Fervent and riveting

A DISTANT LOVE

Andrew Goodwin and Roland Peelman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Satellite Night – Sydney

Wednesday May 20

AndrewGoodwinHeadshot

                                                                  Andrew Goodwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Voluptas interrupta

CLARINET ADD STRINGS

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

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Monday May 4

David Thomas

                                                                    David Thomas     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Welcome back

LET’S GET PERSONAL

Selby & Friends

Online performance selbyandfriends.com.au

Saturday May 2 – Tuesday May 12

Selby 2020

                                                                     Kathryn Selby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Fine performance in there somewhere

BEETHOVEN VIOLIN SONATAS PART 5

Markiyan Melnychenko and Rhodri Clarke

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 24

Markiyan-Melnychenko-3553564523-1560753706372

                                                            Markiyan Melnychenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Graeco-Roman bout

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Russell St., South Brisbane

Sunday February 23

grinberg2

                                                                     Anna Grinberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s not be gentlemen all the time

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills

Friday December 13

 

Henderson

                                                       Jonathan Henderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Addio del passato

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

QSO Studio, South Bank

Sunday November 24

shane-chen-waist-up-2-jpg-1

                                                                      Shane Chen

There’s something reassuring about moving to a new part of the country and finding that some of the practices you’ve come to appreciate in your old home are continuing in the new milieu.  So it is with these Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals from members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra which inevitably bring to mind similar recitals on Sunday mornings from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players – a nomenclature that suggests a discrete group but in fact – at one time or another – involves most of the organization’s members, some more willing than others.

So yesterday’s event had many familiar characteristics although the Brisbane list of players impressed as more numerous and varied.  The only doubling up came from Shane Chen, the QSO’s Principal First Violin, and Nicole Greentree from the viola ranks.  Also, little attempt was made to match pieces to a set list of participants: we heard a string sextet and a string quintet, but also on offer was a Michael Haydn Divertimento in C (well, most of it) from an oboe/viola/double bass combination.  On superficial appearances, then, the northerners are more prodigal with their forces, or possibly more musicians want to participate in these exercises.

This was my first experience of the QSO Studio which has a different ambience to the Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne.  Actually, it’s not just a changed ambience that impresses but also room shape and material – a lot more wood on the walls, for instance.  And I was impressed by the layout in Russell Street where pretty much all the audience is placed in tiered seating; not as comfortable as the Iwaki chairs upstairs, but the effect is to make the players more immediately present.  And some clever designer has made the most of the Studio’s lighting which is of a piece with the wood-encrusted walls – not as useless for score-reading as the back rows of the Iwaki.  Further, the Brisbane space has a lavish foyer compared to the cramped area that fronts the Southbank Boulevard auditorium.

To begin, Chen, Greentree and colleagues – violin Katie Betts, viola Bernard Hoey, cellists Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae – accounted for Martinu’s String Sextet of 1932.  Nothing amiss with the initial Lento but the ensuing Allegro was less appealing mainly for some rough handling from violas and cellos in moments of exposure as at bars 72 to 76, and isolated unsettling moments like a barely-won B flat climactic point at bar 101 from the first cello.   Still, the group observed a deft clarity in the composer’s more complex polyphonic moments and approached the discord-relieving chordal slashes across the score’s last four pages with excellent definition of output.

At the opening to the sextet’s central Andantino, I started to worry about the dynamic level of the violin pair.  Were they intentionally recessive, or was the imbalance due to my choice of seat on the left side of the Studio?  Whatever the reason, the balance had adjusted (or I had) by the time of the recapitulation to this movement’s first third.  More impressive work came in a central Allegretto which fulfilled its scherzo function with no little panache, the whole canvas subtly tinged with the folk-music colouring that Martinu employed at this stage of his creative life.  The concluding movement sounded heavy-handed in comparison to recorded readings where the attack is generally light and full of sparks.   This interpretation sounded Brahmsian-stolid, the melody-shaping work coming across as four-square, in particular the broad tune in octaves for violins that runs between bars 17 and 24.

In sum, this sextet made a convincing enough argument for itself, if distinguished in  patchy fashion; its outlining not lacking in expertise but deficient in bounding vivacity where it was most needed – across the outer segments.

For the Michael Haydn piece, it was determined that the scheduled fifth movement Theme and variations would be omitted for reasons of time.  The recital’s playing lasted for a little over an hour and I can’t see that much was saved by the loss of this pleasant if unremarkable theme with 4 variants and its untesting series of 8-bar-length sentences.  All the running for the piece is set by the oboe line, here handled by Associate Principal Sarah Meagher who gave us a well-shaped account of all five surviving movements and kept any errors to a minimum – a bottom-of-the-compass note that failed to materialise, a note not sustained long enough in the first paragraph of the Aria.   With viola Jann Keir-Haantera and double bass Justin Bullock, Meagher observed the anticipated dynamic juxtapositions, although you might have expected  more polish to the phrasing from her supporters in this uncomplicated work’s slow movement, especially at hiatus points like those in bars 7 and 11.

Somewhere along the way, I missed the Trio to the second Menuet; perhaps Homer nodded (don ‘t flatter yourself), but the concluding Presto was a delight with Bullock’s bass enjoying some brief arpeggio-laden bursts of spotlight.  Meagher coped with her none-too-taxing part, only suffering from a few over-soft notes that failed to travel when the ensemble went in for that familiar soft-loud alternation.

Finally, a group comprising Chen, Greentree, Helen Travers from the orchestra’s second violins, violist Graham Simpson and cellist Andre Duthoit worked through Beethoven’s solitary String Quintet in C which I was hearing live for the first time in many years.  Of all three works performed, this one would have gained from more rehearsal time.  In Melbourne, quite a few pieces that I heard over the years showed clear signs of rushed preparation; mind you, the problem is not one peculiar to one place – or even one group of musicians.   But in this instance, anomalies came early with the change to triplets in bar 17 of the opening Allegro moderato; this pretty ordinary leap in mid-action sounded clumsy with the two violins working at it, and not much better when the top viola joined them.  Mind you, this hesitancy came into play nearly every time the triplets recurred in the three upper parts; when the whole group was involved, the sailing proved much more smooth.

Other instances of rough address emerged sporadically throughout this movement and you would have been justified in asking for more awareness of internal dynamic balance from players as experienced as these.  Even Chen produced the occasional intonational inaccuracy and he was, for my money, the outstanding performer in this afternoon’s work.   As a welcome contrast, the ensuing Adagio, which brought Duthoit’s firm timbre into higher textural prominence, was an instance of building on a successful opening gambit which saw Beethoven’s musical fluency eloquently realised, to the point where you were left quite content with the careful resolution of the final pinpoint-packed eight bars.

The third movement’s Trio proved hard to decipher, probably due to a lack of definition in attack; only on the first half’s repetition did the melodic burden reveal itself.  But the Scherzo had not begun well as Chen’s output level proved too laid-back to rise comfortably above his accompaniment.    He was put to much harder labour in the Presto conclusion where the first violin dominates the action, even in the two Andante interludes which gave the player some relief from those rapid-fire flurries that dominate the movement proper’s hurtling action.  Yet the accomplishment level, while able and essentially satisfactory, might have been raised by some notches if the musicians had enjoyed more time to  refine this amiable work’s details.

 

 

 

 

 

Eloquent small-scale requiem

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday September 20

Charles Ives, graduation photo, Yale 1898

                                                                      Charles Ives

Finishing its Melbourne subscription series for the year, the ASQ balanced exploration and novelty with a repertoire staple, the equipoise yielding some outstanding results.  Despite the historical stature of Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 standing on one side, and the ground-breaking assertiveness of Debussy’s solitary essay in the form on the other,  Friday evening’s efforts focused on a new work by Nigel Westlake: his String Quartet No. 3. Sacred Sky, written in memory of his sister Kate and the outcome of an ASQ commission.

This new score is something of a fining-down of Westlake’s impressive Missa Solis, a requiem for the composer’s son Eli who was killed in a car accident in 2008.  The Mass requires large forces – among which number 13 brass, 2 harps, celesta/piano, 6 percussionists, choir and high soloist, as well as your usual complement of strings and pairs of woodwind –  and its texts come from a widely varied group of sources.  Sacred Sky‘s four movements are headed by the names of four paintings from the dead woman’s output:  Sacred Sky, Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea, The Turning Tide, The Journey Begins.  You can read as much as you like into the relationship between movement title and musical narrative; most of us find it hard to make any connection without access to the paintings.

But the quartet is old-fashioned in one respect: it follows a time-honoured format, albeit one where the first movement is not fast, although the second is a scherzo, the third a soulful adagio, and the finale a lengthy sequence of episodes that it’s tempting to classify as a rondo except that this particular listener wasn’t adequately endowed enough to retain mentally the quick changes in mood and texture.   Like the Missa Solis, the composer’s new creation is not simply a deploration or a sustained elegy; in fact, the last pages are brimful of optimism – a celebration with a kind of pantheistic underpinning.

Westlake’s initial movement is almost entirely a first violin solo – a gift for Dale Barltrop who moved purposefully through a long melodic arch while his companions provided a sustained chord backdrop which enjoyed a wealth of colour shifts.   For no good reason, these pages brought to mind the Cantilena Pacifica from Meale’s String Quartet No. 2, only with more point or purpose and a much more eloquent melodic sequence.  The following scherzo that celebrated spirit dancing made for an intentional complete contrast – packed with pizzicati and abrupt slashes, the lyrical action shifting to Stephen King’s stolid viola.

While The Turning Tide moves into a meditative ambience, the players are kept active and Westlake spreads the content more evenly.   As a memorial, I thought that this moved into more ruminative ground than the surrounding movements, different from the first movement in not being so much a sustained lyric as comprising bursts of abrupt melody that suggested an individual character   –  and so proved to be the high point of this celebration of a life.   You could say something the same of the quartet’s finale except that the changes being rung did so at tiring length, in spite of the composer’s mastery of sound-production techniques, in particular a restrained use of harmonics.   Westlake appears to concern himself here with grief being subsumed in action – by which I mean life; certainly something more dynamic than fond memories.

The composer worked on this piece with the ASQ members, so the lines are tailor-made for the commissioners with plenty of passages that highlight each voice – Barltrop’s sweetness of delivery in his instrument’s higher tessitura, second violin Francesca Hiew’s determination amounting to vehemence, the individual ardour and weight of King’s viola, and cellist Sharon Grigoryan’s solid presence in polyphonic complexes and spiky punctuation points.

The American master’s String Quartet No. 1 has, somewhere along the line, gained the distinctive sub-title, From the Salvation Army but I’m unsure when this came about.  While the work is saturated with hymn tunes, there appears to be no exclusivity to their use by the Army.   The first recording by the Kohon Quartet came across my desk in the mid-1960s and I’ve been paying it irregular attention in the half-century since.  Unlike this and other US interpretations, like the Juilliard and Emerson versions, the ASQ took Ives at face value with few efforts at ameliorating the score’s many brusque passages; little tenderising of this meat.   To their credit, the local musicians made a refreshing meal of the Postlude finale where the going gets difficult, verging on the labyrinthine rhythmic and harmonic processes of the central movement to Three Places in New England or the Emerson pages of the colossal Concord Sonata.

One of the ensemble members – Hiew? – gave a preliminary talk about this work in which she made it sound more toxic to elderly sensibilities than it really is; my neighbour was almost groaning with fearful anticipation before the work got underway but she soon relaxed when faced with the sober deliberation of the opening Chorale fugue and was well on-side by the time we reached the rich warmth of the slow Offertory.  Nevertheless, the ensemble’s approach would have benefited from a less stentorian attack in the thicker-textured pages, and certainly more sobriety with the odd-numbered movements.

A comparable absence of sentiment emerged in the group’s interpretation of the Debussy quartet’s  framing movements, in particular the busy Tres mouvemente ending. However, this work is deficient in the wispy frailties that are invested in many of the piano works and has more than its share of assertiveness, even in the muted Andantino. You would not call this reading a polished example of these players in operation but their approach made for an involving, gripping experience, one that gave you unexpected insights into the ebullience of the composer in his youth.

 

 

We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

selby-and-friends-the-game-changers-5d4b89e9bb3fc90138c868b7-1600x1200

                                       (L to R) Kathryn Selby, Susie Park, Julian Smiles

In this penultimate recital of her 2019 season,  Kathryn Selby brought into play two well-known faces from previous years – violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   As is frequently the modus operandi, we heard two framing piano trios, embracing sonatas from each of the Friends.   This arrangement has a good deal to offer, although it can make the occasion a draining one for Selby who gets no release from engagement and – as on this night – can be more than fully exercised by her partners’ choices of repertoire.

No problem with the first of our Game Changers:  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence in the 2012 trio version.   The composer wrote it for her son, who suffers from schizophrenia; it’s an aid to help him and other sufferers attain a meditative, serene state.   In this aim, the work is a success, its germ motif mutating slowly – placid motion, not logical development.   To my ears, the emotional content divides in half as the composer progresses from cellular work to a full-blown lyricism before following the Debussyan dictum: say what you have to stay, then stop.

There is little in the score that tests its interpreters beyond asking for care with dove-tailing lines, particularly the strings.  Park and Smiles outlined some carefully placed intersections in the first half, followed by stretches of lush consonances later on.  It’s a small-framed work of simple construction, so it was interesting to watch the interpreters reining in their dynamic level to observe Kats-Chernin’s quest for placid meditativeness.

At night’s end, Dvorak in F minor asked for a much more sustained interpretative effort; the results could hardly be faulted.   The only problem you could find in the opening Allegro was an overshadowing of Park’s line in passages where the piano has bar after bar of sweeping strophes, and later in the first moves of the development.   Smiles projected a firm line, sustaining a prominent voice in proceedings.   But when Park’s voice became the dominant one, this movement became different in character – sweeter, less hectoring.

Much better followed in the Allegretto grazioso, a movement loaded with Central European breeziness but here articulated with an impressive sense of united purpose, both in the outer dance sections and the central interlude.  This was excellent trio playing, all three executants involved in working towards a common goal.   Much the same came across in a fine Poco adagio where Smiles maintained dynamic control over his announcement of the principal matter.  But what impressed most came later when Dvorak’s working-out takes a turn for the academic and a long genuflection at the altar of his mentor Brahms; once more, the players kept their focus on the score’s progress and how they had to work as a coherent force to keep their audience involved.   Here was another example of chamber music performance at its finest, alternately sweet and strong.

In the trio’s Allegro finale, the two strings presented another lesson in noteworthy duet work, mainly through an attractive combination of timbres – Park’s output all tensile elegant deliberation, Smiles assertive, vibrato-rich, pressure-packed.  This sonata/rondo fusion, like the second movement, showed the folk-tune influence racing alongside a Brahms-influenced gravity of intent and these players powered through its considerable length with ample gusto, capping a most satisfying interpretation.

For his moment in the sun, Smiles performed Britten’s C Major Cello Sonata, the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Rostropovich.  The initial Dialogo came across with fluency and idiomatic precision – but the piece seemed lacking in personality.  I can only put this down to the inimitability of the composer’s own performance with the Russian master which has shaped my perceptions of this sonata’s character, a position that hasn’t changed across many live and recorded versions of the score.  It’s unfair, of course, but sadly inescapable.  While constructing this invidious comparison, I was elated to hear Smiles and Selby, near the movement’s ending, come to a passage of eloquent if quiet restraint that came off ideally.

Britten’s all-pizzicato second movement is brief, or just long enough for some.  Deftly carried off here, its chief message serves to show that Bartok did not live in vain.  The central Elegia has an inbuilt power, a drive that carries you along, if only so far.  It’s always struck me that the two instruments are very-inter-dependent in these pages; one can’t make a move without the other sitting in support, in particular rhythmically where for long stretches piano and cello work in sync, note-for-chord.  Then, the Marcia presents as an interlude; clever in its linear ambiguity but leading towards . . .what?  Further, the final Moto perpetuo shows us Britten the Brilliant in a display of harmonic sleight-of-hand and rhythmic excitement with continuously glittering exposure points for each player.  The texture remained clear but here again you were reminded of the roar-inducing virtuosity of the original interpreters who transformed something smart into remarkable craft.

Park chose Ravel No. 2 for her showpiece, making sure we appreciated the weight of the opening Allegretto in its close melodic content and in the breadth that Ravel allowed himself to explore it.   Both players displayed a firm grasp of the expressive subtleties to be found in this movement which is often treated as a set of episodes rather than a composite.  You could find few traces of humour in the Blues which brought out a clamorous punch from Selby to match an unnerving ferocity of attack from Park in the climactic pizzicato quadruple slashes between Rehearsal Numbers 10 and 12 in the Durand edition.  As for the Perpetuum mobile, it seemed to me that the final pages made sense for the first time: a massive build-up of power driven across the last 18 bars and splendidly disciplined across an exhilarating crescendo.

You wouldn’t class it among the sweetest-voiced interpretations of this work that you’ve heard but Park and Selby removed a good deal of the saccharine and trivialising that this sonata endures pretty often.   The deceptive bucolicism of the first movement’s opening sentences was quickly subsumed in a focus on the interweaving patterns and subtle expressiveness of these pages.   No sign of introduced cleverness marred a straightforward, no-nonsense account of the Blues, and the finale made a brilliantly honed rounding-off to the piece.   Not an effete image of the composer, but one showing a massive, controlled energy.   If not for the Dvorak, this sonata would have taken Wednesday night’s performance honours.

 

 

Informative, yes; dry, no

NEW CONSTELLATIONS

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday August 22

ARCO Aug 2019

      L to R:   Jakob Lehmann,   Rachael Beesley,   Miki Tsunoda,   Anna McMichael,                          Bernadette Verhagen,    Simon Oswell,    Daniel Yeadon,    Natasha Kraemer

 

An inspiration of the late Richard Gill, this orchestra  –  or, on this night, chameleonic chamber ensemble  –  is  dedicated to historically informed performances which, the older I get, takes in a lot more music than it used to do.   We’ve had a welter of such groups come visiting over the past 50 years or so and have established our own organizations in this field, some to considerable acclaim.  But, as an ARCO virgin, I was taken aback and delighted by the orchestra’s most recent appearance here.

Even though the program offered little new  –  Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and Brahms’ D Major Serenade in its original nonet format   –   the standard of interpretation on offer managed to achieve what very few musical experiences do these days: making you re-hear and re-configure music that you thought you had securely under your belt.  Most of us would have heard a good many versions of the Mendelssohn gem; sometimes from two discrete string quartets banded together for the occasion, more often from performers extracted from an established orchestral body, and also there’s been the possibility of hearing 8 individuals collaborating with one end in view, as in student airings.

Is it fair to say that most of these prove worthy, sometimes exhilarating, often owing what success they have to the unkillable quality of the young composer’s score?  After hearing the ARCO forces, you have to take a step back; their interpretation doesn’t grab you for its drama, not even in the fugue-rich finale that most groups hammer into place with ferocity; nor is it affectingly rich in emotional swooping, as is too often the case in the work’s generous Andante.   Immediately, the listener knows that the reading is different.

You expect the first violin to seize the reins right from the start with those upward arpeggio surges while every one else supplies filler for 8 bars.   Guest director Jakob Lehmann cut back on the ardour so that his output emerged from the E flat Major buzzing  without unnecessary heroics or attention-grabbing.  In this, he set much of a pattern for the remainder of the players who supplied a kind of organic growth rather than a series of spotlit moments, as when Violin 4 and Viola 1 combine at bar 68 for the B flat theme in 6ths, or later when Violin 2 sets off the rush to recapitulation at bar 209, Rachael Beesley setting the semiquavers in motion from within the moment rather than seizing the opportunity to distract.

For the first five minutes, the ARCO output impresses for its caressing nature, a gentility that comes from every point of the stage.   You endure no scraping as the ensemble output is fine, carefully finished, but I was thankful for the Exposition repeat, just for the sake of temperature acclimatisation.  Quiet individual touches persisted into the Andante where Lehmann employed a fair amount of portamento, although he was pretty much alone in this practice.   As well, the group proved themselves comfortable at negotiating changes in tempo, bending the bar-line appreciably but without interrupting the movement’s fluency.

Mendelssohn’s breathtaking Scherzo was handled with courtesy and a lack of the sublimated freneticism that informs many other readings; light-footed, as the composer’s direction suggests, but not hopping about on hot coals.   The concluding Presto brought out the group’s most forthright playing with plenty of hefty bow-work, but even here the details told, like some scintillating duet fragments from Beesley and Tsunoda peeking out from the muted ferment, as at bars 355 to 372.   In the end, even this heavy-handed set of pages came over as brisk and bright – remarkable given the frequent determined working-out of material where the young composer can’t disguise his learning.

You won’t come across the original form of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 very often, mainly because he destroyed the score and what we hear is a clever reconstruction based on estimates and memories.   You can see why Joachim advised Brahms to revise it for full orchestra, especially in the bookend movements.   But for this group of players, the nonet – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn – provided scope for individuality without effort, even if you could have wished for less assertiveness from Robert Percival’s bassoon in  some of the more lightly-scored moments.

Lehmann maintained his approach of using very little vibrato; cellist Daniel Yeadon cello employed it more often.  Not that this latter player had much opportunity to exercise this technique early on, thanks to the folksy drones he had to produce with bass Robert Nairn.   Violist Simon Oswell didn’t hold back when a potentially fruity solo came his way.   But the significant player for this section was Darryl Poulsen on horn which, for a natural instrument, sounded unexpectedly fresh and clear of errors.  Thanks to this unfussed clarity, the work opened with a pleasant mixture of rusticity and sophistication, as it should.

The first scherzo exposed the excellent clarinet duet work of Nicole van Bruggen and Emily Worthington – subtle in phrasing and restrained in dynamic.   But the whole group made excellent work of these pages’ seamless, long paragraphs.   Even better performance skill came in the solitary Adagio which gave us  an opportunity to luxuriate in rich scoring and some fine textural mixes, notably from Lehmann and Oswell whose production qualities – so different in solo work – complemented each other with felicitous results.     This movement is heard at its melting best in the return to taws in the last third, a gift for Lehmann who gave it the same flexibility without overkill that exemplified his playing across the evening.    Here again, Poulsen made a brave showing, enunciating his notes without apparent effort and even reconciling you to the odd nature of step-by-step melodies for which the mechanics of his instrument preclude evenness of output.

With the clarinet duet of Menuetto I, this serenade is best suited to the small chamber disposition.   The second part saw Lehmann unexpectedly impose brusque dynamic contrasts.   Admittedly, the second Menuetto is all violin but, in this version, I was happy to get back to the calm imperturbability of those clarinets in the repeated first Menuetto. The second Scherzo gained by its change to full orchestra status, not least by having three more horns to help carry the brunt of the action.   Still, these pages met with an enthusiastic response from the ARCO musicians.   If I wasn’t as pleased by the ensemble’s account of the finale, it might have been due to the rhythmic ambiguity that hangs over the movement where the time signature is 2/4 but most ensembles slip into 6.8 by not maintaining a sufficiently keen ear on the disposition of individual lines.   However, these performers worked hard to the last bar of this rondo  –  the least successful of the score’s six segments.

Obviously, listening to the Brahms score made for a further test of concentration.  You had to take on board pretty quickly the combination of clarity and restraint that seems to come with the ARCO territory.   On top of that, you found yourself trying to discount your knowledge of how this work sounds under ‘normal’ conditions.  As a result, the performance kept you on your toes, aurally speaking.   For many of us, such demands are unusual; for several of us, they make for the best kind of musical experience.  It’s hard to resist this group’s dedication to a particular style of playing which attracts for its integrity; the pity is that, as on this night, these gifted musicians are working to an audience of small numbers.  Not that this should give them pause: their efforts and  results are effective and powerful.