So much to hear



Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

Chairman of the 3MBS Board Chris Howlett has taken his station’s annual marathon –  a one day series of concerts and recitals focusing on a great name in Western music  –   from the refurbished Hawthorn Town Hall/Boroondara Arts Centre to the all-things-to-all-men Melbourne Recital Centre where a formidable and varied group of musicians played six programs by J. S. Bach and his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann, as well as a transcription of the D minor Violin Chaconne by Busoni, Liszt’s Variations on a theme of Bach: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and one of Mozart’s semi-original/semi-transcriptions of Bach fugues from the K 404a set of 6.

I was surprised to find the Murdoch Hall almost full for the first event, before waking up to the fact that this program featured the largest work – in time and numbers – of the day: C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  Well, one of them: during his time in Hamburg, he wrote/compiled 21 settings from the four Evangelists, six of the St. Matthew version.  This one dating from 1777 is not as substantial as that by the composer’s father, from whom he borrowed material (as well as from other contemporaries); fewer arias that commented on the action and much of the choral work was confined to chorales except for the essential turba segments.

Being without a program, I’ve compiled most of the following observations from scribbled notes and various processes of near-recognition allied to an unreliable sense of deja-vu.   But I was startled at the quality of soloists that preceded conductor Rick Prakhoff onto the stage; well, some of them did – three of the character singers, all male, were delayed by some backstage organizational hold-up.

As the Evangelist, Andrew Goodwin set a high standard, enunciating the text with his trademark clarity so that a listener all-too-familiar with Sebastian Bach’s setting of this part of the Gospel could follow the narrative closely.  The Emanuel Bach Evangelist gets few occasions for bravura, the son not being as deliberate in, or as tempted by, word-painting as his father, but the part runs as much more of a continuum because the interpolations are not as common.   In other words, Goodwin sang a lot of solid uninterrupted stretches and, as far as I could tell, made no palpable errors, sharply supported by Calvin Bowman’s chamber organ and showing unflagging awareness of Prakhoff’s direction at those stages where the Evangelist’s text melds into choral action.

Bass-baritone Nicolas Dinopoulos sang Christus with an assurance that recalled Warwick Fyfe’s exertions in the same role during earlier Melbourne Bach Choir Passions.  Just as pliant as Goodwin, this bass made the Gethsemane section a powerful, unsentimental experience and negotiated his line with a no-nonsense gravity during the exchanges with the High Priest and Pilate.

Michael Leighton Jones sang the roles of Judas and Pilate with his usual bluff amplitude, only an audible discomfort with the latter part’s top notes giving cause for disquiet.  But the dialogue for both characters is not substantial and Jones observed the pervading rule of this performance in negotiating his work without self-indulgence or emotive attention-grabbing; not that you can find much of that in a cold administrative fish like the Roman procurator.

Of the other soloists, bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman impressed mightily right from the first principal aria.  Here was a fully-rounded production without any weak spots, kept pretty forward in the prevailing texture as the singer had to contend with an almost constant doubling, either from violins or bassoon, as though the composer didn’t quite trust his interpreter’s security of pitch; unnecessary in this instance and a bit of on-the-spot editing might have made the singer’s task easier.

Kleeman was also given a second, quick-moving aria, notable for the addition of a pair of flutes (the first time they were used in the score?) which also served a doubling function for much of the time.

Both soprano Suzanne Shakespeare and mezzo Shakira Tsindos took on the minute parts of the servant-girls questioning Peter outside the High Priest’s house.  Both were enlisted for meditative ariosos/arias after Peter’s denial and after Christ’s interchange with Pilate, pages that asked for and received a good deal of plangency but calculated for comfortable singing – nothing like the terrifically exposed female solo lines that the elder Bach wrote.

Timothy Reynolds – another light tenor possessing remarkable agility –  had the more taxing part of Peter and (I could easily be wrong) the lines attached to Caiaphas.  More significantly, this singer enjoyed the work’s final piece of meditative commentary in an arioso+aria after the death of Christ.  This turned out to be the most sustained work  (apart from Goodwin’s marathon) in the entire score and, on first impression, the most technically taxing of the lot.

Along with an appealing timbre, notable for its even spread across the required compass, Reynolds had a tendency to drag the chain; not exactly getting out of time with Prakhoff but needing to be hurried along when the lengthy aria’s vocal curvetting verged on the prolix.

As for the Bach Choir, it got off to a flying start with a splendid opening chorale; vigorous, full-bodied with a clear presence in all parts, functioning as an arresting curtain-opener.  In fact, you were hard pressed to fault the chain of chorales, especially the several appearances of Herzliebster Jesu.  The body was not solely used for these or taking the role of high priests/Pharisees or bloodthirsty population, although I can’t recall much along the lines of Komm, ihr Tochter or Sind Blitzen, sind Donner although one chorus after the High Priest’s condemnation proved memorable for the reinforcement of two horns, probably their first use in the score.

Carl Bach was quite happy – more so than his father – to have his chorus sing passages in unison or at the octave, which is a practice both easy and hard to negotiate happily, but these singers betrayed few signs of stress, least of all at recycled moments like the Lass ihn kreuzigen! and the Ich bin Gottes Sohn outbursts from the crowd, although the sopranos were showing fatigue at the Crucifixion pages.

The Bach Orchestra met Prakhoff’s direction with an excellent response, both individually and collegially, numbering a 21-strong string corps, a flawless brace of oboes as well as the afore-mentioned flute and horn pairs, supplemented by a single bassoon and the omnipresent organ.  Actually, the composer gives few opportunities for obbligato work – if any – but the general texture remained supple and well-etched, its various strata betraying few signs of thinness.

This Passion stops at the death – no space given to the veil of the Temple, earthquakes, centurion, women taking charge of the body, Joseph of Arimathea, chief priests, Pharisees or Pilate.  The choir simply gives one last version of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden and the work ends on a chastely simple note when compared to the monumental chorus Wir setzen uns  that finishes the elder Bach’s setting.  While you never had the sense that this work erred on the side of conciseness, the conclusion made a profound impression, a sensible and sensitive round-out of the narrative that – and this is a real compliment to all concerned – made you more than a little interested in the other 20 settings in the younger Bach’s catalogue.

After this, the second program startled for its variety.  Violinist Grace Wu partnered with pianist Laurence Matheson in J. S. Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in C minor, the one that starts with a siciliano-suggesting Largo.  The string sound came up to the top of the hall with a satisfyingly easy production; no straining after effects or disruption of the pulse from either musician. This was a modern-day interpretation with no lack of vibrato but a generous fluency displayed by a well-matched and mutually sensitive duo.

Matheson demonstrated a gallant sympathy by keeping his bass line – in fact, all the work’s left-hand action – restrained, moderating his upper work to just the right side of staccato when needed in the first Allegro, a well-argued passage of play from both executants.  A highly effective moment came at the end of the Adagio with some excellent congruent interweaving from bar 57 onward.   Even in the finale, Matheson ceded just enough of the ground to Wu without effacing himself, each player working through its bubbling counterpoint with precision and a delicacy that never seemed effete.

One of the left-field works of the marathon came in Tristan Lee’s presentation of the Liszt variations.  The work is a virtuosic compendium with all kinds of tests, mainly concerned with clarity in sustaining the simple falling motive that Liszt appropriated.  The sole problem in this interpretation was its segmented nature and, looking at the score again, you can see that, often, the cracks are not well-papered; in fact, the more demanding the variations, the more isolated they are in character.

You could not fault Lee’s reading of the opening pages, up to the end of the variations in triplets; when the semiquavers took over, the work’s cumulative tension abated up to the L’istesso tempo marking with its upward-rushing chromatic scales and double-octaves which moved the work into unabashed bravura display and the theme itself became a cipher.  Later, after the recitative, interest returned, specifically at where my edition is marked Quasi Allegro moderato and the theme’s treatment becomes more compressed until the ferment peters out into a bravely optimistic chorale where all the weeping, plaints, sorrows and fears are assuaged.  This transition made for a reassuring sense of completion, excellently realised by Lee even when Liszt decorates the simple harmonization of Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan with rolling arpeggios.

Elyane Laussade brought us back to the mainstream with the popular French Suite No. 5 in G.  Here was a straight reading without affectation or the employment of over-prominent ornamentation; just a soupcon in the repeats.  Speaking of which, Laussade set this listener slightly off-balance by repeating the first half of each movement, but not the second; a quite deliberate choice but an odd one, leaving you feeling formally lopsided. Nevertheless, she maintained a steadiness of focus that gave any listener ample room to taken in the simple exuberance of each part, including the lyrically charming sarabande and loure.

This concert ended with the D minor Double Violin Concerto where the Australian National Academy of Music’s Robin Wilson was partnered by his very young student Christian Li, all of 10 years old and performing with unflappable panache.  You might have thought Li would have been overpowered but he held his own for the most part and contributed to a memorable passage from about bar 123 of the middle Largo where the two soloists intertwine their lines in one of the concerto’s most moving moments.

A justifiably confident attack paid even greater dividends in the final Allegro, taken at a bracing speed but with only a few notes obviously played but not sounding from the younger soloist.  Wilson performed with a no-holds-barred assurance that was well-placed, Li bringing to the work more than a little personality with a few mini-glissandi that spiced up the work’s innate stolidity.

Among the orchestral personnel, I think I saw Merewyn Bramble playing viola, Peter de Jager on harpsichord, with Howard Penny and chairman Howlett the dual cellos.  Throughout, their support mirrored the soloists’ sharp attack and impetus – one of your better scratch orchestras.

Concert 3 found Kathryn Selby in unaccustomed solo mode  –  without friends.  She performed one of the terrors of my student days, the Italian Concerto with its simple-looking but rhythmically confounding counterpoint meshes.  This approach used the piano fully, without flourishes or dynamic juxtapositions but also without mimicking the detached harpsichord-ish effect that some pianists attempt.  The first Allegro proved to be an enviable example of unfussy precision, even at the treacherous bars 135-138 section where, despite the obvious direction and placement of the notes, most players cannot persuade you that the two lines in operation fit together.

Selby’s approach to the D minor Andante erred on the side of emotional control, the movement treated as a sarabande of grave character rather than an angst-laden elegy.  What marked this interpretation out from others was the lack of thunder in the bass: the repeated low Cs from bars 19 to 25 and the mirroring low As from bar 37 to 43 enjoyed a muffled handling rather than a tolling emphasis.

Selby endured some pressure in her Presto finale which, as far as I could tell, was technically exact and enjoyable for its ebullience.  First a spotlight wandered across the back wall of the stage, then the lights dimmed, came back to life, then went out completely for a few seconds before flashing back on again.  The pianist didn’t miss a beat, whether she could see the keyboard or not.

Unfortunately, at this point I felt a distinct lack of interest in the odds and sods that were coming up, including a Christian Bach quartet and the Mozart semi-Bach exercise.  Of course, performances were scheduled for later in the afternoon/evening that would have fleshed out the day’s experience considerably, like the Australian Boys Choir accounting for the Jesu, meine Freude motet, Timo-Veikko Valve playing the last of the cello suites, Stephen McIntyre and his students taking turns at the Goldberg Variations.  But, unlike other more hardy souls in attendance, I’d had sufficient.  It’s a fine exercise, this marathon, but I think you need to prepare – just as for its Olympic-suggestive counterpart – with plenty of training, if you want to last the distance.






Useful = accessible


Adam Simmons and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday December 7

                                                                     Adam Simmons

Another stage along the path of Adam Simmons’ odyssey towards working out for himself – and us – the problems of art’s utility, this program comprised nine segments, all connected with the travel theme, some of them in rather personal ways; personal to Simmons, I mean.  To support and amplify this enterprise, Timothy Phillips and his Arcko musicians – 20 strings from the Ensemble – slotted into the mix without obvious bumps, although it has to be admitted that, compared to other concerts presented by this group, you were scraping to find much that would have tested their powers of ensemble and articulation.

Indeed, Simmons map was pretty laid-back. His beginnings opened with a gentle underpinning over which the soprano saxophone meandered quietly, before the pace changed to marching ponderousness for a single step, a segment that moved forward to a rather extended climax; nothing too harmonically adventurous and the scoring for string orchestra made its points without resorting to conspicuous efforts or tricks.

Simmons third movement, milosc, was a solo to illustrate the maxim (presumably from Milosc) that travelling while simultaneously playing music was about the life-experience you gained by doing so; unarguable, one would hope but most interesting in this context for Near-Eastern colours coaxed from his tenor sax by Simmons.  In a nod to the old world, the composer/performer gives some recognition to previous times and cultures but in a manner that left not much impact on this listener.

More immediately gripping matter came in the city that never slept which was based on a rising five-note step-like motif in the strings, gradually accruing members as the movement passed by but not following a predictable path of building up volume through numbers; rather, sharing the material around between groups.  On top of this, Simmons generated a wild, near-frenetic line where the night’s work came closest to contemporary practice with plenty of over-blowing and percussive slaps at the instrument’s tube and keys.  No, these techniques are not unheard of and were common practice among avant-garde jazz musicians many decades ago, but in this (till now) calm dynamic context, the effect was remarkable, especially at summoning up a kind of aural equivalent to a Big Cityscape.

in threnody, the emotional atmosphere was conditioned by open 4ths and 5ths, making a deliberate contrast with the preceding movement, both sax and string orchestra weaving together in a calm consolation rather than a mournful dirge.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the night followed in living by numbers which was something of an organized free-for-all for the bulk of the orchestra over the grounding of a string quartet formed by the section principals. The impression appeared to be something close to a minimalist gesture in that the material used stayed simple if rhythmically taut.  But counterbalancing this was Simmons’ contribution which took the form of another gripping series of phrases/outbursts that at times followed the orchestra, but more often presented as improvisations over the sustaining string ferment; all exhilarating to experience and the whole hurtling forward stopped on a dime.

Pulling back from this energetic outburst, a song for sharing began with another solo for saxophone.  For me, the communal mood spoke clearly of 1960s cool jazz, boppy and tuneful, the strings joining in after a time with canon-style imitations employed to impose an underpinning order.  Finally, Simmons took up his soprano for warm croissants – referring to a consolation coming at breakfast after a night of deep and meaningful talk – and roamed over and into a sequence of slow string chords to suggest the settling back into Ithacan domesticity or a return to the land of the lotus-eaters.

What the composer presents here is, obviously, a sequence of vignettes amounting to a self-portrait.  For the Arcko musicians, the stages were fully organized and scored and, if novelties or technical troubles were hard to find, they were able to concentrate on synchronicity and the generation of clear-speaking group timbres.  Simmons served as both a wandering voice, merging and diverging at will so that he seemed to be improvising, particularly at moments of highest tension.

And the concert fulfilled the aim of Simmons’ intent: to illustrate the usefulness of his art – both to himself and to us.  I think that the basis of what he is attempting is to found his music in comprehensibility – no, instant understanding.  Music that is accessible, intellectually and emotionally, is useful; composers who choose to obfuscate, inadvertently or intentionally, are heading in the other direction and writing music of no help to anyone.  Which again brings to mind that story of Stravinsky whispering to his secretary Robert Craft, while both were listening to the latest string quartet by a US academic,  ‘Who needs it?’

On the other hand, we might not need Simmons’ physical and spiritual travelogue but it is available and accessible, presumably unlike the afore-mentioned string quartet.  More down-to-earth, the composer has succeeded in linking his own swooping performance creativity and the pervasive power of his playing with a formal framework of such character that should reassure even the most conservative listener.

Finally, as a pre-empting of apologies that may be necessary, these observations are based on a set of notes written in darkness, or its near equivalent.  Recollection in tranquillity is a wonderful exercise but I hope that my scribbles superimposed on the night’s program in what I hope was sequential order still manage to bear a general reference to what actually took place.



Testing times


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday November 20


                     (L to R) Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King, Sharon Grigoryan

Among the good things coming to an end at this time of year was this last appearance for 2017 in the Recital Centre by an excellent ensemble, now steady on its eight feet after some years of disruption.   Three composers featured at this event, one of them something of a ring-in; despite the best efforts of violist Stephen King in tying the writers’ works to the night’s title, you were hard pressed to see how much of a beginning is represented by Beethoven’s first Razumovsky.

The ASQ went back as far as it could for its first instance of a beginning, although the possibility that Alessandro Scarlatti wrote the first string quartets and set the form’s ball rolling sounded like a bit of a stretch, unless you define the form as simply involving the four formally accepted instruments – in which case Scarlatti is all the go.  But the D minor Sonata a quattro, No. 4 in the set of six, presents more like a slightly unhinged sonata da chiesa: a Largo, followed by a brief Grave, an Allegro at the centre (really a presto on one figure), followed by a slighter Allegro and a rather disconsolate Minuet to finish.  There’s not much to get excited about in this brief work, although these players demonstrated their well-directed intonation by working with precious little vibrato to hand, the process at its most interesting in the initial fugue.

Moving from the beginnings of the string quartet personnel format, the ensemble changed direction to the start of a 20th century giant’s grappling with the form in the Bartok String Quartet No. 1.   Like the little Scarlatti, this thrilling score begins with canonic interplay but the atmosphere generated in this Lento is hardly Wagnerian or even Brahmsian as Sharon Grigoryan suggested in her prefatory remarks but more the Schoenberg of Verklarte Nacht which was written almost a decade before this work.  As with so much of Bartok’s chamber work, the material being manipulated is cellular more than thematic and the players had put in the hard yards to give the movement a convincing advancing and receding dynamic mesh, honestly direct in their treatment of the composer’s gritty dissonance.  An oddity I’d not noticed before came in the premonitions of Janacek that break out at bar 38 in a driving duet between second violin and viola – or possibly such a throw-forward impression came from the compelling work of  Francesca Hiew and King at this point.

The musicians’ account of the following Allegretto came close to being the recital’s high-point, in large part for the passionate, no-holds-barred handling of the movement’s taut material and argument.  The inter-instrumental dialogue is very striking here, to my mind because you have few distractions – none of the violent snapping pizzicati or other  sound-production techniques that pepper the later quartets.  Further, Bartok holds his performers to a common task for much of the time – everyone moving to the same pulse, if not in the same direction – but he also introduces passages where individuality is paramount and the counterpoint at work is a four-line melange, as at bar 84 where the dynamic is moderate but the parts go their individual ways.

Bartok’s Allegro vivace finale brings folk-song into prominence, although its presence is more in shape than actuality.   Here, the ASQ kept to rational, sensible speeds, driving through the asymmetric dance rhythms, then prepared to dedicate space to interludes like the Adagio at bar 94 with its luminous, unexpected C Major concluding chord.  Later, the group revealed a fine line in communal restraint when confronted with the ppp sotto voce passage at bar 330 – momentary linear wisps before the leap towards the fifth-rich finish line.  Yes, the movement is long-winded, the restatements can border on hectoring, but this interpretation was carefully spelled out, elegant in its vehemence and negotiated with minimal scraping.

This work showed once again what a splendid space the Murdoch Hall is for chamber music, the quartet’s sound during the Bartok clear even to the back of the stalls.  This aid to focus proved even more useful in Beethoven’s Op. 56 in F Major which, more than the Hungarian master’s score, is prolix.  Nevertheless, even the sprawling first Allegro slipped by smoothly, animated by first violin Dale Barltrop’s polished upper line; what I like about this player’s chamber music work is his lack of fluster – everything seems to fly into place and phrases are properly finished, given their full weight.

Beethoven’s scherzo juxtaposes sledgehammer force with featherweight passages as in the last 22 bars or so.  It’s about at this point that the composer’s insistence on pounding the message home starts to test your tolerance.  The problem is that, no matter how expert the players, not much can be done to alleviate the fact that Beethoven is beating you around the ears while he nails his matter home.  The assault is less aggressive in the following Adagio (which thankfully was taken at a mobile pace rather than dead slow) but again the work is garrulous and the players showed occasional indications of fatigue.

Many commentators find this quartet’s second half fails to live up to the majestic assurance of its first movements but I can’t find any decrease in inspiration, even in the jaunty theme that Beethoven employs as the basis for his finale.  Yes, it kicks off yet another long sequence of paragraphs but the pressure on an audience is more benign.  Not so for the performers and they were stretched by the movement’s sheer doggedness, as in passages like that beginning at bar 141 which doesn’t loosen its rhythmic grip for some time; the trouble is that the harmonic motion is often close to sedentary and the concluding Presto rush always comes as a relief.

In a certain sense, this quartet was a beginning.  It signified a break with the style of Beethoven’s preceding Op. 18 set of six works; his new field of endeavour in this form was more daring in form and emotional challenge.  As well, the demands on executants are greater, not just in stamina but in individual mastery and responsibility to the ensemble itself.  You had to be favourably impressed by the ASQ’s outlining of the score and their engagement with its challenges but I came away with more respect for the workers than enjoyment of the experience.




Tension squared


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday October 24

                                                                  Ensemble Liaison

For their last Melbourne appearance this year, the Liaisoners – clarinet David Griffiths, cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, piano Timothy Young – hosted Dene Olding, recently retired concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and lead desk  in the Goldner String Quartet.  Another guest reserved his talents until the night’s second half: lighting designer Paul Jackson who exerted an optical influence over the Messiaen quartet that gave this night its title . . .  sort of.  Fellow lighting-man Danny Pettingill contributed significantly to the visual scheme as well.

Opening Tuesday night’s bill, Bogosavljevic and Young collaborated in Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70, originally written for horn and piano but authorised by the composer for violin, viola or cello consumption.  Simply put, the two movements sound most convincing in the original formulation, although you could not fault this cellist’s delineation of the slow opening, especially in the plangent tenor-clef higher passages where the player’s pitching proved pretty exact.  The Allegro poses a bigger problem in audibility, especially as its bold opening descending gambit is swamped by even a considerate pianist, so that the flourish tends to fade into a secondary role unless the player is capable of forcing out volume commensurate with the keyboard’s three reinforcing forte chords.  Still, the players worked their interpretation into the pages’ irresistible verve and maintained our interest through the movement’s intervening episodes.

Australian writer Samantha Wolf wrote There Is Only Now specifically for the ensemble’s forces,  Griffiths being asked to play a bass instrument as well as the regulation clarinet (B flat or A? I still find it hard to tell).  A pale, limpid texture from the cello and clarinet began the piece’s premiere hearing with some piano chords for atmospheric support, but it soon became clear that Wolf’s vocabulary offered not just impressionistic dreaming but a definite alternation between straight tonal material and passages of not-too-grating bitonality.

The work seemed to fall into three segments, the last a revisiting of the opening scene after an optimistic, rapid-moving central core.  At the end, an unexpectedly elegiac solo from Young, you realized too late (for ‘you’, read ‘I’) that Wolf had been dealing chiefly in motivic cells, not melodic arches, and the piece’s progress had featured expanded and compressed versions of these note groups.  Underlying the composition itself is a statement of faith expressed in the title but I can’t recall whether the emphasis is placed on living for the present because that’s all there is to your life, or whether each moment should be relished as a testament to one’s joy in life as it is, no matter how rough or smooth your particular situation happens to be.  Down at ground level, I admired the performers’ zeal, even though some synchronicity errors emerged in a duet of abrupt explosions between Griffiths and Young.

Olding took the lead role in the trio concert suite from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, put together by the composer as a thank-you for the affluent amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart who financed the staged work’s premiere.  This began well enough with a suitably jaunty inflection to The Soldier’s March.  But tension arose in the following The Soldier’s Violin when Olding’s instrument suffered a malfunction; I’m not sure what it was but it looked like his D string lost its tension and the movement had to be re-started after a considerable break.

And this had the inevitable result of making you (me) fearful of the problem recurring so that attention during The Little Concert went out the window while you  (I) kept on expecting the worst; stupidly so, as matters turned out because the violin-forefronting Tango-Waltz-Ragtime was carried off with fine flourish and dextrous responsiveness to Stravinsky’s time-signature changes and abrupt side-steps. Young realised the challenging piano part with diplomacy, Griffiths enjoying the role that the composer gave – a none-too-taxing one, even in the concluding The Devil’s Dance – to his financial backer.

We came back after interval to a Murdoch Hall filled with smoke – which had almost cleared by the time all four musicians came on stage for the Quartet for the End of Time, Messiaen’s most popular and accessible statement of faith.  The lumiere contribution to this experience was pretty bland when compared to the overwhelming son canvas but a few movements made simple dramatic points, most significantly Griffiths’ solo on Abime des oiseaux, delivered from memory and in a dark blue spot which only suggested the player’s shape.  To be honest, I’ve heard Griffiths articulate this movement with more intensity, and one of the very soft echo passages failed to travel  to my seat.

Still, Bogoisvljevic’s account of the Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus impressed for its consistency, barely a tremor noticeable in its long, stately progress. Later, you had to be exhilarated by that dangerous Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes where all four players vault in unison across Messiaen’s irregular patterns of melody and rhythm.  And Olding with Young produced a moving timbral ascension for the concluding Louange a l’Immortalite de Jesus where the composer looks towards the eternal and finds a kind of static ecstasy.

Despite the moderate colour scheme – reds mainly, with an appealing white-and-cream for the excellent violin and cello octave duet in the Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps – this performance worked at its best in dialectically extreme moments: long essays in stasis or pithy and controlled explosions of action.  What was surprising on this occasion was how quickly the score was completed.  Many of us would have experienced readings that seemed to stretch out till the crack of doom, but this version from the Liaison and guest Olding seemed almost brisk.   Or possibly we’ve become inured over the years to Messiaen’s penchant for longueurs when delineating his own soul’s theological odyssey.


Dark consolations


Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday October 4

                                                                  Merlyn Quaife

As depressing programs go, this hour’s music-making was remarkably positive and seamlessly organised.  Andrea Katz’s brainchild, Songmakers Australia, on this Slavs-only night featured two of the organization’s stalwarts in soprano Merlyn Quaife and tenor Andrew Goodwin, with mezzo Christina Wilson stepping in for regular Sally-Anne Russell.  Supported by Katz’s resolute accompaniment, these artists shared the first half’s honours in pairs of songs and duets by Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Kabalevsky although Goodwin enjoyed both duets as well as two solos while the female singers each had a duet collaboration and two solitary exposures.

None of this material was familiar – well, not to me.   Glinka, despite being the fons et origo of Russian music after the Enlightenment remains a mystery man in this country, apart from a couple of overtures, so the two extracts from his cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg, Cradle Song and The Lark, whetted the appetite for more because of their individualistic lyrical attractiveness.  Quaife took the vocal line in the first but Goodwin joined in with a contribution I can’t trace; there’s a version for voice, cello and piano but this one for two voices and keyboard I can’t track down.

Similarly, The Lark  seemed to have Goodwin as its main protagonist while Wilson provided vocal counterpoint, but finding a two-voice version proved impossible, although the final line for tenor and mezzo in this piece made for one of the recital’s high-points for its emotional warmth and ideal balance.   And for those of us who thought Tchaikovsky’s melancholy sprang solely from an idiosyncratic personality, think again: the seeds are here, even in these two emotionally unpretentious songs.

As for Tchaikovsky, Goodwin sang one of the Sixteen Songs for Children, starting with Winter Evening, which opens benignly enough before moving into a grimmer landscape where a happy fireside domesticity gives way to reminders that, outside, the world is a stark place for the unfortunate.  Katz seized upon the postlude, giving it a confronting intensity and force that matched Goodwin’s unabashed rhetoric in Pleshcheyev’s two final stanzas. Then, the cycle’s next song, The Cuckoo, has an equally fortissimo conclusion and Goodwin surged through his page of onomatopoeic duplets while the piano thundered out its – approval? disapproval? impatience? or just an old-fashioned hurry to get to the end?

The two Mussorgsky pieces came from The Nursery song cycle and produced the most interesting music in this part of the recital, probably because of the composer’s lack of concern for the voice as anything but a vehicle for words.  Quaife sang the opening piece in the sequence, With Nurse, and made a mobile enough creature of this stop-start monologue with plenty of expressive detail and a well-etched contrast between the two verses.  She also sang the last completed piece in the two-part cycle, The Cat ‘Sailor’; another of the more striking settings of the composer’s own verses, this illustrated even more readily Mussorgsky’s craft in setting a text to a fitting melodic structure, the song moving from a regular rhythmic pattern to a near-parlando mode of action, well realised by both artists with a minimum of dynamic over-gilding.

As for the Kabalevsky pair, both given by Wilson, these came from the composer’s unexceptionable, if unexceptional, set of Seven Nursery Rhymes: There was an old woman, and I saw a ship a-sailing.  The first introduced us to the mezzo whose production was unflustered if unchallenged by this material, although her middle range has little distinctiveness about it, least of all in this context where Katz again gave full vent to an active piano component. .  The second piece, not a particularly interesting bagatelle. seemed to be toeing the party line in its Soviet schmaltz, although Wilson enjoyed the undemanding experience.

After this octet came Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79, a deliberately sombre group of 11 songs written in the shade of the Holocaust, the 1948 Zhdanov denunciation of the composer (and others), and Stalin’s imposition of the Nazis’ Final Solution on his country’s Jewish population.  The sequence stands alone in Shostakovich’s output in its lack of a mediating filter, for its bitterness at his nation’s polity and his total sympathy with the victims of a state-run universal pogrom, and for a close identification with Jewish folk and klezmer musics.  This interpretation played with a straight bat, not overloading the tragedy that underpins every section of the cycle, in spite of some mordant humour in The good life and the final Happiness.  No, this singing trio  concentrated on direct simplicity and an unbending strength of delivery, eschewing the temptation to opt for sentimentality in wrenching pages like those in Lamentation for a dead child, Cradle song, and Winter.

In this performing context, Quaife was most comfortable, contributing significantly to the first two songs: duets with Wilson that began with hectic mourning, then moved to the similarly nervous reassurance of an ailing child.  Wilson’s solo Cradle song made its points concerning isolation and exile with plangent simplicity, although you might have asked for a more synchronous partnership at some of the ritardandi points.  Quaife and Goodwin worked through Before a long separation with an engrossing juxtaposition of despair and resignation expressed in a driving alternation of apostrophes before both voices join in the same plaint: the individuals representing the generations of lovers and families torn apart by an indifferent officialdom.

You became more conscious with each passing number what a dour world that Shostakovich is illustrating.  Quaife’s urgent Warning stood for every mother protecting her child from temptation as well as from the dark terrors that stalk the unwitting object of persecution.  The following The abandoned father for Wilson and Goodwin could have been amusing, a  Goldberg and Schmuyle study for the 20th century, except for its underpinning message of familial abandonment and disloyalty.

The musical atmosphere remains ironic in Song of misery which Goodwin negotiated with his trademark unrelenting clarity as he presented pastoral pictures, unexceptional in themselves, but hiding a depth of suffering and starvation; which is continued through all three voices in Winter where, at the conclusion to Goodwin’s description of an ill wife and child, the trio mourn the advent of a death-ridden season.  Goodwin proceeded to outline a Schubert-reminiscent The good life with a firm directness of address, contrasting the bad old days with the new age of the collective farm, the death-throes of Tsarist Russia turning into the Golden Age of Communism, suffering transmuted into mindlessness.

Quaife achieved even better in the penultimate Song of the girl where the cattle-herd seems to mimic a Song of the Auvergne in a picture of bucolic content until, at the end, we realize that this gaiety and high spirits are false, compulsorily imposed on singer.  Finally, Wilson bore the brunt of Happiness which should offer an optimistic uplift by depicting the cliches of worldly success and contentment, but the biting music shows that these are all false and the old pain from random murder and continual persecution lie just below the surface; for Russian Jewry, no ‘star shines above our heads now.’

The most significant quality of this cycle’s rendition was its non-stop nature, the songs merging with chilling effectiveness and bite as their surfaces cracked to reveal a nightmare world where words cannot be taken at face value and an eminently singable, even popular-sounding music veers on collapse into a dirge.  For anybody inclined to diminish Shostakovich’s negotiation of a knife-edge path of survival through the years of Stalin, this cycle stands as testimony to the composer’s compassion and anger at what was so obviously a disgrace and shame for the world after the revelations of 1945 but which continued without qualms of conscience for further decades behind the Iron Curtain.

And for those sad moral delinquents who think politics and music don’t mix, they should look on this wrenching song-cycle and (hopefully) despair.  Songmakers Australia has informed my year significantly by presenting it and accomplishing the undertaking with admirable fidelity.

Chausson ideal, Prokofiev not so much


Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday September 26

                                                                Markiyan Melnychenko

For their recital in the MRC Salon, the Melnychenkos covered almost as much territory as other duos are happy to handle in a full recital-with-interval.  Well, sort of: the addition of another major work might have exercised this audience’s endurance but not by much because the responses were very warm to all four programmed items.  In fact, the musicians played three repertoire staples as well as a brief curiosity and, for long stretches, any auditor would have been quite happy with the experience.

Markiyan is the violinist in this pairing, Oksana the pianist.  To my mind, the event’s first offering proved to be the most rewarding: Chausson’s Poeme – originally with orchestral accompaniment but then arranged by the composer for this combination, with other writers offering improvements as the work achieved its deserved popularity until these times when it has become a staple in every professional player’s repertoire.  The piano’s role, however improved, is subsidiary to the solo string and Markiyan Melnychenko impressed straight away after the sombre introduction with a gripping account of the first solo – unaccompanied and not difficult but immediately loaded with character and giving evidence of this player’s admirably firm bowing work.

Even when the score progresses to those rich double-stop bars inspired by the dedicatee Ysaye – the Animato at Number 11 in my Breitkopf & Hartel imprint – you were treated to a smooth delivery without a hint of scratch or scrape.  Indeed, the violinist’s enunciation proved near-flawless at those moments of exposure and/or peril, like the cadenza that Chausson interpolated early on, and the soaring high-set lines that reach their conclusion in the set of trills starting on a low B flat bringing the Poeme to its muted resolution.  Here was a controlled and metrically disciplined account of a favourite that often suffers – just like many similar products of its time and genre – from sloppy sentimentality and a devil-may-care attitude to the bar-line.

In comparison, the following Debussy Violin Sonata made a less favourable impact.  It’s a hard piece to get right, particularly in this environment where, to play safe, a pianist might make constant use of the left pedal for fear of manufacturing a glutinous texture or sounding over-prominent.  The opening to the Allegro vivo sounded sprightly enough but the movement’s centre found both artists inflicting heavy treatment on pages that don’t need power.  From the first Meno mosso where the key signature changes to E Major, Debussy is operating in a kind of atmospheric susurrus, a restrained mesh which is meant to sound light and transparent; the effect here was mobile but muddy.

Nor did the Intermede offer much better.  For one thing, it was taken at a pretty fast pace, which suited the violinist but found the pianist working too hard in chordal sequences like bars 29 to 33 or in potentially whimsical passages like the 16 bars before Number 3 in the Durand edition.  This over-emphatic attack also brought an unnecessary tension to the finale where Debussy’s contrapuntal interplay gets quite complex, to the point where you relished the violin’s abrupt unaccompanied flights in 9/16.  Soft passages like the chain that follow the direction au Mouvement initial lacked the expected delicacy, although the players recovered some finesse of attack by the time of that magical Meno mosso move to E Major.

Prokofiev provided the evening’s second half, beginning with the first of the Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102; this is the third suite of piano solo extracts from the ballet and I didn’t know it had been arranged for violin/piano duet.  In this format, the waltz sounded very effective, the string line taking melodic responsibilities but also adding a good deal to the slightly manic impetus  that the composer invested in this scene where the private and public overlap to brilliant if alarming effect.  If for nothing else, the extract gave Markiyan Melnychenko an opportunity to display his gift for urging out long lyrical sweeps of fabric not dependent on a hefty vibrato.

With the Sonata in D Major, co-opted for Oistrakh from the Flute Sonata, the piano contribution again erred on the side of heft and a forceful dynamic.  The partners worked with certainty through the opening Moderato‘s exposition but things took a turn for the hectic during the development, notably when Prokofiev changes his key signature to B flat Major/G minor and the action involves chromatic creep and an increase in linear tension.  It struck me that both performers were again pushing what is a pretty simple work, in terms of construction and atmosphere, on to a more weighty plane that it deserved.

The Scherzo would have gained, like the Debussy Intermede, from a more brisk staccato and a softer dynamic.  In the music I have for the work, there is no request for anything beyond mezzo-forte from the keyboard until the D flat chords four bars before Number 14; as it was, this presto impressed as lumpen-footed, lacking biting humour or acerbic spark.  Still, the D Major interlude/Trio was accomplished with sympathy and polish, in particular Markiyan Melnychenko’s quadruple stops and quiet, present harmonics.

Both musicians gave the Andante its space and showed a well-controlled dynamic balance, notably in the long central pages where triplets are the order of the day; their subsiding into that marvellous, simply-achieved drift down a chromatic scale at Figure 31 impressed also for its sweetness of timbre from the violin and gentle underpinning from Oksana Melnychenko.

Both musicians enjoyed the vigour of Prokofiev’s concluding Allegro con brio but a good deal of this sonata section came across as strident.  As with many another reading of this work, the deceleration at Figure 37 struck me as unnecessary; as far as I can see, the composer only wants a change of pace twice during this movement  –  for the rest of the time, it makes sense in the actual music itself to maintain a steady metre.  The final eight bars would have gained a good deal in accuracy if the tempo initially adopted had been more considered and the sustaining pedal not so readily employed.  Yes, Prokofiev has a reputation as a seeker after the percussive, but not in this elegant if sometimes ebullient score.

I’ve heard Markiyan Melnychenko in larger combinations before this and found plenty to admire in the accuracy of his pitching and the finesse of his delivery, the technical and emotional control evident no matter how ardent the composer’s temperament.  Of course, these qualities emerged often in this particular night’s work but it seemed as if both musicians were making hard work of their music-making –  like the Debussy which should shimmer with energy, not be delivered with gritty determination and hard-edged insistence.




Closing in on ideal


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Wednesday September 20

                                                              Daniel Dodds

These all-Beethoven recitals from Kathryn Selby and her mobile band of associate-friends have proved popular in recent years, the only problem being the thin repertoire available; it doesn’t take long before you start repeating yourself.  The composer left 13-and-a-bit works for the piano trio combination and, for this program, Selby brought into play two of the ‘fringe’ scores:  the composer’s own arrangement of his Symphony No. 2 in D, and the Gassenhauer Trio which offers the violin line as an alternative to a clarinet, the original treble instrument.

Filling out the night, Selby and her guests – violinist Daniel Dodds from the Festival Strings Lucerne, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve of the Australian Chamber Orchestra – chose that ground-breaking work, the C minor Op. 1 No. 3.  In the normal run of performances, you can half-understand the legend that Haydn thought this ought not be published as it was a step too far for the Viennese public of the time; a stern and outspoken musical drama. the general practice is to emphasize its brusqueness, particularly in the outer movements which make the most lasting impression.

In this ensemble’s hands, the trio itself preserved its inbuilt tension and tempestuous bursts of power, yet you were given the inestimable gift of seeing it in context – not just in relation to its opus number companions but also as a development in the form, Beethoven taking it several steps forward in dramatic potential and expressive intensity.  It helped immeasurably that this particular set of musicians worked with unfailing cohesion so that moments of ferment like the explosion at Letter C (in my score) of the opening Allegro con brio were punched out with compelling drive and well-husbanded dynamic control.  Later, these performers made an enriching odyssey of this movement’s development, sustaining tension but not by the fits-and-starts methodology of many another group.

Selby gave a spiky edge to the Andante variations, but then the pianist has most to say here.  Despite the composer’s best efforts to share the load, his piano intrudes at every turn, even when the two strings have the melodic burden and the keyboard is relegated to peripheral duties, as in the fifth variation.  Matters don’t improve in the scherzo, either, as the piano has those distracting arpeggio runs in the second half, not to mention a set of light-as-Mendelssohn scale punctuation points in the pendant trio.

The reading reached its highpoint where it should: in the stormy finale where Dodds’ firm line cut through the surrounding thunder to fine effect nine bars after Letter R when the relative major rears its welcome head.  Later, when Beethoven’s counterpoint is exercised more fully, both Dodds and Valve made clean-cut work of their flashing duets in thirds, octaves and in canon – all transparent and comprehensible rather than a meaty maelstrom-dive.  Finally, the players brought this urgent movement to an effective conclusion, the last two pages  an object lesson in how to play a diminuendo without losing tension.

This trio was preceded by a light-stepping version of the Gassenhauer Trio No. 4 in B flat Major.  Here, the approach was measured, even deliberate, but the score’s inbuilt good humour bubbled continuously, particularly in the finale where even the advent of some B flat minor variations sounded tongue-in-cheek, surrounded as they were by forthright, athletic boisterousness.  The players made sparkling, deft work of the concluding Allegro with its jaunty syncopations, the strings in an ideal tandem partnership across these happy pages.

Apart from this bracing energy, other sections of the interpretation showed a painstaking degree of preparation; details like Selby’s hesitation before her eloquent D Major entry 8 bars before Letter B in the first Allegro; the calm eloquence of the Adagio‘s first theme’s restatement from bar 8 onwards; an expertly calculated evenness of delivery in the interplay 8 bars from the movement’s conclusion.  It might be a second-runner to the composer’s Archduke and Ghost masterpieces but this work, in the right hands, can make for an experiential delight; so it proved to be here in a display that came very close to ideal.

As for the symphony transcription, interest there focused on how hard Selby would have to work.  In effect, she was pressed very hard across the breadth of the score.  Dodds and Valve contributed, generally with lines simply extracted from the orchestral score, but the pianist took on the primary responsibility load, having to handle all sorts of material that originally fell to the violins, woodwind and brass.  By the time the finale began, it was clear that Beethoven had given all his confidence to the keyboard musician.  That’s fine, but at times you wondered why he hadn’t gone the full Liszt and just written a solo piano transcription.  It was an interesting experience, if one where you admired Selby’s stamina more than the arrangement’s skill.



Finishing up properly


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Sunday September 3

                                                                      Brant Taylor

And so we say farewell to Mimir for 2017.  The festival’s concluding recital on Sunday afternoon played to an enthusiastic if under-sized crowd, happily ensconced in the comfort of Melba Hall, these lower numbers possibly explained by the coincidence of Fathers’ Day, although I don’t know how many of us take that fabricated celebration seriously when the options are to manufacture jollity for a few hours or to listen to top-notch chamber music-making.  This concordance of dates has been a problem over the last few years with the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent, but this time that celebration has been transferred to the last Friday in the month rather than the first; let’s see what difference this makes to MITR’s attendance figures.

A familiar quartet ensemble first presented Mozart, the D Major K. 499; Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson violins, Joan DerHovsepian viola, and the exhaustively employed Brant Taylor doing cello duty as he has for every item throughout all three main Mimir recitals. The ensemble did not play a repeat of the first movement’s exposition which meant less exposure to a well-rounded ensemble output, Iwasaki projecting as forthright a top line as ever while urging his colleagues through a slim development where his part has most of the interest.

For unknown reasons, DerVorsepian gained prominence in the following Menuetto, prominent in the mix although the score shows no reason why this should be so; still, it gave interest to an unexceptionable if bland few pages.   As with the other slow movements at Friday’s recital, this work’s Adagio sounded assertive from all quarters; nobody was really prepared to supply much sugar with this dish.  The performers were well agreed on their use of vibrato, abstaining from excess; but then, there wasn’t much room for indulgence with this volatile movement with quite a good deal of ornate action from all parties, although Iwasaki enjoyed the lion’s share.  At all events, the outcome was fittingly free from sweetness, the dulcet giving place to the crisply deliberate.

The last movement is a molto allegro but this exercise held several passages of scrambling; not so much shown by intonation problems, although these weren’t entirely absent, but more by coping with Mozart’s sudden modulation checks and jumps in atmosphere. Indeed, it was hard to make rhythmic sense of the first 18 bars or so as the emphasis was on metrical sleight-of-hand, so that you weren’t quite certain of the prevalence of triplets until they became texturally solid in bar 22.  Enthusiasm and rapidity were the movement’s characteristics but the players’ impetus made the chromatic sliding that started at bar 186 sound as though a touch more rehearsal time would have clarified the composer’s intentions.

Flying the standard of democratic hope, the same personnel gave most of us our first encounter with US composer Kevin Puts’ Credo, a four-movement construct that made its various images harder to imbibe because the players worked through it without a break. This attaca procedure always leaves me unhappy and uncertain; what I think I have decided to be the end of one particular segment might in fact be nothing of the kind but simply the composer taking a new breath before revisiting the same scenario.  For instance, Puts begins with a scene set in a store in New York, The Violin Guru of Katonah, where clients come to play their instruments to the specialist who then carries out repairs. The movement starts with harmonics and atmospheric rustling sounds before settling into a display piece for the first violin while his peers play simple underpinning chords. Puts  proposes that he quotes specific violin pieces during this dazzling display and, although you heard fleeting references to 19th century concertos – perhaps – nothing stuck around long enough to be recognizable.  Fair enough: the composer’s point is to suggest flashes of virtuosic light rather than simply set up a forum for Guess the Tune.

But, before you’re quite aware how it was done, you are into the second phase, Infrastructure: a new picture, this one of an industrial landscape in Pittsburgh.  You know you have arrived because the players drum out zesty rhythmic patterns and hard-edged dissonances to suggest the mechanical age.  It’s not high on the brutalist level of Mosolov or Honegger but the inhuman landscape surges up, unmistakable. The third stage, Intermezzo: Learning to Dance, begins with a soft lullaby motion, a simple lyric involving euphonic chords in the best Vaughan Williams vogue; simple juxtapositions suggest the innocence of a scene where a mother teaches her daughter dancing, Taylor’s cello significant for an ascending scalar melody of benign nature.

And somehow we move syncretically into the Credo movement, announced by a presto involving everyone in a moto perpetuo that builds excitement, then stops for what is heading towards a one-note meditation for Iwasaki’s line.  But then, in democratic style, Taylor takes on the prominent role, succeeded by DerHovsepian, and Thompson brings up the rear, with all eventually involved in a slow declaration, a statement of aspirations, I suppose, which gradually dies away, fading to black.  From what I could make out, this last segment is the work’s most substantial – and its most voluble.  If it is a statement of belief, Puts is speaking in optimistic terms, even if it takes him some time to have his say; you look in vain for the brusque determination of a Ruggles or Harris, two sterling exemplars of self-revelation without indulgence.  But then I might have the structural delineation all wrong; I don’t think so, but it’s quite possible.

Despite the confusion that it presents to those of us who over-compensate for our ignorance, Credo maintained your interest, not least for the command shown by all involved of the work’s emotional landscapes, and the full-throated generosity of their participation.

Australian pianist Kristian Chong started the program’s final offering: the magniloquent Brahms Trio Op. 8 in B Major.  His partners were the omnipresent Taylor and violinist Stephen Rose.  Here was a very compelling account of a work that grabs you by the throat every time you hear it.   Chong’s opening statements enjoyed an uncluttered delivery, without any clagging from an over-employed sustaining pedal but taking the score’s open features at face value.  The strings’ entry into the action mirrored this approach with an exemplary amalgamation, strong in contour so that every phrase was shaped and delivered with care.  While you could admire the clarity of ensemble in a score that suffers more than most from superimposed temperament, the artistry of all concerned welled out from about bar 181 onward where the key signature returns to normal and the trio carves its way back to the main first subject en clair: a passage of extraordinary clarity after the development’s long hegira, where eventually peace came dropping slow.

Chong kept his attack sotto voce for much of the Scherzo, saving his full force for those moments where it counted most – in the ample Trio.  The only error I could pick came in the later stages of the scherzo repeat, somewhere about bar 409 where the right hand quavers momentarily faltered.  Taylor’s voice glowed in the great Adagio, notably in the lengthy G sharp minor solo that begins at bar 32, a moving digression from the preceding chorale antiphon.  And Taylor began the last Allegro with an impressive display of sublimated strength.   All three musicians cooperated in a compelling build-up of tension before the splendid relief of the D Major second subject bursting in at bar 64; an electrifying moment in this considered and temperate version of the trio,  Chong resisting the common temptation to take over by keeping his declamatory moments temperate. Here also I found only one questionable piano passage at about bar 218, during the return of this subordinate theme, now in the home key.

You have to feel envious of musicians fortunate enough to be asked to perform this generous and rich masterpiece, even if it winds up being oversold by ensembles who seize on its innate weight, dynamic shifts and the juxtaposition of inspired melodies and gripping chromatic exploration, in order to generate a simple-minded dramatic ferocity. Here we enjoyed the labours of players who aimed for clarity above all, typified by Rose’s cogent and intensely sympathetic line, best instanced by his shaping of the long high-set path of the first movement’s Tranquillo: one of this afternoon’s most powerful stretches.




Hold nothing back


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Friday September 1

                                                                          Jun Iwasaki

Back for a fifth year, this chamber music festival, originating in Texas, has settled on the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney Road for a far-too-brief week of seminars, tutorials and exhibition recitals.   Most of the participants are familiar, especially the core US string quartet – violinists, Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, violist Joan DerHovsepian, cellist Brant Taylor – all overseen by Curt Thompson, Head of Strings in the Music Faculty.  Another returning artist is Melbourne pianist Kristian Chong, with colleague Benjamin Martin also appearing in two programs to flesh out the repertoire.  The newly-appointed Associate Professor of Double Bass, Robert Nairn, made a one-off contribution during the festival’s middle recital, assisting to realise a work new to most of us.

Beginning this second recital, the US musicians played that challenging serenade for string quartet, the Italian by Hugo Wolf.  For perhaps the first time in my experience of the score, first violin Stephen Rose regularly surrendered primacy to his colleagues, the top violin line overwhelmed by its companions, in particular a well-roused Iwasaki who dominated the group’s output except at climactic flights, as at bars 161-5 where the first violin operates an octave above its partner, or at the long crescendo beginning in bar 470 where Rose – for a time – had all the running.

To be fair, the interpretation improved after the mid-movement cello recitative from a voluble Taylor, and the move to F sharp minor and its consequents proved to be a light-footed delight.  True to its spirit, the work came over as vital, ironically humorous and the performers gave a crystal-clear account of the score’s metrical games, the quicksilver interplay deftly accomplished and, if the product began as sonically imbalanced, you could not fault the quartet’s underlying consciousness of mutual responsibility.

Martin and Nairn joined Curt Thompson’s violin, DerHovsepian and Taylor for the Piano Quintet in C minor by Vaughan Williams.  This, composed in 1903, is the first chamber work listed in the composer’s catalogue but it remained unpublished until 2002.  Despite British sponsorship and enthusiasm as well as its handy partnership with Schubert’s Trout which uses the same instrumentation, the quintet has not proved popular – a pity, as its language is heartfelt and its ambitions come to a splendid conclusion in a mobile and emotionally engrossing Fantasia.

The point has been hammered home by every commentator I’ve come across that the score owes much to Brahms – which, after you’ve heard the first two chords, is stating the bleeding obvious.  More so than in most Brahms chamber compositions, the keyboard dominates and its attack seemed disproportionate on this evening, particularly when a string trio interlude followed, as at bar 139 with a move to Andante sostenuto.  But a look at the score shows that Martin was simply following orders and Vaughan Williams wanted a fair dollop throughout of fortissimo and triple forte dynamics from the pianist.  The following Andante, however, was much more satisfying, both for its own content and for the expansiveness allowed to the players.  An undercurrent of the repeated chord stasis found in the composer’s contemporaneous song Silent Noon enriched this appealing pastoral, a well-justified comparison observed by annotator Michael Kennedy.  An opening piano solo was succeeded by the first of several melting moments for strings at bar 30 and, after a very mobile middle section with a powerful allargando climax, the return of this euphonious calm rounded out a splendid passage of play.

The variations/fantasia begin with an antiphon between piano and strings, the material a simple-enough melody harmonised in full common chords, anticipating so many of the composer’s most well-known music.  Both sound-sources generated a powerful timbre without straining, each variation clearly given its own context, although you’d have had to be comatose not to appreciate the Brahmsian sweep of the change announced by Martin’s powerful move to E flat minor at bar 67 and the concerted strings’ vehement responses, all capped by a potent clamour at bar 216 where strings and piano lined up for an enthusiastic D flat affirmation of the main theme’s last strophe before the work fades out with a touching descending C Major carillon in the bass.

While a large part of the Mimir week comprises performances and examinations of standard repertoire, it’s the resuscitation of a score like this Vaughan Williams that adds value to the festival experience; further to this, you have the inestimable advantage of hearing such a composition handled with confident mastery, not only from the well-exercised Martin but also from that admirable central string trio with Thompson and DerHovsepian splendidly matched in their frequent octave or unison duets.

Dvorak in G Major Op. 106 brought up the rear, one of the last two of the composer’s string quartets.  Here, Iwasaki took the first chair and the combination with Rose sitting at second worked to much more congenial effect than had been the case with Wolf’s serenade.   Even so, some signs of strain emerged in a strident section, about 22 bars before Figure 10 in my score, where the violins are operating in thirds for about 16 bars and intonation was momentarily suspect.  More significantly, from the start the players were over-hefty; even DerHovsepian went for the jugular in the more hectic pages of an otherwise benign Adagio.

This break-through dynamic also obtained in the Molto vivace, the outer scherzo sections given  with a certain compulsiveness of address; the central Trio came across as even more of a relief than expected.  This tautness worked to better effect in the finale with its happily hectic drive oscillating with burbling lyricism, the episodes featuring melodic material that for some reason brought to mind that annoying scrap of faux-calypso, Yellow Bird.  More to the point, you felt that the labourers in this particular vineyard were on a time limit, urging through the movement, especially from Figure 7 at the Allegro con fuoco return.  The effect was exciting to experience and to a large effect justifiable because, to be fair, the matter that Dvorak presents in these pages is hardly the stuff of transporting elevation.  But the outcome of the reading was to leave you with unalloyed admiration for the executants’ deliberation and precision under (generally self-applied) pressure.


A double one-hander


Cook & Co.

Clifton Arts Precinct, Richmond

Tuesday July 25

                           Josephine Vains

All the connections in this slight playlet (which strangely included an interval) were conducted over the phone.   One of the entertainment’s two main forces, Leah Filley played a young cello-playing musician who talks with various acquaintances and family after her return from study overseas as she attempts to carve out a career in Australia.

Punctuating these generally one-sided phone conversations, Josephine Vains supplied a more physical connection on the set.  Her role was to provide interludes in the form of movements from each of the Bach Cello Suites – the Prelude to No. 1, Allemande to No. 2, all the way through to the Gigue concluding the final D Major opus.  Vains played from the organ loft above the Richmond Uniting Church’s altar wall; in an all-wood building, her projection was excellent, each note telling and vivid.  Pace Filley’s efforts, these musical breaks gave the evening most of its emotional colour and interest.

The trouble with Suite Life – second in a series of three productions in this Connections series – lies in its all-too-predictable dialogue/monologue.  The cello-playing musician wakes to a phone-call from her teacher in Spain, whose voice is amplified through the Clifton Centre’s sound system; she may be audible, but comprehensible?  I think I caught one word in four, possibly because of the thick Iberian-imitating accent adopted by the speaker.  Add to this the unremarkable nature of the text – elderly maternal know-all versus young, tolerant ingenue –  and your tolerance was stretched to the point of something approaching discomfort.

In the next scene, the cellist talks with a clearly irritating friend (unheard by us) about their work, specifically our heroine’s preparation of the Borodin String Quartet No. 2.  She then rings one of her former professors, who has retired but still takes calls from importunate ex-students,  to ask him about a piece she is preparing for recital.  He feeds her a one-liner and that’s that.  So far, so superficial.  Yet you hold your horses, refraining from judgment because the situation depicted is possible: musicians are notoriously un-intellectual and monomaniacal, most of them incapable of sustaining a conversation that stretches beyond their own interests.

The Spanish teacher’s son, Jose, calls to inform our girl that her inspiring teacher has breathed her last – which leads to the remarkable claim by the former student that she’ll be there for the funeral; obviously, freelance instrumental work pays better than you’d thought.

Then comes a scene where the protagonist delivers some random observations  –  direct to the audience  –  on Bach.  Yes, we’ve been hearing his music for some time throughout Suite Life and an observation or three would not be amiss.   But the address is packed with unconnected banalities – what sort of a dancer he would have been  (judging by the cello suites, not so hot),  the size of his family – and its relationship to the musician herself is tenuous.  Finally, the cellist has a conversation of mind-numbing cliches with her mother before setting off to a gig, at which she will apparently play her teacher’s instrument and so release the music that is inside the cello itself.  Shades of Michaelangelo releasing the image from the marble.

I enjoyed Vains’ playing, chiefly the E flat Major suite’s Sarabande that ushered in the interval space.  Each sinuous melodic curve came down from the player’s lofty position with an unanticipated energy, the acoustic so responsive you could appreciate the hiss of bow on string and the player’s considered left-hand positioning.  For the more mobile dances, like the final C minor Gavotte and the portly Gigue,  Vains went as far as any player should in observing a steady pulse, but the main impression I took away from this composite suite was of her instrument’s physicality and the labour involved in urging out Bach’s real and implied polyphony.