Experts, but best in Bernstein

SIGNUM SAXOPHONE QUARTET & KRISTIAN WINTHER

Musica Viva

Griffith University Conservatorium of Music Theatre

Thursday November 24, 2022

(L to R) Guerino Bellarosa, Alan Luzar, Jacopo Taddei, Blaz Kemperle

Last visitors for the year from Musica Viva, this quartet of saxophones gave us a program totally made up of transcriptions. Just what you’d expect: the amount of music written for such an ensemble must be pretty small. Also what you might have anticipated was that some of these transplantations worked well enough while with others you had to wonder why someone had gone to the bother of doing such reframing. As a general observation, the evening’s second half satisfied a good deal more than the two works that we heard before interval but, regardless of the music performed, you couldn’t doubt the versatility and professionalism of these musicians.

Which is saying something, given that one of the Signum members wasn’t on this tour: Hayrapet Arakelyan, the usual alto player, was absent, his place taken by Jacopo Taddei. But then, the group isn’t (and won’t be) what it was; Arakelyan himself only joined up in 2018 and, according to his Facebook site, he has recently resigned from the Signum body.. Founded in 2006 while its members were all studying in Cologne, its original cast probably included Luzar (tenor) and Kemperle (soprano); but Bellarosa (baritone) joined the group in 2016. Before that, (according to Google and YouTube), in 2013 on a visit to India and at a recital in Turin, the alto was being played by Eric Nestler (the North Texas University academic?), the baritone by David Brand (untraceable). So the inferred idea that the group has been a consistent entity for 16 years, ever since their student days, doesn’t hold much water.

As I’ve said, such a varied background made it more impressive that their offerings on this night turned out to be so balanced and polished. Still, their introductory gambit, Bach’s Italian Concerto (as re-organized by Katsuki Tochio), depended over-much on Kemperle who yielded the top line only in the second half of the work’s Andante – for a while. And even the soprano was hard pressed on some thickly textured moments (if you can call anything in this piece anything less than pellucid) as in bars 53 to 64 of the Presto where I found it difficult to pick out who was playing what; and also earlier in the opening Allegro during a few whirling build-up moments as at bar 124. Nevertheless, the whole score proved to be an amiable romp, packed with buoyant good spirits and an ideal introduction to the sonorously homogeneous world of such a group.

Mind you, this was the final recital in the Signum’s Australian adventure (their first, apparently; well, certainly in this personnel format): Number Nine of nine, and that speaks of a goodly number of public performances to get themselves into fully operational mode.

Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto of 1924 followed, as arranged by our own Jessica Wells for the available instruments. So what did we miss, in terms of timbres? An awful lot, as it turns out: pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons as well as an oboe; two horns and a trumpet; double-basses, at least two of them; and a substantial battery of timpani, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, side drum and bass drum. At that time of his life, Weill wasn’t accommodating anyone and this concerto is a fierce declaration, the solo line extremely challenging and putting the score on a level with subsequent and greater achievements in the form; e.g. by Berg (1935), Schoenberg (1936), and Bartok 2 (1937/8).

The result was to blunt the original’s dynamism as all the necessary bite came from soloist Kristian Winther. His explosions of activity in the opening Andante con moto, like the merciless chain of semiquavers from bar 45 to bar 68 were accompanied by a bland support with a uniform sound-colour, even from the baritone’s bass-substitute. Later, the fiery explosion at bar 104 that climaxes at bar 112 after a striking four measures (almost) of double-stops impressed as dampened, lacking in vitality from wind choir and side-drum punctuation. But you could go on like this for a long time, regretting the necessary absence of the composer’s ‘sound’ and spiky instrumental complexity. What we were given was a version and, like Rimsky’s modifications of Boris, you can rail but eventually have to put up with the transformations, mainly for the sake of hearing this neglected work live.

Of course, certain parts worked very well, like the trumpet and soloist duets in the second movement’s Cadenza with Taddei (I think) taking up the brass line. As for Winther’s unaccompanied bursts, these were splendidly achieved with exemplary control and minimal attention-grabbing for the effort involved. And the deftness of ensemble from all in the Serenata section, particularly the woodwind and horn choir counter-weighting the soloist in the segment’s first half, pleased for its lightness of attack. I’d like to say the same about the last Allegro molto movement but here again the saxophones’ weight and timbral uniformity came across loud and clear when the score (original) asks for bounces rather than the punches we got. Winther was put through a grinding battery of technical tests, as were the Signum players and the interpretation preserved its unexpectedly bracing atonal energy to the final timpani strokes from Bellarosa.

We were then treated to an unexpected encore – Bloch’s Prayer, the first of his From Jewish Life trilogy for cello. Nice and throbbingly heartfelt, I’m sure, but . . . why? To show a more accessible Jewish music of 1924 than Weill’s strident concerto? Of all the oddities on this program, this insertion struck me as the big one, but the Conservatorium theatre audience (what there was of it) greeted its modal keening with something approaching relief.

The Signums (Signa?) greeted us after interval with their own arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano of 1926. As with the Bach, you found much here to admire: energy, familiarity with the idiom, a delineation of most of the rhythmic subtleties, and a reliance on Kemperle’s uppermost line (as well as his occasional over-blowing that amounted to flutter-tonguing). Some details in the first Allegro ben ritmico were flubbery round the edges, like the semiquaver triplets in bars 20 and 29, and you might have expected mor vehemence at the prelude’s bar 50 climax.

As for the bluesy Andante con moto, it was no such thing but more a slow adagio; however, it shared around the honours and you could relish each member’s vibrato in music that suited the instruments. As anticipated, the concluding Allegro worked least well of the set; put simply, there’s no replacing the piano’s percussiveness in places like the martellato demi-semiquavers at bar 49, or the spry arpeggiated chords at bar 20, or the (sometimes) penetrating brilliance of the final 8 bars. Not that any of this did Gershwin any serious damage but you missed the original’s sparks and coiled-spring ambience in the outer movements, the last in particular.

If for nothing else, we can thank the Signum ensemble for its delivery of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Once again, these weren’t the original excerpts-with-modifications as arranged by the composer: in this version by Sylvain Dedenon, some pieces survived, others were omitted and replaced by numbers from the musical. The relicts were the Prologue, Cool (but not the fugue), Mambo and Somewhere; the omissions were the Scherzo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Rumble and Finale; in their place appeared Something’s Coming, Tonight, America and I Feel Pretty. Even so, what the players put out succeeded without question, more than anything else heard on this occasion.

This might have been because of Bernstein’s own score – its nature and its detail – which uses saxophones and their sound colours to fine effect. But the French composer’s instrumentation also brought out the best in what was available, beginning with excellent layering work in the Prologue (complete with finger-snapping) and ending with a satisfying version of the frenetic to round out the celebration, not ending in curtain-fall depression as does the musical itself (and Bernstein’s dances). Indeed, the only problem with this last-mentioned was the inability to mimic the composer’s screeching trumpet top line in its upper register at the most vehement stage. I think most of us welcomed the introduction of Tonight, which is a feast for saxophone players at all levels of register, but I wasn’t that happy about I Feel Pretty which sticks out from the original score as contrived and dependent on strings to underpin its full mawkishness, so reminiscent of The Sound of Music. Further, without the fugue, Cool impresses as rather ordinary jazz, dated even by 1957 standards.

Michel Camilo’s Caribe was originally scheduled to end this occasion; instead, we heard Correa’s hackneyed Spain, arranged by Slovenian jazz master-musician Izidor Leitinger. After the worrying theft – sorry, reconstruction – of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez slow movement – the Signum players entered into the main (original) body of the piece with an excellent demonstration of syncopated block chords and a confident, thrusting impetus. I don’t think much of the piece itself but that’s obviously my loss because plenty of players and audiences can’t get enough of it.

One of the performers – Kemperle or Luzar – addressed us near the end and sort of promised an encore: their last work before flying home the next morning. But having already lived through my Bloch, I didn’t stick around to hear this addition. Yes, it was something like suffering from a case of surfeit – of the Signum sound, which is certainly agreable for a while but over-rich over two hours.

Clap yo’ hands

MOZART MENDELSSOHN BEETHOVEN

Tinalley String Quartet

Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood

Thursday November 3, 2022

(L to R) Adam Chalabi, Lerida Delbridge, Justin Williams, Patrick Murphy

I’ll never understand audiences, even after a lifetime of sitting among them through all kinds of musical events. My current prime instance of incomprehension was to do with this recital from the Tinalleys, given for the Sydney Mozart Society which runs a worthwhile series each year. Put simply, these experienced musicians presented a program to satisfy conservative tastes and carried out their task to a fine standard: three perceptive interpretations with remarkably few quibbling points. Yet the responses from this pack of patrons proved to be half-hearted. Are they used to better? I’d suggest not, given what I’ve heard from Sydney’s chamber music scene. But there you go; I just hope that the group wasn’t too let down by the lack of enthusiasm that met their dealings with Mozart K. 421 in D minor, Mendelssohn’s Op.80 written as the composer neared his end, and Beethoven’s Harp Op. 74.

I’ve been reviewing the Tinalley players since their beginning – or close to it. Second violin Lerida Delbridge and viola Justin Williams are surviving founders from the ensemble’s establishment in 2003; cello Michelle Wood, also a founder, only left in 2017 which, to me, is yesterday. I barely remember former first violins Kristian Winther and Ayano Ninomiya but neither was in the position for very long; a year or two each, possibly. And foundation member Emma Skillington’s occupation of the second violin chair till 2006 while Delridge was on first has completely receded into the ever-encroaching mists. Current cello Patrick Murphy I’ve encountered in his previous life as a member of the Tankstream Quartet, while the most intense exposure I’ve had with Adam Chalabi has come through his pit work leading Orchestra Victoria. To put the current state of play into some contemporary perspective, Chalabi, Delbridge and Williams have been Tinalley collaborators for well over a decade, with Murphy the Johnny-come-lately in 2018.

More surprising is the group’s association with Queensland at which state’s university it has been Quartet in Residence since 2018. Chalabi is Associate Professor of Violin at UQ; Murphy is Cello Performance Fellow at the same institution. Further south, Williams holds the post of assistant principal with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where Delbridge is assistant concertmaster. Since moving here, I’ve heard very few samples of music-making from the University of Queensland; its competition, Griffith University’s Conservatorium, is much better placed in terms of access – well, for those of us who travel a fair way for our music. So, nothing from the Tinalley for some time before I left Melbourne at the end of 2019 – just before everyone pulled in their aesthetic horns. A true pleasure, then, to find the group undiminished despite personnel vagaries (slight) and performance opportunities (also light-on).

In this full-bodied program, the players aimed high. Their Mozart came across with a welcome brisk coherence, evident in a clipped reading of bars 15 to 16 where togetherness is all. But then the entire exposition to this initial Allegro moderato maintained involvement on both sides, in no small measure due to the Australian Digital Concert Hall‘s exemplary miking of the players in this half-empty, resonant space. Each player emerged from the mixture with character, like Williams during the development in an urgent, edgy line. Indeed, this section passed all too rapidly (Mozart’s fault) before the last pages, Chalabi in excellent form across his triplets beginning at bar 98. Sadly, the group eschewed the temptation to repeat the ‘second half’, as they might have done, if my Barenreiter edition speaks truly.

Similarly, the group didn’t observe the Andante‘s repeat possibilities but, by the time we arrived at bar 66, the prevailing synchronization level was high (where better? The movement is here at its final reprise) and the only flaw I found was in missing the low G of Delbridge’s bar 83. You could appreciate the Concourse Theatre’s echo in the following Allegretto, alongside Chalabi’s care with the Trio, that section’s resonant second-half duet with Williams delighting even more the second time around, as did the dynamic relief at the chromatic slips from bar 23 during the Menuetto‘s reprise. Just when you got used to the abstention from repetitions in the finale variations, the players offered one in the second half of Variation 4! Yet again, the approach proved attractively crisp with respect shown for the score’s inbuilt balance, so that Chalabi didn’t feel the need to saw out his semiquavers in Variation 1 and his duet-of-sorts with Delbridge across Variation 2 where their cross-hatched fortepiano accents proved an illustration of cohesion in action. Across these pages, the only defect I heard came somewhere in Williams’ chromatic ascent in bar 91, almost forgotten by the enunciative consonance between both violins in their octave work during Variation 4.

A deftly ambiguous Piu allegro brought this work home, that brilliant fade to grey over the last 9 bars carried out with restraint underlining the composer’s remarkable lack of flamboyance – or rather, his maintaining of the melody’s quiet desperation up to its final flickers. I found this to be splendid music-making but the Society greeted the end of play with tepid applause.

Then, the Tinalleys made the jump of 64 years to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet in which the dark canvas has been alleged to represent the composer’s grief on the death of his sister Fanny. As an elegy, the work isn’t right because you don’t find many traces of resignation or emotional distance (except insofar as Mendelssohn was unable to move into deep tragedy with conviction), but it does convey agitation and a well-mannered despair. To be honest, I don’t understand Felix’s devotion to Fanny – or any such intense devoted-sibling relationship – especially as both brother and sister had families of their own and his emotional collapse on learning of her passing belongs to a sensibility that strikes me as over-ripe. Nevertheless, this Op. 80 is his last major work and a considerable creation, regardless of its gestational sources.

Right from the opening flurries, this interpretation showed determination, the musicians disciplined in their scrubbing semiquavers and vaulting triplets. Chalabi’s high B flats at the Allegro vivace assai‘s climax proved true and gripping while Murphy’s minim-rich line under his colleague’s subsiding antics before the key change to F Major came across with persuasive richness. As well, the Presto final pages showed a boldness and mutual confidence that did fine service to a passage in which the composer comes close to non-straitened anger. Not much wrong with the Allegro assai although the sforzando markings that, in my edition, are peppered across this scherzo were not remarkably different from their surroundings which stayed at a forte level most of the time. More high-quality duet work came from Williams and Murphy in octave duet for the Trio but, yet again, the group impressed most with their quietly lugubrious recall of that Trio in this movement’s concluding 38 bars.

Every so often, Williams’ viola tended to overpower Delbridge in dialogue passages across the Adagio to this work but my main problem with this section was a reticence in Chalabi’s line at the mid-movement change of key, particularly at the top line’s exposed moments. Against that, set the tenderness brought into play during the final passage following Murphy’s descending scale solo: a moment where the emotional wrench is reined in but intensely moving. To finish, Mendelssohn uses brief motives for an Allegro molto, here given as much fluency as practical, these musicians wresting full power from the rhythmically conjunct duets and trios that occupy much of the action. Indeed, the movement maintained its excitement, the circumscribed energy close to emotionally moving for its straining against Mendelssohn’s innate self-control. Yet again, the Society enjoyed a worthy rendition that brought out the score’s best features with fine skill; and, once more, the response proved lukewarm.

And so to the big-boned Beethoven work which came into being about half-way between the composition of this program’s other two elements. No second-half falling-away here: the Tinalleys preserved their discipline, well exemplified by the rhythmic precision of the Poco adagio‘s 7-bar sentence leading into the first movement’s main body. The complex sounded a tad unsettled in the violins’ first alternating pizzicati dialogue but the ensemble work proved remarkably lucid; for example, in the duet of extremes between first violin and cello that starts at bar 96 and continues almost until the recapitulation. But all credit to Chalabi for his handling of the Bach-reminiscent semiquaver spinning that occupies central position in the movement’s buoyant coda: as accurate as I’ve heard and avoiding all suggestion of patterns for their own sake.

Sweetness without over-sugaring typified the Adagio which was finely paced and exact, down to the soft chords that conclude the first episode of this rondo. Delbridge distinguished herself with a careful density of texture at her bar 94 entry, taking over an accompanying figure from Williams who sounded over-demonstrative by comparison. Despite that, the group treated this lyric with consideration and achieving over its length a placid eloquence. By contrast, the following Presto impressed as urgent, scouring the ear with its brusqueries. Even more insistent were the two Trio outbursts which gave you the sense that they would tip into an uncontrollable sprawl at any second – just what you want when handling a quasi prestissimo.

Chalabi announced the Allegretto‘s theme very carefully; too much so for me as some notes disappeared because the first note of each phrase was over-pronounced. But the six variations were deftly treated as Beethoven shared the limelight in this movement: every player gets a guernsey. Only one bar left an uneasy impression: the first violin’s concluding flourish to the first half of Variation V. But, one brief transmission disruption aside, this quartet concluded with convincing freshness, notable in the last allegro unison rush of semiquaver exuberance.

And you realized at night’s end why the group had been judicious in its choices of what to repeat and what to leave with one run-through. This was a solid night’s work, just fitting into the usual two-hour program length that used to be normal practice but is rare in our current era of the short-change. It doesn’t need to be hammered again, but I will: this eloquent reading was met with slightly more applause than had greeted its programmatic predecessors, but not nearly enough to show sufficient acknowledgement of the Tinalley players’ level of professionalism and insight. I’ve got uncomfortable memories of Bernard Heinze scolding a Sydney Town Hall audience for its inertia after he’d conducted the first Australian performance (I think) of Walton’s Symphony No. 2. But that was in part the result of a mediocre run-through of a tiring score, while this Beethoven interpretation was undeniably excellent. If for nothing else, we need to reinforce our musicians’ self-esteem, particularly when they are functioning at a high standard in their craft.

No change

SCHUBERT’S TROUT

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday September 26, 2022

Olli Mustonen

In one of the ACO’s more chaste excursions, five members of the ensemble participated in this latest series event in Brisbane: violinists Satu Vanska and Liisa Pallandi, viola Stefanie Farrands, cellist Timo-Veikko Valve and double bass Maxime Bibeau. Presiding over the program sat pianist/composer Olli Mustonen – a favoured guest of this orchestra and whom I’ve also heard presenting a Beethoven concerto or two with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – not the happiest of memories. On this night, he led a string quartet through Milhaud’s La creation du monde, then headed an outline of his own Piano Quintet which has been heard here before. After interval, Pallandi dipped out and Bibeau came onboard for the big Schubert quintet.

As soon as the French ballet score began, it all came back: the pianist’s idiosyncratic attracting your attention with extravagant hand motions way above the keyboard, the insistent dynamic dominance of proceedings, and the eccentric singling out of notes for emphasis while others recede or disappear completely. Excuses can be made for the piano’s hogging attention: it represents the missing 14 other instruments in the original score, even if it doesn’t have all their notes entrusted to its care. In fact, what we heard was Milhaud’s own arrangement of the five-movement work.

You could shut your eyes and ignore the manual flamboyance easily enough. But you couldn’t ignore the jerkiness imposed on the central Romance where the phrasing’s sense disappeared. Nor was there a way of avoiding the insistent dominance brought into play during the Scherzo; half the time, the quartet might as well have stayed at home – a pity as, from what could be gleaned, the players were well-matched (what would you expect, given their professional relationship?).

Mustonen’s quintet of 2015, to its credit, gives room for the string lines to make a considerable mark. Still, the piano part has a good number of florid virtuosic flights in a work which shows that Shostakovich didn’t live in vain. You’re faced with aggressive passages of high energy in the opening Drammatico e passionate where percussive cascades are contrasted with lush common chords for the strings, the whole heading towards a powerful conclusion. The following Quasi una passacaglia: Andantino struck me as being a good deal more than quasi; it made a fine contrast to the preceding pages as Mustonen’s attention turned towards a more lyrical scenario. Still, the variants almost fell into predictability in some segments where the actual scoring sounded repetitious; so some firm explosions came as welcome interludes in a format that presented as eloquent and, in some ways, as traditional as some later chamber works by Britten.

Mustonen labels his finale Misterioso but that descriptor seems to apply to the strings which generate some suggestive textures. As in the first movement, the impetus comes from the piano which yet again reaches some eloquent clangorous heights and urges the movement into rhythmic ferocity. Both here, and in the passacaglia, you come across Mustonen’s tendency to write plain diatonic passages in direct juxtaposition with grinding dissonances; despite the latter, I suspect that you could analyse this quintet – well, a large part of it – along orthodox harmonic lines. Which is not to decry the composer’s language which is a stage further along the historical road than, say, Shostakovich’s Op. 57.

I had to move at the start of the Schubert A Major Quintet; a brace of biddies behind me continued to whisper/chat after the work had started – the sort of inconsiderate behaviour that makes me blind with fury. But you can’t take it out on the socially subnormal – well, not in mid-performance. Having settled further back in the Concert Hall, I found Mustonen tinting the opening Allegro vivace by continuing with his peculiarities, vide the piano’s statement starting at bar 40 which moved in and out of focus as his outline favoured some notes more than others. This in a piece where the contours are so lucid that you don’t really have to shape them. Still, the string combination – Vanska, Farrands, Valve, Bibeau – was an unalloyed pleasure for its direct speech and fluent delivery without dynamic abruptness, making the exposition’s repeat very welcome.

Farrands and Valve gave us a glowing partnership in their duet at the change of key to F sharp minor in the Andante‘s bar 24, and again at the reprise of bar 84. B ut then, this whole movement was delivered by all with persuasive eloquence. Across the following Scherzo: Presto, Mustonen had an unnerving approach to his part’s frequent fp markings – the first note firm, the second two in the group almost non-existent. But the movement’s outer segments held your attention for their inbuilt vitality and bite; this is, of course, the music that the Australian Digital Concert Hall uses as a prelude to each of its broadcasts.

On to the famous lied and its variations. An appealing grace of delivery from the strings prefaced a reading of considerable merit. Not that it was free of some odd piano passages but the first variation, where the tune is entrusted to the piano playing it at the octave, came over with unexpected equilibrium. Later, Variation III with its demi-semiquaver bravura for the piano was handled flawlessly, each note audible and sparkling. Mustonen pounded out his fortissimo (well, they are marked thus in my old Boosey & Hawkes edition) chords in Variation IV, making Valve and Bibeau surplus to requirements. But his articulation in the final Allegretto, where the piano is entrusted with the lied‘s triplet-happy accompaniment, made for sheer delight, this segment an interpretative gem with just the right level of optimistic buoyancy.

Yet again, the ACO string representatives delighted with their restrained resilience across the concluding Allegro giusto with Mustonen emerging and disappearing throughout, then giving a ‘straight’ reading with the delectable triplet chains from bar 135 to 170, and later across bars 371 to 406. Indeed, much of the versicle-and-response pattern of this movement worked very well, the respective dynamic levels of strings and keyboard telling reflectors of each other – nowhere more effectively than in the last sample from bar 457 to 465, with that uplifting brief gallop to the end that brushes away (temporarily) several reservations.

So, another unsettling recital (for me) from Mustonen. Not that there’s much point in rehashing old problems: he’s now 55 and set in his musical behavioural practices. Judging by the QPAC audience response at the end of the Trout interpretation, he has plenty of admirers and you can find it hard to kick overlong against the vox populi – never forgetting the incredibly successful careers of David Helfgott and Andre Rieu, among others too numerous to mention. You just have to admit your bafflement – as you do when faced with the ongoing presences of Eddie McGuire, Scott Cam, Karl Stefanovic, John Laws and their peers: that perennial gang of home-grown mediocrities, who happily stand as cultural gurus for Monday night’s crones in the stalls’ F row.

The lieder recital at its best

WEAVERS OF SONG

Miriam Allan & Erin Helyard

Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday September 21, 2022

Miriam Allan

Finishing this year’s Great Performers series from the Recital Centre, Allan and Helyard’s program was broadcast by the Australian Digital Concert Hall network. The night comprised six Haydn songs, six Schubert lieder, a brief set of six variations by Mozart, another set of six variations by Mozart’s friend Josepha Auernhammer on his Der Volgelfanger bin ich ja aria, and three of the D.780 Moments musicaux. An unexpected, quickly applied encore turned up Mozart’s Abendempfindung, the composer’s longest song and a somewhat stagey finale to the Allan/Helyard musical partnership before the Australian-born soprano returns, I assume, to her home in England and the fortepianist lays down his mantle as the Recital Centre’s artist-in-residence.

The event proved to be rich in eloquence, neither artist handling the Haydn pieces with prissiness or studied restraint, such as we’ve heard too often from British female singers who have accepted the odd idea that this particular composer needs kid-glove treatment and the more sexless you can make your line, the better. That approach can’t work in something as rambunctious as The Sailor’s Song which came across with plenty of vim and bravado, a close cousin to Rule Britannia and that bulldoggie Henry Wood that appears at every Last Night of the Proms. Most of the other Haydn works enjoyed full-bodied handling, the set opening with She never told her love which, thanks to its powerful accompaniment solos, gave us time to adjust to the clangour of Helyard’s instrument. Allan didn’t have the happiest of openings, with a slight production falter on the first syllable; still, the piece came over with a firm blend of melancholy and regret, true to Viola’s intent behind her lines.

Another familiar song, My mother bids me bind my hair, gave us an opportunity to admire Allan’s breath control and line-shaping in a pretty substantial score; not to mention her attention to details like the quaver rests across And while I spin my flaxen thread. Helyard linked these opening three songs with improvised (I think) post-/preludes, taking us from A Pastoral Song to O tuneful Voice where Allan moved to a rich dramatic vein, reaching a climax with a cadenza at with a vestal’s care and preserving a sense of purpose through all those repetitions of that it may ne’er decay on the last page.

For the second bracket of three Haydns, Allan began with The Wanderer and a full Gothic interpretation, Helyard’s fortepiano ominously doubling the vocal line for a goodly amount of time. Not that this reinforcement is uncommon in these six songs; vide A Pastoral Song, and The Spirit’s Song, this latter matching The Wanderer for intensity, notably from the fortepiano’s impressive loud chords, e.g. bars 4 and 6, with Allan wringing as much drama from this scena as possible without falling into Grand Guignol overkill at those suspenseful fermata points. It made for a well-judged contrast with The Sailor’s Song that concluded the evening’s Haydn expedition with amiable buoyancy.

Helyard’s rendition of Auernhammer’s busy variations distinguished itself for a certain piquancy of address, one where the introduction of a decelerando or six broke up some predictable matter. However, each section had its original touches, although the return of the song’s last 10 bars finishing off each variation was a very welcome return to base camp. The performer’s precision was hard to fault, with only a left hand mishap at the start of Variation 6 raising an eyebrow – and the insertion of a final solitary bass G (well, it isn’t in my old Artaria edition).

A few mishaps marred the delivery of Mozart’s work – in the theme itself and in the first two variations. But Variation 3 sounded immaculate, spice added through some clever ornamentation. By the time Helyard arrived at the second half of the last variation, he felt comfortable enough to take liberties with the score and toyed with its demi-semiquavers and his instrument’s expressive capabilities. Not particularly taxing Mozart, but holding individual flights at every turn of the page, the whole finishing with a reassuringly even-handed coda.

For her Schubert bracket, Allan included three master-songs and three entertainments. She opened with Auf dem Wasser zu singen with firm undercurrents in play and a tendency to emphasize each bar’s heavy accents; hence, the pleasure to be found in her long notes on Tanzet, Atmet and Selber. In these operating conditions, the fortepiano depicted heavy water rather than the usual ripples. Another slight attacking flaw emerged at the noun in the first phrase of Du bist die Ruh, yet the following pages’ vocal line flowed past with compelling commitment and clear sympathy, the whole rising to a passionate highpoint at the first erhellt while its repetition was given with appropriate restraint. Both performers made a definite character out of Standchen, Helyard’s mandolin/guitar stand-in more percussive than the smooth burbling we are accustomed to from your everyday piano. It was hard to understand why Allan didn’t give full value to the first note of Ach! sie flehen dich unless it was to heighten the expostulation’s drama (really?). But the interpretation as a complete unit made a considerable impact for its hard edges (even if Helyard muffled/muted his postlude) and rich breadth of timbre.

Trauer der Liebe is a small semi-gem which moved slowly enough to give us a more concentrated exposure to Allan’s curvaceous phrasing. Helyard made a change into triplets for the third stanza, reverting to the regulation music in the 5th last bar, thereby keeping himself and us entertained in fairly bland surroundings. Minnelied, also a page long, was given straight, without any problems apart from something odd in the keyboard during the second-last bar of Stanza 1. Here is another charming lyric, in this reading a vocalist’s delight because of the accompaniment’s lack of distinction. Another three-stanza, one-page lied is Seligkeit, a familiar, sunny delight-in-life creation, treated to a bounce-rich reading with both musicians who freshened up their last run-through with some innovations.

The Schubert songs were divided in half by Helyard’s performance of the Moments musicaux Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Of these pieces, the No. 2 in A flat Major impressed me as one of the recital’s highpoints because of the player’s ability to shape repetitious phrases and clauses with a skillful malleability and his command of shape in its several sections, ending with a moving final 18 bars in A flat in which the repeated chords and their subterranean variants made for one of those occasions when Schubert takes you close to the ideal. For the familiar F minor Allegro moderato, Helyard inserted a piece of paper into his fortepiano’s bass reaches, thereby producing an occasional side-drum rattle, even if the declared intention was to imitate a bassoon.

I’d never heard in live performance the No. 4 Moderato in C sharp minor; having experienced it, I can see why it doesn’t attract keyboard players as much as its predecessor. However, the middle D flat pages were a small revelation, not least for Helyard’s careful outlining of their inbuilt grace and tenderness, And the final five bars of this moment are a fine and moving creation/summation, here realized with touching skill and empathy.

I seem to recall Helyard saying that he and Allan have been presenting this program for some time, this night in Melbourne the end of their mutual endeavours. I, for one, was very pleased to have heard the program which, despite my nitpicking, was packed with excellent music-making. The whole exercise served as a counter-argument to that trite observation about ‘those who can’t, teach’; both these musicians are distinguished teachers and, simultaneously, top-notch performers.

Back, in great shape

IN THE SHADOW OF WAR

Selby & Friends

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Elder Conservatorium, Adelaide

Wednesday September 7, 2022

Sophie Rowell, Timo-Veikko Valve, Kathryn Selby

Back on internet viewing in these post-COVID days (ho ho), the Selby & Friends franchise re-boarded the Australian Digital Concert Hall armada for this broadcast from Adelaide’s Elder Hall – one of the regular venues on the organization’s interstate touring schedule. Violinist Grace Clifford was scheduled to appear in this round but was injured, so her place was taken very ably by co-concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sophie Rowell, revisiting her chamber music days when she led the Tankstream/Australian String Quartet. Valve has been an S&F regular cellist guest for some years now; just as reliable and informative here as he is at the principal desk of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Two of the programmed works had direct reference to war. The Shostakovich E minor Piano Trio is a searing document decrying the evils of World War Two, with all the insight of a musician who partly lived through them by way of the siege of Leningrad. His use of Jewish-inflected melodies in the finale bore witness to the composer’s awareness of the Nazi obscenities revealed in the Allied armies’ march on Berlin. Matthew Hindson’s 1915 was written for the Benaud Trio in 2015 and refers to the state of mind of a young man who has enlisted, as well as depicting the loss and devastation that the Great War caused to so many. A different take, then, to the opening strophes in Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film where Mel Gibson and Mark Lee represented the popular vision that we have of this conflict by joining up with something approaching glee.

The program’s most lengthy work, Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio, was explained into bellicose context by several means. Two that stuck in my mind were the reminder that the composer lived in Napoleonic times. Yes, he did but it would seem that the conflict registered little on him; he was 12 when hostilities stopped and Austria partnered Napoleon during the invasion of Russia; after which, Francis I/II’s Empire was neutral until the French emperor was defeated and exiled. I’m not getting the picture of a young musician dodging rifle fire and/or conscription – or even having much consciousness of international or local conflict. The second proposition involved finding military suggestions in the trio’s Andante con moto. You might find a march there – a pretty slow one – but the suggestions to me across these pages are more aligned with the depressing trudge of the Winterreise narrator.

You can detect an earnest grief in Hindson’s short piece which commemorates the Gallipoli campaign from one aspect, one which has been adopted by this country as near-compulsory. The loss of close to 9,000 Australians in that Churchillian folly was – and is – a national disaster but one that should rouse more aggressive passions than sorrow, even viewed from this temporal distance. It may be that Hindson is speaking for the survivors, like Wacka in Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year, that character’s central soliloquy in turn speaking for those who fought on the Turkish peninsula through those soul-destroying days.

1915 is an elegy in C minor, not that distant in emotional colour from many other deplorations – neither as flashy as Britten, nor as depressing as Bloch. The composer has a fondness for using violin and cello in unison/at the octave and has constructed a well-shaped threnody that has a fullness of timbre alongside several relieving effects, like some quietly piercing violin harmonics, and the suggestion near the end of a bugle call hovering over the gloom. The piece occupies a clear-cut emotional territory, carrying out its mission of communicating the sorrow felt by families and any young man who blithely signed up only to face death and mutilation on all sides. In the end, as the historians tell us, it was a trade war in which Australia became senselessly if dutifully involved. Oh, well; now that the English Queen has died, any links with her fading royal house must surely dissipate, particularly when we’re faced with the absurdity of what will replace her.

Speaking of depression, the Russian composer’s trio is very well-known, particularly to those of us exposed to chamber music competitions where the work exercises a huge attraction to competitors, if not their audiences. Valve handled the opening harmonics solo well enough, although I wasn’t convinced by his octave leap in bar 5. Rowell displayed a fine firmness of attack at her high-pitched melodic outline 16 bars after the Moderato‘s opening. But the players all gave this section a fierce handling which proved most persuasive, thanks to its unanimity of purpose: the sense that the timbral fabric was of a piece, urged on by three consistent voices.

More ferocity blazed out across the Allegro con brio, Rowell setting a pace that proved exemplary; you were impressed by the prevailing level of energy but not swamped by a pell-mell rush. Selby followed a steady path, her note-chains positioned with care in a reading of feisty aggression – just as it should be, even given the trio-like relieving moments. In the following Largo, Selby gave the 8 dotted semibreves a considerable space in which to resonate, coming close to disconnectedness rather than portentousness. Rowell’s entry proved a relief for her warmth of colour in a lugubrious situation, excellently mirrored by Valve with both instruments close to a synchronised vibrato in the movement’s wrenching duets. The ensemble worked very hard to give full vent to the passion underpinning these pages, loosening intensity with fine discernment when realizing their two G Major bars leading into the finale.

I found the group’s handling of the Allegretto to be enthralling, particularly with those savage pizzicati before the piano’s arrival at bar 30 where the temperament changes from cute klezmer to vehement anger. Rowell’s use of rubato was consistent with Selby’s application of the same technique, offering variety to the regularity of pulse that typifies this segment’s opening. During these pages you became more aware of the excellent recording work carried out by ADCH technicians, each line clear and individual, even when Selby shifted into powerful top gear, throwing caution out the door and rarely faltering in her bravado. For once, we heard the conclusion in a proper context – without sentimentality or exemplifying frailty but loaded with strong despair and resignation. The effect was to bring the composer’s internal torment to the fore as he chafed against state restrictions and came to realize that his own country’s regime was of the same type which gave the world Treblinka and Majdanek.

There’s little to say of the big Schubert score’s treatment. It tired the performers, as you’d expect, but their balance and stamina carried them through, even across the work’s disappointing and lengthy final Allegro moderato. Fortunately, the players repeated the first movement’s exposition so that we could relish the delicacy of treatment given to the stretch from bar 48 to bar 90. Another telling extended passage came with Selby’s triplets and their sustained equanimity throughout the development. Later, Valve generated the shock of the performance at bar 298 with a remarkably gruff sustained G sharp. Slight section-interleaving pauses were employed, the emphasis on the work’s malleability (at least in this movement) with a suggestion of the composer’s Moments musicaux between bars 584 and 621, just before the main theme’s last statement.

As for the militarily suggestive Andante con moto, the players set up a stately march pace, the piece’s progress dotted with pleasures like a tender change to E flat Major in bar 41 and a further eloquent move to C Major proper at bar 129 with an ideally paced ritardando in operation across the last seven bars. The only flaw I encountered came at Rowell’s unhappy high E concluding bar 161, although the leap up to it is awkward. As for the canons at work in the Allegro moderato, you could not ask for a more mellifluous handling; later, you could superimpose a military flavour to the Trio‘s A flat waltz movement which broke through the gentle veneer of its surrounds with refined brutality.

Again, you heard moments of excellent craftsmanship in the finale. That trademark transference at the L’istesso tempo of bar 73 came across with illuminating lightness of attack; Selby’s repeated chords from bar 191 to bar 205 enjoyed a restrained resonance, yielding space to the strings’ octave melody; all executants contributed to a joyful Romantic surge across bars 264 to 273. But it was hard to maintain interest beyond bar 762 (!) when the main theme’s treatment smacked of filling in time; mind you, that’s just how that moment strikes me and there are plenty of others who see no fault in Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’.

Those of us unable to encounter Selby & Friends in live performance (the country’s north, west and extreme south) would have welcomed this broadcast, most importantly to hear that the body’s high achievement standards have not fallen off across the long interruption that has interfered with normal music transmission. Further, it is one of this ensemble’s splendid attractions that the Friends all fit so easily into Selby’s administrative and artistic frameworks.

We’ve heard better

FLINDERS QUARTET & VATCHE JAMBAZIAN

Sydney Mozart Society/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Tuesday August 23, 2022

Vatche Jambazian

A program of familiarities offering no surprises: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms – and played straight through without an interval. Which would have been testing for the concentration powers of any intellectually frolicsome members in the Sydney Mozart Society, which organization sponsored the event, bringing one of Melbourne’s favourite chamber ensembles to the North Shore, then allying them with one of the Harbour City’s bright-spark pianists. We heard the last of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, that in A Major; then an a quattro version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 414, the earlier of the A Major couple; and the String Quartet No. 1 by Brahms in C minor (for a change of key). A most satisfying entertainment for the true musical conservatives among us – well, on paper.

But the reality was pretty rough and ready in its delivery style. Actually, that’s a bit too polite: a more proper estimation would be ‘scruffy’, with a cavalier regard for detail even as early as bars 8 to 10 in the first Allegro where Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba‘s first violin semiquavers were smothered under some low-lying chord support. And it wasn’t much better the second time around, although by then both violins had roused discontent with some ragged intonational pairing further into the exposition. Throughout, the emphasis rested on a sort of rusticity with little polish or finesse applied, as in the aggressive opening to the recapitulation. For all that, I was disappointed that the movement’s larger second part wasn’t repeated.

It seems unfair to single out the first violin line but it is dominant in this work; so, when it falters, the performance’s ambience is weakened, as at the uncertain repeated E crotchets between bars 19 and 20 of the Adagio, and a poor assault on bar 21’s top F sharp. By about half way through, the reading’s aggressive style had taken over, become the norm and you reconciled with the Concourse’s lively acoustic. Second violin Wilma Smith‘s descending thirds starting at bar 65 proved uneasy in execution but Helen Ireland‘s viola striding arpeggios at bar 55 and onwards gave the work’s progress some welcome solidity. Something went awry with the first violin’s B sharp in the third last bar, marring an otherwise amiable resolution.

Once again, both violins were not sufficiently synchronised at a pivotal bar 8 of the Menuetto, although the repeat showed an improvement. In fact, this part of the work worked better than others because it could take some brisk handling, although I found the Trio‘s second half clumsily treated – a case of bucolic overkill. Fortunately, the final Fuga held some cerebral pleasure, mainly for its internal workings (even if these aren’t that strenuous), and for the moveable feast whereby the first subject’s four-semiquaver group enjoyed both regular and clipped handling.

When Jambazian joined in for the Mozart, errors still occurred, if not so prominently. The violin lines at the octave in bars 13 to 15 of the first movement sounded disjunct in tuning but the opening tutti as a whole showed improvement as the score moved forward. The pianist matched his quartet-orchestra in determination although he could pull out the lapidary stops as well, e.g. the 8 bar solo at bar 152, and the delicate figuration later beginning at bar 224.. Still, mistakes arose for no apparent reason with the B notes at bar 14 of the cadenza, and a mis-step further on at bar 32. Just as in the Haydn, the Allegro‘s closing bars came over as willing but ragged.

You could say that matters improved during the Andante; certainly, the violin duo worked to bracing effect in the unison bars 15 to 18, a passage that shone out for its singular eloquence, even if a repeat at bars 51 to 55 was less unified in pitching Jambazian observed a disciplined attack but the movement’s fluency was disturbed by a transmission blackout which had to be compensated for in a later viewing (the ADCH ticket purchase means you can review the whole performance for 72 hours after the initial transmission). I didn’t see what was gained by the arpeggiation of the E minor chord in bar 76: the melody restatement post-mini cadenza was proceeding amiably when this idiosyncrasy came up: slight but uncalled-for, I would have thought. Still, the post-major cadenza finishing-off was fairly clean.

Jambazian took a hearty approach to the Rondeau when he entered at bar 21, rising to hyper-metallic by bar 81. An odd error blunted the player’s output, e.g. bar 91, and the thistledown-light syncopations at bars 122-3 were over-emphatic. Mind you, the player sustained this style into his reading of Cadenza B which here prefigured Beethoven, although an inexplicable arpeggio flaw at bar 17 made the near-truculent flame flicker. Mozart’s light-stepping finale would have gained from less heavily-applied power from all participants; at the end, you wondered where the expected light and grace had gone.

A more suitable fit for the Flinders’ energy came with the Brahms C minor Quartet where flexing took over pretty early in the opening Allegro; luckily, the exposition repeat gave a better indication of the ensemble’s talents although that middle B in Smith’s bar 7 triple stop didn’t sit comfortably in the mesh. But, for all of the enthusiasm shown, the dynamic became overwhelmingly heavy, as at bar 52 and in the urgency of Brahms’ development which often bordered on hysterical. When the temperature cooled, strange things happened like a palpably wrong note in the violin 1/viola octave unison at bar 162. And moments that you anticipate with relish, like the wrenching violins’ duet between bars 178 and 181, misfired because of an absence of lyricism. Occasionally, Pavlovic-Hobba inserted a portamento that recalled a delivery style from a bygone age (he was alone, it seemed, in exercising this individuality), but he gave a splendid account of himself in the final burst of high-octane fervour across bars 231 to 239.

Not that you hadn’t noticed her until now, but Zoe Knighton‘s cello solo at bar 7 of the Poco adagio made for a welcome burst of moderately applied lushness. But the whole group came pretty close to fulfilling expectations right from the start of this romanze, notably in detailed work, like the alternating arpeggios across bars 61-63. Ireland’s viola emerged in fine voice during the following Allegretto molto; unusually effective in this busy, if not cluttered, environment. I admired the carefully shared switches between Pavlovic-Hobba and Ireland from bar 38, even if you might have asked for more vibrato on the sustained notes.

A firm and bold account of the finale’s opening statement – all two bars of it – prefaced the ensemble’s double-faceted interpretation which held some fine passages of play juxtaposed with others that were unsatisfactory because of faulty articulation and dynamics that held little common currency as the lines hurtled forwards. Still, that underlying impulse was maintained and a carefully outlined sweep from bar 219 to the concluding cadence made for a more impressive demonstration than might otherwise have been expected, given the push-through impetus that obtained for this movement’s more thickly-textured moments.

I’ve heard the Flinders at work for many years now – right from the start, in fact, when Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins began the group in partnership with survivors Ireland and Knighton. Other changes to the violin personnel have come about over the years, although nothing nearly as drastic has taken place as it has with the Australian String Quartet where, in comparison, Nothing beside remains. We know that COVID has brought discontinuity to musicians on all sides and in all lands, but ample rehearsal preparation time has returned as a concomitant of public performance. Judging by this night’s display, the Flinders have quite a way to go before they reach the level of homogeneity that obtained in the group’s earlier years. This will be particularly important when the possibility/probability of programming transparencies like Haydn and Mozart arises, although it appears that the rest of the ensemble’s year is headed for a more meat-and-three-veg diet.

Movement at the station, going . . . ?

AUSTRALIAN FESTIVAL OF CHAMBER MUSIC: JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY OPENING NIGHT CONCERT

NEW BEGINNINGS

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Friday July 29, 2022

Peteris Vasks

I’ve been to the Townsville Chamber Music week, way back in the days when newspaper had money – and so did festivals. It must have been in the earlier manifestations; as it’s been going for 30 years, that would put it back in the middle 1990s, I suppose. The place struck me as rough and ready, and not just because of the off-duty military looking for a Saturday night fight in the centre of town. It was a laid-back sort of place; so much so, that I found myself walking in a land rights demonstration because I was labouring under the misapprehension that everybody walked in the middle of the road.. Was it held in July/August in those times? I just remember the weather being stinking hot so that walking around in search of venues was a major effort.

As for music, I recall a master class being given by a cranky Charmian Gadd, dissatisfied (and showing it) at the poor preparation of some participants. A major concert in the Civic Centre escapes into the dim recesses of the memory, but a reading of the Brahms Horn Trio in a church on Sunday morning was a valuable introduction to a work that I’d never heard till then.

For this year’s opening night concert, an impressive number turned up, even if (as with so many chamber music events these days) the patrons were mainly elderly. What they heard was varied in quality and very long. Pace Jack Liebeck and his administrative team, this initial program was a farrago in standard of works and standard of execution. As for us spectators-from-afar, the event proved to be slippery: even with the program notes, you didn’t know what was coming next, or – more importantly – why.

Artistic director Liebeck came on stage after the inevitable voice-over salute to First Nations peoples and gave a speech that might have been better prepared instead of the stumble that it turned out to be. He told us that the first piece, Nginda Ngarrini Bi Ngya by Deborah Cheetham, would/could not be performed because the composer/soprano was ill. OK; not the best of openings but bearable. He also told us that a visiting artist, Turkish cellist Jamal Aliyev, was also unavailable but his place would be taken by Michael Goldschlager, one-time member of the Macquarie Trio before that university took away its patronage of the ensemble. Actually, this change would have passed unnoticed by most because Goldschlager’s name led one published list of personnel for this opening night schedule.

So we started with the original second piece: Milhaud’s ballet La creation du monde, in the version for piano and string quartet minus the viola which is replaced by a saxophone – or not: this reading found Daniel de Borah on keyboard with violinists Elizabeth Layton and Natsuko Yoshimoto, cellist Trish Dean, and Paul Dean on clarinet. One recording with Previn as pianist uses a standard string quartet; some others go in for the clarinet-for-viola substitute. Whatever the reality, this version made for agreeable listening. testifying to the composer’s discovery of jazz and use of it to his fullest. No surprises besides some cuts to the original chamber orchestra score and, of course, the interest in seeing how Milhaud dealt out his gifts to this limited number of executants.

It’s of its time – 1923 – and to contemporary ears sounds rather dated, with lots of Gershwin-type flourishes and similarities, like the ghost of the Prelude No. 2 arising in the Romance. But the rhythmic blurts and syncopations present no problems for players of this calibre and the score is repetitious enough for you to feel unchallenged as it follows its comfortable, slightly swinging path through a slightly elliptical fugue to the precise vigour of the Final‘s fast episodes. For an ad hoc group, these players generated a fair interpretation.

Next came the Gran Sestetto Concertante, an anonymous arrangement for string sextet of Mozart’s magnificently assured Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola of 1779. Well, that was what the program promised but Liebeck forgot to say in his initial address, that the entertainment would feature only the middle Andante movement – so the Gran bit disappeared. For this oddity, Liebeck and Corey Cerovsek played the violin lines, Simon Oswell and Benjamin Roskams the violas, Elina Faskhi and Julian Smiles the dual cellos. This C minor gem was seen through with diligence and a tendency to hard-hitting, notably in those passages where not much is happening melodically and everyone is marking time (for example, bars 53 to 57, bar 126 up to the cadenza accompagnata).

Apart from these to chugging bursts, the only other faults to be heard came from Liebeck himself with a pair of squeaks: one in bar 27, the other at bar 112. It’s a fair arrangement, no matter who put it together: everybody gets a guernsey at some stage, particularly Faskhi whose first cello part enjoyed the initial violin solo and engaged with other gifts along the way. The absent orchestral parts – pairs of horns and oboes – provide chords and reinforcements mainly, with only a few points where either set breaks out into something else; so the loss in timbre seems minimal. Still, the colours are there in the original’s background and, if you know and love the sinfonia, you feel the lack.

A complete change of pace followed when mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean sang two numbers with pianist Kristian Chong giving her the blandest of supports: Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, and The Inchworm from Frank Loesser’s music for the King Vidor film Hans Christian Andersen. For the first, Betts-Dean’s voice held a plummy richness which worked against the seductiveness of the song itself, as did the all-stops power of the climactic So don’t let them begin the beguine. However, it was a pleasurable change to hear a real voice giving this song an airing, after nearly 90 years of scungy, slovenly readings from every Thomasina, Dick and Harry. Similarly, in the Danny Kaye song, this singer made the leaps accurately, the song very flattering to her production technique and her expressive ability. Nice to hear, but stretching the definition of chamber music.

A festival minor specialty followed in Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, a wind quintet that asks its performers to speak the text as well as play the score. In four movements, the work carries its heavier messages lightly, here performed by flute Alison Mitchell, oboe Emmanuel Cassimatis, clarinet Dean, bassoon David Mitchell, and horn Peter Luff. As the music originally comes from Berio’s younger days, you look in vain for anything resembling the chamber music for which his name resonated as an innovator – Circles, the Sequenze, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), Recital I. Much of it sounded uncomplicated, with the possible exception of The Fawn movement where the despair at man’s inhumanity to man is more stringently expressed.

But it’s very quick and full of action as the musicians shared the spoken lines, rather than having one player laden with textual responsibility. By and large, the necessary legerdemain (in the odd-numbered movements) was maintained, and the work held some surprises; for instance, it took me a while to realise that Mitchell was playing an alto during the last Tom Cats piece. I suppose the work appeared as a precursor to the evening’s finale, although Rhoda Levine’s libretto/poems were superior to pretty much everything spoken during the Saint-Saens.

After an extended interval (meant to be 20 minutes, according to the transmitted communication, but stretching out for at least half-an hour while the Townsvilleans re-discovered their seats/the building), we heard the night’s best music-making when the Goldner Quartet performed Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3. Right from the start, you were aware of the ensemble’s security, even in the linear balance that obtained in the short hymn-like chord chains above or below a drone that framed the score’s discussion. As the initial Moderato progressed, the Goldners’ settled personality reassured, their mutual confidence a gift to the music itself.

This reliability came into higher focus in the following Allegro energico where rough open fifths and dislocated rhythmic pulses demonstrated these musicians’ preparation and integrity of interpretation, even turning the two folksy interludes into something more impressive than bucolic dross or fiedel whining. Speaking of twos, the group generated a pair of powerful highpoints in the threnody-like Adagio. Even more telling skill came across in this movement’s polyphonic webs: tough writing where material is packed together with weight that approaches suffocation.

In his finale, Vasks brings in bird imitations – simple trills and susurrations that meld with the opening movement’s hymn chains. A burst of folk-music stamping, then back to the hymn+trills; some more Latvian hoedown before a hohepunkt, and the work fades into silence through its opening material. Vasks suggests that his work is linked to the twin concepts of Christmas and peace; his vision is a personal one in that this feast-day is pretty fraught, and his prospects for a universal armistice remain open-ended. So, while affecting in its emotional language, the quartet is unsettling, despite its luminous final bars, disrupted by a ridiculously prominent cough from a patron during the second-last bar (where do they dig these people up?)

We came, at last, to the Carnival of the Animals. The two pianists whose work is central to the score were Chong and Daniel Grimwood. Mitchell and Dean returned as woodwind soloists; the string quintet comprised violins Layton and Brigid Coleridge, viola Oswell, cello Goldschlager, and double bass Phoebe Russell. In charge of the percussion, Jacob Enoka played xylophone and possibly a glockenspiel for the original’s glass harmonica; to be honest, I was looking at the score for the entire performance. Damien Beaumont provided the prefatory verses to each movement, and I wish he hadn’t; I don’t know who wrote them but the effort was misplaced because of a lack of wit, rhyme, and self-restraint (a few of them were longer than the music they preceded).

This wasn’t the cleanest of renditions, but I suppose you’d have to expect that with necessarily insufficient rehearsal time to prepare this deceptive work. Something odd happened in the contrary-motion glissandi in bar 11 – or was it simple clumsiness? Nothing disturbed the Lion’s March or the Hens and Roosters. The Wild Asses piano duet only came apart at one obvious point; then Chong supplied a deftly graduated support of triplets for Russell in the Tortoises pages. Elephant and Kangaroos passed painlessly.

Aquarium proved delicate although someone had problems settling into the first bar’s rhythmic mesh. Personages with long ears is marked ad lib; both violinists took full advantage. In the pretty simple Cuckoo in the deep woods, the pianos were out of sync at about bar 8/9 and the last chord failed to impress as a united effort. Mitchell skittered through Aviary without dropping a note, as far as I could tell. Chong and Grimwood went for broad humour in Pianists, deliberately hitting wrong notes and getting out of time with each other; for me, the fun lies in the executants’ ability to become automata.

Fossils brought Enoka’s xylophone into the sound-world, even though that instrument’s part is repetitive and simple. Then Goldschlager played a sensitive, restrained The Swan, although some stretches to the line’s top notes were achieved with effort, like the top D just before Figure I in the Durand edition. And the Finale bounced along with no apparent flaws, apart from a disjunction six or seven bars before Figure 7. The night ended at 10:45 pm, leaving me satiated, but not in a totally satisfied way.

As I say, this program was a mash-up, not helped by a lack of determination in certain pieces, especially the final offering. It was hard to avoid the impression that this program lacked any cohesion; it was as though pieces were being given on spec, to see how they would go. Somehow, the whole exercise struck me as provincial, rudderless, pitched at an unnecessarily low level (typified by Beaumont’s twee commentary). You have to hope that later events prove more coherent in their essentials; we’re all celebrating that we’ve been allowed out of detention, but that shouldn’t mean that, as a fine entertainer once said to us, anything goes.

******************************

The above was written before I looked at upcoming programs in the festival. Now that I’ve seen what’s on offer, I’ve been too harsh: those over this weekend also have an everybody-in ambience, as though available participants dictate the events – which is as strange as Liebeck’s request for patrons to vote on their favourite piece of chamber music, with an aim of programming the most acclaimed works at the next festival. My money’s on the over-familiar like the Archduke and the Trout – anything with a nickname – the American, Dumky, Spring, Kreutzer. I’m almost prepared to lay money that Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky will not get nominated. In fact, my gamble would probably extend to any living composer.

The more, the merrier

THE WEAPONS OF RHETORIC

Bach Akademie Australia

Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, New South Wales

Saturday June 11, 2022

The best moments of this Bach celebration came when the numbers performing were at their largest. Not that this is saying much because the Akademie doesn’t run to crowded stages, their emphasis being on a refinement of tone that can lead to tenuousness. But, of the six works or extracts programmed, those I enjoyed most were the ensemble’s version of the superb Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and the night’s finale – the Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043. Both were chamber-proportioned with one instrument for the orchestral violins and viola line in the Double Concerto, and one instrument per line in the Brandenburg.

Laura Vaughan opened the recital with Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord, Neal Peres Da Costa playing the keyboard. The opening Adagio set off alarm bells with an enunciative error hitting the string line as early as bar 7, but the actual progress of the movement was uneasy as the viola’s output proved uneven, dipping in and out of audibility while the harpsichord stayed omni-present. In the pendant Allegro, Vaughan had her hands full ensuring the accuracy of line, but her delivery lacked dynamic differentiation; admittedly hard to achieve when you eschew vibrato and have your hands full of semiquavers. Still, these pages relied largely on the harpsichord for bite and shape.

Patches of the eloquent Andante succeeded, mainly those parts where the harpsichord is responding to figured bass directions only, but the continued unevenness of the viol disappointed, especially in closely integrated segments where lines overlap and link motivically. As for the final Allegro, Vaughan seemed yet again hard pressed to get her notes out, let alone do anything with them. For this reason, much of the movement’s high spirits failed to fire, and scintillations like the quick bumps in bars 100, 102, 104 and especially from bar 106 through to the exhilaration of bar 110 preluding the return home, all failed to carry and to have their full effect.

To take us through the Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering, Akademie founder Madeleine Easton and Julia Fredersdorff played violins, Karina Schmitz and John Ma violas, Anthea Cottee cello, and Kirsty McCahon double bass. There’s no definitive instrumentation for this part (or much else) of this score, so this all-strings version works as well as most, although throughout its length I was inevitably reminded of Webern’s orchestration – a bad situation because I kept on mentally replacing the Akademie’s string lines with the Austrian composer’s imagined timbres. It wasn’t as though the players didn’t fulfil their roles, but the playing was rhythmically mechanical and the prevailing dynamic remained bland and colourless, even in moving passages like the touching cadence in bar 39.

Surprises like the exposed bass line from bar 66 to bar 72 was given as a gruff, uninflected grumble, and the written out top-line mordents in bar 93 simply didn’t carry. At the end, the last five bars in Webern’s version radiate jubilation and achievement, albeit with a small orchestra’s resources; this sextet maintained their chugging approach and brought about an unexceptional end to this magnificent structure. Fair’s fair: everyone stuck to their period-authentic guns and laid bare the architecture, but is that enough? To me, the effect was that of an exercise, one carried out half-cocked.

Solo violas (da braccio) for the Brandenburg 6 were Schmitz and Ma; Vaughan and Jenny Eriksson played violas da gamba; Cottee enjoyed the prominent cello line; McCahon’s double bass stood in for the original violone and Da Costa gave ample support with his cembalo/harpsichord. I’ve heard other performances that were more accurate and polished, but not another that proved as enjoyable and refreshing as this one.

What struck you straightaway was the relish with which all performers threw themselves into the ritornelli; each time a pivotal refrain came round, the players smiled – with delight, I assume, at the splendidly rich and powerful noise they were producing, as well as revelling in a music that tests but leaves room for delight. The top viola notes were occasionally wavering off-pitch, but in gthe first movement these glitches were few and far between after about bar 40. And the continuo homophony with those insistent bass chords under the twinning top lines proved emphatically compelling.

In the central not-too-much Adagio, you became more aware of the swelling and diminishing phrases employed by the two viola soloists; nothing overdone or swooping but giving the weaving lines some shape, not leaving them to survive unadorned, without attention. Alongside this, the employment of differing dynamic levels shone through, assisted by the silence of the gambas, and taken full advantage of by Cottee who broke into independence at bar 35 where she was relieved from her regular six-crotchets-a-bar stolidity. In similar vein to the first movement, the concluding Allegro was a delight, pretty close to an unqualified one. Once more, the musicians showed obvious pleasure in their individual work and their collegial results in this spirit-lifting dance. I relished the give-and-take manners of the three solo lines from Schmitz, Ma and Cottee, and the polished oomph of the returning ritornelli did great service to the composer – and that’s the best you can hope to witness at any concert.

After interval, Easton worked through the first two movements of the G minor Violin Sonata, an Adagio and Fugue. On first hearing, the first of these impressed as strained, a sequence of hurdles. Second time around, the reading seemed more coherent in every sense except rhythmic; in that, Easton is not alone as interpreters galore take their own sweet time and liberties over the movement’s passagework with its semiquavers, demi-semiquavers, and hemi-demi-semiquavers. Only a few violinists I’ve heard adhere to the letter of the metrical law and negotiate these flights in strict time; for most, Bach’s score is a palimpsest only, so bar lengths can expand and contract at will. Still, the part-writing was observed properly and only two articulation errors emerged from the mesh.

The fugue, familiar to many of us from the organ Prelude and Fugue BWV 539, was a more rigorous test aa the linear interplay intensified, the first danger sign coming at bar 11 where a few of the triple-stop chords failed to resonate properly. Later, top notes started to waver or not register securely. But the experience was something of a mixed bag; the written-out arpeggio passage work from bar 42 to bar 50 succeeded well enough, with a bit of interpolated dynamic juxtaposition, such as organists make by switching between manuals when playing the same material twice. But then, a pivotal top note to a bar 52 chord failed to sound. Bars 61 to 62 revealed pitch problems; bars 74 to 75 were near-disastrous; and even the single-note passages were not exactly fault-free. Something of a struggle for Easton, and for us.

The ten Riddle Canons from The Musical Offering present logistical problems for any performers, I suppose. There’s no worry about the actual notes, which are not difficult to negotiate. But it’s an organizational question, deciding who comes into the mix and where. To a large extent, these exercises are paper music, not really audience-attracting; but then, after this night, at least you can say you’ve heard them. Rather than entrust them all to Da Costa (who scored Canon 9 as a solo), Easton and her advisers used a mixed quintet: herself and Fredersdorff on violins, an anonymous flautist, Cottee’s cello, and the harpsichord.

And on they went; five duos, a trio, three quartets, and the aforementioned keyboard solo. Easton prefaced groups of canons with a few explanatory comments, mainly telling us the pieces’ names, their peculiarities, and their functions as indirect praise of the whole work’s pseudo-commissioner, Frederick the Great. The actual outlining of each canon raised no problems; everyone appeared to find their places in the simple labyrinths but, as with the Ricercar a 6, the experience proved bloodless, if formally satisfying.

Easton and Fredersdorff took the solo lines in the D minor Concerto for Two Violins, Schmitz changing her viola for a violin to give a tutti force to back Easton, while Fredersdorff scored the ripieno services of a young musician whose face I recognized but who wasn’t acknowledged in the program (like the Canons’ flautist) but whom I’ve seen in Australian Digital Concert Hall broadcasts like this one on at least one previous program. Ma gave us the viola line, while Cottee and McCahon supplemented Da Costa’s left hand.

This is a very familiar work and we’ve heard sterling performances over the years, my first experience being the old Deutsche Grammophon disc from the late 1950s of Oistrakh father and son with the Gewandhaus under Konwitschny. Our Easton/Fredersdorff pairing came across as well-matched, both displaying their own personalities with a slight edge in volatility on Easton’s part, her partner giving a more polished production. Again, the ensemble appeared happy in their work with a good deal of mutual appreciation signs and smiling acknowledgement of a well-turned line. Their opening Vivace was exceptional because of its light bounce, despite that reinforced bass, bowing lengths kept modest and the entire body sprightly in attack.

A substantiating instance of the soloists’ striking their own paths came up in the central Largo with the fine-pointed partnership that arises in bar 10, here an understated pleasure to the bar 15/16 cadence. Even better music-making followed with remarkably sensitive interplay up to bar 31; but the whole movement is an easy-flowing duet and, to a certain extent, plays itself into your affections. While the finale made a rousing conclusion to the program, its success rate was uneven. For instance, the sweeping double stops in both solo violins from bar 41 to bar 48 were accomplished with impressive grandeur; their recurrence between bars 127 and 134 failed to catch the same fire because of a lack of pitch accuracy. However, with Da Costa driving the assault, these pages as a composite unit brought this night to an invigorating conclusion.

I’ve not got much to say about the contributions of commentators Jonathan Biggins and Jonathan Horton who made intermittent attempts to bring the arts of rhetoric and music into line, thereby aiming for some justification regarding this concert’s title. Some of the speakers’ addresses were entertaining, if several details stretched the bounds of belief or truth, and Biggins moved into an unexpectedly Jesuit trope in his final Bach encomium. But a sustained shared thesis might have been more persuasive, especially one that had been well-researched and didn’t look so blatantly toward raising laughs.

A byword for excellence

BORDERLANDS

Van Diemen’s Band

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Thursday May 5, 2022

Julia Fredersdorff

The name is Tasmanian but some of this ensemble’s personnel are off-islanders; not many of us, and only some of this group, have enjoyed the gift of moving away from the modern plague to a serene retreat in the uttermost south. Van Diemen’s Band is a mobile quantity with a wide number of musicians to call on; for this Musica Viva national tour, the numbers have been whittled down to a sextet – five strings and Donald Nicolson‘s harpsichord. As well as founder/artistic director/leader Julia Fredersorff, we heard violinist Simone Slattery, Katie Yap on viola, with two bass viols in Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba. Fredersdorff, Vaughan and Nicolson I know from their Latitude 37 excursions over the past 16 years; Yap and Baba have appeared in concerts and recitals under the auspices of the Australian Digital Concert Hall – that indispensable source of interest and income for so many local musicians over the past two years.

The Band attempted a parallel between conditions in Europe today with those that prevailed during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. Which almost worked as quite a few of those composers encountering troubles with borders/national frontiers four centuries ago appeared on the Van Diemen program – well, an exception was Philipp Heinrich Erlebach who wasn’t born until a decade after the long conflict ended. The others in the ‘Borderlands’ designated section of the program – Dietrich Becker, Samuel Scheidt, Jean de Sainte-Colombe – were alive at the time (the last-named still a child), although I’m not too clear about the difficulties and/or dangers that they experienced when moving from country to country. Becker didn’t move far during his lifetime, although the German states were hardly safe havens for artists; Scheidt spent most of his life in Halle; the little that is known about Sainte-Colombe suggests he didn’t move far from Paris, once he got there.

Only a few pieces didn’t involve the complete ensemble: Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir‘s Clockworking involved Fredersdorff, Yap, and Baba on cello; both gamba players worked through one of the night’s highlights in Sainte-Colombe’s Les Pleurs. As well, Slattery played recorder in a few pieces – a sopranino (?) in Scheidt’s Galliard Battaglia, a soprano In a Scheidt courant where she seemed to double the top violin line, and again the recorder dominated the latter part of the program’s finale: Spirals by harpsichordist Nicolson.

The group showed itself to be careful and poised in delivery across the length of Becker’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major. Not that there’s much to concern players at this level of expertise in a spare sonata da chiesa-style work, yet the output balance could not be faulted, nor individual linear contours. In short, an amiable sample of throat-clearing. Fredersdorff assembled a five-part ‘Borderlands Suite’ to exemplify her Thirty Years’ War parallel, beginning with Scheidt’s galliard that comprised trumpet calls imitating each other, the work going nowhere at a measured pace so that Slattery’s new timbre proved highly welcome. Becker’s Paduan gives all the initial running to the top line, Fredersdorff impressing with an effortless ease before her colleagues Slattery and Yap took up some of the burden.

As I’ve said, the gamba duet by Sainte-Colombe impressed for the even output of Vaughan and Baba, free of the intentional scratchiness and open-string reediness that seem to be compulsory among many interpreters of this composer and his pupil, Marais. In this version, the lines matched ideally in chords and interweaving passages of play to make a moving experience of this all-too-brief plaint. A clever contrast came with the Scheidt courant, which proved to be not as meanderingly fluent as many another dance in this form, yet suggestive of relief after tragedy. The suite concluded with the chaconne that concludes Erlebach’s Ouverture No. 2, notable for a staggered entry from everyone, which spiced up the original’s 8 variants on the descending-scale ground bass; nothing startling here but a laudably confident surge in play throughout.

Then the night’s first half concluded with an absolute gem splendidly performed: Albinoni’s Sonata II in C Major from the Op. 2 Sinfonia a 5. The opening Largo duet between Fredersdorff and Slattery with its stately dotted rhythm set the standard for a dynamically rich interpretation, during which all parties demonstrated a remarkable gift for playing softly without disappearing up an acoustic fundament. Another virtuoso turn from the violins distinguished the following Allegro, but then all five string lines collaborate here in a joyful mesh of interdependence that was as close to ideal as you would want. Further, the ensemble showed its mettle in the A minor Grave with a shower of ebbs and recedings in all lines, dominated by the two top lines with some eloquent statement/response work in bars 9 and 10, later going the other way in bars 13 and 14. The whole concluded with powerful, regular allegro that maintained an interpretative fluency that can often collapse when players are faced with lighter texture and rhythmic novelty. Here, the musicians stuck to their task with admirable integrity, so reaching a mark of high distinction with some of the best Baroque music-making I’ve heard for many years.

I moved to the back of the Conservatorium Theatre for the second part of the performance, which began with Muffat’s Sonata No. 1 from the Armonico Tributo of 1682; more of a suite, really, with allemandes, a gavotte, a minuet but a couple of graves and an appealingly level-headed allegro along the way. From further back in this excellent space, the Band’s breadth of timbre proved more apparent, and the performance style just as smooth-edged or finely bevelled as in the Albinoni, even if the music by the well-travelled French composer impressed as comparatively predictable.

Sigfusdottir’s work dates from 2013 and sets the string trio against an electronic tape, the two sound sources attempting to balance together. The Icelandic composer’s methodology offers a fusion of serious and popular, Baroque and rock – and the results here border on the inane with an overall plethora of perfect 4ths and 5ths in a fabric that moves slowly, if not ponderously. In aiming at giving us, as base matter, a pre-Industrial Revolution work-song, the composer’s offering sublimates a distinctive line to effects and the rocker’s stock-in-trade of numbing repetition. There’s not much to observe about the string trio’s rendition; I assume it fitted the bill because nothing disturbed the work’s glacial surface.

Some say the Sonata Jucunda was written by Biber; others attribute it to Schmelzer. Whatever the truth of it, the work has indubitable character with imitations of Turkish music not that far removed from Mozart’s rondo and the colourful flourishes in Il Seraglio, although the composer seemed to believe that Turkish music was played in unison or at the octave. At the same time, the progress of this extravaganza included some gypsy-indebted passages, especially some polished Zigeuner flourishes from Fredersdorff near the end.

Nicolson has used a Ukrainian song, Dusha moya pregreshnaya, as a thread through his short passacaglia, the melody appearing en clair when Slattery took up her recorder. The language is approachable and orthodox, and you can’t avoid the bandura/zither/balalaika suggestions that frame the work with the strings thrumming atmospherically in a product that stands as a lament for the Ukrainian people, faced with invasion originating from a moral leper. The Van Diemen musicians were playing to a sympathetic audience and enjoyed a warm response. Yet the piece avoids vulgarity and bathos through its skillful organization, simplicity of utterance and innate dignity. It seized the moment, yes, but it brought home the elevated principles underlying this occasion – honesty, charity, even (to my mind) defiance.

Starting the year embryonically

AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE – MOZART – VIENNESE STAR

Australian Haydn Ensemble String Quartet

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Monday March 14, 2022

Skye McIntosh

Streaming once again from Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, this Australian Digital Concert Hall recital was given by members of the worthy Sydney ensemble: artistic director Skye McIntosh, AHE regular Matthew Greco in violin 2 position, viola Karina Schmitz who may be just passing through on her way back to America, and cellist Daniel Yeadon without whom no period music performance in this country can lay claim to credibility. On paper, the quartet makes an impressive group; in the flesh, I’m afraid that these players have a fair way to travel before convincing us that they speak with one voice. Currently, the AHESQ fails to satisfy on a number of important levels.

We were presented with three works: Haydn Op. 33 No. 5 in G Major, Boccherini Op. 32 No. 5 in G minor, and the great Mozart K. 465 in C Major. Fine – an excellent launch to this year’s AHE season, if a tad chaste in personnel. But then, the live audience was not strong in numbers, as far as I could tell from the broadcast – unless a large crowd was packed into the back stalls. And I was hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd younger than (let’s be kind) 60. Not that there are any proscriptions currently in operation for events like this recital; venue organizers can ask those in attendance to wear masks, but I didn’t see any being worn. And, while it appears to be a pleasant enough space, what’s the Chatswood attraction? Previous online events show that CBD venues in Sydney have trouble attracting audiences, let alone the young; why promenade your wares in an ultra-conservative demographic that might as well block independently-thinking ne’er-do-wells from travelling further up the line at North Sydney?

Sadly, of the three works performed, I found the group’s Haydn to be the most unsatisfying. During the initial Vivace assai, first violin notes kept disappearing as early as bar 11. But McIntosh wasn’t alone: the ambient texture sounded scratchy and scrappy. Still, the first violin’s dominance is inbuilt and attracts your attention continuously – not always to a performance’s betterment, as the flimsy top notes across bars 21 and 22 demonstrated, and later a clumsiness in attack at bars 134-5. Up to this night, the players had performed in Canberra, Berry and up the road from there in Burrawang, so their roughness of ensemble surprised and disappointed.

Even in the relative safety zone of this quartet’s Largo, the question of weight distribution arose as problematic, like the accompaniment provided by second violin and viola in tandem for much of the piece’s length. As well, the uniformity of attack proved a moveable feast – either scatter-gun or over-aggressive (bar 44) – while the firm concluding measures lacked subtlety of dynamic. In the opening to Haydn’s scherzo, we were left up in the air rhythmically because of the inchoate chromatic scale across bars 4 and 5. Luckily, the trio made a more positive impression – but then, it’s four-square by comparison.

Refreshing to hear Greco and Schmitz being exposed in bar 33 of the set-of-variations finale, and Schmitz and Yeadon partnering for the penultimate excursion before Haydn moved to Presto and thereby brought about a much-needed infusion of verve and punch across that 26-bar stretch. However, this concluding glimpse of energy was insufficient to rescue a reading that seemed to be tinkering at the edges without giving the composer’s work its robust due.

Apart from devotees who have graduated beyond the Minuet from the E Major String Quintet and that entertaining mini-tone poem, La Ritirata di Madrid, most of us don’t know Boccherini’s 100 string quartets. Which is a pity, as this program’s central work demonstrated. Like the contemporary Haydn work just heard, this score favours the first violin, although Greco came in for a few partnership moments. Certain moments stood out, like McIntosh’s deft triplets peppered through the opening Allegro comodo‘s development. During the Andantino, Boccherini generated a well-tilled field of rhythmic titillations through the contrast of triplets with straight 3/4 crotchet passages. Happy to report that the ensemble’s unanimity of attack was pretty fair here, apart from a notable early strike from someone at the start of the movement’s fourth-last bar.

The composer gave his interpreters a good deal of interweaving and individual highlighting during the Minuetto con moto, the players here dealing out several clever touches, especially in the Trio‘s second part. Indeed, this movement generated some passages of individuality where the participants invested a certain layer of personality in their work, the which persisted into the concluding Allegro giusto where you gained some insight into how brisk and clear this music could be. McIntosh’s back-to-Bach Capriccio ad libitum cadenza sent a minor shock-wave through these ear-drums, probably because of the performer’s relish in the triple-stop chords that interrupted Boccherini’s busy-work demi-semiquavers.

Here was an intriguing inclusion in this recital book-ended by unquestionable and familiar masterworks. It gave plenty of indications – if they were needed – of the Italian writer’s capacity for originality and delight in experiment; nothing exceptional or disturbing like the opening passage of what was coming after this night’s interval, but venturing into the unexpected and not weighing down his lower-voiced players with supplementary pap.

Despite some drawbacks, the final piece proved the night’s most satisfying experience, in part because of the group’s employment of vibrato and the consequent production of a less strident sound colour, even in the chromatic meanderings of Mozart’s opening Adagio. Not everything went swimmingly, Yeadon sounding stressed for no apparent reason at bars 101 to 102. But the writing quality had moved onto a more finished plane than that which obtained in the program’s other content so far; even the polyphonic interplay was more satisfyingly couched and striking, as at the eloquent entry from Schmitz at bar 45. As well, the musicians allowed a fluency to their delineation of metre and pulse, giving space for moments of individual difficulty which is one of the vital requirements in chamber playing.

It’s the composer’s genius, of course, that carries off his opening Allegro, evident in the subtle changes that tittivate the recapitulation. But the performance was not able to maintain its sometimes worthy standard, displaced by odd distractions like an uneven first violin-viola duet across bars 225 and 226 and an absence of joyful elation in the effusiveness that begins in bar 235: that brilliant final gesture that carries us to the subdued final six bars.

Such imbalance in weighting also bedevilled the Andante cantabile, in particular the dynamic shifts that begin at bar 31 where the tailoring of voices proved to be something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. Across some pages, it struck me that the central pair – second violin and viola – had moved into a dynamically congruent space that sat at odds with the top and bottom lines. But the balance hadn’t improved by the time the ensemble reached that simple set of detached repeated chords in bar 81, and imperfections like that meant that these pages as a unit failed to capture this mind and heart.

Mozart’s Menuetto had its moments under these hands, despite occasional disruptions like the squeaky last F crotchet in bar 42, and several questionably pitched leaps in the Trio‘s second part. What you missed in the minuet itself was a sense of continuity; as it came across, you heard amiable scraps, if carried out with welcome fervour. I liked McIntosh’s manipulation of the metre in the opening strophes of the Allegro molto, slightly bending its shape up to the end of the first subject’s treatment at bar 34. In fact, this movement flew past with pleasing polish to the point that I was sorry we heard no exposition repeat – the only practicable one omitted throughout the night. This finale yielded a number of real pleasures, like the splendid duet for McIntosh and Yeadon beginning at bar 308 and an informed elegance at bar 391, and later at bar 404: points where other quartets batter the notes with Beethovenian passion. Certainly, this movement gave the program a convincing conclusion, if not one that wiped out the memory of a tentative Haydn interpretation and an absence of character in that unexpectedly original Boccherini.