composer’s style-world has moved on from brief bursts of a 1920s vintage to short explosions of a 1950s/60s Boulez/Stockhausen variety – at least for the sonata’s scene-setting Theme which looks on paper like one of the Klavierstucken: ultra-refined dynamic markings, glancing shots before a sustained crotchet or minim, subdivisions of rhythm like a quintuplet that’s as much rests as it is notes, leaps of 7ths and 9ths: the whole panoply of serialized physical jerks, although, as I say, I don’t think the principles are being applied in too doctrinaire a fashion.

The following Variations movement is probably divided into six sections, their material emanating from the thematic material of Movement 1.    You can find common intervallic vaults, I suppose, but the music is chameleonic and, despite the divisions, its progress is continuous.    Also, Henry is fond of the direction recitativo; that gives his interpreter all the leeway necessary to handle whimsical creative flights as she pleases.    In fact, most of these sectional indicators aren’t that helpful to the ear: what Henry calls Molto calmo e ritmato requires a large amount of creative listening, as does quasi una Habanera and, later, Violente.  However, you can take pleasure in the pockets of high-pitched pointillism across this variations sequence, as well as Henry’s ear for the dramatic gesture and the pointed repetition.

The finale , Molto perpetuo, presents in two versions: one where the linear rhythmic values are prescribed, the other a sort of breakdown into consecutive quavers.   Whichever one you pick, the results follow a different vocabulary to that obtaining in the preceding two movements.    It winds up being diatonic in character towards the end after a  moderately athletic main body.    At times, I was reminded of an old-time passacaglia where the bass is emphatic and definitely placed while quavers follow their predictable path on top.    In fact, about half-way through, the texture is satisfyingly complex with three layers in full operation.  But this is not your usual perpetual motion rush as Enchelmaier exercises plenty of rubato and dramatic emphases, especially in the last minute where the work seeks the security of a tonal resolution,   This you can receive as a haven or a restoration of the natural order; or you can wonder why, after showing mastery of a contemporary compositional style, the work peters out in a kind of surrender to the tonic.

Which is why the interest arises in the direction of Henry’s revision of 2011.   In this form, the work is lopsided and I wonder whether the Moto perpetuo is part of the original or an addition (or transformation?).   Or take it the other way: that the last movement is a survivor and the Theme and Variations attest to the composer’s adoption of advanced techniques in his compositional address.

Another surprise comes with the Three Pieces for Piano which seem to be homages in their different ways.   Henry acknowledges the influence of earlier writers in his Intermezzo: an attractive expressionist soundscape with some lush writing of considerable warmth interrupted by piercing outbursts of temperament and a quiet tonal ending with a faint echo of the last chord in Berg’s Sonata – a bit fanciful as a comparison but not impossible.    The CD’s title track is a series of episodes that opens with two factors in operation – a chorale, and surrounding decorations both high and low; this disintegrates in several ways, the main ones being an assumption of importance by the colourful material at either end of the keyboard, and an incorporation of the chords into a faster-moving stage of activity.    It’s an odd combination of restlessness and steady progress, but it eventually finds a quiet subterranean resting-place.    Last, Henry’s Toccata also acknowledges the past, specifically Prokofiev whose hefty 1912 gem is echoed here, and I think you can also detect a smidgen of Khatchaturian although Henry sticks with a regular pulse of quadruple-time semiquavers without any relieving triplets such as the Armenian introduced into his flashy pseudo-virtuosity.   Again, Enchelmaier avoids martellato continuity and leavens the movement forward with a pliant ritenuto or four.

The latest of Henry’s piano solo endeavours, his Piano Sonata No. 2 was commissioned for a 50th birthday and is based on the name (most of it), represented in musical notes, of the celebrater.   This piece follows the composer’s studying with Stuart Greenbaum, Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.   Certainly, you can hear a change in approach here, more in line with the harmonic smoothness in the Moto perpetuo ending the Piano Sonata No. 1 but, despite the homogeneity acquired by using the name-motif as fundamental, the work still impresses as episodic.   So it’s not really your old-time sonata form at play here but more like a rondo.   And that doesn’t really get to the heart of the business because the apparent wholescale reversions are few in number.

For instance, the sonata opens with a stately theme set out a an octave or two, this sentence moving with an effective stateliness, even grace.   That rhythmic movement then changes abruptly to a gambolling bucolic episode, somewhere between Vaughan Williams and Bartok at his least acerbic.   Here Henry sets up a pattern of rising and falling scales in both hands that takes over his forward thrust; these are especially noticeable in pages where the right hand carries out its ups and downs while the left hand generates chords that follow a scale progression, albeit more slowly.   Mind you, the derivation of this developmental matter from that opening cell is clear as day.    Not sure about what follows when an arresting trill leads into Ondine land with some voluptuous colour washes giving way to a return of the bucolic skipping toned down and the scales are replaced by ‘open’ arpeggios in the right hand that reach a highpoint about half-way through the sonata.   Another bucolic trace element and a richly Romantic meditation with a spectral recurrence of the opening noble striding in arpeggiated format before we enter the last lap with Henry employing a falling interval as his calm farewell to arms.  

It’s here that Enchelmaier comes further into the picture by singing this two-note phrase to the ejaculation He-ya in a concordance with her piano part.    This vocal line involves both a rising and falling minor third in alternation, then rising and falling perfect 5ths.   According to Henry, the  intention is to accentuate an intended atmosphere of meditative stasis, and it kind of achieves that end in a coda that even revisits the countryside, albeit in slow motion, before the movement slows to a definite ending, despite its ephemeral dynamic.   You  might have expected, after pages that exercise a kind of impressionism in their harmonic ambiguity, that Henry might leave us with an added-note chord, reinforcing the unfinished nature of spiritual experiences.   But no: when Enchelmaier breathes her last rising murmur in a space where words have no substance, the sonata resolves onto a minor chord with no interrogatory accretions.

You have to take your hat off to Henry who reveals every part of his achievements on this disc; it’s not a Greatest Hits selection but the entire oeuvre that he has written (so far) for solo piano.    He shows us his beginnings with a late (and sometimes middle) 19th century bent, using the conventions of that time (in fact, there’s rather a lot of these pieces, as they take over half-an hour of the CD’s 72 minutes’ length); then comes the abrupt shift to a world of technique-shaking demands familiar to us survivors of the challenges promulgated by Bussotti, Berio and Kagel (not to mention the apparent insanities committed to manuscript by Pousseur and Ferneyhough); finally, it’s an arrival at the ‘new lyricism’ where ev’ry compositional mountain and hill is made low.   All of this makes for a refreshing, wholesome hejira, one that is probably not completed.   Along his path, Henry has been gifted with a sympathetic and conscientious interpreter who exerts her considerable interpretative craft across each of these 21 tracks.

 

Nobody hangs around too long

RHYTHMS OF GREEN & GOLD

John Martin

Move Records MCD 622

I’ve been ambivalent about jazz and all its offshoots for many years. After the initial rush to the head during young adulthood when Monk, Mingus, Davis and Coleman set impossibly high levels of accomplishment and virtuosity, an inevitable reaction set in, similar to the disillusionment that comes to us all through an excess of Wagner or Mahler – when you realize the importance of emotional brakes, if nothing else. Just as with low culture’s implementation of serious music – who can forget the drum-kit added to Mozart’s No. 40, or the smoothing out of dissonance in Copland’s Fanfare? – just so do you have to acknowledge the bowdlerization of jazz’s limitless potential in melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Many of my contemporaries would remember still the adoption of jazz in the 1950s and early 1960s as entertainment for the pretentious young habitues of Melbourne’s clubs, the brief flash that marked the advent of Brubeck and the MJQ (mainly in recordings, although I heard the former play at Rushcutter’s Bay sometime in 1960), not to mention a few out-of-left-field experiences like the 1965 appearance of Thelonious Monk in the Melbourne Town Hall, playing to an audience of about a hundred of us. But today? The well-worn furrows have been ploughed to base rock and you look fruitlessly for anything original outside the realms of fusion – which is to say, compromise.

This disc offers 19 tracks of solo piano, compositions old and new by Australian composers (hence the CD’s title reference to our national colours – which aren’t any such thing, of course, as this country is still marching in a vexillatory two-step with its colonial master) some of whom offer refined takes on jazz rhythms, if not much else. About half of the writers are well-known, like Elena Kats-Chernin, Ann Carr-Boyd, Stuart Greenbaum, Ross Edwards and the performer himself. A few names rouse tremors in a waning memory bank, viz. Rod Heard and Matthew Dennett, while others have escaped my attention – Amanda Handel, Tom Anderson and May Howlett. The most senior writer represented is Howlett while Dennett is the youngest of them. As for temporal substantiality, Kats-Chernin takes the prize with her Nonchalance that almost lasts 7 minutes; at the other end of the scale sits Greenbaum’s Taurus, coming in at 1’30”. Quite a few of the remaining 17 tracks are brief, seven coming in at under 3 minutes.

Sydney composer Handel is represented by three compositions: Dreamboat Blues, Bootleg Blues and Blue Laze, the last-named being the most substantial. Martin’s reading of Dreamboat is laid-back, to the point where its underlying pulse is relaxed at two obvious spots; the structure is simple, 7th chords abound and no ripples are raised. A jaunty syncopated bass line prefaces the Bootleg drama which features a more adventurous harmonic palette, even if the format is little more sophisticated than its predecessor; again, Martin allows himself a rhythmic flexibility – although that might be written in. Blue Laze is a pleasant post-Gershwin laze which too often sounds like an exercise in peregrinatory chords, its deliberately lolloping bass a genial support for upper meanderings that are amiable if aimless. All these pieces are of an unobtrusive genre of jazz with nothing depressing or ‘dirty’ about them; another way of saying that they’re lacking any decided personality.

Tom Anderson has published a collection of rags – won prizes for them, no less. His A Walk Down Ragtime Lane is a fair representative of the genre with various clear-cut segments jammed alongside each other in the best Joplin tradition. Again, Martin puts in the odd hesitation, almost as though he’s finding a bit of trouble handling what sounds like a pretty easy-fitting modulation. As with a good deal of her work, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Nonchalance exists in several forms but the piano version here is something like a slow toccata or a piano study; there are a few jazz traces, mainly in some syncopated spots like bars 13 to 19 but the piece is probably included because of its original genesis as referring to suave characters in old black-and-white movies (George Raft? Or George Sanders?) but its continual middle ground of Alberti-bass type quavers in sets of four is more reminiscent of Hanon than Hampton. It was probably more effective in its original shape for cello and piano. At about a third the length of its companion, Kats-Chernin’s Reflections derives from an earlier suite written for a piece of theatre. Again, there is a binding sequence of Alberti quavers but the piece is appealing for its melodic sentiment: the sort of thing a very competent tea-lounge pianist would present with the merest suggestion of harmonic liberation.

Canberra-based musician Matthew Dennett proposes a nicely meandering melodic upper line in Round Midday but his piece is cursed with a repetitive bass line comprising steady block chords that seem to work against the free-and-easy meanderings in Martin’s agile right hand. I take it as a tribute/offshoot of Monk’s Around Midnight classic and there are plenty of homage points; like the American’s original, it might have worked better (probably does, in fact) with a mixed ensemble dealing with its bare bones.

Three Australian waltzes by Ross Edwards come from 1988 and you won’t find in them any sign of Maninyas-type ecstasy; rather, you can detect Chopin and Brahms, even a touch of Satie in the third. The Sassafras Gully Waltz is dedicated to musician/educator Nicholas Routley; Sandy Stone’s Waltz inevitably goes to Barry Humphries; and the Annandale Waltz was written for the composer’s wife Helen. All three are undeniably in 3/4 time and any twist of jazz goes a-begging. Yet the mood, tempo and enunciative changes across the trilogy exemplify the personalities of the dedicatees: determined and bouncy, old-fashioned and sentimental; quirky and ruminative. As you’d expect, Martin has little difficulty in delineating these short, medium-range-difficulty works with a care that invests them with merit, maintaining a fine balance of charm and caricature.

Another New South Wales writer, Rod Heard is represented by four works, the largest grouping on the CD. First comes Take 7, a tribute to Paul Desmond (of course) but not as seductive as the Brubeck classic; we can keep track of five (see Tchaikovsky) but any larger odd number (until 9, to state the bleeding obvious) is beyond most of us (despite Bartok). Heard keeps pretty close to his home key and avoids rhythmic games by maintaining his original allocation of accents; taken as a whole, this optimistic gambol reminds me of Grainger who also showed a penchant for the tonic in a good deal of his piano music. Summer Arrives presents as a sort of two-part invention at either of its ends with more substantial episodes intervening; the odd thing is that its rhythmic element seems to be the least interesting part of its structure.

A more obviously jazz-inflected piece arrives with Barbera Blues, which refers to a variety of Italian grape; mind you, it might just as well have been called Montepulciano and achieved the same result. It’s a 12-bar blues in essence with a middle section in the major that leads to a nicely contrived high-point, but the framing pages display a quiet sinuousness that shows a familiarity with and ease at handling chord progressions endemic in jazz practice. Finally, Rags to Riches boasts a clever title and is a straight rag in the Joplin vein with plenty of discrete sections and some repetitions to give us the reassurance of familiarity. It seems to me that Martin takes this too quickly and employs too many pauses to mark transitions between segments; as well, some of the writing is awkward across its essays in momentary counterpoint and the interpreter’s uneasy execution of them.

Probably the most Romantic music on the CD comes from Martin himself in his The Everglades at Dawn, which has nothing to do with Florida but refers to a National Trust property in Leura through which the pianist/composer takes us on a walk. You can appreciate Martin’s piece as a placid amble at first, although it leads to something more intense later on but the initial impression – at least for the first third of the score – is of an English pastoral, something like Cyril Scott but with less purposeful modulations. As far as green-and-gold rhythm is concerned, the composer is more concerned with a kind of fluent rumbling than any metrical nips and tucks, the interest mainly lying in a slightly elliptical melody line.

A slight syncopation distinguishes the placid elegy Taurus by Stuart Greenbaum, written as a remembrance of Australian composer James Wade who died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 38. The piece is both emotionally charged and restrained, a ternary-shaped deploration that makes its statement without elaborations, and then stops. Martin treats it with calm consideration, realising just the right amount of Greenbaum’s simplicity of utterance. A sort of companion piece comes in Looking to the Future which Greenbaum originally wrote for a play dealing with the Newcastle Workers Club disaster of 1989. It is slightly more optimistic than Taurus with an aggressive counterweight that follows the opening quiet cellular statement; however, a similar melancholy pervades both short pieces, each coming in well under 2 minutes long.

Western Australian-born May Howlett has contributed The Baroqua Rag: a combination term that covers J. S. Bach and Berocca. The first is easy to detect as Howlett uses the opening subject of the C minor Fugue in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, stated en clair towards the end. How she gets the effervescent tablet into the mix remains a mystery; I can’t remember the jingle that mentioned how you get back your b-b-bounce but I sense it might be in there, somewhere along the way during this rather awkward piece with an over-repetitious bass; well, over-anchored might be a better way of putting it. Last of all comes Ann Carr-Boyd – not quite as much a veteran as Howlett but of the same generation. Her The Solitary rag comes from 2020 and is a kind of comment on the arrival and isolation of COVID with minor key (A?) bookends around a melancholy major-key middle, which presumably recalls the good times when we could socialize without penalties, personal or state-imposed.

But it’s an odd piece with which to end. Martin seems to be doodling around with it, taking his time over the end of sentences and blurring the piece’s outlines – but then that may be the way Carr-Boyd wants it outlined, so as to emphasize its nostalgia, a longing for the way we were. Such an epilogue does remind us of the current state of public safety (here comes the revolution), the uneasy condition of our world, and so is a worthy musical image of the green and gold national cosmos (!) that we have to negotiate. An interesting CD, then, if not a particularly challenging collection of Australian produce.

Simple tune under multiple hands

WALSINGHAM

Rosemary Hodgson

Move Records MCD 637

An excellent example of focus, Rosemary Hodgson’s latest CD centres on the English ballad Walsingham which refers to the medieval pilgrimage site in Norfolk, maimed and dissolved by Henry VIII during those years when he pursued a new marriage. To set the tone (literally), we hear the tune and some variations as it appears in the final lute book by Matthew Holmes. Then, Hodgson offers us uses of the same tune by some Elizabethan/Jacobean composers: Francis Cutting, John Johnson, Edward Collard, Anthony Holborne, John Marchant and John Dowland (two treatments from this most famous of Elizabethan lutenists). Several other writers get included in the 21-track album, somewhat dodgy entrants in the Walsingham banquet: William Byrd, Anthony de Countie and Gregorius Hywet.

Hodgson has rarely sounded better to my ears with carefully judged phrasing and a reassuring purity of articulation. Her delineation of the branch that gives flower to much of what follows, the anonymous Matthew Holmes’ setting, comes across with a wistfulness that speaks of the possibly regretful – doleful – background to the melody: a plaint for the priory’s destruction (yet another distressing blot on the origins of the British 16th century heresy). Mind you, the little that I can see of the original score follows the nodal chords supporting the tune but I suspect that, of the two Walsingham versions that Holmes copied, this is one I haven’t come across. Still, the whole field of Renaissance performance has become many-textured, to the extent that it’s rare that you encounter a solo piece that is played exactly as one particular manuscript requires.

For no particular reason, Hodgson then offers Byrd’s The Voice which is cited as coming from that extraordinary resource, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book but under the title of The Ghost. This lute version follows the almain’s chord progression, I think, and the melody is sort of recognizably germane. Regardless, the performance is quietly buoyant with some attractive open 5th drones and only the slightest hint of an enunciative problem with the melody early in this miniature’s exposition. De Countie’s Pavyn could come from early in Elizabeth I’s regime when the man himself was a lutenist at court. The piece itself is a meditative gem with the faintest of flourishes at its conclusion; whether it was written by this musician is moot as nothing definitive attests to his writing anything, let alone this dance that bears his Christian name.

My reading of tablature is elementary at best but I think that the version of Walsingham we hear by Francis Cutting is the first of his two versions, although the differences between the two are slight. It is handled with an appealing flexibility which observes the bar-line accents so that, for all its folk-like simplicity of melody, the ornaments are set in proper place and time with only a small amount of leeway. The other Cutting track, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Galliard, is appropriately direct in its opening swagger but the piece’s character changes at bar 33 when the texture seems more compact, less flamboyant even if this is a version with some paring; Hodgson’s attack reflects this sudden shift down (up?) a peg with fine precision.

John Johnson’s son, Robert, is a familiar name from the English early Renaissance. The father’s work appears more rarely; a real case of wrongful neglect if A Pavin by Mr. Johnson is representative of his output. Both this dance and his Walsingham setting (where the melody gains a few feet – or so it seems) show an appealing control of emotional output, devoid of abrupt splurges but all of a piece, the pavane a model of quiet deliberation. I’m not really convinced about the inclusion of the Netherlands writer Gregorius Huwet in this collection; the grounds are that he almost certainly met Dowland during the latter’s visit to Germany in 1594, and his Galliarde Monsieur Gregorij is thematically akin to Walsingham and may have influenced the English composer’s own galliard on the tune (or vice versa). Preceding this effort comes Huwet’s Fantasia Gregorij. Is this the one that Dowland organized into his Varietie of Lute Lessons? It doesn’t agree with the score I have, as well as being less fitful in the sense of having fewer elaborate decorative devices. You can find traces of Walsingham in Huwet’s dance which is more assertive than any of the English translations of the tune we have heard so far. Hodgson gives the piece an appropriate firmness of delivery, heightened by a certain stridency in the top line.

The trio of Collard works begins with an unspecified pavan; one of the CD’s more substantial tracks, it maintains the optimistic tone set by its immediate Huwet predecessors with some surprises that aren’t adventurous but more quirky. Even in its minor mode, this set of pages reveals a light emotional band-width sustained across its canvas. Next, The Maye Galliard begins with involving energy and revisits the energy along its path, despite two phases where the rhythmic certainty falters; Hodgson gets all the notes out but it would have been more satisfying if the pace had remained consistent. As for the Walsingham variations by Collard, these come across clearly enough; the player does display a tendency to decelerate at the end of a segment, particularly if semiquaver runs appear.

Anthony Holborne’s exposure here comprises three pieces, two of them a little over a minute long. As it fell on a Holly Eve (the second-shortest track here) is a neat, slightly catchy tune with two bars of sentence-ending ornamentation that doesn’t quite convince. The Walsingham comprises a sporadically rich-chorded version of the original melody with the second half repeated; Hodgson handles it with almost exaggerated care. As for the Jest solo, this also begins bravely, as with the previously-heard galliards. But its semiquaver runs are a mixed bag, some fluid while others labour.

What follows is the second-longest of the Walsingham treatments – that by John Marchant – with an exhaustive 12 variations, the last two a rich coruscation of semiquavers. While the interpretation has an intriguing consistency, Hodgson’s sparkling top-layer falters occasionally – not into uncertainty but a seeming dogged insistence on putting things in a row. Even more satisfying is Marchant’s Fantasia which holds a rich vein of quiet grandeur, the piece moving forward at a stately pace that in its chord progressions smacks of inevitability.

Finally, Hodgson comes to Dowland through his Galliard on Walsingham: 24 bars that neatly divide into three discrete sections, all of which are here repeated. This short piece is not alone in embellishing the tune, although some moments are striking like the high tessitura at bar 11, and the soprano avoidance of the first beat in six of the last nine bars. Hodgson negotiates this trifle efficiently, even if some of the chords sounded under-populated. The G minor Pavan, longest track on the CD, is a splendid example of the instrument’s expressive capabilities, especially plangent echoes between soprano and lower voices. For my money, this is the finest performance Hodgson gives us – from the first Lachrimae motif to the superbly optimistic final bar. As in the Walsingham galliard, so for Sir John Souch his Galiard: another 24 bars in three segments, all repeated. Again, a forward-thrusting reading with a few breaths along the way – no Julian Bream rugger-bugger bustling in this style of address.

Rounding off the CD is Dowland’s unadorned (!) Walsingham which presents as the longest treatment of the melody on this recording. It’s a remarkable conclusion because it comes close to a meditation in which the original’s melodic contours are not so much scrubbed as superseded in a splendid fancy where the composer wanders free from apparent restrictions. Hodgson performs this gem with disciplined rubato at cadential points, keeping to the forefront Dowland’s supple bursts of invention. It makes a suitable finish to this quiet celebration of a simple melody through the eyes of England’s rich school of lutenists.

Honest and resolute

BACH PIANO I

Judith Lambden

Move Records MCD 631

Lambden has already produced two Bach albums for Move: the English Suites in 2011 and the French Suites in 2013. Earlier, in 2009, she recorded the Partitas for Divine Art Recordings Now, after an interval of almost ten years, comes another collection which includes two major solo keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and the Italian Concerto. As a distinguishing feature to the CD, she begins with four of the seven toccatas for keyboard: BWV 911 in C minor, BWV 912 in D Major, BWV 913 in D minor and BWV 914 in E minor. These last-mentioned tracks are the more interesting components in this offering, works that don’t get much exposure, except for the BWV 912 which, in my experience, is one of the more manageable of the set.

I don’t know this artist at all, neither through live performance nor through broadcasts or recordings. This is unsurprising as well as unusual: Lambden spent many years in the UK and Europe, becoming a presence at the Victorian College of the Arts and other tertiary institutions on her return home, from which ambiences her name/presence should have struck my attention. But somehow it didn’t. Apart from a foray into Schubert’s last sonata, her recording activity has been confined to Bach where she is in distinguished company, to say the least.

The results are up and down, although not too much of the latter. Every so often, you are reminded of fallibility where a note is missed and so a line loses continuity, or the speed moves around rubato-like, in contrast to the metrical inflexibility that reigns these days as a reaction to the-alignments generated by Brahms, Busoni and even through Schoenberg’s chorale-prelude orchestrations In the toccatas, for instance, you won’t find majestic flourishes or moments of spontaneity, even if you think that you can see them in the music. Lambden’s approach is thoroughly workmanlike and her technical control is efficient; the results satisfy but they don’t show much spirit.

You won’t find any of the gallant Canadian humanism of Angela Hewitt, for example. Nor will you be confronted with the shibboleth-shattering re-toolings of Ton Koopman. Orthodoxy obtains all the way here and it’s somehow reassuring, even for my generation raised on Glenn Gould’s combination of purity and intransigence. The opening gestures post-dating Buxtehude in the C minor toccata are treated with metrical regularity and clarity; no sudden dashes, least of all in the strange layout of bar 11 leading to the Adagio, although Lambden inserts some individuality in that section’s flashy conclusion. It’s all gentle motion with entries pointed by the slightest of pauses.

You become aware of stiltedness in the following fugue, places where the expected dexterity doesn’t so much falter but is clearly tested, as in the arrival of the third voice. Still, the counterpoint is clear and the mid-flow cadenza enjoys some idiosyncratic negotiation. When the web becomes thick, e.g. from bar 100 to about bar 108, the texture is penetrable but Lambden’s articulation turns awkward, as later across bars 144-5 where Bach sticks to the middle of the keyboard. Still, the last adagio-to-presto is an unflustered flash of bar-busting insouciance.

Nothing disturbs the equanimity of the D Major work’s opening and its five rising scales and pendant power-accruing chords are buoyant if sober. The following gavotte-suggestive Allegro begins sturdily enough although, as matters move one, the pianist allows herself a fair amount of wriggle room, breaking the movement up into two- and four-bar stretches rather than aiming for smooth linkages. Well, it’s her choice, even if the effect is to change the action into something of a study.

At the bar 68 Adagio, we seem to have moved into the sound-world of Beethoven sonata slow movements, particularly at bar 71. The following andante-paced pages showed sympathetic expressiveness in a carefully applied Romantic manner which would have succeeded even better if the ornamentation had been more easily fused into the movement’s flow. Everything from the con discrezione direction on is open slather but here not wild enough to move out of Lambden’s pre-established context, although I would have preferred more of an expansiveness at bar 125 leading up to the gigue/fugue.

With this, Lamden’s approach proved light, which is more than acceptable, given the requisite mobility and the writing’s register. Something happened around bar 167 where a bar or two were omitted, according to my score; but with Bach, all things are possible. Though not quite a few notes that went missing, either through the pianist’s semi-staccato attack or simply because they didn’t sound – or possibly through the edition employed, although I can’t see the composer just letting his lines stop. My real problem came with the double-time acceleration that starts at bar 265 where Bach moves into demi-semiquaver land until the final two bars. To my mind, you have to stick to your last and play this section at double speed, not just offer a slight quickening; the splayed right-hand arpeggios are not hard to negotiate and should make for a crackling bravura explosion.

The smallest of the four toccatas on this CD, the E minor, is given a comparatively percussive treatment when you consider the approach taken in its predecessors. Each line is clearly delineated in the four voice allegro and again throughout the three-voice fugue at the conclusion. A few notes disappear, and in this situation you can tell that they simply don’t sound – because they do in a next-bar repetition of the same pattern. And again, half of the ornaments stick out like unhappy encrustations rather than as passing glances. Still, the emphatic attack works exceptionally well in the brittle two-page central adagio where abrupt outbursts contrast with predictable cadences and sequences.

And so to the longest in this set, that in D minor, which gets off to a fine, attention-grabbing start before the theatrics give way to a slow meditation at bar 15 from which point Lambden heaps on more incidentals than is comfortable, as well as revisiting her rubato approach in a slow meander up to bar 28 and a touch of presto. This toccata’s first fugue is a bit puzzling: at moments, a model of clear plain-speaking, then a bar that sounds clumsy in execution, followed by immediate recovery, an inexplicable acceleration at bar 100/101, later speeding up again at bar 111 where the repeated pattern’s insistence is mitigated by a flurry of temperament..

In the slow segment that follows, an instance of inconsistent touch comes with the last left-hand B flat in bar 127 which simply doesn’t sound and breaks a too-well-established pattern; it’s a small detail but hard to ignore. Actually, I find this one of the more yawn-inducing parts of the seven toccatas and Lambden unfortunately gives it full indulgence with a Romantic, tender approach that makes her breaking-out in the last 4 1/2 bars almost explosive in its impact. The final fugue finds the pianist in robust shape again with a steady pulse, a few moments of clumsiness, and an emphatic greeting of the subject whenever and wherever it emerges. But I liked the understated final two bars – a sort of withdrawal of drive in favour of an echo.

The two major works that Lambden presents will be familiar to most music-lovers and – even more than the toccatas – put the Australian pianist into a field populated by mighty names: Kempff, Brendel, Gilels, Arrau, Schiff, Landowska, Gould, Tureck, Nikolayeva, and the rest of the gang. For the Chromatic Fantasia, this artist carves an attractively fitful path, if it does slow down considerably at the end – a dying fall brought into play at about bar 74 – and the last chord’s top D is another non-sounder (or non-carrier). Apart from a few (and I mean about two) awkward-sounding bars where the inexorability slightly falters, Lambden outlines the fugue’s complex with admirable lucidity, bringing specific force to entries, reminding you of the plot when the composer’s love for leanly populated episodes takes over. Perhaps a bit too sturdy? Maybe, but you know exactly where the performance is leading in a performance of high conviction.

When it comes to the Italian Concerto, Lambden’s reading goes to prove the venerable saw: you can find something new in every performance of an old warhorse. I didn’t appreciate, even after 60+ years’ intimate knowledge of this score, how mock-melancholy are those decorated turns in bars 91, 93, 95 and later in bars 147, 149, 151; or how buoyant you can make the first theme’s restatement at bar 164 by a touch of speed; or how elated is the prevailing atmosphere that underpins this opening movement. A fellow student those many years ago who was also preparing this concerto for an exam told me that she found the most difficult bars to negotiate were bars 135-8, which thenceforward made this passage one of dread for me; even Lambden doesn’t come out of the displacement quite intact/assured.

Her approach to the middle movement is, as expected, sober and focused on highlighting the right-hand meandering above all else, including the repeated bass notes that many a pianist turns into something more than I think Bach intended; these pages enshrine a lengthy lyrical soprano line which plays top fiddle to the lugubrious left hand work which all too often moves into Beethoven Op. 31 D minor country. Again, the executant’s approach to the movement is individual, shaping the line and following its progress with a fine sensibility. Then, the final Presto is deftly carried off, even if a few notes fail to carry unless your amplification is maximal. It makes a jaunty ending to this worthy program; Lambden mightn’t have the mercurial brilliance of today’s young Bach interpreters but her readings have a reassuring probity and communicate a sense that an informed musical personality is at work.

The flute in our time

FLUTE PERSPECTIVES VOLUME 3

Derek Jones & Jerry Wong/Leigh Harrold

Move Records MD 3463

Another long-range view of Australian composition: that chamber music corner reserved for solo flute and flute-plus-piano works. This time, Jones keeps his oldest till last: Miriam Hyde‘s Flute Sonata of 1962. Jump forward 32 years for Johanna Selleck‘s Deja Vu, written for the composer herself as part of her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. From three years ago come Tom Henry‘s Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of his music-loving father, which starts the disc; and a Sonatine for flute and piano by Linda Verrier, a Canadian-born writer recently settled in Australia and who has dedicated this score to Jones. Most recent in this collection, Rohan PhillipsInvention (V) was composed last year, another piece specifically for Jones (so far).

Each sonata has three movements, Henry’s being the most temporally substantial work at a little over 18 minutes, Hyde’s coming in 6 minutes shorter. All the piano parts are performed by Wong, except for the Verrier Sonatine where Harrold partners Jones. The other three works are single-movement units, both Selleck and Phillips speaking and communicating with assurance and a compression of structure and material that impress, not least for their individuality of utterance.

Hyde wrote her sonata just at the time when a group of young guns were bringing us all to a consciousness that Bartok was not the last word in modernity. Richard Meale had produced his confrontational Sonata for flute and piano in 1960; Sculthorpe, his Sonata for Viola and Percussion in the same year; Butterley’s Laudes appeared a year after Hyde’s work which was contemporaneous with George Dreyfus’ From within, looking out. Of course, a good deal of musical activity was continuing blithely along Hydean lines, but the creative situation had shifted pretty suddenly from its former, settled underpinnings.

Even Hyde’s movement titles come from a bygone era: Allegro giocoso, Andante pastorale, Allegro con spirito – all reflect an age that predates the British country/folk-song eruption of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Still, as this work demonstrates, she had a mastery of style and vocabulary that persisted throughout her career, this work coming from the long middle years of it. Although the Sonata is sited in G minor, no matter how hard she exerts herself, in her opening Allegro Hyde can’t stay away from the relative major and the only severe traces of minor come in a march-like repeated chord pattern that occurs in the exposition and the orthodox recapitulation. Things proceed in unexceptionable style with some lightly perky work for Jones and a pulse that doesn’t vary but seems to stick to the initial 2/4 throughout.

The second movement sounds rather heavy for a pastoral, Wong delivering his repeated quaver chords with fidelity if not much variety of attack. But the piece is a fairly simple, polished lyric where you can see clearly what use Hyde makes of her building blocks, be it a minor second dip, a descending pattern of two triplets, or a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver. Much the same transparency applies to the rondo finale which ends, apart from a final flourish, with a reference to one of the preceding episodes. Yet again, the piece is in G minor but the dark shadings are applied with a light touch and this jig with its defining held quaver across the centre of a 6/8 bar is deftly utilised in a set of pages that flash several welcome sparks in a finely controlled, coherent realization from both musicians.

Henry’s sonata opens with a keening, regularly-paced flute solo notable for some ‘bent’ notes and a few contributions from Wong operating inside the piano for some of the time before both instruments settle into a kind of threnody. The composer calls this movement The elements; nothing to do with the periodic table or ballets by Delalande or Fery, but more a setting-out of the work’s material which at first presentation sounds like an orthodox step-by-step melody, moving into some rapid trills in both instruments. The ambience becomes more frenetic as the pace increases and the flute’s range moves into more expanded and angular territory, mirrored by the keyboard. Henry uses a language that is half-traditional in harmonic terms but has its dissonant moments. The excitement fades and the initial patterns – well, a few of them – re-emerge before a quiet, unresolved ending.

If anything, the second movement sounds more orthodox at its opening before moving to slightly more challenging ground and thicker part-writing. There is a sort of catch-and-release about these pages where disjunct leaps across the flute’s register and a dense keyboard part give way to more transparent writing. Weighty repeated chords and a declamatory outburst from the piano in an Ivesian Pelion-upon-Ossa climax ends this depiction of Inner worlds.

A genial trill-laden introduction sets up anticipation for the lead into a concluding 6/8 Presto in which Henry again oscillates between several languages melded into a satisfying entity. I wouldn’t call the melodic material memorable but then I find echoes of many another flute/piano duet in these pages – everything from Prokofiev through Poulenc to Ibert and even (probably unconscious) echoes of Hyde. Nonetheless, the movement in this fast section presented as segmented, the episodes overtly linked by recalls of the opening bars to the Presto but not quite cohesive enough; in two places, I thought that the forward impetus had halted for no good reason. But the sonata as a whole is an excellent showcase for flute, Jones showing few signs of stress despite some testing passages.

Low piano notes and a rising four note pattern dominate the first pages of Verrier’s Sonatine. The flute floats above this with an angular lyric before a partnership is established and the piece is underway and the cells expand and coalesce. Mind you, appearances are deceptive and, although you feel hat you have a handle on the various motives and themes, you haven’t: Verrier is a dab hand at transformation and suddenly interpolating new patterns and intervallic twists as she attempts a depiction of bird sounds.

A pause precedes a slower section that sounds like an old-fashioned Andantino, which doesn’t last long before the flute’s energy level rises in a virtuosic semiquaver flight, succeeded by a piano solo and a return to more calm territory that, as in Henry’s sonata, occupies an all-man’s-land, although Verrier is quite happy to wear her diatonic colours more often. She leads us to a calmly optimistic conclusion, notable for a sustained richly vibrato-ed single note from the flute while the piano growls in the depths. It’s a most interesting construct with several striking sections alongside others that sound like sheer hard work for Jones and Harrold.

In Selleck’s solo, we come across a flautist writing for herself with a highly informed knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities – and it shows. This is the most pointedly characteristic music on this album as the composer goes through a battery of techniques that are not heard in the other tracks here. Not just flutter-tonguing or percussive attacks, but we hear that extraordinary effect produced by forcing a repeated note out of its comfort zone in the first bar, as well as the flute’s ability to vault across its register with glancing acciaccature preceding a broad sustained note an octave or more away. Jones gives fine voice/air to Selleck’s use of fat minims that hang like ripe plums in medias res, only to be succeeded by rapid flurries that recur in this piece that exemplifies the lived experience of half-remembrances, or memories that only partly remain intact. At its best moments, Deja vu is riveting, explosive in the best sense: an energy-filled successor to some of the superlative flute solos that have peppered contemporary compositional activity since 1936’s Density 21.5.

To my ears, the most ‘advanced’ work on this CD is that by Rohan Phillips, Invention (V), subtitled Still Life and taking its impetus from a brief poem of that name by Antigone Kefala. A study in treble sonorities, Wong’s piano part is written on one stave and only once drops below the flute’s range. Unlike Selleck’s piece, this work is pretty chaste in its technical demands, its temper benign even if the two lines slash across each other at certain points. But the composer’s language is uncompromising, rising to stridency as he gives sound to the poet’s images of light on water and trees in their own symmetry. The score is almost continually flashing with brilliance, the effect eventually that of an impossibly note-rich carillon.

A fine addition to Jones’ series of CDs devoted to Australian flute music, much of them new and a good many tracks comprising older works that ought to be preserved or revived. Jones acknowledges the support given to him in this enterprise by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in the new Southbank building of which he recorded this third volume.

Mix and (possibly) match

AUSTRALIAN MONODY

The Marais Project

Move Records 633

Here is something of a miscellany, the CD’s title overtly relevant to a few tracks, secondarily related to other music by a liberal interpretation, the whole box and dice the product of Australian musicians, even if the monody angle is out of kilter with quite a few elements on offer. Marais Project founder Jenny Eriksson‘s viola da gamba is heard in all but one of the fifteen tracks, four times in partnership with fellow gamba Catherine Upex; multi-tasker Susie Bishop sings solo or contributes to five pieces with her soprano and violin, plays violin only in two, and sings only in two others; Marais regular Tommie Andersson plays in everything – theorbo in eleven pieces, guitar in three others, and touches his lute in another; organist Anthony Abouhamad reinforces two Purcell works on a continuo organ; and countertenor Russell Harcourt participates in six pieces with his remarkably clear, high-flying vocal timbre.

Further to the CD’s title. As far as national content is concerned, the Marais group jumps across the centuries. From our ancient white music, we hear Isaac Nathan’s The Aboriginal Mother and The Aboriginal Father from the composer’s Australian Melodies collection of 1841-1863. Vault forward a touch and you come to Carl Vine’s Love me sweet, written for The Battlers TV series in 1994. In composing mode, Bishop wrote her Lullaby for a Broken World during the 2020 Sydney COVID lockdown. Alice Chance’s 2018 Precious Colours was revised for the Marais ensemble last year, which also saw the arrival of Gordon Kerry’s Christchurch Monody, a response to the 2019 attack on two mosques in that city.

As for non-Australian monodies, we have a Dowland ayre – Now, O now, I needs must part – from the composer’s First Booke of 1597; those two Purcells – the Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary of 1695, O dive custos, and An Evening Hymn, first published in 1688; as well, a blast from the near-present in Michael Nyman’s If, composed for use in the 1995 Japanese animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank.

And breaking the British-Australian cultural dominance is a Marais gamba suite, that in A minor from Book V, published in 1725; after performing which, Eriksson immediately restores the status quo with her own very recently contrived La Petite Tarantelle, living up to its name by being the second-shortest track on Australian Monody.

Three of these tracks – the lullaby, Kerry’s monody, the tarantella – are world premiere recordings.

One of the treasures of this collection is the ayre which features both singers, the three Marais strings (violin in stanza 2 only?), and Andersson on lute with a solo of his own in medias res based on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Bishop sings the first stanza, Harcourt the second and the similarity in vocal shadings is extraordinary, even more so when both combine for the final Deare, if I doe not returne where they sing the two upper parts of the composer’s four-part setting. This exercise is carried off with a warm clarity from all contributors, an ensemble effort to match the best that I’ve heard – a pity that I can’t compare it with Gordon Sumner’s Dowland excursions, but he didn’t record this work (thanks be to God). While the singers are phrase-length near-perfect, the gambas and violin are discretion personified, everybody occasionally inserting a communal, brief hiatus point.

Abouhamad’s flutey continuo organ fits well with Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson on theorbo to support Harcourt in the Purcell hymn, another throwaway gem from the greatest British composer. Not that Harcourt is piercingly true in pitch all the time but his slight deviations reinforce the touching humanity of Bishop Fuller’s words and their buoyant setting with Purcell’s unforgettable chain of Hallelujah exclamations across the piece’s last 45 bars – a reverent praise-chant that leaves Handel’s bombast well in its wake. The near-contemporary elegy, a vocal duet for two upper-range voices (or so it appears from the only edition I could find), is carefully accomplished by Bishop and Harcourt, once more almost indistinguishable in timbre, with the same support as in the hymn. You might have asked for more sustained power at the start with one or two breathing spots interrupting otherwise seamless lines. While you could delight in the vocal interweaving of the opening quatrain, the duet showed at its most persuasive from the Seu te fluentem change in metre at bar 33, handling with impressive ease the chromatic dips starting at bar 99’s o flete leading to a sombre conclusion. Not what you’d call a monody, then, but welcome for its own sake in this miscellany.

It wouldn’t be a Marais Project disc without a gamba suite by the ensemble’s inspiration. Eriksson has recorded several of these for Move, including the G minor suite from Livre V twice; well, it appears on two different Move CDs. This A minor work has four movements in this presentation: Prelude le Soligni, Allemande la Facile, Sarabande and Menuet. While forging a calm, undemonstrative path through these constituents, Eriksson has Andersson’s theorbo providing an underpinning continuo force. The compositions are constitutionally lean: 24, 16, 28 and 32 (Menuet plus Double) bars in length; in other words, completed quickly, despite the repeats – even the Sarabande. The reading is tasteful and tactful, carefully shaped in phrasing and dynamic gradations and without a trace of aggression or harshness.

Perhaps I’m among a very few but I can’t get excited about the two Nathan songs; possibly more sympathy might be roused by greater research, but I don’t think so. The CD’s booklet makes some fanciful observations about the cultural worth of the colonial Australian composer’s insight into Aboriginal culture and his appropriation of First Nation songs, but the actual products have demonstrated yet again the craft of shaping original indigenous melodies into lieder fit for any Victorian salon. An only man standing in Sydney’s early days, Nathan isn’t our Ives; nor is expatriate Grainger, nor Alfred Hill. In fact, none of them addresses us in a vocabulary that we would seriously call our own.

This brace of songs comes across as amiable enough, well matched to Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s soppy verses. For the three stanzas of The Aboriginal Father, Bishop participates in the prelude, postlude and interludes with her violin, along with Andersson on a 9-string guitar and Eriksson’s gamba; of course, breaking from her instrumental participation to sing Nathan’s four-square Europeanized melody.

A bleaker scenario is proposed in The Aboriginal Mother although it’s hard to imagine many indigenous hearts identifying with its elevated, studied language, let alone the 4-square tune that might easily have been written by the singer’s namesake, Henry. Here, she is escorted by Andersson’s guitar alone. Both monodies are performed with clarity and poise. but their curiosity standing is the only remarkable feature about them; they could have come from 19th century Leipzig or Dublin as easily as Sydney.

From Nathan’s songs on, the remainder of this disc consists of monody, with one final exception. I’ve always had high respect for Vine as an all-round musician: as composer, with his early ballets and the first four symphonies; as well, his brilliant pianism. This little song, performed here by the ensemble minus Abouhamad, is the gentlest of lyrics with a mildly rocking instrumental support. At one point, I could have sworn that Harcourt was being doubled by Bishop’s soprano, but that was probably wishful thinking. In any case, it makes for an easy-listening final track.

Nyman’s song is set in one key, like Vine’s, and is sung by Harcourt who is unpressured and under-exercised. The song, in both stanzas and choruses, follows a simple downward motion for the singer while Bishop, Eriksson and Andersson’s theorbo follow a rudimentary supporting role. Roger Pulvers’ wish-rich text brings to mind the naivete of the famous diary and Nyman gives it a setting that suits the requisite emotional ambience.

Gordon Kerry is another Australian composer whose work has often delighted me; on occasion, impressing as much as any contemporary writer I’ve come across, e.g. his 1993 opera Medea and the String Quintet of 2012. His meditation on the Christchurch massacre sets two Old Testament texts: one is two verses from Ecclesiastes, known to many by its observation that the race is not to the swift; the other, featuring that striking simile of the righteous who shall run to and fro like sparks among the stubble, involves verses from Book 3 of the Book of Wisdom. This piece, commissioned by the Project, is performed by Bishop vocal and instrumental, both gambas, and Andersson’s theorbo.

Kerry’s composition is an exemplification of my idea of monody, particularly the first part where the voice and two strings intertwine with the same motif. The work’s first part is lean in texture, even when the other instruments enter, the whole reflecting those anguished and doom-laden verses. If there is any redemption to be found in our memories of the senseless, terrifying slaughter in New Zealand, Kerry epitomizes it in his monody’s second part where the souls of the mosques’ dead worshippers are commended to God. Here, the harmony moves to the major and the instrumental contribution changes to rustlings of warmth as Bishop’s violin and soprano alternate in an uplifting tribute to the fallen. Like certain other tracks on the CD, this music moves through its emotional sparseness and simple musical material.

Precious Colours is a Project-tailored revision of an earlier Alice Chance work, Pallah Pallah, which recounts an Aboriginal legend about a butterfly caught in the snow; when it melts, the insect’s colours run to generate the opal. The text is a dialogue between the butterfly and her husband, both lamenting the transformation. There is no cleverness here; the song is a duet for Harcourt and Bishop, who also contributes an intervallic violin, with both gambas and theorbo reinforcing what seems to be a cantus-firmus. The initial melody is pentatonic/mono-harmonic (D minor?) and is employed by both voices, who actually combine vertically at only one point. As the first track on the CD, it sets the monodic expectations at very little, if not naught, but it also establishes an intimation of the European interpretation of Aboriginal music that flowers more fully in the Nathan songs.

More adventurous by a smidgen in its harmonic vocabulary, Bishop’s Lullaby represents the kind of thing that the composer thinks we could sing to our children in a world broken by COVID, climate change and the horror of being confronted by our previous Federal government’s ministers. A gentle piece, Bishop treats it as a soothing entity, at odds with the threats to those young ones being lullabied. Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson’s guitar combine with the singer’s violin, the singer/violinist able to carry out both functions simultaneously when she hums/recapitulates her opening lines; a monodist with a difference, then.

Last in this chronological sequence comes Eriksson’s tarantella, a tribute to Marais as it’s an essay at a final suite movement in the master’s style. The gamba is still underpinned by the theorbo and it cuts a fine period rug with a metrical change from 6/8 to 3/4 near the end. Not sure how the maitre would have evaluated this bagatelle’s melodic material which struck me as lacking in quirkiness.

Take it all in all, here is a collection that, despite the drawing of various parallels and long bows, is far from described by its title. It may be unkind, but I don’t feel as if anyone concerned has been strained by their participation; mind you, that’s not a bad quality for musicians to enjoy. As well as this facility in music-making, several tracks strike me as exceptionally fine: both Purcells, the ayre, Eriksson’s Marais suite account, and the contributions from Vine and Kerry.

A serene melancholy

BECOMING

Johanna Selleck

Move Records MCD 629

In a fortnight when the new Prime Minister and/or his Minister for Foreign Affairs have slashed their carbon-spouting paths to Tokyo, South Pacific khanates and New Age republics, as well as the apparently obligatory drop-in to Jakarta (when did Indonesia become [according to our gutter-spawned Fifteenth Estate] the compulsory first overseas foray for a fresh Australian PM?), it came as a refreshment to experience Melbourne composer Selleck’s new hour-long CD. It has an individual Asian perspective as its textual components comprise haiku and renga in three languages – French (along with Australia, a major colonial power in the Pacific), English, and Tibetan (a long stretch geographically but just as much a legitimate Chinese satellite as the Spratly Islands).

Selleck’s suite follows a Four Seasons format with a substantial Spring, a lesser temporally substantial scenario for Summer, then a minute less for Autumn and a desiccating two minutes shorter for Winter. A cadenza for shakuhachi occupies the centre of this foray into Vivaldi/Piazzolla country and the disc concludes with an instrumental Interlude and a valedictory Finale. The Spring movement was first heard at the 2006 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, while the complete score enjoyed a first airing at the following year’s Castlemaine Festival. I missed both performances, as well as the August 2013 city interpretation at the Melbourne Recital Centre which featured the three vocal artists heard on this CD – soprano Merlyn Quaife, counter-tenor Dean Sky-Lucas, bass Jerzy Kozlowski – and the Silo String Quartet. As far as I can tell, the Silos have radically changed personnel, founder Caerwen Martin the sole survivor. Here the two violins are Lynette Rayner and Zachary Johnston, with Barbara Hornung accounting for the viola line. As for the shakuhachi contribution, 2013’s Anne Norman has been replaced by the inimitable, ever-questing Adam Simmons.

Selleck is not the first Australian musician/composer/writer to be enchanted with the three locales visited by the Albanese/Wong circus. Japan has exerted a modest interest for some formidable names; well, I can think of one in Richard Meale whose Clouds now and then, Soon it will die and Nagauta balance the same musician’s catholic involvement in Europe with Very High Kings, Las Alboradas and Incredible Floridas. What about New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa and – above all else – the Solomon Islands? Here, you struggle, although Alfred Hill made a now largely-neglected fist for New Zealand – about as South in the Pacific as you can get. Indonesia provided an occasional mine/source for Peter Sculthorpe; who could forget his gamelan imitation at the start to Sun Music 3? Not to mention his one-time fiancee Anne Boyd’s career-long focus on Asia as seen in (to mention just a few titles) Angklung, Goldfish through summer rain and Bali Moods. These are names that were productive during my life-time; God knows how many young composers are currently delighting in the music of our geographical neighbours, mirroring in their craft the ways in which our local bogan-redneck brigades revel in the art of Ubud and Jembawan.

Spring opens with the quartet working arpeggios and a three note motif before Quaife enters with a haiku by Selleck herself that proposes a dreamy landscape before the mood changes to a more rhythmically definite segment, its text celebrating the burgeoning power of the season. Quietly, the shakuhachi timbre merges into the ambience in antiphon with the strings playing jagged twitterings while Simmons works through a brilliant display of sound manufacturing devices, Quaife declaiming a haiku concerning a butterfly by Masaoka Shiki, the vocal writing here the most challenging so far with a splendid juncture of voice-into-shakuhachi at the change of scene. Sliding high notes from the strings preface the final setting of verses by Australian poet Janice Bostok, translated into French, the voice almost following a single note as it offers the image of barrel water gleaming in sunlight – which brings this four-part song-cycle to a comatose conclusion, with a final sparkle coming from an uncredited bell sound that could have escaped from a by-standing set of chimes or crotales.

Selleck’s language is far from abrasive; indeed, her opening pages for the Silo strings work above a low base drone, her melody-making lyrical for the most part. While she makes her players work with production techniques that engage the ear, nothing is obtrusive because she’s seeking that compositional dorado of sustaining an atmosphere long enough to become comfortable. Simmons makes the most of his instrument’s capabilities, especially the wind-in-tunnel effects and the capacity for producing two simultaneous notes. Selleck’s soundscape, as you can imagine, sits in congenial partnership with her brief text slabs, suggesting worlds in sparse imagery.

Kozlowski begins another Shiki haiku at the opening to Summer, Sky-Lucas eventually taking part in a duet after the bass has made us comfortable with an imitation of our favourite family bonze. The scene is of suspended rains allowing ant processions to pursue their industry. In this segment, Selleck continues to follow an intriguing path between passages transparent enough for you to analyse chord progressions and other segments packed with vehement, jagged action from both voices and instruments. Sky-Lucas has most of the honours (and the work) for a Natsumo Soseki haiku, focused on the setting sun, where the vocal line mimics its own text while simultaneously expressing a slow mobility.

A series of overlapping string textures supports three lines by Bostok that are sung in both English and Tibetan by Sky-Lucas and Kozlowski; here is another passage that is diatonic-susceptible where the quartet’s behaviour suggests the lushness of Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica. Selleck ends her Spring with a haiku by Jack de Vidas that proposes a lover/nightingale pair (thank you, Enrique) singing to the moon (and hello to you, Arnold), counter-tenor and bass producing barely mobile lines above a drone-like (second inversion?) minor chord from the Silos and a few shakuhachi breaths for punctuation.

You could twist yourself into teleological knots by seeking relationships between the four poems that constitute each movement’s textual material in the vocal movements of Becoming. Rather than indulge in a search that in my hands would definitely prove fruitless, I think that it’s better to simply allow yourself to be led through each season and finale, taking the poems as single objects where the intellectual or emotional relationships are given, data that you can mould into your own interpretation. Certainly, my response to Summer veers towards the melancholy, if not tragic; others may find a sultry languor, or a moody brooding. All of which proposes that Selleck’s work is as suggestive in its multi-faceted emotional attraction as is her technical skill.

Simmons’ shakuhachi solo is a delight. The instrument is employed so as to display its abilities and potential, all the while maintaining its nationalist character despite some firm aleatoric writing. Apart from the characteristic chiff-attacks and near-overblowing, Selleck includes some atmospheric, small glissandi, bending notes downward to produce a series of plaints that reinforce my sense of melancholy underpinning this work.

Simmons takes us into Autumn, dovetailing with the Silos in brief fragments and, eventually with Quaife and Sky-Lucas in a renga by Fujiwara na Toshiyuki: a forthright duet, almost martial in effect. As is the following three-line maybe-haiku by the shadowy KWH, and another renga by Bunya na Asayasu. All three have a continuous motif of wind: a threatening presence, a symbol of evanescence, a power of dispersal. Only the final text by de Vidas brings us back to earth when the poet laments the ageing of his wind/voice. All four settings are duets, serving both soprano and counter-tenor as excellent vehicles for expressive collaboration. As well, Selleck has contrived an intelligent representation of this season’s combination of colour and decay.

Kozlowski is the solitary vocalist for Winter, which mirrors Autumn in its aggressive nature, sparked by images of a winter blast (Natsume Seibi), a pale sun (KWH), a snowstorm and loneliness (Shuji Miya), and an internal thunderstorm (KWH again). Here, the musical vocabulary is fraught with harmonic tension, timbrally concentrated as the shakuhachi is silent while the strings ride the blast. Unexpectedly, there is a cross-breeding of the last two poems (renga and haiku), Kozlowski returning to the loneliness theme before a substantial two-minute postlude for strings which operates above a pedal note while a plethora of open 5ths and a volatile arpeggio figure dominate the movement’s ending, the bass once more giving an echo of his spirit-lowering message of despair.

Selleck maintains the gloom into her Interlude for strings alone. This is a movement that suggests the final stretch of Berg’s Lyric Suite, although the Australian work shows less bleak a prospect with a well-worked melodic arch and some stretches of deliberate instrumental colour, like powerful block chords to interrupt the interweaving lines, and a series of slow upward glissandi. Still, the landscape here seems full of the milk of human kindness, each instrument treating the original arch with a benevolent calm, the Interlude’s final bars a moving fade-to-black with Selleck’s forces sustaining notes at opposite ends of the sound spectrum.

In the Finale, all three voices come together for the first time in a KWH haiku which is first sung in English, then by Kozlowski alone in Tibetan and in a monotone suggestive of a dungchen. Again, the text is an updated vanitas vanitatum, the voices mingling but somehow knotted. A kind of break arises where the forces collaborate in what sounds like rising and falling C Major triads, a vocalise for everybody. The throbbing pulse continues into another de Vidas haiku translated into French; then, another poem by the same poet in English. Finally, a culmination where the single line ‘Become so quiet’ is translated into (and sung in) Japanese, French and Tibetan – another fading into nothingness with a revenant, solitary chiming ping to send us on our way.

In these final settings, Selleck follows her theme of yielding to inevitability: our illusions shatter and are gone, personal grief is deleted by indifferent birdsong, human endeavour is momentary, probably futile . . . and the rest is silence. Having said that, the work’s conclusion is far from grim. The composer’s responsiveness to a wide range of texts is highly sympathetic, measured and ecstatic in turn; her application of instrumental colour shows telling restraint; and the performers impress for their clear-voiced delivery of a construct that successfully straddles an aesthetic fence – not too sour, not too sweet.

Familiarity breeds excellence

MOZART DVORAK CHANCE

Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 626

The Acacia group from Sydney has come my way only once before, I think: the Muse CD from Move Records (MCD 587), released in 2018, which was a collaboration between this quartet and recorder Alicia Crossley, an album featuring Australian writers. This new release features one local composer – Alice Chance – and her work has also emerged recently on Move CDs: Inhaltations for another Crossley product in Bass Instincts (MCD 624) , and also Mirroring as part of percussionist Claire Edwardes’ program on Rhythms of Change (MD 3459).

Since its formation in 2010, the ensemble’s personnel has seemingly remained unchanged: violins Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, viola Stefan Duwe, cello Anna Martin-Scrase. But is this actually the case? Some of the online material concerning the group lists Doreen Cumming as second violin; the CD has a group photo with Clohessy, and the Move website also lists her as part of the ensemble. Not that the group is alone in maintaining its original members; the Seraphim and Benaud Trios and the Orava String Quartet haven’t had to cope with any personnel comings and goings, unlike the Australian String Quartet which dizzies with its chameleonic shifts. But this steadiness across the years ensures a communal evenness of production and a collegial trust in established practices.

As well, the group is here reaping the benefits of preparation for public performance. Chance’s Sundried Quartet was given its premiere by the Acacias in March 2019, and they played it another three times in that year before the shroud of COVID fell over us all. In fact, a recital from November 3 of that year shows this exact program – Mozart’s K 421 Quartet in D minor, the Chance, Dvorak’s American Op. 96 – was played during the Glebe Music Festival. And Sundried was resuscitated for the Four Winds Festival last month when the Acacias performed at Barragga Bay’s outdoor amphitheatre; pretty much coinciding with this CD’s release.

In her CD leaflet notes, Chance links her quartet’s title to a tomato in a state of desiccation; in fact, her third movement is called Tomatoes. However, her association of music with a fruit is multi-faceted and the initial suggestion fragments in several directions. How far the correspondances carry you is your own business, of course, but it strikes me that Chance is stuck in the middle of making things easy for a listener with her four movement titles – Exposure, Dribble Castle, Tomatoes, Aloe vera – and difficult for herself in giving these physicalities an acoustic format. How to depict aurally the sun’s drying process and then offer the reassurance that her end product is not dead but succulent? What are we to make of hearing the proposed process of re-forming a sand castle by dribbling water over it, and do we actually hear this or are we just obliging Chance by imposing such suggestions on ourselves?

Exposure opens with some high bare 5ths which could represent the searing sun, or the American plains, or a medieval church preparing for the advent of organum. However you want to interpret this aural scenario, not much happens in rhythmic terms until about 2/3rds of the way through when the upper strings accelerate to a landscape of fast parallel scales (at the 4th?) that coalesce on a single note, leading to a final melancholy, late-Romantic lyric based on a falling four-note motif before a gripping final chord for all, which could be a realization of Chance’s ‘surprisingly delicious crisped ending’ – which infers that we’re still talking tomatoes . . . or bacon, or raisin bread, or potatoes.

Almost exclusively pizzicato, the quartet’s second movement considers a different type of sun-drying: the beach experience of making a sandcastle and modifying its construction with water, the dribbling of which is here exemplified by a rising scale passage with a flattened 7th. A little past half-way, the players reach for their bows and discharge a descending scale pattern in unison/at the octave before reverting to the opening material. This movement is a kind of scherzo, deftly written and carried out with a few production techniques thrown in, like Bartokian snaps and near-saltando. Here, more than in Exposure, Chance’s vocabulary is essentially diatonic, with few suggestions of harmonic confrontations.

Tomatoes opens with a cello pizzicato underpinning line, above which the other strings hold onto chords or shimmer. The top violin gives us a touch of jazz ‘bent’ notes, before the pizzicato includes another instrument and two upper voices combine for a sinewy duet. The movement is highly indebted to jazz inflexions and practice, along with a sense of jauntiness – but, even bending over backwards with good intentions, I can’t see the movement’s title reflected in what I hear, although the piece does suggest itself a fine backdrop to a scene from one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things novels.

Chance’s final movement is the longest of the four, giving us the balm of consolation after the preceding 10 minutes-plus of solar radiation. This musical salve oscillates between duple and triple metre but with an unctuous melody over the top of its calm, rocking nether regions. Again, concord is the name of this game with slight gestures towards harmonic adventure. The score moves towards an ardent highpoint before the musical unguent penetrates and we nestle cosily into a beneficent, benevolent leave-taking. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Settling to their task, the Acacias enjoy urging out the composer’s melodic swathes which make gentle technical demands and bring this newly-composed work – commissioned by the players – to its conclusion. However, alongside Sundried, the surrounding Mozart and Dvorak works on this disc seem revolutionary.

Actually, you’re hard put to find Dvorak’s spirit-raising Op. 96 that challenging, apart from the Czech master’s delight in his own melody-writing skill. You’re bound to be pleased by the opening Allegro where the performers are cleanliness personified, excellent reliability and balance shining out at memorable moments like the twin violin work at bars 21 to 23 which is a delight that makes you look forward to the exposition’s repeat. My only gripe is that the second subject is handled too carefully, the phrases allowed to loll rather than breathe.

One of the finest tracks follows with Dvorak’s Lento in D minor, a case of the writer once more clearly not wanting to let go of his material. Stewart and Clohessy give a highly charged account of the movement’s core: the long duet that lasts from bar 43 to bar 81. Coupled with Martin-Scrase’s three exposure points (bars 11, 31, and 82), these passages of melting melodic lines invest the score with a heart-on-sleeve fervour that keeps its head, the ensemble working at a high level of interpretative sympathy. later, it’s hard to find faults in the scherzo/rondo where Stewart dazzles with her impeccable top notes, As and A flats searingly precise, the whole ensemble acting as one with split-second precision in attack and dynamic agreement, notably in the two F minor trio sections.

To my ear, Dvorak’s finale is over all too soon, its several panels full of breezy delight, striding High there led by the first violin’s slightly elliptical chief theme. Alongside this controlled ebullience, the Acacias continue to demonstrate their assurance of ensemble, as in the punchy C Major drive to conclusive chords across bars 61 to 67, followed by the smoothest of shifts to the A flat subject through two fill-in bars. Or focus on the blemish-free unison/octave downward arpeggio dives across bars 146 to 151. To the group’s great credit, the conclusion features no unscripted accelerando or scraping hysteria but maintenance of the composer’s good humour without any grimaces to distract from this happy score’s equanimity of temperament.

Understandably, these musicians did not repeat the development/recapitulation pages of the Mozart quartet’s opening Allegro, some 70 bars. Only masochistic purists would have insisted, I suppose, but the group’s Classical credentials were sufficiently well established without the elongation. It’s best to take this composer at face value, without trying to wring too much Don Giovanni or K. 466 out of the prevailing D minor. So the Acacias’ careful treading through this movement struck me as most appropriate, particularly as the players can handle soft passages without the sound colour becoming wispy, nebulous. A slight acceleration at the start of the development where Duwe’s viola takes prime position proved forgivable in the quick restoration of order by the time the sextuplets started in bar 59.

I think there’s one repeat missing near the start of the Andante, but no worries: Mozart prefigures Dvorak in being enamoured of his main melody which melts on the bow. This outlining impresses for its regular metre, like a gentle dance, and the feather-light touches of the group’s pianissimo contrast after the bold statements of bars 31 to 32 and bars 47 to 48. You have to listen hard for a few slight irregularities in the dotted-quaver-semiquaver rhythmic motif that dominates the Menuetto and, even so, there are only a couple of them in a reading of carefully drawn broad strokes. In the middle, Stewart and Duwe give a finely-spun duet-at-the-octave in the Trio‘s second part.

I’ve always been happier with a concluding Allegretto in this quartet which observes the jig-like bounce throughout; giving us the shadows but freeing the top parts in particular to work with tensile arcs rather than hefty swipes. The only bluffness you could find here came in the viola-dominated (well, for half the time) variation starting at bar 73; for the rest, the reading proved dynamically restrained, with some fine detail work peppering the Piu allegro coda.

A highly recommended disc from an ensemble that has swum pretty much under my radar but which, on this evidence, clearly stands among the top chamber groups in this country.