Re-released, at last

\WHAT IF A DAY OR A MONTH OR A YEAR

Gerald English, Jonathan Rubin, Sharyn Wiels

Move Records MD 3151

 

3151

 

This CD was recorded in Ormond Chapel at the University of Melbourne in mid-July 1979.   Scheduled for release as an LP, the pressing did not proceed but was delayed until 1995 when Move issued it as a CD.   Here it is again, remixed and edited by the company’s recording elder statesman, Martin Wright.   English and fellow artists Jonathan Rubin and Sharyn Wicks offer 26 tracks – 18 vocal, 6 for lute solo, 2 instrumental duos.   Some of the pieces are familiar to anyone with a smattering of interest in English composition at the time of Elizabeth I and her successor: Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, Sorrow, stay and Can she excuse my wrongs; Campion’s Shall I come, sweet love, to thee and It fell on a summer’s day; Robert Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse.

As master of the genre, Dowland’s work is well represented with six ayres and The Frog Galiard arranged for the two instruments.  Another major contributor is Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, who scores five vocal contributions and one pavan.   Thomas Campion, Dowland’s rival in the solo song stakes, is heard in four ayres, Robert Jones in three.   The remainder is all instrumental: Anthony Holborne’s The night watch (the other work for lute and gamba), the anonymous  Robin and Lord Zouch, his march for solo lute, and three pieces by Francis Cutting – Gig, Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan, and A toy.   Most of the tracks are brief in length.   The longest song is Dowland’s 4’22” In darkness let me dwell; the briefest, Ferrabosco’s Fain I would, but O I dare not at a minute; the most substantial instrumental offering is Cutting’s Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan – the longest track on the disc at 6’22” – and the fastest is Cutting’s A toy at 0″42″.   The whole thing comes out at about 63 minutes in length.

So much for the content.  The two instrumentalists I haven’t come across but, as I understand, they both went to Europe  (Switzerland?) to further their careers, getting married along the way.  Distinguished tenor Gerald English graced these shores for some years, most notably as Director of Opera Studies at the Victorian College o\f the Arts in the 1980s, as well as appearing in all styles of work.   I think he was part of the Deller Consort that toured here in the early 1960s – probably in 1964, appearing in Melbourne as an offshoot of a larger engagement at the Adelaide Festival of that year.  The ensemble sang in Wilson Hall and I was part of a student contingent that had seats on the stage.  The timing is right for English to have been a member but, at a distance of 55-plus years, I can’t be certain.

And as for his appearances in Melbourne, I was present at very few: possibly an early or Baroque opera; The Diary of One who Vanished at the 1992 Melbourne International Festival  –  days when the festival was worth attending for its music content; a one-off appearance  st the Assembly Hall in Collins St for the Chamber Made organization, or is that a completely stuffed-up instance of failing memory?   At all events, I saw him in audiences more often than I heard him: a great pity and I am apparently one of the few among my acquaintance who was not exposed to his high tenor on numerous occasions.

As nearly everyone has said already, English’s voice was a highly individual one; in my mind, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other for its note-centredness, impressive rapidity of negotiation, flawless diction, and unabashedly ‘forward’ projection.   As you can hear in this British music, nothing is lost or thrown away as incidental; dealing with works of this transparency, the tenor knew the value of every scrap of music.  And the most admirable element – one that distinguishes English from his peers – is the lack of ponderousness, self-importance, or ego.

Of the  six Dowland songs, pride of place goes to In darkness let me dwell, the tenor splendidly counterweighted by lute and gamba as he picks his way through the semper dolens melody without going in for over-emphasis, even at hellish jarring sounds; still, he does get a tad agitated in O let me living die and the pointedness of the line Till death do come stands as a lesson in subtle deliberation, albeit in miniature.   Were every thought an eye is rarely sung, possibly for its four-square shape although the internal syncopations and delays/emphases keep you slightly on the qui vive; all is fine except those emphatic three notes at the end of some stanzas.   English takes some pleasure in delicately emphasizing the syncopations during Can she excuse my wrongs, but you would wait a long while before you came across a singer who can despatch the final quatrain of both stanzas with such equanimity, making the awkward disjunction between words and music dissipate.

Sorrow, stay is given without gamba and the lucidity of texture is remarkable.   In this brilliantly conceived song, where the composer’s musical responses are potentially predictable yet seem inevitable, judged to a gloom-laden nicety, the interpretation puts forward motion at its centre; no languishing, no lingering is allowed to interrupt the work’s movement to a quiet despair.   Not quite the other side of the lover’s coin but a more optimistic setting of the same themes of death and love, Me, me and none but me – the second Dowland song without gamba – comes across as an amiably asymmetric construct with an easy fluency that should have appealed to Sting during his brief flirtation with Dowland’s music; alas, no: more taxing masterpieces attracted the British pop star’s attention, to nobody’s benefit.   The final piece by this composer, Lady, if you so spite me, is more ornate than the other Dowland pieces: a fanciful flight to toy with the sexual specificity of the text and a fine example of English’s breath control in the last plangent line.

One of Campion’s most well-known ayres gives this CD its title, a setting for voice and lute alone.   This is an ideal vehicle for English as the poem is articulated with remarkable clarity, lacking the pliability of metre common in this writer’s great contemporary.   What impresses most is the rhythmic heft that both performers give to a simple construct without making any obvious effort.   Shall I come, sweet love, to thee (another voice/lute performance) is missing its middle stanza but the reading makes you believe that the straightforward passage of the first four lines is continued in the following two lines of each sextet – and what a splendid, fitting ritardando at While these cold nights freeze me dead.

English and Rubin reach one of the highpoints of this disc at Campion’s I care not for these ladies which is given with a gentle swagger, particularly in the final couplet of each stanza where the singer avoids the predictable with a foreshortening of specific syllables to unsettle expectations of the four-square.   Its flavour is bucolic and slightly racy, but the delivery is ideally polished.    The most challenging of this set of four selections arrives with It fell on a summer’s day where the metre is displaced in the central lines, and then Campion adds on extra length in the final repeated verses.   Not that you’d know it; the lute and gamba work is as smooth and unflustered as English’s poised delivery which is, again, of some more-than-suggestive lines couched in exquisite lyricism.

Ferrabosco, younger or elder, are – for me – names in a catalogue of Tudor/Jacobean composers, but I would need less fingers than those available on one hand to recall the times when I heard music by either father or son.    So this CD does a service in bringing into context a small sample of the later family member’s work.   The influence of Dowland is evident; not just in subject matter, which is common to all – love and death – but the development of elongated lines in the best of these pieces strikes me as similar if not as idiosyncratic as in the senior writer’s songs.

Fain I would, but O I dare not is a fine example of varying musical line-length to cope with a sestet that is unexceptional in its scansion.   As expected, English smooths out the irregularities so that the piece – one minute long, even with a repeated final couplet – has a fluency of motion in text and music where nothing is wasted even if the inferential level complicates your assimilation or reception of the material.   With Donne’s The Expiration (So, so leave off this last lamenting kiss),  Ferrabosco strikes a fine balance between celebration and resignation: the lovers have to part but the leave-taking is conceit-rich, if not studied.   English and his colleagues ignore the temptation to droop but carve the work into a slow dance of inveigling grace.

In the same vogue, Shall I seek to ease my grief is concerned with a similar sense of loss, although the feeling is clearly one-sided.   There is little relief here, not even the fetching image of Eros shooting a Parthian dart at the wailing lover.   But English brings an unsentimental pathos to the final lines where the singer/poet is looking forward to the grave – or are we to go back to the Eng. Lit 1 re-interpretation where ‘dying’ means something else entirely?    Another rueful lament at falling out of love comes in Unconstant love, which operates in a higher tessitura than nearly everything else on the disc and where English’s voice suffers from some raspiness –  not on the top note; just one or two below it, and not all the time.    Like hermit poor, with its dour repeated-note first lines, is yet another mini-ode to disappointed love.   It doesn’t follow the monochromatic path set at its opening but walks its despairing way with occasional flights of vocal self-indulgence.   This is a polished performance which – as in so many of these songs – displays the composer’s innate fastidiousness; operating within a small palette of colours, yet presenting a unique emotional tableau in each.

The three songs by Robert Jones are apparently simple but ask for a wide-ranging technical equipment from both singer and lutenist – yes, the gamba is present but not as challenged. In Sweet, if you like and love me still, the opening quatrain is simple enough, but the following lines in each stanza are incident-packed with unexpected pauses and sustained notes, along with a few pronunciation oddities – well, they seem so to this untutored ear.   In amiable words and music, the song warns the beloved that the singer/poet/composer is not prepared to tolerate rivals.   But the mooted displeasure comes out of a landscape that is mild and insouciant: it’s a take-it-or-leave-it world here. A more regretful tone comes in Shall I look to ease my grief?, a companion piece to the Ferrabosco song Shall I seek to ease my grief: both composers set the same anonymous text but English has chosen different verses from the original to use as his second stanza. The Jones song moves in a triple metre for four verses, then jumps into a duple rhythm for the final line.  The text is doom-laden – What remains but only dying? – but the setting of these words is frisky.   Not that the performers treat it off-handedly but the impression is that this lover is singing for effect.

The last song on the CD is Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse where, possibly for reasons of space, the third stanza is omitted: a pity, as it finishes off the poem with a more overt direction to the listener (the singer, or poet, or composer, or you) to stop any self-torture. The message is a nice conclusion to all that has come before: don’t get upset at disappointment because the nature of love is unpredictable.  Jones’ setting is simple: most of the melody is step-wise and just asks for beauty of timbre – which you get throughout this disc in spades.

The eight instrumental pieces range from less than a minute to the CD’s two longest tracks.   Two solo lute pieces by Francis Cutting – A toy and Gig – are in simple AABB form and are over before you’ve settled in to them; I’ve heard both as guitar solos for intermediate students but Rubin plays them with an attractive piquancy.  The same composer’s substantial Mrs Anne Markham’s Pavan employs a very refined language, the dance’s stately progress disrupted by several ornate flights of semiquavers, although the player omits one of these about 5 or six ‘bars’ from the end.    Added to which, a few notes – three, at least – do not ‘carry’ well in these small fioriture chains.

Another slight product is Anthony Holborne’s The Night Watch, one of the lute and gamba duets.    It’s a simple march in AABBCC format with a sprightly opening gambit, assuredly more suggestive of the city waits in a British town than of Rembrandt’s vain-glorious military officers.   The other duet is The Frog Galiard by Dowland with the bass line given a semi-pizzicato treatment.   This famous piece that brings up memories of the composer’s Now, o now, I needs must part song, is a test of the lutenist’s dexterity; Rubin manages most of the divisions neatly enough, only a handful of notes not registering.

A Ferrabosco pavan is the second-longest piece on offer and one of the finest things on this collection.    Rubin’s colour shadings, his linear clarity and adoption of an unruffled pace all contribute to a fine account of a work that is not long on flashiness but loaded with powerful sentiment.   The two anonymous pieces are Lord Zouch, his march which Rubin performs with a keen eye for rhythm; not as rapid in his attack as some interpreters but better able to handle the decorated repeats with near-faultless clarity.  The other is Robin – which I believe is also/better known as Robin is to the greenwood gone.   Another formally simple piece, the approach is as restrained as other interpreters, but Rubin again distinguishes himself by keeping the work’s fluency as paramount, not indulging in an overt exhibition of skill in handling its difficulties.

I suppose the intention of this re-release was to summon up the memory of a fine singer who gave a good deal to this country through his teaching and the exercise of his skills.  We have few enough records of English’s years in Australia; this disc is a happy demonstration of his craft in a field where he shone – not eclipsing his peers, but standing in their front rank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time present and time past

MUSIC FROM 4 TO 40 PARTS

Vaughan McAlley

Move Records MD 3437

3437

I’ve been watching and hearing tenor Vaughan McAlley sing for the past 200 years, as a member of groups like the Ensemble Gombert and the Choir of the Collins St. Scots’ Church, as well as observing him cope with roles as hefty as Bach’s Evangelists.  He has also been a long-time producer and sound engineer for Move Records.  But I believe that this CD represents my first experience of his work as a composer; it contains a large number of those compositions ascribed to him on the Australian Music Centre’s web-site.

Most of the music is vocal/choral with relieving forays into part of McAlley’s String Quartet of 2015 and the complete Four Chorale Preludes for Piano, written for Michael Kieran Harvey.   While the majority of this CD’s non-instrumental  tracks comprise a cappella singing, a few involve some slight instrumental support – a recorder here, a string quartet there.   On paper, it looks like a considerable miscellany; in actuality, the disc’s totality represents a backward move – some centuries back, in fact.

The first offering is a setting for 5 voices of Christina Rossetti’s A Birthday, written for the wedding of Kate McBride and Tom Reid who take top and bottom lines respectively in this work.  We are plunged into the world of Renaissance polyphony which suggests both English madrigals and something more Continental  –  not Josquin, as McAlley’s annotation implies, but something further south.  It’s a well accomplished composition, with loads of vocal mobility; it’s just that it seems odd  –  a Tudor soundscape to underpin a Romantic poem.

Track 2 is A Madrigal, which uses words by Alexander Pope that have been set by a more well-known composer.  Where’er you walk is written for 4 voices and is another piece that straddles several practices and schools.  By now, you become aware of a tendency in the composer’s writing to give great exposure to his soprano or top line, sometimes suggestive of Allegri stratospherics.   Again, the polyphony is efficient and the standard of performance competent; which you’d expect with the composer being one of the participants.

To Rosamounde, a balade uses a Chaucer text, setting for 8 voices one of the poem’s three stanzas.   This work, full-bodied in character and one of the disc’s most two monumental constructs, is performed by the Ensemble Gombert conducted by John O’Donnell and it brings back memories of that group’s richly rewarding recitals held at Xavier College Chapel for many years.  The stanza octet is set lucidly with both the linear meshing and the interplay sensible, utilising compositional devices with admirable facility.  McAlley has added an optional extra, a coda for 18 voices to the last line, Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce, which is suggestive of Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and  –  of course  –  Tallis.  At this multiphonic point, the words become meaningless because the vocal complex becomes an end in itself.  The effect is sumptuous, the massive piling up of individual voices most impressive to aurally bathe in.   My only difficulty is that the setting loses its link with the English poet’s chirpy teasing.

The chorale preludes in Harvey’s hands are a delight.  There is no way a contemporary composer dealing in this form can avoid the shadow of Bach and McAlley makes no attempt to do so.   The first essay takes the melody of Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit and puts it in the centre of a contrapuntal web, weaving a soprano line in triplets and a solid bass that begins in measured pace but then enters more fully into the action, taking over the soprano triplets to underpin the complex; the work comes to a broad, Busoni-like conclusion   The melody is at the top for Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr’ with a quirky five-note motif dodging around the entire keyboard’s range and offering a jerky complement to the simple melody line.   Heilig, heilig, heilig also keeps the chorale tune in the soprano, while underneath is a susurrus of arpeggios that bring to mind a Chopin study or six, as well as Schumann’s Widmung.    O Lamm Gottes unschuldig has the tune in a soprano-tenor canon within a slow repeated chord backdrop.  McAlley concludes this piece with a fugue and the hymn tune floating above/inside it, which strikes me as a reflection of the opening chorus to the St, Matthew Passion where the children singers come in with this same tune above the ferment of Komm, ihr Tochter.

Harvey invest his wide-ranging sympathy and superlative technique into these works, handling the splayed chord moments carefully but maintaining each prelude’s forward motion and realising the appealing gravity in three of the four.   My references to Busoni and the others are not meant to be derogatory or emphasize any derivativeness; this set of four piano pieces  is situated in a compositional ambience that clearly appeals to McAlley and he inhabits it comfortably, able and deft in manipulating its tropes even if he shows little interest in pursuing Bach off-road into his more taxing chromatic labyrinths.   Further assisting in their success, Harvey’s interpretations are both masterful and compelling.

The musical language moves back further for the next work, a setting for 5 voices of three verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  Again, you sense the debt to Tallis, down to the opening identifying sentence and setting of the verses’ initial Hebrew words. A few unexpected modulations or discords  –  for example in the second sentence, the setting of individual words like moverunt and  Samech   –   interrupt an otherwise conventional harmonic scheme.

With the Lento from a string quartet written in 2015, you might be forgiven for thinking that McAlley has simply moved his writing wholesale from vocal to instrumental, given the slow chorale nature of the opening strophes   As the movement progresses, you get the same impression of careful voice-leading: all that’s missing are words.   Then pizzicati appear above a rephrasing of previous melodic material, until the plucking takes over completely.   In the last segment, McAlley returns to the chorale movement of the opening with silences to punctuate the phrases, moving the instruments into their top ranges before shifting to a low-level, brief coda.   The Four Seasons Quartet – violins Sunkyoung Kim and Helen Bower, viola Phoebe Green, cello Nora Brownrigg – give a committed reading of this score which comes across as something of a hodgepodge, despite its economy of melodic material.

It’s back to the Renaissance for In principio erat verbum, a setting of the first two and the 14th verses of Chapter 1 to the Gospel of St. John; familiar to Catholics of a certain age who would recall each Mass being concluded with this Biblical extract (and the intervening verses) as the final prayer in that liturgy.   Once again, this is a conventional work with few surprises except that insistence on isolating the soprano above the ruck.  I will lift up mine eyes uses the first four verses of Psalm 121 and calls for a soprano  soloist (Kate McBride) and string quartet (violins Rachael Hunt and Rachel Garner, viola Shani Williams, cello Alison Both).   It begins with yet another Bachian reminiscence: a siciliano instrumental figure before the voice enters.   The composer is at some pains to exercise McBride’s  highest notes; that’s fine, except that eventually you cannot understand a word in the outer sections of this da capo aria, the singer having one of those ‘English’ sopranos which is accurate enough but sexless and owning very little vibrato.k

Back to imitative polyphony for Lord, you have been our dwelling place which employs McAlley’s favoured combination of five a cappella voices.  The setting is more dramatic than its predecessors, in its central passage becoming very like Anglican chant, with a later strophe for solo voice,  and a moderately active fugal ending.   A solo recorder prefaces and gives an obbligato line (a bit of a distraction, in fact) to the four singers of The Lord bless you and keep you, which is mainly a chorale, the piece progressing for the most part in block chords.

For his 40th birthday, the composer proposed to organise a performance of the Tallis 40-part anthem Spem in alium  –  which may have actually occurred (I wasn’t invited)  –  but he was advised by friends to write his own piece.   Exactly why he took their advice remains unclear, but he did and came up with Omnes angeli: two verses from that primer for mystics and crazies, the Book of Revelation.   A performance of this construct took place on October 26, 2013, given by an expanded Ensemble Gombert under John O’Donnell; which group at the same event also took on the Tallis gem and Robert Carver’s 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium.   This CD’s last track is a recording, made on that date under the dome at 333 Collins St. Melbourne, of McAlley’s huge work which, like its Tallis inspiration, hits the listener as something of an aural onslaught.

The opening is clear enough as the various choirs interweave and set up a picture of the angels falling down before the Throne in worship.   All 40 lines come together to excellent effect at the first Amen.   For the motet’s second part, the texture is almost continuously massive so that the evangelist’s words of praise become a sonorous melange with a few thinner oases before the explosion which is a sort of extended vocal fantasia on a concluding Amen!    Tallis wrote for eight 5-part bodies; McAlley for ten 4-part groups – but detecting the difference in weight would require finer ears than mine.  I can hear some insecure voices in patches of the first half of Omnes angeli but these are soon forgotten when you’re faced with the sumptuous power of the work’s later pages which give a remarkable aural realization of angelic jubilation.

Quite an achievement, getting all these works down on CD.   McAlley himself sings tenor in half of the tracks; Kate McBride’s soprano is heard in nine; her bass husband, Tom Reid, and McAlley’s wife, alto Leonie Tonkin (who provides the recorder for The Lord bless you and keep you), participate in six.    The composer/singer’s dedication to his task is admirable.  But, in the end, you have to wonder whether this recreation of a long-gone style of composition is leading anywhere – or even whether it should.   To my mind, this recording is something of a curio: pleasant to hear, tasteful and well-crafted in its elements even if some of the interpretations are rough around the edges.  A tribute to the musical past by recreating it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attractive version of a Schubert landmark

 

 

 

WINTER JOURNEY/WINTERREISE

Nathan Lay and Brian Chapman

Move Records MCD 594

Winter Journey

 

Here is a considerable undertaking.  Baritone Nathan Lay and pianist Brian Chapman have recorded Schubert’s superlative song-cycle in two languages, the English translations by Chapman himself.   As well, the CD booklet incorporates illustrations by the accompanist’s wife Lucy – one picture per lied, the art designated by its creator as Nature Surrealism.   About this aspect of the product, I feel incapable of offering any meaningful appraisal; any fool can see the obvious relationships between Muller’s poems and the artist’s works, especially if you consider the schizophrenic nature of the narrator’s self-descriptions.   As far as I can tell, Lucy Chapman is not attempting a profound delineation of each lied‘s emotional content but an illustration of each poem’s main features or dominant motives.  Enough of that; it certainly makes for a colourful booklet, even if you can carp at the artist’s personality-less depiction of Muller’s protagonist as a black silhouette (see the album’s cover above).

Lay is not a known quantity to me although his career should have brought him into view through his activities with Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.   But I can’t place him.   Chapman I’ve heard several times, mainly at the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival and on Louisa Hunter-Bradley’s CD of this very same Schubert cycle, released 14 years ago.

This Lay/Chapman enterprise has many attractions, the chief one being the excellent relationship between the artists which shows an unflagging empathy at work throughout both versions of the 24-part sequence.   You’d expect a note-perfect rendition of each page these days, given the powers of recording studios to mask technical flaws.   But you don’t expect to come across a consistent meeting of interpretative minds such as you find here.   Yes, there’s a temptation to put the credit for this at Chapman’s door, given his years of chamber music experience and status as a top-class accompanist.   But that would detract from the baritone’s clear, consistently lyrical line which, if it’s not at the rich timbral level of formidable male Schubert singers who graced the last century, is as satisfying and rewarding as comparable performances from his contemporaries in this country.

The English version starts impressively with a carefully measured reading of Gute Nacht, the interpretation melancholy, not doleful and gifted with some eloquent piano detail work in the interludes.   The following Die Wetterfahne speaks clearly enough, although the ritenuti and fermata points seems to be  weighty.   Gefror’ne Tranen comes across with similar lucidity, the climactic final line impressively determined as Schubert treats one of Muller’s wettest poems.  A certain gentlemanliness restricts the impact of Erstarrung which makes its points with a sort of polite vigour.   Then, Der Lindenbaum is a complete success, both performers carving a clear arc through the lied‘s narrative with a melting-moment resignation in the final sixth verse.

Chapman’s annotation for Wasserflut refers to the 1963 version by Pears and Britten where the interpreters ironed out the dotted-quaver-semiquaver pattern that permeates the song, breaking both voice and piano lines down to convenient and congruent triplets.   The controversy must have passed me by, although I’m sure it caused a sensation in Schubertian circles and apparently brought out the progressive in Alfred Brendel and the conservative in Gerald Moore.   On the English-language disc, Lay and Chapman opt for the Pears/Britten treatment; on the German one, the musicians perform the score as written.   Storm in a teacup?   Probably, unless you’re a stickler for the written word/note.

I once heard a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music proclaim in an eventually aimless, and therefore useless seminar that a composer’s score is really a palimpsest, with the obvious inference that an interpreter should have the right to do her/his best/worst, if necessary wiping the compositional slate clean.  It’s a hard question on which to pontificate but I must confess to being moved to fury territory by performances that play blurring tricks similar to the Pears/Britten example with Baroque and Classical works.   In this case, the song necessarily becomes less fraught emotionally in the last line of the even-numbered verses.  The only irritating factor was Chapman’s use of that translator’s admission of defeat: the word ‘perforce’.

For Auf dem Flusse, the duo presents another persuasive account with a steady growth from calm meditation to powerful declamation over one of the cycle’s more gripping piano parts.   Lay makes an impassioned business of Ruckblick, shaping the rapid-moving sentences with  a welcome lack of rigidity.  Another unexpected move comes from Chapman in the second-last bar where my edition brings the heretofore alternating chords together but the pianist maintains the disjunction that obtains throughout the rest of the piece.   The split character of Irrlicht, the composer deliberately tamping down the text’s possibilities, is handled with unexpected brightness, the usual dark-timbre colours not stuffed down your throat.  The ensuing version of Rast impresses for its intensity, although the last two lines are hard to grasp in this translation.

Two out of the three segments in Fruhlingstraum come off successfully; you might have expected more bite in the middle ‘crowing cockerels’ verses.   At the cycle’s half-way point, Einsamkeit continues the Werther-like self-absorption of poet and composer; in this particular song, Lay sounds remarkably convincing, his dynamic depth not extreme and his vocal personality suitably youthful.   I’d be the last to dismiss the narrator’s dejection as essentially adolescent – his blighted love is unassailably cogent and continuous.   But the Winterreise world is emphatically that of a young man, not a character full of years and experience.

A few cracks appear in Die Post, like some blurred chords in the softer accompaniment passages and a forced quality to the leap from C sharp to E in the second and third-last bars of the vocal line.   A touch more difficult to accept is Lay’s characterisation during  Der greise Kopf which sounded more like dismay than appalled self-recognition.   Both artists produce a satisfying reading of Die Krahe, the whole carried out with a calm anguish from the voice and an untroubled inevitability from the keyboard.

The collaboration again works to excellent effect in Letzte Hoffnung where the abrupt turns of mood come across without jarring, the short song rounded off with an insightful depiction of optimism rooted in despair.  The following Im Dorfe shows requisite spine, although Lay’s best passage comes with the retraction of defiance beginning at Je nun. Chapman holds little back in Der sturmische Morgen, crowding his singer out of the picture during the Und rote Feuerflammen stanza; mind you, there’s little room for Lay to achieve anything substantial  in this bold-speaking brevity.  You know, by the time the cycle reaches Tauschung that every suggestion of lilting happiness is an illusion but you’d be working hard to find a sign of it from these artists; an interlude without depth it seems here, not helped by Chapman’s use of the odd noun ‘perambulation’ in the admittedly awkward second half of the first quatrain.

Nearing the end, Schubert asks a good deal more of his interpreters.  Der Wegweiser taxes the singer with yet another steadily rhythmic set of phrases that gradually decrease in motion until a mournful full stop – a path that Lay invests with an appealing innocence that falls just short of the innate suggestions of dread.   During Das Wirtshaus, Chapman carries all before him with a fine account of the prelude, postlude and interpolations, each note in every chord sounding clearly and in balance. – which is not to ignore the baritone’s emphatic declamation over Schubert’s final lines.

The surge out of desolation that is projected in Mut! –  a pause in the poet’s downward spiral – appears as unwieldy in this reading as in most others, with its rousing school-song echoes; Lay and Chapman play a straight bat here, not looking for any biting irony.  In the concluding brace, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann, musicians are presented with differing-but-similar visions: the first, symbolic regret; the second, a spiritual nihilism of extraordinary honesty.   Both enjoy exemplary airings, the last track of this English language CD an alternative version of Der Leiermann    Well, not that different:  Chapman simply omits the final resolving bar, leaving this Muller-Schubert enterprise hanging.

What of the German version?  Suddenly, we’re at home.   It’s not that you have to work hard to decipher Muller’s language  –  nobody would call it simple  –   but even a rudimentary knowledge of German enables you to glean clues all the way through.  Does the move back to original material change the cycle significantly?    Well, yes, it does.  For instance, Lay’s production doesn’t alter in his second-disc Gute Nacht, but the emphasis across phrases becomes more logical or appropriate, particularly in the major key move for the last stanza.    During Die Wetterfahne, the interpretation gains from an influx of initial plosives.  Erstarrung, too, becomes much more gripping and emotionally fraught in its later stretches.   Listening to the English disc, I noticed Chapman’s slight arpeggiations – no, disjunctions – at the start of some odd-numbered bars in his interludes for Der Lindenbaum; here, details like that and a punctilious observance of note-values are just as enriching to the lied‘s fabric the second time around.

The change brought about by working through Wasserflut as originally written is the establishment of a tension between voice and piano that makes the experience more aurally disturbing.   It also appears to add an aggressive undercurrent, while also seeming to slow down the tempo, although the booklet information has the German two seconds shorter than the English reading.    Indeed, the only noteworthy temporal discrepancies between the discs come with Einsamkeit which is longer in German and the cycle’s final Der Leiermann which is somewhat longer in German than in either of the English tracks.

Further on, I was again gripped by the passion of Ruckblick – a world of hurtling angst in such a brief space.   The triplet/dotted rhythm conflict that so exercised observers about Wasserflut is a bit of a moveable feast in Irrlicht: a peculiarity that I found in both discs.

Still not happy with Lay’s third leap at the end of Die Post but the second reading is, if anything, striking for Chapman’s genteel galloping.   More engrossing as a carefully considered interpretation is Letzte Hoffnung with a pliable but not over-distracting rubato applied in all sorts of places, regardless of the designated changes in tempo throughout this marvellous depiction of mutability in nature and the poet-musician’s spirits.    Even more in the original tongue, you can feel dissatisfied with Der sturmische Morgen for its light texture and those stretches where piano and vocal line progress in unison; a very moderate storm at work here until the  ego is inserted during the last couplet  –   another polite interpretation offered here as in the English disc.

A telling demonstration of the care taken in preparing this recording emerges in Der Wegweiser where Lay’s pauses for breath are finely gauged to make maximum sense of the poem’s scansion,  Chapman ever alert to the singer’s small-scale mobility.   The re-take of Mut! is resolute enough, but the vocal F Major arpeggio on the second sind wir selber Gotter! lacks ringing definition.   The baritone’s elegiac regret in Die Nebensonnen sounds even more striking here, and Der Leiermann walks a fine line between remoteness of observation and total self-identification, thanks to the pianist’s reserve and Lay’s capacity for muted plangency.

You’ll find much that satisfies in this double album, no matter whether you plump for total comprehension (Lay is admirably clear in both languages), or find it hard to hear old favourites in an unexpected garb, or are only content with readings as close to the original palimpsest as musicians can get.   No shocks await the listener on either disc and, even in the song-cycle’s less-inspired passages, Lay and Chapman’s well-crafted workmanship in performance is consistent and reliable.   It’s a most commendable exercise notable for its calm and unaffected reading of a lieder cornerstone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid and unchallenging

WHAT SHOULD I SAY

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 580

 

Elysian

 

First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events.   Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band.   Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument.  She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan.  I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.

So far, so fine.  What do you get for your money?   Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on.   In daring style, the Elysians begin with  settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting  –  that of Whoso list to hunt.   I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though.  The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall).   It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience.   I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine.  The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally.   That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.

What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings?  It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses.  For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track,  Stand Whoso list?   I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge.   The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings.  But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment.  The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.

But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite.  Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic.   Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax.   Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable.  Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.

Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey.  But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems.  It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling.   Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.

With  Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably.   Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions.   But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far.  It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.

Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD.   Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish.  It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former.   It’s taken me months to get through the CD without  becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously.   Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.

 

 

 

A lesson in guitar-playing

FOREST OF DREAMS

Callum Henshaw

Soundset Recordings  SR 1103

Callum Henshaw

Henshaw is a new name to me, although his main claim to local fame is winning the 2017 Melbourne International Concert Artist Guitar Competition.  As far as I can make out, this is his third recording and it covers an expansive territory, some of it concentrated on the near-contemporary.   He begins with a classic: Augustin Barrios’ Un Sueno en la Floresta; moves to Australian Phillip Houghton’s Stele Suite; follows with another Latin foray in Four Catalan Songs by Miguel Llobet.   Graeme Koehne’s A Closed World of fine feelings is listed in the Australian Music Centre’s catalogue as being written for voice, although its recorded performance from that same site seems to have been on carillon; Henshaw’s CD booklet claims the work was commissioned by Tim Kain who, last time I looked, was a guitarist.   Further, there seem to be two linked works in so far as one entry refers to the above title. while another adds on the phrase and grand design.  Yet another entry suggests the work is choral.  That’s the trouble if you start looking for definite information: confusion waits just around the corner.  Leo Brouwer’s Sonata del Decameron Negro follows; and the CD ends somewhat strangely in Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife.

Is there a theme running through thus collection?   Well, does there need to be?   We have a Paraguayan composer represented by a piece written before 1918; Houghton, a revered figure on the local guitar scene, wrote his four-movement work in 1989; Llobet’s collection of folk songs was collated somewhere between 1889 and 1935; Koehne’s composition in its guitar format dates from 1997;  Brouwer is Cuban and his sonata was written in 2012.  The Dow Lament – a sort of inbuilt encore –  comes post- 1805, when the lady in question, Margaret Urquhart, died, and pre-1807 in which year Scottish fiddler Gow himself yielded up the spirit.

Henshaw has a sensitive ear for the demi-semiquaver work that dominates the Barrios work, once the composer stops loitering around the outskirts of the forest and gets stuck into the canopy of filigree that carries most of his piece’s interest.   I lost the performer after the second repeat at bar 120, catching up a little further on; probably the fault of my edition.  Still, this isn’t enough to disconcert any listener who is hard pressed to carp at the performer’s negotiation of this bagatelle which paints a delicate representation of South American greenery –  a very civilized environment, from  this showing.

Houghton’s work has some Greek connections, as in the opening Stele which refers to ancient memorial stones for the dead, the precursors of our modern-day gravestones.  It’s a clear-cut composition with an inbuilt fluency of material, yet it summons up no particular image of Greek mini-monuments; nothing but a certain spartan texture. Dervish is a 6/8 prestissimo with a few percussive surprises along the whirling route.  I assume its title refers to the well-known Turkish mystics although Houghton’s character is more of a will-o’-the-wisp than one of those stately clerics whose motion is hypnotic rather than frantic.   Bronze Apollo falls into two sections: Premonition, which is slow-moving, suggesting the silent eloquence of the god, and Arpeggio, which is just that – a basic pattern that increases its dynamic range if not much else.  A crescendo gives it propulsion but at the same time everything is measured, which is very Classical Greek, isn’t it?   Nothing in excess.   The final movement, Web, is another rapid moto perpetuo which builds its questing commentary over a repeated sextuplet pedal A.   I don’t know what Houghton was getting at here, although my mind automatically goes to the myth of Arachne; but, for all I know, he might have been referring to the state of pre-Pelopennesian War politics, or the proliferation of tourists throughout the Cyclades.  Whatever the case, the suite as an entity satisfies for its fluency and variety of colours, excellently brought into being by Henshaw’s deft talent.

Llobet’s folk-song settings are Canco del Lladre (The Thief’s Song),  El Mestre (The Teacher), L’Hereu Riera (The Riera Heir), and El Noi de la Mare (The Child of the Mother), the last of which was a Segovia special.   The first impresses for Henshaw’s subtle harmonics at bar 11, but even more so from bar 24 to 27 where, thanks to the composer’s skill and Henshaw’s delivery, they make melodic sense for once.   Even better follows in El Mestre, which is a model of elegance and clarity with no signs of that slovenly left hand work that disfigures movement along the fingerboard.   Henshaw doubles the length of L’Hereu Riera by playing it twice, which gives you the chance to relish his supple ornamentation that livens up a pretty straightforward setting.   Finally, El Noi is a simple lyric in a gently rocking 6/8 with the instrument’s lowest string tuned to provide a pedal D.

Koehne’s work is also in D Major with the lowest string again tuned down a tone.  A gentle ternary-shaped piece with a repetitive rising pattern of three chords in its outer sections with a more ‘filled-in’ central part that fleshes out the arpeggio shapes, this piece is calm and suggests nostalgia for a past world of simplicity and emotional candour.  It is, apparently, an elegy in which not much is being said, but the work offers an uncomplicated landscape without surprises.

The CD’s most substantial element is Brouwer’s sonata in four movements: Guijes y Gnomos (Elf-Goblins and Gnomes), Treno por Oya (Lament for the Goddess Oya), Burlesca del Aire (Burlesque of the Air Spirit), and La Risa de los Griots (Laughter of the African Story-Tellers).   Springing from an earlier work – El Decameron Negro of 1981 – this sonata’s first movement is based on a nervous alternation of major and minor 2nds that construct a mobile motif above chord work falling easily under the hand.  But it wouldn’t be Brouwer unless it had at least one eclectic touch; in this case, a quiet reversion to Renaissance lute sounds that begins a little after the 3 minute mark: an oasis of old-time certainty in the middle of modern-day nervous twitches.   For all I know, Brouwer could be citing a particular piece from that era; my knowledge of the repertoire has, alas, diminished with the years.

Oya is in charge of winds, lightning, storms, death and rebirth; quite enough for any deity to be getting on with.   Brouwer begins his mourning peacefully enough, moves into a habanera rhythm, which abruptly turns into a music of rapid-fire flurries with theatrical pauses and questioning hiatus points; the habanera returns, the activity momentarily rises and sinks away, while the delicate-stepping conclusion brings this schizoid lament – meditative and frenetic in turn – to a questioning conclusion.   As a scherzo, the Burlesca is ebullient in a muffled manner, packed with wry flourishes at either end and holding another surprise at about the 2-minute mark when the content moves into late 19th century Romantic guitar territory  –  just for a brief stretch but it serves to throw the brisk humour of its surrounds into high relief.    Brouwer’s finale is a rondo after a slow introduction.   It follows a simple enough format with two lengthy slower episodes and a slower-paced coda that rounds out the sonata with a sort of defiant flamboyance.   What it has to do with griots and their traditions is beyond me; with its sophisticated rhythmic chopping and changing, it suggests Latin America more than anywhere else.

But the sonata has an impressive vivacity throughout, Henshaw milking it of its timbral interplay with exemplary skill and that gift of insight which cuts to a composer’s particular chase without faltering,   It helps that the work is a gift for anyone brave enough to take it on; that’s not to lessen this interpreter’s insight and clear sympathy with its language and intent.

Finally, the Gow Lament rounds off proceedings.  This is a fine melody in two strophes, both of which Henshaw repeats and in the process shows himself a dab hand at slight inflections and quicksilver grace notes, informing the lyric with a generous vibrato in its warmer, lower-register moments.  I suppose it can be viewed as fitting in with the disc’s content through an expressive honesty and a chameleonic folk tint that emerges all over the place.   After the Brouwer with its acerbic harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary, its naive orthodox simplicity serves as a sort of emotional solace.

 

No worries

 

CHROMATIC FLIGHT

Virginia Taylor and Simon Tedeschi

Move Records  MCD 582

 

Chromatic Flight

 

Here is a short disc of thoroughly amiable duets for flute and piano, unassuming music treated with consideration if not much flamboyance by a couple of distinguished Australian artists.   The contents comprise six individual pieces and two suites – one Latin, the other jazz.  The briefest track, Ripples, lasts 2:03 minutes; the longest, Contemplation, comes in at a second short of 5 minutes.

All works are products by Graham Jesse, a well-known Australian performer, composer and arranger whose life has revolved principally around jazz:  a biographical descriptor borne out by this album.   Taylor’s flute is the dominant thread throughout; Tedeschi has his moments of exposure but it remains clear in every track that the wind line is all-important.  Which doesn’t come as a surprise; most of the publicity shots I could find of Jesse have him holding a flute, concert or bass.

We’ve all been victims – willing or otherwise – of elevator music, that irritating or anaesthetising noise that fills out a vacuum in our shopping experience.  It could be a rendition of a well-known popular song or a hotted-up Christmas carol.  Its function – if it really has one – is as aural decor, acoustic tinsel, and often dismissable.  Sadly, I’ve never been in a lift where the sound system is burbling out Good King Wenceslas at which all of we transportees join in a verse or six.   Fortunately, Jesse’s music is original and rather individual, which removes it from the realm of material that just sits on the periphery of consciousness.

But I couldn’t help thinking of certain types of composition that have an assertively functional philosophy behind them.   Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik or music for utility is not the right fit for Jesse’s work in Chromatic Flight, even if you have to listen hard to find any moments where Taylor and Tedeschi have much to cope with as far as technical challenges go.   Yet there is a faint patina of the utilitarian about this CD’s content which is light and slight, for the most part.

As well, you might be struck by an echo of Satie’s Musique d’ameublement where the music is meant to be background, like wall-paper.  Stravinsky tells the story of the composer rushing round the room where this music was being performed, trying to get people to talk over, rather than listen attentively to, his work.

Mind you, that can work in reverse.  I remember being at a launch of something to do with chamber music at the Naval and Military Club where music was supplied by an ad hoc string quartet from the National Academy.   We were standing around on a terrace at the rear of the building, chatting amiably enough when Dame Elisabeth Murdoch  – whose money was probably funding the event – querulously demanded that we all be quiet and listen to the music, which could have been Haydn, or Paisiello, or Salieri but  was definitely in divertimento vein and not being accomplished with much concern beyond getting the notes right.  S till, the piper calls the tune, so the hard-liners among us who can distinguish between pap and prowess adjourned to the inner bar.

But, to the matter in hand, Jesse’s work tends to operate on an impressionistic level, evident in the first three titles recorded here.  Waves is really ripples with Tedeschi setting up an arpeggio ostinato – no, a splayed common chord base with some soothing meandering from both instruments.   These waves are gentle enough; even when the atmosphere gets a bit hectic in the work’s centre, there is nothing here to transport you from Elwood or Balmoral to Portsea back beach or Mona Vale on a stormy afternoon.

Flutter begins with a flute solo, punctuated by some – yes, flutter-tonguing.   Then, you settle down for a lot of repeated notes and patterns with the inevitable flutter as the main focus of action.   It’s a nicely calculated ‘effect’ piece with a neat suggestion of jazz in its elliptical central section.   Ripples is a faster Waves – at least for the flute which begins and stays in Debussyland with an arpeggiated 7th chord/almost whole-tone pattern meandering up and down with little required from the piano but dutiful chords and mirroring.

The CD’s title number is a non-confrontational  bagatelle with lots of chromatic  passage work but it’s not alarmingly atonal;  more along the lines of a modern-day Flight of the Bumble-Bee, speaking in easily digestible phrase-lengths with nothing spartan or confrontational along its journey towards a C Major final chord.  The pace in the outer thirds is fast yet the whole impresses this jaded mind as a fine AMEB study piece.  Convolution is similarly brisk, follows the same ternary pattern, also ends in C and takes a pattern of descending 4ths as its central building block.   Belying its title, the piece is clarity exemplified.

You’d want to be  more agile than most navel-gazers to find Contemplation useful.   It has no great incidents – quite properly  –  but an intriguing irregular rhythmic patter-line set up by the piano before the flute enters with a lucid melody that gives Taylor an opening to show her well-managed vibrato and security of articulation on sustained notes.  Much of Tedeschi’s part could be played by one hand, so that some consecutive chords at about the 3-minute mark come as a surprise.   Still, there’s nothing wrong with a bi-linear pattern gently wandering round a D tonality pivot to suggest something close to mental stasis – if that’s what you understand by contemplation, of course

A mild bossa nova rhythm is the only memorable factor in the first movement of the Latin Flute Suite with the prescriptive title of Bossa Flauto and there are some of those mild syncopations in the piano part to help you sway along the Brazilian dance path.  Silly Galoot, a slang term for flute, is a companion piece to the bossa nova gem and is one of the tracks that suggests to me most strikingly the landscape of Satie’s furniture music. Its more arresting moments come when both instruments play the same melody line in unison; much of the rest seems to me sprightly note-spinning with a clear lack of purpose starting about half-way through before the by-now-inevitable reprise of the piece’s opening material.   Savusavu celebrates a Fijian resort that Jesse visited and there found much the same inspiration as from bossa nova and the preceding galoot.  You can take little objection to this except where the players move into some uncomfortably situated triplets.   Nevertheless, in this piece the actual progress of the composition is very predictable.  To each his own, I suppose, but I’m puzzled as to why Jesse found a calypso rhythm gave the best reflection of his South Pacific island experience.

Jesse’s Jazz Flute Suite has three movements: Don This, Waltz and Flutist Blues.  The first is a tribute to 91-year-old jazz great Don Burrows and is a mildly swinging ramble with four places where both instruments play in unison. moments that certainly bring back memories of the Burrows Quartet and the MJQ’s influence on the art form in the middle of the last century, although this later product is low-key and short-breathed in its little paraphrases of Bach Inventions-type textures.  The Waltz is anything but: full of hemiolas at its opening before settling down for a moment, as if it prove that 3/4 is capable of more than you’d think.  It’s a placid rondo with a quiet interest, and probably not suited for dancing, but you could say the same about plenty of Chopin.   The concluding blues is an optimistic one with an attractive main melody and a clever sharing of the labour between these players; its only problem comes in an episode before the final reprise which sounds over-studied compared to the easy swagger of its surrounds.

You won’t find anything ground-breaking or unusual on this CD.  The performances are smooth, apart from a few moments of not-quite-synchronicity in the last three tracks. Bob Scott has achieved a fair balance between the players, Tedeschi’s work not being under-played and Taylor’s flute allowed a vivid amplitude without over-miking; you’re not conscious of chuffs or breathiness.  Indeed, the calm surface of the CD may go some way to explaining why I think it – or parts of it – may fit the afore-mentioned Satie performance conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

The North is minor

SNOW IN SUMMER

Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584

 

Evergreen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further encounters with Beethoven’s piano

A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY VOL. 5

James Brawn

MSR Classics  MS 1469

Brawn 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

For the future, yesterday

7 GREAT INVENTIONS OF THE MODERN INDUSTRIAL AGE

Syzygy Ensemble and Dan Richardson

Move Records MD 3427

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take another look

BACH’S TONAL SOUNDSCAPE

Ian Holtham

Move Records MD 3413

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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