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

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                                                                      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.

 

Long time between drinks

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday June 15

doric string quartet

                      (L to R) Alex Redington, Ying Xue, Helene Clement, John Myerscough

I’ve got plenty of happy memories of the Dorics in their original shape back in 2007 when the group entered Melbourne’s International Chamber Music Competition and got dudded by some other ensembles along the finals’ road.   Those musicians gave fine service in Bartok No. 6 – not your average young persons’ fare –  and an exemplary Round 2 combination of Brett Dean’s Eclipse with Schumann No. 1 in A minor.  Over the past 12 years, the ensemble has revisited Australia, but not getting past the Huntington Festival in 2013, followed by the 2015 Musica Viva Festival in Sydney.

However, memory only takes you so far.   I’ve got no recollection of the current Doric violist, Helene Clement; just as well, as I find that she only joined up in 2013 to replace Simon Tandree.   It’s probable that first violin Alex Redington and cellist John Myerscough are foundation members.   But the body seems to have enjoyed a change in the Violin 2 chair: Jonathan Stone has been recently replaced by Ying Xue  –  and I mean very recently, Ying having made the move from the Parker String Quartet late in 2018.

Illness kept me away from the group’s first program – Haydn’s Joke, the new Brett Dean No. 3, and the last Schubert.   Still, you couldn’t complain about the alternative a few days later: Haydn Op. 33 No 4, Dean, and Beethoven in C sharp minor.  The players have recorded more than a few Haydn works, although none of the six from the Op. 33 set. Over the past 12 years or so, the group has built up a firm relationship with Dean, ever since the composer heard them performing his work in the 2007 competition here in Melbourne.   And, while they did record the big Schubert in 2017, no Beethoven, large or small, has tempted them into the studio.

Saturday night’s Haydn opening displayed a sharp individual character to the interpretation; par for the course these days.   Before long, you were faced with an unexpectedly wide dynamic range and juxtapositions, not to mention a non-doctrinaire approach to metre, and the occasional sound shock, like the outbreak of rustic fiedel-timbre from Redington in the first movement.   But the actual dynamic terracing left you unsatisfied at various points throughout the reading.   Well, not just that but the abruptness of changes; it was almost as if the players were drawing attention to their own skill at the expense of Haydn’s.

Much better emerged in the two central movements with a generous breadth to the Scherzo and a deft turn to the asymmetrical B flat minor Trio.  At the outset, these players treated the Largo without unflattering flourishes, Redington leading into its small-frame  escapades with a restrained hand during the movement’s brief length.  The first violin also led the revels in Haydn’s Presto/finale with an unassuming mastery, although there are few challenges to the line’s supremacy.   In these pages, the Dorics made their most interesting music, possibly because Haydn offers a variety of segments to play around with, including a winsome pizzicato conclusion that always surprises because of its delicacy, substituting for the usual rabble-rousing welter – yes, even in Haydn.

Dean’s new work has a political subtext; no, more than that.  The work operates as a commentary on the current dispiriting theatre and raft of operators who have taken over the state of play in so many countries.   At the same time, Dean is not only occupied with presenting us with his vision of the world gone astray but he also injects the personal into his work’s progress so that, although you can appreciate the multi-faceted irrationalities that confront the political observer,  you also are a part of the main and, if things have come to this pretty pass, you bear responsibility for it, along with the idiots you allow to represent you.

The work, subtitled Hidden Agendas,  is in five movements: Hubris, Response, Retreat, Self-Censorship and On-Message.   If you so desired, you could find plenty of material in each section to reflect or reinforce your world-view.   But that pursuit suggests the momentary: we will not always have Trump, Johnson, Erdogan, Orban, Kim Jong-un, or Mohammed bin Salman to bedevil our times.   Yet most of them will not pass rapidly, so Dean offers a state-of-play commentary, beginning with a kind of communal hurtling where each member of the quartet is involved in synchronized action; it may be discordant, but it presents as organized.   It’s intensely invigorating to watch but you can’t avoid the impression that each performer is operating both in concord with the others and also gainsaying them at the same time.

Response is an opposite in pretty much every way: harmonics dominate the opening strophes in a passive landscape where the participants become more extroverted, the violins reach for high tessitura notes and the lower strings avoid any answering depths, the most memorable device an unaggressive saltando.  For Retreat, the move is back to a form of the work’s initial scrabbling, resolving into sustained chords, under which Myerscough urged out what I can only call an impassioned, well-rocked lullaby.

For the confessional pages of Self-Censorship, Dean has the players exchange their bows for ones that have not been treated with rosin, at the same time wiping down their instruments’ strings to make sure there is a complete absence of the powder.   This is a movement of feints and whispers in which nothing is defined; nothing like a statement of determined effort emerges.  This is not so much a Party-style exercise in self-recrimination or a general admission of guilt for perceived error, but a reservation of the eyes, the tongue and the mind – an old-fashioned monastic would feel completely at home with this music,

Dean brings us round to something like full-circle at the end yet, where there was something collegial about the aggression of the first movement, here the impulse that drives the work impresses as obsessive, more dissonant in language and argument than we heard in Hubris.   Is anything resolved?  I doubt it: the composer leaves us with an open-ended result simply because the world that he deals with has little definition.  These days, information arrives from so many sources through so many different media direct to the listener/reader, to such a point where the tasks of shuffling into shape, categorising and even imbibing cogently all the materials with which we are bombarded  are becoming impossibly difficult.   Dean is far from negative; much of this quartet is immediately attractive and challenging.   Yet what he leaves you (me) with is a type of regretful scepticism.

Of course, the composer has been fortunate in his interpreters who showed, at every stage, a confidence and security of delivery that did not falter, even in those passages that required split-second communal accuracy.

While you could find certain facets of the Beethoven performance to enjoy, beginning with a firm, spartan rendition of the initial fugue which often refrained from treating those multiple sforzandi as if they were escapees from Verklarte Nacht country, to a controlled and bounding account of the Allegro finale – in tune and in time to its manic last bars.   Throughout, however, I was troubled by an impression that I’d gained back in the Haydn run-through: the ensemble’s viola, Helene Clement, tends to self-emphasize, her line brimming with over-confidence even in those passages where her instrument is making the running.

About the quartet’s core, the Andante with variations, you were hard pressed to quibble, the movement opening with a reassuring fluency and maintaining its underlying urgency.    Yet the group found it difficult to negotiate the following Presto with much beyond the slam-dunk attack that many another ensemble employs.   By the end, you were happy for the weltering action to stop; no, it’s not a set of pages that lends itself to subtlety or that gains relief by studied elegance of delivery but it need not be handled with a coarseness of utterance like the remorseless pounding that ran from bar 220 to bar 232, or again between bars 434 and 446.

As with so many other experiences of this monument, you were happy to have experienced it one more time but I couldn’t class this night’s work as one of those transcendent visions of the score that ensures a tolerance amounting to admiration for its brusque plain-speaking.

 

 

 

 

 

Imas ena

MOORE BEETHOVEN BRAHMS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 27

australian_string-quartet-ASQ_web_banner_1110x624_moore_beethoven_brahms

                                                         Australian String Quartet

So we’re all back together again.  Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, and violist Stephen King have reunited with their regular cellist, Sharon Grigoryan, who has returned to the ASQ ranks after parental leave; more than ready, by the sound of it, to take up duties in this program and put to an end the (admittedly small) round of guest musicians who have filled in for her over the past year.   She hit the ground running with a night’s work here that included Beethoven Op. 18 No. 4, the only minor one in the composer’s bracket of six quartets; and, later, the weltering passion of Brahms No. 1  –  like the Beethoven, in C minor and bearing all the trademark weight that the tonality implies.

But this solid material was preceded by a new Australian work, commissioned by the ASQ to honour a long-time patron.   Kate Moore’s String Quartet No. 3, subtitled Cicadidae, is a sample of atmosphere music about 15 minutes long and it makes its point or draws its aural pictures quickly; you’ve plumbed its depths well before the composer decides to call time.   As you can pick up easily enough, the one-movement score aims at an Australian atmosphere through the stridulous sounds of cicadas.  I don’t mean to be picky but you can hear cicadas, particularly representatives of the Cicadidae family, pretty much everywhere in the world bar Antarctica.  Still, we have made a case over the years for the sound being a national characteristic or aural determinant so there’s little point arguing with Moore’s choice.

The composer goes in for lots of tremolo, most of it regular in pulse.  The three upper strings set things in motion and it isn’t long before you realise that the actual melodic and harmonic content comprises major and minor triads in root position or inversion.  In fact, the whole work consists of ringing the changes on a series of triads, eventually widening out into chords; these cicadas are remarkably harmonious creatures.  Tension comes from sudden accents and abrasiveness of attack, and I think further aural interest arises when individual instruments switch strings but play the same note, although I could be indulging in wishful thinking here.

The pace eases from semiquaver to quaver, although one member of the ensemble seems to be occupied with the faster tempo at all stages.   As the work moves forward, you become aware of the allocation of rest time to each player, although Hiew seemed to enjoy an inordinate break about half-way through t proceedings.  Moore also has recourse to an abrupt burst or two of very loud address, suggestions of cross-rhythms, a patch of sul ponticello and/or sul tasto.  But, as the work moves towards its end, the material presents as more disciplined and regular in essence than you first thought, with flashes of individual colour and shifting internal perspectives.  Yet the juxtaposition of triads is not particularly subtle, albeit not as predictable as you find in early minimalist compositions.   Some shuddering full-bodied chord work leads to a climactic surge which ends in mid-stream  –  just as when the cicada chorus itself cuts off to beneficent effect.

The main complaint I have about this new piece is its limited range.  All you need to imbibe is presented in the first few minutes and the rest of the time is hammering home simplicities, ringing the changes in a micro-musical manner.  In the end, you feel more than a bit tetchy about the complex’s circularity and repetition; in which sense, Moore has achieved her intention of presenting cicadas in all their croaking tedium.  It looks invigorating for the players and the audience on Monday evening received it amiably enough.

Moving to their Beethoven, the ASQ produced a satisfying interpretation, repeating the first movement’s exposition and keeping the tempo fairly strait-laced, except for a little rubato at about bar 50 and a hesitation before the section’s conclusion.  The group took to the sforzando chords at the core of the development with great gusto.  Grigoryan made the most of her role in the following scherzo, leading the group in a fulsome rusticity, although some delectable, elegantly balanced work emerged in the more complex pages from about bar 146 where the tub-thumping bucolicism is reined back.

Hiew’s rich line came out in the third movement’s Trio; this is not a soaring lyric but a calm sequence of descending arpeggios, a gentle easing of tension in this active score. She again powered through the finale’s first episode, carving an independent strand through her none-too-intrusive surrounds.  But the group displayed its cohesiveness at the Prestissimo coda where the action not only speeds up but the dynamic alternations and rapid-fire crescendos and their opposites ask for everybody to be on the ball; there’s no room for faltering and the ASQ bolted to the major key ending with exemplary assurance.

But the Brahms score brought us the performance of the evening, its surging initial movement accomplished with engrossing ardour, the composer’s close-knit argument embraced with dedication in long paragraphs of powerful contours.  Nowhere could you find this better exemplified than in the stretches that followed the grand polemic of bars 37 to 40, the concentration of material and close imitation an illustration of why the composer waited so long before publishing this first essay.   Even as the syncopations and melding of rhythmic complexities waxed and waned, the group kept the essential building blocks in place, the whole structure finely balanced and clear.

Grigoryan relished her windows of exposure during the Romanze, enriching these brief pages with a firm eloquence, notably in that simple but heartwarming rise and fall just before the rhythm moves into triplets.  You could hardly find fault with the ASQ’s unalloyed embrace of the melting sweetness to be found across the final bars, a velvet-smooth resolution in which even the pizzicati sound like sonorous caresses.  We could have done with more assertiveness from Barltrop at the opening to the third movement Allegretto; as it was, King’s viola took much of the attention with its counter-melody. But later, both violins gave poised accounts of their brief duet flights – bars 43-45, bars 51-54.  Later, the F Major landler was handled by the first violinist with an expressive muscularity instead of the usual vagueness of definition.

It was all hands to the dramatic wheel for the Allegro finale but the group held itself in check dynamically, building the tension up to the peroration at bar 215 and the symphonic ebullience that brings the C minor Symphony’s first movement to mind so clearly in those slashing response-and-answer chords that precede the final, exhilarating stringendo.

Full credit to these players in their treatment of this work that often winds up battered and helpless in over-enthusiastic hands.  This interpretation – in its outer reaches, where it counts  –  fused the composer’s emotional components with remarkable agility: the ideal response to those who find turgidity in Brahms’ more intense chamber works.  Now, having their usual personnel stabilised once again, and having shown their ability at handling this great score, the ASQ should be encouraged to investigate the limited material that Brahms left for a string quartet’s exploration, in particular the Quartet No. 3 in B flat which I can’t remember ever hearing in live performance.

 

 

 

A gallery for our times

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 11

ZOFO

                                     Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi

The concept behind this exercise was an arresting one.  Taking Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a base, duo-pianists Zimmerman and Nakagoshi assembled 15 discrete compositions inspired by art works chosen by their commissioned musicians, then framed the complex with Nakagoshi’s own take on the Mussorgsky work’s Promenade prelude. But where the Russian master had only five Promenade-plus-variants in his 10-picture construct, these visitors had an initial one to ground their activity, then an interlude between every aural/visual art-work.

In fact, the pianists provided what Mussorgsky couldn’t: reproductions of those works that inspired the pieces.  Apparently, we can be certain of five Viktor Hartmann paintings and sketches that moved the Russian composer, although some of these surviving art-works make you wonder about the composer’s transformational/interpretative powers.  The artist’s Great Gate is surprisingly neat when compared to the overwhelming musical image of it; and how Mussorgsky got his fierce Baba Yaga out of Hartmann’s delicate clock painting is anyone’s guess.

No worries with the new construction, even if the musical complement to certain art works remains non-obvious.  If you don’t get the connection, that’s your problem: Zimmerman and Nakagoshi have supplied all the information required and, as far as I could tell on Saturday night, gave an expert account of the 15 compositions.  Both performers used most of the Promenades as an opportunity to stand up and wander round the piano, miming a stroller moving through a gallery, while the other pianist played the interlude.  The device also served as a means of sharing the labour so that a player could return from his or her stroll and take up the primo or secondo role – a change of performance scenery, then.

Plunging the auditorium into darkness was probably necessary for the projections to work but it made note-taking difficult.  Zimmerman and Nakagoshi eased us into the exercise agreably with a Monet painting, Le Bassin’ d’Argenteuil, underpinned by Gilles Silvestrini’s musical commentary: impressionist shimmers, suddenly interrupted by a chain of strident chords which I wondered about then  –  and later  –   when considering the painting’s bucolic placidity.   Matters did not improve with Carl Vine’s reaction to James Gleeson’s The Arrival of Implacable Gifts, but then the painting’s details failed to travel, so that it wasn’t until much later that you could appreciate how the composer’s fiery active rushes of sound reflected Gleeson’s fluent waves of action, specifically its interweaving three bands of surrealist imagery.

At or around this point, the penny dropped.  You weren’t in the Murdoch Hall to cast a jaundiced eye over the efforts of contemporary composers to give you aural images of some pieces extracted at will from a world-wide Museum of Modern Art (the Monet is from the d’Orsay; Gleeson’s work is in the NSW Art Gallery).  Rather, the duo-pianists were only concerned with entertainment, pure and simple.  You could look at something like Reuven Rubin’s Dancing with the Torah at Mount Meron and not be distracted by the new-style tango by Avner Dorman that accompanied part of it; or you could face Wojciech Fangor’s black-hole celebrating SM 34 without worrying about Pawel Mykietyn’s accelerating bass growls punctuated by upper register pointillist 3rds,

It’s a 21st Century construct so, naturally, you expected some action inside the lid, as in Lei Liang’s Will You Come to My Dream? and a mute of some kind applied to the bass strings in Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Spring Morning in Baku.   As well, there’s always room for the theatrical gesture, as in Jonathan Russell’s Untitled Skeleton during which Zimmerman leaned over a crouching Nakagoshi; so that you suppressed wonder about how the score’s upward-moving acceleration and soft bass-notes postlude gave insight on Stormie Mills cartoon-suggestive painting.

The surprises kept on coming.  The Promenade that preceded I Wayan Gde Yudane’s  Street Solace was calculated to bring to mind one of Satie’s Gymnopedies.  The sound world created by Samuel Adams to support Night Sea (for Agnes) by Emily Davis Adams brought to mind the tendency towards rhythmic alliteration typical of another, older Adams musician.   But, with a keen eye for the final impression, the duo hit a vernacular button in the last two pieces.   Pablo Ortiz’s Paisaje gave us the night’s most old-fashioned ambience with an Argentinian dance sound to supplement Eduardo Stupia’s writhing landscape; Keyla Orozco’s Viajeros. a reminiscence of Russia’s massive influence over most aspects of Cuban life, carried a lot of matter with its use of a Russian song that rang some half-remembered bells from World War Two, a Gershwin-style meditation in the centre, and some Hungarian Rhapsody virtuosity to be going on with, all supporting an optimistic playful work by Douglas Perez Castro.

In the end, this Mussorgsky revision proved to be very engaging, not least for the duo itself which is a collaboration that works without any indications of exhibitionism or trite legerdemain.   Yes, there are some pieces – probably the majority – that I’m glad to have heard but won’t be in a hurry to revisit.   Zimmerman and Nakagoshi handled each of the bespoke compositions with equal deference and dedication, their labour-sharing a pleasure to witness for its certainty and purpose.

However, the duo piano format and this particular program are not your usual Musica Viva cup of tea; it’s back to the familiar script in future months with a couple of pretty orthodox string quartets and a non-boat-rocking piano quartet, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge visiting for cultural reassurance, and a clutch of early music specialists from the Paris Conservatoire who are heavy on Bach, Telemann and the French Baroque.   It’s fair to say that all of these future events will attract a much larger audience than the small number that bothered to show up for ZOFO’s 75-minute recital

A cross-reference that’s  probably worth noting is that the ZOFOMOMA Pictures at An Exhibition can be seen on the internet in a video performance at an unknown venue dating from about a year ago.  This is well worth seeing, just to get a taste of the work quality from these fine musicians – and also as a reminder of details that slipped past in the dark of Saturday’s real-time performance, particularly the eloquence of Nakagoshi’s last two Promenades for both players.

 

 

Three open hearts

LOVE & DEVOTION

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Kew

Wednesday May 8

Kathy Selby                                                                   Kathryn Selby

The cold has arrived and, as a consequence, some of us find that we need a good reason to go out at night, particularly as the enthusiasm that once spurred us ever onward now wanes because the sere, the yellow leaf is just as much a thing of the body as of the season.  Fortunate those of us who ventured out to the latest southern foray by Kathryn Selby and her collaborators in this latest recital series: violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve.   Both string players are veterans of Selby’s annual series and made a finely-matched p[air for this cleverly focused program.

Three composers who shared much intimacy, devotion and love featured on this occasion.  Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22 is the best-known of the formidable pianist’s compositions.  Written in 1853, it postdates her husband’s Piano Trio in D minor by seven years and anticipates by a year the B Major Piano Trio of Brahms, although this last was revised significantly 35 years later.  Together, the three works comprise something of a creative time capsule, although the Brahms towered above its companions on this night, certainly because of its intellectual depth and variety of instrumental textures, but also because of the major changes that followed the composer’s second appraisal.

With the Three Romances, Clifford and Selby produced a particularly clear-speaking, lucid account of a score that is often over-gelled.  Throughout the first in D flat, Selby arpeggiated with suppleness, leaving the speaking role to Clifford’s unerringly true and controlled line, the small complex nowhere more finely graduated than in the mordent and its reflection in bars 63 and 64.   A similar simplicity informed the second G minor piece, a strange four-page sequence that presents as folk-like in temperament but which the composer is content to leave free from identifiable tropes.   Even in its central G major segment, the initial melodic identifiers of an octave leap upwards and an immediate falling step of four consecutive notes permeate the rustic discussion, the narrative outlined without dynamic complications in this interpretation.

The last Romance in B flat is more rhapsodic in presentation than its predecessors, Selby at first reverting to complete accompaniment status with patterns that could have been lifted from Widmung.  In fact, the piano has to wait until the violin moves to pizzicato before there is a chance of sharing in the melodic riches.  Schumann reverts to type in the return-to-home-key segment before repenting of the keyboard’s subsidiary status and allowing a 7-bar prominence before the final flourishes.  Here again, you could relish the performers’ avoidance of magniloquence, taking the ardent melodic flow and rippling support at face value and delivering its apparently symmetrical sentences with a muted eloquence and telling flexibility of phrasing.

Valve came on for the D minor Trio and immediately settled into a rich duet with Clifford, despite his line being seconded for most of the time by Selby’s left hand.  All three performers entered without reserve into the movement’s dark, mobile world and outlined its elements and progress with unflinching clarity, surging through a lengthy development which is relieved momentarily by that ethereal interlude in F where the strings play am Steg.  It’s quite a task sustaining interest through these modulation-heavy pages where the basic material is examined from many aspects, but the result was  engrossing, Selby leading into and out of Schumann’s polyphonic melange with understated authority.

Luckily, these performers observed the composer’s rider – nicht zu rasch – for the second movement Scherzo, piano and strings set against each other in the outer sections’ galloping rising-scale motive that amounts to a melody.  The exercise was packed with energy but you’d be looking hard to find any of the pounding that these pages bring out in many interpreters, especially in the undue emphasis regularly given to the many sforzando markings.   During the following Langsam, Valve again enjoyed the intermittent reinforcement of Selby’s bass notes but the pianist kept her delivery muted; not that the movement has claims to being one of Schumann’s finer constructs but its pleasure (for me) lies in the contrast between its surrounding gloom and the interpolated Bewegter where the texture and emotional content lighten in one of those marvellous Eusebius/Florestan juxtapositions.

It’s difficult for any piano trio to bring off this work’s Mit Feuer finale, I think; but then, I’m not happy with the Piano Quintet’s concluding movement, either.  Melodic amplitude is there in spades, even though Schumann beavers away at its four-square phrases with frenetic energy. eventually reaching that climactic point where piano and strings pound out an eight-bar series of minim chords in close canon; by which stage, you scent the conclusion’s proximity with something close to relief.   It’s hard work, and not just for the players but Selby and her colleagues made the most of its potential with a constant regard for the piece’s linear interplay and responsibilities so that the experience wasn’t an unremitting hard slog – something that it can be when essayed by many other ensembles.

With the Brahms Trio No. 1, you move into a world that is similar to that of the Schumanns but more substantial in form, the composer’s voice more assured and broader in its accent.  You have to look hard to find any other work of this period that envelops listeners and performers in all four of its movements, even if the direction that Brahms takes us is in opposition to the Beethovenian norm; in this case, from noble declamation to minor key storms.  It’s easy to typecast the work as a young man’s creation, powerful in its sweep and ardour, and this perception goes some way towards explaining its popularity with young musicians at competition time.  But it is a far more mature and concise product in this second version.

Several of us have heard Selby & Co. play this score many times, since Macquarie Trio days back in the early 1990s; it might not come around every year on the organization’s schedule, but we hear it regularly enough.  Sometimes it sweeps you up when the stars are aligned  –  Selby in warmth-splaying mode, the string combination consonant in delivery characteristics, sensible decisions reached on tempo and dynamics.  At others, the results can be patchy: an exemplary opening sonata movement followed by an over-brusque scherzo. or a vibrato rich adagio sitting alongside a finale where the rhythmic kicks and scuffles are treated with something approaching fury by the pianist.

Luckily, Wednesday night’s interpretation turned into a fine coping-stone for the program, each movement consistent in itself and with the composer’s over-arching framework.   Its success had a lot to do with the sheer musicianship of all concerned, Selby responding to these particular colleagues with a splendidly controlled delivery in which the exclamation points proved hefty rather than brazen.  At the same time, Clifford and Valve showed themselves intensely committed to the exercise, the cello’s liquid elasticity evident from the entire work’s initial bars.

But the memorable joy of this reading came in Clifford’s flawless top line.  Of course, her actual product shone with added eloquence in those matchless duets that emerge at high points along the score’s progress: at the violin’s first entry in the opening Allegro, the unison sturm und drang that lasts from bar 95 to bar 109, the subdued and shadowy resuscitation process that leads into the movement’s magnificent recapitulation; the responses to the piano chorales that begin and end the all-too-brief Adagio; those impulsive major key passages where both strings get to handle the finale’s second theme, and the hurtling syncopations at, for instance, bars 171-2.   Through concerted moments like these, let alone obvious stretches of solo exposure, this violinist generated a firmly etched and elegant line, fitting in to the sonic tapestry with admirable skill and perceptiveness.

Having missed out on several of last year’s final recitals and the first in the 2019 sequence, I found out later than most that Selby has installed a reflective shell to frame the trio, just as she had done at the BMW/Deakin Edge in Federation Square, and as the ANAM administration has had in operation at the South Melbourne Town Hall for many years.   To my ears, the difference is significant in that the group’s detail work is more clear, particularly from the cello.  As well, Selby is a more comfortable dynamic entity, not having to labour over her production level, like making audible her Mendelssohnian decoration work in the Scherzo – for example, that high right-hand work just prior to the Trio, or those delicate octuple (8 quavers in the time of 6) downward arpeggios that close off some sentences.  In sum, an excellent move to enhance audience comfort in a pleasant, accessible space; another reason for bracing chilly Melbourne weather to experience this invigorating and intelligent music-making.