Gripping sub-Arctic fervour

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday February 27

Australian String Quartet Haydn Winkelman Sibelius - Melbourne - photo by Sam Jozeps

                     (L to R) Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King, Timo-Veikko Valve

                                                                   (Photo: Sam Jozeps)                                               

Introducing the last work on this subscription series recital from the ASQ, stand-in cellist Timo-Veikko Valve thanked his colleagues for programming a work from his own country: the Voces intimae String Quartet in D minor by Sibelius which is the Finnish composer’s outstanding contribution to chamber music.   Valve’s gesture was sincere, I’m sure, but not really necessary as this undertaking was the night’s highlight, largely due to a solid interpretative consensus from all concerned.

The regular ASQ members – violins Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King – contrived to weld Valve into their performing practice with pretty consistent success.    Replacing Sharon Grigoryan (absent on parental leave), the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cellist made his presence all too obvious in the opening sentences of Haydn’s  Bird String Quartet Op. 33 No. 3 in C.   While Barltrop was finishing his 1st theme statement, Valve’s ascending C Major arpeggio was  pushed forward with excessive force; ditto for the D minor pattern repeat in bars 11-12.  A small thing but it drew attention to a balancing flaw that arose several times in this particular movement.

Unlike quite a few extant recorded performances, the ASQ followed Haydn’s repeat signs.  In the following Scherzando, Barltrop and Hiew produced a cogent, rustic version of the two-voice Trio; the only oddity came with Valve’s tendency to anticipate the others at some of the Allegretto‘s mid-paragraph cadences where the upper three players had pre-determined a small hesitation.   The group’s approach to the Adagio was anything but.   It sounded as though a communal decision had been taken to view these pages as a sort of minuet.   This might work for some of the score’s more obvious and simple stretches but leads to dismissiveness when the first violin encounters sextuplets and that benign flight of fancy lasting from bar 43 to bar 36.

Also dissimilar to several contemporary approaches, the ASQ eschewed the possibility of radically meddling with metre, sticking consistently to a regular pulse without extending hiatus points, this slow movement a case in point where the phrasing sounded collegial and the ensemble’s underlying impetus unshakeable, except for Barltrop’s solo interstitial breaks.   And the rondo-finale proved to be a deft gem, the lower voices of King and Valve not over-emphatic but then much of their work sits in their instruments’ middle ranges.  Haydn’s felicitous chains of parallel 3rds and 6ths look so simple on paper but translate into crisp and attractive passages of play, the actual sound more effervescent than you’d expect.   In realising this, the ASQ brought a much-appreciated verve to what is fast becoming a string quartet recital cliche:  the opening Haydn.

Swiss-born contemporary composer Helena Winkelman’s Papa Haydn’s Parrot offers an 8-movement sequence of variants on parts of the Bird Quartet.  With admirable gusto, the ASQ gave this rapidly-moving score an outing, each segment staying around just long enough to make its point although the opening A Question of Character sounded over-strident in its content and unexpectedly four-square, with little I could make out of Haydn’s clever disturbance of equilibrium.

As the movements passed, Winkelman employed most of the modern-day production techniques for strings: harmonics in the second Menuet in Slow Motion, col legno, pizzicati all over the shop, microtones (if not simple glissandi) in At Ease (Adagio), and the insertion of sticks (knitting needles) for part of Memory of a Dance.  In fact, much of these devices came into clear prominence in the penultimate Rondo in Presence of Fleas where Winkelman wrong-noted Haydn’s finale to give us a musical image of 18th century wig-wearers’ cranial irritation.  This work’s finale, Haydn on the Rocks, intended to summon up a Big Band spectre through jazz-inspired flashy musical gestures; can’t say that it was convincing in its achievement because, no matter what instructions you give in Satiesque vein, it’s nigh impossible to convey the essential brassiness of a band by means of four strings, not even if you write a superfluity of slashing, sweeping chords.

That Haydn had a parrot is a historical fact; the animal survived its owner, who bought it 20 years before his death.   So he had at least one avian interest.  Winkelman seems to identify the parrot with the popular nickname of this quartet, even though the set from which it comes predates the parrot’s purchase by nearly a decade.  Not that it matters too much in this instance, where the work’s name doesn’t matter as much as its use of Haydn’s score which is probably more clever than it sounds after one hearing..

The Sibelius quartet needs to be played with unyielding intensity, at the least in both outer movements and that’s what we got from these players.  Barltrop and Valve led their colleagues into Sibelius’ passionate argument that dominates the opening Allegro; a demonstration of stern polyphony uninterrupted by circuit breakers which finds its resolution in a striking chorale across the final 12 bars.   After this, the A Major Vivace, packed with semiquaver patterns that interweave and contrast, made for a welcome refresher, here treated with a welcome amalgam of heft and dexterity rising to a bountiful C Major climax at Rehearsal Number 3 where the upper voices duet at the octave over a weltering support of double-stopped semiquavers – a splendidly invigorating bout over all too quickly.

This work’s core, its Adagio, produced the evening’s most dramatic and moving work from the ASQ, the interweaving syncopated labyrinth of melodies realised with eloquence and a laudable self-awareness on the part of each participant, notably at the two sets of chords, in E minor and C sharp minor, that earned this quartet its sobriquet: clear in their parts and enunciated triple-piano as required.   The pace is not demanding but the counterpoint is a consistent test of flexibility and abnegation to the greater cause. With controlled fervour, these musicians took us through these pages with consistent unanimity of purpose.

Sibelius prefigures the rustling activity of Tapiola in this work’s Allegretto where, after the hefty rustic measures that provide the main material, second violin and viola move into parallel quaver triplets to background the outer lines’ brief melody lines.  It’s a scherzo-of-sorts but the 16-bar stretto comes as a relief from the unabashed angularity and unsettling awkwardness of the movement’s development.  Finally, the concluding Allegro proved irresistible thanks to the ASQ’s clear articulation and head-long confidence that persisted in the abrupt shift to a higher gear at the Piu allegro with the upper three lines in unison urging the work’s pace forward for relentless pages of ferment, even in later segments where the dynamic markings accentuate softness and subterranean heaving until an apogee is reached – in case the players feel like wavering – at the Number 9 Sempre piu energico, the fabric punctuated by abrupt unison scale passages up and down.

With this piece, all the elements are provided for a tense involvement with the listener, Sibelius exerting a grip that doesn’t falter after the first movement.  The ASQ – even in this format, or possibly because of this format – produced an ardent, involving interpretation of a work that stretched them beyond the preceding Haydn-Winkelman double-bill.  It brings about the kind of experience that makes you more conscious than ever that there is no substitute for live performance; I don’t care how fine your sound-system, you cannot equal the excitement involved in watching musicians in the flesh grappling with an emotionally rich, dangerously vital score like this one.

Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26

Clein

               Natalie Clein

To open its 2019 season, Musica Viva presented this cello-piano duet, two young artists (yes, they’re in their forties but they all look young to me) of high achievement.  Their careers are studded with prizes, academic positions, recital and concert appearances with significant organizations and well-known conductors and colleagues, now coming into the climacteric of their lives with this Australian tour.   A respectably sized audience came along to the MRC for this program which boasted two masterpieces from the cello/piano repertoire and a fresh composition by an Australian writer.

The evening began with Kodaly’s Sonatina, a brief one-movement work that I’d not heard before.   In fact, the only piece for this string instrument that I did know was one which occupies such a large position in the cello’s limited storehouse that it can hardly be ignored: the Solo Sonata of 1915: a monumental masterwork that first introduced me to the brilliant craft of Liwei Qin.   This brief duo has reminiscences of the greater work – and of the composer’s partner in transcribing Hungarian folk music from the source: Bartok.   Both instruments share a welter of rhapsodic gestures and modal inflexions that go back to Liszt in serious mode.

The reading set something of a pattern for the program’s progress.  Apekisheva powered through the keyboard’s ardent 12-bar introduction before setting up the quintuplet waves that support the string’s long-arched D minor melody.   Not that Kodaly divides the labour in doctrinaire fashion; the cello gets its powerful declamations, if nothing as striking as the piano’s fortissimo outburst at bar 158.   In this well-integrated score, idiomatic, even flattering, for both instruments, Clein  and Apekisheva showed an agreeable balance, despite the piano being open on the long stick and this cellist not one to belt out her sound.

Natalie Williams’ freshly composed The Dreaming Land, created for these artists and this tour, is in three movements and seems to be concerned with Australia and its pre-European civilization.   After one experience of its content, however, I’m not sure.  ‘Dreaming’ tends to set off shivers of local recognition in most of us but the composer’s actual vocabulary and technical armoury is employed in such a way as to suggest any landscape.   Not that you expect intentional Jindyworobakisms to leap out, but these three movements/scenes have more universal associations than expected.

Williams speaks a tonal tongue in which the natural bent is towards resolution; at several points, leading notes yearn towards the tonic and usually fold into it.   Yes, there are passages of dissonance but you aren’t left with much ambiguity about where the composer has led you.   Movement One, Voices of the Ancients, is dominated by rising patterns from the piano, which underpins the string’s role as narrator dominating its supporting companion.   The voices are essentially lyrical in the time-honoured Western tradition and they also tend to follow an upward-leading and continuously prevalent optimism.

The Chanting Walker . . . follows without much change in procedure even if the timbre-world is more dour.   For all the eloquent melodic arches from the string player, well-written to exhibit Clein’s disciplined vibrato, the pilgrimage scenario failed to move me, chiefly because the work’s progress is too self-assured.   You’d expect the title’s trailing off to suggest doubts, even indeterminacy, but this walker has all the answers and leaves nothing to the imagination, reaching a full close – which I, for one, find atypical of this country’s native metaphysics.

Finally, Ethereal Furies is an emotionally moderate moto perpetuo with some intriguing rhythmic hockets but eventually settles into regular patterns.  These Eumenides are well-dressed and, while active, would not discombobulate any Orestes, now or then.  The atmosphere is of Mendelssohn through a well-ordered restlessness, but dressed in light 21st Century garb.  We can thank Williams for her musical journey and the prospects that it offered but the score lacked bite, even though Clein and Apekisheva outlined it with enthusiasm and apparent precision.

Beethoven’s final Cello Sonata in D, second of the Op. 192 brace, enjoyed a very welcome airing.   The performers’ account of the initial Allegro gave us a complete, consistent canvas; no small feat when you remember the composer’s penchant for abrupt changes in most compositional parameters, including the unsettling leaps that typify the sonata’s opening matter.   You looked in vain for overt declamation or jolts of power in the Rostropovich/Richter style of delivery; here the emphasis fell on finding a continuous seam and following it through.

The central Adagio also impressed for its composure and deftly conserved harmonic ambiguity in the outer sections, which embraced a splendid D Major centre with eminently fluent passage work and tic-free treatment of the demi-semiquaver Alberti bass figures in the keyboard and the fragmented commentary offered by the cello, marred only by some strained high Ds.  The gentlest of transitions moved us into the finale fugal Allegro where both artists quite sensibly put their trust in the composer.  The texture gets piano-heavy at two definite points but Apekisheva persisted with her dynamic, leaving Clein to emerge from the ferment that comes about from near bar 84 to bar 89 and reconvenes near bar 126.

To end, the duo played the Rachmaninov G minor Sonata which gave the lion’s share of labour to Apekisheva.   Clein’s generous bowing action made some form of compensation for the composer’s over-hefty keyboard writing but she is not a bullish performer, urging out her line at the expense of accuracy.   Not that the inbuilt imbalance proved too distracting except in the concluding Allegro mosso where the composer was manifestly unfair to the cellist, studding the piano part with brilliant bursts of virtuosity and scintillating textures.

It’s true that the string player doesn’t fare much better in the vital Allegro scherzando.  Clein can’t put on a gruff voice for any money and she was hard-pressed to mirror her partner’s volatile scampering downward two-note skips.  Of course, there are compensations in the central A flat Major trio but even here Rachmaninov supplies the pianist with a lush accompanying textural web towards the transition back to taws.  To her credit, Apekisheva maintained the correct role, her mastery evident in that we were aware of her content – just not overpowered by it.

An admirable interpretation, then, but not one that dripped with tension.  True to her lights, Clein gave not a hint of a scrape, her bowing address impeccable across the program.   You were able to rest secure in the hands of a highly competent musician with a fine command of phrasing.   Yet, for the two major works, those hefty sonatas, her elegance of utterance necessarily was overshadowed by her colleague who also – as far as I could hear – made precious few errors across a taxing night’s work.

Not too much effort: it’s summer

PENINSULA SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL

Miles Johnston

Australian Haydn Ensemble & David Greco

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders

Sunday January 6 at 11:30 am and 2 pm

 

miles johnston

                                                                    Miles Johnston

After a decade or so under the artistic directorship of violinist Julia Fredersdorff, this festival has been taken over by a new pair of hands: those of Ben Opie, known only to me as the oboist from the two-persons-plus-guests Inventi Ensemble.  The event brief has been widened to take in some places on the Mornington Peninsula that are unknown to – and unheard of by – me.   So, letting discretion continue as the better part of valour, I beat the usual track to Flinders for two recitals that followed quickly on each other.

There are times when you can enjoy three events in one day at St. John’s Anglican Church on the outskirts of this seaside Sleepy Hollow, although the evening one is often held out-of-doors under canvas – which caters for the crowd that turns up but does nothing for the performers’ sound.   Both the morning guitar recital by Miles Johnston and the Schubert lieder collaboration after lunch were held indoors.  Now the church is not large but it does boast fine acoustic qualities; soft sounds carry successfully, fortissimo means exactly that, and shadings are instantly perceptible.

Johnston won the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantic’s Competition last year but moved outside that historical period in a four-part program of works from all over the place.   Following a practice as old as Segovia, he began with Bach: a transcription of the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor.   Was this Manuel Barrueco’s arrangement?  Johnston did mention a name but it skipped past without making much of an impact – rather like two other composers on this program where syllabic proximation played a large part in their identification.

The sonata’s opening Adagio proved to be an excellent introduction to this young musician’s painstaking, lapidary interpretation by which every note is precisely delivered and the score’s progress is distinguished by the player’s fine ear for phrasing ebb and flow.   In this controlled, restrained set of pages, you got to appreciate very quickly how subtle is Johnston’s style, especially his negotiation of soft passages, which sometimes bordered on inaudibility.   The following fugue was delivered as a deliberate contrast: strict in metre, almost inexorably so until the final bars where the counterpoint dissipates into abrupt floridity.

Johnston’s view of the Siciliana – all 20 bars of it – was appealingly well-rounded with a high quality of fluency in the rush of demi-semiquavers in bars 5 and 8.   It was back to emphatic rhythmic solidity in the concluding Presto, which was just that.   Johnston observed the first repeat but not the second; still, he sustained a high degree of accuracy in this bravura exhibition which enjoyed remarkably few punctuation points.

Giulio Regondi’s Introduction and Caprice Op. 3 in E Major/minor also served as a valuable display piece for Johnston, who programmed this work for the Recital Centre competition.  He observed all the portamenti directions in the first part’s pages and managed to keep the shape sensible without overdoing the potential for rubato, exerting a firm control on the two cadenzas that occur near the end of each of the Introduction‘s two pages.   You don’t get much material to chew on in the Caprice but the executant had plenty of room for display in a brisk set of pages that ask for plenty of dexterity, a firm hand for full six-note chords, and an amiability of interpretation that keeps the tenor of the performance in the world of the salon.

Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Threnody for Chernobyl: variations on a twelve-tone theme offers a sort of meditation – not too demanding – on the Russian nuclear power-station disaster in 1986.   Johnston invested this work with a sure-footed solemnity, notably at either end: first, with the processional of single notes where Charlton sets out his material without doctrinaire rigidity; and at the conclusion where the underlying four-note inverted mordent pattern dominates the bleak emotional landscape as the work fades to silence.

Charlton makes no attempt – thankfully – to mirror the events of the colossal meltdown or the horrific aftermath that (we assume) followed.   He is concerned with mourning, so the work rarely whips itself into a passion.  And, despite the latter part of the title, he is not concerned with subscribing to any dodecaphonic rules; in fact, he does a Berg and gives his tone row an orthodox harmonic slant.   To his credit, the guitarist realised the piece’s quiet, pointed lament with a careful unveiling of its muted message; not so much rage against the dying of the light but a quiet, determined going gentle.

Last in this brief hour’s work was Russian guitarist/composer Nikita Koshkin’s Introduction and Vivace which used minor 9ths and 2nds as a sort of calling card throughout its first half before changing pace, if not material, for the faster pages.  I looked for the projected rock influences in the work that Johnston adverted to in his pre-performance address but could find little of the kind; it seemed quite a well-framed if intellectually brittle construct which, if anything, erred on the side of brevity.

Finally, a brief encore of what I think was Sergio Assad’s Valseana from the Aquarelle of 1986 and we were done.   Johnston shows an impressive technical armoury and a confidence that rarely falters; I heard only one fret error in the octave oscillations towards the end of the Regondi work and a few notes failed to register in the Koshkin Vivace, but slight slips were just that and not enough to distract from the eloquence of this musician’s product.

FOR the songs with light baritone David Greco, the Haydn Ensemble comprised five musicians: violins Skye McIntosh and Simone Slattery, viola James Eccles, cello James Bush and a double bass that I think was Jacqueline Dooser – only because she’s listed in the publicity for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival where this program is being repeated.   For this afternoon, Greco fronted seven songs while the quintet filled in  with excerpts from Les quatres saisons, a large suite of 24 pieces by Berlioz’s colleague, Felicien David.

The singer began with Die Gotter Griechenlandes which he introduced – as he did all his material – with a short explanatory talk.   Sadly, in this instance, he mishandled the title’s interpretation but, when it got around to singing, he gave a stolid account of this setting of a piece of Schiller’s pagan-celebrating poem.  I’d like to be able to report success from the Haydn players but their delivery impressed as slackly disciplined and all too often not uniform, either in striking the note simultaneously or in weighting the slow-moving chords appropriately.   It was hard to warm to Greco’s reading, principally because of an over-expressive tendency to gild the text with pointed emphasis, rather than allowing the line to make its own grave statements.

More dark shades followed with Der Jungling und der Tod and Der Tod und das Madchen, Greco relishing the several changes in persona that both songs offer and generally keeping the pathos under control.   Every so often, the Haydns would have a spongy passage where communal entries sounded anything but.   Much better came in the three excerpts from Winterreise: Gute nacht with an unexpected high vehemence pervading stanza 3, Fruhlingstraum pixilated by some added ornaments to brighten up this disturbing schizoid lyric, and Der Leiermann where you could admire the baritone’s legato if not the reading which was deficient in detachment, missing on the disembodied fade-to-black that concludes this epic essay in dreary weltschmerz.

Greco concluded the set program with a rapid version of Der Erlkonig, thoughtfully giving us a near-word-for-word translation before he began – which rather robs the experience of its point, but never mind.   Here, more than anywhere else, you missed the piano accompaniment, one of the most gripping in the art form.   Almost in compensation for the lack of percussive drive, Greco turned the song into something close to opera, in particular the lines of the dying child.   All very theatrical and enough to have the lady next to me leap to her feet in either admiration or arousal.

With the interstitial David pieces, you could find little interest and not much to challenge the quintet’s virtuosity.   McIntosh clipped some short ornamental points in the more playful interludes to the first piece, an Andantino in F sharp minor that heads the Summer bracket.   The Andante con moto 3/8 waltz that concludes the Spring experience worked to better effect although its positioning in the course of events puzzled.  During the Autumn Allegretto movement, pitching went astray somewhere in the upper strings which made you wonder whether the puristic insistence on gut strings was actually worth the trouble.   And in the final David extract – back to Spring for an Andante – the group hit a hefty dynamic level and stayed there for a remarkably long stretch.

Mind you, the packed church showed far more enthusiasm than I did for this recital and, given the working conditions, it’s to the musicians’ credit that the flaws in delivery were not more numerous or noticeable.   Even so, I was expecting more polish from the string players who came close to sounding lumpy in several of the David interludes.  Greco’s light-textured production is well-suited to Schubert with an attractive evenness across his range and a laudable clarity of diction and precision of articulation.   What is absent is a heightened insight of interpretation where the listener becomes less conscious of the vocal technique and more aware of the work’s emotional content.

 

 

Vehement night’s work

FOUR SEASONS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday October 17

Alexandre-Da-Costa-02

                                               Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline

 

For her final Melbourne recital this year, Kathryn Selby chose two volatile friends as her partners in a program of high energy, giving as good as she got in fierce address and consistent drive.   Violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline began operations with an ardent reading of Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, Paul Kochanski’s arrangement of the Siete canciones populares espagnoles – well, most of them: the arranger, with Falla’s approval, left out the original’s Seguidilla.

After a brooding account of the opening El Pano moruno, Da Costa-Graveline stopped the music to give us an account of each movement’s context.  Normally, this sort of intervention leaves me cold but the explanations were brief, gave the remaining pieces some individuality and – as I thought (wrongly) at the time – served as a sort of delaying tactic so that the string player could gird his loins for the fray.

To me, this music is pretty much all show; you look in vain for any emotional or developmental depths in folk music or its imitation.  There’s no doubt that the melodies can be well-shaped and appealing, but, without the transformative power of a Bartok, they are best heard without adornment, or even insulting simplification.  As somebody said about the birch tree song that Tchaikovsky used in the finale of his Symphony No. 4, after you outline the tune, what is left for you to do but play it again, only louder?

Which is actually unfair to Falla whose suite certainly repeats melodies but not mindlessly.   Da Costa-Graveline found a willing partner in Selby who matched him point for point in the quieter excerpts like Asturiana and Nana, elegantly shaped by the dominant violin line but with a commanding bowing arm.  This performance proved memorable for the impressive power of both the Polo and Jota dances which set aside all conceptions of the suite itself as a benign collection of bagatelles with lashings of local colour loaded on.   These were emphatic almost to the point of violence, giving a different slant to the composer’s usual characterization through the dreamy Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a post-impressionist or a master of Hispanic applique, as in The Three-Cornered Hat or even El amor brujo.

The night’s cellist, Umberto Clerici, is the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal and  plays a powerful Goffriller instrument, a fine dynamic match for his violin partner’s steely Stradivarius.   For his duet spot, Clerici, Head of Strings at Edith Cowan University, opted for the Debussy Sonata of 1915, a work that delights at every turn.  It was impossible not to respond to the affirmative polemic that this cellist gave to the opening Prologue that brings to my mind echoes of the great French gamba composers, thanks to its affirmative statements alternating with ornate mini-cadenzas.

In his preliminary talk, Clerici covered a confusingly broad stretch of historical references but much more usefully demonstrated the pizzicato effects that Debussy wanted in this work’s second movement Serenade: the first time in my experience that this variety of requirements has been made clear.   Here was a virtuoso reading, loaded with changes of speed, abrupt decelerations and mirroring forward rushes, handled with assurance by both players.   But then, Clerici, like Da Costa-Graveline, had the score by heart and Selby is the most aware and obliging of partners.

Still, the substantial Finale to this sonata is the work’s high-point, loaded with incident and sudden moments of stunning beauty, as in the ascending cello motive from bar 7 to bar 14, hinted at just before Rehearsal Number 8, and recapitulated with moving effect 6 bars after Number 10.  Following the movement’s flurries and almost continuous concerted action for both players, the penultimate cello solo flourish that calls to mind the sonata’s braggadocio opening takes your breath away, particularly in this very direct, strikingly forward interpretation that did for Debussy what Da Costa-Graveline and Selby had done for Falla; taking away all that Clair de lune drowsiness and showing how precise, finely tuned and assertive was this great composer’s sensibility in the last painful years of his life, pointing up yet again his primacy among important 20th century musical figures.

The three musicians came together for the evening’s signature work, Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires which several local piano trios and other chamber combinations have performed in recent years.   I seem to be in a minority, especially when faced with the advocacy of significant musicians in this country like Richard Tognetti who is a fan, but the Argentine writer’s tangos, despite being ‘new’ and far removed from the early 20th century’s emasculation of the dance, leave me browned out.   But then, you could simply sit back and appreciate the emphatic address of these players, particularly Selby’s unfailing definition of metre and security in chords and the two string players dynamism even in unison/octave passages during the Autumn and Spring  movements.

But, as with so much other Piazzolla, you felt that you were being pummelled.  In which respect, the trio lived up to the composer’s expectations, intentions and transferred life experience – well, part of it.   Put simply, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the movements – certainly not in format or harmonic language – and the Pizzolla tango’s natural state is somehow one of musical violence.  Selby and her colleagues realised this work’s broad underpinning of machismo with determined gusto.

From the rear of the Tatoulis space, the post-interval reading of Mendelssohn  in D minor came across as sharply defined, crisp, and not as thunderous as I had anticipated following the Latin-heavy first half to the night.  Very few errors crept into Selby’s piano part which is where the score’s chief interest falls, the pianist/composer unable to hold back from his own command of digital legerdemain.   Da Costa-Graveline and Clerici made a moving creature of the repeated first melody to the meltingly fine central Andante where the composer manifests his emotional maturity by avoiding any trace of sentimentality simply though the calm serenity of his lyrical gift which in these pages never fails to weave its involving spell.

It seemed to me that the final Allegro was over-anxious, an emphasis on urgent mobility even in those moments where the strings have prominence as in the broad B flat Major burst of eloquence at bar 141 where the piano tones down its semiquaver prominence.  At the end, the trio brought the exercise to a satisfying conclusion, Selby courteously tamping down her volume for the string-rich duet from bar 297 up to bar 311, at which point the piano explodes into D Major virtuosity.   An uplifting way to end a solid year’s work.

Not the best of Spanish nights

ESPANA!

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  Michael Dahlenburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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A night at the coal-face

SIBELIUS, RACHMANINOV, BEETHOVEN

Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31

                                                                  Caroline Almonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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A trying journey

KARAKORUM: A MEDIEVAL MUSICAL JOURNEY

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Collaboration more than fusion

THE KITES OF TIANJIN

Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday July 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective thorn amid two roses

BEETHOVEN WIDMANN BEETHOVEN

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 3

                                                                        Jorg Widmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time for a change?

JAZZ & BLUES

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 7

                                                    Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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