No marriage impediments here

PIERS LANE & ENSEMBLE Q STRING QUARTET

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Thursday October 7, 2021

(L to R) Anne Horton, Imants Larsens, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Trish Dean, Piers Lane

Yet again, a professional performer has had to cut his pandemic cloth to suit prevailing circumstances. Expatriate pianist Piers Lane was all set to tour the country for Musica Viva in collaboration with the Sydney-based Goldner String Quartet. Lockdown put an end to that organizational fantasy but Lane did get to exercise his craft in the rarefied double-doughnut purity of a city very familiar to him. As substitute for the Goldners came a quartet made up of Ensemble Q members: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. I’m not sure how far back Yoshimoto’s relationship with the Ensemble stretches prior to her recent assumption of the co-concertmaster position with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, but she slotted in ideally with her colleagues on this night, heading a highly persuasive reading of Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 – a work with which this group has had experience already in 2021.

In this reading, you were immediately inveigled into the composer’s unique sound world by the rapid sul tasto pattern-work from Horton and Larsens that, despite its harmonic distress on paper, gently backgrounded an excellently spun at-the-double-octave duet from Yoshimoto and Dean; the atmosphere a delicate web up to the punchy jump to forte at bar 28 where you realize just how aggressive yet disciplined Szymanowski’s counterpoint can be. While the players coped with the movement’s central matter, you were impressed by the congruent ensemble work, each attack finely slotted into position to sustain the dissonant argument. As one simply effective instance, it was hard to go past the lead back to the first subject, a duet for both violins between bars 60 and 67 that could have come from one instrument.

Yet again, Yoshimoto demonstrated her chamber music insights, leading from the front; not carrying her colleagues but heading the enterprise without hogging the limelight, as heard in the whispered final two bars’ close to a benevolent G Major cadence with plagal suggestions.

Mutes off for the second movement Vivace where aggression oscillates with languor and this group kept the prize in constant sight: making formal sense of the piece’s abrupt turns from rapidity to calando and sostenuto with a meno mosso or two along the way, Here also you could admire the soaring power of Yoshimoto’s high register between bars 194 and 205, mounted against rhythmically disjunct pizzicati from all other lines. As the slow last movement opened, Horton’s exposed line came across as clumsy, more in outline than pitching, even if order came quickly on the heels of Larsens’ arrival in the canon. All four musicians found a rich and eloquent vein from the bar 21 Doppio movimento point, the atmosphere rising to very aggressive very quickly after the pivotal Moderato compression of argument, preceded by a delicious pair of brief affretando passages in bars 45 and 47.

Yoshimoto displayed her command of idiom and linear crafting just as much in these pages as earlier in the quartet, sharing the honours with Horton in a downward spiralling duet from bar 14 on and giving room for some penetrating viola exposures, Larsens owning a fine and forward tenor voice of exceptional and distinctive character. But the group played with exemplary control and passion throughout the work’s precipitate last moments – no scraping, no line over-prominent, the timbral placement rich and ardent.

Lane then appeared for a solo, shedding light on Lili Boulanger’s Theme et variations which the young composer eventually finished writing in 1914. It’s not a piece that has hit a posthumous big time, but, as Lane pointed out, the work isn’t a significant one – except as a bump along Boulanger’s career-path trajectory. In this score, she delivered exactly what she nominated: this is one of the most lucid, even plain-speaking set of variants you’ll come across, especially in a 20th century context. The only place where the theme becomes difficult to pick out is during Variation 7, pages Boulanger describes as Theme totalement modifie: the time signature changes and the theme gains some extra feet in its second half.

This reading emphasized the work’s sombre C minor character, Lane giving loads of sustained resonance to the first Theme a la basse and preserved the atmosphere through No. 2 Sur la tete du theme and later in No. 4 La basse et le surtout. Fortunately, the account of No. 6 Theme modifie a la partie superieure proved a welcome change of texture, if not scene, with its rippling underpinning layers of demi- and semiquaver figuration. But the dour character returns all too soon, and in spades for the final Theme a la basse where the final stretch from bar 141 to 148 is an aural sinking away to nothing – no hope, no promise, eventually no movement. All right. Thanks to Lane for dusting this piece off but I suspect its prevailing post-Brahmsian thickness of texture and reliance on harmonic shifts almost exclusively for interest will work against its proliferation on recital schedules.

Both parties, Ensemble Q and Lane, came together for the great Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, their collaboration resulting in a performance of warm conviction and coherence. Lane kept very little back dynamically, trusting that the quartet could hold its own; a confidence that was almost universally justified except for those passages of grandiose piano striding in tandem with the strings. What sprang out from the performance early on was the strength of Larsens’ contribution, as at bar 27 and his elegant melodic shaping between bars 55 and 58. Having chosen not to repeat the exposition, the ensemble worked with polished sensitivity through the mainly subterranean development to the last segment which was peppered with excellent passages like the duet for Yoshimoto and Larsens from bar 230: one of the performance’s memorable flashes of excellence.

It wasn’t just a case of balancing the piano’s heavy contributions. At the recapitulation in particular, where the action is wrenchingly powerful, you heard an ensemble in ideal balance where each line could be discerned, even Dean’s mirroring of Lane’s bass. Further, the players seized with passion on those moments of unstoppable affirmation, like the burst into D flat Major at bar 286 and the subsequent arpeggio feast till the end, and hurled them out to formidable effect.

After the storm of that opening Allegro, Brahms’ following Andante is an emotional balm, loaded with melting solos and duets, as when the piano eventually lays off at bars 25/26; Horton urging out a melody line of refined sweetness, then combining with Larsens for an exemplary unison octave passage, chiefly of triplets, that emerges and recedes into soft meanderings – which might well be the prime characteristic of these pages. Dean stayed just the right side of overbearing in her lengthy lyrical duet with Yoshimoto beginning at bar 83 and persisting with some interruptions until bar 117 when the composer lets his material collapse in on itself for a hushed, benevolent conclusion.

Still, there’s no getting away from Lane’s dominance in this movement, opening with a carefully poised, bass-rich statement that returned to intensely moving effect at bar 75, those parallel 3rds murmured over with lapidary care. A turn of the page showed us a different approach in the vital Scherzo, the pianist taking off the gloves for exhilarations like the fortissimo explosion for everyone at bar 57 and (my favourite) those B flat oscillations between keyboard and strings across bars 100-109, followed by an extension of the same pattern at bar 158: splendidly compelling in its negotiation here. While the attack remained dogged in the movement’s Trio, pianist and strings ladled on the lyricism across the first two of its three pages, the Scherzo repeat an active powerhouse to be savoured right up to its rough-hewn end.

While we can all appreciate the craft of this work’s Sostenuto/Allegro finale, the working-out comes as a let-down after the satisfying emotional splaying of its precedents, the whole verging on disappointing with the rather whiney theme brought into play at the bar 94’s un pochettino piu animato. However, that’s a story for another decade and you had to appreciate the stamina of this ensemble which followed the composer’s jumps and transformations with assiduous zeal. Once again, you were able to appreciate Lane’s consideration, notably at places where the competition is fragilely placed, like the triplet-heavy stretch from bar 137 through to bar 159 where the piano has a reinforced top line and a potentially thunderous left-hand counterpoint. As in the first movement, the interpretation held a consistency of outline, the return of main themes en clair impressing as organically achieved – which is the formidable gift and problem of developing variation.

Speaking of stamina, that quality shone out keenly in the solid (150 bars!) coda to this finale, pages where the pace is furious and the players’ negotiation skills are tested over and over, especially those of the pianist who is involved in a juxtaposition of elements that bring to mind the inbuilt energy of the composer’s piano concertos. Lane missed the company of his Goldner allies, with whom he has made at least 8 recordings: he told us so. But I don’t believe any of us could find fault with the Ensemble Q players; rather, this night opened my eyes and ears to the existence of a local string quartet of impressive accomplishment.

No blush of shame to these cheeks of modesty

MYTHOLOGY OF NAKED FLESH

Brisbane Music Festival

Sunday October 3, 2021

Katie Stenzel

Before going any further, I have to say how impressive the musical elements of this farrago turned out to be. In essence, here was a duo recital with a cornucopia of accoutrements. Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri engaged with soprano Katie Stenzel in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, the latter a tour de force from both performers, not just the singer. Raineri also performed two piano solos: Scriabin’s Vers la flamme and his own arrangement of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome – actually, it seemed to me to include a bit more than the dance alone.

The odd program constituent came in a world premiere: Australian writer Alex Turley‘s Piano Flesh XXX in which Raineri shared the spotlight with actor Matthew Connell. As things turned out, not so much a spotlight as a split-screen exposure with the pianist working in Brisbane, the actor in Melbourne and – as seems to be the norm these days – never the twain did meet . . . not for this piece, anyway. As you might have expected, Turley’s segment of the program was the hardest to interpret; an arcane gesture-laden performance from both artists made even more puzzling when a scrap from Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean emerged out of nowhere and went back all too quickly into the ether.

Thrilling the pedants among us no end, Stenzel proved to be a model of clarity for most of the Britten songs; an achievement to be treasured when you listen to some of the available readings from better-known artists who think that ‘cabaret’ is a synonym for ‘slovenly’. The soprano observed the correct pitches and triplets throughout Tell me the truth about love, giving us accurate chromatic slippages and investing the song with a personality in each of its three stanzas. The following Calypso impressed for its crescendo and accelerando motions and the security of a few sustained top notes in a work that operates for much of the time in a low-ish register. During Johnny, I missed the vocal portamento at the end of the Charity Matinee Ball stanza and, as in many another execution, Stenzel’s below-the-staff notes in Auden’s final stanza tended to disappear while the final note (F?) lacked definition. On the other hand, Funeral blues succeeded on every level, here treated as an ascendant threnody with a defiant, negative finish of impressive power, not forgetting Raineri’s telling give-way-to-none under- and over-pinning.

For the Scriabin poem, Raineri’s preliminary address proposed an erotic subtext; along with the composer’s intended universal conflagration towards which we are all hurtling, you might also find a more personal interpretation in which the short work illustrates a drive towards orgasm. Good luck with that. I was happy to revel in the pianist’s splendid communication of direction and coherence in a score that can degenerate into unabashed flamboyance. Here, the eventual employment of double-note and three-against-one note trills was subsumed into the piece’s dramatic fabric; if I couldn’t rise to the occasion and find a sexual thread, I was able to appreciate the heightening of both tension and fabric as the apocalypse broke out.

Elgar Howarth, the British musician who conducted the premiere of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, made arrangements of three of that work’s arias for the Chief of the Gepopo (Secret Political Police), who is trying to warn of an impending disaster but can only produce meaningless vocalisms. One of Howarth’s reductions was for voice and piano; I haven’t been able to trace it, so have little informative to report about this rendition. Further, the two participants took on characters that I can’t find in the opera: Stenzel (in overalls) as Harley Quinn (Harlequin) and Raineri a punk-of-sorts. They performed in front of a pixilated backdrop for most of the time but the arias were punctuated by abrupt shots of the participants alone, Raineri vocalising sometimes as much as Stenzel. You’d be going to find much that made sense here as the exclamations and expostulations flew thick and fast but the interweaving of lines and simultaneity of attack were carried out with excellent skill.

Turley’s piece saw Raineri spend much of his time inside the piano, working on the strings with his hands and using at least one over-sized drum stick with a soft head. Prior to the sounds, we had a mimed approach to the piano, an opening of the keyboard, the change from inside the instrument to orthodox sound production via the keyboard, and what looked like a farewell caress that might have been fetishistic – one of the ‘amazing possibilities’ that the pianist referred to in his introduction. Connell, as far as I could tell, made no sounds at all but attitudinized semi-seductively throughout the work’s four parts.

Then came the Seven Veils finale, executed with high brilliance and an object lesson in transferring a sumptuously colourful orchestral fabric to fit a piano’s limitations. Above his skill in negotiating Strauss’s harmonic vagaries, Raineri fulfilled the essential task and made a convincing dance of it all, complete with the expected curvets and wayward darting forward and then receding with a satisfying sense of balance. Indeed, the performance impressed most when you simply shut your eyes and enjoyed the sonorities rather than looking at the extra-musical element of this concluding gambit.

What Raineri attempted in this Strauss work, he said, was to offer an exercise in subversion. In the opera, the heroine strips herself to nudity; here, Raineri did the same, taking off a seven-part black costume, devised by Joel Dunkley, at various points in his performance. Nothing wrong with that exercise in the abstract but the realization was another thing. It would have been better to have Raineri’s clothes taken off him, in similar style to many productions of the opera where the heroine gets a helping hand or six. As it was, the undressing points were awkward; the final rapid removal of a pair of black briefs suggested nothing so much as misplaced modesty in a change-room. As well, it’s probably advisable to have some reason to take off your clothes; to my vulgar way of thinking, the body has to live up to the music. While I admire Raineri’s pianism mightily, his physique is slight and undeveloped in terms of muscle and tone, as well as in matching Strauss’s whirling score Still, this was probably part of the projected sapping away at both musical and situational parameters in the work.

Something similar came through in the Turley enterprise. In the Melbourne/Connell screen, the actor appeared in facial close-up, looking in to the camera with a narcissistic self-awareness. Eventually, it was revealed that he was sitting on a bed, dressed in a bunny costume which he slowly took off to display his torso. The process struck me as little more than a pale imitation of striptease; Connell seemed to be wearing a female wig as well as the forced smile that typifies this entertainment. But, for all the ambisexual suggestions from Melbourne and the Brisbane intimations of the piano-as-sexual-substitute, you found nothing in the presentation that raised a frisson of eroticism: we had a piano, we had a bit of flesh, but the triple X promise needed the input of a sympathetic and daring dramaturge.

With the Ligeti, I believe that most of us would have been distracted or titillated by the visual dickering provided by Jai Farrell which reflected the quick-fire musical content of Ligeti’s arias and superimposed a Dadaistic visual complement. Raineri referred to ‘energy of a sexual nature’ that could be found in these pages, an observation which might have been a distinct possibility although, viewed from my vague memories of sexual energy, this experience proposed a kind of benign phantasmagoria projecting a wealth of energy from both executants but not much that would strike you as sexual – rather the opposite, in fact. Possibly the pianist was referring to the mutual sparks that the performers struck off each other but those appeared to be entirely a matter of split-second timing . . . which, to be fair, has a definite relevance to sexuality.

While Raineri worked through the Scriabin work, we were offered some visual stimuli from Eljo Agenbach who began with a black screen, a quasi-human-shaped flame appearing at bars 27/28, transforming into a hand holding the flame, before a full-screen shot of a fire spread across the horizon, like part of those immense bushfires in our Black Summer, the focus moving closer to the white centre of the conflagration as Raineri took us to the brink. Sorry: that’s exactly how I took the work – as illustrative of the physical world rather than proposing an erotic vision; mainly this was due to the final scene from Agenbach’s visual commentary which moved us straight into the composer’s definite vision of the world collapsing into fire.

Easiest on this program to take in without caveats, Farrell’s contribution to the Britten songs came mainly through different backdrops for each one: an up-market bar for Tell me the truth about love with Raineri in shirtsleeves and waistcoat while Stenzel stood at the piano’s end like a real-deal chantoozy; a colourful city-road at night for Calypso; a graveyard for Funeral blues with Stenzel sporting a face-veil. All right: this was another instance of over-egging the pudding, yet the results worked surprisingly well, giving us four contrasting scenas with limited musical materiel.

From the way Raineri introduced each work on this program, particularly the last two for which he asked his online audience to refrain from copying or storing, you might have anticipated something a good deal more visually daring than what actually occurred. You gleaned the impression that the artistic director and his collaborators were intent on breaking boundaries, crashing into a new juxtaposition or junction of revolutionary art forms. That didn’t come to pass. I don’t know about past Brisbane events but for decades I’ve been present at plenty of musical/physical exhibitions in Bourgeois Sin City where boundaries haven’t been stretched: they’ve just disappeared, as in Les Ballets Africains, the Samson et Dalila bacchanale from the Victorian State Opera, visiting dance companies for the Melbourne Arts Festival, Stuart Ringholt’s nude gallery tours.

In sum, such an exercise is not the rarity it once was. Further, I believe that the various premises behind this night’s segments fell between two stools and, in the end, failed to yield much aesthetic illumination for their audience. If anything, the demonstrations of proposed eroticism showed a naivete in the face of physical/sexual reality. That’s not to be lampooned or decried but I don’t think this innocence will lead us anywhere new. Even for this battle-scarred but tolerant concert-goer, Sunday’s recital illustrated the truth of that celebrated maxim: prima la musica e poi la sessualita.

En ce bordeau ou tenons notre etat

FRENCH TRIPTYCH

Natsuko Yoshimoto & Alex Raineri

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday September 23, 2021

Natsuko Yoshimoto

Not the best week for a French/Australian entente that has become quite a bit less cordiale. While the Prime Minister writhes and wriggles his way round the truth, hoping that aimless meetings will eclipse his bad faith and ineptness, the world – well, the small part of it that’s interested – looks at the sabotaged submarine deal with a mix of surprise and contempt. Not that Francophiles have always been easy to find in the immediate environment. I remember a parish stalwart in Kew coming up after a Sunday service and asking for more Bach for voluntaries, but certainly ‘none of that French stuff’. And teaching the language (badly) for about ten years didn’t make it any more attractive – to me or the students. Of course, it’s a useful tongue to know, as I found out at the Vienna Opera, the market in Monte Carlo, and the back blocks of Melbourne’s Southbank.

But its main use has been to do with French music, of which I’ve heard and played more than is consistent with the bounds of propriety. Knowing something of the exclusivist culture that produced Perotin and Yves Prin helps in both knowing what to expect and learning to exercise tolerance. So this all-French (well, actual and adopted) hour of great violin/piano sonatas served as a refresher course in marvellous achievement and in witnessing two excellent local musicians at work. Mind you, ‘local’ is a loaded term in Yoshimoto’s case; she has been playing with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the last ten years before coming to Brisbane as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster. Her fellow artist Raineri has been a local resident for some time (forever?), running the peripatetic year-long Brisbane Music Festival since 2018 to fine effect.

On Thursday, working from Opera Queensland’s Studio, these artists opened their innings with the Debussy sonata of 1917 which begins with deceptive simplicity even though wheels are turning at a great rate beneath the placid surface. The work sprang into high relief at a splendid burst of energy with the Appassionato 8 bars before Number 2 in the Durand edition, the executants working with fine collaboration across the piece’s ebbs and flows. Yoshimoto exercised a supple rubato throughout, nowhere better applied than when specified five bars after Number 3, but the partnership rose to an attack both crisp and fierce over the last rhetoric-rich final page. Debussy’s Intermede proved to be packed with high jinks and jerks in an individualistic reading that took some liberties, like the violin’s employment of rubato well before it was called for at Number 3, and again before Number 4; perhaps it’s a personal reading of Meno mosso. As a counterweight, the duo’s pliability from the final au Mouvement direction to the violin’s fading flashes was excellently achieved.

A reversion to the opening movement’s whirling crispness shone out in the hectic Finale, Yoshimoto glancing off her top notes in passage-work with an easy grace. Still, the most impressive facet of the partnership came in their rhythmic congruency across pages that sound effervescent, a cycle of explosions and oases, even though the movement is packed with difficulties in shape-moulding and dynamic harnessing, e.g. Raineri’s active underpinning from Number 3 to the shift at Expressif et soutenu, the whole reaching an exhilarating high point in the final 12 clamorous bars.

Where the violinist tended to push hard in this opening work, coming close to vehement scraping in G-string forte moments, she worked for more purity of output in the following reading of Ravel No. 2, initially during the high melodic outline 6 bars before Number 2. But then, the opening Allegretto holds long passages of lean activity, best exemplified by the placidity obtaining around Number 4. Still, the work also erupts in bursts of excitement, like the long series of shuddering violin demi-semiquavers from Number 9 to Number 11, and the multi-level piano activity that surges in at Number 13 and sets the emotional basis for this movement’s luminous, magical ending.

Yoshimoto made us aware of every note in her pizzicato chords during the Blues, as well as producing some hefty glissandi when she eventually went arco. Raineri impressed for his pointillist polish at the key signature change to F sharp, gradually increasing his heftiness until the movement’s first biting explosion at Number 7. I’m not sure the Gs in both instruments came together at Number 12, but the sul tasto slide of a 7th rounded off the experience with just the right dose of soft salt. A few notes dropped out in the piano’s assault on the Perpetuum mobile, notably when the octave work stopped after Number 5, but this movement is hard-going for both players; even when Ravel pits them against each other in canonic activity, the pace for both remains relentless Yoshimoto demonstrated skill and understatement in her pianissimo low-string mutterings at Number 12 and beyond, and the conclusion was a model combination of discipline and excitement.

When it comes to the Franck sonata, you enter a big league of sorts. The emotional canvas is splayed out in the best Romantic tradition, the form exceptionally satisfying, the virtuosity required highly demanding. Both Yoshimoto and Raineri went for big strokes, even when the dynamic level dropped to minimal, although matters seemed a bit shaky at the opening to the initial Allegretto with a thin-sounding D from the violin in bar 6. But as an early illustration of the expansive style of attack, you only had to wait for Raineri’s largamente solo starting at bar 31 to experience the noble breadth of this reading. Of course, the piano has much of the attention in these pages and this executant made a feast of his three exposed points, at the same time making allowance for Yoshimoto’s smoothness of line, as at bar 71’s dolcissimo.

Both musicians took to the D minor Allegro with obvious relish after the lilting restraint of the sonata’s opening gambit. Raineri tended to treat his energetic main theme flurries beginning at bar 4 in an unexpectedly four-square manner, the rhythm too regular for the material, which might have been a question of beat-emphasis. Speaking of stressing the point, the working from both back to stage 1 that begins at Bar 94 came across with unexpected determination at bar 94; not enough build-up but straight into the dynamic required for bars 96 and 100. At the same time, this urging resulted in several splendid passages, as in the soaring arch from Yoshimoto at bar 172 where also I became aware of the boomingly rich bass notes of Raineri’s Kawai, both executants hurling themselves into the devil-take-the-hindmost presto build-up to the jubilant D Major ending.

Yoshimoto let Franck’s recitatives speak unvarnished in the Recitativo-Fantasia, verging on overkill with some forceful bowing in exposed passages. But this meandering movement enjoyed a voluble airing, particularly in that long build-up from bar 71 to a dramatic climax at bar 105, replicated in the last movement. Many commentators regard this set of pages as the sonata’s high-water mark but the first canon of the final Allegretto still strikes me, after many years, as a musical blessing for the simplicity of its opening and the open-endedness of its resolution. Raineri set a brisk tempo, which I prefer to ladling on the sugar right from the start, even if Yoshimoto showed that she can do just that with a splendid leaning-in entry at bar 52. The stretto that the piano kicked off at bar 87 gave notice of what was coming up but without stealing too much thunder. One of the few errors I encountered in this hothouse maelstrom came in a piano solo at bar 127 when Raineri was involved with the composer’s false-canons on the way to a resolution (of sorts) into that blinding C Major cascade at bar 169.

If anything more needed to be demonstrated, this finale gave illustration after instance of how well these players fed off each other equally effectively in moments of stress and calm. Yes, this sonata lends itself to slathering around the point with lashings of ad lib, real and potential, but here was an interpretation that worked brilliantly in passages of mutual dependence, right up to the jubilant last 21 bars, complete with the minute pause on Yoshimoto’s high E beginning bar 232. This completed a memorable recital – almost ideally secure, insightful, emotionally consistent and a testament to the enduring excellence of French serious musical art which will doubtless endure, no matter what else takes place – like contemporary external boorishness.

Filling Festival fare

THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 10, 2021

Part of the current Brisbane Festival, this remarkable program demonstrated once again how fortune slips and slides around this continent with irresponsible abandon. Most of us have given up trying to keep a mental grip on which performers are where and what the prospects are of scheduled events going ahead; you just take what you can get and are grateful. Thanks to the premier of Queensland’s desire to keep her state out of lockdown as long as possible (even with the delta virus knocking at our south-eastern portal), much of what is promised here comes to fruition. Unlike what is going on in the southern states where compromise and replacements/deferrals are the new order, Brisbane regularly gets to go to the theatre big-time; for instance, on this Camerata night, a musical was playing in the Lyric Theatre and something else was happening in the Playhouse (I know, because the code-inspectors were on duty at the foot of the staircase). Mind you, at Southbank on Friday evening, everyone inside or out was masked, whether they needed to be or not – such a biddable population.

Brendan Joyce and his 17 string players – 4 firsts, 4 seconds, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses – warmed up with Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia in B minor which enjoyed an enthusiastic run-through, its Allegro exposition repeated and enough energy in the communal tank for a hefty accelerando at the piu presto from bar 352 to the end. Mind you, the actual sound definition proved not as crisp as you get in recorded readings of this work, but Camerata has to cope with the acoustic boom in QPAC’s large hall. Nevertheless, you found a pleasing attention to phrasing in a score that plays its Sturm-und-Drang cards with a tight fist, the energy contained if not constrained.

Joyce then took the solo line in Vaughan Williams‘ The Lark Ascending. He brought in the accepted number for a chamber performance – single woodwind and a horn, with one of the front desk violins doing the triangle tinkles that start four bars before Letter M and last just a few bars after Letter P in the old OUP score (actually, this instrument’s pitch was questionable [aren’t they all?]: the composer notates it as a treble clef B but overtones cruelled that likelihood). More importantly, we heard only part of the piece; Joyce and his forces stopped just before the Allegretto molto tranquillo at Letter R; at least, I think so. At all events, the piece took up from this break at the end of the night to round out a large-scale avian experience.

This was Lembit Beecher‘s composition that gave this particular event its title. Based on a lengthy poem by the Sufi Attar of Nishapur, the work concerns a quest by the world’s birds for their leader, who turns out to be themselves but, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, the covey has to overcome tests in the form of seven valleys before their self-apotheosis. American illustrator Peter Sis contributed the visual element to support this occasion – pictures of various birds, the valleys, and the climactic confrontation with the Mountain of Kaf and self-awareness. As well, he also provided the translation articulated by Brisbane actor and singer Liz Buchanan which introduced the music and followed Movement 1, but then split up the other two movements (which are to be played without a pause, if the composer is any guide). As well, I didn’t have access to a full program but it looked to me as if the first violins were down by a member, according to Beecher’s original requirements.

I’ve nothing to offer about the poetry reading by Buchanan. It was obviously a selection from the original which is packed with allegorical stories and sidelines to illustrate various morals that the central character, the hoopoe bird, inflicts on his swiftly diminishing flock. Beecher starts his score with bird imitations: high brief glissandi and whips of sound, all seemingly individual and as aleatoric in effect as you’d like. The narrative itself probably begins with low pedal notes/chords although the bird imitations last for a considerable time – long enough to convince you that you’re in mid-conference. Just when you wonder if there are any more strings to these bows, the movement becomes concerted and people tend to move in blocks before we are returned to the original chirps.

A poetic interlude as Buchanan outlined the progress across the seven valleys, and we are on to Movement 2 Part A. This has a far more savage ambience. You can still find traces of avian activity but the journey has turned grim; well, it would with so many travellers dying off or leaving the caravan. Beecher inserts fraught unison onslaughts and insistent rhythmic motives that suggest a sort of homophony, albeit a discordant one. You had to admire the Cameratas’ industriousness, particularly in sustaining clouds of fabric with ideal ensemble. But all intensity has to end somewhere and this section concluded with many of the players using sandpaper to generate a gentle stridulating effect as the notated material ceased for the final recitation.

Buchanan gave Sis’s conclusion to the quest for Simorgh and we came to Movement 2 Part B – or what I assume was Movement 3. This proved memorable for a plangent segment involving three violins and one cello, swerving into a series of slow chords in a high register and a final chord that wasn’t quite as uniform as expected; but then, that could have been what the composer wanted. It brought to an end a work which left little in the memory, possibly because of the visual distraction although, after the bird drawings, nothing else in Sis’s pictorial catalogue struck me as mildly interesting. Further, Buchanan’s introduction and interpolations tended to reduce the poet’s remarkable verses to a tale redolent of the nursery, undercutting the sophistication to be gleaned from even a superficial reading of the original.

Then we were back with Vaughan Williams with Joyce continuing an interpretation that, even split as it was, I found most impressive, with only a slight waver early in the piece’s first cadenza. While the solo line delighted for its lack of affectation and its fidelity, the supporting forces also deserved credit, coping well without a conductor, in particular the wind quintet who made only one scatter-gun block entry, possibly at the a tempo after the soloist’s first flight of double-stops after Letter S. As well, the Camerata strings showed an admirable sympathy with the piece, excellent in pursuing the ebb and flow of the longer bursts of tutti and pitching their responses to congruent effect in the colla parte bars.

Would we have enjoyed Beecher’s work more if we’d experienced it in isolation – without interpolated text and without the paintings? Hard to say. Would the audience have reacted with such enthusiasm if the score had not been bookended by the great English composer’s evocative gem, Joyce’s concluding solo a model of restraint and faultless pitching, right to that last splendidly elongated falling-third interval? Maybe; having listened to a ‘straight’ reading from the work’s commissioners, A Far Cry, I have to wonder.

Finally, the new Camerata pre-performance explanatory process is to hand out a sheet with basic performance details, referring patrons to a QR code at the bottom for access to the full program. Which is, of course, a sign of the times, reminiscent of having to scan yourself into every public building you enter. I’ve tried to access the document but something is lacking in both phones I employed, let alone the myriad QR ingress platforms that now sit in my apps stores. I assume that more specific information is to be found at this online repository; as the Gershwin brothers sang, but not for me.

A sophisticated oncer

ENSEMBLE Q

Musica Viva

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Southbank

August 23, 2021

Huw Jones, David Mitchell, Trish Dean, Paul Dean, Peter Luff, Virginia Taylor

Apologies for the photo above. As time goes on, the reproductive capabilities of this WordPress system become more and more unsatisfactory – I’d change product if I knew how.

In any case, the blurred figures above are members of Brisbane’s Ensemble Q which had a national tour lined up before the latest branch of the pandemic struck and all travel intrastate became impossible. Full marks to Musica Viva for taping/recording/transmitting one sitting of this program that proved to be remarkably professional and even-tempered. Which just goes to show that musicians of calibre can keep their heads while all around . . .

The ensemble’s offering-sheet included two solos, a very mixed trio, two well-known wind quintets, and a chamber concerto for cello and the afore-mentioned wind quintet. For the mildest of openings, Virginia Taylor performed Debussy’s flute solo Syrinx, an integral element in most flautist’s repertoire, here getting off to an unfortunate start because the sonic part of this transmission didn’t actually begin until bar 3; you could see Taylor making all the right moves but without sound. For one dreadful moment, I thought that we had moved into the land of the pre-avant garde and the program was to be totally gestural. Fortunately not, although there was a further tremor between bars 11 and 12. These technical problems aside, the reading proved impressively intense at its two mild climaxes, Taylor taking the work into more well-defined country than most other interpreters who are quite happy in doodling chromatically.

For all that, I couldn’t make out the D that concludes bar 17 and the B flat in the middle of bar 24 didn’t travel strongly enough for my equipment to register it. On the other hand, the Tres retenu conclusion worked very well indeed, just the right side of stop-all-engines.

The other solo came from cellist Trish Dean who strode through the Ciacona from Britten’s Second Suite. Here was intense playing, determined and aggressive after the opening variants, particularly when negotiating the strident double-stopping segments. Fortunately, Dean also reacted sensitively to the flashes of piquant writing that relieve what could become an unrelievedly overwrought slab of drama tending to tragedy. As happens every time this piece is heard, you marvel at Britten’s knowledge of the instrument, specifically the sudden jolts when his attack shifts from one technical demand to another.

Mind you, the jolts are deftly accomplished and, as with a lot of Britten’s instrumental music, you look back at particular points and wonder how you arrived at a certain stage. The piece progresses in a deceptively organic way; it looks sensible on paper but the actual sound being generated is packed with surprise and event. Dean swept her way to the Bach-suggestive (what isn’t, in this piece?) D Major quadruple-stop chord sequence at the chaconne’s climax and her deep-delving attack reinforced the drive-relax-presto character of the final 30 bars.

Probably the most curious part of the evening came in Beethoven’s 1795 Variations on La ci darem la mano WoO 28, originally scored for a trio comprising two oboes and cor anglais. There is an arrangement for oboe, clarinet and cello by Tom van der Grinten and I’d assume that this is what we heard but, of all the other transcriptions, this one strikes me as the oddest, simply for its combination – to be specific, the inclusion of a cello. Not that you’d want to be over-fussy about this because the variations – eight of them, plus a coda – treat Mozart’s duet-melody pretty easily; some flashes of energy but not much to mark them out from many other works of the time.

As it turned out, this performance was as straight and ordinary as the music itself. Variation I avoided any tempo liberties, forging directly through points where a ritardando might have relieved the steadiness. The following variation gives the lowest line all the work and here a necessary (?) alteration in register changed the nature of the piece, not to mention the timbral switch. Again, I would have welcomed a tad more subtlety at the oboe solo 8 bars from the end of Variation III. At Variation V, the top oboe line has a brisk demi-semiquaver sprint that allows only only two bars rest, well-achieved by Huw Jones with only one mis-step somewhere in the chromatics of bar 19.

For sure, the trio – Jones, clarinet Paul Dean, cello Trish Dean – showed at their expressive best in the minore Variation VI where you couldn’t complain about a lack of rhythmic flexibility; just so, you could admire the precision and jauntiness in the following reversion to the home key. Dean travelled safely through the rapid-fire figuration in his part for Variation VIII, while all three executants rattled through the Coda before Beethoven’s restrained last 13 bars where we are brought back to the original melody and a soft landing. Obviously from all this, it appeared to me that this trio worked at its most effective in the later stages when the executants were facing more pliable material.

Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet have enjoyed popularity with audiences and ensembles since their 1953 appearance. They’re a test of rhythmic exactness, starting with a smart-as-paint Allegro con spirito which sounded as bright and jaunty as you could want, the only problem coming with a bassoon hesitation from David Mitchell at bar 41. In the following Rubato. Lamentoso, pitch sounded uncertain at bars 7 to 8 but the whole group generated a brave complex at the tragic strophes between bars 21 and 28 and observed a tight stringendo leading to the movement’s highpoint, although you might have asked for a more subtle approach to the dynamics obtaining in and around bar 34. Fluency characterized the Allegro grazioso – one of the more exceptional parts of this collection – and the ensemble’s rhythmic responsiveness in Ligeti’s 7/8 Presto ruvido achieved the intended purpose of making irregularity sound normal.

With the Adagio. Mesto, the Hungarian composer writes a brief, pointed elegy for his compatriot Bartok, not quite mirroring the senior writer’s night music but coming close. Here, the only defect came in a not-altogether-congruent first note from Mitchell, but the construction of an elegiac atmosphere was expertly accomplished, the final resolution a blessing as satisfying as the concluding cadence to the Third Piano Concerto’s Adagio religioso. As happens so often in these later years, my initial reaction to the concluding Molto vivace. Capriccioso was to detect a completely improbable influence: the spirit of Fellini – or, rather, Nino Rota, a decade before the appearance of 8 1/2. Peter Luff‘s horn near the end, about bar 118, sounded over-aggressive in the current context but it made a minor blemish in a fine outlining of this life-filled music.

Barber’s Summer Music worked very well with these players, Luff showing excellent assurance and fidelity at his extended solo about Figure 27, while Jones’ oboe showed purity of line at every turn. As I said above, this work is popular, a regular at wind chamber music events and I’ve become accustomed to its pleasures in recent times thanks to the Arcadia Winds whose excursions into Barber-Land are a never-failing delight. The Q players demonstrated an unflappable expertise throughout, each exposed solo – like Taylor’s, Dean’s and Mitchell’s flurries during the opening bars – slotting into the process with high skill. But the outstanding characteristic of this reading was its smoothness; even when he works hard to counteract it, the composer’s fabric remains urbane, emotionally even, and this ensemble infused it with a fluent sophistication that proved both appealing and comfortable through the score’s various segments, in particular that rapid block-chord work that begins at Figure 5 and serves as a contrast to the prevailing languor.

Paul Dean’s concerto dates from 2018 when it enjoyed its premiere at an Ensemble Q event. It has also been heard from these same musicians at a July recital this year, so our streamed performance presented it at its best, thanks to this temporal proximity. The composer gives his cello soloist prime position right from the start, Trish Dean’s long-note melody-spinning rising over a low-wind ostinato. While not looking for echoes that may not be there, I was hard put to ignore a certain First Nations texture in the subterranean wind writing, as well as a touch of Sculthorpe in the string arches. Whatever the case, the score moves at its own sweet will as Jones took over from Dean for a change of timbre before both instruments combined in a touching duet.

The score accelerates and gives more independence to the winds; phrases are tossed in the air and transformed in their flights. It’s all suggestive of a scherzo, but you’d be reaching to impose a specific format on this composition. Pretty soon, the motion slows and the quintet flickers with motivic lights around the cello’s melodic drawl. At three points (at least), Dean gives his soloist a cadenza, albeit brief, then allows the soloist an extended exposure above some semi-static accompaniment.

Dean’s language is not exactly tonal but, at the same time, not far from it. Perhaps it’s a deft way of using nodes in his melodic structures that makes you sense that the score is grounded on points in-touch more than recurring modal or tonal progressions. At the work’s most potent pages, the cello is momentarily drowned by a vehement, urging quintet before another short cadenza and a reversion to the solo line’s dominance before this segment moves into what sounds like a threnody.

A final cadenza leads to a perky ‘finale’ and here matters became unnerving because traces of Ligeti and Barber occasionally surged out. Of course, this might have been (probably was) wishful thinking – making connections while grasping at first-time straws – but the segment/movement took on a buoyancy in both solo and accompanying lines, the action growing in fervour before a brisk conclusion, just when you thought that the energy was in danger of toppling into excess.

So much for first impressions. We’d all do better after more experiences with this work but, as I’ve said too many times about other new creations, that possibility seems more and more unlikely, given the nature of our world at present with troops at the border and an unnerving air of national intransigency from far too many quarters. Nevertheless, Dean’s concerto makes a solid contribution to Australian chamber music, emerging in a format that I’ve not encountered before, tailor-made for his accommodating and capable Ensemble Q colleagues.

Fine, but not enough

DICHTERLIEBE

Andrew Goodwin and Vatche Jambazian

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday August 6, 2021

Vatche Jambazian

Of course, we all subscribe to the principle that length doesn’t matter; at my age, that can be taken as a fundamental tenet. But this recital was definitely under expectations. On average, Schumann’s song-cycle lasts about 20 minutes at its most orotund. The three songs by Rimsky-Korsakov would last between 7 and 8 minutes on a warm night. And that’s about all we got from this duo, the time augmented by a bit of enthusiasm and banter from Andrew Goodwin. You can talk about quality and get no disagreement from this quarter. But even the performers themselves realized that their presentation was light-on . . . which is why we got an extra Rimsky lied.

Working in the Chatswood Concourse Theatre, Goodwin and accompanist Vatche Jambazian entered into the cycle with plenty of drive and eloquence, both once again underlining what an unusual construct the series is as the composer leads from one unit into the next; there might be a cadence concluding Aus meinen Thranen but it’s disturbingly brief. And Jambazian’s left hand emphases in Die Rose, die Lilie added to the unsettled aura that sparks out from the opening 5 1/2 song,s which suggest happiness and optimism before a stinging reality hits home.

In the shot above, Jambazian is seated at a Fazioli instrument. In the Concourse, he had a Kawai that sounded rather tinny in its upper register; not that here’s much call for that in this score. But the effect was to make Goodwin’s elegant and resonant tenor present with extra character, particularly in his rapid-fire transfer of colour between songs that, in some cases, are over before they’ve begun. Both artists gave an ideal example of care with their material in Ich will meine Seele tauchen, Goodwin producing his four phrases with a restless subtlety of shape, Jambazian’s incessant left-hand demi-semiquavers restrained with only the postlude raising the temperature through that unexpected quartet of acciaccaturas.

Then the songs gain in tension, both artists giving Im Rhein an impressively full dynamic at the start before the work falls away, the singer drained of strength at his half-close while the piano moves steadily downward to negate the opening adamantine promise. Even better followed with Ich grolle nicht, the singer’s long notes smoothly manufactured and sustained – bars 3, 8, 9 and11 setting us up for a thrilling climb starting with a springing Ich sah’ dich ja and concluding with that punishing repetition of the lied’s title and obsessive keyboard finishing-off. More telling detail continued to emerge, like the sudden slower pace adopted for the final verse, Sie alle konnen’s to Und wussten’s die Blumen, and the piano’s lurch into disjointed triplet arabesques over the final 6 bars.

Jambazian took front row for Das ist ein Floten, insisting on his right hand contribution which always suggests a Mahler landler, while Goodwin made a powerful contribution as the heart-heavy observer. Again, the postlude impressed for its deft interweaving of action and gloom, right to that unhappy concluding tierce. In the following Hor’ ich da Liedchen klingen, Goodwin revealed once more his fine lyric insight, particularly his emphasis on Brust in bar 9 that signals a subdominant modulation that serves as a fulcrum, and later the measured delivery of his four last bars where the poet’s grief overwhelms him. The piano’s syncopated postlude impressed equally, particularly Jambazian’s emphasis of the sforzando-led inner part 7 bars from the end – a real out-of-the-depths moment.

Schumann’s counterweight Ein Jungling liebt ein Madchen, intended to lighten the ambience, achieves its end although the bitterness can still be found in the final couplet’s insistent repeated notes. As this pair demonstrated, any atmospheric lightening conceals a pain that goes beyond melancholy. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen opened gracefully and amiably enough but something odd happened at the Es flustern und sprechen die Blumen line where Goodwin went off the rails momentarily; whether he’d jumped ahead to Sei unserer Schwester, I couldn’t tell but he recovered pretty quickly, Jambazian also made an equally uncharacteristic error in the song’s penultimate bar.

It’s rare that this tenor falters and his voice is such a refined instrument that you’re doubly surprised. It makes you nervous about what’s coming up and I lost track of him in the following Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet at the words noch lange bitterlich – probably my fault, but the song is pretty transparent. Then, a return to form in Allnachtlich im Traume, which is a lied guaranteed to display Goodwin’s clarity of production as it is left exposed without any distracting figuration in the accompaniment. Just as striking was the hunting-horn gigue Als alten Marchen, coming to a splendid declension at Ach, konnt’ ich dorthin kommen where both musicians found a mutual furrow of resignation that maintained traces of the initial joy in fairyland. The only question came with Goodwin’s restrained attack on Morgensonne that concludes the second-last line: an effort that didn’t quite succeed.

You could fine little to complain about in the final number, even if Goodwin’s lowest notes on the last syllables of the first stanza’s lines failed to carry – probably because too much was going on in the piano since the same notes came over much more easily in the poem’s concluding quatrain. Once again, you could relish the details, like that splendidly burnished ring on the top notes at Christoph, and that unforgettably consoling postlude that resolves from disturbance with unmatchable skill.

All three Rimsky songs – Na kholmakh Gruzii, Op 3 No. 4; O chem v tishi nochey, Op. 40 No. 3, and Oktava, Op. 45 No. 3 – are excellent example of the composer’s gift for generating a fluent line, although you’re hard pressed to find a point at which your interest quickened beyond an amiable imbibing . They’re a step up from salon songs, with the occasional burst of energy to give you something added to the mix. The first is notable for a vocal line opening that is packed with repeated notes before the composer sends both performers (including the tremolo-rich piano part) into a more expansive type of territory, including a splendid highpoint in the last lines of Pushkin’s poem. The next, a Maykov elegy, fell more into line with what was fashionable in France at the time: an infectious sweep to the melody, and plenty of crescendo/decrescendo surging up and down which is calculated to show Goodwin’s control to excellent advantage. Both performers invested the work with rubato and underlined its aura of veiled excitement; like Reynaldo Hahn, but a few steps outside the conservatory.

The addition/encore, again a setting of Maykov, is a florid address to the poet’s own verses and his aspirations for their success. This also builds to a powerful, brief burst of declamation on the final verse’s adverb ‘gracefully’ – which it almost was, thanks to Goodwin’s calm attack. The song’s unremarkable structure and material were well camouflaged by the obvious dedication of both executants, but it left us still waiting for something else. Sadly, the performers, with dutiful thanks to us, left the stage. A pleasure to hear the tenor, as always, and even better when he is appearing with a sympathetic partner. But they must have had something more in their combined repertoire, you’d think.

Calm craft

BOWER

Genevieve Lacey & Marshall McGuire

Musica Viva

Saturday July 24, 2021

Marshall McGuire & Genevieve Lacey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, that’s life

BARTOK, MY FATHER

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday July 15, 2021

Richard Piper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blowing an ill wind good

THE RULE OF THREE

Emily Sun, Nicolas Fleury, Amir Farid

Musica Viva

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Saturday June 26, 2021

Nicolas Fleury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Bach fest

THE OBBLIGATO SONATAS

Bach Akademie Australia

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

St. James Church, King St., Sydney

Friday June 18, 2021

Madeleine Easton

(Image courtesy Melbourne Digital Concert Hall)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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