Calm craft

BOWER

Genevieve Lacey & Marshall McGuire

Musica Viva

Saturday July 24

Marshall McGuire & Genevieve Lacey

This duo was scheduled to perform on Sunday July 25 at the Old Museum in Bowen Hills where I first made the acquaintance of Alex Ranieri and his Brisbane Music Festival. Because of lockdowns, both projected and actual, the recital could not take place here, so Musica Viva set up a video for us outlanders of one of the Melbourne performances – either Saturday July 10 or Tuesday July 13. The music came under a general heading/title that could have referred to the Australian/Papua New Guinean passerine that we celebrate for its catholicity of theft, or it might have been intended to summon up images of the leafy structure found in all the best gardens and wildernesses.

In fact, the name deliberately suggested both. In their little-over-an-hour of music, Lacey and McGuire raised an atmosphere of beguiling calm right from the start, walking on to a suggestive pseudo-set disposed decorously on the Melbourne Recital Centre stage. A scene of circumambient penumbra was focused on a lighting grid in which operated the two musicians, around whom spotlights shone diagonally to the roof with dry ice adding to the aura of being nowhere specific, although that soon faded with the opening work. Lou Bennett‘s Baiyan Woka, a Yorta Yorta song, was arranged for the recorder/harp combination by Erkki Veltheim; as well as giving Lacey the tune and several repetitions of it, the arranger provided an electronic backdrop incorporating relevant instrumental sounds, assorted percussion, and the hum that surrounds you in the deep bush.

What I enjoyed with this piece was the tight intersection of recorded and live strands which were not allowed to meander on their own sweet ways but kept together as a complex. Lacey used two recorders to outline Bennett’s melody and McGuire sounded at his best with low register output. The only questionable aspect were a rash of harp glissandi; no matter how much you try to turn these gestures into something old and strange, the suggestions of France are inescapable.

Moving back about 350 years, we jumped to John Playford’s The Dancing Master and a suite from that commodious collection that alternated sprightly with leisurely; nothing exceptional here but the playing which brought to the fore Lacey’s sterling talents in rapid-fire negotiations and lilting sweetness. As a pendant came Jacob van Eyck’s Bravade, with some paper interwoven with the harp’s lower strings (by Lacey, during the Playford cluster) to produce a light tambour effect, supporting the recorder’s brilliant elaborations in the Dutch piece, here handled with more metrical determination than you hear in many another version that feels drawn to rhythmic waywardness in works from the country’s musically dominant years.

Andrea Keller, whom I’ve only come across before as a jazz pianist, composed I Surrender during last year’s lockdown. It mirrors the nervous repetition of those days – nothing changes in lockdown, but you’re on edge – and moves into slowly administered additions to the melody line. I suppose the main difficulty with a pretty straightforward piece like this one is that it loses you in its own pattern-making, and that involved both players. At its heart I Surrender is unsurprising – normal and not over-ambitious – but you could relish the bird sounds inserted for Lacey (the first obvious ones I’d heard so far this night), and a suggestive, moody recession that rounded off the work.

As if to make up for avian absence, John RodgersBirds for Genevieve gave the recorder plenty of suggestive sounds in a cascade that included breathy over-blowing and passages of sparkling pointillism as the movement ranged across bird-calls with a lavishness that mirrored the male bower-bird’s taste for whatever falls in its path. Rodgers expertly fabricated a real atmosphere of controlled activity; not that any part of the Australian bush would have yielded the chain of calls that Lacey produced. But that’s hardly the point, as Messiaen could have told you. More impressive was the composer’s sustained contemporaneity: his piece sounded freshly minted, thanks to its novel material, and its language connected to a post-1950 creative world.

Lachlan Skipworth‘s Cavern was set against a sound-track of what could have been dripping water and clap-sticks. This set up a quiet but expectant aura which I found was disrupted by a reappearance of those salonesque glissandi from McGuire. Here, Lacey used a bass recorder, generating sounds that came close to a dijeridu, but much more clearly pitched and mobile. As a piece of suggestive music, it succeeded ideally in suggesting the composer’s experiences of a Margaret River area cave, the piece actually a cannibalisation of the first movement from his own Quintet for Bass Recorder and Strings.

Another contributor to this hour of patchwork came with Cipriani de Rore’s Io canterei d’amor, with Girolamo dalla Casa’s divisions on it, the whole a Lacey/McGuire arrangement, I know only the original madrigal and you could find plenty of familiar melodic fragments in this construct which gave some splendid extended ornamented flights for Lacey above McGuire’s functional chord work.

The next work was divided into five parts and I think I was able to pick them all out. Bree van Reyk‘s threaded in amongst the infinite threading began with Lacey taking up a contrabass recorder which looks rather like an organ flue pipe and interweaving (as you’d expect) with McGuire in a mildly tortuous manner, before moving to a new section with percussive work in the harp’s bass, eventually featuring some snatches of Bartok pizzicato, the recorder also showing itself a tappable, snappable sound source. The piece’s middle gave us bird sounds on a regular recorder, above harp ostinati and what can only be called scrubbing. Then, a shift to a sopranino (?) instrument operating in its top range, the harp also occupied in its highest strings, before a final section used the contrabass as a melody source while the harp produced telling isolated notes and further scrubbing.

Most of my notes concerned themselves with the accidents of this piece rather than what actually went on. And it seemed that appearance-in-performance constituted a large part of its effectiveness. Van Reyk’s musical language is based on the tonal system, but with digressions, sections apparently linked by harp bridging, but its philosophical underpinnings went way over my head. Unlike Froberger’s Lamentation on the death of Emperor Ferdinand III, here a solo from McGuire which enjoyed a free-wheeling attitude to rhythm but proved to be affecting in its use of almost predictable tropes, capped by a remarkable ascending scale in the final bars.

Veltheim’s own Nocturne over blue ruins involved a prominent tape contribution as it attempted to take on the bower-bird concept, here realised by single harp notes alternating with dyads repeated mercilessly. For some time, I had no idea what the recorder (bass) was doing, finding its timbre almost indistinguishable from the electronic sounds; possibly single notes were emitted but they did a successful job of attracting absolutely no attention. Veltheim has based his work on the bandwidth of the colour blue – the bower bird likes blue – as well as the bower-as-shelter concept. Of all the pieces in this program, this was most reminiscent of a ‘happening’ piece, in the old 1960s sense; but then, from its content, it was also close to the most non-happening work we heard, packed as it was with white noise and mind-numbing repetitions. In fact, there was no need for the work to end; we could be listening to it still.

Last of the modern works in this aural scenario that leapt whole centuries at a single bound was a collaboration between Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey: A mutual support for precarious times. This would seem to be an improvised work, in that it takes a different form every time it is played, according to the creators. This piece also had a scene-setting soundscape, across which Lacey contrived some telling wobbles on her contrabass while McGuire did the contemporary thing by slapping his strings. The work’s background included some good old-fashioned sine wave sounds, with all sources indulging in sudden flickers that sounded like neurasthenia given physical form.

To end, we were given two luminous splendours, serving as memorable branches in the shape of this shelter. First, a version of Purcell’s Evening Hymn in which Lacey gave a brilliantly shaped vocal line to McGuire’s just-rich-enough continuo support; to a sensibility as time-warped as mine, that advent in bar 69 of the composer’s light but strong Hallelujah chain is one of the most wrenching passages in music, carried out here with near-flawless beauty. Then, arranged by Rodgers, Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin, which closes his Mystery Sonatas, found the players sharing the load by swapping bass and treble, as between bars 73 and 92. Despite this even-handedness, the piece gave us a chance to revel in Lacey’s brilliance of timbre and agility, especially when the hemi-demi-semiquavers started flying at bar 41, not to mention the rapid-fire same-note triple explosions across bars 115 to 120. This light-filled sequence of brilliant effects made the happiest of conclusions to a remarkable – and deliberately miscellaneous – program.

Unfortunately, that’s life

BARTOK, MY FATHER

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday July 15

Richard Piper

The rationale behind this digital broadcast was to spread far and wide something other than the pandemic. Constraints on the Flinders Quartet’s touring schedule ensured that many of its admirers would miss out on this program concerning the life and music of Bartok as seen through the eyes of his son, Peter. Hence the MDCH taking this venture into its packed schedule. In fact, the real mover and shaker in this enterprise appears to have been actor Richard Piper, who apparently made contact with Peter Bartok before his death early last December. Quoting from his own correspondence and from the book that gave this recital its title, Piper provided the filling between performances of some Bartok scraps, as well as the mighty Quartet No. 5 of 1934.

The actor’s contribution to this entertainment lies outside my purview; suffice it to say that the autobiographical excerpts slotted in deftly with the whole quartet movements, the last piece of the evening’s playing suitably celebratory. Piper seemed upset at one stage when dealing with the composer’s death, but that’s understandable; in the descriptions by Peter Bartok, the great composer’s American years appeared to be a welter of poverty, dislocation and illness. Well, there’s little doubt about the last, but Bartok was frail life-long. As for his living circumstances, interested parties in America have been anxious to downplay any suggestions of penury, although those of us brought up with Agatha Fassett’s The Naked Face of Genius would tend to differ. Certainly, the country of refuge, in particular its scholarly institutions, treated him poorly but, as far as European refugees in general during this period, that story is not uncommon.

Three of the small pieces inserted between readings came from the 44 Duos for Two Violins of 1931. Folk tune arrangements intended for pedagogical purposes, these are some streets away from the composer’s heftier products and these three performed for us begin the third volume of the four-tome series. First violin Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and second Wilma Smith accounted for No. 26, Teasing Song, with lots of fervour, rather more loud than the score suggests. Further along the night, the following Limping Dance was transposed for Helen Ireland’s viola and Zoe Knighton’s cello; this is a brief melody of no particular distinction but Bartok spikes it with plenty of sforzandi – 38 across the piece’s 30 bars. For the most part, these didn’t register – there must have been a momentary haze over my acoustic radar.

The third duo, Sorrow, has an introduction and mirroring postlude, the melody appearing twice – once simply outlined in the first violin, later given more intense handling by the second violin’s use of double stops. This made for a moving experience after Piper’s reading of accounts to do with Bartok’s last days and death. But then, of the three duos, it gave the players most meat to deal with, musically and temperamentally.

The exercise’s real focus lay with the Fifth Quartet. After a burst from Piper reading Peter Bartok’s early reminiscences about being his father’s boy-son-student, those trademark unison/octave B flats at the Allegro‘s opening made their usual stentorian effect, but some cracks started to appear early. The octave work between violins at bars 8 to 13 sounded untrue in intonation; Ireland’s viola sounded just as unhappy at bar 52, although a restatement-of-sorts at bar 70 was more secure; Knighton made little impression up until some splendidly carrying trills cutting through at bars 79 to 81. Despite all four performers showing tempo and dynamic control, the violins still showed discrepant across bars 87 to 96, an all-too-exposed passage over the lower strings’ overlapping ostinati. For sure, you could hear other places over this movement where the violins collaborated effectively – but that made the unfortunate moments all the more prominent.

Following verbal pictures of Bartok’s devotion to nature, forests in particular, the twitchy premonitions of night music beginning the Adagio molto gave way to those unexpected sustained chords from the three supporting players under Pavlovic-Hobba’s isolated chromatic motifs. This brief movement moved past without grief, even if it could have gained from a more meditative pace at the Largo rounding-out, and more care/precision across the segment’s crisis: the Piu lento beginning at bar 35.

Following a description of Bartok and Kodaly conducting their folk-song recording across Central-Eastern Europe (and beyond), the Flinders hit the mellifluously off-centre 4+2+3/8 Scherzo and made more of this set of pages than anything previous, coming to an early high-point in a riveting burst of vehemence at bar 30, and then some excellent performance diplomacy at the movement’s Trio, Pavlovic-Hobba making a marvellous surging creature of his melodic responsibility. The series of duets during the repeat starting at 71 sounded unhelpfully flabby but lapses of that kind were mercifully few and brief.

World War 2 arrived and Bartok left Hungary for America, a life-crisis that fitted in well with the ensuing Andante, which is the work’s fraught heart. After a successful short crescendo complex, the arrival point at bar 60 and after would have impressed more with greater uniformity of attack. Further on, both violins were too loud in the disposition of fabric importance at bar 82’s Tranquillo, although this imbalance could not erase the extraordinary beauty of this movement’s last phase.

Paul’s reunion with his parents in New York and their subsequent life there was covered, including several unpleasant vignettes, before the Allegro vivace finale started. I found much of this movement pretty rough around the edges, and it was hard to discern viola and cello at many places. Still, rays of light broke through, like the lightness of being at bar 485’s Allegretto capriccioso and the efficiently quavering block chords beginning at bar 673. But it is a furious slog, with precious few breaks and the final bars impressed as hard won – for Bartok, the players, and us.

Then came the end of the war, the composer’s swift succumbing to leukaemia, and death in September 1945, followed by the Sorrow Duo No. 28. Then, as a sort of summation, the Flinders musicians capped the celebration with the second movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, from the String Quartet No. 2 – an affirmative statement coming from the composer’s mid-life point, even if also mid-World War I. Here, the music-making (on a large scale) was at its most cogent and bitingly clear, a reading that got more engaging as it moved past. Its positioning was excellent, displaying Bartok at his energetic best. Yet, taking the program as a whole, the players did not sound comfortable with each other. Of course, rehearsal time would have been limited, given Melbourne’s unfortunate pandemic situations; but it’s clear that, even if these musicians have known each other for years, they have much work to do in becoming a convincing composite ensemble.

Blowing an ill wind good

THE RULE OF THREE

Emily Sun, Nicolas Fleury, Amir Farid

Musica Viva

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Saturday June 26

Nicolas Fleury

Some of us were lucky to hear this recital at all. The trio did manage to play live in Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide ; they didn’t make it up here to Brisbane, or over to the Puritan Republican capital of Perth, and their Melbourne commitments remained unfulfilled. But Musica Viva found them a venue where the music could be aired and here we were on Saturday night, just like old times: huddled around the computer, linked up to our best sound systems and waiting for the entertainment to begin. It almost brought back memories of the war.

There’s not a big repertoire for the violin/horn/piano combination; maybe writers are deterred by the superb product from Brahms – one of his finer one-offs. Not that the catalogue cupboard is completely bare but other compositions in the genre haven’t caught on – with players, promoters or audiences. It’s roughly the same with concertos: after Mozart’s four and Strauss’s two, you’re scratching for a work that gives a single horn its individuality – plenty of group work, a myriad miniatures, but an Emperor Concerto equivalent? Nothing close, apart from the six specified above. There’s a wealth of contemporary compositions but the most recently-composed concerto I’ve heard is the Gliere of 1951.

In any case, it’s asking a lot of any horn player to deal with more than one major work on a program. So the Sun/Fleury/Farid finished the night with Brahms’ masterpiece. Preceding it, they all gave an outing to Ernst Naumann’s arrangement for their particular combination of Mozart’s Horn Quintet K. 407. In this version, horn and violin play Mozart’s original lines, while the piano handles what’s left – the two viola and one cello parts; well, that’s the way it operates for the opening Allegro and the following Andante. At the rondo, the arrangement gives some top viola work to the violin, and there are further peculiarities later in the movement where Naumann engages in a bit more re-distribution and a bit of abstraction, actually putting some work into what has, for two movements, been steadily unoriginal.

As the middle part to this program, Sun and Farid gave the premiere (well, the last of a series of first performances) of Gordon Kerry‘s Sonata for Violin and Piano in one movement.

I can’t be the only one who faces with trepidation any chamber music event featuring a horn player. I might be one of the few who dreads an orchestral concert that holds a significant solo for horn; Brahms Symphony in D, the Tchaikovsky No. 5, Mahler 9 – all make my stomach tense with fearful anticipation. It’s probably due to a life-time of poor playing, of eventually knowing where the cracks will appear, such trepidation leading to over-appreciation of a reading where the flaws are few, even if the production has been awkward and jerky. Fleury has recently been appointed principal with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and his work at this recital made me all too aware of what I will miss now that I’ve moved north.

First, in the Mozart’s initial Allegro, the opening bars impressed, specifically 34 and 36 where the horn’s semiquaver scales came across with clear production and calm delivery, not the all-too-familiar splatter. In fact, the only problem I could pick out was Fleury’s tendency to delay at the start of trills, as though you have to get the note fixed before you can flutter with it. as in the conclusions to bars 41 and 51. But the fluidity of the horn and Sun’s mirroring moderation added a relish to the repeat of the first part and a disappointment that the development-recapitulation pages were not subject to the same treatment – as they could have been.

Speaking of repeats, I missed the first part of the Andante being played again but took just as much pleasure as before in Fleury’s measured calm when he eventually appeared in bar 19, followed by dynamically controlled contributions in partnership with Sun, who followed the consensus policy of eschewing the temptation to hit the saccharine by generating a disciplined vibrato and a formidable strength of line that melded with the horn’s non-aggressive timbre. The violin had more to do in the rondo but Mozart focuses your attention on the horn and Fleury made telling work of the movement’s deft humour, notably in a bubbling chain from bar 25 to bar 31 with not a semiquaver hair out of place. More substantially, these pages were handled with care and a polished shade of brio so that the metrical oddity that sits at the heart of the main theme never intruded whenever it emerged. I must confess to having confidence in Fleury’s technical mastery pretty early in this work, to the point where, rather than wait for errors, I was able to notice Naumann’s textural games for Sun and Farid in this finale – a rare enjoyment.

Kerry’s sonata impresses as a set of episodes, or a mosaic, as the composer classifies it At first, the work seems lopsided in favour of the violin with Sun stringing (sorry) out a long cadenza-like line over some complex trills from Farid. Eventually, the piano comes into its own with three passages on the rise, culminating in further trills – or, better, shakes. The instrumental partnership firms into a series of textures reminiscent of the sonata’s opening but with the activity more equably distributed. Kerry changes his textures with remarkable legerdemain, giving some sul tasto work to Sun above low piano octaves, generating a dialogue of emotional gravity. Even the ensuing highpoint, as Berg would have nominated it, is texturally sparse, more inclined to explosive blurts than sonorous sweeps.

As a whole, the sonata’s character shows a delicacy or finesse of statement which is married to an ardent strain, especially in the violin writing which in its centre shows a capacity for tough, multi-stops rapidity – but not for long, even in a deliberate cadenza featuring pizzicati, isolated notes and trills eventually punctuated by the keyboard. Yet another dynamic climax for Sun with a subservient Farid whose part is sparked off into vehemence. The work’s latter segments seem stringently developed, giving the first-time listener a chance to recognize patterns and textures as the work hurtles to a triumphant acclamation.

Kerry’s new creation is an excellent display of how to write an interesting dialogue, in which the instrumental conversation follows a course of patterns that leads to a final concordance, with room throughout for individuality, a juxtaposition of personalities that are never static or over-repetitious. It’s not easy to imbibe but it doesn’t confront you with massive onslaughts of clever-clever battering, nor does it bewilder by elliptical glancing blows. We can only hope that it meets more widespread circulation than most other Musica Viva commissions over recent years. No, I agree: not just recent.

I listened to the Brahms a couple of times just for the pleasure of hearing a fine ad hoc ensemble at work and not putting a foot wrong; a toe or two, perhaps, but nothing disturbing. Your attention should be on the horn as the unusual instrument but this performance was so well-knit and expertly judged that the final impression was of the communality of the whole experience so that you couldn’t point to passages where any player took over to dominate unreasonably. It proved to be one of the more united fronts for this score that I’ve heard.

The pace was ideal for Brahms’ opening Andante, putting nobody under pressure to do anything but roll out those splendid melodies, with a marvellous shared surge from bar 37 to the easing of pressure at bar 51 – an early purple patch, soon balanced by an exemplary shared diminuendo from bar 67. This movement was loaded with such instances of fine judgement, but you could find individual touches as well. For Fleury, a sforzando direction is just that, and not an invitation to stay on a heightened dynamic level, and he observes an fp with just as much care. Later, you had to delight in the ideal invitation spread out for the horn at bars 130-131 by Sun and Farid, repeating the field-setting later on at bars 197-99. Further on, you could understand the shaping rationale behind Farid’s early start to the animato at bar 217, and warm in the balanced disposition of contributions across the last 11 bars of this moving set of pages.

Both fast movements – the Scherzo and Allegro con brio – were centred on Farid and his agility of response which only faltered at a few predictable places like the awkwardly positioned top fingers trills in bars 104 and 109 of the second movement, which actually sounded more convincing in the repeat. Fleury and Sun produced excellent dynamic mirroring in their Trio phrases, particularly across bars 294 to 298, and the horn player made no attempt in the outer segments to slow the speed, his responses as acute as those of his colleagues – no suggestions here of that bombastic testicle-dragging across the aural landscape to which less gifted players have recourse.

You could find very little to fault in the Adagio with each entry from Farid a model of linear placement and non-maudlin darkness. Neither violin nor horn dragged out the prime melody that starts in bar 5 but handled their lines without self-indulgence, even in the fraught forte lament from bar 69 to bar 76. Fleury went for the low C flat and B flat just before the main theme’s recapitulation, and they came off, if only just. Even though the final Allegro gives the initial running to violin and horn, once again your interest turned to the concerto-like explosions required of Farid who gave his all to this rapid-fire set of pages. Both Sun and Fleury halted their steady headlong rush to allow the pianist to make an impossible leap at bar 61 – and another, just as awkward, at bar 229 – but the movement succeeded largely due to Farid’s careful virtuosity; for example, in veloce explosions, like striding bass octaves answered by weighty treble chords, and in negotiating those irregular arpeggios that Brahms throws about so lavishly. It made an invigorating rounding off to this hour’s work, a fine exhibition of musicianship delivered, like all too many of its type these days, to an empty room.

Another Bach fest

THE OBBLIGATO SONATAS

Bach Akademie Australia

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

St. James Church, King St., Sydney

Friday June 18

Madeleine Easton

(Image courtesy Melbourne Digital Concert Hall)

This organization is new to me; I suspect because its activities don’t involve much touring and so its appearances are mainly confined to Sydney. Or perhaps it hasn’t been that active over the years since its foundation in later 2016; from the Akademie’s website, the farthest afield it has travelled seems to have been Canberra, and that for one festival. At all events, last week the group went online so that a wider public was able to witness its artists at work. And, as the participants’ interest is enshrined in their title, we were suitably offered a night of Bach in the Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard; but not complete as one of the six – No. 4 in C minor – was omitted.

Nevertheless, violin Madeleine Easton, harpsichord Neal Peres Da Costa and viola da gamba Anton Baba gave period-rich readings of the other five. The process was pretty much a musicologist’s delight, although the fairly full church (judging by the MDCH camera in the St. James loft) that had braved the latest of Sydney’s pandemic breakdowns (NSW the gold standard, Prime Minister? Give us a break, you clown) showed high enthusiasm at the conclusion to each of the works. Some of them are rather thorny, especially where the composer rips into his contrapuntal master mode – mainly in the faster second movements – but you had to appreciate the individual texture constructed by the three instrumentalists, Easton playing without vibrato and Baba urging out a bass line that refused to loiter in the background but set up a worthy challenge to the work’s treble, the instrument being favoured by the MDCH recording team which put Da Costa into acoustic recess for parts of the night.

All the sonatas have four movements, except No. 6 which interpolates a harpsichord solo right at its centre. The main point of differentiation from other chamber works of the period is the (almost) complete writing out of the keyboard part. Bach’s first sonata in B minor began on this night with a free-wheeling Adagio, which ended in a quasi-cadenza from Easton. In place of vibrato, Easton manipulates attack and dynamic to give her line a character that is lissom and taut at the same time. The following Allegro brought the keyboard more prominence, especially when Easton moved to a low register as at bar 43 (not that this reticence lasted long) and also in the violin harpsichord duets in 6ths. Only one miscalculation from Easton disturbed the persuasive fluency of this elating (for a minor key) movement

Da Costa benefited also in the sonata’s Andante from Baba’s use of pizzicato throughout, so that the duet work in both treble clefs became more clear-voiced. Just as welcome was the pliability of line adopted by Easton through her excellent responsiveness to inbuilt phrasing, like the sequence beginning at bar 22 where the insertion of very slight pauses gave to a repeated pattern an interest that the maintenance of strict metre wouldn’t permit. And, by the time the final Allegro had finished, you had time to appreciate Easton’s consideration for the keyboard’s dominance on paper as she gave dynamic ground to Da Costa, particularly in the main part of the movement’s second half where you could discern most of the keyboard’s detailed output.

The gamba/bass has such a considerable part in the opening dolce to Sonata No. 2 in A Major that it might have been worthwhile leaving the line to Baba alone as, for a considerable amount of time, the movement turned into a string duet. Here was another effective set of pages, with only a mini-slip from Easton marring the calm surface of this pastorale. Da Costa made one obvious right-hand error in bar 4 of the following Allegro but this is a fairly cluttered web, compared to its surrounds. Once again, we had opportunities to admire Baba’s rapidity of negotiation, even if some of his rests got short shrift.

Given the required staccato nature of the Andante un poco‘s bass, Baba stayed silent and Da Costa moved into lute mode across a section that I found the most satisfying so far in terms of instrumental balance, noting as it sailed past how Easton doesn’t totally eschew vibrato but rather uses it sparingly at the end of a sustained note – a technique that so many (all?) singers of popular music adopt to the point where it has become a talent show cliche. Bach’s concluding Presto was treated as an allegro, which makes sense when faced with the four-square heftiness of its material, added to which a more rapid pace would have made you less aware of the delectable small imitative passages between all three staves. Here was a satisfying accomplishment with the string players outlining the pages with a considered vivacity.

Easton had all the work – melodically – in the opening pages of the E Major Sonata No. 3, the harpsichord relentlessly urging out a chord pattern and the bass line, at first, immovably static. In fact, the violin’s part is ornate concerto-style lyricism, Easton keeping it under control with her subtle elasticity of phrasing. Not that there’s anything too complicated about the next movement’s harmonic adventures, but the scholarship comes through strongly, its relentlessness dissipated by lots of welcome suspensions. It seemed as if the players were here faced with a labour of love, pages to be negotiated rather than relished. For all that, the reading was the right side of aggressive with some sparkling right-hand work from Da Costa.

It seemed to me that some fatigue crept into play during the C sharp minor Adagio, the violin timbre more attenuated than it had been so far. Still, the players showed a clear realization of what they were concerned with in the long intertwining arches framed by plangent repeated chords/double stops, and in their phrasing that demonstrated a unanimity in preparation and delivery. Not the best start to the finale and you could point to some questionable delivery of individual notes as the piece surged forward, although Easton came in spot-on with those high Es across bars 103 and 105. Bab impressed even further here with passages of brisk bustling – for example, bars 15 to 20, and a particularly purple patch stretching across bars 34 to 39. It’s an extended movement and doesn’t get easier with the introduction (and then abrupt dismissal) of triplets to exercise the players. Not these three, however, who kept the impetus constant throughout.

Da Costa took the high road in the long fugue-like opening to Sonata No. 5 in F minor, Easton a presence but rarely dominant in the contrapuntal mesh. I liked the abstinence from attention-attracting ornamentation from both sides, letting the gravity of these pages have full rein and was convinced by the assurance of all concerned in their steady progress that a discrepant penultimate bar almost went past unremarked. You get distracted in the subsequent Allegro by the seamless craft of the writing, even though it’s full of asymmetrical shapes while giving the impression of faultless regularity. This substantial Bach marvel, so much more creative and innovative than anything conceived by his contemporaries, enjoyed a deft run-through with very few notes short-changed and Da Costa exceptionally definite in his semiquaver work.

By contrast, the Adagio has two modes of operation and sticks to them throughout, the violin confined to double stops and a predictable harmonic progression while the keyboard seems involved in a two-part invention. Baba sat this segment out and, despite the subsequent sparer texture, the players were unable to invest this section with interest beyond counting off the key-changes. So much more welcome, then, was the Vivace final movement which gave Easton the limelight with a wealth of suspensions to negotiate, the counterpoint brisk and finely pointed – which is the great advantage of performances in this style: you can take in so much more than when the lines are coated in both wool and lanolin.

In the last work, the G Major Sonata No. 6, the optimistic Allegro opening gave us a delectable change of scene, reminiscent of a ritornello to one of the more sunny cantatas. The pages flew past with an infectious bounce infusing each sentence, Easton clearly revelling in dealing with a congenial key. Here also, you come across compositional skill of the highest order with craft complementing lucidity of emotion, the whole dominated by that inimitable certainty of speech. A brief Adagio made a positive impression for its alternately spacious and fitful content, heading towards the galant if not already there. Da Costa’s following solo could have been cleaner with palpable errors in bars 13 and 14, and later bars 39-40, with some occasional mishits in exposed places. I don’t know if it was pre-determined, but the movement’s second half was not repeated.

Then, you would be hard to please if you remained unsatisfied with the trio’s interpretation of the penultimate Adagio that delights with its final chromatic slide from the initial B minor to the relative major. Here was a second wind that lifted the performance back to its high level of execution and emotional insight, the small hesitations and emphases finely executed. Baba delayed his entry into the concluding Vivace gigue until the subject re-statement at bar 12; one of those small touches that were dotted through this night and of which I probably missed at least half. This made a fine balance for the sonata’s opening: more earthy and basic in its material but full of good humour and those imitation games that Bach transforms into art without trying. Even at the end, these musicians were operating at DEFCON-1, as evident by those whip-crack 6ths turns for violin and harpsichord at the start of bars 76 to 79.

As the program finished, I was delighted to have come across the Akademie, if in this truncated form. Well, it may be something of a moveable ensemble, since some of the organization’s previous concerts have apparently involved ad hoc amplifications of both instrumentalists and voices. Mind you, pseudo-perfectionists like myself were left chaffing for Sonata No. 4, but there was plenty here to be going on with. At the same time, this kind of enterprise is a demanding ask of any audience; it reminds me of the days when Ronald Farren-Price, Mack Jost and Max Cooke used to play the 48 as a job lot, or – if you want to talk about concentrated efforts – Calvin Bowman’s performance of the complete solo organ music in one day at the Melbourne Town Hall. Felicitations to Easton, Da Costa and Baba on their program, one that filled out our experiences of a neglected corner in the immense Bach catalogue.

And it’s goodbye from him

BARTOK MENDELSSOHN FISCHER

Australian String Quartet

Edge Auditorium, State Library of Queensland

Friday June 18

Stephen King, Michael Dahlenburg, Francesca Hiew, Dale Barltrop

Back in Brisbane after a year’s absence, the ASQ has a new member and, on this night, was losing an old one. Fresh-faced cellist Michael Dahlenburg has been a familiar face to Melbourne audiences through his time at the Australian National Academy of Music and his appearances as chief cello and supplementary conductor with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. In his new slim-line form, he has managed to slot into the national quartet with impressive facility, showing to fine advantage in this night’s music-making which moved from the sublime, through the comfortable, to the over-hyped derivative.

Leaving the ensemble after a 10-year stint, violist Stephen King has operated on a wider scale, more chamber-music savvy than many of his colleagues thanks to his years with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Putting his instrument to one side, King is staying with the organization in a new role – Director of Learning and Engagement – and I hope he finds much fulfilment in a post that merges education with . . . well, more education. It’s always a positive sign that an ensemble can trust its tenor line to stay true to the task in all senses, and King has been a reliably confident voice in the ASQ, even through its problem years when certain members came close to shutting the enterprise down.

As King’s farewell, the ASQ administration opted for a set of three works, the last of which gave a fair dose of viola exposure. This was Pavel Fischer’s String Quartet No. 3, Mad Piper, based on the exploits of Bill Millin, who piped his regiment ashore through the D-Day landing at the behest of an infantile commanding officer with a penchant for national colour. First violin Dale Barltrop proposed traces of Scottish flavouring in the score, but I heard only middle-European folk-music influences – a poor man’s Bartok. Mind you, the performers were enthusiastic interpreters of this work, which was heavy-hitting in its percussiveness and almost involving through its employment of driving melodic scraps. From what I can recall, King fulfilled the main role in Movement III with almost all the limelight, while his colleagues gave a backdrop of uninflected, vibrato-less chords to his slow lyrical arches.

In fact, I found this segment the most convincing part of the work. A large-scale opening movement was intended to outline the activity of Millin on June 6, 1944 and the canvas drawn for us by Fischer, co-founder of the Skampa Quartet, showed a wild and hectic aural landscape but one that would have sufficed just as well for a particularly rough Moldavian rural engagement party. Even now, I’m unsure as to the point where the first two movements were separated but doubtless repeated performances will make the score’s parameters more clear. As its final Ursari movement shows, Fischer is adept at bringing out unusual sounds from his interpreters, at the same time rooting the composition in a solid folk tradition – in this case, judging by the title, Romanian.

As a wake-them-up demonstration of technical ability, Mad Piper has a decided impact, even if you tire of the hefty scraping involved and a chain of rhythmic vaults and turns that don’t surprise or disturb. At the end, the approbation was long and loud – a reaction that in my view fell somewhere between relief and approval. Despite the composer’s full-blooded relish of dissonances, his language is essentially tonal, based on the normal with lashings of distractions. In the end, you had to be happy to hear King’s swansong played with intense eloquence, yet you could also experience a fretting worry that the emotional content of this work sounded over-done, at its happiest when all four players were constructing walls of confrontational fabric that simply merged into each other without much intent beyond the activity itself.

In medias res, the ASQ aired Mendelssohn No. 1 in E flat Major, written in the composer’s 20th year and notable for its second movement Canzonetta which used to be an encore piece for quartets who found few rewards in the other three segments of the score. A different state of affairs on this night when the ensemble gave a warm-bodied and eloquent reading of the opening Adagio/Allegro, its middle and bass registers dominant while Barltrop attempted a counter-argument with a line that rises to a sustained high G twice but keeps below an E flat two octaves-and-a-bit above Middle C for the rest of the movement, for some of the time pursuing a close-current conversation with the rest of the group although the last 34 bars are a typical one-sided coda in the top violin’s favour.

Displaying fine taste, the players kept the second movement to Mendelssohn’s specified allegretto pace, undrelining the piece’s delectable spikiness within inbuilt limitations. Possibly the highpoint of the whole work comes in the Piu mosso G Major central Trio where shades of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream come dropping fast, excellently outlined by the upper and lower pairs in turn. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the following Andante, mainly because all the emphasis falls on the first violin, particularly the two sections that sound like recitatives starting at bar 19 and a more expanded version 17 bars from the movement’s end. Barltrop might have been feeling the need to hold back in these pages because the impression was of a restrained approach outside tutti passages.

The group gave the composer his required attacca into the finale which gives plenty of action to everyone but to these jaded ears presents as one L’istesso tempo too many. You couldn’t find fault with the executants’ determination and bounding energy but it’s a hard slog of a piece with very little harmonic interest, and the capitulation to E flat in the final bars is a disappointment after the preceding minor-coloured argument. Still, the packed audience welcomed with relieved enthusiasm this sometimes stodgy sample of the composer as a young man playing the part of a veteran, particularly after their exposure to the night’s initial offering.

This was Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3 and, to be fair, the score is still a confrontation for its harmonic bloody-mindedness, terse format and determination to follow its own path with no concern for anything extraneous. Each time I hear it, that startling story resurfaces in my memory about the first American performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in its orchestral format. Bartok partnered his wife Ditta, supported by the New York Philharmonic under Fritz Reiner. It’s a hard enough work to negotiate under ideal conditions but at one point in a rehearsal Bartok went his own way and showed perplexity amounting to annoyance when the rest of the musicians faltered. This was his last public performance and it’s not hard to understand why.

But the same confrontational dedication to formal ideals and an acerbic delineation of counterpoint informs this quartet more than any other similar composition that I know from this time (1927), apart from compositions by the Second Viennese School.. The ASQ interpretation had much to recommend it, although the opening bars cluster built on Dahlenburg’s C sharp+contiguous D harmonic failed to convince until Barltrop was well into his first long melodic arc. To my mind, the group impressed most in the slashing chords that punctuated the Prima parte‘s development, as in the vivid stretch from Rehearsal Number 7 to four bars past Number 8 (in the Boosey & Hawkes edition) which impressed for its dark deliberation. Nevertheless, the reading had settled into coherence by the time we reached the doubled scraps before the end three bars after Number 11.

Second violin Francesca Hiew‘s 39-bar-long D/E flat trill (with upper additions) gave a generously applied support for the opening to Bartok’s Seconda parte where Dahlenburg and King announced in pizzicato chords the simple folk-tune that provides a baics reference point for this movement before Barltrop span out the main feature with welcome refinement at Number 3. No group can avoid showing the near-disturbing intensity of effort required to handle the composer’s technical demands: sound-production devices that once seemed so revolutionary, for instance, as well as keeping a communal head in the fugal flurries that erupt in a hurtlingly rapid tempo that, apart from one brief rallentando, seems to increase in bite and headlong motion with each Piu mosso.

It’s still an alarmingly difficult Allegro to handle but I couldn’t detect any obvious faults in the ASQ’s interpretation which impressed for its precision and spirit of confrontation without relaxation. While the succeeding Recapitulazione della prima parte offered some relief from the dynamic and rhythmic tension, the linear interplay remained taut, particularly subsequent to Number 3 when the main content of the movement begins. And the players rose to meet the draining Coda with unflagging energy, Hiew and Dahlenburg contriving to cut across the violin and viola partnership at Number 5 with incisive delivery. This is exhausting music to experience: an Allegro molto that doesn’t let up once it hits the Meno vivo (but not much less) mark at Number 3 . Bartok is somehow able to convince you of a successful outcome in his last insistent chords – all 12 of them – but you are left both exhilarated and drained by the experience. Well, you should be, especially when the performance was delivered with this group’s level of insight and exacting delivery.

But the audience reaction struck me as lethargic, nowhere near as enthusiastic as that for the following Mendelssohn and Fischer. What can you do? Bartok’s score is nearly a century old and still has the potential to disturb and alienate, just as it did when I first heard it in Sydney some time during the late 1950s. For the majority of Brisbane’s ASQ patrons, it seems that sounds heard must be sweet; even century-old chamber music milestones can be discounted in this communally accepted triumph of diatonicism. Still, a tepid reaction didn’t upset me as much as the clown in seat F8 or 9 behind me, who coughed at regular intervals across the night; even his partner occasionally got in on the act. The rules are unwritten but clear, and I’ve seen them observed at orchestral concerts here; if you’ve got a cough, you get up and go out to put yourself in order, rather than sitting in the middle of a hall spreading COVID germs. I know Brisbane’s attitude to health is relaxed but there is such a thing as the public good.

So it’s a welcome to Dahlenburg and clear evidence on this night that he’ll make a welcome presence in this group that has almost settled into a regular pattern since Barltrop came to the first violin desk. But, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a replacement for King in the wings – or is there? Whatever he outcome, he will be missed for his reliability and individuality of output, his mastery across the repertoire and, as we have seen in the 2015 Highly Strung documentary, an admirable grace under abnormal circumstances and an impressively even temper; this last quality a must-have for any musical administrator.

Changes with benefits

NATSUKO YASHIMOTO, UMBERTO CELRICI & DANIEL DE BORAH

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Friday June 11

Natsuko Yoshimoto

Here was yet another needs-must event where the originally scheduled ensemble was not able to get to Brisbane for the Musica Viva event scheduled last Friday night. We were to have heard a piano trio comprising violinist Emily Sun, French horn performer Nicholas Fleury, and pianist Amir Farid performing the Brahms Trio Op. 49, a new violin sonata by Gordon Kerry, and Ernst Naumann’s arrangement of Mozart’s E flat Major Horn Quintet which would have been more than interesting because I’ve only seen Naumann’s work on the Andante and Allegro of this last-named construct for horn, violin, two violas and cello; the transcribed opening Allegro remains a closed book.

And so it will stay until this recital is broadcast from the Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm on June 27. As a sudden substitute, the organization put together another trio – a perfectly rounded chamber group – and we heard three works, but all of them duos. Violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto, well versed in chamber music from her years with the Australian String Quartet, is currently co-concertmaster of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and is a member of the Ensemble Q chamber group. Keyboard virtuoso and jack-of-all-formats Daniel de Borah has recently made his base in Brisbane as Head of Chamber Music at the Queensland Conservatorium. Until I took a closer look, I thought cellist Umberto Clerici occupied the lead principal desk with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but he decamped from that body last year; his chamber music credentials are also substantial, not least for his appearances in Selby & Friends recitals over recent years.

And what was on offer? Yoshimoto and de Borah exerted themselves on Mozart’s two-movement E minor Violin Sonata K. 304; Yoshimoto and Clerici combined for Kodaly’s sweeping Duet Op. 7; finally, we could relish an engrossing reading of Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 Op. 58. As is often the practice these days, all three works were performed consecutively – no interval – which experience made for a particularly focused evening’s listening, lasting a bit over an hour but leaving you quite content with the experience. Of course, this sense of satiety might have had much to do with the quality of the program itself, but equally as relevant was the performance standard, which was exceptionally high.

Mozart’s E minor sonata enjoyed a forward-looking handling, the violin overpowered by de Borah at times because he had his lid open on the big stick. Alongside this unforced volume benefit, the pianist treated us to some Beethoven-like dynamic power and abrupt changes of output, as well as a tendency to highlight entries by means of slight pauses – the one-note ritenuto, in particular. But Yoshimoto held her own, reminding us of her trademark strength of line, so welcome in the otherwise all-male personnel of the ASQ during her time with that body. Still, both players mined a vein of nostalgia close to regret with the simple but eloquently placed coda at bar 194, once again revealing Mozart’s unparalleled melodic skill with the simplest of materials.

De Borah found a calm lyricism in the opening statement of the second movement, giving the melody lots of space to make its melancholy point. Yoshimoto mirrored this placidity with an excellent repeat of the line, intensely caressed with a careful application of articulative shadings. In fact, both musicians enjoyed a companionable partnership throughout this movement, a cross between a minuet and a landler in their hands. Yet the chief memory is of Yoshimoto’s melting entry in the major-key trio at bar 102: a repeated-note phrase of Schubertian simplicity and assurance, just as touching in its second-half repetition at bar 121. You realized at the work’s completion that the interpretation moved across a wide range of parameters, the most telling of them being a determined ardour that moved past the score’s surface impression of a light sonatina.

I’ve come late to the Kodaly work, as was also the case with the Sonata for Solo Cello, its companion piece, which I first heard in Melba Hall from a young Liwei Qin. The Hungarian master’s early Duet is something of a vast canon, packed with imitations and intersections, and these executants entered fearlessly into its broad statements and oscillating modes of attack. Clerici made a tensile creature of his sinking solo across the 12/13 bars before Number 7 in the Universal Edition score, but you could point to just as powerful Yoshimoto exposures, and the Duet is nothing if not a dialogue of equals, striking in its few bursts of unison at one or two octaves’ distance and finally in the final 9 bars of rallentando where two dissimilar voices find resolution in a D Major third.

Kodaly’s second movement Adagio enjoyed a free-wheeling, ruminative handling which offered a contrast to the disciplined outbursts over the preceding pages. Clerici in particular sounded in impromptu mode across the opening gambits of changing bar lengths, triplets and passing 4:3 hiccups, all seasoned by tension-generating dynamic directions. Then came a scrubbing tremolo that brought grinding dissonances into play, both players hurtling against each other at instrumental compass extremes. At the heart of these pages is a linear balance, both sharing in the sharp-edged melodic arcs and in the driving, intrusive underpinning. The searing forward movement reaches a highpoint at the allargando octave unison descent 3 bars before Number 4, then sinks away to what sounds like an almost improvised ending, Clerici well-exercised by harmonics and flautando demands.

Bartok looms large over the finale Maestoso-Presto, although the slightly older composer would probably not have written the mirror phrases (and accompaniment) that dominate the Presto opening and the let’s-all-settle-down 2/2 time-signature. Yoshimoto showed a skittishness, even a willfulness in her less frenetic moments, as at that Poco meno mosso where the key changes to A Major/F sharp minor; further along, she displayed a cauterising burn in her lowest register, as at 4 bars after Number 7 where Kodaly directs that the melody be played on the G string. But, as a sign of the emotional continuity of this reading, both performers exercised the same charity with each other at either end of the score, especially through the handling of the recurrent folk-style melody that brings to mind the opening to Bartok’s Contrasts at the final Meno mosso before the exhilarating rush home and a superbly co-ordinated flurry from both musicians in the last Piu presto gallop.

I’m not sure that all of the Musica Viva patrons enjoyed this work. Three people coughed themselves out of the hall at various points, an elderly couple sought refuge in the consonance of the foyer during the second movement, and a pair of girls tip-toed out in mutual support at the start of the finale’s bracing call to arms. Which struck me as odd, given that this Duet dates from 1914 and is a striking, powerful construct that should not alarm people inured to the Bartok string quartets, works that Musica Viva has sponsored since its inception in this country.

No such problems arose during the Mendelssohn sonata which revealed another instance of inter-player fluency. De Borah kept his action-rich part under control, more so than many other pianists who have considered an over-supply of notes to represent an interpretative ascendancy; in this version, the rush of arpeggios that support the cello from Letter E to Letter F in my old Peters edition were sublimated with tact, and the pianist held back the potential force of the composer’s repeated chords from the first bar onward. Indeed, if you wanted an instance of how to accompany a Romantic era chamber work, you could hardly do better than watch this artist at work. Further, both musicians showed an easy adeptness at holding our attention, as well as toying with the smallest of rallentandi to indulge their individualistic touches.

As the whimsical Allegretto scherzando bobbed past, you could see that a good deal of attention was being exercised on giving full weight to each line; not just the cello-piano partnership, but in the piano chording as well. Clerici’s frequent pizzicato passages carried successfully to my seat near the back of the theatre, while each player made a lush meal of the two interludes in D Major and B Major, keeping the main episode dynamically lean and formally neat. As for the Bach-influenced Adagio, Clerici generated an ardent line for his pseudo-recitative interludes, a rich energy that intensified with de Borah’s chorale recapitulation from the Tempo I point.

Mendelssohn asks for a sudden attack on his Molto allegro e vivace, and got a solid one this night. Here was the composer in full flight, the voice we love to hear, loaded with fetching forays and mellifluous modulations, the whole orderly Victorian maelstrom raising lots of froth but not a black storm cloud in sight. Just as well Clerici and de Borah made use of the inbuilt ritardandi – and inserted a few of their own – to work against the sense of a seamless and tedious run of patterns and repetitions. But then, the pianist made sophisticated sense of those many passages where his right hand comes in off the beat or holds a tied note against the prevailing metre.

As with the Kodaly, so here: the performance proved to be exhilarating without self-advertisement or any emphasis on the music’s difficulty of negotiation. It made an optimistic conclusion to a night that bore all the signs of a make-do exercise, but I believe that we – those of us who showed up! – were more than happy with the replacement musicians and their works. But then, it makes a huge difference if you are faced with players who know what they’re about and are agreed on their shared path. In this time of multiple crises and perturbing interruptions, music-making of this calibre is to be cherished.

Comfortable beans

FIKA

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 603



The least I can say about this CD is that it’s uncommon; you won’t find much to compare it with on the folk or jazz or serious music scenes. Or is that untrue? Perhaps there are a whole lot of similar ensembles out there, all straddling stools and producing albums like this one, being published for a group of admirers willing to offer support of a definite nature. Elysian Fields is an ensemble with a catholic taste, headed by Jenny Eriksson on electric viol da gamba. She is accompanied on this heavily Swedish CD by Susie Bishop (voice and violin), Matt Keegan (saxophones), Matt McMahon (piano), Siebe Pogson (bass guitar) and Dave Goodman (drums).

Of the nine tracks, six are vocal and cover a wide range. Three have Swedish texts, two are English, one is Greek/Latin using parts of the Common of the Mass. Two of the Swedish texts use folk tunes, while one, Frid na Jord, was written by folk-singer Sofia Karlsson.

As for the instrumental titles, they begin with Living, a work by Jan Gunnar Hoff which is here arranged by Eriksson. The tune itself is amiably folksy and almost pentatonic. It is treated at the opening and at the end with a side-line into something more jazz-inflected in the middle after Keegan’s saxophone takes solo spot. It is probably as well to point out that composer Hoff is Norwegian and his work as outlined here is a smaller version of an original, larger piece for jazz trio. Nothing here will disturb anyone’s equanimity; just a simple ternary construct in which the main tune is played several times without elaboration.

Next comes Karlsson’s Peace on Earth, a Christmas song with some sombre suggestions that make a counterpoint to the text’s celebratory theme. Alongside this ambiguous set of lines, the melody is slow-moving and, in an arrangement by pianist McMahon, attractively modal and, after not too long, almost predictable. The second stanza offers a timbre change, the voice accompanied only by piano for the first quatrain before the sax and percussion (very soft) flesh out the supporting ambience. Here also, we have a jazz excursion for piano which is relaxed and not that inventive; to my ears, it seems unconnected to its precedents. For good measure, Bishop sings the second stanza again, her exceptionally lucid colour and security a significant contributor to the performance’s success, especially considering the song’s slow pace.

For me, the pick of the disc comes now with an early 19th century courting (on both sides) round dance, Vi ska stalla till en rolger dans. The melody is catchy and asymmetrical and Bishop’s delivery is crystal-clear and vital without effort, her choruses beginning with a repeated Hei hopp (Heigh ho) particularly infectious and spot on pitch. Here again, there are interludes after the two verses; then the first is repeated. Keegan uses a soprano, I think, and he with Bishop on violin and McMahon provide an 8-bar introduction notable for violin tremolo and two-note intervallic leaps on sax – I can’t tell what it has to do with the following skipping tune but that’s my fault, I’m sure.

(Parenthetically, I must apologise here for not being able to put in accents any more, such as the missing diaeresis on the first a in stalla above, or the small circle above the a in Frid pa Jord.. WordPress changed its operating format some months ago and I can no longer get access to the list of accented letters that used to be available. As well, I can’t manage these days to set up links to organizations and individuals. Progress: you gotta love it.)

Lat till Far constitutes a bit of recycling. Composed by Pers Erik Olsson. it appeared on a 2013 Marais Project disc in an arrangement by Sydney theorboist Tommie Andersson, and that version formed the basis of this version for Bishop’s violin, Eriksson’s gamba and new arranger McMahon’s piano. Olsson’s melody is fine folksy fodder, its second phrase interesting for an unexpected momentary modulation. But again, the old problem arises: what do you do with a folk-song-like melody except repeat it over and over in different guises? Vide Copland’s Appalachian Spring, God help us. The trio gives the tune slightly different guises, principally in the piano’s supporting chords, but both strings end up playing this melody at the octave. Not exactly tedious, but not engaging after the first few runs-through.

What came irresistibly to mind in the next track was the Irish folk-song She moved through the fair, which has the same disappointed-in-love matter at its core. Nar som jag var pa mitt adertonde ar has no ghost appearing at its end but it might as well have gone the full sprite hog. An 18-year-old girl falls in love, but the lad is embraced by another girl. Our narrator is left looking for a unification with her distant beloved after death. The Swedish folk song is, like the Irish one, bar-less and the support offered to Bishop’s typically clear delivery comprises drones from piano and gamba, Keegan offering a quasi-improvisatory interlude at the half-way point. Particularly effective is the conclusion where the voice is left alone with the softest subterranean support, so that the final aspiration/threat takes on a vivid clarity.

Track 1’s composer, Gunnar Hoff, returns with Meditatus, a version of Kyrie I from the composer’s Mass for jazz ensemble and choir. Eriksson has used the original version as well as an arrangement for voice and piano, inserting some improvisatory sections into this construct which uses the Kyrie eleison and last three words of the Agnus Dei. Here is pretty simple – no, very simple – material where the voice is supported by piano chords in a few melodic strains that might have escaped from Vatican II at its most elementary. Bishop sings the Greek and Latin without problems and also has a bit of vocalising, if nothing too adventurous. Keegan presents a solo that almost suggests improvisation but seems pretty strait-laced.

By about this stage, even to this mean intelligence, the penny drops: any jazz involved here lies in inflexions and interludes, not sustained passages of free-wheeling fabrication. This factor becomes pretty obvious in this neo-liturgical piece where the demarcation between the text setting (and associated whee-ooh-hees) and instrumental solos is so sharp. Still, if that’s a distinction that the Elysians are happy with, we have little recourse except to listen . . . and possibly learn.

The last of the instrumental tracks – Cold Soul by saxophonist Keegan – puts the piano at it centre, the viola/violin/sax following a formal, fully-scored path with washes and snare-drum backing from Goodman, whose contributions throughout are polished and unobtrusive, but at their most noticeable here. You can’t be sure but there’s a sense that the piano goes off on a tangent in the centre of the work, the before and after sections having a smooth, cool quality with a nice waltz-like sway that eventually dissipates at the end in a wash of hemiolas. Keegan was commissioned to produce the piece as part of an Eriksson project that resulted in this CD; he took his inspiration from a year-long sojourn in Sweden. You may find Scandinavian suggestions here; they were not apparent to me, as I thought the projected emotional ambience could have fitted in at Rosebud or Byron on a Hemsworth-less sunny morning.

Siebe Pogson – like Goodman, a quiet presence for the most part – enjoyed another Eriksson commission: a three-movement work from which we are offered the first, which is called The Tragedy. This is the second-longest track on Fika (7’20”), after Frid pa Jord (8’48”), and it has a solid jazz flavour, if a laid-back sentimental tang. The first of two verses has a wide-ranging diatonic melodic line which is doubled by the gamba, I think, while the piano does some soulful doodling. The setting is strophic, with no melismata to interrupt the step-like motion. A short sax solo leads to a second verse in which the sax works in concert with the voice, note for note, but not the same notes, thank God.

In fact, the line covers a wide vocal range, well beyond the capacities of most singers of popular music. An exposed piano solo follows the end of the singing, rather like the opening in effect and a nice sample of gentle meandering, before the player recapitulates his opening and sax-plus-gamba work in unison through a reprise, after which the work ends in the minor. Pogson also wrote the lyrics, which are loaded with existential angst; sadly, this is not reflected in the music itself, which, in the end, presents as attractively smooth in its instrumental content, and pleasantly angular in its vocal shape.

Last of all comes Believe Beleft Below by Esbjorn Svensson; well, the music is from the Swedish jazz pianist/composer but a text has been provided by Josh Haden whose own version can be found on YouTube and which seems to bear no relation to Svensson’s product. This is a calm, gently paced ballad in Eriksson’s arrangement, with Bishop caressing the vocal line and, as you’d expect, an instrumental interlude divided between gamba and sax; a reprise begun by piano has Bishop joining back in on proceedings at the third line. It has to be noted that the singer is not stretched at all by this soft-stepping if trite melody and – as we’ve come to anticipate by this stage – the texture might owe a lot to jazz but the overall atmosphere occupies a ground half-way between the Kingston Trio and the mildest of torch songs.

There you have it: a miscellany of charm and warmth on its best tracks. The CD’s title apparently means a coffee break, but even more the inter-personal warmth that comes from such an interlude. Take that into consideration, and you have an excellent musical accompaniment to this sort of cosy pastime: calm and casual, any crises dissipated by comfort, a continuous emphasis (for a short while) on the laid-back. And Fika certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome, the total playing time coming in between 50 and 51 minutes.

But soft!

DIANA DOHERTY & STREETON TRIO

Musica Viva

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Southbank

Thursday March 4

Diana Doherty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not too thick; more of a lemon tang

LA CREME DE LA CREMA

Melbourne Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday February 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in the saddle again

BENDIGO CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL – SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES I

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 3

David Griffiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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