Not the best of Spanish nights

ESPANA!

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  Michael Dahlenburg

MCO director William Hennessy pointed out in a mini-address during this concert that there isn’t much chamber orchestra music by Spanish composers.  And that’s true, if you’re talking about the big names on this program – Turina, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo.  But you just have to move a little outside the predictable round and there’s plenty of choice.

Much of this night’s work came in arrangement format, some of it authorised like Turina’s own string orchestra arrangement of his La oracion del torero, while other renditions sounded pretty fresh off the press, like Nicholas Buc’s setting of five pieces from the Espana suite for piano by Albeniz, and his treatment of three Danzas espanolas by Granados, also originally for piano,  The evening’s guest, Christoph Denoth, contributed to the festivities with his own arrangement for guitar and strings of Joaquin Malats’ Serenata which was originally composed as a piano solo before being hijacked by Tarrega for the delectation of guitarist the world over. What was achieved by Denoth’s revisiting?  Not much, although the string orchestra interludes proved welcome.

Even the two unaccompanied solos from Denoth were transcriptions, albeit famous ones, of two more piano originals: Leyenda (known to most of us as Asturias) and Torre bermeja, both by Albeniz.  Boil it all down and the only ‘clear’ content in this bitty entertainment arrived with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which concluded the program.

You could find little wrong with the Turina, lightly laced with some solos and a few brief excursions for string quartet with only a few traces of intonation problems near the last pages.  All fine, if you can mask your lack of sympathy for a blood sport aficionado; despite Turina’s mixture of religiosity and bravado, I’d always back the bull, just on the off-chance that justice prevails.

As inferred above, the Malats piece neither suffered nor gained from its transposition.  It’s a salon composition, a picture of Spain for export without any sign of individuality or colour.   More to the point, it was hard to see what Denoth gained by having a pretty bland string backdrop, particularly when you take into account his undemonstrative style of delivery which put the solo instrument pretty often in the background.  A stage hand positioned a microphone on Denoth’s playing podium but, if it was meant to help with amplification rather than recording, it failed of its promise.

Parts of the Espana were suited to re-planning, like the well-worn Tango and the Capricho catalan.  While much of Buc’s re-staging made for easy work, director Hennessy seemed to be dragging his cohorts into line during a hard-fought Preludio and coping with the awkward, non-catchy 5/8 tempo of the concluding Zortzico.    Still, at least you got a slight taste of the music’s Hispanic roots; later, in the Spanish Dances of Granados, matters weren’t so hearty.  In fact, during the first – an alleged fandango –  it struck me that the music could have come from anywhere, possibly even England at the time of the folk-song collectors like Holst and Vaughan-Williams.  It wasn’t the St. Paul’s Suite, but it impressed this listener as a close cousin.

Whether this impression of blandness in colour came from the original work or Buc’s clean-lines scoring, it’s hard to determine.  Once again, Hennessy seemed to be dragging his violins onward during the second selection (the famous Andaluza) while the final piece chosen – the No. 6 jota – was distinguished by some quartet work at its centre but little else.

Denoth’s two Albeniz solos proved questionable.  The repeated notes of Asturias gained some comrades as the player struck a few open strings that were better left alone.  Further, you missed the slashing power of the full-blooded chords that interrupt the piece’s driving moto perpetuo.  The Torre bermeja hardly fared better, as the chief impression that it left was of difficulty and awkwardness, as though the player was struggling to handle its intricacies.

The Rodrigo concerto enjoyed a few successful stretches, mainly in the central Adagio.  Michael Dahlenburg left the cello ranks to conduct, Molly Kadarauch coming on to flesh out the numbers.  From the start, Denoth presented a studied, laboured reading in which some notes simply disappeared, most noticeably in the decrescendo before the first movement’s cello solo.  The uncertainties continued with some awkward scale passages and misjudged rasgueado chords.  In the second movement, it was hard to fault the first cadenza, but just as hard to warm to the second one; in the build-up to this latter, I suspect that Denoth lost his place.

The weakest of the concerto’s movements, its concluding Allegro gentile, did little to help the guest’s strike rate.    Instead of striking a neat balance between courtly sprightliness and earthy vigour, the reading proved pedestrian, although you quickly learned to look forward to Dahlenburg’s tuttis.  The soloist was in all sorts of strife, to the point where some of the anticipated orchestral cueing-in became a matter of (informed) luck as expected flurries failed to start on time or continue; at one point, Denoth made no attempt at a particularly active scale run.   Full marks, then,  to the young conductor for shepherding his forces through what is a spectacularly transparent score.

Now we find out (Saturday morning) that the guest soloist was ill, his place being taken this afternoon at the Recital Centre by Slava Grigoryan.  I’m sorry to hear it, of course, but why wasn’t the Australian guitarist brought in before this particular night?  And if not him, then his brother or one of a plethora of local guitarists who would have nearly all these items – the Malats Serenata, perhaps not – under his/her belt?

At all events, Denoth hopes to be able to fulfil the other calls on this program’s tour – Warragul, Daylesford, Bairnsdale, Frankston – over the coming week.  Good luck to him and I hope he is heard to fine effect in those cities/towns.  But what we heard on Thursday last was sadly disappointing and – as it now seems – unnecessary.

 

 

 

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A night at the coal-face

SIBELIUS, RACHMANINOV, BEETHOVEN

Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31

                                                                  Caroline Almonte

For the second of the Mimir demonstration recitals – where young Melbourne music-students can see and hear how to penetrate the mysteries of chamber music by watching solid professionals at work – the organizers set a high concentration bar.   Not that it seemed that way on paper – a Sibelius scrap, a two-piano romp by Rachmaninov, the first of Beethoven’s last five string quartets – but, as the evening turned out, each work made for hard going.  Not that this was entirely due to the players, who worked both manfully and womanfully to reach their interpretative goals.

For example, the combination of violinist Curt Thompson, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor performed the Sibelius G minor String Trio – what there is of it because only one of the projected three movements, a Lento,  was completed.  The bardic element is strong with a plethora of unison/octave writing and slow-moving harmonic progressions, a fine set of excursions for the cello and a mood-setting sequence of single-note crescendi for the upper strings.

I’m not sure that this set of Mimir personnel fitted the bill ideally.  Thompson projects a finely shaped line which sang out intermittently over a hefty bass from Taylor while DerHovsepian’s usually strong, forthright contribution impressed as unusually recessive – until you looked at the piece itself which is not much of a gift to the viola.  The effect was of an inner imbalance of dynamic address with the bass line taking on an unexpected prominence.

Still, hearing a string trio these days is something of a rarity and it takes some time to adapt to the absence of a second violin.  This is compounded when the passage of play is about 7 minutes long; you adjust to the three layers easily enough.  But then, with a late Romantic efflorescence like this bagatelle, the temptation arises to mentally flesh out chords and melodies-with-accompaniment; a pointless occupation and a distraction, at best.  At the end, this movement served as little more than a brief curtain-raiser, competently delivered if unexceptional in impact.  I know you can’t expect masterpieces like the Webern Op. 20 or the Schoenberg Op. 45 to pop up every time a string trio is mooted but this gambit failed to impress for several reasons, not the least being its actual content

Speaking of distractions, the following run-through of Rachmaninov;’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos set my teeth on edge for all the wrong reasons.  Melbourne musician Caroline Almonte teamed with visitor John Novacek for this flamboyant exercise but her page-turner was ill-prepared for the experience, doing her job too early for Almonte or failing to move quickly enough.  And this is not a work where mechanical slip-ups can be ignored, particularly in the outer movements, Alla marcia and Tarantella, let alone the rapid second-movement Waltz.

Coping with this problem meant much more to Almonte than to any of us observers, yet it made for an enervating 20 minutes or so.   I assume that the turner was faced with a score that had both parts set out and she underwent considerable confusions separating Almonte’s part from the other; matters weren’t helped for her by the performers using different editions.   Whatever the case, the work’s progress often took on the character of a slug-fest, which is partly the composer’s fault because much of the writing involves massive doubling which gives rise to an ongoing heftiness.  Sure, there are more relaxed passages where the texture cuts back as at Figure 4 in the Muzgiz 1948 edition of the first movement, and later after the fff explosion at Figure 14 where the dynamic scales back radically to an unexpectedly placid ending.

Even the headlong finale has bouts of relative quiescence; after the initial quick contrast between pp and ff,  Rachmaninov lets up at Figure 16 for some restrained skipping before bursting back to the normal operating condition of hectoring.  This interpolation of potentially air-filled relief recurs twice more before the rhythm piles hemiolas on its 6/8 pulse and the performers head for an emphatic home stretch.  It could be exhilarating but the overwhelming sensation at the suite’s end was of relief.

Nevertheless, Almonte and Novacek showed excellent synchronicity and responsiveness in the extended Romance, especially in the long stretch from Figure 2 to the key-change at Figure 5 which saw the interpretation reach a peak of consistent mutual sympathy that recurred later on with an interchanging of elaborate right hand decorative material, the whole urging towards a powerful D flat/A flat outburst at the movement’s climax.  This was a purple patch, lushly eloquent and delivered with a convincing amplitude of balanced timbres.

After interval, the program moved back into familiar Mimir mode with the Beethoven Op. 127 expounded by violinists Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor.  Does anybody else find that this is the most mentally exhausting of these late works?  Yes, it follows the usual four-movement format, unlike most of the following constructs, but it raises mental sweat at every turn through its relentless tension, especially the demands on the first violinist, the onward drive that seems to stop and start – the Baroque flourish of the opening bars and their recurrence in medias res, for instance – and the juggernaut approach to texture that comes to a head in the finale.

This was a hard-fought engagement, each player stretched if none more so than Iwasaki, notably in the wrenching – and I don’t mean emotionally – Adagio where the first violin sets the running and, with precious few interludes, has no break; rather, the part is an exhaustion in the Andante central 20 bars before the key change to E Major.   And the succeeding movements’ working-out becomes an intellectual onslaught as Beethoven launches into no-compromise mode, most noticeable in the finale where even the great performer-quartets are exercised to just negotiate the notes, caught up as we all are in an inventive maelstrom that stupefies by its single-mindedness.

No one can claim that this airing was flawless, although it held together rhythmically through all stages.  The finicky among us could point to intonational flaws and an occasional tension-easing interpolated hiatus.  But the players threw themselves into the score without reserve, giving of their best in a work that looks so sensible on paper while bringing it into sound presents a world of problems.  In the best possible way, this experience showed those young players in attendance (and there were many more on this night than had been present for the first in this series two days before) that the task of interpreting a masterwork involves a dedication to hard work – and that process never stops.

 

 

 

 

 

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A trying journey

KARAKORUM: A MEDIEVAL MUSICAL JOURNEY

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

This night began with a bang: a haunting, rhapsodic troubadour song in Occitan, the vocal line soaring over a single bass-note support.  As a setting-up of this night’s structure, you could hardly ask for better.   But, from then on, the creative inspiration flagged and what we wound up experiencing failed to sustain this opening promise.

Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia founded by Genghis Khan, was the end-point of a two-year mission undertaken in 1253 by Franciscan monk William of Rubruck who was chosen to travel to that distant metropolis with the aim of converting the ruler, Mongke Khan (Genghis’s grandson) and as many other non-believers as he could.  Through the long journey, William recorded his impressions but made remarkably few converts.

This entertainment, devised by Cambodian-born Khai-Dong Luong, is a show-piece for the French ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime which specialises in music of the 12th and 13th centuries.  But La Camera does not just perform excerpts from this neglected trove: the ensemble puts its music into historical perspective; in this instance, following William’s travel routes to and from Mongolia.

La Camera brought six musicians to the Brandenburg party: singer Bruno Bonhoure, violinist/vocalist Mokrane Adlani, kamanche expert Martin Bauer, percussionist Michele Claude, vocalist and erhu player Yan Li, flute/hurdy-gurdy/cornamuse player Christophe Tellart.  Paul Dyer kept a low profile behind his chamber organ while his fellow-Brandenburgers were all strings:  violinists Shaun Lee-Chen, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, with bass violin Jamie Hey.  Helping the visiting singers along their paths were five male members of the ABO Choir.

Playing William, dressed in a Franciscan habit, Australian actor David Wenham recited a narrative which took us from Constantinople and back again (well, a tentative launch onto the return road) with a few dramatic frissons along the way.   He wasn’t amplified, which didn’t matter to those of us near the front, but might have proved irritating to patrons in the balcony because of the occasional volume drop at the end of sentences.

But, despite Wenham’s function as a focus for the Karakorum story, the night’s attention focused on Bonhoure, the Camera’s music director and, for all intents and purposes, the fulcrum of this concert’s action.  His voice featured in most of the works heard and his positioning on stage, allied with his physical movement, meant that he attracted your eyes and ears almost continuously.  Some relief came with a Mongolian chant sung by Yan Li and a Sufi one from Adlani, which provided a fine complement to Bonhoure’s opening troubadour song.

Most of this night’s music has been recorded by the Camera with only two extra items inserted for this tour: a Gregorian Credo which only lasted up to Et homo factus est; and a concluding Kyrgyzstan melody, With hearts high, to bring the monk’s odyssey to a rousing conclusion.

The projected duration of this concert was 80 minutes; in fact, it lasted for 100 and I was pretty tired by the end.   Yes, the narrative interludes had their moments, although Wenham gave little suggestion of character to William who presented as yet another naif like Diver Dan or Faramir.   But then, the actor was handicapped in his personification because the whole original exercise, devised by Louis IX, was doomed from the start: William himself was unprepared  –  he made so few converts because he didn’t speak any of the languages of the lands through which he travelled.   He preached, but who understood?

As for sustaining most of the vocal brunt of Karakorum, Bonhoure does not have a particularly interesting voice and, while agreeable enough, it remains one-dimensional, displaying little ability to change timbres.  After the initial beguiling Austorg d’Aurillac song, he opened the Sufi chant Loving the beauty of Layla with a counter-tenor falsetto, articulating lots of same-note phrases in this lover’s plaint while the ABO vocal quintet gave him a monosyllabic drone support.  This sounded mildly exotic yet  bland.  Another troubadour song passed by without much effect.  By contrast, in his vocal work, Adlani projected a less well-honed product but his vocalising sounded more convincing, possibly because he was not caught up in attracting attention which Bonhoure did to the point of irritation.

For a time, the Orient won out with some dance music that I believe might have been from the Urals but which could have come from any corner of the Mediterranean from Makre to Tunis and would not be notable or out-of-context today.  As William got more involved in his task, Bonhoure sang three Gregorian chants – Miserere mei, Deus, Vexilla regis (which was juxtaposed with a fine adhan from Adlani in a musically uncomfortable counterpoint), and Salve Regina.  This last was punctuated with violin interludes that pushed some catchy Oriental melismata into the ideological fray.

By which stage you had well and truly received the message that this night’s music was essaying a kind of East and West meld; first you get a bit of Gregorian, then you have a stretch of throbbing sinuousness.   So, really, not a melding but a comparison with the director and musical director wanting to interweave the two strands of material.  The Creed extract was followed by a substantial erhu solo before Yan Li’s Heart beating in the steppes Mongolian lyric (was it sung in Chinese?); what inevitably followed was another Gregorian block where the Ave Regina caelorum antiphon and the A solis ortus cardine hymn signified that William had reached Karakorum.

In Wenham’s narration, Mongke Khan’s court reception was alarming until William realised that the whole crowd was drunk.   Cue an erhu solo called Tang Tang (a Mongolian lyric) and a drinking song, at which point Bonhoure unleashed his inner Alexis Zorba; the over-acting here verged on Playschool obviousness.  After this bout of pagan happiness, it was back to business with the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence for Pentecost, Bonhoure working indefatigably over an instrumental Alberti bass with some vehement erhu commentary.

La Camera’s Claude enjoyed a solo spot here, her instrument sounding very like a tabla that had come tapping its way up from the south.  This led into Adlani’s Vision of the Beloved Sufi chant, a very welcome break from the prevailing regime although – not for the first time – the music itself began with an unexpectedly banal 4/4 pulse before altering to a more reassuring irregular pattern.  For all that, the actual vocal line recalled the free-ranging solid ululations of Umm Kulthum – which could be a testament to the unchanging nature of Arabic music over eight centuries.

The narrative’s climax came at a debate before Mongke Khan where each religion – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – asked and answered questions of each other.  Various members of both La Camera and the ABO took on the lines of the disputants while, in the background, the Sanskrit chant of Om mani padme hum served as a sustained underpinning, presenting a strange theological situation for William, his Nestorian co-religionists and the Muslims.  But, as the guru from Liverpool sang, let it be.

Bonhoure signified William’s going home by leading the Veni, veni Emmanuel hymn – two verses of it – before the Kyrgyzstan tune took over and Bonhoure did his best whirling dervish imitation.   Yes: sometimes you’ve got to forget all that theological malarkey and just have a good spin.

In this semi-staged diversion, Luong and Bonhoure seemed to be constrained by a limited view of the music relevant to the enterprise.   Without the two troubadour songs, the West was all Gregorian chant.   On the other hand, the tourist sound-track to Mongolia took in music from the Black Sea, the Urals, Mongolia itself, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Sufi and Buddhist chants and hymns.  Fine; although, in several instances, this Eastern music itself sounded alarmingly ‘modern’.

Despite all these reservations, I was in a clear minority because the Murdoch Hall audience exploded into an enthusiastic reception at the performance’s conclusion.  Mind you, I have a cynical theory that explains why every Mahler symphony is greeted with a standing ovation: audiences just want to get out of their seats.  But to my mind, in the Karakorum hegira, you had to wait for isolated moments that arrested your attention;  riveting music-making was pretty rare.

For the most part, the combined band worked through their tasks with aplomb and gravity.  Dyer’s organ was close to inaudible for most of the night, as was Bauer’s kamanche.   On the other hand, the erhu enjoyed dynamic prominence and Tellart’s piquant wind contributions enriched a good many string-drone passages.

Despite Dyer’s enthusiasm for La Camera’s work which led him to invite the ensemble to participate in this mixed-bag construct, I left the Recital Centre feeling flat and believing that the whole concept might have succeeded more if originality of structure and musical content had not been so hard to find.

 

 

 

 

 

Collaboration more than fusion

THE KITES OF TIANJIN

Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday July 26

Finally, Adam Simmons and his Creatives have come to the end off their projected five events celebrating The Usefulness of Art; well, I say ‘the end’ but Simmons proposes that there are more avenues to explore in future years.  Just as well if this utilitarian innovation has any sustaining force to run counter to any Wildean denial of aesthetic responsibility or purpose.  Still, we could hope that any new manifestations of this creative drive might take an original path.

In the latest exploration, Simmons stuck to his by-now habitual practice of alternating improvisatory passages with through-composed blocks.  On one side, he sat at the head of a quintet of saxophonist-flautists – Cara Taber, Gideon Brazil, Paul Simmons, Sam  Boon – with a counterweight of  trumpets (Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish), trombone (Bryn Hills) and guitar (David Brown).   In a circular framework at the rear sat/stood Carmen Chan on marimba, double bass Howard Cairns, Niko Schauble and Nat Grant on drums with Pete Lawler manipulating a space drum.

At the centre of the ensemble sat guest Wang Zheng-Ting, this country’s leading expert on the sheng, the Chinese mouth-organ that looks like a cluster of pipes, looking for all the world like a rank neatly extracted from a pipe organ.  This artist’s presence gave plenty of significance to the night’s title; both he and Simmons visited kite-maker Wei Guoqiu in Tianjin earlier this year and conceived of this collaboration as an illustration of the Simmons creed with a Chinese flavour.

The opening movement, Can you see the wind?, brought all flutes into play – concert, alto, piccolo, bass – concentrating on one note and the inevitable shifts in balance as players’ breath spans overlapped.  With the entry of the sheng, prevailing dynamics required a move to saxophones because of the Chinese instrument’s penetrating timbre but a later duet for Chan’s marimba and Ting came about as close as this near-hour-long recital could to a persuasive fusion.

Each of the later stages of this seven-part suite had its own individual initial sound-colours: marimba and bass, marimba and Schauble’s drum-kit, sheng and Simmons’s sax in exposed duet.  These set the musical work into motion before the rest of the players entered, either individually or en masse. As in previous concerts, several of the work’s segments built up to frenetic sustained sonic blasts for all players, Ting entering into the welter with aplomb.

In later movements, the musical pace slowed down.  Free as the birds had two players put down their instruments to manipulate small kites around the performing space, while a screen on an oblique angle outside the space’s windows played a film of clouds with birds.  This gave way to the finale, The art of breath, which had the musicians show exactly what that entailed; not exactly novel but undeniably useful.

For the most part, this night’s action appeared to me to be operating on two levels: one, where the focus fell on individual, often pointillist sounds or simple folk-style tunes; the other, that circumscribed free-wheeling where the musicians pick their own way through the mesh but not venturing very far outside the predictable.  This alternation can make for moderately interesting moments but I had the feeling that the ensemble was very familiar with this format and not inclined to break out of the tried and tested.

You couldn’t see this as a fusion of East and West since the sheng stuck out too prominently from the general texture at certain critical stages.  When Ting played softly and the accompaniment remained sparse, the sound was not particularly Oriental; in tutti moments, I found it difficult to pick much out beneath the combined sax/trumpet onslaught.

Simmons is a significant presence in that musical sphere that balances on the cusp between jazz and serious music, to the point that, at some stages of his performances, the distinctions fall away – and that is a very useful achievement.   But, on this particular night, it seemed to me that both he and his colleagues were repeating themselves; that this particular vein has been sufficiently worked out; and that this particular stretch of music-making didn’t succeed in welding a distinguished guest into the ensemble’s practice patterns and musical behaviour.

Retrospective thorn amid two roses

BEETHOVEN WIDMANN BEETHOVEN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 3

                                                                        Jorg Widmann

Coping with a temporary personnel change, the ASQ played host to cellist Michael Dahlenburg, principal with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra who has also been occupied in recent years with a parallel career as a budding conductor.   The ensemble’s regular bass line, Sharon Grigoryan, is on maternity leave.   Still, this somewhat under-sized program fared pretty well in her absence and the house was respectable, if probably not as well-patronised in a week when the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition has engaged the undivided attention of a sizeable if not fanatical core of enthusiasts.

In a chronological twist, the players inverted the historical clock by starting with Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major Op. 135, then finished with the first-written of the Op. 18 set, No. 3 in D.   For comic relief to these benign book-ends, Widmann’s Quartet No. 3, Hunting, took up approximately ten minutes of our time – to my mind, half as long as it needed to be – but the score and its dramatic execution left no scars.  But, in this context, despite its minor debt to a Beethoven rhythmic pattern (the main subject of the A Major Symphony’s first movement, after the Poco sostenuto), the 15-year-old score didn’t make many intellectual waves, dependent as it is on gesture to sustain interest.

While the competition lasts and music-lovers are saturated in performances that are often prepared to the nth degree, your receptivity levels are heightened to an uncharitable pitch.   For example, the Mosa Trio opened MICMC with a blinder: three works from a broad repertory spectrum that took the still-not-operating interpretative standard to a remarkably demanding level.   These young musicians gave a burnish to Haydn in E Major Hob XV 28 No. 44 that even Musica Viva guest artists would envy, then invested contemporary Dutch writer Sam Wamper’s Portrait of Light with an emotional variety that was barely excelled by the following riveting interpretation of Shostakovich’s E minor Trio No. 2.

What was most exciting about this Mosa Round 1 appearance was the group’s discipline in not leaving anything to chance.  You were aware that their music had been pored over, every phrase shaped into the instrumental mesh, the dynamics agreed on but with such finesse that each participant produced just the right output to complement his/her peers.

More than anything else I heard in the Competition’s first days, this impressed mightily – and probably soured any perceptions of the ASQ’s Beethoven.  For sure, the Op. 135 enjoyed a stalwart rendition, its first movement presented with an admirable fluency.  Yet the overall interpretation failed to capture attention because the work’s progress lacked subtlety.   You could admire the homogeneity of attack and texture in a unison hiatus between bars 109-113, but a more aggressive example at bars 176-7 came across as less disciplined.   The recessiveness of Dahlenburg’s staccato bass at the Scherzo‘s opening meant that you had to wait for a fair while to make any rhythmic sense out of the upper lines’ suspensions and syncopations – right up to bar 33, to be exact.

The work’s last movement – now that the Muss es sein? Es muss sein! sub-text has proved more banal than life-affirming – gave these musicians no problems because, for most of its length, the counterpoint is clearly structured and the opportunities for dynamic ducks-and-drakes deviations are not that many.   But the preceding Lento appeared to miss out on innate opportunities, like toning down the crescendo/pp juxtapositions in the C sharp minor interlude, or sharing the labours more democratically from bar 43 onward rather than leaving Dale Barltrop’s first violin to carry all before it.

Much more pleasure could be found in the Op. 18 G Major score where the ASQ captured the first movement’s eloquent optimism, with details like the circumscribed C Major subject at bar 68 came across with reassuring balance.  As in the Op. 135, the fortissimo outbursts sounded unharnessed, so that bars 154-5, just before the recapitulation, seemed unharnessed, too emphatic for their context.   But, as compensation, the statement-response segment between Barltrop and viola Stephen King at bars 80 and 85 came across with satisfying clarity.

I’m always surprised at the stately pace that string quartets usually adopt for this work’s scherzo – whether they’re guided by their editions, or chastened by the number of fermata points, specific or implied.  This version proved unexceptionable if consequently unremarkable, even in the minor key Trio.  All the finale’s focus falls on the first violin and Barltrop skittered across its length with skill.  But the lack of a consistent game-plan meant that this Allegro wore out its welcome so that, by the time both violins collaborated in the final main theme part-restatement at bar 348, the movement had moved dangerously close to tedium.

Widmann’s piece brought about a small bit of theatre to the Recital Centre.   Adelaide director Andy Packer gave the players a white-sheet backdrop and used  the Hall’s lighting grid to cast the musicians'[ shadows onto it.  Did this add to the work’s impact?  Not much, but it didn’t distract overmuch.  Using the Beethoven rhythm as on ostinato and the hunting-horn opening to the last of Schumann’s Papillons as melodic material, Widmann opens with gestures – the players swishing their bows and giving the first of several shouts – before starting the music proper.  His developmental process is rapid and the source material soon becomes indecipherable in pages of thick working-out; further, the composer’s intention of using the four participants as a constantly changing series of alliances is sometimes clear, at other times apparently forgotten.

At all events, the sound-production techniques are a credit to the composer’s schooling in contemporary instrumental practice of the 1950s/60s, the cellist-guest Dahlenberg  eventually having the other players use their bows to symbolically stab him, whereupon he screamed/groaned and played a glissando, falling on his instrument.  Tableau.

Thanks to the ASQ for airing this piece.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll sound like an old Tory in letting this work pass with faint praise for its content.   But it’s not that the Hunting was really intellectually repellent or emotionally disturbing.   If only.   To the regret of many of us with an awareness of musical history and development,  Widmann has not ventured into new, let alone disturbing,  territory.   We have experienced this kind of happening plenty of times across my life-span and, almost universally, the effect has been to amuse rather than impress or astonish.   As a contemporary bagatelle paying homage to the inventors of 60-plus years ago, this Hunting Quartet is perfectly satisfactory.  But, once it’s played, that’s it; there is no more, with nothing of substance to intrigue, let alone engross.

 

Time for a change?

JAZZ & BLUES

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 7

                                                    Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

One of the finest talents in Melbourne’s violin world, Markiyan Melnychenko is a delight to hear whenever he takes to the stage, whether in chamber works, as a soloist, or presenting a straight recital, as on this night when, once again, he worked with his mother Oksana through an hour’s music rich in variety: 14 movements with only one work expressly written for the violin/piano format.

I can imagine that, in his work at the Faculty of Music in the University of Melbourne (or the Conservatorium of Music .  .  .  or whatever seasonal change in nomenclature is being applied this week to that amalgam of the white building next to the Grainger Museum in Royal Parade and the brick building next to the white building in St. Kilda Road), Markiyan would be an outstanding teacher.  He has youth and enthusiasm on his side, and it doesn’t hurt that his technical ability shows no flaws, regardless of whatever the repertoire he engages.

But I’m not sure about the success of this partnership, simply in terms of the product achieved.  Oksana plays with security and an obvious awareness of what her responsibilities entail, yet the collaboration impresses as uneasy; not exactly lop-sided but not far from it.  On Monday’s program of incidental music by Korngold for Much Ado About Nothing, then four of Heifetz’s selections from Porgy and Bess, followed by the Ravel Violin Sonata, winding up with more  Gershwin/Heifetz in the Three Preludes, the instrumental balance waxed and waned uncomfortably, to most obvious effect in the brilliant sonata.

The work began well enough, with a restrained dynamic on both sides, although the piano’s first left hand passage erred on the side of insistence rather than titillation.  But climaxes like the build-up and arrival at Rehearsal Number 9 in the Durand score were keyboard-dominated, to the point where the violin’s 20 bars of tremolo were hard to discern for quite a while.  Now, it’s well-known that Ravel didn’t go out of his way to give expression markings; hence, performances of famous works like this sonata, the G Major Piano Concerto and the Piano Trio contain whole pages where the interpreters have to work out their phrasing and attack style in mind-numbing detail and hold many moderation sessions concerning dynamics.  It’s a matter of finding what works best for you and your partner(s).  With this performance, it struck me that more needed to be done inside these parameters.

The following Blues promised well, Markiyan a deft hand with the pizzicato ten-bar introduction, and Oksana began sensibly enough, imitating the previous string chords, but the texture turned over-weighty a bar after Number 3 where the piano has the lead – for a while – and the subtle syncopations at Number 6 where the piano makes a virtue out of a silent first beat in pivotal bars came across as studied, not throwaway rhythmic flicks. The fortissimo marking at Number 9 which carries through for 25 bars before a triple forte mini-explosion proved wearing, a barrage where even the harmonic shifts failed to provide relief.

The Perpetuum mobile finale also opened effectively, Markiyan getting off to an engrossing start on his semi-quaver packed progress towards the final quadruple-stop chord.  Throughout the movement’s main body, Oksana took the lead, mainly I suppose because the violin is busy following its relentless but increasingly exciting path while the keyboard has the motivic/thematic content.  Yet the movement turned into a slog, the dynamic temperature at its peak fare too early and any sense of elation leached because of the prevailing inexorable dynamic.  The occasional piano inaccuracy didn’t help.

In contrast, the Heifetz arrangements were much more successful.  The great violinist played fair and gave his accompanist something approaching equal status, although he exercised his anticipated dominance with attention-grabbing octaves and harmonics.  The Porgy and Bess excerpts began with Summertime – the most magical opening to an opera that I know.  Oksana relished the moody chain of chords that underpin the solo soprano/violin, Heifetz taking delight in sharing the labour of Gershwin’s moving harmonic shifts across the last six bars or so.

A few octaves seem to be slightly ‘off’ during the episodic passages of My Man’s Gone Now, at about bars 15 to 18 but the reading held plenty of power.  You might have wanted a less hefty approach at the centre of Bess, You Is My Woman where, in the opera, both singers come into duet but the final bars made up for any shortcomings with their splendid lyrical resolution.  Most of the interest for It Ain’t Necessarily So fell on Markiyan’s faultless pitching even when ‘bending’ his notes in the best Cab Calloway fashion.  It would have been a kind gesture to us Gershwin enthusiasts to perform the complete set of Heifetz arrangements with A Woman Is A Sometime Thing but we should be grateful that the Melnychenkos resurrected these four pieces that seem to have disappeared from recitals, even as encore materiel.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes, as Markiyan observed, have more Latin-American dance rhythms in their outer segments than jazz, but the central Andante is a great blues, one of the composer’s most simple and moving set of pages.  These also, thanks to Heifetz, share the labour and these performers rollicked through them with enthusiasm.  Oksana got the final bass note of the middle prelude wrong, quietly correcting it, but hit further trouble in the final Allegro‘s middle section where the insistent E flat minor tonality gives way to some fast chromatic creeping upwards which to these ears sounded uncertain in delivery.

As Markiyan admitted at the event’s opening, of the four works programmed, the Korngold pieces had least relevance to this recital’s title: you could find no jazz in them, and blues were out of the question.  The composer’s neatly structured lyric Maiden in the Bridal Chamber made a mild start to the recital, although Markiyan’s finely curved melody line made its customary favourable impression. The March of the Watch (Dogberry and Verges) is meant to be musical mock-heroic comedy but gave the evening’s first inkling that, while one player was aware of the fun attached to the play’s base mechanicals, the other had a more aggressive take on the scene.

The Garden Scene was a specialty of Miki Tsunoda and Caroline Almonte in their Duo Sol days and is a finely-spun instrumental song with a ravishing passage in harmonics and an avoidance of sentimentality as witnessed by the aggressive mood before the final transformation of the main theme.; its old-fashioned Romantic heart-on-sleeve attractiveness made for one of this recital’s high points.  As for the final Hornpipe, this was a bounding, athletic construct that could have come from a young Grainger with its happily exuberant echoes of British folk-music.  Both players had no problems with these boisterous pages which they accomplished with generous breadth and accurate synchronicity.

 

 

Seek and ye may find

THE CALLING

Afrolankan Drumming System and Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Sunday May 6

                                           Adam Simmons backed by Vikram Iyengar

Continuing his five-part hegira in search of a utilitarian justification for writing/making/listening to music, Adam Simmons fronted his own ensemble of twelve and brought in a brace of drummers – Ray Pereira and Kanchana Karunaratna – to give us an odd travelogue; partly psychological, partly geographical, fully emotional.  In The Calling, Simmons is documenting a trip he made to Sri Lanka two years ago, a visit to that troubled nation which came about from a wish to explore his own heritage, emanating from his mother who is Sri Lankan-born.

As usual, the hour-long odyssey was divided into parts; in this case, eight of them.  Probably the longest came first: The Calling which opened with a drum duet from the guests that exemplified the split  personality of their work as exemplified in their name.  Pereira stuck to the African percussion – djembe, dundun and, by way of Cuba, the conga – while Karunaratna played Sri Lankan drums – the ubiquitous gata bera and the thammattama two-part cluster.  Nearly every one else involved processed on while playing – Simmons and two saxophones, a pair of trumpets with trombone, two double basses and four percussionists with Peter Lawler playing a space drum although I didn’t see him at work on it, possibly because of my seat’s line of vision.

Matters moved, as they do in these concerts, to a determined climax or six, the various segments fooling you into believing that you had missed the cut-off points between movements.   But no: the performers oscillated between what looked like free improvisation over a percussive lynch pin and near-unison chorus passages where the melodic material could have been Sri Lankan or original.  This was energising to witness, even if the Afrolankan drumming brought back memories of a long-ago visit by Les Ballets Africains which remains the non-pareil in my experience of cross-rhythmic percussion brilliance.

The second movement  –  got the ticket? get the ticket?  –   consisted of all musicians repeating that particular couplet in unison while rubbing or lightly smacking their hands together.   Explanation? Well, it provided a textural change of scene even if the context remained elliptical.  It could have been an injunction to us all to get on board because the journey proper then began with another instrumental movement, Place: The Pearl which, from memory, appeared to represent the feel-good chaos of life anywhere on the sub-continent, not just on the streets of Colombo or Kandy.

A film dominated the fourth segment – Train: Nurawa Eliya to Ella – which showed some of the sights between those two towns in the highlands as shot from a train.  While the visual content was black and white, the accompaniment was strong on mimicry of train sounds, brass and reeds combining for some deafening train whistles while the percussion ran through a small gamut of accelerations and decelerations.

Living: The dance of Kattu Rati passed me by without leaving a mark; not as remarkable, the name of the postulated dancer has eluded my researches.  Another film – Train: Ambalangoda to Galle –  documented another trip, about half the distance of the previous one and along the nation’s south-western coast.  You’d be hard pressed to distinguish this from its predecessor in musical terms.

Connection: The Tooth of Buddha took us back to the mountains, to Kandy where the relic is held and venerated.  The film material here proved confusing, resembling an op-art cartoon/construct from the 1960s.  The music resolved into an extended, frenetic solo by Simmons where the accent was on his instrument’s physicality and the multiplicity of sounds it could generate when the player uses over-blowing as a primary mode of sound manipulation.  This, the high-point of the journey, was acoustically scouring stuff, delivered straight into the audience’s communal face like a call to arms; so powerful, in fact, that the lady sitting in front of me had to cover her ears.

While this vehement soliloquy was in train, dancer Vikram Iyengar shadowed Simmons, holding him by the waist, then by the legs, finally resting on the bent-over player, then returning the compliment.  Here, I think, The Calling was answered and the composer/performer came closest to articulating the intensity of his reaction to an unexplored facet of his heredity.  It seemed like a fusion of the ecstatic headiness that mystical/religious experiences can cause (and the Buddha’s Tooth is, above all, housed in a most holy site) and the expressive powers that a dedicated musician can find in carrying out his work, particularly in the field of jazz and/or high-flying improvisation.

Simmons’ Epilogue: Ice-cream, tuk-tuks and cricket offered a sort of descent from the mountain with all performers settling in to a celebratory dance; infectious and exciting to hear at these close quarters but challenging   –  the sort of thing where you’d be scared to get up unless you knew the requisite gestures and motions.

At the end, you were left wondering about what the experience was meant to achieve.  Simmons is sharing ‘some of my searchings’ – about his identity, his family, his home ground – and this process would have been of great significance and worth for him.  But, apart from The Tooth of Buddha section, a good deal of The Calling presented as over-excited, as though the listener had to be bludgeoned into entering into the world that Simmons was showing us.  This is not to infer that the temperature was white-hot from go to whoa, although the moments of placidity were very welcome when they came, in particular, a gentle susurrus from Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on keyed percussion, and a moment or two of quiet interchange between the basses of Howard Cairns and Miranda Hill.

So, in the end, The Calling was of use principally to Simmons, although he does hope ‘to prompt others to consider their own connections.’   Mind you, patches of the music-making made for powerful sonorous fabrics even if it becomes hard to determine how much of the eventual effect of the group’s output en masse is contrived – that is, conceived to sound pretty much the same each time –  and how much is the product of individual input. Still, what I like about Simmons’ events is the passion and conviction that he transmits through his work; not so much through his spoken introductions and post-performance addresses which sometimes threaten to fade into an unsettling silence.

 

Venerable bodies, fresh clothes

ALCHEMY

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew

Wednesday May 2

                                                                 Vesa-Matti Leppanen

In the current serious music habitat, nothing succeeds like the expected.  A case in point is this latest recital from Kathryn Selby and her kaleidoscopic family of Friends.  One of the more intriguing programs of this year’s five, the event began and closed with arrangements by Theodor Kirchner, friend of Schumann and Brahms (among others) and a master of his particular craft.

Now, at the S&F initial recital back in March, the musicians worked through an all-Beethoven diet, most of its elements chosen by a patrons’ poll.  As a consequence, the Tatoulis Auditorium was close to packed as clients heard yet again the Spring Violin Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata and the Archduke Trio: all scores familiar right through to the last note and justifiably well-loved.

Attendance numbers were only respectable for last Wednesday’s recital which had Selby back in operation at a firmly projecting Kawai instrument, well-honed guest cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and a new face to me in Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  Those of us who went along enjoyed Kirchner’s transcription of the Six Pieces in Canonic Form by Schumann, the Brahms String Sextet No. 1 in a piano trio version by Kirchner, and Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 2 – a carefully constructed work yet nowhere near as well-known (i.e., as popular) as the composer’s first Trio in D minor.

Schumann wrote his Six Pieces for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano; this means that you rarely come across the score being played in its original format.  This arrangement is a splendid example of Kirchner’s flexibility, even if the material he had to deal with wasn’t exactly spartan in its formality.  The first Bachian piece offers a canon at the octave with a functional pedal-bass line, and the arrangement shuttles the semiquaver-filled interweaving canonic lines between all three instruments.  The disposition of material gets more complex in the second exercise, as does the supporting harmonic matter yet the arrangement serves as a textural clarification as Kirchner employs contrasting timbres to emphasize the polyphonic interplay which, on a piano, can easily become muddy.

The third piece begins and ends with a pianistic flourish that would be hard to replace but the subsequent canon at the fifth with a mobile nervous supporting figuration is a gem that passes all too quickly.  Next comes a song without words in ternary form where the return of the initial material is carried off with a skill that impresses and touches.  The fifth invites pizzicato but the arranger sustains the subject’s primacy while the final essay – like its predecessor, a canon at the 5th – is a striking B Major adagio with the pedal line entering more fully into the complex than at any previous stage.

In this performance, Selby walked a fine line between over-prominence and self-effacement, particularly when her colleagues controlled the focal material.  Valve and Leppanen make a fine complementary pairing, the cellist a firmly projected presence in contrast with Leppanen’s clear and unforced line, a mobile delight in the more rapid canons and informed by a graceful benevolence in the second and sixth movements.  As Selby indicated, the original takes on a new personality in the trio format; if anything, the effect is more immediately appealing, so much so that, if you wish, the canons can be ignored after their first statement.  In this instance, the pieces gained from the timbral interplay, of course, but also from the performers’ individuality in performance.

The Russian work offers more cohesion than its better-known D minor companion but the composer’s individual voice emerges with strikingly comparable determination.  Both string players have to cope with long stretches of playing at the octave in the first movement and, while most of the time this can be the cause of gritted teeth for a listener, here the uniformity sounded true, close to faultless.  When the lines diverged for the Romance/Andante, the contrast in attack showed up strongly, Valve more immediately ardent but the violinist saving his powder for the high tessitura bars that open the movement’s coda.

Selby proved the dominant voice in this particular trio, nowhere more than in the Scherzo/Presto where the keyboard leaps across its range, attracting attention even when the action ostensibly falls to the strings.  For the concluding set of variations, the honours are shared more evenly in the central segments but the piano carries all before it – well-Selby certainly did – in the jubilant sixth variation with its exuberant keyboard reinforcement of everything that is happening.  At the end, you were glad to have heard the trio – in my case, for the first time in live performance – but you would need to experience it with players of this calibre to make it worth hearing again.

For quite a few of us, I believe, the Brahms sextet arrangement came as a mixed blessing. The work is a buoyant affirming joy in its outer movements where the melodic fluency impresses further on each encounter, yet it took a while to adjust to this new setting where the capacity for different allocations of responsibility is greater than in the Schumann Six Pieces.  In fact, it wasn’t until the re-statement of the opening subject at bar 43 that a sort of reconciliation with the new order came into play.

As things turned out, interest fell less on who had been entrusted with what but more on the details that emerged from this new sound scape, particularly from the piano in the first two movements when you were suddenly struck by many note groups that are subsumed into the comfortable string mesh of the original.

A double-stop that seemed to lead nowhere was the only unsettling moment I heard in Leppanen’s first movement work, soon offset by his civilized stentorian approach to the Andante‘s variations.   Mind you, this section of the work came close to ideal in terms of emotional congruence between all players.  You were also hard pressed to find fault with the Scherzo, a stolid gem that bridges Schubert and Mahler.

But the final Rondo made a fine capstone to this surprising, novelty-rich night, including a moving dying fall for the strings from about bar 266 onward.  No, you can’t improve on Brahms’ score for sonorous warmth and wide emotional breadth but this performance conveyed a fine facsimile of the sextet, performed with a consistent burnished virtuosity.

 

 

Heavenly length? Maybe

SCHUBERT OCTET

Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday April 22

                                                                    William Hennessy

In one of its more lopsided efforts, the MCO performed three works on Sunday: a short new work by Benjamin Martin and Beethoven’s Serioso F minor String Quartet took a little over half an hour, to be followed by a solid reading of the Schubert Octet where I think every repeat was observed so that we got the work’s full effect – all quite in order, since that’s the way the composer wanted it, even if attention flags somewhat in the Andante with variations.

Martin’s Passepied was composed to capitalise on the musicians available for the octet: string quartet with double bass, and three wind – clarinet, bassoon and horn.  It needed to be played twice, in the best Society for Private Musical Performances mode.  Although lasting only a few minutes, it showed an intricacy of statement and development that could have been made more apprehensible after a second hearing.

Naturally, the work raised a simple question: exactly what is a passepied? Most of us know it’s a dance form, found in suites along with the usual courantes, allemandes, sarabandes and gigues.  Unlike these staples, it usually features as an alternative , like a musette or a gavotte.  Even though I know they are familiar to Baroque experts, I’ve only come across one from that era: the first of two in Bach’s English Suite No. 5, once part of the AMEB piano syllabus.  The form strikes me still as an active minuet.  But then, you have to consider Debussy’s one that concludes his Suite bergamasque which is fast-moving enough but eschews the traditional triple metre.  Some commentators find a passepied in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and the change in time signature (a third of the way through the third movement) to 3/16 could denote such an interpolation.

For his part, Martin makes things more complicated by layering his 6/4 metre with a hemiola, so that you’re never quite sure where you are or where the accents are meant to fall.  The theme he uses is amiable and soulful, subjected to gentle treatment including a bit of inversion.  But this music’s real interest lies in its inter-meshing levels which avoid soupiness but impress as packed with ambiguities as when a simple quaver-plus-two-semiquavers pattern shifts into a quaver triplet; at least, that’s what I think was going on.  An aggressive climactic point provides the necessary tension and sense of narrative before the piece finishes both ambiguously and quietly.  A lot happens in a little space.

William Hennessy, the MRC artistic director, took first chair throughout the afternoon, with Markiyan Melnychenko his second, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Michael Dahlenburg the ensemble’s cellist.  These four were a common factor in all three works and were heard en clair in the Beethoven quartet.  This opened with fine melding from all involved, in particular when the two violins operated at the octave in those melting moments at bars 40 to 42, bars 51 to 53, and later in equivalent positions during this initial Allegro‘s recapitulation.  Still, these are passages of emotional rest and the main thrust of the work is both vital and confrontational, descriptors fully realised by all players.

In the Allegretto, Dahlenburg’s initial cello pizzicati set up a sombre ambience for a reading of barely subdued passion, distinguished by a soulful solo from Bramble at the start of the fugal entries in bar 35, and the haunting reminiscence of his opening gesture from the cellist at bar 112.   While the scherzo impressed for its vehemence, the standout moment came in the D Major Trio with Melnychenko’s unforced solo line at the start an unexpected if brief delight.  Uniformity of attack was the distinctive feature of the finale but this is the weakest movement of the four, disappointing in its Mendelssohnian opting for the light side in its coda, complete with insistent unisons.

Sometimes dominating the Schubert’s communal timbre but not self-promoting was Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet, a creamy presence in the opening Adagio/Allegro. That was, in some ways, expected: Schubert treats this voice with a sort of demanding benevolence – which cannot be said of the horn part which enjoyed the attentions of Anton Schroeder who seemed to make remarkably few slips throughout the work’s duration and gave us some memorably clear-speaking moments like the solo at the end of this first movement.  which galloped past with few causes for concern. Hennessy was under stress at bar 130 just before the exposition ends, then waltzed through the same passage at the repeat.

Van’t Hoff p[roved to be the hero for Schubert’s Adagio, but then he had the glorious opening melody all to himself.  Still, the honours were sometimes shared fairly among the wind and upper strings, Dahlenburg and Emma Sullivan on double bass not getting much of the composer’s attention.  As in the Beethoven, the Scherzo‘s best impression was made in the trio, here treated by the string quartet with high courtesy informed by an underlying buoyancy.

The Andante‘s tune is cute, almost affectedly sweet but eminently suited to variations, even if some of the composer’s exertions follow familiar tracks in patterns given to both violins and in the allocation of primacy.  Hennessy sounded flustered in the second half of Variation 1 where the lower winds comment before the clarinet arrives for a revealing doubling of the upper string line.  Dahlenburg made the most of Variation 4, surging through his arpeggio-rich solo with commendable authority and expressive address.  But this entire movement strikes me as a drop in standard compared to what surrounds it; not enough invention or shifts from the predictable.

In the Menuetto, the material might be simple but its shaping is remarkable, well instanced by the first violin’s soft soaring at bars 30 to 33, Hennessy giving us all a lesson in expert enunciation.  The whole movement, including the Trio, prefigures the Brahms Serenades in its suggestions of bucolic opulence, notably the octave duet for Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Hennessy at the trio’s midway point.

As it should, the reading ended with a high-spirited Allegro but, oh God, it’s long.  A nice touch came through the communal hesitations in outlining the movement’s four-square main theme but, by this stage, you could hear slight imperfections in the fast triplet passages from the treble instruments.  Not that you can blame the players: Schubert is dogged in his insistence on giving out his thematic material in various combinations; it’s reminiscent of those myriad bars of whirling action to be found in the finale of the C Major Symphony No. 9 but with less opportunity for dynamic brilliance.

The MCO patrons were warmly responsive at the Octet’s conclusion, and rightly so since the rendition they had experienced captured the core of this long-winded work.  It makes no great claims to profound statements but stands foursquare as a mighty cassation: a set of disparate movements, the best of them as appealing as anything in Schubert’s improbably large output.  The fact that these performers had given the program on the previous night in Daylesford might go some way to explaining several unaccountable if slight intonation lapses in the Octet’s later pages.  At least they’ll have had a day’s grace before giving the Octet again to a select group of affluent patrons in the Recital Centre’s Salon tonight at 6 pm.

Et in Arcadia ego

LET ME DIE BEFORE I WAKE

Arcadia Winds

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday April 16

     (L to R) David Reichelt, Rachel Shaw, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale, Kiran Phatak

‘And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’  It’s an old verse but a welcome one because it sets up the possibility of a perfect death – a matter of increasing concern to those of us in what we laughingly call the twilight phase of our struggle with mortality.  In fact, this recital took its title from a solo clarinet work by Salvatore Sciarrino, a solid challenge in sound manufacture for the Arcadia’s Lloyd Van’t Hoff and rendered all the more atmospherically grim by being presented in near-darkness.

Death  stood at the heart of this event, the very able quintet beginning with Music for a Deceased Friend by Peteris Vasks, a 1981 work written to mourn the early death of bassoonist Jana Barinska.  With an intentionally limited quantity of material, the score still holds great interest for its elegant placement of timbres, even if the Vasks habit of having the players also vocalise brings an unreliable layer to the texture, one entry in particular more than a bit wobbly.   As for the emotional effect, it was not content to stay on one grieving level: Vasks gave us several instances of rage against the dying of this young light, although the employment of a Latvian melody brought a final symbolic acceptance to the piece.

As an opener, this Music brought us into the players’ professional orbit, a place where the functioning of each instrument proved striking.  In the Salon, as everyone knows, there is no room to hide, the acoustic being immediate and dry and every note significant.  Fortunately, these young musicians are highly competent, well-prepared and unafraid to make their statements boldly; yes, you could hear the (very) occasional questionable note, but not two together, and the sense of collegiality – everyone aware of each other’s work – proved to be one of the evening’s major accomplishments, especially in this work where a good deal of the action isn’t circumscribed by time-signatures and/or bar-lines.

As a pacifier of sorts, the Arcadians launched into an arrangement of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.  I can’t pinpoint who did the arranging, although you’d have to suspect Mason Jones, because he worked over the specific movements we heard yesterday: Prelude, Fugue (replacing the expected Forlane from Ravel’s own orchestration), Menuet and Rigaudon,  Hans Abrahamsen’s version follows Ravel’s orchestration while the Gunther Schuller scoring for this quintet format comprises all six original piano pieces, including the Toccata finale.

David Reichelt’s oboe enjoyed much of the limelight, particularly in the hectic (for him) Prelude, where he took the lead in generating a suitably burbling melodic stream.  Probably the only fault you could pick with this movement was the overshadowing of Kiran Phatak’s flute which every so often got lost in the briskly mobile texture.  With Ravel’s E minor Fugue, the group ventured into territory that most of us don’t know, unless we’re familiar with the piano original.  Because it has only three lines, the texture remains lucid; added to this, the subject is short and simple, its inversion about a third of the way through given more attention than it merits.  But the players handled it soberly, not trying to dress it up with tricks of over-emphasis or self-effacement for the greater good; only the final open 5th sounded a tad uncertain in its pitching.

In the centre of the Menuet, the tenor-to-bass group of Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Rachel Shaw’s horn gave a near-menacing gravity to the Musette with its essentially D minor but tonally ambiguous underpinning.  These are pages that suffer from plenty of sloppy treatment when the strings get involved 4 bars after Number 6 in the orchestral setting; no matter how considerate the conductor, the passage’s dynamic jugular suffers an assault.  What a pleasure, then, to hear the dance given with piercing clarity, particularly Shaw’s compelling contribution.  And the Rigaudon came off well enough with a deftness of delivery that complemented its innate optimism.

You could admire Sciarrino and Van’t Hoff in equal measure for the evening’s title piece.  Multiphonics and the tricks of over-blowing have been part of the contemporary composer’s stock-in-trade for decades, although the Italian composer brought a new facet to them with his use of low trills below a top note; well, two notes alternating in the clarinet’s lower reaches is probably a better description.  The piece sets up a sound palette and doesn’t move far from the material of its first page but the sensory and intellectual underload make you concentrate on exactly what you are hearing – which includes the player’s breathing under and between phrases.  It’s a work that combines outward placidity with the obvious strain put on its interpreter to get the notes out.  It would be well worth hearing again but in an environment where the instrument enjoys richer resonance.

Moving away from the death-motif that obtained even in Ravel’s memorials to his World War I companions, the quintet was amplified by the arrival of Luke Carbon and his bass clarinet for a reading of Janacek’s celebration of his own youth, Mladi: for me, the program’s highpoint for the players’ open response  to the composer’s vim-filled essays in reminiscence.  This version might not have had the surging confidence that more experienced ensembles bring to it, but certain moments showed both intelligence and personality, like the self-possessed horn solo at bar 55 in the opening Allegro.

Later, the sextet worked to fine effect to meet the composer’s expressive demands in the Andante which suggests a slow march, only to break out into whirlwind bursts of ferment, the ambience oscillating as recklessly as it does in the middle movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta or in the final movement of the Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet.  If anything, the group took their time throughout these pages, making sure the contrasts in emotional content enjoyed room to breathe.

The following Vivace gained from Phatak’s bright, staccato piccolo in its rapid-fire outer pages and also from Reichelt’s controlled and unexpectedly warm solos from bar 58 to bar 78, and again at another Meno mosso spot, bars 103 to 116, this latter well-mimicked by Shaw, her horn jumping through a couple of awkward demi-semiquaver hoops at bar 121 without too much fuss.  I would have welcomed more rapidity in the concluding Allegro animato movement, even across the slower-moving interludes; I think the upper three voices could have handled a more brisk assault although getting rapidly repeated pedal notes articulated clearly by the horn, bassoon and bass clarinet would have been a big ask, particularly for Kneale and Carbon in passages like the rapid-tongued muttering between bars 54 and 66.

The Arcadians make a welcome presence on our chamber music scene for several reasons, not the least of which is a concern with promoting the contemporary, an intention clearly illustrated in this hour-and-a-quarter offering.  What is also appealing is a willingness to take on music that requires sheer hard work, like the Janacek sextet which is marvellously rhapsodic and energising to hear but entails massive dedication to gets its components fused and individual timbres balanced.   If you needed it, here was a splendid sample of this gifted ensemble’s talent and potential.