Long time between drinks

Doric String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday June 15

doric string quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Imas ena

MOORE BEETHOVEN BRAHMS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday May 27

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                                                         Australian String Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A gallery for our times

ZOFO

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 11

ZOFO

                                     Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Three open hearts

LOVE & DEVOTION

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Kew

Wednesday May 8

Kathy Selby                                                                   Kathryn Selby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Gripping sub-Arctic fervour

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday February 27

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

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

                                                                   (Photo: Sam Jozeps)                                               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26

Clein

               Natalie Clein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not too much effort: it’s summer

PENINSULA SUMMER MUSIC FESTIVAL

Miles Johnston

Australian Haydn Ensemble & David Greco

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders

Sunday January 6 at 11:30 am and 2 pm

 

miles johnston

                                                                    Miles Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vehement night’s work

FOUR SEASONS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday October 17

Alexandre-Da-Costa-02

                                               Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the best of Spanish nights

ESPANA!

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  Michael Dahlenburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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A night at the coal-face

SIBELIUS, RACHMANINOV, BEETHOVEN

Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31

                                                                  Caroline Almonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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