But soft!

DIANA DOHERTY & STREETON TRIO

Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Southbank

Thursday March 4

Diana Doherty

We’re starting the Musica Viva 2021 with an all-Australian affair – which is the way it’s going to continue into the foreseeable future. Doherty and the Streetons bracketed Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor with a brace of works for the oboe+piano trio combination; not just two works, but the only two ones to employ this instrumental format. Martinu’s Quartet dates from 1947 and Lachlan Skipworth’s from 2020, the latter commissioned for Musica Viva and this round of recitals. The musicians worked straight through without an interval – what else can you do in these straitened months when the bars can’t be opened, not even to supply water? – and, while all performed to a high standard, something sounded wrong with the sound diffusion.

If memory serves me properly (still), Musica Viva’s opening recital for 2020 featured Garrick Ohlsson who gave his Brisbane recital in this Conservatorium hall. After that night, the great live silence. At that time, I had no problem with the space’s acoustic, and it’s a big area to fill; not the most comfortable for subtle chamber music because of the high ceiling and significant length. Still, Ohlsson resonated quite adequately, I suspect because his piano was situated favourably. On this Doherty/Streeton night, Benjamin Kopp played with the lid on the long stick and was a fainter presence. For all I know, this could be an ensemble peculiarity in which Emma Jardine’s violin and Umberto Clerici’s cello take joint pre-eminence while their pianist self-effaces; a far cry from nearly every other piano trio I’ve encountered, especially given the exposure we’ve enjoyed with Selby & Friends over many years.

Whether the piano was situated too far back or the instrument itself wasn’t big enough, it’s hard to make a definitive statement. But the mix was not convincing for Martinu’s amiable quartet where the two strings enjoyed an unusual degree of attention, Doherty a fine interpreter with a winningly shaped line. Right from the first bars of the opening Moderato, it was clear that this reading would not emphasize the sharp bounce that permeates recordings of this score; here was an evenness of dynamic and a levelling out of piquancy in attack that changed your expectations. Oddly enough, despite the strings’ dynamic dominance, they enjoy very little solo action – a bar here and there, but generally acting in partnership underneath or punctuating the oboe and piano.

We heard Kopp clearly enough in the second movement’s introductory 5-bar Adagio – a chord-rich piano solo. But in the following siciliano-like Andante, even his forte interruptions and punctuations lacked carrying power while Jardine and Clerici gave vent to passages of exceptionally rich timbre. However, the dynamic climax to this section starting at Number 4 in the Max Eschig edition of 1961 came over with fine conviction and a rewardingly (for us) rich spread of colours.

The Allegro conclusion to this second-of-two movements, like the opening Moderato, did not present as perky in character as expected; most of your attention fell on Martinu’s modulations, especially the more brusque ones, rather than any deft instrumental sparkle. Indeed, the working-out of these pages turned into a bit of a trial as there’s little relief in its forward movement and, despite the composer’s gleeful pointing-up of detail, you get a sense of cerebral activity when the counterpoint moves up a gear or two. Because of an absence of pointillistic brilliance, the final flurrying 16 bars sounded hefty, the conclusion something of a relief.

Once again, I would have been pleased with more bite from Kopp’s instrument for the Smetana masterpiece, particularly as Jardine and Clerici powered into their bar 8 duet in the first movement Moderato assai. In fact, Jardine maintained a strong voice throughout this trio while Clerici could be discerned even in loud chordal passages supplied by Kopp. A fine sense of theatrical contrast came with the second subject at bar 43, cello and violin delivering it with full responsiveness, the former heavy on vibrato. What turned out to be the most involving stretch of playing in the recital came during this first movement’s development, the Tempo rubato at its conclusion a welcome opportunity to hear untrammeled Kopp and his sensitive freedom across the three cadenza bars. Later, the polonaise-rhythm segment of the recapitulation proved splendidly effective in the lead-up to the fortissimo bars and the reduction in dynamic to the coda page.

Little marred the second movement Allegro except some disappearing, soft piano notes; at various points you could just make them out while at others you wondered if they’d been announced at all. Nevertheless, all players observed the composer’s juxtaposition of light and dark, wispy and hefty. Smetana’s Alternativo I seemed slower than usual, but I liked Clerici’s slight use of portamento when he entered the section’s action in the latter part. The second Alternativo impressed in its most dramatic moments, as at the opening strophes and later between bars 187 and 191, all followed by a suitably delicate rounding-out.

If you were familiar with your Smetana, you knew what was going on in the final Presto‘s piano part but that simple two-against-three mesh sounded as if it was coming from a fair distance while the competing strings from bar 26 on enjoyed too much of one’s attention with pretty subsidiary matter. When the group resumed their treatment of the opening theme at bar 215, you were struck by the restraint shown from all sides, a polite re-acquaintance, until Jardine’s triple stops at bar 255 jolted us back into the movement’s vehement urgency. That sudden break into a semi-funeral march at bar 467 over an unsettling dominant pedal is fine fare for those who want to read a program into the work and detect grief for his recently-dead daughter written large across Smetana’s score, but it doesn’t quite satisfy; the 28 bars make for a hiatus in the emotional acceleration under way from the Piu mosso marking, but it’s an unnecessary one, in my opinion. Not that this distracted from the Streetons’ ensemble work, reliable and passionate right up to the concluding, emphatic double punch.

Skipworth’s new quartet sounds at its outset like a work infused with an Australian flavour: a benign melody and not too far-reaching or angular, with a touch of British bucolicism – even if this initial lyrical arch is a remarkably long one with plenty of sustained single notes at large. The second thought that struck me was a sense of operating in a post-Impressionist world, but Sisley rather than Monet. I’m not at all aware of the formal structure of this movement, beyond the welcome and informative program notes from the composer, but his rhythmic manipulations promised to be more complex than they turned out to be in performance. Certainly, the activity is fluent and brisk, while one of the new score’s great strengths lies in its insights into the potential of all participants – at least, in this Allegro moderato, with an accent on the adjective.

Starting the second movement, a Misterioso, molto rubato (joy-inducing words for any player), Skipworth seemed to be entering Sculthorpe’s ‘isolation’ landscape with an oboe/cello duet over low chords in the piano, Clerici eventually taking the forefront. A brief duet with Jardine preceded the violin articulating what sounded like a threnody. The composer mentions Messiaen as an inspirational source but I missed any obvious signs, apart from a kind of slow-moving gravity. To end, Doherty sets off on a buoyant offensive, a folk-dance in its suggestions before Skipworth enters a series of episodes. It was at about this point that I noticed how little exposure was being given to Kopp, the composition here favouring the strings’ and wind’s agility. But the attraction here lies in the chameleonic nature of the narrative in play, coupled with more readable rhythmic games than I found in the first movement.

A particularly attractive feature of this work came with its clarity of intent, an impetus at work in each of its segments, and the definition that informed the performance. Still, as Doherty pointed out, the ensemble has had plenty of time to get their interpretation organized. So, this recent creation by Skipworth not only occupies a singular position in the catalogue of scores for this grouping, but it also pleases by speaking in an optimistic voice; very welcome at the start of this particular year and a suitable indicator of the Musica Viva organization’s hopes.

Not too thick; more of a lemon tang

LA CREME DE LA CREMA

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday February 18

It’s a vague photo, isn’t it? Not the best transfer from no-news-bearing Facebook but it probably looks fine in its original internet placement. Also, I’m not sure if the personnel shown are current ensemble members. In any event, six of the MBO musicians took part in this recital from the Athenaeum Theatre that was actually taped, as I understand, towards the end of last year.. For the six-part program, this night’s MBO comprised violins Natalia Harvey and Cameron Jamieson, violist Katie Yap, cellists Rosanne Hunt and Josephine Vains, supported by the theorbo of Nick Pollock. As matters turned out, this grouping impressed for a breadth of timbre with a pair of well-matched violins taking centre-stage across much of the program’s tutti work (stating the bleeding obvious) with Pollock’s continuo a full-bodied presence rather than that background tinkling you get from a harpsichord.

We heard the program’s only solo from Pollock in an arrangement of Couperin’s Les Barricades Misterieuses: one of the composer’s most recycled and re-formatted works. This piece suited the instrument, thanks to its double-bass clef register and Pollock was insightful enough to keep the part-writing clean in delivery, if not spartan; even so, a few rough spots butted into the easy flow, like the top note in bar 26 – surprising, as the same note’s repeated presence in the third couplet was almost unfailingly clear and buzz-less. In fact, this 22-bar segment with its well-stretched pulse and responsive phrasing impressed even more than the always-welcome returns of the bracketing rondeau.

Matching this solo, the ensemble offered a duet for cello and bass: the Allegro from Boccherini’s Sonata in C G.6. Vains took the top line of this 41-bar first movement, showing a reassuringly aggressive hand in the triple-stop chords that punctuate the work’s elegant flow. Mind you, sweetness of colour did not feature in the production values of Vains or Hunt, who made boisterous work of these few pages. In spite of a deliberate gruffness, both instruments seemed comfortable in their work with only a few near-discrepant moments, and an uncomfortable upward C Major scale in the solo instrument at bar 10.

Onwards and upwards, a few more players entered the lists for a Trio Sonata in G (‘in imitation of Corelli’) by William McGibbon, that 18th century hero of Scottish music, both in serious and folk spheres. Yap and Vains stayed silent for this brief gem involving two violins and a continuo bass line. The group gave out a satisfying and full amplitude of production as early as bars 6 to 9 of the opening Adagio; the content does not show a lot of invention but the Corelli echoes come across with excellent authority. Further, the group’s attention to phrasing gave these stately pages even more interest.

As the work moved forward, the interplay between Harvey and Jamieson grew more intense, both the imitations/suspensions and easier work in thirds performed with precision and authority. Probably the only question mark in a highly forward demonstration came at bar 42 of the closing Allegro where Jamieson’s semiquavers came across as mechanical, particularly in a phrase that looks like note-spinning on paper already. Still, the piece is an unabashedly amiable tribute to a master from a musician about whom so little is known, although it’s intriguing that what few encounters I’ve had with McGibbon’s work have come from Australian musicians.

This program began with one of the Baroque’s more tasteful free-for-alls in Rebel’s Les caracteres de la danse: that compendium of what was being trotted out – literally – at Versailles in the age of Louis XIV. As early as the Courante, you had to be impressed – even taken aback – by the busy crispness of all involved: from the energy of Pollock’s bottom line to the biting sprightliness of the violin pair. These characteristics returned time and again – in this case, as quickly as the Bouree. Signs of colour organization emerged throughout the suite, like the absence of a strong bass line in the Chaconne until a forte explosion at bar 75. In fact, cellos and theorbo proved capable of holding – or attracting – your interest in harmonically ambiguous passages like the short-lived Rigaudon.

Then, a lot of Rebel’s score is brief, as though he is just touching on some forms but is unsure if they’re worth his – or his audience’s – time. Not so the Sonata, which brackets the Loure and Musette pair. I’m not certain why the Sonata is there, although it does hold the most action-filled pages of the whole set. But you might well ask what is the function of the initial Prelude, except to give the band some warm-up time. Such quibbles disappear when you have the chance of re-acquaintance with the Loure‘s strange format; God knows how you dance to it and Jean-Fery doesn’t give you much time – 7 bars! – to get involved in its coils. No matter how quickly we had to digest some of these dances, the MBO outlined them all with impressive authority, particularly the continuo department who held nothing back in the rapid pages.

Hitting the popular Baroque vein, the players gave a direct-speaking version of Boccherini’s Night Music of the Streets of Madrid string quintet: one of your more refined examples of program music. It’s always a pleasure to see cellos being played as guitars in the Minuetto, holding their own against the concise unison violins. And the interpretation followed the usual pattern of using the written score with a mild irreverence, as in Harvey’s shortening of note values at ornamentally twitchy points. A solitary unsteadiness in the top cello near the end of the Largo assai‘s second appearance proved to be one of the few flaws in proceedings. A no-nonsense brusque attack informed the Passa Calle, during which the solo cello produced an eerie, ‘white’ melody line with no vibrato. And the noble Ritirata – what we all wait for – strode past to excellent effect, the viola and second cello rapid triplet work clear and eloquently percussive, with a deft diminuendo to polish off this small tone poem.

To end, the full group played Georg Muffat’s Passacaglia from the Sonata No. 5 in G of 1682, a score I hear mainly on keyboards. In this strings-plus-theorbo version, the ensemble generated a powerfully sonorous creation, lavish with a sort of strict opulence. As with the better parts to this program, phrasing had been organised with fine results, allowing for as much individuality as possible in a score full of chances for individual exposure, no matter how short. At Variation 5. along with the upper parts’ excellent duet work, the theorbo made a generous, resonant contribution. Variation 7 gave us some tender melting moments, thanks to Muffat’s cleverly-placed triplets. In fact, this reading gave you more opportunities than usual to appreciate the composer’s talent at catching his listeners off-guard with unanticipated extra bars and accents.

The later changes had their high points, as in the sterling violin duets that constitute Variations 20 and 23 and the broad, almost glutinous richness of the final 13 bars. Not that the composer’s inspiration remains on a high level throughout, yet even the more worked-over passages proved worthwhile as a spectacle, seeing the musicians work their various ways into and through the mesh. This Passacaglia made an assured, not-too-taxing display piece for all involved and it brought to the fore this particular ensemble’s abilities to work cohesively, with polish and certainty of intonation, generating a satisfying fabric that combined steeliness with underpinning warmth.

Back in the saddle again

BENDIGO CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL – SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES I

Melbourne Digiutgal Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 3

David Griffiths

It’s quite a simplification to point to the Melbourne Digital operation as the solitary production name associated with this recital, but it was the one that sold me my ticket. Naturally, the Bendigo arts apparatus and city hall were very much part of the process: the festival operates (this is its second year) under the council’s aegis and in council venues. Somewhere along the way, the Australian National Academy of Music was mentioned; that might have been connected to cello guru Howard Penney, who has been an ANAM presence for many years now, and who performed in the night’s first offering.

In any case, this recital signalled the opening to Bendigo’s chamber music week which is packed with eminent figures. As these events take place in front of live audiences, you feel a tad uneasy about treating them as digital; if your heart was in the right place, you should have made the journey and sat in the Capital alongside other committed devotees. Only the fear of quarantine laws being suddenly hurled into place kept me home in Palaszczuk’s Paradise, yet again doomed not to visit a provincial Victorian city that I last visited in 1962. Ballarat I know well because of the Goldfields Organs days each January; Bendigo didn’t have musical interest until the creation in 2013 by David Chisholm of his International Festival of Exploratory Music Festival, but commitment circumstances and recurrent illnesses kept me from observing what looked like the most experimentally advanced music-making in the country.

Here we were on Wednesday, witnessing the start to serious musical action in 2021. MDCH founder Christopher Howlett gave one of his scatter-gun addresses that just don’t quite trip off the tongue but cover a lot of ground. Penney had notes but his speech became a mixed collation – benign burbling. Luckily, Bendigo Mayor Jennifer Alden, on stage to open the festival, had a satisfying fluency, beginning with the acknowledgement that we whites are all invaders and reprehensible scum, even if we’re not going anywhere soon. She, like Howlett and Penny, thanked everybody in sight, with a hefty emphasis on the council’s employees and local volunteers.

By the time this voluble vocal trio had finished, we were panting for some actual music. And we got it in the form of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in C RV 447, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal oboe Thomas Hutchinson as soloist. He was programmed to work in front of a small string group: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anna de Silva Chen, violist Christopher Moore, and Penney. It took me no time at all to perceive that Chen was absent and her place taken by Matthew Tomkins, the MSO’s principal second; well, I thought it was Tomkins – it had been been about 16 months since I’d last seen him at work but he looked pretty much as I remembered him. Then I found a later version of the full festival where the change had been officially recorded.

In my edition of the Vivaldi, the soloist is rarely silent, doubling the top violin line throughout. Not so here, Nicholson not sighted (or heard) until bar 18 of the first Allegro. And so it went on, the soloist reserving himself for the exposed segments. Not that you can carp at this; it isn’t every soloist who plays along with the tuttis in Mozart piano concertos, although I’ve seen that done. Thankfully, this soloist bent his line where possible, avoiding a rhythmic regularity that can kill a Vivaldi concerto. And he bounded faultlessly through those triplet patterns that dominate the oboe line, as in bars 31-36, 52-65 and 90-93, but with some relieving pattern work of varying size. Let’s not forget the quartet which addressed its work with cutting finesse; just as well, given the small numbers involved.

Hutchinson enjoyed more room to exercise his vibrato in the central Larghetto, with only the top three strings supplying regular quaver triads as backstop. In fact, these pages alternate a syncopated melody with demi-semiquaver figurations in clusters of four which the oboist treated with an impressive fluidity, a type of suit-yourself easiness, up to a final perfect cadence sublimated in the soloist’s ornamentation. As for Vivaldi’s Minuetto finale, it was probably just as well that none of the repeats were observed, as it’s unlikely that interest could have been sustained. You could find no fault with Hutchinson who soared through more pages of rapid triplets and further demi-semiquavers that tripped over themselves on the page but poured out seamlessly despite the pressure. The only complaint you could raise was a tendency to introduce a slight pause after every four bars in the Minore C minor segment starting at bar 230.

For the highly confident reading of Bartok’s Contrasts trio, David Griffiths gave us a splendidly balanced clarinet line, handsomely partnered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Sophie Rowell. At the opening to this part of the night, I was again struck with indecision as the pianist didn’t resemble one of the scheduled keyboard players- Daniel de Borah. Nor did the musician share any physical properties with the other potential performer in this role. It took me almost till the end until I realized that this face-out-of-nowhere belonged to Benjamin Martin; almost a stranger because I haven’t seen the Firebird Trio live for many years.

In fact, the pianist played a subsidiary role for long stretches of the opening Verbunkos, leaving the fun to both Griffiths and Rowell although the whole trio clearly relished the vehement clashes that conclude bars 60 and 64. More importantly, the movement radiated an individual freedom, even in concerted passages, not to mention the fugato interplay that both eases and adds to the movement’s jaunty tension. In the ensuing Piheno, you were aware from the start of the care taken in preparing this movement, considering the dynamic consideration taken from bar 11 to bar 17, just before the first of the brief night music bursts. Later, these players maintained a clear amalgam of lines between bars 35 and 40 – possibly this work’s most moving sequence.

Then the gloves came off for the Sebes which exploded into action, most pronounced from Martin who devoured the cross-rhythms from bar 36 onward. This opening part impresses me as a remarkably dangerous sequence, threatening to spiral out of control if you attack it with gusto. But you could find few indications of vertigo, even after bar 71 up to the resumption of normal play at bar 99. Later, the performance successfully painted the wide-ranging canvas that stretches from the 8+5/8 Piu mosso simple clarity up to the mobile piano clusters that close out this spellbinding rhythmic ambiguity at bar 168. It’s hard to avoid suggestions of over-exertion in the final pages, Bartok gifting his violinist an unwieldy cadenza along the way, but this trio showed no slackening of tension or powerful impetus up to the last punch.

Luckily, the cast stayed the same on the early notifications as on the Festival program for this evening’s concluding Mendelssohn Piano Quartet Op. 3 in B minor: violinist Howell, violist Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal desk, MDCH eminence and cellist Christopher Howlett, with Daniel de Borah faced facing yet another imbalanced and hyper-active piano part from a young (15-years old) composer. Before starting, Howlett told us that this particular day was Mendelssohn’s birthday – which it was: his 212th – and gave some information about the young genius’s musical activities at the time. Then, they were off with a well-defined attack, despite the opening page’s muffled nature.

It was inevitable that attention fell on de Borah, fulfilling bar after bar of rapid triplets during the Allegro molto‘s first part. Still, the rest of the ensemble didn’t take backward steps, Breider notably forward in duets with Rowell and Howlett who played with a firm deliberation, as well as I’ve ever heard him perform. Transmission was interrupted for a few seconds in the development’s guts, compensated for by an excellently negotiated dying fall after the changes of key and tonal key restatement led to an elegant recapitulation and a fierce Piu allegro coda.

Nicholson took primacy at the Andante‘s outset with an impressive shapeliness to Mendelssohn’s rather pedestrian melody, relieved by Breider at bar 10 serving as the pivot of some eloquent string duets. Possibly, Rowell proved too self-effacing in some short snatches where the violin has a passing dominance; Howlett showed no similar bent, taking full advantage of some impressive tenor clef 7th leaps and a purple cello patch leading back to the initial theme.

De Borah was fully tested by the work’s Scherzo in which the pianist is tested by endless semiquavers while the strings serve as punctuation. When the highpoints came, they proved texturally thick and aggressive at the forte passages, that triumphalism reinforced by an emphatic sequence of piano arpeggios. Still, you could not find anything less than full enthusiasm informing the B Major Trio, taken with persuasive, if eventually wearing, heartiness. I’m probably alone in finding too much note-spinning in the vivace finale where the hard-faced working-out of material sits at odds with the fluency of the preceding movements. By this stage, too, de Borah’s forte had turned into a more forceful creature and a few slips on wide leaps marred Rowell’s copybook; nothing major, but distracting from the accomplishment of an unwieldy set of pages, so that the final bars were welcome for relieving a double tension.

This recital introduced a week of music-making: the first sign anywhere, a far as I could tell, of a return to what passes for normal these days after the Christmas/New Year hiatus. Of course, it’s heart-warming to see musicians at their craft, especially flaunting their charms in a provincial centre. And this program slipped us back into concert-going mode carefully – especially those of us confined to the digital experience, for the most part. We’ll have to get used to straitened circumstances, like limited audience numbers and the concomitant care for personal/public hygiene, and an emphasis on smaller scale music-making formats. Yet, as an indication of the shape of things to come, this Bendigo festival opening made for a highly welcome reassurance.

Shaky start, brilliant finish

MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS

Sophie Rowell and Kristian Chong

Hamer Hall

Thursday November 26

Sophie Rowell

In his opening address to this recital, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall co-founder Christopher Howlett welcomed us – remotely – back to Hamer Hall. Fine, even if the venue isn’t one you’d choose for a duo recital. Still, Rowell and Chong faced back-of-stage rather than having to project out across to the hall proper. Great to see the place was being woken up from a long snooze (or has it? I haven’t been following Melbourne Symphony Orchestra pandemic events, unjustifiably assuming that they have been as lame as those mounted by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra), but the backdrop of all those empty seats proved a tad unsettling.

Anyway, here we were in the old (?) familiar space with two fine musicians presenting a program of Mozart’s K. 454 B flat Violin Sonata, Szymanowski’s Op. 30 Mythes, and three arrangements of songs by Calvin Bowman, taken from the Melbourne composer’s seven encounters with American poet William Jay Smith. Plenty of meat here, even if the cuts differed markedly in character and effect.

A risk that only top-level partnerships should take – I’m thinking of Szeryng and Haebler, Oistrakh and Yampolsky, Francescatti and Casadesus – is to kick off your program with Mozart. The violin sonatas are a minefield for their interpreters; not the notes, but the way you deliver them. For instance, most modern-day musicians find it necessary to avoid emphasis, observing the facility of Mozart’s inventiveness by giving it kid gloves treatment. Which works if you play on period instruments but not when you have the resources of the modern violin and its steel strings, not to mention the ringing power of Hamer Hall’s big Kawai.

All of which is a preface to saying that parts of this Mozart K.454’s first movement misfired, chiefly because Rowell attempted some soft dynamics and the results sounded tentative, nervous, wavering. Chong had a better time of it but that’s largely because of the way the movement is written for the piano – with a mellifluous and safe fluency – and because it’s so much easier to play around successfully with dynamics and touch gradations on a piano than it is on a violin.

Even in the opening Largo‘s 13-bar stretch, the string line melted away in contrast with the slashing triple-stop chords of the instrument’s initial phrases; when the piano situation first came up, the bow barely hit the string and the results failed to carry or contribute. So the pendant Allegro proved very welcome for its change of emotional terrain. Rowell’s high Cs in bars 31 and 33 might have gained from more intensity, as would her exposed subsidiary theme treatment starting at bar 50: not an exceptional tune but quietly eloquent, not just quiet. For all this nitpicking, the body of the movement proceeded successfully, Chong rarely missing a note in his frequent semiquaver scale patterns.

Mozart’s Andante with its awkward two-bar phrases would have benefitted from a more determined violin approach, which might have made a less featureless creature of the B flats across bars 13 and 14; even subsidiary voices need character. An almost evanescent third F at the move to B flat minor in bar 49 was counterweighted by a fine tritone leap beginning bar 95; when the piece asked for some grit, things came alive.

You couldn’t ask for plainer sailing than this sonata’s Allegretto finale, despite its little chromatic slips in the second phrase. Chong sustained his buoyancy of output, slightly marred by an exposed revisiting of the main theme in a solo between bars 90 and 98 when a few notes went missing. One of the few thick moments, that between bars 223 and 230 with three concurrent lines in operation, came off with laudable clarity and Rowell’s running triplets from bar 251 to bar 258 could not be faulted for their even delivery: a fine final gesture after a work that missed out on achieving continuous comfort for its executants and their audience.

About the Bowman songs in this particular duo format, I’ve little to report. The organist/pianist/composer has found his own voice somewhere close to the English pastoral writers with no qualms about producing orthodox melodies supported by suitable accompaniments. What these arrangements did show was the unabashed romantic colour to them all, nowhere better than in Rowell’s rich account of Now touch the air softly, for which Bowman has provided a melody (G Major?) that touches the heart with its folk tune-like simplicity and has a fluent grace that fits the poem in the best way: as though both were written by the same hand.

No, there were no words here but Rowell gave the melody line a fine energy, on the move and of a piece with the voice of the poem’s lover who is speaking on a similar plane as that in Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. I couldn’t find Smith’s verses to The Early Morning but Bowman set it with another finely-formed lyric, interspersed pauses giving you the passing impression of an irregular metre. Again, this piece gave all its room for the violin’s breadth of colour although Chong was kept in play with an accompaniment of no little variety. A repeated note begins the tune for The Night which is another song (in A flat? My pitch sense is mouldering in these latter days) packed with carefully arched phrases. Again, I couldn’t find the text but even so you could luxuriate in the appealing, full-bodied ardour projected by Rowell in music of no great difficulty but aimed directly at Bowman’s large and appreciative audiences.

To close, Rowell and Chong performed Szymanowski’s 3 Mythes which has been acclaimed as one of the pivotal violin works of he 20th century and which I, for one, was hearing live for the first time. It may be astonishing to the composer’s enthusiasts that the work hasn’t spread into common usage but, from a discography I consulted, the only names from recordings of Mythes that resonated were those of David Oistrakh and Ida Haendel. At the time of its creation, and many years later, Szymanowski claimed that he and violinist Pawel Kochanski – the dedicatee’s husband and first interpreter of the suite – had invented a new style of violin composition. For the time – 1915 – he was probably right because the score is a compendium of special effects and production modes.

But its challenges have to be forgotten if the three pieces are to make an emotional impression. And I found it hard to get past the technical brilliance, in which tasks Rowell was impressively successful. The opening La fontaine d’Arethusa begins with a shimmering water effect in the keyboard before a high melody emerges in the violin. This sets the scene for a wealth of cascades and spouts from both instruments, particularly a rich field for Chong at Number 2 in the score and later, for Rowell, the use of eerie violin harmonics at Number 4. Changes are rung right across the remainder of the work, climaxing in an action-packed crescendo at the A tempo con passione marking that leads to sforzandi/fff in both instruments, then a return to the opening textures. It’s gripping to experience but finally impressed me as a series of frissons of varying magnitudes. The atmosphere is loaded with suggestions, rhapsodic and ample-beamed, but even this excellent partnership could not disguise the introverted aura of the hothouse.

Again, in Narcisse, the violin is sent into a high tessitura, taxingly so with the entry after a change to Poco piu animato, then again after Number 3, and at the highpoint half a dozen bars before Number 6. Chong’s keyboard is gifted with more meat in this movement than post-Jeux d’eau plashing, Szymanowski peppering the part with multi-note chords that eventually require three staves. It all made for a solid and satisfying demonstration, the performers at ease with fulfilling the writer’s intentions and, even if the air again proved over-heated, the subject matter was appropriate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the third piece, Dryades et Pan, chiefly for its restlessness – again, pertinent to the music’s scenario – and seeing Rowell weave a confident way through one of the most technically difficult parts I’ve come across in pre-serial composition. Both artists realized the importance of Szymanowski’s touch-and-release processes in these pages and, in spite of the racing ferment, the paramount need for space and clarity. You couldn’t wish for cleaner harmonics – natural and artificial – from Rowell, nor a more assured hand in the chains of trills and scrubbing bars full of double-stopped hemi-demi-semiquavers.

So much of this movement satisfied fully, even at highly dangerous and challenging points. Whether the narrative impetus was complete in itself or whether Rowell and Chong infused the movement with an abundance of personality, it was improbably difficult to make out because the animato direction was obeyed willingly, and hiatus points – like the Pan flute interlude and some rapid cadenzas – flew past. In sum, an exhilarating conclusion to an hour which – eventually – showed us this duo’s powers of interpretation and interdependent technical control.

Still on top

A FINAL OFFERING

Selby & Friends

Angel Place Recital Hall, Sydney

Saturday November 7

Susie Park

Nothing here to bring the blush of shame to the cheek of modesty: a very orthodox chamber music without surprises from Kathryn Selby and three familiar guests – violinist Susie Park, violist Stefanie Farrands and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. All of these musicians are part of our continent’s musical life, but Valve leads this particular pack – or so it seems to me – in the breadth of his appearances. His omnipresence rivals that of Brett Dean in the violist/composer’s years presiding at the Australian National Academy of Music, during which time he participated in a plethora of activities.

This whole evening played to our lust for the well-known: Schubert’s Adagio/Notturno in E flat, the E minor Trio No. 2 by Shostakovich, and Schumann’s E flat Piano Quartet. As with the works, so with the performers – all of them in happy collegiality with very few signs of ensemble troubles. Which fortunate outcome you’d expect as all have participated in Selby’s recitals before.

As for the Schubert oddment – a not-too-distant relative of the String Quintet’s Adagio – it was treated with excellent sympathy, avoiding the temptation to sandpaper all the edges during the main theme’s treatments. Only the demisemiquaver at the end of many bars received a smoothing out, rather than bringing into play a short recurrent surprise, a brief interruption to the mellifluous melody. But you’d be clutching at straws to make much of this. Both of the proud internal episodes were handled with tempered vehemence, Selby’s triplets seamless as far as I could tell and the close lines of Park and Valve exemplary in dynamic unanimity and empathetic phrasing.

Coming into the Russian score, Valve worked through the opening six unaccompanied bars of harmonics without showing the stress that most other cellists communicate in this passage, an executive tension that doesn’t end with the violin’s appearance. A few high As near the end of this solo sounded near to danger but the final ascent before normal relations resumed spoke securely enough: Shostakovich’s eldritch summons fulfilled, the drama of sorrow, rage and resignation could proceed. This group favoured an emphatic delineation of the first Allegro‘s highpoint, not getting ahead of themselves – probably because they were conscious of what was coming up – with Selby establishing and maintaining a tempo that rejected the temptation of a cheap accelerando.

This broad outline was complemented by striking instances of telling synchronicity, like the strings’ creeping chromatic scales, the block-against-block interplay of violin-plus-cello against keyboard, Park’s fine juxtaposition of smooth phrases with multiple-stop scrapes, Valve’s well-crafted ability to remain audible and more than just a presence through the fraught climaxes. Later, in the second movement, the pace was mindful of the composer’s non troppo qualifier, which meant that every spicy dissonance and lavish swathe in those G Major interludes could be imbibed fully, without your being rushed across the work’s surface in a frantic presto.

No problems with the Largo: a threnody for the strings over a series of repeated piano chords and the closest thing I know to a contemporary Mourner’s Kaddish. This found both Park and Valve in fine form for the canons and duets that ruminate in muted language on tragedy (the death of dedicatee Sollertinsky? Babiy Yar 1941? The Odessa rioting of 1831? There’s a lot to pick from). Particularly moving was the eloquent accomplishment of the movement’s last nine bars, especially the beyond-grief harmonics in the final bar – one of the score’s finest moments.

With the purposeful Jewish-coloured content of the final Allegretto, it seems as though the composer is celebrating life or survival. He’s not: this is fierce music, as poundingly inevitable as the second movement but more wrenching and sardonic, soon seen in bar 28 where the strings alternate pizzicato quadruple stops – here, mightily impressive in character. Park added to the vehemence with a series of biting glissandi between D and E as she dealt with the movement’s main theme 16 bars after the caustic quadruple string chords stopped alternating.

Valve brought some humanity into the mix when the time signature changed to 5/8 and he surged through the soaring lament here under Park’s biting commentary. Even more gripping execution came in the movement’s core as the inter-linear welter increased and the instruments seemed to be chaffing against any restrictions before the change to an E Major key signature and a cascade of piano figuration relieved the crisis. Finally, it is hard to praise enough the players’ striking and emotionally valid interpretation of the work’s final subsidence which could be a benediction except for what has led to this point, in particular the composer’s reminiscence of his Adagio that begins 16 bars from the end and leads us to a chastening final vision.

Here was a finely spun version that ran across the complete work, intellectually consistent and contriving to keep its emotional reins taut while still rewarding you with a continuous current of tense pathos.

Finally, Farrands joined the party for Schumann’s welcome instance of life affirmation. His Piano Quartet, more than the Piano Quintet, speaks with a buoyant accent; even its working-out pages have a relish that, if it’s not actually rare, is remarkably jaunty. After the brief sostenuto, the first Allegro showed how the addition of an extra string voice can exert an influence on the balance, Selby being too polite by far for the first and fifth bars of the first subject. Park began impressively and enjoyed the prominences that Schumann gave her, but Selby made an unanswerable case for the piano’s dominance, even in slight details like her right-hand staccato scales 16 bars before Letter C in my aged Peters Edition score.

Indeed, the more you listen to this video, the higher your esteem for these musicians grows. Their accents are crisp, dynamic mirroring exact to a fault, octave and unison duets (or trios) precise, sense of place in the ensemble remarkably faithful and consistent. Have you ever noticed how much of the development to this movement is in the minor? Practically all of it. Yet these people made this harmonic oddity unremarkable, honing in on the underlying delight in motion even through some mighty predictable modulations.

For the Scherzo and its two Trios, you might have had an expectation of heftiness; it’s as though most interpreters can’t get their minds out of the bierhaus. The opening unison pattering from Selby and Valve set a higher bar with a delicacy that brought to mind Mendelssohn operating on a less fragile plane than usual. There are no real forte indications outside that fetching, syncopated Trio II and the executants aimed for quick-touch delivery in the Scherzo pages. Farrands distinguished herself with a clear-speaking solo in Trio I, but probably the most impressive feat in these pages came from the unfussed account of the second Trio which proved to be agreably fluent despite nearly everything being out of kilter with the pulse.

Everybody shares the honours in the following Andante cantabile, pages that are notable for the variants in accompaniment that Schumann contrives rather than for the sentimental melody over which he dawdles. Each of the strings took at least one turn in treating it and the results proved carefully shaped and mellow in timbre. But the movement shines in its coda which verges on the self-indulgent but endears itself for a kind of bare-threaded placidity.

And so to the Vivace finale with its endless repetitions of an irresistible opening motif: three chords, then a semiquaver rush to a quick cadence. As in the Piano Quintet, the composer indulges in plenty of fugato, even if in the quartet the exercises are less beefy in character. Once again, you could not fault the ensemble, least of all in those passages where Selby’s right hand went off the beat for half a bar’s worth. As well, some stretches gleamed, like the octave duet between Park and Farrands that begins 4 bars after Letter H following the key change to A flat Major and resumes shortly before the change back to the movement’s tonic: two lines soaring through the underpinning mesh with unwavering integrity.

This work is filled with optimism, not complex in its format or eccentric in thematic treatments; making a sharp contrast with the Shostakovich trio and finishing up this recital with something approaching jocularity.

After the first decade or so, you accept that Selby & Friends affairs will feature top-notch musicians; more often than not, even in these times of crisis and deprivation, you can also count on interpretations packed with insightful information and confident breadth of vision. Next year might see this organization back on its regular touring round, involved in live performances only. If that’s the case, we in the north will certainly miss these videos which have provided excellent sustenance over the long months of this unsettled year.

A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst

Friday October 23

(L to R) Julia Russoniello, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Georgia Browne, Kirsty McCahon, Daniel Yeadon

We’ve had one Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra recital/concert already in the Melbourne Digital series; now it’s the turn of the ensemble’s Sydney chapter to keep the Richard Gill flag flying, in which undertaking they were helped considerably by having Georgia Browne’ s flute as either top line or stage-front in this program of which three-quarters was completely new to me. The organizers gave us a familiar Mozart in the D Major Flute Quartet K. 285 but balanced this with an early string quartet, K.157 in C Major. This brace was book-ended by two Carl Friedrich Abel scores: a three-movement (like everything on this night) flute quartet in A Major, unhappily juxtaposed with a work of the same genre by the younger master; and the Flute Concerto No. 5 in G Major, one of a set of six that are probably grist to every flautist’s mill these days.

A product of the Bach house through his studentship at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig during Johann Sebastian’s years there, Abel was well known in his lifetime, notably for a time by association with Johann Christian Bach with whom he established a concert series in London. He also met the 8-year-old Mozart in that city when he himself was about 40 – which is a nice, if fleeting connection with which to yoke these two writers. But Browne has a stronger relationship with Abel’s music than most of her peers, as she has recorded this G Major Concerto (and several other flute-dominated works by this composer) with the Icelandic ensemble, Nordic Affect.

As the night turned out, Browne made the best of all possible cases for Abel through her fluent technical control and an unfailing search for variety of timbre and shape, even in the unabashedly learned pages of the concerto’s opening Allegro. As a sample of ensemble work, this score proved to be the night’s least satisfying – not because of the ARCO musicians’ expertise, but mainly because of a lack of substance from the string quintet and its one-line-per-instrument lack of ‘bloom’, as I’ve heard expert acousticians describe it. You had precision in spades, each note on the dot, but vibrato or open with no mellowing shades at all. Yes, we’ve been here before: this purity of output is a period music enthusiast’s nirvana and it is irrelevant in faster music, but middle movements from Andante down can be a trial.

It’s probably because of the continual close suggestions of a chest of viols, as though every work played here found its antecedent in a Lawes suite. This might suit some writers but you’d have to question the approach in a work like Mozart’s delectably optimistic flute quartets. Compositions where the sinews stand out – like Art of Fugue or A Musical Offering – benefit from this no-nonsense treatment but its apologists argue for a wider historical range of application than just the Baroque. At all events, one side of the argument is proposed by this organization, which is consistent in its application across the repertoire.

In the concerto, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo took on the continuo function; in this situation, his contribution came across very clearly and made its presence felt throughout in this musician’s one appearance on the program. The same could be said of Kirsty McCahon’s bass which, as always, contributed an enthusiastic line in support of her higher-pitched companions’ caperings, including those of cellist Daniel Yeadon. Even the reedy- textured violins of Matthew Greco and Julia Russoniello took on an infectious bounce in the first movement’s initial strutting tutti.

But the delight of this program constituent came in Browne’s appearance as a fore-grounded soloist in her own right, not as the top line of a quartet. Her first appearance was lengthy and, as the piece progressed, the flute’s elaborations on the opening march theme dominated proceedings. But Browne took all the tricks with an ideal placement of each note while Abel puts his soloist through a range of technical and breath-control tests; nothing flamboyant, but ever-demanding. He even managed to insert some thematic variants which Mozart might have been happy to imitate. I don’t know who wrote the cadenzas for this concerto – probably not Abel, if other manuscripts are any guide – but this one turned out sufficiently voluble and just long enough.

I think the middle Adagio was in G minor; whatever the case, these pages tested Browne’s sustaining power. She dominated the texture even more here but had to work hard because of the longer time for sweeping bow strokes allowed to the strings. To leader Matthew Greco’s credit, the pace proved sensible for all concerned; not over-weighty or insistent. Again, Browne’s cadenza brimmed with good judgement – but then, so did the ensemble’s approach, particularly in the treatment of ornamentation which emerged as it should: without fanfare or obviously basted onto a line, but just a slight disturbance in the Force.

Just how lively this ensemble can sound emerged when the Presto finale flurried into action, the results justifying the observation that this group (maybe just this section of the ARCO personnel?) sounds at its most convincing when the tempo is rapid. However, the flute gets total exposure when the tuttis end and Abel indulges in reams of rapid-fire sequence work. There’s an odd mix of the utterly predictable (thanks to repetitions, he being capable of three of a set phrase when Mozart would have been happy with two, at most) and a (in context) startling novelty, like a modulation which, in the normal run of events, was unanticipated.

Even against the light weight of a string quintet and theorbo combination, the period flute that Browne used was sometimes hard pressed to be heard, particularly when the instrument was operating inside its lowest fifth. But, in the main, the flute carved out its path with an appealing breathy quality, climaxing in yet another cadenza – which seemed unnecessary, given the amount of exercise the soloist had to put in throughout this movement. And the small ensemble brought the exercise to a gratifying end with a congenial solidarity.

Abel’s Flute Quartet in A Major Op. 12 No. 2 opened the recital with Browne taking top place above Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon. Her breath allocation made an interesting study across the opening measures of the first Un poco Allegro; indeed, it continued throughout a somewhat jumpy line that reached a finely couched oasis at a sustained E across bars 76 and 77. As far as I can tell, Browne’s transpositions – actually, translocations would be a better term – were kept to a minimum.

Browne’s melding into the fabric during the following Adagio ma non troppo showed at its subtlest during the repeated E semiquavers across bars 21 to 23. She also gave us an elegant taste of the galant in her negotiation of the appoggiaturas in bars 34 and 36, while Greco’s violin entered into a delectable partnership with Browne at bars 51-53 to put a suitable cap on proceedings. With the Tempo di Menuetto, Abel sets up a melody that is deftly shaped as a comparable piece by Mozart, but it moves into ordinariness at bars 5 and 6 when the sheen of direct speech goes astray. Greco found it hard to tamp down his attack in this movement, although Browne maintained a soft dynamic for the most part, so he’s not totally responsible for his own prominence. This last rondo is amiable without much content – a certain fluffiness around the edges made it unmemorable in itself, if a fitting vehicle to introduce the musicians without much stress brought into play.

Mozart’s own quartet coming straight after Abel’s gave Browne even more opportunity to demonstrate the breathy purity of her output while Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon brought as a counterweight their trademark lack of vibrato and open-string fear. You could pick up on phrasing differences between flute and strings (violin and viola) at certain points but more distracting was the tendency by the upper strings to employ a crescendo/diminuendo effect all over the shop. And you missed some sparks from the violin’s 2nds in places like bar 115, even if Schmitz compensated for this with her own contributions between bars 132 and 135. I missed the repetitions of both halves in this movement but that absence was not confined to this movement which nonetheless revealed a firmness and unanimity of ensemble from all involved.

Thanks to the strings’ pizzicati, the Adagio is a gift for the flautist who holds our interest across all 34 bars. Browne maintained an even melodic flow with no abrupt dynamic shifts. typified by a carefully prepared soft high D at the end of bar 21. But then, across this night none of her high notes grated. In the brilliantly happy Rondeau, Greco sounded scratchy at the throwaway gesture in bar 20 but made a more secure showing at its reappearance in bar 99; he also failed to etch a definite path through the bars’ 133-139 partial episode. You could not fault Schmitz or Yeadon in this exhilarating movement which reached a delectable pianissimo for all in the last main theme restatement beginning at bar 231, the whole set of pages taken at a brisk, not breathless, pace.

Of all players on this occasion, Yeadon had the most trouble with his tuning, his instrument affected by Sydney’s seasonal humidity. Consequently, he had to spend some time getting ready for the Mozart string quartet; then he and the other members of the group – Greco, Russoniello Schmitz – did not show at their best in a slip-shod account of the 1772 composition’s first strophes. In fact, the ensemble’s balance sounded unsettled, as in the recessed contributions from Russoniello in bars 25 to 28. A major signpost in the violins’ triple- and double-stops at bar 60 came across as laboured, although a similar construction in the last bar presented with much more acuity. Finally, I didn’t see what was gained by the insertion of a short violin cadenza at bar 74.

The group did repeat the first part of the Andante; a kind structural concession that stood out on this evening. Yet, in spite of the sensibility shown in this movement, the combined texture at points like bars 16 to 21 sounded like a piano accordion in timbre, possibly because of the octave unison between first and second violins not helped by the viola’s bland arpeggio filler. Once again, Russoniello went missing between bars 57 and 64 despite having the principal matter (what there is of it) in her part.

Greco showed to better advantage from the outset of the Presto finale as he and Russoniello were kept busy by the brisk pace and the score’s racy character, the first violin’s address best illustrated by his biting attack in the section from bar 85 onward. Despite commentators directing you to hear operatic traces in this work because Mozart was writing these quartets at the same time as Lucio Silla, this movement is memorable for its lavish use of syncopation which tends to attract the attention of performers more than giving primacy to melodic development; not that there’s much of that in these rapid-fire pages, here gifted with some suitable abruptness at the final chord.

It’s an immature work and streets away from what was going to turn up ten years later in the quartets dedicated to Haydn. But it made for an indication of what Mozart could do with inspirations that were short-stemmed. It might have gained from a less timbrally astringent handling but, as a rule, pieces of near-juvenilia need top-notch performers to lift them out of the second or third tier level they occupy in a great composer’s output.

But ARCO deserves our thanks for this exercise because, although it might not make Abel converts of us all, the occasion gave us the opportunity to revel in Browne’s expertly honed performance skills and her ability to take an also-ran score and turn it into a miniature gem.

The long and the short

NEW SOUNDS

Alex Raineri and Angus Wilson

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday October 10

Angus Wilson

So what do we do from now on? This is the last of the recitals in this Festival sequence – the end of music-making in Brisbane for the year . . . well, the production of music that is reliable, serious and regular by nature. Yes, you expect some other bodies to put up their hands to present the odd program, and so some of them have done. But we have come to rely on Alex Raineri and his organization to supply us with fortnightly events of musical value. From here on, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has the field all to itself as far as generating streamed material of consequence goes.

Raineri has a big reputation for interpreting contemporary music and his wind-up for 2020 played to this strength. The night featured first performances of four Australian compositions, all written by Raineri’s peers and colleagues associated with the avant-garde Kupka’s Piano enterprise: Samantha Wolf, Jakob Bragg, Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle. These works featured piano and percussion – usually vibraphone, handled by Angus Wilson who is another Kupka associate.

Agreable as it was to hear these fresh works, they were all – deliberately, or by chance – brief. So the duo gave at least half of their allotted time to an import in John Luther Adams’ ten-year-old Four Thousand Holes which requires two-to-six musicians but also has a continuous electronic underpinning. This non-live component doesn’t actually do much except swell and diminish, ending as it began after a half-hour-plus round-the-block hegira. The human contributors to this reading were Raineri on piano – staying at the keyboard throughout, I think, rather than making forays under the lid – and Wilson handling vibraphone and glockenspiel, following the composer’s requirement for ‘metallic percussion sounds’.

This performance was bedevilled near its beginning by several cuts in transmission: some of them short, then later dilating to the point where the broadcaster had to put up a web-site frame. After the transmission was completed, Raineri posted a tape of the complete recital for those feeling short-changed by these missing fragments. I dutifully went back to hear the first moves in Adams’ work – never look a gift horse, etc. – but this extra exposure achieved very little in my case. To be frank, I rather enjoyed the moments of unintentional disruption; probably a generational overload of Cage-ean yearning for any signs of Zen in music, according to which there are no mistakes or flaws, even if there are. But I delighted in those passages where the sound came back intact while the players were freeze-framed in action.

As for what the live performers had to do, the essentials seemed to be plenty of chords from the piano, mainly major, and single notes from the percussion, although I’m probably wrong about that because Wilson kept two sticks/mallets ready in both hands; still, it seemed to me that his function was essentially pointillist while the piano amplified the ongoing electronic stream with chords that drifted in and out of consonance with it.

Actually, the in-and-out breaths of this sonorous back-cloth became annoying, possibly because of an absence of variety – harmonic, polyphonic, rhythmic: you name it – but chiefly because the mesh wound up sounding like an accordion and, given the unadventurous nature of its construction, a particularly elementary. Young Talent Time-reminiscent one. You’d suppose that all these long periods of stasis would engender a sympathy with Adams’ emotional landscape, which involves the wide open spaces of America’s northernmost state, residence in which shaped the composer’s aesthetic aspirations.

Wilson used both keyboards, sometimes by themselves, sometimes at the same time but the chief memory of his activity remains those single note patterns. Yet, even when his dynamic was at its most compelling and Raineri’s chords ranged widest, the work’s process and progress comprised a haze, scintillations breaking through but not intended to jar against the prevailing sound continuum. After a while, you were tempted to abandon hope of any analysis and just suppress the critical, sinking into the repetitions and the glowing taped-sound stratum. All that was missing was a chain of visuals, like sub-Arctic landscapes of snow and ice-filled vistas until the instruments stopped and the tape drew to its elongated diminuendo conclusion (in E Major?).

You are in sync with Adams or you’re not; he isn’t of the same ilk as the big-name minimalists and ‘modernists’ who can often enrage with their futility or pretension, but he works on a Cinemascope level in which the natural world fundamental is idealised. It’s easy to go along with this cosmic humming, the musical equivalent of a lengthy ‘Om’, but I’ve been suspicious for many years of works that ask you to ignore all that you know and surrender to a benign intellectual coma. For all that, both players did the composer excellent service with a reading that outstripped two other recorded interpretations that I’ve heard recently, their superior in exerting personality and finding space in an aural area where both were difficult to achieve.

Each of the Australian premieres was preceded by a taped short address from its composer, most of them revisiting topics that had already been made public in Raineri’s interviews, published on the internet some days before the event itself. Wolf’s Bull in A China Shop set piano and vibraphone in bitonal competition, the most interesting moments coming when both instruments played the same melody line in their own specific tonalities – the effect rather like an organ Mixture stop. You were hard pressed to find anything aggressively taurine here, particularly during the substantial middle section reminiscent of Pagodes that moved into a vibraphone ostinato supporting 5th-heavy piano chords. A moderate degree of deftness appeared in the final ‘fast’ section that had more than a touch of Bernstein in his dance mode about it.

Both players worked inside the piano for Bragg’s Nest of gravel in which the sounds produced related strongly to the composer’s desire to suggest the granular and dessicated. Wilson mounted a slightly grating ostinato with wire-brush strokes on the upper strings, graduating from one hand to two in the piece’s later reaches. Raineri contributed his own bevy of scrapes on the lower range of the instrument, using a variety of wood and (I think) plastic strips as well as various sticks while complementing his scrapes and block glissandi with punctuating stopped notes. The physical presentation looked device-heavy as we were confronted with a wide gamut of effects. Whether the whole thing lived up to its backdrop aims of illuminating COVID-19 lockdown life and the constricted world of refugees still imprisoned on fast-decaying Pacific islands depends on your response to auditory stimuli, of which this brief score offered a sizeable amount.

Reardon-Smith’s three questions of scale appeared to be over too soon for anything much to land. Her first movement, three ants carry a dead wasp/east coast-west coast fires, had Raineri operating inside his piano with a long stick ending in a knob, producing single notes both struck and stopped. Wilson’s vibraphone confined itself to single notes. The composer’s debt to Morton Feldman seemed most apparent in this section. The next segment, the continuous trickle of my cat’s drinking fountain/the port of beirut explosion, impressed for its unsettling mobility. Here, the pianist scratched out sounds with two drum-sticks and both players interchanged range areas to produce a mobile fretwork of sonorities, Wilson’s contribution enriched by two cow-bells. At its climax, the work simply stopped, the narrative halting with nothing left to say.

Finally, mould growing inside an unopened tub of coconut yoghurt/we have all run out of medicare-supported therapy sessions saw Raineri at the keyboard for an array of single notes, indulging in a pin-pricking intersection with the vibraphone. The content of this movement moved between the frantic, including one wild piano passage, and the refined. Wilson’s cowbells weren’t struck but patted and tapped near the end, the piano mirroring this reticence with isolated blips.

These comments are quickly-noted gleanings from a run-through that left little time for awareness of much beyond texture. Added to that, you were confronted with the same problem as the Adams work presents: how much do you invest in any composer-derived information? Reardon-Smith’s movement titles split into halves where one is highly personal, the other broader in its implications – even the last with its reference to a national health crisis. But does either half help you to understand the composer’s intentions? It’s an open question to which – of course – there’s no definite answer.

Last of the Australian quartet, Rottle’s Public Figure springs from the composer’s interest on how personalities use the internet and associated media to make their names. Another score for piano and vibraphone, it revealed some early dexterity with both instruments playing the same notes in unison, then just after each other, the piano’s right hand and the vibraphone working into catchy off-beat rhythms before Wilson picked up a large string-instrument bow to create an all-too-familiar unearthly effect, then gave the same soft treatment to a stray cymbal.

Raineri moved inside his piano for some short glissandi while the bowed vibraphone helped generate a cleverly atmospheric interlude – soft, with threadbare action – before the piano regained authority against a brushed cymbal and, from nowhere, emerged a five-note motif that brought memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to this irreverent mind. I started to wonder about the tuning in some of the piano’s lower notes but was taken aback by the subtle, inconclusive ending: a parable of the quest for public recognition, maybe.

Here was an ambitious program, a striking ending to the Festival’s 10-event series. It’s hard to emphasize to onlookers how much we are indebted to Raineri – and his guests – for keeping live music-making alive here. With limited resources, he has presented a splendid variety of programs in which we were lucky to enjoy several excellent interpretations. This final one had the added benefit of giving a small showcase to four young local voices, in which endeavour Wilson and Raineri demonstrated an unflinching probity, despite the physical (and, one hopes, transitory) handicap that the percussionist had to endure and the shared necessity of coping with such disparate creations.

We’re all in this together

THE ROMANTICS

Trish Dean, Alex Raineri, Paul Dean

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday September 26

                                                                        Trish Dean

Last weekend’s recital in the Festival sequence featured three musicians  –  two from Brisbane’s versatile Ensemble Q, and the Festival’s own presiding genius: Ensemble co-directors  Trish Dean and Paul Dean, and pianist Alex Raineri.   For this event, we were back at the usual site in Bowen Terrace studio for another close-quarters affair.   All musicians participated in the Clarinet Trio by Brahms of 1891; then, Trish Dean and Raineri launched into Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, written a decade after the trio.   A Romantic program, for sure, and one celebrating the last fruits of that era  . . .  sort of; Strauss was still indulging himself in lushness over 40 years after 1901, and many writers have persisted with that creative strand to the present day – well, it’s easier than inventing your own path, isn’t it?

From the outset of the Brahms work’s Allegro, Raineri displayed a performance-enhancing ease, a supple quality when treating the unsettling triplets that disturb the equanimity at bars 13 and 14, only to erupt powerfully eight bars further on when the keyboard comes into its own.    Still, the pianist kept his swamping potential well under control, probably taking a few leaves from Paul Dean who did the right chamber music thing and took a mellow, restrained  view of his part, apparent in the unforced top line between bars 71 and 82 and later, in tandem with Trish Dean, maintaining a welcome dynamic clarity in the close duet beginning at bar 96.

In its overall shape, this movement was typified by a calm surface, any tension coming in sporadic outbursts like Raineri’s two explosions starting at bar 127.   If anything, the cello line took overall prominence with an ardent attack and lots of crescendodiminuendo surges inside phrases, best seen during an impeccable duet for clarinet and cello from bar 189 up to the poco meno Allegro on this movement’s last page. the whole coming to rest with excellent balance.

Each player enjoys a wealth of exposure in the second movement Adagio, Trish Dean’s cello an early aspiring delight in the slow semiquavers of bar 7.   But the ensemble had prepared these pages carefully, with a finely judged rubato at work in the decrease of tension from bar 19.   By the time the players had reached bar 31 with its antiphonal clarinet/cello interplay, you were quite confident in these interpreters, who went the full Romantic in those generous textures obtaining from bar 41 until the last 10 measures where the linear interweaving proved touchingly eloquent.

Raineri treated the Andante grazioso with further suppleness, keeping his left-hand contributions mobile but not attention-grabbing when shape and accent changed.   Later, in the D Major trio, the pianist gave excellent service in his three-fold treatment of the main melody, notably in his deftly crafted third statement where a temptation looms large to overstate your case.   To their credit, all three executants captured the not-too-rustic lilt of these happy pages.

Right from the first page, Trish Dean engaged with the Allegro finale, delivering her isolated semiquavers with bite and setting an urgency of attack in play for her colleagues.  Raineri made a brave display at the first of the ‘gypsy’ outbursts in bar 58; it’s not difficult to get through, but here it was treated with a scene-setting brio that carried all before it, even to an electric shaft of light from everyone at bar 128.   Each episode, each reversion and reshaping glowed as Brahms swept to his determined A minor conclusion.  In the recital hall, this performance would have been greeted with acclaim for its balance, ensemble and drive; let’s hope that the days are not far off when we can once again show well-merited enthusiasm in public.

A different story in the sonata.  Both Raineri and Trish Dean presented a languorous Lento before letting us know that aggression was forming the backbone of a work where the cello often has to work hard to be heard.   Raineri made strong work of his staccato chords introducing the movement’s main body, then gave a sweeping, rubato-rich enunciation of the second subject.  Mercifully, the exposition was repeated so that Dean’s soaring moments could be savoured; yet, the players made an excellent match for the shared vigour of their attack, as witnessed by their treatments of that second theme, the cello giving a sensible and sensitive shape to each phrase.   While the keyboard enjoys the dominant role, Raineri gave place  at difficult moments, like Dean’s mid-development pizzicati.   Mind you, when solo chances came, he wasn’t one to hold back as at the 14-bar  hectic interlude preceding Rachmaninov’s return to duet work.   Each player milked the second subject’s return with possibly even more Romantic endeavour than before, but Dean hit on a golden seam at the (largely) G Major Un poco più mosso segment: sweetly engaging lyricism with a moving near-vocal responsiveness before Raineri urged her into the brisk A tempo hurtle to the finish line.

You might have asked for cleaner definition from both players of the near-full C minor descending scale that gives the Allegro scherzando its impetus; they galloped rapidly enough but a lot of sotto voce material flew pretty much under the radar.  A well-positioned vein of sentiment came at the change to E flat Major at the Un poco meno mosso point, Dean urging out a persuasive continuous line at this point.   Just as well that she took her opportunities because the movement’s outer reaches are piano-heavy, more so as the motion fragments towards the conclusion – here handed to us with a well-judged pair of perdendi.

Was there a late entry from the cello in bar 9 of the mellifluous Andante?  I was following the score in a desultory fashion, but it seemed to me that Raineri did a bit of filler before Dean joined in with her main theme restatement.   Later, the cello’s first fortissimo marking sounded under-powered for such a dramatic moment, but both performers were having their way with the dynamics of these pages, best seen at the climax to this Andante where the descent from Rachmaninov’s heights enjoyed a wealth of well-sited rubato.   Not for the first time, Raineri showed his worth as a sometime-supporting player in his allowance of space for his partner across these pages, both rhythmically and dynamically.

Finally, a heady rush into the Allegro mosso from the piano’s initial flourish.   I admired the assurance of this start but delighted in Dean’s D Major second-subject statement – the cello enjoying the splendid breadth of this moment – and took even more pleasure in this theme’s restatement in faux-canon with the piano a page later.   Even more so, it seems, than in previous movements, the piano encounters virtuosic explosions across this Allegro with bar after bar of full repeated chords in both hands. gestures which have strayed in from the Piano Concerto No. 2.

About this stage of the performance, Dean started showing signs of fatigue in reaching for her top notes; not too often, and rarely two times running, but just enough to be worrying.    Yet much could be ignored when faced with the expressive power of the second theme’s restatement at he final Moderato (come prima) direction where the composer lingers over his tender melody, unwilling to give it up until coerced by the need for a concluding racy Vivace and yet another brilliant coda. 

Here was a full-blooded program, living up as much as it could to its era-encompassing title, delivering to us a pair of essentially optimistic works performed with a valuable musical acumen by three of this city’s top professionals.   It’s intense experiences like this that generate good humour and gratitude in testing times, even to those of us who have enjoyed a pretty easy time of it.   Events like these keep your faith alive in hopes for a revival of public performance, despite the ignorance and disdain for art shown every day by governmental charlatans of all stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

Complementary shades of the spectrum

BRAHMS & STRAUSS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Passport Series

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 11

                                                               Daniel Chiou

                                                           Leanne McGowan

I can’t imagine what young National Academy musicians have been doing to fill their days throughout these lean times.   Plenty of practice, of course, but that occupation palls when there are no alternatives.   Of course, young ANAMites from Melbourne are in a worse case than some of their interstate colleagues because of the state’s entirely appropriate lock-down.   Up here in the Palaszczuk Palatinate (which may turn into a Frecklington Fiefdom if a sufficiently large local wedge of neo-Trumpists have their way), the social contract is comparatively flexible and musicians of all stripes can talk, drink and ignore AFL fixtures with only minor restrictions imposed,

Four ANAM musicians made up the performing list at this third recital in a four-part Brisbane festival presented under the MDCH banner.   Organizer and presiding genius of the Brisbane Music Festival, Alex Raineri, accompanied one of the two works on Saturday evening’s program; he was lucky enough to work at ANAM from 2014 to 2016.  The other three musicians involved in this Brahms/Strauss night are in different boats.  Cellist Daniel Chiou was meant to have started at ANAM this year; for all I know, he might have got in a few months there before darkness fell.   Ditto pianist Caleb Salizzo who was the other pianist involved with this occasion.   Fortunately for her, violinist Leanne McGowan spent 2019 at the South Melbourne academy, but I’m assuming that she’s been seeing out her past five months in Brisbane, enduring a state of exile from all Garden State delights.

Full marks, then, to Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for including these Queensland players – and several others, like Ensemble Q and the Southern Cross Soloists – in their Victoria-based digital initiative which goes from strength to strength in raising some income for career-strapped professionals across the country.   Compared to other and much bigger organizations, MDCH is the most outstanding contributor to sustaining and nurturing live music performance and creativity- even if all efforts have to be confined to soloists and chamber groups.

Saturday night offered two sonatas: Brahms No. 2 in F for cello and piano,  and Strauss’s youthful Violin Sonata Op. 18.   As the readings progressed, I was deeply impressed by the assurance of both duos in their treatment of scores that hold difficulties and demands of various types.    Both sonatas can be linked under a Late Romantic heading and contain passages of luscious clutter.   But technical and interpretative mishaps occurred rarely, by their nature not enough to disturb any listener’s perceptions of the executants’ fluency and insights.

Chiou and Silizzo have made the Brahms sonata a specialty of their combined repertoire, as you can see on social media.   They also form two-thirds of the Islay Trio, so their performance qualities would be pretty well-known to each other.   Further, they had a large canvas or two on which to operate.   The work itself is big-boned, although every repetition is precious to us enthusiasts and its opening Allegro vivace a marvel of vital enthusiasm.  Then, by some remarkable administrative dealing, the recital was given in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre which gifted the players with a resonance, a powerful bloom of sonority that is absent in the dryer acoustic of Raineri’s studio, from which site most of the Brisbane Music Festival recitals I’ve heard have emanated.

Chiou swept into the first movement’s broad and sweeping main theme with drive and a well-honed sense of phrasing, Silizzo surging into prominence with a firm peroration between bars 33 and 39, revisited with just as much power between bars 144 and 150 – both stand-out passages in an intelligent reading.   But Brahms rewards his interpreters with a beautifully-judged preparation for the recapitulation at bar 128: one of those moments where you mentally gasp with relief that your anticipation has been rewarded with such brio.

You could take plenty of enjoyment from Chiou’s clear line and unfailingly accurate articulation despite two sustained-note patches where he came close to running out of bow.   But the collaboration itself proved unstintingly sympathetic, notably in the last page’s tremolando alternation where what could be an unstructured mess came across with fine definition.   And I appreciated the punch in those last irregular five bars that end with the cello’s brusque quadruple-stop chord.   Your ears open with the rhythmic mixture starting at bar 10 of the Adagio affettuoso when Brahms begins his displacement of the obvious.  But the rest of this movement was a lesson in excellent pointing-up of fabric like  Salizzo’s determined ritenuto across bars 18 and 19, the vocal eloquence from Chiou in the 12 bars before the change of key signature to F sharp Major, the cellist’s pliant pizzicato dynamics straight after this change and his surge to prominence at bar 54, both players’ carefully paced piano to pianissimo in the last measures.

By the time the Allegro passionato came around, an out-of-tune E flat 5 was proving a distraction.   Salizzo soldiered on, too hard-pressed in these pages to worry about tamping down the note (as if anyone could).   The spiky interchanges leading to unison work beginning at bar 109 stood out for their insistence, but the pianist showed his tact by restraining the keyboard’s sforzando explosions at bars 156 and 157 to give Chiou carrying space.  The cellist showed himself quite able to introduce a period gesture with some light portamenti, as at the octave leap at bar 178.   But both musicians relished Brahms’ hemiola passages, giving them room to flow rather than belting them into the ground of obviousness.

At the final Allegro molto, the off E flat seemed to have been joined in discomfort by its neighbouring E.   Chiou struck a gold seam with his lyrical outline of the main theme beginning at bar 45 – not overbearing, but combining zeal with melancholy: a real accomplishment in this music.   And then, a sudden shock through a premonition of Shostakovich at bar 102 where bare octaves and pizzicati prefigure the Russian composer’s fighting stance; over in a few seconds but alarming for all sorts of reasons, not least the challenge to your perspicacity, or otherwise.   Despite that anomaly, here was a persuasive setting-out of this ‘problem’ movement that presents as too amiable for its surrounds but is a leisurely capping-stone to a score that spreads itself out, at ease with its Rubensesque plumpness.   If this is what the Chiou/Salizzo duo can accomplish with minimal ANAM exposure, its future is packed with promise.

After an intervallic address by Virginia Taylor from ANAM’s flute faculty in which she extolled the values of that splendid finishing school, McGowan and Raineri launched into the Strauss sonata, unfortunately (for the pianist) pitched in E flat.   If anything, the violinist proved just as ardent as Chiou, forging a bright path across the first page and only slightly questionable pitching 14 bars before the espressivo e appasionato change to common time.   Still, the high B flat three bars into that section was justifiably confident and ringing.   Later on, in the movement’s development,. the artists demonstrated how to dovetail successfully, showing no signs of waiting around for cues or for the other player to hit the marks with deliberation.   Closer to the end at the mit lebhafter Steigerung direction, the collaboration raised the harmonically rich excitement level, even if Strauss’s actual harmonic structure isn’t that novel.

Sorry to be carping, but the piano’s D6 was also sounding a tad unhappy at bar 21 of the following Andante cantabile, although such details dissipated when the A flat tonality gave way to a passionate Erlkönig interlude that in turn yielded to a Rosenkavalier precursor stuffed with pianissimo curlicues and brief ornamental figures.  Then,  both performers laid on their sweetness of timbre when the movement changed back to A flat for an  inevitable return to base with Raineri almost nonchalantly burbling out his continuously arpeggio-rich support.

The pianist seemed to enjoy the finale’s flamboyance, even when severely pressed as near the start when his part turned to C minor and the right hand’s high chord work came over as rough.   To add to the mix, the piano’s G4 was enjoying some pitch-wavering.   Luckily, your attention became more and more engaged by the bitzer nature of this Andante/Allegro, especially when Mendelssohnian rapid-motion dialogues sounded out at two stages.   McGowan’s lavish bowing force enriched the final fervour even before the composer’s call for a stringendo leading into the triple forte declamation that anticipates the Till Eulenspiegel-style conclusion.

Raineri quite properly insisted on giving his part full weight, holding back not a whit in loud duet sections and, given more preparation time, McGowan might have acclimatised better to the pianist’s tendency to let the devil take the hindmost and go for broke, particularly when spurred to do so by a lot of athletic weltering around the Strauss estate.  Still, this mixed pair proved to be a scintillating one, well able to push accurately through many pages that ask executants to juggle with accents and awkward off-the-pulse entries and exits.   As an exhibition of ANAM past and present, this sonata was exceptionally positive.

 

 

Always a cut above

TRANSFIGURED

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall

Monday August 31

(L to R) Grace Clifford, Kathryn Selby, Stefanie Farrands, Maxime Bibeau, Julian Smiles

Back in pre-Plague days when musical organizations could safely plan a year in advance, Kathryn Selby mapped out her 2020 season, doing the right thing by balancing the popular with the should-be-popular.   For the August/September program, she was to begin each night with Mozart’s last piano trio, the K. 564 in G Major.  Then, in line with the program’s title – A Night Transfigured – we were to hear Schönberg’s sextet Verklärte Nacht in the piano trio arrangement by Edward Steuermann.   Finally came that old favourite, Schubert in B flat D.898.   Guests for the event were violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles.

Bending to necessity, the format had to change pretty substantially for the studio-broadcast situation that is now the only way to keep professional music practice alive.  Smiles remained on board, but Grace Clifford substituted for Chee in the Mozart trio, which survived into the modified program.   Out went the Schönberg; in came the final Brahms piano quartet, No. 3 in C minor where Selby, Clifford and Smiles were partnered by violist Stefanie Farrands.   And the Schubert work changed from that expansive piano trio to the Trout Quintet in A Major, for which the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s long-time bass player Maxime Bibeau came into the party.  

Selby’s keyboard work in the Mozart set a high standard by its pellucid attack on the 8-bar first theme of the opening Allegro.  Clifford achieved a similar clarity but her style of delivery presented as cautious across the first pages.   As with more Mozart works than you can count, the development was over before you had time to take it in, but we eventually heard Smiles in a solo at bar 98, revisiting material that belonged to the upper string voice further back (bar 22).   Still,  Selby took parting honours with three flawless trills on the last line.

The second movement series of variations found Clifford weaving a highly sympathetic line for the first; Smiles showed himself as carefully supple as ever throughout No. II with a nicely judged hesitation on the A flat highlight in bar 13; Selby made herself a presence in Variation III but Clifford shone out without having to force her tone.   Selby scored again in the next sequence,  her elegantly formed phrases enjoying cadential commentary from the string duo – a process that continued in the minore Variation V.  The piano finally yielded place again to Clifford in the last segment, Selby muffling her demi-semiquavers yet keeping their flow discernible, not reduced to an impressionistic mumble.  And I don’t think you could have wanted a gentler coda, Clifford taking on the passage-work with suitable reserve.

Again, you could not fault the Allegretto/Rondo‘s initial statement from Selby: a clean pair of heels shown, without any vulgarity in the skipping 6/8 melody.   Clifford found a welcome force in her leading statements at bars 61 and 117.   Another pleasure came from Selby’s clipped gruppetti from bars 72 to 83, carried off with no sign of strain.   Just before the end, Clifford and Smiles produced a lyrically melting moment between bars 133 and 137 – the ideal lead-in to Mozart’s heartbreakingly optimistic conclusion.   In sum, an excellent rendering of this poised masterpiece.

A sombre build-up in the Brahms’ Allegro non troppo eventually exploded at bar 31 in typical defiance, but nothing thrashed out excessively.  Still, I relished the determination of the ensemble in their surge and ebb up to the magnificent E flat resolution at bar 102.  Throughout, the players had the measure of the score, displaying many heartening passages of execution, like Smiles’ impeccable phrasing in the descent at bar 142, and Bramble’s full-bodied lower voice in collaboration with Clifford immediately after.  But then, Farrands is a fine violist with an unwavering sense of pitch; as proof, you only had to hear her substantial solo arc from bar 252 onward: a true and individual voice which matched her violin companion in sheer sweetness of timbre.  Then, after the stress came a moving conclusion with fine growling from all three strings across the last three bars.

As in the Mozart first movement, Selby excelled in the quartet’s Scherzo/Allegro, combining impulsiveness with firm security of accents, on the beat and off.   The upper strings made an ideal match in an octave duet starting at bar 72.   Actually, while you take Selby as a given positive factor in music of this nature, you were hard pressed to find the other quartet members wanting, particularly in moments of dynamic crisis like the fortissimo leaps that begin at bar 54.   Yet again, the violin line could have contributed more prominently to the mix at the trio oases of bars 177 and 184; Selby, on the other hand, kept her power leashed at the string octaves leading to the weltering last measures.

The work’s Andante, its splendid core, opened with a well-rounded line from Smiles that remained present even when Clifford took the tune over.   My score has a molto dolce direction for all three strings starting at bar 34/35, and all responded sensitively, treading light paths up to the melting sixths beginning at bar 54.   Farrands gave way to Clifford at bars 70 and 75 in a telling instance of a musician knowing her place despite the inciting availability of double-stops.   Even better came at bar 94 which begins the unequalled pathos of this movement’s ending, these performers observing a breathless deceleration at bar 119, the instrumental mix balanced to an ideal degree.

After this, it might have been too much to expect an equally effective Allegro commodo finale.   From the beginning, Clifford had trouble projecting, to the point where her line seemed too wispy a creature at bar 21, then underplaying her soprano role at the chorale interludes beginning at bar 75.   Selby maintained her clarity of output in the piano’s rhythmic ducks and drakes, especially when Brahms began his galumphing two sets of triplet crotchets across the bar.   Shine-out moments came in a violin/cello duet at bar 270 where Smiles and Clifford merged to telling effect for 12 ardent measures; then, another  – almost a long-anticipated relief – when Selby thundered out the chorale at bar 311; and finally, Smiles’ grinding sustained low C from bar 351 to the positive last chords.

I’ve rarely come across this work in live performance.  But the same could be said for most piano quartets, probably because it’s hard to assemble four players with enough interpretative synchronicity to do such scores justice.   So this drama-packed Brahms made an excellent replacement for the Schönberg sextet arrangement, not least because its finale brought to mind that of Mendelssohn’s compelling C minor Piano Trio, although the later composition hid its seams more competently.

Schubert’s quintet, on the other hand, attracts musicians despite its odd instrumentation and resultant problems of balance.   It always brings about a strange relief when the main body of the first Allegro vivace gets under way at  bar 25 and you can settle down to revel in the composer’s benevolent melodies and watch the players’ collaborating in a work that is so formally straightforward and clear-speaking.   Viola and cello emitted delicate triplets from bar 38, leaving the foreground to violin and piano before subsuming everyone into their pattern.   Indeed, this work suited Clifford very well, allowing her trademark clarity and elegance plenty of scope.

You wanted balance and equanimity?  You had instances galore, one of the best emerging from the company at bar 93 after one of Selby’s  pointed solos.   When Bibeau got his six-measure exposure at bar 165, what you noticed was the evenness of his delivery – a melody, rather than a special effect.   Later at bar 260, violin and cello canoned efficiently while the supporting trio kept their station without moving in on the important interplay.  And the ensemble’s precision of delivery in Schubert’s brilliantly contrived dynamic about-turns and gripping drive, even across rests, made for a well-accomplished resolution to this (for some of us) not-quite-long-enough movement, even with a repeated exposition.

Still moving on a different plane to other chamber music we’ve heard in the lockdowns and population embargoes so far, Selby and her colleagues took us through a splendidly shaped Andante, the only question concerning pause-emphases on the initial fp notes in bars 19 to 22 which added punctuation, certainly, but made too much of slight harmonic changes.   Another sample of first-rate ensemble stood out between bars 36 and 60 where the even delivery from all participants demonstrated how to achieve Schubert’s mix of light rhythmic snap and throwaway melody.  As in the Mozart trio, Selby’s disciplined trills proved a delight, and the viola cello duet in thirds from bar 84 took us to one of the evening’s high-points for its probity of articulation and dynamic synchronicity.

The group’s output could have endured more forwardness from the top two lines at the Scherzo‘s opening, although the lines proved to be better balanced the further along the movement ran.   Fortunately, the Trio was consistent throughout: a brilliant interplay of texture, dynamic and attack.   A particularly effective patch of play came with the fiedel texture produced by Clifford and Farrands in exposed breaks such as between bars 59 and 62 – bringing the country to the city in the nicest way.

So we arrived at the eponymous song with variations.   The opening gambit for strings alone came across with a suitably placid charm, avoiding any over-insertion of swooping mid-phrase crescendi.  By Variation II, Clifford was well played-in, giving us an attractive and pliant decorative upper line; Selby delivered an object lesson in phrasing during the next segment where the keyboard dominates.   Again, the ensemble work shone in Variation IV, everybody tailoring themselves for that initial group of fortissimo four bars and the subsequent sinking back to soft duets and imitations.  Smiles in the tenor clef produced a well-honed hauptstimme in the next strophe of 27 bars before we arrived at the lied proper with Selby reassuring us that we were home and hosed with the familiar accompaniment while Clifford and Smiles shared the – finally – jaunty melody en clair before that throat-catching, simply put final four bars.

As with the preceding four movements, the Allegro giusto finale seemed packed with well-graduated passages, like the expert softening of texture from bars 61 to 78: not particularly inspired material but these people made a gift out of slim materials.   Still, this movement is a driving one, constantly coming back to the initial violin/viola opening theme and the composer happy to offer a repetition as an alternative to formal development.  By the way, most ensembles leave out the first half’s repetition; it might be a minority opinion but I would have welcomed hearing those pages again, given the ebullience of this reading which entered unstintingly into the underlying build-up/release pattern of these pages. 

This mobile movement kept you on the edge of your seat, involved with the process despite the ‘heavenly length’ of its precedents.   As a whole, the performance projected a wealth of positive elements, realising the score’s underpinning glories: a melodic brilliance exceptional even for Schubert, rhythmic juxtapositions of remarkable fluency, subtle dynamic development to soften the edges, and an unflinching assurance of language across leisurely paragraphs.  Nevertheless, despite the elevated quality of this quintet, the Brahms work proved to be the program’s focus, mainly for its emotional consistency, no matter how tragic the composer’s world-view during its gestation.