The night of the arranger

LA VIE EN ROSE

Tania Frazer, Jonathan Henderson, Alan Smith, Alex Raineri,

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 1

Tania Frazer

                                                                         Tania Frazer

Alan Smith

                                                                         Alan Smith

Latest in this online series that is lighting up the synapses of music-loving Brisbane, Saturday’s all-French concert employed the services of the city’s Southern Cross Soloists; well, four of them.   While you might have expected from the title an hour-long reminiscence of Trenet, Aznavour and Piaf, what came out was both enriching and puzzling but, in synchronicity with what I have learned about the Soloists, the program was packed with arrangements – some of them comfortable for all concerned, others not so happy.    At the heart of it all sat Alex Raineri’s piano accompaniment; in an act of self-abnegation, the Festival’s artistic director performed only one sols, which is extraordinary when you consider that the offerings included works by Satie, Ravel and Debussy.

In fact, the most orthodox, ‘straight’ work kicked off the evening.   Henderson and Raineri worked through Francaix’s Divertimento of 1953; not a piece to keep you engrossed but an alternately tuneful and busy compendium.   Its initial Toccatina, a non-stop barrage of notes for both players, proved as full of surface excitement as many another showcase written especially for Rampal; a frippery, but soon over.   The following Notturno proved attractively mobile; no longueurs here.   Another vital effusion in the Perpetuum mobile which lived up to its title but annoyed at the opening because you could not tell whether the rhythm was intentionally irregular or whether the players were uneasy with its metrical lay-out.   Fitted with a galaxy of chromatic runs, these pages gave Richardson a real workout in terms of breathing.

I found Francaix’s Romanza the most attractive of the suite’s five movements with its deft combination of sentimentality and spice.   You couldn’t call the latter aggressively dissonant but the composer beguiled you with several unexpected turns of line and harmonic structure.   These pages showed Francaix at his best in a lyric of no little charm, executed without excess in any department; the unfeeling could dismiss it as film music but the final bars showed how Francaix could transcend the trite.   As for the Finale, it impressed for a dash of piquancy but sounded like a trial for the performers who fortunately found a less dogged approach as the piece neared its end – or perhaps the work gained in inspiration.   Whatever the case, you were more aware in the later pages of a sense of humour in the stop/start alternations and a slick final bar.

For a lot of us, there was a time when we found Satie to be as he presented – droll, eccentric, heart-of-gold.   But the charm wore off somewhere in the 1980s for me; now the performance directions along the lines of ‘ Take a nap, then construct a lovers’ nest from papier-mâché and osprey dung’ seem aimless, although such high-jinks gave rise (eventually) to a school of composition where the score was all prose; and who was that Frenchman discovered for us by Keith Humble and Jean-Charles François who wrote  pithy enigmatic texts as his scores?   Not to mention Stockhausen in the later Messianic years.   Even so, we are still brought up short by the pared-back calm of creations like the Gymnopédies in both piano and Debussy-scored (1 and 3 only) formats.

No less so by Satie’s Gnossiennes, which may have something to do with gnosticism or, more materially, with Knossos; I’ve had nothing to do with the creed but have wandered around the Cretan ruins and Satie’s miniatures could possibly have some connecrtion with Sir Arthur Evans’ excavated site – exactly what, I don’t know except for a shared angularity.   Whatever the background, this performance of Gnossiennes 1, 4 and 3 saw Frazer offer her own transcriptions for oboe and piano, the outer ones of this trio very well known.   Frazer took the right-hand melody line and left to Raineri the chordal background.

It took a while to get used to the penetrating double-reed timbre but Frazer generated an expressive line in No. 1, although I wondered about some of the too-simple dynamic shifts during repeats, like the move to piano in the second half of the Très luisant segment; and the upward octave shift on the final F sounded unnecessary.   The encounter with No. 4 impressed in its middle strophes, after the semiquaver quibbling.   And I couldn’t understand the acceleration during No. 3 unless Frazer and Raineri were putting an individual slant on the composer’s direction to play De manière à obtenir un creux.   If anything, the reading of this Gnossienne seemed to me rather over-played, imposing a personality where the original intention was to remove it.

Smith gave a sensible reading of Ravel’s Tzigane with fine Raineri accompaniment across the whole tension-packed canvas.   The violinist would probably not have been too happy with his A dotted crotchets in bars 9 and 10 but this whole opening section on the G string only is a taxing passage, especially as it sets a high intonational standard right from the first notes.   Smith’s rendering proved powerful enough, although the double-stops at Rehearsal Number 3 emphasized the lower line.   Coming up all too soon, a diabolical alternation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato follows before the exposed violin gets some relief (not that it ever gets much of a pause).

The violinist powered through the testing pages with admirable zest, winding up with an excellent grounding deliberation at Number 17, building to a fine clamour at Number 32 with the concluding rush from accelerando to presto impressing for its accuracy under high pressure as the piece smashes into a compelling quadruple-stopped last two bars. Tzigane is one of music literature’s great exercises in deconstruction, Ravel taking all-too-familiar Ziegeuner tropes and pushing the trite into virtuosic exercises with no concern for soppy sentimentality or faux-masculine flashiness.   It’s a delight to hear when the violinist is able to handle its trials and Smith did Ravel – and himself – proud.

From here on, the program moved into Beecham-lollipop mode with a bracket of three songs and a one-time compulsory encore for violinists.   Raineri began this group with his own solo piano arrangement of Louiguy’s La vie en rose.   It followed the song’s chorus faithfully enough, the whole piece containing only a few harmonic solecisms and, for most of its length, having a concentration on the lower half of the piano’s compass.  Taking the familiar tune up an octave was effective, not least because it made for a relief from the low-pitched preceding pages.   I’m not a fan of the ripple/arpeggio ending but at least it wasn’t overdone here.   No, it wasn’t as ambitious an undertaking as Grainger’s reshaping of The Man I Love but it did little harm to this era-representing evergreen.

Henderson partnered Raineri in a no-surprises version of Debussy’s pre-1891 Beau soir chanson.   The flautist took on the vocal part with a generously phrased volubility and giving us a well-prepared climax across bars 25 and 26.    The same composer’s 1880 Nuit d’étoiles brought Frazer to the melody line.   Here also, the lyric came across with ease and restraint.   I think that the piano part diverged from the original in the last refrain, making the octavo jump eight bars early – or perhaps I was happy to get the main theme back pianissimo.   Last in this group was the Méditation from Act Two of Massenet’s opera Thaïs, with which neglected work Sir Andrew Davis made Melbourne music-lovers familiar three years ago.    Smith had no trouble dispatching this sweetest of intermezzi with a fine deftness in handling the gruppetti of five and four semiquavers that punctuate the smooth violin line’s progress in the piece’s outer sections.   Possibly the sforzandi at the più mosso agitato direction from bar 34 on could have been pulled back to a less full-on dynamic level but it was difficult to find fault with the rest of the score, Raineri having little to do beyond outlining the harp’s almost non-stop accompanying role.

To finish off the night with some fireworks, Raineri and Co. put on a more taxing encore piece, a work that occupies a dodgy zone between definite program material and something frivolous with which to delight any audience: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.   But, rather than employing Smith’s expertise, the work was given in an arrangement by Frazer where flute and oboe share the solo violin line between them. Frazer took the opening solo up to bar 6; Henderson took over from bar 7 to bar 10; and on it went in a heart-warming demonstration of how to play musical fair-shares.   A little bit of transposition was needed to cope with the fioriture nine bars before the rondo’s start.  Nevertheless, once the main constituent of this work was in progress, Frazer maintained her even distribution of the work-load with some clever interweaving and a subtle preparation for the trill hiatus just before Letter B.

Notably appealing was the attack by both woodwind artists on the double-stops during the con morbidezza interlude.   A crunch-of-sorts came with the triple-stop cadenza five bars before Letter G which turned somehow into spaced-out arpeggios; but that’s pretty much what the original is.   Then on to a hurtling coda and home.  You’d have to call it an interesting exercise but I have to confess to a longing for the original where you get to enjoy a violinist’s handling of the composer’s hurdles, contrived especially to test that instrumentalist’s virtuosity and self-control.

Not a night for the purist, then.   Still,  Raineri had organised a well-assorted program, contrasting the tried-and-true with some arcana, peppered with three very popular works.   All of it gave a platform for four sadly under-used musicians.   But we live in hope that Aunt Annastacia will keep us free from extra-state contamination and that these artists will soon get back to playing for live audiences who are actually in the room with them.   Until then, we will have to put up manfully and womanfully   –  and appreciatively  –  with the inbuilt fluctuations in content of entertainments like La vie en rose.

 

 

Working hard to make a program

James Crabb and Julian Smiles

Bendooley Estate, Berrima

Monday July 20

James Crabb

                                                                      James Crabb

Julian Smiles

                                                                     Julian Smiles

For its bonus recital in the middle of a year that can politely be called ‘unsettled’, Musica Viva hit on a duet combination that you would be charitable to view as made in Heaven.  In fact, matching a cello with an accordion, no matter how classical, is a dangerous affair because the string instrument doesn’t have commensurate carrying power and, although it can quadruple stop, the cello also doesn’t have the ability to hit note clusters.  Put them together and you’re asking a good deal from the accordionist in terms of dynamic subtlety.

My only previous experience with James Crabb has been through his excursions with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with which body the Scottish musician has been a welcome guest, particularly in those years when Richard Tognetti and (some of) his ACO colleagues were engaged with the music of Astor Piazzolla, that Argentinian-born fecund source of encore material.   In fact, the relationship between Crabb and the Sydney players goes back to at least 2003 when the accordionist and pianist Benjamin Martin appeared as guest soloists on the CD Song of the Angel with members of the ACO.   If you like your tangos feisty to the point of violence, here you go.

Smiles is a more familiar figure in Australian concert and recital halls.   One of the originals in the Goldner String Quartet (what’s the point of writing that?  They’re all originals, staying together as a group since its establishment in 1995), he has also been heard as a guest in Kathryn Selby’s recital series, Selby & Friends, and for some years as principal cellist with the ACO.    Also to the point, he has enjoyed a long association with Musica Viva, as an educator as well as a Goldner.

On Monday evening, the duet played in a lavishly wooden space at the winery, looking to me like a sort of warm version of the Riddling Hall at the Yarra Valley’s Domaine Chandon where Musica Viva presented a brilliant series of mini-festivals for some years.  In democratic spirit, both artists took it in turns to address their audience, which process was remarkably free from the awkwardnesses and staginess of most procedures of this kind.   Unlike the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall practice, this recital had no program: you found out what you were going to hear just before the players set to work.   So Elena Kats-Chernin’s Slicked back Tango came on before you knew it was in the offing.

Luckily enough, this dance was based on an arrangement for cello and piano by the composer, one of eight versions she has put out; no wonder her works’ catalogue is so vast.   This wide-awake writer is familiar with all the tropes of the South American dance, giving the cello pretty much all the melody material with the accordion taking on the chordal/rhythmic responsibilities, Crabb considerate in letting his partner take up prominence.   It’s brief and lively, a pick-me-up like we had in the mid-20th century when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra used to whiz through Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture to open otherwise stolid concerts.

This short work was followed by a well-known cello solo: Bloch’s Prayer – first piece in the triptych From Jewish Life.   Once again, Crabb did piano duty although you missed quite a few bass notes; one moment they were there, then omitted in the next passage.  Smiles kept the right side of schmaltzy, except in the Più vivo of the last 7½ bars which was overdrawn, as was the over-loud accordion chord in the 4th-last bar.   But neither player treated the work as a chain of glottal stops, avoiding surges of loud and abrupt drops to soft, or imposing extended time for the melismata interruption near the end or for the chains of shared triplets.

At the heart of this recital came C. P. E. Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata in G minor H. 510, the most successful of the night’s collaborations in terms of sound colours.  Crabb impressed right from the beginning of the Allegro moderato, taking on his two cembalo lines with brisk vigour and giving each one equal weighting, especially welcome in his negotiation of Bach’s infectious ‘walking’ left-hand bass.   Both players performed with a mutually shared suppleness of rhythm without disturbing the work’s underpinning pulse.   Of course, they had top-notch material to work with; not just that safe-as-houses bass but also a wealth of melody intertwined with a fluency that delights at every turn.

In the C minor Larghetto, you had time to take in the work’s detail more easily, as in the delineation of all the original’s ornamentation.   While the players interwove their melodic work, you had even more leisure in which to appreciate Bach’s fertility, ideas thrown off with as much insouciance as in a mature Mozart piano concerto.   Smiles gave us a pointed and carefully shaped reading, Crabb keeping his potential swamping power well under control, most notably in the melting 6ths across the final 8 bars of this semi-siciliano.

A different sort of pleasure came in the concluding Allegro assai where Bach pulls some subtle rhythmic tricks across its length.   Crabb did a sterling job of realising the figured bass chords during the movement’s first 11 bars before his treble entered to compete with the viol/cello.   My only disappointment came with the executants’ decision not to repeat the second half of this segment of the sonata.

Having heard Bloch’s Prayer earlier, now we were treated to the other side of the religious coin in Saint-Saens’ Prière Op. 158, a product of his last years originally for cello and organ.   You could not fault the grace of expression in the opening section but the change to E flat soon saw an influx of religiosity, notably when the cello started on its triplets in bar 38.   A little later, the cello’s two-quaver pattern treatment veered towards the sentimental and the piece’s climactic point at bars 69-70 entered into the composer’s theatrical over-kill with enthusiasm; not to mention the reminiscence of Samson at bars 91-94 which sounds cheap in this context.   However, the problem with this reading came from the accordion’s texture which couldn’t avoid sounding very reed-heavy; to be expected, given the nature of the instrument.

Last scene of all was the inevitable Piazzolla; we’d had balancing prayers, so why not balancing tangos?    This was Le Grand Tango of 1982, the one written for Rostropovich who was unaccountably slow to come to the party and play it.   It’s a long piece, well over 10 minutes, and here gave evidence of a marriage of vision even if you might have liked more vim from the cello.   Nevertheless, both parties were consistent in their observance of the many incidental passing notes throughout.    Here, the nuevo tango is writ large with plenty of individual segments contributing to the whole.   At its core, it strikes me as concert music, not the sort of thing you can easily dance to unless you’ve been pre-choreographed – which, for all I know, may be essential to this new style.   But Smiles and Crabb gave as sensibly aggressive an account of this score as you could want with firm agreement on their attack, speeds and dynamic variation.

You could quibble that a cello is not strong enough to carry the burden of Le Grand Tango; that you need a violin to realise the dance’s inbuilt eroticism; that giving a melody to any bass instrument is dangerous when you have a bandoneon/accordion on the loose.    But, as in the Bach gamba sonata, Crabb observed the decencies: letting rip when he had the running, but maintaining a backing role when Smiles took up the Hauptstimme.   For such an odd combination, one where the members had no original music for cello and accordion in their rucksack, these artists delivered a near-hour’s worth of exemplary duo-playing.

 

 

 

Another worthy Friend

BEETHOVEN’S GHOST

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall, Sydney

Saturday July 4

 

Harry Ward

                                                                      Harry Ward

For the second of her season recitals in this frustrating year,  pianist Kathryn Selby works through an all-Beethoven program with violinist Harry Ward and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve; the latter a well-known musical entity in the Selby & Friends world, the former a newcomer to the organization’s ranks, it seems.   I’ve heard Valve in several trios with Selby but can recall them working together in only one of the two established repertory works from this occasion:  the Ghost Trio Op. 70 No. 1 in D Major.   The other, Op. 1 No. 3 in C minor, has been part of Selby’s repertoire for many years.   As for the other work on this program – Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano trio of his Symphony No. 2 – the musical textures proved unexpectedly familiar and I glean from the introductory comments during this telecast that Selby and Valve have played it in a previous season.   So I’ve probably heard it but any memories have faded – an all-too-familiar problem in these latter years.

Without any intention to downplay the contributions of pianist or cellist, I found a good deal of the interest in this recital sprang from finding how well Ward slotted into a pre-fabricated comfort zone.   It’s true that Selby has a clear-eyed view of who would make an appropriate member of her chameleonic gallery of performers; in fact, it’s hard to recall any musician/Friend who stuck out as being unsuitable for a role in the Selby complex, although most of us who have followed the organization for some years have our favourites.    But among the younger aspirants, Ward stands out for his sensitivity and a style of projection that sits well with the full-frontal approach of Selby and Valve.

I say ‘younger’, but Ward has been an inveterate musical traveller for some years, studying and playing and competing with perseverance over the last decade; he’s currently involved with the Australian National Academy of Music.   Such a wealth of experience shows in his playing style, which is well in line with Selby’s rarely disturbed certainty and Valve’s talent for producing a clear voice, no matter how much C string work is involved.   Ward also has something of an edge on his peers by way of a command of phrasing and a stylistic responsiveness allied to an eye for subtleties like miniscule Boskovsky-style hesitations.

Pretty close to the start of the C minor Trio, Ward displayed his crisp attack style, right on the money in those arresting staccato chords at bar 91, doubly appreciated thanks to the observance of the exposition repeat.   In fact, the movement was notable for some glowing passages like the early violin/piano canon at bar 21 which came across as if freshly minted; then, an ideally well-tuned cello/violin duet in octaves at bar 53; a subtle hesitation from the cello at his bar 183 entry; and a welcome reinforcement of your pleasure in bar 91’s chords with their reappearance in bar 294 – just as brisk and pointed as before, and exemplifying the underlying character of this work’s progress: crispness.

The following theme-and-variations movement gives the keyboard a good deal to do, starting with the first variation which proved neat and fetching, especially in its second half.   The strings got their own back in Variation 2 with its balanced canon/duet content notable for Ward’s supple line taking prominence and yielding it tactfully.   The minore Variation 4 found Valve generating a controlled plangent line during his solitary solo between bars 81 and 84.    As for the final variation, this is a pianist’s gift with a bright staccato figuration dominating the texture above recessive string support; Ward seemed uncomfortable with the metre, possibly because of the half-bar start, possibly not.   But all three musicians  made a consoling final 8-bar stretch to the coda.

Another fine instance of accomplished combination work came in the second half of the Menuetto with its elegant right-hand piano interruptions.   And a fine evenness of output emerged in the Trio‘s irregularly disposed first half while Selby’s second-part scales showed just how telling precision and restraint can be.   The finale’s first part was not repeated but you didn’t feel the lack overmuch because it’s a solid block of 146 bars that hammers home its message heavily, even in the E flat Major pages where the melodic quality is some way below the best that the whole trio has on offer.   For all that, the onslaught was relieved by details like a delectable violin/cello duet between bars 197 and 212 where the mirroring of each other and Selby’s initiatives lifted the instrumental dialogue to a very high level.    A not-quite-together microsecond marred the pianissimo entry at bar 238 but other details outweighed such a slight flaw, with Ward’s occasional slight hesitations breaking up the movement’s metrical inevitability.

There is not much to report about the symphony transcription performance which was most entertaining and assertive.   Beethoven took the task on most probably as a means of propagating his music but his realization is more than just letting the violin play its normal part, ditto the cello while the piano does all the work.    Yes, the keyboard covers a lot of the score’s content but the other instruments get to move outside what you’d think would be natural circumscriptions.    During the opening Adagio-Allegro, Beethoven has the strings perform a good deal of semiquaver scrubbing while the piano takes the high road.  Ward enjoyed a good deal of flute and oboe writing rather than just being confined to the top violin line and Valve had his share of the lower wind lines.   In all, this was an excellent demonstration of congruency and harnessed power with the violin producing bucketloads of elan and sheer drive.

At the Larghetto‘s opening, both strings took on woodwind lines before the violin returned to its normal role.   Here, with a slower tempo in play, you could see how Beethoven varied his now-limited textural possibilities which I’m afraid took my interest more than the actual playing although sudden moments broke through, like Selby’s firm address at bar 115 and the executants’ melting, delicate devolution between bars 154 and 158.  Adding to one’s obsession with the composer’s reduction process was the whip-smart interaction between all three performers who read each other with fine insight as in the hushed string work at bars 261-2.   Again, in the Scherzo, the musicians punched through the score with plenty of spirited enthusiasm, even if my attention fell heavily on what Beethoven did with his disposal of forces, particularly in the placid Trio.  Rationality returned in the Allegro molto finale where Selby infused procedures with an agility that you could not fault until a slight miscalculation about bar 158 before winding us up for a bristling conclusion after the composer’s brusque alarums and excursions in the final pages of this boisterously good-humoured symphony.

As with the C minor opening work, so with the Ghost: much interest fell on Ward because Selby and Valve are known quantities across its pages.   The opening Allegro vivace was notable for a firm volubility, packed with hold-and-release tension.   You could relish smaller matters apart from the power-packed urgency across the movement, like Selby’s poised, pianissimo arpeggios across bars 67 to 69 and the flaming power urging us across the development section, particularly the fugue-suggestive stretch from bar 124 to bar 144.   A pity that the group avoided repeating the development/recapitulation but it’s pretty long – about 180 bars, which makes a very demanding ask for any ensemble.

These performers made a suspenseful narrative of the spectral Largo, all the detail work intact and with no shrinking away from the composer’s deliberate roughness or emotional aggression.   Both strings confronted their lines’ stark statements and passages of vulnerability, as in the central passage where Selby is committed to endless hemi-demi-semiquavers until her break-out in bar 76 while the violin and cello commune in an interleaving duet that becomes increasingly fraught, before drawing back from the brink through a rapid diminuendo.

Finally, the happy Presto that dismisses all preceding gloom was appropriately jubilant, Ward revealing a challenging and steely timbre in the rising subject that starts in bar 35, then mimicking Valve’s punchy attack right up to the fermata at bar 87.  A momentary uneasiness arose after the piano’s solo at bar 109 where the strings seemed to be taken by surprise, compensated for by an infectious exuberance at the vehement main theme return at bar 211.   And one splendid surprise came out in the stretch from bar 388 to bar 397 where you were hard pressed to tell cello from violin because of their masterful inter-meshing.

Here was a top-notch recital in which the two senior players were traversing ground that they knew very well.    Ward is already an accomplished chamber musician, conscientious and conscious of his place and responsibilities in Beethoven’s three grand schemes.   And he is right on the note all the time – which is something I can’t say about all other young(ish) violinists.

What a difference it makes to hear a group operating on such a high level of insight and generating readings of sustained polish.    Over the pandemic months so far, we’ve been treated to a good many recitals from the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony Orchestras’ websites, the Queensland Music Festival and some other odd men out.    Many of them have shown professionals at work, sometimes on very difficult work; other programs have opted to entertain with fripperies or a plethora of small-frame pieces.   Selby & Friends is maintaining its high aspirations, showing us all how it should be done: a welcome and reassuring presence in unhappy times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a bit more, please

THE WANDERER

Jennifer Timmins and Leigh Harrold

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday June 25

Jennifer Timmins

                                                                  Jennifer Timmins

As promised, we wandered: from Bach, to a prospective co-Bubble composer in Gillian Whitehead, then across the larger ditch to Robert Muczynski, and home to Schubert.   All very pleasant and dexterously accomplished, as you would expect from two ex-luminaries from the Australian National Academy of Music who collaborated successfully during their time at that finishing school – a source of national pride for us all throughout its distinguished, if threatened, career.  In fact, when you’re faced with an abomination like The Voice, you should cherish ANAM all the more as a source of real musicians.

Timmins/Harrold’s Bach was the last sonata, BWV 1035 in E Major, which I’ve always found the most amiable and rewarding of the lot, even if most of the running is left to the flute.   Their opening Adagio came across with an unforced directness, if probably not as sweet (the unfriendly might say ‘mannered’) in timbre as other performances, chiefly due to Timmins’ spartan use of vibrato.   The following Allegro impressed for its sturdy reliability and a deft treatment in both instruments of some light ornamentation that sparks up a set of pages that speak with the forthrightness of Handel.

As usual, the Siciliano took pride of place for its floating placidity that rises to an unstressed high-point and sinks back to a resonant rest.   This was the most eloquent playing so far with a penetrating and unsentimental flute line that followed a steady, unfaltering path.   Apart from one note missing from the flute  in bar 36 of the Allegro assai (an unavoidable breath necessity), the sonata’s finale proved to be steady and painstakingly thorough, with Harold given the chance for the shortest of  solo exposures from bar 4 to bar 8.    Still, this was a reading that had little room to breathe because none of the repeats were observed; to those of us with some expectations, the result was close to half a performance.   As well, the whole experience impressed as oddly dated, a blast from the not-too-distant past when harpsichords and wood flutes were rarely heard in this country’s Bach renditions.

Whitehead’s Taurangi duet is etymologically intended to propose themes of the wanderer and/or an unsettled state.   At the time of composition (1999), the composer was engrossed with the struggle of East Timor, which was then enduring the last vicious ravages of the Indonesian occupation; her intention, I think, was to communicate the ethnic and political uncertainty at play across that country.    In some way, the piece is an occasional lament that is combined with a firm statement of conviction; what that is exactly is open to interpretation.   On its first page, sequences of repeated piano chords lead to flute cadenzas of brittle rapidity, before the piece settles on a juxtaposition of assertive declamation with urgent flute trills and breathy or overblown notes, some of the latter directed into the piano, although what effect was intended didn’t travel very far in this broadcast.

Timmins was also constrained to produce some multiphonic passages to add to her challenges but the core of the work is a set of antiphonal responses between the instruments that finally settles on a mournful atmospheric psalm with Harrold operating inside his instrument generating a series of rapid glissandi while the flute returned to its opening cadenza interpolations.   Whitehead’s array of production techniques concludes with further multiphonics and string glissandi while silently depressed piano chords produce some excellent nimbus effects.

Even though both players enjoyed a great deal of independence throughout Taurangi, they also had true duet passages of some intensity.   But the piece came alive when the interpreters were allowed to wander solo, giving voice to Whitehead’s suggestive sonorities that can be married to the  terrible last days before the Indonesian army and its local sympathizers were ejected from the newly-born country.   This night’s two executants also see in Whitehead’s score a certain relevance to the current world situation which each day confounds hopes for determination and resolution – which terms probably mean the same thing.

I enjoyed Robert Muczynski’s Op. 14 Flute Sonata of 1961 – one of the American composer’s most popular works – right through the first Allegro deciso with its bright Latin rhythmic assertions and interplay; at first suggestive of Gershwin in Cuban Overture phase, but then moving  into line with Villa-Lobos and that writer’s more harmonically aggressive constructs; the whole leading to a brisk, if not slick, conclusion.  The pleasure endured through the 6/8-with-interpolations Vivace, a kind of moto perpetuo shared between Timmins and Harrold with each player given individual breaks before joining up for  narrative propulsion.  This is both fanciful and cleverly constructed writing, performed with clarity and polish.

With the ‘slow movement’ Andante, the flute solo abruptly brought to mind Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata of 1943 which has a much shorter solo.   But just a touch was enough to present the similarity and, after that, the comparison wouldn’t go away: the same lyrical meandering set against insistent statements, although Muczynski crops his farewells, eschewing the Russian composer’s sentimentality.   The final Allegro con moto completes a fair haul of vivid, active movements to this construct.   Again, reminiscences of  the Russian composer emerge regularly, although there are none of the earlier work’s more poetic interludes.   Timmins accounted for a major central cadenza (in strict time) with enthusiasm,  Harrold bouncing through a jazz-inflected keyboard role before a tack-bright finish from both players in a fine display of synchronicity.

To finish this recital, the duo offered their own transcription of Der Neugierige from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin cycle.   It’s a superbly shaped song with just enough suggestive instrumental ambience in which to set the poet’s earnest questioning.  Timmins went for a pronounced vibrato here while Harrold burbled gently underneath.  I don’t know why it was included but it made for a refreshing sorbet after the preceding two works’ biting episodes.   In fact, we could have done with three or four of these transcriptions to flesh out a pretty under-length program which came in at about 45 minutes long.

 

 

 

Fervent and riveting

A DISTANT LOVE

Andrew Goodwin and Roland Peelman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Satellite Night – Sydney

Wednesday May 20

AndrewGoodwinHeadshot

                                                                  Andrew Goodwin

Spreading their entrepreneurial largesse around the country, Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have moved outside Melbourne and sponsored recitals in Perth and Sydney.    I’m sorry to have missed the Western Australian ones, in particular pianist Gladys Chua and clarinetist Ashley Smith (fresh from his personable appearance on ABC TV’s Hard Quiz) playing a program of  showpieces and operatic arrangements.  Wednesday night’s hour of lieder from tenor Andrew Goodwin and pianist Roland Peelman came from Sydney, given in a rehearsal room that put us right in the picture with the performers as well as alongside them in a dangerously clear acoustic.

Even given these close quarters for operations, both artists produced an engrossing experience through Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte cycle, five songs by Schumann, and seven by Schubert.   I don’t know if Goodwin and Peelman ever worked together in those happy pre-virus years but they made an ideal pairing on this night of works central to the repertoire,  although only a few of the artists’ selections get a regular airing.

For instance, the set of six songs that Beethoven linked together so that nothing is easily extractable have not featured large in the many vocal recitals I’ve attended.   This famine of performances might be due to the chop-and-change nature of the cycle’s content which, although consistent in expressing the lover’s proposals and dejections, asks for an unvarnished interpretation.   You won’t find the pathos or merriment, forced or authentic, that infuses the work of this program’s other contributors.   Instead, the sequence has a nobility and sincerity that takes you back to the same qualities in Fidelio where Beethoven faces his audience with a black-or-white morality that allows no wriggle room.

Some glitch meant that I came into this performance only at the first song’s second stanza, Weit bin ich.    But anyone could see (and hear) straight away that Goodwin was in command of the phrasing differentiation that gives the repeated vocal line its interest. Also evident from the start was Peelman’s sophistication as an accompanist, the connecting interludes given with care for each note’s weight, both artists enthusiastic across the stringendo beginning at und eine liebend Herz where the lover turns assertive.  The pianist impressed even further in the following Wo die Berge so blau with its end-of-stanza echo effects treated with punctilious regard for the song’s mood and the singer’s regretful lingering.    Peelman also gave Goodwin excellent support in the middle verse where the singer stays on one note and the keyboard has to make the melodic running; deftly accomplished here without demanding attention.

This cycle’s third segment, Leichte Segler, is a cow to treat fairly.   Goodwin had a red hot go at separating the isolated quavers that alternate with simple crotchets and he got a majority of the distinctions right, although the difference disappeared by the time we got to the last Flüstr’ ihr verses.   Both Diese Wolken in den Höhen and Es kehret der Maien could not be faulted, the highpoint for me coming in the latter song’s last stanza: a model of flawless delivery from both performers and a wrenching realization of Beethoven’s (and poet Alois Jeitteles’) simple regret.   As icing on this particular cake, the often awkward stretch in the final song starting at und sein letzter Strahl  –  pianissimo and with a griping set of chromatic slips – came over with fitting calm, almost detachment, before the final masculine rush to completion after the manner of Mary Queen of Scots.   This surge folded up an excellent piece of interpretation  –  the participants considerate of the composer and of each other.

Their Schumann bracket began with Du bist wie eine Blume, the first of three excerpts from the Myrthen cycle.   Only 20 bars long, shaped simply with not a space wasted, this found the interpreters happy to employ ritardandi to reinforce Heine’s Biedermeier sentimentality.   The second song I didn’t know at all; thanks to Goodwin’s email graciousness, I’ve learned that it was Intermezzo from the Liederkreis Op. 39 collection, one that I’ve not heard live for many years.    Here again, the duo demonstrated its unanimity of purpose with the tenor offering a full timbre in the song’s central strophes and Peelman contriving to make the constant syncopation a support rather than a distraction.

Another success came with the second Myrthen excerpt, Die Lotosblume; Goodwin combining sensitivity and passion, notably in the 6th and 7th last bars where Heine’s flower reaches a kind of floral orgasm.   More Heine followed with the Op. 127 Dein Angesicht; despite its chromatic shifts, this is a placidly self-contained effusion – remarkable, considering the text – which Peelman rounded out with an expertly judged postlude.

Last of all came the first of the Myrthen songs, Widmung, which musicians of my age associate inevitably with the Liszt transcription performed by Eileen Joyce.   Goodwin appeared to have a breath problem when he reached du bist die Frieden and Schumann’s minims and semibreves; in fact, throughout this central page, several sustained notes were cut short.   Much better followed in the reprise of Du, meine Seele which the singer treated with a captivating, smooth ardour.

For their Schubert offensive, these musicians opened with the first of two selections from Die schöne Müllerin.   In his efforts to furnish us with a brook-suggesting chain of sextuplets, some notes disappeared from Peelman’s right hand and an unfortunately palpable error crept in during the second-last bar; by comparison, Goodwin had it easy with one of the composer’s most infectious melodies.   Meyrhofer’s Nachtstück enjoyed a full-bodied handling, almost exuberant in its changes of scene/approach and moving into near-operatic mode at the suspenseful lead-in phrase und gedämpft, balanced by a lyrical calm that floated out at Bald ist’s vollbracht.

Third on the list was another Müllerin song, Halt, which through some aberration of memory I thought was Der Müller und der Bach: two lieder quite different in most ways but I grabbed onto the Bächlein, liebes Bächlein interjection and jumped the wrong way until Goodwin’s kind email set me straight.    This lied proved notable for Peelman’s finely gauged accompaniment that gave room to the voice despite being busy and interesting in its own right.   Nacht und Träume is another difficult task to undertake because it’s so soft that any attempt at inserting even a slight dynamic crisis seems cheap.   Tenor and pianist kept on the right side of piano although Peelman failed to articulate some of his interstitial right-hand semiquavers because of a determination to whisper his part; Goodwin also had trouble sustaining dotted minims in the work’s second part, and his final wieder found him out of puff.

I’ve not come across Ruckert’s Dass sie hier gewesen before but it made an appropriate sequel to Nacht und Träume because of a quizzical posing of harmonic questions and resolving them, if not in a hurry to do so.   Fortunately, the interpreters observed moderation, setting a fluent vocal part against the piano’s colourful commentary.   You might hear Ganymed at lieder society events but it’s not often included at non-specialist recitals.   For my money, this was the finest work of the night, beginning with a well-paced salute to Spring, then packed with brio from the accelerando on, up to a warm, fulfilling address to Goethe’s alliebender Vater.   The final piece, Ständchen, was given a robust interpretation, coming over more as a command than an entreaty with Peelman reaching hard for expressiveness at bars 9-10.     But then Goodwin made very impassioned statements of the second Fürchte, Holde, nicht! and Jedes weiche Herz.

Despite some minor flaws, this performance made for one of the most enjoyable bouts of craft that I’ve heard so far in this series.   Goodwin’s voice is a never-failing delight, splendid in its purity of articulation and dynamic command.   I’m accustomed to hear him in mobile vocal works, like the Bach Passions for which he is without peer in this country, but his technical skill and interpretative honesty were just as evident in this Romantic era material.   Up till now, Peelman has been associated in my experience with The Song Company’s appearances in the Melbourne Concert Hall.    On this occasion, he revealed another side to his talents through piano accompaniments of high quality which revealed an artist of thorough musicianship and insight.

 

 

 

 

Voluptas interrupta

CLARINET ADD STRINGS

David Thomas, Tair Khisambeev, Matthew Tomkins, Fiona Sargeant, Rohan de Korte, Elyane Laussade

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Monday May 4

David Thomas

                                                                    David Thomas     

Here was one of the more interesting offerings in the Melbourne Digital series of broadcasts, which is currently working through a Faces of Our Orchestras series in which people we know well enough in a mass environment are abruptly yanked out of their customary cocoons and given the full spotlight treatment.   These performers are mainly from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra ranks with some musicians that we see very rarely (unless you have developed an unhealthy habit of peering into the Arts Centre’s State Theatre) from Orchestra Victoria.   And you also see many pianists – Stefan Cassomenos, Leigh Harrold, Elyane Laussade, Rhodri Clarke  –  who have become well-known in their own rights or in partnerships with various chamber ensembles.

This evening hour (not quite)-long recital featured two works that put the MSO’s principal clarinet David Thomas front and centre: Mozart’s Quintet in A K. 581 – up there with the finest later outpourings from that impossibly fertile brain – and Prokofiev’s Op. 34 Overture on Hebrew Themes, written during a New York tour in the composer’s 28th year.   The string quartet for Mozart’s score was formed from MSO members, the same players taking part in the Prokofiev with Elyane Laussade negotiating the stolid piano element.  Thomas used first a basset clarinet, the instrument for which the quintet was written, then a normal B flat instrument for the 1919 composition.

Of the six performers on this occasion, I’d heard three in solo or chamber music situations: Thomas, usually in front of the MSO or lesser local bodies working his way through Mozart’s concerto; Laussade pretty much exclusively as a soloist although I have faint memories of a concerto appearance in one of the Myer Free concerts some time ago; and Matthew Tomkins during his solid stint as second violin with the Flinders String Quartet.   Sergeant and de Korte have been in the MSO ranks for some years now but Tair Khisambeev moved into the ensemble pretty much at the same time as I transferred north.

The loss was mine because the ‘new’ violinist has a very attractive timbre, as well as a laudable responsiveness to this luminous score, effectively setting off Thomas’ line with his own clean, calm support.   But much of the other string work in the first part of the quintet was not as carefully measured with a petty rough approach to dynamics from the three lower strings: their pianissimo proved to be a rugged creature ( bar 49), as did some individual brief exposures (e.g. the cello at bar 26).   Mind you, improvements had somehow come about in the exposition’s repeat.   Yet each felicity was balanced by a mishap, like the scatter-gun E Major chords that conclude the sonata form’s first part.  The development’s final bar arpeggios came across as over-weighty. almost clumsy so that the final impression you had of this quintet’s first gambit was of roughness in the details.

After a moving start to the Larghetto, the ensemble generated some more rough handling in support of the first violin/clarinet answer-and-response interplay that constitutes this movement’s chief  central interest.  The group certainly adhered to the piano direction for the main melody’s reappearance; probably too much so – that habit of gilding the dynamic lily with a studied, low dynamic entry serves more as a distraction, an all-too-obvious sign of sensitivity.   Much more satisfying was the following Menuetto which demonstrated that unforgettable Mozartian trait of combining elegance with near-predictability.   A disappointment came in the Trio I where Khisambeev went for a small dose of rubato, with nobody else allowing him any leg-room but plodding onward in strict adherence to an inner metronome.   Thomas enjoyed more success in Trio II, thanks to some available flexibility in several unaccompanied bars.  I don’t mean to pick on de Korte but his top  B in bar 107 stood out as this movement’s sore thumb.

Khisambeev and Tomkins showed excellent mutual sympathy throughout the theme statement that opens the finale, and the performance moved pleasantly enough through he first variation with its wide clarinet leaps, then the second one which was a display piece for Khisambeev’s sweet line, up through the Minore change with de Korte making a fine fist of his distinctive acciaccaturas.   We swung happily enough into the burbling fourth and last variation during which Thomas may have missed a semiquaver but I didn’t catch it.

Then transmission stopped; I lost sound and the online picture froze right at the Adagio, bar 85.  Back it all came after a break, only to disappear again.  The final buoyant Allegro surged out, but only for a few bars.

De Korte gave an address of sorts before the expanded ensemble essayed Prokofiev’s short piece, but this  prefatory talk too was interrupted.  We rejoined proceedings some way into the work and it soon turned into a stop-start process, during which I discerned, through the appearance-disappearance nexus, an unhappy cello high G sharp at Rehearsal Number 20.   But then, you just had to give up any hope of making sense of the piece: it was on and off all the way home.

A day or two later, Melbourne Digital made available a tape of the recital by way of compensation.   I picked up things at the Mozart’s last-movement Adagio when the rot had initially set in.   Things seemed to be going well when, all of a sudden, we had another stop, the music pausing for a black-out; mercifully, this time round, the performance resumed at the exact point at which it broke off.   De Korte’s Prokofiev preamble was also disrupted but at least we heard it complete.   You had enough time to settle into the Overture, Thomas slurring his phrases and doing a klezmer realization very deftly – then the interruptions resumed.   I counted 13 of them.  A lot, you’d have to admit.

It’s true that the work itself isn’t dependent on a flow-through effect building into lengthy paragraphs, like a Bruckner adagio.   Prokofiev seems to have eschewed the possibilities of the folk-tune collection given to him as source material and found his own, the results of which are simple and straightforward, enough to lighten up a post-Seder party in any right-thinking kibbutz.   But, even allowing for the reading being delivered in Reader’s Digest-sized clips, the experience was unnerving.

I’ve listened to and written reviews for six of these online recitals up to this one with every confidence in the delivery process but this Mozart/Prokofiev experience gives you cause for consideration.    If you can’t rely on the transmission, what are you paying for?  My wife tells me to come down to earth: these programs are to help the musicians involved in getting through some universally unhappy months: so what if there are defects in the delivery?  Yes, that’s well and good – admirable and very true:  Howlett, Schonhardt et al are providing an admirable avenue for local Melbourne performers to be heard and to get some remittance for their work – much, much more helpful than anything the federal government has put in place for artists.   But these musicians need to be heard without disruption, with minimal distractions.   Let’s hope the MDCH technicians can lift their game.

 

 

 

 

Welcome back

LET’S GET PERSONAL

Selby & Friends

Online performance selbyandfriends.com.au

Saturday May 2 – Tuesday May 12

Selby 2020

                                                                     Kathryn Selby

One of the major losses I experienced when leaving Melbourne after 60 years’ residence was that of Selby & Friends recitals.   The ensemble’s venues had moved around like its personnel – from Melba Hall during the Macquarie Trio days, to the BMW/Deakin Edge, to the Tatoulis Auditorium at Methodist Ladies College in Kew.   Now, there is no fixed abode for this Bunte Blätter ensemble, just like the rest of the country’s/world’s chamber ensembles finding themselves adrift musically, if domestically tethered on an individual basis.   Besides, Queensland was never on the S&F touring agenda

Along the lines of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall started by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt, Kathryn Selby has taken to the internet, presenting her 2020 season  –  or however much of it she needs to  –  through the web.   This latest program  –  all piano trios  –  veers towards the tried and true, comprising Mozart in B flat K 502, Beethoven Op. 1 No. 1, and Dvorak’s Dumky.   Where the Melbourne recitals come from the Athenaeum Theatre in Collins Street, Selby & Friends work from a well-appointed rehearsal room in Sydney Grammar School (Girls? Boys?) that sounds and looks tailor-made for chamber music, even if the prevailing acoustic properties favour the piano.

Anyway, it’s a real pleasure to have practised chamber musicians back on display, players who are experienced in the nuances of the format and who have some experience in collaboration from previous seasons.   The Melbourne Digitals have been well and good, in my experience, although more attractive in solo formats than in ad hoc collaborations.   But the mutual experience and the easy relationship between pianist Selby, violinist Andrew Haveron and cellist Umberto Clerici are shown in a trailer provided on the website as a substitute for program notes; even better, as these performers don’t have to stick to talking about the pieces that they are going to perform but can discuss the problems and delights of interpretation for every musician dealing with any work at all.   In this substantial preface (over 45 minutes), Selby acts as chairperson, asking her colleagues for their insights on specific questions, and Clerici shows himself irrepressibly voluble, even if sometimes he doesn’t finish his thoughts when his information outruns his vocabulary.   I don’t think Haveron opens his mouth until about the 12th minute.   But the material is well worth hearing – as it should be, coming from Sydney Symphony Orchestra principals and Selby with her impressively long-running career in chamber music.

A carefully shaped reading of the Mozart’s first movement is distinguished for its quiet assertiveness, reaching a delightful high-point at the short stretch between bars 45 and 48 where the strings play the second subject in tenths while the piano interrupts with piquant punctuation: the sort of moment that is brilliantly simple and here articulated without affectation – just another in the chain of spritzig throwaways that crop up across this score.   The truncated development ends with the smoothest of bridge passages from Selby whose melting from semiquavers to triplets just before the recapitulation gives us all a lesson in how to treat subsidiary matter with the proper respect.

Haveron’s timbre –  sweet, light on vibrato, not attention-grabbing – emerges clearly in the Larghetto‘s re-statement of the ornate first melody.   Another instance of valuing Mozart’s prodigality comes in the move to A flat Major at bar 57 where all three executants relish the innate eloquence of statement up to the return to E flat at bar 85 and another marvellously filled-out gift for the piano until the final bar.   As for the concluding Allegretto, here again is deliciously bright articulation, notably in the modulations at the movement’s core with barely a falter from anyone despite the rapid pace.   Sparkling clear in nature, the whole movement.

I’ve heard Selby powering through the first Beethoven E flat Piano Trio on several occasions in varied venues.   Her approach has become more sprightly, less determinedly full-frontal over the years and the result has been a honing of the score’s impressive continuity of action and thought so that the final impression is of assured deftness.   You notice her delivery subtleties more easily, like a momentary hesitation in the keyboard during the bar 146 syncopations.    To its high credit, this reading is devoid of silly games like unnecessarily inserted hiatus points; here, the complete consort dances together, Haveron a discreet presence, the two strings pretty much consistent with Selby’s definite downbeats.

Although the piano announces the Adagio cantabile‘s melting first theme, the action really gets under way when violin and cello embark on an affecting series of duets – well, a long duet with a few interruptions – that stick to their emotional last, giving delight on every page with Haveron’s eloquent phrase-shaping and Clerici breaking through the sonorous web with unflustered assertiveness.   Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo‘s delivery; right from the start, the players demonstrate their mutual fidelity with those unisons/octaves from bars 8 to 16.   Here, you’re struck by Haveron’s precision and bounce as an incidental character across the second half of this segment.  Sensibly, the ensemble maintains the same tempo for the Trio rather than signposting the change of key as a mood swing, like other groups with less trust in Beethoven’s unshakable doggedness.

Most impressive about this Presto finale is its buoyant perkiness, largely due to Selby’s interrogative right-hand 10th leaps: the movement’s signature gesture.   And all three players keep up the humour without pounding or lumbering, best exemplified in the passage from bar 76 to the end of the first half during which the action hots up while the note values shrink.

Dvorak’s Trio No. 4 finds these musicians in full Romantic flow with an ardent. knock-’em-down assault on the scene-setting Lento maestoso, Clerici in particular happy to play front-of-house.   Selby drowns out her partners in the chromatic chord movement that concludes the first section of the second movement Poco adagio, even if you find no deficiencies in the faster Vivace parts of these opening parts to this colour-rich score.  A rare moment of disunity emerges in the strings’ response to the opening phrase of the following Andante; balancing this, the Poco meno mosso and its consequents sees violin and cello in excellent empathy, their output both mutually supportive and expressively empathetic.  In fact, the return to A Major just before the final Andante gifts us with the most moving moment in this interpretation: deeply-felt music played with admirable sympathy and insight.

Selby moves into supporting, almost self-effacing mode for the fourth dumky Andante moderato, emerging quite politely from retirement for the scherzando breaks to administer a fitting skittish tone to proceedings, then falling back to support the cello’s calm melody outline.  For the ensuing Allegro and its idiosyncratic oscillation between 6/8 and 3/4, the three musicians make a full-bodied shift into Dvorak’s skald-like narrative, the lines intensely strong at the violin/cello canons when the upper string begins playing arco.  Again, in the final Lento maestoso, we are offered another dark story with Haveron producing a powerful vibrato during the mid-movement slow interlude on the G string.    Still, the canvas here is a taxing one, difficult to negotiate without bathos or overkill and an ordeal for the pianist; Selby handles its leaps and twists with admirable security, only an occasional missing left-hand note disturbing the movement’s vital scenario.   You have to admire the remarkable fluency of the C Major prefaces to the final two Vivace stretches and the players’ escapes into vivid action.

No, it’s not the same as being there and watching a live performance.   But, in these non-piping times of enforced peace, close-to-current recorded readings on film are the closest we’re going to get to hearing our professionals at work.   And this is not a doctored CD set of interpretations.   What you hear on this site  (and at least one other) and can enjoy over and over until May 12 (not so on that other one) has to work as a momentary (!) substitute for the real thing.   I, for one, am delighted to have these on-line recitals available and will take them in good part until we get back to normal – a putative date for which seems to matter less to the government than the return of professional rugby matches and the opening of that vitally important indicator of a vibrant, socially undistanced society: tattoo parlours.

 

 

 

 

 

Fine performance in there somewhere

BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS PART 5

Markiyan Melnychenko and Rhodri Clarke

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 24

Markiyan-Melnychenko-3553564523-1560753706372

                                                            Markiyan Melnychenko

This evening recital marked the first disappointment (for me) in the series run by Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt.  In one sense, it might have been so not because of what we heard but what we didn’t hear.  On the program were two violinists – Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Markiyan Melnychenko – both to be accompanied by pianist Rhodri Clarke.   As far as I remember, Matsuura-Miller was on board to tackle the Beethoven Sonata No. 2 before Melnychenko went on to account for the Kreutzer No. 9.  Sadly, the former player was taken ill, so we were left with a one-work program.   Well, you can hardly complain about this misfortune in our challenging climate, although patrons have been assured that we will get to hear the earliest of the composer’s sonatas in A at a later stage in this increasingly ambitious series.

The Kreutzer is a complete world in itself, of course, and swamps its fellow-passengers in Beethoven’s violin sonata output.   Most chamber music addicts cling to the concept enunciated by some clown (Goethe?) of a string quartet as ‘a conversation among four intelligent people’; outsiders like me think of a quartet as a contest, a continuous series of assertions that have to be slotted into each other, an ongoing carefully ordered alteration in supremacy.  Yes, the results can be mellifluous, yet the string quartets that stand out in the memory are those that resemble an intellectual conflict – even in Haydn.

Much the same can be said of piano trios and violin sonatas, especially this one.   I played the piano part for it many times in younger days, usually partnering a violinist with much more experience of the score than I brought to the table.   But no matter how many times we worked through it, I was always on edge; not just because of the technical requirements which simply deepen as the score progresses, but also because of the multiple decisions about what goes where and why a particular attack should be chosen and not another way equally as feasible.

Beethoven sets up this tension right from the extraordinary opening with the two instruments playing solos that eventually interlock at bar 11.   Once the tempo changes to Presto, the work moves into competitive mode and not even the individual highlighting of the middle movement variations nor the major key optimism of the tarantella finale can detract from the sonata’s consistent grappling for attention.

Melnychenko did not have the happiest of starts, encountering some trouble with the two simple double stops in his first bar which wavered unnervingly.  When he and Clarke got down to the first movement’s real business, the string line still sounded nervous; thanks to the exposition repeat, the combination began to assert authority over these active, dynamically fluctuating pages with some splendid slashing strokes from the violinist from bar 61 onward and an urgent drive from Clarke’s quaver underpinning after the piano’s C Major cadenza.

This violinist can spin a splendidly fine line in slow, lyrical passages; for example, the second subject – that unfinished E Major melody that slows the compulsive rush into a chorale –  came over with a disarming warmth, as sweet as Ferras in his prime, and meeting the composer’s requirement for an emotional and technical oasis in the heart of a fiery narrative.   Clarke showed willing from the start, inclined to overdraw his dynamics with a powerful delivery of every sforzando and an interpretation that saw a fortissimo in every forte.   Only a spot of fluster in the flat-littered contrary motion territory around bar 229 marred a reliable output from the keyboard part, at this point treated with fitting vehemence.   Whether it was quite appropriate at every stage for this partnership dynamic is another matter.

Nevertheless, we could relish the melting moment in the recapitulation of the second subject starting at bar 412: 26 bars of refined articulation from both executants.   Only a spot of fumbling around bar 467 marred an engrossing rounding-out of this movement.

Clarke did excellent service with his establishment of the second movement’s material, demonstrating a no-nonsense approach to the Andante direction and finesse in giving each of the inner lines its value in the chordal progression.   Both players collaborated in some subtle tempo tightening and easing during the initial statement before moving into an agreable first variation, which only suffered a few absent bass notes as Clarke worked hard to be discreet.    Variations 2 and 3 proved exceptionally fine: crisp in the first, then sombre with no decrease in rhythmic impetus across the latter.  The last of the variations found the pianist over-anxious to exert hegemony in pages where there is –  for once  –  no competition, least of all from Melnychenko’s occasional pizzicati contributions.  Still, the coda exemplified the best qualities that emerged every so often from this partnership: unanimity of direction, awareness of function, consonance in attack and dynamic.

Unfortunately, only a little way into the finale, you could hear that the combination had turned lop-sided.   While the articulation rarely faltered and both players had resolved on a weltering speed, the piano proved too emphatic and insistent to sustain the postulation that this was a conversation.   For instance, at bar 86 where the violin is genially bobbing around on its two lower strings, Clarke was hammering out the D Major theme as though he were engaged in a Brahms concerto.  The sforzandi that start bars 109-11 proved to be not so much emphases but power-punches.  Later, the lead-in to the two Adagio breaches near the end found the piano burying the violin in heavy fabric.

Sadly, this conclusion coloured your perceptions of the entire performance.   It would be unwise to assert that these performers were mismatched – they achieved some fine passages of play – but the result all too often sounded one-sided.   You can’t expect towering, steely lines from Lviv-born Melnychenko; his sound-quality is pointed and refined and is not capable of rising above a very forceful background or support.  It may be that these artists had no chance to calculate at any length the acoustic parameters of the Athenaeum Theatre auditorium.   At all events, this Kreutzer presented as rather imbalanced dynamically.  I’ve plenty of respect for both musicians but this was only an occasionally successful attempt at a taxing musical challenge.

 

 

 

 

Graeco-Roman bout

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Russell St., South Brisbane

Sunday February 23

grinberg2

                                                                     Anna Grinberg

Opening this year’s series of recitals, the Chamber Players of the QSO presented a lop-sided hour-and-a-bit’s music on Sunday afternoon, played to a large audience that showed excitement and enthusiasm for the main work: the mighty Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor.  As A prelude, we heard Beethoven’s Wind Sextet in E flat, Op. 71 although that number is an inaccuracy if you’re expecting a score to come from the era of the Ghost Piano Trio, the Emperor Concerto and Fidelio.  This sextet comes from 1796, the time of the first two cello sonatas and the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat.

To be honest, this sextet is pretty unremarkable with only a few bursts of action for  the first clarinet and the leading horn to raise your temperature level.   Perhaps more gripping material will follow later as the orchestra observes Beethoven’s 250 birthday.  At the next chamber recital in April, the program contains the first of the Rasumovsky string quartets; in the following month Guy Braunstein, once the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster. is soloist and conductor for the Violin Concerto which he brings a few days later to the Gold Coast, along with the Coriolan Overture and the Romance in F arranged for flute rather than violin soloist.   During June, the orchestra takes this Romance arrangement and the Symphony No. 7 to Toowoomba and airs the Egmont Overture back in QPAC.

August has Simone Young conducting the Choral Symphony and supporting Jan Lisiecki‘s efforts in the G Major Piano Concerto.   October sees three performances of the Symphony No. 5 over two days, and the next month concludes the celebrations with the Piano Concerto No. 5 featuring the estimable Behzod Abduraimov as soloist.   So, the observance is respectable but not over the top: three of the landmark symphonies, the last two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, an early string quartet, two overtures and a romance in unoriginal format.  But first  this divertimento sextet, which was preceded by Beethoven’s only other piece for the combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns: the March in B flat WoO 29. which lasts barely 90 seconds.

Involved in the sextet performance were three principals – Brian Catchlove (Acting Associate Clarinet), David Mitchell (Associate Bassoon), and Alex Miller (Associate Horn) – with three regulars in Kate Travers (clarinet), Evan Lewis  (bassoon) and Lauren Manuel (horn).   Their ensemble work proved to be functional, generally accurate, fairly rough in balance.   The work is not taxing but it has some rapid semiquaver runs to pepper up its benign breezy warmth.   Catchlove did not seem secure in the 2 1/2-octave scale passage that brightens the first movement Exposition; more persuasive work came in the lead-up to the pre-Recapitulation fermata where we were treated to an unexpected, just-long-enough cadenza.   The second horn line experiences a couple of arpeggio-rich bars near the Allegro‘s conclusion and these were close to error-free; like the playing itself, the product was rough around the edges.

When the clarinets enunciated the principal melody of the following Adagio, the duet work  failed to satisfy after an empathetic statement from Mitchell; Catchlove and Travers sounded unmatched working at the octave so that, although the intonation impressed as accurate and clean, the timbral combination lacked mutual warmth.  I didn’t understand why the group slowed down the pace for the Scherzo‘s Trio; it’s common practice, I know, but you really have to suit the tempo to music that is worth lingering over.  Sadly, the horns were over-prominent in the outer sections – or possibly we relished their absence from the Trio‘s action.   This beefiness from the brass figured again in the finale where the clarinet melody line was drowned in the opening bar’s output.  Miller’s burbling triplets spiced up the action in the first episode.  But the balance problem emerged as this performance’s major shortfall; the sextet may be early Beethoven but this heady, bull-at-a-gate mode of attack does little service to a structure that has good bones if little meat.

You could say much the same about the Brahms’ treatment where the outer movements rose to high points of weighty dynamic output but ended in beating the audience around its collective head with an excess of punch.   Anna Grinsberg took up the piano cudgels for this mighty score.   She was joined by first violins Warwick Adeney (Concertmaster) and Shane Chen (Principal), viola Bernard Hoey, and cello Hyung Suk Bae (Associate Principal) in a reading that seemed to work hard to convince you of the composer’s struggle in shaping his material, but made an overall impression of jumping from one from one bear hug to the next, a chain of force-filled grapplings.

The group repeated the Exposition to Brahms’ first movement and it was quickly obvious that Grinberg was in control – which some say is a necessary positioning for the pianist in this work.   The repeat was, in fact, well worth the time as the musicians showed more group awareness, both violins ramping up their lines’ vehemence and pressure.   Then, the recoil at Letter A into more sentimental material proved effective, possibly as sheer relief from the previous dynamic pressure-cooker.   Adeney sounded cautious during his exposed 8-bar solo at the Development’s opening but he was not alone in handling these complex pages without assurance.   By the time of the return to taws at bar 172, it sounded as if the interpretation was being driven by its inbuilt impetus rather than by a fully determined plan.

After an eloquent and long statement from Grinberg to open the moving Andante second movement, you might have anticipated a similar warmth when the strings eventually had their turn with the gently swelling second theme at bar 26 but the Chen/Adeney partnership gained in warmth only some time further along when the action became more intense.   It was at this stage of the reading that you became aware of Hyung’s unflappable presence, sustaining the cello line without the same sweeping and swooping as obtained in the upper reaches of the group.   Actually, this movement entire would have benefited from a more lingering approach, less anxiety about getting through its finely dovetailed segments.  From previous experience, you expect an emotional benison to be brought about through the crowded 6ths and 3rds of the final bars; not so this time, because sufficient care and tenderness was lacking in those simple three-note phrases.

With the Scherzo, once more the impression was of over-exertion – in this instance, applied very early at the first fortissimo starting at bar 22 and maintained for some time with the added thrill of several sforzandi.   After this card reveal, the players had little space to negotiate, missing out on the detached brilliance that should counter any preceding mobile brooding from bar 57, and their lead-up to the C Major Trio proved to be a thundering welter, the piano disappearing in the last pages of the Scherzo repeat. What we heard was packed with splash but lacking in subtlety.

Grinberg took over in the Allegro non troppo finale at the point where her doubling action becomes all-encompassing at Letter A.   Matters got even more intense in the thundering octave triplets at bar 137 where the temptation to belt and thump out the notes has to be resisted.   Yes, you had your hiatus points, and very welcome they were, like the un pochettino piu animato interlude for exposed strings, and that antiphonal/responsorial relief at Letter E lasting up to bar 237.  But the performers  once again moved through such passages with little grace, in a hurry to gt to the meaty full-bodied passages where the keyboard could pound and the strings could force their unisons and octaves into dominance of a kind.

You have to make allowances: these musicians are not accustomed to playing in the groups set up for the QSO’s Sunday chamber music series.  Their bread and butter is orchestral work, not this kind of exposed linear interplay.  And, as I found in Melbourne, rehearsal time is limited and musicians have to rely on their peers’ extra-orchestral experience and honed intuition in handling this music.  As I wrote above, the large Studio audience for the event gave a warm response to this Brahms interpretation and, at the end, all performers/competitors were left standing  –  as was the composer.   Yet, to me, it all came down to that well-worn report card summation: could do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s not be gentlemen all the time

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills

Friday December 13

 

Henderson

                                                       Jonathan Henderson

All of the conversations in this recital involved Alex Raineri, the young pianist who is artistic director and factotum of this welcome festival – a series of events being mounted across Brisbane in these musically fallow months of the year.  On this sweaty night – not the best for seeking out an unfamiliar destination by public transport –  Raineri presented and supported two guests: flautist Jonathan Henderson and cellist Oliver Scott.  He also found room for a familiar monologue but the night’s three duos gave us more satisfying material in the abstract:  two of them were unexplored ground  .  .  .  well, they were for me.

The Old Museum Building, as far as I could investigate its interstices, has at least two spaces more or less suitable for music-making.  Raineri set up operations in the smaller of the building’s two front-of-house rooms; its proportions are a tad too spacious for two-person chamber music works and there are wall drapes completely covering three of the walls which  deprive performers of a fair amount of resonance.  On the other side of the ledger, the building has uncovered wooden floor which serves as a slight form of compensation.   But the Primrose Potter Salon it is not.

Scott and Raineri began Friday’s program with Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, written about the time of the first two piano concertos when the composer was 21.  It’s a patchy piece to hear, if structurally coherent and self-referential throughout, with flamboyance sitting alongside gnomic lyricism, and its unsettling expressive moves found a reflection in this performance where the cello was given to self-effacement, North putting much emphasis on shaping his notes with care rather than pushing his line to compete with a bordering-on-over-written piano part.  Raineri held back in this sequence of dialogues with courteous restraint, matching his dynamic to that of his partner.

But the further the musicians got into this neglected score, the more you felt the need for a more full-bodied string sound.  A pizzicato-rich piu animato interlude that succeeds the opening declamatory pages came over with more shadows and delicacy than it needed, lacking the bite that cuts through, as in those sforzando punches at the end of each two-bar phrase in the cello part, and deficient in a dramatic power that infuses this segment, rising to a climax in a high G flat that needed to roar out to be worth the journey.   Still, both players found a convincing brooding quality during the descent into silence across the final Allegro tranquillo pages where the instrumental output came into welcome balance.

Raineri then performed Debussy’s Suite bergamasque with a tendency to lots of washes, thanks to a heavy use of the sustaining pedal.   Mind you, to his credit – or possibly Prokofiev’s – I didn’t realise until the opening flourish of Debussy’s Prelude that one of the Yamaha piano’s lower notes was out of tune; not too much of a surprise, given the sub-tropical atmospheric conditions.  The executant’s search for textural richness got in the way again during the following Menuet, notably in the chord work that starts at bar 18 which needed a more detached attack, as did its reminiscence at the change back to A minor near the movement’s end.

Clair de lune passed along well enough, although its popularity and familiarity meant that the three errors that popped up in the bass, including one in the arpeggios near the end, acquired undue prominence.  Making up for this, Raineri’s account of the concluding Passepied proved to be the best part of this reading with a deft balance between the initial sprightliness and the lush melancholy that obtains across the piece’s length.   As a whole, this suite’s interpretation veered towards hefty Romanticism which is understandable and not uncommon, even if some of us might have preferred a less blowsy sound palette.

With Henderson, Raineri brought Pierre Sancan‘s Flute Sonatine to our attention and we owe both musicians many thanks for their efforts.   This was a fine dialogue demonstration, not least for Henderson’s remarkable stamina, particularly in some long sentences during the first movement Moderato.   A distraction from the high standard of execution came in a piano cadenza during the following Andante espressivo when some top register piano notes came across as slightly off-pitch, but the players worked very well as a combination in terms of reflecting each other’s mode of attack and dynamic interchanges.   For all their steadiness of delivery, you still got a sense that the interpretation was hard won, as if the players themselves saw it as a series of hurdles.  I’d like to hear them take on this work again after a few more public performances of it under their respective belts.

After a lengthy interval, Scott and Raineri regrouped for an essay on Rachmaninov’s solitary duo sonata, the assured G minor that is a gift for both performers.   Here was a competent reading of the composer’s final chamber work, during which the pianist displayed occasional outbursts of vitality and bite while Scott seemed unable to find any sustained vein of turmoil in what is a pretty volatile if melody-rich score.  Assuredly, much of the first movement asks for subterranean murmurings from both players but Rachmaninov also requires some balancing powerful explosions; for example, when emerging into the second subject’s recapitulation.   Yet the general approach from Scott was unrelieved sotto voce; while nobody can expect the equivalent of Rostropovich’s or Tortellier’s powerful right arm from every cellist, you’d at least like an energetic crunch or two along the way, particularly when chains of octaves are involved.

During the Allegro scherzando, both players made a fine showing in the Meno mosso trio sections but the rollicking nature of the main theme’s downward scale movement escaped them  –   to my mind, because of a realization of Rachmaninov’s pianissimo markings as more muted than they needed to be.  You play them softly, for sure, but there’s also an obligation to give them a hugger-mugger martellato kick.

Both players showed signs of real engagement, a true dialogue, in the ravishing E flat Andante which is just not long enough to relish fully because the composer pulls up stakes after a mere four pages.   Here was the most persuasive collaboration heard on this night from the pair, their integration across the long middle section where triplets overtake both parts proving an unexpected delight for its mastery of neatly interweaving focal material.   Unfortunately, the Allegro mosso finale disappointed because of the underplayed rhythmic sweep that carries this movement forward, as well as an absence of enunciative sparks.  Instead, the work was presented as a homogeneous narrative; even that touching D Major second subject which should throb with eloquence suffered from a bland delineation.

In fact, this set of pages summed up the cello/piano collaborative effort across the program with Raineri holding back, tamping down his explosions unless they happened to be abrupt solos like the three massive allargandi bars that crop up during the movement’s urgent progress.   In the end, you could appreciate the interpretation’s promise: there’s a satisfying reading somewhere in there.  But Scott needs to escape the continual restraint in sonorous output under which he operates; it just won’t work in emotionally gripping music like this.   Raineri would then make a greater impact, unconstrained and free to surge through this sonata without blinkers.